November 16, 2014; The Guardian

On its website, the Charity Commission benignly declares, “We register and regulate charities in England and Wales, to ensure that the public can support charities with confidence.” Yet Muslims and others in the charity sector are increasingly alarmed at the Commission’s powers, which now extend into the shadowy world of intelligence surveillance once associated with other less benign authorities. Underlining its additional remit, the Commission is now officially defined “as a partner agency in counter-terrorism” under the UK Government’s Prevent strategy.

A report, “Muslim Charities: a Suspect Sector” has just been released by Claystone, which describes itself as “an independent think tank formed to offer research, analysis and reasoned solutions to foster social cohesion in relation to Muslims in Britain.” The report’s key concern is that “Muslim charities have been disproportionately affected by [Charity Commission] investigations.” Thirty-eight percent of all disclosed investigations since the beginning of 2013 were on Muslim charities. The Guardian reports that there are 76 live investigations looking at Muslim charities, and more than 20 of these are charities associated with running mosques, providing humanitarian relief and, in a number of high-profile cases, aid efforts in Syria.

Activity related to Syria, it seems, particularly merits the commission’s interest. Statutory formal investigations—the Commission’s highest level of serious investigation—are being conducted into five charities operating in Syria. Not all are Muslim charities; one of the charities is al-Fatiha Global, with which the ISIL-executed hostage Alan Henning was working. The others are Children in Need, Aid Convoy, Human Aid, and Syria Aid.

Claystone’s report continues:

“The Commission has labelled 55 charities with the issue code ‘extremism and radicalisation’ without their knowledge in the period December 5th 2012 to May 8th 2014.These charities were/are being monitored as a potential concern for matters relating to extremism and radicalisation. There are no written criteria for applying or removing this label and thus it lends itself to non-evidenced based targeting of particular groups.”

Claystone’s concern is that the Commission has stated an intention to purge “extremism” in its “Counter Terrorism” policy document. However, not only is extremism not defined, but each time it is mentioned in the policy document, it is also conflated with “terrorism.”

Extremism is defined elsewhere by the Commission, in its Compliance Toolkit, as “a vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

Concern about the Charity Commission and its objectivity in part stems from the reputation and public statements of its chair, Sir William Shawcross. As the Guardian points out, in 2012, in his role as a board director at the conservative Henry Jackson Society, Shawcross claimed, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” Read that statement, and then read the one above regarding mutual respect of different faiths, and you will begin to see how concerns might arise.

Other examples of apparently prejudicial statements by Shawcross are provided in the report.

As a previous NPQ newswire pointed out, there are concerns about the background of at least two other appointments to the Commission. Peter Clarke is a former head of the antiterrorist unit in the Metropolitan Police; Gwythian Prins is an academic who has written on military and strategic issues from a hawkish point of view. Clark, despite the specialist nature of his credentials, is referred to in the Claystone report as having “declined to give any indication of the extent of suspected links between charities and terrorist activity.”

The Claystone report also comments on the UK Government’s new “Protection of Charities Bill,” published in September. The report says the new draft legislation “proposes powers which can be authorised on subjective grounds by the Commission and may give rise to unwarranted interventions in charities. There is also the possibility for abuse of powers. The potential for misapplication is compounded by the fact that the Commission currently has a flawed policy on extremism.”

In response, a Commission spokesperson has said:

“The Commission does not target Muslims, any other religion or type of charity. All our casework is prioritised and assessed for action against the risk framework, published on the website. We are keen to remove the perception that this is not the case. A full analysis of the Commission’s compliance work including investigative and monitoring work for the last financial year will be in this year’s publication, Tackling Abuse and Mismanagement.”

—John Godfrey