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St John Ambulance

Volume 574: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2014

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, although it is not one for which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) or I wished to call. My name came out of the hat, but I take no pleasure in the necessity of the debate taking place. I am—at least for the next hour and a half or so—the vice-president of the Canterbury and Coastal branch of St John. Before the restructuring of the organisation, I was proud to be the vice-president of the Herne Bay branch in my constituency.

The St John Ambulance service is an organisation that has been revered, honoured and respected in Herne Bay for generations. Its presence at the Queen Vic memorial hospital summer fête, the Lark in the Park, football matches, rugby matches and other sporting events, and many concerts and performances held in Kings Hall has been part of the fabric of the town, and the branded ambulances have provided succour for those injured, sick or in need of transfer from one medical facility to another. In my parliamentary lifetime, volunteers such as the late and much loved John Morriss and, currently, George Tunnadine and his partner have been mainstays of our community. They and many others around the county of Kent have accumulated years of dedicated service to society and the public, and have provided countless hours of hard work behind the scenes, learning and then passing on to others their first-aiding and medical skills.

That wonderful inheritance has been placed at risk through mismanagement and a failure to communicate by those charged with protecting it, preserving it and passing it on to their successors, which is why we are here this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury—if he catches your eye, Mr Turner—will deal with specific issues illustrated by and arising from the situation at St John nursing home in Whitstable in his constituency. Others will also wish to have their say, and I am aware that the St John damage control machine has sought to brief individual Members and the Minister about the huge and unqualified success of what others regard as administrative vandalism.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the incredible service of local people to the St John Ambulance brigade over so many years. I pay particular tribute to my own friend and colleague, David Hempleman-Adams, who was the chairman of the Wiltshire organisation, until it was closed recently, and is now a trustee nationally. He would disagree about the structural points that my hon. Friend is about to make.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is sitting on my right, but as those remarks have not yet been made, it might be polite, if nothing else, if he were to wait until I have said what I am going to say. I can say to him that I am sure that the St John briefing notes, which I have seen, will have been well and truly read into the record by the time that we are through.

I will not detain hon. Members for too long, but I need to illustrate with broad brush strokes what has gone wrong and then, as the subject of the debate is the regulation of St John Ambulance by the Charity Commission, set out why the commission has been unwilling, or unable, to intervene in a manner that might have been expected in the interests of those supportive members of the public who have so generously given many millions of pounds over the years to the St John Ambulance service. It is not my style to say under privilege anything that I would not be prepared to say outside Parliament on the record or in public. Nor do I propose—this might come as a relief to some—to name names or to besmirch individual reputations. There is, however, a collective responsibility at the very top of St John that has to be held to account. My understanding is that, in recent years, the St John accumulated reserves have suffered from a near catastrophic 30% loss. I am sure that that figure will be disputed and that “reasons beyond our control” will be offered for the failure to protect the charity’s funds properly.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not want to pre-empt anything that he might say, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) did, but will he recognise at least that these have been tough economic times for many charities? St John is no different from any other charity that has had to restructure itself to ensure that it can protect front-line services. The evidence that I have seen in my constituency, in Braintree and Halstead, and throughout Essex is that that is exactly what St John has been doing.

I get the sneaking feeling that my hon. Friends on either side of me are reading the next paragraphs of my speech.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that I am supposed to be delivering an open lecture between half-past 2 and 4 o’clock—exactly when this important debate is taking place—so I am grateful to him for giving way.

I have had serious concerns for some time about that financial restructuring and about the reporting and accounting within St John Ambulance. I hope that the debate will make the Charity Commission look again at the organisation, the treatment of its members and, most of all, the governance of St John Ambulance, because the commission has not taken seriously enough what is going on within the organisation. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for giving way, and I hope that he will forgive me for disappearing straight away.

I apologise that I did not see the hon. Lady come into the Chamber. I had said that I would give way to her the moment she walked in because, for reasons that everyone in the House will understand, she has to leave for a long-standing commitment elsewhere. She is, however, one of the three Members who pitched for the debate—my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and I were the others—and I thank her for her support.

I happen to be a supporter of a significant international charity with which I am fairly heavily involved, so I am aware that fundraising in times of austerity is not easy, that returns on investments may be low and that great care and caution have to be taken to protect assets, staff, and the aims and objectives of the charitable organisation. The reaction of St John Ambulance to the situation it faced—due, I believe, to mismanagement—appears to have been draconian and, to say the least, badly handled. It has cost the charity many members and loyal staff, as well as much support in the country.

Faced with severe losses, St John embarked on a national reorganisation in 2011. It said that that was undertaken following full consultation, but as one who was only remotely and peripherally involved, I am in a position to say that no one within the mantled ranks of the priory appears to have been listening and that such consultation as did take place was tardy, inadequate, unheeded and designed to promote and implement decisions that had already been taken. I believe—in fact, I know—that I am not alone in that experience.

On the lines of an experiment conducted by the UK branch of the Red Cross, the St John counties were abolished, with eight regional organisations put in their place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) indicated, any organisation faced with difficulties has the absolute right to restructure. St John, however, might have heeded the results of the Red Cross adventure, which showed that the loss of local ownership led to a loss of membership, support and local income. That process ended with a reversal of the decision.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Mr Turner, I was in full flow before the Division, and I have almost lost my train of thought. I do not contradict the point my hon. Friend is making about Kent, but does he accept that there may be regional disparities? When I heard about this debate, I spoke to my local contact in Essex, our mutual friend, Janie Siggers, and tried to obtain an understanding of what is going on in Essex. The issues that my hon. Friend is raising are not reflected in Essex. Does he accept that there may be some regional disparities?

I accept that. I know the lady to whom my hon. Friend refers and she is extremely hard-working. I concede that there may well be regional variations, and I will come to that precise issue almost immediately, but I cannot help feeling that the fundamental malaise comes from the very top, and that while some organisers have chosen to interpret instructions in a particular way and successfully, others have been perhaps less successful or felt that they were put under pressure. I am not suggesting that the people doing the job are bad people, except perhaps at the very top, and even then I do not mean that they are bad people in that sense.

We now move into uncharted territory, and I will offer the House some observations that have been made to me, not only from Kent but from East Sussex, the midlands and Yorkshire, as examples of precisely this effect of top-down diktats. When events such as this debate reach the public airwaves, testimony also emerges. During the past week, I have taken phone calls and received written communications from people whose details I have but whom I propose to anonymise for the record.

From East Sussex, a volunteer with 35 years’ service under their belt speaks of a branch that in 2008 had a membership of nearly 86, but which has now declined to just three or four. They also tell me of some 13 units whose headquarters buildings are to be sold, and that is in just one district. Another volunteer tells me of training that has gone downhill, with sessions booked from a centralised HQ in Aylesbury that is out of touch with the rest of the new region. In the former area, there were 146 trained emergency ambulance crews; in the corresponding new administrative area, there are only 86. I was told of headquarters premises sold by St John for £80,000 to a developer, who cleared the site and sold it on for £220,000. St John’s justification for that seems to have been, “We’re not property developers.”

It has been suggested to me—of course, the accurate figures must be available within St John—that the result of reorganisation has been a loss in Kent alone of perhaps as much as 75% of the membership. That is all anecdotal, of course, but it is a matter of record that on Thursday 24 January 2013, a special resolution was tabled calling for a vote of no confidence in the priory and the priory council of St John. That resolution was defeated, but in circumstances that the record suggests were, at the very least, bizarre.

Instead of citing telephone calls, I will quote directly. From Kent:

“We learned of the reorganisation in 2011 and that the new structure would be in place by October 2012.

Kent became part of the South East Region on 1st October 2012 being administered from the Regional Office in Aylesbury.

Our County HQ at West Malling was closed and almost all of the loyal staff made redundant.

All funds that were held in County accounts were amalgamated into the Regional Pot.

The feeling among the membership is that the new Regional Directors are trying to run St John as a commercial company and that making a profit is their main aim.

A small number of local events that we covered for a small donation are now not able to run because St John wants to charge them a commercial price and they cannot afford it.

Each Division would raise funds to buy a new Ambulance; they took pride in their vehicle, kept it clean and well stocked and were proud to display their Divisional name on the side of the Ambulance. Those Ambulances have had the names removed and no longer belong to the Division but are moved around the Region with no-one taking ownership for their cleanliness and equipment.

Kent was one of the best-run Counties in the Country with a very strong membership providing thousands of hours of voluntary service to the public of Kent. Sadly, the membership is declining fast and it appears that what has taken over 1000 years to establish the new management have destroyed in just over a year.

I would be interested to know where the funds that we held in Kent have disappeared to.”

From the east Midlands, a long-standing and very faithful divisional superintendent gave the following reasons for his recent and unexpected resignation from St John. I am quoting from a minute:

“That the commercial side of St John was taking over and using the voluntary arm, for financial gain, neither of which is within the spirit of St. John.

To achieve this end there is no regard or concern for the volunteers. We have not been consulted about anything, decisions are made over our heads even when affecting our Units personally, even including the decision to close down a particular unit.

The Leaders of East Midlands Region say whatever is suitable for the occasion, even if it’s not the truth and even if they’d said the total opposite before.”

That is followed by something that is even more disparaging and I will not read it out. It continues:

“The need for change in St. John is understood but the harsh, inconsiderate manner, with few explanations and little consideration of the volunteers, is not an appropriate way to introduce these changes. A more humane, considerate approach could have produced a better outcome.”

Another volunteer from Kent said that

“having been a member for almost 38yrs I am totally confused with this ‘restructuring’. All I see is an excuse to take all Divisional funds away from the Divisions into one large pot… Divisions virtually have to beg for funds and they are a long time coming if they come at all.

We now have a District Manager in Kent telling us he wants us to work with local authorities and KCC and his vision is to cut out event cover completely! Our whole ethos…for the past 1000 years has been to give help to the sick and since we were reformed in 1877 in England we have always covered public events assisting the injured. Our Division has some events we have been covering over fifty years.

I am very sad that everything St. John stands for is being undermined.”

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. I understand that local people are disturbed by these kinds of reorganisations; that is always the case. Will he explain why this is a matter for Her Majesty’s Government, or even why it is a matter worth raising in this Chamber? These might be worrying developments, but are they really a matter for Parliament?

I have already indicated the subject of the debate to my hon. Friend. The debate is about the Charity Commission’s involvement in the matter, which is a matter for Her Majesty’s Government. I will come on to that in a few moments, if he can possess his soul with a little patience.

A community first responder unit said:

“We would like to inform St John that after a unanimous vote by all CFR members we are going to close the Community First Responder Scheme… This will also mean that our St. John Membership will also cease. Some of the reasons that have caused us to take this decision are listed below…poor communication on behalf of St. John…poor record keeping on behalf of St John…lack of information on behalf of St John…forced to purchase through St John’s Services—not the best option…bad press coverage of St. John Ambulance”.

That final catalogue perhaps exemplifies the high-handed, arrogant and remote manner in which the Priory of England and the Islands of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem and the St John Ambulance leadership seem to have severally and collectively treated their volunteers and erstwhile supporters—that and the selling of the family silver.

Local headquarters are, of course, ultimately the property of St John, but with the funds to purchase and maintain those properties raised locally, it is not surprising that a sense of local pride and ownership has prevailed. To see their premises flogged off to meet the costs of the failings and excesses of what they regard as a bureaucratic and elitist London headquarters has proved to be more than many formerly loyal supporters can bear. A cleric from Yorkshire writes that

“when Selby was sold, the property which had been bought by the county had its proceeds taken from them for HQ funds. When a new property was found, the county leased it on a rent and had to pay so much a month for its use out of their own funds. They were not able to use the monies from the old property in any way! The same also was true for the Scarborough Division when it changed properties. I always think that it is unfair when London swallows up what has been raised by hard work in the counties—don’t you agree?”

I have to say that I do agree.

Against that unhappy backdrop, the Chamber will, I hope, shortly hear of the concerns surrounding the future of funds donated for the support of the St John residential home in Whitstable. Members may also hear of the shift—denied by St John—away from its core and Christian services and values, morphing a fine institution into little more than a commercial health and safety training organisation.

To directly answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), I have a question for the Minister. When my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and I referred the conduct of St John to the Charity Commission, we were told that:

“It is important to emphasise that although the Commission’s functions include encouraging and facilitating the better administration of charities, and taking remedial action to tackle misconduct or mismanagement, the law prohibits the Commission from acting directly in the administration of the charity. Trustees are the managers of their charities and it is their job to make the administrative and strategic decisions necessary for their charities’ proper and effective management… The Commission cannot direct the trustees to take one particular course of action or another. Neither does the Commission have discretion to overrule the trustees’ validly taken decision on the grounds that others take a different view, however strongly held.”

Either my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the commission is wrong and does have the powers to instigate independent inquiries into the conduct and management of St John, or he will have to tell me that the commission is correct and has no powers to intervene. If the latter is the case, the House will need to address that by giving the Charity Commission the additional powers necessary to properly discharge its duties in the public interest.

I rise to counter the damning speech we have just heard from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). This is prompted not by any national part of St John, but by members of my local group, for whom I have always had enormous respect and whose service in my constituency has always been of the highest order. It is on that basis that I want to put their views on the suggestions made in the lead-up to this debate about the present management and direction of St John. None of the people I have spoken to within St John is in any way resistant to the idea that the Charity Commission has some responsibility for overseeing the charity, and they would welcome any investigation that might be thought necessary. This is not about thwarting the intention that I assume is behind the debate; I want to provide a wider, more rounded picture of the present state of affairs.

As we know, St John believes that too many people die—in my area as much as anywhere else—who do not need to, and who would not if first aid was available at their time of crisis. My group believes that, since the reorganisation, it is even more committed to St John’s mission, which is available on its website and seems close to the heart of every member of my local St John I have ever dealt with.

The mission is

“to provide an effective and efficient charitable first aid service to local communities”—

my group does that—and

“to provide training and products to satisfy first aid and related health and safety needs for all of society”,

which my group certainly does. The final aim is

“to encourage personal development for people of all ages, through training and by membership of our organisation”,

and my local group’s membership is growing.

I ask the hon. Members for North Thanet and for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) to understand that while they speak for communities in Kent, St John extends throughout the country. It was an important admission that local disparities in service might very well be part of the problem, and that could be an issue when forming a picture of the organisation and its recent management that is perhaps not as complete as it might be. We know that the organisation was, in essence, £9 million in deficit by 2011 and that that deficit was growing. Any organisation has to face the reality that if it is that much in the red and things are not getting better, change is needed. I understand that there might be some objections to how that deficit arose, but it is instructive that, by the end of 2014, this organisation that was recently £9 million in the red will be registering a small surplus. St John has quickly got on top of a financial situation that was unacceptable.

On that point, the hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that although my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made points about the cuts and their impact, the delivery of services has improved, especially for young people—perhaps in the same way that the Government have made cuts yet improved productivity and delivery—and the training of young people has increased by 37% in the past year alone.

I am grateful for that intervention because it makes my next point for me. In spite of what has happened, and against that background, my understanding is that the organisation nationally—this is certainly my experience locally—has improved its performance. It is training more people and functioning in a much more open fashion, and it has listened and taken note of the report it sought on its governance. As I understand it, the report was independent and said that the organisation was too bureaucratic and complex, that it lacked clear governance policies and lines of accountability and that, essentially, there were too many committees and too many roles. Perhaps that is inevitable in an organisation split over 41 semi-autonomous bodies but, none the less, St John sought to improve that state of affairs after hearing the view of the expert body asked to review it. Again, my group, which is based just over the border into Wakefield, at Ossett, has welcomed the improved situation in which it now functions.

It is also important to look at information from bodies such as the Care Quality Commission. It has continued to provide inspection reports that have shown, certainly in my area, that St John is providing a service of a very high standard. Obviously, if the two hon. Gentlemen from Kent—the hon. Members for North Thanet and for Canterbury—have misgivings about the organisation and management of a St John home in their area, it is their responsibility to make those concerns public. Nobody has any misgivings about that, or any opinion other than that that is exactly the right thing to do. I would have done the same about something in my constituency, but to extrapolate from that a wholesale belief that the organisation is far away from its objectives and delivery targets, as was suggested at the start of the debate, seems to be neither sensible nor safe.

May I make a rather partisan, north-south point? The two hon. Gentlemen from Kent who proposed the debate—they are supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who came and went, who I understand was born in Kent—perhaps might just, in their more charitable moments, accept that the world extends beyond Kent. I think that they have to be told that there is life north of Watford.

I spoke for a long time, so I had not intended to intervene further, but I have been goaded into doing so. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), I made it very clear that I accept that there might be regional variations. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) was back from voting when I referred to not only Kent, but East Sussex, the east midlands and Yorkshire, and quoted people from those areas. Although I accept that the issue may be regionalised and that there may be variations in the nature of the problem, I have to ask him to accept that it is wider than just Kent.

I accept that, although I think I was making a slightly wider point: on most indices, Kent is a rather well-heeled part of Britain, and I think—[Interruption.] I understand that that is not the case for all parts of Kent, but I am talking in the round. I think that part of the problem may be the inability of some in the organisation, and perhaps their representatives, to accept that when resources are under more pressure, especially, their distribution may need to be a little fairer than was previously the case. That would certainly benefit—it appears to have benefited—areas such as mine, which now feel that they are better served than before.

I understand that the intention of the debate is to bring the organisation and its management to the attention of the charity commissioners. Nobody that I have spoken to in St John, and certainly not within my local group, has any problem with that—in fact, they would welcome it in some ways. However, I wanted to put on record a slightly more positive picture of the function of St John around the country.

Finally, I again place on record my thanks to the members of my local group, which is based in Ossett. They have always done a first-rate job and are incredibly valued and welcomed in my locality.

When I was a child, my father, who was a consultant physician, regularly went off pro bono to train St John Ambulance volunteers in first aid, and in particular, as he was a consultant chest and heart physician, in first aid relating to cardiac arrest. I have therefore had a long-standing interest in the work of the Order of St John and St John Ambulance. As Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, I was very interested in the work that they do and continue to do with the St John Eye Hospital in Palestine. For most Palestinians, Muslim or Christian, I understand that it is the only eye hospital to which they have access.

I hope that all of us will have seen the work of St John Ambulance in our constituencies. St John Ambulance clearly has a vision and an intention that everyone who needs first aid should receive it when they need it and that no one should suffer from the lack of trained first aiders. It is a real tragedy and, indeed, unacceptable that many people have died needlessly because no one was available to give them first aid when they needed it. St John Ambulance teaches people first aid—about 800,000 people last year alone—so that they can be the difference between a life lost and a life saved. St John Ambulance teaches young people in schools and through its activities for young people, including a special first aid programme for those not in education, employment or training.

St John Ambulance teaches people in the workplace and provides first aid products. One of the leading supporters of St John Ambulance in my constituency is Sir Frank Davies, who for many years was chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive. I know he was very supportive in that role of the work that St John Ambulance does in teaching people first aid in the workplace. St John teaches people who become volunteers for St John Ambulance, who offer their skills and time to be the difference right in the heart of their own communities, to be potential first responders at public events, and to provide back-up to local ambulance services. Across the country, St John Ambulance has just under 40,000 volunteers providing first aid services in communities. About half of St John adult volunteers are under 25. St John Ambulance covered just over 50,000 events in 2012 and treated and supported about 90,000 people at those events. That, I suggest, is big society in action, big time.

St John Ambulance is not the only large national charity that, in recent years, has found the need to restructure. The recent restructuring of St John Ambulance is almost identical to the restructuring undertaken a number of years ago by the British Red Cross, which also found that a structure of a number of semi-autonomous county and local headquarters was too bureaucratic and complex, and did not allow it to tackle situations as quickly and as efficiently as it wanted to. The changes introduced by St John were intended to save lives, rather than to preserve a former governance structure for its own sake. It is also important to recognise that as a modern health care charity, St John is registered with the Care Quality Commission, is registered in due course with Monitor and has a whole number of child protection responsibilities. I think the whole House would therefore understand that it is imperative that St John Ambulance has clear governance policies and lines of accountability.

I understand that St John went through an independent governance review, which concluded that St John previously had too many committees and too many roles. As a consequence, it decided to change its governance arrangements in discussion with St John volunteers, as, not surprisingly, everyone wanted St John to be much more joined-up and to have a structure that could move as quickly as possible to bring first aid to people who need it. I understand that, as a consequence, St John Ambulance has made it a priority to improve the training of front-line volunteers still further, and many of the St John volunteers have benefited from a wider range of training opportunities provided under the new governance structures.

In addition to governance and organisational concerns, one of the reasons why the British Red Cross restructured a number of years ago was that it too was concerned about the financial implications of the previous structure. It is clear from annual reports that the deficits of recent years at St John Ambulance arose partly because trustees decided to invest in new charitable programmes and partly because the difficult economic environment affected many charities’ fundraising. There was an overall net deficit of £8.9 million in 2011. However, I understand that St John Ambulance is budgeting for a small surplus this year, and the charity has cash and investments of about £20 million. It is therefore in a strong financial position, but—like all charities nowadays—it looks continually for ways to be more cost-effective in delivering its charitable objectives.

Some of its activities, such as first aid training in the workplace, or providing first aid at events where the organisers make a profit, are run to make a surplus, but that surplus is used to expand St John’s charitable work such as the teaching of first aid to young people, or providing first aid at not-for-profit community events. As the House may know, I am the Commons chair of the all-party group on carers. Often carers need training, but training for carers is at present somewhat haphazard. Given the national footprint of St John Ambulance, I hope that it may be possible to persuade it to consider undertaking training for carers.

It seems entirely reasonable to me that St John Ambulance wants to be a cost-effective, efficient and effective organisation, delivering and expanding the voluntary services that it provides to all our communities. I am fortunate to represent a constituency in Oxfordshire, which I suspect many would consider to be a more affluent part of the country. It is important that the work of St John Ambulance and the Order of St John should be available not only in affluent areas such as Oxfordshire or Kent, but in every part of the country—a point made very ably by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood). I therefore hope that the work of the Order of St John and St John Ambulance will have the support of Members of the House, wherever they come from.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who is also my brother knight, has perfectly properly raised issues relating to his constituency that have been causing him concern. Clearly the charity commissioners have to be accountable for how they deal with any specific complaint made to them, and Ministers have to be satisfied that the Charity Commission is carrying out its duties as Parliament intended.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), for whom I have enormous respect, will also discuss this issue, but I understand that St John Ambulance has made it clear that it will support the Kent care home that has been causing colleagues concern. Indeed, the chair of the board of trustees of St John Ambulance, Rodney Green, who also chairs the Order of St John, wrote to colleagues on 17 October last year, stating in terms:

“It is the Trustees’ key priority to secure the best interests of the residents. The Trustees of St. John Ambulance take extremely seriously their legal responsibility and accountability for the home and have made it absolutely clear that the residents and staff must be given all the support that they need. All necessary funding required by the home to meet the Charity’s reasonable obligations will therefore be made available.”

I understand that St John Ambulance has made it clear that it will ring-fence £750,000 specifically for the Kent care home—not an insignificant commitment for a charity with nationwide investments of only £20 million.

The Order of St John and St John Ambulance have a long history as a Christian- based charity, named after St John of Jerusalem. As one would any large charity with a national footprint involving some 40,000 volunteers, one would expect it to evolve continuously to deliver on its charitable aims and objectives and focus on its most important task of saving lives.

I am chairman of the all-party group on first aid, whose administrative support comes from St John Ambulance. So far 25 MPs and peers, from all parties, have obtained the certificate in essential first aid here in the House.

I am delighted to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood), in putting on the record both personal opinions and facts. I shall not venture into the Kent debate set out by my fellow knight, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), because I believe that it needs to be dealt with as a constituency matter. St John Ambulance representatives will read Hansard tomorrow and see what he had to say. I hope that in some respects they will take on board his concerns about what he senses is a lack of localism in Kent, and the other points he made.

My first involvement with St John was more than 50 years ago, when I was a young scout and trained in first aid. I recognise and echo all that my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said about that. Notwithstanding the criticisms that have been made—one might have thought the organisation was dying on its feet—there is a remarkable expansion going on, with 30% more young people trained last year than the year before. That is a record of success and achievement. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, there are concerns, and I hope that St John Ambulance at national level will consider how it can address them and encourage the localism that I see at the Colchester branch. I occasionally visit the branch—not just the adult training but the Badgers, which is the youngest group, aged five to 10, and the cadets who are aged 10 to 16. The organisation is remarkable and it has evolved.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will indulge me with one last intervention. As a fellow Essex MP, he will know the tremendous work that the new St John branch in Halstead does. I went on my very first training course in first aid, which was excellent, and I was surprised at the number of young people on the course with me. Will he join me in paying tribute to that work and does he agree that St John Ambulance does an excellent job training young people in basic first aid?

If the Halstead experience is like the Colchester one—and both towns are on the river Colne—the hon. Gentleman is fortunate to have an excellent St John Ambulance centre in his constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury gave some dramatic statistics, and I will add some more. Community first responders attended 31% more call-outs in 2012 than in 2011, supporting the NHS ambulance service. In addition to youngsters, unemployed young people are going through the training system. An initiative launched in the past year by St John called “In their community” enables youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17, including cadets, to use their skills to deliver first aid training to others—that is self-help among young people. In another programme, “Your first aid”, cadets are given a chance to volunteer at events.

We must accept that St John Ambulance, like many other organisations, needs to remain fresh and vibrant. The Scouts and Guides have already gone down that path, and so have political parties. St John Ambulance will evolve to keep in step in society and to meet changing challenges. St John, facing significant financial losses that could have brought the organisation crashing down, tried with the help of operational front-line volunteers and others to find a way not only to save the organisation but to give it a future. I suggest that that is what the restructuring has done, but I think—referring back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet—it needs to find a way to retain the ethos of localism. After all, that is what all political parties want—localism is part of their agenda. One way of saving money is to acknowledge the fact that the semi-independent divisions were costing money. We all recognise that not everyone welcomes change, but new arrangements mean more team working and sharing resources.

This is a welcome debate. The circumstances are unfortunate, but we have on the record the good things about St John Ambulance, and I hope that St John will listen carefully to the criticisms and build on its strengths.

Thank you, Mr Turner. I will try to be brief because much of what needs to be said in the debate has already been said—I will certainly try to avoid repeating anything.

Let me start with what I believe to be three truths that will be welcomed by everyone in the Chamber. The first is that over many years St John Ambulance has done fantastic work for the people of this country. Every year it attends 52,000 events, many of which would not occur were St John Ambulance not there. An ambulance and first aid service have to be available at such events, and St John provides that at very modest cost to the organisers. I have been a beneficiary of that service.

The second universal truth is that the very many people who are members of St John Ambulance and have been trained by the organisation enjoy their participation greatly. It is a superb volunteer organisation. I pay huge tribute to the people of Wiltshire who are members of our extremely active branches throughout the county. Their great work is much appreciated.

The third universal truth, however, is that when any organisation—whether a voluntary organisation such as St John Ambulance, a business, a military organisation or a political organisation—is reorganised, many people in that organisation do not like it. Those who have been the chairmen or members of the committees of the 41 separate organisations that were previously St John Ambulance—or, indeed, members of the sub-units, or other committees and organisations—do not like the fact that they are no longer involved in the way in which they were previously. I understand that very human emotion.

Let me put the counter-argument for a moment, however. I have been briefed on the matter by my close friend, David Hempleman-Adams, who was the chairman of the Wiltshire branch of St John Ambulance. He assisted in the reorganisation and is now a trustee nationally. He is one of those who say, “We couldn’t go on the way we were. This was not the sustainable structure that we wanted to have for the time to come.”

Let us put aside for a moment the question of whether people in the organisation wanted it to be reorganised, although that is a key matter of great concern, and I am sure that St John Ambulance will be listening carefully to the concerns of many local people that are being raised in the debate. However, as I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), that is not a matter for the Government. It would be wrong if the Government took an interest in the internal organisation of a voluntary body such as St John Ambulance, so the Minister is not qualified to respond to those particular criticisms.

The subject of the debate is the charity commissioners’ governance of St John Ambulance, and of course that, to some degree, is a matter for Parliament and Ministers—or at least it would be if the charity commissioners were not doing the job that the Government have asked them to do. The commissioners’ job is to look at the huge number of charities in the UK—I suspect that there may be hundreds of thousands if we include all the very small ones—and keep an eye on them to ensure that they are fulfilling the charitable functions that they are supposed to fulfil and that they are sustainable.

I think that I am right in saying that the charity commissioners would intervene only if a charity was not doing what it was set up to do, or if it was not sustainable. If a charity were, for example, losing large amounts of money every year and misusing the funds of volunteers or members of the organisation, that would indeed be a reason for the charity commissioners to step in and look that. I was not surprised in the slightest by the reaction that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet got from the charity commissioners—indeed, I strongly welcomed it. They said, “We’ve looked into this and actually these are not matters for us; they are matters for St John Ambulance internally.” I was very glad indeed that the charity commissioners did not choose to intervene in detail on the ground.

I suspect, however, that had the organisation continued to lose the £9 million a year that it was losing until the reorganisation, that would indeed have been a matter for the charity commissioners. I understand that St John Ambulance still has reserves of some £20 million. As it was losing £9 million a year, that would mean that it would have been insolvent after another two years, which would indeed have been a matter of grave concern to the charity commissioners, as well as the organisers of the 52,000 events that the body attends every year and the 300,000 people who take part in it. That would be an extraordinarily important matter, and I am glad that that situation will now not occur following the body’s reorganisation.

I fear that bodies that have existed for many tens or even hundreds of years often become a little sclerotic and very local. We in the Conservative party know that extremely well. Some of our branches and associations are not quite of the great strength and power that was the case were many years ago. We see such things nationally all the time, but I very much welcome the fact that St John Ambulance realised the problem that it was facing. It understood that it would be in difficulty with the Charity Commission if it did not do something about it, and it set about saying, “We provide a first-class service for local people, and local people love being part of it. We will therefore take difficult steps to reorganise the organisation so that it remains solvent for the years to come.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. I should state at the outset of my speech that I served on the county management board of St John in Suffolk from 1991 to 2010. I am also a holder of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.

My observations are very much Suffolk-orientated. They are based on my direct experiences up to 2010 and feedback that I have subsequently received from former colleagues. It is important that we pause and reflect for a few moments to salute those front-line St John staff who turn out at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers, and give their time to help and support others.

I was with members of St John in Lowestoft on the night of the storm surge on 5 December at the rescue centre set up at the Water Lane sports centre. I saw and spoke to them in the evening and in the morning, although I have to confess that, unlike them, I went home to bed in between, and they were cheerful, committed and resolute. These volunteers are doing brilliant work, notwithstanding the restructuring of the governance arrangements of St John.

My direct experiences of St John in Suffolk took place between 1991 and 2010. I was on the management board and my role as county surveyor was to advise on its properties. With the benefit of hindsight, I look back on a well-run organisation. Yes, problems arose, but when they did, we held emergency meetings and addressed them head-on. We ran a balanced revenue budget each year. We had a successful fundraising programme that paid for capital improvements and equipment, and our fundraisers knew where the pockets were to be picked. We had notional reserves of more than £700,000. The number of cadets and recruits remained steady. We had high standards of clinical governance, as endorsed by the Care Quality Commission. We ran the most successful patient transport in the country. Our properties were in good order and well used. Our senior volunteers were at the top of their peer group, and St John was widely respected throughout the county.

St John in Suffolk, although not without its challenges, was run well and was achieving its charitable goals. That said, I am aware that that was not the situation in all counties across the country and, by 2011, an £8.9 million deficit had emerged. Yes, there was a case for restructuring. There were 41 headquarters across the country. There were probably too many people involved in governance and there was a need for a flatter management structure. There was a need for more co-ordination between divisions with regard to fees and charges, equipment and training. One could argue that the fact that St John is budgeting for a small surplus in 2014 justifies its restructuring, although from the feedback that I have received, it is clear that something has been lost along the way.

The priory has failed to take a significant proportion of those previously involved in the governance of the counties along with it on what was always going to be a difficult journey. I do not know the circumstances, but is it right that at a meeting of the chairmen of the eastern region earlier this week, two of them could not attend as they were suspended?

The feedback from Suffolk is not quite as good as it was. Yes, all are working hard to ensure that the front line is not affected. The ambulance services themselves continue to run well. Equipment is provided efficiently, and patient transport is still being run from the former county headquarters, although the service now covers the whole eastern region. However, charges for attendance at events have gone up and, although I understand the need to maximise earnings, bookings as a whole are down. Although financial performance across the country as a whole is improving, in 2013 the eastern region had a deficit of more than £1 million—£825,000 worse than budget.

Fundraising has ceased, at least in the short term. That is probably the most serious effect of restructuring, as the county structure was well established and well suited to fundraising. Recruitment has been hit by the fact that cadets have to pay for their own uniforms, and the hardship fund—in Suffolk, at least—is not working as well as it should.

Some sort of restructuring was necessary, but the fact that Governments of all colours have received bloody noses when they have set about abolishing county councils should have sent a clear warning to the priory to think carefully before abolishing the county structure. As I said at the outset, we must air our concerns and it is important to be transparent. The restructuring of St John Ambulance must be seen as work in progress. The priory must accept that mistakes have been made along the way and it must not adopt a siege mentality against its critics. It must listen to criticism with an open mind and move on quickly from the agenda of suspensions and disciplinary proceedings.

The Order of St John has a proud and illustrious history that stretches back more than 900 years. It is vital for the United Kingdom that the order continues to carry out its good work. It has an important role to play in 21st century Britain. It works alongside the NHS to provide medical care and it gives volunteering opportunities to young people in areas that are often deprived and challenging. We need to move on, and I hope that this debate can be the beginning of the healing process.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. I will make some local points about the St John home in my constituency, after which I will address several of the national issues that have been raised and debated by people who have had a longer involvement with the Order of St John than I have. I should perhaps say that my grandfather was the St John Ambulance county commissioner for Kent. At the time, he was the county’s largest employer, so I imagine that the many years of his time that he gave for free were of some value. That was a long time ago, but more recently a friend of mine has been involved with the St John eye clinics in Palestine, and I am constantly impressed when I see people on the St John operation.

I will focus specifically on the St John home in Tankerton in my constituency. That much-loved home was founded in 1947 and given to the Priory of England and the Islands in 1955. It was transferred to St John Ambulance in 1999, and it has always had a separate governance structure. The people who gave the home its £750,000 in assets did so, almost without exception, because they had a connection with the home. Had any of them realised that its separate governance structure had no legal basis and that those assets might one day be seized by the centre, I suspect that the fundraising would have taken a very different shape. The capital earns around £30,000 in interest, which bridges the gap between the cost of running the home and the income that it receives from residents and Kent county council. The home is small, with only 18 beds, and that money is essential for its financial viability.

I have huge respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), but I found some of his contribution surprising. I was surprised by his allusion to the restructuring of the Red Cross, and the fact that he did not pass on—perhaps because St John had not told him—what actually happened with the Red Cross reorganisation. When he referred to the St John home in my constituency, however, I was truly staggered to hear him quoting from the letter of 17 October from the prior, when the letter that we received only a fortnight later dated 5 November stressed that the moneys referred to in previous correspondence could not be regarded as legally restricted. As the separate governance structure of the home is being broken up, there is nothing to stop the priory taking those moneys at any notice.

I will turn to the national picture before saying a few words about the role of the Charity Commission, which is the core of the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned concerns about how criticism of the changes in St John has been treated. Of course, wherever there is change, some people will be against it, but never in any charity— I have seen it occasionally in a political party—have I seen the kind of conduct that has reportedly occurred over the past two years.

I shall expand a little on what my hon. Friends have referred to. There was a no-confidence motion in January 2013, as a result of which 10 people were suspended. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) said that the leafy parts of Kent formed too large a part of the debate, so let me quote from my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who is unfortunately detained in the debate on the Floor of the House. She was contacted by a constituent who is an old friend and was one of those suspended. She wrote to me:

“I am very concerned to have heard from my constituent that 10 senior members of the chapter of St John were suspended last March on charges of gross misconduct”—

basically for saying that they did not agree with what was going on—

“on account of signing a motion of no confidence in the trustees and excluded from any further work or contact with St John for the best part of a year. A debate was held as a result of this properly constituted and well supported motion, and in the event the motion was only defeated on a 40/60 split.”

Many of those involved in the debate had served for more than 20 years. My hon. Friend continued:

“The process for deciding on the charges has been dysfunctional and frankly beyond parody”—

those are her words, not mine—

“resulting in each of them being found guilty of the charges and given ‘suspended sentences’ of exclusion from office.”

I have dug a little further into the matter, and I want to share one fact that illustrates the extent to which governance has broken down in the organisation. The case was heard by an individual who was, on paper, extremely well qualified. He had a long involvement with St John, he had legal training and he was a clergyman. Unfortunately, he breached the first principle of natural justice, because he had been an extremely partisan participant on the other side of the debate. He could not, by any possible standards, be said to be independent. Such a breach of administrative justice should not be allowed to occur in any well-founded organisation.

I move on to the role of the Charity Commission. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet asked the Minister, whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber—I know that, in the short time he has had available to prepare, he has taken a close interest in the case—a specific question, and I would like to ask another one. Is it right that the Charity Commission should confine itself to areas in which it has a specific legal duty to intervene? Might one reasonably expect any regulatory body—one thinks of the Bank of England, as a larger example—to take an informal interest when concerns are reported, and perhaps to do some informal prodding and make the odd telephone call?

I hope that hon. Members do not regard me as particularly pompous, but I find it extraordinary that after a group of MPs wrote to the Charity Commission, it would refuse to see us to discuss the matter. Whatever the merits of a case, if the Charity Commission is not even willing to discuss it with elected representatives, something has gone wrong in the organisation. It may well examine what is going on in the St John charity and conclude that the whole thing is a storm in a teacup, although I maintain that the administrative failings of the process at the centre, and the changing of mind on the various guarantees paid to the St John home in my constituency, need serious answers. The Charity Commission has been unwilling even to hold a meeting. Of course, since we secured the debate, the organisation has said that it will be happy to see us, but it was not able to fit us in before the debate.

May I make a point on behalf of the charity commissioners? I understand that my hon. Friend may well be frustrated by the inability to hold such a meeting. However, does he agree that, if the charity commissioners were to start having meetings of that kind, with either one side or the other, about the many thousands of charities that might well be in similar disputes throughout the nation, they would be doing nothing else with their time—there are very few of them—and would become improperly involved in the internal politics of the charities? That would seem to be an absolutely wrong use of the commissioners’ time.

In its correspondence to us, the Charity Commission said that a charity’s trustees are legally responsible for all aspects of a charity’s management and administration, which I am sure we would all agree with. It went on to say that the commission would take action only if it believed that its regulatory powers were necessary or would be of use. In other words, an informal investigation is ruled out. That is very odd, however, because, to answer my hon. Friend’s question directly, the Charity Commission’s own description of its responsibilities and duties on its website states that it should be concerned with

“breaches of trust or abuses that otherwise impact significantly on public trust and confidence in the charity and charities generally”.

Given that three MPs representing different parties and areas—the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) may have been born in Kent, but she represents a seat in Derbyshire—had already expressed concerns, and that, from memory a fourth, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, came on board between the two letters, I would have thought that this was more than just a casual inquiry. I would have thought that the Charity Commission would have liked to have been involved.

I have detained Members for long enough, but would like to end with what I was about to say before the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), for whom I have huge respect. St John Ambulance is a very precious charity. Every single MP who has spoken in this debate believes passionately in it, and most have had a much greater involvement with it than I have. It seems that something has gone wrong, and that the Charity Commission should be looking at that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing this important, if difficult, debate. It is important because of the critical work that St John Ambulance does throughout the country, and I would like to echo the words of Members from all parties who have praised that work. Its volunteers are often literally the difference between life and death.

In my constituency, St John Ambulance volunteers are at St James’s Park—for those not fortunate enough to be supporters of Newcastle United, that is the home of football—for every home game, and they were also there for the Olympics. They are out in Newcastle every weekend supporting the ambulance service’s mobile treatment centre, the “booze bus,” so that our young people can enjoy themselves in relative safety and security. They also do vital work, as we have already heard, in educating and training young people in schools across the city.

The hon. Member for North Thanet raised some specific points that I will address in time, but I want to start by raising a few broader points to which the Minister can respond. As we have heard, like many charities, St John Ambulance has recently restructured. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) emphasised the fact that the recession has hit the voluntary and charity sector hard. Last year, 58% of charities reported that Government measures had had a negative impact on levels of funding, and half had taken steps to reduce wages and salary costs.

A survey by The Guardian’s voluntary sector network found that nearly one in 10 charities fear that they will not exist in five years’ time. In its report on the impact of welfare reform in Newcastle, published in November, called “The Big Squeeze”—I have a copy here for the Minister—Newcastle council for voluntary service found that, in the north-east, 30% of charities, rather than one in 10, fear that they will not exist in five years’ time. Nevertheless, year on year, demand for services continues to rise. In Newcastle, 62% of charities experienced an increase in demand for services last year, and 52% were using their reserves simply to survive. Newcastle CVS said in its report that, as a result, charities and voluntary organisations are all having to think differently and change their organisational culture in an attempt to be more resilient. We have heard some of the consequences of that in the case of St John Ambulance.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has said:

“The combination of increasing demand, rising costs and income levels that are often static or falling means that many charities are under unprecedented pressure at the moment.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) alluded to the fact that that pressure is being felt most in our most deprived communities, where charities are often most concentrated. The Civil Exchange think-tank has said:

“Millions of people, especially those who might need it most, are being excluded from the big society as cuts hit them hardest.”

That has put increasing demand on charities, and the issue is not just funding cuts. Welfare changes, such as the bedroom tax, and the reorganisation of the NHS, are putting more pressure on charities. At the beginning of the year it was reported that St John Ambulance is being sent to 999 calls as NHS paramedics are being driven to “breaking point”. It is not surprising, therefore, that charities are finding ways to adapt and survive in a climate of near permanent austerity.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) emphasised that charities are not an arm of the state. We must regulate the sector to ensure that donors know that their money is not being spent fraudulently, but charities are not under the direct control of Parliament. Nevertheless, we must remember the pressures under which charities such as St John Ambulance operate when we criticise their response to those pressures.

While they are facing such serious and sustained financial challenges, charities also find themselves under attack from Ministers in the form of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is being debated on the Floor of the House as we speak. Ministers seem keen to return to some Victorian vision of society where charities provide welfare and services but do not have a say in policy. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

It is in such a climate that we must understand the operation of the Charity Commission. It has recently been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for its failure in tackling fraudulent charities. The Cabinet Office is currently consulting on whether to extend the commission’s powers to act where there is abuse of a charity or non-compliance with charity law. When the Minister responds, will he tell us whether he feels that the commission is able fully to discharge its duties, and the proposed new duties, given the 30% cut it is operating under? Given that its board is picked by Ministers, will the Minister clarify the independence of the commission, which we have debated, and its role in policy making?

We recently learned that the Charity Commission wrote to Lords ahead of their consideration of key amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, effectively “torpedoing” amendments to exempt charities from the Bill, as one charity head of policy put it. It is a strange situation wherein the charity regulator—a public sector organisation—is lobbying for a gag on charity campaigning. Will the Minister explain exactly what he sees the commission’s role as and how it can carry that out given its tight budget?

Finally, we have heard much about the concerns regarding the specifics of the St John Ambulance restructuring, particularly the impact in Kent, but also elsewhere. The restructuring of a shared service—on a shared ambulance basis—has apparently undermined local pride and support for the services on which so many depend. That seems to speak to a desire to ape what is all too often the private sector approach to public sector service delivery. However, the strength of charities is in their local communities, something emphasised by the Government’s talk of big society and localism.

Nevertheless, we all too often see priority given to big national players when it comes to public sector contracts. I hope the Minister will give his views on the importance specifically of local, social and community assets in carrying on the good work of so many in the third sector.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I have a great deal of personal respect for all three Members of Parliament who supported this debate—my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel)— and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet on securing it. I know they would not have brought their concerns about the governance of St John Ambulance to this place in a cavalier way. My hon. Friend spoke in both sorrow and anger and I think regretted that he needed to come here to talk about the issue. We must take it seriously because the concerns are about a massively important institution in this country. The fact that this debate has been so well attended, even though it is arguably about something specific to a constituency, is testament to the importance of the institution described memorably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) as making the difference between a life lost and a life saved.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Braintree (Mr Newmark) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) all took time to come here and record their thanks and thoughts on this extraordinarily important institution.

I normally agree with everything that the hon. Member for Colchester says, but he was wrong about one thing. He said that the senior management of St John Ambulance would be reading Hansard carefully tomorrow. Well, they will not have to, because they are sitting right behind him, which is testimony—I thought he had eyes in the back of his head, but I was clearly wrong—to how seriously they take this debate and the concerns that have been raised in this place. The Charity Commission is represented here as well, so the debate has left its mark.

As many Members have said, the challenges facing St John Ambulance are well aired. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) stated, such challenges are faced by a lot of voluntary organisations—big, small or medium-sized—around the country, because this is an extraordinarily difficult time to be running voluntary organisations. The response of the management of St John Ambulance and the trustees has clearly been radical and controversial. They are not unique in that. As many Members have said, it is not surprising that people have very different views about the rights and wrongs of the strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire made clear, it is not something on which the Government have a view, and as a Minister I do not have a view. That is for the trustees and the members and supporters of the organisation.

What is relevant to us—it was the laser-like focus of my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury and for North Thanet—is the role of the Charity Commission. That role is extremely important and challenging. We ask the commissioners to be guardians of the integrity of one of the most important sectors of our society, the voluntary sector. That integrity and trust mobilises £14.6 billion-worth of our constituents’ money and millions of hours of volunteering each year, and such integrity and trust is hugely important. There is no doubt that the Charity Commission is operating under very challenging circumstances, given budgetary pressures and the high profile failings that have been identified in the past.

The Charity Commission is under new leadership. There is a new board, which we have confidence in. The leadership have made it clear that they think they can perform their role within the existing budget, but our message to them is that we want them to hunker down on their core regulatory role, because of its importance and because we think that in the past they have gone off-mission. We want them to tackle issues of serious abuse.

The powers of the Charity Commission’s leadership are clear. They do not have a power to intervene outside of a formal inquiry, which is appropriate only where there is serious mismanagement or abuse. They can intervene only where there is serious risk of significant harm to or abuse of a charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation, and where the Commission considers that its intervention is a necessary and proportionate response to protect those. Otherwise, the law specifically prohibits the Charity Commission from acting in the administration of a charity. The commissioners do not want to do that, because that is a matter for the trustees. Such interference would conflict with the independence of charities and their trustees being—this is important—one of the cornerstones of charity law in England and Wales, provided they act within the law and the terms of the charity’s governing documents.

The trustees of a charity are ultimately responsible for its management. They have broad discretion to exercise the powers open to them under charity law and the charity’s governing document as they consider the best interests of the charity and its beneficiaries. That is the framework under which the Charity Commission operates. I know the Kent Members of Parliament—my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury and for North Thanet—do not agree with its position, but the commissioners feel they have not seen any evidence that funds have been wrongly classified or misappropriated by the trustees. In the absence of such evidence, they feel they have no regulatory remit, although they stress they have provided advice on resolving the dispute.

I have no grounds on which to challenge such a position. I welcome the fact that the commissioners have agreed to meet the Members. I would be disappointed if that was solely because of the noise around this debate, but I am assured that a meeting will take place. On the basis of this debate, and because of the importance of the underlying issue, I will write to the chair of the Charity Commission to seek his assurances that the charity commissioners have looked at the issue in a proper way and not in a dismissive way. I would like that assurance and I welcome the commitment to a meeting.

On the attitude of St John Ambulance—the seriousness with which it sees the debate is reflected by its presence here—I spoke to the chief executive this morning. She was adamant about the commitment of the trustees to support the St John home. That has been put in writing, but I had her personal assurance on that and her personal commitment to meet both Kent Members of Parliament in person for a discussion.

I was obviously concerned to hear about accusations of high-handed and remote bureaucracies in London, but the leadership are prepared to sit down with both MPs to discuss the concerns in person, which I welcome. I imagine there is a great deal of local unease underlying this, not least from the families of the residents of the home, where the uncertainty is unsettling. It would be good if that concern could be settled at a local level, but those who have concerns about the governance of the charity will have the opportunity to discuss them with the leadership of the charity. It is a magnificent national institution.

The Government recognise everything that Members have said about the importance of the charity. As Minister responsible for youth, I recognise the extraordinarily valuable role that it plays in training young people; as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree said, the number of young people being trained grew significantly last year. So its work is enormously important, and it is critically important that we continue to take great pride in this institution and trust it.

This debate has secured an important objective in airing Members’ concerns and in ensuring that both the Charity Commission and the leadership of the charity itself respond to those concerns. I welcome that.