HC Deb 19 February 1857 vol 144 cc861-74

MR. FAGAN rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to abolish the tax in lieu of Ministers' Money now imposed on eight corporate towns in Ireland. Having heard, he said, that the Government did not intend to oppose the introduction of the Bill, he should not occupy the attention of the House at any length. Last year the Chief Secretary for Ireland, although he opposed the passage of a similar Bill through the House, did not disguise his opinion, that the tax ought to be abolished; and on the second reading the noble Lord the Member for London said that there were but two courses open to the Government on the subject—either that Sir John Young's Act ought to be carried out in a bonâ fide manner, or that the House ought to legislate on the subject. He wanted to know from the Government what they really intended to do on this question. It would not do merely to assent to the introduction of the Bill. How did the matter really stand? Seven of the corporations of Ireland implicated in the payment of the tax had already repudiated the office the law had imposed upon them to collect the tax, on the ground that the discharge of that duty was an insult to their own feelings and repugnant to their religious principles. Moreover, the law courts of Ireland had declared the Act to be inoperative and impracticable, and had called for the interposition of Parliament to amend it. The hon. and learned Member for Enniskillen (Mr. Whiteside), in an eloquent speech delivered on a former occasion, had admitted that the tax was originally intended to apply to the Protestant inhabitants of those towns, and was a tax levied in consideration of religious teaching. It was not the amount of the tax to which the people of Ireland objected—that amount was insignificant; but its collection wounded the feelings of the great mass of the Irish people. He confessed to be unable to conceive any motive on the part of the Government for resisting the repeal of this tax, if it were not the doubt whether the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had sufficient means at command to meet the amount of the levy in the towns in question. But it was beyond dispute that such funds were at command. He thought it due to the House, to the people of Ireland, and to those towns which were subjected to this petty exaction, that the Government should meet the question in a fair and honourable spirit. He, therefore, hoped the Government would consent, not merely to the first reading of this measure, but would support it in its future stages, and use their influence to secure its success in the House of Lords. To reject the Bill, after its first reading had been affirmed, would be simply practising a sham on the people of Ireland. There was a Motion on the paper for to-night for abolishing the endowment to Maynooth. Could the House, in consistency, refuse the withdrawal of this petty but most obnoxious tax? He trusted that his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland would tell the House frankly that he would support not only the first but the second reading of the Bill.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Act 17 & 18 Vict.) c. 11, with a view to the abolition of the Tax thereby imposed in lieu of Ministers' Money in Ireland.


said, that in assenting last year to the introduction of a similar measure, he did not, as the hon. Member stated he did, express an opinion that the tax ought to be abolished, or of indicating such an opinion on the part of the Government; but he said that he assented to it from a feeling of the inefficiency of the present Act, and the difficulties that surrounded its being carried into effect. In stating on that occasion the difficulties the Government laboured under in endeavouring to give effect to the measure, he attributed it to the Act of 1854, which altered the previous Act by throwing on the corporations the obligation of collecting this tax; and in default of their so doing, provided that the amount should be paid by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and that the corporations should collect the tax and repay the Commissioners; and that if they did not so repay the Commissioners, the Government should, and should be empowered to enforce repayment by legal proceedings against the corporations. It happened that seven out of the eight corporations on whom the obligation to levy fell, came to the unanimous determination not to collect it, on the ground that they had always objected to the tax, and that it was not a tax that they ought to be called on to collect. The question then arose, what powers the Government had under the law to force these corporations to collect the tax. The law officers of the Crown considered that great difficulties existed in effecting that object; the Government, however, decided on having recourse to a court of law, and the Corporation of Cork was selected against whom proceedings should be instituted to try the question. On the 1st of January, the last day of term, the learned Judges before whom the question came decided against the corporation. That decision had the effect of placing the question in an entirely different position to what it was last year. The learned Judges who heard the case expressed their opinion in succession upon the defects of the law, and the consequence was, that the Corporation of Cork immediately gave notice of appeal, and, as he believed, it was their intention to appeal by writ of error, and after that to the House of Lords if necessary. Two years must expire before the question could be legally decided. Since the Government had obtained the judgment in the case of the Corporation of Cork proceedings had been instituted against the other corporations, some of whom had stated it to be their intention to appeal if the judgment of the Court should be against them. It therefore would take two years before they could get a final judgment, and it was obvious that the difficulties of the Government in reference to this question were not altogether over. Unhappily, during the whole period law proceedings had been going on, the corporations had not collected one shilling of this tax, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in their last Report, laid on the table of the House within the last week, stated that they had had to advance £21,000 in consequence, only £4,000 of which had been repaid. The question was, what was the Legislature to do? When he intimated last year that the Government were not in a position to advise Parliament how to act until after they saw the result of the legal proceedings that had been instituted, the noble Lord the Member for London said, that the Government ought to adopt one of two courses—either manfully to say that they saw the way to amend the Act, and to bring forward such Amendments as would settle the question and put an end to this perpetual annual excitement and agitation, or at once adopt the Motion. In answer to that appeal he (Mr. Horsman) said, that as soon as the Government knew the result of the law proceedings, they would take the whole question into consideration, with a view of ascertaining whether they could not prepare and submit to the House a measure that would be satisfactory to Parliament, and settle the question; or if they found that impossible and hopeless, to adopt the other alternative and support the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, with a view to its settlement by the House. Since the delivery of the judgment, and since the assembling of Parliament, the subject had been under the consideration of Government. It was not only unfair to these corporations that they should be compulsorily engaged in litigation on this subject, but it was also unfair to the Government that they should have the odious duty imposed on them of carrying these corporations into a court of law; and it was also unfair to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who, by their last Report, were prevented from continuing their legitimate payments, not only because their funds fell short in consequence of their having to advance the Ministers' tax, but from the uncertainty of their being repaid by the corporations. The period from the passing of the Act to the anticipated settlement of the appeals would be four years, and the Government therefore in conformity with the pledge given last year now assented to the introduction of this Bill. The Government had had the question under their consideration since they had received the judgment alluded to, but sufficient time had not elapsed to enable them to mature a plan on the subject; but either on the second reading of this Bill, or before it, he hoped to be in a position to state to the House the views and intentions of the Government on the subject.


said, although the youngest Member of the House, still, as the constituency which had done him the honour to accept him as their representative was vitally concerned in the settlement of the present question, he could not avoid saying a few words with regard to it; and he was the more anxious to do so as, being a Protestant, he represented a mixed constituency of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Dissenters of every shade of opinion. Speaking, then, on behalf of his Protestant constituents, he would say they considered the tax of ministers' money as a tax beyond all doubt contrary to the liberty of the subject in Ireland; whilst the Roman Catholics considered it as a remnant of the old penal code which every honest Irishman wished to see abolished for ever. And he would say, for himself, that he should never be content with any measure short of the total abolition of the tax. He did not think that all the ingenuity of the lawyers on the Treasury Bench—and their ingenuity, doubtless, was very great—could suggest any other solution of the difficulty that would be at all satisfactory to the people of Ireland. The whole tax was a very small matter indeed—simply a few thousands a year, levied off eight of the principal towns throughout the country; and it was scarcely worth while for such a paltry consideration to keep up an annually-recurring agitation between the Protestant and Catholic populations of those towns. That was a state of things which no man desired to see perpetuated; and therefore he called upon the right hon. Gentleman, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, to bring in a Bill contemplating nothing less than the total abolition of the tax.


said, the Chief Secretary for Ireland having stated that the Government would express its views distinctly with regard to the measure upon its second reading, it would be obviously improper for him to adopt any peculiar line with reference to the Bill while awaiting the decision of the Government. A statement, however, of the right hon. Gentleman had startled him very much—namely, when he declared that not a single shilling had been collected under the Act—because he (Mr. Napier) had himself paid a good many shillings. [Mr. HORSMAN: I excepted Dublin.] Well; but the great bulk of the tax was paid in Dublin. Now, curiously enough, the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken had described the tax as a remnant of the penal code. Why, the Act under which the tax was now collected was passed no earlier than the year 1854, and he certainly was not aware that an Act of 1854 could be well considered to constitute a relic of the penal code. There certainly was an earlier Act on the subject, the Act of Charles II.; but so far from its being part of the penal code, at the time of its passing the corporate towns referred to were all inhabited by Protestants. It was well known as the object of the Government of that day that, the Crown having power over the property of the towns, inducements should be held out to English artificers and tradesmen to settle in those towns, and therefore it was put as a charge upon property to provide for religious worship according to the belief of those settlers. Suppose, by way of illustration, a Protestant were to go over to Ireland, and purchase property there under a decree of the Incumbered Estates Court, would it not be competent for him to endow a church, and charge any portion of his newly-acquired property with the support of its minister? And were a Roman Catholic to become the tenant of a portion of the lands would he be at liberty to say that he, forsooth, was a Roman Catholic, and that his conscience would not allow him to pay a portion of the charge, because it would go to the clergyman of another denomination? It could not, therefore, be alleged that there was anything penal in a party being obliged to acquit himself of an obligation which he had acquired with his property the day he purchased it. Besides, a large proportion of the owners of houses charged with the tax of ministers' money were Protestants. In the parish in which he resided there was never the slightest difficulty in collecting the tax; at the same time, the great bulk of those who paid it were Protestants. Circumstances were different, he believed, in such places as Limerick and Kilkenny. But it was a curious fact, that although in some of the smaller towns the persons occupying the houses were not Protestants, the owners of them were. So that that being admitted, if they repealed the tax they virtually only handed over so much to the Protestant owners of property. And give him leave to ask this question—If they abolished the tax, what was to become of the clergy in the different towns who, upon the faith of arrangements made in 1835, and confirmed in 1854, were made dependent for their incomes upon the charge of ministers' money? He would appeal to his hon. Friend the Member for Cork (Mr. Fagan) himself, and he would take the case of the very city represented by the hon. Gentleman. One clergyman who was entitled to a proportion of the tax was the Archdeacon of Cork. He believed it was notorious that upon a recent occasion those who differed from that worthy man, both in religion and politics, the Roman Catholics of Cork, actually came forward upon the occasion of a vacancy in the bishopric, and petitioned that it should be filled up by the nomination of the Archdeacon, who was also supported by a great body of the Protestant clergy of the diocese. Well, the petition was not successful, although he admitted the appointment had been filled up by a most excellent man; nevertheless some of those very persons who had not been able to obtain the bishopric of Cork for the Archdeacon were now pressing forward to take away all his income. True, the Bill suggested that the deficiency was to be made up by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners; but that would be "robbing Peter to pay Paul," for the revenues of the Commissioners were too heavily charged already. Just let them look at the case of the Protestant inhabitants. They were called upon to take away from some of the working clergy of Ireland—many of them most highly commended by the Roman Catholics themselves—their annual stipends, and put them into the pockets of the Protestant proprietors of houses. Now, was that just? Was that the view taken by Parliament in the Act of 1854—an Act introduced under the Earl of Aberdeen's Government, when Sir John Young was Secretary for Ireland and the noble Lord now at the head of the Government was Secretary for the Home Department. That was a measure which undoubtedly conferred very great advantages upon the owners of small houses who henceforward were to be exempted from the tax. He must say, as regarded Sir John Young, that he had applied himself, with the best possible intention, to carry out that Act in the most convenient manner and with the most bonâ fide intention. He had warned the House in the last year that the Government could not enforce the law; and accordingly, under the advice of the law officers they took proceedings and obtained judgment and proposed to stop there. They now complained that an appeal would be brought to the House of Lords if they attempted to enforce that judgment—but that was a threat which any litigious person could have recourse to. The truth was the difficulties under the Act of 1854 arose from the way in which the Commissioners had conducted their valuation. If the Government was of opinion that there was a real difficulty in the way of the working of the Act, their plain course all along was to have amended it in a manner that would render it enforceable. Under the old law the clergy generally got their incomes; and why should not the Government take the collection of the tax out of the hands of the corporations altogether, and consign it to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, or to the Protestant clergy themselves. If that were done they might use their discretion as to collecting it from Roman Catholics; but where the owner or occupier was a Protestant the absurdity of objecting to pay the impost was self-evident. At the great settlement of the Church question in 1835, when church rates were abolished, as partaking, perhaps, of the nature of a personal change, Mr. O'Connell did not think it necessary to insist upon the discontinuance of ministers' money. He (Mr. Napier) would not object to the introduction of the Bill, but he certainly could not understand why the Government, after they had obtained the decision of a court of law in their favour, should have any doubt as to the course they should take, simply because the other side had threatened to appeal. At all events, the clear course of the Government was to see that the clergy were not deprived of their incomes, in order that the proceeds might be handed over to the Protestant proprietors of houses in the corporate towns in Ireland.


understood the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Napier) to say that this tax might be collected by the Protestant clergy, and when they came to Roman Catholics who objected to pay the tax, they would not be asked for it, but the Protestants would be willing to pay it. No doubt if it were left in the hands of the Protestant clergy they would collect the tax in a reasonable and proper manner. He (Mr. Bowyer) would say, let the Protestants pay the ministers' money, and let the Roman Catholics be exempted from paying it; and by these means the House would avoid these unseemly disputes, and a great deal of trouble, censure, and resentment.


thought the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Bowyer) had rather misunderstood the argument of his hon. Friend, which, in fact, amounted to this, that the tax was a charge upon the property of the country, and not upon the consciences of Roman Catholics. If he (Mr. Whiteside) was in Rome, as he had been, and if he were called upon to pay a tax for his house, he would not consider it the slightest breach of his conscientious obligations that he must pay the tax. It was very well known that the first question every one asked on taking a house in Dublin was "What was the amount of ministers' money on the house?" The fact was, those gentlemen who refused to pay the tax might as well refuse to pay the tithe rent-charge. Undoubtedly the Corporation of Cork had some grounds of complaint against the Government. The corporation was entitled to receive a return of the houses over £10 in value, which were alone liable to the tax under the Act of 1854. How did the Government proceed? Really the whole affair was a specimen of how matters were managed in that most interesting institution, the Castle of Dublin. Why, they appointed two Commissioners, whose duty it was to have gone to Cork and ascertained the value of every habitable house in the city; instead of which those gentlemen never quitted the Castle, and had recourse to the poor rate book, and wherever they found a tenant that was rated at over £10 they included him in the return; and so in that way they actually declared a "racquet court" liable to the tax. Now, if the Commission had done its duty, the way to the collection of the tax in Cork would have been comparatively easy. Hence he should trust to the good feeling of his hon. Friend the Member for Cork (Mr. Fagan) to recommend to the corporation of that city the adoption of the course supported by Mr. Staunton in Dublin, and which enabled them to get in five-sixths of the tax there.


objected to the tax being imposed indiscriminately upon the inhabitants of a town, without regard to their religious opinions. The Act of 1854 was nothing less than an attempt to perpetuate the Act of Charles II. It was said the tax was a charge upon property, but it was, in truth, a charge upon the occupiers of houses. He entirely agreed with the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Fagan) that nothing short of a total abolition of the tax by the Government would be satisfactory to these towns. He only spoke on behalf of the seven provincial towns, he did not speak for Dublin; but he questioned whether the Roman Catholic inhabitants of that city were not of the same opinion as those of the provinces.


said, that his principal object in rising was to impress this fact clearly upon the Government and the House—that the question with which they were then called upon to deal was one of principle, and not of detail—and that no measure which did not wholly abolish a tax that, on conscientious grounds, was regarded as unjust and oppressive, could satisfy those large and important communities on which it was sought to be fastened in even a more obnoxious and odious form than before. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin had tauntingly asked, was it the intention of the opponents of the tax to deprive the Protestant clergy of their incomes? The answer was, that the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the towns interested in the abolition of the tax had not the remotest wish to deprive the Protestant clergy of those towns of a single penny of the incomes which they now derived. Any desire or wish to put them in a worse position they distinctly repudiated, and that in the most emphatic manner. For himself he was quite ready to bear his testimony to the exemplary character of the Archdeacon of Cork, with whom he had the honour of a somewhat long acquaintance; nor could he deny that the body of the Protestant clergy of that city were gentlemen in every way entitled to respect; but while he would not object to see the Venerable Archdeacon and his brother clergymen amply supported, he certainly, in common with the Catholics of Cork, did object to see him and them paid out of Catholic pockets. The payment was not objected to; it was the source from which the funds were sought to be obtained that was repugnant to the Catholic conscience. It should, therefore, be distinctly understood that the objection was one of principle, and not of mere detail. As a Catholic, he held that it was unjust and oppressive, and repugnant to every principle of reason, justice, and equity, to force him to pay for the support of the ministers of a Church to which he did not belong, and in whose tenets he did not believe. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Napier) spoke of the tax as being a tax on property. That he denied. The tax was not on the house, but on the occupier—on the individual, and not the property. The house was made the medium of its imposition, but the occupier was the victim. It was ostensibly imposed for the "cure of souls." The cure of whose souls? The souls of Protestants. Admitting, for argument sake, that the towns subject to this tax were not Catholic in the time of Charles the Second, surely no one could deny that they were Catholic at present. Therefore the tax ought to cease with its necessity, for the Catholic inhabitants of those towns necessarily repudiated the ministrations of the clergy of any other Church than their own. Let the House judge of the existing state of things by the statistics of the population of Cork. The population within the limits of the municipal boundary was about 86,000, and of that number not more than 15,000 were Protestants; so that the tax originally imposed for the cure of Protestant souls fell mainly upon a Catholic community. The same might be said of Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny, Clonmel, and even of Dublin. He (Mr. Maguire) might remind the Government that he had warned them against the adoption of Sir John Young's Bill, which he said at the time was repugnant to the feelings of the people, and insulting to their municipal bodies. At the time of the Bill being forced through the House, the inhabitants and corporations of every one of the towns affected by it most indignantly protested against its being passed into law. The people would resist it, and the corporations could not and would not enforce it. In Cork, as well as in the other towns of the south of Ireland, the people were determined to have recourse to every legitimate means to defeat it. They would first have recourse to legal means, then passive resistance—he would not say what further means—in order to free themselves from a tax repugnant to their consciences as Catholics, and to their pride as freemen. If the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Ireland would glance at the evidence taken before the Committee that, ten years since, recommended its total and unqualified abolition, he would see that a now estimable and respected Protestant bishop, the Bishop of Derry, protested against the impolicy of allowing a fretting sore, such as he stigmatised this tax, to fester in the bosom of Ireland—that a Protestant clergyman declared that not one word was to be found in the Gospel to justify its imposition on a Catholic community—and that a Catholic clergyman (the Rev. William O'Sullivan) stated distinctly that no Catholic desired to curtail, by a single shilling, the revenues of the Protestant clergy, while Catholics naturally demand that the incomes of those clergy should be paid them out of any other exchequer than the pockets of the followers of another Church. He would then most earnestly call on the Secretary for Ireland, as he valued the peace and concord of the country, as he desired to see its people live in Christian amity, and by the responsibility which his office imposed upon him to deal with the question manfully and energetically, and not to attempt to tinker, by further patching and botching, a measure which was a disgrace to the statute-book of a free country.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. FAGAN and Mr. BEAMISH.

Bill read 1°.