Two more embarrassing articles about the Exclusive Brethren have appeared in today’s Times (Wednesday 18th March 2015). The first one is again the work of Alexi Mostrous and Billy Kenber. Here are some extracts from them.
On page 7 we have this. You can access the start of the article at
Inquiry at sect schools that banned books
The funding of British faith schools run by an extreme religious sect is under investigation by the taxman over multi-million pound gift aid claims, The Times has learnt.
. . .
Revenue & Customs is examining whether the Brethren have wrongly claimed thousands of tax rebates on parental donations that help fund their schools’ £30 million-a-year operation. If HMRC finds against the single Brethren school under investigation, tax relief of up to £4 million a year across all the sect’s schools could be at risk.
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The Times can also reveal that Brethren schools secretly introduced school fees four years ago, despite claiming in brochures and accounts filed with the Charity Commission that its schools were free. The fees, which parents were told were obligatory, were recorded as “voluntary income” in an arrangement that will raise further questions about the schools’ financial structure.
A 2011 letter announcing the introduction of yearly “fees” of £1,500 per child stated that fees were “an essential principle of righteousness in our administration” and that “an invoice will be issued direct from the individual schools shortly”.
Parents at one school were later warned that “fees should be regarded as an obligation in the same way as paying your electricity and other household bills”. Yet accounts filed by the school trusts said they were “non-fee paying”.
. . .
The spokesman said that in 2011 “a modest sum” had been requested from parents. It was initially described as a fee but subsequently changed to “parental contribution” on legal advice.
Although schools can claim gift aid on “voluntary contributions”, a Brethren spokesman insisted that no school had claimed tax relief on this element of funding. He accepted, however, that tax inspectors had questioned gift aid claims made on donations from parents.
“Such issues as there have been derive from uncertainty about the correct application of the rules,” he said. “Other faith schools are also currently being investigated by HMRC over gift aid.”
Then on page 27 we have the first of the leading Editorial Articles. You can access the start of it at
Brethren in the Spotlight
A Christian sect took no prisoners in its fight for charitable status. For the sake of the whole voluntary sector, the Charity Commission must stand up to it.
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The Exclusive Brethren boast only 17,000 followers in Britain but their battle for charitable status is a vital test case for the voluntary sector. It should have brought clarity on the responsibilities of charities in general and private faith schools in particular. Instead it has yielded confusion on policy and extraordinary threats aimed at the commission’s chairman, William Shawcross. Evidence has emerged of serious emotional suffering among the sect’s present and former members, of unacceptable censorship at Brethren-run schools, and of tax breaks worth millions for an organisation that funnels cash to its leader in Australia.
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A Times investigation has established that when the Charity Commission decided not to grant the Exclusive Brethren’s application for charitable status subject to appeal, the sect fought back with a campaign of ferocious intimidation. Mr Hales advised that “extreme pressure” be applied on Mr Shawcross. He urged underlings to “go for the jugular”. Commission staff were followed by sect members, who also sent the commission more than 3,000 letters and lobbied MPs relentlessly at constituency surgeries.
Yesterday Sir Stephen Bubb, the head of Britain’s largest charity leaders’ association, called on Mr Shawcross to explain why the sect was granted charitable status last year. It is a good question. As we have reported, more than 200 MPs wrote to the commission or otherwise helped the sect, and five wrote direct to the principal judge of the charity tribunal. She rebuked them for their inappropriate intervention, but something worked. Instead of airing the case in public, the commission struck a deal behind closed doors.
MPs may have been persuaded that the sect was a fringe but blameless church entitled to their support. Spokesmen insist it is just that and deny all wrongdoing. Inspectors of the sect’s 34 British schools have on the whole given them positive reports. Yet ex-members speak of strict rules against contact with outsiders and harsh discipline for those who break them. Former teachers describe school buses segregated by gender, casual classroom racism and textbooks with pages on evolution, fossil fuels and sexual reproduction torn out or glued together.
The sect denies the claims, but they are far too serious to be swept under a quango’s carpet.
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The commission must re-examine its 2014 decision without fear, favour or obfuscation. HMRC must scrutinise the sect’s accounts anew to establish whether the tax relief of £13 million a year that it enjoys is truly warranted. And Ofsted should show more interest in the sect’s schools, whose inspections are outsourced to a private contractor that has raised no concerns about a curriculum that appears to many former teachers to endorse creationism and teach evolution as no more than a theory.
A free society should be comfortable with eccentricity, but not with charitable status misused as a cover for cult-like oppression.
If you want to read the entire articles and yesterday’s whole pages of articles, you can buy a 30-day subscription to the On-Line Edition of The Times for £1.