HL Deb 01 December 1909 vol 4 cc1393-402

LORD NEWTON rose to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture whether his attention had been called to a letter written by Mr. Rowland Prothero, from the Bedford Office, with reference to the sale of the Thorney Estate, which appeared in the Press on Monday the 29th of November; and whether the statements made with regard to the action of the Board of Agriculture were correct.

On Question, whether the House do agree with the Commons in the said Amendment?

Their Lordships divided: Contents; 21; Not-contents, 38.

Loreburn, L. (L. Chancellor.) Airedale, L. Lucas, L.
Allendale, L. MacDonnell, L.
Beauchamp, E. (L. Steward.) Armitstead, L. Pentland, L.
Carrington, E. Colebrooke, L. [Teller] Sandhurst, L.
Granville, E. Denman, L. [Teller.] Saye and Sele, L.
Liverpool, E. Glantawe, L. Shuttleworth, L
Hamilton of Dalzell, L. Welby, L.
Althorp, V. (L. Chamberlain.) Haversham, L.
Norfolk, D. (E. Marshal). Powis, E. Clements, L. (E. Leitrim.)
Devonshire, D. Waldegrave, E. Clinton, L. [Teller.]
Marlborough, D. Weatmeath, E. Dunmore, L. (E. Dummore.)
Wharncliffe, E. Hastings, L.
Camden, M. Lawrence, L.
Lansdowne, M. Churchill, V. Leith of Fyvie, L.
Falkland, V. Lovat, L.
Camperdown, E. [Teller.] Hampden, V. Montagu of Beaulieu, L.
Catheart, E. Hardinge, V. Newton, L.
Cawdor, E. Hill, V. St. Levan, L.
Lovelace, E. Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore.) Sanderson, L.
Mansfield, E. Stewart of Garlies, L. (E. Galloway.)
Mayo, E. Iveagh, V.
Onslow, E. Zonche of Haryngworth, L.
Plymouth, E. Brodrick, L. (V. Midleton)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in putting this Question to the President of the Board of Agriculture I must express my great regret that I have brought him here under circumstances extremely inconvenient to himself, and I should like to offer him my gratitude for being present under the circumstances. It is not necessary for me to enter in detail into this particular question. The Thorney estate is noticeable for two reasons. In the first place it is an example cited by the noble Earl opposite of an appreciation in value which has arisen since the present Government assumed office, and, in the second place, it enjoys another distinction inasmuch as it cannot possibly be described as land which has been stolen from the people, because, as everybody knows by this time, the estate was created many years ago out of marshes and land reclaimed from the sea. Since the year 1816, when it was acquired by the Duke of Bedford's predecessor, a sum of nearly two millions has been spent upon it.

My noble friend the Duke of Bedford a short time ago made up his mind—I believe solely for public reasons—to sell this property to the sitting tenants, and he offered to leave a large portion of the purchase money on mortgage. Thereupon the most astonishing thing took place. These miserable down-trodden tenants, whose spirit, presumably, had been broken by generations of servitude under Dukes, instead of manifesting joy at their deliverance from this thraldom, showed an exactly opposite feeling, and begged to be allowed to remain on as tenants at increased rents. Thereupon the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture stepped into the arena as the deus ex machina and opened up negotiations for the purchase of part, at all events, of the property. But two serious obstacles presented themselves. The first was that the rents were so low that the noble Earl was not able to show what, in the opinion of the Government, would be a satisfactory profit on the transaction. I believe the noble Duke's rents represented a profit of something like two per cent. It was, therefore, intimated to the noble Earl, I understand, by his colleagues that he must really show something better than that, and must realise something like four per cent. The second difficulty arose from the fact that the property happened, unfortunately for the Government, to belong to a Duke. As we all know, although we are rather tired of the subject by now, Dukes are the principal weapon in the armoury of the Government at the present time, and the more acute and shrewder members of the Cabinet at once saw their difficulty. They realised that it would never do to buy from a Duke cheaply and then represent that you had made a very good bargain by charging enhanced rents afterwards. It was pointed out to the noble Earl that if this transaction was to be carried out on behalf of the Government he really would have to show a substantial profit; and if, as I say, it was to come out that you had bought very cheaply from a Duke and yet had to extract more money from the tenants it would "give the whole show away" as far as the ducal question was concerned.

The noble Earl, to do him credit, showed himself quite equal to the task, and I confess I am rather surprised myself because I have always considered my noble friend opposite as distinctly the most ingenuous and the most unsophisticated member of the Government, and I always welcome his interpositions into the vitiated atmosphere of politics just as I welcome a breath of fresh air or the aroma of new-mown hay. It only shows how mistaken one can be in appearances. My noble friend has turned out to be a sort of political Janus. He presents to us the appearance of a sort of bucolic philanthropist, but behind this smiling front we have now detected the appearance of the artful and designing wire-puller and politician. Not only did the noble Earl succeed, with great ingenuity, in getting these tenants to say that they wanted their rents raised—a very clever thing in itself—but he hit upon the brilliant, almost I may say the Napoleonic, idea of asking the Duke of Bedford to raise the rents himself before parting with his property, so that presumably my innocent and magnanimous friend the Duke of Bedford would suffer from the odium attaching to that proceeding while the President of the Board of Agriculture would enjoy such credit and glory as arose out of the transaction.

That was a very remarkable feat on the part of the noble Earl opposite. But what is more amazing to me than anything in the history of this transaction is that the Duke of Bedford actually agreed to this proposal. I really on the spur of the moment find it almost impossible to think of any act of self-denial in history comparable to the action of my noble friend, who I regret is not present this evening. He reminds me of the Swiss patriot who, when the fighting was going against his own side, collected the spears of his enemy and plunged them into his own bosom in order that his friends might escape. The noble Duke has done better than this. He has diverted on his own head all the thunder and fury of Radical opposition, and has turned himself into a scapegoat for his class. I confess that such an act of self-abnegation is altogether beyond my intellect and understanding. If I had been asked to perform an operation of this kind I should have refused without the slightest hesitation. In justice to the much-abused class to which the noble Duke belongs, I hope that when they are arraigned before the bar of public opinion it will be counted for righteousness on their side that there was at all events one man among them who was willing to practise Christian virtues to the fullest extent. What I wish to know is whether it is the case that the noble Earl opposite actually invited the noble Duke to place himself in this extraordinary position in order literally to save the face of the Government. I should be obliged if the noble Earl would at the same time explain what particular virtue there can be in land nationalisation, recommended by certain members of the Government, when it must be perfectly apparent to anyone who has considered these transactions and correspondence that it is much more economical to be the tenant of a Duke than the tenant of the Government.


My Lords, I will try, as briefly as I can, to give an account of what really happened in the case of this estate; but I hope I shall be excused from going into the question of land nationalisation, which was so well dealt with last night by my noble friend, Lord Crewe. During last autumn I heard that the Thorney estate was to be sold, and I therefore approached the Duke of Bedford on the subject. On October 31, 1908, the Duke wrote me to say that he had determined to offer the Thorney estate by public auction in the summer of 1909, but that he would prefer to sell it to the Government. On February 16 of this year I had an interview with the Duke on this subject. On February 17 the Evening Standard announced the price at which the Duke was willing to sell to the Crown, and it was copied from the Evening Standard into other papers in the course of the next few days. But it was not until February 23 that the price asked was communicated to me by the Duke's agent, Mr. Prothero, and that was done confidentially.

The offer I received then would have necessitated the raising of the rents by fifty per cent. if the Crown were to obtain a fair return on their purchase. I was therefore unable to give the price asked by the Duke, and I declined his offer. Early in February the Duke gave notice to quit to all his tenants in view of the sale. On February 25 a deputation of the Duke's tenants waited on me and implored me to buy the estate for the Crown, and they pledged themselves voluntarily to pay the rent that was fixed by an independent valuer. That petition was signed by seventy tenants. I do not want to exaggerate or overstate anything, but the state of mind of those tenants was, to say the least of it, a state of very considerable anxiety. I was anxious to do what I could to meet their wishes, and my object in desiring to purchase was to a great extent to keep the tenants on the land. If the land had been sold in the open market it might have been bought by speculators or anybody else, whose only object naturally would have been to make money out of the tenants. If the Crown purchased it was necessary to secure a reasonable return on the money, and, as the existing rents were notoriously low, some increase of rent was inevitable, whether the Crown or any other purchaser bought the property.

In negotiating for the purchase valuations were made on behalf of the Crown and of the Duke. The Duke's advisers proposed an increase of forty-six per cent. of the rents, and based their valuation on that rental, but the Crown's advisers considered the proposed increase was too large, and they based their valuation on an increase of thirty-five per cent., and it was this difference which caused the failure of the negotiations between the Crown and the Duke with regard to the estate. The proposal that the Duke himself should raise the rents before the sale, to which, I understand, great objection has been taken, was made in order that the Crown might buy on an existing rental that represented the fair value of the land. The increase I proposed was less than the increase recommended by the Duke. My proposal, therefore, was obviously to the advantage of the tenants, and, as your Lordships have seen, they were perfectly satisfied to pay that increase. But since this question, much to my regret, has been threshed out in public, although my negotiations failed, I think I may fairly say that they had the effect of causing the Duke of Bedford to abandon his first proposal to sell by public auction, and, as a majority of the tenants have now purchased their holdings, my object, to some extent, has been achieved. The only reason I had for referring to the matter at all during the recent Budget debate was to show by a concrete instance that agricultural property, so far from being damaged by the Budget, has actually very largely appreciated in value, and that it finds now a ready sale at excellent prices. That is the answer to that part of the question.

Will your Lordships bear with me while I refer to alleged inaccuracies in the speech I made on the Budget debate? Mr. Prothero writes a letter to the paper in which he says that Lord Carrington made four statements and that— Not one of these statements conveys a correct impression of the facts. What are these statements? "The acreage of the estate is 20,006 acres." I stated in the House that the acreage was 23,000 acres, but I have, I think, some excuse for that statement, because in the Duke of Bedford's book it is put down as 22,845 acres, and these are the figures that I quoted. The whole mistake about that is, I believe, that there is an outlying portion of that estate which is sometimes called the Thorney estate and sometimes the Thorney and Wansford estate. Then Mr. Prothero says that— The rental in 1905, as stated in the book from which Lord Carrington professed to quote, was £22,195. On page 74 of the Duke's book the rental of that year is given as £22,195 and the expenditure as £22,636, and the difference between the figures happens to be £441, so, may I respectfully ask, where does that authoritative answer come in? The next statement he makes is that— Lord Carrington made no bid for the estate, but only for a portion of it. I may not have made a bid, but I made an offer originally for the whole of the estate on the basis of the then rents. When I discovered the value the Duke had put on the estate I found that the money belonging to the Office of Woods and Forests Would not cover the whole, and therefore I had to bid for a part of the estate, as it would have been impossible for the Government to borrow money for the purchase of an estate. Lastly, Mr. Prothero says the estimate of the sum for which the property has been sold is inaccurate. We have been told that the estate was sold for three-quarters of a million. Mr. Prothero does not tell us now what the price really is. Had it been less, I think I should have heard of it before now, and if it is more that only strengthens my argument.

I made two statements, neither of which, I understand, Mr. Prothero cavils at or questions. I said that in 1897 the Duke of Bedford wrote a book to prove that his Thorney estate, among others, yielded no profit, did not pay its way, and was a source of perpetual expense; that the estate was practically unsaleable and per se insolvent in point of income and expenditure. Those are not my words. They are the words of the noble owner of the estate, and that was the way he described his estate in 1897. I went on to say that in this year, at a time when it was being said that in consequence of the vindictive Budget no person can venture to invest in home securities, his Grace sold this unsaleable and insolvent estate for three-quarters of a million. There is no attack upon anybody. That is a simple and absolute fact which Mr. Prothero himself does not attempt to deny. I have had the honour of being a member of your Lordships' House for forty-one years, and I do not think there are many in this House who would wish to impute to me the intention in any sort or kind of way to hold up so good a landlord as I truthfully and publicly declare the Duke of Bedford to be as a money-grabber, as I have been accused in Mr. Prothero's letter of doing, or to make him the scapegoat of a Radical Government—as was represented in the letter to which the noble Lord has called attention and which has been much commented on by the Tory Press.


My Lords, in the debate in your Lordships' House on the Finance Bill I followed the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture, who in his speech made a reference to this estate, but, of course, I had not the opportunity, in the interval between the noble Earl sitting down and the remarks which I addressed to your Lordships, to obtain any information as to the correctness, or perhaps I ought to say the justice, of the remarks of the noble Earl. But those who are the representatives of the Duke of Bedford have now made public what are the true facts of the case in connection with this Thorney estate, and I am very glad to think that the noble Earl does not in any way impugn the veracity of Mr. Prothero. Mr. Prothero stated, and the noble Earl admits that the statement was perfectly correct, that he declined to purchase the estate until the noble Duke had himself raised the rents of his tenants in order that the Government might show a more profitable bargain and might not have thrown upon them the odium of raising the rents themselves.

I think anybody who has read the correspondence which has passed on this subject will have seen what was in the mind of the noble Duke from the very beginning. The noble Duke was interested in keeping his tenants on the land. He may have given them notice; it is a customary practice when you are about to sell an estate to give notice to your tenants in order that you may give vacant possession at the earliest possible date. The noble Duke had an offer some years ago for this estate, not of £750,000, but of £800,000. Why did he not accept it? He did not take it because he thought it was made by land speculators who would be likely to disturb his tenants. Then the tenants, being between the frying-pan and the fire, preferred the frying-pan of the noble Earl, the President of the Board of Agriculture, and they said that even if they had to pay fifty per cent. more in rent they would be at any rate assured that they would continue as tenants if the Crown became the purchaser of the estate The Crown did not become the purchaser. Who did? The tenants themselves—at least five-sixths of them have become the purchasers of their own holdings. The purchase-money, or a large portion of it, has been allowed to remain at interest, and the result is that your Lordships will see established on the Thorney estate the old-fashioned class of what is known as yeoman farmers in this country.

What was the whole tone and gist of the speech of the noble Earl. It was to show that under a beneficent Liberal Government the value of the Thorney estate had increased enormously, and that the noble Duke was able to sell it for three-quarters of a million. But he neglected to tell your Lordships that the Thorney estate had cost the Duke of Bedford and his ancestors £1,800,000 and is now sold for £750,000. Had the money spent on this estate been invested in three percent. Consols the Duke of Bedford would have been a much richer man than he is. I do not think that the case which the noble Earl has put before your Lordships is one which will be a great encouragement in the direction of the nationalisation of land. It is proved abundantly that neither the State nor the county councils can afford to buy land and let it to tenants at the same rent that private owners can afford to do. Here you have the Duke of Bedford letting his land for a return of two per cent. and the Government saying that they cannot do it without a return of four per cent.

I venture to say that before we are very much older we shall find that the rents that county councils are obliged to charge for small holdings to guard the ratepayers from loss will be a great deal more than the same land could be let by private landowners in the way that is customary among the members of your Lordships' House and other landowners of the country. I think we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the noble Earl for the instance of the Thorney estate, for I am sure no example could more clearly show that the great landowners of the country, of whom the noble Duke is an ornament, desire to treat their tenants with absolute fairness and equity and do not seek to obtain even an ordinary return for the capital invested. It you are going to put the land in the hands of the State instead of in the hands of private owners, the inevitable result will be that those who cultivate the land will have to pay more for it.