Automatic disqualification from being a trustee

Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 5 January 2016.

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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

After that excitement, we can get on with the proceedings of the Committee.

Under the current law, there are several criteria that disqualify a person from being a charity trustee. The automatic disqualification provisions date back to the Charities Act 1993 and represent an important way of protecting charities from those who might seek to abuse their position of trust, whether for personal financial gain or to access vulnerable people for abuse. The existing criteria for disqualification include any unspent conviction for an offence involving deception or dishonesty; where the person is an undischarged bankrupt or disqualified company director; and where the Charity Commission or court has removed the person from serving as a trustee.

Clause 10 does two things. First, it adds new criteria for a person to be automatically disqualified from being a charity trustee. Secondly, it extends disqualification beyond trusteeship to cover the chief executive and chief finance officer positions in a charity. The existing criteria for automatic disqualification remain unchanged.

In practice, the Charity Commission’s experience has been that the existing criteria are useful but too narrow, and that they do not cover several areas that ought to merit automatic disqualification, including convictions for serious terrorist offences, money laundering or bribery. Many people would be surprised that those offences do not already result in automatic disqualification, although in some cases there may be an overlap with existing disqualification if the offence involves dishonesty or deception.

I would like to say something about terrorist and extremist abuse of charities. The Charity Commission recognises that that type of abuse may not be relevant to most charities, but it is an increasing area of commission casework and an area of great concern. The commission has an important role in helping charities to prevent that type of abuse from occurring in the first place and in ensuring that abuse is reported and stopped and that charities are better protected in the future. It has detailed guidance for charities on how they can protect themselves from that type of abuse.

The Charity Commission also works closely with the police and other agencies where concerns are raised. In 2014-15, the commission made 506 disclosures of information to the police and other agencies as a result of concerns about charities involving terrorism or extremism—up from 234 disclosures in the previous year. It undertook 80 visits or monitoring cases to charities at risk of terrorist or extremist abuse. It also received 11 serious incident reports and undertook 32 pre-investigation assessment cases and 20 formal investigations. The new automatic disqualification provisions in the clause, along with case-by-case disqualification, which we will discuss shortly, will help to protect charities from terrorist or extremist abuse.

The extension of automatic disqualification in the clause covers other areas, such as money laundering, where added protections are needed. Let me give the Committee an example. A police investigation resulted in a number of convictions for fraud and money laundering offences, which related to funds applied by a charity in relation to contracts to house and support asylum seekers. Those convicted of fraud were disqualified from acting as trustees, because fraud is a crime involving deception or dishonesty. However, those convicted of money laundering were not disqualified, because the offence of money laundering does not fall within the existing criteria. The latter persons are no longer charity trustees, but as the law stands there is no bar on their becoming trustees again.

The new criteria for automatic disqualification proposed in clause 10 also include cases where a person has been found guilty of contempt of court in civil proceedings where a false statement or disclosure is made; cases where a person has been found guilty in the High Court of disobedience to a commission order or direction; and designation under terrorist asset-freezing legislation.

The existing disqualification provisions do not prevent individuals from being appointed to non-trustee positions of significant authority in charities. It is counterintuitive that someone can be disqualified from acting as a trustee of a charity, only to continue their abuse by taking up the post of chief executive, in which they could exploit that influence. The commission has seen that happen in some cases, with disqualified trustees taking up other senior positions in other charities and subsequently committing abuse. The clause would deal with that by preventing disqualified individuals from acting in top management positions, thereby reducing the risk of abuse. The top management positions covered by the extension of disqualification are the most senior executives—usually the chief executive officer, along with the finance director or chief finance officer, if there is one.

The clause also provides a power for the Minister for the Cabinet Office to make regulations to amend the list of criteria. The Minister is required to consult if the regulations add a new offence, and such regulations will be subject to the affirmative parliamentary procedure, requiring debate and approval before they can be made. We included the requirement to consult in response to a recommendation from the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, following pre-legislative scrutiny.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the existing regime of waiver under section 181 of the Charities Act 2011 will also apply to any persons disqualified under the new criteria, enabling such persons to apply to the Charity Commission for their disqualification to be waived in relation to a particular charity.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Will the Minister tell us how many waivers the Charity Commission has granted in the past 10 or 20 years?

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

Six waivers were granted between 2008 and 2014. Every application for a waiver in that period—six out of six—was granted.

The waiver provisions are important as they enable disqualified individuals who can show that they have turned over a new leaf to take up positions of responsibility in the charity sector. Of course, there is nothing to prevent disqualified individuals from volunteering or working for the charity in other roles, subject to disclosure and barring service checks where necessary.

As I said on Second Reading, waiver applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis. The Charity Commission will take into account the nature and seriousness of the conduct that resulted in the conviction and consequential disqualification. The commission has said that it will also take into account the type of charity concerned. In particular, it already accepts that charities working to rehabilitate offenders will often be able to make a compelling case for a waiver. The experience of someone with an unspent conviction might well be vital to the trustee body’s understanding of its aims and how best to pursue them. The commission will also take into account evidence that the person no longer represented any particular risk to charity. For example, if someone had a lifetime disqualification from an unspent conviction —say, 30 years ago—they might be able to show clearly that they had long since turned their life around. An application for a waiver would usually require the support of the charity’s trustees. A decision of the Charity Commission not to grant a waiver could be appealed to the charity tribunal, which would consider the matter afresh.

It is right that the Charity Commission looks beyond the benefits for the individual and considers the risk and benefits involved not only for any charity directly concerned, but for charities generally. The proposed disqualification powers will protect charities from individuals who present a known risk, while providing for the rehabilitation of offenders and a way back into charity trusteeship on a case-by-case basis. That strikes me as a fair and proportionate system.

As I have just told the hon. Member for Ilford North, in the past four years there have been six applications to the Charity Commission for a waiver from disqualification where the disqualification resulted from an unspent criminal conviction. All those applications were granted. I know that charities involved in rehabilitation have expressed some concern about the provisions, and I am keen to discuss with them how we can support charities involving ex-offenders through the waiver process while protecting the charity sector from known risks.

The commission has set up a working group to review its current staff guidance and the process of issuing waivers, as well as how information about waivers is communicated to those disqualified, so as to make it as clear and simple as possible. That has already involved rehabilitation charities, such as Unlock, and will continue to do so. The working group will also review the commission’s published information on this subject to ensure that it is consistent with its conclusions.

The Charity Commission’s starting position is that the principles underpinning the legislation mean that disqualification should continue until it expires, unless a compelling case can be made for a waiver. As I have said, the commission will also take into account the type of charity concerned, such as those involved in rehabilitation, and evidence that the person no longer represents a risk to charity—for example, demonstrating a good track record from volunteering in other roles. We do not think a significant number of people will be affected by these changes, but some people who are currently trustees or senior managers may be caught by the extension of the disqualification provisions.

We will make sure that sufficient notice is given to charities—at least six to 12 months—before the provisions are brought into force. This will enable any individuals who may be affected to consider their options and either to apply for a waiver or to resign their position. There will also be a review of legislation, which must start within three years, to assess the impact of these provisions.

All in all, I think the clause as it stands has the balance about right and I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 5:15, 5 January 2016

We agree with the Minister on clause 10 and will not suggest amendments to it. It sets out important new powers to disqualify individuals from being a charity trustee. However, there are still some concerns in the sector and among individuals, and we think it is important to explore them at this stage of the Bill’s journey.

First, it is important to reiterate that many charity trustees and senior management staff give many hours of time with passion, commitment and dedication, and do a sterling job, often working in difficult circumstances with some of the most vulnerable people. We want to encourage more people to get involved in the charitable sector as trustees and employees, and we want to ensure that there are no barriers for those who seek to do so.

We also do not want to exclude those who have had difficult experiences in their lives or have received charitable care in times of need and have so much of their own experience to offer. We recognise that service users and former service users can offer the sort of advice, insight and support that others cannot and that their involvement in charities and the voluntary sector is invaluable.

Moreover, charities can often succeed in areas of public service where the traditional sector cannot, such as in building relationships with those who have for too long had a failed relationship with the state, and can often build relationships with peers who have experienced similar situations. This is important and should be encouraged. However, I do not believe the clause will prevent the positive role that, for example, ex-offenders can play in the charitable sector, although it is important that this is kept under review and that the Charity Commission continues to take a positive approach to applications for waivers. I was encouraged by the statistics set out by the Minister.

This clause extends the criteria for automatic disqualification from acting as a charity trustee and adds a range of unspent criminal offences—I emphasise “unspent” because this is important—to those that lead to automatic disqualification, including money laundering, bribery and terrorism-related offences. There will be a ministerial power to add or remove an offence from the list subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and we welcome that positive approach to parliamentary debate.

As a result of an amendment agreed on Report in the other place, which we fully support, being on the sex offenders register would also trigger automatic disqualification. We support that amendment because a person on that register is considered to require monitoring to manage the risk of sexual harm to the public. It is therefore appropriate that they are deemed not fit to be in that position of trust, controlling funds and activities carried out for the public benefit, and that they should be disqualified from being a charity trustee or being in a senior management role within a charity unless and until they are no longer subject to notification requirements or are granted a waiver from disqualification by the Charity Commission. For example, the commission might consider it appropriate to grant a waiver to enable someone to take up a position in a charity that works with ex-offenders, particularly sexual ex-offenders.

In 2015, we spent a lot of time discussing the crisis in the charitable sector due to damaging loss of public trust and confidence. If someone on the sex offenders register were able to serve as a trustee or in a senior management role, that could further undermine public trust and respect in the public domain. More importantly, people in such roles may well have privileged access to children or vulnerable people, even if the charity does not routinely work with such groups. In other words, its trustees and employees would not necessarily be subject to disclosure and barring service checks. There have been too many historic situations where people in positions of power have abused that power and not been challenged due to their position. To me, that is more significant and potentially damaging than financial misdemeanour and it is right that we maintain this provision.

The Minister referred to concerns about charities involved in terrorism. Again, we do not propose to challenge this. We believe these are important proposals, particularly in the light of the number of references in the inquiries that the Charity Commission has undertaken, but there must be support for charities in protecting themselves in such situations. Many charities do vital work in areas of conflict overseas and are faith-related charities. It is important that their role is not diminished and that they receive due support from the Charity Commission and are not perceived negatively without due cause.

We support the clause but some issues remain to be ironed out, not least further understanding and mitigation of its impact on charities working in the criminal justice sector which help to support and promote the rehabilitation of offenders and which employ ex-offenders or—as with the excellent charity Unlock, for example—aim to have at least 50% of trustees with some experience of living with a criminal record. While these provisions pertain to unspent convictions, we have some questions that we hope the Minister will answer.

How many people employed in the charitable sector does the Minister expect to be affected by the extension of the disqualification framework to senior management positions? What assessment has been made of the impact of the new disqualification framework on former offenders employed in the charitable sector, including on their career prospects and long-term rehabilitation and resettlement? What assessment has been made of the impact of the legislation on charities that work with former offenders who are employed by community rehabilitation companies as part of the Government’s transforming rehabilitation reforms? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I wish all members of the Committee a happy new year.

I have a small number of points about clause 10. No amendments were tabled by the Opposition—the main substance of the clause is sensible and uncontroversial—but, as someone who worked previously as a criminal defence lawyer, I have some concerns about the process for obtaining a waiver to the automatic disqualification from being a charity trustee or holding a senior management position, and the impact on charities working in the field of rehabilitating ex-offenders.

At a time when the prison population continues to grow and the fragmentation of the probation service, post-privatisation, is seeing some private providers cutting jobs in probation by more than 40%, the rehabilitation of ex-offenders is more important than ever, and the pressure on charities working in this strand of the sector will be increasing all the time. Rehabilitation and reducing reoffending rates must remain a priority for the Government, and the work that charities such as the Prison Reform Trust and Unlock do—alongside incredibly hard-working and committed probation practitioners, who are under enormous pressure—is critical to this. Those charities have expressed concern about the waiver process and the impact it will have. I share many of those concerns.

As the Secretary of State for Justice has stated, we should not judge individuals by the worst moment in their lives. Instead of seeking to narrow opportunities for ex-offenders to reintegrate and contribute to society, we should be supporting their efforts to contribute to civil society, both through paid employment in the voluntary sector and as volunteers. The Committee may know that many charities that work to rehabilitate people with criminal records employ ex-offenders, either as trustees or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar has pointed out, in senior management positions, because at the heart of the voluntary sector is the principle of working with service users, rather than doing things to them. This is no less important with people in the criminal justice system than with any other group. Any unnecessary barriers to the recruitment of people with convictions as trustees or into senior positions is, perhaps understandably, seen by charities working in this sector as a direct threat to their core mission.

I was struck by what the Staffordshire and West Midlands Community Rehabilitation Company said in its written evidence:

“Many of the people that we work with have no work history or any way of getting a reference through ‘normal’ employment routes but one of the areas that they can gain experience is by working with charities, particularly those that are service user led. If the Charities Bill makes it difficult or impossible for people with convictions to act as Trustees or paid employees of these organisations, and others, then it would be shutting down an opportunity for someone trying to re-establish themselves in society from getting a foot on the ladder. Working as a Trustee for example can give a person with a conviction(s) a sense of purpose, it can help them improve their confidence, increase their social circle, give them an opportunity to develop new skills, provide an opportunity to get a reference, to develop a work ethic, to feel that they are valued and can make an important contribution. All of these things are crucial to rehabilitation and desistance and if these opportunities are restricted or removed completely it makes the job of rehabilitating people more difficult.”

There are 1,750 voluntary sector organisations whose main client group are people in the criminal justice system, as well as a further 4,900 organisations that support them as part of their work. The Government have acknowledged the potential for waivers to be issued in cases where an appropriate individual seeks to be a trustee of, or a senior manager in, an ex-offender charity. The Minister has helpfully provided those statistics, although it is a very small number. The Government have said that they will ask the Charity Commission to review the waiver process and to consult charities.

Will the Minister tell us when the consultation is likely to take place? Is it the working group he has just mentioned? Has its work already started? When is the commission likely to issue its new guidance and the information requirements that it will be asking applicants to provide when they apply for a waiver? I have one further question, and I would be grateful if he answered it either today or in writing. Extending the waiver process to senior management positions will, of course, place additional burdens on the Charity Commission. What additional resources will be provided to the commission to meet the extra demands brought about by the inevitable increase—we are not yet clear how great it will be—in applications for waivers?

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

I thank the hon. Member for Redcar for supporting this clause. It is difficult to know where to begin, but I will try to address as many of the questions raised by hon. Members as possible.

I will begin with the questions raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central, who seems to be arguing that extending the disqualification provisions might undermine the work of some rehabilitation charities. I disagree with that because, as I said earlier, it is right that the commission looks beyond the benefits to the individual and considers the much wider risks and benefits not only to the charity directly concerned, but to the reputation of charities across the board. The proposed disqualification powers protect charities from individuals who present a known risk, which is the important thing. These are, in the main, people who present a known risk, which is why these powers and this safety net are important.

The hon. Member for Redcar asked how many people would be affected by the extension of the automatic disqualification. The truth is that we do not know the exact number of current trustees, chief executives or chief finance officers who could be affected by the extension of automatic disqualification, but our best estimate is that the number of people affected could be in the low hundreds. Compared with the number of people working in the charitable sector, it is a fairly small proportion, but as I said earlier, we will be giving those individuals a long period of time to make adjustments either by applying for a waiver or by resigning their position, if that is what they need to do.

On the question about non-governmental organisations and wider counter-terrorism legislation, I recognise that that is a concern for some charities operating in some of the more difficult areas of the world. We need to develop a clear understanding of NGOs’ concerns and to see examples of where such issues occur. Several Departments, including the Home Office, DFID and the Treasury, have been engaging with NGOs to try to understand their concerns and to ensure that such concerns are covered in the guidance wherever possible.

Important guidance is already out there for NGOs operating in areas around the world where extremism and terrorism are problems. For example, the Government published some guidance in November 2015 to help the NGOs, led by Oxfam, that were asking for it. However, we are not aware of any legitimate NGO worker who has been convicted in the UK under counter-terrorism legislation, so it is important to recognise that, although such concerns exist, nobody has yet suffered as a result.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for automatic disqualification and the reference to the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010, because the measures are highly targeted. The latest consolidated list of those designated under the UK’s terrorist asset-freezing legislation, which is published on gov.uk, contains 18 individuals, but 248 individuals are designated under the Al-Qaida (Asset-Freezing) Regulations 2011, all but two of whom are currently located outside the UK. If a matter is serious enough to designate an individual under the legislation, it is impossible to see how such a person could be considered fit to serve as a charity trustee or a senior manager.

There was some discussion about the adding of people to the sex offenders register, which was strongly supported across the House of Lords, including, as the hon. Lady will know, by her Front-Bench team. Indeed, I think they even added their names to the amendment.

To develop the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Ilford North, the Charity Commission has granted 90% of waiver applications over a broader period than the six years that I was discussing. In fact, I can tell him that the commission has granted more waivers in relation to other disqualification criteria, such as undischarged bankrupts. Between 2007 and 2014, 39 waivers were granted and two applications were rejected, which is more than 90%.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central asked about working with service users. The Bill does not prevent disqualified individuals from volunteering or being employed by charities; it just prevents them from serving in the positions of trustee, CEO and CFO.

The Charity Commission has set up a working group to review its current staff guidance, the process of issuing waivers and how information about waivers is communicated to those who are disqualified. As part of that process, the group is working with rehabilitation charities such as Unlock, which the hon. Member for Redcar mentioned. The group will also review the commission’s published information on the subject to ensure that it is consistent with the conclusions.

To respond to the question about what additional resources will be available for the Charity Commission, the simple answer is none. The commission asked for the provisions, which it considers will add to the protection of charities from abuse, but many of its additional powers should make it more efficient and enable it to do more with its current resources. I think that covers all Opposition Members’ questions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11