Power to direct winding up

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

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 2:15, 15 December 2015

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.