§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR OF IRELAND (Lord ASHBOURNE)
My Lords, 1041 in presenting to your Lordships the Bill which stands in my name, I think it right and convenient to make a short explanation of the circumstances under which it is my duty so to present it, and at the same time to give your Lordships some explanation of the provisions which are embodied in the Bill. It is obvious that there has been but a very short time indeed for Her Majesty's present Government to consider how they would frame their scheme for the adoption of Parliament, and how to embody their proposals in the Bill. Under these circumstances, although we had ample material in the shape of a vast number of suggestions, proposals, and schemes, circulated in the Press and embodied in other Bills, and although I myself have been treated in no niggard manner and in no ungenerous fashion with suggestions that teemed in by every post and in every variety of methods of communication, still we had to apply ourselves to this question in a spirit practical, generous, and just, and with an anxious desire to introduce a Bill short and workable, and which would present as few points of contention as possible. We have adopted, as the governing principle of the scheme, that it is voluntary, and that the landlord and tenant are left free to act according to their own discretion, and, on the examination of their own interests, to do as they think right. This question of the creation of a peasant proprietary is no new one. It has been before Parliament for a long time. It has engaged the best energies and enlisted the warmest sympathies of the most eminent men in Parliament and in the country; and, therefore, it conies now before your Lordships accredited with this great recommendation— that it is a non-Party question; and I present it to your Lordships' favourable consideration, not from any Party standpoint, but believing that I shall receive from all sides and sections of this House a fair consideration of the proposals embodied in the Bill. Your Lordships are so familiar with the history of the question that I should not be justified in entering into any lengthened recapitulation of it. The Land Act of 1870 contained the germs of this Bill in the clauses honourably known as the Bright Clauses, which sanctioned the advance of two-thirds of the purchase money. They 1042 did not work so well as the proposer expected. I lay the blame on nobody, but in 11 years the Act only succeeded in calling into existence something like 870 peasant proprietors. Then there was the Land Act of 1881, which applied itself to the question in a broader and more generous spirit, and it proposed to increase the advance from two-thirds to three-fourths. For a variety of reasons, with which I will not trouble the House, that Act has not, so far as the Purchase Clauses are concerned, been attended with that success which its framers, and those who watched its career, most earnestly desired. I shall not enter into many figures; I will only give a few. Down to the present only 733 peasant proprietors have under that Bill been called into existence, and the whole sum expended has been £238,000. In the long and anxious discussions which took place on the passing of that most important measure of 1881, on all sides of the House, these Purchase Clauses were looked upon with the most earnest desire that they should work well. It was the desire of the Government who passed the Bill; it was the earnest desire of Mr. Gladstone, expressed in frequent speeches; and I well remember that Lord Hartington, in a speech obviously delivered after much consideration, said the Purchase Clauses were really the end and object that must be aimed at in all such legislation, and the Tenure Clauses were only to supply a modus vivendi until the establishment of peasant proprietors. "Well, these clauses have only worked in the modified way I have indicated. There is a block in the land market which everyone must regret—a block so complete that, until it is re-opened, it is in vain to look for any increase in Irish prosperity. All parties, therefore, recognize the necessity of opening the land market and causing something like a circulation in this great national industry. I will give your Lordships a few facts which are elementary to anyone who has the smallest knowledge of this subject. The Landed Estates Court used to sell at a rate of something like £1,500,000 a-year. That was before the last five or six years. Now the average is, exclusive of urban properties, little, if at all above £150,000. This is enough to indicate the position of landed property. I will now state the number of 1043 estates which are under the receivers, and subject to that expensive and costly machinery. In 1878 the number of receivers in Ireland was 437; in 1880 the number was 565; in 1882 the figure reached 81G; and in 1884 it reached the great total of 1,081. These estates are administered under these receivers owing to circumstances and under conditions which might call for examination if there was time to go into them; but I may say that they are administered at a vast and regrettable expense. The attention of Parliament has been called to the urgency of these topics on numerous occasions. In 1882 a Committee of your Lordships' House reported on the question, and that Report is familiar reading. It contained many practical proposals; but I shall only trouble your Lordships with one extract. The Report declares that—There is a concurrence of testimony that no scheme for converting tenants into proprietors which requires tenants to pay down a portion of the purchase money, or to pay a yearly instalment of it greater than the rent, is likely to he successful.That was the Report of 1882, which has since acquired greater significance and obtained the acceptance of everyone who wishes to see this matter settled. That Report was presented to your Lordships in April, 1882. In the month following the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville) stated in this House on two occasions that the matter of the revision of the Purchase Clauses of the Land Act was under the consideration of the Government. The matter substantially rested there until June, 1883, when Lord George Hamilton, in an important debate, which was joined in by Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Trevelyan, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, carried the following Motion unanimously, without dissent from any section of Parliament—That, in the opinion of this House, the early revision of the Purchase Clauses of the Irish Land Act of 1881 is necessary in order to give effect to the intentions of Parliament contained therein.In redemption of that, Mr. Trevelyan, in May, 1884, presented a Bill to the House of Commons in an important, able, and most interesting speech. My Lords, that Bill, the details of which I have examined most minutely, has been of great advantage in the framing of the present Bill since the present Go- 1044 vernment came into Office. Speaking roughly and broadly, that Bill proposed to give an increase on the previous advance made under the Land Act of 1881 to those who were willing to borrow only three-fourths—that is, that to those who were willing to work under the Act of 1881 it gave the money at a lower rate of interest, and gave a longer number of years in which to repay it. A greater change, and that on which attention, because of its importance, was necessarily concentrated, was the change for the first time presented to Parliament in actual legislation—although it had been dealt with in a former most important proposal in the Committee of your Lordships' House—the proposal was that we should advance the whole of the purchase money to the tenant to enable him to purchase his holding. Obviously the proposal attracted a vast amount of attention. To guard the nation against any loss, a most legitimate and laudable object, that proposal was accompanied with a proposal to have a local guarantee. I make no charge whatever as to the prudence or imprudence of that; and, until it was submitted to criticism, it could not be ascertained how such a proposal would work. Opinions at first were divided upon it. When, however, submitted to the test of public criticism, it was found that the attempt to safeguard the advance of the whole of the purchase money by requiring a guarantee was a proposal which had no chance of acceptance. Therefore, it may be boldly and broadly stated that the fact that the whole of the purchase money was to be so advanced was destructive of that Bill, and prevented it from going any further. That is the conclusion to which a full examination leads, though I make no charge with reference to it. The only other provision of the Bill to which I need refer was that to advance £20,000,000 for the purpose of the Purchase Clauses, provided that no more than £5,000,000 should be expended in one year. As a matter of fact, that Bill was not proceeded with. I myself endeavoured, at the close of the Session, to get a part of it proceeded with; but I cannot blame the late Government for not proceeding with it at that time. There were many difficulties in their way, and they were naturally not desirous of proceeding with certain clauses, but of leaving the question to be dealt with in a more complete form. 1045 Your Lordships do not wish to be re-minded of the way in which the question has been brought before the House of Commons this Session. The question was again and again brought before that House; and after a slight appearance of uncertainty as to what would be the ultimate decision to be arrived at, it was announced by Mr. Gladstone shortly before the change of Government that he intended to present a Bill in the House of Commons which, I think, he indicated, would, at all events, have the merit of shortness, and which he hoped would be workable and bring about a settlement of the question. It was in that state of facts that the present Government devoted themselves to the consideration of the question. Your Lordships will, I hope, bear in mind the necessary difficulties of dealing with a vast and complicated question in a short period of time, and the earnest efforts that have to be made to reach the qualifications which I laid down at the outset of my remarks—that of producing a measure that would be short, that, so far as we could judge, would be workable, and would, so far as might be possible, avoid contentious matter. The proposals embodied in this Bill are proposals which, I trust, will commend themselves to the favourable reception of your Lordships. As far as the proposals of the Land Act of 1881 are concerned, that of advancing three-fourths of the purchase money, arrangements are made in the Bill by which those who desire only to avail themselves of advances to that extent are at liberty to do so. But in the same spirit in which the late Government, by Mr. Trevelyan's Bill, proposed to give more generous encouragement, so we have given more generous encouragement to those who desired to take this limited advance. It is proposed to make advances to those tenants at the rate of 4 per cent, payable in a period of 49 years. Of course, I only refer to these matters for the convenience of exposition, for, as your Lordships are aware, the financial aspects of this Bill will have no validity until voted in the other House of Parliament. Applying ourselves to the other most important branch of this question, which was attempted to be grappled with completely in the Bill of last year—the conditions under which it would be reasonable and practicable 1046 to advance the whole purchase money to intending tenants—we adopt that proposal, that the State will advance the whole of the purchase money to the intending purchasers, on conditions which we believe will be just and generous to them, and will not expose the State to any risk of loss. Of course, from the exposition I have made of the Bill of last year, your Lordships will anticipate that we have not again presented the Guarantee Clause, but we have found a substitute, which I earnestly hope your Lordships will approve. We provide that one-fifth of the purchase money shall be retained at moderate interest in the hands of the Land Commission until the tenant, by equivalent payments, has paid off a sum equal to the amount so retained. That, I believe, will be an improvement and a sufficient protection to the State. It is more workable, more simple, more immediately available than any system of guarantee. We also supplement it by another provision, although I do not think the provision will ever really be required to be called in question. Your Lordships are aware that there is such a thing as the Irish Church surplus, and your Lordships may know that there is some of it left. We propose to avail ourselves in a clause which has been most carefully prepared of what remains of the Irish Church surplus, subject to all existing charges, in order to save the State from any ultimate possibility of loss. The Irish Church surplus will not be touched until the methods provided for the sale of holdings has been carried out, and until after the forfeiture of the one-fifth of the purchase money which I have indicated it is intended to retain as a safeguard to the State. Those are the general features of the advances, and those are the pecuniary aspects of the Bill. Of course, there is another matter of grave importance and deep interest, as to which I know there are differences of opinion even among those on this side of the House; and that is as to the tribunal to be entrusted with the working of these important functions. There are three courses open to the Government. We could have a new body if we pleased; we could call into existence new Commissioners and new machinery; but one must be of a very sanguine disposition and a very bold statesman to think that when 1047 within measurable distance of the end of the Session Parliament can be expected to regard such a matter as non-contentious, or who can expect officers and staff to be provided and got into working order within a reasonable time. The exigencies and necessity of the position—the reality of facts—prevented us from giving any favourable consideration to that proposal. I do not myself regard it as within the limits of practical consideration. Then there remains the Landed Estates Court. There are many of my friends in both Houses of Parliament and in Ireland who would be most favourable to this jurisdiction being attached to the Landed Estates Court; but again I have to consider the practical aspects of this question. This jurisdiction has been, after much consideration, vested by the late Government in the Land Commission; and if you now were to take it from them and shift it back to the Landed Estates Court, in the present state of that Court it would be to subject the Bill to further criticism, to further lengthy examination, and obviously to serious contention. Therefore, the Government have arrived at the conclusion, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, that it was wiser and more prudent to leave it where it was at present—namely, vested in the Land Commission Court, and to apply ourselves, as much as possible, to supplement and assist that Court in the new administration with which we are about to one rate it. That we have done, and we have done so in a way which your Lordships, I trust, will not think paltry or petty. The Bill makes provision for the appointment of two additional Land Commissioners, who shall hold office for three years, not at the same salary as the other Land Commissioners, who receive a salary of £3,000 a-year, but at a salary of £2,000 a-year, at which we hope we shall be able to secure the services of gentlemen of energy, of capacity, of resource, and of loyal intentions to carry out the objects of the Bill. Power will be taken in the Bill for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by his order to vest in those additional, or such of the Land Commissioners as ho may think proper, the special working of the special work of this Bill. That is a matter to which I myself look as a very important element in the successful working of this 1048 measure. There is another portion of the Bill, for which I am largely indebted for the suggestion and drafting to the Bill of the late Government, to which I have already referred. Among the matters most to be desired in reference to any system for the improvement of land purchase in Ireland is to encourage the application of the working of these provisions by having some short and simple method of conveyancing and legal machinery. Tenants are discouraged, by dread of an indefinite bill of costs; they do not like solicitors, and, if I may say so, they have a suspicion of barristers. They would like some short and simple method of land transfer, which those who run may read. Power is, therefore, taken to enable the Land Commissioners, after due inquiry, to pronounce vesting orders. The Land Commission will investigate titles at their expense, and will make vesting orders which will not cost the tenant time or trouble. To assist the Land Commission in that important work power has been taken to transfer some of the able and capable officials of the Landed Estates Court, safeguarding their position by saying that it shall only be done by their own consent, at such increased salary as may be sanctioned by the Treasury. To this provision I shall look for the smooth and efficient working of the Conveyancing Clauses of this Bill. Power is also taken of appointing counsel and solicitors, examiners, and other officials of that kind, who can aid or assist the Commissioners or such other persons as may be assigned to discharge this duty. There are other provisions of the conveyancing part of the Bill with which I will not trouble your Lordships, not because they are unimportant—they are to my mind extremely important—but because I do not think I should be justified in trespassing upon your Lordships by going into such technical matters. There are other provisions of the Bill which I do not go into now, not because they are not important, for they are of extreme importance, but because I do not think that I should be justified in trespassing any longer upon the time of your Lordships. I have confined myself to bringing before your Lordships as shortly as I could the salient points and principles of the Bill, which I hope may pass into law with the sanction of your Lordships. If I may do so without presumption upon 1049 the first occasion on which I have spoken in this House, I would earnestly and most gravely urge upon your Lordships the great question of time in reference to this matter. I have endeavoured to take steps to have this Bill circulated among your Lordships to-morrow morning, and I hope that your Lordships may assent to its being put down for second reading on the earliest possible date. My Lords, there are many ways of killing a Bill. It may be killed by too much kindness, or it may be killed by too much unkindness. There may be those in this House who have formed schemes of their own; and it may be that I have not been able to meet the plans and schemes of all those whose abilities I thoroughly recognize; but if they find that those plans which they most regarded have no place in my Bill, and that it is not as perfect as they would have liked, let them criticize me to their heart's content, but let them spare the Bill. If they think that it is a fair and reasonable effort to accomplish a great object in a reasonable and—as far as may be—non-contentious manner, I hope that they will permit the Bill to pass through this House. With these remarks, I have now the honour to present the Bill to your Lordships, and I hope that your Lordships will now consent to its being read a first time.
§ Bill to provide greater facilities for the sale of land to occupying tenants in Ireland—Presented (The Lord ASHBOURNE).
§ EARL SPENCER
My Lords, I shall not trouble your Lordships at any great length; but I cannot refrain from saying one or two words with reference to the speech we have just heard. First of all, I hope that my noble and learned Friend who introduced this Bill will allow me to congratulate him upon his first appearance in this House, and to express to him how gratified Members of this House on both sides are to see him a Member of this House. Not only will this House have the addition of a very capable statesman on that Front Bench, but on this side we shall also have in him, not only an able, but one of the fairest opponents that statesmen and politicians have ever had in England. This subject is one which I have had to study minutely during the last two or three years. I have not had 1050 the advantage of the legal learning of my noble Friend; but I have studied it with the assistance of many able men, and I know that nothing could have been more concise and clear than the explanation which my noble and learned Friend made, not only of the history of this question, but also of the proposals of Her Majesty's Government. I do not think that it would be right for me to go into any detail now; but I may say that I think it is of the utmost importance that, if possible, this question of land purchase in Ireland should be settled as soon as possible, and that the block in the land market should be removed, which is at present so serious a matter, not only to landlords, but to all interests connected with the land in Ireland. The Purchase Clauses of the Land Act of 1881 were of the utmost importance, and I quite agree with the noble and learned Lord who has introduced this measure that there has not been that number of purchases which it was hoped would be the case. I hope that the scheme embodied in the present Bill will be more successful. The noble and learned Lord has asked that this measure should receive just and reasonable consideration, and I can assure him that it will certainly receive such consideration, so far as the first Opposition Bench is concerned. There are very important matters connected with it, not only with regard to the advances to be made by the State, but also as to the bodies who are to deal with those clauses, which will have to be carefully considered when the Bill is before us. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that the safety of this Bill and the hope that it will be satisfactorily carried out depends upon having a satisfactory body to work it. Unless that body are loyal and anxious, and have time at their disposal to work the measure thoroughly, I fear there will be another failure like that which has attended previous legislation on this question. I will not at present say anything more, except that I look forward with great interest to seeing the clauses of the Bill, and that under the particular circumstances of the Session that we shall not offer any opposition to the Bill being read a second time upon an early occasion.
§ LORD FITZGERALD
said, he had listened to the statement of the noble and learned Lord with great interest, and 1051 he could assure him that it had realized his expectations. The subject was most difficult and complicated, and the noble and learned Lord deserved credit for having, thus early in his official career, tried to grapple with it. The details of the Bill would, no doubt, have to be carefully considered; but as to the principle of the Bill he thought there would be very little difference of opinion. He could only say that the Bill would be criticized by those on that side of the House in no spirit of hostility, but in one of friendly sympathy, with a view of passing it, if practicable, into law.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR OF IRELAND
The limit of this Bill is £5,000,000, and the additional Land Commissioners are appointed for three years.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR OF IRELAND
It is simply provided that the money to be advanced under this measure should be limited to £5,000,000. It may all be advanced in one year.
§ Bill read 1ª (No. 184.)