HC Deb 26 February 1886 vol 302 cc1473-87

Sir, I wish to call attention to the Motion which stands in my name upon the Paper— That, in the opinion of this House, the relief provided by the 23rd section of 'The Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act, 1885,' in respect of lessees and tenants purchasing Church lands in Ireland is inadequate and inaccessible, and that the condition of these purchasers, owing to the exceptional circumstances under which they were induced to exercise their right of pre-emption, and owing to a long succession of disastrous seasons, claims the urgent attention of Her Majesty's Government with a view to making further and more effectual provision for their relief. I do not at this hour want to enter into this subject at great length, although it is of the greatest interest to my constituents in South Tyrone, and to a large number of the tenantry in every part of Ulster. This is one of the questions of which I may say that there is absolute unanimity upon it between those who are Nationalists and those who are not. I believe that the majority of the purchasers themselves are Presbyterians. I do not know whether there are any hon. Members from Ulster present, who usually sit about the Gangway; but I think they would be able to say that their constituents think as strongly on this subject as ours do, and would recollect the sympathy they expressed for the class concerned in their speeches in Ireland. I think also that they will say that this is in no sense whatever a Party question, and that if the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley) sees his way to afford relief to this most struggling and deserving class of Irish tenants, he will be sending a message of peace into Ulster that will be received with the greatest satisfaction, and also with feelings which will tend to allay that exasperation which exists upon the subject. The purchase of the glebe lands by the tenants was in no respect a voluntary transaction. Under the terms of the Land Purchase Act, 1868, the tenants were obliged to exercise their right of pre-emption, or the property would have been sold and new landlords put over them; they were compelled to purchase at the valuation of the Church Commissioners, which was, practically speaking, the landlords' valuation, and was, at one time, at the enormous rate of 23 or 24 years' purchase, and this, in the case of poorer tenants, was run up as high as 30 and 35 years' purchase. They were obliged, in addition, to scrape together one-fourth of the purchase-money, and almost all of them had to raise the money from banks at 6 per cent, while many of them had to borrow from private money lenders, at an enormous rate of interest. Sir, the Irish tenants have received absolutely no benefit from the land legislation of the last 15 years. Even leaseholders have managed to get temporary abatements of rent at various times, and they are now under the provisions of the Land Purchase Act; but these poor purchasers of glebe lands are fastened down to con- ditions which were wholly insufficient for their benefit. Instead of getting a re-batement of rent, they have been paying in all cases a large rent-charge at a time when rents were being lowered all over Ireland. Now, Sir, I put it to Her Majesty's Government, whether there is any fair and just reason why this should be the only class of tenants in Ireland to be debarred from the benefits of the Land Act and of the Arrears Act, and who are obliged to buy land under a condition of the law which has been in all other cases abrogated? As I have said, it is not the case of men who have entered into a free contract with their eyes open. They are purchasers in no more voluntary sense than the laws force upon them; and we all know that the Land Act of 1881 allows these laws to be broken. The purchases, as I have said, were made at the landlords' valuation at the time when the land was supposed to be worth any money in Ireland, and at prices which are now admitted to be preposterous by land valuators. I may also mention that they purchased the land when the law did not recognize the tenant's property in his own improvements, and the consequence is that they have had to purchase their own improvements as well as the landlords. These people are amongst the most hard-working and poor of the struggling tenants in Ulster. In the case of the poor men whose purchase-money was under £200, they had to repay the money advanced in 10 years instead of 32 years. Of course, they had to borrow largely from money lenders at 10 per cent. Now, I will not go into the details of the case of these poor people, as I easily might do, but will merely point out that they have had to drag along under these burdens, through all the terrible years of distress, not only without abatement of rent, but at largely increased rents, when all the world knows it was very hard to make even a moderate rent out of the land. The agreement was made when the Land Purchase Act was passed, but I think I can show that the Land Purchase Act, so far as it relates to these poor tenants, was wholly inadequate and insufficient; and whether it is or not, it is practically inoperative for the great bulk of them. It is really insufficient, because it takes no account of the interest of tenants who made improvement, so that they are left in the position of buying what the law now acknowledges to be their own property. It is inadequate, because it leaves these poor people in the grip of the money lenders for the balance of purchase-money. I could give particulars in which it excludes a whole class of the tenants in question—for instance, those holding leases. But it excludes persons under the Act of 1870, whose purchase-money was really still more extravagant. The relief to them is altogether inaccessible, because it only operates on their clearing off arrears. It is perfectly impossible that these small farmers, circumstanced as they are, can have passed through the last terrible years without having got into arrears and into a state of hopeless distress. I do not think that anyone can pretend that these men have broken down through any fault of their own. During a great many years they have struggled on, having paid rent and the instalments to the banks and money lenders, and I think the Report of the Church Commissioners bears testimony to the way in which these men have met their engagements and continued their industry. Now, the position of these poor people is that they are debarred from all benefit of the Land Act and Arrears Act, which every other class of tenants enjoy, while at the same time they are at the mercy of the money lenders, whereas other tenants receive their purchase-money from the State; and, finally, even the partial relief that the Land Purchase Act purports to afford them is altogether inadequate and inoperative, because they cannot clear off arrears of rents, which in every other case has been rebated long ago. If there is a grievance here, which I think will not be denied, and if there is no other remedy for it, I must say, speaking for myself, that I think it would not involve a very large grant from the balance of the Irish Church Surplus Fund to make some provision that would enable these poor people to compound with their arrears upon some equitable terms, and enable them to get out of the hands of the money lenders by obtaining loans on the same terms as any other tenants in Ireland can get them, and to bring about such modifications of their position that the Land Commission, or other Court of Equity in Ireland, may place them on an equality with other tenants. That, Sir, is all we ask for, and I throw it out upon my own responsibility, not knowing how far it will be supported by my hon. Friends around me. I may say that the Church Surplus Fund is Irish money; it has been used for many useful purposes, including the assistance of tenants in clearing off arrears, and I do not know that it can be better employed than in enabling these poor tenants to continue their honest business. I must confess that it is very reluctantly that I press forward at this moment anything that could embarrass the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley), or distract him from the very great duties he has to perform, and I think I may say that every man around mo from Ireland are disposed to remove from his way as many difficulties as they can. This, however, is a case of extreme emergency concerning a large body of tenants in the North of Ireland, and upon which there is, amongst all classes there, practical unanimity. I hope, Sir, that some remedy will be found for the evil I have described, and I do earnestly appeal to the Chief Secretary for Ireland to give us some sort of assurance that these poor men will not be driven to the wall, but that they will be allowed to participate in the advantages which the law has granted to every other class of tenants in Ireland.


Sir, as this is a Treasury matter, I may, perhaps, in reply to the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, state the case from outpoint of view. The hon. Member (Mr. W. O'Brien) has, I think, put his case in a very fair and temperate manner to the House, and I have no intention to present the matter from a hard or stern standpoint. The case which my hon. Friend presents to the House is that of the occupying tenants who purchased under the Irish Church Acts the glebe lands then in their occupation, and my hon. Friend has stated with perfect accuracy the position of land in Ireland when this took place. There was at that time a competition which to-day is unknown, and the value of agricultural produce was then very different from what it is now. I will state to the House what the prices of land were, and they will then see how this operation has been carried out. At that time there were about 8,400 tenancies in glebe land, bringing in an annual rental of £98,000. Of those holdings there were 6,050 occupiers who became purchasers; and this, I think, constitutes a strong argument in favour of the law which enables tenants to become purchasers of their holdings. With regard to the question of price, I have to qualify what has been said as to the price being oppressive, because the competition of tenants for the purchase of the land was so great that they gave more than could be obtained for it by auction—the average price at auction being 22⅓ years, whereas the average price given by the tenants was 22⅔ years' purchase. That was a high price, looked at in the light of 1886, although not so when looked at in the light of 1870. I should like to mention to the House the admirable manner in which the instalments of purchase money have been paid. The principal and interest combined represents an annual income of £106,000, and the total arrears spread over the whole term, from 1870 to 1885, only amount to £34,500, the aggregate purchase-money at the price given by tenants being £1,750,000. I may say that the figures brought before me the other day at the Treasury, and the Returns showing the manner in which the seed loan has been repaid, together with the small amount of arrears in connection with that loan, have astounded me, and showed that where public money had been advanced to Irish tenants and landlords also, it has been paid with an honesty, integrity, and promptitude which contrasts favourably with loans made in any other portion of the Empire. The law required one-fourth of the purchase-money to be paid in cash, the remaining three-fourths being covered by mortgages; the terms on which the loans were made cannot, I think, be said to be high—the rate of interest was 4 per cent, and the loans were repayable in 32 years. My hon. Friend (Mr. W. O'Brien) has stated that the interest of the tenants in their improvements had not been taken into account; but the statement made by the Treasury is to the contrary. However, I am not prepared to discuss that point; but taking the fact that these tenants were paying interest at the rate of 4 per cent, that they had to repay the amount lent in 32 years, and that they continued to pay during a time of great agricultural de- pression in Ireland; taking also into account that loans were made to other tenants on much more favourable terms—this, I say, constituted a case of hardship. Well, Sir, the late Government dealt with that hardship during the last Session of Parliament. And what did the late Government do with reference to the Land Purchase Bill? Supported, I believe, by the action of hon. Members from the North and South of Ireland, Ulster included, they put into the Bill a clause—which is now Section 23 of the Act—to the effect that the rate of interest then being paid by these tenants should be reduced to 3⅛ per cent, and that the term of payment should be extended from 32 to 49 years. That was the relief given by the Treasury in the measure of last year; and I think it is one that has been, and will continue to be, appreciated. There is another point connected with this case which has to be looked at. It is outside the question of law; it is a question of policy, and as such will, no doubt, be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland. The bulk of these tenants, when they purchased their holdings, not having the one-fourth of the purchase-money in their possession, had to borrow it from outside lenders. And they had to borrow it, no doubt, at very usurious rates of interest—probably, in borrowing the one-fourth, they incurred a more onerous burden than in borrowing the other three-fourths of the purchase-money; and I understand that we are asked to give some facilities with reference to the one-fourth. I understand, also, that another point is raised by the hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. W. O'Brien)—namely, that the 23rd clause of the Land Purchase Act is coupled with the condition that no one shall avail himself of it who has not paid up arrears. I must say, looking at the small amount of arrears, that there need be no long controversy on that ground. The question of policy does not fall within my Department. I can only say, so far as the Treasury is concerned, that we shall be ready to cooperate with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley) in taking such steps and passing such measures as may, on the one hand, be fair and liberal to the Irish glebe land tenants, and which, at the same time, will be just to the general taxpayer.


I rise, Sir, to seize the opportunity, which may never recur, of agreeing with hon. Members behind me. In this matter I am entirely in accord with them; and I think that the very deserving class of tenants alluded to by the hon. Gentleman who proposed this Resolution (Mr. W. O'Brien) have been most curiously overlooked in dealing with the Irish Land Question. I do not feel the embarrassment which the hon. Gentleman felt in broaching this question, because I do not, perhaps, feel quite so anxious as he does as to whether the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley) should have his time taken up by it. He may readily be worse employed, and I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will find time to deal with this question effectually. Whether that wonderful widow's cruse, the Irish Church Fund, will be found to have still a few drops of oil in it, I cannot undertake to say; but if it had not been for the concluding remarks of the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler), I should be inclined to say that it afforded about the only chance of relief for the tenants in question. We have heard a great deal of the liberality with which Irish tenants have been treated. But, Sir, that has been a purely vicarious liberality; it has been at the expense of others, and it has not yet fallen on the English taxpayer. If a new era is to arise, and if the English taxpayer, as personified by the Secretary to the Treasury, is going to put his hand in his pocket, I am extremely glad to hear it for the sake of this distressed class of tenants, who, I hope, will derive some advantage from it. But, Sir, I was very much struck by the account given by the Secretary to the Treasury of the wonderful punctuality with which these rents have been paid by the tenants; and it occurs to me that if other tenants had been as thrifty as those whose case we are now considering, we might possibly have heard not quite so much as to the difficulty of paying impossible rents. If the rents reduced by the Land Court by 25 per cent are impossible rents, how can these men pay up their still more impossible rents with a punctuality which has called for the admiration of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury? Sir, I think that a class of men who have performed such a miracle as this are deserving of the greatest consideration on the part of Her Majesty's Government, and I certainly hope that they will receive it. At this late hour (12.40), it is not necessary for me to occupy the time of the House at length in speaking on this subject.


Sir, I wish to say a few words with regard to some observations which fell from the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler), which struck me very much at the time. The hon. Gentleman remarked that these tenants bought their holdings at the market price in the best of times; but I believe that not only did these unfortunate tenants buy their holdings at the market price, but that they bought thorn at over the market price. It has been said that, of course, a man must suffer for his own fault; but the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley) must recollect that these men were in peculiar circumstances. Land hunger at the time amounted almost to a madness; and the right hon. Gentleman must remember that it was at the time impossible for any man to buy his holding until the Act was passed. This was the first opportunity that the poor tenant in Ireland ever had of buying his holding, which in his eyes was like a priceless gem; he did not consider the value of the land, but gave for it a really fancy price. But I will not detain the House by repeating what has been so ably said by the hon. Gentleman at my side (Mr. W. O'Brien). We have had a remarkable admission from the Secretary to the Treasury as to how these people have struggled on to pay the money due to the Treasury, and that they had succeeded in repaying almost the whole of the money advanced; and what I have to urge now is that it has come to this pass—that some attempt must be made to relieve the tenants whoso case ha3 been placed before the House. Hon. Members will agree it would be a cruel injustice if some means were not devised—means which would entail no loss on the English Treasury—to enable men, whom everybody admits are honest men, industrious men, and men who are in every way a credit to the country, to struggle on through these adverse times and keep the roofs over their heads.


I should like to say a very few words with reference to the speech of the hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. W. O'Brien). The hon. Member pointed out plainly and forcibly the very difficult conditions under which many of the glebe tenants are now labouring, and he showed clearly how very partial was the Relief Act of 1885. I do trust this House will give this very important question its most earnest attention; for I have no hesitation in saying that, of all the agricultural population in Ireland, there is no class that is so deserving of sympathy, and has suffered so much from the recent depreciation in the value of land, as these glebe purchasers. We hear a great deal of the hardships of the position occupied by the tenant farmers of Ireland; but if the position of the men who have enjoyed all the advantages of recent land legislation is hard—and no one disputes that it is hard—I ask how much worse must be the position of those men who were induced to purchase their holdings when land was at a premium, when the rents were, in many cases to my certain knowledge, from 25 to 30 per cent over Griffiths's valuation, and when these exorbitant rents were made the basis on which to conduct the sale? The claims of this particular portion of the agricultural population of Ireland have hitherto, I think, been rather neglected; they have not been brought into the prominence which their merits deserved—a fact which I think is owing mainly to one or two reasons. In the first place, because the glebe tenants have hitherto—and I hope they will continue to do so—only brought their claims into notice in a Constitutional manner; they have not resorted to the apparently powerful—I might almost say unanswerable—argument of crime and outrage; and, secondly, because the hon. Gentlemen who usually take it upon themselves to advocate the claims of the tenant farmers of Ireland, have hitherto rather neglected this portion of the farmer class. [An hon. MEMBER: Nay; the Tory Members.] I think I am right in saying that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway have hitherto to a certain extent neglected this portion of the agricultural population of Ireland. There is a reason for it, no doubt. The fact must be partly owing, I think, to the absence of any landlord to abuse; and I can quite understand that the absence of any landlord whom they can denounce must lessen, in the eyes of hon. Gentlemen, the interest and excitement which naturally attach to the land agitation. I am glad that we who represent Ulster constituencies are in perfect accord with hon. Members who sit below the Gangway. [Mr. W. O'BRIEN: Who did represent Ulster constituencies.] Several suggestions have been made in this matter; and I should like, if I shall not be out of Order—I am very ignorant of the usages of the House, and I find it most difficult to obtain reliable information from the older hon. Members—to make a suggestion, because I have had the opportunity of conversing with many of the glebe purchasers of Ireland, and I think I am tolerably conversant with their views on this subject, and with the remedies which suggest themselves to their minds. In many cases the rents were considerably over Griffith's valuation; and I have reason to know that it would meet with the views of the glebe purchasers in Ireland if the amount of the rent which was in excess, multiplied by the number of years' purchase given, were deducted from the instalments still due. One of the undoubted hardships is not so much the number of years' purchase, or the exorbitant rents on the basis of which the sale was conducted, but the fact that they were forced, in order to lay down the amount of purchase-money required, to resort to usurers and borrow money at great interest. I believe I am right in stating that the Church Temporalities Commissioners had power to invest money in cases where the entire amount of the purchase-money was under £100. There is no doubt that many of the unfortunate tenants whose purchase-money was under £100 were—because they were required to pay one-half down—forced to go to usurers, and by these men were persuaded that it would be to their advantage to borrow the whole of the money. A reference to the Returns will show that this was done in many cases; you will find that in instances where the amount of the purchase-money was under £100 the whole sum was paid down. I think it would be only fair that the amount of money that the purchasers were compelled to pay should now be advanced to the men by the State at the same rate of interest and on the same conditions as if they had been purchasers under the Act of 1885. I will not detain the House longer. I hope the Government will give this matter its most earnest consideration, and that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway and hon. Gentlemen representing similar views to myself will long continue to be in the same accord we are in on this matter.


I think the noble Lord (Lord Ernest Hamilton) has scarcely, in all his remarks, kept up the tone of sincere desire to be in accord with hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway; and he certainly is in error in supposing that he and those who sit near him have only the right to speak for Ulster.


I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I do not think I said anything of the sort. I did not say we were the only Members who had a right to represent Ulster. If I did not say so in so many words, I meant to convey that I was a Member of the Party which, I believe, goes by the name of the Ulster Party.


I do not think that hon. Members sitting opposite me can any longer claim to be the Representatives of the Ulster Party. But I will not pursue the point; it is not an important one. Well, Sir, it cannot be denied, and is not denied in any part of the House, that the case of the glebe purchasers in Ireland is a very hard one. These purchasers paid prices which, undoubtedly, they would not have paid if they could have foreseen the legislation which took place in 1880 or 1881; still less if they could have foreseen the enormous change that has since come over the economic condition of agricultural pursuits in Ireland. It is clear they entered into bargains which have turned out bad and unprofitable. Considering how much has been done to relieve Irish tenants of all kinds, it does seem hard that these men, who showed themselves provident, self-denying, and wisely desirous to secure their holdings, should be suffering hardship for what was, in fact, no fault of their own. On that I think we are all agreed. The only difficulty is how are we to give them relief? The hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. W. O'Brien) has suggested a grant from the Church Surplus. I am not very willing, at the first glance, to fall in with that proposal, though it is not an inequitable one in itself, because I think there are other purposes in contemplation for which the Church Surplus may be useful. The suggestion of the noble Lord (Lord Ernest Hamilton) is also open to a great deal of criticism, with which I will not now trouble the House. I will only promise the House that, in that reconsideration of the whole Land Question which the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister (Mr. Gladstone) has announced as one of the three objects of the Irish policy of the Government, the case of the glebe purchasers shall not, if we can help it, be overlooked. My hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler) has stated clearly enough how the matter stands financially; and I think he has pointed out one direction in which some relief may be granted. I mean a relaxation of the sub-section of the Act—the 23rd section of the Purchase Act—which insists upon the payment of all instalments in arrear before any advantage can be taken of that section. I think, without further consideration, I can hold out hopes of being able to relax that section; but whether that can be done before measures of larger scope are brought before the Legislature, I rather doubt. I should say it is hardly worth while raising a minute point of that kind when larger measures are in contemplation. Under these circumstances, I will only repeat that we shall not lose sight of the interests brought before us by the hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. W. O'Brien); they will take their place amongst all the other points of the Land Question which are now under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government.


I would remind the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. John Morley) that when the late Government introduced the Bill, now Lord Ashbourne's Act, the condition of the purchasers of the globe land was brought before them, and the late Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) distinctly declined to adopt the suggestions then made. At that time I was not an Ulster Member, and I was not aware of the extreme hardship under which the glebe purchasers in Ulster laboured. Within the last two or three months, however, I have heard many stories from glebe purchasers in my own constituency of extreme hardship. In all cases the men have given mo their names and addresses, and they have informed me that they have paid as much as 35 years' purchase for their holdings, and on rents which were double those in Griffith's valuation. I calculate that, at that rate, they paid at least three times more than their farms are worth, even making allowance for the high prices of farm produce which prevailed 10 or 15 years ago, when the purchases were made. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will also bear in mind that the arrears of £35,000 which now exist have nearly all accrued within the last three or four or five years. When the Bessborough Committee was taking evidence in 1880, the arrears only amounted to a little over £5,000, and it is owing to the extreme hardships and the extraordinary agricultural depression of the last five years that these men have been forced to fall into further arrear. Now, it is but reasonable that the glebe purchasers, who had not the advantage of the Land Act, who had not the advantage of the Arrears Act, which greatly benefited the tenants of Ireland, should have the advantage of Lord Ashbourne's Act, and that they should at least have loans for the purpose of paying off the money they have had to borrow from usurers at an exorbitant rate of interest, loans similar to those which are advanced at the present time to persons who are willing to purchase under the Act of last year. That will go a long way towards solving the difficulty in which these men are placed. I wish the Government could see its way to wipe out the arrears of £35,000 altogether, without calling on the Church Surplus, which is really called upon for everything of this kind. And when advances are made out of the Church Surplus, a great many people in England think they are paying the debts of the Irish people, whereas those debts are paid out of money which belongs to the Irish people, and to the Irish people alone. I trust that the Government will see its way to move at once in this matter. If they find that this question is being approached in a manner which will lead to its speedy solution, the glebe purchasers in Ulster will very readily perceive the effect of Ulster having become, within the last three or four months, as far as this House is concerned, more than half-Nationalist, though at heart it has been more than half-Nationalist for many along year. It is very desirable that a comprehensive treatment of the whole Land Question should come before the House within the next two or three months. I believe that some relief of the glebe purchasers in Ulster might be included in the great scheme of land reform; but if it is not intended that the Land Question shall be dealt with this Session, I think it would be advisable for the Government to frame a measure dealing exclusively with the glebe purchasers.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee upon Monday next.