in rising to move—That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to abolish the power of levying Distress for the Rent of Agricultural Holdings in England, Wales, and Ireland,said, the Law of Distress was oppressive and without parallel in our legal system; and as it was opposed to the general spirit of the law of the country, and at variance with sound economic principles, he believed no satisfactory arrangement could be arrived at except by its total abolition. The interest which the farmers of the entire Kingdom took in this question was indicated, 1666 not only by the large meetings of the Farmers' Alliance which had taken place in different parts of the country, but by the many discussions at Chambers of Agriculture, one of which, at a meeting held only two or three days ago, demanded the total repeal of the Law of Distress. He did not wish, however, to bring forward the question as a mere farmers' question, or to approach it from the point of view of any particular class. The Law of Distress was a class privilege in every sense of the term. It was exercised by one class at the expense of every other class of the community; and it was not only injurious to the interests of those against whom it was employed, but to those who employed it. It was not only a class law, but it was a class exceptional from all law. The Law of Distress stood alone in our legal system, in that it enabled a man to take the law into his own hands to obtain satisfaction for a wrong merely arising out of a breach of contract. The very day after the rent fell due the landlord was allowed to go himself or to send any man whom he pleased—it might be a dissolute ruffian out of the streets—to run riot on the tenant's premises; and all that merely to enforce a pecuniary obligation in regard to which all the ordinary legal remedies were open to him. The practical effect of the exercise of that power often led to serious hardship. The persons employed to exercise it frequently were not very careful of the amount of goods they took or of the way in which they disposed of them; and the result might be utterly to break up the home of the farmer and inflict on him an injury altogether out of proportion to the debt which he owed. The Law of Distress, moreover, was not only an exceptional remedy which was harshly and cruelly enforced, but it was unjust in that it gave a preference to one class of creditors over every other class. He denied that there was any analogy between it and liens and hypothecations. The right of lien for service rendered depended on possession; but in what sense could the landlord be said to be in possession of the goods of the tenant on his farm, or it might be the goods of a third person which were accidentally or temporarily on his farm? Again, it was quite impossible to bolster up the Law of Distress by attempting to draw an analogy between it and the Law 1667 of Hypothecation arising out of the power of a master of a ship to pledge the ship or her cargo for expenditure necessary to repair the vessel and enable her to proceed on her voyage. There was a complete difference between the Law of' Maritime Hypothecation and the Law of Distress. The owner of a bottomry bond could not take the law into his own hands, but must enforce his rights through a legal tribunal; and, again, bottomry bonds were only justified by extreme necessity. He did not wish to trouble the House with a long argument on legal and technical points. He entered into these points fully two years ago when he brought forward the question. He relied with confidence upon his own position, which was simply and clearly this—that the Law of Distress was an exception to the general law of the country, and enabled a man to take the law into his own hands in order to obtain a remedy for wrong arising out of contract. How had it come to pass that this anomalous right existed? There were few chapters in the legal history this country more peculiar than this. The right of distress was part of the old Common Law of England. In primitive societies, where the ordinary means of legal redress, Courts of Law, and police were not available, there was no more convenient way to obtain satisfaction for a wrong done than to take possession of the goods of the wrong-doer. From the reign of Henry VIII. downwards a long series of changes took place in our legislation on that subject, the object of every one of which was to sharpen the remedy and make it more severe and stringent in the hands of the landlord, until distress became an almost unique specimen of one-sided legislation. No argument could be based on the antiquity of the remedy, because its ancient form was entirely different from what it was now. It was originally only a power to retain goods in pledge. The position of the modern farmer in this country was not that of a feudal tenant owing everything to the landlord, but was the position of a man of business, engaged in various and complicated transactions with all sorts of persons and with many creditors having claims upon him. Under those circumstances, it was impossible that the Law of Distress could be allowed to remain. He asked the House to consider what was the effect of the unjust Law of Dis- 1668 tress upon the farmer. The law was injurious to the farmer because it stimulated undue competition for the hiring of land. He did not object to this competition where commercial principles applied; but the Law of Distress was a premium to persons of insufficient capital to bid recklessly for the occupation of land. Mr. Scott, a very eminent Scotch farmer, gave evidence on this point before the Royal Commission which investigated the Scotch Law of Hypothec, and he strongly condemned it. He (Mr. Blennerhassett) objected that landlords should be protected at the expense of other classes, and contended that there was nothing in their position which entitled them to that special and peculiar protection. Landlords could protect themselves in a great variety of ways, and the risk of the landlords was extremely slight. The merchant ran the risk of losing the whole of his capital; but the landlord, if he took precautions, ran no more risk than half a year's rent, which might be looked on as the interest on his capital. Looking at the position of the landlord, his risk was less and his security greater than any other class of creditors. The Law of Distress might be called a law to discourage the application of capital to land, and to diminish the production of the country. He might give instances of the most oppressive abuse of the right of distress; but ho would not weary the House. It might be suggested that the question would best be solved by a compromise, so that a tenant should not be liable to the present law except by his own contract. But the effect of that would be simply to add a clause to every lease and agreement, as the landlord would always insist on the right. The present law stimulated undue competition and made it unnecessary for the landlord to exercise proper caution in accepting a tenant. It would be said that the tenant would be deprived, if the law was altered, of the indulgence afforded him by his landlord. That would not be so in the case of good landlords; and if it was, he objected to a landlord being indulgent to a tenant at the expense of others. Hypothec had been abolished in Scotland, and it was much less oppressive than the Law of Distress. The laws of foreign countries had moved, or were moving, in the direction of his Resolution. In America the law was tending to assimilate the rights of land- 1669 lords to those of ordinary creditors, although the English law had originally been established there. In Ireland, distress could not be levied from more than one year's rent—in England for six years. They heard many professions of friendship for the farmers from both political Parties; but what the farmers wanted was not so much friendly professions as representation of their opinions, and no division of the Session would be more closely scanned than that on this question. Tenants and landlords alike would be benefited by the passing of this Resolution, for the interests of the landowner were bound up with the prosperity of agriculture. He, therefore, asked the House to affirm this Resolution in favour of the abolition of an antiquated piece of class privilege, which was mischievous, unnecessary, odious, and unjust. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.
MR. B. T. WILLIAMS,
in seconding the Resolution, maintained that the Law of Distress could not be justified on any principle of jurisprudence, because it enabled one party to a contract—the landlord—to be at once judge and executioner in his own case. It empowered the landlord, without question by the tenant, or by any tribunal, to decide what the tenant owed him, and also to seize and dispose of his goods. Good landlords, however, never exercised their power except in the case of hopelessly bad tenants; and, but for the forbearance of the great majority of landlords, the present law would long since have ceased to exist. The hardship of the tenant in case of an unjust exercise of the power of distress had lain in the fact that Courts of Equity under the old system never interfered, as was shown in the recent case of Shaw v. The Earl of Jersey, by Lord Coleridge; so that full power had been given by law to the landlord to commit any wrong, and the only chance of remedy the law gave the tenant was, after the injury had been done and his goods had been seized, to enter into a dilatory and long litigation with the landlord. In the old action of replevin by a tenant upon whom an unjust distress had been levied against his landlord, the process was tedious and the remedy most inadequate. In the present system even, if a tenant brought an action against his landlord for an illegal distress, his course was by no 1670 means an easy one. With the aid of a shrewd solicitor, a landlord could always put in a counter claim against the tenant, and the Judge would very probably send the case to arbitration, or to an Official Referee for final adjudication. In such a case the tenant, seeing endless expense before him, would, in the vast majority of cases, be driven either to make a miserable compromise or to abandon the proceedings altogether. Such cases as he had just referred to had occurred within his own knowledge and experience, and were due to the fact that the law allowed the landlord to begin at the wrong end—namely, to issue his execution before he had obtained the decision of a Court in his favour. One of the ways to make a tenant farmer prosperous was to give him full security for the capital which he invested in the land, and for the profit of his own industry; but the unequal rules under the Law of Distress had the effect of stopping the investment of capital in the land on the part of the tenant farmer, and even the property of a third person put on the land was liable to be seized by the landlord. He trusted that Her Majesty's Government might bring in a Bill on this subject. When it was discussed in the last Parliament several Members who now sat on the Treasury Bench gave the Resolution their support, and he trusted they would join him in doing so now.
Motion made, and Question proposed,That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to abolish the power of levying Distress for the Rent of Agricultural Holdings in England, Wales, and Ireland."—(Mr. Blennerhassett.)
§ MR. H. T. DAVENPORT,
in rising to move the Previous Question, admitted the importance of the subject, but said it was one as to which the tenant farmers were to his knowledge greatly divided in opinion. That division of opinion justified him, he thought, in the course he adopted, as he did not wish to be committed to a definite or distinct opinion on the subject. There were three classes principally interested in the question—the landlords, the other creditors of the tenants, and the tenant farmers themselves. As to the landlords, he was not prepared to admit that the preference existing in their case was altogether unique in the English law. They all know that creditors who had been clever enough to secure re-payment of their debts by con- 1671 tract under seal, or whose liabilities were created under settlement or by the judgment of a Court of Law, had preference over other creditors. The landlord was in this position of disadvantage as compared with the other creditors of the tenant farmer—that he could not put a stop to the credit as they could. If the tenant farmer did not pay his seedsman or other tradesman, those creditors could at once stop the supplies; whereas the debt to the landlord constantly increased till the tenancy came to an end. Again, if the Law of Distress was done away with, the landlord would be obliged to refuse the application of a man wishing to take a farm simply on the ground that if he had not sufficient capital he could not give that security for the payment of the rent which was afforded by the existing law, however desirable a tenant he might be in all other respects. The other creditors of a tenant knew what the present law was, they knew the claim the landlord had on the tenant's goods, and, therefore, if they gave too much credit to a tenant they did it with their eyes open. It was not to the interest of the other creditors that a tenant should be turned out of a farm, because, if his home were broken up, their prospect of being paid was very much diminished. It was in their interest that he should be allowed to remain in his holding, because if he were treated with indulgence, he might ultimately be able to meet his obligations. The tenant farmers of England were not in favour of the abolition of distress for rent; at least, its abolition was not desired by the small farmers of Staffordshire, with whom he had been brought into contact. Do away with the Law of Distress, and it would be incumbent on the landlord to institute very strict inquiries as to the means of any man who applied for a farm, and the result would be the rejection of many a desirable tenant, because he was in temporary difficulty, and did not at the moment possess the amount of capital which might be deemed necessary for the proper cultivation of the farm. An applicant would be entirely in the hands of a landlord, and the opinions of landlords would vary very much as to the amount of capital that was necessary. But as long as the Law of Distress remained, landlords would be able to accept tenants who otherwise would not be able to get farms at all. Without the 1672 law, when once the tenant was admitted it would be absolutely necessary that the landlord should insist on the regular payment of rent when due. If that had been done during the recent period of distress, what would have been the position of many tenants? How many would have been deprived of their farms and had their homes broken up? Therefore, in the interest of men wishing for farms, and in the interests of men wishing to keep them, the Law of Distress ought not to be lightly tampered with. It was stated by Mr. Carrington, whose authority on this subject was recognized, that during the last few years many industrious men had taken farms with small capital, and had pushed their way up to a sound and respectable position. Was it the wish of the House that additional difficulties should be placed in the way of such men working their way up to a position of independence? All commercial transactions were carried on with a certain amount of credit; it was important to consider who was the creditor and what was the amount of the credit; and the question for the farmer was whether he would be as safe in the hands of any other creditor as he was in those of his landlord? Apart from sentiment, the landlord was likely to be more lenient than the banker or the money lender. It was the interest of the landlord that the tenant should remain and become prosperous. Among suggested alterations of the law, there was one which would meet with almost universal approbation, and it was that some limit should be put to the arrears of rent for which the landlord might destrain. But a reason why they should defer any expression of opinion was that they were awaiting the Report of a Commission on Agriculture, which would embody information, although it might not materially affect their judgment on a question of common principle. Another reason for delay was that they were told that there was to be legislation in this Parliament on the question of the Land Laws. It was only right that the House should come to the consideration of that question unfettered by the expression of any judgment on the question of distress for rent. For all these reasons, he moved the Previous Question.
Previous Question moved, "That the Original Question be now put."—(Mr. H. T. Davenport.)
§ MR. HENEAGE
said, his opinion of the principle of distress was that it was indefensible. He believed that the abolition of the Law of Distress would do away, to a great extent, with that system of credit which had done so much damage, not only to the agricultural interest, but to all other classes. He considered it would be a great advantage to the landlord, even if, in consequence of it, his rents were reduced, if he obtained them punctually; and, therefore, he for one, as a landlord, could not see any objection to the abolition of the Law of Distress. One of the points that had been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite Was that the landlord' s preference was, after all, only the preference that was given to all preference creditors by the law, in the case of a bankruptcy, as a judgment creditor. There appeared to him, however, to be this essential difference between the two classes of creditors. The one had not the authority of the Court for what he did, while the other had. If any preference was given to a creditor in a Court of Law or Bankruptcy, it was because that creditor had done something to gain that preference, and therefore he thought the two cases were entirely different. No doubt, it would be said that it would be very hard upon the small farmers if this alteration were made at once; but this was not a class question, and if the tenant farmers wished for the abolition of the Law of Distress, he did not see why the landlords, or this House, should object. Reference had been made to limiting the time during which a landlord should be entitled to enforce distress; and, for his part, he did not see why it should not be reduced from six years to two. After all, it mattered very little to a tenant, who was reduced to insolvency, who got the little money he had; and, therefore, it could not matter to him whether the landlord got preference or not; but it did matter very materially to the trader whether the tenant was solvent or not, for they went on giving him credit and allowing him to deal with them, on the strength of the fact that they supposed that the landlord had seen that he had got some capital, and then they suddenly found out that the man was, after all, only a man of straw, and that what little straw he had went into the landlord's pocket. There was one other point which had been made; but he did not think it af- 1674 fected the question before the House, and that was the question of bills of sale. It had been said that the landlord should be given a power of re-entry a certain time after his rent became due; but he wished to point out that the landlord would be perfectly able to get his rent as soon as it became legally due to him, for he could sue for it on the day it became owing, and there was not a single agreement that would prevent him doing so. He would be able to sue as soon as the rent fell due, in the same way as any other creditor. Without, therefore, detaining the House any longer, he wished to state that he should give his support to the Motion put forward by the hon. Member for Kerry (Mr. Blennerhassett), although he could not help thinking that it had been brought forward at rather an inopportune time. He considered that it was an inopportune time for this reason—that many tenants were in arrears with their rents, and any change in the law would necessitate the calling in of those arrears; but he did not see that that would affect the question before the House, because if the House was asked to say "Aye" or "No" on the principle of the Law of Distress, it was not a question of whether the time was opportune for doing so or not.
§ SIR WILLIAM HART DYKE
said, he did not think this was a good time for introducing the Motion. He could not admit that the Law of Distress had been generally enforced harshly or cruelly by landlords, as the Mover of the Resolution had asserted.
said, he had made no such statement. What he said was that the law might be, and occasionally was, harshly enforced.
§ SIR WILLIAM HART DYKE
was glad to hear the disclaimer of the hon. Gentleman. He thought he heard him use the words he had attributed to him, and had taken them down. He was strongly in favour of the limitation of the law; but whether the limitation should be fixed at one year or 18 months he did not think of any great consequence. He was also in favour of an alteration of the law which would prevent the great injustice of the property or stock of a third party being seized under the Law of Distress. This was, in the main, a tenant's question. As a landlord, he was very much opposed, both in principle and practice, to the harsh 1675 enforcement of the Law of Distress; but to abolish it unconditionally at the present moment would be a grievous hardship to the tenant farmer himself. He had no hesitation in saying that statistics might be easily adduced to show that during the past three disastrous seasons, if the Law of Distress had not prevailed, one-half of England would now be out of cultivation. They were told that the tenant farmers demanded this change in the law. He had spoken to many tenant farmers upon this matter; and, except those who attended the Chambers of Commerce and Agriculture. the majority of those he had consulted were not in favour of a change in tie present law. It was perfectly true that if a state of things could be produced in which the landlord would be certain to get his rent, and when a farm became vacant found no trouble in getting a capitalist to take it, then by all means abolish the law, and put the relation between the landlord and the tenant on a business footing. But he submitted that they must deal with the state of affairs and the times and seasons as they found them; and he thought it would be almost barbarous for the House of Commons now to abolish the Law of Distress, and thereby produce a state of things which must result in the turning out of their homes of a large number of tenant farmers who had been struggling for years against fearful odds, and were now receiving forbearance and consideration from their landlords, whom the hon. Member for Kerry admitted had not harshly enforced the law. As practical men, he believed they must come to the conclusion that the time had not arrived when the Law of Distress could be abolished without aggravating, instead of removing, the difficulties which at present affected the agriculture of this country. He was not altogether prepared to vote fur the Previous Question, and would have preferred that the Amendment had been framed to carry out some improvement in the existing law.
Ma. JAMES HOWARD
said, that the hon. Baronet the Member for Mid Kent (Sir William Hart Dyke) had deprecated sweeping away at one fell swoop the Law of Distress. But he (Mr. J. Howard) would ask—Did the hon. Baronet remember, when speaking, that Parliament, with the assent of the Conservative Party—of which he was a dis- 1676 tinguished Member—had swept away at one fell swoop the sister Law of Hypothee in Scotland? The right of the landlord to priority for debts due for rent over every other creditor had remained unquestioned until recent years; the Law of Distress had come down to them as a legacy from feudal times, and had been quietly acquiesced in. It had, indeed, been regarded as one of those natural rights which could hardly be called in question. But they lived in times when class privileges, however ancient, were no longer regarded as natural rights, but when the title of their possessors was rigidly investigated and their effects on the general community were looked fairly the face. The long-sustained agitation in Scotland upon the Law of Hypothec, and the discussions and debates from time to time on the subject, very naturally called the attention of English farmers to the sister Law of Distress; and the more intelligent of them soon began to perceive that the evils alleged to flow from the Law of Hypothec flowed equally from the Law of Distress. During recent years the growth of opinion among English tenant farmers upon the question, therefore, had increased considerably, and at nearly all the meetings held by them it had been warmly debated, and its injurious operation denounced, and resolutions passed, not only for the amendment, but for the total abolition of the law. It was to the credit of the Scotch farmers that they were shrewd enough to perceive the baneful influence of the Law of Hypothec on their interests many years before the English farmers had their interest aroused to the results of the corresponding Law of Distress in England. Possibly the earlier discovery was attributable to the Scotch practice of letting farms on tender, which system brought the evils flowing from the law more prominently and visibly before the eyes of the Scottish tenantry. What was said of the Law of Hypothec might be said with equal truth of the Law of Distress. The evils attendant on the system were three-fold. First, by the operation of the law, rents were raised beyond their natural level; secondly, the credit of the tenant farmers had been impaired; and, thirdly, the operation of the law had begotten a tendency to repel capital from agriculture and the cultivation of the soil. If these charges could be sus- 1677 tained—as he (Mr. J. Howard) believed they could—then the days of the Law of Distress were as assuredly numbered as those of hypothec had already been. That the Law of Distress had had a potent, though silent effect in raising the rental of farms throughout England, no doubts existed in the minds of practical men, although it was just one of these knotty points which it was next to impossible to prove to demonstration. It could not be disguised, as had been urged on the other side, that the present was not, from one point of view, a favourable time for bringing forward the proposal of his hon. Friend the Member for Kerry (Mr. Blennerhassett), inasmuch as that many points in his arguments were blunted by the untoward circumstances which at present surrounded agriculture. In prosperous times, when a score or more applicants were running after every vacant farm, then was the time when landlords could take advantage of the Law of Distress; but in times of depression like the present, it could not be disguised that to a great extent the law remained inoperative. With that admission, however, he maintained that it was not the practice of Parliament to legislate for abnormal conditions, but for the ordinary—the normal—circumstances of the country. He would, therefore, take the House back a few years when prosperous times had for a long period prevailed. A landowner, whom he would style Sir Herbert Settlement, was the owner of an estate upon which a desirable farm became vacant; the applicants were numerous, and the competition for the occupancy was brisk; the agent, knowing that the owner was protected by the Law of Distress, felt that a tenant with three-fourths of the capital or even half the capital necessary to stock the farm was just as safe for the rent as the man with ample means for fully stocking it. The farm was let probably at a considerable advance upon the previous rental to a tenant of the kind he had just described. The owner soon after meets his neighbour, whom he (Mr. J. Howard) would call Lord Limited Owner, and informs him that The Grange—the farm in question—had been let at 35s. per acre to a very eligible tenant. Lord Limited Owner, in turn, meets his own agent, and calls his attention to the fact that The Grange had been let at 10s. per acre more than the rent of his own farm adjoining The 1678 Holt, which was every bit as good. The result was that in process of time the rent of The Holt was raised, and perhaps a score other farms upon the same estate—not one of the tenants ever dreaming for one moment that the rise was directly or indirectly connected with the Law of Distress. He might be told that he had drawn an imaginary picture. ["Hear, hear!"] Hon. Members opposite cried "Hear, hear!" He could only say that he had drawn precisely the same picture at a meeting of the Farmers' Club, 13 months ago; and upon remarking that some present might regard it as a fancy picture, the room resounded with cries of "No, no!" He would ask—were not the practical farmers present upon that occasion competent judges upon the point? There was no need, however, for a fancy sketch to pourtray the evil effects of the law under consideration. There was the inexorable doctrine of political economy that any law, or set of circumstances, which had the effect of bringing more customers into the market for a given article, brought about a rise in the price of such commodity. That the Law of Distress had, in the past, had the effect of increasing the number of applicants for farms no practical man for a moment doubted. If such was the case, the enhancement of rent was the inevitable result, and the inexorable law to which he had referred could not be gainsaid. The agricultural rental of the Kingdom, as he had reminded the House three weeks ago, increased between the years 1857 and 1875 by no less a sum than £9,000,000 sterling, the rise being 21 per cent in England and 26 per cent in Scotland. Turning to the second effect said to be produced by the Law of Distress upon the credit of the farmer, the effect of the law might be judged by the case of a tenant resorting to a banker for an advance to tide him over a crisis. At the interview, nothing would of course be said by the banker upon the ugly question of the Law of Distress, nor would it probably for one moment cross the mind of the would-be-borrower, But did anyone of commercial experience suppose that the law was absent from the mind of the banker, when he blandly informed the would-be-borrower that he could be accommodated with the advance, but that security would be expected? He had been assured by eminent bankers in agricultural districts 1679 that the credit of the farmer was seriously curtailed by the Law of Distress. Leaving, however, the bankers, he would call attention to a speech of a noble Lord opposite, who took an active part in the Business of that House—he referred to the noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill). Some 18 months ago that noble Lord, addressing a meeting of Oxfordshire farmers, spoke as follows upon the subject now before the House:—He saw one great evil, and that was the Law of Distress. They could not expect the capitalist in these bad times to advance money to the farmer for the most legitimate and promising objects, at any rate at moderate interest, on the security of his stock or his plant, when he knew that through some unforeseen circumstances, or some temporary embarrassment, or circumstances over which the farmer might be able to exercise no control, he happened to be behind in his obligations to his landlord, that security would at once be taken possession of by his landlord. He had no hesitation in saving that the Law of Distress was a remnant of feudalism, and its days were numbered. The Government had consented to the principle of its abolition in Scotland, and what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander; what was good for the Scotch farmers was, he imagined, equally good for English farmers.He (Mr. J. Howard) was glad to find that the noble Lord was imbued with some of the Radical sentiments of his elder brother upon Land Questions. He had given this extract from the noble Lord's speech with two objects—first, as an answer to the speech of the hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. H. T. Davenport); and, secondly, in order to claim the vote of the noble Lord for the Motion then before the House. With respect to the third effect alleged to flow from the Law of Distress—the tendency to repel capital from agriculture—he would observe it was notorious than men of capital and standing seldom or never were willing to give such high or extravagant rents for land as men of straw were willing to offer. That was a fact, known to every land agent in the Kingdom. So apparent had been the tendency under the Scotch system of letting farms by tender, that the fact fomented the agitation against hypothec, and the conviction had served to keep it alive. He was surprised that the hon. Member for North Staffordshire should commend a law which tempted landlords, especially needy ones, to accept as tenants men who were ready 1680 to bid high rents, but who had not capital enough to fully develop the resources of the soil, and which, therefore, inflicted a distinct injury on the community. He believed that such a law was also injurious to the landowners themselves, because but for it, and its operations in the past, he was convinced that probably not half of the bankruptcies of the last few months would have occurred, and not half of the now vacant farms would have remained tenantless. He had dwelt hitherto upon the three evils which flowed from the Law of Distress; but he had said nothing about the injustice of that law toward the trading, the manufacturing, and the banking class—this was so obvious that he felt that it required no enforcement. That debts due to the most opulent, the most wealthy, and the most powerful section of the community should be secured by an exceptional law seemed to his mind little short of iniquitous. He would ask—suppose that the bankers were in possession of this preferential right as had been playfully suggested by one of the bankers he had referred to—he would ask would such a class privilege stand for a single Session? Again, could it be believed that if the Law of Distress had never been in existence, and was proposed either to this House or even to the House of Lords, it would be for one moment entertained? Were such a measure proposed for the first time, it would, unquestionably, be deemed to be and would be denounced throughout the land as a piece of unjustifiable class legislation of the very worst kind. Further, the merchants, bankers, and all classes of traders would be up in arms against its unfairness. Believing that the Law of Distress had been injurious not only to the three classes directly interested in agriculture—landlords, tenants, and labourers—but to the general interests of the whole community, he heartily supported the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Kerry.
§ MR. PELL
said, he was also inclined to think that it would not have been easy now-a-days to enact for the first time the Law of Distress; but that was by no means a sufficient reason for repealing it. The circumstances of its origin certainly justified the law at one period of our history. There had been a time in which the landlord supplied the entire plant and capital of a farm, and 1681 everything that was necessary, with the exception of labour, so that he was not only the landlord, but the capitalist whose money was being used. A little earlier, the cultivation of land was managed by a still simpler method, by which the landlord received a part of the produce from the tenant. At one time, therefore, the Law of Distress was amply justified by all the conditions of agriculture. New methods, however, had superseded the old, and other persons besides the landlord and the tenant were now interested in the cultivation of land. Some of them were persons who, whatever might be said of the acceptance by landlords of extravagant rents. had certainly lured farmers into expenditure that their better judgment condemned. It was not all profit to the farmer who invested £200 or £300 in artificial manure, or spent his substance in the gay paint and glittering fittings of agricultural instruments. Those to whom he alluded, a large section of the manufacturers and the acute and theoretical persons who supplied artificial manure, were now complaining that certain consequences resulted from the Law of Distress which would interfere with their speculative proposals. With regard to the operation of the law itself, he did not think it was fair to those who supplied other commodities than land to the farmer that the landlord should have a claim upon the tenant's property for something like six years back. He had always thought that was an extremely unfair thing, and a cruel thing, in the first instance, to the tenant, and, in the next place, to the community generally. But it was not clear to him that it was an unfair proposal, considering the laws of tenancy generally, that the landlord should have a lien upon the produce of the farm for one year, or for a short period not much exceeding one year. Owners of agricultural implements, and other matters that the farmer required, did not part with their goods for a year or a month upon credit, unless they had urgent reason for doing so; but the landlord sold the possession of his land not for a week or for a month, but for a period long enough to allow crops and harvests to be gathered in, and was, so far, less advantageously situated than the ordinary commercial creditor. He thought, on the whole, that the existing law, with limitation, was best in the interests of both par- 1682 ties. The agricultural implement maker usually parted with his goods to an agent, to whom he gave an enormous discount. That, of course, did not make the articles any cheaper to the farmer. In fact, a plough or a drill which might be sold to a farmer for £12 or £14 on the cash system cost him £18 or £20 under the system of agency and credit. He was not sure that a slight Law of Distress would not operate more to the advantage of a farmer who was going to buy these goods than such an enormous percentage. He had, moreover, a great objection to the present proposal, for he was afraid that after all it was only a bid for the support of the farmers. The truth was that the Law of Distress was very seldom exercised; and he was inclined to think that the wiser course for the occupiers of land to take would be to endeavour to amend the law rather than abolish it, for it ought not, at the present moment, to be swept away altogether. And when the law was altered, he should be pleased to see the Amendment extended to other holdings besides farms; for, as far as his experience went, the power of expelling the occupier of a small tenement had been more unduly used in the case of house tenancies than in the case of land.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
said, he thought he could congratulate his hon. Friend the Member for Kerry (Mr. Blennerhassett), not merely on the support he had received from those who were avowedly in favour of the Resolution, but still more on the course which had been taken by those who were opposed to it. When he (Sir William Harcourt) considered the manner in which the Resolution was met, and the arguments by which it was supported, he could come to no other conclusion than that the real object at which his hon. Friend aimed was really attained. If this Law of Distress were really the valuable commodity for the farmers of England as was pretended by hon. Members opposite, why was the Motion met by the "Previous Question" and not with a direct negative by their Representatives and advocates? The hon. Member who made that Motion of the "Previous Question" (Mr. H. T. Davenport) said he was quite satisfied that the farmers of England were not, in a majority, in favour of the present proposal. He (Sir William Harcourt) confessed that he had 1683 a little doubt of this at the time; but it was removed by the hon. Gentleman who just spoke (Mr. Pell), because he said this was to be used as a "farmers' friend" question. That seemed to betray that at the bottom of his heart there was a suspicion that that was really what the farmers did want. What were the arguments used against the Resolution? It was said that the law enabled a landowner to take a tenant with an insufficient capital. Why, that argument was really the most conclusive in its favour, for the worst thing for the landowner or the farmer, and for the general community, was that very thing. It was because it enabled and encouraged the landowner to take a tenant without sufficient capital, because it encouraged a man without sufficient capital to become a tenant, that the Law of Distress was fundamentally wrong, and injurious to the interests of the community. Then there was the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell), who really, at times, appeared to be a Liberal, and then, at other times, a Tory of the rankest and most antiquated description, who said—"In the present miserable condition of agriculture let us protect the farmer from his natural enemies." What were the natural enemies of the farmers? According to the hon. Gentleman opposite, agriculture had been destroyed by implements. Let them maintain the Law of Distress, because it would prevent the farmer indulging in implements. If they could only put the farmer in a position that no implement maker would trust him, they would put him in a flourishing position. But it was not only the implement makers of whom he complained. There were the artificial manure manufacturers also. The hon. Gentleman was convinced that if the English agriculturist was to be saved from the competition of the virgin soil of America, he was to be saved by one thing only—namely, a cessation in the use of artificial manure. Maintain the Law of Distress, and that would be accomplished. Another enemy of the farmer was the banker, and they were asked to hope that the farmer could never be in a position that a banker would trust him. Let there be no agricultural implements, artificial manure, and national bankers, and then the distressed agriculture of England would be delivered from all its misfortune, and be on equal terms with the world. That 1684 was what was put forward by the most brilliant agricultural light of the Conservative Party. The argument on the opposite side was that a man must have credit to go on with Ids business; but lot them take care that the only creditor should be the landlord, and the real fertilizing influence upon land which could restore it to its true productive power was rent. It was not implements, and it was not manure; but if rent was maintained, that was the fertilizing element of the soil, and in order to maintain rent they must maintain the Law of Distress. He must say, when argument had sunk to that level, he thought the cause was lost. He was quite sure, if there were better arguments which could be produced, they would have been put forward. The hon. Member for South Leicestershire, although he occasionally appeared in the highest phase of Protection, was not unamenable to reason, or the process of conversion; and he (Sir William Harcourt) might venture to predict that they would yet live to see the hon. Member voting for abolition of the Law of Distress. This, in fact, was no new question. Upon the Law of Hypothec, two years ago, everything had been said upon this question which it was possible to say. All these objections had been made before. They were all argued out on the Scotch Bill. The Conservative Party, from year to year, opposed the abolition of the Law of Hypothec, and the same arguments were produced then; but it was the conviction of a very acute class of people—the Scotch farmers, who certainly could not be accused of not knowing where their own interests laid—that the Law of Hypothec ought to be abolished, and it was abolished. There was one man, of course, who was staunch to the last—the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho). He remembered, in one of those wails from the noble Lord with which they were so well acquainted, he denounced the late Government for conceding the abolition of the Law of Hypothec. But the abolition of the Law of Hypothec was a brilliant, and he would say the best, act of that Government. It was done on the very eve of a General Election; and after a Dissolution was announced, the Duke of Richmond, the then Lord Chancellor, and the lights of the Conservative Party went down to the House of Lords, and 1685 entreated them to pass the Bill for the abolition of the Law of Hypothec, which was, in fact, the abolition of the Law of Distress. They did that on the eve of a General Election, not supposing for one moment that it was to be considered in any respect a "farmer's friend" question. That was the process by which conversion took place on those subjects. If his hon. Friend the Member for Kerry, instead of moving a Resolution, had introduced a Bill, they would have seen how Gentlemen sitting opposite would have met it. He would rather that he had done so, as he (Sir William Harcourt) should have supported the Bill, as he intended to support the Resolution. Of course, as in the case of the Law of Hypothec, when the subject came to be dealt with in a Bill, there ought to be just and proper securities introduced by which the landowner who parted with the possession of his land should have a summary and effective method of recovering that possession if he did not get his rent. There remained one other point. The hon. Baronet the Member for Mid Kent (Sir William Hart Dyke) said, what would be the position of the tenants in this country if the Law of Distress did not exist? They would all have been turned out by the landlord. He (Sir William Harcourt) ventured to disagree with that expression of opinion, because ho did not think that that was the view which the landlords had taken of their position. As far as his observation went, their great object seemed to be to keep their tenants if possible; and even if the Law of Distress did not exist, they would not have done such a suicidal thing as evict them. In fact, every landlord in England at the present moment appeared to be doing his best to retain his tenants. It was, consequently, impossible that any tenant could suffer by the abolition of the Law of Distress. If they had not spoken so strongly on the subject as the Scotch farmers, it was because the latter were shrewder agriculturists and larger capitalists, who had long come to the conclusion that such a system as this was incompatible with good agriculture. The very arguments which had been adduced against the Resolution were the strongest arguments in its favour; and, therefore, he should vote against the "Previous Question," and in favour of the Resolution of his hon. Friend.
§ SIR GABRIEL GOLDNEY
complained that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department had made no reference to one subject closely connected with this question—namely, the mode of obtaining the rent-charge into which the Church tithes had been converted in the 12,000 parishes in the Kingdom, in which case the only remedy was the same as that employed by the landlord—that was distress.
§ SIR GABRIEL GOLDNEY
said, the one question would be involved in the other, and if the Law of Distress were swept away there would be no means of recovering it, otherwise than by substituting a personal liability. He would go further in the way of opposition to the Resolution than simply moving the "Previous Question," for he had had a long experience in matters connected with land, and he had never known the Law of Distress act oppressively. Before, therefore, such a Resolution as that before the House was agreed to, some information ought, he contended, to be given by the Government as to what process they would suggest with the view of remedying the great inconvenience which would result from the abolition of the Law of Distress.
§ MR. GREGORY
supported the "Previous Question," maintaining that the law as it at present stood had been productive of considerable advantage in enabling many struggling men to take farms who would otherwise be debarred from doing so, and to bring up families in a respectable way of life. There was no comparison between the position of a landlord and an ordinary creditor of the tenant. The former found a portion of the capital, on which the tenant treated the land as raw material, of which he necessarily parted with the possession. The ordinary dealer could give credit for the goods supplied, or require payment for them as he thought proper; but it appeared by the evidence taken by the House of Lords that the loss to ordinary dealers, under the circumstances, was very small, amounting to less than I per cent on their dealings with agricultural tenants. The law ought not, therefore, in his opinion, to be abolished in the summary way proposed, although he admitted that some alteration in it 1687 was desirable. He contended that it did no practical evil to anyone, and that much of the distress which had fallen on the English farmer arose from the competition of bankers to lend him money. If the law were abolished with respect to agricultural holdings, it could not logically be retained for house property; and it was in dealing with the latter that the abuses of it. if any, arose.
§ MR. WARTON
said, he did not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department had fairly represented the arguments used by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell); but it was not wonderful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to endeavour to excite a laugh, especially a Liberal laugh, against the hon. Member for South Leicestershire. It was easy to do so when representations were made which were not exactly in accordance with the utterances of the speaker referred to. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that landlords ought to have easy means for obtaining possession of their land if their rent was not paid; but he did not say what those means should be. He wished to know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was of opinion that such a principle ought to apply in the case of Irish land also. Did not the right hon. and learned Gentleman know that there was a Bill before the House which applied to Ireland, and which would, when passed, clog the right of the landlord to obtain possession of his lands in every possible way? Why, he would ask, should this Motion be limited to agricultural holdings, and not apply to the occupiers in towns? Why should they deprive the farmers of the protection which they now had from their landlords? No answer could be given to those questions; but, instead, hon. Members opposite contented themselves by cheering, jeering, and sneering at the arguments of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire, which they could not meet, more especially that in which he directly charged the Liberal Party with seeking to make this a "farmers' friend" question, because they wanted to catch the farmers' votes, which they had not got.
§ MR. STORER
said, it was well known from personal experience that many English farmers, and many Scotch farmers too, could not but for the Law of Distress have raised themselves from the 1688 position of labourers to be the occupiers of farms. There was this peculiarity which had not been much touched on in the condition of the farmer as compared with other classes. The farmer invested his capital in the land, where it remained for a year or two. It was impossible for him to turn his money over so rapidly as the merchant or banker; and, therefore, it was necessary that consideration should be shown him by somebody. If he got no consideration from his landlord, he certainly would get none from his other creditors; and if the Law of Distress were done away with his chances of consideration from the landlord must necessarily be greatly diminished. While admitting that there should be some limitation of the present Law of Distress with advantage, both as to time and the property of other persons on the land, he considered that in the interest of the farmer as well as of the landlord, the Law of Distress ought to be maintained upon the Statute Book.
§ COLONEL BARNE
said, there appeared to be some Friends of the tenant farmers who wished to abolish the Law of Distress; but he contended that to do so would be an injury to the small farmers instead of a benefit. The landlords would be driven to recover their rents in some other manner. At the present time, that was their only security. He maintained that if the Law of Distraint were abolished, landlords would no longer be in a position to give the tenants any latitude in regard to the payment of their rents. He considered that if it had not been for that law, many farmers would have been obliged, owing to the prolonged distress, to leave their homes and seek other occupations. He believed that three out of every four farmers were at present in heavy arrears to their landlords; but, thanks to the Law of Distress, the landlords were able to give them time to recover themselves. The only people who would be benefited by the abolition of the law would be the oil-cake merchant, the manure merchant, and the money lenders. The mass of the tenant farmers of the country did not desire the abolition of the law. He would admit that the large tenant farmers—the men who came to London to speak at the Farmers' Club, the Farmers' Alliance, and the Central Chamber of Agriculture—did wish for its abolition. But why? Because if it were abolished, the com- 1689 petition of the small farmers for the land would cease. That was the whole truth of the question.
§ MR. D. DAVIES
said, he was not there to defend the landlords; but he wished to call the attention of the House to the fact that the great proportion of small farmers were, because of this law, protected by their landlords. It was quite clear that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department did not know anything about the farmers. Of course, it would be an advantage to the large farmers, because it would lessen the competition for land. The abolition of the Law of Distress would be the ruin of many small farmers, and would drive them out of the country. He (Mr. D. Davies) had lived all his life among tenant farmers, and he could say that this would be a most unpopular measure among them. And what about the hundreds and thousands of farmers who would be bankrupt under this Bill? Give him a practical farmer with little or no money against a man with immense wealth who was not a farmer, and he would guarantee the former's farm would be the best. To that man the Law of Distress was a protection as against those creditors who might press him at a time when his landlord would refrain from so doing. On this occasion he should vote against the Government and against his Party simply in the interests of the tenant farmers; but he regretted being compelled to do so.
§ MR. WHITBREAD
discredited the statement of the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Colonel Barne) that three out of every four farmers were in arrears to their landlords. He admitted there was a great deal of truth in the plea that the Law of Distress was a protection to an insolvent tenant; but what, he asked, would be the effect of abolishing it? As it stood now, the pressure was enormous upon the landlord to let the tenant go on getting down lower and lower, till at length the latter was immersed in helpless insolvency. That was the result of the Law of Distress. It did act as a protection in the first instance, but it was a fatal protection. He submitted whether this system of bolstering up insolvency was not a bad thing, and that it would turn out to be a great mistake in the long run?
§ MR. O'SULLIVAN,
in supporting the Resolution, said, he failed to see any 1690 reason whatever why the landlord should be placed in a position superior to that of the ordinary creditor. In many cases the ordinary creditor was the person who supplied the tenant with the seeds and manure for his farm, and why he should not occupy the same position with reference to the tenant's assets as the landlord did was a thing he could not for the life of him understand. It seemed to be forgotten by those who supported the Amendment that the landlord never lost more than his year's profit on the land, whereas the ordinary creditor who supplied the seeds and manure lost not only his profit on that year, but his principal also; so that he was really in a far worse position. The hon. Member for Cardiganshire (Mr. D. Davies) stated that by the Law of Distress many tenants were protected by their landlords. That was true; but, as an illustration of the instance of the protection afforded, he (Mr. O'Sullivan) might mention that about 12 months since a tenant who owed him a couple of years' rent came and asked him to distrain his cattle. He told the man at once that he only wanted to defeat his creditors; and, of course, he refused to be a party to any such fraud. He thought therefore, that hon. Members who asked the House to protect the tenants by the Law of Distress were asking the House, to a certain extent, to countenance fraud. No better argument could be adduced in support of the Resolution. Why not a landlord go into the Bankruptcy Court and take his share like everyone else? He hoped the House would not, by sanctioning the continuance of this law, protect dishonest tenants from their honest creditors.
§ MR. WIGGIN
said, that it had long been felt as a great injustice that the landlord should, by the Law of Distress, have a preferential claim over other creditors; and, therefore, the time had come when it should be abolished. He maintained that it affected the agricultural interest most injuriously, because the agents of landed proprietors were disposed to let farms to men of insufficient capital, as they knew the landlord had a priority over the other creditors.
§ MR. J. G. HUBBARD
said, he did not believe that any law could come down, as this had done, from antiquity to the present day, without there having been some very good reason for its existence. When it was asked that the landlord should be placed on the same 1691 terms as the other creditors, it was forgotten that their positions were not at all analogous. Where was the analogy between the debt that accrued from the tenant to the landlord and the debt which the tenant might incur to brewers, grocers, implement makers, and manure makers? Every one of these men saw the tenant's progress, and were able to judge how far it was competent to them, with a due regard to their own safety, to trust him, and for how long; the debt due to the landlord was the inevitable result of time. Rent grew without any further action on the landlord's part putting the tenant into possession; the products of the land were the representatives of the rent; and naturally became, in the first instance, liable for the rent. Everything was absolutely in their own disposal. As far as he (Mr. Hubbard) could judge, in his own county, the practice was this—the rent due from the tenant to the landlord was not exacted when it became due. It was due every three months; but it was practically taken half-yearly, with a delay of three or six months, and sometimes the lapse was even longer. The working of the system was that the landlord provided the tenant with capital to the extent of a year's rent. He (Mr. Hubbard) held that if the law were limited, as everyone seemed to desired it should be, to a claim by the landlord upon one or two years' crop. no mischief would ensue. On the other hand, to sweep away the right of distraint would be high-handed interference, seeing that the tenant had a distinct advantage in the continuance of this system of indulgence; and he should oppose any abolition of a system which was so beneficial to the tenant farmer, and which had on its side long-established usage.
§ MR. ARTHUR ARNOLD
protested against the doctrine that a thing was necessarily valuable because it had existed for a long series of years. He would admit that the Law of Distress operated humanely in the case of dwelling-houses; indeed, in many eases no doubt it kept a man's roof over his head. The present question, however, was a different one altogether. The Law of Distress, with regard to agricultural tenements, was a question of public policy, of expediency, simply of good husbandry. The question they ought to put to themselves was—did the Law of Distress tend or not to good hus- 1692 bandry in this country? To that there could be only one answer—certainly not. Even if limited, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Mr. Hubbard) suggested, to a year's rent, it was obvious that a landlord standing between two bidders for a farm, one comparatively a man of straw and the other a man of substance, was induced to take the man of straw, be cause he had in the Law of Distress a certain amount of security. It was not for the public advantage that he should have that security. The public interest was most directly concerned in the most rapid passage of land from a man who desired to quit it to the man who desired to obtain it. The husbandry of a farm would be distinctly promoted by a landlord getting rid of a tenant who had not sufficient capital to cultivate it properly. Of course, if it were now proposed to abolish the Law of Distress, it would be obviously unjust to the landlord not to make a provision with regard to rent clue; but when the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken talked of the value of a law because it had come down front antiquity, he certainly held a different opinion. Lord Coke said the Law of Distress was a feudal law, a feudal remedy. It was distinctly a feudal law, and because it was, he (Mr. Arthur Arnold) was heartily in favour of its abolition.
§ COLONEL RUGGLES - BRISE
said, that at that moment three out of four of the tenant farmers of England had not sufficient capital to cultivate their farms. The reason of that insufficiency was that the bad harvests of the last three or four years had washed capital out of their pockets. Those tenants that had the largest capital were the worst off at the present moment. There were other matters connected with the occupation of land of as great importance as capital. Capital was of no use without experience, industry, and knowledge of his business on the part of the farmer. He did not advocate the retention of the Law of Distress in the interest of the landlords; but he thought that three out of four of the small farmers of this country would hold up their hands in favour of its retention. The only argument against its retention that he had heard seriously used was that it enhanced the rent; but he denied the fact. The tradesmen were not injured by it, for they Protected themselves by 1693 putting a higher price on the articles they supplied. They, together with the implement makers, knew how to take care of themselves. The implement makers, who, he believed, were agitating for that change more than anybody else, supplied implements to the farmers through agents who were responsible to them, and the farmers were at that moment paying some 50 per cent more for implements than they ought to pay. If they abolished the Law of Distress, they could not stop there; but they must extend the abolition to the case of houses. He could not see how or where they could draw a distinction. He did not think that working men would favour that proposal. He hoped, in the interests of the tenant farmers, that the law would be retained in a modified form.
§ MR. COLMAN
said, he rose for the purpose of answering, directly he heard it, the most unwarrantable assertion made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Colonel Ruggles-Brise). He desired emphatically to contradict the assertion that the agitation against the Law of Distress had been brought about by the implement makers and others who trusted the farmers. He (Mr. Colman) knew very well that many tenant farmers felt that the present state of the law was, in many districts, at the bottom of some of the most serious evils connected with farming, and especially that of the want of adequate capital. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. Howard) had spoken of the law as promoting competition for farms; but if he had called it unhealthy competition, his remarks would have been nearer the truth, because, under existing circumstances, people were induced to take larger farms than their capital warranted. Believing that that was a question in which the farmers were interested, and that the judgment of the country condemned that unjust law, he would heartily support the Resolution.
§ MR. DAWSON
also cordially supported the Resolution, holding that the landlord was not entitled to an anomalous means of recovering payment of rent, and that the arguments by which his claim to such exceptional protection had been defended were fallacious and untenable.
§ SIR WALTER B. BARTTELOT
said, that when the debate commenced he had no intention of taking part in it 1694 but the more the discussion had progressed, the more he felt it to be necessary that they should, if possible, put aside Party considerations on that occasion. Hon. Gentlemen on his side of the House had been taunted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department; but there was no man in the House who ought to put aside Party feeling more than that right hon. and learned Gentleman. They were all specially interested in the Home Department; but since the right hon. and learned Gentleman had held that particular Office he had more frequently embittered strife than any other Member of the House. He was sorry to have to say that, because he wished the right hon. and learned Gentleman well in every way; but the right hon. and learned Gentleman apparently had to learn that the tongue was a very unruly member, for he could say sharper things than most other men. Instead of that, however, they wanted advice from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who ought to be their counsellor and friend. The Secretary of State for the Home Department had the whole domestic interests of that great country in his hands, and the speech he had made that night was utterly unworthy of the occasion, and of anyone holding the position he did. ["No,no!"] There was not a unanimous feeling on this subject. It was not a question of landlords. It was not a question of the vote of their tenants. The real question was—Was this a law which was beneficial to the tenant, or was it not? [Mr. JAMES HOWARD: No,no!] The hon. Member for Bedfordshire cried "No." He was not a man, perhaps, who cared for the tenant; he was looking to some other interest, and not to that of the tenant farmer.
§ MR. JAMES HOWARD
rose to Order, and asked whether the hon. and gallant Member was justified in imputing motives to another hon. Member?
§ SIR WALTER B. BARTTELOT
denied that he had cast any imputations; but if he had said anything offensive to the hon. Member he was sorry for it. What he was say in was that the great question they were discussing was whether it was to the interest or not of the tenant farmer that this Law of Distress should be maintained? [Mr. JAMES HOWARD: No, no!] Did the hon, Mem- 1695 ber for Bedfordshire mean that it was of no interest to the tenant farmer? If not, surely the time of the House had been wasted. He held it was a question of serious interest to the tenant farmer—for the small farmer as well as for the large farmer. They were proposing to establish small farmers in Ireland. Did he understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department to say that no encouragement should be given to small farmers in this country? He had heard many say that the Law of Distress had been of the greatest benefit to them, and believed that this was an exceedingly unfortunate time at which to raise the question. They knew that prejudices had been aroused, and that fair discussions did not take place. After the Crimean War, owing to the competition which arose for land, many of the old tenant farmers, rather than give up, even wished to increase the size of, and did increase their farms, and were glad to give more rent than before. A new class of tenants, also—men who had been in business and saved money—came forward and increased the demand for farms. But that had nothing on earth to do with the Law of Distress. The last thing a landlord thought of when he took a tenant was the Law of Distress. The question the landlord looked to was whether the tenant was a solvent and respectable man, who would farm the lands to the best interest and advantage. Passing as they had been through critical times, the landlords of this country had endeavoured fairly and honestly, under the most adverse circumstances, to discharge their duties to the best of their ability to their tenants, whether they paid their rent, or whether for the time they did not. Where had they heard of landlords distraining or selling up their tenants in this country? Had they not, on the contrary, given time and indulgence to their tenantry when adverse circumstances called for forbearance on their part? The right hon. and learned Gentleman had referred to the implement makers, the manure dealers, and the bankers; but not only these, but the small tradesmen of the country had increased their prices enormously. There was something also to be said about the banking question. As long as prosperity reigned, they could not induce people to come and ask for too much money; but in the last few years of adversity they 1696 had cut short the supply at a very critical time, when it was of the utmost importance to the tenant that he should have that supply. He believed this question deserved more serious attention than the right hon. and learned Gentleman fancied. Believing, as he did, that a limited Law of Distress would be for the advantage of the tenant farmers, he would suggest to his hon. Friend (Mr. H. T. Davenport) to withdraw his Amendment, so that a division should be taken on the question whether a limited Law of Distress should be allowed or not.
§ MR. J. W. BARCLAY
said, he agreed with the hon. and gallant Baronet opposite (Sir Walter B. Barttelot) that this was a question which affected small tenants as well as large. With regard to the small tenants, it was rather curious to remark that they had the same class of arguments raised against the abolition of the Law of Distress as they had previously heard in regard to Scotland and the abolition of the Law of Hypothec, which was practically the same thing, on the other side of the House. They were told that it would be for the benefit of the large farmers that it should be abolished, but that it would be for the advantage of the small farmers to retain the law as it stood. The smaller farmers in Scotland considered this question carefully for a good many years, and at last they gave no uncertain answer as to what their views were. In those counties which had small farmers, such as Aberdeenshire and Forfarshire, they clearly and unequivocally expressed the opinion that the Law of Hypothec was as disadvantageous to the small farmer as it was to the large. They had heard the Law of Hypothec defended by extraordinary arguments. He thought the landlords had scarcely done justice to themselves. If he had ventured to make the accusations against them which they had made against themselves, he should have felt that he was doing an injustice to that body. One hon. Member said, if he (Mr. J. W. Barclay) mistook not, that if the Law of Distress were abolished the landlords would turn out three-fourths of their tenants. He was not disposed to accept that statement, because he thought better of the English landlords. It was said that the landlord protected the farmer against his other creditors. That, put in other words, meant that 1697 the landlord and tenant entered into a conspiracy together to defraud the other creditors of the tenant, who were as justly entitled to payment of their money as the landlord was to his rent. That was not a position, he thought, that the landlords of England ought to place themselves in. He wished particularly to refer to some of the remarks made by the hon. Baronet the Member for Mid Kent (Sir William Hart Dyke), who said the present agricultural distress was due to the recent bad times. He (Mr. J. W. Barclay) was not disposed to coincide in that statement, for he attributed some of it to this very Law of Distress which they were discussing, and he thought the arguments brought forward in support of the law supported his conclusion, because the whole of the arguments brought forward by the opposite side were to the effect that the Law of Distraint enabled a landlord to accept a tenant with inadequate, insufficient, or very small capital. The consequence of that was that there had been a constantly decreasing amount of capital employed in farming. It was easy to see how this came about. The landlord, or more frequently his agent, naturally felt disposed to prefer the tenant who offered the largest amount of rent, being assured that he would be fully protected by the Law of Distraint; and one great advantage of the abolition of that law would be to induce a little more supervision by the landlord, who would then have to take a greater interest in the management of his estate. It was said that this was a very inopportune time for considering the abolition of the Law of Distraint; but he did not understand that it would be proposed, if the abolition of distress was passed to-morrow, that it should affect existing rents, past arrears, or any contract now in existence. These exceptions had been made under the abolition of the law in Scotland; and although the exception of existing leases would lead to considerable confusion, he did not think it was expected that any Bill would pass that House that did not make such exception. Therefore, this could not be said to be an inopportune time, because the same rights would belong to the landlord that he possessed at that moment. He thought, on the contrary, that this was an opportune time for making this reform. Farmers in Scot- 1698 land and England were rapidly coming to the opinion that the law had acted adversely to them in past times; that if they were going to have reform in the matter, the laws as affecting the tenure of land should be put upon an equitable basis; and that the Law of Distraint should be entirely abolished. The tenant farmers did not claim exceptional legislation on their behalf; but they said that this backing up of the landlord—by giving security for persons of inadequate means—put the tenant with the requisite amount of capital at a disadvantage, discouraged their putting capital into the soil, and was, to no small extent, responsible for the existing scarcity of capital on land. Hon. Members opposite had supported the law on the ground that it allowed a landlord to give a farmer a considerable amount of indulgence; but they, at the same time, proposed to cut down that power of the landlord to give the tenant accommodation to one year or 18 months, without giving any corresponding advantage to the farmer in any respect whatever. He had heard a good deal of sympathy expressed for the implement manufacturers and manure dealers on the other side of the House, and in order to meet their complaints hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed disposed to make this proposal; but it surprised him that he did not hear one word of sympathy from hon. Members opposite for the poor farmers themselves, and that these hon. Gentlemen did not see that this reduction of the Law of Distraint to one year would cause greater pressure upon farmers. It would be an inducement to the landlords to be harder with the tenants than they were at the present moment. One year's priority of right would give a needy landlord security for taking a tenant with inadequate capital, and would induce him to come all the more suddenly upon him should he fall short in the payment of his rent. He was quite prepared to admit that the tenant farmers of England were not unanimous upon this question; but he was surprised at the rapidity with which they had come to the recognition of the fact that this law was a great disadvantage to them. The question was discussed for 15 years in Scotland before the Law of Hypothec was abolished; but it had only been discussed for about five years in England, 1699 The hon. Baronet recommended that urban hypothec should also be included in this Resolution. If the hon. Baronet felt strongly on that subject, he (Mr. J. W. Barclay) thought he would do a public service if he were to start an agitation in towns in favour of the abolition of urban hypothec; but, in the meantime, he thought his hon. Friend (Mr. Blennerhassett) had acted wisely in confining his Motion to this particular branch of the question, on which the country electors had made up their mind. Landlords must be like other creditors. They must take into consideration the position of their customer, his solvency and character; and if they had a good tenant, they would give him credit to a certain extent, even although the Law of Distraint were abolished. The landlord could make his own agreement with his tenant, and, if he could not trust the farmer, ask his rent to be paid six months in advance, for there was nothing to prevent him doing so. In America, if a landlord had a doubt about a tenant he stipulated that his rent should be paid monthly in advance. Really, there was no difference between the landlord and the manure merchant, who gave three, six, or 12 months' credit. The manure merchant had more effectually parted with his goods than the landlord had parted with his farm. If hon. Members opposite who defended the law understood their business a little better, they would see that it was quite possible for them to make such terms as they pleased in regard to the payment of rent, in the same way as the manure merchant, or any other tradesman. If the Law of Distraint were abolished, he thought the landlord was perfectly entitled, if the tenant failed to complete his contract, to have some summary means of ejecting him from his holding. In Scotland, 14 days after the rent was due, a landlord might give notice that he required either security or payment. If the tenant could not comply, he might be summoned before the sheriff, and if the tenant could not then give security, the landlord was entitled to eject him within a short time, subject to certain conditions and arrangements with regard to the growing crops. There ought to be a corresponding law for England if distraint were abolished. It would be altogether wrong and unjust that the tenant should retain possession 1700 of his holding after he had declared himself unable to fulfil the contract he had entered into respecting it. There was an example of how the landlord could get on without the Law of Distraint in the case of the graziers alluded to by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell). In the case of graziers, landlords had no difficulty in securing themselves. They either demanded security from the grazier—because he could at any time drive his cattle to the market and sell them, so that they could not be distrained upon—or they satisfied themselves that the grazier was a solvent tenant, who could pay his rent. He had heard no complaint from landlords in regard to that particular kind of tenancy where there was nothing to distrain upon. He hoped hon. Members would take into consideration the state of agriculture at the present time, and agree to the wishes of, at all events, the majority, a growing majority, of tenant farmers in favour of the abolition of this law. They had heard for years that a Royal Commission had been appointed, which was going to consider what was to be done for the farmers; but, in the meantime, the farmers were getting largely into the Bankruptcy Court, and if things continued for another year, he was afraid the Report of the Commission, even if it were to prove the salvation of the tenant farmers, would come too late. Unless hon. Members were prepared to maintain that this law was for the benefit of tenant farmers and agriculture, he thought the House ought to give way; and by saying they were prepared to consider those grievances of which tenant farmers complained, they would give them a new stimulus to exertion, in the hope that when their case was fully brought before the House they would obtain justice and redress for their grievances, like other classes of Her Majesty's subjects.
§ SIR HENRY HOLLAND
said, he had before the House a Bill, the object of which was to exempt from distress agricultural machines and live stock, being the property of third persons, and not of the tenant; and, though it was supported by Members on both sides of the House, and by the Chambers of Agriculture, it was, to his astonishment, blocked by the hon. Member who had just sat down, and who represented— 1701 at least, so it had been stated—the Farmers' Alliance. The only reason given for their opposition was that the Bill did not go far enough. At all events, it was unfair to say that nothing was said or done on behalf of the farmers from that side of the House. It was not within the scope of his Bill; but he would otherwise have readily assented to the limitation of distress for rent to a year, or two years. He could not agree with the Resolution as now proposed, abolishing distress altogether; but he would suggest the withdrawal of the Amendment and the substitution of one limiting the power of distress to two years' rent. He demurred to the statement of the hon. Member for Forfarshire (Mr. J. W. Barclay) that the existing law was a conspiracy on the part of the tenant farmers and landlords to defraud other creditors. That was a misrepresentation of the case. He (Sir Henry Holland) had made many inquiries into the matter, and there could be no doubt that a great many farmers would be very sorry to see distress altogether abolished. They knew that in some cases it secured indulgence for them from their landlords against immediate proceedings for rent in arrear; and in the circumstances the power of distress was in no sense a conspiracy on the part of the landlords as against the other creditors, who were in very different relations to the tenant to that held by the landlord.
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS
regretted very much that this Motion had been brought forward at the present moment. He thought the proposal it contained was a very serious one for the tenant farmer. Hon. Members from Scotland must be aware that he, at all events, was anxious to do all he could for the tenant farmers, as he was concerned in abolishing the Law of Hypothec. But they had to take the state of each country as they found it; and to this question, as to many others, there were two sides. Now, in England it was the boast, and he thought a very just boast, that a man could rise from one position to a higher, and that the state of our laws was favourable to his doing so, if he was industrious and persevering. One of the great objects they had in discussing the Land Bill brought before them the other day was for the purpose of creating peasant proprietorships—that was to say, 1702 to give to these Irish people the chance of getting on, as had been said, by their own thews and sinews. In England that was happily the case. He knew many cases in which men had begun with little capital on small farms, and had gradually increased their holdings; and everyone desired that advancement in this way should always be possible for small capitalists with skill, energy, and character. The question was whether, with the Law of Distress, a tenant without capital had not a better chance of obtaining credit than he would have if that law were abolished. He maintained that such a tenant would much more easily procure seed, manure, and other things necessary to the working of his farm in the present state of things than if it were repealed. At all events, the law gave to the tenant without capital the raw material, without which he could not go on. If the law were abolished, great injury would be done to struggling tenants. He could not agree with many of the statements of the hon. Member for Forfarshire, who spoke of the relations between landlord and tenant as a purely commercial transaction. The hon. Member referred to the practice in America, where a substitute was found for the Law of Distress by demanding portions of the rent in advance. Such a practice would be quite inconsistent with all the ordinary processes of agriculture. How could the rent be paid by the small farmer before he received any portion of his crops? Then, said the hon. Member, there was another remedy in Scotland, by which the landlord, if he doubted the solvency of his tenant, might take him into court, and if he could not give the requisite security for rent the landlord might in 14 days recover possession of the farm. That would certainly be an extraordinary and absurd proceeding.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
Why, that would take place under your own Bill for the abolition of hypothec.
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS
had not heard from the Home Secretary any proposal by which, if the Law of Distress were abolished, he would provide for the landlord's more speedy re-entry upon the land.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
said, the statement of the right hon. Gentleman was most unfair. If he had been in the House at the time, he would have heard him state most distinctly that if 1703 the Law of Distress were abolished it would be right and proper to make provision for the more rapid and effectual recovery of his land by the landlord in case of non-payment of the rent.
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS
said, his hon. Friends around him had informed him that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made no practical suggestion. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) thought he had shown the House that if the Law of Distress was absolutely abolished it would work very grievous injury to small struggling tenants, who were not only responsible, but useful members of society. [Mr. J. W. BARCLAY: How about Scotland?] He was talking about England. Looking, however, at the relations existing between landlord and tenant in Scotland and England, he thought they were quite different. He had also shown, too, that the real question was as to whether the landlord was to be allowed to maintain his priority of claim, or whether the manure merchant, or the seed merchant, and the implement manufacturer were to rank with him? It was not a question of loss to the tenant, or of hardship so far as he was concerned. It was rather a creditor's than a tenant's question. This was one of those questions which, at the present moment, was being seriously considered by the Agricultural Commission now sitting. Before that Commission the whole body of the tenant farmers of England would be able to present their grievances; and, as the Report of the Commission would shortly be issued, he thought they should wait until it was in their hands before arriving at a premature decision. If the Previous Question were withdrawn, it was the intention of his hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) to move an Amendment, limiting the time under the Law of Distress to one or two years; but he complained that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had said he would not allow the Previous Question to be withdrawn, but would insist on its being put, and so prevent the Amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire being put. Such was the determination of the Secretary of State belonging to a Government who called themselves the farmer's friends. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) declined to be a party to the action of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The matter 1704 might well stand over until his hon. Friend brought forward a Bill giving expression to his views, and on which Bill the House would have to give an opinion.
§ MR. COURTNEY
said, it was unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman was not present during the whole of the debate, as he would then have been saved from some errors into which he had fallen in consequence of having been obliged to make inquiries from his Friends. The right hon. Gentleman had charged his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary with not having made any suggestion if the present Law of Distress was abolished. But his right hon. and learned Friend said distinctly that if the Law of Distress were repealed it would be necessary to give the landlord the power of more speedy re-entry than he now possessed. His hon. Friend the Member for Forfarshire (Mr. J. W. Barclay) said that if the Law of Distress were repealed it might be necessary to give the landlord the power of re-entry within 14 days after rent fell into arrear. And then it was said—Could anything be more tyrannical or less applicable to the relations between landlord and tenant? But a similar proposition had been made last year by a Member of the right hon. Gentleman's own Party, and had been supported by the whole Party. It was exactly the provision contained in the Act abolishing hypothec, and carried by the late Government on the eve of the Dissolution. The only solid piece of argument in the right hon. Gentleman's speech was that the abolition of the Law of Distress would be very hard upon small tenants, who, in consequence of the credit given them by the landlords under the protection of the right of distress, were enabled to improve their position. But it was a very extraordinary fact that the most strenuous demand for the abolition of the Law of Hypothec came from the Scotch counties where small tenancies were the rule. And in the Eastern part of the county where his own constituency was situated, the holdings being small, the farmers formed an association before the late Dissolution, and passed a resolution that they would support no candidate who would not vote for the abolition of the Law of Distress, and a former Representative was rejected because he would not do so. Therefore, as a matter of 1705 fact, the small farmers of the country did not support this Law of Distress so generally as the right hon. Gentleman had attempted to make out. He (Mr. Courtney) hoped the landlords of England were much better than the right hon. Gentleman represented them to be. The right hon. Gentleman said that the landlords were ready to trust a man with the possession of a farm provided they were themselves guaranteed against loss. The landlords of England were so generous and trusting that they would put a man in possession of a farm knowing that the law gave them this security. They would not be thus generous and trustful if the law did not make them secure. If that was not the argument of the right hon. Gentleman his argument meant nothing. The right hon. Gentleman relied upon the law for enabling the landlords to do that which they would not do were it not for the law. By this language of the right hon. Gentleman great injustice was done to the landlords of England. He was sure, if the Law of Distress were abolished, small farmers, whose capital was not sufficient to stock their farms, would be trusted by the landlords in the future as they had been in the past. The only difference would be this—that if the Law of Distress were abolished, that trust would result from an examination into their character and a belief in their integrity, and not from the knowledge possessed by the landlord that the law would protect him. Did hon. Gentlemen opposite mean that landlords would never give credit to farmers whose character they knew? How many a small trader was able to stock his shop by the assistance of the wholesale merchant and warehouseman who knew him as a clerk without any question of a bill of sale. If there were a bill of sale in the case the man's character would be gone, and nobody would trust him. And in the same manner landowners, having known the man from a boy, how trustworthy and respectable he was, would in the future, as in the past, be ready to put him into a farm in reliance upon his character, and not upon the protection given by the law. The good relations existing at present between landlord and tenant did not exist in consequence of the law, but in spite of it. The law encouraged the landlord to be careless as to the character of his tenants. Let them abolish the law, and they made 1706 the landlord careful as to his tenant's character. It might at first diminish the number of competitors for farms. ["No, no!"] Why, it was the whole argument on the other side that the present law increased the quantity of competitors. It enabled men to compete for farms who would not otherwise be in a position to offer for them. Competition would be diminished, and rents would at first fall; but in consequence of the introduction of men of more capital the style of farming would rise, the produce increase, and rents would go up again. The change would ultimately be beneficial for all. He would only add that the Government would have no hesitation in supporting the Motion of his hon. Friend.
§ COLONEL MAKINS
observed, that though many hon. Members were willing that the Law of Distress should be modified, the sweeping changes involved in the Resolution ought first to be considered. His chief objection to the abolition of the law was that it would greatly impair the security on which many persons, such as younger children and widows, were dependent for their allowances and jointures. As far as these persons who gave credit to tenants were concerned, the landlord's position was nearly parallel to that of the preferred secured creditors of a Railway Company that had issued preference shares or debenture stock. The total abolition of the law would either ruin those to whom the punctual payment of their rents was a necessity, or lead to the payment of rents in advance, both of which he held to be very undesirable results.
§ MR. H. T. DAVENPORT
asked leave to withdraw his Amendment. ["No, no!"]
Previous Question, "That the Original Question be now put," put, and agreed to.
Original Question put.
Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to abolish the power of levying Distress for the Rent of Agricultural Holdings in England, Wales, and Ireland.