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Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Did Charity Commission play role in creating gagging clause?

This news post is about 8 years old

​Critics round on Charity Commission chair asking him to explain his role in the UK government's recent gagging clause controversy

Pressure is mounting on the chair of England’s Charity Commission after it was alleged he has been supporting the UK government’s controversial gagging clause.

It comes after a freedom of information request revealed William Shawcross instructed a trustee of the commission to meet one of the third sector’s most outspoken critics.

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), an economics thinktank, is author of Sock Puppets – a damning report written in 2012 on how the government apparently funds charities to lobby against it and how this should be stopped.

Emails reveal Shawcross urged commission trustee, Professor Gwythian Prins, to meet with Snowdon to discuss the issue back in 2013.

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

Snowdon’s report was cited as one of the key influences behind the government’s decision last month to implement the new anti-advocacy clause which effectively forbids government departments awarding funds to charities actively campaigning against its policies.

As the IEA itself receives funding from tobacco companies and has taken money from oil giants in the past, critics say Shawcross was attempting to influence trustees to adopt an anti-lobbying stance.

The FoI request reveals email exchanges apparently showing Prins' eagerness to hear Snowdon’s views of charity lobbying.

He wrote: “Dear Mr Snowdon, the chairman of the Charity Commission, upon whose board I shall shortly start to serve, has asked me to talk to you about matters of mutual interest. I shall be happy to do so … this issue is no flash in the pan.”

He then says there are “some things the Charity Commission could do but I think most of the responsibility lies with the government. If you think the commission could do more, I would genuinely love to hear your suggestions.”

Only those who are indifferent to, or ignorant of, the harm it will cause could have constructed such a measure

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, said both Prins and Shawcross had to explain their role – or trust in the commission would be “irreparably damaged”.

“Charity leaders, workers and volunteers will be shocked and alarmed by these revelations,” Bubb said. “The NCVO’s Sir Stuart Etherington described the anti-advocacy clause as crazy. I agree with him. Yet it is clear that Charity Commission board members, directed by the chair, William Shawcross, have been active and complicit in creating it alongside the Institute for Economic Affairs.

"Only those who are indifferent to, or ignorant of, the harm it will cause could have constructed such a measure; that this group appears to include those at the top of the charities regulator is a serious cause for concern.”

A spokesman for the commission denied that it had been “involved in the development” of government policy.

“As part of its duty to be a competent regulator, the Charity Commission, its staff and board members, regularly meet with interested parties who work in the same sector,” he said.

“This includes charities and umbrella bodies across the spectrum. This work is a vital part of being a modern, effective, outward-looking regulator.”