HL Deb 20 May 1898 vol 58 cc89-92

My Lords, I beg to ask the Secretary for Scotland whether it is likely that the Royal Commission on Rating will soon be able to make an ad interim Report with respect to the rating of the clergy. I am asking this inquiry of my noble Friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, not in his capacity as Secretary for Scotland, but as chairman of the Royal Commission, on Rating, which, as your Lordships are aware, has been sitting for some time. During the last 10 years the clergy have suffered, heavily owing to the fall of tithes, and there is a strong feeling out of doors that some alleviation with regard to rating should be proposed in the present Session of Parliament. The hardship of the whole matter is that the Act of last Session—the imperfect Act, known as the Agricultural Rating Act—while it gives alleviation to ratepayers, and does give alleviation to clergymen who hold their own land, gives no alleviation to tithes. I think, my Lords, that it is a great injustice that clergymen, with their largely diminished incomes, should be rated, not only on their houses and their glebe, but also on their tithes. Moreover, if a clergyman chooses to let his glebe, he receives no abatement whatever. In the Midland counties, especially in Northamptonshire, there are many cases in which land has been allotted in lieu of tithes, and in those cases the clergyman does get relief; but the general rule is that tithes pay rates but get no relief under the Act of last Session. I am sure we all sympathise with the clergy in this matter, and will view with equal sympathy any Measure which might be proposed to alleviate their condition. That is the reason I ask this question. I feel that without legislation it will be difficult to give any considerable relief. I do not know whether it would be possible for the Local Government Board to issue an Order to the1 various Assessment Committees by which, tithes would be exempted from, rating. I trust, however, that if I cannot get a sympathetic answer from my noble Friend as to a Report being shortly laid on the Table, the time will not be far distant when Her Majesty's Government will see their way to bring in a Measure to relieve the heavily-rated clergy.


My Lords,. I have no hesitation, in expressing my sympathy with many of the views of the noble Earl. I am afraid, however, that this is a matter in which sympathy alone will not be wholly satisfactory. I can assure the noble Earl that the Royal Commission over which I have the honour to preside has given, and is still giving, a great deal of attention to the subject of the rating of tithe rent-charge. We have received a very considerable amount of evidence from various representative organisations. We have also been, I think I may say, almost inundated by the large number of communications from individuals which we have received, and received quite recently. We have also a very considerable amount of documentary information to look through, and I can assure the noble Earl that there are still a very large number of those who have expressed a sincere desire to be heard by the Commission for whom we have not yet been able to find a place. My Lords, I do not propose to go on this occasion into the history of the rating of tithe rent-charge, which is intricate and would require a considerable amount of time to explain; but I understand that in the main the case which is put forward by clerical tithe owners at the present time is that tithe rent-charge has been unfairly and unjustly valued, and not assessed in accordance with the Parochial Assessments Act, 1836. I think it must be obvious to everybody that the principle laid down in this Act for ascertaining the rateable value of properties generally was nor very applicable to tithe rent-charge, and although the Court's have decided that tithe rent-charge is to be assessed, like all other property, according to what it might be reasonably expected to let for, a certain amount of hardship has been created by that decision. I may say that I came to the consideration of this matter with a strictly impartial mind, because until I was made a member of this Commission, and heard the evidence which we have taken, I am afraid I must confess that I knew absolutely nothing about the matter; but I have, so far as I am personally concerned, come very distinctly to the conclusion that the tithe rent-charge, as a class of property, is rated nearer to the gross value than any other. I think I am justified in saying that on that ground the clerical tithe-owner at the present time does bear a heavier burden of local rates than any other owner of property. My Lords, we have got to that length that, while it goes to some extent to justify the anxiety of those for whom the noble Earl has spoken, it does not go very far in the direction of deciding what will be the best remedy to apply. I must say that in this matter I find very considerable difficulty. I do not think I should serve any useful purpose if I were to express my own opinion upon it here. I think that it had better be reserved for the Commission. We have not, as a Commission, ventured as yet entirely to close the inquiry. We frankly admit that there is a grievance, and it is quite possible that, when we do come to issue a report, we shall find our- selves able to go the whole length of meeting the wishes of those for whom the noble Earl has spoken. I think he will admit—I believe every member, or nearly every member, of the Commission will agree—that, until we see our way clearly in the matter, it will be a dangerous thing for us to announce that the inquiry is wholly closed. I cannot, therefore, make a definite promise that there will be a Report. I do not wish to be understood, on the other hand, to say that there will be no Report in the course of the summer. It is not at present absolutely decided whether we shall find ourselves able to recommend a remedy. Some of the Reports which have been published in the usual channels of information have been entirely premature. I hope that, under all the circumstances in which we are placed as a Commission—the somewhat difficult circumstances—the noble Earl, and those for whom he speaks, will accept my assurance that we are thoroughly alive to the fact that the state of things, as they exist at present, constitutes a real grievance, and that we shall not delay longer than is absolutely necessary in endeavouring to find a solution.