Duke triggers off charity rethink

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THE rules governing charities may be tightened up after the Duke of Edinburgh's controversial demand for a rethink on the status of fund-raising groups.

Sources at the Charities Commission say Prince Philip's speech, calling for charitable status to be restricted to those groups that provide a strictly humanitarian service, has triggered a debate that has been long overdue.

They believe a government overhaul of charities, which began last year, has failed to address the issue of organisations claiming a charitable function which in reality is only tenuous.

The Charities Commission decides who gets charitable status; this carries with it tax concessions. There are now 170,000 registered charities. The number of new bodies registering increased from 486 in 1992 to 12,559 last year.

The three main criteria for becoming a charity are helping the poor or advancing education or religion. Reformers have targeted so-called 'fourth head' charities, which are granted their status on the basis that they benefit the community in a wider sense.

Prince Philip's comments came when he delivered the 11th Arnold Goodman Charity Lecture last Thursday. 'Allowing 'purposes beneficial to the community' to be included in the list of charitable activities, we have reached a position where the term 'charity' has been allowed to include almost everything and anything,' he said.

He singled out organisations promoting sport, the arts, museums, and special-interest trusts as examples of groups providing 'non-vital services'. They included 'all sorts of things from old steam-engines to stately homes'. There has been concern in the past about other bodies with narrow interests, such as independent schools, receiving charitable status.

Charities with a less obvious benevolent functions include the Institute of Journalists and the Association of Charity Officers, both professional organisations.

Other obscure bodies include the Additional Curates Society, the Eritrean Community Association in Hammersmith and Fulham, the Institute of Phereinology Trust, which promotes research into bio-electromagnetics and develops 'non-invasive, drug-free medicine', and the Grubb Institute, a 'corporate think-tank which focuses on the dynamics of human systems, organisations and institutions'.

Until last April, 300 gun and rifle clubs enjoyed the charitable status they had been granted after the Boer War, when the Government recognised their members' value to the country in the event of national conflict. They have now joined the 5,000 groups which are annually removed from the register because their charitable function has become obsolete.

The Government recognised the need to reform the voluntary sector last year when it introduced the Charities Act, which tightened the law on the management of charities. That requires any group which raises more than pounds 1,000 a year to register with the commission.

Alun Michael, Labour's spokesman on the voluntary sector, said: 'I think there is a need to review the whole area of charities and voluntary organisations. There have been some measures that have already been taken but more are needed. How can you say that an independent school provides a service to the wider public?'

However, Alan Howarth, Tory chairman of the all-party committee on the voluntary sector, said all charities were to be welcomed, as long as they satisfied the commissioners that they had a genuine function.

'They pioneer new approaches to social problems and should be valued. It is a very untidy scene but it is one of great vitality and variety, that has allowed us to respond to new needs as well as old. If you start to define charity, you start to confine charity, and that would be a pity.'

Richard Fries, the chief charity commissioner, welcomed Prince Philip's intervention. 'There are practical issues which we need to address,' he said.

'It is not just a philosophical question, it is a real question of what criteria ought to be applied. We have to exercise our imagination and responsibility in deciding whether new forms of activity ought to be charitable under that.'