HL Deb 25 February 1971 vol 315 cc1232-49

6.44 p.m.

LORD BROCKWAY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government on what ground the Humanist Trust has been refused registration as a charitable body. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question in my name on the Order Paper. The Humanist Trust is the educational agency of the British Humanist Association. Perhaps I may say a few words in opening about the sponsoring body.

When I was a youngster, I am afraid at the beginning of this century, most secularists and rationalists concentrated their propaganda in an attack upon the Churches and in ridiculing religious beliefs. I resigned from my church at 22 years of age, but I was not attracted by the propaganda which was then being conducted. It was only when the British Humanist Association came into existence that I associated myself with the cause. This was because it urged that those who were unable to accept the theology of the Churches should show that their own ethical and moral principles found expression in social service. The very fact that they rejected supernatural intervention in the affairs of men meant an obligation for endeavour by men themselves.

From the very first the British Humanist Association became concerned about poverty in Britain; about ill-housing, the penal system, racialism, world poverty and peace. And it showed its sincerity upon these social and world issues by, while retaining its philosophy, willingly co-operating with Christians upon all these issues. It became a member of the Social Morality Council with the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and its group which was concerned about reforms in the prison system voted in favour of incorporation with Christian Action. I say these words in introduction because I hope that they will make clear that Humanists are more concerned with humanism in social justice and world peace than they are in criticism of theologies or philosophies with which they do not agree.

It was in this spirit that in 1967 the Humanist Association established the Humanist Trust to carry on educational work. The Trust sought registration as a charity, because this would mean that its income would be exempt from taxation and could thus be fully used for its objects. The Deed was submitted to the Department of Education and Science. The Department proposed amendments. The Humanist Trust accepted all these amendments. The Deed was endorsed by the Department and the Trust was approved as a charity and registered.

There has never been any suggestion that the Humanist Trust has departed from the terms of the Deed which was so endorsed. But on April 27, 1970, the legal branch of the Department wrote that the Secretary of State had under consideration whether the Trust should continue to be registered. Objection was apparently to the wording of the Deed, which had been accepted by the Department, authorising the application of capital and investment—and I quote: for the advancement of the education of the public"— I leave out words which were left out in the letter from the Department— with respect to the ideas and principles known as 'humanism'. That is to say, the moral and social development of the community free from theostic or dogmatic belief and doctrines. The submission of the Department was that the real purpose of such education was the promulgation of humanism, and not charity. The Trust was informed on January 14 last that it had been removed from the register.

I want to raise one incidental administrative point. The withdrawal of the registration was made under Section 4(3) of the Charities Act 1960. This was stated in the letters from the Department of Education and Science on April 27, 1970, and November 4, 1970. This section—Section 4(3)—would seem to provide only for cases in which a charity has ceased to exist or operate, or has made a change in its purpose or trust. None of these grounds applies to the Humanist Trust which, under this section, was nevertheless withdrawn from registration.

But, my Lords, I want to do much more than raise that administrative point—important as it is. I recognise that there is an issue of great importance involved. It is this: should a body be registered as a charity and be exempt from taxation because its educational work springs from a particular philosophy or from particular principles? I suggest that this should depend on the character of the educational work which is carried out. If it is informative, objective, reasoned, whatever its inspiration, it should be of value to correct judgments on the issues with which it deals. I repeat, there has been no suggestion that the Humanist Trust has gone beyond its obligations in the Deed which was endorsed by the Department. Its education has been for the moral and social development of the community. When the Deed says it shall be, free from theostic or dogmatic belief and doctrines it is, surely, recognised to-day that contributions can be made to a moral code, and to social welfare, irrespective of philosophic or theological views.

There is also an issue of justice here. Religious bodies are accepted as registered charities without any restriction whatsoever. The teaching of religion is itself accepted as a ground for registration as a charity. The Anglican, Nonconformist, and Catholic Churches all enjoy this privilege. Special privileges were made to include the Catholic Church. May I assure the House that I am not speaking in opposition to the rights which are enjoyed by the Churches.


Why not?


If I may indulge in a personal note, there was a time when I declined to go to church services. I have revised that attitude, not only because of a reverence for the ethical teachings and the life of Christ as it has been recorded, but because of the great moral contribution which the Churches are making in the world to-day on racialism and on apartheid in Southern Africa Because of that I am glad to be with them. Perhaps I may just add this personal note: many of us who are in the Humanist Association are not atheists; we are agnostics. We have spiritual experiences which present knowledge cannot explain but which seem to us inadequately interpreted in the theology of the Churches. But that does not mean that we are not influenced by some sense of creative purpose. Forgive me for that personal departure. I wish to urge that in our present pluralist society, when the Churches have not exclusive authority in the expression of moral codes, social welfare and human values, it cannot be maintained that they should have an exclusive status as charities serving the community. As this debate will indicate, many members of the Churches do not claim that privilege.

I have spoken so far of the Humanist Trust. It is the first victim of the policy which the Department of Education and Science have now inaugurated. The Department are at present in discussion with other organisations as to whether the same practice should not apply. I am raising the issue to-night not only in the interests of the Humanist Association but because one does not want to see other educational activities of a valuable kind affected. For example, another organisation is the Rationalist Press Association, which publishes the works of the British Humanist Association.

Finally, my Lords, I would make the point that the time has come for a review of the whole subject of the registration of charities. When the Humanist Trust asked the Department of Education and Science for a definition of a charity which could be registered they declined to give that definition. There are four broad classifications for registration as a charity: first, religion; secondly, the relief of poverty; thirdly, education, and fourthly, general public profit. But apart from those headings there is no definition whatsoever. I suggest that it is time that the law was clarified and defined. At present there are the most absurd anomalies. Funds for the assistance to the dependants of the murdered policemen at Shepherds Bush were excluded from the benefits of a charity because the names of the individual victims were recorded. The Charity Commissioners declined to accept Toc H as a charity because one of its aims was "to promote the welfare of the Armed Forces". The Charity Commissioners insisted on the substitution of the word "efficiency" for "welfare". One would have thought welfare was nearer charity, but the Charity Commissioners insisted on its deletion because it implied service to a section of the community rather than to the community as a whole.

The Law Commission is considering law reform, and I address myself now particularly to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who I appreciate is on the Woolsack. The Humanist Trust suggested to the Secretary of the Law Commission that the law on charities should be included in its consideration. The Secretary replied that the law of charities is not in its current programme, but: … it will be borne in mind when the Commission next comes to think about the selection of further subjects for us to study". I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, that members of the Commission who are in this House and that Her Majesty's Government will urge the Law Commission speedily to make an examination of, and recommendation on, this issue.

Meanwhile, my Lords, I ask the Government and the Department of Education and Science to reconsider their decision in the case of the Humanist Trust. I think I have indicated that it was not justified and that it is not fair in relation to other charities. Recognition of a charity in the climate of present thinking should not depend on either traditional theology or challenging philosophies, but on the value of the education and service provided to the knowledge and inspiration of our developing society.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to add very briefly to the last major point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, on the whole question of the registration of charities. We have heard from him some examples of the difficulties that are now caused by the vague, but yet narrow—a most unfortunate combination—definition of "charity" now applicable. There are of course others. One does not have to be against the public school system to wonder why for many purposes public schools, although most of them were founded as charities, are now charities. There is the very difficult situation of more and more charities who find they cannot seriously do their job unless they are at the same time advocating some change in the law, because they are trying to help the condition of people which often can be helped only by some change in the law. Your Lordships will have been aware of the many things which have come before Parliament, indeed before this House, in the last year or two and which have been started by charities, registered as such but which, within the actual terms of the Charity Commissioners, have been behaving improperly.

There is the question of more and more interesting but diverse bodies. There is the body "Release", which almost all of your Lordships will have read about recently. They were in trouble as a result of the postal strike, and now, having got some money, they have not yet managed to be registered as a charity. Their correspondence with the Charity Commissioners has been marked by a vagueness and an unwillingness to explain why they should not be registered, a fact which not only they but their legal advisers and I find extraordinary. I am not casting any slurs on the Charity Commissioners themselves. What I am suggesting is that they are having an extremely difficult job to do within their present terms of reference.

We are moving into a society now where bodies are becoming less and less pigeon-holed. It becomes more and more impossible to say that such-and-such a body is just a charity for the relief of the poor; often it is much else besides. I should have thought that this was a moment when the Department of Education and Science should be thinking of widening the whole terms of charities, rather than narrowing them. I would ask (I do not expect an answer to-night, because I have not given notice of this point) that the Government should look at the possibility of examining the whole concept of charities again, the whole business of classification, and the registration and relief of charities. Indeed, some of your Lordships may think the subject big enough, as it involves many thousands of bodies and many millions of pounds, for it to be discussed as a whole by your Lordships one Wednesday or other convenient day.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, in the earlier part of his speech the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, spoke in such a moving way about his own relationships with other faiths that it makes it almost unnecessary for me to say what I was going to say. However, I felt it was important that it should be said from these Benches that we should not ourselves seek to deny or restrict to any others the freedom to hold opinions, a freedom which we are grateful that we possess. Nor should we wish to stifle free and fair discussion of current religious beliefs and practices. In a recent publication of the Schools Council, called An Approach Through Religious Education, I found a phrase to which I should be very happy to subscribe completely: It is inevitable and proper that the conflict between Christian and Humanist, and within Christian theology, should be reflected in any discusion of the content and method of religious education". That, I believe, is right and wise and Christian; and I hope that, whatever else may lie behind this very difficult, technical question of charitable trusts, it will not be thought that the right to hold opinions and to express them in a proper, balanced manner is in any way to be frowned upon, but that it is very much to be encouraged.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I shall intervene only briefly. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, for introducing this Question this evening because it gives us an opportunity to air this subject. He has put his case so eloquently that I would not presume in any way to say other than that I am in deep sympathy with the facts that he has presented here. But I must at once declare an interest in that I am the sponsor of a small Trust which was set up five years ago to give information and advice to housewives in relation to consumer affairs. Unlike the Humanist Trust, we have not even got on the Register to enable us to be put off. We have twice made application to the Charity Commissioners and we have been rejected, the reasons for the rejection appearing to be that the aims and objects are outside the field of charity.

Perhaps I may quote from one of the letters sent by the Charity Commissioners: The purpose prescribed by Clause 4 of the Trust Deed … appears to be the establishment of what might be described as a consumers' association. This is something outside the field of charity. It would not be sufficient to suggest that this is a purpose beneficial to the community, and so comes within the fourth division of charity in Lord Macnaghten's classification in Pemsel's case. To come within that division, a purpose must be beneficial in a way which the law regards as charitable; and to do this it must be within the spirit and intendment' of the preamble to the Statute 43, Elizabeth I, the Charitable Uses Act 1601. My Lords, 1601, 60 years before the Great Fire; and this is the Act that is quoted to us!

Being a simple soul I sought enlightenment from the Charities Act 1960 for a definition of "charity". I have the Oxford Dictionary definition of "charity" as "liberal in giving to the poor "—I hasten to say with a small "1". But within the Charities Act we find the definition of charity is: A charity or institution, corporate or not, which is established for charitable purposes and is subject to the control of the High Court in exercise of the Court's jurisdiction". This did not seem to take me very far, so I then examined the Charities Digest to see what the charities already listed had in common. As one might imagine, many of these were concerned with the welfare of the handicapped and old people, and there was a curious division of charities for women and charities for ladies. I hope I shall come under one of those if I ever need to collect a charity. About 31 were concerned with the welfare of animals, and then there was a whole section dealing with the family. I was particularly interested to see one—the Institute of Marital Studies, which seemed to suggest that one could give advice on marriage and be charitable, whereas to give advice on housewifery was not charitable, though I recall that many of the separations that come before me in the domestic court are the result of mismanagement of the housekeeping rather than deeper causes.

With the two noble Lords who have spoken, I feel that the time has come for a new look at the laws of charity. One may ask, who are the poor? I should like to describe a group that I think is poor and not one that is commonly accepted as being in need of sympathy. These are the young people I work with; a young couple in a new town, with two or three small children, just outside the big city. Their transport is costly, their mortgage or their rent is high, the children are at their most expensive, the young husband does not earn very much and with our present incremental scales he is not likely to earn a high salary until he is getting to the point when he probably will not need the money quite so much. Are these folk not poor, my Lords? In the sense of an Act of 1601 they did not in fact exist, but I would suggest that they are poor if you set them against the present economic conditions.

All we have sought to do is to try to help them with their housewifery and yet this is not deemed charitable. We are in a curious situation while seeking registration—rather like the trade union of which I heard once: you could not become a member of the union unless you were working and you could not work unless you were a member of the union. I always wondered how you broke through the deadlock. We are in a similar situation: we are a charity without any property, we are never likely to get any property or any money until we become registered as a charity, nor are we going to be able to get any money from Trust funds.

My Lords, the poor will always be with us; they will always be different. Let us at least look again at this law to see whether we cannot move away from the great rigidity in which we find ourselves at this present time.

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the speeches which we have just heard I think I also can be very brief. The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has most admirably expressed the views, feelings, beliefs and ideals of the Humanists, and although I do not belong to any Humanist body or association or group I have always considered myself a Humanist and I have tried to live to its ideals. The only criticism I would make of what the noble Lord said is that perhaps he was a little too apologetic for the Humanists, because I think to-day they embrace quite a large section of the population. How large, it is of course impossible to say, because on the few occasions when I have allowed myself to burst into print on the subject of atheism I have usually been sternly criticised for my views in the relevant newspapers and warmly praised by a shoal of letters which I have received at home. So it is rather difficult to know quite how strong our position is.

I prepared some notes of a speech which was to be in two parts. The first part I have already given; the second part was only to be used if there was any kind of attack. But I think that the debate has been on such a very high level that it would be completely out of place for your Lordships to know what was in my notes for the second part of my speech.

7.19 p.m.


My Lords, may I first ask the indulgence of the House, because I have an important engagement that will require me to leave in a very few minutes. But I should like to join the ecumenical movement which has already been active in your Lordships' House this afternoon. After the ultra montanism of my noble friend Lady Phillips, the Anglicanism, of course, of my ecclesiastical friend from London, I should now like to add the weight of Noncomformity to the general tribute that we pay, or we should pay, to the Humanist movement in general and to voice our general perturbation at what seems to us an injustice in the withdrawal of the status to which I believe they are richly entitled.

I am encouraged to make a brief continent on the reasons for which I would like to call myself a Humanist—perhaps a Humanist-plus: "All this, and Heaven too!" I am quite sure that the difference between the Humanist and the Christian is not that one is in contradistinction to the other but that the emphasis of the Humanist is upon the ethical principles of personal and social life, whereas I feel that we Christians have been far too much preoccupied with metaphysics, very often to our own discredit, and certainly not always to our own edification or unity.

It appears to me that in this particular reference to the Humanist practice there is at least lying behind what has happened the assumption that Christian charities have a monopoly of that love, in the proper meaning of the word, and that there is something suspect perhaps about education when it is not carried out on theistic lines and principles. If indeed the word "charity" means "love", how can one better express one's love of one's fellow creature than by endeavouring to raise him by education from illiteracy to knowledge? And why should we be afraid of it, particularly when in the actions and activities of the Humanist Trust there is such evidence of the practice of the Christian ethic, even if it is separated from the enunciation of the metaphysical Christian truth?

For that reason, I will add my brevity to the admirable brevity of those who have spoken and say that I hope that close attention will be paid to the gravamen of the charge which was so splendidly and, I thought, movingly put by my noble friend Lord Brockway: that here is a question which must be answered; here are issues which must be faced; here is a question with regard to the whole constitution of what is to be regarded as a charity that is in urgent need of clarification. But, above all, here is need for the magnanimous expression of a truth which surely belongs to a civilised community; that search for truth, and its propagation, even as percolated through those with imperfect knowledge of it, and is itself a charity, should be recognised as such, and should be so cherished.

7.22 p.m.


My Lords, I have no idea what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, is going to say, but if he says he can give no answer at all to this Question because it is a matter for the Charity Commissioners, constitutionally he may be right, because the Charity Commissioners are a sort of semi-independent republic, not answerable to Parliament, and from whose decision the only possible appeal, so I have been told, is to the courts. It may be that the Department of Education and Science are now equally privileged, in which case we shall all have been wasting our time. But I hope the noble Lord will not be as negative as that, for the whole field of charity is attracting rapidly increasing public scrutiny, as has been evidenced by the comments from all quarters of the House to-night. The Government should be aware of this, because they will have to do something about it, sooner or later.

A good number of your Lordships have obviously tried, as I have, to find out what charity is and what charitable purposes are. I got as far as the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips; I reached the Preamble to the Act of Charitable Uses 1601, and this seems to be the fountain head of the subject. What she did not say was that it has been repealed, although it is still used as the basis of the law on charities. That Preamble contains a 17th century shopping list of what was then decided to be charitable, and all other purposes have since been tacked on by analogy through case law. So we have got a rather untidy and confused situation.

I am not asking for a close, compact definition of charity: that is obviously impossible to achieve, however desirable it might be. On the other hand, the present situation does produce some most extraordinary anomalies, and I would add two more, if I may. I understand that one charitable trust has been set up for the promotion of chess playing among the boys and youths of Plymouth; while, on the other hand, a Minister in the last Government has told me that polytheistic religions or religions which encourage ancestor worship would be very unlikely to be accepted as charities; and that, I believe, is the view of the Charity Commission.

As for the poor humanists, they appear to have been tried in a way that Stalin would have aproved of, in camera, and punished for obeying the law. One wonders when the purge of charities is going to stop. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, will forgive me if I tamper with Shakespeare and say to him: Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale His infinite variety. Once again he has raised a very important subject and done a service to this House and the country. His Question illustrates what many people are beginning to feel are the inadequacies of the position of charities in this country. For example, what the Charity Commission regards as political activity, as the noble Lord said, appears to be quite grotesque.

Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has to say to your Lordships about the peculiar behaviour of his Department, I hope he has noticed the number and the wide interests of those who have spoken in your Lordships' House to-night. Unless the noble Lord can put this very unfortunate business right, he will be piling up yet more evidence for the repeal of the Charities Act 1960 and the introduction of radical and rational legislation. I know that charities in this country are comparatively well treated, both by law and by the Inland Revenue, at least if one looks at the situation in Europe or North America. But there is muddle and uncertainty, and charities and the general public have a right to know where they stand.

7.28 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with interest and sympathy to the speeches which have been made on Lord Brockway's Unstarred Question this evening, and I certainly respect the concern which the noble Lord has expressed to the House. I think that Topsy has really nothing upon the ingenuity of the way in which your Lordships are able to transform the fairly specific terms of an Unstarred Question into a general debate, and if I am unable this evening to answer in detail each of the questions which have been put in this debate, I hope that you will acquit me of any discourtesy and rather attribute to me the desire to follow carefully the brief which must reply to this most serious Question which the noble Lord has raised this evening.

At the risk of covering familiar ground, it might be of assistance to this debate if I follow the course of events in this matter. The first approach for registration of the Trust was made on June 20, 1966. After correspondence between the Department of Education and Science and the Humanist Trust, solicitors submitted to the Department on February 3, 1967, the draft of a Trust Deed. The Deed was executed and formally submitted for registration on July 4, and the Trust was entered on the Register on July 24, 1967.

Then on November 13, 1969, the Department was asked by the Inland Revenue to reconsider the question as to whether the Trust Deed declared charitable purposes. After reviewing the position, the Department decided that the Deed did not declare charitable purposes. On April 24, 1970, a letter was sent to the Association—the noble Lord, Lord Brockway referred to April 27; it was April 24—saying that the Secretary of State would be prepared to consider any representations made to him. The Association replied on May 22 protesting at the decision, and on June 2, 1970, the Department admitted that a mistake had been made in entering the Trust on the Register. On July 27 the Association wrote informing the Department that they were proposing to take advice. The Department waited for three months more, and on November 4 last wrote asking whether the Association had further representations to make, and, no reply having been received, two months later, on January 6 of this year, the Trust was removed from the Register.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord, if he has finished the catalogue of events? Are we to understand that the Inland Revenue is the arbiter of what is, or what is not, a charity?


No, my Lords. As a result of a case which involved a will, the Inland Revenue drew the attention of the Department of Education and Science to this Trust Deed.

I very much regret the circumstances of this matter. The Humanist Trust had applied, negotiated, agreed to amendments and was finally entered on the Register, and I accept the noble Lord's concern to express disquiet at this course of events. But what is less certain is the suitability of this as a subject for Parliamentary debate. The Humanist Association was entered on the Register of Charities under Section 4(2) of the Charities Act 1960. Removal from the register is in pursuance of Section 4(3), which provides that the Secretary of State shall remove from the register any institution which no longer appears to the Secretary of State to be a charity. The noble Lord specifically asked about Section 4(3) which provides for the removal of—and these are the first words of the subsection: any institution which no longer appears to the Secretary of State to be a charity. It would seem to me that this could refer to the Humanist Trust. This is precisely the point which could arise in regard to the right of appeal to the High Court which is provided by Section 5(3) of the 1960 Act.


My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the Minister, but does he not appreciate that to ask the Humanist Trust to go through all the proceedings of the court to the highest stage would be appallingly costly, and to make that the only alternative for a voluntary organisation seems a little unjust?


My Lords, indeed I do. The alternative, as the noble Lord is asking this evening, is that the law on charities should be altered. Several other noble Lords are asking for this also. I am not the Minister who should reply to such a weighty question. For that reason, I am glad to welcome my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack here this evening. The trustees have not seen fit to bring an appeal and the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has partly explained why. But the time for appeal is none the less still current. The Secretary of State is in a judicial position both to enter and to remove charities whose purposes are wholly or mainly her concern. Thus, I put it to your Lordships, so that you may understand, I must not this evening go into the position of the Trust, bearing in mind that the right of appeal against this decision, whatever our private feelings may be, is still current.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, that neither the Department of Education and Science, nor, I believe, the Charity Commissioners, have the power to widen the intake of charities. The questions here at issue are matters of law, and the Department's functions are purely judicial; there is no room for political or administrative discretion, and an appeal lies to the High Court from a decision. For these reasons, the suitability of Parliamentary debate on the correctness of the Department's decision really is open to question this evening. Indeed, I would draw the attention of your Lordships to the situation of trusts which are the responsibility of the Charity Commissioners. Such trusts outnumber others upon the register in a ratio of about 2 to 1, yet the Charity Commissioners' decision cannot be called into account to Parliament because there is no ministerial responsibility, although here again there lies a right of appeal.

May we be clear in regard to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, when he opened this debate—to which I listened with the greatest sympathy and attention—to the noble Lord's closing remarks, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, in referring to a repeal of the law relating to charities. I repeat that this is something to which I am not competent to reply this evening, and that is why I am extremely glad that my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack is with us. It is open to my noble and learned friend to speak at the end of this debate if he so wishes.

I put these matters in no abrasive manner, but to try to explain why it seems to me so essential that, on behalf of my right honourable friend, I should reply to this question by frankly and carefully following the advice which I receive. This is a judicial matter, and I believe that this House would be the first place to disapprove of a layman's opinion, however sympathetically it may be offered. However, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has clearly advanced his concern as to the reasons for this decision, and this is the subject of the Question.

The noble Lord has asked why it is that the Humanist Association, wishing to go about its work in the same way as many other institutions, some of which are charities, is now removed from the register. The answer lies, I think, in the second and third paragraphs of the Department's letter, to which the noble Lord and I have both referred, of April 24, 1970. In it these words appear: The Trust is regulated by a deed dated 26 June 1967, Clause 4 of which authorises the application of capital and income 'for the advancement of the education of the public with respect to the ideas and principles known as humanism; that is to say, the moral and social development of the community free from theistic or dogmatic beliefs and doctrines'. The letter continues: In the context the word 'education' appears not to be used in the sense in which it would be legally charitable. The real purpose is plainly the promulgation of humanism as defined in the clause. Such promulgation is not charitable, and cannot be made so by describing it as education.


My Lords, does the Minister not remember that I quoted exactly those passages? What I asked was: is it not the case that the Department of Education and Science accepted the Deed containing those words, endorsed them and registered the trust as a charity? Although the Humanist Trust acted within those terms—there is no suggestion that it has not done so—it has now been refused recognition as a charitable organisation. Are not those the facts? The Department cannot get out of it.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for refreshing our memories. It is precisely for that reason that I have given the noble Lord an unqualified apology for what has occurred in the Department. It is also why I have repeated those words, because I now wish, finally, to take up the point. Section 2(2) of the 1960 Act provides that the Secretary of State shall act in relation to charities whose purposes are wholly or mainly her concern. As I have already sought to explain, Section 4(2) and (3) lay a duty that the Secretary of State shall enter on the register any institution with charitable purposes, and shall remove any institution with purposes which do not appear charitable.

The difficulty arises in this way. When the 1960 Act was passing through all its stages neither House could arrive at a statutory definition of "charitable purposes", and the question whether any institution is so established has to be determined in the light of the principles laid down in decisions of the courts. A trust for the advancement of education which is for the public benefit is recognised by the law as charitable, but the precise conception of "education" is uncertain. The courts have regarded the spread of doctrine as falling outside the scope of education and not as charitable in law—unless, of course, it can be brought within one of the other categories of charity. In this light, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, may very well disagree with the decision transmitted in the letter of April 24. Indeed, he spoke eloquently in saying that the touchstone ought to be the character of education which was being offered. But the solution for this disagreement lies in an appeal to the High Court, and the case must be argued by counsel, and not here on the Floor of the House.

I am advised that Section 5(1) of the 1960 Act provides expressly that, except for the purpose of rectification in such a case, registration as a charity is conclusive evidence that the institution concerned is a charity. The Act also provides for the situation where an institution has been wrongly placed on the register. There is no question, therefore, of any retrospective nature in this decision. My Lords, eight months elapsed from the time the initial letter of warning was sent to the Trust, and also six months from the time the Trust informed the Department that it was taking advice up to the date of removal from the Register. A right of appeal still exists. I hope that any further action which the Trustees may have considered will at least he facilitated by the considerable information I have sought to lay before your Lordships this evening.