Don’t let Government muzzle charities

by Good Law Project

Don’t let Government muzzle charities

by Good Law Project
Good Law Project
Case Owner
Good Law Project's mission is to achieve change through the law. We uphold democracy, protect the environment, and ensure no one is left behind.
on 19th September 2021
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Good Law Project
Case Owner
Good Law Project's mission is to achieve change through the law. We uphold democracy, protect the environment, and ensure no one is left behind.

Latest: Feb. 23, 2022

Why it’s ‘job done’ with the Charity Commission

When Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote in The Telegraph about how he wanted to take his ‘war on woke’ to the Charity Commission, and how he had given instructions to those appointing …

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Last weekend, the then Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, announced his intention to muzzle the third sector. In his blog about the process for appointing a new Chair of the Charity Commission - the Government’s regulator of charities - he complained about “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. He said the Chair will be selected based on how they  “rebalance” charities away from that agenda. And that Ministers will only appoint someone who does this.

It’s a chilling thought. What would a politically motivated regulator mean for food banks who push back against policies that mean people don’t have enough to eat? What would it mean for a housing charity which challenges legislation that leaves people without a roof over their head? What about charities that campaign against Government policies that could do untold damage by baking in racial injustice or poverty? Will these fit with the Government's views? 

Good Law Project is well aware from actual cases that these are not idle speculations. 

Together, through our taxes, we subsidise the activities of charities to the tune of £2bn a year. We give them this relief because they exist for “public benefit” - various types of do-gooding which Parliament wants to encourage. 

These things are not the same as pushing the political agenda of the Government of the day. You don’t get charitable tax relief if your activities are “political” - a term which the Charity Commission defines as including “furthering the interests of a particular political party.” This need for charities to stand outside party politics is also embedded in legislation made by Parliament: for example, the Charity Commission should not be subject to direction by the Secretary of State. 

We don’t think it’s the Charity Commission’s job to muzzle or ‘cancel’ charities that want to tell the truth about Britain’s past. But Ministers want to turn Charity law on its head - charities that help their political agenda will be left alone and charities that resist it will be punished. 

Our public institutions exist to serve the public good - not the political whims of passing Governments. Anyone accepting an appointment following this flawed process should be very clear - we believe it is unlawful and will ask for it to be quashed.


Good Law Project has instructed Bindmans LLP and Jason Coppel QC and Katherine Eddy to act for it. They are being paid at significantly below market rates. You can read the letter to Oliver Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries, that formally starts the judicial review process here.

10% of the sums raised will go to the Good Law Project to help it develop and support further litigation in the public interest. It is our policy only to raise sums that we reasonably anticipate could be spent on this litigation. If there is a surplus it will go to support and enable other litigation we bring. 

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Update 4

Good Law Project

Feb. 23, 2022

Why it’s ‘job done’ with the Charity Commission

When Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote in The Telegraph about how he wanted to take his ‘war on woke’ to the Charity Commission, and how he had given instructions to those appointing its new Chair, we were alarmed. 

Regulators can be regulators or they can be tools of the Government’s political agenda, but they can’t be both. And Parliament had legislated for the Charity Commission to be free of political interference. So we issued judicial review proceedings.

The eventual appointment, Martin Thomas, was at first welcomed by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and the main trade associations for the charity sector. But we were not satisfied. We uncovered that Thomas had given the PM a vintage watch while he was Mayor of London. Moreover, he had been the subject of a number of complaints and reports of unsavoury incidents at charities with which he had been involved. He had not declared these as part of his appointment process and the due diligence process had been inadequate. 

We turned these matters over to The Times, which ran the story and Martin Thomas promptly, and rightly, withdrew as Chair. He later also left NHS Resolution where he had been Chair.

Meanwhile, the Charity Commission began a process for appointing further trustees, promising better due diligence on candidates. No decision has yet been announced on a new Chair.

Courts do not welcome ‘academic’ judicial reviews and we do not think there is much more to achieve by continuing this action. So we have agreed a ‘drop hands’ deal with Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries. This means each side will pay its own legal costs and nothing more. 

We will continue to monitor the process for appointing a new Chair and will not hesitate to act, again, if it is flawed.

Update 3

Good Law Project

Dec. 17, 2021

The new Charity Commission Chair is not what he seemed

When the Government announced that Martin Thomas was their preferred candidate for the new Chair of the Charity Commission, many people in the charity sector breathed a sigh of relief. But this was premature. 

Mr Thomas had a low public profile and was not an obvious candidate to deliver on the former Culture Secretary’s promise to hire someone who would stop charities pursuing a “woke agenda”. 

His credentials suggested professional charity sector experience under his belt. He was Chair at two charities, Downside Up and the Forward Arts Foundation. And before that, the Chair at Women for Women International UK

But all was not quite as it seemed. 

The Times has today reported that Martin Thomas is understood to have been ‘close friends’ with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The pair studied Classics at Oxford University at the same time and Johnson is still a patron of Downside Up. In 2013, when Johnson was Mayor of London, Mr Thomas gifted him an antique Russian ‘Takema’ watch.  

Things then start to get worse.

We understand that three formal complaints were made against Mr Thomas while he was Chair at Women for Women International. The last of these was partly upheld and was the subject of a serious incident report to the Charity Commission in 2021. 

We’ve heard that, following the investigation, the Board of Women for Women International had planned to ask Mr Thomas to step down as Chair immediately, but he resigned before they could. 

After these revelations, which we gave to The Times, went public tonight, Martin Thomas has quit. But there are serious questions now for Government. How, despite all of this, did he come to be appointed? Was there political interference? Were references taken up from Women for Women International? Did anyone check with the Charity Commission about his record before appointing him as Chair?

What we’ve uncovered raises grave questions about the integrity of the process. These must be answered as soon as possible. 

This is not how public appointments should happen. We have written asking Nadine Dorries to concede that the process leading to Martin Thomas' appointment was deeply flawed. We have asked her to tell us whether the Prime Minister or his staff played any role in the recruitment process and to tell us whether the complaints were disclosed by Mr Thomas as part of the interview process. 

The independence of the Charity Commission is essential to the future of UK charities, which provide lifelines to countless people and marginalised groups. We will not stand by as its integrity is damaged. 

Update 2

Good Law Project

Oct. 28, 2021

Nadine Dorries has not backed down – we’re launching full legal proceedings

Two days before interviews began for a new chair of the Charity Commission, the Government published an article on the website explaining that whoever they hired would be required to “rebalance” charities away from their so-called “woke” agenda. 

In our view, that article fatally compromised the independence of the interview process – and threatened the way of life of the UK’s charities. We have now launched formal judicial review proceedings, seeking an order that the application process be re-run without the shadow of this article hanging over it. 

Before issuing our claim, we spent several weeks engaged in pre-action correspondence with the new Secretary of State for Culture, Nadine Dorries. Her position seems to be that her predecessor Oliver Dowden’s demands for an “anti-woke” chair didn’t matter, because they weren’t repeated in the formal job specification. 

We disagree. Whatever the job spec said, we think it matters that, two days before the interviews began, both the applicants and interviewers were given an emphatic steer as to the expected outcome. If the then Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden thought his words would be ignored, why did he bother publishing them?

On 7 October, we asked Nadine Dorries to hand over the list of questions that were put to interviewees, and to explain what ministerial involvement there had been in the hiring process. When she finally responded on 19 October she said, confusingly, that she had decided not to disclose the details we had asked for, in order to “retain the integrity” of the interview process – a process which had already concluded.

It seems the Culture Secretary plans to respond to our challenge by rushing in a new chair of the Charity Commission behind closed doors. It was reported earlier this week that the Government’s preferred candidate for the role has been chosen, but not yet named.

We cannot imagine an approach more likely to undermine the “integrity” of the process than that – and we believe it is unlawful. 

We’ve asked the Court for an expedited timetable so the case will be heard before the interim Chair’s term expires on 26 December. The Secretary of State has until 19 November to respond.

Update 1

Good Law Project

Oct. 11, 2021

They’re hijacking our institutions

We have now heard back from the new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries. Her predecessor demanded charities “rebalance” away from what he childishly called their “woke” agenda. And said he wouldn’t appoint a new Chair of the Charity Commission – which regulates charities – unless they agreed. 

We think this is unlawful and have threatened to sue. We think it will cause enormous harm to charities if Government uses them as pawns in its culture war.

Remarkably Government has now backtracked – and claims it didn’t issue any instructions to the panel appointing the Chair. Square that, if you can, with what the Culture Secretary wrote on the Government’s website:

“I have instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose and empower Trustees to be robust”. 

This is yet another example of this Government’s shameless attempts to install its allies at the top of our public institutions. Government is already pushing hard to appoint former Daily Mail Editor, Paul Dacre, as the chair of Ofcom, despite the fact the first recruitment process found he was ‘unappointable’ because of anti-BBC views. Rather than accept that finding, the Government scrapped the recruitment process and is re-running it, which would allow the former editor of the Daily Mail to be interviewed again by a different panel.

We’re asking Ministers to come clean and hand over all communications between the Culture Secretary and the interview panel.

The case isn’t straightforward but the issues are important. If regulators aren’t neutral they can’t regulate – and this feels like the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

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