Clive Stafford Smith Interview

51 year-old human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith is founder of Reprieve (, a charity that works on behalf of prisoners imprisoned illegally or facing the death penalty. He is a 2010 winner of a Beacon Prize, awarded by the Beacon Charitable Trust.

(photo Ian Robins)

Clive Stafford Smith  credited to Ian RobinsWhich cause do you feel most passionately about?

Difficult philanthropy. As well as Reprieve, there are a groups like the American Civil Liberties Union who work for people I don’t particularly like – the ACLU represents the Klu Klux Klan’s right to free speech. When we start trampling on the rights of these unpopular people, everyone loses. Liberty is eroded at the margins. A good example is when Margaret Thatcher eliminated the right to remain silent for Northern Irish people. No one complained then, but within a few years she did it for everyone else. In the case of freedom of speech, the only answer to bad ideas is better ideas, not censorship.
What percentage of income should we give to charity?

People should find ways to spend their lives doing charitable work. It’s also interesting that our stereotypes of British generousness are wrong. Per capita, the most generous donors are the Scots, while Londoners are meanest.
What do you get out of your giving?

It’s self-evident that if we all treat each other pleasantly, the world will be a much happier place. What I do is not sackcloth and ashes though. It’s vastly more fun and entertaining than 99% of occupations.
Is charity a replacement for ineffective government provision?

Government should nationalize charity. The idea that we should foist government responsibilities onto charities is 17th century thinking. Having said that, charities taking on government roles makes more sense than recent privatisation policy. Mostly we privatise to give corporate welfare to for-profit companies. It would make more sense to privatise certain aspects of society to non-profit charities where people are paid limited salaries and money goes to people who need help.
Should we send aid to countries with corrupt governments?

Yes. Take Afghanistan or Iraq. If we had spent one hundredth of the money sending aid to those countries instead of bombing them, we would have achieved our goals without anyone getting killed.
Why start a charity for the perpetrators of crime, rather than its victims?

There are, I’m glad to say, lots of charities for the victims, most notably the government. However, my lifelong interest is getting between the most hated people and haters.
Is it acceptable for the head of a charity to be on a £100,000 plus salary?

It’s disgusting for anyone doing charitable work to be paid that sort of money. Reprieve tries to pay its employees the average income for where we operate, and the disparity is not more than 30 percent between highest and lowest paid. That’s how it should be, in charity and the public sector. [Director of the BBC] Mark Thompson’s taxi bill last year was greater than my salary. And there’s a tube stop right outside the BBC. That’s wrong.