HL Deb 22 July 1908 vol 193 cc32-46

rose to call attention to the recent Report of the Congested Districts Board of Scotland in regard to the large and increasing arrears in the payment of instalments due by settlers who had purchased holdings from the Board; also, to move for a Return of the correspondence or other basis upon which the Board had minded a comparison (see page ix. of he Report) between the position as to payment of rent and annuities due upon loans, of annuitants who had purchased from the Board, and of crofters who held from the proprietor and who had been aided by the Board to acquire their present holdings.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it will be in your Lordships' recollection that in the year 1907, and also in the present session of Parliament, the Secretary for Scotland introduced measures by which he sought to "crofterise" the whole of Scotland, by which. I mean to extend throughout the whole of Scotland the peculiar laws and customs with regard to the tenure of land, which prevail in the crofting districts, although the circumstances are entirely different. The one fact which was brought forward in support of those Bills was the extraordinary success of the Crofting Acts in Scotland. One is very glad, indeed, to get hold of some facts which one can examine and test, and in this Report of the Congested Districts Board some facts are adduced which, I think, are well worthy of your Lordships' attention. The Congested Districts Board, as your Lordships know, is a Board which is entrusted with certain funds by Parliament with which land can be purchased and resold to settlers, and out of which grants can also be made to persons who are intending to take up crofts. The Secretary for Scotland is Chairman of this Board, and, therefore, what is stated in this Report comes with some special authority.

Let us examine by the light of this Report how far this transcendent success has been attained in Scotland. First of all let us take the question of land which has been purchased and re-sold to settlers. This is what the Report says— In a scheme of State-aided purchase of holdings it is manifestly of the highest importance that settlers should make punctual payment of the sums due from them. We regret to say that in the case of several estates the settlers, with some exceptions, are considerably in arrear, and we have thought it our duty to intimate that unless there is an immediate improvement in this respect steps will have to be taken to enforce payment or to foreclose". Exactly the same remark was made in the Report which preceded this. Apparently no practical result has followed. The arrears are steadily accumulating, and I do not know whether the Board will consider it sufficient to have delivered themselves of this wise dictum and take no practical steps to enforce this payment. Then they go on to say— The result of our action since last year has not been satisfactory. The net result is that the payments in arrear have not decreased during the year in several estates purchased by the Board. They then instance the estate of Syre, which was bought in the year 1902, and on which arrears immediately began. Those arrears on 1st March, 1907, reached the sum of £346, and on 1st MLTCII, 1908, £437. Therefore, there is a steady increase in the arrears. Exactly the same thing is to be found in the case of Barra. Here is another estate to which they allude. They say— In Kilmuir we purchased from the Baird Trustees arrears amounting to £4,463 19s. 7d. In circumstances explained in our Eighth Report, we cancelled £3,437 16s. 4d. of this, and agreed that the balance of £1,026 3s. 3d. should be paid in instalments. At 1st March, 1907, the amounts of rents unpaid, including the first instalment of Baird arrears, was £2,215 5s. 6d. At 1st March, 1908, the amounts unpaid, including the second instalment of Baird arrears, wore £2,656 4s. 5d. So, therefore, on this estate likewise the arrears are constantly mounting up; and if I were inclined to detain your Lordships I might point out that on other estates the same thing is going on. I want to know, that being so, where is this extraordinary success of the crofting system on which the Secretary for Scotland founds his Bill? It seems to me that the experience is most unfortunate. These tenants are not paying their instalments, and I leave it to your Lordships to judge, so, far as purchase and reselling land to the tenants is concerned, how far this crofting system is a success.

Leaving that subject, I turn to another. It is a favourite doctrine—I would almost call it a fad—of the Secretary for Scotland that rents are better paid to private individuals than they are to the State. That is entirely the plan on which his two Bills were founded. He said that the State should not purchase, but that what ought to be done was that private proprietors ought to get rid of their large tenants, cut up their farms, run the risk of getting their rent, and that his Board of Commissioners should regulate the rent and so on; in other words, that the nation was to have the whole regulation and the proprietor were to run all the risk. It is apparently because of this theory that he has introduced into this Report the comparison between the crofters who hold from the proprietor and who have been aided by the Board, and those who have bought from the State. He proceeds to uphold that theory, or rather to institute that comparison, by a statement which it is almost impossible to understand. On page 9 of the Report he takes nine cases involving a rental of about £900 a year, which have been furnished to him by persons whom he calls the landowners concerned, and of whom we know nothing further; and he argues from that that payments are made more regularly to private proprietors than they are to the State. In the first place, I am sorry to have to state, with regard to this comparison, that it is incomplete. In the second place it is defective and misleading.

It is incomplete, for this reason, that if your Lordships will look on page 5 you will find that he says there are 666 settlers who come under this category. I have taken the trouble to add up the number of settlers from the appendix— it is, I can assure your Lordships, a most difficult Report, more difficult to understand than any one of the Government Bills—I have added up the number of those settlers upon whom he bases his conclusion, and I find that the whole of them put together come to 155. What means, I want to know, has he taken to arrive at this conclusion? Has he sent a circular to every one of the proprietors of this land and asked them to tell him how the matter stands in each case, or has he written a letter to certain selected proprietors and asked them questions with regard to individual holdings? As far as one can see, it would appear that the latter was the case. The Report is, therefore, incomplete, for of the 666 settlers only 155 are dealt with.

Then I come to the case of its being defective. The Report states that the Secretary for Scotland has been informed of the position in respect of rent and annuities due upon loans, with the following result. The figures that follow are entirely limited to rent; there is nothing said about annuities which are due; and on consulting the Appendix I find that in the three cases given—the case of Bay, the case of Aignish in the Lewis, and of Battery Park—there are arrears of annuities not mentioned on page 9 of this Report. I do not say that the amounts of those arrears are large in themselves, but in proportion to the amounts due they are not inconsiderable; and under any circumstances care ought to have been taken to make the figures correspond with the statement.

I say next that it is misleading, and I will tell your Lordships why. The Board have omitted from their Report the most important item, and without which it is impossible to form any real estimate as to the amount due by the settlers—the period at which these settlers' tenure commenced. Everything depends upon that. Take the case of Aignish in the Lewis, one of the cases cited, which shows a state of things so much better than that where purchase is concerned. On Aignish the annual rent is £96. The amount due on 1st March, 1907, was £80, and on 1st March, 1908, £70. But the tenure only commenced at the end of the year 1906, and, therefore, out of two years rent there is actually one year in arrear. I do not know whether the Secretary for Scotland thinks that a state of things of which one ought to be proud, and which compares favourably with the cases of purchase; but I should say, and I think most of your Lordships would say, that when a tenant has been two years in his holding and is one year in arrear, it is not an extraordinary case of punctual payment. Are these cases really a fair sample? That is the important thing.

If the Secretary for Scotland really wished to institute a fair comparison between the system of purchase and the system of paying rent direct to the landlord, what he ought to have done would have been to take the whole of these estates, to have written to all the proprietors, and to have asked them to send in to him a statement showing how the payment of their rent stood. Let me take the two cases of Aignish and Battery Park. Can those two cases be fairly said to represent Major Matheson's estate in the Lewis? They are a mere drop in the bucket, and even in those cases there is not much to boast of. But when you come to the Lewis, whit is the state of things there? The Lewis is a part of the country in which the crofter system, which the Secretary for Scotland is so anxious to spread, and the cottar system hive been allowed to run free for 100 years. The Lewis shows, more than any other part of Scotland, what is the result of the crofter system when coupled with the cottar system.

What is the result? At this moment the Lewis, which in 1880 had a population of 9,000, has now a population of 28,000. The average crofter rental at the present time is £1 18s. 6d., and the average arrears for each crofter is £7— between three and four years. The rates in the Lewis run from 15s. to 18s. in the £, and those rates fall, the very great proportion of them, at least, on the proprietors. What is the case with reference to Major Matheson? The rates he was called upon to pay in 1898 amounted to £4,000, and in the year 1908 he is called upon to pay £7,000. Of course, he has found it absolutely impossible to pay such a sum. This is the result of the crofter system run mad. In the case of the Lewis, I do not understand how the Secretary for Scotland came to put in merely these two cases of Aignish and Battery Park. The Secretary for Scotland knows perfectly well that petitions, I might almost say without end, have been addressed to the Government, pointing out the present condition of the Lewis, which is entirely owing to the cottar system, and calling for some remedy. It seems to me it is a warning and an example to the Government and to all those who are in favour of extending the crofter system.

But I leave the Lewis and take other large estates. Take Lady Cathcart's estate. I know that on that estate arrears are nearer three years than two, and, if you take Lord Macdonald's estate or the McLeod's, I will answer for it that an examination of their estate books would show that the arrears are at least as large in proportion as any of those which are due to the Government on account of land which has been re-sold to the settlers. What reason is there to suppose that rents are likely to be better paid to a private individual than to the State? Is not the probability all the other way? Have your Lordships ever heard of a person who declined to make good to the State an obligation which, when it was due to a private proprietor, he was perfectly prepared to meet? It seems to me that to uphold this theory is to go contrary to all probability, and, moreover, it is not borne out by the facts. If the Secretary for Scotland wishes to prove to us that this crofter system is a success and is a system which ought to be extended over the whole of Scotland, he must produce something very different from the figures and the assertions in this Report. I believe that if he persists in endeavouring to extend the crofter and the cottar system over the whole of Scotland he will be doing Scotland a very great injury; while with regard to the western Highlands I most sincerely believe he will be doing his very best to reduce that part of Scotland to the condition that prevailed in Ireland in the days of the famine.

Moved, "That there be laid before the House a Return of the correspondence or other basis upon which the Congested Districts Board of Scotland has founded a comparison (see page IX. of the Report) between the position as to payment of rent and annuities due upon loans, of annuitants who have purchased from the Board, and of crofters who hold from the proprietor and who have been aided by the Board to acquire their present holdings."—(The Earl of Camperdown)


My Lords, with your Lordships' leave I will say a few words first of all on the question of arrears in general. These arrears are not, as the noble Earl who has just sat down stated, of recent growth. They have been growing continuously and with perfect regularity for a considerable number of years, not only under the present Government but also under the late Government. This, of course, I do not mention as in any manner of means a mitigation of the gravity of the situation. His Majesty's Government fully realise the seriousness of the present condition, of affairs with regard to these arrears of rent, and they are quite alive to the fact that the arrears should be paid. After all, these settlements were instituted in response to a demand which it was felt could not be disregarded; and it is absolutely essential that those who have benefited by this settlement should have due regard to the obligations which they have thereby incurred. There may be, and there no doubt are, certain hard cases, as for example, the case of a woman whose husband has died; and these, naturally, will receive fair consideration. This question of arrears of rent is, in the opinion of the Secretary for Scotland, most serious, and he is giving it his close attention at the present time with a view to determining what steps ho should take.

I now come to the question of the comparison which the noble Earl has raised on page 9 of the Report of the Congested Districts Board. This, of course, does not purport, nor does it say that it purports, to be a full comparison. In the first place, it simply says: "in order to institute some comparison." The reason why these particular estates were selected was this. The Board decided to write to the proprietors of those estates with whom they had come in contact, owing to loans having been made to them, to ask them to furnish, if they were willing to do so, particulars of the rents for publication in abstract form. All the proprietors were perfectly willing that the Board should receive the information confidentially, but they did not desire that the rents which they received should be made public property.

Others, and these are the ones which we have on page 9, were willing to furnish this information, but on the distinct understanding, as stated here, that they were to be published in the abstract form. After all it would be a very difficult matter for the Board to apply to every proprietor, and proprietors to whose tenants no advances had been made, and to ask them for information as to the amount of rent which they received. As regards the omission of the amounts due as interest and principal for building loans, etc., it is true these were omitted. It was for this reason, that they were considered, taking them all round, to be of so small an amount that they were hardly worth taking into account. For instance, in the case of Northton there were arrears amounting to 12s. 6d.; in the case of Bourblock and Tarbert they amounted to £4 18s. 0d.; in the case of Stornaway to £44 4s. 0d.; and in the case of Bay to' about £21. In the aggregate they were not very important sums in the opinion of the Congested Districts Board, and therefore they were omitted.


What I pointed out was that the annuities due upon loans were omitted.


That is perfectly true.


Very well. Then it is an incorrect statement. The statement purports to put the position in respect to loans and to annuities due upon loans.


I confess it should not have been in those words. The reason why the Returns referred to were left out is that they do not materially affect the case owing to the smallness of the amount. As regards the noble Earl's Motion for the correspondence to be produced, of course he will see that these details in the Report have been given merely on the understanding that was given and accepted that they were to be published in their abstract form, and I can assure him that -there is nothing in those letters except what appears here put into abstract form. I therefore venture to hope that the noble Earl will not press his Motion for the correspondence in question to be produced, seeing that, after all, we only have it through the courtesy of the proprietors of these particular states.


I sympathise very much with the noble Earl who brought forward this question, as to the tenor of the paragraphs in this report. I must say I think they are unfortunate. There is an attempt running all through them to bolster up the idea that purchase is a bad thing and that leasing is therefore a better one. The whole facts given here are comparatively speaking small, and they will not bear the inferences which are sought to be drawn from them. That is the first point I would make. Even if it were true that purchase instalments had been less well paid than the annual instalments, there is another point which I think vitiates the comparison which is understood to be drawn. The case of those estates mentioned in page 9 of the Report, which are the cases of small holders, are cases, I think I am safe in saying, in which the landowner has selected the tenant, has taken the whole responsibility on himself for the repayment of the Government loan, and is acting with the tenant. Even if the comparison in these cases was favourable to that system it would not in any way support the contention which seems to be drawn in the body of the Report that compulsory hiring would be a more satisfactory thing than purchase. There could really be no inference of that kind drawn, because I believe in every case the landlord had selected the best tenant he could find and had taken the whole obligation upon himself. That is a wholly different thing from cases in which the tenants have been dumped down, as it were, upon the landlord and not chosen by him.

I should like to say in justice to those two settlements, Barra and Syre, for which, to a large extent, I am responsible, that it is easy to make too much of the fact that there is a certain amount of arrears outstanding. The real comparison is to compare the amount of arrears outstanding with what has been paid and the total sum which ought to have been received. These facts are given upon page 9 of Appendix XI. of the Report. In the case of Syre the amount payable up to Martinmas, after every settler had fulfilled every obligation he had made, was £2,628 13s. 10d., and of that amount practically £2,100 has been received. When you consider that there are a considerable number of settlers, that some of them have been personally unfortunate, that in some cases the men who made the bargains have died, and their widows left to struggle with the new holdings, I think upon the whole, although not a thing to be proud of, it is not so bad a Return as might very easily have happened in what is a new experiment with men who have great difliculties to contend with. Take the case of Barra. In that case the total amount payable up to the date of the Report for principal and interest would have been £1,107 3s. The amount actually paid was £711 13s. 9d., so that there are arrears of nearly £400 on a total payment of £1,100. That is not satisfactory. But I venture to say that the difference between the two arises largely from the fact that the holdings in Barra are of a much smaller area, are further removed from being what is called self-supporting, and that the settlers had, therefore, very great difficulties to contend with. I do not think it is reasonable to make anything of the fact that those who have come under an obligation to purchase would like to be tenants, because the explanation is very obvious. In Scotland rates are divided between owner and occupier, and as the rates go up the owner has an increased obligation, and these men see that when they are only tenants they pay less than half the rates (the tenant's share), and when they are owners they are put under obligation for the whole. That is to my mind, having regard to the Scottish and Celtic nature, quite sufficient to account for the desire to become tenants rather than purchasers. I think that it is unfortunate that on that page of the Report the wording should have been put in precisely as it is, because I think it is intended, as I think on insufficient grounds, to bolster up the argument in favour of hiring rather than purchase.

The real fact of the matter is this. I am afraid that in the West Highlands, certainly in the islands of Scotland, these schemes, benevolent as they are, are doomed to failure. After all, they were only experiments. I am responsible for the experiments in the cases of Barra and of Syre. They were undertaken some five or six years ago with the apprehension that they would fail, but it was thought desirable that object lessons at not very great expense should be given, and that the experiment should be made. Some of these people will succeed, some will not. What I am afraid of is that, wherever you increase, as you are increasing, the standard of comfort desired, by education and by, to some extent, improving the position of the settlers, you will find them not. I am afraid, getting more contented, but less contented, than they were before. They will struggle for further improvement. The younger generation is better educated and sees that the men who go away to the towns and cities of this country, or to the wider domain of Canada, get on better than those who remain at home, and therefore you are not going to stimulate their desire to stay at home, but, on the other hand, stimulate their desire to go after those who have gone before them. I am afraid from economic grounds it is evitable. In many of these cases I believe that if you gave them land for nothing they could not make a living, having regard to the prices they could obtain for produce. But I think upon the whole, although there is something to be desired, the state of matters so far as arrears are concerned has been rather exaggerated for the purposes of this discussion. I think if the facts are carefully and dispassionately considered it will be seen that, upon the whole, the majority of those concerned have tolerably fairly met their obligations. Those who have failed have failed to some extent owing to some especially difficult circumstances, such as the death of the breadwinner. But I sympathise with my noble friend who brought the question forward that in a Report which ought to have been a mere record of facts there is the intention to argue in favour of one system against another.


The noble Earl has hung upon his theme a sort of vindication of his own action in regard to the Scottish Small Holders Bill. That Bill has been killed, and ought to have been allowed to rest undisturbed, but its ghost seems to be flitting about, and I cannot help thinking that the noble Earl feels somewhat uneasy in regard to the undoubted dissatisfaction which exists because we have not been able to agree in reference to a Bill of this kind. The Report is criticised because it is supposed to favour hiring as against purchase. I know perfectly well that the noble Earl, Lord Rosebery, said his scheme for Scotland was a purchase system; but is there any Member of your Lordships' House who knows Scotland who is prepared to say that he wants a small holders' system for Scotland resting upon purchase? I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, would not say so, because he knows his own country so well. It cannot be done, and it is quite unnecessary to bolster up the opposite system. The noble Earl himself brought in this very session a Bill based upon compulsory hiring. For my part, it does not disturb me whether there has been any indirect advocacy of the compulsory hiring system in the Blue-book or not, because the compulsory hiring will surely come, and the noble Lords here do not say anything to the contrary. The system of small holdings by purchase in Scotland is dead and buried, and will never be revived. The noble Lord referred to the disclosures in this Blue-book as some argument against what he called the "crofterisation" of Scotland under the proposed Bill which is now defunct.


What I said was that it seemed to me that these figures proved that these crofters had not been a success.


And the noble Earl also referred to the Bill which is no longer in existence as an attempt to "crofterise" Scotland.


Was it not?


I am going to deal with it. The noble Earl said that the Bill would reproduce in Scotland the condition of affairs existing in Ireland. What does the "crofterisation" of Scotland mean? Does it mean that you are going to translate to Scotland the climate, the race, and the lamentable poverty which exists in Ireland? Nothing of the kind. The only meaning is that the tenant crofters shall be extended to other counties. If you think it is more to the interest of the landlord that the tenure as in the English Bill should be adopted than that in the Bill which the noble Earl called "crofterisation" I am quite prepared to accept it. The landlord will find it a great deal better under what you call the "crofterisation" system than under the other. I feel it is a lamentable thing that we should not try to put our hands to settling this thing, which is most vital to Scotland, instead of going back over the old ground of the defunct Bill. I am sure the noble Earl will not think I am making these observations in any sense personally adverse to himself; only it seemed to me that he was seeking to justify to himself what I think was a great mistake, viz., the destruction of that Bill.


My Lords, I quite realise, as does the noble and learned Lord upon the Woolsack, the great difficulty of applying to Scotland or to any part of the United Kingdom, a wholesale system of small holdings founded upon purchase. We are it is true endeavouring to introduce such a state of things into Ireland, but we have been driven to do so, in spite of the great difficulties, financial and other, which stand in the way, on account of the failure of the particular kind of hiring system, which, as some of us think in an ill-advised moment, was introduced into that part of the United Kingdom. Noble Lords who sit on this side of the House do not object to compulsory hiring merely because it is compulsory hiring, but we object very strongly indeed to the particular kind of compulsory hiring which found a place in the Scottish Bill. I may remind the House of the difference between the system proposed in the Scottish Bill and the system proposed in the English Small Holdings Bill, which this House accepted. In the case of the English Bill the local authorities intervene. The proprietor lets his land to the local authority, which becomes responsible for the conduct of the transaction and stands between the occupier of the land and the owner. What we object to is any system under which the owner of the soil is compelled, in opposition to his own better judgment, and whether he likes it or not, to let his land directly to small holders and to stand the whole risk and responsibility of the failure of a very hazardous experiment. That is why we looked askance at the proposals contained in the Scottish Bill, and why we protested against it as being likely to introduce into another part of the United Kingdom many of the undoubted evils which have prevailed in Ireland, evils from which there is no means of escape except by recourse to that expensive and difficult system of wholesale purchase to which the noble and learned Lord referred.


After what the noble Lord opposite has said, I shall not persist with my Motion with regard to the production of the correspondence. With regard to what the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said, I can assure him he entirely misunderstood me. What I said was this. I merely stated facts in regard to those Bills which were for the "crofterization" of Scotland, founded chiefly upon the fact that this crofters system as recently administered had not been a success. With regard to the hiring of land direct from tenants, I pointed out that in my opinion the statements that were made in that Report do not justify the inferences which appeared to be drawn. I had not in my mind the least idea in reference to the Bills lately before the House, and if it gives the noble and learned Lord any satisfaction I can assure him my mind is perfectly easy on the subject. The last thing I thought of was the raising of a debate with regard to the system on which land should be acquired in Scotland. My object was simply to point out that in my opinion this Report did not point to any success on the part of the crofters system.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.