HC Deb 06 March 1823 vol 8 cc494-501
Mr. Goulburn

said it was within the recollection of the House, that, during the last session, he had been repeatedly pressed by several hon. members from both sides of the House, to express what were the opinions and intentions of the Irish government, upon the subject of a commutation of tithes; and that he had uniformly replied, that early in the present session, he should be prepared, either to introduce a measure for the consideration of parliament, or to state the reasons why the government of Ireland were unable to recommend any particular proposition to the House. It was to fulfil the pledge which he had so made, that he now offered himself to their attention. In entering upon the subject, be was far from being insensible to the difficulty of the task which he had undertaken. It was, indeed, impossible to contemplate the variety of interests involved in the question of tithes, their identification with the institutions of the country, and the various opinions afloat thereupon, without being prepared, on introducing a plan in the way of remedy, to expect a variety of conflicting opinions, and to relinquish all hopes of securing general approbation. But, notwithstanding this impossibility to attain unanimity, he thought it right to propose for discussion the best plan which, after mature consideration, he was prepared to submit to the House—a plan which he knew, at the same time, must excite apprehensions in some, and distrust in others. Nevertheless, the time had, he thought, arrived, when some specific measure became expedient. It was his intention, on the present occasion, to confine himself to a simple statement of the outline of his bill, to have it printed and circulated throughout Ireland, and to postpone the discussion upon the details until a future period. Under these feelings, he should now state the objects he had in view. It was his intention to request leave to bring in two bills—one for a temporary composition of tithes in Ireland; the other for a permanent commutation. His first bill related to the limited composition, and proceeded upon the principle of endeavouring to effect a voluntary agreement between the owners and the payers of tithes; and the mode by which it was proposed to effect that voluntary agreement, was, by an arrangement, rendered complicated indeed in its process by the peculiar situation of Ireland, the minute extent of the claim of tithes upon all classes, and the difficulty of working any local machinery in that country, owing to the different tempers and habits so often found in the middle and lower classes there, compared with those of the corresponding ranks in England, whose executive assistance was resorted to with so much effect and advantage in local measures. The proposed arrangement was this—that the lord lieutenant should have the power, upon the requisition of the incumbent of any benifice or parish, or upon the desire of a certain number of the payers of tithes within the parish, to direct the assembling of a given number of the inhabitants to act in the nature of a special vestry, to regulate the preliminary nature of the arrangement between the parties. It was obvious, that much of the value of the arrangement would depend upon the character and conduct of the parties acting as a special vestry. It was therefore intended to propose a qualification, which was to constitute the eligibility of the parishioner to sit upon the inquiry. Those who paid a certain amount of tithes were alone to be competent for the purpose; to the exclusion of the great mass of the small payers, whose presence, instead of assisting the arrangement, would render the place a scene of tumult and contention. He trusted that the persons called to act in behalf of the parishes would be prudent, impartial, and sensible men. Such persons would, as it were, be a representative body on the part of the parish; and, from the circumstance of their paying a higher amount of tithe than the bulk of their fellow parishioners, they must naturally be deemed by the latter as sufficiently interested in promoting the views of the whole. To a special vestry so constituted, it was intended to intrust the power of selecting some persons of property, whose qualifications were to be described in the bill, who were to open a negociation for the composition of the tithes of their parish for a time to be limited. One commissioner was to be appointed on the part of the parish, and the incumbent was to have the power of nominating another commissioner. To avoid, however, the possibility of the incumbent's appointing an incompetent person, it was to be in the power of the vestry to object, upon showing sufficient cause. The two commissioners, when appointed, were to have the power of nominating an umpire, should they disagree upon terms; and, in the event of the umpire not deciding, it was to be in the power of the lord lieutenant to nominate an umpire for the purpose. He had omitted to state in his preliminary observations, when he spoke of the assembling of the select vestry, that three cases might he expected to arise—either the clergyman or the parish might be unwilling to change their existing situation; and in such an event, the bill was to have no operation: or one might he willing and the other not. Supposing the machinery of the bill to work smoothly, and the parties to act in concert, then the question would arise upon the manner of affixing a scale of pecuniary composition; and for this he proposed that the average price of corn, for the three preceding years, should be taken as a standard, and that triennially the compact should be renewed. He was aware, that certain compositions of a similar nature had been made upon an average of fourteen years' produce; but over such an extent of time there was the difficulty of making the composition on a scale too high for the clergyman, and therefore unreasonable for the parishioners, or, vice versâ. He thought the triennial adjustment better and fairer for all parties.—With respect to the manner of levying the composition upon the parishioners, it was intended to appoint special assessors, who were to affix and levy the several assessments upon the holdings of individuals within their parish in a manner similar to the poor-rates assessments in this country by the local vestries. Land at present tithe-free was of course to retain its present exemption; but there was another species of land—that which paid tithe in agistment—which was not to be so exempt, but to bear its equal proportion of the assessment. The only remaining point to explain respecting the temporary bill was to secure to the incumbent his power of levy in case of non-payment; and for this it was provided, that his subsisting remedy, namely, a priority of claim upon the crop before the landlord, should be still secured to him.—Such was the outline of his temporary measure. His permanent one was this: it was proposed, that in every case where the mutual assent of the clergyman and the parishioners should be obtained, a permanent contract should be entered into, for the purpose of securing to the incumbent a certain proportion of land in fee, in lieu of tithes. The parties were to have tile power of applying to the commissioners for the reduction of the national debt for money to purchase such land in fee, and they were to be repaid for the interest and principal of the money so sunk by the due amount of the composition affixed for the tithes of the parish. This mode of raising the money would ultimately prove, advantageous to the public; for the terms upon-which, according to the number of years purchase land could be obtained in Ireland, were so favourable, that the eventual income received by the commissioners would increase in a greater comparative value, and afford them an augmented facility of purchasing up the debt. He trusted that this would be found to be a measure, not having regard to any local or mere individual interests, but directed to the attainment of ends highly essential to the common good.—The right hon. gentleman then moved, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for establishing a Composition for Tithes, for a time to be limited."

Mr. M. Fitzgerald

gave great credit to government, for the efforts they were making to diminish the evils under which Ireland laboured. With regard to the measures now proposed, he did not distinctly understand how that which was to be permanent would work, nor how that which was to be temporary was to be limited in time. He could not see the advantage in the latter of the references every three years; nor did he think that part of the bill which required the assembly of special vestries applicable in many parts of Ireland. In many parishes of Ireland there was not even a substantial farmer, much less a resident gentleman; and, in many instances, not a single individual belonging to the established church. He was apprehensive that the new estimates which were to be made, would be attended with great uncertainty, especially as much scope must necessarily be given to the operation of conflicting interests. He was sure that the proposition which he (Mr. M. Fitzgerald) was going to recommend would materially contribute to the security and comfort of the established church. While he perfectly agreed with the right honourable gentleman in the principle of the arrangement which he proposed, and thought that it was highly desirable to include in it the tithe of agistment, he could not think the vote of the Irish parliament of the year 1735 a robbery of the clergy. Just before that vote, several claims had been set up by the, clergy to the tithe of agistment, although he believed no such tithe had actually been levied. The claim, however, had been advanced in the court of Exchequer, and its validity established. What he hoped was, that the necessary support for the clergy would be equally levied on land of all description, except that essentially tithe free. In his opinion, some measure of a permanent nature would be infinitely preferable to any temporary and fluctuating proposition.

Sir H. Parnell

wished to know, on what principle of valuation the composition was to be made, whether the full tenth, the value in the proctor's books, or the actual value of the tithes received? To the first he should altogether object. He hoped that, in the progress of the bill, the regulations would be made somewhat more compulsory. He wished to secure the total abolition of tithes, and not to allow any parish to continue them. If the select vestries were to be composed only of persons who paid large sums for tithes, now that pasture lands were to be made liable, it would be the interest of the vestries in grazing districts, to preserve the present system of tithes, by which their own lands would be free, and the burden left upon the poor tillage cottiers and farmers. He thought the measure would prove an effectual remedy for the evil of tithes. It would wholly do away with the annual valuation of proctors, and the oppressive collection by proctors and tithe farmers. By combining the principle of an acreable tax and a commutation for land, it had the advantages of both plans. In respect to giving land, he thought that regulation the best part of the measure, and that the commutation of land for tithe might be accomplished without any loss to the public. The thanks of the public were due to the right hon. gentleman, and the noble marquis at the head of the Irish government, for this important measure. It would put an end to a system of great grievance and oppression, and contribute essentially to secure the tranquillity of Ireland.

Sir J. Newport

was persuaded, that the measures proposed could not fail to do great good. He was of opinion, that the valuation should be made, not on claims and demands, but on receipts. It was extremely satisfactory to him, that the burthen of tithes was to be more equally borne than hitherto. The bill, he must say, promised most fairly. That it was in some degree complicated in its details, was, in a great measure, attributable to the state of society in Ireland. The working of a bill of this description must necessarily be more difficult in Ireland than in this country; in consequence of the unhappy condition of the former. If the difficulties in the way of the arrangements respecting the parish vestries could be got over, a double benefit would accrue; for when once that machinery was established, it might subsequently be made use of for other and highly beneficial purposes.

Mr. Carew

expressed his satisfaction that the right hon. secretary had moved for leave to bring in the present bill. He held in his hand the resolutions of the grand jury of Wexford, in favour of a just and fair commutation of tithes, such as might secure the stability, dignity, and independence of the established church, and the general interests of the community. In those principles he fully concurred. He would never advocate a system which did not protect the interests of all parties. Provided the clergy performed those duties, for the performance of which, tithes and church property were originally appropriated, he would never consent to invade that property; but when he found a general complaint of the neglect and non-performance of those duties, he did say that such a system required amendment.

Mr. Spring Rice

could not resist the temptation of congratulating Ireland on the prospect which was opened to her, by the conduct of government. What could present a more striking contrast than the present and the last session of parliament in that respect? The last session commenced with the suspension of the Habeas Corpus in Ireland, which was followed by the Insurrection act. The present session was distinguished by measures of conciliation and wisdom. The right hon. secretary had last night given notice of a measure, the tendency of which would be to unite all classes of the community in Ireland. To-night he had brought forward a measure, which would put an end to nearly all the grievous and oppressive practices of the tithe system. Such benefits to Ireland would not be thrown away, but would produce a rich harvest of gratitude and attachment. The only difficulty which he contemplated in the bill, related to the complexity of the machinery. The Protestant population were, in some parts of Ireland, so reduced by circumstances, that he feared materials would scarcely be found for its construction. If so, some supplementary power must be sought for, to give the measure an effective direction. He much wished, that the equivalent rent charge, instead of being paid by the tenant, should be paid by the landlord; so that the Catholic tenant should never more hear of tithes, and the support of the church to which he belonged should exclusively proceed from the inheritor of the land.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that having, year after year, declared in his place, that justice was not done to Ireland, he felt it to be his duty to express his great satisfaction at the complete change of disposition in that respect, which manisfested itself in the conduct of his majesty's present ministers. In thanking them for Ireland, he felt that he was thanking them for the empire; which the course now pursuing would render irresistible. His thanks were due to the whole of his majesty's government. They were due to the chancellor of the exchequer, for the kind and generous manner in which he had spoken of Ireland; they were due to the secretary of state, who had declared his wish to avoid all irritating subjects; and they were due to the other secretary of state, who had declared the determination of ministers to support the present government of Ireland. This last-mentioned declaration was calculated to do infinite good to Ireland. Having for years maintained in that House an angry opposition against government with respect to Irish affairs, he felt it his duty, now that he saw the anxiety which existed to do every thing that was right and proper, to give to government his warm approbation and support.

Colonel Barry

was also anxious to express his warm approbation of the present measure.

Mr. V. Fitzgerlad

said, that, according to his view of the measure, it was calculated to redeem all the promises which had been made by government on the subject.

Leave was given to bring in the said bills.