HL Deb 19 May 1920 vol 40 cc418-23

LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE rose to ask His Majesty's Government when it is proposed to introduce the Land Purchase Bill for Ireland to which reference was made in the statement of the late Chief Secretary for Ireland on March 29.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships may not be familiar with what was said by Mr. Macpherson on the occasion to which my question refers. He called attention to the fact that the question of land purchase had been dealt with by a sub-committee of the Irish Convention, and that the Report of that sub-committee was unanimously adopted by the whole Convention. He proceeded to say that the scheme which they put forward would undoubtedly remove the impasse and provide for a speedy completion of land purchase on terms equitable and fair between landlord and tenant. The Government, he added, recognising as it does that it is under an obligation to introduce a land purchase scheme, has decided to adopt this scheme of the Convention as its basis, and will introduce a Purchase Bill upon the lines of that scheme immediately.

I happened to be a member of the subcommittee which drew up that Report, and I confess that I had a feeling of parental pride at the eulogy which was bestowed upon our offspring. Certainly there never was a more auspicious birth. All the fairy-godmothers were present except one, and the committee received the good wishes of every section of the Convention, from the stern and unbending Ulstermen through every stage of Unionism and Nationalism even to the dreamy, poetic, and eloquent Sinn Feiner, who was the only representative of that body, I think, amongst us. And when I found the absent fairy-godmother in the shape of Great Britain had appeared on March 29 in the form of Mr. Macpherson, and had announced his intention of adopting the child and providing him with an ample dowry, I confess that I thought his future looked extremely promising. But matters have changed since then. The guardianship has been removed to another quarter, and there is some fear lest the child has been overlain by its new nurse, and that the sturdy bantling may never appear at the Bar of your Lordships' House.

The Government at the present time are engaged in passing through the House of Commons a measure for Ireland which is detested by every section of Irishmen, so much so that even the Irish Members of the Government find themselves unable to vote for the Second Reading. I hope, nevertheless, that they really mean at the same time to press forward this land purchase measure, which has the approval of Irishmen of all shades of opinion, and from whom they might hope for not only approval but also active co-operation and assistance if it is brought forward in the House of Commons. I am not so sanguine as to say that the Bill would have the effect of quieting the unrest which exists in Ireland, but I do think it would show Irishmen that in one matter at any rate the Government are prepared to act upon the views which they know to be felt in Ireland on this matter. And it certainly is a matter of the very gravest importance that the land question should be settled before Home Rule is introduced. I am not one of those who believe for one minute that even if the Home Rule Bill is passed into law it will ever be put into operation in the South and West of Ireland. If it is, I submit to His Majesty's Government that it will make matters very much easier for those who are called upon to take up that movement if they find this lion out of their path. There is no doubt that they will be pressed at once to take measures to settle the land question, and finding themselves without money, and possibly without credit, they might be tempted to yield to the wishes of the extremists of their Party and to settle the matter on terms that would not be equitable.

Even at the present minute I think it would have a very salutary effect in restraining to a certain extent the cattleraiding which unfortunately is so prevalent in the West of Ireland if land purchase were to be proceeded with as quickly as possible. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, if he is going to answer the Question, will be able to assure me that the Government intend to proceed with this matter at once, not only to introduce the Bill but to press it forward pari passu with the other Bill, for which I am afraid no great hopes of ultimate success in Ireland can be entertained. I think it will relieve feeling very much in Ireland if the noble and learned Lord is able to assure me of this.


My Lords, it has always been recognised, as the noble Lord has quite truly said, that no proposals for an Irish settlement can be regarded as complete unless provision is made for the settlement of the land question. Land purchase in Ireland at the present moment is at a standstill, owing to the fact that sales, instead of being cash transactions under the Wyndham Act, have had to be carried out on the basis of a Three per Cent. Land Stock at its par value. The meaning of that, as your Lordships will see, is that a vendor, instead of receiving £1,000 purchase money in cash, would receive only £1,000 of Three per Cent Stock, which at the present market value is worth only £497 10s. It is apparent that no landlord can afford to sell on those terms, and a new scheme of land purchase is essential which will enable the unsold land to be brought within the Land Purchase Acts.

It is a matter of extreme difficulty, as the noble Lord would be the first to admit, to formulate a scheme which will be fair and acceptable to the selling landlord on the one hand and to the purchasing tenant on the other. I agree with the tribute paid by the late Chief Secretary for Ireland, to which the noble Lord made reference, that one of the most noteworthy achievements of the Irish Convention, perhaps its most noteworthy practical achievement, was the preparation of this scheme. It was the work, the noble Lord said, of a sub-committee which included representatives of all schools of thought, and it is a tribute to their efforts that their Report was accepted by the Convention unanimously. The scheme of which I am speaking removes the present impasse, and provides for the speedy conclusion of land purchase on terms which are believed to be acceptable both to the landlord and the tenant. The Government, recognizing, as I have already said, that it is under an obligation to bring before Parliament proposals for a land settlement as nearly concurrently as may be with its Home Rule proposals, has decided to adopt the Convention scheme as a basis, and to introduce a Land Purchase Bill for the purpose.

I do not pause to consider, because the argument would be a long one, whether the noble Lord's extremely gloomy views on the subject of the Home Rule Bill, which is now engaging the attention of the House of Commons, are in their entirety well founded or not, because more appropriate occasions will present themselves for the discussion of this undoubtedly difficult subject. But it has been suggested to me that in a very few moments I might attempt an indication of the salient features of the scheme for which the Committee of the Convention and, at a later stage, the Convention made itself responsible. Take, first, the landlords' position. The Convention felt, for reasons which need not be laboured, that it would be impossible to revert to payment of the purchase money in cash. It would involve too great a loss to the State. And it was not less apparent that the time had long since passed at which it was possible to expect that the landlord would accept Three per Cent. Stock at par. It was therefore proposed that payments should be made in a new Stock bearing dividends at such a rate that the market price of the Stock might be expected to stand at a little below par, and vendors would be required to take this Stock at its face value in payment of their purchase money.

A word very briefly about the tenant. The purchase money was to be fixed at such a sum that the purchase annuity payable by him in liquidation of it—and taking the place of the rent which, of course, he pays at present—would represent the same average reduction as compared with the rent which other tenants in the county had obtained by purchase under the Wyndham Act. Nothing could be more unfortunate than the contrast which exists to-day as between some of those who have obtained the advantages of the Wyndham Act and others, perhaps their neighbours, living at any rate near by them, under circumstances in which the comparison is most disadvantageous, and is felt to be very unfair by those who have not the benefits of the Wyndham Act. The danger of leaving land purchase uncompleted is very great—I entirely agree with the noble Lord on this point—and the advantages that would be gained by a settlement of the kind indicated can hardly be exaggerated. In the congested districts to-day there are still thousands ekeing out a bare existence on small uneconomic holdings, while there are large tracts of untenanted land which, but for the financial difficulties which have arisen, might be made available to provide them with enlarged economic holdings.

The noble Lord has asked me whether I can give him the precise date at which it is proposed to introduce this Land Purchase Bill. The noble Lord is not unaware of the Parliamentary difficulties under which the work of another place has been carried on in the busy months which have passed, and I cannot, of course, affect to ignore the circumstance that these difficulties are likely to be not less great when the House of Commons resumes its sittings after this short recess. But I may tell the noble Lord that the draft Bill is in an advanced state of preparation; it is, in fact, for all practical purposes complete—certainly for the purposes of mastering and understanding its contents. It is awaiting at this moment final sanction from the Cabinet, which may or may not be forthcoming in the present pressure of business before the Whitsuntide recess, but which may be confidently hoped for immediately after the recess if this first anticipation should fail, and I can assure the noble Lord that there is not the slightest intention of delaying the Bill in any way, but that, on the contrary, it is hoped that its arrival in this House will be not very much later than the Home Rule proposals to which the noble Lord has referred.


May I be permitted to thank the noble and learned Lord for the very lucid explanation which he gave to the House of the provisions of the Report of the sub-Committee of the Irish Convention, and for the answer he has given. I should also like to ask whether the Government intend to adopt the idea of a bonus to landlords, as was recommended by that Committee. I ask that because the noble and learned Lord's speech is sure to be much read in Ireland, and if that was omitted it might be thought that the Government did not intend to adopt that portion of the Report.


The noble Lord will make allowance for the fact that I am speaking on a Bill for which at present I am not primarily responsible, and therefore I speak from recollection. But my recollection is that the bonus is to be adjusted on a graduated scale so as to secure that, where the number of years' purchase represented by the purchase money was small, the bonus was to be proportionately large, and vice versa.