The Bishop of St Albans takes part in debate on the Charity Commission

During a debate on the effectiveness of the Charity Commission, the Bishop of St Albans welcomed the Government’s decision to extend exempted charity status to churches and similar charities by a further seven years but raised concerns about the capacity to register exempted organisations when they reach the registration threshold. He called on the Government to ensure that funding was maintained to ensure the Charity Commission could provide high-quality advice and support to charities and sought a specific assurance from the Minister that the Transparency of Lobbying Act would not affect a church’s ability to host hustings and similar events.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I will not reiterate what has already been said about the levels of underfunding of the Charity Commission. There is great concern that the vital work that is going on needs proper support if we are going to develop this very important sector in our country. A number of noble Lords have spoken about the need for proper resourcing.

I want to comment briefly on the group of charities that are described by the Charity Commission as excepted charities. These include not just churches and chapels but charities that provide premises for some types of schools and Scout and Guide groups, and charitable service funds of the Armed Forces. It is very significant and helpful that Her Majesty’s Government have decided to extend exception from registration for a further seven years beyond 31 March 2014. It is unclear whether there are any plans afoot for an orderly transition to registration in the lead-up to 2021. Of course, to some extent inflation will reduce the number of excepted organisations and other charities as they reach that £100,000 registration threshold, but unless some queuing system is agreed in advance, at the end of the seven-year extension there is a real possibility of a logjam.

That is just one of the reasons why we need to ensure proper funding. The commission has the responsibility to offer, as well as regulation—which clearly is needed and for which we are very grateful—advice and support. There has been a question about the focus of the work. Certainly, my experience of being involved with many charities is that with increasing legislation and, indeed, litigation, many people are deeply worried about taking on trusteeships. If we are going to see this grow, surely we need to ensure that we have proper, adequate support.

Who do we turn to, from a charitable point of view, if we want authoritative advice? Expecting umbrella organisations such as the NCVO to replace the commission is simply unrealistic. None of them has sufficient clout to do the job. In my own sphere of work, the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service tries very hard to provide sound advice to member churches but it can never have the detailed expertise and knowledge of the commission. In short, if we are to have proper regulation and guidance, it really is important that we get proper resourcing behind it.

Many of your Lordships will have been involved in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, and will be acutely aware of the concerns that were expressed by a number of churches about its provisions on non-partisan lobbying, particularly about churches organising hustings at election time. The church’s provision of venues plays a vital role in the democratic process. At each general election for many years now, my own cathedral in St Albans has hosted hustings. It is by far the largest hustings around: without exception, all the candidates turn up and a very large number of people gather for the event. Many people who take part say it is one of the few times that they come to a hustings in the traditional sense, where there is real cut and thrust and argument and so on. We are convinced that this is a major contribution to political involvement at a time when there is a worrying disengagement by many voters.
The Electoral Commission and Charity Commission are both working on guidance for charities on the effect the Act will have on their activities. I hope that they are being encouraged to speak to one another as they develop those guidelines. Specifically, it would be helpful if the Minister could reassure the church that the Act will not prevent it from providing hustings in the run-up to the general election in 2015.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: ….On the Transparency of Lobbying Act, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on a number of issues, but I also disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I have learned a great deal about the shift in a number of big charities towards campaigning, but campaigning has always been part of what charities have done. One of the most impressive discussions I had was with the dementia trust, which has managed by campaigning to raise public awareness of the importance of the issue—to raise the quality of understanding of an extremely important public issue. That is entirely legitimate and desirable in the public debate. The idea that charities should not have a campaigning dimension is something that I hope we all accept is not appropriate. Let me reassure the right reverend Prelate that the Act in no way affects hustings in the run-up to the 2015 election. A great deal of exaggerated concern was put out during the passage of the then Bill about what it might do. If you read CC9—I must have read it 15 times in the last year—it is entirely clear that it is not affected by that Act, and that churches will continue in their extremely valuable role in public education that they have in this respect….