Select Vestries Bill

A bill for the better regulating of Select Vestries, usually referred to as the Select Vestries Bill, is customarily the first bill introduced and debated in the United Kingdom's House of Lords at the start of each session of Parliament. The equivalent bill used by the House of Commons is the Outlawries Bill.

The bill is read after the Queen's Speech, after the Commons have returned to their chamber, but before any debate on the contents of the Speech. The bill is given a pro forma first reading upon the motion of the Leader of the House of Lords, to demonstrate that the House can debate on whatever it chooses and set its own business independently of the Crown.

Origin of the bill

The vestry committees evolved in ecclesiastical parishes out of the feudal system and the removal of the influence of the Church after the Reformation. They had a dual nature and acquired civil duties such as the administering the Poor Law. These bodies met in the vestry of the local parish church and were responsible for imposing a form of local taxes known as the church rate. They were in effect the government of rural England and Wales until the reforms of the late 1800s creating counties and district councils.

Satirical cartoon of the select vestry of St. Paul's, Covent Garden. Thomas Jones 1828

Whilst the open vestry was a general meeting of all inhabitant rate-paying householders in a parish,[1] in the 17th Century the huge growth of population in some parishes, mostly urban, made it increasingly difficult to convene and conduct meetings. Consequently, select vestries were created in some of these. They were administrative committees of selected parishioners whose members generally had a property qualification and who were recruited largely by co-option.[1] This took responsibility from the community at large and improved efficiency, but over time tended to lead to governance by a self-perpetuating elite.[2] This committee was also known as the "close vestry".

By the late 17th century, the existence of a number of autocratic and corrupt select vestries had become a national scandal, and several bills were introduced to Parliament in the 1690s, but none became acts. There was continual agitation for reform, and in 1698 to keep the debate alive the House of Lords insisted that a bill to reform the select vestries, the Select Vestries Bill, would always be the first item of business of the Lords in a new parliament until a reform bill was passed. The first reading of the bill was made annually, but every year the bill never got any further. This continues to this day as an archaic custom in the Lords to assert the independence from the Crown, even though the select vestries have long been abolished.[3] Two Select Vestries do however remain: one at the Minster Church of St John in Preston Lancashire, and the other at St Mary's Redcliffe in Bristol.

Select Vestries Acts

The term Select Vestries Acts collectively refers to two Acts of Parliament passed in 1818 and 1819 respectively, the Act for the Regulation of Parish Vestries (Vestries Act 1818, 58 Geo. III c. 69), and the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor (Poor Relief Act 1819, 59 Geo. III c.12). These acts were promoted by William Sturges Bourne, MP and Chairman of a Committee to reform the Poor Laws, and are therefore also known as the Sturges Bourne Acts.

See also


  1. Tate, William Edward (1969), The Parish Chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (3rd ed.), Cambridge University Press.
  2. Arnold-Baker, Charles (1989). Local Council Administration in English Parishes and Welsh Communities. Longcross Press. ISBN 978-0-902378-09-4.
  3. Parish Government 1894-1994. KP Poole & Bryan Keith-Lucas. National Association of Local Councils