Previous Section Index Home Page

Dr. Harris: It is hard to say, because the number of people signed up to humanism per se, through the British Humanist Association and other organisations, is not as extensive as for other religions. But as the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a question of numbers because the Bill makes provision, as it should do, for small religions—even religions whose adherents are fewer than those who have actually consciously subscribed to a humanist belief system—to be recognised. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that there are significant numbers of people who say—for good reasons, I happen to think, although I am not a member of the British Humanist Association—that they have a non-religious
25 Oct 2006 : Column 1552
view of life. At a time like this, given what is going on in the world, that is something that should at least not be discriminated against, and some may argue that it is a very laudable thing.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What I do not understand is, what belief system would not be covered by the definition of the advancement of education, health, citizenship or community development, arts, culture, heritage or science, or any of the other purposes listed elsewhere in the clause?

Dr. Harris: I was going to come on to the point that the Government have made about that. It is not that humanist or rationalist new organisations, for example, may not be able to get charitable status under another part of the clause. Indeed, the Government said in their response to reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the catch-all, which used to be clause 2(2)(l) and is now clause 2(2)(m), and refers to subsection (4), would do. That is not the issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not that those are not charitable activities; it is just that they should be dealt with in a straightforward way, in the same way as religious belief systems. It is easier, because of the specific mention of religion, for that to happen with religious belief systems.

For reasons of non-discrimination, the default ought to be “religion or belief”, as defined under the Human Rights Act 1998, introduced by this Government. That definition has stood the test of all the other recent Government Bills that have mentioned religion. This Bill is a curious departure. To argue that the situation is okay because those organisations will be able to do things some other way, which might or might not take them longer, is not an argument of principle, and it is an argument of principle that I want to hear from the Minister.

In the 18 September letter to the Minister, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Hanne Stinson, says that the BHA has never been given any reason why the separation of non-religious beliefs from religion is necessary or desirable. That is the key point, and if that is not addressed it will be hard for us to avoid pressing the amendment to a Division. We need some sort of explanation. The BHA says—and I agree—that the situation is objectionable on formal grounds as an obvious discrimination between religion and non-religious beliefs, even if no actual detriment is caused. It says that it would be likely to lead to detriment for non-religious beliefs as different bodies of case law or Charity Commission practice built up, because cases dealing with non-religious beliefs may well not be dealt with by the same staff or in the same context as those dealt with under another sub-heading. That is at least possible—some would say probable.

The BHA claims—I have seen the background to this—that Government assurances that there is no problem and that things will not be any more difficult are undermined by past Charity Commission practice and by Government assurances of special treatment for religion. I will give a brief example. It cites the Minister saying on Second Reading:

25 Oct 2006 : Column 1553

As the reference is not to “religion or belief”, that can be taken, and is taken, to show that for religion the obligation may not be onerous, but it may be for things covered by the catch-all, or the items relating to education that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We know from other debates that education is a difficult ground for which to show public benefit.

The Government need to be aware that in practical terms, there has been an impact. The BHA goes on to explain that past practice shows that it can be onerous to get charitable status for a rationalist or humanist belief. The Rationalist Association sought registration as a charity in February 2001 and put in an amended application in November 2001. The process took another 15 months after the amended application was made, and there was endless correspondence with a variety of Charity Commission staff, each pursuing different lines of unnecessary inquiry, before at last the application was approved in exactly the amended terms proposed in November 2001. That cost a lot of money and delay.

The commission made the following assertion in the course of that correspondence:

Would the commission ever write to a Christian charity to say that the promotion of Christianity in itself is not a charitable activity? I believe that debates will show that if anything, assurances have been given that the straight promotion of, for example, Christianity is to be considered a charitable activity in itself, before the other test about public benefit, which we might debate later, is passed. I share the BHA’s view that that is

It has been argued that because there is a wide variety of non-religious beliefs, they demand special scrutiny. However, the same applies to religion. There are a multitude of religions. The Government have been reluctant—I do not argue with this—to define religion in statute, but have recognised that there will be a number of religions. The non-religious beliefs that qualify under the Human Rights Act as being governed by article 9 are already delimited by case law, and non-religious beliefs are no different from religious ones in being required to show public benefit. One can always argue about Scientology and so forth, but the same arguments that might apply to non-religious belief systems apply to some—some might say all—religious belief systems. I am talking about the questions that need to be addressed.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give some examples of non-religious belief that fall within the Human Rights Act definition? For example, is Marxism a non-religious belief system? Is fascism?

Dr. Harris: Just as the Government do not get drawn into giving lists of examples—rightly so—I am not going to be. The understanding of the definition of
25 Oct 2006 : Column 1554
belief in the Human Rights Act, which is the definition that I have proposed and that the Government use in all other legislation, clearly does not cover political belief systems. There is not a shred of jurisprudence to suggest that it ever would. The definition is meant to refer, does refer, and is understood to refer, to rationalist and humanist belief systems, for example. I am not an expert in these matters. We all have other things to be getting on with rather than worrying about the meaning of life, even at a time like this. However, the people who are affected have written to express their views. There will be humanists and rationalists in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I know that he will think about these things deeply before deciding whether to opt for a discriminatory, or apparently discriminatory, approach, and he will have their interests and feelings in his mind as he decides his position.

I want to cover what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said and then I will draw my remarks to a close. The Committee was clear in its scrutiny of the draft Charities Bill. In paragraph 5.23 of its report of 1 November 2004—its 20th report of that Session—it stated, after setting out the Government’s response that they were satisfied that organisations advancing non-religious beliefs would not be disadvantaged under the Bill as currently drafted:

I believe that that is still clause 2(2)(c) several versions later—

The Committee went on to comment on that in its report on the Charities Bill in the last Session. It set out its detailed argument in paragraphs 3.11 to 3.15. I will not repeat that, but the Committee did want to reiterate the following point, in paragraph 3.15:

—now clause 2(2)(m), which refers to the subsection (4) catch-all—

If guidelines are going to say, “Use clause 2(2)(c) to cover non-religious belief systems,” why not just include “religion or belief” and make the statute look like what the guidance needs to be?

Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights returned to the matter in its latest report on the subject, the first report of the 2005-06 Session. It recognised that there had been some improvement, because a definition of religion had been included. I want to record on behalf of the Committee, informally, our recognition that that was done. In paragraph 1.8, the Committee states:

I believe that that is arguable—by application of the catch-all

We thus have not only arguments of principle, but the fact that the default is to use a definition such as that proposed. We also have three recommendations of the Joint Committee, which was set up by Parliament to advise it on human rights and discrimination, and a practical impact—and we have heard in return no convincing arguments of principle from the Government about why they are not doing what I propose.

The problem is that there will be attempts—amendment No. 126, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), is an example—to treat religion as not requiring a public benefit test. If that were ever to come to pass it would clearly breach article 14, which addresses the duty of non-discrimination in respect of rights enjoyed under article 9, and exacerbate the existing system. The Government could solve such problems by accepting my amendments today.

2.30 pm

May I speak briefly to Government amendment No. 3? I have a close association with the British Chess Federation, which has lobbied the Minister hard on the need not to have a provision in the Bill that would exclude the federation a priori from justifying its pursuit, which is enjoyed by many disabled and elderly people, as a sport of the mind. The federation would wish me to put on record its thanks to the Government and the Minister, who will have free entry to any chess club in the land—and they are pretty wild places—and to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for raising the matter in Committee. The Government have done a good thing by tabling that amendment, so I hope that they will also do a good thing for the humanists, not all of whom play chess.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will not be surprised to hear that I wish to speak about the issue that he just raised. I welcome Government amendment No. 3 because it is clearly intended to include activities such as chess in the scope of the clause on the advancement of amateur sport. I applaud that, because the promotion of chess will bring a huge public benefit for not only people who are disabled or elderly, but young people, especially. When we talk about chess, it is often not recognised that it does not require mental agility and concentration alone. At higher levels, a lot of physical effort is required to engage in a match lasting perhaps several hours.

Cheddleton and Leek chess club, which is one of the most successful chess clubs in the country, is in my constituency, and plays at national level in the four nations chess league. It has produced five British junior champions and one visually impaired international player, so I can tell the Conservative Members who are smiling that it is not a joke club.

25 Oct 2006 : Column 1556

Charitable status would enable the club to attract even more people into the sport, and would mean that it could put on more events such as its successful annual congress, which draws many people, including international masters and grand masters, to Leek. The club could then also provide much more coaching for young people. It always holds a session on Friday nights for the adult and junior clubs, and also goes into schools to promote chess.

The Cheddleton and Leek club grew out of the passion of many young chess players. Back in 1973, chess was on the junior school curriculum, but there was nowhere for the youngsters to play after they got into high school. They thus pleaded with a teacher, Robert Milner, to set up a club so that they could continue to play. It is absolutely remarkable that the same Robert Milner is leading the club today; he should be congratulated on that.

Chess remains on the curriculum at St. Edward’s middle school, because it is recognised that chess hugely improves pupils’ concentration and benefits their learning potential overall. When I was a school governor in London, a team of young black students took on many private schools in south London and did remarkably well. Many of those students played chess in their playgrounds on the benches provided. Chess gave them huge motivation and massively improved their concentration and learning potential.

The Cheddleton and Leek club now boasts a junior section with 70 members, and its overall membership is more than 100. It has nine teams in the junior league. Many of the youngsters take on older players—frequently beating them—and there is a great rapport between the students, who can be as young as eight, and club members in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. The club does a tremendous job locally and should receive recognition for it. I am extremely grateful for Government amendment No. 3, because it will ensure that the club can get on the road to charitable status, which will allow it to get the support that it deserves and continue its valuable work in the community. I hope that other chess clubs throughout the country will follow its good example.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I speak in support of amendment No. 122, which I tabled. It is essentially a probing amendment, so I do not think that I will press it to a Division, unless I am greatly encouraged to do so by my hon. Friends. In any event, I pay tribute straight away to the Minister for his kindness in talking to me about the matter earlier, which was much appreciated. I hope that he will be able to respond constructively to what I say. In the simplest of terms, the amendment would widen the definition of sport in the Bill so that it included sports or disciplines open to competition in games organised by the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, or the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Mr. Greg Knight: Will my hon. Friend tell the House why he has limited his amendment to two committees and a federation? He is clearly trying to improve the Bill, but would not that improvement be greater if his amendment went wider?

25 Oct 2006 : Column 1557

Mr. Malins: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We are all trying to improve the Bill. It might be improved if the clause went wider—I say that frankly—but he will understand that my specific interest today is rifle and pistol target shooting. Given that those sports are recognised by the bodies that I mentioned, I focused my amendment on those bodies.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noted that his particular formulation would exclude the sport of croquet, for example? Although I realise that that sport is legally indulged in only by people on this side of the House, it is a perfectly reasonable sport, with a proper governing body. However, as the international organisations to which my hon. Friend refers think that baseball is a perfectly acceptable sport but not croquet, I feel that an extension of his proposal would be much more even-handed and might receive the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, even those who are not in the Chamber.

Mr. Malins: My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about croquet. I confess that I have learned quite a lot simply by listening to his intervention. However, I hope that he will forgive me for focusing on an important constituency issue.

Chris Bryant: I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would also exclude rugby. It is certainly not an Olympic sport; neither is cricket, for that matter. Oddly enough, I think that the Olympic champion in cricket is France. More importantly, the hon. Gentleman has fixed the list in such a way that it might preclude sports that come into existence in the future from being covered. For example, triathlon is a young sport, because it did not exist 15 years ago.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My understanding is that rugby union sevens would fall within the ambit of the definition as part of the Commonwealth games. He and I must have a chat some time about my distinguished rugby history, although I did not perform at any of those games.

On the edge of my constituency, Woking, can be found the Great Britain Target Shooting Federation, based at Bisley—a very fine organisation indeed. The federation manages target shooting with both rifles and pistols, and co-ordinates those sports at the Olympic and Commonwealth games. It works hard with and is admired by Sport UK, and has an exemplary reputation. I say immediately for the avoidance of doubt that I am talking about target shooting with rifles and pistols, which has nothing whatever to do with hunting.

The Bill introduces the concept of “the advancement of amateur sport” as being a charitable purpose. Sport is defined, rather narrowly, in clause 2(3). The Government have tabled their own amendment No. 3, which slightly broadens that definition. That is all to the good. The federation, not unnaturally, is concerned about the fact that target shooting with rifles and pistols, which is recognised by the Olympic and Commonwealth organisations as an amateur sport, could be excluded by reference to the current definition of sport, though I hope not by the Government’s new proposed definition.

Next Section Index Home Page