MPs have discussed curbing the independence of the Charity Commission since its decision to deny the Plymouth Brethren charitable status, a parliamentary committee heard yesterday.
Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, said that the commission’s decision to refuse charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, a Brethren congregation in Devon, had made it into a laughing stock in parliament.
Speaking at a meeting of the Public Administration Select Committee that was hearing evidence from the chair and chief executive of the Charity Commission, Elphicke said: "I think the independence of the commission is important. But MPs are saying maybe we should start legislation to take away that independence and have a greater sense of control. There’s a feeling that such decisions don’t strike the right balance."
He referred to a recent Westminster Hall debate, attended by more than 40 MPs, at which the commission was criticised for its treatment of the Brethren and was accused of an anti-Christian bias. Elphicke said yesterday that the debate had been "a bad day for the Charity Commission".
But another member of the committee, Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said that the debate had been a "very bad day for parliament" and that it had featured "a group of MPs of extraordinary gullibility with an enhanced sense of victimhood falling for one line of an argument".
William Shawcross, chair of the commission, said it was unfortunate that the commission had angered MPs, but it had no intention of withdrawing from the tribunal or reconsidering its position.
He denied that there was any secular bias at the commission and said he would "never be chair of any organisation that was running a crusade against Christianity – or, indeed, any other religion".
Appearing after Younger and Shawcross, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, defended the commission’s right to make judgments in individual cases and said he would not intervene in the process.
"The commission is an independent regulator," he said. "It took a decision. The tribunal will make the final judgment. "My view as a minister is irrelevant."
Hurd said the commission had been given "an incredibly difficult job" by parliament and was doing it to the best of its ability. "What concerns me is that the underlying process is robust," he said.