HC Deb 08 February 1838 vol 40 cc890-900
Mr. Barron

rose to move, that an Address be presented to her Majesty, praying that she would be graciously pleased to appoint a Commission to inquire into the constitution of the Board of Charitable Bequests in Ireland, and into the present charitable funds and property in this portion of the United Kingdom. The Board of Charitable Bequests, as at present constituted, did not fulfil those functions which it was expected to discharge at the period of its formation. The Board was composed of the judges of the land, and of the archbishops and bishops. What would be thought, if all the judges of England were appointed to manage the charitable bequests of England? Was it not as absurd to expect the judges of Ireland to discharge a similar duty in that country? The fact was, that the judges of Ireland had not attended and could not attend to this duty. And as to the ecclesiastical dignitaries who were upon the Board, they were equally incapacitated by their other duties from giving the proper attention to the business of those charities. The Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Kildare were frequently obliged to come to this country to discharge their Parliamentary duties, and were necessarily absent from Ireland the greater part of the year; one of those Prelates was unhappily now in a very bad state of health. He had, on that part of the question, he thought, made out a case. He had shown, that it was impossible for the parties, from the nature of the circumstances in which they were placed, to exercise any adequate power or control over those charities. The consequence was, that the charities of Ireland were much neglected. Another objection to the Board was of a religious character. The whole of the Board, as at present constituted by the Act of Parliament, consisted of Protestants. The consequence of this was, that every single Catholic charity in Ireland, that is to say, nineteen out of twenty of the whole, were actually concealed from the knowledge of the Board, and were, therefore, under no control. The Board being of an exclusive character, the Catholics of Ireland, whether right or wrong, he would not stop to inquire, entertained no confidence in it, and they, of course, wherever they could, concealed their charities from the knowledge, and consequently from the control of the Board. To so great an extent was this feeling carried, that they were in the habit of handing over during their lifetime large sums of money to be distributed by individuals, instead of giving them to charities, or placing them in the hands of trustees. An instance of this had occurred in his own family. In the year 1809, a relative of his, for the reasons before alluded to, handed over the sum of 10,000l. to four or five individuals, with verbal instructions merely as to its distribution. It was impossible to know, at this distance of time, whether the sums of money so handed over had been properly applied. He attributed no impropriety to the parties intrusted with its distribution, but he thought that the poor had a right to complain, that they did not know whether it had been applied according to the intentions of the donors. Now, this in itself was a very great grievance. It was a grievance inherent in the construction of the Board itself, and not to the individual characters or feelings of the men who formed it. Another objection which he had to the Board was, that it was not responsible to the public, and was under no sort of control whatever. His next objection to it was, that under the Act of Parliament by which it was constituted, the Board had no adequate power of inquiring into the charities of Ireland, which from its name, and the intentions of the Legislature who framed that Act, it certainly ought to have. The Board considered, that under the Act of Parliament passed in 1800, immediately previous to the Union, they had no power to inquire, and that the only power they had, was to apply to a Court of Equity through their solicitors. The consequence was, that not having this power, and being obliged in all cases to apply to a Court of Equity, enormous expenses were frequently incurred in the endeavours to get at charities that were found to be bequeathed by different individuals in Ireland. Bills were filed in Chancery, and enormous expenses incurred. Great delays were consequent upon them, and it followed as a matter of course, that, in the case of smaller charities, the whole of the funds were actually swallowed up in endeavouring to get at the charity, and that which was intended for the benefit of the poor passed into the pockets of the rich. This was an enormous evil, and one which he hoped the House would assist in putting an end to, particularly when the subject of Poor-laws for the relief of the destitute in Ireland had enjoyed so much of the attention of her Majesty's Government. He did not wish his statement to rest merely on his own authority, and therefore would refer to the third Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry, page 31, which strongly supported the proposition which he had laid down. [The hon. Member proceeded to read the extract referred to.] It commenced by stating that their attention had been directed to the constitution of the Board of Charitable Bequests, consisting of the Archbishop of Dublin, and several other persons. They conceived that a Board so numerous could not be efficient for business, nor was a Board of so exclusive a character calculated to give perfect satisfaction in the administration of the funds created by the charity of persons of all religious persuasions. They therefore recommended that the powers of the Board should be transferred to the Poor-law Commissioners, with such power as had been given to the Commissioners for inquiry into charities in England. He hoped to be able to show to the satisfaction of the House, that it was impossible to investigate the matter properly, or to remedy the evils which existed under the present system. He only stated it now for the purpose of showing the opinions of these persons, and here he might stale that the first name signed to this report was that of the Archbishop of Dublin, himself a member of the Board of Charitable Bequests. It was a strong confirmation of his (Mr. Barron's) statement, that the Archbishop of Dublin, a gentleman residing on the spot, and who, from having given the subject the greatest consideration best knew its working, should have been the very first to place his name at the bottom of this report. If any doubt existed on the minds of any hon. Member in that House, that an alteration was necessary in the constitution of that Board, the evidence of the Archbishop of Dublin would be sufficient to remove it, as well as the evidence of the other gentlemen whose names were appended to the report. He should now refer to another, and one which was a high authority in that House, to show that the Board of Charitable Bequests in Ireland was not competent to the duties which were under its administration and control. When Lord Stanley formed one of the Irish Government, he had made a communication to that Board, requesting them to consider some measure for the alteration of the Board so as to render it more effective, and that communication was followed up by a similar one from Mr. Littleton, now Lord Hatherton. The answer of the Board was, that so far from showing any disposition to oppose the views of Lord Stanley and Mr. Littleton, they coincided and agreed in it, and were willing to submit to any alteration which the Government might think advisable, for the better management of the charities in Ireland. He might rest satisfied with the facts he had stated, but that he knew from various private sources that it was not an effective working body. He had moved for a return on the subject last Session, and if ever there was a proof of the inefficiency of the Board, it was to be found in the slovenly and irregular manner in which that return had been made, some portions of which had not yet been presented to the House. There was in Ireland an immense fund of charitable bequests, which had been handed down from their ancestors, and the records of the Courts of Ireland, would show the vast sums appropriated for that purpose, which were now perverted to improper uses. In the city which he had the honour to represent, a sum of 20,000l. had been left by a Mr. Fanning twenty-five years ago, to the poor of the city of Waterford, and what would the House say when they heard that for twenty-five years the poor of Waterford had not touched one shilling of that money? There could not be stronger evidence of gross negligence and mismanagement. In the county of Westmeath there was a charity called the Wilson's Hospital Charity, which possessed a property of 5,000l. per annum, which was carefully concealed from the people of that county for whom it was intended. If the Commission were granted, great abuses would be discovered in the management of the charitable property in Ireland. The fact was, there was no proper control at this moment over this property. The Board which had the nominal management of it, was not, as at present constituted, competent to discharge its duties. Was it intended to place these bequests under the control of the Poor-law Commissioners, which were to be appointed under the Poor-law Bill to be brought in for Ireland? Was it proper to place religious and educational bequests under the management of such an authority? It might be supposed these charities were of no very great amount, and that it would not be worth while for the House to make any inquiry into matters of such little importance; but he could tell the House there was primâ facie evidence of an enormous sum of money in Ireland, applicable to charitable purposes, which, if properly applied, would nearly educate the people of that country, and would go a very great way indeed towards diminishing the Poor-law expenses likely to arise from the new Act. There was at the present moment, under the control of the Board of Charitable Bequests in Ireland, in the public funds, 130,000l.; in Chancery, and other courts of litigation, about 100,000l.; and there were a great number of houses in different cities, and different parts of Ireland, left for similar purposes, valued by competent authorities, amounting to about 50,000l., making a total of 280,000l. Mr. Dalton, a man of great antiquarian research, a gentleman in whom he could place the utmost confidence, because he could have no object in deceiving him, had estimated the various gifts in Ireland at 110,150l. per annum. This gentleman (Mr. Dalton) was a man of most laborious character, who had dedicated a long life to the investigation of matters connected with charities in Ireland, with education, and the antiquities of the country. No doubt this statement was correct as far as an individual could obtain it without an inquisitorial power, such as might be granted him by this House or by the Crown. Mr. Dalton did not exaggerate when he calculated the amount of the charities not under the control of the Board at 2,200,000l., and the fact of there being only charities to the amount of 280,000l., showed the great inefficiency and uselessness of the Board. The total amount of the charities, both under the control and independent of this Board was 2,480,000l.; which, with Parliamentary grants amounting to 44,000l. annually; grand jury grants, 60,000l.; private subscriptions, 32,000l.; charity sermons, 12,000l., would, calculating the interest of the whole at four per cent., give the sum of 267,600l. annually, which at this moment ought to be under the control of the Board. He wished to know whether this state of things was to remain in Ireland? He wished to know whether the charities of that country were to be left entirely under the control of a Board which nominally controlled them, but in reality did not? There was a precedent for the motion which he was now about to submit to the House, in the English Commission instituted several years back, which was now nearly closing its labours. He did not mean to follow that Commission in all its details. He did not mean to say that in its original constitution it was or was not effective or useful, or a creditable appointment for the country; or the Government of the day. But he proposed that if a Commission should issue, that it should be limited, not only as to the time of reporting to the House, but as to its expenses—thereby giving to the House and the country some hope that it would not be protracted to an indefinite period, with Commissioners at large salaries. If this should be done, and honestly done, they would have speedy justice, and a proper management of the charities in Ireland. If the expenses and the time were not limited, he would not lend himself to the matter in any shape. He hoped her Majesty's Government would take the subject into consideration—that they would consider its importance, and enter upon an investigation of the charities of Ireland. The hon. Member concluded by moving that a humble address be presented to her Majesty, praying that she would be graciously pleased to appoint a Commission to enquire into the constitution of the Board of Charitable Bequests in Ireland, and into the present charitable funds and property in that portion of the United Kingdom.

Mr. O'Brien, in seconding the motion, expressed his belief that the hon. Member who had brought the subject under the consideration of the House had not overstated the case in any respect whatever. He was fully convinced that the present Board of Charitable Bequests was ineffective and inadequate to the purposes for which it had been constituted. He believed also, that the character of the Board was considered by the Roman Catholics of Ireland of so exclusive a nature, that it did not possess their confidence in any respect. The hon. Member for Waterford had not overstated the amount of expenses incurred by the Board as at present constituted, in the recovery of charitable bequests. He could also bear testimony to the accuracy of the hon. Gentleman's estimate of the amount misappropriated and misapplied, which could not fall much short of 250,000l. per annum. With respect to the placing of these Charitable Bequests under the control of the Poor-law Commissioners, that was a question which need not now be entertained; but so far as regarded the third branch of charities, those intended for the relief of the poor, in his opinion these might well be given up to the Poor-law Commissioners. It was necessary that adequate information should be obtained before the House could properly deal with the subject.

Colonel Sibthorp

said, that after so many Commissions had been issued, he felt quite horrified at the proposition of the hon. Member for Waterford. He should oppose the appointment of any fresh Commission of any sort, until a full inquiry had been instituted into this subject, in order that the House and the country might be satisfied as to the policy and prudence of issuing Commissions. He could not help regarding Commissions in general as complete jobs. He believed that many of them originated in the outcries raised by those hungry Gentlemen (he meant no offence to any one) who were in the habit of lounging about Downing-street, and could only be got rid of by placing them in some of those situations. He believed that they were situations of great responsibility, but. when he looked at the Record Commission and some others, he must say that he thought them perfectly useless, and that they had led to a great waste of public money. He protested against the present proposition also as being unnecessary. He believed that in nineteen cases out of twenty, nay in ninety-nine out of one hundred, there had been a just, fair, and impartial application of those charitable funds. Should the Government accede to the motion of the hon. Gentleman, he should feel it his duty to take the sense of the House upon it.

Mr. Wyse

defended the appointment of Commissioners, because he thought they were more competent to inquire into these matters than Committees, He considered it to be necessary to make a proper inquiry into these funds. The Board of Charitable Bequests was merely a Board for receiving applications made to them; but he contended there ought to be a Board maintaining a constant and vigilant observation from year to year over the administration of these charities. Members of his own family in Waterford had left a considerable portion of property, for the purpose of establishing alms-houses for poor men and women; but those bequests had never been carried into effect. The misapplication of funds of this description had the very worst moral influence in the country; it dulled the energy of benevolence, and prevented the application of funds to useful purposes, because a conviction lurked in the minds of men that if they made charitable bequests, there was no guarantee that those bequests would be properly applied. The misapplication of these funds had made religion a matter of monopoly.

Viscount Morpeth

said, if he were called upon to give his opinion on the present occasion, he thought his hon. Friend, the Member for the city of Waterford, had made out a very strong case. His hon. Friend had shown that here was a very large amount of charity property in Ireland, with which the Board of Charitable Bequests was, from the nature of its formation, unable adequately to deal, because the board was composed of individuals who had other heavy official duties to perform, and who therefore were unable to devote that time to the board which was required. His hon. Friend had also shown that the members of the board were exclusively of one religion,— a circumstance which, without any imputation on their impartiality, might happen to excite the jealousy of the great portion of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, that such an exclusive board should have the control over their own charities. Again, his hon. Friend had proved that a large amount of the charity funds had been flittered away in law expenses, and he was confident that the House generally would agree with him, that if any property was to be squandered or frittered away, it ought not to be the patrimony of the poor. He certainly had expected that his hon. Friend, would make out a strong case, for the Government were already aware of the necessity of inquiry, and would have willingly taken the subject into their own hands, had they not felt that there were so many other important and pressing questions first to be disposed of, that neither they, nor indeed the Parliament, had time to devote to this subject. Again, the Government was very sensible of the imputation cast upon them by the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln, as to their partiality for commissions. It, however, must be admitted that whatever might be the nature of the tribunal or board to which it might be most conducive to the interests of all ultimately to intrust the management of the charities, it must, he repeated, be admitted that inquiry was in the first instance expedient. The only demur he should make to the immediate motion now before the House was as to whether it was now put in the best and most proper shape. His hon. Friend had said, that he was anxious to insure some limitation both of time and expense for this commission. Now, that limitation could not be secured by the motion now before the House, and there- fore he thought it would be much more satisfactory if the question were brought forward in the same manner as the English Charities Commission—namely, by way of a bill. By that course a limitation of time and expense would be secured, and the objections of the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln removed. His hon. Friend, too, must remember that a commission issued by the Crown without the sanction of an act of the Legislature was very much curtailed and crippled in some of its most important functions; such commission could not examine witnesses. Now, it was very material in any inquiry which would extend over the greater part of Ireland, that power should be given not only to call witnesses, but to compel the examination of unwilling witnesses upon oath. He would, on these grounds, therefore, ask his hon. Friend not to press his motion that evening, but to bring in a bill to limit the time and expense of the commission, and giving it power of complete and uncontrolled action. If his hon. Friend would do so, the Government would give his hon. Friend its best assistance.

Mr. Shaw

said, he could not but think it would be much better if the noble Lord would at once consent to take the matter into his own hands. Surely, no charge had been made—no case for inquiry into the constitution of the Board of Charitable Bequests had been made out; but even if there had, a commission was unnecessary, for that board was created by an Act of Parliament, a reference to which would give all the information that could either be afforded or required. He, therefore, hoped that the hon. Member would not press his motion, but accede to the suggestion of the noble Lord, the Secretary for Ireland.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

concurred with the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, that no inquiry was necessary into the constitution of the Board of Charitable Bequests; but it did not follow that there ought not to be an inquiry into the working of the board, and a general inquiry into the management of the charity property. He admitted that, as stated by the hon. Member (Mr. Wyse), the effort he had made some years ago to secure from local authorities, either grand juries or bodies of magistrates, an useful superintendence over the charities had wholly failed, and it was now highly important to have a more efficient system of management. He fully concurred with the views expressed by his noble Friend, the Secretary for Ireland, and trusted that his hon. Friend who had brought forward the subject would follow the precedent of the English Charities Commission Bill.

Mr. Barron

would, by the leave of the House, withdraw his motion, and give notice of his intention to bring in a bill embodying the principles suggested by his noble Friend, the Secretary for Ireland.

Motion withdrawn.