HC Deb 08 July 1823 vol 9 cc1461-71
Mr. Hume

said, that in what he was about to state, upon introducing some resolutions relative to the collection of the Land-tax, it was not his intention to occupy much of their time; but having devoted much labour and attention to the consideration of the manner in which this, tax had been long collected, he could not allow the session to pass without taking the opportunity of calling the attention of government to its serious importance. Ever since he had been induced to call on parliament to institute an inquiry into the extensive subject of the receiveres-general and their offices, he had felt convinced that the mode in which the land-tax was raised in this country imposed a considerable expense on the public, and a needless loss upon some classes of the community. From what passed on the occasion, to which he had just adverted, he did indulge a hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would ere now have adopted some means to prevent the abuses existing in this department of the public service. It had been proved in evidence before the lords of the Treasury that the Tax-office, instead of having any control over the collection of the land-tax, did, in fact, possess none whatever; that it knew not what was the specific amount so collected, excepting through information derived from the Exchequer. The consequence of this defective arrangement was, that much larger amounts were raised upon the people, on this tax, than the act under which it was so raised required. No sufficient check, it was pretty clear, therefore, had been provided, to protect the public from error or imposition. In order to satisfy his own mind about the business he had moved for a, variety of returns, some of which only had been made. The others were either incomplete, or had not yet been prepared. Such, however, as had been laid upon the table, showed that in all London, Middlesex, and Westminster, there were only eight districts in which the collections of the land-tax had been made to square, or balance with the quota which was required to be levied from such districts, under the act. The act of parliament in question, (38 George 3rd, c. 60) was very specific in its enactments and directions; and therein the collectors were strictly enjoined to pay over every shilling they raised in virtue thereof, to the receives general of their respective counties or districts; and they were further forbidden, under heavy penalties, to retain in their hands any part of the revenue so raised. Now, the House was doubtless aware, that this revenue was collected by gentleman resident within the district where they were to act, and who were to be remunerated for all services by a certain fixed poundage. All other expenses incidental to the collection were provided, for in specific terms by the statute. For the office of collector of the land-tax, great interest was made; and as much bustle and activity prevailed, generally, when an election took, place, as if, it, was a question of representing a borough or a county in parliament. Whether the gentlemen so elected had given themselves all the necessary trouble in the discharge of their duties, and had paid to it all the requisite attention, he did not know; but certain It was, that in very few instances had they, discharged their duties in a manner consistent with the injunctions of the act of parliament. In the few instances wherein they had executed their offices properly, they had raised larger quotas than those which were fixed and ascertained by the act. Under that act, it must be quite manifest to hon. gentlemen, that the general quota to be raised having been limited and fixed in 1798 by the government, ought always to be the same. As the amount, then, had not hitherto been, and could not, under the statute, hereafter be changed, so the sum to be paid over to the receiver-general ought always to be the same. It was well known, however, that sometimes a large deficiency was experienced upon such sum; and then it, of course, became necessary to add a small proportion to the next assessment in order to cover such loss on the assessment of the preceding year. Now, there was no reason why the grievance of this addition should ever exist at all, if the commissioners of the land-tax did their duty, or if the Tax-office exercised their authority. He mentioned the Tax-office, supposing that board to be good for any thing—but, on the contrary, he was satisfied in his own mind that it was good for nothing. There was not a more useless board in the whole country, except for the purposes of litigious and vexatious proceedings. He contended, that it was the duty of the commissioners, whenever a larger revenue was raised in one year than was due under the quota assigned, to carry the excess to the credit, or in diminution of, the assessment for the next year. In some districts this had actually been done but the general result of the returns in question was, to show, that the collectors had proceeded contrary to the provisions of the act of parliament, and that for the parties aggrieved there was little or no redress. In any other case, almost any man might become a public prosecutor; but in this, which was a case of manifest public and private injury, he could not become a prosecutor, unless he could demonstrate his own immediate personal interest. Until last year it was absolutely hot known that the abuses of which he spoke had any existence. Of their existence, however, no better proof could be adduced than was furnished by one of the returns, attached to which was a note to this effect—"The nett surplus of assessment in any one parish is always Stained in the collector's hands, to be applied in aid of deficiencies in any subse- quent assessment in such parish." On looking further into the return, however, he could not find that such appropriation ever took place. The fact was, as he believed, that it really did not take place; for in another column of the return, the House was actually presented with an account of the way in which this very surplus had been disbursed for expenses and allowances. These disbursements were wholly contrary to the principle of the note itself. Now, every one of these disbursements, moreover, with the exception of expenses for the room in which the commissioners were to meet, was provided for by name in the act of parliament—it was to be paid out of the poundage or rate allowed to the collectors. If that provision was insufficient, there ought to be a new act. He begged leave to cite another instance of the great laxity with which those returns were made. It would be remembered, that he had moved for two returns from the Kensington district. In the first of these, there was a surplus credited, as for the year 1818, of 753l. and another, for the year 1819, of 737l. This was the return in the paper of last year; but in the second paper, the commissioners had returned the surpluses for the same years—the first of them at 976l.; the second at 1,036l.

The hon. gentleman then complained, that balances of 500l., 600l., and 700l., were retained—in some instances, for years together—in the hands of the collectors, in absolute contravention of the act. All this was so hostile to the spirit of this statute, that government; ought to take some measures for the future protection of the public. If the commissioners themselves were to inquire minutely into the collection of the tax, they could not help discovering very great laxity and abuse. At present, individuals had no means of knowing whether the legal quota was exceeded or not in the collection. It was somewhat curious, that though he (Mr. H.) had moved for returns since the year 1800, down to the present time, the order had in very few instances been complied with. To one case it was stated, that the last collector died a few years ago, and his books were not now to be found. But, did not this statement show the necessity of better regulating the whole affair? Though the public were secured, in so far as the act had limited the sum to be raised, it was not enough for any chancellor, of the Ex- chequer to say, "it is sufficient that that sum has been collected;" for this was to leave individuals, however wrongfully assessed, without remedy or protection. The commissioners of the tax were appointed by the lords of the Treasury. He did think, that for their Conduct and actions, they ought in this, as in other respects, to be responsible to the Treasury. Where an excess had been raised, it seemed that the greater part of it had been paid for "allowances and expenses;" but all these were provided for already, out of the poundage of the collectors. From what had been stated, it must be quite clear to the House, that the lords of the Treasury, having taken no steps in the business, with all these facts before them, it was time for parliament to interfere, and put an end to such a system of things. The return given in, instead of being for 20 years, were mostly for 5, 8, or 10; and it this was a deficiency owing to the loss of books and papers, sufficient ground was alleged to show, that as commissioners and collectors, in the course of things, might thus be enabled to play into each other's hands with impunity, some place and arrangement ought to be assigned for the better managing, keeping, and recording such books, accounts, and papers. As far as he could collect, it might be shown, that in 20 years, there had been an excess raised upon the districts of London, Middlesex, and Westminster, amounting in the aggregate to no less than 162,000l. He really wished the House to examine so important a matter as this was, where surpluses of such amount had been in no sufficient way accounted for. He was aware, indeed, that for the last 20 years the public accounts had been very imperfectly kept; but surely here was a subject that loudly demanded investigation. The hon. gentleman then entered into a statement of the substance of his resolutions, observing, that the aggregate deficiency in the course of 20 years, as on the sum accounted for compared with the sum raised, was so large, that he hardly could venture to name it; it appeared to be between 700,000l. and 800,000l. After some further observations on the returns laid on the table, the hon. gentleman expressed his hope, that although it was now too late in the session to enter on an inquiry of such magnitude, hon. members would be disposed to go into it at a very early period of the next session. He then proceeded to call the attention of the House to the great expense of the establishments connected with this tax, and the comparatively small amount of tax redeemed for several years. The expense of redemption and exoneration had been the enormous sum of 388,945l., of which 59,032l. was paid to commissioners for the redemption and exoneration of church and corporation lands. But what he chiefly complained of was, that of this sum not less than 89,604l. was paid to the clerks of commissioners of districts, as allowance for poundage on land-tax redeemed. Now, this large allowance was, he maintained, quite contrary to the intention of the legislature, on the first establishment of this plan. He could not see why this allowance should be given at all. He would mention one case, to show the manner in which some of those clerks of commissioners of districts attended to their duty. There was a gentleman who was clerk to the commissioners of the Kensington division, and likewise to another division, and though he received the poundage of both, he did the duty of neither; and when the board removed him, he complained of having been ill-used; for that he had been 30 years in the situation without having a Complaint made against him, though he had not made out the returns in that time; thus admitting that for all that time he had not known that it was a part of his duty to make such returns. He believed, however, that this practice had not since been remedied. He next called the attention of the House to the expenses of exoneration. The object of the act on this subject was, to exempt certain small church livings, under 100l. yearly value, from land-tax. To show the unnecessary expense that was incurred within a short time under this head, he would mention, that in the year 1820, the amount exonerated, under the direction of the commissioners for exonerating church and corporation lands, was 3l. 17s. 4d., and in 1821, it was only 2l. 7s.; and the expenses of their office during these two years (including 600l. per annum to each of the two acting commissioners, of whom lord Glenbervie was one, and 400l. per annum to a secretary) amounted to no less than 4,662l. 19s. 2d. Now, he would ask, ought such an expense to be allowed to continue? If it was necessary to exempt small livings, why not have the holders of such give notice within a given time, after which the land-tax on them might be abolished, and the expense of the commission saved? This was a subject fully deserving the consideration of ministers, and certainly, if something was not done between this and the next session, to remove this unnecessary expenditure, he should feel it his duty to call the, attention of the House more particularly to it. The hon. member then recapitulated the leading points of his argument, and concluded by oberving, that much of the public money had been already thrown away, by the mode adopted: with respect to this tax, that might have been spared, but that still a very considerable saving might be made to the country, if government would adopt measures for purchasing the remaining land-tax. He then moved the following resolutions:

  1. "1. That, by various returns presented to this House, during the last and present session of parliament, it appears, that the land-tax of England and Wales, made perpetual by the act of 38 Geo. 3rd, c. 60, was fixed at 1,989,673l.: that that amount was received and accounted for in each of the two years 1797 and 1798; and that, in the year ending the 5th of January, 1822, the amount of land-tax received and accounted for was only 1,234,168l., showing a diminution of 755,505l. in the annual receipt.
  2. 2. "That from the period of passing the act of 38 Geo. 3rd, c. 60, to the 5th of January, 1822, the sum of 692,613l. of-land-tax in England and Wales has been redeemed; and under the act of 46 Geo. 3rd, c. 133, and other acts, small livings and charitable institutions have been exonerated from the land-tax, to the amount of 8,801 A, making together the sum of 701,414l. redeemed and exonerated in the 23 years.
  3. 3. "That these returns show an actual reduction between the amount received in. the years 1821 and 1798, in the annual amount of land-tax, of 755,505l., whilst the sums redeemed and exonerated, amount only to 701,414l., making a difference and deficiency of annual land-tax of 54,091l. to be accounted for for.
  4. 4. "That out of the 701,414l. of the land-tax redeemed and exonerated in the 23 years ending the 5th of January, 1822, 660,907l. thereof had been so redeemed and exonerated prior to the 5th of January, 1813, leaving the amount unre- 1468 deemed, and receivable in the year 1813, to be 1,328,766l.; and as the amount, of only 40,507l. was redeemed and exonerated in the nine years, from the 5th of January, 1813, to the 5th of January, 1,822, there remained of the land-tax unredeemed, due, and receivable in England and Wales, in the said nine years, the aggregate sum of 11,708,277l.: whilst, it appears by the returns before this House, as well as by the annual finance accounts that during that period, 10,980,589l. only has been accounted for, showing a defalcation of no less a sum in the aggregate of the nine years, than 728,688l., or an average of 80,965l. per annum; as is more particularly exemplified in the following statement, viz.—

Years ending. Amount redcemed in each year. Amount exonerated in each year. Total redcemed and exfonerated. Leaving the amount un redcemed and receivable in each year. Amount which has been accounted for. (vide no. 240)
£. £. £. £. £.
Dec.1813 6,793 146 6,944 1,321,822 1,272,257
1814 9,459 1,124 10,583 1,311,239 1,261,020
1815 4,835 122 4,957 1,306,282 1,166,164
1816 3,452 ֵ 3,452 1,302,830 1,203,510
1817 3,014 221 3,235 1,299,595 1,210,217
1818 3,900 379 4,279 1,295,116 1,240,535
1819 2,633 167 2,800 1,292,516 1,229,536
1820 2,008 ֵ 2,098 1,290,418 1,163,383
1821 2,155 4 2,159 1,288,259 1,234,168
Total 33,334 2,163 40,507 11,708,277 10,580,589
Amount accounted for 10,980,589 £80,955 per ann. average.
Difference of defalcation 728,688

5. "That, in addition to the defalcation exhibited in the preceding resolutions, it appears, that the expenses incurred under the before-mentioned acts, for the redemption and exoneration of the land-tax, have amounted to the enormous sum of 388,945l. in the proportion of 59,032l. by the commissioners for the redemption and exoneration of church and corporation lands; of 240,399l. by the Tax-office; and of 89,604l. paid to the clerks of the commissioners of districts, as allowance for poundage on land-tax redeemed.

6. "That, in addition to the expenses; incurred, as stated in the preceding resolution, there further appears, at page 204 of, the finance accounts, for the year ending the 5th of January, 1811, the following item: viz. 'To the commissioners, for the redemption of land-tax, &c. by ecclesiastical and corporate bodies,' a charge of 12,000l.; which does not appear to be entered in any of the returns made to parliament which purport to contain an account of all the expenses incurred under the said acts.

7. "That, by a return made to parliament this session, it appears that there has been paid into the receipt of the Exchequer by the receivers-general of land-tax, on account of interest on instalment considerations, and other payments deferred, since the passing of the act of the 38th of Geo. 3rd. c. 60, to the 5th of January, 1823, the sum of 211,547l.; whilst only 75,968l. appear to have been accounted for in the finance accounts annually laid before parliament.

8. "That whilst in the nine years from the 5th of January, 1813, to the 5th of January, 1822, the total amount of tax redeemed and exonerated has been only 40,507l. the expenses in the same period have amounted to no less a sum than 82,487l. exclusive of 38,949l. paid to clerks of districts for poundage on land- tax, after it had been redeemed.

9. "That although the amount exonerated under the direction of the com missioners for the redemption and exoneration of church and corporation lands in the year 1820, was only 3l. 17s. 4d. and in 1821, only 2l. 7s. and the expenses of their office during those two years, (including 600l. per annum each to two acting commissioners, and 400l. per annum to a secretary) amounted to no less a sum than 4,662l. 19s. 2d., yet it does not appear that his majesty's ministers have taken any measures to free the public from so great and unnecessary a charge."

On the first resolution being put,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that having been favoured with a sight of the resolutions, he did not expect that their discussion could have called for such observations as those in which the hon. member had indulged, with respect to the disbursements made by the commissioners of land-tax out of the public money. If there were any such as he had mentioned, no doubt it was wrong; but the hon. member must be aware that those commissioners were appointed by act of parliament, and were hot under the control of the Treasury. It could not, therefore, be expected that government could be prepared to answer upon those points, Leaving them, them, he would come to the resolutions; and he trusted, that in a few words he should show that they ought not to be adopted by the House. In the first resolution the hon. member stated, "that the land-tax of England and Wales, made perpetual by the act 38th Geo. 3rd. was fixed at 1,989,673l. Now it was true that by the act passed in 1797, this sum was named; but that act was called, the annual Land-tax act. In the year 1798 another act was passed, which made the land-tax perpetual. This act assumed as its basis the sum of 1,989,673l. but a clause was introduced which left out the tax on pensions and offices, which were not made perpetual. The sum thus left but was 127,000l. The net of 60th Geo. 3rd was the same as the act of 1797, minus the 127,000l. which was not perpetual, but regulated by an annual act. The amount of this sum varied in different years, and it was reduced from 151,000l. at which it stood in 1808, to 39,000l. which was its amount in 1820. Here the hon. gentleman had, in the outset, made a most erroneous calculation, and the whole of his deductions founded upon it were consequently erroneous. With respect to the expense, the right hon. gentleman contended that the sum of 398,945l. the expense of collection and management, was by no means money thrown away; for the country had already gained 1,500,000l. by the operation of the act. He would admit, however, that some of the expenses were worthy of the consideration of government, in order to see how far they could be reduced. He would admit, that the amount of exoneration within the last two years was small; but the House would recollect, that the commissioners had a very extensive and delicate correspondence to maintain, and that great discretion was vested in them. At the same time, he would have no objection to inquire how far it might be necessary to continue the establishment permanently. But the hon. member would bear in mind, that all those commissioners exercised their functions under the authority of an act of parliament, and that it was not in the power of the Treasury to displace them without the introduction of a legislative measure. The Treasury, however, had shown no disposition to fill up the vacancies which had occurred. In conclusion, he said, he should feel it his duty to inquire into the facts, how much better the duty might be performed, and with what diminution of expense to the public; but beyond that inquiry, he would not pledge himself at present.

Mr. Maberly,

after suggesting to his hon. friend to withdraw the resolutions as they were founded on an erroneous assumption, observed, that if those commissioners were not under the control of the Treasury, it was high time that they should be, or that the House should take the subject into its own hands. He was of opinion, that the best way would be to leave the subject to his majesty's ministers, who were the fittest to examine into it; but, if something was not done in it early in the next session, he hoped his hon. friend would bring it again before the notice of the House.

Mr. Hume

said, that as his object had been for the present answered, by calling the attention of ministers to the subject, he would, with the leave of the House, withdraw his resolutions.

The resolutions were accordingly with drawn.