HC Deb 13 March 1856 vol 141 cc41-4

said, he would beg to ask the hon. and learned Attorney General whether he had not given it as his opinion that by the provisions of the Metropolis Local Management Act, 18 & 19 Vict. c. 120, s. 8, all existing vestries, whether general or otherwise, were superseded, and their powers transferred to the vestries constituted under the said Act? It would be necessary for him to make a short statement with reference to the circumstances that had induced him to put this question. It was in the knowledge of the House that in the course of last Session an Act was passed for the better regulation and management of the metropolis; and by that Act it was intended to transfer to new vestries all the powers and privileges that were enjoyed by the then existing vestries. No doubt appeared to have arisen on that Act till about a month since, when a question arose as to the meaning of the words "existing vestries," and as to whether the old vestries had really been done away with by those constituted under the new Act. He had had an interview with the Attorney General, in which that hon. and learned Gentleman informed him that he had prepared a Bill, which he proposed to bring in, in order to meet that difficulty, observing, at the same time, that he (the Attorney General) himself had no doubt as to the meaning of the Act, but that as doubts had arisen, he felt it incumbent on the Government to remove all doubts on the subject. ["Order, order!"] He was unwilling to trespass on the time of the House, but as he felt the question to be one of importance, and that he might be in order, he should move the adjournment of the House, that he might have an opportunity of making his statement. Well, the Attorney General had brought in his Bill, and expressed his determination to do all in his power to pass it into law before Easter, at which time the parochial meetings took place and parochial business was discharged, and at which time, consequently, as the Attorney General had stated to the House, litigation on the subject of the Act of last Session would arise. Last Friday evening had been fixed for proceeding with the new Bill; but on that evening a disorderly attack was made on the hon. and learned Gentleman by the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), and, subsequently, by consenting that the Bill should not be brought under discussion after twelve o'clock, the noble Lord at the head of the Government had virtually consented that the Bill should not become law till after Easter. However, if the Attorney General now gave his opinion that the old vestries were legally defunct, and that any acts performed by them would not be valid or have force in law, he thought such an opinion would go far to prevent litigation at the forthcoming Easter vestry meetings. He would conclude by moving, "That this House do now adjourn."


said, he hardly knew whether he ought to answer the question which had been put to him by the noble Lord. Though it was not very regular that he should be asked what opinion he had given to parishes which had consulted him professionally, he had told the noble Lord that he should be happy to answer such a question; but he did not expect that the noble Lord would, in putting it, take the opportunity of attacking the hon. Member for Finsbury and himself for the course which had been pursued with reference to the Metropolis Local Management Act Amendment Bill. He had, in point of fact, given such an opinion as was stated in the question put to him by the noble Lord, but the noble Lord had altogether misunderstood him if he supposed that he had stated that he had given that opinion without any doubt. He believed it was but a day or two ago that he had told the noble Lord that on this particular question he entertained great doubts. He had given an opinion that the new vestries had succeeded to the old ones in the metropolitan parishes, but he had given it with the greatest possible hesitation and distrust of its soundness. The eighth section of the Metropolis Local Management Act transferred all the powers of existing vestries to the new vestries, but it made a reservation in these words, "except as hereinafter provided." Now it happened, unfortunately, that there was no provision thereinafter which had the effect of qualifying the terms of that clause; but the machinery provided by the Act was undoubtedly not in harmony with the idea of a transfer of all the powers of the old vestries to the new ones. He thought that it was doubtful which way the question would be decided if it should come to a judicial decision. His opinion was, that the terms of the eighth section would prevail, and that the powers were transferred to the new vestries, but information which had recently reached him showed that, at all events for ecclesiastical purposes, the machinery of the new Act was incapable of carrying out all the powers of the old vestries. The question was in such a state that there must be further legislation upon it, and he had therefore brought in a Bill with a view to prevent litigation and expense. He found that a strong feeling had been excited in the parishes, and that, instead of desiring that the matter should be settled at once, they seemed to prefer litigation. They asked for time to discuss the matter, and to present their case to the Legislature, and under those circumstances he thought that it would be unfair to them to press forward his Bill. He therefore hoped that the House would think that he had done right in postponing it.


said, he must beg to express his regret for having unintentionally misrepresented the hon. and learned Gentleman.


said, he would recommend the noble Lord (Viscount Chelsea) to put a similar question to the hon. and learned Solicitor General, from whom he thought he would receive a reply different from that which had been given by the hon. and learned Attorney General. The opinion which had been given was a joint one, but had, he believed, been given more by the Solicitor General than by the Attorney General. What he complained of was, that, although that opinion was given on the 1st or 2nd of February, a considerable time elapsed before the Amendment Bill was introduced into that House. In a letter written in the month of February, the hon. and learned Attorney General said:— I should have answered your letter of the 26th ultimo before this, but have been very unwell. The tone of my opinion must have shown the great doubts I entertained on the subject to which your letter referred. I feel that the parishes of the metropolis ought not to be involved in litigation on such a matter. I propose immediately to bring in a Bill to remove the doubts and difficulties which exist on the subject of making poor rates. I shall hasten the Bill through Parliament with the utmost expedition, and I recommend the new vestry in your parish to do nothing until this Bill shall have passed, which I have no doubt it will before Easter. That was as much as to say that the new vestries were impostures, and not worthy of being regarded. The public had great reason to complain that the Bill now on the table had been introduced at so late a period as to preclude its consideration before Easter. The delay that had taken place was most unwarrantable. If the measure had been brought in earlier it was very possible that questions now in a state of uncertainty and embarrassment might have been decided in a manner satisfactory to all parties; but, as matters now stood, there was nothing but confusion and perplexity. In one of the largest parishes of London the elections were now about to take place under the direction of the old vestries, and there was no knowing where the litigation might end.

Motion negatived.