HL Deb 22 June 1906 vol 159 cc480-5

rose to ask His Majesty's Government—1. If they can explain to the House the cause of the repeated delays in presenting the Report of the Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline to His Majesty the King, and why it has not been presented before Whitsuntide as promised in March in another place? 2. Would the Government endeavour to hasten this Report, as it would be of the greatest value during the Education debate? 3. Does not the prolonged delay involve the Government in considerable additional expense? 4. Could the Government also further the matter by recommending to the Commission the advisability of getting the volumes of evidence or some of them printed off and bound at once, so that there will be no printing delays after the Commission have made their report? The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must apologise for not being in my place to put the Question last week, and I am very sorry if my absence caused any of your Lordships any inconvenience. There was a long list of notices on the Paper, and I thought my Question would not be reached until after five o'clock. When I got down to the House, however, your Lordships had adjourned. I fully recognise the difficulty of this subject and that the amount of evidence given before the Commission was considerable. I feel that those who have given so much time and thought to this matter deserve our best thanks and gratitude. The fact that the Chairman of the Commission was called away on a very important inquiry connected with our Indian Empire may have caused delay; but I have put the Question down in order to allay any feeling in people's minds that there has been considerable delay in this matter; and especially at this juncture, when there is considerable anxiety with reference to the education of the country, it is desirable to have some authoritative statement as to whether the numbers of those clergy who are disobeying the law of the Church and of the land as given by the Low Church Party are correct. The Report, I think, may influence a good many people in judging how far those clergy who do not obey the law ought to be given considerable power under the Education Bill in educating the children in our elementary schools. I should be very sorry if the wording of my Question in any way led to the impression that there had been needless delay in the bringing put of the Report.


My Lords, I am very glad that the remarks of the noble Lord who has just sat down have to a certain extent removed the somewhat unpleasant impression which the wording of his Question as it stands on the Paper was calculated to cause. I certainly did feel that, evidently unintentionally, the noble Lord's Question implied distrust, not to say suspicion of the proceedings of the Commission, which I believe to be entirely without justification. I do not think, from the information in my possession, that there has been any avoidable or unnecessary delay in the presentation of the Report. When we recollect that the noble Viscount opposite, Lord St. Aldwyn, presided over the Commission, we shall not be likely to believe that he is a man to let the grass grow under his feet. At least I have never formed that conception of his character, and I can certainly say that His Majesty's Government do not feel that there has been any undue delay in the matter.

When my noble friend opposite, Lord Kinnaird, speaks of a promise given to present the Report before Whitsuntide, he puts the matter very much more strongly than the facts justify. My right hon. friend the Prime Minister gave no promise, but expressed a hope, and all the hopes which one expresses are not to be converted into promises, for life consists very greatly of unrealised hopes. With respect to the date at which the Report will appear, I think it will be published soon enough to satisfy the noble Lord. I will not, however, venture, as a hope has been treated as a promise, to express an opinion on this subject, but will leave it to the noble Viscount opposite, who, no doubt, will speak. As to expense, the cost involved by the difference between the presentation of the Report at the beginning of June and the end of June is infinitesimal. I am told that it is nothing more than the salary of the Secretary, which may be prolonged for a week or two. The question of cost is, therefore, altogether unworthy of being considered. I believe that steps have been taken to carry out the wishes expressed in the fourth inquiry of the noble Lord. Efforts are being made to produce the evidence as quickly as possible, either with or immediately after the publication of the Report. I quite agree that this is highly desirable in a matter of this kind.


My Lords perhaps, as I had the honour of presiding over this Commission, I may make a few observations in reply to the Question placed on the Paper by the noble Lord. I appreciate the sentences with which he commenced his observations, but I am bound to say that it is difficult to reconcile them with the terms of his Question. The first paragraph of the Question contains two untrue statements. In the first place, it is not true to say that any promise was given that this Report would be presented before Whitsuntide. All that was ever said was what the Prime Minister was authorised by me, on behalf of the Commission, to say in the House of Commons in February last, † that I had hopes that we might finish the consideration of our Report before Whitsuntide. In the second place, it is not true to say that there have been repeated delays in presenting the Report; not only have there been no repeated delays, but there has been no delay at all.

I do not know whether the noble Lord has ever served his country upon a Royal Commission. Perhaps his not having done so may excuse the way in which he has referred to those who have given gratuitous services in a difficult and most unpleasant duty. Personally, having myself given services of this kind on many occasions, I may say that I have never known a Commission which worked harder, with a greater desire to bring its labours to as early a termination as was consistent with their proper performance, than this Commission. We commenced our inquiry a little more than two years ago. The previous Ritual Commission took nearly five years in considering the matters referred to them. This Commission was composed of fourteen members, including three members of the Episcopal Bench, three Judges, and three Members of Parliament; and the remaining members were all men busily engaged in their respective avocations. I venture to say there was not one member on that Commission who could not be called a very busy man. In those two years we sat on something like 120 days—long sittings on each day; and of course many of us devoted a great deal of time besides that to the work of the Commission. That is what we did.

Now it is suggested that there have been delays. I repudiate that suggestion † See (4) Debates, clii., 519. as strongly as it is possible for me to do so, consistent with language proper to be used in your Lordships' House. But that is not all. The noble Lord has insinuated in the terms of his Question that the delay has been needless, and that it has been done purposely in order to prevent the country from obtaining in the debates on the Education Bill whatever information might be gathered from the Report and evidence of this Commission. I do not know whether the noble Lord really means to make that insinuation.


I did not mean to make the insinuation.


I very gladly accept that denial. But such an insinuation has been made in the gutter Press, and I can only say it is an absolute lie. I can use no other term to characterise it. I do not know—and I do not very much care—what effect anything in the Report or the evidence given before the Commission may have in the debates on the Education Bill. But this I do know, speaking for myself, that nothing could be more unjust, or more illogical than to appreciate the denominational teaching generally given in Church of England schools by the misguided action of a certain number of clergymen, very few in number as compared with the total body of the clergy of the Church.

With regard to our proceedings, I am thankful to say they have been brought to a termination. Our Report is, I am afraid, rather a large volume. It has been unanimously agreed to, without reservation or dissent on the part of a single Commissioner. It has been signed by all the Commissioners but one—the Lord Chief Justice, who was unable to sign it at our meeting because he was on Circuit in Somersetshire. His signature will be obtained either to-day or to-morrow. The Report will, I believe, be presented to the Home Office on Monday for submission to His Majesty, and, of course, it will rest with the Home Office how soon it is circulated. The evidence, the index, and the rest of the Papers will be presented, I believe, in a fortnight from Monday next, and will be available—of course by the permission of the printers, who are rather difficult to deal with in these matters—as soon as may be possible to the public after that date. I hope I have said enough to show that we, the members of this Royal Commission, have done our work to the best of our ability, and that we do not deserve the gross insinuation contained in the Question of the noble Lord.