HC Deb 05 May 1815 vol 31 cc160-7
The Chancellor of the Exchequer

moved the order of the day for the third reading of the Property-tax Bill, The question having been put from the chair,

Mr. Dickenson

rose, and said he did not think he should be performing his duty to the country, if he did not declare his hostility to this Bill. He thought it was particularly oppressive to the agriculturist, upon whose prosperity the main interests of the state depended. He lamented to state, that within the last six months this class of society had experienced the greatest hardships, and these were not alone confined to one particular county, but were felt universally throughout the country. In support of his assertion, he would give an instance which came within his own knowledge. Having heard that the farmers of the county of Somerset had been material sufferers from the distresses of the times, he had the curiosity to write to the gaoler of the county to ascertain the proportion of debtors that had come under his notice within the last six months. The result of this inquiry was as follows: on the 23d of last November, there were twenty-three debtors in prison: on December the 23d, there were thirty: on January the 23d, forty-five: on February the 23d, forty-seven: on March the 23d, forty-three; and on the 23d of the last month, fifty-two—and of that number, the proportion of farmers was one-fourth. Under such circumstances, he thought the burthen which this tax was about again to throw on this useful class of the community was highly reprehensible; and the more so from the mode of assessing their property, which was taken at three-fourths of their rental; This plan of assessment he thought peculiarly objectionable, inasmuch as no allowance whatever was made for the probable loss of the farmer in the pursuit of his business. The profits of the farmer, he contended, were as easily ascertained as those of a merchant or tradesman, and he saw no reason why he should not have similar advantages with those individuals. Unfortunately, however, he had no means of escaping the tax, whatever might be the extent of his loss, or however disproportionate his profits might be to the scale upon which his assessment was taken. These observations struck him so forcibly, that he considered it of the utmost importance, if the Bill before the House was to pass, that it should pass in a shape as little objectionable as possible With this feeling, he wished to propose an amendment, the object of which would be to render the farmer liable to the same mode of assessment as the merchant or trader.

Alderman C. Smith

did not consider that the farmers had more reason to complain of the operation of the tax than any other class of individuals. With respect to the principle of the tax itself, he considered, under existing circumstances, and the necessity of empowering his Majesty's ministers to uphold the interests and general welfare of the country, that it was unobjectionable.

Mr. Horner

regarded the tax as not more injurious to the commercial than to all the other great interests in which the safety and stability of the state were involved. He feared that the description given by his hon. friend of the county in which he resided was but too generally applicable, and certainly understood that in Scotland the tenantry were in a declining state. No one who looked upon the prosperous state of agriculture as the source and fountain-head of our national resources, could contemplate this state of things without alarm for the consequences. The opinions of the House had not long since been divided upon a measure intended for the relief of the agricultural interest, but there was then no dispute as to the fact of the distress which existed. The right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, was now about to establish, without any modification, an imposition, which in their flourishing condition was found grievous and oppressive; and which, therefore, in their present circumstances of embarrassment, must prove odious and intolerable. It was a singular time for selecting rent as the ground of assessment to a tax on income, when the difficulty or inability of the farmer to pay his rents at present was notorious and undisputed. If rent was in some years a fair criterion of farming profits, it could not be fair in a year during which there were no profits. If farmers could produce their accounts in the same regular form in which the accounts of commercial men were preserved, he could not imagine what objections existed against administering to the former the same relief, and applying the same regulations as those under which the assessment of trading profits was conducted. The right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer might turn a deaf ear to the complaints against a measure not more injurious to individuals than dangerous to the true interest of the state; but he would venture to predict that those complaints would soon reach him in a far different tone, and in a tone far less desirable with a view to the general advantage of the country.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that in point of form the amendment proposed by the hon. gentleman could not then be received: he was not at all desirous of taking shelter, however, under that circumstance, conceiving, as he did, that the proposition was one which admitted of the best possible answer. If it were not so, the House could easily find a remedy for the evil complained of by a separate bill. Although he was ready to admit that the agriculture of the country had for some time past been in a state of depression, yet he by no means thought the remedy proposed by the hon. gentleman was one likely to produce any very beneficial effect. If ever there was a time in which the House could justly be accused of not paying due attention to the interests of the agriculturist, he thought it was not in the present session. When the Property-tax was first introduced, great difficulties were encountered in suggesting a mode of ascertaining the profit of the farmer. At first it was proposed to assess that class of individuals in the same manner with other persons liable to the tax; but when it was considered, that upwards of a million of returns were made annually, it was at once concluded that it would be impossible for the commissioners to give that sort of attention to those returns, which, to render the tax at all productive, would be necessary. It was at length, therefore, resolved, as the most equitable mode of proceeding, to take the assessments upon that general average of profit as compared with the rent, which experience had justified. This, he imagined, would still be found the best as well as the fairest plan. It was for the House to decide, however, whether the amendment of the hon. gentleman was now admissible. It appeared to him, that, in point of form, no amendment could now be introduced, as the committee on the Bill had only been instructed to revive and continue it.

The Speaker

said, that at that moment no question could arise beyond that before the House, namely, whether the Bill should then be read the third time or not? If the Bill was read the third time, an opportunity would then offer fur proposing any amendment consistent with the title of the Bill.

Mr. Frankland Lewis

agreed to the measure in its present state, only on the principle of its enactment for a limited time, and that if necessity should demand its continuance, a full opportunity would be afforded of discussing what improvements, it was capable of receiving. He had always thought the principle of assessment applied to the profits of cultivation most preposterous: it, in fact, resolved itself into this, that if the tenant did not pay his proportion, the landlord must pay it for him. Now, if it was seriously meant that the proprietors of land ought to pay 15 or 20 instead of 10l. per cent., the object should be stated openly, and fairly discussed. For his own part, he could conceive no argument by which such a principle could be justified. There was a prevalent belief, and nothing could he more erroneous, that the profits of Stock or capital vested in the cultivation of land were very large. There were, undoubtedly some very wealthy farmers; but he could state, on goad authority, that in many counties both of England and Scotland, the farmers tilled their land with their own hands, and encountered the greatest difficulties, after paying taxes and poor-rates, in making out their subsistence. He was satisfied that in many instances, a tax of 1s. 6d. in the pound upon the tent, had amounted to not less than 35l. per cent. on the farmer's profits.

Mr. Calcraft

concurred with the last speaker, that the measure was liable to many objections, not only as it affected commercial and farming capitalists, but as it affected professional men, and the profits of skill and industry. He should give it his support at present, because he Believed no substitute could be found for it, and because he did not believe it could be so modified this year as to meet the very different wishes of the different classes of the community.

Mr. D. Giddy

wished to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether any abatement would be made to landlords and tenants in the assessment under this Bill, for reductions made in their rents during the present period of distress?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

answered, that both landlord and tenant would certainly by this Bill be entitled to every fair deduction under such circumstances.

Mr. Grenfell

explained, that he meant the remarks he had made on commissioners, on a former occasion, to apply only to those who belonged to the Board of Taxes in Somerset-place.

Sir M. W. Ridley

observed, that his objections to the measure were insuperable, and he should therefore take the sense of the House upon it. He looked at it in no other light than as a war tax; and believing the war to be unnecessary, he would not put into the hands of ministers the facilities and the temptation for carrying it on. If the Executive had less means, they would have less disposition for again plunging the country into hostilities; and he, for one, would rather pay towards the limited expense of maintaining an armed truce than contribute to the wasteful expenditure of an impolitic and unnecessary war: he, for one, would rather suffer the "ills we have, than fly to others which we know not of;" and with these impressions, should move that the Bill be read a third that day six months.

Mr. Lockhart

considered the Bill necessary to strengthen the hands of Government with the view of preventing an unnecessary effusion of blood. He thought, however, that some method should be adopted to relieve the agriculturist from the oppressive manner in which the Bill at present bore on his interests.

Sir John Newport

said, he could not conceive how many of those gentlemen, who at its first introduction had opposed the Bill, could now reconcile themselves to their support of it. It bad been said by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a reason for not making any modifications, or giving any opportunity for appeal against the assessments, that if complaints were listened to, a million would be poured in. Was the House, therefore, to pass a measure which was so widely oppressive, and was it to be stated in support of legislative injustice, that it was not limited in its extent? His own objection to the tax was to the principles—that it was unequal and oppressive in its operation—that it granted power to certain persons, which, in a free country, should never be granted, but he did not see how those who had grounded their support to it, on the idea that they would be able to obtain modifications, could persist in their support when the Bill was to be read a third time without those modifications, which from the first, to do him justice, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had refused to grant. Neither could he consent to propagate so manifest a delusion, that by passing the Tax, the House showed that the resources of the country were inexhaustible, when their tottering state, even with the aid of this most oppressive measure, must have been manifest to every one who attended the debates of the House. He should, therefore, vote against the Bill.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

wished to ask the right hon. baronet, whether he would prefer the plan of resorting to the funding system, to that of raising the supplies within the year; and whether he thought it was possible to raise the supplies within the year by any other principle of taxation? With respect to the facilities which the tax furnished to the Executive Government for entering upon and carrying on wars, he had often heard the same argument formerly applied to the funding system; and the character of the Income-tax originally was, that it would serve to teach the country what were the real consequences and cost of war. As to the observation of the right hon. baronet, that there were no circumstances which could justify the present measure, he was considerably surprised at it, as he understood him to have concurred in it, in the year 1806. The right hon. baronet had voted for the Address, promising to enable Government to carry on war, if it should be necessary; and yet he now opposed the only means by which war could be effectually maintained.

Sir John Newport

explained, that he bad not said no circumstances, bat that scarcely any circumstances could justify such a tax as that now proposed. He begged also to state, that his vote an a former night was given under a delusion.

Mr. Plunkett

said, he could not concur with his right hon. friend (sir J. Newport) in opposing the third reading of this Bill; because, by doing so, he should be withdrawing that credit from the Executive Government which he had already confided in them. When last he was in the House, his right hon. friend, as well as the House in general, had concurred in voting an Address to the Prince Regent, declaring their conviction of the necessity of augmenting our forces by sea and land, and of a cordial co-operation with our Allies. Was if the pleasure of the House that this pledge should be redeemed? If so, on what ground was the present tax opposed? He did not wish to anticipate the question of peace or war, however willing he might be at a proper season to deliver his sentiments upon that subject; but he should be glad to know whether any person was of opinion, that without this tax, an augmentation of our forces by sea and land could be effected? Was it the opinion of his right hon. friend, or of any other member in the House, that we should disarm at the present moment? Would his right hon. friend say, whether, situated as we at present were with regard to France, we should desist from an augmentation of our forces by sea and land—or whether, in a state of offence or defence, this measure was not necessary? He was satisfied his right hon. friend acted from a conscientious feeling of duty; he should think he departed from his duty, however, if he failed to enable his Majesty's, Government to do that which he had already declared he considered necessary. His right hon. friend had declared, that his vote of a former night had been obtained by delusion. Recurring to the vote which he (Mr. P.) had given on that night, he could only say he was under no delusion—he was not imposed upon or deceived. The ground of deception stated by his right hon. friend was, that when called upon to vote the resolution of an augmentation of our forces by sea and land, by the noble lord (Castlereagh), that noble lord had not slated to the House, that at that time he was in possession of the Treaty with the Allies, which had been ratified on the part of this country. His (Mr. Plunkett's) opinion was, that if the noble lord had communicated that Treaty to the House, he would have departed from his duty, because he would have thereby evinced a determination to go to war, and have induced the other Powers of Europe, to call more imperiously on this country for its assistance —consequences which would not have been grateful to his right hon. friend. So far as the noble lord had gone, the question of peace or war was doubtful; and the noble lord only pledged the House to augment our forces by sea and land, and cordially to co-operate with our Allies in whatever measures the safety of Europe might seem to require. Parliament was now called upon to fulfil that pledge— for one, he was willing to abide by his vote of a former night, and he would vote the same way, if the opportunity occurred again.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the powders granted under the Property tax were such as had never been found tolerable at any former period. They had been granted with a tax at the time of King William, but the tax was soon dropped. The greatest recommendation to the Bill was that it would continue but for a year.

Mr. J. P. Grant

opposed the motion, and observed that no circumstances would justify the imposition of a tax which did not attach solely on property or expenditure, but fell with equal severity on the annuitant and on the freeholder, on the professional man and the man of property.

Mr. Wynn

was of opinion, that it was not because the time of receiving petitions had passed, that the different towns had not met for the consideration of this measure. It was still competent for them to meet, and instruct their representatives how to act; but the real fact was, that the same honourable motive which induced the country to submit to it on a late occcasion, now fully subsisted to reconcile them to its revival. He was not so sanguine as an hon. alderman in the idea, that the tax could be made "a comfortable thing" to the people; at the same time he regretted, in justice to their feelings, that the noble lord's (Milton) proposition, on a former night, to empower the committee to amend the Act, if they thought proper, had not met the concurrence of the House. If the Act required modification, its existence being limited to one year ought not to prevent the amendment from taking place. As the Bill had gone on so far as the third reading, and as no alternative remained, but either to adopt it as it stood, or reject it altogether, he felt it his duty to support the tax, believing it the only one likely to be effective under the present crisis of public affairs.

The House then divided:

For the third reading of the Bill 160
Against it 29
Majority —131

The Bill was then read a third time, and passed.

List of the Minority.
Atkins, J. Cavendish, C.
Atherly, A. Grant, J. P.
Brand, hon. T. Gordon, R.
Bennet, hon. H. G. Greenhill, R.
Calvert, C. Hornby, E.
Lefevre, C. S. Rowley y sir Wm.
Lloyd, J. M. Russell, lord Wm.
Langton, Gore Shaw, R.
Monck, sir C. Stanley, lord
Moore, P. Smith, W.
Martin, J. Walpole, hon. G.
Mackintosh, sir J. Whitbread, S.
Newport, Sir J. TELLERS.
Plummer, W. C. C. Western
Ponsonby, rt. hon. G. Sir M. W. Ridley.
Piggott, sir A.