William Shawcross defends Charity Commission action in Cage affair

The chair of the regulator tells a Southampton conference that it was right to scrutinise grants made by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

The chair of the Charity Commission has defended its decision to call on two charitable foundations never again to fund the controversial human advocacy organisation Cage, amid criticism from within the charity sector about its handling of the case.

In a speech delivered to the Paris Smith law firm’s Charity Conference in Southampton today, Shawcross said the regulator had been correct to scrutinise grants made to Cage by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation and to seek reassurances that the foundations would never fund the organisation again.

At the end of February, a director of Cage described Mohammed Emwazi, the man thought to be the Islamic State executioner "Jihadi John", as a "beautiful young man" who might have been radicalised by the security services. The Daily Mail later ran a story about the funding of Cage by both the JRCT and the Roddick Foundation.

A letter in support of the JRCT, signed by 190 people including the actor Joanna Lumley and a large number of charity chief executives, was published in The Times earlier this month, supporting "the rights of charities and foundations to freely pursue their objectives within the law". The Association of Charitable Foundations, of which the JRCT is member, is due to meet the commission to discuss the issues raised by the case.

Speaking about the Cage case at the conference today, Shawcross said: "Some people have questioned whether it is for the commission to decide what is in the public interest, or what might damage trust and confidence in charities. Of course it is. As regulator, we exist to regulate charities on behalf of the giving and volunteering public. Public trust is vital to charities. If this is under threat in any way, we must act."

But he said that the commission’s intervention did not mean charities "cannot fund projects that are unpopular or controversial". He said: "Charities have a proud history of supporting difficult causes, such as helping asylum seekers, rehabilitating offenders or promoting little-known causes. We will be updating our guidance for trustees in due course."

In a wide-ranging speech, Shawcross said the commission’s research showed that how a charity spent its money had become the most important factor driving public trust. He said: "This is a significant shift. It shows that transparency and accountability in charities is more important to the public than before."

He revealed that the commission had also had to act swiftly to amend the charitable objects of the charity the Band Aid Charitable Trust at the end of last year when the charity wanted to release a new version of the song Do They Know it’s Christmas? to raise money to help victims of the Ebola outbreak.

He said: "The charity trustees thought they would have to establish a new charity in order to raise funds through a new version of the song to fight Ebola, because their charitable objects were restricted to the relief of hunger and poverty in Ethiopia. To save time, money and unnecessary administration for the charity, we made a scheme that added an additional ‘relief of sickness’ object, but ring-fencing the original property and any income arising from it for the original Ethiopian objects. This was done in three days."

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