With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 124, in page 2, line 16, after 'religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity' and insert
'harmony or equality between races, religions and beliefs'.
Government amendment No. 2.
Amendment No. 125, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—
Government amendment No. 3.
Amendment No. 122, in page 2, line 35, after 'exertion' insert
'or which, on the day this section comes into force, are sports or disciplines open to competition in games organised by:
(i) the International Olympic Committee;
(ii) the International Paralympic Committee; or
(iii) the Commonwealth Games Federation.'.
Government amendment No. 4.
I shall speak in support of the amendments tabled in my name and the names of other hon. Members from more than one party. I shall talk about Government amendment No. 2 and amendments Nos. 123, 124 and 125. I shall cover in passing amendment No. 122, and I shall say a word about the other Government amendments in the group for another reason.
I accept that I come late to the Bill and I know that a huge amount of excellent work has been done by Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers, not just on this Bill but on a draft Charities Bill and a previous Bill in a previous Parliament. I have followed this particular aspect with interest but I do not claim to be an expert on charity law like other hon. Members who have worked so hard on this impressive piece of legislation.
The issue that I want to speak to is relatively narrow, and the Minister knows that it has been the subject of correspondence with, in particular, the British Humanist Association. I am an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, and I wish to record that. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has reported on this matter at least three times, backing in general terms the amendments that I am proposing.
The purpose of the amendments is, as the Minister and other hon. Members know, to widen one of the descriptions of charitable purpose—"the advancement of religion", in clause 2(2)(c)—by adding the words "or belief", using a definition of belief that is consistent with previous legislation. That should be the default position. The default position in law generally is that when we talk about religion now, we talk about religion and belief. The Government's own admirable Equality Act 2006 did just that; the Communications Act 2003 did just that; and of course the parts of the Human Rights Act that deal with these issues, notably articles 9 and 14, are predicated on that basis.
The default position should be that the Bill says "religion or belief", so that non-religious belief systems analogous to religion but not religious, and not simply non-theistic religious views but non-religious belief systems, are covered. So the Government need to provide an explanation, which I may or may not agree with, of why they have departed from what is the default position in modern legislation. I hope that they will realise that there is not a good enough explanation, and will accept the amendments.
Secondly, not to do that creates an issue of principle, which is that in our legislation, non-religious belief systems are being dealt with differently. There is an argument to be had about whether that has a practical impact; I believe that it has, although the Minister may claim that it has not. But regardless of whether there is as yet a visible practical impact, or has been in the past, there is a principled position, which must be explained.
I have certainly received representations, and I have seen a letter dated
Finally, I shall draw attention to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on this issue, because that Committee's recommendation is to draw to the attention of both Houses the ongoing concerns.
I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's amendments, which I have signed myself. I wondered whether he would give some idea of the proportion of the population who might be excluded in a sense from the coverage of the Bill if the word "belief" were not included.
It is hard to say, because the number of people signed up to humanism per se, through the British Humanist Association and other organisations, is not as extensive as for other religions. But as the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a question of numbers because the Bill makes provision, as it should do, for small religions—even religions whose adherents are fewer than those who have actually consciously subscribed to a humanist belief system—to be recognised. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that there are significant numbers of people who say—for good reasons, I happen to think, although I am not a member of the British Humanist Association—that they have a non-religious view of life. At a time like this, given what is going on in the world, that is something that should at least not be discriminated against, and some may argue that it is a very laudable thing.
I was going to come on to the point that the Government have made about that. It is not that humanist or rationalist new organisations, for example, may not be able to get charitable status under another part of the clause. Indeed, the Government said in their response to reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the catch-all, which used to be clause 2(2)(l) and is now clause 2(2)(m), and refers to subsection (4), would do. That is not the issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not that those are not charitable activities; it is just that they should be dealt with in a straightforward way, in the same way as religious belief systems. It is easier, because of the specific mention of religion, for that to happen with religious belief systems.
For reasons of non-discrimination, the default ought to be "religion or belief", as defined under the Human Rights Act 1998, introduced by this Government. That definition has stood the test of all the other recent Government Bills that have mentioned religion. This Bill is a curious departure. To argue that the situation is okay because those organisations will be able to do things some other way, which might or might not take them longer, is not an argument of principle, and it is an argument of principle that I want to hear from the Minister.
The BHA claims—I have seen the background to this—that Government assurances that there is no problem and that things will not be any more difficult are undermined by past Charity Commission practice and by Government assurances of special treatment for religion. I will give a brief example. It cites the Minister saying on Second Reading:
"it is right that public benefit must be shown, but...at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous."—[ Hansard, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]
As the reference is not to "religion or belief", that can be taken, and is taken, to show that for religion the obligation may not be onerous, but it may be for things covered by the catch-all, or the items relating to education that were mentioned by Chris Bryant. We know from other debates that education is a difficult ground for which to show public benefit.
The Government need to be aware that in practical terms, there has been an impact. The BHA goes on to explain that past practice shows that it can be onerous to get charitable status for a rationalist or humanist belief. The Rationalist Association sought registration as a charity in February 2001 and put in an amended application in November 2001. The process took another 15 months after the amended application was made, and there was endless correspondence with a variety of Charity Commission staff, each pursuing different lines of unnecessary inquiry, before at last the application was approved in exactly the amended terms proposed in November 2001. That cost a lot of money and delay.
The commission made the following assertion in the course of that correspondence:
"the promotion of Rationalism and Humanism in themselves ... is not a charitable activity".
Would the commission ever write to a Christian charity to say that the promotion of Christianity in itself is not a charitable activity? I believe that debates will show that if anything, assurances have been given that the straight promotion of, for example, Christianity is to be considered a charitable activity in itself, before the other test about public benefit, which we might debate later, is passed. I share the BHA's view that that is
"the clearest demonstration of blatant discrimination against non-religious beliefs by the Commission and of the need for the Bill to bring religious and non-religious beliefs together under the same head so as to deter to some extent at least such detrimental treatment of humanist charities in the future."
It has been argued that because there is a wide variety of non-religious beliefs, they demand special scrutiny. However, the same applies to religion. There are a multitude of religions. The Government have been reluctant—I do not argue with this—to define religion in statute, but have recognised that there will be a number of religions. The non-religious beliefs that qualify under the Human Rights Act as being governed by article 9 are already delimited by case law, and non-religious beliefs are no different from religious ones in being required to show public benefit. One can always argue about Scientology and so forth, but the same arguments that might apply to non-religious belief systems apply to some—some might say all—religious belief systems. I am talking about the questions that need to be addressed.
Will the hon. Gentleman give some examples of non-religious belief that fall within the Human Rights Act definition? For example, is Marxism a non-religious belief system? Is fascism?
Just as the Government do not get drawn into giving lists of examples—rightly so—I am not going to be. The understanding of the definition of belief in the Human Rights Act, which is the definition that I have proposed and that the Government use in all other legislation, clearly does not cover political belief systems. There is not a shred of jurisprudence to suggest that it ever would. The definition is meant to refer, does refer, and is understood to refer, to rationalist and humanist belief systems, for example. I am not an expert in these matters. We all have other things to be getting on with rather than worrying about the meaning of life, even at a time like this. However, the people who are affected have written to express their views. There will be humanists and rationalists in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I know that he will think about these things deeply before deciding whether to opt for a discriminatory, or apparently discriminatory, approach, and he will have their interests and feelings in his mind as he decides his position.
I want to cover what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said and then I will draw my remarks to a close. The Committee was clear in its scrutiny of the draft Charities Bill. In paragraph 5.23 of its report of
"We remain of the view that Convention compliance could best be supported by including the advancement of non-religious beliefs as a charitable purpose under clause 2(2)(c)"—
I believe that that is still clause 2(2)(c) several versions later—
"and we draw this matter to the attention of both Houses."
The Committee went on to comment on that in its report on the Charities Bill in the last Session. It set out its detailed argument in paragraphs 3.11 to 3.15. I will not repeat that, but the Committee did want to reiterate the following point, in paragraph 3.15:
"Whilst we appreciate that clause 2(2)(l)"—
—now clause 2(2)(m), which refers to the subsection (4) catch-all—
"is capable of application in the way suggested by the government, we remain of the view that protection of Article 9 rights on an equal basis could most effectively and clearly be ensured by provision on the face of the Bill, expressly extending clause 2(2)(c) to cover all religious and non-religious organisations which promote systems of belief. As we stated in our report on the draft Bill, at a minimum, guidelines under the Bill must clarify that organisations advancing all forms of both religious and non-religious beliefs protected by Article 9 would be accorded recognition under either clause 2(2)(c) or clause 2(2)(l) on an equal basis."
If guidelines are going to say, "Use clause 2(2)(c) to cover non-religious belief systems," why not just include "religion or belief" and make the statute look like what the guidance needs to be?
Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights returned to the matter in its latest report on the subject, the first report of the 2005-06 Session. It recognised that there had been some improvement, because a definition of religion had been included. I want to record on behalf of the Committee, informally, our recognition that that was done. In paragraph 1.8, the Committee states:
"We welcome the broad definition of religion in clause 2(3)(a), as supporting the Article 9 and Article 14 rights of those promoting non-theistic or multi-theistic religions. However we support the conclusion of the previous committee that, whilst compatibility with Article 9 and Article 14 could be achieved in practice"—
I believe that that is arguable—by application of the catch-all
"as proposed by the government, such compliance would best be assured by a definition which extended to non-religious belief systems falling within the protection of Article 9 ECHR. We draw this to the attention of both Houses."
We thus have not only arguments of principle, but the fact that the default is to use a definition such as that proposed. We also have three recommendations of the Joint Committee, which was set up by Parliament to advise it on human rights and discrimination, and a practical impact—and we have heard in return no convincing arguments of principle from the Government about why they are not doing what I propose.
The problem is that there will be attempts—amendment No. 126, which was tabled by Miss Widdecombe, is an example—to treat religion as not requiring a public benefit test. If that were ever to come to pass it would clearly breach article 14, which addresses the duty of non-discrimination in respect of rights enjoyed under article 9, and exacerbate the existing system. The Government could solve such problems by accepting my amendments today.
May I speak briefly to Government amendment No. 3? I have a close association with the British Chess Federation, which has lobbied the Minister hard on the need not to have a provision in the Bill that would exclude the federation a priori from justifying its pursuit, which is enjoyed by many disabled and elderly people, as a sport of the mind. The federation would wish me to put on record its thanks to the Government and the Minister, who will have free entry to any chess club in the land—and they are pretty wild places—and to Mr. Turner for raising the matter in Committee. The Government have done a good thing by tabling that amendment, so I hope that they will also do a good thing for the humanists, not all of whom play chess.
Dr. Harris will not be surprised to hear that I wish to speak about the issue that he just raised. I welcome Government amendment No. 3 because it is clearly intended to include activities such as chess in the scope of the clause on the advancement of amateur sport. I applaud that, because the promotion of chess will bring a huge public benefit for not only people who are disabled or elderly, but young people, especially. When we talk about chess, it is often not recognised that it does not require mental agility and concentration alone. At higher levels, a lot of physical effort is required to engage in a match lasting perhaps several hours.
Cheddleton and Leek chess club, which is one of the most successful chess clubs in the country, is in my constituency, and plays at national level in the four nations chess league. It has produced five British junior champions and one visually impaired international player, so I can tell the Conservative Members who are smiling that it is not a joke club.
Charitable status would enable the club to attract even more people into the sport, and would mean that it could put on more events such as its successful annual congress, which draws many people, including international masters and grand masters, to Leek. The club could then also provide much more coaching for young people. It always holds a session on Friday nights for the adult and junior clubs, and also goes into schools to promote chess.
The Cheddleton and Leek club grew out of the passion of many young chess players. Back in 1973, chess was on the junior school curriculum, but there was nowhere for the youngsters to play after they got into high school. They thus pleaded with a teacher, Robert Milner, to set up a club so that they could continue to play. It is absolutely remarkable that the same Robert Milner is leading the club today; he should be congratulated on that.
Chess remains on the curriculum at St. Edward's middle school, because it is recognised that chess hugely improves pupils' concentration and benefits their learning potential overall. When I was a school governor in London, a team of young black students took on many private schools in south London and did remarkably well. Many of those students played chess in their playgrounds on the benches provided. Chess gave them huge motivation and massively improved their concentration and learning potential.
The Cheddleton and Leek club now boasts a junior section with 70 members, and its overall membership is more than 100. It has nine teams in the junior league. Many of the youngsters take on older players—frequently beating them—and there is a great rapport between the students, who can be as young as eight, and club members in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. The club does a tremendous job locally and should receive recognition for it. I am extremely grateful for Government amendment No. 3, because it will ensure that the club can get on the road to charitable status, which will allow it to get the support that it deserves and continue its valuable work in the community. I hope that other chess clubs throughout the country will follow its good example.
I speak in support of amendment No. 122, which I tabled. It is essentially a probing amendment, so I do not think that I will press it to a Division, unless I am greatly encouraged to do so by my hon. Friends. In any event, I pay tribute straight away to the Minister for his kindness in talking to me about the matter earlier, which was much appreciated. I hope that he will be able to respond constructively to what I say. In the simplest of terms, the amendment would widen the definition of sport in the Bill so that it included sports or disciplines open to competition in games organised by the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, or the Commonwealth Games Federation.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We are all trying to improve the Bill. It might be improved if the clause went wider—I say that frankly—but he will understand that my specific interest today is rifle and pistol target shooting. Given that those sports are recognised by the bodies that I mentioned, I focused my amendment on those bodies.
Has my hon. Friend noted that his particular formulation would exclude the sport of croquet, for example? Although I realise that that sport is legally indulged in only by people on this side of the House, it is a perfectly reasonable sport, with a proper governing body. However, as the international organisations to which my hon. Friend refers think that baseball is a perfectly acceptable sport but not croquet, I feel that an extension of his proposal would be much more even-handed and might receive the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, even those who are not in the Chamber.
I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman's amendment would also exclude rugby. It is certainly not an Olympic sport; neither is cricket, for that matter. Oddly enough, I think that the Olympic champion in cricket is France. More importantly, the hon. Gentleman has fixed the list in such a way that it might preclude sports that come into existence in the future from being covered. For example, triathlon is a young sport, because it did not exist 15 years ago.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My understanding is that rugby union sevens would fall within the ambit of the definition as part of the Commonwealth games. He and I must have a chat some time about my distinguished rugby history, although I did not perform at any of those games.
On the edge of my constituency, Woking, can be found the Great Britain Target Shooting Federation, based at Bisley—a very fine organisation indeed. The federation manages target shooting with both rifles and pistols, and co-ordinates those sports at the Olympic and Commonwealth games. It works hard with and is admired by Sport UK, and has an exemplary reputation. I say immediately for the avoidance of doubt that I am talking about target shooting with rifles and pistols, which has nothing whatever to do with hunting.
The Bill introduces the concept of "the advancement of amateur sport" as being a charitable purpose. Sport is defined, rather narrowly, in clause 2(3). The Government have tabled their own amendment No. 3, which slightly broadens that definition. That is all to the good. The federation, not unnaturally, is concerned about the fact that target shooting with rifles and pistols, which is recognised by the Olympic and Commonwealth organisations as an amateur sport, could be excluded by reference to the current definition of sport, though I hope not by the Government's new proposed definition.
The sport to which I refer, and its governance, must not be confused with hunting or any gun lobby. Target shooting sport in the UK was founded in 1859 and featured in the first Olympic games of 1896 and every games, bar two, since then. Target shooting is an Olympic, Commonwealth and Paralympic sport. The home nations have a high reputation internationally and regularly win medals. Target shooting provides many opportunities for competitive sport at county, national and international level through recognised international governing bodies.
Target shooting sport, as regulated and governed by the national governing bodies, is an inclusive sport without any discrimination and with special emphasis on encouraging the young. It provides a safe sport requiring physical and concentration skills, and promotes and maintains health. It also provides a safe sport for those with disabilities, including blindness or sight impairment, in some cases on equal terms with the fully able-bodied. It provides a lifelong sports activity for the very young to the very old. It is a sports activity encouraged by many local councils, schools and cadet units. It encourages a responsible attitude to shooting and the handling of firearms from club level upwards, and is therefore a force for good in society.
The listing of target shooting sport as a charitable activity in the advancement of amateur sport is fundamental to the federation, and would help to give it the financial ability to support target shooting not only for its members, but for the blind and the Paralympics, and for the training of Olympic hopefuls. I believe that the Minister of Sport is sympathetic to the federation's position, for I gather that in relation to the Olympics he has written a paper for the Home Secretary to help facilitate the making of arrangements for squad practice for target pistol shooters in the UK in preparation for 2012.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about target shooting, particularly for disabled shooters and young people, who can compete on equal terms. Is he aware that at present the Charity Commission excludes shooting per se? Does he not think that that is wrong, and that in the Bill we should try to do something about that?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I believe—he must correct me as I go along—that he has something of a distinguished background in and knowledge of these matters, on which I congratulate him. He does not correct me, so I assume he concurs with what I said. Indeed, he is right: there is reference to "shooting". I shall try in a moment to differentiate between shooting, which can be an emotive word, and the narrower interest on which I am focusing today—target rifle and pistol shooting, which we should try to separate in our minds from shooting in general.
My understanding is that the Charity Commission must issue guidance in pursuance of its public benefit objective. I understand therefore, and I shall be corrected if I am wrong, that the view taken by the Charity Commission concerning target rifle and target pistol shooting will be very important. However, I further understand that the Charity Commission stated in paragraph 11 of pamphlet RR11 that it did not consider that certain sports constitute "sport" within the purposes of the Bill. Among those sports the commission lists "Rifle and pistol shooting".
I stress two points immediately. We are talking about target rifle and target pistol shooting, which is a different concept. I understand that the Charity Commission may have been advised that shooting should not be or would not be charitable, but in the advice that it received there was no reference to the sport about which I am speaking—target rifle and pistol shooting. This sport is already accepted as a "sport in the community" for the purposes of the community amateur sports club legislation by virtue of being recognised as a sport by the Sports Councils.
For the sake of future success and viability, as I have mentioned, the federation is keen for the sport to be recognised as such under the Bill. Although it is registered as a charity under the long established public benefit precedent, as its activities are
"in the interests of defence", it believes that in the current environment it would be much more successful also to be recognised for charity purposes as a sport. As I said, this would help with recruitment of the young to the safe use of firearms for competitive marksmanship.
I stress that we must concentrate on the misunderstanding among some people of exactly what the activity of athletic, competitive target shooting is. The federation justifiably claims that its courses of sporting practice conform to requirements for fitness as they include elements of stamina, strength and suppleness—the qualifying criteria, in many cases. The federation represents a major category of international sport. If those sports are not regarded as a charity activity, they would be the only sports recognised by the Commonwealth Games Federation and the IOC not to be so.
In a letter to the federation, the Minister of Sport stated:
"My understanding is that recognition under the terms of the Charities Bill is a matter for the Charity Commission", so I hope the Charity Commission will take careful note of my remarks, and I hope it will be positive in its response to them. I hope also that the Minster will be positive when he responds. Clearly, the Charity Commission pays attention to the intentions of Parliament as expressed in the House, and I would very much welcome from the Minister a positive message about the sport of rifle and pistol target shooting. It is my judgment that he will feel able to give me a positive message. Even a clear recognition that those are nothing to do with hunting would help.
Another misunderstanding has occurred. The Central Council of Physical Recreation produced a document on sports which it suggested would have difficulty qualifying for charitable status, and among those was included shooting. Again, the word "shooting" is so wide as to include a great deal more than the narrow pistol and rifle target shooting on which I am focusing. So, in the hope that the Minister will have something positive and helpful to say to me, I shall finish by quoting from a letter sent on
"We understand that at present the Charity Commission does not regard rifle and pistol shooting as charitable activity. We endorse the application for rifle and pistol target shooting sport to be defined as sport for purposes of the proposed Act as being in the ultimate interests of our own organisation. As the governing body for Disability Target Shooting, we are well aware of the importance of disabled people being given the chance to enjoy the sport of target shooting, very often on equal terms with able bodied people."
That letter says a great deal. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
I speak as chairman of the all-party group on the voluntary sector and charities, as it used to be called. The all-party group on the community and voluntary sector, as it has been called for the past year or so, takes great interest in the progress of the Bill. I shall deal with amendments Nos. 123 to 125 from a personal perspective, but first I shall comment on Government amendments Nos. 2 and 3. They are good examples of the Government's having listened to debates and accepted that loopholes need to be closed and anomalies corrected. Neither of the amendments is earth-shattering, but it was clear to those of us who served on the Standing Committee that members of the constabulary, in particular, were worried about the anomalous position of police welfare organisations. Extending the provision to all the emergency services removes any doubt. I therefore welcome the amendments.
"harmless, albeit not entirely necessary".—[ Official Report, Standing Committee A,
Now, that amendment has been introduced as a Government amendment. Should we regard something which is harmless, albeit not entirely necessary, as the High Peak principle?
The hon. Gentleman is too modest; he knows that that is the Cheltenham principle, and he advocated it as Liberal party policy on many occasions in Committee. I do not recall whether I said that in connection with this particular issue.
Was it? Oh, right. [ Laughter. ] Nevertheless, the Cheltenham principle of advocating a provision that is "harmless, albeit not entirely necessary" was advanced so many times. This provision would not be regarded as "not entirely necessary" by those who will benefit from it.
On chess, I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend Charlotte Atkins. I ask her to pass on my best wishes on the success of the campaign to Robert Milner, whom she mentioned as the father of chess in north Staffordshire. I remember him well from my days growing up in Leek, and I also taught alongside him for a short period on teaching practice.
Returning to amendments Nos. 123 to 125, I suspect that Dr. Harris and I have similar views on religious faith—I do not profess to hold religious views, and neither does he. However, I have reached different conclusions about the need for and practicality of legislating on the protection or the charitable status of non-religious views. The first part of the hon. Gentleman's speech addressed beliefs and belief systems themselves, whereas it seems to me that charitable purposes can apply only to organisations which are involved in promoting those beliefs and belief systems.
One would not want to discriminate on the grounds of lack of religious belief, just as we do not allow discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, but the Bill does not do that, because it contains so many opportunities for an organisation involved in advancing non-religious beliefs to have its rights protected and for its charitable purposes to be recognised. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were right not to define religion too tightly, but then appeared to accept that non-religious beliefs could be defined sufficiently well to put them in the Bill, which I found particularly difficult to get my head around.
First, I was talking about the advancement of non-religious beliefs. The hon. Gentleman must explain why the advancement of, for example, Christianity or Buddhism should be treated differently from the advancement of humanism. Secondly, one can use terms such as "religion" and "belief" in legislation, because it is understood from previous legislation what they mean. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about a wide definition of "belief", he should be concerned about the Equality Act 2006, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Communications Act 2003.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to resist amendment No. 126, which would take away from religious organisations the need to justify their charitable purposes. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it would be absolutely wrong to go down that line.
I am one of those non-religious people who do not consider religion to be such an important thing that I want to shout about my lack of religious views or to get involved with such organisations; my personal credo is that my political views are much more valuable and useful to me. However, the Bill includes opportunities for organisations involved in the advancement of non-religious beliefs to have their claim to charitable status recognised.
Does my hon. Friend recognise this anomaly: the Government have chosen to change clause 2(3), so that the definition of religion includes
"a religion which involves belief in more than one god, and a religion which does not involve belief in a god", but the provision does not state that a religion might involve belief in a single God?
Either my hon. Friend is thinking along the same lines as me or he has been reading the proceedings in Committee, where I raised that very point. In Committee, the Minister told me that clause 2(3)(a), which covers what religion includes, can include matters besides those listed in sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii). I hope that that is clear—that explanation was clear enough for my satisfaction at the time.
In an earlier intervention, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant pointed out that subsection (2)(e) refers to "citizenship or community development". In this day and age, I do not think it possible to discuss citizenship without discussing belief systems and, indeed, the beliefs that underlie those systems. I therefore think that an organisation that is involved in citizenship or community development from an explicitly and specifically non-religious point of view could justify its charitable status under subsection (2)(e).
Subsection (2)(h) relates to the point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. As
"the advancement of human rights" is included as a purpose in the Bill, I therefore presume that that includes article 9(1) of the European convention on human rights. Even if that point were not covered, subsection (2)(m) refers to
"any other purposes within subsection (4)", which includes
"any purposes that may reasonably be regarded as analogous to, or within the spirit of, any purposes falling within any of those paragraphs...above".
Surely a non-religious organisation, in so far as it is all about beliefs and the advancement of those beliefs, is analogous to a religious organisation. Those provisions would allow a non-religious organisation to have its purposes acknowledged as charitable.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a further test—that the purposes
"may reasonably be regarded as analogous"?
Why should humanism be treated like that just in this Bill, when Buddhism is not, simply because it is a religious belief? There is nothing innate about Buddhism that means that it should not have to go through the hoops of the extra test for non-religious beliefs. The hon. Gentleman thinks that the extra test for non-religious beliefs is straightforward, but practice has shown that it might not be.
As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, it is not practical to define exactly what we mean by "religious beliefs". It would be completely wrong to include a schedule to the Bill listing religious beliefs for the purpose of the Bill. Even among humanism, atheism and agnosticism, there are lots of different views, and different organisations may adopt slightly different approaches. I do not think that we should to seek to define "religious beliefs" too closely.
Finally, I have always believed that one of the problems with the funding of political parties is that the public benefit that political parties provide to this country is not recognised in law or charitable law. On another occasion, perhaps we can examine whether political parties are covered by subsection (2), although that may be a discussion for another day.
This is an interesting debate, which illustrates a theme that was clear in the debate on section 36 agreements—that there is a practical advantage in having clarity in such a Bill, because that would avoid the kind of arguments that are reasonably harmless in this place but when conducted in the courts and with solicitors add up to delays and large bills for the charities involved.
Government amendment No. 2, which has not been discussed a great deal, adds a head of charity for
"the efficiency of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services".
We owe the amendment to the inspiration of Mr. Turner, and I am pleased that the Government have tabled it. It is an example of adding clarity to the law in such a way as to avoid onerous debate and discussion by the relevant charities.
I had to be persuaded that amendments Nos. 123 to 125 had such a practical impact as well as the point of principle involved. My personal experience with humanist organisations was always that they had managed to achieve charitable status through the formula of "the mental and moral improvement of mankind". The Minister pointed that out to me in Committee. The formulation, "religion and belief", is increasingly widespread not only in human rights law but in Government legislation on several different topics. I even found some regulations that refer to it in their title—the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. Some people worry that this might open the door to Marxism, for example, becoming charitable. However, the meaning of "belief" is well established in this context, as in those regulations and in human rights law—it does not extend to political beliefs but is limited to relevant beliefs such as humanism and secularism.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the legislation that he mentions concerns unjustified discrimination on various grounds, not belief itself. I am sure that we would all agree that this is not only about there being no circumstances in which it would be justifiable to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their belief, whatever it happened to be, in relation to their job, for example.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, so let me cite an example that does not deal with discrimination. It comes from a rather unlikely source—I found it on the Charity Commission's website only yesterday. The commission recently accepted the promotion of religious harmony for the benefit of the public as a charitable purpose, and it gives some guidance for people wishing to promote religious harmony. Under the heading, "Religion and Other Belief Systems", it says:
"This new purpose is about promoting harmony or reducing conflict; it is not restricted to promoting harmony between religions that are recognised by charity law. Since "religion" in this context is not confined to the charity law definition we believe this would also embrace "beliefs" as defined in human rights case law. It also includes the promotion of harmony between believers and non-believers."
So the Charity Commission itself is advising people to regard religion and belief as—
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but surely the point about that example is that the promotion of harmony is the charitable purpose—religious harmony is merely one example of the kind of harmony that is being promoted.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but that is not quite my point. The formulation, "religion and belief", is now widely accepted and understood in a variety of different— [Interruption.] The Minister for the Cabinet Office is shaking her head; perhaps she would like to explain why the title of the employment discrimination regulations and the formulation proposed by the Charity Commission are wrong. The fact is that it is now a widely accepted formulation in legislation, in case law and in many other respects. In principle, it means that humanist and secularist organisations do not to have to jump through a series of hoops to prove that they are analogous to religion.
We have heard about some imaginative ways of achieving that. Chris Bryant gave a list of the different heads of charity that they might come under. Tom Levitt suggested that they might squeeze in under the human rights head of charity or fall within the subsection that allows for purposes analogous to those listed previously. I take the point made by my hon. Friend Dr. Harris. Why should humanist and secularist organisations have to jump through these extra hoops in this area of law alone when it is not required, for instance, in relation to anti-discrimination law or human rights law?
This debate would be so much dancing on pinheads if the confusion did not have a practical impact, but I am persuaded by some of the correspondence that I have received that it does. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon cited the Rationalist Association, which had to wait two years before its registration was eventually accepted, at some cost not only to the association but to the Charity Commission. I dread to think how much of the commission's staff time was chewed up in arguing over the fine detail of the case.
To follow the High Peak principle, there is another advantage in clarifying the law, even if the outcomes may be the same in that, one way or another, humanist and rationalist organisations will achieve charitable status. This is clearly an area of confusion. Most members of the Committee will be familiar with the example given by Mr. Rosser-Owen of Religions Working Together, who recently wrote about a description that has recently been changed on the Charity Commission's website in another context. It states:
"Belief in a Supreme Being is a necessary characteristic of religion in charity law which is why the criteria that we use include reference to a Supreme Being rather than a god. The existing law allows theistic, non-theistic and polytheistic faiths to be regarded as religions in charity law and the precise nature of a Supreme Being is not defined. A Supreme Being does not necessarily have to be in the form of a personal creator god; it may be in the form of one god or many gods or no god at all in the accepted understanding of the term."
The idea that a supreme being may be in the form of "no god at all" is a new one on me, and it illustrates the importance of the Bill in clarifying the position beyond reasonable doubt and allowing us to proceed on a more rational basis. I am happy to support amendments Nos. 123 to 125.
Moving on to the lighter topic of sport, I am happy to support amendment No. 3. I am sure that chess players everywhere will be celebrating, in a cerebral sort of way. It is a positive contribution to the Bill.
Amendment No. 122, tabled by Mr. Malins, suggests that we use the Olympic games, the Paralympics and the Commonwealth games as a guide to what constitutes a sport. Given that I am a member of a party led by a former Olympian, it would be churlish of me to oppose the amendment, which provides a neater formulation than the one in the original Bill. Some hon. Members are worried that certain worthwhile sports may be excluded. However, as the amendment adds to the Government's current formulation in the Bill, we need not worry about the exclusion of any sports apart from those that might have difficulty qualifying under the Government's formulation of requiring "physical or mental exertion". The hon. Gentleman clearly has shooting in mind, and I am happy to support that in principle provided that nothing gets killed in the process.
Absolutely. A few others might have had difficulty in getting through under the formulation, "physical or mental exertion". Synchronised swimming, which is an Olympic sport, certainly involves physical exertion. Curling and, I understand from the Commonwealth games website, 10-pin bowling would unambiguously be brought into the Bill by the hon. Gentleman's amendment, which is spreading the net rather wide. I say to Mr. Gummer that I am sure that croquet is already included under "mental exertion". I speak with some authority because the Cheltenham croquet club has played host in recent years to the world croquet championships, which I attended. I was disappointed not to see the Deputy Prime Minister there—I gather that he is a fan of the sport. Great mental exertion was in evidence on that occasion, not least because two games are sometimes played simultaneously on the same lawn. That is mind boggling.
I support the group of amendments. I hope that the Under-Secretary will make it clear in any directions that he gives the Charity Commission on the substance of amendments Nos. 123 to 125 that humanist and secular charities will no longer have to jump through the hoops that the Charity Commission has specified in the past. I therefore also hope that, in future, there will be a more level playing field between those organisations and religious charities.
We are considering an eclectic group of amendments. I shall begin by briefly considering those tabled by Dr. Harris. He is clear about the beliefs that the amendments do not cover but unwilling to specify those that are covered. That worries me. There is a distinction between belief systems that are essentially non-rational and must therefore be subject to a light-touch public benefit test—I hope that that would happen—and those that are rational and therefore testable. A rational belief system is more testable than a non-rational belief system. It would be unfortunate to couple them under the same heading in clause 2.
I am interested in the distinction that the hon. Gentleman tries to make but, in a sense, all beliefs are, by their nature, not rational. I believe that Bertrand Russell said that he could not prove that there was no God, even if he thought that it was highly likely.
I am grateful for that observation.
Before getting to the meat of my remarks, I wanted to tell the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that it was not only the Rationalist Association that had to spend two years obtaining charitable status from the Charity Commission. Many organisations spend two years or more doing that. They include an organisation that promotes the protection of Bembridge harbour in my constituency. I am concerned that it takes the Rationalist Association and many other organisations too long to achieve charitable status.
I warmly welcome Government amendments Nos. 2 and 4 and the inclusion of police charities in the Bill. We pressed for that in amendment No. 1 in Committee. I also welcome the further inclusion of charities that benefit ambulance and fire service personnel and their dependants. I am especially pleased about those amendments.
I want to spend most of my time on Government amendment No. 3 and amendment No. 122, which my hon. Friend Mr. Malins tabled.
Clause 2(2)(g) provides for
"the advancement of amateur sport" as a charitable purpose when it is defined in subsection (3)(d) as
"sport which involves physical skill and exertion".
There is already a circular element to the definition. I make no bones about welcoming Government amendment No. 3, which was tabled following remarks on Second Reading by Richard Burden, who listed sports that do not qualify as charities. They appear in the notorious RR11 as:
"Angling, ballooning, billiards, pool and snooker, crossbow, rifle and pistol shooting— rifle and pistol target shooting, I stress to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking—
"flying, gliding, motor sports, parachuting."
I see no reason why such sports should not benefit from charitable status subject to their fulfilling the public benefit test. Others, such as darts, are popular but do not appear to fall within the definition in clause 2.
There is a two-hurdle process in acquiring charitable status. The first question is whether an applicant is covered by the definition in clause 2. After establishing that, the second question is whether the activity fulfils the public benefit test in clause 3. There is no point in worrying about clause 3 unless one can be sure of clearing the hurdle in clause 2.
In Committee, we tabled an amendment that would have deleted the restrictive definition in clause 2(3)(d). The Parliamentary-Secretary kindly agreed to consider it. He has devised something that appears both to broaden and restrict the eligibility of different sports. Conservative Members welcome the extension of the clause to cover mental as well as physical skill and exertion, as do Charlotte Atkins and others, because chess will be included. We also welcome the inclusion of games as well as sport, although I should like to know whether a new definition of games is emerging in the bowels of the Charity Commission.
Indeed. However, I am especially worried about the new qualification that sports and games should "promote health"—I emphasise those two words—
"by involving physical or mental skill or exertion".
I fear that the amendment would introduce an additional bar. That is certainly true when compared with the amendment that I tabled in Committee. Government amendment No. 3 would introduce a "promote health" bar.
It would be difficult for some sports to demonstrate that mental exertion promotes health, yet that requirement will be placed on applicants. I am not sure why they should have to demonstrate that—is not sport a good enough activity in itself for it to be charitable? How does one demonstrate that mental activity promotes health? If health, education and the advancement of religion are good in themselves, why should not that be true of sport? I do not suppose that the Chancellor would spend so much money on sport merely because it provides entertainment. I am sure that he does so because he believes that it is a good thing and not simply because it promotes health.
The hon. Gentleman appears to doubt whether mental exertion can contribute to good health. Does not he accept that it can contribute to good mental health and helping those with depression, which is currently a big health worry in the work force?
When I worked for the Alzheimer's Society, our director of research, who worked for the Institute of Neurology, more or less believed that any stimulation of the neurones was good for the physical health of the brain. I do not know whether that would cover darts players, but the general principle is good enough.
My hon. Friend says that they are very thin. I am worried that it would be difficult for some less fashionable sports to show that they contribute to mental health. I am not sure that the proponents of those sports should have to demonstrate that they contribute to mental health, because sport is a good thing in itself and should not need the qualification of contributing to health.
I am shocked that the Government's proposed new measure relates not only to mental sport but to physical sport. When someone drives a car around a track there is physical exertion, but there is no indication that that improves their health, so it would appear to be excluded by the proposed new provision.
I do not think that it would be excluded, because it would be brought in by the "mental" element of the measure. I am sure that driving a car around a track involves mental exertion, so it would probably be brought in by the new provision if those undertaking that activity could demonstrate that it contributed to the promotion of good health. [Interruption.] Well, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster says that she is not sure whether it is of public benefit. With respect to the right hon. Lady, that is the second hurdle, and for the moment I am still trying to get over the first hurdle.
My concern is simply that the Charity Commission appears to be applying a definition that has emerged from a desire to include sport. It has been asked, "How can we get sport charitable status?" It has thought about that and said, "Well, it does promote good health, so we shall slide it in under that." However, the Bill was introduced without a definition involving the promotion of health. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady will find out in a moment. As I said, the Bill came forward with a definition that did not include the promotion of good health, and now the promotion of good heath is to be included again.
Having said all that, let me add that I accept the Minister's good intent in introducing the amendment. I am grateful and pleased that he has done so, and I believe that, given reasonable efforts on the part of those who shoot at stationary targets—most people shoot at targets of one kind or another—they will be able to demonstrate that that is good for their mental health, if not for their physical health, and they will thereby qualify. However, I would be grateful if the Minister would make it very clear that it is not his intention to make what I have described as the first hurdle—clause 2—artificially high so that it stands in the way of the eligibility for charitable status of normal and widely recognised and practised sports, such as darts, billiards or target-shooting, so long as they cross the second hurdle of the public benefit test, to which the right hon. Lady referred.
We have had an interesting—and, at times, entertaining—debate. I shall try to be admirably brief as there is a lot to discuss on Report and we need to get on.
Let me first move amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4, or speak to them—
I stand corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I shall speak to amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 respond to the debate that we had in Committee about the exclusion of the efficiency of the police from being a charitable purpose. Mr. Turner moved an amendment that had been suggested to him by the Police Dependants Trust. We have talked to it further, and we propose to insert the promotion
"of the efficiency of the police" into the list of charitable purposes. We also thought that we should include at the same time
"fire and rescue services or ambulance services".
That is what amendments Nos. 2 and 4 do, and I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman—I think that he has indicated that it does—and others.
Before I speak to the amendments tabled in the name of Dr. Harris, I shall talk about the sport issue. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight tabled an amendment in Committee to probe the Bill's definition of sport. As the hon. Gentleman has expressed concern, I wish to reassure him that the intention of amendment No. 3 is certainly not to narrow the definition of sport—indeed, it is to widen it, hence the reference to "mental...exertion". I want to make that clear at the outset.
Let me explain what the aim is of the new definition of sport. First, it makes it clear that what we are talking about, in the context of charitable sport, is sports or games that improve public health—I shall explain shortly why that is necessary. The Bill's existing definition, with its requirement of physical skill and exertion, implies that, but it does not say so. The new definition takes a direct approach by referring specifically to health. That puts into statute the essence of the current law, and it will allow sports that the commission has not so far accepted to make their case. I shall say more shortly about the processes that will be gone through in that respect.
The new definition also extends to sports or games that involve mental, as well as physical, aspects. There is no justification for continuing to prefer the physical to the mental, given that those two aspects appear to be of similar significance. That responds to a point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, and which was eloquently spoken to in this debate by my hon. Friend Charlotte Atkins. I should say that I was never a chess player as a child as it was too complicated for me. I was more of a backgammon player, but I am unsure whether backgammon will be able to make its case.
Some Members will ask why there has to be a link to health at all—why not just make all sport charitable? That is the approach that the community amateur sports club legislation takes. For charitable status to apply—regardless of whether it is in respect of schools or sports—there must be a public benefit. Health is the obvious link, and that is why it is flagged up in our amendment. However, I want to make it clear that it will be open to activities that do not qualify under the heading of sports that promote health to put forward their case that they deliver public benefit under one of the other headings that is available in respect of being a charitable purpose. For instance, some sports clubs already qualify because they promote citizenship or community development.
On amendment No. 122, in the name of Mr. Malins, we considered over the summer whether we should follow his approach of a list for sports. It is worth explaining to the House the two reasons why we did not go for that option, attractive though it might be in certain respects. The first of them is a matter of principle: community amateur sports club relief is designed for all recognised sports, and included in that are the National Rifle Association, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association and others. The difference in respect of charitable relief is that there should be public benefit.
I shall in a moment.
The second reason is important and complex, and it is a reason of practice. The clause that we are debating merely establishes a heading of "charitable purpose". As with all charitable purposes—whether for animal welfare, education or anything else—a test to show that there is public benefit must then be applied by the commission and, ultimately, the court.
In a moment.
The problem with the amendment of the hon. Member for Woking is that even if we were to adopt it—this is why I decided not to go for the list approach—all the sports on the list would still have to show a public benefit such as health before they could qualify as charities. That is the whole basis of charity law. The problem then is that we would be sending a misleading message to those sports that somehow they were all in, when in fact they would still have to go through a process of proving public benefit.
I thank the Minister for giving way. As he might know, I am vice-chair of the all-party group on angling. As such, I am aware that there are thousands of angling clubs across the country that do an excellent job in their communities. Will they be eligible for charitable status, bearing in mind that their members exert themselves mentally and physically—it improves their health—and also that the Government are spending large sums of money through the Environment Agency to encourage people from all sorts of ethnic and social backgrounds to participate in fishing?
I am afraid that I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. One of the virtues of the Charity Commission being the regulator is that it makes individual decisions about particular sports. Angling will be able to put its case, like any other sport.
The argument is perhaps confusing clauses 3 and 2. The promotion of health is a public benefit and should relate only to clause 3. I do not see why it should be included in clause 2, which simply recognises groups that might—I emphasise might—provide a public benefit. The reference to health ought not to be included.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that, although I do not agree with it, is hard to refute. The reference to the promotion of health is really a flag to make it clear that health is an entry point for sports to prove that they can promote the public benefit. If we removed all references to a definition of sport, as was proposed in Committee, or adopted the approach of the hon. Member for Woking, in effect we would be in the same position because the established law—such as it is—focuses on health. However, we would give the impression to lots of sports that they were suddenly going to be covered by the legislation, when that would not be so. I agree that this is a complex point, and I hope that Mr. Bone will accept my assurances.
The Minister referred tangentially to what I might describe as the stimulating exchange that I had on the telephone with a member of the Charity Commission's staff only yesterday. I understand that health is the current entry point for sports to clause 2; what I do not understand is why, once we have legislated, health will still have to be the entry point to clause 2.
In order to pass the public benefit test there needs to be an entry point of some kind, and the accepted entry point is health. If Parliament wanted to legislate to say that all sports were automatically for the public benefit, it could do so. In my view, it should not take that decision because there should be a proof of public benefit of some kind. There is a whole range of public benefits that it is open to different sports to prove that they possess. There is helping young people and the disabled—I shall deal later with the specific case that the hon. Member for Woking raised—which, at least in part, are charitable purposes, and the promotion of health, with which this part of the Bill deals. Our principal position is that there should be a public benefit, unlike community amateur sports club relief, which applies to all sports. I am afraid that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking would not achieve the purposes that some Members seek to achieve.
As I tried to explain earlier, we are repeating it partly for the sake of clarity. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical, but I spent more hours than I care to report to the House working out whether there was a different way forward. If we did not adopt the Government's preferred amendment, there would be no difference in practice, but a misleading impression would be given to sporting organisations throughout the country.
I want to make some progress.
In short, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking would not have a material effect; having said that, I hope that I can offer him some consolation. First, if the Bill passes as it stands, a definition of sport for charitable purposes will have been put in legislation for the first time. The Charity Commission has agreed to undertake a new consultation on that basis, so that all sports can make their case under the charitable heading. Secondly, it will be open to any sport to make its case under any other heading. I received a letter from the National Rifle Association—as I understand it, it is already a charity—stating that it plays a particular role in helping young people, which is another charitable purpose. So it can make that case.
The hon. Member for Woking spoke eloquently about the role that target shooting can play in providing a safe sport for disabled people and others. I am happy to make it clear that that is obviously very different from field sport shooting, and I am sure that the Charity Commission will be aware of that distinction. Thirdly, I have talked to the commission and if the hon. Gentleman has other concerns, it will be very happy to meet him to discuss them.
If I was not aware of it before, I am now, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his advocacy of the work that angling does.
I turn to the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, which were debated extensively in another place. It remains the Government's view that they are neither necessary nor desirable, and I want to explain why as briefly as I can. They are not necessary because it is established beyond any shadow of doubt that organisations promoting non-religious belief systems such as humanism and rationalism can be charitable. The British Humanist Association, for example, has been a registered charity since
I was slightly confused by the speech by Martin Horwood. He said that it had been established that humanist organisations could be regarded as charitable under the provision concerning the moral, mental and spiritual improvement of humankind. So there is a clear charitable purpose in respect of which humanism can make its case; more than that, it is accepted under that provision that humanism is a way of promoting such improvement. The amendment on humanism is unnecessary because humanism's contribution to charitable purposes is established in law and accepted by the Charity Commission.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but I made a number of points in my speech—not just concerning the point of principle—and accepted that the outcome would be more or less the same. However, there is a very important practical point. The Rationalist Association sounds to me, to all intents and purposes, like an organisation very similar to the British Humanist Association, but it has been put through the various hoops under existing charity law, which will be the basis of the new definition, and it took two years for it to achieve charitable status. So there clearly are cost implications and practical problems.
If the hon. Gentleman had been a little more patient, I would have come on to some of the practical ways in which the Charity Commission deals with humanist organisations.
I shall now explain why the amendment is not only unnecessary but undesirable. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon tried to mount a compelling argument, but I did not think that he clarified the way in which belief is defined under the Human Rights Act. Actually, it is not defined under the Human Rights Act. As I understand it, the Human Rights Act reference to belief has been relied on for cases of non-discrimination, as my hon. Friend Tom Levitt pointed out. If public resources are being made available, however, the order of magnitude is different. We would want to be assured that we were not opening up the definition, through the use of the phrase "religion or belief", to a wide and uncertain class of individuals or organisations.
My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that Lord Phillips has left. Lord Phillips talked about precisely this issue, and I know how much he is relied on by the Liberal Democrats. In speaking to an amendment in Grand Committee, he said:
"The phrase 'or belief' has no constraint to it at all...'belief' on its own could embrace eugenics, hunting or a thousand and one other things. Frankly, we would be in a dark, deep, uncharted sea if the amendment were agreed."—[ Official Report, House of Lords,
I tend to agree with him on that point. The reason why the amendment is undesirable is that it would potentially open up charity law and charitable status to a whole range of organisations. As the noble Lord said, we would be in uncharted territory.
The implication of what the Minister has said is that religion is a shallow, charted sea. Everything that he said about the potential coverage of "belief" applies equally to the various religions. Why must only non-religious beliefs go into uncharted, deep waters, and not the huge variety of, some might say, strange religious beliefs, which, under his formulation, will not have to pass the same extra hurdles as non-religious beliefs?
One of the questions that we will address in the Bill, which we will come on to debate—if we ever move on—is whether a public benefit test should be applied to all organisations, including religious organisations. My point to the hon. Gentleman is that we are some hundreds of years into the establishment of religion in charity law. Yes, the Charity Commission must make decisions about Scientology and other religions, but Parliament, if it is amending legislation and passing charity law, must think carefully before potentially opening up the definition to a whole set of organisations that might come forward and say that they are now for a charitable purpose.
I wholly agree with what my hon. Friend says. For the avoidance of doubt, however, on the matter that I raised with my hon. Friend Tom Levitt, an ordinary person looking at the Bill might think that religion was now defined as involving belief in more than one God, or as not involving belief in a God at all. I presume that that does not preclude religions that only believe in one God. Obviously, it would be odd to include pantheism but not panentheism, and to provide support for those who believe in Diana of the Ephesians but not for those who believe in Jesus of Nazareth.
I reassure my hon. Friend that that coverage is supplementary to that of belief in one God.
Unfortunately—as I recognise the eloquent case made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and the problems faced by humanist organisations—those are the reasons why we cannot accept his amendments. He has referred to difficulties that rationalist organisations have had in dealing with the Charity Commission, but I do not think that that derives from uncertainty that organisations promoting rationalist beliefs can qualify for charitable status under the law. I have discussed the matter with the commission, as it has been raised in the other place as well as by him. Let me put on the record that the commission accepts that it needs to acquire a greater understanding of the basis of rationalist and other non-religious belief. It has agreed to engage in a consultation process with the relevant representative organisations in parallel with discussions now taking place with religious bodies.
I hope that that explains why we feel unable to accept the amendment. I also hope that it demonstrates the seriousness of the commission's intent to ensure equal treatment and respect for humanist organisations.
Before the Minister ends his speech, I want to give him an opportunity—freestyle, as it were—to deal with the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the Government are in peril of finding themselves outwith articles 9 and 14 of the European convention on human rights, as incorporated in the Human Rights Act 1998. There has not been a Government response—as there need not be under the current arrangements—to either report on the matter so far.
As a non-lawyer, I should probably turn down the invitation to deal freestyle with the Human Rights Act. However, I believe that the Bill as it stands complies with the Act. Indeed, Ministers must sign documents making it clear that that is the case.
As I have said, I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, and I understand where humanist and other organisations are coming from. The Charity Commission accepts that it needs to raise its game in respect of those organisations and wants to embark on a process of consultation and discussion with them.
I am impressed by what the Minister has just said, but I should like him to restate more clearly what he said earlier, before being interrupted, about the outcome that he desired from the parallel process involving religious and non-religious organisations. I understood that what he was aiming for was equal treatment. Is that correct?
I am happy to make that clear. As I have said, I think the commission has made plain its wish to ensure equal treatment and respect for humanist organisations. However, we do not think that we can do that in legislation in the way that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon suggests, and I hope that on that basis he will withdraw his amendment.
We have had several excellent debates within one debate, but I shall refer only to the issue that the Minister has just raised. I said at the outset that, in the face of three warnings from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, he must persuade those of us who support the amendment that there is a principled justification for treating non-religious beliefs differently from religion. That is the test. The Minister said that there were two planks to his argument: that the amendment was not necessary, which is not a principled justification but one based on practice, and that it was not desirable, which was at least entering into the discussions of principle.
In fact, even the practical argument does not apply, because the Minister based it on the fact that there was not a shadow of doubt that non-religious organisations concerned could be charitable. I accept that entirely. The fact that some are charities suggests that they can be charitable. However, it is not a question of whether they can ever be charities; it is a question of whether they can be charities as easily, or according to the same tests, as organisations for the advancement of religious belief. That has not been found to be the case in practical terms.
Let me now deal with the Minister's argument about the commission's wish to have discussions with non-religious organisations in parallel with its discussions with religious organisations. That is a practical matter. It is a welcome practical matter, and I do not want to sound churlish. It is about time that it happened, so it is welcome. However, the fact that the discussions will be in parallel with the discussions with religious organisations prompts me to ask why they are not being dealt with under the same heading.
A humanist representative was invited to the first consultation with religious organisations as part of the consideration of the public benefit test, but I thought that there should be separate discussions with the humanist organisations, given that they felt so aggrieved.
The Minister accepts that separate discussions are necessary because he proposes to deal with them separately, under different headings. That is, in fact, my point. In a sense, the concession actually confirms that the treatment of non-religious organisations is different—and, I would argue, unequal and unfair.
I asked the Minister to come up with a principled justification. Coming to his aid, Tom Levitt said that it was difficult to define belief; but as it is just as difficult to define religion, so any arguments about definition apply to religious beliefs as much as to non-religious beliefs. Just because a god is involved—or even if not—it does not solve the problem. The argument that the hon. Gentleman used as a principled justification for making humanist societies do something different is that they can do something different. But that is not a justification for making them do something different.
The final argument was that it is okay to have equal treatment in discrimination law, but not in this respect. The Human Rights Act 1998 applies to public bodies so that they cannot discriminate in employment, in the disbursement of public funds or the treatment of an organisation—and the Charity Commission is clearly a public body. If a public body discriminated in employment, the victim would have two arguments, one based on the Act and the right to freedom of belief, and another based on employment legislation. The latter does not rely on the Act, but is free-standing under the EU directive and the employment regulations. The fact that employees in the private sector have an extra protection against freedom from discrimination on the basis of race and, now, religion is not an argument that public authorities should be allowed to discriminate disproportionately without justification. That is not an effective argument against the risk of incompatibility that the Joint Committee set out. If the Charity Commission, as a public body performing the public function of deciding which organisations are charitable, discriminates without justification against someone on the basis of their religion or belief—in the words of the Human Rights Act 1998—it will be liable under a claim on that basis.
The Government have said nothing to justify the statement on the Bill that it complies with the human rights legislation. The Minister said that there would have to be a separate consultation because the process would be different. Mr. Turner argued that the distinction was necessary because rational belief systems would more easily pass a public benefit test and, therefore, that non-rational belief systems, such as religious ones—he said that non-judgmentally—would require a light-touch public benefit test. That would be discriminatory, in a sense, and there would therefore be a good case under the Human Rights Act 1998 for discrimination. Just because someone has a rational point of view, they should not be made to pass an extra test. The fact that the harbour charity in his constituency took two years to gain charitable status is to be regretted, but it is not the right comparator for the point that I made.
The difficulty for those of us who support the amendment—the Minister will note that some Labour Members do—is that the Government have not come up with a principled justification for treating non-religious organisations differently from religious ones, despite three warnings from the Joint Committee that they need to address the issue. I accept the spirit in which the Minister made his remarks, but the only concession that he has made confirms that the process will be different. In a sense, that is the last thing that we wanted to hear. With that in mind, it is my intention to test the opinion of the House on the issue, because the Government will need to be able to show that they have taken that view. I apologise for detaining the House on the matter, but it is a key point of principle.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not, of course, complain at all about your, quite rightly, calling for the Doors to be locked, but I ask your advice. When the two major parties are voting together and there are long queues up the Stairs and through the Doors with no way of getting to the Lobby in time, could the House authorities look at ways of expediting the entrance of Members to enable them to get to the Division Lobby in time?
This is not a new problem; the situation has arisen before. I understand the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made, which will no doubt be taken into consideration by the appropriate authorities. With respect, the answer may be for Members to leave their offices a little earlier.
The House having divided: Ayes 59, Noes 444.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendments made: No. 2, in page 2, line 22, at end insert
', or of the efficiency of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services'.
No. 3, in page 2, line 34, leave out 'sport which involves physical skill and exertion; and' and insert
'sports or games which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion'.
No. 4, in page 2, line 37, at end insert '; and
(f) in paragraph (l) "fire and rescue services" means services provided by fire and rescue authorities under Part 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (c. 21).'.— [Edward Miliband.]