HC Deb 18 June 1879 vol 247 cc118-30

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, it had been prepared to remedy what many persons held to be a serious error made in 1870, when the Gun Licences Act was passed through Parliament. The error then made was, in his opinion, a reversal of the principle which was adopted by Parliament in 1848, and continued for 22 years. The principle laid down by the Act of 1848 was, that the occupier of land had the right to protect the produce of his land from injury by hares and wild animals without paying any tax for so doing. Hon. Members might remember that in 1848 the Act 11 & 12 Vict. c. 29 was, according to an extract from the Pre- amble, passed for the following reasons: — And, whereas it has been found that much damage has been and is continually being done by hares to the produce of inclosed lands, and that great losses have thereby accrued and do accrue to the occupiers of such lands, it is expedient that persons in the actual occupation of such inclosed lands should be allowed to take and kill hares thereon, without the payment of assessed taxes, and without obtaining a game certificate. The Bill he now asked the House to adopt had been framed on the principle that no tax should be imposed on those who were producers of food to enable them to protect that produce from being destroyed. At that time, in 1848, rabbits were not game, and they could be destroyed by any persons without having a licence or certificate to enable them to do so. But another Act was passed through Parliament in 1860, the object of which was to alter the game certificates into licences to kill game, and to reduce the amount payable for that licence from £3 13s. to £3; but on that occasion Parliament was careful to maintain the principle laid down in 1848, that growers of food should have the right to protect it without being taxed for so doing, and Clause 6 was introduced into the Act of 1860, which specially preserved the rights given by the previous Act of 1848, showing that the principle was considered a just one. In that Act of 1860 rabbits were also exempted from paying the tax. [A laugh.'] He meant they were exempted from the class of animals that the tenant had to be taxed for killing. Tenants of land shooting rabbits over these lands were specially exempt from the taxes levied on other persons. There was also this exemption —that in Ireland every person was exempt from taxes for killing rabbits. This liberty was enjoyed until 1870, when the Gun Licences Act was passed. The Act of 1870 had given great dissatisfaction, especially to the agricultural interests. The producers of food were by it unable to protect their property without finding themselves taxed for so doing. In fact, the Act was commonly called by the agriculturists a Game Law in disguise, which it was to a certain extent. Since this Act had come into force in Scotland, in the county of which he was most qualified to speak, wood-pigeons had increased until they had become a serious evil. In East Lothian alone, the Farmers' Association had paid the premium for 23,000 heads of wood-pigeons in one year, and yet they were unable to keep down the number. Those who suffered from wood-pigeons complained very much against any taxes whatever being imposed for killing them. He was informed that in this House itself, soon after the Gun Licences Act was passed, a vote was recorded against that measure while the Customs and Inland Revenue Bill was under consideration; but he had not had time to find out that case in the records of the House, and, therefore, he could only give it on the authority of another hon. Member. He thought it would be well for the House to hear some of the reasons adduced in 1870 for passing this obnoxious Act. The present Secretary to the Treasury had said he did not believe that the Bill would in any way promote the preservation of game, and he had supported it on the sole ground that it would be useful in securing the registering of arms in this country. That was the object of many other hon. Gentlemen in the House at the time besides the hon. Gentleman. So much was this the case that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer said— The object of this Bill is to check lawless habits. ... I think it is a good object to discourage the lower classes from habitually carrying deadly weapons." — [3 Hansard, cciii. 767-8.] He (Sir Alexander Gordon) did not want to contest this opinion; but he wanted to show that the Bill brought in with that object had not had the effect intended. It ought to be called more strictly a Police Act in disguise, instead of a Gun Licence Act. Had it effected its purpose? The real object of the Bill was to obtain a registration of arms; but it was quite powerless to attain that object, for this reason—that even under the Gun Licences Act any man had a right to have a gun in his possession, to carry it in the open country, and to use it for firing at birds to frighten them, without being taxed at all. He had also the power of using a gun to shoot vermin, rats, polecats, or whatever he thought proper, and the Excise officer could not touch him, because the law allowed him to do it. Therefore, the whole population might be provided with guns for rebellious purposes, and might escape taxation or registration by avowing that their object was to scare birds or to shoot vermin. Those were the exemptions of the Act of 1870. His Bill was intended to deal with the exemptions. He knew he would be told that the Excise officers would be placed in a difficulty by the passing of this Bill. But he thought it could be shown that the effect of the Bill would just be the reverse of this. The Excise officers at present could never tell whether a man had a gun for the purpose of killing or only scaring birds. An Excise officer might see a man firing at a bird; but unless he saw the bird fall, or knew that there was shot in the gun, he could not insist on his having a licence. It would be a far greater protection to a farmer's crop if they would allow him to kill a bird at once, and so get rid of it, than merely to allow him to frighten it off his fields, to which it might return every half-hour. In short, the Bill was to empower the producers of food to kill as well as to scare birds, and to give occupiers of land the same liberty they had from 1848 to 1870. In the Bill he had included hares, rabbits, wood-pigeons, and rooks. He was, however, quite willing to withdraw the hares from the Bill, if it was thought to be objectionable to include them, or that this would be giving too much liberty to farmers. In this Bill he asked for what he wanted; but he should be delighted to take whatever he could get from the Government. The first Bill which he and his hon. Friends introduced was slightly different from the Bill now introduced. The Bill of two years ago only applied to Scotland; but several Members—the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Clare Read) amongst them—thought it desirable to have the Bill extended to England. Another alteration had been made. Instead of giving liberty to one person only in each occupation, the liberty was made general to any person, the same as in the Gun Licences Act, which he proposed to amend. But if it was thought better, he was quite ready to limit the liberty to one person, such as the son or servant of the farmer. The Bill of 1848, which originated the principle he wanted to restore, was supported by a very large number of persons on both sides of the House. Sir George Grey, who was then Home Secretary, the right hon. Mem- ber for Birmingham (Mr. John Bright), the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate), the late Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Adderley, the Earl of March, the Duke of Richmond, and even Colonel Sibthorp, supported the Bill. The Duke of Richmond said that after all this Bill would only allow a man to do what he liked with his own, for hares, when on the farmer's land, were his own property. He (Sir Alexander Gordon) thought the legislation of that day was more liberal than it had been since. He hoped Her Majesty's Government and the House would accept this Bill in some form or other. By doing so they would only act upon the principle they professed to act upon every day they met here. They professed to legislate with the view of enabling the earth to bring forth the fruits of its increase; and as weekly they prayed that the kindly fruits of the earth would be preserved to their use, so that in due time they might enjoy them, if these words were not mere perfunctory expressions, they ought to legislate for that end. In conclusion, he begged to move the second reading of the Bill.


in seconding the Motion, remarked that the object of the Bill was to restore to the tenant the right he possessed before. 1870. The Act of 1848 was of little use to the tenant farmers of Scotland. The terms of that Act were that the persons having the right to kill hares should be exempt from the game tax. It was well known that in Scotland the tenant had not the right to kill hares, unless it was granted by the landlord, and it was rarely that that right was granted. Therefore, he said, the Act was of little use to the Scotch tenants. To the English tenant the Act was of great use, for he had the right to kill hares, and so it exempted him. The real value of that Act of 1848 was that the Legislature recognized the fact that hares did a great deal of damage to the crops of the tenant farmer, and it was necessary that some remedy should be introduced to prevent it. This was recognized by the Acts which succeeded that of 1848. The right before 1870 was to scare or kill all rabbits and vermin. As had been forcibly put by his hon. and gallant Friend (Sir Alexander Gordon), the occupier of a farm, who was the producer of valuable food for the people, should still retain that right. He thought, however, his hon. and gallant Friend would do well to strike out the word "hares." In amending the Gun Tax Act of 1870, it was never intended that they should be considered vermin, or anything else than game. The Act of 1870 gave the right to scare birds and kill vermin by means of guns; but it did not allow a tenant to delegate that right to any other person unless he took out a gun licence. Before 1870 he had that right. When they considered how the property of the tenant was destroyed by vermin and by birds—how, in some places, rooks and wood-pigeons destroyed the seed when sown, and the crops when ready to be cut, how the green crops of the tenant were destroyed by rabbits, and how wood-pigeons destroyed the wheat and other cereals, they would recognize the fact that these ravages could not be prevented by one person on a farm. They were not committed on one isolated part of a farm; and it was, therefore, important that the farmer should have more than one person armed in some way to frighten away those pests. More was necessary than that rooks and wood-pigeons should be frightened by the cry of a boy or the firing of a gun. It was absolutely necessary that the tenant should have not only the power to scare but to kill. There was, no doubt, a very great increase in the number of wood-pigeons, and it was, no doubt, to be attributed very much to this Gun Licence Act; but the Game Laws, as they existed at the present time, had a great deal to do with the enormous increase. He heartily supported the Bill, as he considered a gun a necessity to a farm to be used for these purposes, and as much an agricultural implement as any other on the farm. He hoped the Government would give their support to the measure, and thus enable the tenant to have the power he had before. The hon. and gallant Member had made concessions that should commend it to the House. He (Mr. M'Lagan) did not think it would be wise that the power to kill rabbits and vermin should be delegated to more than one person on the farm or in the parish, as it was necessary, if the gun licence was to be maintained, that a proper tax should be put upon it. Of course, he would rather see the tax wholly abolished; but so long as it was considered necessary to retain it, there should be sufficient checks to prevent its being entirely evaded.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Alexander Gordon.)


thought the Bill would be very useful to the country generally if it became law. Farmers, no doubt, suffered greatly from the damage caused by hares and other wild animals; but he was very glad to see that his hon. and gallant Friend was willing to remove the word "hares" from the Bill, for the presence of that word in the measure had led to the impression that there was an intention to tinker with the Game Laws, which had been, in the meantime, settled in a satisfactory manner by his hon. Friend who had just sat down; and it was desirable to undeceive these persons, and to assure them that the measure was purely fiscal in its operation. The right hon. Member for the University of London (Mr. Lowe) introduced and passed the measure, which the present Bill sought to amend, in 1870, and it had caused great complaint in different parts of the country. It was hard that small farmers, with but 20 or 30 acres, should require a licence to scare rooks and other vermin from their fields. The main object of the Bill was to enable persons to secure their own farms from molestation from vermin which did such an immense amount of mischief; and that being the case, he accepted the principle of the measure, while, at the same time, he was glad to find the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir Alexander Gordon) willing to modify its provisions. He hoped the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time.


said, the Bill had been properly described as a Bill to amend the Gun Licence Act of 1870. He himself would have preferred that it had been a Bill to abolish the Gun Licence Act altogether; but he gladly accepted the measure as an instalment of reform in the law. There was no doubt that the licence was regarded as a sore grievance by farmers generally throughout the country. It was one of those petty annoying grievances constantly recurring to the farmer's mind, as he went out into the fields and saw his crops being destroyed by birds or vermin, and in the winter-time his ricks covered with rooks, and his turnips destroyed by wood-pigeons. He was aware that certain Justices of the Peace had decided that the farmer did not bring himself under the penalty of the law if he himself shot birds. In the South of Scotland, an appeal had been pending from such decision; but, evidently on the advice of some authority at headquarters in London, the appeal was withdrawn. This was of the nature of a public scandal. It was generally recognized that the Act was violated, and that the Justices had strained the law in not convicting on the evidence. In the present depressed state of agriculture, it would be a gracious concession to the farmers to pass this Bill. There was no great difficulty in recurring to the state of matters before 1870. There never was any reason for the introduction of the gun licence. The right hon. Gentleman who introduced it (Mr. Lowe) had about the same time another aberration on the subject of lucifer matches. That was a matter which affected the constituents in the large boroughs, and the proposal in consequence quickly died; but although it was pointed out that the gun licence would be an unfair imposition on tenant farmers, the House supported the Government, and passed it. He hoped, however, that the House would now do what was possible to redress the injury then done, and pass the measure by a large majority.


said, that rabbits in his county were the common enemy of the landlord and tenant, as they were as destructive of underwood upon which the landed proprietor relied as they were of the crops of his tenant. He did not, however, think that tenants would avail themselves of the provisions of the Bill to any great extent for the shooting of rabbits, because they had an objection to employ their servants in that way when the latter had other work to do on the farm. He would suggest to the House the necessity of taking care that the Bill was so worded in Committee that its operation should not extend beyond its legitimate purposes, for the indiscriminate use of guns had led, and would lead, to serious accidents. The measure thus guarded might be useful and desirable to the agricultural population.


said, he quite agreed with the previous speaker that the Bill should be limited strictly to the purposes for which it was asked for by its supporters, and he had thought the words now in the Bill would have that effect. If, however, on consideration these words were found to be insufficient, the supporters of the Bill would be very willing to insert other words which would leave no doubt upon the point. From his experience of the feeling among agricultural tenants on this question, he could assure the House that the passing of the Bill would give great satisfaction. The amount involved was small, and might excite a sneer; but it was the sense of injustice, rather than the amount of the tax, that caused the strong feeling among those who paid it. When the Gun Licence Act was passed it was thought to be a Game Law in disguise, and also a Police Bill in disguise; and he believed that of the two the latter supposition was nearer the truth than the former, for one object of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in passing it was to guard against the danger arising from the carrying about of arms, the right hon. Gentleman himself, it was said, having been nearly shot on one occasion by a man who was shooting small birds. He remembered, also, that when the Act was discussed it was supposed to have some relation to the case of Ireland, where the Government were anxious to find out who were in possession of guns; but, as the hon. and gallant Member (Sir Alexander Gordon) had pointed out, it could not operate very much in that direction as against keeping fire-arms, because it gave power to deal only with those who carried guns, and not with those who kept them in their houses. The thing forbidden was not having a gun, but carrying it. But the remark which he rose chiefly to make was this— that he thought the promoters of the Bill had been almost too ready to propose modifications in the Bill in Committee before they were asked to do so. He regretted very much that the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Clare Bead) was unable to be present to speak for English tenant farmers. He feared that if hares were taken out of the Bill it would not give satisfaction in Scotland. He did not understand on what principle they should be taken out. It might, no doubt, help to show that there was no intention of meddling with the Game Laws generally. But the House might remember that even if hares remained in the Bill, that fact would not in the least empower the tenant to touch the hares, if he had not the right to do so, at any rate; and, therefore, that part of the Bill could do no possible harm. It merely affected the question of Revenue. As a matter of principle, the exemption was asked for the purpose of defending the growing crops, and he thought nobody connected with agriculture was likely to deny that the hare was a very mischievous animal. There was no animal which was more partial to swedes, or would travel farther to get at them; and, although the number of hares was but small as compared with the number of rabbits, it was generally admitted that one hare did a great deal more damage than one rabbit, because the hare travelled so much further, and was in the habit of tasting so many different roots. He, therefore, hoped the Government would grant the second reading of the Bill, and that when they got into Committee they might have the advantage of the presence of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Clare Bead), whose name was on the back of the Bill, and then a fair discussion might be had of all the details of the measure.


objected that, under this Bill, two guns might be used on one farm—one by the farmer himself, and the other by his delegate. In his opinion, the grievance complained of was of the most unsubstantial character; 10s. was little to pay for the privilege for which the tax was imposed. No cases had been cited sufficient to justify the proposed alteration of the law; and, therefore, he moved, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day three months.


seconded the Amendment, declaring that if people always went about with guns they would be apt to get shot. He maintained that if rabbits, hares, and wood-pigeons did so much damage, it would surely pay a farmer to take out a gun licence for 10s., which would enable him to keep his ' holding clear; but if a farmer found that it was not worth 10s. a-year to stop the destruction of his crops, that de- struction could be hardly worth talking about.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word " now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Bruen.)

Question proposed, "That the word ' now ' stand part of the Question."


said, there was one matter which had not been mentioned hitherto—namely, that it was proposed to apply the Act to Ireland. Whatever point of view his Colleagues of the Revenue Department might choose in approaching the Bill, he must say that, looking at it from the point of view of the Irish Executive, he did not feel himself justified in supporting it. He was sorry to say that, at the present time, the state of Ireland was not such that the Government could look with equanimity upon any enactment tending to the multiplication of fire-arms in the country. He did not share the view that the possession of fire-arms was one of the inherent rights of man. Looking at the matter in another light, ho pointed out that every now and then it had been stated to be desirable to prevent the wholesale slaughter of small birds. He remembered that, on one occasion, the House was debating the question of the establishment of a close time for sea fowl, and that he, not being at that time officially connected with Ireland, and being, therefore, able to speak more freely than he should like to do now, made a suggestion, in reply to a proposal by an Irish Member to extend the Act to Ireland. The suggestion he made was, that there should be a close time for landlords and agents. Since then they had had a variety of Bills dealing with these questions; and he had more than once expressed doubts as to the advisability of pandering to sentimental schemes for the preservation of vermin, in which direction he admitted that Parliament had proceeded somewhat far. The present proposal, however, reversed that policy in a manner which he considered altogether uncalled for. With regard to wood-pigeons, he believed the price of these birds was always suffi-ciently good to enable a tolerable shot to recoup himself the cost of his gun licence. It was only the other day that a Bill was passed establishing the close time for hares in Ireland, and that did not indicate any pressing necessity for their destruction. If vermin were really a pest to the farmer, he might reasonably pay the small impost of 10s. for liberty to use a gun; but, in point of fact, he had the liberty already with regard to vermin. They heard a good deal a few years ago in that House on behalf of the farmer's boy and the cheap gun; but, in his opinion, that was not altogether a desirable thing. He had expressed his opinion that there would be a greater number of fingers upon the hands of the typical farmers' boy, and more eyes in his neighbours' heads, if, instead of the cheap gun, a far more efficacious—while far less dangerous weapon—was placed in his hands— namely, a rattle. He would, moreover, now say that a very small investment in birdlime and traps would get rid of all the difficulties of the farmer. ["Divide!"] He could assure hon. Members that he had no intention to interfere with a Division. He might add, in conclusion, it appeared to him there was no occasion for a Bill of this kind. The Legislature had prescribed a very reasonable impost, and the law authorized a person to make use of a gun upon his own holding. Many hon. Members had overlooked that fact, and had spoken as though the farmer was entirely precluded from making use of a gun. He thought the indiscriminate use of guns should be discouraged by the Legislature, and would repeat that there were many other ways of destroying vermin; but if a man wished to use a gun, he should not object to pay the tax, when even the necessaries of life were taxed.


was sure the House had thoroughly enjoyed the Chief Secretary's speech; but regretted that he had thought it necessary to repeat his old jest about a close time for landlords and their agents. He supported the Bill, and gave an instance of a farm of 200 acres, on which damage had been done by rats, in two years, to the extent of £590. He thought 10s. was a large sum for such purpose; but what he particularly wished to call attention to was the peculiar objection of the Chief Secretary to the Bill. Did the Chief Secretary mean to say that Ireland was in such a disturbed state that the farmers were not to be trusted with guns?


said, that the law at present gave power to an occupier of land to carry a gun and destroy vermin on his own land. He might also depute that power to his own son; but he could not give written permission or authority to another person to use a gun in his behalf. This Bill, on the other hand, would enable an occupier of land to give written permission to any number of persons in the neighbourhood to come upon his land and shoot whenever they liked. Allusion had been made to the shooting of landlords, and, unfortunately, occurrences had recently taken place in Ireland declaring landlords to be vermin; so that, if this Bill passed and authorized the destruction of vermin, he was afraid the destruction of landlords might occur even more frequently than it had hitherto. But, independent of that, there was a reason why an occupier should not be enabled to give this authority to other persons, not even to shoot rabbits. He had considerable acquaintance with rabbits, and his experience was that destroying them by ferrets was the best way.

It being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.