HC Deb 02 August 1859 vol 155 cc854-62

Order for Committee read.


said, that he was desirous of giving a fuller explanation of the object of this Bill than he had been able to do on a former occasion. It would be in the recollection of the House that some few years ago a general Act was passed creating a Commission of Charities, under whose jurisdiction all the charities in England were placed, with the exception of Roman Catholic charities, as it was objected that in their case certain trusts might be disclosed which would lead to questions of law. There not being time to consider the matter fully then, the course was resorted to of excepting the Roman Catholic charities from the operation of the Bill for two years, on the understanding that the subject should meanwhile receive consideration of Parliament with the view of introducing enactments to meet the case of these charities. Those two years expired, however, without any special legislation, and there had since been several successive annual exemptions. The question now to consider was, whether the House at the present period of the Session could deal with the case, or whether the practice of renewing the annual exemption should be repeated. One course that might be pursued was to assimilate the law with respect to Roman Catholic charities in England to that which obtained in Ireland and Scotland, to which countries the invalidity attaching to trusts, which the law of England called superstitious, had never been extended. Under these circumstances, if the House was prepared to adopt that course, he did not see that it could be said that any state of things would be introduced which was unprecedented or unauthorized by practice; but as there was always a great objection to make alterations in laws which had existed for a long period of time, the present Bill, framed upon a principle which he understood received the approbation of a large portion of the Roman Catholic body in England, had been brought in. The principle on which it was founded was to prevent any Roman Catholic endowment being, if he might use the expression, tainted or rendered invalid by the doctrine of superstitious uses, and for that end to give to the Court of Chancery or the Charity Commissioners power to convert every trust not recognized by the law into a legal trust, preserving the existing charities for the Roman Catholic body, but in certain cases altering their destination. He had hoped that this measure might have been passed before the close of the Session, but from communications which he had received he found that that hope was not likely to be fulfilled. He understood that there existed no exact agreement between professional authorities as to the state of the law, and also that there was a great discordance of opinion as to what would be the effect of a measure like the present giving great powers to the Court of Chancery and the Charity Commissioners. Under these circumstances he did not feel disposed, unless he found more unanimity in the House on the subject than he believed to exist, to press the Bill forward during the remaining fragment of the existing Session. He was the more encouraged to refrain from doing so by some remarks made in "another place," intimating that it was not possible for both Houses to consider the Bill properly in the present Session. He trusted, then, that if he introduced a Bill simply to continue the exemption for another year, it might be allowed to pass without objection, and he entreated hon. Gentlemen to consider this question in the meanwhile with a view to come to some practical settlement in the next Session of Parliament. It might be possible that valid objections could be made to the present Bill, but, at all events, it was a bond fide attempt to settle a very difficult question, and he believed it to have met with the approbation of a very considerable portion of the Roman Catholic body. ["Hear, hear!"—"No!"] That manifestation of opinion did not augur very favourably for future unanimity on the subject, but he hoped hon. Gentlemen who understood the difficulties of the question would approach the discussion of it next Session with a disposition to remove all obstacles which were not inherent in the subject, and to devise some satisfactory measure. He would now move that the order for committing the Bill be discharged.


said, he heard with great satisfaction the announcement of the right hon. Gentleman in regard to this Bill, as he thought that a measure touching such delicate questions as those of religion and conscience should be brought in at a time when the House would be prepared to devote more time to its calm and dispassionate consideration. These annual continuance Bills exempting Roman Catholics from the operation of a general law were no doubt looked upon as objectionable, and the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk (Mr. Bowyer) had been called on to afford his assistance in the framing of a satisfactory measure on the subject. That hon. and learned Gentleman had given them a notion of the measure which he thought ought to be introduced, but it did not appear to be one that was likely to produce the effects desired. He (Mr. S. Estcourt) did not think that any settlement of this question could be satisfactory which would not satisfy the feelings of those that were to be exclusively affected by it. They ought to show a considerable indulgence to the religious feelings of those who would be affected by such legislation, not only prospectively but retrospectively. He was glad to hear that a Bill on the subject would be introduced next Session. If the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk, or some other Member of the same persuasion, would but frame a Bill on the subject, such Bill, as well as that of the Government proposition, might be sent before a Select Committee, who would be able to decide the matter in a much more satisfactory manner than perhaps the House would be able to do.


said, he was glad to hear the announcement just made by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department. He had endeavoured to place his views on paper as to how this question ought to be dealt with. Some Roman Catholics of the north of England, stated their own views in a petition to the House, but the right hon. Gentleman struck out a different course altogether in framing this Bill, which, in his opinion, was a highly objectionable one. The great objection to the Bill was, that it gave for the first time a legislative sanction to the law commonly known as the law of superstitious uses, in respect to which a question might still be raised before the House of Lords on appeal. There was a period when the Roman Catholic religion was altogeter illegal, but Roman Catholics were now placed upon an equal footing with Protestants, and he contended, therefore, that any religious practice pertaining to the Catholic Church ought not to be stigmatized by the law of England, if it involved nothing offensive or injurious to those who did not belong to that Church. He maintained that the law of superstitious uses was highly objectionable, and any Bill which had the effect of giving renewed legislative sanction to that law would be highly offensive to Her Majesty's subjects of the Roman Catholic religion. All the Roman Catholics asked was, that the Legislature would leave them to manage as they thought fit their own property, which was applied exclusively to the purposes of their own Church. He would assume that the Legislature were determined to subject Roman Catholics, with reference to charitable trusts, to the control of a Commission, as had been done in the case of Protestant charities; but if Catholics were subject to the same jurisdiction as Protestants with respect to administration, they ought in fairness to be placed under the same law. Parliament ought to cure those defects of title which arose from a system of law now obsolete, so that Catholic property might be placed under the control of the Commissioners without any danger. He hoped that next Session, in conjunction with some of his hon. Friends, he might be enabled to lay upon the table a Bill embodying the views of Roman Catholics on this subject, and he trusted that if such a Bill and any measure that might be prepared by the Government were submitted to a Select Committee, it might not be difficult to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion.


expressed his surprise at the course now proposed to be taken by the right hon. Gentleman. He had so frequently heard of there being no time for the enactment of a special measure on the subject, and that it would be therefore necessary to renew this exemption Bill once more, that he was quite sick of the matter, and he confessed he had a distrust of the whole proceedings in respect to this measure, He represented a considerable body of Roman Catholics in the north of England, who were most desirous for the passing of a Bill upon this question, and it was partly in consequence of petitions which he had presented, numerously signed by the members of that body, that his right hon. Friend had undertaken to deal with the question. He had that morning had an interview with a gentleman of the highest respectability and character from the north of England, who assured him that the measure proposed by the Government would afford perfect satisfaction to those with whom he acted; and he (Mr. Hutt) must therefore express his regret that the Government did not intend to proceed with it. He was so thoroughly impressed with the necessity of legislation on this subject that he would do all in his power to prevent any further exemption of Roman Catholic trusts from the operation of the general law. Such exemption had been granted for six successive years without any attempt having been made at practical legislation on the subject, and, therefore, with the view of inducing Parliament to deal with the question, he would oppose any continuance of the exemption.


said, he had not the slightest wish to take any part in the discussion, nor to interfere with matters relating to the Roman Catholics exclusively. He wanted, however, to know why the members of that body should, in respect to charities, be exempted from the general law of the land? He believed that a very large body of the most respectable Roman Catholics in this country were in favour of some such measure as that now before the House.


said, the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Hutt) had protested against the exemption of Catholics from what he called the general policy of English law. The hon. Member thought it was a very wonderful anomaly that this favourable exemption should have existed for the last six years. He would beg to remind the hon. Member that this was not the first-time the Catholics were exempted from the general policy of English law. A toleration Act was passed after the Revolution of 1688, from which they were exempted, and for a century and a half they suffered under penal enactments framed exclusively on their account. It was, indeed, to this century and a half of anomalous penal legislation that the half a dozen years of subsequent favourable exemption may be traced. Catholic charities were still surrounded by the débris of the penal laws, and until a fair and comprehensive measure could be passed it was absolutely necessary to look for an annual Bill of exemptions. The thanks of the Catholics were due to Lord Derby for having last night suggested in "another place" the expediency of a further renewal of the exemption. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department had expressed a hope that the Government might receive the unanimous support of the Catholic members when they brought in a general measure next year. He would take the liberty of telling the right hon. Gentleman that such unanimity would be altogether unattainable if any of the principles laid down in the first, second, or third clauses of the Bill now withdrawn were to be re-introduced. Above all, he begged to impress upon Her Majesty's Government the impolicy, and, indeed, he might say, the intolerance and injustice, of applying the phrase "superstitious" to any doctrine or practice of the Catholic Church. The time had gone by when such a phrase could he permitted to appear in any Act of Parliament. It was an insult to a large number of Her Majesty's subjects, and he was very sorry to see a Bill emanating from the right hon. Gentleman containing it. The Members of the Government, and many other Members of the House, may conscientiously believe the sacrifice of the mass to be a superstitious practice, but there was no necessity whatever for giving such belief a statutory sanction. Speaking for himself, he never would consent to pass any Bill containing such a phrase.


said, that as representing a considerable number of English Roman Catholics, he could state that they entirely approved the Bill which had been introduced by the Home Secretary, and the opposition to that measure proceeded exclusively, he believed, from Irish Roman Catholics, whose interests it would not affect. [A cry of" No."] He could only say he believed that no English Roman Catholics were opposed to the Bill. [Mr. BOWYER: I am an English Roman Catholic] It was comparatively recently that the hon. and learned Gentleman had become a convert to that faith, and that perhaps accounted for the manner in which he persevered against the Bill. He could not, under all the circumstances, blame his right hon. Friend for withdrawing the Bill, especially after intimations which had been given in "another place," but he regretted that the right hon. Gentleman should have proposed to continue the Exemption Act. He (Mr. Beaumont) would join the hon. Members for North Warwickshire and Gateshead in opposing the renewal of the Exemption Act beyond a very short period—say, one or two months after the next meeting of Parliament—because he thought it of great importance that a decision should be arrived at upon this question without any unnecessary delay.


said, that six years ago he supported Sir Frederic Thesiger, now Lord Chelmsford, in his opposition to the clause which exempted the Roman Catholics of England from the operation of the general law as enacted in the Charitable Trusts Act of 1853. There were few higher authorities on all questions of this kind than the present Lord Chelmsford; and that learned personage declared emphatically that if those Roman Catholic charities ceased to be exempted from the general law no danger whatever could accrue to them. For there was no danger in 1853, and no danger now, that the Government would permit any of these Charities to be annulled under the provisions of the law against superstitious uses. They had now a distinct declaration that the Government desired that there should be no disturbance of the validity of those charities, and he felt confident he could not be doing any injustice to his Roman Catholic fellow-subjects by voting for the extension of a necessary legal protection to them; he should therefore follow the dictates of his conscience, and support the hon, Member for Gateshead in his opposition to these annual exemption Bills. The conduct of that hon. Gentleman was highly creditable to him and to those whom he represented in regard to this subject, and needed no eulogy when it was recollected from whence the opposition to the proposed legislation came. The hon. and learned Member for Dundalk (Mr. Bowyer) it was well known, was everywhere, and in everything simply the exponent of Cardinal Wiseman's policy. The evidence taken before the Committee on mortmain proved that it was the object of that person (the Cardinal) to get and to keep, if possible, in his own hands, the whole of the property in this country devoted to charitable and religious purposes by Roman Catholics. There was evidence of that fact on record, and subsequent evidence might be produced to corroborate it. This attempt was in accordance with the functions he had been sent to this country by the Court of Rome to perform. Cardinal Wiseman declared in one of his lectures, which was afterwards published by authority, that the Roman Catholics of England ought to be an organized community, apart from the rest of Her Majesty's subjects. He was not speaking of that which he did not know, and the Cardinal exercised his usurped and illegal authority to effect that object. There was ample evidence to show that the Roman Catholics of England year after year prayed the House to extend to them the benefit and the protection of the English law against the system of tyranny which was set up by Cardinal Wiseman. They had evidence before Committees of that House to show that such a system as that attempted to be established by Cardinal Wiseman would not be submitted to in France or in Spain, and had not been submitted to in Malta. The effect of the conduct of that House in reference to this question had been to leave Her Majesty's English Roman Catholic subjects exposed to a system of tyranny which would not be submitted to in the majority of the Roman Catholic States, and the effect of the exemption from British authority which was now contemplated would be to continue the same mischief. They might be told that this was no affair of theirs who were Protestants. But everything that brought their Roman Catholic fellow-subjects within the scope of a foreign authority deeply affected them. He should most heartily support the hon. Member for Gateshead in his objection to the continuance of this exemption. It was an exemption that did not give freedom, but entailed tyranny upon the Roman Catholics of this country.


said, that his right hon. Friend (Sir G. Lewis) had given notice of his intention to introduce another Bill on this subject, and when that measure was laid upon the table it would be the proper time to discuss its provisions. Considering the period of the Session, and the impossibility that a Bill of this importance could receive due consideration in the other House, his right hon. Friend had no option but to move the discharge of the order for proceeding with the measure. He might express his hope that the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk would not content himself with suggesting clauses to the Secretary of State, but that at the commencement of the next Session he would lay before the House a Bill embodying his own views, and those of the gentlemen whom he represented, and it would then be ascertained what amount of agreement there was in the Roman Catholic body on this question.


said, the opinion of the late Mr. Frederick Lucas was that those interested in Roman Catholic charities had, in his judgment, committed a mistake in assenting to a Bill exempting them from the law affecting the charities generally of the kingdom. He would support the hon. Member for Gateshead in his resistance to another Exemption Bill.

Order discharged.

Bill withdrawn,