Faith groups wary of benefit test

Some religious organisations fear that evangelising, proselytising and missionary activities might not be deemed charitable under the new public benefit test, a Charity Commission consultation has revealed.

Almost 60 per cent of the 922 responses to the 12-week consultation on the commission's draft guidance on the public benefit test came from faith-based organisations.

A report summarising the responses says that many religious organisations fear that their traditional beliefs "may be considered to be at odds with secular thinking and values".

In the past, it was assumed that organisations working to advance religion provided public benefit. Under the Charities Act 2006, however, all charities will need to show an identifiable public benefit. Many of the religious groups that responded to the consultation were worried that they would find it difficult to provide tangible proof of their public benefit and that activities such as evangelising would no longer be regarded as inherently beneficial to society.

A spokeswoman for the commission told Third Sector that the regulator did not intend to penalise religious charities. She said: "We have been clear we have no power or desire to secularise the register and that religious charities will be expected to do as much, but certainly no more, than any other types of charity when it comes to demonstrating the benefit they provide to the public."

The other main topic raised in responses to the consultation was the public benefit of fee-charging charities and, in particular, independent schools. The public benefit test says that people on low incomes must be able to benefit, which raises the possibility that fees could be a barrier. Many organisations asked for clarification on what 'low income' meant, often saying they preferred the term 'the poor'.

The publication of general guidance on public benefit, which was due to be released in October, has been postponed until January, partly because of the large numbers of responses to the consultation (Third Sector, 3 October).

Fact file

- Educational groups made up 13 per cent of responses.

- The final version of the commission's guidance will be published in January.

- Consultations for specific charity sub-sectors are to follow.

- The sub-sectors will be prevention and relief of poverty; education; religion; and fee-charging charities.

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