"No mercy"

How a tiny Christian sect made it to the heart of Westminster

As MPs and peers mingled with members of a small Christian sect in a packed marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons, the wine flowed freely and the voices of a young choir rose over the gathered crowd.

It was a busy Tuesday in the House, but that afternoon in January 2013 as many as 150 parliamentarians, including the communities secretary Eric Pickles and environment secretary Owen Paterson, found time to join a “musical interaction” event hosted by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

To many of those present, the hosts were an unobtrusive Christian group fighting against the decision of a secular left-wing quango to deny them charitable status.

But a meeting held a short walk away 24 hours later cast a different light on the Brethren’s activities.

In a drafty committee room about 15 former members, some of them visibly upset, told other parliamentarians about the damage wrought by the sect’s unforgiving disciplinary policies and highly restrictive lifestyle.

One couple described how they had been excommunicated for purchasing an “unauthorised” laptop in 2012. Another former member who had been thrown out in the 1990s started crying as he described how his father had been forbidden from seeing him.

The former members speaking out were wary about protecting their identities, and with good reason.

Six weeks earlier, the Brethren’s universal leader, Sydney businessman Bruce Hales, had instructed members to infiltrate the meeting, to “take a tape recorder and dress up as an out [an ex-member],” according to a leaked internal document. The Brethren dispute the accuracy of the minutes and said no-one tried to enter the meeting.

For several years, the Brethren had been engaged in a high-stakes battle with the Charity Commission, which had ruled in June 2012 test case that its meeting halls did not provide sufficient “public benefit” to enjoy charitable status.

The sect filed a legal appeal against the regulator’s decision in July 2012 and hired Michael Beloff QC, one of Britain’s most expensive barristers. A few months later it changed its name from the more controversial “Exclusive Brethren”. Although members do not vote, they also launched a huge lobbying campaign in Parliament to persuade MPs that religious freedom itself was at risk.

Their pursuit of this goal was ruthless. A draft version of a 76-slide presentation prepared in October 2012 by an unidentified Brethren member depicted the regulator being buried in a grave and included a video of a tank crushing a car with the explanation that it “represents the power of the law under the control of an atheist”.

The presentation included a photograph of a car being crushed by a brick wall accompanied with the words “This must be our aim. No mercy. Nothing else will do.”

Another slide depicted a third car, representing the Brethren, driving through floodwater. A confident message read: “Whilst under pressure, the vehicle is likely undamaged and driver will continue on his course undeterred once the temporary flood is over.”

The Brethren survived this “temporary flood” by holding on to influential political allies who heaped pressure on the regulator to change its mind.

The Brethren said the presentation had not been approved by elders and did not represent the group's views.

Brethren elders including one of the sect’s UK leaders, Keith Birch, became “omnipresent” in parliament in 2012 and 2013, spending hours in Central Lobby in order to collar passing MPs, some parliamentarians said.

Many of the MPs who supported the Brethren’s cause had already received valuable help from the sect in marginal seat campaigns, however. Since 2009, Brethren members have been strongly encouraged to distribute political leaflets on behalf of mainly Tory MPs to thousands of homes across their constituencies.

“When David Cameron was coming to power, the Brethren were suddenly told to leaflet as many areas as possible,” said one ex-member, who left in 2012. “They were told from the very top. There was a letter read out after one of the local meetings that we must help the Conservatives.”

The Brethren said that any member “is free to support his or her chosen political candidate as they may see fit” and that this is not directed by elders. Michael Ellis, who later sponsored the group’s event on the House of Commons terrace, admitted: “They assisted me, as they have many others, in campaigning. In my case they have been part of the leafleting campaign over time.”

He said it was a “positive thing for anyone wishing to be involved in political activism”.

The Brethren’s prodigious leafleting efforts were so well known that one Tory MP who decided to publicly oppose them was told by a colleague: “Well that’s your delivery network gone”.

George Hollingbery, the Conservative MP for Meon Valley, said the Brethren “work at election times”.

“I think the elders take the view that it's ok to work for an election result, but it's not necessarily ok to vote for somebody to be in charge.”

A loophole in British electoral law allowed the MPs to receive substantial “volunteering” help without recording it as a donation.

This meant the Brethren’s political activities in the UK have avoided the controversy that previous political interventions overseas have drawn.

In 2005 Brethren members in New Zealand paid for an extensive, clandestine leafleting campaign attacking left-wing parties which prompted a scandal political analysts believe cost the right-wing opposition the election.

The Brethren also funded adverts in support of Australian Prime Minister John Howard and President Bush’s 2004 re-election, in the latter case through a donation from a UK member in an apparent breach of US electoral law, although no action was taken.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chair of the standards of public life, said: “The MPs are open to the perception that they are responding to a gift, a gift of time, to help them build up their electoral support. It is a donation in effect. It’s a donation of time with a monetary value.”

Bruce Hales, the Exclusive Brethren's universal leader, and his wife Jennifer

Such was the exhaustiveness of the Brethren’s lobbying campaign that by December 2012, 449 MPs had been visited by members and “at least 233” had written to the Charity Commission in support of the sect.

One letter sent to the Commission asked why “a recognised and long-established charity for the advancement of the Christian religion has been stripped of its charitable status.”

In a private meeting, one MP went as far as telling William Shawcross, the head of the Charity Commission, that the regulator was behaving “worse than the Nazis” in its supposed persecution of Christians.

And five MPs, Julian Brazier, Bob Neill, Heather Wheeler, Nic Dakin and the late Paul Goggins, were rebuked by a charity judge after they wrote to her asking her to decide the case in the sect’s favour.

Peter Bone, who has enjoyed significant leafleting help from Brethren volunteers, was perhaps the sect’s most useful ally.

The 62-year-old MP counselled the Brethren and attempted to change the law in their favour – telling them in one email that “Your wish is my command”.

Mr Bone did not respond to requests for comment, including whether he was paid by the Brethren for his advice.

Robert Halfon, another Tory supporter, tabled two Early Day Motions on behalf of the sect and led the sympathetic questioning when two elders appeared before a select committee. Mr Halfon also benefited from Brethren leafleting.

A spokesman for the Conservative Party said there was “nothing unusual about people from voluntary organisations helping political parties during a general election”. He added: “MPs are completely entitled to speak up over issues such as applications for charitable status - that is part of their job.”

Faced with such relentless pressure, the Charity Commission regulator in February 2013 gave in to the Brethren’s request to stay the case, with the Attorney General’s approval. The decision ultimately led to the sect being granted charitable status in an out-of-court settlement 11 months later.

Admitting that it had encountered “considerable lobbying activity” by the Brethren, Sarah Atkinson, the Commission’s director of policy and communications, described how “senior staff” were approached by members “when attending meetings and events on a number of occasions.”

Ms Atkinson said the decision to take the case outside the tribunal system was made on consideration of costs, which the Brethren said could reach £2 million on their side alone. Its decision to stay the proceedings had the support of the Attorney General.

However, in a letter to an MP, the Commission admitted that it did not believe the Brethren’s cost estimates were credible and noted that “expenses [incurred by the sect] such as bound invitations to their proposed meeting at the Corinthia Hotel” and hiring a meeting room at the five-star hotel were unnecessary.

Many former members who filed witness statements with the Charity Commission are now devastated that their claims were never properly assessed by a court.

An investigation by Billy Kenber and Alexi Mostrous

Graphic created by Sam Joiner