HC Deb 04 July 1899 vol 73 cc1471-9


Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."

* SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucester, Forest of Dean)

The Bill which is before its for the Third Reading is one which, on its Second Reading, was carried by more than the ordinary party majority. The Amendments which some of us who have always opposed similar Bills when in the hands of private Members, might have moved in order to carry out our views, either in Committee or on Report stage, would have struck so completely at the whole fabric and foundation of the Bill that it would hardly have been respectful to the House which had pronounced distinctly in favour of the Bill, to have proposed them. Moreover, we should probably have had very small support from them. Therefore, we determined to preserve the expression of what we think of the nature of the Bill till the Third Reading. The view which some of us take of this Bill is that, as regards its principles, it is distinctly retrograde on the land question and likely to have a prejudicial effect on the future treatment of that question. It is retrograde not only as regards our own views, but the views of those who taught us in generations past on the land question; and retrograde as compared with the views of those who led the way in the trial of social experiments in our great self-governing colonies. Recently there has been a great deal of legislation both of this description and in regard to small holdings in the colonies of New Zealand and South Australia, under democratic ministries; but in the highly Conservative colony of Queensland there has been a complete departure from the principle of using public money, either from the State taxes or the rates for the purpose of conferring freeholds on individuals. This Bill is contrary to the whole course of modern legislation in these colonies, which are generally our guides in matters of legislation. I have to confess that I do not know why legislation of this kind should have been a failure in this country, and a success in Ireland. I see my hon. friend (Mr. Dillon), behind me, who can speak for a very large section of the population there, and possibly he may be able to throw some light on the subject. But undoubtedly the whole series of Shaftesbury Acts, which embody the principle of this Bill, have been a dead letter in this country, and yet almost similar legislation in Ireland has been a success. Probably the opposition to this Bill is modified by the fact that the power which it confers on local authorities is permissive only. What will be the practical effect of this Bill? My right hon. friend who introduced the Bill evidently looks forward to its being used largely by the suburban populations in the neighbourhood of rapidly-growing towns. There are two classes by whom this Bill may be utilised—namely, the suburban populations and the inhabitants of mining districts, where there is frequently considerable difficult with regard to housing. As regards suburban districts, when you use public money drawn from the rates to confer freeholds upon individuals, you are conferring upon them a property which is very rapidly rising in value, and out of which great numbers of people live in this country at the present time. In my opinion that unearned increment ought to go, when it has been obtained from the use of public money, not to the individual, but to the community, the rates of which you are spending for that purpose. As regards the mining districts, there is a danger of loss from an exodus of the population such as has taken place in the Cornish mining villages. There is only one other argument that I desire to address to the House. In the constituency which I represent I have had a good deal of experience of what is likely to be the effect on labour of freehold tenure. The mining population of Dean Forest are either freeholders or lodgers. They have the freehold franchise or no franchise at all, as the valuation of the houses is not sufficient to confer the lodger franchise. These persons are, to my mind, tied by the leg, and the effect of this Bill will be to fix labour and force the workmen to accept a lower wage than would otherwise be the case. I know that some Members on the opposite side imagine that the objections that some of us take to this Bill are of a political nature. I can assure those hon. Members that they make a great mistake. The freeholders in my constituency are overwhelmingly Radical, and, indeed, much more Radical than the ordinary occupier.


From a Scotch point of view I thoroughly approve of the object aimed at in this Bill. The land rights in Scotland, however, are so essentially different from those in England that a Bill drawn simply to meet the English case cannot be successfully put into operation in Scotland. One important provision as between Scotland and England is the question of expense under the Bill. Under Clause 8 a house may be transferred for fees not exceeding ten shillings in the case of England; but in the case of Scotland there is no limit whatever as to expense. The local authorities may make a scale of fees, but there is no limit imposed; and I maintain that an attempt should have been made to deal on a plan of uniformity with the case of Scotland. Again, supposing that a working man in Scotland obtains a house under the Bill. If he were to die, it would, in all probability, be found that there were two heirs to the property. The widow possesses a certain right under the law of Scotland; then there is the eldest son, or it may be found that the legal heir is an entire stranger. There is no provision in the Bill to meet a case of that kind, and I think it is a matter of regret that no attempt has been made to bring the Bill into some kind of conformity with the state of the law in Scotland in respect to these cases. Again, in the matter of title I think that the Government should have provided for a statutory form of bond which would have been exceedingly simple and inexpensive. It is quite evident from the defects I have mentioned that when this Bill comes to be applied to Scotland there will not be the enthusiasm for it that there ought to be, simply because the Bill has not been adapted to suit the particular needs of the country.

MR. JOHN WILSON (Durham, Mid.)

I quite agree with the right hon. Baronet that this is not a political question. I do not, however, exactly agree with him as to this Bill being useful to miners. If there is one class who might, be dubious of the benefits of this Bill it is the miners of this country, because they are the most migratory portion of the population. The Bill is not designed to help men of migratory character, but those whose occupation is permanent and little liable to change. I may, perhaps, be allowed to state that I am one of a committee who are trying to purchase a mining village for the purpose of providing for the old and worn out miners. We have already bought 113 houses. Now, if this Bill had been in force the whole thing would have collapsed, because three miles from this village is one built on building society lines by working men, and the honses can be bought now for £10 or £15 apiece. The effect of the clause in this Bill that the owner is bound to reside in it, and if he leaves the district he must sell it, is to give a man a poor inducement to build. There are three or four reasons why it will not be of use to men that are migratory. First of all, this Bill is not meant for a man of that character. Then if a man wants to build he would get better terms from a building society. £40 is a fabulous amount to many working men, and I think it would be better if the municipalities were to build bouses and let them out at a fair rent. Then, again, a man can only sell to a man who is going to live in the house, and that naturally limits the demand for sale and depreciates, in consequence, the value. Then there is the lot of the widow. Working men, as well as others, have some regard to their wives and children, and if a man knows that if he dies after he has paid half the money his widow can only reside in that house another year, it will be a very serious bar to working men availing themselves under the Act. I should propose that the widow, so long as she fulfils the conditions required by the Act—the same as the husband would had he lived—should be allowed to continue to reside there. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the sub-section of Clause 7, because without such an Amendment as I suggest the Act would not be complete.


We have now reached the third and last stage of this Bill, which was placed in the front rank of the measures which Her Majesty's gracious Speech recommended to Parliament. In the opinion of the Government, at all events, it is an important measure, and I rejoice that it has passed through its several stages with so little opposition. Both on the First and Second Reading a number of hon. Members opposed it, but since then there has been no serious opposition. The Bill, in the first instance, was introduced by me as a non-controversial measure, but the treatment it received on the other side of the House tended to place it in the category of measures the credit and responsibity for which will have to go to the Party which introduced it. If it is a success we are entitled to the credit; if it is a failure we must take the responsibility. The hon. Member for Mid Durham has dealt with certain questions of detail, and has been kind enough to suggest an Amendment which he thought would make the Bill more satisfactory, I think the object of the hon. Member is already secured. There is nothing in the Bill to turn a widow out if she decides to remain in the house fulfilling the conditions of the Act. If, however, she desires to make other arrangements—she might like to go back to her relations—she is allowed twelve months to turn round in and negotiate a satisfactory settlement. The hon. Member also said, very truly, that probably this Bill was not calculated to give advantages to a migratory population. Whether a mining population comes within that definition I am not certain; but during the course of the Bill I received a deputation from the miners of Northumberland and Durham on another matter, and after that had been disposed of they spoke to me about this Bill, and expressed the opinion that it would be largely used even in such districts as the hon. Gentleman alluded to. But experience alone will show. I agree, however, that if a population is really migratory their good sense would show them that it was not advisable that they should burden themselves with a house. Still, it is no objection to the Bill that it does not benefit every class. If it benefits a large number of the working class the Government will be perfectly satisfied. With regard to the speech of the right hon. Member for the Forest of Dean, I cannot understand for what reason his speech was made. As far as I can see, the right hon. Gentleman recognised the fact that the Bill was supported by the vast majority in the House, and that therefore it was useless to oppose it; but the right hon. Gentleman took the opportunity of laying down a great principle which I have never heard laid down before, and which I believe has been created and established by my right hon. friend himself and another hon. Member who usually votes with him—that it is wrong that assistance should be rendered by the municipal authorities or by the State to enable anybody to acquire a freehold. I differ from that principle entirely. It seems to me I could find cases in which it is most desirable that the State should create freeholds. For instance, there is the case of Ireland. On the ground of securing the prosperity and tranquillity of Ireland it was held that it was desirable to stimulate and encourage the creation of freeholds in Ireland. Why should it not be a desirable thing to create freeholds in this country? If such a thing were feasible, I would like to see every working man the owner of his own freehold house, and if there is anything that legislation can do to assist towards that consummation it will have my cordial sympathy and strong support. This Bill in its general treatment has been received with contemptuous depreciation on the part of hon. Members on the other side. The Government has been accused of gaining votes by making promises. I do not know whether we have gained votes or not, but undoubtedly at the last election many supporters of the Government put this Bill in a very prominent position indeed, and apparently it was a very popular measure, or it had at all events an enormous amount of support. I believe hon. Members on the other side, when they were questioned with reference to it, speaking generally, professed to be even more enthusiastic about it than the Unionist party were themselves. There were some exceptions. There was the right hon. Member for East Fife, who denounced the proposal in the country, and I fully expected he would denounce it in scathing terms when the Bill was brought forward—that he would come down red hot; but he came down in the mildest possible way, and although he did suggest it was an "infinitesimal adumbration of the real problem," still he went on to say he could not on any account oppose the Second Reading. The right hon. Member for the Forest of Dean also opposed it, but on entirely different grounds from any he had given in the House. The right hon. Gentleman when speaking in the country, said before a Yorkshire constituency that he objected to the Bill because it would create a great number of working men Conservatives.


I have repeatedly declared that I never said anything of the kind. What I did say was that Mr. Wrightson, the original author of the scheme, was reported to have made a statement to that effect, but that personally I believed the opposite. I, myself, represent a great many working-men freeholders, who are more Radical than those who are not.


In the House, at all events, the only reason given against the Bill has been the general reason that it would not be of any use. That issue has now to be tried. Whether it is of use or not depends, of course, in a great measure on the working classes, whether they desire it, now that the Bill is passed, as much as they appeared to do when it was only promised. If I may judge by the very large correspondence which has reached me from all parts of the country on the subject, there must be a great number of working men who will gladly take advantage of it. But, in the second place, the success of the Bill depends on the local authorities. It is true that the small holdings legislation has been taken much less advantage of than its promoters anticipated, but that is because, in my opinion, the carrying out of that legislation has been left to the authority of the county councils, which have to deal with so large an area that they have not the requisite local knowledge of individual circumstances. I hope some Amendments may be made in that Act and further opportunity afforded for testing it in the country districts. In the present case we have given the execution of the Act into the hands of authorities which are really local, and upon whom such persons as desire to take advantage of it would bring personal pressure. I do not like to be optimistic, so I will content myself by saving that here is a Bill which carries out one of the most important promises the Unionist party gave at the General Election. We believe and hope it will be successful, and that it will be a great advantage to the working-class population. We have received no assistance in carrying it through the House from the other side, and the other side is committed by those who hitherto represented them to the opinion that the Act will be useless. I simply awaited the judgment of the community.