HC Deb 14 June 1910 vol 17 cc1260-72

Order for Second Reading read.

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


I am very glad indeed that the Government has taken up this question, and I think every one interested in agricultural constituencies will agree with me. The compensation now proposed when farmers are going to be evicted to make way for small holdings, ought to have been, I think, in the original Bill. While I express gratitude to the Government, I should like to say I do not think their Bill goes quite far enough. If I may respectfully suggest an improvement, I hope that those in charge of the Bill will listen sympathetically to it. I should like, first of all, to ask the right hon. Baronet why it is, when the words are copied out of Clause 11 of the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1908, there is this omission. The words, "in addition to compensation, if any, to which he may be entitled for improvements," are left out. I do not know whether there is any object in leaving out these words. I should have thought, if he was still entitled to compensation for improvements, there would be no harm in putting it into this Bill. If he is not, I should like to know why he is not entitled to it. The other suggestion I should like to make, which was in my Bill which the Government have more or less copied, is the introduction of Section 23 of the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1908. They do not seem to have taken any account of that at all. That provides for compensation for "severance." Where a part of the farm is taken for small holdings it is quite possible that damage, quite out of proportion to the size of the ground taken, is done to the tenant of that farm. That does not seem to me to be provided for in the least in the Government Bill. What I suggest is that after the word "land" [Clause 1, Sub-section (1), "or farm stock on or used in connection with the land"] they should add—compensa- tion, of course—the words, "and also in respect of the depreciation of the value to him of the residue of the holding caused by severance, or by the use made of the part severed." That put the tenant who had to give up the land on account of a small holding in exactly the same position as a tenant under the Act of 1908 who was evicted by his landlord. I cannot but think that if it is the intention of the Government to do this it must be some oversight that they have not included ft in the present Bill. Perhaps the right hon. Baronet will tell me whether there is any hope for that Amendment. I do not wish to offer any fractious opposition to this Bill, but I shall be obliged to move this Amendment unless he can suggest some better way of arriving at the object I desire.


I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend has just said in expressing satisfaction that the Government have taken up this matter, and that they are prepared in this Bill to provide some compensation for those who have been dispossessed of part of their holdings through no fault of their own. But I cannot help expressing regret that on the face of it this Bill has not been made retrospective. It is difficult, indeed, to see why those who are hereafter dispossessed of part of their holdings for the purpose of carving out of them smaller holdings should be in a better position than those who, during the last two years, have been similarly dispossessed. I earnestly appeal to the hon. Baronet to show that he is willing to amend this Bill by making it retrospective by altering Sub-clause 3 of Clause 1, so that the Act shall not come into operation at the beginning of next year, but that it shall be deemed to have been in operation at the time of the enacting of the Act of 1908. Now, referring to this Clause 1, I fail to see any virtue in the words in the first line, "at the written request of a council." As that Clause stands at the present time, if a verbal request is made by the tenant's landlord to a tenant, the latter will not obtain the benefit to which he would otherwise be entitled under this Bill—that is to say, that, owing to the adoption of irregular machinery on the part of a person other than himself, he may be really deprived of the rights to which he would otherwise be entitled under this first Clause. I should like to have seen the last four lines of that Clause omitted altogether, and the Clause stop at the word "quitting," and other words put in to the effect that the compensation to which he shall be entitled shall cover all loss that is incurred in consequence of disturbance, not only loss in connection with the sale or removal of his household goods or his implements of husbandry or farm stock.

There are many cases conceivable, and some have already occurred, in which a small portion of a larger holding has been taken for this purpose. A dairy farmer has been obliged to give up his dairy business and to go into another part of the country to start afresh on a new dairy farm, and has thereby not only lost his business on that particular farm, but has lost the goodwill of the business, which is an item of commercial value. In any case, I would suggest that the Government should amend that Clause either by letting it stop at the word "quitting," or by adding after the word "quitting" the words, "or incidental thereto," so that any loss a tenant may suffer through no fault of his own, but owing to the initiative of the county council, should not fall upon him, but that he should be compensated in respect of that loss. There is, undoubtedly, a distinction between disturbance by a landlord and disturbance by a county council. It may be said that the compensation for loss which is referred to under this Bill is exactly the same, and in respect of the same subjects as are included under the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1908. But may I point out that the position is totally different? The position of a tenant under a landlord who may be disturbed for unreasonable purposes by his landlord, and the position of a tenant who is disturbed by someone outside for purposes which he could not possibly have contemplated at the time he was taking his holding are entirely different.

Take the case of the tenant who has obtained a lease from his landlord (and most far-sighted landlords when they see a prospect of obtaining a good tenant will urge him to take a lease); it is not likely that he will be dispossessed during the term of the lease. In the case of a county council the tenant, although in occupation under a lease, can be dispossessed in spite of the terms of his lease, and as a result may sustain loss for which this Bill in no way compensates him. The position is entirely different—the dispossession of a tenant by his own landlord and the dispossession of a tenant by the county council. It seems to me in the former case that the legal maxim caveat emptor will apply. The tenant is in a position to consider beforehand whether he would be likely to suffer any particular loss, whether he is about to hold under a good landlord or otherwise, but in the case of a county council he is unable to estimate beforehand whether he will be dispossessed by the operation of this Act for the purposes of a small holding. The position is totally different in the two cases, and I venture to hope that the hon. Baronet will see his way to make the compensation in this case cover the whole amount of the loss which may be suffered by the tenant through no fault of his own, and owing to the unforeseen intervention of the county council.


I cannot help thinking that this measure is one that will popularise the Small Holdings Act of 1908 very largely in the country. From my experience, I think the farmers disliked that Act purely because they were afraid of losing some of their land without compensation, and if this Bill is now passed, giving fair compensation in any cases that may arise where their land has been taken away from them, that fear will disappear altogether. There are one or two small points in which I think this Bill might be strengthened. Take the position of a small holder who is occupying his own land. I am not quite clear whether the Bill covers his position or not. I think it would be only fair to compensate him, even though he is occupying his own land, in the same way that a tenant farmer is compensated who is occupying some other person's land. This Bill seems not to extend to the case of allotments; not to grant compensation on the creation of allotments, although it does so in the case of small holdings. I think it should be established that what is sauce for the goose is sauce also for the gander, and if compensation is due in one case it should also be due in the other. I confess I liked better the Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend near me the Member for the Oswestry Division, which I think would cover the case of loss by severance more clearly and definitely than this Bill does.

I hope that when this Bill gets into Committee Amendments will be accepted by the Government to make it stronger in that respect, and if it is made stronger in that respect, and is amended so as to satisfy the doubts of agricultural Members in all parts of the House, then I cannot help thinking it will go a long way towards popularising the Small Holdings and Allotments Act among farmers.


I desire to cordially thank the hon. Baronet opposite for this Bill, and at the same time I would wish to endorse the hope that has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire. I can imagine the objections that may be advanced against making the Bill retrospective, but I think the objections are not very strong in this case. The Small Holdings Act is only in operation for a short time, and I do not think there will be very much difficulty in agreeing upon the authority that might settle the amount of compensation that might have to be paid in these particular cases. I venture to suggest that it is especially necessary in regard to this Bill to make it retrospective, because when you get a measure such as this you get in the first year a very large number of cases, whereas as the years go on there will be a very much smaller number of men who will be entitled to compensation under the Bill. In the Return issued a couple of days ago it was shown that over 38,000 acres were taken for small holdings, but a considerable portion of that, no doubt, was taken out of farms already occupied. I venture to urge very strongly that something might be done to bring within the four corners of the Act those farmers whose lands have already been taken, and who are as much entitled to compensation as those who will have their land taken this year. I criticise the Bill in no captious spirit, but I think if these Amendments were made the Bill would be rendered far more acceptable and useful.

Colonel WARNER

I am thoroughly grateful for the introduction of this Bill, and I ask my hon. Friend on the other side, with whom I have worked for some time in trying to get this Bill passed into law, not to prolong discussion about some o; the details and thereby run the risk of losing the Bill altogether. It is very valuable as it stands, and although there are certain things left out that might be an improvement if they were included, and an this is a Bill we shall not get except with common consent, it is too much risk to run. Let me take one point about making the Bill retrospective. I doubt whether that is possible. Many of the things that have been done have already been completed, and the money has been allotted according to a certain bargain. If there was a claim for something more the bargain would fall through. It is quite true that you might allot money, but I think it would be very difficult to carry out in practice. I should like to see every farmer who is entitled to compensation get it, but I do not want to see this Bill lost for the sake of one or two farmers, and I believe there are only one or two who have been really affected in this way by the Small Holdings Act.


Lots of them.

Colonel WARNER

There were lots that gave land, but whether they will be entitled to anything if this Bill were made retrospective is very doubtful. It is not a question whether the farmers gave land, but it is a question whether they were injured in doing so. I think it would be dangerous to try to make a lot of Amendments now. The Bill has been introduced by the Government, and I appeal to my hon. Friends on the other side not to press their point too severely or to endanger the passing of the Bill, which, if passed, will be a great protection to the farmers of the country.


I did not intend to touch upon the retrospective question, and all I will say upon it is that if the hon. Member for Lichfield will consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer he will find out how it is possible to extract money retrospectively. That being so, surely it is possible to pay compensation retrospectively where a case of hardship has been established. Where injustice or hardship has been created, the fact that the number of such cases is very few is no reason why they should not have compensation. On the contrary, where a hardship only affects a few people that seems to me to be a strong case for compensation in retrospective cases. What I rose to point out was that the important question of severance has been entirely omitted from the Bill. This is a subject of the greatest importance. There are innumerable cases of farms of 400 or 500 acres where most of the land is light and of poor quality, but where what is called the eye of the farm, often consisting of about 100 acres, is excellent land. The county council are very likely to take that 100 acres from the farm. It is well known that you cannot farm the light land itself except under serious disabilities, and there is often a very large and serious depreciation by severance. Clause 23 of the existing Act provides that where a landlord parts with a portion of a farm and takes it away from the tenant for any of the purposes set forth in the Clause, he is obliged to reduce the rent in proportion. It was considered necessary by the Government to provide for compensation for severance in the existing Act against the landlord, and they cannot say it is not equally necessary to provide for severance where it is compulsorily brought about by the county council. There can be no possible ground for denying compensation in this case, and I hope the Government will introduce an Amendment to bring that change about, otherwise it will be necessary to introduce an Amendment in this direction from the Opposition side of the House. I wish to emphasise the great importance of this point, and I hope the Government will meet it. I am extremely glad that this Bill has been brought in. With reference to what the hon. Member for Lichfield has said, I do not; think it will be contended that reasonable Amendments of the kind I have referred to will endanger the Bill. Everybody is in favour of this Bill. It is absolutely non-contentious and it is overdue, and I suggest that it is not wise for the hon. Member to assert that reasonable Amendments will endanger this measure. I think the supporters of this Bill have a right to point out any flaws existing in the measure, and adopting this course will not endanger the Bill in any sense.


May I point out that the condition on which this Bill was introduced was that it should not be regarded as a contentious measure.


I need hardly say that I welcome the chorus of approval with which the introduction of this measure has been greeted. I am afraid some of the Amendments which have been suggested would be regarded as contentious. It will be within the recollection of the House that this Bill was only introduced on the distinct understanding that it should be regarded as non-contentious and as a measure practically agreed to by all quarters of the House. I believe only one hon. Member took objection to it the other evening, otherwise it would have been passed after eleven o'clock. It was only on the understanding that there would be practically no discussion that an opportunity before eleven o'clock was given. I only desire to say that if it is made contentious the conditions under which I was allowed to introduce the Bill cease to exist. With regard to compensation for severance, the hon. Member for Chelmsford raised the question of compensation in cases where a farm is injured by the county council acquiring the best land upon it.


That is not the point at all. Under Clause 23 of the existing Agricultural Holdings Act there are certain definite reasons given under which, if land is taken, the tenant is entitled to compensation for severance and the taking of land for small holdings is not one of them. Therefore a tenant under the existing Act cannot obtain compensation from the landlord or county council if his land is taken away. The result is that the tenant can obtain no compensation, and I suggest that he ought to be able to obtain compensation for the land taken away from him, and it should be paid by the county council.


The hon. Member cannot expect me to agree with him in that contention. I do not think the county council would be in a position different from that of a private landlord, but I am quite ready to look into this question, and I shall be willing to accept any reasonable Amendments which will not make this Bill contentious. As for making this measure retrospective, I have a great deal of sympathy with that proposal, but I wish to point out that it raises a great many difficulties. How are you going to bring in provisions in a Clause which states at the end that notice shall be given to the county council to enable them to have an opportunity of making a valuation? How can the county council have an opportunity of making a valuation if the measure is made retrospective? Again I say that if I can meet this point I shall be glad to do so. I do not need say anything more to assure the House that as far as I can accept Amendments which are not contentious and which will improve the measure, I shall only be too glad to do so. I hope the House will give the Bill a second reading in order that we may get to the next stage, when we shall have an opportunity of considering what improvements can be made which are not contentious, and which will be readily agreed to in all quarters of the House.

8.0 P.M.


I do not think there need be any alarm as to the passage of this measure being endangered by contentious Amendments. The Amendments which have been suggested are not far-reaching, and they are not numerous, but they are, nevertheless, Amendments which deserve the most friendly consideration of the hon. Baronet. With regard to the case of and taken compulsorily for the purpose of this Act, I understand the hon. Baronet has promised to look into this matter with the aid of his legal advisers, and if he is satisfied that a manifest injustice will be created by a passage of this Bill, he will be willing to insert an Amendment to meet this point. I feel satisfied that when the hon. Baronet looks into this, question he will find that the case is exactly as my hon. Friend put it. With regard to the retrospective principle, I do not think I have ever recommended before that a measure should be made retrospective, because, as a rule, that course opens up trouble and difficulty. I think, however, that this case is altogether distinct from any case which has ever come under my experience before. This Act of Parliament has only been on the Statute Book for two or three years, and under its operation only a limited number of cases have been dealt with. The hon. Member for Lichfield said there were only one or two such cases, but I think upon inquiry that he will find that he is mistaken. I am afraid there are a much larger number, but I do not think they are very numerous. Obviously it is necessary, in order that frauds should be avoided, that the county council should have a knowledge of the foundation upon which the claim rests. It is quite obvious the objection of the hon. Baronet is fatal to the suggestion made from this side of the House if precisely "the same procedure is to be adopted, but I submit the case would be met approximately, and that is all that Parliament could be asked to do now, if the Government were to be good enough to insert words in the Bill which would enable the Board of Agriculture, after satisfying themselves that the case is good and that the loss has been incurred, to pay something in respect of remuneration to the persons concerned. I think the House will agree, where a Bill is new, and where it has undoubtedly caused great injustice to a limited number of people, an injustice that has so impressed itself upon Parliament and the Government that they have already brought in a Bill to make its repetition impossible, that in fairness to those who have suffered, if it is possible to relieve them of their burdens, Parliament ought to do so.

I may remind the hon. Baronet that during the short Debate no hon. Member opposite has risen to make an objection except the hon. Member for Lichfield, and he did not object to the principle, but only urged upon us not to imperil a Bill which we are all anxious to support in order to get something more than the Bill proposes to give. If we were asking that an addition should be made to the Bill, and that it should be carried further than its scone, then I admit that criticism would be fatal to our proposals, but the suggestions we make are really necessary if the Bill is to do justice all round. I believe their adoption would not give rise to objections from hon. Members opposite. There is nothing in the nature of money which could be called serious, and nothing in any way involving heavy expenditure. The matter is a small one in point of the number of cases and in the amount involved, tout it is a very serious one for the people themselves, and, whether there be one case or twelve cases, and whether the cost be £10 or £100, I am quite certain the Government are anxious that justice should be done, and they themselves will realise it is important in the interests of a measure for which they are responsible, and for whose success they are naturally anxious, that any injustice should be removed. I think the hon. Baronet will find that whether our requests are met favourably or not, there is no intention whatever on our part to offer anything in the form of opposition which will put him in a difficulty. All we ask is that a very few minutes' consideration shall be given to our recommendations, and, if the Government can see their way, as I believe they will, to accept our suggestions—though it may even be in some modified form, we shall be grateful to them. We really think the suggestions we have made are practical, business suggestions, and that their adoption is necessary if the Bill is to work smoothly and fairly. We have made them in this spirit, and I can assure the hon. Baronet that nothing will be offered by my hon. Friends but support, although it may be necessary for us to move Amendments in Committee if the hon. Baronet does not see his way to put them down himself. If he would allow two or three days to elapse between now and the Committee stage, and he would consult his colleagues, I am so satisfied that our suggestions are practical ones, quite within the power of the Government to meet, that I believe he would put them down on the Paper himself, and that further time of the House would be unnecessary.


Of course, if there are any Amendments suggested which are not contested, and which will improve the Bill, I shall be pleased to accept them.


I agree that great injustice has been done to a very limited class. None the less, it is felt by that class, and I think it would be an improvement of the Bill if it were made retrospective. There is really one other provision in the Bill which might be considered by the Government. Provision is made for the payment of compensation under the Act of 1908, when a tenant has been disturbed. It is perfectly well known to those acquainted with the provisions usually contained in all landed agreements, that a tenant is not entitled to compensation for certain improvements unless he has the written consent of the landlord. In a large number of cases estates are vested in trustees or in tenants for life, and, so far as the estate is vested in one family, he will not be disturbed, and he will in consequence reap the benefit of his improvements. In North Wales it is common for tenants to put up buildings, and, in the ordinary course of things, that tenant would be permitted by his landlord to remain on his farm and reap the benefit of the money and labour he had expended upon it. If he is going to be disturbed, not by his landlord, but by the operation of the law, it seems to me that that tenant has a greater claim upon the county council than the mere legal claim which he is able to enforce against the landlord. I know that some of my hon. Friends will argue that the imposition of any further scale of compensation payable to the tenant by the county council will deter the county council from putting this Act into force, but I can only appeal to my hon. Friends to remember that the great difficulty experienced by county councils at the present time is the difficulty experienced with the farmers, and so long as the farmers feel, as they undoubtedly do feel, that this Act in its present form can only be put into force at their expense, and at the expense of very considerable injustice to them, I am quite sure that the Act cannot be enforced in such a way as to be a success. I hope the hon. Baronet will really consider the question of the position of the tenant who is not strictly entitled to compensation in accordance with the Small Holdings Act, but who, having made improvements, would, in the ordinary course of things, be permitted by the landlord to reap the benefit of them.


I have only one observation to make, and it is in the direction of protecting the small holdings fund as much as possible in this matter of compensation. I think it might be possible to compensate in kind instead of in money, and the Bill might be improved if a provision were introduced enabling the county council to offer to the tenant if disturbed one of the most suitable holdings. There is a tendency for extravagant claims to be made when compensation is available, and it would be in the interest of small holdings if there were a provision inserted in the Bill enabling the county council to make one of the holdings available for the tenant. If the tenant had the option of taking that holding and did take it, it should free the county council from giving anything by way of money compensation. There is one other provision which might protect the funds and at the same time improve the Bill, and that is that no compensation given should exceed the amount of compensation which the tenant could claim from the landlord because of disturbance. A tenancy might be expiring in three or six months; and very little compensation might be due in consequence of a breach of contract. In no case should the compensation given under the Act be greater than the compensation that a tenant could claim from the landlord for breach of contract. These two provisions would protect the funds and improve the Bill.


The hon. Member for Carnarvonshire seems to believe that the money paid for this compensation would add to the price of the holding and therefore make against the buying of the holding. The money comes from the Board of Agriculture and not from the county council, and will not raise the price.


I did not say that at all. I said that some of my friends would argue that the giving of compensation under the circumstances I described would make it more difficult to carry out the Act.


I am glad the matter is cleared up. At this late hour I will not detain the House longer. I will merely congratulate the hon. Baronet on bringing forward the Bill.

Motion made, "That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House."—[Sir E. Strathey.]

Question put, and agreed to; Committee to sit upon Monday, 20th June.