William Shawcross: ‘Islamist abuse could be catastrophic for charities . . . we must be vigilant’

The Times, 1 August, 2015

When William Shawcross was appointed chairman of the Charity Commission, his wife the hotelier Olga Polizzi, told him: “This is the first proper job you’ve ever had.” 

At the age of 69 he has published the official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, presented a BBC TV series on the monarchy and given lectures all over the world about terrorism, genocide and foreign affairs. He is a renowned journalist and broadcaster but he says: “She thought being a writer didn’t count.” Having spent the past three years at the commission, he has concluded that his wife was right. “This is the most wonderful job. The philanthropic tradition in this country is superb and this is a really interesting and important organisation in protecting that.” 

Britain’s 165,000 charities have, he says, survived the recession surprisingly well. They have an annual income of £64 billion — almost twice the defence budget. “We all expected donations would fall but they’ve kept up pretty well. The public is extraordinarily generous.” 

There are, however, new dangers. The controversial fundraising tactics used by some charities — including the soliciting of donations from dementia sufferers — risks damaging public trust. Several big organisations have cancelled contracts with GoGen, the call-centre company involved, but questions remain. “It’s a real crisis for the charity sector — they are now dealing with it,” Mr Shawcross says. “You cannot farm out fundraising to a commercial firm like GoGen acting in the way they did. It’s awful.” 

He was appalled by the treatment of Olive Cooke, the 92-year-old poppy seller who killed herself after being hounded, although her family stressed that this was not what drove her to suicide. “We all thought that was horrible. I don’t know whether the charities were guilty or culpable but they were certainly responsible.” Although the commission does not regulate fundraising, he would be happy to take over the role if charities cannot sort themselves out. “The plethora of stories of people being deluged by mailings and harassed by endless telephone calls on behalf of charities are intolerable,” he says. “Charities must listen to what people want and, more importantly, do not want.” Chugging — charity mugging of people in the street — does in his view cause offence. “It should be done really discreetly, politely and kindly. There is a dilemma for charities. They have to raise money . . . but they mustn’t be aggressive.” 

As chairman of the body set up to protect and enhance confidence in charities he worries about the large salaries paid to some chiefs. “It’s up to charities to decide how much they pay their chief executive, not us, but in these difficult times they should be aware that that’s something that can affect public trust.” 

Politicisation is another concern. Oxfam was criticised by the commission last year for running an overly partisan campaign. “They published a tweet about the ‘perfect storm’ which listed all the things they didn’t like about government policy. It looked very political and we chased them up on it and they said they wouldn’t do it again.” There are, he says, clear rules about what is and is not allowed. “They are able to campaign politically in pursuit of their own purposes, but they cannot campaign for any political party.” 

He points to the RSPCA, which has faced criticism in recent months. “It is controversial,” he says. “It’s a wonderful organisation that has a great deal of affection but I think it hasn’t been run as well as it should have been in the last few years.” The “zeal for prosecutions” has been unfortunate in some cases, he says, as was the charity’s opposition to the badger cull. The case of the family cat put down by the RSPCA for having matted fur “looked grotesque” to him. 

“The RSPCA sometimes seems to have lost sight of its original purposes to promote kindness and to prevent cruelty to animals. I think kindness is a quality vital to all charitable work.” There are concerns about the management board. “They have elected a whole lot of radical trustees, one of whom said farming is like the Holocaust, which I think, perhaps, isn’t a frightfully good way to run an animal organisation, and another who said it should be illegal to have pets.” 

As the government’s Charities Bill — which gives extra powers to the commission to clamp down on abuse — goes through parliament, peers have already tried to amend it to force private schools to do more to earn their charitable status. Mr Shawcross, an Old Etonian, believes they already do enough. “Most of them do a lot. The ones that can afford it do more and they are right to.” In his view the tax breaks that come with charitable status are entirely justified. “Since the Statute of Elizabeth in 1601, education has been one of the crucial parts of charitable giving and activity in this country and I think schools are very well aware if their duties to give public benefit and most of them try to do so.” 

He is far more worried about charities being used to fund terrorism or promote extremism. Last week the High Court ruled that the Charity Commission would face a judicial review of its decision to urge charities not to fund the campaign group Cage, which has links to Mohammed Emwazi, believed to be “Jihadi John”. 

Mr Shawcross is adamant that charities must be protected from extremists of every kind. “The issue of Islamist abuse of Muslim charities is obviously one of great concern to us,” he says. “It’s not the main form of abuse of charities that we deal with — fraud is — but it is the most potentially deadly form of abuse, obviously, and potentially damaging to the charitable sector generally.” 

The number of formal Charity Commission inquiries into organisations suspected of links with extremism has more than doubled in the past year. A few months ago the chairman met a group of Muslim charity leaders to stress his concern. “I said if there was another atrocity on the streets of London like the murder of Lee Rigby which was in any way associated with a Muslim charity or a mosque that was a charity that would be catastrophic for other charities, and they accepted that. It would be very bad for community relations and in every way awful . We want to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have to be vigilant against that kind of abuse.” 

Under the legislation going through parliament, people convicted of a terrorist offence will be banned from being charity trustees. Peter Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism for the Metropolitan police who investigated the Trojan horse scandal in Birmingham schools has been appointed to the commission board. 

“Syria has changed everything,” Mr Shawcross says. “There are about 200 new British charities operating there . . . it would obviously be a matter of huge concern if money collected off the street was being diverted to terrorist-related causes.” Although there are no current inquiries, he says: “I’m sure money has been diverted and it’s up to us, the police and others to stop it. It’s not easy. 

“Islamism is a huge threat to Muslim society and therefore to our society.” There is also “always a concern” about money coming into the country from extremists abroad. “If we find evidence we act on it. There are ongoing investigations.” 

Some Muslim charities have complained that they are being wrongly singled out by the commission but the chairman is unapologetic. “We are not targeting Muslim charities unfairly or disproportionately in any way whatsoever, nor should we, nor would we. We look at all allegations of abuse in charities, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or whatever . . . Muslims are not victims they are a very important part of the world and the victim culture is completely misplaced.” 

The prime minister’s recent speech on extremism was in his view absolutely right and brave but he worries that budget cuts might put the country at risk. Although the government has given the Charity Commission an extra £8 million to modernise its systems to fight abuses, including terrorism, Mr Shawcross warns that future funding cuts could jeopardise its ability to police the sector properly. “Our budget was cut from £40 million five years ago to £25 million and now it’s £21 million. I’ve told the chancellor we can’t do this work . . . and protect the public against Islamist abuse . . . unless we are adequately funded.” 

If anyone can get the message through to George Osborne he can. His daughter Eleanor is an adviser to the chancellor as well as being married to the Next boss, and Conservative peer, Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise. Some suggest that Mr Shawcross was a political appointment, part of the Tory-fication of the quangos. He insists that he is not a Tory. “I’m not a member of the Conservative party and I never have been. I’m not a member of any party. This is a non-partisan job and it’s really important it should be done in a non-partisan way. People who give to charities are from all across the political spectrum.” 

He believes that charities are an essential social tool, allowing people to take responsibility. He quotes William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state, who said: “The making of a good society depends not on the state but on citizens acting individually or in free association with one another.” It sounds just like the Big Society and Mr Shawcross thinks that David Cameron was on to something with his now-abandoned big idea. “Perhaps the phrase was wrong but the spirit of that concept was absolutely right.” 


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