Charitable Registration — [Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 13th November 2012.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 2:30 pm, 13th November 2012

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I remember that aspect of the debate, and certainly that is something that could be considered.

Members have spoken about how many other faith groups are concerned about the legislation. It is interesting, therefore, to look back at the debate in 2006, when the Charities Act was passed in the House. Edward Miliband, now the Leader of the Opposition, said that

“it is right that public benefit must be shown, but…at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous. We have accepted, and I think others have, too, that making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit. It is clear in case law, and it will remain part of the charity law of this country. Religions have nothing to fear.”—[Hansard, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]

It would appear that religious charities now very much have something to fear.

Several commentators have remarked on the issue, and I want to draw attention to some of them, because it is important to demonstrate that concern exists about it among not only a huge swathe of parliamentarians but people in authority outside the House. Last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said he was “very concerned” and was quoted as saying:

“I do believe we need to hold the Charity Commission to account as much as they hold any religion and social service to account. I believe that Christianity has a huge and great record in terms of serving the community, in terms of education and all kinds of ways.”

Other people have expressed concern. Lord Boateng wrote to me:

“I believe the Charity Commission has exceeded its mandate and needs to be reined in. I believe people of faith have much to fear from this decision and will support all measures brought to Parliament to reverse it.”

A highly respected charity law practitioner, Robert Meakin, has written a book, which I have with me, called, “The Law of Charitable Status: Maintenance and Removal”—quite a triumph to read over the weekend, although I say so myself. His words date back to 2008, although I notice that the copy in the Library was in pristine condition:

“The law of public benefit is confusing and as a result the Commission cannot be confident of its powers to remove charities from the Register… there is a need for greater clarity about the Commission’s powers.”

Interestingly, he also refers to a 1948 House of Lords decision in a famous case, the National Anti-Vivisection Society v. the Inland Revenue Commissioners, in which Lord Simonds stated that

“only a radical change in circumstances, established by sufficient evidence” should justify holding an object not to be charitable which in earlier ages has been held to possess that virtue. As mentioned, the Plymouth Brethren have been registered as a charity for some 50 years.

Mr Meakin also says that it should be rare for charities to be removed from the register. He says that there is no power in the Charities Act authorising the commission to decide questions of charitable status judicially:

“Its role is to register charities and in doing so it must follow general law but there are so few decisions of the Court and legislation that the Commission is forced into becoming a de facto law-maker”,

rightly pointing out the importance therefore of clarifying the issue. He also mentions the importance of public confidence, in the commission and in the status of charitable registration.