HC Deb 21 July 1960 vol 627 cc877-91
Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that the next Amendment, in page 7, line 7, in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) can be discussed with his Amendment in Clause 7, page 8, line 43, after "charity" to insert: or to any charity which is excepted by order or regulations". and with his Amendment to the Second Schedule, in page 48, line 43, at the end to insert: (h) any institution which Her Majesty declares by Order in Council to be an exempt charity for the purposes of this Act.

Mr. Fletcher

I agree that it would be convenient to take the first two together, but the Amendment to the Schedule covers an entirely different point.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It was Mr. Speaker's Ruling that the first of the Amendments to page 48, line 43, was not selected and might be discussed with this Amendment.

Mr. Fletcher

It is an entirely separate point. If it falls to be considered with anything it would be with the other Amendments to page 48, line 43. With great respect, it really would not be convenient, if indeed possible, to argue the merits of the Amendment or discuss it at all with the Amendments to page 48, line 43. May I move the Amendment which you have called, and discuss the Amendment to page 8, line 43 but postpone any discussion of the Amendment to page 48, line 43?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Certainly, but the hon. Member will appreciate that the question of the selection of the Amendment to page 48, line 43, cannot alter Mr. Speaker's decision.

Mr. Fletcher

I appreciate that, but you invited me to discuss it even though it is not selected.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Fletcher

What I was suggesting was that although it was not selected it might be more convenient to discuss it when we come to the Amendments to the Second Schedule than to attempt to discuss it now.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I cannot alter the fact that Mr. Speaker has not selected it.

Mr. Fletcher

I was not challenging that, but you invited me to discuss it now.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

To discuss it now, because it has not been selected.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

What, then, is the point of discussing it? If I may help the hon. Member, for I am always anxious to help on this complex Bill, that Amendment to the Second Schedule deals with exempt charities, which is a quite separate matter, and if it is not selected there is, with great respect, little point in discussing it in connection with Clauses 6 and 7.

Mr. Fletcher

I beg to move, in page 7, line 7, at the end to insert: or to any charity which is excepted by order or regulations". I will try my best to make the point which my hon. Friends are anxious to make about this part of the Bill. It will be appreciated that Clause 7 gives the Commissioners power to call for documents and to search records.

Mr. Ede

On a point of order. Is the Amendment in my name, Clause 6, page 8, line 4, which refers to a non-county borough or urban district, not selected?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That Amendment is selected and it is suggested that it be discussed later.

Mr. Ede

That is an Amendment to Clause 6 and I thought that we were discussing an Amendment in page 7, line 7.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We are discussing the Amendment in page 7, line 7 at the moment.

Mr. Fletcher

The scope of the Bill is to give the Commissioners certain powers relating to charities other than exempt charities. The Clause gives the Commissioners general power to institute inquiries and the first of the Amendments which we are discussing deals with that point. This is a very wide power. It enables the Commissioners to institute and conduct inquiries, to call for information, to require accounts and statements to be furnished to them and to obtain evidence on oath, and so on.

Exempt charities are exempted from these inquisitorial provisions. There is a considerable difference within the framework of the Bill between an exempt charity, which is a charity exempt from registration at all, and what are called excepted charities. Excepted charities are those which will subsequently be excepted by regulations yet to be made. We are in the difficulty that we do not know to what charitable bodies orders will be made describing them as excepted charities. We understand that negotiations have been taking place with a wide number of charitable institutions but with what result we do not yet know.

It is clear that these excepted charities will not be exempt from the jurisdiction of the Commissioners in respect of Clauses 6 and 7. It was thought that this difficulty might be overcome if power were taken in the Bill to extend exempt charities which are set out in the Second Schedule by giving power by order or regulation to declare various other bodies as exempted charities, and that was the object of the Amendment in page 48.

This is a matter which has caused considerable concern among religious institutions. The Church Commissioners of the Church of England and institutions administered by them are entirely exempted from the operation of the Bill. They are placed in a category by themselves, together with certain other institutions such as universities, university colleges and the British Museum. There are a large number of other religious institutions, charitable trusts, administered by the Free Churches, by the Baptist Union, by the central body which regulates the affairs of the Congregational denomination, by Roman Catholic organisations and by the central bodies of a large number of other religious denominations; and during the progress of the Bill through Committee we all thought that they should be put in the same category as the Church Commissioners of the Church of England.

The object of this Amendment and the Amendment to Clause 7 is to secure that the relief from liability to the inquisitorial powers of the Charity Commissioners should be extended to those other bodies which we understand will, when the negotiations which are now taking place are completed, be declared as excepted charities under Clause 4.

Mr. Ede

I shall confine myself strictly to the Amendment to page 7, line 7. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) has said, this is a matter which gives very great concern to the Nonconformist denominations, mainly those which have a form of church government which is generally called "Congregational"; that is to say, each cause claims the right to be an independent organisation and owes little or no allegiance with regard to church government to any body outside itself. I do not think they quite come into the category alluded to by the hon. and learned Gentleman in Committee of those who accepted responsibility only to God and themselves. They have a working arrangement generally with some other church of the same denomination, sometimes in a county and sometimes in a rather wider district—throughout the whole of England and Wales in the case of my own denomination.

The hon. and learned Gentleman told us in Committee that a number of these excepting Orders would be made. He gave us a long and illuminating list of the various denominations—it is in col. 120 of the OFFICIAL REPORT—known to the Home Office through their having registered places of worship. I do not intend to say more about that list now except that I have it in mind in the remarks that I hope to offer to the House at this stage.

10.45 p.m.

I understand that in future there will be three groups of religious churches at least within the knowledge of the Home Office and the Church Commissioners in the admission of this Bill. There will be the exempt religious bodies and in that, as I understand it, the only one will be the Church of England in so far as the Church Commissioners have charge of the charity institutions which will be under consideration at any time. Then there will be excepted churches, and, as I understand it, there will be a number of separate regulations dealing with the separate groups of these. I do not know how many the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks there will be, but from the way the matter was discussed during the Committee stage it appeared that there would be several hundreds of these exempt regulations and orders.

Finally, there will be a number of small, independent causes. I am not saying this in any effort to be facetious, but during the Committee stage discussion the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Hemsworth Village Mission unsectarian, the Inghamites the Mennonites, a very distinguished nonConformist denomination with powerful connections in Holland and the United States of America and the Mispah Band. Then the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned a number of others of the same sort, where I understand there will be no exemptions and regulations dealing with this in an Act of a general nature.

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman tell us exactly what the exception is to be. Will the exception for one denomination differ from the exception granted to another denomination? I understand that we shall not be able to discuss the question of the Baptist and Congregational Unions. That is included in the Amendment which we have down to the Second Schedule, in page 48, line 43, at the end to insert: (h) Baptist trust corporations and Congregational trust corporations within the meaning of the Baptist and Congregational Trusts Act, 1951. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, prolonged negotiations have been going on with regard to this matter between the Churches Main Committee and the officials of his Department. One of the regrets which I have had to express more than once is that we have never been able to reach Ministerial level in these discussions. The hon. and learned Gentleman read a letter which he had received from the secretary of the Churches Main Committee. I have in my hand a letter from the solicitors to the Baptist Union saying that they do not regard themselves as being able to accept some of the things put in that letter and they have the authority of Sir Griffin Williams, the secretary of the Churches Main Committee, to say that. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to realise that this is a matter of grave concern to the churches. They would like to know when they are likely to see the regulations which will be made in respect of them, how far they will be consulted about them and how far it will be possible to group such district organisations as they have. I use the word "district" as being a colourless word when compared with "county" or "national", because the areas will vary from denomination to denomination.

By their very nature they are denominations which resent the interference of the State. That is why 'they exist. If the Act of Uniformity of 1662 had succeeded, there would be no need to consider this matter, but that Act did not succeed and from 1689 onwards the State has recognised the rights of people to associate 'themselves for religious purposes, according to their wishes in their own organisations outside the national church.

These people now find themselves involved in the Bill and they are exceedingly anxious to know exactly what they may expect when the Bill comes into force. So far, we have not received any details on those lines from a Minister in either House and we are now approaching the very last stages of the discussions in this, the second House.

I am sorry to have had to delay proceedings for so long, but the hon. and learned Gentleman will not be surprised by the line I have taken, because it has been consistent throughout the whole of the proceedings on the Bill in this House. I urge him to tell us exactly what exception means and how many excepting orders he expects to make—I will not bind him to 100 or 200. If he can, it will be very helpful and it will re-assure people with whom I have been in constant 'touch throughout the proceedings on the Bill.

Mr. Renton

I certainly accept that the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has been consistent in his attitude throughout the progress of the Bill towards the way in which the Bill and the Government propose that religious bodies should be treated. I hope that he will not think it disrespectful of me if I say that he has been not only consistent but persistent. The Amendments which we are now considering are yet another attempt on the part of the right hon. Gentleman to get us to depart from the policy which was declared in the House of Lords by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on Second Reading, and which I attempted to explain, to elaborate and elucidate throughout the Committee stage—and even on Friday, at an earlier part of this Report stage when we were discussing registration under Clause 4—when I made very long speeches, which I shall not now repeat.

I will endeavour to answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions, however, so far as it is in order for me to do so on these Amendments. The Amendments to Clauses 6 and 7—I do not know whether the Amendment to Clause 8 has been selected—are yet another attempt to get religious charities removed from the jurisdiction of the Charity Commissioners, in spite of the fact that the Charity Commissioners have had a jurisdiction as important as that of the courts over religious charities for more than 100 years, as they have had with other charities.

The excepting regulations under the Bill are intended to apply to those matters as to which, under the Bill, the charity trustees are expected to take the initiative, for example as to the duty to register, the duty to submit accounts and the duty to obtain approval for some transactions. It is our desire that charity trustees should, where appropriate and in the circumstances which have been explained in great detail, be relieved of the administrative trouble of taking action in respect of those matters.

Excepting regulations, however, are not intended to relieve religious charities or the great national charities or any other charities of the traditional and well-established jurisdiction of the Commissioners or the courts. In particular, we think that it is important that the powers of inquiry contained in Clause 6, the ancillary power to call for documents in Clause 7 and the power to call for accounts in Clause 8 should continue to apply to all charities other than exempt charities.

I hope that it is in order for me to refer in passing to the point which the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) made when he drew a contrast between the way in which the Church Commissioners are treated by the Bill as exempt charities and the way in which other religious charities are being treated. He well knows, because it has been stressed, that Parliament has already made ample provision for the supervising of the work of the Church Commissioners, even to the extent that they have to lay their report and accounts before Parliament—and there is no other religious charity which the right hon. Gentleman can think of, except the representative body of the Welsh Disestablished Church, which comes into anything like the same category as the Church Commissioners. The representative body of the Welsh Disestablished Church is in the same position under the Second Schedule as are the Church Commissioners.

This argument based on what is to happen to the Church Commissioners is, with respect, not a valid argument, because what we should be doing if we exempted all these other religious charities from the ordinary powers of inquiry of the Commissioners, which they have had for over a hundred years, would be to remove the safeguard which the jurisdiction of the Commissioners and the courts gives in respect of those religious charities; and we should not be replacing it with anything like the safeguards controlling the Church Commissioners today. The right hon. Gentleman said that it seems that there will be three groups of religious charities and, broadly speaking, he is right—exempted charities; excepted charities, which will be the subject, as he rightly says, of separate regulations; and the small independent sects, as he called them, who will have no exemption and no exception. It is not quite true to say that none of the small independent sects will have any opportunity of obtaining the benefit of excepting regulations, because, as I pointed out in Committee, although we have so far dealt with the Churches' Main Committee and the great national charities, there is nothing to prevent the representatives of any other denomination from coming to us on the subject.

As I said in Committee, we will greet them with open minds though not necessarily with open arms, because there are so very many of them, and it is unlikely that many of them will be able to show what the larger denominations can show —that is, some kind of two-tier organisation which will adequately look after, for example, the question of accounts, or supply information of the kind which the register would normally contain. Nevertheless, in principle, there is nothing to prevent the representatives of any denomination making their case to us, and we will consider it sympathetically.

11.0 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the exceptions for one denomination differed from the exceptions for others, and the answer must be that, as I have often had cause to remind hon. Members, the organisations of our religious life in this country, as the right hon. Gentleman himself has been at pains to stress, are of great variety and differ enormously; and for that reason the regulations will have to differ, too. As I have said, they will be tailor-made to meet the needs of, and to help, the denomination concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman complained that no Minister ever saw the demominations. All I can say is that the Churches Main Committee and the other denominations have never demanded to see my right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary, or myself. I would willingly have seen them, and I am sure my right hon. Friend would have done so had any approach been made to either of us. But it is a fact that the Right Reverend Bishop of Chelmsford did approach my noble and learned Friend, the Lord Chancellor, in another place and put the view personally as well as on the floor of the House on behalf of the Churches Main Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman asked when the denominations are likely to see the regulations. Obviously, it is impossible to give specific dates for specific denominations, and obviously nothing can be done by way of making final decisions about the regulations until this Bill has received the Royal Assent. When it has received the Royal Assent the preliminary work which has already gone far forward in finding out about the denominations, with their help, will be pressed on with, and then draft regulations will be made. That enables me to answer the next point raised by the right hon. Gentleman as to how far the denominations will be consulted. My answer is that they will be consulted fully I hope that that will assure the right hon. Gentleman that any fears he may have lest there is any ignoring of the wishes of the denominations are fears that will prove to be unfounded. We are most anxious that these excepting regulations should meet the needs of the denominations so far as is legally and physically possible.

I do not think that in answer to this Amendment it is necessary to labour the technical points which arise. It has never been suggested in the past that the powers of inquiry in Clause 6 have been oppressively used. They are not intrinsically harsh powers and there is no reason to believe that they would be oppressively used in future. They are the necessary machinery whereby the Commissioners discover the existence and watch over the due execution of charitable trusts so that if necessary, and in the last resort, the intervention of the court can be invoked. It is certainly not our intention that there should be any exceptions from such powers except in regard to exempt charities as to which Parliament has made other arrangements.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 8, line 4, to leave out from "borough" to "and" in line 5 and to insert: non-county borough (not being a borough included in a rural district), or urban district having passed a resolution as provided in subsection (6) of section ten of this Act We now manage to get away from these abstruse points of Chancery law, and we get back to the more familiar ground—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. I think it might be convenient to the House if we were to discuss with this Amendment the other Amendment in the name of the right hon. Gentleman, in Clause 10, page 11, line 6, to leave out from "In" in line 6 to "the" in line 7.

Mr. Ede

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I think that would be very convenient.

This is the first mention in a Bill before Parliament since the passing of the Local Government Act, 1958, of the borough included in a rural district. In the reorganisation of local government which has taken place under that Act, it has been provided that a borough, which is understood will be a small borough in population, although some may be very big in area, may be included in a rural district and will after that time exercise the powers and duties usually associated in law with a parish council. It retains the position of being a borough if it has a mace and a chain for the mayor, and possibly a chain for the mayoress, and the mayor usually robes himself. That paraphernalia may be continued. In fact, a good many places not boroughs, some urban districts, robe the mayor and provide him with a chain of office. After I ceased to be chairman of the Surrey County Council a chain for the chairman of the county council was provided, but I was never adorned with it myself.

Mr. Graham Page

They could never chain the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ede

No, I thought it would be more appropriate to chain the county or borough treasurer. It was understood when the Bill was being discussed in Standing Committee that no very exceptional powers would be given to these boroughs included in a rural district.

These Amendments to which I am speaking are directed to preventing the powers proposed to be given to non-county boroughs being retained when they become rural boroughs in a rural district, for at the moment the exercise of powers under the Local Government Act, 1958, has not gone so far as to create a single one of these boroughs.

Section 28 of the 1958 Act places a duty upon county councils to review the circumstances of the county districts within the county and to make such proposals as are … in the interests of effective and convenient local government. These powers include the change of status of a non-county borough to a rural borough of the nature that I have described.

Paragraph 52 of the White Paper, Areas and Status of Local Authorities in England and Wales, issued in July, 1956, states: The Government agree with the associations' representatives that a county council should be free to recommend changes in the boundaries and status of any of its county districts, including non-county boroughs. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that these boroughs, by virtue of their Charters, history and traditions, are in a special position. The Government, therefore, consider that every effort should be made to preserve so far as possible their identity and dignities". Paragraph 53 of the White Paper deals with the status of a non-county borough after a decision has been arrived at that it should be amalgamated with another area. It reads: Where a non-county borough is amalgamated with another predominantly urban area, there is not normally any reason why the whole of the combined area should not have the status of a borough. But where the result of the amalgamation would be a predominantly rural area, the title to be accorded to the new unit and the retention of traditional dignities by any borough or boroughs included in it will need special consideration. Where it is decided not to accord the title, privileges and dignities of a borough to a predominantly rural area embracing an existing borough, provision should, wherever possible, be made for the identity and perhaps certain of the dignities of the borough to be preserved within the new unit". When a non-county borough becomes under the reorganisation of county districts a rural borough within a rural district, it will cease to have the powers conferred upon non-county boroughs as such and, prima facie, there would be no occasion to seek to ensure that a rural borough can exercise powers conferred on boroughs by the Bill unless it can be brought within the expression "dignities of the borough". The inclusion within the Bill of a special provision entitling a rural borough to exercise functions as opposed to the retaining of dignities does, perhaps, raise a question of principle, for it would be folly, having provided for the reorganisation of county districts on the basis of effective and convenient local government to provide, even before the reorganisation has begun, for the retention by rural boroughs of functions belonging as a class to non-county boroughs, which will remain as such and will exercise in future all the powers of a non-county borough.

I have been told that some of these boroughs which will be included in rural districts in future may have a considerable number of charities. I cannot think that they are likely to be very valuable charities, if they are very numerous; but I should have thought that it would be better—this is the first opportunity we have had of discussing the matter—that some pronouncement on the matter should be made to us by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, whose invention these rural boroughs are.

Certainly, when I took part in the discussions in Committee on the Local Government Bill before it became an Act, I heard nothing said which indicated that this kind of power would be exercised by a body which, generally speaking, will exercise only the powers aid perform the duties of a parish council. In the words of the Bill, in respect of charities we are giving them a higher status than the county district council; to which they will send members, and of whose areas the rural non-county boroughs will form part. It seems to me that we shall be creating an anomaly, and that we may very well also be creating a position that will seriously weaken the effect of the Local Government Act, 1958, when it is applied to these districts.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Renton

The right hon. Gentleman has done a useful service in putting down his Amendments, because it gives me the opportunity of explaining why it is that any rural borough—as I may call it—which may come into existence in the future should have the powers which it is likely to have under the Bill when it becomes law and which, but for words of this kind being in the Bill—words which the right hon. Gentleman wished to be removed—would have those powers taken away from it on ceasing to be an ordinary municipal borough.

The first power is that contained in Clause 6—an ancient power which they have had since the Charity Inquiries (Expenses) Act—to contribute to the expenses of the Commissioners in connect on with inquiries into the local charities in their areas. It has not been used to a wide extent, but there have been cases where it has been found very useful. The other powers affected by the right hon. Gentleman's Amendments are the power under Clause 10, whereby a local authority may maintain an index of local charities, and the power under Clause 11, whereby there may be a review of local charities by a local authority as a prelude to voluntary cooperation—and I stress that it is voluntary co-operation; local authorities have no mandatory powers of supervision— between local authorities and charity trustees in relation to local trusts.

We feel that it is right that boroughs within a rural district should retain these powers. There are cases in which small, ancient boroughs, with quite small populations—perhaps no more than 5,000—have as many as 50 local charities. Even now, before their status has been changed, some of these local boroughs find that one of their principal remaining functions is work in connection with these local charities, of which, sometimes, they are made trustees. As these boroughs are to be preserved, albeit with greatly curtailed powers, we think it right that this one remaining power, which is an effective one, should continue to be used.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, these rural boroughs should be allowed to keep their golden chains, but I hope that after what I have said the right hon. Gentleman will not still think that they should have paper muzzles in respect of the powers which we are now discussing. We feel that there is ample justification for their retaining these powers, and I hope that with that explanation the right hon. Gentleman will feel willing to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Ede

I was hoping that the hon. and learned Gentleman would be able to say something about the point I raised concerning consultations with the Minister of Housing and Local Government, because it properly falls within his sphere and might well have been included in the Local Government Act had it occurred to anybody at the time. Was there any consultation and co-operation?

Mr. Renton

Yes, indeed. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance—I am sorry I did not do so just now—that there has been consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government about this matter. There was also consultation over the Amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston), which the right hon. Gentleman supported. Those Amendments are relevant to the present Amendment, because although I have not taken the point, the agreement which we came to concerning those Amendments would be disturbed by the Amendments now proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, although I do not think he intended that. That would be a technical effect.

Mr. Ede

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the explanation which he has given, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.