The Charity Commission is looking into claims that the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church has provided campaigning support for Conservative general election candidates and held prayers for a Conservative victory.
The Times newspaper reported earlier this week that members of the Brethren, who do not vote, had been "leafleting for Conservative candidates in key marginal seats", including Chippenham in Wiltshire, Montgomeryshire and Yeovil in Somerset, and had said prayers for the party’s success.
The paper said that hundreds of Brethren volunteers had leafleted for Conservatives during the 2010 election, and many of those MPs later went on to support the church in its bid to be registered as a charity by the commission.
This claim has previously been reported in The Times and reiterated to Third Sector by Paul Flynn, who was then the Labour MP for Newport West.
In January 2014 the Preston Down Trust, a Devon-based congregation of the church, was registered with the commission after a five-year legal battle over whether it was 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. Since the registration of the PDT, a further 70 Plymouth Brethren congregations have been granted charitable status by the commission.
A spokeswoman for the commission said today: "We are aware of concerns raised in the press regarding the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church and have contacted representatives to establish the facts of this matter." Once this happened, she said, the regulator would decide what action to take, if any.
"Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activity makes clear that a charity must not give its support to any political party or candidate and that all charities must ensure their independence is maintained and perceptions of independence are not adversely affected," the spokeswoman said. "As charity regulator, we expect charity trustees to take account of this fundamental requirement as a core part of their decision-making processes."
A statement issued by the church to Third Sector said it had conducted its own investigation into the allegations and would cooperate fully with the Charity Commission's review.
It said: "The PBCC, like any church, has an interest in good government – not only how it will affect the interests of the church, but also what is best for all in this country.
"However, there is no instruction from anyone regarding which party to support. Many people of faith will look at candidates’ commitments to faith schools and other related issues and support accordingly. Many Brethren members run small businesses and that too will have an impact on their political positions. However, above all, we seek strong leadership cognisant of Christian values."