HL Deb 04 April 1895 vol 32 cc879-88

THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE rose to call attention to the recent action of the Irish Land Commissioners in requiring the payment of ecclesiastical tithe rent-charge at earlier dates than usual; and to move for papers. This question, he said, had been before their Lordships on several occasions; and the particular point to which he wished to refer that evening was mentioned not many days ago by the noble Lord on the front Opposition bench at the close of a conversation begun by Lord Belmore. His noble Friend was not successful in eliciting from Her Majesty's Government any explanation as to the facts to which he then adverted, and as the subject had attracted a good deal of attention in Ireland he had thought it desirable to give their lordships an opportunity to obtain an explanation with regard to it. Their Lordships would no doubt recollect that the Irish Church Act of 1869 contained a provision under which it was open to a landowner to redeem the tithe rent-charge on payment of a sum equal to 22½ years' purchase on the annual instalments. The Act also contained an alternative proposal intended no doubt to meet those cases in which a transaction by out-and-out purchase might not be convenient to those concerned. The alternative was that the rent-charge could be redeemed by a series of annual instalments slightly exceeding the amount of the rent-charge and spread over a period of 52 years. Three years after the passing of the Irish Church Act, in 1872, an Amending Act was passed. That Act contained a number of different provisions, and among them was one stereotyping the ecclesiastical tithe rent-charge at the figure at which it stood on November 1 of the previous year. Their Lordship's would observe that the effect of that provision was to preclude those who were liable for this rent-charge from the right of having its amount revised at intervals of seven years according to the fluctuations in the price of certain agricultural staples. Then they came to the Act of 1887—an Act which amended the Land Act of 1881 and the Land Purchase Act of 1885. In that part of the Act of 1887 which dealt with the question of purchase, it was indicated that the— Land Commission may, if they think expedient, order the redemption of any Crown rent, quit rent, or tithe rent-charge or any apportioned part thereof, at a price to be fixed by the Land Commission. Their Lordships would observe that, whereas the number of years' purchase laid down in the original Act was 22½years, the number of years' purchase in the Amending Act was that which might be fixed by the Land Commissioners, he presumed with the concurrence of the Treasury. With regard to the Act of 1872, he observed that it passed through both Houses without any discussion whatever, and, no doubt, judged by the light of the circumstances which were then present, it did seem a very desirable thing that the amount of the rent-charge should be, fixed once and for all instead of being variable at intervals; but the result had certainly been rather disadvantageous to the persons liable for this particular payment. He noticed in the recent Report of the Land Commissioners that in the last year 11 perpetuity rents, amounting to £1,419, were reduced in accordance with the prices of corn to £959, a very substantial reduction, and one which the ecclesiastical tithe rent-charge was now no longer liable to. Then, with regard to the terms of commutation, they would recollect that last year Lord Belmore, in a very temperate and carefully-reasoned speech, laid before them certain reasons for believing that there had been a very serious miscalculation in the terms upon which the tithe rent-charge might be redeemed under the Irish Church Act. The noble Earl showed that while the Bill was under discussion the original proposal of the Government had been considerably modified, and that, in consequence, the number of years in which the principal sum, together with interest, was to be extinguished had been overestimated by no less than six years, and that whereas 46 years would have been the proper term to lay down, the term actually laid down was 52 years. Lord Belmore subsequently asked for statistics from Her Majesty's Government with the object of elucidating this point, but, owing to an unfortunate piece of forget fulness, which was admitted the other day, that information had not yet been provided, and he hoped that the noble Lord who was going to follow him would be able to tell them that it would be laid upon the Table of the House at an early date. But there was a good deal of other evidence which showed that these tithe rent-charges were very considerably overvalued under the Irish Church Act; it was a remarkable thing that on two occasions the Land Commissioners had approached the Treasury and made a specific recommendation that the number of years' purchase should be reduced from 22½ years to 20, and in a recent Report they said:— The facilities afforded by the Land Law (Ireland) Act, 1887, for the apportionment and redemption of quit-rout, tithe rent-charge, and head-rents have enabled sales to be effected in almost all cases discharged of outgoings. While, however, the redemption prices of head-rents are being fixed as provided by the 16th Section of that Aft, and the price of lay tithe rent-charge has been fixed by us at 20 years' purchase, we regret to have to report that no effect has as yet been given to the provisions of the 15th Section of that Act for the revision of the prices of either quit-rents or of tithe rent-charge payable to the Land Commission, which have still to be redeemed at the respective rates of 25 years' and 22½ years' purchase. The effect of the maintenance of this high rate of purchase was that a landlord who was the owner of a lay tithe of £10 a year payable to him out of lands which were being sold, received for that payment at the rate of 20 years' purchase—namely, £200; but if, at the same time, he was selling lands charged with an ecclesiastical tithe of £10, he had to buy that up at 22½ years' purchase—namely, £225, or a difference of no less than 12½ per cent. between the two transactions. In regard to the question of over-valuation, Mr. Morrough O'Brien, one of the Irish Land Commissioners, had recently given evidence before the Royal Commission on the Financial Relations between Great Britain and Ireland to the effect that tithe rent-charges, though a first charge on the land, were difficult to identify, costly to collect, and not easily saleable in the open market, so that, as a rule, they were not worth more than 17 years' purchase; that perpetuity rents were not worth more than 21 years' purchase, and as the Church rents were variable with corn prices, they were not worth as much as ordinary fee farm rents; but that the Church Act had fixed the price of tithe rent-charge at 22½ and perpetuity rents at 25 years' purchase, thus adding £2,779,000 to the then market value of the securities, the artificially swollen value being to the detriment of owners of property subject to those charges. If these contentions had any force in them those who were liable should at least receive from the public department concerned no less consideration than had been extended to them during recent years. The allegation, however, was that the Land Commission, instead of pressing these claims with moderation and forbearance, were at this moment engaged in what was vulgarly called pulling up arrears, greatly to the inconvenience of those who were liable for these payments. Even on the best estates in Ireland, he believed it was the case that rents and tithe rent-charges due in May were paid in November, and those due in November were paid in May; but now the tithe rent-charges due last November had been asked for in February, and further time was peremptorily refused. This attempt to obtain the payment of three half-years' tithe rent-charges within 12 months was, he thought, unwise. Everyone knew that if the landlord were to attempt to obtain payment of the rent out of which the rent-charge was to be met in a similar manner, and asked for three half-years within the 12 months, he would be told he was acting very harshly and running the risk of troubling the public tranquillity. Recent legislation abounded in provisions intended to give every opportunity to embarrassed tenants to obtain from their landlords the utmost indulgence. He believed that at the present time a Bill was before Parliament designed, among other things, still further to increase the difficulty of overtaking arrears of agricultural rents in Ireland. He did not say that the indulgence was unwise, but he contended that in common fairness it would be just to extend to those liable for these rent-charges a few shreds of the consideration extended to those liable for the rent out of which the rent-charge had to be met. That was the whole of his contention. He hoped there was no intention on the part of the Government to depart in any way from the practice which had hitherto governed the procedure of the Department responsible for these matters. He would like to hear whether the cases that had been commented upon in Parliament and the Press were isolated cases, or represented a policy that had been deliberately adopted and sanctioned. If there had been a new departure, he hoped the noble Lord who would reply for the Government would tell the House whether it had been thought necessary to make it; and whether, if there were any papers, and if any instructions had been given under which the Land Commission had taken this action, he would be good enough to lay them on the Table of the House.


said, that as to the papers that were asked for he could not conceive what papers he could lay on the Table unless it was a Return of payments and claims for payments on account of tithe-rent charge in past years. He had no such Return, and he did not think, if he placed such papers on the Table, they would add anything to the explanation which he hoped he would be able to give in answer to the questions of the noble Marquess. He was sure the noble Marquess would be the first to admit that in the remarks he had addressed to the House he had wandered a good deal outside the limits of his question. He himself did not complain in the least of that. But the question asked for information upon the specific action recently taken by the Irish Land Commission with regard to the payment of tithe-rent charge, and he was sure his noble Friend would not expect him to go into the redemption and over-valuation of tithe as affected by the Act of 1869 and the amending Acts since. He would have to say a word in a different connection on the Act of 1869, but not as regarded general legislation as to commutation of tithes, which was not embraced in the noble Marquess's question. Whenever attention was called in the House to the recent action of anybody or anything in Ireland it was generally not in a congratulatory tone. The present case was no exception to the rule. He understood the noble Marquess—and he recognised the most moderate and temperate way in which he put his case—to say that the Irish Land Commissioners were supposed to be showing a want of moderation and forbearance, and not showing the moderation and forbearance which the circumstances surrounding the payment of sums of money owing would warrant them to suppose they would show in the case of Ireland. The noble Marquess also wished to know whether it was the intention of the Government to take a completely new departure and to act in future in a harsh and unreasonable manner towards those who had to pay tithe rent-charges. He also said that if a new departure had been taken it would be only right for the Government to say why such new departure had taken place. He put on one side altogether the idea that in what the Land Commissioners were doing or had done they had acted harshly. They were merely doing what they thought right in view of circumstances which he would explain. It was quite true that the custom for some years had been that the issue of notices for payment of tithe-rent charge due on May 1st did not take place until early in October, and payments due on November 1st were not paid until early in March. The payment of May gale under the old order of things was demanded on May 1st, and the November gale on March 25th. The noble Marquess thought the recent action of the Commissioners pointed to a new-order of things. He admitted that a new state of things had come about. The Commissioners, on full consideration, had decided now that the notice for payments of tithe rent-charge should be issued within two months of the half-yearly payment, and that the limit of payments should be the first three months after 1st November and 1st May for the payments then due. While six months' credit was formerly given, now it was only throe months. Those who had been accustomed to six months credit might feel the shortening of the period a little hard, but the persons to whom the money was owing had to be considered as well as the person who had to pay. It might be just as inconvenient for the creditor to give six months' credit as it might be pleasant for the debtor to obtain it. Roughly speaking, the tithe rent-charge amounted to £170,000 a year. That was a large sum, and the Commissioners were bound to pay the interest on the charges imposed by Parliament on the Church Fund on the actual date on which the interest became legally due. The charges which they had to pay to the Church Fund almost absorbed the whole of their receivable income. Consequently, six months' credit had been allowed by those who had to meet their obligations punctually to the day. There was also the difficulty of keeping accounts and having enough money to go on with. That was the reason why the change had been instituted. Previous to the Act of 1869 the tithe rent-charge was paid by incumbents and various ecclesiastical bodies in Ireland, and there was no reason to suppose that long arrears were allowed then. An incumbent probably had a family to bring up, boys to send to school, and the butcher and grocer to pay, and therefore looked well after his tithe, and got it paid pretty punctually. Why should arrears which were not allowed to run on continually in those days be allowed to run on continually now? He did not think the Land Commissioners intended in deal harshly, but it was their duty to require payment of the tithe rent-charge sooner than hitherto, because they had to pay interest and other money they might owe on the day it became due. In conclusion, he would inquire when the memorandum, asked for by Lord Belmore, giving the calculations upon which the commutation of tithe rent-charge was based, would be ready.


said, that nothing could be clearer, but, at the same time, more entirely unsatisfactory, than the statement of the noble Lord. The position appeared to be a harsh one, a disagreeable one, and one that was largely indefensible. The Irish landlords and those who had to pay these charges ought not to be made to suffer because Parliament, in its imprudence, had made many charges upon these Irish funds. Over and over again attention had been drawn to the wav in which the Church Fund had been charged with millions and half-millions, and it was a wonder that the Fund had not come to an end a long time ago. Each time a demand had been made it had been argued from figures that the Fund was not insolvent, but that, when all its assets were taken into account, it was quite solvent, and if it were wound up at some future time there would be a substantial surplus; but each time the question had become graver and more serious, and had led to the manifestation of more incredulity as to the power of the Fund to bear any further advance. From the statement which the noble Lord had made, apparently by instruction, it might be inferred that it was the Treasury who were really answerable for this new departure, and who had caused the collectors to press for prompt payment in order to enable them to satisfy the claims upon the Irish Church Fund. That was an unfair position in which to place those who were bound to pay these charges. The noble Lord carefully read, apparently from communicated notes, the statement that an order had been made or a direction given. It would be satisfactory if this order or direction could be produced, so as to show the date and the method of this new departure, and in its absence they could understand that it was the Treasury that was responsible for this pressure. He had heard the statement with surprise; he did not expect an answer so painfully frank and disagreeably candid; he rather anticipated a denial of intentional or exceptional pressure, and a promise of inquiry and of adherence to older methods. This was a hard case, and a harsh one. Irish landlords were no more easy in circumstances than were their English and Scotch brethren, and it was hard upon them to ask them to make these payments almost to the hour, whilst at the same time, in Parliament, on platform, and in the Press, they were asked to be generous, forbearing and indulgent in not pressing for their rents—nay, the sentiment was embodied in the language of statutes, for in the Act of 1887 there was a clause empowering a County Court, Judge, instead of taking land from a tenant in arrears, to spread the payment of them over a number of instalments. The landlords were thus forbidden to seek for that prompt payment which by this new departure they were themselves required to make. This was harsh and unreasonable. Some agents had received printed forms stating that payment must be made within six days. It was not fair criticism to object to the noble Marquess going outside the bare question on the notice paper, for they must look at the matter as a whole. The 22½ years' purchase adopted in the Church Act having come to be the measure for the purchase of ecclesiastical tithe rent-charge, the calculations on which it was originally based had been asked for and promised, but not supplied. The return was promised last year, and the noble Lord, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, regretted that the matter had been forgotten. It was very unsatisfactory that a return which was promised twice over in Parliament by the Prime Minister had been forgotten—a return which was greatly sought for in order to show how it came about that a heavy payment was exacted from Irish landlords when they desired to buy or redeem ecclesiastical tithe rent-charge. The statement now made left the matter in a position which necessitated further inquiry, and, if necessary, further discussion.


said, he was sure the noble Marquess would acquit him of having indulged in any criticism in the remarks he made as regarded tithe commutation rent-charge. What he said was not by way of criticism, but it was by way of excusing himself for not being able to go fully into a very different question which the noble Marquess raised. Having said that, he must add that he rather objected to the noble Lord opposite going into a question which he had said he was not prepared to go into, and making use of a specific question by the noble Marquess to convey what he might call a somewhat menacing argument. They were asked to do all sorts of things and to make all sorts of inquiries which were completely outside the original question, and which he took some exception to. The noble Lord opposite had asked him whether he had spoken from his own notes or from what had been supplied to him by some one else. It was quite true that lie had in his hands the answer which he did practically make. As to the part he had read, to which the noble Lord attached such super-excellent importance, the words "Treasury minute" were not mentioned at all in the instructions. He did read, from the notes with which he had been supplied, the following passage— The Commissioners, on full consideration, decided that the demands for payment should go out in future within two months of the half-yearly dates upon which tithe rent-charge becomes legally payable, and that the limit for payment should be three months after May 1st and November 1st respectively. He only read that because the noble Marquess had asked him a perfectly plain question as to whether a new departure, had been made.