HC Deb 14 February 1873 vol 214 cc526-32

in moving for leave to bring in a Bill for appointing Commissioners to inquire respecting Monastic and Conventual Institutions in Great Britain, and for purposes connected therewith, said: I propose, with the leave of the House, to introduce the same Bill that the House permitted me to lay before it last Session: such was, however, the pressure of business last Session that I was unable to bring on the second reading. This Bill has, therefore, never been submitted to the House for a second reading. I am sorry to see that Notice has been given of a Motion to oppose the introduction of the Bill. Last year the House expressed its opinion, though not by a division, that the adoption of so unusual a course as resisting the introduction of a Bill has now become, ought not to be adopted with respect to this Bill, which contains nothing that can justly be considered offensive. Last Session I was accused by some of the Roman Catholic Members of having made too large a statement on introducing this Bill. I made that statement, and went fully into the circumstances which had induced me to ask the leave of the House to introduce this Bill, owing to the peculiar character of the opposition I had then to meet. But, upon the present occasion, I see no reason at all for making any lengthened statement. My having spoken fully was held by my opponents to be one of my chief offences last Session; and I acknowledge that my having done so was a departure from the usual practice, but it was only adopted, and it was justified, by the peculiar circumstances of the opposition I had to encounter. It is enough for me now to state that there is a strong impression prevailing in this country that the original intention of the House, when, in 1870, the House ordered an inquiry into these rapidly increasing Monastic and Conventual Institutions by a Select Committee, has never been carried out, because the Instruction to the Committee was such as to limit their inquiries far within the necessities of the case; and the opinion of the necessity for inquiry gained strength, especially with reference to the possession of property by these institutions, and the practical exemption of that property from the Law of Mortmain. There is also a strong impression prevalent in this country, signally manifested at three large public meetings which I have attended—one of a thousand people at Aberdeen, another of a thousand people at Dundee, and another at Blackheath—that a Committee of the House of Commons, being bound to conduct its inquiries entirely within the House, and not having the power to examine locally or upon oath, is not competent to carry out the investigations which are necessary for the elucidation of this subject; and that a Commission with power to examine locally and upon oath is necessary to obtain the information Parliament ought to possess with respect to this subject. All other institutions in this country—the Church of England through the Ecclesiastical Commission, schools, hospitals, lunatic asylums, poorhouses, institutions of every description—have at some time or other been inquired into by Commission for the information of Parliament. These Conventual and Monastic Institutions form the solitary exception; they stand alone as exempt, as a class of institutions respecting which Parliament has been precluded from obtaining adequate information by means of a Commission or otherwise. Throughout the other countries of the world, except the United States of America and this country, these institutions have been inquired into, and, where not suppressed, are more or less regulated by the Legislature and the law of the country; their exemption from inquiry in this country has at last generated a feeling that this exemption is a peculiar privilege conceded to the Roman Catholic Church. The existence of this, a privileged exemption, has greatly strengthened the opinion that Parliament ought to inform itself as to the circumstances connected with these institutions, by issuing powers of inquiry by statute to a Commission. I will not now say another word, but simply move the Notice which stands in my name.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill for appointing Commissioners to inquire respecting Monastic and Conventual Institutions in Great Britain, and for purposes connected therewith." —(Mr. Newdegate.)


said, he had been censured by the hon. Gentleman for intimating his intention to oppose the introduction of this Bill. He reminded him, however, that the same course was taken in 1853 with regard to a similar Bill proposed by the Common Serjeant (Sir T. Chambers), and that amongst those who voted against its introduction were the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, and Sir James Graham. There was no other course possible for those who, like himself, maintained that no primâ facie case had been offered for that sort of legislation which the hon. Member pressed upon the House. The whole question had been inquired into in 1870, as far as the House thought it ought to be investigated, and it was unfair of the hon. Member to press matters further. Every inquiry that even legitimate curiosity could desire was satisfied by the Committee of 1870—even the mind of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire must have been satisfied. Well, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire shook his head; but he maintained that an unconstitutional inquiry of this kind ought to be backed by facts, and not by mere surmise, before it was proposed to the House of Commons. What the hon. Member now wanted was a permanent Commission with paid officers, and having unlimited powers to inquire into everything connected with those monastic institutions. It was, in fact, not a Commission sitting to inquire into a specific allegation, but a roving Commission, with powers to punish for contempt, in order to enforce answers. There was no analogy between these institutions and institutions like hospitals and lunatic asylums. So far as convents were concerned, they were purely private homes. The homes where those ladies lived were as much private as the homes of hon. Members, or the Clubs to which they belonged in Pall Mall, and there was no case made out for applying to them State inspection, or State interference, seeing that the State did not give them protection, authority, privilege, or endowment. This was an attempt to apply inquisitorial powers to the private life of private ladies, who made no complaint themselves. If there were any case for inquiry, the House might be sure that those who had relatives and friends in such institutions would be the first to demand it. If the object of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire were obtained, it would simply result in the discovery of a state of things in conflict with the statute law; but that statute law was of such a nature that Parliament would never enforce it. As to the question of property, the idea that there was any grievance or evil requiring redress, so far as property was concerned, was simply childish. On these grounds he asked the House to refuse leave for the introduction of the Bill.


said, he supported the Amendment, and had pleasure in stating that his daughters had been educated in a convent. He pointed out that if any further precedent were required for the Amendment, it was furnished by the action taken last Session, when the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Candlish) was refused leave by a large majority for the introduction of a Bill repealing the 25th clause of the Education Act. He protested against the annual occurrence of these outrages on the feelings of Irish Gentlemen.


supported the Motion for leave to introduce the Bill. The hon. and learned Gentleman who had moved a negative to the Motion admitted that monasteries existed in defiance of the letter of the law, and that convents existed in defiance of its spirit and intention. But was illegality to be an argument for impunity? The House gave him (Sir Thomas Chambers) leave some years ago to introduce a Bill for the inspection of convents, though that Bill was not carried. All that was asked for by the Bill of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire was, not legislation, but simple inquiry, and no good reason had been given for refusing to allow the Bill to be introduced.


said, the Roman Catholics made the same objections to this inquiry as they would into an inquiry into their family affairs; but it had been shown that this Bill was really one for inspection rather than inquiry. He had four sisters in a convent. He could visit them at any time, and would be happy to introduce them to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, if lie desired it, in order that he might gather their opinion with regard to his Bill. He (the O'Conor Don) complained of the charges made against convents, which, he said, had never been substantiated, and objected to the introduction of the Bill because no case had been made out for inquiry.


admitted that the hon. and learned Gentleman who opposed the Motion had taken a constitutional course, which he had a perfect right to do, in opposing the Bill on its first introduction, and wished it had been oftener adopted with regard to Bills which were afterwards rejected by large majorities, and which wasted much time. He hoped the House would reconsider in some future Session the plan it had pursued of late years with respect to the introduction of Bills, which, being brought in Session after Session, occupied time to the exclusion of useful legislation. But, as the Government had assented in a great number of instances to the introduction of measures which they intended to oppose on the second reading, he could not draw a distinction with regard to this Bill, and should therefore not object to the Motion. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire must, however, adduce stronger and better arguments than had hitherto been given to induce him to vote for the second reading of the Bill.


observed that the opposition to the Bill last Session was founded on what had previously occurred.


In reply to the hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. Matthews), I wish merely to read the last paragraph of the Report of the Select Committee of 1871, on which he served, and I did not; for I declined to serve upon that Committee, as did the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone (Sir Thomas Chambers), because it was a continuation of the Committee of 1870, which had refused to hear evidence that we thought essential on questions relating to property. The paragraph I refer to is as follows:— The observations contained in this Report will probably suggest some alterations in important branches of the law, and those alterations would be of a very different kind according to the point of view from which the subject is surveyed. A complete discussion of the position, if any, which Conventual and Monastic Institutions ought to have in our law, and of the means by which their existence and action might be adjusted so as to bring them into harmony with recognized doctrines of law as to mortmain and perpetuities, would lead to much difference of opinion, and might exceed the limits of our inquiry, and we have therefore abstained from recommending any such alterations. Therefore, the hon. Member has concurred in a Report the conclusion of which suggests that alterations in the law with respect to mortmain and perpetuities affecting those institutions are, at all events, needed, and that the inquiry, which the Committee was authorized to institute, could not reach this point. That, then, is my answer. The hon. Member has also adverted to what he described as the inquisitorial nature of this Bill. I merely seek to place the Bill before the House, who can then modify its provisions and remove the imputation, which I think unfounded, should the House be convinced that it is just. I confess that I am disappointed at the observations of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department; for last Session he spoke, in the sense of the Report of the Committee of 1871, that there are matters connected with the tenure of property, and in other respects connected with these institutions, that he thought ought to be dealt with by Parliament, and that therefore he felt it to be his duty to support, whether or not in accordance with the provisions of this Bill, an inquiry into them. I trust that, under these circumstances, this House will not adopt the unusual course of refusing permission to bring in the Bill.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 74; Noes 31: Majority 43.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. NEWDEGATE, Mr. HOLT, and Sir THOMAS CHAMBERS.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 62.]