Mosques are hard hit during the Covid19 lockdown crisis. All Mosques across all sects and cities adhered to the Government guidance immediately and shut their doors to daily worship.
This was a difficult and painful decision for Mosque management, daily and Friday worshipers and for parents who sent their school children to study Quran every evening in the Mosque. This pain was aggravated as the busiest period for Mosques, the holy month of Ramadan fell in this period.
Govt support has done little to bridge the gap
Underlying the spiritual deprivation was the financial costs, as around 75% of Mosques income relied upon the donations collected each Friday, education fees and special donations raised during the month of Ramadan – unfortunately, the Govt support has done little to bridge the gap.
Furlough scheme – not fit for purpose
The only meaningful Govt support has been the job retention scheme which required to furlough staff, meaning sending staff on leave. This was difficult for Mosques to utilise as the paid Imam position is crucial for fundraising, not just for leading the prayers and delivering sermons. This also created a situation where an Imam who is not able to do his job properly and fully, however because of online sermons (religious obligation) technically does not qualify for the job retention scheme.
Misjudged guidance on volunteering
The Governments advise on placing restrictions on volunteers misjudged the importance and the role of volunteers within the faith sector specifically – much of the volunteering is driven by spiritual reasons which followers of the faith consider obligatory on themselves. Placing restrictions on volunteering within the business sector made sense, however the faith sector should have been exempt to it.
Last hope – Council grants did not work
After the Job retention scheme, the Mosques hoped to apply for the coronavirus grant from the local council as the business loans options was not considered suitable or viable for Mosques. All Mosques operate from buildings and due to Government advise these buildings were closed immediately to the public.
The Government had decided to use the local council business rates system and the date of 11th March 2020 to issue grants using rateable value (RV) and the awarded discounts under two schemes, mainly the small business discount and the expanded retail discount. In my view this was a sensible approach, however as it turns out, this discriminated against charities that did not have retail or trading operations, despite operating from a building and being subject to similar levels of business rate discounts similar to businesses.
Government guidance and its interpretation
Government guidance for Coronavirus RHL Grant Fund dated 1 April 2020 under the section ‘Properties covered by the fund’ stated that Eligible charities which have received charitable rate relief or discretionary relief can still get the grant. Local councils interpreted this guidance only relevant to charities with trading operations. This is despite the published Government guidance not explicitly excluding charities without trading operations in the guidance dated 1 April 2020.
Many professionals working in the charity sector understood this to cover charities already receiving discounts on their business rates with RV below £51,000.
Online applications not charity friendly
The local Government online grant applications were designed in a way that only limited companies or those that were self-employed with a UTR number could apply – Charitable Trusts often the structure for small Mosques, were left out. As a result of the local council interpretation of the guidance, charities missed out on the grants, especially Mosques during their most critical time of the year. Vast majority of applications made by Mosque charities are rejected by the local councils.
The use of discretionary funds – issues
The Government has issued new guidance on Local Authority Discretionary Grants Fund, dated 29 May 2020. Local councils are now using this guidance to consider making grants to charities without trading operations (i.e. Mosques). Local councils will now introduce a new online application in June 2020. Therein lies the issues:
The new guidance gives an option to the local council for giving grants less than £10,000 – this was not the case for businesses. Local councils may use this to save monies available for grants. Mosques often run in buildings, not in rooms – even the £10,000 one off grant is often not sufficient.
The additional option for granting less than £10,000 adds another consideration for local council staff, potentially delaying the grant that is already significantly delayed.
All charities will have to reapply online for the discretionary funds. When the initial grants were introduced in April 2020 – On average the Councils took 3-4 weeks to process them. This means Mosques may have to wait for another 4-8 weeks before cash can hit their bank accounts.
Although the Govt moved fast to support small businesses, the approach towards supporting small charities, especially within the faith sector (i.e. Mosques) has been lacking and of a frustration.
Muslims representation bodies and Councillors should lobby local councils to expedite grants to Mosques and other faith institutions – during the lock down crisis, many Mosques and other faith institutions became community hubs to distribute food to the vulnerable and NHS staff. They play a vital role in the community and for promoting the spiritual and mental well-being.
Local councils must understand the impact of Ramadan lock down on Mosques.
Central Government should be lobbied to make Imams and faith leaders exempt from the volunteering restriction within the job retention scheme.
Large Muslim charities should consider partnerships with Mosques to help them with their immediate financial issues. Many of the donors to Muslim charities not only use these Mosques, it is the sermons and reminders delivered through the Mosque that encourage many to donate in the first place.