Regulation with Rosie: Religion and public benefit

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on religion and the public benefit test.

I've been really encouraged by the volume of responses to the Charity Commission's public benefit consultation. What has surprised me is the proportion that has come from Christian charities expressing alarm that the public benefit test is effectively secularisation of the register through the back door. Some have even hinted at a government plot to get rid of religious charities.

This alarm is particularly puzzling given that the new descriptions of charitable purposes were listed fairly early in the consultation document - and the advancement of religion came third on the list.

There may also be misunderstanding about the fact that the Charities Act 2006 removes the presumption of public benefit from charities set up to advance education and to relieve poverty, not solely from those set up for the advancement of religion. I can understand why, if trustees of religious charities thought only their charities had this presumption removed, they might feel under siege. I hope this misunderstanding is clarified swiftly.

There are 25,000 charities on the register set up for the purpose of advancing religion. They provide community resources, places of worship, counselling to the bereaved or addicted and help to the homeless. That's a huge amount of charitable activity. The commission has neither the desire nor the remit to change or try to modernise traditional, long-held religious beliefs, and our consultation explicitly said so. The public benefit test isn't about secularism through the back door; it's about demonstrating the good that every charity does.

The benefit delivered by faith-based charities on the register is the very stuff of charity. No regulator in its right mind would want to undo it. And no charity should feel reluctant to tell the world about the good it does.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission.

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