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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I thank the Minister and the Government for taking up my amendment and producing the one before us. As the noble Lord said in conclusion, it is a pity that such a simple change requires 50 lines of new statute law. However, that is the nature of legislation these days. Everything is so complicated that a simple change requires an "unsimple" amendment. I am grateful for the improvement that it represents for life in the real world.
"RIGHT OF REPLY TO INQUIRY REPORTS
After section 8(6)(b) of the 1993 Act insert
"(c) all persons and organisations referred to in a report which is to be published must be invited on 28 days notice to sign their agreement with the report or alternatively to submit a dissenting opinion which must be published as an appendix with the report, and no agreement or dissenting opinion or lack of them shall be
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taken into account by the Commission or the court in deciding whether a trustee subject to an order removing him as a trustee shall be re-instated.""
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to require the Charity Commission to publish with its inquiry reports the agreement or otherwise of the affected parties. The proposal is necessary because the commission's reports are often very one-sided and leave a burning sense of injustice in the people referred to in the reports, giving them no opportunity to refute unbalanced information. In too many of the commission's cases, the victims have suffered unjust treatment and then have had to further suffer a one-sided account published on the Charity Commission's much-visited website where it remains, I understand, for two years.
On 12 July, at col. 1054 of Hansard, I quoted the Minister as saying that anyone affected by an inquiry is free to publish his own account of it however he wishes. That is of course true, but I do not believe that it is good enough. The Minister also said that maligned trustees would already have had the opportunity to put evidence to the commission during an inquiry. So they would, but that does not help them to feel better if the commission publishes a one-sided account justifying its own behaviour. The Minister added that the trustees were asked to comment on the draft before it was published. That is true, but they are often given only a few days to comment on a document that has taken months to prepare and are confined to commenting only on factual content. They may well feel that the playing field is tilted towards the vertical.
I have seen a recent case in which an inquiry was closed, but the charity, its lawyers, and its trustees were not told. I understand that the Charity Commission prepared a report on the charity on 11 February that was not sent to the charity until 13 Julyat any rate that is the date on the covering letter. It was received by first class post on 15 July, with the reply to the report required by 25 July. That allowed, as there were two weekends in between, a pure six working days for it to arrive not by 25 July but on 25 July. Really that gave only five working days if one was to take first class postage into account as guaranteed by Royal Mail.
Bearing in mind that many people, trustees included, can be away for a fortnight at that time of year on holiday, that is not good enough, and it is not fair and reasonable. It is because of that cavalier attitude of the commission that I move the amendment. I hope that noble Lords will agree it. I beg to move.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I regret to say that I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, in his amendment, although it would be helpful to the House if, in dealing with it, the Minister could address what seems to me to be an unarguable criticism by the noble Lord, of which he gave an example, of the occasional practice of the commission of not allowing those who are severely affected by a report a reasonable time in which to respond to it before publication. That may not be a suitable subject for
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legislation, at least in the form before us now, but it is real and it causes hardship in a few cases. If the Minister could say something reassuring about that, I have no doubt that it would be listened to by the commission.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has steadfastly raised the issue at every stage of the Bill's progress, and I congratulate him on his persistence in arguing the case. I gave the Government's clear view on the amendment, as the noble Lord said, when we last discussed the amendment on 12 July, as recorded at col. 1054.
For the benefit of those who were not in the House on that occasion and who have not had the opportunity to peruse Hansard I will briefly reiterate our case. First, it must be understood that anyone who does not agree with all or part of an inquiry or report published by the commission is, as I have made plain and as the noble Lord has also explained to the House, entirely at liberty to publish their own account. Secondly, trustees have the opportunity to express their views to the commission throughout the course of any inquiry that is conducted. Finally, the commission routinely sends inquiry reports to persons affected for comments on factual issues.
The commission has a statutory duty to undertake inquiries, and the inquiry report reflects the commission's view and the commission's conclusions. It is entirely right to express those views and draw conclusions from its own inquiry. It is a neutral body and is entirely independent. It does not take sides in inquiries but aims to take an objective view on the best interests of the charity. There are a number of internal quality checks on the report before it is published. Once the caseworker has drafted the report, it is checked by a senior manager and additionally by legal advisers. It is then sent to those who are affected by the inquiry. If substantive comments are received, the report could be rewritten, and the checking mechanisms would be processed again.
At the commission's recent open AGM, it was made plain through an announcement that it was reviewing the form and content of inquiry reports, although the review itself does not extend to including a right of reply on inquiry reports. It is also reviewing how long inquiry reports remain on its websitethe point that the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, raised in moving the amendment.
I cannot agree that it is appropriate for people other than the commission to add comments to a report that is nothing more and nothing less than the commission's own description of its inquiry and its own conclusions. We have to have confidence in the commission. It cannot be right that Parliament does not trust the independent regulator to draw up properly considered inquiry reports to the extent that it expects future inquiry reports to be unfair and unbalanced and in need of a right of reply. Other regulators work in the same way, and I do not see that we could accept the amendment and expect the commission to differ from what most Members of
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your Lordships' House would agree is a practical and workable model that has served this regulator and other regulators well.
The commission will ensure that those affected by an inquiry report will have a reasonable time to consider a draft report and make representations about it. That is a guarantee from the commission. I am interested in the case that the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has raised. It is entirely reasonable that the time limits for a response are clear and that those affected are given ample opportunity to make their views known to the commission in the way in which it prepares its inquiry reports. I am assured that the commission is determined to provide reasonable time for proper representations to be made. For all those reasons, I cannot accept the noble Lord's amendment today, as I have been unable to accept it on other occasions.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I note what the Minister says. I hope that, when ensuring that sufficient time is given for trustees and those working for charities to respond to a draft report, account will be taken of the time of year. At the time of year that the report was sent to that small charity, those who were actually running itthe trusteesmight have been away on holiday, which is not unreasonable in July, as a lot of people go on holiday in July, including some Members of the House. When most people go on holiday, they go for at least a fortnight. If that five or six days fell within that fortnight there would be no earthly chance, with the letter in the charity's office and those running the charity in the Mediterranean, of anyone having an opportunity to read it, let alone comment on it.
The Charity Commission should make certain that ample time is given to consider reports. I will read carefully what the Minister said, but I maintain my right to come back on the matter at Third Reading if I feel it necessary. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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