HL Deb 14 June 1881 vol 262 cc457-64

said, the Question which he desired to put to the Government had reference to matters which had attracted almost exclusively the attention of Parliament during the whole of the present Session. What was the reason that up to the present time no opportunity tad been afforded to their Lordships of pronouncing an authoritative opinion upon any portion of the question? He could not but think that in the interest of that large part of the Empire, which was mainly considered in these questions, that it would have been well if they had it in their power to anticipate by separate action the course of the debate upon that measure which had been so sadly delayed in "another place." It was not well for it to appear that any Member of the Legislature was indifferent to the question that was now being discussed hour by hour, and it was quite competent to their Lordships, without violating the ordinary regulation of Governmental procedure, to anticipate one portion, at all events, of the general subject. The matter to which he desired on that occasion to refer was concerned ultimately with the well-being of a large class of their fellow-subjects in Ireland, and that the most dependent, the most helpless, the most unfortunate, and the most neglected. There was little to be gained in the direction of popularity by speaking of the shortcomings of those who should have protected the cottiers of Ireland in promoting their welfare. He was not speaking of the cottier tenants, but of the cottiers themselves, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, who felt in its complete bitterness how miserable it was to be in the lowest scale of life, and living in a country where the means of subsistence were so often cut short. He was aware that it had been said by the Leaders of Her Majesty's Government, and he attached due importance to the observation, that when preparing and passing a great remedial measure for Ireland through the House, it was as well not to overlay the main question by numerous minor details. In this view he had no doubt their Lordships would concur; but he must express his regret that this question of the condition of the Irish cottier had never been introduced, except by the merest accident, into the discussion of any Irish Land Bill. It was no violation of the rules of debate to notice an incidental remark made by an hon. Member in the course of the discussions in the other House—that he did not remember among the many open-air meetings held during the last eight or ten months in connection with the land agitation, more than two occasions on which the position of the cottiers was made the subject of sympathy. In a Bill introduced in 1856, the 19 & 20 Vict. c. 65, provision was made that where certain sanitary advantages were given the rent might be collected with greater facility; but there was no power for enforcing or initiating improved sanitary arrangements, and that was practically all that Parliament had done in the matter. It was true that since the establishment of urban sanitary authorities, great progress had been made; and it was now possible, and was, he was happy to say, the custom in large towns and cities in Ireland to see that the dwellings of the humbler classes were kept and maintained in a healthy and proper state; but he did not learn that there was any such power of enforcing sanitary arrangements in the country districts as was conferred in England by implication and inference under the 38 & 39 Vict. c. 55, by which sanitary boards were authorized to investigate the circumstances of the cottages in their especial districts. There were two points to which he desired to direct the attention of the Government—first, as to the means of obtaining a satisfactory system of cottage-building in Ireland; and, secondly, the importance of providing in country districts a power of initiating sanitary arrangements, and completing them, or causing them to be completed, and of enforcing penalties in case of neglect on the part of those to whom the cottages belonged. There were in Ireland the cottier tenants with three or four acres of land, and the cottiers who resided in buildings which were the property of the tenant-in-chief. These cottiers were completely in the hands and at the discretion of the farmers in whose houses they lived. He was far from saying that there was any intentional heartlessness or neglect; but when he considered how very low was the standard of comfort in all districts in Ireland, when he considered that the cottiers were the lowest of the agricultural body, living in dwellings which were miserably poor, badly clothed, and poorly fed, he could not but think that some measures were imperatively called for. In the North-East of Ireland, where the agricultural labourers were supposed to be best off, and where they supplemented their means of livelihood upon land by occupying themselves in manufactures, the value of labour had of late years risen very much; yet still the dwellings were in a deplorable condition. Before the Famine, a day's labour was obtained at Limerick for 6d., whereas the wage at this time was from 2s. 6d. to 3s. The independent labourers were comparatively few, and it was not on their account so much as on account of those who lived in cottages belonging to farmers that he wished to speak. A witness before a Commission which had attracted considerable attention during the Recess described the condition of the agricultural labourer in Ireland as a disgrace to the country, to the Legislature, and to the farmers themselves. This gentleman, who had considerable acquaintance with the subject, and who filled the useful situation of a Poor Law Guardian, went on to say that the labourers were the most deserving class in the community, and the most neglected; that their average rate of wages was from 7s. to 10s. a-week; that their houses were of such a description that he did not know how human beings could exist in them; that the men and their families suffered in health from the cold and wet and want to which they were exposed; and that, in his opinion, their wretched hovels, which afforded no sufficient protection from cold and damp, were the cause of a great deal of the taxation through the Poor Law system all over the country. Asked if the farmers would take advantage of the offer of a loan for the purpose of providing suitable cottages for their labourers, the witness was certain a great many would do so, and that the responsibility which would be cast upon them by the offer would have an important effect. Having said this much, he hoped he had justified the Question he was about to put to the Government. It could not be supposed that they were indifferent to the condition of the people of Ireland; but there was nothing like actual visible proof of interest. They were not bound to wait for tardy legislation when an occasion offered for alleviating the sufferings of a class. He had observed how desirous the English and Scotch people were to ameliorate the condition of the people of Ireland; but he had also seen on many occasions noble and generous impulse deprived of half its usefulness from absence of accurate knowledge of the wants of the people. He begged to ask Her Majesty's Government, Whether it is proposed to introduce any legislative measure this Session to secure comfortable dwellings with sufficient allotment or garden ground, and not being conacre, and proper sanitary arrangements for cottier tenants in Ireland?


My Lords, no one can deny the importance of the subject which my noble Friend has brought before your Lordships, which I take to be the condition of the Irish labourers. Although my noble Friend describes the class to which his Question refers as cottier tenants in Ireland, I understand from his observations that that is not a correct designation, and that he refers to the class of labourers properly so called. There can be no doubt that in some respects, and in the essential respect of the amount of wages, the condition of the Irish labourers has improved within the time of most of your Lordships; but this is really a question of their dwellings, and in that respect there can be no doubt that the picture drawn by my noble Friend is not in the least overcharged. The dwellings of the Irish labourers are too often intolerably bad. My noble Friend implied, I think, that the remedy for this state of things in future rested partly with the landlords, and so, no doubt, in part it does. But my belief is that it must in the main remain with the tenant farmers of Ireland. The labourer's house in connection with a farm is recognized more and more, I think, in this country, and I hope will be recognized in Ireland, as being quite as essential to a well-ordered farm and a good agricultural system as the farmer's own house, or any other building connected with the farm; and, as in the case of other permanent improvements, so called by a great misnomer in Ireland—meaning thereby the essential requisites of the farm—and in the case of other essentials of the farm it is to the tenant in the main, and speaking broadly, that we should have to look in the future as we have in the past. I, therefore, do not agree with my noble Friend if he means to imply that the legislation which Parliament has now undertaken has no bearing on the condition of Irish labourers. I believe that legislation, although dealing directly only with the Irish tenants, has a very important bearing upon the condition of the Irish labourers. As an illustration of that, I might remind my noble Friend that in that part of Ireland with which he is most immediately connected, the Province of Ulster, it is well known that labourers are better housed than they are in the rest of Ireland. Their dwellings may not be all that we should wish; but of that fact there is no doubt. Why is this? Simply because the Ulster tenant farmers are better off than they are in the rest of Ireland; they possess greater security in their holdings to invest capital and labour in the construction of labourers' houses, and other buildings connected with their farms. That is an example to show that if we can in any way raise the condition of Irish tenants, and induce them to invest their capital and labour upon their farms with a greater sense of security, we shall make a great step towards improving the condition of the dwellings of their labourers. I do not mean to imply that nothing else but that indirect process is possible towards the end in view, although I think that means is one of the most hopeful that I have yet heard of. But, to give a direct answer to my noble Friend's Question, I may remind him of what has passed within the last few weeks in the other House of Parliament, which will show that the Government is not indifferent to the subject. Within the last few weeks a discussion of some length and importance upon this very subject took place in the other House, and at the close of the discussion Her Majesty's Government accepted a Resolution in the following words:— That, in the opinion of this House, it is expedient and necessary that measures should be taken to improve the condition of the agricultural labourers in Ireland. That, I think, will show my noble Friend that Her Majesty's Government are quite sensible of the importance of the subject. I am bound to add that certain words which were contained in the original Resolution, as moved by a Member of the House, were left out, and were not adopted by the Government—namely, "during the present Session of Parliament;" but that qualification, I think, my noble Friend and your Lordships will not think an unreasonable one, the Government feeling that they are not able to give a pledge of that kind in the present Session.


said, the noble Lord had alluded to the prosperity of Ulster, and given a reason for that prosperity; but, in his (Earl Fortescue's) opinion, tenant right was far more a result than a cause of that prosperity. It arose from the fact that the inhabitants of Ulster were more industrious, much more enlightened, and much less behind the civilization of the rest of Europe than the mass of the Irish peasantry were, and, being more industrious, they carried on manufactures, which were at the time chiefly domestic manufactures. Part of the prosperity was shown in the improved farm buildings, and part in the somewhat improved dwellings built for the labourers. One of the first things they had to do was to inspire the Irish farmer, who was shamefully indifferent to their well-being, with a sense of his responsibility to provide proper dwellings for his labourers. He (Earl Fortescue) had found himself obliged to build cottages for the labourers on his estate. He denied that all the proposals for the improvement of the condition of the peasantry of Ireland emanated from the present Government. A remarkable instance of this occurred in the Land Act of 1870. There was a clause in that Act—not a clause in the Bill as originally—but a clause which was introduced subsequently to enable landlords, without having to pay compensation for disturbance, to take land for the purpose of erecting cottages to the extent of not more than a quarter of an acre for each cottage. Another wise and reasonable clause was introduced into the Land Act of 1870, not by the then Government, but by the House itself, allowing similar quantities of land on the same conditions to be taken for allotments for the benefit of the labourers. He was glad to hear that the question of the decent and wholesome lodging of his fellow-countrymen, which had for many years engaged his attention and sympathy, was not to be neglected by Her Majesty's Government. But he thought it was much to be regretted that they had not at once, on the first introduction of their Bill, taken into consideration the health and comfort of the agricultural labourers of Ireland—a body quite as numerous as the Irish tenant farmers, for whose sake the Government had been ready to unsay so much of what they had previously said, and to make proposals so startling to political economists and to those who had been accustomed to the former course of legislation generally. He did not believe that the Irish agricultural labourers had been like those tenant farmers long engaged in resistance, open or covert, to the fulfilment of their engagements. He did not hear of their refusing the high rents exacted from them by their employers for their dwellings; and, on the whole, he believed that the melancholy state of Ireland was far more to be attributed to the tenant farmers than to the agricultural labourers of Ireland.


remarked, that that question was surrounded with practical difficulties. One was that if you attempted to deal with the subject by legislation, you would excite the opposition of the present occupiers, who might object to having land taken from them for the purposes of cottage-building. Another difficulty was the expense of building houses in Ireland. It had been said that the labourers had better houses in Ulster than in other parts of Ireland. But the labourers' dwellings in Ulster were often very wretched, and what, then, must be their condition in other parts of the country? It was impossible for anyone to build a cottage for much under £100, for a cottage in Ireland cost just as much, and sometimes more, than building a cottage in England did. They could not expect a labourer to pay a greater rent than 1s. per week, because the average wages of an Irish labourer was 8s. or 9s., and therefore it could not be expected that a labourer could pay more rent than 1s. a-week. That was only about 2 per cent interest on the capital expended in building the cottage, and was a great difficulty in the way of building cottages such as the Board of Works would require.


stated that after the reply received he should reserve to himself the right to bring forward a Bill on the subject should it appear expedient.

House adjourned at a quarter before Seven o'clock, to Thursday next, Eleven o'clock.