Monday 9 November 2015

Guy Fawkes and lifting the veil at the Charity commission

Had a rather fun day on Guy Fawkes- which marks my 63rd birthday, some would say appropriately. A great lunch with the family at the restaurant that is run by the charity "Clinks" in Brixton Prison.  Its a social enterprise that provides much needed training for people in prison so they have a good chance of work on release.  We need more such initiatives if we are to break the revolving door in prison - where half the people who have been released are back inside in a year. The lack of good rehabilitation programmes inside and outside prison is shameful.  The so called rehabilitation revolution has not provided the opportunity for charities and social enterprises, we expected; but Michael Gove's interest in reform inside prisons shows much promise.

I was fascinated by a recent report in Third Sector Magazine by Andy Ricketts - commenting on the recent CAGE/JRCT case.  Its worth reproducing in full as it casts an interesting light on the internal workings at the Commission and the role of non executives v executives.

By Andy Ricketts

"The Charity Commission has declined to comment on emails reportedly sent by William Shawcross, its chair, in which he warned that charities supporting the advocacy group Cage were "funding a front for jihadist terrorists".

The Guardian newspaper has reported that emails from the regulator, filed with the High Court as part of the judicial review case brought by Cage against the commission yesterday, show that Shawcross and other commission board members were keen to prevent Cage from receiving further charitable funding. The emails included a section that called the advocacy group "a largely odious organisation".

The regulator acted earlier this year when Cage, which is not a charity, attracted widespread media attention because one of its staff members said at a press conference that Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly also known as the Islamic State executioner "Jihadi John", had been a "beautiful young man" who was radicalised because of the attention of the UK security services.

The led to the Charity Commission contacting the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation, which had both provided funding to Cage, to ask that they provide assurances they would never fund it again. The JRCT subsequently said that it agreed to the request after what it described as "intense regulatory pressure".

Emails from Shawcross and other commission board members were disclosed during preparation of the judicial review case, brought by Cage with the JRCT as an interested party, into the regulator’s actions in respect of Cage.  

The Guardian reported that the emails, which were referenced during the hearing yesterday but not read out in court, showed the extent to which Shawcross was keen to prevent Cage from receiving further charitable funding.

The newspaper said that an email from Shawcross told board members "charities surely cannot fund bodies that are acting against the national interest… Surely we can say that any charity supporting Cage has clearly not done due diligence and has put its own reputation and that of the sector at risk?"

Other board members – Peter Clarke, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terror branch, Orlando Fraser and Gwythian Prins – also expressed frustration that the commission was unable to take action against charities that had funded Cage, the paper said.

The paper reported that Clarke asked Michelle Russell, now director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement at the commission: "Is it legitimate for a donating trust (JRCT) to pick and choose in this way? It seems very strange to me that a charity could seek to justify donations to a largely odious organisation by saying that one small part of its work might be claimed to be charitable."

Shawcross told Russell that charities were "funding a front for jihadist terrorists", The Guardian said. According to the newspaper's report, in one email, dated 27 February, Shawcross said he had "spent the last 24 hours in Washington with senior US government counter-terrorism officials" and that "one senior analyst thought it was astonishing that Cage was not long ago exposed for what it is – a jihadist front".

According to The Guardian, Shawcross said: "We must be robust and, where possible, be seen to be robust, to protect the reputation of the sector as well as ourselves."

The newspaper reported that in March Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, wrote to Shawcross saying: "It is wholly unacceptable for charities supported by the taxpayer (through the generous tax treatment afforded to all charities) to be funding an extremist group like this one."

The Guardian said Shawcross replied that "both the Roddick Foundation and The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have ceased funding Cage and will not be doing so in the future".

The judicial review case yesterday ended with Cage withdrawing its case after the three parties agreed a joint statement.

"The Charity Commission does not seek to fetter charities' exercise of discretion whether to fund the charitable activities of Cage for all time, regardless of future changing circumstances," it said.

A spokeswoman for the commission declined to comment on the report or to release or confirm the existence of the emails.

In a statement, Cage said that the commission "should remain impartial and not be driven by the prevailing political aims of a few ideologues in government or sections of the media".

It said: "With the government's announcements of new proposals for counter-extremism, we believe that we are in danger of moving toward an era of 21st century McCarthyism, in which politically motivated witch hunts could be used to persecute innocent people in the guise of counter-terrorism.

"We ask all those in civil society who are committed to fairness and equality to support the work of Cage and safeguard the rule of law for all." 

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