The law on charity dates back to 1601, with court decisions on whether an organisation is eligible for the legal and tax privileges of charity status resting on analogies with the types of activity listed in the preamble to the Statute of Charitable Uses of that year. In the 19th century a judge categorised charities into four categories (relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion – and the rest!).
In 2005, the Government produced in its Charities Bill a new 13-fold categorisation, with the last still a catch-all “other purposes” group. Over five years of consultations, correspondence and meetings we had argued without success that the heading “advancement of religion” should be extended, in line with the Human Rights Act, to encompass advancement of non-religious beliefs such as Humanism. At present humanist organisations can win charity status only by qualifying under some other head, such as education. Attempts to amend the Bill in Parliament were unsuccessful, and the Charities Act 2006 is now law.
The Act also extended to all charities, including religious ones, the need to be able to demonstrate that they produce “public benefit”. This concept is legally complex and the Charity Commission has been consulting on draft guidance on how it will be applied. We have made substantial submissions on this question and has had meetings at a high level with the Commission, but the resulting guidance remains unsatisfactory, both in seeming to relax the rigour of the law for religious charities and in its definition of what counts as a religion – a definition that anyway under the Human Rights Act should have no place in law. A recent draft of guidance on public benefit and charities based on non-religious beliefs is similar to but more restrictive than the guidance for religious charities and, anyway seems unwarranted given the law’s lack of recognition of such a category of charity. Our submissions and correspondence under this process are available in the Articles and Submissions section on this page.
What we want
Ultimately we want the new law amended to put humanist charities in the same legal position as religious ones.
We have maintained that the Charity Commission should heed the Human Rights Act and treat charities based on non-religious beliefs in the same way as religious ones. It has so far refused to do so but its intentions with the draft guidance about non-religious beliefs are still unclear. The consultation is now closed and we await the outcome.
What you can do
We need to monitor how the law on public benefit is applied to religious charities. If you come across any religious charities which seem to you – after reading the Commission’s guidance – to suggest undue lenience on the part of the Commission, please contact us.
If you are involved in trying to register a humanist charity, do also please contact us.
You can also support the BHA’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to the BHA.