HL Deb 01 April 1914 vol 15 cc880-5

rose to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. What area of land the Congested Districts Board (Ireland) have in their own hands, undivided, at present, and how is the same being used.
  2. 2. Up to what date have the Report and Accounts of the Congested Districts Board been published.
  3. 3. Why, when holdings subject to purchase annuities are sold by public auction, it appears that they are not purchased, or bid for by the Estates Commissioners for the enlargement of holdings, &c. in the neighbourhood.
  4. 4. Why is this the case if additional land is required for such purpose.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, as to my first Question, there is no doubt that the Congested Districts Board have acquired a certain amount of land and have done some good in the way of relieving congestion. But what I complain of is this, that instead of the land which they have acquired for the purposes of enlarging holdings and therefore relieving congestion being given to the people to relieve congestion, in a great many cases it is let, after its acquisition by the Congested Districts Board, for grazing purposes, notwithstanding that much capital is made of the fact that the Board want all the grazing land they can acquire. When they let this land for grazing they perpetuate the very system to which they are supposed to put a stop. I am told that there are in the neighbourhood of Loughrea and Athenry very large tracts of land so let for grazing and for meadowing. Surely that is not the right way for the Congested Districts Board to carry on their business. Once they have got sufficient land they should not compulsorily acquire more and then let it in this way. There is no doubt that large quantities of land are used in that way.

As to my second Question, I am told that the Congested Districts Board are likely to publish their Report and Accounts for 1912 very shortly, but then they will be eighteen months in arrear. I cannot make out what the object of this Department is in not publishing their Report and Accounts in time. Is it to cover up this system of letting land for grazing and meadowing? I cannot see any other object in it. It must be remembered that the Congested Districts Board have a very large sum of money per annum voted to them by Parliament to deal with this question of congestion, and surely the people who pay the taxes have a right to see the accounts of this Department at as early a date as those of other Departments are presented to the public.

The other two Questions standing in my name I was asked to put down on behalf of a noble friend of mine. But it appears that hidden away in the Act of 1903 there is a direct law against the Estates Commissioners purchasing holdings which are paying what is called a State rent. That section is, as I have said, hidden away in the Act, and many of us were not aware of it. Certainly the noble Lord who asked me to put down this Question was not aware of it. I therefore ask the Question so that it may be stated publicly once and for all that this law exists.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Earl's first Question, I am informed by the Irish authorities that the Congested Districts Board had in their hands on November 30 last year 97,000 acres of untenanted grazing land, and about 155,000 acres of rough land, turbary, mountain land, some cut-away bog, and also, I believe, a certain amount of plantation land. The Board are in possession of this land, but a considerable portion of it had not been vested in them at the date named. Then as to the use to the land, the Board say that they use their untenanted land as far as they can in providing grazing at so much a head for the live stock of small farmers in the neighbourhood. Where they cannot get enough stock for that purpose they issue advertisements inviting tenders for agistment—that is to say, that people should take land and let it out in the same way at so much a head, a practice which in some parts of England is termed joistment and in the North of England is spoken of as stinting. The Board issue tenders for letting land in that way in division of fields. If the Board cannot do this, in the last resort they buy some stock themselves in order that the land may not remain unused and earn no profit at all. But this last practice they only adopt if they find it impossible to dispose of it in any other way. I understand that the noble Earl's complaint is that this land should be used for grazing at all and not immediately divided up into agricultural holdings. But surely it must take a considerable time and also a large expenditure of capital to perform that operation, which is no doubt in the long run what the Board have in view. In the meanwhile, having made these purchases, it seems only practical and sensible that for the time being they should endeavour to put this land to some profitable use.

Then I come to the noble Earl's second Question. The Board have published their Report and Accounts up to March 31, 1912, and those are at the disposition of the noble Earl or of anybody else. The Report and Accounts up to March 31, 1913, have now been presented to Parliament and will be very shortly issued to the public. Therefore at that time the delay will not be eighteen months, as the noble Earl stated. The Report of the Board up to exactly a year ago will shortly be in the hands of the public, and I think if the noble Earl considers he will see that that is not a longer delay than usually takes place in the publication of complicated public Reports of this kind. Now I pass to the other Questions. The noble Earl has stated quite accurately that there is a section in the Act of 1891 which prohibits—


I thought it was the 1903 Act.


There is a section in the 1903 Act, but the Act of 1891 is also concerned. Section 9, subsection (4), of the Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act, 1891, runs thus— An advance shall not be made under the Land Purchase Acts, as amended by this Act, for the purchase of any holding for the purchase of which advances have been made under the Land Purchase Acts, whether before or after the passing of this Act, and whether under this Act or otherwise, until the entire annuity for the repayment of such advances has been paid or redeemed. That, by the hypothesis, has not been the case in the instance of this land which is put up for sale owing to default, and therefore by that section alone it is not possible for the Land Commission to advance money for the purchase of any of this land. But it is also true that Section 6 of the Act of 1903, which was what the noble Earl had in his mind, lays down certain rules and conditions under which alone the purchase can be made, and those provisions obviously cannot be complied with in the case of an auction. Therefore again it becomes impossible for the Commissioners to buy land in that way.


Except when the whole annuity is paid off.


Even then the Act of 1903 lays down certain rules and conditions—for instance, that the landlord has to come forward and make an agreement with his tenants. Those conditions are not complied with in the case of a sale by auction, and therefore even if the annuity had been paid off, which ex hypothesi is not the case, it would not be possible for the Land Commission to come in and buy the land. There is another difficulty on the merits of the case apart from the legal disabilities. These holdings which come up by default of the payment of the annuity are very few in number, a fact at which we shall all rejoice, and they are also as a rule exceedingly small and would not as a matter of fact be suitable for purchase by the Estates Commissioners for the purpose of enlarging other holdings, For instance, during the last financial year—the one which ended in March, 1913–31 holdings subject to purchase annuities were put up by the Land Commission, and the average purchase annuity in the case of these was only £13. As a matter of fact, there are practically no cases of default in the case of substantial holdings of the kind which would be useful for the purpose of cutting up and adding to existing holdings. Therefore even if the legal disabilities were removed by further provision by Act of Parliament, it is questionable whether cases would arise in which it would be to the public interest for the Land Commission to buy these holdings for the purpose of adding them to others. I think that answers the noble Earl's Questions so far as I am able to do so.


I understand that in the 1903 Act there is a provision—I am speaking now of holdings put up to public auction not through default but because the man wants to give up farming or to go away—that when the whole of the annuities have been paid off to the State, then the Land Commission can buy.


I doubt whether that is the case. I should be sorry to express a definite opinion in the absence of expert advice on this point, but my impression is that it would not be within their legal rights.


Whether or not it is the case that the Land Commission have this power, I would point out that where holdings in respect of which the annuities have been paid off are put up for sale they fetch a price wholly out of proportion to the money advanced upon them. They sell for something between thirty and fifty years purchase, and it would be wholly impossible for the State to buy them.


My Lords, my noble friend has elicited some exceedingly valuable information. We all of us realise that the Congested Districts Board cannot be expected to divide up all at once these large areas of which they have obtained possession, and naturally they must in the meantime do the best they can to turn them to profitable use. But we now learn that the Board at this moment are holding something over a quarter of a million acres altogether of one sort of land or another. This they apparently let to adjoining farmers, and as to that portion which they are unable so to dispose of they do the best they can in the way of temporary letting for grazing purposes. All I have to say about that is that most of us, I think, will look with a certain amount of suspicion upon these very large farming operations carried on by a Public Department, and that I think justifies my noble friend's curiosity as to the production of these accounts. I confess that it will interest me extremely to see whether the Board have been able to administer this great area in a way thoroughly satisfactory from a public point of view.


I think I ought to explain, when the noble Marquess refers to a quarter of a million of acres, that the land which he meant to mention is the 97,000 acres of untenanted land. The 155,000 acres of rough land, turbary, and so on, hardly conies within the scope of the argument which the noble Marquess used.


Mountain grazing, as the noble Marquess knows, is a very valuable asset in the eyes of Irish farmers.