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Religious Freedom

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 16 May 2013

7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure the protection of religious freedom. (155331)

The Church of England is working on an international and a domestic level to protect religious freedoms. The Church is in regular contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on areas of shared concern in many countries that feature in the “Countries of Concern” section of the FCO’s human rights and democracy report.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Christian Brethren, who carry out many charitable acts that benefit the public, have been discriminated against by the Charities Commission, which has significant implications for religious freedom? They have been refused charitable status, and that has resulted in a lengthy appeals process. Does this not have wider implications for other faith groups?

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot add anything to the answer that I gave him in March, which is that Parliament decided that in respect of every charity—including the Church Commissioners, who are themselves a charity bound by the Charities Commission—there had to be a public benefit test. The Charities Commission is a statutory body that has to decide whether there is a public benefit. If there is a dispute over that, I suspect that in due course it will have to be a matter for judicial review. I understand that this matter will be tested in the High Court later this year.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is one of the very gullible Members of this House who have been seduced by a cult that is a tiny part of the Plymouth Brethren. Their real name is the Exclusive Brethren, or Hales Brethren, and they were, rightly, the only religion of 1,178 to be refused charitable status by the Charities Commission. This was the most egregious example of intensive, million-pound lobbying by hundreds of people that I have experienced in my 25 years in the House. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman and others have been taken in.

My hon. Friend is not in any way gullible—he is a much loved hon. Member of this House. I am surprised about this, because I would have thought that every Member, including the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), would be sensitive to the needs of religious freedom. I understand, though, that as he is a Welshman coming from a country where the Church was not only disestablished but disendowed, it is not surprising that there is not that sensitivity to religious freedom.