HC Deb 24 March 1828 vol 18 cc1329-32

On the order of the day being read,

Lord John Russell

said.—In rising to move that the House do now go into a committee on this important bill, I feel it necessary to say a few words. When it was last under discussion, upon the proposition of a right hon. gentleman opposite, seconded by the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department, for inserting a Declaration in it, to be taken by all Dissenters on their entry into office, I agreed to the principles on which they rested it, not because I thought it either necessary or important, but because I believed it to be likely to render the bill more satisfactory to all parties, and to prevent that collision of hostile feelings which, on points of religion, is of all things most to be avoided. With respect to the proposed Declaration, and to the clauses accompanying it, it was impossible for me then to agree to them, having heard them on that occasion for the first time, and being impressed with the feeling that it would be imprudent for me, on a question where the interests of so many were at stake, to allow myself to be concluded at once by any form of words. At the same time it appeared to me, that the proposition of the right hon. Secretary did not comprehend any thing in its terms unsuited to the object which I had in view. The points to which I felt myself bound to look were, that the Dissenters should not be restrained from the expression of their religious opinions; that they should not be molested for retaining them; and that they should not be prevented from teaching and inculcating them to others. In these respects, after deeply considering the Declaration proposed by the right hon. Secretary, I feel bound to say, that I do not find that it imposes any restraints on the religious liberty of individuals. It merely restrains them from exercising any influence which they may obtain, by virtue of any office to which they be appointed, to weaken the Established Church, or to subvert its legal rights and privileges. I therefore am of opinion, that it would be extremely unadvisable in me to propound or maintain any objection to the Declaration which has been proposed. On the contrary, I feel that it would be extremely wrong in me not to admit it into the bill as a very essential means of pacifying the country on this most important subject. In making this opinion known, I cannot but think it due to the right hon. Secretary to declare, that as far as I have observed his conduct on this bill, he has been most anxious to bring the question to such a point as may prevent the conscientious scruples of any Dissenter from being affected, and as may satisfy the Church that it need apprehend no injury from the admission of Dissenters into civil offices. Viewing the Declaration in this light, I shall offer no objection to the clauses of the right hon. Secretary; and I trust that when they are inserted into the bill in their amended form, they will render it acceptable, not only to this but to the other House of Parliament.

The House then went into the committee. On the second clause being read,

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, the only objection which I have heard urged against the course which I recommended the House, on a former evening, to follow, arises out of this clause; and I am informed that it appears to some persons, to give the king a power to dispense with this Declaration. My opinion is, that it gives no such power: at any rate, I know that I did not intend that it should. The question, as far as it refers to this point, is not without its difficulties. By the law as it now stands, any one who enters into the king's service, or receives the king's wages, or acts as his menial servant, is compelled to take the Sacramental Test. He is relieved, however, from that compulsion by the Annual Indemnity act. If that act were not to be passed, he would be under an obligation to take the Sacramental Test, however menial the office might be in which he served his majesty. If I am entitled by the Test and Corporation Acts to call upon every person who enters his majesty's service to take the Sacramental Test, I am entitled, by the proposed act to make every person who would now be compelled to take that test make the proposed Declaration. Now, in many cases, the performance of such a ceremony would not only be superfluous, but absurd. For instance, what could be more useless and absurd than to make a man, who is going to enter upon office on a foreign station, make a declaration that he will not, by virtue of that office, attempt to subvert the privileges of the Church of England? It would be difficult to specify in words all the cases in which it would be imperative that the party should make the Declaration, and equally difficult to specify the cases where an exception to that rule ought to be allowed. The object of this clause was to enable his majesty at his discretion to specify those offices in which it would be necessary to exact the proposed Declaration. The object of it was, not to dispense with the Declaration entirely, but to allow his majesty to name what officers should and what officers should not be called upon to make it. This is all that I have to say on this subject at present. I will, however, repeat, that I am satisfied with the security which this Declaration offers. I am not prepared to make any alteration in it to please the wishes of any party. All that has passed since I proposed it, confirms me in the sanguine hope that the present session will not close without our having every question satisfactorily arranged, with respect to Dissenters from the Church of England.

Lord Nugent

said, that the proposed Declaration was one of the mildest and least offensive that could have been devised: and that the right hon. Secretary merited the thanks of the country, for the manner in which he had acceded to the proposition of his noble friend. There was one point, however, which he wished to suggest. He thought that the office of privy councillor was one which subjected the holder of it to taking sacramental test.

Mr. Peel.

—He is covered by the annual bill of indemnity.

Lord Nugent.

—Exactly so: a privy councillor would be compelled, unless he were covered by the act of indemnity. If that were the case, then he would be called on to make the proposed Declaration. Assuming, then, that a privy councillor was both to take the sacramental test under the old bill, and therefore liable to make the Declaration under the present bill, there might be cases, and those not extreme ones, in which a man, not nicely scrupulous, but only properly conscientious, might find the Declaration to be at variance with the oath which he had taken as a privy councillor. The oath which a privy councillor took, bound him to advise the king according to the best of his discretion, and to observe, keep, and do all that a good and true councillor ought to do to his sovereign lord. Now, cases touching the disposal of church property might arise, in which the Declaration, which bound him not to employ the influence of his office to weaken the church establishment might be in direct opposition with the oath of a privy councillor, which bound him to advise for the king's honour and the good of the public. It might be supposed in such cases by conscientious men, that the Declaration was to supersede and ride over the oath which they had taken. He did not know whether the right hon. gentleman would make any exception in this clause on behalf of privy councillors; but it did appear to him that, as the clause now stood, it might excite some uneasiness in the minds of persons of tender consciences.

The clause was agreed to, and the House resumed.