‘Axe hovers over quango queen,’ squeals the Daily Mail, in response to a Sunday Times piece headlined ‘Quango queen faces sack for attack on private schools.’ It’s unusual for the Telegraph not to be in there too. It’s not the first time the right wing press have had a go at Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, and it won’t be the last. They’ve all got it in for her.
Whether there is any real substance in the latest stories, which suggest her contract might be terminated before its end date of 2012, is harder to judge. Is the ‘government source’ quoted by the Sunday Times actually a minister, or a backbencher pursuing a vendetta? The problem with these off the record conversations is that they are off the record: you never quite know the strength of the information.
So what’s the evidence? It’s clearly nonsense for these stories to say that Dame Suzi keeps making politically motivated attacks on public schools. She and her staff have done no more than carry out what the 2006 Charities Act required them to do, which is to set out and operate guidance on how charities should demonstrate that they provide public benefit. Their formula requires fee-charging schools to do a bit more than some were doing in the past, without laying impossible burdens on them. Dame Suzi’s statements on the subject have consistently been mild and conciliatory rather than confrontational.
But there is, inevitably, a political dimension. The commission’s formula, by a happy coincidence, helped the former government to square a tricky political circle – to appease the ‘Eton can’t be a charity’ faction in its own party while doing nothing that would seriously damage the independent schools. The formula lays more emphasis on the provision of bursaries than other elements in public benefit, and the wrangle about whether that conforms with case law is going before the charity tribunal in May. This should have happened sooner, but it’s the right and normal way forward.
On another front, it is true that Dame Suzi has not flinched from saying what many others in the charity and voluntary sector have been saying – that the swingeing cuts coming down the line could put the whole big society agenda in peril by damaging the community infrastructure on which it often depends. Many in the sector will be grateful that she has been willing to defend them and tell the truth as she sees it instead of toeing the government line or staying silent.
Dame Suzi might be particularly vulnerable because she chose not to resign her Labour party membership when she took over the job, and because she is perceived as coming to prominence by Labour patronage. There are a lot of Conservative backbenchers and backwoodsmen who are aching to bring her down. Some of their attacks are nasty, vindictive and personal.
As for the government, it knew what she was all about when it came to power and could have arranged a decorous exit for her at that point. It chose not to. Ministers might well be irritated by some of Dame Suzi’s remarks about the big society, but it still seems likely they will allow her time at the commission to run its course. There are, if you look around, more important things for them to deal with.