§ Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.
§ Moved, That the House do resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Denman.)
§ LORD BARNARD
My Lords, I do not know whether this is the proper occasion, before the House resolves itself into Committee, to repeat the question I put to the noble Lord on the Second Reading. Perhaps I had better explain the posit ion very shortly. The part the Charity Commissioners have taken during the last fifty years in framing schemes for the trusts of charities does not extend beyond the power 107 exercised by Courts of Equity. The Act of 1853 empowered the Commissioners in certain cases to go to Parliament to approve schemes which presumably went beyond the ordinary power, but the eases in which the Commissioners have gone to Parliament to approve schemes have been very rare indeed. In many years there have been none at all, and in other years very few. On the other hand, under their ordinary jurisdiction the Commissioners have been in the habit of approving schemes by scores and hundreds, and I feel that the very fact that the Legislature requires that in certain cases a scheme should not become law except with the assent of Parliament indicates that it was beyond the ordinary powers of the Commissioners and of the Courts, and that therefore something exceptional was proposed. I do not for one moment suggest that in the case of this particular Bill every provision of the Bill is not entirely justified, but what I do want to draw the attention of this House to is the fact that if it once began to allow these Bills to go through as a matter of course, the whole of the principles upon which the revision of the trusts of charities is carried out might in course of time imperceptibly be very seriously changed, and the result, in my humble judgment at any rate, would be to deter pious founders and benefactors, as they are called, from founding charities. I have no doubt whatever that the noble Lord can give a perfectly valid explanation of the reason why a Bill is necessary in this case, but I do hope that in all future cases of Charity Bills your Lordships will insist on being told why it is necessary to proceed by Bill instead of by means of the ordinary jurisdiction possessed by the Commissioners.
My Lords, I hope I may be able to satisfy the noble Lord on the point he has raised, which is really one of a rather technical character. The Charity Commissioners are obliged to come to Parliament because of an alteration of the area affected by the charities in this Bill. As I said on Second Reading, the object is to consolidate certain charities in the City of Norwich. There are thirty-six parishes having charities, some specially for one parish only, and some for groups of two or three parishes, and it was really impossible to effect the consolidation of these charities for Norwich as a whole under the ordinary jurisdiction of the Commissioners. This is the chief reason. 108 There are other minor reasons into which I hope at this late hour the noble Lord may not think it necessary for me to enter. I am well aware that he speaks with great authority on this subject generally, but I hope he will consider the reason I have given sufficient and that he will not deem it necessary to oppose the passage of this Bill.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The Earl of ONSLOW in the Chair.]
My Lords, I wish to call the attention of your Lordships' House to paragraph 55 on page 26 of the schedule. Your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that when any Act of Parliament is being administered, whether by a bureau or a body of trustees, there should certainly be a right of appeal to a Court of law for an interpretation of the Act if it is considered that anything is being done contrary to the intention of the Act. The paragraph to which I refer, and the deletion of which I propose to move, contains an extraordinary contradiction. Clause 1 of the Bill says that the said scheme as amended is hereby confirmed, provided always that nothing in this Act or in the said scheme shall be held to interfere with the ordinary jurisdiction over endowed charities now exercisable, or hereafter to become exercisable, by the High Court of Justice and the Charity Commissioners. But the particular paragraph—paragraph 55 in the schedule—which deals with questions under the scheme runs—Any question as to the construction of this Scheme, or as to the regularity or the validity of any acts done or about to be done under this Scheme, shall be determined conclusively by the Charity Commissioners, upon such application made to them for the purpose as they think sufficient.The point is whether this paragraph does or does not take away the intention of the Act, or whether there is still a right of appeal to the Courts of Justice for an interpretation of the Act. It seems to me that the first clause and this paragraph contradict each other, and I feel strongly that there is a great endeavour nowadays being made for bureaux themselves to be allowed to interpret an Act of Parliament instead of a Court of Justice. I therefore move to leave out this paragraph, and I 109 shall press the Amendment unless the noble Lord opposite can assure me that the paragraph does not do away with the right of appeal to a Court of Justice.
To leave out paragraph 55.—(Viscount Galway.)
§ LORD BARNARD
I would venture to appeal to my noble friend not to proceed with this Amendment. My desire is not to oppose the Bill, but, on I he contrary, to support it. The paragraph in question—paragraph 55—was framed a great number of years ago. There are hundreds of schemes in existence, and this clause has been put into every one of them, and in the course of my ten years experience actually in the office of the Charity Commissioners, in addition to having since had a pretty close acquaintance with charities and charity administration, I have never heard the faintest suspicion of this provision having worked badly or improperly. I think that of itself shows that in actual practice it is a very reasonable clause. I may, perhaps, be permitted to point out to my noble friend that you cannot take away the right of individuals to have an authoritative decision upon a disputed question with regard to the construction of a trust. In ordinary circumstances the Court of Equity is the proper. Court to decide such a point as that, but in former days a terrible scandal was created by the way in which charity funds were frittered away in applications to the Court to decide questions of this kind. It was therefore determined, and it has worked well for about half a century, that a body paid by the public should decide these questions; and they are bound, by Clause 1 of the Bill, to decide them in accordance with the principles of the law. If the Charity Commissioners exceed their authority the Courts have power to put them right, and we all know from recent experience in the case of a Battersea or Streatham Hospital, where the Commissioners exceeded their powers, that the Courts insisted upon the charity being put back into the original position. So that I think my noble friend need have no fear whatever that the Commissioners will go beyond the powers they possess, and I hope he will take my assurance from my practical experience on the subject, and not ask the House to divide.
My Lords, I hope t lie noble Viscount; will accept the powerful 110 appeal which has just been made by the noble Lord on the Bench opposite. It is really not a case, as the noble Viscount suggests, of a bureaucracy endeavouring to get more power for itself. The Charity Commissioners are not quite in the same position as a Government Department. They are appointed by Royal Warrant in the same way as His Majesty's Judges, their functions are of a quasi-Judicial character, and the Commissioners themselves have had a legal training and experience which fit them to deal with cases of the kind that will come up to them as contemplated in the Bill. Furthermore, they have been allowed by Parliament to have this power, as the noble Lind opposite said. There have been similar clauses since the year 1856 inserted in Charity Commission Bills, and what is an even stronger point is that in the year 1883 the Court of Chancery adopted a method whereby their schemes were construed by the Charity Commissioners themselves. Surely if the Court of Chancery asked the Charity Commissioners to undertake to construe their own schemes it must be conceded that the Charity Commissioners are capable of so doing. The points that come before them are often points of a very minor character that really it would be almost absurd to take to a Court of law—which might mean the absorption altogether of the funds provided by the Charity. I will give your Lordships one instance of the kind of question that comes before them: There was a scheme that gave power to contribute for the maintenance of a nurse for a parish, and the trustees differed as to whether they could contribute to the maintenance of a nurse who served another parish as well. These arc the kind of very minor points which, as I say, it would be almost ridiculous to refer to a Court of law. I trust, therefore, that the noble Viscount will not divide the House. It is really not a matter which affects the interest of the Government at all, but if the Amendment of the noble Viscount were carried and the paragraph omitted, it might seriously affect the interests of people in very humble circumstances who might be prevented from availing themselves of these charitable trusts. I therefore hope that the noble Viscount will not press his Amendment.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am not surprised at my noble friend having moved this Amendment, 111 although I confess that the two speeches we have just listened to have made out a very strong case for the retention of these words. I desire to mark two points, however, before we part with this subject. In the first place, it is clear from what the noble Lord, Lord Barnard, with his great knowledge of the subject has told us, that these words do not, in point of fact, oust the jurisdiction of the ordinary Courts of Justice. He has instanced a recent case in which, notwithstanding words like these, an appeal to the Court was successfully sustained.
§ LORD BARNARD
I do not think the scheme had been framed. They were making a scheme. It was on the original trusts in that case.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I am afraid that does, to some extent, diminish the force of my noble friend's argument. He gave your Lordships to understand that, in his opinion, there was always an appeal to a Court of Justice against excessive jurisdiction on the part of the Charity Commissioners notwithstanding these words. That is one consideration which I think of great importance. Another is that the noble Lord, speaking with his responsibility as representing the Government, emphasised the fact that in this respect the Charity Commissioners are to be trusted because they are an impartial semi-Judicial body. I agree that the Charity Commissioners are so at present. That was the case also at one time with regard to other charities, not merely charities such as this Bill deals with; but in an evil moment the Education Department were allowed to supersede the Charity Commissioners in respect of those charities, and we know what the Education Department's views of a semi-Judicial function really are. I do not think there ever was so serious a blow struck as when one of the present members of His Majesty's Government so grossly abused his powers as Education Minister.
§ THE EARL OF CREWE
I really rise for the purpose of asking for information, and not with a view to attempting to score a point off the noble Marquess. But will be, as a matter of fact, inform us when the powers were handed over to the Board of Education.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I do not see that that has anything to do with it. The point is that they were handed over to the Board of Education, and the 112 Board of Education has misused them; and I am not surprised, therefore, that my noble friend and other noble Lords always view with suspicion words of this kind, and are inclined to think of the possibility that under these words lies a future such as we have experienced. However, after the speeches that have been made I would appeal to my noble friend, if I may, not to press his Amendment.
§ THE EARL OF CREWE
My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Marquess treated my interruption, for which I apologise, with somewhat less than his usual courtesy. He made an attack in somewhat violent terms upon one of my right hon. friends, and it did not seem to me entirely irrelevant to ask him the question as to when the change was made. What I understand he objects to is that a public Department should have the Charity Commissioners' powers, and I think I am entitled to assume, if the noble Marquess is right in thinking that it is impossible for a politician to exercise those powers impartially, that that must apply to politicians upon both sides and not only upon one.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I think an apology is due from me to the noble Earl for the rather abrupt manner in which I met his interruption, but I am sure he knows me well enough to know that I did not intend any discourtesy. I was quite well aware what was in his mind when he put the question, and that, perhaps, accounted for my haste. But it is not material whether it is a question of a Liberal Government or a Conservative Government. What is material is that the experiment was tried and failed, and what I deeply deplore is, not that the Conservative Government did it, but that the Liberal Government misused it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill reported without amendment, and to be read 3ª To-morrow.