HC Deb 14 July 1926 vol 198 cc582-5

I beg to move, That, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the First Fruits and Tenths Measure, 1926, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent. I believe this Measure is to all intents and purposes non-controversial. It has received the full consideration of the Church Assembly and has now received the approval of the Ecclesiastical Committees of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.


I beg to second the Motion.


Before this Measure is allowed to pass, I think we ought to have some slight explanation from the hon. and gallant Member for North-east Leeds (Major Birchall) who is in charge. I have studied the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee which accompanies the Measure and although being unacquainted with many of the theological terms used in this Report I think I have a fair idea of the drift of it. But in paragraph 3, there is a statement to which historical criticism should be directed. It is stated: First fruits and tenths were originally Papal imposts, which were transferred to the Crown at the Reformation. If my recollection of Hebraic scriptures is correct, first fruits and tenths are specifically referred to in the Old Testament as a scriptural injunction and not as an impost. If we can thus at this time of the morning detect what we think to be historical inaccuracies in the Report that accompanies the Measure, we are justified in the suspicion that there are matters in it which require the grave consideration of this House. I think, therefore, that we should not pass this Measure without some further explanation from the hon. and gallant Member for North-East Leeds.


I really think that if the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) would read the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee carefully he would find that it makes perfectly clear what the purpose of this Measure is. I have often thought that these Reports do not receive the attention they deserve, and the speech which the hon. Member has just made rather strengthens that view. It is perfectly clearly laid down what the position is. Paragraph 4, for example, states: In the reign of Queen Anne first fruits and tenths were transferred to Queen Anne's Bounty and they have ever since been collected and administered by Queen Anne's Bounty for the benefit of poor livings. It is therefore not necessary to transfer these particular moneys to any different source for assessment. It is simply a question of a change in the medium by which these people are to be assisted. If hon. Members will look at paragraph 5, they will see it says: Queen Anne's Bounty has now other and larger sources of income than those derived from first fruits and tenths. And the Legislative Committee have represented that since during recent years a large part of that income has been applied in making good the depreciation of invest- ments, it is possible at the present time-to abolish first fruits and tenths without in any way decreasing the amount required in order to carry out the Queen Anne's Bounty scheme for the relief of dilapidations; and that there is therefore now a favourable opportunity of getting rid of these imposts, so far as they are charged upon ecclesiastical persons performing ecclesiastical duties. It is also pointed out in the report how uneven is the incidence of the first fruits and tenths, and how unsatisfactory the position is. The purpose of the Measure is to bring the position up to modern requirements and conditions.


Can the hon. and learned Member for South-east Leeds (Sir H. Slesser) oblige me by answering the specific question I raised as to the first sentence in paragraph 3 of the report?


The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) is quite right in saying that the moral obligation originates in scripture. But naturally enough it came to be enforced under ecclesiastical law by the Pope. It was a moral obligation before that, but not a legal one.


So the memorandum is wrong?


No. I think not; but, at any rate, it is not very important. It became impost when it was made an impost by law. When the rights of the Popes were transferred it was assessed on a valuation then made, once for all. When that valuation lapses it makes no difference to the clergy because they get it back through Queen Anne's Bounty. But the incidence is very unfair as between one clergyman and another. For that reason it was proposed to abolish it and leave the matter for the administration of Queen Anne's Bounty and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.


I think there is occasion for a remark here. I do not think any of us desire to offer any factious opposition to what is agreed on by the National Assembly of the Church of England. But I do think, that there should not be any assumption that these Measures are brought forward and passed as a mere matter of form. Under the Enabling Act of 1919 it was quite clearly stated hat the powers of Parliament should be duly considered in regard to these matters. I feel at a disadvantage in that this Measure has come upon us at so late an hour and without the full information and study that we should have liked to give it. This applies particularly to the next Measure on the Order Paper which raises some large questions. I think this should not be taken as a precedent and that we should have every opportunity of giving intelligent study to these Measures and not have them rushed through as a matter of form at a late hour and almost on the spur of the moment before we have had time to read the documents.

Resolved, That, in accordance with The Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the First Fruits and Tenths Measure, 1926, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent.