Editorial: a messy battle looms over the Brethren

The church's appeal against refusal of charitable status is gaining attention from its opponents, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The Plymouth Brethren are clearly prepared to put considerable legal and financial resources into their attempt to overturn in the charity tribunal the Charity Commission's decision not to grant charitable status to their Preston Down meeting hall in Devon.

The latest indication of this comes in a document lodged last week with the Public Administration Select Committee, which took evidence from three of their representatives in October. This starts by correcting, without apology, their own misquotation of statements by the commission's legal chief, then adds six further pages of dense legal argument.

This calls for repeal or suspension of parts of the Charities Act 2006 and for more checks and balances in the process of decisions on charitable status. It also argues that organisations in test cases should not have to bear the costs.

This attempt to widen the case contrasts with the decision of the commission not to make a reference to the tribunal for clarification of the law, as some had expected, but to deal with it on its individual merits. In its letter refusing charitable status, it also refers (while adding that it has no evidence) to "disadvantage which may serve to negate public benefit" in the practices of the Brethren.

This has echoes of Holmes v Attorney-General, the 1981 case that confirmed charitable status for a Brethren hall and on which they rely in the present case. In that decision the judge alluded to "very serious allegations indeed that have been made against the Brethren", but said that no evidence had been presented to him about such allegations and he therefore could not take them into account. It remains to be seen whether such evidence will be presented in the Preston Down case.

Meanwhile, the Brethren are pursuing a public relations and lobbying campaign about the public benefit they claim to provide, and some of those who feel wronged by the Brethren are beginning to speak out. Baroness Berridge has called for a church-led inquiry and is arranging a meeting in parliament for former members of the Brethren. A long and messy battle would seem to be looming.

- Read more about the Plymouth Brethren case in our Big Issue

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