HC Deb 21 July 1960 vol 627 cc903-9
Mr. Fletcher

I beg to move, 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. I was hoping that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) or the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) would be here to move this Amendment, but, in their absence, I feel that I must move it because it affects a considerable number of people and a body of national importance. The matter was discussed in Committee, and I think it ought to be considered here in the House.

The Solicitor-General

It seems to me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the next Amendment, in page 48, line 43, at the end to insert: (h) the British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated. raises very much the same point, and that the two might conveniently be discussed together.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that that would be convenient, if the debate is limited to these two bodies.

Mr. Fletcher

For my part, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I shall limit what I have to say to the Baptist trust corporations and the Congregational trust corporations, and I shall leave it to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) to deal with the case of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated.

The cases are similar, in that all these Noncomformist organisations desired to be placed in the same category as the Church Commissioners of the Church of England and to be completely exempted from the obligations of the Bill. It was felt that, otherwise, there would be a very invidious distinction between them. I regret that it is necessary to put on record the very unsatisfactory nature of the negotiations between these organisations and the Home Office which have been so protracted and which, apparently, have not yet produced any result, certainly not a result satisfactory to the Baptist and Congregational bodies.

I cannot do better than quote from a letter, dated 28th June, from the hon. Member for Wimbledon, who has been conducting the negotiations on behalf of the Baptist Association, to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. My right hon. Friend quoted this letter in Standing Committee. It says that a Mr. Beaumont, the senior member of a firm of solicitors, points out that the London Baptist Property Board Limited has been in existence as a trust corporation for many years on behalf of the London Baptist Association which comprises upwards of 280 Baptist churches. It really would be too bad for the Home Office now to go back on the arrangement which was apparently reached at the recent conference there. I thought you would not mind my informing you of the present position as I know your great interest in this matter, and I am sure you will take any action that may be necessary in the matter. There was also a letter dated 27th June from Mr. Beaumont, the solicitor, to the hon. Member for Wimbledon, which reads: Further to my letter of 26th April, there was a meeting at the Home Office on 27th May. A civil servant and a member of the Home Office Legal staff discussed the provisions of the Bill with Mr. Gordon Fairbairn and his son (representing the Baptist Union), my son and myself (representing London), with representatives of the Baptist Missionary Society, the Strict Baptists, the Congregationalists, and others. The discussion for the most part was on the subject of the registration of charities and was of a very helpful character. There was also some discussion about Clause"— now Clause 29— of the Bill. The civil servant gave us all quite clearly to understand that as regards Baptist, Congregationalist and other similar Churches the regulations would be drafted so as to exempt from the jurisdiction of the Charity Commissioners all trust funds and properties if held by a Trust Corporation having denominational recognition under the Baptist and Congregational Trusts Act, 1951. On that basin we felt content. Mr. Richard Fairbairn (acting on behalf of his father who is out of London on holiday) has told me today that the civil servant is now 'hedging', and that the regulations are likely to be drafted so that exemption will be accorded only to the Baptist Union Corporation Limited. Presumably this is because that Corporation is regarded as having national status. Mr. Richard Fairbairn has told the civil servant that we were all given a clear statement that exemption would extend to include all denominationally recognised Trust Corporations. At his request we have today written to the civil servant and I enclose a copy of the letter. That is all I need read, although my right hon. Friend may have something to add. I merely desire to place on record what I understand is the disquiet felt by those responsible Nonconformist organisations that they are not going to be placed in the same category as exempt charities, in which category they feel entitled to be placed.

Mr. Ede

I am speaking to the second of the Amendments which we are discussing together. The British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated is a body which has been created under Acts of Parliament, and I understand that although it is not in the same statutory position as the two bodies which were created by the Act of 1951 it has the same sort of responsibility and would discharge all the duties placed on it by the Bill if amended in the way now suggested.

The Baptists and Congregationalists have all their churches on a congregational basis, and although many Unitarian churches were in fact Presbyterian in origin, they are now mainly organised on a congregational basis. It may be very onerous, especially for some of the smaller churches connected with these denominations, to have to comply with all the requirements of the Bill. All the officers of individual churches may not have the capacity to deal with some of the subjects which may be raised with them by the Charity Commissioners and the Home Office.

These bodies—the two under the 1951 Act and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated, for which I am more particularly speaking—have been formed by the central bodies of these denominations, so as to help the individual churches in such matters as this. Generally speaking, as I understand it, they at least have the responsibility of appointing one of the trustees to the board of trustees which governs the individual charity. As I said in Committee, I am not asking that they shall be given any responsibilities which they do not undertake to discharge, and which they are not capable of discharging.

12.15 a.m.

It is greatly to be desired that this assistance should be given to the individual churches and that they should be able to approach this matter with the advice and help of the national organisation where they are willing to avail themselves of it, because many of these independent churches regard the mere handing over of such powers as they would have to do to make the two Amendments effective as a derogation from the independent attitude that they traditionally adopt of feeling that the body of believers who constitute the church are a self-contained community and that they should preserve their independence even from neighbouring churches of their own denomination.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentlemen who are facing me now and with whom I have had long association over the Bill will feel that at last there is something on which they can make a small concession. The Solicitor-General complimented my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) and said that he had been persuasive and moderate. Having said that, however, the hon. and learned Gentleman then proceeded to treat my hon. Friend's Amendment in just the same way as he treated the Amendments I had moved truculently and with no great hope that they would meet with any response on the Government benches.

The Solicitor-General

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I moved a manuscript Amendment to meet the point made by his hon. Friend. When the right hon. Gentleman calls himself truculent, we are conscious that he is showing an unexpectedly retiring disposition, and we are very sorry for it.

Mr. Ede

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for what, I have no doubt, was intended to be a compliment. It was not, however, the Amendment that my hon. Friend moved moderately and persuasively to which the hon. and learned Gentleman moved the manuscript Amendment. It was another one altogether and it originated from the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page).

I ask the representatives of the Government to realise that I frequently hear boast made of the value of the voluntary associations which most churches of the kind that come within the category of these two Amendments are. We are told that they are particularly English as a contribution to the social life of the nation. I hope that the two hon. and learned Gentlemen will be able to recognise this in the response they make to these Amendments.

Mr. Renton

The intention of these Amendments is to exempt all the charities of which these particular trust corporations are trustees, but the terms of the Amendments are ineffective to achieve that purpose. The only purpose that they would achieve would be to make the corporations themselves into exempt charities. As these corporations, in the main, are not charities at all anyway, it would be rather pointless to try to do so and, indeed, quite wrong.

The first and primary object of most of the Baptist trust corporations, for example is The promotion of the interests of the Baptist Denomination. Generally speaking, they have express power to act as trustee for any person … association … or cause connected with the Baptist Denomination. Those are not exclusively charitable objects. To list the corporations themselves as exempt charities, therefore, would not serve a sensible purpose.

Even if they were charities—and we are inclined to think that the second one, in which the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has expressed an interest, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated, may be—there would be little point in listing them in the Second Schedule, because, so far as we can discover, they have little or no property of their own. They are in the main companies limited by guarantee, held with no share capital, and a guaranteed capital which is seldom capable under their constitution of exceeding £100.

The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) tonight has done what his right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields did in Committee, which is to read out a letter complaining about the way in which part of the negotiations with the Home Office has been going, and I must do what I did in Committee, which is to give an assurance that there is no intention whatever of hedging, so far as Clause 29 is concerned—it was then Clause 28 at the time the letter was written—and to stress that we have no intention whatever of departing from the undertakings given about excepting regulations by the Lord Chancellor. I hope the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman will accept the assurance.

The letter was really mistaken even so far as Clause 29 was concerned, because if anything is holding the matter up it is this question to which I have referred in rather more elaborate terms bust which can be summed up as the difficulty of corporations which are merely acting as bare trustees. I should make quite clear what the position of these corporations is and will be. I am speaking only of the bodies referred to, the Baptist and Congregational Union corporations. They are merely corporate trustees instead of individual trustees. They will be treated in the same way as other property holding corporations set up by other denominations. We have gone over this at length in Committee, but broadly, the Government will be prepared to except from control land held by a corporation acting as custodian or managing trustee on trust for religious purposes where the proceeds of sale are applicable for the general purposes of the demonstration or whatever local religious organisation the corporation represents, and there is adequate two-tier supervision within the denomination.

We cannot except trusts of land restricted to a particular purpose, or held by the body as bare trustees with no responsibility. There is nothing to stop a corporation holding such trusts. The Government cannot do what they seem to ask for and except all property whatever which may be held by them. Moreover, these corporations differ in strength and size, and we must have a good look at them to satisfy ourselves they measure up to the conditions which have been expressed in the undertakings and find words which will express the position which I have so often tried to explain.

Amendment negatived.