HC Deb 01 April 1887 vol 313 cc236-45
DR. CLARK (Caithness),

rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance—namely, the pressing need of more diligent action by the Crofters Commission, and of protection to Crofters who have made application to the Commission to get fair rents fixed against proceedings in bankruptcy involving their expulsion from their holdings before their applications can be heard.

But, the pleasure of the House not haying been signified,


called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen: —


said, he regretted very much being compelled to take this course, but the answer he had received from the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith) rendered it unavoidable. He thought the right hon. Gentleman could not be aware of the present condition of things in Scotland, nor what the recent decision of the Court of Session implied. They were under the impression that the Crofters Act passed last year was a protection to the small number of crofters who were not excluded from it. Unfortunately, a decision had been given by the Court of Session which had made that Act perfectly valueless to a large number of the crofters. An appeal was taken to the Court of Session to determine whether a landlord had a right to sue a crofter for arrears of rent, and to make him bankrupt, and so compel him to void his holding. The ex-Lord Advocate (Mr. J. B. Balfour), who represented the crofters in that appeal, and who had introduced the Bill into the House, informed the Court of Session that it was the intention of the Government, and of Parliament, to give the crofters this protection; but, unfortunately, the Court of Session had decided that as the Common Law of Scotland was not repealed, the protection which the late Government and the House intended to give to the crofters had not been given, and any crofter might now be sued at Common Law by his landlord, decree might be given, and he might be bankrupt in virtue of that decree, and might be expelled from his holding. The right hon. Gentleman was under the impression that there had been very few rack-rents in Scotland, that there were not much arrears, and that this decision of the Court of Session was not of very much importance. They had tried to get information from the Government as to the number of applications made and decisions given by the Crofters Commission, and now they were told to-night that during the six months the Crofters Commission had been sitting only 60 decisions had been given, and that there were thousands of cases still pending. He would like to call attention to a list of decisions given by the Commission, because they demonstrated that the contention of the late Secretary for Scotland (Mr. A. J. Balfour), to the effect that the crofters, as a rule, are not rack-rented, had not been borne out by the Commission, but the very reverse was the case. The decisions by the Crofters Commission in the Highlands, so far as they had gone, had proved that the Scottish crofters were even more rack-rented than the Irish cottier farmers. They had four estates in Sutherlandshire before them, on three of which reductions were made. On the estate of Skibo there were four cases. In the first the rent was reduced from £7 10s. to £1 12s.; the second from £22 15s. to £7 10s.; the third from £2 10s. to £1 1s.; and the fourth from £3 to £2 5s. On the Rosehall estate two decisions were given, in the first of which the rent was reduced from £6 to £2 10s., and the other from £5 to £1 1s. On the Invercarron estate there were four cases. In the first the rent was reduced from £10 to £7; the second from £7 to £3 7s.; the third from £5 to £2; and the fourth from £7 to £3 6s. He had not quoted specimens, but had quoted all the decisions; and they proved that, as far as the Sutherland crofters were concerned, they were more rack-rented than the Irish tenants, and there had been greater reductions in their case than ever were made by the Irish Sub-Commissioners. The evidence given before the Commission in Skye had proved that the great bulk of the crofters were from four to seven years in arrears of rent, and several of the Skye landlords had got decrees by which they could make them bankrupt. In his own county of Caithness, although he had not been there since the General Election, there had been more and larger meetings held, and stronger language used at them, than ever had been used before. The reason was that these men knew that some of the needy landlords were being compelled to sue their crofters in order to prevent themselves from becoming bankrupt. This was a question of great importance to the House, inasmuch as social order would be seriously imperilled. They could not get any Returns from the Government, although they gave such Returns for Ireland, and all they could depend upon was the public Press. In these circumstances, what did the Government intend to do? If they had in six months decided 60 cases, it would take 20 years to get through the present number of cases, and during that time all these crofters would be made bankrupt pending the healing of their applications. What did the Government intend to do to carry out the section of the Act by which the three Commissioners could have assistance? The Commissioners were empowered to have the assistance of valuers and surveyors. All they spent last year was £200 on assistance of that kind, and in the new Estimates all they intended to ask for next year was £492. It was perfectly clear, under these circumstances, that the Crofters Act was a farce, and would be entirely useless for all practical purposes unless something was done to hasten the work of the Commission. Instead of having 60 cases in six months, they ought to have 600 cases in a month. He did not complain of the Commissioners; but if he were to complain, it would be to say that they were doing their work too thoroughly— that they were giving an amount of time to each individual case which was not justified. If, instead of these gentlemen deciding every case in every township, they decided one case in each township, and had assessors and valuers to go and value and report as in Ireland, more work could be done, and these unfortunate people could be retained in their holdings. There were thousands of cases pending, and only sixty cases had been decided; and it was absolutely necessary to have the work of the Commission accelerated, or the Act would be practically useless, and social order in the Highlands would be seriously impaired and imperilled.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Dr. Clark.)


said, that perhaps the House would allow him to answer, as the matter had come under his consideration while he was at the Scottish Office. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Dr. Clark) said the Scotch crofters were more rack-rented than the Irish tenants, and he founded that observation on the decisions which had been come to in Sutherland. He would give no opinion on the broad question, but the decisions at which the Commissioners had arrived by no means bore out the opinion which the hon. Member had expressed. The County of Sutherland was almost entirely owned by one individual, and the estates on which there had been reductions of rent did not belong to that individual. On the Duke of Sutherland's estates, so far as decisions had been come to, and in so far as it was possible to adduce from conclusions as to rents, he should say that they were too low rather than too high. The hon. Gentleman had told them that rents had been raised because of additional pasture given to the tenants. Even if that were so, it would prove that the relations between landlords and tenants were working smoothly; but, as a matter of fact, the allegation of the hon. Member was not entirely correct, and rents had been raised in cases in which no additional pastures had been given by the proprietors to the crofters. The hon. Member had gone on to say that the Commission were doing their work very slowly, and that at the present rate of progress the Commission might take 20 years to finish its work. That was entirely contrary to the information he had received on the subject from the Commission. Shortly before leaving the Scottish Office they had informed him that at the beginning, as they had to inform themselves on a large number of questions, and while they were in that process of education, as he might call it, they would not work with very great rapidity; but he had understood from them that the urgent cases would be disposed of with greatly augmented speed. Then the hon. Gentleman had come to the question which he had been pleased to describe to the House as one of urgent public importance, and the point he raised was not, perhaps, familiar to most hon. Members of the House. The point he raised was this. He said— By your Crofters Act you gave the crofters power to appeal to the Commission to have a fair rent fixed; but during the delay which may in all cases, and must in some, elapse between the application of the crofter to the Commission and the final decision of the Commission, it was possible for the landlord to make the crofter bankrupt, and thus deprive him of the provisions and benefits of the Act. He (Mr. A. J. Balfour) believed the statement of the law was not inaccurate, and the question was one which had received very anxious attention from the Government all through the winter and spring; and while he was Secretary for Scotland he had under his consideration whether it was necessary or not to bring in a Bill to fill up the gap left in the Crofters Act of last year. The reason he had not done so was, that in not a single instance had a landlord, by making his tenant bankrupt, deprived him of the benefits of the Act. It would have been possible, as the hon. Member was aware, for the landlords to proceed against any number of their tenants. He did not believe there was anything in the Highlands that could be described as anything like rack-renting. He had the most ample proof that the landlords had behaved with the most generous consideration to their tenants, where, nevertheless, rents were in arrear for one, two, three, four, and five years. Those were cases where hardship might possibly be supposed to occur under the existing law; but not a single case had occurred in which a landlord had attempted to deprive a tenant of the advantages and benefits of the Crofters Act. He thought that this disposed of the case as being one of urgent public importance. The hon. Member could not produce a single case of a tenant being turned out on these terms.


said, that proceedings were going on now. There had not been time yet.


said, he could only speak from information three or four weeks old; but up to that time there had not been a single case, nor was there any apprehension of any such case occurring. The defect in the Crofters Act was a purely theoretical and speculative one; and the question for the Government was whether they should deal with it now, or should not rather go on with the legislation at present before that House and the other House of Parliament? They had before the other House at this moment a Land Bill which—whether it was good or bad—was of very large scope, and which was intended and conceived to prevent Irish tenants over the whole of Ireland from suffering eviction through their not being able to pay rents in consequence of no fault of their own. Were they, in those circumstances, to block the way of all legislation before this and the other House in order to bring in a Bill to re-open a very large question connected with an Act in which no real defect had yet been shown to exist, and for which no practical necessity of any kind whatever had been proved? He ventured to suggest to the House that they should best be pursuing their duties if they remedied the law where it was proved to be actually defective in its working, and if they left to a later period the remedy of those purely theoretical and speculative defects which the eyes of the hon. Gentleman had found in the Crofters Act of last year.

DR. R. MCDONALD (Ross and Cromarty)

said, that they knew the Duke of Sutherland had granted to his tenants about 4,000 acres of land, while the rents had only been raised from £209 to £248. Did the right hon. Gentleman mean to say, under these circumstances, there had been no reduction of rent on the Duke of Sutherland's estates when these 4,000 acres of grazing ground had been granted with an increase of only £40? He did not think any Representative of the Highlands had complained much in that House of the rack-rents. What they had complained of was that the people had not enough of land. He would read to the House some of the reductions made by the Crofter Commission, and he would leave it to the House to say whether the Crofter Representatives, as being considered pestilent agitators, had not been particularly modest and within the line in their demands? In Sutherland the rents on one estate had been reduced 37½ per cent, and the other day the Crofters Commission, which was improving the older it grew, like the Irish Land Commission, made reductions of 65⅓ per cent. On other estates the rents had been reduced 25 per cent, 29½ per cent, 40 per cent, 50 per cent, 47½ per cent, and 67¾ per cent. He appealed to the House and to anybody who chose to look at the figures if the High land crofters had not been rack-rented, and grievously so? What they wanted the Government to do was to say that it should not be in the power of the landlords to take all the arrears for these fearful rack-rents, and to put the tenants out of their holdings by making them bankrupt. The right hon. Gentleman said no landlords had done this, and were not going to do anything now; but at present the landlords had got writs for £3,000 for arrears of rack-rents hanging over the heads of the people, and they could not take the word of the landlords that they would not put these writs into force, for they knew what the landlords had been in the past. They had no guarantee that the landlords would not repeat their actions in the future; and they wanted to deprive them of the power of putting these writs into execution. Nobody on the Treasury Bench could prevent their doing so; and when it occurred it would be too late to cry out, and the right hon. Gentleman would tell them there was no time for a new Bill; that matters must go on, and the law must take its course; that the men must be made bankrupt, and that families must be thrown on the hill-side and road-side. With reference to the decisions come to by the Commission, he might say that his hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Dr. Clark) was so far wrong in counting up the cases that the decisions already given numbered close on 200. As to their blocking Irish legislation, he did not wish to prevent the House going to work upon what seemed to be thought more important Business; but when they were told about blocking Irish legislation, he must remind them that nearly the whole of the Irish Representatives, who must be interested in beneficial legislation, supported the Motion of his hon. Friend. He thought they had shown the Government that there was a very serious case, and if the Government would only give them an assurance that they would afford facilities for dealing with the question, they would not delay or trouble the House any longer.

MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

I should like to say one or two words upon this question, because it was my duty to make some representations to the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. A. J. Balfour) on the subject when he was Secretary for Scotland. I confess I regret that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Dr. Clark) has felt it to be his duty to introduce the matter at this time, and in this particular way. Although I am quite sure that he has no such intention, it may give rise to the inference that he had in view less the urgency of this particular matter than considerations affecting another subject before the House. But my hon. Friend, I think, by common consent, will be admitted to have laid before the House a blot in the Crofters Act. That blot is admitted from this side of the House by those who were responsible for the introduction of the Bill, and who allow that, by inadvertence, it has become possible for grievances which the Act was intended to remedy still to exist. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary has also admitted the existence of this blot. It was intended by the promoters of this Crofter Act that, in all cases of arrear, the Court should have discretion. It is possible, in consequence of the inadvertence to which I have referred, that a crofter may be evicted from his holding for arrears of rent without the intervention of any Court. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary says very truly that up to the present time the landlords have not taken advantage of this blot in the Act in order to evict tenants, but it is true that they have it in their power to do so. They may do so, and cases of great hardship may be done before the House has time to interfere. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary is perfectly reasonable when he says that the Government cannot be expected to interrupt very important Irish Business before the House in order to give attention to a subject which may in itself involve considerable discussion. I venture to make a suggestion by which I think the difficulty may be avoided. The blot which the hon. Member seeks to remove can be entirely done away with by a very short Act. An Act of one clause would be sufficient to correct the mistake. If my hon. Friends intend, as I imagine they would, to accept this correction, which is admitted on both sides to be necessary and just, without discussion, it would be perfectly possible for the Government to introduce this Bill at once, and carry it into law in a very short time indeed—even at a time when the Irish Business is before the House. I venture to make this suggestion to prevent what may be a great wrong.


As the right hon. Gentleman has appealed to me, I may say I will very carefully consider the suggestion he has made; but, at the same time, I think the grievance of which he complains is daily diminishing. I will consider the matter very carefully.

SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL (Kirkcaldy, &c.)

said, he would suggest that the possible Bill might be introduced in "another place," where there was more leisure.

Question put, and negatived.