Charity Commission is anti-religion, says Tory MP

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church's Public Benefit report

Charity Commission is anti-religion, says Tory MP17

Governance | Tania Mason | 31 Oct 2012

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke has accused the Charity Commission of trying to suppress religion and predicted that the Plymouth Brethren case, where the organisation has been refused charity status, will be the first of many.

Elphicke, a member of the Public Administration Select Committee, made the comments at a PASC hearing on public benefit and charitable status yesterday morning.

Elders from the Plymouth Brethren, an exclusive and evangelical Christian sect, had been giving evidence about the Charity Commission’s refusal to continue their charitable status when Elphicke asked them if they thought the Commission was “actively trying to suppress religion in the UK, particularly the Christian religion”.

Elder Garth Christie responded: “I think we would share those concerns.”

Asked by Elphicke whether the elders thought the Charity Commission’s actions amounted to incompetence, or deliberate wickedness, Christie said: “It does seem very odd.”

Labour MP Paul Flynn said it was ridiculous to suggest Christians are discriminated against in this country, given the immense position and privilege enjoyed by the Church of England.

But Elphicke told the elders: “I think they [the Commission] are committed to the suppression of religion and you are the little guys being picked on to start off a whole series of other churches who will follow you there.”

Elders’ evidence to committee

In their evidence to the committee, the elders said they were at a loss to understand why the Commission had refused them charitable status.  The reason given, that the Brethren lived apart from the rest of society and so did not provide public benefit, was simply not correct, they said.

Elder Bruce Hazell, who peppered his evidence with quotes from the scriptures, said anyone was welcome to attend the church’s services, and cited a variety of ways that the church members interact with outsiders and provide public benefit.

These included regular street preaching, distributing Christian booklets and Bibles; giving away hot food and drinks; visiting people in hospitals and prisons; fundraising for other charities, and providing employment for 4,500 non-Brethrens.

Christie added that the Charity Commission was made well aware of these things so the church could not conceive why it had been denied charitable status. The church had even published a report detailing its public benefit (pictured).

He added that it didn’t seem fair that the Druids had won charitable status with just 350 members, and the Brethren, with 16,000 members and over 300 churches or meeting halls, had been refused.

Paul Flynn: unwelcome intrusion

Labour’s Flynn commented that if he was lying ill in hospital and the Brethren turned up to visit, “I think it would give me a relapse.”  He asked the elders whether they accepted that many people would regard the Brethren’s street preaching, handing out of literature, and hospital visits, as “unwelcome”.  After a pause, Hazell replied: “Well, we wouldn’t resign from it, Mr Flynn, it’s our life.”

Christie told the committee that the “tussle” between the Brethren and the regulator had been going on for seven years now, and the Brethren had “wasted” many hundreds of thousands of pounds arguing its case. “If we end up going all the way to Strasbourg – which we will if we have to, to argue this principle – then we really don’t know what the end cost will be.”

He said the cost was manageable for an organisation the size of the Brethren church, but if the Charity Commission was to apply the same pressure to smaller independent churches, it would be “curtains” for them.

Under questioning, the elders admitted that the main advantage that charity status bestows on the charity is the financial benefit from tax reliefs including gift aid. But Christie insisted that "as a Christian organisation we are totally righteous in our financial affairs".

Commission letter: No presumption that religion is for the public benefit

He quoted from the Charity Commission’s letter to the Brethren advising that charitable status would be refused: “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 religion is rather ambiguous.  Our view is that the definition is rather dated, and it is our job to define it adequately.”

But Christie said the Brethren believe that that is a job for Parliament, not the Charity Commission.

He added that Ed Miliband, the minister that saw the Charities Act through Parliament in 2006, said at the time that removing the presumption of public benefit from religious charities “was not intended to lead to a narrowing down of the range of religious activities that could be considered charitable”.

A better way

Committee chair Bernard Jenkin MP wondered whether there was any other route the Charity Commission could take to test the application of the public benefit requirement, instead of having to take a specific case through the tribunal system. “The problem at the moment is that the process for trying to clarify an area of law always seems to be done at an individual charity’s expense,” he said.

Nicola Evans, a senior charity lawyer at Bircham Dyson Bell, said the regulator could make a reference to the Attorney General, though usually those charities that are likely to be affected will apply to take part in the proceedings anyway.

Jenkin concluded: “Whatever the merits or demerits of the Charity Commission’s view, this process of testing the law on a relatively vulnerable organisation and putting it through huge time and expense is the wrong way to decide what charity law means.”

John Handel
17 Jan 2013

The comment from Christie as to being 'odd' is clearly what needs to be clarified in this issue.
Elphicke's comments raise concern with all believers and rightly so.
As for Paul Flynn's comments I suppose everyone is allowed their own judgement but to voice it so personally showed his own stance in relation to belief as it is generally reported he is an atheist. So he clearly would not see the need to fight an attack on religion having no belief himself.
I am sure the Charity Commission will eventually be brought to see their mistake and turn this matter to approve the Brethren’s application as charitable.
After all, what is Christianity if it is not charitable?
It is abundantly clear that all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrate a benefit to any community as repelling evil.

Suzie Best
Student Intern
3 Jan 2013

The Charity Commission denied the Exclusive Brethren (newly named Plymouth Brethren Christian Church) their charitable status more to do with their damaging, extremist, separation doctrines than anything else. Until you have seen or heard the hurt and pain and suffering inflicted on those who have left this cult, you will not have the least bit of understanding what they are on about.

John Handel
23 Dec 2012

Absolutely agree with you FHG.
So I have been watching this too with growing concern.
As for activity I have been quoting this site:
It is only one example of many I personally know the brethren have produced a clear evidence of public benefit, besides the fact that religion is a benefit anyway.
To quote from the CC themselves:
1.under the current law the provision of services of public worship which are genuinely open to anyone to attend is in itself sufficient to satisfy the public benefit requirement even if, in practice, the numbers attending such services are small;
So let us trust and pray the CC stop being anti-Christian.

FH Grundy
16 Dec 2012

I despair when I read the squabbles of religious people. They all believe their way of worshipping God is the right one - and they ALL can't be right can they? I think it is innapropriate to involve the state in these squabbles. Unfortunately they are so tied up together it will take a god-like figure to unravel it all. The spite that is stirred up woories me and I wish the effort involved in arguing with each other could be channelled better. It seems to me the "activity" should be awarded charitable status not the "church" or "religion".

Ms Roiden
9 Dec 2012

There is plenty of case law to establish that Churches are charitable and that includes the brethren in this case. Shame on the former Labour government for allowing the Charities Act to pass through like it did and get into this ridiculous situation.

7 Dec 2012

Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are all members of the public.
Interestingly enough, we would find it difficult to describe the Plymouth or
Exclusive, closed or open brethren, anything other than members of the public,
whether we have personal grievances or not.
If Druids can achieve Charitable Status for the furtherance and education of
religion, why shouldn’t the Preston Down Trust for the same reason. Are the Charity
commission adjudicators over religious customs and rituals?
It is very unfair to force these brethren to waste their valuable time and resources,
which would be better used for charitable purposes, fighting for rights, which are
awarded to others without question

4 Dec 2012

I am interested in the comments on this site. Christianity has benefitted this country for centuries.Indeed the 'giving' nature of the western world helped build Germany after WWll, Millions of dollars poured in to a country broken by war. This continues to happen, the whole concept of 'giving' and 'selflessness' comes from the fundamental morals of Christianity that has shaped the world. To find people who have these principals and practice them is very refreshing. I hope their efforts and devotion is taken account of and the Charity Commission don't miss what they see in this outstanding organisation who are giving so much back to society.

Niki May Young
Website editor
5 Nov 2012

Can I remind everyone that the comments board is not a place for personal attacks or to further personal agendas. Please remain civil at all times and retain the standing of this board as a place for intellectual discussion on matters affecting charities.

Thank you,
Niki May Young
Website editor

Keely Morley
4 Nov 2012

It is amazing to me that people want tolerance for everyone else but for those who have faith. We demand the rights of others but feel completely free to say to Christians that their beliefs are 'whacky'. Are Muslims whacky, buddhists whacky, hindus whacky? The church in our country does amazing charitable work from providing homework clubs to thousands of young people who would otherwise be found on the streets, to feeding the homeless, providing counselling to the bereaved, a friend to the widow. I am incredibly sad to see such a small minded approach to the church and such limited understanding. And to demean someone's parenting simply because they are a Christian. Intolerance is alive and well

2 Nov 2012

Just as you are entitled to your views so am I.
The original issue was about persecution - look at
Is murder not persecution?

1 Nov 2012

No religious groups should be classified as charities - why should they be? Where religious groups may happen to do charitable work they can still set up a charity and claim charity status, just like any other group, but there is no reason whatsover why the general worship and social parts of a religion should be classified as charities.

James Smith
31 Oct 2012

I think Norman should try and acquaint himself better with the meaning of persecution - laughable to suggest that Christianity in particular and religions in general are even remotely persecuted in the UK. It's ludicrous to suggest so.

31 Oct 2012
Response to [James Smith]

Do you have any knowledge of the way in which my children were treated by a teacher at a state school for professing their Christian faith James Smith? I am very well aware of the meaning of the word persecution.

Duncan Lundie
2 Nov 2012
Response to [Norman]

Which "profession" was it? Gays are going to hell, if you don't follow Jesus you're going to hell, the earth is 6000 years old, or all of the above.

N.B. Derision is not persecution

5 Nov 2012
Response to [Duncan Lundie]

Please don’t judge me just as I am not judging you – none of us have the right to judge one another – although sadly many of us do. I have gay, lesbian and black and white close relatives and we all get along quite happily and value one another’s contribution to our family. I also work side by side with gay and lesbian people – and yes some of them are practicing Christians too. Who am I to “judge” if you or I are going to hell or not?
I suspect there are just as many non-Christians as Christians who need to adopt a less condemnatory approach to life and those around them. We would certainly have fewer wars both now and historically if we all just got off our soap boxes and stopped these personal attacks – point made I think. The end!

31 Oct 2012

By Labour MP Paul Flynn saying it was ridiculous to suggest Christians are discriminated against in this country given the immense position and privilege enjoyed by the Church of England he has demonstrated how little he knows about Christianity. There are a range of other christian denominations apart from the C of E and religion is a personal issue affecting people not political institutions. The fact is that Christians are persecuted in this country for their "old fashioned fairy tale beliefs".

2 Nov 2012
Response to [Norman]

Well, maybe you should attempt an outlook on life that is somewhat more evidence based. After all, you're partly to blame for indoctrinating your own children with such a whacky set of beliefs.
Christianity has no more basis for belief than scientology. After all, you seem to believe in a God who approved the authorship of a book, in his name, that told people that having animals copulate alongside different coloured sticks would produce striped offspring, zombie marches (undocumented and apparently unnoticed) etc.
How very post-modernist of you.


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