HC Deb 10 June 1870 vol 201 cc1911-7

Order for Second Reading read.


said, that at that late hour of the night he was very unwilling to detain the House; but that, as he had been unable to make any statement upon the introduction of the Bill, it was necessary that he should preface the Motion for its second reading by a few observations. He did not wish to conceal from the House that, by this measure, a considerable change in the law was proposed; but he would state, as concisely as possible, the nature of that change, and the reasons by which he thought it might be justified. He would not attempt to occupy the time of the House by any long argument concerning the history of waste lands, and the circumstances under which they originally fell into the hands of lords of manors and commoners. There were many persons who contended that these waste lands were as much the property of lords and commoners as any gentleman's meadow is his property, the only difference being that the boundary fence has been erected in the one case and not in the other. It was argued on the contrary, by many persons, that these lands were for the most part granted originally to lords of manors with certain conditions and duties involved, and that they held them rather as trustees acting for the public than as private owners. In that case, of course, wrong must have been done to the public by their continual inclosure and absorption into private estates. But as he (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) wished to consider, and to lead the House to consider, this question in a practical point of view, he thought it would be better to discard for the moment the various theories on either side, and to take for a starting-point the manner in which the Legislature had regarded the subject, as evidenced by the last general legislation in 1845. Then the House would discover what had been the intentions of Parliament; whether those intentions had been carried out and, if not, what alterations in the law might be required. The Act of 1845 followed upon a full and careful inquiry before a Committee in 1843. The object with which that Act was introduced must be traced, not only in the Act itself, but in the debates which preceded its becoming law. The Preamble of the Act stated— Whereas it is expedient to facilitate the Inclosure and Improvement of Commons and other Lands now subject to rights of property which obstruct cultivation and the productive employment of labour; so that certainly one main object of the Act was to promote inclosures, and place them upon a more satisfactory footing. Lord Lincoln, who brought forward the Bill on behalf of the Government, stated this in his speech, and that it was sought to get rid of the difficulties which surrounded private legislation. He stated his belief that in 19 cases out of 20 injustice was done to the poor by these Committees, the fact being that the poor could not, whilst the rich could, attend in London to give evidence and protect their own interests. And Lord Lincoln further made use of these words— My principal object, after the accomplishment of those views which I have stated to have determined me to introduce this measure, has been to secure to the poorer classes throughout this country a more extensive and effectual protection in their rights to common lands than they have heretofore enjoyed. These words, and the perusal of the debates, really left little doubt as to the intentions of Parliament in the Act of 1845. How, then, had the Act operated? He (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) would readily admit that, as a means of promoting inclosures, bringing land into cultivation, and simplifying titles after inclosure, the Act had been most effectual. Nor should those advantages be underrated. It must not be forgotten that, in many districts, the bringing of these lands into cultivation had been an unmixed advantage to the neighbourhood, and to the public. There might have been a time, therefore, at which it was desirable to facilitate these inclosures by legislation. The question was whether, looking at the altered circumstances of the case, it was not now rather desirable to point legislation in a contrary direction, and to regard mainly the preservation of open spaces for our crowded and increasing population. But if the Act had worked well in the above manner, wherein had it failed? He would give a brief answer from the last Report of the Inclosure Commissioners which he held in his hand. Since the passing of these Acts upwards of 531,000 acres had been inclosed. Of these, 364,173 acres had been subject to allotments for recreation or field-gardens, and the amount allotted had been 3,671 acres, or something like l–99th part of the whole, which the public had received, whilst the rest had become the private property of lords and commoners. Now he must not be understood as casting any censure whatever upon the action of the Commissioners, who had felt their hands tied by the words of the Act of Parliament, and who, standing as arbiters between lords, commoners, and the public, had acted to the best of their judgment. But things had got to such a state that whilst the Commissioners, considering that Parliament had retained in its own hands the revision of, and right of veto upon, each inclosure, seemed to have left it to Parliament to see that the public received the full amount which Parliament intended. Parliament, on the other hand, seemed to consider that the Commissioners had done everything before the Bills confirming the Provisional Orders came before them, and, therefore, got into the habit of passing these Bills as merely formal measures, requiring no discussion. He must give credit to the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) for having shown great activity in the matter, and having obtained the Committee which sat last year upon the Inclosure Acts. Several hon. Gentlemen who had served on that Committee were then present, and would bear out his assertion that the Committee considered and inquired into the subject with great care. Their recommendations—many carried by large majorities and some unanimously—were embodied in the Bill before the House; but Government had thought it right to go further, and to propose a larger change in the law. There were three parties to consider—the lords of manors, the commoners, and the public. The Government based their Bill upon the idea which he believed had been present to the mind of Parliament in 1845. He believed that Parliament had, in effect, intended to say this to persons desiring to inclose commons—"There have been hitherto many irregularities in inclosures and much insecurity of title. We will pass a law which will facilitate these inclosures, and enable you to obtain a simple, cheap, and sound title to your respective shares in the commons affected, by an inexpensive process. We do not compel you to inclose—we rob you of no right—we leave the lords even their veto upon inclosure; but if you choose to take advantage of our law, we require that in return, upon grounds of public policy, you shall give something to the public for whom we are acting as trustees." Well, then, since the passing of the Act the public had not received, anything like a sufficient portion, according to his opinion, and Government now wished to make provision for a larger portion being secured to them in future cases of inclosure. He (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) would briefly describe the main changes proposed by the Bill, and as the points of difference between himself and certain of his hon. Friends who did not agree with him could more property be considered in Committee, he hoped the second reading might then be taken, and the principle of the Bill agreed to—namely, that larger provision should henceforward be made for the poor and the public. The first change proposed was, that the allotments for recreation grounds and field-gardens—one or both—should be compulsory in every case, instead of being left, as at present, to the discretion of the Commissioners. Government had proposed in the Bill that a tenth of the quantity inclosed should be so allotted, instead of a ninety-ninth, as had been the case; but the precise quantity would be a matter for consideration in Committee. He might here observe that he found many hon. Members, who had in view very large commons, objected to this provision. They said that in a common of, say 2,000 acres, an allotment of 200 acres, perhaps far from any population, would be preposterous. The idea of the Government was that, in such a case, the land might be sold, and the proceeds applied to the purchase of other land, or the improvement of other grounds, nearer to the population. But both as to the proportion, and also as to the question of dealing with commons of so large an extent in a different manner, he would be ready to listen to argument. It might be desirable to exempt from the operation of this Bill commons which contained above 1,000 acres; or it might be well to fix a maximum quantity for an allotment; but all this might be discussed in Committee, and he would entertain suggestions of amendment with every respect. Then the Bill proposed a change with regard to field-garden allotments, which were at present given subject to a rent-charge which was difficult of collection, and diminished the value to the recipient. Government thought that this rent-charge should be abolished, and that whatever was thus given to the labouring poor should be given free of charge. Then they proposed to deal with commonable lands, which were at present not subject to allotment. The House would remember the distinction between common and commonable land; the former being land over which rights were exercised in common during all and every part of the year; the latter lands over which rights of severalty existed during a portion of the year—that is to say, a man might crop the land and the common rights of others did not come in until his crop was cut and carried. Government thought that in all cases where the public had exercised rights for a certain portion of the year—a certain allotment should be given, though less in proportion than in the case where those rights had been exercised during the whole year. The next provision to which he would allude was, that which especially referred to suburban commons, in which cases he proposed that the consent of the local authorities should be required before inclosure, so that towns and large villages might not be deprived of open spaces in the teeth of public opinion. Some portions of the Bill of the right hon. Member for South Hampshire (Mr. Cowper-Temple) might have to be engrafted upon this portion of the Bill, which would have to be considered hereafter. Then came a recommendation of the Select Committee, which he had himself had the honour of proposing—namely, that provision should be made for paths and drives across commons, so that the public should not be deprived of their right of passage from one point to another, which might frequently be a great inconvenience. Then there were also provisions for more careful inquiry by the Assistant Commissioner before inclosure, as to the wants and feelings of persons residing near commons, and also for more detailed Reports by the Commissioners. There were various other minor changes proposed; but he had stated the principal points, and although he would willingly have gone into the subject at greater length, he hoped he had kept his word to the House, and not unnecessarily wearied them. His hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Walsh), who was about to move the rejection of the Bill, would probably tell him that he was trifling with the rights of property. He (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) thought that if you wished the rights of property to be respected, you must exercise them with discretion. If you strained such rights, or grasped at rights which were of a doubtful character, you might, in the long run, peril far more than you could possibly gain. But with respect to the rights of property, he would remind the House that property of almost every kind was represented in that House, whilst he was pleading for those whom he might call the hand-labourers of the country, who were personally unrepresented there. He said that in no complaining spirit, nor would he ever condescend to make sentimental appeals to the House on such a subject. On the contrary, alluding to this which he called the hand-labour class—for the name of "working classes" did not accurately represent one class as distinguished from another—he felt, it was true, that this was a question specially affecting that class; but his knowledge and experience of English gentlemen and the House of Commons led him to the belief that the very fact of this hand-labour class being unrepresented would ensure for any question which specially concerned them the fullest and fairest consideration, accompanied by a tender regard for their interests. He thought that with a rapidly-increasing population, too much stress could hardly be laid upon the preservation of open spaces in the vicinity of crowded districts. This was one main object of the Bill, and Government desired to preserve such spaces without throwing undue impediments in the way of inclosures where they might be necessary. He hoped the Bill would be considered in a fair spirit; its framers had every desire to do justice to everyone in the alterations in the law which they proposed, and he trusted that the measure might meet with a favourable reception from the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen.)


said, he would beg to move the debate be now adjourned. The hour was too late to enter on the discussion of so large a question.

Debate adjourned till Monday next.