HL Deb 18 March 1831 vol 3 cc522-7
Lord Melbourne

rose, pursuant to notice, to lay on their Lordships' Table an Act to repeal the Act of the 7th Geo. 4th, commonly called the Sub-letting Act, and to substitute other provisions in lieu thereof. As this was a subject of great importance, especially to the landholders and agricultural population of Ireland, he hoped their Lordships would indulge him while he made a few observations in explanation of the alterations which it was intended to make in the provisions of the existing Act. He repeated at the outset what he had said the other night, in answer to a question put to him by one of the noble Lords opposite (Carbery), that it was the intention of Ministers to maintain, support, and strengthen the principles of the existing Act, and that the only object was to remove some inconveniences and difficulties that had occurred in the execution and operation of the Statute, and clear up some doubts that had arisen as to its proper construction. In order to effect this object, it had been thought preferable to repeal the existing Act, rather than attempt to amend it, in order to avoid those ambiguities, complexity, and confusion which so often resulted from passing several Acts for amending a particular Statute, instead of entirely remodelling it. The plan of substituting a new Statute was adopted for the sake of perspicuity and simplicity. Their Lordships were probably all acquainted with the history of the Sub-letting Act. In consequence of the distresses which existed in Ireland in 1822–3, the subject was taken under the consideration of Parliament, and a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1824 to investigate the subject, which was again taken up in 1825, and investigated by the Committee of the other House, and also by a Committee of their Lordships, and it was from the Reports of these Committees that the Acts originated. A laborious and extensive investigation then took place, and various remedies were suggested for the evils which pressed so heavily on the country. That investigation was conducted by men of the greatest ability, industry, and understanding, and many witnesses, of various classes, who had the best opportunity of being acquainted with the state of Ireland, were examined. Eminent lawyers were consulted who were connected by their professional duties, and otherwise, with the different parts of the country; several Roman Catholic priests; many resident Magistrates, and land-agents, as well as surveyors who had been employed by Government; men, all of them having the best opportunities of becoming thoroughly acquainted with the situation and condition of the various parts of Ireland, were minutely examined; and the result was, that all, with one voice, ascribed the disturbed state of that country chiefly to the relation which there existed between landlord and tenant, to the great and manifest injury of both parties. The landlords, when their lands came into their hands, after the expiration of leases, found them crowded with a multitude of paupers, whom they had no means of removing or providing for in other places; and the case was still more hard on the occupying tenant, for, perhaps, between him and the head landlord there were six or seven intermediate persons, and each of these, in case of disputes, or in case of failure in payments between themselves, had the power to distrain on the occupying tenant, who was thus liable to be compelled to pay his rent repeatedly, instead of paying it only once. The concurrent testimony of all was, that the grand evil was this relation between landlord and tenant, and in this the Reports of the two Committees concurred; and the first remedy recommended in the Report of the Commons was an amendment of the law between landlord and tenant. In consequence of this recommendation, the Bill was brought into the House of Commons by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then Secretary for Ireland, assisted by the then Attorney-general for Ireland. The Bill was brought in in 1825, and stood over for a Session, and in 1826 it passed. But it was soon found that those by whom it had been prepared had fixed their eyes steadily on the existing evils, and on the application of the remedy, without sufficiently considering the effect which the remedy would have when viewed with reference to the existing state of the country; and, therefore, when the Act came into operation, some blots and errors in it were discovered. These blots and errors had, however, been most grossly exaggerated, and a great clamour had been raised by those whose object it was to excite discontent and animosity among the people. A great outcry was consequently set up against the Act; but it was not to satisfy that clamour, or to give way to the outrages promoted by agitators, that Ministers proposed to bring in another Bill on the subject. The only object was, to remedy the defects and remove the inconveniences and diffi- culties of the existing Act, and to clear up the doubts which had existed as to its construction. Having made these preliminary observations, he would state to the House the most material alterations now to be made. The enactments of the Statute were two-fold; first, respecting the leases that were in existence on and before the passing of the Act in 1826; secondly, respecting the leases that might be made subsequent to the passing of the Act. It was not intended that the Act should be retrospective, nor that it should have any operation on the leases in existence at the time of its passing, as to their covenants, or waivers of those covenants, all which covenants and acts it left as before. But it had been generally understood in Ireland, that it had such a retrospective effect on pre-existing leases, which gave rise to various disputes, and to much irritation. At the Bar in Ireland, however, the general opinion was, that it had not a retrospective operation, but that covenants and waivers were left in the same condition as before the passing of the Act of 1826. But as there was some doubt on that head, that doubt was a sufficient reason for passing an enactment for its removal. It was intended that the new Bill should be entirely prospective, and relate only to leases made subsequent to its passing, and should not affect, one way or other, any covenants or waivers, whether constructive or otherwise, of preceding leases, with reference to any question of sale or sub-letting. The Bill would leave all the preceding leases to the ordinary rules of law, whether as to assignment or sub-letting. But where there should be introduced in subsequent leases covenants against assigning or sub-letting, it was intended that such leases should not be saleable under executions, nor on bankruptcy, or insolvency, of the tenants; but that the leases should become void, and the land revert to the landlord. This, perhaps, would be in some measure retrospective, as far as regarded creditors, and might, perhaps, startle their Lordships; but it was conformable to the spirit of the Act, and he hoped to be able to prove in the course of the progress of the Bill, that there was no injustice in this, and that a mode would be left open for fraud, unless some such clause was introduced. Another difficulty was, the devolution of leases on intestacy. In case of the decease of the lessees without having made any will, their personal representatives, if they were chattel interests, took the lease, and this gave occasion to much of that division of lands which it was so desirable to avoid. It was proposed to enact that no divisions should take place on death and intestacy which the lessees could not make by will. It was enacted by the 9th Geo. 4th, that the lease, when left by will, could be left only to one person, but it left the case of intestacy unprovided for. By the new Act it was intended to adopt the provision, that if left to two or more, it should only be as joint tenants, without division or power of alienation, except among each other. In the same manner, in cases of intestacy unprovided for by the former Act, it was intended that when leases came, as real property, to the heir, or as chattel interests to the next of kin, that when it happened in either cases that the successors were co-heiresses, or there were more than one next of kin in the same degree, these respectively should take as joint tenants, and that there should be no division or alienation except between each other. These were the most material alterations intended to be made, and he thought it unnecessary to say more on the subject until the Bill came under the consideration of their Lordships.

Lord Carbery

thought the propositions upon the whole satisfactory; although there might be shades of difference in opinion as to some of them. The object of the original Bill was, to create a substantial yeomanry in Ireland, and to enable landlords to get their land into possession in such a state, that they could with prudence and safety lay out money on the improvement of it, instead of having it crowded with a pauper peasantry, without capital to render it productive; so that the benefit of the land was in a great measure lost both to landlord and tenant. The Act, however, was an instrument in the hands of the agitators, who had endeavoured by its means to work upon the people; nevertheless, knowing the value of the Bill, he was glad that Ministers were resolved to maintain its principle, and he would render every assistance in his power in forwarding the Bill.

The Earl of Wicklow

differed in toto from his noble friend, as far as he approved of the new Bill; for he thought the original Act far preferable to the very serious alterations which were to be made in it. He had taken various opinions on that Act, and he maintained that the objections to it were entirely groundless, although one or two not very material alterations might be made in it. The proposed Bill would do a great deal of mischief, and he would rather have no Act at all on the subject. He would, therefore, strenuously oppose it.

Lord Farnham

agreed, as to the mode of proceeding, that the best way was to bring in a new Bill, and so to avoid complexity and confusion. On the old Act, he gave no opinion as to whether it was retrospective or not. Lawyers had adopted a doctrine, where there was a lease with covenant against alienation, and yet an alienation had taken place, and the landlord had accepted rent after that alienation, that this was a constructive waiver of the covenant, even although the acceptance should have been owing to mere inadvertence. This might be law, but it was a doctrine that had he just foundation in fact. But, however, the discussion would come better when the Bill should be before their Lordships.

Bill read a first time.