HC Deb 26 February 1901 vol 103 cc1211-20


Order for Second Reading read.

(4.56.) MR. WILLIAM MOORE (Antrim, N.)

I am aware that the time at the disposal of the House is now very short, but I am sure anyone studying the provisions of the Bill which I now move, must see that it is a non-contentious measure and that it introduces no new principle. It only proposes to remove certain defects which have been found by practical experience to exist in an administration of the Irish Labourers Acts. I propose, therefore, very briefly to state its objects. The first, section will only apply to a limited part of the country. The House is probably aware that a sum of £40,000 has, since 1891, been annually granted to various rural sanitary authorities in Ireland for the purposes of the Labourers Acts, and it is remarkable that although this money comes from the Government, and is practically a free gift, yet in certain parts the rural authorities have been unwilling to utilise the grant, with the result that large arrears have been accumulating to the credit of several counties. In one county the amount is £9,000 and in another £8,000. It seemed, therefore, to those who have considered this matter, that if some of those who are more interested in the carrying out of the Acts were put on these rural authorities to see that this money was spent, it would be a great advantage. The added members might be agricultural labourers themselves, for whose benefit the Acts were passed. That is the effect of the first clause. The next two clauses make it easier for a labourer to get a representation signed for the putting in force of the provision of the Acts. As the House is probably aware, at present he must have twelve signatories to his representation. In many places it. is difficult to find twelve labourers who are free to sign, or are perhaps able to read or write, and the result is that a labourer very often has to go to a ratepayer, and we know from experience that it is very difficult to get a ratepayer to sign anything which would facilitate a labourer putting the Acts into force. It is proposed in this Bill to allow a labourer to initiate proceedings by a representation signed by six instead of twelve. The next section, which introduces new but much needed matter, is this; where a labourer has signed a representation it has happened that the first act of his employer is to put him out of his house, most of these tenements being weekly tenements. We propose that when a labourer has made a representation he shall not be disturbed until the rural authority has considered whether he should have a new house or not, and if the rural authority decide that he should have a new house, he shall not be disturbed until the new house is built —on two conditions, that there is no interference with the demesne lands, and secondly, that he shall continue to pay whatever rent he was under at the date of the representation. Finally, we have found that in practical working the definition which at present exists of an agricultural labourer is too small. An agricultural labourer at the present moment means a weaver, who does not do any agricultural work at all, or a fisherman, who may do some agricultural work, but a large class of people are left out who ought to be included. Surface-men and roadmen are left out, and they are just as entitled to live in decent houses as the ordinary agricultural labourer working in the fields. Hon. Members will see that it is not unreasonable that the definition should be extended. I know it is impossible to have a full discussion now, but I do not think that hon Members will find that there is anything in this Bill which they can object to as a matter of principle. I understand that the members of the Government will not be averse to the Bill if it gets a Second Reading; and I would suggest that any matters of difference between us might be settled in one of the Standing Committees. Three Labourers Bills were brought in by hon. Gentlemen opposite and three by my hon. friends. The labourers have benefited by each of them, but they were only passed by fighting out our minor differences in that way. I have received resolutions from labourers' associations expressing approval of the Bill, and I hope hon. Members will see their way to reserve our debating ground for upstairs, and give the Bill a Second Reading now.

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

(5.5.) MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

During the course of last session a Bill was introduced by an hon. Member opposite dealing with this labourers question, which contained a great deal I could not approve of, but I stated my intention of voting for the Second Reading, trusting to be able to remove what I objected to in Committee. My feeling in regard to this labourers question is this, that the state of things is so bad that any hon. Member takes a great responsibility in opposing anything designed to remedy it, and I for one am not prepared to take such responsibility. But I wish to state with all brevity that this is rather a singular Bill. Its effective clauses are 1 and 3. All the others may be taken for granted, but clauses 1 and 3 are founded on singular principles. The hon. and learned Member who introduced the Bill has made it quite clear that it has been introduced because of an Ulster difficulty. There is no cash in hand in any of the southern counties, because the authorities elected to work the Acts have worked them. The difficulty arises, let it be distinctly stated, from the unwillingness of certain Ulster constituencies to apply the Labourers Acts, and therefore money has accumulated. It is very well known that candidates for rural district councils have more or less humbugged the people. That is not confined to rural councils. It is quite true, and perfectly well known, that members of rural councils have pledged themselves to put these Acts into operation, but they have not done it. But that is not confined to rural district councils. There are other people who have given pledges to their constituents to do certain great things—


To support the Government.


To support the Government seems now to be regarded as a moral law. What I say is that, just as in the case of rural councillors who have pledged themselves to put the Labourers Acts into operation and have broken their pledge, so other gentlemen have given pledges and have not kept them. What is the proposal now brought forward to deal with this difficulty—and it is a real difficulty in Ulster? There is no doubt that the Acts cannot be put into operation while the present rural district councillors hold the field. What is the remedy this Bill proposes I This Bill, introduced at five o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, proposes to alter the provisions of the Local Government Act. When that Act was passed it provided that three members of the old Grand Jury should be incorporated in each county council, but only for three years. This Bill now proposes to introduce into a rural district council of forty members, three members to be selected by the Local Government Board, and with that new machinery it is hoped that this measure will work smoothly. Was there ever a more monstrous proposal? If forty members are opposed to the Acts, how are three members selected by the Local Government Board to put them into operation? This proposal is opposed to the whole principle of representative government, and if the labourers cannot get the Acts put into operation by their votes, then we shall have to consider the whole question. The Local Government Board has most serious work on hand as it is, in bringing local government into operation in Ireland. That work is delayed by collisions with local authorities, and to propose now that three members to be nominated by the Board should influence or overrule a rural district council in the expenditure of public money, is a grave proposal, requiring a great deal more debate than can now be given to it. It may be necessary to do something to get these Acts put into operation, but I should be very much surprised if the Government would assent to any such principle. The hon. and learned Member pledged the Government in advance, but if the right hon. Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland rises and informs the electors of Ulster that they are going to be overruled in this matter by a selection of the Local Government Board, if he takes responsibility for that, then the House may well allow it to pass. Clause 3 is another clause which contains a very singular proposal. It is as to the character of the representation to be made to the rural authority. The law at present requires twelve names; but the Bill proposes that six men can sign a representation, and that it is sufficient if these men are within the definition of an agricultural labourer as defined in the Bill. I have laid it down before now that these Acts ought not to be confined to mere agricultural labourers, arid that a labourer in a town who is badly housed has a right to get the same treatment as an agricultural labourer; but this Bill proposes that six men who need not be rated at all—the only test required being that they shall have worked in the district for six weeks during the year—can sign the representation, and practically compel the expenditure of public money. Men may be brought from the ends of the earth for the purpose; and I say that is a new principle to introduce into legislation by this House. I know the necessities of hon. Members from Ulster, but I do not know that the House is exactly under the same kind of necessity as to cause them to outrage all ordinary principles in dealing with this question. These are two matters on which I should like the opinion of the Irish Attorney General. I have stated that I think these Acts are in such a terrible condition, and the state of the labourers is so deplorable in Ulster, that I will not take the responsibility of opposing any Bill which proposes to do anything in the desired direction.


You are doing your very best to oppose it.


Surely it has not come to this—that the hon. Member for South Belfast maintains that Bills should pass without discussion. Surely we have not come to that state of coercion yet, although we may come to it. We have not come to that pass in Ulster yet, as the hon. Member found out the other day. If the Government take the responsibility for it, then, so far as I am concerned, the Bill may pass, but I protest against overruling local authorities charged with the working of such measures, by men nominated by a body which is fast forfeiting the confidence of the people of Ireland. I should also like to ask my right hon. friend whether he approves of the proposal in the Bill that a man who has worked for six weeks in a locality has a right to demand that a cottage should be erected at the expense of the ratepayers. These are the two questions I would wish settled, and if the Government take the responsibility for the Bill, so far as I am concerned, it may pass.


I think probably it will be for the convenience of the House if I at once state in a few words what exactly is the attitude of the Government with reference to this Bill. I know that my hon. and learned friend has long taken a great interest in this question, but I certainly cannot congratulate him now on the mode in which he has drafted his proposals. He attempts to effect three objects. He desires first to provide the machinery by which local authorities, especially in the North of Ireland, shall not be permitted, while a vast amount of money is accumulating under Section 5 of the Land Act of 1891, to do anything whatever to put in force the Labourers Acts, no matter how much they may be required in the locality. An Amendment is certainly desired in the law to effect that purpose, and I think my hon. and learned friend aims, at all events, in providing it, but I do not think that the remedy he has proposed is positively the best. The description given of it, however, by my hon. friend the Member for South Tyrone is very much to be traversed. He says that the local authorities are to be overriden by three members nominated by the much abused Local Government Board.


Suppose there is a close division, the three members might be able to overrule the others.


That would be a very unusual thing, and from what I know of the North of Ireland, no three persons nominated by any Board could overrule Northern members who did not want to spend money. I do not think that the machinery proposed by my hon. and learned friend is the best, but I do think that it is desirable that some remedy and some machinery should be provided. My hon. friend the Member for South Tyrone has forgotten what is the condition of the law at present. Owing to the reluctance of some of the local authorities in the north of Ireland to put in force these Labourers Acts in 1891, the then Government introduced a Bill providing that if they did not entertain or refuse an application made to them to put in force the Labourers Acts, recommendations might be made to the Local Government Board that the Local Government Board would send down an inspector to inquire into the facts, and if he came to the conclusion that the accusation against the local authority was well founded, and that they were not putting in force the Acts, the Board could supersede the local authority altogether. That is a complete overthrow of their authority.

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

It is a retrograde step.


At all events, the first object of the hon. and learned Gentleman is a good object. I could not at all bind the Government to approve of the machinery he has proposed, but I think it desirable that some remedy and some machinery should be provided. The next object my hon. and learned friend aims at is a good one also, but here again I think he has drafted his clause too widely. It is the fact, undoubtedly, that at present very often when a labourer signs an application to have a cottage put up, the farmer on whose farm it is to be erected immediately turns him out. ["No," and "Not in the South of Ireland."] The South of Ireland, think, is applying the Act rather too widely. Undoubtedly such a course does exist, though I do not think it exists in many places. It is very unjust and oppressive, and no doubt some machinery should be devised whereby a tenant, if he seeks to have the Labourers Acts put into force in regard to himself, should not be turned on the world. But I think my hon. and learned friend has not sufficiently safeguarded his clause in this respect. The third object of my hon. and learned friend is to so widen the definition of an agricultural labourer that it shall include labourers who, though not engaged in the business of agriculture, are engaged in businesses that are ancillary to, and closely connected with, agriculture. For instance, it is a ridiculous thing that the man who shoes horses for a plough is not an agricultural labourer within the meaning of the Act, while the man who drives them is. In rural districts I think it is desirable to extend the definition so as to include such labourers as these; but here again, my hon. and learned friend unnecessarily extends it, and, by Ids definition, would enable those living in towns who are really not engaged in any occupation ancillary to agriculture to get houses put up for them at the expense of the ratepayers. It may be that it is desirable—I daresay it is—to extend the provisions of the Housing of the Working Classes Act to provide better tenements for men who live in towns, but it is not fair to throw upon the rural authority the expense of providing houses for people living in the country who are really not engaged in any occupation at all ancillary to agriculture. The Government recognise that these three objects are good objects, which ought to be given effect to, and, therefore, do not feel justified in opposing the Second Reading of the Bill. At the same time, I warn my hon. and learned friend that, if the Bill goes to a Committee, the Government will endeavour to introduce clauses to restrict its operations and improve the machinery.

(5.23.) MR. HEMPHILL (Tyrone, N.)

The speech of the Attorney General demonstrates that it is the duty of the right hon. Gentleman, as representing the Irish Government, to bring in an adequate measure for dealing with this matter. There is no doubt that the Labourers Acts have been a failure from one cause or another in the North of Ireland, and I have received Resolution after Resolution from my own constituents urging me to advocate a reform of those laws. My objection to the Second Reading of this Bill is that I fear it will commit the House to certain principles which are wholly at variance with the system of the Labourers Acts. I protest against the three nominees of the Local Government Board being introduced among the elected representatives of the ratepayers, and I fear that if we give a Second Reading now, it will not be competent, having adopted the principle of the first section, to introduce such an Amendment as the Attorney General himself admits is absolutely necessary. The Local Government Board in Ireland is an entirely unrepresentative body; it does not possess the general confidence of the ratepayers; and, if there were no other objection to the Second Reading of this Bill, that, I think, would be quite sufficient. With regard to suspending the eviction of labourers pending an application, that is a matter on which I do not feel very strongly. If there were nothing else in the Bill, I fear there would not be any objection to that, but the effect of its introduction may be to throw the apple of discord between the tenant-farmers and the labourers in the North of Ireland. The Attorney General has pointed out the unnecessary alteration of the representations by which the Acts were put into force. The Local Government Board can now compel rural districts in the North to put the law in force if they are not doing their duty, and, therefore, there is no necessity for that section. The idea of saying that six labourers, who only require to be six weeks in the district, can put in motion the whole of the expensive machinery for the erection of labourers' cottages is, in my opinion, fraught with danger. I do not, therefore, see my way to support the Second Reading.

(5.28.) MR. SHEEHAN (Cork County, Mid.)

As one who is deeply interested in the better housing of the working population, I desire to make a few remarks on this Bill, which I consider to be a most faulty measure. It is ill-conceived and ill-considered, and does not tend to any real practical reforms. The very first clause contains a preposterous proposal. It would introduce into the public boards of Ireland the ex officio element which was abolished by the Local Government Act of 1899. If machinery is required for putting into force in the North of Ireland the provisions of the Labourers' Acts, I respectfully submit that in the Act of 1891 far more efficient machinery is set up than that proposed in this Bill.

It being half-past Five of the clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.