Charities Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 12th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Swinfen Lord Swinfen Conservative 6:30 pm, 12th October 2005

The amendment would require the Charity Commission to have regard to the interests of the people involved in charities as well as a charity's material assets. Those people include especially charity beneficiaries, who are often singularly unable to defend their own interests.

The commission has sometimes acted in a cavalier fashion towards a charity's people. Such behaviour has occurred and has been the subject both of Independent Complaints Reviewer findings and of admission, in retrospect, by the commission itself. The effects of such regulatory behaviour in certain cases have been deeply damaging to charity—to charities, trustees, volunteers and, most importantly, their beneficiaries.

In moving this amendment, designed to have particular regard to the interests of people involved in charities, I am aware that my earlier reference to some effects of Charity Commission regulatory conduct in the past may have given offence in certain quarters. I believe, however, that the absence of any mention of beneficiaries in the Charities Act 1993—and of their needs and interests—may have been a contributory cause of the failure of the commission as regulator to consider the possible effects of its actions and orders upon beneficiaries, who are among the most vulnerable and poorly protected members of society. Perhaps I should have looked at the matter when I took part in the debates on the Bill when it went through the House. Sadly, it stands to reason that if charity funds are summarily frozen and trustees and volunteers prevented from carrying on their humanitarian work, beneficiaries who may be partly or wholly reliant on such help, support and protection for their subsistence or safety may be seriously disadvantaged and damaged, at the very least. Think what would happen today if Oxfam's funds were all suddenly frozen and it could not help those in Pakistan, Kashmir and north-west India.

A careful reading of the Charities Act 1993 and the sections relating to the regulatory powers of the commissioners, and the circumstances under which those powers can be exercised will demonstrate beyond question that it is the material assets of a charity—its property and funds—that are to govern the exercise of regulatory powers. Important though it must be to protect such material assets, current charity law does not appear to place a sufficient emphasis or duty on the commission to pay particular regard to the reasonable interests of charity people.

Surely in this century this Charities Bill should strive to redress the balance between the proper and necessary protection of a charity's property and the need to protect the interests and needs of the people who deliver or depend on such services. When we last debated the issue in Committee on 28 June, the Minister said that the amendment was not necessary. At col. 193 she said that that was because the Bill required the Commission to be "accountable and transparent" and that it "takes customer service seriously. She continued:

"Last year, it established a group called the Customer Network for people from across the sector . . . to give feedback".—[Hansard, 28/6/05; col. 193.]

Even when the commission takes customer service seriously, and has established a feedback group, it is still possible that it may not have at the forefront of its mind a prime requirement to protect a charity's beneficiaries when exercising its regulatory powers.

The amendment would put on the face of the Bill a specific duty on the commission when exercising its regulatory powers to take full account of the reasonable needs and interests of charity people before it acts. After 400 years of charity law and regulation, with its heavy emphasis on the protection of the material assets of charities, would it not be right, fair, helpful and encouraging to all involved in the sector to see a specific duty placed on the commission to have regard to the interests of charity people? Surely the Government and the House should be prepared to accept a helpful and useful amendment. I beg to move.