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Plymouth Brethren takes charitable status case to tribunal

26 Jul 2012 News

The Charity Commission head office at One Drummond Gate

Copyright Fergus Burnett

Two Exclusive Brethren groups are taking the Charity Commission to the Charity Tribunal after the regulator denied one group charitable status concluding that it did not advance religion for public benefit.

This is the first time the Charity Commission has refused charitable status to a religious group on the basis of the changes around public benefit introduced by the Charities Act 2006. Measures included in the Act relating to the public benefit test mean that the advancement of religion alone does not make an organisation eligible for charitable status; it must now prove that it advances religion for public benefit.

The Preston Down Trust is part of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, a highly conservative, Evangelical Christian movement, and meets in Torquay, Paignton and Newton Abbey in Devon. Exclusive Brethren organisations typically limit contact with the outside world.

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: "Our consideration of the public benefit requirement took into account the nature of Christian religion embraced by the Trust and the means through which this was promoted, including the public access to its services and the potential for its beneficial impact on the wider community.

“The central issue in the appeal will be whether the public benefit requirement is satisfied in relation the Exclusive Brethren organisations under the law as it now is.

"It is for the organisation to satisfy the Commission that it is a charity, not for the Commission to demonstrate it is not."

The spokeswoman added that the 'charitability' of the Trust will now be considered by the tribunal in line with the law relating to the advancement of religion for the public benefit following the Charities Act 2006. She said that the Commission welcomes this an opportunity for the law to be clarified in this area as it affects the Exclusive Brethren.

Wider implications for charities

Preston Down Trust’s appeal has been lodged alongside one by the trustees of the Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust, a Leeds-based Exclusive Brethren group that was granted charitable status in 1988, as the result of the appeal may have wider implications for groups registered as charities before the Charities Act blurred the distinction between religion and public benefit.

The Commission spokeswoman explained: “[Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust], along with a small number of Exclusive Brethren organisations, was registered  prior to the implementation of the Charities Act 2006 on the basis of the law as it was then understood. The 2006 Act removed the presumption of public benefit from certain classes of charity including religious charities.

“As a result, the Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust may be affected by the decision of the Tribunal in this case and that is why they have joined in the appeal against the Commission decision not to register the Preston Down Trust.”

The Commission is two months from the end of its current consultation on public benefit guidance, following its loss last year in the Upper Tribunal which confirmed that trustees and not the Commission decide how charities should meet the public benefit test.

MP: Decision 'runs counter to govt assurances'

Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, has written to the Charity Tribunal backing the two trusts’ appeal, arguing that the Plymouth Brethren has a recognised 'commitment to the public good'.

He wrote: “The Brethren Gospel Hall trusts have been recognised as charitable institutions by the Charity Commission and HMRC for over 50 years. I cannot therefore understand why they are now being stripped of charitable status and do not imagine that it was the intention of the previous government that the changes made by the Charities Act 2006 would impact on a well-known religious organisation in this way.

“The Brethren not only hold sessions of worship, which are open to the public, but also conduct hundreds of street preachings every week, as part of their commitment to the public good.”

Brazier added that he believes that Preston Down Trust is being used as a test case for all the other halls used by the Plymouth Brethren, and that if the appeal is not successful then it will be 'deeply threatening' to other churches and other religions.

“The Commission’s decision runs counter to the assurances given by both government ministers and the Commission itself, that established religions should not find themselves denied charitable status as a result of the provisions of the 2006 Act,” he said.

The Commission however advised clarified that, "The Commission has not revoked charitable status from the Preston Down Trust, a Brethren meeting hall. The organisation applied to be entered onto the register of charities and the application was refused on the basis that we were unable to conclude that the organisation is established for the advancement of religion for public benefit."