HL Deb 07 July 1910 vol 5 cc1150-60


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill to which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading follows generally the Acts of 1900 and 1890. It applies, as both of those Acts did, to Scotland as well as to England, but it does not apply to Ireland. There is a separate Bill in the name of my noble friend Lord Ashby St. Ledgers, under which the Irish census is taken in rather a different manner. The Bill the Second Reading of which I am now moving does not in itself call for much comment. There are, however, two important points in which it differs from its predecessors.

The present Bill requires that the schedule to be filled up by the householder should include, in the case of married persons, particulars indicating the duration of the marriage and the number of children born of the marriage who are still living. A good deal of importance is attached to these figures by the medical authorities and also by some of the statistical authorities, who think that by the help of these figures interesting information will be secured. The Bill also requires that the number of rooms inhabited shall be specified in each case. It is thought that over crowding is not confined to tenements of four rooms, and information on this subject will be useful.

I suppose the cheers which greeted the Bill just now indicated that in the opinion of some noble Lords opposite it is remarkable rather for what it does not, than what it does, provide. I suppose that there will be some criticism as to the omission of the religious census. That is an old question which has been raised time after time, and on each occasion this House, as well as the other House of Parliament, has decided that it is unnecessary to ask for these particulars. At any rate noble Lords opposite as well as ourselves are equally guilty in this respect. In 1890 a Departmental Committee was appointed to inquire into the question, and in their Report they said— Representations have been made both in favour of and against the census of religious profession in Great Britain. In other countries and in our Colonies such information is obtained, but reasons of a political character have been urged against returns under this head, and we are not in a position to make any recommendation regarding the matter. When the Bill of 1890 was before the House of Commons the then Leader of the House opposed the taking of a religious census on the ground that it would cause heat, and to a certain extent, ill-feeling.

Then there was a debate in your Lordships' House inaugurated by the noble Earl, Lord Camperdown, who was very anxious that these figures should be asked for; but the late Lord Salisbury, who was then Leader of the House, suggested various difficulties that might arise and inquired whether it might not be necessary to obtain certificates of the religious belief of an individual from his two senior female relatives. The result of that discussion was that the Motion was withdrawn. The question was not raised again, and the Bill went through Second Reading and Committee in your Lordships' House without any difficulty at all. The then Archbishop of Canterbury took part in the discussion, but refrained from pressing the Government to obtain these particulars. I would venture to impress upon your Lordships that there is a very large number of people in this country who would really believe it improper for the State to ask such questions, and a very large number of them would certainly refuse to give the information. We believe that in those circumstances the value of the statistics would be very considerably diminished.

Noble Lords opposite, I am sure, will see that the value of the statistics which are obtained in the various Dominions where these particulars are asked for is so far invalidated by the number of people who refuse to answer the question. We think that the census should apply only to matters of fact that can be easily answered and to which no individual would object. We admit that these particulars are required in Ireland, but there the case is somewhat different. Noble Lords opposite admitted that last evening, when they said that even cattle maiming was different in England from what it was in Ireland. The circumstances in the two countries are so far different that we trust they will be accepted as a sufficient reason for making a difference in regard to this, matter. I submit that the inclusion of this request in this Bill would certainly not tend to peace between the various churches and denominations in this country, and therefore it is advisable that we should follow the example of previous Governments and not ask for these particulars.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Beauchamp.)


My Lords, the noble Earl, with that intuition which comes from years of official experience, has correctly anticipated the criticism which will be indulged in with regard to this measure. We live at the present day in an age of statistics; We are perpetually endeavouring to obtain information, useless or the reverse, upon every variety of subject except that of the religion of the people, which we are forbidden to obtain unless we happen to live in Ireland. The relation of religion to population is universally recognised as one of the most interesting facts of the present day. I observe that the President of the Local Government Board claims that in forming an exception to the rest of the world we show our good sense. But if that is correct, it shows not only that good sense is very sparsely distributed throughout the universe, but that this country and Scotland have a monopoly of it. I have made some inquiries into the matter, and I find that in every country in Europe, with the exception of France, and I believe in every British Colony without exception, a religious census is taken, and in no quarter is any opposition raised to it.

In this country we enjoy, or it is supposed that we enjoy because we have no means of ascertaining the fact, a larger number of religious denominations than any other country, and the fact of there being so large a variety of these denominations has led to difficulties with which everybody is well acquainted with regard to education and other matters. It is an open secret, in fact it is blazoned, so to speak, upon the housetops, that as soon as the Government feel themselves strong enough to undertake the task, they will attempt to disestablish the Church in Wales. That being the case, surely it is obvious that an impartial religious census is much more required in this country than in any other. One would naturally suppose that the first thing that people interested in this subject would desire would be that there should be an impartial set of figures to which they could refer. Failing an official census, you are depending upon amateur censuses which irresponsible people are always prepared to take. In Wales, for example, which is the most striking instance, the political Nonconformists are only too glad to number themselves. In fact, if they get the opportunity, they are quite prepared to count themselves several times over. But, on the other hand, they have the strongest and most insuperable objection to their opponents being counted by an official authority.

Putting Wales temporarily aside, I should like, if the House will permit me, to deal shortly with the objections which have been hitherto brought forward by the Government and their supporters to including a religious census. First of all, we have the fine old crusted Front Bench objection that they are not going to require these particulars because their predecessors did not require them, and that because the Government in 1890 would not give the figures they are not going to be silly enough to do anything of the kind themselves. In no circumstances would that statement make a deep impression upon me. But the circumstances are totally different. The reason why the figures Were not asked for in 1890 was that there was very little time, but that is an excuse which cannot be pleaded at the present moment, because it is obvious that the House of Commons has great difficulty in finding sufficient work to do. That is one argument which is already disposed of.

Then there is the so-called inquisitorial objection on which the noble Earl laid considerable stress. I may say, to start with, that any objection relating to an inquisitorial inquiry comes with singularly bad grace from the present Government, who have appointed hordes of officials for the purpose of prying into persons' private affairs. But as a matter of fact a census, in itself, is an extremely inquisitorial proceeding and cannot very well be otherwise, and it becomes increasingly so every time that one is taken. Is it not, for instance, an invidious thing to ask a man whether he is deaf or an imbecile and how many bedrooms his family occupy? Is it not an invidious and delicate thing to ask a woman her age? The majority of persons who have reached a certain period of life would far prefer to be asked what their religion is than their age. The fact is that it is an extremely delicate matter to put inquiries of this kind to either sex. I have heard on good authority of a noble Lord, a well-known member of this House, who was so appalled when filling up the census paper at the prospect of having to put the question as to her age to a lady occupying an important position in his household, that sooner than do it he took train and never stopped until he reached Naples. But there is a more serious side of this question. It stands to reason that working-men, for instance, are naturally apt to make their age out to be lower than it really is so as to secure better chances of employment.

But inquiries of this kind do not by any means exhaust the inquisitorial nature of the queries which it is proposed to put. In view of the dropping of the birth-rate at the present moment the Local Government Board are in this census instituting inquiries into what they call the comparative fertility of married couples in various social positions and of different ages. For my part I should have thought it was difficult to devise a more inquisitorial inquiry than this. It is obvious that there are many heads of families who have larger families than they can legitimately account for, and it is possible, in view of the method of inquiry, that the Local Government Board might appear to think their families were too small. But in either case it is difficult to see what effect these inquiries can have. It may be interesting to the Local Government Board, but what practical effect the information can have upon the birth-rate of this country passes my comprehension altogether. With regard to inquisitorial inquiries, I do not suppose it would be denied that a woman living alone is liable to be asked whether she is divorced or separated from her husband, and whether she has borne any children. Could there be anything more inquisitorial than these inquiries? Yet the Government come to us and say that while the ordinary individual, however fastidious and sensitive of nature, is going to submit to these interrogatories without wincing, a question with respect to his or her religion would be regarded as an intolerable insult.

In addition to this particular form of objection, it is contended occasionally that persons, chiefly domestic servants, would be in danger of losing their places if their religious denomination was disclosed. The imaginary victim of religious intoleration I imagine to be some housemaid or nurse who has successfully masqueraded for years as a member of the Church of England, but who is detected by a lynx-eyed head of the household when the census paper has to be filled up, and is forthwith dismissed with ignominy. I fail to believe that such establishments exist; but, even if they do, the grievance must be an imaginary one, because if anyone did hold these intolerant and tyrannical ideas it would be a condition of service, and therefore the contingency which is feared could never arise. There is yet another objection of a somewhat ingenious nature which I observe was raised in another place. It was pointed out that there are a number of persons in this country who worship occasionally in Nonconformist chapels and occasionally in Church, and it was argued that when the question was put to them as to what their religion really was, they would be seized with a kind of mental paralysis and would be quite unable to say what they were. Personally I should have thought there I would have been no more difficulty in stating what your religious convictions were in those circumstances than you would have difficulty in saying by what Christian name you are habitually known supposing you own to two.

The last objection of all, and the one upon which no doubt the greatest stress is laid, is that it is feared, as the noble Earl indicated, that persons who had no particular religious belief would inevitably be described as members of the Church I of England. This is a view which I am totally unable to understand. I noticed that the President of the Local Government Board adduced his experiences in prison as a proof of that danger, but all I that he proved was that criminals apparently found a Church of England service more attractive than any others. And with regard to the fear that Agnostics and Freethinkers and people of that description would write themselves down as members of the Church of England, all I can say is that as far as my experience goes such Agnostics as I am acquainted with would never for a moment dream of describing themselves as members of the Church of England, and they would be rather glad of the opportunity of proclaiming what their opinions really were.

I maintain that the hypocrisy—I can use no other word—the gross hypocrisy of these objections is most conclusively proved by the practice in Ireland. The fact that a different system obtains in Ireland is absolutely conclusive to my mind that the objections to a religious census in Great Britain are political and nothing else. The excuse made for treating Ireland differently I understand is this, that religions are so sharply divided in Ireland that there is no difficulty in discrimination and that subsidiary denominations do not exist. I have looked into the figures. Of course the vast majority of Irishmen are Roman Catholics, but there is a large number, as everybody knows, of Episcopalians; there are Methodists, and there are Presbyterians; in addition, out of a population of 1000,000, there are 60,000 put down as belonging to denominations which are not specified; and out of these 4,000,000 people there were not 700 who made any objection to stating what their religious belief was.

Let us be honest if we can over this question. The religious census was established in Ireland in 1861. Why? Because at that time it was proposed to disestablish the Irish Church, and the people who proposed to do so knew that it would be safe to take a religious census. In 1910 you would like to do the same thing in Wales if you had the courage to set about it, but you are not taking a religious census because you are afraid the figures would be against you, and it is desired to encourage the idea that the agitation which is conducted in Parliament and elsewhere is represented by an adequate majority in the country. In no civilised country in the world, so far as I know, with the exception of England and Scotland, is a man, whatever he may be, afraid to avow his religious belief. Here alone, for political reasons, baseless objections are put forward for evading a clear issue, and these baseless objections are admitted by an accommodating Government. All I can say is, it does not reflect much credit either upon the people who make these baseless objections or upon the people who find excuses for them, and I trust that when this Bill goes into Committee some member of this House, a right rev. Prelate for choice, will put down an Amendment embodying the views which I have ventured to express.


My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than a moment, but I rise to express the hope that an Amendment on the lines suggested by the noble Lord will be accepted by His Majesty's Government. The position of Wales presents a strong case for the taking of a religious census. The Prime Minister, in moving his Resolution in the House of Commons regarding the Church in Wales, based his case upon figures, but arrived at the statistical position in a rather curious way. He did not select the number of adherents to the various religious bodies, but counted the various sittings in Nonconformist place; of worship—not a very exhaustive or satisfactory way of dealing with the numerical argument. I do not think there is any great objection to such a census in Wales, Churchmen, at any rate, could most cordially welcome it. For thirty years various religious bodies have organised voluntary religious censuses, but it is impossible to arrive from them at a satisfactory enumeration of the religious beliefs of the people. We are very anxious to know how the statistical argument stands with regard to Wales. If this argument, which I do not think is at all conclusive, is to be used, let it be as accurate as it can be. There has been a Royal Commission sitting on the question of the Church in Wales, and I believe they have been unable to make a satisfactory enumeration from the various statistics that have been supplied. I therefore sincerely hope that an Amendment in the spirit of the remarks of the noble Lord will be moved in Committee and accepted by His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two as to why, in my opinion, We should not treat this suggestion too seriously. This is one of those theatrical parades which we have whenever a Census Bill comes up, but it always comes to nothing, and nobody supposes that the policy which has been settled for many years will be altered this year. I should also like to say a word as to the extremely delusive character of a religious census in England. I have had experience in connection with an obligation to ascertain the religious beliefs of parents. I speak with reference to sending children to industrial schools. In the School Board for London we had a large number of those cases, and the Act of Parliament required that we should ascertain the belief of the parent in order to determine to what school the child should be sent. Year after year we found that when the parent was asked in the police-court what his religious belief was he invariably replied, unless he was a Roman Catholic, that he was a Protestant.

The average Englishman, if he is given to religious exercises either in church or chapel, knows what he is, but there is a large number of people whose religion consists largely, like the Royal Declaration, in disclaiming the errors of the Church of Rome. Some noble Lords may remember that a cyclone of religious controversy passed through the School Board for London when Mr. Athelstan Riley raised an educational discussion, and, aided by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Matthews, succeeded in getting the magistrates not to be satisfied with the declaration that the parent was a Protestant, but to press upon the parent that he should specify to what denomination of Protestantism he belonged. The majority under this pressure ultimately gravitated to Church of England. That is no doubt what you would get in this case. The ordinary man in the street would very likely call himself Protestant, and if he was goaded to say something further he would say "Church of England," but it would be quite worthless. I do not attach any importance to a census of chapel or church places, because we know that the energy of church builders outruns the zeal of church frequenters. In the United States no official census of religious opinions is taken, though an informal inquiry was set on foot by the various religious bodies themselves. In 1851 there was a religious census taken in this country, but it was a census of the attendance on a particular day in all places of worship. It did not give satisfaction, though so far as it tested preference for any form of religious adhesion it was as good as any.

In these theological controversies people make imputations freely. They are the amenities which are associated with theological discussion. For instance, there was the statement of the noble Lord opposite that political Nonconformists in Wales were so anxious to be counted that they wished to count themselves twice over. Since the time to which I have referred various voluntary organisations have attempted this census. The Daily News some years ago took statistics of the number of people attending churches and chapels in London, and similar censuses have been taken in various great towns in Wales, but the results have not been conclusive. If you take important events in men's lives, you are led to believe that there are more adherents to the Church of England than there really are. In the case of marriages, something like between seventy and seventy-five per cent. of the population in this country are married in church. But everyone who knows anything of life, and especially in villages, knows that it is quite the usual thing for people in a village to be married in church, then to frequent some form of dissenting service throughout their lives, and when they die their right is naturally claimed to a church service, and they are buried in the churchyard. I can assure the noble Lord who has raised this question that of all things the most delusive would be to attempt to get at the religious belief of that floating mass, which is very large, of the population who stand aloof from all forms of religious denomination. More and more the mass of the working-class population are sliding away from adhesion to any form of religious belief, though they are not sliding away from aggressive free thought. The tendencies of the age have brought out a different point of view of these matters. If a census official went round, most of these people, to save bother, would say they belonged to the Church of England, and you would get a most inconclusive conclusion. I hope noble Lords will recognise that, and not clamour for a thing which, even if you got it, would be useless.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.