CHARITY LAW REFORM: Amnesty to seek charity status

Campaigning organisations such as Amnesty International UK and the World Development Movement are set to apply for full charitable status following last week's Government endorsement of a new definition of charity.

Responding to last year's Strategy Unit report on charity law and regulation, voluntary sector minister Fiona Mactaggart said that the Government was committed to legislate to introduce 12 charitable purposes.

They include social and community advancement, the promotion of human rights, environmental protection and a catch-all category of "other purposes beneficial to the community".

The Government's plans, set out in the document Charities and Not-for-profits: A Modern Legal Framework, also include a relaxation of guidelines on campaigning by charities to make them "less cautionary" and to emphasise the non-party political activities that charities can undertake.

Amnesty International UK and the World Development Movement will seize on the new framework to apply for charitable status but want to retain non-charitable arms to ensure they have the freedom to campaign in any way they want to.

Melvyn Coleman, finance director at Amnesty, said he was "absolutely delighted" with the Government's announcement, which promises to end the human rights organisation's long-running state of legal limbo.

The Charity Commission classified the promotion of human rights as a charitable purpose last year but this only applies to organisations that campaign in countries that have enshrined international human rights in their legal systems. This means that Amnesty campaigns in Britain are charitable but not in Saudi Arabia.

"It is a nightmare situation, which requires us to check the state of law in every country we campaign in," said Coleman. "It is unworkable for an organisation that campaigns across the world."

Amnesty has a charitable trust that carries out research, education and campaigns against torture, which is permissible because torture is illegal worldwide. But other campaigns, such as those against the death penalty, must be carried out by the main organisation, which is not a charity.

But Coleman is confident that the Government will introduce a broader definition of human rights.

"If the Charity Commission doesn't feel it can go further, we want a clearer definition in the charities bill. We want a statement that human rights is charitable wherever you do it," said Coleman.

Amnesty estimates charitable status to be worth £3 million a year in tax breaks and wider access to funding.

World Development Movement director Barry Coates said the organisation would consider applying for charitable status and then creating a separate organisation for non-charitable work such as some demonstrations and campaigns.

The organisation funds research and education through the World Development Movement Trust, a registered charity, but its other activities are carried out by the larger, non-charitable organisation.

"If we do get a coherent change to charity law, we could put more of our activities, into the charitable category," said Coates. "But some would be borderline - we want to ensure we can campaign without interference."

- See Finance, p9 and Editorial, p17.

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