§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Bill read 2°, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House will upon Monday next, resolve itself into the said Committee."
§ MR. FITZSTEPHEN FRENCH
said, that the present Government when out of office had pledged themselves to oppose the principles of this Bill. Why then had so extraordinary a change taken place, that they now brought forward a Motion for its continuance? The opponents of this Bill upon its introduction received every possible support from the present right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and the right hon. President of the Board of Trade. They received an assurance of the sympathy of the present Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and were in direct communication with the present Lord Chancellor of England, those high legal authorities being then of opinion that the ordinary tribunals of the country ought not to be superseded. The Government took this party by surprise, when they announced their intention of continuing the Incumbered Estates Act, and some of them were determined not to abandon their former principles, whatever the Government might do. Had not the Bill worked mischief enough in Ireland? Was not the House content with having swept away half the gentry, and almost depopulated the entire country? Sir Robert Peel saw the probable depreciation of property from throwing so many millions worth upon the market at once, and he had contemplated that it should be held over for a certain time; but this precaution had never been taken, and property had been sold often at a depreciation of half its value. He regarded this continuance Bill as the first step towards making the Commissioners a permanent Court. He saw no necessity whatever for the Bill. In the meantime, however, the number of the petitions had been diminishing, and there was an accumulation of property befre the Court to the amount of 28,000,000l. still to be 985 dealt with. On these grounds he would oppose the Government measure. He believed the Government would find some names among the opponents of the Bill they little expected, and, if unsuccessful in that House, they would make such a fight, in another place as would astonish them.
§ MR. NAPIER
said, he thought the course adopted by the Government in asking the House to read the Bill a second time, the best they could adopt for the interests of the owners of land in Ireland. By the Act of Parliament under which the Court was created, the Commission was to continue five years, which would not expire for two years to come; but the period for making presentments was limited to three years, which would expire in July next; and unless that term was extended for another year, the result would be serious depreciation in the value of land in Ireland. Were they to leave the Court in that position, the consequence would be that just before the time for petitioning closed, they would have a large number presented, praying for sale, and a still larger number to have no sale. This might be inferred from the proceedings of the Court, which had already transpired. It appeared that from the date when the first thirty petitions were presented, four months and twenty-five days elapsed before they were brought to a conclusion; and in the case of the last thirty, the period was eight months and three days. At the same time, he admitted the right remedy would have been to have reformed the Courts of Equity, and to have adapted them to the necessities of the times. If that had been done many years ago, it would have been much better for the profession and the public. The Court of Chancery, however, was not in a condition to deal with the emergency which had arisen, and that condition was hardly yet anything improved. The wisest course, therefore, for the Government to adopt, appeared to be to extend the powers of this Incumbered Estates Court for another year, in order that they might have time quite to complete the reforms of the Court of Chancery, and to see whether the jurisdiction might be continued further still, with modifications in the Incumbered Estates Court, or whether it could be transferred to the reformed Court of Chancery. Before the year expired, he hoped the Government would be in a condition to reform the Irish Court of Chancery; and he thought this Bill was in a manner auxiliary to those reforms.
§ MR. JOHN STUART
said, he had come down prepared to hear the second reading of this Bill moved, and to make a statement to the House which he thought would have induced the Government to pause before they resolved upon the adoption of the course on which they seemed to be rather too much bent. The Bill, which was framed upon the recommendation of his right hon. Friend the Master of the Rolls, had been adopted by the Government in compliance with his right hon. Friend's suggestion, and was supported by the right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland, upon the ground that, whether the system on which the business of the Incumbered Estates Commission had proceeded for years was good or bad, it was desirable to continue it for another year, in order to prevent the pressure which would occur in the presentation of petitions if the existing Act were allowed to expire, as it would otherwise have expired, in the month of July.
§ MR. NAPIER
said, the period for presenting petitions would expire on the 28th of July, but the Act would not expire for two years.
§ MR. JOHN STUART
The period for presenting petitions terminating in July, it was conceived that unless this measure were agreed to, such a number of petitions would be presented as would have the effect of greatly depreciating the value of land in Ireland. Petitions had been presented to the Incumbered Estates Court already for the sale of estates incumbered with debts to the amount of 28,000,000l. The estates already sold had produced 5,000,000l., and a little more than 3,000,000l. had been distributed amongst creditors. The price of land had averaged from ten to twelve years' purchase. The depreciation of land in Ireland, and the amount of property of creditors confiscated, presented a spectacle never before seen in the annals of economic legislation. Upon every principle of justice he thought this system ought to be put an end to. He should take every means of drawing attention to the injustice perpetrated under that system, and he now moved that the Bill be committed that day three months.
§ MR. WHITESIDE
said, the present Government had found this Court in active 987 operation, and had not established it, and he admitted that some Members of the Government did not approve of the principle of it; but it was a very difficult thing suddenly to abolish a tribunal that had been in operation some years. And when the House remembered that some time ago it Was proposed to continue the Act for five years, he did not think the Government were to blame because they had mitigated the continuance of it to one year. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. J. Stuart) said the value of property would be depreciated in consequence of the Bill; but he thought he could satisfy his hon. and learned Friend that the Court was wearing itself out. When the Act first came into operation, there were presented in one single month not less than 135 petitions; but in April last, to which the return only came down, there were but thirty-two; and it was his belief that they would become less every month. If it had not been for the announcement that the existence of this Court would have been prolonged for one year, he knew for a fact that many estates would have been flung into it before the 1st of July that now would not be brought into it. As to the depreciation of property, he could state that property belonging to a noble Lord in the neighbourhood of the town he represented, which had been recently sold, had fetched twenty-one or twenty-two years' purchase—not a bad price for land in Ireland. He thought the evil consequences which his hon. and learned Friend anticipated from this Bill would not result from it.
§ MR. BUTT
Mr. Speaker, I am very unwilling to detain the House at this late hour; and if my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for Ireland will give me a full and fair opportunity of discussing the principle of this Bill on a future occasion, I am willing to make the observations I now propose to offer, on the Motion for going into Committee; and I think I could then show that this Bill will vitally affect the interests of many persons in Ireland. If that opportunity is denied me, I must throw myself on the indulgence of the House, and now make those observations, which I can assure hon. Members only a strong sense of duty could induce me to offer at this hour of the night. Sir, this is the first time I have ventured to address the House, and I am sure I shall not appeal in vain to that proverbial indulgence which is ever generously extended to those who address this Assem- 988 bly for the first time. Sir, I have said the subject we are now considering vitally affects the interests of many persons in Ireland; and I can only express my sincere regret that on the first occasion on which I address the House, I should feel it incumbent on me to oppose a measure, I will not say brought forward, but nevertheless sanctioned by a Ministry to whom I am most anxious to give a cordial support. And, Sir, first let me be permitted to allude to an argument used tonight, the force of which I confess I am unable to understand. The right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland tells us, that, by way of precluding petitions, and of preventing the accumulations of business in the Incumbered Estates Court, thirteen months are to be permitted for the presentation of petitions instead of one. Sir, I Confess I cannot comprehend that argument. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says there will be a run of petitions at the close of the Court; but surely there will be the same run of petitions this time twelve months. This Bill was originally introduced by the Master of the Rolls in 1846, and then the Act gave throe years for presenting petitions for sale, it being settled that the Commission should last five years. Five years were allotted to sell the estates and wind up the business of the petitions that would be presented in them. What is now proposed is this—and I ask the attention of the House to the proposal, for I must deal with the case as I find it—it is proposed not to extend the period for distributing the money produced by the sales, to leave the period as to the sales as originally settled. But leaving this period as originally fixed, you increase the time for the presentation of petitions. I confess I oppose this Bill, because I think it one to which it was impolitic for the House to give its sanction. It is perpetuating what I believe to be a wrong; but I am prepared to oppose it on grounds common to me with those who supported the original Bill. Sir, there were stronger constitutional objections urged by the right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland, and stronger language employed on that occasion than I confess I should wish to use. The Bill did not merely give facilities for selling—it extended the right of selling; and I ask the attention of the House to this fact, that it gave the right of selling property to persons who had never before possessed such right. If any man had a 989 mortgage on an estate, no subsequent creditor could come in and sell the estate without being prepared to pay off the mortgage; but this Bill enabled any subsequent creditor to force the estate into the market without any reference to the mortgage. Now, Sir, I think this an injustice to the rights of the mortgagee, and one which ought not to be sanctioned. There were, however, other and perhaps stronger reasons by which the measure was opposed. It was contended, when the Bill was introduced, that the glut of property it would occasion in the market of Ireland would depreciate the value of property far lower than it ought to be; and when the Bill had only been one year in operation, the right hon. and learned Master of the Rolls came down to the House and stated that the amount of property brought into the Court far exceeded all his calculations—that the glut so far depreciated property in Ireland, that it became necessary to provide an artificial stimulus for lawyers; and he proposed, in order to obtain purchasers, that every person who purchased in the Incumbered Estates Court might incumber his property to one half of its value. This was the result of a measure which superseded all our ancient Courts, and disregards all private rights? As a proof of how vain the expectations were which were raised upon this Bill, I need only remind you that when the measure was but one year in operation—a measure introduced and justified only on the ground that it would rid us of an incumbered proprietary—the author of that measure proposed to amend it by giving to every purchaser under it a cheap and easy method of incumbering his estate. Nothing but necessity could have forced him to such a proposal. But what was the necessity? That even three years' petitions would bring into the market more estates than could be sold in five! Surely before we impose additional business on the Court for these five years, we ought to know what at present they have to dispose of in that time. Has my right hon. and learned Friend given us any precise information of the state of business in this Court? No: whatever information we have on the subject is derived from the Return I have moved for myself. Now, what is the state of facts upon this Return? It there appears that of the entire number of the petitions in which absolute orders have been made, there were only thirty in which the whole 990 lands have been sold. I know that this Return is so far incorrect, as I will show you immediately. I caused an application to be made to the Court, and my noble Friend the Secretary for Ireland has received from the Commissioners a correction of that Return, the mistake in which they said was occasioned by the fact of their not having understood the exact nature of the Return for which I had moved. Instead, then, of the number of petitions being thirty, there are, it appears, 931 petitions still to be disposed of, and the property which the Commissioners have ordered for sale, and must sell within three years, amounts to 800,000l. a year. Now, I ask, is there not a sufficiency of business to employ the Commissioners for three years at least, without any more petitions being presented? The business of the Court, in my opinion, only really commences when the land is sold. When they get the money, then arises the judicial business of the Court in the distribution of the money amongst the different claimants. Out of 1,631 cases there are not 500 in which the Commissioners have finally adjudicated the rights of the different claimants to the money. The present sales amount to 5,000,000l., and out of that sum 2,500,000l. lies impounded in the Incumbered Estates Court, because the Commissioners have not been as yet able to decide the rights of the several parties claiming. They have 10,000,000l., in fact, to decide upon, and questions may arise in the distribution of this money as difficult as have ever yet arisen in any Court of Equity. With this amount of business before them, I appeal to you whether it is reasonable to ask the House to depart from the original Bill by giving another year for the presentation of petitions without extending the time of sale. It is evident, Sir, that this Court has more business before it than it can get through within any reasonable time. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks of the depreciation of the value of the property which would arise from a sudden glut of these petitions. The measure before the House is, however, in my mind, a most extraordinary way of preventing such a glut. Why, Sir, every petition presented under this measure will not only depreciate the value of the estates themselves, but it will also depreciate the 800,000l. rental of the property, which must be sold in the next three years. And what has been the result of the 991 sales that have already taken place? The average amount of the estates sold was not more than ten years' purchase. Everything conspired to depreciate the property. The measure was put into operation at a time when the country was suffering under the destroying influence of a prolonged famine. The change in the Corn Laws—whether wisely made or not I do not discuss—unquestionably lowered the value of land. The novel enactment of outdoor relief had imposed upon the land a burden the extent of which no one could see. This was not all. The circulating money of Ireland was diminished. The issue of bank-notes had diminished from 7,000,000l. in 1846, to 4,000,000l. in 1849. And just at that moment of unexampled depression, when everything conspired to depress the value of the soil, you passed a law to fling upon the market an amount of property for which even in the best times purchasers could not be found: you called an auction of the estate of every man who was in debt. The result has been what was to be expected. Sir, I believe in my conscience that the operation of this Court has produced more individual misery and more individual wrong than any revolution that has ever taken place in any civilised country. And yet, with all these facts before our eyes, I am asked to consent to this measure for another year. I will not quote the words of my hon. and learned Friend against himself; but I must ask the House to bear with me while I quote the words of the noble Earl now at the head of the Government, when on a former occasion he moved that this Bill be referred to a Select Committee. The language used by the noble Lord was this, that "being a Bill of a most exceptional character, he wished that it should not be carried further than the exceptional nature of the case required." Now, that is simply all I ask. This Bill was never brought forward to facilitate the settlement of the claims of creditors—it was brought forward for the purpose of transferring to unincumbered proprietors the land of Ireland. Its only justification was the importance of getting money even at the cost of individual suffering of proprietors whose embarrassments disqualified them from discharging the duties of a resident gentry. This was the justification of the measure. Can it be assigned for its extension? Have not the last three years supplied a test sufficient to prove the person whom it is desirable to 992 sell out? Will any man say that the Irish proprietor, who has managed to keep his ground for the last three years, is a man that it is well to get rid of? I feel I owe an apology to the House for trespassing at this unseasonable hour so long upon their patience; I can assure the House I would not have dared to do so if I did not consider that the injustice of the measure was sufficient to warrant my interference. Thanking the House, then, for the very kind attention with which my observations have been heard, I shall conclude for the present; but, with the leave of the House, I shall probably take an opportunity of again addressing it when going into Committee on the Bill.
§ Question put, "That the words 'Monday next' stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 78; Noes 6: Majority 72.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ The House adjourned at half after One o'clock till Monday next.