Charity law

In 2011, after a long campaign by us, the Charity Commission for the first time agreed to recognise the advancement of non-religious beliefs for the public benefit as being charitable, analogously to how it does so for religious beliefs. As a consequence we were able to amend our charitable objects (which previously had been based on an obscure legal formula involving ‘the mental and moral improvement of mankind’ plus the advancement of education).

In depth

The law on charity dates back to 1601, with court decisions on whether an organisation is eligible for the legal and tax privileges of charity status resting on analogies with the types of activity listed in the preamble to the Statute of Charitable Uses of that year. In the 19th century a judge categorised charities into four categories (relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion – and the rest!).

In 2005, the Government produced in its Charities Bill a new 13-fold categorisation, with the last still a catch-all ‘other purposes’ group. Over five years of consultations, correspondence and meetings we argued without success that the heading ‘advancement of religion’ should be extended, in line with the Human Rights Act, to encompass advancement of non-religious beliefs such as humanism. At that time, humanist organisations could win charity status only by qualifying under some other head, such as education. Attempts to amend the Bill in Parliament were unsuccessful, and the Charities Act 2006 became law.

What we did

After the Act was passed we argued to the Charity Commission that under the Human Rights Act they were still bound as a public authority to treat non-religious beliefs on a par with religions. In 2011, we succeeded in having the Charity Commission accept advancement of non-religious beliefs for the public benefit as a charitable object. Our charitable objects were amended to include ‘The advancement of Humanism, namely a non-religious ethical lifestance the essential elements of which are a commitment to human wellbeing and a reliance on reason, experience and a naturalistic view of the world’. Secondary objects continue to include the advancement of education.

The 2006 Act also extended to all charities, including religious ones, the need to be able to demonstrate that they produce ‘public benefit’. This concept is legally complex and the Charity Commission consulted at the time on draft guidance on how it will be applied. We made substantial submissions on this question and has had meetings at a high level with the Commission, but the resulting guidance remains unsatisfactory, both in seeming to relax the rigour of the law for religious charities and in its definition of what counts as a religion – a definition that anyway under the Human Rights Act should have no place in law. This continues to be of concern, but without any new legislative or policy developments on the horizon, is an issue that may not be resolved for some time.

What you can do

We need to monitor how the law on public benefit is applied to religious charities. If you come across any religious charities which seem to you – after reading the Charity Commission’s guidance – to suggest undue lenience on the part of the Commission, please contact us.

If you are involved in trying to register a humanist charity, do also please contact us.

You can also support Humanists UK’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.