HL Deb 25 May 1916 vol 22 cc173-85


Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


My Lords, I wish first to express to your Lordships my regret that this Bill was so late in being circulated. I assure yon that the delay was as great an annoyance to myself as it could have been to your Lordships, and I know that it has caused inconvenience, but I hope you will accept my apology. This Bill is based on the Report of a Committee which was presided over by Sir Harry Verney, to whom Mr. Henry Hobhouse succeeded when Sir Harry Verney took upon himself military service. When I accepted the office which I now have the honour to occupy just a year ago I found this Committee almost completed, and in appointing it I really did no more than complete the work begun by my predecessor. I want to take this opportunity of expressing my great appreciation of the way in which Sir Harry Verney and Mr. Henry Hobhouse and their colleagues conducted their labours, and I cannot but think that their Report, upon which, as I have said, this Bill is founded, is a real contribution to the study of the question of small holdings, which interests so many of your Lordships and others of the public.

I wish to make certain preliminary points quite clear before I proceed to describe the Bill and its object. In the first place let me say, although I admit that it is not expressed in the terms of the Bill, that the object of this Bill is to help a certain number of discharged and disabled soldiers and sailors. It does not profess to be a large contribution to the very serious problem of demobilisation, though we hope that the experience gained in these colonies—if Parliament is good enough to give, us the powers—may be of real assistance in dealing with the problem of demobilisation. Nor does the Bill profess in any way to hold out an offer to every discharged soldier and sailor of a right of accommodation by the State upon the land. It is a limited experimental Bill, but its object is in making this experiment to benefit a certain though a small number of the men who have fought for us by sea and by land, and if possible we hope that disabled seamen and soldiers will be included in that number. There are degrees of disablement which would obviously incapacitate a man for any kind of work upon the land, but there are other degrees of disablement which would not necessarily so incapacitate him. Your Lordships know that Parliament has put on the Statutory Pensions Committee presided over by Mr. Cyril Jackson the duty of looking after these disabled soldiers and sailors, and, so far as they are concerned, if Parliament gives the Board of Agriculture the powers for which we ask we shall endeavour to act as the agents of that Committee in accommodating a certain number of disabled men in these colonies.

I have said, and I wish to lay special stress on the fact, that this is an experiment. What the nature of the experiment is I will describe presently. But let me clear away one controversy which divides Parties in respect of small holdings. The Party to which I belong has always believed in ownership as the basis of small holdings. The other great Party in the State has, on the whole, pinned its faith to the system of tenancies. The Committee to whose Report I have referred deal with this question, but I am authorised by them to say that in dealing with it they were not intending to lay down opinions on the general question of the merits of ownership or of tenancy, but they did mean to point out, owing to the special character of the pioneer colonies which they were proposing, that tenancy must be the basis. There is no wavering, my Lords, in my personal allegiance to the principle of ownership. I have not changed my opinion in any degree that Mr. Jesse Collings was perfectly right in making ownership the basis of his policy of small holdings; but I am, notwithstanding, prepared to advocate the arguments of the Committee in respect of the three pioneer colonies which I ask your Lordships to authorise—and for this reason. In finding men suitable to occupy this land among discharged sailors and soldiers there must necessarily be a period of trial; very little will be known about many of these men beforehand, and their suitability for this purpose must be tested. Again, some of them at any rate will not have had previous experience on the land and will have to be trained; and the whole operation, as I have already stated, is of an experimental character. It seems to me obvious for these reasons that during the experimental period, at all events, the State must keep the control of the land in its own hands. If the experiment is a success, I sincerely hope that the day will come when the holders will become the owners of their holdings; but at the present moment I am convinced that they must be admitted, if at all, on the basis of tenancy.

Your Lordships will ask me what has been the experience so far of small holdings initiated or encouraged, either directly or indirectly, by the action of the State. First of all, there was the Bill passed by the Unionist Government of which Lord Salisbury was the head. That measure owed its inspiration very largely to Mr. Jesse Collings. Then there was the Bill passed by the late Government in the year 1908. In both cases the action of the State was indirect—that is to say, the executive action was taken by the county councils and not directly by the Board of Agriculture. In round figures, the result of those Acts has been to place 15,000 small-holders on 200,000 acres, at a cost of £6,000,000. And, in passing, let me say that the estimate of Sir Harry Verney's Committee as to the cost of the scheme which I am going to commend to your Lordships is based on the experience of the working of those Acts. But do not suppose that these 15,000 small holdings are all exactly of the same character. On the contrary, some of them are new holdings altogether, which have had to be equipped with houses and buildings appropriate to their size. Others are additions to existing holdings, which have been allowed on the principle that it was very wise to turn an uneconomic into an economic small holding by increasing its size. Lastly there has been the provision of what I should describe as accommodation land, where there has been no existing holding and no provision of house or building, but where a tradesman, or a blacksmith, or a publican, or a labourer living in a cottage and having other occupation has been provided with a small plot of ground on which he could turn out a horse or a cow, or which he could cultivate. Therefore your Lordships will notice that it would be most misleading to divide £6,000,000 by 15,000 small holdings and say that an average small holding costs a certain sum. If you want to arrive at the cost of a fully equipped new small holding you would have to take into calculation only those which have been provided of that class, and divide their total cost by their total number, excluding from the calculation the provision of accommodation land or the increase of previously uneconomic small holdings.

I may be asked what has been the financial effect of this large operation—because I may use that term in respect of the money involved, though not, perhaps, strictly in respect of the number of men actually put upon the land. The financial aspect of the case is distinctly satisfactory. I can say that the losses to the county councils have been absolutely negligible. Out of all the counties—and every county has had a scheme of one kind or another, more or less—of England and Wales, in only six counties has there been any loss on a scheme, and, of those six, four of the losses are of a trivial character, and the other two have been due to causes which were not within the control of the county council or of the small-holder. For instance, in my own county of Hampshire there was a waterspout on the shores of Porchester Creek which absolutely swept all the cultivated land within the area visited by the waterspout into the sea; and in Norfolk there were most devastating floods owing to breaches in the barriers of the rivers which laid many thousands of acres under water and kept them in that condition for many weeks. With those two exceptions, where there were calamities of nature which visited farms as well as small holdings, the only losses on schemes have been in the case of four counties, and those were of an unimportant character.

But all the schemes of small holdings instituted by county councils have been of an individual character—that is to say, whenever an individual person wanted land the county council endeavoured to provide it for that man in the area of the county in which he wished to have it, and each individual holder has been left to his individual resources. There has been no attempt on the part of county councils to establish anything in the nature of a colony, nor to select a particularly suitable area of land and try to form a colony of holders on that land. In fact, there has been no attempt to bring the holder to the land, but always an effort to bring the land to the individual holder. So much for the action of the county councils. But there have been attempts by various persons at one time or another to introduce the colony system of small holdings. It would take up too much of your Lordships' time were I to try and give you a full account of them. I can only say that some of them have been successful and some have been unsuccessful.

I will now describe to your Lordships what the plan of the Committee is which the Government have adopted in the case of these three experimental and pioneer colonies. It is proposed to take an area of land, in the case of a fruit or market garden colony, of not more than 1,000 acres; in the case of a dairy and pig and poultry colony, of not more than 2,500 acres; and to settle on each of those areas, roughly speaking, 100 small-holders. The holdings would be grouped round a central farm, which at the commencement of the colony would be at its maximum, and when the colony was in full swing and complete in its number of selected settlers would be at its minimum, but which would never pass out of existence. The central farm would be managed by a director, and in connection with its buildings would be offices and depôts for the purposes which I am going to describe. The whole object of the colony system is that co-operation—free co-operation, not enforced co-operation—should prevail from the commencement. As it would be beyond the means of a smallholder to purchase many instruments for which he has only occasional use but which are necessary to him on occasion, such instruments would be kept at the central depôt and let out to him on strictly economic terms when he required them. In the same way, in connection with a small fruit holding, the small-holders will have only occasional use for a horse; therefore the horses would be kept at the central depôt and let out. Generally speaking, the central depôt would be responsible for all the transport of the colony. The central depôt would also be the agency to buy at wholesale prices the requirements of the settlers for the purpose of their agriculture, and it would also be the agency which would dispose of, in the best market available, the produce of the colonists. Your Lordships will see that the central depôt would be the agency for the hire to colonists of instruments which they require, the agency for transport, and also the agency for purchase and sale, but all done on a strictly commercial basis and with no element of philanthropy whatever.

In addition the central farm would be always an example to the colonists of what might be done under this particular system of agriculture, and it would afford the opportunity for small experiments necessary for the particular purposes of the colony. The director and those working under him on the farm would be the experts to whom the small-holders might always look for advice and assistance; and, in the beginning, on this farm would be trained those ex-sailors and ex-soldiers who had been selected as holders, yet lacked that agricultural experience which is necessary to success. They would be placed in the houses that they would eventually occupy, and, according to the discretion of the director, they would be furnished with the land adjoining their houses necessary for their holding. They would begin with a small portion of land according to their experience and their capital and work up to a larger amount, with a fixed maximum, which would be taken as required from the farm; so that, as I endeavoured to describe to your Lordships at the beginning of my statement, the farm would start at its maximum size and dwindle to its minimum as the holdings were gradually taken up and reached each its maximum.

It is not proposed that the houses of the colonists should be scattered at random; on the contrary, we hope to benefit by the study and the experience which has been acquired in recent years in the matter of town planning. We hope to give the colony the advantage of the experience gained, and, so far as is possible with a strict view to business and not to philanthropy, we propose from the beginning to encourage the amenities of a settlement of this kind. It must have its school, of course. It must have places of worship, if they are not already near enough at hand; and we should hope it would have its parish hall. In the case of a fruit colony, there would be a jam factory in connection with the central depôt; and in connection with a dairy colony, there would be a creamery. We should also keep in view one of the strong recommendations of the Committee so far as possible to combine with the agricultural work of the colony some form of rural industry. If the colony is near a woodland area, that, of course, would be comparatively a simple matter. But that is not the only form in which we hope that additional rural industry may be introduced into such a colony. I have already stated that the conception of the colony is that of co-operation from the commencement, though not of enforced co-operation. We believe that the advantages offered will be so obvious that the small-holder will not hesitate to take advantage of them; but if he thought he could do better by buying for himself and selling for himself, he would be perfectly free to do so. Then we hope in time to graft on this co-operative system a System of credit, so as to give the small-holders the advantages of credit which are only afforded in this country by the ordinary joint stock banks or local banks, but which in almost every country on the Continent are afforded in some form or another by specially devised credit banks or credit societies.

If I have succeeded in giving your Lordships a general picture of the scheme, let me say at once that the rents to be charged to these colonists are to be strictly economic. The rents charged are to cover all the costs of the enterprise, except the cost of the training of men who require training. That is the scheme. I quite admit that it will require extreme care in detail and in administration to give effect to the intention; but obviously the experiment will be a failure unless it is an economic success. Therefore personally I express my very clear sense of the necessity of seeing that the rents charged do cover all the costs of the operation. Opinions, of course, will differ as to whether or not there is any chance of success for an experiment of this kind. I have no doubt that experienced men in agriculture can be found who will shake their heads and say that the experiment is bound to fail; but I can certainly cite others, commanding the highest authority in agriculture, who believe that with good management this experiment ought to succeed, who believe that small holdings have hitherto been tried under the most unfavourable conditions, and that this for the first time will be trying them under the most favourable conditions. They have been tried under most unfavourable conditions in the past because each holder has been isolated; he has had no general guidance, no assistance in his marketing or in his purchasing, no expert to whom to go for advice in an emergency, and he has in my opinion too often only imitated the big farmer by his side. I do not believe, except in rare instances, in the success of a small-holder who conducts his business simply as a microcosm of a big farm near at hand. I believe that small holdings may be and ought to be a great success in this country in the proper localities and under suitable conditions. The general system of the farming of the small-holder ought to be of a distinctive nature, and not a mere imitation of the capitalist who lives near by.

Were your Lordships to ask me the conditions which I think essential to the success of this experiment I would name them thus. I would say that a great deal will depend on the right selection of the men. From all the demobilised Armies and Fleets there ought to be a large selection of men. Your Lordships may ask me how many men out of these demobilised Fleets and Armies do I think would wish to settle on the land. That is a question which I admit I cannot answer. My friends offer me suggestions and opinions which vary from the view that almost every man in the Army will want to settle upon the land to the opinion that all soldiers will have had enough of digging and of the soil to last them for the rest of their lives, and that therefore there is no good expecting to find recruits for the land out of the Army. There is no material by which any of us can form an opinion. Will a great number of men refuse to return to the indoor occupation which they left or to the office stool which they had previously occupied, or will they hanker after the sociability of the town and refuse to do anything more in the nature of trench digging? No one can say. I am taking what steps I can, through the kindness of Sir Douglas Haig, to find out what the general temper of the men is in this matter and whether they have thought of it at all, but I have not yet had any figures or information from him which I can quote. But here comes in the wisdom of the caution of this small experiment. It is inconceivable to my mind that we shall not be able to find three hundred really suitable men out of all the demobilised Armies and Fleets for settlement in these colonies. And when I say "suitable," I mean by character and temperament and the industry of habit that is essential to a successful small-holder. But, of course, we will always give the preference, other things being equal, to the man who has had previous agricultural experience, to the man who has a little capital of his own, and to the man whose wife, in his absence, has been helping us on the land in this time of emergency, The task of selection will be a difficult one, but therein comes the necessity for what I call the period of sifting and of training.

The next condition of success is in the right selection of the land. The greatest stress must be laid upon that. Certainly I am not prepared to take upon myself the responsibility of putting a settlement down upon any land as to which I have no definite and clear advice from the highest authorities that it is suitable for the purpose. I should like to take this opportunity of alluding to the munificent offer which a member of your Lordships' House and my immediate predecessor in the office I hold—Lord Lucas—has made in this connection. I do not know yet whether we shall be able to avail ourselves of his offer, because, of course, the land which Lord Lucas has been good enough to offer us must be judged on exactly the same basis as all other land; it must be subjected to the same opinion, and can only be utilised if it is clearly exactly what we require for the purpose. Whether or not we are able to put a colony on this estate, I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to Lord Lucas for the, example and lead he has given in putting his property at our disposal for this purpose. As soon as he heard of the Report of this Committee—he was then in Egypt—he communicated with me and made the offer, in the first place, of his house and garden for the permanent use of disabled seamen and soldiers, if it could be utilised for that purpose. That aspect of his offer does not come within the purview of my responsibility. That concerns Mr. Cyril Jackson and the Statutory Pensions Committee. But he went beyond that and said that out of the whole of his property we might select any area that we thought suitable for one of these colonies, and that he was prepared to sell that area or to lease it on a long lease at the valuation of anybody appointed by the Government. I hope your Lordships will recognise the generosity and patriotism of that offer. I may say that his example has already been followed. I have had similar offers from other gentlemen, and it is for those reasons that I look forward with much hope to being able to find the exactly suitable sites that we require for this purpose.

Then the next element of success will be the right selection of the directors of these colonies. Given the right land and the right settlers, everything will still depend on getting the right men to direct the colonies and to manage them. Lastly it is necessary that care should be exercised to see that every detail is worked out with systematic regard for economy, and that no money is wasted owing to carelessness or a desire for what may be described as show. I should mention, in connection with the estimates which your Lordships will find in the Report of the Committee—and this is another reason why great care must be shown in working out the details of these colonies—that the prices of the houses there given were based on the prices at the time. Undoubtedly if we were to build now those houses would cost more. The Government decided to adopt the Report of the Committee to the extent of forming these three pioneer colonies at a moment when the Board of Agriculture had already been depleted by the departure of every officer who could possibly be spared to the war, when the, war work of the Office was becoming heavier and heavier, and I was living in daily anxiety as to whether my officers would not break down under the strain; and here was a new piece of work of great importance and requiring special skill, special knowledge, and special discretion in dealing with it successfully. I was indeed fortunate in those circumstances. I had a generous offer from Captain Bathurst, a member of the House of Commons, that he was willing, as his war work, to come and help me in this matter; and I am quite sure that the general superintendence and organisation of this scheme could not be in better hands. I have also had the advantage of having the advice of another distinguished Member of Parliament, Mr. Prothero, which he has given to us whenever we required it.

Having given your Lordships this perfunctory, though I am afraid rather tedious, account of the intention of the Bill and of this scheme, I think you would wish me to go shortly through the clauses and explain their intention. Clause 1, subsection (1), gives power to the Board of Agriculture to acquire land by agreement. There is no compulsory clause in this Bill, although I should have thought, myself perfectly justified in asking for compulsory powers for this purpose had those powers been necessary; but as I knew that I should have all the land I required, and more, put at my disposal by agreement without compulsion, there was no necessity for the incorporation of a compulsory clause. As I have said, there is power to acquire land by agreement. The Bill is limited in its duration to the period of the war and a year after, therefore showing its intention of being connected with discharged sailors and soldiers. There is a maximum limit of 6,000 acres which may be taken, again showing the strictly experimental character of the proposal. And, of course, there is the usual provision for the consent of the Treasury. I may say that it is my great hope not to have to buy any land at all. I hope to get the land on long lease; and in the case of Crown properties, some of which are certainly quite suitable for the purpose, that can be easily arranged, because I happen to fill the office not only of President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries but I am also one of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. I have also received private offers—of which I have given your Lordships already an example in Lord Lucas's case—of land to be let on long periods; and, of course, your Lordships see the great importance, in the state of our finances, that the Treasury should not be asked to find a large sum of money for purchase if an annual Tent will settle the matter. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 is the usual provision in the circumstances of a Bill like this. This incorporation of the Lands Clauses Acts is customary in these cases, as they include various useful provisions.

I come to Clause 2, and I would briefly explain the object of that clause to be, with the consent of the Treasury, to carry out the recommendations of the Committee for the establishment of small co-operative credit societies. Do not think, my Lords, that I imagine that we can start a credit system immediately with a number of small-holders who are to a large extent untried and who do not know each other. The credit system must be a growth of mutual knowledge and of previous co-operation, but it is necessary to make provision for it in this Bill.

Clause 3 deals with another matter altogether. It has nothing whatever to do with the institution of these three pioneer colonies, and that is why the Title of the Bill is of a composite character. Your Lordships will see that the description of the Bill is— An Act to provide for the acquisition and management of land by the State for experimental small holding colonies, and to extend the powers of acquisition and management of land by certain Government Departments under the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909. The explanation of that is this. One of the problems which was confronting the Board of Agriculture before the war, and which will be of the most urgent character after the war, is the question of afforestation. By the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, the Board of Agriculture has power to purchase land for the purpose of forestry demonstration areas, but it has no power to hire the land by agreement or to get an option on the land to purchase it. This clause merely gives the Board of Agriculture power to take land by agreement on lease, or to acquire an option of purchasing the land or of taking the land on lease, in addition to its existing power of buying the land. Clause 4 contains the necessary powers of management, which I do not think require any detailed explanation. Clause 5 has to do with the financial management. Clause 6 deals with the power of landowners to grant long leases. Clause 7 is the interpretation clause.

Clause 8, which I dare say appears rather mysterious, is susceptible of an innocent explanation. The proceedings of the Board under the Bill would involve some work for which a solicitor would be required, and Clause 8 is intended to enable this work to be done by the present legal adviser of the Board, who has been appointed to act also as solicitor to the Woods and Forests Department and can utilise the solicitor's staff of that Department for the work. Being a barrister and not a solicitor he could not act formally as solicitor unless these sections are applied to the post. So that this is a perfectly innocent proposal connected with the machinery of the office of the Board of Agriculture which happens to be necessary under the peculiar circumstances of the ease. Clause 9 applies the Bill to Scotland, and provides that the maximum number of acres to be used for this purpose in Scotland shall be 2,000, as distinct from the 6,000 that are permitted for England and Wales. I hope I have succeeded in giving a fairly clear idea of the special, though strictly limited, objects of this Bill, of the nature of the scheme which is proposed, and of the provisions by which it is hoped to give effect to that scheme. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Selborne.)


My Lords, I have listened with deep attention to the interesting speech of the noble Earl in explaining his Bill. It was the more interesting because it contained a great many details and certain modifications which did not appear in the body of the Bill itself. We have, however, had very short notice of the Bill. We received it only two days ago, and there are some noble Lords anxious to take part in the discussion of the Bill who are not able to be present to-day. Further than that, what the noble Earl has just said seems to me to require some time for consideration and thought. Therefore I would ask him to recognise that this is perhaps not the best moment to proceed to discuss the Bill, and to consent to the debate being adjourned to some more convenient day.


My Lords, I am quite aware that my noble friend and others of your Lordships have been placed at an inconvenience by the late delivery of the copies of this Bill, and as I wish to consult the convenience of your Lordships' House in general I am quite prepared, as you have been good enough to listen to my exposition of the Bill, to consent to the adjournment of the debate. I suggest, if that date will be convenient, that the resumed discussion should be taken on Thursday next.


Hear, hear.

On Question, the further debate adjourned until Thursday next.