HC Deb 15 July 1966 vol 731 cc1928-38

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Reynolds

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 13, line 43, to leave out "is made to come" and to insert "comes".

It might be for the convenience of the House if at the same time we deal with Amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18 to the same Clause and with Nos. 22, 23, 24 and 25 to Clause 19, which produce similar provisions affecting charities in Scotland.

Mr. Speaker

Apparently right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition have no objection. So be it.

Mr. Reynolds

This again was a matter which NA, as discussed at length in Committee, and it is because of that discussion and the undertakings which I gave to look at the matter that we bring forward these Amendments. They meet the points which were made in Committee, where a number of hon. Members expressed concern that the period of three months referred to in the Clause was not a sufficient period of time.

The purpose of this group of Amendments is to increase the period during which the Charity Commissioners and the Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland may make an order setting aside the time provided whereby charitable property held for the benefit of a disbanded unit is to be held for the benefit of its successor unit.

At present, in the Bill, this is for a period o' three months from the date of the Royal Warrant coming into operation specifying the successor unit. The Amendment provides that the period shall be from the time the Royal Warrant is made, which we anticipate will be towards the end of this year—probably in December—up to a period of six months after it has come into force. That is a considerable extension of the original period of three months and an extension beyond that for which the Opposition asked in Committee, which would have been just the six months period following the Royal Warrant coming into operation. We have agreed to take it back to the date from when the Warrant is made to six months after it comes into operation. As I say, in all probability, the warrant will be made by December of this year.

As a result of the Committee's decision and further discussions which have taken place, this covers the point which the Opposition made, and I am assured by the Charity Commissioners and by the Scottish Law Officers that it gives ample time from their point of view for dealing with these matters.

Mr. Powell

This series of Amendments, like the one which the House will be considering next, undoubtedly represents an improvement of the procedure under Clauses 18 and 19 of the Bill. It extends the period of time for the work, much of which will be arduous and complicated, and the considerations and discussions which will be necessary on the part of trustees and those interested as well as the Charity Commissioners. In connection with the next series of Amendments, it also conveniently divides into two sections the whole period which is available for the procedures so that those who might have objections to urge will have a better opportunity of knowing whether those objections are forestalled by the action of the Charity Commissioners in England or the Secretary of State in Scotland.

It is a happy outcome of a good deal of complicated work which, with the fitful assistance of the right hon. and learned Attorney-General, we did in Committee that these improvements have been made.

I should be grateful if the Minister would convey to his Under-Secretary of State that Amendments which are brought forward by the Government at Report stage are not made as an act of grace to the Opposition. They are not a kind of favour or Atalanta's apple which is tossed across the table in order to keep off pursuit.

There is only one justification for Amendments being put forward by the Government, and I am sure that it is the justification here. It is that they regard them as improving the Bill. Whoever first thought of it, and however long it took to bring that fact home to them, that is the reason. They are doing their proper work, on justifiable grounds, presumably, and it is not good enough for the Under-Secretary to say, "You ought not to have any complaints. Look at all the concessions which we are making to you". The hon. Gentleman will find that that is not an attitude which will see him very far.

I would take the opportunity afforded by these Amendments to make one other point, and I am sure that the Minister would agree that it should be on the record in relation to the proceedings of the Charity Commissioners under the Clause. There will be a larger number of interests of the new units which the old funds should be able to meet. I know, and the Minister will know, that many anxieties are felt about the use of these funds and about the purposes for which they will be required in the course of the transition from the existing to the new form of the Territorial Army.

The Minister will probably think it right that I should place on record this morning his view, which he has been good enough to convey to me by letter, that in the matter of the war memorials of the existing units it should normally be possible to make provision for any fit disposal of those memorials, where they can no longer stand in existing premises, by the use of the funds which will be transferred or for which schemes will be made under Clauses 18 and 19.

Nevertheless, the Minister has been good enough to convey to me and will be conveying to the associations concerned—and I think it right that this should be on record in this House—that where, exceptionally, that should not be found possible, the Government have not closed their minds to the possibility of public funds being used for that purpose. That is a matter which will fall to be considered under the charity provisions of these two Clauses. I hope that I have not strayed too far from the rules of order in alluding to it.

Mr. Reynolds

I confirm what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I do not have the letter before me, but if I recollect aright the right hon. Gentleman's para-

"of six months beginning with the date on which the warrant comes into force, apply to the court for an order providing that subsection (1) of this section shall cease to apply to the property or part; and for the purposes of the said subsection (5), in its application to proceedings under this subsection, an application for an order of the Charity Commissioners authorising such proceedings shall be deemed to be refused if it is not granted during the period of one month beginning with the day on which the application is received by the Commissioners."
Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment we can discuss the Amendment to it, in line 6, leave out from "proceedings" to end of line 8 and insert: if it is not granted during the period of one month beginning with the day on which the application is received by the Commissioners, phrasing seems to be what I said to him. As to conveying messages to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend particularly referred to the Amendments to Clause 1, which we have dealt with. The only justifiable ground for them was that they seemed to suit the Opposition.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

As the person who moved in Committee the Amendment which we are now discussing, may I say that I am glad, but not grateful to the Under-Secretary, that the Government have now seen the matter our way. I believe that as a consequence the Bill will be better than it was previously.

Having said that, I hope that the Minister will not think me a little churlish in not being entirely satisfied even now. I believe that even the extra time allotted after the six months is not long enough for a complicated case concerning a charity. Perhaps even six days would be long enough for a routine case. Nevertheless, I believe that an improvement has been effected and I should like to say so.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: No. 16, in page 14, line 6, leave out "of three months".

No. 17, in line 8, leave out "to come" and insert: and ending with the expiration of six months beginning with the date on which the warrant comes ".

No. 18, in line 9, after "shall", insert "not apply or shall".—[Mr. Reynolds.]

Mr. Reynolds

I beg to move Amendment No. 19, in page 14, line 20, to leave out from the beginning to the end of line 21 and to insert:

shall be deemed to be granted unless the Charity Commissioners, by notice given to the applicants before the expiration of the said month, declare the application suspended for a period of three months"

Mr. Reynolds

The purpose of Amendment No. 19 is to enable charities to apply to the court for an order against the automatic succession of property provided for in subsection (1) of the Clause during a period of six months from the date when the Royal Warrant comes into force instead of a period of three months. It provides that if no reply is received within one month from the Charity Commissioners to an application for leave to go to the court, the Charity Commissioners shall be deemed to have refused it, thus allowing the matter to go to a judge.

Amendment No. 21—in page 15, line 16, at end insert: and the words from and for the purposes' onwards were omitted "— is a similar but not quite the same provision affecting Northern Ireland.

Sir Richard Glyn

This is a complicated point concerning a limited number of cases. Perhaps 95 per cent. of the cases which ensue will be covered by the Royal Warrant under Clause 18 and the trustees, after careful consideration, will accept the recommendation or direction, if we call it that, in the Royal Warrant and will see no reason to make application or take any other steps.

I hope that in this regard the Royal Warrant may be published fairly early so that the trustees will have time to consider its decisions and directions well before the appointed day. This would obviously be a tremendous help to them because they are limited by the six-month limitation of time. It remains to be seen even now whether that will be sufficient.

There will be cases—they are complicated—where trustees are not convinced that the Royal Warrant has arrived at a completely satisfactory solution. I understand that in these cases the trustees will have to apply to the Charity Commissioners and make an application to them which, in effect, is an application for leave to go to the Chancery Division where the case will be heard.

Where the Charity Commissioners are able to make themselves 100 per cent. certain as to the merits or otherwise of the case, they will give an answer and we hope that the application would in many cases be granted. The Charity Commissioners are, however, difficult men to con- vince. They have a very high level of responsibility and, quite rightly, they do not give a decision on any point on which they are not completely satisfied.

It is felt by many people that the Charity Commissioners may in many cases not be able to give a decision at an early stage, or, perhaps, for several months. I apprehend that that is why, according to the Minister's Amendment, if the Charity Commissioners have not given a decision on an application within a month it shall be deemed to have been refused. This would enable the trustees to proceed to a High Court judge and to ask from him permission to lay their case in the Court of Chancery.

For reasons which I cannot assess, there is a certain reluctance among Members of Parliament, not least among those who practise in the law, to force citizens to have to go to court if there is any possible means of preventing the need for them to do so. I accept that in ordinary circumstances it would be necessary for a citizen to go to a High Court judge before going to Chancery unless he had the fiat of the Chancery Commissioners.

The position in this case, however, is not quite the ordinary one. I do not wish to take up time by going into all the details, but the present position is a direct result of the decision of the previous Government, which created the circumstances in which these complicated trusts had to be made, and the new position is entirely due to the present Government, who are revising the position of units and, therefore, of the trustees concerned.

I urge the Government to consider whether, in these circumstances, trustees—who, I think it was specified initially, must be the honorary colonel and the commanding officer of units, together with two others; these people were more or less drafted as trustees—should not be given every possible help in getting the matter straightened out with the least possible expenditure of time and money. 1.0 p.m.

I appreciate that the Amendment now moved by the Minister is intended to be helpful—curiously enough—in that it says that if an application has not been granted within a month it must be deemed to be refused. This. I apprehend, is because it would be extremely difficult for trustees to go to a High Court judge while the matter was still sub judice before the Charity Commissioners, because I think a High Court judge would resist any such application made to him in those circumstances, but the trustees are, of course, pinched for time by the six months' limit which the Minister is now setting, the Minister having created a difficulty in which these trustees are placed for reasons which may seem right to the Minister to impose, though I have myself doubts whether this is the case, and which will mean very great administrative difficulties in time to come.

I think it may even be that the Government should look again at the period of six months for this purpose, when we have this position, on the Amendment moved by the Minister, that if the Charity Commissioners have not made themselves 100 per cent. certain within a month, with their high level of responsibility, that they feel able to agree to an application—some of us think it is going to be the case that they will not be able to do so—the application will automatically fail, and the trustees will have to take the trouble and expense of going to a High Court judge.

I would suggest that the alternative way of doing this is to say that where the Charity Commissioners have not given a positive ruling, instead of its being assumed that the application has failed, it should be assumed that the application has succeeded.

One realises that there will be borderline cases; one realises there will be cases where perhaps the application should not automatically be allowed to go through and that the Charity Commissioners, therefore, should have a power to impose a delay, and say, "Well, in this particular case we will not allow it automatically to go through within a month." They might be permitted to say that, possibly, in cases held up by some difficulty for some reason, which in such circumstances should have a longer time. That is provided for in the Amendment to the Amendment. Whether three months is the correct length of time, bearing in mind this arbitrary six months imposed by the Government on trustees, or whether it is not, is a matter of opinion, but that is the object of the Amendment.

I am sure the Government would agree that there will be a minimum number of cases, if any, where trustees are mischievously objecting to the recommendation in the Warrant. I feel sure they will agree that in such cases trustees will be sincerely motivated—where there is a real difference of opinion between them and other people, or, it may even be, there is a difference between the trustees themselves. It seems to me quite clear that if these trustees, people who did not choose to be trustees, and in some cases were drafted into that position by reason of their position in the Army, they are to have to go to a High Court judge merely because the Charity Commissioners have not been able to make themselves 100 per cent. certain within a month, a great number of people are going to be put to trouble and expense, and there will be the personal expense of attending the High Court, apart from expenses which probably would be charged against the trust. It seems unfortunate, to say the least.

I hope the Government will have a look at it again to see if ways can be found of providing what the Amendment to the Amendment provides, if not by the acceptance of the Amendment, then by something like it, and to put the boot on the other foot, and to say that where the Charity Commissioners cannot make up their minds, instead of having the negative course of assuming refusal of the application, it should have the opposite effect, and the application should be allowed, except where the Charity Commissioners, for some reason, think there really is a doubt and want to have further time.

That is the reason for the Amendment to the Amendment. I understand it is purely for discussion and that I am not permitted to move it.

Mr. Reynolds

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that since the Committee stage we have gone into this very thoroughly with the Charity Commissioners and with the Law Officers, and I am satisfied that the procedure covered in this Clause as amended will be satisfactory to deal with the particular point he has made. I am certainly prepared to look at it and to make sure that it is covered, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman; or, I have no doubt, the matter could be raised in another place and answered there.

The position, as I understand it, is that without the Government's Amendment, if the Charity Commissioners have not made up their minds the High Court judge would probably not only be reluctant to take any action but would probably be debarred from doing so. Under the Amendment, after one month they will be deemed to have refused and it would be possible to act under the Charities Act, 1960. As the hon. Gentleman's Amendment is worded it could mean that when the three months' suspension comes into being it could take us beyond the six months' period laid down in the Clause as now amended and make it impossible for anyone to get to a judge. That is a technical point on the Amendment.

I think the only circumstances in which there would be likely to be difficulties for the Charity Commissioners in dealing with an application within one month would be if they themselves were still considering whether or not to make an order, in which case they would almost certainly be having discussions with the trustees of the charity about the matter.

The Amendment makes it possible for an applicant who is impatient about the discussions and not prepared to go on with them to take an alternative course of action if he wants to do so, but as the hon. Gentleman said, and as I said in Committee, these are not simple matters. I went on to say that we were not dealing with simple people, but I am wrongly reported as saying that we were dealing with simple people. I hope that in due course that may be altered. We are dealing with people who, as the hon. Gentleman said, want to solve this problem, and some have very strong views on how it should be solved, and there may be differences of opinion between the trustees as to how it can be solved. I think the best that I can do is to repeat what I said in Committee and advise anyone concerned in such a matter that, if he has any doubts whatever, he should enter into discussions with the Charity Commissioners on the matter as soon as he possibly can.

I am satisfied with the Clause as amended and as to be amended now by this Amendment. However, I will look at the point the hon. Gentleman has made.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Reynolds

I beg to move, Amendment No. 20, in page 14, line 45, at the end to insert: (7) Where subsection (1) of this section applies to any charitable property, the same jurisdiction and powers shall be exercisable in relation to the charity in question as would be exercisable if that subsection were not a provision of an Act of Parliament regulating the charity. The purpose of this Amendment is to ensure that any public funds held for the benefit of one unit and passed to be held for the benefit of its successor unit may be dealt with later in the normal way by the Charity Commissioners. I understand that if the Amendment were not made it might be considered that the successor unit would be held to be trustees regulated by Act of Parliament; in other words, that the new trust becomes one which is fixed by Act of Parliament and which would need Resolutions in Parliament to alter it. The Amendment makes it possible for future alterations to be dealt with in the normal way through the Charity Commissioners by declaring in effect that these are not regulated under Acts. I think it will make it much more simple for the carrying out of future alteration of trusts if it is desired to make the alterations.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Reynolds

I beg to move, Amendment No. 21, in page 15, line 16 at the end to insert: and the words from ' and for the purposes onwards were omitted ". I referred to this when we were discussing an earlier Amendment. Although it is on a similar subject, it is not quite the same thing from the point of view of Northern Ireland. It assumes that the Attorney-General in Northern Ireland will reply and, therefore, no provision is made for not receiving a reply.

Amendment agreed to.