Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £6,000, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1914, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Scottish Land Court."—[Note.— £4,000 has been voted on account.]
§ Sir GEORGE YOUNGER
I desire to raise a point of Order upon this Vote. As every hon. Member in this Committee 'knows perfectly well, the Small Landholders (Scotland) Act enjoins upon the Land Court in Scotland the obligation of 1352 submitting each year to Parliament a report of its proceedings. The peculiarity of the situation seems to consist in this: That while the salaries of the officials of the Land Court, and the various costs and expenses of administration, and so forth are borne upon this Vote, the salaries of the members of the Land Court are borne upon the Consolidated Fund, and, therefore, cannot be discussed in this Committee upon this particular Vote. At all events, I do not suppose we could discuss individually any question arising in regard to those members of the Land Court, the chairman and other members of the Court. I do not myself see how it is possible to discuss the Report of the Land Court without making certain references—because the discussion of the Report involves that—to the Court as a whole. 1353 I should like to ask your ruling, as this is a perfectly now proceeding and a somewhat difficult one to understand, whether, in discussing this Report, one would be entitled to discuss the Court as a whole in connection with the Report or whether one is debarred from doing so?
I think the Land Court as a body is properly open to criticism, but the personal head of that Department, who has the status of a judge of the High Court of Scotland, is not open to criticism. I found my decision upon a decision which was given, I think, in September, 1887, on the occasion of the Irish Land Court, when a somewhat similar point was raised.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
We only received this Report at a late hour last evening, and it is very difficult indeed to discuss it at such short notice. It is a long and elaborate Report involving many points of interest. As there is to be another Scottish day on the Estimates, I assume the discussion, if not concluded to-night, can be continued on the next occasion. Otherwise, I suppose it would be desirable to move to report Progress.
§ Mr. R. HARCOURT
If the hon. Baronet finds it inconvenient to discuss this Vote, there are other very important Votes on the Paper. Education and the Fishery Board come next.
Mr. McKINNION WOOD
It would be better if we could go on, seeing that under your ruling it does not appear that we can have any long discussion on this Report. At the same time it is quite true that the Report was only in the hands of Members yesterday morning, and I do not like to press the matter unduly. This Vote might be left over and we might go on with other Votes, but, on the other hand, there are two important Votes to consider, and I should like to ask the hon. Baronet if he will allow us to go on with the Vote under the circumstances.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
I desire to call attention to this Report in so far as it deals with two points. The first is the narrative in connection with the proceedings which took place in the Island of Arran. If there is one thing which a Court of this kind ought to be careful about, it is surely that their proceedings should be carried out in the most judicial and careful spirit, and I do not think anyone who reads those pages will disagree with me in saying that 1354 there are, at all events, certain paragraphs appearing there which ought not to have appeared in the Report. They involve special pleading of a most distinct and obvious kind. They precede the decision of the Court on this question, because the Court has given no decision yet. They deal with the attitude of the estate in Arran. They proceed to deal with the administration of the estate and to discuss it in such a way as, in my view, is calculated to prejudice the effect and the value of any decision which may be given after the prolonged inquiry which has taken place. I do think that, taking the whole history of that Court into consideration, and regarding it from the point of view from which it has been criticised in Scotland from practically every quarter, colour is given and justification is given to those criticisms by the fact that those pages are entered in this Report. I should be very much surprised to find that on. receiving this Report my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland did not himself see—I do not know whether he will admit it, but he must have seen—that a good deal was special pleading which should not have appeared in a Report of this kind. The observation I wish to make upon it is that, although it has occurred in the first Report submitted to us by the Land Court, I hope that, notice having been taken of it here, there will be no such breach of decorum again in any Report we receive from that body.
The other point I desire to mention is that contained on page 20. It deals with the very large reductions of rent made in the various districts of Scotland in which they have been dealing with claims for rearrangements of the rentals of small holdings. I dare say it is perfectly right—I do not question the decisions the Land Court arrived at in connection with these various claims—but I think it would be very interesting if the House were in some way informed as to the principle on which those reductions are made. It is a curious fact, for example, in connection with the reductions of rent in Caithness, that the Crofters' Commission dealt only two or three years ago with the very holdings dealt with by the Land Court last year, and then fixed the rents with the knowledge which the Crofters' Commission had obtained over a long series of years, to the satisfaction, I believe, of both parties concerned I cannot understand the principle on which the Land Court, in reviewing 1355 those rents, have made the enormous reductions they have made, considering that agriculturists have done very much better, that rents have been very much better, and that farmers have been very much better off in the last year or two than in preceding years before the rents were fixed by the Court. I do not say that they are wrong—I know nothing of the facts of the case—but I do think some information is required on the subject. We ought to know, and the people of Scotland ought to understand, the principle on which they are acting in the matter, and, if possible, they should get some satisfaction as to what may be expected in cases of that kind. Looking through the more detailed reports one notices, for instance, certain landlords who I am certain would not ask any tenant to pay more than what was reasonable and fair for his holding, one of them an hon. Member of this House, and in that particular case an enormous reduction was made. Large sums of arrears were wiped out and no reason is given. It is impossible to understand the principle on which the Court acted. We should be made aware of the principle on which action is taken so that some reasonable consistency may be secured in future. There is in this Report a most plaintive complaint that the accommodation provided for the Court at its inception was of a very limited and undignified character; a basement about Parliament Square was all that was available. I cannot understand why they could not have taken flats in hotels or anywhere else in the same way as other bodies do. They have now landed themselves in a palatial establishment in Grosvenor Crescent, I should think much too big for their requirements. I do not know what they have paid for it, but I think that it is altogether larger than they require, and it is not at all in a suitable situation, being quite out of the way of main thoroughfares. I cannot understand why that house was bought, unless it be that it belonged to an immediate relative of a very prominent Member of the Government. Certainly it is the very last place I should have chosen for the habitation of a Land Court. Above all we want to know if it is not possible to save a great deal of the money spent on the travelling expenses of the Land Court. I heard not long ago of this Land Court going in a proces- 1356 sion of motor-cars from Oban to fix a fair rent, or an equitable rent on the Inverliver estate. I do not know to what extent the rent on that holding was reduced—possibly by£1 or £2—but I would undertake to say that it cost about £30 to do what the Government factor might very well have done himself without letting the country in for that great expense.
If these things are not curbed now we shall get into a very extravagant system of management in the future. The Land Court should be warned that there is an eagle eye upon them, a great many eagle eyes upon them. I happened to hear that in this particular case the expenditure was incurred, because the Government desired to place itself at, the disposal of the Land Court just as it expects the landlords to do, with the result that it cost the country a great deal of money. Next year I dare say we shall have a great deal more to say about the Land Court. They have only recently commenced their work, and what they may do yet we do not know. I have no doubt that they will treat the land question quite judiciously and fairly, and I hope that they may do it successfully. But it is a very responsible duty which they have to perform, and they have very great difficulties to encounter. They will be debarred, I believe, in many eases from acquiring the land for small holdings in many districts because of the immense amount of compensation they will have to pay. Therefore we get back again, as we did in the last discussion, to the necessity for the very thankless task which the right hon. Gentleman will have of going to the Treasury and asking for a great deal more money than is provided now for the purposes of the Landholders Act. It is all very well to tell the Secretary for Scotland to go to the Treasury to borrow money. He has done that up to now successfully in many ways, for he knows the tricks of the Treasury better than most people, as he has been there himself. It was his duty to refuse many applicants, and he knows exactly how to do it. He perhaps knows better than most people how to meet those arguments when my right hon. Friend the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury meets him and when he goes with a demand of that kind. If the Government are really serious in this matter, and mean those holdings to be successfully established, I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will be able to show how much the money is 1357 needed for this scheme. The Court, as a whole, should be a little more judicial in its treatment of these matters than it has been during the last year. It has laid itself open to much scandal, and let us hope that the effect of the Debate in this House, and your ruling, Sir, from the Chair, will show that it is exposed to criticism from which perhaps it thought it was free.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. Ure)
The scheme of the Report, the Committee must have observed, is to give in popular language the result of the Court's investigations and their decisions upon the varied cases which they have met with in different parts of Scotland. They tell the questions which were raised and the details and contentions which were submitted, and as modified on one side or the other, and they state the decision at which they have arrived. When they reached the Island of Arran they had there very protracted sittings. In order to account for the long investigation given to the Island of Arran, the Report states that they received an intimation at the outset that the facts they had to consider had exclusively reference to agricultural values, but as is well known, there are in Arran what are known as "summer letting" values. That very important statement was made at the outset, and it was one to which the members of the Land Court naturally directed their attention. When they entered upon their investigation, the Report says, agricultural values had alone been taken, but anyone with a superficial acquaintance with the conditions in the Island of Arran must know that summer letting value would be considered. And that led to a protracted investigation. The Committee will readily understand that it did not rest on ex parte statements. A number of witnesses were examined and cross-examined, with the result that it was ascertained that in the fixing of the rents the summer lettings had been taken into account. By that means the Land Court were able to explain to readers of the Report the reason for the considerable reductions in rent which either have been or may be made.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
That was not the point I was referring to. I alluded to the ex parte statements about estate management and the objection of estate management about crofters in Arran.
§ Mr URE
I am endeavouring to reply to the charge made against the Court of special pleading. The hon. Baronet complained at a later stage in his speech of the absence of any indication with the Report of the principles which had actuated the Land Court in reducing rents in other parts of Scotland. I should not have expected that the Land Court would state in their Report the principles upon which they had proceeded, because those principles are singularly well established, and very plainly indicated in the Act they are administering. They are to fix a fair and equitable rent for the holding between the landlord and tenant as a willing lessor and a willing lessee. That is exactly the task to which they addressed themselves. Each case must depend on the considerations which are applicable to that case—and it is impossible therefore for the Land Court to give in particular instances the particular considerations which weighed with them in making a large, or it may be, a small reduction. I do not think you will ever find in the Report of the Land Court any further indication, nor could we properly expect any further indication of the rules under which they are proceeding, except the statement from the Act to which I have referred. With regard to the housing of the Land Court, it is perfectly true they are housed in what, I agree with the hon. Baronet, is a handsome residence in the West of Edinburgh. Let me assure him that it is a highly convenient place for the Court. I know the house well, and the hon. Baronet knows just as well as I do the reason which actuated the Government in purchasing that particular residence.
§ Mr. URE
Then I can inform the hon. Member. It is the largest residence in the vicinity, and for that reason was very difficult to dispose of when the former occupant died. It was in the market for a considerable time, and we were able to 1359 secure it on what we believed to be exceedingly reasonable terms. We all hope that it will not be the permanent home of the Land Court, but that the Court will by and by be housed under the same roof as the Local Government Board and the other Boards for Scotland.
When the hon. Baronet referred to this point, my attention was not directed to the fact that it does not come under this Vote. I have permitted the Lord Advocate to reply, but I mention the matter now to exclude any further reference to the subject.
§ Mr. C. E. PRICE
It is a pity this Report was not issued earlier, as it is one of the most human documents submitted to the House for a long time. It is the first Report presented since the Crofters' Commission ceased to exist, and I would strongly recommend all Scottish Members to read it. I was very sorry to hear the remarks of the hon. Baronet opposite with regard to the want of the judicial mind.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
Will the hon. Gentleman say what cases have been appealed to the Court of Sessions? I never heard of one.
§ Mr. PRICE
There have been three or four, but I will not waste time by giving the hon. Baronet information on that point as showing the great advantage that this Act is already proving, not only to the old crofters, but to all those who are making applications for first term fair rents. I find that in Caithness there are 118 cases, and the tenants have had reductions in rent of no less than 34 per cent., and reductions in arrears of 75 per cent. Only those who know these counties can appreciate what a boon the Act is already proving to these people. The hon. Baronet is concerned as to the fairness of the Court. Here is a case where before the Act of 1886 the rent was £6 4s.; it was reduced after the first term to £4 15s., it has now been raised to £9 14s. In that case the rent has actually been raised above the figure of 1886. 1360 On the other hand, here is a case where the old rent was £119 12s., on the first term fair rent it was reduced by £7 13s., and in 1912 it was reduced to £52 2s. 6d.—a reduction of 60 per cent. The Report is one of the finest documents I have read for a. long time, and I sincerely hope Members will read it.
§ Sir H. CRAIK
If for nothing else, this discussion has been valuable for the clear but astonishing statement of the Lord Advocate as to the methods which he anticipates will be pursued under this Act He tells us that no principles whatever can be laid down with regard to fixing rents, that it is not the intention to lay down any such principles, and that we are not to anticipate that the Land Court will ever condescend to make any statement of the grounds or principles upon which they may reduce rents.
§ Sir H. CRAIK
The right hon. Gentleman said there are an infinite number of cases—I heard him—each of which must carry its weight with the Land Court, and that Court cannot be expected to state the grounds of their decision.
§ Sir H. CRAIK
That is a remarkable exposition of the legislation or anticipation of legislation that you are holding out in regard to the future action of this precious Land Court. I wish to call attention to the special part of the Report touched upon in such terms of laudation by the hon. Member for East Edinburgh. What infinite benefits this Act has brought about! The Land Court fixed the fair rents of 256 holdings, which involved 40,000 acres. What did the change in the old and the new rents amount to? £656 for 256 holdings! What an enormous benefit to the crofters! How can we exaggerate it? That is not all. The Land Court followed that up by a revision of the rents in the case of ninety-nine holdings in the septennial expiring period. What was the charge here? The reductions in the new fair rents amounted to £137. We come to the last part of the portentous work of the Court. In eighty-nine holdings the equitable rents fixed meant a reduction of 25 per cent. Something like a little over £1,000 less over 500 holdings! What did this cost? For nine months the Vote is for 1361 £17,711: that is to say, the Land Court saved these poor crofters just about one-seventeenth of the cost of their own salaries, accommodation, and travelling expenses. I leave such an Act to its friends. I think the Report itself is sufficient exposure of the humbug of the whole thing.
§ Mr. BAIRD
If there was time I think we would be justified in protesting most strongly against the treatment which Scotland is receiving by the endeavour to dispose of a large question like this Land Court in three-quarters of an hour. There we have a Court set up last year to deal with holdings in Scotland with a rent under £50 per year. It issues a Report of which the introduction covers twenty-one pages, and the Report itself 124 pages, and that was made accessible to Members only yesterday morning, and we get now within twenty-four hours of its issue three-quarters of an hour for its discussion. By the ruling of the Chair it is open to us to go very largely into the decisions of these Courts. There will be differences of opinion as to whether they were wise or unwise, just or unjust, but at. any rate, before voting the sum necessary to pay the salaries of those Gentlemen, surely we ought to have an opportunity of going into the question whether they are worth the money or not. That is what we are not allowed to do to-night. If there is any understanding that this Vote is not going to be taken to-night, I shall not further detain the Committee, but if not I ask leave to move" That you do report progress, and ask leave to sit again."
The Committee at this stage will not go on longer than a couple of minutes. I understand it is not intended to take the Vote tonight. When it comes to eleven o'clock, it will stand over in the ordinary way.
§ Mr. BAIRD
There is an enormous number of questions which deserve discussion, and it may be noted that the subject which was pounced upon by the Lord-Advocate was one not dealt with by the hon. Baronet (Sir G. Younger), but which appears on page 19 of the Report. The right hon. Gentleman did not carry it any further, which was a fair indication that,. being a busy man, and only receiving the. Report like the rest 'of us yesterday morning, he was not able to do so. Then there-is this question of the annual cost of this body of lawyers who have been created judges for the purpose of going into the question of Scottish land, and the very small output of work which they have done. Surely the questions which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen University (Sir H. Craik) dealt with very briefly are an indication that these matters ought. to be threshed out before the Committee. comes to a decision? I am myself aware of a considerable number of cases which have been brought to my notice in the North-East corner of Scotland where these judges have given extreme dissatisfaction, and where their judgment have not been considered to be anything approaching impartial, and I do think that as we are allowed to discuss their procedure as a whole, advantage should be taken of the opportunity in order to go thoroughly into, this question. That is totally impossible in the few minutes at our disposal. These are extremely important questions. Large hopes raised in the minds of a great many modest, humble people have been disappointed, and it is only fair and right that these matters should be thoroughly discussed. I am not sure whether one is entitled to deal with the constitution of the Court itself——
§ It being Eleven o'clock, the CHAIRMAN left the Chair to make his report to the House; Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next (30th June).
The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.
Adjourned at Seven minutes after Eleven