Saturday, November 17, 2012

Inquiry into Charities Commission: Public Benefit and the gospel

A Parliamentary Committee is currently looking into the working of the 2006 Charities Act, and specifically the work of the Charities Commission. This has been ongoing for several months, but hit the headlines earlier this week after evidence from the Plymouth Brethren was published. 

Here's some of it:
the Commission recently refused to register the Preston Down Trust (the Trust), a Plymouth Brethren gospel hall, as a charity. The decision stands to have wider ramifications; out of the blue, the gospel halls, including registered charities, are suddenly facing an uncertain future. The decision arises directly from the Act (and the Commission’s interpretation of it).

10 The decision was the more surprising as it came without warning. For over a year the Commission had been considering a reference to the tribunal to help it interpret the law regarding the Trust’s status. Then, without notice or consultation, the Trust was informed that the Commission had decided not to refer the matter and had refused registration. There was no offer of dialogue with the Commission; the Trust was given no opportunity to respond other than to appeal to the tribunal.

11 This volte-face raises serious concerns over the way the Commission administers its statutory functions and objectives. Does it now see it as its duty to drive to the tribunal any question of public benefit which, following the Act, it (perhaps alone) perceives to be in doubt, for hard won clarification at charities’ expense?

the rest is here, starting at p100. The point at issue is whether the church satisfies the 'public benefit' criterion for charitable status. This is despite earlier assurances about the Act that there'd be no problem for faith groups with this. The Brethren are now having to use the courts to appeal the decision, so some money that could have been used for the public benefit is being spent on court fees. 

There's also the question of tactics: it's no accident that the National Secular Society picked a relatively small and poorly resourced council to begin its legal campaign against local council prayers. The Charity Commission appears to have done the same:

Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chairman of the committee, said that the commission appeared to have picked out the brethren as a test case to find out exactly what was covered by the public benefit laws.
Jenkin said he felt that this method of establishing exactly what the law meant was not satisfactory.
"Picking a relatively vulnerable organisation and putting you through huge time and expense is a rotten way to decide what charity law means," he said

The 2006 Act left up to the Charity Commissioners what 'for the public benefit' means, and removed a presumption that this covered religious activity, along with assurances that it wouldn't really have much effect. I must admit that the more 'closed' Christian groups like the Brethren night find it harder to demonstrate public benefit than most other churches. Scientology has previously been refused charity status because, as a cult, it didn't have a sufficiently public element, and I'm sure Mr Qatada's advancement of Islam has no public benefit element either. 

MPs on the parliamentary group are claiming that this is the thin end of the wedge, and asking whether the Charity Commissioners have an agenda that will end up with all churches being excluded from charitable status. The Commissioners have certainly left the door wide open to extending their judgement against the Brethren to other churches. 

I've recently been involved in setting up a couple of local Christian charities, and there's a requirement to prove 'advancement of religion for the public benefit', i.e. to show how your form of Christian mission and service is going to help people beyond the church. I think its probably good for us to have to think about in what ways the gospel and the church is 'for the public benefit', and we only have to read our history to know that, whilst Jesus is always for public benefit, the same can't always be said of his followers. 

It's good that the Charities Commission is being held to account over this, but if it makes the church look to its laurels too, then that's not a bad thing. 

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