I have written to William Shawcross, Chairman of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, asking him to take all necessary steps to repair the reputation of the Commission after Professor Gwilliam Prins breached the Cabinet Office’s Code of Conduct for members of public bodies. Prins’ rumbustious, partisan essay attacking the EU and advocating Brexit was a conspicuous, multiple breach of the Code. My letter suggests that Prins is not the right sort of person to be confined by the Code’s requirements of discretion and impartiality.
Prof Prins was the original author of the phrase that charities should stick to their knitting. He has a distinguished academic record, has been a strategic advisor to NATO and the Chief of the Defence Staff, and has been on the Advisory Council of the Henry Jackson Society, of which William Shawcross was a former Board member.
Here is the letter:
“Dear Mr Shawcross,
Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies: Breach by Professor Gwithian Prins
I write to question whether the publication of an anti-EU essay by Professor Prins, and his promotion of its central messages on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, breaches the Cabinet Office’s Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies, as published in June 2011.
Section 3.11 says “You should abstain from all controversial political activity”. Yet the essay makes such obviously controversial statements as: “The EU steadily and increasingly now menaces the peace, wealth and happiness of Europeans”. It disparages the Prime Minister’s attempts to secure reform of the EU, identifying strongly with partisan pro-Brexit MPs, whose contemptuous criticisms of the Prime Minister’s efforts are quoted by Prof Prins with approval. The essay advances the politically charged, controversial view that the European project is broken and we should abandon it unless it is completely transformed.
Section 3.12 says “On matters directly related to the work of the [public] body, you should not make political statements or engage in any other political activity”. Yet views on the EU referendum are directly related to the Commission’s role in giving guidance to the charity sector about its possible participation in the EU referendum debate, and are bound to be controversial in the context of the need for the Commission to be seen to be even handed in that role. Moreover, Professor Prins’ pungent, controversial views in this same essay about human rights are directly related to the Commission’s work because the promotion of human rights is a charitable objective recognised in the 2006 Charities Act and is the main object of a significant part of the charity sector. The essay says that “’Human rights’ have been hijacked by special interest groups…and they need to be rescued from the human rights movement.” “The very concept [of human rights] is slippery and hard to pin down….And when it is played, the ‘human rights’ card can be dangerous and can produce entirely unexpected and undesirable consequences”.
Section 3.14 says that a Board Member should at all times exercise proper discretion in any political activity and inform the Chair before undertaking any significant political activity. The essay does not appear to reflect the required proper discretion because of its partisan and rumbustious content. It would also be reassuring to know that Professor Prins informed you before publishing this essay.
Section 4.1 says “You must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between your public duties and your private interests – financial or otherwise”. Yet Prof Prins’ non-financial private interests in arguing for Brexit (and against the human rights movement) in militant language constitute at least a perceived conflict with the requirement of the Commission to be balanced and even-handed in their dealings with the charity sector on issues such as the EU referendum (and human rights). His trenchant views are bound to give rise to the perception that they may have influenced the Commission’s original guidance on the EU referendum which later had to be adjusted in view of widespread criticisms of its tone and content.
Section 4.2 says that “In matters in which you have a non-financial interest, you should not participate in the discussion or determination of a matter where the interest might suggest a danger of bias.” It seems obvious that the essay might suggest a danger of bias were Prof Prins to be involved in the discussion of appropriate guidance to the charity sector on activity relating to the EU referendum. I should therefore like to ask for assurance that Prof Prins did not participate in the relevant discussion and determination of this piece of Commission work, in line with the Code.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that this was a conspicuous, multiple breach of the Code that should bind all members of a public body such as the Charity Commission. I ask you as Chairman to take all necessary steps to repair and maintain the reputation of the Commission as a public body that adheres to the standards set out in the Code. As part of this, I ask you to consider the possibility that someone like Professor Prins, who makes such a valuable contribution to debate in a democratic society through his very strong opinions on controversial issues allied to high intellectual ability and communication skills, may not be the right sort to be confined by the requirements of impartial service and discretion on a public body.
I am sending a copy of this letter to Rt Hon Matt Hancock, MP, in the Cabinet Office, to Number 10, and to Paula Sussex.
Dr Andrew Purkis, OBE, D.Phil, MA.
[I am a former member of the Charity Commission and of the Parole Board for England and Wales. I have been Chair of four UK charities. My career was as a fast stream civil servant and, from 1980 onwards, in different parts of the charity sector.]