§ (Lord Elcho, Sir Graham Montgomery.)
§ [BILL 36.] SECOND READING.
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ LORD ELCHO, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that as, at this late period of the Session, it was hopeless to expect that it should pass into law during the present Session, he should conclude by withdrawing it. He wished, however, in the first place, to make a few observations upon the subject. Three Bills had been introduced into the House during the Session; the first, introduced by himself in the Session of 1867, had formed the basis of the legislation recommended by the Select Committee, to whom a similar Bill had been referred; the second, by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, whose Bill had also been referred during the same Session to a Select Committee, who had not adopted it as the basis of the legislation they proposed; and the third, by the hon. Member for the Wick Burghs, which rendered valid all agreements respecting game which tenants and their landlords might think fit to enter into. There was no hope of any one of these Bills becoming law; and seeing that to be the case, the hon. and learned Member for Wick (Mr. Loch) gave notice for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the subject. The principle of inquiry appeared to have been admitted on all hands. The only question seemed to have been as to the form the inquiry should take. His hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Sir James Elphinstone) proposed, as an Amendment to the Motion of the hon. and learned Member for Wick, that the inquiry should be by a Commission, and not by a Committee. He therefore hoped that the Government would not attempt legislation on the subject until there had been an inquiry. His hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, who was in the habit of speaking his mind in plain terms, had said, on a former occasion, that this Scotch Game question was one of the greatest impostures of the day. The question had been made a stalking-horse at Scotch elections. He did not pretend to say that there were not cases in Scotland of excessive game preservation; but he be- 880 lieved they were few. They could not legislate generally for occasional abuse in the agricultural districts. Such abuse was no reason why they should abolish the whole of the Game Laws where game was a most valuable description of property, and where it did no injury to tenants. He maintained that even in the rural districts the cases of over-preservation of game were few in number, and they certainly ought not to legislate without having all the facts before them. As regarded hares, he knew that in his own county there was only one hare now for ten that existed when he was a boy. Unquestionably there were one or two cases of great abuse of excessive preservation—of excessive sale of game —which had given a bad name to game preserving, and he admitted that a stop ought to be put to such an evil either by legislation or by public opinion; but what he asked for was an inquiry which should extend to England as well as to Scotland. He confessed, however, that he had not much confidence in the action of the Government in this matter, seeing what they had done in the cases of the Annuity Tax and the Law of Hypothec. It appeared—with respect to Scotch measures, at all events—that the Government were ready to vote for the second reading of Bills which they did not approve. He believed the reason of this to be a disinclination, on the part of the Government, to do anything which might be displeasing to any portion of their good Scotch majority. Only yesterday Scotch Members, in their appeal to the Government on the Parochial Schools Bill, said, in effect—"We supported you thick and thin during the debates on the Irish Church Bill; won't you, then, in return, do as much for us?" This question of the Game Laws had been made a hustings question in Scotland. It had been made a shibboleth at the elections; and when he observed the tone taken by hon. Members on this subject, he could not help thinking that their feelings must be that they had only to open their mouth wide enough, and the Government was sure to grant what they asked for without inquiry. He regretted that there should be any thought of agitation on this question without inquiry. He believed public opinion to be against the excessive preservation of game; and he believed that if the landlords would let 881 their tenants shoot hares and rabbits they would still have as much game as they would care to shoot. This was a very wide question. He was prepared for a change in the law; but he was not prepared to go the length of the hon. Member for the Wick Burghs, and say that when one man had got something to sell, and another man wanted to buy it, the Legislature should step in and prevent that. He said, with regard to this question of game legislation, that in every country where there were no Game Laws there was a strict law of trespass, and nowhere was the trespass law more strict than it was in America. If the tenant was oppressed by his landlord with regard to game, he should be able readily to obtain redress. That was his broad view of this question. He hoped his learned Friend the Lord Advocate would not introduce a Bill on the subject, on behalf of the Government, until a Commission of Inquiry, both for England and Scotland, had ascertained the facts of the case, and had enabled them to legislate wisely and for the benefit of all concerned.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Lord Elcho.)
§ SIR DAVID WEDDERBURN
wished to explain that his opposition to the Bill did not arise from any objection to the principle or to the Preamble, but solely from the inadequacy of the means proposed to effect the result aimed at. Were such a Bill to become law, professing to amend the Game Laws of Scotland, but leaving altogether untouched numerous and important points which could not be lost sight of in any satisfactory measure, he believed the farmers and the people of Scotland would feel that their wants and their wishes had been ignored by the Legislature, and that the time for considering and redressing their grievances had been indefinitely postponed.
§ MR. LOCH
said, he regretted the manner in which this question had been dealt with by the noble Lord (Lord Elcho) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth (Sir James Elphinstone); but there was a method in the bluntness of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, for it enabled him to prevent the inquiry which the Government had in view, and which would probably have elicited 882 many facts useful for the purpose of legislation. That was the effect of his interposing a proposal for a Commission in lieu of a Committee. "When the hon. Member had gained his point, he said not one word about either the one or the other, and at once threw up his Motion for a Commission. He (Mr. Loch) was glad to be able to believe that this was not a party question. He had reason to believe that there were Gentlemen on the other side of the House who were anxious to see a remedy applied to the present state of things; while, on the other hand, he was sorry to say there were Gentlemen on this side who, though they had been inexorable with regard to Irish curates, on the question of foxes and rabbits were strong Conservatives. It was with reluctance he had moved in this matter; but circumstances had given him an opportunity of observing the evils arising from the present state of the Game Laws in Scotland, and also of seeing how great were the advantages arising from a good feeling between landlord and tenant. When the meeting of Members was held on this question, the details of the noble Lord's Bill were not considered. Only that the noble Lord, on a former occasion, had referred to certain agricultural meetings, he should not have alluded to the fact that at those meetings the noble Lord's Bill was described as a "pretence" and a "sham," and as a Bill which was not intended to accomplish any good. He did not agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgowshire in his views on this subject; but no one could doubt that hon. Member's honesty of purpose, and his efforts were entitled to be spoken of with respect, as they had been at the meeting. He thought some of the clauses of the Bill of the hon. Member for Linlithgowshire so wide that they would encourage poaching. In his own Bill he proceeded on the principle that neither by common law nor by statute was there any property in game. The statutes having reference to game were, in fact, only a code of regulations with reference to the killing of wild animals. They were, therefore, as much within the ken of Parliament as were the laws which regulated public-houses. The grievance consisted in excessive preservation. His object had been to provide a remedy for that evil by giving landlords and tenants equal 883 power to kill hares and rabbits, notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary; but there was due provision in the Bill for the compensation of landlords on account of interference with existing contracts. This question, however, should be dealt with as one affecting the community at large, and hence he proposed to prevent such contracts from being entered into in future. The law of Scotland was opposed to a landowner's creating a nuisance on his estate, and no one could deny that an excessive congregation of hares and rabbits constituted a nuisance. The analogy of the law with regard to the truck system was also in point. The hon. Member then cited some old Scotch laws in support of his view.
THE LORD ADVOCATE
said, he thought that the noble Lord (Lord Elcho), who had referred to several acts in his political life, had, in his conduct with reference to the subject of Reform, scarcely been so consistent himself as to be entitled to bring a charge of that nature against any other hon. Member. He (the Lord Advocate) begged to say that the Scotch Members who sat behind him were a more numerous phalanx than they ever were before, and they were as honest, as independent, and as perfectly ready to redeem their pledges as any other Members of that House. It was because they thought there was a grievance, and because they thought it was not an imposture, that so much time and trouble had been spent in the consideration of the subject. That was his view, and he believed it was the view entertained generally by the people of Scotland. Whether that grievance might be exaggerated or not was another matter; but he thought it was not fair, on the part of the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire and other Scotch Members, to say that this question had been used for party purposes, and as a means of stirring up agitation on the hustings. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth (Sir James Elphinstone) might be excused in the matter, as he and his constituents of Scotland were not of the one way of thinking. So much for consistency in general. The Government had carefully considered the proposal of issuing a Commission, as suggested by his noble Friend; but they did not think that that would be the best mode of adjusting the 884 matter, because, in their opinion, there was already sufficient information to enable them to legislate, if legislation were found necessary. The whole subject would receive careful consideration during the Recess, with a view to legislation, if it was thought advisable to make any alteration in the law.
§ SIR JAMES ELPHINSTONE
denied that he had made any imputation upon his hon. Friend the Member for Wick. He had certainly stated that the way in which the Game question had been handled at the elections in Scotland was an injustice; but he had not the slightest intention of connecting with that statement his hon. Friend, whose father as well as he himself he had known for many years. His charge of profligacy had been made against the clause which proposed to sanction the departure from agreements which had been voluntarily entered into by those who proposed to break them. But the charge of profligacy was no new charge in the House of Commons, for it was no very great length of time since Lord Palmerston had said that none but a profligate Government could ever propose the disestablishment of the Irish Church. With regard to the general question, he wished to say that the Government came to a distinct understanding with them that the Committee was to be withdrawn, and that, before legislation took place, there should be an inquiry by a Royal Commission. ["No!"]
THE LORD ADVOCATE
Quite the reverse. The Government never said a single word pledging themselves to a Royal Commission.
§ SIR JAMES ELPHINSTONE
admitted the Government did not pledge themselves; but they had a majority in the House, and they were going to a division, when overtures were made to them that they should allow the matter to drop, on the understanding that the Government would legislate upon the question; but that, previous to legislation, a Royal Commission should issue to inquire into the subject. ["No, no!"] He appealed to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, to the noble Lord, and to hon. Members who were present on that occasion, to say whether what he had stated was not the fact?
§ MR. ROBERTSON
The Government agreed to legislate; but they did not agree to the appointment of a Royal Commission.
§ SIR JAMES ELPHINSTONE
said, he would not detain the House any longer. He would only say, in conclusion, that he could not see the necessity for legislation on this subject.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow.
§ And it being Six of the clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House till Tomorrow, without putting the Question.