HC Deb 09 March 1824 vol 10 cc851-61
Mr. Goulburn

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for leave to bring in a bill to amend the Tithes Composition act of last session. He never had expected that that measure could at once have been rendered so perfect, as to supersede the necessity of future amendment. No one, therefore, could now be surprised that he took the earliest opportunity of submitting to the consideration of the House, such amendments as, in his judgment, the measure required, and which, he trusted, would, in their progress, give to it greater and, ultimately, complete efficacy. At the same time he thought it right to state, that from time to time, it might hereafter be necessary to submit still farther amendments, until at last the moment arrived, when he should be enabled to introduce a measure, which would carry into full effect the object and intention of parliament. The measure of last year had been open to a variety of objections. It was met by two classes of objectors; one of whom was adverse to the entire principle, and the other, though admitting the wisdom of the principle, disagreed with regard to the details. As to those who were altogether opposed to the principle of the measure, he saw no occasion to address himself to them; for parliament had pronounced an opinion, that some measure for the composition of tithes in Ireland was necessary. He had carefully examined all the objections that had been raised against the introduction of the measure; and, after full and mature consideration, he saw no reason to alter his opinion, that the principle of commutation of tithes for a limited time was essentially just: experience had abundantly proved, that the measure in its operation was practicable, and justice on the one hand, and policy on the other, required that he should stand forward, from time to time to submit such alterations as seemed likely to render the measure more perfect. He had now to deal with the second class of objectors; namely, those who admitted the truth of the principle, but disliked the details of the measure. These persons came forward with a disposition to give the subject every fair consideration, and to carry into effect the intentions of parliament, in the manner which to them seemed the most advisable. Perhaps he ought to preface the details which he meant to submit with respect to the proposed measure, by stating the progress which had already been made by the act of the last session. No sooner had that bill passed this House, than it appeared right to the government of Ireland to transmit a copy of it to every parish in the country, and that transmission was accompanied by a brief exposition of its enactments, as it was conjectured, that it would not be very easy to wade through that mass of legislation which the intricacy of the subject had rendered inevitable. From that period up to the middle of the last month, more than a thousand applications had been made from different parishes for special vestries to carry into effect the proposed arrangements; and out of 579 instances, 240 had determined to act under the bill, and 339 had determined to adjourn the future consideration of the subject. An opinion was entertained, that the clergy were the only parties benefitted by the bill, and therefore it was natural to suppose that they would be forward in making the applications; but it would be found on examination, that an equal number of applications had been made on the part of the clergy and the lay impropriators, who seemed each of them sensible of the advantages which the measure held forth, and were ready to admit that parliament had consulted the interests of both. Of the 1,033 applications published in the Gazette, 507 were from the clergy, and 526 either from the lay impropriators, or (with only 23 exceptions) from the landowners of the parish. This clearly showed the advantages which the measure was capable of conferring—An hon. gentleman seemed anxious to know, at the beginning of the session, by what section of the bill the application for vestries was provided. He was now enabled to state, that almost all the arrangements which had taken place had been effected under that clause in the act which enabled parties in the first instance to agree upon the amount of composition, in preference to leaving it to commissioners to fix the value: and this was exceedingly natural; for there was scarcely any man who would not prefer coming to some distinct understanding with the parties themselves, to leaving the matter in dispute to the arbitrary decision of three persons, whose competency might be doubtful, of one of whom alone he had any knowledge, and who he might not be satisfied was capable of arguing the matter with his brother commissioners. He therefore considered the introduction of the clause as one of great importance. It had been stated erroneously, that a clause at the end of the bill had rendered this provision inoperative. But the most satisfactory answer was this, that out of 500 cases, one half had agreed without a reference or complaint, and, as far as his information had led him to form an opinion, the intentions of the legislature had been carried into effect to a great extent. One great satisfaction arose from the operation of this bill; namely, that it was approved of by those who had suffered most from the oppression of tithes; he meant the lower classes. There was no parish in which the measure had been introduced, where the lower classes did not seem anxious to avail themselves of its benefits; but even where it had not been carried into effect, they invariably seemed to appreciate the liberality of parliament, in affording them the power to obtain relief from what they considered a grievous burthen, and which really did fall with great severity upon them; no matter how moderately or kindly it might be levied.—There was another satisfaction which arose out of this measure. It was the fashion out of doors, which was sometimes re-echoed in that House, to impute to the clergy a desire to grasp at enormous profits, and to wring from their parishioners the utmost farthing, Whenever that subject had been introduced, he had always felt it his duty to state what he believed to be the truth; namely, that, taking the whole clergy of Ireland, from one corner to the other, if their income could be ascertained, it would be found, that considering the extent of their parishes, their revenue was smaller than that of any persons in the empire, who derived an income from similar sources. The operation of this measure completely explained that point; and he trusted the House would excuse him, whilst he stated the rates at which the composition had been effected in different parishes. There were eleven dioceses. He would take the diocese of Cashel, which contained some of the finest and most cultivated land in Ireland, and where it might be expected the rates would be considerable, if there was any disposition on the part of the clergy to extort. Now, in the diocese of Cashel there were five parishes in which the provisions of this measure had been carried into effect. In some, the rate of composition was 2s. 3d., in some 2s. 8d. and in some 1s. 2d., making an average of 2s. 1¼d. per acre. In the diocese of Clonfert, there were ten parishes in which this measure had been carried into effect. In the first of these the composition was 11d. in the second 10d. in the third 1s., in the fourth 9d., and so on; making an average rate of a composition, in lieu of all tithe, of 11d. the Irish, and 6d. the English acre.

Sir J. Newport

suggested, across the table, that the mere statement of the rate per acre, without specifying the value of the land, would afford very little information. In some parishes of the diocese of Cashel, the land was very good; but in others it was exceedingly poor.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that undoubtedly he should have wished to state the value of the land, and he should take the earliest opportunity of obtaining the information. But when they found that in 51 parishes, taken without any selection, except that the first desired to take the benefit of the act, the rate of composition was so extremely small, there was a prima facie case in favour of the moderation of the clergy.—He now came to the cases in which the vestries had adjourned, without making any agreement; and it was in reference to these cases that the proposed bill was necessary. When the bill of last session was in progress through the House, considerable difficulty was anticipated, when it was considered that they had to operate with entirely new machinery, and that the inhabitants of the several parishes had, in the first place, to perform certain acts, to form themselves into a vestry, and then to deliberate concerning the welfare of their parish, in a manner in which they were not accustomed. He gave the vestries credit for having discharged the duties of their new situation much more ably than he had contemplated. There was little to change in the manner of proceeding of these vestries, though somewhat in the manner of collecting the materials of which they were composed; not that he intended to change the class of persons who should compose them; but some changes might be made in the manner of forming the lists.—The causes which had induced the vestries to adjourn, without coming to any agreement, had been various. In some oases, there was a misapprehension of the nature and objects of the bill; in others, there were local or temporary objections to an arrangement; in others, there were not the number of persons in the parishes necessary for the formation of special vestries. There were other cases that would be best explained in the bill itself. The house, however, was not to suppose, because in 335 instances the vestries had adjourned without coming to an agreement, that in all those cases there were permanent obstacles to the operation of the act; on the contrary, in many instances, they had adjourned to see the effect of the bill in other parishes; in some instances to meet at a subsequent fixed time, when obstacles actually existing were removed; and there were many instances in which the vestries, after adjournment, had applied for leave to meet again, and in some, having so re-assembled, the bill had been put into effect. There was a fair ground of calculation, therefore, that many of these parishes would also take advantage of the law.—There were, however, two great causes to be assigned for the adjournments. The first was, the indisposition of the proprietors and holders of grass land, to submit to assessment, to make up the sum to be paid to the clergymen in lieu of tithes. Hitherto, it was well known, grass land had been exempt from tithes. It was not therefore to be wondered that the proprietors of that land now felt it to be an evil to contribute to the composition, and that they not only resisted it openly, but exercised all their influence over their fellow-parishioners to prevent indirectly those measures which they could not oppose in fair discussion. He was bound, however, to say, that there were many proprietors of grass land, who, though fully aware of the weight which a composition would throw on them, had exerted their influence to get the bill put into operation, from their sense of the benefits it would confer on the country at large. But there were others who did not possess the liberal feelings of the proprietors of the land, and who in Ireland occupied the place, without filling the blank in society left by the absentee land proprietors. To these, and to the actual tenants of the grass land, there was little inducement to subject themselves to the weight of the assessment. Holding grass land for a limited time, and under a fixed rent, it was not reasonable to expect that this class of persons should be willing to submit to an assessment in lieu of tithes which they did not now pay. Of this class of persons the objections were not easily removed, and it was necessary, with respect to them, to wait the operation of that part of the act which, on the granting of new leases, threw on the landlord the burthen of the tithes.—The other great cause of difficulty was, that the time during which the income of the clergyman was taken, so as to form the basis of the composition, was the seven years from 1814 to 1821. It had been objected, that the time so fixed upon was that during which the value of tithes had been the highest, and that it was not reasonable to bind the parishes to that rate.—He certainly had felt, that this was a matter of extreme difficulty, and indeed the moment at which the bill passed, was the most unfavourable to ascertain the real income of the clergy. During two years before the passing of the bill, the income of the clergy had been reduced almost to nothing, and to fix their incomes according to the rate of those two years would be little less than fraud. It was therefore necessary to take the seven years from 1814 to 1821. It was to be recollected, that in the majority of parishes in Ireland, the tithe had not been; raised to any tiling like its real value during those years: and certainly in the 240 I instances in which agreements had been made under the act, there was no complaint from the landlords, that the clergy had taken a higher rate than they thought it just they should pay. He was ready to admit that when the income of the clergyman had been raised to the extent of the real value of the tithe between 1814 and 1821, there was an obstacle to the bringing the act into operation. But, if there was a difficulty to the parishioners, there was a difficulty also to the clergyman; for, as his income was to be measured according to the price of corn in each three of successive years, as compared with the price from 1814 to 1821, it so happened, that, if the clergyman accepted an income which might be reasonable at present, it might at the conclusion of three years be reduced below what was reasonable. For example, suppose the income of a clergyman, from 1814 to 1821 had been 100l., and the price of corn then was 50s., he might be willing to accept 80l. a year; but if he did accept it, it would be returned, by the commissioners, in the certificate, thus: Income 80l.—price of corn 40s. Now, if at the end of three years the average price of corn fell, say to 25s. the clergyman's income would be reduced to 40l. It was very possible, therefore that the clergyman, who might submit to a present reduction of 20l. would not submit to the probability of so great a further reduction. It was his intention, therefore, to introduce some alterations to make the agreements between the parties essentially just. He should propose to allow a voluntary agreement of the parties to settle the income of the clergyman in the following manner—that the price of corn in the seven years from 1814 to 1821 should be the first term of the proportion, the income of the clergyman during those seven years the second term, the price of corn during the seven years preceding the composition the third term, and the income to be received by the clergyman under the composition the fourth term.—In the constitution of the vestries under the present act, as votes were given to the members according to the amount of tithes they paid, three or four persons of the higher order might have the power to impede the wishes of the majority. He proposed in the bill which he wished to bring in, to alter the proportion of votes according to payment. When the composition was made for twenty-one years he intended to propose that the valuation should be made for every seven and not three years, an alteration which would be conducive to the comfort as well of the parishioners as of the clergy. As the act at present stood, every composition made took place on the 1st of November next ensuing. It happened that, after the passing of the act, it was utterly impossible for the parishes to come to any agreement before the first of November, though some concluded their agreements soon after. He should propose, therefore, that, when an agreement was entered into before the 1st of May, it should come into effect at that period, and when after the 1st of May, that it should come into effect on the 1st of November. Another provision of his intended bill was, to meet the cases in which various portions of the tithes were paid to various persons. In the diocese of Elphin, where there was a composition of 8d., it was paid in six different fractions, some small; but as the law stood, they were obliged to pay different collectors. He proposed to enable one to collect for all the owners. There were other minor provisions in the bill, which it was not important now to detail, as there was nothing in them which should induce the House to refuse to give it at least their consideration, and to endeavour to bring about a general composition of the tithes in Ireland, on a footing of good fellowship, harmony, and friendship, between the clergy and the laity. He then moved "for leave to bring in a bill to amend the act of the last session for the composition of tithes in Ireland."

Mr. Grattan

thought it was premature to talk of amending the act of last session, as they were as yet entirely ignorant of the operation of that act. When they were told that the act had been carried into effect in 250 parishes, he begged to state that it could not yet have been put into operation in any one. The commissioners had indeed, they were told, sent in a number of certificates, but these were merely certificates of the agreement; the rate remained to be assessed on the individual tithe-payers, and to be levied; and until; the House saw the operation carried through in some one parish they had no ground of judging as to the merits of the bill. He had taken some trouble with the bill, in its progress through the House, and had subsequently, endeavoured to put it into operation in Ireland; and as what the House wanted was practical knowledge on the subject, he should state what had taken place at two vestries which he had attended. Of the first vestry he had attended he was chosen chairman. His first business, therefore, was, of course, to attempt to explain the object and nature of the bill; but he found this was a hopeless task, for of the whole vestry, which was composed of about twenty persons, there were not two who could understand two lines of it; and this he believed would be found to be the case generally throughout Ireland. He had then resorted to the right hon. gentleman's circular letter, in which they were directed to an admirable clause, which had found its way into the bill by accident. The rector being present the vestry were afraid to say any thing before him, as to the value of the parish. No one would speak, It was then suggested, that the rector should state what sum he would take; but he declined. They had then to bid up to the rector. At first 100l. a year was offered, and rejected. The parishioners would make no offer that was accepted, and therefore adjourned. They met again; and the rector moved a series of resolutions which were all negatived, and so the vestry ended. At another vestry he (Mr. G.) was also chosen chairman. The rector then agreed to receive 400l. a year, but then came the question, as to the average to be taken every three years. The clergyman adjourned the meeting for a month, and read the act very attentively. He calculated the effect of the averages, and said—"I will agree to take 400l. a year; but three years hence, when the new average is taken, I shall lose 75l. a year; which I shall not consent to." The clergyman proposed then, that the parish should agree in vestry to pay him 500l. a year, he giving a bond to take no more than 400l. He (Mr. G.), had doubted the legality of this contrivance; but the clergyman told him he had the sanction of the archbishop and was very anxious for an agreement; but the difficulties were not removed, and that vestry adjourned for six months. In fact, all were ready, clergy and parishioners, to come to an agreement: but as to the bill, it was utterly impossible to act upon it. As to the proposal to take the average for seven instead of three years, it would, he thought, be highly disapproved of, both by the gentry and the clergy. Of the prices for three years a guess might be formed, but not for seven years. He thought it would be better to let the act go on for a few years, to see the effect of it; or at least to leave it open to the parties compounding to agree for seven or for twenty one years.

Mr. Hume

did not find himself informed by the statement of the right hon. gentleman, of the real nature of the alterations proposed; but he was convinced that by this sort of legislation no good would be done to Ireland. The real remedy for the evil was to break up the Church establishment in Ireland. Nothing else would be effectual [hear! hear!]. The members of the established church in Ireland were but as one out of fourteen, and they made the other thirteen pay for the support of their church. The government would do well to follow the example that had been set them in other countries, and to remove this source of irritation. They might, at any rate, enable the proprietors of land to purchase up the tithes and extinguish them, instead of continuing the system of annual bargains, which was to go on under the proposed bill. The bill of the right hon. gentleman, so far from having succeeded, had entirely failed of its object. The measure was wrong in principle; for he ought to have begun by removing the causes of irritation, and enabling individuals to purchase up their titles. This would have been the right course, instead of coming down, as the right hon. gentleman did, year after year, to patch up a system which was rotten from its foundation. He hoped the House would not allow the bill, he should feel it his duty to oppose the motion for leave to bring in an amended bill, which would only have the effect of heaping legislation on legislation, and compounding that which was already too confused.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that if the present were a motion for the Speaker leaving the chair, for the purpose of going into a committee, there might be some ground for the opposition of the hon. member for Aberdeen; but really there was not the slightest pretence for that opposition, when it was considered, that this was merely a motion for leave to bring in the bill. As to the documents which had been moved for relative to this subject, his right hon. friend was as anxious as the hon. member for Aberdeen could be, that the House should be put in possession of every information, and that those documents should be laid on the table before this measure was discussed. He should feel that he was fighting with a shadow, if he contended for one moment with such an argument as that which had been brought forward by the hon. member for Aberdeen. If his right hon. friend had deferred moving for leave to bring in this bill to a later period of the session, the hon. gentleman opposite would have been one of the first to object to the measure, on the ground of its not having; been brought early enough before the House. The present motion would pledge no man to any opinion on the merits of the bill: there would be ample opportunity hereafter for considering its details; and he should be wasting the time of the House, if he said any thing in reply to the opposition which had been made to so fair and reasonable a proposition. With respect to the observations which had fallen from the hon. member for Wicklow, if ever he had heard a speech in favour of a motion, it was the speech of that hon. member; for the hon. member had stated, that he had been chairman at two meetings, at each of which he had been unable to explain to the vestry the object of the bill.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.