Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [HL] — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 10th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 7:02 pm, 10th June 2015

I start by also congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, on his maiden speech. It is interesting that others have commented on his mix of charitable and business interests, but much of the charitable world has benefited from the involvement of those in business and industry. Having served as a trustee of a range of charities, and on the executive of charities, over the last 20 to 25 years, I know that the expertise brought in from outside is one of the things that has most transformed the charitable sector. I do not recall any charity talking about risk assessment any particular detail 20 years ago in. The whole planning of activity and finance has been transformed in smaller charities across the country, and there is much to commend the charitable sector in that regard. I am delighted to welcome the Minister because of his expertise, but also because he embodies the expertise that we see in our charities throughout the country.

I declare my interests as recorded in the register. As I have already outlined, I have current and past trusteeships. I am a trustee of UNICEF UK, of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and of UFI Charitable Trust, which provides grants for technology in further education and which used to run learndirect. That is a very diverse range of charities, which sums up the whole sector: we all come with expertise from different areas, but public benefit is key. I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, because later in my speech I will refer to disbenefit, detriment and harm—issues that have not been raised so far today.

I am a trustee of UNICEF UK and in the past have been a trustee of Christian Blind Mission, both of which work in international development. They have an understanding of assessing risk in the field around the world for staff and volunteers, and for the beneficiaries in those communities, who often are at risk from terrorists, opposing armies or natural disasters. It is always difficult for those charities to assess such risk and to make a decision when things are happening thousands of miles away. I echo the concerns expressed by others about the breadth of restrictions relating to any activity that might come up against terrorism. However, most other speakers have thought of that only in the context of charities run for the benefit of Muslims and those in Muslim countries. That is not the case. Any charity working in international development has to be fully aware of it. We need to look at the practicalities of what is happening in different parts of the world, rather than make assumptions. It becomes very easy to use a blanket statement—“We can resolve this, we can stop people being trustees in the future, we can wind charities up”—when it is actually extraordinarily difficult for the charity to control some of the things happening on the periphery.

I also wanted to ponder the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on the different nature of charities and his interesting notion that we could have a registered charity versus one that was publicly funded. I have to say that, for me, that jars rather. In recent years, many charities have started to receive funding from the public purse—not just from government, but from local government and from the National Health Service—to deliver services to a particular community that that charity may understand well. Indeed, many people who have said that it should be not just the state that delivers those services have welcomed the expertise of a large charity or a small charity that can provide something relevant. In my book, those charities deserve just as much the high accolade of being a registered charity, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, simply because of their expertise and public benefit, despite the fact that the resources may come from the public purse. I therefore worry that we will get into a semantic debate about “which charity” and where its funds come from. I understand that the nature of charities has changed as money has come from the public purse, as well as from private donors.

In international development, we have chosen to move away from handing funding over to foreign Governments. In the previous coalition Government, we made a particular point where there were concerns about human rights. We handed money to charities to deliver partly because they were accountable to us. I am concerned that they would be denigrated as not quite a top charity if they received government funding.

The focus of what I want to say comes back to this issue of “disbenefit”. I welcome the clauses in the Bill that give the Charity Commission further strength and resource, particularly official warning by the commission and other actions that it can take. However, I have spoken in your Lordships’ House before about the Exclusive Brethren, also known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church. It had been asking since February 2009 for recognition for the Preston Down Trust, one of its meeting halls. There was an investigation —one of the few that the Charity Commission has carried out over the years, given the hundreds of thousands of charities registered—partly because there was concern about public benefit. It became apparent in its investigation that there was public disbenefit, detriment and harm. The Bill does not seem to address those issues. I will come back to those in more detail in Committee.

Something that concerned me from the investigation and the subsequent Charity Commission report is that—despite much detail in the report that accepted that there was detriment, harm and disbenefit— the Preston Down Trust was given charitable status.

That seems quite extraordinary. I understand that it was given with the proviso that changes had to be made and that the commission would assess it, but if we are to be strict in other areas of the charitable sector, I wonder whether we should also be strict if we or the commission see evidence of detriment or harm, and whether there should not be provision of charitable status. The organisation submitting the application should have to prove that things had changed and that it was now able to offer public benefit as well. Therefore, I will seek an amendment from the Minister on that issue and look forward to discussing it at a later stage.

Overall, the Bill makes the real strides in policing and regulation that the Charity Commission itself says need to be made if it is to be able to do its job. I echo the comments of those noble Lords throughout the House who said that we must also make sure that the Charity Commission has the funds to deliver these provisions. I hope that the funds will follow to meet the extra requirements and responsibilities that the Bill will place on the commission.