§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ MR. STANSFELD,
in moving that the Bill be read a second time this day six months, said, its objects would be found described in Clause 5, which was to this effect—It shall be lawful to the Vestry, and they are hereby required, within six months of the passing of this Act, to purchase and transfer to the 1510 said Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England, in consideration of the abolition of the said Easter offerings, a sum of £6,666 13s. 4d. Consols; and upon such transfer being completed, the said Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England shall hold the said sum of Consols upon trust to pay the dividends from time to time accruing thereupon to the Rector of the said parish, and his successors, Rectors of the same parish, for ever.Therefore, the object of the Bill was to impose a perpetual charge of £200 a-year on the general rates of the parish of Bermondsey for the payment of the Rector of that parish. He (Mr. Stansfeld) must state to the House a few facts in connection with the origin of these proceedings. In 1826, a Bill was introduced and passed, the object of which was to provide for some expenses in connection with the building of the tower of the church of St. James, in the parish of Bermondsey; and, by the same Bill, the trustees were empowered to receive—if the raising of the money had been approved by the inhabitants in vestry assembled—two sums, one of £150, which was to go to the Incumbent of the district church of St. James, and the other of a sum not exceeding £200 per annum, which was to be assigned to the Rector of the parish of Bermondsey. It was at the discretion of the ratepayers to make this annual offering which the Rectors must accept in lieu of Easter offerings. In 1831, an Act was passed to provide an additional sum of money; but that had no special bearing on this matter. The capital sum for paying for the tower was raised by a number of annuities which had all expired, and that was no longer a charge upon the ratepayers of the parish. As to the £150, that had been voted only once since 1826. As regarded the £200, although it had been annually voted, according to his information, of late years questions had arisen respecting the payment. This voluntary and discretionary rate had become more or less a bone of contention, and it was only by bare majorities that it had been decided to come to this House to ask that the discretionary power should be put an end to, and the levying of the rate made compulsory for all time. Let them look for one moment at the successive stages of this transaction. In 1826, the inhabitants of Bermondsey, in public vestry assembled, were authorized, if they chose, to present to the trustees a yearly sum, not to exceed £200, which the Rector was to accept in 1511 lieu of Easter offerings. That was a wholly voluntary matter. Then, some 20 years later, came the Metropolis Management Acts; and these deprived the inhabitants of Bermondsey of this discretionary right, because all the functions of the open vestry were handed over to the close vestry. Of late years some question had arisen, even in the vestry so chosen, as to the payment of the £200; and now the vestry asked that their successors should be deprived of their discretionary right, and this was done at the very time when the annual elections for the parish of Bermondsey were taking place, and this question was being made part of the politics of the contests. Therefore, if this Bill was read a second time, and was referred to a Select Committee, it might have to be withdrawn after all, provided the new vestry was opposed to it. Under these circumstances, he considered it was not, in the first place, consistent with respect to the House of Commons, and to the individual Members who might be asked to serve on the Committee, that a Bill should be promoted at a time when elections were going on in reference to it, and which elections might end in the Bill having to be withdrawn. He must also take another objection, and that was to the form in which this Bill had been introduced. It was highly improper that a measure involving the principle which this Bill did should be introduced as a Private Bill. They had abolished church rates, and he did not suppose anybody would propose to return to that system; but the proposal of this Bill was something far more objectionable, from the point of view of those who objected to church rates, than any church rate could be. This rate was to be imposed, not in order to maintain the fabric of the church, but for the sake of paying a sum in perpetuity to the Rector who should minister in the church. He did not know whether it was right that he should offer any suggestion as to what would be the proper course to take; but it would be more frank, perhaps, if he did so. Therefore, he would say, that in his view, what he would call the Halifax precedent ought to be followed. A few years ago, the case of the Vicar's rate, in Halifax, caused a good deal of feeling to arise. The subject was inquired into, and the result was the passing of a Bill which 1512 repealed an Act of 1828, and abolished the rate as far as it was a charge upon the occupiers of houses, and as far as it represented Easter offerings. Then the wealthy members of the church came forward and subscribed a certain sum, and that was the course which ought to be followed in this case. Let the wealthy members of the church in Bermondsey subscribe this sum of £6,666, and all objections would then be withdrawn. If any doubt or question existed in the minds of hon. Members as to the statements he had made, the best course would be to appoint a Committee to investigate the subject. For the reasons he had stated, and asking the House to bear in mind that within 10 days the vestry elections in Bermondsey would take place, he would conclude by moving the rejection of the Bill.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Stansfeld.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ MR. GRANTHAM
said, he hoped to be able to show that the House ought to pass this Bill. He had little to complain of in the statement of facts which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Halifax (Mr. Stansfeld) had placed before them, but he had not told them all. He said the raising of this £200 was optional. Now, that was scarcely the fact; for, if the right hon. Gentleman had gone a little further back in the history of the case, he would have found that originally there was a sort of poll tax of 4d. per head, which the Rector had a right to levy upon all the inhabitants of the parish over 16 years of age. Subsequently, the parishioners came to an arrangement to let the Rector have £200, in lieu of this tax, and which was spoken of as if it was in lieu of tithes; and for a great many years it had been understood in the parish that the money belonged to the Rector, and that the vestry had to find it. It was never intended as a gift from the vestry to the Rector; but it was always treated as his due. The endowment of the parish itself was only £17 a-year, and out of this the Rector had to pay £6 a-year to Queen Anne's Bounty, 1513 and, being a parish church, he could not have pew-rents. Therefore, for these reasons, the parish had been bound to pay the Rector the £200; and which sum had hitherto been paid for, he believed, nearly 200 years. When, in 1826, the Act was passed to which reference had been made, it was not only for the purpose of building a spire, but it created a special trust which was appointed to collect this fund, and the money had been collected under that trust up to the present time. The result, however, was, as now, that there was no other fund to be collected but this £200; that the collection of the £200 cost the parish nearly £120 a-year; and the vast majority of the parish—Liberals and Conservatives, Dissenters and Churchmen—now thought it was a pity they should continue to pay that £120, and they therefore had promoted the present Bill, which contained a new arrangement, by which they would be at once saved £20 a-year, and in 50 years the whole thing would be at an end; because, by raising £300 a-year on the security of the rates, they would be able to form a sinking sum of £100 per annum, which would in 50 years pay off the amount borrowed, and give the Rector for the time being £200 in perpetuity. He believed it was the almost unanimous wish of the ratepayers that this new arrangement should be carried into effect, and he hoped everyone in the House would see that it was the direct interest of the parish that the Bill should pass, and that the question should be solved and settled in the manner proposed. It had been stated that vestries were not elected for such purposes as these, and no doubt that was the case; but that afforded a reason why this Bill should pass, because it was not desirable that matters of this kind should have to be annually discussed by the vestry, and political cries made out of them. In this case the Rector had a direct claim upon the parish, and it was to be hoped the House would give their sanction to the arrangement which had met with the support of all shades of opinion in the parish. Churchmen and Dissenters, Liberals and Conservatives, were alike in favour of it, and it would be unjust if the House, to gratify an extreme section of its Members, should refuse the power of securing the advantages which this Bill would give them.
§ MR. RAIKES
I have not much to say in answer to what has fallen from either the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Halifax (Mr. Stansfeld), or my hon. and learned Friend who has just addressed the House (Mr. Grantham). I think both have fairly stated the facts of the case. What I wish, however, to point out is, that after all we must ask what are the civil rights involved in this question? The Bill is one which proposes to deal with a rate by capitalizing it, and it is promoted by a body which has now the power to levy that rate; and therefore the circumstances ought to be very exceptional indeed which would induce the House to refuse to sanction the second reading of the Bill. I do not mean to say there might not be circumstances which would justify the House in refusing to read such a Bill a second time, because questions of great public principle might be raised; but I still think the House will pause before agreeing to the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman, because of an imagined analogy to the Halifax, or any other case. We all may have our opinion as to whether £200 a-year is, or is not, an enormous sum to give a clergyman whose parochial care includes many thousand persons; but I want the House rather to consider whether it would be fair to the parish of Bermondsey itself to reject this Bill at its present stage. The Bill has passed through the House of Lords, where it has been amended, and it has now been sent down to this House; and I think we might show our sense of the importance of the question, not by refusing to read the Bill a second time, but by taking an exceptional course with regard to it. The right hon. Gentleman has made a fair point in saying that it is possible during the next 10 days the constitution of the vestry by which this Bill has been promoted may be altered by the new elections which are about to take place, and that the new vestry might drop the Bill. It appears to me that may be met by our reading the Bill a second time, and then referring it to a Hybrid Committee—and I will undertake that such Committee is not nominated until 10 days have elapsed—therefore, no hon. Member of this House could then be put in the false 1515 position of being appointed on the Committee of a Bill which is not likely to be proceeded with. Allusion has been made to the Halifax case, and I would just say that there the Vicar's rate was disputed on the death of the Vicar in 1876. There was no Bill before Parliament at that time, but a Select Committee was appointed to consider the incidence of the rate; and they reported that the rate ought to be continued, in so far as it represented tithes, and that, as regarded Easter offerings, it ought to be abolished. But the ultimate settlement which was arrived at was not the outcome of the Report of that Committee. A certain sum was forthcoming in Halifax, which enabled those interested in the question to promote a Bill to meet the difficulty. I would now appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite, whatever may be their opinions, whether Churchmen or Nonconformists, to bear in mind that this is not to be regarded as a question between Church and Dissent, in anyway. It is a question whether you are to take away from the vestry of Bermondsey a right which they are entitled to put forward—namely, that of capitalizing this rate. They believe they can do it on advantageous terms, and I think this House will be departing from the practice hitherto followed, if they refuse to read such a Bill as this a second time. I think the more satisfactory course will be to allow the Bill to pass this stage, and then refer it to a Hybrid Committee in the manner which I have suggested.
§ MR. WATKIN WILLIAMS
would like to be informed of one fact—and that was, as to the relation of the parish of Bermondsey with this rate. Were the vestry under any legal obligation to enforce the rate, or were they merely empowered to make a rate if they thought fit to do so? As far as he, at present, understood the principle of the Bill, it was that the vestry of Bermondsey were under an obligation to make the rate, and that all they desired now was that this House should sanction some other mode of meeting that obligation. If, however, the vestry were under no legal obligation to make the rate, and could not be compelled to make it, then the Bill involved an important principle; and, although they were only dealing with a small sum of money, they ought to be careful 1516 how they set a precedent for the future.
§ MR. DODSON
thought the Preamble of the Bill answered the Question which had just been asked by the hon. and learned Member for Denbigh (Mr. Watkin Williams), and it was clearly a permissive rate, the parish having power either to make or refuse it. He was very reluctant to take part in the discussion of a Private Bill, and to come forward, even in a modified way, to oppose the suggestion made by the Chairman of Ways and Means; but the question really reduced itself to this— There was given to this parish some years ago a statutory power to make a rate—which was, in fact, a church rate —to pay the stipend of the Rector. But the power to make the rate also carried with it the power to refuse to make it, and there had been some idea of doing this by a portion of the vestry; and the majority seeing this, and that their majority was lessening, thought they had better take time by the forelock, and get power to make the rate a fixed charge while they could. Now, that was a proposition which, he thought, this House ought not to be prepared to assent to. There was a strong feeling in the parish on the subject, and the present elections were turning on the point. If the House were to agree to the suggestion of the Chairman of Ways and Means, they would involve themselves in a sanction of the second reading of the Bill; and, therefore, the course he would propose was that the Amendment should be withdrawn, and that the second reading of the Bill should be deferred for one month, by which time they would know the result of the elections, and they would see what the feeling of the new vestry was with regard to the Bill.
§ MR. FORSYTH
hoped the House would assent to the second reading, because all the objections which had been raised to it could be dealt with in Committee. He quite admitted that the vestry were not at present bound to vote the £200; but they had, regularly done so for the last 40 or 50 years, and it was not right or decent that the question of giving the clergyman £200 should every year be made a bone of contention at the election of the vestrymen.
§ MR. MOWBRAY
thought, that of the two alternatives placed before the House, they ought to accept that of the 1517 Chairman of Ways and Means; because, if they assented to the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Chester, and postponed the Bill altogether for one month, it would stand very little chance of passing at all this Session.
§ Question put.
§ The House divided:—Ayes 117; Noes 122: Majority 5.—(Div. List, No. 112.)
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
§ Second Reading put off for six months.