Civil Society News reports that the Charity Commission is investigating allegations that members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church provided campaigning and leafleting support for Conservative candidates and held prayer services for a Conservative victory at the General Election. The Church (otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren) is a charity; and it is a basic principle of charity law that charities may not undertake party-political campaigns. In January 2014 the Commission agreed to register the Church’s Preston Down Trust as a charity and, according to Third Sector, by March 2015 a further 69 congregations had been registered.
In a letter to The Times (£) on 19 March 2015 the Chair of the Commission, William Shawcross said that the Commission’s decision to register Preston Down had been “independent and robust”:
“We were the first public authority to put on record the ‘detriment and harm’ caused by the doctrines and practices of the brethren. We recognised the Preston Down Trust as charitable only after it satisfied us that it met the public benefit requirement by accepting a new deed setting out its core religious doctrines and practices, acknowledged past mistakes and agreed to greater engagement with the wider public.
“We will make public the conclusions of our monitoring of those Brethren halls that we registered as charities. If any member of the public has evidence relating to these charities, we would be glad to receive it.”
As to alleged party-political activity, a Charity Commission spokeswoman told Civil Society News that the Commission was aware of the allegations and would be investigating them:
“We are aware of concerns raised in the press regarding the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church and have contacted representatives to establish the facts of this matter.
“Our guidance on campaigning and political activity makes clear that a charity must not give its support to any political party or candidate and that all charities must ensure that their independence is maintained, and perceptions of independence are not adversely affected. We expect charity trustees to take account of this fundamental requirement as a core part of their decision making processes. We will decide what action, if any, is required once the charity has responded.”
Civil Society News contacted the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church but the trustees had made no public comment on the allegation at the time of publication.