HL Deb 22 March 1860 vol 157 cc1007-17

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving the second reading of the Qualification for Offices Abolition Bill, the object of which was to render unnecessary the subscribing of certain declarations as qualifications for office, said that a similar measure, with one clause omitted from the present Bill, passed the other House last Session, but came up to their Lordships at so late a period that it could not he passed for want of time. The clause, to the omission of which he had referred, he by no means regretted. Its object was to permit corporations as such to attend Dissenting places of worship; and although by its omission a slight political humiliation might seem to be inflicted on Dissenters, he thought that it removed some temptations to religious imperfections. The Test Act of 1828 contained a declaration which he proposed by this Bill to do away with. When it passed its second reading it did not contain this declaration, and it was supported by the noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Derby). The Bill had hardly been passed before a public dinner was given in commemoration of the event, at which the late Duke of Sussex presided; and Lord John Russell then expressed his regret that the declaration had ever been required, but he had yielded to it because it was a declaration applying to the functions of civil life, and not to religious opinions. The declaration was framed with very little thought as to the component parts of the community. The consequence was, that the Act had not been long enforced before two other Acts were found necessary—one to soften down the force of the declaration in favour of the Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists, the other to confer the like favour upon the Jews. But, notwithstanding these ameliorations, their Lordships had been made aware, by a petition which he had lately had the honour to present to the House, that men highly esteemed, and in other respects well qualified, were, by this declaration prevented from becoming members of corporations, and so their fellow-citizens lost the benefit of their services. The excuse which existed at the time the Act was passed no longer existed; for when the declaration was first required the corporations possessed ecclesiastical property; but by the Corporation Act of 1835 they were dispossessed of such patronage. The declaration ran in these words:— I, A. B., do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, upon the true faith of a Christian, that I will never exercise any power, authority, or influence which I may possess by virtue of the office of [ ] to injure or weaken the Protestant Church as it is by law established in England, or to disturb the said. Church, or the Bishops and Clergy of the said Church, in the possession of any rights or privileges to which such Church or the said Bishops and Clergy are or may be by law entitled. Now, some Dissenters objected to the needless introduction of the words "in the presence of God," as profane; but the great objection to it was that the words were ambiguous and ensnaring to the conscience; and some doubted whether, having taken such an oath, they could with an easy conscience petition for the abolition of church rates, on the ground that such abolition might be considered as tending to injure and weaken the Established Church and others who could enter a corporation with a good conscience, and petition against church rates, thinking that their abolition would be an addition to the strength of the Establishment, might have it unjustly imputed to them that they had violated their oaths. In conclusion he would say that, on the ground put they should not exclude from office those who were qualified for it, and in the interests of morality and religion, he asked their Lordships to agree to the second reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.


said, that the noble Lord who had moved the second reading of this Bill stated, as a recommendation of the measure to their Lordships, that it had passed through the Commons without any dissent. That, to his (Lord Chelmsford's) mind, was not a strong argument in its favour. It would have been more satisfactory to him if there had been a difference of opinion on and a discussion of the Bill in the other House. In fact, he had spoken to one or two Members of Parliament on the subject, and he was disposed to think that the Bill had slipped through the Commons without observation. Under these circumstances, he thought their Lordships ought to consider the Bill on its merits alone. It would have been more satisfactory, too, if the noble Lord had entered into some explanation of the circumstances which had rendered this Bill necessary. It was riot desirable to legislate except on a pressing occasion; either there ought to be some grievance, which called for a remedy, or the proposer of a measure ought to show that some substantial benefit would result from it, in order to justify the interference of the House; but he ventured to think that there were no circumstances whatever to recommend this Bill to their Lordships. In 1828, when it was proposed to repeal the Corporation and Test Acts, very considerable alarm was excited in the country. Sir Robert Peel—at that time Mr. Peel—who was Secretary of State for the Home Department, in order to allay apprehensions and smooth the passage of the Bill through Parliament, proposed the declaration in question. The clause in which it was contained began by a recital, which was inserted in the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, and then proceeded to exact from all persons admitted to any office of magistracy or place, trust or employment, in the government of any corporation, a declaration to this effect:— I do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare on the true faith of a Christian, that I will never exercise any power, authority, or influence, which I may possess by virtue of the office of [ ], to injure or weaken the Protestant Church, as it is by law established in England, or to disturb said Church, or the Bishops and Clergy of the said Church, in the possession of any rights or privileges to which said Church or the Bishops and Clergy of said Church are or may be by law entitled. The object which Sir Robert Peel had in view was not to guard against aggression so much as to obtain from every Dissenter, on his admission to office, a record and acknowledgment of the predominance of the Established Church. The declaration was accepted by Lord John Russell, who moved the Bill in the House of Commons after careful consideration;—that noble Lord stating that in his opinion the declaration did not impose any restrictions on religious liberty. The declaration was considered very essential at the time it was introduced into the Act. Sir Robert Peel was of opinion, that if the measure of 1828 had proposed the simple repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, there Would have been an overwhelming majority against it; but he thought that the insertion of this declaration would induce many persons to waive their objections. The Dissenters, therefore, having obtained privileges under certain conditions, now sought to retain the privileges, and to get rid of the conditions. If their Lordships consented to such a proposition, they would create an evil precedent which might be used on future occasions to disturb national settlements of still greater importance. What were the grievances of the Dissenters? What were the reasons which should induce their Lordships to pass this Bill? He had listened in vain to hear them. The noble Lord had said, that in consequence of this declaration some Dissenters were scrupulous in taking part in questions in which the Church was concerned. That might be; but the question for their Lordships was, as to whether the declaration itself was of such a nature as that any Dissenter, who really meant honestly and fairly, and did not propose to weaken or injure the Established Church, ought to have any objection whatever to take it. It was singular that those objections, founded on the scrupulosity of Dissenters, were not urged by the parties themselves when the declaration was introduced. Now, after an acquiescence of thirty years objections were brought forward. If these persons recognized the predominance of the Established Church, they would not object to make this harmless declaration; and if it were an impediment in the way of those who wished to injure the Established Church, Parliament ought to adhere to it. He was opposed to the Bill on these grounds:—first, because it was calculated to disturb a settlement in such a way as to deprive one of the parties to that settlement of a condition which it was agreed they should have the benefit of; secondly, because the noble Lord who moved it had not been able to point to the existence of any grievance for which a remedy was required; and, thirdly, because by passing the Bill their Lordships would be removing a stumbling-block out of the way of some Dissenters who might be disposed to injure and weaken the Established Church. He, therefore, begged to move as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

Moved, To leave out ("now") for the purpose of inserting ("this day six months.")


said, he should undoubtedly support the second reading of this Bill. If the noble and learned Lord who had just sat down complained that the noble Lord who moved the second reading of the Bill had adduced no arguments in its favour, he (the Duke of Newcastle) must retort that he had heard from the noble and learned Lord no arguments in favour of the Amendment. The noble and learned Lord's representation of what took place in the House of Commons was not accurate. The Bill did not slip through without observation. On the con- trary, when the second reading was moved at a late hour, it was objected to, and the debate adjourned for three weeks, and a day was expressly fixed for the discussion. On that day the hon. Member for Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) stated again his objections to the Bill. He was not supported by any Member either on his own or on the other side of the House, and the Bill was read a second time without a division. His noble and learned Friend said he could not see what object was to be gained by passing the Bill. He admitted that it might not seem to them a very great or important object; but there might be many individuals differing from the Established Church to whom the declaration might be a stumbling block, not in the way of any disposition to injure the Church, but in the way of conscience. He himself knew the case of a highly respectable gentleman who refused to take municipal office on account of this declaration, and yet he was incapable of making use of any influence which that office might give him against the Established Church whether he took the declaration or not. The law at present was in an anomalous state. Every officer under the Crown was bound to take this declaration, but not one-tenth did take it, and a Bill was annually passed exempting them from the pains and penalties. But it happened that those who held municipal offices were bound to go before a magistrate, and there was no exemption in their case. It was absurd that those who held important offices under the Crown, and had the power to exercise their influence prejudicially, should be exempted by an Act of Indemnity, and that common councillors in small boroughs, who had no power of supporting or injuring the Established Church, should be compelled to go before a magistrate and make the declaration. No one who had witnessed the scenes when the declaration was taken could help noticing that it was taken with irreverence, because the general feeling was that it was a remnant of the times when Dissenters were excluded from municipal offices, and it was not effectual for the object in view. His noble and learned Friend submitted that passing this Bill might be a formidable precedent bearing upon other national engagements; but, unless he could show that any settlement once made was never to be altered, he did not see the force of his argument. At the time the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed there was great apprehension that the in- troduction of Dissenters would be very injurious to the Established Church; but those fears had been entirely dissipated, and the experience of thirty-two years proved that, apart from the declaration, no such danger existed; and that fact ought to operate in removing the conditions and restrictions that were imposed at that time. This Bill was carried through the House of Commons last year against an adverse minority, and was brought up to this House with a clause for repealing the provision by which it was forbidden to carry the insignia of municipal offices to places other than the Established Church. That involved a matter of feeling which he could well understand, and he thought the promoters of the present Bill had done well to omit that clause. The omission having been made, the Bill had obtained the unanimous sanction of the other House, as no division was taken upon it; and he confessed he had hoped that no such objection would have been taken as had now been offered by the Amendment of his noble and learned Friend.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Duke in thinking that the immediate practical effect of this Bill would not be very considerable; but I do not consider the question involved in it is of that trifling importance which he deems it to be. There is no doubt about it; the declaration which this Bill seeks to repeal was intended at the time the Act was passed, and has ever since been considered as a positive and formal declaration from all parties taking office under the Crown, in whatever capacity, that they looked, and that the Legislature looked, upon the Established Church of the country as a national establishment. The noble Lord who introduced this Bill has failed to mention any particular grievance under the operation of the present law or any particular hardship arising from the existing system. The noble Duke who has just sat down founded his argument mainly on two considerations. First, he stated that, however incredible it might appear, there were certain persons among Dissenters who felt the operation of the Act as a great grievance, and as a stumbling-block in the way of conscience; and he says that he himself knows personally an individual who had been deterred from accepting a municipal office in consequence of an objection which he entertained to making the declaration required of him on that occasion. The noble Duke added that that person was not disposed to make any attack or encroachment on the Church Establishment. Now, if that be the case, I cannot conceive what possible objection he could have to say, in accordance with the requirements of the law, that he had no such disposition or intention. While, on the other hand, if the noble Duke were mistaken, and the individual in question, and other conscientious Dissenters, could not make such a declaration, that was a good reason why the declaration should not be unnecessarily or carelessly repealed. But, my Lords, it is impossible that Parliament can be called upon to legislate for the abandonment of an enactment which, though small in extent, is, nevertheless, not unimportant in principle, merely because certain gentlemen, having no intention to do a certain act, refuse to declare that they have no intention to do it. The noble Duke supplies another argument against the Bill; he says we know that practically the annual Act of Indemnity covers the case of a large portion of those now subject to this declaration. If it do so all persons who would object to make it are entirely relieved from the difficulty which is supposed to be thrown in the way by their declaration. But the fact is, that the annual Act of Indemnity applies to certain offices and not to others, but the noble Duke makes no distinction between those cases. The declaration is in certain cases required to be taken within a period of four or five months after entering into the office; and, in the meantime, the annual Act of Indemnity may be passed for the relief of the persons concerned, for Parliament may pass or withhold it as it may think fit, and in that case these parties would be covered by the Act. But there are other cases in which persons are not able to enter upon the discharge of the duties of their office without having first made the declaration. Now, I observe that the framers of the Bill have carefully inserted a proviso that the declaration shall be repealed in all cases, whether the declaration is to be made previously or subsequently to the commencement of the execution of the duties of the office, and, therefore, the passing of the annual Indemnity Act would have no operation. My Lords, I will not argue the question at any length, because it is not, I think, one of great practical importance. But my objection to the Bill is this—I consider it to be one of a series of measures which are being industriously brought forward and actively supported by parties who are avowedly desirous of destroying the influence and authority of the Established Church; who are anxious to place that Church in every respect upon the same footing as that of the Dissenting sects of this country. This Bill is promoted mainly by the persons who are most active in the pursuit of that object. They bring it forward, not, of course, with the avowed intention of injuring the Established Church, but with the perfect knowledge that if Parliament, upon such arguments as have been used, should assent to a measure of this description, there would be an apparent sanction of the Legislature to the principle which they seek to introduce; so that they feel that by weakening, if not the power at all events the authority of the Church as a national establishment, Parliament would lend a colour to the argument of those who said there ought to be perfect equality between the Established Church and the Dissenting sects. Such persons would regard this Bill, supposing it be passed, not as in the slightest degree valuable in itself, but as a step, and not an immaterial one, to the authorizing and sanctioning by Parliament of those principles which they seek to carry out, but which I hope your Lordships will never assent to.


said, he regretted there was only one other Prelate (the Bishop of Bangor) to take part in that discussion. He had had no conversation on the subject with any of his right rev. Friends, but he could not refrain from declaring that he himself could not assent to the second reading of this Bill. The consideration that had the greatest weight with him in opposing it was that which the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) had dwelt upon at the conclusion of his speech, when he referred to the avowed intention of certain of their Dissenting brethren to use all the opportunities which might present themselves to alter the state and condition of the Established Church, so as to place it simply on a level with the Dissenting sects. He trusted that there had been nothing in his conduct since he was first placed in the responsible position of a Bishop of the Church of England which could justify any one in imputing to him an unfriendly feeling towards his Dissenting brethren; but he must say that the design Which many of them avowed was in reality a design against the entire constitution of this kingdom as by law esta- blished in Church and State. If the matter were pressed to a division he should certainly vote in favour of the Amendment.


thought the emptiness of the right rev. Bench spoke very strongly on the other side from that which the right rev. Bishop had espoused. If there were any danger to the Church from this Bill their Lordships might be sure that the most rev. Prelates the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Oxford and Exeter, and other of the right rev. Prelates, would have been present to support the interests of the Church of which they were the distinguished representatives. At one time such a declaration might have been necessary; but the ease was quite altered now; and in his opinion all declarations which were not necessary were to be condemned, and he thought the one now in question belonged to that category; he thought their Lordships should pass this Bill. The Established Church never stood higher in the affections of the people than at this moment, and this had mainly arisen from the liberality of the Church, and the removal of the disabilities under which the Dissenters formerly laboured. Some years ago he had himself brought in a Bill which obtained the sanction of Parliament, allowing the sheriffs of municipal corporations to serve without making this declaration. Lord Lyndhurst subsequently extended the exemption to the holders of all municipal offices, as far as members of the Jewish persuasion were concerned. The declaration was, under present circumstances, totally unnecessary. There was, perhaps, no great grievance in its being required, but, as it was unnecessary, it ought to be formally repealed.

After a few words from Lord REDESDALE, Lord TEYNHAM replied.

On Question, That ("now") stand part of the Motion, their Lordships divided:—Contents 2]; Not-contents 44; Majority 23.

Campbell, L. (L. Chancellor,) Dartrey, L. (L. Cremorne.)
Foley, L. [Teller.]
Newcastle, D. Lyveden, L.
Somerset, D. Methuen, L.
Camperdown, E. Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)
De Grey, E.
Saint Germans, E. Somerhill, L. (M. Clanricarde.)
Sydney, V. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Belper, L. Strafford, L. (V. Enfield.)
Cranworth, L.
Sundridge, L. (D. Argyll.) Truro, L.
Wodehouse, L.
Teynham, L. [Teller.]
Marlborough, D. Bangor, Bp.
Chichester, Bp.
Bath, M. [Teller.]
Bristol, M. Brodrick, L. (V. Midleton,)
Salisbury, M.
Westmeath, M. Chelmsford, L.
Amherst, E. Churston, L.
Colchester, L.
Carnarvon, E. De L'Isle and Dudley, L.
Cathcart, E.
De La Warr, E. Denman, L.
Derby, E. Digby, L.
Ellenborough, E. Dinevor, L.
Erne, E. Egerton, L.
Hardwicke, E. Feversham, L.
Home, E. Kingsdown, L.
Lucan, E. Northwick, L.
Portarlington, E. Redesdale, L.
Romney, E. Saltoun, L.
Stanhope, E. Sheffield, L. (E. Sheffield.)
Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Stewart of Stewart's Court, L. (M. Londerry.)
Canterbury, V.
Dungannon, V. Tenterden, L.
Hardinge, V. Wensleydale, L.
Hood, V. Wynford, L. [Teller.]

Resolved in the Negative; and Bill to be read 2a on this Day Six Months.