Reports by the Charity Commission following a two-year investigation into The Roddick Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust regarding their past funding of CAGE has been described as ‘unremarkable’, and allegations against CAGE unfounded.
The actions of the Charity Commission towards these two previous CAGE funders was the subject of a challenge in the High Court. Following criticism from the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the regulator was forced to accept that it had exceeded its powers by interfering with the independent discretion of trustees.
Furthermore, the significant emails revealed by court documents between members of the board of the Charity Commission will raise serious questions about their investigation. These emails which have been disclosed seem to indicate that the Charity Commission’s board has been hijacked by a group who view Muslims with suspicion.
The Commission is losing support from its sector
Charity leaders, as reported in a series of articles in Third Sector and Civil Society magazines, have recently called for clarification on the role of board members of the Commission, and have expressed concern at the political opinions of board members which interfere with the functions of the Commission as an impartial regulator.
“For some time, the Commission has appeared increasingly to be driven by single issue agendas,” said Asheem Singh, director of public policy at Acevo, in response to a report released by Civil Society News. “While being more interventionist and publicity-hungry, we have been concerned that its leadership has taken it to the point of no longer being able to do its primary job: of regulating and supporting our nation’s charities to meet regulatory requirements while they help vulnerable people at the same time.”
In overseeing the charity sector, the Charity Commission has a high degree of influence, not only on charities’ ability to do their work, but also on wider civil society itself. It is therefore important that those leading the regulator, are impartial, non-partisan and sensitive to the valuable contribution it makes.
CAGE case and standpoint has been pivotal in highlighting weaknesses of the Charity Commission
Singh’s pronouncements follow a letter written a week earlier by chief executive of NCVO, Sir Stuart Etherington, to the minister for civil society Rob Wilson, in which Sir Etherington called for the governance of the Charity Commission to be looked into “as a matter of urgency”. His key points echo much of CAGE’s previous statements on the Charity Commission and particularly highlight the role of our court victory:
- The Charity Commission board exerts political pressure on the Commission:
“We … continue to have serious concerns about the intervention of the Charity Commission board in operational matters and its independence from party politics”
- The board is overly involved in the running of the Commission, limiting its transparency and accountability: However, there is a risk that if the board is too involved in executive decisions for an extended period… the important separation between executive and non-executive becomes blurred, impairing the board’s independence which is critical to its role of holding the executive to account”
- The judicial review brought by CAGE against the Charity Commission highlighted the political bias of its board and its heavy-handedness:
“The recent High Court judicial review brought by Cage … gave an unprecedented insight into the willingness of some Commission board members to express forceful opinions on the work of the executive. Considering that the government’s UK Corporate Governance Code says boards should not stray into executive management, we continue to have concerns in this area.”
- Sir William Shawcross, is not suited to lead the Charity Commission:
“Not only the current chair, but also the previous one, have been subject to the accusation that, as appointees of the government of the day, they are not sufficiently independent and accountable and are therefore serious risk of being perceived to be politically biased.”
Commission board members’ links are a threat to civil society
William Shawcross is anything but an impartial figure. Since taking the helm of the Charity Commission in 2010, he has gradually eroded the effectiveness of charities and limited their ability to conduct their work.
CAGE has highlighted his links to neo-conservative groups which have damaged the reputation of the Charity Commission, as well as hurt the sector at large:
“William Shawcross … was a board member of the … [right wing think tank] Henry Jackson Society. HJS Associate Director, Douglas Murray, once infamously opined “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”, which of course they since have … Shawcross himself said, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. Disturbingly, William Shawcross proudly defends torture methods, like waterboarding, and he supports Guantanamo.
“[Under Shawcross] … the number of Muslim charities put under special investigations has rocketed to unprecedented levels. Currently, over a quarter of all Charity Commission investigations focus on Muslim cases, 55 of them coded under “extremism and radicalization” labels.”
As if Shawcross’ dubious links are not enough, a recent Civil Society investigation has revealed the deep connections between members of the Charity Commission board and various right-wing think-tanks and conservative politicians. Of particular interest is Gwythian Prins, who sits on the advisory council of the Henry Jackson Society, and is credited for influencing a piece written by Roger Scuton, a conservative philosopher, which criticises “sock puppet” charities, an attempt to restrict charitable campaigning. He also coined the phrase that charities should “stick to their knitting” and is published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, “another right-wing think tank which launched the “sock puppet” movement”.
Within the board, there appears to be a refusal to accept the fact that British Muslims are becoming active citizens and playing a larger role in British civil society. Whether it is in relief organisations, or charities which focus on poverty in the UK, or those similar to CAGE, who focus on issues of rule of law and due process. It remains to be seen the long term damage the tenure of Shawcross and his associates on the board will have on encouraging more ethnic minorities to be active citizens and on wider civil society.
Shawcross statements on CAGE court ruling show a disregard for the rule of law
The political alignment of the Charity Commission could not have been made more plain in the days following our High Court victory. In the judicial review following moves by the Charity Commission to pressurise charities never to fund CAGE again, Lord Chief Justice Thomas pronounced that the Commission had been ‘high-handed’, and that the regulator had no power to permanently ban a charity from funding a given cause. CAGE withdrew the review, while in return the Charity Commission agreed to step back from limiting charities’ funding decisions.
- “Trustees must be free to exercise their fiduciary powers and duties in light of the circumstances that exist at the time, if acting properly within their objects and powers and in the best interests of the charity.
- The Commission does not seek to fetter the charities’ exercise of discretion whether to fund the charitable activities of CAGE for all time, irrespective of changed circumstances.
- The Commission recognises that it has no power to require trustees to fetter the future exercise of their fiduciary powers under its general power to give advice and guidance. In consequence there is no obligation on the trustees of JRT (Joseph Rowntree Trust) to fetter the proper and lawful exercise of their discretion in future”.
Despite this ruling of the Court, presided over by the highest judge in the land, on 3 November, in a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) hearing session, Shawcross insisted that the Charity Commission was “unfettered” by the court’s decision.
Incredibly, he stated: “Our view still is, and is not in any way fettered by the court case, that trustees risk breaching their duties for charity trustees by funding groups like CAGE.”
Shawcross’ flagrant whitewashing of the court ruling demonstrates a clear disregard for the rule of law. This is no surprise given his previous support for torture and Guantanamo Bay – but the fact that his pronouncement went unchallenged by the committee itself and that the PACAC in fact commended the Charity Commission for its stance, is cause for alarm. This is a worrying development for all the citizens of this country.
CAGE’s urgent letters to overseeing select committees go unanswered or deflected
In response to Shawcross’ outrageous statement and the conclusions of PACAC, as well as the emails revealing the bias of board members, CAGE wrote urgent letters to the PACAC, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The letters are available for viewing here: PACAC, CSPL and PAC. In all of them, we requested that William Shawcross be investigated for his conduct.
Regarding the PACAC’s support for the Charity Commission’s unapologetic whitewashing of the court ruling, we wrote to the PACAC and the PAC: “We cannot see how the Committee could have come to this conclusion without hearing both sides of the story. We regret that the Committee appears to have not compiled with the rules of natural justice which we are sure was an oversight.” (see full letter here)
We said that CAGE should have been allowed to provide evidence to address the Committee’s concerns and that the charities which had been contacted by the Charity Commission concerning their relationship with CAGE should have also been asked to provide evidence. We said we were confident that fairness would be adhered to and the oversight rectified.
In our letter to the CSPL, we specifically mentioned the emails that had been exchanged between board members regarding CAGE, which was evidence of their views: “We believe that these views concerning CAGE and Muslim charities are so strong that Mr. Shawcross and others are unable to fulfil their roles in an impartial and unbiased manner.” We requested that the CPSL investigate the conduct of Mr. William Shawcross in exercising his powers as Chair of the Charity Commission, particularly in relation to Muslim charities, saying that Shawcross was violating the Nolan Principles, to which he was required to adhere as a member of public office.
CAGE received no response to our letters to the PACAC besides an acknowledgement that they had been received. The CPSL said in its response to us that the Charity Commission affair was not in its remit, as it was not charged with investigating individuals. It directed us to the Cabinet Office. The Committee of Public Accounts responded by saying an investigation into William Shawcross was also out of its remit, and referred us to the PACAC.
The parliamentary select committees have failed to oversee and address these criticisms. This has given free reign to an ideologically driven regulator. In effect the committees have ignored the heavy censoring by the Lord Chief Justice of the Charity Commission at the High Court.
These events demonstrate that the Charity Commission under Shawcross and his allies, as well as pursuing a neo-conservative political agenda at the expense of civil society, is also behaving with impunity before the rule of law, with the full support of the government.
The Commission’s behaviour towards CAGE, and the government’s compliance with it, sets an alarming precedent. All citizens concerned with upholding justice and pursuing an equitable civil society should rally against it – as indeed they increasingly are. It is clear that Shawcross seems incapable of divorcing his personal ideology from the long term interest of the charity sector. Despite the inaction by parliament and the government, CAGE will continue to campaign for a return to the rule of law and accountability as a means of ending the War on Terror.
Image in this article used courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)