§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which will, I hope, be accepted by all sections of the House as removing what is at the present time a considerable difficulty. The object is to empower the Welsh Church Commissioners to transfer to a representative body certain burial grounds which the local authorities decline to accept. The matter was brought to the attention of the Home Secretary, and he brought it to the attention of the 733 Cabinet, that there were in Wales a large number of burial grounds which the local authorities declined to take over. The burial grounds are of no great value, and the local authorities, with some unanimity, refused to assume the liability and expense of maintaining them. To deal with the matter, which arose out of the disestablishment of the Welsh Church, there was an informal discussion and a circular was issued. It was also submitted to the representatives of the council of Evangelical Churches in Wales, which represent all the members of nonconformist denominations, and they unanimously agreed that it was a fair and unbiased statement of the position as defined by the Welsh Church Act, 1914.
Subsequently to that the Home Secretary, to make the matter still more clear, asked the various local authorities whether they would be willing to accept the responsibility of looking after these churchyards. The results, however, were disappointing. Five hundred and forty-six local authorities refused to take over the burial grounds at all, or have anything whatever to do with them, 128 agreed to take them over, and about 200 more sent in no reply. When they do reply it is expected, as they say in another place, that the answer will be in the negative. Therefore the Home Secretary is faced with this dilemma, that although he has power under Section 4 of the Act of 1919 to force them to take over these old churchyards, it would be rather absurd to try to coerce more than 600 local authorities to take over burial grounds which they have declined to have Therefore his only course was to introduce a Bill, and I hope your Lordships will give the measure a Second Reading. As regards the future, the Commission are informed that the Representative Body of the Welsh Church would be prepared to arrange for the maintenance of these burial grounds. This Bill is introduced and designed for the purpose of giving the Representative Body of the Welsh Church power to take care of these old Welsh churchyards. They have got the money to do it, and therefore I hope that your Lordships will be willing to give a Second Reading to this very useful, and, I believe, on most sides absolutely agreed, Bill.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Desborough.)
§ LORD CLWYDhad given Notice to move, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months. The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I state very briefly my grounds for opposing the Second Reading of this Bill. I need hardly remind the House that throughout my Parliamentary career I was associated with the Nonconformists of Wales in their struggle for the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. I think that most of your Lordships will be aware that one of the most acute grievances in connection with the past controversy in Wales related to unhappy incidents in connection with burial grounds, and therefore the introduction of a Bill of this kind, which provides for the transfer of over five hundred of these burial grounds to the Representative Body, whatever may be the merits or demerits of the proposal in the Bill must raise an issue of direct importance to the people of Wales. May I, very briefly, make my own position clear? I had for some time the honour of being a Welsh Commissioner, and I therefore fully recognise the responsibility and difficulty of the task imposed upon them in connection with the administration of the Welsh Church Act; but I will go a step further, and say that, so far as I can trace the procedure of the Welsh Church Commissioners, they have done everything possible to inform these local authorities of their position under the Welsh Church Act, and to provide every reasonable facility for them to accept the transfer.
§ My point, however, is this. I do not blame in any way the Welsh Church Commission. The responsibility for this Bill, as Lord Desborough has already stated, is the responsibility of the Government. What I wish to submit is that, in bringing forward a Bill of this kind, the Government could hardly have fully realised what lies behind the fact that, as we thought, a permanent settlement of all points in dispute had been reached by the passing of the Welsh Church Act. When the Government came to the conclusion that it was necessary to introduce special legislation to deal with this particular difficulty in Wales, the wise and right plan would have been to have endeavoured to consult both 735 parties to the dispute in the past in order, if it were possible, to reach some measure of agreement in regard to the provisions of the Bill.
§ I recognise, of course, the seriousness of the present situation. Here you have more than 500 local authorities who are unwilling to accept the transfer of the burial grounds under the provisions of the principal Act. I regret that they have been unable to accept the transfer of these burial grounds, but I say that the issue involved in this Bill—namely, the transfer from the local authorities to the Representative Body of so many of these churchyards—does affect the balance, so to speak, of the agreement reached by passing the Welsh Church Act. The issue, therefore, affects not only the local authorities but the community, the people of Wales as a whole. I feel very strongly the desirability of doing everything which may be possible to avoid any further friction in regard to this ancient quarrel, which for so many years divided and embittered the life of Wales. Speaking from my own experience, I may say that the results of the agreement reached over the passing of the Welsh Church Act have already far surpassed the most sanguine expectations and I look upon that solution of an old and embittered difficulty as one of the most hopeful facts and factors in the present religious situation in Wales.
§ I am afraid that the passing of this Bill in its present form through both Houses of Parliament may create some revival of that friction which we so much deplored in our past experience. It is because of that that I believe, in the highest interests of Wales, it is most necessary that, before any proposals of this kind, which have not yet been examined or considered by those whom I represent particularly here to-day—I was surprised when I saw the notice of the introduction of the Bill last week upon the Order Paper, as I had heard nothing about it—are submitted to Parliament, everything possible should be done by further consultation and conference to reach practical agreement upon the main provisions of the Bill.
Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Clwyd.)
§ LORD KYLSANT
My Lords, I have listened with some sorrow to the speech of my noble friend opposite. When the Church in Wales was disestablished and disendowed many people, both in this House and in the country, took different views of what would happen, but there is no doubt that in Wales, where the Churchmen of Wales were in a minority of the religious people in Wales, the result of the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church has been to bring Churchmen and Nonconformists in Wales more closely together, and has done as much for the good of the country as any Act which has been passed by Parliament in recent times. The action that is now being taken by the Government is a necessary corollary to that Act. The one thing that was not definitely dealt with was the graveyards. My noble friend says he does not know the feeling of his friends, but we do know the feeling in Wales when over 500 parishes in Wales have absolutely rejected the idea of taking over the graveyards. That is the best answer to my noble friend. I believe that this Bill may raise a certain amount of political feeling amongst a small section of my countrymen, but the vast majority of people of all political Parties in Wales will welcome it as a fair and sensible solution of the one small outstanding question that was not finally settled by the Disestablishment Act. I have very much pleasure in supporting the Bill.
My Lords, I think the only chance of friction in the future regarding this Bill would be if it were to go out to the people of Wales that this is any other sort of Bill than a Bill introduced by the Government to get out of a tangle. If it was thought that the Church or the Church people in Wales had in any way instigated this Bill there might be a chance of friction, but they have not instigated the Bill at all. It is a Bill designed entirely by His Majesty's Government solely to get out of a tangle. The tangle was foreseen in Wales before the passing of the Act. If there was one thing more than another about the Disestablishment Act which was abhorrent to large numbers of Nonconformists, who were very much in favour of disestablishment, it was the alienation of the old burial grounds from the 737 churches in Wales. However, those burial grounds were transferred under the Act to the local authorities. Those local authorities find now, as a large number of people knew before, that the maintenance of the boundary walls, etc., of old burial grounds is a liability and they do not wish to take on that liability.
We see from the figures given that those who have declined to take on the liability amount to 85 per cent. of those who were asked; so that I think we can fairly say that 85 per cent. of the local authorities have wished to see those churchyards handed back to the Church. If that is the case this is really a Bill to relieve the local authorities of a liability. I do not know for which local authorities the noble Lord, Lord Clwyd, was speaking when he moved the rejection of the Bill, but I do know that in what I have said and in what my noble friend Lord Kylsant has said we speak the considered views of the members of the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, who approve of this Bill, and who, though they see that the sacrifices which we have incurred in Wales owing to the Act, and which have not been slight, will be increased, are willing to increase them in keeping up these old churchyards. We feel also that we are expressing the view not only of the governing authorities of the Church in Wales, but of the majority of the people in Wales.
§ LORD DYNEVOR
My Lords, I have listened with the greatest interest to the explanation of this Bill given by my noble friend Lord Desborough. I have always taken the greatest interest in this question of the disposal of the ancient churchyards in Wales. For I would remind your Lordships that the Bill deals only with the ancient churchyards, that is to say, the churchyards that belonged to the Church before 1662. All the modern churchyards, those given to the Church since 1662, passed to the Church under the original Act. When, in 1919, the amending Bill was before your Lordships' House I moved an Amendment—I believe I am right in saying it was the only Amendment moved on that occasion—which would have left the ancient churchyards in the hands of the Church. Your Lordships accepted my Amendment, but, when it went down to another place, it was there refused, and I did not press the 738 question further. I felt, however, that it was a great pity that that question was not finally settled then, and I used these words at that time:—I cannot think of anything that is more likely to cause friction in the future. It would always be a matter of soreness with the members of the Church and it would always rankle.The Churchmen in Wales have accepted the Act. They have said, "Let bygones be bygones," and they are doing their very best for their Church under the Act. This question of the ancient churchyards was the one question left over and it still aggravates the whole situation. There is still a sore running, and the wound is not able to heal because of that sore. I welcome this Bill, and I hope it will be a final settlement. The local authorities have in numbers of cases, as Lord Desborough pointed out, refused to take over these ancient churchyards on the death of the incumbent, who has a life interest in the churchyard under the original Act. They naturally refuse to do so, because it would mean levying a rate for maintenance, and in numbers of cases these ancient churchyards are full. No more burials can take place in them, and they would only be a burden on the ratepayer. Surely the right body to receive the ancient churchyards is the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, who have already expressed an opinion that they are ready to accept them. I believe I can speak on behalf of the whole Church in Wales when I say I hope that your Lordships will pass this Bill.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
My Lords, I do not know whether I might make an appeal to my noble friend opposite (Lord Clwyd), because I did not explain to him sufficiently that a great many steps had already been taken to consult the feelings and wishes of the Party which he has so ably and so long represented both in this House and in another place. But I can assure him that every step has been taken to consult not only the political representatives of Wales, who, of course, represent vast numbers of Nonconformists, but also the representatives of the various Nonconformist bodies there. There are also six hundred reasons in favour of the Bill expressed by local authorities who will not take these burial grounds over. Will not the existence of several hundred beautiful, neglected old churchyards in 739 Wales do infinitely more to exasperate the feeling which is now getting smoothed over than any grievance which may be felt arising from this Bill, but which I cannot see to be justified by its proposals?
§ On Question, Amendment disagreed to: Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.