HL Deb 02 December 1912 vol 13 cc2-16

THE EARL of HALSBURY rose to ask the Lord Chancellor whether the distribution of printed matter without the name and address of the printer in legible characters on the matter so distributed is not an offence punishable by a fine of five pounds for each copy of the matter so distributed; and to call attention to the circumstances under which certain papers have been distributed.

The noble and learned Earl said: My Lords, before addressing to the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack the Question of which I have given notice I think it desirable to explain that there has been distributed very widely over Great Britain a number of documents, in connection with which I will not impute anything that I cannot absolutely prove but which look to me very much as if the person who had devised them had intended them to be understood as official and authoritative documents that required to be answered, and I know certainly of more than one person having been misled into the belief that failure to comply would subject them to a penalty. In pursuance of that belief a great number of these documents have been answered—how we do not know, but upon that I shall have a word to say presently. I should like your Lordships to understand the sort of documents these are. I hold two of them in my hand. They are headed "Private and Confidential," and their origin and object are expressed very neatly in these words— The fact that this inquiry is definitely for the object of providing information for a Liberal Government makes it naturally difficult to expect help from those who are opponents; but there may be a good many cases in which such opponents, if they are convinced that the real object is to get at the facts impartially stated, may be willing to give information. In such cases information would be readily welcomed. I do not suppose anybody familiar with public affairs will be misled by such phrases as that the facts are to be "impartially stated." Of course, you cannot expect that a person would ask for facts not to be impartially stated. Neither, I suppose, would anybody he misled by the statement that it is only intended to get facts and not to derive inferences, and that people should be very careful what they say. Those are words which anybody distributing documents of the sort would be likely to use; but if I were to go through the questions—I do not know whether your Lordships have observed what a volume there is—I might point out that the tone and object of the interrogatories are such as to make them what we would call in the Law Courts leading questions.

But my object is not so much to call attention to the actual questions themselves, some of which I dare say might be usefully and properly asked before an impartial inquiry which sat in public and heard witnesses, in which case—and this is, perhaps, the most important point of all—the answers given, however favourable or unfavourable to the person asking the question, would be published and known; but this volume of questions is presented to Great Britain to be answered, so it is suggested, by every town and village in it, and the inquiry is to be private and confidential. The questions scattered through these documents show the tone of the inquirer. How much the land is kept away from being built upon and affording opportunities for small cottages for small people, etc.—what questions of that sort can be put can be easily imagined. But, as I have said, if His Majesty's Government would be good enough to appoint a Com- mittee and ask these same questions only in public and not secretly and not regard the information as private and confidential, I do not think anybody would complain. It is, however, obvious that a roving inquiry of this sort over all these fields may produce, and no doubt will sometimes produce, ill-feeling between landlord and tenant, which appears to be the object principally aimed at here. These questions if properly asked might very properly be put, and the responsibility would lie upon the persons with respect to whom they are said whether they would take notice of them or not; but what one does object to here is a collection of malevolent gossip by private and confidential inquiries, when no one will see the answers except the person who has been good enough to print all this, and no one will know what the accusation is that is made. I can imagine that in view of a General Election it might be convenient enough for a collection of this sort to be given into the hands of a candidate, without any authority and without any knowledge of where it comes from, as an example of the way in which land is held in this country and the sort of treatment that small tenants receive, etc., etc. I can imagine a good many electoral speeches made on this subject without the least authority beyond saying "I have been told" so on and so on, and perhaps the speakers might add "privately and confidentially," that such are the relations between landlord and tenant in that neighbourhood. It is most formidable that this sort of thing should be allowed with the qualified approval—I am not quite certain of the exact phrase I ought to use—with, I think, the qualified approval of the Prime Minister given in reply to a Question addressed to him in the other House.

My first objection is that the distribution of this printed matter in this way is contrary to law, and that is why I ask the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack whether the Statute to which I refer does not forbid it. That if it is in force it does forbid it there is no question. No question can arise about the language of the Statute, because it says that "any printed matter whatsoever" shall require the printer's name and address, and that in respect of every document distributed without the printer's name and address a fine of £5 may be enforced. I suspect that if I could attach the person who did this it would be rather a large fine that he would incur, from what I hear. But if it is contrary to law I suppose the answer would naturally be, Why not prosecute? Therein appears to me to come in the responsibility of His Majesty's Government. The old Act, the 93rd, I think it was, of George III, is repealed whereby anybody could prosecute, and now only the Law Officers of the Crown can prosecute. It is within their power to suppress this. But to again quote the language of the gentleman who contrived this document, the inquiry is "definitely for the object of providing information for a Liberal Government." That is what seems to me to bring in the responsibility of the Government; and if this is contrary to law—and I should be very much surprised to hear the Lord Chancellor say it is not—they are, by noninterference at all events, approving of this proceeding, which appears to me so liable to produce ill-feeling as it is so obviously information, unauthoritative and anonymous, for a Liberal Government at election time. It is to be "secret" and "confidential," and this is the sort of inquiry which is to proceed all over the Kingdom, and whenever an election occurs it would not surprise me very much to hear that a good deal of the information so collected was being put at the convenience of Liberal candidates. Having made that preliminary statement of my object, I ask my noble and learned friend the Question of which I have given notice.


My Lords, I do not know why the noble and learned Earl should find anything so unusual in the course that has been taken to make inquiry in the matter to which his Question refers. This inquiry is being made by Mr. Lloyd George. No Minister can divest himself of his official capacity, but so far as it can be done he is doing it unofficially. The cost of the inquiry is not defrayed out of any public funds, nor is it defrayed out of Party funds. The inquiry is being made quite unofficially under the direction of a gentleman who was a very well-known member of the other House at one time—Mr. Arthur Acland. The object is to collect information for Mr. Lloyd George, who wishes when he has got a certain amount of information to know where he stands on a very great and important question. I conceive that to be a perfectly legitimate mode of procedure. It may be followed by a public inquiry hereafter. It may be that the information will come to nothing. It may be that it will come to a great deal. It is obvious that it is not official information and cannot be information which is binding on anybody until it has been considered and further steps taken in order to sift it. That is my comment on the first part of my noble and learned friend's Question.

Now I come to his next proposition. He says that he has grave objection to this on the ground that it is an illegal proceeding under the terms of an Act of Parliament. I think he refers to the Newspapers Act of 1869. That Act I have here, and the terms of it are very simple. It is a venerable and somewhat musty revival or keeping alive of a part of the Statute of George III, which was passed at a time when the country was in great fear of seditious movements. The particular section has been kept alive with some alterations as regards penalties, to which the noble and learned Earl has referred, but kept alive to this extent. The original Act was repealed by the Statute of 2 and 3 Victoria, and now 2 and 3 Victoria is repealed, but two sections of that Statute are kept alive which are material for the present purpose. The relative section is Section 2 of the Newspapers Act, 1869, which says this— Every person who shall print any paper or book whatsoever which shall be meant to be published or dispersed, and who shall not print upon the front of every such paper, if the same shall be printed on one side only, or upon the first or last leaf of every paper or book which shall consist of more than one leaf, in legible characters, his or her name and usual place of abode or business, and every person who shall publish or disperse, or assist in publishing or dispersing, any printed paper or book on which the name and place of abode of the person printing the same shall not have been printed as aforesaid, shall for every copy of such paper or book so printed by hint or her forfeit a sum not more than £5. And then it is provided that without the initiative of the Law Officers of the Crown the penalty cannot be recovered. I agree that that is a most formidable section, antiquated as it may be, if the penalties have been incurred; but I can reassure your Lordships upon this point.

In order to make the penalties recoverable there must be publication or dispersal. Now "dispersal" means broadcast dispersal. It does not mean sending a private document to private persons selected and picked for the purpose. Certainly I do not disperse a letter if I post it to some particular person, nor do I disperse 200 letters if I post them to named persons. Dispersal means something akin to dispersal broadcast. I have made careful inquiry, and I find that in all cases the recipients of these circulars have been selected. In fact, that is one of the things to which the noble and learned Earl objects. The circulars have not been dispersed; they have not been published; they have been sent to people who are able to give information. Careful inquiries have been made as to who the people should be who should receive the circulars, and here and there persons have turned out not to be so friendly to the inquiry as they were expected to be and have published the documents in the newspapers or something of that sort. But as for dispersal, there has been no dispersal in this case.

Now what is dispersal? I am able to give your Lordships an example of what dispersal is. The inquiry to which the noble and learned Earl has referred is not the only inquiry which is being made at the present time. There is a rival body, an important and unofficial body, called the Rural League, which has been set on foot, it is said, to get at the truth. Its president is the Right Hon. Jesse Collings, and it has a set of vice-presidents comprising many distinguished persons, including the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition in this House. This body sent out a circular headed "Important and Urgent." This circular runs— DEAR SIR,—The Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the consent of the Prime Minister, has appointed a committee to inquire into the question of the further taxation of land, or land values, in the rural districts. The Rural League feel that it is the intention of the Government, sooner or later, to place further taxation on agricultural land, whether owned by cottagers, small holders, village tradesmen, farmers, or larger landlords. Accordingly the executive committee of the League have themselves just appointed a sub-committee (consisting almost entirely of those who cultivate land) to ascertain what the effect of the taxation proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his friends would be. That taxation would be on the capital value of the land. I am therefore requested to ask you if you would be so kind as to reply to the questions on the enclosed form; or to get some other person to do so who is interested in agricultural land. I am sending the form out extensively, and I shall be glad to send you further copies if you can get them filled up, and if you will be so kind as to apply to me for the same. You will, I am sure, recognise the importance of the matter. And then the secretary (Mr. J. L. Green) adds— A report on the information obtained will be duly published, but without, of course, giving the names of those supplying the particulars and without in any way identifying the properties. Appended to that is a list of questions. I look upon this as a most valuable procedure, because you get thereby a great deal of information which is not binding upon you and into which you can inquire; and if it appears profitable you can investigate it still further and subject the thing to the scrutiny of the official expert. But attached to the questions in the Rural League's circular is this note— Liberals propose to tax any village labourer, widow, shopkeeper, tradesman, farmer, or other person who owns a bit of land. It is to be an annual tax of 1d., 2d., or 3d. in the £ on the total value. The following will show how the proposal would work. I have myself no knowledge of these proposals, but it is desirable that somebody should make all the inquiries possible, and I am sure we are all glad of knowledge, however obtained.

The secretary to the Rural League has accompanied his circular by a letter to the newspapers which I have in my hand, in which he contrasts his mode of sending round the League's questions with the mode adopted by the other Committee. The other Committee, he says, proceeded in a hole-and-corner way. They sent round questions in quite a different fashion from the way in which the Rural League is sending round its questions. For whereas the other Committee is not circulating its questions in a generous form but in a fashion which I have described to your Lordships, Mr. Green says— On the other hand, look at the League's inquiry so far as fairness is concerned. For instance, it has been made by means of forms sent to some 3,000 people occupying land— cottagers, small holders, small farmers, and larger occupants—the forms being sent by post from this office direct to individuals, irrespective of politics and without the intervention of Liberal, Conservative, or any other agents to put leading questions, and so on. Mr. Lloyd George's inquiry is being made through Liberal agents, all of whom know the sort of answers that are expected to the inquiries put, and who will no doubt achieve the end they have in view. As far as the Rural League's inquiry goes, it must, I think, be admitted that it is impossible for me or for any one else to pick out 3,000 names from agricultural publications all of whom would be of one political way of thinking. As a matter of fact, I have not the slightest idea of the politics of the people to whom the forms were sent; whilst the replies, which came to hand in shoals, have been tabulated just as they came in. Compare this with the Chancellor of the Excheqer's methods. Ours is at least open and above board; whilst the other is a backstairs inquiry of the meanest possible description. What does that mean? It means that the unfortunate senders out of the Rural League's circular have made themselves liable, under the terms of the Statute to which I have referred, to large penalties. I do not share my noble and learned friend's regret that the Law Officers of the Crown have discretion as to whether proceedings shall be taken in a matter of this kind, and I will promise my noble and learned friend that so far as I am concerned I will use any small influence I possess to prevent the Law Officers of the Crown prosecuting those who have made these, as I think, very useful inquiries, though I wish they had been made in a tone a little more complimentary to the Liberal Party. I have demonstrated the difference between the two modes of inquiry from the letter by Mr. Green to the newspapers, and this has made it unnecessary for me to go into the details. In the case of the Rural League there has been a clear dispersal, and therefore the case comes within the penalty; but in the other case in which the inquiries were addressed to selected persons, though I have the profoundest respect for the opinion of my noble and learned friend I doubt whether he will contend that there has been in that case a dispersal within the meaning of the Act. As to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's inquiry I cannot help thinking that it will for better or for worse put us in possession of information which we did not have before.


If my noble and learned friend challenges me as to my opinion I should have not the slightest doubt in the world in saying that the printed matter to which I refer has been dispersed to a very great extent.


My Lords, when I came down to the House this afternoon and read the noble and learned Earl's Question I had not the smallest conception of what it meant, but the noble Earl in putting it unmasked his batteries and I think with a great deal of what he said most people would be in agreement. He said he had no objection to questions being asked before a Public Committee. I do not suppose any human being would have any objection to that. But what he objected to was the tone of this inquiry. He objected to the inquiry because it was a roving one. He stated that it was calculated to raise ill-feeling between landlord and tenant, and he went on to talk about malevolent gossip and ended as he began by stating his objections to a private inquiry. But we have heard from my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack that, after all, there cannot be so very much harm in this because it is a private inquiry. The inquiry did not start with any ill-feeling between landlord and tenant, and I do not for one moment suggest that the inquiry which is being conducted on the other side has for its object the provoking of malevolent gossip. But it seems to me that precisely the same inquiry is being conducted by the Party to which noble Lords opposite belong, and the object naturally is in that case to obtain information for a Tory Government. There does not seem to me to be very much objection to that.

As to whether or not it is contrary to law, of course as a layman I dare not for a moment express an opinion upon that. But I should like to point out to the House that this is not at all a new thing. Many years ago a noble Lord on the other side of the House said to me in confidence, "You know we are looking very sharply into your estate, and making some very grave inquiries into how things are managed on your estate." The inquiries were really practical ones, because a well-known London land agent and a land agent for one of the largest properties in England took a drive through the portion of the country in which I happen to have a farm or two, and, curiously enough, the horse became a little exhausted and they had to pull up exactly opposite a farm which belonged to me. The horse was so thirsty that they said to a man in the cottage, "Do you think anybody would be kind enough to give us a pail of water?" The man said "Certainly," and he gave them water for the horse. The animal put his slobbering mouth and filthy bit into the pail and drank his fill, and then some of the remaining water was taken up to London and analysed, and your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that it was hardly up to sample. Then they went into one of my cottages where there was a smoky chimney, which sometimes happens in ducal castles, I believe. The ceiling was black and the house was, I confess, not in as spick-and-span a condition as it ought to have been; but, of course, as your Lordships know, the tenant does all the inside repairs. I was astonished to see in The Times two or three days afterwards a long letter about the cottages which I happened to have built for £150 apiece, and the world was told that Lord Carrington's cottages were unfit for human habitation. I did not complain of that. I did not believe it was done from any malevolent reason or to bring discredit on the office which I held or the Party to which I belonged, and I only mention it now to show that inquiries, and very practical inquiries, have been made at different times in different parts of England as regards people's property.

This discussion shows one thing very clearly—namely, what a wise man the late Lord Beaconsfield was. Your Lordships have no doubt read the second volume of Lord Beaconsfield's "Life," written by the late Mr. Monypenny, in which Lord Beaconsfield is reported to have said— In an aristocratic country like England, if you want any extreme thing said or done you should always get a patrician to do it. And he clinches his argument by the well-known remark that— Wat Tyler was hanged, but Bolingbroke founded a dynasty; Jack Straw was also hanged, but the Right Hon. John Straw might become a Secretary of State. I do think this proves how extraordinary a judge of human nature Lord Beaconsfield was and how acute an intellect he had, for this discussion shows, if it shows nothing else, that one man may steal a horse but that it is a criminal offence for another man to look over the hedge while the horse is being stolen.


My Lords, whether those who are responsible for the publication of these documents have or have not brought themselves within the meshes of the law is a point which I must leave to the two noble and learned Lords who have addressed us this evening, but I wish to say one word as to an argument used by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack which apparently gave him great satisfaction—the argument, namely, that the procedure followed by the authors of these papers is comparable with that followed by those who are responsible for the management of the affairs of the Rural League. It is no doubt the case that the Rural League has endeavoured by circulars and otherwise to collect information about various questions connected with agriculture. But surely there is this fundamental difference between the operations of the Rural League and the operations of this nameless committee—that in the case of the Rural League no attempt has been made to base upon the information collected an attack upon a particular class, and, what is still more to the point, that in the case of the Rural League no attempt has been made to parade the inquiry in a kind of semiofficial disguise. The Rural League, to the best of my belief, never has had anything to do with Public Departments. I can remember pretty distinctly the inception of the League. I think my noble friend behind me (Lord St. Aldwyn) was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am quite certain that we never ran round to him to ask him to authorise us to say that our proceedings were instituted at his desire. That, it seems to me, at once establishes a clear distinction between the two inquiries.

I cannot help regretting that the noble and learned Viscount did not give us a little more information as to the second part of my noble and learned friend's Question, that which had reference to the circumstances under which these papers have been distributed. I sometimes wonder whether we shall ever succeed in obtaining from His Majesty's Government a coherent account of the origin and purpose of this inquiry. What are we told about it? On the one hand, it is said to be an informal and unofficial inquiry. On the other hand, we find one of the Government Whips appointed to take part in its proceedings, and we have had from the Prime Minister or from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—I forget which—an admission that the questions embodied in these circulars were actually submitted to His Majesty's Government and approved by them. Then there are papers which are being circulated—I have a copy of one of them here—in which the writer, who describes himself as the head organiser of this inquiry, begins his letter by saying, "You may have heard of the informal inquiry which has been instituted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer." Well, it is instituted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but, as we have heard to- night, it is not paid for out of public funds. The sinews of war are found, unless we are misinformed, by certain benevolent millionaires, with a distinct Party complexion.

Then look at the boundless area covered by this inquiry. Look at the countless problems it raises. And remember, my Lords, we were told in the month of July last by the noble Marquess who leads the House—I am sorry he is not here this evening—that this information was going to be used by His Majesty's Government at sonic future time. In spite of the fact that this information is to be so used, we have an inquiry of, it cannot be denied, a purely partisan character. I ask your Lordships to consider the extent of the ground covered by this investigation. Your Lordships have no doubt seen the circulars, which have appeared in the public Press. I take at a venture a few of the subjects which are going to be investigated. The social and economic conditions in the rural parts of Great Britain—that is a pretty large order to begin with. Questions like co-operation, the law of entail, the game laws, primogeniture, railway rates, transit facilities, the whole question of rating, Crown lands, small holdings. That is the agricultural part of the inquiry, and there is a not less copious bill of fare in regard to the urban portion. Besides that there is a further series of interrogatories with regard to the Scottish branch of the question. This inquiry is a colossal inquiry. It is an inquiry which would find ample work not for one Royal Commission but for two or three Royal Commissions.

And what adds to the wonder of the whole story is that we find that His Majesty's Government, or at any rate the more conspicuous members of it, cannot even wait until this Committee has begun to collect evidence, but are already pronouncing the conclusions at which they have arrived. I wonder whether most of your Lordships have seen the speech made two or three evenings ago by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Scotland. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is not going to wait until he gets this evidence before him in order to make up his mind what is the matter. Remember we had it from Lord Crewe last year that this inquiry was to deal with the Scottish land question, and in particular with the question of rural depopulation. Well, here is what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say on the subject. He announces that in Scotland every year scores of thousands of the most able-bodied, robust young fellows are fleeing from their native land as if it were stricken with pestilence. He is not going bank to the history of the depopulation of the Highlands. He is describing what is happening "every year" at the present time. He speaks of great tracts lying waste, "turned over to deer and grouse." "The people," he says, "have been driven off amongst other things by the difficulty of obtaining sites for houses"—every one knows that the housing problem is not the difficulty in obtaining sites but the difficulty of finding money to build houses—"and by sport." All this is laid to the charge of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is pleased to call the feudal system. Whether the feudal system ever had anything to do with grouse moors and deer forests I really am not aware. Nor, I fancy, had it much to do with the system of ninety-years leases as we know them in Scotland.

My complaint is that this language used by one of the most conspicuous members of His Majesty's Government is altogether without that quality of impartiality which has been claimed on behalf of the promoters of this inquiry. He entirely ignores the investigations that have already taken place into the question of agriculture, and particularly into the question of agriculture in Scotland—inquiries which have thrown a great deal of light on this question of rural depopulation, and which I think would have shown the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he is altogether mistaken in believing that the movement from the country to the town—which has taken place not only in Scotland but in other parts of the United Kingdom, and not only in the United Kingdom but in foreign countries as well—is entirely due to the preservation of game or to the spread of deer forests. Again, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appears to have forgotten all the legislation for which his own Government has been responsible for the purpose of improving the position and adding to the security of those who till the land, and particularly in that very part of Scotland to which his remarks had reference. Can His Majesty's Government be surprised that these kinds of ebullition should occasion a certain amount of alarm? Lord Crewe last year endeavoured to reassure us. He told us that our apprehensions were not well founded. He deprecated in particular what he called "sensation-mongering." Was a more sensational speech than that which I have just quoted ever delivered by an English Statesman? And above all things Lord Crewe begged us not to be too credulous about these statements. I deplore these outbreaks. I deplore these statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he intends to what he calls "burst up" the present land system. I venture to say that that is not the proper frame of mind in which to approach the consideration of this enormously important question. We know there is a land question. We are anxious to help to solve it. Many of us in a humble way have done something in that direction ourselves. But, my Lords, if the question is to be approached on the one hand by the kind of surreptitious inquiries which we are discussing this evening, and on the other by inflammatory speeches of the kind which I have just quoted, made before any evidence has been collected, we must despair of a reasonable and statesmanlike solution of the difficulty which we all desire to solve.


My Lords, this discussion, like some others which I have listened to in this House before, has not been productive of ally facts except some autobiographical details furnished by the noble Marquess opposite, the ex-Agricultural Minister—information which he is always ready to supply upon any occasion. On this particular occasion I have gathered that a horse's thirst was assuaged at the door of one of his farms, that the chimney of one of his cottages smoked, and we have had also his impression upon the recent volume of Lord. Beaconsfield's "Life" which appeared the other day. These facts are no doubt interesting in themselves, but they do not appear to have any particular bearing on the question we have been discussing, and I only rise to ask one single and extremely simple question. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack informed us, I thought with particular care, that this inquiry was not paid for out of public funds and he said it was not paid for out of Party funds. In that case I confess I feel some legitimate curiosity to know who is actually providing the funds. It seems to me that if this is the meritorious investigation which we are assured that it is by noble Lords opposite, it is only right and fit that the names of these public benefactors should be disclosed as soon as possible, and I hope that without any further delay noble Lords opposite will relieve my anxiety on the subject.


In answer to the noble Lord who has just spoken I may say that I have not the least idea who is finding the money. But this I do know, that a very large number of persons are greatly interested in the land question as in other questions, and whenever money is needed for an inquiry of this kind there is no difficulty in finding it.


May I be allowed to suggest to the Lord Chancellor that perhaps his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be able to furnish him with the information.