HC Deb 02 February 1961 vol 633 cc1306-13

9.15 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

1 beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Charities (Exception of Voluntary Schools from Registration) Regulations, 1960 S.I., 1960, No. 2366), dated 15th December, 1960, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd December, be annulled.

This is not one of the cases in which a Prayer is likely to lead to a Division of the House or, indeed, to be pushed to a desperate conclusion, but we on this side of the House are anxious to find out a little more about this comparatively short Statutory Instrument.

Section 4 of the Charities Act, 1960, provided for a Register of Charities in which certain particulars of charities were to be entered, and charities were to be placed on the Register subject to certain exceptions, one of which was a charity excepted by Order or Regulations.

The Regulation we are now considering is such a Regulation, and the charities it excepts are: All voluntary schools, within the meaning of the Education Acts, 1944 to 1959, being charities and having no permanent endowment other than the premises of, or connected with. the school. Before the Charities Act was passed the matter of charities had been considered by Committees, and in August, 1959, a Committee reported on another matter, namely, the Rating of Charities with reference to the Charity Register which I have just mentioned. It said: If compulsory registration were extended to include all charities in rateable occupation of land, it could be made applicable for rating purposes, and we recommend that this extension should be made. Registration would meet the need for a cheap and expeditious test. This matter fell within the purview of the Pritchard Committee, as it was, because it was proposing that certain benefits in connection with rating should be given to charities. I need not go into the details of those benefits now, but they were quite definite, quite substantial, and of considerable importance.

What the Committee foresaw has come about. It said: The compilation of the Register may take some time … I think that the Committee was contemplating a single Register, which would include all charities. It is true to say that, shortly before the passage which I have mentioned, the Committee referred to a White Paper on Government Policy on Charitable Trusts in England and Wales. The Report says: The Government"— this was in August, 1959— have announced their intention of requiring certain classes of charitable trust to register with the Charity Commissioners or the Ministry of Education. It was after that that it went on to the passage that I have just read. The effect of excepting these charities from registration will be that they will certainly not be on the Register of Charities, wherever else they may be found.

Voluntary schools have hitherto been exempted from rates under an exemption which it is now intended to repeal. Voluntary schools are those schools not provided by the education authority in the first place but maintained by it, and I trust that the hon. Member will be able to reassure me on one point in this connection.

I notice that the Regulations are so worded that only those voluntary schools which are charities are exempted from registration, and I find it difficult to see how a school which has been provided in some way or another, and which is at any rate maintained by the local education authority can be anything but a charity. No doubt the hon. Member will tell us that it is of some practical importance in connection with the matters that I have just been talking about.

That very nearly covers all I have to say. I would merely remark that the other qualification for exemption under the Regulations is that they should be voluntary schools which have no permanent endowment other than their premises. If one treats the premises as a voluntary endowment one understands the type of school which might be excluded from the Regulations, in that it had substantial endowments—possibly being a very old voluntary school—and for that reason was thought to be bound to register in the general register and, therefore, not to be entitled to exemption under the Regulations, but I am a little puzzled as to the reason for this classification, and I hope that the hon. Member will be able to help the House in this respect.

What we now have are, first, voluntary schools which, if anything, are not charities and, therefore, as to which no question of registration arises, and, secondly, voluntary schools which are charities, of which there are two classes—those which have no endowment other than their premises, which need not register, and those which have some endowment, however small, other than their premises, which need to register.

I should have thought that there were some very considerable practical inconveniences in this matter. A school which, hitherto, had had no permanent endowment, might be left by some benefactor with a sum of £100 one day, and it might find that it was compelled to register. On the other hand, having in some way or another spent or lost its endowment—and I can conceive of such a case—or perhaps having sold the land other than the premises and applied it to some further sanction by the proper authorities, a school might find that the opposite was the case, namely, that having hitherto had to register it was no longer obliged to do so.

In the exercise of its duties I suppose that the Ministry of Education will keep lists of all these schools, or, at any rate, will be in a position to collect them easily from local education authorities. It would help me to consider the merits of the Regulations if I could be given some idea of the size of the three classes of voluntary schools that I have indicated, and the reason for this somewhat curious provision which treats in a different way places which have no permanent endowment other than their premises.

I should like to know whether the word "premises" is a perfectly clear term in this case. Does it simply mean the school buildings, or does it include such things as the headmaster's house, or playing fields round the school, or at a short distance from it? Those are the questions I desire to put.

May I assure the hon. Gentleman of what I am sure he knows already, that whatever rates are to be paid by these bodies—the questions are closely connected with rates—will be paid by the local education authorities and not by the denominations concerned; so that here there is no question of bad treatment of any of the denominational bodies to whom so many of these schools owe their existence.

9.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I am very glad that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has taken the opportunity to raise this matter, since it will be for the convenience and better understanding of the Regulations if I say a few words about it.

First, the Regulations themselves arise under the provisions of the Charities Act, which was passed by the House last Session. It requires that all charities shall register either with the Charity Commissioners, or with my right hon. Friend and the Ministry of Education.

In Section 2 of that Act the hon. and learned Gentleman will see that provision is made for a division of this process of registering between these two authorities and my right hon. Friend is empowered by that Section to deal with all the charities which have connection with his work as the Education Minister. So that, by an agreed division of these duties, as was intimated during the passage of the Act, my right hon. Friend is now engaged in what falls to be his share of this process of registering and looking after educational charitable trusts.

There is, of course, a long history of the Ministry's connection with educational charities and in that time a very great deal of detailed information has been acquired within the Department about, so far as we know, all the educational charitable trusts. This information is now in process of being set out in a form which will be even more convenient than it is already.

I should like to assure the hon. and learned Gentleman on one point which he mentioned, that all information relating to the charitable trusts referred to within these Regulations is available within the Ministry of Education and is known to be there. All those concerned with the field of education have long made a regular practice of dealing with their trusts relating to educational purposes through the Ministry of Education; and so, it being a very sound principle, I think, of democratic government that the demands of the Statute should not offend the convenience of the citizen, we propose that that shall continue, and that the, Ministry of Education shall continue to take care of all the detailed information relating to educational charitable trusts.

Mr. Mitchison

Can the hon. Gentleman reassure me on one point? The Pritchard Committee to whose Report I referred was considering the Register from the point of view of rating authorities. Outside London and outside the county boroughs, rating authorities are not the same as local education authorities. Are the rating authorities equally aware of this?

Mr. Thompson

In a few moments I shall deal with the points the hon. and learned Member raised about rating and how they may be affected under legislation making progress through the House. All this information is there. It is known to be there and it is common practice in the world of education and among education authorities for the Department to be consulted if questions arise concerning voluntary schools.

I now come to the schools themselves. As the hon. and learned Member suggested, they fall into three categories. Being voluntary schools, some of them are not charities, That is to say, they are run by private organisations for purposes of their own and in their own way. They have an existence outside the ordinary stream of schools within the State and voluntary system. They are, nevertheless, run by voluntary organisations. They make no demands on the public purse.

Mr. Mitchison

That means that they are running for other than voluntary purposes.

Mr. Thompson

But they are voluntary schools. I am talking about a group of 10,000 voluntary schools. Some are not charities, but are run for purposes other than charities. There are roughly 400 of them. Then there are some with premises in addition to the actual premises of the school. There are 3,000 or 4,000 such schools. They have other sources of revenue from trusts and benefices of one kind and another. Then there is the remainder of about 7,000 which are voluntary schools which have no resources other than those described in paragraph 2 of the Regulation before the House, which says that they have no permanent endowment other than the premises". that is to say, connected with the headmasters' house or the playground of the school.

The 7,000 or thereabouts are voluntary schools which are charities in themselves which will be excepted from registration if the House allows this Statutory Instrument to pass this evening. The effect will be that the information relating to these schools will still be available to us in the Ministry and available to those who have reason to consult it, or want to apprise themselves of what either the charitable trust or the school itself may be doing at any time.

To that extent there is no prejudice or hardship inflicted on the schools excepted under these Regulations. What will happen, however, is that the schools will not be embraced by the definition which the hon. and learned Member referred to when he read the passage from the Pritchard Committee's Report, which says there would be a simple and easy definition of an authority if it were once registered on the register for charities. Therefore, any of the benefits attaching to a charity either by this legislation or any other, such as relief from rates, could automatically be assigned to a charity or voluntary school if it were on the register.

In the case that the hon. and learned Member brought to the attention of the House, there seems no danger of any prejudice even if these excepted schools were not recognised in other ways as being charities. If the legislation now going through one of the Standing Committees were to be passed in the form in which I now see it before that Committee, the voluntary schools would be subject to a rating of 50 per cent. of the standard rateable basis.

Mr. Mitchison

If they are charities.

Mr. Thompson

If they are charities, but the voluntary schools, as the hon. and learned Member has reminded the House, do not themselves pay the rates. The rates are paid by the local authority and, therefore, there is no prejudice to the charity or to the voluntary school if it is within or without the definition of the Pritchard Committee to which he referred. It seems to everyone's advantage that the 7,000 schools, about which all the information is already known and recorded, should be excepted from the requirement to go through the process of registration once more since they have everything to gain by being excepted and nothing to lose. I very much hope the hon. and learned Member will feel that it would be to the advantage of all concerned if these Regulations were now to receive the approval of the House.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

This is, as the hon. Gentleman said, and as I hope I made clear, a question between groups of local authorities—local education authorities, on the one hand, and rating authorities, on the other. As between those two groups, it makes a difference. There are also some small questions of grant connected with it, with which it would not be appropriate, or indeed in order, to trouble the House.

Therefore, there was some reason for the questions I asked and for ascertaining the position of these schools as closely as I could. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for explaining the matter so clearly and for coming here, as he is bound to do, to answer what I think he knew was a probing Motion.

I had only one very short point. What has happened is that the schools have been exempted from registration, even registration with the Ministry, because the Ministry decides that it has all the information already and does not need to ask it again. I see the force of that, but I trust that the Department will consider taking some steps, perhaps in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, to see that its possession of the information is known to rating authorities and that the information is readily and quickly made available to the Central Valuation Office, in the first place. and then to the rating authorities which may be concerned to use it.

Having said that and repeating my thanks to the Parliamentary Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.