The Charity Commission lacks a clear understanding of charity law and needs to produce clearer guidance for religious groups that want to register as charities, according to a religious group that has had a four-year battle with the commission over its registration.
The Druid Network, which promotes the practice and understanding of Druidry, has made the call in a written submission to the Public Administration Select Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the implementation of the Charities Act 2006.
The Druid Network gained charitable status in September 2010 after initially having its application rejected in March 2006 on the grounds that Druidry was not sufficiently open to the public.
Phil Ryder, chair of the network, said in the submission he watched a recording of the PASC evidence hearing in December when the commission’s chief executive, Sam Younger, and its chair, William Shawcross, gave evidence and the case of the Druid Network was discussed. He said he was "very surprised by the lack of understanding of charity law" displayed by both Charity Commission representatives and PASC members and by "the poor way in which the questions were answered".
Ryder said in the submission: "It is important to keep in mind that it is not religions that are registered but the individual organisation whose objects are to advance religion for the benefit of the public. To be clear, ‘the Druids’ were not granted registration: it was the Druid Network, an individual organisation that was granted registration as a body that advances religion for the benefit of the public."
Ryder described the network’s experience of registering with the commission as "very frustrating and time-consuming". He said that "every time we made a submission we thought perfectly clear, it was met with further questions that demonstrated further misunderstanding".
Ryder said that more accessible guidance was required for groups applying to register with the commission. He said that existing charity law was "hard to decipher" for people who have had no legal training and that much of the guidance was "more confusing than helpful" and appeared to be "written by lawyers for lawyers".
He also called on the commission to consider creating a step-by-step guide or tick-box form so that applicants can see what is required of them and whether they have met the criteria.
It should also consider providing applicants with access to mentors who have understanding of both the law and religions, he said. "In this way we may not end up with disgruntled applicants who have not met the criteria or who have not provided sufficient information or evidence," he said.
But he added that the Charity Commission found itself in a difficult position because the Charities Act 2006 failed to define religion and that "even academics and theologians can't agree on a clear definition".
A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: ''We aim to keep the registration process straightforward, providing clear guidance up front and rejecting applications that do not meet the requirements, rather than spending time working with them to refine their applications. Registration continues to be a robust test of an organisation's charitable purposes and ability to comply with the requirements of being a charity.''