The Charity Commission has criticised trustees at Human Aid UK for financial misconduct, at the end of a two-year statutory inquiry.
The regulator opened its investigation after police seized thousands of pounds in cash from charity staff and volunteers as they travelled through Heathrow Airport in 2019. This money was later returned to the charity.
It also investigated Human Aid UK’s relationship with partner organisations overseas, which were suspected of links to terrorism.
Responding to the release of the findings, the charity's trustees accused the Commission of “bias and Islamaphobia” and said the regulator had used its powers to “outsource police and security harassment” of Human Aid UK. The Charity Commission rejects this accusation.
The latest investigation follows an earlier, separate statutory inquiry into Human Aid UK, concluded in 2017, which found that its then trustees had “failed to adequately protect the charity and its assets”.
The Charity Commission opened its statutory inquiry in July 2019, after around £20,000 in cash, in both sterling and dollars, was seized from the charity's director of operations and two volunteers by police at Heathrow.
The staff member told police at the time that the cash belonged to the charity and was intended for use in Gaza, but could not provide a clear account of where it came from or how it would be used, according to the Commission’s inquiry. The individual also told police that the Commission had previously advised him not to courier cash overseas.
The cash was returned to the charity ten months later, following a police investigation.
The incident occurred the day after the Commission conducted an inspection of the charity’s financial records at Human Aid UK’s premises. The regulator said that no one informed them of plans to travel overseas with money the next day.
The Commission concluded: “The decision to allow cash couriering to take place, without the proper documentation to show their provenance, including the failure to brief the charity’s staff sufficiently on their intended use, is evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.
“This finding is compounded by the fact that the Commission has previously engaged with the charity on this issue.”
It was also critical of the charity’s failure to engage more effectively with police, leading to delays in returning the money.
In correspondence related to a draft copy of the report, Human Aid UK asked the Commission to amend references to the way it worked with police, arguing that officers had acknowledged the delays were caused by the bank not by the charity. The Commission declined to amend the findings.
Questions over overseas partners
In April 2019 police shared concerns with the Commission that one of Human Aid UK's oversees partners was linked to the terrorist group Al Qa’ida.
Human Aid UK ceased working with the partner when it became aware of police concerns, but by that time £247,000 had already been transferred to the partner.
The Commission said it was concerned by evidence that Human Aid UK has continued to transfer money to the partner, even after that partner had failed to provide evidence of how it was spending the money.
The regulator said it was “of the view that the then trustees had a serious disregard for, and/or lack of understanding of, the importance of proper financial controls, record keeping and accountability in respect of the charity’s overseas expenditure, as evident from the absence of records to evidence and monitor how the charity’s funds were applied by the [overseas] partner”.
Human Aid UK also requested the removal of the reference to Al Qa'ida, given its potential to “damage the reputation of the charity”, but the Commission included the reference in its inquiry.
Human Aid UK: Regulators powers used to ‘outsource’ harassment
No further action has been taken against the charity. The regulator noted that there have “been improvements in the charity’s governance, and the trustees have shown a willingness to take on board the regulatory advice and guidance provided by the Commission”.
Nur Choudhury, the chair of trustees at Human Aid UK, argued that this was a vindication of the charity, and said that the organisation had been treated unfairly.
Choudhury said: “It appears that the Charity Commission powers have been exploited to outsource police and security service harassment faced by Human Aid UK, which raises the question: Is it a crime to care?
“Additionally, we are not alone in criticism of the Charity Commission's perceived institutional Islamophobia, yet the Commission has ignored our concerns. Currently, Muslim charities are having a hard time trusting the Commission as they feel they are being unfairly targeted.”
Choudhury added that Human Aid UK has offered to facilitate a meeting between the Commission and representatives from Muslim charities to “rebuild trust”.
A Charity Commission spokesperson said the inquiry findings “speak for themselves” and added: “We strongly reject any suggestion of bias in our investigative work. The Commission assesses all concerns raised with us fairly and consistently in line with a published risk framework. The framework explains how we determine whether a concern or issue requires our regulatory involvement, and if so what the appropriate response is.
“We are clear that our investigations do not focus on any religious classification.
“We have asked for more information from the charity about the proposed meeting.”