§ Lords' Reason read by the Clerk at the Table as follows:—
§ Reason of the Lords for disagreeing to one of the Amendments made by the Commons.
The Lords disagree to the Amendment made by the Commons in page 1, line 19, for the following reason:—
Because the Bill, as it left their Lordships' House, was simply a Bill to protect crofters who had made application under the Act from being made bankrupts pending the hearing of their cases by the Commissioners; but the Amendment of the Commons would introduce an important principle, not in the Bill as it left their Lordships' House, and one which, in the opinion of their Lordships, would constitute an undue interference with contract, and which, if applied to land, would equally apply to all other commercial transactions.
With this exception, the Lords agree to the Amendments made by the Commons to the Bill.
§ THE LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. J. H. A. MACDONALD) (Edinburgh and St. Andrew's Universities)
It will be remembered that this Bill was originally brought in in the other House, and it was a measure brought in for a specific purpose. It was discovered, on an examination into the probable operation of 168 the Crofters Act of last year, that a mistake had been committed, and that that mistake was that the Bill, as passed through Parliament, left it so that in the case of any crofter, who, in any proceeding taken against him in a Court of Law should become bankrupt, he might thereby lose the benefit of the Act. It was thought, both in this House and in the House of Lords, that this was not fair or just, and that means should be taken by an amending Act to remedy the defect discovered in the Act of 1886. Accordingly, this Bill was brought in in the House of Lords, and sent down by that House to this, where it was discussed; and the result was that the Lords accepted almost all the Amendments to the Bill agreed to in this House, for the purpose of more completely carrying out the object for which it was introduced. But my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. J. B. Balfour) brought in a clause, or, rather, an addition to a clause, which practically amounted to a new clause, by which the Bill was made to declare—That this Act shall apply, notwithstanding that the crofter may have granted a bond, bill, or other document of debt for the rent due by him, or any part thereof, and if such rent or any part thereof in excess of the amount which the Crofters Commission shall determine ought to he paid, shall be recovered from the crofter by any bonâ fide onerous assignee, indorsee, or other holder for value of such documents as aforesaid, the crofter shall be entitled to repetition of such excess from the landlord or to credit in account with the landlord in respect thereof.Now, I hold that that Amendment undoubtedly introduced an entirely new question into the Bill. I did not myself object to it for reasons I will state; but I would point out that those reasons tell both ways. The reason for the acceptance of the clause was that in one or two eases landlords had received bills of ox-change for the amounts due from their tenants, and it was evidently open to the possibility that the landlords might put those bills into circulation in the ordinary way, by getting the amounts due upon them in the market, so that the holders of the bills might come upon the crofters to recover their money, and thus reduce them to a state of bankruptcy. But it will be seen that this introduces an entirely new principle into the measure—namely, that a written agreement between a crofter and his landlord may be set aside. The Lords 169 having taken this objection to the Amendment adopted by this House, I shall move that the House of Commons agree to their Lordships' Reason, I do not think there need be much alarm as to landlords obtaining bills of exchange from the crofters. Although it is said that they will make use of these bills by putting them into the circle and raising the amounts due upon them, I feel satisfied that if any landlord should be so unwise as to try that course, he will find that he will be unable to get anything like a remunerative price upon such bills, because even the most active money-lenders who ever advanced money upon bills would hardly be inclined to advance money upon the bills of Highland crofters who are in arrear with their rent. The Lords have met this objection on the ground of principle, and I now move that this House do not insist on the Amendment.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth not insist on the Amendment to which the Lords have disagreed."—(The Lord Advocate.)
§ MR. J. B. BALFOUR (Clackmannan, & c.)
I have, Sir, to move, as an Amendment, that this House do insist on the Amendment to which the Lords have disagreed. In the Crofters Act of last year a provision was introduced in Committee which, in substance, gave the Crofters Commission power to deal with the question of arrears, and by Section 6, Subsection 5, it provided that when an application to fix a fair rent was presented, the Commissioners should have power to take into consideration the amount of arrears of rent due and determine what amount of those arrears should be paid. It was found that that Act was not so effective as I believe on both sides of this House it was intended to be, and a Bill for the purpose of remedying the defect was very properly brought in by Her Majesty's Government and introduced in the other House, from which it was in due course sent down to this. The main provision of that Bill is contained in (Section 2, which provides that proceedings shall not be taken for the sale of a crofter's effects where there is an application to fix a fair rent; and the Bill further provides machinery for carrying out more effectually than was done by the Act of last year the plain, and I may say the admitted, intention 170 of both sides of this House. It was represented to me that in certain cases crofters in the North of Scotland had been persuaded to grant bills of exchange to their landlords for the amounts due from them as arrears of rent, and the question arose whether such a procedure would not have the effect of depriving them of the benefits of the Act. It appeared to myself and others that it would be contrary to the intention of the Act of last year, and of the Bill of the present year, if the crofter, by giving even a written acknowledgment of a debt due in another form, should be deprived of the benefit of the Act—in short, if he who already admitted owing a debt to his landlord should be persuaded to acknowledge that debt by another process, and thus render himself liable to a procedure which would take away any advantage the Act was intended to confer. I certainly thought it would be an invasion of the principle of the Act if, directly or indirectly, any crofter, by being persuaded to give a second acknowledgment of his debt to his landlord, should thereby be deprived of the benefit of the Act. I do not here go into the question whether, if the Bill should simply remain in the hands of the landlord, it would be prejudicial to the crofter. I should be inclined to think it would not; but I am of opinion that it is far hotter there should be no doubt left in regard to the matter. But as to the other matter, where the crofter not merely has granted a bill, but where the landlord has done what, under the circumstances, he would clearly be entitled to do, and has discounted the bill and obtained money on I it by putting it into the market; it would, of course, be impossible, where a bill has been so dealt with, to enter into any question with the person who has got the bill as to the matter of debt between the crofter and his landlord. Thus, therefore, a case was shown in which the object of the Act of last year would I clearly be defeated, because by the granting of a bill which is passed from the hands of the owner for value the intention of the Act would necessarily be frustrated. It was with a view of remedying this defect that I moved the Amendment which was adopted by this House, and to which their Lordships have disagreed. The view which at the I time I brought it forward was taken of 171 that Amendment by the House of Commons may be gathered when I state that it was accepted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, as representing Her Majesty's Government, as well as by the House at large, and it was, I think, accepted quite justly. It appeared to this House, without the slightest difference of opinion on the subject, that that Amendment was a necessary complement to the provision already made by the Act of last year, and that without it there might be some danger of that Act being in many cases rendered ineffectual. The Amendment was, consequently, agreed to, and the Bill so amended went back to the House of Lords. It has now been returned to us with the Amendment we agreed to struck out, and with a Reason for taking that course which, with great deference, I submit is no reason at all. I can only say, from the terms in which that Reason is couched, that those who drew it up in the other House, and who are responsible for the rejection of the Amendment, have entirely misapprehended its object and effect; and I believe that if they had understood its object and effect they would not have taken the course they have pursued, and would not have put forward the Reason they have assigned. Their Lordships say that—The Bill, as it left their Lordships' House, was simply a Bill to protect crofters who had made application under the Act from being made bankrupts pending the hearing of their cases by the Commissioners.That, I think, is not an unfair summary of the object of the measure; but unless this Amendment be accepted, it will be perfectly possible to make crofters bankrupt by procedure on these bills of exchange. They could be made bankrupts by the banks or holders for value into whose hands the bills may fall. Therefore, I say the Amendment is entirely in accord with the intention of the Bill. But let us look at the second part of their Lordships' Reason. They go on to say—But the Amendment of the Commons would introduce an important principle, not in the Bill as it left their Lordships' House, and one which, in the opinion of their Lordships, would constitute an undue interference with contract, and which, if applied to land, would equally apply to all other commercial transactions.Now, I think it is quite impossible for anyone who has been accustomed to read, even in the most casual manner. 172 I the pamphlets and other literature emanating from the Liberty and Property Defence Association, not to recognize very familiar language in this second part of their Lordships' Reason. But I put it to the House whether it is not plainly misapplied in this case, because the Amendment which I moved introduced no new principle. The whole question is whether arrears are to be considered and taken into view. That question was settled last year, and it was acknowledged this year. Therefore, it is not a question whether the arrears are to be taken into view or not; because, if the Crofters Commission think they ought not to be paid in full, they have power to give effect to their opinion. What new contract is there about a man acknowledging a debt? If he gives a bill or an IOU for the amount, what he does is not to make a now contract, but simply to acknowledge a liability already incurred. It is introducing no new principle whatever, and I submit that the idea that my Amendment constitutes an undue interference with contract is a wholly false accusation. What the House has to do now is to consider whether the proposal which I made, and which was unanimously accepted by the House, should not be adhered to. I do not propose to delay the House by prolonged arguments, but simply to submit that no sufficient reason has been shown for disagreeing with that Amendment, and that there must have been some disagreement or misunderstanding on the part of their Lordships. I shall move, therefore, as an Amendment, that this House doth insist on the Amendment to the Bill.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out from the Question the word "not."—(Mr. J. B. Balfour.)
§ DR. CLARK (Caithness)
The statement of the right hon. and learned Gentleman [Mr. J. B. Balfour) has been so explicit that it is only necessary for mo to add one or two words. Sir, this Bill gives nothing. It merely gives power to the Crofters' Commission to interfere, if they are satisfied that a landlord is trying to evade the provisions of the Act, with a view of stopping the proceeding of ejectment until they hear the case. Now, if you do not give them this power—and remember the composition of the Commission it consists of a shipper, 173 a factor, and a big farmer; not one of the crofters is represented upon it—the Act will be simply evaded; and very powerful evidence will be required before the Commission will act, if you do not, by this clause, make it compulsory upon them to do something. If the Amendment is not passed, the provisions of the Act will I be used against the crofters; they will be made bankrupt, and they will be evicted, without a chance of ever making themselves heard. A good deal of kindly persuasion has been used by the landlords—the right hon. and learned Gentleman (the Lord Advocate) says only in two or three cases—but I know two landlords in my county, and one in Argyllshire—they are all Liberals, too—who, taking advantage of the fact that the Government will not carry out the Act, and appoint assessors, and valuers, and Sub-Commissioners, are saying to the tenants who are in arrear—"Unless you give us a bill we will at once evict you." I can produce numberless letters in which this statement is made, and numbers of the tenants have given bills on this condition. Now, all we ask is that persuasion of this sort shall be brought before the Crofters' Commission before the man is turned out and sold out; and that the Commissioners, if the evidence supports such statements as these, may interfere and prevent the eviction.
§ MR. FINLAY (Inverness, & c.)
I desire to say a very few words in support of what has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend in front of me (Mr. J. B. Balfour). I do hope the House will adhere to this Amendment, which, as has been said, consists of two parts. To the first I cannot conceive that any solid objection can be advanced. It merely provides that a crofter shall not lose the benefit of the Act of last year by reason of his having given a bill for the rent which he owes to his landlord. Will any hon. Member of this House rise and say that it is unreasonable that such a provision should be made? If provision should be made in respect of a crofter's rent, surely it should also apply in the case of a bill given as security for the rent. The second part of the Amendment deals with he case of a landlord who has got such a bill and has discounted it. To this second part an objection has been raised by the right hon. and learned 174 Gentleman opposite (the Lord Advocate) to this effect—that there will be very few such eases; and he apprehends that not many crofters' bills would be discounted in the market. I understood the Lord Advocate to say that there are cases in which the landlord has taken bills from the crofters for rent. Well, then, if he takes a bill, he takes it presumably for the purpose of discounting it. Then, in the second place, it is said that not many money lenders would accept the security of a crofter's bill. Perhaps not, if only the crofter's name were upon it; but he may take it with the landlord's endorsement. That brings me to the second part of the Amendment, which would prevent a landlord doing indirectly that which the Act already says the landlord shall not do directly. That is a just and equitable provision, and I hope the Amendment will be agreed to in its entirety.
§ DR. R. MACDONALD (Ross and Cromarty)
I wish to say a very few words in support of the view taken by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. J. B. Balfour). The Lord Advocate says that the House of Lords have accepted all the other Amendments moved by this House; but the truth is that not more than half of them were accepted. But even if they had been, that is no reason why we should give way on this occasion. The Lord Advocate says there are only two or three cases in which bills have been given; but if he looks into the matter he will find himself very considerably mistaken. There is one estate in the North of Scotland where, I am told, all the business done between landlord and tenant has been in giving bills in this way. As to talking, as their Lordships do, about breaking contracts and agreements, I say the word agreement ought not to be used in this connection. What are the facts? If a man holds a pistol at your head and demands the contents of your purse, your purse is given under pressure; and so these bills have been given under threat of eviction. Then, again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Advocate makes a point of the assertion that money lenders will not buy up these-bills. Well, we have no money lenders in the North of Scotland, I am glad to say, except the banks. What we are afraid of is, not that the landlords will 175 sell the bills, but that they will use them for the purposes of eviction; for we know by their previous conduct that they would be ready enough to do so. Now, I want to point out that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Advocate accepted this Amendment on the part of the Government without any discussion whatever. He thought it was so just that he accepted it without discussion, and now he comes to the House and says—"Oh, yes, that was so; but there is a new principle involved." There is no new principle involved, as has been well explained by the hon. and learned Member for Inverness (Mr. Finlay). I felt I could not give a silent vote on this subject. I think it is a very mean and Contemptible thing for the House of Lords to insist on the exclusion of such an Amendment, considering that there are only a few hundred pounds involved altogether.
§ MR. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN (Stirling, & c.)
I rise merely for the purpose of asking you, Sir, as to the effect which would be produced if the Amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend (Mr. J. B. Balfour) was carried. It is an Amendment insisting on an original Amendment which was inserted in this House. Perhaps you, Sir, would tie good enough to tell us whether that would have the effect of endangering the life of this Bill. There is an apprehension of that in the minds of some hon. Members; and, naturally, there is no desire in any quarter of the House to endanger the Bill. If the insistance upon the Amendment in its present form would have that effect, it might materially alter the course we ought to pursue, and in that case I should be inclined to suggest that the debate should be adjourned.
§ MR. SPEAKER
The Question I shall put from the Chair is—"That this House do not insist upon the Amendment with which the Lords have disagreed." It will not be competent to move any Amendment upon that, and the course taken by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. J. B. Balfour) will be to say "No" to that proposition. It may be competent, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees to that proposition, to move afterwards an Amendment in the form of a provision, or any Amendment, in short, which may appear 176 fit to the right hon. and learned Gentleman dealing with the subject.
§ MR. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
I gather from that, Sir, that the proper course will be to agree to the Motion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman (the Lord Advocate) in the first instance, and then to endeavour in some way to amend the Amendment in order to re-more the objections of the Lords.
§ MR. J. H. A. MACDONALD
I have no right to speak again, except with the permission of the House; but, after hearing what has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend (Mr. J. B. Balfour), I have to say that certainly it is the wish of the Government, as it is the wish of all parts of the House, that this Bill shall not fall. I would suggest that the Motion that I have made should be agreed to, and that then some arrangement should be come to by both sides of the House. The debate might be adjourned for this purpose.
§ MR. J. B. BALFOUR
Would not the more convenient course be—as I am quite sure that the Lord Advocate would be as sorry as we should be to see the Bill lost—to adjourn the debate at this point? We might then endeavour to arrive at some compromise or some understanding on a form of Amendment which would be satisfactory; therefore, before we proceed with the matter further, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.
§ Motion made, and Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned,"—(Mr. J. B. Balfour,)—put, and agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Thursday.