Wednesday night's ITV documentary "Charities Behaving Badly" provided a sobering look into the poor management practices of a few charities, and raised harrowing concerns over the contentious and controversial views that they were deemed to propagate. Ahead of the screening, the Charity Commission issued a press release informing that it had opened statutory inquiries into two of of the charities featured on the programme, Global Aid Trust Limited and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (UK), and that it had removed the third one, The Steadfast Trust, from the register of charities.
On social media, a debate erupted around whether it was as usual a negative portrayal of anything related to Muslims or whether 'extremism' was a growing concern that had also infiltrated charities not typically associated with that particular narrative. The most stinging disparagement, however, was directed towards the Charity Commission, with those commenting saying it was not fit for purpose, or that the ITV show was used as a PR stunt to push for the new 'Protection of Charities Bill' to give more powers to the charity regulator.
Playing into the current extremist narrative, out of the ten online print media outlets that covered the story in the aftermath of the broadcast, six focused on the Muslim organisation, four on the Steadfast Trust, and none really looked into Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (UK) in much detail. The ITV programme certainly portrayed itself as balanced given that it looked into three different forms of potential abuse of charities. Yet one cannot say the same of the reporting that resulted from it. The 'Muslim' element seems to be unfortunately always more attractive as I have highlighted in a previous piece.
The reaction from the Charity Commission on these cases was in my eyes exemplary. Not only did it act swiftly to remove a charity that should have never been on their register in the first place but it also was quick to reassure the public on social media and elsewhere that the programme did 'not reflect the vast majority of charities that are properly run by honest trustees'.
As to whether the Charity Commission should be given more powers, we at the Muslim Charities Forum have always argued that it is really about giving the right amount of finances to the regulator, rather than more powers, a point we have reiterated in the written and oral evidence we submitted to the Parliament's Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill. With more funding, we believe that the Charity Commission will be able to dedicate more resources to its frontline operations and effectively monitor 'bad behaviour' in charities.
Yet, one has to recognise that there are extreme circumstances in which the Charity Commission has demonstrated its limitations. For instance, the inquiry into Helping Hands for the Needy related to the misuse of charity funds lasted nearly five years (from August 2010 to January 2015) and highlighted that the powers of the Commission were not adequate as the regulator had to receive support from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to disqualify two trustees as company directors.
Cases of such abuse by extremists in charities are rare, by the Charity Commission's own admission, but when they occur they can have a dramatic impact on public trust in the sector. With this in mind it it important to highlight that in fact charities are actually best placed to tackle extremism because they reach places no government or regulator can reach, and hold far more credibility with the communities they work with. This point was stressed by a recent article in the Washington post that posited the - 'Muslim NGOs can help counter violent extremism' and that they are 'an underutilized resource in the global fight against extremism'.
The ITV programme also brought another important element to the table around the question of what kind of checks need to be done and which regulator needs to be consulted when inviting external speakers. Sadly, aside from the guidance that is given by the Charity Commission in its compliance toolkit, there is currently no signposting service available for this and the definitions around what constitutes "extremism" are vague. This is a matter that needs an immediate solution to ensure charities do not unwittingly invite controversial speakers.
If there is anything that the "Exposure" documentary has shown us, it is that abuse of charities often goes unnoticed by trustees of organisations, which is down to poor management and practices adopted by the charity. Trustees need to improve their understanding of their roles, provide the necessary training for staff to understand the principles and regulations of the sector as a whole, and ultimately take responsibility for any issues that arise- because the buck stops with them.