HC Deb 28 January 1930 vol 234 cc933-49

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [29th October], "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Question again proposed


I desire to make a suggestion which may expedite the proceedings on this Bill. In the course of the previous Debate there was considerable criticism of many of the provisions of the Bill, particularly those in Clause 3. I do not think, however, that many Members desire, if the Home Office is prepared to meet us, to deny this Bill a Second Reading, and perhaps in Committee the Home Secretary may meet the objections which have been urged. There are objections, especially those of my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) and others regarding some of its provisions, but if the Under-Secretary for the Home Department can make a statement as to exactly what he is prepared to do, it will help us with regard to our decision and, perhaps, prevent long proceedings this evening. I think we all desire to see some sort of regulation, but many of the conditions in the Bill are onerous and may affect institutions both small and large in a serious manner.


Before the Under-Secretary makes any statement, may I make some observations upon this Bill which, if passed in anything like its present form, may have some undesirable and unexpected results. I am interested in it because the Bill follows on legislation which was passed during the War when I had the privilege of being Home Secretary. That legislation was drafted under my authority and at my request, and I was able to carry it through Parliament. It is now proposed to extend legislation of that kind much more widely than the original Measure. At the time when the original Act was passed, in 1916, there were many abuses of the strong, emotional, philanthropic spirit aroused in the country by the conditions of the War. Almost anyone who appealed to the hearts of the public on behalf of any charity intended to benefit those who suffered directly or indirectly, from the War received a support which might be and often was quite undiscriminating. Serious abuses arose, and it was necessary for the Government and Parliament to take action, and all war charities—which were defined—were required to be registered, and no charity which was refused registration, or which having been registered committed abuses and was struck off the register, could proceed with its operations without those engaged in it committing a punishable offence.

To show how necessary that legislation was it is sufficient to say that no fewer than 250 charities were proceeded against and were either refused registration or removed from the register. A strong Committee was appointed by the Home Secretary in the last Government to review this question of the abuse by fraudulent or semi-fraudulent charities of the philanthropic instincts of the community. They presented a Report saying that there should be permanent legislation; that power should be taken to hold inquiries into the conduct of any charity; that restrictions should be imposed, and that the Charity Commissioners should be given very considerable statutory powers. These provisions are included in Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill, and to those Clauses I have no objection, and I think the Bill ought to get a Second Reading in order to facilitate the enactment of those Clauses. It is Clause 3 which is open to criticism, and which requires careful examination. It gives power to the Secretary of State to make regulations which would involve the licensing of all persons who undertake collections from house to house on behalf of any collecting charity. It also restricts the placing of collecting boxes for the purpose of any such charity.

This Clause follows the recommendations of the Departmental Committee, but the Committee and the Government had in view large important collecting societies—permanent societies which could look after themselves, or certain other quasi-permanent societies such as spring up from time to time and then perhaps disappear after a few years and which need regulation and examination. What they have not had in mind is the effect of a Measure of this sort on all kinds of friendly voluntary collections, especially in the working-class quarters of our towns, for particular and immediate purposes. For instance, a man dies and is not insured and his widow is in urgent and immediate distress. What can be better than that a few friends should go around among the neighbours and raise a sum to help, if necessary, to pay for the funeral and to keep the widow going for a few weeks? That would be a collecting charity under the Bill. Again, suppose that a man has just started business as a carter and his horse dies. His friends get up a little concert for him in the village and raise a few pounds to assist in buying him a new horse. That is a collecting charity under this Bill, for the definition is: 'Collecting charity' means a person or body of persons making to the public any appeal for support for charitable purposes. And "charitable purposes" include: any benevolent or philanthropic purpose. Therefore, all these little undertakings which spring up from time to time will have to be licensed. Any persons engaged in any such effort will have to go to the police. Their character will have to be investigated. They will require a licence before they can undertake any such collection, and if they fail to fulfil these conditions they will be liable to a fine of £5. If it should ever happen, and it is not very likely, that there is a second offence they will be liable to imprisonment for three months. The result would be either that the people would not know of these powers at all, and would unwittingly commit all sorts all offences all over the country, or else they would be frightened of doing anything at all, and quite useful and proper undertakings would be checked. I think this House must be very careful before it creates new offences which closely touch the people in affairs which affect their everyday life, where people are unlikely to be acquainted with the details of the provisions of the law. That is my objection to this Clause 3, and I suggest that the Government should very seriously consider whether Clause 3 is necessary at all, because you have Clause 1, and you have Clause 2. If there is abuse in any charity, if complaint is made and the police know that a fraudulent person is collecting money by deceiving the public, they can take action under one of the first two Clauses, and Clause 3 will therefore not be necessary.


Can they not take action now?


I am not sure. They can take action, I think, only in certain circumstances, if there are local powers. I am not sure that there is any adequate legislation, but perhaps the Under-Secretary of State can tell us that. He has told us that there are to be drastic Amendments to Clause 3, but he has not told us what those drastic Amendments are, and if the Bill is to have a Second Reading to-day, I think the Under-Secretary of State should take us more into his confidence as to the course which the Government propose to pursue. We are liable in this country to have too much police regulation, too many offences created, too many acts made punishable, and the effect may be to interfere unduly with the proper liberty and the lives of the people.

Mr. SHORT rose


The House will realise that this is an adjourned Debate on the Motion for Second Reading, and that the Under-Secretary of State has already spoken and exhausted his right. He can speak again, of course, by leave of the House.




I am indebted for the way in which my right hon. Friends have intervened in this Debate. The right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) has stated in very effective terms some of the objections to this Bill, with which the House is already familiar, but let me say at once that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary fully realises and is conscious of the opposition, or the anxiety at any rate, in regard to Clause 3 in particular, though there is equally some criticism of Clauses 1 and 2. He realises that it is essential that, if the Bill goes through, it should go through with the assent of the House, and that it should carry with it the approval of those interests, those great charitable interests, both local and national.

The right hon. Member for Darwen suggested that we might consider whether Clause 3 should be withdrawn altogether. I am not authorised to go so far as that, but I am prepared to say this, that if the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill, when it reaches Committee—and this applies to the Bill itself, but to Clause 3 in particular—we are prepared to re-draft Clause 3 in such a manner as to cover the points raised in this and the previous Debate, special consideration being given to the interests of those specifically mentioned by the right hon. Member for Darwen, those small domestic collections for the benefit of some immediate victim. We propose so to amend that Clause as to secure the full assent of the House and of the parties interested. So far as the regulations are concerned, I do not think it is seriously contended that we can embody the regulations in the Bill, but they are vitally important, and consequently, in the drafting of these regulations, once again we will seek to draft them in broad, generous terms, with a desire to safeguard all the interests involved. I cannot say more.


Will the hon. Gentleman say that before we come to the Third Reading of the Bill, the regulations shall be available, so that we shall see them?


Before the Committee stage!


I was coming to that point. My right hon. Friend is prepared to put the draft regulations upon the Table of the House. I do not think I can say more to meet the desires of the House in these matters, but I will say this as a final word, that if, when this Bill comes from the Committee and the regulations have been tabled, we cannot get the general assent of this House, my right hon. Friend realises that it will be futile to proceed with it. Under those circumstances, having regard to the very frank and definite statement that I have made with a view to meeting the wishes of the House, which are not confined to one side, I hope the House will now permit me to have a Second Reading of this Bill.


When the hon. Gentleman speaks of general assent, I presume he does not mean unanimous assent, because there may be general assent to Clauses 1 and 2 going through, and yet not quite unanimous assent.


I think it is understood that if the House indicates that it is satisfied in a general way, and there is no reasonable opposition, the Bill should go through.


I desire to put a question or two to the Under-Secretary of State which I have not heard mentioned before in this Debate. I am very much concerned with what goes on in the division which I have the honour to represent. For many years we have been giving a New Year's Day treat to about 30,000 children in our district. We organise it through the Mayor of the borough, and we have a house-to-house collection, by people over the age of 18, of course, in accordance with the collection regulations. Would that have to have an inquiry by the police, or would that still be able to go on in the same way as it does now? The collections are made by committees and brought into the council and collected under the jurisdiction of the Mayor, the town clerk, or the deputy town clerk, as the case may be. Then arrangements are made in various halls for the children to meet and have entertainment and other things given to them as they go in and as they come out. That is not called a charity organisation; it is an arrangement made by the borough to give these children a treat, and it has been done for many years without any complaint in any way whatever.

Another question that I desire to put to the Under-Secretary of State is this In Poplar we have a very large body of transport workers, and we have been giving the children of those transport workers an outing every year for a number of years. We make a practice of making application to people who are engaged in the transport industry, and we are able to get fairly reasonable sums of money and to take a large number of children for a day's outing into Epping Forest or some other part of the country. We also make a collection among our own members. Wherever we cannot get at them in their branches, we get their addresses from the secretaries of our branches in the district, and make collections in that way. Is that going to be stopped by this Bill? Is it going to be encouraged, or what regulations are we going to come under for things of that description? That is what I desire to put to the Under-Secretary of State, and I hope that, if he cannot give us an answer now, we shall be able to get some definite undertaking when the Bill is in Committee.


I should like to draw the attention of the Under-Secretary of State to one aspect of the matter which has not been dealt with yet, and that is in regard to the definition Clause, which states: 'Collecting charity' means a person or body of persons making to the public any appeal for support for charitable purposes. Probably the hon. Member has overlooked the fact that that very wide definition would include the University of Cambridge, which is a charity, and at the present time is making appeals to the public for funds to enable it to obtain a very large grant from the Rockefeller Trust. I do not anticipate that we shall have representations from the council of any county or borough complaining of our doing so, but at the same time the University does not want to be subject to a Bill of this kind, and I hope the Under-Secretary of State will give us an assurance that that sort of body will be excluded, either specifically or by some general words, from the scope of the Bill. I hope we shall have some assurance on that point, because we feel rather strongly on it.


I think the Government have not been well advised in connection with this Bill, and I want to protest against the Under-Secretary of State's action to-day. We have already had him speaking in a previous Debate, and with the permission of the House he has spoken again to-night. He has replied to one or two Members, but already two other hon. Members have asked him, courteously, in pursuance of their rights, what they think are important questions. Other Members want to do the same, and we are not going to have any reply because the Under-Secretary of State has already-spoken a second time by the indulgence of the House.


We will allow him to reply again.


The difficulty is that there ought to have been some other person present who could reply to hon. Members without having to exercise the privilege of speaking with the indulgence of the House. Although some Members may sit for Poplar on the back bench and others may sit on the Front Bench, the Member for Poplar (Mr. March) has his rights equally, and he ought to be replied to with other hon. Members. We have been told in the country about the difficulty of the House of Commons dealing with various subjects. We are constantly met with the argument, in which there is a considerable amount of force, that when this or that question is raised in the House, the Government would like to tackle it, but that Parliamentary time forbids them getting on with such a Measure. Indeed, I read an article in a Labour paper yesterday, criticising certain Members of the House for taking up Parliamentary time.

We are told that we have no Parliamentary time for various Measures that are of the utmost urgent public importance, particularly to the common people, whom the Labour party have been specially sent here to defend. Yet this is the third occasion on which this Bill has been discussed. We have time, however, for a Tory Measure, and I ask the Under-Secretary who, before he reached the Front Bench, had a reputation for candour, what the Government defence is. I have read all the speeches on this Bill, and I cannot see where the public demand is for it. I could excuse the the Government for bringing forward a Tory Measure if there were a public demand for it. The only good thing about the Bill is that it does not apply to Scotland, and the Under-Secretary can take it from me that no Bill would be passed if it did apply. It is a Tory Measure, and I defy anybody to show the public demand for it. What Member was asked a question at the last Election about it? If one were asked, it would have been against the Bill. Here we have a Government, pressed for time and anxious to pursue other Measures, pioneering a Bill which was introduced by the Tory Home Secretary, the most reactionary Home Secretary we ever had. [An HON. MEMBER: "Vote against it!"] I take instructions much nearer to me than the hon. Gentleman; I take instructions from the group that sits up here.

The big powerful charities will be protected under this Bill, and they will be well looked after, because they have a tremendous backing inside and outside this House. The Bill, however, will affect the ordinary charity and the charitable work of the trade union movement. Take a trade union operating, say, in a Tory town which is dominated by opponents of the trade union and Labour movement. There is a dispute, and men are locked out or on strike. It goes on for some time, the trade union subscriptions gradually get less, and the difficulties become intensified. The men, who always have a great deal of thought for their families, institute a door-to-door subscription, and collect in the streets. Under this Bill, if they are operating in a Tory district where they need help most, and have less representation on the local body, they will be faced with the fact that, unless they get sanction from the local body, they are committing an illegal act. That would be an outrageous and indefensible thing, and I cannot see why a Labour Government should seek to give a power of that kind to a reactionary body. Lord Hewart has recently written a book on legislation outside Parliament, and the power of the Civil Servant and the bureaucrat overriding the democratic wishes of the House. I should have thought that the public reception which was given to that book would have been a lesson against handing powers to outside people, and yet here is the Under-Secretary for the Home Office saying that he is prepared to lay the regulations before the House, but not to put them into an Act of Parliament. I am surprised that occupants of the Front Bench, whether Tory or Labour—I have no experience of Liberals—


You soon will have!


Well, it has never been my lot to see them on the Front Bench. Both sides, whenever they are on the Front Bench, talk about regulations as if there is never to be any change. It may be that the Labour Government will hold office for a considerable length of time, but we have to face the situation that, if another Home Secretary comes along, these regulations can be changed, and turned upside down without reference to the House of Commons at all. There is nothing final about them. They bind only the present occupant of the office. Under the Bill, we are handing over to a future Home Secretary the power to make the regulations harsh, vindictive and oppressive. There is no desire for the Bill at all, and it ought to be withdrawn. Why send it upstairs to a Committee, and occupy the time of Members, when it is obvious there will not be unanimity on it? It cannot be made a good Bill, and in the interest of saving time for the Government, in the interest of getting on with other more important and urgent business, the Under Secretary would be well advised to withdraw it.


I both agree and disagree with the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), some of whose indignation, I think, is due to the fact that this Bill does not apply to Scotland, because notoriously Scotland is the most charitable part of Great Britain. An hon. Member on the Labour Benches raised the point of house-to-house collection. Very often a workman is injured or killed at his trade, and some of his friends go round to neighbouring houses and make a collection for the benefit of the widow and children. What will happen under this Bill? Will it be necessary for those people, who are good enough to give up their time—and it is a thankless job collecting money at any time—to go to the police station and register themselves? If they must, you will find that they will not do it, and the unfortunate widow and family will suffer in consequence.

Take another case from my own constituency. At Christmas, the taxi-drivers organise a treat for the poor children, and they take them 20 miles into the country, giving them a delightful day. In order to enable them to do that, the taxi-drivers write to all and sundry for subscriptions. Under this Bill, these taxi-drivers, who are generous in the extreme, will have to register, and they will not take the trouble. The Bill is good up to a point, because no doubt there is a certain amount of victimisation, but regulations laid down by most of the big collecting charities are sufficient to protect the public. This Bill seems to me, therefore, to be quite unnecessary and a purely departmental Measure.

7.0 p.m.


As representing the Charity Commissioners, I may assure the House that many of the contingencies put by hon. Members will never arise, and that it will be found to be a case of suffering from more evils that never arise than from those that do arise. I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has not read the Bill as he ought to have done. The Bill is designed to protect two people who have never yet been spoken of in this discussion. First, we are desirous of protecting the charitable people, and, secondly, we are desirous of protecting the people who receive charity. Clause 1 makes it quite clear that nothing can be done unless representations are made by the local councils. If the hon. Member had sat on the Committee on which I have had the honour of sitting for some years—the Local Legislation Committee—he would have found that local councils have sought to do everything they could to protect the people who are acting honestly in these charitable concerns. If the hon. Member for Gorbals will take the trouble to read the Report of the Parliamentary Committee which sat on this matter, he will find that there is reason for some protection somewhere and somehow. The real charities will be quite safe under this Bill, and, speaking for the Commission, I can say that every genuine charity will be able to go on in future, as it has done in the past, raising money for splendid purposes. As regards the trade unions, in that case the money is raised by an association well known to everybody in the area, and there can be no discussion as to whether or not the charity is for the purpose intended. All these things must be taken into account and, after all, many of our Labour friends have suffered because of the lack of regulations. Money which ought to have gone to Queen Alexandra's Fund has gone into somebody else's pockets; money which ought to have gone to the Salvation Army has gone somewhere else. The thing is that the people who give should receive some protection and that the people who are giving should also be protected. In Committee, anything that can improve the Bill will be genuinely considered, and therefore I ask the House to give it a Second Reading. I am sure that in Committee the Home Secretary will give satisfaction to all the honest criticisms which have been made.


There are one or two points which I have been specially requested by my constituents to put forward. I regret I was not present when the Under-Secretary made his statement. I am told that he has made certain promises which have met the objections of some of the hon. Members who have spoken. On the last occasion he said he had been seen by certain people representing the various charities who had expressed themselves as satisfied with the conditions he proposed to insert in the Bill during Committee. I have had a letter from a member of the Board of the British Hospitals' Association who states that they are not by any means satisfied. Can the Under-Secretary assure me that he has received anything in the way of assent from that very influential body?

In my own town certain people are very concerned about this Bill, because it seems that whoever wishes to collect on behalf of a charity will have to receive a permit from the local police. If that be so, it is going to make things very difficult indeed. I suggest that a better way to deal with this would be to license the charity itself and to leave it to the common sense and judgment of those responsible for that charity to see that they have reputable collectors to go out on their behalf. I have in mind a working men's effort on behalf of our local hospital. It is one of the most successful we have ever had in connection with that hospital. It is called the "Biggest Ever Movement" and in the summer time they have a street carnival with a procession, a display of tradesmen's exhibits and so on. Thousands of people come into the streets to see that procession and on that occasion it is necessary to have a large number of collectors. It cannot be done unless you have a large number of collectors. The method adopted by this working men's committee is that they have a central depot and anyone willing to collect can come along and be given a sealed tin. By that means they have been able to raise a large sum of money. This plan has been in operation for many years. I saw the secretary during the week-end, and he assured me that they have collected thousands of pounds and that they have not yet lost one penny piece. There has never been anyone who has absconded with one of the tins or failed to deliver up what he has collected. To say to such a committee that they must have everyone of the collectors registered with the local police would make their task impossible. If that provision is going to be retained, I have no alternative except to vote against the Second Reading.


If the hon. Member will refer to the Bill, he will see that only on the representation of a county or borough council or a chief of police can anything be done. Nothing can be done unless the representations are made.


The hon. Member does not suggest that Clause 3, to which he refers, covers the house-to-house collection. It has nothing whatever to do with it.


I am not so sure of that.


All I can say is that he has entirely misread the Bill.


I am obliged to the hon. Member for pointing that out to me. I read the Bill very carefully, but as a layman, it is difficult to understand what is meant by the drafting of the Bill. Even so, it may happen that you may have a district where they carry on an effort like the one I have described and where you have a chief of police or a town council that do not agree with it. There you are up against the difficulty straight away. Surely the fear of the people who have asked me to put this forward that it may mean a restriction of their efforts to raise money for a charitable purpose is justified on that ground. I understand that there have been cases of fraud, but they have generally taken place in the London area where one has not the means of checking which exists in a local town. Our case is that in Grimsby we have had very little difficulty at all. I would remind the House that when we had this provision in a private Bill brought before us—I mean the Accrington Corporation Bill—the House had no hesitation in throwing out a Clause which dealt with this particular matter. If the Under-Secretary states to-day, on behalf of the Government, that there is to be a free vote on this Bill, I am sure that Members will not be so ready to vote for it as they would if it were regarded as a Government Bill. I hope he can assure me that the fears of the people whom I represent are ill-founded, because, if they are, it might remove a good deal of objection to the Bill. It appears to me from the Bill that those who are collecting will have to register. I would also like him to clear up the point about the British Hospitals Association as it is very important.


There have been a series of important points put since the Under-Secretary replied, and I think the House is entitled to some further reply. There are the questions which have just been put by the hon. Member opposite to which I hope we are going to have an answer from someone. I would point out that in my own Division in Scotland, although I know this Bill does not apply to Scotland, the present legislation in connection with collecting for charities is such that decent people anxious to help others may get into trouble. One of the leading clergymen in my Division was prosecuted during the lock-out in 1926 under the existing legislation because he assisted in collecting on behalf of the wives and children of the distressed miners. It is of importance, therefore, that we should know where we are, and I hope we shall have a reply from the Home Office to the various questions which have been put.


I can only speak again by the leave of the House. I rose very early in the Debate to state in very plain and definite language what the Home Secretary intended and desired to do when the Bill reached the Committee Stage. I was hopeful that that statement would have satisfied those who were interested in the passing of this Measure. I have undertaken to deal with some of the points which have been put to me. For instance, I have undertaken to give special consideration to that class of case which was particularly mentioned by the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel). I am prepared to give an equal assurance to the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Sir J. Withers) and also in connection with trade unions. I hope no one will think that my right hon. Friend and myself will do anything except to assist trade unions and indeed every other type of organisation. I have been asked where this demand arose. During the lifetime of the last Government interested parties interviewed the late Home Secretary, and he set up a Departmental Committee which made a report recommending action on the lines embodied in this Bill. As far as we are concerned, we have taken the report of this Committee, drafted the Bill, and introduced it. In addition, we have assured the House that we shall make such Amendments as will remove the anxiety which has been expressed.

The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) referred to the British Voluntary Hospitals Association. If I understand it aright, that organisation is not a charitable organisation, but it is an organisation which exists for the purpose of collecting statistics and figures and so forth and publishes a very interesting document. The Charity Organisation Society called together a large number of organisations, and some 121 societies were represented and some 216 members were present. Many hospitals were represented, such as Guy's Hospital, King's College Hospital, St. Bartholomew's, St. George's, St. Mary's, St. Thomas', the Seamen's Hospital Society, University College Hospital, Westminster Hospital, and the Institution of Hospital Almoners. They unanimously passed a resolution in favour of this Bill as it was introduced. I hope that statement will to some extent remove the anxiety of the non. Member for Grimsby. As he was not in the House when I made my earlier statement, I will repeat the effect of it. We are going so to amend Clause 3 as to secure the general assent of the House and at the same time secure the approval of interested bodies, whether they be local or national. An hon. Member referred to the question of Regulations. He seemed to be fearful that the Regulations drawn up by my right hon. Friend might fall into the hands of someone who was vindictive and not so kindly disposed. Let me assure him that the Home Secretary, whoever he may be, is subject to the opinion of this House. His actions can be challenged at any time, and if he is a party to any injustice in the Regulations, he can be brought to this Box to explain his action. There can be no greater safeguard. I hope that as I have gone so far to satisfy the House we may now have the Second Reading of this Measure.


Would the hon. Gentleman answer the point which was raised as to whether all the young people taking part in a carnival would have to march up to the town hall for licences?


The hon. Member has said that I should have a right to challenge the action of the Home Secretary; will he say whether that would be regarded as a breach of party discipline?


In reply to the hon. Member for Grimsby, street collections are already governed by an Act passed by this House. If it is a house-to-house collection, then under Clause 3, as it now appears, each individual person would not have to apply for a licence, but a licence would be granted to the particular society. That is the intention.


That is a very important statement. This is the first time we have heard that. Is it the intention of the Government so to draft the Regulations that each individual person will not need a licence? That would make a big difference.


I did not mean to convey that. I meant that each individual collector would require a licence, but the application for the licence would be made by the organisation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second Time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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