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Religious Organisations (Charitable Status)

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015

I have not received any representations recently from religious organisations on charitable status. More than 25,000 registered charities involve the promotion of religion. They play a hugely important role in our communities and support those in need. I pay tribute to their excellent work. They are often first in and last out of some of our toughest communities.

The Minister may recall the campaign that some of us waged on behalf of the Plymouth Brethren to retain its charitable status. It must have been for love, because they refused to vote on principle. We eventually won that campaign, but there is a worry on the part of many religious groups that increasingly so-called British values will trump faith values. Can the Minister assure faith groups that in the context of toleration for others they will be allowed to have space to teach their own faith?

My hon. Friend will know that the Charity Commission is independent of the Government and the Cabinet Office. It already respects the diversity of religious views, registering hundreds of new religious charities from a range of faiths every year, but it is fair to say that the Charity Commission did need to improve, as the National Audit Office said. It is now well on its way to doing that, but he can be assured that the Charity Commission has learned its lessons from the case he raises.

This is not about the Plymouth Brethren, but about a tiny sect of the Plymouth Brethren known as the Hales Exclusive Brethren. It is practising cruelty, I believe, in many ways against its own people. This is a dangerous sect. Rightly, the Charity Commission withdrew its status. The sect then had a campaign, which spent £2 million, to convince the Charity Commission that it had changed, and it changed its deeds. It is quite clear that this is what it calls “spoiling the Egyptians”, a process to deceive the Charity Commission. It is not abiding by its new status.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the Charity Commission looked at this matter in detail and that religious group retained its status. Public benefit has always been a defining element of charitable status. That is what is unique about charities and what distinguishes them from private enterprises. We have no plans to change that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that British values have been forged in large measure by this nation’s Christian heritage? It is very important that our Christian heritage should be put at the forefront of our concerns. Will he make sure that the Charity Commission understands that there is widespread concern that Christian values are being treated on a par with other faiths, and that Christian values must be pre-eminent? There is a particular threat in our schools, where Ofsted is not taking the right view.

I completely understand what my hon. Friend says, but I have been assured that the Charity Commission has learned the lessons of the Brethren case. The commission is currently undergoing a major change programme to address the recommendations of the National Audit Office and become a more focused, robust and proactive regulator.

The case exhibited a deal of interest among the media, but the Brethren people went out of their way to ensure they provide a public good, in particular in schooling in my part of Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Will the Minister maintain the stance that that public good far outweighs any perceived evil on the other side?

As I said, the key issue for the Brethren was to prove public benefit in what they were doing. That is the defining element of charity status, and the Charity Commission accepted that.