Analysis: Benevolent funds and the masonic connection

Later this year, the charity tribunal will examine the public benefit provided by charities that help restricted groups of people. Kaye Wiggins looks at the legal issues and, in a related article, David Ainsworth hears how more than 1,200 masonic charities could be affected

A stained glass window in the Freemasons' Hall, London
A stained glass window in the Freemasons' Hall, London

Just weeks after the charity tribunal's landmark hearing on whether private schools provide the public benefit necessary for charitable status, it has revealed plans for another major hearing on a question of charity law.

In November, it will consider whether so-called benevolent funds provide sufficient public benefit, given that their activities relieve poverty only among a group of people who are linked to a particular business, individual or association.

Until the Charities Act 2006 came into force in 2008, such charities benefited from the presumption that all charities that relieved poverty - and those that furthered religion and education - provided public benefit. The act removed that presumption and required all charities to be able to demonstrate that they provide public benefit.

The Charity Commission has received five applications for charitable status from benevolent funds and is unsure about whether the current law allows it to register them. By asking the Attorney-General to refer the matter to the tribunal, it has avoided making the legal judgement itself, which would have left it open to challenge.

If the tribunal rules that it is no longer charitable to relieve poverty among a restricted group, charities that do so might have to use their assets in a different way. By far the largest group that could be affected by the ruling consists of masonic charities (see our related feature). According to the commission, there are 1,368 charities that relieve poverty only among members of an association, of which 1,204 are masonic charities.

Figures from the regulator also show there are 135 charities that exist to relieve poverty among people working for a single employer and 20 that help past or present pupils of a particular school. In 2003, the figures show, there were at least 16 charities for the relief of poverty among the relations of a single person.

Six charities affected by the case have been given permission to be represented at the hearing. They include the Professional Footballers' Association Benevolent Fund, the British Airways Welfare and Benevolent Fund and the National Westminster Staff Foundation. A further 17 groups, including the main masonic organisation, the United Grand Lodge, have been invited to submit written evidence.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA, says he finds it strange that the organisation's benevolent fund will have to justify its work. "You'd think that if players are in an association, it's natural for them to want to help old players who are facing hard times," he says. "Otherwise, everybody would be more reliant on the state. At the moment, they are helping each other."

Taylor says the charity will argue that its work with young players, and the fact that its benefits are not restricted to those employed by a particular club, mean that it provides a sufficient benefit to retain its charitable status. "We hope that with a full explanation of what we do we will be OK," he says. "But if the tribunal says charity can be only for the public more generally, then we will have to look again at how we work."

The chief executive of another large benevolent fund, who asks not to be named, also questions whether the tribunal hearing is necessary. "I don't know why the commission has chosen to upset this particular apple cart, because benevolent charities are giving money to people that need it," he says. "There are plenty of other charities out there whose benefits are much more questionable."

1,368 - The number of charities that exist to relieve poverty only among members of a single association

135 - The number of charities that exist to relieve poverty only among the staff of a single employer

20 - The number of charities that exist to help only past or present pupils of a particular school.

Read our feature on how the masonic charities will be affected

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