HC Deb 02 August 1916 vol 85 cc454-64

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This is a Bill which is intended to grapple with a very difficult and very pressing problem, and it is hoped that when it is placed upon the Statute Book it will not only check but stop the exploitation of the public by unscrupulous people who do not hestitate to use the nation's sympathies for their own selfish end. While a strong case possibly can be made out for a system of control over all charities there is undoubtedly an overwhelming case in favour of supervision and control for war-time. The Bill is confined to war charities and I would ask the House to treat it as a war measure. The House will remember that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in April of this year appointed a very strong and representive committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for North Worcester to investigate and report upon the question of war charities and upon the formation and management of charitable funds connected with the war. The committee called a number of witnesses well known and very well informed, and the witnesses came to the conclusion with great unanimity that the Government should be asked to bring in a Bill for dealing with this problem. The committee, I am glad to say, were quite unanimous, and the House is under an obligation to the committee for the way they worked in connection with the matter. The Bill, therefore, is established on the recommendations of the committee.

The governing principle of the Bill will be found in Clause 1, which lays it down very clearly that

It shall not be lawful to make any appeal to the public for donations or subscriptions in money or in kind to any war charity as hereinafter defined, or to raise or attempt to raise money for any such charity by promoting or taking part in any bazaar, sale, entertainment or exhibition, or by any similar means, unless the charity is registered under this Act and the approval of the committee or other governing body of the charity has been obtained, and if any person contravenes the provisions of this section he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act. The words have been made broad enough, we hope, to include every kind of war charity so that we may have protection against any party who may attempt to exploit the War for their own advantage.

There is a proviso exempting money collected at divine service or in places of worship. As to the best authority for undertaking the work of registration, we have adopted the rceommendation of the committee that in the City of London the registration authority should be the Lord Mayor, aldermen and councillors of the City of London in common council assembled. In a county borough or a borough having a separate police court the registration authority will be the borough council, and elsewhere it will be the county council If we left the matter of registration alone to these respective local authorities we should have no connecting link, therefore we have arranged in Sections 5 and 6 that every registration authority shall keep a register of all the charities registered under this Act and shall send to the Charity Commissioners a copy of such register and a list of all charities in which registration was refused, and the Charity Commissioners shall keep a combined list of all charities, both those registered and those whose registration was refused, and we shall therefore have a central bureau as it were which will have a complete list of both kinds of charities. Then should some unscrupulous person having failed to register in one locality attempt to register in another we shall be able to keep a check on them. Clause 3 lays down the conditions on which a war charity shall be conducted. The charity shall be administered by a responsible committee or other body of not less than three persons and minutes shall be kept and meetings of the committee held. That is the general proposition, but we were faced with a difficulty in connection with certain patriotic people, such as newspaper proprietors, who at their own expense have been collecting money for war charitable purposes and doing the distribution at their own expense. It would be a hardship for a newspaper proprietor to be compelled either to have nothing to do with a war charity of the kind or to have a committee as set forth in this Sub-section (1) of Clause 3. Therefore we have arranged that in such a case the registration authority may exempt such a charity from the operations of this Sub-section (1). Proper books of account must be kept and the accounts must be audited. All moneys collected by or on behalf of the charity shall be paid into a separate bank account, because though you may have an audit yet unless you have got a separate bank account it is very difficult to trace whether money is properly administered or not.

The books and accounts of these charities must be open to inspection at any time to any person duly authorised by the registration authority or the Charity Commissioners. Supposing it is found on investigation that a charity is not being properly administered, how do we propose dealing with such a charity? In Clause 5 we lay down that if the registration authority, that is the local registration authority, is satisfied that any charity mentioned under this Act is not being properly carried out in good faith for charitable purposes, and is not being properly administered, it may remove the charity from the register. If the charity is removed from the register it may be found that substantial sums of money have been contributed for a special object, and it may be very difficult to distribute the money to those who have given it to the charity. Therefore, being found on examination that any such proposal was quite impracticable, we have laid it down in Clause 5, Sub-section (2), paragraphs (a) and (b), that the Charity Commissioners shall take the place of the Committee and shall distribute and administer the funds they may have. It is an action that ought to be dealt with very severely if it is found that men or women have taken the opportunity of a great war such as this to use the sentiments of sympathy among the people to secure money for their own purposes, under the guise of appealing for money or for things in kind for the soldiers and sailors or their families. Therefore, the person found guilty of an offence against this Act is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100, or imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding three months. In Clause 9 we have the interpretation of what a war charity means, and in bringing this Bill forward, I appeal to the House of Commons to give it special consideration upon the ground that the committee who made investigations came to the unanimous conclusion that the problem needs to be immediately dealt with, and with that object and in that spirit I submit the measure to the House of Commons.


I think this Bill will be welcomed by the House and the country, for I believe there has been a good deal of fraud in connection with these charities, but by far the more important matter is that there is a great deal of waste and overlapping, and a great deal of bad administration. I have myself brought to the knowledge of the House actual instances; and I remember asking the Prime Minister on the 8th December last year whether he realised that over tweny million pounds had been subscribed for charitable purposes, and whether he realised that this element of fraud, but, far more, this element of waste, entered into the management of these charities, and what steps he proposed to take in order to establish some measure of control. I can give an experience of my own. I was approached recently by the Cripples' Pension Society, who asked me to become an officer in that organisation. I refused; nevertheless my name afterwards did appear on certain notepaper issued by the Society. I wrote immediately protesting very strongly against anything of the kind happening. The organisation actually had the impertinence to tell me that although they knew it would not influence my judgment, they wished me to understand that as their Parliamentary representative I would receive £52 a year and three guineas in addition for every question I asked on their behalf in the House of Commons. In point of fact I did ask one question for them, but I have not received my three guineas. I asked the question of the Minister of War whether he knew of this organisation, and that they tried to bribe Members of Parliament in this fashion. I submit that when facts of that kind are in existence it is necessary to inquire into the bona fides of these charities.

That is all I have to say on the general question, and I come to points of detail. I regret that the Bill, which is so necessary and important, is too narrow in its scope, and think it ought to apply to all charities, because at this moment, directly or indirectly, all charities are really war charities. At present, when economy is so important, we ought to watch strictly the expenditure of money and to guard it in charities whether for war purposes or not. I think we ought to raise that question in Committee. It will be very easy where you get an element of fraud in a war charity now for the fraudulent person to transfer his energies into another charity, and I think there is a very good case for the extension of the principle of public control over all charities at present. I am quite sure no bonâ fide charity would object to a measure of public control in that way. It would not hurt them and would do good. The same rules ought to apply to all. I was very anxious whether the explanation of the discrimination that appeared to be made by the provision that the registration authority might, subject to regulations, exempt from the Statute any charities under certain conditions. The first condition is merely that the charity shall be administered by a responsible committee or other body consisting of not less than three persons, and that minutes shall be kept of the meetings of the committee or other body in which shall be recorded the names of the members of the committee or other body attending the meetings. I think that is a very reasonable thing to expect of any charitable organisation. I see no reason why there should be this discrimination. It was explained by the Under-Secretary that it was put forward to meet the case of newspaper proprietors who collected large sums of money. In point of fact, newspaper proprietors in almost every case collect money on behalf of some organisation. It is very seldom indeed that they undertake the actual distribution of the money they collect. It is not a good thing that newspaper proprietors should undertake to distribute the money as they have not the time to do it efficiently. Therefore it is far better it should be handed over to some responsible organisation which ought to be subject to the same rules as imposed on every other organisation. I think it is not a good thing to have discrimination between charity and charity. That will appear to put a stigma on one charity that does not exist on others. Therefore I think we ought to raise that question in Committee. There is another provision that where a charity is removed from the register the Charity Commissioners may, when the appeal is pending, order any bank or other person who holds the money to hold up the moneys for the time being. I think that is quite right, but if you do that merely on suspicion, for that is practically what it comes to, you ought to put in the Bill some limit of time in which the matter shall be determined. You should not be allowed to hold up the matter indefinitely. Subject to these suggestions, which I hope will be considered by the Under-Secretary, so far as I am concerned, and I believe by Members in all parts of the House, this Bill will be welcomed as a large step forward and as something which ought to have been done two years ago when the War broke out.


Like my hon. Friend, I had the same flattering offer from the Cripples' Society, but that is not the reason why I rise to speak now. I rise rather as the chairman of one of the war charities to welcome this Bill. I think that as far as the larger centralised charities are concerned, it is on the whole an admirable Bill, though there are some points that will require attention in Committee. But from the point of view of the small local charities we must be careful or we may stop much good work that is being done. In villages that I know in the North Country there have been pretty constant collections for sending to the soldiers at the front cigarettes, socks and other small things. But they are important to the village and important to the country when multiplied by the thousands of villages where these things are done. As I understand the Bill, every committee, whether of ladies of the Liberal Association, or of the Conservative Association, or of the Labour party, or whatever it may be, who get up the collections, will have first to apply to the county council for permission. That is not at all satisfactory. I think it would kill a great deal of local effort of all sorts. The county council is a far-away, semi-aristocratic body, whch meets once in three months, refers the matter to a committee, and has perhaps to confirm the decision at its next meeting. Unless you are going to kill a good deal of this local effort I suggest that the district council will have to be made the registration authority. Whatever is the registration authority, I think it will have to keep an account of the charities which it exempts altogether. The proviso to Clause 1 says: This provision shall not apply to any collection which may, subject to any regulations made under this Act, be exempted by the registration authority. Yet there is no provision for any list to be kept or for any report to be made to the Charity Commissioners of the charities which are exempted. I think that that is a defect which ought to be supplied. Further, I suggest that the audit of these funds is a very important matter which is not adequately provided for here. It says that the accounts shall be audited, but it does not say by whom, nor who has the power to make regulations with regard to auditing. I suggest that it should be clearly stated in Clause 3 that the audit is to be done by some person or persons approved by the registration authority. Subject to a few important but minor points of that sort, I think we may very heartily welcome this Bill.


I welcome the Bill, but, like the hon. Member for Attercliffe, I do not think it is really effective enough, and I only hope that the Under-Secretary in charge of the Bill will take steps in Committee to stiffen its Clauses. You are going to do one of two things—either to regulate existing private bodies, such as were referred to by the last speaker— which do not require regulation, as the personnel and objects are well known, or you are going to deal with fraudulent charities. If with the latter, is the Bill effective enough? Is the elaborate system set up not shutting the stable door after the horse has left? What is the system of a person who wishes to exploit the emotions of a charitable public? He has to get two other persons to join with him and form a committee, and the minutes have to be kept and so on. Nobody would go through this elaborate system unless for a considerable sum. If they do there is no provisions to prevent them carrying out the Clause, taking any money there may be, and making use of it for their own purposes. The only liability they will suffer will be met by taking £100 out of the total collected, and I dare say, on the balance, the transaction will be found to be a profitable one—or they may be imprisoned for three months. Really, if you are going to mark your sense of fraudulent exploitation of the emotions of the public I would ask the House to consider very carefully whether these penalties are sufficient! Consider the case of men who are minded to put their energies together to defraud the public for their own shameful and dishonest purposes by appealing to the emotions of the public on behalf of those rendered indigent by the War. It is a shameful offence, not a paltry offence—one skilfully and adroitly engineered. Are these penalties sufficient? The right hon. Gentleman has been very lenient and merciful in his view of such offences. It would be wise to stiffen the Bill in many ways. The matter of making appeals to the public might be improved. Before the appeal goes out steps should be taken to see that it is an honest charity. If mere registration by the public authority gives the right to appeal to the public to the committee of three the object of the Bill may very easily be stultified. Appeals should be scrutinised by a careful and prudent authority before they are allowed to go to the public. I am not ungrateful of the Bill, but offer these criticisms to strengthen the hands of those in charge of it. I would express the opinion which I think is justifiably shared by all here, that leniency is not what is required if you desire to stop fraud. I am sure hon. Members will support the Bill if steps are taken to stiffen it from start to finish.


I notice that this Bill will not apply to Ireland. Are no War charities to be carried on there, or does the hon. Gentleman imagine that people who do carry on War charities in Ireland are above suspicion? Does he believe that if he left this matter to the county councils of Ireland people who applied for permission to carry them on would not get that permission? Whatever England, Scotland and Wales may have done since the outbreak of War to raise funds for the comfort of wounded soldiers, and no matter what differences may exist for the moment in Ireland, we shall continue to do our share as we have done in the past. What are known as "gift sales" throughout Ireland are held at which farmers send their cattle, sheep, etc., to these sales, and auctioneers and others do the work without any payment, the result being that tens of thousands of pounds have been raised for the wounded. The reason I ask for this Bill to be extended to Ireland is that I know an important case where War Charities were, started, and, although the amount collected was very large, I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman the expenses absorbed a large proportion of the money collected, which I think a shame, seeing that people can very well carry on a War charity without fee or reward. I would, therefore, ask the right hon. Gentleman to have this Bill extended to Ireland because, no matter what we may say in this House, or what difference may arise between the Government and the Irish Parliamentary party and those we represent, there is one thing we are prepared to do to the end, and that is to give every comfort we can to our wounded brothers and cousins who are fighting battles at the front, and we desire to see War charities in Ireland set up on their behalf protected against unnecessary waste and overlapping.


May I offer a short explanation as to why the Bill does not apply to Ireland? When we were working on this Bill we were full of hope that the Irish Question would be arranged so that they might deal with a matter of this kind themselves. If my hon. Friend puts down an Amendment I shall be prepared sympathetically to consider it. I am speaking subject to correction, but I think I may safely say we shall be prepared sympathetically to consider the inclusion of Ire land.


If the Home Office is prepared to consider that, it will not do merely for my hon. Friend to put down an Amendment to include Ireland. There will have to be an important amendment to one of the Clauses in its application to Ireland, the same as the Clause which has application to Scotland, changing the Charity Commissioners to the Local Government Board for Ireland. I would just like to say that if the hon. Gentleman is agreeable to the extension of this Bill to Ireland, I hope he will not give way to the suggestion that has come from below *he Gangway to extend this Bill to charities in general, because that would raise too wide and big a question. This is a War measure, and if we can agree on this measure let us do so, and not extend it to general measures on which there is bound to be very considerable controversy.


With regard to the inclusion of Ireland in this Bill, I would first like to acertain whether that course would meet with the general acceptance of the representatives of the people of Ireland.


Would the hon. Member, if he is not proposing to take the further stages of this Bill to-morrow, communicate with the Local Government Board in Ireland by wire, and ask if they have any objections, administrative or otherwise, to Ireland being included.


Whatever is done will be done on the advice of the Home Office. I thank the House for the consideration it has shown for this measure.


In reply to criticisms which have been made, I wish to say that the Committee carefully considered this matter, and they had constantly to bear in mind that the bulk of the appeals would come from small villages or town associations, or even individuals, and they would find it very burdensome if the restrictions were made too onerous. I think the House will have to rely upon real cases of scandals being treated under the ordinary law. The object was to stop the appeals being made, and this Bill makes it illegal to make any appeal without a preliminary inquiry and registration under the Act. It was found that the action of the Local Government Board in establishing supervision over these charities had produced an wholesome effect. Since the Report was drafted I hear that a measure has been adopted by the French Government on very much the same lines.

Commander BELLAIRS

I rise to ask a question in order to prevent waste of time if it should turn out later on that the Bill cannot be extended under the rules of the House. The last Clause of the Bill says: "This Act shall not apply to Ireland." I would like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, in these circumstances is it possible to: extend the scope of this Bill to another part of the country?


That is really a matter for the Chairman of the Committee. At the first blush I should say there would be no objection to striking that Clause out. On the other hand, there must be considerable objection to extending this Bill to all charities because that raises a wholly different question.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.