On 20 November the issue of the advancement of religion for the public benefit came up during consideration stage of the Charities Bill (Northern Ireland) in light of the Preston Down case currently awaiting a hearing before the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) in London. The decision of the Charity Commission for England and Wales to withdraw charitable recognition from the Preston Down Trust of the Exclusive Brethren has caused considerable consternation in some quarters.
Since, evidently, Northern Ireland has not been immune from the general concern the Minister for Social Development in the Northern Ireland Executive, Nelson McCausland, decided to try to put minds at rest, as follows:
“Members will be aware that the main purpose of the Bill is to amend the public benefit provisions in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, bringing public benefit requirements in Northern Ireland into line with those in England and Wales. I previously stated that I do not expect that to be an undue burden for the vast majority of charities. Indeed, public benefit should be at the very heart of what they do. However, I want to comment specifically on a recent case in England relating to the religious denomination commonly known as Exclusive Brethren.
My understanding is that the issue hinges on the withdrawal from contact with general society and the absence of any wider public benefit. The courts have generally recognised religion as being for the public benefit, precisely because of the moral improvement in society that it is thought to encourage. That might be undermined if there were no or very limited societal interaction. As that case is now the subject of a tribunal hearing, the court will decide the outcome, and should we receive a similar application in Northern Ireland, the charity regulator in Northern Ireland will have regard to that judgement. However, it is important to stress that that case is most unlikely to have any implications for other faith-based charities in Northern Ireland, as the holding of public worship is regarded as being for the public benefit.
I have held discussions with representatives from the churches sector in Northern Ireland, and they are satisfied that charity regulation offers no threat to their activities or to their long-term charitable status. They are also further assured by concessions that have already been made to faith-based organisations in the 2008 Act, which introduced a specific designated religious charity status. That enables local churches to apply for an exemption from certain provisions in the Act that cover charity investigations and inquiries. That is a reflection of the unique governance structure in local churches, and it will enable the relevant governing body to address matters of concern rather than to seek intervention from the charity regulator.”
It should be noted that s 165 and s 166 of the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 (which the current Bill seeks to amend) make special provision for religious charities in a way that the England and Wales legislation does not – so there might not be a simple read-across from assurances in the Northern Ireland Assembly to the way things will go in the First-tier Tribunal in London.