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That is consistent with the concept of continual improvement that is now generally accepted in the sector as being right in principle and necessary to the
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achievement of proper accountability. I believe that it is a sensible and progressive development of the standards for which our charitable sector is renowned. There is a clear expectation of timely action, but with no harsh grinding of gears.

That is why the hon. Member for Isle of Wight was wrong to imply that there was a degree of uncertainty, both in the Bill and about what the Charity Commission will do in interpreting it. The Charity Commission will not have to respond to Ministers or to their policy statements, and that is why I have been at pains to quote at some length what the chief charity commissioner has said about her understanding of what Parliament is doing to provide clear law.

I believe that the Charity Commission has raised its game over the past few years. I now feel very confident that it will discharge robustly the responsibilities that Parliament is giving it, but with common sense and professionalism. Therefore, the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight are ill founded, and I hope that he will accept what the chief charity commissioner has said about her interpretation of the commission’s remit from Parliament. That is a matter of emphasis, but an important one.

In the forthcoming spending review, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office will want to encourage the process of continual improvement in the sector, and to ensure that the Charity Commission is well equipped to drive that process forward. In the meantime, I am certain that the Bill serves charities well, without being too prescriptive about the definition of public benefit. The principle is clear and has stood the test of time, but we need to reinterpret it for the modern age. That will be necessary again in the future, as eternal ideals must continually be interpreted anew as they are applied to contemporary conditions and challenges.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he asked me to do some work on improving the relationship between Government and the charitable and voluntary sector. I have been increasingly aware ever since that, although legislation and clarity about principles are important, it is people who drive charitable endeavour, and that legislation needs to nurture enterprise and vigour in that sector.

This Bill, in the form that it has acquired as a result of the parliamentary scrutiny process, is eminently fit for that job. I commend the efforts of those Ministers who have produced it.

6.43 pm

Martin Horwood: I should like to begin by thanking the Minister for the Cabinet Office for her kind words, and I congratulate both her and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on their performances in the debates on this Bill. I also want to congratulate many of the members of the Standing Committee, especially the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), both of whom made valuable contributions.

Indeed, Back Benchers of all parties have made interesting contributions, and credit should also go to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald
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(Miss Widdecombe), to the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). All of them extracted some important statements from the Minister, who showed that he was willing to engage with hon. Members of all parties and to listen to what they had to say.

The importance of the Bill really came home to me when I addressed the annual general meeting of a local charity, Cheltenham Community Projects, which helps some of the most vulnerable people in our town. The previous year, I had been sent away with something of a flea in my ear, having been told that MPs should try to lift the regulatory burden and other impositions placed on smaller charities if we wanted to encourage volunteering.

I think that I can go back to the staff of CCP and look them in the eye. They were about to consider pursuing company status, but they will now be able to pursue charitable incorporated organisation status. That will be a great improvement for all such charities.

I remain a member of the Institute of Fundraising, which has welcomed the Bill’s proposals on fundraising. For the Government to get its support is no mean achievement. The particular issue is street collections and face-to-face collections of funds—very important sources of income, as Christian Aid alone derives £15 million a year from street collections. Face-to-face fundraising from direct debits and standing orders raises £37 million of new donations every year, probably adding up to £184 million of donations over the lifetime of the donors for each charity. Some rather unfairly describe the people who collect these donations as chuggers, which is a rather insulting description of people—some still volunteers—who work very hard to generate that sort of income.

Mr. Walker: Speaking as someone who has asked about a registered charity in the past—in fact, on the Minister’s first day in the job—I would like to change my definition to charity huggers as opposed charity muggers. That provides a much better definition of these people.

Martin Horwood: I am grateful for that contribution, which is very much in the spirit of the Bill.

I continue to have some reservations about the fundraising elements of the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will reassure me that he is keen to ensure that the local authorities given new powers to regulate street fundraising are not over-zealous in their application.

I have other reservations about other parts of the Bill, including clause 38 on the liability of trustees. It still fails to protect trustees from liability in respect of pursuing ethical investment policies, which strikes me as entirely laudable, so will the Minister look further into providing ways in which such ethical policies could be pursued by charities just as they are by others?

I view the charity tribunal as a very welcome development, as it is absolutely right to have a court of appeal against decisions by the Charity Commission. In Committee, I provided a particular example of the need to allow the tribunal also to hear decisions that were not taken by the Charity Commission. That argument was lost on the Minister, but he was kind enough to describe the issue as extremely important. It
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is not yet clear how it is to be tackled, but I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

Issues of academic freedom are also relevant. There are no powers to protect academic freedom—as there are in the Higher Education Act 2004, for example—and the Charity Commission has quite draconian powers to remove entire boards of trustees. Those now apply to some higher education institutions and collegiate universities, so the need to protect academic freedom remains an important issue. These matters will have to be pursued in other ways and in other places, but I hope that the Minister will take them into account. I am hopeful that he will, because both in today’s debate and in Committee he demonstrated a general willingness to listen and to respond, which has been greatly appreciated on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Finally, I would like briefly to thank the researchers who helped me during the Bill’s passage—Jake Rigg, Jessica Hambly, Elizabeth Poston and Hollie Voyce— who at times had more influence on the Minister than I did. I am most grateful for their contributions. I am delighted to be present at the final stages of a Bill that I first debated when I was working in the charity sector and was not even a candidate for Parliament. It is pleasing to be in my place for the final stages.

6.48 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): At the risk of further alienating my hon. Friends, may I further praise the Minister for his conduct both in Committee and outside? I have noticed that when hon. Members compliment one another, particularly across the Chamber, there is usually a “but” coming, so I hope that the Minister will allow me to register one or two buts in my contribution.

Clearly, we need the best possible framework to help the charitable sector reach its full potential, but I am not fully convinced that parts of the Bill will assist it to do so. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about the removal of the presumption of public benefit. I do not oppose the test per se, but I raised my concern in Committee that more schools rather than fewer schools should benefit from having charitable status. As the public benefit test is ratcheted up, it is possible that fewer will receive charitable status. I would probably be more comfortable if the test, and what it constitutes, were built more clearly into the Bill. I understand that no such definition to allow the necessary flexibility exists in the provisions before us. That will lead to confusion and a lack of clarity.

It is vital that clear and concise guidance is given to independent schools about what is likely to be in the test. I understand that the Charity Commission is already holding discussions with representatives from the independent sector, but from my discussions with independent schools in my constituency I know that they are already concerned about where the bar will be set. Although I was a member of the Committee, I was unable to provide adequate advice to a governor who came to see me about the issue.

I asked the Minister about trustees with learning disabilities, with particular reference to a charity of which I am a trustee, the SHIELDS—supporting, helping, informing everyone with learning disabilities—parliament in Southend, which acts as an advocacy
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centre for learning disabilities. In Committee, the Minister assured me that guidance documents were being refined; indeed, he precipitated discussions between the Charity Commission and the SHIELDS parliament, and I thank him very much for that. I also welcome the measures to make it easier for charities to recruit new trustees. I sincerely hope that they find those measures helpful.

Key to the framework of the charity sector is the role of the Charity Commission. I realise that it is committed to reducing the administrative burden of regulation for charities by more than 25 per cent. over the next four years. Like most Members, I welcome that step, but I am concerned about the threshold for registration. It has been raised to £5,000, but that is still too low; conversely, the level of bureaucracy in the commission is too high.

I support the amendment tabled earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), which proposed that the charity appeal tribunal should administer a suitors fund, or something similar. If small charities cannot appeal to the tribunal, its real value will be limited. Finally, I thank the Minister for reconsidering the definition of sport. I also express my personal thanks to him for not repeating the minutiae of some of the debate in Committee, as that certainly was not necessary.

6.52 pm

Andrew Selous: I want to respond briefly to a point made earlier by the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). If I remember correctly, he said that some Conservative amendments in the Lords might have limited the scope of charities to the UK and restricted their international work.

I was curious and a little concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, so I spoke to him as he left the Chamber. He told me that no such Conservative amendment had actually been tabled, but he thought that there had been talk of one. For the sake of accuracy, I do not want anyone reading the report of the debate to be under a wrong impression about what my party did in the Lords on this matter. We thoroughly welcome the important work of charities both in this country and abroad, and I want to put that firmly on the record.

6.53 pm

Edward Miliband: It is a privilege to wind up the debate. Subject to deliberations in another place, this is the last debate on the Bill in the House. Before I make some closing remarks, I shall respond briefly to some of the questions that have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) referred to a suitors fund. The premise of the tribunal is that it should be simpler, cheaper and quicker for charities to use it without the need for expensive legal advice or representation. However, if in practice it becomes apparent that legal representation is routinely required and that the costs present a barrier, we will have to revisit our position on the suitors fund. I assure him that it will be part of the review process.

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The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has been persistent about decisions not to open an inquiry. I have talked to the Charity Commission about that matter and it appreciates the need for greater transparency in that area. In its compliance role, the commission relies extensively on matters of concern being brought to its attention. Once a complaint has been made and an inquiry requested, the commission will acknowledge receipt and may seek further information. The complaint will be subject to thorough assessment to determine how it is to be dealt with. The commission will let the complainant know how the case will be handled in the commission and its outcome and, where possible, the reason for the decision. I have already pointed out to the commission what the hon. Gentleman has said on that subject.

As for local authorities and raising funds, I know that there is anxiety among charities that carry out face-to-face fundraising. Local authorities were able to discriminate against them, but we are confident that that will not be possible under the Bill.

Martin Horwood: My point about face-to-face fundraising was not that it was impossible under the Bill; in fact, we argued that it was possible. If local authorities are inclined to be vexatious, will the Minister urge the commission to direct them not to act in that way?

Edward Miliband: I certainly cannot give directions to the commission, but I am confident that under the Bill, there is no opportunity for vexatious local authorities to prevent fundraising as the hon. Gentleman suggests. He mentioned ethical investment, but charities have quite a lot of latitude in that area. A Charity Commission publication, CC14, explains that, but I suspect that discussion on the subject will continue.

In closing, let me make three simple points. First, the legislation has greatly benefited from the long deliberation that has taken place, which included pre-legislative scrutiny. I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and other members of the Joint Committee. I thank, too, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), both of whom have helped me.

The long deliberation meant that three Ministers were involved with the Bill, including myself, and I thank my predecessors, my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins). I thank, too, hon. Members on both sides of the House for taking part in our debate and improving the Bill, particularly the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). He was a schoolteacher in a former life, and sometimes, when talking to him, I felt as though I was undergoing a hard exam session, but the Bill is the better for his contribution. The same is true of the hon. Member for Cheltenham, who sought to improve the Bill, and has indeed done so. He took remarks about the Cheltenham principle and 1/4ber-chuggers in the spirit in which they were intended. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who has guided me through the process, and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods),
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and for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), who offered valuable help. I take the opportunity to thank a hard-working team of officials, led by Richard Corden, and the parliamentary draftsmen, whose work often goes unnoticed.

Secondly, I thank the Charity Commission for its contribution. It has come in for stick at times during the progress of the Bill, but there is general recognition across the House that it has a difficult job, given that there are 190,000 charities but only a few hundred staff at the commission. The staff now have the heavy responsibility of implementing the Bill, under the leadership of Dame Suzi Leather, the new chief charity commissioner. They take that responsibility seriously, and will seek to demonstrate the qualities of a 21st-century regulator.

Finally, I pay tribute to the 190,000 charities across the country, which are the subject of the Bill. We all have charities in our constituencies, and they demonstrate what Beveridge long ago called the

They are making a difference across our country, and the Bill aims to support them in their inspiring work. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

parliamentary costs Bill [ lords]

Read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Consolidation bills),

Question agreed to.

Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

wireless telegraphy Bill [ lords]

Read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Consolidation bills),

Question agreed to.

Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

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