HL Deb 21 December 1925 vol 62 cc1706-12

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Bledisloe.)


My Lords, I most respectfully hope that your Lordships will not think me an infernal bore rising at this time on the last day before the adjournment to say a few words on this Bill. I promise your Lordships that they will be very few, but I really cannot help myself. Something has to be said, and I have been asked by my leader in this House, Earl Beauchamp, and by the Commander-in-Chief of the Liberal Party or what is left of it, Lord Oxford and Asquith, to express what our feelings are in regard to the Bill that your Lordships are now asked to read a third time.

I wonder if your Lordships know what this Bill means. Last week it was pitchforked in amongst a lot of other Bills that were all tied together like a sheaf of corn, and it was proposed to put this Bill through all its stages on the same day with the others. That was a little bit strong even in this House. The only excuse that could have been made for it would have been that it was a Money Bill. We have been informed by my noble friend Lord Bledisloe that this is not a Money Bill, but it is an agreed Bill. I think most people will agree with me when I say that of all the bad Bills that have passed through this House this is the worst.

What is this Bill, which is called the Land Settlement (Facilities) Amendment Bill? It is a measure to permit payment for the loss incurred by the Land Settlement Act of 1919. What did that Act of Parliament do? It placed 14,000 ex-soldiers on the land. That Act was brought in by Mr. Lloyd George's Coalition Government in 1919, and was a most praiseworthy one in its object, but the result was that it cost the country £17,000,000. Fourteen thousand ex-soldiers were put on the land at a cost of £17,000,000. That works out at a cost of £1,100 each. That, I think your Lordships will admit, is a most wonderful performance. How was this feat accomplished? It was done by suspending the Small Holdings Act of 1908. May I be permitted to say one word about that Act because I had a little to do with it? During three and a half years I happened to know something of the way in which it was carried out. Under that Act the Liberal Government put 5,000 men on the land and secured about 180,000 acres. That would be the equivalent of a piece of land a mile wide and about 200 miles long, that is to say, like a piece of road a mile wide running from London to York. We did that, and the transaction did not cost the county one single shilling, because the rents that the men paid covered all the expenses, including a sinking fund to repay all the money in a certain time. And ninety-five per cent. of the men who were put on the land at that time, under that Act, are on the land now, and are all doing well.

I think I may fairly ask the House to contrast the "Liberal Land Policy Bill,'' as I may call it, with the Bill that we are now asked to read a third time. Not only has this frightfully extravagant thing, which costs the country £17,000,000, impoverished the country, but the ex-Service men's rents under it were so high in comparison with those paid under the Small Holdings Act of 1908 that the Ministry insisted on all the pre-War rents being raised, so that justice should be done and that all should suffer alike. That is a bald statement of what has happened, and I challenge contradiction of it. I have made a statement of exactly what this Bill is, and what we are asked to do this afternoon is to continue it. I am not in the habit of speaking for other people, but I cannot honestly believe that the House will sanction the continuance of this awful extravagance.

But what are we to do? We are asked to read this Bill a third time. It is now twenty minutes to seven o'clock and the red benches of your Lordships' House show that there is a rather attenuated attendance; in fact, we are rapidly approaching that mysterious triumvirate which the law of England certifies as constituting the House of Lords, a congregation or a mob. What course am I to pursue in the protest that I am making for the whole Liberal Party? If I challenged a Division what good would it be? You must have thirty Peers present for a Division to be taken and there are only sixteen or seventeen Peers left in the House. All I can do to-night is to thank your Lordships for having allowed me to make this protest in the name of the Party to which I belong and to express the determination of the Liberal Party, in connection with any land question that may be brought before us, to resist to the uttermost any such extravagance as that which I have tried to describe this evening to your Lordships. I suppose that my noble friend will say that the Bill is to be read a third time. I am in his hands. I have made my protest, and that is all I can do.


My Lords, my noble friend has just told us that he is making a protest against this Bill in the name of the Party to which ha belongs. I am bound to say that if he is doing so he is not receiving that enthusiastic and vociferous support from the Liberal Benches which in such circumstances one would naturally expect. But what troubles me so much about the observations of the noble Marquess is that he told us that he is asked by his nominal Leader to protest against, the continuance of this Bill; by which I imagine he means the scheme embodied in the original Act of 1919. I want to make it perfectly clear to your Lordships that is exactly what this Bill is not intended to do. This Bill is intended to wind up once and for all the scheme which was provided for in the Act of 1919 and, therefore, so far from asking the House to object to the Bill, if your Lordships agree with the noble Marquess, and indeed with myself, you will do your best to pass this Bill into law as soon as possible, its object being to wind up that scheme and incidentally to wind up the finance in connection with the scheme.

Let me say that my noble friend, if be will allow me to call him so, is, in effect, a pioneer in this country of small holdings, at any rate of statutory small holdings, and he has managed to convince, I will not say his; own Party because apparently he has not, but the other two Parties, how very desirable it is to continue, develop and extend the scheme which he initiated in the year 1908. The only opposition there seems likely to be to this salutary extension of small holdings, in which we are all very much interested, appears likely to come from the right hon. gentleman who up to this evening I always imagined dictated to the Liberal Party their land policy.

I want to acknowledge seriously the debt which this country and the rural community owe to the noble Marquess in the matter of small holdings. He has an unrivalled knowledge of this particular subject and he was undoubtedly responsible for the initial effort made in 1908 But this Bill, as I ventured to explain in the absence of the noble Marquess last Thursday, when moving the Second Reading, comes to this House as an agreed Bill as between the County Councils Association and the Borough Councils and the Ministry of Agriculture and the Treasury. It also comes here as a Bill that is agreed to by the House of Commons and which passed without criticism in another place. The only Liberal who expressed an opinion on the Money Resolution which initiated this Bill in another place was Mr. Fenby.

Mr. Fenby is not only a very authoritative Liberal but he is Chairman of the East Riding; Small Holdings Committee. What was it he said? He started by congratulating the Minister of Agriculture and his advisers on this Bill, and he went on to say:— The county councils, or some of them, are anxious to make a move forward with regard to settling men upon the land as I smallholders"— that is to say, other than ex-Service men— and unless this settlement is arrived at before the House rises for Christmas it will be almost impossible to carry out the settlement for April next between the county councils and the Ministry. What I am anxious about, as a member of a county authority, is that this settlement should be effected as early as possible, so that, a forward movement may be made in regard to small holdings in vetting more men upon the land. That is the only expression put forward' on behalf of the Liberal Party in another place when the Money Resolution in connection with this Bill came before it.

Now what are the objections which the noble Marquess has made, not to this Bill but to the original scheme initiated by a Government of which a most distinguished Liberal was the head in 1919? His objection was that whereas his own measure of 1908 was so successful that there was no monetary loss resulting from it (which I quite admit), and that no more than 5 per cent. of the men that were settled thereunder have not made good (which again I admit), under this particular scheme which was for the benefit of ex-Service men, and ex-Service men only, something like £17,000,000 have been expended on which we anticipate that something like £8,000,000 will, in fact, have been lost—we admit that. Under this particular scheme not 14,000 small holdings but 16,000 small holdings have been constituted at a cost not of £17,000,000 but of £16,000,000, and the result of the arithmetical calculation that the noble Marquess made is very substantially modified; in fact, each small holder has been settled at a cost of less than £1,000, instead of considerably more.

What is the difference in the percentage of men who have not made good? As I pointed out just now, the noble Marquess is proud, and justifiably proud, of the fact that not more than 5 per cent. have failed under his scheme. But no more than ten to twelve per cent. have failed under this scheme under most abnormal conditions. What are those conditions? in the first place, suitable land had to be obtained at an appreciably higher value than the cost of such land in pre-War times. The buildings and equipment were very much more costly, probably at least 80 per cent. more costly than they were in the years to which the noble Marquess referred. The rate of interest on capital loans was very much higher. At the time when the noble Marquess's scheme came into most effective operation the value of money—that is, the rate of interest charged by the Public Works Loans Board—was no more than 3½ per cent., whereas, the average that has been charged during this post-War period has been 6¼ per cent., and the greater part of the land was acquired with money upon which county councils have had to pay 6½ per cent. That was in the years between 1920 and 1922.

Then the noble Marquess must realise that the men who came and occupied the original small holdings were the cream of the working class population in the rural districts, skilled workers. The bulk of these men are ex-Service men, many of them with very limited agricultural experience and many of them partially disabled and unable to throw the amount of energy into the work which the ordinary small holder is able to do. Lastly, but by no means least, we have unfortunately had bad seasons, with relatively low prices during the period when these men were getting established on their small holdings.

I do not think it is necessary for me to say anything else except this. The noble Marquess, when the principal Act was under discussion in this House, in 1919, raised by anticipation the same protest, and Lord Ernle, who was then Minister of Agriculture in what I may call the Lloyd George Government, himself anticipated that there would be a loss of some millions on the scheme. He realised that in the eventual balancing of accounts money would have to be found from the Exchequer in order to avoid county councils suffering a loss. He was not far out in his anticipation as to what the loss would be. He suggested 40 per cent. As a matter of fact we anticipate a loss, at the most, of 50 per cent., under much more difficult conditions and much more onerous rates of interest than Lord Ernle was able to anticipate. I suppose I must not take it seriously that the noble Marquess proposes to divide against the Bill. Assuming he were to do so, let me remind him what would happen. The valuation of the small holding estates would be carried out on the lines of Section 27 of the original Act, and the ratepayers in the counties would have to find the difference in rates between 3½ per cent. and 6 per cent. in order to balance the small holdings account. I cannot believe that the noble Marquess desires anything like that. In fact, it is the last suggestion that would come with any grace from the great pioneer of the small holdings movement in this country. The surprise to most of us is that the loss on this ex-Service small holdings scheme has not been far more serious that it has turned out to be.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.