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Those sentiments were present in this House 40 years ago.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is right and that I am wrong. I began by mentioning the Prime Minister, who sometimes says that he wishes that he had gone further with particular reforms. I hope that the Minister assumes higher office in future, when I am sure he will introduce many reforms, but I also hope that in years to come he does not reflect on this, his first big ministerial job, which has given him the chance to reform charities law. I heard him speak passionately in Grimsby on the 50th anniversary of Crosland’s book, “The Future of Socialism”, which touches on charity law and independent schools. When he looks back in years to come, I hope that he does not think, “I wish I had been bolder on that occasion.”

Miss Widdecombe: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who is leading on this Bill from the Front Bench, for adopting my amendment. I hope that he has set a precedent, and that Opposition Front Benchers will always be keen to adopt my amendments.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). At one stage, it looked as though I would be trapped with the wonderful ladies of the Berkshire women’s institute, and would not be here to move the amendment. My hon. Friend agreed to move it in the absence of an adoption by the Front-Bench spokesman, so I am grateful to him for that, and for the work that he has put in.

Existing law already includes a presumption in favour of religious charities. I am not seeking to introduce something that has never been in the law before, to grant religious charities a privilege that they have never had before or to discriminate in their favour at the expense of everybody else. I am merely seeking to retain in our law something that the Government inexplicably want to remove.

If there were evidence—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has already pointed out that there is none—that the part of our law that already makes a presumption in favour of religious charities was not working and was causing difficulty for the Charity Commission, for organised religion or for other charities, I would be much less certain. However, I always work on the principle, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That particular presumption has served us for centuries, and I see no reason why it should not continue to do so.

The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) challenged my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about the word “pray” and pointed out that organisations such as—although he did not mention them—the Scientologists pray. Some of the more obscure cults also pray—they prey, too—but they are already excluded under existing law, so the point is a red herring and has nothing to do with amendment No. 126, which simply tries to keep in our law a provision that has served us well and has caused no problems.

I have had to ask myself why on earth the Government or the Charity Commission would want
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to ditch a law that works perfectly well. The agenda is set out in paragraphs 15, 23 and 24 of the Charity Commission report of January 2005, in which the commission states that public benefit must be assessed

and that keeping up with “modern society” is required if a charity is not to have its charitable status revoked. I would suggest that that means that there are already religious charities that would be in danger from the exclusion of the presumption. This is not only about new charities being set up, but existing charities whose status might be revoked.

What exactly are these “modern conditions” and this “modern society” that a charity has to comply with? I do not get the impression that it has anything to do with setting “How Great Thou Art” to rock music. It is far more likely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, that modern morals—

Martin Horwood: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: In a minute, but not just yet. I will willingly do so when I have finished this section of my speech.

This will be nothing other than the application of modern morals and existing orthodoxy to religion. That is pretty worrying for a charity whose ultimate authority is a 2,000-year-old book—and that is only the New Testament. Many charities are based on much older authority even than that.

I have reason to be sceptical. In the past, I was involved with an application to the Charity Commission for a hospice for babies in the north of the country. It was a very beautiful vision that small, highly disabled children should be able to avail themselves of care in that hospice while their parents obtained respite. Nobody in the world could say that that was not a wonderful idea. The hospice, which was to be funded not by national resources but by charitable donation, was to be run under the auspices of Life, the political wing of which campaigns against abortion. That charitable endeavour, which was, I am pleased to say, ultimately successful, had to go through many hoops to get its status. That alerts me—

Martin Horwood rose—

Miss Widdecombe: If the hon. Gentleman did not understand what I said, I will say it plainly: I will willingly give way when I have come to the end of this section, but not until then.

That alerts me to the fact that the Charity Commission is already heavily influenced by existing moral orthodoxies. If we remove a presumption that is at least some safeguard against that, the prevalence of those existing moral orthodoxies will prejudice applications from some—not all, but some—religious charities. That is the end of my section.

Martin Horwood: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I have a soft spot for her because she was a generous supporter of Alzheimer’s Society events when I was a director of fundraising there—although that soft spot may have just got a little smaller.

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I cannot for the life of me find anywhere in the Bill the phrases relating to modern laws that the right hon. Lady mentioned. As has been demonstrated earlier in the debate, the Charity Commission occasionally gets things wrong. I would be alarmed by such phraseology were it in the Bill, but it is not.

As for Life, if the right hon. Lady is worried about charities that have had a role in trying to change legislation, as Life did, the same applies to many other charities such as Oxfam, which has also had some difficulty in fending off the Charity Commission at various times in its history because it was seen to be trying to change legislation. That is an established part of charity case law; it is nothing controversial.

4.45 pm

Miss Widdecombe: The second part of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks is wrong. The proposal that I mentioned was straightforwardly for a babies’ hospice. It had nothing to do with the law or changes in it. It was a case of guilt by association. If the Charity Commission is swayed in such a way when a protection is built in, I believe that its removal will enhance that effect, and that religious charities that do not necessarily keep up with “modern society” in some of their teaching will be disadvantaged.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the two phrases that the Charity Commission used do not appear on the face of the Bill. That is true. However, when determining whether the law is right, we need to examine the context in which it has been devised. The two phrases that I cited constituted the Charity Commission’s reasoning for wanting to remove the presumption in favour of religious charities. It has stated its reasoning, which Government Front Benchers have never disowned. We should therefore be alert to how the Charity Commission will apply the law if the protection is removed. I do not believe that the commission should be in the business of adjudicating on religious beliefs. Removing the presumption creates the risk that it will do that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Surely it is sensible, for the avoidance of doubt in case such matters became actionable before the courts or any tribunal, for Parliament to make its intentions explicit. The law is littered with examples of interpretation being left to judges because the will of Parliament has not been made clear. The amendment would make explicit my right hon. Friend’s intention—and, hopefully, that of the House—so that there will be no doubt about the matter in future.

Miss Widdecombe: Indeed. Although my hon. Friend says that there would be no doubt in future, there is no doubt currently, either. By removing the presumption we create doubt, and the amendment tries to avoid that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Chris Bryant: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I will shortly, but I wish to amble a little further before doing so.

I am worried about the inconsistency of ministerial statements about this matter. If a law or a provision in it that has given no trouble is suddenly removed, Ministers’ words become important. On Second Reading, the Parliamentary-Secretary said that removing the presumption of public benefit would
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“raise the bar” for religious, educational and poverty relief charities. [Interruption.] I see that he disputes that. Let me therefore give him the Hansard reference, which I happen coincidentally to have with me. It is 26 June 2006, volume 448, column 97. However, in Committee, he maintained that

Either the change raises the bar or it does not. Most of us fear that its purpose is to raise the bar.

I have yet to hear a single argument from anyone against maintaining the status quo. It works. It has never been proved to cause any difficulty. There must therefore be a reason for removing it. If one removes a presumption in favour of religious charities, the inevitable implication is that one is trying to make life harder for them.

Chris Bryant: The right hon. Lady’s argument has many holes in it, not least the fact that Life is not a religious organisation but independent of religion. So far, she has not presented a single argument for treating religious charities differently from any others. Why should, for example, someone who sets up an arts organisation have to fulfil a public need requirement when a religious organisation does not?

Miss Widdecombe: On the issue involving Life, the hon. Gentleman was not following me closely. I was drawing an analogy with enslavement to prevailing orthodoxy. I am saying that that enslavement would be carried over if the protection that currently exists in law were removed from religious charities. I was drawing an analogy; I was not stating that Life is a religious charity.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that I have not advanced a reason why religion should have special protection. I have not done so because that was admirably done by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, when he pointed out that religion is special in its nature and is not always easily testable by direct public benefit criteria. Therefore, to have a presumption in its favour is the right starting point. If it can then be shown that the activities of that charity are undesirable—as was the case with Abu Hamza, for example—under existing law, although the protection is still in place, it can be removed. The argument that we are making is that there should be an existing presumption in its favour, because religion is not easily testable on those criteria.

Chris Bryant: The right hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way, and I think that we are getting to an important point. Fine art might be intrinsically a good thing, just as religion might be—as she and I agree—intrinsically a good thing. But the point in respect of charity law is whether the state should make provision that makes financial benefit for such organisations. That is the point at which it must be shown that there is some public benefit.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman adopts a position that I do not share, as he is arguing this point from a particularly secular view. We have in this country an established Church; we already have a very intense relationship between state and religion. I do not
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know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a good or a bad thing—I do not know his views on the subject.

Chris Bryant: I was ordained in the Church of England.

Miss Widdecombe: I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was ordained in the Church of England, but he left it for this place, which says a lot about his priorities. Although I must say that I left the Church of England in my own way, as well.

What I was saying to the House, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s query, is that it is extremely difficult wholly to divorce state funding from religion in a situation such as that which exists in this country, where there is already an established Church, and there is a long tradition and a lot of law, other than this one, that entwines state and religion.

Can anybody show me one good reason why this provision should be removed—one instance of failure in the application of this benefit? If anybody can show me one good reason for abolishing something that has always worked, and which nobody was worried about until the Charity Commission started waffling on about modern conditions, I might change my mind. But I have heard no good reason, and I believe that there is a great deal to be said in favour of keeping it in our law.

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in debate. As her contribution and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) have demonstrated, the issue of public benefit goes to the heart of what the Bill is about. The measure under discussion is easily the most significant change made by the legislation, and I also think that it is the most controversial. It is certainly the topic on which the House and the other place have expended most energy during the tortuous progress of the Bill over the past few years. Therefore, it is the issue that demands the greatest clarity.

As the Joint Committee that I chaired to examine the Bill in draft form put it:

at that time, that was my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—

Amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, is an honest attempt to do just that—to clarify what is meant by public benefit in the Bill. However, I do not think that his amendment is right or workable. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has already gone some way toward addressing the concerns not just of Labour Members or Members of this House as a whole, but of both Houses, will need to go a bit further in his concluding remarks. He will need to set out how the Government intend the public benefit test to operate in practice. This is a significant change not just for religion, but for the whole of the charitable sector.

What is not in dispute—among Labour Members, at least—is the positive benefit that accrues from the
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introduction of such a test. I have to say, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), that I am at a loss to understand what the Opposition’s position is on public benefit, having listened at length—I also listened to him at length on Second Reading—to his somewhat tortuous and occasionally toe-curlingly embarrassing attempt to avoid the question of whether the Opposition support the concept. If he gets an opportunity to do so, perhaps he will clarify the Opposition’s position. If I may, I shall offer a small piece of political advice. I should have expected a party that nowadays seeks to claim that mantle of modernity—notwithstanding the concerns of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald about the modern world—to welcome with no ambiguity what most people think is a long overdue modernisation of charity law.

If we can get the public benefit test right, as I believe we can, it could clarify an area of charity law that every Member knows fine well has been greatly disputed for many centuries, including in the courts. Perhaps even more importantly, it would introduce a healthy dose of common sense into a complex area of charity law. We have to face a very simple fact: what the public think of as a charity and what we define in law as a charity are sometimes at variance. That is why, when asked, only 15 per cent. of the public believe, for example, that a charity such as Tate Modern is indeed a charity. Even fewer believe that Eton is, or indeed should be, a charity—but it is.

So there are issues that we must address, not least in order to sustain what my hon. Friend the Member for Slough rightly called the charity brand, and its reputation now and in future. To be frank, it is in any case right that charitable status, since it accrues significant benefits, should be earned and not simply assumed. After all, organisations that are charities enjoy high levels of public support precisely because they are assumed to provide a meaningful benefit to the public. So in that sense, the good name of charities is at least as important as their good works.

There is a further important consideration—a financial consideration—which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) touched on in an intervention a moment ago. Charities do not just receive generous donations from the public individually; they also receive pretty generous financial support from the public collectively. For example, in the latest tax year charities attracted tax relief worth almost £1.9 billion, which is a pretty significant pot of public expenditure. Nowadays, nobody—perhaps with the exception of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight; I do not know—expects public money to be doled out like a free good. It rightly comes with some strings attached. The public have the right to know what they are getting out for what they are putting in. Charities cannot be exempt from those disciplines.

Mr. Beith: Can the right hon. Gentleman not see that there is an inherent difficulty in applying the concept of earning charity relief to religion? The situation is more straightforward in education, for example, where the extent of public benefit can be shown. That is different from a state agency’s having to decide which religious groups earn, by virtue of their theological views and actions, the status of a charity.

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