§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ MR. PERKS (Lincolnshire, Louth)
begged to move "That this Bill be read a second time this day six months." This Bill, he said, was called a Church Rate Abolition Bill, but that was a great misnomer; it should be properly called a Church Rate Perpetuation Bill. The Bill no doubt would primarily have a direct effect on the parish of Poplar, but it would also manifestly affect other parts of London. He ventured to say that the Bill was one of the most singular measures presented to Parliament in the shape of a private Bill for many a day. He trusted there were many Members in the House who would bring to the consideration of this Bill an unfettered judgment. It was promoted privately, and was being assisted in its passage through the House by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. He hoped that the opposition which he brought to it would be fairly considered by his Nonconformist friends on the other side of the House, and by others who were not Nonconformists, but represented constituencies 1440 where there were large numbers of people who belonged to the Free Churches, and that they would act in unison with the wishes of their constituents. The Bill was intended to commute, at what he thought was an exorbitant price, a rate levied since 1817 for the benefit of the Church of England in the parish of Poplar. In the year 1817 the rate was authorised for the purpose of building a parish church at the cost of £30,000, and also for paying the stipend of £400 a year to the parish clergyman, and for employing a lecturer, and two or three subordinate officials. This rate was unfortunately not extinguished in 1868, when the Church Rate Abolition Act was passed. From 1868 to 1882 the rate was levied under the provisions of the old statute, but many of the parishioners strongly objected, and alleged that a number of the objects for which the rate was levied were illegal. The question was raised in the courts of law that year, when it was found that fourteen of the objects to which the money derived from the rates had been applied since 1868 were absolutely illegal, and that there should be paid out of the rate a salary of £450 a year to the clergyman, not less than £60 a year to the lecturer, and £10 a year to the clerk. These payments went on from the year 1882 to 1899, when Poplar was formed into a local municipality. This rate, not being taken over by the local authority, had had to be collected and enforced by the Vestry. Difficulties at once arose, and many parishioners pro-tested against the payment of the rate, which was only partially collected, so strong was the antipathy to it. The result was that the clergyman's salary, and those the lecturer and the clerk, had been advanced by money-lenders, whose names he did not know. Under these circumstances an effort had been made by various parties to commute these payments. A statement circulated to hon. Members alleged that the bargain proposed in the Bill was approved of by a large number of people, whose names were set out. He observed that the hon. Member for Poplar, whose name had been put to the Whip in support of the Bill, was not present. If that hon. Member had been present he would have asked him to explain how it was that a few years ago he took a strong attitude against a similar measure introduced for the parish 1441 of Marylebone. It was stated that the Bishop of the diocese was in favour of the Bill. Well, one very seldom found an arrangement which had the effect of putting a very large sum of money into the hands of the Church which had not the support of the bishop. Again, it was said that the Vestry was in favour of the Bill. He understood that the Vestry had called the meeting, at which fewer than twenty people were present, and, naturally being unable to collect the rate, they wanted to get out of the difficulty. The lecturer, who was now getting £100 a year, the clerk, who got £10 a year, and the sexton, who received a small sum, were also in favour of the Bill.
The whole of the money originally raised in 1817 for building the Church had been paid back long ago, and he had made a calculation that no less than £100,000 had been paid out of the rate to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the benefit of the parish. The Bill provided that £19,000 was to be paid over by the local authority to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who were to invest it at 3 per cent., and pay the interest to the parish. But the parish was to raise this £19,000 by levying a rate for sixty years, so that instead of this being a Rate Abolition Bill, it was a Bill to impose a rate identical in character for sixty years.
There used to be a rule that the short title of a Bill must not mislead the public or the House as to the contents of the Bill, but he insisted that it was a complete caricature of the Bill to call it a Church Rate Abolition Bill. Having made this neat little bargain for the Church, what did the promoters proceed to do? They went to the unfortunate lecturer, a gentleman of some intelligence and influence in the parish, and said to him "You have been receiving £100 a year; what will you take to vacate your office?" They proposed to give him £300; that was three years' purchase. Having got rid of him, they went to the clerk and said "What will you vacate your office and give up your emolument of £10 a year for?" And they proposed to give him £30, which was also three years' purchase. Then they proceeded to deal with the balance of £19,000; and they gravely proposed to capitalise the salary 1442 of the happy incumbent in possession at no less than forty-two years' purchase of that salary, leaving the Ecclesiastical Commissioners with the rest of the plunder. Not only that; they took the parish property of this important church, and the very important site of the church house, clean out of the hands of the parishioners, who could have utilised it and done what they liked with it, subject to ecclesiastical law, and vested it in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners by a Trust Deed under the Church Building Act. So that the parishioners were disendowed, and disestablished, and dispossessed completely, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were left in control of the £19,000, subject to the payment of 3 per cent. to the parish.
It was well known that the Ecclesiastical Commission was one of the richest corporations, and the most exacting, in London. They extorted the very highest rack-rents from their lessees and refused to renew leases except on the most extravagant terms. They invested their money in building land in the neighbourhood of London. He could point to hundreds of acres in the suburbs which had been bought by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for £100 an acre, for which they now claimed £1,000 or £1,500 an acre. [An HON. MEMBER: Hear, hear.] His hon. friend said "Hear, hear"; but he was not a member of the Anglican Church.
§ COLONEL LUCAS (Suffolk, Lowestoft)
said he was hardly listening to the hon. Member. The subject did not interest him very much, and he asked the hon. Member to withdraw.
§ MR. PERKS
said he withdrew the remark, but he certainly was under the impression that it was the hon. Gentleman who had made the interruption. If the hon. Member had not heard anything he was saying, he trusted that he would try and listen now, and convey what he said to some of the Nonconformists in his constituency. He had been pointing out that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were 1443 going to make a huge profit out of this £19,000. The bargain was a very bad one for the parish, but a very good one for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The more one studied the operation of this little deal between the Church and these unfortunate parishioners who had bartered away their rights at a ridiculous figure, the more one would say that this was a Bill which ought not to receive further consideration. No harm whatever could arise if the Bill were postponed, and it would give an opportunity to the parishioners who had not yet studied the effect of the measure to carefully consider it. He was told that a large number of the parishioners at Poplar knew nothing about it, and that the whole business had been privately managed, and that there had been very little publicity brought to bear on the matter in the Borough Council. The representatives of the portions of the borough which were exempted from the operation of the Bill were permitted to vote in its favour. The Bill was not only unjust, but a very bad commercial bargain, and on both those grounds he trusted the House would not read it a second time.
§ MR. THEODORE TAYLOR (Lancashire, Radcliffe)
seconded the Amendment. He said the Bill on page 4 drew attention to the fact that great dissatisfaction existed with regard to the rate dealt with in the Bill, and yet it was proposed to continue the rate for the next sixty years, and make its collection smooth and comfortable. Surely it was rather too late in the day to give special legislative facilities for the very kind of thing on which hon. Members were lectured so severely the other night by the Prime Minister, who declared that those who favoured passive resistance to the Church rate were acting contrary to commonsense. This was a religious and not an education question, and the inhabitants of Poplar were not all of one mind in regard to religious matters. No one wanted to deprive anyone of proper commutation, but the forty-two years purchase proposed in the case of the incumbent was excessive. While the poorer members of the brotherhood, the lecturer and the clerk, were to be bought out at three years purchase, the incumbemt was to get no less than forty-two 1444 years purchase, or more than twice the rate at which Irish landlords were willing to sell. He thought an arrangement might have been made which was fairer to the ratepayers, if it were considered desirable to reimpose this rate, which was practically what Parliament was asked to do.
To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.' "—(Mr. Perks.)
Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)
said the House would not wish to he drawn aside into a discussion on the general administration of the property of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners: the remarks of the hon. Member on that point, if they proved anything, pointed to the fact that the Commissioners were very good trustees indeed. The hon. Member who moved the rejection of the Bill had stated that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were going to make a considerable profit out of this transaction. It was nothing of the kind. They were making a serious and solid contribution to a proper settlement of a very difficult question. After paying arrears and extinguishing certain interests, which cost something over £2,000, there remained £16,700 in their hands, which at 3 per cent. interest produced a little over £500 a year. Out of that they had undertaken to pay £450 a year to the parson, which was no more and no less than he was entitled to by statute and by the decision of two learned judges. They had also undertaken to pay £50 a year for the reinsurance and repairs of the rectory house. They had in addition undertaken to pay the salaries of such officers attached to the church as the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the Bishop of London might determine, as well as the salary of the incumbent of any district or new parish which might wholly or partly be formed out of the original limits of the parish of All Saints, Poplar. That surely was not a winning bargain for the Commissioners. He submitted that so far from this Bill being so monstrous in principle, as it had been described by the 1445 hon. Member, that it should not be sent to a Committee, it merely gave effect to that which the Borough Council had with singular loyalty and good sense stated ought to be given effect to—namely, that the undoubted rights of these people, sanctioned by Parliament and upheld by the courts of law, should be settled on a satisfactory basis. He entreated the House not to do less than the representatives of Poplar were willing should be done.
§ MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)
said he had often heard it stated that in order to learn anything about one's home a person must live away from it. The statement of the hon. Member for Louth was an absolute revelation to him. He was born in Poplar, and, so he understood, was his father, and he had never heard complaints that this matter was dealt with in a hole-and-corner fashion. There had always been the fullest possible publicity. As to those who were alleged to be badly treated; one, a personal friend of his, was nearly eighty years of age, and surely three years' purchase in his case was fair; while the other, the clerk, was exceedingly anxious that the Bill should become law, as his one desire was to serve the parish. He would like to point out if the parish were to go on collecting this rate of £500 or £600 it would be put to the expense of paying an additional £400 a year for another rate collector. It was utterly unreasonable to ask them to incur that expenditure. As to the complaint that members of the Borough Council had voted on that Bill who were not interested, he might remark that the decision was a unanimous one, so that it made no difference whatever. He hoped, on the ground of economy, that the House would give Poplar what it wanted.
§ Leave to withdraw Amendment refused.