HL Deb 09 March 1915 vol 18 cc614-28

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I understand that the Government are prepared to make a statement on the subject of this Bill†, and in the circumstances it will not be necessary for me to enter into any details. But perhaps it will be convenient to the noble Earl opposite to make his statement on the formal Motion that the Bill be read a second time. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Duke of Devonshire.)


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Duke for giving me this opportunity of making a statement on behalf of His Majesty's Government. The House is probably aware of the fact that there has been considerable feeling on the subject of this Bill which His Majesty's Government were unable to ignore. In view of the discussions which took place on this subject in the country the Government entered into negotiations with various parties interested, and assuming that there is general approval from all sides on this question they think they are able to propose to your Lordships a compromise upon the subject. It is quite true that it is a compromise which has been arrived at only at what I might call the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour, but none the less I hope it will be generally acceptable. I have copies of the form which we hope the compromise would take, and these I will lay on the Table.

† The noble Duke's Bill proposed to enact as follows:—

Amendment of Suspensory Act, 1914.

The Suspensory Act, 1914, shall have effect and shall be deemed always to have had effect as if in subsection (1) of section one thereof the words "the date of disestablishment under that Act shall be postponed" were omitted, and the words "no steps shall be taken to put that Act into operation and that Act shall not come into operation in any respect" were substituted there-for, and as if the following wards were inserted after the words "order in Council" in subsection (1) of section one thereof, "and for the "purposes of the Welsh Church Act, 1914, the date "of the expiration of twelve months or such later "date as may be fixed (as the case may be) shall "be deemed to be the date of the passing of such "Act."s

It is easy to state quite simply the effect of the compromise which we propose. It is that the operation of the Welsh Church Act should, subject to certain agreement which I will mention later, be postponed for a period of six months. His Majesty's Government believe that the apprehensions entertained by a large number of members of the Church of England as to the amount of work necessitated by the reorganisation of the Church in Wales on a voluntary basis which will have to be completed before the date of Disestablishment will, on examination, be found not to be well founded. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that those anxieties exist, and it is in the hope of removing them that His Majesty's Government have entered into negotiations on the subject. But while there are those anxieties on the part of noble Lords opposite and of the occupants of the Right Rev. Bench, so also are there anxieties on the other side on the part of those who have throughout supported the original Bill, who fear that the postponement of the date of Disestablishment might be taken advantage of by a new Government in a new Parliament for the purpose of repealing or altering the Act. The proposals, therefore, which I shall outline are put forward subject to the condition of an agreement being arrived at between the responsible leaders of the two Parties, that before the date of Disestablishment as fixed by the new Bill no proposal to repeal or to amend the Act will subsequently be made or countenanced except with the consent of both Parties.

The Bill in which we propose to give effect to these proposals contains six clauses, and its effect is to postpone the date of Disestablishment until six months after the end of the war. But it goes beyond that, and gives to the Representative Body the value of the life interest in those benefices which were vacant on September 18, 1914, and also in benefices which became or become vacant between September 18, 1914, and the date of Disestablishment. The value of a life interest in each case is to be calculated on the life of the actual holder of the office on January 1, 1913, according to his age on that date. It is a somewhat complicated matter, but I hope that some noble Lords opposite have been able in the course of this morning to make such inquiries on this subject as will have satisfied them with regard to the Government's proposals. In view of the adjournment which it is suggested should take place at an early period, I think it would probably be for the convenience of another place if your Lordships were to agree to pass the Government's Bill in the course of the present sitting in order that it may be taken into consideration without further delay in the other House, where the matter is looked upon with perhaps even more anxiety than in your Lordships' House. Therefore later this evening I shall, with the assent of your Lordships, propose that the Bill should go through as many stages as possible to-night.


My Lords, we all welcome the conciliatory tone which has characterised the remarks made by the noble Earl. This question is one which has moved us very deeply on this side of the House. We have always been strongly opposed to the policy of the Welsh Church Act. We greatly resented the decision of His Majesty's Government to press that Act forward after war had been declared, and nothing that we say with regard to the Government's new Bill must be interpreted by noble Lords opposite as in any way diminishing the feelings which we have at one time or another expressed towards this legislation. In our view the situation with which we have to deal is one which ought never to have arisen, but as it has arisen we welcome the effort which the noble Earl is making to extricate us from it.

We all desire to give effect to the policy which has been not once but many times announced by the Prime Minister—a policy based upon a resolve to avoid all legislation which might lead to the acrimonious discussion of our domestic affairs; a policy which would enable us to present a united front at this momentous time, and which would leave all parties free to concentrate their energies upon the great struggle in which the country is engaged. It would have been impossible for us to do these things if we had been left in regard to the Welsh Church Act where the Suspensory Act left us. Under that measure the Welsh Church Act was to come into operation on the day of the ending of the war. What would that have meant? There would have been imposed upon both sides the obligation of making preparations at Once to meet the state of things which would have arisen automatically at the conclusion of the war. His Majesty's Government found it necessary to appoint Commissioners to carry out the Welsh Church Act—they appointed Commissioners and a staff, to be paid out of the funds of the Welsh Church; they endeavoured to make rules, to carry out investigations, to conduct ballots—all this in spite of the fact that the Suspensory Act was in operation.

The friends of the Church on their side were obliged to take steps to prepare for the moment when the Act was to come automatically into operation. On that day—the day of the Conclusion of the war—the Courts of Law, upon which the Welsh Church depended, would have ceased to be available; the Constitution of the Welsh Church would have been brought to an end; the property of the Welsh Church, or at any rate a very large part of it, would have passed into other hands. It would have been necessary for us to prepare in good time for that state of things. It would have been necessary for us to construct a Representative Body and a Legislative Body to which would have been assigned the duty of preparing a new Constitution for the disestablished Church. It would have been necessary to take steps to put the Church upon a sound financial basis. My Lords, all these things could not be properly described as mere formalities. They were things which had to be done, and things the doing of which would scarcely be regarded as consistent with a condition of absolute truce.

The noble Earl said in the course of his remarks that he thought some of our anxieties were not well founded. We take leave to differ from him upon that. We believe, on the contrary, that we had cause for the gravest possible anxiety with regard to all these matters. The noble Earl makes us, I understand, this proposal—that the date of the coming into operation of the Act is to be put back, and that it shall take place six months after the conclusion of the war. That certainly will give much-needed relief to those who are at present full of the anxieties to which the noble Earl referred; and after the conclusion of the war it will afford at any rate a decent interval during which the necessary preparations can be made. The offer, then, which the noble Earl makes to us is, I think, one which certainly may be accepted as the basis of a compromise.

I pass, however, for one moment to the condition which the noble Earl attached to the acceptance of that offer. He told us that his proposals were put forward subject to the condition of an agreement being arrived at between the responsible leaders of the two Parties that before the date of Disestablishment as fixed by the new Bill no proposal to repeal or amend the Act will be made or countenanced except with the consent of both Parties. That seems to us a reasonable condition if it is to be interpreted as we interpret it. We interpret the condition as having reference only to proposals made in Parliament, and not to the making or the discussion of proposals outside Parliament. It will, I am sure, be quite obvious to the noble Earl that it would be impossible for us to bind those who think as we do to complete abstention from the expression of their views upon this question during the interval. I desire to make that point absolutely clear.

The only other observation which I will venture to make is this. We strongly deprecate delay in dealing with this matter. The noble Earl is evidently aware that there are very acute feelings with regard to it, and in our view the sooner those feelings are allayed the better for all concerned. If in these circumstances the noble Earl adopts the course which I understand him to propose and asks the House to pass his Bill through all its stages to-night, we shall raise no objection.


My Lords, the House has listened to two speeches of very real importance. The position of matters with regard to the Church in Wales has for many months past been profoundly unsatisfactory to friends of the Church, and I will venture to say to friends of religion in Wales. When the subject was last before your Lordships' House at the conclusion of the session of 1914 I called attention with some care to the practical impossibility of the position in which the Church in Wales was being placed by the insistence of the Government upon passing the Bill during war time and their imposing upon the Church the task, wholly to be carried out during war time, of discharging the manifold duties which, with all respect to the noble Earl, I must still say are rendered obligatory prior to the date of Disestablishment. I therefore supported then, and the House supported, a proposal for treating Wales as Ireland was treated, and for postponing, not the date of Disestablishment, but the coming into operation of the Act as a whole until after the war should be over. On the next day in another place the Home Secretary scouted the idea that such a postponement could be tolerated or assented to by the Government, and he made merry over what he described as the imaginary difficulties to which I had called attention.

True to the sense of duty which we all entertain in this time of war as to the way in which we were to treat controversial questions, we refrained from further protest on the subject. But, my Lords, I say unhesitatingly that every week that has passed since then has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that the apprehensions to which I gave expression were absolutely true, and that the Home Secretary was completely mistaken in the view which he took on the subject. The noble Duke's Bill, the Second Reading of which has been formally moved to-night, though it is to be superseded by a Government Bill, would, if passed, have removed some of these difficulties without doing harm to any living soul. The Government say they will not have it; they will not allow that postponement which we had asked for of the operation of the Act as a whole, and all that they will consent to is something quite different.

Recognising—at what, to quote the noble Earl's expression, is the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour—the truth as to those difficulties which we foresaw or foreknew a few months ago, the Government now make another proposal. They decline to allow the postponement of the Act so as to make it correspond with what happened in the case of Ireland, but they consent to postpone the date of Disestablishment until six months after the close of the war, and they further provide that incumbencies which fall vacant in the meantime shall come within the terms of commutation if commutation takes place. This is promised on condition that the leaders of the Party opposite shall take no action in the meantime in the direction of the repeal or amendment of the Act. This is a point upon which it is necessary that we should be perfectly clear. The Government asked in both Houses of Parliament for a truce on these controversial matters during the war. All with whom I am connected have certainly done their very best to observe that truce. Noble Lords opposite [the Opposition] have, so far as I can judge, done exactly the same. The truce has been scrupulously observed, and no doubt will continue to be observed during the war as long as it lasts. But it must be quite clear that that truce was till the end of the war, and that after that every one must be free to say what he deems right, on this or other subjects.

It is true that in the proposal foreshadowed by the noble Earl to-night the Government intend, as is, indeed, the minimum of fairness, to give a six months interval after the conclusion of the war before the date of Disestablishment arrives. That is, as I say, fair and right. For there is much work that will have to be crowded into those six months after the war is over if things are to be ready and in shape by the time the date of Disestablishment arrives. But, my Lords, the war will then be over, the truce between political Parties will then be at an end, and the right of anybody to make suggestions, to formulate hopes or definite plans, must be, I imagine by everybody's agreement, unfettered. See what might otherwise happen. It is, I suppose, at least conceivable—perhaps it is even probable—that very shortly after the end of the war a General Election may take place. I cannot suppose for a moment that the noble Earl, in the suggestion he has foreshadowed to-night, desires to propose that if a General Election takes place one great section—a half, perhaps more than a half—of the people of this country during the time of the preparation for that General Election after the war is over should be prohibited from saving anything about Wales or about the Welsh Church Act. That, my Lords, is a position which I can hardly think any one will have suggested. It is only because there was a certain ambiguity in the phrase used that I have even ventured to refer to it. It could not be suggested as anything but a preposterous idea.

I am not advocating now the repeal of the Act or the amendment of it, or anything of that kind. Those are questions that must be postponed until after the war. And until after the war I and anybody with whom I have any interest would certainly desire to abstain absolutely from anything that could be regarded as using that war time for preparation of that sort. But when the war is ended and the political truce is over, I imagine it will not be doubted that every one is perfectly free to say and do what he likes, though six months will have to elapse before the date of Disestablishment actually falls. Far rather than consent to any plan which would give rise to the infinite confusion which must be created if at a time of great political discussion people were barred from speaking on this subject, I should prefer to let the Government not give us the further six months, and let it be as it stands to-day—that the conclusion of peace would mean the knell of the Church in Wales as regards the falling of the date of Disestablishment. But I did not understand the noble Earl so, and I noted that the noble Marquess did not so understand him. I therefore feel that, taking the proposal as I have put it—that the truce remains until the end of the war—we should not, certainly I should not, take the responsibility of declining a proposal such as that which has been put forward by the Government as the outcome, I understand, of a conference between the leaders of political Parties in the country.

I should like to add that I cannot help hoping, even now, that in the interim, at so solemn a time in the history of our country, there may be something of a drawing closer of those Christian men and Christian bodies who have been opposed to each other; that with all the thoughts that this great time suggests, a desire will find public expression that the conclusion of military peace abroad shall not be inaugurated by a recrudescence of harshness and strife at home; and that some larger measure of reconsideration and rearrangement of the Welsh question may by that time have come into sight and seem possible upon lines consistent with genuine religious progress, consistent with the co-operation of all in the fight against sin and evil, and with the ending, by common consent, of what is interpreted by so many as cruel, unkindly, and unfair. With those words, my Lords, I desire to express my concurrence in what has been said by the noble Marquess as to the readiness with which we should accept the proposal which the Government have made.


My Lords, as a lay Churchman I should like, before I say one or two words upon the present position, to express my hearty approval of the last part of the speech which has just been made by his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury. Church laymen are desirous that there should be co-operation between all religious bodies in this country; and not only are they most anxious that there should be that co-operation, but they wish cordially to recognise the attitude which has been taken by some religious and high-minded Nonconformists who have expressed very strongly the view that Disendowment and interference with money devoted to religious trusts should not be allowed to go forward under present conditions. Speaking as a layman who has had a good deal to do with Church work and organisation, I can assure the noble Earl opposite that if the Act had been left unamended the work of the Church would have been seriously hampered in many directions. Perhaps it has been brought to his notice even as regards, providing Christian ministrations in Welsh villages, that under existing conditions it is found almost impossible to provide them owing to insecurity of tenure.

Church laymen have from the outset desired a truce as regards all religious controversy during the period of the war crisis, and all they have asked for is that the truce should be an honourable truce, not giving advantage or disadvantage either to one side or the other. We have never asked to obtain an advantage; all we claim is that we ought not to be put under any disadvantage. Immediately the Bill passed at the end of last session against the protest of Churchmen, I called a special meeting of the House of Laymen of the Province of Canterbury, of which I have the honour to be chairman. What was the resolution unanimously passed by that body? It was that we desired a truce; that we did not want to go on with religious agitation and controversy during the period of the war crisis. But we also unanimously said that to bring about that result it was necessary that the Suspensory Act should be altered and amended; and according to our view, of course, it ought to be put on the same basis as the suspensory provisions dealing with the Irish question.

I cordially recognise that the Government have gone far to meet our views. It is not only the question of the postponement of the date of Disestablishment, in itself a very important matter, but although the noble Earl said—and I, of course, take it from him that it is so—that he could not appreciate what was meant as regards the changes in the doctrine of commutation, yet the effect is to prevent the Church being unduly affected as regards its financial position, because it is impossible to deal with business matters of this kind during the period of the war. In the same way, I think, the noble Earl referred to the period during which patrons in Wales would be entitled to claim compensation. Matters of that kind cannot be dealt with during a war period, when, for one matter, many of the people concerned are engaged on national military duty. The importance of these points did not seem to be appreciated by the noble Earl in what he said.

There is one other matter on which I think I must be extremely specific. I am speaking as a Churchman and not as a member of any Party. No arrangement between political bodies will in any way affect, in my view, the attitude of Churchmen as such during the present crisis. We are independent of Party. We are supported by Liberal Churchmen as well as by Conservative Churchmen. We are also supported by Nonconformists, who to a great extent belong to a different Party from ourselves. Only the other day a note was sent to me by an ex-Liberal Member of the House of Commons who had taken a plebiscite of well-known Liberals in a London constituency in order to see what their view was on this point. The plebiscite resulted in 139 answers being received in favour of amending the Suspensory Act in the way asked for by the Church, as against 105 answers in favour of retaining the Suspensory Act in its present position. It is the greatest mistake to suppose that this is a political matter. It is not a political matter at all; it is a Church matter; and Churchmen intend to maintain their liberty of action quite irrespective of any understanding between the Front Benches of the two political Parties. We do not intend to involve ourselves in that decision in any way. Quite apart from any understanding between the Front Benches, we had ourselves as Churchmen come to the determination to do all we could to preserve a national truce at the present time, and had decided as far as we were concerned not to promote either religious agitation or religious controversy. And we ask, on the other side, that we should be protected against the dangers and perils of the Act which we have been discussing.

When the war comes to an end—I admit that I do not know what that expression means; what it means must be a matter for subsequent determination—when the war comes to an end every Churchman who really believes in the truth and religious spirit of his Church must, as a matter of necessity and of conscience, do his best to put an end to what he believes to be an iniquitous and unjust measure. On a matter of that kind no one could give any undertaking. Therefore I want to make it perfectly clear that, whatever the arrangement may be between the two Front Benches, Churchmen will always claim to have a free hand. We shall preserve the truce during the period of the war; but it is equally true that at the end of the war we shall do our best to re-establish—I will not call it the Church in Wales—but to re-establish those dioceses of our national Church which are situated in Wales, and which, if this Act continues to be law, will be treated most unfairly and in a way most detrimental to our religious life. I wanted to make what I believe is the attitude of Churchmen perfectly clear, and subject to that I believe we shall recognise what the Government have done, which has gone at any rate some way to meet our wishes.


My Lords, though on this Church question I have not had the experience of Lord Parmoor or held any official position in connection with the Government, I have had, in connection with the large concerns with which I deal, many opportunities of forming an opinion and getting information with regard to the important measure under discussion, and I desire to express my congratulation to His Majesty's Government upon having offered this compromise. I think that from their own point of view they have acted wisely. I know that since the Welsh Church Act has been passed there has been in my district and in other districts in which many Nonconformists live a strong feeling of resentment against the Disendowment of the Church in Wales, and I am quite sure that when the country begins to realise and to grasp what the Act means this feeling will increase. Therefore the Government are to be congratulated on giving more time, so that the measure may be more fully considered by the country before it actually comes into operation.

I quite agree with the most rev. Primate that after the conclusion of the war the truce will be at an end. The Front Benches may come to any agreement they like, but while they will be able to control to a certain extent their most loyal followers they cannot control the rank and file of their respective Parties. I am an old Parliamentarian. I have seen many arrangements made by the Front Benches not carried out by the rank and file, and I feel quite sure that at the end of the war, whatever arrangements the Front Benches may make on this matter as representing the two great Parties in the State, the rank and file will claim the right to act as they think best.

So far as I am concerned, I have taken no part hitherto with regard to the measure in question. For many years I voted in support of resolutions in favour of Disestablishment and Disendowment, but I always took care to state distinctly—and my constituents knew it very well—that I would be no party to any confiscation. Therefore I consider that so far as the Welsh Church Act is concerned I have an absolutely free hand. I congratulate His Majesty's Government on offering this compromise and noble Lords opposite on accepting it, and I hope that it may lead to a cessation of the bitter religious controversy which has taken place for many years in Wales and in other parts of the country, and that some solution of this question will be reached before the expiration of the extended period.


My Lords, I have very little to add to what my noble friend behind me stated with reference to the Bill with which we are going to ask your Lordships to proceed. The most rev. Primate, in the carefully weighed speech which he delivered to the House, stated that last autumn he felt bound to protest against the passing of the Suspensory Bill in the form in which we introduced it, and against the imposition upon the Church in Wales of obligations which they were compelled to undertake during the progress of the war. We are unable to regard the fact that the Bill was passed as a grievance, but we have frankly admitted that it would be a grievance in certain cases to impose upon Churchmen in Wales the undertaking of obligations in the present circumstances, and so far as it is possible to mitigate any hardship which would be laid upon Churchmen in Wales by a continuance of proceedings under the Act we have been desirous to meet it.

The existence of a Parliamentary truce for these purposes has been mentioned in almost every speech in the debate. In using the military metaphor of a truce we have to remember that truces and armistices in actual military operations are often looked upon with suspicion by one party or the other engaged, for the reason that it is only in very special and peculiar circumstances that the operation of a truce works out quite fairly to both the forces engaged; and the interpretation which noble Lords opposite and their friends desired to place upon the truce as affecting this particular matter of the Welsh Church was, in our opinion, one-sided and in their favour in this respect—that the action which they desired to take would, in our opinion, have distinctly facilitated the repeal of the Welsh Church Act in a number of by no means impossible circumstances, and that thereby the so-called truce would have redounded to the advantage of those who have been throughout opponents of the measure. It is in that respect that we have always considered the analogy which the most rev. Primate again drew to-night between this measure and the Government of Ireland Act as not a complete analogy or one which it is entirely reasonable to use.

The interpretation which the noble Marquess, the most rev. Primate, and the noble and learned Lord opposite have placed upon the statement made by my noble friend concerning the condition which we consider it reasonable to ask the Opposition to undertake in respect of this measure—namely, a suspension from action in the direction of the repeal or the amending of this measure—is correct. It is Parliamentary action to which we have been alluding. We have not, I can assure the noble and learned Lord opposite, supposed it to be reasonable or possible that he or his friends during the whole of that interval should altogether abstain from mentioning the subject of the Welsh Church, except so far as they in their own discretion consider themselves debarred from entering into matters of acute controversy at this moment and during the progress of the war. And what applies to them, of course, applies also to their opponents. The same obligation of not engaging in general political controversy rests upon all sides, and I have no doubt it will be observed to the same extent by those who are supporters of the Government in this matter as by the noble and learned Lord and his friends.

The most rev. Primate spoke of his hopes of what he described as some "larger consideration of the whole of this Welsh Church question," meaning thereby, I take it, the arrival of some solution of the difficulty of a more harmonious character as between Churchmen and Nonconformists on one side quite apart from the position of the two great political Parties on the matter. In a sense we should all desire to echo that wish, because, particularly in a matter of this gravity, a peaceful solution is bound to be preferable to a forced solution. But in our opinion that is a matter on which the Welsh people must decide for themselves. It is not a question on which I think English politicians of either Party are entitled even to express a marked opinion, still less to force upon the nation of Wales a solution which is not agreeable to it. Therefore although it is impossible to object to the pious hope expressed by the most rev. Primate, I do not like to notice it without making that particular caution.

So far as the proposition which we are now setting before Parliament is concerned, I shall be very glad indeed if it is found so to commend itself to all parties that it can be promptly proceeded with and rapidly dealt with in another place. In my view it reasonably might receive such treatment, because I think that as nearly as possible it arrives at that conclusion which we have all honestly been desiring to reach throughout, although we have differed as to the means and methods—namely, that of not giving an undue advantage of any kind either to one side or the other. I believe that so far as it is possible for human skill in drafting to arrive at such a conclusion, this is a fair measure which avoids the infliction of any hardship or grievance upon the Church party without going too far in the opposite direction and disappointing the legitimate hopes which those who are in favour of the Disestablishment and Disendowment of the Church in Wales have built upon the Parliamentary history of the measure. That being so, I hope that it will go down to the other House under good auspices, that it will not be the subject of undue suspicion from any quarter, that nobody will try to read into it ideas or objects which it does not contain. The purposes which it desires to effect are of a simple character. To take an instance, that of meeting what I think we must all agree would be a grievance to the Church in Wales—the maturing of the life interest by lapse of time. I give that as a single instance. Our Bill is a simple and straightforward endeavour to deal with a situation produced by the passage of the weeks and months. I trust, therefore, that its progress both here and elsewhere will be simple and straightforward.


Until the Government's Bill has been introduced and has made some advance in your Lordships' House, perhaps the best course for me to take would be to move the adjournment of the debate.

Moved, That the debate be adjourned.—(The Duke of Devonshire.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and the further debate adjourned sine die.