HC Deb 16 October 1990 vol 177 cc1080-7

'If any person requests from the Commissioners the name of any recognised body or other information relating to that body set out in section 1(1)(b) of this Act it shall be the duty of the Commissioners to supply that information in so far as it is in their possession.'—[Mr. Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dewar

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

A minute ago, Madam Deputy Speaker, you referred to a degree of agreement. I guess that that will not exist with this new clause. I fear that the gap between myself and the Minister over this clause is unbridgeable.

I regard this clause as a matter of some importance, because I hate to think how many hours we spend discussing the first 13 clauses of the Bill in Committee. As every hon. Member who has taken even a passing interest in the Bill will know, in those 13 clauses we have erected an extraordinarily complex machinery of control and scrutiny.

We considered rules for accountants and auditors, and the powers of investigation of the Lord Advocate and the Court of Session, and we immersed ourselves in the world of recognised bodies, non-recognised bodies, registered charities and non-registered charities operating in Scotland, and in the problem of what constituted a Scottish charity, which greatly interested us. Many of those bodies had inescapable duties laid upon them, carrying the full force of the law. All that hung on the peg of a new definition of charity, and a new availability of information about charities existing in Scotland which was to come from the Commissioners of Inland Revenue.

What astonished me, and no doubt other hon. Members, in Committee was that, although we were laying down duties for members of charitable organisations, we were laying no duty upon the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to make the basic information available about whether a charity was recognised for tax purposes.

That was a key matter, because the writ of the Charity Commissioners does not run in England. There is no register of charities which one can consult at present. We were going to put that right by giving people the opportunity to obtain information about who or what is registered for tax purposes as a charity by applying for it to the Commissioner of the Inland Revenue.

I was amazed to discover, in part I, clause 1(i) of the Bill that there is

No obligation as to secrecy or other restriction upon the disclosure of information imposed by statute or otherwise shall prevent the Commissioners of Inland Revenue (in this section referred to as "the Commissioners") from disclosing … to any person who requests it, the name of any recognised body and the address last used by the Commissioners for any communication with the body and the year when such communication occurred. The Minister explained that he did not wish to make it a duty to give us such information. After all, the Inland Revenue might be in difficulties—presumably it might be in the middle of some cost-cutting exercise or have a difficulty over staff. In theory, because there is no duty to provide information in the Bill, one is merely removing an inhibition that might prevent it from giving such information.

If I turned up and said that I wanted to find out about body X, and whether it is recognised as such, as defined in part I of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill, the Commissioners of Inland Revenue might say that, for various reasons, they had fallen behind with their work in compiling the records, they are hard pressed and, in one way or another, it is not very convenient; and they could ask me to go away and come back at some future date. Legally, there will be no reason why they should not do that.

The Minister will no doubt say, "It won't be like that; the CIR will carry out their part of the bargain." But there is no legal imperative that they should do so. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, which new clause 7 seeks to put right.

We are erecting a complicated system around the duty to disclose which, it turns out, does not apply to the CIR. For example, let us consider the duty of a recognised body to make available on request to any member of the public an explanatory document setting out its aims and objectives. If it delays for more than one month in doing so, a complaint can be lodged with the Lord Advocate. If such complaint is lodged with him, then it may be noted for the purposes of clause 1(2). That is all posited on the assumption that there will be disclosure by the CIR.

I take the simple view that it would make this whole construction a good deal more logical and understandable to everyone concerned if we imposed upon the CIR the duty of disclosure, as explained and described in clause 1. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will accept new clause 7. It is simple and straightforward and seems to me to provide justice to both parties to the bargain.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I support, as I did in Committee, the observations of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). When we create a sophisticated and, in some respects, an extremely onerous system for the regulation of charities in Scotland, a system which contains a number of explicit responsibilities and duties which we have not shrunk from spelling out in substantial—some would say overly substantial—detail, it is ludicrous to send this part of the Bill on its way if it does not contain an express duty to permit disclosure of the information that clause 1 is designed to elicit. As has been forcefully pointed out, if there is no duty, then, for any reason which may appear to be appropriate to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, they may decline to make available the information that this part of the Bill is designed to give public currency.

The Minister endeavoured in Committee—in my judgment, hardly successfully—to provide justification for the absence of that duty. He will remember that the way in which the relevant part of the Bill is framed creates a right for the CIR not be be bound by what is otherwise the universal rule of confidentiality. Even that came under scrutiny in Committee. The fundamental and central issue is whether the CIR are obliged to make information available. The absence of a duty of the kind that the new clause seeks to impose would make a substantial part of what this part of the Bill endeavours to bring about unattainable. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be willing to accept the new clause or, if he is not prepared to do that, to give a better explanation for not doing so than he tendered in Committee.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Clause 1 rightly overrides the Inland Revenue's confidentiality rules, and empowers the Inland Revenue to disclose to the public the names and addresses of Scottish bodies that it recognised as charities for tax purposes. The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) would place a statutory duty on the Inland Revenue to disclose that information.

The new clause returns to a point that we discussed in Committee. I undertook then to consider what was practicable. I understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the point, and I have considered it with great care. However, I am afraid that his new clause would lead to some practical problems. I think that the arrangements already provided for by clause 1 will work satisfactorily.

It may help hon. Members who were not on the Standing Committee if I explain how the arrangements for public information will work. Once clause 1 comes into operation, members of the public will be able to ask the Inland Revenue's claims branch in Edinburgh whether particular Scottish bodies have been recognised as charities for tax purposes. Inquiries can be made either in writing or by telephone. The public will also be able to go to the claims branch office at Trinity Park house in Edinburgh and inspect a list of Scottish bodies which have been recognised as charities and which have been in contact with the Inland Revenue within the last 20 years. The list is likely to include about 15,000 charities and will be updated regularly.

The Bill also gives the public the right to obtain further information about the charities direct from the charities themselves. Thus, members of the public will be able to have access to useful information which is not at present publicly available. Furthermore, if there is sufficient demand for the microfiche, it will be made available in other public places.

5.15 pm

We have to bear in mind the fact that the Inland Revenue's records of charities date back to the 19th century. They were designed to meet the needs of tax administration, rather than as a public index. There are many cases where a Scottish body asks the Inland Revenue whether it qualifies as a charity for tax purposes, but it seldom, if ever, makes an actual claim to tax exemption later, because it does not receive the particular types of income on which it would need to claim a tax repayment.

When a charity is wound up, it does not necessarily have to notify the Inland Revenue, so the Inland Revenue's index of charities will include many bodies which were recognised as charities many years ago but which no longer exist, or which have long since moved from their original address.

Some inquirers may ask the Revenue about only one or two charities, but others may ask about a substantial number, or inspect the whole list. In that case, the new clause would in effect place a duty on the Revenue to provide a list of all Scottish charities ever recognised, which would mean going back very many years.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is the Minister sure that he is right when he says that a charity does not have to inform the Inland Revenue if it is wound up? I recollect a Finance Bill—I cannot put a date on it because I sat on a number of Committees that considered Finance Bills—that discussed charity law in great detail. The Inland Revenue claimed that it found out the very moment when a charity ceased to operate. This is tied up tightly with charity law.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If registered, that would certainly be the case. I have received briefing not only from Scottish Office officials but also from the Inland Revenue on this point.

The point that I am making is that much of the information included in such a list would be out of date. That would be unhelpful, and indeed positively misleading, to the public. That is why we propose that the list available for inspection will include only bodies which have had contact with the Revenue within the last 20 years. If an inquiry is made about a particular named body, it will of course be possible for the Inland Revenue to check back to their earlier records; and, of course, charities which are still active but have not been in touch with the Inland Revenue for more than 20 years can contact the Revenue again and ensure that they are included in the list.

It is also possible that some small local charities will not be recorded in the central list at the claims branch because, at some time in the past, they have been dealt with by a local tax office which has consulted the claims branch informally. If any such bodies come to light, they can of course be added to the claims branch list, but if the Inland Revenue was put under a statutory duty, as the new clause proposes, it would have to make a comprehensive search of all local office files before the system came into operation, in order to ensure that it could comply with the duty. That would involve disproportionate work and expense.

For all these reasons, I think that the new clause would be undesirable and would lead to practical problems. I can assure the House that the Inland Revenue will provide the information which clause 1 empowers it to do in the way I have already explained. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel that it is necessary to press his new clause.

Mr. Dewar

I am sorry to disappoint the Minister, but I cannot say that my doubts have been swept away. He made the point that members of the public have a right, which cannot be defeated, to request information in the form of an explanatory document from a charity. It is odd, therefore, that members of the public should not have the right to request from the Commissioners of Inland Revenue essential information that would establish whether the body from which they might wish to require further information has charitable status.

I was not impressed by the Minister's remarks. I am sure that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue will attempt to be helpful when they can, but I do not see why they alone should be left with a power of discretion that is not allowed to any of the other parties under part I of the Bill.

New clause 7 is not immodestly drawn; it merely insists that there should be a duty on the commissioners to give the name of any recognised body or other information relating to that body set out in section 1(1)(b) of this Act. We are suggesting not that they produce something that is not available to them on their records but merely that they ensure that the information on those records is available. If a local charity has never been recorded at central headquarters and has slipped through the net, its name cannot be produced. We are laying on them a duty to give information that is available and is on their records, to guard against the possibility that for some reason they will either allow the matter to slip, exercising their discretion, or will not make the information available.

I cannot say that the Minister has reassured me. I do not think that his objections to the new clause are substantial, and I intend to press it.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I want to be clear that I did not mislead the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He asked whether charities have a need to inform the Revenue. The answer is that they do not need to do so for tax purposes, but they must give information on tax as required by the Revenue.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 141, Noes 184.

Division No. 317] [5.21 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Allen, Graham Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Canavan, Dennis
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Cohen, Harry
Barron, Kevin Coleman, Donald
Battle, John Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Bell, Stuart Cousins, Jim
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Crowther, Stan
Bidwell, Sydney Cryer, Bob
Blunkett, David Cummings, John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Cunningham, Dr John
Callaghan, Jim Dalyell, Tam
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Darling, Alistair
Dewar, Donald Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Dixon, Don Moonie, Dr Lewis
Dobson, Frank Morgan, Rhodri
Doran, Frank Morley, Elliot
Duffy, A. E. P. Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Murphy, Paul
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Nellist, Dave
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas O'Brien, William
Fearn, Ronald O'Neill, Martin
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n) Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Flannery, Martin Patchett, Terry
Flynn, Paul Pike, Peter L.
Foster, Derek Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Fyfe, Maria Primarolo, Dawn
Galbraith, Sam Radice, Giles
George, Bruce Richardson, Jo
Godman, Dr Norman A. Robertson, George
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Robinson, Geoffrey
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Rogers, Allan
Haynes, Frank Rooker, Jeff
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Rowlands, Ted
Hinchliffe, David Ruddock, Joan
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Salmond, Alex
Home Robertson, John Sheerman, Barry
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Howells, Geraint Sillars, Jim
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Snape, Peter
Ingram, Adam Soley, Clive
Janner, Greville Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Steinberg, Gerry
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Stott, Roger
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Strang, Gavin
Kennedy, Charles Thomas, Dr Dafydd Elis
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil Turner, Dennis
Kirkwood, Archy Vaz, Keith
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Wallace, James
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Walley, Joan
McAllion, John Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
McAvoy, Thomas Wareing, Robert N.
McCartney, Ian Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
McKelvey, William Williams, Rt Hon Alan
McLeish, Henry Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Maclennan, Robert Wilson, Brian
Madden, Max Winnick, David
Mahon, Mrs Alice Wise, Mrs Audrey
Marek, Dr John Worthington, Tony
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Maxton, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Michael, Alun Mr. Ken Eastham and
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Mr. John McFall.
Alexander, Richard Burt, Alistair
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Butler, Chris
Amess, David Carrington, Matthew
Arbuthnot, James Chapman, Sydney
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Arnold, Sir Thomas Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Aspinwall, Jack Conway, Derek
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Batiste, Spencer Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Cormack, Patrick
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Currie, Mrs Edwina
Boscawen, Hon Robert Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Boswell, Tim Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bottomley, Peter Day, Stephen
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Devlin, Tim
Bowis, John Dicks, Terry
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Brazier, Julian Dunn, Bob
Browne, John (Winchester) Durant, Tony
Buck, Sir Antony Evennett, David
Budgen, Nicholas Fenner, Dame Peggy
Burns, Simon Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fishburn, John Dudley Mills, Iain
Fookes, Dame Janet Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Forman, Nigel Mitchell, Sir David
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Monro, Sir Hector
Forth, Eric Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Morrison, Sir Charles
Fox, Sir Marcus Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)
Franks, Cecil Mudd, David
Freeman, Roger Neale, Gerrard
French, Douglas Neubert, Michael
Fry, Peter Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Gardiner, George Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Gill, Christopher Norris, Steve
Glyn, Dr Sir Alan Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Goodhart, Sir Philip Oppenheim, Phillip
Goodlad, Alastair Paice, James
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Patnick, Irvine
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Pawsey, James
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Porter, David (Waveney)
Ground, Patrick Price, Sir David
Grylls, Michael Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hanley, Jeremy Rhodes James, Robert
Hannam, John Riddick, Graham
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Harris, David Ryder, Richard
Hayes, Jerry Sackville, Hon Tom
Hayward, Robert Sayeed, Jonathan
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE) Shaw, David (Dover)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Hill, James Sims, Roger
Hind, Kenneth Skeet, Sir Trevor
Holt, Richard Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Hordern, Sir Peter Speed, Keith
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Speller, Tony
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Squire, Robin
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Stern, Michael
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Hunter, Andrew Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Jack, Michael Sumberg, David
Janman, Tim Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Thornton, Malcolm
Kilfedder, James Tracey, Richard
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Tredinnick, David
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Trotter, Neville
Kirkhope, Timothy Twinn, Dr Ian
Knapman, Roger Viggers, Peter
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Waddington, Rt Hon David
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Walden, George
Lang, Ian Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Latham, Michael Ward, John
Lawrence, Ivan Watts, John
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Wheeler, Sir John
Lightbown, David Widdecombe, Ann
Lord, Michael Wiggin, Jerry
McCrindle, Robert Wilkinson, John
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire) Winterton, Mrs Ann
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael Winterton, Nicholas
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Malins, Humfrey Yeo, Tim
Mans, Keith Young, Sir George (Acton)
Maples, John
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Tellers for the Noes:
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Mr. Nicholas Baker and
Mellor, David Mr. Timothy Wood.

Question accordingly negatived.

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