Islamist extremism is the “most deadly” problem charities face, the chairman of the sector’s watchdog has said.
William Shawcross, who took on the role at the Charity Commission in October 2012, said it was “ludicrous” that people with convictions for terrorism or money laundering were not automatically disqualified from setting up charities or becoming trustees. He said he has written to the prime minister, David Cameron, to ask for changes to the law.
Shawcross told the Sunday Times the commission was taking tough measures against any charity that was “sending cash to extremist groups in Syria” or “dispatching young Britons for training in Syria by al-Qaida or other extremist groups”.
In his first interview since becoming chairman, he said: “The problem of Islamist extremism and charities … is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly. And it is, alas, growing.
“I’m sure that in places like Syria and Somalia it is very, very difficult for agencies always to know what the end use of their aid is, but they’ve got to be particularly vigilant.”
‘Deadliest threat’ to charities is extremism
By Richard Kerbaj
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS is not easily put off his stride. But the straight-talking chairman of the Charity Commission admits that his first 18 months in the job have been a “rollercoaster” ride “with IEDs going off”.
His appointment in 2012 was criticised by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who accused him of being a Tory stooge. The commission was then savaged in a report by the National Audit Office, and Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said it was “not fit for purpose”.
Meanwhile, concern about charities being used as a vehicle by extremists have steadily grown, while those in charge of some of Britain’s biggest charities have muttered darkly about Shawcross’ s management style.
Now the 67-year-old historian and biographer is having his say. In his first interview since becoming chairman, he assesses the challenges facing both the commission and the charity sector and his plans for reform.
Asked directly about the “fit for purpose” criticism, he replies: “It is. We do a lot of great work and have a very dedicated staff … and to get kicked by Mrs Hodge and other politicians like that is just completely wrong.”
Shawcross, whose father was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crime trials after the Second World War, is particularly alarmed by Islamist extremism.
There are 48 current investigations of terrorism-related groups, and Shawcross recently drafted Peter Clarke, former head of anti-terrorism at Scotland Yard, onto the commission’s board. But, he says, charities must shoulder some of the work.
“I’m sure that in places like Syria and Somalia it is very, very difficult for charities always to know what the end use of their aid is, but they’ve got to be particularly vigilant,” he says. “The problem of Islamist extremism . . . is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly. And it is, alas, growing.”
He is pressing for urgent action to close a loophole allowing those convicted of terrorism offences or money laundering to escape an automatic ban from setting up charities or becoming trustees. “It is ludicrous that people with convictions for terrorist offences are not automatically disqualified from serving as charity trustees,” he says. He has written to the prime minister to press his case for changes to the law.
He is also urging George Osborne, the chancellor, not to impose further funding cuts. The commission’s annual budget has fallen from £30m to £22.7m in the past five years, and by March 2015 it will have 275 staff – down from 466 in 2010.
“We need two things if we’re to continue to improve the commission’s performance,” says Shawcross. “We need a more sustainable funding position and we need stronger legal powers to tackle abuse and mismanagement.
“I know public finances are tight but our funding situation is unsustainable. We cannot keep responding to continuous salami-slicing of our budget. There is no point having a charity regulator that is unable to do its job properly because it is under-resourced.”