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Proposed amendment on public benefit of religion wins MPs' support

Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough and Rushden
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Proposed amendment on public benefit of religion wins MPs' support10

Governance | Tania Mason | 20 Dec 2012

Some 166 MPs yesterday voted in favour of allowing Peter Bone MP to introduce a ten minute rule bill aimed at amending the Charities Act to reinstate the presumption of public benefit for religious institutions.

Just seven voted against.

As a result, the bill was presented and read for the first time, and the second reading was scheduled for 1 March 2013.

A total of 116 - 70 per cent - of the bill’s supporters were Conservative MPs.

Bone opened his address to the House of Commons yesterday by declaring that on Monday he delivered a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 113 MPs from different parties, urging the government to restore the presumption of charitable status to all religious groups.

The removal of the presumption in the Charities Act, he said, had had the “unintended consequence of the state being able to interfere, through the Charity Commission, with religious institutions”.

He went on: “The Act clearly states…that the advancement of religion should be considered a charitable purpose. Surely, if the advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose, the presumption to grant religious institutions charitable status is the logical action to be taken by the Charity Commission, but the current commissioners are determined to misinterpret the law.

“How can a group active in the role of advancing religion that contains more than 16,000 members of the British public not be considered a public benefit?”

'Not even the Church of England is safe'

Bone cited as “most extraordinary” one statement from the Commission’s ruling on the Plymouth Brethren case - “There is no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England.”

“There we have it,” Bone said, “not even the Church of England is safe.”

He continued: “I am reminded of the poem ‘First they came’, describing the persecution of different groups, in darker times. Today it could be amended to read: ‘First they came for the Plymouth Brethren and I did not speak out because I was not a Brethren.  Then they came for the Evangelical Church and I did not speak out because I was not an Evangelical. Then they came for the Catholic Church and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me’.”

Bone warned that if the presumption of charitable status for religious bodies is not restored, the consequences will be detrimental to the “very fabric of our society”.

It is an “almightly mess”, he concluded, and for a change it has not been caused by either the Liberal Democrats or the European Union, but by the “creeping secularism in society”.

*Editor's note: The Charity Commission has asked us to point out that the decision that there is no presumption that religion is for the public benefit was made by the Upper Tribunal, not by the Commission. Peter Bone MP has been made aware of his misattribution.  

John Handel
11 Jan 2013

Peter Bone, you have spoken truly.
The very fabric of our society is being challenged by a force so strong and loud that we must all rally to the call to support any stand made for the rights of Christianity in this country and globally.
Your speech was a great comfort to me and an inspiration!

Barb
8 Jan 2013

The problem doesn't lie in whether churches provide food banks or not. The real problem, carefully avoided in all discussions, is that Gift Aid (that may follow the charitable status) is, in fiscal terms, a tax that is diverted from the state use (should read: taking care of everybody regardless if they are member of a given church/religious institution or not) to the discreet use of a charity (in this case: a church/mosque/other religious instituion) that, as a rule, have an exclusivist character. Yes, I know, as a die-hard atheist or catholic or whatever else could go to my local pentecostal church and use their food bank but trust me when I say I won't. And this is the problem because partof the tax money has already been used to subsidise this particular organisation instead of a local state-run school, hospital or the police. Whatever they say, a religious institution is not the same thing as a cancer or environmental charity.
So the real issue is whether HMRC should take this point into consideration when recognising a charity for Gift Aid purposes or not - shifting responsibility from CC on to taxmen would effectively disolve the whole discussion.

Anon
Trustee
10 Jan 2013
Response to [Barb]

I disagree Gift Aid is not "a tax that is diverted from the state use ... to the discreet use of a charity"

Gift Aid is government accepting that if an individual has renounced part of their income they should not be taxed on the amount from which they have had no personal benefit. (I paraphrase from a quote regarding the tax relief debate last year).

As a charity trustee, the problem with the public benefit test is that it is very subjective. Most charities benefit a small sector of society whether that be:
- RSPCA
- Operas and Theatres
- Private schools
- Religious charities.

All of those sectors have people questioning their value to society. The strength of charity law is that a broad swathe of organisations are recognised as bringing benefit to society.

It starts to fall down when the "militant-atheists" object to religious organisations being recognised or the "anti-elitists" object to private schools etc.

Rev Head
7 Jan 2013

so if I can't get charitable status for my community group*, I just rename it a 'church', anoint myself High Priest and suddenly we're working for the public good????

*Or low cost secular pre-school care provider

Andrew Ross
2 Jan 2013

It is good to hear of someone having the b***s to speak out against the 'creeping secularism in society' in this country - a rather taboo subject and very off limits for the PC conscious!

Christianity is under threat of marginalisation, make no mistake. But as the backbone of our society I salute anyone proud enough to fight for it. Well done that man!

Norman
30 Dec 2012

Every church which I have ever belonged to has done "public benefit" work e.g. Clothing bank for destitute people, soup kitchen, community cafe providing homemade refreshments at low cost, food banks, street pastors to help people get home safely after a night out, prayers for the community (and yes I know there are people who think this is hocus pocus, but just as you are entitled to your beliefs so am I), low cost pre-school and after school care for single parent working families, companionship groups for lonely people of different ages, youth groups, Scouts and Girl Guides groups, the list goes on. If a church provides services to the local community it meets the criteria of "public benefit", and many do, so don't tar all churches with the same brush.

Michael Hodgson
7 Jan 2013
Response to [Norman]

"If a church provides services to the local community it meets the criteria of "public benefit", and many do, so don't tar all churches with the same brush."

Many do - and those who don't, should we presume that one that provides no services to the community is operating for public benefit too?

Helen Cryer
26 Dec 2012

I am very thankful for these people in this world. I congratulate them on their energy and commitment in helping my mother through these recent floods down in Cornwall. They took her in and provided warmth and food in a very difficult time when her house was flooded, to the loss of a number of items and leaving it in an appaling state of affairs. They sent a team of helpers to clear it up and set her up again. They were going all over the place and helping others in the same plight. Sandbags galore seem to be coming out as well. I asked one of them and he told me he'd been up all night filling them with sand. Many thanks to these people for all their help in this difficult time.

Sian Balsom
21 Dec 2012

I agree, Paddy. I find this a thoroughly depressing argument. The public benefit test should remain, and those who are too exclusive to meet it should fail in their attempts to register as a charity. End of, now let's all move on.

Paddy
20 Dec 2012

*sigh* Yet another case of some religious people failing to understand the very obvious difference between being discriminated against and simply being subject to the same rules as everyone else.

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