Charities Commission articles

Charity Commission suffers tirade of abuse in Commons debate on religion

Nick Hurd was forced to defend the Charity Commission yesterday following a barrage of criticism from MPs in relation to its handling of religious organisations in the registration process.

Civil Society, November 14, 2012

Nick Hurd was forced to defend the Charity Commission yesterday following a barrage of criticism from MPs in relation to its handling of religious organisations in the registration process.

Westminster Hall bore witness to the Charitable Registration debate chaired by Jim Dobbin and attended by more than 40 MPs.

The hot topic was the use of the public benefit test for religious charity registrations. Speakers, predominantly from the Conservative party, referred to the case of Plymouth Brethren which is taking the Commission to the Charity Tribunal after being denied charitable status.

Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, called for an inquiry into the Commission's decision and said it "puts the tax status of hundreds of charities in doubt".

"The Brethren are trying to deal with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the question of how each hall should communicate with its donors—thousands of people making donations with gift aid declarations, and making claims with their self-assessment returns. The charities do not know what to tell them. What has happened is unjust and inconsistent and is creating fear in many churches, not just in Harlow but across the country."

The debate revealed that last Monday (5 November) Halfon was joined by Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton and Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North in a meeting with William Shawcross, Charity Commission chair. Pound said Shawcross had "sought to reasure us that there is no anti-Christian bias in the Charity Commission, although I suspected some of us were slightly more convinced than others".

'Quango activism'
Other speakers referred to previous concerns over the Charity Commission's treatment of independent schools. Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough called the schools case a "class-based and politicised campaign".

"This is about a battle, about the secularisation of society and about calling a spade a shovel, which is quango activism," he said.
Hurd: Commission is independent of government
But Nick Hurd, minister for civil society, took the time to emphasise the independence of the Charity Commission, reminding MPs that it is a non-ministerial department.

"It is not subject to ministerial direction or control," he said. "It is an independent registrar and regulator. Its independence is set out in statute, and ministers and the government have no power to intervene in Charity Commission decisions."

Hurd declined to offer his personal opinion about the Plymouth Brethren case, advising that unless the Charity Commission changes its mind, the decision about its charitable status rests with the Charity Tribunal.

Throughout the debate the Commission was subject to venomous name-calling by MPs. At one point Hurd listed off the accusations levelled at the Charity Commission:

“'Rotten', 'discriminating', 'a bureaucratic bully crushing the little guy', 'a hidden agenda', 'unjust', 'inconsistent', 'arbitrary', 'a wolf in sheep’s clothing'—this has been quite a rough day for the members of the Charity Commission. It could be worse—they could be working in the BBC—but that is very tough language and it communicates the strength of feeling in the House on this issue," he said.

Commission 'is not anti-Christian'
Further, he took a stance on the predominant accusation:
"There were concerns that the Charity Commission is pursuing an anti-Christian agenda. I am satisfied that that is not the case.
"As a public body, the Charity Commission is bound by equalities duties and by law must not discriminate in its dealings with different religions or faiths. A fact that has not emerged from the debate is that the Charity Commission continues to register hundreds of Christian charities each year, including charities that were previously excepted. That fact has to be reconciled with various statements—some of them quite wild—about the Commission discriminating," he said.

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