Second Church Estates Commissioner welcomes Small Charitable Donations and Childcare Payments Bill

Caroline SpelmanOn Tuesday 11th October 2016 the House of Commons debated the Government’s Small Charitable Donations and Childcare Bill at its Second Reading. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, spoke in the debate:

Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I have to declare an interest, as I am sure will many Members who are present, as a Member of Parliament who has set up a charity. In fact, I have set up two. The fact that, 20 years on, only one still exists shows part of the experience of people who set up charities for good causes, because it is often hard to sustain the funding. The first is a charity that supports people who suffer from substance abuse and it is flourishing, but with the second, which was set up to support the victims of domestic violence, I found it hard to continue to secure funds. That is the nature of charitable work and it will not stop any of us from setting up new charities. Hopefully, the Bill will encourage more of us and our constituents to take such opportunities.

Speaking on behalf of the Church of England, I welcome the Small Charitable Donations and Childcare Payments Bill because it contains important provisions to ensure that gift aid donations are effective and benefit as many charities as possible. The Lloyds Bank Foundation and the NCVO, to which the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) referred, have found that donation income has been falling for small charities and that the scheme that was put in place in 2013 has not fulfilled the potential for which it was invented. We are here today to improve that situation.

Conversely and encouragingly, parish churches across the country raised a record sum of £953 million in 2013. That is why the Minister referred to the fact that the Church received record levels of gift aid in 2014—the two things go hand in hand. That figure represents a combined increase of £24 million on the previous year, and that happened despite the economic challenges parishioners face in the post-2008 world.

In addition to supporting the work of the Church at parish, diocese and national level, parishes continue to give more than £46 million to other organisations working around the world, from food banks and local children’s charities to international aid appeals—the range is huge. Contrary to the general trend of reducing donations to small charities, church congregations have clearly been giving sacrificially. I am sure that they would give more still if we made it easier, simpler and more compelling to do so. That is what I believe the Bill will achieve.

The changes the Government are proposing should produce a simpler and more equitable system. Some churches and charities found the previous system complex. Technically, they were eligible to claim up to £8,000 for donations received during charitable activities and to use the so-called top-up elements for donations collected in home communions and wall safes, but not those collected in services.

It is clear just from my trying to explain it to Members that that is quite a complex distinction, and it proved difficult for record keeping. I am sure all of us have had the experience, during our constituency duties, of sitting in a civic service, conscientiously filling out the little envelope in the pew in front of us—of course while paying absolute attention to the sermon being preached. Every time I have done that, I have thought to myself that I do not envy the church treasurer’s task in trying to decipher my writing. I cannot help but feel that the innovative suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) could be applied to a better way of doing that in future —one feels there just must be a better way.

More than 100 parishes and dioceses responded to a call for evidence from HMRC and the Treasury. The Government have clearly listened to their concerns about the perceived imbalance between the two elements of the original scheme. The greater simplicity of the revised gift aid and small donations scheme should bring greater equity and greater compliance, especially for small churches. I do have a few questions for the Minister, however.

I want to ask about the progression towards contactless payment, provision for which is made in the Bill. How does that sit with the responses that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations received from 340 charities that showed that cheques were the most favoured method for inclusion, and that more than two thirds of respondents wished cheques to be added to the scheme? Two thirds of charities also wanted one-off online donations to be included. Events give rise to occasions when people want to give a donation on a one-off basis. Will the Minister look at that?

Perversely, only 36% of respondents wanted contactless donations included, yet those are in the Bill. Now, far be it from me to look backwards in time to the way in which things have always been done; we must of course look forwards, and make contactless giving the way of the future, especially so as to embrace the next generation. But we should acknowledge that many older donors are among the most generous. There is no question but that for them the trusty old cheque book is one way of making sure, for their own records, that they know how they are managing their money and where they are giving money. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me that there will be no demographic discrimination as a result of the Bill.

Our society has a strong tradition of philanthropy, reflecting its Judaeo-Christian origins, in which we are enjoined to help those less fortunate than ourselves. With so many good causes, and challenges facing us every day, surely we should be doing all we can to promote that tradition of digging deep and giving as much as we possibly can to those who need it. We need to make sure that more charities are able to benefit, and I am pleased that the Bill will assist new charities. Hardly a day goes by without the need for a new charity to be born, even perhaps at the hands of a Member of Parliament acting as its midwife. I hope that the Bill will reinforce the tradition—a hallmark of British society—of being willing to give to others in need.