All charities in Northern Ireland should have to demonstrate that they provide a public benefit, according to Nelson McCausland, the minister for social development in the region.
McCausland said in a statement that he would not support proposals to exempt religious, educational and poverty relief charities from the requirement to prove that they offer the public benefit that is required for charitable status.
In February 2011, the Northern Ireland Executive raised the idea of introducing a presumption of public benefit for religious charities. Later in the year, the executive also suggested charities working for the relief of poverty and the provision of education might also be allowed a presumption of public benefit.
However, McCausland said that he did not support the policy and that his department would draft a Charities (Amendment) Bill that will say all charities should have to demonstrate their public benefit to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland.
Roy McGivern, head of charity policy at the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland, said he expected the new proposals to be introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly by early May, and to receive royal assent in October or November. If this happened, he said, the commission could start accepting applications for charitable status next year.
He said McCausland had made the decision because HM Revenue & Customs officials had said they would expect all charities to show a public benefit, under the Finance Act 2010, in order to grant charitable tax relief.
"If there was a system in Northern Ireland where some charities did not have to demonstrate a public benefit, some form of dual regulation system would have to be developed," said McGivern. "It would be a real problem for HMRC, and the minister has ruled it out. He has decided that there should be a level playing field for all charities."
Denise McCann, governance and charity advice manager at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, said: "This is a very positive development. All charities should be treated fairly and equally."