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There is, in effect, no divine right to charitable status. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal British Legion, St. John Ambulance, Save the Children and so forth will all have to pass a public benefit test, and so will the Churches.

Some have put forward thoughtful arguments suggesting that all this will prove detrimental to the Churches. One such argument is that religion does not have a provable public benefit. That is, in effect, arguing that because the charity or organisation is expected to fail the test, it should not have to take it. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others have mentioned, it is equally difficult in some circumstances to imagine how art, sport or even education can provably increase public benefit—but that is the purpose of case law and the purpose of the Charity Commission in giving guidance.

Indeed, help was provided by the example of humanist organisations earlier. They achieved charitable status in the end by suggesting that they aided the mental and moral improvement of mankind. My guess is that most religious charities would be able to argue robustly that they demonstrated comparable public benefits. Most accepted world religions set out the golden rule of doing unto others as they would expect others to do to themselves. That is clearly to the benefit of the wider community. The example of the Church of Scientology was also mentioned earlier. It was rejected under current law by the skin of its teeth, only because it did not have an act of worship. Without the public benefit test, there would be a real risk of religious organisations that were undoubtedly religious but harmful securing charitable status.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked for a specific example of an organisation that might fail the test. I offer her Satanism, which, under current case law, would meet the definition of a religion. It unambiguously has an act of worship and a
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supreme being and it obeys the supernatural principle that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) supported earlier, but I am sure that it would not pass a public benefit test.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman is theorising about Satanism. It has been around for a long time and the Charity Commission has never been remotely tempted to give it charitable status. Can he name one occasion when, under existing law, there has been an unsatisfactory outcome, either of a cult or something like Scientology gaining status, or of a genuine charity not receiving status, under that presumption? Can he name one case?

Martin Horwood: The Church of Scientology failed to gain charitable status.

Miss Widdecombe: As I pointed out.

Martin Horwood: If the right hon. Lady is referring to existing case law she should be reassured, because the charity commissioners have made it explicit, first, that their priority in testing public benefit is fee-paying organisations—as is clear in their guidance and has been the subject of much debate—and, secondly, that existing case law will guide their hand in judging the public benefit test. Under existing case law there is no evidence whatever that the Commission will become an army of political correctness trying to persecute the Churches.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, because he has not answered my question. Under the existing provision, can he give me one example of either something like Scientology succeeding—I am aware that actually it did not—or something that should have succeeded and did not? Can he give me one instance of the law—the presumption in favour of religion—not working properly?

Martin Horwood: To give the right hon. Lady an absolutely straight answer, no I cannot give the precise example for which she asks, but that does not change the argument for a level playing field for all charities, especially as so much of it is based on existing case law. She should be reassured by the fact that I cannot find an example.

Undue restriction, as proposed by amendment No. 1, will not threaten religious charities either. I know of no religion that is closed to converts, so there would be no undue restriction for religious charities. The fundamental principle is that this is in large part an excellent new Bill, which will establish a level playing field on a contemporary basis for all modern charities.

Mr. Beith: I want to pose a problem for my hon. Friend. The Charity Commission decides to test the law on public benefit on a small Calvinist sect that believes that there is a set number of elect people. In such a case, a small group of people, who had enjoyed charitable status for a considerable time, and whose numbers might be declining, thus falling foul of another Charity Commission definition, would have to go to judicial review against the Commission. That is
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the problem with producing such a vague concept, which is difficult to apply in such cases.

Martin Horwood: I am content to leave such matters to case law and to the Charity Commission. I suggest that my right hon. Friend should be content with that, too.

Alun Michael: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who is extremely knowledgeable and made a good contribution in Committee. I am pleased to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who by being modestly bold has created the opportunity for an important debate.

Members on both sides of the House will be pleased about the appointment of Campbell Robb as director of the office of the third sector. From his work in the House with MPs from all parties, he knows that the role of the office of the third sector is not just to do with structures or bureaucracy; it covers the relationships between the Government, the third sector and Parliament. It is a welcome development.

Many people in the charity sector and Parliament have engaged with the question of what public benefit is, and have been tempted to attempt a more precise definition in law. I, too, have been tempted down that road; we discussed it in Committee when the Minister engaged positively with the issue. He has kept his promise to give careful thought to all the options. The trouble is that it is always possible that the courts—or, in future, the charity tribunal—will be limp in how they interpret the intentions of Parliament. Our experience is that case law in the field of charity is sparse. For that reason, MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby understandably ask what the point is of removing the old presumption and requiring that public benefit be demonstrated clearly by charities, particularly those that charge significant fees for entrance, participation or services, if the requirement does not bite until a judgment is reached in a test case in 158 years’ time.

5.30 pm

Either we must be sure that the law and Parliament’s intentions are crystal clear, or we must be sure that those intentions will be given effect robustly and effectively by the Charity Commission, which must work sensibly and progressively but without undue delay. The real downside of choosing to include a more stringent definition is that it would create a risk of unintended consequences. An enormous amount of legislation on the statute book was intended to give tight and precise effect to a definition or requirement, and was supposed to provide limpid clarity, but turned out to be doubtful at best, or did not stand the test of time. Animal welfare legislation has been a running sore for just that reason.

Let us face it, some forms of words are precise and clear, but require constant reinterpretation. In my view, far from being a weakness, that is a strength. “Who is my neighbour?”—the words resonate down the ages, and after 2,000 years they are still clear and precise, yet they are as challenging as they were to the young lawyer to whom they were directed. They provoke debate just as they did when they were first spoken, and
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they have required careful interpretation in every age. The same applies to the words “public benefit”, and that is why I strongly resist both the introduction of a more precise definition, and the amendment with which my hon. Friend the Member for Selby provoked this constructive debate.

Our discussion has been worth while, but it has shown that the simple test of public benefit, if interpreted and applied in the existing legal framework in a modern context, is the right and simple way forward. Clearly, the meaning of “modern” will be different in decades and centuries to come, but the principle is clear. The question is whether the public benefit test will be applied robustly to charities that have been able to hide behind the historic presumption, or whether they will ignore the challenge. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is no longer in the Chamber, but I would like to say to her that, as a Christian, I think that Christian charities should be subject to the same test as the rest, and we should welcome that. The use of the public benefit test will depend on how the Charity Commission interprets the law, and not on how Ministers spell it out, although the Minister’s reply in this debate will clearly be important in setting out the basis of Parliament’s view.

When it comes to implementation, the Charity Commission’s view will be crucial. The commission is accountable to Parliament and the public for the way in which it interprets its responsibilities. I asked the chief charity commissioner how she and her advisers envisage their remit once the Charities Bill reaches the statue book. She had already spelled out her response to the Bill in the article referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), and I think that she correctly interpreted Parliament’s intentions. I particularly liked her comment that the public benefit requirement is a call to innovate. She is clearly using the Bill as an opportunity to allow not just Government, Parliament and the commission, but the sector itself, to explore ideas and principles vigorously in a modern context. It is important to mention the brief for MPs, which should be lodged in the Library for future reference, because the notes on how the public interest requirement will be interpreted by the commission are extremely important.

It is clear that organisations will not suddenly be required, overnight, to demonstrate that they provide public benefit, or to rethink their priorities, but there is a clear expectation that charities that previously benefited from the presumption will engage with the issues and, through their attitudes and actions, respond to the change in the law. They will need to show that they provide public benefit but, to be fair, many charities that operate under the existing presumption already demonstrate that they provide public benefit. That is the unwritten deal, and the public clearly understand that charitable status provides reward and encouragement for those who provide public benefit. Each charity must simply ask itself whether it provides public benefit in a way that justifies its charitable status, and whether it shows that benefit clearly, so that the requirements of transparency and accountability are met.

Indirect benefit is not likely to be enough in itself. The Charity Commission believes that the law, as it
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stands, makes it clear that it will not normally be possible to demonstrate public benefit through indirect benefits alone, such as savings in public expenditure that result from the charity’s provision of education or health services. It is therefore clear that the benefit to the public must generally derive from the organisation’s primary charitable purposes, rather than any secondary activity. Charities that were previously presumed to provide public benefit must show that they satisfy the law, and the Charity Commission must be satisfied that they have done so. Charities that charge high fees for their services must take active and transparent measures to ensure that someone who is eligible to benefit from those services has a reasonable chance to do so. It is sensible that charities should have time to adjust, but it is reasonable to expect them to engage with the changes.

The commission—not the Government—will make the final decisions about charitable status on a case-by-case basis. Their decisions will depend on the circumstances of individual fee-charging institutions following the criteria that I have described. If, after the Bill’s implementation, the Government’s intentions on public benefit are not fully reflected in practice, a review of the legislation must be instigated as soon as parliamentary time allows. In any event, the Minister has made it clear that a review of the public benefit requirements will be initiated three years after the Bill’s implementation.

I asked the chief charity commissioner, Dame Suzi Leather, whether I had interpreted correctly the Bill’s requirements. Would the commission be reasonable, but firm and robust, in ensuring that all charities fulfil those requirements in their day-to-day performance in a realistic period of time? She answered, “Yes”. Only the presumption was changing, and organisations that have not grappled with the issues until now, because they were not required to do so, must show they have done so. The change will not be new for the many charities that have already adapted to the change, which is welcome. All charities, however, must adapt now that the change in the law has become clear.

The commission has published on its website an indicative timetable outlining the steps that it would take to act on the public benefit requirement following Parliament’s approval of the Bill. That indicative programme makes clear the commission’s intentions, and it should be available in the Library so that hon. Members can refer to it. Provided that the Bill completes its passage in the expected time scale, in November, the citizens’ forum will begin research on public perceptions and expectations, and in January next year, the commission will launch a three-month consultation. Next September it will begin a pilot assessment of public benefit, producing detailed guidance for specific types of charities and consulting on the guidance, and in summer 2008, it will report progress to Parliament.

The chief charity commissioner stated her understanding that the Bill gives the commission a clear role in ensuring public trust and confidence in charity. I believe that that answers the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby in his amendment. The commission regards the public benefit requirement as a key component that makes a clear and explicit link between public benefit and charitable status, and which strengthens public confidence in the charity sector. It will apply the
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public benefit test rigorously to ensure that that goal is achieved, and fee-charging charities will be expected to demonstrate how they provide benefits.

I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby wants to gain as much as possible from our debate, but I am sure that the response from the chief charity commissioner, the commission itself and the Minister will allow him to reach the right place, which is not only as far as the Minister could go but as far as he should go.

Bob Spink: The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) will agree that there are none so generous as Yorkshire folk. He will forgive me for providing the more common version of the Yorkshireism that he cited to the House—“If tha does owt for nowt tha does it for thissen.” That is the opposite of the selfless work undertaken by many volunteers for the wonderful charities that we are seeking to control in the Bill.

Amendment No. 126 is straightforward as it simply retains the presumption that the advancement of religion is in the public benefit. The right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) mentioned common sense, and most people in the country would regard that proposal as simple common sense. However, the Bill would remove that time-honoured presumption and therefore represents a major change, and I suggest that it could seriously damage religious liberties and our traditions and even damage our benevolent and tolerant society.

Moreover, the clause is entirely unwanted, at least by the majority of the public, who despise political correctness. Under the law as it stands, many worthwhile religious charities have been registered in the UK, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If a charity, even a religious charity, has been acting improperly and is found not to be acting for the public benefit, it can be deregistered. That has happened plenty of times, such as in the case of Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park mosque. Under the existing statutory regime, the Charity Commission has successfully regulated religious charities and does not, nor should it, challenge or question their underlying doctrine—but that is what the Bill will inevitably lead to, and it is wrong. The proposed, more aggressive approach of the Bill is unnecessary and could be yet another step towards destroying the traditions of our society.

As we have heard, the commission states unequivocally that the 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. It is the word revoked that is so challenging and worrying. It means that the intention is to remove charitable status from some religious charities, and I wonder whether the Minister would spell out exactly which ones he is thinking of.

Christian charities, of course, take guidance from the Bible, written in ancient Israel, but I happen to believe, and so do many people in the House and in the country, that that Bible is still as relevant today, and its words as meaningful today, as they ever were. The Bill gives the commission massively increased powers. The current commissioners may be good people, but how
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can we be sure that they will always be benevolent and reasonable in the future? They will be required to make very subjective judgments about the ethos and ethics of different religions and religious activities. As there is nothing in the Bill that sets out any objective criteria for their judgment, their judgments will be subjective. How can they decide which religious groups are “beneficial” and which are not? On what criteria will they base that decision?

In any event, why should the commission—or, indeed, the law in interpreting the Bill—be rational and consistent when even the Government are not rational and consistent in proposing the Bill? The Government’s statements on this issue have been confused and contradictory. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, on Second Reading in this House the Minister said that removing the presumption of public benefit would “raise the bar” for religious, educational and poverty relief charities, while in Committee he maintained that

Those statements cannot both be true. So the Minister has himself been inconsistent in presenting the arguments for his own Bill.

Time is short, so I shall curtail my remarks. I believe that we should not inflict this clause on good people who are simply serving their communities through a religious charity. Political correctness must not become the new test of charitable status. I commend amendment No. 126 to the House.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I shall speak for no more than a minute.

My anxiety about the Bill is that, in the best of parliamentary traditions, we have confronted an issue, and then avoided it and devolved decision making to another body. That is why I welcomed the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and wish that he had pursued it. It would have been a good test of the power of prayer—unless the Minister fell on his knees.

Because this is the only opportunity that we shall have at this stage to influence the guidance, I would welcome it if the Minister were to read into the record his concurrence with the views of my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, because in that way we shall assist in shaping that guidance.

The second critical stage will be when that guidance is published in 2008. It would be useful to have an assurance that the guidance will be brought back to the House, at least for a parliamentary debate in which we can again express our views. If there is a promise of a three-year review, it would be useful for that debate to trigger the review, so that it becomes a parliamentary review rather than one that is again devolved or sent off to a separate commission. In that way, we will have an assurance that this is not a once-in-25-years review of the whole process, but an ongoing process in which Parliament will have a direct and meaningful role.

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