An article in The Times today about 'an extremist cult' led by Bruce Hales (pictured) reinforces the view that the Charity Commission is not a fit regulator, says John Underwood
One day after a Spear's feature explored the Charity Commission's questionable attitude towards Muslim organisations, The Times has published an investigation which shows how the commission gave in to intense lobbying from a hardline Christian movement for charity status.
Research by The Times has revealed the aggressive tactics employed by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, also known as the Exclusive Brethren, after the commission denied charity status to one of its congregations in 2012. The sect has been described as an 'extremist cult' by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, and numerous former members have described the abusive isolation tactics allegedly used by church leaders.
The group's 'Universal Leader' Bruce David Hales instructed church elders to 'go for the underbelly' of the commission, which denied charity status to the Porton Down Trust on the basis that it provided no public benefit. Brethren members subsequently followed Charity Commission employees to unrelated events, persuaded openly Christian MPs to lobby on their behalf and poured a reported ’2 million into their pressure campaign.
The church's strategy hinged on an attempt to resolve the dispute behind closed doors and without reference to the Charity Tribunal, which was due to hear the testimony of several ex-members in late 2012. According to leaked documents seen by The Times, Hales instructed church members to get '[Charity Commission chairman Sir William] Shawcross to review the [case] without going to tribunal'.
The Charity Tribunal never heard the case, which the Charity Commission insists was a cost-limiting measure. Whatever happened behind the scenes, last January the commission capitulated — finally giving Porton Down Trust charity status some eighteen months after it had initially been denied. Fifty-eight additional Brethren churches have since had their charity status reaffirmed in a mass ruling based on the precedent of the Porton Down Trust case.
Taken with Spear's report yesterday, this story highlights another way in which the Charity Commission seems to lack the rigour a regulator might be expected to have and calls into question its future.