HL Deb 04 May 1882 vol 269 cc76-83

, in rising to present a Petition from landowners and others in Ireland, praying that the principles adopted by the Land Commissioners in the assessment of "fair rents" might as soon as possible be made public, said, only a few days ago he presented a similar Petition from other landlords, and upon that occasion the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal (Lord Carlingford) made an official answer, but gave no satisfactory explanation on the subject, and gave the landlords no hope of any relief from the grievances under which they laboured. In consequence, another Petition had been prepared by other persons in Ireland, who considered they were hardly used, and the Petitioners had placed the Petition in his hands to present to their Lordships. He thoroughly endorsed the prayer of the Petition, and hoped that some explanation would be given by Her Majesty's Government on the present occasion. The Petitioners were fortified in their request by what was recommended in the 7th section of the Report of the Select Committee which their Lordships appointed to consider the working of the Land Act. They believed that they were asking for nothing that was unusual, and were only asking for what two noble and learned Lords and the other Members of the Committee considered would be of very great advantage in carrying out the Act—that the usual rule in judicial proceedings should be adhered to, so that the decisions of the Sub-Commissioners should be supported by reasons. The Government had not approved of the appointment of the Committee, and might not, therefore, be disposed to attach much importance to its recommendations; but he thought the prayer of the Petitioners was supported by the opinion of this independent tribunal, an authority that could not be entirely disregarded. Mr. Justice O'Hagan gave an account before the Committee of the manner in which the Commission was constituted; and his description of the occasion of the Assistant Commissioners going to the office of the Head Commission at Dublin to take out their instructions, although they never received any instructions, was one of the most comical exhibitions that could be given of the inauguration of a great system that was to affect every corner of the country. It was almost as historical as the lapsus linguœ made by the Registrar at the first sitting, who announced that the Court of the "Land League" was open. The Petition did not relate to a question of a new Department, or a change in some of the Offices of the Government, or as to how many Offices were to be filled by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal; but it was a question which greatly affected the landlords of Ireland. Their property was slipping away, and all sense of law and order was slipping away too, whilst the Government were considering how they should watch the operation of the Land Act. The Petitioners wished to facilitate the operations of the Act, and they considered that they had a right to call for some explanation of the rules under which the Court dealt with very large properties, how its decisions were arrived at, and what elements of value taken into consideration by the Assistant Commissioners, who had so large a power placed in their hands.

Petition for a speedy declaration of the principles adopted in the assessment of fair rents under the Act by the Land Commissioners in Ireland; of Owners of land and others living in Ireland, or interested in its welfare; read.

After a pause,


The noble Lord opposite (Lord Carlingford) does not rise to reply to the noble Earl behind me. I presume the Lord Privy Seal still represents Ireland in this House. Are we to receive a reply from the Government, or are they going to take refuge behind the impenetrable barrier of silence? The Question which has been asked by my noble Friend appears to me to be of the greatest importance, not the less since the Report of the Select Committee, which my noble Friend has referred to, has been published. As my noble Friend has reminded your Lordships, this is not a question merely affecting one political Party—it is a question as to the common administration of justice in Ireland, of justice to a class which has been grievously tried, and which, undoubtedly, is numerically weak, but which ought not on that account to be treated entirely with contempt by Parliament and by the Government. As long as no principles are indicated on which the incomes of landlords are to be cut down, it is impossible that the operations of this law can be facilitated either by submission to the Courts of First Instance or by agreement between parties out of Court. It is impossible for landlords and tenants to know whether it is for their interest to come to mutual agreements as long as there is no knowledge of the principles on which the Sub-Commissioners divide between the landlord and tenants that which hitherto has belonged to the landlord only. What we want to know is the principle on which these reductions are made. We want to know this, so that the landlord may be able to judge whether he shall submit at once or go before the Commissioners. Unless he has some grounds, some standard to which he can apply the decision of the Commissioners, some idea of the calculations which induced them to give the verdicts which they have given, so long will he be unable to decide whether it is for his interest to submit to reduction at once, or submit himself to a Court of First Instance. The result of this state of uncertainty is that the final settlement and pacification of the country, which we have always been told it was the hope of the Government this Land Act would effect, is indefinitely delayed, and disturbances in Ireland, with all the fatal injury to the country which disturbance involves, are indefinitely prolonged. Another consideration why we should have some definite principles placed before us is that the Commissioners are only appointed for one year; no one can say who is to be appointed next, and no one can so forecast the political horoscope as to know who will have the appointment of them when the year has run out. If their decisions were based upon principles which were argued and distinctly laid down, and which were tested by having been submitted to the Court of Appeal, those principles, so argued and decided, would, according to the ordinary practice of the English law, become part and parcel of the law, and would become a guide to subsequent Judges. We should possess a body of well settled laws. But if the present Commissioners are guided by any principles at all, they are locked within the secrets of their own breasts, and no one knows what they are. It is perfectly possible that new Judges may be appointed and new Courts may arise, who may substitute a policy diametrically opposed to that pursued by the present Sub-Commissioners. It seems to me it is for the supreme interest of Ireland, and necessary to produce some spirit of agreement between classes which otherwise will be hopelessly divided, that the principles upon which the Land Courts act should be laid down and declared—that it is a supreme necessity that they should be declared—so that landlords and tenants may come to agreements between themselves. It is in the interest of the landlords, but it is more in the interests of future tenants, to know that what principle is now laid down will be adhered to. On these grounds it seems to me that it is of the last importance that this Petition, which has now been twice presented to your Lordships' House, should be received by Her Majesty's Government in some more satisfactory way than with contemptuous silence.


My Lords, I utterly deny that Her Majesty's Government, or at least so far as I am concerned, have received this Petition with contemptuous silence. I had certainly not intended to trouble the House with any observations upon it, not from any want of respect for my noble Friend the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Longford), but simply because only a few days ago the noble Earl presented a Petition in the very same words as the Petition he has presented to-day, and he supported it with almost identically the same observations he has just made. I then said what it appeared to me to be necessary to say on the part of the Government, and I thought it was not necessary for me to repeat again the statement after as short an interval as two or three days. I then said that Her Majesty's Government had no power to accede to the demands of those Petitioners by preparing any instructions to be addressed by them to the Land Commissioners, asking them to lay down and publish what are called the principles on which they fix fair rents. As I said the other day, I can see no way in which that can be done, and I very much doubt whether the Land Commissioners would consent to perform such a duty, which is distinctly not laid upon them by the Act under which they are constituted, and which, as I gather from all that was said in both Houses of Parliament during the passage of the Bill, Parliament refrained from imposing upon them. The process of ascertaining how those rents are fixed is not such a great mystery, it appears to me, and I think that if the noble Earl or anyone else who will follow the proceedings of the Courts of the Sub-Commissioners and the Court of the Land Commission itself, they will not find any difficulty whatever. At least, I myself have not done so. So far as I am able to judge, in ascertaining for themselves the course which they took for the purpose of fixing a fair rent, the Commissioners ascertain by the ordinary means—the only means in their power—what rent would necessarily be fairly given by an outsider for the farm. They ascertain that by the evidence of valuers, by the ordinary means by which the value of a holding can be ascertained—namely, the rent that an outsider might fairly be expected to give for such a farm, leaving a fair and ordinary profit to the tenant. The rent which an outsider would give would, of course, be such a rent as would leave a fair and reasonable profit to the tenant, and the Commissioners deduct the value of the improvements that ought to be made, that is to say, the amount of the yearly value that is added to the farm by reason of those improvements as defined by law and by the decision of the Courts. They also, no doubt, take into consideration the deterioration of the farm that is caused by default—that is to say, they do not necessarily fix the rent according to the existing value of the farm, and the condition it happens to be in at the time the decision is given, but they take into account most of the improvements made by the tenant on the one hand, and the deterioration which he causes on the other, and so they come to the figure of a fair rent, not that which would be given by an outsider, but that which the man in occupation ought to pay. In doing so they comply with the conditions laid down by the Act of last year. They consider the interests of the landlord and tenant respectively, and all the circumstances of the district which bear upon it. I have never yet heard it explained, either by my noble Friend the noble Earl, or anyone else, what principles for arriving at a fair rent can be published which would more clearly explain the process taken by the Courts than that at which I have arrived, and which other noble Lords have arrived at, from observing the proceedings of the Land Commissioners. I know nothing as yet of what evidence has been given before your Lordships' Committee, which has been referred to by my noble Friend the noble Earl, and therefore I speak in ignorance of whether they throw any special light on the subject. I can only say that the Executive Government have no power of addressing instructions to the Land Commission on this subject.


said, he thought the prayer of the Petition was a fair and reasonable one. He knew of his own knowledge many cases in which the landlords could not decide whether to arrange with their tenants out of Court for want of knowing the principles upon which the decisions of the Commissioners were founded. One of the reasons of the great difference between the rent which the landlord sought to get and the judicial rent—which was about 20 per cent—was due to the absence of competition for farms.


said, that the Lord Privy Seal had stated that it was impossible to expect the Commissioners to give their reasons as to the principles upon which they acted in fixing a rent, and that he then proceeded to tell their Lordships that nothing was easier than to ascertain the mode in which they arrived at their decisions. It seemed to him, however, that the noble Lord, in telling them how it was done, omitted a very important factor in his case, because he told them that the Commissioners took the ordinary course, and that they applied to valuers who were competent to give advice; and the other day the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal told them that the Commissioners personally visited the farms. That might or might not be an advantage; but as the Commissioners were not agriculturists, he did not see that it could do much good whether they went over the farms or not. Then the noble Lord said that, having fixed the rent that an outsider would pay for the farm, and which he would be able to give with a profit to himself, the rent was fixed after the improvements which had been made by the tenant were taken into consideration. It seemed to him that the landlords had a right to demand what were those improvements which were taken into consideration. What he wished to know was what the Commissioners considered to be improvements, how many years back they were to go to ascertain the improvements made upon the farm, what description of improvements they were, and whether they were improvements at all? They could not estimate a fair rent unless they ascertained that the improvements that had been made were really bonâ fide improvements, and improvements which ought to be made on the farm. He said the landlords had a right to know what the Commissioners considered to be improvements which had been made on their farms, and for which they were to be mulcted.


They are defined by the Act.


said, that might be so; but how far did the Commissioners go back? Another matter of importance was that of deterioration, and he should like to know what were considered deteriorations by the Commissioners, and the manner in which they were taken into account. He confessed that if he unfortunately stood in the position of the Irish landlord, he should not like to have his rents fixed without knowing the principles which guided the Commissioners. He should doubt very much the justice of having his property handed over to two Commissioners, and should require and expect to have some more accurate information as to the manner in which the rents were fixed than had been given on the present occasion.


said, he did not quite understand what the noble Duke and the noble Marquess were aiming at. Did they wish to amend the Act in order to define what noble Lords on either side of the House found so difficult to define last year, or did they wish that the Executive Government should give instructions to the Commissioners? But that was a matter which the Government were not empowered to do by the Act, and which it was not the least incumbent upon the Commissioners to receive.


said, he thought it was incumbent on the Government to give their Lordships' House some more information than they had vouchsafed as to the method in which the Land Commissioners had arrived at the re- ductions which they had made in rents. The system of administering the Land Act adopted by the Commissioners threw the greatest possible impediment in the way of amicable arrangements being entered into between landlords and tenants in Ireland. Landlords had suffered for the good which they had done in making improvements. Reductions had been made from nearly all existing rents, but the Commissioners had not put down what they were separately. They had lumped them altogether and given decisions which practically resulted in this, that no landlord or tenant could infer what his prospects would be if they brought another case into Court, and they could not proceed out of Court. This, it was true, was an important question for landlords, but not for them only. He thought that in common justice both landlords and tenants should be told for what length of time they took into consideration the improvements made by tenants, and all the other circumstances which had induced them to reduce existing rents. He was sorry to say the anticipation which he ventured to express when the Land Bill came first before their Lordship's House last year—namely, that this measure of confiscation would not be accepted as a measure of pacification in Ireland, had, unhappily, been fulfilled. He thought the Government should afford them more information than had been given by the noble Earl.


said, it was impossible to discover the principles on which the Commissioners had proceeded. They were entirely in the dark. He had tried to settle with a number of his own tenants out of Court; but the only basis he could go upon was to take Griffith's valuation, with a certain percentage added—as much, he thought, as the Sub-Commissioners would sanction. Notwithstanding that his agent had taken a great deal of trouble, in the majority of instances the attempt to settle had failed. Of course, the Executive Government could not order any Court to do anything; but they might have expressed a strong opinion on the subject; and he very much regretted that the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal (Lord Carlingford) was not able to give a more satisfactory answer to the Questions of the noble Lord.

Petition ordered to lie on the Table.