HL Deb 02 December 1926 vol 65 cc1123-32

EARL RUSSELL rose to call attention to the manner and the date on which the Clergy Pensions Measure was presented to this House on the 3rd August last. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have to begin with a confession that on August 3 last I found myself in the country instead of attending to my duties in your Lordships' House. By post that morning I received the Clergy Pensions Measure, and by the same post I received a copy of some Yorkshire paper, I think, containing many letters denouncing the Measure. Some of them were in no measured terms and they included one, I think, from a Bishop. I wondered whether all the things said against the Measure were true and I directed my attention to it and read it. The Measure seemed to me a reasonable Measure for providing a pension fund for a large section of what might be called employees, but I must confess that I had some doubt then, and I still have a doubt, whether it was constitutional. I hesitate to express such a doubt when so an important body of learned gentlemen as the Ecclesiastical Committee have pronounced that it is constitutional, but it appeared to me, and it still appears to me, to be a taxing Statute. A pension scheme which is inaugurated by a railway company or by any large business is a scheme which applies to people all of whom are employed by the same employer. That cannot be said to be the case with the beneficed clergy of this country, and what that particular Measure did was to impose upon them a tax in the form of a reduction of their income for certain very proper and legitimate pension purposes.

I have not risen, however, for the purpose of discussing the details of the Measure. After I had looked at it and decided that there was something that might be worth making an inquiry about, I said to myself, as I think one naturally would, that in the month of August a Measure so large and one which had only just been presented would not have any chance of being proceeded with until the next Session and that I should have plenty of time to look into it. Your Lordships may conceive my surprise when, on receiving my Parliamentary Papers the next day, found that it had been presented to your Lordships and had received your assent. I think I am right in saying that only twenty-four hours—it may possibly have been forty-eight hours—had passed between the time when that Measure was printed and in the hands of your Lordships and the time when it was presented to your Lordships for your assent. That does not seem to be carrying out the spirit of the Enabling Act or to be showing a proper respect to Parliament and to your Lordships' House.

I should like to pause here to say that I do not for one moment accuse the most rev. Primate of any conduct of that description. He, I know, would always show the greatest respect both to your Lordships' House and to Parliament, and, as he will no doubt explain to your Lordships, he had very good reasons for pressing that Measure forward. There were factors that would have caused inconvenience and even hardship, I believe, to those in whom he was interested if the Measure had been postponed for two months. I am quite sure that he was moved by the most proper motives, but in that case I think it was the duty of the Church Assembly, or whoever it is that prepares these Measures, to have presented it to your Lordships very much sooner.

We have complained in this Reuse, over and over again, that Bills coming from another place are presented at the tail-end of the Session, that we are given no time for their consideration before we are asked to pass them. We have to put up with that treatment from the House of Commons, but I am not at all sure that we have to put up with it from the Church Assembly, and I am not sure that we ought to put up with it. I rather venture to suggest to your Lordships that unless it is understood that it will be our invariable practice to insist upon being allowed proper time for the consideration of these Measures, it may be necessary to add something to the Standing Orders of this House, providing what interval there shall be between the time when a Measure is presented and the end of the Session. I regret also to notice from the OFFICIAL REPORT that the most rev. Primate himself, in introducing the Measure, made no apology for the short notice, but attention was called to it by Earl Beauchamp in the discussion which ensued. I dare say it was only due to inadvertence—I am certain that anything the most rev. Primate does or omits to do is not due to any sort of disrespect to this House or Parliament—but something might have been said to express regret that such short notice of the Measure was given, and to explain the reasons for its extreme urgency.

In the Enabling Act we have entrusted to the Church Assembly powers which are very large indeed, and some of us at the time that Act was passed thought that those powers were rather too large. Since I put my Notice on the Paper I have been approached by people about the procedure at the Assembly. It is hardly a matter which I want to go into to-night, but it was said that in some cases some people were not able to make their voices heard. It was also said that a good many of the members who sat upon the Ecclesiastical Committee—I think that is the name of the Committee that reports to Parliament—are also among the foremost advocates of Measures in the Church Assembly. If that is so, I think it is undesirable, because the Ecclesiastical Committee are by way of being a quasi-judicial body sitting upon the Measures of the Church Assembly. I thought it well that attention should be called to this matter, because it involves a constitutional point, and I think we ought to get, and I have no doubt we shall have, some assurance that such very short notice will not be given in future in the case of Measures of this sort. Of course I acquit the most rev. Primate of any intention to show disrespect to Parliament, but I think in this regard the Church Assembly has treated us rather cavalierly, and we should see that it does not occur again.


My Lords, I do not think that any one can legitimately take exception to what the noble Earl has said. He is desirous, as a matter of principle, of insisting that great care should be taken that adequate notice of such Measures be given. He desires that in all cases it should be the general rule that full notice should be given. The case of this Measure was quite an extraordinary one, and one which is not likely to be paralleled in any other case. Years have been spent in hammering out what is one of the most difficult tasks which we have had to undertake. At last an agreement was reached, I will not say unanimously but by an overwhelming majority. At the end of the summer, just towards the close of the Parliamentary Session, that agreement was reached, and we were then in this position, that if we could get support for the Measure and send it up during that month, it would make all the difference to a large number of men who were beneficiaries under it. More than two hundred men would have lost their pensions for life if delay had been incurred by postponing action in the matter until the autumn sittings. The business which had to be transacted before the payment of pensions could begin was enormous. It was necessary before the appointed day that there should be adequate time for preparing these things, and therefore it was felt that to postpone matters from August to November would be to sacrifice the interests of a very large number of men.

We had therefore to choose between two evils and we chose the evil which has given rise to what is a perfectly legitimate cause of complaint on the part of critics of the Measure in this House. We had, however, to keep in mind the difficulties of the men to whom I have alluded, and we had no anticipation that the Resolution itself was likely to be opposed in any way, or indeed criticised. Nor has there been much criticism. In the circumstances we took the dangerous course, which I hope in no circumstances it will ever be necessary to take again. There was certainly no intention of endeavouring to make the matter a precedent. I apologise to the House for not having made this explanation in my own words at the time when the Measure was proposed, but Lord Selborne, who was present, said it in the clearest possible way and made it clear that we were not doing anything which ought to be regarded as a precedent. We agreed with what Lord Beauchamp said in criticism of such speedy action, and the hope was expressed that we should not be placed in such a dilemma again.


My Lords, naturally I do not want to comment upon what occurred on the occasion to which the noble Earl has referred, because I was myself partly responsible for agreeing that the Measure should go forward. We have heard what the most rev. Primate has said with regard to giving due notice; but the same thing has happened again since that date, and I feel bound to call attention to the facts of the matter. On Monday, November 22, your Lordships met for a special sitting. On that day there were two Measures down in the name of the most rev. Primate—one the Episcopal Pensions Measure, and the other that which you discussed earlier this evening. The first Measure was passed. It never appeared on the Order Paper until that morning, in exactly the same circumstances as have been referred to by the noble Earl. It is possible that criticisms of this Measure had not reached the ears of the most rev. Primate, but they had reached other people's ears and my ears, and it is not unlikely that I for one might have wanted to say something upon the case.

I urge not only upon the most rev. Primate, but upon laymen in this House who are interested in the Church, that they are doing the greatest injury to the work of the Church Assembly by trying to rush Measures through the House without warning of what they intend to do. This was a matter concerning episcopal pensions. No notice had been given of it, and it was not placed upon the Order Paper until the same day. It is a repetition of what happened on the previous occasion in August, and which we understood was never going to occur again. I feel bound to say that it may be necessary to have a Standing Order in order to prevent conduct of that kind becoming habitual on the part of noble Lords who are interested in the work of the Church Assembly. As my noble and learned friend below me knows, I have very little confidence in the work of the Ecclesiastical Committee. I do not think that they do their work with sufficient care or attention to the Measures which come before them, and I think your Lordships should be prepared to take this matter further into your consideration and see that these Measures are put upon the Order Paper in sufficient time to ensure their being properly considered, and that there shall be an end of what is beginning to become a precedent—the rushing of these Measures through the House.


My Lords, the noble Earl has given an example of the very thing of which he complains. Without giving any notice he has attacked the Ecclesiastical Committee, who, I venture to say, have served your Lordships' House and the other House very well, who have gone most carefully into all these matters, threshed them out most thoroughly under the presidency, first of all, of the noble Viscount who is now on the Woolsack, and, secondly, of the noble Lord, Lord Muir Mackenzie. And, if it is necessary to go into the pensions matter, I can assure this House that nothing was ever so much discussed by those who are, after all, the only people who are under orders from the Measure as the Pensions Measure has been.

A Committee to consider this was appointed as early as February, 1921. It proposed one Measure, and this indolent Ecclesiastical Committee of which the noble Earl complains turned that Measure down, and sent it back. Thereupon a new Measure was proposed, the first Report of the Committee being in July, 1924, the general approval, or Second Reading, being given in November, 1924, the matter then going to an appointed Committee, and coming before the Assembly in February, 1925. It was then re-committed and further discussed in July, stood over again, through November and through February, in order that some other suggestion might be made, and was not finally discussed till July. It then went before the Ecclesiastical Committee, which has the benefit of the counsel of the Chairman of Committees, who goes very thoroughly into all these matters, and it was discussed and accepted by the Ecclesiastical Committee.

I was not here when it came before your Lordships' House, having a public engagement at that moment which took me to the Continent, but, as I had been the Chairman of that Committee since its first institution in February, 1921, I am naturally very anxious that it should be understood that it was discussed, and every opportunity for deliberation was given to those who are affected by it. And on final vote, which was a vote taken very properly by orders, the figures were these:—Bishops, 18 for, none against; clergy, 138 for, 26 against; laity, 169 for. 11 against. It has been spoken of as if this was a taxing Act. It is an Act, no doubt, which does compel the clergy to be provident, but they are to get back all that they give, and more than they give, because there are very large contributions from outsiders. And, if I may go back again to the attack made by the noble Earl, the Ecclesiastical Committee has turned down five Bills—certainly four—and it has gone very carefully into several others, adjourned them and acquired information about them before it has finally passed them.


My Lords, I think it is quite possible that I myself personally am open to the animadversions of my noble friend. I therefore do not propose to say a word about myself. But I should like to testify to the House that there is no ground whatsoever for the suggestion made by my noble friend as to the inadequacy of the manner in which the business of the Ecclesiastical Committee is carried out. It is a very strong Committee, not only numerically but personally. It is a statutory Committee, and the members of it are appointed by the Speaker of each House with great care. Speaking with a good deal of experience of the work of Committees, I repeat what I have already said, that there never was a Committee that was less open to the kind of criticism which has been uttered in your Lordships' House by the noble Earl.


My Lords, as the person whose duty it is at the beginning of every Parliament to appoint members of this House to serve on the Ecclesiastical Committee I want to say a word with reference to what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the membership of that Committee. He rather complained that the Committee included noble Lords who take a part in the proceedings of the Church Assembly. Well, I think that is true of two or perhaps three noble Lords, including the noble Lord who has just spoken, who takes such an active and invaluable part in the work of the Assembly. I think it would have been a great mistake to exclude from the Committee noble Lords who are in -that position, and to make up the Committee entirely of those who take no part in Church work outside the House itself.

But I want to add this as regards the other members of the Committee. On the occasions on which I have had the duty of making the appointment I have had some difficulty in finding noble Lords who were able to undertake this very onerous duty, but I did my best to find noble Lords who would take the work and I think that I succeeded in making suitable appointments. I may say in mitigation of the allegation of the noble Earl that I did appoint the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, on the Committee, and I think there are few points which escape his attention. If Lord Beauchamp has any complaint about the Committee I hope he will offer himself for the first vacancy. He will find the work most interesting, and quite heavy enough to meet his wishes. I had the honour of presiding over the Committee for some years before I came to occupy my present office. I was, I think, the first chairman of the Committee, and I can confirm entirely what has been said as to the attention given by the Committee to the work entrusted to it. It always worked well in my time. I am sure it works equally well under my noble friend Lord Muir Mackenzie, and I do not believe there is the least ground for the complaints made.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past seven o'clock.