Charity commision to launch investigation
Exclusive: right-wing Christian group pays for Commons researchers
As the Prime Minister bows to church pressure on embryology legislation, Jane Merrick and Brian Brady investigate the long parliamentary reach of a pro-life group opposed to the Bill
An evangelical Christian charity leading opposition to new laws on embryo research is funding interns in MPs' offices, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has discovered.
Christian Action, Research and Education (Care) faces inquiries into its lobbying activities by the Charity Commission and the House of Commons standards watchdog after accessing Parliament at the highest levels.
Twelve research assistants sponsored by Care are Commons pass-holders, allowing them unrestricted access to Westminster in the run-up to highly sensitive and potentially close votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill next month. At least two MPs face questions after they omitted to declare they have Care-sponsored staff.
Charities are allowed to carry out political campaigning, but Charity Commission rules state they "must not give support or funding to a political party, or to a candidate or politician".
Last week, after pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Gordon Brown allowed a free vote on the most contentious parts of the Bill, including the creation of "admixed" human and animal embryos for scientific research, "saviour" siblings and changing the rules on the need for a father in cases of IVF treatment. An amendment calling for a reduction in the abortion time limit is also expected.
Many undecided MPs have said they will "vote with their postbag" on the key issues.
Care, which has no connection with other charities sharing similar names, has masterminded opposition to the Bill within the Palace of Westminster, writing to MPs and holding meetings. The extent to which the charity, which has links to the powerful Christian right in America, has created a presence inside Parliament raised fresh fears last night over political lobbying. Commons standards watchdogs have previously raised concern about access to Parliament enjoyed by lobby groups.
According to the MPs' register of interests, at least eight Care interns have been employed in the Commons since September, including in the offices of senior party managers whose roles will be influential at voting time. They include Conservative chairman Caroline Spelman, Tory assistant chief whip Alistair Burt and Liberal Democrat chief whip Paul Burstow.
Care interns also work for shadow justice minister David Burrowes, Lib Dem environment spokesman Steve Webb, Tory backbenchers Gary Streeter and Stephen Crabb and Labour backbencher Andy Reed. Care's annual report claims there are up to 12 interns at Westminster – potentially meaning another four MPs have not declared their staff.
There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of any of the MPs who employ Care research assistants. Six have registered interests under "sponsorship or financial or material support".
But Mr Burstow and Mr Crabb face questions because, while their members of staff have recorded that they are sponsored by Care, the two MPs – in breach of parliamentary rules – have failed to record this in the main register.
Mr Burstow admitted the oversight, but said he had not seen the researcher carrying out any lobbying on the Bill. "It is a complete boob on my part," he said. "I should have reported him and registered him properly with the registrar. I shall be doing so on Monday.
"I am aware that Care have sent publications [on the Bill] to all members of Parliament, including myself. In my experience of this, they have been at all times scrupulous in the way they have behaved in respect of lobbying me. Some of the votes I will cast during the free votes on some of the issues will not necessarily agree with Care."
As research assistants, Care's interns can go unaccompanied to nearly all areas of Parliament and are allowed free access to documents that are out of bounds to journalists. Their passes also allow them to interact with all MPs in Portcullis House, the main meeting area of Westminster.
When the IoS revealed details of Care's activities in Parliament to the Charity Commission, a spokesman said it would consider taking action on the matter: "We are aware of the internship arrangement that Care has in place, and are currently considering whether this programme raises any matters for the Commission to take forward."
Labour MP Kevin Barron, a member of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, said: "The issue of lobbying and pass-holders has been around for a long time. I am not surprised that this is happening, but it does concern me."
Care receives donations of more than £2m a year, and spends nearly £70,000 on its intern programme. The charity, along with another pressure group, Passion for Life, has conducted a national campaign tour, Time to Draw the Line, which on Friday took in the Prime Minister's Kirkcaldy constituency.
Care's website carries a link to a polemical four-minute video by Passion for Life, which warns: "During 2008 the Government is pushing for a law which will have some devastating effects on the value of human life."
Care campaigned against the repeal of Section 28, which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, and helped defeat laws on assisted dying in the House of Lords last year. Its work has been condemned in the Lords as "propaganda". Some MPs, for example, want lower limits for abortion in the light of scientific developments, but favour extending embryo research.
The scientific community says the legislation is essential to help treat Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease.
The Charity Commission has recently drawn up guidelines on political campaigning, based on the 2006 Charities Act, because of concerns that some groups are stretching the definition of charitable work. It states: "Trustees must take care to avoid an approach which is purely focused on political activity as this could call into question the propriety of their actions, or ultimately, their charitable status."
Care has run an internship programme for 10 years. The Charity Commission looked into its activities during the repeal of Section 28. At the time, Care's chairman, the Rev Lyndon Bowring, said the interns "explicitly" did not take part in lobbying.
No one at Care could be contacted for comment last night. But on its website and in its latest annual report, Care is open about the "public advocacy work" – lobbying – that interns carry out: "Personal contact is maintained by our public affairs department with members of the parliamentary institutions." Interns, it says, "will be engaged in the world of policy and advocacy, whether in Westminster, in Edinburgh, in Brussels, in the media, or in the Third sector."
The Oxford University geneticist Professor Richard Dawkins said last night: "If only these restless busybodies would keep their prejudices to themselves, nobody would object. But they can't resist inflicting their ignorant opinions on others."
The Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who has led support for the Bill, said: "Care pushes the boundaries of charitable status. It is a clever initiative [to place interns] because once they have parliamentary experience they have an advantage over others in the employment market to get powerful positions in other organisations. It is clear that patient and medical research charities will have to divert funds and resources into writing to MPs who are undecided [over] the Bill."
Mrs Spelman last night said her intern had "nothing to do with the HFE Bill". A spokesman for the MP said she had not expressed a view on how she would vote, adding: "The intern does constituency and casework."
Various religious figures have sought to influence MPs as the legislation makes its way through the House of Commons. But yesterday the most senior Catholic scientist in Britain attacked the church's position. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, told The Times that there was nothing in the legislation that was incompatible with his Catholic faith.
Jewish leaders supported his view. Baroness Julia Neuberger, who was on the scrutiny committee for the Bill, told the Jewish Chronicle: "As Jews, we have a different view on when life begins to the Catholic view. We don't think of life beginning at the moment of conception."
A religious charity with deep political roots
By Jane Merrick
Care, a self-proclaimed moral guardian concerned with family and religious issues, has a highly organised network of members reaching into some of the most influential areas of British society.
The charity led the campaign to retain "Section 28", which banned schools from teaching about homosexuality, and last year helped defeat a Lords Bill on assisted suicide.
Besides Westminster, interns have been placed in the Scottish and European Parliaments, the BBC and Whitehall. The Treasury revealed last month that Care was among the organisations that had seconded employees to it since 1997. Claire Wilson-Thomas, who had been Care's public policy manager, was a policy analyst at the Treasury from 2001 to 2004.
Care's chairman of 20 years, the Rev Lyndon Bowring, is also a member of the Evangelical Alliance.
Its patron, the Rev John Stott, is an evangelical Christian described as "the most respected clergyman in the world today" by American preacher Billy Graham.
The charity runs Care Confidential, a pregnancy advice centre offering counselling for women who are considering abortion, and a sex education programme in secondary schools called Evaluate, which encourages children to abstain from sex.
Care says it "helps to bring Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy, education and practical caring initiatives".
It also fosters "the encouragement of community engagement resulting in action, whether caring initiatives or involvement in local or national politics".
Providing "evidence" against the HFE Bill, its website quotes Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you."
The charity has between 50,000 and 100,000 supporters and offers members a "Purify" CD of songs and scriptures that promises to cleanse individuals of their sins.
The Bill that has divided the cabinet
The battle against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has divided politicians along moral and political lines. What is it that really troubles them?
Q What does the Bill propose?
A To update existing legislation on assisted reproduction and the use of embryos in scientific research and therapy. Christian groups have welcomed the ban on couples selecting the sex of their baby – except for health reasons – and a proposed amendment to reduce the upper limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 20.
Q What are the objections?
A The Bill would make it easier for lesbian couples to have children using IVF, and remove the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the "need for a father" when taking account of the welfare of a child in administering treatment. It would allow the creation of so-called saviour siblings, where doctors would select not only an embryo for IVF that could create a new child, but also tissue that might be able to treat an existing sick sibling. The most contentious proposal is the plan to "tamper" with nature, by allowing "hybrid" embryos created from human and animal genetic material.
Q Why is it seen as necessary?
A Medical technology has progressed rapidly since the 1990 Human Embryology Act, and scientists claim the law must keep pace to allow further breakthroughs. The creation of hybrid embryos could address the shortage of human eggs available for research, helping find cures for multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and Alzheimer's, among others.
Q Will it survive?
A The Bill's many opponents, include Roman Catholic church leaders. While Prime Minister Gordon Brown will allow his MPs a free vote on some aspects of the Bill, that might not be enough to satisfy the consciences of many, including three Catholics in the Cabinet.
Q When could it become law?
A The Bill has been debated by the Lords and is awaiting a Commons second reading. Even if it survives a rebellion, it is not expected to reach the Statute Book until next year.
Q Would it permit scientists to carry out any embryological research project?
A Although the watchdog Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has agreed in principle to the creation of human-animal hybrids, it has stressed that each application for a research licence must be considered closely on its own merits.
Tory MP, Preseli. His entry on the register of interests doesn't mention Care. But register of research assistants lists Christina Lineen, Care intern, under his name.
Lib Dem Chief Whip, MP for Sutton & Cheam. Entry on the register does not mention Care, but register of assistants lists David Peacock from Care under the MP's name.
Liberal Democrat environment spokesman and MP for Northavon. His diary secretary Jodie Martin is provided by Care. Member of Parliamentary Christian Fellowship.
Labour MP, Loughborough. Intern John Powner from Care. Mr Reed went on Bible Society trip to Middle East; David Landrum, researcher for the society, also works for him.
Tory MP, Devon South West. Intern Andrew Griffiths provided by Care. Mr Streeter is a Christian, registers a Bible Society visit of last autumn to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Conservative deputy chairman, the party's assistant chief whip and MP for North East Bedfordshire. His intern Paul Brennan is provided by Care.
Shadow justice minister, MP for Enfield Southgate; intern Gemma Parry provided by Care. Mr Burrowes helped to scrutinise earlier draft of Embryology Bill.
Conservative Party chair, MP for Meriden. Intern Sarah Bridgman provided by Care. Mrs Spelman is a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.