HC Deb 27 June 1907 vol 177 cc124-35

, in moving for leave to introduce a Bill "to facilitate the provision of land for certain evicted tenants in Ireland, and for other purposes connected therewith, and to make provision with respect to the tenure of office by the Estates Commissioners," said: The object of the Bill which I am now asking leave to introduce may, I think, fairly be stated to be outside the realm—wide as that realm unfortunately still is—of existing Irish controversies. It is an enabling Bill, for it might well be intituled a Bill to enable both Houses of Parliament to keep their faith with the Irish people. Happily I need say nothing to revive the past. Everybody who has the least acquaintance with Irish history during the last thirty years will thank me for not reminding them of some of its worst features. Sixteen years ago, in 1891, the right hon. Gentleman now leading the Opposition, being then in office, accepted an Amendment to the Land Bill of that year, an Amendment which was recognised at the time to be, and I am sure was intended at the time to be, evidence of the intention of Parliament to do what it could to secure the speedy reinstatement of those tenants who had been evicted during what has often been described as a social war. Through no fault of the promoters of that legislation the 13th Clause of the Act of 1891 proved ineffective; and three years later, in 1894, my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for India being then Chief Secretary, there came the Mathew Commission and Report, and the Bill of that year. I will not refer to the heated debates which then occurred, but I think I may fairly say that amidst all the heat there was on both sides of the House recognition of the necessity, if not of the justice, of setting about the accomplishment of the restoration of the evicted tenants. However, the Bill of 1894 did not become law. But a brighter day subsequently dawned. The representatives of the landlords and of the tenants met together in friendly conclave at the famous and beneficent Landlords' Conference, happily free from that Parliamentary rancour and from those transmitted Parliamentary hatreds, half real, half sham, which are the curse of Parliamentary government. It is not too much to say that the Landlords' Conference amounted to a concordat, and one of the terms of that concordat reduced to writing was the speedy restoration of the evicted tenants. The Landlords' Conference was followed by that great Land Purchase Act of 1903, with which the name of my right hon. friend the Member for Dover is so honourably associated, and which by the terms of its second clause enabled evicted tenants, as there described, to become the purchasers of their former holdings. That is now four years ago. I will not detain the House by describing how it has come about that this work of restoration has been so slow, but I will refer them to the Special Report of the Estates Commissioners just issued and circulated, and would beg of every hon. Member, who desires to take a useful part in this healing work, to make himself fully acquainted with that Report. What, then, is the position at this moment of time? The Irish Government has been able by hard work and by the appointment and reinforcement of a special staff practically to complete the investigation of the claims of all persons asserting themselves to be evicted tenants within the meaning of the Act and seeking reinstatement. The total number of applications lodged with the Estates Commissioners from 1903 to today is 8,401. The total number of evicted tenants, or representatives of evicted tenants, who have already been restored to their former holdings, or provided with new holdings, up to date is 1,033. Of these, 946 have been restored to their old holdings, and eighty-seven to new holdings. In the case of seventy-three tenants, owners have intimated their acceptance of the price named by the Commissioners for the former holdings, while in 122 cases the price named by the Commissioners is at present under consideration of the owners. There have been 2,935 applications rejected by the Commissioners, after inquiry and report in each case by their inspectors, and for reasons which will be found stated in paragraph 20 of the Report. There have been 1,609 cases reported upon by the Commissioners and found to consist of, in their opinion, fit and proper persons to be reinstated either on their old holdings, or, if that be impossible, on new holdings; and the Commissioners have estimated that the outside number of evicted tenants remaining to be reinstated, including those 1,609, will not exceed the total number of 2,000. The problem therefore is, how are we, after all these years, to set about in the quickest possible way to effect the restoration, not of an unknown and uncertain number of evicted tenants, but of those 2,000 persons, assuming that to be the outside figure, whose cases have been or will have been inquired into and reported upon by the persons selected by the Act of 1903 for that and other purposes? The persons to be reinstated, it must be understood, will be reinstated as purchasers under the Act of 1903. Anybody who regards the lapse of time and the number of tenants remaining to be dealt with will, I think, agree with me that in order to make a clean job of this business within a reasonable time the principle of compulsion must be recognised and adopted. I do not imagine that in very many cases it will have to be resorted to; but that the principle must be affirmed is, I think, generally recognised by all persons who have any intimate knowledge of the subject; and I will venture specially to refer, for the guidance of Members of this House, all of whom will, I hope, take a deep and abiding interest in this question, to Paragraphs 40 to 43 of the special Report to which I have already referred. The amount of land that will be required for the purpose may he taken at the very outside to be a total area of 80,000 acres; and the object of this Bill is to set going machinery, already happily in existence, to accomplish this purpose. To set up any new tribunal is greatly to be deprecated. "Better to bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of." The Bill of 1903 created three Land Commissioners, who are still in possession—I will not say in enjoyment—of their offices, and who have during the last four years garnered an enormous amount of experience in connection with the value of Irish land. They and their inspectors have been the persons who have negotiated and arranged for over £5,500,000 worth of Irish land; and if they are unable to discharge the restricted duties imposed upon them by this Bill, to ascertain the value of some 80,000 acres, I do not know anybody who is. The thing to be judged is the value of land; and I can see no reason whatever, great as is my respect for the law, and great though temperate and well-reasoned as is my respect for Judges, reasons born of some measure of familiarity with them—I see no reason for the importation of a legal luminary for the determination of that question. The Bill enables the Estates Commissioners to acquire any land for the limited purposes of the Bill. We have to appreciate what the limited purposes of the Bill are. They are the reinstatement of those 2,000 scheduled or named persons compulsorily, and to declare any land so acquired to be an estate within the meaning of the Land Purchase Act. Let it he understood that the object is to reinstate these persons as purchasers under the operation of the Land Purchase Act of 1903. "The purposes of the Bill" therefore means the provision of suitable parcels of land for evicted tenants to whom this Act applies and who have already been described in previous legislation, who—or, in order to make it perfectly exact, whose predecessors—were evicted from their holdings before the passing of the Act of 1903 who have made application to the Estates Commissioners before 1st May, 1907, to be put in occupation of holdings, and whom these Commissioners considered fit and proper persons to become purchasers under the Land Purchase Act; and it also means the provision of parcels of land for new tenants to whom the Bill applies, that is to say, for tenants (and persons nominated as the personal representatives of tenants) of holdings formerly occupied by evicted tenants to whom this Act applies. This power compulsorily to acquire land presents no difficulties except as to its value, when it is untenanted land; but what of the cases when the holding is in the occupation of a new tenant? Here we are upon difficult ground, I admit. All the Plan of Campaign estates inquired into by the Evicted Tenants Commission have practically been settled except two —the Clanricarde estate and the Lewis estate, both in county Galway. In regard to both these estates all efforts at a settlement have proved futile. On the Clanricarde estates there were 126 evicted tenants, and on the Lewis estate I think the number was thirty-five. Were we to say that in no circumstances whatsoever can we by the exercise of compulsory powers reinstate an evicted tenant in his old holding we should practically be proclaiming the impossibility of effecting a final settlement of this question. For it is just in the very cases where equity would most demand the restoration of the tenant that we should find ourselves debarred from decreeing justice. What, therefore, we propose is that no tenanted land should be acquired compulsorily unless it is in the occupation of a new tenant to whom this Bill applies, and unless the Estates Commissioners, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, holding, and district, and to the cost involved, consider it expedient that the evicted tenant should be reinstated as a purchaser of that land; and before any such reinstatement can be carried out, not only must the Estates Commissioners consider it expedient so to do, but they must have offered to put the new tenant forthwith into possession of a parcel of land subject to an annuity under the Land Purchase Acts not exceeding in amount the rent payable for the holding, and, if he is dissatisfied with that parcel of land, the Estates Commissioners shall, after giving him an opportunity of being heard, award such sum as appears to them to be full compensation for his interest in the holding in the same manner as if the holding had been resumed by the landlord under the powers conferred in Section 5 of the Land Act of 1881. Nor shall the tenant to whom compensation has been awarded be compelled to quit his holding until the amount of compensation due to him has been paid or deposited in the promised manner. Under these provisions, therefore, no new tenant can be required to withdraw from his holding unless the Estates Commissioners think, in all the circumstances of the case, it is necessary that he should be required so to withdraw, and he is to be offered land on as good terms as his existing holding; or, if ho does not wish land, full compensation is to be paid him. I do not want now to go into the particulars I have at hand with regard to many of these now tenants, but I may safely say that in a great many of the cases they cannot be described as bona fide tenants at all. They are more caretakers of the landlords, who have entirely failed to do justice to these holdings. Evidence of this kind will be forthcoming if demanded. The general machinery of the Bill may be shortly stated as follows:— The Estates Commissioners publish a notice in the Dublin Gazette as to the land they want, calling upon any persons interested in the land within a prescribed period to give a statement of the grounds of their objection. The notice will be served on all persons known or believed to be interested. After publication of the notice, the Commissioners may enter upon the land to do whatever is necessary for the purpose of enabling them to determine whether the land is suitable and to form some estimate of the price they are to name. If it appears to the Estates Commissioners, after considering the Report of their inspectors, and after considering any objections to the acquisition of the land, that the land is suitable and that no valid objection has been raised, they may make an offer; and after having made such offer they give notice in a prescribed manner to everybody interested in the land of their intention to acquire it at the named price. Unless, within a limited period, a petition is present of against the acquisition of the land, the land will be acquired without further inquiry. If no petition is presented, therefore, no difficulty arises. If a petition is presented, and is not withdrawn, the petition and all questions arising there on, subject to the provisions of Section 23 of the Act of 1903 in respect of questions of law, will be heard and determined by the Estates Commissioners, or any two of them, and their decision shall be final and conclusive. That is a sufficient statement for the present purpose of the machinery of the Bill. Considerable expense will have to be incurred in equipping the untenanted land for the evicted tenant when reinstated. Already under Clause 12 of the Land Act, 1903, the Land Commission when reinstating evicted tenants have been able to execute such works as in their opinion were expedient, and to charge them upon the reserve fund established under the Act of 1891. This reserve fund is now represented by a sum of £202,000 in Consols, worth about £175,000 of cash. The Bill proposes that all expenses incurred by the Estates Commissioners under Section 12 of the Act of 1903—that is to say, in equipment —and also all expense incurred in compensation to planters, will be paid out of the reserve fund until it is exhausted and afterwards out of the Land Commission Vote. There is another provision, because we have to bear in mind that the value given by the Estates Commission to the land may in some eases be more than can reasonably be charged to the tenant by way of the purchase annuity, and therefore permissson may be given in some cases—I hope not in many—to the Lord-Lieutenant to enable the Commissioners to incur loss in reselling land, and the amount of that loss we propose shall be paid out of the Land Purchase Aid Fund. That fund is established by Section 47 of the Act of 1893, and is available under Section 48 for the purpose of inducing owners to sell land by paying to them an additional 12 per cent. on their purchase money. We also, of course, take powers to enable the Commissioners to sell any surplus land which may remain on their hands which they cannot dispose of in the manner contemplated by the Act. Power is also taken to secure to the Estates Commissioners a tenure somewhat different from that which they now have; but a sum will be borne on the Parliamentary Vote in order that their conduct can from time to time be called under review.

MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman what fund will be used for the purpose of equipment after the reserve fund standing at £175,000 is exhausted?


When that has been exhausted the money will be paid out of the Parliamentary Vote which goes to meet the cost of the Land Commission. The other clauses will be found in the Bill, but I think they are of a machinery nature, and simply by way of protection against possible unnecessary alarm. I do not want to make a personal appeal to the House. I have boon most unfortunate as a legislator. I ask for no consideration for myself—a subject on which, I believe, I am as completely indifferent as any man can be. But in this matter I own I do think that the House should come if it can to the assistance of anybody who happens to be Chief Secretary for Ireland at the moment, not to share the burden, which, happily for themselves, they cannot do, but at all events to lighten it. The state of affairs in the West of Ireland at present is somewhat gloomy. Rain is falling pitilessly, the turf, on the sale of which the happiness and means of many of these peasants depends, lies rotting, the seaweed which they have laboriously collected for the purpose of manure, as Sir Henry Robinson has just informed me, is as wet as on the day it came out of the sea, and the outlook is dismal and gloomy enough. I am satisfied that some such measure as this would, at all events, be taken by that population as a measure of good faith and good fooling, and I do hope that every one who takes part in the discussion of this matter will feel that he is happy that he is called on to assist and hold out a helping hand to put an end to this state of things. A measure of this sort, I honestly believe, will help to bind up many a well-nigh broken heart, and in some measure to staunch the bleeding wound. At all events, those of us who fool able to support this measure through its passage may feel certain that their own winter firesides will be all the brighter by their efforts, and that the roof-trees of their own homes, which probably are not half as dear to them as the cabin of the Irish peasant is to him, will stand all the faster.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to facilitate the provision of land for certain evicted tenants in Ireland, and for other purposes connected therewith; and to make provision with respect to the tenure of office by the Estates Commissioners."—(Mr. Birrell.)

MR. WALTER LONG (Dublin, S.)

The speech the right hon. Gentleman has just made in introducing the Bill is in itself, I think, a sufficient justification for the view that a measure of this kind, not only extremely complicated, but, as the right hon. Gentleman himself evidently thinks, of the greatest possible importance, ought not to have been introduced under the system which permits of only one brief speech on each side, and makes an inquiry as to the details of the Bill very difficult and further debate impossible. The right hon. Gentleman in his allusions to the past history of the evicted tenants question went a little further than he was entitled to do in regard to the view taken by the present Leader of the Opposition and some of those who have preceded him in his office, because the references they have made, to which he made passing allusion, wore to the tenants on what wore known as the Plan of Campaign Estates, which are given in the Report as seventeen in number, and in regard to which fifteen have already been dealt with, leaving only two outstanding. The Report is only a short one, and though we only received it yesterday I have done my best to make myself master of it. But I can find nothing in it which justifies the view put forward by the right hon. Gentleman that the number arrived at— 2,000—is one which may be regarded with any confidence as a final number. The Commissioners gave rather briefly the process by which they had arrived at that number. I should have been glad if the right hon. Gentleman had been able, in answer to questions which have been addressed to him in the last week or two, to tell us something more of the actual inquiries which have been made into the applicants and as to the facts in the case of the tenants who have already been reinstated. We have heard in more than one quarter that some of those who have been reinstated have already taken advantage of their position practically to make their future an impossible one, and that a not inconsiderable number of those included in the 2,000 are men of whom it is perfectly well known that they have failed previously in their agricultural occupations and in regard to whom there is very little reason to believe that if they are restarted they will have a more prosperous future than the fate they have had in the past. I refer to these two points because they have an important bearing upon the eloquent appeal which the Chief Secretary made at the end of his speech. He has appealed to all those who found it possible to do so to support him in his work of healing a sore in Ireland. He told us ho believed there was a necessity for this Bill, and that it would have beneficent results. In the absence of the information I have referred to, and of any direct statement as to the people who are included in the 2,000, it is impossible for anybody with any past experience of agrarian movements in Ireland to believe that, if we give the sanction of Parliament to those compulsory powers nominally for the provision only of those 2,000, it will be possible for any Minister or Government to stop there. The 2,000 will grow as rapidly as the 700 has already grown into 2,000. It is only the other day that gentlemen talking about this question with knowledge and figures before them spoke of the number of men they were to deal with as 500, 600, or 700. It has grown already to 2,000, Everybody knows perfectly well that, however we may safeguard ourselves now and however careful the Chief Secretary may be to indicate that the Bill is only intended to apply to this limited number of cases, we shall not be able to stop, but shall be driven to extend the privileges to others. It is impossible within the limits of a short speech to have explained to us a Bill of this kind in such a way that anybody, however familiar with Irish procedure and Irish legislation, will be able to follow it completely. Ono thing is perfectly clear—it is a new procedure of compulsory acquisition of land. I am not going to dispute the question of compulsion. I can conceive circumstances in which compulsion may be absolutely necessary, but such circumstances have to be established and the Report has not established them. The Chief Secretary has called attention to Clauses 40 and 41, but I have read the Report twice and must declare that; there is nothing in it to justify compulsion. Nothing has been said in the Chief Secretary's speech to justify the compulsory powers. Is it to be suggested that we are to give compulsory powers for this special purpose because in two cases only the present policy has failed, and is it to attain success in those two cases that the compulsory powers are to be granted? I am conscious of the fact that I have already spoken longer than I ought to, but the difficulties of the procedure to be adopted are so great that it is impossible to cover them within the limits of a short speech. Does the Bill give any appeal against the Estates Commissioners, and, if so, to whom? The right hon. Gentleman has told us there is it to be a petition; is to be a petition to the Estates Commissioners against their own order? If so, it is hardly a valuable provision to insert in the Bill. With regard to the finance, we are to be met in the first place by the reserve fund, and, secondly, by the annual vote of the Estates Commissioners. I should be glad to know the real sum. The Chief Secretary makes his appeal to us that this sore may be removed from Ireland, but I do not consider that the employment of compulsory powers has been justified. It is neither reasonable nor fair to hand the people over to the Estates Commissioners. The primary duty of the Estates Commissioners is to buy the land in order to resell it, and is it fair to give them absolute discretion as to what land they are to apply the compulsory powers to? The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned equipment. That is a very import ant consideration, for the cost of equipment has risen in some eases to between £400 and £500. When we add to that the value of the fee simple, the cost is such that it is very difficult for any part of it to be repaid. We have already enough difficulty in regard to holdings in Ireland, but I believe that without justification we are adopting a new procedure which will fail and create fresh difficulties, and make the settlement of the land question in Ireland more difficult than it is at present.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Birrell, Mr. Attorney-General for Ireland, and Mr. T. W. Russell.