Last month, Peter Bone MP used a Ten Minute Rule bill – and a comment piece on ConservativeHome – to raise the case of Preston Down Trust, an organisation of the Plymouth Brethren that had been denied charitable status by the Charity Commission.
The case, now the subject of a tribunal, has important implications for religious freedom in this country, and so it is good to see a balanced article on the issue appear on the Guardian website.
Written by James Gray (an independent campaigns adviser, not the Conservative MP), it provides some useful background:
- “Founded in the 19th century, the Brethren are a Christian movement whose lifestyle is characterised by daily bible study, an emphasis on traditional family roles and a rejection of radio, TV and cinema. Their doctrine of ‘separation’ limits time spent with outsiders, but adherents say the popular perception that the community lives in isolation, severing all ties with those who choose to leave – hence the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ epithet – is an outdated stereotype.
- “The case hinges on whether the doctrine and practices of the Brethren are compatible with the public benefit requirement of charity law. Until the Charities Act 2006 there was a presumption that ‘advancement of religion’ was in itself a public benefit, but the act removed that presumption and required religious charities – just like those with other legally defined charitable purposes – to demonstrate explicitly how their activities made a positive contribution to the community.”
The idea that charities should be able to demonstrate public benefit is not an unreasonable one. After all, the public nature of the benefits provided by charities is what distinguishes them from private associations like businesses or, for that matter, families.
When the 2006 reforms were first debated, a commonly given example of a religious organisation that would fail the public benefit test was that of a completely enclosed religious order. By definition, no public access to the activities of such an organisation would be possible – therefore it wouldn’t qualify for charitable status.
This seemed fair enough at the time. However, the Charity Commission now appears to be making an example of the Plymouth Brethren – where the situation is substantially different.
It is certainly true that, compared to the Church of England, participation in Brethren activities can involve greater demands upon the individual. But something similar could be said of, say, a community theatre group that only stages productions of a highly experimental nature instead of the more ‘accessible’ fare of mainstream amateur dramatics. Does the Charity Commission propose to deny charitable status to arts organisations when they get demanding – or is it just religion on the hit list?
The Preston Down case is complicated one and the issue of public access is just one of its strands. Nevertheless, one has to ask whether an unelected quango like Charity Commission is going too far in interpreting the law:
- “When parliamentarians and parts of the media found out about its decision, they were quick to accuse the commission of ‘anti-Christian’ bias… The case also dominated last month's Westminster Hall debate on charity registration, with some MPs calling for a full parliamentary inquiry.”
Some people may see this as political interference. But the alternative view is that it is the Charity Commission that is over-reaching itself. Adjudicating on regulatory technicalities is one thing, making value judgements is entirely another.