November 8, 2006

In the UK, the Government Gets to Decide Whether Your Charity Is ‘Worthy’

Filed under: Consumer Outrage,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 7:58 am

If I thought the government would work to get charities out of political advocacy and often overtly partisan activity, I might be impressed. But it’s clear from this column by Alasdair Palmer in the UK Telegraph that the threat of revoking charity privileges based on political correctness is real:

We don’t like your charity, so we’ll close it

Next week, the new Charities’ Bill will finish its passage through Parliament. It should become law before the end of the year. In spite of being billed as “the biggest review of charity legislation in the past 400 years”, it has generated very little comment. This is surprising, because the Bill will vastly increase the power of the Charities’ Commission to dissolve charities, confiscate their endowments and assets, and give them to what the Commission considers a more genuinely “charitable” cause.

That threat is alarming and real. It used to be taken for granted that organisations devoted to education, to religion, or to the relief of poverty, were automatically providing a “public benefit”. The new legislation dissolves that assumption. Even more worryingly, it also leaves it up to the Charities Commission to decide what constitutes a “public benefit”. There is no guidance in the legislation on how that slippery notion should be defined. Ministers and members of the Commission have referred to “case law”, but there is almost none, precisely because, for the last 400 years, there has been so firm a consensus that education, religion and the relief of poverty constitute public benefits.

This is truly odious. Don’t you just love it that the government gets to seize the assets and redistribute them?

It’s hard to underestimate how much mischief an ideologically determined Charities Commission could cause, especially to religions or think tanks that don’t toe a politically correct line. This could go in any political direction, and could change on a dime if there is a change in Commissioners or which party controls the government.

The idea that the Commission gets to feast its eyes on charities’ assets is particularly offensive. It could (more likely will) lead to targeting of richer organizations that have somehow strayed, as the Commission would arbitrarily define it. Shouldn’t recent donors be entitled to some kind of pro rata refund if a charity they have given to gets dissolved?

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