HL Deb 25 February 1982 vol 427 cc1010-2
Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose a change of policy and new legislation in relation to disaster funds following the Penlee lifeboat tragedy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Government do not think that new legislation is necessary. What this tragic case has shown is that the organisers of disaster appeals need to be fully aware of the financial and legal consequences to the beneficiaries of establishing either charitable or private trusts, and the Government are preparing suitable guidance for the legal profession, banks and other bodies. The Charity Commissioners are always prepared to give advice to appeals organisers about the establishment of charitable trusts as a matter of urgency.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for that Answer. Would he not agree that, following a national disaster, it is a major objective of Government and of the caring and generous public to do all that they can, even in some small measure, for people who have suffered grievous loss? Would the noble Lord not further agree that we have learned from the last two great tragedies that the machinery at our disposal is not completely suitable, in that sufficient (and even more than sufficient) money has come in to cover the needs of the dependants, but that the huge amounts involved have attracted a great deal of hostile and suspicious attention towards those dependants, as well as an enormous amount of press publicity, while at the same time possibly depriving some very good charitable associations of resources which might have gone in their direction? Would the Minister not agree that the time has come for us to think seriously of a national disaster fund, operated by a national disaster committee whose task it would be to look after the interests of those people whom we are all very concerned about?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I can understand the reason which prompts the noble Baroness to ask the Question, but I think that a general fund could inhibit the normally generous public response to locally initiated appeals. As far as the machinery for charitable appeals is concerned, I think it is suitable, provided that it is understood. For this reason, my right honourable friend the Attorney-General is preparing the guidelines which I mentioned in my original Answer.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is this not an appropriate moment to look again at the law relating to charities, in view of the confusions and difficulties which arose when this matter came before the public eye?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, anent the noble Lord's Answer, did I understand him to say that something was being done about this? Will he kindly repeat what that something is?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my original Answer read, in part: What this tragic case has shown is that the organisers of disaster appeals need to be fully aware of the financial and legal consequences to the beneficiaries of establishing either charitable or private trusts". What I added in answer to the supplementary question asked by the noble Baroness was that my right honourable friend the Attorney-General is providing that guidance at the present time.

Lord Airedale

Would the noble Lord agree that not only must the organisers be clear in their own minds as to what kind of fund they are establishing but they must at the outset make it clear to the public whether they are asking for a fund, a whip-round, to benefit particular people or, on the other hand, a charitable fund to relieve distress, so that, if there is a surplus after the relief of distress, it will be given to the appropriate charity, such as the RNLI in this case?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is right about this; but in order for the organisers of a fund to be able to do this, they must have received advice beforehand. The advice which is being prepared by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General is to be based on two formulæ which could be used by those organising the appeal funds. Depending on which formula is used, the public would be in no doubt as to the charitable or non-charitable status of a fund.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, whatever legislation is framed, would my noble friend not agree that there is nothing to stop people giving money, if they so wish, to any deserving, or undeserving, case, such as the bankruptcy celebrations of Sir Freddie Laker recently?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend is right. There is nothing to prevent anybody from giving money to what they consider to be a worthy cause.

Lord Chitnis

My Lords, have the Government a policy about the launching of a disaster fund for the suffering people of El Salvador? If so, have they conveyed their views about this to the broadcasting authorities?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that goes very wide of the original Question.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is it not the case that there are a large number of disasters for which no charitable fund is raised, and other cases where charitable funds are raised and which end up leaving a considerable surplus in the fund-raisers' hands? Might it not now be time to have a general fund—possibly in the hands of Her Majesty or some organisation—and would this not possibly be a suitable subject for debate in this House?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think if we had a national fund it would have to distinguish between those who have suffered or died through a cause serious enough to warrant the term "disaster", and those who suffered or died prematurely for some other reason. The problems inherent in drawing such a distinction would be difficult to overcome and in certain cases could result in great distress to the victims and their dependants.