HL Deb 03 July 1868 vol 193 cc594-607

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.


Before dealing with the alterations made by the Select Committee in this Bill, which I think are on the whole improvements, I will offer a word or two on the general subject. My impression is that a Bill designed simply to abolish church rates unconditionally would, in effect, differ very little from what will be entailed by the passing of this. A few cases will occur of parishes in which there are no resident landlords, but only poor farmers, having a large and expensive church to maintain; in such cases local contributions will be few; but here the Church Building Society and other societies will step in and advance necessary funds. This is merely my impression of what will occur, though of course the Bill makes no allusion to such cases. It is stated in the Preamble that— Church rates have for some years ceased to be made or collected in many parishes by reason of the opposition thereto, and in many other parishes where church rates have been made, the levying thereof has given rise to litigation and ill-feeling. This is, no doubt, perfectly true, and the 1st clause proceeds to enact that no proceedings shall hereafter be taken to enforce or compel the payment of any church rate made in, any parish or place in England and Wales. To that 1st clause the Government agrees, and therefore in principle the prayer of Dissenters is, in fact, complied with. The object of the 2nd and 3rd clauses was to distinguish between ordinary church rates and rates the payment whereof is secured by Act of Parliament, or where I money has been borrowed on the security of church rates. All will agree in the justice of reserving the right to make and collect rates for such purposes. There are some other cases which may be doubtful, and, no matter what arrangements we may make, it is impossible that we can I absolutely prevent disputes. All that we can do is to reserve church rates which are really commuted tithes, and to take our chance as to any disputes that may arise; and as to the necessity of future legislation, which is not unlikely to arise, especially as there are no less than 700 Acts of Parliament, some of them of a very difficult and intricate nature, in which church rates are mentioned. So much with regard to that portion of the Bill which relates to the abolition of compulsory church rates. The other part of the measure relates to application and security of voluntary contributions for the repair of the fabric and for the other purposes for which rates have been levied. Now, the Bill allows vestries to continue the making and receiving of rates, the only difference being that the power of compelling payment is taken away. A vestry may decide that a certain sum is required, and persons may voluntarily pay at a certain rate in the pound. I think that in this respect the Select Committee have made an improvement, for they retain the vestry, the name and powers of which are well-known; and I can conceive that in numerous parishes where church rates are at present made no great change will occur in consequence of the absence of compulsion. Things are far more likely to go on as at present under these circumstances than if a new body were constituted, as was proposed by the other House. Then there is a clause empowering the incumbent and two householders, one appointed by the patron and one by the bishop, to act as trustees and receive any bequests, donations, or contributions for ecclesiastical purposes, which funds they may hand over to the churchwardens to be applied to such ecclesiastical purposes as they may specify. That is a provision which will come into operation in some cases, but I think that the Church Building Society or the churchwardens will generally apply the contributions they may receive. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has given Notice of a further clause, requiring the trustees to lay before the vestry an annual statement of their receipts and expenditure. Upon the whole this is a Bill which fulfils its object, for while abolishing compulsory rates it empowers the vestry to make voluntary rates, and it also empowers trustees to receive contributions. As to its general effect it is, I trust, the settlement of a controversy which ever since 1833 or 1834 has given rise to much ill-will and litigation, and therefore the termination of such a dispute is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Moreover, there is much greater anxiety than used to exist, not only to keep our churches in proper repair, but to preserve them in that ancient character which has long made them an object of reverence. Such feelings are not confined to members of the Church, for many Protestant Dissenters, members of whose families have been married in, churches in past times, or have been buried within their precincts, would be most unwilling to see those edifices fall into decay, and when the obnoxious compulsory powers are removed I believe they will contribute voluntarily. I know a case, indeed, in which a Dissenter gave £100 each to two churches, and I believe such cases will be more numerous after the passing of this measure. I hope, therefore, your Lordships will adopt the Bill in its present form, and send it down to the House of Commons. Some question may be raised there on the 9th clause, but I believe Protestant Dissenters, both those who are Members of the House of Commons and others who have taken a leading part in the controversy, are satisfied with a measure of this kind, and I am sure it will be a great advantage if we can pass such a Bill by the general consent of both Houses and of both Churchmen and Dissenters. It is much better to settle the question in this way than to leave it open, to be settled, perhaps, hereafter with angry feelings, when one party will be elated by victory and the other will feel sore under defeat. I shall not myself propose any alteration in the Bill as settled by the Select Committee.

Moved, "That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on the said Bill."—(The Earl Russell.)


I regret to be obliged to agree with the noble Earl, that the effect of this Bill as it now stands will not differ widely—I should scarcely say that it will differ at all—from the effect of a Bill for total abolition of church rates. When it came up from the House of Commons, it contained some very valuable provisions for the protection of the Church. It contained a provision that if the churchwarden was a Dissenter and did not pay his church rate, he should not be allowed to administer the payments of those who did contribute, but that a Churchman should be appointed for that purpose. That provision has disappeared; and now it will be necessary for Churchmen who wish to give their voluntary contributions to place them, if there be a Dissenting churchwarden, in his hands, however bitter and hostile to the Church he may be. Again, there was a provision that those who had not paid the church rate one year should not form part of the vestry for the purposes of a church rate in t the succeeding year. The result of that provision would have been that when once the first vestry had been held it would not be in the power of the Dissenters in any parish where they might be numerous and hostile to paralyze the action of the vestry, and to forbid altogether a voluntary rate from being raised. As the matter stands now it will remain in the power of the Dissenters, whenever they shall be irritated by some real or fancied grievance, to come to the vestry and prevent this voluntary rate from being made. Again, there was a third provision to this effect—that when any persons had promised to contribute to the maintenance of the Church, the churchwardens should have the power of going on with the church repairs, and afterwards of suing any person who, having promised to pay, had subsequently refused. It was obvious that the object was that the churchwardens should be exonerated from personal risk if they undertook repairs on the faith of being promised large sums which were afterwards refused. But that provision also had disappeared, and the effect of it would be this, that it would not be competent for any churchwarden, having any regard to his own safety, to spend a single farthing till he had it in his pocket. The statement of the noble Earl was, therefore, singularly just—that it scarcely differed, if it differed at all, from a Bill for the total abolition of' church rates, he deeply regretted that in a Committee of their Lordships' House it should have assumed such a character. But as it was assented to by Her Majesty's Government he could only say that the views with which many persons in the House of Commons assented to the measure had been entirely departed from, and that their interest in the measure was quite defeated.


My Lords, as I had the honour of serving on the Select Committee to which your Lordships committed this Bill, and took an interest in the progress of the Bill through the Committee, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words with reference to some of the changes which, have been made in it. I entirely agree in one respect with the observations of the noble Marquess who has just sat down. Nothing could be more unfortunate than that there should be any misconception as to the character of this Bill. I believe that this is a Bill for the abolition of church rates; that is, for the abolition of the compulsory power of levying those rates. I do not look upon the Bill as a compromise. I do not look upon it as giving back anything to the Church in return for the power which you take away. Having said so much, I will now state the advantages which I conceive to be gained by the clauses now to be found in the Bill over those which were in the Bill as it came from the House of Commons. When this Bill went into Committee it was clearly understood that the 1st clause, doing away with the coercive power of levying church rates, was not to be altered in any substantial manner. If it was the intention of your Lordships to do away with that clause the proper way would have been to have rejected the Bill on the Second Reading. The attention of the Committee, therefore, was addressed to the other parts of the Bill. The real difference between the clauses as they were before and as they are now is this—By the clauses of this Bill as they stand now, the Committee had it in view to leave the whole parochial machinery exactly as it stands at present minus the one power of the coercive levy of church rates. Their object in other respects was to leave the machinery untouched, so that in those parishes, of which there are a vast number, in which church rates are levied and coercive proceedings in the Courts of Law are unknown the course of making and levying the rate should go on just as at present. My Lords, I venture to entertain a hope that if this Bill becomes law the expectations of its supporters in that respect will be realized. I believe that, though by no means universally, yet in a very large number of parishes in the country, where from conscientious motives or otherwise, church rates have been refused, henceforth the vestries will assemble, church rates will be voted, and many persons will pay cheerfully and willingly who would refuse if they were levied compulsorily. If this be so the views which led to the introduction of those clauses will be fully accomplished. The view of the Committee was this, that the best hope of obtaining that result was by leaving the old machinery untouched; because if you introduced a new machinery you would put the present machinery out of gear. You would lose your old system without, perhaps, getting any other system in re- turn. My noble Friend (the Marquess of Salisbury) referred to the clauses which came up from the House of Commons. I quite agree with him as to the plausibility of some of those clauses. For instance, nothing can be more plausible than to say, "Do not let anyone who does not pay church rate vote either as to the expenditure of that rate or as to the making of a new rate next year." But, my Lords, let us observe what the consequences of that would be. The noble Marquess said that if you once had a church rate made then those who did not pay would not be entitled to vote about a rate next year. But the effect of such a clause would be that you would furnish the strongest possible inducement to those who were opposed to the Church to resist the making of a rate the first year. As the clause stands now a strong Dissenter would say—"If you are going to make a church rate which cannot be levied coercively against me, I shall have an opportunity of appearing next year and objecting, and I would not mind interfering now." But if you tell him that if he allows a rate to be made this year he will be excluded for the future from voting on the question, he will say, "Now is my time. This is the only opportunity I shall have. I must get all my friends to come. Now is the time the battle must be fought, and fight we will to prevent the church rate being made." "Well, what would the next consequence be? Suppose you make your church rate the first year; there may be 100 persons who ought to pay, but only fifty of them do pay. Next year instead of a constituency of 100 you get only fifty. The fifty make a new rate, and twenty fall off and do not pay. The third year you get a constituency of thirty, and perhaps ten of them would not pay. Thus by degress you get to a constituency so small and ridiculous that the thing must die out. In fact, the whole course of things I have described is so new and so contrary to experience that the moment you begin to work it in a parish it would be opposed because it was a new system. There was another provision in the Bill as it came from the House of Commons to this effect—that an action at law might be brought against persons who upon the making of a church rate held out a promise to pay and would not. I, for one, expressed my own opinion against that clause in Committee. I believe, coming down as you are now obliged to do The Lord Chancellor to the voluntary system, the working of it depends entirely upon your doing nothing which would have an alarming effect upon those who are asked to come in and accept the voluntary system. If, therefore, you speak of actions at law, I am greatly afraid you will frighten many persons, who will say, "No doubt compulsory church, rates have been abolished, but churchwardens may go to law with us if we promise, and therefore we will keep away from the vestry altogether." Now that is a reason of the value of which your Lordships may judge; but it was one which influenced me in suggesting that the clause as it came from the House of Commons should be omitted. The only other point in the Bill as it came from the House of Commons which was different from the Bill in its present shape was as to the mode of treating churchwardens. In the Bill as it came from the other House, if a churchwarden did not pay the rate there was a power to elect a treasurer in his place, who was to have the power of disbursement over the rates collected. If this treasurer is to be elected by those who pay the church rate, you run exactly into the danger I have attempted to describe; you have a diminishing constituency, which may never be called into existence, and you introduce a new officer altogether unknown to the parochial system. If a provision had been introduced that the vestry at large, in default of the churchwarden paying his rate, should be at liberty to elect a successor, the difficulty might have been avoided. Otherwise, you get into a new channel of operations to which no parish is accustomed. These are the reasons which weighed with the Committee, and induced them to amend the Bill and introduce the clauses which your Lordships now find there. I hope that with this machinery the Church even in country parishes will not suffer, and that the fabrics of the Church will continue to be decently maintained.


said, that he originally thought, and was still of the opinion, that the best solution of the difficulty would be to abolish the compulsory collection of church, rates, and leave the existing machinery as it is.


said, it was not his intention to oppose the going into Committee; and although, he retained all his objections to doing away with the compulsory power of levying church rates, yet, at the same time, the principle of the 1st clause having been adopted by their Lordships, and accepted also by a large majority of the House of Commons, he thought it would be useless to struggle against such a majority in both Houses. That point being settled, he would further say that it was his earnest desire that this question should be brought to a satisfactory issue in the present Session, and should not be left open for any further agitation or to be any cause of bitterness among the new constituencies. He must confess, however, that on one point, notwithstanding the statement just made by his noble and learned Friend, he was strongly inclined to agree with the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury). In many respects he thought the Bill had been amended by the Select Committee. As he understood it now, retaining all the existing powers of the vestry and all the existing machinery, the Bill simply provided that there should be no compulsory enforcement of rates. Clause 8 provided that no defaulter should have the opportunity of speaking or of raising any objection or discussion as to the mode in which church rates should be applied in the year during which he was a defaulter. But he (the Earl of Derby) thought that principle ought to be carried further. This was to be a voluntary rate, levied by a voluntary machinery. If so, surely the persons who paid the rates were the persons who should say whether the rates should or should not be levied. If persons objected to rates and threw the charge upon their fellow-parishioners, surely they ought not to have the opportunity of saying next year whether a similar charge should or should not be thrown upon those who had borne the charge in the last year. If the measure was a voluntary one, he thought it ought to be left to Churchmen alone to say whether the rates should be levied or not. He confessed that, clear as his noble and learned Friend (the Lord Chancellor) usually was, he did not understand the force of his argument when he said that if they restored the clause as it came from the House of Commons, they would furnish an inducement to persons to abstain from paying the rates.


I did not say that it would be an inducement to abstain from paying the rates, but that it would be an inducement to persons unfriendly to the Church to come forward the 'first year and prevent the church rate being made, because if they succeed in that, the working of the system would have no beginning.


said, he misunderstood his noble and learned Friend, and indeed it was not always easy to hear what passed in the House. But what he said was that, year after year, you will have persons refusing to pay, so that gradually the non-payers will absorb the payers. Then his noble and learned Friend assumed that no person had a right to qualify himself by payment; but, as he (the Earl of Derby) understood it, in each year during which the church rate was levied, it would be demanded from each occupier, Churchman or Dissenter. It was perfectly open to anybody to refuse to pay; but though defaulters would be deprived of a voice in the expenditure, still, upon paying the rates when demanded, they might be restored to all the rights of Churchmen. It seemed to him that this was the only effectual mode of dealing with the question. On the other hand, he confessed that he did not lay much stress on the argument that Dissenters might be induced to put a stop to the machinery for levying a rate, more especially as they were told that this was a Bill for satisfying the Dissenters.


said, it was not wonderful that a great difference of opinion should prevail about these clauses. But their Lordships should remember that the system which this Bill proposed to introduce was already in existence. There were thousands of parishes in which church rates were now levied upon the voluntary principle recognized in this Bill—namely, that though rates were voted, no compulsion should be resorted to. In thousands of parishes this principle exists already and works well. No doubt great inconvenience might arise in a few parishes where Dissenters persisted in coming to the vestry, though not subject to any tax, and where vestries made a point of electing Dissenting churchwardens. But were they to legislate for these few hostile cases or for the general body? He believed that the policy of fear and jealousy expressed by such clauses would be very mischievous to the Church, especially at that moment. He was in favour of a policy of greater generosity and of assuming that Dissenters would not go to the vestry to discuss rates and expenditure which did not affect their pockets, and that Churchmen would be elected as churchwardens. He believed that that would be the case in a majority of parishes. With, regard to the exclusion of all those who did not pay rates he doubted the policy of ticketing them as defaulters in this way when their non-payment might have arisen from want of money. There, again, he thought the generous policy was the right one. To admit defaulters to the vestry and abide by any little exceptional trouble they might thus occasion would, he thought, be a smaller evil on the whole than to adopt this ratepaying qualification as a test of being a Churchman, and to recognize Churchmen only from the fact of their going to the vestry. Looking at the clauses in the Bill he thought them an improvement upon the House of Commons' clauses, and as to the first clause they were precluded now from discussing it. "Upon the whole, the Bill was, in his opinion, much improved; and instead of launching into an unknown sea and creating new arrangements and new machinery, the measure did the minimum of mischief, for it left the whole Church system, which had been in practice for centuries, quite unimpaired.


said, that when it was proposed to refer this Bill to a Select Committee he felt that there were objections to such a course on the ground of the delay which it would entail; but he was bound now to acknowledge that this delay had been useful, and that the consideration bestowed upon the Bill in the Committee had effected great improvement on it as it originally stood. He could not understand how any Bill could more effectually abolish compulsory church rates than this did; and for that reason he was glad to observe the spirit in which it had been received and discussed by many noble Lords, and particularly by those who sat on the Episcopal Benches. If their Lordships had passed the Bill as it came up from the other House they would have got rid of Church rates, but they would also have established a system so complicated that it would have occasioned as much offence to Dissenters as the existing law. He was glad to compare the altered tone of many of their Lordships now with that manifested when he brought forward a Bill in 1864. He was then met by cries of "No surrender!" and "The Church in danger!" which had not been raised on the present occasion. The attitude of many noble Lords was completely changed, and he could not help thinking that the tone adopted by the right rev. and most rev. Prelates, as well as by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, would do more for the benefit of the Church than any other they could have taken. The willingness to concede would be gladly welcomed by those who hitherto had said, "I will give nothing to the Church under compulsion; but I will gladly do anything I can for the Church if the matter be left to my own free-will." There were many Dissenters who were in the habit of regarding the church as part of the parish, and who would not let it go down if their free-will offerings could sustain it. Everyone would acknowledge that compulsion and prosecution in favour of religion had always done most for the compelled and persecuted. On the other hand, religion gained by concession, as the Church would do in this instance. It was a concession on the part of the Church. He did not think Dissenters had a right to complain as against the Church, for they were taxed by the majority, and it was by a majority that taxation must always be be imposed. He hoped that the same change that had occurred upon this question would occur upon others, and that their Lordships would upon them exhibit the same readiness to accept the opinions of their fellow-subjects that they had shown in this instance. He congratulated their Lordships upon having done their duty without offering an obstructive opposition to this Bill, and he believed the result would be, that which their Lordships and the Bench of Bishops especially desired, increased veneration for the Church and increased contributions to her funds.


My Lords, I cannot admit that the alternative to concession in this case is persecution. I believe there was no persecution whatever on the part of the Church. Church rates were a legal tax upon property, and persons who held it bought it or inherited it subject to the payment of them. It was therefore no more persecution in asking persons to pay them, and they were no more victims of persecution if compelled to pay, than was the ordinary householder who had to submit to periodical visits from the tax collectors. A person who dislikes paying a tax always feels persecuted if he is made to pay. I do not think a bystander will readily admit that a man who refuses his assessed taxes is a virtuous object of pity for being made to pay them. But that is not now the question. It is admitted that the compulsory payment of church rates is to be given up, nd the question before us is the Bill. Although considerable improvements have been made in it, especially in its earlier portions, I confess I think that in one or two of its principal provisions it has been seriously-injured, and I shall feel bound to propose Amendments upon the Report. First, as to the question concerning the settling of future rates by those who have not paid the last. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack seemed to think that it would be a provocation to Dissenters to go and object to a voluntary church rate being made if those who have not paid the rates would not be parties to settling the way in which a new voluntary rate should be made. The Bill that contained that clause was a compromise and a compact between the Dissenters and the House of Commons and the representatives of the Church of England there. It was most thoroughly considered by the Dissenting Members of the House of Commons, who, I must say, in this matter seem to have kept faith in the most praiseworthy manner with those who had the management of this Bill, and they agreed that it was a clause to which Dissenters had not any right to object. Neither do I think it is possible to say they have. Any person can come again into the voluntary church rate vestry by paying his own share of the rate for the year past; he does not lose any right; it is not that he must pay it now or never. At any time he can join that body which settles whether there shall or shall not be a voluntary rate by paying a subscription equal to the amount of the last rate. The main objection always taken to church rates has been the compulsion and not the amount. Those who objected to pay them have often said they would willingly give double the amount as a free gift, but they objected to the power to compel them to pay anything. That is entirely taken away by the Bill, and therefore there is no temptation to come the first time and object to the starting of the machinery. On the contrary, their representatives in Parliament have agreed to start it, and I think the probability is that, receiving this as a sacrifice on the part of the Church, and gratified that it has given up the power of compulsion, they will be even more ready than; others to start the new machinery fairly. But the objection that it is new machinery I deny, for in nineteen cases out of twenty the vestry will be precisely the same, and the rate will be made as before, with this one difference, that the payment of it cannot be enforced. The transition from, the existing to the future legal state is, therefore, a simple matter. I believe the vestry will be an increasing rather than a dying away constituency, especially in country parishes, where farmers will not like to be left out. But suppose the number of payers diminishes every year you will realize a state of inanition just as you would if opponents prevented the starting of the machinery. It does seem to me it is a fundamental error in the Bill, as altered by the Select Committe, that it takes away the one thing which would work well. Whilst in the country parishes there would be very little change, how would the Bill work in the towns where the rate has been refused? If the Bill passes through Committee, I shall feel bound to move several Amendments on the Report being brought up. First of all, I shall move an Amendment to restore Clause 8 to its original shape. Then, after the clause which makes the churchwardens the sole administrators, I shall propose to insert a new clause, containing a proviso that in the event of one of the churchwardens being a person who refuses to pay the rate a treasurer may be substituted in his place. I propose further to move that this Bill shall not come into force till a fortnight after Easter in next year and also that a provision shall be inserted empowering the churchwardens to recover by legal process the various amounts which persons have promised to contribute. He thought it impossible to allow the churchwardens to incur expenses on the faith of promises and give them no remedy against the persons who failed to perform their undertakings.


thought that, owing mainly to the exertions of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, the Bill had been greatly improved since it left the House of Commons.


said, that when the original Bill came up from the Commons he would gladly have concurred in its rejection; but both sides of the House having sanctioned its principle by consenting to the second reading, he felt it his duty to make the best of it; and acting on that conviction he had consented to sit on the Select Committee. He thought that the Bill as it had come out of the Committee was a great improvement on the original measure; but it was susceptible of further amendment; and with this view he would give Notice of an Amendment—which his right rev. Brother the Bishop of London had proposed to move—the effect of which would be to set district chapelries and parishes free from all obligation to contribute to the church rate—or, as it must now be called, the voluntary rate—for the service of the mother churches. Most of their Lordships were aware what a fruitful source of irritation that obligation had hitherto been.

Motion agreed to; House is Committee accordingly.

Clauses 1 to 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 (Power to appoint Church Trustees).

THE LORD CHANCELLOR moved to insert the following:— The trustees shall once at the least in every year lay before the vestry an account of their receipts and expenditure during the preceding year, and of the mode in which such receipts have been derived and expenditure incurred; together with a statement of the amount, if any, of funds remaining in their hands at the date of such account.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: The Report thereof to be received on Thursday next; and Bill to be printed as amended. (No. 211.)

House adjourned at half past Eight o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.