The provisions of this Land Bill will, I feel sure, meet with the approval of Senators. The Bill is proposed as another chapter in the Land Acts. Its purpose is to remove inequities from the existing law and to speed up the work of the Land Commission for the elimination of rural slums and the conversion of uneconomic farms throughout the country into workable economic holdings. This work has been in hands for a great number of years but it needs a new stimulant to carry it forward with reasonable speed to the ultimate success to which we confidently look forward.
The salient provisions of this Bill deal with the question of a fair and just price for owners whose land has necessarily to be taken over by the Land Commission. These provisions are contained in Sections 5 and 7 of the Bill. For a long time, particularly in the Seanad, it has been argued that the existing statutory basis of price-fixation for land acquired by the Land Commission, is unfair and unjust. Two unsuccessful private Land Bills were introduced in the Seanad for the changes now proposed in Sections 5 and 7 of this Bill. I look forward to a sympathetic reception of the Bill by Senators, if only because of this important victory for a better price which is enshrined in Sections 5 and 7.
For the future whenever land has to be acquired under the Land Acts for the common good, the owner can rest assured that he will be paid a price equal to the market value of the land, and he will no longer have to redeem his land annuity out of his purchase price. In exceptional cases, where extraordinary disturbance or damage would result from compulsory acquisition, the Land Commission will henceforth be able to include in the purchase price, in addition to the market value, an extra sum as compensation for the disturbance or damage caused to the owner by the compulsory acquisition. The provisions of Sections 5 and 7 will equate the basis of price-fixation for acquired land to the basis of price-fixation for land resumed from tenants. Price-fixation in the latter type of case has given complete satisfaction.
In the other House, some criticism was aimed by the Opposition at these provisions because the term "market value" is used in the Bill and not "market price," and also because the term is not defined. In these respects, the Bill follows exactly the precedent in Section 39 of Land Act, 1939, which dealt with the price of resumed land and also in Senator Counihan's private Land Bill of 1946. I am entirely satisfied that this minor criticism against Sections 5 and 7 is quite unsound and that these sections, as they appear in the Bill, will provide a workable and just system for the future.
The second important feature of the Bill is the proposal in Section 26 that the Land Commission should be enabled to purchase land in the open market, for the provision of migrants' holdings or to facilitate rearrangement of holdings which are held in rundale or detached plots. The Land Commission badly require land for these purposes. The process of compulsory acquisition is unavoidably slow and the land which is acquirable under compulsory methods is usually underdeveloped and ill-fitted for speedy allotment. It is estimated that some 200,000 to 250,000 acres of land come on the market for sale each year. This stream of land has never been tapped by the Land Commission although it is bound to contain a number of holdings which would be eminently suitable for the special purposes of migration and rearrangement. Many such holdings are purchasable from time to time as going concerns and I know they will prove to be as desirable if not more desirable propositions than the holdings which have to be carved out of acquired estates and fitted up with new dwellings, out-offices, fences and so on. Moreover, these holdings which are offered for sale are no longer required by the owners and no question of hardship to such owners could possibly arise, were the Land Commission to become the purchaser.
Relief of acute congestion is very desirable from a national point of view and the Government is determined to press on with all possible measures towards elimination of this evil. As an experiment, it is accordingly proposed in Section 26 to authorise the Land Commission to purchase suitable holdings which are offered for sale. In the other House, some fears were expressed that this experiment is a dangerous one, likely to lead either to inflation or deflation or worse—if that were possible. Notwithstanding the doleful prophets, I refuse to be pessimistic. I believe this experiment has good chances of success and that it deserves to be encouraged by all persons who are sincerely concerned in the relief of congestion. I assured the other House and I repeat in this House, that if this experiment should by any chance give rise to evils, I shall require the Land Commission to desist immediately from further operations under Section 26.
The next important features of the Bill are the provisions in Sections 11 to 17 concerning the Land Commission and the Minister. The Land Act of 1933 set out to bring the Department of Lands into line with other Government Departments by bringing the Land Commission under the direction and control of the Minister for Lands in all but seven exceptional matters. These matters were called "excepted matters" and they were confined to transactions impinging on the acquisition and allotment of land. In deciding whose land shall be acquired, or who will be allotted land, or what price must be paid, or whether a particular landholder has worked his land properly, the commissioners have remained, and continue to remain under this Bill, independent of the Minister.
In all other matters, which we may for convenience call "non-excepted matters", the lay commissioners, since 1933, have been subject to the Minister's control and direction. In this respect, experience has shown that the 1933, Act is very defective. In the first place, it has proved desirable to extend the scope of the commissioners' independent jurisdiction and Section 11 of the Bill prescribes a total of 14 excepted matters, instead of the seven which were prescribed in the Land Act, 1933. With one substantial variation, all the seven original "excepted matters" are repeated in the present Bill.
I mentioned earlier my keen desire to bring speedy relief to acutely congested areas, particularly those afflicted with the evils of rundale or holdings in detached plots. The lot of any smallholder is unenviable even at the best of times, but the lot of the smallholder whose livelihood depends upon the hard-won scanty produce of scattered patches of land, often to the number of 20 or 30 detached plots per holding, is deplorable. Holdings in this condition are numerous throughout the West of Ireland and their rearrangement is a matter of extreme urgency. A group of such inter-related holdings may belong to, say, 15 tenants, and, before their holdings can be successfully rearranged, it is necessary for the Land Commission inspector to obtain the goodwill and agreement of every single tenant of the 15 because each of them will be expected to surrender for a neighbour's benefit part of the land to which he is legally entitled and which he has worked and tried to improve to the best of his ability.
Experience has shown that rearrangement schemes for this type of holding must be implemented quickly after the tenants accept the proposals. If any delay occurs, some one or other of the tenants is likely to be misguided by bad advice from prejudiced or irresponsible outsiders. As a result, he will retract his agreement—possibly in the hope that he can drive a harder bargain by holding his neighbours, as it were, up to ransom. A few weeks delay could thus frustrate a very meritorious scheme and nullify the work of an inspector which may have extended over several months.
There is only one practicable solution for this problem, that is, to give local senior inspectors of the Land Commission the necessary legal authority to approve of rearrangement schemes in such cases. This was the practice adopted very successfully by the former Congested Districts Board. I have no hesitation in taking a headline from the board in this matter, and I have, accordingly, proposed in Section 11, sub-section (1) to remove rearrangement schemes from the category of "excepted matters" which are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the commissioners, so that I may pass on the necessary authority to the senior inspectors of my Department who are fully conversant with all phases of the problem and will be on the spot to give speedy decisions. I am convinced that there is absolutely no danger in this proposal, and that it is the only practicable way to speed up this urgent work.
Section 11 will also enable the Minister to act on his own authority, in all non-excepted matters, as is the common practice for other Ministers in their own Departments. In addition, Section 11 will enable the setting up of a system of delegated responsibilities within the Department for matters of a routine nature which are well within the competence of the permanent officials. This is in full accord with the practice in other Departments and it should speed up considerably the working of the Department of Lands.
Changes in the volume and types of work of the Land Commission, which have occurred since 1933, make it absolutely essential to reorganise the Land Commission at this stage. At present, the commission consists of a High Court judge, who is called the "Judicial Commissioner", and six lay commissioners. Before 1933, the Judicial Commissioner dealt with all appeals, but, since 1933, the appeals, except on questions of law, have been decided by an appeal tribunal consisting of the Judicial Commissioner and two lay commissioners. The number of appeals has declined very much in recent years. For the years from 1934 to 1938, the number of appeals and applications to the appeal tribunal averaged 470 a year, but the corresponding figure in recent years has only been about 47 a year, representing a reduction of 90 per cent. There was an increase in the number of cases last year but it is quite obvious that the number of appeals and applications to the appeal tribunal will remain very much lower than it was during the years immediately following the setting up of the tribunal in 1934.
This decline in the number of appeals has left the lay commissioners of the tribunal with insufficient work. They cannot deal with the ordinary work of the commission as long as they remain on the tribunal, and the only solution is to detach these two lay commissioners from the tribunal, leaving the Judicial Commissioner sole arbiter of appeals, as was the position prior to 1934. Section 13 of the Bill makes provision along these lines. The two lay commissioners to be detached from the tribunal will thus be enabled to assist with the ordinary work of the lay commissioners. They will retain their present salaries and tenure of office.
Sections 14 and 15 prescribe retiring ages for future and existing commissioners. Future lay commissioners are to retire at 65 years of age. It is proposed to suppress the posts of two lay commissioners who have passed 71 years, and compensation will be payable in these two cases. The remaining four existing lay commissioners are to retire at 72 years of age. For the future the maximum number of lay commissioners is to be fixed at four.
Among the minor matters in the Bill is the provision in Section 28 to enable the Land Commission to pay gratuities to labourers on estates who lose their employment through the operations of the Land Commission. It is only reasonable that such disemployed persons should be compensated. Heretofore they have usually been provided with allotments of land, but they have not always proved suitable as allottees. For the future, the Land Commission will have discretion to give allotments in suitable cases of this kind and to pay gratuities in other cases. I think Senators will agree that this is a very desirable innovation.
For the most part, the remaining provisions of the Bill deal with minor procedural details which require clarification by legislation. Perhaps these matters may best be left over for consideration at a later stage.
In recommending the Bill to the Seanad, I feel that it will bring much benefit to the rural community. Its early enactment will operate also to the advantage of owners whose land has recently been acquired, or is now in process of acquisition. They will get a better price once the Bill is passed. For these reasons I recommend the Bill to this House.