HC Deb 25 April 1865 vol 178 cc1027-34

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, he had no intention to wage war upon the charitable institutions of this country, or to impugn the conduct or attack in any way the character or efficiency of the Charity Commissioners, than whom no body of public officers had fulfilled their duties with greater benefit to the country. But he believed that the expenditure entailed by the working of that Commission ought not to be borne entirely out of public taxation. Those who applied to it and benefited by it should contribute. The nation at large was not interested in the business done on behalf of local charities; and it was, therefore, contrary to sound policy that the nation should bear the expense, especially as a large portion of the business which the Commission discharged was formerly transacted at great expense in the Court of Chancery. Some fees were attached to nearly every court, but on the part of the Commission no fees whatever were required upon the large business that it conducted. He quite admitted that no fees ought to be imposed which would act as a check upon persons bringing their accounts under inspection; but a great many cases of a totally different nature came before the Commissioners. Orders were made in 1,700 cases, of which a certain number were for authorizing applications to the Court of Chancery, to the County Courts, or to the courts of common law; others for the appointment and removal of trustees; some had reference to the issue of certificates for the information of the Attorney General, with a view to the institution by him of ex officio proceedings; and there were a great variety of other matters of a nature totally different from the mere registering of accounts of the annual working of any charity. When, therefore, the business which the Commissioners now transacted entailed, under the former system, the payment of sums amounting in some cases to £100, he did not see what injustice there would be in the establishment of a small scale of fees. The Commissioners, when he applied to them on the subject, pointed out several cases which they held to be parallel. They said that the Drainage Commissioners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and the Poor Law Commissioners all discharged their duties free of any such charges. The last he could not hold to be a case in point at all, for in the duties which the Poor Law Commissioners discharged the whole country, as distinguished from any single district, was interested. He could not see why, if trustees or others wanted advice for their own guidance, and which, but for the existence of the Commissioners, they would have to obtain from their own solicitors, fees should not be payable in the granting of such information. At present the information was supplied by the Commissioners gratis. Why, he asked, should the nation be bound to pay for an advantage conferred on private individuals, those individuals escaping scot-free? It might be urged as an objection to his proposal, that any imposition of fees would have the effect of discouraging charities from freely sending in their accounts to the Commissioners; but if the principle of the Bill were approved by the House, he was willing to insert a clause limiting the fees to sums so small that they should not prove such a drawback as was anticipated. The principle for which he contended was not at variance with that on which the Commission was originally established. Lord Lyndhurst contemplated at the time that it should pay its own expenses; but some observations having been made upon this head, it was thought better not to imperil the fair trial of so great an experiment by the interposition of any pecuniary difficulties, especially as it was then believed that the expenses of the Commission would never exceed £5,000 a year. They had risen, however, to £20,000 a year; and, as the benefits of the Commission enjoyed a more extended range, the costs of working would, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated in his speech in 1863, go on increasing. The Commission was doing good, but why should not the expenditure be borne by the parties who were benefited? It was to meet what he regarded as a growing evil that he asked the House to assent to this measure, which would not entail any personal charges on trustees, and which would not, he believed, lessen the real efficiency of any public charity.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Thomson Hankey.)


said, he thought the hon. Member had succeeded in making out a very strong case against the Bill; for he had shown the House that the question was whether the expenses of a Government Department should be paid by the State at large, or out of charitable funds. There was a strong feeling in this country against the taxation of charities, and this was not the first time that a similar attempt had been made. In 1845, and again in 1846, Bills were introduced to establish Boards of Charitable Commissioners, and to provide for their payment by means of taxation upon charities. These Bills, however, were on each occasion successfully resisted by the great charitable interests of the country. In 1851 and 1852 similar Bills were introduced, but they met with the like fate, and the Government were at length compelled to concede that the expenses of the Charity Commission should he met out of the public Exchequer. It was not until the Government yielded to the general wish that the expenses of the Commission should be defrayed out of the public purse that the House passed a Bill sanctioning the appointment of the Commission. It was proposed by this Bill that all the former legislation on the subject should be revised. His hon. Friend should have left the Government to deal with this question, which was one of considerable importance to the charities. Being a question of taxation, it came within its province, rather than within that of a private Member. Many of them made returns of very small amount, and the tax now imposed would be practically and in the aggregate a large one, being directed against the poorest classes of the community. The expenses of the Education Department, of the Poor Law Board, and other similar Departments, were paid out of the public funds, and why should a different rule be established in the case of charities? He wished his hon. Friend had tried his hand on a more popular measure, and he trusted that the House would unanimously support him in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


said, that having himself given notice of a similar Amendment, he had no hesitation in seconding that of the hon. Baronet, He objected to the details of the measure, to the manner in which it had been introduced, and still more to its principle. With regard to the details, a glance at the Bill would show how vague and unsatisfactory its provisions were. It was, therefore, unnecessary to trouble the House further on this point. With respect to the circumstances under which it had been introduced, the hon. Member deserved some credit for the ingenuity with which he had managed to evade the constitutional rule that no Bill to impose taxation should be introduced except by the Government. About six years ago, and during the present Parliament, he (Mr. Selwyn) brought in a measure in which he proposed to do away with the exemption from probate duty then existing in favour of estates exceeding one million, under which exemption in the case of a man who died worth £2,000,000 his representatives were not called upon to pay upon the second million, while a man who died worth £200 was called upon to pay probate duty on the second hundred. He was then told that a private Member ought not to bring in such a measure, and it was afterwards brought in and passed upon the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. With respect to the principle of the Bill, a tax upon charities was really a tax on those who received the benefits of those charities. The present Bill did not impose a tax on the governors or trustees, but upon the poor inmates of almshouses and hospitals and other recipients of the charities. He had recently been told by a governor of one of the largest and best managed charities in the metropolis—King's College Hospital—that it was in such want of funds that the governors were unable to pay their weekly butchers' bills. Yet the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Thomson Hankey) proposed to put an additional tax upon charities of that kind, at a moment, too, when the House expected to hear from the Chancellor of the Exchequer such a flourishing account of the state of the public revenue, as would enable him considerably to reduce the burdens of the country. But if the present Bill had been brought in by Her Majesty's Government he should have objected to it on principle. The very question at issue had been four times previously decided by the House—in 1845, 1846, 1851, and 1852, and that formed another reason why a private Member ought not to ask the House to reverse its repeated decisions. The Bill appeared to be founded upon the principle set forth in the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Charities in 1863, which contained two fallacies. The first was that charities enjoyed certain peculiar exemptions from taxation, while in truth the exemption was that common to poverty; the exemption enjoyed by a legacy under £20, an income of less than £100, or a house of less than £20 rent. The next fallacy was that, because some charities were useless or mischievous, and because the trustees of some other charities had been guilty of misdeeds, it was right that all charities should he mulcted. That proposal of the right hon. Gentleman signally failed, notwithstanding the eloquence and ability with which it was supported. The hon. Member for Peterborough said that the Charity Commissioners conferred benefits on these charities, and that it was, therefore, just to impose upon them a corresponding burden. Parliament had already imposed upon Charity trustees the trouble and expense of making out two copies of their accounts—one for the Commissioners and the other for the Churchwardens—and now the hon. Member wanted to impose a tax upon a tax, and sought to levy a stamp duty upon these Returns. The Act of Parliament prevented the trustees of charities from granting leases or going before the Courts of Law in certain cases without the consent of the Charity Commissioners, and now the hon. Gentleman proposed to levy a tax upon the obtaining of this leave and consent. He (Mr. Selwyn) was a Governor of the Charity of "the Sons of the Clergy." The hon. Member proposed to tax that as well as other charities but it would not be a tax on the governors, but on the widows and orphans, who received the scanty pittance distributed by the governors. The governors acted on the opinion of their own officers, and did not want the advice of the Charity Commissioners, but they could not grant a lease for more than twenty-one years without their consent. The Bill sought to add an additional burden to this restriction, and it was, in these respects, even a worse measure than that produced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer two years ago. He thought that the feeling of the House had been sufficiently manifested against the measure, and he trusted that it would not be pressed to a division.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Sir Morton Peto.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, he concurred in the observations made in praise of the Charity Commissioners, who discharged their onerous duties most admirably. But the proceedings it the office were subject to great delay, and one of the grounds upon which he objected to the present Bill was that it would increase that delay which now formed a valid subject of complaint. He regretted that the hon. Member who introduced this Bill had not made his meaning more clear in reference to the charities which would be affected by this measure. That vagueness was not confined to mere figures, but extended to the language of the Bill itself. It was a great mistake to suppose that the charities of the country were of such a nature as justified the denuncialtion which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had employed in the now historica-speech which had been referred to. From the 11th Report of the Charity Commissioners, published last year, it appeared that the total revenues of the charities in ten counties amounted to £430,000, and of that sum upwards of £150,000 was devoted to schools. The endowed schools of the country were now suffering under great pressure in consequence of the action of the Privy Council; yet this was the time selected by the hon. Member for trying to impose a heavy burden upon them. The hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield) would hardly support the second reading of the Bill, seeing that there were no less than £5,200 a year belonging to Dissenting schools and chapels which would fall under the operation of the measure. Another objection to the Bill was, that it would to a great extent involve a breach of trust, because upon the faith of what had been said in that House, and believing that no great change in the law would take place, the governors of charities had vested no less than £1,634,045 in the hands of the official trustees for various purposes. For these and other reasons he hoped the House would unanimously reject the Motion for the second reading.


said, though he joined with the rest of the House in urging his hon. Friend not to press the Bill, he could not entirely concur with what had been said in opposition to it. There was much in the measure which had already received the sanction of the greatest authorities on both sides of the House. When Lord Lyndhurst was Lord Chancellor, under Sir Robert Peel, he had introduced Bills for the appointment of Commissioners, whose expenses were to be defrayed by the taxation of the charities themselves; and a Commission composed of the most eminent and competent persons expressed a decided opinion that a permanent Commission should be appointed, the expenses of which should be borne by the charities. In accordance with that recommendation a Bill was introduced by Lord Cranworth in 1851, the principle of which was somewhat similar to that of the present measure. In was a very intelligible proposition that the expenses of that which tended so much to the improvement of the charities should be borne out of the funds of the charities. But as to the question of expediency, after so many Governments had failed in their attempts to deal with the subject, and seeing that the action of the Commission had been of so much use in increasing the property of the charities and improving the application of their funds, the House would hardly consent to make any alteration in the present system unless it could be satisfied that the proposed economy would be made without danger to the improvement which was being gradually introduced into the administration of charities. Against the principle that the charities should pay for services rendered in the improvement of their property, nothing could be said; but the Bill of his hon. Friend proposed that by far the larger portion of the expenses should be borne not by the charities which might profit by the management of the Commissioners, but by those which, in accordance with the Act of Parliament, sent in returns of their balance-sheet. During the last year some 1,700 orders, dealing with the property of charities, had been issued, but no less than 14,000 returns had been sent in by the charities for the purpose of mere statistical information; so that by far the largest proportion of the cost would, by the Bill of his hon. Friend, be thrown upon the charities for supplying information to Parliament and the country. That such information should be given was of the greatest possible importance; but the effect of the Bill would be that it would cease to be afforded. Again, the machinery by which the Bill proposed to enforce the returns on which the percentages were to be levied, were the same as that now in force, which in practice was only employed in few and extreme cases. The orders sent down by the Commissioners for returns were in many cases disregarded, and it was only by an application to the Court of Chancery, and bringing the pressure of that Court to bear upon the trustees, that they could be forced to make the returns. The consequence was that out of some 50,000 charities only 14,000 sent in their returns. The principle involved in the Bill was one which would have to be dealt with by that House before long in a comprehensive spirit. He could not agree with the hon. Member for Finsbury in his estimate of the importance of these charities. No doubt many of them usefully applied the funds committed to their charge; it was equally true that a great many of them were useless, and some worse than useless. They were positively mischievous. Looking, however, at the measure as it stood, though by no means agreeing in much of the criticism which had been passed upon its details, he hoped his hon. Friend would withdraw the Bill.

Question, "That the word 'now,' stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Words added. Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Bill put off for six months.