Charity Commission officials were followed by members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church and the regulator was sent letters by more than 3,000 of the church’s members and 200 MPs after initially refusing to register the Preston Down Trust, the commission has confirmed.
The PDT, a Devon-based congregation of the church, was registered as a charity by the commission in January 2014 after a five-year legal battle over whether it had been established for the public benefit. The church adheres to a doctrine of separation and has been accused of breaking up families and using harsh disciplinary practices.
The Times reported today it had seen leaked PBCC documents that the newspaper said "lay bare the extraordinary lobbying campaign waged by the Brethren". Bruce Hales, the church’s leader, told members to "go for the jugular, go for the underbelly" after the commission refused the PDT registration in June 2012, the paper reported.
The Times said that the regulator then received more than 3,000 letters from church members and more than 200 letters from MPs, and that "Charity Commission officials were followed to unrelated events by Brethren members".
A spokeswoman for the commission confirmed these figures and allegations as correct. The Times said that five MPs wrote to Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, to influence her decision in a tribunal hearing about the non-registration of the PDT that was eventually cancelled. They were told it was inappropriate to write to a judge during a hearing, the paper reported.
Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, who previously called the decision to register the PDT as cowardly and "a climb-down", said he had seen documents showing that the Brethren’s campaign had cost more than £2m. "It’s one of the most egregious examples of an utter failure to control lobbying," he told Third Sector today. "The Charity Commission was absolutely right to take a stand against them."
Flynn said MPs were "pretty gullible to believe them" and he knew that a number of Conservative MPs would be given assistance by the Brethren in the run-up to the forthcoming general election. "It’s the tearoom talk among the Tories – that there’s an army of them available," he claimed.
The Times said that MPs supportive of the church "received significant help from Brethren volunteers" in the run-up to the 2010 general election and in by-elections, naming Conservative MPs Peter Bone, Michael Ellis and Robert Halfon. None of these three were immediately available for comment on Tuesday morning.
A spokesman for the PBCC said that many of the allegations in The Times "originate from a very small group of disaffected former members who have come together on social media and have on more than one occasion aired their grievances publicly".
He said it was to be expected that the commission would receive a large number of letters when dealing with "any issue that is important to people".
He said: "We have no idea where the claim that Charity Commission representatives were followed came from. If public figures appear on public platforms, they should expect members of the public to be present."
The commission spokeswoman said that the regulator’s decision to change its mind and register the PDT had been objective and based on fact: "We made it clear that we would consider all the evidence now available to us, including evidence of detriment and harm, submitted by those who opposed registration."
She pointed out that there had not been an appeal in the tribunal against the decision to register the PDT and said the regulator had begun a planned review of the charity’s compliance with its governing document.
Since the registration of the PDT, a further 69 Plymouth Brethren congregations have been granted charitable status by the commission.