Anti-terror legislation could make it impossible to deliver overseas aid to certain locations if charities do not have enough clarity on how much interaction they can have with proscribed terrorist groups, according to two NGO leaders.
Hany El-Banna, chair of the Muslim Charities Forum and the founder of Islamic Relief, and Ben Jackson, chief executive of the NGOs membership body Bond, were giving evidence yesterday to the parliamentary joint committee scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill.
Charities working overseas in areas controlled by terrorist or other groups banned under UK law might find that they needed to pay money to or cooperate in other ways with these groups in order to gain access to the communities they wanted to help, which would potentially be a crime by dint of these groups being proscribed, they said.
"Counter-terrorism legislation is preventing us from reaching the most needy people in these areas," said El-Banna. "There are proscribed groups in these areas and they are the gatekeepers."
He said that charities found it difficult to know whether to take the risk of working with these groups and then potentially be labelled as collaborating with terrorists, or to stop working in that area altogether. "You need to give us guidance," he said.
Jackson agreed that better guidance was needed. "I definitely think this is something where we can improve," he said. Bond, he added, was happy to work with the Charity Commission and the government on this. He said it was getting ever more difficult to deliver aid to areas controlled by proscribed groups – Gaza, in particular, because Hamas, which controls the Palestinian National Authority, was on the proscribed list.
Jackson said it could get to the point where increasing red tape made it impossible to work in Gaza.
"That would suit the militants and the extremist groups extremely well," he said. "It would fit the narrative that says ‘no one out there cares about you; we are the only people with the guns and the rocket launchers that do care about you."
Lord Hope of Craighead, chair of the committee, said that El-Banna and Jackson had raised powerful points, but this was possibly outside the scope of the existing draft bill. Speaking to Third Sector after the session, Jackson said he knew this, but had been keen to raise awareness of the dilemma.
The issue was also highlighted in the fourth annual review of terrorism legislation, laid before parliament by David Anderson QC in the summer.
Jackson said he generally supported the commission being given the new powers in the bill, although he said it was "not entirely clear what nut it is that they are trying to crack with this bill". El-Banna said that the commission also needed more resources in order to better use the powers it already had.
Also giving evidence was Christopher Stacey, director of services at Unlock, the charity for people with criminal convictions. He said there was not much evidence of problems associated with people with criminal convictions becoming charity trustees, which is one area on which the bill aims to legislate.
Stacey said he hoped there would not be disproportionate legislation or application of the new powers to stop people with criminal convictions taking on trusteeships or working for charities – rehabilitation charities in particular.