HL Deb 04 June 1924 vol 57 cc868-71

My Lords, I beg to move, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent. This Resolution deals with what we know as the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure, which is of all the three, from my point of view at least, at once the most important and the most urgent. It does not affect the larger principles, but it is more important than either of the other two, and the matter is one in regard to which it is urgent that we should get something passed quickly into law. I have for over half a century been engaged, as a member of ecclesiastical bodies, in ecclesiastical discussions, and any of your Lordships who, like myself, have been in such debates will find it difficult to recall a single week of such discussions in which the dilapidation question has not figured largely. It has been the common talk of every ecclesiastical gathering, because the difficulty is a ceaseless one; the hardship and the inequality have been real, and the desire to amend it has been real, but the practical way of doing it has been found quite extraordinarily difficult.

My fellow-countrymen north of the Tweed long ago settled this question as regards the Established Church of Scotland in a much more drastic manner. They relieved the incumbent altogether of liability, either for his house or for the incidental expenses of his church fabric, and so on. The whole of this falls upon the heritors, the ratepayers of the parish, that is, and not upon the parson at all. But England has never taken that line and the burden has lain, however it has been apportioned, upon the clergy, and not upon their parishioners.

Under the present law every incumbent is liable for the upkeep of his residence, however large, and when he vacates the benefice, if he has not adequately attended to the upkeep during his tenure of it, the expense that falls upon him may be very large indeed. In order to avoid that he is given power of having an inspection made every five years, and if, in accordance with the results of that inspection, he then effects the improve- ments which are necessary, he is entirely free from liability, whatever happens during the five years that ensue. But a great many clergy, with the best of intentions, find it exceedingly difficult to invite these periodical inspections and to raise the money to meet them. Therefore, without any evil intent on his part, when a benefice is vacated by an incumbent or the incumbent dies, the liability may be very large. No system could be worse than the one which at that moment throws upon the shoulders of an out-going man or of his widow (which is still worse) the liability for the expenditure, possibly, of a very considerable sum of money. We have long striven to find some mode of altering the system of this compulsory payment of large sums of money at a moment when, perhaps, that payment is most inconvenient or difficult to make.

The remedy appeared to be a system of annual payments of a reasonable amount which would ensure the proper upkeep of the house. I need not go into the reasons here and now, but it has been found extraordinarily difficult to arrange either for the proper assessment of what that amount should be, or for the enforcement of the annual payment when it became due, or, what is exceedingly important, how to start the matter by getting all the premises and houses into good order. If you are going to set up a system of annual payments you are met by the immense difficulty of starting fair, of making a beginning with the houses in good order and everything in proper condition. Until now it has been insuperably difficult to get over all those complications and to produce a Measure which would enable a payment to be made annually and to be enforceable to a reasonable amount, and to bring to an end these large payments which have to be made at inconvenient moments.

This Measure deals with that with the greatest care. We believe that we have devised a mode alike of consolidating the very complicated Acts which exist at present, and of originating new measures to meet the particular difficulties and to remove the unfair inequalities which exist between one benefice and another in this connection. We do it, roughly speaking, by setting up in every diocese a dilapidations board which will consider the whole question in each case and make the arrangements prescribed in the Act for securing the annual payment of the quota by the incumbents concerned, who will, of course, in addition be liable for what is called wilful waste or gross neglect of a culpable kind. That will not fall under the annual payment. We believe that we have devised here a method, very elaborate and necessarily somewhat technical in detail, by which the thing can be done.

If it is said that we shall still leave upon the shoulders of an incumbent a burden which he will find it difficult to bear because, though the sum is a small one, it will have to be paid annually, my answer—I may be mistaken—is that once it is realised that, for a small annual payment, an incumbent who is doing his work properly can be relieved of his liability, by degrees that annual payment of a few pounds will be taken over by the parochial Church council. Nothing could be more proper than that the parochial Church council should take from the shoulders of an incumbent the annual payment of a small sum of money to keep his house in repair. But it is quite another thing to expect a parochial Church council to pay a sum of £300 or perhaps of £500 which may become due on the vacancy of a benefice when the house has been long neglected. Those lump sums cannot be forthcoming, though I believe the small sums will be.

In regard to the first stage, you have, as I have said, to start fair by having the houses put in order. There will be the difficulty of how to get over the first stage when the annual amounts paid in will be very small and the responsibility of putting things right will necessarily be very large. If this Measure becomes law it will give power to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to depart so far from the ordinary application of their funds and their customary mode of expenditure as to give a sum, if necessary, of no less than £500,000 to enable a proper start to be made and to assist parishes to put their houses into order now in such a way that the annual payment may start fairly, and with past liabilities practically taken away. We do not want to relieve any one of liabilities which legitimately fall upon him now. We intend for the future to equalise them and to make them annual and not occasional, as they are now. We intend that such liabilities as exist shall still exist, but that they shall be met in a proper way. I can explain more of the difficulties if necessary, but if it could be said that the last Measure, the Union of Benefices Measure, was difficult, it can be said with far greater force of this one. Be that as it may, if the Measure receives the Royal Assent I believe that we shall have rolled away one of the greatest difficulties from the path of the practical administration of the work of the Church, which has bothered and irritated the administrative side of the Church for many years past. I hope that your Lordships will agree to the Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent.—(The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.)


My Lords, this is a subject which has troubled those who are responsible in the Church for a very long time. There are few more cruel situations than that which arises when a clergyman who is leaving his benefice, or his widow if he is dead, is called upon to pay for dilapidations. This Measure does not make any very great alteration in the law, but it enables what is necessary to be done. The Measure is a long and complicated one, and, fortunately, I am not called upon to explain it. Even my noble friend Lord Banbury would expend his ingenuity in vain in an attempt to get inside it. The Government fully assent to it as a Measure which puts the clergy of the Church of England in a better position than they are in at present.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly,