HL Deb 15 July 1992 vol 539 cc305-12

9.10 p.m.

Lord Molloy rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will investigate the current recruitment policies of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question is mainly concerned with the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, which is a registered charity. I must declare that I am involved with the all-party Blood Group; I am an associate member of the British Veterinary Association; I am a member of the International League for the Protection of Horses, which is run so ably by Colonel George McStephen, OBE.

I must remind the House that the PDSA was founded in 1917 by Maria Dickin for the treatment of sick and injured animals of the poor. It has done remarkable work. The caravan dispensaries worked wonders. Since then it has done remarkably well in helping poor people. I must say also that I am involved with the RSPCA and the RSPB. I am involved in fundraising for the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals in Swansea, helped by the noble Lord, Lord Swansea. We succeeded in collecting sufficient money for the PDSA to create in Orchard Street in Swansea a big blue shop front which became extremely well known. Unfortunately it was bombed to bits during the war and recently a new one was created.

I must say also that my debate relating to the threat to Edinburgh University Veterinary School, contributed to by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, my noble friend Lord Cledwyn and wound up by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, did a great deal to save the vet school, which was important also to the PDSA.

Those of us interested in animal welfare were disturbed to learn that the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals had serious financial problems. We decided to apply for membership. Cheques were included with our applications and the applications submitted to the Director General, who wrote a most courteous letter to me pointing out what we needed to do to become a member. I followed the instructions, as did many others. We waited for some time and then all received a letter saying—I ask the House to listen carefully—that the PDSA no longer accepts applications for membership. Yet it is up to its eyes in debt!

We found that quite remarkable. Many applicants were spurred on by the fact that the PDSA was short of funds and had done magnificent work. We felt that we should give an example by sending our cheques and applying for ordinary membership. I was one, as a Peer of the realm. There was Mr. Tom Maclnnes, the former PDSA chief vet for Scotland; there was Mr. Walter Beswick, a former president of the BVA and Professor James Armour, Dean of the University of Glasgow Veterinary School.

We were all rejected. I was informed it was because of our association with the British Veterinary Association, which had done so much for the PDSA and often featured it in the BVA journal. We found it somewhat distressing and decided to examine a number of matters. Incidentally, everyone who made application but me was a Scot. I hope that there is no racial issue involved in the PDSA refusal. The Scots will soon get rid of it if there is.

Mr. Tom Maclnnes was a senior PDSA vet and the senior organiser for Scotland for the PDSA. He was also a PDSA pioneer group guild organiser for 40 years in the service of the organisation. He was senior to all the people who now sit on the present council.

I understand that he was nominated by Sir John Banham and Mr. John Butterfill, MP. When the council examined this nomination it must have meant that Sir John Banham and Mr. Butterfill did not stick by their word and did not support Mr. Tom MacInnes. Since then he has received a letter from Rear Admiral Sir John Garnier, KCVO, CBE, who is the private Secretary to the Patron. The Admiral said: The [Patron] was saddened to hear of your disappoint-ment that your application for Membership of the PDSA was not accepted, and also of your disenchantment with the present financial policy of the Society. The [Patron] has been aware from letters she has received of the difficulty that the recent restrictions in treatment might have meant", for the PDSA. It is hoped that there will be new thoughts about his acceptance.

We hoped that the fund for the PDSA was going to be increased by the launch of a balloon race in Trafalgar Square. Mr. John Bower, the president of the British Veterinary Association, on that day made an emergency call to me at this House asking if I. would help them because no one from the PDSA had come. None of their council members attended except for Mr. J. S. Hough, the director of public relations. It was a very difficult situation. I went there with my PA and Mr. John Bower. With a great deal of hard work we managed to get the balloon off the ground and the enterprise was a success.

I have also received correspondence from very distinguished people such as Mr. D. L. Haxby, CBE, MRCVS. In a letter to me he states: I have made extensive inquiries about this matter and it does appear that there is a form of membership of the PDSA which is limited by an inside form of self-perpetuation of the members and constitution of the management committee. It almost appears to be a secret society". That is a letter from a very well-known and distinguished vet about which we felt some concern. Therefore, we decided that we had to do something about the matter.

There was a recent speech to the British Veterinary Association by the chairman of the PDSA, Mr. Francis Butters. It is on the record of the British Veterinary magazine. Mr. Francis Butters outlines the precarious financial situation of the PDSA. A vast number of poor people were prevented from receiving help. Because the financial situation is so bad help can only be given to those who are really poverty-stricken.

We could not understand why a number of distinguished people sent cheques to the PDSA, having been encouraged to do so, but were rejected. The director general had outlined what was to be done. He said that membership could be obtained by sending only one shilling. We submitted very much more than a shilling. Noble Lords can therefore imagine how angry we were when we had letters saying that no more people were to be allowed to join the PDSA.

From investigations which we made, it was discovered that the real crime was that we were all, somehow or other, associated with a vet or the British Veterinary Association. Therefore we were ineligible. Among the ineligibles was included Miss Cherida Hopper of Bristol University Veterinary School. She is in charge of the school's feline centre, which is a clinic dealing with research into the FIV infection. Another ineligible person was the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, who is one of the United Kingdom's most distinguished vets and a man very much honoured in this House. Others were Mrs. Judy McArthur-Clark, president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and Mr. J. H. Baird, who is the chief executive member of the association itself.

Perhaps noble Lords will listen to this: there are 24 Members of Parliament, one Cabinet Minister, seven noble Lords, four MEPs, a Shadow Cabinet Minister, my noble friend Lord Cledwyn, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and, possibly, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, none of whom can apply for membership of the PDSA because they or a son or daughter are honorary members of the British Veterinary Association. We believe that this situation needs to be examined.

Since we made these investigations some other matters have come to light. For example, we have been informed that the finances and the accountancy arrangements are in a pretty serious situation. The society has 50 vet centres,70 retail shops and 14 appeals offices. These cost a great deal of money to run. The late director of the PDSA finance—he is not dead, but he simply packed in the job because he could not stomach it any more—was deeply concerned at the accounting and reporting system. It was in very poor order. There was a turnover of £18 million and net assets of £43 million. The criticisms of the director of finance were rejected by the council, so he resigned. What had he done? What was he about to expose, we wonder. We hope that the Government will take it up.

The only guide to a collective organisation is the collective conscience—in this case of the PDSA's council. The only shield to the PDSA's memory is its rectitude and sincerity of honest behaviour. I have to say—and I am sad to have to say it—that my last words have to be in this context. These vital desiderata of decency are absent at the governing levels of the PDSA. A full inquiry is required to restore them and so recreate the dignity and honour of a most notable organisation which has somehow or other gone right off the rails and is behaving in a manner which is not merely authoritarian but in no way acceptable to any democratic society.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, those of us who had the duty and privilege of serving on the Committee of your Lordships' House which considered the Charities Bill last year recall very well that there are hundreds of thousands of registered charities in the United Kingdom and that the overwhelming majority of them are totally unknown to the person on the Clapham omnibus.

The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, however, is not one of those. Despite the modest words of its chairman at the British Veterinary Association Congress last September when he said, We're not glamorous, we're not on TV, nobody wants our autographs—except sometimes on cheques", people have heard of the PDSA, and its large-scale and widespread activities are legitimately matters of public interest and concern. We are all, I am sure, grateful to my noble friend Lord Molloy for bringing them before your Lordships' House this evening and for raising, in his characteristic and inimitable way, questions of importance which are of deep concern to him.

I stress that the PDSA is a well-known and respected public charitable institution in this country. As my noble friend has pointed out, this is possibly due to its almost fairy tale origins in the work of Maria Dickin, a daughter of the manse born in 1870, who during a selfless career as a social worker in London's East End founded the dispensary in 1917 out of her burning compassion for the ill-treated animals mostly donkeys, ponies and horses at that time—for whom no one else seemed ready to care. In her book The Cry of the Animal published in 1941 she wrote: The suffering and misery of these poor uncared-for creatures in our overcrowded areas, was a revelation to me. I had no idea it existed and it made me indescribably sad". Clearly, there was an urgent need for action to remedy a situation of Dickensian or almost Chekovian severity and, equally obviously, that treatment had to be free. It was from those dramatic, emotional beginnings in a 13-foot square cellar in Whitechapel, rooted in true charity and unselfish idealism, that the PDSA began its life and its problems.

It is no surprise then to find that the PDSA grew and flourished and maintained, so far as it possibly could, its ideal of a free service—free at the point of use, if I may use that phrase—for the animals of those who genuinely could not afford to pay the normal veterinary fees. Let us hope tonight that the Government will be able to say with conviction,"The PDSA is safe with us".

There are now no fewer than 50 veterinary centres located in areas of high population density, together with Pet Aid Services which operate in a further 64 communities. In 1990 the PDSA carried out 1.4 million treatments at a cost to the society of over £13 million. At present the average donation is 77p and the average cost of a single treatment is £8.05. Its original commitment to providing a free service has had to be mitigated because in these difficult financial conditions in which we live the PDSA receives no state aid whatsoever and is entirely reliant on its capital funds, its donations, endowments and bequests.

This places the society in a most delicate and difficult position among charities, and one which requires the most careful, responsible and skilful financial management, including an almost prophetic requirement to forecast accurately the movement of its income year by year, and balance this against its constant requirements for skilled—and expensive—veterinary staff, drugs, suitable premises and purchases of modern equipment. The PDSA is a very large employer of veterinary surgeons and ancillary staff, and salaries and costs under this budget head are notoriously difficult to predict with accuracy but utterly essential to pay at the end of every month. Prudent financial management is thus of the very essence in the total management role. My noble friend is quite right to draw our attention to the PDSA's finances.

I have looked, albeit briefly, at the latest available set of accounts, although naturally a statement of accounts is no more than a snapshot of the state of financial affairs, and one would need to compare one year with another and analyse trends and flows more closely than I have been able to do if one were to be able to feel fully confident about any institution's financial health. Nevertheless, the society appears to have very substantial reserves, of the order of some £20 million, and it is against this that the drop in income from donations and bequests over the past two years should be seen.

With that having been said, however, last year's deficit of some £1 million is serious, and it will behove the society to look to it with immediate concern. I understand that steps have already been taken, including the tightening up of the almoning rules, to remedy this state of affairs; but the society must be aware that many of us, including the Charity Commissioners, will be watching most carefully to see that the very compassionate and charitable rules under which it operates do not (in these harsh times when market forces rule and strict accountability is in force) bring its finances into an undesirable state. It may rest assured that my noble friend Lord Molloy will be watching its financial performance with hawk-eyed vigilance, and it will do well to take heed of the criticisms he has made.

If the society operates under very demanding financial conditions, it must also be said that it seems to have unusual and perhaps curious by-laws concerning membership, and these, too, have caused my noble friend some concern. As I understand it, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals Act 1949 lays down in Section 16(1) that: The Council shall have power from time to time to make, alter and revoke by-laws with respect to the management of the Society". The resulting by-laws contain six clauses on "Members" which lay down, inter alia, that, No person shall he admitted a member of the Society unless he is first approved by the Council and the Council shall have full discretion as to the admission of any person to membership". That comes from PDSA by-laws, No.3.

This and other clauses on the constitution of the society's council seem to arrogate considerable power and authority to the council, but all its powers are derived directly from the 1949 Act, and, although some might think that the council may have acted ungenerously in considering recent requests for membership, it would be difficult to sustain a charge that it had acted illegally or even improperly. It may be, however, that it would be well advised to take a look at the legislation which governs it, especially the by-laws, with a view perhaps to revising some of its requirements in a more liberal and inclusive direction.

That might be felt to he a conciliatory gesture, though in fairness it has to be said that by the time of the last meeting of the council, on 14th May, there had been no complaints registered against rejection by those who had recently applied for membership. Among that group were, I believe, a number of most eminent practitioners of veterinary science, and it might seem that they were eminently desirable as members of the PDSA. But the society seems to have felt—and the case is at least arguable—that, as one of Britain's's largest employers of veterinary practitioners, it should not itself be governed by vets. The arm's length, or in this case, I suppose, one could say, paw's length principle, might seem, in the circumstances, not inappropriate.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am sorry but I must interrupt my noble friend for one moment. We must note the fact that there is a very great difference. If anyone joins the society he will be an ordinary member. Only the council can make him a member of the ruling body; that is, the council itself. On that basis, those concerned have stopped any soul in Great Britain from being a member of the organisation, despite the fact that it is up to its eyes in debt—or, at least, it appears to be.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, of course the society is in charge of its own rules of membership. However one may feel about that, I should imagine that it is impossible to make any particular difference without legislation. But it may be that my noble friend has legislation in mind.

The PDSA, like many other charities in these uncharitable times, is obviously going through a difficult period. It may be that there are stormy waters ahead of it even yet and it would do well to pull down its sou'wester and see to it that all the hatches are battened down. I support entirely the insistence of my noble friend Lord Molloy that this charity, like all charities, must uphold the highest standards of public probity and conduct and we must all be grateful for his vigilance in inquiring whether or not the noble ideals of the PDSA's founder are being upheld today. I await with great interest what the noble Baroness who is to reply has to say. Of course, it is entirely a matter for Her Majesty's Government what action, if any, they decide to take. I am sure that my noble friend will receive her remarks, as I hope he will take my own, with his customary courtesy and charity.

9.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, has raised an interesting issue tonight. I am glad to take part in the debate. As the noble Lord reminded us—as, indeed, did the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris—charities, both large and small, play a vital part in the life of our nation. It is perhaps often easy to forget that many of the major services which we take for granted today, whether they be of health, education or social welfare, were built on foundations laid down over many years by concerned individuals who gave of their time and resources, not because they were required to do so, but, voluntarily, for the good of their communities. Charities now engage in an enormous range of activities; they affect all our lives. Some have few funds with which to operate, others are substantial multi-million pound international corporations.

The charitable sector is growing—and growing fast. That is a tribute to the good will of the individuals involved and to the generosity of the general public who give so unstintingly. The Government believe that, if the sector is to continue to grow and play its full role, charities must be well managed and seen to be so, their trustees fully accountable and concerned to apply the highest standards of stewardship.

With those aims in mind, a complex legal framework has been built up over many years to ensure that money donated for charitable purposes is used wisely, honestly and well. The Charity Commissioners play a key role for it is they who are charged with the task of supervising and monitoring charitable activities and with investigating abuse—a fact recognised in the new the very new—charities legislation. The Charities Act 1992 was designed in part specifically to give the Charity Commissioners sharper tools—and more of them—with which to supervise and investigate charities, to identify abuse at an early stage, and to remedy it quickly and effectively wherever found.

The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, has told us of his concern at some of the PDSA's internal practices and has asked if the Government will intervene and investigate his complaints. I have to tell him that it is not open to me to take such action. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary does have general responsibility for the reform of charity law and, indeed, for the overall efficiency of the Charity Commissioners; but he has no powers to intervene in the day-to-day conduct of a particular charity's affairs nor, indeed, in the day-to-day administration of the Charity Commission.

It is, as I have said, for the Charity Commissioners to investigate the conduct and administration of individual charities. But it is for the commissioners to decide whether they will exercise their powers in any particular case.

I understand, of course, the noble Lord's anxieties and that he feels that something must be done. I shall ensure, therefore, that the commissioners are made aware of all that he said this evening. I urge him, however, if he has any other information which he thinks would be useful to the commissioners when they look at the points he has raised, to lay it before them as soon as possible.

As to whether the commissioners can act in the situation which the noble Lord describes is of course for them to decide. However, perhaps I should explain that the trustees of all charities are bound by the terms of their governing instrument (their trusts) and by the general law. Provided that they keep within the law and the terms of their trusts the commissioners cannot properly intervene in matters which fall to the discretion of the trustees.

Not all charities have a membership in the well-understood sense. Where they do, the admission of individuals to the membership and the powers and rights, if any, of members once admitted, the provisions for the conduct of meetings and so forth are always governed by the terms of the charity's trusts.

Where the trustees of a charity are given absolute discretion as to who may be admitted as a member, then obviously it is for them to exercise that discretion as they see fit. But neither my right honourable friend the Home Secretary nor the Charity Commissioners have power to intervene in the trustees' lawful execution of their discretion.