New Clause 6

Charities Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 13 July 2006.

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Disqualification for acting as a charity trustee

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure as always, Mr. Gale, to serve under your chairmanship. I wish to be brief but I shall touch on the matter, which I raised on Second Reading, of people with learning disabilities being unable to serve as trustees. I have had an awful lot of conflicting advice, despite the reassurances on Second Reading that such people could stand. One of my researchers phoned the Charity Commission yesterday and explained the problem, and the Charity Commission said, “Yes, absolutely, people with disabilities can stand as trustees.” My researcher asked, “People with learning disabilities?” and the reply was, “No, definitely not.” The commission then said that maybe they could. We need more clarity.

The matter seems to hang on the words:

“A trustee shall cease to hold office if he or she becomes incapable by reason of mental disorder, illness or injury of managing his own affairs.”

That is quite an old-fashioned, paternalistic and pejorative view of people with disabilities. Even if he cannot support the new clause, it would be good if the Minister could find some way to support the underlying principle.

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

Briefly, I wish to commend the spirit of the new clause. I reassure the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, that even under current charity law there is latitude for trustees to be appointed in such circumstances. My own experience of the Alzheimer’s Society, which deals not only with Alzheimer’s disease but with other forms of dementia, included the moment when the first person with dementia was appointed as a trustee. His business experience, intelligence and different perspective on the running of the charity was incredibly valuable and he was a very effective trustee. The nature of his dementia did not preclude him from involvement in any of the charity’s decision making. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s fears are well founded, but I commend to the Minister the spirit of the new clause.

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

We all owe a debt to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East for raising the issue. I have a few things to say on it.

On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said that his worry was prompted by the situation of the SHIELDS—supporting, helping, informing everyone with learning disabilities in Southend—parliament, an advocacy organisation of which he is a trustee. Mandy Smedley, the administrator of the SHIELDS parliament received advice from the commission that people with learning difficulties cannot be charity trustees. The commission looked into that and has confirmed that the advice given through its telephone help line was incorrect. It will be writing to her to apologise and to confirm the legal position.

I have discussed the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman with representatives of the commission  since Second Reading. The commission needs to be more aware of the issue in the future and must ensure that proper guidance is given. To that end, I hope that several things happen, the first of which is that the commission will write to the hon. Gentleman and set out the position more clearly. Secondly, it will consider updating the document “Users on Board”, which is about users of charities becoming trustees, to make it absolutely clear that people with learning disabilities are not excluded from being trustees, but, indeed, encouraged to be trustees as part of its commitment to diversity. It will also look at updating other documents, including “Finding New Trustees”, to take account of such issues. The latter document will not be updated so quickly, but the commission will be making quick progress to update “Users on Board”.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Specifically with the “Users on Board” document, will the Parliamentary Secretary consider the duties of existing trustees when appointing other trustees? At present, it says that it is unfair to impose on someone a range of duties that a person cannot properly understand or does not want to carry out. That general guidance to existing trustees caused some confusion, too.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

With all due respect to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, who is doing the Committee a service by raising the matter, he has confused learning disability with the incapacity to make decisions on one’s own rights. There is a huge difference in those two definitions. While there may be a grey area in between them, we must not assume that those with learning difficulties are not capable of making decisions in their own right. Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary comment on a situation in which an existing trustee had a stroke and a power of attorney is appointed? Would the person who acts as power of attorney be able to act for the trustee under such circumstances?

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

As I understand it, that person would be able to do that.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that I was reflecting on the confusion in the documentation between someone with a learning disability and not being able to make a decision. I was not suggesting anything untoward.

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The sins are mainly those of omission in the Charity Commission’s documents rather than it saying the wrong thing. The omission has obviously caused confusion even to some commission staff, but action will be taken to ensure that the document is corrected. We should all be grateful to him for raising such an important issue.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.