HL Deb 04 June 1945 vol 136 cc336-40

3.50 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this very short Bill resolves finally the problem of the transfer of the Welsh Church burial grounds, a matter which has been outstanding for a large number of years. Most noble Lords with Welsh interests at heart, and the noble and learned Lord Chancellor, who tackled this question during his tenure at the Home Office, will be happy to learn that the end of this difficulty is now in sight. The Welsh Church Act, 1914, which was the Act which disestablished the Church in Wales, vested its property in the Welsh Commissioners, and directed them to transfer it to various beneficiaries.

As regards burial grounds, the Welsh Commissioners were required to transfer the "modern" grounds— that is to say, grounds given as private benefactions to the Church after 1662— to the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, while the ancient grounds, the burial grounds existing before 1662, were to be transferred to small local authorities. For various reasons, into which I need not enter to-day, the local authorities refused to accept these ancient grounds, and some 700 burial grounds still remain in the hands of the Welsh Commissioners. Considerable discussion has taken place with the various representatives of public opinion in Wales, and indeed with Welsh Members of Parliament in another place, and, as a result, the present Bill can be truly said to be an agreed measure. The Bill provides for the transfer of all burial grounds which are now vested in the Welsh Commissioners to the Representative Body, and thus amends the Act of 1914, under which the Welsh Commissioners were required to transfer to different authorities the different categories of burial grounds which became vested in them by that Act. The new transfer will now take place on two conditions, which have been agreed to by the Representative Body: that there must be no discrimination in the arrangements for the burial of Nonconformists, and that the responsibility for the upkeep and for the maintenance of these grounds is to lie with the Representative Body.

If I may turn to the short Bill which is now before the House, I will briefly explain one or two of its clauses. Clause transfers en bloc all burial grounds now vested in the Welsh Commissioners so as to vest them in the Representative Body, on a day which will be appointed by the Secretary of State, but subject to one proviso— namely, the right of persons who were incumbents at the time of the passing of the 1914 Act to have these grounds vested in them during the remainder of their incumbency. Clause 2 deals with transferred burial grounds. Where a burial ground has, under the Act of 1914, already been received by a local authority, or would in fact be received on the termination of an existing incumbency, provision is made for the Representative Body to agree with the local authority concerned for the transfer of the ground to the Representative Body.

Clause 3 places an obligation on the Representative Body to maintain in decent order the burial grounds which will be transferred to them under the provisions of the Bill, a matter to which I have previously referred, and it is provided that the Representative Body shall perform this duty in such manner as to preserve public amenities. The only other clause to which I need refer is Clause 4, which specifically provides, as I have already mentioned, that there shall be no discrimination in the matter of burial between members of the Church in Wales and other persons. This Bill is largely due to the considerable amount of work put into it by my right honourable friend Mr. Morrison, and it is largely due to him that it now comes before your Lordships' House, and I trust will shortly become an Act of Parliament. I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Munster.)

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I hope you will permit me, as Chairman of the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, to congratulate the Government upon this Bill, which transfers the ancient Church burial grounds to the Church in Wales. It is an agreed Bill, which will be widely welcomed in Wales, and it owes much to the friendly and tactful negotiation with which the then Home Secretary, Mr. Morrison, brought the parties together. It will cure a sore which has for years been an open sore in Welsh Church circles. On the date of disestablishment in 1920, these churchyards became vested in the Welsh Church Commissioners appointed by the Crown, and it was their duty to transfer them to various local authorities. There were some 850 of these consecrated churchyards, and the vast majority of them surrounded ancient parish churches in the rural districts of Wales. They had been in the possession of the Church for centuries, and had been cared for as a sacred trust. Seven hundred of the local authorities refused to accept the transfer. The Welsh Church Commissioners could not administer the churchyards, many of which were in remote parts of Wales, and sought the help of the incumbents as a temporary remedy. The cost of upkeep has been considerable, and is increasing.

The attitude of the Representative Body of the Church in Wales has always been clearly stated, and has always been the same. We said: "We are prepared to accept the trusteeship of these churchyards, to keep them in decent order and to see that all the parishioners, whatever their religious beliefs, have equal rights to burial in them." In 1927 a Bill was introduced into your Lordships' House to enable churchyards which had been refused by the local authorities to be transferred to the Representative Body, but it came to naught. There were not, however, wanting many men of good will among the Churches, the universities and the local authorities in Wales who were not satisfied with such a state of affairs, and who endeavoured to reach a settlement. It is the beginning, it is hoped, of a new era, and it is with a sense of deep satisfaction that I believe that it emphasizes the growth of a better understanding between the Christian Churches in Wales, and removes a source of sectarian strife and bitterness; and it is in accord with Welsh public opinion. Lastly, it has been brought about by friendly negotiations between the Government, the Welsh Parliamentary Party, the Welsh university, the local authorities and the Christian Churches in Wales. I am 'glad that at last this source of sectarian strife and bitterness is about to be removed, and I commend this Bill to your Lordships.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, this is a very historic occasion, as those of us who are old enough to remember the bitter controversies over the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, and particularly over this question of the burial grounds, will recollect. When you touch upon the question of the burial grounds of any people, you are dealing with something very deep and very human, and the strong feelings engendered in Wales will be remembered by all of us who look back on those times. Now, as the noble and learned Viscount has reminded your Lordships, we have this remarkable compromise, and I do not think it is fitting that the Bill should pass its Second Reading without a recognition by those who sit on these Benches of its great historical importance.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, as a Welsh member of another place at the time, I opposed most vigorously the Act we are now seeking to amend, and championed the continued right of the Church to retain its churchyards, a right which was defeated by some of my friends in the other camp. We welcome, naturally, this act of peace between the various parties and denominations, which are now unanimous in Wales, and rejoice that the ancient churchyards are going to be administered without sectarian bitterness or differentiation once again. We felt very bitterly on this matter in 1914, and some of us ventured to say then that we did not believe that the handing over of the churchyards to the local authorities would work. We were convinced that it would never work, and that the local authorities would not want them. The bulk of the local authorities refused to have anything to do with the matter. Then it was suggested that the universities, the main beneficiaries under the Act, should take responsibility. I was Pro-Chancellor of the University of Wales and Chairman of its Council. I want to make it quite clear, especially in view of a letter in The Times, that the Welsh University did not and does not, under the Act, acquire one single churchyard. Yet it was suggested that the Welsh University would have to pay for their upkeep and maintenance when the local authorities declined to do so. We pointed out that under the Act we are not entitled to do so.

The only properties concerned were the diocesan estates, largely landed property vested in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. We were unable, as a university, to use university funds to maintain some of these very historic churchyards with their ancient trees and monuments and records going back to the Middle Ages. It is tragic that a great many of them have been sadly neglected, but in accordance with the provisions of this Bill an undertaking has been given to restore them, maintain their decency and improve the amenities which have been neglected. Everyone in Wales, irrespective of Party denomination, is delighted. May I say that we owe the deepest debt to Mr. Herbert Morrison for his courage and initiative in healing what was in my young days in Parliament a matter of extreme bitterness? The whole question is now satisfactorily settled.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.