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Charity News Update - New Faith and Social Cohesion Unit and Concern over Public Benefit Test of Christian Charities (revised timetable)

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New Faith & Social Cohesion Unit


The Charity Commission have announced the launch of a dedicated new ‘Faith and Social Cohesion Unit’ to provide support and expert advice to faith-based charities. The unit’s stated aims are to strengthen the governance of faith-based charities, identify and support organisations that could be but are not currently registered as charities and improve the regulator's and society's understanding of faith-based charities and the contribution they make.


The Commission announced that they will be “building on the findings of a two year programme of workshops with representatives from over 800 faith-based organisations across 11 different faiths. Events were held with Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist communities as well as special meetings with the UK's smaller faiths such as Baha'i and Zoroastrianism, and a special multi-faith event for women only.”

It is of great concern to note that over the last 2 years no specific mention at all is made of any consultations with Christian organisations or faith groups apart from in the development of a model governing document for independent evangelical churches in 2004. It is hoped that in all future events and in the composition of the Faith Advisory group the Commission will seek to re-address this balance and correctly represent Christians, bearing in mind that in the last national census about 72% of the population stated their religion as Christian. (See http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=293.)


Details about the Unit on the Commission website show events with feedback from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Charities with no mention of Christianity. It is stated that “The Unit will initially work primarily with Muslim charities and communities. A Project Board including representatives of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) has been established to direct the Unit’s work and to provide specialist advice”. (See http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/tcc/faithsc.asp.)


The focus on primarily Muslim charities ignores the faith based Christian charities and this is an important omission which needs re-addressing, particularly as the new Faith Advisory group will play an important role in advising the Commission on policy and issues affecting all faith based charities, including Christianity.


Links




Public benefit test for Religious Charities


The Charities Act 2006 removed the presumption that religious charities provide a public benefit of the advancement of religion. The Act did not define what public benefit meant and it was left up to the Charity Commission to consult and produce guidance on this. This is important for charities because to obtain and retain charitable status and the tax advantages of gift aid it will be necessary to prove that they provide a public benefit. As a result of this the Charity commission has embarked upon a number of consultations in the area of public benefit. The revised timetable is detailed below.


Revised Timetable for our Public Benefit Consultations:

January 2008

General public benefit guidance for all charities published


January/February 2008

Start of three month consultations on draft supplementary guidance on public benefit for

-Charities for the prevention and relief of poverty

-Charities for the advancement of education

-Charities for the advancement of religion

-Fee-charging charities


Late March 2008

Expected date on which the public benefit provisions in the Charities Act 2006 come into force (sections 1, 2, 3 and 5)


July-December 2008

Supplementary guidance on public benefit published


Late March 2009

Charities will begin reporting on public benefit as part of their annual reports to the Commission from this date



These dates will be reviewed as the work progresses and may vary, for example depending on the volume and nature of responses to further consultations.

First Consultation on the draft public benefit guidance


The first consultation which closed on the 6th of June 2007 was on the over-arching general draft public benefit guidance. The Charity Commission expects to produce this general guidance in January 2008. In the meantime they have produced a descriptive summary of the responses.


Consultation on Draft Public Benefit Guidance – a summary of responses

Of the 922 responses received, 524 responses (57%) of the total were from religious organisations or those with a particular interest in religion. The draft guidance set out 4 key principles of public benefit. Namely an identifiable benefit, benefit must be to the public or a section of the public, people on low incomes must be able to benefit and any private benefit must be incidental. The guidance also explained what was meant by considering public benefit in the light of modern conditions.

In terms of the legal status of the guidance it was pleasing to note that the Commission recognised that” it is not intended to be tantamount to a legal definition of public benefit but seeks simply to set out the common law position”. Great concern was expressed by predominately Christian charities, not only about how they were to meet the public benefit test, but also about the meaning of a new requirement to make decisions “in the light of modern conditions”. The Commission indicated that the need to make decisions in the context of modern social conditions does not imply that beliefs or practices are required to modernise, and promised to clarify their position and expand on this question in the detailed supplementary guidance for religious charities for consultation early next year.


It is of concern to note that it was stated that, ”on the issue of indirect benefits, many responders welcomed our view that it would not be sufficient if the indirect benefit of the relief of public funds were the only benefit, although some legal responders questioned whether there is a basis in law for that position.”

This is of real concern to religious charities as in the past common law in religious cases has indicated that indirect benefits are sufficient, and section 3(3) of the Charities Act 2006 indicates that the concept of public benefit refers to that in existing common law.

It is also worth noting that the Commission intends to update separate guidance to charities by the end of the year to clarify “the latitude which is available to charities in pursuing political campaigns in support of their charitable objects”.


Links

The LCF is encouraging church leaders and trustees of Christian organisations to respond to the consultation on the religious sub sector draft guidance on public benefit, now expected in January/February 2008, to demonstrate the depth of concern amongst Christian charities.

The address for the Charity Commission is Charity Commission Direct, PO Box 1227, Liverpool, L69 3UG or enquiries@charitycommission.gov.uk. The sub sector consultation for religious charities will specify where to send responses when this consultation commences in the New Year.

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