When it has become a jokey truism that any celebrity wishing to rehabilitate their public profile pledges that they’ll do their bit for charity, it reveals the importance and status of charities in our society. That status cannot be taken for granted. The Charities Act parliament passed in 2006 means all charities have to prove they do something for the public good. Put that way, the case for our efforts is difficult to dispute.
And yet we have had arguments, continuing right up to this week, when the Charity Commission has published its guidance on how charities might demonstrate the public benefit they deliver. The arguments against have focused mainly on those charities that until now have not had to prove they provide the public benefit.
For 400 years there has been a presumption that organizations involved in religion, education and the relief of poverty automatically should have charitable status. Now they will have to show what it is that we, the public, get for granting them the tax exemptions that go with that status. If the NSPCC has to prove how it benefits the public, why not every charity?
This should help maintain public confidence in a modern definition of what it means to be a charity. It’s a move that will benefit the whole sector, rather than a politically motivated attack on a particular section of the population.
It is a great pity that this debate has been dominated by the claims that 1,400 charities in the form of independent schools in England and Wales will suffer when there are 190,000 registered charities who will all benefit from the Charities Act.
In fact, this is a genuine opportunity for education charities to use their imagination and dynamism to develop the ways in which they benefit the public. As the Charity Commission has made clear, this could be through sharing facilities, equipment or staff with local state schools and the wider community. It could be through state school pupils being able to attend certain lessons or other educational events at independent schools or building long-term collaboration and partnerships with local state schools. And through academies and trust schools, the government continues to encourage independent schools to work with the state sector to benefit the many children whose parents cannot afford expensive fees.
Next month the Charity Commission will issue more detailed guidance on education and fee-charging charities. But it will be left to individual schools to determine their own strategies for meeting the public benefit requirement.
When the headteacher of one of the country’s most famous public schools describes the current situation as “social apartheid”, it is clear there is a debate to be had. As a government, we have not just led the national debate about how to enhance the role of charities and enable them to thrive, but we are also in tune with public opinion. The insurance firm Zurich’s recent survey showed that nearly 90 percent of respondents agreed that independent schools should demonstrate more explicitly their benefit to society to warrant government tax breaks.
It is important that the public can clearly see the benefits charities bring, including those that have until now been able to take their charitable status for granted. Without this, charities risk losing the high levels of public trust that underpin charitable giving and other essential activities and may damage their ability to be a voice for genuine, lasting social change.
That is why we welcome the Charity Commission’s general guidance on public benefit, which after wide consultation shows excellent regard for the range of views on this issue.
We want to ensure the Charities Act works. For those who feel the new rules don’t treat them fairly, we will be launching a new Charity Tribunal to offer all charities an independent and robust mechanism for challenging future rulings by the Charity Commission. And we have committed to a review of the success of the public benefit test within three years of it coming into effect.
Let no one be in any doubt. This government believes in the dynamism of charities and their power to improve the quality of individuals’ lives and our national life. In ensuring all charities have to demonstrate how they fulfill their obligations in exchange for the benefits they receive, the government is creating the circumstances in which they will continue to flourish. It’s not only publicity-hungry celebrities that love a charity; everyone values the contribution of charities to our society, and I want that to continue. That can only happen if the public is confident they are getting a return from the status charities enjoy.