Charity regulation is a relatively new phenomenon for Northern Ireland. Despite several lobbying campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s from within the voluntary sector, the appropriate legislation ‘Charities Act (Northern Ireland)’ that lead to the establishing of the Charity Commission Northern Ireland wasn’t in place until 2008. It took several years before the Commission established itself and opened for applications for registration in December 2013.
Prior to the Commission, charitable entities in Northern Ireland tended to fall into two categories; Trust or Company Limited by Guarantee with no Share Dividend, the latter affording trustees/directors limited liability. Each new entity would present its credentials to HMRC seeking recognition as a charitable entity, thereby benefiting from Gift Aid and other charitable privileges.
Initial estimates on the number of charitable entities across Northern Ireland proved to be lower than reality. Initial enthusiasm by existing charities to register, together with an ever increasing number of newly emerging entities, soon created a log jam of applications. The Commission’s workload was further stretched when they started to negotiate with religious denominations, concluding that churches needed to register individually as local governance is essential. The Commission’s attempts at addressing this log jam was further hindered by a legal case that called into question their internal operations.
In December 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive’s Minister for Communities commissioned an Independent Review of the Commission which is scheduled to report to the Minister in September 2021.
In May this year, Stewardship, in partnership with the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, encouraged Christian charities and churches to input into the Review by completing the Review Panel’s online questionnaire. A gathering of church and Christian organisation leaders was also facilitated via Zoom to clarify any questions that people might have and to share experiences.
The motivation for encouraging the Christian voluntary sector to engage with the Review came from the consideration that in its preliminary research, the Commission had neither heard nor fully understood the nuances associated with the Christian voluntary sector. Both organisations also believe that it is important that the Christian voice is heard in the public square, particularly at a time when it can offer constructive input.
Stewardship also submitted a separate response to the Review. In it, the Review was welcomed, support was recorded for the Charity Commission Northern Ireland and the importance of good governance and accountability was re-emphasised. For Stewardship, there were several key issues that were highlighted as needing addressing by the Independent Review and subsequently by the Commission:
- The status and recognition of charitable entities registered with a regulatory body in another jurisdiction. This refers to section 167 of the Charities Act which makes reference to charities such as Stewardship (and all major UK wide mission organisations) who are registered with the Charity Commission England and Wales and operating in Northern Ireland. There is much need for clarity around the need to register in Northern Ireland and if so the level of reporting, if any, that would be required. We have recommended that the Charity Commission Northern Ireland follows the example of the Charity Commission England and Wales and the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) and their Memorandum of Understanding.
- Given the increased administrative burden experienced by charities established as a company limited by guarantee, we have recommended that a facility be in place which will enable such entities to restructure as Charitable Incorporated Organisations.
- Given Stewardship’s relationships with organisations of various sizes, we have recommended that the Review considers how best to regulate small voluntary groups such as Scout and Cub Groups, Boys Brigade Companies etc, who currently are subject to the same reporting regulations as medium and large charities but whose budgets are negligible and generally have limited assets.
We look forward to reading the Review report when it is published at the end of the summer and will highlight the findings in a future issue of Sharpen. Stewardship will continue to be on hand to help and advise members of the Christian voluntary sector across Northern Ireland who may need assistance in governance, fundraising, financial reporting and generosity.