HC Deb 27 May 1884 vol 288 cc1499-506

said, he rose to call attention to a subject that was more nearly connected with the Motion of Adjournment than that which had been under discussion. What he wished to do was to complain and protest against the Adjournment being taken as it had been. He did not do so because of being angry with the Government; but he wanted a Government, so well disposed towards Scotland as this Government was, to understand what was likely to be the effect on Scotland. As the House were well aware, he had secured this evening for the discussion of a subject of great interest to Scotland. No doubt there was difference of opinion among the Scotch Members as to the terms of his Motion; but as to its importance there was none. For a long time there had been a burning question in Scotland — an agrarian agitation. With a view of putting an end to that, a Commission was appointed, and that Commission had recently reported. Well, when that Commission was appointed there was a very wide-spread suspicion—


I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member; but I am bound to say that if he proposes to refer to the Report of the Crofters' Commission he will be out of Order. The hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. Macfarlane) has given Notice that he will refer to it this day four weeks; and I understand this is the same subject which the hon. Gentleman would propose to take to-night; but, both on the ground that he could not anticipate his own Motion and the Notice of the hon. Member for Carlow, he will be out of Order in alluding to the Crofters' Commission.


said, he was perfectly well aware of the Rule referred to, and he had withdrawn his own Motion on the subject; and he was aware that the Notice of the hon. Member for Carlow debarred him from entering into the subject. He did not intend to discuss the Report of the Crofters' Commission. He had simply referred to it. When the Commission was appointed, and had reported—[Cries of "Order, order!"] He was not discussing the Report. When the Commission was appointed a widespread suspicion was entertained that it was for the purpose of shelving a disagreeable subject. He did not entertain that suspicion, although it was intensified when the composition of the Commission was made known. Still, he was quite willing to believe that the Commission would be a fair and painstaking body. He thought the Report showed that that had been the case. An opportunity had been obtained of discussing its Report, and now that opportunity had been taken away by the action of the Government in moving the Adjournment just before the Sitting at which the Motion referring to the Report was to be discussed. He did not believe the Government did this on purpose to avoid the discussion; but people in Scotland would very naturally entertain that opinion. He said he did not believe it; but he mentioned the matter now in order to give the Government the opportunity of setting themselves right with the country. The people of Scotland might be forgiven if they thought that Commissions and inquiries were too often granted for the purpose not of promoting, but of shelving inconvenient reforms, and especially might they consider that in connection with some of the matters dealt with by this Commission. Some time ago he had brought before the House the question of the appointment of Public Prosecutors in Scotland, and called attention to the fact that they were allowed to engage in private practice and act as land agents. The Government voted against his Resolution, and it was lost. But what had occurred previously? Some years ago his hon. Friend the Member for the Inverness Burghs (Mr. Fraser Mackintosh) proposed a clause in a Bill then before the House. That clause was to the same effect as his Motion. When it was discussed the present Government were in Opposition, sitting on the other side of the House; and among those who voted for the clause were the present Home Secretary, the Attorney General, the Judge Advocate General, and the Secretary to the Treasury. All these Gentlemen voted for it when they were in Opposition; but when he (Dr. Cameron) brought it forward when they were in power they all voted against it. They all turned their backs upon their former vote. Not only did they vote against it, but they did so when the Report of this Royal Commission was in their hands. That, he thought, was an example of action that was calculated to arouse the suspicion of Scotland as to their sincerity to deal with, the question. The Land Question was another of these subjects. Forty years ago Sir John M'Neill gave a Report that was quoted as the gospel of everything that could be said on the subject. He suggested an improvement in the condition of the tenure of land in Scotland; but nothing was done on that Report. Then there was the Agricultural Holdings Act, which was passed in 1876. That gave tonants-at-will in England a right to a year's notice to quit; but that Act was not applied to Scotland. Last year another Agricultural Holdings Act was passed. In its application to England it gave, to a limited extent, right to a notice to quit of 12 months; but in the case of Scotland, although a similar length of notice to quit was proposed to be inserted, that was contested, and ultimately the matter was compromised by giving the Scotch tenants-at-will right to a six months' notice. But when that came into operation, what did they find? This—that owing to the legal construction of the Act, that six months' notice did not come into effect until after the first term at which evictions should have taken place. He did not know if that was the legal construction of the law. A most eminent English counsel had given an opinion that it was not; but the Lord Advocate said that it was the construction which should be put upon the Act. The Law Courts could decide between them; but the point to which he wished to call attention, was that the Minister of the Crown, who was intrusted with the charge of the Bill, and who drafted and arranged the clauses, had given it as his opinion that the meaning was that it should not come into operation until after a date at which evictions could take place. The publication of the Report of the Crofters' Commission had aggravated the situation. Matters were bad enough before; disturbance and resistance to the law had occurred in various Highland districts.


I am bound to say that the hon. Gentleman is not paying attention to my ruling. He is discussing the Report of the Crofters' Commission in an indirect way, which is entirely out of Order.


said, that, of course, he bowed to the Speaker's ruling, and would speak to another branch of the subject. Well, there existed at this moment, in consequence of the interpretation which had been put upon the Act of last year, some 85 processes of eviction, pending in one single district, involving the fate of a number of persons said to range between 400 and 600. That was a serious state of matters; and as the people of Scotland sympathized with those who were so affected, it was most imprudent, and likely to be most disastrous to Her Majesty's Government, if they were to take any course of action that would rouse suspicion as to their being not anxious to deal with and remedy acknowledged evils in Scotch affairs. The people of Scotland were loyal in their Liberalism, and they were long-suffering; but, unless they saw that some more earnest spirit was manifested than was shown by the withdrawal of an opportunity of bringing up an important subject, simply in order to allow Members to get away for the holidays 12 hours earlier—unless they showed greater earnestness in dealing with Scotch affairs, it appeared to him, not that the people of Scotland would deviate from their Liberalism, but that they would return a very different class of Liberals to the House from those who represented them in it at present. They would return men who would insist upon some very much more radical reforms than were likely to approve themselves to the Government.


I suppose I ought to say something upon the very miscellaneous invective which my hon. Friend has addressed to Her Majesty's Government. I do not think language of that kind ought to be left without some kind of answer. The hon. Gentleman has chosen to say that everybody had a suspicion that the conduct of Her Majesty's Government was exceedingly unfair. [Dr. CAMERON: No; I said I had not.] Well, everybody in Scotland except the hon. Member had a suspicion that the Government were dealing very unfairly and with a want of sincerity and earnestness with regard to these questions. He promised us—which I very much regret—a totally different class of Representatives from Scotland from those who at present exist. As I have a very great respect and admiration for the present class of Representatives from Scotland, I should be very sorry if my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow has already determined that the whole of that class is to be changed. But, with regard to the conduct of the Government, all I have to say is that a Report has been presented by the Commissioners of very great importance, containing recommendations unquestionably of a novel character requiring careful examination; that these are founded upon very voluminous evidence, constituting four thick volumes, which, I am ashamed to confess, I have not had time yet to read. As for the notion of embarking on legislation of this character, and announcing the intention of the Government on an afternoon before the Whitsuntide Holidays with reference to matters of such importance, I do not think that is a reasonable demand. Therefore, if Members had been here in greater numbers the Government would have said nothing but what they now say, that it is their duty to examine the recommendations of that Report extremely carefully—especially to examine the evidence upon which it is founded, and how far the evidence bears out these recommendations. It is perfectly impossible, even if the Government had nothing else to do, that they could have made that examination before to-day. I do not know if the hon. Member for Glasgow is prepared to say that he has read the evidence through. If he has, I am prepared to say that he is the only man in this House who has done so; and if that be so, I do not see how the Government can have exposed themselves to the severe censure which he has passed upon them for not having been able this afternoon to announce the resolution at which they had arrived.


said, he did not understand the hon. Member for Glasgow to expect the Government to announce to-night the legislation which they proposed. He understood that what his hon. Friend had complained of was that the Government, by their action with regard to the hour of proposing the Adjournment, had deprived him of the advantage which he had gained by the ballot with respect to his Motion. Before the Easter Recess the Prime Minister had expressly arranged his Motion for the Adjournment, so that it should not prevent an Evening Sitting. He maintained that the people had a substantial grievance in the fact that the Government, to save a couple of hours' inconvenience, had so arranged the Motion for Adjournment as to preclude the hon. Member from discussing a question of the highest importance to the tenants of Scotland, and of the deepest interest to the people generally. His hon. Friend had not made any complaint of the Government having refused to lay down a Land Bill for Scotland; he had not expected anything so rapid from Her Majesty's Government on that subject. The Government had not at any time shown very much anxiety to deal with and reform the Land Law of Scotland. Even the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act of last year had been so framed as to admit now of an interpretation highly detrimental to the people. The Lord Advocate was answerable for the doubtful framing of that Act, which, instead of being a relief and a protection to the people, was now proving very detrimental to the people of Scotland. They were being evicted after 40 days' notice, in spite of the Act, which said that from the 1st of January they were entitled to six months' notice. He had taken the opinion of the hon. and learned Member for Christchurch (Mr. Horace Davey), which, he believed, the Lord Advocate himself would allow stood as high as that of any Member on the Government Bench, and that opinion was distinctly, contrary to that of the Lord Advocate. He was afraid that when eminent legal authorities were in direct conflict, the people of the West of Scotland were likely to fall between two stools. He was, however, of opinion that they had not lost much by being deprived of the discussion that evening, because, from the remarks of the Home Secretary, they would not be likely to receive much comfort from the Government at present on the subject. He desired, however, to impress upon Her Majesty's Government the fact that Scotch Members had a very substantial grievance—namely, that the Government, to save a few Members three hours' inconvenience, had so arranged the adjournment as to preclude the hon. Member for Glasgow from bringing on his Motion for the benefit of the crofters.


said, he desired to express his opinion with respect to the crofters. He was not going to refer to the Report of the Commission; but he thought the position of the people in those parts of the country towards the law was a very unsatisfactory one indeed. The administration of the law in the Western Islands was extremely unsatisfactory, and caused great dissatisfaction to the people there. The Procurator Fiscal, a public official, was also land agent to the proprietor who owned the whole of the country; and the poor crofters frequently did not know when he was acting in the one capacity and when in the other. The consequence was a general want of confidence on the part of the people in the impartiality of the administration of justice; and the Government might expect, in consequence, serious results. He thought it was now the duty of Scotch Members to bring the state of affairs fairly and fully before the Government. If they had a Minister for Scotland they would have someone responsible for redress of the grievances complained of. But as they saw the Government were dealing with this question of a new Minister for Scotland in a very unsatisfactory way, he considered that Scotch Members were perfectly right in complaining. It was all very well for the Home Secretary to reply as he did to the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron); but the Government need not be surprised if the people of Scotland should not prove so docile as heretofore, and if their Representatives showed themselves determined in having more attention paid by Government to Scotch affairs. His object in rising was to call the attention of the Government to the state of things existing in the West of Scotland, and to the expectations entertained by the people of Government action on the Report of its own Commissioners. He hoped the Home Secretary would devote some of his attention to the Report of the Commission during the Holidays, and that after the Recess the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be in a position to intimate what the Government intended to do on the Report of the Commission.