MPs call on Charity Commission to grant Plymouth Brethren charitable status

Backbenchers including Robert Halfon write to The Daily Telegraph newspaper saying the government should review the public benefit test for charities

Robert Halfon MP
Robert Halfon MP

More than 50 MPs are urging the Charity Commission to review the "unjust decision" to deny charitable status to a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

In a letter to the The Daily Telegraph newspaper, 53 MPs also call on the government to review the public benefit test for charities, arguing it is "vague and has led to severe difficulties".

It comes after the Charity Commission’s decision not to grant charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon. The group has appealed the decision to the charity tribunal and a hearing is due to take place next year.

The politicians, the majority of whom are Conservative backbenchers including Robert Halfon, David Burrowes and John Glen, note that other small religious groups, including the Druid Network, the Lambeth Congregation of Jehovah’s Witness and the World Zoroastrian Organisation, have received charitable status.

"There should be an urgent review into how this decision was made and whether there was a level playing field," the letter says. "The Christian Brethren were persecuted by the Nazis during the Second World War. This makes it all the more important for Britain – which has a proud tradition of religious tolerance – not to single out the Brethren.

"We urge the new chairman of the Charity Commission to stop this tribunal and to review this unjust decision," it says. "If the 2006 Charities Act has now become a quagmire, trapping faith communities, then clearly it needs an overhaul."

Meanwhile, a bill to amend legislation to treat all religious institutions as charities received its first reading in parliament. Its second reading is tabled for March.

The Conservative backbencher Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough, presented a Ten Minute Rule Motion in the House of Commons seeking leave to bring a bill to amend the Charities Act 2011 "to treat all religious institutions as charities; and for connected purposes". The majority of MPs – 166 – supported the motion, with seven voting against it.

It is rare that bills introduced under the 10-minute rule become law because they are usually opposed by the government in the later stages. The majority pass their first reading without any opposition.

The Charities Act 2006 introduced the requirement that all charities, including those advancing religion, education and the relief of poverty, should demonstrate public benefit.

Bone told parliament yesterday that the removal by the act of the presumption that religious institutions have charitable status had "led to the unintended consequence of the state being able to interfere, through the Charity Commission, with religious institutions....Simply put, this is state interference in religious institutions through the back door."

He added that the presumption for religious institutions should be returned to the Charities Act. "The 2011 Act clearly states in clause 3(1)(c) that the advancement of religion should be considered a charitable purpose," he said. "Surely, if the advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose, the presumption to grant religious institutions charitable status is the logical action to be taken by the Charity Commission, but the current commissioners are determined to misinterpret the law.

"The advancement of religion is not the only category of public benefit that religious institutions bring to society. For example, the Salvation Army, a Christian organisation for more than 200 years, has provided help to the elderly, the young, offenders, drug addicts and disabled people. In future, if the religious practices of the Salvation Army are deemed not to be for the public benefit by the Charity Commission, will the Salvation Army lose its charitable status?"

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said it was aware that some parliamentarians were interested in the Preston Down case, but opinion among MPs was varied.

"The question for the commission is not about the validity of the Christian religion which the members follow," she said. "The legal question for the Charity Commission is whether the organisation is advancing the Christian religion for the public benefit, according to charity law."

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