DCMS has commissioned Steve Holliday, former CEO of National Grid plc, to chair an independent Full-Time Social Action Review. The review will consider what the voluntary sector, industry and, if needed, Government can do to support full-time volunteering, defined as at least 16 hours a week of social action activities on average, for 6 months or more. The review intends to consult the voluntary sector, young people, employment and regulatory experts, economists and parliamentarians. The connexion between the review, religion and the law may not appear immediately obvious – but religious organisations rely heavily on the unpaid efforts of their members and using volunteers brings with it legal implications in areas such as tax and health & safety and, if the organisation gets it wrong, might engage employment law.
As David Ainsworth, editor of Civil Society News, points out, volunteering is “an astonishingly vague concept”:
“The Government, in its definition of social action, has at times said that something as personal as giving someone else’s kids a lift to football practice counts as volunteering. There’s a lot of stuff about formal and informal volunteering, and the fact that we should replace the idea of volunteering altogether with the even more numinous concept of social action.”
He also suggests that “charities don’t really put a value on volunteering, because it’s hard to count” – which is, presumably, at least one of the reasons for the terms of the review.
Everyone agrees that volunteering is “a good thing”; but the vagueness of the concept rather concerns me. I suspect that most people think of volunteering for a charity – if they ever think about it at all – as something like helping with a play-group or a food-bank or working in an advice centre or rattling a collecting-tin. And so would I. But, in all three jurisdictions, “a charity is a charity is a charity”; and none of the three makes qualitative distinctions between Oxfam or the RNLI on the one hand and, say, a small local charity that makes book-grants to ordinands on the other.
If someone asked me how much time I spend “volunteering”, I could legitimately reply that when I’m at home I spend an hour at ringing practice on Monday evenings and half an hour ringing for service on Sunday mornings: and the parish church is – obviously – a charity. I’m on the committee of the Ecclesiastical Law Society and, consequently, a trustee of the charity: the ELS and the Ecclesiastical Law Journal between them probably take up a couple of working days a month of my time, all told, or maybe a bit less. I’m also a trustee of another, much smaller, academic charity.
But is any of that “volunteering” in the sense in which any normal person would understand it? Or even as I would understand it myself? I just do it for fun (OK, I have a strange idea of fun) and, though I do it conscientiously, I don’t see how any of it helps to build social capital or increase social cohesion. Or even that I’m somehow “doing good”. If the bells didn’t ring on Sunday or the ELS folded I should be very sad indeed and I should like to think that the world would be a slightly poorer place without them – but, in the greater scheme of things, people might legitimately ask, “so what”?
If volunteering is “an astonishingly vague concept” that may be at least in part because the definition of “public benefit” in charity law is not exactly crystal clear either. Holyrood, Westminster and Stormont all ducked the issue in the primary legislation, preferring to leave the various regulators and charity tribunals to determine it case by case.
In its 2013 report on The role of the Charity Commission and “public benefit”: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Charities Act 2006, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee was scathing about the current law in England and Wales, which it described as “critically flawed”:
“85. Parliament should be under no illusion about the scale of the task it presented to the Charity Commission when it passed the Charities Act 2006, which required the Commission to produce public benefit guidance without specifically defining ‘public benefit’. This has had the effect of inviting the Commission to become involved in matters such as the charitable status of independent schools which has long been a matter of party political controversy.
86. In our view, it is for Parliament to resolve the issues of the criteria for charitable status and public benefit, not the Charity Commission, which is a branch of the executive. In this respect the Charities Act 2006 has been an administrative and financial disaster for the Charity Commission and for the charities involved, absorbing vast amounts of energy and commitment, as well as money” [emphasis in original].
“93. We recommend that the removal of the presumption of public benefit in the 2006 Charities Act be repealed, along with the Charity Commission’s statutory public benefit objective. This would ensure that no transient Government could introduce what amounts to substantive changes in charity law without Parliament’s explicit consent. If the Government wishes there to be new conditions for what constitutes a charity and qualifies for tax relief, it should bring forward legislation, not leave it to the discretion of the Charity Commission and the courts” [emphasis in original].
Moreover, the vagueness of the concept (presumably founded on the principle that “you’ll recognise it when you see it”) means that there is a constant, low-level controversy about the public benefit of some of the activities that the three regulators currently accept as charitable.
Recently on conservativehome, for example, Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow and Chair of Commons Education Committee, asked Is it time to get rid of charitable status for private schools? – and concluded that it was. Or to take another controversial area: the Charity Commission is currently analysing responses to its recent consultation on complementary and alternative medicine, undertaken in response to mounting criticism that the therapeutic effects of some of them were scientifically unproven and, therefore, could not be providing “public benefit” within the meaning of the 2011 Act.
I make no comment whatsoever on the rights or wrongs of any of this: I merely report it. And whether a statutory definition of “the criteria for charitable status and public benefit” would be any great advance on the current position is doubtful since, presumably, the courts would have to make decisions in disputed cases instead of the Charity Commission doing so.
So is ringing church bells on Sunday morning “for the public benefit”? And when I do it, am I “volunteering” in any worthwhile sense? In the hallowed phrase of Sir John Junor and Private Eye, “I think we should be told”.