§ Order for Second Reading read.
MR. BLENNERHASSETT ,
in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he must express his regret that it should have been left to a private Member to deal with that subject. The question of the Law of Distress had now arrived at such a stage that it might fairly have been expected that it would have been included in the number of measures announced in the Speech from the Throne, although, no doubt, its omission was due to the great pressure of Public Business. The question of the Law of Distress was one which had been thoroughly thrashed out, and little or nothing that was new remained to be added to the previous discussions upon it. He could, therefore, hardly think that the Amendment to his Motion which the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt) had put on the Paper—namely,That it is inexpedient to proceed further with this Bill until further evidence has been taken as to the working of the Law of Distraint,was seriously intended. The whole question had been fully and exhaustively inquired into by two or three Commissions which had been appointed to inquire into the Scotch Law of Hypothec; and although those investigations had been nominally confined to the Scotch law, yet witness after witness had given evidence as to the operation of the analogous law in England. On the 3rd of May last the House unanimously adopted a Resolution declaring it desirable to abolish the power of levying distress for rent on agricultural holdings in England, Wales, and Ireland. His contention was that this law was completely wrong and injurious to the community, and ought to be removed. The total abolition of the Law of Distress was the principle of his Bill; and the practical effect of the measure would be simply to place the landlord, as to the recovery of rent, exactly in the same position as every other creditor was as to the recovery of debts. The object of the Bill was 1876 simply to give effect to the unanimous Resolution of the House to which he had referred. When they came to consider that subject the wonder really was that that law should have been allowed to exist as long as it had done. It was a curious survival of a state of things which had long passed away; and it would have been impossible for it to have continued until now but for the great forbearance with which it had been, on the whole, used by the landlords generally. Since the feudal system had disappeared a complete change had taken place in the social system of the country, and a relation of contract had been established between landlords and tenants. The modern farmer was a man of business engaged in complicated transactions of every kind, and often of considerable magnitude, his transactions with his landlord bearing only a small proportion to all the rest; while no other class of persons were obliged to carry on their business under liability to such an arbitrary and oppressive power as he was exposed to by the Law of Distress. That law placed the landlord, as regarded the recovery of rent, in the position of a chartered libertine among creditors. No notice was necessary on his part, no legal formality, no judicial process of any kind. He might go himself, or send anyone he pleased on the premises of the tenant; and often very unsuitable persons were sent. The effect of that was the greatest possible practical hardship to the tenant; and the mere liability to such a hardship was a great indignity and injury to the farmers. At a recent meeting of English farmers one speaker had the hardihood to say that the maintenance of the Law of Distress was liked by the farmers; whereupon a voice exclaimed—"Oh, yes; we love it as much as the toad loves the harrow." Everyone who had dealings with the farmer, whether it was the manure merchant, the tradesman, the implement maker, or the banker who had to give him credit, knew perfectly well that the liability to distress was always hanging over him, and materially injured the security. Great injustice was inflicted upon the general creditors of the farmer by the landlord being able to swoop down upon and carry off everything upon which the farmer's credit was founded. The Law of Distress, in fact, was contrary to the whole spirit of our law, entitling a land- 1877 lord, as it did, to neglect all the ordinary precautions of commercial life. There was nothing in the landlord's position to justify such an exceptional state of things. On the contrary, he was peculiarly well placed for making a sound and advantageous bargain with his tenant. The chief argument in favour of the maintenance of the law was that it was useful, because it enabled the landlord to give credit to poor farmers who would not otherwise be able to enter into the occupation of land. No doubt it did; but no permanent advantage could result to either landlord or tenant from the bolstering up of insolvency. In other words, the Law of Distress was a snare to persons who had not sufficient capital to enter into the occupation of land, which for that reason they would be unable to successfully cultivate. The law was, in truth, injurious not merely to the tenants, but to the landlords, by encouraging carelessness in the selection of tenants, and, indeed, to every class of the community. So far as the law affected rents it only artificially stimulated them. As to the liability of the property of third parties to be seized, that provision was so monstrous and unjust that he presumed no one would be found to defend it. If ever there was a question fully ripe for settlement it was this; and he could only express the hope that the House would, in this time of depression and trial, do something to cheer the sinking heart of the farmer, by relieving him of the injury of this arbitrary and oppressive law. The hon. Member concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed; "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Blenerhassett.)
MR. SALT, in moving, as an Amendment—
That it is inexpedient to proceed further with this Bill until further evidence has been taken as to the working of the Law of Distraint,
said, he hoped that the hon. Member who had charge of the Bill had been put to no inconvenience by the change that had been made in the form of his Amendment, and that though changed in wording because he found it was not exactly in accordance with the Forms of the House,
yet it was the same in effect. With regard to the Law of Distraint, he would not deny that circumstances required that that law should be subjected to changes, he was willing to say considerable changes, and that he would be the last to deny. But should that change amount to a total abolition of the Law of Distraint, or should it be in the direction of a modification of that law? If there was a doubt upon these points, then the presumption must be in favour of the ancient law which had endured so long, under which agricultural industry had been carried on, and upon which customs had been founded and contracts undertaken for generations. It was a law that had been the foundation of other Statutes, and had been amended and modified by these Statutes over and over again. It was evident that any great change, much less a complete abolition of the law, should only be made after the fullest inquiry. He wished he could appeal to the House successfully to keep the question free from Party bias. There were some questions that should not be diverted from the broad stream of national interest into the narrow and less cleanly channels of Party sentiment. And surely in affairs that touched our great agricultural interests in a broad or in a small way the House should deal with them in a manner far above Party consideration. This was essentially a national question, seeing that the agricultural interest in all ages had been intimately bound up with the welfare of a nation. And if he protested against this subject being considered in a Party sense, still more did he object to discuss it merely as a class question. He did not speak at all from the landlord's point of view. The question concerned many people besides the landlord, and he even doubted whether the landlord had the greatest interest in it. It was contended that the relations between landlord and tenant at the present day ought to be based upon contract like any ordinary transaction between commercial men; but that contention involved a fallacy. The position of the landlord was founded on the common law that he shared in the produce of the soil in which the tenant and landlord were in partnership. The real object of both landlord and tenant was that both should prosper, and that the land should be as productive as pos-
sible. If the landlord's interest alone were to be protected, it would probably be best for the landlord to have wealthy tenants paying moderate rents and improving the land at their own cost. The tenant was in a very different position towards the landlord to that he was in with regard to persons who sold him ploughs and other articles. As the Duke of Argyll said in his article in the last number of The Contemporary Review—
The theory and the origin of the preferential security of the owner was founded on a principle of obvious justice. Rent was originally, and in some places it is still, simply a definite portion of the produce. That portion was set aside and separately stowed in the owner's barns. Under such condition and forms of payment nobody would think it just that the owner's share of the produce should be liable for the tenant's debt to other men. It makes no difference to the equity of the principle that rent is no longer paid in that way, that no portion of the crop is separated from the rest, and ear-marked as the property of the landlord.
He quoted that because it very well put the case, and showed that the landlord, having a partnership with the tenant in the ownership of the soil, was in a different position from any other creditor. He was quite prepared to acknowledge that if tenants were a monied class, who could undertake from time to time to sink capital in the soil, as circumstances required it, the landlord would, no doubt, be glad to accept a reduced rent, and to do without the Law of Distress. But they must take things as they found them, and the state of things was that the landlord had to interest himself in the condition and the working of the land as well as the tenant. It was said that the Law of Distress had tended to the great increase of rents which had taken place in this country between the years 1850 and 1875. That there had been a great increase of rents during that period he did not deny; but he did not himself attribute that increase to the Law of Distress. There were, he imagined, three reasons for it. In the first place, land had increased in value because these 25 years were years of prosperity, and wealth increased. The prosperity was general throughout the country, both in agriculture, manufacture, and commerce. Many men in trade made large fortunes, and invested money in the, to them, more congenial pursuit of agriculture, either in purchase
of land or improvements. In the next place, during the whole of that period of a quarter of a century landlords expended considerable sums on their estates in draining, in fencing, in buildings, and various ways; in short, they carried on large operations by which the farms became more valuable to the tenant, and much of what they did was effected without making any addition to the annual rental. If a Return could be obtained of the amount of capital so expended by landlords between 1850 and 1875 it would, he believed, astonish even those best acquainted with the subject. His third reason for the increase of rents was, perhaps, the least satisfactory of all. During those 25 years great progress had been made in the banking facilities of the country. Banks deriving energy and enterprize from the joint-stock system pushed their branches into country towns and villages, and there sought employment for their money. The result was the farmer, instead of going to them as a depositor, went as a borrower. Instead of having, as in the old days, a deposit of £200 or £300 in the banker's hands, he found he could obtain advances of such sums, and the possession of this unexpected capital enabled him to give a higher rent than before. It was not the Law of Distraint that had led to the increase of rent. During the bad years of 1876, 1877, 1878, and 1879, which followed the 25 years of prosperity, a state of things exactly contrary prevailed. Instead of trade being prosperous, it was depressed; instead of the country acquiring riches, it became poorer; instead of the seasons being good, they were bad; and instead of bankers lending money, they were withdrawing it. The result was that rents steadily fell throughout the whole country. The rise and fall of rents during those two periods proved that farming was carried on upon strictly commercial principles. If by commercial principles, upon which it had been said that farming ought to be conducted, it was meant that farming was to be conducted with prudence, honesty, and industry, then he entirely concurred; but when they were told that this was an argument in favour of doing away with an old-established law, he thought that that was a proposition which required much consideration. Everybody who was connected with trade and commerce was
aware that no two trades could be carried on on exactly the same principles, seeing that every trade had its peculiar characteristics. Thus some were carried on with a small capital, while others required the investment of very large capital. There were some trades in which money might be safely invested and safely lent, while in others of a more speculative character both the investor and the lender might well be anxious as to the result of their ventures. Therefore, when they were told that farming ought to be conducted on commercial principles, it would be well to inquire whether farming had any special peculiarities of its own? In his opinion, farming had many such special peculiarities. In the first place, when a shopkeeper failed he shut up his shop, and for a time, perhaps, the street in which he had carried on business looked the less lively for his shutters being up, and his landlord lost a quarter or a half-year's rent; but after the lapse of a few months another tenant was found, the place was painted up, and things went on as usual. But when a farmer became bankrupt and left his farm, things were very different. Six months' neglect of a farm was enough to ruin it for years. The interest, therefore, of a landlord in a house and in a farm were not to be compared for a moment. Another peculiarity with regard to farming was as to the capital which it required to carry it on successfully. In most ordinary businesses a man could calculate upon having a fair return for any amount of capital which he invested in it; but it was a very doubtful point whether it paid to invest a very large capital in agriculture. Thus it often happened that small tenants were the most prosperous. In common with many other landowners, he had applied his mind during the last few years to the consideration of the causes and of the remedies of agricultural depression, and he had come to the conclusion that it was the hard-working small farmer who was the most successful. He frequently found that while the farmer who held a position in his county, and had even spent money on the land, was unsuccessful, the hardworking small farmer, with little or no means, had been successful. For his own part, he liked to see a farmer with his coat off and his hedges well cut. If he saw a man driving about the country
in a smart dog-cart, and careless as to the condition of his hedges and his ditches, he could only hope that that man had a large balance at his bankers on which to draw in times of depression. This brought him to the question of how far the Law of Distraint affected the tenant farmer. He would refer to the Reports of the Select Committee of the House of Lords, which sat in 1869, and which inquired into the working of the Law of Hypothec, though, perhaps, the present was rather an unfortunate moment to refer to Committees of the other House. He would only touch briefly upon it. Among the witnesses who gave evidence was one Mr. Bell, who paid rent altogether for his farms £2,400, and being asked about the Law of Hypothec, he replied—
I think the Law of Hypothec is certainly a very good thing. Had it not been for it, I do not think that I could have been in the position that I am in just now.
And then another witness, Mr. Denholm, paying rent amounting to £3,440, said—
I commenced the world with a very little sum 24 years ago, and, indeed, I was a ploughman for eight years after I was a married man, and I commenced dealing a little in a small way on my own account and wrought hard for a few years, and I made a little money and offered for the farm of Cauldcotes, and got it for 19 years. I think that if the Law of Hypothec had not existed the landlord would not have accepted me, for I had money to take the farm and stock it, and perhaps buy manure too; but I could not have fore-rented it.
There they had the opinions of two men who had worked themselves into a very good position. He would not say they were right in their opinions, and other witnesses before the same Committee expressed opposite views; but considering that small farming had been encouraged of late years, he did not think that it was wise or prudent to sweep away the Law of Distress altogether without careful inquiry as to the interests and opinions of tenant farmers in the matter. He had grave doubts as to what those opinions were; but he suspected that most farmers were in favour of maintaining the law. Another class had been referred to by the hon. Member who moved the second reading of the Bill. He said that bankers and money-lenders were so much injured by the law. He was perfectly unable to agree with the hon. Member as to that.
One must suppose that the banker had some common sense and knowledge of the law. If he lent money to a farmer without security it must be upon his character. He was bound to say that in all the cases of lending money to farmers there was not one in which the banker was not perfectly aware of the nature of his security. It might be right to do away with the Law of Distraint or not; but if there was an argument which was absolutely feeble on behalf of that course it was that. The banker who had lent money upon security of the well-known ordinary stock of a railway might just as well complain that the preference shareholders had a prior claim upon the concern. A good deal had been said from time to time as to the position of mortgagees. He would say that where persons occupied such a position, and had a clear and honest right to a prior claim, they ought not to diminish the value of their security in the smallest degree by legislation without strong reasons and the most careful and thorough inquiry. He was not sure whether an inquiry into the Law of Distraint generally ought not to be made. It was a difficult and technical question, and a good deal was to be said for and against such a course. The conclusion at which he arrived, and which he wished to impress on hon. Members opposite, was that he acknowledged that there were some things with regard to the law which should be changed. He thought that the six years' limit should be very materially reduced, and the property of a third party, independent of the tenant, should be protected; but whether they ought to go further was a question to be decided. The law was based upon the old Common Law of this country. Numerous Statutes had been passed at different times in our Parliamentary history, sometimes for the protection of the rights and interests of the landlord, and sometimes for the protection of those of the tenant, and thus the law had been gradually modified. But was the law as it stood at present unfitted for the circumstances of the present day? If so, at any rate let them see clearly what they were about to do, and let the most thorough and careful investigation be made before any change was effected, The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Amendment of which he had given Notice.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is inexpedient to proceed further with this Bill until further evidence has been taken as to the working of the Law of Distraint,"—[Mr. Salt,)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. J. HOWARD
said, he had listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt) with great attention, but had failed to discover any outline of the course he proposed to take. At all events, he had not informed the House of a single point upon which he desired inquiry to be made, or on which any Committee of Inquiry could afford information. On the contrary, by his reference to the exhaustive inquiry into the sister Law of Hypothec in Scotland, he thought he had proved that no inquiry was necessary. He wished to call attention to the fact that the result of the inquiry into the Law of Hypothec was that the law was abolished, and that with the concurrence of the Government of which the hon. Member for Stafford was a Member. He agreed with the hon. Member that this question should be approached free from Party bias. Agriculture was too important an interest to be played with as a shuttlecock by the two great Parties in the State. He would not attempt to follow the hon. Member with reference to the history of the increase of rents in this country. As far as he (Mr. J. Howard) was aware, nobody had ever contended that the advance in rents was due altogether to the operation of the Law of Distress. All that had been contended for was that it was a factor in the case, and one which ought to be considered. What had been urged as a main factor in producing the advance of rents in this country had been the want of security. An improving tenant was subject to the raising of his rent upon his own improvements. That, he thought, was a more important factor than the Law of Distress in the increase of rents. The hon. Member had contended that there was a virtual partnership between landlords and tenants. If that were so, why was not the landlord called upon to 1885 share in the losses of his tenant? Rents during the last four years had been notoriously paid out of capital; and if there was this virtual law of partnership existing between the two parties, surely the landowner—one of the parties—ought to have borne his full share of the losses. If the Law of Distress did not exist, he would ask whether any hon. Member would rise to propose a measure so manifestly in the interest of one portion—and that the richest and most influential portion—of the community as this Law of Distress? If any hon. Member were to propose such a measure, he would find very few supporters in the House, and very few supporters indeed in the country. The bankers, merchants, and traders of the country would be up in arms against such a proposal, and would denounce it as iniquitous. He did not contend that the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of imposing such a measure for the first time was, of itself, a conclusive argument against an existing law. Nor did he lay much stress on that argument. He thought it was not difficult to prove that this law was not only injurious to the tenant farmers, but injurious, also, to the very class for whom it was originally proposed. It was asserted that if the Law of Distress was abolished the landowner would not in some respects occupy as favourable a position as a trader—that whereas a trader could sue at once for the price of the goods he had sold, a landlord could not recover possession of his property until the tenancy had expired, or a writ of ejectment had been enforced. No such disadvantage existed in the case of a landlord as compared with that of a trader. The landlord might stipulate with his tenant for the payment of rent quarterly, or monthly, or weekly, or daily, or even in advance. It was said that a landlord was at a disadvantage, compared with a trader, because a landlord could not sue until the rent was due. But neither could a trader sue, if he had given six or three months' credit, until six or three months had expired. Moreover, the trader, on suing, might find that the goods he had sold had been disposed of, and sent to the Antipodes; but the broad acres of the landlord remained, and could not be transported like goods. The maintenance of the law was urged in the interest of the small tenants as well as labourers, 1886 as a means of enabling one to get upon the land, or the other to take larger farms; but he repudiated the assertion that the landlords of England would deal less generously with their tenants if this Law of Distress were abolished. He thought that a landlord had this power of distress before his mind, although he might not allude to it openly. He had the assurance of bankers that it had a very potent influence, especially during the past three or four years. If the Law of Distress had a prejudicial effect on the large farmer, it had a tenfold effect on the small and struggling farmer. The evils of this law forced themselves on public attention in Scotland before they attracted much notice in England. One reason for this was the system of letting land by tender, which had long existed North of the Border. It was shown, time after time, when farms were tendered for, that it was not the man of capital—the man best suited and qualified for the holding—that was accepted, but the man who offered the highest rent. It was also discovered in Scotland, long before it attracted much notice in England, that this law had the effect of impairing the credit of the farmer, and of repelling credit from the soil. If these things were true with regard to the Law of Hypothec, and if they could be proved to apply equally to the Law of Distress in England, it followed, as a matter of necessity, that the Law of Distress must follow the fate of the Law of Hypothec. The law was an injustice to other classes of the community. What natural right had the richest, most influential, and most opulent classes of the community to such a preferential claim on the tenant? The law was equivalent to a State guarantee in favour of the landlord, and he saw no reason for its continuance. The noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill), whose absence he regretted, stated, when addressing the farmers of Oxfordshire, three years ago, that he had never been in favour of the Law of Distress, and that he could not see any difference between rent and a debt for a pair of boots; and recently the noble Lord gave the astonishing reason in favour of the law that many farmers had their property saved from dispersion by the distress being put in by the landlords, thus preventing other creditors getting hold of 1887 it. It was difficult to see how a farmer could be benefited by being sold up by-one creditor rather than by another. He maintained that the law inflicted injury on the general community, and that it ought to be abolished.
§ MR. BIDDELL
said, although he should like to see the power curtailed to a year or a year and a-half, he was still of opinion that the Law of Distress was a benefit to the tenants. It increased the credit of the tenant. Was it to the interest of the tenant to decrease his credit? He admitted that the law had a fractional influence in increasing rent. He did not wish to deny that; but it was a fractional matter. That was the disadvantage; but the advantages quite overruled that. No doubt many farmers would have been broken up and ruined if it had not been for this law. Landlords showed in consequence of the law a liberality and a forbearance which would not otherwise be extended to the tenant. If the law were abolished, the landlord must have a guarantee, in the shape of a bill of sale, or in some other way. Besides, if the rent were recovered by a formal process, the tenant would be saddled with extra legal expenses, which he was now exempted from paying. It should be borne in mind that the landlord's position was a peculiar one, and was not as favourable as that of the trader. The latter could refuse to supply any goods if the farmer were unable to pay his debt; whilst if the tenant did not pay his rent, and refused to give up his holding, the debt would continue to accumulate for some time without the landlord having any power to prevent it. The tenant could for a long time hold him at defiance. He contended, therefore, that the landlord should possess peculiar means of defending his interests. Having regard to the interests of the general public, he admitted that it was unfair that the landlord's priority of right to distrain should extend over a period of six years. He therefore would not object to see it limited to a year or 18 months. Whatever change might be effected in the law should apply to house property as well as land.
§ MR. J. HOWARD
said, that in his speech he had not expressed an opinion in favour of the extension of the measure to all real property; but he saw no objection.
§ MR. BIDDELL
said, that was not in the Bill. Whatever might be the result of the measure before the House, he admitted that the time had arrived when the law should be amended; and he assured the hon. Member for Bedfordshire of his support if that hon. Member could see his way to limit the operation of the Bill.
§ MR. MELDON
said, that he would vote for the Bill if it could be proved to his satisfaction that it would work beneficially for the tenants. He, however, failed to see how the tenants' interests could be served by the abolition of the Law of Distress. It was said that it would benefit other creditors; but surely in that respect it was a piece of class legislation. The Law of Distress was a law of great antiquity, on which all the customs of the country were founded. It was eminently beneficial to the tenants. Their credit was not reduced by it. On the contrary, they got, by means of it, credit that they would not otherwise enjoy. The landlords gave them credit until such time as they could realize the produce of their farms in the most beneficial way. If the Law of Distress was abolished the landlords would insist upon having punctual payment of their rents, or would immediately sue for them. They would take none but tenants whose solvency did not admit of a doubt. Nothing he considered could be more detrimental to the interests of the tenant, then, than to do away with the law. If all creditors were to enjoy the right of seizing the stock or produce of a farm it would frequently be sold under disadvantageous circumstances; and the interests not only of the farmers themselves, but also of the general public, would consequently suffer. In his opinion, the general creditors were not entitled to much consideration, for so long as everything went well with the farmer he got credit from them; but the moment he became less prosperous they refused him any credit whatever, and did all in their power to prevent him recovering his position. It was different with the landlord. He did not withdraw his credit. On the contrary, he reduced the rent, and was willing to give him time to recover himself. He held, therefore, that the landlord had greater claims to considerate treatment than other creditors. He admitted that the Law of Distress 1889 required great alteration. In Ireland it had already been amended in the right way, the duration of the landlords' right to distrain having been reduced to one year. Such a limitation appeared to him to be just, for while the tenant was protected from being pressed by his landlord, he was still given an opportunity of realizing the produce of his farm in the most advantageous way. He thought that more time in which to investigate the question should be allowed before deciding on the abolition of the Law of Distress; and he should, therefore, vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for Stafford.
§ MR. AKERS-DOUGLAS, in supporting the Amendment of the hon. Member for Stafford, said, that there was no general consensus of feeling, at all events among the farmers of the district he represented (East Kent), in favour of the entire abolition of the Law of Distress. He spoke with some authority, as this question was first agitated in the county he represented, and was made a test question at the General Election for almost every candidate for the representation of the county. He and the other Member who were returned then advocated that the Law of Distress should not be entirely abolished, but that the time during which the landlord could distrain on the goods of the tenant should be limited. These views had received the entire approbation of the constituency; and judging from the feeling exhibited by the farmers last autumn—and he had had plenty of opportunity of testing that feeling through attending a large number of agricultural meetings—he believed they were still of opinion that there were many objections to the entire abolition of the Law of Distress. In the first place, if the law was abolished they feared that there would be a tendency to absorb the small farms into the big ones. This would be the means of destroying a most deserving and important class of men—namely, those who, by thrift and industry, had raised themselves from the position of bailiffs and labourers to that of farmers. On behalf of this class he protested against the abolition of the Law of Distress. Personally speaking, as a landlord, he did not care much for the law in order to protect his own interests, because he could protect those interests in other ways; but he felt that the abolition of the law meant the extinction of a most 1890 useful class of farmer. At the same time, he was in favour of an amendment of the present law; and he had always advocated such an amendment as would prevent the landlord distraining on the goods of the tenant for more than 12 months' arrears, or distraining at all on the goods of a third party. In his own county large numbers of sheep were annually sent from Romney Marsh to the higher parts of the county for the purpose of agistment; and it seemed hard that the landlord of the farm to which they were sent should have the power of distraining on them, inasmuch as they did not belong to his own tenant, but to a third party. Therefore he had great pleasure in supporting the Amendment of his hon. Friend, and hoped the House would consent to the question being further considered.
§ MR. ARTHUR ARNOLD
said, the question was whether or not the abolition of this law was a matter of public policy. If the House would permit him, he would, in a few words, show why it appeared to him that its abolition was a question, and a very important question, of public policy. Before doing so, however, he wished to refer to some words which fell from his hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard), who sometimes, he must say, attempted to lead Members on that side into strange vagaries. He understood his hon. Friend to give his assent to the suggestion of including houses in the scope of the proposal; and he wished to point out a fundamental difference between house property and landed property in this matter. He advocated the retention of the Law of Distress in reference to house property, because he considered that that law was for the public advantage in reference to that description of property. It tended to give a man shelter when he would not otherwise have it, and the important economic distinction was that the Law of Distress in reference to house property tended to the reduction of rent, and did so because house property could never be a monopoly. On the other hand, the land was, and must always be, a natural monopoly—a monopoly in which there was no reference whatever to the number of landowners—and for that reason the retention of this law tended to an enhancement of rent, and, in a certain extent, to an unjust enhancement, and therefore it was more or 1891 less injurious to agriculture. He agreed with what the hon. Member for Stafford said with reference to the advances which had been made by bankers to farmers. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Gloucestershire (Sir Michael Hichs-Beach), in giving evidence before the Duke of Richmond's Commission, stated that upon the faith of a letter received from the manager of a local bank he had allowed a man to enter upon possession of a considerable farm whom three years afterwards he found had never had any capital of his own. He (Mr. Arnold) wished to point out that the argument which the hon. Member for Stafford used, and which was in exact accordance with that of the evidence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Gloucestershire, was an argument directly in opposition to the argument which he sought to enforce against this Bill. If the Law of Distress had not been in existence, so shrewd a man as the right hon. Member for East Gloucestershire would never have allowed that man to enter upon his farm. The right hon. Gentleman was a party to his own defeat. He accepted incautiously the letter of a bank manager, because the Law of Distress sheltered him in taking an ill-provided tenant. Returning to the point that the abolition of this law was demanded as a question of public policy, he (Mr. A. Arnold) maintained that its abolition would promote good husbandry; and, because he believed that confidently, he was not anxious to seek the opinion either of landlords or tenants on the subject. Indeed, he quite believed that if they desired to obtain the opinion of tenant farmers they would find a considerable number against the abolition of this law. The question, however, was whether it would be to the advantage of the 30,000,000 people for whom he was the first Member to say a word that day, and because he believed that it was most distinctly for their advantage, that it would promote better and more productive husbandry, he should at all times support the abolition of this law.
§ MR. PELL
said, that the hon. Gentleman who had moved the second reading of the Bill had described it as short and simple. He, however, hardly thought that a Bill which dealt with the details of so large a subject as the one the House was now considering should be 1892 short and simple. Without any disrespect to the hon. Member, he considered the Bill an impudent and imprudent Bill—it was impudent on account of its brevity, and imprudent in its so-called simplicity. The Bill took no account of long usages, of customs which had been generally acted upon and were clearly understood by all. These customs, when they were impartially considered by practical persons as distinguished from mere theorists, were justified by common sense and by usefulness. The Bill took no account whatever of consequences, and it had been suggested that they might be dealt with by subsequent legislation. Unfortunately, as George Eliot said, consequences were the result of our actions and not of our excuses. They ought to bear that in mind, and not be carried into the region of excuses. It was not unusual to arrange for what were called penal rents, by which a tenant who might be thoughtless, careless, or dishonest was prevented doing that which would produce permanent mischief. Subjection to a penal rent might be the means of preventing a tenant from mowing or ploughing up grass land when that would involve great mischief to the freeholder and irreparable hurt to the life owner. Whether there was any other way of checking such a proceeding it was not for him to say. These were questions which ought to be considered, and might well form the subject of such an inquiry as was suggested by the hon. Member for Stafford. There were also cases of bondsmen. Many tenants entered upon business, not upon the security which distress gave the landlord, but under arragements made with relatives and others who became bound for the payment of the rent. But the landlord could not come upon the bondsman until he had exhausted the means of the first person to the contract—namely, the tenant; and a man became security the more readily because he knew that the tenant with his property distrainable stood between him and the landlord. A serious objection to the Bill was that it took no account of existing contracts—there was no saving of existing contracts. During bad times enormous concessions had been made by landholders to leaseholders; and it was not considered how such owners would be forced to act under the new conditions which the Bill would in- 1893 troduce. The Bill exempted Scotland, but not Ireland, from its operation; and it ought to be explained what would be the consequences of dealing in this way with judicial rents in Ireland. It would be generally admitted that no obstacles ought to be put in the way of the improvement of land by owners. They could get the money required for improvement only from the capital invested in the land; they must rely for their means upon something like certainty in the payment of rent. That certainty was strengthened under the present law. He admitted that it went beyond what any of them desired; it went, as well, quite too far in respect to the recovery of ordinary trade debts; and he hoped that the law affecting them would be considered at the same time as distress for rent. No good could come from protracted credit—the putting off of the evil day which must come; but if the Law of Distress was to be sharply abolished, there would be serious interference with the power of the landlord to do that which he ought to do and desired to do with reference to the management of his estate. It was said that if they abolished the Law of Distress the owner of land would be better off than the owner of ships or chattels, because they might be lost, while the land would remain; but the important interest of the landowner was his life interest, and he might be seriously injured if the occupier was to be allowed to exhaust it. The tenant took out of the soil an appreciable and valuable commodity, which could not be replaced except, generally speaking, by following the accepted courses of husbandry. If the land was to submit to this exhaustive process without any return to it in the form of elementary substances, and if the tenant went away without paying his rent, in what better position was. the owner of the soil than the owner of machinery or merchandize who had made a bargain with an insolvent creditor? He contended that the landowner's loss was the greater, because it was impossible to calculate the effect of mismanagement of the soil during even a comparatively short period. If, in addition to that, the easy breaking of contracts was laid open to those who entered into agreements with a landowner, neither the business of the landlord nor of the tenant would be improved. The object of the promoters of 1894 this measure was to make unto themselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness. Why was distress to cease only in regard to rent of one particular kind? It might be true, as had been stated by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Biddell), that agricultural rent was fractionally raised by the present law; but did they get no quid pro quo? He ventured to think that they did. He did not know of anybody whose rent for land was collected the very day it became due; but it would be collected punctually in the future if this Bill were passed into law. In the existing state of things, grace was given, and very often a long period of grace, extending sometimes to three and oven nearly five months. During that time the tenant undoubtedly had the enjoyment of the landowner's capital. It was the custom to permit the tenant to hold the money for a considerable period of time after the debt had accrued; and was not that, he asked, some set-off to the fractional rise in rent that might be caused by the present law? They had heard a great deal in that House of good landlords, and very little of bad ones. Might not much of the goodness of a landlord be the result of this old custom of granting credit, and of the security which the landowners ultimately possessed in the form of distress? They had heard nothing whatever of the exercise of this power of distress. If a Return were obtained of the number of levies made for agricultural rent within the last three extremely bad years, he was inclined to believe that the whole would come within the limits of one folio sheet of paper. Let those who supported the Bill consider whether they were not handing over the tenants and the owners to the tormentors—officers of justice, and possibly lawyers. The Bill considered the interests of the thousands, but gave very little consideration to the interests of the millions; and he therefore hoped that the House would reject it entirely.
§ MR. ARTHUR ELLIOT
said, that the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down spoke as if this subject of the Law of Distress was something now, and he called the Bill an impudent and imprudent Bill. But the Bill was founded on a Resolution passed by the House last Session after discussion and without a division. The measure would, moreover, do for England what had already been 1895 done for Scotland after many years' discussion. When the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Pell) said this Bill was supported merely by theorists, and by people who had no practical experience, he would ask the hon. Gentleman to look a little more carefully into the evidence taken by a Committee of the House of Lords. Very partial extracts had been read from the Report of the Lords' Committee. Members who had not looked into that Report might, perhaps, judge from the extracts that there was a strong opinion among the farmers of Scotland against the abolition of hypothec; but he ventured to say that the whole feeling in Scotland was strongly in favour of the abolition of that law. Many farmers thought that the chief objection to hypothec was that it tended to undue competition for farms, and thereby to the increase of rents, and it was pointed out that there must be some small farmers who occasionally benefited very much by getting security which they otherwise would not have got from the landlords; but although that argument was put forward again and again, he ventured to say that that view was not taken up by the small farmers. There was something to be said for it in argument; but that view was never taken up by the small farmers. He ventured to say that throughout, Scotland, whether among large or small farmers, or those who had nothing to do with farming, there was not the least desire to maintain the law. The present state of the law on this matter was unreasonable and inequitable. It was a law in favour of one side. By virtue, however, of the decisons of Judges, the law had been considerably modified in favour of the tenant, and it had been decided that the old Law of Distress did not apply to many articles which new considerations of agriculture had brought upon the land. The real question was not whether this Law of Distress conduced to the benefit of small tenants or large tenants—let them take their chances; what they had to consider was whether, where parties did not stipulate in a particular direction, one way or the other, the law should of its own force throw all its weight on one side. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard) had described the landlord as nothing more than a creditor in respect of his land. That was a very accurate way of putting it; but perhaps it might be even 1896 more accurately put by saying that the landlord was simply a contractor in respect of his land; and in respect of everything else landlords and tenants ought to regulate their relations by contract. If additional security was required by one or the other, then let the parties stipulate for that; but let not the law, quite independently of contract, stipulate distinctly in favour of one side or the other. He was in favour of the two parties being put as nearly as possible on the same footing; and to anything like a legal presumption being introduced into a private arrangement between the two parties he altogether objected. He trusted the House that day would do as it did last Session after ample consideration, and give the Bill a second reading.
§ MR. GREGORY
said, he felt that, after the able and exhaustive speech of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt), it was unnecessary for him to discuss that matter at any great length. He endorsed every word of what had been said by the hon. Member. There were, however, one or two particulars in which he could supplement what he said. He had been in the habit of discussing that question when it assumed the shape of a proposal to abolish the Law of Hypothec, which was advocated by many of the Scotch Members. In opposing that measure in former Sessions he had the assistance of an hon. Member whose loss they all deplored. He referred to Mr. Leeman, the late Member for York—a Gentleman as well acquainted with the agricultural pursuits of his own county, and with the relations of landlord and tenant, as any man in the House, and who had always opposed the abolition of the Law of Hypothec on the ground that such a change must necessarily tend to the extinction of the class of small tenants. In his (Mr. Gregory's) opinion, strong grounds should be offered for the abrogation of this law, and perhaps he might be allowed shortly to examine those grounds. As regarded the principle of the law to which an hon. Member had adverted, it was established that there was a sort of Quasi-partnership between the landlord and tenant, the landlord contributing the raw material of the land and something more, with the farm buildings, while the tenant contributed such capital as was necessary to the cultivation of the soil as well as his labour and skill. Each partner had a 1897 share in the capital, and the landlord retained a lien for his share, which was represented by the rent which the tenant covenanted to pay. The landlord could not be expected to part with the possession of his land without some security; and if it were put to the tenants whether they would have the Law of Distress maintained, or whether they would prefer to pay rent in advance or by quarterly instalments, there would, he thought, be but one answer given to the question. It was said that the Law of Distress hampered the tenant in obtaining credit. He was inclined to think that for some years past they had obtained rather too much credit, and he would venture to tell the House how the extension of credit had arisen. There had been of late years a great extension of the Joint Stock Banks, many of which had established branches all over the country. Thus a competition had arisen between the banks in the rural districts, accommodation being offered by them to secure customers among the agricultural population. The Joint Stock Banks had forced the hand of the local bankers; and between the rival interests of the Joint Stock Banks and the local banks facilities had been given to the tenants which it would have been better for them to have withheld. If they looked at the list of the failures of tenants, it would be found that in about nine cases out of ten the banks were the principal creditors. The banks became alarmed; they saw that they had gone too far; and, perceiving the disasters which had happened to some of the banks in Scotland and elsewhere, they suddenly pulled up short; they turned round on the agricultural tenants, and not only withheld from them further advances, but called upon them to meet the advances which they had already received. That was the cause of so many of the failures of tenant farmers in this country. It was urged that the Law of Distress was unfair to the general body of creditors, because it gave to the landlord a preferential claim. Before a Committee which sat on this subject various gentlemen interested in the sale of manures and implements were called, and it appeared that not one of them had incurred bad debts to the amount of 5 per cent. In the case of only one were the losses as high as from 3 to 5 per cent; and as regarded the rest, they were less 1898 than 1 per cent all round. He wished he could carry on his own business with no greater losses. He did not say that the law did not require amendment. There could be no doubt that six years' credit was too long a period. He agreed with the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) that not only in agricultural matters, but in all commercial business throughout the country, three or four years was a sufficiently long time. Indeed, as far as the Law of Distress was concerned, he was prepared to limit it to two years. In the county and the one adjacent to that which he represented there was a largo hop-growing interest; the growers had a large amount of capital invested, and sometimes required indulgence to enable them to recoup their losses from bad seasons. The landlords gave them considerable credit on that account. He thought it would be desirable to retain a period of two years, so as to enable persons to recover in one year from the losses incurred in another. The charges of the bailiffs and of sale under distress were very heavy; but that applied quite as strongly to the case of loans as of agricultural distress. Indeed, he did not see how they could consider this Law of Distress without reference to the Law of Urban Distress. It seemed to him that the subject was one specially fitted for the consideration of a Committee, in order for them to see what relaxation could be made. They might then be able to ascertain how far they could mitigate the effect of the law, and, without abolishing it, put it on a footing which would be more in harmony with the times and with the state of agriculture now prevailing.
§ MR. D. DAVIES
said the tenant farmers, at the present time, needed all the support that House could give them. He had been a tenant farmer himself, and he knew the difficulties of farming with too little money. When he took a farm in 1848 the rent was £2l4, the land was in bad condition, and he was not ashamed to tell the House that he had not enough money properly to stock it. And had it not been for this old friend they were now advised to abolish he would not have had the farm. His landlord knew him, but would not have trusted him were it not for that protection; and if there had not been this protection he would not have been in that House to-day. He was not come there 1899 to give a kick to an old friend. He did not see why the law should be considered bad because it was old. There were old things which were very good things. But, at the same time, he quite admitted that the law required amendment; and he thought that 18 months' or two years' credit, instead of six years, would be ample. He spoke principally in the interest of the small farmer. It was the duty of the House to do everything it possibly could to arrest the mischief now going on in the country. This agitation was got up principally by large farmers, who were swallowing small farmers by hundreds. Small farms had been added by twos and threes to large farms. The large farmer came to the landlord, and told him he would pay him the money, without asking him to put up any buildings, which, as they knew, were very expensive. But the small tenant farmers were the very backbone of the country. They had heard that people were protected in the towns. Now, he did not pretend to understand what public policy was, especially the public policy of the present day. He did not see how it could be public policy to turn out small farmers when it was public policy to keep people in the towns. He was an old farmer himself: and he must say, though he was an exception to the rule, that a farmer was not much good for anything but farming. He was a sort of Jack-of all-trades, although he was a farmer. Farmers were not wanted in the towns; and they could not go to Manitoba, because they had not money. Before the House passed that Act, let them wait for a few years until the farmers were able to hold their own. It was said that the law was an injury to machine and implement makers and sellers of manure. Now, he, as a tradesman, received many thousands a-year from farmers. For the last 16 years he had worked some very large lime works, the lime being sold as manure to all the farmers in the neighbourhood indiscriminately; and during those 16 years, although there had been this protection to the landlord, he had not lost £10. Nobody need complain much about the security of the farmers after that. There were some who pushed their good upon the farmer. He did not say anything against agricultural implements; but there was a limit to them. All farmers did not want 1900 very expensive ones. But when a farmer was, at market, and had got a drop too much, hr often bought one of those implements, which he found next day he could not use. For all legitimate purposes the present law had worked well, though, as he. had said, he would like to see it limited to 18 months or two years. But certainly they should not raise the floodgates now, and let everyone come in on the poor farmer. As representing townspeople, it would be his interest to support this measure, like his brethren around him. But most landlords told their tenants to pay for the manures before paying their rent. He told his own tenants to do so. He would certainly give his vote against the Bill.
§ COLONEL BARNE
inquired who would be the gainers by this Bill; certainly not the landlords or the great mass of tenant farmers. The larger farmers would, to some extent, be benefited; but the Bill would have the effect of abolishing nearly all the small farmers in the country. At least three out of four of them were in debt to their landlords, and if the House should abolish this Law of Distress they would at once take away the security of the landlord for his debts. In his own interest, he must at once close with the farmers, and many happy homes must be broken up. These men must come into towns and live miserably, or go to the Colonies and live more miserably still. The only gainers by the Bill would be the machine and implement makers, oil cake manufacturers, and merchants in general. Did the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill include the tithe rent-charge, which could not be collected except by the Law of Distress, and what then was to become of the poor clergy? What did hon. Members mean to do about rates and taxes also, which there was no other way of collecting? The hon. Member for Roxburghshire (Mr. Arthur Elliot) said he should support the Bill on the ground of freedom of contract; he (Colonel Barne) would like to ask if the hon. Member would support the Farmers' Alliance Bill, which expressly abolished freedom of contract? He should have great pleasure in voting for the Amendment.
§ MR. J. W. PEASE
said, that the one thing which struck him about this Bill was its extreme inopportuneness. If the Bill passed into law in its present 1901 shape the consequence must be the ruin of a great many tenant farmers. The House could not legislate on a subject of this character as if it had a carte blanche before it. It was proposed to alter the relative position of the landlord and other creditors to the tenant. Many of the smaller tenant farmers were in debt. The other creditors held off now, because they knew the landlord held off, hoping that better times would place the tenant on his feet; but if the law were abolished, the landlord could could no longer hold off, and the entire creditors would run in upon the tenant and ruin him. The hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) did not go into the enormous value of the mortgages on land at present. But that was a very important consideration. If this Bill were to pass it would damage the security of those who held these mortgages, and whose main security was that the rents, on the security of which money was advanced, were thus secured. Then there was the question of the bondsmen, who were secure until the landlord had exhausted his securities. But their securities were lessened by the Bill; and, therefore, the bondsman might be called upon, and they could not lessen their securities without great caution. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard) argued that the Law of Distress raised rent. But would not the hon. Member ask a larger rent if the Law of Distress were abolished? Large security meant low interest, and little security high interest. The hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Arthur Arnold) looked upon this as a question affecting 30,000,000 people. But, so far from the consumers being benefited by the absolute abolition of the Law of Distress, they would be injured, because the tendency would be to demand the rent beforehand, and reduce the amount of capital in the hands of the farmer, which would certainly reduce the number of people applying for farms; but as farms in England were not let by tender it did not necessarily reduce the rent. He did not consider that the passing of the Bill would benefit the tenant. He quite agreed that there ought to be some change in the law, and his name was down on a Bill for limiting the Law of Distress to two years. To this Bill he had proposed an Amendment to his hon. Friend in charge of it that one year 1902 was sufficient, which he thought would meet the case. It might not meet the case of the hop country; but an exceptional arrangement might be come to there. He did not look on this as a landlords' question by any means; and, as it would be absolutely fatal to a large number of the tenant farmers at the present moment if the House were to pass this very crude Bill, he should vote against it.
SIR MASSEY LOPES, who had given Notice of the following Amendment:—
That it is expedient to amend rather than abolish unconditionally the Law of Distress for Rent, and to exempt from its operation live stock and machinery not being the property of the tenant,
said, he had put his Amendment on the Paper as showing that the feeling on his side of the House was not to retain the law as it was, but to amend it. He was prepared to amend and mitigate the Law of Distress, for he admitted that, in its present shape, it gave undue preference to the landlord over the other creditors. The question was a tenant's question more than a landlord's, and a small tenant's question more than anything else. He quite agreed with what had fallen from the hon. Member for South Durham (Mr. Pease); and he believed that if they did away with the small farmers they would put a great deal of the land of the country out of cultivation. The agitation on this question had arisen outside of the ranks of the agriculturists. There might be exceptions; but, as a rule, the majority of the tenantry were certainly opposed to the total abolition of the Law of Distress. As to the comparison which had been made between this law and hypothec in Scotland, he must point out that hypothec was a much more oppressive law. The landlord in Scotland had been able to distrain, not only for rent due, but for accruing rent. And he was able to sequester his tenant's goods and follow the goods after they were handed over to a third person. Hypothec, therefore, was not on the same level with the Law of Distress. The Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard) told them that it was a class privilege of the landlords. He denied that. When a landlord parted with his land for a temporary period for a particular purpose, he reserved some portion of the products of that land in the shape of a fixed rent. But the
ordinary creditor had an advantage over the landlord, because the ordinary creditor could demand cash payment; whereas the landlord had to wait three or six months. Again, if the landlord wished to get possession of his land, he must go through a tedious and expensive process of litigation. He issued an ejectment, which was a long and difficult business. The landlord could not sue for rent till it was due at fixed periods. It was not so with the ordinary creditor. He could stop supplies, and press for immediate payment. An agricultural tenancy could not cease immediately, and meanwhile the debt was increasing and the estate deteriorating. He quite agreed that this was a most inopportune time for the agitation. If they passed this Bill into law, and thus put an end to distraint, they would seriously affect the position of many tenant farmers and aggravate their difficulties. They would do away with that indulgence at present given by the landlords, for they would not be able to give the same latitude that was now given. It was admitted that the landlords had shown the greatest forbearance and latitude to their tenants. The cause of that forbearance was partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the landlords felt some security, some protection. He would ask, who was most likely to be sympathetic in his dealings with the farmer—the landlord, the bank, or the usurer? It was the interest of the landlord to find the tenant doing well. If they abolished this law, other securities would be required, and they might not be so little objectionable as the present securities. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire said—"Why don't you insist on the payment of rent regularly?"
§ MR. J. HOWARD
I said it was open to the landlords to stipulate, as a trader can, whether the credit is to be for six months, three months, or one day, or in advance.
§ SIR MASSEY LOPES
said, he thought it was hardly necessary to say more on that point. He knew in America they paid rent sometimes monthly; but he did not think that would be a popular movement in this country. He thought the 1904 remedy proposed was worse than the disease. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary said last Session—When a subject came to be dealt with in a Bill, there ought to be just and proper securities introduced by which the landlord who parted with the possession of his land should have a summary and effectual method of recovering that possession, if he did not pay his rent.He should like to ask what sort of security was there in the present Bill to enable the landlord to get a speedy means of re-entry if the rent were not paid? But he should like to know why this scheme was not extended to the towns, where there were 20 distraints for rent against one in the rural districts? If the law was abolished with respect to agricultural holdings, it could not logically be retained for house property. It was manifestly unjust to make any distinction between the two cases. He thought the time within which the right of distress was exercisable might be altered to 18 months or two years, on the same principle that the right of distraining for tithe was limited to two years. If the House divided upon this Bill he should vote for the Amendment.
§ MR. DUCKHAM
said, that whilst agreeing that the Law of Distress had been of benefit to the tenant, he thought it could not be denied that in some eases it had created a dishonest collusion, which had tended to the serious injury of traders. He could not see why all real property, both houses and land, should not be dealt with in the same manner. This Bill, however, made a distinction between these two classes of property, and in this respect he was opposed to it. While he maintained that, upon principle, a similar law should apply to real property as to personal property, he thought a considerable limit might with advantage be placed upon the period within which a landlord could exercise his right of distress. The time of such limit should be either six or 12 months, but certainly nothing like six years or two years. He denied the assertion that it was very unusual for agricultural labourers to rise into the position of tenant farmers; he himself knew many excellent tenant farmers who had risen from the class of agricultural labourers, and who would never have been able to do this had it not 1905 been for the forbearance of their landlords. He was in favour of a limitation, but not of a total repeal, of the Law of Distress.
§ COLONEL RUGGLES-BRISE
said, he very much doubted whether the tenant farmers were in favour of the abolition of the Law of Distress; on the contrary, he believed that they preferred its retention. He was aware that the abolition of this law was an integral part of the programme of the Farmers' Alliance; but he could assure the House that the small traders and the agricultural labourers were opposed to the Alliance, for they looked upon it as being in the hands of men who wished to have a monopoly in the occupation of land. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard) had stated, among other reasons for abolishing the Law of Distress, that the law had the effect of raising rents; but, in his opinion, that was not the case. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire said that the Law of Distress had the effect of withdrawing capital from the land. But he believed the true causes of that were the unpropitious seasons we had experienced and foreign competition. It had been said that the bankers were injured by the law; but why should not the landlord as well as the banker have the opportunity of investing his money in the land? If an implement maker could only get one debt out of five he thought himself pretty well off; but where would a landlord be if he only got one rent out of five? The fact was that the Law of Distress was one of the few privileges remaining to the landlords. The last privilege removed from them was that of the hares and rabbits, of which they were deprived by the Bill of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary. He ventured to think that the small farmers and agricultural labourers would be found to be opposed to the abolition of the Law of Distress. For his own part, he was decidedly opposed to the unconditional abolition of the law; and he hoped that the Home Secretary would take this opportunity of indicating what equivalent the Government were prepared to give to the landlords if the Law of Distress should be abolished, for if the landlords were deprived of their hereditary privileges they should be relieved of some hereditary burdens.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
said, that a great deal of light had been thrown upon the subject by the interesting discussion that had taken place. But some of the arguments were, he thought, not altogether conclusive. The argument, for instance, of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) was not conclusive, nor was that of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt)—namely, that the law was an ancient one. He quite agreed with what had fallen from the hon. Member for Stafford, in the moderate and thoughtful speech which he had made, that this question ought not to be treated as a class question. Certainly, he did not propose in any way to look at the matter from a point of view either particularly favourable to, or adverse to, the landlord class. The hon. Gentleman also deprecated its being dealt with as a Party question. Well, that was what they all said, but did not all practice. He had generally observed that no very great or beneficial change ever came about except more or less as a Party question. Quite as often reforms were carried by the Party which had formerly been opposed to them as by the Party which had advocated them. Such changes were sometimes the consequence, not of the force of friction, but rather of that power which the late Master of Trinity invented a good name for, meaning the operation of vis inertiœ—namely, the force of "sticktion." Now, what happened with reference to the Law of Hypothec? The Law of Hypothec was not absolutely identical with the one under discussion; but it was very similar. He believed that the Law of Hypothec only referred to one year's arrears. Notwithstanding that, the farmers of Scotland made up their minds that the law was a great evil to them. It was before them for a great many years, and was discussed in every possible point of view. It was argued in all their agricultural societies, and it was argued in this House; and he felt justified in saying that the arguments against the abolition of the Law of Hypothec were, for practical purposes, identical with the arguments brought against the abolition of the Law of Distress. There was not a single argument he had listened to to-day which was not urged with equal force against the Law of Hypothec. Now, what happened in that case? It was discussed year after 1907 year; the votes of the House were against the repeal of the law for many years. Ultimately, however, opinion changed, although the arguments remained precisely the same. What was the cause? What was going to happen? Why, one of those unfortunate Party junctures to which the hon. Member for Stafford had alluded—namely, a General Election. The late Administration came forward to repeal the Law of Hypothec, and within five days of the Dissolution the Bill was forced through the House of Lords in a manner which was stigmatized by Lord Redesdale as being discreditable to the House. Lord Cairns said that was very strong language. But the Dissolution took place in five days. He (Sir William Harcourt) had before him the speech of the late Lord Advocate (Lord Watson), who, speaking in the House of Commons in behalf of the Government, said—I farther say confidently that this question has been finally considered by landlords and tenants in relation to the Land Laws of Scotland, and that the conclusion they have come to is, I will not say absolutely, but practically a unanimous conclusion—namely, that the Law of Hypothec may be safely eliminated from our system. That conclusion having been arrived at, I do not think this House should interpose between the wish, for legislation in this direction, because it is right and proper for other countries to overhaul their system of Land Laws, and make up their mind on the subject, before we obtain any alteration."—[3 Hansard, ccl. 1423–P[4.]Another thing was stated by Lord Watson, which he thought ought to be attended to after the warm rhetoric of his hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell), who did not often use strong language, but who did, in reference to this Bill, say—Can you conceive anything so monstrously unjust as to deal only with agricultural holdings, and take no notice of house property at all P[An hon. MEMBER: Of small house property.] Of small house property? Well, he (Sir William Harcourt) commended to attention the views of a Representative of the late Government on that subject. Lord Watson, speaking on that subject, said he would not follow the argument of the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) and of hon. Members below the Gangway; he observed that it was not deemed expedient in every country that everybody should have a farm, but it was a neces- 1908 sary condition of things in Scotland, when you made a law against vagrancy, that every person should have a house over his head. He had only called attention to this circumstance to show in what manner changes of the law of this description came about. Somehow or other, parties interested in a question, after full consideration, made up their minds in favour of a reform, and then the thing was done, and none of the evils that were predicted ever came to pass. That was the history of all reforms. ["Oh!"] Well, of a great many reforms. The only question, it seemed to him, which for the present purpose they had to consider was exactly what stage the movement in favour of the abolition of the Law of Distress had reached in England. Had it reached that point which convinced the late Government that a matter resting upon precisely the same principles was one that could no longer be resisted? That, he thought, was the only practicable point which they had now under consideration. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt) addressed himself to the effect which the Law of Distress had on the raising of rents. He would not enter into the very interesting discussion which the hon. Member gave them of the causes of the recent fall of rents. He was happy to find that the hon. Member, among the causes which he mentioned of the recent fall of rents, did not include the existence of Her Majesty's present Administration. But what did he say? He said he thought one of the great causes of the fall of rents had been the establishment of banks in this country and the facilities for borrowing. That seemed to him (Sir William Harcourt) one of the most singular views of the causes of the fall of rents. The hon. Member for Stafford, as far as he could understand him, thought farmers should borrow of nobody except landlords, and that any credit which was given by banks somehow or other exercised a prejudicial influence upon the trade of agriculture, though why credit which benefited other trades should exercise a prejudicial influence upon the trade of agriculture he (Sir William Harcourt) did not understand. But, then, the hon. Member for Stafford said that he and his friends had not made up their minds whether it was a good thing or not to apply capital to land. Well, if hon. Gentlemen opposite 1909 had not yet made up their minds whether it was a good thing to apply capital to land, he did not wonder that the hon. Member for Stafford thought there was a good deal to inquire into. He read a book the other day, which he was sorry to hear referred to with scorn. It was written by Mr. Prout, a gentleman who held a farm of 450 acres, and who said that he derived profit, even in the worst of times, from the laying out of capital on land. Certainly that gentleman's experience did not concur with the principle which had been laid down on the other side of the House. The hon. Member for Stafford seemed to say that commercial principles were not applicable to land, and, therefore, that this Law of Distress ought to be maintained. But there was no country where commercial principles were applied to land more than in Scotland, or where the people were more commercially disposed in dealing with the relation of landlord and tenant. Landlords put up their farms to auction in Scotland on the commercial principles. Yet even in the commercial country of Scotland, where the relations between landlord and tenant were conducted upon commercial principles, the tenantry were most anxious for the abolition of the Law of Hypothec. The question whether or not the Law of Distress tended to raise rent was very difficult to determine positively; but this thing he had heard, particularly in Scotland—that landlords sometimes took the highest bidder as a tenant very much regardless of his solvency and the security which he could give, because they were certain under the Law of Distress to keep themselves free from loss. Whether that was so or not he did not know. [An hon. MEMBER: It is not.] All he could say was it was one of the arguments which induced Scotch farmers—["No, no!"]. Well, his hon. Friend, who he did not think was a Scotch landlord or farmer, said, "No, no!" [The hon. MEMBER: I am both.] He did not pretend to pronounce on the validity of that argument; all he could say was, it was one of the arguments which prevailed with Scotch farmers to induce them to ask for an abolition of the Law of Hypothec. Hon. Members seemed to have made up their minds that agriculture would flourish if they could get rid of capital, bankers, and the manufacturers of agricultural implements. They 1910 were the great scourges of the land. He picked up that in the course of this debate. Whether they proposed to cultivate the soil with their fingers, and to dispense with implements as well as agricultural implement makers, he did not know. He hoped that in spite of bankers, implement makers, and capital, land would still flourish. Hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to be of opinion that they could not defend the Law of Distress in its present form. They appeared to wish that the law should be amended in some way or other. The hon. Member for Stafford was of that opinion, yet he proposed to throw out the only measure before the House for the amendment of the law. He begged pardon. The hon. Member beside him (Mr. Courtney) told him that there was another measure on the subject of the Law of Distress before the House. But when would that Bill come on? [An hon. MEMBER: Next Friday.] He gathered that there was much difference of opinion as to how far farmers were opposed to the Law of Distress. In the case of the measure for the repeal of the Law of Hypothec every Scotch Member voted in favour of its repeal, which showed that unanimity existed among the farmers of Scotland, and further inquiry was therefore needless. It would be impossible, he held, to pass the present Bill in the shape in which it had been placed before them. It would have to contain provisions making it impossible for a man to refuse to pay his rent while keeping the land. But the debate had not satisfied him that there was a universal desire on the part of farmers that the law should be repealed. The existence or non-existence of such a desire was a very proper matter for further inquiry. Many proposals had been made in the course of the debate. For instance, some Gentlemen had proposed two years as the limit with respect to arrears, while others had proposed shorter periods, notably the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Biddell), who was of opinion that the time ought not to extend beyond six months. Among the proposals before the House were some advocating the abolition of the Law of Distress and the creation of some other security, and others advocating the continuance of the law, subject to modification in respect of the period of its applicability. Now, these were matters 1911 which, were proper subjects for inquiry, and if inquiry were desired a Committee would have to be appointed. Having listened attentively to the debate he had come to the conclusion that the matter was not yet ripe, and that the time had hardly arrived for passing so strong a measure as a Bill abolishing the existing law. He was of opinion that the general wishes of the House would be given effect to if between the promoters of the Bill and its opponents an arrangement could be made for an inquiry into the whole matter, which would enable the House to ascertain whether the persons most interested in the question wished for a total repeal of the existing law or for some intermediate modification of it.
§ SIR WILLIAM HART DYKE
said, he could not agree to the second reading of the Bill; and he could not see how the observations of the Home Secretary with reference to the Law of Hypothec were relevant to the question before the House, especially as the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary did not state the difference which existed—and it was considerable—between the Law of Hypothec and Law of Distress. The late election for the North-West Riding of Yorkshire had been mainly decided on the question whether there should be an abolition or a modification of the Law of Distress, and the tenant farmers of that constituency had supported the latter policy. The Home Secretary could not have been in earnest when he talked of hon. Gentlemen having a horror of three things—namely, implements, capital, and banks; and he thought it was to be regretted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, representing, as he did, the Government, should have come down and made a jocose speech on a very important subject to all those who, whether as owners or occupiers, had anything to do with land. He thought it would have been much better if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had suggested some way out of the difficulty, if the law he objected to was to be abolished. The advocates of the Bill asked the House to sanction a very grave change in the existing state of agricultural affairs which would almost revolutionize the positions of owners and occupiers. He held strongly that before demanding assent to this change those who advocated it ought to show that it would be a successful change in 1912 connection with agricultural interests, and to make it plain what the position of owners would be should the Bill become law. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire (Mr. J. Howard) had not adduced a single proof that if the Bill should become law the tenant farmers would not be grievous sufferers. Among other questions which he would like to put to hon. Members opposite was this—What would be the position of those tenant farmers who, of late years, had been enabled to keep their heads above water only by the indulgence given them as regards time by the landlords? Supposing the Law of Distress were abolished, would not the landlords have to take some other steps to insure the payment of their rent? Would not the landlords be forced to insist on having their rents paid by instalments beforehand, or on the very day they became due? Then he thought that this Bill would prove a great hindrance to agriculture, and his opinion was supported by that of many farmers with whom he had conversed on the subject. A farmer in more prosperous circumstances, who was desirous of holding his crops until he could dispose of them to advantage and could now rely upon the forbearance of his landlord to enable him to do so, would, if the Law of Distress were abolished, be compelled to sell them at once, possibly at a great sacrifice, in order to enable him to pay his rent immediately. He would like to hear from the hon. Member for Bedfordshire a practical reply to that objection. Then the House had been told by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire that he had consulted a great number of bankers in small country towns, and that they had, generally speaking, expressed themselves in favour of the abolition of the Law of Distress. If they were in favour of it—because it would lead to the tenant farmers coming to them to borrow money—he thought the House should hesitate before it passed any measure which would give the tenant farmers any such encouragement. The hon. Member seemed to think that all the riches were in the pockets of the landlords; but he could not help glancing with one eye at his own pocket and with the other eye on the blooming countenance of the hon. Member, and feeling a pang of regret that he had not a good honest share in the prosperous business of the hon. 1913 Member. The hon. Member was not, apparently, in favour of the theory that the owner and occupier were partners in the soil.
§ MR. J. HOWARD
The right hon. Member has misunderstood me. I did not deny that a partnership existed between landlord and tenant; on the other hand, what I said was that when that argument was brought forward in connection with other questions hon. Gentlemen opposite repudiated the idea.
§ SIR WILLIAM HART DYKE
Well, anyhow, the hon. Member did not conclude his interruption by offering to take him into partnership. He thought that an important measure of this kind required full discussion, and ought not to be hurried through on a Wednesday afternoon. He should vote against the second reading of the Bill; but he should welcome an inquiry by a Committee of the House, to whom this and the other kindred measure might be referred. He felt sure that the present debate would be of very solid use to the tenant farmers of the country, and would do much to correct the rash statements made at public meetings. He wished the Home Secretary had taken a less jocose view of the question. It was only two years ago that they had been told that a great conversion of the tenant farmers was going to take place; but if the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not careful he would find that all the billing and cooing that had been going on between himself and the agricultural community would prove to be the symptoms, not of a permanent attachment, but only of a passing and harmless flirtation.
§ MR. WHITBREAD
said, he was, personally, very much disposed to close with the offer just made that there should be a Committee of Inquiry. Last year he said a few words on the abolition of the Law of Distress, and he did so because he thought the abolition of that law would lead to the application of a sound principle to agriculture, a principle which had been advantageously applied to other businesses. In all the speeches delivered against this Bill arguments were used which really amounted to this—that the House should go on bolstering up a trade that, without that artificial propping up, would fall. It was said that if they abolished the Law of Distress, so insolvent were the small 1914 farmers that they would be ruined. It was also urged that the present law made the landlords forbearing towards their tenants. The present was admitted to be an unsound condition of things. There was considerable difference of opinion even among tenant farmers themselves as to the desirability of immediately sweeping away the Law of Distress; and he could not go further than abstain from opposing the second reading of the Bill, unless very considerable alterations were made in it, and among them there must be some provision for securing to the landlords some quick method of obtaining possession of their land if rent was not paid. The landlords ought also to be secured against such things as manure, growing crops, straw, and other articles absolutely necessary for the cultivation of the farm, being sold off the land. Such a provision was eminently one for the consideration of a Select Committee. He would be glad, indeed, to see the whole subject brought before a Committee. The hon. Member had predicted a rise in rents as the result of such a measure, arguing that good security meant low interest and bad security high interest, and as the landlord had got the security of distraint he was content to take a lower rent than he would otherwise. But he would point out that this was only a collateral security, and often an illusory one; the landlord's real security lay in the character and means of his tenant, and the Law of Distress was apt to lead him to be careless in this essential matter. But however that might be, the abolition of distress would lead to dealing with land from a ready-money point of view, which, he believed, in the long run, was a sound principle to apply to land as it was for every other trade. On the understanding, therefore, that he went no further, he would vote for the second reading.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
said, he was delighted to hear that the Home Secretary did not intend to support the Bill in its present shape. He did not think it necessary to follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman through his interesting and somewhat discursive speech, or to endorse the serious strictures which had been passed upon the right hon. and learned Gentleman by his right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Kent (Sir William Hart Dyke). He could not believe that the Home Secretary really intended to 1915 mate fun of the troubles of the farmers. But the Home Secretary had a propensity for talking amusing nonsense—a faculty, indeed, which he seemed to possess in a greater degree than any other Member of that House. It had been proposed to hand over the consideration of this question to a Committee; but the fact was that there was already such a Committee of Inquiry then in existence considering these and other questions. He had, that very day, been examining witnesses who had given evidence upon the working of the Law of Distress in six counties. If this were the case, and the Commission was soon likely to place the results of its labours upon the Table of the House, he did not think it would be wise to appoint another Committee. He quite acknowledged the advantage of some reforms in the Law of Distress; but its total abolition would inflict serious injury upon the tenant farmers of the country, and reduce some of them to bankruptcy. He should, therefore, give the proposal his uncompromising opposition.
said, he thought it was quite clear that a considerable difference of feeling existed in the House upon the subject; but he promised that if a second reading were granted he would undertake to go no further with the matter, on the understanding that the whole matter should be referred to a Select Committee.
§ MR. STORER
intimated that the Bill would be for the interests of the large farmers alone; but it was entirely in their favour as against the small ones.
§ MR. HENEAGE
regretted that the offer made by the Home Secretary had not been adopted by the opponents of the Bill. They had been told that the whole question of the policy of the Law of Distraint was now before the House. That, however, was not the real question. The real question, from a tenant farmer's point of view, was whether it was opportune to deal with the subject at the present time. They had a very decided answer upon that point in the recent election in the North Riding of Yorkshire, because there the tenant farmers were unanimously against the total abolition of the Law of Distress; and he believed that Mr. Rowlandson had to attribute his defeat solely to the views he held on the question. There was one point which had. been altogether over- 1916 looked in the debate, and that was that the tenant farmers in the House were agreed in opposing the present Bill, and that the Bill was not backed by the name of a single landlord or tenant farmer. He was strongly in favour of an inquiry into the whole question, and he did not think any object was to be gained by the reading of the Bill a second time. What was required was that there should be a Select Committee.
§ It being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.