HC Deb 29 April 1907 vol 173 cc615-28

Postponed Proceeding on Amendment to Question [29th April], "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Which Amendment was— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words, 'this House welcomes State action to promote small holdings; but, supporting the principle of responsible ownership in land, it believes that the Government policy should be based on purchase, and deprecates the extension of an extreme form of divided ownership to districts beyond those crofter areas where the occupier provides equipment.' "—(Mr. Munro Furguson.)—resumed.

Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

* MR WEIR (ROSS and Cromarty),

in supporting the Bill, said he wished to criticise some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities. The hon. Gentleman had gone a very long way back, but in the course of his speech about the development of towns and the depopulation of the Highland districts he had omitted to allude to the brutal evictions which had taken place prior to the passing of the Crofters Act, and which to a large extent had caused the decrease of people in those districts. Men were taken by hundreds and sent off to Nova Scotia like sheep. Let him and others who wish to make themselves acquainted with the character of the evictions about the middle of the last century read Mackenzie's Highland Clearances. The hon. Member did not tell them the details of the scheme by which he desired to stimulate interest in country life, and did not see how that was to be done except under some system of purchase and not by a Land Court such as was set up under the Bill. Surely anyone who wished to stimulate the development of the country would prefer the system proposed by the Bill rather than to leave matter under the control of the landlord. The hon. Gentleman had referred to the bond of union between the people and their landlords, but he had traced the history of men whose forefathers had been for two or three hundred years on the croft and to whom the usual forty days notice was given by the landlord or factor to clear out. The difficulty of borrowing money on land had been alluded to, and he had no doubt there would be difficulty at this moment. The hon. Gentleman had referred to the Bill as if the proposal was something absolutely new, whereas for twenty years they had had experience of the working of the Crofters' Act. Yet the hon. Member talked about this socialistic method of bringing about a change and said its result would be disastrous. Under the Crofter's Commission they had arrived at a better state of things than prevailed before in regard to the position of the crofter. The right hon. Member for South Dublin had referred to the present definition of ownership, and mentioned a number of societies, among others the Highland Society, which were opposed to the Bill. That was purely a landlord society. A man like himself would not be allowed to belong to it. Yet that was the society that the right hon. Gentleman instanced as being opposed to the Bill. So far as the Amendment was concerned he did not believe there were more than two Members, the mover and the seconder, on the Liberal side of the House who would support it. He was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the landlord should have the right to make the best use he could of his land. The landlord had tried that a good many years before the Crofters Act came into force. Under the benign landlord rule, ovictions were carried out wholesale, tenants wore rack-rented to such an extent that theywere unable to pay the rent, and the Government of the Party to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged sent down gun-boats and Marines to the Highlands to shoot down the people who could not pay impossible rents and rates. For many years he had appealed to the Party opposite to do something for the Highland people, without success, and now the right hon. Gentleman told the House that the landlord should have the right to make the best use he could of the land, which meant evicting the tenants and turning the holdings into deer forests. Why should such care be taken of the welfare of the landlord? A man whose property consisted of stocks and shares had not this care taken of his interests. Bills which seriously affected them were brought into the House and passed, but there was this everlasting anxiety for the interests of the landlord, that he should be protected and cared for. Thus the proposal of the Conservative Party that the landlords should be bought out. If that was desirable they might be bought out at a later stage. That was a matter which could at any time be considered. It had been said that the Land Court would fail. He did not believe it. It had not failed in the case of the Crofters Commission which had been running for twenty-one years. It was further said that if it failed the landlord would be impoverished. On the contrary, if any of these holdings were vacated the land- lord would be left a good deal bettor off than before. The land would be bettor tilled and cared for than before the man was settled on the holding under this Bill. When he went to the Highlands he marvelled at the number of new houses, not built by the landlords, but by the people themselves. Was not the landlord better off in that respect? In the Island of Lewis alone there had been nearly £50,000 worth of improvements made entirely through the energy and thrift of the people themselves. The right hon. Gentleman said "trust the landlords." The people in the Highlands for a good many years had weighed the landlords in the balance, and found them wanting. The right hon. Gentleman said "trust the good landlords." They might trust the good landlords; it was the bad ones that could not be trusted; the men who had blasted and blighted so many homes in the Highlands of Scotland. He would not trust any of them, and he was glad to see the Government were moving, if not entirely in the way he would like, at leastin the right direction. He had pointed out that fixity of tenure would encourage men to make their homes in every way bettor. Let the lowlands of Scotland have the benefit of the Act, but it should not be given to them at the expense of the Highlands. It was because Members of the Government did not understand the Highland question that ho wished them to go to the Highlands and see the condition of things for themselves. [OPPOSITION cheers.] It was all very well for hon. Members opposite to cheer, but their Party was infinitely worse in that respect. He foresaw that the Highlands under this Bill were going to lose in order that the lowlands might benefit. He wished for the Bill, but there should be special clauses for the Highlands separate and apart from those for the lowlands. The Government had, however, climbed down at the bidding of the landlords. Last year's Bill was moregenerous, and he would like to know why the Government this year had departed from the policy they adopted last year. He was sorry that they had not stuck to their guns. The hon. Gentleman, the Solicitor-General for Scotland referring to the financial provisions of the Bill said, "Ye maun creep before ye gang." He quite agreed, but they should see that they had the strength of limb with which to creep. Financially there was no strength in the Bill even to creep. What could be done with £65,000 for the whole of Scotland? He hoped that the Secretary for Scotland would put his foot down and keep it down until the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stumped up sufficient money for Scotland's needs. They could always get money for England. The other day the Secretary for War in the jauntiest, lightest, and sprightliest manner said he would give £150,000 more for the Volunteers. Why did not the Secretary for Scotland do better than he did with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hon. Members for Leith Burghs had pleaded for afforestation? Nobody wanted to prevent the landlords from planting trees on their land, but the landlords wanted the Government to provide the money. There was nothing to prevent landlords planting trees if they wanted them, but they could not expect the British tax-payer to do everything. As to the status of farm servants, he held that they would have a better status if they had their own holdings—like the crofters, who prior to the Crofters Act were often timid and afraid when they saw the factor approaching; now they were fearless and independent of both landlord and factor, so long as they paid the rent fixed by the Land Court. In like manner farm servants when in possession of small holdings would improve their status, till they, too, would be independent. The hon. Member had said they should wait for the English Bill. No; they had waited long enough, indeed far too long; and they wanted this Bill to go into Committee without delay. The factors were now at work carrying out evictions before this Bill passed into law. Objection was also taken to the Central Authority, and it was suggested that these matters should be settled by the local authorities. But his experience was that the people were too poor to leave their homes for three or four days in order to attend county council meetings; moreover they could not afford the time. He preferred the Central Authority. He looked at the work of the Crofters Commission, and he was satisfied that if the Land Court did its work as well it would be a perfect god-send to the small landholder. If the right men were chosen for the Land Court the scheme would work all right; if they got the wrong men, then the whole business would be an utter failure. Let them get the right men, good, straightforward, honest, and experienced men, who would hold the balance evenly between landlord and tenant, and then he believed the Land Court would be in no way exotic, as his hon. friend had said. He was glad that compulsory powers were to be taken, and that a Land Court would be established which, like the Crofters Commissioners, would hold the balance fairly between landlord and tenant. A good many Amendments to the Bill would have to be introduced and carried before it could meet the requirements of the Highlands. What had Scotland to do with an English Bill? England was the predominant partner, and she could take care of herself. Some attempt should be made to deal with the case of persons living around boroughs. Then it was asked, why restrict the rental to £50? The answer was that to introduce into the Bill large farmers who had rents over £50 and some up to £1,000 and £2,000 a year, would break the back of the Bill. This measure did not set up dual ownership; the landlord would retain all his rights; the tenant would have to pay his rent, or he would be cleared out. The landlord would not be despoiled of his rent, and under the Bill he would get it with greater regularity. What more could he want? The landlord wanted territorial power; he wanted to look down from the height of his castle and say—"These thousands of people are mine as well as the broad acres." But all that was of the long ago. The day for serfdom had gone by. He had been too long in the House to trust any Government. When the Bill was introduced he did not join in the discussion, but preferred to wait till he had seen, read, and inwardly digested it, and he must say that now he had seen it he was somewhat disappointed. There had been too much bubbling over with gratitude before any mercies had been granted. He preferred to wait, and show his gratitude when he saw what he had to be grateful for. He had expected a measure of a more democratic character from the Government now in power. He was sorry the Government had not stuck to their guns. He was disappointed with their proposals. Indifference was shown to the conditions in the Highlands, and allowance was not made for the fact that the people brought the land into cultivation from the bog, drained and fenced it, and erected the buildings, whereas in the lowlands all this was done by the landlords. The Lord-Advocate went to Inverness last autumn, where he made a brilliant speech on the Small Holders Bill. In that speech he said that a claim, backed by the highest, skilled advice, had steadily proceeded; from the crofting districts, and that claim ought not, with a powerful Liberal Government in power, to be allowed any longer to go unheeded. The claim he alluded to was that the benefits of the Crofters Act should be extended forth with to the leaseholders. In 1899 the Lord-Advocate said— What is the situation? You have men holding land side by side under the same climatic and other conditions, under the same landlord, with the same hardships, the same set of circumstances, where the improvements on the holding have been similarly made by the tenant. One of f these tenant has conferred upon him fair rent, fixity of tenure, and other securities; but the other tenant, the leaseholder, has none of these advantages. What had the leaseholders done? Why had the Government run away from their former convictions? Every Liberal elector who recalled what had been said in past years by the present Lord-Advocate, would be painfully surprised to find that the benefits of the Bill were not to be extended to leaseholders until the expiration of their present leases, He hoped the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary for Scotland would consider seriously the advisability of going back to the conditions provided under the Bill of last year, and not show the white feather with such a magnificent majority behind them. The leaseholders should get the benefit of the Act directly it became law. He noticed that the new landholders had to be persons with sufficient ability to carry on the holding. What was meant by ability in this case? Why did they not define it? He thought it should be more clearly expressed, there being at present too much ambiguity. Were only those who were preferred by the landlord to get holdings? He did not expect a democratic Government to give that; power of selection. Had not the land- lords "bossed" long enough? He knew many cases where people had suffered on account of their political opinions. They should prevent any landlord saying that he would not have a certain man simply because he had expressed opinions of which he did not approve. He did not expect a democratic Government to truckle to the landlords in the way proposed. Clause 7 provided that, except by agreement a new holder should not be registered— (a) In respect of any land being or forming part of a farm not exceeding 150 acres occupied by a person who has no interest in any other farm; or (b) in respect of any land being or forming part of a farm occupied subject to a lease which was in force at Whitsunday, nineteen hundred and six, so long as the lease remains in force. Why not make land which was under lease at once available for new holdings and the enlargement of holdings? If hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury bench were cognisant of the state of matters in the Hebrides and the western parts of the mainland, they would never insert such clauses as the foregoing. A man who had a £50 holding was a prince among men who had holdings rented at £4 or £5 a year. He did not complain of that provision so far as the south of Scotland was concerned, but they could not afford to apply it in the Hebrides. It would shut out a large number of people in the surrounding districts who wanted land. The limit should not be more than £30 in congested areas. He would like to know what power was to be given to acquire land now devoted to deer forests and grazing. The Bill was extremely vague on that point. So far as he could see it would be competent for the Land Court to say that these lands were not available. There was no provision in the Bill which would prevent the extension of deer forests. Every highlander expected the Government to stop the extension of deer forests. Would they givepower to the Land Court to prevent such extension? He should like to know what was going to happen in the case of a deer forest with a farm attached to it under lease. If a landlord let a deer forest with a farm attached to it on lease, apparently the Land Court could not under this Bill touch an acre of the deer forest. There were now 3,000,000 acres of land used as deer forests in the Highland crofting counties alone, and it was high time that this extension of deer forests should stop. If not stopped by a Liberal Government, it would never be stopped by a Tory Government. He hoped the Government would see that deer forests were broken up to provide land for the people. In some parts of the Highlands the glebe lands were really large farms. That was unfair to people in congested areas. These glebe lands were excluded from the scope of the Bill. He did not object to a minister having a fair share of land, but if he wanted to be a farmer let him go and be a farmer. If he remained a minister let him attend to the spiritual welfare of the people. He was glad powers were given under the Bill to erect dwelling houses in the congested districts. But how were they they to do that with £35,000? In the Island of Lewis there were hundreds of the most insanitary houses on the face of the earth. That was denied by the local authorities in the districts, but it was a fact, and he invited hon. Gentlemen to go and see the houses for themselves, or read the report of Dr. Dittmar, the medical inspector for the Local Government Board for Scotland. Under the Bill eight Commissioners would be appointed, and why were the salaries of the five Land Court Commissioners stated, and nothing fixed in regard to the salaries of the Agricultural Commissioners? Were they to receive £500 or £1,000 a year? Then out of the eight Gentlemen, only one was required to understand Gaelic. There ought to be at least two Gaelic-speaking Commissioners. Was the Chairman of the Land Court to be a lawyer, or some fossil brought in from some other Department? What vas wanted was a man like Sheriff Brand, who was Chairman of the Crofters Commission for twenty years. Every Liberal elector who recalled what had been said in past years by the present Lord-Advocate would be painfullysurprised to find that the benefits of the Bill were not to be extended to leaseholders until the expiration of their leases. The Secretary for Scotland had assured him that provision would be made in the Bill for the fencing of deer forests, so that crofters, crops might be protected from doer, but nothing had been done. [Laughter.] It was all very well for the Solicitor-General for Scotland to laugh; but this was a very serious matter for the poor crofter. He wanted to know why the promises many times made had not been fulfilled in drafting the Bill. When right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench sat on the other side of the House they agreed with him, and said they were going to do wonders when they got into power. He would do the best he could in Committee to improve the Bill. Most of the highland Members knew that what he proposed to do was right. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Government, and he wanted them to do what was right, and not to jib. Unfortunately, they did not know the Hebrides and the general needs of the Highlands. It was not pleasant to talk against one's own Party, but he was going to vote for the Bill, and he hoped that right hon. Gentlemen would not forget their promises and pledges.

* MR. COCHRANE (Ayrshire, N.)

said that like several Members on the other side of the House who preceded him the hon. Member who had just sat down had delivered his soul to the effect that he did not like the Bill, but like a good sound Liberal intended to vote for it. He thought it was rather a remarkable fact that of all the hon. Members who had spoken from the benches opposite there was not a single one who advocated the whole of the Bill. One of the principal points in the speeches had been a desire to arrest depopulation in rural districts, and if this Bill had been a well-considered scheme, calculated to retain upon the soil a larger population, it would have found a wide measure of support from the Unionist Party. A Return had been issued a few days ago relating to small holdings in Scotland. It would be found from that Return that 70 per cent. of the farms in Scotland were under £50, rental and that out of 89,000 occupiers 62,000 were under this figure of rental. Was there any reason in face of these facts why the Prime Minister should say that the claim for small holdings had been met by a "blank denial "? On the contrary, the landlords had recognised their duty, and had been able to meet the necessities of the case by providing small holdings. The Government now proposed to apply the Crofters Acts to the whole of Scotland. The Government appeared to go back to the principle in force in ancient days, and to provide the same remedy for all diseases. Bleeding was the universal remedy in old days for all diseases whether a man was suffering from a plethora of blood or from anæmia; and it seemed to him that the Government said to themselves whenever they saw a landlord, "Let us bleed him." That was the sole policy they had to bring forward for the welfare of the agricultural classes, regardless of the essential difference that existed between the Highlands and the Lowlands in regard to the tenure of land. In the Highlands the crofters were liable to be dispossessed at forty days notice and had no security of tenure, and to apply the same kind of remedial legislation to other puts of Scotland where the leasehold system gave absolute security during the currency of the lease and the Agricultural Holdings Act gave compensation for unexhausted improvements at the expiry of the lease, was absurd. The Secretary for Scotland commenced his speech by saying that there were two alternatives which might be adopted by the Government. One was the system of purchase, which was a perfectly fair one to be adopted by any Government, because thon they would experiment at their own cost and their own risk. The right hon. Gentleman rejected that idea on the ground that it would be too costly. He said he preferred on the contrary the condition which he called fixity of tenure, which was a form, "more or less, of dual ownership." The right hon. Gentleman saw no "injustice in establishing such a system in Scotland where the landlords made all the improvements." The right hon. Gentleman said the landlord would have under the system proposed a better security for his rent. But was that the only tie between landlord and tenant? What about good feeling? Was the landlord to have no power of choosing between a good and a bad tenant? Was there no possibility that there might be a tenant whose character was such that it might not be desirable to associate him with an estate? Was that not a privilege which a fair and right-minded landlord was entitled to exercise? The landlord was acquainted with the circumstances of the district and the private character of every individual who might be an applicant for a tenancy. Yet the matter was to be decided by the Agricultural Commission, strangers to the locality and without that knowledge of the private character of applicants for tenancies which the landlord possessed, though it was of vital importance to the landlord that his tenants should be men of good character. When the Prime Minister was challenged to produce evidence of his statement that the demand for land had been met by a blank denial he referred to a Report of 1895. There was a Report, dated last year only, which put a very different complexion on the case, a Report of the Board of Agriculture on the decline of the agricultural population. If they took almost any county in Scotland they would find that the Report of the Board of Agriculture gave the reason for the decline of the population.


said, that if the hon. Gentleman referred to him, he might say that he was referring to England much more than to Scotland, speaking, as he did, in London. But he was very much mistaken if the very Report mentioned by the hon. Gentleman did not amply bear out the statements he had made. He had not examined it himself very closely since this little controversy began, but he believed that it would bear out everything he had said.


said that, if time had allowed, he would have read the Report of the Commissioners. In the majority of cases the general tenor of the Report was contrary to the expression used by the Prime Minister that there was a "demand which was met by blank denial." On the contrary, the falling off in small holdings in Scotland was due to low prices, to the employment of labour-saving machinery, and to all those economic causes with which every hon. Member wasfamiliar. These did not in any way bear out the views put forward by the right hon. Gentleman. As to the demand for small holdings, the returns showed that there was a great decline. In the debates last year the hon. Gentleman who represented the Board of Agriculture, and who was not now present, spoke of the hard-headed Scotsmen whose opinion carried so much weight with the Government. Well, these hard-headed Scotsmen had held another meeting of the Chamber of Agriculture in Edinburgh, in the last few days, and they had before them the Bill promoted by His Majesty's Government. That conference of the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture, which claimed to represent 18,000 of the tenant-farmers in Scotland, was presided over by the hon. Member for Argyllshire, so that at any rate that body could not be accused of being unduly Conservative, seeing that it was presided over by so good a Liberal. The conference gave a long consideration to the Bill, and passed a resolution to the i effect that the conference disapproved of j the Bill in respect of its not being calculated to attain its object, and that it would create a state of unsettlement between owners and tenants.

MR. AINSWORTH (Argyllshire)

said that as the hon. Gentleman had referred to him personally he hoped that he might be allowed to explain. The Chamber was an entirely non-political body, and as he happened to be president for the year, he took the chair at the conference. The conference by its resolution expressed itself thoroughly in favour of small holdings, but only regretted that the machinery provided by the Bill did not, in their judgment, carry out its object.


Order, order. The hon. Gentleman's explanation is exceeding the limits of a personal one.


said the last thing he would have suggested was that the Chamber of Agriculture was entirely associated with one Party, and the remarks of the hon. Member clearly went to prove that the Chamber was composed of both Parties; and, therefore, the resolution of that body had clearly its weight multiplied three-fold by the explanation of the hon. Member who presided. The right hon. Gentleman, the Lord Advocate, had found fault, in his speech on the First Reading of the Bill, with evictions; he desired that this Bill should be introduced in order to do away with what he called the "arbitrary power of eviction.'' He supposed that the right hon. Gentleman, when he came to speak, would give some instances of a general character, and not confined to individual instances, as to any wholesale evictions which had recently taken place.

And, it being Eleven of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.