Special Report: Mixed reaction to Charity Commission charm offensive

A chanted recitation of a verse from the Koran preceded the opening speech by Dame Suzi Leather at a public meeting of the Charity Commission's new Faith and Social Cohesion Unit last week.

Mohammad Bilal Abdullah, director of education at the Ebrahim College, chants from the Koran
Mohammad Bilal Abdullah, director of education at the Ebrahim College, chants from the Koran

And when the recitation was complete, she gave religion a ringing endorsement, describing it as the pillar on which most societies are built. "I can think of few societies, and certainly no successful ones, that deny people's deep-seated instinct for religious expression," she said.

She told the 200-strong audience at a London hotel that the unit's aim was to build faith charities' capacity, improve their governance and increase registration levels. The 1,400 Muslim charities on the commission's register had a combined income of more than £220m, she said, which imposed considerable responsibility on their trustees. "We want to help you fulfil that responsibility," she said.

Rosie Chapman, executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission, took a firm line. She emphasised that the regulator had no expertise in or right to interfere with religious practice, but insisted that the existing level of registration of mosques - one in four - had to improve. "It is not a matter of opinion or choice, but of law," she said.

Zareen Roohi Ahmed, chief executive of the British Muslim Forum, said the professionalism of Muslim charities needed to improve. "Too many mosques have been places only to teach the Koran - and even that hasn't been to a very high standard," she said. "Would you send your children to a school if the teachers hadn't been properly trained?"

Among the other issues raised were the dual registration requirements for charitable companies, delays in processing registration applications and a misapprehension that the commission's accounting requirements were specific to mosques.

Chapman said the commission would look at suggestions that it should regularly produce a leaflet for faith-based charities. Asked why the FSCU had begun with Muslim charities, she said Islam was the country's fastest-growing religion: "We had to start somewhere."

That explanation was not enough for some delegates, a number of whom told Third Sector afterwards the commission should have invited representatives from charities of all faiths so it didn't look like Muslims were being singled out.

Some also complained that the commission had invited only "the usual suspects". One delegate said small mosques did not have enough money to do everything the commission recommended, and another said the time allotted for feedback from the floor had been too short. He said: "The commission needs to listen more. We don't need to be lectured."

But several delegates praised the event and said it would help spread the message that the commission was there to help rather than harass Muslim charities. And the chocolate and cream canapes met with universal approval.

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