HC Deb 24 March 1905 vol 143 cc1127-39


Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)

said he regretted that he had to bring this Bill before the House at such a late hour of the afternoon, but he would endeavour to state briefly and clearly the points raised by the Bill. Substantially the principle of the Bill was to extend compulsory powers to purchase or hire land for small holdings now enjoyed by parish councils (with the consent of the county council) under the Act passed ten years ago by his right hon. friend the Member for Wolverhampton to county councils, urban and rural district councils, and borough councils. Nobody would dispute that the extension of small holdings would tend to check rural depopulation; that it would raise the standard of agriculture by concentrating more capital and labour on the land, thus increasing the production of the soil; and that it would tend to improve the whole economic and social condition of the country side. No one would dispute that substantially the existing machinery had failed in regard to this question. This was not a subject for Party recrimination. It mattered nothing whether the Parish Councils Act or the Allotments and Small Holdings Act had done most. In any case the figures were absolutely trivial. Then there was a convergence of opinion that while strong machinery was needed, machinery would be useless unless the strongest human motives were enlisted to push that machinery into action. Those who were familiar with districts in which small holdings had been successful, as, for example, those concerned in fruit and vegetable growing and poultry farming, knew that the extension of the system might benefit other districts. In certain districts they had exceptional soil and exceptional advantages as to markets, but, it had recently been shown that some of the poorest soil in Norfolk might be productive and profitable when cultivated as small holdings. And Denmark afforded a striking illustration of what could be accomplished with the poorest of soil when energy, skill, and combination were brought to bear, working out a great economic triumph and building up the fortunes and character of a whole people. It was useless to treat small holdings as a theoretical "fad" or to say that this was an electioneering and clap-trap proposal. The lessons to be learned from Denmark were that small holdings were bound up with scientific organisation, that self-help was the ally of mutual help, and that more could be done by men than by machinery. He did not think we should apply these lessons in a spirit of mere imitation; we had to work absolutely in our own way. The hon. Member for the Bordesley Division had always insisted that we should do no good in this country unless we went to the foundation, and based our system of small holdings on ownership. That proposal might ultimately become the basis of action in this country. The failure of the Small Holdings Act of 1892 had been due, firstly, to the absence of compulsory powers, and, secondly, to the limitation which practically confined the operation of the Act to purchase.

What were the conditions of success? They must give the freest play and encouragement to the greatest of all human motives, namely, rational self-interest; they must give the utmost variety and elasticity of method; they ought to enlist those agencies which most tended to secure economic success and to eliminate the causes of failure and disappointment. In the last case they should rely on effective compulsory machinery in order to bring the land in the cheapest and most effective way within the reach of those who could make use of it. He was perfectly aware of the dislike in some quarters of the principle of compulsion. Let hon. Members who objected to compulsion refer to the Return ordered on the Motion of the hon. Member for Ilkeston of lands acquired in various ways during the last ten years, and they would see that while only 189 acres in all that time had been compulsorily hired, 2,364: had been obtained by agreement. Compulsion was a mere bugbear. He looked upon it as an accelerator and stimulant of what, if men began to think it all out, they would do naturally of their own motion and in their own interest. The Bill now before the House was rather to give a real start to the natural forces tending to the social good, eliminating friction between men, and showing that the common interest led to the greatest improvements in the working of the land.

The tendencies of land reform at the present time were in the direction of municipalisation and of co-operative effort. He would use them both. Of course, compulsion must necessarily be vested in local authorities, and it was possible that the land obtained compulsorily could, in many parts of the country, be best managed and controlled by local authorities themselves. But he looked for the widest and most useful development through the action of co-operative societies. If we had throughout this country co-operative land societies such as some of those with which he was familar in his own part of the country—societies which took the land from the local authorities, or the landowners, with the view to relate it, or reselling it, among the members—it seemed to him that we would have the most satisfactory procedure of all. Cooperative land societies would act as buffers between tenants and owners and between the local authority and the small holders and would be the surest guarantee against loss to the rates, while giving the greatest assurance to the landowner that the land would be carefully guarded from deterioration. The tenants also would have greater fixity of tenure and lower rents and the whole position would be enormously improved.

In this Bill two novelties were introduced. It made the local authority guarantee the condition of the land, and it provided that any society employing the powers proposed to be conferred by the Bill should have the power of expelling from a holding any member of the society who acted in a way to deteriorate and injure the land. This measure was not intended to supplant the Act of 1892, but rather to supplement it. The old machinery was left as it now stood. What was added by this Bill was compulsory power to all authorities to purchase or hire, and power was given in cases where disputes arose of appealing to the Board of Agriculture. Under this Bill the period of compulsory hiring would be increased to forty-two years, and the principle was introduced that a local authority hiring land in the first instance might have the option of purchasing the land at the end of every seven years, and further that a tenant who took land from a local authority should have the option of either buying or hiring the land in the first instance, and, under certain conditions, of purchasing the land by notice before the end of any term of his tenancy. This procedure would minimise the cost and the risk in connection with the providing of small holdings both to the local authority and the individual tenant. At the same time power was given to the local authority practically to terminate any experiment which was considered to be unsatisfactory or undesirable. The privilege was given in the Bill to co-operative friendly societies, where they satisfied the local authority as to their status, character, and membership, to receive first consideration from the local authority in the letting or selling of land. Subject to the approval of the Board of Agriculture, these societies would also have special power of borrowing under the arrangements of the Bill. In these ways elasticity was given all round. There was opportunity for starting small holdings at the lowest cost and in several different ways. The landlords would have security that their land would be worked in the best way and protected from deterioration through the action of the societies. He had always assented to the principle of giving freer loans to landowners, and one of the clauses of this Bill amended the Improvement of Land Act (1899) by further extending the period of repayment of loans for adapting their land for use as small holdings. It might be said that he neglected the tenants themselves in not providing borrowing powers for them. He looked to the development of co-operative credit as the sheet-anchor of success in future, just as he looked to the application of the co-operative principle to the working of the land to achieve those advantages in this country which had been gained in Denmark.

Some most interesting experiments had been carried out in Northamptonshire. In one case a farm of 400 acres had been bought outright for £16,000, and was now being worked on co-operative lines. Nearly £1,000 was being spent in wages, it was earning considerable profits, and the land was being worked in the best possible way. In the principal town in his constituency an admirable society had been at work for many years. It took a farm at the usual rent, sublet the land at slightly increased rents to tenants, but at rents vastly lower than those at which they could at that time get allotments and small holdings. In Lincolnshire and Norfolk similar experiments had been carried out, and the advantages were manifest. He submitted this Bill to the House as a moderate and honest attempt to deal frankly and fairly with the problem of bringing the land within the reach of the people by means of adequate machinery. It was not an oppressive Bill. It would give the owners the full value of the land at the time it was taken. He hoped the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Trade, where details which might be open to criticism could be dealt with. He begged to move.

*MR. HERBERT SAMUEL (Yorkshir, Cleveland),

in seconding the Motion, said there were three arguments in favour of this measure which he thought it was of importance to bring before the House, and especially before hon. Members opposite. Firstly, that during the twenty years included in the period between 1881 and 1901, about 1,000,000 people had left the land; that fact was show by the figures given in the census tables for those years; secondly, that the practicability of small holdings had been inquired into on many occasions, and that the invariable verdict had been in favour of the system; there had been a Select Committee of that House in 1889, the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1895, and in 1903 a Committee of the Central Chamber of Agriculture had reported strongly in favour of small holdings as one of the most important cures for rural depopulation; and, thirdly, that the Act of 1892 had proved an almost complete failure. In ten years, out of 32,000,000 acres in England and Wales under crops or grass, only 700 acres had been obtained for small holdings. There were thousands of men throughout the country who would be glad to take up small holdings if they had the opportunity. Therefore it was incumbent on the Government to take further action along the lines of the Act of 1892, and so carry out a measure of reform which was as important as any that could demand the attention of the House.

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


said the Bill now before the House had only been circulated that morning. It was a very considerable Bill. The Memorandum explanatory of the Bill was in the following terms— The object of this Bill is to increase the facilities for the provision of small holdings by giving compulsory powers for the acquisition of land by hiring as well as purchase, under certain conditions, to all rural and urban authorities by enabling local authorities and co-operative and other societies and individual tenants, to hire land with the option of ultimate purchase and by extending to local authorities, co-operative and other societies, and landowners, easier facilities for borrowing money and longer periods of repayment of loans. Each of the topics stated in that Memorandum raised points on which several hours might be usefully spent, but as they only received the Bill that morning——




said it had only been circulated that morning, and it was impossible, at the close of a Friday sitting, adequately to discuss the highly contentious and doubtful provisions of the measure. The Bill affected no fewer than four Government Departments, namely, the Board of Agriculture, the Local Government Board, the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Treasury. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading of the Bill had referred to the desirability of bringing into play in connection with the cultivation of the land the great human motive of rational self-interest. Nobody contended that small holdings were not a good thing, but the motive referred to operated equally in the case of the landlords, and, if the letting of the land as small holdings was the best way of getting most out of it, the landowners ought to do it. Reference had been made to the splendid success of small holdings in various parts of the country. If they were working so well in those parts, where was the need for compulsion? The question whether compulsion was or was not necessary had been very carefully considered by a Select Committee, and they reported that there was no case whatever for compulsion in this matter. The hon. Member for the Cleveland Division had referred to the Central Chamber of Agriculture. Could he produce any resolution of that body saying that there ought to be compulsion in the matter? It was the business of the Local Government Board to see that local authorities did not ruin themselves in land speculation, and nearly every week they had before them applications for loans from local authorities who wanted to secure land. The Board had also before them the figures showing how previous land speculations had turned out. They often involved loss to the ratepayers, but the proposal in the Bill was the worst of all. This was a proposal to speculate in agricultural land. No individual in that House speculated in agricultural land unless he was exceedingly well advised, and the suggestion now made was that the local authorities were to buy in a falling market a security which, in his opinion, had very little chance of being remunerative. In nearly every case loss would be involved. It was said that in the Bill power was given to resell or relet, but in a year or two's time a great deal of money might be required to improve or repair buildings. The local authority would have no money to spend on that work at all. There was no provision in the Bill for spending money on the holdings after they had acquired them or let them out.


That is already covered by your own Act.


said there were different forms of compulsion, and no part of this Bill stated what firm of compulsion was to be applied. Nobody who had referred to the results achieved in Denmark had said that compulsory powers were exercised there.

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the House do now adjourn."—(Sir A. Acland-Hood.)


asked whether the Chief Secretary for Ireland had any information with respect to the "jury-packing" at Cork Assizes to which he drew attention on the Motion for adjournment last night. He gave notice then that he would again refer to the subject this evening. He now asked the Chief Secretary whether he had taken steps to satisfy himself as to the accuracy of the statement he made last night, and whether he had any information to give or reply to make on the subject.


said the statement the hon. Member made was substantially correct. [A NATIONALIST MEMBER: Speak up.] The case was still proceeding, and, therefore, it was absolutely impossible, and to his mind it would be grossly unfair, to discuss the question now. He would tell the hon. Gentleman why. It would be necessary for him in order to defend the action of the Crown solicitor to put forward various matters which were to form the basis of the action, and to enter into the merits of the case. He thought the hon. Gentleman would see that that would be most unfair, but an early opportunity, as the hon. Gentleman knew, would present itself on the Estimates, or in another way, to raise and discuss the question. This matter could not be discussed at present without entering into some of the facts, and, so far as he himself was concerned, he would never be a party to any discussion of any step in a case while it was pending, and while men who were on their trial might be prejudicially affected.

MR. FLYNN (Cork, N.)

said there was no desire whatever to discuss the merits of the case. They had to consider this. Suppose that with the jury so selected the man who was on his trial was convicted, what remedy had that man? Of course, the Nationalist Members would raise the question again, but what they wanted to know now was why forty-six jurors out of eighty-one were asked to stand by.


said the practice of challenging the jury was utterly unknown in England. Mr. Justice Stephen had said that in his thirty years experience in England he had never known a jury challenged. Could the Attorney-General for Ireland give an English precedent for it? The right hon. and learned Gentleman could not give a case since 1866. It was utterly absurd to say that the law was the same for England and Ireland. The Attorney-General was right in saying that they could not discuss anything that was sub judice. But there was no etiquette of the House of Commons which could prevail against fraud, and the system of "jury-packing" was a system of fraud.


said there was no desire to discuss the merits of the case. His hon. and gallant friend rose for the purpose of receiving from the Chief Secretary or the Attorney-General a definite statement as to who was responsible for the "jury-packing" that went on in Ireland in every political trial. He thought they were entitled to ask the Chief Secretary at the beginning of his official career whether he proposed to continue this infamous system of "jury-packing'' which had brought disgrace on the judicial system of Ireland. On whose instructions did the Crown Solicitor challenge these jurors?


That is exactly what I cannot tell.


said he could state the reason. It was because they professed the religious faith of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people. That was the only reason. No, there was another reason. It was in order to secure a conviction. It was not for the purpose of obtaining a fair trial of this man. He was perfectly confident that it was the opinion of an overwhelming majority of the Members of the House that a conviction secured by such means was a disgrace, a scandal, and an absolute prostitution of justice. He hoped the Chief Secretary would get up and tell them whether his reign in Ireland was to be disgraced by a continuance of that abominable system of "jury-packing.'' They were entitled to know on whose authority these men were ordered to stand aside. Was the Attorney-General consulted in regard to the "jury-packing" in this case? Did the Attorney-General authorise the "jury-packing"? Did he accept responsibility for the instructions given to the Crown solicitor?


said that he, of course, was responsible for the action of the Crown solicitor in the case; but that action was taken under the circular of instructions issued to Crown solicitors when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose was Chief Secretary. There were no special directions given in the matter.


Has the Solicitor-General interfered in this matter?


No, I do not think he has.


asked whether the Chief Secretary was prepared to tolerate this irresponsible action on the part of Crown solicitors. If the right hon. Gentleman began his career in Ireland by countenancing this system of "jury-packing" he could only promise that when he came to the end of his career he would be a sadder and a wiser man.

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