Clause 6

Charities Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 4 July 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

The Charity Commission

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Hon. Members may have observed that amendment No. 5, which I thought was a jolly good amendment, was not selected for debate.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. I am absolutely certain that the hon. Gentleman is not going to challenge the Chair’s selection. The sad fact is that, whether he likes it or not, amendment No. 5 was defective, which is why it was not selected.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I was about to confess as much, Mr. Gale. It was defective. None the less, this is the clause on which we debate the accountability of the Charity Commission. On Second Reading, the Parliamentary Secretary, kindly said:

“Labour Members are sympathetic to the notion that there needs to be rigorous Select Committee scrutiny of the work of the Charity Commission. The Home Affairs Committee has a lot on its plate.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 98.]

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) then intervened and took him down a completely different avenue, so the Parliamentary Secretary was unable to say what I anticipated: that he accepted that it was a jolly good suggestion, and that he would incorporate it into the Bill forthwith, by means of an amendment of his own. He did not have the opportunity to do that, but I give him that opportunity now.

A number of representations have been made that there should be parliamentary scrutiny of the Charity Commission. The Joint Committee said, at paragraph 181:

“The other side of independence from Government is that the Commission should be accountable to Parliament. We were concerned that more needs to be done in this regard. There seems to us to be an ‘accountability gap’.’

Paragraph 186 went on to

“recommend that the Home Affairs Select Committee have an annual evidence session with the Charity Commission.”

The Joint Committee made further recommendations, too. I support that recommendation; indeed, I went slightly further, and proposed specifically—

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Specifically, but ineffectively, that the commission should be accountable to a Select Committee. That was out of regard for the fact that, as far as I know, there is no Committee responsible for the activities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, so I did not know where to put that responsibility.

Nevertheless, I have experience of the Education and Skills Committee, to which a similar non-ministerial department, Ofsted, is accountable in practice, if not in law. That is immensely helpful. Ofsted had two hearings a year before the Select Committee; those hearings generated substantial reports that covered a wide range of Ofsted’s activities, including changes to its responsibilities, the implementation of new legislation, value for money, and the means by which Ofsted develops its relationship with schools. I am sure, Mr. Gale, that you can see the analogies with the Charity Commission emerging. It will have to develop its relationship with charities and implement new legislation. It will have an awful lot of money and will, I hope, deliver good value for it.

On the Education and Skills Committee, I was able to question the decisions of Ofsted. For example, I questioned why it defined a particular local education authority as being “satisfactory” when in fact it was deeply unsatisfactory in a number of particulars. I am pleased to say that that local education authority is no longer under Liberal Democrat control, partly, I am sure, as a result of the answers that I got from Ofsted. The point is that the commission needs to be accountable. It is fine—excellent—that it is made clear that the commission is not under the direction of any Minister of the Crown, but it has to be under the direction of someone. In my view, a parliamentary Select Committee is where that accountability would appropriately lie. In line with the suggestion of the Association for Charities and many other organisations, I hope that the Minister will find a way, on Report, to bring us some good news on how the commission will be accountable in future.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s amendment—or I did, before his speech. Perhaps I will get my own back in a minute. He makes a serious point: the Charity Commission is an extraordinarily powerful body. That came home to me when I worked for Oxfam; recently, its reputation, and its very future as a charity, had been under question, largely because members of the Conservative party, in those days, seemed less convinced of the presumption of public benefit attaching to organisations. I speak of organisations such as Oxfam, which not only address the relief of poverty, but seek to prevent it by addressing its fundamental causes, and campaigning on that basis. As I say, Oxfam’s reputation, and indeed its future as a charity, did, in one sense, hang in the balance, and depended on the judgment of the Charity Commission. I am pleased to say that the Charity Commission came to enlightened and correct conclusions about the status of Oxfam, but had it not done so, it would have been a very serious matter that would have affected the lives of millions of vulnerable people from around the world, not just in the UK.

It is right that a body that has such powerful influence over some of the most vulnerable in our society and others is subject to the fullest scrutiny. Much in the Bill reflects that. It introduces bodies such as the charity appeal tribunal, which provides a court of appeal against the decisions of the Charity Commission. Nevertheless, a mechanism by which the commission might be brought before Parliament, perhaps through a Select Committee, would be desirable. Some of our later amendments reflect that. The Minister would be wise to reflect on some of the comments that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight made, except those about the Liberal Democrat local education authority, and consider, through legislation, regulation or his advice to the commission, some ways in which such parliamentary scrutiny might take place.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I am sorry that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight was defective, but I agreed with much of his speech and with the hon. Member for Cheltenham.

Part of the issue about clause 6 and scrutiny of the Charity Commission is that for a long time—I am not sure how long—responsibility for charities lay with the Home Office, and the relevant Select Committee was the Home Affairs Committee. As I said on Second Reading, the Committee has a lot on its plate, and charities were never going to be top of its list of priorities. Others with more experience of this House than myself will know more about procedure, but I do not think that it is really up to us to specify in legislation the relationship to the Select Committee. It is more a matter for Standing Orders.

This legislation is the first since 1960 to modernise the commission, and the commission recognises that the role of the modern regulator requires proper scrutiny by this House. My personal view is that the Public Administration Committee, which scrutinises other Cabinet Office matters, would provide the appropriate scrutiny. It is ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I wish the clause to stand part of the Bill, but I shall return and, I hope, report further progress in my discussions with that Committee.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland

I have no more experience in this House than my hon. Friend, but the Charity Commission, as a recipient of public funds like other regulators, will be scrutinised by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. It is a question of considering not so much the efficiency, which I hope hon. Members feel that Committee will deal with adequately, but the policies of the Charity Commission.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The only thing I would say is that the NAO and the PAC have considered the Charity Commission in the past, but the examinations have been infrequent—every few years rather than annually or more than annually. I sense from this Committee a desire for regular scrutiny and regular Charity Commission appearances before a Select Committee. I hear what the Committee says, I shall continue discussions with other Members, and I hope to report progress, if possible, on Report.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

That is very welcome. The Committee needs to accept that charities law is now in the hands of a Minister who is not subject to a Select Committee is a matter of chance. That was not intended. No one seriously believes that the Government said, “We will make this arrangement to avoid a Select Committee taking interest.” The best thing we can do is accept that the situation is unlikely to continue for very long. We should request that, when convenient, the Government ensure that charities law goes to a Secretary of State who is subject to a Select Committee, and where possible, the commission and the Minister are answerable to this House.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for that intervention. The Charity Commission has had a hard time today, but my final comment is that I think that there is a genuine desire in the Charity Commission to be properly scrutinised in what it is doing. Under the legislation it will have to submit an annual report to the House, not through the Home Secretary as was previously the case. I believe that there is a genuine desire for maximal scrutiny and accountability through the House and I hope that that can happen through our good offices.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.