William Shawcross, the chair of the Charity Commission, recently stated that the 200-plus charities established since the conflict in Syria began in 2011 that say they operate in Syria are "inexperienced and potentially vulnerable to exploitation", echoing the commission’s guidance on Syria that the public should give only to established charities.
Yet our proud tradition of charitable giving is founded on responding to need and such a great number of new charities should not be a surprise. I wonder how many charities were created as a result of the Second World War or the 2004 tsunami? In the case of Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis of this century, there is desperate need – I know this first hand, with relatives trapped in the besieged area of Yarmouk, where people have literally starved to death.
These new charities (and I have helped to establish some of them) are willing and able to learn, to recruit and train appropriately qualified staff, put in place the relevant policies and procedures that are vital for organisations seeking to operate in or fund others to deliver aid to high-risk areas where proscribed organisations operate. Indeed, the commission has produced excellent guidance in its compliance toolkit.
There also seem to be mixed messages – the commission has, for example, supported the Help for Syria campaign together with three such charities, Hand in Hand for Syria, Syria Relief and Human Care Syria. Islamic Relief has been showcased at the commission’s outreach events on Syria as having exemplary due diligence and monitoring procedures. More of this support and promotion of good practice that exists across many Muslim charities is needed.
Shawcross finished his speech by saying that "protecting Muslim charities from terrorist penetration is a vital element of the commission’s role" and this has been reflected in the commission’s three priorities. But in its recent submission to the Home Affairs Committee’s report on counter-terrorism, the only example it gave concerned individuals who fraudulently presented themselves as charity fundraisers, collecting in the name of a well-established Muslim charity. This was done unlawfully and without the charity’s knowledge or consent. This is fraud pure and simple and not evidence of a Muslim charity being a front for terrorist activities.
Its submission also correctly identified that the commission is not a prosecuting authority and does not conduct criminal investigations, and that it works with the police and security services where terrorism offences are suspected. It is these bodies, therefore, that should be taking action where there are cases of suspected terrorism using the wide array of laws available to them under counter-terrorism legislation. The commission should not be focusing its reduced resources on areas that can be tackled more effectively by others.
Sadly, politicians are continuing to fan the flames and pander to prejudices. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said in her speech at the Conservative Party conference last week that the government would introduce tougher rules and powers for the commission to prevail against terrorism. This is populism rather than proper policy-making and further ties up commission resources that could be more usefully deployed elsewhere.
The regulator, politicians and the sector as a whole should instead be celebrating and supporting Muslim charities. The commission must of course protect the public, using its already extensive powers to take action where there is abuse – but it should not do so by undermining the hard-won reputations of these charities.