Anti-abortion group Gift Aid questioned

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Media captionNewsnight: Should there be 'buffer zones' around abortion clinics in Britain?

The greater visibility of the anti-abortion movement in the UK is throwing up various challenges. Last week, over 150 MPs wrote to the Home Office asking Sajid Javid to press ahead with a review into whether so-called buffer zones are needed around abortion clinics - a debate that pits the right of women to seek legal medical treatment without aggravation against questions of free speech.

We explored that debate on Newsnight last week - as well as looking at some of the anti-abortion groups found outside clinics in the UK.

These groups, says sociologist Pam Lowe, aren't part of one unified national movement. Some have been active in the UK for decades while other are more recent transplants from the US. Some emphasise prayer; others education. And they can operate differently in different parts of the country - even those who ostensibly are part of one organisation.

But one group that has grown quickly and tends to provoke controversy is Abort 67.

It says it uses graphic images of aborted foetuses to educate the public about the realities of abortion.

It describes itself as a "project" of the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK, which was founded as a company in 2010. Since then it has been claiming Gift Aid - the tax break that allows charities to reclaim tax on donations from UK taxpayers.

It has claimed at least £29,000, according to its accounts.

Except that the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK isn't registered as a charity.

Legal requirement

The Charity Commission told the BBC: "Misleading the public as to the charitable status of an organisation is of serious concern to the Commission. We have contacted the Centre for Bio Ethical Reform UK for further information to assess whether they are established as a charity and, if so, why they have not registered with us."

It is a legal requirement for charities with over £5,000 in income to be registered with the regulator, unless specific exemptions apply.

Groups are also meant to be registered and regulated in order to claim Gift Aid.

The Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform has fund-raising pages online. It is affiliated with a US organisation of the same name but told the BBC that its funding comes from individual donations.

An emailed statement said:

"When we registered we had to do it through HMRC as our income was below the threshold for registering with the Charity Commission… We wrote to the Charity Commission a few years back about our income increasing and have been waiting for the [Charitable Incorporated Organisations] (CIO) system to be rolled out. It has taken the Charity Commission a lot longer to get this going but now it has been rolled out we have begun the process of registering through the Charity Commission. It's not something we have been wanting to put off; on the contrary we have been keen to get on with this process."

The group should still have registered with the charity regulator once its income passed the £5,000 threshold, according to people familiar with the rules.

The group has grown quickly - it had income of £4,971 in the year to April 2011.

The following year its income had grown to nearly £8,000. By the year to April 2017, it was more than £100,000.

Gareth Morgan, emeritus professor of charity studies at Sheffield Hallam University said that failing to register with the regulator could put groups "in breach of the Charities Act 2011".

"It would be good to see the Charity Commission and HMRC working together more closely so that small charities that are initially recognised only by HMRC… are not allowed to claim Gift Aid once they go over that limit until they have gained registered charity status with the Charity Commission," he said.

'Very unusual'

"CBR was set up with charitable purposes - to promote human rights - but it is not a registered charity," said Kate Sayer, senior consultant at Sayer Vincent.

"It is very unusual for HMRC to allow an ordinary company to claim Gift Aid when it is not registered with the Charity Commission. The Charity Commission only regulates charities that are registered, so an ordinary company such as this is effectively unregulated."

HMRC said: "We administer the Gift Aid rules accurately and correctly, if there is evidence that this has not happened, we will look into it."

Abort 67 is one of several UK groups associated with protests or prayer vigils outside abortion clinics. The group describes itself as a "public education project".

It uses large images of bloody foetuses as part of its demonstrations to "awaken people's consciences" about abortion.

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