Charitable Registration — [Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 13th November 2012.

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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.