British Charity Envoy to Pakistan: ‘Royal Commission on Community Leadership could heal community relations and fight extremism’ – Sir Stephen Bubb

Published: Thursday 26 March 2015 - 16:00

Political party leaders urged to meet with Muslim charity sector to discuss ‘serious flaws’ in UK legal and financial regulation and in approach to tackling extremism

Special Press Conference today follows Pakistan Mission to examine work of British Muslim charities on the ground 

At a special press conference today in Central London, ACEVO CEO Sir Stephen Bubb, head of a returning British charity mission to Pakistan will argue that that Britain’s current approach to the Islamic charity sector is stifling charities’ potential to help in the battle against violent extremism.

The press conference follows Sir Stephen’s return from a mission organised at the invitation of the Muslim Charities Forum, the first visit of its kind by a leading British leading charity representative, to investigate humanitarian projects on the ground in Pakistan and to understand some of the barriers to good practice.

Following the trip Sir Stephen Bubb wrote to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to warn that the UK’s current approach to financial and legal regulation of Islamic charities is not working. As the bank accounts of several Islamic charities have frozen and difficulties of perception of the sector continue, the charities regulator, the Charity Commission, has been accused of adopting an ‘unbalanced’ approach in its dealings with Islamic charities, which Sir Stephen labels ‘regrettable.’

In his letters Sir Stephen urges the leaders of political parties meet with him and a delegation of Islamic charities to tackle these issues at source. This summit will discuss:
- Garnering a cross-party commitment to recognise the challenges for charities operating in warzones and areas of strategic national interest and to review procedures and regulations with regard to these charities
- Convening a summit of major banks to review and reform their lending processes for charities operating in such situations
- Encouraging the Charity Commission to commit to improving its processes as an adviser and supporter of charities working in such situations.
- Recognising the role faith charities’ role in promoting community leadership and combating radicalisation and extremism and a commitment to ongoing dialogue with these charities
- Identifying specific exceptions to existing regulations to alleviate the difficulties for charities operating in such areas
- Forming a Royal Commission on Community Leadership, as called for in ACEVO’s 2015 General Election Manifesto, to promote social leadership across different geographical and faith communities across the UK (and overseas).

Commenting Sir Stephen said:

“We cannot have an internationally cooperative future without caring about the work of civil society – charities and campaign groups – on the ground around the world. The mission I led to Pakistan was pathbreaking and I hope it will be the first of many.

“Britain needs to fight terrorism with both hands – not with one hand tied behind our back. We need high level strategic security measures but also better understanding of the conditions on the ground that breed or alleviate the threat of extremism. There are serious flaws in our current approach.

“This depends upon sensible, credible, proportionate regulation and a common approach to issues like financial management and banking. I want to see action from all the major political parties, for them to meet with me and a delegation of international charities to discuss these issues, and to agree an agenda for the new government as a commitment to the fight against terrorism.

“I have witnessed first hand the difficulties faced by organisations in Pakistan fighting the same battle that we are: for security, for a better way of life and for a better future for our children.”

ENDS

Sir Stephen Bubb is available for interviews on Thursday 26 and Friday 27 March.

Notes to Editors

1. Press conference details: Sir Stephen will hold the conference in Central London, speaking alongside:
- Jehangir Malik OBE (CEO of Islamic Relief UK)
- Dr. Othman Moqbel (CEO of Human Appeal)
Location: The Initiatives of Change Centre, 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD [5 mins walk from Victoria Station]
Time: 15:30 – 17:00, Thursday 26 March 2015
Media Contact: George Bangham, george.bangham@acevo.org.uk or 07825894716

2. Sir Stephen’s trip was billed as a mission for ‘civil society diplomacy’. As the UK’s highest-profile third sector leader Sir Stephen’s remit and the remit of the mission was to:
- See first-hand the work of Muslim humanitarian charities on the ground around Pakistan;
- Learn about the barriers to operation for humanitarian charities working in difficult environments;
- Learn the lessons for policy and regulation in how we work with such charities to secure better humanitarian and national security outcomes.

3. Sir Stephen has long spoken out in support of faith charities facing pressure from the prevailing anti-extremism and anti-terrorism agenda around Westminster. His initiative has in turn drawn widespread private messages of support from across UK civil society.

A report published on 5 March 2015 by think-tank the Overseas Development Institute, titled UK humanitarian aid in the age of counter-terrorism: perceptions and reality, drew attention to two major barriers for humanitarian charities working in difficult conditions overseas. Sir Stephen welcomed the report at the time.
The report’s top lines were:
- UK and USA Government regulation prevents or adds to the bureaucratic load of work in conflict zones
- Banking regulation activates asset-freezing procedures when charities interact with powerbrokers on the ground which may be proscribed terrorist organisations.

In late February the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill published their final report, which highlighted the serious challenges for charities delivering humanitarian aid in unstable states like Syria and Somalia. The report ‘examines the concerns raised about the impact of anti-terrorism legislation on the charity sector and recommends that the Government brings forward new legislation to ensure that genuine humanitarian efforts in conflict zones are not hindered by the ‘chilling effect’ of laws designed to counter terrorism’.

4. The full text of Sir Stephen Bubb’s letter to party leaders reads:

Dear PARTY LEADER,

There have recently been several questions raised about the activities of Islamic charities. I have just returned from Pakistan where I led the first international civil society mission to investigate the working conditions of British Islamic charities on the ground. The visit was organised at the invitation of the Muslim Charities Forum, to investigate humanitarian projects in action on the ground and to understand some of the barriers to good practice. This mission yielded significant learning that will be crucial in the ongoing fight against terrorism and the battle for national security in this country, and it is to take action on that information that I am writing to you today.

While in Pakistan I saw first hand the work of international charitable organisations like Islamic Relief, Human Appeal and Muslim Aid, in their administration and on the ground. Their method is not only to alleviate poverty but help change the system for the longer term. I saw these charities working with smaller community groups determined to develop the economic and social conditions and to build community leadership. They battled extremist and poisonous ideologies in the name of the common good. They identified strong women leaders who not only provided important care and support but engaged in campaigns and created change. One such leader in Islamabad led the prayers while I was there, a welcome first in this particular community.

The conditions in which these charities operate are fraught with difficulty and danger. In some cases, they have to work around war lords, corrupt officials and any number of prejudices.

I believe we should be helping these organisations to do their important work, not getting in their way. If we are to succeed in the battle against terrorism Britain needs to fight with both hands: both at the top level, with government work informed by intelligence, and also on the ground, in communities. This is where charities are making a difference, should be making even more of a difference – and can do so better with your help.

Our charities face two major barriers. You will have heard reports that several Islamic charities have had their bank accounts frozen. This action is rarely productive. The regulatory net may have caught some bad apples but it has also caught many important organisations doing important, community building activity. When such organisations are forced to use cash instead of international banks, the potential for corruption multiplies.

Secondly, we must recognise that an over-zealous approach by regulators has exacerbated the difficulties charities already experience from restrictions on their bank accounts. The Charity Commission, in particular, has found itself at loggerheads many of the organisations it regulates. Regrettably, they are perceived by parts of the charity sector to be biased in their investigatory priorities – and a perception of bias here can be as corrosive as actual bias. We do not wish to foster an ‘us and them’ mentality when it comes to national security, as the Islamic charity sector are very much ‘us.’ They are on the right side of a better collective future for us all.

I believe the work of our country’s faith charities needs to be recognised, celebrated and assisted. A major plank of the national security agenda going forward must be to review and reform our approach to these important issues in light of the positive impact of the work of Islamic charities. At a time of multiplying security threats at home and abroad, the need for good people to come together to build a consensus about the good has never been clearer. It is our role as political and civil society leaders to establish the framework in which dialogue can take place and in which the impact of good deeds can be multiplied.

As such, I would like you to commit to meeting with me and a delegation from the Muslim Charities Forum to discuss these important issues. At this meeting I would like us to discuss:

- A commitment from your party to recognising the challenges for charities operating in warzones and areas of strategic national interest and to review procedures and regulations for these charities.
- How we encourage and convene a summit of major banks to review and reform their lending processes for charities operating in such situations.
- How we encourage the Charity Commission to commit to improving its processes as an adviser and supporter of charities working in such situations.
- A commitment from your party to recognise the role faith charities’ play in promoting community leadership and combating radicalisation and extremism, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue with these charities.
- A commitment to identify specific exceptions to existing regulations to alleviate the difficulties for charities operating in such areas.
- And, most importantly, a commitment to form a Royal Commission on Community Leadership, as called for in ACEVO’s ‘Free Society’ 2015 General Election Manifesto, to promote social leadership across different geographical and faith communities across the UK (and overseas). This Commission will draw on all sections of the community, faith groups, voluntary organisations, councils and the police. It will look at how we can tackle extremist ideology by using community leaders and charities, trusted bodies who work in communities on the ground and in particular with the strong and vibrant British Muslim community.

The success of the international effort against extremism and terrorism depends upon policy, regulation and political leadership. I have witnessed first hand the difficulties faced by organisations in Pakistan fighting the same battle that we are: for security, a better way of life and a future for our children. And we should all be proud of our nation’s charitable sector, diverse and independent as it is, which has offered a seedbed for these organisations and these good works that can in turn help us build a better future together.

I look forward to receiving your reply as soon as possible, and to having your support in using the power and vibrancy of our civil society to play the crucial role it must in the battle against terrorism.

Your sincerely,
Sir Stephen Bubb