The principal change to the law (given Royal Assent last November, and coming into force in early 2008) was described succinctly by the Chair of the Charities Commission, Suzi Leather, in an article for the Guardian, "Running with the hares" viz.
"For the first time in 400 years of charity legislation, the law will explicitly require those charities that advance education, religion or relieve poverty to demonstrate that they deliver public benefit."The Herald article referred to her recent remarks on Radio 4's Sunday programme:
"For completely closed religious communities which have no contact with the outside world, it will be very difficult for them to retain charitable status"There is also an airy comment that "Prayer by itself" would not be enough to secure charitable status. This rules out contemplative religious houses. They are set to lose their tax-exempt status and the possibility of Gift Aid tax refunds on donations made to them.
In the case of chrities that relieve poverty, they will presumably be of benefit to the public if they can show that they relieve poverty. In the case of religious charities, clearly it is not going to be enough to show that they do in fact advance religion (by, for example, praying.) They will have to prove that some other public benefit is achieved.
Leather is keen to stress her impartiality towards religious organisations. In the Guardian article, she drops in a hint of distance from "secularists, who want to remove charitable status from religious organisations."
Catholics may wonder about her impartiality in their regard, however. She was until recently the Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). In the New Year's Honours list for last year, she was made a Dame of the British Empire for "services to the regulation of infertility treatment and embryo research."
Antonia Bance, labour councillor for Rose Hill and Iffley ward in Oxford reported on the honours list, applauding various awards. She was particularly pleased because
"Suzy Leather has a reliable way of winding up the anti-choice and anti-gay brigade at the HFEA"In 2004, Leather said that it was "anachronistic for the law to include the statement about the child's need for a father" because this discriminated against single and lesbian women. Whilst at the HFEA, she was also a member of the UK Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee and a member of the International Advisory Board of the 6th EU Framework Programme for Research and Technology - Participatory, Governance and Institutional Innovation Project (PAGANINI)
She is also a member of the Christian Socialist Movement which runs an annual Tawney Memorial Lecture. Professor R H Tawney's best known work is the brilliant collection of essays "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" written in 1926. Tawney showed that the Reformation, and particularly the dissolution of the monasteries, destroyed the fabric of social care in society which had been a part of Catholic society and replaced it with a naturalistic approach to what had previously been considered religious obligations. As a result, the care of the poor was left in the hands of the state and voluntary organisations.
It is ironic that Dame Leather mentions the "400 years" during which religion has been presumed to be of public benefit. The dropping of that presumption is a distant echo of the project of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.