HL Deb 26 February 1918 vol 29 cc109-21

LORD STRACHIE had the following Notice on the Paper

To call attention to the unsatisfied demand for small holdings and the refusal of the Government to enable county councils to provide them, and to naive "That in view of the large and increasing demand for land for small holdings, it is desirable that the Government should modify their present policy so as to meet the large and growing demand for land on the part of discharged soldiers and others."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have put this Motion on the Paper at the request of the County Councils Association, who feel very strongly on the matter. Your Lordships will notice that I call attention to the unsatisfied demand for small holdings and the refusal of the Government to enable county councils to provide them, and then move a Resolution on these points.

It rests with me, very shortly, to go into the history of the refusal of the Government to put the county councils in funds in order to enable them to carry out their duties under the Small Holdings Act, which I think every member of this House who is a member of a county council will admit has been a great success. As regards the first action of the Board of Agriculture, in December, 1914, they sent out a circular to county councils telling them that it was necessary for the conservation of the resources of the Public Works Loan Commissioners and for assistance to local authorities for relief and other works of employment, that there should be no lending by the Public Works Loan Commissioners of any money to county councils for small holdings. They also went further and said that these small holding loans could not be provided owing to the necessity of providing for unemployment. As your Lordships are well aware, instead of there being any unemployment it has been the other way—half a dozen masters running after one man—and there has not been any unemployment in this country since the war began. We know that a large sum of money raised by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for unemployment has never had to be used for that purpose, although a large amount was used to make up deficiencies in providing for the relief of relatives of soldiers.

As regards the circular itself, it really falls to the the ground, because the reason given for not allowing time Public Works Loans Commissioners to make advances for small holdings has never occurred. It has never been necessary to advance any money for works owing to want of employment, and as we are told now, even after the end of the war there will be no difficulty in finding employment. No doubt there will be a great boom in trade for some time immediately after the close of war in order to make good the great loss that has been suffered from the suspension of ordinary commercial business, and from those undertakings and manufactures which have been idle except as producers of war material. The circular went on to urge the county councils to obtain land upon lease. Those of us who are members of county councils know how very difficult it is to obtain land upon lease. A good many landowners do not care to let land upon lease, and those who do generally do so either at a very high rent, or the land that they let is land which has been derelict and requires a large amount of money to be spent upon it for equipment in order to make it of use to small holders. It requires sub-division, fencing, buildings, and the like. Therefore, if the county councils cannot borrow money it is quite useless for them to take any land of that sort, because they cannot equip it.

In addition to the large unsatisfied demand for small holdings—and there was a large demand even before the war, and that demand has, of course, during the last two or three years increased, and would have been even larger had it not been found that it was impossible for county councils to buy land for small holdings—we have to remember that there will be in future a very large demand from discharged soldiers and sailors when demobilisation takes place. Even now, there is a demand from those men who are discharged owing to ill-health, but who are, nevertheless, quite fit to undertake the cultivation of a small holding.

A deputation went to the President of the Local Government Board in April last from the County Councils Association. They pointed out that the reasons given in December, 1914, for withholding loans had entirely failed. I think that I shall have the agreement of the noble Duke, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, that a quite fair statement as regards the reason given in 1914 was that the money would be wanted for unemployment. Certainly no money has been used for unemployment. The county councils further pointed out by their deputation that unless borrowing powers were given at once to county councils for the settlement of discharged soldiers and sailors on the land in accordance with the Report of the Departmental Committee of the Board of Agriculture, it would be impossible to meet that demand. The House will see that it is very essential, if the county councils are to be prepared and ready to meet this demand when demobilisation comes, that they should be able to look ahead and buy land when the opportunity occurs. This very deputation pointed out to the Board of Agriculture that many favourable chances of acquiring land at reasonable prices had been lost. Mr. Prothero, in reply, stated that he was in accord with the views of the County Councils Association, and said that he would press the Treasury to relax their restrictions. Unfortunately, nothing has happened as the result of the endeavours of Mr. Prothero. I feel perfectly certain that Mr. Prothero in this matter is doing everything he can, and is in sympathy with the creation of small holdings. Any failure that there may have been is not due to want of sympathy on his part but to inability to press the Treasury sufficiently to make them yield.

There is another thing which is rather curious, and one which, perhaps, the noble Duke can explain. A deputation also went from the British Empire Lands Settlement Committee. The Report of that Committee, in clause 14, page 3, states— The experimental scheme is on a very small scale, and it is not expected that under the present conditions it would be self-supporting. We are informed, however, by the Board of Agriculture that they have in view proposals for obtaining land for the settlement of ex-Service men on a large scale. It would be interesting if the noble Duke would tell the House what is the exact meaning of that statement made in the Departmental Committee's Report. Upon the Empire Settlement Committee, curiously enough, there was no representative of the County Councils Association, nor was there any person representing a county council called as a witness, although the Committee dealt with matters connected with home settlement as well as settlement within the Empire overseas.

I noticed the other day a statement in The Times, in which the British Empire Lands Settlement League said this— For the purpose of home settlement the Government should acquire land as far as possible in each county, and discharged sailors and soldiers should be installed thereon at the earliest opportunity; and the Government should deal with the whole subject as a national and Imperial question. I notice that this had the support of a large number of Members of Parliament sitting on both sides in another place.

There was another deputation November, 1917, to the Board of Agriculture from the County Councils Association to discuss the prohibition of loans to county councils, and the Empire Settlement Committee's Report was discussed. The President of the Board of Agriculture told this deputation that he had no desire to interfere with the duties of county councils to provide small holdings, and that he was in favour of county council administration except in regard to State Colonies, which would only deal with a very small part of the demand. One would imagine from this that the Board of Agriculture would then have taken some steps to remove the prohibition under which county councils are suffering. Until that prohibition is removed, as the noble Duke perfectly well knows, it will be impossible for county councils to prepare effectively for this great demand, either for civilians or for soldiers and sailors.

The Board of Agriculture, on January 14 last, sent out another circular. They are very fond of sending out circulars, but nothing seems to come out of them. This circular stated that the Treasury had arrived at a general conclusion that it would be impracticable during the war and for some time after to provide capital for the purpose of small holdings, but that Mr. Prothero had other proposals under consideration which, if carried into effect, would enable the acquisition of land for small holdings to be proceeded with. I venture to ask the noble Duke whether he will tell the House what that scheme is which is under the consideration of the President of the Board of Agriculture. Does it mean that the Board of Agriculture is to be the small holdings authority in every county, as suggested by the Empire League, and which has the support of so many members of the House of Commons?

Another suggestion has also been made. I would ask the noble Duke whether there is another alternative in contemplation. It is only a rumour that I have heard, but it is this—that it is the view of the Board of Agriculture that it may be desirable to take the question of small holdings out of the hands of the county councils and put it into the hands of the county war executive committees. We are given to understand that these committees will come to an end at the close of the war, but that the Board of Agriculture, which appoints them and whose servants they are, desire to maintain them as a useful means of communication with each county. The County Councils Association itself took no part in relation to that circular. I suppose that they were really tired of continually asking questions and getting no satisfactory replies.

The clerk of the Bedford County Council wrote, in reply to this circular, drawing attention to the fact that the Board of Agriculture had expressed no opinion as to borrowing from private persons. He inquired whether the proposals under consideration related to the acquisition of land by the Government or by the county councils. On January 23, 1918, the Board of Agriculture, in their reply, merely said that their proposals were not sufficiently advanced to enable the Board to make any definite pronouncement in respect to them. Yet Mr. Prothero at the end of last year had said that they were under consideration. They made no reply as regards loans from private individuals. I should have thought, even if the Public Works Loans Commissioners were not allowed to make any loans for such a good purpose, it might be desirable for the county councils to borrow sums of money from private individuals at such a rate of interest as would make it possible to acquire land for small holdings, or certainly for equipment—because that is also an important matter. There is no reason for standing in the way of county councils raising money in that way. The clerk wrote again, and the reply received from the Board of Agriculture was that they had consulted with the Local Government Board, who refused to give their assent, because the Treasury view was that it was undesirable even that county councils should be allowed to borrow from private individuals. It seems a curious position. Here is a public body wishing to provide small holdings not only for civilians but also for men demobilised from the Army, and for soldiers and sailors who are discharged through no fault of their own. You would not think there could be a better purpose for which to raise money. Also it is a purpose which is to a large extent remunerative, because in many cases a small holder is able, by means of intensive cultivation, to produce as much as or more than the big holder.

On behalf of the County Councils Association, I must say that they feel rather aggrieved be the way in which they have been treated in this matter, and they wish to have some very clear and definite statement from the Board of Agriculture to-day. I do not think I can do better, to show what the feeling of the County Councils Association is, than conclude by reading to your Lordships a resolution passed recently by the Association— The Association is strongly of opinion that any scheme for the provision of small holdings for ex-Service men (other than Under the State Colony scheme) should be undertaken by county councils; further, that it is essential that the existing restrictions on their action in acquiring land under the Small Holdings Act should at once be withdrawn, as opportunities of acquiring suitable land at reasonable prices are being continually lost, and the value of land is rapidly going up; also that the Public Works Loans Commissioners should be authorised to issue loans to county councils for the purpose; and that this view should continue to he pressed upon the Board of Agriculture.

Moved to resolve, That in view of the large and increasing demand for land for small holdings, it is desirable that the Government should modify their present policy so as to meet the large and growing demand for land on the part of discharged soldiers and others.— (Lord Strachie.)


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord for having brought tins subject to the attention of the House. I know well that it is a matter of great concern and deep interest to every member of your Lordships' House that a greater number of our fellow-citizens should be placed on the soil in such a condition and in such a position that they can earn a decent and respectable livelihood. I cannot quarrel with the account which the noble Lord has given of the different interviews between the Association and the President of the Board of Agriculture. He gave your Lordships a very accurate and careful résumé of those various meetings, and I should like also to assure the noble Lord that he was perfectly justified in saving that Mr. Prothero, the President of the Board of Agriculture, gave his warmest sympathy to the views and ideas expressed by the County Councils Association.

I need hardly remind the House that there are two kinds of applicants for small holdings. There is the man who before the war was either an enterprising man in commerce or a successful agricultural labourer. We have to-day the ex-Service man who has fought for his country and is anxious to acquire some stake and holding in the country for which he has fought. I can assure the noble Lord that the Board of Agriculture are fully alive to the situation, and that they have given this matter very serious consideration and earnest thought. But may I point out that there are a great number of difficulties in our way? The noble Lord rather passed them over, and did not feel disposed to examine them very closely. In the first place, we are confronted with the difficulty of money. Money is dear, and the rate of interest is very high. Money is required for war expenses, and any funds which are diverted for social purposes or for ameliorating the lot of our fellow-citizens must in some small degree diminish the sum-total of money available for the prosecution of the war. It is quite true that the sum required for carrying on the extension of the Small Holdings Act is infinitesimal compared with the sum-total that we are spending a day. But at the same time the noble Lord will possibly agree with me that at the present juncture it is vital that all the funds at the disposal of the nation should be employed for the prosecution of the war. Then I think the noble Lord will also agree that to-day the cost to the small holder himself is quite out of proportion to what it was before the war. I suppose that the cost of equipment for himself alone has gone up, in round figures, nearly 100 per cent.

May I remind the House, since the noble Lord alluded to the Small Holdings Act, of what the Board of Agriculture spent during the years from 1908, when the Small Holdings Act came into force, down to 1914, just before the war, and of what has been achieved. The Board of Agriculture acquired, in round figures, 200,000 acres of land; 140,000 acres were purchased, and 60,000 acres hired. Some 14,000 men were placed on the soil. The average cost of the land was £32 an acre, and the average rental was 25s. an acre. I certainly desire to associate myself with the noble Lord when he said that he thought the Small Holdings Act had been a success; and I am bound to say I think that all those who, like the noble Viscount opposite (Lord Harcourt), were associated with the passing of the Act, may congratulate themselves upon the fruitful result of their efforts.

It was the hope of the Board at one time that they would be able to continue this work. It involved an expenditure of £1,500,000 a year and the acquisition of some 30,000 acres of land. But for reasons which I have already explained to the noble Lord and some of which he himself has already laid before the House, the Treasury have been unable to accede to the request of the county councils to allow them to borrow money from the Public Works Loans Commissioners during the period of the war.

I have dealt with the civil applicants who were able to get small holdings under the Act. Let me pass to the consideration of those whom we might call the military applicants. It is within the recollection of the House that the Small Holdings Colonies Act was passed in 1916. Under that Act the Board of Agriculture were entitled to acquire 6,000 acres of land for the purpose of putting upon it ex-Service men. The Board did acquire the 6,000 acres to which they were entitled, and the result of their administration during the year 1916–17 will be laid on the Table in the course of a few days. But, in connection with this existing scheme under the Small Holdings Colonies Act of 1916, the Government hope to introduce legislation at an early date with a view to extending that Act. I hope I have made myself clear to the noble Lord. The Government were entitled to acquire land to the extent of 6,000 acres, but it is proposed to extend the principle of the Act of 1916 by which that was done. That is the real point of the speech of the noble Lord. He wanted to know—as a result of a discussion with the Empire Settlement Committee, and other information which he read to your Lordships, either from the Press or from meetings between various associations and the President of the Board of Agriculture—whether the Government had any further plan in view. My reply is that the Board of Agriculture have had the question of land settlement for ex-Service men under their consideration. They have prepared a comprehensive scheme for the acquisition of land, which scheme is now being discussed with the Ministry of Reconstruction prior to submission to the members of the War Cabinet. The noble Lord asked me whether I could give him any detailed statement in connection with that scheme. I am sure that on consideration he will see that, until a scheme of such magnitude is laid before the members of the War Cabinet for their consideration, it would be better for me not to attempt to disclose any of its details.


My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Strachie has brought this matter before your Lordships' House. I can understand that the noble Duke who represents the Board of Agriculture has answered under some difficulty; because the Board of Agriculture has of course, had to submit this scheme to the Treasury for their sanction, and it has at the present moment, apparently, a scheme which is being considered by the Minister of Reconstruction, and probably will then have to be considered by the Treasury, and eventually have to go to the War Cabinet.

Let me remind your Lordships what the history of this question is. When the war broke out a very gallant member of your Lordships' House—the late Lord Lucas—was President of the Board of Agriculture. At some early period of the war he saw what an important question this matter of the provision of small holdings for demobilised sailors and soldiers was going to be, and he appointed a very strong Departmental Committee, over which Sir Harry Verney presided. That Committee presented its Report a few days after I had had the honour of becoming President of the Board of Agriculture, in 1915. That Committee recommended three things. It recommended an experiment in what are called "colonies"—a small experiment of three colonies of ex-seamen or ex-soldiers. It recommended a large expenditure by the Board of Agriculture in the settlement of demobilised sailors and soldiers on the land, in addition to the colonies. Further, it recommended in the strongest way that the county councils should be furnished with funds to enable them to meet the demands in their counties that would come upon them from all quarters, and particularly from demobilised sailors and soldiers after the war to provide them with small holdings.

The only action that has been taken on that Report was that action taken by Parliament on the Small Holdings Colonies Bill; and the noble Duke has told us that there is in contemplation an extension of that scheme. I am very glad to hear it. But I want to draw your Lordships' attention—and through Parliament the attention of the public—to the fact that there is too great a delay, a dangerous delay in my judgment, in dealing with this matter. I understand the position of the Treasury. The noble Duke told us and we all know without his telling us—that the attitude of the Treasury is naturally that of "no expenditure at the present moment, if we can help, it, on any scheme, however good, that is not directly connected with the prosecution of the war." This is exactly one of those eases in which that natural attitude of the Treasury, if not overruled by the War Cabinet, is going to lead to disaster. I use that word advisedly.

What is the position? It was my business when I was at the Board of Agriculture to try and ascertain what the views of the men in the Fleet and in the Army were on this subject; and since I have been out of office I have continued to do what I could to ascertain what those opinions were. I am now going to tell your Lordships what the position is as I understand it. How many demobilised seamen or soldiers will wish to go on the land nobody can tell. Some people think a good many; others think a few. I do not know. Nobody can know at present. In such units as a test has been carried out, I believe something like 17 per cent, of the men have expressed their intention of going on the land—men who were not on the land before. But that is evidently a calculation on which no firm estimate can be based; therefore I do not pretend to say what proportion of these men really will, in the last resort, determine to make a settlement on the land in order to try and make their livelihood out of it. I say that the sentiment in the Fleet and in the Army on this subject is extraordinarily strong. What is running through their minds is this—and it is not only the men who for the moment think of going upon the land; this sentiment is shared by all the men who have no idea of going on the land at all—their attitude is this." We have saved the land. At the present moment we do not consider that Parliament gives us sufficient access to the land, and we are going to claim as our right an access to the land." That feeling is held with vehemence both in the Fleet and in the Army; and I want to say here—as I know I can—to the men of the Fleet and of the Army that they are going to meet with no opposition from the landowners of this country.


Hear, hear.


Quite the contrary. The landowners of this country yield to nobody in their admiration of what these men have done. They admit the justice of this aspiration, and, so far as in them lies, they will do all they can to assist the Government to give access to the land to all the men who bona fide mean to make that their occupation in life.

The question is, What is Parliament going to do to give this access to the land to the men, where it does not exist now? The colony plan is one means of access. We have already discussed that, and I will not say any more about it. The noble Duke has told us that the Board of Agriculture has a further scheme in view. We shall be able to pronounce upon that when we are told what it is. But the best means of all of giving access to the land is through the operation of the county councils. In each county you have an experienced committee which knows how to deal with this matter, a committee that has been anxious all through the war to make preparation for the demand which it knows is coming directly the war is over. We all know that land has been changing hands freely during the war. Every county council will tell you that over and over again they have had a chance of acquiring suitable land for this purpose but have not been able to take any steps towards that end because the Treasury will not allow them to spend any money in this way. That is where I say the action of the Treasury, if wholly intelligible, is really constituting a public danger; because if nothing is done by the end of the war it will be too late to do anything properly. The demand may be very large; the county councils will be told at time last moment by a reluctant Treasury that they may spend the money, but all the opportunities of acquiring land may have passed by, and they will have great difficulty in acquiring compulsorily land which a few months before they could have acquired voluntarily.

Just think what will be the feelings of these men, who know that this question has been before Parliament and the Cabinet for four years, when they come back from the war and find that nothing has been done. The situation will be lamentable; and your Lordships know that there are in this country men—I hope not a great number, but still there are men and very active men—of what I might term the Bolshevik frame of mind, who will do all they can to use this position in order to excite the feelings of the demobilised soldiers and sailors, and who will say, "This is all you have to expect from society as it exists at present," and "This is the gratitude you have for saving England and Scotland; Parliament during all these years has made no provision for your access to the land." I sincerely hope that the President of the Board of Agriculture will take this matter straight to the War Cabinet, that he will not allow the Department to be blocked by the Treasury, but will support the county councils, because whatever the Board of Agriculture may do I believe it can be better done by the county councils.


My Lords, I am speaking on the Motion before the House to begin with, and I wish to express my regret that I was prevented from being here in time to listen to the whole of this debate, because many years ago I was the author of a Bill for dealing with the question of small holdings. Unhappily that measure was, brought to a rapid termination, because very shortly after it came into operation the Conservative Government went out of office. The object of that measure was to provide small ownerships; in other words, to try to restore something in the nature of the peasantry that used to exist in this country many years ago. There was no class which at one time flourished more than they did. They were described on one occasion by Mr. Bright as "men who tilled the land and owned the land they tilled," and in many parts of England, especially, in the county in which I lived for so many years, there were thousands of these small freeholders, all flourishing, all farming admirably well; but when the time of the great depression came, they were the first to suffer. They had no landlord to fall back upon, and the mortgagees enforced their interests ten times more harshly than the landlords ever thought of doing their rents. Consequently, in a great measure these men have disappeared.

I share entirely the anxiety of my noble friend to see small holdings provided for the men who are coming back from the war, or for others who may desire to have holdings in the land; but whatever the measures are, I do hope that the question of ownership will not be lost sight of. I have the most profound belief that this is the way to re-establish a peasantry, in this country. It is quite true that the Bill which I carried had only a short time for operation, because the new Government which came in at once passed another measure, the principle of which was that small holdings should be held by people as tenants under the county councils. I do not believe for a moment that the soldiers coming back from the war will be altogether satisfied with that position. I think that what they will desire to become is the owners of the land. On those lines I sincerely hope it will be done. I fully agree with my noble friend that this is a question which cannot be overlooked, and that it ought to be part of the policy of whatever Party may be in power when the war is over.

On Question, Motion agreed to.