HL Deb 24 April 1866 vol 182 cc1980-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving the second reading of this Bill, said: My Lords, in asking your Lordships to consent to give a second reading to this Bill, I do not think it would be either convenient or necessary that I should dwell on the sub- ject-matter of the measure. It has been frequently before your Lordships, and if by your decision to-night you render it un-necessary for me ever to bring again its familiar features before your notice, you will confer a benefit upon the country and upon yourselves. But to those of your Lordships who are not familiar with the Bill, I would merely say that its object is to relieve a very large number of persons from the obligation on accepting office of making a declaration of a similar nature to that which until this moment has been incumbent upon Members of both Houses of the Legislature. My Lords, on the abolition of the Tests and Corporations Acts a certain declaration was appointed to be taken by all persons holding municipal and civil offices, the effect of which was that they would not exercise any power, authority, or influence they might possess by virtue of their offices to injure or weaken the Protestant Church as by law established, or to disturb the Bishops or clergy of such Church in the possession of any rights or privileges to which such Bishops or clergy might by law be entitled. The fate of this Bill is much affected, I think, by the circumstance that a Bill altering entirely the oaths to be taken by Members of the Legislature was read a third time and passed by your Lordships yesterday. It is hardly necessary to impress upon your Lordships that the Bill now before the House is in a great degree the corollary of that which your Lordships have already passed. I am sure your Lordships would not consider it necessary or just to impose upon a largo body of men on their appointment to municipal offices declarations from which you have relieved the Members of both Houses of Parliament. In asking you to consent to the second reading of this Bill, I do not believe I am asking you to abandon any principle whatsoever. In allowing this measure to become law, your Lordships will not change any opinions or modify any views. It was impossible to have witnessed the manner in which the earnest and able exposition of principles by the noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Bath) was received the other night without feeling that while the House did respect and honour these principles, it considered that the time had come when it was inconvenient that they should be enforced by law, and that it was to other securities and processes we must look for the defence of our institutions. It is a question of a change of procedure, and not of a change of principle. I ask you therefore to consent to the abolition of these declarations us you have consented to the modification of those oaths that were deemed necessary when formerly resistance led to civil conflicts, and which are the less required when disputes are relegated to the domain of public opinion. It is no longer either an illegality or an offence to hold opinions adverse to the present constitution of Church and State. To the majority of your Lordships certainly, and I believe to the majority of the thinking people of the country, the moderate, reasonable, and decent connection between Church and State which now exists is acceptable and advantageous from both an ecclesiastical and a civil point of view, and there need be no apprehension of any unjust interference with the Church on the part of the State. At the same time there will remain many excellent persons, whose morality and religion we respect, who do think that a dissolution between Church and State would be advisable and advantageous. The value of these declarations is well illustrated by a Return laid before your Lordships last year. It showed that in Manchester alone something like 3,000 persons who had held office during the last few years had never taken them. What has been done to meet this difficulty? You are compelled every Session to pass a Bill of Indemnity, the object of which was to indemnify those persons who have not made the declarations from the penalties they have incurred. I shall be glad if one effect of your Lordships acceding to my proposal should be that this Indemnity Bill should be either abolished or considerably altered. The passing of the Indemnity Bill is not in accordance with our notion of justice, and fends to bring the law into disrespect, disassociating our ideas of the breach of the law from its necessary penalty. If you pass the second reading of this Bill I cannot help thinking it would be advisable to bring the obligation imposed upon persons accepting office into harmony with the obligation which is now about to be imposed upon the Members of the Legislature, and that mayors, aldermen, town councillors, ward assessors, revising assessors, town clerks, and clerks of the peace should be required to make and subscribe a declaration in the same terms as the Parliamentary oath. By this procedure you will place all persons taking such offices upon the same footing in regard to conscientious declarations as the Members of both Houses. A noble Duke below me (the Duke of Argyll) emphatically stated the other night how great a relief our Catholic fellow-subjects would feel the change of the Parliamentary oath. I would venture to hope that our Dissenting fellow-Christians will feel, if your Lordships pass this Bill, that the obligations we have hitherto imposed upon them have not been caused by any personal ill-will, but that they have sprung out of accidental and historic circumstances for which your Lordships are in no way responsible. What we aim at now is to establish, as far as we can, equality of opinion and freedom of judgment among all the inhabitants of the country; and I believe that, so far from impairing by such an act the security of our present institutions, we shall root them more firmly in the hearts of our people.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Houghton.)


My Lords, when on former occasions I have objected to the passing of a measure similar to this now before your Lordships, it has not been on account of any value I attached to the operation of the Bill; but, as I have more than once stated, it was because I considered it an indication of an animus hostile to the Church of England, and a measure designed to weaken its position in the country, and that not on account of the special provisions of the Bill, but because it was always accompanied by other measures having a tendency more or less hostile to the Church. I quite agree with the noble Baron (Lord Houghton) that after we have relieved the Members of the Legislature from making these declarations, we cannot continue to impose them on municipal authorities and other officers. It is not, therefore, my intention to offer any opposition to the second reading of the Bill. I concur generally with the views the noble Lord has expressed, and that it would be desirable that a declaration corresponding to the Parliamentary oath should be taken by municipal authorities, but not by those in subordinate positions. I think that the noble Lord who has taken charge of this Bill will find it necessary to introduce some provisions in addition to those he has proposed, because this Bill only abolishes certain declarations required to be made under particular Acts. Inde- pendently of these, municipal authorities are now required to take the oath of allegiance and make the declaration of supremacy precisely in the form in which Members of the Legislature do. I do not know whether, in accordance with the forms of the House, the Bill is capable of being altered so as to do all that is required; if not, the noble Lord will do well to withdraw it; and then another Bill may be introduced in the other House of Parliament, which, as there is a perfect agreement of opinion on this matter between the two branches of the Legislature, may speedily become law. This is a matter which I leave entirely to his consideration. I also entirely concur with the noble Lord in the other point to which he has adverted. When you have so much simplified the oaths to be taken by Members of the Legislature and public functionaries as is now proposed, it is deserving of our serious consideration whether it would not be wise to do away with the annual passing of the Indemnity Bill. To continue passing it year after year would be practically throwing a slur on the oaths still required to be taken; and therefore I hope that Her Majesty's Government will consider the propriety of discontinuing the Indemnity Act this year. This Bill provides retrospective indemnity for all who have not taken the oath; and it is time to give up the pernicious and injurious practice of annually passing an Indemnity Act.


said, that there was a point to which he was anxious to call the attention of the noble Lord (Lord Houghton). He apprehended, that the declarations were at present only taken by members of corporations in England, and not in Ireland or Scotland. Now, for his part, he saw no reason why an Irish mayor or a Scotch provost should not be called upon to make the declaration now proposed. He had always thought the old declaration most worthless as a defence of the Church of England, and he was glad to find that it was about to be abolished with the unanimous consent of the House.


said, that notwithstanding the recent alterations of the law, there was no uniformity in regard to the oaths taken by solicitors and attorneys upon their admission. Both in the Courts of Common Law and in the Court of Chancery Protestants took one oath, while Roman Catholics took another. It was highly desirable that the law should be uniform; and, in his opinion, it might be made so by a little alteration in the present Bill.


expressed his gratification at the spirit in which their Lordships had received his proposal. He thought, however, it would be desirable to consider seriously the advisability of placing negative and positive propositions in the same Act. He hoped that the Bill would be passed as it stood, and would suggest that a Bill should be introduced by Her Majesty's Government in the House of Commons, with the object of assimilating all declarations to the form now taken by Members of the Legislature.


said, the Government had much satisfaction in seeing the unanimous concurrence of the House on this question, which had always received the support of the Government. He agreed that it would be desirable to do away with the annual passing of an Indemnity Bill. He could not agree, however, with the noble Lord behind him (Lord Taunton) that it would be advisable to impose the declaration upon persons who were not now called upon to take the oath. There were some other points with regard to these oaths. The Act passed the other day referred to the subject of Parliamentary oaths only; whereas a Catholic was still obliged to take the old form of oath in order to qualify himself to hold the office I of magistrate. He thought the whole matter might be advantageously taken into consideration at the present moment, when there appeared to be so general a concurrence on the part of both Houses as to the liberal and sensible mode of dealing with the question.

Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.