HC Deb 20 February 1855 vol 136 cc1634-44

Sir, as I can hardly conceive it possible that there should be any opposition on the part of Her Majesty's Government to the first, or even second reading of the Bill which I wish to introduce, it will not be necessary for me to detain the House by any lengthened observations upon it. I should content myself, indeed, with the briefest statement of its provisions, were it not for the unhappy indifference to all questions connected with Ireland which is manifested by a majority of the House. No doubt there are many honourable exceptions; but still it is necessary, whatever may be the nature of the measure proposed—ecclesiastical, economical, or political—to begin again in every Session from the beginning, and demonstrate the existence of evils, notorious in the country which is afflicted by them. On the Irish land question this difficulty is more disheartening than on any other. Forgetting the agrarian misery, disorganisation, and crime which, in the presence of foreigners, and even at home, have so often brought a hot blush upon the face of Englishmen, hon. Members are too apt, as they rise from their seats to leave the House, or stand in groups about the lobbies, during the discussion of this, to Ireland, vital subject, to exclaim—How long will this thing last? What can these Irish Members want? Are not the laws which regulate the relation between landlord and tenant in Ireland substantially the same as in England? Why cannot Irish tenants agree with Irish landlords, as English tenants agree with English landlords? The law relating to landlord and tenant in Ireland is substantially the same as in England; but the inveterate agricultural customs and agrarian economies of the two countries are so widely different as to make the same law in one country a just and useful law; in the other a fatal discouragement to industry, and an engine of injustice and oppression. In the first place, owing in a great degree to the confiscations of former times in favour of English settlers, and of powerful English families, then and still possessed of large landed properties in England, the number of proprietors is, relatively to its area, much smaller in Ireland than in any country in Europe. There is no competition for tenants among Irish landlords—they impose on the occupation of their land what. ever terms they please. In France, there are twenty proprietors to every square mile; in Prussia, ten; in England, if I remember rightly, three; in Ireland, only one. Secondly—Almost all the land of Ireland is in strict settlement, the landlords being only tenants for life, without the power of granting leases of sufficient duration to justify any considerable outlay by the lessees. In England a man who possesses or purchases an estate for 5,000l. or. 6,000l., or even 10,000l., never thinks of conveying it to trustees, to his own use for life, and after his death to the use of his eldest and other sons in succession—with remainders over. But in Ireland, the smallest freehold and even leasehold interests are thus tied up, and, except recently and comparatively to a trifling extent in the Incumbered Estates Court, land never comes in small parcels into the market. Thirdly—and this is the greatest of all the causes of agrarian disorder—the maxim imported from the Roman Code into the law of England, that "everything which is fixed to the soil, becomes parcel of the soil," operates upon a condition of things the very reverse of that existing in England, and renders the legal rights of landlords in their possible, too frequent, and always apprehended abuse, absolutely intolerable. That I may not be supposed to be communicating to the House a fanciful view of the evils which result in Ireland from the difference in this particular between the circumstances of the two countries, I will ask permission to read two short extracts —one from the work on The Tenure and Improvement of Land in Ireland, published in 1852, by Messrs. Ferguson and Vance, gentlemen of eminence at the Irish Bar; the other from a Tract on the Popery Laws, written in 1772 by an illustrious Irishman, than whom no man was better acquainted with the condition of his country— In point of fact," say Messrs. Ferguson and Vance, "the prevailing practice in Ireland, as stated in the Report of the Devon Commissioners was, and is, that the dwelling-houses and farm buildings, the necessary and suitable adjuncts to every farm, and which are built and provided by every landlord in England and Scotland, are for the most part made by the tenant; and that the landlords do not usually either make, or maintain in suitable repair, the buildings, offices, fences, gates, or permanent improvements fit for the farm. No doubt there are many honourable exceptions. But the complaint is made, that whilst the landlord in England makes every requisite improvement as to buildings and offices, &c., the landlord in Ireland lets the land without any improvement, and the tenant is compelled either to attempt to work at it as he gets it, in which case no toil or thrift can compensate for the risk and loss to which his crops are exposed for want of buildings, drains, fences, and gates, or, if he makes improvements at his own cost, he is subject to have his rent raised, or to be evicted, and in either case, as he conceives, robbed. Now for the extract from the Tract on the Popery Laws, written eighty years before— Ireland is a country almost wholly unplanted. The farms have neither dwelling-houses nor good offices, nor are the lands almost anywhere provided with fences and communications; in a word, in a very unimproved state. The landowner there never takes upon himself, as is usual in this kingdom, to supply all these conveniences, and to set down his tenant in what may be called a completely furnished farm. If the tenant will not do it, it is never done. This circumstance shows how miserably and peculiarly impolitic it has been in Ireland to tie down the body of the tenantry to short and unprofitable tenures. A finished and furnished house will be taken for any term, however short; if the repair lies on the owner, the shorter the better. But no one will take one not only unfurnished but half built but upon a term which, on calculation, will answer with profit all his charges. It was on this principle that the Romans established their Emphyteusis or Fee-Farm; for though they extended the ordinary term of their location only to nine years, yet they encouraged a more permanent letting to farm with the condition of improvement as well as of annual payment on the part of the tenant where land had lain rough and neglected, and, therefore, invested this species of engrafted holding, in the later times, when property came to be Worse distributed by falling into few hands. The plantation contract, thus indicated as the remedy for the then and still existing evil, was identical with the regulations of the articles of the Ulster Plantation, under which, by time-honoured custom, the tenantry of that part of Ireland have created, enjoyed, and now ask legislative protection for a vast amount of property and prosperity, which have no existence in the other provinces. And whose words does the House imagine these to be? Who is it who thus points out to us from his tomb, the evil which still afflicts his country and its remedy? Assuredly no revolutionary demagogue, careless of the rights of property, the gradation of ranks, and the institutions of society, but the prince of Conservative statesmen—Edmund Burke. It argues little, I regret to say, for our system of constitutional and Parliamentary rule-little for the wisdom with which the absolute power vested by the Legislative Union in the Crown and Parliament of England to make laws for Ireland has been exercised, that a state of things, the mischiefs of which have at periods so distant been thus described by witnesses above exception, should still continue. But so it is. The first step towards the remedy of evils, the like of which upon the Continent of Europe were removed without difficulty by the Ministers of despotic Princes, has with us not yet been taken. The superior wealth and enterprise of the English people, and the laws by which, in former times, Irish manufacturing industry was depressed, have confined the population of Ireland almost entirely to agricultural pursuits; and the effect upon it of the state of things which the extracts I have read describe is thus shortly summed up in his Principles of Political Economy by perhaps the most enlightened, and certainly most impartial, of all the living writers who have thought and reasoned upon Ireland, Mr. Mill. "The Irish farmer and cottier is almost alone among mankind in this condition. If he be industrious and frugal, no one but his landlord can gain; if he be lazy and intemperate, it is at his landlord's expense." During the last twenty years numerous attempts have been made by distinguished Members of this House in and out of office to reform the Irish land laws. In the years 1835, 1836, 1843, 1845, 1848, 1850, and 1852, Bills, were introduced into the House for that object by an hon. Friend of mine formerly Member for Rochdale, Those Bills, founded upon a system established by custom in the north of Ireland were for years and years denounced as revolutionary by the numerous sciolists in this and the other House of Parliament, who have from time to time endeavoured to achieve distinction, by vituperating a principle of legislation which they knew not to be identical with that now in full force in all the European countries which have adopted the jurisprudence of the Empire. The main principle of these measures—protection against eviction without compensation, for improving tenants—with a more or less extended application, was pressed upon the Legislature in Bills presented by Lord Derby in 1845; by the Earl of Lincoln and Sir James Graham in 1846; by Sir William Somerville, Sir George Grey, and Lord John Russell in 1848; by Sir William Somerville, Sir George Grey, and Mr. Solicitor General Romilly in 1850; and finally, in 1852, during the Administration of Lord Derby, by his Irish Attorney General, the right hon. Member for the University of Dublin, who, in the Session of 1852, presented to this House a complete code of Irish Landlord and Tenant Law, consisting of four Bills—a Land Improvement Bill, a Leasing Powers Bill, a Tenants' Improvement Compensation Bill, and a Landlord and Tenant Law Consolidation Bill. All these Bills proceeded on the principle that to look for such agricultural improvements as the condition of Ireland required from Irish landlords, or from any persons, or at the expense of any persons but the tenants of Irish land, would be a desperate and unreasonable expectation. The Land Improvement Bill passed this and the other House of Parliament with little substantial alteration. After reciting the Acts authorising the advance of public money to promote the improvement of land by drainage, it empowered the owners of settled estates to borrow money for effecting certain improvements to be executed under the superintendence of the Board of Works. The improvements thus authorised were the erection of agricultural buildings and farm houses, the reclamation of waste or cut-out bog, by its conversion into arable or pasture land, the making of farm roads, the main or thorough drainage of land, the clearing away of rocks and stones, the making of boundary fences, the marling, liming, clawing, and otherwise improving the soil. Landlords, though only tenants for life, borrowing money for these objects, were enabled to charge their estates with a rent-charge of 7l. 10s. for every 100l. borrowed during a period of twenty-two years; and the Board of Works was empowered to raise the rent on the tenant on account of the increased value of his holding of the lands so improved. By the Leasing Powers Bill, power was given to persons with limited interests—tenants for life, tenants by the courtesy, corporations sole and aggregate, lay and ecclesiastical—to promote the like improvements of their lands by leases binding on their successors, or by agreements with or without lease, also binding on their successors—to make compensation on eviction to their tenants, either by money payments or compensatory periods of occupation, without increase of rent for the same improvements. That Bill was taken up by the Government which succeeded Lord Derby's, was care- fully considered in a Committee upstairs, passed by large majorities in this House, and returned from the House of Lords with very little alteration. The third was the Tenants' Improvements Compensation Bill, which was also referred to the Select Committee. The mode of compensation, by compensating periods, was objected to by me and others, and it was thought better by the Government of Lord Aberdeen, represented in that Committee by the Secretary for Ireland, and sometimes by the noble Lord at the head of the present Government, to give the tenant compensation, under proper restrictions, by money payments, limiting it, however, to classes of improvements less numerous, but more visible and indisputable than some of those which were to be the subjects of compensation, by agreement under the Leasing Powers Bill. The improvements for which compensation was thus provided prospectively and retrospectively were the following:— the erection of farm houses and farm buildings—the reclamation of waste or cut- out bog, and its conversion into arable or pasture land—the making of farm roads and boundary fences. The result was, that after a long discussion in Committee, the Bill was read a second time, and after-wards passed by this House, and sent up to the other House of Parliament by a large majority, and I was led to believe, by repeated assurances to that effect, that it was the wish of the Government, once for all, to settle the question. By the provisions of that Bill, a tenant, on eviction, was declared to be entitled to pecuniary compensation not exceeding the actual value of the improvements made by him. In my belief that was a good Bill, and a statesman-like attempt to settle this much agitated question; but I am sorry to say that it was not pressed, or even discussed, by the late Government as it should have been in the House of Lords, and I would warn the present Government that, if they give no better earnest of their desire to meet the wishes of the people of Ireland than was evinced by their predecessors, they must not reckon upon a long tenure of power. The friends of Ireland would support Her Majesty in all that is required for the purpose of regaining, by a vigorous prosecution of the war, a secure and honourble peace, but when that was once effected, and the Government becomes involved in one of those miserable and wretched predicaments which make mani- fest intrinsic weakness, and from which the Irish liberal representation can alone extricate them, then it would be seen that, having failed in their duty to Ireland, they would not be able to remain in power a single day. Well, the several Bills having passed the House of Commons were sent up to the House of Lords, and were referred to a Select Committee. I grieve to say it, the Government allowed the Tenants' Improvements Compensation Bill to drop. The Lords' Committee passed a miserable apology for a Tenants' Compensation Bill in the shape of a fixture clause in the Landlord Consolidation Bill; but on the Tenant Compensation Bill made no report; and so ashamed of that conduct was the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, that when the other Bills came down to the House of Commons, the noble Lord, on an appeal from me, although he had up to that time dealt with them as Government Bills, postponed all legislation to a future day. When, on former occasions, I have proposed a measure for the benefit of the tenants, intimations have been made to me that the unreasonableness of the tenants' friends out of doors, and of their enemies elsewhere, has rendered it impossible for any Government to pass a Bill on the subject; I have been reproached, on the other hand, with having acted perversely, for that I, not being able to obtain a Tenants' Improvements Compensation, Bill, had opposed the passing of the Leasing Powers Bill. My opposition to that Bill did not originate in any desire to prevent the landlords from encouraging improvements on their estates; on the contrary, I believe the Leasing Powers Bill, as part of a code, to be a very useful measure. Wherever there is a free and liberal landlord, the provisions of that Bill may (for the future) be brought into operation, and will prove just as good for the tenant as for the landlord. It is unjust in many, nowadays perhaps in most cases, to blame the Irish landlords. If we wanted to make the tenants comfortable, the most expeditious process we could adopt, were it in our power, would be to relieve the landlords from their embarrassments. Wherever we find an impoverished landlord, we are sure also to find a miserable and impoverished tenantry. The object of the Leasing Powers Bill is, to rescue the landlord from the thraldom of those restrictions which prevent his encouraging the tenant to improve his own condition by the creation for his own benefit of property on had been his farm. I was asked by an hon. Member near me, when I was stating that the farm houses and farm buildings were erected in almost all cases by the tenants, what sort of houses and buildings they were? My answer is, except where the custom of Ulster prevails, as bad almost as can be. But this is one of the strongest arguments for the legislation I propose. Hon. Members not conversant with the subject, will be surprised at the smallness of the farms in Ireland. In the most prosperous of the Irish counties, Armagh, Down, Antrim, they do not average more than twenty acres. It is preposterous to expect that landlords, who are only tenants for life, should erect the dwelling-houses and buildings on farms of that size. It has not been the custom hitherto, and no rental could stand its introduction. An hon. Friend of mine, a Member of this House, who possesses an estate of some 2,000l. or 3,000l. a year in the county of Cavan, composed almost entirely of these small holdings, assures me that the tenants of them are in all respects as satisfactory to him as tenants occupying much larger farms on other portions of his property in England and Ireland. Nothing is wanted by such tenants but security that they shall not be losers if they erect farm houses and farm buildings, or make other improvements suitable to their holdings for themselves, and thereby create a property which will be a guarantee to their landlord for his rent. If we depend for this object on the Leasing Powers Bill alone; the maxim quid leges sine moribus will be exemplified by our failure. Landlords, without the stimulant which the Tenants' Compensation Bill would give, will be too apt to make captious objections to the grant of leases or agreements for compensation to obnoxious tenants. As soon as the potato becomes sound again, the recently improved systems of farming will, in numerous cases, be set aside, and we shall have whole counties consisting of nothing but potato estates as heretofore. Let me ask the House to remember what have been the fruits of that system hitherto, Has not the population fallen off at a fearful rate—aye, and when it was most wanted? The diminution of the population in Galway during the last ten years has been twenty-nine—in Mayo, twenty-five—in Roscommon, twenty-one — in Clare, twenty-five — in Kerry, twenty-nine — in Cork, twenty-eight per cent. If the usual condition of the tenantry had been such as to have enabled them to live in good warm houses, and obtain a supply of wheaten or oaten, and occasionally animal, food, they would not have perished, as they did, before our eyes by thousands. In my view, therefore, it is not sufficient to give to landlords the power of making leases and agreements for compensation with their tenants, unless you add this stimulant to its exercise, that in all cases of visible undeniable improvement by the tenant, whether under agreement or without agreement, he shall on eviction be entitled to compensation. This would be effected by the Tenants' Improvements Compensation Bill. I ask the House to permit me to introduce the Leasing Powers Bill nearly word for word as it came down to us from the House of Lords last Session, and to add to it the Tenants' Improvements Compensation Bill, with one exception, word for word, as it was introduced into this House in the Session before last by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for Ireland. The exception is this. By the lath section of the Tenants' Improvements Compensation Bill, it is provided that against any claim for compensation made by a tenant on his eviction, the landlord shall be entitled to set off the amount of any claim he may have upon the tenant for dilapidations, waste of improvements, arrears of taxes, arrears of rent, or damages for breach of covenants contained in any lease or agreement, and if the amount which the landlord claims shall exceed the tenant's claim for compensation, or vice versâ cheap and easy process is provided for the recovery of the excess. Nothing can be more just or reasonable. But there is another clause of the Bill which appears to me to be inconsistent with that provision, and unreasonable. It provides that compensation shall be granted to all evicted tenants for improvements, except when evicted for arrears of rent or breach of condition contained in a lease or agreement. I think it is enough that the tenant should have his claim for compensation set off against arrears of rent or damages by waste or dilapidation, &c. It is not just that improvements, probably made by means of money lent to the tenant, and in which the tenant considered he had a property, should, when the tenant falls into difficulties, be excluded from compensation. I, therefore, propose to strike out of the Tenants' Improvement Compensation Bill the words "except for arrear of rent, or breach of condition contained in a lease or agreement." I think no one can deny that I have now placed the land question on a simple issue. I ask the House to agree to the first and second reading of my Bill. In Committee I intend to propose certain Amendments; but I will not ask the House to consent to anything which is not manifestly consistent with the principle which the House has affirmed. And now I wish to say a word to the noble Lord at the head of the Government. I should be glad to give the noble Lord my support, but I will not do so unless the noble Lord will endeavour to settle, on sound and just principles, this Irish land question. Without the support of the Irish Liberal Members, his power is not worth two months' purchase. He has a powerful Opposition in front, and many of the Members behind him and below the gangway give him only a reluctant support. Without the aid of the Irish Members the Government cannot conduct the affairs of the country with that power, and influence, and authority which are necessary even to the successful prosecution of the war. The Irish Members will not go back to their constituents with the shame upon their brows of having allowed the English Government and the English representatives to treat Irish questions as if they were not worth a moment's consideration. ["Oh, oh!"] I do not mean to say that there is any want of personal courtesy—what can be more considerate than the attention with which I have been heard to-night?— but I assert that the Government has not shown that firm purpose to introduce reforms into the Irish land system and other systems which it ought to have shown. It has not used its Parliamentary influence and the influence of the Crown to pass the measures to which I have referred; and the result is that, after a union of fifty years, the great and substantial grievances of Ireland remain unredressed. The noble Lord may depend upon it that the Irish Members will not tolerate such a system any longer. He must make up his mind either to say, "I disapprove of your Bills, and will not support them," or to say, "I and my colleagues will do our utmost to insist upon the passing of these measures." The majority of the Irish Liberal representatives are bound, in conscience and honour, to withhold all party support from every Government which will not take effectual means for the settlement of these land questions, and to that policy they and their constituencies, as the noble Lord will find, should he appeal to them, will adhere. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to provide compensation for Improving Tenants, and to consolidate and amend the Laws relating to Leasing Powers in Ireland.


said, that from the explanations which had been offered to the House by the hon. and learned Serjeant, he understood that the Bill which he was about to introduce was identical with the Tenants' Compensation Bill, which he (Sir J. Young) had moved, and had the good fortune to pass in that House two years ago, together with the Leasing Powers Bill of the right hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Napier). He was happy to be able to relieve the hon. and learned Serjeant's mind of any uneasiness which he might feel with respect to the fate of his Motion, by assuring him that Her Majesty's Government would offer no opposition whatsoever to the introduction of his Bill. With reference to the Amendments which were proposed to be made in the Bill in Committee he could not give the hon. and learned Gentleman any distinct assurance. The points which were involved in those Amendments had been discussed in the Committee upstairs, and the preponderance of opinion had certainly been against their adoption. However that might be, he had much satisfaction in bearing testimony to the moderation which the hon. and learned Gentleman had that evening displayed, and he trusted that they might, before long, see the question of landlord and tenant in Ireland brought to a happy issue.

Leave given; Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Serjeant SHEE and Mr. POLLARD-URQUHART.