Stopping the funding of CAGE – not a charity – was just one example of how the Charity Commission has been pushing itself into politics, says John Underwood
In February 2014, Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, dismissed the Charity Commission as 'not fit for purpose' in a scathing report. The Commission couldn't spot sham charities, couldn't regulate Gift Aid and couldn't address allegations of abuse in the charity sector.
Not even the appointment of royal biographer William Shawcross (pictured) could transform its reputation and internal malaise. In last year's Civil Service People Survey, the 'Engagement Index' results for Charity Commission personnel were down in eight out of nine categories from 2013.
It's this background of inactivity that has made the Charity Commission's recent actions so noteworthy. Last week, the commission took the extraordinary step of publicly censuring two charitable foundations with historic links to an advocacy group that's currently antagonising the government and outraging the public.
The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation, which give away huge sums each year to a wide variety of causes, are both former funders of CAGE UK, a human rights NGO which pulls no punches when criticising the 'war on terror'.
CAGE's research director Asim Qureshi recently accused MI5 of playing a part in the radicalisation of Mohammed Emwazi (the ISIL headsman otherwise known as Jihadi John), prompting a media storm and a fierce response from the Charity Commission – whose jurisdiction it doesn't operate under.
Although neither the JRCT nor the Roddick Foundation has promised or delivered funding to CAGE in the last year, the Charity Commission demanded assurances that their connections to the group had been permanently severed. These were duly delivered, with the JRCT citing 'intense regulatory pressure' as a factor in its decision.
As an independent advocacy group, CAGE might have expected to be beyond the reach of the Charity Commission since it has deliberately eschewed charity status in order to remain explicitly political and unaffected by the tight regulations affecting all UK charities.
However, in an email to Spear's, CAGE spokesman Amandla Thomas-Johnson said he 'absolutely' felt the Charity Commission had exceeded its mandate. 'This is just another manifestation of their objective of pursuing a Cold War on British Islam,' he continued. 'We believe that there are individuals now involved in the Charity Commission who have on a consistent basis displayed extremely worrying islamaphobic [sic] tendencies.'
CAGE's allegations are certainly worth taking with a pinch of salt, but the fact that they've been affected at all by the Charity Commission deserves notice. While the commission is unquestionably within its rights to clamp down on CAGE's former funders, those rights come from the regulator's responsibility to 'maintain public trust and confidence in charity'.
That's a statement that allows for fairly wide interpretation, and this is not the first time the Charity Commission has taken action which might look ideological or politically reactive rather than objective. Shawcross himself has done nothing to help this image problem, using his first interview as chairman to describe Islamic extremism as the 'most deadly' problem facing the charity sector.
Indeed, last November, the Guardian reported that over a quarter of the Commission's open inquiries dealt with Muslim groups; Muslim Britons, one should note, make up under 5 per cent of our population.
Mohammed Mamdani is a serial entrepreneur whose social enterprises include the award-winning Muslim Youth Helpline and Sufra, a community food bank that offers its supplies to disadvantaged people of all backgrounds. Speaking from Sufra's busy North London offices, he expressed frustration with the intense scrutiny applied to Muslim charities. 'Whenever we try to embark on any project we must be concerned in a way other faith communities aren't,' he explained. 'We are under constant pressure to prove our diversity. There's an automatic level of suspicion – “Are you really a public service provider?”'
Wider political issues have attracted the Charity Commission's attention too. In December, Oxfam was scolded for sending a tweet which the commission judged to be critical of the government. The charity's response was contrite, but commentators wondered whether simply 'speaking truth to power' (in this case, citing benefit cuts and zero-hour contracts as adding to the 'perfect storm' of poverty in the UK) was becoming too risky for NGOs with a healthy self-preservation instinct.
The commission takes an unsurprisingly dim view of these suggestions. A press officer told Spear's that 'we categorically reject any suggestion of bias in our investigative work. We recognise the enormous contribution the people of the Muslim faith make to charities in this country.' They also revealed that the operational compliance cases regarding the charities known to have funded CAGE have been open for some considerable time, beginning in September 2013 in the case of the JRCT and March 2014 in the case of the Roddick Foundation.
Although the Charity Commission does seem to have found out about CAGE's funding from its own research rather than the hysterical media coverage, its unprecedented demand that the JRCT and Roddick Foundation do public penance can only be a response to the recent media storm.
By making the treatment of CAGE's funders so public, the commission is ensuring that other charities devoted to disbursing funds sit up and take notice, hopefully silencing the next CAGE-type outfit before it gets underway. The real losers here will not be CAGE (whatever you might think of it) but the charities that quietly fail – or are never started – because the people and organisations who might have backed them are too nervous of a backlash, be it in the form of a sensationally reported investigation or an inflammatory comment made years down the line.
The Charity Commission may be acting within the letter of the law, but its aggressive pursuit of charities and, through charities, other organisations risks damaging the sector as a whole, as well as its own reputation for impartiality. It is hard to imagine that this intimidating atmosphere is going to encourage the next generation of potential charity supporters.