Skip to main content

The Duchy Of Lancaster And The Agricultural Holdings (England) Act—Resolution

Volume 229: debated on Friday 26 May 1876

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

in rising to call attention to the fact that a circular has been addressed to the tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster, by the Chancellor of the Duchy, excluding them from the benefits of the Agricultural Holdings (England) Act of last Session by giving them formal notice that their contracts of tenancy shall remain unaffected by that Act, and to move—

"That, in the opinion of this House, it is undesirable that the benefits intended by Parliament to accrue to any class of Her Majesty's subjects from the passing of any statute should be neutralised by the official action of a member of the Administration responsible for the enactment of that statute,"
—said: Sir, some time ago, in reply to a Question which I put to him in this House, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster admitted that he had issued a circular attributed to him in The Mark Lane Express, contracting the tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster out of the benefits of the Agricultural Holdings Act of last Session. Now, the 46th clause of the Act expressly enacts that the Act shall extend and apply to the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster. Comparing the expression here made use of with the manner in which the same words are applied in other parts of the statute, it appears to me a matter quite open to argument that the Act, so far as the Duchy of Lancaster is concerned, is not of a permissive, but of a compulsory character. I do not, however, intend to enter into the point, for it seems to me of comparatively little moment whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has, in issuing the circular, acted within his powers or exceeded them. What I contend is, that it is evident from the 46th clause that the Act was intended by Parliament to apply to the Duchy of Lancaster. This clause was not only sanctioned by Parliament, but the consents of Her Majesty and of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in respect of it were expressly given before the Bill came down to this House. Moreover, as a Member of the Ministry which introduced the Bill, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster must have had every opportunity of urging any special reason which might exist for the exclusion of the lands of the Duchy from the operation of the Act, and as a Member of the Ministry responsible for the Act he must be regarded as especially responsible for the 46th clause which regulates its application to the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster. In admitting that he had issued the circular attributed to him by The Mark Lane Express the right hon. and gallant Gentleman attempted to excuse his action, and as I wish to do the right hon. and gallant Gentleman every justice, I shall quote his own words—
"On the advice," he said, "of the recognized and responsible officials of the Duchy, having consulted several of the Council, I did that which was considered best for Her Majesty's estates. …The difficulties intended to be met by the Agricultural Holdings (England) Act have never occurred between the Duchy and its tenants. The tenants are scarcely ever changed, and, as a matter of course almost, the farms pass from father to son, and the improvements, as a rule, are always made by the Duchy at a stated rate of interest."—[3 Hansard, ccxxvii. 1796.]
Now, admitting for a moment the validity of these excuses for the action of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, I must say that it appears to me his proper time to have thought of these exceptional circumstances was when the Bill was before Parliament, and his proper course was to have struck out the special provision for the case of the Duchy in the measure—instead of dangling it before the eyes of the country as if to give the lie to any suspicion that any Department of Her Majesty's Government intended the measure to be a sham, or brought it forward otherwise than in the best of faith. But, Sir, I shall show that the excuses of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, when closely looked into, really afford no excuse whatever for his conduct in the matter. It is only in the cases of tenancies from year to year, or at will, that under Section 57 of the Act notice is required to be given to debar the occupier from reaping the benefits of the Act. It is not required in the case of existing leases, for the Act specially excepts them. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman, tells us that the Duchy is in the habit of advancing money for improvements at a stated rate of interest, as if in so doing it was in the habit of doing everything contemplated under the Act. I maintain that this is so far from being the case, that the question of these advances has practically nothing to do with the operation of the Act. These advances apply solely to improvements coming under Class I of the Agricultural Holdings Act. This class of improvements—permanent improvements—are every one of them improvements which are more properly executed by the landlord than by the tenant, and although the Act of last Session very properly made provision that in the case of limited owners, or when from any cause the landlord did not care to expend his capital, the tenant might make the improvement and receive compensation, it expressly stipulated that such compensation could only be claimed when the permanent improvement was exe- cuted with the previous consent in writing of the landlord. Now, from everything I hear the Duchy is not particularly lavish in its expenditure on improvements. With its income of £35,000, it last year only expended in drainage and other improvements chargeable to capital £731 6s. 9d., and that sum was doubtless laid out to good advantage and at good interest. But whether it was great or small, and whether the tenants paid for it in the shape of increased rents or not has nothing to do with the question. If the Chancellor of the Duchy wishes to retain all works of permanent improvement in his own hand, he has simply to refuse his written consent to the tenants proposing to execute them, and if they persist in carrying them out, they do so at their own risk. If, on the other hand, the Duchy executes them, there is not a shadow of a pretence for saying that under the Act of last Session any compensation could be claimed. But, Sir, some really important advantages could have been claimed by the tenant, and were specially intended by Parliament to accrue to the yearly tenantry of the Duchy of Lancaster under the Agricultural Holdings Act, and they were these—They could under it have claimed compensation for improvements of the 2nd and 3rd class—for boning, chalking, clay-burning, claying, liming, and marling, and for unexhausted manure. More important still, they could have claimed compensation under Section 53 for engines, machinery, and fixtures erected at their expense in accordance with the provisions of the section; and still more important, in the case of a yearly tenant, they could, under Section 51, have claimed twelve months' notice instead of six, in case of any disagreement with the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, his Successors, or their subordinates. But the right hon. and gallant Gentleman attempts to argue that practically the tenants will suffer little hardship from their exclusion from the operation of the Agricultural Holdings Act, because they are very seldom disturbed, and holdings often descend for generations together from father to son. That is very possible, but it has nothing to do with the question, and is no justification whatever for the action of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. On the contrary, it simply shows for what a very small gain to the funds of the Duchy he has gone out of his way to defeat the intentions of Parliament. Compensations are not paid under the Act, except on the termination of tenancies; and, if cases of change are rare, cases of compensation would be few. But what I maintain is, that whether such cases of termination of tenancy are numerous or few, Parliament intended—with the concurrence, we all thought, of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that on their occurrence the out-going tenant should be entitled, under certain conditions, to compensation for certain improvements, and this intention the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has proceeded in the most wanton manner to frustrate. I say, in the most wanton manner, because, according to his own statement, the changes on tenancy on the Duchy estates are very few, and the inducement for the course he has taken, consequently, wholly inadequate. And now let us see with what intention Parliament passed the Agricultural Holdings Act. It did so for the express purpose of securing for the tenant an equitable compensation for any real improvements he might effect on his holding, and so encouraging high-class farming and increasing the food-producing capacity of the country. The yearly tenants on the estate of the Duchy of Lancaster may know that under former Administrations they have remained undisturbed in their holdings, but when they see the present Chancellor passing an Act one Session, and repudiating it the next, how can they help regarding him as the embodiment of fickleness and caprice, and with what confidence can they be expected to invest capital in improving their farms. From statements which I have seen in the agricultural papers, and which have reached me since I put my Notice upon the Paper, the tenants of at least some of the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster are by no means satisfied with their treatment, and would decidedly benefit if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman would allow them to undertake permanent improvements, as well as improvements of Classes II. and III. of the Act of last year, under the security which that Act affords. But, Sir, I have not brought forward this matter in the interests of the tenantry of the Duchy of Lancaster. My concern is for the effect which the action of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will produce on the country at large. I have no hesitation in saying that it will have a most disastrous and a most demoralizing effect. When the landlords of England hear of a Gentleman so nearly responsible for the Agricultural Holdings Act—a Chancellor and the head of an important Court—at the cost at once of his own consistency and of the reputation of the Ministry of which he is a Member, declaring that the adoption of the Act would be so prejudicial to the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, that steps must at once be taken to exclude them from the operation of its provisions, what must they think of its probable effect upon their own interests? Will they not naturally ask themselves whether there must not be something very bad indeed in the Act, when even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster makes such haste to escape from it? Now, Sir, various Members of the Ministry on different occasions, and notably the Prime Minister at the last Ministerial banquet at the Mansion House, have spoken of the Act as a most important and a most beneficial one, and I entirely concur in their description of it. It may not go so far as many of us would have wished; but I have no hesitation in expressing my own opinion that it is an Act which only requires to be generally adopted to prove a very great boon indeed to the country. And I believe that under ordinary circumstances it would be generally adopted, for its provisions are calculated to benefit the landlord, and to lead to the improvement and development of his property, while giving an equitable security to the tenant. But, Sir, I can conceive of nothing more likely to produce a scare among landlords—to make them once and for all resolve to have nothing to do with the Agricultural Holdings Act—to deprive the country of a great gain, and to render nugatory all the labour which Parliament last year bestowed on this measure, than the action which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has thought fit to adopt. It is for this reason, Sir, that I have deemed it my duty to call attention to the subject and to move the Resolution I now submit to the House.

in seconding the Motion, observed that the assent of the Queen and of the Prince of Wales was obtained to the introduction of the measure. It was promoted by the Government, and it seemed extraordinary that when it became an Act the Chancellor of the Duchy should render it of no avail with regard to property of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. The conduct of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had induced a large number of persons to defeat the intention of Parliament in passing the Act.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is undesirable that the benefits intended by Parliament to accrue to any class of Her Majesty's subjects from the passing of any statute should be neutralized by the official action of a Member of the Administration responsible for the enactment of that statute,"—(Dr. Cameron,)

—instead thereof.

said, he thought he would be able in a very few words to show that the hon. Member for Glasgow had not made out any case to justify the House in interfering with the management of the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster. The hon. Member said that he (Colonel Taylor), as Chancellor of the Duchy had contracted certain of its tenants out of the operation of the Agricultural Holdings Act. Now, the estates of the Duchy comprised in round numbers 37,000 acres of land in different parts of the country. Of that 30,000 acres were under lease, and were altogether outside of the Agricultural Holdings Act; so that there were only about 7,000 acres liable to be affected by the Act. They might be classified thus—At Need wood there were 23 tenants and 2,143 acres; at Scalby and Pickering, 12 tenants and 1,319 acres; at Pontefract, nine tenants and 380 acres. Those 44 tenants, occupying 3,873 acres, he had ascertained were satisfied with matters as they were before the passing of the Act, and not one of them had expressed a desire for any change. There remained 15 tenants at Methwold, in Norfolk, holding 3,063 acres. This was the soft part of the estate, and he thought it would be attempted to be shown that these tenants had complained of not being brought, under the operation of the Act. In fact, that estate was in a state of transition. Great improvements had been made in it, and further improvements were contemplainted. Some years since a former Chancellor of the Duchy sanctioned the expenditure of £2,687 in the purchase of a steam engine, which had been working ever since, and £3,600 in drainage, and for an embankment to keep out the river Wissey. This had worked excellently, and in the late wet season that estate was the only part of the neighbourhood that was not covered by water. Besides that, within the last five years, £3,730 had been spent, and all without any charge to the tenants. The average rental of that estate was 7s. 4d. an acre, and the average outlay 2s. 6d. an acre, leaving the net rental below 5s. an acre. Notwithstanding that, a memorial was addressed to him last spring asking for a reduction of rent, which he had felt constrained to refuse. Hence to some extent the complaints which had appeared in the shape of letters in The Mark Lane Express, and which contained statements in the main inaccurate. He would not, however, enter further into that part of the question except to say that, instead of a great number, as asserted, only a single notice had been returned to him unsigned from that estate. He contended that Methwold, being in the transition state that he had described in view of the further contemplated improvements, all to be effected at the expense of the Duchy, he was justified in issuing, and almost obliged to issue, the notice which he did, so that difficulties and delay might not be raised in carrying out those improvements. It must be remembered that the Act was optional; and, although he was a Member of the Government, he was also manager of the estates of Her Majesty, and was bound to do the best he could for the interests of the Crown. Some of the most experienced members of the Duchy Council were of opinion that the notice should be issued, and he acted accordingly. With all respect to the Agricultural Holdings Act, it seemed to him that it was calculated in the main to meet cases where estates were badly managed, and where there was not a good understanding between landlord and tenant. That, he was glad to say, was not the case with the Duchy; and he was convinced that the Methwold tenantry had been in no way damnified by the action taken there. He thought it unnecessary to say anything more in justification of the course he had taken.

explained that he had never asserted that the tenants were damnified.

thought it would be a curious and interesting Return—if it could be obtained—that would show the number of noble Lords and Members of Parliament who had been in favour of the Agricultural Holdings Act while it was being passed, but who had since carefully contracted themselves out of its operation. That, however, was no concern of his, nor was it his duty to defend the Government's action. But referring to one of the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Colonel Taylor) was quite accurate in saying it had been in a most unsatisfactory state, and three years ago it became necessary to make a searching inquiry into its condition. One of the most experienced land agents was employed for that purpose, and a large sum of money, between £3,000 and £4,000, had been or was in course of being expended on the estate. Pending the readjustment of the tenancies on that estate, he was bound to give it as his opinion that it would not be prudent on the part of the Government to bring it under the operation of the Act. All the other estates of the Duchy were under lease, and the Act would not apply to them.

thought the farmers, especially those in Scotland, were much indebted to his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron) for bringing this question forward. Last year they spent considerable time in discussing the Agricultural Holdings Act, and he (Mr. Barclay) then said that unless some of the provisions were made compulsory, it would be of no practical use. What they had heard that evening verified his prediction. They were now to have soon under discussion a Bill of a similar character for Scotland, and from the year's experience which they had now had of the English Act, they might judge whether the Scotch Bill, shortly to be introduced into the House, would be really of any value, and whether it would be of any use even to try to make a good measure of it, on the basis of the English Bill. Two questions had been raised in the debate; one was as to the management of the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the other why the tenants had not had the benefit of the Agricultural Holdings Act, which he believed it was the desire of that House that they should have. That it was necessary for them to benefit by its provisions was proved by the statement of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy, who had told them that a considerable portion of the estate was let at 7s. 4d. per acre, the charges upon it amounting to 2s. 6d. per acre. That should be the case after the estate had been for so many years under the same holding was the strongest condemnation of its management. He understood that the portion of the estate referred to was of a very poor quality of land, in which tenants ought to place a large amount of capital, and they would, in consequence, require some certainty of tenure. At present they had neither certainty of tenure nor any guarantee of compensation of the nature contemplated by the Agricultural Holdings Act. The reason given by the righthon. and gallant Gentleman for not applying the Act to these estates was that the tenants were quite satisfied, and that they had not expressed any dissatisfaction at being excluded. Well, he (Mr. Barclay) knew something about the position of tenants at will, who made complaints to their landlord. His belief was that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had very little to do with the matter. The complaints would not be made to him personally, but to some agent or land factor, who, if a tenant was, as he thought, troublesome and found fault, always found some means of getting rid of him. It was all very well to say the tenants were satisfied, and probably they might be content to go on as long as they could at a low rental, but it must be remembered that one of the strongest arguments used in support of the Agricultural Holdings Act last year was that by giving certainty of tenure, or certainty of compensation, the tenants would be induced to invest their capital and apply their energies to the cultivation of the land so as to make it worth a great deal more than it was at present. This was a matter in which the public were concerned as well as the landlord and tenant. It was said that the number of tenants at will on the Duchy estate was very small, but the result of this exclusion of them from the Agricultural Holding Act was objection able because it set a bad example to other landlords throughout the country, especially when the right hon. and gallant Gentleman gave as his reason that it was the best thing he could do in the interests of the estate. The contention of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow was that if the Act were applied to the estate it would render the land far more valuable to the Crown, and place the tenants in a more advantageous position, whilst the public would benefit by the increased productiveness which would certainly result. Until certainty of tenure and certainty of compensation were granted to the tenants, it could not be said that the estates were managed to the full advantage either of the Crown itself, the tenants, or the public.

pointed out that the Agricultural Holdings Act, however beneficial it might prove in certain places, was not applicable everywhere. He himself had notified to his tenants his intention of contracting himself out of it, and he had not received a single word of complaint from them on the subject. In fact, if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had not contracted himself out of the Act, he would have laid himself open to the suspicion that he was not managing his estates property.

said, that the Agricultural Holdings Act was a valuable piece of legislation, not only for its direct, but for its indirect effect in leading to the adoption of leases or other suitable agreements by landlords and tenants.

believed the tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster were perfectly well satisfied with their landlord, and if asked whether they would prefer the custom of the country or the Agricultural Holdings Act, they would choose the old system. He wished to bear testimony as an independent Member to the fact that the farms under the management of the Duchy of Lancaster exhibited as great progress in agricultural improvement as those in any part of the country. The whole of the estates were under the direction of a most excellent surveyor general. The farms which were contracted out of the provisions of the Act were placed under as favourable conditions as they could have been under it, considering how the custom of the country already gave tenant right to farmers leaving their farms, and in those portions of the Duchy which were under long leases, he believed that as those leases fell in the same liberal and enlightened policy would be pursued. He believed that the lands thus held under the Crown might fairly compare with any in the country as to cultivation and produce, and that change of tenants was most rare.

said, he did not mean to add anything to the vindication of the conduct of the Chancellor of the Duchy, which was already complete; he only rose to refer to a matter which his right hon. and gallant Friend had omitted to notice, and which he had asked him (Mr. Plunket) to bring before the House. In March last a circular was issued to the tenants of the estate which had been more particularly referred to in which there was a paragraph explaining exactly what the Chancellor was doing. The paragraph was to this effect—

"The Chancellor will shortly have under consideration a plan for the re-construction of the Severals farms. The necessary engineering work for the drainage of the land has now nearly been brought to completion; it remains that by a proper expenditure of capital by the landlord, and of energy on the part of the tenants, under the guarantee of leases for terms of years, this estate should be brought into a proper state of cultivation, for the benefit alike of landlord and tenant."

said, the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron) had done well to call attention to the operation, or rather the want of operation, of the Agricultural Holdings Act in the Duchy of Lancaster. He trusted the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied, and would not take the sense of the House on the Resolution, which might appear to convey censure on the management of the estates by the Chancellor. He (the Marquess of Hartington) had no knowledge of the management of the Duchy of Lancaster estates, but from what had fallen in the debate he had no reason to think that any fault was to be found with the general management of the estates, and certainly there was no fault to be found with the Chancellor for contracting his tenants out of the Agricultural Holdings Act, because he had acted perfectly properly, and had followed the example of a great many—indeed, the large majority of the landlords of this country, some of them the best landlords in England. Having said that, he thought the decision of the Chancellor a rather curious commentary on the Agricultural Holdings Act as passed by the Government. He ventured in some observations which he made on the second reading of the Bill to express an opinion that the provisions of the Bill would not be found generally acceptable either by the landlord or the tenant. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister—whose unavoidable absence he (the Marquess of Hartington) regretted—contested that assertion, and quoted him, not very accurately, as saying that "there was not the least doubt that every landlord would contract himself out of it." What he had said was, "that he had reason to suppose that a great number of the landlords would take that course." The Prime Minister went on to say—

"The noble Lord must have an extensive acquaintance with landlords to authorize him in giving so general and sweeping an account to the House. My experience is of a contrary description; but if the noble Lord is correct in the latter part of his speech, that one of the great features of the Bill is that it changes the presumption of the law, and changes it in favour of the tenant, it is not very probable that the landlords would find their tenants so ready to contract themselves out of the Bill."—[3 Hansard, ccxxv. 524.]
He thought it was shown, from the speeches made that evening, that he had been able to form a better opinion of the probable effect of the Agricultural Holdings Bill than the Prime Minister, who was responsible to the House for the measure. It had been said, by the hon. and gallant Member for East Essex (Colonel Brise), that although the Act had not been operating to any great extent, it had done a great deal of good, as it had led generally to the granting of leases or suitable agreements. That was no great claim to make for the Act. Precisely the same might be done, however bad the provisions of the Act; in fact, the worse the Act was the more it would lead to these agreements. The provisions of the Act had been found, not in one part or in one set of cases only, but all over England, almost universally, to be totally inapplicable to the cases it was intended to meet. It seemed to him a dangerous principle to pass legislation which was not to be obeyed, and then to congratulate themselves on having passed an Act from which landlords and tenants would be obliged to fly. He believed still more this Session than last that the Act was not intended to have any practical operation. He believed it was intended to meet a certain amount of agitation which had arisen in various parts of the country, and that it was intended to stop the mouths of those who were described by the right hon. Gentleman as "philosophers and economists." He did not believe that the Government thought it would have any general application, and if that was not their intention they were not disappointed.

said, the noble Lord opposite (the Marquess of Hartington) had just made some general observations upon the policy of the Government in introducing the Agricultural Holdings Act, and he laid it down that it was not a bonâ fide policy—that it was not intended to benefit agriculture, but to stop the mouths of agitators. He thought, considering the pains that were taken as to the details of the measure, the noble Lord might have held a more charitable view of it. He ventured to say the Act had not been so inoperative as the noble Lord said. What was the principle of the Act? It was that where a tenant had not the security of a lease, he should, on finishing his holding, obtain compensation for unexhausted improvements. It was stated by the supporters of the Bill that on many estates it would not be required—for instance, on large estates where leases prevailed, and where proper agreements already existed, and where the principle of the measure was generally recognized, and where the tenants had security for their improvements. But it was also contended that such a measure was required in the case of estates where there were no proper agreements, and where the tenants had not the security of leases. It was on such estates that the Act was intended to be operative, and it was specially required in the case of glebe lands and rectorial farms, where the rector had not the power to give compensation. Now the noble Lord and others who preceded him stated that the Act had not been generally adopted throughout the country, and that he believed was true; but it was not so, for this reason that, as regarded the great majority of landed estates in England the principle of the Act had already been adopted, the equitable provisions of the Act already existing in the agreements which subsisted between the landlords and their tenants. In those cases it was not to be expected, when the particular character of the holding was considered, that special provision to meet the requirements of the Act would be made, and that the parties interested would not contract themselves out of its operation. In respect of other estates where no such agreements had been entered into, or where the existing agreements did not provide security for the tenant, the principle laid down by the Act had, he believed, been very generally adopted—that principle being incorporated in new and substituted agreements. He therefore ventured to think that the Act had been and was a great advantage to the tenant and to the country at large, and that the indictment which had been preferred against the Bill and its authors could not be sustained. The more the provisions of the Act became known the more widely, he believed, would they be made available, and although, in the first instance, a great many proprietors and tenants had been a little shy in coming under the special provisions of the Act, yet he could not but think that in a few years the Act would be adopted in extenso, and that many capitalists would in consequence be induced to embark their money in the cultivation of land to the great and material benefit of the country.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 226; Noes 53: Majority 173.