HC Deb 10 July 1844 vol 76 cc563-70
Mr. Cowper

moved the second reading of the Field Gardens Bill, the object of which, said the hon. Member, was to appropriate to poor persons plots of land for cultivation. If this measure were adopted, his conviction was, that it would tend to identify the owners of the soil with the occupiers of allotments; to increase the respect of the labouring classes for the rights of property; to turn their attention from politics to subjects the Study of which would benefit themselves and society at large; and to render them more happy and contented than they now were. Under the allotment system, so far as it was at present in operation, the occupiers had to pay a very moderate rent, and many of them were enabled to obtain a profit of 5l. a-year on a quarter of an acre of land. The advantages of the system were fully proved by the evidence given before the Committee last year. It might be asked why it was necessary to adopt any legislative measure on such a subject? He replied, that notwithstanding the general approbation given to the system by proprietors of land, it was in many cases extremely difficult to induce them to grant land for the purposes of allotments. In almost every quarter this difficulty existed. It might be attributable in some measure to indifference and want of energy on the part of the landed proprietors; but he believed it was attributable in a great degree to their being influenced by the opinions of their agents and bailiffs. The allotment system might certainly cause considerable inconvenience to the agents of landed proprietors, for it was as troublesome to them to collect the rent of a rood of land as to collect the rent of 500 acres. The difficulty of obtaining land was still greater in the manufacturing than in the agricultural districts. He understood that in the neighbourhood of Leeds certain proprietors had expressed their readiness to give up land for the purposes of allotment to responsible parties, who should undertake the management of the property, and the payment of the rent; but no person could be found willing to undertake those duties. In the midland counties several societies had been formed to promote the extension of the allotment system. One of those societies in Leicestershire, comprising 1,000 Members, resident in different parishes, had not yet been able to obtain a single acre of land. Before land could be thus purchased it would be necessary to establish an intermediate body between the landlords and occupiers of the land. He thought that the body which that Bill proposed to form would be qualified to take that position. The Bill would enact that parochial officers were to be employed for the purpose of letting out small portions of land to the poor. This system had been previously tried, and had been found to work successfully. Such a power by the late Act had been intrusted to the churchwardens and overseers of the parish, but it had not been exercised to any great extent. It was not to be supposed that the churchwardens, who were elected to fill this office for only one year, could effectually carry into operation the new duties imposed upon them. That office could not be given to the Poor Law guardians, for they already had too much to occupy their time. He proposed by this Bill to invest this power in the hands of a body, whom he should designate as the Field Garden Board. This board would not have the power of purchasing land, and a limit was placed on the quantity of land which it was to hold. The Bill provided for the election of the Field Garden Board, which was not to have compulsory, but merely discretionary powers. The board was to consist of four persons, two of whom were to be chosen by persons rated above 10l. a-year, and two by persons rated under 10l. a-year. The officiating clergyman was to be ex officio a Member of the board. The election was to be for three years, but the members of the board were qualified to be re-elected at the expiration of that period. The board would have the power of drawing upon the poor-rates for as much as would be necessary to defray the rent of the land; but they would at the same time be required to give good security for the repayment of that money. Should any of the occupiers of their Field Garden be in arrear for more than a month, they could by a process specified in the Bill be compelled to pay. Whenever any inclosure Act was passed, this board would have the right to demand a certain quantity of land for the purposes of this Bill, upon a valuation. The land was not to be given up absolutely. The rent was to be paid to parties whom the Commissioners might appoint. Such was briefly the provisions of the Bill. Hon. Members might say that he had taken a great deal of trouble unnecessarily, and that such a Bill ought to have been left in the hands of Her Majesty's Government: that the Government ought to be responsible for such a Bill. He could not see much weight in such an argument, particularly when they saw the Government was overwhelmed with Bills which they had no time to carry through the House, and when it was clearly out of their power to undertake the introduction of a measure of such importance. The right hon. Baronet, the Secretary for the Home Department, had so many Bills to manage in the House, that were this Allotment Bill transferred to him great risk would be incurred, for it should be recollected that it was the last straw that broke the camel's back. He thought that some measure should be introduced by the House this Session on this important subject; whether it was his own Bill or any other of the same tendency was not a matter of much consequence to him. The object of the Bill was to benefit the poorer classes. It would not be safe to leave this subject in the hands of the Government, for, judging from the legislative measures introduced this Session, they could entertain but little hope of any Bills emanating from Government which would have the effect of benefitting the class for whose interest he was then pleading. He was not aware of the Government having any Bill before the House which would, if passed, alleviate the distress of the poorer classes of the community. He considered the object of the Bill to be of great value and importance, particularly to those who were not represented in that House. If something were not done, the condition of the poor would become intolerable. Poverty was the main evil under which the working classes were labouring—that was the main cause of their distressed condition. This Bill would, he hoped, have the effect of mitigating that poverty. The hon. Member concluded by moving the second reading of the Field Gardens Bill.

Mr. S. Crawford

rose to second the Motion. He said he gave his most cordial approval to the principle of this Bill. He was rejoiced that at last the attention of the House of Commons had been called to that most important Report made by a Committee of the House on the allotment system in 1839. That Report had been long a dead letter. What had they been doing since that Report was made? They had been passing Inclosure Bills, giving away that land which might have been made available for improving the condition of the poor; they had been giving away, he said, that land, without advancing the great objects which that Report recommended the House to adopt. The Report of that Committee recommended that no Allotment Bill should be passed which did not afford facilities for making small allotments of land to the poor. That recommendation was not attended to. The evidence adduced before that Committee proved that these small allotments were greatly conducive to the interest of the poor. But that did not depend upon the evidence alone, for many other authorities proved theoretically, as well as practically the advantage resulting from such a system of allotment. This system of allotment not only improved the condition of the poor, but reduced the amount of the rate to the poor. It also gave independent employment to the labouring men, when they could not otherwise obtain it. By it they were supplied with food, and the necessity of going into the poor-house was thereby removed. Independently of these advantages, spade labour increased the productiveness of land, and this would be effected by carrying out the allotment of land to the poor. It also improved the habits of the poor, established good order and promoted religious feeling. The poor-rate would also be greatly diminished by the adoption of this allotment of a small portion of land to the poor. It was said, that if they gave the poor their land it would prevent the working men from being hired. Such would not be the effects of the system. He had a man in his own service who cultivated more than an acre of land, and the crops were attended to by the labourer's two sons—the labourer was not taken one hour from his (Mr. S. Crawford's) employment. It was stated in evidence before the Allotment Committee, that the produce of an acre of land amounted to 20l. He did not wish to quote an extreme opinion, but he thought an acre of land, if well cultivated, would provide a family with a sufficient quantity of wholesome food—not animal food, but vegetable food. If the labourer had this small portion of land it would improve the rate of wages. When the labourer had no other resource he was obliged to submit quietly to any rate of wages which might be imposed upon him. It was important that the labouring man should be instructed in the proper mode of cultivating land. In Ireland this system had not worked well on account of the cruel exactions made in the shape of rent; as well as from the circumstance of the persons occupying these small portions of land being unacquainted with the best mode of cultivating it. Half of the land in England was not in a state of cultivation; if the whole were cultivated food and employment would be provided for the whole of the population of this country. He highly approved of the general objects of the Bill. There were one or two clauses to which he objected. The first had reference to a provision for obtaining a portion of land for the use of the poor from the newly-enclosed land. That portion was limited to 1–20th of the whole enclosure. Why should it be limited to 1–20th?. He was of opinion that less than an acre would be of very little use; still the poor, he knew, would be glad to accept even a smaller quantity. He believed, whether the Corn Laws were repealed or not, that there never could be continuous employment for all the working classes. He thought, therefore, that it was absolutely necessary that both the agricultural and the manufacturing labourers should to as great an extent as possible, be permitted the occupancy of land sufficient to save them from destitution. He therefore felt great pleasure in seconding the Motion.

Mr. Ferrand

expressed his sincere thanks to the hon. Member for bringing forward this Bill, and also to express his thorough conviction that the working classes throughout the country owed him a deep debt of gratitude for the manner in which he had undertaken the subject. He (Mr. Ferrand) was extremely anxious that the Government should allow the Bill to become the law of the land. In his part of the country he had seen the allotment system carried out to some extent, and he knew that the working classes there were anxious to see it fully carried out.

Mr. B. Escott

thanked the hon. Member for the introduction of this Bill. He felt convinced that the allotment system, if carried out under proper management, would be exceedingly beneficial to the poor; but at the same time he felt bound to say, that he should feel rather alarmed if it were a law, as was proposed by this Bill, to make letting land in allotments compulsory, which had hitherto been quite voluntary upon the part of the landowners. So far as the allotment system had worked beneficially up to the present time, it had done so without the intervention of Acts of Parliament. His opinion was that the allotment system had hitherto worked well, and that it was capable of great extension and improvement, and he for one should be glad to have an opportunity of seeing before passing the Bill whether much greater benefit might not arise from the voluntary extension of the allotment system, without the intervention of an Act of Parliament between landlord and tenant. He certainly could not sanction any legislative interference whatever with the relation of landlord and tenant.

Mr. Hume

concurred with the hon. Member who had just addressed the House, that the system, if it were to be carried out, could only be so properly by the local proprietors. Though he greatly approved of the allotment system, which had been attended with the happiest effects in Germany and the Low Countries, yet he did very much doubt the propriety of allowing the Bill then under discussion to proceed.

Sir J. Graham

trusted he should be pardoned if he did not occupy the attention of the House for any lengthened period—as it was not his intention to oppose the second reading of this Bill. He thought the House and the country were indebted to the hon. Member for the attention which he had bestowed upon this measure, and for the manner in which he had brought it forward, and he must add, that to the preamble of the Bill, which declared that small allotments of land were conducive to the comfort and well-being of the labouring classes in the rural districts, he was not disposed to suggest any doubt; but at the same time he did agree with the hon. Member for Winchester and the hon. Member for Montrose, that the success of the system must mainly depend upon the voluntary support and countenance given to it by the local proprietors. He doubted whether legislative interference might not be found to mar the success of the system. With all deference to the hon. Gentleman who seconded the Motion, and whose philanthropy was known to every one to be genuine, he must say that he was somewhat surprised at the expressions that fell from him. The hon. Gentleman's experience in this matter was chiefly confined to Ireland, and if he rightly understood the hon. Gentleman, he said that the occupation of a small portion of land, combined with spade industry, was certain to secure independence, happiness, and comfort to the peasantry, while in his (Sir J. Graham's) opinion the distress of Ireland was in a great measure to be attributed to the minute portions into which land was divided—those minute portions being for the most part cultivated by means of spade husbandry. His (Sir J. Graham's) comprehension of the value of small allotments of land was not that they should give full employment to the labourer, but that they should merely occupy his spare time; that they should be an assistance, supplying comforts, not constituting the sole means of subsistence of the labourers; that, as it appeared to him, was the real use of the allotment system, and he must say that he looked upon an acre of land as being too large a quantity. He did not wish to enter now into the details of the measure, but to them he should have several objections. The hon. Gentleman said there was a great unwillingness on the part of landlords to let their land, but it certainly appeared to him that the Bill afforded a perfect security to the landlord, because the poor-rate was made responsible for the rent. The 20th Clause of the Bill provided that the charge of the rent should be a burthen upon the poor-rate. He was afraid that the machinery of the Bill when they came to discuss it in detail would be found to require very material alteration. He entertained great doubt, for example, as to the constitution of the trusts for the management of the field gardens, and he was not quite satisfied as to the propriety of the 20th Clause, to which he had just referred, which might tend to destroy the harmony and good feeling existing in a parish. As he was not, however, going to oppose the second reading of the Bill, he did not feel disposed to enter at present into any very critical examination of it. But, though he could not concur in all the details of the Bill, yet he regarded it as a matter of great importance, and recollecting that it had been recommended by a Committee of that House, being fully conscious of the attention which those hon. Members who proposed the Bill had devoted to the subject, and not unmindful of the strong terms of approbation in which the hon. Gentleman who last addressed the House, had spoken of the measure, it would not be fit that he (Sir J. Graham) or his Colleagues, acting consistently with those principles which had always guided them with respect to the working classes, should oppose the second reading of the Bill.

Bill read a second time.