HC Deb 15 June 1933 vol 279 cc347-51

Order for Second Reading read.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir Godfrey Collins)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The object of the Bill, as the long title indicates, is to amend the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act, 1925, and to make further provision with regard to the properties and endowments of the Church. The Act of 1925 was designed, amongst other things, to vest in the General Trustees of the Church the necessary powers to deal with the extensive properties and endowments held for the Church, many of them acquired at and after the Reformation, which are extremely varied in character, and also those provided, since 1844, by the Church itself to the value of several million sterling, and to use its different resources to the best advantage. It is hardly surprising that in the eight years which have elapsed since the passing of the Act of 1925 certain flaws and omissions in the machinery of the Act should have been discovered, and the present Bill seeks to repair those defects.

As Scottish Members know, before 1925 Church property in the case of the ancient civic or ecclesiastical parish, which is known as a parish quoad omnia, was vested in the heritors or proprietors of lands in the parish in trust for the parishioners, and one of the main purposes of the Act of 1925 was to transfer these properties, together with the relative endowments derived from teinds or tithes, to the General Trustees for behoof of the Church. So far as this class of property was concerned, the arrangements were comparatively simple, although involving a great deal of negotiation and work on the part of the General Trustees in carrying out the provisions of the Act in relation to that property. But the Act of 1925 also dealt with various other classes of Churches and ecclesiastical properties, and it is in regard to some of these that the Act has been found to be defective. I refer particularly to the churches and manses erected by the Church itself under the New Parishes Act of 1844 and forming new parishes known as parishes quoad sacra, and to the Parliamentary churches, manses and glebes which were provided by Parliamentary Commissioners appointed under the Acts of 1810 and 1824 in the more remote and thinly populated parts of the Highlands and Islands.

I need not at this stage enter into an explanation of the technicalities of the Bill in detail, but as an example of the kind of difficulty which it is necessary to rectify I might refer to Clauses 1 and 3. Section 37 of the Act of 1925 gave to the general trustees a general and also a wide power of disposal of any property of whatever description transferred to them in pursuance of that Act, and the Court of Session has in a recent case confirmed the extent and character of that power. But Section 34, which dealt with the quoad sacra parishes, expressly provided that the statutory properties and endowments of those parishes should be held by the general trustees for "the same ends, uses and purposes as those for which they were held by the persons in whom they were previously vested." Therefore, it was not clear that the general powers of disposal conferred by Section 37 applied to this class of property. Clause 1 of the present Bill removes that difficulty.

As regards Clause 3 the position is that while the Act provided for the transfer of the statutory properties and endowments belonging to the quoad sacra parishes—that is to say, generally speaking, the church building and the funds which required to be raised to secure an endowed stipend for the minister—it made no provision for the transfer of, and gave to the general trustees or to the General Assembly no power to deal with, other property and endowments, such as, for example, the manse or a church hall, or funds voluntarily raised by members of the church or given or bequeathed for the benefit of individual parishes. The object of this Clause is to enable such non-statutory property and endowments to be transferred and disposed of as circumstances may require, subject always to the safeguards provided in the Bill, and to the directions and control of the General Assembly as regards the particular case, to be embodied in an Act of Assembly.

Many hon. Members from Scotland will be aware that since this Bill was introduced this particular Clause has been the subject of some criticism within the Church itself. Some Amendments of the Clause have already been made in another place, and as the result of discussion in the recent General Assembly certain further Amendments are proposed which will further safeguard the position of local interests and meet the criticisms which have been made that parishes which have local endowments might have no say in the matter of dealing with them. Behind all the provisions of the Bill dealing with the control of the property and endowments of the Church lies the fundamental fact that the union in 1929 of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church, coupled with changes of population and the large migrations of population to the great industrial and mining centres in Scotland necessitate some readjustment of the Church's parochial organisation and the most effective use of its property and endowments for the benefit of the people of the country. Since the economical distribution of the Church's resources demands the disposal of property here, the suppression of a parish there, the union of churches somewhere else and the transfer of its property and endowments to centres of population where these can be better utilised, it is clear that, so long as legitimate and local interests and rights are safeguarded, there should be in the hands of the authorities of the Church all necessary powers to give effect to the policy I have indicated. From this point of view Clause 7 may be regarded as of special importance.

I understand, moreover, that as the result of the Amendments agreed upon with various parties and inserted in the Bill in another place, subject to the further Amendments to which I have already referred, the Bill is substantially an agreed Measure so far as the Church and other parties interested are concerned. While it is the duty of Parlia- ment to exercise at all times an overriding discretion in all matters coming before it, I hope that this House, bearing in mind that some of the powers sought are urgently needed and that the authorities of the Church have been at pains to meet and to satisfy all points of criticism, will be ready to facilitate the early passage into law of this useful and necessary Measure.

Only the other day I was asked to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in connection with the appeal that the Church is launching at the present time for a large sum of money to enable new churches to be provided in areas where the enormous growth of population demands additional centres of religious effort. And while referring to the General Assembly, may I here interpose a word to express the satisfaction which I am sure all Members of the House will feel that it was one of our number, the hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Mr. Buchan), who this year filled, with great distinction and acceptance, the office of Lord High Commissioner to the Assembly. I was impressed by the efficiency and zeal with which the Church is grappling with the problems in its midst, and I feel sure that I express the views of hon. Members that we are anxious to forward to the utmost the efforts of the Church to meet changing conditions and to reap the full benefits of the Union of the two great Churches in Scotland which the legislation passed by this House in the years 1921 and 1925 was intended to facilitate and promote. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland in its various manifestations and throughout its long history has deep roots in the Scottish character and has ever shown itself ready to adapt its administration to meet the ever changing conditions of modern life. It is in that spirit that I commend the Bill to the House of Commons.

4.47 p.m.


I will not do more than add one word to the very admirable speech which the Secretary of State has made. One of the greatest events in the religious history in any part of this island took place in the year 1929 when arrangements were made for the union of the Scottish churches. It gave an example to the world which might very well be followed in other places. It was a union which was accomplished with a skill and ingenuity, and with a persistent patience, which reflected the highest possible credit on all those who brought it about, but, of course, there were, of necessity, a large number of subjects which were left untouched. There were things which experience alone could prove and arrangements which could only be tested as time went on. This Bill now seeks to tie up a great many loose ends and to provide for many things which could not at that time be contemplated. I have studied the Bill and have had many conversations with members of the Church of Scotland upon the subject, and I am sure that all who care for the interests of Scotland and for the religious life of its people are confident that these are wise and careful Amendments which it is now sought to make on the original arrangements which were devised by the union of the Churches of Scotland. The religious life of Scotland has been immensely stimulated and inspired by the unity of those who for long have seemed to be at strife. I am sure that it is the object of Parliament to do everything possible to aid and help the exertions of the Church to bring sweetness and comfort to the hearts of the Scottish people, and in that spirit I support the Bill.