HC Deb 29 October 1929 vol 231 cc143-51

Order for Second Reading read.


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

May I take advantage of the mood of agreement now pervading the House to submit to it a Bill designed to investigate and regulate collecting charities where and when, on the submission of a local authority, such a course is deemed to be advisable? The appeal for this change in the law has come from below; that is to say, for some time these collecting charities have themselves manifested a desire for a change which would in effect improve the status of many of these charities, and would shield the public against certain evils which have already been experienced. The object of the Bill is to make provision for the regulation of charities which depend for their funds wholly or partly on appeals to the public, and it provides for investigation into the administration of these charities where necessary. The movement in favour of closer control of collecting charities and better provision for the prevention of fraud has, as I have said, developed and has come from these great charitable organisations themselves.

The War Charities Act of 1916 required all charities, most of which appealed to the public for subscriptions, to be registered with the local authorities, and subjected the charities to certain elementary requirements' with regard to administration and the keeping of accounts. Already, therefore, there have been some laws in operation dealing with these charities, but the statutory provisions of the War Charities Act are, from the nature of the case, gradually lapsing, because War charities are receding from existence. Other laws, however, are permanent, and, so far as the information in the possession of the Home Office goes, they are working satisfactorily and are achieving their purpose. The existence of these provisions for the supervision of charities would naturally call attention to the desirability of applying some similar kind of control to the large number of collecting charities which are outside the Acts to which I have referred.

This Bill will change the existing law in two directions only. The first two Clauses express generally the conditions under which regulation and supervision may apply, and deal with the machinery to give effect to it. Clause 3 is important, and I may tell the House that it has been the subject of some discussion outside these walls between Home Office representatives and some of the parties interested, I myself having met a deputation of those who are entitled to speak in the name of those great societies. The third Clause empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations governing house to house collections, collections made in places of public entertainment and the exhibition of collecting boxes in shops. This is in substance the application to those forms of charitable appeal of the systems of regulations at present in force with regard to street collections. The necessity of this alteration in the law for the purpose of checking fraud and preventing evasion of the street collection regulations was strongly pressed upon the Departmental Committee which considered this matter at length some time ago. Representations were, however, made to the Secretary of State on behalf of the leading national charities, whose collecting activities are organised from one end of the country to the other, that to cover the whole country, however carefully the regulations were drawn up, would seriously cripple their activities, besides being difficult to work in practice. Those representations have been sympathetically considered. The particular difficulties they had in mind have been discussed in detail between the representatives of these charities and the Home Office and in the result I am glad to announce to the House that we have reached agreement as to the nature of the proposed regulations which will, we hope, reduce to the lowest possible dimensions the task which the regulations will place upon the charities and upon the police alike. I could give at greater length many details of the further provisions of this third Clause, to which I invite the attention of the House.

Finally, I would only say that questions of registration and supervision farmed a very important part of the problems which the Departmental Committee had to investigate, and which were continually before their minds throughout the whole course of the inquiry. As the result of the most careful investigation, the Committee came definitely to the conclusion that the establishment of any general system of administration and supervision of collecting societies could not be recommended. Any such system would do more harm than good unless it was firmly and conscientiously administered over the country as a whole, since it would lead the public to believe that they were fully protected against fraudulent or ill-managed charities, when in fact the protection was quite illusory and in no way real, and so the official administration would necessitate the creation of large staffs both for local authorities and the central authority and would, indeed, involve very serious expense. The extent to which any such general regulations would have to apply will be readily grasped when I say that there are probably more than 80,000 of these various charities which would have to be dealt with. Accordingly the purpose of the Bill is to leave it to the societies themselves and to the local authorities to make representations in the proper quarter for the safeguards and the powers of investigation which this Bill would provide, and I therefore commend it to the support of the House.


I do not rise to oppose the Second Reading—the subject is one, I know, which the Home Office has long had under consideration—but I want to raise certain questions upon it, because I would submit that the Home Secretary's general description of it—I know how difficult general descriptions of such a complicated subject are—is not entirely borne out by the actual words of the Bill. The questions I have to ask fall really into two categories: those I would like to raise on the first two Clauses, and on the third Clause. In the first two Clauses, the Government take power through the Charity Commissioners, upon the representation of the local authority, to regulate a charity on certain grounds which are very fairly set forth in Clause 1. But the grounds are grounds of protection of the public against what may roughly be called fraudulent or mismanaged societies. "Regulation" is a blessed and a polite word, but I think that if hon. Members look at Clause 2 they will realise that regulation in this case may mean extinction. It seems to me that where you give to a quasi Government or Board, like the Charity Commissioners, powers of this kind over a charity, powers extending to the practical extinction of the charity, there should be some appeal reserved to the Courts against their decision. That. I think, is the least one could ask. I should like to ask the Home Secretary whether he is prepared in Committee to consider providing an appeal to the Courts against the decision of the Charity Commissioners in these matters.

I come to my second class of question which arises on the third Clause of the Bill. Here we get quite outside the range of the first two Clauses. Here it is no more a question of any representation by the local authority, nor is there any question of representation by the charity itself. The Home Secretary said in his peroration that the object of this Bill was to enable the Government to deal with cases brought to them by the local authority or by the charity itself or by a group of charities, but there is nothing about that in the third Clause. The Secretary of State may make Regulations. For what purposes? For any purposes. There is no provision, as in the first Clause of the Bill, that you are to make Regulations for certain purposes to prevent certain evils. The Secretary of State, under Clause 3, is to have complete power to make any Regulation in respect of house collecting for, as I read it, any particular charity. The Regulation need not apply to charities as a whole. The Secretary says that under such and such conditions Charity A may conduct house-to-house visiting or have collecting boxes and so on, and leave Charity B free. I am not quite sure whether that is the case under the Clause; whether he has only the power of making general Regulations applying to all charities, or whether he can make Regulations applying only to particular ones. At any rate, he can make Regulations without any limitation except the limitation that he must lay them on the Table of this House. Every old Member of the House knows just how much that safeguard is worth. The Home Secretary obviously does not intend to take powers of this kind. He says he has conducted negotiations with the leading charities and they have agreed as to the conditions which may be laid down. If so, why are not the conditions in the Bill? Are we to give power to the Government to make any sort of Regulation in consideration of the fact that the Government has made an arrangement outside the Bill with leading charities that they will not make any Regulations except in a certain form? That would be a highly unsatisfactory method of legislation. If the Home Secretary does intend to limit his power to a certain species of Regulation, why should not those Regulations be written into the Bill?

I would ask the House to realise how very wide the powers under Clause 3 are. The Secretary of State might make any regulations. I fully agree with the Home Secretary as to the impossibility in practice, even if it were desirable in principle, of a general system of registration of charities' Is there not a certain danger too in the Government of the day making an arrangement with what one might call an aristocracy of leading national charities? Conditions which suit that aristocracy of well established charities might not suit the new; struggling and experimental charities and every charity passes through an experimental stage. If charities are any good at all, and some hon. Members opposite sometimes tend to evince a. feeling that they are not, it is because there is in them a principle of spontaneous generation. They are good because a new charity may always start, because you have something alive, a live principle. If you are going to stereotype your charities and make it difficult for any new charity to compete, then that principle goes by the Board. That is the danger.

There is one other point. It is open to the Home Secretary under the Clause as now drafted to say, for instance, that no charity shall be able to collect from house to house without the approval of the local authority. Is that particular provision in the contemplation of the Home Secretary because it would be a provision highly distasteful to charities as a whole? Apart from particular points like that, is the Home Secretary prepared to translate Clause 3 into terms of the particular conditions which he has negotiated with the leading charities and to give the House an opportunity in Committee of considering whether those conditions are conditions which are suitable for general application to new-charities as well as to existing leading national charities? Those are the questions I desire to put and I do so in no spirit of obstruction.


I hope that Clause 3, which is thoroughly objectionable as drawn in the Bill, will be cleared out. After all, it was rejected by the House before. I hope, too, the terms of the arrangement made will be made clear in the Committee stage. This Bill, too, does not really deal with the administration of charities. In the 1927 Report there is an expression of opinion that the guarding of sound administration is primarily in the hands of the public themselves, but the public want help in this matter. The difficulty is that, when certain persons who subscribe to a charity find that the charity is not being administered as it ought to be, they have great difficulty in getting hold of the other people who subscribe so that collectively, just like shareholders in a business, they can take the necessary action. In connection with some of the larger charities, you can, for a small fee, get the names and addresses of those who subscribe. For instance, in connection with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for a small fee you can get the addresses of those who sub- scribe. By that means you can get collective action amongst the various subscribers in dealing with maladministration. There is always a danger in connection with charities that the control gets gradually into the hands of the permanent officials. These officials, undoubtedly, do select people for the Committee and, easygoing people as we are, we accept these people for the Committee and they support and back the doings of the permanent officials. In that way you get administration which in some cases is not in keeping with the desires of the subscribers. Therefore, I think that this Bill in the Committee stage ought to be amended to provide some safeguard whereby those who subscribe to the charity ought to be able to get information with regard to the subscribers.


Perhaps the House will allow me to deal with the two main points raised by the Noble Lord, whose attitude towards the Bill has been wholly reasonable and helpful. I can say absolutely that there is an intention to make adequate provision for the right of appeal. As to the question of regulations, I can only say that there are some things that can better be provided for in regulations than in the Bill itself, at any rate in its Second Reading stage. We have to gain experience and to see precisely how best to do what one desires to do. In many Acts of Parliament power has been acquired to frame regulations. I shall do my best in the Committee stage of the Bill to try to accept the views and opinions of the Noble Lord, and I can give the House complete assurance that insofar as the regulations are concerned they shall be framed only with the good will and approval of the subscribers themselves.


In regard to my point about the names and addresses, is there any hope that that will be dealt with in the Committee stage,


I will see what can be done.


I do not think this Bill ought to go through unless we have a longer discussion on the Second Reading. When I recall to the memory of hon. Members the fact that in the last House we considered a Bill promoted by the Accrington Corporation which contained a Clause very similar to Clause 3 of the present Bill, and that that Clause, which was Clause 180 of the Accrington Bill, was rejected, after a very adequate discussion, they will see that there are many other things to be said against the present Bill than have been said to-night, and on other points. I will quote from a speech which was made on the Accrington Bill by the right hon. Gentleman who is now Secretary of State for War. He was discussing the Clause exactly similar to Clause 3. This is what the right hon. Member for Preston (Mr. T. Shaw) said: The Lancashire cotton trade is very highly concentrated in certain towns, and the weaving trade has by far the heaviest employment. Frequently, the trade union organisations in the cotton trade make collections for various purposes … Let me give a typical case. Not long ago, the miners of South Wales sent out an appeal for assistance in the shape of clothing, boots and shoes for men, women and children. The collectors of these various unions in Accrington might desire to make a special journey round the town to help appeals of that kind. Under Clause 180 of this Bill, everyone of those collectors would have to get a special permit—[An HON. MEMBER: 'No!'] If that be so, then there is a difference of opinion as to what the Clause means, and that is an additional reason why it ought to be struck out of the Bill. On my reading of the Clause, everyone of the collectors I have alluded to would have to get a separate individual permit, probably from the chief constable, in order to take part in the work of collecting. When a person had obtained such a permit to go round collecting, apparently it would last for 12 months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th June, 1928; col. 915, Vol. 218.] That quotation from one of many speeches delivered, is noteworthy. The Motion for the rejection of the Bill was moved by a late hon. and gallant Member of this House, a blind Member, the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Captain Fraser), and it was opposed by some of the large organisations, such as Dr. Barnardo's Homes and the Salvation Army. The hon. Member for Midlothian and Peebles (Mr. Westwood) made an eloquent speech in putting the case of the Salvation Army and other charities. I deeply regret having to block the Bill at this late hour, but I intend to preserve my rights as a private Member. I do not think the Bill ought to go through after only three quarters of an hour's discussion, unless hon. Members are thoroughly satisfied that every single form of charity, large or small, shall have consideration given to its point of view.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next, 4th November.