§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.
THE SECEETARY FOR SCOTLAND (The Marquess of LOTHIAN),
in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that it was an Amendment of the Crofters Act passed last year, and had been under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government for some time. In fact, it was prepared by his Predecessor in Office, who was now Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As he understood, it was was not brought forward earlier because of certain difficulties felt by the Commissioners under the Crofters Act in the way of carrying the provisions of the Bill into effect. Those difficulties had now been overcome, and the Government now thought the Bill might advantageously be brought before their Lordships. Under the Crofters Act of last year, it was provided, under the 4th section of the 6th clause, that, in the case of any crofter making an application to the Commissioners for the consideration of a re-valuation of his rent, and the amount of his arrears he should be bound to pay to his landlord, the Commissioners were entitled to gist all proceedings for the removal of the crofter in respect to non-payment of rent, until his application had been determined upon by the Commissioners upon such terms as to payment of rent and arrears as they might think fit. Judging from the debate in the House of Commons upon this clause on the 5th April, it seemed to him that it had been understood by those who had introduced this measure, and also by the House of Commons generally, that it was intended, though not actually stated in terms, that the result of that clause would be that in the case of any crofter making such an application, proceedings should be sisted until the Crofter Commission had had an opportunity of considering and deciding upon his case. It turned out, however, that, by the first clause of the Act, any crofter who became a notour bankrupt was precluded from the provisions of the Act; and, therefore, whether intentionally or un- 239 intentionally, by what he might term a side wind, it was possible for any landlord who wished to do so to defeat the intention of Parliament, and to exclude a crofter tenant from the operation of the Act by taking proceedings in bankruptcy against him, and making him a not our bankrupt. He did not think that that could have been the intention of the Act of last year, because if it had been possible for the Commission to undertake the consideration and adjustment of all the applications made to them at once, this difficulty would not have arisen. But owing to the number of applications which had been made, and were likely to be made, it was impossible for the Commission to adjudicate upon them all for many months, perhaps it might be for many years. That was not the fault of the crofters themselves, neither of the landlords, who were anxious that their cases should be decided at once; but under the Act as it now stood this was simply impossible, and it might become necessary, or some landlord might feel it incumbent upon him, to proceed against a tenant by making him a bankrupt, and thus excluding him from the benefits of the Act, which were meant to be in their favour. That was only one side of the question. There was the side of the landlords themselves. He would like, with regard to this, to record his opinion that the landlords had, on the whole, almost universally behaved toward the crofters with the utmost forbearance, and had not done what the law permitted them to do, but there was a feeling of insecurity on the part of the crofters with regard to she terms of the Act. On the one hand, it would be very simple to protect the crofters from being proceeded against under this Act until the Commissioners had an opportunity of adjusting their claims; but, on the other hand, the claims of the landlords should also be taken into consideration. If it were put out of the power of the landlords altogether to proceed against any tenant for recovery of arrears until the Commission had adjudicated on the case, there was no doubt that, in many instances, the landlords would receive no rent at all for, perhaps, two or three years. The case of the crofters was that they should not be proceeded against by the landlords, so as to be deprived of the benefits of the Act. On 240 the other hand, the landlords should not be deprived of the opportunity of obtaining rent or arrears from tenants who were perfectly able to pay. It was proposed by this Bill to meet the necessities of the case of both landlord and tenant. In the first place, under Clause 2, the Crofters Commission would have the power of prohibiting such sale by the landlord of the tenant's effects as would make the crofter a notour bankrupt until the case was finally determined by the Commission. On the other hand, if, on being proceeded against by his landlord, a crofter should make application to the Commission, the Commission were given power to make such inquiries as might be deemed necessary in order to see whether the crofter was really able or unable to pay the whole or any portion of the rent and arrears. Although the question was one of some difficulty, he hoped their Lordships would agree that the matter between the crofters, on the one hand, and the landlords on the other, had been fairly met by the terms of this Bill. The question was somewhat difficult, because the effect of this Bill could only last as long as the Crofters Commissioners were engaged in adjudicating on the applications made to them, and because, as a matter of fact, it did prevent landlords from recovering rents which might be justly due to them. But he would ask them to remember that not only this Bill, but the Crofters Act itself, had been framed to meet an exceptional state of matters; and he thought that their Lordships would not object to this Bill, which was really merely a question of giving effect to the principle which the Act of last year had been intended to carry out. In conclusion, he begged to move the second reading of the Bill.
§ Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Marquess of Lothian.)
THE DUKE OF AEGYLL
said, he willingly acquiesced, so far as he was concerned, in the passing of this Bill, which was brought forward with the view of carrying out what he believed was the intention and effect of the 4th sub-section of the 6th clause of the Crofters Act. Their Lordships would recollect that, under that Act, something of the same system, with regard to the valuation of rents, was applied to the small tenantry of the West and North 241 Highlands of Scotland as had been applied to Ireland. That was to say, three gentlemen were commissioned to go over the country and ascertain how far the rents of these small tenants, under £30, were or were not excessive. Of course, they had undertaken their work at a time of very deep depression, and it naturally followed, from that power, that some restraint was placed on the landlords in respect to proceeding against their tenants for arrears of the rent which might turn out to be excessive. Therefore, the 4th sub-section of the 6th clause provided that, on the application of a crofter, the Commission might sist, or stop all proceedings for the removal of the crofter for non-payment of rent until the Commission had come and viewed his holding. He confessed that when the Act was passed, he was of opinion that, under that clause, the Commission had full power to stop all proceedings for arrears. It turned out, however, on some landlords having proceeded against their tenants for arrears, that, though the Act did stop proceedings for eviction, it did not stop proceedings for the sale of the tenant's cattle and effects; and it was found by another clause that when the cattle had been sold, and the tenant was declared bankrupt, he could be turned out of his holding. Therefore there was a back door open by which landlords might in certain cases evade the intention of the Act and turn out their crofter tenants. These were the circumstances which called for this Bill. His noble Friend the Secretary for Scotland (the Marquess of Lothian) had frankly admitted that the Crofters Commission had proceeded so much more carefully than the Commissioners had done in Ireland, that they were taking a very long time in their valuations. They were going very carefully over every farm, traversing the ground with great care, holding long sittings, taking elaborate evidence, and they were going so slowly that, as his noble Friend had said, they might take many years before they had finished their work. He hoped that was exaggerated, but he was afraid they would take some years before they went over the whole ground. They had been sitting some months in the Island of Skye alone, and had not yet overtaken half of the claims. There were some of the proprietors who could hardly afford 242 to stand out of the whole of their rents for a long time; therefore the Government had, while they carried out the intentions of the Act and prevented the landlords from evicting, on the other hand, allowed the landlords to summon their tenants for rents which were reasonable. On application the two parties were to come before the Commission, and the Commission—upon affidavits laid before them—were to decide how much of the arrears should stand until the Commission were able to go over the grounds. There were facts which could easily be placed before the Commission which would enable them to judge whether, at least, a portion of the arrears could be paid up, leaving the remainder until the decision of the Commissioners on the application to fix fair rent. He was willing to agree to that compromise, and he gave his assent to the Bill. But he wished to take notice of a Question which was put in "another place," which, it was needless to mention, was put by one of the Members who were called the crofter Members, and who, he thought, were not always very scrupulous in their statements with regard to landlords as they might be. The Question was put in "another place" to know whether is was not true that the landlords in all the crofting counties in Scotland had intended to proceed against their tenants. Of course, that Question gave the impression to Parliament and the country, and, he was afraid, was intended to give the impression, that landlords generally were trying to evade the Act, and to take advantage of the proceedings under the 1st clause of the Crofters Act. His knowledge of the country enabled him to say absolutely that that suggestion was absolutely not true. It might be literally true that one or two landlords in the country had taken that course, but he had not the slightest doubt there were cases in which they were justified in doing so. He had read very carefully the proceedings before the Commission since the commencement, and was very much struck with the evidence given—especially in Skye—and the observations of Sheriff Brand, the Chairman of the Commission, from which it appeared clearly that many cases came before him in which crofters voluntarily withheld rent which they were perfectly able to pay. These cases had elicited 243 from Sheriff Brand very severe, and, in some cases, very significant observations. There were some cases in which tenants had sold cattle and had not given a 6d. or 1s. of their arrears to their landlords, and others in which they had been buying boats, thus showing the possession of considerable sums of money, and withholding every 1s. of rent from their landlords. He thought in these eases the landlords were justified in proceeding against tenants by every process known to the law. He was willing, however, that these matters should be left to the arbitration of the Court, and he assented to the second reading of the Bill.
THE MARQUESS OF LOTHIAN
said, he could most emphatically confirm what the noble Duke had said, that the action of the landlords generally in the Highlands against their tenants was altogether unfounded. Several cases had been mentioned to him, but as it had been in confidence, he was unable to say who they were. With regard to the noble Duke's observations respecting the work of the Crofters Commission, he understood that the Commission would, with reference to the applications made to them from the Island of Skye, issue within the next few days 500 or 600 decisions.
§ Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Friday next.