William Shawcross, Chair of the Charity Commission, gave a speech to the National Federation of Women's Institutes.
“Bore da” (Good morning)
“Diolch am eich gwahoddiad” (thank you for your invitation)
In my own native tongue, let me say that as the new Chairman of the Charity Commission, it is a great honour to be here.
Indeed I have been looking forward to this day since you invited me, soon after I became Chairman of the Commission last autumn.
The Charity Commission exists to promote the voluntary impulse in British society, through the proper regulation of charities.
You are members of one of the greatest charities in Britain. A model of what a modern 21st century British charity should be.
So I cannot think of a better place than the NFWI AGM to discuss what charity means and how we may ensure that charitable action continues to be as vital and humane a feature of British life in the coming century as it has been for the last four hundred years.
My personal interest in the work and history of the WI long predates my time at the Commission.
I remember my mother in the early 1950s being involved with the WI in Sussex where we lived and in St Helens where my father was MP.
More recently I took a closer interest in the WI when the Queen did me the huge honour of inviting me to write the official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
As you know, many members of the Royal Family from Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary have been involved with the WI. The Queen Mother served as president of the Sandringham branch for a remarkable 65 years.
In 1954, she gave an especially moving annual address after the East Coast was hit by devastating floods.
She spoke of the help the WI had given those in distress and how encouraged she was to realise that “when disaster strikes, self is forgotten and the uplifting thought ‘love thy neighbour’ is uppermost in people’s minds”.
I think that these words, echoing the Ten Commandments, sum up how she felt about the WI and its ethos. Since her death in 2002, the Queen has chaired the Sandringham WI with equal affection.
I can well understand why both the Queen Mother and the Queen – whose astonishing 60th anniversary of the coronation we celebrate and give thanks for this weekend - have held the WI so dear.
Why? Because the WI also speaks across a turbulent century of our history. The WI had its origins in 1915, early in the Great War, followed by other famous and important charities which are active still, such as the King George’s Fund for Sailors in 1917, the National Council for One Parent Families the following year and the Royal British Legion in 1921.
Its origins in our kingdom are Christian, of course, and that fact remains important for many of us.
But the enduring instinct to care for the needs of strangers is common to the Judaism from which Christianity sprang, as it is basic to Islamic hospitality. Toleration and kindness are basic human values which lie at the heart of the diverse place that is modern Britain, today.
Let us celebrate the fact. Charitable activity is one of the golden threads of British history.
The first charity law – that of Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 – spoke of those areas which are and remain naturally the territory of charities: religion, education, the relief of poverty and the care of the sick.
To these, we have added wider social responsibilities: for the natural world, for scientific research, for animal welfare for example.
Recent legislation, such the 2006 Charities Act, has not changed as much from this approach as some people once thought.
We have over 160,000 charities in Britain today. Their combined income is some £54 billion. But the vast majority are very small: “born at the kitchen table.”
Together they form a rich skein of threads, woven over many generations into “the living tapestry” of our social fabric.
That is a beautiful metaphor taken from Sir William Beveridge’s famous report on welfare, written in the darkest hours of the second world war.
The Beveridge report of 1944 had much more to say about the animating force of charitable action than is often now remembered. It was no simple mandate for the State to step into our lives, as is sometimes thought and suggested.
Beveridge did not see the state replacing charitable action.
Indeed, charities like the WI have been and are so often the Good Samaritans that keep our society decent and caring.
“Our society”. What is society? I think the great eighteenth century politician and thinker Edmund Burke really put his finger on it.
Society is, in his inspiring description, “a contract between the living, the dead and the unborn”. This is no academic theory: it simply describes the facts of humane living.
Burke bequeathed to us another vital insight.
Society, he explained, is formed of institutions that, like great oak-trees, shelter and protect our personal liberties and rights in that proportion to which we accept and execute our responsibilities for others. Thus sheltered and thus protected, these are, in Burke’s exact and useful words, “chartered rights.”
We British do not root our loyalties in allegiance to abstract principles. That has never been our way. We are practical people.
To quote Edmund Burke’s famous description, each of us is first and foremost a member of the ‘little platoon we belong to in society…” which nurtures “the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”
The little platoons: our loyalties to our families, our friends and neighbours which is where our experience of society is formed of flesh and blood and from which grows wider allegiances.
As John Donne put it in his 1624 meditation, twenty three years after the Elizabeth Statute and 160 years before Burke,
‘No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine’
Dear delegates, that is the essence of the voluntary impulse: the same impulse that Sir William Beveridge so much valued and which is in so many ways the antithesis of ‘statism’.
That impulse stems from the milk of human kindness: people helping each other, making friendships, celebrating their diversity and not needing ‘Big Brother’ to tell them what to do – or worse – to do it for them.
The WI is made of thousands of little platoons. That is why it is strong. With deep roots, in the last one hundred years your movement has become, like the Monarchy itself, one of those sheltering, protecting oak-trees in the forest of our national institutions.
The Charity Commission was founded in 1853 to guard the woods, thickets and copses of charities with which, to our great good fortune, our forefathers planted our country thickly from one end to the other.
And we take that role with the utmost seriousness. Of course we, like you, find that to fulfil our role our activities must change to suit the times.
We in the Commission know that evil often tries to subvert the innate generosity of the charitable impulse for terrorist purposes.
We shall redouble our efforts against terrorist subversion of charities. So amongst our new Board members you will notice Peter Clarke, the former head of counter-terrorism at the Met.
We shall also be looking much harder at fraud.
We also have a priority to prevent abuse of vulnerable beneficiaries.
Another area of concern is the politicisation of charities.
Any charity is free to campaign to further its basic aims. But no charity can be exclusively campaigning. We have to draw a line.
And we have to be very careful about registering as a charity any group which exists to promote one social, scientific or party political view, or which seeks to prevent opposing views. They should have a high hurdle to surmount.
This is vital but hard work.
For the Commission is under extreme pressure from severe budgetary cuts and simultaneously increasing work-load.
Our budget has been cut by 50% in the last decade, and like other government agencies, we face another ten per cent cut now.
I pay tribute to our staff who, under the leadership of our CEO, Sam Younger, have regrouped and streamlined our operation so that we may continue and indeed strengthen our core duties to the public, regulating the 162,000 charities of England and Wales. We register 30 more each day: 5,000 in a year.
I know times are very hard and all government has to be cut back. But, as I have told the Treasury, there will come a point below which we cannot regulate effectively.
But let me return to you, the WI. You have done so much to change our society for the better.
Not only by your patriotism and by your faith, present from the outset when the WI sustained the Home Front in wartime, both materially and spiritually.
Not only by inspiring women and by being inspiring women. In the WI Handbook for 1953-54, we read that
“Women’s Institutes have led [members] to realise their power.”
How true - then as now.
You had then and you have now a comprehensive view of the needs and challenges facing women, men and children in your communities.
The resolutions you are discussing today, and the campaigns that you support – from saving local libraries to improving food labelling –declare this.
They demonstrate your very practical commitment to the community. People are beginning to remember how important local community cohesion is.
Your figures show this. Last year, over 22 thousand women joined the WI. A remarkable 144 new branches opened.
What does this tell us?
Above all, I believe it tells us that the WI today fulfils a felt need.
And furthermore, it tells us that you have – as you always have – quietly adapted your form while remaining faithful to your guiding principles.
I wish especially to pay tribute to the splendid inclusivity that I see here today.
It is the very antithesis of one of the tendencies in society that I most regret and fear.
I refer to the way that the noble goal of equality has been turned into a tyrannous dogma that suppresses diversity.
Madam Chairman, I am sure that we here all agree that the nobility lies in the search to provide everyone with equality of opportunity.
In the Commission, I am heartened to learn of charities large and small that seek bursaries for poor children to attend the finest schools, in this country and abroad.
I learned recently of the Waterford School Trust, which since 1963 has enabled children from war-zones, from townships, from despotic regimes, to attend the most successful multiracial school in sub-Saharan Africa, where the children of Nelson Mandela and other great South Africans also once went.
That is what creates life-chances, one young African at a time in the case of that school.
That is what puts children on the ladder to reach for the stars.
But equality of opportunity should not mutate into imposed equality of outcome, which is a totally different thing: setting quotas. Ticking boxes. Penalising ambition.
That is too often coupled to intrusive so-called ‘political correctness’ which has made people fearful of expressing their views - and angry because of it - as well as mangling the beauty of the English language.
The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, wrote a lucid and wise book not long ago entitled “The Dignity of Difference”. The WI understands and follows that principle.
At the Commission I hope we work with you closely, as with the other great charities that embody the spirit of Britain. In the words of your great anthem, we will not cease from mental fight, nor shall our swords sleep in our hands.
Madam Chairman, “Diolch yn fawr” (thank you very much) for the great honour of being here with you today. “Diolch am eich grandawiad” (thank you for listening).