HC Deb 10 June 1870 vol 201 cc1898-910

, in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House it is expedient that an inquiry into the operation and effect of the Laws relating to Game, especially as regards Scotland, be undertaken by a Committee of this House, said, that he desired to draw attention, in the first place, to the attempts that had been made in the last and the present Parliament, by private Members and the Government, to deal with the Game Laws, and to show that, without further and more accurate information, it was not likely, or even possible, that Parliament could advance to any practical or satisfactory solution of the question. He believed, in common with many others, that of all practical questions requiring settlement at the present moment, none was of greater moment than this of the Game Laws, and that there was great social peril in the continuance of the present system. That Parliament had made no progress towards a satisfactory solution of the question was evident by the fact that no less than five Game Law Bills had been introduced in the present Session. That indicated the strong feeling that existed as to the necessity of some legislation on the subject; but it proved, at the same time how opinions differed as to the best and most proper manner of dealing with it. A few days since there was a discussion on the Bill of the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Taylor), which proposed the total abolition of the Game Laws; and, no doubt, it was the opinion of many persons, especially in the boroughs, that that was the only possible solution of the question. On the other hand, many doubted whether total abolition was the best manner of dealing with the question, and whether it would not create evils that did not exist under the present system, and whether it would not be better to modify those laws rather than abolish them altogether. In what he now said, he desired to be understood as expressing more particularly the opinions that prevailed in Scotland in regard to the Game Laws. In that country, then, there was almost perfect unanimity as to the injurious operation and effect of the Game Laws in their present shape. No question was more pressed upon Scotland during the last General Election than this question of the Game Laws. He believed that no single question, not even excepting that of the Irish Church, more largely influenced the public mind in the course of that election, or influenced more considerably its general results. In many counties it entirely revolutionized the representation; and, that being so, the Scotch naturally entertained great confidence that their views would receive respectful attention at the hands of the Liberal Government, to which they were tendering, and in so unreserved, and generous a manner, so large an amount of support. It was apparently in recognition of these services that, soon after the commencement of last Session, the Lord Advocate summoned a meeting of Scotch Members to consider whether he should or should not attempt to deal with the Game Laws in Scotland. No doubt, with the statesmanlike views of his learned Friend, he would have introduced a measure which would have dealt with the question satisfactorily; but, unfortunately, he had determined not to take that course. About the same time two measures on the subject were submitted to the House, one by the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho), and the other by the hon. Member for Linlithgowshire (Mr. M'Lagan). Those were Bills either in all or in many respects similar to other measures that had been in previous years introduced to the consideration of Parliament by the same hon. Members. These measures generally came in in pairs, and the former seemed to have for its special purpose the hampering the latter more simple measure. Under these circumstances, he (Mr. Loch), though with much hesitation, applied himself to framing a measure—a task for which he considered himself well qualified, for it had been the business of many years of his life at the same time to secure the just rights of property and to enforce the just claims of the occupying tenants. But it soon became evident that Bills of that nature, promoted by private Members of that House, had little chance of success unless supported by the Government; and that being so, it had occurred to him, seeing how little real knowledge there was on the subject on the part of a great many Members of that House, that the best course to be pursued would be to propose a Committee to examine into the whole question. He accordingly submitted his views on the subject to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the then Lord Advocate, and with their entire concurrence and support he successfully submitted to the House a proposition that a Committee of Inquiry be appointed. That step, however, had been no sooner gained than it was met by the most strenuous opposition by several Gentlemen, and amongst others by the hon. Baronet the Member for Ports-mouth(Sir James Elphinstone),who made it a point to prevent the Inquiry taking place; and his efforts were so effectual that, when it came to the nomination of the Committee, he produced by his efforts an amount of disunion amongst those from whom he had hoped to obtain support; the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Home Office and the Lord Advocate of the day deserted; and he was, in short, deprived of the Inquiry on which he had so much counted. At the same time, the Lord Advocate promised he would introduce a Bill in the following Session. Not being quite confident that this would be such a Bill as would meet with general approbation in Scotland, when the present Session began he (Mr. Loch) re-introduced his own Bill; after some delay the measure of the Lord Advocate was brought in; and the hon. Member for Rochester (Mr. P. Wykeham-Martin) also introduced a Bill—not, however, with much earnestness, for he abandoned it at the first objection. Moreover, further to complicate affairs, the Home Secretary volunteered that the Lord Advocate's Bill should be made to extend to England as well as Scotland—a matter plainly impracticable, for the law in the two countries were based originally on different principles of common law, had been further varied by different codes of statutory legislation, and the agricultural economy of the two countries were in marked contrast in every respect. It was, therefore, plainly impossible to make a Bill, which had been evidently prepared with reference to Scotland alone, applicable to England merely by inserting the word "England" in the clauses. But, in addition to that, two other Bills were introduced, one by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Greene), and the other by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Taylor) for the total abolition of the Game Laws; and thus they had before the House five measures all bearing upon the question of Game Law reform. All this made it quite impossible to look forward to any practical or useful solution of this question by means of the measures now before Parliament, and therefore it was that he ventured to propose the appointment of a Committee upon this question. It was 25 or 26 years since there had been any inquiry into the operation of the Game Laws in England, and there never had been any inquiry into their operation in Scotland. There was no adequate knowledge possessed by the generality of Members of the feeling of the people of Scotland on this question. He did not think he could urge anything more to show the necessity for inquiry, and he would only say that he feared the question was so misunderstood that there was little hope at present for the passage of the measure he had introduced, and which was now on the Table of the House. At the same time, he ventured to think that the Bill was one which, if passed into law, would put an end to all the discomforts and all the agitation now existing, and without the violation of any principle hold by landlords as regarded contracts, or putting the landowning class in any worse position than that which they now occupied. He would only, in conclusion, allude to what passed at a debate introduced by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Taylor). He was charged with having made misstatements. ["Order!"]


said, the hon. Member could not refer to a previous debate.


said, any information that might lead to misapprehensions or exaggerations would be supplied by such an inquiry as he now suggested. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Resolution.


Sir, at this late hour of the night I think I shall best consult the convenience of the House if I make my remarks very few indeed. I have a strong conviction, founded upon observation of the general feeling that appears to exist on this subject throughout the kingdom, that it is most desirable that there should be an investigation not only with regard to the Game Laws and their operation, but also into the effects of game preserving generally. I trust that what has been laid before you on a subject which so gravely interests the northern part of the kingdom in particular, will not be without effect. We have so many Game Law Bills before the House that it would be quite impossible for them to be taken up in this Session of Parliament, therefore no time would probably be lost in at once referring the subject to a Select Committee, or, if Her Majesty's Government prefer it, to a Royal Commission. It seems to me that there are various aspects to this question. There is one with reference to the rights of tenants in connection with, and in reference to, those of their landlords; there is another with regard to the effect which game preserving and the Game Laws have upon the morals of the people; there is another connected with the legitimate enjoyment of field sports: but beyond all these there is another aspect of the question of much greater importance—that is, the consideration how far the present system of legislation and the present practice in reference to the preservation of game affect the main purpose for which land is, by Providence, and according to the laws of the country, entrusted to the management and charge of individuals. The object with which land has been allowed in this and other countries to be held by private individuals is for the public good, and not the good of the landlords themselves. A landlord is not permitted to hold land that he may receive large rents, but in order that there may be raised up on his estate a virtuous and healthy population, which in times of war or danger to the State will come with sinewy arms to its protection; and who, in time of peace, shall employ themselves in the pursuit of those industrial occupations which are so beneficial to the country, and in rearing up families characterized by moral, religious, and industrial habits. Well-founded fear is growing up among us that the actual system of game preserving on agricultural land is most unprofitably consumptive and destructive of human food, and tends, also, in many instances, to prevent its production on land which is quite capable of producing it. I wish particularly to direct the attention of the House to the vast amount of land which has been devoted to deer forests. On this point I may be permitted to refer to the most recently published book upon sheep farming—published, indeed, during the present year. It tells us that the land which has been appropriated in Scotland to so large an extent to deer forests is quite of the same quality as that which is devoted to the rearing of sheep. It is difficult to ascertain the exact extent to which afforesting for deer has gone. But here is an estimate of nine counties in Scotland, which shows that in them not less than 1,320,000 acres of land have been so appropriated—I should rather say misappropriated. No doubt, it must be admitted that, owing to the high prices that gentlemen are now disposed to give for permission to sport over these lands, a higher rent is obtained by the proprietors than can be obtained for it for grazing purposes. An estimate contained in this book shows that, while the profits to the landlords by the exclusion of sheep from this extent of acreage is £16,500, the loss to the nation is no less than £343,380 a year—because there is such a small quantity of food produced on the land compared with what would be produced on it if it were devoted to the breeding and rearing of sheep. I have a communication from a gentleman well acquainted with this subject. I will read an extract— In four counties flocks, to the extent of 400,000 sheep, have been displaced for deer, and there is in consequence a diminution to the value of £250,000 a year in food and wool. The population of the four counties in which this system of afforesting so extensively prevails has, since 1851, been reduced by 41,000. The sheep farmers on these forest lands suffer great loss in their stock. My correspondent goes on to say— How are we to replace this £250,000 worth of food and clothing, and what will be the population of the Highlands in a few years? They will, in fact, be reduced to a desolate waste. Now, whatever may be the amount of deduction which hon. Gentlemen may be disposed to make from these statements, they have been given on high authority, and I think it is high time that an inquiry should be made into the subject. This Parliament is especially expected and entitled to make such an inquiry. It is to the present Government, beyond many preceding ones, that the people look for inquiry on the subject. I must make one remark; we hear much less now than we did last Session of this being a people's Parliament which ought to look to the general good of the nation, and to the interests of the many as well as to those of the few. A word in regard to those who are chiefly connected with, and interested in, this afforesting of the land: I believe it is owing in a great measure to the fact of the superabundance of wealth among the middle classes. If this afforesting had been conducted and brought about by the nobles of the land there would have been a great outcry raised; but because those who have risen from the ranks have in so large a measure done it the wrong has passed comparatively unnoticed. But the circumstance is truly an innovation. Now, we of Scotland delight to have our English neighbours visiting our noble scenery, and rejoice at their becoming proprietors of a portion of our lands, but not in order that they should turn it into a waste for the preservation of deer or other game to the detriment of the native population, who, as I have shown, are fast disappearing from certain portions of the Highlands, and who are the real possessors of the soil, for in ancient times the chieftains and heads of families held the land in trust for the clans and people. If our English neighbours come to reside among us, it should be for the benefit of the whole body of the population. I have shown that the food of the people has greatly diminished, that the numbers of the population have also diminished. I fear that this system of afforesting land, and retention of moorland fit for the plough in the state of nature, for the benefit of a few, is one of the first symptoms of national decadence— Woe to that land, of gathering ills the prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay. A use of wealth for mere gratification at such a cost as this is to be deplored. I hope, therefore, the House will agree to, and Her Majesty's Government will support, the proposition now made, and thus admit that there is just ground for an inquiry into this most important subject.


said, he rose not so much to support the Motion as to enforce on the attention of the Government and the House the present state of the game question in Scotland. To use an old joke, it seemed to require something like a surgical operation to introduce into the minds of that House and the nation that the people of Scotland were in earnest about the Game Laws. At present the demands of the Scotch tenant-farmers were moderate; but he could not undertake that they would long remain so, if they continued to be treated Session after Session on this question as they had been. Proposals were made to that House, somewhat crude in their nature, but, no doubt, well meant, for the total abolition of the Game Laws. Now, that was not the view taken amongst his constituents. They did not desire total abolition at present. They had nothing whatever to say against the winged game; all they desired was not to sweep away, but to limit the number of ground game, and any measure which would practically effect that object would meet their views. Whether that was done by leaving them out of the game list, or whether by limiting the power of contract between landlord and tenant, or by any other means, mattered little. No tenant, either in England or in Scotland, would willingly enter into litigation with his landlord on the damage done to his farm. The tenants were anxious that the damage should not take place, and the question was, whether they could find—and it ought not to be beyond the reach of human ingenuity to find—a means by which they could extend to all tenants that privilege which at present was extended by the liberality of landlords to some. The hon. Member for Berwickshire (Mr. D. Robertson) said he had no difficulty with his tenants—that he allowed them to kill as many hares and rabbits as they liked, and they were content. No doubt the same would be the case if that were granted by landlords generally; and if they would do it of their own accord, there would not be the slightest need for legislation. But that was not so; and many of the landlords constituted themselves joint-stock poulterers, or they let their land to strangers, and got two rents out of it—one from the farmer, and one from the shooter of game. Last year the general feeling was, that this question was one which the Government ought to take in hand, and he was thankful for the attempt they had made; but the people of Scotland did not look upon this as a favour which the Government could give or withhold—they considered it a quid, pro quo for the warm support they had given them to enable them to redress grievances elsewhere. It was not a very usual thing that the agricultural interest should be found supporting a Liberal Government. The Scotch people had made the experiment, but the result had not been so satisfactory as it might have been; and he thought that unless the Government stood up more firmly for the Scotch tenants on this question of the Game Laws than they had hitherto done, the results of the next election, so far as the agricultural constituencies were concerned, might be very different. He hoped that justice was not to be limited geographically to one island at the expense of another. The Prime Minister had showered forth abundantly justice to Ireland. Let him now do justice to Scotland.


said, the fact that there were five Bills before the House on the subject of the Game Laws showed that hon. Members took a certain amount of interest in the question. The hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Taylor) had lately signalized himself by his speech on the subject; but he had received an answer which ought to be satisfactory to the House. The hon. Member for Perthshire (Mr. Parker) had made his appeal to the Government on this question on the strength of his return for Perthshire, and he intimated that if Government did not do something he (Mr. Parker) would not be returned a second time. The question of game appeared to him (Viscount Royston) to be a question of property, and he felt sure that no Government would venture to interfere with that question of property. The hon. Member who introduced this Motion (Mr. Loch) ought to know a good deal about the matter, for he managed an extensive property for a distinguished nobleman, the greater part of which was let out for the purposes of game. If a gentleman could let his land at a higher price per acre for game than for other purposes he had a perfect right to do so, though the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Macfie) seemed to think that this was contrary to the purposes of philanthropy, or that it was wrong to displace sheep for deer. That was neither here nor there; he contended that a landlord had a right to use his property in the way that was most advantageous to his pocket. He believed that the moderate preservation of game was not unpopular in Scotland; he was sure it was not in England. There was no reason whatever why game should not be treated as property, and its preservation be made the subject of covenants in leases, with a provision that the farmer should be compensated by the landlord for any injury done to his crops by the game thus preserved. If the Committee proposed by the hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Loch) were likely to settle the matter, he would give his support to the Motion; but, as it was, he must oppose it, because he did not think any good would result from such an inquiry as that which was asked for.


said, that he could assure the noble Lord who had just spoken (Viscount Royston) that he was mistaken if he supposed that discussions upon the Game Laws would not arise in Parliament so long as those laws remained in. their present state. There had been very great dissatisfaction expressed in Scotland, and there was a wide-spread feeling in England in opposition to the Game Laws. Had his hon. Friend the Member for Wick (Mr. Loch) not been prevented by the forms of the House from making his Motion in the terms on the Notice Paper, it was his (Mr. Rylands') intention to have proposed that the inquiries of the Committee should extend to England as well as Scotland. He thought there were sufficient grounds for the appointment of a Select Committee upon this subject. It was now 25 years since the last Committee was appointed. At that time the Government consented to the appointment of a Committee, mainly in consequence of the amount of crime shown to exist in connection with the Game Laws. But if that were a reason in 1845, there was still greater reason at the present time, because the crimes produced by, or connected with, the Game Laws were now much more numerous than they were a few years ago. In 1857 they numbered 5,534; in 1861 they had risen, to 8,563; and in 1868 they were 10,445; exclusive of the offences under the Poaching Act of 1862. No doubt it would be urged that the existence of convictions under an Act of Parliament was no reason for its repeal, and that he did not dispute might be fairly stated in the case of most laws; but the Game Laws occupied an exceptional position—they had not the support of public opinion, but were regarded by many people as opposed to right and justice. The offences against the Game Laws were frequently committed by persons who, in the first instance, would, shrink from an ordinary act of dishonesty, but who from being thrown into gaol were often led into a criminal course of life. In 1863 the right hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) brought forward a Motion for a Select Committee upon the Game Laws, which had the support of the right hon. Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), whose authority was so great in that House; but the Motion was defeated by an Amendment, to the effect that it was undesirable to have a Committee until it was seen what would be the operation of the Poaching Act, passed the previous year. The country had now had several years' experience of the Poaching Act of 1862, and that experience was not by any means satisfactory. The number of convictions under the Poaching Act during the year 1868 was 953, and he believed that many cases had occurred in which considerable injustice had been committed under the Act. At all events, he considered that the operation of the Poaching Act furnished an additional reason for the appointment of a Select Committee on the Game Laws.


said, he thought too much sentiment had been introduced into the matter. He believed that if Scottish landowners did not find that game paid better than sheep, they would not preserve it. In this country all tenants had a right to destroy ground game, and he would recommend that for imitation in Scotland. In his opinion, the abolition of the Game Laws, accompanied with a stringent law of trespass, would settle the whole question. He was astonished at the observation of the hon. Member for Perthshire (Mr. Parker) that the Scotch agricultural Members had been returned solely with the view of effecting a change in the Game Laws of the country. After all the professions of high principles that had been uttered from the opposite Benches, he felt bound to think more highly of the agricultural constituencies of Scotland than the hon. Member appeared to do.


explained that he said that there were other great questions; but what he contended was that the question of the Game Laws was the small balance which settled the Scotch elections in favour of the present Government.


said, he was glad to hear his noble Friend opposite (Viscount Royston) contend openly that, as regarded game, landlords had a right to do as they liked. The hon. Member for Perthshire (Mr. Parker) had spoken of the feeling which existed in Scotland on this question, and he could bear testimony to the fact. In England, tenancies were from year to year, and there were understandings between the landlord and the tenant. In Scotland, however, from long usage, leases of 19 years were entered into, and it was a hardship upon the tenants that, in addition to paying their rents, they should have the additional impost upon them of nursing and rearing game, which were shot and sent up to the London market to be sold at large prices. As long as the landlord reared and paid for these things himself, and the tenant did not object to have the impost put upon himself, he (Mr. Kinnaird) had no complaint. The people of Scotland, being an intelligent and well-educated people, did not like these things. He represented a burgh, and therefore was not under agricultural influence; but he should be perfectly ashamed, of himself if he did not say that he sympathized entirely with his hon. Friend, who so worthily represented Perthshire, when he said that in Scotland there was a very strong feeling on this subject; and if the First Minister of the Crown did not pay attention to it, he would not have so many supporters at the next Election as he had at the last.


said, that Her Majesty's Government, recognizing the strong feeling which existed in Scotland on this subject, had endeavoured to deal with it in a Bill which had been for some time upon the Table of the House. That Bill dealt with the general subject of the preservation of game. It was as strong as it could be without infringing the rights of property; and he believed he would, at the proper time, be able to show that it was sufficient for the purpose for which it was designed—namely, of affording protection to the tenant, and ultimately of greatly reducing the quantity of ground game. He appreciated the difficulty in which the House was placed by the proposals respecting this question; but he did not think any further information was required in order to enable them to legislate upon the subject, and therefore he objected to the appointment of a Select Committee. He hoped that the House would have patience until a day could be found for a full discussion of the subject; and when that day arrived, he did not despair of convincing even his hon. Friend (Mr. Loch) that the measure introduced by the Government would, when fairly put into operation, afford adequate protection against the evil of which the Scotch farmers complained.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.