An expert on terrorism and the law has questioned the Charity Commission’s desire to deal with allegations of terrorist activity in charities.
In a submission to an inquiry on counter-terrorism by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Professor Clive Walker, from the Centre for Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds, says the commission is slow to use its powers to tackle suspected abuse of charities by terrorists.
Walker says that the commission is a "green-light" rather than a "red-light" regulator, with a focus on enabling and encouraging charities and charitable giving.
He says that the commission’s track record "does not match the seriousness with which the threat of terrorism is depicted within Contest", the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
It is not the case that the commission ignores allegations of terrorism, he says. "Rather, the issue is whether its resolve to deal with the allegations is sufficiently firm," says Walker.
He highlights the case of Al Ikhlas Foundation, a charity for Muslim prisoners which was the subject of a commission inquiry after one of its trustees was designated by the UN as having suspected links to Al Qaeda in December 2006.
"The Charity Commission was apparently unaware of this designation until informed in July 2007; he was removed as a trustee in October 2007," says Walker. "However, no sanction was imposed on the remaining trustees, even though the commission viewed them as inadequately recognising or managing the risks."
Walker says the commission closed the inquiry after the charity’s trustees agreed to strengthen their governance within three months. But this did not happen and the commission opened a further inquiry after another trustee was convicted for conspiring in an arson attack on a publisher in 2009.
"Despite this recurrently woeful record, the commission concluded its second inquiry by issuing a direction under section 19A, by which the trustees were set a further few months to regularise their meetings and membership, to conduct a risk assessment and to mitigate risks," says Walker. "The patience of the Charity Commission accorded to this serially delinquent charity was astonishing."
The charity has since been removed from the register of charities.
Walker also says that government departments urged the commission to reinforce its guidance in 2007 and in 2008 it published a counter-terrorism strategy that promised "zero tolerance". But he says that despite this, "there has been no discernible change in the ‘green-light’ approach".
He concludes by saying that it would be a mistake to try to "reinforce the punitive resolve of the Charity Commission".
"The data from this chapter suggests that the commission's weak statutory remit and entrenched ‘enabling’ culture cannot easily be nudged," he says.
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the regulator took concerns about the terrorist abuse of charities very seriously and did not have an enabling culture when it came to dealing with concerns about this kind of abuse.
She said the regulator updated its counter-terrorism strategy last year to take into account updates to the Contest strategy.
"This work is firmly part of our statutory duty to promote the compliance of charities with charity law and increase public trust and confidence in charities," she said.
"We have no remit to investigate criminal offences and are not a prosecuting authority. Although we do not conduct criminal investigations ourselves, we work very closely with the police and law enforcement agencies on cases where there are concerns about terrorist related abuse. The role we do play in tackling concerns about terrorist abuse of charities makes a crucial contribution to wider agency efforts."
She said that charities themselves had an important role to play in protecting charities from terrorist abuse.