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Case update 17 December 2021

New Charity Commission Chair is ‘close friend’ of PM who left charity over inappropriate behaviour

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. This may have been 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 he had professional charity sector experience under his belt. Prior to being selected, Martin Thomas was Chair of the Board at two charities, Downside Up and the Forward Arts Foundation. Before that, he was the Chair at Women for Women International UK, which helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives. 

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But all was not quite as it seemed. 

The Times has reported that Martin Thomas is understood to be ‘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.  

Then things 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 into the 2021 complaint, 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. The first complaint, which was not upheld, concerned Mr Thomas sending an unsolicited photograph. He had intended to send it to one female employee, but accidentally sent it to another, and then asked her to forward it to its intended recipient, also female. 

Shocking behaviour, especially from the Chair of a women’s rights charity. The sort that might properly disqualify someone from chairing the Charity Commission.

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 casts serious doubt on Mr Thomas’s suitability, and 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 the Secretary of State to concede that the process leading to Martin Thomas’ appointment was deeply flawed. We’ve asked them to tell us whether the Prime Minister or his staff played any role in the recruitment process; to tell us whether the complaints from Women for Women International were disclosed by Mr Thomas as part of the interview and assessment process; and ultimately, to reconsider and withdraw Mr Thomas’ nomination to be Chair of the Commission. 

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 by this appointment. 

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