The Charity Commission has used changes in public benefit law to carry out a "suppression of religion", a Parliamentary select committee heard yesterday.
The Public Administration Select Committee heard evidence from members of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious group with about 16,000 adherents that believes it has been unfairly refused charitable status by the Charity Commission. The committee is investigating the workings of the 2006 Charities Act.
Garth Christie, an elder in the Plymouth Brethren, said only that the decision by the commission was "very odd", but Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, said that it was part of "a policy of deliberate discrimination" against faith groups. He said: "The commission is actively committed to the suppression of religion, particularly the Christian religion."
But Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said that it was "ridiculous" to suggest that religious organisations were discriminated against."Christianity enjoys a hugely privileged position in this country," he said. "The House of Commons is right now at prayers."
In response to a question from Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, Christie said he was confident that his organisation passed the public benefit test laid down to qualify for charitable status under the rules for "advancement of religion".
He said that the brethren’s services were open to all and that they conducted other charitable work, including distributing free Bibles, giving food and other support to vulnerable people, and preaching in the community.
He said that Halfon, who is Jewish, would be welcome to attend a brethren prayer meeting.
He said a decision to deny public benefit had come as "a bolt from the blue", that he and the other members had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on trying to prove their charitable status, and that they would appeal all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary. The group has already appealed to the charity tribunal.
Elphicke asked whether the Charity Commission’s decision to refuse charitable status to the brethren could be seen as the "thin end of the wedge" in an attempt to reduce the number of religious organisations claiming charitable status: Christie agreed that he was worried about the effect on small religious organisations across the UK.
Christie read out a letter from Kenneth Dibble, head of legal services at the Charity Commission, outlining his reasons for refusing charitable status to the brethren, which said: "This decision makes it clear that there is no presumption that religion generally or at any more specific level is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England.
"The case law on religious organisations is rather ambiguous. Our view is that the definition is rather dated. It is our job to define it adequately."
Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chairman of the committee, said that the commission appeared to have picked out the brethren as a test case to find out exactly what was covered by the public benefit laws.
Jenkin said he felt that this method of establishing exactly what the law meant was not satisfactory.
"Picking a relatively vulnerable organisation and putting you through huge time and expense is a rotten way to decide what charity law means," he said.