HC Deb 16 February 1830 vol 22 cc536-44
Lord F. L. Gower

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to ex- plain and amend an Act made in the seventh year of His Majesty's reign, with respect to the assignment and Sub-letting of Lands and Tenements in Ireland.—In making this Motion he wished to be clearly understood that it was not his intention to permit any infraction of the principle of the existing law on the subject. The only object of his Bill was to explain certain doubts that had arisen upon the present Act, and which doubts were not of an unimportant nature. It was held that the existing Act had an ex post facto operation; by the old law considerable injury might be done to those holding leases of dwelling-houses; and one of his objects was to prevent this. He should not, however, detain the House, but move for leave to bring in his Bill to remedy that defect.

Mr. Wallace

desired to express his thanks to the noble Secretary for Ireland, (Lord L. Gower) for the alteration he proposed to make in the Sub-letting Act. It certainly would be something in favour of the Irish tenantry that the first section should not have an ex post facto operation; and if there were doubts on the subject, it was important that they should be removed, and the benefit rendered that was contemplated by the Act. If explained in this sense, the Act would relieve them from one great evil, which might have been inflicted on them by the injustice or avidity of their landlords. He, therefore, in the name of the tenantry of Ireland, thanked his Lordship for his amendment in that part of the law; but there were other parts of it quite as mistaken in principle, and altogether as unjust; indeed, he thought the most prominent injustice was in the last section, which prevented a man in the possession of land, on which he had, perhaps, expended large sums of money, from leaving any portion of that land to the several members of his family, for whom, by the law of nature, he was bound to provide. The tenant was compelled to leave all to one person without the possibility of making a charge for younger children, or for a marriage portion. Now he contended there was no principle of good policy upon which such a system could be maintained; and he accordingly submitted to the noble Secretary that this section called as loudly for repeal as the first. There were other objections which he entertained towards the existing Act, but he would, however, abstain from bringing them forward at present. He repeated that the Act required much revision; for, though it was dear to the landlords, as giving them excessive power over their tenantry, yet had it created much dissatisfaction amongst the peasantry, to whom it was peculiarly odious and oppressive.

Mr. A. Dawson

said, he concurred with the hon. Member who spoke last, in returning thanks to the noble Secretary for Ireland (Lord L. Gower) for the explanatory Bill which his Lordship proposed to introduce; but in his opinion, it would be better to get rid of the Act altogether; because he thought the Union between Ireland and England never would be complete until the same Statute. Law was made common to both countries. For himself, he saw no good argument on which the continued existence of this Act could be defended, since the alleged reason for its creation (at least the only reason he had ever heard given) had ceased to exist. This Act had been passed to prevent great landholders from sub-dividing their lands for electioneering purposes; but now, by a late and most beneficial and just measure of the House, all temptation to the creation of collusive freeholds had been removed, and therefore the foundation upon which the Bill had been introduced being swept away, the law itself should not be suffered to remain.

Mr. O'Connell

begged it might be borne in mind that the predominant feeling in addressing the House upon this question which actuated him, was an anxiety to divest it of all party and political considerations; he wished it to be treated simply upon its own merits, and not as a question between one side of the House and the other. He had bestowed much attention upon this Act, and could conscientiously declare that he believed it mischievous, and in proof of this his belief, he referred to the Report of the Lord Mayor's Committee lately made at Dublin, from which it appeared, that of the seven thousand persons then famishing in that city, the greater number had been driven from the country by the operation of that Act. Now this fact he stated upon testimony that could not be doubted. This Act had met with great disapprobation, and had created great dissatisfaction throughout Ireland. Many petitions had been presented against it last Session, and several had already come in this year. In stating this he begged not to be understood as meaning to oppose the noble Lord's Motion, which was certainly calculated to effect some good, but it did not go far enough. He thought the present Act ought to be abolished. The noble Lord had said that he approved of the principle of the Bill, and wished it to be preserved; he should be glad to learn what that principle was. For himself, he must say, that he could recognise none in it, except that of thinning the population—the pauper-population—and altering contracts in favour of the rich and to the detriment of the poor. He contended, also, that the effect of the Bill had been directly the reverse of what was expected from it; for, under its operation, no man would take more land than he could himself make use of. Besides, it increased the pauper-population in diminishing the quantity of land which each man could hold; and instead of creating a division of the country into large farms, it created a more minute subdivision than ever had before existed. He, therefore, appealed to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and other Members of the Administration, who had displayed so much anxiety to reform our legal abuses, and entreated them to consider whether it would not be better to repeal this Act altogether. He could assure them, that if it were deemed necessary to make any new law upon the subject, he should be most happy to afford them the full benefit of his humble efforts in arranging the Statute in a new form. But he begged to submit to them, that it was bad legislation to make one act to amend another; because, first, there was the difficulty with respect to understanding each of these Statutes, and then there was the comparison, which gave them a sort of third meaning. As he before said, he considered this law advantageous to the rich and detrimental to the poor; but he was not one of those who considered the class of middlemen injurious to Ireland. He recollected, as a matter of history, that many of the nobility and leading gentry of Ireland had sprung from this class of society. There would henceforth be an end to this; for the Act proceeded upon a principle similar to that which would compel the merchant to retail his own goods in his own proper person, and it tended to check that which had in some degree warded off the ill effects of absenteeism from Ireland; because the middleman was a sort of market for the labouring population; he lived amongst them, and consumed the productions of the soil; he certainly shared the profits of the great proprietors, but he divided them with the people. In conclusion, he would strongly urge on the House the fact that the Act had produced infinite dissatisfaction in Ireland—it was constructed upon a mischievous and mistaken principle—it was injurious to the poor—it was the fruitful cause of litigation—and it contained no beneficial principle which might not be better produced in a new Bill.

Mr. Doherty

(the Solicitor-General for Ireland) said, he would not follow the hon. Member for Clare through the details upon which he had touched, details which he (Mr. Doherty) thought might be better discussed in the Committee, clause by clause. With respect to the general question, if the political life of the hon. Member (Mr. O'Connell) had commenced on the first day of that Session, he (Mr. Doherty) might perhaps have laboured under the mistake that it should be discussed upon its own merits, without reference to politics or party, as the hon. Member had expressed his desire it might be; but when he happened to know that it had been made the subject of agitation, and had been rendered an object of dissatisfaction in Ireland (though by no means to the extent stated by the hon. Member), he could not bring himself altogether to subscribe to the sincerity of that hon. and learned Gentleman's declaration. Before proceeding further, however, he had to state that he was not the legal adviser of the Secretary for Ireland at the time when this Act was passed. He was the unworthy successor of one whose character ought to have been sufficient to protect this measure from having been at least intended to produce the baneful effects attributed to it by the hon. and learned Gentleman. The hon. Member seemed not to understand the policy or the history of this Act. This Act had emanated from a Committee of the House of Commons, before which there were two objects prominent. One was the Catholic Question, the other that now before the House. In favour of the Catholic Relief Bill there was a preponderance of opinion, resulting from the evidence; but there was no difference of opinion at all as to the necessity of a Sub-letting Act. It was true that nothing could be more fair than for the hon. Member for Clare to advocate the middlemen, but this was not the feeling of the Committee; they thought that these middlemen impoverished the country by interposing between the landlord and the occupying tenant; and the Act had been first contemplated in consequence of a representation from the gentry of Ireland. It had been complained that the gentry had divided their land amongst a pauper tenantry. They said it was not their fault. They declared that they had instructed their agents to take all measures to prevent such a subdivision, but in vain; there was some defect in the law which for ever prevented their success; there was a technical difficulty, and it was this—no matter how strictly you worded the covenant with the person you might select for your tenant, still, in consequence of the power of sub-letting, was there a mode of escape; for though you might choose some respectable man, and say to him, I can rely on your solvency, your industry, and your honesty, and therefore I will intrust to you these five hundred acres of land; but I wish only for you—yet notwithstanding all this, the proprietor would, perhaps, find these five hundred acres divided into as many parts; be that where he had left a flourishing-tenantry, he would afterwards find only a set of paupers. The hon. Member had said he did not see what the principle of the Act was that was worth preserving—it was this, that people should perform their contracts. It never was intended that the tenant should be the only person upon the land; neither as a legal man would he pretend to say (much as he thought of the able Secretary's talents) that he had constructed a perfect statute. No; but then the noble Lord was willing to receive all suggestions for its amendment in the Committee. It was very true this Act was liked by the landlords, because it compelled the tenant to observe his contract; it was evident that the proprietor ought to have absolute power and control over his own property, and was not bound to enter into an agreement with any body but the person he chose. He was also ready to contend that the measure was not contrary to the interests of the peasantry. A great part of the tenantry of Ireland, it was well known, were worse off than the beast that browsed upon the land; it was therefore high time to make an effort to ameliorate their condition; and this Act had been brought forward with the view of raising the peasantry in the scale of civilization, and rendering them beings with whom there might be that degree of communication and interchange of kindness, without which there could be no permanent bond of union between landlord and tenant. It was not, as the hon. Member for Clare would represent it, the act of a haughty aristocracy to exterminate the people. He felt himself almost called on by the situation he held, and certainly by the opportunity he possessed of forming a judgment on the subject, to bear his testimony on that occasion to the excellent effects already produced by the great measure of last year. He would give as the result of his observations, that the settlement of that question had done more for the advantage of Ireland than the most warm friend of Catholic Emancipation could have anticipated. It had done all the good that had been hoped for, and none of the harm that was apprehended. If, without passion or prejudice, they went calmly and steadily forward, looking to Ireland with no other view than that of ameliorating her condition, he was convinced they would soon see her making grand strides in the road of improvement. Already dissentions were vanishing from among the upper classes; and at this moment those in the highest situation of the Catholic Hierarchy, who no longer ago than last year were discontented and dissatisfied, were now employed in pouring forth their admonitions of peace and goodwill. He trusted to God, that in the debates in that House, which ought to be temperate, nothing would pass that might exasperate the people of Ireland. Little would, it avail, however, that all were tranquil here, if topics of exasperation were used nearer the scene to which they applied.

Lord Althorp

begged leave to give his approbation to the principle of the measure, and to observe that he thought Mr. O'Connell had been improperly attacked, for he had stated his objections to the Bill in a most candid and temperate manner.

Sir H. Parnell

wished to express his obligations to the noble Lord who had introduced this measure, which he was sure would be productive of great benefit to Ireland. It was true that there had been petitions in great numbers against the Act, and such petitions deserved the utmost possible attention; but he believed that the complaints made by the petitioners were not against the principle of the Bill, but against some particular clauses in it. It was supposed by some that the Sub-letting Act gave to the landlord the power of removing the tenant. That was a mistake; the Act prevented too great a change of occupiers. The hon. and learned Member for Clare had made a mistake in regard to the cause of the poverty and distress of Ireland, if he imagined that the almost infinite subdivision of land did not contribute to produce that poverty.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that as to the fact stated by the hon. and learned Member for Clare, that the Sub-letting Act had tended to produce a large portion of the pauper population of Dublin, he would not deny the statement; but he begged to remark, that it was the subdivision of land which had, in a great measure, created that poverty. There was something in every country, but especially in such a country as Ireland, stronger than Acts of Parliament, and that was the custom of the people. The hon. and learned Member must, on that subject, be better qualified than any other man to give the House information, and to guide them in the attainment of their evident wish for the amelioration of Ireland. He was glad to hear from such an excellent and indisputable authority as the Solicitor-General for Ireland, the salutary effects of the great measure of last Session, and he should indulge with that hon. and learned Member in warm hopes for the future increasing prosperity of that country. But when he heard these statements, and the statements of the same hon. and learned Member, as to the satisfactory falsifications of all the prophecies of the evils that measure would have produced, he could not help asking whether the Member for Clare, more than any other person in the kingdom, was not the man to whom the country was indebted for these advantages? So that in referring to that hon. Member, they ought not to go backward in his career to find cause of blame, and, least of all, to seek to discover it in those expressions which the heats of discussion on that great question had called forth. The present was not a party question, and he trusted it would not be so treated.

The Solicitor-General

stated, that he thought the law of England and Ireland might be advantageously assimilated in many respects; but still there were peculiar circumstances which made a difference in each. They were not then to consider whether a law should be passed to prevent Sub-letting in Ireland. That law had passed: and the only object now was, to provide remedies for some defects which had been discovered in the operation of that Act. The Member for Clare had admitted that one clause of the Act worked much mischief. It had not been the intention of the Legislature that it should do so, nor did these mischiefs result from any want of care in the wording of the Act; for use what care they could, it was impossible to insure success in the use of language that all men would agree to put the same construction upon. He had looked with extreme attention at the Act, and he felt no hesitation in saying that according to the true construction, it could not have an ex post facto operation; but a contrary opinion had been entertained by others, and therefore the Bill proposed by the noble Lord was requisite. He gave his approbation to the clause which did not allow the tenant to take advantage of any implied waiver on the part of his landlord of the express terms of the lease. In that respect he wished the English law was the same, for in this country the doctrine of implied waiver was productive of much needless litigation. He knew that it had been and was the intention of the Government fairly to meet the wishes and the wants of the Irish people; and if ever there was an Act passed with the real desire to ameliorate the condition of the people, this was that Act; and he could assure the hon. and learned Member for Clare, that he would give all the assistance in his power in furtherance of such an object.

The Motion was agreed to; and the Bill ordered to be brought in by Lord F. L. Gower and Mr. Doherty.