§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ (4.48.) MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland Division)
At this late hour 1216 of the afternoon, Mr. Speaker, I feel compelled to make my observations very brief on the Bill which I have now the honour of introducing. I do not at the present moment see on the Treasury Bench any representative of the Irish Government. We on these Benches are most anxious to have an expression of opinion from the Government on this matter. This is a measure which is looked forward to with a great deal of anxiety among the tenants, especially in Ulster, where I am sure the tenant farmers will be grievously disappointed if this debate closes to-day without an expression of opinion from the Treasury Bench favourable to the proposals put forward. This Bill consists of five clauses, the first of which gives to the long leaseholder the same right to go to the Court as the great majority of the leaseholders have to get a fair rent fixed. The way the matter stands is this—all leaseholders who hold leases for above 99 years are excluded from going to the Court. Leaseholders of land which is demesne, town, park, or home farm, which is let mainly for the purpose of pasture, are excluded by the 58th section of the Land Act, 1881. Now, if this Bill be passed, the same rights and privileges of having fair rents which are accorded to other leaseholders will be accorded to those who are at present excluded. As it is, the leaseholder of one farm may be able to go and get his rent reduced 20 or 30 per cent., while the tenant of an adjoining farm is bound to pay a rent which is clearly excessive, because he happens to have a lease for a longer period than 99 years. The maintenance of this anomaly is neither justifiable in reason or in public policy. I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Waring) must have had brought before him many cases in which the existing law presses most heavily on his own constituents. I hope, therefore, we may have the support of the hon. and gallant Gentleman for the Second Reading. I welcome the presence of the Attorney General for Ireland, who has just entered. I think he would discharge his duty more courteously and more efficiently ["Order"]—the Solicitor General (Sir E. Clarke) murmurs at 1217 that observation. If an English Bill of this nature had been brought into the House would not a Member of the Government have been present in his place; and was not the Solicitor General himself here when the Bankruptcy Bill was discussed? I am sure he would have thought himself deserving of censure had he been absent. I quote the case of Edmund Kelly. He has the misfortune to hold a lease for above 99 years.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
Nino hundred and ninety-nine years. The lease was taken in the year 1873, when land was at a high price. I hope the lion, and gallant Gentleman will not place any reliance on the duration of the lease, because I think that would be a most untenable argument as against this Bill. The valuation put upon the farm is £91. There is a number of leaseholders upon this estate, and they, having leases for a shorter period than Mr. Kelly, were enabled to have their rents reduced by the Land Courts, the reduction in three instances being for a total rental of £331 to £195, whereas Mr. Kelly has actually been paying £234 for a farm valued at £91. The probability is that the full rent would be about £160 a year, which would be about the same reduction as in the other cases. I have read the debate on the Bill of 1887, and I find a statement in the speech of the Chief Secretary for Ireland which would lead me to believe that this Bill is required by more than 10,000 tenants. I think I am justified in saying- that 13,000 tenants would be affected by this legislation. I do not go into the exclusions under the 58th section, because they would lie wiped away if this Bill were passed. These exclusions are more burdensome because the Land Courts and the Court of Appeal have given a more liberal interpretation of this provision than was originally intended. With regard to the 3rd clause of the Bill, most people will be surprised to learn that, although the tenants have had conferred upon them the right to apply to have a fair rent fixed, yet their own improvements are excluded from consideration when the 1218 rent is being fixed. On this question I must say the law appears to me to be very ambiguous and complex. As to improvements effected before the leases were made, it has been held that such cannot be considered at all, as the leases have been the consideration for them. Altogether that portion of the law is in a most unsatisfactory condition for the tenants, and I think it high time that some such provision should be passed as that I propose in my Bill. I shall listen with great curiosity to hear what the Government will say in this matter. It is not for me to point out to them their own business, but I may assure them that I do not bring forward this measure in a Party spirit, and that I should be rejoiced—as they themselves ought to feel—if they can satisfy the legitimate demands of these leaseholders. I can assure them that this is a Bill which affects farmers who share their way of political feeling in a much larger degree than those who share mine. This is practically an Ulster grievance—a grievance of Protestant and Conservative farmers in Ireland—and I hope the Chief Secretary when he speaks will not send to them a message disappointing to their hope, that this long standing grievance may be remedied.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ (5.4.) MR. W. REDMOND (Fermanagh, N.)
I second the Motion for the Second Heading, and I do so as an Ulster Representative. I am certain that what my hon. Friend has said in introducing the Bill is quite true, namely, that the measure will affect Ulster principally, and affect those farmers in Ulster who are our political opponents. I shall be very much interested to hear what the hon. Member for South Tyrone has to say in regard to the Bill. Last time this question was under discussion he declared indignantly, when the Government declined to entertain the idea of legislating for these leaseholders, that he was not the slave of the Government. I am aware that the hon. Member has supported the demand that leaseholders should be allowed to have the full benefit of the Land Act of 1881, time after time, but I am bound to say, as an Ulster 1219 representative, that I do not believe that the hon. Member has used with sufficient earnestness the influence which his services to the Government individually give him. The hon. Member may speak about not being the slave of the Government, but he knows very well that if he were in earnest in desiring to bring this benefit to the farmers of Ulster, if lie were really determined to get this boon for them, he would be able to do so if he took a determined attitude against the Government. The hon. Member's position only illustrates the absurdity of a Member denouncing the Government one moment and supporting them at all hazards the next moment. If the Ulster Unionist Members thought a little more of the interests of their constituents, the Ulster Protestant farmers, and less of what they term "the disintegration of the Empire," it would be far better for their constituents, and the people of Ulster generally. I remember some short time ago a statement being made in the House that legislation for Ireland was always preceded by agitation. Ever since the Land Act of 1881 this question of leaseholders has been under discussion. First of all we could get the Government to do nothing. Then the Act of 1887 was passed, and now we ask the Government, nine years after the introduction of the Land Act, to do justice to the long leaseholders of Ulster, and put them on the same footing as other occupiers of the soil. If the Government refuse to do this it will simply amount to a declaration on their part that they distrust the Land Commissioners. If they have trust in the Land Commissioners, in the name of goodness why should they refuse to allow the long leaseholders to go into the Land Courts and get their eases settled? I am certain that, whether hon. Members representing Ulster support this Bill or not, their constituents are altogether in favour of it.
§ (5.8.) COLONEL WARING
I must congratulate hon. Gentlemen opposite on their newly found anxiety to look after the interests of their Protestant opponents in Ireland. It is a very encouraging symptom, and I hope we may see it largely extended. At the same time I must deprecate a remark that fell from the Mover of the Second Reading. He made a most unfair and unjustifiable 1220 attack on the right hon. Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland, complaining of his absence when the Bill came on. Why, I do not think there is a Member of the House who has so continuously attended to all questions that he is distinctly interested in as the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As to the Bill before us, I am free to admit that there is a great deal of interest taken in it by many Ulster farmers, and I am ready to admit that some step might well be taken to relieve such substantial grievances as the long leaseholders labour under. I would remind the House that the question is one which my hon. Friend the Member for South Tyrone proposed to deal with in the direction of purchase or redemption. It is well known that Her Majesty's Government will shortly introduce a large measure dealing with land purchase in Ireland, and the subject can be dealt with either in that Bill or by means of some amendment on one of its clauses. It is not desirable to treat this subject piecemeal, and it would be far better to wait until the Government Bill is introduced. I may, however, point out that there is no reciprocity in the provisions of this Bill, for, while it enables the lessee or grantee to go into Court to have the rent fixed, there is no provision that the lessor or grantor shall have the same right. If one party who has made a bad bargain is to be allowed to back out of it at his option, why should not the other party be given similar rights?
§ COLONEL WARING
That was a good thing so long as it dealt with terminable leases, for a period arrives in those leases when any anomalies which were created by the original lease can be remedied; but here we are dealing with leases which are practically in perpetuity, as between 99 years and 999 years scarcely a lease exists in the whole of Ireland, so that leases of over 99 years may be taken as in perpetuity. I maintain that the lessor is as much entitled to consideration as the lessee, and if a clause were inserted in the Bill giving the lessor an equal right I should be very much tempted to give the measure my sanction. There is one argument in favour of the 1221 Bill, which I am not at all inclined to object to. Many of the evils—I might almost say most of the evils—complained of by hon. Gentlemen opposite have arisen, not in consequence of the action of the older landlords in Ireland, but in consequence of the action of a class of lessors with whom I have no sympathy, namely, those who, having bought land in the Landed Estates Court, have regarded their purchase as a commercial investment, and have proceeded to raise the rents of ordinary tenants and to grant leases at unduly high rents. Such lessors, I know, have been tempted in many cases to invest large sums of money in land on the representation of the Landed Estates Court, that the rents on the properties were too low. Having bought, and being unaccustomed to the feudal relations existing between landlords and tenants which existed long ago, and which, I am happy to say, exist still in parts of Ireland, in spite of hon. Gentlemen opposite, they have raised the rents in many cases, and have induced their tenants to take long leases at high rents. These cases may require some legislation; but this is not the proper moment to introduce it, and I therefore beg to move the Amendment of which I have given notice.
Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words—
As the Government are about to introduce a Land Purchase Bill in which the question of the long leaseholders can be dealt with, it is inexpedient to raise the question at the present time."—(Colonel Waring.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ *(5.17.) Mr. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
The hon. Member for Fermanagh (Mr. W. Redmond) has expressed his curiosity as to the course I shall take on this subject; but, considering that I voted on last Wednesday for the Second Beading of a Bill which contained a clause somewhat similar to the main provisions of this measure, the hon. Member can scarcely be in doubt on the point. The hon. Member accused me of not using whatever influence I may have had with the Government on the subject. I think if the Chief Secretary heard that charge he must have been somewhat amused, 1222 because I can appeal to him that if there be one question that I have personally pressed on his notice and that of other Members of the Government more than another it is that of long and perpetuity leases. [Mr. A. J. BALFOUR: Hear, hear.] Now, I do not altogether agree with the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool. This is not specially an Ulster question, and that view is borne out by the fact that the Leaseholders' Association has its head quarters in the City of Cork. Nor do I believe that the number of aggrieved leaseholders is anything like 13,000. In 1887 it was said that the number excluded from the Act of 1881 was 100,000, but only from 25,000 to 30,000 have availed themselves of the privilege of going into Court. If we take into account those perpetuity leaseholders who have not the slightest idea of going into Court, I believe we shall find at most the number who would care for this boon and privilege is a little over 4,000. The grievance of the leaseholders was bad enough when all were excluded from the benefit of the Land Act; but the grievance of the leaseholder who does not enjoy the benefit of the Act because his lease is over 99 years, whilst his neighbour on the other side of the fence with a shorter lease is admitted to its privileges, is a very obvious and real grievance. I put it to the Chief Secretary what is the use of allowing this friction to go on among a small class in Ireland? If all landlords were like the hon. and gallant Members for North Down and North Armagh there would be no Land Question in Ireland; but that is not the case. The perpetuity and long leases were in the main forced on tenants by middlemen who purchased in the wreck and ruin of 40 years ago at 50s. and 60s. an acre, and I do not see why these middlemen should be better treated than other landlords who have given leases for 99 years. It is on this ground I make another appeal to the Government to take away this cause of friction and to allow these people to come into Court and obtain the benefit of such decisions as the Sub-Commissioners may give them.
§ *(5.22.) THE CHIEF SECRETARY FOR IRELAND (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
The hon. Member who has just sat down made an appeal to me to say whether or not he has exerted his 1223 influence on behalf of the Irish perpetuity leaseholders. I give him my testimony in the most hearty manner, for there is no doubt that of all the advocates of the interests of the perpetuity leaseholders in Ireland the hon. Member has been at once the most persistent and the most able, and if it is possible—ac it may be possible—to find some method of dealing with this particular case, I shall certainly feel that it is due to the way in which the matter has been pressed on the attention of the Government by the hon. Member. What is the grievance of these leaseholders? On this point I am not able to place myself wholly in accord with my hon. Friend. Hon. Members appear to think that if a tenant finds himself the victim of an onerous bargain it must be the landlords that are to blame; but, personally, I cannot acquit from blame the persons who have entered into these bargains. My hon. Friend holds that the tenants have been forced into long leases, for the most part, under the throat of eviction by middlemen who bought through the Landed Estates Court. But if it can be proved that the tenants have been compelled to enter into leases under the threat of eviction, then the law already provides an adequate remedy, and the leases can be broken by going into Court under the Act of 1881. But I suspect that the main reason why the tenants entered into these lenses was that they imagined that the rise in the value of land which went on from 1865 to 1875 was going to be continuous ever afterwards; and having formed that estimate, they were only too glad to make themselves parties to a bargain which would hand over to their pockets and keep out of the pockets of the landlords any future rise which might take place. I cannot, therefore, acquit them of culpable negligence and want of foresight, when they deliberately bound themselves to pay for agricultural land the full rent for ever. At the same time, I do not acquit the landlords. I think that the landlord ought to consider that the rent was paid as a consideration for the land, and if there becomes a manifest and hopeless discrepancy between what the land can produce and the fixed rent, a reasonable landlord will not refuse to reduce the rent to a fair amount. Now, consider for a moment the principles on which 1224 we ought to proceed in dealing with these cases. I have always maintained1 that those who took perpetuity leases are no longer to be fairly considered in the same category as ordinary agricultural tenants. There is a point beyond which you cannot regard agreements as ordinary bargains between landlords and tenants. They are rather analogous with the purchase of land on borrowed money. But the landlord cannot be allowed to claim both the privileges of a landlord and the privileges of an incumbencer. If he elects to be a landlord he must submit like other Irish landlords to having his lease broken, and his tenant may go into Court and have a fair rent fixed. If he chooses the position of a mortgagee, there will be no hardship in his being bought out at market value. Speakiug, therefore, on broad grounds of the principle raised in the Bill before us, I am of opinion that, without inequity to the landlords, and to the enormous advantage of the small and, I admit, hardly-used class, which this measure is especially designed to serve, you could give the landlords the alternative either of being landlords and having the leases broken, or of being head rent chargers and being compulsorily bought out. I think in this way a fair and adequate solution might be found of a problem which has perplexed me even more than the many other difficult problems raised by the Irish Land Question. In that way what is undoubtedly an Irish grievance—in Ulster as well as other parts of Ireland—might be brought to a satisfactory termination.
§ (5.30.) MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but MR. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put the Question.
§ Debate resumed.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
It is already past the half hour, and consequently too late.
And, it being half an hour after-Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed to-morrow.