Northern Ireland proposes end to public benefit test for religious charities

Executive asks Department for Social Development to draft legislation that would presume public benefit in the case of religious charities and those working with poverty


Religious charities operating in Northern Ireland might not have to prove that they provide a public benefit in order to keep their charitable status, according to ministers.

The Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 says that all charities must prove they operate for the public benefit.

But in February, the Northern Ireland Executive - made up of 13 senior ministers - asked the Department for Social Development to draft legislation that would reintroduce a presumption of public benefit for religious organisations and possibly for charities that address poverty.

The executive's request came in response to a DSD proposal to amend the Northern Ireland act because of potential confusion over the definition of public benefit. Lawyers had claimed that the act was open to challenge because it used elements of both English and Scottish law.

The executive's response was to ask the department to redraft the legislation so it said that religious charities would be presumed to be providing a public benefit, without the need for this to be demonstrated. It also asked for this to be considered in the case of charities dealing with poverty.

Alex Attwood, the minister for social development in Northern Ireland, told a meeting of his department's committee last month that he did not agree with the executive's decision because it was contrary to the 2008 act.

He said, however, that he was bound as a member of the executive to honour its decisions and would arrange for the new legislation to be drafted.

The legislation will have to be introduced to the assembly before 7 March in order for it to be passed before the assembly is dissolved in advance of the general election in May.

Roy McGivern, head of charity policy at the DSD, told Third Sector it was still unclear whether this legislation, and the provision for the English and Welsh public benefit test, would be introduced within this time.

Last month, the Charity Commission Northern Ireland was given jurisdiction over the 7,000 organisations that operate in Northern Ireland and are registered with HMRC as charities.

It can address complaints about these charities and open inquiries into allegations of misconduct, but it cannot assess their public benefit or start to create a register of charities until the legislation is passed.

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