Schedule 1

Charities Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 4 July 2006.

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The Charity Commission

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

I beg to move amendment No. 72, in schedule 1, page 81, line 9, leave out ‘four’ and insert ‘six’.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 73, in schedule 1, page 81, line 23, at end insert—

‘(d) at least four members have particular experience of the charitable activity such as the Secretary of State may by regulations define.’.

Government amendment No. 57

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

The previous discussion on the responsibilities and powers of the Charity Commission is relevant to this provision too. One of the things that I have noticed, on moving from the charity sector to Parliament, is that there is a charming belief in this place that laws always have the right results once they are passed. [Interruption.] The more experienced Members do not share that belief, so I stand corrected. Sometimes, though, I think that when considering legislation we should introduce mechanisms to make it more likely that bodies will do what we intend them to do, so that the representative nature of bodies such as the Charity Commission is preserved.

There is some disquiet in the voluntary sector about the operation of the Charity Commission in practice and about the need for it to reflect the wider population in two important respects. The first such respect is the increasingly diverse nature of British society. It is probably unfair to say that the commission reflected  the great and the good in the old-fashioned, traditional charitable sense, but there is certainly a risk that it does not reflect the full diversity of modern Britain. If it is considering religious charities, which may include Islamic charities, Buddhist organisations or others from a wider range of social and ethnic backgrounds than previously, it should perhaps be more representative of those communities as well.

The second important respect is the increasing trend toward representation of people who have direct experience as beneficiaries of a charity. That applies in the running of the organisations themselves. There is a clear trend among grant-giving bodies such as Comic Relief or the Big Lottery Fund and even Government Departments to insist on evidence that beneficiaries of charity services or service users are represented in the running of an organisation, and that would be a good principle to extend to the Charity Commission itself. I suggested an amendment that would have made that explicit, but the Clerks pointed out, in ruling it out of order, that almost everybody could be the beneficiary of some charity, and that therefore the provision would be rather meaningless, and I am sure that that might be right.

Amendment No. 72 would increase the minimum number of members of the commission from four to six, thereby increasing the likelihood of the commission being a more representative body in both those respects. It would also incidentally reduce the potential power of the chairman’s casting vote—a reduction that would be a desirable thing in any organisation. On a probing basis, I would like to test out the reason for having such a small number as the minimum number of members of the commission.

Amendment No. 73 specifically addresses experience of charitable activity. The original amendment that I drafted was rather more explicit about that experience being experience as a beneficiary or as a service user, but, as I explained, that has been ruled out of order. The revised amendment does what I did not really intend, which is to provide a new broad power for the Secretary of State. Under most circumstances that is the kind of thing that I stand up and indignantly oppose, so I am not sure that I am as enthusiastic about the re-drafted amendment as I was about my original one. Nevertheless we should take every opportunity to ensure that members of powerful bodies such as the commission—it will make rulings on charities rooted in particular communities, social backgrounds and ethnic origins and representing, for instance, people with disabilities—should wherever possible have experience of such services themselves. Ideally, the Charity Commission should include a person with disabilities and perhaps someone with a different ethnic background from the majority of its members. That is why I have proposed the amendments.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development 6:00, 4 July 2006

By an inadvertent slip of the tongue, I think, the hon. Gentleman suggested that under the Bill, the commission will have a minimum of four members. If he looks at the schedule, he will see that it will have a chairman and four members, so the minimum number will be five.

Although all of us are potential beneficiaries of charitable services in one form or another—citizens  advice bureaux, for example, could benefit everyone—is the hon. Gentleman not stating the obvious by specifying such a measure in his amendment? No Minister would put forward the names of people who were not representative or potential beneficiaries. Is he not guilty once again of the Cheltenham principle in tabling an amendment that is harmless if not entirely necessary?

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

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s great experience in the voluntary sector. The joke is beginning to wear a little bit thin, though, as we have now heard it four times during this debate, and I am not sure that it was entirely fair the first time, let alone the fifth or sixth.

The hon. Gentleman is correct up to a point, but I am not sure that it is always automatic that such an exalted body as the Charity Commission will necessarily represent the interests of users and beneficiaries. It is sensible and almost inevitable that it will represent people who know how to run a charity. Such people might be in the old mould and represent, if I might use a slightly pejorative phrase, the rather patronising traditional approach to charity as something done to people rather than something shared with people that empowers them.

We are moving toward a different understanding of charity that is about empowerment and giving the users and beneficiaries of charities the right to some say in how those charities are run. That is the kind of change that I am seeking to effect.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before we proceed, the Committee should know that there will shortly be a Division or Divisions in the House. It is customary to suspend the Committee for 15 minutes after the start of the Division or the second or final Division, whenever that is. There will therefore be a period of suspension.

Members will be gladdened to know that I have told the Government Whip that I am prepared to sit in the Chair for as long as it takes this evening, within reason. If Members wish to sit, they may do so. That will be a matter for negotiation among the Government and Opposition Whips, the Minister and others. Members may wish to take the opportunity of the Division to work that out.

I will say to the Committee, because I believe in making sure that people are aware of what is going on, that it will in any event be necessary at some point in the fairly near future for me to break the Committee, probably for an hour, to allow Committee staff something to eat. With that proviso, Members may now choose to negotiate their own positions.

Because a Government amendment is grouped with the amendments, it might be helpful if I call the Minister to speak to Government amendment No. 57 and then allow the Committee to debate the group. I shall not seek to restrict debate before I invite other Members to participate.

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

The purpose of Government amendment No. 57 is to maintain the status of the Charity Commission’s staff as civil servants. Without it,  they might well cease to be so once the Bill is enacted. The amendment will deal with the effect of an earlier amendment agreed in another place whose stated intentions were to deal with concerns about the commission’s independence and to ensure that it was not under ministerial control.

I am glad to say that the Government feel that the Charity Commission’s independence has been made clear through the provisions of new section 1A(4), which states that, in the exercise of its functions, it should not be subject to the direction or control of any Minister of the Crown or other Department. The wording of my amendment would maintain the status of the Charity Commission’s staff as members of the home civil service. That is a common provision used in other legislation where non-ministerial Departments are established, for example, that which established the Food Standards Agency.

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

I shall ask what may sound like a mischievous question, but in fact it is genuine. Will the Parliamentary Secretary summarise the benefits to the staff of being classed as civil servants?

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

There are two choices for Government: the Charity Commission staff can be civil servants, because they are working for a Department, albeit a non-ministerial one, or there can bea non-Departmental public body approach. My understanding of this matter, which was fully considered by the Joint Committee and the strategy unit, is that there would be more control by Ministers of a non-Departmental public body; such a body would be more subject to the direction of Ministers than a non-ministerial Department. People are clear that in regulating for food safety, the FSA, for example, operates transparently and independently. That is a good model for us to follow.

The Charity Commission already has delegated authority on behalf of the Minister for the Civil Service to determine the number and grading of its posts and the terms and conditions of employment, in so far as they relate to remuneration allowances, and so on. The commission is only required to agree the overall pay remit with the Treasury. It takes its own decisions on terms and conditions of service within a broad framework and has some latitude, while remaining a non-ministerial Department.

The amendment is important to the board and staff of the Charity Commission, because without it the commission might end up in the unique position of being the only Department whose staff are not in the civil service. That is the basis of the amendment, which I commend to the Committee.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary’s response. The Government amendment is sensible. I read it as saying that Ministers will not get involved in the appointment of the chief executive; that is left to the Charity Commission, which is a good idea.

I ought to acknowledge and put on the record that I am and have been a trustee of a large number of charities, and so has my wife, who is also involved in headhunting in the charitable field.

The Parliamentary Secretary has chosen the right form for the Charity Commission. Ministers have much more power over things that they do not directly control than those over which they have closer control, such as Departments, from which they are kept further away. That helps keep away some of the malevolence or frustration that is occasionally expressed by Ministers.

I think that the amendment is saying that the number of charity commissioners, plus the chairman, should increase. However, that is not necessary. It is clear that the Government intend to appoint six, seven or eight. Having a low number means that the commission can still exist if one member has a car crash, another is struck off and somebody else retires.

Martin Horwoodrose—

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

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

I was on the point of begging to ask leave to withdraw my amendment. However, I shall not do so right now because, on reflection, I have realised that that would deny us the valuable opportunity of hearing the Minister’s comments.

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

I will be brief.

On amendment No. 72, the Bill makes significant improvements to the Government’s arrangements for the commission. It enables the board to reflect legal and accounting expertise, a Welsh perspective and the diversity of the sector.

It is our strong intention to appoint nine members to the board. In accordance with the wise words of the hon. Member for Worthing, West, we have to plan on the basis that if there were some act of God, the commission could carry on functioning. I hope that the hon. Member for Cheltenham will withdraw the amendment. We want a commission of nine because that is far more likely to represent the diversity of the sector and be an effective board for the Charity Commission.

Amendment No. 73 does not reflect the intentions of the hon. Member for Cheltenham. I have already spoken about Government amendment No. 57, which I hope will be supported.

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

I am grateful that the Minister has the strong intention to appoint nine members to the commission. I am reassured by that, as I am by his comments on amendment No. 73. However, I hope that he will take on board the comments made about having not only a more socially and ethnically representative commission, but one that, for instance, includes somebody with disabilities. We should also look at the users and beneficiaries of charities as possible members of the commission; that would be in line with the general trend towards the empowerment and representation of users and beneficiaries in the sector as a whole.

I did not refer to Government amendment No. 57 and am still slightly mystified about the supposed huge benefit that attaches to commission members’ belonging to the civil service. I am sure that that is great and laudable, but this is my first public sector job and I sometimes find it a little rigid compared to my previous experience in the business and charity sectors. I am not sure that it is necessarily right rigidly to prescribe terms and conditions for any organisation in that way. However, I take it on trust that the move is sensible in the context of the Government as a whole. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 57, in schedule 1, page 82, leave out lines 38 to 43 and insert—

‘(2) The terms and conditions of service of persons appointed under sub-paragraph (1) are to be such as the Commission may determine with the approval of the Minister for the Civil Service.’. —[Edward Miliband.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 65, in schedule 1, page 84, line 36, at end insert

‘and shall publish it on the Commission’s website.’.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 7, in schedule 1, page 85, line 13, at end insert

‘; and

(c) attendance by as many representatives of charities as reasonably practicable.’.

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

The amendment is very simple.In the spirit of e-government, inclusiveness and accessibility, it aims to extend the publication of the commission’s report, which would normally simply be laid before Parliament. The amendment would add the report to the commission’s website, as opposed to simply the parliamentary website, so that it would be there for any affected charities to read and access in the easiest form possible. I hope that hon. Members will happily support that.

In amendment No. 7, with which mine has been grouped, the Conservatives suggest the organisation of an annual meeting of the Charity Commission, which would have to maximise the attendance of charity representatives. That objective seems entirely laudable. In keeping with the Cheltenham principle, it is both harmless and desirable, and I therefore support it.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Amendment No. 7 does not follow the Cheltenham principle because it is harmless but necessary—organisations are good at organising their annual meetings at inconvenient times in inconvenient places. I suspect that the Charity Commission would not be doing this intentionally. However, the most sensible time from its point of view would be lunchtime on a Wednesday but from their trustees’ point of view it would probably be at a weekend. That is why I hope that the commission will take account of this when deciding when and where to locate its annual general meeting.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 6:45, 4 July 2006

May I suggest that we can trust the Charity Commission to have more than one meeting? The annual meeting does not have a legal status except it may be required by the legislation. I would hope that the Charity Commission is similar to the BBC and that it will go around the country so that trustees of local charities can be in attendance and raise issues.

When making a decision that could go either way, the Charity Commission ought to go out to public consultation. I can give one example that would be relevant to an annual meeting, which is the suggestion that the commission will pick out one or more Olympic sports and say that they are not charities. It would be useful at a public meeting, or even a private one, for the Minister to say to the Charity Commission, “Do not try and pick out one or two of the Olympic sports and say that they are not charitable.”

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

In relation to maximising the number of representatives, may I ask the Committee to consider that the case made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham sounds entirely reasonable because it is a matter of getting an effective discussion that involves the sector? However, there is a danger with the wording that success will be measured merely by numbers, in which case the commission would take Wembley stadium for the meeting. However, that might be less productive and less challenging to the commission in terms of debate and engagement.

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

I fear that—I hate to end the evening on an uncharitable note—both amendments follow the Cheltenham principle. Neither of them is necessary. I hope that I can explain why to the Committee.

The Bill already requires the commission to publish its annual report and lay a copy before Parliament, as right hon. and hon. Members know. The commission’s publication scheme also sets out the classes of information that it intends to make available to the public as a matter of course, the manner in which it intends to publish the information and whether a charge will be made for that information.

Publication schemes are intended to encourage organisations to publish more information proactively. The commission’s publication scheme includes details of its annual report, which it makes freely available on its website. It is also available in print.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Does my hon. Friend agree that amendment No.65 puts a technological limit on the Bill? For example, we are already moving towards podcasts. By having websites, what happens in a few years’ time when they are old hat and there is a new form of technology? Does my hon. Friend agree that, by being prescriptive, we are probably being counter-productive?

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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. His e-sophistication is greater than mine, and I suspect, than that of most members of the Committee.

The Bill already requires the commission to publish its annual report. The commission’s publication scheme  provides for it to be made available on the commission’s website. That is an example of the aforementioned principle and therefore I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

That takes me to amendment No. 7, which encourages the Charity Commission to ensure

“attendance by as many representatives of charities as reasonably practicable.”.

I would say—I hesitate to be the defender of the Charity Commission on this occasion and I do not intend to be—that we need to understand what the commission is doing. The Bill sets out detailed requirements for the commission about the timing of advance publicity of the AGM. The commission will be required to take reasonable steps to notify all registered charities of the arrangements for the AGM and to publish details bringing it to the attention of the general public. That will ensure that the main stakeholders in the work of the commission are aware of the AGM.

Since last year—even before the Bill has been passed—the commission has been holding an open AGM as a matter of good practice. It has notified all the main registered charities—there are more than 150,000—of the AGM’s details in advance. It has already communicated, to all the main charities on the register, details of the AGM that will be held later this year.

The commission does, however, limit the number of attendees to two from each charity, although I think that all hon. Members will agree that that is sensible. I wonder what would happen if all, or even asignificant proportion, of the 150,000 charities sent representatives to the meeting—Wembley stadium, even in its rebuilt form, would not be big enough.

The commission is therefore taking important steps to make itself as open as possible and to encourage as many representatives as possible to attend its annual meeting. However, I take on board the interesting and, once again, wise words of the hon. Member for Worthing, West about the need for the commission not only to hold an annual general meeting, but to have a roadshow at which it can talk about its work. I am sure that the commission will be listening and will read the report of our proceedings, and I hope that it will take up that suggestion.

Having said all that, however, I should repeat that neither amendment is necessary. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will not press amendment No. 7.

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

I am intrigued by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South that the commission’s annual report might be translated into a podcast. Given that podcasts are live-action broadcasts, that would require somebody to sit there reading the report, which might make for a fairly boring podcast and an enormous file size. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is quite right about that.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

I was merely illustrating the fact that there are alternative technologies out there, and who knows what tomorrow will bring.

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

I think that tomorrow will almost certainly bring another Charities Bill before the web  becomes obsolete, given that the Government appear to revisit legislation fairly regularly. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point in the spirit in which it was meant and I entirely agree that there are other technologies out there. The point has been made that there are wider technologies, and I hope that the Minister takes on board the general intention to provide the report in as many media as possible. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 6 July at Nine o'clock.