Charity Commission chair calls for evidence about Plymouth Brethren congregations

In a letter to The Times, William Shawcross says the regulator's decision on the Preston Down Trust was independent and robust, and urges people to contact the commission with evidence about the activities of Brethren congregations

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

The chair of the Charity Commission has invited anyone with evidence about Plymouth Brethren congregations to present it to the regulator as part of its ongoing monitoring of Brethren charities.

In a letter to The Times published today, William Shawcross says that the regulator’s 2014 decision to register as a charity the Preston Down Trust, a Devon-based congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, had been "independent and robust".

His letter comes in response to an article in the Tuesday edition of the newspaper that documented the campaigning efforts of the church in the five-year legal battle that led to the PDT being registered.

In response to the article, the commission confirmed that its officials had been followed by members of the church, which adheres to a doctrine of separation and has been accused of breaking up families and using harsh disciplinary practices. The commission said it was sent letters by more than 3,000 of the church’s members and 200 MPs after initially refusing to register the PDT.

Shawcross’s Times letter says: "Anyone reading our published decision will see it was independent and robust. We were the first public authority to put on record the ‘detriment and harm’ caused by the doctrines and practices of the brethren.

"We recognised the Preston Down Trust as charitable only after it satisfied us that it met the public benefit requirement by accepting a new deed setting out its core religious doctrines and practices, acknowledged past mistakes and agreed to greater engagement with the wider public.

"We will make public the conclusions of our monitoring of those Brethren halls that we registered as charities. If any member of the public has evidence relating to these charities, we would be glad to receive it."

Since the registration of the PDT, a further 69 Plymouth Brethren congregations have been granted charitable status by the commission. When it registered the PDT, the commission said it would monitor the new charity’s compliance with its governing documents and that the commission "regularly monitors charities that were the subject of a complex or high-risk registration process to ensure that they are operating in line with their trusts and charity law".

Two further letters on the subject of the Brethren are also published in The Times today. Harry Adam of Atworth in Wiltshire says that the church’s practices "do not reflect any generally accepted view of ‘Christian’ behaviour". Another, from Jake Whiteside, a spokesman for the PBCC, says that the PDT decision "was taken after extensive examination of evidence, lasting more than 12 months". He responds to criticism of Brethren schools made in Tuesday’s Times story by saying: "They are unusual in one area: they are particularly successful."

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