HL Deb 25 April 1918 vol 29 cc858-69

THE LORD BISHOP OF NORWICH had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask his Majesty's Government whether the time has yet come for a statement to be made as to any proposed legislation on the subject of tithe rent charge.

The right rev. Prelate said: My Lords, as the Bishop of most of the important agricultural area represented by the County of Norfolk, I venture to raise this subject this afternoon. The assurance that the Government is definitely and speedily to deal with the issue in some way, whatever that way may be, will be very welcome, and will, I hope, remove some of the perplexities and heart-burnings which prevail while this matter lies open for discussion and everyone has his own panacea.

For plainly there are various possibilities in handling the problems which arise from the recent rapid increase in tithe rent charge, and different methods would, I suppose, fall under the administration of different Departments of the Government. Some may be in favour of generally improved facilities for redemption, either permanent or for a term of years, and here the tithe-payer and the clerical tithe-owner might agree. It is quite possible that at any rate for a time better interest could be allowed in Central Church Funds on capital sums belonging to benefices arising from tithe redemption. This is a consideration. Naturally the present law has practically prevented redemption taking place. To redeem at twenty-five Years' purchase at par, when tithe rent charge was well below par, was not an attractive proposition. For example, a man who could get elsewhere 3½ per cent. for his money would not spend £2,500 to escape an annual liability to pay £70 or £80.

In this connection some persons argue for individual schemes of redemption, adjusting to each case between tithe-owner and tithe-payer, approved of by some central authority—a project for which, in my humble opinion, there is much to be said. Others take rather a different view of the whole subject, and are for fixing tithe rent charge at par permanently, or for a limited number of years, though, I suppose, in the former case the same story would begin over again if tithe rent charge subsequently fell very much. Others are for fixing it below par and relieving it of rates. Some would, and some would not, make their plan optional; others would make it obligatory on future tithe-owners, but not obligatory on present tithe-owners.

Then there are those who wish by law to establish some kind of sliding scale of readjustment as between owners and occupiers of land liable to tithe rent charge. That is an entirely different question from the raising of rents, about which subject there seems to be, in popular opinion, some misconception of the intention and effect of recent war legislation. Here I touch an acute point, or one of the acute points of the whole problem, for speaking generally it may be said that one of the reasons why-this question of tithe rent charge is a burning question just now is that the tithepayer—that is, the landowner—fails to derive advantage from the circumstances that raise the receipts of the tithe-owner. Whatever his rights may be, it is not easy for the landowner to exercise them and to disturb existing arrangements with the occupier.

I am not arguing for any one plan—far from it—but I am saying that it would he excellent all round if it could be announced that His Majesty's Government, intend very shortly bringing forward a, scheme, and I much hope that a decision may soon be reached. The longer the delay and the more abnormal the rise in tithe rent charge becomes, so much the harder the problem, and the more feeling that may be aroused by the decision. I am not now thinking of laymen or corporations who are tithe-owners, though the inclusion of these persons complicates the matter in regard to rates and in other ways. But about half or more than half of the tithe-owners in the country are parochial incumbents, and among them there are already some who with impetuous but imprudent generosity are trying to deal with the matter themselves—for example, by giving the amount over par that now is coming to them to the Red Cross or some other war fund; thus, as it were, raising a standard of liberality to which their poorer brethren can scarcely be expected to rise.

Some take the view that if tithe rent charge is now in favour of the clergy, it is only their due, and that it would be very unfair if the result of what was supposed to be an equitable system of variation when the present law was made came to mean that whereas the clergy could lose without any one noticing or caring, they might not stand to gain without their gain being intercepted. The view can he held not unreasonably that no interference should take place in the ordinary course of variation till the average of the whole period from 1836 to the present time shows at par instead of less than 92. At any rate, we can sincerely feel for the clergy who actually held their present benefices in the lean years and now fully deserve some compensation. To this we hear the reply that in many cases the clergy who lost most in the lean years are not the same clergy as those who would gain most to-day, and that there is little satisfaction in compensating one man for the losses of his predecessor.

This last attitude of mind leads up to a certain bitterness of attack upon the clergy as if they were profiteers in war time. This is obviously unjust, for if at the present juncture they gain anything it is in accordance with legislation which actually contemplated the possible compensations as well as the deficits involved in a definite bargain of fluctuation made long ago, and to which the clergy have themselves steadily and necessarily in dark days adhered. They have had more of the rough than the smooth.

Again, if any one takes the view that the clergy on the whole stand to gain by things as they are at the present moment, we must not forget that the tithe rent charge has not gone up as much as prices have, and that the clergy feel this at least as much as the poorer professional classes. Moreover, the clergy who are liable to dilapidations have to meet a greater cost in these days when the building trade and all the trades connected with building have raised prices to a much higher figure than they were a few years ago. The clergy are not like men who did well in peace and then in time of war have an open field in from of them and can fix their own remuneration. They are not like men whose services or whose productions the country in any case must have and must pay for at the rate of those who render the services or produce the productions. I suppose that it is among people of that class that those who are anxious to find profiteers would have to direct their search.

I believe that it would be most beneficial if at this time the Government put an end to what appears to be a rather uncomfortable state of things, and I certainly ought to add that it would not be fair to represent any act of the Government as imposed upon an unwilling Church or clergy. Only the other day I received a typical letter from a magnanimous clergyman saying how much he hoped that if any legislation was contemplated it would not be considered that some adjustment was being forced upon the clergy. There are others who point out that the clergy would prefer to make some concession of their own free will, and how eager the Church is to do anything that lies in its power to meet any reasonable proposals.

Some of the clergy may be more generous than others in their outlook; some can afford to be; but it would be emphatically untrue to say that as a class they are unwilling to consider a wise readjustment. It is not the case that an equitable arrangement would have to be forced upon the unwilling authorities of the Church, or that there would be an unanimous outcry against a well-thought-out scheme. The Church is anxious to offer any help that it reasonably can in this as in every other position of national perplexity. Moreover, if wise and considerate legislation can solve the problem, even if they have to sacrifice immediate prospects, the clergy may have something to gain as well as to lose. For remuneration from tithe is not the most desirable form of income. No doubt it has historic and sentimental associations, and links the Church of the present day to the devout and generous Churchmen of long ago.

It is also true that the fluctuation in the value of tithe rent charge has more or less. if in rather a lagging manner, corresponded to the rise and fall in the cost of living. When the cost of living has gone up, so has tithe rent charge; when the cost of living has gone clown, so has tithe rent charge. But all the way through it seems as if tithe rent charge is a little behind the movement in the price of commodities. If that is the case, remuneration from tithe certainly has some advantages over, for example, the smaller professional incomes which feel so very much the stress of this time where no readjustment is found. But the personal aspect between the tithe-payer and the tithe-owner is, of course, not a very comfortable one; the income is troublesome to collect, and the incidence of rates is unsatisfactory even if it is historically and theoretically justified. The clergy who are concerned in the matter would, I repeat, have something to gain as well as to lose from a readjustment. For example, any scheme that limited what in the next two years they were likely to receive, but safeguarded them in the future from an excessive fall in their stipend, would, I believe, be popular with them. The difficulty is to find any safeguard for the future, and the danger is that the safeguard itself might be quickly undermined in any fresh time of agricultural depression.

Your Lordships will remember that a few weeks ago the most rev. Primate addressed to His Majesty's Government a similar Question to the one which I am putting to-day, and then it was understood that the Government were proposing to deal with the subject, but up to the present we have heard no more. Meantime the discussion in the country, some of it in the directions that I have indicated of a rather undesirable character, goes on apace. But I had one special reason in raising the question this afternoon, and it is this, that Convocation meets next week, and in the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury an important Report dealing with this whole subject will be brought up for discussion, and I have little doubt that when the debate takes place in the Lower House of Convocation and that Report is considered a great stimulus will be given to fresh discussion in the country, and more attention still will be fixed upon it. That Convocation Report ends with one or two resolutions. I do not attempt to say anything about them, partly because they have not been accepted, and chiefly because it has not been my desire this afternoon to say anything about one plan or another. But I cannot help feeling that if the Government are able to say anything at all about any proposed legislation, the discussions next week in Convocation and in the country afterwards will be better directed and more to the point, and such amateur remedies as those that are already indicated are likely to be discouraged; and that, in my opinion, will be a good thing.

The correspondence columns in The Times have recently shown the great interest that is being taken in the whole subject, and they have also revealed the very disputable character of various items which come under review, and the solution of the problem of tithe rent charge may prepare the way for the solution of other problems, or at any rate have ulterior possibilities and issues connected with it. But the actual right of the situation must be estimated in regard to the interests and the claims immediately involved between tithe-payers and tithe-owners, though no doubt appropriate steps to carry out what is eventually decided to be the right thing may be facilitated, or on the other hand delayed or complicated, by lines of action in other related fields. But this as it stands is not a question of public finance. Important as it is, it primarily relates to two parties in a definite transaction, however great may be the interest of wider circles, and whatever side issues may be involved.

No one could be unaware of the difficulties which confront His Majesty's Government at this time of special strain in the war, and no one has a right to be impatient or for a moment to think that the interests which he happens to be more or less immediately connected with are more important than those which, perhaps, he cannot even see. At the same time, if it happens to be the case that the chief task in dealing with this matter rests with Departments to whom the present movements at the From have not brought a vast accumulation of responsibility, I hope I may not be thought to be impatient in venturing to ask this Question at this moment in view of the deliberations of Convocation next week, and I hope I may not seem to be oblivious of the far more important and far more preoccupying issue.


My Lords, I should like to say a word on this subject before the Government's answer is given by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen. The question of tithe concerns, of course, the lay holders of tithe as well as the clerical holders; and I think if any scheme is introduced tithe-owners, whether they be lay owners or clerical owners, will have to be dealt with in the same way. We also have to bear this in mind, that of all forms of property held in this country none is held under a more complete title than that of tithe or its equivalent, tithe rent charge, because it has been held by a title of possession completely uninterrupted for a large number of centuries.

The question of tithe at large, if it was embarked upon at the present time, would in my opinion raise a very large number of difficult and complex subjects. I agree with what the late Lord Salisbury, who was then Prime Minister, said in 1891, that when he introduced the Bill which threw the burden of tithe upon landowners he desired at the same time to introduce a complete scheme dealing with the redemption of tithe, but he found the matter so difficult and complicated that he thought that, if he had overloaded his Bill as regards placing the charge upon landowners for redemption, it would have been buried, and he could not have carried it any further.

There is a matter very slightly touched upon by the right rev. Prelate but which he must be well aware is one of the most difficult topics, if once embarked upon, and that is the question of rates in relation to tithes. I do not propose to say anything about that at the present time. It is a matter of the greatest complexity. As a member of a Royal Commission which tried to deal with it for a period of seven years of discussion without very much success, I hope that no such question will be brought to the from at the present moment. Secondly, I think it would be a very great mistake to introduce any scheme based on a compulsory basis. I think it would be impossible, and it would be a wrong moment to introduce it; and although I am not in the same position as the right rev. Prelate, that certain recommendations made have not yet been adopted, yet the House of Laymen as well as Convocation have been carefully considering this matter, and have delegated it to a Committee, of which I happen to he the Chairman.

Let me say what in my view can be done at the present moment. and I think it would meet all the difficulties. First of all, without altering any of the general matters which underlie the tithe question, it would be perfectly competent to say that, whereas at the present moment you can redeem tithe at twenty-five years purchase by arrangement, the period of time might be reduced to twenty years. I think there are several reasons why that change ought to be made, and, if made, it would meet in substance the difficulties to which the right rev. Prelate has referred. It would enable the owner who thought that under existing conditions the tithe was a heavy charge upon him to redeem upon an equitable and fair basis; and, on the other hand, I do not think it would affect adversely either the clerical or the lay tithe-owner as against the tithe-payer, because he could invest a sum now under conditions which would give a larger income than could have been obtained in past years even if the tithe had been redeemed at twenty-five years purchase. That exactly meets the difficulties of the present conditions. I am not talking about prices going up or going down. I think the true explanation is that our currency has depreciated; but I do not want to go into questions of that kind. It is obvious to my mind that, if you leave alone all the other conditions with regard to the complicated tithes Acts and introduce a provision by which by consent as between the tithe-owner and the tithe-payer you may have redemption at twenty years purchase, you would meet all the difficulties of the case.

There is another matter which I think might be considered by the Government —namely, that the facilities might be increased. I will give an illustration in the case of a clerical tithe. You cannot redeem a clerical tithe by consent between the tithe-owner and the tithe-payer unless you also have the assent of the Bishop and of the patron. I do not know what the right rev. Prelate would say if we withdrew the veto of the Bishop, or what some owners of advowsons might say if we withdrew the veto of the patron. But in my opinion if terms were arranged as between the tithe-owner and the tithe-payer and they were carried out under the aegis, as they would be at the present moment, of the Board of Agriculture, that would be sufficient protection for all interests. Therefore I should like not only the twenty years introduced as the optional term, but I should also like every facility to be given in order that the transaction might be carried out easily and without friction.

One other matter to which the right rev. Prelate referred might be dealt with also in a Tithe Bill of small compass—I am certain that an ambitious Tithe Bill is out of the question. For a large number of years, as we know, the tithe was below par, and for a long period of years redemption was practically impossible; no redemption took place except in connection with building schemes and matters of that kind. Tithe has now gone up from between 60 and 70 per cent. to, I will say, 110—it is really 109 and a fraction. I agree with what the right rev. Prelate said, that probably the tithe-owner is no better off than he was in the earlier days, because currency has depreciated, or prices have appreciated (according as you look at the problem), to a corresponding extent. At the same time, I think that in a temporary tithe scheme this provision ought to be introduced. It would not be unfair to say that, during the war period and for a reasonable period after the war, the tithe should not go up above its present level of about 110, leaving matters for adjustment afterwards. I consider that this would be a fair provision as between the tithe-owner and the tithe-payer. At the same time it would produce an easy method of redemption such as I am suggesting.

I agree with the right rev. Prelate that this is a matter which should be adjusted, and I should take a stronger view than that which he expressed—namely, that it is very much in the interests, not perhaps, of the Church as a whole, but of the various corporations of the Church to which these tithes are paid, that you should smooth away in the future any friction in connection with the payment of tithe. I am of opinion, therefore, that this is a favourable time to remove that friction, on terms which in the long run, I think, would be of really great advantage to the Church, in order that they might get rid of the question of difficulty and friction.

I have made these few remarks for this reason. I do not believe that the present is the time for any large Tithe Bill. At the same time I am of opinion that it is a time at which the actua difficulties might, be reasonably met in a small Bill such as I have suggested, dealing with easier terms of redemption as regards the number of years value, and possibly putting for a period of time the existing limit of 110 on tithe, having regard to the war conditions.


My Lords, I take the liberty of cordially endorsing what my noble friend has said in deprecating any heroic measure at this moment. Let us be quite honest about the matter. There is no real grievance underlying the high value of the tithe rent charge at one period or its fall at another period. It is true, as the right rev. Prelate has said, that tithe follows behind the fluctuation in prices of commodities. This is obviously so, because it is based upon the previous six years. I think that the time when there might possibly he a dangerous agitation is when the price of commodities begins to fall very rapidly, and tithe rent charge having risen to 130 the tithe-payer might then really begin to think he had a grievance. But at the present moment I cannot admit that there is a grievance on either side. The tithe-payer has had the benefit down to about £63, I think; he has the disadvantage now of paying at 108.


A fraction over 109.


Yes, I am in the position on a very small estate, and a very poor one, of paying a huge tithe rent charge having regard to the income of the estate. But where is my grievance? Either I or my predecessors bought the land knowing perfectly well that there was this charge upon it, and that the charge would be assessed according to the Act. It was my business to know what the liabilities of the estate were. There is no grievance in having to pay a tithe rent. charge at the lowest or at the highest level. I agree with my noble and learned friend that if the present is a good opportunity for offering a measure of redemption, that is the extent to which it would be wise to go in the existing circumstances of political trouble. But I cannot admit that the proposal ought to arise out of any existing grievance. It is only to meet an agitation which the right rev. Prelate thinks is widely spread—though I should rather have doubted it. Where it is spread at all I think it arises largely from a misconception of the facts; and I believe it would be ample to meet that agitation if eht opportunity were now given of a system of redemption.


my Lords, is the noble Lord who has just sat down correct in saying that there is no grievance because this was a charge which was imposed upon himself or his ancestors, and had gone on continuously, and that the good years must be taken with the bad years? That is hardly so; because up to the time of the Act that was passed by the late Lord Salisbury in 1891. I think it was, the common custom was for the tenant farmers to pay the tithe and not the landlord.


I was, of course, aware of that.


It did not fall upon the landlord but upon the tenant, who made a greater or a less profit, and it seemed a more equitable state of things that when corn was dear the farmer should pay a higher tithe rent charge. When corn was at a low price he paid a lower tithe rent charge. But what is the position at the present? The landlord does not benefit to the slightest extent from the increase in the price of corn, but at the same time he is most unfairly—the noble Lord shakes his head, but I am sure he has not increased his rents—


I beg your pardon. I have increased them for the purpose of meeting the tithe rent charge, and it was expressly stated in this House on more than one occasion by the Duke of Marlborough and by Viscount Milner during the debate on the Corn Production Bill—and I called attention to it in The Times the other day —that there was nothing in that Act to prevent the landowner from raising his rents for the purpose of meeting the charge.


No doubt there is nothing in the Act to prevent it, but I think noble Lords will agree with me that the practice has been not to do it, and that the noble Lord is quite an exception to the general practice of landlords through the country. It may, of course, be that the noble Lord's rents were so very low that there was no grievance in adding an increase quite apart from the increase in the tithe rent charge. It might not be possible to go entirely back to the old system, but I hope the Government will consider whether, where the tenant and landlord are ready to agree that the tithe rent charge should be paid by the tenant, either now or in the future when a new letting is made, as part of the bargain, it should be legal to do it. I admit that it is impossible to go back to the old system, but I suggest to the Government whether it would be possible in the case of new tenancies to allow the landlord and tenant to agree that the tenant should pay the tithe rent charge. Then when things are good he pays the high rent and when things are bad he pays the low rent charge. I think that is the fairer method. It is hardly fair upon the clergy that now when they are having the advantage of good tithes they should be told that their receipts are to be cut down. As the right rev. Prelate pointed out, it is very true that the clergy like other people find that their income does not go nearly as far as it did before the war. Therefore it would be hard in some ways to ask them, when they are having good times, to reduce the amount paid. I think it would be much fairer that the man who pays the extra charge should be the man who is making the larger profit, and he at the present moment is the tenant farmer.


My Lords, I am grateful to the right rev. Prelate for having given me an opportunity of saying that the President of the Board of Agriculture has now a Bill in preparation which he, is about to submit to his colleagues in the Cabinet and which he hopes to introduce at an early day. He is fully aware of the deep interest which is taken in the country in this matter, and also the anxiety felt in many quarters that it should be dealt with with the least possible, delay, The discussion this afternoon has been an interesting one, and has elicited from various noble Lords their views with regard to the matter, but I am sure the right rev. Prelate will understand that in the circumstances to which I have alluded it would not be possible for me to make any further statement upon the matter this afternoon, beyond saying that the views which have been expressed and the suggestions made by noble Lords this afternoon will be conveyed to the President of the Board of Agriculture, and will, I am sure, receive his most careful consideration.