HC Deb 10 March 1926 vol 192 cc2305-8

I beg to move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the further relief of His Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects. I have adopted this procedure because I hope, with some confidence, that after an explanation of the Bill I can persuade the House to treat it as a non-controversial one, and that it will be given a Second Reading and sent to a Committee, after which I hope, again with confidence, that the Government will give such slight further facilities as are necessary to enable it to be passed into law. May I make one observation of a personal nature? I myself, as my friends and colleagues generally know, am not a Roman Catholic. I am from birth and by conviction a member of the Church of England, and it is as such that I appeal to other Members to pass this Bill for reasons of that charity and toleration, upon which all civilised religions are based. And I appeal to Members of the House generally, as a Member of Parliament, to do away, as this Bill will do, with certain relics of religious strife and bitterness which are entirely out of place in our laws at present. In form the Bill consists of one Clause and a Schedule. The Clause revokes certain Statutes and portions of Statutes which are set out in the Schedule. May I first state the things the Bill does not do? In the first place, it does not interfere in any way with the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement, or the Protestant Succession to the Crown, nor does it interfere in any way with the disability of members of the Roman Catholic Church to exercise patronage in the Church of England, nor does it affect in any way the position of the Lord Chancellor. Many Members, perhaps, will think there was no reason why the Bill should not include the office of Lord Chancellor, but it has been left out because we wish the Bill to be entirely non-controversial. Perhaps, on the subject of the Lord Chancellor, I might be allowed to refer to a remark which has been made by very many in my hearing as to the reasons there are, or are supposed to be, why the Lord Chancellor should not be a Roman Catholic. The first reason which seems to be given by everybody who is asked the question is, "Oh, the Lord Chancellor is the keeper of the King's conscience." I wonder how many Members of this House who would glibly make that answer have the slightest idea what is the meaning of the phrase. If the House will allow me, I would like to tell them. The reason why the Lord Chancellor is sometimes still styled "the Keeper of the King's conscience," is because in the old pre-Reformation days, when the Lord Chancellor was an ecclesiastic, he was the ecclesiastic who was the private confessor of the King. It must be quite obvious that the phrase, "the Keeper of the King's conscience," is absolutely meaningless at the present time. If there be any practical relic of it left, it is that the Lord Chancellor is, on behalf of the King, the guardian of lunatics in this country.

Having stated what the Bill does not do, may I just state very shortly what it does do. In the first place, it proposes to sweep away a number of disabilities which have in actual fact fallen into entire disuse. Not only is it for that reason convenient that they should be wiped off the Statute Book, but they do at present seem to cast a slur, an undeserved slur, upon members of the Roman Catholic religion; and, moreover, there is always the possibility of attempts being made to put them into force by a common informer. The particular disabilities or perils from which the Bill proposes to relieve members of this religion include the prohibition on a priest or a dignatory of the Roman Catholic Church being seen in his robes outside a private house or a Roman Catholic Church. If a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church attends, as he often does, a big public dinner, he is, under the law as it now stands, liable to a penalty of £50 for doing so, and he is equally liable to that penalty if he proceeds from his private house through the streets in those garments either to his usual place of worship or to any place of meeting in connection with his Church or elsewhere. There are many similar disabilities which impose a penalty of that kind. One thing which seems to be rather picturesque is that any Roman Catholic priest is liable to a penalty of this kind if he officiates in a building which possesses a steeple and a bell.

It may seem a little ridiculous to bring in a Bill merely for the purpose of doing away with things of this kind, but this Bill proposes to remedy two practical and serious injustices which do exist at the present time and from which I do not think that there will be any hesitation in the House that Roman Catholics ought to be relieved. Owing to these old Statutes, it is the fact that at the present time certain charities, the income of which in the ordinary way would be exempt from Income Tax, cannot get that exemption because they are Roman Catholic charities or charities which are managed by Roman Catholics or by Orders belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The other practical point of a similar nature is that bequests to certain bodies of the Roman Catholic Church are in law void and of no effect. Of course, that has to some extent been got over, but it is an unworthy thing that bequests of that kind for charitable purposes should have to be made by some roundabout legal method instead of being made frankly and honestly for purposes for which people are quite entitled to make them, and for purposes which are for the benefit of the country as a whole.

Having thus shortly explained the Bill, I want to appeal to the House to do the best it can to enable this Bill to be passed into law with a view to getting rid of those anachronisms and those practical injustices to which I have referred, and I would ask those, if any there be in this House, who have some remnant of the old strong Protestant anti-Catholic feeling to remember that repressive laws of this kind, which have no basis in reason or practice, are only a method rather of creating hostility and perhaps fostering, if it were existing, any possible germ of disloyalty to the State. But the House, I think, will agree that the Roman Catholic Church of recent years has not only included, and still does include, an immense number of men and women who have done great service to the State and to the Nation, but that they are, as a body, among the most loyal of any bodies in this country and that the former reasons for legislation against them have entirely disappeared.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dennis Herbert, Mr. Blundell, Major Colfox, Captain Arthur Evans, Sir Nicholas Grattan-Doyle, Captain Sidney Herbert, Mr. Robert Hudson, Mr. Kidd, Major Kindersley, Sir Joseph Nall, and Dr. Watts.