HC Deb 05 May 1939 vol 346 cc2283-91

2.7 p.m.

Mr. T. Smith

I beg to move in page 2, line 3, at the end, to insert: (4) The provisions of this Act, except sections five and six and the provisions of section eight thereof, in so far as they relate to these sections, shall not apply to a collection for a purpose of a personal nature extending only to those who are personally acquainted with the person or persons for whose benefit or on whose account the collection is being made or who by residence in the same immediate locality are likely to have special knowledge of the circumstances of such person or persons, subject to the following conditions: —

  1. (i) that the collection is completed within seven days;
  2. (ii) that a record is kept and retained for a period of at least six months, reckoned from the latest date of collection, of the amounts collected and the disbursements made there from;
  3. (iii) that the collection is supervised by a committee consisting of at least three persons, not being members of one family, resident in or carrying on business or employed in the locality;
  4. 2284
    1. (i) that the whole of the proceeds of the collection, without deductions for remuneration of collectors or for other such purpose, is devoted to the avowed purpose of the collection:
Provided that this subsection shall cease to be applicable so soon as there is reasonable cause for believing that the amount collected has exceeded or will exceed ten pounds. I agree with the main purpose of the Bill, namely, that charitable collections made from house to house should be licensed. A committee of inquiry made a number of recommendations on this subject and an abundance of evidence was given to show that swindles were being practised in this country. The Bill aims at preventing those swindles. But in licensing house-to-house collections we have to be careful that we do not interfere with or restrict collections of the kind which have taken place for many years in working-class districts and which, I may say, whether the Bill becomes law or not, will continue to take place in those districts. The kind of collection which I have in mind is known in working-class parlance as a "whip round." When a person dies in a locality, the neighbours to show their respect for the deceased, take up a collection for the purpose of sending a wreath to the funeral. In other cases, working-men and women willingly subscribe small amounts for some purpose such as the purchase of an artificial limb for a person who has been injured in such a way as to require one. The Bill in its present form would compel those who organise such a "whip round" to approach the police authorities and get a a licence. I cannot see why these collections, which do a great deal of good and no harm, should be subject to any interference. I cannot understand why a few neighbours, who wish to join and make a collection for purposes such as I have indicated, should be compelled to approach the police at all. I shall probably be told by the promoters of the Bill that the Amendment is unnecessary. It has been suggested that the matter is dealt with in Clause 1 (4). I submit, however, that that provision does not meet the point which I have in mind. Sub-section (4) states: If the chief officer of police for the police area …in which a collection for a charitable purpose is being … made is satisfied that that purpose is local in character and that the collection is likely to be completed within a short period of time, he may grant … a certificate in the prescribed form. That implies, surely, that application must be made to the police for that purpose. My submission is that there should be no need to approach the police in these cases. I am sure the promoters of the Bill will agree that this is a controversial point and one which needs some thought, and I believe that it had something to do with the fact that a similar Bill a few years ago had to be dropped. My Amendment, I submit, is a reasonable compromise. I have had a good deal of correspondence about it with people who are interested in these questions and the wording is the result of consideration by a social service organisation which is a little perturbed about the terms of the Bill. The Amendment provides that where a collection of a personal nature takes place the Bill shall not apply. It proceeds to set up machinery for controlling even small local collections. It provides that in these cases a committee of at least three must initiate the collection or "whip-round" and that records of the collection must be kept for at least six months, so that if there are complaints of anything unfair or illegal the police can approach the collectors about it. It provides that the proceeds of the collection without deduction, must be used for the specific purpose for which the collection took place, meaning that nobody can make a collection and then subtract a certain amount for his own pocket. The whole sum must be used for the specified purpose and the amount collected must not exceed £10. If anybody tries to organise a local collection for a good purpose and to exploit it so that the amount exceeds £10, he will be liable to a penalty for not having taken out a licence. Further, the collection must be completed within seven days.

Hon. Members opposite may not be as familiar with what takes place in working-class districts as some of us on these benches. In such a district, if a person dies on Tuesday and the funeral is fixed for Friday, there is generally a "whip-round" and when sufficient has been collected for the purchase of a wreath, that is the end of the collection. We know from experience, however, that in those localities all kinds of collections are made for other objects such as I have described. There are collections for arti- ficial limbs. If a person who cannot afford to pay his rent is threatened with eviction, a collection is made to clear off his arrears and enable him to remain in his house. I cannot see that in the case of collections like that the police should be called in at all. I do not see why an Englishman should not be allowed to put his 6d. or 1s. into a common pool for such a purpose. If it is necessary to approach the police, it means that the police have the right to refuse a certificate. The main purpose of the Bill would not be injured if the Amendment were carried. The Amendment would at least safeguard what is being done to-day. Although we had a very thorough discussion of the point in Committee and the promoter and the supporters of the Bill did their best to give an explanation, I was not satisfied that the point had been met, and I am not satisfied yet.

2.17 p.m.

Mr. Windsor

I beg to second the Amendment.

It is an age-long custom, when people are in distress, economic or otherwise, many of them unable to keep up premiums on insurance policies and so forth, to make such collections in order to meet the various needs that occur; and in such circumstances it seems to me morally wrong for anyone to intervene and refuse to people the right to collect small sums that would be of immediate assistance. To make such collections is committing no crime. But I equally appreciate that there are other cases of collections which are deliberately fraudulent and which ought to be dealt with. This proposal simply means that the poor who need this benefit will get it, and they should not be denied the right to it.

2.19 p.m.

Mr. Craven-Ellis

I am in full sympathy with the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) and with the hon. Member who seconded the Amendment. We have the same wish, and that is in no way to hamper the particular kind of collections to which he has referred. The matter was discussed fully in Committee, and after that Committee there was still a doubt in my hon. Friend's mind as to what the position exactly was. I have studied the Amendment very carefully, and I am inclined to think that by the Amendment the proposer and seconder are making it more difficult for these impromptu collections to proceed. There has been some slight misunderstanding. The hon. Member for Normanton stated that application must be made before a collection is taken. Sub-section (4) of Clause 1 clearly sets out that that is not the case, for it says: If the chief officer of police for the police area comprising a locality in which a collection for a charitable purpose is being made, and that indicates that it is not necessary for an application to be made first. Otherwise the word "being" would not be there. If the police find that a collection is in being, or they are in formed that it is proposed to proceed with a collection, a certificate of exemption may be given. Therefore in the case in which a person dies on a Tuesday and is to be buried on a Friday, if there were an impromptu collection made on the Tuesday there would be no occasion to go to the police before the collection was started. In fact it is quite possible that the police would not know anything at all about a great many of these collections.

What does the Mover of the Amendment propose? The Clause gives absolute freedom. The hon. Member proposes that such collections should be exempted from the Bill, but he imposes a formula upon these people, a formula which is troublesome, erroneous and unnecessary. He says that the collection must be completed within seven days. In the case he mentioned seven days may be quite sufficient, but in Sub-section (4) of Clause 1 there is far greater elasticity for dealing with these cases than there would be under the Amendment. The Amendment stipulates that a record must be kept. We do not ask for that in Subsection (4). The Amendment also provides for a committee. We do not ask for that. It says further that the whole of the proceeds of the collections, without deduction for remuneration of collectors or other such purposes shall be devoted to the avowed purpose of the collection. My knowledge of this particular type of collection tells me that you can rely upon the whole of the proceeds going to the particular purpose for which the collection is made. I cannot understand why the hon. Member should want to impose upon these unfortunate people this very stringent formula. If the formula would help what we both desire to help I would give the Amendment my support, but in the interest of these small collections I cannot accept the Amendment.

Mr. T. Smith

Let us assume that the Bill goes through and that a collection takes place in a locality. The police know nothing about it. A week after a report reaches the chief of police that the collection has taken place. Could the police authorities then prosecute those who had made the collection because they had not previously obtained a licence?

Mr. Craven-Ellis

I would draw attention to what I said on the subject in the Standing Committee. I mentioned that last year a Joint Committee gave careful consideration to that point, that they obtained the views of English police witnesses, and found that their sole desire was to be able to ignore harmless local collections of the kind indicated. The Joint Committee concluded that a discretionary power should be conferred upon the police. I would reply to the hon. Member that the case he has referred to would not be one which would call for prosecution.

2.24 p.m.

Mr. Rhys Davies

Before the Government reply is given let me say that there are two methods whereby the sanction of the police can be given. I suppose that in collections such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith), with which a number of us are familiar—by the way, they still proceed—it would appear that the person who initiates such small collections would not apply, or would not need to apply, for a licence. This Bill vests the chief constable or the appropriate police officer for that area with power to swoop down upon him if he thinks he is not a desirable person, but if the police consider he is a desirable person and the collection is a genuine local one, then, I suppose, everything will proceed just as it does now. There is the other case, where there is a proper application for a licence, and in that case, the granting of a licence must depend on the police, but what you are doing in Clause 1 is to give power to the police to supervise these collections.

Let me say, quite frankly, that from my experience we shall never prevent people giving money for charities, and it would be an ill day if it ever came. On the other hand, I do not know what the experience of other hon. Members may be, but I know of some cases where powers ought to have been in the hands of the police long ago. I am sorry to say that the strongest evidence in support of that view comes from the city where I live. Manchester, where the charitable business was worked definitely on a percentage basis. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton would feel inclined, after what has been said by the promoter of the Bill, to push his Amendment any further, but I trust he will not, because I feel that this Bill is only laying down certain principles and applying them to see how this system will work. I hope sincerely, however, that no police constable or officer will prevent collections for local purposes in any part of the country.

2.27 p.m.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. J. S. C. Reid)

I think everyone in the House is favourable to the general principles of the Bill and desires for small collections as great a freedom as is compatible with reasonable restrictions to prevent fraud. Therefore, if I say on behalf of the Government that we do not think this Amendment ought to be accepted, it is not from any lack of sympathy with the object of the proposer of the Amendment. There are two reasons why we take the view which we do take on this Amendment. The first has already been stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Mr. Craven-Ellis) in some detail, namely, that there appears to be greater restriction and less freedom in following out the terms of this Amendment than there is in going to the police, putting the general circumstances before them, and getting their decision, which I am sure in a proper case would be favourable. The other reason to which I think I should allude is that a very great number of these cases do not come within the scope of the Bill at all, and it would be very undesirable, by passing this Amendment, to suggest that they did. The Bill is limited to appeals to the public, and a great number of the type of appeals which have been described by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) are not appeals to the public at all, but appeals to a very limited class, who are determined by some particular relationship to the object of the appeal, and I have no hesitation in saying that such cases are not within the Bill as it stands and that it is very undesirable to pass such an Amendment as would suggest that they should be.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

As one of the Members of the Joint Committee of the two Houses which considered this Bill, I should like to say that there never was at any period any idea in the minds of the Members of that Committee of interfering with purely local collections that spontaneously arise, and I do not think any chief constable would be found to interfere with such a collection. But the ways of the people who promote charitable collections are many and varied. I have a mass of evidence in my possession which shows the multiplicity of the ways in which people promote all kinds of swindles. A disastrous accident took place in North London only very recently, when an aeroplane hit a house, and a number of people lost their lives as a consequence. Within 24 hours there were house-to-house collections going on for the dependants of those people. The majority of the collectors were perfectly genuine, but there was one or two who were collecting for themselves and not for the dependants at all.

I feel confident that, in view of the discussion which has taken place, my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) will not seek to press his Amendment, but I would like to suggest that when the Bill goes to another place it might be possible to arrange that even in the case of these spontaneous collections it should be laid down in the Bill that they should be reported to the police—not that permission should be granted, but that the police should be informed. It seems to me that that point might be worth attention. I do not wish it to apply in the case of small townships or anything like that, but in a place like London you might have a collection upon a local subject, but you might also have fraudulent collectors operating.

2.31 p.m.

Mr. Watkins

I hope the Government will not adopt the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) about reporting collections to the police, because, quite frankly, what poor people do not like is to have to go and get permission from, or to give information to, the police, and I would rather see the Bill left in its present form.

2.32 p.m.

The Paymaster-General (Earl Winterton)

It would be only courteous to both the last speakers to say that I am in entire agreement, on behalf of the Home Office, with the point made by the last speaker, and I think that those who sat on the Committee upstairs, as I did, realised the great care and attention which had been given to this Clause; and the promoters, the Joint Committee, and, indeed, the Home Office are satisfied that all the points will be met by the Clause as it stands.

2.33 p.m.

Mr. T. Smith

I do not need anyone to tell me that this Bill is necessary. After the speech which I made on the Second Reading, in which I exposed some of the swindles which are taking place, I received large numbers of letters from people in different parts of the country, not merely thanking me, but telling me of other ways in which money was being extracted from the public. I put this Amendment down deliberately, in order to raise a discussion, not because I actually agreed with the procedure proposed in it, but that I wanted to safeguard what is taking place in the localities and that I wanted collections of a purely genuine character to continue without any question of approach or interference by the police. I hope that the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) will not be accepted. I now ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.