Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is being bankrolled by a trust that is part-controlled by an evangelical Christian lobbyist with controversial views on homosexuality, abortion and trans issues, VICE can reveal.
Devout Christian Tim Farron's two-year spell as Liberal Democrat leader was marked by repeated questioning on whether he believed homosexual sex to be a sin. Farron resigned from the leadership after the 2017 election, claiming he was torn between being a Christian and party leader, but he stayed on as an MP and a Liberal Democrat spokesperson. Since resigning the leadership, he's said he regrets saying that gay sex was not a sin while he was party leader, telling a Christian radio station that he was "foolish and wrong". He explained that he'd said it to avoid further questioning on the issue derailing the Liberal Democrats' general election campaign.
According to the Register of Members Financial Interests, since April of 2018 an organisation called Faith in Public has contributed over £25,000 a year to the salaries of two of Farron's researchers – Jo Latham and Megan Meirion Jones. Since March of 2019, Faith in Public has also paid £15,000 for Farron to work with a public relations agency called Jersey Road Public Relations.
Faith in Public has three directors – one of whom is Dr Dave Landrum. He has spent 16 years as a lobbyist, first for the Bible Society and now for the Evangelical Alliance. Landrum's views on homosexuality, abortion and transgender issues are controversial. He has argued on Twitter that gay "conversion" therapy should remain legal, that gay marriage should not be legalised and that bakers in Northern Ireland had a right to refuse putting a pro-gay-marriage slogan on their cake.
Landrum also has controversial views on trans rights, claiming on Twitter that "trans extremists are putting equality at risk" and "trans teenagers have become an experiment". He recently tweeted an article arguing that the American store Target should be boycotted because of its gender neutral toy aisles. Landrum is also anti-abortion; in response to Amnesty International campaigning against Northern Ireland's abortion ban, he tweeted: "Human rights in reverse. Amazing how Amnesty are now promoting abortion."
Landrum has said he knows Farron personally and that, as Lib Dem leader, Farron was "effectively hunted down by elements of the liberal media for his faith views".
As an organisation, the Evangelical Alliance has similar views to those of Landrum, their director of advocacy. On its website, the Alliance opposes gay marriage, says same-sex relationships are not "a legitimate form of Christian relationship" and praises "all those who experience same-sex attraction and have committed themselves to chastity by refraining from homoerotic sexual practice". The Alliance also campaigns in favour of Northern Ireland’s abortion ban through its "both lives matter" campaign.
On the 16th of May, Farron spoke at the organisation's "Above and Beyond" conference in London. Faith in Public has not revealed its donors before, but Gareth Russell – the public relations adviser it helps fund – provided some of the donors' names to VICE: the Sola Trust, the Cross Trust and the Stanhill Foundation. When pressed by VICE for the full list of funders, Russell said he would send it. However, at the time of publication, he had not done so.
Sarah Cartin, co-founder of Christians for Choice, criticised Farron for accepting this funding. She said: "Tim Farron's dismal leadership of the Liberal Democrats was roundly criticised for his failure to support the rights of women to access safe, legal abortion. Using his parliamentary position to employ staff paid for by an evangelical anti-choice lobby group raises serious questions."
She continued: "In America, we are seeing the terrifying reality of what happens when anti-choice politicians gain strength and confidence. The legal rights and safety of women in accessing abortions become a political weapon. This must not be repeated in the UK."
A spokesperson for the National Secular Society said: "Upholding freedom of and from religion for all requires a separation between religion and public policy. Politicians should be wary of organisations which seek to politicise religion or use religion to argue against fundamental rights."
The spokesperson continued: "Whatever our beliefs, we should all have the equal right to campaign and put our case across. But the proliferation of well funded religious lobbyists seeking special exemptions to or treatment for religion, and crying persecution when they don't get their way, can only create division. Our MPs should not indulge them."
LGBT figures inside the Liberal Democrat party also raised questions about the funding. Jennie Rigg, chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, said she was calling on Tim Farron to urgently clarify that he would continue to support party policy with regard to LGBTQ rights in parliament.
Aimee Challenor, diversity officer of Coventry Lib Dems, said the revelations were "disappointing" and that "a conversation needs to be had between [Farron's] team and federal headquarters regarding the appropriateness of this funding". On the other hand, she said Farron had supported the Liberal Democrats' "really positive" LGBTQ policies, and that he should not be blamed for Landrum's views.
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said Farron supported all the party's LGBTQ policies, adding that he campaigned for them all and even proposed some of them.
Farron's voting record on LGBTQ issues is mixed. He has voted in favour of same-sex marriage, but, in 2007, he was one of four Liberal Democrats to vote against the Equality Act’s same-sex regulations. He has also voted in favour of allowing registrars and others not to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Farron's spokesperson Gareth Russell said: "Faith in Public was set up as a not for profit company to support me in Tim's ongoing work. Faith in Public supports him in his work on issues such as promoting the rights and welfare of refugees, writing and speaking about the intersection of faith and politics, and encouraging a better understanding of faith in the public square."
Russell continued: "Faith in Public is currently working with Tim through the provision of staff support for research, policy and speech writing; and communications support from Jersey Road [Russell's public relations agency]," adding that Faith in Public had helped Farron get the Refugee Family Reunion Bill through parliament, helped him lobby government over giving asylum seekers the right to work and ending detention without trial.
He said Faith in Public was not lobbying on behalf of any other organisation, including the Evangelical Alliance. The Evangelical Alliance confirmed that they do not fund Faith in Public.
VICE asked why donors channelled their funding through Faith in Public rather than donating to Farron directly – which would mean their identity would show up on the Register of Members Financial Interests.
Russell replied: "Tim was keen to have clear accountability structures in place so that funding and activity was transparent and distinct from the work done at a local constituency level."
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said Landrum’s role in Faith in Public was only a non-executive role. Russell said that all three of Faith in Public's directors are non-executive directors.
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson said neither Farron nor Faith in Public have any "direct relationship" with the Evangelical Alliance. An Evangelical Alliance spokesperson confirmed that Landrum’s role in Faith in Public is in a personal capacity. "None of the points that you have raised relate to anything that has been said by Tim himself," the Liberal Democrat spokesperson said, adding that the method of payment for Farron's staff fell within parliamentary rules.
"You identify that Tim once spoke at the Evangelical Alliance’s 'Above and Beyond' conference. The Alliance is a broad organisation representing churches in the UK and they invited Tim to speak on being a Christian in UK politics," the spokesperson said. "Attending a conference should not be taken to imply that Tim agrees with every opinion of every member of the alliance, which would be absurd."