That does now seem to have become a rather political question, doesn\’t it?
The Charity Commission has unveiled its understanding of the new "public benefit test". Introduced by the Charities Act of 2006, the test stipulates that to count as a charity, an organisation must prove that it benefits the public. Last week, the Commission claimed that private schools do not pass it because they benefit only those rich enough to afford the fees. Unless private schools can prove that they also benefit people who are not rich, the commission concluded, they shouldn\’t have charitable status.
The commission was widely attacked for failing to recognise that relieving the state of the cost of educating 500,000 children counts as a benefit to everyone who pays tax. But the real enormity is the test itself, which is political prejudice masquerading as objective assessment. "Public benefit", as applied to charities, is meaningless. No charity benefits everyone: women\’s charities benefit women, cancer charities those with cancer, and charities for animals don\’t benefit people at all. It cannot be an objection to a charity that it benefits only part of the population, for every charity does that. In practice, the question becomes: which parts of the population will be allowed to count as "deserving"?
There are two ways to answer that question. One is to say that they all count equally: it\’s not the job of the state to decide who should receive charity – citizens can donate their money to whatever group they choose, provided that group is not involved in harming others.
The other is to give an unelected quango the power to decide who counts. I thought that was precisely the result that democracy was supposed to avoid, but evidently not: it\’s the result that the 2006 Act has produced. The commission\’s view of who "counts" is inevitably an expression of political prejudice.
Actually, it\’s not democracy which is supposed to avoid this, rather, it\’s civil liberty. Democracy is in fact exactly what the Commission is doing: picking and choosing according to the political dictates of those who have the backing from enough of the population to gain power.
It brings us once again the distinction between democracy and said civil liberties. There are those who insist that democracy itself is the goal: I would insist that it isn\’t. Useful, certainly, the least bad method we have, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is the maximum of freedom and liberty that we can all enjoy without popping from the sheer pleasure of it all.
And that means that we have clear and simple rules, ones simply laid out, which apply to all. As noted, a charity raising money to treat ovarian cancer does not directly benefit men. Should it be stripped of its charitable status? Sure, there are indirect benefits to men (wives and mothers less likely to die of a foul disease) but then the same can be said, as above, of private schools: children are educated at no cost to other taxpayers.
The problem here is too much democracy (imagine that the unelected quango were replaced with a popular vote on each and every charity: anyone think this would make things better?) not too little.