HL Deb 25 June 1912 vol 12 cc166-77

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Lucas.)


My Lords, before the House goes into Committee upon this Bill I should like, in the words of the Notice standing in my name on the Paper, to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the objections which have been raised by agricultural bodies to this Bill, and to inquire whether in the circumstances the Government are still of opinion that it is desirable to proceed with the measure. Your Lordships are aware that during the Second Reacting debate a few weeks ago we on this side of the House criticised the most important parts of the Bill. We showed, I think, that while some system of counter-notice might in certain circumstances meet one particular grievance under which agriculturists suffer—which is that in certain cases a tenant whose farm is sold very shortly before the expiry of his tenancy is placed in a very difficult position because he has not time in which to make full arrangements with the new owner or to find another farm—the particular system which the Government have adopted cannot help those tenants. We also showed, I think very clearly, that no system of counter-notice can in reality touch even the fringe of the difficulties which have recently born pointed out as confronting agricultural, tenants.

In the interval since the Second Reading of this Bill the view which we took on this side of the House has been abundantly proved by the protests which have been received from agricultural bodies. The Government, I have no doubt, have seen from those protests that these bodies are entirely dissatisfied with the scheme that has been brought before them. The Bill has met with a chorus of disapproval, I think almost of ridicule. It cannot be satisfactory to agriculturists in any way. I do not wish to labour the reports which I myself have received from these bodies. I have no doubt they are all in the possession of the Government, and that they have considered them, but I think for the information of the House I ought to read extracts from two or three of these reports from the chief bodies. First, there is the report of the Central Chamber of Agriculture. At the last meeting of the Council of that body the following resolution was passed— The Council regrets to have to express its extreme disappointment that the only remedy proposed by the Government to meet the serious position of tenant farmers created by the breaking-up of agricultural estates is the totally inadequate Agricultural Holdings Bill now before the House of Lords. It urges, first, that the Bill should be withdrawn; secondly, that the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1908, should be so amended as to secure full compensation for those compelled to leave their holdings; and, thirdly, that legislation to provide State aid for those tenants who have an opportunity of purchasing their holdings should be introduced forthwith. Then we have the Farmers' Club. They have issued a report upon the measure, in the course of which they say— The Committee of the Farmers' Club consider that the real remedy at the present time is State-aided purchase, and that any other suggestions are mere palliatives which do not meet the main object, which is to keep the tenant in his farm so that he can feel such security as will lead to better cultivation. The Committee believe, therefore, that the tenant farmers will not be satisfied with the Bill now brought in, and will feel that their cause is being neglected by the Government by reason of the omission of legislation on the most important recommendation made by the Departmental Committee. The National Farmers' Union has not met, but the chairman of that body, in a letter, says that he is bitterly disappointed that the Government have done nothing in the matter of State-aided purchase, and also that though the Bill might be amended lie cannot believe that any amendment would be of advantage to the tenant farmer.

In addition to those three main bodies, there are a large number of reports from the chambers and clubs affiliated to the Central Chamber. I think one at least has been issued to your Lordships. The Chester Farmers' Club say this— The members of this club are strongly of opinion that the proposed amendment of the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1908, as contained in Lord Lucas's Bill, is most undesirable, and hope the Bill will not become law. There are many others which I do not propose to read to your Lordships. I think this is a very fair indication of agricultural feeling. In fact, it is difficult to find a single case, although there are two or three, where chambers have in any sense supported this measure, and I think in every case where they have supported it they have suggested considerable amendments. I ask the Government whether in the circumstances it is worth while to continue pressing a measure intended for the benefit of agriculturists, but which agriculturists themselves seem to have almost entirely and unanimously repudiated, and, further, whether it would not he better to withdraw this measure which aims only at a minor item, important certainly but comparatively small, in the grievances of farmers, and yet distinctly fails to carry out the objects with which it is brought in.

I do not wish to go over any of the points or arguments which we brought before the House at the Second Reading stage, but there is one point which I desire to lay before your Lordships. I understand that when the Government have received protests from farmers and farmers' clubs against their measure they have replied that the measure is brought in to carry out the express wishes of the Departmental Committee. I endeavoured to contradict that on the Second Reading, but I wish to say one word more about it. I think that the Government's answer must have been given under some misapprehension, because although it is certainly true that the Departmental Committee did recommend in their Report that some further extension of time should be given to tenants when their holdings were put up for sale, yet the Government imply in their answer that the views and intentions of the Committee in making that recommendation have been carried out in this Bill. That is, I think, inaccurate. I am quite certain that any of your Lordships who take the trouble to read the Committee's Report will see that the reason this particular recommendation, which, as I have said, is a minor recommendation—it is only one out of eight others—was put forward was as supplementary to their main recommendation of State-aided purchase, and particularly to carry out the idea that a tenant should have sufficient time after his farm is sold to make his arrangements. It is obvious that under this Bill he has not got that time, because it is just as probable that the owner will sell three months before the expiry of the counter-notice as it is natural that he should now sell three months before the expiry of his own notice. The tenant is therefore in no better position. The Bill does not carry out the recommendation of the Departmental Committee. The objection which farmers have to this Bill is, first of all, that it does not even carry out that minor recommendation; and, secondly, that the scheme of the Bill is quite insufficient. It does not even touch the main grievances of which tenant farmers now complain.

The anxiety and insecurity brought to tenant farmers by the breaking-up of estates is a new grievance and must be met in some way or another. It has been brought about to a large extent by the operations of the Small Holdings Act, and it has also been brought about to a large extent by recent legislation and recent taxation, which have made it necessary for owners to dispose of their estates; and the reason which has made it necessary for owners to dispose of their estates is the same reason which is preventing the large owner from buying. Formerly when the large owner bought it was necessary that he should have his farms well occupied by substantial tenants, but now the position is changed. The large owner is no longer in the market. When an estate is sold it has to be split up and sold farm by farm in order to attract the occupying owner, who is now the only person out to buy. Consequently when the existing tenant is unable himself to become the purchaser it is almost certain that he will be turned out of his farm to make room for the new owner, and that is the anxiety of tenant farmers at the present moment. I am quite certain that that anxiety and that insecurity cannot be remedied by tinkering at the law which deals with notice to quit. The farmers in their protests recognise this thoroughly, and say that this Bill is of no consequence or no use to them. The only remedy they can see is some scheme of State-aided land purchase, and they have expressed their extreme disappointment that the Government have refused to take up their grievances and settle them in the only way they think proper. I repeat my request that the Government should consider whether in the circumstances it would not be better for them to withdraw this measure and endeavour to bring in a f ally considered scheme to deal with the matter.


My Lords, it is very sad to hear the noble Lord opposite disown his own child in such an unequivocal fashion, all the more so as the reasons which he gives for it seem to be unconvincing lie states, which is no doubt the case, that the main recommendation of the Committee was that which dealt with State-aided purchase, and it was somewhat as an appendage to that that the majority of the Committee signed the particular recommendation which forms the main part of the Bill now before your Lordships. The reason which Lord Clinton gave for not being able to support this proposal as to the counter-notice is that we have not included in our Bill any proposals with regard to purchase.


The reason I object to this Bill is that it does not carry out the purpose for which it is intended, which is to give the tenant time to make his arrangements after the farm is sold.


I think the noble Lord has failed to make good that contention. What we have contended all through is that although you may occasionally have cases where it is possible that under the Bill the tenant may be in no better position than he is at the present time, undoubtedly you will have a large number of cases where the serving of the counter-notice will give the tenant a great deal more time than he now has. It will also tend to do another thing—namely, to stop this practice which has grown up quite recently of serving notice to quit upon the tenants before an estate is put up for sale. I think a number of cases could be quoted where the counter-notice will undoubtedly be of assistance to the tenant farmer.

To pass to the main point in Lord Clinton's speech, I am not going to try and maintain that this Bill has received the unanimous approval of the various organisations of farmers who have discussed it, but I would like to point out that the Bill has been criticised not so much for what it does contain as for what it does not contain, and the principal thing which it does not contain and which has led to criticism is any proposal with regard to State-aided purchase. Naturally the particular form of State-aided purchase which the farmers regret they do not see in this Bill is that which is recommended in Mr. Jesse Collings's Bill. On that Bill I have two remarks to make. The first is this. After all, one has to remember that the whole of this question from the point of view of the farmer is a financial question, and the test of whether or not a proposal is satisfactory- to him is whether under such a scheme he will be able to pay what he considers to be a fair economic rent for his farm. In the form in which Mr. Jesse Collings's Bill has been considered by the farmers' organisations, the finance of it is, to say the least, misleading, and for this reason. Until, I think, the edition which has been brought out this year it has been proposed to float Consols for the purpose—that is to say, £1,000,000,000 and £2,000,000,000 at a rate of interest of 2¾ per cent. and a sinking fund of ½ per cent., so that I think one is justified in saying that the finance of that proposal, which has been the one chiefly considered by farmers, is somewhat misleading. My second remark is this, that I do not think that. Bill has the faintest chance of becoming law.

The position of the Government is perfectly clear on the question of land purchase. Under present conditions we are definitely opposed to land purchase. I am extremely sceptical, in spite of all that has been said, whether we shall ever see coming from the Party opposite, if and when they ever come into power, any proposals for land purchase at all on anything like the scale contemplated by the people who are discussing this Bill. It will be interesting to see whether the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition is prepared to commit his Party to a policy of land purchase. I am profoundly sceptical of it. As a matter of fact, land purchase in this country is not within the realm of practical politics, and when people recognise that, and when a good deal of this rather windy talk on the subject of land purchase subsides, I think the farmers will realise that this Bill is going to be a better friend to them than the various proposals with regard to land purchase with which they are being bombarded at present. That is the reason, my Lords, why we have no intention of withdrawing the Bill.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that the House finds itself in rather an embarrassing position with regard to this Bill, and that of that embarrassment perhaps rather the larger share must be felt by the noble Lords who are responsible for the origin of the measure which we are discussing. Let me remind your Lordships of one or two rather obvious propositions. In the first place, this difficulty with which we have to deal is one for the creation of which His Majesty's Government are very largely responsible. I am quite aware that it has been contended—it was contended with great ability by the noble Marquess who leads the House the other day—that there are a number of causes which have contributed to the general desire, now so widely prevalent, on the part of owners of land to part with a large portion of their holding. On the other hand, it does seem to me, particularly when you consider the terms of the Report of Lord Haversham's Committee, preposterous to contend that the particular cause which more than all the others has contributed to force land into the market within the last year or two has not been the general apprehension caused in the minds of all land-owners by the language used by certain members of His Majesty's Government. Landowners may have been well content to receive only a very moderate return for their capital locked up in land. They may have been very well content to submit to the many cares and responsibilities which are inseparable from the possession of landed property. But when they are asked to do these things and also to be held up, as they have been held up, to execration—that is not too strong a word—and when they have been singled out, not once but many times over, for denunciation as the class of the community which beyond all others is greedy and rapacious in its dealings, then, human nature being what it is, you cannot be surprised that many owners of land should ask themselves whether it is worth their while to submit to all these sacrifices any longer. That is one proposition which I venture to affirm.

Then there is the grievance of the sitting tenant whose farm is sold over his head. That is admitted on both sides of the House. It is certainly not disputed by His Majesty's Government, and they could not dispute it in the face of the Report of their own Committee. His Majesty's Government appoint a Committee; they include amongst its members a number of gentlemen who are universally regarded as experts in regard to agricultural questions; and that Committee makes its Report. Well, the first thing His Majesty's Government do is to brush absolutely on one side the main recommendation of that Committee—the recommendation, I mean, which suggested that an attempt should be made, not universal but in the particular ease of sitting tenants disturbed in consequence of sales, to facilitate the acquisition of their holdings by those tenants. His Majesty's Government put that altogether on one side. Indeed, the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, in his speech the other evening banged and bolted the door against all proposals founded upon land purchase. There was also a remarkable article, which I read with much interest, over the signature of the noble Marquess on the Back Bench opposite, Lord Lincolnshire, in one of the periodical reviews—a kind of swan song of the retiring Minister and evidently expressing the views of his Department. He, too, was emphatic against purchase.

The noble Lord in charge of this Bill, Lord Lucas, asks me whether I am in favour of purchase. I do not know whether he was in the House the other day when the noble Marquess on the Back Bench opposite also challenged me upon that point. I told him that in regard to this particular class of tenant I was in favour of facilitating purchase, and I added that I believed it would be possible to do this without in any way committing oneself to a general and indiscriminate scheme for converting the whole of the tenant farmers of England into owners of their farms. Any proposal of the latter kind I should deprecate every whit as strongly as the noble Lord himself, for all the evidence, and notably the evidence taken by Lord Haversham's Committee, goes to show that the best thing that can happen for the agriculturists of this country is that the old relation of landlord and tenant should go on under conditions which give the tenant a sufficient amount of security.

Then His Majesty's Government, having dismissed the main recommendation of the Committee, concentrate upon the minor and ancillary suggestions. They do not take them all, but they take some of them and found their Bill upon those. What has the result been? The result has been a Bill for which no one has a good word to say. I do not believe any Bill, certainly no Bill that I can recollect, has been more sweepingly and unanimously condemned by the very persons whom it is intended to benefit than this Bill has been. My noble friend Lord Clinton cited the different agricultural associations and clubs which had pronounced against it. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill seemed to be under the impression that the condemnation of these societies was entirely due to the fact that they desire to obtain facilities for purchase and consequently repudiate this Bill, but that is not at all the case. The noble Lord will find, if he will take the trouble to read the resolutions passed by the Central Chamber of Agriculture, by the Farmers' Club, by the National Union, and by the Central Land. Association and a number of other bodies, that quite apart from the inclusion or non-inclusion of land purchase they have condemned the proposals of this Bill on their merits as being unsatisfactory and likely to do very little good to the tenants and a great deal of harm to the interests of farming. That really was the plea which my noble friend Lord Clinton put forward.

I do not wish to argue the question to-night upon the point of land purchase. Let us put that entirely on one side. It is quite clear that His Majesty's Government are not going to facilitate it. But I want the House to consider whether this Bill as we find it on the Table is a good and useful Bill or not. You are told by the farmers of this country almost unanimously that it is not a good and useful Bill, and the question that my noble friend asks, and I think asks properly, is whether in those circumstances it is worth while for your Lordships to go on with the Bill, or at any rate worth while for His Majesty's Government to continue to press it on the House. I cannot help thinking that if His Majesty's Government were well advised they would of their own accord ask at any rate for a few days in which to consider this great mass of evidence which has unexpectedly been sprung upon them. They cannot possibly have considered it yet. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill was evidently under a misapprehension as to the contents of a great number of these reports and resolutions. What I venture to suggest is this. Let us put land purchase aside. Let us consider whether this Bill really does what I think most of us want to do—that is, to give to the sitting tenant who finds himself disturbed owing to the sale of his farm a sufficient opportunity to turn round and to come to terms if he can with the purchaser of the estate, or, if he cannot con-Le to terms with the purchaser, to look about him for another farm. Those who have examined this Bill believe that owing to the way in which it is drafted it will fail in its object.

My noble friend pointed out one respect in which it might certainly so fail. What is there in the first clause of this Bill to prevent a vendor of an estate, if he is served with a counter-notice, from postponing his sale for a year? At the end of that time the sitting tenant comes face to face with the same difficulty. He may have only three months or so in which to turn round. We all admit that is not enough. I hope noble Lords opposite will not suspect for a moment that I want to get rid of this Bill by a side wind. On the contrary, if you can make it into a good Bill I should like to see it made into a good Bill, but if we are driven to go into Committee to-night before we have had time to consider the overwhelming body of objection which has been taken to the Bill, before we have had time to consider what Amendments might be put forward in order to meet those objections, we shall surely approach the subject at a very great disadvantage. Therefore, my Lords, although I do not press the noble Lord, if His Majesty's Government seriously believe that this Bill is a good and useful one, to withdraw it, I do ask him to consider whether it would not be desirable and fair to the House that we should be given at any rate an interval of a few days in which to consider the situation created by this great body of objection to which I have referred.


My Lords, the question which has been put to the Government by the noble Marquess opposite deserves, and indeed demands, an immediate answer. I am sure that we on this side of the House are much obliged to the noble Marquess for the sympathy he expressed for the embarrassment which we feel with regard to this Bill. I am not quite sure whether in the course of his remarks he followed up the sympathy which he expressed for His Majesty's Government by trying to diminish our embarrassment or to increase it. At any rate I am sure that we do not feel any great embarrassment with regard to the matter, and for our own part we should be quite willing to proceed with the Committee stage this afternoon. As the noble Marquess has just told us, this Bill is concerned with the position of the sitting tenant, and noble Lords opposite and His Majesty's Government are all anxious to do what is possible to help the sitting tenant in the difficult position in which we admit he sometimes finds himself. The noble Marquess and Lord Clinton have both referred to the possibility of a landlord, having once announced his sale and having given notice to his tenant and received a counter-notice, then postponing the sale for twelve months, so that eventually the position of the tenant would be no better than it is at the present moment. Let me say that, to quote an expression already used in this debate, human nature being what it is we do not think that it is likely that any landlord would take such a very curious procedure. Obviously from his own point of view the management of the estate would present considerable difficulties if he did so. For ourselves we do not see the necessity for postponing the discussion, but if noble Lords opposite move that the Committee stage be postponed for a fortnight His Majesty's Government would not offer any opposition.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for having received the suggestion of my noble friend in the manner in which he has done. I noticed that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill did not attempt to defend his Bill, but proceeded to attack another proposal in a measure which I believe is in the other House but is not before your Lordships' House. But although Lord Lucas showed a discreet silence with regard to the Bill itself, the noble Earl who has just sat down did deal with one point that was raised, and seemed to think it incredible that a landlord on receiving a counter-notice would postpone his sale. I think it is natural enough that on receiving the counter-notice he should postpone the sale. I observed that in the Second Reading discussion the argument was used that the landlord would not do that because some tenants might give a counter-notice and other tenants might not, and he would, if he postponed the sale, have a sort of particoloured property left. That was a plausible argument, but it was not repeated by the noble Earl to-night, and I think that when it is looked at it is seen not to have much value. Modern sales are not sales of a property as a whole. The property is sold in bits. In the case where particular pieced are purchased for occupation there would be no difficulty in selling a certain number of the farms on your estate one year and the remainder, which had been subject to the counter-notice, in the succeeding year. The difficulty disappears altogether when the estate is disposed of piecemeal, which is the modern practice. Therefore there appears to be nothing whatever to be said for this Bill. The Bill does not make the sitting tenant any more secure. He will not know what his fate is to be until perhaps three months before the expiration of the second year. He will be in the same position of uncertainty as to his fate under the Government proposal as he is under present circumstances, but he will be in this position worse off—the period of uncertainty will be much longer. That is not a good but a bad thing. So that this wonderful proposal which is to help tenants will positively put things in a worse position than they are in at present. There will be uncertainty for twenty-one months, and, so far from that being an advantage to the farmer and to agriculture, it will be a disadvantage. How can the Government defend such a proposal as this—a proposal which on its merits breaks down and which has been manifestly condemned by all whom it is supposed to benefit? The noble Earl is quite wise in agreeing to a postponement. I think we shall do well to accept the suggestion that the Committee stage should be postponed for a fortnight, and we must see in the meantime whether there are any means of making this useless Bill into a Bill which will be a benefit to the tenant farmers of this country. I move the adjournment of the debate.

Moved, That the Debate be adjourned.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and the further Debate adjourned to Thursday, the 11th of July next.