9 January 2014
The Charity Commission has announced that it will accept an application for registration from the Preston Down Trust (PDT) based on a revised governing document. The PDT, a Plymouth Brethren Christian Church meeting hall, has agreed to re-submit an application for registration and to amend its trusts by entering into a Deed of Variation, which sets out, in a manner binding on the trustees, the church's core religious doctrines and practices.
In a decision published today, the Commission says it is satisfied that under the new governing document the organisation is charitable and that the Commission will be able to regulate the charity against the new trusts.
In June 2012, the Charity Commission rejected an application for registration by the PDT on the grounds that it was not satisfied it was able to determine conclusively that the doctrines and practices of the PBCC as practised by PDT met the public benefit requirement in charity law. The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) practises 'separation from evil' which to some extent limits members' contact with the public.
The PDT appealed that decision to the Charity Tribunal. In early 2013, it requested a stay in proceedings with a view to saving on mounting legal costs. The Commission, with the support of the Attorney General, agreed to see if the issues could be dealt with outside of the Tribunal.
In the decision, the Commission concludes that whilst the PBCC's practice of 'separation from evil' results in both a moral and physical separation from the wider community, it has seen evidence of an organisation which is "evolving and increasing its level of engagement with the public". It says the PDT was able to demonstrate a beneficial impact in society, including through providing public access to worship, engaging in street preaching and limited engagement with the wider community, including through encouraging charitable giving and providing disaster relief assistance.
The regulator has carefully considered all available evidence, including unsolicited information supplied by individuals critical of the PBCC and opposed to the registration of PDT as a charity. It says the evidence it has received suggests that "there were elements of detriment and harm" associated with the doctrines and practices of the PBCC, especially its disciplinary practices, which include socially isolating members who have not complied with strict codes of behaviour. The Commission also saw evidence that individuals who had left the Church were prevented from having regular contact with family members who remained in the Church, including parents and children. The PDT itself has acknowledged "past mistakes".
The regulator says it took extremely seriously concerns about these practices because the question of detriment and harm is relevant in terms of assessing charitable status.
The Commission is now satisfied that the PDT's new trusts incorporating its core doctrines and practice of faith signal an approach, including a new emphasis on compassion and forgiveness, which it hopes will limit any detriment or harm resulting from its practices.
William Shawcross, Chairman of the Charity Commission said:
"I am pleased that the PDT has agreed to adopt a new governing document and am confident that the organisation now qualifies for charitable status. This was a complex and sensitive case, which involved strong views and feelings on both sides of the argument. I am grateful to all those who shared information with us, and for their patience in awaiting today's decision.
I hope that the organisation's new explicit focus on compassion and forgiveness will help allay the concerns of people who remain uncomfortable with some of the practices of the PBCC."
The Commission is satisfied that it will be able to regulate the activities of PDT against its new governing document and says that it will monitor the PDT's compliance in line with its existing policy. The Commission regularly monitors charities that were the subject of a complex or high-risk registration process to ensure that they are operating in line with their trusts and charity law.
In addition, the Commission will assess any serious individual concerns or complaints about the PDT in line with its risk framework and usual practice.
The Commission emphasises that its role is not to pass moral or ethical judgment on religious groups, but to assess whether religious organisations applying for registration as charities meet charity law requirements, particularly in relation to public benefit which requires the practice of the religion to provide benefit to the wider community.
The PDT has confirmed that it will withdraw its appeal from the Charity Tribunal as a result of the Commission's decision.
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