HC Deb 17 February 1892 vol 1 cc649-62

(4.5.) Order for Second Reading read.

MR. J. NOLAN (Louth, N.)

It fortunately happens, that whatever the hon. and learned Member opposite may think as to the differences amongst the Irish Members on this side of the House, none exist amongst them as to the desirability of improving the position of the labourers of Ireland. In my opinion, it does not matter whether the labourers be Protestant or Catholic, Liberal, Tory, or Whig, Parnellite or Anti-Parnellite, for whatever they may be, I sincerely desire to see them taken out of insanitary dwellings, and placed in a decent home. I hope, therefore, that this Bill will be read a second time, with the unanimous consent of all Parties in the House. I do not pretend that it is perfect, or goes so far as I should like, but I think it will be agreed that it goes in the right direction, and if it should reach the Committee stage, I shall be ready to accept Amendments. I do not wish to belittle existing Acts, but we have ample proof in Ireland that further progress is required. We find in Ireland that year after year the people are flying from the country in thousands, and that at the same time the industries of the country are languishing for want of the very labour which is thus going away. A Bill has already been read a second time this week, which admits that the half-acre allotment is not sufficient, and one of the provisions of this Bill is, that allotments should be increased from half-an-acre to an acre, and I propose to make that provision retrospective. The 2nd section of the Bill proposes to empower the Local Sanitary Authority to purchase, so as to remove an obstacle in the way of providing labourers with suitable cottages and allotments. I do not suggest that compulsion should be used upon the farmer, but it will be found that there are cases in which the tenants are willing to sell their interests, and the landlord is willing to sell his, and I wish the Local Sanitary Authority to be empowered in such a case to make the necessary purchase, and divide the farm into suitable allotments. I trust that the Sanitary Authority will also provide some instruction in cottage gardening, for it is too much to expect an ordinary field hand to at once develop into a successful cottage gardener. I hold that, as a general rule, the labourers of Ireland are capable of great improvement. An hon. Member of this House wrote a remarkable work about the Irish in America, showing to what great power and wealth they attain; and an hon. Friend of mine has pointed out to me that it was not the cultured people, but the hardy and thrifty working men of Ireland who built up large fortunes for themselves in America. The same state of things prevails throughout the Colonies of this country, and I therefore maintain that the Irish labourers, if they only got an opportunity, would, on a similar scale, do for themselves at home in Ireland what their countrymen have done in America and the Colonies. In regard to the 3rd section of the Bill, which gives power to the Congested Districts Board to provide labourers' cottages and allotments, it will be evident that where the Local Sanitary Authority is not sufficiently powerful and rich to undertake this work, it is well it should be done by the Congested Districts Board. The 4th section provides for the inspection of labourers dwellings during the course of construction. In my own part of the country that work has been done in a substantial manner, but I hear that in other parts of Ireland there is jerrybuilding in the construction of these cottages. I hope that all Parties of the House will agree that the sooner this Bill is passed into law the better it will be for all classes; and, in view of the past treatment and the present position of the labourers of Ireland, it is desirable that this House should endeavour to improve their position. I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill.

(4.23.) MR. MAHONY (Meath, N.)

In rising to second the Motion, I wish to point out that it is merely an effort to improve, in some few particulars, Acts already in existence in Ireland. As regards Clause 1, the House has practically assented to it already this Session, and the only difference between the clause of the Bill which was read a second time a fortnight ago and the 1st clause of this Bill is that it is retrospective. The 2nd clause of the Bill will enable Boards of Guardians to purchase land under the Land Purchase Act of last Session. As to congested districts, it might strike some hon. Members that in them labourers' cottages are not required, but there are districts, in the North of Kerry and elsewhere, where the exercise of such a power as is proposed to be conferred upon the Congested Districts Board would be extremely useful. Very often the authority knows nothing of the material or quality of the house; it simply sends round an Inspector when the house is built, to see that it has been erected on a certain site. The Board of Guardians is supposed to carry out an inspection of its own, but the result in many cases has been very inferior building. The Boards of Guardians think the responsibility is taken off their shoulders by the Board of Works, and the latter refuses to accept the responsibility, so, between the two, buildings are not properly inspected. The Bill proposes that there should be a regular inspection made by the Board of Works, and that payments to contractors should be on a certificate from their Inspector. I cannot imagine any objection from the Government Benches to that proposal. The Board of Guardians generally have treated the labourers in a very fair spirit, still we ought not to leave the labourers too much in their hands, as they are not directly represented on the Board. Therefore, as regards the question of the actual construction being efficiently carried out, it is essential that there should be some outside authority. Some hon. Members may object to the Board of Works as at present constituted, but we are looking forward to a re-construction of that body. I am not aware that any complaint has ever been made of construction under the Labourers' Acts when inspected by the Board of Works. Under these circumstances, Mr. Speaker, I second the Motion for the Second Reading, hoping that the Bill may pass through the House without much discussion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. J. Nolan.)

*(4.35). MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

I am sorry, Sir, I shall not be able to give the same support to this Bill as to the previous one; it is founded on strictly Socialistic principles, and is of a far-reaching character. My chief objection to it is that it seeks to divert the money ear-marked by the Land Purchase Act for the purchase of holdings. It proposes to undo on a Wednesday afternoon practically the labours of a whole Session. The Land Purchase Act allocated the money for a specific purpose, and occupied nearly a whole Session in its passage through the House; and now the House is asked to undo the well-considered work of that time. It may be said that the Land Purchase Act is not working, but I cannot agree that it has failed. I believe all the money will be required for the purposes of that Act, and therefore I am not prepared to support the diversion of any part of it. If anything is to be done for the labourer—and I am the last man to say it ought not to be done—the funds must come from elsewhere. I am still more astonished at the 3rd section. If there was one part of the Land Purchase Act which commended itself to the perfect support of the House, it was that dealing with the congested districts. One and a half millions of Irish money was allocated to dealing with these districts, to be used in ways enumerated in the Act; to those objects and to the work of the Board the House is now asked to add that of house jobbing. Well, Sir, I think that is a business which the House should not cast On the Congested Districts Board. I think the hon. Member for Meath saw the difficulty. The people living in these districts are nearly all small farmers, and not labourers. If you are to take the £1,500,000 voted for the purchase of their holdings to the building and repairing of their houses, it will not go very far. As the Board has not been at work very long, it is too soon to convert its entire functions. There is another point. Suppose the House adds this to the Board's other functions and they build and repair houses, and then the rents are not paid? Are you going to place this philanthropic Board in the position of having to evict the tenants for non-payment of rent? Under this Bill they would be bound to do so. I hope the House will not impose on the Board either the duty of building cottages or repairing them. Besides, I am not certain that the Labourers' Acts have worked so satisfactorily that the House should add to them without close inquiry. I know there has been great tyranny in connection with them. I know that plots have been taken against the wishes of tenant farmers; very inconvenient land has been taken compulsorily. As I think that the money set aside for land purchase will be insufficient, I am not disposed to take anything from it, and if the labourers are to be assisted, to which I do not object, other money must be found for the purpose.

(4.42.) MR. CLANCY (Dublin Co., N.)

I think, Sir, the hon. Member who has just sat down raised a number of hobgoblins. He says we propose to divert certain money now in the hands of the Congested Districts Board to build labourers' cottages. The Bill is as plain as possible, and says that a discretionary power should be given to the Board to apply the money in this way if they think it would be the best way to use it. It does not compel them to spend one single penny now at their disposal in the way suggested by the Bill. How this can be so terribly socialistic and revolutionary I cannot imagine. The hon. Member says that the rents may not be paid; they may not be paid to the Board of Guardians or to individual landlords. We have chosen to run the risks in the Labourers' Acts, and I am unaware that anything has happened to condemn that course. The rents have been paid with great regularity. I think the Board will be sensible enough to use the power wisely if it is conferred, and then the rents will be paid regularly. We are continually hearing of the tyranny of these bodies. This is a question in which Party passion should not be allowed to enter; it certainly confuses the issue and the principle of the Bill to drag in controversies which may be right enough under other circumstances, but are out of place in the discussion of such a Bill. I would suggest that we take a Division as soon as possible after the Chief Secretary has told us whether or not he agrees with the hon. Member for South Tyrone.

(4.48.) MR. MACARTNEY (Antrim, S.)

I do not feel the same alarm as the hon. Member for South Tyrone as to the Socialistic tendency of this Bill. All the clauses are not of the same character, and two of them require careful consideration. I will deal first with Clause 3, which affects the householders of the congested districts. I do not know whether there would be great opportunities for the Board to put the Bill into operation; but I cannot agree that it is altogether outside the scope of their duties, because the Land Act in the sub-section of Section 39 says that the Board may take such steps as they think proper in aiding and benefitting agriculture in the congested districts. If there be parts of those districts where the labourers would be benefitted under this Bill, why should the Board, which has very large powers conferred upon it for raising the condition of the population, be debarred from the duty of aiding agriculture by building cottages? I see, therefore, no reason for conferring on the Board the authority to employ a portion of the money given by the Land Act. I think Sub-section 2 of the clause should be left out, as it might embarrass the Board. I will explain what I mean. By previous Acts, great powers are conferred on those dissatisfied with the action of the Local Authority in building cottages, and much trouble was caused by their action being supervised by the Local Government Board. I do not think it would be right that the Congested Districts Board should be put into the same category as a Local Sanitary Authority, and be subjected to like harassing conduct on the part of those who are dissatisfied. Then I come to Clause 2, which is undoubtedly a very important one, as it may be open to the objection taken that it diverts part of the money applied under the Land Act. Undoubtedly it does propose to divert a portion of it. The question is, Will such diversion injure the mass of the population of Ireland, or will it be for the general benefit? There are three classes whom this clause affects: the labourers, the ratepayers, and those tenant farmers who are not ratepayers. There is no doubt it would confer some benefit on the labourers. I do not think it will injure the ratepayers. It will enable money to be borrowed a little more cheaply for the building of labourers' cottages, and so would be a relief to the ratepayers. As to those who are not ratepayers, they may say that the Bill does not benefit them; but it does not injure their property. If there is to be a great rush, and if there is any chance of the portion of land purchase money devoted to each county being applied for to purchase holdings, we should have no right to consent to any other class of people coming in and interfering with the operation of last year's Act. Therefore I should like to reserve the right to endeavour to amend that clause in Committee. Subject to that limitation I do not see any ground for offering opposition to the Bill. I know that naturally the views held by the Government may be influenced by other considerations than those which influence private Members. They are responsible for the Land Purchase Act, and they may say that this Bill would interfere with the carrying out of that Act; but I believe that the main objection of the hon. Member for South Tyrone can be met by Amendment in Committee, which would restrain the Commissioners from assenting to any application which would be an inroad; but with these limitations I am prepared to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

(5.) MR. EDMUND LEAMY (Sligo, S.)

The hon. Member who has preceded me has said the money would be expended in building houses for small farmers if this Bill were passed into law; and he also spoke about farmers being content to give sites for labourers' cottages. Now, I regret to say that in a great many parts of Ireland, tenant farmers are not very willing to give any sites at all for labourers' cottages, and it is in fact in consequence of that that it is necessary to allow representations for such cottages to be made by the labourers' themselves. We know that Inspectors have in many cases refused to sanction the sites at all. It has been said that some of the best land has been selected for the purpose of labourers cottages. I know from experience that in many cases the very worst patches of land have been offered to the labourers by the farmers. I think if half-an-acre of land is to be given at all—and half-an-acre is not much—the labourers should get the best part of the land. But, in my opinion, the very worst has been given. We on this side of the House are very glad of the support which the hon. Member opposite has given to this Bill, and to the Bill which has preceded it, and we hope the Government will follow the same course, and assent to the Bill being read a second time.

(5.3.) COLONEL WARING (Down, N.)

I wish to say, as briefly as possible, that I sympathise with the objects of the Bill. I do not entertain the views, or the fears, of the hon. Member for South Tyrone, as to the communistic character of the Bill. The hon. Member seems to think that there might be a difficulty in regard to the payment of rent of these small holdings; but I wish to point out to him, and to the House, that by Clause 4 of the Bill the operation of the collection of rent would be very much facilitated. I heartily concur with the objects of the measure, and I shall vote for it if it go to a division.

(5.5.) MR. P. A. CHANCE (Kilkenny, S.)

Now that both sections of the Irish Representatives are in complete accord—for the hon. Member for South Tyrone cannot be considered as representing anybody, since he speaks neither as an Orangeman nor as a Nationalist—I hope that the House will permit this Bill to be read a second time. The hon. Member, if he refer to the Act, will find that the Congested Districts Board has done a large traffic in land. Therefore, this Bill does not introduce any new principle, and it cannot be seriously said that there is any great fear of the Board having to call into use the powers of eviction. In addition to that, the hon. Member for South Tyrone will find that there have been exceedingly few cases in which the labourers have been prosecuted and evicted for non-payment of rent. The labourers are too anxious to get possession of a holding, in fact, to risk the losing of it by the non-payment of rent. I think there is one matter upon which all the Irish Leaders are agreed, and that is that the expense of carrying out the Irish Labourers' Act is altogether disproportionate. Possession cannot be got without many formalities being gone through, and in ten cases out of twelve almost 50 per cent of the expenses goes into the pockets of the lawyers and printers. That is a very important matter. I believe it is a serious omission, and I hope that if this Bill goes into Committee the hon. Gentleman who has brought it in, and the Government, will introduce a clause simplifying and cheapening the procedure of putting the compulsory clauses of those Acts into force. I hope that the Government will give expression to the wishes put forward upon both sides of the House; and I am sure if they do, they will be meeting the desires of a very large section of the Irish people.


I think that the discussion upon this Bill illustrates the kind of danger which the House is sometimes subjected to upon Wednesday afternoons. The discussion upon this. Bill in fact only began an hour ago. Several supporters of the measure have delivered very brief speeches, and very moderate speeches; but there appears to be no suspicion upon the part of the great majority of the House that this Bill really raises a most important issue in connection with the Land Purchase Act. In fact issues which the House of Commons were engaged night after night in discussing last Session, and issues which the House took months to determine are now proposed to be upset in the course of an hour's conversation. Broadly speaking, the Bill aims at adding to the existing duties of the Congested Districts Board by empowering it to buy land for the purpose of erecting labourers' cottages, and it proposes the allocation of some of the money deliberately voted last Session for an altogether different purpose; for the purpose of creating small freehold occupiers, and to enable Local Authorities to buy land at a cheaper rate for the purpose of erecting labourers' cottages. I would earnestly ask the House to pause before it assents, in a light-hearted manner, to either of those proposals. Let me call the attention of the House to the fact that the duties the Congested Districts Board has to discharge are already weighty and multifarious. It is exposed to applications of the most miscellaneous kind; applications from every district within, the congested area, all pressing the Board to expend the money allocated to it by Parliament in every possible manner, for the various purposes which, legitimately enough, that Board has got power to deal with. Now it is proposed to add to this already vast catalogue of functions the additional duty of dealing with labourers' cottages along the west coast of Ireland. Now, is it not true that there is, broadly speaking, no class of labourers along the west coast of Ireland at all? I take an agricultural labourer to mean a man who works for weekly wages for a farmer. Does such a class exist in any appreciable quantity along the west coast of Ireland? The hon. Gentleman who seconded the Motion pointed to one or two places in which it was alleged there were a certain number of agricultural labourers. If that is so, it only arises from the fact that it is impossible so to draw the outline of the congested districts as to wholly exclude, here and there, minute fragments of land which might not be properly described as congested districts. Is it not perfectly clear to the House, if there were a place in which there were farmers so considerable that they were in a position to have dependent on them a large number of labourers on weekly wages, the district is not a congested district in the strict sense of the word; it is not a district in which the £1,500,000 allocated by Parliament should be properly applied. I would therefore recommend the House not to pass the Bill, certainly in so far as Clause 3 is concerned. There remains the question of the more general powers sought to be embodied in this Bill. In Clause 2 it is provided that the Local Authorities, instead of going to obtain loans for labourers' cottages to the Board of Works, should go to the Land Commission and get some of the £33,000,000 allocated. Some hon. Gentlemen may say that there is no fund out of which we can provide money for plots for labourers' cottages. Why, the amount of money at the control of the Local Authorities is absolutely unlimited. The State at present provides, at the ordinary rate of interest current on such cases, as much money as can be taken up, and as much as the Local Authorities require, for the carrying out of the purposes of the Labourers' Acts, and all this Bill, therefore, does is to enable Local Authorities to obtain this money at as low or at a lower rate of interest than they otherwise could do. And where does the money come from? It comes from a strictly limited fund, allocated by Parliament last year for the purpose of creating freeholders in Ireland. This Bill does not create freeholders. I will not travel out of my way to deal with the contention of the hon. Member for West Belfast with regard to the failure of the Land Purchase Act. It may be thought that the money would not be wanted in Ireland for the purpose of purchasing freeholds, because the Act of last year was a failure. It is absurd to judge of that Act, obviously imper- fectly understood in Ireland, an Act which has been in operation for only six months, and which, during those six months, had for its rival another Act giving money upon terms more agreeable to the tenants than the Act of last year, combined with the low price of Consols, which necessarily compelled this country to charge more for the loans for the purchase of land than it otherwise would. It would be absurd to argue from those circumstances, or to found the conclusion upon them, that the Act of last year has been, or that it is likely to be, a failure. And I am convinced that if the tenants—especially in the North of Ireland—really supposed that anything had been done to diminish a fund deliberately given them by Parliament by an Act, passed after the most elaborate discussion, and ratified by the House after full debate—if they thought that this fund was to be taken away from them at the conclusion of a one-and-ahalf-hours' debate on a Wednesday afternoon, I think they would consider us to be very poor trustees of the interests confided to us. The Government object to the two main clauses of this Bill—the clauses which unnecessarily and inadvisedly diminish the funds allocated by this House for that purpose. I earnestly trust that the House will not come to any conclusion which would thus hastily and recklessly interfere with the deliberate Act which we undertook to carry out in the last Session of Parliament.

(5.23.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

The right hon. Gentleman has asked the House to reject the Bill on the Second Reading on account of the objections which he takes to two clauses. But there are other clauses in the Bill to which he takes no objection. To the 1st clause of the Bill there can be objection, because the House has already affirmed the principle. "Notwithstanding," it says "anything contained in Section 6 of the Labourers (Ireland) Act 1883, and the Acts amending or extending the same, a Sanitary Authority shall have power to provide for a plot of garden not exceeding one statute acre being allotted to each labourer's dwelling whether erected before or after the passing of this Act." I shall now come to the two objections of the right hon. Gentleman. He objects to increasing the duties of the Congested Districts Board; but the Bill leaves any increase of duties to their own discretion, and if the demands of the people in the congested districts have been met already, then the Congested Districts Board can have no increase of duties. As to the diversion of the funds, not only has there been an entire indifference shown by the great body of the tenants of Ireland, but out of the £30,000,000 provided only £80,000 has been applied for in the year, and there is no reason whatever to expect that the greater part of the balance is likely to be applied for, so that, therefore, there can be no danger whatever in diverting a small portion this money for this purpose. I regret the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. I think it was delivered without having taken the feeling of the whole of the House.

*(5.28.) SIR JOHN COLOMB (Tower Hamlets, Bow, &c.)

I cannot agree with what has fallen from the hon. Member opposite, that it is desirable to increase universally throughout Ireland the number of labourers' cottages and plots. The real difficulty in the congested districts is this, there you have no demand for labour at all. The people there are really all labourers with allotments, and there is no demand for their labour, and I would call the attention of the House to the fact that this Bill only gives discretionary power in the congested districts to the Congested Districts Board.


I beg to move that the Question be now put.


Considering that this Debate has only lasted for one hour since the time when the hon. Member who introduced the Bill sat down, and other hon. Members have risen to speak on both sides of the House, I think further time should be allowed for the discussion of the Bill.


The effect of the Bill would be to duplicate the machinery in the congested districts. The Poor Law Boards have already power to erect labourers' cottages, and now you are to ask the Congested Districts Board to do what is in the power of the Poor Law Boards. Therefore, I oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, because it shifts on to a Government Department a duty that essentially belongs to the Boars of Guardians itself. It has been said that there has been great jobbery perpetuated in the construction of labourers' cottages by these Boards. I say it is the business of these Boards to check that jobbery and see that the work is done, and I object to the work being shifted to another Department. I think it is a very material change which is proposed by this Bill. I do not see that it is a desirable principle to adopt, and on that ground also I should oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. I think, on the whole, therefore, it would be unwise and impolitic to pass such a measure as this. I think it would frustrate and impede the action of the Congested Districts Board—

It being half an hour after Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.