HC Deb 24 July 1855 vol 139 cc1338-48

[Progress, 13th July.] Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.


Sir, in the present position of this Bill, and at the present period of the Session, I think it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government to state to the House the course which, in our opinion, it would be most advisable to pursue with regard to this measure. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this question as bearing upon the feelings, the opinions, and the interests of Ireland. It is a subject which has for many years excited the deepest interest in Ireland, and has moreover enlisted strong and decided opinions in opposite directions in regard to the subject matter of which this Bill treats. On the one hand, those who have advocated what is commonly called tenant right have urged changes in the existing law, interfering to a very great extent with the transactions between landlord and tenant, and affecting in a very great degree the present rights of these respective parties. Those who have advocated that change have founded their opinions upon facts and reasoning which are familiar to those who have attended to this subject. On the other hand, there are an important class of persons in Ireland who have resisted that change, who have argued that it would be unjust, would affect existing rights, and would involve an interference not either exceptional or just. This question having for many years agitated very strongly the public mind in Ireland, having led to many and long discussions in this House, having led to the introduction of several measures, none of which were ultimately successful, and the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Sejeant Shee) having this year introduced a Bill founded in a great degree upon Bills which had passed this House, Her Majesty's Government were appealed to to undertake the conduct of the measure, to mould it in such a manner as might suit their views, and so make themselves responsible for recommending it to the adoption of the House. I am ready to confess now that which I have stated over and over again, both here and upstairs in the Committee of which I was a Member, namely, that, in the abstract, my own personal opinion is against any interference in transactions between different parties, be they who they may, who have arrangements to make with each other. I think that, upon general principles, people should be left to judge according to their own interests and wishes, and that, in the abstract, interference between buyer and seller (which we must consider the landlord and the tenant to be) is both inconvenient and inexpedient. Nevertheless, there are cases in which habits, and, if you will, prejudices and strongly-rooted opinions, justify a departure from mere abstract principles, and it certainly did appear to me that this was an instance in which such a departure might properly take place. With reference, then, to all these considerations, Her Majesty's Government accepted the offer of the hon. and learned Serjeant, and undertook to conduct this Bill through the House. The only possible foundation upon which we could rest any hope of succeeding in that undertaking was the assumption that persons entertaining opposite opinions on this matter would follow our example, and consent to that sort of mutual concession without which it is utterly impossible that, upon matters of great importance and deep interest, where opinions are strongly opposed, any common and satisfactory result can be arrived at. The Government were prepared, with a view to the final settlement of a question the agitation of which has been attended with so much inconvenience in Ireland—the Government were prepared to yield their own opinions to what appeared to be the general feeling of the people of Ireland, and to propose that which we thought both parties might conveniently and in fair consistency with their own opinions assent to as a compromise of the extreme opinions on both sides. We, therefore, undertook the charge of the Bill on that ground, and we certainly did hope that in the course of the present Session a Bill might pass which, though it might not, on the One hand, give to the tenant-right party all they wished for, and though, on the other hand, it might impose restrictions which those who are opposed to the tenant-right principle might object to, yet would, on the whole, so far satisfy the one party without inflicting any great injury on the other, and that we might have a chance of setting this long-agitated question at rest. We have been, I regret to say, very much disappointed in our anticipations. The progress of the Bill has been retarded by lengthened discussion. Each party has thought it right to enforce its own extreme opinions; discussion and debate have followed discussion and debate; divisions have taken place in great numbers; and we are now arrived at a period of the Session at which I think, without any great stretch of the imagination, we may safely conceive that a Bill which has only attained the stage at which this measure stands, and the future progress of which is announced as likely to be attended with so much further discussion and so many other divisions—I say we have arrived at a period at which a Bill so circumstanced cannot with any rational expectation be looked to as likely to pass in the present Session. Now, we have other Bills of pressing importance which I consider may be passed. I don't mean to say that they are of more importance than this Bill, but there is a greater chance of our passing them, and there can be no greater waste of time than for this House to occupy itself with matters with regard to which there is no rational prospect of coming to a conclusion. The great economy of time is to do that which may produce a result. However reluctant, then, I may be to give up the hope—which I did entertain at one time—that this important question might be settled during the present Session; yet considering the number of clauses we have still to go through, the number of objections which it is announced will be offered, the long debate we should have with regard to the reinsertion the 14th clause, and the present advanced period of the Session. I think I should be best Consulting the convenience of the House and the progress of important public business by proposing that we should not continue the discussion on this Bill, that we should submit to the force of circumstances, and that the Bill should be allowed to drop in regard to the present Session. I regret exceedingly to find myself brought to that conclusion, but I trust that those who take an interest in the Bill will do Her Majesty's Government the justice to acknowledge that we have done all that we possibly could for the purpose of inducing the House to pass this measure in a shape in which we could recommend it; and I am sure, though I may have said that the opposite parties have perhaps pressed their respective opinions further than was consistent with the expectation of passing this measure, I do them the justice to say that in so acting they have evinced perfect sincerity, and have sought only to discharge their duty. I can only again regret that the Government have no other course to pursue than that which I have already announced. It is well kown that this is the final day fixed upon in another place for giving a second reading to Bills from this House; but, leaving that out of consideration, it is unnecessary to say how utterly hopeless it would be to attempt now to press forward this measure. I move, therefore, Mr. FitzRoy, that you report progress.


said, he was surprised at the course taken by the noble Lord that day. He would remind the noble Lord that he had recently expressed an opinion that this was a measure of so important a character, and so exceptional as regards the rule of the House of Lords, that it was his determination to persevere with it. He now asked whether the noble Lord had dealt fairly with the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny (Mr. Serjeant Shee) in the course he had taken in not communicating his intention to that hon. and learned Gentleman. He did not think that the noble Lord had given any reason sufficient to justify his sudden departure from his original resolution. Not that he (Mr. French) believed that the measure in its present shape would prove satisfactory; but he believed that the noble Lord, by the course he had taken, would inflict a serious blow to the hopes and expectations of the people of Ireland. He wished to ask the noble Lord whether he was determined to withhold all protection from the poor tenants in Ireland? The noble Lord, when he had come to his present determination, should at all events hand over the measure to the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny, who was credulous enough to entrust the measure to the Government, in the belief that they were sincere in their determination to pass it during the present Session.


said, he must congratulate the Government in having passed over this measure, as people would have an opportunity before the next Session of reconsidering the matter in connection with the manner in which Ireland was represented in that House. They had had forty-eight Irish Members voting for retrospective compensation, and only nineteen against it. If five to two of the representatives of England had voted upon any matter, it would have been carried; and was it justice to Ireland that the voices of her representatives in the proportion of five to two should be disregarded? He rejoiced that the Bill had been withdrawn, for if passed in its present shape, it would have inflicted serious injury on Ireland. He trusted that the noble Lord would in the next Session deal with the matter in a very different spirit.


said, he was also glad of the withdrawal of the Bill, for, in the state to which it had been reduced, it would have proved an insult and a curse to Ireland. He did not know what the genuinely independent Irish Members on the Ministerial benches, who had so faithfully served the Government hitherto, would think when they found that at so late a period of the Session the reward to which they had looked forward was withdrawn from them; but if the people of Ireland followed his recommendation, they would never again allow themselves to be deluded by promises which at the last moment were thus broken.


said, he was at a loss to understand the violent language used by hon. Members in regard to the withdrawal of a Bill which the House had been told by hon. Gentlemen opposite was utterly valueless. To have persevered with the measure under present circumstances would have been, in his opinion, a waste of time and a mere mockery, and the noble Lord had adopted a manly, an independent, and an honourable course in withdrawing it. The Bill did not, in the least, touch the great evil of Ireland, which was the existence of the cottier tenancy.


said, he thought the noble Lord had exercised a wise discretion in withdrawing the measure, and he knew that was the opinion of the hon. and learned Serjeant the Member for Kilkenny. With respect to another Bill, brought forward by the late Secretary for Ireland (Sir W. Somerville), which likewise affected the condition of the tenantry of that country, he hoped the noble Lord would exercise his influence with that right hon. Gentleman to withdraw it also.


said, he had not had the remotest idea when he entered the House that morning, that the Bill was to be withdrawn. He did not at all concur in such a course, and, at all events, it ought to have been communicated to the House at an earlier period. When, however, they remembered that on the division upon the 14th clause, nine Members of the Government absented themselves, seven of those hon. and right hon. Gentlemen being somewhere in the precincts of the House at the time, it was tolerably evident that there was a difference of opinion in the Ministry on the subject; and, opposed as the noble Lord had been, besides, by the Conservative Members, by a portion of the Irish Liberal Members, perhaps the Premier had no other alternative than to withdraw the Bill. While upon the subject, however, he would take the opportunity of reading two documents, explanatory of the deputation of Irish Members to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, which had been the subject of animadversion in the House a short time back. Those documents would set the matter in a clear light. The first was a Resolution adopted at a meeting of Irish Members, and the second was a letter from the same Members to the noble Lord at the head of the Government:— Resolved, that the Chief Secretary for Ireland publicly stated in his place, on behalf of the Government, that, in the event of his Amendments to the 14th clause of the Tenants' Compensation Bill being adopted, the full strength of the Administration should be given to carry that clause, and generally the other provisions of the Bill; that, notwithstanding such distinct assurance, three Cabinet Ministers and four other Members of the Government, though all in the House, declined to vote for the 14th clause, amended as proposed by the Irish organ of the Administration; that we consider such conduct had the appearance of a breach of faith on the part of the Government to the Irish Members and to Ireland; that, therefore, to remove all misapprehension, we call upon the Prime Minister to move the reinstatement of the 14th clause and to secure for the Motion the Support of his entire Administration, and thus fulfil the assurance given to the country by the Chief Secretary for Ireland.

"House of Commons, July 9.
My Lord—We, the undersigned Members of Parliament, feel called upon to express our deep disappointment at finding, from the division lists of Thursday last, that the Motion to expunge the 14th clause of the Tenants' Compensation Bill was carried against the Government in the absence of nine of its Members; seven of whom, including three Cabinet Ministers, had been in the House, but left it before the division on that Motion. This defection, and the example it gave, having contributed mainly to the loss of that clause, we now respectfully request your Lordship, as head of the Government, to have its reinsertion moved at a future stage, supported by the united strength of all Ministerial Members. We wish it also to be understood of the Bill, with the Government Amendments, that though, in its mutilated state, some may accept it as a small instalment of just demands, it cannot be taken as a final settlement of them. We have the honour to be, &c.
(Signatures of Members.)


said, he could assure the hon. and learned Gentleman there was no foundation whatever for the idea that a difference of opinion among the Members of the Government, with regard to the measure, was one of the reasons which led to its withdrawal. It was perfectly true, as the hon. and learned Gentleman stated, that upon the division on the 14th clause certain Members of the Government were absent. As he (Lord Palmerston) had before observed, he was very sorry that this should have been the case, but it happened also on other occasions on which the Government were very anxious to muster all their forces. Their absence was purely accidental; he could go through the whole list; to explain how each happened to be away at that particular moment; but the ground on which he withdrew the Bill was simply one of time. If it were now May instead of July, he should persevere with the Bill, but every hon. Member must see that, to do so now, would be a pure waste of time.


said, that the question was not properly understood by the Irish Members generally. The present state of the cottier tenantry in Ireland was but the result of English legislation. He hoped that in the next Session such a Tenant Right Bill would be introduced that would give satisfaction to all parties.


said, he thought that, to account for the absence of certain Members of the Government on the occasion referred to, by an accident, was a pleasing delusion, for he had himself seen some of them in the precincts of the House at the time, and there was no doubt they had shirked the division. He hoped that next year the whole responsibility of introducing a measure on tenant right would be thrown upon the Government, and that no private Member, whatever might be his motive, would take up a question which he could have no chance of settling. It was the bounden duty of the Government to bring in a Landlord and Tenant Bill on the earliest opportunity next year, and to pass it through; but, during the present Session, the noble Lord had merely toyed with the question, and had left his own supporters in doubt as to whether he could be serious in attempting to carry the measure.


said, the resolution of the noble Lord to withdraw the Bill did not in the least take him by surprise. At that period of the Session, it must be quite evident that it was utterly impossible to proceed with the Bill, and he could only wonder that that conclusion had not been arrived at long before. At the same time, he would congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Cork (Mr. V. Scully) and his friends upon the triumphant success of the memorable deputation which had lately waited upon the noble Lord.


said, no other course could now be pursued than that proposed by the noble Lord at the head of the Government. The Bill contained over seventy clauses, of which but thirteen had passed, and the period had arrived at which the House of Lords had announced it would receive no new Bills. He had, throughout the weary debates on the measure, refrained from replying to imputations cast on him, fearing to endanger the Bill by personal altercations, but he would take that opportunity of saying a few words on the course pursued by Government. In the month of May last the Irish Executive was called on by the hon. and learned Serjeant, who had charge of the Bill, to take it up, as there was no prospect of passing it in his hands. His right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland had then an opportunity of catching popular favour and support in that House, by professing to adopt the Bill as it stood. He might have used it as a net to catch political flies, but he preferred the policy of candour and truth, and stated fairly that he could only recommend the Government to take up the measure in such a shape as to afford a fair prospect of passing it into law. The time was favourable for passing such a measure, and his right hon. Friend distinctly shadowed out the modifications he proposed. The hon. and learned Serjeant accepted the proposition, and expressed his gratitude to the Government. His right hon. Friend then modified the Bill, so as that, securing as much justice to the tenant as practicable, he might still hope for general support. He did not anticipate the opposition he had met with. Hon. Members had reproached him (Mr. FitzGerald) with an alteration of his opinions and an abandonment of his pledges; he wished to state that he had altered none of his opinions on the question, and was still as favourable to the tenant as ever, but, as a very humble member of the Government, he conceived that he would not be justified in asking to have his individual opinions on that particular question carried out to their full extent, and he felt called upon to sacrifice his views to the judgment of the majority. He was the more readily induced to do so from his great anxiety to secure now for the tenant a part of his claims, and to mitigate the evils which flowed from the absence of some legislation on the subject. Those evils were great, both to landlord and tenant, and he anxiously desired to secure a measure beneficial to both. He would be prepared at any future time to support as large and beneficial a measure for the tenant as there was a prospect of passing.


said, he deeply regretted the shipwreck of such an important measure, which he thought was calculated to produce great good. Mutilated as the Bill was, it yet contained the germ of good, and notwithstanding all the alterations which had been made in it, it would have afforded great encouragement to the improving tenant. He regretted its withdrawal, more particularly because it would have led to the investment of capital, removed dissensions, reconciled class to class, and secured the devotion of the united energies of the Irish people to one common object. He regretted the withdrawal also, because he believed it would revive that agitation which had been the misfortune of his country, and which he had hoped would soon cease for ever. He did not see in the Bill any assertion of the principle of fixity of tenure, but he did see in it a provision for stability of tenure, and on that ground he lamented its loss. Though he did not attribute to the Government any want of sincerity, yet he thought they had not exhibited that energy in the matter which was requisite to ensure success. By the speech of the noble Lord that morning, they had pledged themselves to renewed attempts at legislation, and he trusted that when the subject again came before the House, the Government would give a fair and energetic support to the principles on which the Bill was founded.


said, he thought the withdrawal of the Bill at that late period of the Session would lead to great disappointment in Ireland. He was also convinced, however, that it would not in its present shape have given satisfaction in Ireland; and, shorn as it was of many of its best provisions, he could not on the whole regret the loss of it. He knew no class more interested in the passing of a good measure than the conservative Members for Ireland. Nothing would tend more to increase the value of their property than a good measure of tenant right; and at the same time, nothing could do more to cement good feelings between the people of the two countries.


said, he was not surprised at the course taken by the noble Lord at the head of the Government; on the contrary, he did not see what other course at that, the eleventh hour, he could have adopted. At the same time he must express his regret at the present unsettled state of the question. He agreed with the hon. and learned Solicitor-General for Ireland, that it was useless for Irish Members to attempt to carry out all their individual views on the subject. The Committee had treated the question in the fairest manner; and it was at the request of Irish Members themselves that the two measures which were founded on their Report were not passed last Session. They had now been spending their time in discussing a measure which excited great difference of opinion in that House formerly, and which was rejected in another place. The House had been asked to accept the Bill in its present shape as an instalment. He objected to an instalment doctrine. If the subject was to be legislated upon at all, it should be in a manner which would set the question at rest. He had believed from the first that the Bill would turn out an abortion; and he hoped that the Government would in future deal with the subject in a more satisfactory manner.


said, they had been for two hours and a quarter engaged in a useless discussion, and had the same time been employed in discussing the provisions of the Bill, the Bill might have been passed. He thought the sooner they now passed to some other business the better.


said, he considered that the House had stopped short of a measure when they had arrived at the only beneficial part of it. The best description which could be given of the labours of the Government in reference to the subject was that which was to be found in the last chapter of "Rasselas"—namely, a conclusion in which nothing was concluded.


said, he regretted that the noble Lord had not stated his intention last evening, though he must say that the noble Lord had used the Bill with admirable dexterity. He (Mr. A. Stafford) had had the management of property in Ireland for many years, and he could not sympathise with those who were the promoters of the Bill, although he had himself supported the second reading of it; and he would add that if the Bill were again introduced he would support it for the next three or four years. He had often spoken to persons interested in the question, and he found that they were convinced that the Bill was mere moonshine, and that after it had been discussed some three or four years, the people of Ireland would at length learn that the rights of property were to be equally respected in both countries, and were governed by the same fixed principles.


said, that he attributed the death of the measure to the conduct of the Members on the Opposition Bench, and especially to the most inconsistent conduct of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Napier) as regarded the whole question.

House resumed; Committee report progress: to sit again upon this day three months.

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