§ *THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (MR. HARCOURT,), Lancashire, Rossendale
in asking leave to introduce a Bill to amend the law relating to small holdings and allotments, said: Last year I received my baptism of fire— a kindly fire, I admit—in the introduction and conduct of a small but, as it subsequently appeared, highly contentious measure. I trust that on this occasion I shall be more fortunate, because the Bill which I ask the leave of the House to introduce is one from which I cannot think there will be any serious dissent. As to the main object and intention of the Bill, and even as to the method and machinery adopted, I hope there will be no acute differences; or that, if they do arise, they will not develop along the ordinary lines of Party cleavage. The Bill is mainly an extension, cheapening, and acceleration of the machinery for providing small holdings and allotments in England and Wales. It is drafted in the form of an Amendment to our existing law. I am quite aware that legislation by amendment and reference is not the most convenient method for those who have to consult and administer the law, but it is a method which, by common consent, every Government has been driven to adopt in recent years, and it is a method which has a supporter and defender in the Leader of the Opposition on grounds of convenience, though not, perhaps, on grounds of style. But when this Bill passes into law, I see no reason why it should not be immediately followed by a codifying Bill which will gather up all the remnants of past legislation on this subject, and set them out in as intelligible a form as an Act of Parliament can ever assume to the lay mind. The consideration of the principle of the Bill, as illustrated by its method, is rightly deferred till the Second Reading stage, and all that is required on introduction is such a sketch of the intention and the machinery as will assure the House that they may safely consider it at a later stage. I will give that sketch in the simplest terms, shorn of all legal and technical phraseology, which will convey an intelligible impression of the measure as a whole. I recollect that in regard to many measures which I have heard introduced into this House the mover has sometimes thought 1378 it necessary, as a preliminary, to establish the argumentative necessity for his proposals. I hardly think that such a course can be necessary on this occasion and on this subject. The provision of small holdings and allotments has been for many years an aspiration common to both Parties in the State, and on that ground there ought to be no political differences between us, unless it is a happy rivalry between these Benches and those as to who can contribute most to the success of the matter. Neither is it necessary for me to discuss the reason for the partial failure of former Bills on this subject. Some will think that it is due to absence of demand for the land. Others will think that the failure has arisen from the timidity and insufficiency of the proposals hitherto put forward. But neither of those parties would say that the object at which we aim is undesirable; and therefore we may set out with that amount of initial and valuable unanimity. That there has been a grave depopulation of our country districts no one will for a moment attempt to deny. Again, there may be differences as to the causes of that depopulation. Whether the music hall and the evening paper have been the magnet of the towns, or whether the lack of opportunity for advancement and independence has been the expulsive force from the villages, I will not now discuss, and perhaps I am not qualified to determine. But that depopulation has been bad for the country and that over-population has been bad for the towns no one will attempt to dispute. The physical degeneration which accompanies and which, in my opinion, is caused by urban poverty is too sadly patent to us not only in the pages of Blue-books, but in every experience of our daily life. If this or any other measure can stay the town ward stream of humanity, it is worth trying at any cost. I am not so sanguine myself as to believe that Parliamentary interference will turn back to the villages any great proportion of those who have tasted or acquired a taste for the excitements of the towns. But if we can fix upon the land those who are now living on it or near it, and if we can provide an opening, a career, for those about to be born on the land, we can have no cause to regret any labour devoted to such an end. In framing this Bill we derived great guidance 1379 and advantage from the Report of the Committee of 1905, which is known as Lord Onslow's Committee, and we have derived still more advantage from the valuable evidence which that Committee received and recorded. But we have not felt ourselves bound or able to follow precisely the methods they recommended. Our Bill leaves the Small Holdings Act of 1892 untouched as regards the sale of land to the small holder. We leave those provisions for what they are worth, unless, in some cases, and I think in the future they will be rarer, there is a real or a reasonable demand for the absolute ownership of the small holdings by the occupiers; but we do nothing to facilitate that Act. We do not wish and we do not think it necessary absolutely to prohibit it. We have no desire ourselves to set up in England and Wales a class of small owners who are indebted for their ownership to the State and to the intervention of the credit of the State. If the state desires, as I think it rightly desires, a further intensive cultivation of agricultural land, it is obviously unsound that you should allow those whom you have assisted to sell their newly-acquired property, the moment they have secured the fee-simple, for a profit which, in my opinion, is not rightly theirs, and possibly for commercial and other uses, far removed from those of agriculture, to which it was intended to be devoted. Nor do we think it desirable, in a part of the kingdom where nothing of the kind exists, to create a class of limited, freeholders. We have decided that the class which we aim at creating is that of occupying, cultivating tenants, but tenants of a public authority, and, by the very terms of their tenancy, deriving the sufficient security of tenure which arises or accrues from the absence of the caprice of treatment which is sometimes associated with the action of individual landlords. But, speaking of security of tenure, I want it to be clearly understood that we do not set up in England, where it has hitherto been unknown, any system of dual ownership, nor do we create such a statutory security of tenure as would confer on the occupiers any saleable tenant-right. We proceed upon the assumption that the existing local authorities, the borough and county councils, are the most convenient bodies to provide and to manage small holdings where they are willing or can 1380 be induced to do so. In the event of their default, action will be taken to this end by Commissioners appointed under the Board of Agriculture. We do not set up an outside and independent Commission, but we take powers to appoint two or more Commissioners, with Sub-Commissioners and other officers, who will be subject to the review and control of Parliament, by which their salaries will be voted, and the Government of the day, through the Minister of Agriculture, will be directly responsible for their proceedings. These Commissioners will have wide powers of inquiry as to the demand for, and the practicability of, small holdings and allotments, in any and every county in England and Wales. They will consider any schemes put forward by the local authority. In default of such schemes, they will provide them themselves. If no scheme is carried out by the local authority, the Commissioners will have power to act proprio motu for the acquisition of land for small holdings. They may set up independent advisory and managing committees in any district they choose, and they will charge any expenses so incurred against the defaulting county councils. Where a scheme has been prepared by the Commissioners or by the local authority, a local inquiry will be held at which all those who are concerned may be heard; and after these and other preliminaries, and after the scheme has been approved by the Board of Agriculture, the county council will proceed to acquire the necessary land. Hereafter I will speak only of the county council; but the House will remember when I do so that every act authorised to be done by a county council may be done by the Commissioners under the Board of Agriculture where a county council is in default. The county council will be empowered by the Board to acquire land for small holdings either by purchase or on lease, either by agreement or by compulsion. When the land is taken on lease it must be taken for a period of not less than fourteen years and not more than thirty-five years, but that lease can be renewed on expiration, not necessarily at the same rent, but without any increase of rent arising solely from the improvements which have been made during that lease by the county council or their tenants. In fixing the price of land purchased, or the rent of land hired, an arbitrator will 1381 be appointed by the Board of Agriculture. He will be instructed to make no addition to the price on the ground that the land has been taken compulsorily. Under the provisions for leasing the landlord will be given powers to resume possession of all or any part of the land leased at any time that he may require it for industrial or building purposes other than those of agriculture. This provision is of considerable importance in regard to land adjacent to towns. It will enable such lands to be hired, for a period at all events, at its fair, present agricultural rent, without any addition for prospective value. It is specially provided in the Bill that, in fixing the rent, no allowance is to be made for prospective use being a use for which the landlord is entitled to resume possession. Powers are given in the Bill to limited owners and tenants-for-life to dispose of their land for these purposes as if they were the absolute owners in fee simple, and I hope that this may free a certain amount of land which is not now available, or, if it is, only with a good deal of cost and difficulty. There is, of course, a saving clause for the immunity of parks, gardens, and pleasure grounds, and for the amenity and convenience of dwelling-houses; and there is a special instruction inserted that regard should be had, in taking land compulsorily, to the quantity of land owned or held by the landlord or tenant, to the convenience of other properties occupied by them, and to the avoidance, so far as practicable, of taking any undue or inconvenient amount of land from any one owner or tenant. Small holdings are defined in the Bill as holdings which exceed five acres, but which do not exceed fifty acres, or, if they do exceed fifty acres, do not exceed the annual value of £50. Up to the moment at which the county council is in a position to complete the purchase or hiring of land as if from a willing seller by agreement, the Board of Agriculture will have power, where in their discretion they think it desirable, to pay ail or part of the preliminary cost of the scheme—by preliminary cost I mean the inquiry, the report, and the arbitration—in order that the rent which will fall subsequently on the tenant may not be overburdened by these charges. We who regard the provision of small holdings as a great national service think it is only reasonable and just, where the necessity may arise, 1382 that the State should contribute this amount to the cost of the machinery by which they are to be obtained. But let the House clearly understand that there is nothing in this proposal in the nature of a charity rent, nor is there going to be any contribution to rent out of local rates. From the moment that the county council is in a position to complete the purchase or the hiring, all the expense of purchase, of equipment, and of management must be treated as a whole in assessing the new rent. The county council is to be permitted to raise the necessary funds for purchase by a loan or loans, and the term of repayment for such loans is to be extended to eighty years. But the whole of the interest and sinking fund of the moneys so expended must be met by the tenants out of their rent, and, owing to the cheapness of money arising from State credit and local security, I am convinced that the rent so charged will be as low as any which could otherwise have been obtained. I pass for one moment from small holdings to tell the House the modifications and amendments which we propose in various Acts dealing with allotments. In large parts of the country where allotments do not at present exist, or, if they do exist, only in quite insufficient quantities, I have no doubt my self that the gradual development of small holdings will most easily and most economically take place through the initial medium of allotments. For this purpose we raise the definition of an allotment from one to five acres. Some hon. Members may ask why keep the distinction between the two classes of holdings at all? I think there is a very sufficient and a very real reason for maintaining it. It has always been assumed that the provision of allotments was the duty of some smaller local body than the council for the whole county. In the Act of 1887 the sanitary authority was selected. Later on the rural district council and the parish council were given different powers to that end. We now propose to substitute as the active allotment authority the parish council only, or, where there is no parish council, the chairman of the parish meeting with the overseers. We give to the parish council, subject, of course, to the consent of the county council, which is the rating authority, compulsory powers for the acquisition, by purchase 1383 or by hiring, of land for these allotments, and we transfer to the parish council all the allotments—they are not a very large number—at present held by the rural district council.
§ MR. HARCOURT
Yes. They have already compulsory powers, but we give them the power to hire. By this amendment we shall enlarge the power of initiative and of management of the body which above all others has the most detailed and accurate knowledge of the wants of the village, the capabilities of the land, and the industry and fitness of the applicants. I have now stated the main lines of the Bill with regard to small holdings and allotments, but there are certain general provisions on which it is right the House should be informed. Permission is given to two county councils to combine in a scheme which will be of value in districts contiguous to the county boundary. A county council is permitted to acquire grazing and sheep walks for attachment to small holdings in common. The county council are empowered to transfer land they have acquired to associations formed for the promotion of small holdings, subject, of course, to their constitution and their rules being approved by the Board of Agriculture. The Board of Agriculture itself is permitted, if it thinks wise, in any district to set up some experimental small holdings in order to demonstrate their feasibility. That is a recommendation of Lord Onslow's Committee. But in doing so the Board of Agriculture must acquire the land by agreement and not by compulsion, and it must pay any expense which it incurs in that direction out of its own fund. The Board of Agriculture will open a small holdings account at the Bank of England, and for the first year the Treasury will contribute to that fund £100,000. The small holdings account of the Board will be audited in the usual way, and be submitted annually to Parliament. But what is more important, I think, an annual report will be made, not only by the Board of Agriculture and their Commissioners, but by all the local authorities as to what is being done in regard to small holdings and allotments. We shall, therefore, be able in this House 1384 to judge of their activity or their inaction. The county council are empowered to sell or to lease surplus land for purposes other than those of small holdings. This is done to enable them, if they think it wise, to take a whole farm, even where the acreage is in excess of that immediately required for small holdings, and so to avoid the payment of compensation for severance which would otherwise have to be provided. Small holders themselves are given a statutory right to compensation for their improvements on the market gardens scale, except, of course, where specific improvements are in direct violation of the express prohibition of the county council in the lease; and all these details and general conditions of tenancy are to be settled by rules to be made by the county council with the approval of the Board of Agriculture. The clause of the Act of 1887 which forbids the erection upon allotments of any except a few specified buildings will be repealed. The county council are instructed to appoint a committee and subcommittees to deal with small holdings. The sub committees need not consist wholly or mainly of county councillors; and it is suggested in the Bill that in appointing these sub-committees special regard should be had to the desirability of adding to them parish councillors and other persons with local knowledge of the district in which they are likely to operate. Finally, the Board and the county council are enabled to promote the formation of co-operative societies and credit banks for the furtherance of small holdings, and they are permitted to give guarantees, or to make advances to credit banks, under the direction, and with the consent, of the Treasury or the Local Government Board. I have now described, as fully as is necessary at this stage, the provisions of this Bill. I apologise to the House for the time I have occupied, but him. Members who at other times have had to perform this duty know the difficulty of an oral description of the legal and practical effect of clauses which are not textually before the House. Looking again for one moment at the Report of Lord Onslow's Committee, the House wil realise that, though we have adopted and adapted many of their suggestions, we have departed from their recommendations in three main particulars. We have given to the local authorities compulsory powers, which we 1385 think are essential, but which that Committee was too timorous to recommend; we have declined to facilitate the absolute sale of small holdings to the occupier; and we have made no provision for loans to landlords for their creation. I do not imagine that any of these decisions will require justification in the present House, certainly not at this stage of the Bill. I do not know how far I shall carry with me the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bordesley, who was a dissentient from the Report of that Committee. I hope we may travel a long way on the road which leads to our common goal. I had the privilege, now, I am afraid, twenty-three years ago, of being one of his very humble assistants in the early days of the agitation for small holdings—days when he had the honour to be the bogey of the bench which he now adorns. There are probably not many Members in the present House of Commons who realise how much we owe on this subject to his earnest conviction and unfailing energy; and I hope he will not think it presumptuous of me if I tender to him the grateful homage of a humble disciple. I am acquainted with the contents of his dissentient Report to that Committee, and on many points we shall find ourselves in complete accord. He regards the conclusions at which that Committee arrived for the provision of small holdings as altogether inadequate. I agree. He objects, if I remember aright, to loans to landlords, on the ground that the increment of the tenant's improvements would ultimately find its way into the landlord's pocket. There again I agree. I think I go even further, and say that these loans are difficult to devise, and complicated to secure, and undesirable, certainly from my point of view, for this purpose. I am afraid he and I may part company on the question of ownership, but I hope that the proposals I have made for the tenancy under a public body, or a local authority, at all events supply some of that reasonable security of tenure which he so rightly thinks that the small holder should possess. I suppose, from some indications I have seen, that we may expect opposition, or, at all events, disapproval of the compulsion which we propose; but I hope we shall hear as little as may be of that loose but very cheap declamation about confiscation. Compulsion has been authorised by Parlia- 1386 ment times out of number for public purposes, sometimes with, sometimes without, compensation. But the difference between morality and immorality, between confiscation and justice, is something more than a matter of 10 per cent. on the price. I do not believe myself that the compulsion in this Bill will have often to be enforced, because I think that its more existence will be a stimulus to voluntary action. I have not thought it necessary or desirable to make any charges in the matter of English small holdings against landlords as a class. We all know the bad landlord, and we all regret that the odium which he so rightly incurs should too often react upon the good landlord, whom we also know—men whose single object has been throughout their lives to do justice to the responsibilities they have inherited. But I know the vis inertae of human nature, and I know the disinclination and hostility in many cases to small holdings of those who are the landlords' natural advisors and necessary agents. I realise, too, the disinclination of individuals to incur what they think are risks without power to ensure their successors against liabilities that may be incurred. But as a landlord myself, I welcome the compulsion which is comprised in this Bill; and, if the House will forgive a personal allusion, I will tell them why. I stand in a position very common to many of my class—a position of considerable difficulty and limitation. I am tenant for life of what the law calls my estate—a tenant for life under a very strict settlement and entail. I have no son. I am therefore compelled, at all events I am morally bound, and so are my trustees, without whom I cannot act, to have regard, in the treatment of my estate, to the interests of the ultimate remainder man, who may be a distant relative, and at all events to exercise strictness of administration, with absence of social and political bias, which I should not feel myself compelled to exercise if I had a son, or if I were the owner of the fee simple. Therefore, I say I welcome this compulsion. Not that it will be necessary to put it into operation actively against myself, but because it will enable me and my trustees to act voluntarily and by agreement in a way which nothing else could have done. I am told, Sir —I cannot believe it — that 1387 farmers as a class may see some objection to this measure. Well, it has been my good fortune to know the farmer class most of my life, and from my experience I think I am well assured they are not so blind to their own interests as such a suggestion would imply. I can imagine no proposal more advantageous than this to the farmer who finds himself short of labourers, not all the year round, but in those periods of pressure which are the necessary events of agriculture. Sir, the seasons do not distribute their seed time and their harvests in order to suit the capacity of a depopulated village; and even Ireland under happier conditions might cease to make her annual but casual contribution to our shortage of agricultural labourers. What then could be more economically sound, what could be more financially satisfactory, than to fix upon the soil in close contiguity to the crops a prosperous and contented peasantry—a peasantry who will be able to offer the farmer in the time of emergency that labour which he so greatly needs, and who at other times will be able to support themselves in comparative comfort upon holdings which Parliament alone can enable them to secure? One word I should like to say to all my friends who are equally interested with myself in the question of' land values. This Bill has been drafted, and I think rightly drafted, so that if necessary it may stand alone. At all events, I hope that no collateral consideration will be allowed to hinder its immediate passage into law. But it is based upon the assumption that proposals for land valuation will accompany or will succeed it. Therefore it has been constructed so that the application of these proposals will be easy both in principle and in effect. But I will beg those who are really and deeply interested in land reform not to allow their adherence or their loyalty to any one branch of it to cool their ardour for the attainment of even this portion of a desirable reform. I have felt, Sir, that the cause which I have at heart would be be better served by hard thinking than by high talking, and therefore I have put severe repression to-day upon the enthusiasm which I feel for the share of it which has been entrusted to my care.
§ MR. JESSE COLLINGS (Birmingham, Bordesley)
Will the right hon. Gentle- 1388 man explain how he secures fixity of tenure and fair rents under local authorities, seeing that local authorities are changing bodies and they cannot bind their successors?
§ *MR. HARCOURT
I do not think on the introduction stage it is desirable to go into these details; but the county council is perfectly able to enter into contracts for any length of time. When the right hon. Gentleman says that it is a changing body, I think the mere fact that it is an elective body, elected by the people, will give that security of tenure which would be desired by the people themselves. If, as I believe, there is a hunger for the land, and if, as I know, there is a hunger for opportunities of advancement outside the cares of our great cities, surely it is the pathos of rural life that, partly by our laws and partly by our lethargy, men who are the flower of our soil should be condemned either to the trials of the town or the shame of the workhouse. Do not let any hon. Gentlemen think that it is only those of ample means and of great possessions who can afford to dream of a future of secure competence. The humble toiler in our midst soothes the rigour of his present privations with a vision of that poor but honourable subsistence which might be his if you will revise your laws in order to afford him the opportunity. The dreams of the rich are, after all, only the rumination of possession, but the dreams of the poor are the glimpses of that humble paradise of a secure occupation of the common soil which carries with it the power to transmute the labour of their hands into the purest gold of the creation and the maintenance of a home.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave Lie given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to Small Holdings and Allotments."—(Mr. Harcourt.)
§ MR. WALTER LONG (Dublin, S.)
I am sure my friends will join with me in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman upon the clearness of his statement in asking leave to introduce this Bill, and also upon the fact that he has done it in I remarkably short space of time. In concluding his remarks, he indulged in some anticipations as to the results 1389 of this legislation. While he is perfectly entitled to say what he and his friends hope, it would have been more to the purpose if he had told us how the machinery proposed to be set up is going to provide a remedy for the evils which he described. The right hon. Gentleman expressed the hope, in an earlier part of his remarks, that there would be no controversy as to the extension of small allotments and small holdings. So far as the desirability of extending small holdings goes, there will be no controversy between the two sides of the House. There is not, and there has never been, so far as I know, any objection on the part of anybody in this House to the extension of small holdings, if that extension can be fairly and prudently carried out. But throughout the whole of his speech the right hon. Gentleman lost sight of, or ignored, the facts connected with the establishment of small holdings which are known to everybody who has had practical experience of the work. One of the main objects of the Bill is to enable small holdings to be provided in cases where the local authority has failed to do its duty. The right hon. Gentleman did not say what the causes of the failure had been. Let me remind the House that the county council is elected upon the most popular basis upon which any local authority is elected. It includes the widest franchise there is for any popular election. It is elected for a short period, each election being revised at the end of three years. The local authority having carefully considered the questions and done everything short of providing small holdings, it is provided that a central department, the Board of Agriculture, is to come down and over-ride the local authority and do the work at the expense of the local authority. We are not told whether it would be a reason in the opinion of the framers of the Bill to justify the inaction of the county council if they were able to show that they could not provide these small holdings under the provisions of this Bill. As I understand the measure, it is proposed not only that land should be obtained by methods to which I will refer afterwards, but that the holdings are to be ready for occupation by the tenants who are to occupy them. If anybody looks into the history of the establishment of small holdings, he will find that, if there are not so many of them 1390 as some people would desire, the fact is due, not to any reluctance on the part of the landowning class to devote land to that purpose, not to the inability to get land by the various associations, or local bodies, if they so desire, but to the fact, first of all, that the selection of individuals must be made in the most careful way. It is extremely difficult to get men suitable for small holdings. What is the difficulty which has confronted every landowner who has tried to deal with this question? I believe that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred landowners have done their very best to establish small holdings, but the difficulty has been the heavy cost of equipment. How is this to be met? It is proposed to be met under this Bill by laying it on the local authorities in the first instance, and then upon the central authority, the Board of Agriculture, in default of the local authorities. In the second instance, not only the obligation of getting land, but the expense of equipping the farms is to be met in that way. How is the money to be recouped? The right hon. Gentleman was perfectly clear and definite on this point. He told us that the rents of these holdings must recoup the interest and capital. A sinking fund is to be provided out of which the price of the land required for small holdings is repayable in eighty years. That is to make the annual charge as light as possible. How is the right hon. Gentleman going to secure this result? He is not going to do it by standing at this table and telling us that the rents arc going to cover the outlay on the security. He should have told us why he believes that the landlord cannot afford to lay out in small holdings land for which he receives a low rent. Why does the landlord not do that if it can be done with a reasonable prospect of success? You have not made a sudden discovery. You have not found the golden key which is to unlock the difficulty which has been at the foundation of the depopulation question during all these years. Surely you ought to have told us what there is in the Bill to enable the local authority, or the Board of Agriculture in default of the local authority, to do more economically work which the resident landlord with all his local advantages has not been able to do and his inability to do which has prevented the increase of small holdings. If this Bill is going to do all you say it is going to do, it is at this 1391 stage, without waiting for the Second Reading, that you should state how you are going to get over this initial and most serious difficulty. There is one feature of this Bill which I confess is of special interest to me. We discussed a short time ago a Resolution connected with the Scottish Landholders Bill. The other day, in the Committee upstairs, I ventured to challenge the Secretary for Scotland and his colleagues representing the Government, to apply to English tenant farmers on the same terms the principles which they are applying to Scottish farmers. I said then, and I repeat now, that there is no distinction whatever which any man can draw between the class of tenants to be set up by this Bill and the class of tenants you are seeking to set up by the Scottish Landholders Bill. Although I do not think that you have found a remedy, and although I think there are some details of the Bill to which the gravest objection must be taken, I do congraulate myself as an English landowner and one interested in the solution of the English land question, that the Government have found it consistent with their duty to deal with English land in a manner totally different from that in which they are dealing with Scottish land. I repeat what I said upstairs that it has often been my lot to envy the Scottish laws, and to wish that the Scottish law and practice obtained in England, but I rejoice on this occasion that the choice is in the opposite direction altogether, and that this Bill, whatever objection it may be open to, is I totally different in its character and principles. It involves a difference in the way in which it has been presented to the House. The object of both Bills is exactly the same, the only difference being that one applies to Scotsmen and the other to Englishmen. It is interesting to observe the different ways in which the same Government deal with precisely the same question. The right hon. Gentleman told us that he and his Government did not desire to set up small owners. Why? If there is tins great land hunger that you believe you are going to meet by the establishment of arrangements for small holdings, if you believe that by the creation of these small holdings you are going to stop rural depopulation and the flow into the towns, why is it you believe men will prefer to be tenants rather than owners of 1392 the land on which they are to be placed? The right hon. Gentleman told us that one of the objections was that the tenants might sell the land so acquired, or might turn it to some other purpose. Undoubtedly they might do so. I do not know that there is any great evil in that which should deter you from making the experiment if you really believe the principles which you profess. It is vain to suppose that small holdings can stop rural depopulation. There are scores of cases in which landlords have done their best to create small holdings. I defy the Government to produce any statistics proving that the districts where small holdings have been the rule for generations, where the rents have been low and the conditions satisfactory, show the smallest difference in the matter of depopulation. [Cries of "Oh."] Well, let hon. Gentlemen produce their statistics. In the western counties, for instance, small holdings have been the rule for generations.
§ MR. WINFREY (Norfolk, S.W.)
The small holdings in the western counties are not 15 per cent. of the whole total of agricultural land.
§ MR. WALTER LONG
The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that in a great part of the western counties land can only be successfully cultivated if held in large quantities. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that in a great part of Dorset or Gloucestershire men can by this or any other Bill be made to take small holdings and cultivate them successfully out of the class of land there occupied, he is indulging vain hopes. I gather that the local authority is to have power either to buy or lease compulsorily, and I assume that the choice of those methods of acquisition is to rest with the local authority. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to this experiment as being worth a great sacrifice.
§ MR. WALTER LONG
Then I make the statement myself, and say that if we can solve the land question and bring the people back to the land it will be worth making a sacrifice; but that sacrifice is one which the 1393 nation as a whole should bear, as the nation would secure thy benefit of the change. It we are going deliberately to adopt a system of compulsory hiring, I do not care what we do for securing compensation for the landlord, we shall expose him to the whole of the risks of the experiment. [MINISTERIAL Cries of "No."]. Supposing 300 acres of land are hired in a parish to he lot in small holdings, and in fifteen or twenty years the undertaking turns out a complete failure. How is the landlord to be prevented from being the victim of the experiment? He is to be compensated? But where is that compensation to come from? Is it provided in the Bill that when a man receives compensation out of the rates no acre of land belonging to him shall be subject to the rate levied for that purpose? If that safeguard is not provided — and it is not practicable to provide it—the landlord will be compelled to furnish a great part of the compensation out of his own pocket. What has been the difficulty in the matter of small holdings and allotments and the provision of satisfactory cottages? Anybody who read the articles published in the Daily News, after careful inquiry, will have seen that it is almost invariably the case on the larger estates throughout the country that the provision of cottages is not only sufficient but good; it is insufficient where the ownership is divided among a variety of hands. When there are several owners there is no direct feeling of responsibility. It is a blunder of the most serious kind to lay these duties on authorities such as the district or parish councils, Their rating area is so narrow that the men who do their work properly, and have provided cottages, allotments, and small holdings, will probably have to pay the greater part of the cost of doing the work of others who have failed to their duty. The safeguard which it is suggested will be afforded by having regard to the amount and importance of the land is not worth the paper on which it is written. The Government impose restrictions which will make their Bill fail. I believe the local authorities will appreciate these difficulties. They will be face to face in the first instance with the enormous difficulty of providing these small holdings at a rent which it will be possible for small holders 1394 to pay. They will have to undertake the disagreeable work of deciding between the cases of different landowners according to the amount and the character of the land they own. If this matter is to be dealt with, I would rather it were dealt with through the Board of Agriculture than by the county councils. The Government are laying on the county councils an extremely difficult task, which it will be almost impossible for them to perform. I do not envy the Board of Agriculture when, just after the election of a county council at which this question has been discussed, it over-rules the local authority. Such a step may be necessary, but it is astounding that it should be proposed by a party who profess to enjoy a monopoly of safeguarding authorities of this kind. As to the question of purchase, it must be remembered that the land is taken from a man, not because he has failed to do his duty, but because his might be the only piece of land in the place which it is possible to use for the purpose required. Ought we not to consider the full extent of the damage which he suffers? On the ground of "severance," or in some way, probably the land will be purchased at additional cost. Therefore, in my judgment, the local authority will not be able to show greater economy than the landlord. The right hon. Gentleman, I think, made an unworthy remark about Lord Onslow's Committee when he said that in regard to compulsion the Government had adopted a line which the Committee were too timorous to adopt. The Committee were not timorous, but believed the recommendations they were making were more prudent and more likely to be successful. I assume that where the local authority fail to do its work and the Board of Agriculture step in, the county council will be called on to make the loan necessary for the purpose. Or will the money be advanced from the Treasury and then be a debt against the local authority? I do not to think it very much matters which procedure is adopted, but I have a shrewd idea that there will be very troublous times in store for the Board of Agriculture if they attempt to compel county councils and local authorities to borrow money for a purpose they believe to be unnecessary. I was a little astonished when the right hon. Gentleman said that there might be compensation for these 1395 small holdings on the market garden scale. That scale was intended to apply to a specific kind of cultivation—what is called intensive cultivation, and to open that to the small holding, which ought to be cultivated on the ordinary system, will, I think, impose a liability and obligation not justified by the circumstances, and may impose an unjust and not inconsiderable burden on the rates. I heard the last two announcements of the right hon. Gentleman with satisfaction—namely, that power will be taken to aid the formation of co-operative societies, and that some attempt will be made to start credit banks. I believe that anybody who has examined this question—and conspicuously Mr. Rider Haggard—must come to the conclusion that it is useless to set up small holdings by themselves, and that two most useful steps to take are to establish co-operative societies and credit banks. Therefore, I welcome those two proposals—of course, waiting to hear more as to how they are to be dealt with. In conclusion, I would say that, in the first place, I feel that if the Government believe they are entitled to make this experiment throughout the country, they have no right to make it at the expense of those who are probably least able to bear any risk of the kind; and secondly, that when they have determined to do so, their object ought to be to set up occupying owners rather than tenants, only falling back on the tenant system when for some local reason it is impossible to adopt the other. I doubt whether it will be found that local authorities are better landlords than private individuals; I doubt whether they will be found to be as good. So far as the Opposition are concerned, we object to the use of compulsion unless it is used with a view to buying the ownership out and out. I believe it would be far better to set up these men satisfactorily as owners rather than as occupiers. There are other details which it will be necessary to criticise, and probably oppose. Anything the Opposition can say or do will proceed from a desire to do nothing that will prevent the extension of small holdings in cases in which it can be shown that they are necessary and desirable, and can be established under conditions which are likely to act with justice to the people whose land is dealt with and on lines likely to be successful.
§ *SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derbyshire, Ilkeston)
said he wished to congratulate his right hon. friend on having brought in a measure which had been anxiously awaited for twenty years. He would not refer in detail to the difficulties they had in their struggle in 1883 in regard to allotments when, in co-operation with his right hon. friend the Member for Bordesley, that effort took place and was followed by a claim for the creation of small holdings. The whole justification for this Bill was that the legislation passed in 1892 was, as regarded small holdings, a very bad failure. It was in order to bring about a success in place of that failure that the present measure had been introduced. When the Small Holdings Bill of 1892 was discussed he moved some Amendments, the object of which was to bring the Bill into the shape which the present Bill had taken. They then asked for compulsory powers of purchase, and powers of leasing land by means of local authorities. They gained nothing of that sort in 1892 and in consequence that Act had been a dismal failure. After ten years of activity, the labourers had obtained some 652 acres of land under the Act, representing but a miserable pittance for those who had asked for land, while thousands of labourers had left the countryside in despair of obtaining any standing on the land. Under the Act of 1892 they hoped to give the agricultural labourer the opportunity of rising m the social scale by becoming an allotment holder, the tenant of a small holding, and finally a small farmer or even a large farmer. That was a laudable ambition for a man to have, and it was in order to satisfy it that this Rill had been drafted upon certain lines which embodied compulsion. He believed that compulsion was the essence and kernel of the Bill, not because they wanted to use compulsion to injure the landowners, but because when compulsion was in the background land would be obtainable under better and cheaper conditions. Let them consider the operation of compulsion under the Allotments Act of 1887. In the first instance, what was the result? In the first seven years they obtained 2,249 acres of land for agricultural labourers. Then they passed the Act of 1894 which gave strong compulsory powers, and they obtained 14,872 acres of land in two and a half 1397 years instead of 2,249 in seven years. In addition to that, they gave the local authority under this Bill something beyond the ordinary compulsory powers which they had had in the past, and he thought the right hon. Gentleman was wise in letting local authorities do this work in the first instance. He thought they would do the work all the time, but the power given to the central authority to stimulate unwilling local authorities was necessary. Once exercised these powers would not be required to be exercised a second time. The county councils, and all the other I local bodies would take up the work and do it in the end. The county councils and local bodies required that there should be this power behind them. because hitherto they had been found unwilling workers in these fields. For instance, one county council had 349 petitions, and the answer they return d was that they thought if they granted them it would be an expense on the rates. But that was no answer at all, as t ere would be no expense on the rates whatever if the scheme was properly carried out, because the expenditure would be returned ton-fold in local prosperity. As he had stated in 1892, in places where these small holdings were established, poverty decreased, and the population increased. It was, therefore, necessary that the central authority should be able to move the unwilling local authorities in the desired direction. In another case the local authority received fifty-eight applications, and they said they were not enough to justify any action. In such a case as that there should be a central authority behind with power to compel the local authority to carry out the will of Parliament. The object of the Bill was to carry out that purpose, and did not interfere with the operation of the Act of 1892, which enabled such holdings to be sold. The operation of the Act of 1892 had shown there was no great demand for any great increase of small occupying ownerships. They did not introduce legislation for what the people did not want, but for what they did want, and what they asked for was small holdings under the local authority. At the same time small owners could be created under the old Act when there was a demand, he thought that under the Bill they would start small holdings under the 1398 conditions which were necessary to success. The local authorities were liable to periodical election, and under the influence of public opinion they would be particularly anxious to see that nothing was done to injure the interests of an honest and good tenant. What was Lord Carrington's experience in connection with this question? His Lordship had had only £12 10s. of bad debts in connection with small holdings during the last twenty years. There were very few estates that could show such a condition of affairs as that.
§ *SIR WALTER FOSTER
said that in many cases he let them through his own agents to people in the district, and they had proved to be the best payers of rent. He congratulated the Government on having introduced the Bill, which he believed was founded on the right lines and would lead to success, because they relied upon the local authorities in the first instance and they only brought in the pressure of the Board of Agriculture when necessary. They had thus a large opportunity of creating small holdings on an experimental basis. He heartily agreed with the right hon. Member for South Dublin as to the advantage of encouraging credit banks and co-operative societies. The right hon. Gentleman had also referred to the burden that would fall upon the rates in the various localities which put the Bill into force. The one great fear they always had to contend with was increased rates. He himself would be very glad if some scheme could be arranged at a future stage of the Bill, by which the fear of increased rates falling upon the locality could be mitigated so as not to deter any locality from taking advantage of the Act. He could quite understand there was a feeling against the rates being made heavier for the purpose of benefiting one section of the community. He could, for instance, in an urban district, understand 1399 the town population resenting the imposition of a rate for the benefit of a smaller section of the community outside the town. So far as the other portions of the Bill were concerned an opportunity to discuss them would arise on the Second Reading. He regarded the Bill as a valuable measure and believed it would be the starting point of great prosperity in many districts. It would give an opportunity of placing many people on the land, which would yield in consequence more produce and retain more population. All the agricultural Labourer had asked for in the past was equal opportunity. This Bill would give it, and he would go to his work with a new courage and inspiration now that he saw the day dawn when he might refresh himself with hope.
§ *MR. MILDMAY (Devonshire, Totnes)
said that there was one feature in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill that was most welcome on their side of the House. Putting aside the consideration of the provisions of the Bill, they welcomed the tone of that speech as a great improvement on the sort of thing to which they had been treated of late in this connection, but they expected it of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman recognised that if small holdings were to be a success it would be well that he should carry with him those who were connected with the land; it would be well to enlist their sympathies if possible, and most certainly not to assume their antagonism, and above all it would be better not to abuse them up hill and down dale before asking them to agree to the legislation which the Government had in view. One could understand such methods in a politician on. The make, for in these days of halfpenny papers violent declamation paid, noise meant notoriety; but they could not understand such methods in those who were more highly placed, and they had been puzzled at the attitude of the Prime Minister, who, if he might say so without the slightest offence, was too canny as a rule to preface the introduction of an important measure in the House of Commons by flinging minatory rhetoric at those who were chiefly concerned. What were they to think of the assertion that "such common things as pigs and cabbages were offensive to the squire?" 1400 Frankly, what were they to think of that? What did the Prime Minister himself think of that assertion by this time? What did those behind him who were conversant with the agricultural position think of it? The Prime Minister knew as well as they did that pigs and cabbages, as evidence of agricultural prosperity, as evidence, to put it no higher, of ability to pay rent, gladdened the heart of the landlord, who had suffered far too many pecuniary losses of recent years to be able to disregard that point of view. Then there was the meeting at Drury Lane. One could only assume that there was something about the atmosphere of Drury Lane which was conducive to exaggerated methods. Experience told them that very often a piece which had been a great success in a small theatre was a dead frost when transferred to the larger stage of Drury Lane. He had often heard it declared by members of the profession that a refined method of acting was impossible at Drury Lane; it did not fill the place, it did not reach the gallery, and a tendency to more robust methods was felt by the actor to be irresistible; the hero must shout, the heroine must shriek and scream. And so he supposed that they must not find fault with hon. Gentlemen if they had to some extent felt the influence of the architectural dimensions of the place and talked big. Unfortunately the Prime Minister, in his speech at Holborn Restaurant, had given the impression, unintentionally no doubt, that he looked upon the small holdings question as a convenient weapon with which to belabour the House of Lords, and the introduction of this Bill as a tactical move in the attack upon the Upper House. The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill had, on the other hand, shown that he would have nothing to do with that sort of style. He had very rightly recognised that the question of small holdings was far too important to be made a pawn in the game of party politics. He had shown that he wished to enlist the help of men of all parties, and very rightly had he so spoken, for landowners as a rule would welcome with both hands legislative assistance to establish small holdings where they were economically justifiable. It had been elaborately explained in the House of Lords by members 1401 of the Government that the words "blank denial" were not intended to apply to landlords as a rule, but to the apathy of county councils. They were glad that that explanation had been given, for the words were certainly inapplicable to landowners in general. Incontestable figures proved it; the Prime Minister himself had said that half the actual farmers of the present day were smallholders, holders of from five to fifty acres. The report of the Commission on the decline of agricultural population stated that only 3.98 per cent. of agricultural holdings in this country were over 300 acres. Lord Lansdowne had most ably expressed in the House of Lords the views of landowners in general. In so expressing himself he had given the views of all those who had knowledge of agricultural conditions. He had stated that what they wished to see was a system of holdings of graduated sizes, which would enable a man to rise from the ranks, to begin with a small holding, and to climb the ladder to bettor things, and he had spoken most truly when he said that the landlords would be most anxious to give facilities for such a policy. All who had been concerned in the management of an agricultural estate would know that by far the most desirable tenant was the small farmer, the hard-working farmer who had risen from the ranks. There were many such in the West of England, men who were not afraid of hard work, men who had brought up their sons to put their backs to their work, and to provide labour upon the holding, men who were prepared to start those same sons as they grew up upon small holdings of their own, where they prospered, having been brought up to the work, and knowing how to make it pay. But he begged the right hon. Gentleman not to think that anybody could make a small holding pay, that a man who was a failure in another capacity could make a living out of a small holding. The agricultural industry was as technical as any other; it required a very special knowledge, and without that special knowledge, however assiduously a man might work, he would come to grief over a small holding. As Lord Lansdowne had said, the policy of consolidated holdings, which prevailed in the middle of the last century, was now acknowledged to have been a mistaken policy. It had had far-reaching 1402 consequences, for it had to some extent retarded the provision of small holdings. The process of breaking up large farms was continually going on, but it was the expense to the landlord of the transformation which hindered the process. To begin with, they must scrap existing buildings, which would to a large extent become useless, and provide buildings for each of the small holdings: that involved a capital expenditure which most landowners, after the heavy losses they had sustained, were not in a position to incur. He did not think that hon. Gentlemen opposite realised where the difficulty really lay. He himself did not believe that there was any difficulty in getting land for small holdings; the difficulty was rather in providing buildings to make the small holdings pay. The land was no use without the buildings. Lord Onslow's Committee had thus reported—Landlords are willing enough to provide the land, but the difficulty is the economic one of tinning buildings.There, no doubt, was the whole difficulty. It was well known that the simplest cottages could not be put up to pay a commercial rent. How much less possible was it to erect such buildings as were required for small holdings. It was that difficulty which prevented action by the county councils under the Act of 1902. They had been called apathetic, but county councils were no more in a position to make rash experiments than were private landowners. He had always thought that one of the most serious features in connection with the introduction of land legislation by the present Government was the want of knowledge which prevailed amongst hon. Gentlemen opposite with regard to agricultural conditions. He did not say that by way of reproach; how were they to know? They were not able to speak from experience, and he was bound to say that that disability extended to a good many hon. Gentlemen on his own side of the House; but that did not make matters any better. Many hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to look upon all landowners as in the same box. Urban and rural landowners alike were denounced as pampered individuals who had year by year grown richer through the efforts of others. He held no brief for the urban landowner, who in the course of years might have amassed some 1403 unearned increment; but how different was the fate of the owner of agricultural land! To begin with, hon. Gentlemen opposite often seemed to forget that nine-tenths of the agricultural land of the country had changed hands by purchase within the last 150 years, so that, as far us the great bulk of landowners were concerned, it could not be said that they had "stolen their land from the nation." How often did they come across an individual who thirty years ago had bought his property on the basis of so many years' purchase of the rental, that rental being now half what it was when he bought? Socialists were urging the Government to appropriate what they were pleased to call unearned increment. What about the unearned decrement? Were they prepared to make that good? There was many a landowner whose ancestor had bought the land a hundred years ago, and who had suffered a decrement of from 40 to 50 per cent. Such a man might be very hard up, and could hardly be expected to rind the money to equip small holdings with buildings. He would like hon. Gentlemen opposite to study the balance-sheet of a typical agricultural estate. He thought that a good many of them would be surprised; they would find that rents were now half what they were in the year 1860, while rates and taxes were double. In many cases the rent had been so reduced that it merely represented the interest on the capital expended by the landlord in improving the farm and buildings. The figures adduced by Lord Portsmouth in The Times with regard to a single farm on his estate were typical of the depreciation that had taken place. Those figures showed how agricultural landowners had lost money, and when it was remembered I that agricultural land was the only form of investment which was assessed for death duties and income-tax on the basis of the gross income derived there from, no deduction worth mentioning being made for upkeep and outgoings, it could be well understood how agricultural landowners had come to such desperate straits. Every other industry, every other investment, was assessed, and paid on the net profits actually received. He thought he had said enough to establish his point that the landlords had suffered losses of late years, and that they were not in a position to provide 1404 expenditure for buildings. To what extent had that fact been recognised by the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill. With all due respect to him, the right hon. Gentleman had not recognised it to any great extent. He had talked of small holdings having been withheld by obstructive agents and others, and of vis inertice, to which he ascribed the want of small holdings. But it was rather the weakness and inpecuniosity of the landlords, who, with the best intentions in the world, were not able to provide buildings for small holdings. It was very difficult to judge of the Bill from the statement which they had heard, but the first thing that occurred to one was that the ratepayers would be in a still more parlous condition after the passing of the Bill than they were at present. As far as he could understand, the Commissioners had to go down to enjoy themselves at the expense of the county council. A good deal was left to them to find out as to who should pay for the deterioration of the holding if, at the end of the lease, it should be handed over to the landlord in an impoverished condition. It seemed to him, seeing that the ratepayers were to be called in to such a great extent, that the Government should have paved the way to small holdings by dealing with certain features of the agricultural situation which were bound to hamper those whom they were about to make small holders in their competition with the Continental small holder. For instance, the ideal method of procedure would have been to preface the Bill with the reform of the incidence of local taxation, which was bound to bear upon small holders to an altogether unjustifiable extent. Foreign small holders were held up as models, but what made them prosperous? What enabled them to pour millions upon millions of pounds worth of produce into this country? It was their very efficient system of co-operation. Many had tried, in a small way, to introduce a similar system of co-operation into England, but only those who had tried knew how difficult it was. The Agricultural Co-operative Association had done good work in that connection, but good though that work had been, and successful as the society had been in introducing co-operation in certain districts, it could not be said that a 1405 system of co-operation had really gripped the country districts. If the Government could do anything to forward co-operation they would be doing a great work; but if they started a large system of small holdings before the machinery of co-operation was in existence they would run very great risk of failure. He was not blaming the constitution of the Board of Agriculture when he said that they wanted a man like Sir Horace Plunkett to promote co-operation in England—a man of keen enthusiasm, one who knew his job thoroughly, and, above all, one who would forget that he was a politician and absolutely refuse to look upon agricultural questions from a political point of view. He was glad to hear of the establishment of credit banks. In his own county land was continually coming into the market, and he was glad to say that, in many instances, the actual cultivators had bought the land, borrowing two-thirds of the purchase money for the purpose. If the Government by agricultural credit banks could enable the actual cultivators of the soil to borrow money on easy terms in order to equip the land, they would be promoting the division of land-ownership to an extent which could scarcely be realised by those who were not familiar with the position. As he had already said, it was most essential for the success of small holdings that the right men should be chosen for them. It was an extraordinary idea that a man who had failed in every other capacity could make a small holding pay. It was a widespread fallacy, and a fallacy against which they must guard if they wished small holdings to be successful. Small holders on the Continent had been held up to them as models, but it had only been by the hardest work, by constant and continual work, that they had attained success. And why was it that they had been ready to work their hearts out? The incentive had been ownership, and on that account he thought that the Government should make ownership the basis of their small holdings scheme when compulsory powers were put in force. But just as he advocated a policy of assisting small holders to become owners under such circumstances, so he repudiated the policy of compulsory hiring. How could it be justifiable to compel a man to invest his money in a certain way? They must 1406 remember that many landowners were very hard-up, and the landowner above all other men was most likely to know whether the particular land was adapted for small holdings. Were they going to say to such a man, "Whether you like it or not, you shall invest your money in small holdings upon this land; we shall not allow you to get out of the land; we shall not give you the chance of selling it, even though you may be willing to do so on reasonable terms. Whether you like it or not you shall try this experiment at your own expense, though you can ill afford to do so." That policy to him was indefensible. He had always held that it was impossible to give a weighty opinion upon a Bill upon the First Reading, upon the explanatory statement of the Minister in charge, able though that statement might be, as it undoubtedly had been in the present case. They ought to seethe Bill in print. He did not believe in the new practice which had grown up of dividing against the First Reading of Bills. His memory went back some way, and he remembered that they did not divide against the First Reading of Mr. Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill; neither did they do so in the case of the second Home Rule Bill, and surely there never had been two Bills against the main principle of which they were so strongly united on that side of the House. A division against the First Reading of a Bill militated against the dispassionate consideration of the measure. Dispassionate consideration was wanted for a matter which so vitally affected the rural community. They would give the Bill the fullest consideration when they saw it in print, for they were really and genuinely anxious to arrest the exodus from the country districts into the towns, and to assist the Government in passing wise legislation to that end.
§ *MR. NICHOLLS (Northamptonshire, N.)
said he had listened to the speeches on both sides of the House, and he could not help feeling that they would have to come back to the point raised by the previous speaker towards the close of his observations. He had felt, all the time the hon. Gentleman was speaking about the poverty of the landlords, that there was something strange in the circumstance that they 1407 should cling to chat by which they were losers. They were told that the landlords were hard up, and that they had been losing Money for many years. The hon Gentleman said that they were in desperate straits. If they had lost so much money, why were they afraid to let small holders have a grip upon the land? Though he might not know everything about land tenure, he did know something about the difficulties for the small man to got into touch with allotments and smallholdings. He happened some twenty years ago to be one of the unemployed who lived in a rural district, and for many months he was out of work. Like others he had to look for work in the towns. He could state with truth that there were thousands of poor people who would rather live in the rural districts, but were compelled to leave them because of the insecurity of their employment there. The labourer wanted a constant job, and he sought regular employment, perhaps on the railway, or it might be in some great industrial centre.
And, it being a quarter past Eight of the clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put.