Who is William Shawcross, the government’s pick for public appointments commissioner?

By on 06/08/2021 | Updated on 06/08/2021
William Shawcross was confirmed as the PM's preferred candidate for the role of commissioner for public appointments. Credit: Open Government Licence.

In the CVs of senior regulators, it’s not par for the course to see books reporting on the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and biographies of figures including the Queen Mother and Rupert Murdoch.

But William Shawcross, former chair of the Charity Commission, is no ordinary regulator. Last month, the UK government confirmed that Shawcross was its preferred candidate to become commissioner of public appointments. He would replace Peter Riddell, who started the role in 2016 and is due to finish his term in September this year.

For his supporters, his breadth of experience is among the qualities that recommend him. “William has all the attributes and experience needed for this important regulatory role that is vital to ensuring confidence in the public appointments made by both the UK and Welsh Governments,” said Michael Gove, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

But detractors point to some of his past political views, particularly on Islam, as red flags. Here, we tell you what you need to know about Shawcross.

What’s the job?

If confirmed, Shawcross will take on a crucial brief — providing “independent assurance” that ministerial appointments to the boards of public bodies comply with the relevant rules. The public appointments commissioner regulates roles for around 300 UK and 55 Welsh bodies, according to the Institute for Government (IfG).

The processes and principles for recruitment are set out in the Governance Code on Public Appointments. They ensure, among other things, that appointments are made on merit, that they “reflect the diversity of society”, and that ministers act “solely in terms of the public interest”.

While some public appointments require ministers to consult the commissioner in advance, the IfG says, the rest of the role is auditing departments against the code, reporting on compliance and in investigating complaints.

As such, the political views of an appointee to the role may come under scrutiny for evidence of partiality.

Political scrutiny

Shawcross — who was a writer and broadcaster — is currently working in another public role as the independent reviewer of the counter-terrorism programme Prevent. He is due to deliver this report in September.

But in an open letter, published earlier this year, Amnesty International, the Runnymede Trust and other groups criticised the Shawcross’s appointment to the role and announced they would boycott the review in protest.

The letter criticised Shawcross for expressing what it called “patently Islamophobic views” when he was director of right-wing think tank the Henry Jackson Society. It also noted that during his tenure as chair of the UK’s Charity Commission (a role he held from 2012 to 2018), the organisation was “accused of disproportionately focusing on Muslim charities”.

In a letter to Prevent practitioners in February, however, Shawcross emphasised that he was “open minded” in his approach to the review. He also noted that “it is vital to distinguish between the historic religion of Islam – a source of enrichment for many around the world – and the political ideology of Islamism.”

Political neutrality

Shawcross spoke out against the politicisation of charity work. “Charities cannot have a political purpose,” he said in his first speech at the Charity Commission. “As regulator, the Commission has a vital role in preserving that spirit of voluntarism by ensuring charities continue to deserve public trust and confidence.”

This came up later in his tenure when, in 2016, some charities raised concern about the guidance issued by the watchdog on the EU referendum. While the commission later clarified its position, some organisations claimed it was stricter than the general guidance for charities around campaigning.  

Furthermore, in an article for the Telegraph late in his tenure at the Charity Commission, Shawcross described himself as having been very concerned with questions of trust and accountability, including over controversial fundraising processes which were seen by some as unduly pressurising and intrusive.

“Charities should not be complacent. Public attitudes are shifting. People once trusted charities just because. But the exposure of indefensible fundraising methods by some large charities in 2014 was an awful shock,” he wrote.

Shawcross’s appointment to his hoped-for role awaits a scrutiny process from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

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