HC Deb 31 May 1962 vol 660 cc1655-8

6.31 p.m.

Sir Hubert Ashton (Second Church Estates Commissioner)

I beg to move, That the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure, 1962, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. At the outset I should inform the House that this Measure was first considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee on 14th June, 1961. All the Clauses, with the exception of Clause 6, were acceptable to the members. It was felt, however, that the proposals of Clause 6 were rather widely drawn and possibly too uncertain in effect.

Subsequently a meeting took place on 28th June between the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly. After discussion on Clause 6 the Measure was withdrawn and resubmitted to the Church Assembly with certain modifications in respect of this Clause. This Measure, in its slightly revised form, was considered again by the Ecclesiastical Committee on 8th May and it has reported favourably upon the Measure.

Clause 1 deals with fees payable to officials for the legal duties which they perform. It is now proposed that the assessment of 'those fees should be made by a Committee of three lawyers which should be set up from time to time at the request of the two Archbishops; one to be chosen by the Lord Chancellor, one by the Chairman of the Bar Council and one by the President of the Law Society. These fees will be paid to legal officers as defined in the Measure and will require the approval of the Church Assembly and of both Houses of Parliament. The Church Commissioners will ultimately be responsible for the payment of these fees.

Clause 2 deals with fees payable to the clergy for services in respect of Church offices. The Church Commissioners are charged with the duty of providing a new and uniform table of fees to be in force, in due course, in every parish. This table also will have to receive the approval of the Church Assembly and be laid before both Houses of Parliament.

Clause 4 will have the effect of relieving the clergy of their liability for fees payable to a legal officer on their ordination, admission to or resignation from any office. Such fees, in the first instance, will become the liability of the archbishops and bishops, who, in turn, will be reimbursed from the General Fund of the Church Commissioners. I am sure that the House will agree that this is in accordance with modern practice and it is the right and proper course.

These are the three main provisions of the Measure which stems from the Fees and Faculties Commission. The proposals received careful consideration in the Church Assembly and were passed without division and without amendment except minor ones proposed by the members in charge. One of these was my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing-Commander Bullus). I have already stated that the Ecclesiastical Committee has reported favourably upon the Measure now before the House, and it gives me great pleasure to move the Motion which is in my name and those of other hon. Members on both sides of the House.

6.35 p.m.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

This Measure has recently been described by a leading bishop as a humane but tardy Measure, and I do not suppose anyone would wish to delay its adoption. But there are one or two points that worry me. We understand that this is a Measure intended to relieve clergy from the liability of paying certain fees to ecclesiastical lawyers. That no doubt is where the element of humanity comes in, that it is desirable to defend the clergy against the predatory tendencies of ecclesiastical lawyers. I see that in Clause 4 it states: … any clerk in Holy Orders would but for in passing of this Measure have been liable to pay any fee, whether required by law or custom, to a legal officer … I note that although the fees are to be paid by the bishops and archbishops, they will eventually be reimbursed by the Church Commissioners.

No honourable body of men has ever been worse served by its lawyers than the Church Commissioners. There is a long history of fees being paid by these people for advice which has turned out to be bad. History reveals that the property of the Church has been mishandled through bad advice and the inadequacy of the protection which ought to have been available to the owners of Church property to defend it against misuse. The history includes old scandals in areas such as those in my constituency which the Church Commissioners have been helpless to put right because of terms in old leases and inability to show the necessary professional competence or imagination to detect tendencies which might develop. All these things add up to a rather sad record of fees being paid out by the Church Commissioners for bad advice. I hope that the Church Commissioners will take the opportunity to review their habit of paying fees to the professional parasites who hang around their organisation and will look at the fees paid to lawyers and to surveyors and firms of administrators and really see that not only on the part of the clergy now to be defended on humane grounds from——

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is quite impossible to discuss, in connection with this Measure, things like fees to surveyors. The hon. Gentleman must address himself to the Measure.

Mr. Parkin

I was speaking my last sentence, Mr. Speaker.

If the implications of this Measure are that the Church Commissioners are to take on new responsibilities in relation to fees of any kind, I am sure that out of their experience of the past they will take this opportunity to look much more carefully at the scales of fees they pay and the service which they get in return.

6.38 p.m.

Sir H. Ashton

I am glad that the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) agrees that the parson should be relieved of this burden of fees. It may be a little tardy but we have to go through a considerable process in our Church legislation, and now the Measure is nearly on the Statute Book.

On the other hand, I am very sorry indeed that he referred to lawyers who advise the Church Commissioners as not only predatory but inefficient. I ought to tell him that a great deal of the good advice given by the legal officers, chancellors and others to the bishops is given entirely without any fee. I therefore feel that it is a great pity that such comments were made by him, and I should like to inform him that from my experience they are quite untrue. As far as we humanly can, if the Measure goes through we shall continue to run the Church Commissioners' affairs in the most efficient manner that we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure, 1962, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament,

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