HC Deb 30 July 1879 vol 248 cc1661-72

had the following Notice on the Paper:— To call attention to the Second and Third Reports of the Endowed Schools and Hospitals (Scotland) Commission, and the Appendices thereto, respecting the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and to move an Address for Return respecting the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, incorporated by Royal Charter under Letters Patent granted in 1709 and 1738 respectively, in continuation of the financial information given by the Secretary and Directors of the Society, when examined before the Endowed Schools and Hospitals (Scotland) Commissioners, and printed in the Appendix to their Second Report 1874 (pages 248 to 260), and in continuation of the statement made by the Commissioners, in their Third and final Report 1875, that 'this is the largest fund in Scotland applicable to educational purposes generally;' that it 'may be valued at £200,000, accumulated since their incorporation in 1709 from subscriptions, donations, and legacies, and greatly increased by judicious investments in land. Their annual income is about £6,000' (page 137). The Return to include a Copy of the last balanced annual account of income and expenditure, and to give the names of the schools and teachers, with their salaries, now supported by the Society. Also to show to what extent the Directors have diminished the number of their schools annually since the passing of 'The Education (Scotland) Act, 1872,' as was contemplated in the evidence given by them before the Commissioners; also to show the sums expended annually in promoting each of the four purposes to which the Directors proposed to apply the surplus funds to the Trust, as specified in the Third Report of the Commissioners (page 138). The hon. Member said, he was aware that, from the fact of a Division having already taken place on going into Committee of Supply, he could not move the terms of his Motion; and, therefore, he proposed to confine himself to the first part of it, which called attention to the Report of the Endowed Schools Commissioners. The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in Scotland was founded in 1709, and was entirely a charitable institution. Some hon. Gentlemen seemed to think that it was a private foundation; but no error could be greater than to suppose anything of that kind. The words of the Patent were— We, understanding the charitable inclinations of many of our subjects for the raising of voluntary contributions towards the promotion of Christian knowledge and increasing piety and virtue in Scotland, especially in the Highlands, Islands, and remote corners, and so on. That showed that it was not a foundation formed by one individual—as many institutions were—who gave a large sum of money. The Letters Patent sanctioned the collection of subscriptions, donations, legacies, and funds of all kinds for the purpose of propagating Christian knowledge in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and in other remote parts. When the Secretary and Directors of this Society were examined before the Commissioners it was seen, as was stated in the Report of the Commissioners, that this was the largest fund in Scotland applicable to religious purposes generally. This fund was now of very large amount, and was, in the opinion of the Commissioners, applicable to educational purposes generally. The Commissioners said— It might be valued at £200,000, accumulated since their incorporation in 1709 from subscriptions, donations, and legacies, and greatly increased by judicious investments in land. Their annual income was about £6,000. It appeared to him that the Society had been managed, not as one for spending the annual income which they had obtained in the manner pointed out by the Charter and Letters Patent, but as a Society for accumulating large sums of money with which to purchase estates in three or four counties in Scotland. If the money which had been invested in the purchase of estates had been applied for the benefit of the poor illiterate Gaelic-speaking population in the Highlands, and Islands, and other remote parts of Scotland, he thought it would have been far more advantageously spent than in accumulating large sums and buying large estates. The estates were now valued at £192,000. He thought it was a matter very well deserving of the attention of the Government. He knew that the Commissioners had devoted a great deal of attention to the subject; and three of them, Members of this House, and now present, believed that the Government would have done well to consent to grant the information sought for as an unopposed Return. He did not impute any bad motives to anyone; but it was a fact that meetings of the Society were held in secrecy. The subscriptions to the Society had now dwindled down to almost nothing; whereas, formerly, they were very large. He remembered being a subscriber about 40 years ago. There were no subscriptions, no public open meetings, and no information whatever was laid before the public as to what was done with the £6,000 a-year which the Society enjoyed. He thought that, under those circumstances, with the various educational works that were being carried on, and especially having in view the poverty of the people in that particular section of Scotland which was pointed to in the Charter first obtained by the Society—that a great deal might be done with those large funds to promote the interests of the people in those remote districts. The managers of the Society said, in their examinations before the Commissioners, that at one time they had 295 schools under their control and to support. They explained that they did not build the school-houses; but they paid salaries to the teachers, and other charges, as arranged with landowners and others, who agreed to build the houses. But they also said that, in consequence of the passing of the Education Act of 1872, they contemplated surrendering a large proportion of the schools to the School Boards; and at the time they gave their evidence they stated that they had already surrendered 40 schools. Now, he should like to know what was done with the money formerly employed for the support of these schools? He thought the Society should be compelled to give a copy of its accounts and balance-sheet for last year. That was a most reasonable request. There was not an educational foundation in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, or any part of Scotland which did not print and publish its balance-sheet. This Society, however, was a secret Society—he used the words advisedly. Nobody knew anything about their operations; their transactions were conducted in private. It might be the best managed Society in the world, or the worst managed, for anything he knew; but what he protested against emphatically was the secrecy with which everything connected with the Society was done. He held that it was not for the benefit of the public that such large sums should be administered in secret; and he thought this was a case where the House of Commons should take steps to protect the interest of those who were originally intended to be benefited by the Society under their Charters. He might mention, as showing how contrary to the spirit of the original foundation of that Association their present system was, that the first Charter expressly stated that they must never accumulate any fund so that its annual product should exceed £2,000. The Government of the day were jealous of that system of heaping up money and investing it, buying property with it, &c.; and they accordingly restricted the Association to that sum of £2,000 a-year. But, by the second Charter, which the Association obtained some years afterwards, they got that restriction removed; and, therefore, at the present moment, there was no legal obstacle to their buying estates, by means of their annual income, in place of expending it for the benefit of the poor Highlander, to whom the annual income both morally and legally belonged. The Commissioners very properly asked what they intended to do with all that money, now that they proposed to get rid of the schools? and they named certain objects to which it would be applied, among other things, in support of missions, and certain bequests to churches in Scotland; though he held it to be doubtful whether, under their Charter, they had the power to make these grants to churches. There was a great deal of money to be spent, and they made four propositions to the Commissioners with respect to it, which propositions the Commissioners had summarized in their Report. With the fear of the Secretary to the Treasury before his eyes, who, he knew, desired to go on with the Estimates, he would not enter on these propositions, or, indeed, say one-half of what he had intended to say; but what he wished to ascertain by his Motion was, whether this Society had spent any money on those four propositions, and, if so, whether they had any balance left, and how much? In short, he wanted to know what the Society had been doing for the last 12 months? He thought Her Majesty's Government blameworthy in not having at once agreed to give this Return. If they had proposed any limitation or qualification upon the Return, he should have been happy to have met them; but he had got no encouragement, having, on the contrary, been met with a point-blank refusal.


I think it well that I should interpose at this stage of the discussion, because the Government have been charged with wrongfully refusing these Returns. I do not think it is in the least degree necessary to argue any of the special questions which the hon. Gentleman has raised with regard to the administration of this fund, because it appears to me that the granting of the Return would be objectionable upon grounds entirely apart from what may be the merits or demerits of the present administration of the revenues of the Society. No doubt this Society, which is a body of private individuals associated together for charitable purposes, have now very large funds under their administration. I repeat, that this is a body of private individuals associated together for charitable purposes, for collecting subscriptions and employing them in promoting, according to their views, religious knowledge within the four corners of Scotland. In what manner that ought to be done, and whether they have really discharged the purpose which they set before themselves, are matters which it is not for us to inquire into; but it is ridiculous to suppose that a Royal Charter is needed in Scotland or anywhere else to levy or to collect subscriptions, and to apply them to charitable purposes, or that a bank or any other institution, by obtaining an Act of Parliament, becomes in any sense a public Department or Office, from whom the Government are at any time entitled to call for Returns. No doubt it is a common thing to ask for Returns in continuation of previous Returns; but here we are asked for Returns— In continuation of the financial information given by the Secretary and Directors of the Society, when examined before the Endowed Schools and Hospitals (Scotland) Commissioners, and printed in the Appendix to their Second Report 1874. I venture to say that if the fact of a body of men, or of an individual, appearing before a Commission of this House, and there giving evidence as to the financial condition of the body of which he is a member, or of his own private affairs, is to be made the groundwork for extracting from him a continuation of that information, that is contrary to all Parliamentary procedure. No doubt, Returns are very widely moved for, and I am sure that the present Government—any more than their Predecessors—are not amenable to the charge of not yielding wherever the demand is reasonable. But if you ask for Returns of this kind simply because information has been given before a Committee, I do not see how any private individual may not be called upon to exhibit the contents of his books, or the particulars of his business. The two things have no earthly connection with each other; and it is a great mistake to put forward in a Motion like this any such fact, as that information has been given before a Committee in order to justify a continuation of that evidence in the shape of a Parliamentary Return. I do not see, if you are to introduce that rule, how any private Society or party who have had a Charter which confers certain privileges upon them would not be liable to be called upon to furnish Returns. That is a matter which is contrary to the practice of this House, because there is an obvious distinction to be drawn between continuing Returns which have been presented from year to year and asking for such Returns as are now asked for. There is the greatest possible distinction between the charac- ter of the information to be given in continued Returns and the character of the information which is obtained, and quite legitimately obtained, before a Royal Commission or before a Committee of this House. A Royal Commission, or a Committee of this House, are entitled to ask for and to acquire information of the most delicate and confidential character; but I venture to say that that rule does not in the least degree apply to Returns. But I will not rest upon that alone. In this case there was a very elaborate and searching inquiry carried out by the Commissioners referred to in this Notice under the Schools and Hospitals (Scotland) Commission. That inquiry was directed by this House with a view to legislate upon the subject-matter of these very schools and endowments, whether private or public; and one of the schemes which fell within the legitimate scope of that Commission was the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge. Accordingly, not only were the position and the monetary affairs of this Society very fully investigated, but the Commission reported upon them. It is necessary to attend to what followed on the Report. It was treated by the hon. Member for Edinburgh as if it had been a nullity; but the fact is that it was made the foundation of legislative action in this House, and the plain meaning and the intention of the Act of last year is simply this—that those institutions, whose affairs had been investigated by the Royal Commission, should have from the passing of that Act two years' grace to make up their minds as to whether they should voluntarily bring in schemes for the alteration and adjustment of their own constitutions. I am happy to say that a great number of those institutions which were included in the scope of the Act have already acted upon that provision; but I do think it would be an entire violation of the principle upon which that Act proceeded, and of the object which the Legislature had in view in passing it, if you were now to deal with those institutions whose two years' grace has not expired by investigating their affairs in the interim, with an ulterior purpose, with the object of which we have not yet been made acquainted. It was intimated at the time the Act was passed, and there was a common assent on both sides of the House in the matter, that in the event either of the institutions failing to re-constitute themselves, by or without a Provisional Order, they would at the end of that period of grace be dealt with in a manner which would admit of no refusal—in other words, they would be dealt with summarily and compulsorily, instead of having time and leisure given to them to propose any self-amendment. Now, I think, upon those last grounds, even supposing the Return was a proper one to make, which I do not admit, it would be very inconvenient to interfere at present with any one of these institutions which fall within the scope of the Act. Under these circumstances, I think the Government are justified in declining to grant the Return for which the hon. Gentleman asks.


expressed, as one of the Endowed Schools Commission, a feeling of great regret that there should be any difficulty in obtaining information as to the present position of the Society. The gentlemen representing the Society at the time when the Commission asked information made no difficulty whatever in giving it, and made no suggestion that there was anything of a confidential nature in what they laid before the Commission. Indeed, so frank and full were their answers, that it would be unnecessary now to renew the inquiry, were it not for one or two peculiar circumstances. The whole system of the Society was undergoing a change at the time they gave evidence before the Commission. Hence, they were not able to tell the Commission for certain what their future policy would be. For the Education Act had only recently been introduced, and, under it, they saw it was necessary to give up their existing mode of granting aid, while their new policy had not yet taken shape. The chief difficulty in administering the affairs of the Society in a manner satisfactory to Scotland arose from this. At the time of the Disruption a large proportion of the contributors joined the Free Church; and the legal question having been raised, whether the business of the Society might be conducted through agents belonging to the Free Church, the Law Courts ruled that it might not. In consequence of that decision, a large number of the warmest supporters of the Society had to stand aloof from it; and, inasmuch as many of the schools to which the funds were ap- plicable were under the charge of Free-Churchmen, a continual difficulty arose in administering the funds, for if it happened that the master of a particular school was not a member of the Established Church of Scotland, it was not possible to employ him as an agent of the Society. In some Highland districts, where the Free Church was very strong, and the Established Church almost non-existent, it was hardly possible to conduct the operations of the Society through agents belonging to the Established Church, and this caused a great desire that the matter should be looked into. The Endowed Schools Commission was not composed of Liberals only. The late Sir William Stirling-Maxwell was a Member of it, and he joined in recommending that this legal restriction to the Established Church should be removed. Since that time an Executive Commission had been empowered to give effect to such, recommendations. But as this Society had as yet shown no disposition to go before the Commission, it was a very natural desire on the part of the hon. Member for Edinburgh to put pressure upon the Society to do so; and the hon. Member had said nothing in his speech to justify anyone imputing to him that he had any special scheme in view, or wished to interfere, except so far as to express the strong desire there was for more information. Though it was not possible to bring a Motion before the House on this occasion, and though it seemed that, even had it been possible, the Government had thought it necessary to refuse to accede to it, yet he hoped this short discussion would not be without its effects. For if the Society was still disposed to act in the same spirit as it did five years ago, he saw no reason why, after this strong expression of opinion, they should not voluntarily give such information as they had to impart, and if they also came before the Executive Commission with a scheme, they would be acting wisely. The Established Church of Scotland recently made overtures to the non-Established Churches, and expressed an earnest desire to co-operate with them in Christian work. That desire was reciprocated by the non-Established Churches; and it seemed to him that if ever co-operation was to be begun a fairer opportunity could not arise than this if in those parts of Scotland where the people did not belong to the Established Church, the Established Church would consent to co-operate with other Churches in the work of Christian education. He trusted that the Society would take this view of the matter, and would submit proposals in accordance with the recommendation of the Royal Commission.


said, that he could not allow the discussion to close without expressing his regret that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Advocate should have thought proper, on what he feared would be regarded as purely technical grounds, to refuse to accept the Motion of the hon. Member for Edinburgh. The Motion itself did not contain the slightest allusion to any desire on the part of the hon. Member to interfere with the operations of the Society. He felt satisfied that if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had inquired, the Society would have expressed its willingness to give all the information which the hon. Member for Edinburgh had asked for. He was quite satisfied of that; because that body had not only given evidence before the Endowed Schools and Hospitals Commission, but also gave evidence, in 1865, to the Education Commission, of which he had had the honour of being a Member. The Directors of the Society would deprecate this refusal, because they had come before the latter Commission, and had given evidence of the total inefficiency of the way in which their funds were applied; and, being excellent gentlemen, anxious for the good administration of the affairs of the Society, they would have been glad to have this opportunity afforded them of placing before the public a full statement of the way in which their funds were now administered, as the hon. Member desired. In 1865, before the Education Commission, the Inspector of the Schools of the Society came forward, and said that the education in these schools was of a very low character indeed, and it was an exception to the rule if they had what was called an efficient teacher. The Society was originally intended to promote the cause of education in the Highlands and Islands. The first Letters Patent were so framed that it could only be applied to male teachers. The second Letters Patent were granted for the purpose of affording to females instruction and training in the industrial branches of education, as those were then understood. Had the right hon. and learned Gentleman thought fit to apply to the Directors of the Society, he would have got not only the information which the hon. Member for Edinburgh had asked for, but a full account of all that had been done to carry out some amendment in the various schools which were scattered throughout the Highlands and Islands; and as the funds were originally intended for the behoof of the Highlands and Islands, he (Mr. Ramsay) would deprecate any change which would take away from those districts the advantages of the funds, particularly at a time when the Hebrides and other Islands of Scotland stood so much in need of extraneous aid for educational purposes. He hoped the right hon. and learned Gentleman would soon be able to place on the Table of the House such information as the Directors of the Society could furnish as to the operations of the institution. He believed such Returns would go far to show that there was no cause for the jealousy existing regarding their transactions, which took their rise in the secret way in which, as his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh had said, the administration had been heretofore conducted. The Society ought, he thought, to have the chance of doing, even in an informal way, what the hon. Member for Edinburgh suggested—namely, furnish an account of their administration of this important fund.


said, the funds of the Society were very much for the benefit of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and he had heard with a great deal of disappointment the answer of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Advocate; for, from information which had reached him (Mr. Fraser-Mackintosh), the people in those districts had looked forward to this Motion being agreed to, and thought there could be no possible objection to it. It was for the interests of the Society itself that due publication should be made, and those concerned should have full knowledge of the affairs, before any scheme was submitted to the Endowed Schools Commissioners.


said, as Chairman of the Commission to which reference had been made, he hoped the hon. Member for Edinburgh, who showed such high respect for one recommendation of that Commission, would show equal reverence for some others. It might not be right to make demands upon such Associations as this until some option had been given them to take advantage of the Act. He could not, however, recognize the force of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's the Lord Advocate's objections. These institutions were not private institutions. They were public institutions, and open to the criticism of Parliament now, and he hoped also in the future. A particular recommendation of the Commission with regard not merely to the present but to the future was, that they should be regarded as public bodies, and placed under the obligation of laying under a public officer their accounts before the public year by year, so that the public should know how the work was being carried on.


thought hon. Members opposite were showing a little unreasonable impatience in this matter. The two years of grace given to these institutions was not a long time to wait. He thought the Government's refusal of these Returns was perfectly justifiable.


said that, after the strong expression of feeling which had come from so many Representatives of Scotch constituencies, the Society would have the right to do away to some extent with the reproach of secrecy by communicating some of the facts connected with its working. It was quite within the power of the Society, if actuated by the motives attributed, to it by the hon. Member for the Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ramsay), to give all the information which the hon. Member for Edinburgh desired.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.