HL Deb 27 February 1908 vol 185 cc3-16


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to bring before your Lordships a Bill to better the condition and increase the welfare of the Highland people, and to ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading. I do not pretend that the reforms set out in the measure are of an epoch-making character, or such as the noble Earl the Minister for Agriculture could call a charter of the crofting population. But I do think that the Bill contains principles of sound progressive legislation, and, at the same time, removes certain hardships under which the crofters at present labour. The Bill is also, I think, a definite step in advance towards what I am sure every Highlander, whether peer or peasant, has at heart—the maintenance of a more thriving population on the soil.

In view of the fact that His Majesty's Government have introduced land legislation in another place, the question naturally occurs, Is it necessary to bring forward a private Bill at all? I say most emphatically that it is. It is necessary, in the first place, because those interested do not wish to see proposals for land reform in the Highlands tied to the tail of a Bill of a highly controversial nature applicable to the whole of Scotland, and to which, at all events, a large proportion of the agricultural community are opposed. The second reason why a private Bill should be brought forward here is that we have been told that the Government consider the House of Lords a suitable place for the discussion of land legislation. Both sides have pledged themselves to some measure of land reform for the Highlands, as is clear from a reference to what happened at the end of last session. Your Lordships will remember that the wish was generally expressed here that there should be such land reform, and the fact was brought out that the Radical crofter Members in another place wished to discuss the question with this House. I refer to the petition sent in to His Majesty's Government. Can anyone say that if we had had a definitely-drawn-up Bill at that time we should not have secured some reform for the Highlands, or that the Government would have been able to sacrifice Highland interests in order to conjure up and strengthen an abortive attack on the House of Lords?

When the Bill now before your Lordships was being considered the first thing that had to be decided was whether we should base it out on the Crofters Act or on Mr. Sinclair's Bill of 1907. It will probably be admitted, in regard to any line of far-reaching reform, that it is necessary in examining the method by which Utopia is to be arrived at, to inquire also into the qualifications of the reputed discoveries of that far-off land. We find, on reference to Roman history, that the Romans called Cincinnatus from the plough to advise them on the subject of military warfare, but we cannot find out that, having completed his warlike career, anyone went to Cincinnatus to discover his views on land reform. Now, I would not argue that Mr. Sinclair is more qualified to lead the cohorts of Mr. Haldane's partially trained Army, but I would argue, from the words that have fallen from him in the House and out of it and also from what has been said by his supporters, that we have no greater proof that military excellence necessarily shows a knowledge of the crofter question than we have that a nice judgment of barley samples necessitates any knowledge of the raising of grain. I do not wish in any way to throw an aspersion on Mr. Sinclair's ability or to question his political honesty in bringing forward this measure of land reform, but I do wish to point out that here we have legislation on a most difficult subject, introduced by a man who, at all events, has not any great previous knowledge of the Highlands, and supported by a body of men who are neither Highlanders themselves, nor live for the larger portion of their lives in the Highlands, nor have any practical knowledge of the soil; and my contention is that their chance of arriving at the true solution of this difficult question is at all events problematical.

I would ask your Lordships to consider for a moment what the Crofters Act of 1886 actually was. So many views have already been expressed on this subject that perhaps this may be thought unnecessary; but I wish your Lordships for a moment to consider the Crofters Act, not as an Act which might be used elsewhere, but in its actual working as regards the people of the Highland crofter area. The 1886 Act found the crofter who had settled on the soil with what he considered a vested interest in the soil; he had, for the purposes of agriculture, equipped his holding and carried out the whole of the improvements. He found him tied by sentiment and interest to the soil, yet at the absolute disposition of the landowner. In the decade 1870–80, when the fall in agricultural values had caused the foreclosing of many mortgages and the consequent changing of ownership, and the estates being held in trust by South country lawyers, when, moreover, the rise in sporting values had led to the purchase of shooting properties with their accompanying fringes of agricultural lower ground, it was found that what had been a possible condition of things so long as the sentimental bond between owner and tenant of the same race, often of the same name, existed became, impossible when worked on the commercial basis of the new South country owner.

At the time the Crofters Act came in there had been produced a very genuine grievance. That Act gave to the crofter fixity of tenure, a fair rent, and, within reasonable limits, power of adding to the extent of his land. That the Act did not give him any great reduction in rent will be admitted. I mention this fact because it has been often said that the Highland difficulty was got over through the monetary result in the reduction of rent; but, if it did not reduce the rent to any great extent— merely some 20 per cent.—it provided for a special people a special form of land tenure, which, under the circumstances, I think must be admitted was probably the best that could be devised. It arrived at a happy medium between the personal ownership of the landlord and the fixity of tenure of the crofter, by which the landlord was able to invest money to a reasonable extent in the soil, while the crofter was able to carry out what buildings he could because the improvements he made on his land were his own.

I do not say for a moment that this system of land tenure would answer equally well in the south, because there the landlord equips the land entirely and the whole of the tenant's money is therefore capable of being administered in agriculture proper. But in the Highlands, where the agricultural position is really almost an impossible one, the co-operation between landlord and tenant is eminently necessary. The rent of the average croft is, roughly, £3 an acre. To equip the croft the housing takes £110 at least, and the farm offices not less than £60. I ask your Lordships whether it is financially sound for any one expending this sum of money to expect a return of £3. I am sorry to enter at any length into this point, but the question of buildings is so largely wrapped up in that of small holdings that I think it is, perhaps, necessary to develop this point. After all, it is not very much good creating new holdings until you have actually stopped the flow from the land which is going on in those parts where crofts actually exist at present. If your Lordships will examine the returns you will see that the number of crofters in the crofting area is smaller than at the time of the passing of the Act. That is not the fault of the Crofters Act, nor is it due to the fact that we have not got the Sinclair Bill. The reason is that every year a certain number of these small crofts, with badly built houses, come in, for which no tenant can be found, and instead of building new houses these crofts are divided and added to the neighbouring crofts. It is neither worth the landlord's while to build new housing on a small old croft, nor worth the tenant's while to go in for it.

The Crofters Act cannot be regarded as a piece of legislation for one class alone; it regarded the economic problem, and the welfare of the whole Highland people. In a poor country where a vast extent of hill-land exists, whose rateable value is to be calculated, not in sovereigns, but in halfpence, where the assessment for rates and taxes is 10s.—in one case 20s.—in the £, it was certain that any interference with existing vested interests, until other equally rate-producing vtsted interests could be raised in their place, was a matter that could only be viewed with the gravest concern. The Crofter Commission realised that it was necessary, therefore, to go slowly, and only to tackle the problem in the first case in the congested district area where it was most acute.

I do not propose to detain your Lordships at any length in regard to the Bill which I have had the honour to introduce, but I would ask you to consider for a moment one or two groups of clauses contained in the Bill. The first group to which I would like to refer deal with certain injustices under which the crofters suffer under the Act of 1886. Your Lordships will see that by Clause 1 a large proportion of leaseholders are brought within the scope of the Crofters Act. It is felt that an injustice was done by leaving them out, and if this Bill should become law they will be given full advantage of the Act. There is also, in Clause 2, a proviso that nothing shall be construed as debarring a crofter from sub-letting his dwelling-house to holiday visitors. It was felt that this would add considerably to the returns which come from the soil. There is an increasing tendency on the part of people in the large towns to spend portions of the summer and autumn in the north of Scotland, and it was felt that any encouragement in this direction could not but have beneficial results. Another advantage is offered to the crofters in Clause 8 of this Bill, which extends the provisions of the Act of 1886, relative to the enlargement of holdings, to an application for enlargement of a holding by a single crofter, or two or more crofters. Hitherto five applicants have been necessary, and it was felt to be only fair that certain smaller crofter communities should not be debarred from taking advantage of the Act. Then there is another clause in the Bill admitting the crofter to the advantages of compensation for damage by game, thereby putting him on a level with the tenant farmer.

A further group of clauses to which I should like to refer for a moment deal with the amalgamation of the Congested Districts Board and the Crofter Commission. Mr. Sinclair, in another place, has declared that it is impossible to combine the judiciary duties of the Crofter Commission with the executive work of the Congested Districts Board. The principle, no doubt, is perfectly sound. But I would ask your Lordships to consider the fact that the Crofter Commission, costing very nearly £5,000 a year, has in the last two years done hardly three weeks' work. The total amount of the reductions in rents last year, or, in fact, during the last two years, could have been, covered by a couple of £10 notes; and I think, if the extortions, amounting to £2 or £3, of a Radical Peer, and the further extortions, amounting to £8 or £10, of an American millionaire had been left out, one £10 note would have covered the reductions during the two years. I mention this to show that the work of the Crofter Commission has at all events nearly approached its end, and I think the amalgamation of these two bodies would lead to a great saving of money.

The work of the Congested Districts Board, on the other hand, has increased, and one reason for bringing these two bodies together is that the best part of the work of the Congested Districts Board, that of making new holdings, is held up through the difficulty of getting combined work out of the two boards. I may quote, as an example, what has happened to myself. The division of a farm took place nearly a year ago, in connection with which I took over sheep stock to the value of £3,000 or so; but the rents, which were to be fixed by the Crofter Commission, have not yet been fixed. The result is that the crofters do not care to take on engagements, the rent being still unsettled. There are other similar cases in which considerable difficulty has arisen. This is probably not the fault of the bodies themselves. The Congested Districts Board works for the main part in the outer isles, and the personnel of the Crofter Commission is dotted over Edinburgh, London, and the North, and it is difficult to get rapid decisions. I think it would greatly facilitate the work if these two bodies were amalgamated. There is another reason why we wish to combine the work of the Crofter Commission and the Congested Districts Board. In the 1907 Bill there were proposals for the constitution of new boards, and new boards are apt to mean new men. In the Highlands both landlords and tenants know the work that has been done by the Crofter Commission and the Congested Districts Board, and I think, in view of the wild sayings, not only of the supporters of His Majesty's Government, but also of some of His Majesty's paid officials, it is desirable in the interests of the people of Scotland that there should be no "wild men" on these boards.

There is another question on which I should like to say a word—that of allowing the new board to purchase land and lease it, instead of purchasing it for sale only. This involves a big problem, but I think it is a stepping-stone towards the solution of the difficult question of the crofters of the outer isles. People are apt to forget that in Scotland we have no less than three crofters problems. One on the east coast, where the crofter is of a. self-helpful nature, where, though he may not have a large croft, the crofter is able to get sufficient work in the majority of cases to pay his way, and where there is little or no land hunger; another on the West Coast, where there is land hunger, where the crofter is not self-helpful, and where there is marked lack of employment; and a third in the Lewes and outer islands, where squatting, whatever people may say to the contrary, has hardly been checked since 1886, and where the condition of affairs is getting worse and worse. The economic position is impossible through the highness of rates, and the number of people settled there, even if the whole of the land be divided, is probably too great for the island, and no solution is a possible one except land purchase and development by some powerful body. One step towards doing good in the outer isles would be to give power to the Congested Districts Board to purchase land and to lease it, instead of forcing the crofters to buy. It has been shown at Skye, where the Congested Districts Board have already purchased land, that the crofter is not willing to purchase.

Another group of clauses, taken directly out of the 1907 Bill, may be described as in the landlords' interest. I do not think I need go largely into them. One deals with the question of sanitary arrangements, the onus of which is now put on the crofter. This is, after all, only fair, as by this Bill the crofter is entitled to let to summer visitors, and therefore, in a way, turns his croft into an hotel. There is a further clause which gives certain advantages to the landlord on the subject of water, and on the resumption of a holding, all of which, again, are taken bodily from Mr. Sinclair's Bill of 1907. I am not one of those who believe that all is well in the Highlands, and that no reforms are possible; I believe that reforms are needed, and can be effected, provided they are in accordance with existing legislation and on well-considered lines. I think the time is now propitious for such reform. It was shown last year that both sides were in favour of action, and if method only keeps us apart, there is no reason why that should not be got over. Speaking for myself, I would say that it does not seem to me to matter much whether we call the Congested Districts Board agricultural commissioners, or whether we call the Crofter Commission a Land Court, or whether they act separately or together, provided always that Parliament gives sufficient funds to enable those bodies to carry out the work entrusted, to them, that the work is conducted efficiently and quickly, and that the personnel of the Board is such that the landlords and bigger tenants in the Highlands are not frightened. I would say to His Majesty's Government that if there is one thing which would be more likely to get a Bill for land reform through than anything else, it would be the publication of the names of the men intended to be nominated for the new board.

May I further, in all humility, offer this piece of advice to His Majesty's Government, that they should grapple with existing troubles before they look for new ones. There are at present black spots—I do not think they can be called by another name—in the outer isles and the Lewes; there is, as I have pointed out, a leakage from the existing number of crofts on the mainland, which will continue until new industries can be developed to keep the people on the soil. The problem of the Lewes and outer islands is one which has not been really faced by any Secretary for Scotland yet, or, for the matter of that, by any Commission; and, therefore, if the present Secretary for Scotland will face and solve this difficulty for the benefit of the Highlands, it will be the best thing that has been done for many years. As regards the formation of new crofts, I believe that can be done if sufficient money is found to carry out the work. I do not believe, having worked in a very small way myself in putting new crofters on the soil, that it can be done with the ease many people imagine. There are obstacles in the way, both personal and material, which will always make this question a difficult one, and it can only be really faced if a sufficient amount of money is forthcoming.

The Government have declared that in the creation of new crofts under their Bill they do not intend to go in for the eye-picking of farms-and the turning out of old tenants who have been long on the soil, any more than they moan to take land from the landlord without paying adequate compensation. But if the Government are really animated by that excellent intention, why do they not put it in the Bill? I have no hesitation in saying that if sound and competent men are appointed to administer a reasonable scheme for the creation of new crofts, every help would be given to find land for the purpose; and there would be no objection even to the grant of compulsory powers. I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill.

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


My Lords, after the statement which I made on behalf of the Government on Tuesday last, I am sure noble Lords opposite will not expect me to deal in any detail with the clauses of the Bill which the noble Lord opposite has introduced in such a very interesting speech. We all recognise the great authority with which the noble Lord speaks on this subject, and it was quite unnecessary for him to apologise, either for the historical survey with which he opened his speech, or for the exceedingly clear and detailed manner in which he described the clauses of his Bill. I am perfectly sure my right hon. friend the Secretary for Scotland would welcome the advice and co-operation of the noble Lord in dealing with the crofter question.

Now, my Lords, I am bound to say that, so far as the general question of this debate is concerned, we still maintain the objections which we expressed on Tuesday last to the discussion of this subject before the Government Bill comes up from another place. Despite the arguments on Tuesday of my noble relative on the Cross Benches, I still maintain that if it became the frequent practice for Government Bills to be anticipated by the introduction in the House of other measures dealing with the same subjects, and their discussion was forced on the minority by the majority, the position of Ministers in charge of those Bills would become almost intolerable. Equally we maintain the objection which we stated as to the House of Commons not being quite fairly treated by the introduction of these Bills. My noble friend, quite unintentionally of course, did me a slight injustice when he assumed that I complained of the treatment of His Majesty's Government. That was not so. On the contrary I explicitly, stated, in my reply to the noble Earl, Lord Camperdown, that if he thought, as the most straightforward of opponents, as he always is, that he had a chance of embarrassing the Government by bringing in his Bill, it was a very natural course indeed for him to take. I do not admit the embarrassment.

For I do not admit, as a general proposition, that if the Government bring in legislation dealing with one part of the United Kingdom in a particular year, they are necessarily inconsistent because they object to the same legislation being brought in for a different part of the United Kingdom in another year. If some noble Lord were to introduce an Evicted Tenants Bill for Wales, or a measure to apply some of the licensing or educational legislation of Wales to England, we should have no difficulty, I think, in showing that the circumstances were not suitable for such legislation. Therefore, before you can convict us of inconsistency, you have to show two things. In the first place you have to show that the circumstances of the two countries are the same. Now, my Lords, it is taken as an axiom by noble Lords opposite, that the circumstances of the Lowlands of Scotland are identical with those of England. I do not intend to enter into that question now, but when my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack brings in his Bill, I have no doubt he will have some arguments to produce showing that the circumstances are not precisely identical. But, even if they were identical, you have to prove something else. You have to prove that the inhabitants of the other country—because after all, Scotland in a hundred respects, habits, legislation, and in many other matters, is a different country from England—you have to prove that the inhabitants of that country, who are the people affected and the people to be considered, prefer the application of the same solution to meet the difficulty rather than a new one. Consequently I do not admit that there is any inconsistency whatever in our objecting to this application of the measure which we applied to England last year.

Now, my Lords, so far as this particular Bill is concerned the circumstances are somewhat different. This measure is to a certain extent founded upon, or at any rate, closely resembles in parts, the Bill of the Secretary for Scotland. I cannot claim a very close acquaintance with the noble Lord's Bill, but I understand that in some respects it falls short of the other measure, both as regards the area to which it is applied and the number of persons who would be affected. And not only does it fall short of my right hon. friend's Bill, but it also falls short of propositions which have been made on this subject in past years by those who belong to the same party as the noble Lord opposite. That being so, surely it would be more reasonable to consider the larger proposals first—those contained in Mr. Sinclair's Bill—and then, if you do not approve of them, have recourse to those suggested by the noble Lord. But I am quite aware that what I say will have no effect on noble Lords opposite. They will, no doubt, proceed to read this Bill a second time, and I merely desire to say that if they do so we shall not put them to the trouble of dividing. We shall express our formal dissent, and I have no doubt that that is a course which will commend itself to noble Lords opposite.


My Lords, the noble Earl has certainly laid down a new principle in the way he proposes to deal with private Members' Bills. It seems to be laid down now that if the Government have introduced, or propose to introduce, a Bill upon any definite question, private Members anxious to produce legislation should remain in humble silence until the Government are graciously pleased to produce their measure. That is an entirely new doctrine either in your Lordships' House or in another place. Private Members are surely at liberty to bring in their measures when they please and as they please, and I cannot see that it is possible to argue, as the noble Earl argues, that in taking this course on the present occasion my noble friend is treating the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and the House of Commons with discourtesy, and dealing, I suppose, unfairly with His Majesty's Government.


Oh, no.


Unkindly then


Oh, no.


Well, kindly. At all events, the noble Earl protests against its being done, and we understand that in his view, and in the view of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, it is an unbusinesslike procedure.


Hear, hear.


The noble Lord opposite cheers that statement. I will say a word in a moment about the businesslike view of the transaction, but it does seem to me a most unreasonable position to take up. We know from what we hear that in another place discussion upon Bills of all sorts is not quite so free as it might be, and we have been under the impression until recently that in this House at all events there was freedom of speech and facility of debate. Is it possible that we are going to have a closure in another form, by a conspiracy of silence on the Government side? If that were carried out, it would practically make debate impossible. I do not think myself, and I venture to say your Lordships will not think, that this is a dignified or a proper course for His Majesty's Government to take. I do not propose, in view of the position the noble Earl has taken up, to go into detail in regard to the Bill which my noble friend behind me has so very clearly and ably explained to your Lordships. It is a Bill practically identical in most parts with the Bill which we understand is to come up to your Lordships from another place; there are a few variations in it, but they are not very considerable. So far as I know, there is a consensus of opinion among landowners and crofters that the amendments of the law proposed in this Bill are desirable.

Now, let us turn for a moment to the businesslike transaction. His Majesty's Government admit that these amendments of the Crofters Act are desirable, and that they wish to see them passed into law. If the Bill that has just been introduced to your Lordships by my noble friend is proceeded with, it can become law this year without any trouble whatever, and unhampered by side issues of a very grave character. But what do noble Lords opposite propose as a businesslike transaction? They intend to link these simple amendments of the Crofters Acts to dual ownership, a Land Court, and proposals which were described the other evening by the noble Earl, Lord Rosebery, as grossly disparaging to the county councils. Is that a businesslike transaction? Without expressing any opinion on the merits of the Government Bill, is it not very possible, even probable, that a measure so weighted is less likely to pass than the simpler measure now before us? If the Government were really anxious to deal with the Crofters Acts in the way proposed by my noble friend, would they not assent to this unhampered Bill? What is the object of binding crofter legislation to other matters which are in bitter dispute? Have the Government discovered that while the crofting amendments are popular in Scotland, dual ownership and a Land Court are unpopular, and are the county councils beginning to appreciate the disparagement placed on them by the Government's proposal? No doubt the Government will require all the assistance they can get from extraneous sources to persuade Parliament and the people of Scotland to accept dual ownership and a Land Court, and I can quite understand their saying to their supporters, "You must support this Bill, otherwise away go these valuable amendments to the Crofters Acts." But if the Government's Bill, with all the lumber imposed on it, fails, my noble friend's Bill can be proceeded with.


Hear, hear.


The noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty approves of that, and I hope, therefore, we shall have the assistance of the Government in endeavouring to pass it into law. Further discussions at present must be one-sided, and it would be of no use to continue them, but I trust that the House will at all events give a Second Reading to the Bill now, and that before the end of the Session it may become law whatever may happen to the Bill of the Government.

On Question, Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.