HC Deb 01 May 1815 vol 30 cc1014-24

On the motion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the House should resolve into a committee on the Property-tax Bill,

General Gascoyne

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for the non-extension of the tax to officers of the army and navy, while on foreign service. It was necessary, that that description of persons, after the long contest in which we had been engaged, and which we were now about to renew, should have some relief. To exempt them altogether from the operations of the Bill was not what he intended to propose; neither would he submit his motion at all to the House, if he did not feel confident that there was not one who heard him that would say it was a case that did not merit attention. In order, however, to convince the House of the particular claims which that description of persons had on their consideration, he would define the situations in which officers of the army were placed. He would not state the distinct pay or allowance; but a captain when he was sent on foreign service was allowed 22l..; a subaltern 8l. 15s; out of this money they were under the necessity of providing clothes and camp equipage, the expenses of which were frequently so great that a captain could not take the field under 80l. and a subaltern under 30l. This hardship had, indeed, been represented to Government, and it was then thought proper to give the officers two months pay in advance. But even with this benefit, what was the situation of the army in the Peninsula? For six months afterwards they did not receive a farthing. Where a considerable body of troops was marched into a foreign country, the price of provisions was generally double, and they usually gave 100 to 200 dollars for a mule, which they must either provide or leave their baggage behind. It was not, however, to be supposed, that they could supply themselves with all requisites from their pay alone: they were frequently obliged to draw upon the their friends, and to distress their families. There was, besides, the loss which they suffered from the difference of exchange. The exchange against this country was at this time 25 per cent.; so that, upon every 100l. for which an officer drew, he was subject to a loss of 35l.; 25l. for the difference of exchange, and 10l. for the Property-tax. Surely, then, if there was any description of men entitled to the regard and consideration of that House, it was the officers of the army and navy; men who held their tenure of life only from day to day, and with whose deaths, as they could not insure their lives for the benefit of their families, all the capital which they had expended in their profession generally expired. The motion which he intended to submit to the House was extracted from the Records of Parliament in the time of William and Mary. In the year 1695, a contribution was raised upon the country, as similar as could be to the tax now before the House; it applied to profits of every description, but exempted the army and navy. He wished the House, however, to consider the different situations or our military and naval officers at this time. In 1695, the pay of a lieut.-colonel was 17s. per diem—the very same pay which they received at present. But, if the calculation of sir George Shuckburgh was correct, namely, that 8s. 9d. in 1700, was equal to 1l. in 1803, how much more were the officers of the army and navy entitled to exemption at this period? They had formerly derived some advantage from what were called Stock-purses, but this benefit no longer existed. On going abroad; they were obliged to make certain allowances to their families; and many of those who had fought in the Peninsula were afterwards sent to America, and had not yet received their arrears. He would next advert to the Colonial service, which was by no means pleasing to the army. So great, indeed, was their dislike of it, that it was recently a usual practice, in exchanging on Colonial service, to make a difference in price from 500l. to 1000l. for what was only intrinsically worth 1,500l. Nor was this to be wondered at when we considered the effects of foreign climates on different regiments. The 18th regiment of foot was composed of 34 officers, and 1000 men; but in the space of eight years and a half, it lost 71 officers, and upwards of 2000 men. A resident in the Colonies, though only for temporary affairs, was not liable to the Property duty; he might stay there for three years, and then send his property to this country, which was not subject to taxation: but officers of the army and navy who remained abroad for ten years, and were frequently under the necessity of selling their commissions on their return, were not entitled to any exemption. As far as he had been able to ascertain, the deduction for Property-tax on the pay of officers in a regiment of 1000 men was 780l.; so that, supposing 100 battalions of 1000 strong, the whole would amount to 68,000l. per annum. It was necessary also to state, that when an officer was ordered abroad to join his regiment, he was assisted with a sum of money to lake his passage. The usual sum for a captain who was appointed to a regiment in the West Indies, was 28l.; but the price of the cabin was 50l., and it generally appeared, on his first landing there, that the whole of his expenses amounted to 100l. instead of 28l. Having detailed these striking facts, he would not occupy the attention of the House any longer with respect to the army: and he would leave the subject, as far as it related to the navy, to the hon. admiral who intended to second his motion. He felt persuaded there was no gentleman who would not think the officers of the army and navy entitled to the consideration and liberality of the House: if the smallest doubt existed in any mind, it must arise from the manner in which he had expressed himself, and not from the merits of the case. There was not one person out of doors, whether he were a merchant, a stock-broker, a land-holder, or any other description, who would not he glad to see that a distinction had been made in this case. The army and navy had always deserved well of their country; but they were more entitled to our consideration at this period, than they were to that of our ancestors in 1695. He should, therefore, conclude with moving, "That it be an instruction to the Committee, to amend the Act, by exempting from the operation of the Tax on Property, the pay of such military and naval officers, as are actually mustered on foreign service, and not otherwise."

Sir Charles Pole

rose to second the motion. He said, that the observations which the gallant officer had made with regard to the army applied in a double ratio to the navy. In the equipment of a ship, the necessaries they were obliged to provide amounted to almost as much as the expenses incurred by any person beginning a new establishment. He had thought that the renewal of the Property-tax was necessary under the present situation of the country, but that certain modifications ougnt to have been adopted. As to the measure now proposed, he did not think it went far enough. In looking at the estimates which had been lately submitted to the House, it must alarm any man to add to the burthen of the people; but he was quite sure that great savings might be made in several departments of the navy, especially with regard to superannuations on the civil service. Government had acted with great liberality in augmenting the half-pay of naval officers; but it went at this moment to make the full pay and half-pay so nearly on a par, that there was only a difference of 3l. in the pay of a lieutenant of the navy. In the pay of a purser there was no difference at all. He considered it necessary, therefore, to revise the state of the full and half-pay, particularly as superannuated officers were now receiving within 40l. of their full salary. On these accounts, he should support the motion.

General Grosvenor

expressed his hearty and entire concurrence in what had fallen from his hon. friend who made the motion.

General Harvey

having himself experienced many of the disadvantages which the hon. general who proposed the motion had detailed, could not withhold his complete acquiescence in the motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

expressed his opinion, that the arguments of his gallant friend applied rather to some general revision of the naval and military service, than to the specific motion which he had brought forward. With respect to the clause which had been introduced in the time of king William, he willingly admitted that the pay was higher then than now; but it should also be recollected, how very different the service of the army was in the two periods. In the reign of king William their service was only occasional, and no half-pay was established; consequently, it was desirable that their reward should be not only a compensation for actual duty, but, as far as might be practicable, a provision for the future. The gallant general had alluded to the case of civil officers in the Colonies, as being exempted from the operation of the Property-tax; but he could assure him that they enjoyed no such exemption, where they derived their salaries from this country. Those who drew colonial allowances were of course exempt, because Parliament did not think it expedient to extend the operation of the Act to our Colonies. With respect to the relief which officers would derive, in any hardships they might now sustain, by exempting them from the Property-tax, he thought it would be very inadequate; and, besides, the House would surely feel the delicacy of extending that description of relief to a particular class of individuals. The very principle upon which the tax was recommended, in some degree, to public favour, was its universal operation; and to exempt the army and navy would neither be beneficial to the public service, nor conducive, in his apprehension, to their honour. If the proposition were entertained, in respect to them, many other classes, the inferior clergy for instance, whose profits were equally contingent and precarious, might justly claim the same exemption. But the House had determined, and wisely, in his opinion, that no modification of the tax should take place, distinguishing permanent from temporary profits; and even if such an exemption in favour of the army and navy were thought necessary on general grounds, the present occasion was the very last in which he should recommend it. The tax was now to be revived, without any alterations or inquiries, which would only perplex the collecting of it. It was to be given to the public again simply in the form to which the public had been accustomed; and, with that view, as soon as the House should have disposed of the question then before it, it was his intention to submit a proposition, which would simplify the operation of the tax. It was, that the assessments of last year should be the basis of the present one. Parties would not be called upon to make any fresh returns, but merely to pay the same amount as they paid the preceding year, unless where they might think themselves aggrieved. This proposition, he was happy to say, had met with the approbation of all to whom he had communicated it. At first he thought it might diminish the produce of the tax; but upon consulting with those who were better acquainted with its details than himself, they were of opinion that it would have no such effect. That principle had been adopted since the year 1806, in taking the assessments upon landed property, no fresh returns being called for: but in commercial property, which was necessarily fluctuating, cases might occur in which it would be necessary to make a reduction. Those, however, were not numerous enough to create any solid objection to the arrangement. With respect to the motion of the hon. general, he thought its objects would be better effected by bringing the subjects under the notice of Parliament, when the army and navy estimates were before the House, instead of that indirect and collateral mode.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

entirely concurred in the opinions of the hon. mover, and thought them not at all weakened by the reply of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was to be remembered that when an officer fell in the service of his country, his commission, perhaps his only provision, was immediately lost to his family. The House had been flattered with hopes that the approaching war would be but of short duration. Such a result, however desirable, might be very disadvantageous to military men, as they would be put to all the necessary expenses of an outfit, with a less chance of remuneration. He held it due to the honour of the House, as well as to that of the country at large, to express, in the most decided manner, the just sense entertained by them of the services of the army.

Lord Palmerston

wished to offer a very few words upon what had been urged by the hon. mover, and the hon. and learned gentleman who spoke last. He apprehended, in the first place, that it was an entire misconception to suppose that officers were less able to provide for themselves and families on foreign service than at home. The fact was, that on foreign stations they were much more advantageously situated, as, in addition to their ordinary full pay, they were at no expense for quarters, they drew rations from the magazines both for themselves and their servants, and obtained forage for their horses. It had been observed that long arrears were sometimes due, viz. for six or twelve months, but this was only an additional proof that the incomes of officers were much improved abroad, as they had been particularly in the peninsular warfare, or it would have been impossible for them to have given such long credit to Government. With respect to the hardship alluded to by an hon. and learned gentleman, when officers purchased their commissions and were killed in battle, or died on foreign service, he could only say, that though it might be an act of liberality to allow their families to dispose of their commissions, it would be an act of great injustice to the corps. Many cases, however, had occurred, in which, the families of officers being left in great distress, grants were made to them in addition to the usual allowances. He certainly thought, if any distinction was to be made, the officers serving at home were most entitled to it.

Mr. Abercrombie

confessed that he thought the arguments of the right hon. gentleman opposite were unanswerable against the proposition of introducing any clause to exempt particular classes from the operation of the Property-tax. As long as the the measure should be deemed necessary, its operation ought to be uniform, reserving the power only, if in the course of time it should unfortunately be made a permanent impost, to consider how far it might then be expedient to introduce modifications. He agreed with the noble lord, that if any description of officers were more peculiarly entitled to the consideration of Government than another, it was those who were placed upon the home service; and, the refore, if the House entertained the proposition of the gallant general at all, it ought to be reversed in its application. He had briefly stated his opinions, because, if the question were pressed to a division, he should be compelled to vote against the motion.

Mr. Forbes

supported the motion, and, adverting to the situation of the navy on foreign stations, especially the East Indies, expressed a wish that some practicable mode could be devised for enabling the sailors to receive their pay through the medium of the East India Company. At present, the only way they could obtain it was, by taking slops of the purser at nearly double their value, and turning them into money by afterwards selling them at one half.

Mr. Rose

said, that an arrangement such as was alluded to by the hon. member had been under the consideration of Government, but was found impracticable. With respect to the necessity of taking slops from the purser, those slops were contracted for by the Navy-board, at the lowest possible price, and they were of the best materials.

Lord Milton

adverted to the difficulty which seamen encountered in procuring their pay, after having been engaged in the service for a number of years. Some regulation ought to be made on this subject.

Lord Proby

thought the situation of officers, he meant subaltern and not general officers, required relief, and was at present discreditable to the country, and prejudicial to the service. It was true that the object of a military life was not money, or the accumulation of a large fortune; but it was necessary that there should be what was sufficient to enable officers to live like gentlemen, and this sufficiency was not yet accorded. The hon. general was, however, certainly wrong in supposing that officers abroad were less advantageously circumstanced than those at home.

General Gascoyne

replied, and said he had no reluctance, if that would satisfy the noble lord (Palmerston), to extend his motion for exemption, and make it general to the whole army.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

recommended to the hon. general to withdraw his motion.

General Gascoyne

persevered, when the question was put, and negatived without a division.

Mr. Grenfell

rose, and observed, that according to the provisions of the Act as it was now framed, there was no clause in it to restrain the Commissioners of the Property-tax from disclosing the information they obtained in the discharge of their duty. He thought this a defect, which, in many instances, might lead to unpleasant occurrences; in some cases, indeed, he knew such occurrences had taken place. He should therefore, move, "That it be an instruction to the committee to introduce a clause imposing the same restraint upon the Commissioners for the Affairs of Taxes as existed with regard to the Commissioners for General Purposes under the Property-tax Act."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

objected to the motion, because he thought his hon. friend and the House were hardly aware of all the consequences to which the principle would go. He apprehended that improvident disclosures were very rare, as he had heard but few complaints. Unless a case of real necessity were made out, he should certainly be averse to any such clause.

Mr. Baring

said, that if the right hon. gentleman had stated any specific inconvenience likely to result from the motion of his hon. friend, he, for one, should be prepared to oppose it; but, as that had not been done, he hoped the House would reflect before they rejected it.

Mr Huskisson

contended, that as the intended duration of the Bill was only for one year, a very strong case of actual in-convenience ought to be made out to induce the House to take any step which might have the effect of casting a stigma on so respectable a body of men as the Commissioners of Taxes. He thought it would be very difficult to devise any kind of oath which would exactly answer the purpose of the hon. member.

Mr. Whitbread

observed, that no arguments had been advanced against the proposition of his hon. friend (Mr. Grenfell), which he was confident could not be attended with any inconvenience, and would certainly produce many beneficial consequences. He could not forbear remarking on the constant recurrence made by gentlemen on the opposite side to the assertion, that the Property-tax was to continue for only one year. He felt very sure, that it would be proposed from year to year, and at length riveted upon the people for ever. He observed, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer took advantage of its present temporary nature to obviate discussion. He thought the clause proposed very unobjectionable, and said, he had often heard of very unjustifiable disclosures made of the private property and circumstances of individuals, which might be prevented by the restraint of an oath. On these grounds, he hoped his hon. friend would press the motion to a division.

Mr. W. Smith

, certain as he was that the tax would be renewed the next year, and the year after, thought that Parliament ought not to spare themselves the trouble of modifying it in the best possible way. He had always opposed the tax on the ground of its inquisitorial and oppressive nature; but he was by no means persuaded, that by an extensive pruning, it might not be rendered tolerable.

Mr. Grenfell

, in reply to the request made to him by his hon. friend, to relate the anecdote to which he had alluded, stated, that a friend of his, travelling in a common stage coach from London to Oxford, was entertained by a fellow passenger with a minute account of the diminution of income, and of the other affairs of a gentleman whose residence they passed. On his arrival at Oxford, his friend inquired who his fellow passenger was, and was informed that he was a commissioner of the Property-tax. He (Mr. Gienfell) had subsequently a long correspondence with him on the subject, and had acquainted him that if ever an opportunity occurred, he would introduce into the House of Commons some measure to check so great an abuse. It was in consequence that he then submitted the clause, and would take the sense of the House upon it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

asked, whether in the correspondence which the hon. gentleman had had with the commis- sioner, any satisfactory explanation was given of his conduct?

Mr. Grenfell

replied, that he had received no explanation, which, in his view of it, was satisfactory.

Mr. Wynn

maintained, that a single circumstance such as that which had just been mentioned by his hon. friend, ought to be sufficient to induce the House to agree to the motion.

Mr. Lyttleton

was at a loss to conjecture on what the opposition to the motion was founded. The expediency of it was palpably clear. It would be a most important improvement in the Act. If it were rejected, it would cause a very serious impression upon the public mind, as if that House would countenance such a proceeding.

The motion was then agreed to.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

proceeded to make the motion which he had already described. It was to the following effect—"That it be an instruction to the Committee, that it be empowered to make provision in the said Bill, That the assessments of the year ending the 5th of April, 1815, be the basis of all assessments to be made by the commissioners for the year ending the 5th of April, 1816; and that no new assessments be made;" which, after a short conversation, was carried in the affirmative.

Lord Milton

, convinced as he was of the numerous deficiencies of the measure, moved as a general proposition, "that it be an instruction to the committee, that they have power to amend the said Act."

On this motion a division instantly took place; for the motion, 37; Against it, 134:—Majority, 97.

The House then went into the committee, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the clause which he had previously announced, which was received and agreed to, as well as Mr. Grenfell's, relative to the oath of the commissioners. The report was then received, and ordered to be taken into further consideration on Wednesday next, and the Bill, with the amendments, to be printed.