HC Deb 27 July 1965 vol 717 cc363-9

Where any ecclesiastical benefice of the Church of England is vacant the Church Commissioners shall have power to take any action which, but for the vacancy, would fall to be taken under this Act by the incumbent for the time being.—[Mr. Corfield]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause be read a Second time.—[Mr. Corfield.]

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is proposed that with this new Clause we take the following four Amendments, all in Clause 19: Amendment No. 42, in page 10, line 32, to leave out paragraph (g) and to insert: (g) for enabling the Church Commissioners to take any action under this Act which would, but for the vacancy of any particular ecclesiastical benefice of the Church of England, falls to be taken by the incumbent for the time being. Amendment No. 43, in page 10, line 32, to leave out paragraph (g).

Amendment No. 44, in page 10, line 32, to leave out from "act" to "ecclesiastical" in line 33 and to insert: with respect to any right belonging to an". Amendment No. 45, in page 10, line 32, to leave out from "act" to "ecclesiastical" in line 33 and to insert: with respect to any land or rights belonging to an".

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

This new Clause and all the Amendments which go with it are relevant to Clause 19 (1,g). I say "relevant", though in the context of this Bill I suppose that a more appropriate term would be "appurtenant to" or "levant" and "couchant with". Clause 19 (1,g) provides that the Minister may make regulations for enabling the Church Commissioners to act on behalf of the incumbent of any ecclesiastical benefice of the Church of England which is vacant". The first point which arises is that that does not make sense. This was pointed out in Committee, when the Minister said that he was quite unbiased about it and would look at the matter again. We note with gratification that the right hon. Gentleman has put down an Amendment to cause the paragraph to make sense. In the first place, as at present drafted it does not make sense because, ex hypothesi, there is no incumbent there if a benefice is vacant.

The House can make its selection about the ways of dealing with the "sense" point. One attempt which I have made is Amendment No. 42. I concede at once that perhaps it is not the most elegant of drafting, but it does at least make sense, and Amendment No. 43 goes with it. Amendment No. 44 is an admirable Amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester-sire, South (Mr. Corfield), and that makes sense. Finally, I am glad to say that there is Amendment No. 45, put down by the Minister himself, which one has to concede also makes sense.

The first matter which arises is that we should make sense of Clause 19(1,g), and we hope that, with the many alternatives open to the House, it will select one of them and achieve a sensible Clause 19 (1,g), if it decides to persist in keeping that clause in its present form at all.

That raises the second issue which comes before the House in considering the new Clause, and that is a consideration which was again raised in Committee as to whether it is right to provide for matters such as this by regulation and whether it would not be preferable, as envisaged by the new Clause, that the matter be dealt with in the body of the Bill—namely, that it should be stated quite clearly that, Where any ecclesiastical benefice of the Church of England is vacant the Church Commissioners shall have power to take any action which, but for the vacancy, would fall to be taken under this Act by the incumbent for the time being. I do not know about the elegance of the drafting, although it seems to be effective and cogent and I hope and expect that the Minister will support us and will adopt the Clause on behalf of the Government. I am confident in taking that attitude because of what the right hon. Gentleman said in Committee. The point was raised, and he said: One is intending to make a provision. The provision is explicit, and unless there are difficulties which means that one ought to do it by regulation, I shall see whether we can meet the hon. Gentleman on this matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 15th June, col. 237.] That does not entirely make sense, just as the Clause originally did not, but what the Minister was saying was that he had made up his mind that the right people to act where there is a vacancy are the Church Commissioners. If that be the case, we feel that it would be entirely right that it should be said and should be put in the Bill as a definite statement.

If the Minister does not accept the new Clause, we on this side should like to hear what are the difficulties which have arisen. He conceded in Committee that only if there are difficulties should a matter such as this be dealt with by regulation, and that normally such a matter is dealt with in the body of the Act. We would agree with that, because it is in accordance with precedent that a matter such as this is dealt with in the Act.

Perhaps I might refer the Minister to Section 205 of the Town and Country Planning, Act, 1962, where, in subsection (2,b) he will find the following words, in any case, the fee simple shall, for the purposes of a compulsory acquisition of the property under Part V of this Act, be treated as being vested in the Church Commissioners, and any notice to treat shall be served, or be deemed to have been served, accordingly". Here is a matter which is almost pari passu with what we are considering now where it was thought appropriate in the body of the Act to mention that the Church Commissioners in similar circumstances should be the right body to act.

We shall be interested to hear whether there are any special difficulties of the character that the Minister referred to in Committee which prevent the Minister from adopting the new Clause, because we have no doubt that the proper place for the provision is in the body of the Act, and it is not an appropriate matter about which to give the Minister the power to make regulations.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

First, I would express the gratitude of my right hon. Friend and myself to the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) for the matter which he mentioned. I do not think that I can agree with him that the Clause as originally drafted was quite as idiotic as he made out, but this is not to say that it cannot be improved, and we think that our Amendment No. 45 improves the Clause and simplifies what we want to ensure in it.

As to the new Clause, my right hon. Friend, having consulted with those concerned, as he promised in Committee, has examined whether it would be advisable to provide for this matter directly in the body of the Bill, as the Clause suggests. I ought to say that paragraph (g) has had a somewhat unfortunate history. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman, who has been so interested in it, realises that it appeared only after discussion in another place. It was not in the Bill as originally drafted. It was put in at the instance of the Church Commissioners. We no sooner get it in and it comes from the other place, and there is this objection.

Nevertheless, we have reconsidered the matter to ascertain the best way of dealing with Church property which might involve ecclesiastical property or rights covered by the Bill. We have consulted our advisers, and our view is that it should not be dealt with in the Bill. Elegant as is the drafting of the new Clause, it could not possibly provide for all the types of ecclesiastical rights relating to the subject matter of the Bill.

We are dealing with a much more complicated matter than the transfer of the fee simple in the Town and Country Planning Acts. It is true that there are precedents for referring to these matters in a Statute. If I may give a point to the hon. Gentleman, he would have found a very much better precedent in the Pipelines Act. However, he will notice that it is at very considerable length, and if we wanted to cover all the types of rights in ecclesiastical property in this Bill it would make the subject matter of the Bill diminish in relation to the total length of the Bill. Those who have complained that this is a difficult matter, and that their constituents will not understand it, would find it even more difficult if a third of the Bill were taken up with such very complicated drafting. We cannot add this at present, and we think that it would not be in the interests of the Church Commissioners themselves, a view which, I think, they support.

The matter will be provided for in regulations. My right hon. Friend will have detailed consultations with the Church Commissioners so that the regulations will meet all that they have in mind. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to press his other Amendments on the point since in Amendment No. 45 we have substantially given the hon. Gentleman what he thought right and what we, on reflection, think right. We believe that the new definition puts the matter adequately and simply and leaves out all reference to "on behalf of the incumbent" because this is somebody acting when an incumbent is not there and we think this is a simpler and better way. We hope that when the time comes the hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendments, but will support Amendment No. 45

Mr. Peter Mills

I support the Clause, but I want to mention again my grave doubts about the whole matter being in the hands of the Church Commissioners only. I mentioned this point in Committee and still think it is important. We can hardly expect the Church Commissioners to be in touch with this sort of problem. Admittedly, it might be important that they should have the last say. But what do they really know in London about grazing rights and all that it means I do not think that they know very much about it. Surely it is the duty of the parochial church council during a vacancy to look after this matter, or at least the duty of the rural dean.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

Is the hon. Member speaking in favour in the Clause, or against it?

Mr. Mills

I am just coming to my point about this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that surely the parochial church council or the rural dean should advise the Church Commissioners and that it should not be left entirely to the Church Commissioners. We have previously been into the matter of hunting parsons and parsons who graze sheep and cattle on the moors and I do not want to go into that again. We have many vacancies, and we do not want to lose these rights. I ask the Minister to let the Church Commissioners know that they should at least take the advice of the parochial church council and the rural dean.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The Parliamentary Secretary has missed the point. If the incumbent were in office the Minister would not need to make regulations. This new Clause would merely give the Church Commisisoners the power to carry out what the incumbent would do if he were there. This is a wholesale gift, as it were, to the Church Commissioners. More important, the hon. Gentleman suggested what is a very bad parliamentary procedure that the House should delegate to the Minister the right to legislate and that the Minister should then sub-delegate that right to the Church Commissioners. Clause 19 starts with the words, The Minister may make regulations … That is well and good. If he is to make complete regulations we have delegated power to him to do so. But then the Clause goes no to say that he may make regulations enabling the Church Commissioners to do something.

That is really giving the Church Commissioners power to carry out sub-delegated legislation and it is bad parliamentary procedure. Far better, by our new Clause, to give the Church Commissioners the power to carry out quite clear duties which the incumbent would have carried out himself without having the status of delegated legislation—delegated to the Minister by this House with the Minister then sub-delegating it to the Church Commissioners.

Mr. Corfield

I am not satisfied with the Parliamentary Secretary's reply. He said that this provision is not as idiotic as it appears. But when there is a Clause which provides for one to do something on behalf of somebody who does not exist by definition, I regard that as a little stupid. I will not put it stronger. We hear about ghost writers in this House and we do not want ghost parsons creeping into the Bill.

It is no excuse to say that the House of Lords forgot about this and have now brought it into the wrong place. That does not make the situation any better. I support the view that the proper place for this provision is in the body of the Bill. In the Clause as originally drafted—which the hon. Gentleman did not think particularly idiotic—provision was merely made for the Church Commissioners to act where the incumbent is non-existent.

This is precisely what our new Clause itself says, that Where any ecclesiastical benefice … is vacant the Church Commissioners shall have power to take any action which, but for the vacancy, would fall to be taken under this Act by the incumbent for the time being. I cannot see that there is anything in the Bill or in the registration under the Bill which does not fall within those words … any action which, but for the vacancy, would fail to be taken … This would not be the last Government who would get beyond saying that a thing cannot be done. A lot can be done if one is determined. I challenge anyone in this House or in Whitehall to tell me of a single thing that the Church Commissioners could not do by virtue of the Bill. Unless the hon. Gentleman can give us an example, he should follow precedent and put this provision in the body of the Bill where it belongs.

Question put and negatived.