HL Deb 23 March 1910 vol 5 cc497-508

THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE had given notice of his intention "to call attention to the Regulations made by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on February 15, 1910, as to priorities of sales, and especially to the urgent necessity for an extension of the time during which applications can be made under them, and to ask—(1) what total sum of money will be available in cash for all advances in 1910–1911; and (2) the amount of cash that is expected to be available for distribution to vendors who are willing to take half of their purchase money in stock."

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Notice which stands in my name was placed on the Paper last week at a time when noble Lords from Ireland and our friends who usually work with us in Ireland were rather discontented, more especially because we felt that we were being kept in ignorance. But since then the Chief Secretary has written a very full letter to my friend Mr. Willis, the Secretary of the Irish Land- owners' Convention, in which he deals very fully with a number of points which I should have been glad to raise otherwise this afternoon. That letter was written on Monday, and I understand it was published in Ireland yesterday. I am sure we are all grateful to the Chief Secretary for the length at which he has answered the Minute that was sent to him a fortnight ago by the Irish Landowners' Convention, and I desire more especially to express my thanks to the noble Lord opposite (Lord Denman) for letting me have a copy of Mr. Birrell's letter within almost half an hour of the time that it was posted to Mr. Willis. I feel indebted to the noble Lord for his courtesy in the matter, and the fact that the letter has been published makes it unnecessary for me to go into this subject at any length this afternoon.

I do not wish to say that the letter has absolutely satisfied us as regards everything in the Regulations, but it is quite obvious that it would be no use my raising the subject any fuller because I am sure the noble Lord could not give us any different answer to-day from that which he would have given last Monday. As to the provision of cash, I have no hesitation in saying that we are very grateful for the efforts the Government have made and are going to make for securing satisfactory progress during the forthcoming twelve months. Therefore all I wish to call attention to this afternoon is the question of the extension of time referred to in my Notice. The position is this. The Regulations were issued in the middle of last month, and applications under them must be made before April 1—that is, six weeks were given in which applications were to be made. I was over in Ireland for about ten days a fortnight ago, and since then I have had a number of communications from Ireland. Everybody from whom I have heard urges with the utmost insistence that it is absolutely necessary that an extension of time should be granted up to which applications are to be made under these Regulations, and for this reason. It is not that the landowners in Ireland have had six weeks in which to make up their minds. They have had nothing of the kind, because it was impossible for anyone to consider the question until he knew how much money was to be applied during the next twelve months for the purposes of the Land Purchase Acts, and that information, as I have said, only reached the public yesterday. The period between yesterday and April 1, your Lordships will see, is merely ten days, and of those ten days four days do not count at all for the purposes of business. Everyone concerned is urging that an extension of time should be given.

I do not think I can prove the matter more shortly than by reading to your Lordships three resolutions which really cover the whole ground. The first is a resolution passed by the Executive Committee of the Irish Landowners' Convention on March 10. They say— The Executive Committee of the Irish Landowners' Convention desire to represent to His Majesty's Government that it is a most urgent matter that the time for making applications under the Regulations of February 15, 1910, should be extended from April 1 to May 1 or June 1. Owing to the complicated position in many cases and to the fact that many vendors are abroad, the Committee are aware that in numerous cases decisions cannot be arrived at before April 1. The second resolution concerns the land agents, and it is as follows— The Executive Committee of the Land Agents Committee of the Surveyors Institution, Irish Branch, desire to endorse the resolution adopted by the Executive Committee of the Irish Landowners' Convention, urging on the Government the necessity of extending the time for making applications under the Regulations of February 15 last. In addition to the two grounds mentioned in that Resolution, this Committee wish to point out that no vendors were in a position to even consider this question until the publication of the Lord Lieutenant's Regulations of February 15, and even now the difficulty of arriving at any decision is very great owing to the refusal of the Government to give any information as to the amount of money which will be made available for advances in the next twelve months. That last paragraph now goes, because we have information as to the amount of money we may hope for. But, as I have pointed out, there are only six working days available for consideration with that knowledge in our hands. The third resolution is from the President of the Incorporated Law Society. It runs— The Council of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland are of opinion that the date fixed … should be extended from April 1 to June 1, so as to afford to those vendors who are abroad an opportunity of being communicated with so as to be able to instruct their solicitors as to their wishes in the matter. Therefore, this is the position. The landowners' organisation, the land agents' organisation, and the solicitors' organisation all urge that the Government should give an extension of time for the reasons they set forth in these resolutions. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord who represents the Irish Office will be able to tell us that His Majesty's Government, after further consideration, have been able to accede to this request. In making this request the last thing we desire to do is in any way to impede or delay the working of the Land Act. If this extension of time was given, it would by no means cause a holiday or a waste of time in the office of the Estates Commission, who have plenty of work to do in clearing off the £50,000,000 worth of property which remains to be dealt with as the result of originating applications.


My Lords, I wish to support as strongly as I can what has been said by my noble friend as to the great difficulty in which many vendors find themselves from the very short time at present allowed in which to make these applications. At a meeting of the committee of the Landowners' Convention at which I was present about a fortnight ago it was mentioned that many vendors were abroad and therefore could not be consulted by their solicitors and men of business. I wrote some days ago to my friend Mr. Willis, our secretary, asking if he could give any particular cases. He replied that he had not had time to make inquiries generally among land agents and solicitors, but that he had heard of two vendors who are in South America, one in Australia, one in Abyssinia, one in Pretoria, several in India, and one who is somewhere in the Sahara Desert. That is, of course, anything but an exhaustive list. Mr. Willis had only happened to hear of these cases, and there are probably a good many more of the same kind. There is another difficulty in the case of co-owners of property. It must take them some time, considering their respective interest, to agree upon any course. I therefore earnestly hope that His Majesty's Government will consent to an extension of the time allowed.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies I should like to say one word on this subject. I have had several letters myself concerning it from friends of mine, telling me the problem that was set to them, and pointing out that though they had very able solicitors and agents they could get no direct advice on the subject because the problem was so uncertain in the absence of full information as to the money that would be available and other matters. In one or two of these cases I read the papers myself in order to see exactly the position, and although the solicitors were to my knowledge as able as any that could be found in Ireland, and although I knew the land agents who were acting in those cases were as experienced as any to be found in the country, they were quite right in saying that they were then unable to advise, and I myself would not take the responsibility of giving any advice whatever in the matter. Practically the question has only arrived at a position when any real advice could be given since the last letter of the Chief Secretary. I agree with what my noble friend has said in acknowledgment of the way the Chief Secretary has met the situation. He has given all the information he could reasonably present, and I have no doubt that when it is considered it will largely assist people to arrive at a sound judgment. But that letter was only written a few days ago, and I saw it for the first time this morning. It is obvious that no one who had not read that letter could give any advice on the subject.

There can be no suggestion that there is any desire to delay matters. On the contrary, there is every wish to hurry the matter on, for every day's delay is inconvenient to both tenants and owners and is also inconvenient to encumbrancers. If the present day stands and a decision has to be arrived at before the 1st of next month, it is obvious that a decision cannot be given in an enormous number of cases. That is so even where the people concerned are in Ireland, and in the case of those who are out of Ireland it will be simply impossible for them to have the materials to guide them to a decision. Everyone recognises that the matter is not easy for the Government any more than it is for the parties concerned, and no one has a right to ask for an extravagant extension of time. I think my noble friend mentioned the period of a month as the suggested extension. I think the solicitors' organisation—and they are entitled to speak on this question with authority—named a month later still. Personally I do not make any suggestion at all as to the date. All I say is this, that it will be quite impossible to expect those who are most concerned to arrive at a decision within the next week, and that it is absolutely necessary to give some extension. I need hardly say that I leave it where it must rest, namely, with His Majesty's Government, but I would suggest that an extension of a further two or three weeks at all events should be allowed.


My Lords, the letter of the Chief Secretary gives a great deal of valuable information, but there is no mention whatever in Mr. Birrell's letter of the class who might possibly elect to take Stock entirely. The presumption would be that the offer of Stock is one which should be held out as an inducement to vendors, so that they may be paid more quickly probably than the other classes. I do not know whether the noble Lord can give us any information as to whether the cases of those who elect to take Stock only will be considered pari passu with the other two cases—those who take cash and those who take half cash and half Stock


My Lords, I was glad to be able to impart to the noble Earl and his colleagues from Ireland some information which they regard, I gather, as not wholly unsatisfactory—at any rate not of such an unsatisfactory character as I am afraid they consider some of the statements which I have had to make in this House. As the noble Earl has left the Question on the Paper, although it has been answered in the Chief Secretary's letter, with regard to the amount of cash that the Treasury intend to provide during the forthcoming year, perhaps I may be allowed to state what the figures are. The total amount of cash to be advanced for this purpose for the forthcoming year is £5,000,000. Of this £2,000,000 will go to vendors who receive payment wholly in cash, £2,000,000 to those who take half in Stock and half in cash, £500,000 for sales to the Estates Commissioners, and £500,000 to the Congested Districts Board. I believe that that allocation is not regarded as unsatisfactory by noble Lords opposite. The point at issue between us is the date up to which landowners may schedule their agreements with the Estates Commissioners. We have fixed the date of April 1, and we hold that it is in the interests of all parties concerned that that date should be retained. We consider that we have given due and ample notice in this matter. The Regulations were published six weeks ago, four months have elapsed since the Act came into operation, and there was an identical section in the Bill of 1908 to that which is in the Act of 1909 which outlined pretty clearly what the conditions would be; and I think anybody who read the clause in that Bill and followed the subsequent debates in Parliament, as I have no doubt landlords who contemplate selling under the Land Purchase Act have done, might have been in a position to make up his mind as to what would be the most advantageous course for him to pursue.

The noble Earl, Lord Donoughmore, says that the amount of cash available makes a great difference. I think it must have been known at all events approximately, what the amount of cash was likely to be, and I cannot see that the knowledge of the actual amount of cash should make a difference to those landlords who did not know under which register it would be most advantageous to them to have their estates scheduled. Lord Clonbrock spoke of the hardship of certain gentlemen who are abroad. He referred to one gentleman who he said is in the Sahara Desert. Well, I am not quite sure that it is possible for him to get home by June 1, or that he would be in any better position if the time was extended to June 1 as suggested by the noble Earl. Therefore I am afraid we are obliged to adhere to the date which we have laid down. There are bound always to be cases of hardship of this kind occurring in connection with any specific date, but I do not think the cases of hardship will be many, and they will certainly not be so numerous as if we allowed the date to be altered and compelled persons who thought that they might lodge their agreements at once to wait another two months. That would certainly be a hardship to them. As it is, if anybody is uncertain how the operation of the Act will work he has only to wait one year—namely, till April 1, 1911; therefore these people will only lose one year at the outside. I am afraid we cannot accede to the request made by Lord Donoughmore that the date should be altered.


My Lords, the noble Lord told us that he was happy to be a harbinger of good tidings at any rate on one occasion, and I wish he had been able to carry that out to the full by making the concession for which my noble friends have asked. I am afraid that the Government have hardly appreciated how much they will defeat their own aims by the arrangement which they have made. I do not wish to be in the least unreasonable. We all know what the difficulties are at this moment of providing a sufficiency of cash, and it is quite obvious that the desire of the Executive must be to induce as many owners as possible to accept a portion in Stock in order that the cash which it is so difficult to find may be made to go as far as possible. How can that be in the circumstances under which these landlords are asked to make their selection? The noble Lord said he did not see what the amount of cash available would have to do with it; but, my Lords, it is of the essence of the whole matter. Take a man who sold his estate four or five years ago and is still waiting. His tenants all the time have been paying three and a-half per cent. when they expected to be almost at once admitted to the halcyon position of paying three and a-quarter per cent and also paying off the purchase money. He now sees only £2,000,000 of cash assigned to vendors in his position who had been expecting cash, while he sees that £4,000,000—£2,000,000 in cash and £2,000,000 in Stock—will be assigned pari passu to those who come forward and say that, owing to the state of their estates and the absence of mortgages or for other reasons, they can afford what is really the serious loss as between the three and a-half per cent now received and the three per cent. which those who have settled estates will receive if they elect to take Stock instead of cash. There are 5,330 persons on the register at this moment, and according to that priority it is by no means impossible that in the first year those vendors who are as low down as, say, number 1,000 will find themselves placed and their estates taken in priority to those who are as high on the list as number 100. That is really a serious position of things.

I fear that the Government have dealt somewhat hardly with those who can only afford to take cash in assigning an equal amount to those who can afford to take Stock. I think myself that if a larger proportion had been assigned, say £3,000,000 to the one and £1,000,000 to the other—which would mean that £3,000,000 would be given directly and £2,000,000 would be taken by those who can take half Stock and half cash—a better result would have been attained. But the Government, by pressing for the answer by April 1, will almost inevitably drive a large number of people to elect for cash who would otherwise elect for Stock; and if the vendor wished to change afterwards, though by the Regulations it is quite true that an applicant may transfer from one register to another, in that case he would take priority on the register to which he is transferred as from the date of transfer. He therefore would go right down to the bottom of the list of those who happened to have elected for Stock. I think that, in their own interests, the Government ought to allow a longer period in order to enable those who at this moment will certainly elect for cash—and they will include the whole of the persons mentioned by Lord Clonbrock and all others who are at this moment out of the country, for no one acting for them could possibly consent to take Stock at a discount without their consent—to fully consider the situation and not be forced into the cash register from which the Government desire to remove as many vendors as possible. I would urge the Government even now to reconsider the matter and see whether another month could not be allowed in which to enable these men to make their selection. Obviously whatever plan is now adopted is likely to be made a precedent for the future. I hope that as a result of this conversation it will be possible for the Chief Secretary to reconsider this most important point, and by extending the time give what would certainly be satisfaction to large classes connected with the sale of land in Ireland.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, like the other noble Lords who have taken part in this discussion, stated his case with great moderation. Of course, the whole question is really that of the greatest public convenience, which it naturally would be the desire of the Irish Government to meet. But I cannot help thinking that some noble Lords have rather overstated their case in implying that it was not until the letter of the Chief Secretary was published that it was possible for anybody to make up his mind what course he would take. We indicated very fully, in the course of the debates, what would be the probable allocation, and that allocation—I am speaking from memory, but I think I am correct—has been practically adhered to; and I certainly should have thought that it would have been open to any man who was contemplating an application to take it as probable that the allocation which we foretold would be the actual allocation and to lay his plans accordingly. Of course, if there had been some extraordinary disturbance in the money market, some great national crisis which had prevented the issue of the £2,000,000 cash and the £2,000,000 to be combined with the £2,000,000 of Stock, and also the further sum provided for what have been called the subsidiary transactions—of course, if that had happened their expectations might conceivably have been upset. But I confess it is not clear to me why any landlord who contemplated a sale should not have been able with his legal advisers to come to a definite conclusion as to which class he would go into according to the circumstances of his estate—which, of course, have not altered since then—assuming that the £5,000,000 of which we spoke were available. Therefore I confess that the plea for delay does not seem to me as strong as noble Lords have endeavoured to make it.

As regards the question raised by Lord Barrymore, the point had not been brought before me, but I think he may take it as quite certain that no man will be damnified as regards priorities by his taking the course which is, of course, the most agreeable of any to the Irish Government—that of offering to take all his payment in Stock; and I think it may fairly be assumed that he and his class will have as fair a chance as others and come in relative order with those who apply in other ways. Of course, we shall be happy to convey to my right hon. friend the Chief Secretary the strong expression of opinion of noble Lords opposite; but in view of the fact that it is, I believe, the deliberate opinion of the Irish Government that more people would suffer by postponement than would gain, I am afraid I cannot hold out very much hope that my right hon. friend will be able to reconsider his decision on the subject. One is very sorry for gentlemen who find themselves in remote parts of the world, but it seems to me that a man who goes off into distant parts of the Empire or outside the Empire when a transaction of this kind is immediately pending has really only himself to thank if he is not on the spot to make up his mind at the moment when he is asked to do so. But, as I say, I will inform my right hon. friend of the strong expression of opinion given in your Lordships' House to-day, though I am not sanguine that he will be able to change his mind.


My Lords, I am afraid that if the noble Earl is obdurate, or nearly obdurate, to the appeal made to him by my noble friends behind me, I am not likely to say much that will move him from his resolve. But I take note of the fact that the noble Earl said it was the desire of the Irish Government to meet the public convenience in regard to this matter. Now my noble friend Lord Donoughmore brought forward the testimony of bodies which surely ought to be able to speak with an immense weight of authority as to the matter of public convenience. My noble friend cited not only the resolution of the Irish Landowners' Convention, but the resolutions of the Executive Committee of the Land Agents Branch of the Surveyors Institution and of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland. I confess that if, in estimating public convenience, you are to weigh the unanimous opinion of these bodies on the one hand against the opinion of the officials of the Irish Office on the other, I should be very much inclined to attach more weight to the outside and independent testimony of these bodies, composed as they are of thoroughly competent men, than I should attach to merely official opinion. The fact remains that the parties interested in these large and important transactions are really only given a few days in which to make up their minds. I was glad that the noble Earl did not entirely close the door, and I trust that he will inform his colleague of the strong feeling on the subject entertained in Ireland. But I rose mainly with the object of calling attention to the fact that to the best of my belief a question put by my noble friend Lord Barrymore has not been answered. Lord Barrymore asked for information as to the position of those vendors who elect to be paid entirely in Stock. We understand from the Chief Secretary's letter that £5,000,000 altogether are to be devoted to these purposes. Of those £5,000,000, £2,000,000 go to transactions entirely in cash, £2,000,000 to transactions half in cash and half in Stock, and the remaining £1,000,000 half to the Estates Commissioners and half to the Congested Districts Board. My noble friend wanted to know what would be the position of the vendor who elected to take Stock and Stock alone. Is there any limit to the amount of transactions in Stock as there is a limit to the amount of transactions half in Stock and half in cash or entirely in cash, or may we understand that the amount of transactions in Stock alone is to be limited only by the pace at which, with due official convenience, the Stock can be issued and the different estates upon the all-Stock register dealt with by the responsible officials.


My right hon. friend, when asked that question in the other House, replied that the amount of two and three-quarters per cent. Stock which may be issued during a year for advances to vendors who may agree to take all Stock is only limited by the number of such cases which the Land Commission can administratively dispose of in addition to the other classes.


I am much obliged to the noble Earl. I think that answers my noble friend's question.