A group who posted anti-abortion billboards targeting a pregnant Labour MP has been referred to the taxman by a minister, after she told Parliament that the organisation had claimed gift aid but had been refused charitable status by the Charity Commission.
Stella Creasy, who is eight months pregnant, said she was left feeling "physically sick" after the billboards were posted in her Walthamstow constituency. They have now been taken down.
The advertising campaign is being led by the UK branch of an American anti-abortion organisation, the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR).
Creasy raised the issue of the campaign against her in Parliament, via a point of order, saying: “For the last six days an organisation calling itself the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK has been waging a campaign of intimidation and harassment against myself and by extension my constituents in Walthamstow,” and drew attention to the group’s “Stop Stella” campaign, which “explicitly encourages people to target me as a hypocrite for being pregnant and advocating for the right of all women to choose when to be.”
She added: “One of the troubling things…is how it’s funded.”
“This organisation claims to be a charity in its constitution and its accounts, and in the statement it made to the BBC last October. ” Creasy told MPs, “yet the Charity Commission have refused to register them. Nor is it clear whether they have repaid the gift aid that they’ve previously claimed under the auspices of this charity status.
“If not, given that they knew they weren’t registered with the Charity Commission, this group has facilitated tax evasion, which of course is a criminal offence. Nor is it clear that they have complied with the rules for third party campaigners in the run-up to an election, or whether they are accepting illegal foreign donations, given that they are part of a network of such organisations across the world.”
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission told BuzzFeed News that the charity’s registration had been refused after “we concluded that the organisation was not established for exclusively charitable purposes as some of its stated purposes were non-charitable and political.”
A spokesperson for CBR UK claimed they had decided not to “pursue” recognition, adding: “Nothing much has actually changed yet in terms of activities yet but as the push for decriminalisation is increasing, we want to be ready for campaigns that we could not do if under the [Charity Commission].
In May 2018, the BBC reported that CBR-UK had claimed at least £29,000 in gift aid, despite not being registered as a charity. At the time the organisation said in a statement that it was in the process of registering.
BuzzFeed News understands that when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigates organisations who may have wrongly claimed gift aid, it could decide that the money had been mistakenly claimed and should be repaid; or could decide it was fraudulently claimed and there should be a prosecution; or could say that the money had been legitimately claimed up to the point the group’s registration was refused, at which point it would become ineligible.
BuzzFeed News has been passed a recording of a conversation at a protest in Walthamstow on Saturday, in which an activist appears to claim that CBR-UK is a charity.
A voice can be heard on tape asking: “Sure, and you're CBR UK, is that a church?”
The activist replies: “No, it's not a church, it's an organisation that stands for centre for bioethical reform UK, it has more of the materials…”
The first voice asks: “Are you a charity?”
They receive the reply: “Yeah, yeah, it's an independent organisation.”
In response, a spokesperson for CBR UK said: “Who ever [sic] it was affirmed only that we were an independent organisation. Their answer indicates that they were actually asked if we were part of CBR in the U.S.,” which, they went on to say, is “a charity”. They added: “no volunteer is told or lead to believe that we are a charity.”
Following Creasy’s comments in Parliament, financial secretary to the treasury Jesse Norman praised her “very powerful speech … on dreadful attacks on her by a group in her constituency” on Twitter.
The group’s actions were widely condemned by MPs from across the House following Creasy’s emotionally speech.
Commons speaker John Bercow said: "I believe that campaigning of that kind with the intensity involved and the explicit public threat to its apparently endless continuation is vile, unconscionable, and despicable."
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said that the government would take action, saying: “The Home Secretary has already offered to meet [Creasy]. We take these allegations very seriously, and we will see what can be done.”
Conservative MP Maria Colette Caulfield, who has opposed Creasy’s abortion reforms in Parliament, said: “As someone who sits on the opposite side of the debate, the abortion debate” wanted to express her “solidarity with her. The abuse and the billboards do nothing to further the abortion debate… They do not speak for all of us who may have a different view on the abortion debate.”
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission told BuzzFeed News: “We can confirm that we refused an application to register the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK as a charity. There is a strict legal test for charitable status, and based on the information we have seen, the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK did not meet this test.
“After close scrutiny of information provided and information available on the organisation’s website, we concluded that the organisation was not established for exclusively charitable purposes as some of its stated purposes were non-charitable and political.
“Some of the charity’s activities described as the advancement of education were aimed at swaying public opinion on controversial matters, which is not educational in charity law. We were also not satisfied that the organisation met the important public benefit requirement for charitable status. Charities hold a special place in society, and it is important that we uphold the integrity of the register of charities robustly so that the public be clear on what is, and is not, a charity.”
An HMRC spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on identifiable taxpayers.
“Charities may receive tax relief from HMRC. To do so they must be registered with a charity regulator where required, established for charitable purposes, run by fit and proper persons and recognised by HMRC. Organisations which do not meet these conditions will not be able to access tax relief due to charities.”