HC Deb 21 April 1826 vol 15 cc544-58

Mr. Goulburn moved the order of the day for the House resolving itself into a committee on the Irish Church Rates' bill. On the question, that the Speaker do now leave the chair,

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that, before he submitted the motion of which he had given notice, he was anxious to remove some misconceptions which prevailed as to the true nature of the object he had in view. It was erroneously conceived by some persons, that he proposed to make it imperative on vestries to assess the respective parishes for the expenses of building Roman Catholic chapels; such was not the case. It was also stated that he wished to make some new and daring alteration.—Both suppositions were untrue. In fact, he proposed no novelty, but rather to legalize a practice which had, in some instances, been already resorted to. The proceedings in vestries had generally been of a very loose description; some of the items, as detailed in the parochial returns presented to the House were not only unwarranted by law, but in direct violation of legislative enactment; whilst others were of a very ludicrous description. In one case, a charge had been made on the parish for the expense of a suit of robes for a favourite rector, who had received preferment, and it was deemed fitting to present him with robes suitable to his doctor's degree, and this at the expense of the parish. If he understood rightly the object of the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Goulburn) in introducing the bill now before the House, it was to introduce a legal mode of proceeding in vestries, and to prevent them from raising money not strictly warranted by law. Now it so happened, that hitherto, although many improper assessments had been made, there were others, which, though not strictly legal, were still justified by good fellowship and christian feel- and in no country more than in Ireland was it desirable that such a feeling should be encouraged. Of this class were the sums voted for enlarging and repairing Catholic and Presbyterian places of worship. If the bill of the right hon. gentleman passed without the introduction of some such clause as he intended to propose it would be quite out of the power of vestries to repeat in future such praise-worthy conduct. The House should bear in mind that the vestries in Ireland were composed exclusively of Protestants. The inheritors of the soil were also, to a great extent, Protestants; whilst the payers of the church-rates were nearly all Roman Catholics. At these vestries large sums were voted for the erection and repairs of the Protestant churches; and it often happened that the first intimation which the Catholic received of these assessments was from the tax collector. He trusted the House would not be lightly induced, by agreeing to the bill in its present state, to put an end to the system which had so long prevailed, and in consequence of which, in instances too numerous to be specified, the Protestant vestries of that country had come to the aid of their Roman Catholic brethren. He would not detain the House by reading from a list which he held in his hand many of those instances: they were in the knowledge of all who were acquainted with that country. Several of them had occurred in parishes which were under the immediate superintendence of the Protestant bishops; a circumstance highly to the praise of the Protestant hierarchy, as exhibiting their enlarged and benevolent views. There was one peculiar instance, however, to which he particularly wished to call the attention of the House, because it put the whole case in so clear and palpable a light, that it tended to support his proposition better than any argument which he could advance for that purpose. It appeared that, in a parish in the diocese of Dromore, the sum of 130l. had been voted at the Protestant vestry, without a dissenting voice, for the repair of the meeting-house and chapel, which was stated to be "as a return for the liberality that had been evinced by the Roman Catholic parishioners towards the Protestant church." If the House felt that such an act, so performed, was calculated to do great good, by conciliating the great mass of the people, he trusted they would not hesitate to agree to a clause which went, not to introduce any novelty, but simply to continue a practice which had long been in existence, and from which nothing but good could follow. He could not conceive that any one could be adverse to the encouragement of religious instruction and worship in Ireland. He certainly wished that the condition of society in Ireland were such, that there might be but one description of place of worship, and one ritual for the whole community; but as that was not the case, he maintained that the State had a deep interest in the religious instruction of all the various classes of which the existing community was actually composed. Closely connected as that instruction was with the morals, with the political relations, and with the well-being of society, he could scarcely believe that that House would refuse to accede to any proposition by which its blessings might be diffused. To those who had seen Ireland—who, like himself, had seen the numerous Protestant places of worship in that country, raised at great expense, and frequently for the benefit of a very few only, and the adjoining miserable and wretched hovel, incapable of containing a tenth part of the Catholic population of the parish, the far greater part of whom were consequently compelled to kneel and perform their devotions on the outside, exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather,—to those who had witnessed such scenes, it could hardly be necessary for him to urge the expediency of not putting an end to a system by which the evil was in many cases materially diminished. The proposition which he was about to take the liberty of making, was merely to continue to the Protestant vestries of Ireland the means which they had hitherto possessed of exercising their bounty, liberality, and benevolence towards their Catholic brethren. It introduced no novelty—it gave no right. If, however, the clause that he was about to propose, should be rejected, he gave notice, that in the progress of the bill he should move another clause, providing that the amount of church-rates should be thrown, as tithes were thrown by the Tithe-bill, as a charge on the lessor of the land. The hon. gentleman concluded by moving, "that it be an instruction to the committee to receive a clause empowering the Protestant parishioners, in vestry assembled, to assess their respective parishes in certain limited sums towards the building, enlarging, and re- pairing Presbyterian meeting-houses and Roman Catholic chapels."

Mr. Goulburn

said, that he would omit to notice any of the other considerations which pressed upon his mind, not because they were unimportant, but because the hon. gentleman had put them out of the question, and would confine himself to the single point of the power which ought or ought not to be given to the Protestant vestries of Ireland, in the terms comprehended in the proposed instruction. The hon. gentleman had said, that the present bill had grown out of a wish to repress the variety of assessments by Protestant vestries—assessments which had extended to objects which were not contemplated by the existing law. Undoubtedly, it was to correct this evil, which went to an extent demanding the interposition of parliament, that the present bill was introduced, and introduced, as he had thought, with the unanimous concurrence of all who were acquainted with the merits of the subject. It was a measure which was in a great degree founded on the recommendation of the committee on Irish affairs, which sat during the last session; and it merely limited the province of the vestry to those objects which they were legally entitled to assess for. The hon. member appeared anxious to impress upon the House that the bill tended to introduce a new practice, and that, if passed, it would take away the power which the Protestant vestries at present possessed of assessing for the repair of Roman Catholic chapels. But that was by no means the case. Whatever power the Protestant vestries possessed now they would possess after the bill had passed into a law. To make a compulsory assessment on the parish for the building or repair of a Roman Catholic chapel was at present illegal; and so it would remain after the passing of the bill. The bill would throw no obstacle in the way of any Protestant who might like to contribute to the building or repair of a Roman Catholic chapel, or a Presbyterian meeting-house. He might still yield whatever aid of that description he thought proper to afford. To the assessment for such a purpose by the majority of a Protestant vestry he objected; because, instead of being liberal themselves, it only gave them the power of being liberal at the expense of other persons. They did not contribute out of their own pockets, but they assessed a body of unwilling parishioners, for a pur- pose, in the furtherance of which it was not improbable that interested motives occasionally mingled. The vestry might be unanimous; but who could tell what were the feelings of the poor parishioners, who were compulsorily assessed, and who, perhaps, had their goods distrained and their cattle impounded, because they were ignorant that the law would give them redress on that subject, even against the unanimous opinion of a Protestant vestry? He concurred with the hon. gentleman, that the existence of one faith, of an universal ritual in Ireland, was a consummation devoutly to be wished. But as that was not the case, if the Protestants were called upon to repair the Roman Catholic chapels, why might they not be called upon with equal propriety to pay the priests, without whom no service could be performed in those chapels? Why not call upon them, through the medium of vestries, for other purposes? Why not call upon them, for instance, to contribute to Bible societies? We had no right to give power to the majority of a vestry to tax the parishioners for one object, when the parishioners might think that the money so taken from them ought to be applied to another object. In some parishes, the continuance of the existing practice might not do any harm; but in others it would be productive of considerable evil. Would any man say, that if the proposed clause were introduced into the bill, although it merely gave the vestries the power to assess for the purposes described, a refusal to exercise that power might not, in many cases, be followed by serious consequences? Would it not be said to them, that by adopting that clause parliament had pointed out to them what it was expected they should do? Was that a situation in which the vestries ought to be placed? He objected to the principle of the clause proposed by the hon. gentleman. He was perfectly willing that every individual should exercise his own discretion, and pay what he chose towards the objects in question; but he objected, and he should ever object, to enable the majority of a vestry to lay a compulsory tax on a parish, opposed to the views of the minority of the vestry, and perhaps to that of the whole body of the parishioners.

Sir J. Newport

adverted to the extraordinary inequality of the treatment which the Catholics and the Protestants received at the hands of his majesty's government. The clause proposed by his hon. friend went only to permit the Protestant vestries to assess for assisting in the building and repair of Catholic chapels, and it was objected to; while the Catholics throughout Ireland were constantly called upon to contribute largely to the support of the most wealthy church establishment in the world. That the purpose, however, which the clause went to recognize was acknowledged to be advantageous, as far as its frequent practice established that acknowledgment, his hon. friend had adduced various facts to show. He would add another. The view which one of the Irish bishops took of the way in which the power given to the vestries ought to be exercised, was shown by the fact of the sums assessed by his parish in three successive years. In the first year they assessed 300l. for the repairs of the cathedral, and 20l. for the repairs of the chapel; in the second year, 200l. for the repairs of the cathedral, and 40l. for the repairs of the chapel; and in the third year, 300l. for the repairs of the cathedral, and 50l. for the repairs of the chapel. The inference distinctly was, that these assessments were approved by the bishop. Now, the bill which the right hon. Secretary had introduced, would do away the possibility of any such assistance being granted to the Catholics henceforward. The right hon. gentleman objected to the parish vestries taxing the Protestant parishioners for the repair of the Catholic and Presbyterian places of worship; but he did not see any objection to the parish vestries taxing the Catholics and Presbyterians for the repair of the Protestant places of worship. He was so good, however, as to tell the House that he was not disposed to prevent the private subscriptions of benevolent individuals, for the assistance of the Catholics, in the repair of their chapels. The wonder was, that the right hon. gentleman's bill did not prevent such subscriptions! The wonder was, that in his wisdom, the right hon. gentleman did not point out to the various noblemen and gentlemen who exercised their bounty in the aid and relief of the unfortunate Catholics, that the course which they pursued was an unjustifiable one! They were really much obliged to the right hon. gentleman for his forbearance! When it was considered that the vestries imposed taxes on the Catholic population for the very orna- ments of the Protestant churches, as well as for the houses of the clerks, sextons, &c, was it too much to allow the Protestant parishioners to give a small share of their opulence to their poor Catholic brethren? If the right hon. gentleman had ever seen the miserable manner in which the Catholic population in some parts of Ireland were compelled, although with as much sincerity as the Protestants in their splendid churches, to offer their devotions to the common Deity, he surely would not grudge the means of affording them the accommodation which was so loudly called for. His hon. friend's proposition had his most hearty assent; and if it should fail to meet with the concurrence of parliament, he should warmly support his hon. friend's other clause to make the payment of these taxes obligatory on the proprietors of the land, and not on the tenants.

Sir R. H. Inglis

objected to the measure of his right hon. friend, the Secretary for Ireland, because it compelled the House to decide upon two such propositions as the clause now brought forward, and that relative to an assessment for the poor, of which notice had been given. He admitted, as he had done on a former occasion, that there were great legal irregularities in the expenditure of the church-rates in Ireland; but he contended that these irregularities were not of a nature or an amount to justify legislative interference. In respect to the assessment upon land by a Protestant vestry, for the support of a Homan Catholic chapel or dissenting meeting-house, he had shown, on a former occasion, repeated instances of the willingness of the Protestants of Ireland to exceed the law for the benefit of their Roman Catholic and dissenting neighbours, and he had no objection to such exercise of their benevolence, so long as it could not be claimed under any law; but, though he would not pass a law forbidding it, and though he could not, therefore, concur in the bill itself, because he thought that it fettered unnecessarily the parishes of Ireland,—certainly took away the discretion which they had hitherto exercised in a way calculated to increase general good feeling,—he would not, on the other hand, make himself a party to legalizing the erection of a Roman Catholic chapel by an assessment which would be compulsory on the Protestant minority in a parish. The clause, if carried, would take away all the grace and all the usefulness of the liberality now exercised; and, indeed, would soon render that liberality very little gratuitous; for if, when the Protestant vestry were assembled in their room, the Roman Catholic inhabitants, with their priest at their head, could come to the door, and, under this act, ask them to exercise the power which the law would then give them, of assessing the parish for the service of the Roman Catholic chapel, it was not difficult to see that, in many instances, that which is now the indulgence of a kind and benevolent feeling towards their Roman Catholic brethren, would become a measure of compulsion. At present it is gratuitous kindness, because no man need pay the assessment: he knows that it is illegal, and he may resist it accordingly by an appeal to the proper tribunal; but the charm would be gone by the adoption of the proposed clause. He could never, therefore, give his consent to it. In respect to the other clause to be brought up by his hon. friend, the member for the county of Wicklow, for enabling parishes to assess themselves for the relief of the poor, he felt almost as much the evil of compelling the House to decide upon it. The practice prevailed in Ireland to an extent which showed how cautiously the House ought to proceed in the matter. The bill of his right hon. friend (Mr. Goulburn) defined too closely the limits within which only the church-rates should be applied; if he had pointed out any corruption in the application, or had showed any want of due power, or of will on the part of the constituted tribunals, to redress that corruption, he would have made out a case for the interference of the legislature. His right hon. friend had said, that he thought that all parties had concurred in the expediency of the alteration, and therefore he brought forward his bill. He, for one, considered that little, if any thing, ought to have been done. The evils were so slight, and partook so little of corruption, that they might safely have been left since they cannot be rooted out, without endangering much that is good by the clause now proposed, either a legal existence was given to an assessment upon land for the relief of the poor, or by the bill, without it, the system actually adopted in a very great degree was destroyed, and distress and inconvenience were thrown upon parishes. He had examined the returns upon the table from a large part of Ireland; from the whole of the province of Armagh, which is more than coincident with the civil division of Ulster; and which contains about two-fifths of the benefices of Ireland. He had looked over these details of nearly 400 parishes, extending over a period of twelve years, and he could say, that a very large majority of them contained items which, in England, would be found in a poor's-rates only. This was the practice, a practice which never could be carried to any excessive and grievous extent, because, after all, being illegal, and being defrayed by voluntary assessment, it could be resisted by any one. Now, he complained that the bill before the House compelled the House to decide whether they should, by adopting the clause, legalise the introduction of something like a system of English poor-laws; or, by rejecting it, and passing the bill in its present state, limiting so closely the powers of parishes to assess themselves, deprive them, in an immense proportion, of a discretion which they have hitherto exercised. He would not now enter into the general question of the introduction of this system; but he regretted that the House was thus indirectly called upon to decide one of the greatest questions in political economy, and one of the most vital importance in its application to the state of Ireland. He would reserve himself for this matter till the clause came regularly before the House. He would only say that, if he were compelled to give a vote upon this matter, it should be in favour of that clause, which confirmed to parishes the option which they had hitherto exercised, of assessing themselves for the relief of their poor; but he should greatly prefer leaving the system, as it now stands, in its purely voluntary, and therefore most healthy, operation. He had great objections to the bill of his right hon. friend. It proceeded upon the assumption that great evils existed under the present system, and therefore it affected a corresponding change. The proof of those evils, as related either to the assessments in Ireland, and to their burthen upon the people, or to the inconvenience of getting redress in the ecclesiastical courts, must be sought either in petitions to this House, in the evidence before the committees last year, in the returns upon the table, or in the statement of his right hon. friend. Of petitions to the House, from the time of the union to this day, upon this subject, he could find in the journals only three. Of evidence before the committees, the first witness (Mr. Blackburne) stated, that the collection of church-rates had not, in his district, excited any dissatisfaction. Another gentleman states that it is a very great grievance; but, except in one year, he had never paid more than 5½d. an acre. The witnesses before the committee say, in fact, little upon the subject. The returns before the House show that, in the country, the rate seldom exceeds 8d. an acre; is more often 3d. and sometimes one penny, and even one farthing, an acre. The amount, therefore, in a country where land is often let at 20s. or 30s. an acre, cannot be a great grievance, if the expenditure be not. The statement of his right hon. friend has not furnished any proof, or even any allegation, of malversation in these matters; and has laid no parliamentary ground for this bill; and yet, without any proof, or even any allegation on the part of his right hon. friend, of abuse of their powers, the whole jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in these matters is cut off, and the maintenance of the external part of the church establishment is transferred from a tribunal which is not only Protestant, but must be connected with the hierarchy; and is transferred to a tribunal which may be Roman Catholic and hostile, or latitudinarian and indifferent.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he thought the great advantage of this bill was, that it made the charges, to which a parish was subjected, definite. He agreed with the right hon. baronet opposite, that it was a great abuse for the Protestant vestry of a parish to make rates of the sort he had alluded to, such as building houses for the parish clerks, and supplying a profusion of wine; they were, doubtless, great abuses, and ought to be prevented by law, and this bill would have the effect of doing it. These vestries were to be considered as so many little parliaments in their several parishes; but their powers ought to be as clearly defined as possible. It ought to be distinctly laid down to what objects the money raised under their authority should be applied, According to the present practice, many of the parishes in Ireland, in reality, levied poor-rates. The practice was gradually creeping into more extensive adoption; and deprecating, as he did, the application of the poor-laws to that country, he must con- demn this practice, and declare that measures ought to be adopted to prevent its spread. If poor-rates were to be introduced, let it be on the authority of parliament; but let not such principles be introduced partially, according to the notions of particular parishes. The principle ought to be generally applied, or not at all; and, if it were thought that it ought to be applied, let parliamentary sanction for it be obtained. As to the particular proposition now before the House, if it were right to maintain an established church, then the parishioners must be subjected to the charge of the church; but, if they were also to be subjected to contribute to other places of worship, what was that but telling them there was no necessity for maintaining an established church? His hon. friend had included the Presbyterians in his motion. He doubted much whether they wanted the assistance proposed to be given them; but his hon. friend felt the distinction would be too marked, and therefore he had included them. But why stop there? There were other classes of christians equally entitled to consideration. Why not include the Quakers and the Wesleyan Methodists? Did not his hon. friend think it would be hard on the Quaker, who was called upon to maintain his own church, and to contribute to the established church, if he were also called upon to maintain another church, against which he was decidedly and conscientiously opposed? The clause did not define the power to be given to vestries, and it would engender endless disputes and debates. Besides the machinery of it was undefined. If he were to admit, which he did not, its necessity, he must say that he did not understand the details of the manner in which it was to be executed. But he opposed the clause in principle, because, to admit that, would be to give up the principle on which an established church was founded.

Mr. W. Smith

supported the clause, and said, that all the difficulties which were met with in Ireland, and in no other part of the empire, or of the world, arose from the anomalous nature of her church-establishment. In other countries, the church-establishment was agreeable to the majority of the nation. In Ireland, the church-establishment was the religion of a very small minority, who imposed their own rates on the large majority. Why did not difficulties of this kind arise in England or Scotland? Because the establishments were rooted in the affections of the majority of the people. Were these difficulties to be found in Canada: No. And why? Because, in that country, we had adopted a policy the very reverse of that which we had adopted with regard to Ireland.

Mr. Trant

said, he was for supporting the church-establishment of Ireland, not for Ireland alone, but as Ireland formed a part of the empire; and, as he could not agree to the latitudinarian principle of the clause, he should oppose it.

The House divided: for the instruction 18. Against it 40. The House having resolved itself into the committee,

Sir John Newport

, agreeably to the notice he had given, rose to move the repeal of the 5th section of the act of 4 Geo. 4, cap. 86, which authorizes the archbishops and bishops, in cases where there is no church in a parish, to order the assessment of rates for repairing the church of the next adjoining parish; such rates to be levied on the inhabitants of the parish having no church. He contended, that this clause was a most tyrannical one, and liable to very great abuse, as there were many parishes in Ireland in which there was not a single Protestant, yet those parishes would be compelled to pay rates for the repairs of the adjoining parish church.

Mr. Goulburn

defended the law as it stood. The principle of it was not new, or applicable to the Irish church only; for the same principle prevailed in the law of England.

Mr. S. Rice

said, the cases of England and Ireland were not at all parallel. If the question were left to the constituted bodies of the two parishes to make the union if they thought proper, he would be quite satisfied.

Mr. Peel

said, he believed, as the law now stood, the bishop was authorized to order a church to be built in parishes where there was none; and as there might be two parishes adjoining, and one church sufficient for both, it would be a saving to the parish having no church to contribute to the rates of the adjoining parish, instead of being obliged to build a new one for themselves.

Mr. S. Rice

said, that the bishop had no more power to compel the erection of a church in an adjoining parish than the grand jury had to compel the making of a road in an adjoining county. The bishop might, indeed, apply to the Board of First Fruits for such a purpose; but, in such a case, the assent of the parish to build a church was necessary.

Sir J. Newport

said, he knew the case of one parish in which there were no Protestants, except the police stationed there; and to that parish the bishop united another, and the parishioners had more than five miles and a half to go to attend divine service. The great evil was, that the hierarchy of Ireland had, within the last 150 years, allowed the churches to go to decay, and now there was a call upon the Roman Catholic population to repair them. The more this grievance was looked into, the more severe would be found the pressure upon the members of that persuasion. He regretted to see this system of taxation by the church treated with such indifference by that House.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that he had never meant to defend any abuse in the levying of the church-rates, but he had merely remarked, that if a parish church happened to be out of repair, the bishop had a strict legal right to compel the parishioners to repair it.

Sir R. H. Inglis

said, that, in reference to the last point, he believed there was in existence a very curious return, stating the number of churches in Ireland in the beginning of the 17th century. He was informed, that this return stated, that in Wexford there were, at that time, twenty churches. In the year of the Restoration, 1660, only one was left, the rest having been destroyed, not by the neglect of the bishops, but by the consequences of great rebellion. In reference to the first point, the grievance, upon the ground of which alone the right hon. baronet had introduced his clause, which only, at least, he had alleged in illustration of the necessity of it, was, he apprehended, the case of Clonarmy, from which the right hon. baronet had presented a petition a few weeks ago. Now, this case of grievance was as follows:—it was a parish of 1093 acres, inhabited by a considerable population, probably, therefore, good land, and the tax was, in the first year of its union with Castletown Delvin, 6¾d. an acre; the next year, 3½d.; and the next, 3d.: the aggregate amount paid was never 30l.; and he believed, that not more than 22l. was raised in one year, and about 11l. in the next. So much for this case of great hardship.

Sir J. Newport

said, that there were two churches within ten miles of his house, which were suffered to go to ruin; and when a remonstrance was made to the then diocesan on the subject, he treated the representation with neglect. The consequence was, that the Protestants left the place; and those churches were now ordered to be rebuilt at the expense of the Roman Catholic inhabitants.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that the duties of the clergy in Ireland were now, at a moment of peculiar delicacy and difficulty, discharged in a manner which, when compared with any former period of history, redounded highly to the credit of the established church.

The amendment was negatived.

Mr. Grattan

said, he rose for the purpose of submitting a clause to the committee, which he should think himself in some degree criminal if he did not propose. The object of it was, to enable such parishes as might be so disposed, to make an assessment for certain classes of the poor. This had been done in several parishes in the county of Armagh, and no inconvenience was found to result from it. The priest very willingly cooperated with the rector, and great good was thus produced. It would be desirable that parishes should at least have the discretion of making such provision if they should think fit.

Mr. Croker

thought it would be better if the hon. member brought forward the proposition in some way more calculated to excite attention. It was a subject of importance, and worthy of more consideration than could be given to it at present.

Mr. J. Smith

said, he had for some time been endeavouring to ascertain what the state of the poor in Ireland was. The subject was worthy of serious consideration, and he could not now allow any clause of the kind to pass, unless accompanied by a full inquiry into the state of the poor of Ireland. He hoped, therefore, that his hon. friend would withdraw it for the present. It was matter of serious charge against the government, and against the committee which had been sitting for two years, that they instituted no inquiry into the subject. The committee omitted what they were bound to have done, by making no report on the state of the poor.

Sir R. Heron

said, he never would consent to entail upon Ireland the additional misery of a system of poor-laws. In a country so circumstanced, it must prove even more mischievous than it had done in this. It could not be introduced without being productive of the worst effects.

The clause was withdrawn, and the House resumed.