Government should address problem of anti-terror laws hindering aid charities, says committee

In its report, the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill says the difficulties affect UK NGOs' activities at a time when their efforts are 'more critical than ever'

Guarding food aid in Haiti
Guarding food aid in Haiti

The charity sector has welcomed the call by a cross-party committee of parliamentarians for government to address the difficulties posed by terrorism legislation on charities delivering overseas aid.

Having taken oral and written evidence on the draft Protection of Charities Bill, the cross-party committee of MPs and peers yesterday published its report which gives broad approval, subject to certain caveats, to legislation that would give the commission various new or expanded powers.

The report also addresses various issues outside of the scope of the legislation that were nevertheless raised in that evidence, including oral evidence from the Muslim Charities Forum, the international development membership body Bond and the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation on the difficulties charities that work in difficult regions overseas.

The report says there are two main difficulties in this area. The first is that the law does not give aid charities confidence in how much interaction they can have with a proscribed terrorist group without falling foul of the legislation, especially if that group operates as a so-called "gatekeeper" without whose consent a charity cannot get into a particular area. The second is that banks are taking "a risk-averse approach" to charities they think might fall foul of such rules, making it difficult to finance aid operations.

These problems "appear to present a real risk of a ‘chilling effect’ on UK NGOs’ activities at a time when their efforts are possibly more critical than ever", the report says. It calls on the government "to consider the position of these NGOs in the context of terrorism law". It suggests that potential solutions could be found in the statutory provisions on the topic in Australia and New Zealand.

Speaking to Third Sector, Lord Hope of Craighead, the crossbench peer who chaired the bill committee, said he was aware this issue was beyond the scope of the bill, but said: "This is something that goes right across the whole business of the legislation on terrorism – but we’re trying to open the door, as it were, to some kind of consideration as to whether or not this should be addressed."

Ben Jackson, chief executive of Bond, welcomed the recommendations.

"Our members have to negotiate with gatekeepers in places such as Syria and Somalia to alleviate suffering, but we cannot do this with our hands tied behind our backs," he said.

"A dialogue is developing between Bond members and the government on the impact of anti-terrorism legislation and we look forward to discussing the committee's recommendations as part of this."

The charity leaders group Acevo, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and Jo Coleman, a partner at IBB Solicitors who chaired the Charity Law Association’s working group on the draft bill, also welcomed the recommendation. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said the Charity Commission should provide guidance on charity work in war zones.

The report considers whether the draft bill will be successful in hindering terrorist groups that seek to abuse charities. It says that although evidence shows that such abuse is rare, the Charity Commission "should be more effective at tackling it than has historically been the case", and is open-ended on the bill’s potential usefulness, saying: "This raises the question of whether this would also need additional legislative underpinning and, if so, whether the proposals in the draft bill are the correct ones."

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