Power to direct winding up

Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 15 December 2015.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

We are progressing through the Bill at a rate of knots, so I will try not to delay the Committee too long. The Charity Commission’s usual practice, as many of us will know, is to try to restore a charity to health following a statutory inquiry and to ensure that funds dedicated for specific charitable purposes are used for those purposes. The commission’s current powers are based on that premise; that is as it should and, indeed, will continue to be. In practice, that may mean replacing some of the trustees, directing the charity to take certain actions or reforming its governance arrangements, but the principle is one of ensuring the continuation of the charity to deliver its charitable purposes.

There are, however, rare inquiry cases where it is more appropriate for the commission to take a different approach. In those cases, it is clear that attempting to restore the charity to health is unlikely to succeed and would not be the right strategy. A good example would be sham charities set up ostensibly for charitable purposes but really operating for private gain or some other non-charitable purpose. Such a body may never have had a genuine charitable aim in the first place and the commission is unlikely to be able to restore it to health.

In such cases, the Charity Commission can and already does act to transfer any remaining funds or assets to another legitimate charity with the same charitable purposes. It can do this under its existing inquiry powers. The commission can remove the trustees, ensuring their disqualification, provided that they do not resign before the commission can do so. What the commission cannot do under its current powers is tackle the empty shell that is left, so there is a risk that the empty shell could be reactivated at a later date to be used for further misconduct.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Will the Minister give the Committee a sense of the scale of this problem? How many charities does the commission intend winding up in any given year?

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will certainly ask the Charity Commission to make sure that the hon. Gentleman has those figures; I hope that that will happen by the end of my comments, but if not, it will be straight after. [Interruption.] That is quite impressive—I thank my officials. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be one or two such occasions a year.

The new power in clause 7, which I admit is quite a straightforward power, will enable the Charity Commission, in the context of a statutory inquiry, to act to transfer any remaining assets of the charity under inquiry to another charity with the same charitable purposes, something the commission can already do under its existing powers, and then—this is the new provision—direct that the empty shell of the charity be wound up, which it cannot currently do. This power will be rarely used by the Charity Commission. The commission estimates it will be exercised on only one or two occasions each year, as I have just said, and it is subject to a range of safeguards.

The power to direct winding up will only be available in the context of a statutory inquiry and where the commission is satisfied that there is misconduct, mismanagement or risk to charity property. The commission must be satisfied that the charity does not operate or that its charitable purposes could be more effectively promoted if it were to cease to operate and that the exercise of this power is

“expedient in the public interest.”

As I have said several times, all the Charity Commission’s powers must be exercised in line with the commission’s duty in section 16 of the Charities Act 2011, which requires the commission to have regard to the principles of best regulatory practice, including the principles by which regulatory activities should be proportionate, accountable, consistent, transparent and targeted only at cases in which action is needed. So there is a high bar for the commission to make the case for winding up following an inquiry.

The commission is required to publish details of a proposed winding-up order and to invite representations from any interested party. The commission must take into account any representations it receives before making the order to direct winding up. In most cases, the commission will be expected to allow 60 days for the making of representations before it can make the order. It can shorten that period when it considers it necessary to make the order sooner to prevent or reduce misconduct or mismanagement, or to protect the charity’s property or property that may come to the charity. An order directing the winding up of a charity can be appealed to the tribunal by its recipient and the charity’s members, so ensuring proper judicial oversight.

The clause will enable the commission to direct the charity’s trustees, officers or employees to take action to wind up that charity. The commission itself cannot wind the charity up, as that would involve the commission acting in the administration of the charity—something that it is prohibited from doing by law. The Joint Committee welcomed the proposed winding-up power, saying:

“We are persuaded that the power to direct the trustees of a charity to wind it up in certain circumstances and transfer resources elsewhere would only be used in rare circumstances and that, in such circumstances, the Charity Commission would use it sparingly, given its significance. We therefore support the inclusion of clause 6 of the draft Bill”— as it was then—

“subject to an amendment setting out the publication scheme for a notice of intention to direct the winding up of a charity.”

We amended the draft Bill to include the requirement to publish a notice and consider representations, as recommended by the Joint Committee.

Let me give the Committee an example of where this power could be used. The commission has information suggesting that one of only two trustees was acting while disqualified. The finances were being grossly misrepresented, funds were being misappropriated and the commission had been given false or misleading information. It reported its concerns to the police, highlighting potential criminal offences. The disqualified trustee left the charity, leaving only one trustee, who was unable to explain the position. The remaining trustee was potentially vulnerable and had not been privy to the disqualified trustee’s actions. The commission found that the charity had been used for years to personally benefit the disqualified trustee, who was later convicted and imprisoned for theft. It had applied only nominal amounts for its charitable purposes. The commission decided to remove the charity from the register, as it was not operating, but the remaining trustee did not take action to wind up the charity. The commission does not have the power to force the trustee to do so and cannot do so itself. In such cases, the use of the proposed power would clarify the position, provide for the proper application of assets and ensure that the charity could not later restart operations with a risk of further abuse. Although its use will not be common, I hope the Committee will agree that this will be a useful tool in the Charity Commission’s armoury.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am happy to take any interventions. We are indeed rattling through these clauses and are the beneficiaries of some excellent analysis of the Bill during its long progress through the other place and in pre-legislative scrutiny. A lot of action has been taken to clarify and improve the Bill. Indeed, it is clear from its drafting that this clause has benefited from much scrutiny.

Clause 7 will provide a new power for the Charity Commission to direct the trustees, or other people in the charity, to take the necessary steps to wind up the charity and transfer its resources elsewhere. The explanatory notes suggest that the power will be used in “rare cases” and state:

The Commission’s usual practice is to attempt to restore a charity to health following a statutory inquiry”.

We all support the positive and supportive role that the Charity Commission would play. As the Minister said, the commission itself cannot wind up the charity, as that would be acting in the charity’s administration; it can only direct the trustees to do so themselves. That is absolutely right and within the boundaries of the commission’s power. The power would be available after the commission had instituted an inquiry and was satisfied either that there was misconduct or mismanagement, or a need to protect charity property. The commission would need to be satisfied on other matters specified in the clause, including that the exercise of the power was

“expedient in the public interest.”

Again, I fear that a burden of decision making and judgment is being placed on the Charity Commission. Just as the decision on whether to publicise a warning under clause 1 will be taken by the commission, so again we find the commission having to be the arbiters of public interest. I do not doubt that it will perform that duty admirably, but we must be conscious that we are asking it to make another judgment call. That risk should be looked at in the context of an environment in which the commission is under pressure to take action on charities that are threatening public trust and confidence, and to be seen to do so. The recent High Court judicial review case mentioned earlier provides an example of how easy it is for the commission to take precipitate and potentially disproportionate action. I sincerely hope that the commission will use its customary wisdom and good judgment in making these decisions. I was reassured to hear that it is expected to use the power only one or two times a year.

Clause 7 also includes provisions relating to notice and appeals. The Joint Committee said that it was persuaded that this power would be used only in rare circumstances and that

“in such circumstances, the Charity Commission would use it sparingly, given its significance”.

The Joint Committee supported the inclusion of the clause, subject to an amendment setting out the publication scheme for a notice of intention to direct the winding up of the charity, and I am pleased that that is now included. I appreciate the Government’s acceptance of the recommendation by the Joint Committee, which also recommended the removal of the proposed condition that the exercise of the power would be

“likely to help increase public trust and confidence in charities”.

That condition was suggested by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which considers it an example of broad and vague language in the drafting of the Bill. I am pleased that that provision has now been re-worded. In summary, this is an important clause, which we support. It will give the Charity Commission an important power to be able to protect and defend charities’ assets and to ensure that they can be administered swiftly in times of difficulty.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8