My Lords, I must first declare an interest. Members of my family remain within the religious group which has been the subject of much controversy with the Charity Commission, namely the Exclusive Brethren. I thank my noble friend Lady Barker for securing this debate. It is clear that the future effectiveness of the Charity Commission will involve the investigation of charities such as this. This needs resources, and clearly £137 per charity is not sufficient. As one pays for the issue of court proceedings and to get a passport, I do not think that there is anything objectionable in the Charity Commission charging for the services it offers.
Under the new leadership of William Shawcross, I believe that the commission is more effective and a new day is dawning. In what may seem to colleagues like an Oscars speech, I thank him and Kenneth Dibble for their unique finding concerning the alleged group which I have mentioned. They found,
“on balance, that there were elements of detriment and harm which emanated from doctrine and practices of the Brethren and which had a negative impact on the wider community as well as individuals”.
The actual doctrines and harsh disciplinary practices were the issue this alleged church had to address. It was made to amend its trust deed, and will be reviewed in a year’s time to see if its behaviour has changed. This finding is an important acknowledgment of the mental, emotional and financial suffering of ex-members of this group, which is controlled from Australia by universal leader Bruce Hales. I thank ex-members of the group who bravely came to Parliament recently to tell their testimonies. The mental health implications were obvious to colleagues of living in a system where people are told, “We will do the thinking, you do the doing”. In this system people risk being separated from their family if they even own a phone from Carphone Warehouse, or go away to university. People work for a Brethren-owned company, so for some gaining their freedom meant losing their home and their job as well as members of their family, even their own children.
I previously called for a church-led inquiry, as I was aware of the wonderful pastoral support being given to ex-Brethren in many churches. However, I was naive. As my noble friend Lady Brinton and I stuck our heads above the parapet others ducked for cover, perhaps sensibly. Sadly, the Christian lobby fraternity have clearly brought this group under their umbrella, despite my repeated requests not to do so. I quote from the Evangelical Alliance in November 2012:
“This particular church has now become a test case for the 16,000 strong UK movement as a whole”.
In 2014, it was called a Brethren church by the Christian Institute. Neither of those groups has thanked the Charity Commission for exposing the victims’ stories, nor made them available for their many supporters to read. Nor are my speeches or those of my noble friend referenced. This does not reflect the Christians who support these groups, who I believe would give—even sacrificially—to help ex-members, particularly those who need legal fees to obtain contact with their children who remain in the group. Christians must always condemn groups such as this one, where there are allegations of racism, persecution of homosexuals and separation of families. They must never reserve criticism only for the Charity Commission’s assessment of the public benefit test.
However, a more effective Charity Commission will mean more work for the Government and for HMRC. The following issues arise from this effective investigation. Are the Government really content with a public benefit law which allows a group causing such detriment and harm to be a charity? Is this decision being considered by the Department for Communities and Local Government for its cohesion implications? Just imagine if there were allegations that imams dealt out such sanctions if their people did not purchase their mobile phone from a company whose directors were also the mosque committee, so that their calls could be monitored. I have seen such technology. Is evidence being sought by the Department of Health around the mental health implications for members of such a group?
Most chilling of all, this group runs its own schools. It does not recruit: you are born and educated into it. If this group is not a church—which I maintain strongly that it is not—then its nature is a matter of serious concern. As a friend of the Charity Commission, I believe that it needs to show that its annual review has teeth. As the right honourable Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, asked of Mr Shawcross, the changes for this group should be not superficial but substantive.
This group’s leadership is scary and intimidating. It is only because I am immune from legal proceedings in Parliament that these matters can be stated. This privilege of Parliament has been won by my predecessors, and I and the victims of this group could not be more grateful for it.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Barker on securing this important debate. I welcome the fact that the Charity Commission is taking a more detailed look at charities’ activities, specifically under the public benefit rule, and challenging what in the past was almost a rubber-stamp approval for charitable status.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has already outlined the reason for the commission’s investigation into the Preston Down Trust but I want to add two or three more comments. For those who do not know, the Exclusive Brethren withdraws as much as it can from contact with the wider world. Its members will not eat or drink with worldlies, as they call us. They will not use TV, radio and computers that have not been approved by their Australian leaders, and its young people are banned from using Facebook. Their school books are heavily censored, with pages ripped out or stapled together.
The formal decision from the commission lists some of the evidence that it received from people who were members of the Exclusive Brethren, but who have left or been asked to leave—withdrawn or “cast out” in their parlance. Paragraph 89 of the decision says that it took evidence on:
“the impact of the doctrines and practices on those who leave PBCC; the exclusory effect on family life and relationships when members leave as a result of complete severing of ties; … absence of assistance and support to those who leave, including vulnerable children and young people; those who leave are ostracised and consequently treated differently from other members of the public; … loss of inheritance where relatives remain and leave their property to the Brethren which is encouraged; inability to participate in funeral arrangements and services of Brethren relatives; threats of legal action against those who speak out against the Brethren; and fear and anxiety of repercussions for themselves and family members who remain in the Brethren”.
I have met a number of people who have had to leave the Brethren because they are homosexual. One notable case, reported by the BBC in 2011, is that of Dario Silcock, who was bullied by the elders and the children in his church because he and they suspected that he was gay. He was asked to repent, as there is zero tolerance of homosexuality in the Brethren, and the teacher from whom he sought support and advice was suspended by the Brethren school. He said to the BBC then, aged 18, “I miss my family, but I have never been happier”.
Last year, a number of Parliamentarians heard evidence from another former member, who was abused by an elder when he was in his teens. He followed the advice that I think we hope all young people in his position would follow: he went to talk to another elder about the abuse. To his consternation, he was ordered on to his knees to ask God for repentance. As far as the EB was concerned, the rape was irrelevant. Because he had taken part in a homosexual act, he was guilty. It was not surprising that he left. He too has been allowed no contact with his family since he left.
I raise these two accounts with noble Lords because I have hope for these men and many others. The Charity Commission’s decision has made it clear in paragraph 98 that, if the Brethren does not comply with its undertakings to treat former members more fairly and differently from the list of its actions I cited earlier, the commission will review its charitable status again. The current public debate on disbelief [I think this should be disbenefit], not just looking at public benefit, is very important and one reason why I am more positive than others that the new and more thorough approach of the commission will provide some real benefit.
However, what I really pray for is a change in culture where people who have left the Exclusive Brethren are allowed to have contact with their families with no pressure on them. If the Charity Commission can have achieved this, it will have made significant progress, but I am not holding my breath.