HL Deb 15 June 1921 vol 45 cc578-87

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY rose to move, "That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure, 1921, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent." His Grace said: My Lords, in moving the Resolution which stands in my name, may I explain what the purport of that proposal is? Your Lordships will remember that the Act of 1919, which is popularly called the Enabling Act, lays down specifically in the Constitution appended to it that when the Assembly which the Act constitutes had got into shape, and was doing its work, it should before entering upon any other legislative business, make provision for the self-government of the Church by passing through the Assembly measures— (a) Declaring that the Convocations of Canterbury and York have power, by canon lawfully passed and promulged, to amend the Constitution of the- Lower Houses thereof; (b) conferring upon the parochial church councils constituted under the Schedule to this Constitution such powers as the Assembly may determine. Those duties were laid upon us as obligatory before we proceeded to other work in the Assembly.

The first of them, the provision for the Convocations to amend the Constitution of the Lower Houses, has been carried through the Assembly, carried through Parliament, and, the Royal Assent having been obtained to it, the elections under the new system are at this moment in progress and will be completed in the course of the next ten days. That has been an admirably prompt and effective mode of proving the usefulness of the measure passed in 1919. We have now before the House to-night the request, that the House will approve of the action we have taken with regard to the second direction that was given. That is to say, we were to lay down and prescribe the powers conferring upon the parochial church councils constituted under the Act such powers as the Assembly may determine. An immense amount of labour has been devoted to the task of giving effect to that obligation. We debated it at very full length a few months ago in the Assembly, and everybody there followed the matter with the closest attention, such attention as I have never seen paralleled in an Assembly of 700 people. In the end the proposals, which are embodied in the measure which was accordingly drawn up, were agreed to with practical unanimity.

I say "with practical unanimity," because there were two points upon which questions were raised, and each of these has since been the subject of some very wholesome discussion. The first related to the change in regard to the patronage of one or more City livings held under very peculiar conditions indeed, where the patronage lies with the parishioners or with feoffees on behalf of the parish. The proposals which we make, covering as they do England as a whole, transfer these powers to the parochial church councils which will be constituted under the Act; that is to say, that those who care about the church and attend it and make use of it are the people with whom the patronage will now rest. That is entirely in accordance with the spirit of the Act. If those who take exception to what we have done, on the ground that they are ratepayers or feoffees who have a right to be considered, are properly qualified, they can obtain all the powers they desire to have by becoming members of the parochial church meeting and then of the parochial church council. There is no difficulty about it, and the objection seems to me, as it seemed to others, to be one which, though not trifling, because it is an important matter locally, is infinitesimal in its character. It affects only two or three of the 14,000 parishes in the whole of England, and I do not think any particular wrong is done.

Objection was also made that the power of electing churchwardens was to this extent changed by the Measure—that whereas the vestry retains the power it had before of electing churchwardens there will be added to the vestry for this particular purpose the members of the parochial church meeting in order that they might have their say in the election. The present position is, so to speak, watered down by the coming in of these other people who have a direct interest in the matter. That is entirely in accordance with the spirit of what we are trying to do and we believe it is absolutely right.

This Measure, carefully drawn up and adequately discussed, was brought by the Assembly or its Committee before the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, appointed by this House and the House of Commons, and was there most carefully considered. After debating and considering it, and seeing whether or not it infringed in any way the conditions which they were to be specially watchful to protect, the Ecclesiastical Committee decided that they would like to confer with the Legislative Committee of the National Assembly. They did so confer and the proceedings are before your Lordships in the White Paper which records what took place. After that conference the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament again took the matter into consideration and passed the resolution which is to be found at the end of their Report on the subject — The Ecclesiastical Committee, having considered the matters above referred to and the effect of the Measure on the constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects, are of opinion that it is expedient that the Measure should become law. I ask your Lordships, by your vote to-day, to give effect to the recommendations there made, so that the Measure may obtain the Royal Assent and take its place among the enactments produced under the new Act of Parliament.

There are one or two other matters which we have not yet adequately considered in the Assembly which will belong to the parochial church councils hereafter in whatever form we may agree upon. We have purposely delayed those in order that they may be fully considered, with the desire of protecting the legitimate rights of every member of the community. With that exception, the Measure we are now submitting, which has received the approval of a Committee of your Lordships' House, embodies, as we believe, the recommendations which are most wholesome and most desirable. I beg to move.

Moved, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the' Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure, 1921, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent. —(The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.)


My Lords, before the Motion is put I have a few observations to make to the House about this Measure. I am not going to say a word in opposition to the Motion made by the most rev. Primate, but I think this is a very important and interesting occasion and it would be a pity that it should remain unmarked by nothing more than what is practically a formal Motion to present the Measure to His Majesty. This Measure is really the first important result and the first test of the working of the Church Assembly (Powers) Act, and I do not think it will be possible for anybody to say that the Act has not worked admirably.

The Ecclesiastical Committee, of which I happen to be a member, went through this matter with great pains and deliberation. I will not put it so high as to say that there was opposition to them, but doubt was expressed about certain matters which had been specially brought to the attention of the Committee. Those who were disposed to support the representations that had been made expressed their views and were fully heard. They were not only answered in the Committee, but they were dealt with by means of the conference which is provided for in the Act. If I may mention my own opinion, I was not entirely in agreement with the conclusions arrived at by the Committee upon certain points. That fact, perhaps, gives me a rather better title than anybody else to say how satisfied I am with the way in which the matter was treated. Though I still stick to my opinion, as I am a little apt to do about most things, I bow to the decision of the Committee and do not wish to suggest that there should be any interruption in the going forward of this Measure.

There are two matters which appeared to me to emerge from the proceedings that took place. One was that perhaps there was not sufficient publicity about the deliberations of the Church Assembly when dealing with matters which might affect not only the Church but those outside the Church. At any rate, one of the subjects of complaint brought before us was that the persons concerned —I shall not enter into particulars —had had no information on the subject and did not know anything about what had taken place until it came before the Committee. I venture to suggest to the most rev. Primate that be might consider that, especially when it appears that outside, rights may be affected, and that he should sec that some means are provided by which the deliberations of the Church Assembly are made as widely known as the deliberations would be if the matter proceeded in the old way by Act of Parliament.

The other point, I think, is even more important. It emerged from what took place that there is no way of dealing with the matter if a mistake should be made. It may be a serious mistake or it may not be serious, vet it may be something which ought not to be followed, and the Ecclesiastical Committee are put in the position that they must either pass something which ought not to be passed, or they must hang up the whole Measure, although, as a whole, they are in favour of it. I also ask the most rev. Primate to take into consideration whether such a very strong line should be taken as that. I do not think that any self-respecting Committee—and this Committee is a very strong and important body —will stand being told that they must either take it or leave if. Some other way ought to be open to them. I do not suggest for a moment that the Ecclesiastical Committee shall be given any power of amendment. I understand, and have always understood, the position. When the Ecclesiastical Committee point to a real flaw (which in the case of a Bill before Parliament would certainly be corrected) there should be some means of dealing with it without the whole Measure having to be lost. I desire to support the Motion.


My Lords, may I say one word in reference to what the noble Lord opposite (Lord Muir Mackenzie) has said. I happen to have been very intimately concerned with the matter during its conduct through the National Assembly. The noble Lord has suggested that certain persons whose interests were affected had no knowledge of what was being done, or at any rate did not know the extent to which their interests were being affected. I can assure him that that did not happen. I can assure him for a very good reason. The same persons who raised the objection came to see me several times, and, moreover, there were Amendments upon the Paper during the passage; of the Measure through the National Assembly which raised the very points to which the noble Lord has called attention. I agree that they were points of importance, and, because of that fact, they were very fully considered and discussed. I agree also with him that there ought to be sufficient publicity, but I am quite sure there was no want of publicity in this case upon the particular points to which he has called our attention.

Upon the other points, I understand what the noble Lord has said regarding the position of the Ecclesiastical Committee. It is a matter which has been very much discussed, and, personally, I think I agree with what has been said by the noble Lord himself. The question is whether the Legislative Committee is to have power, apart from the National Assembly, to deal with such Amendments as the noble Lord has suggested. If they had power, then, in consultation with the Ecclesiastical Committee, the matter could be settled in the way he has proposed. But that is a constitutional point of very great importance concerning the work of the National Assembly itself, and no one knows better than the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the extent to which that very point was thrashed out when the form of the Enabling Bill was finally settled. I agree that it is a matter which, on experience, may have to be revised, but it could only be revised by a change of the constitution itself —a constitution which is in its infancy at the present moment, and which, certainly in the case of the Parochial Councils Bill, has worked admirably.


My Lords, if I intervene for one moment it would be to express, as a member of the Ecclesiastical Com- mittee, my support of the Motion before the House. The noble Lord who has just addressed us speaks with an authority, due to his great experience, which will, of course, influence your Lordships. At the same time, I would like to emphasise, if I may do so, what has been said by Lord Muir Mackenzie, and to make it clear to the House that those of us who, perhaps, appear to do so, have no desire to oppose the Motion, but wish to express some doubt as to the effect of certain parts of the Measure. I am. referring to its effect upon the rights of the public, to which, I understand, the Ecclesiastical Committee is particularly to pay attention. Those doubts were felt by those who were not opposing the Measure, or who had no spirit of antagonism to the Church of England managing its own affairs in the best possible way. Speaking for myself, as a member of the Church of England, I should be the last person to go against the principle which Parliament, in its wisdom, has seen tit to adopt. I am sure that it is the only way in which those measures of reform, called for by members of the Church, can be achieved, and achieved in the best possible manner.

I should like to press the two matters I that have been urged upon the most rev. Primate —namely, the question of publicity, and, more particularly, the difficulty in which the Ecclesiastical Committee is placed in not being able to deal with any points of detail in Measures that are submitted to them. The individual members of the Committee were placed in a very difficult position in feeling that the only way in which they could deal with the points with regard to which there was doubt was to reject the whole Measure. I think that is a most unfortunate position in which to place the Ecclesiastical Committee. As the most rev. Primate has said, this is one of the preliminary Measures which are essential for the reorganisation and administration of the Church, and, no doubt, we may reasonably anticipate that in the future very important Measures I will be sent back from the Church Assembly to receive a recommendation from the Ecclesiastical Committee.

If, at the very outset of our activities, we are presented with these, difficulties, it is now, and not later, that we should appeal to the most rev. Primate to deal with them and to consider this point of the constitution. It is a very real point, and one which has given a great deal of heart- burning to those who are only too anxious to see these Measures receive every support and be carried through. Therefore, I beg to support Lord Muir Mackenzie in what he said. I do not venture in my ignorance to make any recommendation, but some means should be devised to get the Ecclesiastical Committee out; of the impasse in which it now stands in discharging the duties placed upon it. Those of us who are members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, and not widely versed in legal technicalities, feel our responsibility to be considerable, and laymen like myself, who are anxious to do right, feel that we are placed in an invidious position. I hope that those who deal with this matter will give it their serious and immediate consideration.


My Lords, may I intervene foe a few moments upon the important point raised by Lord Muir Mackenzie and Lord O'Hagan, relating to; the powers of the Ecclesiastical Committee. I happen to be Chairman of that Committee, and it is not in a position quite so difficult as noble Lords suppose. The position is this. When a Measure is passed by the Church Assembly it comes before this Committee of the two Houses for consideration, and if some matter I appears to the Committee to require amendment in the Measure they cannot, it is true, themselves pass Amendments, nor do I think any one suggests it is desirable they should have that power. The Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly cannot itself amend the Measure; and I am not sure that the members of the Church Assembly generally would desire that a Committee only of that body should have so great a power.

The course, which can be taken, and which would be taken, in that event, is this. The Ecclesiastical Committee of the two Houses have to draft a Report upon the Measure to Parliament, and if they think an Amendment of importance is desirable, I conceive they would draft a report to the two Houses that it was not desirable the Measure should pass into law unless certain specified Amendments were made. That draft Report would be submitted to the Legislative Committee of the Assembly. That Committee would be in this position. They could either allow the Measure to go to Parliament with that comment upon it —which I apprehend would be a serious matter for the prospects of the Measure — or they could withdraw it and ask the Assembly to re-pass the proposals in an amended form. The Assembly, if the Amendment commended itself to them, would no doubt take that course, and after a short delay the Measure, as amended, would come again before the Ecclesiastical Committee, who would deal with it in accordance with their previous recommendation. That shows that we are not quite in an impasse, but that we have real power to enforce, or, at all events, to endeavour to enforce, such Amendments in a measure as we think are absolutely necessary.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount who has just spoken has said, much better than I could have expressed it, what I was going to say, and he speaks with an authority which I cannot hope to command. I admit that the constitutional point raised by Lord Muir Mackenzie is a real one, and as our experience of the working of the Act proceeds, it may be necessary for the National Assembly to consider whether any amendment is required. But it is not the fact, as supposed by Lord O'Hagan, that the Ecclesiastical Committee has no alternative but to recommend the rejection of a Measure. On the contrary, it can, in friendly and private conference with the Legislative Committee, point out the mistakes which it thinks have been made. It can inform the Legislative Committee of the Report that it will have to send to Parliament unless those charges are made. It can point out the changes which would enable it to recommend the Measure without any reservation, and the Legislative Committee has then the responsibility thrown upon it of deciding whether it will ask the Ecclesiastical Committee to send its Report on to Parliament or to withdraw the Measure for the moment, fairing it the next session to the National Assembly and pointing out the changes which the Ecclesiastical Committee think ought to be made. The responsibility will then rest with the National Assembly to come to a decision. That might involve delay, but it does not involve an impasse; and while the system I may hereafter be improved, it is, I think, I too soon to say that it is not going to work.


My Lords, may I point out also that, although unquestionably it is necessary to face, a certain amount of delay if amendments 'are to be effected, the measure of delay is such time as may be involved in re-convening the National Assembly, and, after all, that is not a worse condition than that to which Parliament itself has to submit in respect of many analogous matters. Outside authorities, local communities, present Bills to Parliament, complete schemes for certain areas which materially affect the interests of the King's subjects and alter the existing law, and Parliament is often faced with the alternative of having to pass dissenting Addresses to His Majesty, or some kind of Address which points out the nature of amendments which it thinks should be put into such schemes.

In all these cases there is no choice but to take, all or say that you can get nothing without incurring further delay; and if we look reasonably at this thing, it is not an unreasonable analogy to draw between the position of the National Assembly and the Ecclesiastical Committee and the position in which Parliament stands in respect to many, and by no means less important, matters. The Enabling Act, as it is called, did recognise one great principle —namely, that, as in all other cases, there should be a big devolution of Parliamentary power to the one body which is qualified to deal with the matters in hand.


By the kind permission of the House, may I say that the position of the Ecclesiastical Committee in matters of this kind was not understood by many members of the Committee when the question was before us.


May I thank Lord Muir Mackenzie for what he has said on this subject and the helpful criticism that has been contributed by noble Lords. I can promise that very careful consideration will be given to all that has been said in the debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.