HC Deb 18 February 1864 vol 173 cc718-23

Order for Second Reading read.


said, with the permission of the House he would briefly state the object of the measure. It was to abolish the power to make assessments heretofore exercised by the parish vestries, and to substitute other powers for those formerly existing. The question at that time particularly affected the city of Dublin. Vestries, as the House knew, were a very ancient ecclesiastical organization, and were once armed with very considerable powers, which in Ireland appeared to have to a great extent ceased. Before the passing of the Church Temporalities Act, the churchwardens were called on to collect the grand jury cess and ministers' money; they were charged with the building and repair of churches, and the providing of other necessaries for Divine service; and also in right of their office they were overseers of public-houses. But these responsible duties having all to a great extent been removed, there was little for the vestries to do at that day, beyond raising sums for two or three specific purposes, which they did at considerable cost to the ratepayers, in some cases attaining to a scale of 15 per cent. From being always held in the church, vestries might have afforded useful opportunities for charitable co-operation on the part of those who attended them. But unfortunately, far from that, angry discussions were of frequent occurrence, and struggles had been known to take place between the promoters of assessments and their opponents. The blame of all these unhappy results was laid upon the Church, though the Church had no real interest in the assessments, the collection of its revenues and care of its edifices having been transferred to a different agency, and the vestry merely levying parish cess for purely parochial purposes. At this moment, the duties to which the parish assessment was devoted (which before the passing of the above statute were very important), were to provide coffins for the poor, to pay the salaries of certain parish officers, and to defray the expenses of appeals. All other charges were abolished. There were other objects to which, indeed, these funds were applied, for which he believed no statutory authority could be found, such as the repair of the church stocks, the support of the parish fire-engine, and the expenses of juries. The corporation in Dublin held a meeting on the subject, at which a resolution was proposed by a Roman Catholic Member, and agreed to, he believed unanimously, by the whole corporation, appointing a deputation to wait upon the Government, and urge them to put an end to the tax. He had had the honour of receiving the deputation, which consisted both of Roman Catholics and Protestants; and the question having been very fairly and ably discussed, both parties seemed to agree that it would be highly desirable to devise some scheme for abolishing these rates. The question was one principally affecting the city of Dublin, where between £4,000 and £5,000 a year was levied by the vestries, so that it really formed a not unsubstantial item of taxation. Before giving any positive undertaking on the point, he felt it right to consult the clergy of the Established Church, and from Limerick, Cork, and Waterford, he learnt that no vestry cess had been levied for years, and that there were no salaries paid to parochial officers as such. From Belfast he had not received any reply, but he presumed that it was circumstanced in the same way as the other towns. It might be said, that if a vestry cess were done away with, the parish engines could not be kept up; but he found upon inquiry that these were for the most part worse than useless, and impeded rather than assisted the extinction of fires. In the words of a gentleman well acquainted with the facts, "the engine keepers showed praiseworthy zeal in keeping out of the way." The Bill applied to the whole of Ireland, and provided that in future no more vestry assessments should be levied. As he had said, the three particular items to which it was at present properly applied were the maintenance of deserted children, coffins for the poor, and superannuation allowances to officers once employed by the different parishes. The House would be aware that in 1862 he had succeeded in passing an Act for the amendment of the Poor Law in Ireland, which enabled Poor Law Commissioners and Guardians to send out deserted children to be taken care of up to a certain age. He now proposed to take away from the parish officers or the vestry the power of making provision for the maintenance and education of children, and to give it solely to the Poor Law Guardians. The fourth clause referred to the coffins of poor persons. It had been considered in Dublin that it was desirable to have meetings of parish vestries to provide coffins for persons not in the receipt of workhouse relief, but it would be better to leave it to the Poor Law Guardians to provide these coffins. The other clause had reference to the question of superannuation. When he saw the deputation of the corporation of Dublin, he pointed out to them that it might be hard upon old parish officers to be deprived of all sources of income. The corporation of Dublin at present contributed between £4,000 and £5,000 a year to the purposes of the assessment, and the superannuation would be insignificant in comparison with that amount. He therefore hoped that they would give that fair and proper superannuation to which these officers would have been entitled in other services. It was proposed to superannuate these officers on three-fourths of their present salary. He trusted that no hon. Gentleman, whatever his religious convictions, would oppose a Bill which would promote harmony and good-feeling, and do away with the unseemly contention and heartburning which often occurred at the meetings of the parish vestries at Easter.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read the second time."—(Sir Robert Peel.)


said, he would not oppose the second reading, but he thought that the Bill would require very serious consideration in Committee. The clergy of Dublin had met and given their assent to the Bill, and if the proper guardians of the Church saw no injury from it, he should not oppose the measure. It was stated that the sum levied in the name of vestry cess upon the municipality, amounted to about £4,000 a year, and it was proposed to give the officers three-fourths of their salaries, but the Bill enabled the municipal body to take the money out of another fund altogether. It gave them power to increase taxation, and he could not give his assent to that proposal. He might further add, that the contention at the vestry meetings to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded, was caused by persons who were present for the purpose of creating disturbances.


said, he had no wish to oppose the second reading of the Bill; but he would merely remark that it was not what its title professed, for in reality it was a Poor Law Amendment Bill, and a Bill for the amendment of the grand jury law in Ireland, two very important points, but which ought not to be dealt with under a Vestry Cess Bill. The proposal for the burial of the poor was made in the Poor Law Committee, and was almost unanimously negatived. A modified proposal was, indeed, adopted, that the Poor Law rates should be subject to the charge for burying paupers who died in the union workhouse, and who remained unknown. He had invariably objected to these proposals for charging the rates for objects that did not belong to the relief of the destitute. The relief of poor children was also considered in Committee, and they decided to permit Boards of Guardians to extend to deserted children the same sort of relief as under the grand jury cess, but to leave them the same power and option.


said, the Bill was approved by his constituents. The right hon. Baronet had spoken of scenes of disorder which had prevailed in the vestries, which were very discreditable; but if that were admitted as a reason for the abolition of these assemblies, he was afraid there were other places in Dublin where crimination and recrimination existed, which it would also be desirable to suppress. He would not oppose the second reading of the Bill, but there were a few details which would require amendment. The Bill was to abolish vestry cess in Ireland, and give to the officers such compensation as might be assessed by the corporation of Dublin. He did not see why it should not be assessed in the usual way by the Treasury. The only safeguard in Dublin against extravagance was in the provision that the improvement rate could not exceed 2s. in the pound. The right hon. Gentleman had made the compensation payable out of that rate. That was the first inroad on it; and he would prefer that the charge had been laid on the borough rate. All the purposes of the vestry cess were fully provided for. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners acted for church purposes; and recent legislation had taken away every pretence for having vestries in the country.


said, he was glad to see that the opposition to the Bill was limited to questions of detail. All the objects for which the cess was levied were provided for by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the grand juries, and the Poor Laws, and the sum of £4,000 was raised from the citizens at a very high rate.


said, the abolition of the cess would meet with general approval in Ireland. The statement of his right hon. Friend was most clear and important, as it showed that the cess had nothing to do with the promotion of Church objects. He was sure his right hon. Friend would do all in his power to make the Bill a really useful measure.


said, as the representatives of Dublin approved the measure he would not oppose it; but he thought it unfair that the 4th clause, which applied to the country, should be introduced into a Bill of that kind. The churchwardens in the country raised no cess whatever, and when they assembled there were none of those contentions which prevailed in Dublin. What he complained of was, that under the pretence of abolishing cess, other objects should be introduced. That was legislation under false pretences. They on that (the Opposition) side had lately forced on the Government a measure for the preservation of the lives of young children in the workhouses by having them put out to nurse, and his hon. Friend (Mr. Hennessy) had taken a prominent part in carrying that measure through the House. The only duty which the churchwardens in the country had to discharge was to take care of deserted children, but they gave no permanent relief, and the grand jury at the assizes voted a sum for the support of those children, their support being at the very cheapest rate, or £4 10s. each, in his own (the King's) county.


said, he had the authority of a medical gentleman of high respectability for saying that, under the present system, the mortality amongst foundlings was perfectly frightful. The chances were one hundred to one against foundling children reaching the age of one year. The child was found in the ordinary course, half dead with cold and exposure, and brought to the workhouse, but too late for any good by the time the relieving officer could find a nurse. Under the old system, it was imperative on the authorities to take those children to nurse at once, and many lives were saved in that way. The mortality at present was frightful, and he hoped they would revert to the old system; or, at any rate, take some steps to put an end to a state of things which was dis- graceful to the age and their common Christianity.


said, he would request the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Ireland to reconsider the 4th clause of the Bill, for he felt convinced, after a long experience of Poor Law management in Ireland, that that clause would, in all probability, give rise to great abuses.


said, he wished to know whether the limits of age in regard to deserted children, fixed by the Grand Jury Act, would, in future, apply to the Poor Law system. He was of opinion that those limits should be maintained, because it was, unfortunately, true that even now the deserted children died in a manner which was a disgrace to those who had the control of that portion of the Poor Law applying to the case. With regard to the 4th clause, he conceived that to contain a very useful provision.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read 2°; and committed for Thursdaynext.