Charities watchdog set to be led by poetry and finance specialist

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Dorney/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Chris Dorney/Alamy

Nadine Dorries promotes Forward Arts Foundation trustee Martin Thomas for politically sensitive role


The chair of National Poetry Day, Martin Thomas, is expected to be awarded the politically sensitive role of head of the Charity Commission.

Thomas, a finance and insurance specialist, is set to take up the £62,000 a year job at the end of December. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, named him as the government’s preferred candidateto leadthe voluntary sector watchdog.

Thomas is chair of trustees of the Forward Arts Foundation charity, which is responsible for the promotion and enjoyment of poetry in the UK.

There has been much speculation about who would be appointed to the post given its central role in several recent political controversies involving high-profile charities that found themselves in “culture wars” over alleged “woke behaviour”.

The commission has had to adjudicate in a series of high-profile complaints in recent months brought by right-wing backbench Tory MPs against the National Trust, Barnardos, and the Runnymede Trust. Each organisation was accused of pursuing a politicised, left-wing, anti-racist, agenda at odds with their charitable missions. In each case the commission exonerated the charities, none of whom had broken charity law and are not to face regulatory action.

The previous culture secretary Oliver Dowden caused a row in September when he said the commission chair should be taken only by someone who committed to tackling charities which, he suggested, had been “hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. This advice triggered a legal challenge by the Good Law Project charity, which claimed it was an unlawful attempt to politicise the charities’ watchdog.

There was also wide concern in the voluntary sector that Dowden’s intervention was a signal that the government would seek an overtly political commission chair.

However, Thomas’s appointment appears to have defused much of that concern. Thomas has not declared any political activity, and has a strong track record in the voluntary sector, including holding several senior charity trustee posts. He is also the chair of NHS Resolution, the health service’s medical negligence agency.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomed Thomas’ “breadth of experience” in the charity sector, adding: “The Charity Commission needs strong, independent, leadership and we hope this reflects a recognition from the government that political appointments to this role have caused concern.”

Thomas will appear before MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport select committee for a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing next week.

Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the campaigning charity Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which has tracked increasingly negative political and media attitudes towards campaigning charities, said: “I hope we have a chair that can restore confidence in the Charity Commission.”

The Forward Arts Foundation, whose funders include Arts Council England, runs the Forward Book of Poetry, an annual anthology, and the Forward Prizes for Poetry, besides National Poetry Day.

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