A State Opening tradition – the Select Vestries Bill

After the General Election of May 1997, once the Queen had delivered her Speech to the new Parliament and departed it fell to Lord Richard, as Labour’s freshly appointed Leader of the House of Lords, to move the first item of business.

He announced to the assembled Lords Spiritual and Temporal:

“My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill for better regulating Select Vestries be now read a first time. I am not sure why I am doing this, but I am.”

[HL Deb 14 May 1997 vol 580 c9]
2013 State opeing
The State Opening of Parliament

He could be forgiven for being unsure. It is nearly a century since Parliament delegated most Church of England legislation to the Church itself, and two since the political and social imperative for reform of Select Vestries as governing bodies of parishes was at its strongest. Yet the introduction of a Bill in the House of Lords ‘for the better regulation of Select Vestries’ continues to be a fixed part of the conventions of each new parliamentary session (most recently 2013-14).

Though its origins predate this, the earliest reference in the online Hansard archives is to the State Opening of 30th November 1812, when

“the earl of Liverpool, according to custom, previously to the commencement of public business, presented a Bill for the better regulation of Select Vestries, which was ordered to be read the first time.” [HL Deb 30 November 1812 vol 24 cc11-50]

In the strictest sense the contemporary Bill is not really legislation at all. It is pro-forma and is never printed or debated, but whilst it is of no substantial legislative consequence what it represents is of great significance in terms of the relationship between Parliament and the Crown. As the current House of Lords Companion to the Standing Orders states, the presentation of the Bill by the Leader of the House as the first item of business after the Queen’s Speech happens, is:

in order to assert the right of the House to deliberate independently of the Crown. Until this has taken place, no other business is done.” [Companion to Standing Orders, paragraph 2.05]

And this is not simply a peculiarity of the House of Lords. In the House of Commons the Outlawries Bill fulfils a similar purpose. A standard note from the House of Commons Information office explains the significance:

“This apparently empty formality has an unbroken history of over four centuries and is of immense constitutional significance…The importance of this action is that it preserves and proclaims the right of the Commons to deliberate upon a subject of their own choosing, without necessarily turning first to the matters which may be mentioned in the royal summons. Sir Thomas Lee summed up the whole argument in 1676 – he “cares not how soon the King’s Speech is taken into consideration but would not lose the method and order of Parliament. You always begin with reading a Bill. The King’s Speech is usually about Supply and that ought to be the last thing considered here”.

 “The first occasion on which we have evidence of the House [of Commons] taking the first reading of a bill – not then the Outlawries Bill – before any other business is in 1558. In 1604, the practice was codified by a resolution: ‘That the first day of sitting in every Parliament, some one bill and no more receiveth a first reading for form sake’. As the seventeenth century progressed, it became more common to use for this purpose a bill which had been before the House the previous session. On 40 occasions between 1558 and 1726 but with considerable regularity only from 1661, the bill read a first time before consideration of the Speech had been before the House in a previous session. The same bill was used in successive sessions on an increasing number of occasions. This happened 21 times between 1660 and 1726.”

By 1812 it had become the established custom that the pro-forma Bill to be tabled in the Lords was ‘for the better regulation of Select Vestries’. The precedent could be explained by the regularity of debate of Select Vestry regulation in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but its continued and ongoing use for pro-forma purposes also carries symbolic significance.Bruce Hicks, writing in the Canadian Parliamentary review goes into detail about the English background. A Bill for the better regulating of Select Vestries was:

“aimed at reforming what we would now call local government. Some Vestries, so named because their boundaries were based on Church Parish es and their usual meeting place was in the Church vestry, had extreme property restrictions designed to limit voting to only a handful of people. In other words, they had ‘Select’ membership. Not surprising to us in a modern democracy, it turns out that ‘Select Vestries’ were more corrupt than other vestries, which were by no means ideal models of local government themselves. But this time in British history was in the wake of the French Revolution, so tackling this corruption and expanding the franchise was seen as a direct attack on the Crown. Debating societies had even been banned under the Seditious Meetings Act for simply discussing the corruption in Select Vestries and, while a private member’s bill had been prepared for Parliament as early as 1794, it took another decade before Parliament began to tackle the problem.

..[the Bill] was designed to raise a grievance with the Crown over the behaviour of some officials, and while it in no way imputed the monarch directly, it was nevertheless a Parliamentary challenge over the Crown’s governance, and it was an issue of fundamental justice for the least represented in society. Vestries had the role of administering the so-called Poor Law, which was a series of laws that contained philanthropic (e.g. food banks), exploitative (e.g. workhouses) and even punitive (e.g. prison) measures to deal with the poor, so this legislation had potential for misuse and concerned the weakest in society. As the House of Lords is the chamber wherein the Church and wealthiest landowners are represented, this is a powerful symbol of the obligation for members of Parliament to deal with matters against self-interest, and for the powerful to protect the disenfranchised

….That the significance of the pro forma bill extends to rights and obligations of the House concerning questions of fundamental justice was clearly understood by members of the British Commons and Lords in the 18th and 19th Centuries, even if it has been forgotten by modern politicians.”

[For an extended case study on a Select Vestry of the period, this chapter on the history of the Parish and Vestry of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden gives a good flavour]

select vestry
‘Select Vestry Comforts’: an 1828 satire based on the autocratic Select Vestry of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. British Museum collection.

Much of the work to reform the Select Vestries was led in Parliament in the early 19th century by William Sturges-Bourne MP. The Vestries Acts that became known as the Sturges-Bourne Acts fell into abeyance as the century advanced and local government structures evolved. In 1992 the Vestries Acts were finally repealed with the passage of the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure.