HC Deb 14 June 1819 vol 40 cc1154-9

The House having gone into a committee on this Bill,

Lord Castlereagh

said, that with respect to the general principle of the bill, it was similar to the measure which passed that House last year, and was sent to the House of Peers; but the House would recollect, that the bill was returned much narrowed in its general purview by their lordships, and the inquiries were limited to such charitable foundations only as were connected with the education of the poor. He now submitted a bill for the consideration of the House, which would embrace a more extended object, and was nearly similar to that which last year passed that House. It would be satisfactory to hon. members to be in possession of the report of those commissioners who had been appointed to inquire into the charitable institutions, previous to any discussion upon this bill, and for that reason he should be very short in his explanation; but he had the satisfaction of informing the House, that prospects had considerably brightened by the success which had attended the labours of the commissioners, aided by the active and distinguished part which had been taken by many honourable members of that House. This report, he had no doubt, would give great satisfaction to the House and to the country, and would show that the inquiries had been made without pain or vexation to any of the parties concerned. Having said so much, he should proceed shortly to detail the provisions of the bill, and should direct his attention to two main points—1st, as to the mode in which the proposed alterations were to be made; and, 2dly (and this was the only branch of the subject upon which he expected any difference of opinion), the exceptions made in favour of certain institutions directed to charitable purposes. As to the commissioners to be appointed, in the former bill the number was eight, who were to be entitled to receive regular salaries, and six who were to execute their office without compensation: there were also by that bill to be three commissioners required to constitute a quorum; and therefore to form three quorums, one of the six unpaid commissioners must have been necessarily added to the eight commissioners who received salaries. The first alteration which he should propose to introduce into the present measure, was relative to the number and power of these commissioners, to multiply the former and to extend the latter. He should propose that the number of paid commissioners should be augmented from eight to ten, and the unpaid commissioners from six to ten. He should further suggest, that two instead of three be a quorum, excepting in the case of a report being made to parliament, and on such an occasion, five at least should be required to draw up the report. As to the payment of the commissioners salaries, he proposed that it should be 1,000l. a-year; and for this purpose he should move a grant of 10,000l. for the salaries, and 8,000l. for contingent expenses. With respect to the extension of the powers of the commissioners, he suggested that they should be similar to those of the commissioners of army accounts; namely, to authorize them to examine upon oath, and upon refusal, to commit the parties. The power of fining, however, was to be exercised by a higher authority; viz. by the vice-chancellor, the master of the rolls, or a judge of the court of exchequer. A clause had been introduced, the object of which was to enable the commissioners to call upon the attorney-general to proceed in cases of irregularities. This course he had taken in imitation of a plan adopted in a bill which had been introduced by sir S. Romilly; viz. to proceed by petition before the lord chancellor, and he should recommend that both parties should be relieved from the expense of stamps. Another alteration from the measure of last session, which would have the effect of abridging greatly the length of this proceeding, was, to take away the intermediate appeal. As the law now stood, there was an appeal to the lord chancellor, previous to the case going to the House of Lords. This he proposed to take away. By these arrangements he thought the authority of the commissioners would be rendered more effectual, and he conceived that there would be a considerable advantage in enabling them to call in the assistance of the law, with the least possible delay, to correct any irregularities which might occur. He now came to the second head; viz. the exception to particular charitable-institutions; and he begged to say that there was nothing new in the clause he had introduced, as compared with that inserted in the bill of last session, excepting so far as regarded charities created by private voluntary subscriptions. It never was intended to carry the inquiries into such institutions, and, indeed, it would be a most impolitic step; because, independently of its indelicacy, it might have the effect of checking the increase of those most useful establishments. With this single exception, then, he had adopted the clause which had been introduced into the bill of last session. With regard to those charitable institutions which had special visiters, they had also been excepted. Such a clause had been introduced into the former bill, and he conceived that little objection would be made to it. Upon the general propriety of this exception, the more he considered it the more he was convinced of its necessity; and it was a principle which had always been recognized in every measure of a similar nature to the present. Thus he had shortly given the outline of this bill, and it would be observed, that it embraced a much more extended object than that which had passed the legislature last year. It would have the effect of giving greater activity to the labours of the com-missioners, and of rendering them mild in their measures, and effectual in their purpose.

Mr. Brougham

said, he should give his decided approbation to the greater part of this measure. Upon a comparison with the bill of last session, the House would readily see his reasons for expressing his cordial acquiescence in the proposals of the noble lord. When he reflected upon the reception which that measure had met with in the other House —when he considered that nearly all the provisions of this unhappy bill had been the object, not of the most measured invective or the least sarcastic ridicule, both in and out of parliament, he was indeed surprised that all these clauses which had thus been indignantly rejected, were now restored, and had the singular felicity of coming recommended to the House by ministers. It was first proposed not only that charitable institutions connected with education should be the subject of inquiry, but that all charities should be equally investigated. "What," it was asked, "inquire into all the charities of the kingdom? Good God, what endless discussion! Why, there is not a village or hamlet without a charity. Confine it to education charities, and there will be some limit; but if it be extended to the whole range without discrimination, God only knows where it will end." Upon these grounds the clauses were rejected, and the bill had been narrowed. A few months, however, had produced a most happy alteration in the minds of those in another place. This led him to advert to one exception which the noble lord had added. A provision was introduced into this bill, "that all charities which had originated or might originate involuntary contribution, should be exempted from the inquiries of the commissioners." If the provision had ended there, it would have been inconsistent, for all charities originated in voluntary contribution. It was therefore added, "or where principally supplied by volun- tary contribution, and were governed by committees chosen by voluntary contributors." The one part of this provision must be taken together with the other, so that it excepted all charities principally supported by voluntary contribution. Something of this kind was necessary in order to encourage charity. But if such an exeption had been introduced into the bill last year, that extreme subtlety, that ingenuity which knew no bounds, that Jove of objection to which the failure or the former bill had been owing, would have at once rejected it. There was a doubt what "principally" meant. Was it the half? Or, if it exceeded a mere moiety, were the permanent funds not to be inquired into. If 900l, arose from voluntary contribution, and 300l. from land; it would be too much to say that the latter ought not to be inquired into. He did not despair of exempting voluntary contributions, and at the same time having permanent funds inquired into. It often happened that charitable institutions originated in the more fleeting resource of annual contributions. In such cases it was too much to say, that because the origin and part of the sources proceeded from annual contribution, the permanent funds should not be inquired into. But if it was possible to avoid damping contributions without this exception, it was safer to leave the exception large than to lose the benefit of voluntary contributions. The next improvement in this bill was the restoration of certain powers to the commissioners. The bill of last year passed through that House without an attempt to refuse those powers; but it had come down from the other House with very grievous mutilations, and with the power only of calling those guilty of malversation before them, and trusting to them for a fair and candid account of their own misconduct. The commissioners had now the power of compelling them to attend. They had not the power of conviction, but they had the power of instituting process. It were better if they had the power of imposing penalty, and the vice-chancellor, the master of the rolls, or the chief baron of exchequer were to fix the amount. Another restored power was, the number of the quorum. Instead of two, there could now be five boards, the number of commissioners being increased from 8 to 10. The last power he would mention was that of instituting process in a court of equity. This was a great improvement, since a construction was given to the statute in chancery, that no process could be instituted there against trustees whose title came in question. The exception of visited charities was of less importance, as the commissioners had constructed the act to authorize inquiry into all charities where the visitor was a trustee. He bowed to that authority, but if he had not seen that construction upon it, he could have entertained no hopes to that extent. But his objection still remained to the exception of visited charities, which he would state on bringing up the report. He was sanguine that he could persuade the House to remove the exception; but if he could not, he hoped to have a clause adopted to put the visitatorial power in motion, or to ascertain that it was in motion. He would propose another clause to empower the commissioners to make orders in case of gross and palpable malversation, without leaving the remedy to the delays of chancery.

Mr. Bathurst

supported the bill, and recommended that they should rather think of conciliation, than revert to any differences with any other body.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

contended, that if many of the charities which had special visitors were shut out of the operation of the commission, not half the good would be done by the bill that might be done; and instanced the case of Sherborne hospital, in support of his opinion; the master of which hospital, Dr. Bell, derived, on the average, nearly 1,700l. a year, although he was scarcely ever resident there. He remembered a school of which the late excellent archbishop of Canterbury was visitor, the master of which had actually turned the school room into a billiard room.

After some further discussion, the blanks were filled up, and the House resumed.