November 13, 2012
Nick Hurd responds on behalf of the Government to a back bench MP’s debate on the registration of charities and the Charity Commission’s decision not to register the Preston Down Trust which is part of the Plymouth Brethren church.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is very well regarded on both sides of the House and by me, and she deserves every one of the compliments that have been showered on her this afternoon. I congratulate her on securing a debate that has mobilised, at my last count, more than 40 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. That is to be noted by the Government, but also by the Charity Commission.
It is important to unpack the debate, because there are three issues that are linked but need to be discussed separately. The first question is whether the Charity Commission has made a good or bad decision in relation to the Plymouth Brethren. The second is: what are the implications of that decision? That is the “Who’s next? What’s next?” question—the concern about a ripple effect across other religious groups. The third question is whether what we have set up to protect the integrity of the charity system in this country, to protect taxpayers and donors, is fit for purpose in terms of defining public benefit. It seems to me that those are the three issues, and I would like to try to deal with them in the time that I have left.
I have to say up front that I will be forced to pick up a slightly different hymn sheet from the one used by the rest of the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon. It is a little less rousing, but parts of this tune need to be heard. My first point is about the Charity Commission. “Rotten”, “discriminating”, “a bureaucratic bully crushing the little guy”, “a hidden agenda”, “unjust”, “inconsistent”, “arbitrary”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—this has been quite a rough day for the members of the Charity Commission. It could be worse—they could be working in the BBC—but that is very tough language and it communicates the strength of feeling in the House on this issue.
However, I have to make an important point about the status of the Charity Commission. We have to remind ourselves that it is a non-ministerial Department. It is not subject to ministerial direction or control. It is an independent registrar and regulator. Its independence is set out in statute, and Ministers and the Government have no power to intervene in Charity Commission decisions.
Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): The Charity Commission seems to be imposing a state dogma of uber-inclusivity on a religious group that has decided to be moderately exclusive. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that that is very big society and, as the big society Minister, is he not prepared to do something about it? That is why we have elections, is it not?
Mr Hurd: That was a characteristically well made point, but actually the view that I have, as a Minister, on this individual decision is not relevant, for the reasons that I have just given. I am here to stand up for the commission’s freedom to take the decision, because that is the process that we have set up.
The second point is that, in exercising its functions, the Charity Commission is answerable to the courts. As many other hon. Members said, the Charity Commission’s decision not to register the Preston Down Trust has been appealed to the First-tier Tribunal. As that decision is subject to an appeal, there is a limit to what the Charity Commission can say at the moment, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that there is a limit to what I can say in response to the debate, because I do not want, as a Minister, to be accused of trying to influence a tribunal.
Damian Hinds: If this had reached a point at which an attack was being made on the Church of England or the Catholic Church, would we still be saying that it is not right to question what the Charity Commission is doing and it is answerable only to the courts?
Mr Hurd: I am delighted to see my hon. Friend back on this side of the Chamber; I was worried for a moment when I saw where he was sitting earlier. I will deal with the specific point that he raises when I deal with the second part of the argument, which is: what are the wider implications of the decision?
I remind hon. Members that before the advent of the Charities Act 2006, it was generally considered that charities for the advancement of education, the advancement of religion and the relief of poverty benefited from a presumption of public benefit. The 2006 Act removed that presumption. The aim was to create a level playing field whereby all charities had to show their public benefit. As has been pointed out, the Act did not seek to define public benefit—we will return to that—but instead continued to rely on its common law meaning. It gave the Charity Commission the job—we should recognise that it is a difficult job—of producing guidance on public benefit, and promoting awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement.
One of the Charity Commission’s functions is to determine whether organisations that apply for registration are charitable in law. It is for organisations applying to show that they are charities, not for the Charity Commission to show that they are not.
Before the advent of the 2006 Act, the Exclusive Brethren were “excepted” charities and were not required to be registered with the Charity Commission. The 2006 Act required certain excepted charities to register with the commission. It is that change that has led to the application to register by the Preston Down Trust. According to the Charity Commission, its decision not to register the trust was based on the content of the application as it was presented. The commission says that it was not able to conclude that the Preston Down Trust was a charity in law based on the material that was presented to it in the application. The commission’s decision was explained in a letter dated 7 June. I can certainly place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House for hon. Members who do not have one.
Fiona Bruce: Can my hon. Friend the Minister comment on whether he thinks that the decision reflected what was the will of the House when the Charities Act was passed in 2006? I would be interested in his view and I believe that he can give it. I checked very carefully with the House of Commons Library before the debate that this issue is not sub judice or subject to those rules and therefore comment can be made on it in this Chamber.
Mr Hurd: We can all express our opinions, but I genuinely think that in this matter the substantive point that I have to make is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission takes a different view on the evidence presented to it by the Brethren, it is for the tribunal to decide. I think quite genuinely and I say with real sincerity that it would be unhelpful for me to express a personal view as a Minister in that context.
I will move on to the second point. My answer to the first point—was this a good or bad decision?—is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission changes its mind, it is for the tribunal to decide. A serious concern was raised about a ripple effect from the decision. There were concerns that the Charity Commission is pursuing an anti-Christian agenda. I am satisfied that that is not the case. As a public body, the Charity Commission is bound by equalities duties and by law must not discriminate in its dealings with different religions or faiths. A fact that has not emerged from the debate is that the Charity Commission continues to register hundreds of Christian charities each year, including charities that were previously excepted. That fact has to be reconciled with various statements—some of them quite wild—about the commission discriminating.
Ian Paisley: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Hurd: I have very little time and I would like to close on the third substantive point: is the process fit for purpose? The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) rightly said that this issue had been reviewed by the Government. We asked Lord Hodgson to review all the regulation and legislation affecting the sector. His preliminary conclusion was that the system that we have at the moment would be difficult to change, because there is a substantial challenge in trying to condense hundreds of years of case law into a rigid, fixed definition of public benefit in this place. His view was that it was better to stay with this flexible system, which can evolve over time and whereby things are determined by case law. We are reviewing that recommendation. This debate has certainly contributed to that. My position is that we will publish an interim report as a response to Hodgson, but we want to hear in particular the evidence from the Public Administration Committee, which has been looking into the issue. However, this debate has been extremely helpful.
I, like most other hon. Members in this Chamber, would like this issue to be resolved speedily. It has dragged on too long. I share hon. Members’ concerns about the cost that that imposes on the Brethren. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision, I urge all who are involved to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.