My hon. Friend the Member for Central Leeds (Mr. Denman) when introducing such Measures as these usually adopts the attitude of an angel bringing manna from Heaven. But to-day he has displayed rather the subtlety of a serpent, in that he so obviously has indulged in what is always in the Law Courts the last refuge of the destitute, namely, reliance on his eloquence by way of reply. He will forgive me if I say at once that his egg to-day is singularly related to the curate's egg—it is good in parts. I wonder how many Members of this House realise that at this late hour, on this day, we are being asked, without practically any Debate at all, to assent to a great constitutional change. If hon. Members will kindly glance at the Order Paper, I do not believe there is one present who has not had the privilege of being a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, as I have, who will realise that under these very ordinary words is being brought up the whole subject of the parson's freehold. I do not wish for one moment to debate the question of the parson's freehold. That is a matter which must be done on some future occasion, but I, for one, will have nothing whatsoever to do in this House with the passing of legislation in this form unless it is fully explained.
It has been truly said that Parliament can do anything except turn a man into woman. There is one other thing which it cannot do, and that is amend a Measure brought down from the Church Assembly. However much one may sympathise with parts of this Measure it is absolutely farcical that this House should have it presented to it on the basis of take-it-or-leave-it. I have not the slightest intention of dividing the House today, because it would be wrong. This is a far too serious matter for a Division in which the numbers would be so small. But I trust that when I have concluded what I have to say the hon. Member will withdraw his Motion and let us have a far more full and perhaps illuminating Debate on another day. What does this Measure propose to do? As I have said, part of it is excellent. Anybody who goes round the bombed areas in London or the town with which I am closely associated, professionally, Liverpool, must realise the amount of damage which has been done by enemy action.
In these cases it is farcical to say that when a man's vicarage has been destroyed he shall be put into a place where no facilities exist for carrying on his holy calling. Everyone will be agreed on that. But what happens? Under this Act there is a reorganisation scheme which brings in not merely bombed areas but areas adjacent thereto. The result is that any vicar who himself has not been bombed out can, whether he likes it or not, be brought into the reorganised area and deprived of his rights. Does the House realise that there are no fewer than 4,000 Anglican priests, most of them young men, serving their country in the Forces of the Crown, many of them men who have got their first incumbencies, and this legislation, without any reference to the men serving overseas, deliberately takes their fundamental rights away? I will be no party to such an outrage as that, and I trust the hon. Member will take this Measure back and present it to the House in a form in which we can give it our hearty assent. The Ecclesiastical Committee have to consider before they come here or to another place the Measures submitted to them, and Section 3 of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, says:
The Ecclesiastical Committee shall thereupon consider the Measure so committed to it and may at any time during such consideration call for assistance.
(3) After considering the Measure, the Ecclesiastical Committee shall draft a report thereon to Parliament stating the nature and legal effect of the Measure and its views as to the expediency thereof, especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all His Majesty's subjects.
Does this report protect the constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects? Paragraph 4 says:
Inevitably such reorganisations involve widespread interference with the existing constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects of
parishioners, incumbents, patrons and others. After considering the Measure the Committee are satisfied that proper regard has been paid to these rights and provision made for compensation in appropriate cases. But the Committee feel it their duty to call attention to one case of interference with the existing rights of certain of His Majesty's subjects and the method proposed in the Measure for providing compensation for such interference. Under the Measure certain incumbents of benefices through no default on their part will be deprived of their constitutional and legal right for life to income arising from endowments attached to the benefice. After careful thought the Committee have come to the conclusion that the provisions for compensation may be relied upon to provide that the compensation shall be not less than the fair value of the incumbent's life interest in such endowments of which he is to be deprived.
The Bill in its present form is nothing more or less than a constitutional outrage. I have been a Member of the House for many years. I was not a Member when the Enabling Act was passed. A most fatal mistake was made by Parliament at that time. It did not reserve the right to this House to deal with these Bills in Committee. A Bill of this importance cannot be dealt with, as the Education Bill is being dealt with, Clause by Clause, word by word, comma by comma. I feel that I should not be doing my duty if I did not protest with all the vehemence I am able to express against what the Committee themselves admit to be a violation of the rights of incumbents, patrons and others being forced through this House by means of a Prayer without our being given an opportunity to alter a single Clause.
I have too much respect for the hon. Member to press a Division at this hour, but I hope he will withdraw the Prayer and persuade the Church Assembly to do what every Member of the House would welcome, namely, to introduce a Measure dealing solely with the cases of bombed-out areas and making some arrangements by which existing incumbents will not be deprived of the consequences of the Measure without as much as a "by your leave." If such a Measure were introduced it would have the approval of every Member who is anxious in these difficult times to do all he can to help the Church of England in the work which it is so vital they should do.