Policy and Politics: Government likely to redefine religion

Stephen Cook

House of Lords pushes for amendments to Charities Bill's definition.

The Government has indicated that it is prepared to change the wording on religion in the Charities Bill, following criticism by members of the House of Lords that the current definition is in breach of human rights legislation.

The concession came in the committee stage of the Charities Bill in the Upper House, when a number of peers argued in favour of amendments seeking to expand the phrase "the advancement of religion" in the Bill's list of charitable purposes.

It follows a debate in the Bill's second reading when Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a leading human rights lawyer, said that the wording potentially discriminated against non-deity faiths and was in breach of human rights law on freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination (Third Sector, 26 January).

Home Office minister Lord Bassam of Brighton told the committee that the Government was interested in considering an amendment from peers adding that "'religion' includes religion based on deistic, multi-deistic or non-deistic premises, belief, revelation or worship."

He recognised that there was uncertainty about the legal position over the charitable status of non-theistic or polytheistic groups, even though many had in the past been accepted as charities by the Charity Commission.

"We agree that this amendment might succeed in encompassing the difficulty," he said. "We would like to give the matter further consideration and we think we can come up with something at report stage."

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton argued that the current law discriminated against many belief systems, including humanism. He said a succession of judgements in the courts defined religion for charitable purposes as the worship of a supreme being. It therefore contravened the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, a number of international conventions and the constitutions of most European countries, all of which require that other belief systems be given equal status to religions.

Lord Wedderburn argued for an amendment to produce a clause reading "the advancement of religion or belief, other than a predominantly political belief".

This was opposed by Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who said it was far too broad and did not contain a workable definition of belief. "It could include, for example, belief in the all-conquering power of Sudbury Wanderers AFC," he added.

Lord Bassam said the Government would also give further thought to an amendment from Lord Goodhart about making clearer arrangements for the fate of the assets of charities which failed the Bill's proposed public benefit test.

Lord Goodhart, himself a lawyer, said: "The problem is more serious than the Government is prepared to recognise. There is not currently a solution to it in this Bill."

KEY POINTS

- One of the 12 'charitable purposes' in the Charities Bill is "the advancement of religion"

- Peers objected that, in its current form, this discriminates against other forms of belief

- The Government is prepared to add a clause clarifying the definition of religion to include non-deity belief systems

- It is also thinking again about the fate of charitable assets.

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