HC Deb 21 April 1884 vol 287 cc179-87

, in rising to call attention to the action of the Charity Commissioners with regard to the Allotments Extension Act, 1882, remarked that this was a subject that affected thousands of the very poorest agricultural labourers in the country; and it was no exaggeration to say that it was one that was a matter of life and death to them, as it made the difference between their being half-starved and having enough to eat. He was sitting down some time ago with a man and his family, who were having dinner on bread and onions; and, but for the allotment, they would have been minus the onions when they sat down to table. He was glad to see the Prime Minister in his place, because he found it necessary to appeal to the Government, instead of to the Charity Commissioners, in order to know from them whether an Act of Parliament passed for the benefit of poor labouring men was to be entirely ignored or rendered a dead letter? It would be in the recollection of the House that in 1882 an Act was passed which provided that the Trustees of all the Charity lands of the country, the proceeds of which were not devoted to educational, ecclesiastical, or apprenticeship purposes, should be compelled to offer these lands to the agricultural labourers and others in the parishes in which they were situated. In the original draft of the Act, the County Court was made the Court of Appeal from the Trustees; but, unfortunately, as the Bill was passing through Parliament, the Charity Commissioners were substituted for the County Court, with the result that the Act had, in many cases, become a dead letter. The object of the Act was to insure the land being offered in plots of not more than one acre to poor labourers at a fair rent — that was, at an agricultural rent. Every hon. Member in that House must be convinced of the immense importance of such plots of land to the agricultural labourer. In many cases the Trustees of the Charity lands had acted in the most liberal and enlightened manner; but in the majority of instances they had either not acted at all, or they had imposed restrictions altogether illegal, as to rent and so forth, which had made it difficult, if not impossible, for these poor men to avail themselves of the Act. In all the cases where the Trustees declined to move it was the duty of the Charity Commissioners to enforce the compulsory clause of the Act. Instead of doing so, they had, in many instances, refrained from acting, and in some cases had aided the Trustees in their efforts to defeat the Act. Such had been the deadlock that a Society—the Allotments Extension Association—had been established to see that an Act of Parliament passed almost unanimously should not be allowed to become useless owing to the disinclination to move on the part of those responsible to carry it out. In these circumstances, he had been forced to call the attention of the House to the subject. He possessed a list of some 70 or 80 cases, with reference to which between 1,000 and 2,000 letters had passed between the Allotments Extension Association, the Charity Commissioners, and the Trustees. In most of these cases, had the Charity Commissioners written a single letter to the Trustees, pointing out the compulsory character of the Act, and requiring them to move the land, would have been in possession of the land by this time. As a matter of fact, there had been constant delays, and, in most cases, the applicants were now no better off than they were 18 months ago, when they began their applications. There were thousands of men who, when the Allotments Extension Act was passed, looked upon it as a little salvation for them, and their disappointment was very great when they found that they had been deprived of the benefit which it conferred upon them. The applications made to the Charity Commissioners during the last 16 months to see that the law should be enforced had proved fruitless. The men had been, in many cases, told that the land was too remote, while, in fact, it was quite near and very suitable. These English agricultural labourers had displayed exemplary patience in the matter. While in Scotland they heard that something like revolution would ensue if justice were not done, the labourers in England were very patient, though they had in one case threatened to out the church bell ropes. The men felt the grievance all the more acutely, because the provisions of the Act of Parliament were clear and precise. He maintained that the Commissioners had no right to decide, as they had done in some cases, that grass land should not be put into the hands of the men. The Commissioners excused themselves by saying that the income from grass lands would be greater than if these lands were cut up. But what were the facts? Among others, he would mention to the House a case which occurred at Haddenham. There the land was grass land; but the men were refused it. The land was let locally at about £5 for 10 acres, and the men were asked to pay 32s. an acre for it. That land was let at the rate of about 10s. an acre. Now, where was the advantage to the Charity? Then there was another case which was published in The Bury and Norwich Post. The editor of that paper complained very properly of the manner in which the labourers were treated. He said that the land was let in allotments to 16 villagers. That word "villagers" sounded very well; but the worst of it was that the land had previously been let at 40s. an acre, while the cottagers were obliged to pay 55s. for it. That was illegal, because the Act said that the plots should be let at the same rate as land of the same quality in the parish. The editor went on to say, however, that he did not think the men would gain much by their plots this year, owing to the high rent, though they might, perhaps, do so next year. The men were afraid of the Charity Commissioners, and they mistrusted them. When the Act was before the House of Commons a Petition was sent in its favour from a district with which he was acquainted, and the Petitioners prayed that no power should be placed in the hands of the Charity Commissioners for the purpose of granting allotments; but that the power should be vested in the Vestry, which had hitherto exercised wisely the powers that had been intrusted to it. He hoped that when a Local Authority in counties was created the management of these lands would be one of the duties intrusted to it. He would point out that in many cases the labourers were willing to give a higher rent for the land than the Trustees obtained from others to whom they let it; and that when the Allotments Association wrote to the Charity Commissioners on the subject they declined to discuss it, except with persons interested under the Act. It was not a question now between the labourers and the Charity Commissioners, but between the Charity Commissioners and the Government. He hailed the time when local self-government would be established, which would enable the labourers to protect themselves. People talked about setting class against class; but the action of the Charity Commissioners, especially in the matter of these allotments, had tended more to set class against class than any agitation that he knew of. He had seen it, and could prove it by letters which he had received. Sometimes, also, the Trustees demanded payment of a year's rent in advance. Now, to ask an agricultural labourer to pay down two or three sovereigns in advance, as had been done, was adding insult to injury. Representative rural governments would prevent such injustice as he had described, and would be only second in importance to the Representation of the People Bill. The condition of these men was one that entitled them to fair and generous consideration; and that, he thought, they had not had. He had himself taxed the Chairman of the Charity Commissioners (Sir Seymour Fitzgerald) with unhandsome opposition to the Bill during its passage through Parliament. The question was, would the Government allow the Charity Commissioners to override an Act of Parliament? He was tired of applying to the Charity Commissioners. He was told that if he went to them he would get what he wanted; but he went to them once, and he would not go again. He did not see why he should ask as a favour that which they were bound to do by Act of Parliament. A case had been brought to his notice in which the Trustees were selling a piece of land; and when the purchasers found that the sale was contrary to Act of Parliament they wished to withdraw; but the Charity Commissioners would not allow them. The sale was completed, and the land lost to the men. There was very little doubt that the Charity Commissioners were at the back of the vendors in this case, and that they had arbitrarily overridden an Act of Parliament, the terms of which were mandatory. If they continued to act as they had hitherto done, it must follow that the Orders of the House of Commons would become subordinate to those of the Commissioners. If necessary, he could give 60 or 70 cases where the Act had been disregarded; and it was rendered absolutely impossible for those for whose benefit it was passed to reap any advantage from it. Men began to despair; and in a letter, which he had unfortunately not brought with him, a labourer in Norfolk said that, before the passing of the Act, he had intended to emigrate, but had decided otherwise when the Act was passed. He had thought he could get along with a bit of land; but now, since he had seen that the Act had not been carried out, he was determined to emigrate, as this country was evidently no place for a poor man. He (Mr. Jesse Collings) believed that that was true to a large extent; and what he contended for was that the Commissioners were not judges of what the Act should be. They were intended to be simply a Court of Appeal to compel unwilling Trustees to carry out the Act. It might be urged, however, that there had been a Select Committee appointed to consider the subject, and why not wait? But it must be borne in mind that a year and a-half had gone already, and comparatively little had been done. The people whose cause he was advocating were not Soudanese or Blacks, or they might get attention, but common English people, who were suffering a great wrong through being deprived of the benefits which that House had intended to confer upon them. He hoped no mere perfunctory answer would be given by the Government to the serious case he had brought before the House.


asked what other answer could be possibly made to the elaborate statements which had taken over an hour to lay before the House? There was no man in the House more thoroughly in sympathy with the Allotments Act than himself; and he believed almost any man who had the interests of the peasantry of this country at heart would be anxious to facilitate the Act. The course taken by the hon. Gentleman was inconvenient and somewhat unfair. The charges made by the hon. Gentleman should either have been communicated to him in advance, so that he could have made inquiry, or they should be investigated by the Select Committee which was appointed a short time ago. His right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works was the Chairman of the Committee; and a Member of the Committee was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Devon (Sir Stafford Northcote), than whom no one had done more in obtaining allotments for labourers. He thought the constitution of the Committee was a guarantee that the subject would be thoroughly threshed out. The Commissioners had come before him in cases affecting his own Office, and he had always found them as anxious as he was himself to carry out the Act. [Mr. JESSE COLLINGS: The men have not the land.] As the Act only came into operation last year, they would hardly have the land by this time. Undoubtedly, there were difficulties and obstacles in the way in some cases; but the Commissioners had endeavoured, over and over again, in those cases, to induce the Trustees to facilitate the working of the Act. As to the removal of Trustees, that was no easy matter, and a good deal of legal procedure had to be gone through before that could be done. Then, again, his hon. Friend had said that the answers he had made in a particular case were not candid answers. As far as he was con- cerned, he repudiated that statement, and declared that the answers he gave were as straightforward and as candid as he could give. The Charity Commissioners had just published their Report showing the working of the Act of the first year, and they stated that there was great difficulty in carrying out the Act. In the first place, it was very badly drawn, and consequently very difficult to construe. The most difficult questions were put to the Commissioners as to how the Act should be worked, and there was constant conflict between the Trustees and the Commissioners. He could only assure his hon. Friend that there had been two new Commissioners appointed this year; and to one of them, Sir F. Stanford, he had spoken very strongly in the interest of the labourer, and that gentleman was as anxious as his hon. Friend that the Act should be properly worked. The Act really needed some amendment before it could be looked upon as a practical Act. He thought that it was hardly fair to the Commissioners that his hon. Friend having, on the 9th of April, referred the whole of this question to a Select Committee, should on the 21st of the same month come down to the House with an elaborate statement which was not to be perfunctorily answered. He hoped his hon. Friend would bring all the cases of hardship he had enumerated before the Select Committee, and that they would have such a Report from the Committee as would show that the contentions of his hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich were in accordance with the facts. More the House would not expect him to say.


said, that the hon. Member (Mr. Jesse Collings) showed impatience of the actions, not only of the Commissioners, but of the ordinary Law Courts. Speaking as a Trustee of some of the lands over which this Act was supposed to operate, he asserted that it was clumsy and unworkable, and that it cast a grievous burden upon those who undertook the functions of Trustees. He very much doubted, too, whether the demand for allotments had not been greatly exaggerated. He had called the attention of the labourers in a large parish to the benefits of the Act, and they all refused to take advantage of it. They did not want allotments, because experience showed them it was cheaper to buy the onions and turnips than to grow them. Let them take the cost of sowing and carrying the crop, and they would find that a crop of a quarter of an acre of potatoes or onions would cost about £1 more than the same quantity purchased. They on that side of the House were just as anxious to benefit the labourers as the hon. Member for Ipswich; but if the Allotment Act was to be of any service to them, it must undergo very considerable change.


I happen not to have had the honour of occupying a seat in this House when the Act now under discussion was passed; and, therefore, I am in a better position to offer some criticisms upon it. I may say, however, that I quite endorse what has fallen from the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Elton) who has just sat down, when he stated that this Act has proved a most unworkable one. The speech that has been made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Jesse Collings) has, I think, displayed a lamentable want of knowledge as to the practical nature of the cultivation of these allotments, and also of the extreme difficulty under which the Trustees labour in carrying out the Act. I suppose it was the duty of the Trustees, in the first instance, to consider what were the original objects of the Charity, and to see that those objects should not be injured or altogether destroyed by the operation of the Act. When the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich tells us that a certain extra rent is demanded from the agricultural labourer beyond that which is obtained from the farmer, I think he ought also to have stated this fact—that it is invariably the case, whenever we let land to the agricultural labourers in acres, or half acres, or in quarter acres, the rent charged always includes the rates and tithes and the taxes; whereas all those charges, when the land is let to the farmer, are invariably paid by the occupier. This fact, therefore, very naturally makes a considerable difference in the rents. Again, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich thinks that it would be consistent in the case of Trusts, who have under their direction a good field of pasture land, which has, perhaps, been accumulating its fertility for centuries, to break this up all of a sudden into allotments, whereby three or four years of potato cultivation would render the land barren and unfruitful, and certainly not worth, half or even a fourth so much rent as it now fetches. Again, with regard to the possibility of carrying out this Act, I am inclined to say that, in the majority of the cases, it is almost impossible to carry out the Act. In the county with which I am most intimately acquainted, many parishes had allotments made when the common was inclosed, for the purpose of cutting fuel. If there be any fuel in the shape of peat to be dug it is dug up, and the land is consequently rendered comparatively valueless; and if the allotment be not suited for the purposes of fuel, it is often situated at the remote end of the common, and at a considerable distance from the houses. I know of several instances in which these allotments run to the extent of from 10 to 20 and even 30 acres; and they are, generally speaking, let to small traders or small farmers in the adjacent village. But if they are to be let as allotments they are, in the first place, often very inconveniently situated. I may also say that I do not think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich has the slightest knowledge of the difficulty that is experienced in taking two or three acres of these fields for the purposes of allotments. The expense of putting up and maintaining fences, and of providing a road or even a path is considerable; and there is no certainty, as the hon. and learned Gentleman near me (Mr. Elton) has pointed out, that the tenants will continue to hold the land. Also, I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich is not aware that the allotments have gone very much out of favour with agricultural labourers during the last few years. In my own district these allotments are, I am happy to say, very general, and when situated near a village and where they are let in plots not exceeding half an acre or a quarter of an acre—which is usually about all a man can cultivate with a spade—in such cases the allotments are most valuable. But I am sorry to say that I have noticed in that district within the last seven or eight years, and more particularly within the last two or three years, that a number of these allotments have remained unlet, and that the cultivation of others has very seriously deteriorated.