As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline in the UK, the nation’s attention is being increasingly focused on how we can recover and reform.

Research carried out by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) has found local volunteer groups were a crucial part of the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They provided much-needed support to people who were vulnerable and shielding. The National Association for Voluntary and Community Action has also recorded that over 250,000 people have registered at charity volunteer centres since the beginning of the pandemic, whilst more than 750,000 people signed up to the NHS volunteering scheme.

One of the reasons for these successes is that many working-age people were forced to adapt to new working arrangements, which gave them “more time to be better neighbours”. For many charities, the extra capacity in this age group has proved vital, especially as shielding and vulnerable volunteers have needed to take a step back from their volunteer work. This recent renewed trust in charities has been encouraging and may help give the sector a stronger voice to speak up for change.

Catch up with all the latest charity updates in this week’s news round-up.

High court finds charity recruitment policy discriminatory

In a recent High Court case, an independent fostering agency, Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service, brought a judicial review into Ofsted’s unpublished report of its services, claiming the regulator had acted unlawfully in including within its report findings and requirements details concerning Cornerstone’s alleged breaches of equality and human rights laws.

Cornerstone was founded on evangelical Christian principles and its recruitment policy required Cornerstone’s carers to be evangelical Christians who refrain from “homosexual behaviour”. Ofsted found that this policy violated the Equality Act and European Convention on Human Rights and consequently required that Cornerstone amend the policy.

The High Court held that Ofsted had acted lawfully. As a charity, Cornerstone was objectively justified in requiring applicants to hold the same faith, but the recruitment policy had the effect of excluding potential gay and lesbian carers based on their sexual orientation. As such, this was both directly and indirectly discriminatory, as well as neither justified nor proportionate to Cornerstone’s aims.

For more information and advice on this, please contact a member of our employment team.

Government reduces VAT for hospitality

From 15 July, a reduced rate of VAT (5%) has been applied to supplies of food and non-alcoholic drinks from cafes, restaurants and other hospitality premises. Many charities run cafes and restaurants, provide holiday accommodation and manage attractions. For some charities, the temporary VAT reduction may be a welcome change. However, where the fees charities charge for admission to their venues are already exempt from VAT, the exemption will take precedence over the reduced rate for those supplies. HMRC’s guidance note is available to read here.

Charities begin to reopen

Whilst it is easy to talk speculatively about how the charities sector can rebuild and shape the recovery from the pandemic, the first step is for charities to reopen and resume their operations. The rules and restrictions often change quickly and now they are even beginning to be localised. This means that charity leaders should always check the most recent guidelines. The Government has also created a tool which gives organisations bespoke guidance on reopening.

To comply with their health and safety obligations, charities must carry out thorough risk assessments and make sure that their premises are Covid-secure. Charities may wish to consider implementing measures such as the introduction of screens and barriers, encouraging contactless payments and ensuring that staff know how to respond if someone is showing symptoms of COVID-19. Vulnerable and shielding individuals should also be given particular thought, as these people often make up a significant number of charity volunteers.

For more information, please read our regulatory team’s e-briefings on reopening churches and charities.

Digital revolution in the charities sector

A report published last week has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for a digital evolution in the charities sector. Charities have needed to “embrace digital with the aim of staring relevant, helping more people, developing new ways of working, fundraising and delivering service offerings”. Before the pandemic, 30% of charities felt that a lack of understanding for digital was one of their biggest problems. Post COVID-19 (defined as 20 March 2020 onwards), this figure had decreased to 15% of respondents. However, 66% of the charities surveyed rated their board’s digital skills as either low or having room for improvement.

Baroness Barran, Minister for Civil Society, commented that the boosting skills and capacity will be “central in bolstering the resilience of the sector through recovery as civil society continues to play a vital role in helping tackle the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”

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If you would like more details about anything in this newsletter, please speak to Catherine Gibbons, email your usual ACS contact or get in touch here.

Catherine is a solicitor in the charities and social business team and specialises in charity governance (particularly faith-based charities), incorporations, mergers and regulatory issues. ‘Out of the office’ during lockdown, Catherine has enjoyed the many available online theatre and musical productions, joined a virtual choir and (to her surprise) become a little more green-fingered!