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New Clause 1 — Annual Report

Part of Small Charitable Donations Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 26th November 2012.

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Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 7:00 pm, 26th November 2012

Being a member of a Public Bill Committee, particularly a Back-Bench member, can be a soul-destroying experience. It often seems to Opposition Members—under all Governments, I am sure; I do not intend to suggest otherwise—that what happens is this: the Committee debates the amendments that we have tabled, the Government generally oppose them, in some instances there is a vote, the Opposition generally lose the vote unless the Government have been uncommonly careless in losing some of their members somewhere in the building, and we move on to the next debate. However, that is probably not what the public think is involved in the scrutiny of a Bill in Committee.

When I became a member of the Committee, I wrote in my local newsletter that I was quite excited about it. Because the Bill did not appear to me to have created huge party political dividing lines, I believed that we would have the sort of opportunity for scrutiny that does not always arise. Unfortunately, however, there came a time when I began to feel that that was not the case, and that, for all my hopes that we would be open with one another about what was right and wrong with the Bill, we were merely engaging in those traditional Committee procedures. I was therefore extremely pleased to observe that the Minister, who had given little away in Committee, had tabled Government amendments on Report. That, I think, shows that he listened to what was said in Committee, and subsequently thought about difficulties that had been created during the drafting of the Bill but had not really been intended by legislators.

We must surely acknowledge that returning the time for which a charity must have existed before it can even claim under the scheme to two years, as the Government amendment proposes, would be an improvement, although our new clause takes a rather different approach. At least the amendment recognises that charities, particularly new charities, need a great deal of help. However, part of the problem with the Bill has been the fact that it is so strongly hitched to the gift aid mechanism.

It was assumed that small charities that could not obtain money through gift aid should be helped by means of the mechanism that already existed. That created a huge extra obstacle race. In fact, there will still be an obstacle race even if the Government amendments are accepted. The charity must be registered, it must have existed for a certain number of years—for the three years originally proposed, or for two—and it must be registered for gift aid. For all the reasons that have already been given, that can be quite a cumbersome process, particularly for small organisations that are entirely run by volunteers.

The whole apparatus of gift aid is quite complex, and the original mechanism involved a fairly lengthy process. It seemed to us in Committee that very small charities in particular were being expected to jump through a huge number of hoops to make their claims. Ironically, it appeared that they would be faced with far more obstacles than larger organisations which were claiming substantial amounts of gift aid, and that a scheme that had been intended to benefit small organisations was unduly elaborate.

It appears that the Government intend to retain the link with the gift aid arrangements, but I hope that there is still space for our proposals. New clause 3, for example, suggests a way of removing some of the complexity from the system to allow start-ups of small and sometimes fairly short-term charities. It is a good idea to enable people to set up charities for a particular purpose and perhaps to close them down once they have had a dab at what they need to do. Perhaps we are rather too inclined to keep organisations going just for the sake of keeping them going, rather than saying, “It has done its job, and we can wind it up.” Sometimes that is the appropriate thing to do.

I am pleased that the Government have tabled their important amendments, but I hope that, even at this stage, the Minister will be prepared to look kindly on the proposals presented from various parts of the Opposition Benches, including the new clauses proposing a review. It is often said of reviews, particularly by Governments, that it is unnecessary to demand them because they will take place in any event: because part of a Government’s activity is constantly to review what they are doing. That should indeed be the case, and one hopes that it is, but in reality there are many competing pressures. Many things have to be done, and time moves on.

When a Bill such as this goes on to the statute book, at one level it is done and dusted, and it is pushed aside. Civil servants, and indeed Ministers—even Ministers in the same Government, although not necessarily—may not return to it regularly unless required to do so. Rather than waiting for a problem to arise, and for organisations to campaign for a review because the present system is not working, we should create a clear mechanism that cannot just survive the Government who produced the legislation, but survive future Governments.

Various concerns have been expressed, particularly by those who need to make the legislation work, namely the charities themselves. They are doubtful about whether the Bill will deliver what has been promised. The Government have suggested that some of those concerns may be exaggerated, that many charities that apply for gift aid will find the process easier than they had thought, and that we should not be so depressing as to put off charities in our constituencies. Indeed, the Minister has encouraged us all to organise our own publicity, and to arrange events encouraging charities to apply. That is all very worthy, but if the concerns that have been expressed have some foundation, the best way of establishing the facts will be a process of regular review and report. I do not think that it is enough for Ministers to say, “It will be all right, because somewhere in the system reviews will be taking place anyway.” We could all come up with examples of circumstances in which reviews do not happen until something goes wrong, or a big campaign has to be organised to put pressure on a future Government.

I hope that, now that the Minister has shown his willingness to move on the Bill, we shall see some further movement tonight.