Opinion: Liberties must not be casualties of terror

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

There are many good reasons for being outraged by terrorism, wherever it takes place - the arbitrary and inhuman treatment of citizens, as well as the attack on human rights that have been so hard won and are maintained only by constant vigilance. Thank goodness for Liberty, I say. Increased policing and constraints on everyday life, even with the best of intentions, can so easily cross the boundary into undesirable curtailment of freedom.

It isn't unexpected that the effects of terrorism should come to the door of charities in the UK, but the latest development is a surprise. The European Commission is 'consulting' on recommendations about transparency in non-profit organisations. It's all about preventing non-profit bodies from being misused, alleging our vulnerability to terrorist financing, although it doesn't offer any evidence of this. It stems from the G8's Financial Action Task Force, whose acronym, FATF, seems rather apt.

Many of its recommendations won't raise an eyebrow. But the small print of 'risk indicators' gives a different slant. It states that suspicion might be aroused when "the non-profit organisation chooses a form of activity that it is not legally required to register" or when "the NPO is not... officially recognised as a non-profit, but is operating like one". It also raises doubts about situations in which "the NPO shares its registered office with other organisations" and "the internet website of the NPO has not been updated in the last 12 months". A lot of voluntary bodies could fall under suspicion on those counts, especially for not updating their websites.

We need to respond vigorously to these proposals. One of the jewels in the crown of British democracy has long been the freedom to form voluntary bodies without the requirement to subject them to the scrutiny of the law - in every locality, in all communities of interest, there are unregistered groups undertaking voluntary, charitable activities. Their loss would be a loss to our society as a whole.

We should remember that in Europe, centuries of war and revolution meant that association without the permission of the state was repressed, often severely. Only within the last generation have national laws intended to deter association been superseded. It is not fanciful to visualise their reinstatement for the desirable aim of reducing terrorism, while simultaneously handing terrorism the prize of curtailing freedom.

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