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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 10th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 7:25 pm, 10th June 2015

I would point out, if I may finish my point, that under the Bill the commission would also be able to rely on the disqualification power if a person’s conduct clearly made them unfit to serve as a trustee or senior manager of a particular charity or class of charities. The commission’s draft guidance on how it would exercise the disqualification power makes clear that it could be used in the circumstances. This is made clear on page 4, under paragraph (b)(i) concerning condition F. I know that we will probably return to this point in Committee, so I hope the noble Baroness will forgive me for going on right now.

Also as regards Clause 9, the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Brinton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, were among a number of your Lordships who raised the issues that counterterrorism legislation might have in this context. I have been fortunate enough to talk to a number of your Lordships about this point and I recognise that there is a concern for some charities operating in some of the most difficult parts of the world—not just the Middle East, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out. However, I would point out that several government departments, including the Home Office, the Treasury and DfID as well as the Charity Commission and the Cabinet Office, are engaging with NGOs to understand their concerns and ensure that, wherever possible, they are given proper guidance.

In many cases there is already detailed guidance dealing with the points that were raised, and it may be a case where better signposting is needed. We are also not aware of any legitimate NGO worker who has been convicted in the UK under the counterterrorism legislation. Providing some sort of exemption for charities from aspects of counterterrorism legislation may sound attractive, but I would argue that it could create a loophole in the law that could be exploited by the unscrupulous—something which I am sure we would all want to avoid. I was particularly struck by the remarks made on this point by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, given his extensive experience in this area, and I thank him for his contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Low, raised Clause 10, particularly as regards whether condition F in the proposed new section is too broad. This condition needs to be considered in the context of other criteria for the exercise of the disqualification power, namely the test of fitness that disqualification,

“is desirable in the public interest … to protect public trust and confidence in charities”,

and the safeguards relating to the operation of the power, including the right of appeal to the Charity Tribunal. The Charity Commission’s draft guidance on how it would exercise the power should provide reassurance that it will use the power only when there is a clear case for doing so; that the commission would clearly explain what it would take into account before using the power; and that in exercising the power, the commission would provide an explanation identifying the conduct in question and why it thought that the conduct met condition F.

I turn to some of the wider issues that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and a number of other noble Lords raised the tragic case of Olive Cooke. This was a very sad case and I start by paying my condolences to the family of Olive Cooke and pay tribute to her outstanding work in the field of charity, which the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, referred to. I would like to say here that the charity sector needs to move quickly and firmly to show that self-regulation works in the best interests of the public and that fundraising can set itself sufficiently high standards to meet public expectations.

Last week, my honourable friend the Minister for Civil Society met with three chief executives of the self-regulatory bodies. He made it clear that action must be taken quickly to protect the long-term reputation of charities. The self-regulation bodies agreed to pull together a plan of action that could be taken in the short term, together with plans to work on in the longer term. The FRSB published its interim report yesterday, and its findings and recommendations are being discussed at the Institute of Fundraising’s standards committee today—a point, I think, that the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, was referring to. Charities need to ask for funds, but that is not an inalienable right and it needs to be exercised responsibly, particularly if we are to protect public trust and confidence in charities for the long term.

A number of your Lordships raised the issue of charity campaigning, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Pitkeathley, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson. The Government have been consistently clear that charities have the right to campaign within the law and that this can be a valuable way in which charities can further their charitable purposes.

The Charity Commission’s guidance, CC9, makes it clear that charity law recognises that campaigning can be a legitimate activity for charities and sets out the general principles. The Charity Commission keeps all its guidance under review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date. The commission has monitored charities’ observance of the guidance during the election campaign and is considering the findings from that monitoring along with the impact of the lobbying Act and other issues relating to the current guidance. The Charity Commission will need to take account of any findings of the statutory review of Part 2 of the transparency of lobbying Act by my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. If the commission considers revisions should be made to CC9, it has committed to say so publicly and to consult widely.

I turn to housing associations, right to buy and their charitable assets. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised the Government’s policy to extend right to buy. This, of course, is being taken forward in another Bill. The Government are determined that anyone who works hard and wants to get on the property ladder should have the chance to do so. There is indeed, as the noble Baroness knows, a precedent for housing association tenants accessing discounts to enable them to buy their own home. I believe many people exercised the right to buy their housing association home between 1997 and 2010.

Finally, a number of your Lordships raised the resources and role of the Charity Commission, including the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Watson of Invergowrie. I would make two points. First, on its resources, if we are to bring down the deficit, we need to make savings and efficiencies right across government, and that includes the Charity Commission. The Treasury has agreed a sensible settlement for 2015-16 with the Charity Commission, based on its forecast needs and focused on protecting its investigation and enforcement functions. The 2015-16 settlement also increased the Charity Commission’s capital budget by £500,000 to invest in a new digital online system for charities to file their annual accounts. This will improve the Charity Commission’s efficiency and help it to identify and tackle fraud and mismanagement. I also welcome the £8 million investment in the Charity Commission announced last October by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. All this will help the Charity Commission refocus its regulatory activity on proactive monitoring and enforcement in the highest risk areas, such as the abuse of charities for terrorist and other criminal purposes, such as tax avoidance and fraud. Secondly, as regards supporting charities, I am confident that the Charity Commission will get the balance right between regulator and adviser, and I was heartened to read what the National Audit Office said in its interim report.

I look forward to debating and discussing these measures, and more, in more detail with your Lordships in the weeks ahead. As I said, my door is always open. That said, I would be grateful if your Lordships do not follow the example set by my formidable great-aunt, who was general secretary of the Women’s Institute during the Second World War. I am told that when she ran into some bureaucratic obstacle, she found that the best way of overcoming it was to harry Ministers by ringing them at home well before breakfast. That is something that I recommend your Lordships do not follow, as you may get my four year-old daughter, who is twice as formidable as her great-great-aunt.

This Bill is just one part of the Government’s programme to strengthen the fabric of our nation—one nation. In myriad ways, in every community across the land, charities are performing that vital role. Some are tiny, others enormous—together they are a golden thread, weaving together those who want to do their bit. The Bill will give the Charity Commission strengthened powers to tackle abuse so as to maintain the public’s trust in charities, and it will enable those who have to do still more to help those who have not. I thank your Lordships for all your contributions today and for the many months spent scrutinising the Bill’s proposals. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.