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Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords]

January 26, 2016

Mark Field: It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I do not agree with everything he had to say, but one thing I do have in common with him is a great love of London as a whole. I love walking through London, and it was only last summer that I went to Barkingside for the first time. I realised how important Barnardo’s was at the time—certainly in Victorian times, when it was a little Essex hamlet. I also saw the new housing development on that very site, which will clearly make a big impact, with some social housing—and, I suspect, possibly a bit of private housing, probably to help fund it. That development will be a real asset in the community that he represents.

I also thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who spoke from the Front Bench, for her contribution. I remember a similar instance in opposition many moons ago—about 10 years ago—when I was speaking on the National Lottery Bill. I thought we had tabled an excellent set of sensible amendments that the House would surely take on board. I should not disappoint her too early on, when there are another two hours and 11 minutes of debate left, but I suspect that she might not get her way. Both Labour Members who spoke are from the 2015 intake, and they spoke eloquently. I would like to acknowledge from the Government side my sympathy for the hon. Lady, who has had to get involved in the major issue of the steelworks in Redcar. We must all have a huge amount of sympathy for her. Having to navigate that issue as a local constituency MP as well as doing day-to-day work here in Westminster must be incredibly difficult.

I have a little bit of sympathy with some of what the hon. Lady said, despite our rather fierce earlier exchanges. I believe it to be almost axiomatic in public life that once organisations such as the Charity Commission are set up, corporatised and granted ever-burgeoning budgets and staffing, they see their mission as expanding their empire of influence. This Bill has been a salutary example, in part at least, of the operation of such tactics. Problems have been identified that have long since been addressed and largely solved by the passion, commitment and the graft of volunteers, quietly—often informally and unpaid—working in their communities.

To take one apposite example, the extent of the local charitable activities of many of this nation’s leading independent schools has been transformed over the past decade, let alone the last generation. Yet rather than welcoming, heralding and trumpeting the success of the big society, which is what I think this amply represents, we risk promoting big bureaucracy in the shape of the Charity Commission. We must resist some of the amending provisions, especially new clauses 2 and 3, which we will doubtless debate further, and I want to take the House on a short journey within a stone’s throw or two from here.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman acclaim that the greatest triumph of the big society was the work of its poster-girl, Camila Batmanghelidjh, from the kids society?

Mark Field: As a matter of fact, I believe it was called Kids Company, not kids society. She was an individual who had worked with a number of politicians. There are issues that I am sure should rightly be addressed by Select Committees and others about what precisely happened in regard to Kids Company.

I was about to take the House on a short journey from this Chamber to the site in Tothill Street where the Harris Westminster Sixth Form centre stands. Since its foundation in 2014, this academy has been the focus of substantial collaboration and co-operation with Westminster School, one of the oldest foundations in this country, which is even closer at hand in the curtilage of Westminster Abbey. That co-operation includes teaching classes with small intakes in subjects such as Latin, Greek and German. For over a decade, the school has routinely offered science outreach and summer school partnerships to several local maintained schools.

As the local MP for the past 15 years and an erstwhile president of the St Andrew’s youth club, the oldest youth club, on Old Pye Street, I know it has played a massively important role in the local community. Many people live in social housing, so the club was a magnet for young boys and girls—initially just boys in the 1860s, but girls in more recent times—not just from the immediate Westminster area, but from further-flung places south of the river, too. I was well aware that when the club lost funding from the local authority, it was Westminster School that stepped into the breach, providing cash and gym apparatus. I suspect that scores of other local charitable organisations could tell similar stories about the time, money and equipment quietly donated by the Great School, which has been an integral part of the local fabric since 1179.

Charitable status, as Members have pointed out, rightly depends on what the charity in question is established to do, rather than on a Charity Commissioner’s subjective analysis of public benefit. Here I agree with much of the thrust of what was said by Opposition Members. While we all appreciate that charitable status confers financial and reputational benefits, I strongly believe that the Charity Commission is not the appropriate means of prescribing how independent schools or other organisations should satisfy the public benefit test.

Indeed, it appears that for party political reasons, independent schools, rather than other charitable bodies, are in the sights not just of many MPs—dare I say, particularly on the Opposition side—but of leading lights in the Charity Commission. Surely a more sensible approach, one that avoids any accusation of political and particularly party political bias, would be to work on some non-statutory guidance to these organisations about the anticipated nature of their public benefit engagement.

We should also recognise that many independent schools do not have the capacity or the financial resources to sponsor academies—some lack the playing fields, drama, arts and music facilities, commonly assumed to be the norm in private schools. In truth, there is still plenty of co-operation and sharing going on between independent and nearby maintained schools—a healthy, informal co-operation, which stands to be undermined by any proposal to define levels of contribution or to extend the public benefit, as we have understood it in the past. It is worth saying that it takes two to tango: there is little that independent schools can do if the state sector head at the nearby school refuses an offer to work together. It is surely invidious to place burdens of the sort proposed if the independent school in question does not have ability to achieve the Charity Commissioners’ objectives.

I shall not detain the House. We are having an interesting debate, and in truth I share some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members that part of this legislation purports to solve problems that many charitable organisations and independent schools in particular have by their own efforts done much over the years to alleviate. Indeed, some of what is set out in the Bill betrays worrying assumptions that underlie an outdated sense of “groupthink” that besets the Charity Commission. I very much hope that, in its wisdom, the House will today reject some of the amendments, particularly new clauses 2 and 3 if they are pressed to the vote. Failing that, I trust that the Government Whips will achieve the same ends.