HC Deb 23 March 1888 vol 324 cc230-4

(Mr. William Henry Smith, Mr. Secretary Matthews, Mr. Jackson.)


Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [22nd March], "That the Bill be now read a second time,"

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.

THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

said, that, as his remarks on a former occasion were necessarily short, owing to the hour of the night when the debate was initiated, he would now explain a little more fully what the Bill sought to effect. The Bill had been prepared in order to insure the safety of the Abbey, which would, he was sure, be regarded by all hon. Members, whether belonging to the Church of England or not, as a great public monument which they were bound to preserve. It was at the present moment in a very grave condition. It was estimated when arrangements were made by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster in 1868 that £20,000 would then be sufficient for the work of repairing the building. Recently, however, it had been found that the repair of the fabric would now necessitate an expenditure of nearly £60,000; and the funds in the hands of the Dean and Chapter were wholly inadequate to meet that charge. The Dean and Chapter had been for a considerable period in entire ignorance of the serious condition of the Abbey, owing to the fact that the dilapidations were in portions of the building which were inaccessible. In 1886 an advance of £10,000 from the funds of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners was authorized by a Bill passed by the late Government, and that advance was made a charge on the funds of Westminster Abbey, if they were capable of discharging it. It was therefore sought in the present Bill to relieve the Abbey funds from the payment of that amount. It would be impossible for the Dean and Chapter to meet such a charge as £66,000, even if it was spread over a long period of years. The funds of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, which had suffered very much from the agricultural depression, did not enable them to make the necessary grant. It was, therefore, proposed by the Bill that the Dean and Chapter should be at liberty to surrender their estates to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who should have authority to grant to them an annual income equal to that which in 1868 it was estimated those estates would yield. There had been great depreciation in the value of property in some parts of the kingdom, notably in the land belonging to the Dean and Chapter. The proposal, therefore, of the Bill was to give the Dean and Chapter that same amount of security in regard to their income which it was intended they should receive in 1868. It was not proposed to relieve them of the responsibility which attached to them out of that income to maintain the fabric, but it was intended that the funds which would be provided by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners should be recovered from the Dean and Chapter, as they were able to pay the amount. Under this Bill considerable economies would be effected in the establishment of the Abbey, which would secure a sufficient income to meet the large charges which would be involved in repaying the capital sum required for the restoration of the Abbey. The Bill provided that on the next avoidance of a canonry other than those which attached to the parishes of St. Margaret's and St. John's, Westminster, the appointment should be suspended so long as it might be necessary to do so, and also authorized the Dean and Chapter to submit now Statutes which would effect considerable economy in the establishment of the Abbey, and would provide sufficent income to meet the charges on the capital sum advanced. The sole object of this Bill was to make provision for the maintenance of the Abbey; there was no intention to carry out any structural alterations, or to effect any architectural changes in the building, but merely to maintatn and to restore the fabric to the condition in which it had been handed down by our predecessors. He hoped that this short explanation would be considered satisfactory and that the House would agree to pass the second reading of the Bill, which he believed to be essential for the preservation of one of those national monuments to which was attached much that was interesting in the history of England, and which Englishmen would regret to see falling into decay. He desired to repeat that no charge whatever would be thrown on the national finances by this Bill, and that it dealt entirely with ecclesiastical funds.

MR. J. E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

said, he desired to say that the interesting statement the First Lord of the Treasury had given them, showed that the hon. Member for Swansea Town (Mr. Dillwyn) was amply justified in the action he took the other evening in protesting against such a Bill being read a second time without a word of explanation from the Treasury Bench. He was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman's definition of the word "restoration," and he assured the right hon. Gentleman that no one was more ready than hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House to support a measure for the preservation of a great historical monument like that of Westminster Abbey.

MR. BLANE (Armagh, S.)

said, that by the Bill they were asked to apportion funds between the maintenance of the fabric and the stipends of the Dean and Chapter and other ecclesiastics. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith) would say what connection there was between the restoration of Westminster Abbey and the stipends in question. It appeared to him that this Bill was introduced for the purpose of enabling certain parties to have a claim to compensation at the time of the Disestablishment of the Church. They now found that ecclesiastical situations were made for temporary purposes, but that, finally, they became permanent. The office bearers became holdfasts, and would assuredly claim compensation. This was only a species of public plunder. [Cries of "Oh, oh!"] Of course it was, because the money for these repairs would be provided out of the funds of the nation at large. He should like to see the fabric of Westminster Abbey maintained. The Abbey had been diverted from its original purpose, but still he supposed it was a national monument. If the Government could show him there was anything between a national monument of this kind and the distribution of funds to Dean and Chapters, and so forth, officials already highly paid—and amongst whom a large amount was distributed only last year—he should raise no objection to the Bill. It seemed to him most extraordinary that those men should be tacked on to the Bill. The payment of stipends could have nothing to do with masonry. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had said that no taxation would be used for the purposes of the Bill; but last year between £60,000 and £70,000, raised by taxation, was spent upon Westminster Abbey. If that money had been properly used there would have been no need for the expenditure now proposed. If the authorities chose to turn the Abbey into a theatre and then turn it back again into a church, that was their business; but why the Dean and Chapter and other officials should have stipends provided for them by this Bill he could not understand. He regretted he should have had to interfere in this matter. He only did so because he saw that the proposition contained in the Bill was not honest. If the Government wanted to distribute money amongst already overpaid Churchmen, who had large churches and no flocks worth speaking of, it would be well they should bring in a separate Bill for the purpose.

SIR JOHN R. MOWBRAY (Oxford University)

said, he joined in the regret the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Armagh (Mr. Blanc) had just expressed, that he should have interfered in the discussion, because it was quite clear the hon. Member had not read the Bill. The fact was, that the Bill proposed to deal with the property of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, and it created for the first time a fabric fund—[Cries of "No, no!"] He (Sir John B. Mowbray) spoke with knowledge of the Bill. At present, the first charge on the revenues was the salary of the Dean and of minor officers, and, so far from giving them any increased claim on the revenues, it gave them a decreased claim. It made the maintenance of the fabric the first charge. If the hon. Gentleman had read the Bill, he could not have made the remarks he had addressed to the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.