On the last occasion I gave my observations and personal views on a number of aspects connected with farming and with this Bill. In particular, I tried to make the point that farming, the farmer and the land have a particular place in Irish society. The Inter-Departmental Committee on Land Structure Reform published their final report in May 1978. It is a very comprehensive document and I could quote much from it which would be relevant in considering this Bill. I want to quote a very small paragraph dealing with land functions in a modern economy:
Three attributes of land, especially in rural areas, mark it as distinct from other economic resources. It is;
(i) Basic to human survival
(ii) Fixed in location
(iii) Limited in supply.
Consequently, the relationships between man and land — such as land tenure, ownership and use — are central features of the structure of society. These relationships directly affect society's political philosophy, economic system, culture and social organisation (for example, tradition, laws, etc.)
That spells out exactly the views I have and which I tried to express then. I stated in addition that this Bill is a frontal attack on the conacre and 11-month systems of letting. While I understand the drawbacks of those systems, nevertheless in some areas they worked very well and the land in many instances was well looked after. There can be no blanket condemnation of the system and it probably will continue to live on even if leasing becomes successful.
In theory I can see the sense of leasing as opposed to letting but over the years the conacre system proved itself. I also spoke about the role of auctioneers in society. If leasing becomes widespread this role must diminish. Auctioneers have played a very important part: they have helped the farmer in many ways in determining the value of his land and they have provided free advice. I am not sure how the auctioneers as a body have reacted to this Bill but I see their role decreasing and the role of the lawyers increasing because the leases seem to be very complicated documents. While I understand that co-ops and groups in the agricultural area will help out, at the end of the day the document is a legal document and will need a lawyer to interpret it.
I ask the question: how will the farmer who is leasing his land determine the value of the lease or what he is to ask for the land? Will there be built into it some method whereby with the fall in the value of money there will be corresponding increase and some kind of index linkage? I see this problem for long-term leases. I know there was a demand for this legislation for perhaps 25 years. I think a minimum length of lease should have been specified. In some areas we are talking of a three-year lease and various organisations have asked for a three-year lease, a five-year lease, a six-year or a 12-year lease. In the Bill there should be some definition of a minimum lease. I am totally in sympathy with the farming organisations because the farmer's role is a very difficult one. For as long as I can remember the farmer's lot was up and down and indeed mostly down. Many farmers cannot afford holidays. They work long hours and my total sympathy is with them.
In his contribution Senator Ferris stated that he supported some of the criticism but said his party would not permit the Land Commission to be a scapegoat or a whipping boy. I thought at that stage Senator Ferris was more or less trailing his coat because up until then there had been no major criticism of the Land Commission. Subsequently, Senator Connor in his contribution asked the Minister the proposals he will be bringing forward to scrap the Land Commission. He also stated that the Land Commission in the past have been shown to have been dogged by slow procedures, by an overly legalistic approach that at times almost amounted to a judicial approach.
The proposals of the National Planning Board under the heading of Land Use Policy states:
The agency at present charged with the implementation of land policy, the Land Commission, and the policy instruments it employs are in the Board's view not capable of achieving this objective at a cost to taxpayers which can be justified. The Board, therefore, recommend that the Land Commission should be abolished. The reasons for this are being spelt out in the report of the Inter-departmental Committee and elsewhere.
Section (c) states:
The cost of the Commission's activities in relation to the acreage of land allotted appears to be high. In 1981, for instance, the cost per acre allotted was £581 and the cost per average allotment was £8,706. This cost is not recoverable by the State. If the Commission's activities are seen as having primarily a social welfare objective this cost appears exorbitant, bearing in mind that the enlargement of a holding does not per se ensure a higher standard of living for the beneficiary. Even conceding that the Commission's allotment programme may yield a net improvement in productivity, there exist more cost effective policy instruments capable of achieving that objective.
It should be pointed out that because of financial restrictions the Commission has not acquired land on any significant scale in recent years.
In 1978 the report of the Inter-Departmental Commission on Land Structure Reform indicated that the price per acre was around £200. In this section it is grossly unfair to work out a price per acre at a period when the acreage was decreased out of all proportion, because I believe that in the early years the average would be about 30,000 acres whereas in the last few years it came down to about 7,000 acres. To work out a unit cost per acre at a time when this work had virtually ceased is unfair and paints a wrong picture.
I would be critical of the Land Commission, in some areas but I want to make it clear that I would not be in favour of abolishing the Land Commission because from the start their objectives have been achieved and I see no reason why they cannot undertake other areas of work which are essential, such as promoting this leasing programme. I agree that the Land Commission have been slow in almost all their work but at the same time I am conscious that people who got land from the Land Commission got it with a clear title, and that took time. There was not sufficient land to be distributed, and on many occasion the Land Commission were waiting for more and the acquisition was a slow process. In regard to the 11 month system of letting, the Land Commission were the worst offender because some farms were let for as long as ten years or more. There could not be any justification for this.
I am critical of Land Commission house design. I know that it is easy to be wise with hindsight but it is a pity that more work did not go into the planning of the Land Commission houses. At that time we had the Congested District Board cottages which were, in their time, a considerable leap forward, but the Land Commission designs were largely based on the Irish Land Provision for Sailors and Soldiers Act, 1919, which were built by the British Government. That was a pity. I always felt that the Land Commission should have considered clustered design which was typical of Irish development where houses would be in groups. This has much to recommend it, such as infrastructure, water, roads, sewerage and so on. The Land Commission's roads were narrow, they followed the hedges and the fences and, while in one sense they were very much in sympathy with the environment, there was no looking forward, with the result that many of them are merely lanes now and unsuitable for the traffic which uses them.
I am also critical of the Land Commission in the area of allocation of farms to women. I know that single men have got farms from the Land Commission over the years in my own area of County Meath, but I have never known women to get farms and I am wondering is there any reason why they did not.
In some instances the acquisition of land might be unfair, but the courts are there to deal with this. I know of one case before the courts at present regarding land which I feel has been unfairly acquired but I think that justice will be done. It is easy to be critical but the Land Commission did a very good job and for that reason I would not agree with their abolition.
I should like to give a brief synopsis of the Land Commission over the years, to show the work they have done and give the reasons why they are a body that could be charged with making this Bill and land leasing successful. The Land Commission were established in 1881 under Gladstone's second Land Act. Their purpose was as a rent fixing body to control landlordism and they succeeded in doing so. That success nurtured the idea of the total abolition of landlordism, and the Land Commission were entrusted with the task to the extent that it became their main function. Again it was successful, and finally in 1923 what was left of landlordism was wiped out with a single stroke. With rents reduced to reasonable amounts and landlords being replaced by the Land Commission who allowed farmers to buy out their land by the instalment system, it was found that something more was needed. Small, scattered and fragmented farms needed to be enlarged and unified and, in the process of achieving this objective, the Land Commission became identified in the popular image with the dispossession of large landholders and redistribution of land as their primary function.
As everyone knows, the background to the Land Commission is that through past centuries, but especially between the years 1555 and 1697, the English had carried out confiscations and plantations. The land was taken from the Irish and divided amongst colonists and planters whose descendants were mainly responsible for the penal laws of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Irish peasant farmer was, in reality, no better than a slave. He was a tenant at will, holding his land at the whim of the landlord and paying an exorbitant rent. There was a degrading system of payment backed by all the resources of the law and the Government. Between 1849 and 1882, almost 500,000 families, around 4,000,000 people, were evicted and thrown on the roadside. The tenant farmer was discouraged by the system from making any improvement while the landlord was simply a leech living mostly abroad in style and comfort on the sweat and blood of his tenants. The result was a period of evictions, secret societies, such as the Whiteboys and Moonlighters, assassinations and cattle maiming. The Government simply replied with repressive measures and between 1830 and 1875 as many as 47 Coercion Acts were passed.
At the darkest hour two great leaders came on the scene, Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, who was himself a landlord. In 1879 Davitt founded the Land League and it swept the country. Reform could not be delayed any longer, and the progress of that reform is the story of the Irish land code and especially of the Land Commission. Progress was slow at first but the Land Act of 1881 granted the "Three Fs", fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale which the Tenant League had unsuccessfully campaigned for in 1852. The Land League of 1879 demanded nothing less than the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers. Gladstone's first Land Act of 1870 had been very little help to the tenant since it left fixing of rents completely in the hands of landlords. Under this Act, less than 500 tenants were able to avail of the limited state aid to purchase the holdings. The Land Commission was constituted to administer the 1881 Act and in a few years fair rent had been fixed for 275,000 holdings in the 26 counties. These were 21 per cent lower than previously payable. Fifteen years later 93,000 of these were reduced by another 18 per cent and 15 years later still, 3,000 of them came down by a further 9 per cent but for most people, the possibility of purchasing their holdings, the final goal of the Land League, was an idle dream. The intractable landlords would not sell, and very few of the near peasants could find one quarter of the purchase money which was necessary under the 1881 Act. Then in 1885 under the Ashbourne Land Purchase Act, the Land Commission were empowered to pay landlords the first purchase price on behalf of the tenant and to accept payment in instalments from the tenant over a period of 49 years. Around 16,000 tenants availed of these terms and the Land Commission paid £7 million to the landlords. The passing of this Act marks the beginning of land purchase, the objective of the Land League. Cash payments were, however, a heavy strain on the State. In 1891 a new system of land stock was created and landlords were paid in stock equal in nominal amounts to the purchase money. Around 42,000 tenants in the 26 counties availed of the Act and the purchase money totalled £11 million. It would have been used more were it not for the fact that the stock stood below par and that the Boer War pushed the stock lower and put an end to the progress.
The Balfour Land Purchase Act, 1891, also set up the Congested Districts Board to develop poorer districts along the western seaboard. It was a statutory body designed to promote the interests of small farmers in defined areas of the nine western counties. The Congested Districts Board had within its care fisheries, rural industry and land purchase and it also had one significant power — to buy from landlords land which they held for themselves and had not leased to tenant farmers. The Wyndham Act, 1903, made £100 million available for land purchase. Both this Act and the later Act of 1909 enlarged the powers and income of the board and gave both the Land Commission and the Congested Districts Board the power to acquire untenanted land compulsorily. By 1923 the Congested Districts Board and the Land Commission had, between them, distributed some 750,000 acres of untenanted land. In 1923 the Congested Districts Board was merged with the Land Commission. Prior to 1923 there were three main and concurrently exercised functions of the Land Commission, fixing of rent and tenancy control, land purchase and land settlement. Prior to 1923, land purchase depended on mutual agreement between landlord and tenant. In 1923 the newly-established Irish Government at one stroke abolished the remaining landlords. In effect the Land Commission were by virtue of the Land Act, 1923, appointed landlord for or vested with the landlord's interest in the 110,000 tenants then remaining unpurchased. The landlords lost the right to control rents and they were reimbursed in land bonds totalling £20 million. Prices were so scaled that the tenants' annuities worked out at about 65 per cent to 70 per cent of the rent they had previously been paying and the Land Commission could give further reductions if they thought it necessary.
Since 1923, then, we had many Acts — the Land Bond Act, 1925, the Land Act, 1926, the Land Act, 1927, the Land Act, 1929, the Land Act, 1931, the Land Act, 1933, the Land Bond Act, 1933, the Land Bond Act, 1934, the Land Act, 1936, the Land Act, 1939, the Land Act, 1946, the Land Act, 1950, the Land Act, 1953, the Land Act, 1954, the Land Bond Act, 1964, and the Land Act, 1965. All these played a part in shaping the Land Commission as we know it today or at least until recently. Now with no great land bank available and with such success behind them the Land Commission must be the ideal medium to make the concept of leasing popular as well as the other objectives that the Minister has mentioned, group purchase, commonage division and re-arrangement of holdings. The Land Commission were empowered to acquire land compulsorily but they did not confiscate. Their activities in this respect were set out in the statutes.
Some of the current problems which the Land Commission might very well be geared to deal with would be where we have a lack of mobility in the present land tenure system. As the Minister has pointed out, only 3 per cent changes hands each year and 80 per cent of that is by way of gift or inheritance. It is hard to see how the figure of 80 per cent can be reduced but the other figure, the 3 per cent, is indeed a very low percentage. Half of our farmers are over 55 years of age and a quarter are 65 and over. There is a need to reduce the age of succession. I said on the last occasion that older farmers should not be put out to grass indiscriminately. A proper pension scheme should be devised so that farmers could retire with dignity. Indeed, the experience of these farmers could be used by those who take over the farms. Over 50 per cent of sales on the open market go to non full time farmers. There is still a need for a programme of rearrangement of holding between farms in the same locality and division of commonages. We must concern ourselves with the efficient use of land for agricultural development and the objective must be the optimum use of the land.
Financial institutions are in sympathy with the principle of land leasing, and in a guide to farm finance produced by Allied Irish Banks last month, there is a section on land leasing which states that the bank will also provide finance on the basis of normal commercial criteria to farmers entering long term leasing arrangements. The Minister said that what is being proposed in the Bill represents a complete turn around in the basic philosophy of landlord-tenant relations as it has been conveniently accepted here for over a century. I accept this and I can see whereas previous legislation from 1870 onwards was concerned mainly with the tenant, this Bill will now be concerned with the tenant not obtaining a prescriptive right and it will be more in sympathy with those who lease the land. It does seem somewhat disappointing to me, as a newcomer, when I have gone through the Bills from 1870 onwards and seen big volumes. However, this small Bill in a sense is the start of something new and I hope something great will come of it.
The Minister also emphasised that whilst the encouragement of leasing is an integral part of a comprehensive land reform programme, it is nevertheless, only a first step in the formulation of such a programme. This Bill will also bring us into line with continental countries, I fully support it and wish it every success.