Committee (on Recommitment)
Charities Bill [HL]
Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, it is a strange feeling to be moving a group of amendments that comprise the totality of the amendments to this 250-page Bill. But this is a consolidation Bill. As one who has served on the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills, I know well enough that on consolidation one is not allowed to change substantive law. I emphasise that the amendments that I have tabled and the comments that I am about to make bear no ill reflection whatever on the Bill team or the parliamentary draftsman. Indeed, I have had the utmost co-operation from all of them.
However, with a Bill that affects the voluntary sector in particular, one must seek to make that measure as comprehensible as possible. I could not refrain from tabling a set of amendments to attempt to make the crucial definition clauses of the Bill fractionally more understandable to the lay reader. The last thing one wants in the world when legislating for the voluntary sector is to force it into the hands of lawyers who will do their best but who, I am afraid, are expensive beasts. I speak as one of 53 years duration. The amendments taken as a group effect no change but they see the definition of "charitable purpose" or "charitable purposes" brought into one clause, Clause 2, which will then enable Clause 11 to be removed from the Bill. In practical terms, that will be of considerable benefit.
Before explaining why, I should say to the Committee that I am aware that Section 73 of the Charities Act 2006 requires a review of the 2006 Act, which is about to commence, which will end with a report being placed before Parliament. Indeed, I was instrumental, with others, in getting that unusual provision written into the 2006 Act. But there is nothing in the Act to say that anything shall flow from the report. I produced this amendment determined that at least in the interim years-one could be talking about quite a few years, even an eternity, before any amendments are made to this Bill-the definition clause should be a little more understandable.
Why is it more understandable? I wish sometimes that one could annex to technical amendments such as this a copy of the clause they seek to amend, incorporating the amendments. The amendments seek to get rid of Clause 11, which defines "charitable purposes" or "charitable purpose" differently from the definition in Clause 2. Clause 1 defines "charity" in a way which is difficult to reconcile. It is reconcilable but only by dint of considerable legal subtlety. It is already difficult to reconcile Clause 1 with Clause 2. The last thing in the world one wants is for the unwary reader-that is to say he or she who does not plough all the way through the Bill-then to find that there is a different definition of "charitable purposes" in Clause 11. As I say, that in itself represents a significant practical improvement in the Bill because the definition of "charitable purpose" or "charitable purposes"-those two phrases are used in different places in the Bill-and the definition of "charity" itself are the linchpin definitions of the entire Bill.
I had hoped to simplify the Bill further. However, I received a communication from the Bill team which made clear that the extent of the use of the phrase "charitable purposes" or "charitable purpose" is unknown. The Committee may think it rather extraordinary that we have no place to which anyone, including the parliamentary draftsman, can go to be informed about all the uses of the phrase "charitable purposes" throughout our primary and secondary legislation. There is no such source of information. In the age of technical wizardry that defect could and should be resolved, not just for the benefit of the experts but for the many who will have to interpret this and many other statutory provisions in the future. As one of the letters that I received from the Bill team stated, there are what they call "known unknowns"-I like that phrase-which is another way of saying "We haven't a clue". The document continues:
"While we are able relatively easily to search the database of General Public Acts for references to 'charitable purposes', the same cannot be said of subordinate legislation (as defined for the purposes of clause 2), not all of which is stored in the available databases, or private Acts, hardly any of which are in the available databases".
I have tabled my modest but, I think, significant amendment in the hope that the Government may say that they think it is an improvement but in the expectation that, given the complexity of the whole-I nearly used a Saxon word-business, they will need further time in order to clear the decks as regards simplifying these crucial clauses. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say in replying to these amendments. I am grateful for the Committee's patience.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench)
I rise briefly to support the spirit of what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has said because when people are setting up charities they often try to find ways around the complexity of registering a charity. There is an enormous number of charities and sometimes it is extremely difficult to be clear whether they truly are charities. I say that as a patron of several small charities from their outset. One often has a sense of when a "charitable purpose" really is a charitable purpose and when it is stretching the limits, but that has implications for donors and the Charity Commission. The reference to "known unknowns" is reasonable. In many aspects of life we know that new situations will arise but we do not know what they will be. The danger is that matters can be contested at a later stage. The noble Lord has thrown down a rather wonderful challenge to the Government. I look forward to hearing their response.
Baroness Smith of Basildon (Labour)
My Lords, this may be one of those rare occasions when I am pleased not to be the Minister answering the noble Lord's questions. As the Minister knows, we welcome this consolidation. The comments that have been made highlight what the legislation seeks to achieve. The noble Lord raised similar issues at Second Reading. I have to confess that he lost me somewhat when he spoke in that debate. However, I have carefully read the points that he made. It strikes me that we are attempting to make the legislation more straightforward, less complex and easier but we are not making it easy. I noted that the noble Lord mentioned making the measure more understandable to the lay person. I am not sure that we are ever able to make such legislation more understandable to the lay person. This is very much a lawyer's issue. My noble friend Lord Boateng has queried whether people need a lawyer to help them set up a charity. If the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, will forgive my saying so, I fear that we have two lawyers and three opinions on this issue as it seems to comprise an argument between lawyers.
I confess that I do not understand the legal complexities which would allow me to make a distinction between "charitable purpose" or "charitable purposes". I cannot see the difference between those two phrases. However, I fully understand the necessity to get definitions right so as to avoid long drawn out arguments in court. I have carefully read the report of the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. We should be grateful to it for considering the points that we put to it. It has also considered the point that the noble Lord has made. All I can do is to seek advice on this from the Minister. I am sure that she has received legal advice on whether this is a justifiable concern. Is she able to share that legal advice with us? If there is an issue around the definition, how significant will that be in terms of interpretation? Her advice would be helpful in enabling the Committee to reach a conclusion on this matter and in reassuring us that the Bill does what it seeks to do and that the definition is satisfactory.
Baroness Verma (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this important but short debate. I welcome the opportunity to try to explain the Government's position as clearly as I can.
I welcome the knowledge and expertise of my noble friend Lord Phillips in charity law and his assiduousness in scrutinising legislation that affects charities. I know that he has taken a very close interest in the consolidation Bill. Earlier this year he raised a number of points with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. He has also since then discussed various points with the Bill team in considerable detail. As a result, we have been able to make some important drafting improvements at the Joint Committee stage and we are extremely grateful to my noble friend for that.
The amendments tabled by my noble friend concern the relationship between Clauses 2 and 11. I know that my noble friend's object here is to make further drafting improvements. However, the discussions we have engaged in with him have indicated that his concerns go deeper than that. As a result, we have already undertaken to address the underlying problem that he has raised. This can be done only outside the consolidation process. I shall explain that in a little more detail in a moment but perhaps I may just set the context for this discussion. Clauses 2 and 11 reproduce the existing law as it has stood since the passing of the Charities Act 2006. We are not aware of anyone having expressed concerns about these provisions at the time of the passing of the 2006 Act. Furthermore, at no point in the consultation process on the present Bill has anyone expressed any concerns about the relationship between Clauses 2 and 11. The draft Bill was the subject of full public consultation in 2009 and has the support of the charities sector and the Charity Commission.
I should explain that Clauses 2 and 11 contain two subtly different definitions of "charitable purpose", one of a very general application and the other of a much more limited application. Two types of suggestion have been made about the relationship between these clauses. The first involves changing the law; the second aims simply to improve the drafting of the Bill. The suggestion between Second Reading and the Joint Committee proceedings was of the first type. It was suggested that instead of the two subtly different meanings of "charitable purpose" applying in different contexts, there should be one definition of "charitable purpose" applying across the board. Unfortunately, substituting a single definition of "charitable purpose" cannot be achieved without changing the law. It is not permissible within the constraints of the consolidation process for the Bill to change the law. So no amendments were tabled at Joint Committee to Clauses 2 or 11, and the Joint Committee agreed to the clauses as drafted.
The amendments that my noble friend has now tabled aim to improve the drafting of the Bill without changing the law. However, we are not convinced that this is the right response to the real issue that my noble friend has raised. The fundamental issue-it is one that we recognise-is that it is awkward to have two definitions of "charitable purpose" applying in different contexts. The amendments that the noble Lord has tabled do not remove this awkwardness; they merely present it differently. We think that the right thing to do is not to make drafting changes to the Bill, but instead to seek to address the underlying issue.
We recognise that it could be a desirable simplification to substitute the two definitions applying in different contexts by a single definition applying across the board. However, it is clear that this cannot be done through this Bill. I have therefore already suggested to my noble friend that it can be considered as part of the forthcoming review of the Charities Act 2006. It appears that there is a case for simplification here, and we believe that the review is the right place to explore thoroughly the legal changes that would be required to achieve this simplification.
I return to the amendments before us. The drafting of the consolidation Bill is a very technical business and the provisions have already been very clearly considered and given a clean bill of health by the Joint Committee. However, my noble friend has tabled what amount to detailed drafting points so I will explain why we resist these amendments.
I will begin by saying that we think that the way in which the definitions of "charity" and "charitable purpose" are structured in the Bill is an improvement on the current legislation. In particular, putting the 1993 Act definitions in Part 1 of the Bill next to the 2006 Act definitions makes them more visible to the reader. In the Government's view, my noble friend's amendments would not improve this drafting. First, we think that the amendments would damage the logical structure of Part 1 of the Bill by taking a definition that belongs in Chapter 2 and putting it into Chapter 1 where it does not belong. I will explain that in a little more detail. As is clear from its title, Part 1 of the Bill is concerned with the definitions of "charity" and "charitable purpose". Chapter 1 of Part 1 deals with definitions that apply generally-that is, in legislation generally and in documents, and in England and Wales as well as, for certain purposes, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Chapter 2 of Part 1 deals with definitions that have a much more limited application-that is, they apply only in England and Wales, and only to provisions deriving from the Charities Act 1993. The different scope of the two chapters is signalled by the chapter titles. Chapter 1 is headed "General" and Chapter 2 is headed "Special provision for this Act". It is not a drafting improvement to interfere with this structure.
Furthermore, we think it is undesirable to confuse the picture for readers in Scotland and Northern Ireland by injecting into Chapter 1 a definition that concerns the interpretation of provisions that relate only to England and Wales. Chapter 1 affects the law of Scotland and Northern Ireland for certain purposes relating loosely to fiscal matters.
Finally, in our view the amendments would be inconsistent in that they would leave two alternative definitions of "charity" in Chapters 1 and 2. If the two alternative definitions of "charitable purpose" are brought together in the way suggested, it would seem illogical to leave the two definitions of "charity" in separate places.
I am keen that progress on this Bill is not unduly delayed. I therefore ask the noble Lord to accept the assurances that I have offered him. Of course, he will have a further opportunity to debate this matter when the 2006 Act comes under review later in the year. I am sure that my noble friend's expertise would be very welcome at any further deliberations on the matters of concern that he has raised in his amendments. We are willing to ensure that the underlying issue to which he has helpfully drawn attention is addressed in its proper forum. On that basis, I invite him to withdraw his drafting amendment.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for her careful response. I have to say that some of the refinements in her reply will bear a little more scrutiny of Hansardon my part. She made the point about Part 1 and Chapter 1 applying to England and Wales generally, although to Scotland and Northern Ireland to some extent. That point is not apparent at all from the way in which Clause 11 is currently drafted. While I will of course withdraw the amendment tonight, as I told her I would, I would like to engage in further discussion on this issue in the hope that something can be done to improve things before we get to Report. I will just tell the House-because it is another measure of what a nonsense we have got our affairs into-that last year the Finance Act created an entirely new definition of "charitable purposes" with a schedule extending that definition that runs to eight pages. I am afraid that our legal system has burgeoned out of all sense and has become counterproductive. With that vindictive spirit, I withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clauses 3 to 358 agreed.
Schedules 1 to 11 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.