The voluntary sector website, Third Sector, reports on comments made by Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of the UK charity leaders’ representative body Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) accusing the Charity Commission of a “disproportionate focus” on Muslim charities and the purported risk posed to the charity sector by “Islamist extremism”.
Sir Stephen’s made the remark at the Acevo annual conference after, Chairman of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, delivered a conference speech about protecting charities from “Islamist abuse” being one of the three core strategic priorities for the regulator. The other two priorities are protecting charities from fraud and protecting vulnerable beneficiaries.
Speaking from the audience at the conference in central London yesterday, Sir Stephen acknowledged that it was the Charity Commission’s job to root out wrongdoing in the charity sector and that terrorism could be an issue for charities but he argued that the commission’s “overemphasis” on “Islamist extremism” and “Muslim charities” was creating unease in the sector.
He said: “What I think has disturbed many of us is there is an overemphasis on ‘Islamist abuse’, and William was talking about it this morning in a disproportionate way. There are all sorts of abuses that might affect charities, and the number of statutory inquiries into Muslim charities has been disproportionate.”
Sir Stephen referred to the recent case lost by the Charity Commission over its decision to “force” the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to undertake to cease charitable donations to the advocacy group Cage, saying the case revealed a “let’s get them” attitude that had shocked the sector.
Sir Stephen went on to say the sector and the commission needed to focus on supporting Muslim groups and not just on “enforcement”. He said: “If you want to attack extremism, you need to do both the security measures in legislation and winning hearts and minds among younger people. This is a community of three million people, the second-largest faith group, half of whom were born in this country and the vast majority of whom identify themselves as British nationals. We should be working as a sector with society on the way that we integrate and work with those communities, and that’s why many of us are disturbed by the emphasis that’s been taken.”
A Charity Commission spokeswoman however disagreed with Sir Stephen’s assertions and said: “We challenge the assertion that a disproportionate number of inquiries are open into ‘Muslim charities’ and refer to the latest analysis of charities that become subject to inquiries or compliance cases, available on our website. We also undertake a great deal of outreach work, reaching 2,000 delegates at 1,000 charities last year.”
She further highlighted a visit by Mr Shawcross to Brick Lane Mosque in East London last week which suggests more about the Chairman’s approach than perhaps the Commission realises. One is minded to ask why, if the Chairman was making a visit to an east London mosque, he didn’t choose the largest one, the East London Mosque, which attracts a far greater congregation than the Brick Lane mosque as a means of dispelling Muslim doubts?
Following Mr Shawcross’ comments last year that “Islamist” extremism was the “deadliest threat” facing charities, Claystone published a report noting that over the period January 2013 to April 2014, 38% of the Commission’s statutory inquiries targeted Muslim charities despite their being only 1.1% of the number of charities registered under the commission.
Earlier this year, Muslim charities were again placed under the spotlight after Mr Shawcross’ alleged that “Islamist abuse could be catastrophic for charities…we must be vigilant”. He however dismissed accusations of unfairly targeting Muslim charities, saying “We are not targeting Muslim charities unfairly or disproportionately in any way whatsoever, nor should we, nor would we.”
Despite these assertions, a “perception of bias” by the Commission toward Muslim charities remains and many believe that it has had a detrimental impact on their ability to undertake humanitarian work oversees. A report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) last year revealed that the risk of non-government organisations being abused for extremist or terrorist purposes had been “overstated by some interested parties”.
In March of this year, the Charity Commission were heavily criticised for behaving beyond their remit, after they pressured two charities, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Anita Roddick Foundation, to withdraw funding to the human rights advocacy group Cage. At the time, Sir Stephen said: “Britain needs to fight terrorism with both hands – not with one hand tied behind our back. We need high level strategic security measures but also better understanding of the conditions on the ground that breed or alleviate the threat of extremism. There are serious flaws in our current approach. We must recognise that an overzealous approach by regulators has exacerbated the difficulties charities already experience from restrictions on their bank accounts. The Charity Commission, in particular, has found itself at loggerheads with many of the organisations it regulates. Regrettably, they are perceived by parts of the charity sector to be biased in their investigatory priorities – and a perception of bias here can be as corrosive as actual bias.”
Earlier in the year, the government introduced new legislation to give the Charity Commission more powers of intervention under the Protection of Charities Bill, as well as £8 million to tackle abuse “including the use of funds for extremist and terrorist activity”. The Commission will have to do more if it is to command the respect of Muslims charities as a regulator that is not driven by a “let’s get them” attitude.