HL Deb 21 August 1907 vol 181 cc701-5

My Lords, I beg to ask the noble Marquess who leads the House a question of which I have given him private notice. It has reference to the further proceedings of this House in regard to the Small Landholders (Scotland) Bill. Your Lordships will recollect that on the 14th instant an Amendment to the Second Reading of that Bill was moved by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and after that Amendment had been for some time under discussion, the House accepted by a large majority a Motion for the adjournment of the debate. The Question I wish to ask is whether the noble Marquess is able to offer to us any suggestion as to the moment at which the debate might conveniently be resumed.


My Lords, I should like to recall to your Lordships' recollection a little more than my noble friend has done the position in which this matter stood when the debate was adjourned. As my noble friend has said, Lord Balfour of Burleigh moved an Amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill. The effect of that Amendment, if it should be carried, would be the destruction of the Bill. The debate occupied one night and was then adjourned and taken up on the following day. Late in the following day, about the time when we might naturally have expected that the Leader of the Opposition would rise to conclude the debate on his side, my noble friend opposite rose and made a speech strongly criticising the Bill, just the sort of speech we should have expected he would make, and then he moved the adjournment. But before the noble Marquess rose the noble Earl opposite, Lord Cawdor, made some remarks upon the Bill, and towards the end of his speech he suggested to Lord Balfour of Burleigh that he should withdraw his Amendment and that the Bill should be read a second time. He then went on to say that what the noble Lords opposite proposed was to apply to the Lowlands of Scotland the provisions of the English Land Bill as they might be ultimately determined in this House, and then by some process to create a new Crofters Bill out of the Small Landholders (Scotland) Bill, and to pass that with a view to dealing with purely crofter districts, probably somewhat extended. The result, of course, of the suggestions of the noble Earl would have been to make one, or, it might be, two new Bills out of the Small Landholders Bill, and it appeared to me to be a very remarkable proposal. I understood from my noble friend who has just sat down that it was for the purpose of taking that course that he suggested the adjournment of the debate on the Second Reading. Well, my Lords, I felt bound to take strong objection and to enter a strong protest against what my noble friend proposed. I described it as unprecedented and intolerable, and to that description I adhere. The practice of Parliament is not a written law; it depends very greatly upon precedent. There are the Standing Orders, which stand in the place of statutes in regard to the general law, and the understood precedents of Parliamentary proceedings, which stand in the place of those constitutional doctrines by which we are all guided although they are not written; and it appeared to me that there was no precedent whatever for the course my noble friend took. My noble friend did not get up and move the adjournment of the debate and then sit down and take a division upon it, but he made his speech and at the end moved the adjournment of the debatesine die.

My Parliamentary memory is a rather long one, but I could not recollect any precedent for that course. I have since looked into the matter and consulted those who are good judges on such questions, and I still adhere to my opinion that the course taken by noble friend was without precedent. I understood that my noble friend Lord Lansdowne desired to take that course in order to end by carrying out in respect to this Bill the proposals of Lord Cawdor; and the object, as I understood it, was that the Bill should be taken out of the hands of His Majesty's Government and made into one or two new Bills altogether different from the measure which we were discussing the other night. Against that proceeding, as representing his Majesty's Government, I still continue to protest. I think, my Lords, that it would be altogether inconsistent with the dignity of this or any other Government if it were to accept the view that the Opposition might, whenever it chose, use the cover of a Government Bill for the purpose of inserting within its sheets an entirely different set of provisions. I venture to think that that is not a course which it would be possible to induce the other House of Parliament in any circumstances to accept, and it certainly is not a course which it would be possible for the King's Government to accept here. Therefore, before answering the question of my noble friend, I must, in accordance with the common practice in Scotland, ask another. I beg to ask my noble friend what it is that he proposes to do with this Bill if it is again put down. If my noble friend will be good enough to tell me what his proposals on that point are, I shall then be able to answer his question.


My Lords, I am quite ready to reply to the very reasonable question which my noble friend has put to me. The reason I moved the adjournment of the debate was a perfectly simple one. We desired to have before us the whole of the policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to small holdings before dealing with the particular suggestions contained in the Scottish Small Landholders Bill. We have now read the English Bill a second time without a division; we shall deal with it to-night and to-morrow in Committee; and therefore, in our opinion, by Friday next we should be fully in a position to consider the contents of the Scottish Bill. Then the noble Marquess asks me how, in our view, the Bill should be treated when its consideration is resumed by the House. Our policy remains that which was explained to the House last week by my noble friend Lord Cawdor and by myself. We still are quite unprepared to retain those provisions of the Bill which would have the effect of creating a Land Court on the Irish model in Scotland. In the next place, we desire to preserve, perhaps with some slight changes, those clauses in the Bill which effect Amendments of the Scottish Crofters Acts. I think it quite likely that we may add one or two further suggestions of our own upon that point. In the next place, we think that provisions corresponding closely with the provisions of the English Small Holdings Bill might conveniently be applied to Scotland. That, my Lords, was the policy which we sketched the other day. That is our policy still. Then the noble Marquess asks me how we would proceed to give effect to that policy. My reply is that we should be prepared to give a Second Reading to the Bill, but with the openly avowed intention of amending it in the manner I have just described.

Only one word more, for I have, perhaps exceeded the limits which were proper upon an occasion of this sort. The noble Marquess complains of our action as being of an unprecedented character. May I, with great deference, suggest to him that he will find it extremely difficult to discover a precedent for the manner in which a number of measures of great complication and of much importance have been hurled at the head of this House in the last days of the session, and I think he will also find it somewhat difficult to discover another case in which one and the same Government in one and the same session has presented to Parliament no less than three land Bills, each of them constructed on wholly different principles.


My Lords, what has fallen from my noble friend is of a much less drastic description than that suggested by Lord Cawdor, as I understand him. I now understand that noble Lords opposite are prepared to deal with the Bill pretty much in the manner in which they discussed the Evicted Tenants Bill. They are prepared fairly to consider it and to propose Amendments in Committee, but not to substitute, as I understood they intended to do, an entirely new Bill, or new Bills, for this Bill. I do not wish in the least to stand in the way of the passage of this Scottish Bill, which I believe to be a useful Bill much desired by the Scottish people. I know some noble Lords will not agree with me, but I cannot help that and I am used to it. But I should like to have some understanding on this point. The Bill has been discussed for two nights on Second Reading. There is also the Amendment of Lord Balfour of Burleigh, a perfectly intelligible and straightforward Amendment, objecting to the Bill and which, if it were carried, would destroy the Bill. I have no objection, after the explanation which we have received, to put the Bill down for Friday next, or even earlier, if, in order not to waste time at this period of the session, you will agree that the Bill should be read at once, with a division if you like, but that the vote should be taken without further discussion. I have not yet spoken on the BIll, but I am quite ready to waive my right and to let the Second Reading be taken at once. In that case it could be put down for tomorrow or Friday, and we could enter without delay on the Committee stage.


I have no authority to bind my noble friends to complete silence when the debate on the Second Reading is resumed, but I think I may take it upon myself to say that, if the course which has just been discussed should be adopted, there is certainly not likely to be a prolonged Second Reading debate on that occasion.