I wish to share time with Deputy Conlon.
Charities Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the broad thrust and sentiments of the Charities Bill. It is generally recognised that the proposed legislation has many positive features that will have a significant bearing on the numerous people involved in valuable charitable work. The effect of the draft legislation is important to the general public, which contributes generously to many charitable causes year in, year out.
The specific intent of the Bill is to introduce a comprehensive reform of the law as it relates to charities to ensure proper accountability, protect against possible abuses of charitable status and eliminate the possibility of fraud. I endorse the principles contained in the Bill because its provisions will enhance public confidence in a vital area of activity. Appropriate transparency and regulation in that sector will ensure improved public trust and the establishment of a sound legal framework of regulation will facilitate the smooth, efficient administration and management of charitable organisations in general. It is widely accepted that any practical measures to enforce proper oversight and encourage active compliance can only be constructive.
This timely legislation will be supportive of the charities sector and will undoubtedly assist in promoting its aims. The Bill will foster increased public trust and support for the various charitable causes espoused in this country, which will be productive and beneficial to our society as a whole in the long term.
I welcome that the Bill seeks to eliminate bogus or illegal charity activity. For example, the Bill makes it a criminal offence to advertise or collect on behalf of a charitable organisation that is not duly registered. It is high time that any illicit activity that serves to discredit the activities of genuine charities should be outlawed and severe penalties imposed as a sanction for any breaches of the law. Indiscriminate cowboy activity that brings genuine charities into disrepute will be punishable and stamped out.
The Bill is a positive step towards regulating the activities of bona fide charities while addressing powerfully the problems and concerns associated with bogus operators. However, the legislation could be more robust and explicit when it comes to criminalising those persons and fly-by-night outfits purporting to collect either money or goods on behalf of vague charitable causes. The legislation should be more stringent in outlawing rogue activity and spurious charitable causes, particularly where the type of activity does not fall within the scope of section 41.
It would be useful to include another provision to make it a criminal offence to express or imply that moneys or goods collected or some portion thereof are destined for a charitable purpose where this statement proves to be false or misleading. Any individuals who promote or advertise such collections by way of notices or otherwise should be guilty of an offence under this legislation. Two examples include the collection of second-hand clothes purporting that the proceeds or part thereof go to charity when they are being sold for profit, generally in eastern Europe or Africa, and the sale of signed mass cards in shops that give the impression that the amount tendered goes to a priest in the Third World when much of the money is retained by the shop, with another large slice going to the commercial distributors of the cards. In neither example do the operators describe themselves as charities. Hence, the Bill as framed will not outlaw the rogue activity of misleading the public where there is no transparency or accountability. The Bill must take account of activity that only purports to give the impression of having charitable characteristics. This rogue activity not only misleads the public, but has a serious financial impact on charities that operate fully within the law. These charities must be protected by this legislation and rogue operators must be stopped once and for all.
The establishment of a new, independent regulatory authority is a notable departure. By vesting strong and comprehensive powers in the new body, it will operate with the clear objective of securing strict compliance with the various legal obligations to be imposed and it will encourage more streamlined administration and management of charities.
Community and voluntary organisations that undertake work for charitable purposes have been vocal advocates of adequate regulation and oversight and the Bill is a realistic response to their concerns. I hope the role of the new regulator will be supportive and that the authority will provide adequate information on the new regulatory regime and will act to facilitate the charitable bodies in their efforts to comply with that regime.
The Bill raises a number of issues that deserve closer scrutiny if the legislation is to be truly effective and embracing. The issue of advocacy by charities should be examined more closely. The Bill does not prohibit advocacy as an activityper se, but it does purport to exclude from the register of charities those organisations that promote political causes primarily. The consensus among organisations that may be affected is that this provision is unfair and unworkable. It represents the first of three tests that must be passed if an organisation is seeking to register as a charity. It is almost impossible to define the concept of a “political cause” or what exactly constitutes one. The lack of a clear definition will leave an undesirable grey area which will lead to greater confusion. The onus will be on the regulator to determine if an organisation’s work is political. One of the primary purposes of this legislation should be to lend clarity and transparency to the charity sector.
A restrictive interpretation of the terms "charities" and "charitable purposes" will preclude certain bodies from registering. For example, the various organisations that work on human rights and equality issues or the bodies that endeavour to improve the effectiveness of the charity sector will find it difficult to qualify as charities according to the current definition. Several worthy bodies promote active citizenship or increase public awareness and mobilise public opinion in support of policies that favour the poor and the disadvantaged in our society. Many of these organisations may well lose their charitable status if the regulator determines that their altruistic or philanthropic activities are political. I am inclined to believe that the existing definition of excluded bodies should be removed and replaced with appropriate wording which expressly excludes only party political type organisations. I am aware that a number of charities and representative organisations have expressed reservations regarding the definition of charitable purposes and the implications it may have. The current definition is certainly not exhaustive and it is regarded as being overly restrictive and potentially exclusive of some legitimate charity organisations.
The wording "of benefit to the community" should be extended to ensure that particular causes are not disqualified only on the grounds that the benefit may not be immediately tangible or quantifiable. I share the misgivings that some bodies have expressed on this narrow definition. If the Bill is to achieve its stated aims, we must have regard to the dangerously limiting nature of this definition. For example, it has been noted that the three-pronged approach enshrined in the Bill has the capacity to exclude bodies engaged in the advancement of human rights, social inclusion and social justice. What about bodies that are engaged in the advancement of citizenship, the promotion of amateur sport or the advancement of the rights of children? Are they to be excluded simply because they do not satisfy the test as outlined in the Bill? Serious consideration should be given to embracing bodies that are engaged in humanitarian and similar activities. We must be enlightened, progressive, and far-sighted concerning the scope of this Bill. To deny access to a range of bodies that work tirelessly to advance ideals to enrich our society in the long term is backward and short sighted. The legislation will become meaningless if we are to exclude legitimate organisations that pursue legitimate goals for the overall betterment of our society.
I endorse the fundamental principles embodied in this Bill. However, it is necessary to review some of its more restrictive provisions and to lend it additional teeth in its efforts to combat bogus activities and scams, such as the examples I have outlined. In the interests of enacting legislation that is comprehensive and reflects the reality of the charitable sector, it is appropriate to reconsider any of those sections which are unduly limiting and which will deprive certain genuine and well motivated bodies from achieving charitable status thus denying them the attendant rights and responsibilities which that status entails.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Charities Bill, which is long-needed and long-awaited. Irish people are, by their nature, generous. However, it is important their donations go to bona fide charities. The tradition of generosity in our country goes back generations and we have always had a proud record in this area. Our overseas aid and voluntary individual contributions are the highest in the OECD.
The purpose of the Charities Bill is to enact a reform of the law relating to charities to ensure accountability and to protect against abuse of charitable status and fraud. This Bill will enhance public trust and confidence in charities and increase transparency in the sector. We cannot underestimate the importance of this. For charities to effectively carry out their work, they need the full confidence of the public. Most charities are well run but we are all approached by charities with which we are not familiar. It is important for confidence and generosity that the system is transparent so people can have confidence in it, and this will benefit charities in the long term.
The Charities Bill will provide for a definition of "charitable purpose" for the first time in primary legislation. It will also accommodate a new regulatory authority to secure compliance by charities with their legal obligations and to encourage better administration of charities. A register of charities will be established in which all charities operating in the State must register and this is welcome.
Some notable consequences of the Bill will be annual activity reports by charities to the new authority, a charity appeals tribunal and updating the law relating to fundraising, particularly regarding collections by direct debits and similar non-cash methods. Upon establishment of the new authority it will dissolve the Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests for Ireland, CCDB, and transfer its functions to the authority. Charitable status will be dependent on an organisation having charitable purposes only and being for the public benefit, rather than having any particular legal form.
I welcome the principle of the Charities Bill. It is generally recognised that the many positive features of the proposed legislation will have significant bearing on the numerous people involved in valuable charity work. The effect of the draft legislation is important to the public who contribute generously to so many charitable causes every year. They need to know their contributions are going to bona fide charities and the volunteers need to have confidence in the charities on whose behalf they work because the charities depend heavily on volunteers.
The intent is to introduce a comprehensive reform of the law relating to charities to ensure proper accountability, to protect against possible abuses of charity status and to eliminate the possibility of fraud. I endorse the Bill's principles because its provisions will enhance public confidence in this important area. The application of appropriate transparency and regulation will ensure improved public trust and the establishment of a sound legal and regulatory framework to facilitate the smooth and efficient administration and management of charitable organisations. I am delighted that bogus collectors will be dealt with in an appropriate manner. For all bona fide operators, the activities of those people must be outlawed. The relevant legislation has not been updated in 40 years. It is crucial that the proper structures and regulations are in place if there is to be transparency and accountability and if the public is to know that their money is being put to the good use for which it was intended.
As I said, the generosity of the Irish people knows no bounds. They have given a higher percentage of their incomes to charitable organisations than most other countries and they are to be commended for their generosity, but it is important that this generosity of spirit is not taken advantage of. The Bill is important to those charities that are properly run because it should eradicate those that do not reach the required standard of regulation, which is a welcome development. There is a danger that charity fatigue may set in. This would be most unwelcome. Most charities are worthwhile causes and it can be difficult for people to decide to which to contribute. This Bill will reform the charity sector and ensure that legitimate and well run charities will benefit. That can only be good and I strongly recommend the Bill.
I will comment on how this Bill affects human rights. I should point out that I have an honorary adjunct professorship at the Irish Centre for Human Rights of National University of Ireland, Galway.
I welcome the Minister of State in his new role. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to do so and I wish him well. He is somebody whose preferment would have been appropriate some time ago. The Bill is worthy of support on Second Stage, but it requires amendment on Committee Stage. It is overdue and I pay tribute to those who worked on it. However, I wish to make a number of points, some of which were already made in thoughtful contributions from the Government side.
My understanding of regulatory authorities is that they should not be used to undermine either fundamental constitutional principles, established law or international legal precepts. I say this because of actions by bodies such as the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and its interpretation of an advertisement by Trócaire last year. Regarding regulatory authorities in general, we are on the verge of the greatest amount of unnecessary confrontation by the actions of the Competition Authority, which has abused its position in a case with Irish Equity and its right to be collectively represented, as well as undermining the collective representation rights of a body with a negotiating licence, namely, the Irish Pharmaceutical Union. The same issue has arisen with the Irish Dental Association.
Collective representation rights exist in trade union law that precedes the Competition Authority. These rights are vindicated in European law and they are framed in International Labour Organisation conventions. The idea that a body can take it upon itself to interpret its functions in a way that is not directly accountable to Parliament, through questions, is disturbing. It is worthy of consideration by the Attorney General and by the Government. The same could be true regarding the BCI, which issued a pathetic justification of its outrageous decision on the Trócaire advertisement last year. I felt at the time that it was worthwhile amending the legislation involved, and I prepared a Bill that would do just that.
It is very interesting to bear in mind how relevant this is for the present Bill. Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council was on gender inequality. The BCI, in striking down Trócaire's right to run a campaign challenging Government policy by asking for gender inequality to be eliminated, claimed this was unacceptable and inappropriate. On 9 March 2007, the BCI stated:
The BCI has informed Trócaire today that the current version of its advertising campaign is in breach of the Radio and Television Act 1988. Following discussion with Trócaire, the BCI has considered an alternative broadcast version of the advert, and has deemed that this alternative version is in order under Section 10(3) of the Radio and Television Act 1988........The basis for the Commission's decision to refuse the first version of the ad related to:
The definition of a political end, as contemplated by the 1988 Act, is not confined to a party political end, but encompasses procuring a reversal of Government policy or particular decision of Government.
Therefore, if a Government was dragging its feet on a UN convention, it would be an inappropriate advertisement. If we were doing nothing to ratify a UN convention, such as the UN Convention Against Corruption, then that would also be inappropriate.
The BCI statement went on:
The text of the advert calls upon people to support a Lenten campaign that has as one of its stated purposes, to call upon the Government to produce a National Action Plan and seeks public signatures for a petition in this regard. Therefore the campaign has a political objective as contemplated under the legislation.
The BCI's appalling justification of its dreadful decision is not answerable in here, due to the way regulatory bodies are spinning out of accountability in a constitutional and parliamentary sense. A related example is the Competition Authority's undermining of the right to collective representation of Irish Equity. It has also denied non-PAYE workers the right to collective representation.
I appreciate the complexity of this Bill and it should be supported on Second Stage, but it requires amendment. Knowing the Minister of State from his time on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, I know that he would be quite open to considering amendments. There is no doubt whatsoever that there is another fundamental issue involved, but I think Trócaire's decision to adjust its advertisement, as well as the decision of SIPTU to concede an issue with the Competition Authority on the steps of the courts, means that there is pressure on groups to fit themselves in with the self-definitions of unaccountable regulatory bodies. This is a constitutional issue of the first order which must be discussed in this Chamber.
There are similar issues. I had to point out to Professor Drumm of the HSE that he had replaced the health boards, but that he did not replace the Minister for Health and Children, the Department or the Oireachtas. In a seminal speech to the law society of UCD a few years ago, the former Attorney General, Mr. David Byrne, pointed out that there is no way in which office holders can divest themselves of responsibility, and that they must give a clear policy envelope to that to which they transfer responsibility.
That is all by way of a preliminary to the specifics of this Bill. A very thoughtful speech was made from the Government side on the question of advocacy, which arises in section 2. There is reference to an "excluded body", which is defined in the section as "a political party, or a body, the principal object of which is to promote a political party, candidate or cause". Once the word "cause" is put in and a regulatory body established, we are leaving ourselves wide open to having all the nonsense of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland writ large across a whole range of different issues. These include the elimination of poverty and the abolition of slavery. There are 24 conventions that have been signed by Ireland, but not ratified. A body could not run a campaign for the ratification of these conventions. For example, the Government has no intention to ratify the UN Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. If I wanted to run a campaign on it and a charity decided to advocate in favour, it would be ruled out. I am sure there are decent people on all sides of the House who simply would not want such a restriction on any Government.
In defining "excluded body", the section goes on to suggest "an approved body of persons within the meaning of section 235 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997". It would be worthwhile on Committee Stage to examine the relationship between the Revenue Commissioners and musical, arts and cultural bodies registered as charities which have obligations under retention tax and VAT. It would be an appropriate time to consider a nuanced approach to this to enable such organisations to operate.
The Bill includes a definition of an excluded body as a trade union or a representative body of employers. I suspect I may be pushing a half-open door when I suggest the Minister of State re-examine this proscription on advocacy.
Other issues arise which may appear on my part to be a conservative view. Section 3 defines public benefit in a limited way. Public benefit can be one that is not necessarily an immediate or lifetime one. A public benefit could be, for example, intergenerational, involving an action that will benefit future generations. It could also refrain actions being taken that could have consequences for future generations, such as a charity established to advocate that we do not desecrate Tara. We need to think intergenerationally and beyond the serious limitation of the definition of public benefit as defined in the Bill.
Section 3 lists those organisations that shall be regarded as being a charitable purpose. I appreciate it is a difficult area and I have sympathy for those who have wrestled with it. The definitions must be elaborated on Committee Stage. It includes those involved in "the prevention or relief of poverty or economic hardship". However, one should be allowed to pursue a rights-based programme aimed at the elimination of injustice, social and cultural exclusion. This section must be amended to include such rights-based programmes. Organisations involved in the advancement of education are included. The section must be re-examined to ensure inclusive principles are included.
Section 3(1)(c) provides for organisations for the advancement of religion, a curious area. This becomes more complicated when tied in with section 3(5) which states “a charitable gift for the purpose of the advancement of religion shall have effect, and the terms upon which it is given shall be construed, in accordance with the laws, canons, ordinances and tenets of the religion concerned.” This does not draw a reasonable distinction between what might be regarded as genuine religions, ones which may have been established for tax purposes, and, most dangerous of all, cults.
A cult can construe its particularly internal structure "in accordance with the laws, canons, ordinances and tenets of the religion concerned". I am not highlighting this to take advantage of a flaw in the legislation. It is a serious issue and must be considered on Committee Stage. I recall when I was in central America in the 1980s, there were 3,500 fundamentalist sects. For any person pushing bibles there, irrespective of whether they needed it, their property in California was tax exempt. While that is the tax side of the argument, I am more concerned with drawing distinctions between disciplined religions. The Church of Scientology and others come to mind and it is important to have clarification in this regard.
Section 3(8) defines those organisations involved in a "purpose that is of benefit to the community". It includes those involved in the advancement of community welfare including the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, or disability. This seems to allow the inequalities of a society that is structurally unjust to continue, allowing compassion or guilt to inform one's charitable actions. I want this section to be informed by a rights-based approach which incorporates the indivisibility of rights, not just civil and political, but social, economic and cultural. That is the way to go in progressive legislatures.
Organisations involved in the promotion of civic responsibility are included. One needs to think of the importance of consciousness-raising organisations such as those interested in advancing citizenship. Organisations involved in the promotion of health, including the prevention or relief of sickness, disease or human suffering are also included in the definition. One must be able to defend the rights of patients. For example, it may not include a charity established to assist those suffering from MRSA. It provides for organisations which promote religious or racial harmony and harmonious community relations. Those involved in ethnic status and Travellers rights come to mind. I raise these as examples, making no prejudgments. I am sure the Minister of State is amenable to elaboration of these concerns on Committee Stage.
It is important that when the regulatory authority is established the burden of compliance does not fall unfairly on small charities. One issue that will emerge on Committee Stage is the large number of registered charities, which may be as high as 20,000. It should be possible to havepro forma compliance for small charities that will not put an onerous charge on them and they will not find themselves satisfying three different stools with an unfair burden of expense.
Professor Enda McDonagh, perhaps Ireland's most distinguished if not preferred theologian in terms of appointment, recently pointed out how philanthropy should not just be a mechanism to relieve guilt. I thought of this, listening to other Members. One cannot use charity to relieve the State of its obligations. The HSE is not free just to simply balance its budget. There are citizens who have rights under the Health Acts which establishes a baseline. If they so decide, they can sue the State, the Minister for Health and Children and the Department. The HSE should balance its books above the line of citizenship rights. No accountable or well-organised charity legislation can relieve the State of its obligation to its citizens, be they young, middle-aged or elderly. One does not have to go to the extremes of the lifecycle to establish rights. The role of the State must not be eroded by voluntary organisations.
This overdue Bill has required enormous work and I pay tribute to those involved in its preparation. For four decades, people encountered some of the difficulties I have mentioned and set the obligation aside. I welcome the legislation and the approach by the Minister of State. I hope debate on Committee Stage will improve the Bill in the areas I have mentioned.
I thank the Minister of State and the team of officials in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for preparing this Bill after so many years. The introduction of the Bill not only enlivens debate on this important issue but focuses the minds of the public on the many shortcomings of the legislation. I warmly welcome the Bill and respect what it seeks to achieve in regulating charities for the 21st century.
For the past 40 years or so charities have been governed by stagnant legislation which is neither appropriate nor all-encompassing or enough to cope with the changing pace of charity work and fundraising and our modern lifestyle. Most worrying, any group can set up as a charity and when it has the reference number supplied by the Revenue Commissioners this number is often mistaken for an official registration number from a registry that does not exist. It is necessary to overhaul the legislation to inspire confidence in the public and deliver a level of accountability while supporting charities.
Public confidence has been battered by a lack of transparency and some cases of charity fraud. All genuine charities want to see positive development and radical reformation of the system. We have heard about the benefits of the new Bill. I welcome the establishment of a charities regulatory authority with powers to investigate, and to support charities. The Bill will for the first time define charity in our legislation. Nobody would disagree with the establishment of the register of charities making it an offence for any group or organisation not to register if it fundraises in the State. I wholeheartedly welcome the requirement of charities to provide accounting information to the new regulator on a staggered basis depending on its size. The public will welcome the transparency provided for in the new legislation.
The shortcomings of the system mean that we do not know how many people work in, and are paid by, the charity sector, the annual income of some of the country's largest charities, the percentage of the adult population which subscribes or donates to charities, or the percentage of the population which has volunteered for charity work in the past year. Such is the sector's desire for reform that some charities have voluntarily provided financial information. The new legislation will fill the information gap.
The Minister of State said it would be impossible to over-estimate the valuable work done by charities but it is similarly impossible to over estimate the public's desire to engage with charities through donations, volunteerism or fundraising. We cannot afford to lose this admirable spirit of charity and the Bill ensures that we will not do so. Charities recognise the immediate benefit of reform. The existence of a regulatory authority leads to greater trust and increases the perceived integrity of charitable organisations. The perception of charities has taken some serious hits recently, such as the fraud scandals, the negative impact of aggressive fundraising and paranoia about the lack of transparency. Some high profile charities, for example, GOAL and Concern, both of which I admire, have been involved in scandals.
I have talked to my family and friends about the changing face of charity, as I am sure all Deputies have done. People ask: what is a charity, where can one find out about it, whether the fundraiser is being paid, whether a large administration runs it, who receives the money and whether it will go directly to the cause or will be spent elsewhere?
Many of us have been rugby-tackled on the street by clipboard-wielding charity workers only to be told later that these people are paid for their work. Lack of trust in charities remains the largest stumbling block to fundraising and the Charities Bill combats this head-on to the immediate benefit of all organisations. I am not against the "chuggers" on our streets. They contribute significantly to the revenue and success of charities. This is one of many new and innovative ways to fundraise. However, they need to be regulated and supported to show the public that their activities are legitimate and it is alright to give them confidential information, such as bank account details.
A 2002 survey put the proportion of the population which donates to charity at approximately 90% which is some millions of people. The figure may have declined since then. We simply do not know how many people contribute to charitable collections and this information gap demotivates many people and makes donations at times seem unattractive.
We are such a charitable people that many foreign charities have set up on our shores to take advantage of our humane and compassionate nature. That is why I welcome the Bill. People deserve to carry on this honourable tradition with a system they can trust. To ensure that it is as effective as possible I am concerned about registering small charities. I welcome the intention to compel charities to register and provide detailed documentation on the running of their organisations in order to be permitted to continue their work. I also welcome the staggered measures for providing account details, according to the size of the charity and its income. I am primarily concerned that the kind-hearted people who fundraise in isolated areas once or twice a year may be subject to the same regulations. Surely they do not have to submit to the same accounting responsibilities as a small charity. The Wheel advocacy organisation raised similar objections in its submission document on the Bill, detailing its concerns for spontaneous acts of community fundraising, and querying whether the new system will cover these events. The Bill should include further scope for these cases.
I also welcome the provision for the introduction of a permit regime. The system for many collections by charities and charity workers who apply to their local Garda superintendents for the right to fundraise in a particular area is outdated and often under-utilised. The Bill provides for a standard permit in cases where a charity worker operates under the recently developed fundraising methods such as "chugging". The Bill should be further amended to include a widespread introduction of permit holding for all who collect for charity by whatever means. The relevant permit should also be accompanied by a recognisable ID identifying the person as a collector for a charity. The introduction of a standard ID permit system means legal documentation can be furnished on request to members of the public; be that on a street, during a charity function or at a doorstep. Consideration will also have to be given to the validity period of these permits to ensure monitoring of the system is ongoing. Permit holders should be required to reapply for their permits annually, perhaps within a calendar year.
I mentioned the introduction of permits for all those collecting money, but there will have to be exceptions. The permit system could not be applied to individual collectors: members of the public who engage in isolated acts of fundraising through sporting events, marathons, cake sales, sales of work and school fundraising. It would not be necessary or appropriate to force these kind-hearted people to go through a rigorous application process in order to sell cakes after Mass. In these cases, further discussions are needed as to the role and definition of individual fundraisers in the new legislation to allow them to carry out their irregular or once-off fundraising activities. These individuals and amateur athletes, mini-marathon runners, bakers, skydivers and bungee jumpers have no doubt contributed tens of millions to the charity sector, however the new permit system would not be suitable for them.
We need to protect the right of the individual to raise funds for his or her chosen charity on an irregular basis. We need to pin down language in the Bill which will exempt individuals from the rigorous controls facing smaller charities and not discourage them in their valuable work. To over-legislate the activities of these individuals and dissuade them from their volunteerism and fundraising could lead to the crippling of one of the charity sector's most successful methods of yielding revenue.
On the other side of the scales, the rights of the individual to fundraise on a voluntary basis must be distinguished from the activities of tiny charity organisations that have cropped up all over the country: the likes of mysterious clothing collectors who drop stickers through letter-boxes advertising clothing collections. While a number of these charities are legitimate, many media outlets have exposed fraudsters who collect bags from unsuspecting households and send them for resale abroad. In some cases the unwanted items from these bags end up littered across the countryside, a practice known as fly-tipping, and this has happened in my constituency of Dublin North. Fingal County Council has spent substantial amounts of money tackling this behaviour.
I mentioned that I believe charities will warmly welcome this Bill, and the welcomes will come thick and fast where bogus clothing collectors are operating. I hear anecdotal evidence of bogus collectors monitoring legitimate charities, like Oxfam and Concern, to steal their bags before the official collection arrives. The loss of revenue to real charities is great and stands to be even greater since these so-called charities have begun to request greater donations of household goods like cosmetics and perfumes, as mentioned in the media recently. The bogus operators are not only cynical but callous in their intent to profit from and redirect funding materials meant for legitimate charities. The most worrying aspect of all is that, at the moment, these operations are not illegal.
It is these fraudsters and scam artists who must be weeded out and exposed under the new permit system, which will simultaneously protect legitimate organisations. Furthermore, I call for funding to be made available, on the enactment of the Bill, to launch an awareness campaign to raise the profile of the effects of the Bill regarding the permit and ID system which will be introduced. Similarly, financial supports must be put in place to cater for the additional costs generated by being part of a regulated system.
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, for coming before the House to introduce this Bill. As a previous speaker said, it is long overdue. I have asked about its introduction for some years.
This Bill is important because some people in the charity sector were behaving in strange ways, an example of which is the sale of lottery-type cards outside banks and shopping centres. Young people may be forced to sell lines on the street in an effort to get credit card numbers and bank account numbers from people. We had no control over who benefited from these activities or how they behaved. Like the last speaker, I will be glad to learn how many people are paid to engage in charity work and how the area is monitored. However, I am worried that small charities that do important work might be adversely affected by this Bill. The previous speaker mentioned cake sales, urgent fundraisers, people running marathons and so on, and these activities generate a lot of money for genuine good causes. We must be careful not to inconvenience these people as, to my knowledge, there is no cost factor in such activities and there is little, if any, danger of money falling into the wrong hands in such circumstances. People are proud when they run marathons or the like and raise money for charity and they normally publicise the fact, perhaps in the local media, to indicate how much money was raised.
We must monitor cowboy operators and ensure strong legislation brings them to justice and deals with them appropriately. I was interested in Deputy Aylward's suggestion that the law in this regard is not strong enough. For this to come from a Government backbencher raises interesting and important questions that should not be ignored.
Speaking as one who has been deeply involved in charities through the years I thank all who have worked for them because their efforts are essential. These people work in a voluntary capacity collecting money for others, not for themselves. I am thankful for the community spirit that exists in this country. The Irish are the most generous people. When there is a crisis outside Ireland the Irish people often lead the way and respond more strongly than governments. However, we must ensure there is no rip-off factor. To that end I welcome the regulations and permit system that will ensure charities are be registered and to provide proper returns at the end of the year.
As I said, the large national and international charities will not have a problem in continuing to carry out their work but I would like to see clear information in the Bill that indicates that smaller organisations will not be forced out by having to pay auditors and so on. Structures in farming today allow small farmers to fill in profile forms that indicate their incomes and taxable liabilities and small charities should be allowed use similar forms rather than pay auditors and so on. The alternative is to force people out of business.
I understand there are 19,000 community and voluntary groups in the country, which is a remarkable number. They play a major role in ensuring the worst off, both at home and abroad, are looked after. I take this opportunity to thank all involved.
The Bill is straightforward but I am concerned about aspects of it. It provides, for the first time in primary legislation, a clear definition of "charitable purpose". It also provides for the establishment of a new regulatory authority. This is another area in respect of which I am concerned about the establishment of new regulatory bodies. Even the Minister of State will agree that obtaining answers from bodies such as the NRA and the HSE is like pulling hen's teeth. I worry about the various authorities that have been established which are not answerable to the House. There must be clear provision within relevant legislation that such bodies must present themselves to a committee of this House on at least an annual or biannual basis. There is no shortage of committees under this Government and there is no reason that it should not be mandatory that a body such as this must be accountable to the House in this way and thus provide answers to all our questions.
The Bill states that annual reports by charities must be submitted to the regulatory authority. I cannot emphasise enough the need for smaller charities to be able to present their reports in as simple a form as possible. The Bill also updates the law on fundraising, particularly in regard to collections by way of direct debits and similar non-cash methods. The level of fraud in this area is significant. One of my best friends in Monaghan was recently defrauded of some €15,000 from his bank account by means of a scam. This is something of which we must be aware. I welcome the provision to establish a charities appeal tribunal.
The Bill sets out the types of organisations that will be included in its provisions and those that are excluded. I have no difficulty with political parties being included in the latter category. However, I am concerned about the status of groups that might be funding political parties or other types of organisations. The Bill provides that a charity may be removed from the register if it is found to support terrorism, terrorist activities or any organisations of which it is unlawful to be a member. This must be set out clearly. As a person who lives near the Border, I have seen the fundraising activities of unlawful organisations on both sides of the political and religious divide. Such activities must be dealt with firmly, whether through the Criminal Assets Bureau or this legislation. Everybody, whether in politics or otherwise, must be confident that there is a level playing field.
There is a strong tradition of volunteerism in Ireland. The amount of money collected for charities working abroad, in particular, is significant. We must ensure this Bill does not lead to any type of volunteerism fatigue. People could get extremely annoyed and retreat from voluntary work if regulation leads to an excess of red tape. People are busier than they used to be. The costs associated with mortgages and other living expenses mean that in many families, both parents must work. Many people living in counties Louth, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and other areas close to Dublin are obliged to commute significant distances to their jobs. All this means that people do not have much time to devote to voluntary activities. We must support those who give of their time.
GOAL, Christian Aid, Trócaire, Bóthar and other overseas aid organisations do important work. The Government provides significant overseas aid but has failed to meet the commitment given by the Taoiseach to the EU some years ago. We must continue to encourage these organisations. My previous boss, the late T. J. Maher, was active in Bóthar. He encouraged not only the collection of moneys to send overseas but also all types of livestock, which allowed the recipients to improve their lives in the long term rather than merely receive the short-term relief of money. It is the old notion of give the man a fishing rod and allow him to catch fish.
Many voluntary organisations continue to do important work, despite the arrival of the Celtic tiger. We must not be overzealous in putting structures in place that might block their activities. The Minister of State, Deputy Carey, was welcome at the drugs awareness meeting in Bailieborough some time ago. I am sure he noticed that the greatest cheer of the day was for the announcement that a voluntary organisation in Bailieborough had donated €7,000 to allow for the continuance of drug awareness efforts. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is more active than ever, particularly in the lead-up to Christmas. It does significant work in helping the poor and not so poor. Many middle income people are now in difficulty because of high mortgage payments and other costs and borrowings. I spoke to volunteers in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul about their work and how vital it is.
Cancer care services have been much discussed in this House in recent weeks. If it were not for the work of voluntary organisations and their extensive fundraising activities in local areas throughout the year, the families of people with cancer would be in a far worse situation. I recently learned of the existence of a Bailieborough cancer fund, which provides patients with transport and other necessary services.
It used to be the case that people in my area who suffered from alcoholism could be treated in St. Davnets Hospital. However, the brilliant HSE considers that type of service is no longer necessary. Sr. Concilio, who has premises in Galway and Newry and has recently established one in Monaghan, is doing the work the HSE should be doing to help people with alcohol and drugs problems. She depends on massive fundraising through George Wallace and others. Friends of Monaghan Hospital, Friends of Cavan Hospital and many others do vital work in my area.
At national level, there is Aware, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Alzheimer Association of Ireland, MS Ireland and many more. I am aware of a recent case where a person seeking home help had to turn to the Alzheimer Association of Ireland because no help was available through the HSE's so-called "care packages" about which the Minister for Health and Children spoke so much.
Disability organisations do much good work. I might not have become a Member of this House were it not for my involvement in raising €56,000 in nine weeks to send a child with cerebral palsy to receive treatment abroad. That is an example of a charity. I would not like to see so much red tape that a spontaneous reaction to an urgent need could be stopped.
There may be a similar case where a family may be burned out of their home, and one cannot help but think about the tragedy in Omagh. A family might survive a fire but not have insurance, so locals would need to make an urgent whip around. That is clearly the case in rural areas but it may not be the same in cities. We do not want such activities blocked.
If it was not for Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped in the north Monaghan area, I do not know where families dealing with disabled people would house their young people. Before the last election I went to Kingscourt and I did not realise there was so little knowledge of what was available through voluntary housing. Some of the young people were being housed in north Monaghan because of the voluntary activities in that area. If that did not happen, they would be in trouble.
If there was not a massive voluntary effort through the GAA and many other organisations, where would our young people be today? Sports grants are very important and we received over €8 million in the past five years in Monaghan, more than €7 million in Cavan and €17 million in Donegal. Only last week, my local group in Killeevan had a gala night, with auctions etc., to raise funds. It is important to remember when this legislation is being finalised that it is very complex and all these matters have to be dealt with as best we can.
An issue some voluntary organisations feel very sore about is VAT refunds, and perhaps this will be looked at as we come near the budget. A body may get a 70% grant towards a €100,000 project, but VAT of 20% will be added on to the project, leaving the total cost as €120,000. In reality, the €20,000 goes back to the Government, meaning the 70% grant works out at a real cost to the Government of €50,000. I hope the Government will look at giving VAT refunds to charity organisations because it is very difficult for them to raise funds from the public and then have to deal with a dramatic VAT cost.
I thank the likes of the Lions Club and Rotary Club, and all the other organisations which do tremendous charity work to keep our systems going. Other speakers have gone into the technicalities of the Bill more than I, and there will be much to be done on the next Stages. I know from working with the Minister of State in the past that he is realistic and will not be totally in the hands of his civil servants. The necessary changes to the Bill should be made.
The Bill has been long-awaited. I totally support the idea of regulation but I cannot emphasise any more than I have done that such regulation has to be reasonable. The smaller groups must be treated with the necessary understanding. I welcome and support the Bill, and I hope it will emerge better from this process.
I wish to share time with Deputy M.J. Nolan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on this Charities Bill. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, for being in attendance because it is important legislation which affects the lives of everyone. Far too often I feel Ministers who have responsibility for legislation in this House do not take enough time to listen to what is being said here. I appreciate the Minister of State's attendance. I also intend to contribute on Committee Stage on some key points and today I will give a general overview of the Bill.
It is hard to believe that in a country perceived to be so charitable, it has been over 30 years since we have had new legislation in this area enacted, a staggering period of time. I am proud to state this country is one of the most charitable nations on Earth. I do not know what part of our history makes us so but any time there is a world crisis or disaster, from a famine to tsunami, the people of this country have responded time and again in a way beyond what people might expect. In certain times, the public has in many cases put the Government to shame with its generosity and responsiveness to events.
I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of people engaged week in and week out in charitable works. I do not intend to name charities because people in a range of bodies, be they local or internationally focused, give time and effort week in and week out. As a nation we should be very proud of this. People may debate the origins of this persuasion, with some contending it has come from our missionary work, but I am proud to be part of such a nation.
Every person in this House is engaged and interacting with charitable organisations on a daily basis in one way or another. Funding and finance is critical if these organisations are to maintain their work, as is the maintenance of public confidence in what goes on. That public confidence will be maintained through this Charities Bill.
There have been many changes in 30 years, which I have been thinking about. As a five-year-old I was in a Presentation convent school in "low babies" — not junior infants. A nun brought us up one by one to be introduced to our teacher and when we all sat down, the nun picked up a wooden collection box. She stated that any time we would get money at home for our birthday etc., we should bring in an old penny for the "black babies". This was not politically correct but that is what we learned. We had no clue what "black babies" were but from the earliest time in our memory, charitable work was going on.
That was first introduction but I have a more recent example of what happens. I was walking down Grafton Street one day and a young girl approached me to support a charity, which I did. In doing so I signed a form, so instead of putting the penny into a collection box I signed a direct debit mandate. During the 30-year period from placing a penny in the box to signing a direct debit form, no new relevant legislation has been enacted. That is the reason I so warmly welcome this important legislation.
The Bill outlines what is regarded as a charitable organisation and specifically mentions excluded bodies. These include political parties, trade unions, employers' representative organisations and, as a previous Deputy mentioned, unlawful or terrorist organisations. We know what is excluded.
On the other hand, a charitable organisation is defined. The Bill states a body must be engaged in exclusively charitable purposes, with charitable purposes regarded as the prevention or relief of poverty or economic hardship, the advancement of education or religion or any other purpose that is to the benefit of the community. We understand that.
Most of us contributing to this debate have a view on what is charity. We think of those who feed the hungry and house the homeless or those who work abroad, but what about groups that provide advocacy services? What about groups that lobby but do not provide tangible services we generally understand as charity work? We should look at that in detail on Committee Stage.
Part 2 establishes a charities regulatory authority and outlines its functions and provisions in terms of its role, staff and finance. It will have strong regulatory and enforcement powers.
Section 13 provides for the establishment and maintenance of a register of charitable organisations. That register is important and it must be set up in a timely and efficient fashion and be publicly accessible, preferably via the Internet. If it is to inspire confidence, it must be available quickly.
I live in Clondalkin and every two weeks I get a flyer to advise that there will be a clothing collection in aid of the homeless somewhere in the world. It mentions the goods wanted and sometimes asks for the bag to show a certain sticker the next day. The flyer, however, only gives the minimum detail and, sometimes, a mobile telephone number. There is no detail of a charity name or postal address and certainly no charity registration number. This is fraud, plain and simple. I have never been able to contact the organisation involved.
I say that because sections 26 and 27 refer to co-operation and information between the new authority, the Garda and other law enforcement agencies. If this is fraud the organisation will not be registered but it should still be a function of the new regulatory authority to become involved in this. No fraud will register but the authorities should still take complaints from the public and engage with other law enforcement agencies.
Many of the charities we deal with are small in scope and some are established to fund one-off events. It is important that we do not prevent such groups from performing charitable functions, particularly for those who have been the victims of a tragedy. We want financial accountability but red tape should not stop local groups from organising one-off events.
Deputy Crawford is right, charity work in Ireland is complex. I wish the Minister well with the Bill.
I thank the Minister for being present for most of Second Stage and commend him on its introduction. The Bill has undergone a lengthy process of consultation with the interested parties and I hope we will see it enacted as soon as possible.
It is extraordinary that this is the first charity legislation in over 30 years. In that time, this country has seen significant changes, we have gone from being a very weak economy to one of the best in the world. As a result people have more disposable income and charities have benefitted. It is only right, therefore, that we look at the legislation that controls charities and introduce a Bill that takes account of the new climate in which they operate.
It is internationally recognised the Irish are generous in their support for charities. A higher proportion of Irish income goes to charity than is the case in most other countries. It is difficult to make direct comparisons but per head of population we supported the Live Aid concert to a greater extent than any other country.
We have a strong tradition of supporting overseas aid. I am concerned, however, that while the larger charitable organisations have the resources to comply with the legislation, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, GOAL and others, some smaller and one-off charities might be overlooked. Spontaneousad hoc fundraisers take place for local and domestic tragedies. In the Bill there may be a figure whereby charities will not have to submit accounts. Perhaps the Department could come up with a form for an annual return by local charities to avoid the expense of providing accounts. Such accounts can take up a significant part of the funds raised in administrative expenses.
I am also pleased that the Bill provides for the establishment of a regulatory authority for charities. Those currently employed in other agencies that will be disbanded as a result of this legislation will transfer over to this new authority. It is important that we have transparency and that the public can be confident when giving to charity. I hope this will limit the abuses that have taken place. It is not always possible but if we could move towards a system that is not so cash-based, it would be an improvement. It makes things easier for the charities to have a regular monthly income from standing orders. They then know how much they will have annually.
I am concerned about cash collections. We will see many such collections in the run-up to Christmas, where people rattle a bucket and ask for a contribution to a charity a person might know nothing about.
I am pleased to note this Bill provides for regulation that will oblige individuals who are collecting to have a sealed container on which they will identify the charity or the purpose of the fundraising effort. Some of my colleagues have become highly suspicious of, and put off by, the plethora of charities that have mushroomed on a weekly or monthly basis. They have taken the decision that the only charity in which they have confidence, given its overheads are so low as a proportion of the moneys collected, is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. All Members could take a leaf from that organisation's book as its overheads and administration costs are extremely limited. It is a voluntary organisation that carries out wonderful work for less well-off people in Irish society. As Christmas approaches, its track record and the manner in which it manages its affairs will ensure it is well supported.
The issue of charitable status should be reconsidered by the Minister of State on Committee Stage. I note certain areas will not receive such status. Perhaps in consultation with the Revenue Commissioners, which has done much work in respect of the taxation status of certain charities, it should not be too difficult to set down, organise and agree on what organisations should enjoy that status. The definition of charitable organisation is of particular interest to me, as is the list of those that are excluded from the definition. I note that political parties rightly are excluded from such status.
The Bill provides for the establishment of the new independent body, namely, the charities regulatory authority. It outlines the function of the authority and the standards it must achieve. One provision will empower the authority to investigate charities, which will be an important role. Proactive use of that provision from the outset could lead to the weeding out of many of those charities about which many Members are concerned, which would engender confidence in future that the remaining regulated organisations are bona fide charities.
The authority, where it so desires, correctly will reserve the power to request full audited accounts from a charity, irrespective of its income and expenditure. However, some movement in this respect is required, whereby small one-off fund appeals on behalf of small charities can be catered for without putting them to the expense of being obliged to employ auditors and accountants to make returns. I commend the Minister of State on this welcome legislation and wish him success in its speedy passage through the Houses.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Catherine Byrne.
It is obvious that many Deputies have a particular interest in this Bill. I am sure this is because, like me, they give much to charity, as well as spending a large portion of their time fundraising. Consequently they have a deep knowledge of what it means to be a giver of both time and money. They have first-hand knowledge and information on the issue of charitable donations, of giving and taking and the importance of doing it properly in a transparentfashion.
Undoubtedly, Irish charity law is in urgent need of modernisation. As previous speakers have noted, more than 40 years have elapsed since legislation pertaining to charities was passed in this House — I refer to the Charities Act 1961. Charity legislation has not kept pace with societal changes in the manner in which money is given or taken or in how fundraising is transacted, be it on the high street, privately or whatever. I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, who is a fellow Kerry man, on introducing this legislation. While the Bill's preparation was almost complete when he took office, his capable hands are now steering it through the Oireachtas.
The charities sector is completely unregulated at present. This means no single body has the specific aim of supervising the sector or has the statutory powers to either maintain a register of charities or to subject the sector to regulatory scrutiny. Therefore, there is no such entity as a registered charity in Ireland at present. There is no statutory definition of what constitutes a charity and no reliable information on the number of active charities, their financial worth or how they spend their funds.
Ireland is an extremely charitable country. One should consider the response to the tsunami appeal some years ago, which brought out the best in Irish people. Although the disaster took place many miles away, Irish people reacted generously to it, probably to a greater degree than any other nation of comparable size globally. This House organised a soccer game against the FAI at the time, for which Members sought and received little recognition. I recall writing to every Member and they all responded positively. Together with the FAI, Members presented a cheque for more than €100,000. This simply demonstrates people's generosity towards a cause with which they can identify.
While many statistics are available, Members lack good information. One statistic suggests that almost 90% of the population donates to charity every year in the form of church charities, community or sporting organisations or whatever. I find this figure credible because, as I noted, Irish people are highly generous. This legislation is important because to an increasing extent people are asking questions about their donations and the manner in which they are spent. I have observed people questioning fundraisers on the street as to the charity's purpose, the manner in which donations are spent, how much the collectors are paid and even how much the collectors' boss is paid. People also ask questions about the proportion of money that reaches its intended target. This is a highly significant issue and some statistics suggest a breakdown of one third to the fundraiser, one third to the organisation's administrative structure and one third to the intended target. While these are general figures, people want access to such information, which simply is unavailable at present.
A major issue has arisen in respect of overheads, marketing, the use of professional fundraisers and the use of consultants to get across a message to induce people to give more money. The entire fundraising sector has become highly professional. I repeat that the Minister of State's efforts, which Members are trying to support, are important because they enable the generous donor on the street to have confidence that what he or she is giving will be beneficial to the intended recipient. Given the lack of regulation, public trust in charities is beginning to suffer. We are very generous at the moment, but people are beginning to ask questions.
Organisations with which I have been involved have benefited in the past from the Ireland Fund — although that is a different issue — but even Americans, who have been generous in giving to this country in so many ways, are becoming donation-weary. They are beginning to question where their money is going. That is also reflected on the streets. I am not saying that Irish people have stopped giving money, but they are asking more questions. I hope that donation fatigue will not set in. However, this could happen if the Minister does not take the required action, especially if there is a tightening up of the economy. If people have less disposable income in their pockets they will ask questions about donating. They may ring-fence a certain amount of their incomes every year for charity, perhaps giving to just one charity rather than spreading it around.
As has been mentioned by a number of speakers, people are becoming fed up with being accosted on the street and asked for charitable donations. There may be two or three fundraising initiatives going on in a town at the same time so that people are accosted on every corner. Older people in particular, who do not like to say no, feel intimidated by this at times. The Bill sets out conditions under which fundraising can take place, which is very welcome. However, people, especially old people, should not feel intimidated or pressurised into giving something. At times, charity collectors can be in people's faces. That should not be allowed either. People in provincial towns are being asked by others they do not know to contribute to charities they cannot identify with. This must certainly be addressed.
As I mentioned, there is no regulation in this area at the moment. The number of charities in the State, as has been mentioned, is roughly 7,500. These are not subject to any regulation apart from company law. In the past, major charities have been affected by fraud and other scandals. This has had an impact on their incomes. If an organisation is tarnished in some way, people give less or they stop giving to that organisation. According to the newspapers, charities have accepted that the regulations being introduced are for their benefit. They will help them to get their houses in order and to ensure transparency, as mentioned by many speakers. They will also help them to ensure that proper accounting systems are in place, keep track of their sources of money and ensure that they can identify and take responsibility for the people collecting on their behalf on the ground.
Is there any type of qualification for fundraising? For example, can somebody with a criminal record engage in fundraising activities? I have looked at the Bill in a cursory fashion, but I do not know whether this is mentioned. Does the Bill contain any provisions relating to the previous history of a person collecting for charity and whether he or she has a criminal record? Is there any reference to qualifying requirements in terms of character? Does a person need to obtain clearance from a local Garda superintendent or similar? The Minister might refer to this in his reply.
As I pointed out, it is vital that public trust and confidence in the charity sector be maintained and increased. This is because most charities now rely heavily for their survival and growth on generating income from their activities. In addition, they need to be able to rely on the services of volunteers. I saw a figure somewhere that there are approximately 700 professional fundraisers in Ireland. However, thousands of people are out there collecting money on a voluntary basis. The larger charitable organisations could lose volunteers if they are not confident that the organisation is operating properly.
According to a survey carried out by the Centre for Nonprofit Management at Trinity College Dublin — it may not be totally accurate, but it is the only information available — it is estimated that the charitable sector collects about €2.5 billion every year, €500 million of which is from direct fundraising. A total of 60% of the income of charitable organisations comes directly from the State, but fundraising constitutes a critical portion of their income. In addition, the survey makes the interesting point that in 2003, fewer than 10% of charities earned an average income of more than €738,000 per annum, even though the list includes large charities such as Oxfam, Concern, UNICEF, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Irish Heart Foundation. Thus, very few have massive incomes. A total of 50% of charitable organisations had an income of €40,000 or less. There is a large number of smaller organisations. The Minister has made provision in the Bill that any organisation with an income of less then €100,000 does not need to produce audited accounts, although they must produce reports and accounts. I welcome this provision as a requirement for audited accounts would result in too much bureaucracy.
There is one issue I would like to bring to the Minister's attention. Among those collecting for charities, many are collecting for charities that are not registered. These people need to obtain a permit from the local Garda superintendent. However, there should be some form of regulation for this. People who have obtained such permits should be obliged to return to the superintendent with an account of what they collected. In addition, contributions of more than €10, for example, should be recorded and a list of the people who gave more than that amount should be kept. In this way, if the Garda later needs to check on a collector about whom doubts have been cast, it can check whether the money reached the desired source.
I have mentioned codes of practice relating to methods of fundraising. For example, people should not be allowed to intimidate others and collection boxes should be sealed properly. Without wishing to encourage over-regulation, I suggest that if a major fundraising drive is taking place in a town the Garda should first check the boxes and make sure they are properly sealed and afterwards check whether the boxes are still sealed before they are passed on, as is done with ballot boxes during elections. In addition, the seals on the boxes should be tamper-proof.
We all get notices through our letter boxes about clothing collections. People are giving up good quality clothes such as those which young kids have grown out of and which could be expensive, or designer wear. They are giving them to people who are apparently making considerable money by exporting them. It is important that this area is regulated as well because there is a fortune to made in it and there is a national network in operation because it is highly profitable. The Minister of State might refer to how he will regulate that area.
As a fundraiser and a donor, I am delighted to have the opportunity to say few words on this Bill. I thank the Minister of State for bringing it forward. It can only do good for the charitable sector.
On behalf of myself and those from the Fine Gael Party who have spoken, I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, for his presence. Having had the privilege of working with him on summer projects a long time ago, I know of his commitment to volunteer organisations and community groups and I need not emphasise how well it is known throughout Dublin.
As someone who stood on many corners for many years shaking boxes under people's faces as they passed up and down O'Connell Street, particularly in the cold month of December when I would be singing, I welcome the Bill.
I will say only a few words because I was not listed to speak, and I thank the previous speaker for giving me a few minutes of his time. I want to speak about the volunteers and the people who respond on a daily basis to many organisations, particularly small local organisations such as parish groups which collect for summer projects and organise cake sales many of which have been mentioned. It is important that this Bill protects those groups. Many such organisations are run by very small committees and it is the people who come along and volunteer to take the collections outside the different places who are the ones who need protection from this Bill. However, I would hate to see this Bill putting a stop to the many volunteers who take part every day of the week in all such organisations. When the bits and pieces are being collected together in this Bill, I hope the Minister of State will look favourably on those small organisations in communities and parishes that so depend on the few pence they collect from people.
My involvement arose through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and particularly through the late Mr. Noel Clear, who was its president, whom I admired greatly and who had a great deal to do with my being involved in community organisations. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in particular around Christmas time, does a vast amount of unseen work. It is done behind closed door, and with confidentiality being very much part of the organisation. I commend the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for its work over the years. It is an organisation that has taken people from extreme poverty and brought them into some kind of every day living.
I welcome the setting up of the regulator of charities. It is very important. As someone who has spent a long time working in charitable organisations, it is about time some rules were set in place and it was made clear to people who want to collect money on behalf of organisations what they can and cannot do.
I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, across the Chamber. He has a true understanding having worked constantly through the years on behalf of many organisations.
I want to be associated with the remarks made by the previous speaker about the Minister of State, Deputy Carey. I thank him for his presence and acknowledge his deep interest in this area.
The Bill is extremely welcome and timely. It is possibly overdue, but we are glad it is here. It is to reform the law relating to charities to ensure greater accountability and to protect against abuse of charitable status and fraud.
As many speakers alluded to already, there is a concern that some individuals and groups are using charities as a cover to raise money for dubious purposes and it is obvious that the law and procedures in this area seriously needed tightening up. The Bill also aims to enhance public trust and confidence in charities to increase transparency, and that is also quite important.
There are a number of concerns about the legal structure for charities. Almost every Member of the Oireachtas has been involved in some form of charity because we are out there dealing with the public and with communities all the time. As a result, it struck me that while one way of becoming a charity is to form a company limited by guarantee, that can be a cumbersome legal way to proceed. Many Members have already alluded to this. To put it simply, there are big charities and small charities. In a way that is a childish view, but it is one way of looking at it. We must support and encourage all types. Perhaps it is necessary to find a way of differentiating between the types of charities — maybe there is one and I have missed.
Other colleagues have mentioned one-off collections such as those for a sick child. These can be abused as well. We need to look at how to support and encourage a small group of local people who want to fundraise, for instance, in a pub by holding an auction or raffle which can raise substantial moneys, as against a large organisation. The Minister of State might brief us on that. One way to do it would be to incorporate that in the Charities Bill.
Mention has also been made of organisations which advocate for political causes being excluded from the register of charities, and there is potential in that regard.
There should also be a provision to permit charitable trustees to indemnify themselves from personal liability using trust resources. This was proposed in the past.
Some statutory organisations can be included in the register. It is important that the identity of charities as being independent of the State is protected. It has been put to me that some organisations believe that no State-owned or State-controlled agency should be included in the register.
There is a concern that the fees to be paid by charities are to be included in the register and there is also concern about submitting annual returns. Many smaller charities could find it difficult to meet the additional compliance costs associated with regulation and many organisations may face difficulties if these additional costs include fees for registration and for the making of annual returns. That relates to the issue of large charities and small charities.
Another topic I want to mention briefly is related to philanthropy. I note and welcome the establishment by the Government of a forum on philanthropy and that Philanthropy Ireland has issued a number of reports. The culture of philanthropy is not well established in Ireland. One could say this was not a wealthy country up until 15 or 20 years ago and we did not have vast amounts of money to donate. In the United States such a culture is well established. In Ireland we still have a State that looks after people. That is not the case in the United States where the welfare state is not established to the same extent as here and in the UK. At the same time there is an opportunity to encourage philanthropy. The people of Ireland are very generous. The tsunami appeal and other such appeals down through the centuries show that we have always given money, even when we did not have it for ourselves. One way would be to give public acknowledgement of charitable donations, such as the Beacon awards in the UK which publicly recognise philanthropy. Perhaps Philanthropy Ireland will do that.
Another way of encouraging it would be to focus on financial incentives such as lowering the minimum donation eligible for tax relief from €250 to encourage giving at a smaller level. I understand other countries have lower minimum donations. In the UK, for instance, income tax relief is available on all donations made through the payroll. Deductions can be made from pay before PAYE is applied. Gift aid tax has also been introduced so charities can reclaim the basic rate of income tax paid by all donors.
Another option would be to allow donations to be in the form of non-cash assets such as shares or property. Currently all donations must be in cash to be tax deductible. Converting non-cash assets into cash often exposes donors to capital gains tax. The experience in the United States suggests that allowing donations of other assets might encourage philanthropy among wealthy people.
Many speakers have referred to giving VAT refunds to charities. Currently charities pay VAT on purchased goods and services but, unlike companies, cannot claim a refund against VAT collected. The Government claims our hands are tied by EU VAT law but charities insist it is possible. This is an issue the Minister for Finance should examine.
There is another possible way to help charities benefit that is used in other countries, namely, escheatment. This is a process of turning over unclaimed or abandoned property to a State authority instead of to the controller of the assets. The dormant accounts legislation is similar to this system.
Let us suppose the Minister has a small number of shares in a company and he receives a small dividend cheque worth only a couple of euro. Because it is so small he might not consider it to be worth cashing and if he leaves it to one side he could forget about it. That happens quite a lot. One can ask what happens the money and who owns it. In other countries it is handed over to the state through a process called escheatment. I encourage the Government to examine this process as it has a great deal of potential. There are resources out there that could be made available for charitable purposes. This approach is taken in other countries, especially in the United States.
The State could establish an escheatment agency as an independent statutory body. It would require banks and companies to submit periodic returns detailing unclaimed funds. I do not refer to dormant accounts, which is a separate issue. Companies could retain control of these funds for two years and moneys would then be turned over to the State escheatment agency, which would maintain publicly searchable databases to allow beneficial owners to claim assets, subject to adequate proof and payment of a fair administration fee, in a similar way to the way the dormant accounts fund operates.
The Bill could contain proposals to escheat certain dividends from quoted companies. This would provide an opportunity for charities to claim funds and resources. We will probably never have enough funding for charities. This is a well-known practice in the United States. In some states there, the state treasury has strict fines for companies that fail to comply with filing obligations. I also understand the system operates in Australia and in other countries.
The administration costs associated with charitable organisations must be examined. The Bill provides for the authority to encourage better practice by companies in this area. I am concerned at the amount expended on administration by certain organisations which collect a great deal of money for charity.
I will not name the organisation in question, but a number of years ago I was invited to visit the headquarters of a charitable organisation. I was shown into the boardroom which had plush carpet on the floor and a mahogany table among other features. It struck me how well appointed it was for a charity. We must have a balance. I suggest the legislation should set a certain limit to the amount paid out on administration. However, I accept one has to speculate to accumulate. The Bill mandates the registration and naming of people who are professional collectors, which is important. The legislation will require also that fundraising agents and consultants have to be named.
We should examine the area of church gate collections which concerns political parties, including the one of which I am a member. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil hold church gate collections. I am not comfortable with them and I question whether they fit into the charity ethos. If we all stopped doing them they might not happen. When people go to church they should not be accosted by fundraising for political parties. People are happy to donate to genuine charities, but it is questionable whether political parties fall into this category. On the other hand, it flies the flag for a party and people learn about the existence of that party and, in some cases, people take the opportunity to raise issues.
Deputy Deenihan told me he did not have time to refer to his proposal that all charities should publish what they collect on an annual basis and that the information should be accessible. I note that the reports will have to be made available but I suggest they be made available on-line. That is probably a matter for the new authority when it is set up. The notion of making reports available suggests that they would be available somewhere in the authority's headquarters. Who will bother going to that place to find out what a certain organisation collected? If reports are available on-line, everyone can access them and the costs would be minimal. It would probably be a lot cheaper than publishing them.
Members get so many reports from organisations, bodies, State agencies and semi-State agencies, and I have not read half of the ones I received. Publishing on-line should be used more than is currently the case as this would cut down on waste and reduce our carbon footprint. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, receives even more documentation than we get and, knowing him, he probably spends most of the night reading them. I cannot get around to reading a fraction of what I receive and I end up having to throw them out because, otherwise, I would not fit into my office.
We need to tighten up on the permit system that is issued by the Garda because it is archaic. The physical permit needs to be far more professional. However, we must be careful to ensure that the permit is not required to be so professional that organisations cannot produce them. We must examine this issue. I am not sure whether the Minister of State has seen the permits issued by the Garda but I am sure he will agree they are out-of-date. As part of the authority's remit, it could address this issue.
I welcome the Bill. It is important that we recognise and acknowledge the work done by people in charitable organisation. Many of them carry out fundraising because for one reason or another the State has not or cannot provide assistance for a specific purpose. We are all aware of cases where money is raised to help parents from, say, Cork whose children are in hospital in Dublin and who have to stay overnight in a hotel or guest house while their child is being treated. Should people be put in that position? They are already emotionally vulnerable having to deal with a sick child and there is enormous pressure on a family in those circumstances. The State is failing in its duty to support parents and families in such situations and it falls back on a local community to raise money to support them. There are areas that must be clarified when the State is failing in its duty and the charitable sector must chip in.
Charities do extraordinarily good work. Deputy Deenihan said there were thousands of charities in the State. Could the authority in some way examine all those charities and, where possible, it could suggest a coming together, so to speak? Instead of ten charities working in the one area and duplicating work, there might be only one. That would cut down on the duplication and administration costs and ensure that more of the funding raised would go to where it is needed.
I wish the Minister of State well with the progression of the Bill through its next Stages and through the other House. I look forward to dealing with it on Committee and Report Stages.
I thank all the speakers for their contributions, the general welcome for the Bill and the plaudits for me. I worry that when somebody is raised up so high there is only one way to go after that.
I will deal with as many of the issues as we have been able to track. There was a wide range of contributors to the debate. Everybody supported the general thrust of the Bill and the charities sector and recognised the importance of the role charities play in society. That reinforces the need to have a robust yet proportionately regulated sector to ensure that public confidence and goodwill is maintained.
The first issue raised was the justification for a new authority. Some speakers said we were putting in place another quango. That issue was raised by Deputies Ring, Wall, Deasy, Barrett, Bannon, Chris Andrews and Tom Hayes and perhaps one or two others. Although there was broad agreement across the House that the sector requires regulation, there was some divergence of opinion as to the way that might best be achieved.
A number of Members suggested that regulation might be delivered within existing structures or in ways other than by establishing an independent regulatory authority. In framing the Bill various approaches to establishing a regulatory framework for charities were explored in the screening regulatory impact assessment that was prepared by the Department in the initial stage of this regulatory initiative. The conclusion of that assessment was that a new regulatory authority would be the best option. The external report on the public consultation that followed found that of those respondents who commented on the matter, "an overwhelming majority were in favour of the creation of a new independent statutory regulatory body, rather than using an existing body". That was the approach the Government ultimately approved in the general scheme and in the Bill that followed.
I want to put to rest any suggestion that we are establishing a quango, as suggested by several Deputies. The charities regulatory authority will be simply a regulatory body. It will not be an executive body for charities. It will not be impenetrable or unanswerable; the opposite is the case. One of the fundamental changes the authority will bring about is that information on charities that until now was not available will be readily available to one and all. Essentially, the authority will be a one-stop-shop for information on charities. It will not be necessary for members of the public to contact their public representatives to find out about a particular charity. As Deputy Stanton suggested, the information will be available on the authority's website or by telephone. It will greatly simplify matters, rather than complicate them.
The authority will be required to prepare annual reports — an issue raised in the debate — that will have to be laid before this House. The authority will be answerable to various committees of the Oireachtas. It will not have a huge operational budget and will represent value for money particularly, as Deputies pointed out, as it has been estimated that this sector has a total economic value of €2.5 billion per annum. It will be a relatively small price to pay to ensure confidence in this hugely valuable sector is preserved.
Some Deputies raised the issue of the register being available on-line. I will be happy to consider that suggestion favourably in the course of the next Stage.
Deputies Jim O'Keeffe, Deasy, Burke and Higgins raised the issue of the independence of the authority and it being subject to Government policies. The concern about the independence of the authority is unfounded. It is a standard clause in legislation that statutory bodies are required to comply with Government policy. However, the clause is not intended to suggest that the Government will play an active role in the day to day running of the authority. It merely means that the CRA will be obliged to comply with general policy as enshrined in legislation in areas such as freedom of information, ethics, data protection, public service numbers etc. It will not impinge on the independence of the authority in fulfilling its regulatory role.
Deputies Ring, Jim O'Keeffe, White, Burke, Chris Andrews, O'Connor, Costello, Flanagan, Reilly, Higgins and Nolan raised issues about the definition of "charitable purposes", particularly a number of charitable purposes that were originally in the general scheme but were not ultimately included in the Bill. The most common difficulty Deputies had was with the exclusion of the human rights provision from the definition of "charitable purposes". I am not averse in principle to examining the possibility of revisiting such provisions should it be appropriate, taking into account legal advice available to me. It could be said that although the promotion of human rights is not mentioned explicitly as a charitable purpose, several of the other purposes are closely linked to the promotion of human rights. Nonetheless, I appreciate the heartfelt views of speakers on the matter and am happy to explore this issue further on Committee Stage. I am aware of the extent of the concern in the sector about that issue.
Deputy Ring expressed the view that the authority cannot have both a regulatory and a supportive role for charities; it cannot be policeman and pal. The position being adopted in the Bill is that the authority will have both roles. The roles are not mutually incompatible. It is common for regulators to have both roles, and in this case it is appropriate. There is provision in the legislation for a review of the Act after five years in operation. That will be an appropriate time to reflect on whether the range of duties assigned to the regulatory authority has operated satisfactorily.
The administrative burden on charities was raised by several Deputies including Deputies Wall, Mattie McGrath, White, Burke, Chris Andrews, O'Connor, Costello, Durkan, Tom Hayes, O'Mahony, Nolan and Crawford. They expressed a view that the legislation must not place too onerous an administrative burden on charities as that might discourage people from working in charities. I agree with that view and we will ensure that the legislation is consciously framed to ensure proportionality in the demands it places. That is the reason my officials are working on proposals to minimise the potential for dual filing by charities. It is not in anyone's interests to put people off volunteerism, and given the supportive ethos of the authority, I am confident that any difficulties that might arise between charities and the authority in this regard can be resolved in a reasonable manner. I take on board Deputies Byrne and Stanton's comments.
Deputies Ring, Costello and Morgan suggested that the wording in respect of charities engaged in political activities might be changed to reflect the equivalent Scottish legislation. Much of the legal advice given to my officials during the drafting process was to the effect that UK legislative provisions do not easily transfer to Irish law however simple it may seem. The relevant wording in the Bill is designed to allow charities to engage in valid political work as a means of achieving their charitable purpose rather than as a primary purpose itself. Deputy Perry discussed at length the question of the fine line between political advocacy and lobbying. I do not accept that charities should be predominantly engaged in political activities and the wording achieves an appropriate balance.
The issue of statutory bodies having charitable status was raised by a number of Deputies, including Deputies White and Reilly. They believed the independence of the sector might be undermined by not excluding statutory bodies from charitable status. Some statutory bodies enjoy eligibility for charitable tax reliefs courtesy of the Revenue Commissioners and I do not want to do anything to impact negatively on that. The key issue is whether an organisation is engaged in charitable purposes with an inherent public benefit, not the class of the organisation itself. If statutory bodies meet the criteria to the satisfaction of the new regulatory authority, they should be eligible for charitable status. From the information that will be available from the new register of charities provided for in the Bill, it should be readily apparent to the public as to whether an organisation is statutory.
The issue of registration fees for charities was raised by a number of Deputies. It is an enabling provision and is not mandatory. The authority will not be obliged to impose fees. It would be remiss not to include such a clause, although it will be a matter for further consideration with the requisite parties as to whether the clause should be invoked. It is envisaged that the authority will be predominantly, if not completely, funded by the Exchequer, to which effect the Bill makes provision. Some of the Deputies' concerns will be taken on board.
Virtually every speaker referred to the potential impact of the legislation on spontaneous collections in aid of local or international charities. The proposed legislation will not change the current situation. What has applied to date will continue to apply. Spontaneous collections within a workplace, office or private club do not require a permit. It is not within the spirit of the legislation to regulate such once-off gestures of human kindness. Given their spontaneity, it would be difficult to police the practice.
Spontaneous public cash collections have the potential to give unscrupulous people licence to defraud the public. Is the public not equally entitled to know that its generous contribution to a spontaneous collection is accounted for properly as is the case with a normal collection with a permit? Deputies Deenihan and Stanton among others referred to this issue. After the Bill's enactment, the public will be in a better position to verify whether its contribution is going to the intended charitable purpose. I presume the regulatory authority will consider the suggestion that information on the amount collected and the donors should be made publicly available. Codes of best practice will be developed in that respect.
A number of issues raised by Deputies Morgan, Reilly and others are outside the scope of the Bill. Multi-annual funding for charities, the tax reform of charities and a single umbrella organisation for charities are more appropriate for discussion on another day in another forum.
The value of a shared approach with Northern Ireland was raised by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and the North's charity regulatory initiative was mentioned. While it will not always be possible, principally on the basis of legal advice, to match the approach being taken in Northern Ireland, my Department has developed a strong relationship with the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland over the course of our parallel regulatory initiatives, including attendance at regular meetings of the UK and Ireland five nations forum for charities regulators.
The new authority will be empowered to co-operate on an administrative basis with statutory bodies inside and outside the State, which will be particularly important in the case of Northern Ireland, given the number of charitable organisations that operate on an all-Ireland basis. This would be a matter of simple good practice in the exercise of regulatory functions and might involve exchanging information, addressing issues of common concern and avoiding unnecessary duplication.
Regarding Deputy Nolan's comments on co-operation with the Revenue Commissioners, I assure the House that my officials are working closely with the commissioners to ensure that the parallel regulatory and taxation regimes work as seamlessly as possible alongside each other. We expect a positive outcome to the ongoing discussions.
I wish to clarify a matter raised by Deputy Deasy as it is necessary to correct his statement. It relates to my opening remarks in which I stated "in a report published late last year", the Law Reform Commission had recommended a new legal structure for charitable organisations, the Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Subsequently, Deputy Deasy suggested that the report was published in December 2005 and, thus, my Department had a great deal of time to peruse the 55 page report. Lest the Deputy's remarks be interpreted as my misleading the House, the LRC publishes in two stages usually, that is, a consultation paper and then a report. The former is intended to form the basis for discussions and the recommendations, conclusions and suggestions contained therein are provisional. The commission makes its final recommendations in the report following further consideration of the issues and consultation. The publication to which I referred was the LRC's report on charitable trusts and legal structures for charities, which was published in October 2006. The Deputy was referring to the LRC's initial consultation paper on legal structures for charities, which contained the LRC's provisional recommendations. My Department was aware of the recommendations in December 2005, but was charged with delivering a much awaited Bill. The final recommendations of the LRC were not published until October 2006, when work on this task was well advanced.
Deputy Deasy raised the issue of the legal structure for charities. It has always been the position that the matter of legal structures for charities does not constitute the purpose of this legislation, which is to regulate the charities sector for the first time since the foundation of the State. The Government's commitment to ensure accountability of the charities sector and to protect against abuse of charitable status and fraud will be delivered on in the Charities Bill.
Like Deputy Stanton, Deputy O'Rourke expressed concern about anecdotal experience that certain bishops object to collections for political parties outside church gates. While it will remain the case that collections within church grounds will not require a permit, once a political party or anyone has obtained a valid permit from the Garda Síochána for a public collection, he, she or it is entitled to collect in the location approved subject to whatever conditions have been applied to the permit. If any member of the public is unhappy with a collection being undertaken in a public place or believes that the terms of the permit have been breached, it is within his or her rights to complain to the district superintendent who issued the permit. This situation will not change following enactment of the Bill.
The location and cost of the authority was mentioned by Deputies Tom Hayes, Deasy and Mansergh. My Department will engage in detailed discussions with the Department of Finance on all the practical aspects of the establishment of the new authority. It is anticipated, in accordance with the terms outlined in the Bill, that the staff of the Office of Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests for Ireland, based in Dublin, will transfer to the new authority on establishment day. Its experience will be important in the transition period. This will be among the factors to be taken into account in any discussions on the location of the new body.
Deputy Reilly raised the issue of supports for the sector in the transition to a regulated environment. There is acceptance in section 34(1) of Towards 2016 that support will be required for charities to meet their obligations in the new regulatory environment. Towards 2016 provides that the modalities of this support will be decided following consultation with the community and voluntary sector after the legislation has been approved by the Oireachtas. I will keep this matter under review.
Deputies Perry and Reilly raised the issue of duty of care for charities' trustees. Provisions to allow charitable trustees to indemnify themselves were originally in the general scheme but were not in the Bill as published. While I understand that trustees already have statutory fiduciary responsibilities, I am open to discussing these matters further on Committee Stage subject to legal advice.
Deputies Perry, Aylward, Deenihan and others raised the need for transparency on the amount spent by charities on administration and running costs, rather than on their core purposes. One of the fundamental principles of the Bill is increased transparency and availability of information to the public. While it must be recognised that there are administrative costs in running a charity and that there may be valid reasons that one charity's administration costs are higher than another's, after the register is established and accounts are available to the public, potential donors will be in a position to make more informed decisions on which charities they should support.
Many speakers raised the issue of clothing collections and the impact on them of the Charities Bill. The Bill will oblige genuine charities operating in Ireland to register with the charities regulator and they will be given a unique charity registered number, CRN. In their publicity they will be obliged to state that they are a registered charitable organisation, as stipulated in section 41(7)(a), and will be at liberty to state their CRN. Members of the public will be able to check the veracity of the CRN on the charity regulator’s website. Companies without a CRN which continue to collect goods will not be able to state that they are a charity or to quote a CRN. In this way, it will be clear to the public which charity is genuine. It will also be within the remit of the regulator to publish advice for the public on how to determine the veracity of door-to-door collectors. A person who represents an unregistered body as being registered will be guilty of an offence punishable by a fine of up to €300,000 or five years in prison, or both.
Deputy Deenihan raised the history of individuals who collect and whether there is provision for investigating whether people involved in collections have a criminal record. Although the Bill does not contain such a provision, it provides that one cannot be a charity trustee if one has been convicted on indictment of an offence. It would be in the interests of charities to ensure they are confident about those working for them. Anyone who breaches the Bill, including collectors, will have committed an offence, however the authority may consider that this matter is best addressed as a best practice policy.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of mass cards. It will be in the remit of the regulator to publish advice for the public on how to make informed decisions on their support of causes and the legitimacy of organisations operating in the jurisdiction. If mass cards do not carry a registered number allocated by the authority, the public would be right to have concerns about the organisation producing them.
Deputy Deenihan raised the issue of collections for purposes other than charities and reporting to the Garda Síochána. This is outside the scope of the Bill but the Garda Síochána has duties to ensure collections are for valid purposes and are well run.
I have listened carefully to the whole debate and it was gratifying to hear the constructive contributions from Members. I accept that there will always be differences of opinion on the approach to be taken and on some of the finer detail of the legislation. That is the nature of democracy and it is to be welcomed. There is a broad acceptance that the regulation of the charities sector is a welcome and necessary development. The various stages of the passage of this Bill through both Houses will provide the opportunity for further meaningful, inclusive debate and discussion. As I said in my opening speech, I am personally committed to progressing the Bill in this way. This will serve the interests of the sector and underpin civil society by producing better legislation.
Though this Bill may appear to some to be just the start of the regulatory process, that is not the case. Great credit is due to my predecessor in the Department and constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern who, from a blank canvas, began and led this much awaited regulatory initiative through comprehensive public consultation and drafting processes over a number of years through to the publication of this Bill earlier this year. I am privileged to take over the baton as the Bill moves to its public phase. I also comment on the support this Bill has received and the hard work the officials here and others have put into it. The charities sector has been supportive and has put forward constructive proposals on the sector. I will reflect fully on the issues raised by Members during this debate. I am looking forward to Committee Stage but, as I have indicated, a small number of provisions must be addressed before we move on to that Stage.