HC Deb 16 June 1815 vol 31 cc851-8
The Chancellor of the Exchequer

moved the order of the day for the third reading of the Chapel Exemption Bill.

Sir W Scott

rose to give his decided opposition to this Bill. It was unnecessary for him to preface his observations by referring to the enormous increase of sectarians of late years in this kingdom;—there was not a town, a village, or hardly a street in which they had not erected a chapel; and the consideration of their exemption from parochial assessment became a matter of no small importance. The ground on which the present Bill was now introduced, was not built upon any alleged grievance on the part of those dissenters; it was not accompanied by any claims for a relief from hardship: he was therefore entitled to assume that no case of complaint existed, and that the plain object in view was an exemption from tax. Now, he knew no places of worship which were exempt from parochial rate, except chapels of ease, places of worship from which no pecuniary stipend was drawn, and the chapels of foreign ambassadors; all others were rateable, because they belonged to proprietorships, who derived emolument from them, and thereby laid them open to ordinary burthens. Unless this subject was taken up gratuitously by his right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he must suppose he had been instigated by the influence of those religious people for whom the exemption was sought. Now, they came forward with no cause of oppression or injustice; and on what grounds of expedience were the arguments built, which were to create this innovation in the law of the land? Why, that the Bill would produce conciliation through various classes of the community belonging to the churches of England and Scotland. But, it appeared there was no want of harmony and cordiality between these bodies, therefore no bonus of conciliation was required; and his right hon. friend had sallied forth on a diplomatic expedition, to effect a pacification between two bodies, who were already in profound peace. But the plain fact, in his opinion, was, that the parties did not so much seek to take the burthen of rates from themselves, as to throw it upon the backs of others. The increase of population rendered it necessary that those rates should be equally borne by all, and the consequence of any partial exemption would be, that a few would not only escape free, but that their share would be an additional load upon others, who perhaps were already sufficiently encumbered. He denied that any argument of toleration could be drawn from this subject. No man valued this principle higher than be did, but he understood its acknowledged interpretation was this—that every man might exercise whatever form of religious belief he pleased, but that he must contribute his legal proportion towards the maintenance of the church established by law. The Bill before them went directly against this maxim, and claimed exclusive exemption. Whatever spirit of conciliation was meant by its introduction, would, he was sure, be found as nugatory as it was unnecessary, from the circumstance of the non-existence of any division. It would be a mere peace-offering to carpenters, masons, and others, who, however useful in their proper stations, were certainly not entitled to any special grace; and the only effect it would produce was, to hold out an encouragement to commercial speculations in religion, which had, from their universality, become too conducive to purposes of fanaticism. Need he give any other proof of this species of mischief, than the profanation which was practised in private chapels by individuals, such as Joanna Southcott, and others. It was certainly one thing to avoid repressing superstition of this kind; but it was another to enable it, not only to pass without expense, but to throw the weight upon the shoulders of the people who happened to live in the same district. The right hon. and learned gentleman then stated the law upon the exemption of places of worship from parochial rates. This exemption was founded upon the principle, that they were not places of profit. He concluded by expressing his determination to take the sense of the House upon the Bill, and accordingly moved, That the Bill be read a third time this day three months.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

never before heard the objections to this Bill propounded in so strong and eloquent a shape as they had just been, by his right hon. and learned friend. It had been argued, that if those chapels were exempt, an additional burthen would be imposed upon the other classes of the community. Now he denied that this would be the case; but even if it were, the House could easily suppose how insignificant the onus of that burthen would be, when he informed them that the amount of the chapel rate at present levied in London, did not exceed 4l.; so that, instead of shifting the rate, it would remain where it already existed. He concurred in the principles of toleration, as laid down by his right hon. and learned friend; and he would also admit that whenever private chapels became convertible to purposes of profit, they were open to the assessment of rates. Where this was not the case, he thought it a great hardship that any doubt should prevail upon heir liability to be taxed. Those chapels were extremely useful to the community in the propagation of religious faith; they were particularly necessary in large parishes, where, without their aid, a great portion of the inhabitants could have no means of being accommodated in places of religious worship; for instance, in St. Mary-le-bone, where there was a population of 70,000, and in St. Pancras, one of 60,000. Unless a measure of this kind were passed, explanatory of the law, in his opinion, an endless scene of petty litigation would be found to exist in bodies which otherwise would be at peace.

Mr. Bankes

said, that if the whole rate of those chapels only amounted to 4l., where was the necessity of this Bill of exemption? On what pretence ought a person who has no right to complain, to be relieved from any burthen, and to lay it on others? It was an injustice to persons who had come into a parish, under the idea that they had no other taxes to pay than those already established. A man who had built a chapel as a means of profit to be derived from some sort of religious worship, had no more right to be relieved from taxation than the owner of an auction-room or any other place of business. He was not ashamed to say, that he would object to equalising every species of worship, and putting it upon a footing with that of the Established Church—a principle which had never yet been recognised.

Mr. Butterworth

regretted that the right hon. and learned gentleman opposite had indulged in the application of unmerited epithets to a set of men, who were everyway as useful, enlightened, and loyal, as any in the Established Church.

Sir W. Scott,

across the table, disavowed any such imputations.

Mr. Butterworth

resumed, and said, the Bill had emanated from a spirit of conciliation; and he regretted that in its last stage, the right hon. gentleman should have come down with the force of his opposition. Had he (Mr. B.) anticipated this, he would have been prepared to show, by the presentation of petitions, that numerous hardships and grievances did exist, which loudly called for redress. The late Mr. Perceval was of the same opinion, and at the moment of his lamented assassination, was contemplating a measure like the present, which he had only deferred until another matter of still greater importance, then pending, was decided by Parliament. As to the speculations of carpenters, masons, and others, he thought they would rather be found in the Church of England than among those societies in question; and he was also of opinion, that the right hon. gentleman might have spared casting the allusion of Joanna Southcott upon persons who despised such fanaticism as much as he did himself. It would be rather extraordinary, and not a little illiberal, if he (Mr. Butterworth) were to draw an argument against the Established Church, from the fact of one of its clergymen having been hanged at the Old Bailey; and yet, what difference would there be between the two observations? The hon. gentleman then explained the nature of those chapels for which exemption was claimed, the great benefits they conferred, and the education they distributed, and concluded by stating, that the most mischievous litigation would follow the rejection of this Bill.

Sir W. Scott

explained, and hoped that the hon. gentleman would not let his religious zeal get the better of his judgment.

Sir J. Nicholl

observed, that the case had already been submitted to legal adjudication. It had been adjudged, that all places set apart for religious worship, where no profits were made, were not rateable. It has also been adjudged, that places set apart for education, where profits were not made, were not rateable. As far, therefore, as respected both of those descriptions of property, the Act was quite unnecessary. When profits, however, were made by the letting out of pews, he could not see upon what principle such property was to be exempted from the common burthens. It was perfectly notorious that many buildings were erected for places of worship purely on speculation. It was equally notorious that many of these speculations turn out very profitable; and he could see no reason why, in that case, they should be exempt from the common burthens. He thought that it was straining the meaning of the word 'toleration' very far, to call it a persecution if they were not exempted.

Mr. Wetherell

thought that, upon the principle of the Bill, those chapels ought to be exempted from all other rates as well as parochial rates. He conceived that it was perfectly ridiculous to maintain the question on the ground of toleration. For whom was this toleration claimed? Was it for the plumbers, the masons, the carpenters, and the bricklayers, who subscribed labour in their different ways, for the purpose of building a chapel as a profitable speculation? The clergymen who preached in those chapels would not be a bit the better for the exemption contended for; neither would the people who attended the chapels be at all benefited. The advantages of the exemption would be confined to the speculators who built those chapels, as it would so far diminish their out-goings. At present, as the law now stood, this description of property was, like all others, subject to transfer and mortgages. The Court of Chancery, in many instances, sent in receivers to take the profit of the pews. He could, therefore, see no manner of reason why they should be exempted from the burthens that all other descriptions of property were subject to.

Mr. Protheroe

expressed his astonishment at the sudden and combined opposition now made to the measure. He thought the hon. general (Thornton) would have stood alone in his opposition to it. The explanations of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer were perfectly satisfactory to his mind, and he trusted the House would feel disposed to second his liberal and enlightened views. It should be recollected that the Dissenters contributed very much to the support of their own poor, which was a great relief to the parish rates.

Mr. Serjeant Best

denied that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been taken by surprise by himself and the other gentlemen who now opposed the Bill. He himself had declared that he would oppose it. He would protect the interests, of dissenting ministers as readily as any man, but not at the expense of the ministers of the Established Church. The Bill was now so altered as to make it more objectionable in his mind than it was at first, by the total omission of whatever related to the Church. The clergymen of the Established Church would be liable to be rated for the rent of his pews, while the Dissenter, who had his conventicle opposite, would be exempted. The opposition to the measure had been characterised as persecution. He was no advocate for persecution. If the clergy of the Established Church were exempted from parochial taxes, and the Dissenters made liable to them, he should say that this was persecution; but as the matter now stood, he could consider the Bill only as a sort of persecution against the Established Church. Where would the friends of this Bill find in any part of it a single clause which rendered such buildings as were greeted for the direct purpose of profit liable to taxation? The measure exempted them altogether from every species of parochial tax. If a man avowed that he cared little about religion, and that he had built such a place for the positive purpose of lucre, where was the clause that made him liable to be taxed? This Bill was, in fact, drawing a pretty sort of contrast between the ministers of the Established Church and those of Dissenting Congregations; for whilst the Church of England was left to pay all the poor-rates, the other descriptions of worship were left free. The taxing of the Church was the taxing of its ministers. Why was not the letting of pews in chapels as much an object of taxation as any other object of profit? He wished the ministers of Dissenting Congregations to be supported better than they were, but he wished the Church ministers to be supported also, many of whose livings did not produce above 200l. a-year. What would be said, if those persons came to the House next year, and observed, "We are oppressed by taxes from which you have exempted the Methodists; excuse us now, as you have excused them!" The quantity of property to be exempted by this Bill, would make the burthens of others, already as much as they could bear, be in future far more than they could bear. The learned Serjeant then entered into a comparison between the profits gained by pew-letting in certain chapels, and the manner in which their exemption would operate on the parishes, and concluded with giving his decided opposition to the Bill.

Mr. W. Smith

thought the character of this Bill had been materially over-stated; for it did not appear a matter of much consequence to the generality of the Dissenters, whatever pecuniary interest might be felt in its adoption by the speculating proprietors who built chapels with a view to profit by letting out the seats. But the fact was, that many of these speculators, who were generally carpenters, bricklayers, and plumbers, were members of the Church of England, who erected chapels from a motive which certainly did not entitle them to the proposed exemption. The supplementary chapels, how- ever, which served as chapels of ease for the Established Church, ought to enjoy the benefit of this exemption, as should those Dissenting Chapels which were constructed solely with a view to the public worship of God; and it was impossible that the liberal part of the Protestant community would feel any jealousy against such exemption. But the principle of such exemption was already recognised by the Legislature, which released Dissenting Clergymen from serving in the Militia. Whatever the fate of the Bill might be, it was impossible to mistake the tolerant spirit of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with whom it originated, while the "toleration under certain limits," truly, of the gentlemen by whom it was opposed, was pretty much the same as that which might be professed by Ferdinand the 7th. With respect to the apprehension of the learned Serjeant, that the adoption of this Bill might create irritation, he rather thought that its rejection would not produce conciliation. It was notorious that Dissenters liberally contributed to the maintenance of the Lecturers of the Established Church—contributed, indeed, a hundred-fold more than the amount of pecuniary exemption which this Bill was calculated to produce: and would it then be wise to offend a body so liberal?

Mr. Baring

supported the Bill, observing, that as it provided that no Chapel should be entitled to the proposed exemption which did not afford one-fifth of its pews gratis, it followed, that no mercenary speculator could avail himself of it, because he must lose more in establishing his title than he could gain by the exemption from the poor-rates; therefore such speculators could not be profited by the measure, while its enactment would serve not only to recognise the great principle of toleration, but to prevent parochial animosities and bickerings in those places where Dissenting meeting-houses were established; and the number of such establishments was one of the best signs of the times, for it proved the progressive advancement of religious worship.

Upon a division the numbers were, for the Amendment, 41; Against it, 22. Majority 19 against the Bill, which of course was lost.