In the last round-up we noted that on 12 September The Telegraph carried a report by Andrew Gilligan about a leaked draft of the Home Office’s new counter-extremism strategy; the report suggested that the Government would set up a “national register of faith leaders” and require them to undergo government-specified training and security checks in order to work with the public sector, including universities. The report said that the strategy would “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and that the Government would “set out the minimum level of training and checks” that faith leaders would have to demonstrate in order to join the new register.
It was a leak; and the trouble with leaked documents is that Governments of all political persuasions – very properly – do not normally comment on their content. Hard on its heels, however, came a further report by Andrew Gilligan on Saturday that a leaked draft of the strategy (whether the same one or a later version is not clear) says that the new powers under the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill that will enable the Charity Commission for England and Wales to remove trustees will be used far more widely than previously expected. According to the report in The Telegraph:
“… the leaked counter-extremism strategy, due to be published this autumn, states that ‘once the legislation is enacted, the Charity Commission will take action against all trustees who meet the definition of extremism set out in this document.’ The strategy document defines extremism as ‘the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.”
Gilligan goes on to report that a spokesman for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations expressed support for powers to tackle extremism but was concerned at how widely the measures could be interpreted. He noted that, though the Charity Commission had declined to comment, its Chair, William Shawcross, had said previously that Islamist extremism was the “most deadly” problem that charities faced. The Charity Commission again declined to comment.
There is clearly a problem here. No-one would want to see trustees using a charity as vehicle for some kind of personal vendetta; and to do so could hardly be within the objects of the charity in any case – the conduct of vendettas not being a charitable purpose listed in s 3 of the Charities Act 2011. Equally, however, as Baroness Barker (LD) pointed out at second reading of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill in the Lords,
“as the power is drawn at the moment, and given the references to the counterterrorism legislation and the potential chilling effect that it may have on people who work within Islamic charities and are perfectly upright individuals, we need to exercise real caution…” [c807].
Lord Hope of Craighead, who chaired the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, warned the House that we needed to think very carefully
“… about the way that legislation designed to counter terrorism may inhibit the work of charities operating abroad in areas controlled by organisations that are on the proscribed list. We heard evidence—I found it very compelling, as did others on my committee—from the Muslim Charities Forum about the problems these charities face in getting aid through in view of the risk of arrest and prosecution that their workers face when they return home … We say in our report that we realise that this Bill is not the right vehicle for revisiting legislation about combating terrorism generally. However, here is a very serious issue that we should not lose sight of if we are to retain the support in the battle against terrorism of all sections of our community, including those charities I mentioned whose work is much to be commended in the field of dealing with Muslim people in our country.” [c810].
One would hope that no-one would support vocal or active opposition to “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”; but precisely what constitutes such opposition is, to some extent at least, a matter of judgment. And it’s not always going to be an easy judgment to make. Are the regular (and often ill-founded) complaints about decisions taken by “unelected European judges” and calls for withdrawal from the ECHR “vocal or active opposition” to the rule of law? In my book they certainly don’t sound much like support for the rule of law; but a considerable body of responsible opinion would totally disagree with me and adduce entirely cogent reasons for their disagreement.
Only time will tell and, in any case, the Commons has not yet started considering the Bill; but while there is clearly a problem, I cannot help wondering whether an overworked, underfunded Charity Commission is the most appropriate body to make such judgments.