Charitable Registration — [Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 13th November 2012.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 2:30 pm, 13th November 2012

I declare an interest, entered on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a partner of a law firm that carries out a modest amount of charity law work, although, as may become patently clear in my speech, I have never specialised in that field. I recently had to take a crash course on charity law, and I apologise for any errors in my understanding of what is a far from simple field.

I am heartily encouraged by the number of Members attending this debate; it is the most I have ever seen in a Westminster Hall debate. In fact, there are so many Members that some are having to sit on the side. Many Members have said that they support my concerns on this matter.

If an organisation wishes to be registered as a charity, it both has to have charitable purposes and be of public benefit. The Charities Act 2006 states that it is not to be presumed that a purpose is for public benefit, so organisations applying to the Charity Commission for registration now have to demonstrate public benefit—something that comprises two elements: whether the nature of the charitable purpose is of benefit to the community, and whether those who may benefit constitute a section of the public. Charities that would previously have been registered without needing to demonstrate public benefit now need to do so.

In a debate in the House on the 2006 Act, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office said:

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit, with one change. Under the existing law, there is the presumption that charities established for the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or the advancement of religion are for the public benefit… The Bill abolishes that presumption.”

The critical phrase is that

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit”.—[Hansard, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 24-25.]

I shall refer to that in a moment.

The Charity Commission has the job of registering charities and applying the public benefit test to those charities that previously would have been exempt. One such charity is the Preston Down Trust of the Plymouth Brethren—a religious charity. In the main, I will confine my speech to public benefit as it relates to religious charities, as opposed to charities that relieve poverty or advance education, both of which have recently been the subject of charity tribunal cases.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the number of colleagues in attendance. I share her views, and I will quickly speak for the Plymouth Brethren in my patch. Is she aware of the large amount of research on the social and community benefits of moderate religious observance? Is there not a case, therefore, for moving back towards the wider definition of social benefit that we had historically in this country?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Yes, I very much agree. It is an enormous burden for organisations such as the Plymouth Brethren to have to prove public benefit, as I will demonstrate.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in this important debate. She will know that the Brethren run crusades called “every boys rally” and “every girls rally” that attract tens of thousands of young people into their halls. Those young people benefit from social education, physical training and interaction with their local community. That is a major public benefit, and if the big guy is able to crush the little guy, as the Charity Commission is trying to do, that will destroy the social benefit that that Church delivers to the community across the United Kingdom. I commend the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the House.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point in his characteristically strong manner.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on the Charity Commission’s bizarre decision. When gospel halls across the country apply to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be recognised as a charity, they are recognised as a charity, so the Charity Commission’s dichotomy is bizarre and must be put right.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

There are two more dichotomies: there appears to be no challenge to the rating exemption of gospel halls, provided that they have an appropriate notice outside; and, as devolved legislation, charity registration is dealt with differently in Scotland. I understand that the charitable registration of religious organisations in Scotland is not being challenged, so we could have a bizarre situation whereby, for example, a Brethren church in Scotland is registered as a charity and is able to claim tax exemption through the HMRC regulations, but its sister or brother church in England or Wales is not.

Earlier this year, the Charity Commission advised the Preston Down Trust’s solicitors that

“As a matter of law we are not able to satisfy ourselves and conclusively determine that Preston Down Trust is established for exclusively charitable purposes for public benefit and suitable for registration as a charity.”

That came as a complete surprise to the Plymouth Brethren organisation because it has been recognised as having charitable status for more than 50 years.

The Plymouth Brethren Church is a Christian Church that was established in 1828 as a breakaway from the Church of England and has some 16,000 members across the country. The Brethren’s Bible is the same Bible used by the Church of England and other mainstream Christian denominations with nothing added and nothing taken away.

The case is now the subject of an appeal by the Brethren to the charities first-tier tribunal and has been of extreme concern to Plymouth Brethren churches across the country since the Charity Commission refused the Preston Down Trust’s application, which was a sample application that effectively challenged the charitable status of up to 300 other Plymouth Brethren trusts, some of which are in Scotland.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma Conservative, Reading West

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; there is clearly huge interest among hon. Members. In Reading, we have three gospel halls run by the Brethren that do very good public works. Does my hon. Friend agree that the case goes wider than the Brethren? The Charity Commission could be setting a precedent, which is something that none of us wants. Does she agree that we need to be careful to ensure that there is fairness and that we do not set a precedent that we will regret?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I absolutely agree. Some smaller Christian denominations are seriously concerned. I know who they are, but they do not wish to be named for obvious reasons. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of independent free Churches that potentially also have cause for concern but, incidentally, do not have the resources to appeal, as the Brethren have, to the tribunal.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is always a fighter for justice in the House. My hon. Friend mentioned resources, but is she aware that, to fight the case at the tribunal, the Brethren are having to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds that they could otherwise use for charitable activities?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is all right for the Charity Commission or others to say, “Oh, you don’t have to be legally represented before going to the tribunal,” but the case is of immense importance. Not to have legal representation when, of course, the charity commissioners are legally represented would at least be unwise.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Again, on resources, does my hon. Friend share my deep concern about the Charity Commission’s suggestion that assets may be seized from the Church if, after deciding that the Church is not a charity, the Charity Commission deems that those assets were obtained under what it might call the pretence of being a charity?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am aware of that problem. It demonstrates how complicated the issue is and why it must be fundamentally reviewed.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that this is a test case on religion and the thin end of the wedge, particularly given that the Charity Commission’s letter says that even the Church of England would have to prove public benefit? Does she also share my concerns that the practices of the Catholic Church, in terms of the Eucharist, are very similar to those of the Plymouth Brethren being complained about by the Charity Commission? It is wrong to allow religion to be suppressed in the United Kingdom on any basis.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That is a good point. It is also particularly concerning that in coming to its decision, the Charity Commission has decided not to treat as a precedent a High Court case some 30 years ago, Holmes v. Attorney-General, which held that the Plymouth Brethren’s Kingston Meeting Rooms Trust was a valid charitable trust, despite the Brethren’s well-known “separatist distinctives”; I am not sure that we would use that term now. The Court did so because those who were not members of the Brethren, provided that they came in the proper spirit and not a spirit of levity, were allowed to attend meetings of the Brethren other than Holy Communion and business meetings and furthermore because the Plymouth Brethren publicly attempt to evangelise by conducting campaigns in the streets and open spaces similar to the Salvation Army. Mr Justice Walton concluded in that case, which has held for 30 years, that

“it appears to be quite impossible on the evidence to come to the conclusion that there is a lack of benefit to the public”.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

I endorse other Members’ comments. Is my hon. Friend suggesting, in short, that the Charity Commission thinks that it can put itself above the decisions of the High Court? Does she condemn that, as I do?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The Charity Commission’s powers are to apply the law, not to make it. That is the domain of the House and the courts. The Charity Commission is a regulator, not a legislator.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

In my constituency, and I suspect in everyone else’s, the Plymouth Brethren meeting hall has received a letter refusing the Brethren charitable status and saying:

“This decision makes it clear that there is no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England”, although not in the case of Druids.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The difficulty is that we as a House failed to define public benefit in the Charities Act 2006; it is left to the courts. What will happen is that those who can afford the most expensive silks to argue their case are likely to triumph. Does the hon. Lady think that public benefit is well defined as far as education is concerned? Eton and Harrow have charity status, but schools on inner-city estates do not.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The position regarding public benefit in education was considered thoroughly in connection with the case to which I referred earlier, so I will confine my remarks to the issue of public benefit and religious organisations, which has not been examined or judicially reviewed for some time.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I thank my hon. Friend for taking yet another intervention; I think that there will be a lot of them. Public benefit and its connection to education is hugely important in my constituency. My constituents are surprised by the issue. The greatest impact that the Brethren have had in Montgomeryshire is to take over a school that the local authority had closed. There were four or five pupils. The Brethren stepped in and took over the school, and now it is hugely successful, respected and subscribed to by local people all over. That is a public benefit as worthy of charity status as any that I can think of.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That is a good example of public benefit on the part of that group.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Lady is being extraordinarily generous; it is characteristic of her good heart and soul, and we all appreciate it. She and I, along with the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert

Halfon), met the new chairman of the Charity Commission in his office last Monday. He sought to reassure us that there is no anti-Christian bias in the Charity Commission, although I suspected that some of us were slightly more convinced than others.

I am as guilty as anyone else for the lack of clarity in the Charities Act 2006. Does the hon. Lady not agree that we must resolve the issue once and for all? She has done a great service today by demonstrating to the House and those outside the depth of concern and, in some cases, the fear that exists, which should inform any future legislative correction of the slightly ill-written 2006 Act.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman has put my reasons for securing this debate more eloquently than I could have. It is meant to put on record the level of concern about the issue in this and the other House. There are many questions to be asked, and I hope that at least some of them will be asked today. He is right that some of them relate to the Charity Commission’s powers.

The notable Julian Rivers, professor of jurisprudence at the university of Bristol, has far more experience of the issue than probably anyone in this room. He has raised numerous concerns about the Charity Commission’s decision on the Preston Down Trust, particularly about the extent to which the Charity Commission considers that the abolition of the presumption of public benefit calls into question earlier cases involving religious charities, given that the former Minister said in the House in 2006:

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit”.—[Hansard, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 24.]

There is clearly serious confusion. A much fuller discussion of Julian Rivers’s concerns is contained in his book “The Law of Organised Religions”. He raises several concerns about this area of law that are now far from academic as a result of the Preston Down Trust case.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Conservative, South Derbyshire

Like many others, I have many constituents who are worried, not just for the Plymouth Brethren who work and form part of the community in South Derbyshire but for other religions as well. We have a big Catholic group in our area that does a lot of social work and has a big social constituency. I find it interesting that this could be the tipping point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Yes. Professor Rivers says that the law on the registration of religious charities

“is not completely clear and coherent… careful legal analysis and authoritative restatement would be helpful.”

One area of concern and confusion that he highlights is what we mean by the phrase “a section of the public” in relation to religious charities. If an organisation is to pass the test for charitable registration, a section of the public must benefit, but are not members of a denomination—the Methodists, for example—also members of the public? It has been suggested that the Charity Commission is trying to turn the question on its head by thinking of a class as restricted and therefore not consisting of members of the public, rather than as public because it is, on the face of it, open to all. The issue sounds complicated, but it is very important in the Plymouth Brethren case, in which it is clear that openness is a crucial factor in the Charity Commission’s thinking.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

Is it not the role of Parliament to protect the rights of minorities?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Yes, and to ensure that when they need access to justice, they can get it expeditiously and inexpensively.

The net result of the Charity Commission’s decision is that the Plymouth Brethren have had to go to enormous lengths to demonstrate the public benefit of their organisation and charitable activities by shouting about them in a way that they would not ordinarily have done.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Lady on raising this important issue. She will agree that the Charity Commission’s decision has caused extreme hurt to members of the Plymouth Brethren, because although there are big religious groups around, the Charity Commission seems to be willing to stamp on what it believes is a smaller group that is easily taken on. There surely is a rightful feeling that the Plymouth Brethren are being discriminated against.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This organisation is now bearing the brunt of efforts to clarify the law in this area. Is that right? Nicola Evans, a specialist charity lawyer, said recently in evidence to the Public Administration Committee:

“At the moment the process for trying to clarify an area of law seems to rely upon it being done at individual charities’ expense.”

That alone should give us cause for concern.

In denying Preston Down Trust charitable registration, the Charity Commission’s key concern appeared to be openness; that is, that non-Brethren members of the public might not be able to participate in their services. The Charity Commission questioned whether a notice board identifying the Preston Down Trust’s meeting hall as a public place of worship, with contact details,

“is sufficient to demonstrate meaningful access to participate in public worship.”

I have a copy of this notice board. It does not seem that different from—in fact, it seems to contain more details than—the average Church of England notice board. Pardon me for referring to those; I am simply picking that example because we see them so often. The notice board states:

“Brethren’s meeting room” and

“place of public religious worship”.

There is a reference to registration and the words,

“For details of gospel preachings and meetings for Bible teaching please phone” two phone numbers

“or write” to an address. It also states:

“A Gospel Preaching will be held on Sundays at 5 p.m. and all well-disposed persons are welcome to attend”, and so forth.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

Is not my hon. Friend’s key point that the Plymouth Brethren are not a closed sect, but an organisation that welcomes the public to participate in its activities and an important part of a vibrant community, such as the one in Swindon that I represent?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Absolutely. There is a complete distinction—I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify it—between the Brethren and closed orders of nuns, for example, which understandably do not have charitable status. The Brethren are different, living and working within local communities.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Conservative, Harrogate and Knaresborough

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way.

There are gospel halls in my constituency. I have found the Brethren to be a welcoming group with a strong sense of community who do good work across their community, as other churches and faith groups do. It would be wrong if Brethren trusts lost their charitable status. Does my hon. Friend agree that that could set a worrying precedent that would be applicable to other churches or faith groups, which could lose their charitable status?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I agree.

With reference to openness, the Plymouth Brethren are sometimes subject to caricature, partly because often we do not know them personally, but they are far more open than people might realise. For example, they have a modern website—Plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org —which has a “Contact us” page, enabling any member of the public to find their nearest local Plymouth Brethren church and service times. Hon. Members may be interested to know that I recently attended one of their services in Liverpool and I found nothing out of the ordinary in their Christian teaching at that service.

Some of the Brethren’s practices and the way in which they seek to live out their Christian lives are not necessarily what we would want to adhere to—I would not—but all denominations have their differences. The Brethren’s women wear headscarves in services, but so do women in other Christian denominations, such as the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and men in other religions, such as Sikhism. They do not vote. I do not agree with them on that and we have discussed it. I can certainly say that not one hon. Member here has a vested interest in standing up for them today. They say that scripture says that God sets up and deposes authorities, and that is their principle for not voting. At least they do not vote on principle, rather than because of laziness, but they do engage with and respect the democratic process in many other ways.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

I am glad that there are no no-go areas in Congleton for my hon. Friend when canvassing. I congratulate her on her lucid, diligent contribution to this debate. There is asymmetry in the apparatus of the state being used against the Plymouth Brethren. Does she agree that, given that there have been 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, until the law is properly clarified to the satisfaction of legislators there should be a moratorium on any further assessments?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It seems that the chief offence of the Brethren in today’s liberal secular society is their genuine, sincere desire to live by the Bible in a more literal sense than many of us seek to do. Is that so bad, particularly when looking at the good that results? I will come on to that in a moment.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

Not for the first time, the hon. Lady is doing great service to this House by raising an important issue. She is touching on a point that she made before, which is that this issue has forced the Brethren to mention things that they would not previously have shouted about. Quiet, unobtrusive service is at the heart of religion and that should be respected. The notion of limited interaction with the wider community has now forced the Brethren, including the Brethren in my constituency, to whom I pay tribute, particularly in Sale and Northenden, who have had to produce a catalogue of the service that they provide to their community. Will the hon. Lady join me in praising their efforts?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I will, indeed. The catalogue that the right hon. Gentleman mentions is a booklet entitled “Public Benefit: the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church”, which contains so much that the Plymouth Brethren demonstrate by way of public benefit, that I cannot possibly do it justice in a speech. I shall place a copy in the Library for the record.

The Charity Commission expressed

“concerns about the lack of public access to participation in…Holy Communion.”

Many Christian denominations limit participation in Holy Communion in some way, most notably, I understand, the Roman Catholic church. Other hon. Members may be able to testify to that. Restricting access to Holy Communion should not be a reason for refusing charitable status.

The Charity Commission also commented on the beneficial impact of the Preston Down Trust, saying that it is

“perhaps more limited than other Christian organisations as their adherence limits their engagement with the wider public”.

The point has been well made: that is simply because people do not know about what they have done, because they have not broadcast it, but have modestly gone about their work.

The Charity Commission says that

“the evidence in relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit of the community.”

I hope that, as a result of the production of the booklet, it reconsiders that view.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I commend the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to the attention of the House. Does she agree that the presence of so many hon. and right hon. Members from across the United Kingdom, and the contributions that have been made—all singing from the same hymn sheet—is an important, powerful signal to the Government and the public that something has to be done, if not by the Charity Commission, then by Government in this House.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Absolutely. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for saying that so plainly.

“Public Benefit” by the Plymouth Brethren church—I will touch on some points for the record, to get them in Hansard—includes support for families, care for young people, disaster relief, visits to prisons, hospitals, donations of substantial funds to many charities, including the British Heart Foundation, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Macmillan nurses, and dozens of others.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

Would not my hon. Friend say that that exemplifies the fact that not only are they there for the promotion of religion, but for the promotion of education and the relief of poverty? The work that they do in my constituency and elsewhere, particularly in providing work and jobs for people who might not otherwise have them, should be commended, not opposed or obstructed.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically astute point and I thank him for it.

I specifically want to mention the Preston Down Trust, because it is the subject of the appeal. I have additional information about its social action in the past two to three months, including the provision of free meals to members of the public, assisting at accidents, collecting for charity and street preaching and the distribution of tracts. It has that in common with all Plymouth Brethren churches. Surely no one can argue that they do not provide public benefit.

On the website, the Brethren say that

“we hold the same faith as every true Christian, we publicly preach the gospel and engage with the broader community through fund-raising and volunteer work. We work and live alongside people from many walks of life and many Brethren own businesses that collectively employ thousands of non-Brethren. Brethren characteristically are caring, active and contributing members of their local community.”

Someone might say, “Well, they would say that, because they are saying it about themselves”, but I assure people that I have spoken with a constituent of mine who describes himself as a lapsed atheist. He is certainly not a Christian, by his own admission, and he works for one of the several Plymouth Brethren businesses in my constituency. His name is Glyn Rushton, he is happy to go on the record and he works with Delta Balustrades, where he is a production manager. He got his job through the jobcentre in 2005 and he has the utmost respect for the Brethren, describing them as model employers:

“I would always view Brethren as a force for good in any area. They are industrious, independent minded people who care about those around them. They set out to solve more problems than they create and rarely feature in crime statistics”.

His point about the positive aspects of the Brethren way of life should not go unnoticed, and I draw attention to page 17 of the booklet to which I referred earlier.

It is important to raise the issue of information circulating on some internet sites that gives a negative portrayal of experiences to do with the Plymouth Brethren. I understand that such matters have not been a cause of the Charity Commission deciding to refuse charitable status. In a letter of 7 June, the commission states:

“We do not have any evidence before us at this time to demonstrate disadvantage which may serve to negate public benefit.”

No one would claim that any organisation is perfect, but if the Charity Commission has any such concerns the proper thing to do is to investigate thoroughly and to substantiate or discount them. At present, however, having checked with the Plymouth Brethren as late as this morning, I understand that that is not an issue in the appeal case of the Preston Down Trust.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I commend the hon. Lady, as others have done, for initiating the debate. She and I served on the Bill Committee that considered the Small Charitable Donations Bill and, in that context, it is clear that the Government have gone to some lengths to make quite elaborate and convoluted provision to take care of the differing set-ups and networks of the Catholic Church and the Church of England, though not much by way of smaller Churches. Does she accept that we Members of Parliament might have an opportunity, when that Bill returns to the Chamber in a couple of weeks, to support an amendment that would clarify that local churches as well as community amateur sports clubs should be included in the working definition of charities and at least come under the definition of community benefit?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I remember that aspect of the debate, and certainly that is something that could be considered.

Members have spoken about how many other faith groups are concerned about the legislation. It is interesting, therefore, to look back at the debate in 2006, when the Charities Act was passed in the House. Edward Miliband, now the Leader of the Opposition, said that

“it is right that public benefit must be shown, but…at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous. We have accepted, and I think others have, too, that making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit. It is clear in case law, and it will remain part of the charity law of this country. Religions have nothing to fear.”—[Hansard, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]

It would appear that religious charities now very much have something to fear.

Several commentators have remarked on the issue, and I want to draw attention to some of them, because it is important to demonstrate that concern exists about it among not only a huge swathe of parliamentarians but people in authority outside the House. Last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said he was “very concerned” and was quoted as saying:

“I do believe we need to hold the Charity Commission to account as much as they hold any religion and social service to account. I believe that Christianity has a huge and great record in terms of serving the community, in terms of education and all kinds of ways.”

Other people have expressed concern. Lord Boateng wrote to me:

“I believe the Charity Commission has exceeded its mandate and needs to be reined in. I believe people of faith have much to fear from this decision and will support all measures brought to Parliament to reverse it.”

A highly respected charity law practitioner, Robert Meakin, has written a book, which I have with me, called, “The Law of Charitable Status: Maintenance and Removal”—quite a triumph to read over the weekend, although I say so myself. His words date back to 2008, although I notice that the copy in the Library was in pristine condition:

“The law of public benefit is confusing and as a result the Commission cannot be confident of its powers to remove charities from the Register… there is a need for greater clarity about the Commission’s powers.”

Interestingly, he also refers to a 1948 House of Lords decision in a famous case, the National Anti-Vivisection Society v. the Inland Revenue Commissioners, in which Lord Simonds stated that

“only a radical change in circumstances, established by sufficient evidence” should justify holding an object not to be charitable which in earlier ages has been held to possess that virtue. As mentioned, the Plymouth Brethren have been registered as a charity for some 50 years.

Mr Meakin also says that it should be rare for charities to be removed from the register. He says that there is no power in the Charities Act authorising the commission to decide questions of charitable status judicially:

“Its role is to register charities and in doing so it must follow general law but there are so few decisions of the Court and legislation that the Commission is forced into becoming a de facto law-maker”, rightly pointing out the importance therefore of clarifying the issue. He also mentions the importance of public confidence, in the commission and in the status of charitable registration.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

It is interesting that the Charity Commission has not justified the action that it took. More importantly, is it not important for us to pursue the matter now, because who will it be next?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point.

Mr Meakin wrote about the importance of securing public confidence, and so many questions are now being asked that we must raise the issues broadly, to ensure that we maintain public confidence in charitable status. Many people rely on it when giving to and involving themselves in support for charities.

My hon. Friend Mr Leigh, former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“I understand that removing charitable status for religious bodies because of supposed lack of public benefit is dangerous territory. Doing so would almost certainly open up a minefield of civil actions in the courts and could quite possibly breach the conditions of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to religious discrimination. In addition to the obvious loss of religious freedom, the cost to the taxpayer of lengthy legal actions is worth taking into consideration beforehand.”

A leading Queen’s counsel and specialist in the field, Hubert Picarda, has given his opinion that the Preston Down Trust

“is a charity and should be registered as such… Where under the old law it has already been determined that a purpose is beneficial there is no necessity to determine…any further point. The requirement is already satisfied.”

He also mentions that, over the years,

“the conventional advancement of religion is intrinsically for the public benefit, has been accepted as such and there is no reason for creative bureaucratic intolerance to replace judicial and settled community tolerance.”

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am coming to the end of my speech, Members will be relieved to hear, but I shall give way.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the outstanding case that she is making today. May I bring her back to the Charity Commission? I think that it states that nearly 20% of registered charities are there for the advancement of religion and all the good causes that go along with that. It registers hundreds of Christian charities each year. What does she believe is really motivating the Charity Commission in this case? Is it because the Plymouth Brethren are different, a minority group and much easier to suppress as a result?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

It would be wrong of me to try to divine what is in the minds of the charity commissioners in that way, but we are perhaps seeing a clash between what we might call a secular liberal society and the traditional society that we have seen in our country up until now, which has respected the role of religions, particularly the Christian Church, over many centuries.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I wish my hon. Friend the best with her speech this afternoon. Does she agree that the Charity Commission has not kept to the general assurances given by Ministers in the previous Government that charities such as the Plymouth Brethren would not be affected by the Charities Act? In effect, the commission is going against Parliament itself.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That is a valid point; indeed, the Christian Institute, which is a non-denominational charity representing 3,800 churches from almost all Christian denominations, is concerned about the issue. It says:

“If the Charity Commission can now find against the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in the case of Preston Down Trust, this would appear to have grave implications for other Christian churches and groups, the majority of which apply some restrictions on access to sacraments and benefits… We believe the time is ripe for an Attorney General’s reference to properly clarify the law on public benefit with regard to religious charities. Furthermore, we would like to see modifications made to the role and structure of the Charity Commission, to prevent it adjudicating on theological matters, a function which it is ill-suited to discharge.”

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Does my hon. Friend, who is a very good woman indeed, agree that the Charity Commission has behaved absolutely disgracefully in this regard? Does she further agree that, rather than waiting for some ministerial diktat, it should admit that it got its decision wrong and overturn it immediately?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

One way of resolving this immediate issue would be for the charity commissioners to look at all that is in the public benefit. That alone should be sufficient for them to review the case.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, whose speech I am enjoying immensely—it is extremely good and gets right to the heart of the issue. She has also been very generous in giving way to countless Members. My concern—she has rightly moved on to this issue—is whether every Christian charity up and down the country will have to start preparing books and websites to get information out, so diverting them from the important work that they do. Will they have to do that to protect themselves just in case there is a problem? That would be outrageous.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I entirely agree. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

One option for trying to resolve this issue has not been mentioned: perhaps the case of the Preston Down Trust, which is, after all, a test case, could be referred to the upper tribunal, so that it was heard by a High Court judge of the chancery division and any decision would have appropriate status. That solution could be looked at. We certainly require a serious analysis by legal experts in this field, including an analysis of the case law on public benefit, what it means for religious organisations and how far organisations such as the Charity Commission should stand in judgment over religious groups. All those issues must be considered, and it is not merely an academic exercise, because the rubber has hit the road for the Plymouth Brethren. Who will be next?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I would be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend, who was, I believe, the shadow Minister when the Charities Bill was debated.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I was, and in a way this is a reflection on me because I allowed the relevant parts of the Bill to go through. However, Edward Miliband backed us up, saying that the provisions would not make any change. There is a grave danger in terms of not only religion, but education and poverty; the trouble is that we may bring charities to a situation where they are no longer charities, and they will lose everything. If it were the Church of England, we would lose our churches—it is as dire as that.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I have read the debate that he mentions, and I give credit to him, because he raised these concerns and he was given assurances, but those concerns are now coming to pass. The implications that he highlights go to the heart of religious freedom in this country—that is how far this issue goes.

The concerns highlighted today are shared by a great number of other Members, who were unable to attend, because they have other commitments, but they have asked me to put on record the fact that they support my concerns. They are my hon. Friends John Glen, for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is now here, for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), for Macclesfield (David Rutley), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), the hon. Member for

Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), my right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan, my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and for Lincoln (Karl McCartney), Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Mr Wilson. If I have read out the name of anyone who is here, I apologise.

In closing, may I reiterate what I said at the outset: I am not an expert in this field, and I have had to research and come to understand it.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Why break the habit of a debate?

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the Charity Commission should have spent a little less time going down the legal route and a little more time talking to people in the community? I have had the privilege of working with the Brethren for more than 20 years in a professional capacity—my family’s firm used to do a lot of their printing—and a lot of the things described as public benefit are real and genuine. If the Charity Commission had got out and talked to people who engage with the Brethren, but who are not part of the Brethren, it would have found that the public benefit spills well into the wider community, as I have seen. Surely, public benefit can be what is set by example, as well as what is practised in a religious sense.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank my hon. Friend for that. On that point, I shall rest our case.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

Order. I thought you were applauding me there—[ Interruption. ] You were. I have five applications to speak. I intend to call the shadow Minister at 3.40 pm, so that gives Members an idea of how long everyone can speak for.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 3:17 pm, 13th November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce again on making an absolutely brilliant case. We have already heard the detailed history of that case, and I have just two substantive points to make, because I am conscious of the fact that other Members want to speak.

First, from what I have seen of the Brethren in my constituency, they do work for the public benefit, and their meetings are open to non-Brethren. Secondly, what we need from the Charity Commission is consistency: we cannot have a situation in which some charities are seen as more equal than others.

As hon. Members know, I am not a Christian; I am of the Jewish faith. I do not even have a Brethren gospel hall in my constituency, but, my goodness, I have seen the work the Brethren do, and I wish I had one, I really do. The charitable work they do is quite remarkable, as are the food days, and I have seen that just over the border, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Walker. We should pay tribute to that.

In their submission to the Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member, the Plymouth Brethren said:

“In accordance with our beliefs…we practise separation. This is based in a moral distinction between right and wrong…It means that Brethren will, as a matter of conscience, mix socially and by association with other Brethren. However, it would be wrong to assume that Brethren do not take their place in the local community…we live as normal members of the community and take an active part in community life.”

As I said, I have seen that. In the Committee, the Brethren made the important point that the High Court confirmed the charitable status of gospel halls in case law in 1981. Because of the problem that the 2006 Act created, as has been described, charities are now bearing the cost of deciding the same question. The reason, as my hon. Friend set out, is the words “public benefit”. On its website, the Charity Commission states that public benefit must be identifiable, balanced against any harm, appropriate to the charity’s aims, and not “unreasonably restricted” in a way that for example might prevent some people from benefiting from the charity’s work. To take the example that I just mentioned, surely giving out hot meals to the hungry passes all the Charity Commission’s public benefit tests. That is what the Brethren do on a regular basis.

As Stephen Pound said, he and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton met William Shawcross last week and we have written to him with a list of all the works to which the Brethren are committed. To be fair, Mr Shawcross is a new appointment and I welcome the Minister’s efforts to appoint someone of high calibre and independence. I suspect that when he looks at the matter closely, he will be just as baffled as we are that a small Christian community, which is open to the public and distributes Bibles and hot food to people on the breadline, has had its charitable status revoked. As I mentioned, the Brethren have now had to spend several hundred thousand pounds fighting that discrimination. That is outrageous: it is why I am here today, and why I have worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and have tabled an early-day motion. What happened is completely unjust and cannot be right. Parliamentarians must do something about it.

Secondly, if Charity Commission officials are going to force more religious charities into the tribunal process, we need consistency. For example, there are recent cases of charities that have retained their status despite alleged links to terrorism. A few weeks ago, The Guardian reported that the Al-Muntada trust fund had been accused of passing money to a militant Islamist group in Nigeria. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a rainbow of niche charities, whose public benefit some will struggle to see. For example, as has been mentioned today, the Druid Network exists for “Informing, Inspiring and Facilitating Druidry as a Religion”. Members can make up their own mind about that. I have no problem with charitable status for Druids, but let us have some consistency. Why have the Brethren been singled out from all the religious organisations? What about the “Earth and Space Foundation”, which offers cash to scientists if they research “environmentalism in outer space”? I do not pass judgment on those organisations, but how can their activities be charitable if a community Brethren hall that hands out food to the homeless and does good work, serving the community, is not? The public benefit test must be consistent and the Minister should examine that. Either that, or Parliament should repeal the 2006 Act as has been suggested.

I am going to call a spade a spade. I believe that there is something rotten in the Charity Commission. I cannot understand why the Brethren, good people who do so much in their communities, have been singled out. I believe an inquiry is needed into the role of the Charity Commission, to consider how it came to make the decision, and to publish all the e-mails and correspondence —everything that led to the decision, to enable us to understand why the Brethren were singled out. I, like other hon. Members, have received correspondence from Christian groups in my constituency; they express fear about what the Charity Commission is doing. They are worried about a ratcheting effect towards secularisation, and I wonder if a hidden agenda is at work in the Charity Commission.

The commission’s decision also puts the tax status of hundreds of charities in doubt. The Brethen are trying to deal with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the question of how each hall should communicate with its donors—thousands of people making donations with gift aid declarations, and making claims with their self-assessment returns. The charities do not know what to tell them. What has happened is unjust and inconsistent and is creating fear in many churches, not just in Harlow but across the country.

Finally—and I say this as a Jewish person—the Brethren were tragically persecuted by Hitler in the second world war and suffered terribly in Nazi Germany. That is all the more reason, given what they have gone through, why we, as an open, tolerant and decent society, in a country that I am proud to live in, should ensure that the Brethren are treated properly and get the charitable status they deserve.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I remind everyone that we will have to limit speeches to about four minutes, to get everyone in.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough 3:24 pm, 13th November 2012

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, who made a typically robust and passionate defence, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce.

As has been said, the debate is about more than just an arcane analysis of section 17 of the Charities Act 2006. This is about a battle, about the secularisation of society and about calling a spade a shovel, which is quango activism. The Charity Commission has previous on that, in its class-based and politicised campaign to attack independent schools. The crucial question that we must ask is whether the present situation is what Parliament intended in 2006. Did it intend to undermine, attack and traduce the very salt of the earth, who reach out inclusively to help some of the most marginalised groups in society and get them to change their lives? I would never have voted for a Bill that I thought would do that. At the least, we are right to draw attention to the significant concerns expressed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, that what is happening is the beginning of a process of pushing Christians out of the public square and delegitimising Christian religion in the name of bureaucracy and process. I cannot be part of that.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

Does my hon. Friend agree that the danger of part of that process might be the calling into question of denominational education—Catholic education and Church of England education—if the Charity Commission is going to stick by the point about the purpose not being simply for the benefit of the followers of the religion or teaching? The large Christian Churches will end up having to explain themselves to those faceless people.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, as did Robert Flello, who is not in his place. Are we really going to inflict a massive audit process on people who have better things to do: helping the most vulnerable people, in a practical, pragmatic way? There is an issue of fairness as well. Are we to sit by and let an unfashionable minority—a minority that in general people do not understand—be picked off by the apparatus of the state, with such asymmetry? If we are talking about public benefit, is it really a public benefit that my constituents’ taxes are effectively being used to hound people who do good in society? That is not a good use of those taxpayers’ money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow made it clear that the Charity Commission has some serious questions to answer. As I said earlier, it undertook 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, and we need at the very least to re-examine what those achieved and what the ultimate agenda is. It is wrong and inappropriate for the state apparatus to be used against the people whose great work in our communities we have all seen.

I will say just two more things, because others want to speak: we must have a moratorium on any more assessments, until we have properly clarified the law with Ministers, if necessary by way of primary legislation, so that we do not have a grey area between Parliament and the pernicious actions of the super-quango that decides it will cast people out and cause them not to be viable in their communities. That is imperative for the House. Also, it is time that the Attorney-General was invited to invoke his powers to sort out the situation in the interim. The issue is not just defending Christianity: it is defending all faith communities, and it is about fairness and equity. If parliamentarians are here for nothing else, we must defend those things.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I must reduce the speaking time to three minutes now.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk 3:29 pm, 13th November 2012

I thank Fiona Bruce for an excellent deconstruction of the problem, and other hon. Members for taking so many interventions—which makes it rather more difficult to make an original point at this stage.

I just want to say one thing, which I think that there is time for. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members focused on the public benefit test itself and on how perhaps the Plymouth Brethren, who have a school in my constituency and who, I find, are a first-class bunch, could pass it. It seems to me that, in the kindest way, we might be missing the point. We seem to have conferred on a committee of the great and the good the ability to arbitrate on the intrinsic value of any religion and to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to reward one religion over another and make it easier for it to flourish. That is fundamentally unhealthy in our democracy. As the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Congleton said, that was not the intention in the legislation. I have a sense of what it was intended to do, and there have been one or two allusions to that. This is an unforeseen consequence.

It is a pity the Charity Commission has chosen to take the line that it has, and I agree with some of the more pejorative comments about the commissioners’ direction of travel. It is not for this Chamber in general to propose legislation, but it is fair to say—perhaps the Minister will take this on board—that it looks as though the 2006 legislation, as encapsulated in the Charities Act 2011, was miscast and misdrafted, and that the House should revisit it.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North 3:30 pm, 13th November 2012

I add my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce. I intend to speak briefly to highlight the issues and concerns that have been raised with me by members of the local Plymouth Brethren community in my constituency.

There is no school for Plymouth Brethren children in my constituency, and they attend local schools. There is no gospel hall, and I will return to that. The Plymouth Brethren own a significant number of local businesses. They employ 110 people, far from all of whom are members of the Plymouth Brethren. They are open to employing other people, who work for them with enthusiasm and willingly because they are known to be excellent employers.

For several years, I was a resident of King’s Somborne—a village in my constituency with a big community of Plymouth Brethren. They were regularly seen between the two mainstays of village life—the post office and the pub—preaching and sharing the gospel with people passing by. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they were open and willing to engage with passers-by and wanted to talk to us about their faith. It was always an enlightening experience.

There is no gospel hall in Romsey, and the ruling on the Preston Down Trust suggests that if the Plymouth Brethren achieve the aim of establishing one, which they are actively seeking, they will fall into the same trap and difficulties that the trust experienced. I freely admit that I am not an expert on charity law. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her enormous work on the issue. She has certainly taught herself to be an expert. I recognise a group who seem to have been unfairly treated, and I would argue that they have been treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Charity Commission. That was not the aim in the legislation and in the 21st century is entirely unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to debate the matter today, and I hope that we will see some sense. A moratorium has been called for, and I look to the Minister to return some common sense to the argument.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on securing this important debate. We do not have a gospel hall in Macclesfield, but we have members of the Plymouth Brethren, who are obviously passionate about their beliefs and concerned about the precedent that they believe is being set, not just for their faith group, but for others throughout the country. I agree wholeheartedly with the views set out by my hon. Friend Mr Jackson on that precedent. Does my hon. Friend Caroline Nokes share my concern about where to stop? We might start by targeting the Plymouth Brethren, but end up with the Church of England. What does my hon. Friend think of that?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where will it stop? I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question .

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay 3:34 pm, 13th November 2012

I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on her speech. I want to speak briefly as the Member of Parliament for the Preston Down Trust. It is not in Lancashire, but in Paignton in Devon.

It is right that organisations must demonstrate public benefit, but the key is the clarity with which the Charity Commission interprets public benefit. There are three organisations near Preston Down road, which is where the name of the Preston Down Trust probably came from. One is an evangelical Christian charity, Anode, which gives furniture to people who require it. Another is Preston Baptist church, which offers a place for services and has a cafeteria where people are charged for cakes and tea. In the middle is the Brethren’s gospel hall, where they were giving away food and bibles a couple of weeks ago. They seemed to be doing exactly the same as the other two organisations, which have charitable status.

Three things are wrong. First, a long-standing religious organisation is being treated differently from similar religious organisations. Secondly, the Charity Commission lacks clarity in its advice. Thirdly, the length of time that the commissioners have taken to reach a conclusion must be considered. I want to ask the Minister two questions and hope to finish within three minutes. First, will he address the definition of public benefit, and do so soon? Secondly, will he ensure that the Charity Commission understands that definition and turns its attention elsewhere?

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham

My hon. Friend is ably representing his constituents in this worthwhile debate, as other right hon. and hon. Members have done. Will he add to his questions to the Charity Commission the puzzlement that I am sure we all have? In the legal curiosity with which it embraced clarification of the law, was it arbitrary or discriminatory to choose to do so in this case and to place the burden of making that case on the Brethren?

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

I am not a lawyer, but if I were, I am sure that I would say it was arbitrary.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

If the two remaining speakers will keep their contributions to two minutes, they can both speak.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:37 pm, 13th November 2012

Five hundred years ago, a certain monk nailed a certain thesis about his faith to the doors of a cathedral. Today, Fiona Bruce, with Lutheresque zeal, has nailed her colours to the mast of this place and made an important statement about how the House is standing up for the little fellow as he looks down the barrel of the gun of the big fellow who is nothing more than a bureaucratic bully with his views on religious faith. I congratulate her on that stance.

The Brethren are the thin end of the wedge. Many hon. Members today have indicated what may be the end—who next? Far be it from me, the Member for North Antrim, a reformed and tight little Prod, to stand up for the needs of the Roman Catholic Church, but I will do so without fear or favour, because if the Brethren Church is first, who is next? The hon. Lady referred to people being unable to take communion in the Roman Catholic Church. It would be hypocrisy for me to attend mass and wrong of me to assume that I could take communion. I would not be allowed to. Will the Roman Catholic Church face being bullied and browbeaten by the Charity Commission? I hope not. I also hope that the Minister is listening, because this is the thin end of the wedge. He must take a stand, and do so now. He must do as the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have done and nail his colours to the mast.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:38 pm, 13th November 2012

I will not say ditto completely to Ian Paisley, but I join other hon. Members in commending Fiona Bruce on raising this important issue. It is clear from the indications that the Charity Commission has given that this will be an escalating premise if the precedent is allowed to stand, which is why everyone should be worried.

In an intervention, I referred to the Small Charitable Donations Bill, which provides the opportunity to say who should qualify for gift aid on additional schemes. In the Bill Committee, I asked the Economic Secretary whether HMRC, in its conduct of gift aid and the associated scheme under the Bill, would be bound by the Charity Commission’s decisions, or whether it would make its own judgment. He said that HMRC would apply its own understanding of the Charities Act, but I now understand that HMRC is withholding some gift aid payments from Brethren trusts pending the outcome of the tribunal. It seems to me that Members who are rightly putting questions to the Minister today and thundering at the Charity Commission for the adverse implications of what it is doing will have our chance, as parliamentarians, in a couple of weeks’ time. I hope that some of us gathered here can put our heads together and propose an amendment to the Bill that will ensure the concept of community buildings, as provided for in the Bill, is not confined, elaborately and convolutedly, to the Catholic Church or the Church of England, but applies to all Churches.

Like other hon. Members, I think it is terrible that the Brethren have to try and advertise the benefit that they provide to the public. They help the public in my constituency and they are passionately and socially engaged. The emphasis in their living guidance on separation should not be misinterpreted and misrepresented, as the Charity Commission has done. They have never wanted to advertise it—no Pharisees they—and they should not have been driven into this position. As parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to draw a line under this in a couple of weeks.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

Is it not the case that we also had chance, as I did, when I was a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, to question the Charity Commission and others about the implications of the changes in legislation? Assurances were given then that there was no intention of this kind of thing happening. When we scrutinised the matter on the Floor of the House, it was said that there was no intention of such a thing happening. To use another analogy, the Charity Commission is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has overreached itself, and it needs to get back into line with what Parliament intended and with Select Committee scrutiny. If it cannot do so, we must ensure that we get it back into line.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I fully endorse the point made by the hon. Gentleman. We should remember that the legislative buck stops with us, and we will have the opportunity to draw a parliamentary line under this in a couple of weeks’ time.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I thank Members for their discipline in what has been an amazingly busy debate. I now call the shadow Minister.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 3:42 pm, 13th November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate Fiona Bruce not only on the way in which she presented the debate, but on the way in which she included so many people, giving a lot of hon. Members an opportunity to air their views through speeches and interventions. It has been a good example of how this part of the parliamentary process can work and enable people to express their views.

The 2006 Act was not intended to prevent religious organisations from doing their vital work. That was said by Ministers at the time, as many Members have mentioned. I was not a Member of the House then, but I know that the intention was sincere. It was not simply an attempt to cover up the aim of narrowing down those organisations that could receive the benefits of charitable status. We have to hold to that as the stated intention; it still is the position of the Opposition. It is true that the Act stated that no particular type of charity—not only religious charities, but others too—should have an automatic presumption of public benefit. Until that is changed, that is the view that has been taken.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk

With respect to my hon. Friend, that is the point: there is a fundamental problem with the legislation. What many people have argued is that there is a flaw with the 2006 Act, so it is not a case of saying, “If a problem arises”. There is a problem and we need to sort it out.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I am not clear whether my hon. Friend is suggesting that this is inherent in the law, that we should take away the provision stating that there should not be any automatic presumption and that people should have to demonstrate public benefit. Mission creep is possible in any charitable organisation. There could be a suggestion that by defining oneself as a religion or any other kind of group, one does not have to demonstrate public benefit. What I am struggling with—after listening to what Members have said today and after being lobbied on the issue—is precisely how the Charity Commission came to its decision. Having said that, it is not for us to second-guess the tribunal. I was taken with the proposal made by the hon. Member for Congleton that in order to get the matter dealt with, perhaps it should be taken to the upper-tier tribunal as swiftly as possible, rather than meandering much more slowly through the process. It was held up by the Charity Commission while waiting for decisions in other cases.

The commission says that it does not see this a test case for all religions, and that it has not embarked on a process of trying to use this as a step towards something else, as people fear. I hope that that is correct. The 2006 Act stated that there was provision for a review of the Act’s workings, and in relation to the question of public benefit. That review has taken place and Lord Hodgson’s report, which was delivered to the Government some five months ago, was inconclusive. It said that there was no need for the definition of public benefit to be reviewed. Perhaps there is now an opportunity for a full debate on that review, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister says on the matter. I do not think that Parliament has had chance to debate that yet, so perhaps we could reopen why the question of why the review decided that the matter did not have to be reconsidered.

It is important that we have good, strong charity law and that the system ensures, as I think Members would agree, that what constitutes public benefit is clear. There are a number of opportunities to consider that, including in response to Lord Hodgson’s review, which is an issue that I hope the Minister will address.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

The key issue is that the Charity Commission does not appear to have an evidential basis for saying that the Plymouth Brethren is sui generis—in other words, that it is unique and different from every other organisation doing something similar. That is why there is significant concern in that organisation, as well as worry among other people that they will be next.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Perhaps it will come out more fully in the appeal and in further work that is being done. I have some sympathy with those who say that many other religious organisations, at certain points in their operations, do not allow others to take part. On the face of it, the decision does not seem to quite fit with what people have said the organisation is doing.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I want to avoid getting involved in theological minutiae, but may I tell the hon. Lady that the Roman Catholic Church denies communion to our fellow Catholics on many occasions? There are theological reasons for that. It is not about inclusivity; it is about the sacred nature of the host.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

That is indeed clear in the nature of certain religious observances.

We have to move forward on this issue, and it is particularly significant that we have such a lot of interest here. I hope that the Government and the Charity Commission, which I am sure is watching the debate with great interest, will take on board what people have said and the strong feelings that have been expressed today. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, no one in this room could be accused of currying favour in return for votes, as we have been approached by an organisation whose members, for their own reasons, do not vote. However, we are concerned and many hon. Members have shown the depth of their concern for those of their constituents who may not vote for them but who are carrying out important work. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 3:50 pm, 13th November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce is very well regarded on both sides of the House and by me, and she deserves every one of the compliments that have been showered on her this afternoon. I congratulate her on securing a debate that has mobilised, at my last count, more than 40 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. That is to be noted by the Government, but also by the Charity Commission.

It is important to unpack the debate, because there are three issues that are linked but need to be discussed separately. The first question is whether the Charity Commission has made a good or bad decision in relation to the Plymouth Brethren. The second is: what are the implications of that decision? That is the “Who’s next? What’s next?” question—the concern about a ripple effect across other religious groups. The third question is whether what we have set up to protect the integrity of the charity system in this country, to protect taxpayers and donors, is fit for purpose in terms of defining public benefit. It seems to me that those are the three issues, and I would like to try to deal with them in the time that I have left.

I have to say up front that I will be forced to pick up a slightly different hymn sheet from the one used by the rest of the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon. It is a little less rousing, but parts of this tune need to be heard. My first point is about the Charity Commission. “Rotten”, “discriminating”, “a bureaucratic bully crushing the little guy”, “a hidden agenda”, “unjust”, “inconsistent”, “arbitrary”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—this has been quite a rough day for the members of the Charity Commission. It could be worse—they could be working in the BBC—but that is very tough language and it communicates the strength of feeling in the House on this issue.

However, I have to make an important point about the status of the Charity Commission. We have to remind ourselves that it is a non-ministerial Department. It is not subject to ministerial direction or control. It is an independent registrar and regulator. Its independence is set out in statute, and Ministers and the Government have no power to intervene in Charity Commission decisions.

Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Clacton

The Charity Commission seems to be imposing a state dogma of uber-inclusivity on a religious group that has decided to be moderately exclusive. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that that is very big society and, as the big society Minister, is he not prepared to do something about it? That is why we have elections, is it not?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That was a characteristically well made point, but actually the view that I have, as a Minister, on this individual decision is not relevant, for the reasons that I have just given. I am here to stand up for the commission’s freedom to take the decision, because that is the process that we have set up.

The second point is that, in exercising its functions, the Charity Commission is answerable to the courts. As many other hon. Members said, the Charity Commission’s decision not to register the Preston Down Trust has been appealed to the First-tier Tribunal. As that decision is subject to an appeal, there is a limit to what the Charity Commission can say at the moment, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that there is a limit to what I can say in response to the debate, because I do not want, as a Minister, to be accused of trying to influence a tribunal.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

If this had reached a point at which an attack was being made on the Church of England or the Catholic Church, would we still be saying that it is not right to question what the Charity Commission is doing and it is answerable only to the courts?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend back on this side of the Chamber; I was worried for a moment when I saw where he was sitting earlier. I will deal with the specific point that he raises when I deal with the second part of the argument, which is: what are the wider implications of the decision?

I remind hon. Members that before the advent of the Charities Act 2006, it was generally considered that charities for the advancement of education, the advancement of religion and the relief of poverty benefited from a presumption of public benefit. The 2006 Act removed that presumption. The aim was to create a level playing field whereby all charities had to show their public benefit. As has been pointed out, the Act did not seek to define public benefit—we will return to that—but instead continued to rely on its common law meaning. It gave the Charity Commission the job—we should recognise that it is a difficult job—of producing guidance on public benefit, and promoting awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement.

One of the Charity Commission’s functions is to determine whether organisations that apply for registration are charitable in law. It is for organisations applying to show that they are charities, not for the Charity Commission to show that they are not.

Before the advent of the 2006 Act, the Exclusive Brethren were “excepted” charities and were not required to be registered with the Charity Commission. The 2006 Act required certain excepted charities to register with the commission. It is that change that has led to the application to register by the Preston Down Trust. According to the Charity Commission, its decision not to register the trust was based on the content of the application as it was presented. The commission says that it was not able to conclude that the Preston Down Trust was a charity in law based on the material that was presented to it in the application. The commission’s decision was explained in a letter dated 7 June. I can certainly place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House for hon. Members who do not have one.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Can my hon. Friend the Minister comment on whether he thinks that the decision reflected what was the will of the House when the Charities Act was passed in 2006? I would be interested in his view and I believe that he can give it. I checked very carefully with the House of Commons Library before the debate that this issue is not sub judice or subject to those rules and therefore comment can be made on it in this Chamber.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

We can all express our opinions, but I genuinely think that in this matter the substantive point that I have to make is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission takes a different view on the evidence presented to it by the Brethren, it is for the tribunal to decide. I think quite genuinely and I say with real sincerity that it would be unhelpful for me to express a personal view as a Minister in that context.

I will move on to the second point. My answer to the first point—was this a good or bad decision?—is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission changes its mind, it is for the tribunal to decide. A serious concern was raised about a ripple effect from the decision. There were concerns that the Charity Commission is pursuing an anti-Christian agenda. I am satisfied that that is not the case. As a public body, the Charity Commission is bound by equalities duties and by law must not discriminate in its dealings with different religions or faiths. A fact that has not emerged from the debate is that the Charity Commission continues to register hundreds of Christian charities each year, including charities that were previously excepted. That fact has to be reconciled with various statements—some of them quite wild—about the commission discriminating.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have very little time and I would like to close on the third substantive point: is the process fit for purpose? Sheila Gilmore rightly said that this issue had been reviewed by the Government. We asked Lord Hodgson to review all the regulation and legislation affecting the sector. His preliminary conclusion was that the system that we have at the moment would be difficult to change, because there is a substantial challenge in trying to condense hundreds of years of case law into a rigid, fixed definition of public benefit in this place. His view was that it was better to stay with this flexible system, which can evolve over time and whereby things are determined by case law. We are reviewing that recommendation. This debate has certainly contributed to that. My position is that we will publish an interim report as a response to Hodgson, but we want to hear in particular the evidence from the Public Administration Committee, which has been looking into the issue. However, this debate has been extremely helpful.

I, like most other hon. Members in this Chamber, would like this issue to be resolved speedily. It has dragged on too long. I share hon. Members’ concerns about the cost that that imposes on the Brethren. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision, I urge all who are involved to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

May I ask those members of the public who are leaving to leave quietly so that we can move on to the next debate?