The Charity Commission has a new chairman, the author and journalist William Shawcross. He is not afraid of controversy, which is good because he needs to take on quickly a highly controversial task — deciding what it means to be a charity.
A would-be charity must establish that it is providing some kind of 'public benefit'. That is the key criterion, but two successive governments have bottled out of the task of defining it. The Labour government missed the opportunity when it modernised charity law in the Charities Act of 2006. The coalition government asked a Conservative peer, Lord Hodgson, to review charity law and its operation: it was very happy to accept his recommendation to continue to abandon responsibility for defining 'public benefit' to the unelected Charity Commission and the courts.
As a result of this double abdication, our country now has 13 broad categories of objectives which are recognised as providing public benefit and can therefore constitute charitable purposes. None of these have received any detailed debate in parliament and number 13 is a catch-all: "Other purposes currently recognised as charitable and any new charitable purposes which are similar to another charitable purpose."
These categories are important as a statement of public policy because being a registered charity makes an organisation eligible for Gift Aid. Through this relief, an organisation's taxpaying supporters can effectively divert some of their taxes away from general revenue towards their favourite donkey sanctuary (or other chosen cause). The resulting shortfall in general revenue either has to be made up by other taxpayers or else contributes a little more to the budget deficit. The total value of gift aid in the last financial year was estimated (in recent research by the Halifax bank) to be £3.8 billion. That is probably pocket change to the current chancellor, but it would still buy a lot of doctors and nurses, or teachers, or police officers, and all taxpayers have the right to be certain that this money is going to organisations which add some benefit to our country or the world.
Most taxpayers would be happy enough with Gift Aid for the donkey sanctuary. The world is a better place if donkeys get a chance to rest and recover after enduring heavy labour or cruelty. Most of the Commission's 13 charitable categories are uncontentious — except one, "the advancement of religion".
All religions are belief systems. It is not self-evident that society benefits if it contains more people who hold any particular set of beliefs. Why is it reasonable for taxpayers, through gift aid, to subsidise attempts to convert them to beliefs which they might regard as immoral or obnoxious? What matters to society is the behaviours which are inspired by belief. Religion is capable of inspiring acts of charity, altruism and respect for other people, but it is equally capable of inspiring intolerance for other people, cruelty and violence.
The Commission therefore faces two tests in deciding whether an organisation should enjoy the privileges of charitable status for the advancement of religion. The first is whether its beliefs and practices constitute a religion at all. The Commission has produced a fair amount of guidance on this. The second is whether those beliefs and practices are beneficial to current society. Here the Commission has been very reluctant to tread. Its guidance is limited and opaque. It has said that religious groups which promote hatred or violence, or have any other unlawful purpose, cannot be charitable but that does not take us terribly far. Many religious organisations have beliefs and practices which are perfectly lawful but which confer no recognizable benefit to anyone and could even be regarded as harmful to current society. No organisation has yet been disqualified on those grounds by the Commission.
Government and parliament should sort these issues out, but they clearly lack the nerve to do this and taxpayers are dependent on Mr Shawcross to come up with sensible answers.
To help him and the Commission in their task I suggest the following ten reasons for judging that any religious organization fails to provide a public benefit and should therefore be excluded from charitable status:
1) seeking or demanding money, free labour or any valuable consideration as a condition of participation in worship, or the acquisition of religious or spiritual status in this life or any future life, or with the promise or threat of any form of supernatural intervention or judgement in this life or any future life;
Any such demand verges on extortion, particularly when applied to poor and vulnerable people. Any religion seeking to benefit from charitable status should be open to all those who believe in its doctrines, whether or not they contribute to its coffers. Many faith groups enjoin their members to contribute to charity, for example through tithing, but the members should be free to contribute to the registered charity of their choice, rather than exclusively to the church in question. Such a ruling would not disqualify organisations which provide religious education and give qualifications in it;
2) seeking or demanding money in exchange for seeking supernatural intervention on behalf of any person;
This is another common means of exploitation of poor or vulnerable people.
3) any doctrine which, although lawful, is likely to encourage prejudice against any section of the community or against non-believers;
4) without prejudice to the generality of 3) any doctrine which displays or is likely to encourage any form of discrimination against girls and women or against gay people, and any form of encouragement to gay people of any age to suppress or amend their sexuality;
5) discouraging any adherent from marrying outside the religion in question (other than by denying recognition for such a marriage);
6) encouraging adherents to employ only other adherents or to conduct commercial relations with them only;
7) encouraging adherents to deny themselves or their children the full benefits of any publicly funded education or health care;
8) suppressing or distorting currently accepted knowledge on any topic to promote any religious doctrine, and teaching to children any matter in any manner or in any context which would be prohibited to providers of any publicly funded education
(for example, teaching Creationism as science);
9) applying or attempting to apply any kind of financial or social sanction against adherents who depart from the faith or fail to observe its obligations;
10) demanding any form of conduct or observance which makes it difficult or impossible for adherents (particularly children) to take part in lawful activities which are commonly enjoyed in British society, and punishing or attempting to punish adherents for failing to comply with such a demand, particularly by putting them in fear of supernatural disfavour.
None of these rulings would prevent any religious organisation from advocating a particular belief or maintaining any particular practice or observance. They would simply ensure that it cannot claim the tax and other privileges of charitable status for doing or saying things which offer no value to British society or the world's.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist and former adviser to Denis Healey. His pamphlet "Hi! My Name's Richard And I'm NOT A Mormon" is available now