HL Deb 27 July 1915 vol 19 cc726-36

My Lords, at the conclusion of the sitting yesterday the noble Earl opposite, Lord St. Aldwyn, asked me whether to-day I should be able to make any statement of a similar nature to that which was made by my right hon. friend the Prime Minister in another place with regard to the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill, and I am happy to meet the noble Earl by now saying a word on that subject. As the House will remember, the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill provided that Disestablishment of the Welsh Church should take place at a date not less than six months and not more than twelve months after the conclusion of the war—that somewhat indefinite period which appears in various Bills and Acts of Parliament. To that provision exception was taken by some of those who represent the Welsh majority in Parliament on the ground that there was no guarantee, if the date were so long postponed after the conclusion of the war, that before the Act could come into any real kind of operation it might be repealed, and repealed not on its own merits but by a Parliamentary majority brought together on some entirely different issue, possibly connected with the conduct of the war or any other subject, and chancing to be in favour of the repeal but not consciously elected with that object. Therefore those who held that view considered that the date of Disestablishment ought to be a date not later than the actual conclusion of the war.

The House will remember that at the same time that the main Bill, the Established Church (Wales) Bill, became an Act—on September 18 of last year—a Suspensory Act was placed on the Statute Book providing that the date of Disestablishment should be deferred for a year—that is to say, until September 18 this year—or to such later date as might be provided by Order in Council. It became obvious on inquiry that the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill could not become law without arousing an acrimonious controversy in Parliament and out of it, of a kind which we are all, whatever our views may be, most anxious to avoid in the present circumstances. It was felt by all, and it was well expressed by more than one speaker in the debate in another place yesterday, that such a public contest of opinion could be nothing but an unmixed misfortune. It therefore has been arranged that recourse should be had to the expedient which was provided in the Suspensory Act of which I have already spoken—that is to say, that the further postponement of the date of Disestablishment should be provided by Order in Council, and that is the administrative step which it is proposed to take.

Those who look at the debate in the House of Commons yesterday will see that handsome acknowledgment was made, by more than one of those who were responsible for the passing of the original Act, of the attitude taken by those who are entitled to speak for the Welsh Church in this matter. It was agreed by us all—and I am happy to repeat in my own words what was said by my right hon. friend in another place—that the action of those who represent the Welsh Church in this matter was both generous and public-spirited. They were entitled, as we all agree, to ask that we should proceed, as we said we would, with the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill, but they also realised that the consequence of so proceeding would be of the unhappy character which I have indicated. Therefore they agreed to accept the course of acting by Order in Council of which I have spoken. It is my belief that they and their interests will in no way suffer from the course which they have taken.

But in any case I desire to say a word almost of the nature of a personal explanation about a misapprehension or misrepresentation which has been made of certain words which I used in this House. It was stated by some that in having said that we should confine ourselves to legislation concerned with the prosecution of the war, we had thereby debarred ourselves from proceeding with the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill. I greatly prefer to think that this misapprehension was honestly entertained, although it evidently showed that the minds of those who entertained it were coloured by the prepossessions which existed in them. It is, I should have thought, perfectly evident that in confining ourselves for legislative purposes to measures concerned with the further prosecution of the war we had not in our minds those measures which have been spoken of as the Parliament Act Bills. If we had, it is quite evident that consequences would have followed which would have been in no way agreeable to those who criticised me for what I said and criticised the Government for the course we took in bringing in this Postponement Bill.

I merely, therefore, have to say in conclusion that, speaking as one who, as your Lordships very well know, has held the view for many years that the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales is an act of simple justice and would do no harm whatever to the cause of religion in Wales or to the Church itself, it is a source of great satisfaction to me that a provisional agreement on the question of the prosecution of this legislation has been arrived at in the manner which I have described. That fact, I think, shows the existence of a temper, which, like some of those who spoke in another place last night, I should like to think would not die out with the conclusion of the war and when the main subject of date has to be reconsidered. We may fairly, I think, cherish the hope that in that reconsideration even though we shall continue to hold different views we shall hold them without acrimony, and that the result may be some closer approximation of mind to mind and a settlement which all parties will consider to be a fair one, although there are, of course, certain to be some elements in any settlement of the kind which cannot be approved by all parties.


My Lords, I am anxious to address to your Lordships a few observations on the statement we have just heard from the noble Marquess. I think it is felt by most people—by those who regard the Disestablishment and Disendowment of the Church in Wales as an act not, as the noble Marquess has described it, of "simple justice," but of "simple injustice" to Churchmen in Wales, and also by those who agree with the noble Marquess in desiring the accomplishment of this policy but who wish that it should be carried out with fairness and due consideration for the position of the Church—that the conclusion to withdraw this Postponement Bill is very regrettable.

What has been the history of this matter? Last autumn the Welsh Church Act became law under the provisions of the Parliament Act. It was felt at once, and universally felt, that owing to the state of war in which the country was involved it was necessary to make considerable modifications as to the date at which the Government of Ireland Act and the Welsh Church Act were to come into force. The operation of the Government of Ireland Act was postponed until a certain period after the end of the war. With regard to the Welsh Church Act much less liberal terms were accorded, and it fell to my lot, having taken much interest in this matter, to move an Amendment to the Suspensory Bill in your Lordships' House with a view to placing the Welsh Church Act precisely in the same position as the Government of Ireland Act. Your Lordships agreed to that proposal, but it was unfortunately rejected in another place.

Then at the commencement of the present year the Duke of Devonshire introduced a Bill into your Lordships' House precisely for the same effect. That drew the attention of the Government of the day to the matter and they themselves, after due consideration, introduced the Postponement Bill which they have now withdrawn. I do not gather from anything that the noble Marquess has said, or from anything that has been said by any of those who spoke on behalf of the Government in another place, that that Bill has been withdrawn because His Majesty's Government see anything in it to which reasonable objection can be taken. I believe we may take it that they adhere entirely to the reasons which induced them to bring it in—the desire to give justice and fair play to Churchmen in Wales in a position of very grave difficulty. The sole reason for which the Postponement Bill has been withdrawn is that in the opinion of those who are responsible for the Bill it would have been the subject of acute controversy in another place. I do not think that so long as Parliament exists it will be possible to avoid controversy. There was controversy lately in the House of Commons, very acute controversy, on the subject of the Registration Bill brought in by Mr. Walter Long. That Bill was fought by a noisy minority—numbering, I think, some thirty-two Members when they came to vote—but His Majesty's Government had not the slightest difficulty in dealing with that matter and in carrying their Bill, which they quite rightly did, through the House of Commons.

Now, would this Postponement Bill have been a matter of more acute controversy in the House of Commons than the Bill to which I have just referred? Those who objected to this Bill were few in number. They were not all the Welsh Members but the extremist Welsh Members, who desired, as far as I can judge, not merely the Disestablishment and Disendowment of the Church in Wales but to bring that Church into such a position that it might be impossible for her at any future time to fulfil her duties as a religious body. I think that view is shared by few persons in the House of Commons. It certainly is not shared by one who has been, both as a Minister and in Opposition, the principal promoter of this policy of Disestablishment and Disendowment in Wales—I mean Mr. Lloyd George. In a debate on this matter, I think in March last, Mr. Lloyd George spoke his mind most courageously and with great force. He told those Welsh Members who were opposing this Postponement Bill that if they would not give six months respite to Welsh Churchmen, the leaders of whom, he reminded them, were fighting for their country at the Front and could not in such circumstances attend to what he called the gigantic work of reorganising their Church in Wales, then "it is not an honour to the race to which you and I belong, and it is not to the credit of our country." They did not mind that appeal; they went on with their opposition, with the result which the noble Marquess has told us.

It may be, of course, that the opposition to this Bill in the House of Commons was not confined to the Members to whom I have referred. It has been my experience to discover that even Welsh Nonconformists as a body do not entirely agree, on the Disendowment of the Church, with the small number of Members to whom I have alluded, and I believe the same generous feelings are shared by the great body of Nonconformists throughout the country. But, of course, it may be that the attempt to carry this Bill through would have provoked such widespread opposition from the ordinary supporters of the late Government in the House of Commons as to have made the case one of real and great controversy between Parties, which unquestionably we should all desire to avoid. I feel that I am not qualified to judge of such a matter as that. It is only a member of the House of Commons who can tell what view will be taken by Parties in that House on any particular measure. Therefore I am far from wishing to accuse His Majesty's Government of bad faith in this matter, or to use any hard words whatever with regard to their action. I have no doubt they acted as they believed for the best, and I am sure that those members of the Government who agree with the noble Marques in his view as to the general policy on this matter will act upon the words which he has used this evening, and will see to the best of their power that the Church in Wales does not suffer ultimately by what has been done.

But what is the position in which the withdrawal of the Postponement Bill leaves the Church in Wales? The main proposal of the Bill was the postponement of the date of Disestablishment to six months after the end of the war. Under the Order in Council which His Majesty's Government intend to issue the date of Disestablishment will be coterminous with the conclusion of the war. Those six months will make a very great difference in the position of the Church. There can be no doubt of that fact. Grave decisions have to be taken with regard to the future constitution of the Church. If after the expiration of this war funds can be raised, it will be necessary to raise funds to enable the Church body in Wales to decide on the most important question whether it shall accept commutation or not—a decision which is of vital importance not merely to the future of the Church, but, I will add, also to those county councils who are to be the inheritors of so much of its means. It will be absolutely impossible immediately after the close of the war for the Church body in Wales to have any sound ground upon which to decide whether or not they can accept this policy of commutation.

There are other points in which the withdrawal of the Postponement Bill does an injustice to the Church. There were difficulties arising solely out of the fact that the country was at war which this Bill was intended to remedy, but all that has gone by the board. My right hon. friend Lord Robert Cecil the other day, who spoke I think only for himself, said that he was authorised by the leaders of the Unionist Party to say that in acquiescing in the course proposed it must be clearly understood that their views on the question of the Welsh Church had undergone no change and that the pledges they had given on the subject were still binding on them. I entirely accept that declaration and believe in it. It is, of course, necessary to avoid as far as we can controversy on domestic subjects during the progress of the war. That we all feel. But the avoidance of controversy must be a matter of mutual concession. We have had enough concession on one side and very little on the other. What was the position? All the Unionist Party in the House of Commons agreed with the Government in desiring the passage of the Bill. So far as we can judge here, the only real opponents were the Welsh extremists. There can be no doubt, from what Mr. Lloyd George said on the subject and the course which he himself took that very many supporters of the late Government who were as keen as he was for the policy of Disestablishment and Disendowment would have supported the Government against these Welsh extremists. I do not think that anybody can question that the great majority of the House of Commons were in favour of this Bill. Yet by whom is the concession made? Not by the minority, but by the majority to the minority. I do hope that in future those who represent the Unionist Party in the Coalition Government will endeavour to secure that their views and their principles shall receive more attention than to my mind they have received in this matter.

Is it suggested that when the war ends, a time which no Act of Parliament has yet clearly defined—I suppose it means when a treaty of peace is ratified—is it suggested that when that happy event occurs nothing more shall be done to postpone the date of Disestablishment and Disendowment? Or have His Majesty's Government in their minds that they may then take some steps with the view to carrying out the intention of the Postponement Bill? I hope they may have such an idea in their minds. But as the law now stands they cannot carry it nut. They cannot by Order in Council postpone the date of Disestablishment after the conclusion of the war.

Now, I venture to make a suggestion for their serious consideration. There is a Bill now passing through your Lordships' House entitled the Special Acts (Extension of Time) Bill. Its object is to give temporary power to Government Departments to extend the time limited for the performance of duties or the exercise of powers under Special Acts. It relates only, as I was informed last night, to what are called Special Acts, which are local or private Acts but include any public Act of a local or private nature. Would His Majesty's Government and especially the Unionist members of His Majesty's Government, postpone this Special Acts Bill for a few days and consider whether they could not extend its provisions to the Welsh Suspensory Act? Could any reasonable person object to their taking power now from Parliament to extend the postponement of the date of Dis- establishment, if circumstances should in their opinion require it, at the end of the war for some future period, a period which I may say is strictly limited by the provisions of this Bill to a certain period after the conclusion of the war? I believe that it would be perfectly possible, by some not very large amendment of the Special Acts (Extension of Time) Bill, to include within its scope the Welsh Suspensory Act; and if this could be done at any rate it would be an earnest that the Government did see the difficulties of the position in which they have placed the Welsh Church, and were anxious to obtain the necessary Parliamentary powers which would enable them, when the moment for their exercise arrived, to remedy the injustice and hardship which, by the withdrawal of the Postponement Bill, they have inflicted upon the Church in Wales.

I hope that some consideration will be given to the suggestion I have ventured to make, because I give the members of His Majesty's Government, whether Unionists or Liberals, credit for a desire to carry out the policy which was embodied in the Postponement Bill which has been withdrawn, and I cannot see how any reasonable person can object to their taking the powers which I have suggested.


My Lords, in view of the statement which has been made tonight by the noble Marquess who leads the House on behalf of His Majesty's Government I should have personally preferred to keep silence but, the subject having been mooted, complete silence on the part of the Episcopal Bench might perhaps be misinterpreted. What is put before us to-day is not a request for our opinion. That opinion we expressed unhesitatingly when the late Government's Bill, now dropped, passed through this House last March. What has been put before us is simply a statement of what has happened since and of the Government's grave sense that, if they were to do now what last March they meant to do, controversy would arise and that controversy would do harm at home and abroad. That is a very grave statement and, having listened to it, I prefer simply to express what I am certain is the opinion of every impartial man—the opinion has already found endorsement from the noble Marquess himself—that the members and friends of the Welsh Church are acting with public spirit and with patriotism in not pressing, in face of that grave warning, for the fulfilment of the Government's promise. The result is this. On that day—God grant it may be an early day!—when the war ends, the blow falls in Wales and the operative action of Disestablishment and Disendowment begins. We face that fact. We realise what it means for those who believe in the importance of their great trust. Some of us—I am one of them myself—are sanguine enough to cherish the hope that, if the country in these intervening months will give itself time to face quietly and fairly what that all means, what is the issue involved, a new and a deeper view of its significance may come home to some of those who have perhaps regarded it lightly in days gone by. The words used by the noble Marquess to-night at the conclusion of his speech seemed to me to justify perhaps that hope, and to give encouragement to us who entertain it. I do not go into the question which was raised just now by the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, and which is new to me. But I desire most emphatically to endorse what has been said in both Houses of Parliament as to the tribute which ought now to be paid to the public spirit of those who have refrained from pressing for the fulfilment of a definite promise.


My Lords, we are all of us, I am afraid, out of order, but perhaps the noble Earl opposite will expect me to say a word in response to the suggestion which fell from him—and, of course, any suggestion coming from him is bound to receive the most cordial consideration of His Majesty's Government, however composed. Assuming for the moment that the Government would desire to take powers to extend the time under the Order in Council, at first sight it seems to me doubtful whether it would be generally supposed that the proper way to take that course is to make this particular insertion in a Bill dealing with altogether different subjects. I state that only as a prima facie view, and I should prefer to consult my colleagues before stating any kind of definite opinion on the subject. The Special Acts (Extension of Time) Bill will be before us to-morrow, and then we shall be able, I have no doubt, to express an opinion on the point.

The only other observation I desire to make is rather in the nature of a question to the noble Earl—although I do not expect him to answer it—than of an assertion of my own. The noble Earl quoted a speech made by my right hon. friend Mr. Lloyd George in another place, and the appeal which he addressed to his Welsh colleagues to agree to the Postponement Bill. Unless I am mistaken Mr. Lloyd George, and certainly other speakers in that debate, on the Liberal side—then the Government side—in politics, mooted the possibility that it would be reasonable, if a further extension of time were conceded, that some guarantee should in turn be given by the supporters of the Welsh Church that the Act would not be repealed should a majority be returned to power at the next General Election who might be willing to carry out such a repeal. It was not thought possible, as I understand, to give any such guarantee, and it was, I believe, largely upon that fact that the opposition which has been spoken of to further proceeding with the Postponement Bill turned. I only mention that by way of caution, because the noble Earl did not allude to that side of the matter. Unless I am greatly mistaken, in the debate in another place that particular point was prominently brought forward.


My Lords, it is not possible for me to answer the question of the noble Marquess, as I think he allowed. But there was a guarantee given to a certain extent. To my recollection it amounted to this, that those who gave it would not raise the question of the repeal of the Act within the six months for which the date of Disestablishment was proposed to be postponed. That surely was a fair bargain. May I add a special reason for the suggestion I made? Parliament might not be sitting when peace was signed and the war brought to a conclusion. It would not be possible, if that were the case, for the Government to extend the period, because they would not be able to obtain the authority of Parliament to do so.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed by the DUKE of DEVONSHIRE.