HC Deb 19 February 1908 vol 184 cc833-7
*MR. JESSE COLLINGS (Birmingham, Bordesley)

said he wished to ask the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to amend the Small Holdings Act of 1892. They had heard a great deal of that Act recently, and it had been said to be limited in its operation, but his experience was that where it has been put into operation it had been an unqualified success. In the county of Worcester a colony of thirty-two peasant proprietors was formed, and they had been there for fourteen years and were in a prosperous condition. It was amusing to hear agents and others outside laying down what must be the conditions necessary for successful farming. They said that small holdings to succeed must be the best land, near a town, that the men must themselves be possessed not only of every agricultural qualification, but of almost every virtue. This colony of small holders, however, did not fulfil all those conditions. The land fifteen years ago was poor, most of it very poor, but it was now rich and productive. It was not near a town, but was sixteen miles off a large town, and the price paid was not low, for it amounted to £40 an acre, and the conditions of repayment were based on 4 per cent., in addition to which there was the usual sinking fund. Those men had for years been producing thousands of pounds worth of produce out of the land, which, before they took it in hand, did not maintain one farmer and a couple of penniless labourers. Now they were producing thousands of pounds worth of those fifty millions worth of the smaller articles of food which we got from abroad, and the money was spent at home instead of abroad. Members would be astonished to see the improvement. Each man kept a horse and cart, and sometimes two horses and two carts, and they provided employment for tradesmen, wheelwrights, shoeing-smiths and blacksmiths, all tending to the prosperity of the neighbourhood, by money raised out of mother earth instead of sending across the channel. They there found the problem of housing solved and the want of employment problem solved, without its costing a penny to the community. The county council had not lost a penny, and as far as he could examine their accounts, when the payments were finished they would be a little in pocket, so that the cost to the community was nothing in any shape or form. There was room in this country for thousands of such holdings that might be employed for the good of the State and the community, and it might be asked why were they not established. The answer was to be found in the undoubted indifference of many county councils some of the members of which, in spite of their talk about small ownerships, had no burning desire to see them created. He would ask the attention of the House to this, that the Act of 1892, required labourers to pay down 20 per cent. of the purchase money at the time of the purchase. They could not do it. They all knew that. The Worcester County Council had, however, got round that requirement in an admirable manner. In one or two cases of which he knew, they had postponed the transfer of the land until the annual instalments should be equal to 20 per cent. of the purchase money, and then they transferred the land. The object of the Bill was to remove that bar of poverty. The Bill was very simple, practically one clause, which gave county councils power to reduce that 20 per cent. to any sum they thought fit, and in cases where they had a suitable man, a man who was of good character and was a good cultivator, but who had no money, they were allowed to do away with the initial payment, and to allow the whole of the money to be repaid by annual instalments. He had just outlined the Bill. Not having been fortunate in the ballot, he could not bring it before the House, but it was so urgent and so important, in his opinion, that it justified him in occupying a few minutes of the House on the question, and therefore he would venture to bring it forward after eleven o'clock, if leave were given to introduce it. He could not see any reason why the Government should object to removing that bar of poverty from industrious, worthy men, in order that they might avail themselves of the advantages of the Act. He was aware of the Act of last year, but that did not interfere with it, for this Bill ran on parallel lines, and gave the option of becoming owners to worthy men. It was less expensive; there were no Commissioners, no anything, and it did not cost the community a penny, while the social good to the community could not be over-estimated. He knew that colony in Worcester; it was a poverty-stricken district fifteen years ago, but now, he was credibly informed, there was not, and had not been for years, an able-bodied pauper in the parish. He begged to ask leave to introduce the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend The Small Holdings Act, 1892."—(Mr. Jesse Collings.)

MR. WINFREY (Norfolk, S.W.)

said he objected to the introduction of the Bill as a matter of urgency. Considering the Act of Parliament placed upon the Statute Book last year, the House might well wait and see what were the effects of that Act before entertaining any further legislation with respect to the Small Holdings question. He specially objected to this Bill because the peasant proprietory clauses of the Act of 1892, had evidently been a very great failure. That Act had been on the Statute Book for fifteen years, and during the whole of that time only one county council had put the peasant proprietory clauses into operation. There were several county councils that had put the tenantry clauses into operation, and with very great success, and there was a general feeling on that side of the House that it was far better to create tenancies and place men on the soil with fixity of tenure, so that they might have the whole of their small capital to farm with, than to invest any of it in the soil itself. Since the Act of Parliament of last year, they had pretty good evidence that the House of Commons was right in that opinion, because, of the whole of the applications that had come in from England and Wales, asking for something like 100,000 acres of land, not 1 per cent. desired to become peasant proprietors. 99 per cent. of the applicants were desirious of becoming tenants under the public authority, in order that they might have the whole of their small capital to farm with, rather than invest it in the land, and under those circumstances the right hon. Gentleman was ill-advised to move his Bill as a matter of urgency. He thought the House should wait and see the effect of the Act of last year before placing any further legislation on this subject upon the Statute Book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jesse Collings, Colonel Long, Mr. Hunt, Mr. Bridgeman, Mr. Lane-Fox, Mr. William Nicholson, Mr. Arthur Stanley, Mr. Ellis Davis, and Mr. Mildmay.