HC Deb 12 March 1900 vol 80 cc599-601

I rise to ask leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Agricultural Holdings Act, and I hope it will not be necessary for me to say more than a few words upon it. We have taken the fundamental principle which underlies the existing Act of dealing with this subject—namely, that the measure of compensation shall be the value to the incoming tenant of the improvement effected by the outgoing tenant. As the law stands at present, the tenant makes his claim and the landlord has a right to make a claim as a set off against that of the tenant, the amount of the landlord's claim being limited to that of the tenant's claim. We propose to improve the tenant's position, and to enable him to claim for certain improvements which he has not now the power to do. For instance, the Bill will enable him to claim for all corn consumed on the farm, whether grown on it or not. The Bill also simplifies the machinery under which the claim can be established, by bringing in the Arbitration Act in an amended form. Both tenant and landlord will be able to bring their claims before the same tribunal; and whereas at present the only claims which can be so settled are claims arising under the Agricultural Holdings Act, the Bill enables all claims, including those arising under the common law, to be dealt with in one arbitration. We propose that there shall be a single arbitrator; we abolish the present statutory obligation to have a referee and umpire, and we give the landlord and tenant the greatest freedom in the procedure for establishing their claims. The machinery we set up should do much to diminish the expense of a settlement. The tenant will no longer be required to give notice of his claim. Formerly, if he failed to give notice he not only lost all the rights he enjoyed under the Act, but he prejudiced his other rights. We provide that no notice shall now be necessary, but the claim must be made within three months of the termination of the tenancy. Penal rents are altogether abolished, and certain ambiguities in the law of distress are removed. The schedule under which the tenant claims compensation is amended, and the Board of Agriculture is introduced as the governing authority instead of the County Court, in the case where the landlord has to borrow money to pay compensation and charge the estate with the loan. In this and other ways the procedure for the settlement of differences between landlord and tenant will, we hope, be cheapened and simplified. I believe that the measure is a practical and businesslike one, and I trust that the House will give it impartial consideration, in order that we may settle once for all the differences between owners and occupiers of land.


I suppose the Bill applies only to England?


To Great Britain only.

*MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)

I should like to say one or two words upon the right hon. Gentleman's statement. In the first place I think that all interested in this question will welcome some of the proposals he has foreshadowed, and will be inclined to think that they are a step in the right direction. The Bill would seem to be rather a Bill for the improvement of the machinery for determining mutual claims and rights of landlord and tenant than for making larger reforms. The arbitration proposal would be welcomed as tending to cheapen and simplify the procedure of the Act. My right hon. friend has referred to one or two minor alterations of the law and to the extension of the Schedules for tenants' improvements which he proposes to make, but I could not help noticing one serious omission from his description of the Bill. There was no reference in his speech to two such questions as compensation for laying down permanent pasture, or for increased fertility from continuous high farming, provision for which the working tenants of the country have demanded as necessary to any satisfactory Amendment of the Agricultural Holdings Act. If I am to interpret the silence of the right hon. Gentleman as meaning that there is no attempt in the Bill to deal with two such important questions, which have so long exercised the thoughts of agriculturists, and have been voiced by them on so many occasions, I very much regret it, for we know it has long been felt that tenant farmers—who at great cost to themselves have carried out the highly advantageous improvement of laying down permanent pasture, when it is well done, and who have also added fertility to the land by continuous high farming—ought to be considered. If no attempt is made to deal in the Bill with these things I fear it will lead to a good deal of discussion when the measure is before the House. My right hon friend is well aware that the strongest expressions of opinion have been given by our Chambers of Agriculture in favour of accepting the recommendations of the Committee appointed by the Chambers to deal with these subjects as the minimum of concession to working agriculturists. But the proposals fell far short of even the very moderate standard set up by the Chambers. I cannot sit down without offering a comment on the singular contrast presented between the belated introduction of a Bill which is to fulfil pledges given again and again by Ministers, but postponed year after year—no doubt to the satisfaction of the right hon. Gentleman's friends—and the action of the Government, which shortly after it came into power devoted so much time to carrying the Agricultural Rates Bill when the question was the relief of the landlords. During the sessions of 1893 and 1894 we had to listen to furious and fervid declamation about the sufferings of distressed agriculturists, on Motions of Adjournment, about once a fortnight. And we remember the prolonged and passionate debates with which the Agricultural Rate Act was introduced in 1896. I think we can all understand how the enthusiasm then shown for the tenant farmers of this country ceased as soon as certain millions were ear-marked for the benefit of the landlords, with the result that we have had to wait five years before any attempt is made to deal with the case of the tenants in reference to a subject which occupies five-sixths of the Report of the Royal Commission. And now we have this Bill brought in in a speech lasting less than five minutes, and under a Rule which only allows one other speech to be made. I venture to think I am justified in drawing attention to the enormous contrast between the way in which the Government acted on behalf of the landlord class and the scanty and belated attention they are now giving to the demands of the working tenant farmers of this country.