I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Charities Act 2011 to treat all religious institutions as charities;
and for connected purposes.
On Monday this week, I delivered a letter to the Prime Minister to No. 10 Downing street. It was signed by 113 right hon. and hon. Members, drawn from many different political parties. It urges the Government to restore the presumption of charitable status to all religious institutions. The Charity Commission has recently ruled against a Plymouth Brethren church, stating that it is not of public benefit and can therefore no longer be seen as having charitable status. The repercussions of such a ruling could have a disastrous effect on religious institutions and the excellent work they do in the charitable sector.
The Charities Act 2006, which was consolidated into the Charities Act 2011, removed the presumption that religious institutions have charitable status. That has led to the unintended consequence of the state being able to interfere, through the Charity Commission, with religious institutions. Simply put, this is state interference in religious institutions through the back door. The 2006 Act removed the presumption that religious institutions were given charitable status—indeed, religious institutions now have to give tangible proof to demonstrate that they are a public benefit to be classed as charities.
My hon. Friend Mr Turner led Her Majesty’s official Opposition on the Charities Bill in 2006. On Second Reading, he expertly pointed out the problem of religious institutions having to demonstrate their public benefit. Using the example of prayer, my hon. Friend asked the question:
“how can it be demonstrated that prayer is of a public benefit?”—[Hansard, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1583.]
He later explained that religious institutions would find it hard to prove the benefit of prayer to a sceptical and secular group such as the Charity Commission. In that debate, the former Member for Maidstone, Ann Widdecombe, spoke on this subject. Deftly describing the situation regarding the previous legal presumption for religious institutions, she said:
“‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”—[Hansard, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1589.]
As usual, I wholeheartedly agree with what Ann said. I believe that the presumption for religious institutions should be returned to the Charities Act 2011. The 2011 Act clearly states in clause 3(1)(c) that the advancement of religion should be considered a charitable purpose. Surely, if the advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose, the presumption to grant religious institutions charitable status is the logical action to be taken by the Charity Commission, but the current commissioners are determined the misinterpret the law.
The advancement of religion is not the only category of public benefit that religious institutions bring to society. For example, the Salvation Army, a Christian organisation for more than 200 years, has provided help to the elderly, the young, offenders, drug addicts and disabled people. It provides food and shelter for the homeless, and it operates food distribution centres. From my own experience, as the chair of the all-party group on human trafficking, I know that the Salvation Army has helped the victims of human trafficking, by providing them with support and accommodation. Its efforts have been recognised by the Government and it has been awarded almost £2 million to support such victims. In future, if the religious practices of the Salvation Army are deemed not to be for the public benefit by the Charity Commission, will the Salvation Army lose its charitable status?
The Commission’s ruling on the Plymouth Brethren makes the most extraordinary statement:
“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”.
There we have it: not even the Church of England is safe. Does this mean that the Plymouth Brethren are but the first to feel the wrath of the secular, biased Charity Commission? Will Judaism, the Catholic Church or indeed the Church of England itself come under pressure by the Commission to prove their public benefit? Charlie Elphicke recently told the Public Administration Committee about the Plymouth Brethren and said that 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.”
I am reminded of the poem “First they came”, describing the persecution of different groups, in darker times. Today, it could be amended to read, “First they came for the Plymouth Brethren and I did not speak out because I was not a Brethren. Then they came for the Evangelical Church and I did not speak out because I was not an Evangelical. Then they came for the Catholic Church and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
I fear that if the presumption for religious institutions to have charitable status is not reinstated in the Charities Act, we will bring about consequences that will not only be detrimental to the charity sector, but to the very fabric of our society. In fact, the removal of the presumption in the Charities Act 2006 was never intended by the previous Government to penalise charitable religious institutions. In Committee, the then Under-Secretary for the Cabinet Office and now Leader of the Opposition, Edward Miliband stated that
“religious organisations need to be given reassurance and confidence that those that have charitable status will continue to enjoy it and that the Bill does not affect their status. We can give them that assurance in broad terms.”––[Official Report, Charities Public Bill Committee,
The right hon. Gentleman went on to reiterate that religious institutions providing access to worship and the advancement of religion are “clearly a public benefit”. How can it be that the 2006 Act, championed by the current Leader of the Opposition through Parliament, who gave clear guarantees to protect religious institutions of their charitable status, can be used and abused by the Charity Commission in a clear misinterpretation of the public benefit requirement? For more than 400 hundred years, since the Charitable Uses Act 1601, the advancement of religion has been considered a charitable purpose.
Recently, the Charity Commission ruled that the Plymouth Brethren did not fulfil the public benefit requirement as a charity. How can a group active in the role of advancing religion that contains more 16,000 members of the British public not be considered a public benefit? If the advancement of religion on its own as a charitable purpose cannot be seen as an identifiable benefit to the public, I will provide one of many examples of the selfless work of the Plymouth Brethren.
During the recent flooding, in the Bicknacre and Danbury areas, members of the Plymouth Brethren church helped local residents by sandbagging their properties, assisting in moving residents and their belongings from the flooded St Giles home for the mentally disabled, and using their 4x4 vehicles to remove vehicles from flood water—I am sure at some personal risk to themselves. If those acts cannot be described as selfless and charitable, then I do not know what can.
There is clearly an almighty mess. When I find such a situation, I have two default positions. First, it must have been caused entirely by the Liberal Democrats. Now, that just is not the case here. Many Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill and one is a sponsor, so that is clearly not the reason. I therefore move on to my second default position, which is that in nearly all cases the cause of all problems is the European Union. I have gone through every EU directive, but I cannot find one that imposes this restriction. What is happening is creeping secularism in society. With just a few days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and in recognition of religious freedom, I urge right hon. and hon. Members to support my ten-minute rule Bill.