HC Deb 17 March 1828 vol 18 cc1151-61
Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he had given notice, that before this bill went into a committee, he should move that it be an instruction to the committee, that they should have the power to limit the duration of any bargain or agreement entered into under the provisions of this measure to twenty-one years. He objected to this bill as it stood at present, because it appeared to him to be pregnant with injustice to the church of England. As it was now constituted, it enabled parties to enter into agreements to determine, for ever, the future stipend to be paid to ministers of the church of England. If this principle were acted on, it would be fraught with manifest injustice; for he could see no reason, why a calculation of the receipts of any given living for the last seven or fourteen years should be laid down as the allotted stipend of a minister of the church of England for all future time. Suppose such a system had been adopted two hundred years ago, what would have been its effect on the church of England? In what situation would that church have now been placed, if, two hundred years ago, provision had been made for fixing, on the ratio of the past receipts, the future stipends of the ministers of the church of England? Surely it would have created manifest injustice in many individual instances; and it would evidently have lowered the condition of its ministers as compared with other classes of the community. He might be told that the provisions of this bill would not be generally found unjust, because in several parishes, where perhaps cultivation might retrograde, the value of the produce would, at a future period, be less than it was at present, and that therefore the gains of the clergy in these parishes might be viewed as a set-off against the losses which they might sustain in other parishes where cultivation had been extended. Now, he did not wish any portion of the clergy to gain in this way, because he did not think it would be satisfactory to any party. He would suppose the commutation of a certain parish fixed at 500l., taking the receipts of the produce for the preceding seven or fourteen years, and that the real value of the tithes, from peculiar circumstances, turned out to be, at a future period, only equal to 300l.; he did not wish to secure to the clergyman 500l., when, if he received his tithes in kind, he would be entitled to merely 300l. This would be an evident injustice to the parishioners, and would doubtless be felt as such. If they took the case of the county of Norfolk, it would clearly illustrate his principle. Suppose a measure like this had been carried into effect sixty years ago, before the extensive cultivation of barley and turnips was introduced into that county, would it not have been a manifest injustice to calculate the future stipend of a clergyman on the preceding seven years' receipts? Was no allowance to be made for improvements? He wished the stipend which arose from tithes to vary according to the success of agriculture, and the amount of produce in every parish. He was anxious to promote satisfactory arrangements between parishioners and the church of England. He opposed this bill further, because he believed that, in many instances, the bishop would interfere, and prevent its provisions from being carried into effect. It was a very bad general principle, first to adopt a measure of this kind, and afterwards to afford an opportunity of its provisions being defeated, in consequence of the dislike or disapprobation of those whose consent it was necessary to obtain before those provisions could be acted on. He thought it would be very easy to propose some other arrangement better calculated to conciliate the two parties than that which the present bill offered. To show the injustice of the principle, he would suppose a lenient clergyman, who had abated his demands on his parishioners; and he would ask, if that clergyman commuted his claims, and consented to receive a stipend equivalent to the produce of the preceding seven or fourteen years, whether it would be fair that his successors should be bound by that agreement? The amount of the sum to be paid hereafter to the church of England under this bill was, it appeared, to be in accordance with the amount of the receipts for the fourteen years preceding the bargain, varying according to the price of corn; so that if the price of corn fell in consequence of an extensive importation, or from any other circumstance, then the amount of stipend must also fall. What he objected to most decidedly was, the permanently fixing, on any calculation of past receipts, the sum which was for the future to be paid to the clergymen of the church of England, that sum varying with the price of corn. He could not see why there should be such a difference between this bill and the law introduced into Ireland on the same subject. If ever there was a good and beneficial act introduced into Ireland, it was the Tithe Composition act of 1823. It had been carried into operation in nine hundred and forty parishes, and the sum paid at present in consequence of these agreements amounted to 286,000l. Under that act the agreement could not extend beyond twenty-one years, and it was perfectly consonant with policy and justice. In conclusion, the right hon. gentleman moved, "That it be an instruction to the committee that they shall have power to limit the duration of any agreement to twenty-one years."

Mr. Benett

said, that this bill was founded on the same principle as the inclosure bills, by which corn-rents were reserved to the clergy; the amount of which were not fixed beyond seven years, and generally not for so long a period, and which changed with the value of corn. Bills of this kind had been passed in numberless instances, with the consent of all parties, including the bishops. The cultivation of waste lands could not be attempted in this country, without giving one third of the money expended to the tithe-owner. This was not the case if the same money was applied to burning bricks; and thus an inducement was held out to build houses and factories in preference to cultivation. If the limitation proposed by the right hon. gentleman was carried, no man would venture to expend his money in cultivating waste land. Though the tithe-owner would receive nothing additional from him during the twenty-one years of the agreement, before the profit resulting from the improvement commenced, yet when it did commence at the end of that time, the tithe-owner would enter and take one third of the produce of the land. That was the ground of his objection to the Irish act, and he was sorry to hear it had been acted upon to such an extent as the right hon. gentleman had stated. The consequence would be, that an enormous property would be sacrificed, which would prevent any future attempt to cultivate the bogs and waste lands of that country. He had been personally attacked, because he had suggested that it was desirable to have the tithes of this country commuted. Now he was sure no party was so much interested in that measure as the church itself. The collection of tithes operated injuriously to the church, and created, even in the lowest classes, who had the produce taken from their gardens, a great dislike to it, and a great dissent from it. He had been concerned in several Inclosure acts, in which the clergy had accepted a commutation for their tithes, either in land or in a corn rent; and they had always, to his knowledge, received great benefit from the change, especially from having no interest in that disagreeable sort of property which rendered them so obnoxious to their parishioners. The amount of the corn-rent was fixed; but on any variation of the price, either party could apply to the quarter sessions, and obtain an order to examine the returns of the market, in order to settle the rate in the succeeding seven years. The consequence of this arrangement was, that the value of the tithes varied with the price of corn, but not with the outlay of capital.

Mr. Secretary Peel.

But not according to the improved value of the land.

Mr. Benett.

Certainly not: and he contended that the tithe-owner had no right to any share of his capital. If the instruction was carried, he trusted the hon. gentleman would withdraw the bill; for so limited, he feared it would do a great deal of mischief.

The Attorney-general

said, he agreed entirely with his right hon. friend in the view he had taken of this bill. The object of the measure was a perpetual, irrevocable alienation of the inheritance for a money-rent, to be regulated by the price of corn. He admitted that there was some ground for the topic so generally urged, that the agriculturist would not improve his land, because he could only make an agreement with the existing incumbent for his life; but he thought the period of twenty-one years would be satisfactory to the tenant, and that was the principle of the Irish act, of which he entirely approved. By that measure, there was an alienation of the tithes for twenty-one years for a money-rent. But this bill introduced a new principle, going beyond the Irish act. Another very important question related to the difficulties which would attend these commutations. Taken as accurately as they might be, how could they be definitively ascertained? Who could, in every instance, decide exactly what the church was entitled to? There might be some modus, composition, or agreement, which the successor of the incumbent might set aside. There might be claims which were not set up, though no doubt could exist that they might be enforced. Yet in a moment, under this bill, all these difficulties were to be settled. If it were carried into effect all through England, every question of uncertainty, as to the nature, species, extent, quantity, and quality, of tithes of every parish in England, must be brought to an instant and final decision. Was this a work so easy of achievement? He thought, moreover, that the principle of commuting tithes for ever, was likely to prove very injurious to many of the successors of aged incumbents, who might be drawn into bargains exceedingly prejudicial to the incomes of those successors. He was not particularly pleased with the principle of regulating the money-payment by the price of corn, which would make the parson search as anxiously into the price of corn, as brokers did into the price of consols. This scheme of alienating church property was liable to objections both ways. If the land became improved, then the commutation would be unjust to the church; if it became impoverished, the commutation would be unjust to the other party. As the bill now stood, he certainly did not feel disposed to agree to it; in his opinion, the nearer it was brought to the Irish bill, the better it would be.

Mr. Greene

could not help thinking that the right hon. Secretary's opinion had been somewhat biassed by the sentiments of his constituents; but he must submit to the House, that the members of the two Universities knew less about parochial tithes than any other persons in the kingdom. Living in their respective colleges, they knew nothing about the bargains which were made with farmers, and the painful situations in which clergymen and their parishioners were placed in consequence of those bargains. Nothing would be more likely to induce clergymen to reside upon their livings than the removal of the present system; nothing more likely to increase the number of non-residents than the continuance of it. This bill merely went to reduce to a system the powers which the House had so given by other bills. A considerable number of Commutation bills had been passed; but they were so mixed up with Inclosure bills, that fee had not been able to ascertain their precise number. He would mention one fact. In the county of Bedford, out of one hundred and twenty-five parishes, sixty-one had commuted their tithes. His bill went only to allow that to be done before commissioners, which was now done every day by other means. A great many of the objections that had been made against allowing incumbents to bind up the rights of their successors, were removed by that provision of the bill which rendered the consent of the bishop necessary, before any commutation could be agreed upon. It was not proposed by the bill to alienate tithes, but merely to commute them on a footing fair to both parties. Whatever might be the fate of the bill, he certainly should feel it his duty to resist the proposition now made to the House.

Mr. E. Davenport

stigmatised the present system of taking tithes, as one of the most oppressive that could be devised. After stating some instances which had come to his knowledge of the vexatious methods by which lay proprietors had, at various times, attempted to alter the modus upon hay, and other articles of produce, the hon. member proceeded to observe, that length of possession, which, in all other cases, tended to strengthen a right, had a directly opposite effect in any contest with the church; for although the contract under which a person paid his tithes might be of even two centuries' duration, the person who defended his right upon the strength of its terms was bound to the production of the deed. This, too, had another bad effect; for if any ancestor of any landholder had been guilty of any act of generosity, and had raised the amount of an incumbent's tithes without wishing it to continue beyond his life, the church immediately turned round upon him, and exacted that sum as a positive and direct modus. Great and numerous as were the evils in our legal system, in his opinion, the evils of the system of taking tithes exceeded them all; and he hoped that the proposition of the right hon. Secretary, which went to smother the principle of the bill, would not receive the sanction of the House.

Mr. Estcourt

did not think it fair in his hon. friend, to infer that the mind of the right hon. Secretary had been warped by the sentiments of his constituents. He was quite sure that his own was not. Nor could he admit that the University of Oxford was incompetent to decide upon a question like the present. The resident members of the University might have had little experience in the inconvenience complained of; but it ought to be recollected, that the institutions to which they belonged were supported by tithes; that livings were attached to every college, to which the fellows were preferred in rotation; and that they who were thus preferred, being in constant communication with those they left behind, were not very likely to keep the knowledge of these inconveniences to themselves, or to be less sensible of them than others. Nothing could be more improbable, than that they would conceal from their friends, who were still resident in the University, inconveniences of so serious a nature as these were represented to be; and he did therefore think that the members of the University of Oxford were not incompetent to arrive at a just opinion upon this subject. The objection to this measure was, that it put the power of alienating property into the hands of a tenant for life. He was favourable to a temporary and experimental, rather than a permanent measure, and should suggest that the bill should be tried in the first place, for a period of twenty-one years.

Mr. Hume

said, it had been asked by the right hon. Secretary, what would be the state of the Established Church now, if the stipends of the clergy had been fixed two centuries ago? He would answer this question by a reference to the Church of Scotland, where a settlement for the payment of a fixed stipend to the clergy had been introduced two centuries ago. There the clergy were nevertheless respected, and in the enjoyment of moderate affluence, although they had not the power which the clergy in this country exercised of imposing tithes on every acre of waste land that was brought into cultivation. The people were contented and happy; they paid cheerfully an ascertained sum, and were not brought into the unpleasant collision with the clergy which prevailed in this country. The evil of the tithe system in this country was, that tithe was not chargeable on the soil only, but on every improvement which might be made upon it. This was a tax upon capital as well as land. It operated, besides, to prevent persons from bringing waste lands into cultivation, which would give employment to the people, and supersede the necessity of concerting plans to send them to Canada and other places abroad. This power of imposing an increase of tithe on improvement amounted to an actual discouragement to such cultivation, and a prohibition on the employment of the people. Now, this was a purpose for which tithes were not intended; and considering that their institution took place in barbarous times, they should continue to be strictly imposed as in those times, but should be modified according to the alterations and advances made in society. It was well known that Mr. Pitt had intended to introduce a measure, and indeed had even prepared a bill for the purpose of converting church property into three per cent stock, and paying the clergy out of that fund, instead of their being paid in the present way. An improved mode of paying the clergy would prevent the irritation that was now kept up between them and their parishioners. There should be some relaxation of the ancient mode of imposing and levying tithes, more especially now that the church was divided into so many sects. It would be better, therefore, to adopt some permanent and conciliatory mode of payment. The hon. member then referred to the state of the church in France, where the whole expenses of maintaining it did not exceed a million, chargeable on the nation. He hoped that a permanent measure would be adopted, to relieve the country from the evils of the present tithe system; and he was convinced that fifty years hence, the clergy would be more respected, and the people more satisfied, than they were at present.

Colonel Wood

denied that the exaction of tithes had been any bar to the cultivation of waste lands in England, for no such lands could be enclosed without acts of parliament; and in all the acts passed of late years, the tithe had been commuted. He hoped that the temporary course would be acquiesced in, as the measure was likely to be highly beneficial to the country, and would fall to the ground if the original plan was inflexibly adhered to.

Mr. Baring

said, it never was the feeling of that House to propose any bill that would have for its object any advantage over the church; but it was a principle felt throughout the country that some arrangement should be made to prevent, if possible, the perpetual wranglings between the clergy and their parishioners. The right hon. gentleman did not recommend the course which he proposed as from himself, but on the suggestion, and agreeably to the wishes, of the University of Oxford. Now, with due deference to that learned body, the subject was one on which the members of that House were as well informed as they were. As the House, therefore, understood the subject, there was no need of their being dictated to by the University of Oxford. He did not concur in the remark, that the effect of the proposed plan of commutation would be, in almost all cases, to diminish the amount paid by the parishioners to the clergyman. For instance, where a clergyman, either from liberality or leniency, received considerably less than he was entitled to if he had received all the tithes, by the proposed commutation, he would receive more than he now did, as the tithes would be appraised by sworn valuators, and the parishioners would be bound to an agreement which would make them pay more than was now exacted from them. The great desideratum of the present tithe system was the want of a fixed modus. He approved of adopting the average price of corn as a modus. It furnished the material subsistence of the people, and was therefore a standard, perhaps better than any other, to remedy the inconvenience arising from fluctuations in the value of money.

Mr. R. Grant

approved of the instruction to the committee proposed by the right hon. gentleman. It was expedient, in his opinion, to limit the duration of any agreement; otherwise the measure would be an injustice both to the clergy and the parishioners, and, of the two, he doubted if the injustice would not be greater to the parishioners. The Tithe Commutation bill in Ireland, corresponding to the measure now before the House, had been attended with great advantage to that country, and he anticipated the same benefit from the present one. There was such difference only between the two measures as was rendered expedient by the difference in the situations of the two countries. The hon. member expressed his concurrence in the adoption of the average price of corn as the modus for regulating the tithe in this country. He could have no objection to a more comprehensive measure which might pour a healing balm on the animosities that too frequently existed between a clergyman and his parishioners. But he thought it impossible that they could adopt a permanent commutation on the principle of the bill as it then stood. There were two conditions indispensable to the adoption of a permanent commutation, the one, that the commissioners should be warranted to strike the amount with reference to an estimate not only of what the value of the land was, but en what it might become by improvement on the one hand, or by deterioration on the other; the other, the establishment of some security that the fund out of which the annual payments were to be made, should be always commensurate to those payments. If the commutation were made for land, or (according to the proposition of the hon. member for Montrose) for a sum in the Stocks, a security would be obtained: but, according to the present bill, a permanent and constant payment was to be made chargeable on a variable fund. The only exemption to the perpetual character of the bill was when waste lands were brought into cultivation. Besides that there were other modes by which titheable property might be increased in value, with a correspondent increase to the clergyman; but there was no such proposition with reference to a decrease in the value of titheable property. The tithes might therefore be increased, but could not be diminished. Suppose the present bill had passed in 1814—titheable property was at that period worth twice what it was worth in 1790. It had been decreasing in value ever since; so that under such circumstances a great and unjust burthen would have been thrown on the land. It had been said, that the principle of the present bill had been found to succeed in individual measures; but it should be recollected, that those measures had undergone examination by committees above stairs. He could not, in any view of it, assent to the principle of the measure before the House, except in connexion with the proposed instructions to the committee.

Sir J. Newport

rose principally to guard the House from conceiving that what might be applicable to the state of Ireland on this subject was, ex necessitate rei, applicable to the state of England. The term of twenty-one years had been accepted by the friends of commutation in Ireland, because they could not otherwise hope to carry the measure into effect. The population on which the measures were to act, was also quite different in character. Whatever system might be adopted with reference to this country, he hoped that the enormous power which had been vested by the Irish act in the Irish bishops would not be vested by the English act in the English bishops. It had happened not unfrequently in Ireland, that where the incumbent and his parishioners had been disposed to agree to a computation, the bishop had quashed the agreement, on the ground that the incumbent had not made a bargain sufficiently good for himself.

Sir M. W. Ridley

recommended to the hon. member who introduced this bill to adopt the amendment of the right hon. gentleman. As to the machinery of the bill itself, he thought that unless it was made more advantageous to the payers, the bill would be altogether inoperative. At the same time he agreed that it would be better to have this bill with the proposed limitation than none at all.

Mr. Secretary Peel

wished to make a few observations. The hon. member for Newcastle had expressed his apprehension, that if the bill was passed as it stood, the provisions of it would seldom be carried into execution. That was precisely what he (Mr. Peel) wished to avoid. He wished to have a bill that should frequently be acted on, because it was founded on the principles of justice. The hon. member for Callington had said, that the House ought not to allow themselves to be dictated to by a University. Now, nothing had fallen from him which rendered such an observation necessary. It was his duty to state to the House any opinion which might be entertained by his constituents. The hon. member would no doubt act in the same way by his constituents; and he really did not know what there was in the University of Oxford to disentitle it to be heard in that House by its representative. On the contrary, if any body was entitled to be heard with favour it was the clergy, when the subject under consideration related to the interests of the church.

The House divided: For the instruction to the committee 81. Against it 29. Majority 52.