HC Deb 18 June 1900 vol 84 cc390-400

As amended (by the Standing Committee), considered.

*MR. CARVELL WILLIAMS (Nottinghamshire, Mansfield)

The Amendment which I now move was moved in the Standing Committee on Law, and was opposed by the Home Secretary, not because it was objectionable in itself, but because it was unnecessary. The right hon. Gentleman must, however, have been unaware, or forgetful, of certain facts which would have modified his views, and I therefore wish to submit those facts to the House. I have also a further object in view in moving this Amendment, and that is to elicit from the right hon. Gentleman in this House an important statement he made in the Standing Committee in regard to one aspect of this Bill. This Amendment relates to the allotment of ground to religious denominations in public cemeteries, and it is necessary to inform the House how this system has originated and how it has been worked. One of the Burial Acts provides that every burial ground shall be divided into consecrated and unconsecrated parts, and that the un-consecrated part shall be allotted in such a manner and in such portions as may be sanctioned by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. When a witness from the Home Office appeared before the Standing Committee he was questioned upon this subject, and what was his admission? That the section to which I have just referred does not in any way explain what allotments are referred to, and that it was only "a sort of guess one had to make" that it was intended to be allotments to different sects. Yet on the strength of a mere guess the Home Office has created a system of denominational allotment, and has determined the mode in which that system must be administered. Up to 1897 allotments had been mide in eighty-nine cemeteries and in all but nine to Roman Catholics, in other cases to "Roman Catholics or strangers," and in only one case to Jews. While it is admitted on the part of the Home Office that there is no decision on the point, it is the Home Office view that those to whom the allotments have been made have exclusive and absolute control over them. There has been a great deal of difficulty in certain cases. In the case of King's Lynn, a cemetery was provided by the town council many years ago and a small portion was allotted to the use-of Roman Catholics, but nothing was said about its exclusive use by members of that body. For several years no difficulty arose, but in 1892 it was desired to bury in a family grave in the Roman Catholic portion one who had been a Roman Catholic, but who had become a Protestant. It was desired that the deceased should be buried by the Baptist minister, and the desire was fulfilled. The Roman Catholic authorities complained of the invasion of their rights, and very unseemly scenes followed. The town council felt that they had no power to prevent the Baptist minister officiating on the occasion. The Home Office was appealed to, and they replied that when once an allotment was made on behalf of any body that portion must be reserved for the exclusive use of that body, and that it was the duty of the burial authority to resist any invasion of that right. Thereupon the Town Council very respectfully expressed dissent from the Home Office view, and asked whether the police were justified in interfering in order to prevent the alleged invasion of rights. At that point the Home Office faltered, and replied that they could not undertake to give advice, but would leave the local authority to act in accordance with their own discretion. Another case subsequently arose in the same cemetery. It was a case of a convert from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, and the wish of the deceased was to be buried with her children in the family grave. Another case is new pending at Barn-staple. A burial service was performed in the ground allotted to Roman Catholics by a Church of England clergyman; whereupon Father Byrne protested to the burial board, and the board refused to recognise the right, or rather the exclusive right, of Roman Catholics in the ground. The Roman Catholics appealed to the Home Secretary, and a reply has been received that in the opinion of the Home Office no other service can be held on the ground allotted to Roman Catholics, and the burial board has been called upon to comply with the requirements of the law. The argument of the burial board is that this is not a requirement of the law, but simply of the Home Office. There are several objections in my opinion to the entire system of allotments to religious bodies in cemeteries. It seems to me most unreasonable that when all the inhabitants of the parish defrayed the cost—sometimes the very heavy cost —of a public cemetery, one religious denomination should claim to have a sole and exclusive right to use a portion of the ground. Those who wish for separation in burial should, I think, be obliged to make separate provision for themselves. I see no reason whatever why members of the Roman Catholic Church should possess a privilege, or right, which has been distinctly taken away from the members of the Church of England. If that were unreasonable at the outset of this system, since the passing of the Burial Act of 1880 it appears to be absolutely preposterous. That Act affirmed the principle that there should be no distinction between consecrated and unconsecrated ground in either churchyards or cemeteries, but that orderly and Christian services might be performed anywhere, under certain provisions. But this allotment system is practically an invasion of the Act of 1880, because it continues, for the benefit of particular classes of the community, the restrictive rights which were abolished by the legislature. I wish to emphasise the fact that this has been done, not by statutory authority, but has been solely the action of the Home Office. No doubt the Home Office thought they were justified in adopting that course in past times, but now that the Act of 1880 has affected such a great change in our burial system I submit that this system of allotment is quite out of harmony with modern legislation, and that it requires to be regularised, if not abolished. The answer of the Home Office to my contention is that this Amendment is not necessary, and that all that it seeks is provided for by the existing law. My reply is that the action of the Home Office is not compatible with the provisions of this Amendment, which affirms a principle that in my opinion the Home Office has distinctly violated. The practical importance of this question has been very much increased by what transpired in the Standing Committee. Some of the facts which I have described were brought out in evidence, and the question arose as to whether members of the Church of England could not also have the benefit of this allotment system, and on the Home Office witness being asked the question he replied, "In accordance with the strict words of the Act I do not see why not, because the Act is so extremely vague." Then he was asked whether, if allotments were granted to the Church of England it would not be an entire departure from the Act of 1880, and he replied that that was the Home Office view, if an allotment could be given to the Church at all. If the Home Office view were translated into action on the part of many members of the Church of England, it would be a practical abrogation of the Act of 1880, which required years of agitation and bitter feeling to place on the Statute Book. I hope the House will feel that the present state of the law is most unsatisfactory, and that, if the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary does not see his way to abolish this system of allotment, he will strengthen the hands of the local authorities, in order that they may be able to resist the unjust and, as I think, the unfounded claim of religious denominations to whom portions of the cemeteries may have been allotted. The right hon. Gentleman in dealing with this question in the Standing Committee gave the assurance that there was no intention on the part of the Home Office to strain the allotment system, so that portions of, cemeteries might be allotted to the exclusive use of the Church of England. That is a very satisfactory explanation so far as it goes. I call the attention of the House to the fact that the Home Secretary has not stated a single objection to the Amendment. His sole contention is that it is uncalled for, as the existing law is adequate. I submit that the facts I have stated show that the existing law requires amendment. The purpose to be served by this Amendment cannot be obtained until the law is altered. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and the Government are anxious that this should be an efficacious measure and that they would regret if, in consequence of any defects or mistakes, the Bill renewed the strife which prevailed for so many years. If the Amendment be unnecessary, it will be on the showing of the Home Secretary himself harmless. I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will see his way to remove all apprehension on the point, by consenting to the insertion of these words. I beg to move, Sir.

Amendment proposed— In page 5, line 11, after the word 'board', to insert the words, 'Provided that where any portion of a burial ground is allotted under any Act for the use of any particular-religious denomination, the freehold of the same shall remain vested in the burial authority, which shall have the same control over burials therein as in other parts of the burial ground, and the provisions of The Burial Laws Amendment Act, 1880, as-amended by this Act, shall apply thereto."— (Mr. Carvell Williams.)

Question proposed, "That those words, be there added."


I think that the hon. Gentleman is unnecessarily alarmed both as to what has been the practice of the Home Office which he has so consistently attacked and as to what is the present law. As I said in the Standing Committee, this Amendment may mean something more than appears on the face of it, in which case it would be objectionable. But according to the present interpretation of the law it is unnecessary, because the freehold remains with the burial authorities, and nothing that this Bill does in any way disturbs the right of the burial authority over ground over which their jurisdiction extends, whether it has been allotted or not. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the Home Office not only at the present time, but for years, has been straining the law. I can only say that everything which has been done by the Home Office has been consistently done, and in the opinion of the Law Officers has been in strict conformity with the statute. When the hon. Gentleman asks for an assurance that there is no intention to allot to members of the Church of England, which he specially named, I can only say that if any application came from members of the Church of England for the allotment of unconsecrated ground —because by law the ground must be unconsecrated to be allotted—it would be for the Home Office to say whether under the law they must comply with the request or not. But hitherto, as the hon. Gentleman knows, members of the Church of England have desired to conduct their burials in consecrated ground and have never applied for allotments; nor, I am disposed to think, are they likely to apply. The Act of 1880 and its effect on the allotment system appear to be altogether misunderstood by the hon. Gentleman. The Act of 1880 was intended to get over certain ecclesiastical difficulties in consecrated ground, and also with reference to certain cases of church services in unconsecrated ground, and it is in no way affected by this Bill or by the operation of the allotment system. The general objection to the Amendment of the hon. Gentleman is this—I maintain in the first place that it does not alter the law. It may or may not alter the law, but on the face of it—at all events the first part of it—it does not. In the second place, if it does it is in distinct contradiction to the recommendations of the Committee. That Committee was a very valuable one, and did more to settle this very difficult and controversial question about burials than any action which has been taken in the House of Commons for many years, and I should be sorry if a point such as this were now reopened. The question of the allotment system was considered by the Committee, and one of their recommendations was that the system of allotment under the Burials Act should be continued. They obviously did not desire to enlarge upon the question of allotment at all, and I do think that, while I am as anxious as the hon. Gentleman that this Bill should put an end to some of the more difficult and controversial questions, it would be much better—I say it with confidence—to carry out in their entirety the recommendations of the Committee and to leave the allotment system where it is. I hope, therefore, the hon. Gentleman will not press the Amendment.

*SIR F. S. POWELL (Wigan)

First of all I must express my great regret that the hon. Gentleman who often claims the dignified position of peacemaker should on this occasion endeavour to foment strife. The proceedings of the Select Committee were conducted from first to last in a spirit of friendship and compromise, and I cannot see in the records of that Committee any motion made by the hon. Gentleman in the sense of his motion this evening. He seems to have been influenced at that time by the spirit of peace and goodwill which prevailed on the Committee, and I regret that a different spirit actuates him to-night. I should not have ventured to take part in this debate if it were not for the circumstance that my Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen in Lancashire are greatly affected by these proposals. In Liverpool there is an allotment for Roman Catholics, and the evidence given before the Committee was as follows — A portion of land was set apart for the use of Roman Catholics, so that the members of that body might be interred together, and it is the intention of the local authority to give this exclusively to Roman Catholics. That privilege has been long enjoyed by Roman Catholics. I believe it is greatly valued by them, and why should it be taken away? In Wigan, the borough I have the honour to represent, the Roman Catholics have had an allotment for forty-five years, and that allotment they have enjoyed in peace and contentment without any disturbance or friction or difficulty. Why does the hon. Gentleman representing the Nonconformists endeavour to interfere with the harmony which has so long prevailed? Not only in Wigan, but in the adjoining townships, the same system exists with the same satisfactory results and the same absence of strife. Am I not justified, therefore, in complaining of the language of the hon. Gentleman? He talks of concord and peace, but his language is not the language of peace, and his words are not the words of concord. I will oppose the Amendment on the ground that it promotes neither peace, concord, nor Christian love.


I may say I raised the point in Committee, and divided the Committee on it.

MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)

I am surprised at the extraordinary and misleading speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for Wigan. He has been attacking an entirely imaginary proposition. My hon. friend the Member for the Mansfield Division of Notts in his Amendment makes no attempt to remove these allotments, and he uttered no word whatever to justify the angry denunciations which I have never heard the hon. Baronet use before in such unmeasured terms. I am entirely at a loss to understand what should have excited him to such an extent. What my hon. friend proposes is that in case of an allotment of this kind the freehold should still remain the property of the burial authority, who should still continue to have some hold over the burial ceremony. If I understood the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary aright, this Amendment would practically not alter the law.


I believe not.


If that is so I would advise the House to accept the Amendment. The Home Secretary tells us in good faith that he believes it will not alter the law. He is stating what he believes to the best of his knowledge and authority to be true. If that be so the proposition of my hon. friend practically coincides with the existing law, and the denunciation to which we have just listened should have been addressed to the Home Secretary and not to my hon. friend. I hope the hon. Baronet will ask the permission of the House to offer some apology for the attack he has just made on my hon. friend. So far as I am concerned I do not wish to interfere with the sentiment of any religious denomination, either with regard to the burial ceremony or the location of the interment. At the same time I do think that every progressive Christian man must recognise the elementary principle of Christianity which deprecates as far as it can, without causing unnecessary pain, separation after death. It is a lamentable state of things, to my mind, that any one religious section of the community should desire to have a separate allotment for the purposes of interment. I do not see what reasonable justification there is for it. But at the same time my hon. friend does not propose to interfere with it, although he regrets the existence of the sentiment. I thank the Home Secretary for the very nice manner in which he has met my hon. friend. He has made a very important statement, no doubt with full knowledge. I believe he is perfectly correct in stating that the main principle of this Amendment now exists in law, and I will therefore join with the Home Secretary in appealing to my hon. friend not to press his Amendment to division.

*MR. GODDARD (Ipswich)

Listening to the impassioned language of the hon. Baronet the Member for Wigan, I feel profoundly glad he was not on the Committee which had under consideration this important Bill—as I doubt if we should have arrived at this compromise. The object of the Amendment has been misunderstood by the hon. Baronet. The Member for Mansfield rose in Committee when this question of allotments came up and moved certain modifications, in order to leave himself free to discuss the matter on the Third Reading. It is not open, therefore, for the hon. Member for Wigan to attack my hon. friend as he has done. His object was to obtain the re-assertion of the principle contained in the Amendment—namely— that where any portion of a burial ground is allotted under any Act for the use of any particular religions denomination, the freehold of the same shall remain vested in the burial authority. The Home Secretary has re-asserted that principle, and it was simply because my hon. friend thought it was not asserted sufficiently plainly that he put the Amendment on the Paper. He would have preferred if the Home Secretary had stated in the House as plainly as he stated in the Grand Committee his views in regard to allotments and the Church of England. He asserted that the Home Office did not wish to encourage the use of the allotments by the Church of England, nor to give its sanction to it.


What I said was that it was the duty of the Home Office, when an application was made for an allotment, to see that the law was carried out.


I think he went so far in the Standing Committee as to say that the Home Office would not encourage the granting of allotments to the Established Church. That is really the object of the Amendment, and the principle having been re-asserted, I quite agree with the hon. Member for Leicester that this Amendment should not be pressed to a division.

SIR R. C. JEBB (Cambridge University)

As I had the honour to be chairman of the Select Committee, I wish to bear my testimony to the fair spirit shown by the hon. Member for Mansfield. I venture to think, after what has fallen from my right hon. friend the Home Secretary, that the hon. Member for Mansfield might be content with having moved this Amendment.


I also appeal to my hon. friend not to press this Amendment to a division. If he presses it I am afraid many of us on this side will vote against it. If a cemetery is constructed under the Act of 1853 consecration must follow as a matter of course, but in that case it has always been the practice of the burial authority to allot a portion of the burial ground to Roman Catholics, and to give them certain privileges, but it has never been understood that the freehold of that portion should be given with the allotment. I do not agree with the remark that this Bill settles the controversy, because under Clause 2 this Bill gives power to the Home Office to go behind the local authority, although the local authority has to provide the cost of making the cemetery. In every case now under this Bill consecration must follow. [AN HON. MEMBER: No.] Oh, yes it will. It is my reading of Clause 2 that consecration is bound to follow. I ask my hon. friend to withdraw the Amendment so that it may not be misconstrued.


After the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


The object of the Amendment I now beg to move is to bring one portion of the Bill into harmony with another portion. One of the clauses provides that the existing fees shall continue to be levied for a certain period from the passing of this measure, whereas the final clause provides that the Act shall come into operation on 1st January next. I cannot imagine that any inconvenience will arise if the Act comes into operation as soon as it receives the Royal assent. Otherwise, for several months to come the burial authorities will be much embarrassed, in acting under a law which has only a few months to live. It would be better to adopt the date of the Act as the date when it will come into operation.

Another Amendment proposed— In page 5, line 25, to leave out the words first day of January, one thousand nine hundred and one,' and insert the words 'day of the passing thereof,' instead thereof."— (Mr. Carvell Williams.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill."


In point of form, I think if the object of this Amendment is to be effected that the best way would be to leave out the sub-clause altogether. Then the Act would come into operation on receiving the Royal assent. But great inconvenience would be caused if this Act came into operation then. There is a great deal of work to be done by the Central Departments concerned, as well as by local authorities, immediately after the passing of the Act and before it comes into operation. I do not know that there is any example of a Bill which requires so many administrative preparations as this one being brought into effect before there is time to consider them. I hope the hon. Gentleman, after consideration, will not press the Amendment.


I do not attach importance to this Amendment. I made it suggestively, and I have no wish to press it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.