HC Deb 11 June 1940 vol 361 cc1222-31

Order for Second Reading read.

7.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

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

This Bill follows in the main the lines of the Act passed in 1916 dealing with charities connected with the war of 1914–18. That Act was passed on a report of a Departmental Committee which found that the lack of control had led to very unsatisfactory results. In some cases large sums of money which had been collected were found to be under the control of an individual who had placed them into his own banking account. In other cases no accounts had been published and no proper records had been kept. The report of the Departmental Committee gave instances of cases where sums collected had been almost entirely absorbed in expenses, and it was clear that the charities existed mainly for the benefit of ingenious promoters. In those circumstances the Act of 1916 was generally accepted as a very necessary Measure.

At about the same time street collections were brought under control, and the Act passed last year brought house-to-house collections also into the sphere where there is fairly strict regulation. But other methods of appeal, either by advertisement or through the post, remain open, and the public is again showing itself responsive to appeals of all kinds for war charities, notwithstanding the severe pressure of increasing taxation. Some doubtful appeals have already been launched, and the Government think it right that the public should once again be given protection against abuse of its present generosity. The present Bill replaces the Act of 1916, and Clause 11 extends the previous definition of a war charity so as to include not only charities connected with the present war, but also any other charities to which the provisions of the Bill may be extended by an Order-in-Council. Under this Bill it will be possible by an Order-in-Council to extend its provisions so as to cover any war or act of aggression in any part of the world and any charitable appeal launched in connection with such a war.

The first Clause provides that no appeal is to be made to the public on behalf of a war charity unless the charity is either registered or granted exemption from registration, and also unless the committee of management of the charity has expressly approved the particular appeal. In England and Wales the registration authority is the council of the county or county borough in which the headquarters of the charity is situated. Provision is expressly made in Clause 1 for exempting church offertories and other charities of a minor character if the registrar is satisfied that the charity is established in good faith and that it is unnecessary in the public interest that the charity should be so registered. Clause 2 sets out the reasons for which the registration authority may refuse to grant registration and also the reasons for which they may order the removal from the register of a charity. These grounds are defined in more detail than they were in the Act of 1916, but they correspond very closely with the similar provisions in the House to House Collections Act which was passed last year. The Clause further provides that in the case of a refusal to register, or removal from the register, the applicant may appeal to the Charity Commissioners. The Charity Commissioners are made the central authority for the purposes of this Act, and they will maintain a central register. Clause 3 lays down conditions to be complied with by registered charities. There must in the first place be a responsible committee of not less than three persons, and proper accounts must be kept and audited, and submitted to the registration authority. A separate banking account must be kept, and the accounts must be open to inspection by persons authorised by the registration authority or by the Charity Commissioners.

Clauses 4 to 12 provide the necessary machinery. They provide the penalties and definitions and for the application of the Bill to Scotland. The Act of 1916 was not found unduly onerous by reputable charities, and the Charity Commissioners consider that it was on the whole successful in preventing fraudulent and badly administered appeals, though experience revealed certain defects. These defects have been remedied as far as possible in the present Bill, but its main structure is the same as that of the Act of 1916. We hope that the present Bill will effectively suppress undesirable activities without unduly hampering legitimate charitable efforts.

7.50 p.m.

Mr. Rhys Davies (West Houghton)

The hon. Gentleman has made quite clear what the Measure is intended to do. So far as I have been able to gather, this Bill, unlike many that have been brought forward during this emergency, does not apply only to conditions existing during the present war between us and Germany and Italy. It seems to me that any collection made in connection with the Spanish Civil War, for instance, might easily have come under this Measure if it had been an Act at the time; and that collections made in connection with the war between Japan and China—which might continue after the war in Europe has ended—might be covered by this Measure too. I have not read the Bill very carefully, but I have not seen any words in it to indicate that it ends with the present emergency. That, however, was not the real point which led me to speak on the Bill.

The Urban Councils Association are very much concerned as to the change made by this Bill by comparison with the position created by the Act of 1916. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman will know what their criticisms are. In Clause 10, it is provided that, outside London and the Scilly Isles, the registration authority must be "the council of the county or county borough." Other councils, however big and powerful they may be, will not have the power of registration which they had under the Act of 1916. Naturally, they protest at this omission. I represent a constituency with five urban authorities, some of them containing larger populations than some of the smaller county boroughs. I was brought up in the Rhondda Valley, which is very nearly the largest urban authority in the land, but the Rhondda Council will not be the registration authority under this Act. The district that I have the honour to represent will, under the Bill, be covered by the Lancashire County Council. The central offices of the Lancashire County Council are in Preston, and hon. Members may be astonished to hear that Preston seems to be a very long way from Westhoughton. I am not sure that Westhoughton has any more connection with Preston than it has with London; this registration, so far as many Lancashire urban councils are concerned, might be just as well done in London as in Preston. I should be obliged therefore if the Minister would tell us why the urban councils are left out of the Bill, especially as they were included in the 1916 Act.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have been able to give us some information as to why the Bill was introduced at all. Perhaps he will be good enough to tell us whether the Home Office has any substantial evidence that people are developing during this war any vested interests for themselves in these charitable undertakings. I think I speak for all the hon. Members behind me when I say that we welcome the Bill and shall do what we can to assist its passage into law.

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

The Bill is intended to prevent the operation of undesirable charities, and to safeguard the public interest in that connection. In Clause 11 it is provided that the expression "war charity" shall not include any charity for the blind within the meaning of Section three of the Blind Persons Act, 1920. That means, as I read the Bill, that we are to have all these very stringent, and very proper, regulations regarding any kind of war charity except those war charities whose object is the assistance of the blind. We all have the most profound sympathy for the blind. I am now speaking directly on behalf of the National Institute for the Blind. I want it to be understood that I am not attacking or showing the slightest lack of sympathy for the blind. It is because I am most anxious that the blind shall not be associated with something that is not quite sound and straightforward that I ask why it has been thought necessary to exclude charities for the blind. The National Institute for the Blind see no reason whatever for this proposed exemption. Charities for the blind, they say, should not occupy a privileged position under the law, for their administration is neither better nor worse than that of other charities; and it is largely the administration of charities with which the Bill is concerned. I am told that within the last few years certain so-called charities for the blind have been de-registered under Section 3 of the Blind Persons Act, 1920. At this time, when people are showing so much generosity towards charities, and when the appeal for the blind is so great—and it will become greater as the war continues—the utmost care should be taken to see that the cause of the blind is not abused by unscrupulous people. I had thought of putting down an Amendment to leave out this exemption, but it may be that the hon. Member will give me some assurance, in which case I shall not pursue that course.

7.59 p.m.

Sir R. Tasker

The hon. Member for West Houghton (Mr. Rhys Davies) referred to the question of whether this Measure should continue beyond the present emergency. I would cite only one instance, of an institution which was started in the last war and has been carrying on its noble work ever since. I am referring to the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation at Fulham. There are men cared for who were disabled in the last war for whom we want to find accommodation and have not been able to do so. I wish the Bill were more stringent. I can think of few things so vile as the action of people who trade upon the sufferings of others, and there have been dreadful abuses committed in appealing for money from the benevolent. This is common knowledge to anybody who has been engaged in social work in London or in any other part of the country. I understood from the Minister that an Order-in-Council would not cover any charity except a war charity. I wish that this Bill had been introduced to cover not only war charities but all charities. I invite the attention of the Minister to that side of the question. However, I believe that the Bill will be welcome, and I am sure that a similar Bill applying to other charities would be equally welcome.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Peake

I can only speak again by leave of the House, but there have been three or four questions asked to which I should like to give a short reply. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) asked whether the Bill would be permanent. The answer to that question has been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn (Sir R. Tasker). As in the case of the 1916 Act, these charities will continue long after the war is over, and it is necessary to control them throughout the duration of their existence. This Bill takes the place of the 1916 Act in relation to charities started during the last war, and similarly as regards charities arising during this war or any other war to which they may be applied under Clause 11. The Act, we hope, will continue to function and to regulate those charities for many years to come. The hon. Member asked whether this Bill could be extended so as to cover charities relating to the war in Spain or to the war in the Far East between China and Japan. If he looks at Clause 11, Sub-section (1, c), he will see that the powers of His Majesty by Order-in-Council are that he may extend the provisions of the Act in regard to any war or act of aggression, whether occurring before or after the passing of this Act. Therefore it would be possible by Order-in-Council, as I read the Bill, to extend the scope of the Bill so as to cover charities dealing with the civil war in Spain or with the war in the Far East. The hon. Member raised the more difficult question of the proper authorities for registration and the performance of the other functions under the Bill. The authorities in the Bill are laid down in England and Wales as being the county councils and the county borough councils. Clause 10, Sub-section (1, c), sets out the registration authorities elsewhere than in the City of London and the Scilly Isles. In the 1916 Act the registration authorities were smaller local government units and included borough and urban district councils. The reason why it has been thought fit to provide in this Bill for the larger authorities only was that a Departmental Committee, which was established in the year 1925 and reported in March, 1927, had the following terms of reference: To be a Committee to consider and report whether any form of supervision is desirable for collecting charities, and, if so, to make recommendations in the matter. In the course of their report the Departmental Committee drew attention to the supervision exercised in respect of war charities by these various local authorities, and the conclusions of the Committee are stated on pages14 and 15. They found that the Act of 1916, while it had been strictly administered in London, had apparently been somewhat laxly administered elsewhere in the country, and they attributed that to the responsibility being placed upon the smaller local authorities. In paragraph 45 of their report they said: The Commissioners"— the Charity Commissioners— were inclined to attribute these very serious defects of administration on the part of registration authorities to three main causes: the inclusion of borough and urban district councils, shortage of staff in the offices of registration authorities during the war, and the probability that in some registration areas at least, there was so little work legitimately to be done that it was neglected altogether. Basing ourselves on that and other paragraphs in the report of the Departmental Committee, we have provided for the larger authorities to be the registration authorities under the Bill. Those registration authorities are also the authorities for registration under the Blind Persons Act, 1920, to which the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) referred. It is a very difficult problem. There is an advantage, obviously, that if you choose a smaller local authority, they will probably handle more expeditiously the small local questions, but, on the other hand, if you multiply the authorities, to a very large extent you will get decisions given on different principles over an area in which the same authorities operate. It seems to me that there are advantages and disadvantages in either course, and I should be prepared to hear the views of any representative body which is interested in this matter before the Bill reaches its further stages.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

In Clause 12 (Application to Scotland), I read: in Section ten for Sub-section (1)there shall be substituted the following Sub-section—

  1. '(1) For the purposes of this Act the registration authority shall be the county or town council.' "
Do I take it that what we in Scotland call the small burgh council is included in that?

Mr. Peake

Yes, that is so. There is a difference between the registration authorities so far as England and Wales are concerned, and the registration authorities so far as Scotland is concerned.

Sir A. Somerville

Do I gather from what my hon. Friend has said that he would be willing to consider the possibility of leaving power to the smaller authorities and non-county boroughs?

Mr. Peake

I have said that before the Committee stage I shall be prepared to hear the views of the associations which represent those bodies. The hon. Member for Westhoughton asked what definite evidence there was for this Bill. Well, I have always been opposed to mentioning by name particular individuals or particular societies which put forward charitable appeals. I have seen it happen before in this House, and it sometimes leads one into difficulties. I must, therefore, ask the hon. Member to accept my assurance that the Government have definite evidence that there is a necessity for this Bill.

Mr. Lunn (Rothwell)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether voluntary hospitals enter into this Bill and are dealt with or not?

Mr. Peake

Voluntary hospitals, if they wish to launch an appeal within the meaning of Clause 11 of the Bill, will have to proceed in exactly the same way as other charities. The hon. Member for East Fife asked why it is that under Clause 11 there is the proviso that the expression "war charity" does not include any charity for the blind within the meaning of the Blind Persons Act of 1920. The reason for this is that by this Bill the War Charities Act of 1916 is repealed, but the Blind Persons Act of 1920 remains on the Statute Book, and charities for the blind are already strictly regulated by the Blind Persons Act of 1920, Section 3 of which provides: The War Charities Act, 1916, shall apply to charities for the blind as if it were herein re-enacted and in terms made applicable to such charities, subject, however, to the following modifications. There is a complete code of regulations for charities appealing on behalf of blind persons. These provisions are not repealed by the present Bill.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

Is my hon. Friend quite satisfied that the provisions under the Blind Persons Act are as strong as those contained in this new Bill with regard to war charities for the blind?

Mr. Peake

I think that in most respects they are as strong, and certainly in one important respect they are very much stronger, because under Section 3 (1, b) of the Blind Persons Act, 1920, there is a proviso that the registration authority may refuse to register a charity if they are satisfied that its objects are adequately attained by a charity registered under the Act. That is to say, under the Blind Persons Act, 1920, there is a definite provision against redundant appeals. That is a thing we have examined very carefully, but which, I am sorry to say, we are unable for very important reasons to incorporate in the Bill before the House.

8.14 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson (Farnworth)

Might I express my thanks to the Minister for promising to look further into the question of registration authorities? I can assure him that this matter is looked upon as one of some importance. As a member of a small local council and a large county council, I am as confident as the Commissioners that the work can be, and will be, done as well by the smaller authority as the larger body. I suggest that if duties are thrown upon a county council, it will be their job to work with the local authority. While there may be a case at other times for arguing for an extension of the authority of the county council, I suggest that this is scarcely the time to interfere with the duty of the smaller bodies. I would like to have a copy of the document from which the hon. Gentleman has read in order to fortify myself with the arguments put forward by the Royal Commission. I am rather inclined to think that Royal Commissions are confined a little too much to London and do not sufficiently carefully take into account the evidence they find elsewhere. I want to assure the Minister that it is the intention of some Members who are particularly interested in this question to put down an Amendment on the Report stage in order that they might substitute the wording to be found in the Act of 1916. If he will give it his sympathetic consideration, I am quite certain we can get unanimity on this question.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Thursday.—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]