HL Deb 24 June 1904 vol 136 cc1092-104


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in the course of the debate on the Second Reading of this Bill, I am quite prepared to hear the Bill characterised as a preposterous measure by those who are opposing it. But, my Lords, what would you call the past land legislation in Ireland? Has it not only been most preposterous but also dishonest and unjust? The Bill now before your Lordships has, at least, the merit of being an honest one, for it only seeks to remedy some of this injustice and dishonesty.

I will, as briefly as I can, refer to some of the enactments of the past thirty-four years. In the Memorandum of the Bill there is mentioned the Deasy Act passed in 1860; this Act was undoubtedly an able piece of legislation, and I understand from those best qualified to judge that it has never needed any tinkering or amendment to carry out its object. But ten years afterwards—in 1870—the Government proceeded to pass an Act to limit the landlord's rights to regulate his property by contract, and, as you will see in the Memorandum, should he eject his tenant he had to pay him compensation for disturbance as well as compensation for any improvements the tenant should have made on the land, and it was declared that the tenant could not contract himself out of the benefit of the Act, unless his annual rent was over £50, a comparatively rare case in Ireland. The compensation for disturbance was to be for the loss which the Court should find to be sustained by the tenant by reason of quitting his holding, but these qualifying words were eliminated by Section 6 of the Land Act, 1881, which has in recent years been often styled "The Tenants' Charter." This Act of 1881 entirely revolutionised the whole system of land tenure in Ireland with, as I have been informed by legal gentlemen, a completeness which has been truly marvellous to them, accustomed as Lawyers to the immense difficulty which the Legislature has always experienced in uprooting settled traditions in even much simpler matters.

Feudalism had already been swept away in 1860, and now the freedom of contract was carried off in the torrent of revolutionary legislation. The tenant held no longer as the vassal or the contractee of the person still called the landlord, though his lordship, in any sense known to the law, no longer existed. The tenant, still so-called, though tenure was abolished, was now established for ever in his farm at an annual fair rent to be fixed by a new Court, and not regulated by any kind of contract, and so long as he paid this rent he could not, save in exceptional circumstances mentioned in the Act, be ever disturbed in his enjoyment of the holding. Nor was this rent itself sacred, but was subject to revision every fifteen years. The Irish Land Commission furnishes annually to Parliament, in the shape of a Blue-book, a Return showing results of proceedings, and from the latest Returns I have seen it appears that up to March, 1903, an old rental of £6,955,033 3s. 9d. had been dealt with and reduced to £5,503,536 15s., being a reduction of 20.8 per cent, off the rents. For the £1,415,496 thus compulsorily knocked off the rent rolls of the Irish landlords no kind of compensation, director or indirect, has ever been given, so that they have been treated in a worse manner than the slaveholders on the emancipation of the negroes. Many of these reduced rents have again on the expiration of fifteen years been revised, with the result that fair rents amounting to £1,512,383 7s. 9d. have been compulsorily reduced to £1,191,904 2s. 1d., or 21.1 per cent, less than the fair rents fixed fifteen years ago, and no compensation has been paid to landlords nor has there been the least justification for such compulsory proceedings. Of the £7,000,000 of contract rents £2,278,186 0s. 7d. were dealt with by agreements and reduced to £1,873,931 1s. 6d. showing a reduction of 17.7 per cent. and of the million and a half judicial rents revised on expiration of fifteen years £451,196 were dealt with by agreement and reduced to £369,546, or an average of 18 per cent, reduction. It will thus be seen that the reductions compulsorily granted by the Court are considerably in excess of those at which the tenants were willing to settle. Mr. Gladstone, in supporting the Act of 1881 and defending the compulsory reductions of rent without compensation, urged that the punctuality, etc., with which new fair rents would be paid would compensate for the reduction since it would save much expense in the collection. At the outset there were, however, the costs of proceedings in the Courts to fix fair rents which at a very moderate estimate would be 5 per cent. of the rental dealt with; and, in fact, the new rents were not more punctually paid than the old.

It is a strange thing that notwithstanding the magnitude of these operations and the length of time the Courts have been at work, what constitutes a "fair rent," or how exactly it is to be ascertained, has never been defined by the Legislature or by the Courts, nor was even a basis suggested until after the Reports of the Matthew and Fry Commissions. In the case of Gosford v. Alexander (January, 1901) it was suggested that the fair rent should be arrived at on a book-keeping principle—deduct from the total produce the cost of production and then the balance was the profit on the farm. Out of this profit was to come allowance to tenant for improvements, and the residue was to be divided amongst landlord for rent and tenant for profit for farming as the Court should think fair. These concluding words not having received any authorised definition, the whole theory ends in nothing.

In 1887 the Legislature directed the adjustment during the three years 1887–9 of judicial rents fixed prior thereto in accordance with the fluctuation in prices since 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, and 1885. In 1887, when this Act was passed, the prices of wheat, flax, grass seeds, oats, barley, eggs, butter, pork, potatoes, hay, store cattle, sheep, beef, and mutton had all fallen. After 1889 the price of wheat, grass seeds, oats barley, potatoes, hay, store cattle, and springers went up, but there was no legislation to increase the rents fixed prior to that date, although in the years 1887, 1888, and 1889 the reductions in rent were 25.8, 27.5, and 23.7per cent., which were the highest on record except in the year 1897.

Now, my Lords, I have put before you, as briefly as I am able, the course of land legislation from 1860 up to the coming of the Land Act of last year, and I would ask your Lordships: Have any body of men ever been subjected to such I utterly unjustifiable treatment, justified neither from the statesman's point of view nor from their own behaviour in dealing with their tenants? Can you call this legislation the acts of statesmen or are they rather not the measures of the Party politician? You surely cannot call legislation which has brought discord into the country, which has frightened capital out of the country, which has been the cause of vast sums of public money being expended—you surely cannot call that statesmanship. As to the behaviour of the landlords towards their tenants, you have Mr. Gladstone stating in 1881, in speaking on the Land Bill of that year, that it would not be due to misconduct on the part of the landlords of Ireland who, on the contrary, having stood their trial had been declared by the Bessborough Commission to be entitled to the greatest credit for not exacting all they were entitled to. And, again, the same gentleman, speaking of this agrarian legislation, stated— The landlord will become a pensioner and rent-charger upon what is now his own estate. The Legislature has, no doubt, the perfect right to reduce him to that condition, giving him proper compensation for any loss he may sustain in money. Inasmuch as perpetuity of tenure on the part of the occupier is virtually expropriation of the landlord, and as a mere readjustment of rent according to the price of produce can by no means dispose of all contingencies the future may produce in his favour, compensation would have to be paid to the landlord for the right of which he would be deprived. In the Act of 1881 provision was made for setting aside unfair leases (Section 21) but all other leases were to stand. In 1887 the Conservative Government opened the Land Courts to the other lessees, but although, under the Act of 1881, either the landlord or tenant could have a fair rent fixed, under the Act of 1887 this facility was given only to the tenant, so that the Conservative Government of 1887 was still more one-sided against the landlord than even Mr. Gladstone's Act was.

Speaking on the Second Reading of the last measure, the late Marquess of Salisbury said that his defence for assenting to a measure that he did not approve of was that the continuity of policy which was so necessary in foreign affairs was also necessary in home affairs. If this principle had been carried out of continuity of policy there would now be a South African Republic and there would have been no Boer War. Long leases and fee farm grants were excepted out of the Act of 1887. But the Land Courts were thrown open to these tenants by the Redemption Act of 1891, unless the landlord was willing to sell at a price to, be fixed by the Land Commission.

But, my Lords, to come directly to the particular injustice that this Bill seeks to remedy, I would draw your attention to the first clause, which deals with the owners of land in Ireland who purchased estates from the Landed Estates Court, who professed to give an indefeasible title to the purchasers. In making these sales the rental of the estates was set forth as an inducement for purchase. I do not contend for one moment that the Landed Estates Courts guaranteed the continuance of this rental, but what they did guarantee was that the purchaser under the Landed Estates Court title was absolute owner of the land, subject to the legal contracts as regards leases, etc, that might be then existing, and that at the termination or falling in of those leases he could deal with the land as he pleased; he could either take it into his own hands or re-let it to the same tenants or to others as seemed most advisable; in fact, he was absolute owner of the land. But now, under the past legislation, he no longer owns the land, he cannot deal with it as he pleases, and he has found that in trusting to the guarantee of the Courts to establish his claim to the property purchased he has bee absolutely and deliberately defrauded by the British Government simply to further their own political schemes. Who, my Lords, in their senses would have purchased in those days had they ever dreamt of the legislation that was to follow? I will road a short note from a very well-known landowner in Ireland, which will give so me idea of how things work— In 1879 I purchased a property from Her late Majesty's Judges. I do not even know the names of the former owners. It originally belonged to a Mr.—, who left it to trustees to sell and distribute the money among sundry people whose names I have not heard mentioned. In 1881 Mr. Gladstone brought in his Bill for cutting down rents, and I immediately wrote to him asking him to give me back my money and take the property; but I only got an evasive answer. On this property there was a tenant who appealed against a rent of £65. I attended at Listowel with two valuers and an attorney, but there were so many cases on the list that mine could not be heard then. I again attended at Listowel with the same staff, and the sub-Commissioners left the rent unchanged. The tenant appealed and I had then to attend at Killarney before the Head Commissioners, again bringing the same staff, and although the Appeal Court valuers valued it at £75, the rent was again left unchanged. My costs altogether came to about £30, so that I had to pay about half a year's rent in defending my right to a property which I had purchased three years previously, on what was called, I presume ironically, an indefeasible title. If I had purchased from a private individual I could have got information about the owner's outlay, which I believe in this ease was very large, but, of course, in purchasing from the Government I could get no information. Last year the tenant went into Court again for a second-term reduction, and got the rent lowered by £4, why or wherefore no one could give a guess. It would at least have been honest if the purchase money had been refunded when the Courts found that, owing to Government legislation, the title which they had given to the purchaser was practically set at naught.

My Lords, what should be the desire of anyone who has the true interests of the country at heart? Is it a Statesman-like thing to legislate just for the present moment, and have no regard for the future or the evils that the present legislation may eventually bring about? Land purchase undoubtedly offers a solution of one side of the question, namely, how to get rid of the landowner's interest; but the absurdity of the situation is that this condemned interest is not abolished, but is carefully preserved and transferred to the tenant, so as to provide room, I suppose, for future legislation, when, in a few generations the peasant proprietors of to-day have become the landlords of the future—and I venture to appeal to any of those who know Ireland, as to whether the future landlords will be so considerate to their tenants as the landlords whom the Government are now trying to hunt out of Ireland—and when the whole agrarian question will be reopened, possibly in an aggravated form, to the serious disadvantage of the country.

It should be the opinion of everyone who tries to look at the question with any real breadth of view and with a desire to arrive at a sound conclusion, that the first and most essential want of Ireland at present and for many years to come, as it has been for many years past, is to have repose and security and to be allowed to settle down. Those who have capital and who might be induced to invest it in land or in manufacturing or other industrial pursuits are deterred from so doing by a feeling of intense insecurity. The tenants themselves are kept in an agony of unsettlement, imagining some great millenium is before them when they can get everything for nothing. The Land Act ought to be administered, not in the interest of landlord or tenant, but with thorough and impartial justice all round. And, my Lords, as the first step towards showing some justice to a portion of the landowners of Ireland I move the Second Reading of this Bill ensuring that the engagements entered into by the Land Courts shall be held sacred.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I do not rise with any intention of following the noble Lord through the long review which he has given of Irish land legislation during the last thirty years. His arraignment of that legislation was complete and absolute. But I am bound to say that in introducing at this period of the session, a measure intended, so far as I follow it, to undo the whole of that legislation in certain cases, the noble Lord seems to be hardly approaching the subject in a serious spirit. Your Lordships' House is not, perhaps, overburdened with work, but, on the other hand, we are not a debating society, and I cannot help making the reflection that the speech of the noble Lord would have been better fitted to one of those local Parliaments where instructive and interesting debates are conducted, than to your Lordships' House. But my purpose in rising was rather to draw attention to the Memorandum which the noble Lord has prefixed to his Bill. I am fairly well acquainted with the general features of the different Acts relating to Irish land, but it is always pleasant to have one's memory refreshed, and I turned to this Memorandum hoping to find in it some information as to the object of the Bill and some statement explanatory of its provisions. Instead of that, I find the Memorandum is a kind of essay, or perhaps I should say a declamation couched in somewhat heated terms and full of denunciation of all Governments for the last thirty years. I do not say that this is an abuse of the Rules of your Lordships' House, because I confess I am not very well aware as to what Rules of Order govern these Memoranda, but I do say that it is something of an abuse of the practice of your Lordships' House, that a Memorandum which, prefixed to a Bill of this kind, is professedly explanatory, should be of the character I have described; and I think it right, on behalf of those who sit on this Bench, to express the hope that this practice will not become a general one.


My Lords, I must say I concur in the views expressed by the noble Earl who has just sat down. Your Lordships are aware that a Peer has aright to introduce a Bill without leave, and that, as a matter of course, and without any specific Motion on the subject, the Bill is ordered to be printed. I think that if the practice followed in this particular Memorandum were to continue, it would be necessary every time that a noble Lord moved the First Reading of a Bill to insist that the Motion authorising the Bill to be printed should actually be made, and not accepted merely as a point of form. It would then be possible for noble Lords to oppose its being printed. The Memorandum attached to a Bill is often convenient in explaining in a simple form its object, but to attach a kind of Second Reading speech, such as this is, to a Bill in the shape of a Memorandum is, I cannot help saying, an abuse altogether of the practice of the House, and I hope that your Lordships will not encourage it.


My Lords, the House has no doubt listened with considerable interest to the statements made by the noble Lord in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I will not enter into the question whether or not the Bill is a good one; but I am bound to say that noble Lords sitting in this House who own property in Ireland do not in any way sympathise with the object of the noble Lord in introducing this Bill. In fact, we altogether dissociate ourselves from the Motion which has been made, because we do not wish to enter again into the troubled question of land purchase in Ireland. Both Houses of Parliament were occupied for a considerable time last year in passing the Land Act, and at this period of the present session we do not again wish to enter upon that subject. It strikes me that there are two points which tell very much against this Bill. One is that it is an incomplete Bill, and only refers to estates which have been purchased under the Encumbered Estates Act; and the other is that the time chosen for the bringing of the measure forward is inopportune. The noble Lord could not by any chance hope to pass the Bill through the other House at this late period of the session, and I therefore hope that he will not proceed any further with the Second Reading, but that, having expressed the opinions we have all heard, he will he satisfied to let the matter drop.


My Lords, the duty which devolves upon me of expressing the opinion of His Majesty's Irish Government with regard to this Bill has been somewhat lightened by the remarks which have just fallen from the noble Duke, as representing those in this House who are interested in this question. I do not think anybody can accuse the noble Duke or those noble Lords who act with him of not being always very watchful over enactments proposed with regard to Irish land, and, seeing that this particular Bill is ostensibly introduced on behalf of Irish landowners, I think we may be pretty certain, after hearing the noble Duke's remarks, that the Bill is either impracticable or ineffective, or probably both, even though my noble friend Lord Muskerry may be of opinion that other noble Lords from Ireland do not know what is good for them. Among the aliases by which I am sometimes known, I happen to possess a somewhat ancient Irish patronymic, and for that reason I am sometimes suspected of being the owner of Irish land, but whenever I am so accused I always reply, "Thank God, I am not." My reason for that, I am afraid, is—and nobody can deny the fact—that Irish landowners have in the past received somewhat harsh treatment from the hands of the British Parliament, and there is no denying the fact that the confidence which we sometimes feel in the sanctity of contract has been rudely shaken when considered in conjunction with Irish land legislation. But, my Lords, we are face to face with the fact that all this has been the deliberate policy of Parliament, the policy deliberately adopted by Parliament. There is no getting away from that fact, and we have to recognise it. The Bill which the noble Lord has introduced would practically enact that all land bought under the Encumbered Estates Act and the Landed Estates Act should, as compared with other land in Ireland, be outside all land legislation that has been passed since 1870. Your Lordships can picture the confusion worse confounded that would probably en ue. We on this Bench heartily con- our with the noble Earl opposite that this Bill can hardly be taken seriously, and we also agree that the Memorandum is hardly one which, in accordance with the practice of your Lordships' House, should have been printed. Taking into consideration the nature of the Bill and the time at which it is introduced, I have no hesitation whatever in asking your Lordships not to read the Bill a second time.


My Lords, I should like to say one word following upon the statement of the noble Duke beside me. I wish it to be clearly understood that in dissociating ourselves from the Bill we do not for one moment admit that the noble Lord who moved it was not perfectly right in what he said as to the past treatment of Irish landlords. Indeed, I go further than he does. He barely alluded to one of the great grievances under which we have suffered. I refer to the imposition of tenant right over parts of Ireland where it never existed before, where a slice of the fee simple of the property was carved out and given to the sitting tenant to benefit him and him alone. I fully concur with what fell from the noble Duke that the remedy proposed by the noble Lord in this Bill is fragmentary and incomplete. As the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Irish Government has mentioned, it is confined to those who purchased properties under the Encumbered Estates Act, and leaves all the others out in the cold. We have always held that the owners of property that has come down from generations and the title of which has always been considered by laws indefeasible, have equally a claim. We dissociate ourselves from this Bill owing to the crude and incomplete manner in which such a great question as this is treated, and, further, owing to the period of the session at which the Bill is brought in.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in reply. Dealing first with the date at which this Bill is brought in, I might point out that it was read a first time on 8th March. I regret to say that I have not been very well since and have not felt able to bring it before your Lordships for a Second Reading earlier. The noble Earl who spoke from the Front Opposition Bench, the Earl of Crewe, has alluded to the Memorandum, and I am informed that I have transgressed in that particular. I assure your Lordships it was through ignorance. I thought that some noble Lords might not remember the course of Irish land legislation, and I thought it wise, therefore, to refer in a condensed form in my Memorandum to some of the Acts that have been passed, and the treatment that Irish landlords have received. The noble Duke has, I regret to say, criticised my Bill adversely. I am very sorry for that. He is the President of the Landowners' Convention, and I am surprised at his action to-day because just before coming into the House I read the noble Duke's very able speech last August, in which he denounced the very breach of faith by the Government which my Bill proposes to remedy. My noble friend Lord Clonbrock, and also the noble Duke, stated that the Bill did not go far enough, and that there is no reason why the holders of land in Ireland who had been unjustly treated should be excluded; but, my Lords, this particularly flagrant breach of faith on the part of the British Government is a specific thing. When Consols were reduced from 3 per cent. to 2½ per cent., was it not in the power of every holder, say, of £100 worth of Consols—it did not matter whether he bought them at £110, at £96, or at £90—was it not left to him, if he did not agree to the interest on his capital being reduced, to go to the Government and get £100 for his £100 worth of stock. Here we have land sold by the Government, who give an indefeasible title. It does not matter whether the land that the purchaser bought was over-rented or under-rented. The Government sold him that land, and then deliberately reduced the interest on his capital by a half or more. I have only put in plain language what every one of your Lordships knows, what everyone who has knowledge of Irish land legislation knows, and what has not been denied in this House to-night, that nearly the whole of this land legislation has been both dishonest and unjust. This Bill only seeks to remedy one small portion of the injustice. It only deals with cases where the Government have absolutely broken faith. The present Government profess, and the preceding Government professed, to be strongly averse to Home Rule, but their actions have been the strongest arguments that could be made in favour of Home Rule, far stronger than any arguments that the advocates of that measure advance. This action is making many men who were strong opponents of Home Rule wonder whether they would have been so badly treated had a measure of Home Rule passed into law. They would certainly not have had to suffer from treacherous treatment on the part of those who were their friends. I do hope some at least of your Lordships will go into the Division Lobby with me in favour of this Bill as a protest against an injustice which is not denied.

On Question, Motion negatived without a division, Lord MUSKERRY, although he challenged a division, not persisting when the Question was put a second time.

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