HC Deb 10 June 1910 vol 17 cc979-1007

Considered, as amended in the Standing Committee.

3.0 P.M.


I beg to move "That the Bill be re-committed to a Select Committee." This Bill is of a very important and complicated character, and it is very awkwardly presented to the House. It is a Bill which affects a very large number of charities. I have not counted them, but there are considerably over a hundred. There are probably 200 charities in the city of Norwich possessed of property, and having property in trust for them, the value of which must extend to many thousands of pounds. A very large number are mentioned in the schedules of the Bill. Very considerable sums of money are involved, and this scheme, affecting all these charities and consolidating them almost wholly into a single charitable system, is presented by the Charity Commissioners, and I think we require some reason which is not apparent on the face of the Bill why it has to be confirmed by Parliament. Perhaps we will hear in the course of the discussion why it is necessary to have this scheme confirmed by Parliament. There can be, it seems to me, only one reason, namely, that the scheme overrides the existing law, or interferes with some private rights. It is obvious, and a superficial inspection of the scheme will satisfy anyone, that it affects all sorts of points in connection with questions of property, and questions of legal, and possibly private interests. The trustees who are to be appointed under the Bill will have most extensive duties relating to freeholds, leaseholds, copyholds, stock and cash, the allotments of particular estates, and the management of certain properties. For example, I find the following provision in the second schedule:—

"The trustees shall not create any tenancy in reversion after more than three years of any existing term, or for more than twenty-one years certain, or for less than the improved annual value at rack-rent, without the sanction of the Charity Com- missioners or a competent court. Any lease, agreement, conveyance, deed, or other document which shall have been previously agreed to or approved by a majority of the trustees present at any meeting or at any committee to which there has been delegated power to deal with the matter pursuant to Clause 22 hereof and shall be signed by five trustees shall be binding upon all."

In every point of this scheme matters of property and private interest are affected more or less. It is quite impossible for this House, and I venture to say also, although I was not a Member of the Standing Committee, for any Standing Committee to go thoroughly into all details of a scheme of that kind. The Schedules of the Bill, and in many cases the scheme itself, extend over a great many pages, and affect a great deal of landed and other property in regard to which there is a mass of detail. How is it possible for the Committee of this House, or a Standing Committee, to see that justice is done in all respects? It has been said, and no doubt it will be said again, that this is only a scheme of the Charity Commissioners, that they have scrutinised the whole matter and worked it out in detail. The Charity Commissioners no longer enjoy the confidence of the public add of national opinion, and I have no doubt that point will arise later on when we come to consider the express powers given to the Charity Commissioners. These powers are of an extensive character. However that may be, if this House is asked to use its sovereign authority to give statutory effect to these proposals, it must be because the legal powers which are now in the hands of the Charity Commissioners are not sufficient. We have the right, and it is also our duty, to consider whether we will give authority or not to carry out this scheme, but we cannot in this House go through section by section these exceedingly detailed proposals. We are obliged, in fact, to take the matter en bloc, and I do not think that is a satisfactory course. The ordinary course in the case of a private Bill is to send it to a Select Committee. This Bill partakes more of the character of a private Bill than a public Bill. In reality it is a piece of private legislation. I am not so familiar with the complicated Standing Orders as to be able to say whether the matter should be dealt with in a public or private Act, but I am quite sure that nobody, except a Select Committee, can go through this Bill and really judge whether the arrangements propounded in it are proper or improper. What we are asked to do is to give our consent to this measure without really scrutinising the details of it at all. If we do that, if we have to give a blindfold assent, it is hardly worth while our discussing the matter at all, and it is hardly worth while bringing it before the House. I do not think that the House of Parliament ought to divest itself of its responsibilities by attempting to deal with this vast mass of detail through a machine like the Standing Committee, which is wholly unsuited for matters of the kind. It is very possible that these provisions are wise ones. They affect the charitable intentions of a great number of testators. These intentions have a certain value in law, and they should not be destroyed for any light reasons; otherwise the spring of charity would be dried up. The only way we can judge of them is by referring the matter to a Select Committee, who will be able to go through the Bill clause by clause and section by section, and judge whether what is proposed should be done. Therefore I move that the Bill be committed again to a Select Committee, and I hope that we may have some explanation as to why this Bill is necessary at all and some argument to show that we may safely use our authority to deal with the matter in this wholesale way.


I wish to second the Amendment of the Noble Lord. In the first place, I think it is essential to know why this Act is necessary at all. It can only be necessary if its provisions be beyond the powers which the Charity Commissioners would have as regards an ordinary scheme, and it is essential to know in what respect the powers sought under this Bill by the Charity Commissioners extend beyond the powers which they have under a general Act. Without entering into detail at the present time I think that that is more important, having regard to the case to which the Noble Lord called attention, because it is a matter of notoriety that in a recent case some very trenchant remarks were made by the Court of Appeal on the action of the Charity Commissioners. I am not seeking to reopen that case in any way, but the Noble Lord is right in saying that, having regard to what was stated in that case, confidence in the Charity Commissioners has been to a great extent shaken. Then we come to the second point raised by the Noble Lord, which is per- haps even more important. It is quite obvious that this is what is called a local and private Bill. It does not deal with matters affecting the country generally. It only deals with matters affecting the particular locality, namely, the city or town of Norwich. This is the distinction between a public or general Act and a private or local Act, in all ordinary cases where you are asking for special legislative power affecting any particular district or in a particular way. Therefore, I should have thought, according to the Standing Orders of this House, that this would not be a matter for a public or general Act, but for a local or private Act. But whether that may be so technically or not, I wish to press home what the Noble Lord has stated. Even if it is not technically a local and private Act in substance it is. What we do in this House when it is a local and private Act is to send it to a Select Committee, because it is quite obvious that this House or an ordinary Committee of this House is not a body which can inquire into questions that are merely local. You want evidence of what the details are. You want the particular facts and you want the particular characteristics. You can inquire into these in the case of ordinary private Bill legislation, but you cannot inquire into them here unless the matter is referred to a Select Committee. It is for those reasons that I second the Motion of the Noble Lord.


Of course, it would be quite absurd on my part to argue that this Bill is not very long and extremely complicated. Therefore, I have no right to object to any criticism that may be passed upon it, and also no right to object to this Motion that has been made. I might say with regard to the Bill, so far as it has gone, that it was discussed upstairs—of course, not by a Select Committee, but by a Grand Committee. It was not a question there of there being any mechanical party majority because, as a matter of fact, the majority upstairs were rather the Members on the other side of the House, and the only point to which really there was any opposition was carried against myself on a Division. Therefore, I think, as far as that is concerned, it was very reasonably dealt with upstairs. I might point out with regard to the Bill, that although it is very bulky and complicated, many of the Sections are, as the Noble Lord will see if he reads them, purely routine, and simply have to do with the way the trustees have to carry the business on in the future. I might perhaps just say a word or two with regard to the history of the Bill. Three or four years ago a request from Norwich came up to the Charity Commissioners that some consolidation of all the charities in Norwich should be carried out. In 1906 or 1907 there was a public inquiry into all the endowed charities other than educational in that city, and this Bill was the result. The object of the Bill is, as is said, to make the charities of more general and practical use to the whole of the city of Norwich. To effect this it is proposed by the scheme of the Charity Commissioners that one body of trustees should be set up for Norwich instead of a large number of small bodies of unrelated trustees. It is also desired to make the charities of Norwich available for the whole of the city of Norwich generally, and not as they have been in the past, only available for certain parishes in the city.

In Norwich, as in other places, that we are aware of, the general tendency has been for the population to leave the central portions of the city and settle outside, which is, of course, a desirable thing. But the result has been that those parishes which have a small population have many charities, and those parishes which have a large population, new parishes, have very few charities. The Royal Commission on the Poor Law found out that the city, that is, the central part or old Norwich, had only 26 per cent, of the population, but had 85 per cent, of the endowed charities, and 48 per cent, of the church charities. With regard to the central governing body, it is provided in the scheme that there shall be a large representation of the city council, and that representatives of the Poor Law Authority, the trades council and medical charities should be co-operated as trustees as well. The income is roughly to be devoted, not quite in the same proportion, but very nearly in the same proportion as it has been in the past, to poor persons, pensions, and so on. In addition the scheme has the support of the city council, the charity trustees, and the trustees of the municipal charities, which provide no less than half the income, and also the trustees who administer Church charities. I hope the House will not accept the Noble Lord's Motion, if he presses it to a Division. With regard to the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, in seconding the Amendment, I understand that under the Act of 1853 an Act is necessary wherever the Charity Commissioners go beyond the cy-près doctrine. I hope the Noble Lord after a discussion, if discussion be necessary, will not press his Amendment to a Division.


The House, I am sure, feels much obliged to the hon. Member for his interesting speech, but the practice of introducing Bills of this nature into the House of Commons, quà public Bills, has grown so much during the last three or four years that this is a suitable opportunity to refer to it in a general way. Before looking at that point, however, I would remind the hon. Member opposite that he did not meet the point of my hon. and learned Friend behind me as to the Committee to which this Bill should be referred. It is a measure of a highly complex character. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says as to its meeting local demands and as to its being well drafted, and so forth. Personally I accept that assurance, but Parliament cannot accept such asurances as that. The Bill was sent to the Grand Committee upstairs, and though it contains proposals of a complex and far-reaching character, the Committee sat only about twenty minutes. There really has been no really effective Committee stage. It is not a new thing that private charity Bills should be brought before the House of Commons in this way. This is a local Bill, which ought to be introduced as a local Bill, and which ought to pass through the procedure of a local Bill. We had six of these Bills last Session, and four the Session before that, and the hon. Member opposite began his career as a Charity Commissioner by persuading the House to pass one. This Session we have only got one Bill, but no doubt the hon. Member has got a dozen other Bills of this sort up his sleeve ready to be produced. The House of Commons as a whole, or the Grand Committee as a whole, I believe is incompetent, ex hypothesi, to examine these questions with all the care they deserve. This Bill has been introduced at the public expense, and passed during public time. I think there should be some limit to this. These measures, when they are passed, are not printed among the Statutes of the realm. I myself think that is wrong. A Bill which passes through all the procedure and ceremonial of a great public Act should appear among the Statutes of the Realm just as does any other public measure. The Charity Commissioners are now putting forth these new schemes to be dealt with at the public expense, and, what is far more important, during public time in the House of Commons, although they are private local Acts, and, when passed into law, they are not looked upon as Acts which should appear among the Statutes of the realm. I trust the House will remember that we are now firmly establishing a precedent—though largely unconsciously on the part of the House of Commons as a whole—which, I am quite certain is one which the House of Commons would do well to devote its careful attention.


There has been nothing adduced so far to show that this Bill ought to be sent to a Select Committee. The hon. Member for Stroud has informed the House of the history of this measure, and as one of the representatives of the people of Norwich I can say that I am not aware of any considerable opposition against any one of the provisions of the Bill. That there are some people who complain of certain provisions, of course, is undeniable. If you were to ask me to go through every point in the Bill I could show you something I object to. Nevertheless, this measure, I believe, is to be placed in the category of an agreed Bill. All the parties had an opportunity of going through its provisions; objections have been met, and I believe we may now say that as far as practicable all the parties concerned are agreed that it is a good measure and should become law. The Noble Lord and the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite said that this Bill was of a public character. Its bulkiness I admit, but that is due to its detailed character—to the setting forth of the names and numbers of properties involved and the authorities concerned. There is nothing that I am able to interpret as legal complexities. Respecting the proceedings before the Grand Committee, of course, we are not responsible for what was done on that stage. All Members had an opportunity of seeing the provisions of the Bill and of putting down Amendments if they so desired. As far as the promoters of the measure were concerned, they in no way disclaimed a proper analysis or discussion of those provisions. Therefore, I do not think the complaint can be lodged against them that those who were desirous of discussing the measure had not an opportunity of doing so. Personally, it would have given me greater satisfaction had more interest been taken in the matter, and had hon. Members availed themselves of the opportunity of making a closer examination of the details. At any rate, all the parties interested had an opportunity of going through the Bill, and their objections have been removed. It is quite true that the measure is mainly one of local interest, but it is undeniable that the charities of Norwich are many and small, and they have caused some amount of consideration to be brought upon them. Instead of having so many of them administered by small committees, it is considered very desirable, in the opinion of a considerable majority of the people of Norwich, that they should be consolidated in the form provided by this measure. As the hon. Member for Stroud has pointed out, there is a great tendency on the part of the working classes to remove out of the congested areas into the suburbs. That has been one of the causes making a change necessary in the administration of these charities in the City of Norwich. Under the circumstances I feel that there is no tangible reason why the measure should be delayed, because, after all, its reference to a Select Committee must necessarily involve considerable delay, and it also might mean the destruction of a measure which, I can honestly and clearly say, has the sympathy and, I believe, the interest of the citizens of Norwich irrespective of party or of faith. If the Noble Lord and the hon. and learned Member who seconded will look at the list of trustees they will find that they will be a thoroughly representative body, including all the various interests concerned. They have been consulted, and they feel that the Bill is a desirable one, and that the administration of the charities may safely be left in the hands of the trustees to carry out the desires of the people and to ensure that the charities shall benefit those they were intended to benefit.


As the other representative of the City of Norwich I desire to say I made it my business to inquire as to whether this measure was generally desired by the citizens of Norwich. I have satisfied myself beyond question that all parties are agreed; I do not mean to say that there are not some dissentients, but that in the main all parties are agreed that this is a most desirable measure in the interests of the citizens of Norwich and in the interests of the administration of these charities. A good deal has been said with regard to the complexity of this measure. Such complexity as there is entirely arises, I believe, from the fact that a large number of very small charities are dealt with by the Bill. It would be, I venture to say, a calamity if those small charities were to be put to the grave expense involved in an investigation before a Select Committee. There has been an inquiry by the Charity Commissioners and a very full inquiry. There is practical unanimity with regard to the measure, and, taking all those things into consideration, whatever may be the view of the House with regard to the general question of policy as to referring measures of this sort to one Committee or another, if it is desired to change that system I would respectfully ask, as representing the City of Norwich, that the change should not be made in this particular Bill, and that this measure having been investigated at considerable length in the city itself, and having passed through all its stages short of Report and Third Reading, should now be allowed to pass through this House.


I would like to draw the attention of the House to the facts that no hon. Member on the opposite side has given an adequate answer to the very serious constitutional point raised by the Noble Lord (Lord Hugh Cecil), and by the hon. and learned Member who seconded. That point was this, that the Charity Commissioners had no need to come to Parliament if a scheme is within the powers Parliament has already given them. It follows from the very fact that they are here that this Bill exceeds the present powers of the Charity Commissioners. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. C. P. Allen), if I understood him rightly, admitted candidly that the powers conferred by this Bill do exceed what the Charity Commissioners would have been entitled to do under the existing Act. But he has not told us in what respect the powers already conferred by Act of Parliament on the Commissioners are exceeded. I submit that that is a very powerful reason why the Bill should, as the Noble Lord has moved, be subjected to very close and rigid examination. There is another reason for that, and that is that the cy-près doctrine itself might be, as appears to the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the recent case of the Weir Hospital, altogether misapplied by the Charity Commissioners themselves. They thought they had the right of applying the cy-près doctrine to that particular case, but the court decided that they had no such power, and that they took the wrong view of the nature of their duties already conferred by Parliament. They thought they had the power to decide whether the testator's wishes could or could not be carried out, and whether they might ignore them altogether and proceed to settle the cy-près scheme.

They not only exceeded their powers by ignoring the testator's wishes, which may be the case here for all we know, but they proceeded further than that to misapply the funds. As though they did not require any authority whatever, they did not even come to Parliament in that case, although they were exceeding their powers. Having regard to the very serious observations of the Judges of the Court of Appeal in that case, I submit that this House ought to be very chary how it confers on the Charity Commissioners any additional powers or any sanction even to a scheme that is within their powers. I should draw attention to the last Clause of this Bill in support of my argument but that an hon. Member on this side will subsequently move the excision of that Clause, and very properly I think. Under the provisions of that Clause any question that arises as to the validity or regularity of any acts done, or about to be done, under this scheme shall be determined by the Charity Commissioners, so that practically they have got the power to determine whether they have or have not exceeded their powers. I submit these are very strong reasons why this Bill should be submitted to further investigation. I happen to be the Member referred to in the judgment in the Court of Appeal who put to the Charity Commissioners who were Members of this House three questions. The Court decided that the first question was not answered as regards the important point in it—that is as to what the statutory powers of the Commissioners were, and that the second answer—


That has nothing to do with this Bill.


I proceed upon the general proposition that the present case is one in which, as hon. Members have shown, the very fact of coming to Parliament shows that there there is the intention to exceed the powers which the Charity Commissioners already possess, and that the House has not had before it the particulars of the trust or the particulars in which those powers are exceeded.


I see that we are in the position of being asked to do what is a very risky thing in the wrong way—


The Noble Lord has exhausted his right to speak.


Then I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, as Amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

  1. SECOND SCHEDULE. 8,372 words, 1 division