HC Deb 21 July 1931 vol 255 cc1435-45

Lords Amendment: Leave out the Clause.


I beg to move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

Clause 14, which their Lordships desire to omit, gives to every statutory small tenant a right, on giving notice to the landlord not less than a month prior to the expiry of the period of tenancy current at the commencement of the Act, to become a landholder. The Lords propose, as an alternative, a new Clause that option should not be given where the landlord is prepared to confer on the statutory small tenant the same right as the landholder has in the matter of compensation. The Lords proposal would, no doubt, concede to the statutory small tenant one advantage of the landholder's tenure, but it would leave the statutory small tenant who took advantage of this Clause in a different position from landholders in other matters. For example, they would have no power to assign their holdings, and their rights of redress would be those of ordinary agricultural tenants. They would be entitled to an equitable, in lieu of a fair rent, and their security of tenure would depend on different provisions.


I think it is a great pity that the Secretary of State for Scotland did not accept this Amendment, because while the Lords certainly proposed to leave out Clause 14, at the same time they put in a new Clause which gives an option to the statutory small tenant to become a landholder unless the landlord lodges with the Land Court an application to have it declared that the tenant and his statutory successors shall have the same rights to compensation for permanent improvements as if the tenant had been a landholder. This question was argued in Committee purely on compensation, and the new clause meets the points that were then raised. It is quite certain that the Government are not really very keen about this Clause. It was not in the original Bill, and there was no proposal in it to give the statutory small tenant the option to become a landholder. The hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine (Mr. Scott) wished to force all statutory small tenants to become landholders. The Lord Privy Seal moved Clause 14 when it came to Report, though he would not accept a Clause moved in Committee. He made a very powerful speech against the proposal, and showed clearly that there was no case for the statutory small tenant becoming a landholder, that it was even undesirable that he should have an option, that there had been no demand for the change, and that a considerable number of statutory small tenants had written to him, protesting against any change. Then he pointed out that if statutory small tenants availed themselves of the option and became landholders the State would inevitably be faced with demands for loans to put up new buildings and repair existing buildings. At the present moment, the buildings of statutory small tenants are kept up by the land owners. If the statutory small tenants become landholders, it is inevitable that demands will be made by them on the State to enable them to put up buildings and repair buildings. The Lord Privy Seal pointed out how that would reduce the money available for new holdings. I therefore think that there is really no ease for objecting to what the Lords propose. They have gone very far in their desire to meet the point of view of the Commons. They have given an option, but have said that it shall not be exercised if the landlord puts the statutory small tenant in the same position as a landholder in respect of compensation. We object to the extension of the land holding tenure very strongly. The Nairne Committee—[Interruption.] I am inclined to mention that Committee more than certain other members are. They pointed out clearly what a failure the crofting system had been in the Lowlands.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Mr. T. Johnston)

You cannot extend the number of statutory small holdings. They are a fixed quantity at a diminishing point.


I know who the statutory small tenants are. They are the people and the statutory successors of the people who in 1911 held holdings of not more than 50 acres or £50 in value and who had not provided the whole or the greater part of the permanent improvements. I know that their numbers cannot be extended and are declining. The Lord Privy Seal's figure was 2,000. The hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine put it at 17,000.


May I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that the late Lord Advocate gave the figure of 20,000.


There is a wide difference of opinion. There are certainly several thousands of the statutory small tenants. We say that to allow them to exercise the privilege of becoming landholders is not in the interests of Scottish agriculture. Take the case of the statutory small tenant, whose buildings belong to the landlord, and are kept up by the landlord. He applies to be, and becomes, a landholder. The buildings are not his; he has not paid for them, and the landlord is deprived of any power to interfere. It is an anomalous situation. By passing this subsection, if it is made much use of, you will be using State money for loans to holders who at present have their buildings kept up by their landlords. Nobody knows that better than the Lord Privy Seal. He is no keener on this Clause than we are. We know that it is a compromise between him and the members of the Liberal party. When this matter was mooted in the House of Lords, the Noble Lords who represent the Government were unable to state any reasons against the very reasonable proposal which the Lords made. All they said was that this was a compromise on the top of a compromise: "There is the compromise with the Liberal party, and we cannot go any further. We do not pretend to go into the merits of the matter." We are suggesting that it is not desirable or wise to extend the land-holding system in Scotland. We think it is quite good enough, according to the best authorities who have gone most carefully into the matter. It is conclusively proved that it has been a mistake to attempt to extend the crofting system into the Lowlands. We are opposed to any further extension. The Government would be well advised to accept the Lords Amendment.


I am glad that the Government have declined to accept the Lords Amendment. It has to be remembered that these proposals are a compromise. An Amendment put down on behalf of the Liberal party would have gone considerably farther than this. We have accepted this as a compromise. I am sure that agricultural opinion in Scotland, at any rate among the tenants, will be in favour of it, and I hope the Government will refuse to go any farther. It is quite true that the arguments which were put forward in favour of this were mainly based on the question of compensation. That probably is the most important part, to the small tenant, but it does not by any means alter the question. There are other rights which a landholder enjoys which are at present denied to a statutory small tenant. The Secretary of State mentioned the right of assignment. There are other rights. There are rights of cultivation given to a landholder which are not given to a statutory small tenant. There are rights given to a landholder to go before the Land Court and possibly get his arrears of rent cancelled, which are not given to a statutory small tenant. There are rights with regard to loans, enjoyed by landholders at the present time, which are not enjoyed by tenants. We say that there is no logical reason why these things should be enjoyed by a landholder and not by a statutory small tenant. If the Amendment which another place has suggested in respect of this were accepted, the statutory small tenant would be denied all these advantages, to which we think he has as good a right as a landholder.

I would point out, also, that the Lords Amendment does not go as far as the hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen (Sir F. Thomson) imagines, but proposes that the statutory small tenant should have rights in respect of compensation for permanent improvements, on renouncing the tenancy, or on being removed from the holding. That excludes altogether the rights of the tenant, or his successor or personal representative, if the tenant were to die. It is proposed that the rights of compensation of the statutory small tenant should be extinguished in the event of his dying. No mention is made of that at all. There are other rights which the statutory small tenant would be denied, and which I could enumerate, but I think the rights which I have already given are sufficient to show that the Government will be conferring a great boon upon the smallholders of Scotland if they refuse to have anything to do with the Amendment.


I am very reluctant to discuss matters of importance to Scottish agriculture at this hour of the morning, whether they take the form of a political compromise or not. I do not wish to go at full length into the very undesirable agricultural situation which would arise, if the unknown number of statutory small tenants were to turn themselves into small landholders. So far as I am concerned, it must be clearly understood that the opposition which I have to the proposal in Clause 14, and my preference for the proposal which has been made in another place, is one which has nothing to do with politics, but is entirely founded upon what I believe to be the best interest of Scottish agriculture. I am not alone in thinking that. The Debates which we had on the Scottish Committee on this Bill were very valuable. They revealed, in the person of the Lord Privy Seal, a knowledge and an interest in the subject that I welcome and recognise. He clearly realised the disadvantage of either forcing or persuading the statutory small tenants to be crofters. I point this out, not because I wish to secure any party point against him, but because I think he was then on the right lines and that he had grasped what is a fundamental fact.

3 a.m.

Wherever you have dual ownership, you have a low standard of cultivation. That has been a commonplace with agriculturists in the British Isles for many years, so much a commonplace that in Ireland Mr. Gladstone, although he himself was the author of a statutory dual ownership there, made a last minute effort to get rid of it. That is why the Government resisted this Liberal Bill by which an unknown number of small tenants were to be forced into dual ownership, but then they foolishly gave an option to those small tenants to do so, thus giving them an option to do the thing they would not force them to do. In the debates in Committee it became clear to me and to most hon. Members on this side of the House that the hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine (Mr. Scott), who made a number of speeches on this matter, had brought before the Committee a point of real substance. I am sorry we now have to deal with something so highly technical as these domestic differences of quantity between a statutory small tenant and a statutory landholder, but he made it clear to me that in certain circumstances the statutory small tenant was in danger of not getting full compensation for his own agricultural efforts.

That was, in my judgment, the only substantial point which the hon. and gallant Member who preceded me just now put forward. The substantial point was that there was some possible grievance and disadvantage with reference to compensation. That point is met by this new Clause proposed by another place to take the place of Clause 14. If we could, in a matter so important to the agriculture of the country, get out of the region of these pettyfogging political controversies and get down to the interests of the people cultivating the land, then the Government would itself accept this new Clause from another place. I welcome very much the fact that the other place has put its finger so accurately on the real grievance.

On these grounds, which I do not seek to elaborate, the Government would be well advised even now to reconsider the matter, and the Liberal party would be well advised to take their minds out of the atmosphere of political controversy, in which they so easily move, and get down to the real interest of the Scottish agriculturist. It is a gross thing, when you are dealing with a type of agriculturist in a small way, who is endeavouring by his own efforts to make his holding a success, that this House by these legislative provisions should try to induce him to change his tenure when the Government, which agrees to allow him to be thus induced, would not for a moment force this change upon him. It is a grave injustice to a class of men who cannot know, as this House does, the difficulties connected with dual ownership in all its forms. For these reasons, I regret extremely that the two Amendments of the other place relating to this matter have not been accepted.

The Secretary of State for Scotland is never tired of explaining the enormous benefits which he is giving to Scottish agriculture, although, like the Emperor's clothes in the fairy tale, no one can see he has got any. He is never tired of explaining how beneficial his reign has been. There is no topic of Scottish agriculture which he has not touched and which, having touched, he does not adorn. That description has a foundation of fact. All who have considered the topic consider we are going along an undesirable course. Why then do we not accept the Amendment which would meet the grievance.


I would like the Government to make clear the exact position as to the numbers who are entitled to this conversion. There is great uncertainty in Scotland as to whether it concerns 2,000 or 20,000 or a far larger number of smallholdings. The Government when they are legislating on the matter ought to be able to give us an exact figure. I hope the Government will accept this particular Amendment, which, after all, is a very reasonable and fair proposal. The Lords Amendment gives an alternative which meets the point in a practical way and which makes the position quite satisfactory to the statutory small tenant. It is absolutely fair between the owner and tenant and leaves no grievance to the statutory small tenant. The Government have made a mistake in legislating unfairly between the owner and tenant at this stage of the Bill. If there is any reason now why they do not agree with the Lords Amendments, the motive can only be a political one, that they are forced to accept the least the Liberal party will agree to in their sudden desire to extend the small landholder system of tenure.

Is it fair to hand over the control of equipment to the tenants who have not provided it. The equipment provided by the landlord, and belonging to the landlord, is now transferred to a person not the owner of the equipment. He has not paid for it. He will have complete control, and a right to change it as he pleases. The Government never answered the Committee whether it was fair to do this. They never replied to the point that it depreciated the value of the holding to the owner: I never suggested that agricultural opinion is opposed to certain definite Amendments. Certain Members say that this is only the opinion of the landlords, but there is much agricultural opinion in Scotland opposed to the policy adopted by the Government. There is not only the Committee already referred to, but the Chamber of Agriculture of Scotland who are very strongly opposed to the alteration in the system of tenancy advocated by the Government. Although Government supporters may laugh when I refer to the Scottish Chamber, it is a very excellent organisation. It is composed of people engaged in agriculture all over Scotland. I submit that it is very stupid that the Government should extend to the South of Scotland, on a larger scale, all the disadvantages of this system of landholders' tenancy, and I ask the Government to accept the Amendment proposed in another place.


I would like to point out that exception was taken to our discussing this proposed Amendment. It was said that it was unnecessary to do so, because it was discussed so fully before. It appears from the debate very necessary that we should discuss it, else the House will come to a decision without understanding what the Amendment is. The Secretary of State for Scotland has made a short explanation. I hope that we shall have a reply to the hon. Member for Banffshire (Major Wood) as to what is the meaning of the Amendment. He does not read it in the same way as the Secretary of State for Scotland. We shall want to hear exactly what the Amendment means, what it would do, and how it would deal with the situation in order to satisfy the hon. Gentlemen below the gangway.

Coming down to the question of this Clause, it seems that the House should really understand what took place. This Clause was not in the original Bill. It was proposed, first of all, by the hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine (Mr. Scott). His form of Amendment proposed that statutory tenants were to be landholders. When that proposal was put forward by the Liberal party the Government was strongly opposed to it. The Lord Privy Seal, who was then Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, said that the reason why he could not accept the Liberal party's proposal was because they felt the Bill would be jeopardised in another place; that he knew that in another place the Amendment would not be accepted. What has happened now? Is the other place going to accept it now? He said: Are we prepared to risk a struggle for a Clause which, as far as we can see, would handicap the Bill very gravely, and we could not carry it. That is the statement of the Lord Privy Seal. Again he said: We will take any steps that can be suggested as being likely to get over this difficulty, but as at present advised, if we push this through this morning and incorporate it in the Bill, we are taking a step which the Secretary of State, the Lord Advocate, and the Government believe will tend to wreck the Bill. We are asking the House to take exactly the same view as the Lord Privy Seal advocated. He finished up his speech by saying: We cannot accept the amendment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee on Scottish Bills, 3rd February, 1931, cols. 272–4.] The Government are asking us to accept practically the same Amendment to-night. It seems a very extraordinary way to deal with the matter. There are many good Clauses in the Bill. All that is tending to wreck the Bill is the action of the Liberal party, and only certain members of the Liberal party, who are pushing this forward at this time. The Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine said that compensation for improvements was the one thing for which they pressed. He said: The point I wish the Committee to concentrate on is that, if a holder has made any improvement, he is entitled to compensation. He also said: The tenant should be entitled to get compensation, for an improvement which he can prove he put on the holding."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee on Scottish Bills, 3rd February, 1931, col. 265.] On the second day he said: I am going to repeat, and shall continue to repeat, the main question with regard to statutory small tenants.… If a small-holder has spent his capital and his labour in putting improvements on his holding, is it not just and right that he should get compensation for them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee on Scottish Bills, 5th February, 1931, cols. 277–8.] Then the right hon. and learned Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) said: All that my friend the Member for Kincardine wants is that the tenant as well as the landlord should get compensation for permanent improvements."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee on Scottish Bills, 5th February, 1931, col. 291.] That is different, and I fail to see why we should do something which the Government spokesman on the Committee said would jeopardise the Bill. That is why I ask the Government to accept the Amendment.


I have listened to the whole discussion, and there can be no doubt that the Government, in their wisdom, at the beginning decided that this Clause should not be in the Bill. It was merely a bit of log-rolling on the part of certain Members of the Liberal party to get it in, and the Government did it to save their faces and their majority upstairs. That is the kind of thing which is going on in relation to this Bill. It has been pointed out again and again that the Bill is a compromise on the whole. This Clause absolutely breaks the compromise, and there can be no doubt that the Government are only sticking to the Clause purely for the reason that it is trying to make trouble with another place. It does not care two hoots for the Clause.

The Government apparently do not know—for there are two forms of opinion—how many people will be affected. There is the official opinion that it will affect about a couple of thousand of people, and there is the unofficial opinion of one of the legal Members below the Gangway that it will affect 20,000. Whether it is the Lloyd Georgian method of adding a nought at the end I cannot say. It seems to me that the position under the Bill as it now stands is this. You have some tenants with every possible advantage, and you have in the Highlands the dual ownership system. That system is known all over the world as one of the most reactionary, one of the really bad forms of ownership, which you wish to eliminate; as soon as you can. The tenant of the State is a possibility and a direct owner of the land is a possibility, but, where you have the dual system, you have a perfectly impossible system. It is desired in the case of some few thousand holders who are what we call tenant owners to change to the dual ownership system, and this is being done because two Liberal Members wish it. As I understand it, in this particular Clause you have a promise which is being deliberately broken simply because the Government were compelled in Committee to depart from their original intention. I ask the Lord Privy Seal and the Secretary of State for Scotland to accept the Lords Amendment which was in the Bill originally. They will then be simply standing by their original decision. I regret that the Government should be obstinate enough not to accept this Amendment.

Lords Amendment: In page 7, line 22, at the end, insert