HL Deb 07 December 1972 vol 337 cc401-15

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Belstead.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord FERRIER in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [General provisions as to educational trusts]:

LORD BROCKWAY moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 45, at end insert— (" (6) In the law of charity it shall be a charitable purpose to promote by education mental, moral or social improvement.")


During the Second Reading of this Bill I indicated that I should like to have included some definition of "a charitable organisation". In a sense, I am moving this Amendment, I will not say on the invitation of the Minister, but on his indication that if I were able to get it on the Marshalled List he would consider it. The noble Lord was a little doubtful whether I should succeed in tabling an Amendment which would be in order. I have no doubt that this Amendment is in order. I have the highest authority from legal quarters that it is. I submit that in the longer Title the reference to "replacing the powers possessed by the Secretary of State", and later, "enlarging certain other powers" indicates that the Amendment is in order.

The purpose of the Amendment is to define what a charitable organisation shall be in order to gain the privileges which are now allowed to registered charities. I should have much preferred it if we had had a Bill before us which was reviewing and reforming the whole law in relation to charities. The law at pre- sent is utterly obsolete. It dates from a Preamble to a Statute of Queen Elizabeth I, 350 years ago. I accept at once that if we had before us a Bill which was dealing with the whole law, the Amendment which I am moving defining a charitable organisation would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I submit that in the present situation we should take advantage of this Bill to define a charitable organisation. At the moment, it is open to a judicial decision without any leadership in terms by Parliament. The judicial decisions are complex and confusing, even if one does not say that they are contradictory. I submit to the Committee that it is very desirable that Parliament itself should give a definition of a charitable organisation which is receiving the benefits allowed under the law, so that this confusion may be ended.

We are proceeding under the Act of 1960 which contained four categories of charities which were to receive benefits and advantages regarding gifts and bequests and, much more important, taxation relief. Those four categories were: first, religious organisations; secondly, organisations for the relief of poverty; thirdly, organisations engaged in education; and fourthly, organisations of general public benefit. Those terms are very vague. Their vagueness has led to the difficulties of the present situation.

May I take first the category of charitable organisations based on religion? I accept the fact that the Churches are rendering a very great service indeed in the contributions that they make to dealing with the effects of poverty, the needs of the old and other social injustices. The Churches have been giving that lead not only by the Archbishops, Bishops and Moderators but by the dedicated service of thousands of members of those Church organisations. I should be the last to suggest that the benefits of registered charitable organisations should be denied to them. But when we are looking at this question we have to ask ourselves whether the aid given to registered charitable organisations should be extended to other organisations which are also engaged in these charitable activities but which, under present registration, are denied such benefits. They are denied those benefits because of a contribution which the Churches are making in this field.

The main object of the Churches is not charity; it is to present the Christian religion and the theology of that religion. Even those of us who are Humanists and do not accept the theology of the Churches recognise their absolute right to do that, and we are not complaining. But they are adding to their authority as a charitable organisation the presentation of a theology which is additional to their work for charity, a theology which is not accepted by a large proportion of our community. We now have the additional difficulty in our community of a multiracial society, with sections which accept other religions—perhaps Hindu, Moslem or Sikh. I do not want to limit the right of Churches to be regarded as charitable organisations; but as, in addition to their work for charity, they have the right to advocate a particular philosophy, other organisations engaged in charitable effort should not be declined registration simply because they are advocating a different philosophy.

Secondly, I welcome the fact that Churches to-day are quite definitely, in addition to their charitable work, engaging in political activity. I applaud the way in which they are applying the social ethic of Christianity to racial issues; the way they are standing for the equality of the African population of Rhodesia: the way they are standing against apartheid in South Africa, and the way they are standing for racial equality in this country. We all applaud that. But when we come to look at their right to these privileges as a charitable organisation, Parliament must not deny to others who are engaged in charitable activities the right of those advantages on the grounds that they are engaged in political activity.

I want immediately, as I have done before, to reflect my interests in this matter. I am a member of the Humanist Association and I am raising this matter particularly on the part of the Humanist Trust. The Humanist Trust was first recognised as a charitable organisation. It had all the advantages in respect of any requests or gifts, or taxation relief, which a charitable organisation gains. Then, subsequently, the Department of Education and Science withdrew those rights. I want to recognise that the Department made a very generous apology for having made what they regarded as a mistake in the first place. If the Churches have the right, having regard to their work for charity, to obtain these advantages while they preach a particular philosophy and while they take part in political action, the Humanist Trust, which also is engaged in charitable efforts, should not be denied those rights on the ground that it also has a particular philosophy and also is engaged in political activity for the Humanist proposals that it is now urging.

Incidentally, I never felt that I could associate with agnostic or atheist organisations while their main effort was the negative one of being against the Churches. I associate myself with the Humanists to-day because their main concentration is that those of us who do not believe in supernatural intervention have a special duty to dedicate our lives to human service. Therefore anyone who has watched the development of the Humanist movement sees that it is changing from a negative attitude to one of great constructive personal service by its individual members for the benefit of mankind. I read the actual terms of the Deed of the Humanist Trust: … the moral and social development of the community, free from theistic or dogmatic beliefs and doctrines. The Humanist Trust is rejected as a charitable organisation because it is associated with that particular philosophy, while other organisations, in addition to carrying out their charitable activity, are at liberty to hold philosophies and theologies.

My last point in urging this very simple definition of what a charitable organisation should be, a charitable purpose to promote by education mental, moral or social improvement is this. We have organisations such as Oxfam; War on Want; Shelter; the Child Poverty Group. Those organisations are beginning to realise to-day that it is not enough to give charitable aid to those who are hungry throughout the world, to those who are homeless and to those who are in poverty. They are appreciating that, as a result of their desire to aid those who are in those conditions, they must begin to make certain political demands. Is this House going to say that as soon as they make political demands for the ending of those conditions in the world which they attempt to succour, they shall no longer be regarded as a charitable organisation? I am suggesting in this Amendment that we should lay down a definition of what we regard as a charitable organisation which should receive advantages concerning bequests and gifts, and, more importantly, taxation; and that that definition should apply to any organisation which is making a contribution to our society in efforts to assist those, in our own nation and in the world, who are suffering most from conditions which now apply. I beg to move the Amendment.

5.5 p.m.


May I begin with an apology in that I had thought that this matter would come up for discussion at least half an hour before this time and I have, unfortunately, an important engagement which I must attend as soon as I have said my very few words on this subject. If it is a fact that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, is in order in moving this particular Amendment to this particular Bill, then I should like to support it very strongly indeed. I myself, as I am sure are the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and nearly every other Member of this House, am a believer in religious toleration. To me, religious toleration means that those who seek to teach ethics and morals, and a better way of life outside the confines of orthodox religion, whatever it may be—Catholic, Church of England, Hindu, Jewish, and so on—should have equal privileges with those who are teaching them within those particular confines. Therefore, I strongly support this Amendment, if it is in order, and I apologise once again for having to leave at this moment.


I should like to add just a few words in support of this Amendment. The effect of this Amendment is simply to generalise the conception of "charity", and not to tie it to any particular doctrine. I do not want to press the claims of any particular doctrinal section of belief or of any particular organisation. But we must recognise that at the present time social improvement in the widest sense is equivalent to charitable action; and that if this Amendment is accepted then any organisation. whatever its ethical or religious or social basis, which in fact seeks to effect social improvement will have to establish that it is doing just that, and will not have to make any kind of claim on any other ground. On those grounds, I should like strongly to support this Amendment.


I also should like to say a word or two in support of this Amendment. I found the decision of the Department completely unintelligible and certainly very upsetting. I cannot see how the activities of the Humanist Association differ very much, except that a theological basis is obviously absent here while it is present in the case of Churches, from many of the charitable activities of the Churches. It is not very long ago that I was opening a Humanist hostel which had been built for the purpose of looking after people in their old age, providing them with accommodation and giving them some assistance. This is of course one of the great problems of the age and it is one which is continuing to grow from year to year. It is the sort of activity which ought to attract, and it is essential that it should attract, the episcopal advantages that are conferred by the law of this country upon charities.

At the time when this money was being collected and this valuable work was being done by friends in the movement, it was thought—and indeed those people who contributed did so on that basis—that it was charitable work and that it would have the same advantages as if a similar building for old people had been opened by the Church of England or one of the other Churches, who took similar steps to alleviate the difficulties to which I have referred. Now we are told that this is not a charity which can attract these advantages. I have been a lawyer for a long time and accustomed to hearing my friends quote the famous remark from Dickens about the law being an ass, and sometimes I have replied jokingly; but when one finds a decision of this kind, and a decision not taken by a court of law but by a Department of State, one begins to wonder whether the Dickens quotation is not in fact true. This situation can and must be put right eventually, and it can be nut right at the present time, because the ruling is that this Amendment is in order. Could we not take this first opportunity of putting the matter right and supporting the Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Brockway?


For many years I have been on the committee of a housing society which is concerned with the building of hostels for elderly people. It is a non-denominational society; it is not associated with the Church; it is not associated with any theological or political point of view. It is just an ad hoc society in which people have come together for the purpose of building hostels for elderly people. No question has been raised as to the charitable status of that society. Quite recently I visited one of the hostels built by the Humanist Society near to where I live. I am bound to say, with some sadness, that it is a better building than that which we put up and provides better amenities for the old people, and I cannot see any sense whatever in a ruling which says that the Humanist Society, doing a better job than the society with which I am associated, should not be a charity, while the one with which I am associated is a charity. Surely this is a matter of common sense which ought to be remedied as quickly as possible?


I entirely support the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. I think his Amendment stands on the side of tolerance, and more than anything else, I have always believed in tolerance. I think it is intolerant to ban the Humanist Society from these benefits and therefore I support this Amendment.


This Amendment would add a new subsection to Clause 1 of the Bill if it were agreed to by the Committee. Its effect would be to extend the concept of charity by making a charitable purpose the promotion of social improvement as well as the promotion of mental and moral improvement.

If I may draw the attention of the Committee to Clause 1 in its present form, it has two purposes. Subsection (1) deals with the termination of the functions of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales under the Charities Act 1960, leaving the Charity Commissioners with exclusive jurisdiction under that Act; and in addition the Endowed Schools Acts of 1869 to 1948 are to be repealed because they are obsolete. In subsection (2) there is a very slight extension of the powers of the two Secretaries of State under the Education Acts of 1944 to 1971, to modify for the purposes of those Acts instruments regulating educational trusts.

I think I owe an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, because on the Second Reading of the Bill I was certainly in error when I spoke about the scope or ambit of the Bill in any sense relating to the procedures of your Lordships' House. The sense which I feel I should have tried to convey is that the clause in which this Amendment would come is really not concerned with the substance of the law of charity, whether educational or otherwise. There is, moreover, no provision in the Bill dealing with the substance of the law of charity. I realise, though I am not a lawyer, that the legal concept of charity is a difficult problem, raising wide issues and causing concern, quite obviously as this debate has shown, to many noble Lords. It was considered in depth by the Nathan Committee on the Law of Charitable Trusts which reported in 1952. That Committee, although recommending a statutory definition of charity, reported: We accept the view that there is no case for an alteration of the content of the law of charity and concluded that the statutory definition they recommended should leave untouched the existing case law". I confess I was a little surprised that some noble Lords who have spoken—and I realise their concern on this subject—have not at least alluded to those conclusions which came from the Nathan Committee. The subject was debated in both Houses of Parliament when the Bill which became the Charities Act 1960 was being considered, and Parliament endorsed the conclusion of the Nathan Committee that the content of the law of charity should be left unaltered. The matter was debated again, very fully indeed, on a Motion for Papers by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on June 29, 1971, and on that occasion the views of the present Government were put forward by my noble friend Lord Windlesham, and also by myself. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, tabled an Unstarred Question on the case of the Humanist Association on February 25, 1971.

I submit to the Committee that this Bill does not obviously—at least not obviously to me—present the occasion to debate the matter again. The Amendment really has very little to do with the clause to which it would be added, and very little to do with the Bill in which that clause is included. If I may try to substantiate what I have just said, as I understand it the question of whether education is to be regarded as charitable is determined by principles laid down in decisions of the courts, and of course there is an appeal on a decision which goes to the High Court. In the circumstances, I find it hard on this Bill to accept an Amendment altering the substance of the law of charity, but perhaps your Lordships would allow me to observe in passing that the promotion of mental and moral improvement which comes into this Amendment, whether by education or otherwise, is already regarded by the law as a charitable purpose. But the promotion of a social improvement is a concept capable, I think it is fair to say, of several meanings, perhaps not all of them readily acceptable as beneficial in the context of the law of charity.


The noble Lord will forgive me if I venture to point out that the question of moral improvement is also of somewhat ambiguous meaning.


Indeed, but it is something with which over the years the courts have found they are able to deal. As I understand it, the noble Baroness is suggesting an entirely new concept, that we should not look to the courts for the judgment but that we should lay down by Statute a ruling from Parliament.

May I conclude by saying that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, said at the end of the Second Reading of this Bill that he would like to see the law on charities more clearly defined. It was at that moment that I ventured to suggest that it might not have a close association with the Bill, and for that I have apologised. But I am in a difficulty here. This Amendment does not in fact define the law of charity. It does not define it either clearly or otherwise. It alters the substance of it and it does so, I would submit, in one respect most obscurely. The noble Lord is asking a Government Department to give a view on the interpretation of "charity" or "charitable purposes", a subject which Parliament has consistently refused to interpret hitherto, except of course in Sections 45 and 46 of the Charities Act.


May I say that that is what the noble Lord's Department has done in this case? We are just trying to get it put right.


No, we have interpreted the law as we found it, and from our interpretation there is an appeal, as the noble Lord very well knows. In addition, as I have said, the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, would introduce a concept of charitable purposes which could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In these circumstances we may disagree between the two sides of the House, but what is certain is that the noble Lord has set me a difficult task. I hope that at least I have carried out one half of my undertaking, and that was to give the noble Lord a full reply. I am only sorry that at the moment, particularly in this Bill, it is not possible to give the noble Lord the satisfaction he is seeking.

5.22 p.m.


I initiated the debate on this particular subject some little time ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has mentioned, and we had a fairly full discussion of this point. In substance, I certainly support the Amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. I believe that the time has come for a change in the law. It was not apparent that the time for change had come when the Nathan Committee reported. Things have moved very fast in the charitable field since then and there is a considerable case for a change. I did not think that some of the arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, put forward really held water. The original statement of what charitable aims are stems from Statute and, as he said quite rightly, the courts over a period of time have been able to interpret sensibly, or sometimes not so sensibly, very difficult concepts, such as that of moral improvement. There is absolutely no reason why they should not also, over a period of time, be able to interpret sensibly or not so sensibly, social improvement. I see no real difficulty in giving them that particular task.

There are two small points mixed up here: there is the point about the discrimination which seems to attach to Humanists or non-religious bodies as such; and there is the wider point about political action. I am myself in favour of a change in the law on both these matters and this appears to be a very good Amendment. May I urge some noble Lords who have spoken not to over-egg the pudding of their argument on this issue? The objection to the Humanist Trust as a charity has nothing to do with hostel keeping; it is because of the educational clauses in its main objects. If the Humanist Trust were to set up a charity merely for running hostels or the alleviation of the poor, it would undoubtedly have to be accepted by the Charity Commissioners. The Humanists are not being discriminated against in this particular way, although they are being discriminated against in other ways. I have great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in the position in which he finds himself, because I see that an Amendment to this very small Bill dealing with nuts and bolts is possibly not the right way to change the definition of the law at the moment. After the full discussion here and perhaps some more enlightenment about what the substantial arguments of the Government are—and we have not had a very full answer about that—I wonder whether the best advance would not be that this would be a good subject for a simple, one-clause Bill, introduced possibly by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway.

5.25 p.m.


I should like to say that it has been quite evident from this debate, from all sides of the House, that there is a deep concern about this issue and the registration of charitable organisations should not be determined by the particular philosophy which they hold. The plea for tolerance has come from all sides and I appreciate that immensely. I hope that it will not just be frozen at the end of this debate. The second thing that I should like to say is this: I recognise at once that this is not the most appropriate Bill upon which this issue could be raised. I have raised it, and I think with some effect, because it was the only occasion on which this important issue could be put to the Committee. I am very grateful for the extraordinary width of support that I have had for this Amendment.

I have now to decide whether or not I press the Amendment. That will depend upon what the Minister says in reply to what I am now going to ask him. It will have been very evident to him from the debate this afternoon that there is a general opinion in this House that this matter has to be reconsidered. The only effective argument which he could urge against my Amendment was that this was not the suitable Bill for it. I therefore ask him this question. If this is not the suitable Bill for this Amendment, will Her Majesty's Government, as soon as the timetable of their legislation allows, consider carefully the introduction of a Bill which will consider the whole basis which is now so unsatisfactory, of our definition of charitable organisations? Will they even consider the appointment of a Select Committee or other means by which this issue could be considered? I would say to the Minister that after this remarkable debate to-day, in which overwhelming expression of opinion has been exerted, those of us who are in favour of this Amendment do not want to allow it to be brushed aside. If the Minister can give me any assurance at all that this matter wig not be allowed to die but that consideration by some committee and by his Department will be directed to it, and that at some point (it may even be by facilities for a Private Member's Bill) this issue will be regarded as one of importance with which Parliament should deal, I should be prepared to withdraw the Amendment. If he cannot give me those assurances, then I shall have to ask the Committee to divide.


May I support the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in this plea. In the Charities Act we learn that "charitable purposes" mean, purposes which are exclusively charitable according to the law of England and Wales. Since that seems such an ambiguous statement. I should think that the Minister has very wide opportunities to clarify the matter, even if it means bringing forward a small Bill. I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. We need clarification.


May I intervene, with an apology to the Committee because I did not hear the whole of this debate, and, therefore, I am unable personally to judge whether there really was such widespread support for the philosophy which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has been enunciating. I am bound to say that in the absence of the evidence of my own senses, which would have resulted from my being here, I should be very much inclined to doubt whether a set debate on this wide subject could have produced the result which Lord Brockway assures us it seems to him to have produced. I wonder whether one could ask Lord Brockway not to hold a pistol at the Minister's head—in effect, "We will divide the Committee unless you promise to do something about this". It is a very wide subject which ought to be promulgated and widely dealt with and discussed before Governments say that they are going to deal with it. Whether there is a case for a new Nathan Committee I would very much doubt. Not so long ago it covered the field very widely. We have had the debates initiated by the Liberal Peer, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and by others, all within the last year or two. I would doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, does himself justice in saying "I will divide unless". I ask him to think again.


May I say in reply to the noble Lord that I am not holding a pistol. All I am after is that the Government should give some opportunity for discussion of this issue, with a view, after that discussion has taken place, to bringing proposals before Parliament.


If I may reply to the debate once more, we are, it seems to me, discussing an absolutely basic amendment to the Charities Act 1960. I will certainly accede to the requests of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, to this extent; I will promise to draw this debate to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and I will certainly get in touch with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, to tell him that I have done this. I am wondering whether perhaps I had better draw the attention of the Shadow Home Secretary, Mrs. Shirley Williams, to this debate as well. She may be a little startled to see what has been said on behalf of her Party, with the attention that has been given to this matter since 1960.

The noble Lord also asked specifically that this matter should not be allowed to die. I do not know that I am really competent to pronounce about the moment of death, but I must say that I do not think I can give an absolute assurance this evening about resuscitation. There is, however, absolutely nothing to stop discussion in either House of Parliament, provided it can be arranged through the usual channels. Further than that—with an assurance that I will get in touch with the Home Secretary personally on this point—I cannot go.


As a result of that reply, I am prepared to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. As I understand it, the attention of the Minister will be drawn to this matter; there will be some communication, not merely with me. I can distribute it, and then possibly I can find an opportunity in this House to raise the matter again. Tit those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?


I should like to ask my noble friend a question. Under this Bill, what is the position of an endowed school which was founded by gifts of money to provide teaching of grammar, Latin and so on (I think those were the words he used at Second Reading) and is now a direct grant school? Will this type of school cease to be answerable to the Ministry of Education under the new Act?


I think the answer to my noble friend's question is that the school will be dealt with in the exercise of charity jurisdiction by the Commissioners under this Act. As the law now stands, my right honourable friend's Department would deal with it under the Charities Act; and, of course, it is precisely this power that is being transferred under Clause 1(1)(a). The Department could act, however, under Clause 1(2)(c) if the trusts of any particular school which the noble Lord has in mind are required to be modified to enable the governors to comply with the requirements of direct grant schools legislation. But in fact I am advised that in practice this would be unlikely.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses and Schedules agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.