HC Deb 07 May 1806 vol 7 cc50-5
Lord H. Petty

moved the order of the day for resolving into a committee for the further consideration of the Property Duty bill.

Sir Henry Mildmay

hoped the noble lord would not press the house at so late an hour to go into a committee upon a bill that was likely to excite so much discussion, especially as several gentlemen who earnestly wished to be present at that discussion, had left the house under a confident persuasion that the further proceedings on the bill would be deferred to another day.

Lord H. Petty

said it had been understood on all sides of the house, that this was the day finally determined on for going into a committee on the bill. Several gentlemen had asked him, in the course of the evening, if he really meant to proceed with the bill that evening, and his answer was, that he certainly did, if possible. However, if the hon, baronet, or any other gentleman, had any objection to the principle of the bill, he would have no objection to postpone it, otherwise he should certainly wish to proceed now.

Sir H. Mildmay

could not pretend to say what were the particular objections of his friends who had gone away. He could only state their earnest wish to be present, and that they had gone away under the persuasion he had before stated.—Upon the general voice of "proceed now," the order of the day was read; when

Mr. William Smith

said, that notwithstanding the reluctance he had already expressed to give any opposition to the measures proposed, or the taxes brought forward by his majesty's present ministers, because he felt the peculiar difficulties in which they were placed, yet he had such forcible objections to this bill, that he felt it an indispensible duty to express them. He was disposed to give his noble friend, the chancellor of the exchequer, every degree of credit, and although the bill, in its present shape, was certainly much less objectionable than in its original form, and would, under the modifications it had received, be much milder in its operation, still it retained many of its objectionable points. First then, its name was changed to Property Tax, which was a mere change in name but not in essence; for the bill was, to all intents and purposes, an Income Tax still. It certainly was divested of some principles extremely obnoxious, which belonged to the original bill of the late premier. The principle of disclosure, for instance; a principal so peculiarly galling to the feelings of Englishmen, that he was astonished how that right hon. gent, could have found arguments to persuade the house to its adoption. But there was another principle in the present bill, which he considered so unfair and unequal, that the house ought not to sanction it: namely, that of charging the same rate of taxation upon incomes that were but temporary and unstable, as upon those that were permanent and stable; for instance, charging the same rate upon an income worth three years purchase and one worth thirty years purchase. If this point could be settled upon fair and equitable terms, much of his objection would be removed; but he feared that the fault was radical, and that the attempt to remove it, under all its details, would be an insurmountable labour. The name of Property Tax was adopted merely as a mask, to make it go down the more smoothly with the multitude; it was a term insulting to common sense; the principle of disclosure in this bill would, he thought, attach upon those who would feel it most severely; and much as the noble lord had laudably endeavoured to mitigate its operation, still it remained, and must be felt in a way extremely grating to the feelings of a great number of persons throughout the country. His next objection was to the immense number of officers employed in the assessment and collection of this tax; men who were certainly the assessors and collectors of all other taxes, who might, with their employer, bear the reputation of very active and sedulous men in the discharge of their duty; but whose activity, he was sorry to say, consisted very frequently in being extremely troublesome and sever upon those committed to their official attention. That such men, merely upon their own oaths, should be vested with the power of prying into the private affairs of persons in all classes, high and low, in every part of the kingdom, was, he thought, extremely severe. As to the difference between the rate of 6¼ per cent. and 10 per cent. he had himself very little objection, but he had his apprehensions on general grounds, that the more the tax was raised, the stronger would be the temptation to evade it. Upon no other groud did he object to this alteration; because, as taxes to a large amount must indispensably be raised, his only wish was, that they should fall as equally as possible upon all classes in proportion to their means; but his grand objection was to the unjust principle of taxing all incomes alike, whether for a short and temporary, or a stable and permanent period. He was only amazed, that such a principle was ever submitted to.

Sir R. Buxton

thought the tax unjust. On a former night it had been said, that it should operate as a land tax, under which no exemptions were to be allowed. The policy of this principle had been formerly confuted, having been acted upon and relinquished. The hon. baronet particularly called the attention of the house to the situation of country gentlemen of about 1000l. a year, who would feel the tax beyond all others, and would be driven by its pressure from their country seats into towns, where they could not be useful in the eminent way which the antiquity of their families, and their capacity as magistrates, rendered them in their parishes; where, by their presence and long residence, they gave to the law a weight which it would not otherwise carry. No man at any time more warmly supported the war, or saw more clearly the necessity of vigorous prosecution now, than the hon. baronet; he wished to give all the support in his power to the ministers, and said thus much now only with a view of intimating, that he had some objections to offer to the tax in a future stage.

Sir H. Mildmay

objected to the partial operation of the bill on the landed property of the country: he did not mean to say that the landed interest were not able to support the tax, and much more that they would not pay it if the wisdom of parliament should deem it right to inflict it; but it was extremely desirable that property should be equally assessed. The small landed proprietors with large families would feel the act with particular severity, as there were no abatements allowed for children. The great variety of expenses incidental to the support and education of large families, would, he hoped, point these proprietors out to the house as fit objects to have abatements extended to.— He supposed the case of a gentleman mortgaging an estate of 1300l. a year rental, which every man knew never produced a net income of above 1000l. In such a case, the mortgagee would never allow more than the two shillings in the pound deduction upon the actual income, while the charge upon a supposition-surplus and all expenses of repairs must fall upon the proprietor.

Mr. Perceval

deprecated all delay, and earnestly recommended to the house to go into the committee, which was the most proper stage in which to discuss the objections now made to the several parts of the bill by different gentlemen. He professed himself a warm friend and supporter of the bill and its principle, because he was convinced that the taxes it was designed to raise, would fall more equally, fairly, and justly, uponevery class of the community, than any other mode of taxation that could possibly be devised; and firmly persuaded he was, that if it were practicable to raise a similar sum by taxes upon articles of consumption, upon the necessaries of life, even the poor man of small income, with a large family, would pay a much larger proportion of the tax in that way, than he could possibly be called on to do, under this bill. The hon. gent. who first objected to parts of this bill, (Mr. Smith), had admitted the necessity in which his majesty's ministers were placed of raising large sums to meet the arduous exigencies of the country at the present crisis. But though he had favoured the house with a criticism upon the title of the bill, and christened it an Income Tax, and not a Property tax, if he would examine its tendency, he would find it to be what it professed, a tax upon profits arising from property, and also from trades and professions. But much as he approved of the bill, and convinced as he was that it would be vain to think of raising a similar sum by any tax he could impose upon articles of consumption; he would earnestly recommend it to the noble lord, seriously to consider the objections stated that night by the hon. members near him, as well as the other weighty objections which might be offered on the part of other descriptions of persons, and see how far it would be practicable to modify particular parts of the bill, so as to render its operation as little oppressive and obnoxious as possible to any particular class of the community, that the bill might not incur any degree of odium that might risk the necessity of its repeal. With respect to the case of chil- dren. it certainly was worthy of consideration, whether some abatement on that account ought not to be made in cases of low income, though by no means in cases of large income. But if, after duly considering the subject, the noble lord should be of opinion that no abatements could be made, he should nevertheless give the bill his support, because he was convinced there never was a measure of revenue so effectually calculated to reach every species of property.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, he heard with very great pleasure the sentiments just expressed by his hon. and learned friend, in which he perfectly coincided. He thought there were several descriptions of persons who certainly ought to be exempted from the operation of this tax, particularly persons with large families having even incomes so high as 200l a year. He compared the situation of the country, under the operation of such a tax as this, and the exigencies which called for it, to that of a ship, whose crew, pressed by scarcity, were put upon short allowance; where every man was called upon to bear his share of privation, all would cheerfully submit to the hardship, so long as it was the universal and impartial lot; but if one part of the crew were expected to submit cheerfully to hunger, while another description were allowed to indulge in every luxury, resignation and patient submission could not long last. Thus it would be with those of large families and large incomes, who if they were called on to surrender ten percent. thereout, must absolutely be reduced to want the common necessaries of life. The classes of persons he would wish to exempt, besides those to whom he had just alluded, were widows, poor clergymen, and officers of small pay in the army, unless it was intended to increase the pay of the latter, as in the case of the navy had been lately adopted. He felt the force of his hon. and learned friend's argument, and applauded the noble lord for the manly manner in which he had come forward to raise so considerable a portion of the supplies for the war within the year and if any considerable deficit from the general produce of the tax, should arise through the exemptions he proposed, it might be made good by encreasing the impost upon higher incomes; and to such a modification he for one, should most chearfully submit.

Mr. Spencer Stanhope

thought that to admit of no exemptions was a bad principle of taxation; and that it was neither politic nor humane to allow the estimated amount of the tax to stand in the way of abatements in hard cases. He never knew a secretary of the treasury that had not been adverse to every exemption from a tax, but he thought the amount of a tax not a matter so likely to be complained of, as particular hard cases.

Lord H. Petty

would not say much at so late an hour. The necessity of raising a large sum within the year, had been admitted, and, it had also been admitted, that this was the best tax for such a purpose, being as had been stated, superior to the original income tax. To this resource, therefore, we must look for the means of that energy which circumstances demanded. There might be some cases of apparent hardship: but equality could, in such a case, be only taken in the gross, and along with it, we must consider the efficacy of the bill. As to equality, perhaps, theoretically, a tax on capital would be the fairest, or one combining capital and income, according to various descriptions of property; but the prodigious trouble, and the agency requisite for such a scheme, would hardly justify him in venturing to give up the. plan that had been already established. The noble lord then expressed his strong disinclination to admit any further exemptions, since 350,000l. were already lost by the concessions made. He should listen attentively to suggestions, but nothing less than the seeming general wish of the house should incline him to increase exemptions, which were mostly of greater loss to government than benefit to the individuals. He objected to the idea of taking a greater percentage from the rich than from the poor, since its tendency was to alter the order of society. The exemptions in favor of those who had children, were in reality a tax upon those who had none. It was his wish to avoid unnecessary pressure, but not to agree to exemptions which would greatly reduce the efficacy of the tax.—Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. Rose, and lord H. Petty said a few words in explanation, after which the bill went through a Committee pro forma. Progress was reported, and it was ordered that the committee should sit again on Monday.