BY MARK GREAVES
THE HEAD of the Charity Commission has sought to reassure the Catholic bishops of England and Wales that new regulations do not pose a threat to Catholic charities.
Some had feared that the regulations, which require charities to report annually on their public benefit, could be used to penalise charities with a religious purpose.
But Dame Suzi Leather, chairman of the Commission, told bishops at their Low Week meeting that “advancing religion” in itself was still recognised as a public benefit.
She said charities had always been defined as working for public benefit but that the new regulation, contained in the Charities Act 2006 – was “a step change in public accountability” that would give people a better understanding of what charities did.
She said: “Providing opportunity to worship, conducting religious services and providing religious instruction are all perfectly capable in themselves of demonstrating public benefit... Put crudely, you don’t have to run a soup kitchen as well as offer Mass.” She also suggested that she would try to steer a balance between the demands of religious organisations and those of secularist lobby groups such as the British Humanist Society.
She said: “There is an old adage along the lines that if you’ve managed to attract accusations of bias from two diametrically opposed viewpoints then you have probably got the balance about right.
“I reminded myself of this when the Humanist Society joined some religious groups to express disappointment over our final public benefit guidance.” Dame Suzi had been invited to address the bishops by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor last year. Catholic schools and dioceses and most religious orders are governed by charity law and are therefore regulated by the Charity Commission.
Eighty-two Catholic charities, including all 19 dioceses of England and Wales, complained to the commission in 2007 over guidelines drafted to explain the new legislation.
They said in a joint submission: “We are concerned that the language used in connection with religious charities in the draft guidance is negative in contrast to that used for other sectors. The only comments about religious charities refer to ‘risk’, ‘public concern’ or benefit which are ‘too vague or intangible’,” they added.
They also said that guidance about “intangible” benefits, such as those of a spiritual or religious nature, was not sufficiently clear. Their submission was given as part of the Charity Commission’s public consultation. All of the guidelines were finally published at the start of this year.
In her address to the bishops last week Dame Suzi said it was crucial for the Charity Commission to respect charities’ independence and not interfere in the running of them.
She also said it was not the commission’s role to judge the value of different charitable purposes.
“Charitable status does not argue the respective merits of animal testing for medical research purposes versus those of animal welfare – it simply acknowledges that, in law, both purposes are capable of being charitable,” she said.
She said the Charity Commission had spent “literally hundreds of hours” preparing guidance on the public benefit requirement.
She said: “Embracing the public benefit reporting requirement really is in the interests of everyone – the public, the commission and charities themselves – in developing and building on the public trust and confidence in charities.” She added: “The advent of the public benefit requirement has seen some types of charities complain they are being singled out, unfairly put in the spotlight, picked upon.
“To which we quietly emphasise that no charity is above the law of the land. Just as much as they must adhere to health and safety legislation and employment law, so every charity must meet the public benefit requirement.” She stressed how important she felt the Catholic Church was in “generating, sustaining and guiding charity” in Britain and across the world, but she also said that “charity law and religious tenets don’t always make the easiest of neighbours”.
She said the commission may have been “over-zealous” in dealing with sex abuse cases related to the Church. “I know some of you feel that our regulatory intervention in allegations of abuse connected with Catholic dioceses was heavy-handed,” she said. “We may well have been overzealous initially, but we did not get the level of co-operation we expected as charity regulator. However, I believe we did work well together in the end.”