Mr. DEPUTY - SPEAKER
I understand that the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) wishes to move his Amendment in page 25, line 21, in a slightly modified form.
§ 1.47 p.m.
I beg to move, in page 25, line 21, after "him," to insert:or within such extended period as the Commission may, in special circumstances, allow on application being made to them, in that behalf, by the tithe-payer.As a result of conversations that have taken place, I believe this Amendment is one which can be accepted if it be in the modified form. I now move it. I will explain to the House how this has arisen. I had doubts because of the words in Clause 20, Sub-section (7) to the effect that a tithe-payer who claims any relief as a matter of grace under this Section should automatically be deemed to admit legal liability to the payment of arrears. I can conceive of cases in which he might desire to dispute the legal liability and if legal liability was established, to ask for mercy. I considered an extreme case where a tithe-owner would try the effect of sending in a wholly unjustified demand for arrears in an attempt to delay the Committee. I think everyone who has looked into this matter thinks that something should be done about it, and I am grateful for the information which has been given me in advance that something can be done. What is to be done is to extend in certain cases the period of one month in which claims for mercy 2169 can be made. That extension would give any tithe-payer a chance of settling in the ordinary and proper way the legal liability to any claim of arrears. If he felt that claim was one he ought to dispute, the Commission would always give him the extensions of time in the event of a bona fide dispute. The only substantial alteration in the Amendment on the paper is that the reference is to "Commission" instead of "Arrears Investigation Committee." It was a mistake on my part in not realising that it was the Commission, and not the Committee, which would have notice of these proceedings at the appropriate date.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ 1.51 p.m.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
I beg to move, in page 25, line 36, at the end, to insert:(6) If the tithepayer satisfies the Committee on a reference to them under this section that the arrears are at a rate which exceeds one-third of the annual value of the land in respect of which the arrears have been incurred, the Committee shall remit such part of the arrears as amount to one-half of the excess.The Amendment, as the right hon. Gentleman will observe, is consistent with Clause 14 (1) with regard to the general situation so far as relief is concerned. We are simply asking that when the Investigation Committee, in examining a question of arrears, finds that the tithe-charge exceeds one-third of the annual value, 50 per cent. of the excess over one-third of the annual value can be remitted to the tithe-payer. This seems to be a fairly reasonable Amendment, and in view of the fact that the alleged debt is becoming a gilt-edged security and that the Investigation Committee have the power to remit either the whole or part of the arrears should the financial circumstances of the individual warrant that remission, I think that all the tithe-payers who at the moment are in arrears are entitled to claim the same remission as will be conceded under Clause 14 (1). I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that this is a very small concession for which to ask. It is a gesture which he might make to the disturbed tithe-payers, and without delaying the proceedings of 2170 the House, I invite the right hon. Gentleman to accept this extremely modest Amendment before the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. M. Beaumont) gets his breath again and sets the ball rolling against the Ministry, as he did a short time ago. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see his way to accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
Although I am attracted by the hon. Gentleman's inducement that I should accept the Amendment with a view to expediting the proceedings, I would ask him to consider the point. It is true that in Clause 14 permission is given that the remission shall apply to all tithe-payers, but this Amendment would enjoin upon the Arrears Investigation Committee the making of a concession which might be obtained merely by delaying. I would ask the hon. Member to consider whether that would be in the interests of good administration.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
Surely the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is not our point at all. The arrears are arrears at the moment. They are not being turned into arrears expressly for the purpose of some illusory concession which the right hon. Gentleman may or may not give. I hardly think it is meeting the point to suggest that the Amendment is an invitation to tithe-payers to lapse into arrears merely because they may at a remote date obtain a concession. I think the point is more substantial than that.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I put it to the hon. Member that my point is a sound one. One is apt to think of arrears as sums extending away into the past over a considerable period of years. But remember that there are instalments coming along. Speaking from memory, I think the proportion outstanding is about £750,000 and only a comparatively small proportion of it, perhaps £200,000 or £300,000, has been outstanding for any very long time. A considerable proportion of those arrears may have arisen through people being a little slack in payment just as people may be a little slack in the payment of the bills of the butcher, the baker or the candlestick-maker. If Parliament passed a Statute saying that there were to be remissions on all outstanding boot-maker's bills, those of us who paid our bootmaker's bills promplty would feel a sense of grievance against those who had 2171 failed to pay those bills, merely because they had the habit of keeping their letters in a drawer instead of carrying them about in their pockets—which is the only proper way of ensuring that one's letters are answered. If for any reason, through some delay, arrears of that kind had arisen and there was a statutory injunction to make remissions, those who had paid promptly would feel aggrieved. There is a difference between the remission in Clause 14 which is for the benefit of all and the remission proposed here, which is only for the benefit of those who happen to be late in paying. I cannot accept the Amendment, and I hope that the hon. Member, on reflection, will find it unnecessary it press it.
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
The right hon. Gentleman says there may be £200,000 or £300,000 of arrears covering a fairly long period. It may be that that money is owed by persons who find it extremely difficult to pay. It seems to me that very hard cases like that, and there will be many of them, ought to enjoy the same privileges as those now to be conceded to tithe-payers generally under Clause 14. I have no use for the person who fails to fulfil an honourable obligation, but a large number of tithe-payers do not regard tithe as an honourable obligation. Without entering into the pros and cons of the legitimacy of tithe, I think this is a reasonable request to make, now that the Government are taking over full responsibility for meeting these tithe payments and collecting the payments from the tithe-payers, particularly if the right hon. Gentleman will pay due regard to the existing Subsection (6) of the Clause.
§ 1.59 p.m.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
It is precisely on Subsection (6) that I would ask the House to take its stand. Under that Subsection if the tithe-payer satisfies the Committee that a remission ought to be made, a part or the whole of all the arrears can be remitted—not half of the particular liability which is proposed here—or paid by instalments or dealt with in other ways. In Sub-section (6) we have gone so far in meeting the general claim, that I do not think that the proposal of the Amendment would be of any advant- 2172 age in the hard cases and in the generality of cases, I think difficulties and indeed injustices might arise. I ask the House, therefore, to concentrate on Subsection (6) which makes an extensive concession.
§ 2 p.m.
§ Mr. BELLENGER
I wonder why this Sub-section was inserted. If the Minister anticipates that there will be hard cases, what does he think will be the number of those cases? We are prepared to admit his generosity in inserting this Sub-section and we are prepared to admit that those who are able to prove that they are really hard up can have all arrears remitted. We do not wish to do anything which would prevent that process, but does the Minister anticipate that the number of cases which will come before the committee for revision will be substantial? Judging by recent events our impression is that there are really hard cases in which the tithe-payers cannot afford to meet these charges on their business. Does the Minister, therefore, expect that a large number of cases will come before the committee for the remission of the whole amount.
§ 2.2 p.m.
§ Mr. LOFTUS
There is a psychological aspect of this matter which ought to be taken into account. The possibility of remission under Sub-section (6) is vague and indefinite, but the Amendment gives a definite and concrete assurance. That fact is of enormous importance. The Minister compared a debt of this kind to a debt owing to a bootmaker, but the whole point is that up to now tithe and the arrears of tithe which will be recoverable, have represented a separate kind of debt, not a personal debt but a debt on the land, the theory being that if the land cannot pay, the individual does not pay out of his own private estate. But now arrears will come in as a personal debt and that alters the whole position.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ 2.3 p.m.
I beg to move, in page 26, line 14, after "section" to insert:or within such extended period as may have been allowed under sub-section (4) of this section.I move this Amendment in a different form from that which appears on the 2173 Paper. In that altered form, it is consequential on an Amendment already accepted.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ 2.4 p.m.
§ Mr. PRICE
I beg to move, in page 26. line 30, to leave out Sub-sections (10) and (11).
These two sub-sections provide for the recovery of arrears under the procedure laid down in Clause 16. I wish to get rid of that method and to return to the former method of dealing with all arrears for which there is to be distraint. In this matter there is a great feeling throughout the rural areas. This is a change-over from liability attaching to the land for the payment of tithe, whereby only the stock upon the land could be distrained upon, to the new method laid down in this Bill, making it a personal liability. The demonstration that has taken place recently in London by tithe-payers from different parts of the country was an indication of the strong feeling that there is on the subject. My hon. Friends and I on these benches wished to raise this matter on other stages of the Bill, but we were prevented from doing so in an effective way by the way in which the financial Clauses were drawn up. I think we have an opportunity here to do something, not, of course, to upset the general provisions of the Bill—we cannot do that now—but at least to provide that those tithe-payers who are in arrears, whose tithe fell due at the time when this was not law and when the old system of collecting and distraining was in operation, should be allowed to have the old procedure continued.
It seems to us extremely unfair that these provisions should be made retrospective. We all know the difficulties there are in some parts of the country, how very heavy tithe is on some land, and how arrears have accumulated, not because of the refusal of the tithe-payer to pay, but simply owing to his inability in the present condition of the agricultural industry to meet the obligations falling upon him. Can the Minister not agree that where those liabilities have been contracted under the previous conditions, he should not make this Bill 2174 retrospective? I know that we cannot upset these provisions altogether, much as some of us would like to see a modification of the personal liability. It has been argued that now that this liability has become a national charge, it is a charge on the citizens, and the Treasury has to shoulder the liability and, therefore, should have more guarantee of payment than in the past. That is an arguable point, but surely that argument does not apply in this case, where we are concerned simply and solely with arrears. I appeal to the Minister to see that in this case there is a strong argument for giving those tithe-payers who are liable for arrears the same conditions under which they have been living up till now.
§ 2.10 p.m.
§ Mr. BELLENGER
I beg to second the Amendment.
I do not suppose we shall get much sympathy from the Minister, judging by recent events, but I would like to bring to his notice a most significant paragraph in the Report of the Royal Commission on Tithe Rent charge. The right hon. Gentleman, I imagine, has drawn up this Bill largely upon the Commission's Report, though he has made certain alterations in their recommendations, but this is what the Commission say in regard to arrears, in paragraph 162:We would make a strong appeal to tithe-owners and tithepayers alike to facilitate the administration of the extinguishment scheme and to enable it to be put into operation without friction.This is the portion that I would like to emphasise:We would urge tithe-owners that they should consider very carefully whether they would be well advised to press to the uttermost in all cases their legal rights in regard to arrears of tithe rentcharge.That is the point which my hon. Friend has been making in moving this Amendment. The Minister knows the agitation which has been going on by tithe rent-payers, which has culminated in a series of events which should not have taken place in this country of ours. We know that distraints have taken place and that tithe-payers have been sold up to pay their tithe rentcharge. When the Coin-mission take over, they will be taking the place of Queen Anne's Bounty and 2175 other authorities. It will be His Majesty, or the Government, that will take possession of these arrears, and they will have to enforce payment of the arrears in ways which the previous owners were not able to do. We are only asking the Minister to consider the equity of the argument that we are advancing when we ask that these arrears, the collection of which was only enforceable in a certain manner?before the passing of this Bill, if it does pass, should be collected in the same way and should not be collected with all the strengthened powers and rights that the Income Tax authorities possess.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I have great sympathy with the point made by the hon. Members for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Price) and Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), and I hope to be able to convince them that I have met their point. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw has just said that he wishes these arrears to be collected in the same manner as that in which they have been collected in the past, but that means that the uttermost farthing should be collected, the full legal liability. We do not wish that. Nobody wishes that. This Clause is a concession to the tithe-payer who has fallen into arrears, and Sub-section (6) is his charter. Under Sub section (6) he gets those remissions of which we have just been speaking. That is a very great concession to the tithe-payer, for not merely are his arrears remitted, but they may be arrears in respect of which a decree has been made. This Clause by agreement takes power to reopen the books of the Courts and to make remissions of arrears which have been decreed recoverable by courts of justice in this country. That is a very strong step. There are only two methods that had to be adopted. Either you had to leave the arrears with the Bounty to whom they had fallen due, and leave the Bounty the powers of collection which it possessed, and which, as it was going out of business, it would without any doubt exercise very stringently—
§ Mr. BELLENGER
Considering the smallness of their returns in the past is it possible that they would get better results when they were going out of business?
§ Mr. ELLIOT
Anyone who knows anything about the collecting of debts knows this, that, say, a doctor in practice takes very good care not to dun his poor patients too vigorously for their debts, but anyone who has gone out of business, or a person who buys up all sorts of bad debts, has no obligation to anybody, and he does his best to get the uttermost farthing of those bad debts. If a business is wound up and its debts sold the debt collector is generally one who has no bowels of compassion or mercy. We must admit that if these debts had been left for the Bounty to collect the payer would have received harsher measures than he will receive under this Clause. The Bounty has no power to make the remissions that would be made here. The Arrears Investigation Committee in considering these things will certainly take into consideration the more stringent powers of recovery which are open to it. Clearly if it was directed to proceed only by the older methods in these cases it would need to set out to recover a greater amount of the debt due from the unhappy tithe-payer. I beg those who support this Amendment to agree that we feel great sympathy for the tithe-payers' position, and we have done our utmost to meet it. The procedure outlined in the Clause is a more satisfactory way of meeting their position than that provided in the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Amendment made: In page 27, line 14, leave out "was made," and insert "have been given."—[Mr. Elliot.]