Houses of Parliament: new bill under debate
Houses of Parliament: new bill under debate

Peers have been debating the extent to which charity trustees and the Charity Commission should be held responsible for child safeguarding after amendments to the new charities bill were proposed.

The Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, which would expand the powers of the commission and give charities an explicit statutory power to make social investments, was debated by peers in grand committee stage yesterday.

The Labour peers Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town and Lord Watson of Invergowrie have tabled four amendments to the CPSI bill with the aim of improving the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, with particular regard to sexual abuse.

The peers propose amending the bill so that someone who has been "found guilty of a sexual offence or has been placed on the sex offenders register" will be disqualified from trusteeship automatically.

Lord Hope of Craighead, a crossbench peer, said that he was concerned about the width of the expression "a sexual offence" and that the issue required careful consideration, but said he would not vote against the amendment if it were put to a vote.

In the grand committee stage of the Lords, amendments are never put to a vote; instead, this legislative stage is an opportunity to debate potential amendments that might again be proposed and voted on at report stage.

Another amendment would create a statutory obligation for charities to "report to the Charity Commission any serious incident that results in, or risks causing, significant harm to their charity’s work, beneficiaries or reputation". Hayter said that existing law meant trustees could not be held responsible for misconduct if they failed to record such an incident.

Viscount Eccles, a crossbench peer, said he was worried that putting such stringent extra duties on trustees would have a "chilling effect" and make it less likely for people to come forward for trusteeship. His point was echoed by Lord Bridges of Headley, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office who is sponsoring the bill, who told Hayter: "I believe there is much to be said for the amendment, but I hope that the noble baroness will also accept that there are downsides and that we do not want to tie up small charities with red tape."

Another amendment would allow the commission to check what Disclosure and Barring Service checks had been made of a charity’s trustees when the statutory warning due to be brought in by the CPSI bill is issued by the commission.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, a Conservative peer, said he was not sure whether this in itself would improving child safeguarding. He said the issue fell outside charity law.

The fourth child protection amendment from Hayter and Watson would allow the commission to "disqualify all trustees of a charity where it has sufficient reason to believe there is a collective failure of all trustees to ensure the safety and protection of children who are direct beneficiaries of the charity".

It was not debated in full yesterday, but during a brief discussion of the measure concerns emerged about the wording of the clause. The crossbench peer Lord Scott of Foscote said this went beyond the realm of trustees’ duties. "If the children are the objects of the charity in the sense that the funds must be used for their benefit, it is not the duty of the trustees to ensure their safety and protection," he said.

Another amendment from Hayter and Watson that would oblige all fundraising charities to become members of the Fundraising Standards Board will be debated on a later date. The second day of the four-day grand committee stage is scheduled for 29 June.

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