HC Deb 16 May 1823 vol 9 cc366-76

On the order of the day for going into a committee on tin's bill,

Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald

said, he was anxious to take the earliest opportunity of recording his opinions upon this question, which, looking to the interests concerned in it, yielded not in importance to any which had been discussed within the walls of that House. He wished, before the House went into a committee, to point out the view which he took of the measure, and the consequences which were likely to result from the proposed alteration. It was admitted, on all hands, that in every proposal for; a commutation of tithes, it was held that the clergyman was strictly entitled to a fair equivalent. Now, he contended, that the proposed bill would have the effect of aggravating the evils which existed in Ireland. It would not relieve the distresses of the people, but would, on the contrary, augment the revenues of the clergy; It would give the clergy a right to claim an equivalent—not for what they now enjoyed, for to that he should not object—but an equivalent for tithes which had never been enforced, and which, if they ever existed, had lain dormant for a great length of time. The bill contained one clause of so objectionable a nature, that he considered it necessary to call the attention of the House particularly to it. In page 13, it was enacted, "That it shall be lawful for any umpire so to be appointed as aforesaid, and such umpire is hereby authorized and required to ascertain and fix the amount of the yearly sum of money to be paid as a composition for and in satisfaction of all tithes payable in such parish," &c &c.

Now, one objection to this clause was, that in two-thirds of Ireland it would be impossible to carry it into execution. There were, for instance, numerous parishes in which it would be impossible to appoint select vestries. This, however, was not his great objection. For there was a clause which gave to the incumbent an opportunity of claiming tithes which had never been paid before, and which, in many instances, had not been previously heard of. He implored the House to pause before they adopted a clause fraught with evils such as this. The right hon. member went on to point out the discontent and irritation caused in many parts of Ireland by the enforcement of the tithe on potatoes, and also in some cases upon hay. The tithe upon potatoes was one which, for the most part, operated upon the very lowest classes of the peasantry, and was by them most grievously felt. Adverting again to this objectionable clause, he would put it to the House, whether they would give to a commissioner, to be appointed by the lord lieutenant, a power of valuing tithes (no matter how claimed), without reference to the receipts of the incumbent? In opposing tin's clause it was not his wish to injure the clergy; on the contrary, he wished to support them, but he thought the best mode of doing so was by a moderate enforcement of their rights. He was decidedly of opinion, that it would be most expedient to allow the tithe to be settled between the landlord and the clergyman, leaving the tenant to make good his share in the shape of rent. Instead of the present bill, he would wish to see a commission issued, stamped with the weight of parliament, the first object of which should be an inquiry into the value of the livings of Ireland. On a question of so much importance, parliament ought to be satisfied that they proceeded on the principles of general justice. Should they be at length obliged to legislate to the discontent of some of the parties interested, they ought to be at least satisfied that they embraced a statesman-like proceeding, instead of a parochial one, such as was contemplated by the present bill. This was the first time they had been called upon to deal with the rights of the established church of Ireland. The bill, should it pass into a law, would be final and conclusive. They ought therefore narrowly to examine into the principles of the measure, which, he contended, were highly objectionable.

Mr. Goulburn

said, it was with feelings of deep regret that he found himself opposed upon this subject to his right hon. friend; but when he heard him declare, that in his opinion this bill was unjust in its principle, that it would be oppressive in its operation, and that it would augment, instead of diminishing the discontents and disturbances which now prevailed in Ireland, however he might regret a difference on any point with his right hon. friend, yet he had too great a regard for the honour and character of his right hon. friend, to entertain a wish or an expectation that, viewing the subject in this light, he should permit any considerations of personal regard to himself to prevent him from stating his sentiments to that House, with all the power and authority which belonged to his statements. On the other hand, he was sure that, however unfavourably his right hon. friend might think of this bill, he would do him (Mr. G.) the justice to believe, that nothing but a sincere conviction that it was calculated to remove at least a part of the evils complained of, and to produce a beneficial effect in Ireland could have induced him to propose it to the House. During the period that he had filled the office of chief secretary, he had often been called upon to state the opinions and views of the government with respect to a commutation of tithes. He had for some time forborne to answer these calls, or to indulge any expression of opinion favourable to such a measure, because he did not think it consistent with his duty, though it might have been easy and popular, to raise an expectation which he might not have the means of gratifying. Enough had fallen from his right hon. friend, to shew that, if the Irish government were disposed to court popularity, if they were willing to consult their own ease at the expense of what they considered their duty, they might at once accomplish their objects, by abandoning that part of the bill which it now seemed was objectionable both to the country gentlemen and to the clergy of Ireland. To himself no course could be more agreeable than that which should save him from the attacks with which he was menaced from both of these parties, and should also relieve him from a more immediate evil, the opposition of his right hon. friend. But, in the conduct of this measure, and of all other measures that had been confided to him, involving great rights, both of a public and a private nature, he had felt it to be a paramount duty to look to other objects besides popularity. Upon every occasion when the subject had been under discussion, he had endeavoured to impress upon the House a sense of the difficulties with which it was surrounded. It was easy for those who had not thoroughly considered the subject to talk of getting rid at once of the evils of the tithe system, by giving a settled annuity as an equivalent to the clergy; but he had always stated, that whenever the subject came to be deeply examined, and when the intricacy of it was fairly presented to the mind, let the proposition come from whom it would, it would be found to excite, on both sides of the House, objections without end. Pie therefore never entertained the idle hope, still less did he ever hold out the expectation, that he himself should be able to suggest a measure that would be free from objection. All that he proposed to do was, to submit one which appeared to him superior to the plans that had hitherto been suggested, and which was calculated in a great degree to remove the evils which were the subject of complaint. He called upon the House therefore not to condemn this measure because it was not without defect, but rather to entertain it as one that was as little objectionable as any that could have been produced, not as one which was essentially perfect, but as one which was capable of being altered and amended in the committee, so as to render it useful and advantageous. He should, perhaps, have been excused by the House, if, in answer to his right hon. friend, he had taken that opportunity of going into detail upon the several provisions of the bill; but as he perceived, notwithstanding what had fallen from his right hon. friend, that there was a willingness on the part of the House to give the bill a fair consideration in a committee, he thought he should best consult their feelings, if he confined himself at present to a statement of the principle of the bill, and of the amendments which he should propose when it reached the committee. The House must bear in mind, that the great leading object of the bill, was to remove or alleviate certain evils which were universally acknowledged to be connected with the tythe system as existing in Ireland, the nature and extent of which he would only incidentally allude to. The collection of tithes in Ireland was, in every respect, distinct from that which prevailed m England. In the former it presented difficulties almost insuperable; in the latter it was attended with little, if any, inconvenience. And why? Because tithes in the two countries were collected from very different classes of the community. In England the tithes were paid by the middling and higher classes, by those who had a considerable, or at least some, capital employed in agriculture; in Ireland they were paid by the very lowest of the peasantry, and almost by them alone. This very circumstance created almost all the difficulty which was connected with the tithe system in Ireland. It necessarily brought the clergyman into hostile contact with the lowest part of the community: it placed him in the painful situation, cither of abandoning the greater part of his income, or of getting into a course of litigation with the greater number of his parishioners; for it was obvious, that where the income of a clergyman was derived from numerous payments, each of which did not exceed a few shillings, he was compelled either to enforce the payment of those sums from the poor, or to give up his income altogether. This was generally the case in the southern and western parts of Ireland. He had, upon former occasions, stated examples of this kind to the House. He had mentioned a parish in which, out of 2,000 persons who paid tithes, 1,200 paid less than a pound; and he could name cases without end of the same description. But the evil was not only that the clergyman had to demand from a pauper a fixed sum beyond his means to pay; the clergyman, in order to ascertain this sum, must have a dispute with his poor parishioner, and the subject of dispute was the value of the crop which his garden produced. In Ireland the poor are all occupiers of the land. The law required them to set out the tithe before the crop was removed. They could not comply with the law; their necessities frequently compelled them to make a premature use of the crop, for the purpose of immediate sustenance. Having done so, it became impossible to ascertain its value. They were under the necessity of submitting to the mode of valuation which the clergyman, in his own defence, was obliged to adopt, and the necessary consequence was, continual disputes. In many instances, the tenant resisted a just demand, and in order to defeat it had recourse to violence and outrage. But this was unfortunately not the only evil of the system; a practice had grown up of giving credit for the tithes, of taking notes of hand for the amount, and, as the man who could not pay at the time had no capital, and had little chance of paying at a distant period, these notes were generally notices of future litigation. He did not state these circumstances with a view of throwing blame either upon the clergyman or upon the peasant; the evil was inherent in the system, and to the system the remedy must be applied.—Having stated the evils, he would ask any gentleman to look at the bill, and see whether, if it were fairly carried into effect, it would not effect a remedy? What was its admitted principle? To prevent the taking of tithe in kind; and, with the tithe in kind must end the vexatious litigation which it occasioned. In order to fix a fair equivalent for tithes, he had proposed a voluntary agreement between the party who paid and the party who received them; nor could he conceive a fairer principle of adjustment. His right hon. friend said, that this plan would not operate; that it would be impossible in many parishes to nominate a commissioner. He was fully aware of the difficulty which existed in Ireland, of effecting any object through the medium of what might be called local administration. There was, unfortunately, in that country, an indisposition, an inaptitude, on the part of the lower orders, to perform duties which the corresponding classes in England willingly and ably executed, and which afforded such facilities and advantages to government. But, were we therefore to say that no attempts ought to be made to introduce a better system, and to induce the lower orders of the people to place some reliance on themselves? It was in vain to cry out that the thing was impossible. It became so, unless an experiment were tried. He bad made the attempt in the present bill; because he thought that persons might, in this case, be induced, by feelings of interest, to lend their assistance, and therefore it seemed to present a most favourable opportunity for trying the experiment. He was aware that as the bill actually stood it would be impossible, in many cases, to get a vestry. The qualification for a vestryman was rated too high. A great number of cases might be produced where no individual paid tithes to the amount even of a pound. But, was this a defect which could not be remedied in a committee, or which required members to oppose the Speaker's leaving the chair? He was himself prepared to propose an amendment in the committee, which would meet the objection; namely, that those should be qualified as vestrymen, who paid the highest amount of tithes in a parish. But he begged, once for all, to assure the House, that he was not so much attached to his own amendments, as not to be ready to listen to suggestions from any quarter that might tend to make the bill more efficient for its object. If it should be shown, that the mode of proceeding by vestries could not be accomplished, he should be most willing to attend to any other plan that might appear better calculated to attain the object. All that he wished to obtain, was a voluntary agreement between the parties, and to this his right hon. friend did not object: his principal objection was directed against the compulsory clause, which clause was only introduced into the bill as assisting the voluntary arrangement, and imposing upon all parties an obligation to concede it fairly. In that clause he had, as was truly stated, adopted a different principle of valuation from that laid down in other parts of the bill, and for a very simple reason. In all the discussions which had taken place, he had never failed to lay it down as a principle, that tithe property, whether in the hands of a clergyman or of a layman, was always to be dealt with upon the same principle as other private property; nor had he or would he ever admit a forcible invasion of the sacred rights of property, because it was of a particular description. From that principle he could not depart. It never could be departed from, without an abandonment of the character of parliament—without involving the stability of every kind of property. It mattered not to him who was affected in the first instance; if once the House were prepared to invade the rights of property, whether lay or ecclesiastical, no man could undertake to set limits to the invasion, or to say that it would be the last; since every additional infringement would come strengthened by the force of the previous precedent. While, therefore, he had been desirous to afford every relief, he had been most anxious that an arrangement should take place between the parties; but, when the legislature was called upon to compel an unwilling party to give up his property, and that for a great public good, there was, in his opinion, but one course that could consistently with justice be pursued, and that was, to give to the party the full value of the property forcibly surrendered. But he denied that, as the bill now stood, it would be necessary in all cases, or even generally, to enforce the compulsory clause; and he was still further prepared to propose an intermediate process, which would, he hoped, prevent the necessity of recurring to it at all. But still he thought there was great advantage in having it in the bill. It would be a cheek upon the parties; it would tend to make them act justly and fairly, by letting them know, that if they refused there was another tribunal, which possessed the power of compulsion.—With respect to one part of the bill, his right hon. friend was altogether in error. The present bill in no case, whether of voluntary or of compulsive valuation, brought in the tithe of agistment; but, when the valuation was once formed, agistment lands were to bear their fair proportion of the burthen, There was one other point also, to which; his right hon. friend had objected; namely, that part of the bill which pointed but the mode by which the assessment was to be effected. That part had been altered. On consideration, he was satisfied that the task of assessment ought not to be imposed on the parochial vestry. He had, therefore, struck out those clauses, and given the power to the commissioners who were to make the valuation. They were for this purpose enabled to call in surveyors to survey the parish, and make the assessments upon such survey. He was aware there might be objections to this plan; but as the House had already declared that there should be a parochial survey of Ireland for general purposes, he was persuaded no substantial objection could be urged to the mode of effecting it which this bill proposed. He should be most ready to attend to the suggestions of any hon. member, and, notwithstanding the declarations of hostility with which the measure had been met, both in that House and out of it, he flattered himself: that it might be so modelled as to render it a measure deserving the approbation of parliament.

Mr. Wetherell

objected to the principle of the bill, because it deprived the clergy of their character of freeholders, and gave them a character of pensioners on the state, levying their pensions by a machinery something like that of the poor-rates in England. It remained to be proved, that the evil was so large and comprehensive that they should cut up by the roots all the sacred principles on which property, civil and clerical, was founded. The proposition in the bill was entirely new; as Mr. Pitt, who contemplated the commutation of tithes, never intended to deprive the clergyman of his territorial character; but proposed to give him land instead of tithe. It was an objection to this bill also, that while it professed to be a measure of conciliation, it forced the parties, nolens volens, to a commutation. They were brought to the measure in vinculis, and subjected to the brutum fulmen of the government. He thought some harmonising, conciliatory, and intermediate measures were practicable; but, at any rate, in a case in which there were vestigia nulla retrorsum, they should not come to a conclusion hastily—the bill should be printed, and dispersed throughout Ireland. He did not think the security offered to the clergyman, who had now an absolute claim in rem, was adequate to that which he relinquished. If the churchwardens refused to levy, the resort was to a complicated machinery of litigation, of which the clergyman was the primum mobile; though he did not question his potentiality to put it in motion. He lamented to hear that the summum jus was frequently insisted on in Ireland in levying tithe, especially on potatoes, which were the pabulum of so large a part of the population. He thought the measure before the House would be an irritative instead of a sedative; for he could not conceive how it would be a bonus to the peasant to commute a payment in solido, for a pecuniary payment. He suggested, that the relief should be applied to that part in which the evil was felt, the tithe on potatoes; but he saw no reason for touching those tithes which were paid by large farmers. The payment in tithes had been preferred by Mr. Burke and other writers of great authority, to a pecuniary payment; as it mixed up the clergyman harmoniously with the rest of the constitution, and brought him constantly in contact with his parishioners. He hoped, as during the last year king William's statue had been stripped of its ribbons, the church would not this year be undressed of its property, by depriving the clergy of their territorial rights, and investing them with the shadowy substance given them by way of commutation in this bill; which would one time or other become a precedent for similar measures against the church in England.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that his right hon. friend (Mr. V. Fitzgerald) and his hon. and learned friend who spoke last agreed in nothing but in their desire that the bill should he withdrawn for the present session. He must, however, protest against the postponement of the measure, because he was satisfied that no additional information could be obtained thereby. The argument of his hon. and learned friend went to prove, that no commutation could be effected without danger under, the auspices of the government, and yet his hon. and learned friend had declared, that he should have no objection to a commutation of potatoe tithe. With regard to the compulsory clause, it was not necessarily connected with the bill, and if the House should hereafter be of opinion that it ought to be omitted, the remaining parts of the bill might still be beneficially carried into effect.—The right hon. gentleman entered into a variety of details with, regard to the mode of collecting tithe, in various parishes in Ireland, with a view of showing the practicability of an amicable adjustment between the clergy and their parishioners. He approved of the plan of appointing parochial commissioners; for it was impossible that the government could efficiently discharge the duties which would devolve upon the commissioners, from a want of local knowledge, and their limited acquaintance with parochial details. If this measure should not produce universal harmony and conciliation, much substantial good would, he believed, be effected by it. He therefore gave his cordial support to the motion for going into the committee.

Sir J. Newport

agreed, that it would be most impolitic to allow the bill, to remain over to the next session. He expressed his firm conviction, that unless some measures were adopted by parlia- merit, to modify the tithe system in Ireland, there was no hope of peace and-tranquillity, either for the established church, or for the people at large. At the same time he must object to the principle of the compulsory clause.

Colonel Barry

objected to the compulsory clause, but approved of the general principle of the bill, which he thought would be highly beneficial to the interests of the Irish clergy.

Mr. Abercromby

thought, that if the compulsory clause were struck out, all the evils which the bill was intended to remedy would be left in full activity. If that clause therefore were rejected, he could not give his support to the bill.

Sir John Stewart

deprecated the idea of raising obstacles to the fair operation of the bill, from which, with some modification, much good would result to Ireland.

Colonel Trench

said, the great difficulty lay in this, that the tithe was chiefly payable by Papists to Protestants. He had great hopes of the hill, which he trusted would come out of the committee more perfect than it was at present.

The bill was then committed pro formâ.