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Artillery Row

Charitably correct

Appointing Orlando Fraser would challenge the establishment’s grip on the quangocracy

Last week the government announced that Nadine Dorries was minded to appoint Orlando Fraser QC to the vacant headship of the Charity Commission, following the unexpected withdrawal of the first-choice candidate selected after interview. No big deal, you might think. Mr Fraser’s efficiency and organisational ability are undoubted (you don’t become a successful commercial law silk without them). So is his commitment to and experience of charity. His interests have extended from Bosnian Muslims to women’s refuges to the Rugby Portobello Trust, and he has done a stint on the Board of the Commission already.

The difficulty? Orlando Fraser is, or at least was, associated with the Conservatives. Although for the last five years he has had no party connection, seventeen years ago he unsuccessfully stood for it in North Devon; a year later he helped Iain Duncan-Smith to found the Centre for Social Justice, going on to edit its Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain reports; and for a time he advised the party on the voluntary sector.

This immediately caused Labour to slam the proposal as “the Tories looking after their own”. In addition, the charity bigwigs’ trade bodies the NCVO and the ACEVO penned a pompous press release saying that they were “concerned about his party political links”. The government, it said, failed in due diligence for not restarting the whole interview process and making it “robust and transparent”.

The great and the good have so far kept a remarkable grip on the quangocracy

One thing is clear. The complaint that Mr Fraser is somehow tainted or disqualified by his political links is preposterous. Since the job of Chair of the Charity Commissioners was created in 2006, every single holder of it has had clear political views. The first, Dame Suzi Leather, made no secret of her active support for New Labour, or the fact that Tony Blair’s coterie gave her no less than 13 jobs on various quangos. William Shawcross was openly connected with the rightist Henry Jackson Society, and Lady Stowell, in post from 2018, was until then leader of the Tories in the Lords. Having swallowed three such camels, there is no reason whatever for the Commission to strain at this gnat.

There is more to it than that. The great and the good, most of whom detest with a patrician vengeance what they see as Boris’s vulgar populism, have so far kept a remarkable grip on the quangocracy, and with it a great deal of soft political power. They have procured that appointments be bureaucratised in a way that would delight any HR manager more concerned with fairness than inspiration. Of course, a fair number of Sir Humphreys are very happy to tell elected ministers that quangos are constitutionally independent, and they cannot properly seek to influence them.

They now see that power slipping away. It is not only the Charity Commission. Seventeen months ago, the human rights establishment was scandalised when three new Commissioners were appointed to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, none of them an insider who could be trusted to toe the soft-left line of pressing the government on identitarianism and social equality. This is without the current row over the vacant chairmanship of Ofcom, where interviews begin this week and the government has said that it wants a forceful and possibly confrontational candidate, rather than an insider who knows all about regulation but will not rock the boat too much.

For all the complaints of the establishment, this is no bad thing. There is actually a strong case for arguing that government should do its best to ensure that public authorities are headed by those acceptable, or at least not antagonistic, to it.

The result is social division, culture war and administrative crossed wires

Whether we like it or not, running a body like the Charity Commission has a large political side. Deciding on how to prevent charitable activity shading off into political activism, or how much leeway to give to the enthusiasm of amateurs over the desirability of efficient and professional management, involves taking positions that are politically controversial. If this is so with the Charity Commission, it is true in spades with organisations like Ofcom or the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Decisions about what we are allowed to watch or hear, or which of our human rights need to be prioritised by government, cannot avoid being very politically — and for that matter party-politically — charged. The case for elected ministers to have at least some political steer over the bodies taking those decisions becomes almost unanswerable.

The task of heading a body like the Charity Commission is not simply a technocratic exercise, or a matter of the dispassionate application of rules. It does not depend on the possession of some scientifically measurable skill-set, or the ability to tick boxes on a list of essential and desirable characteristics prepared by HR as part of an abstract job specification. If you are looking for some undefinable quality of inspiration and get-up-and-go, a minister may well be in just as good a position to spot it as a committee of the great and good largely qualified by their own previous ability to climb the greasy pole of quangocracy.

However much we expect pressure groups or opposition politicians to speak truth to power, quangos are different. When a body set up and paid for by government starts functioning as a kind of ginger group or unofficial opposition — which until a couple of years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission regularly came close to doing — the result is social division, culture war and administrative crossed wires.

Hearings on the Charity Commission headship start before the DCMS Select Committee in the fairly near future. Meanwhile, when the same body this week begins interviews for the infinitely more charged post of head of Ofcom this week, the panel will be keenly aware that the administration will also be watching it closely. Whether the government will hold its nerve and appoint the person it sees as right, rather than the candidate who offends the fewest vested interests, remains to be seen. Let’s hope it does.

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