HC Deb 11 February 1824 vol 10 cc134-7
Mr. Hume

rose to move for several returns, with a view of bringing the subject of the Legacy Duties under the consideration of the House at a future period. The right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer had, he said, shewn an anxiety to place commercial regulations on a footing of sounder policy than had been hitherto acquiesced in, and he trusted that he would not deem the subject to which he now adverted unworthy of his attention. Legacy taxes had been admitted by all who had written on the subject, to be taxes on the capital of the country, and they ought, therefore, to be repealed at as early a period as possible. The extent to which these taxes were levied, was not perhaps generally known. He had moved last year for returns of the amount of nett revenue derived from probates and administrations of wills, and the House would perhaps be surprised to learn that from the year 1797 to the year 1806, no less a sum than 22,124,000l. had been levied from the public in the legacy duties, which, upon sound principles of political economy, might be considered as so much taken from the capital of the country. The amount of legacy duties for the year 1822 was 1,000,793l., and one of the objects of his present motion was, to obtain the return for the year 1823, in order to ascertain the amount of capital taken annually from the public. There was another circumstance to which he wished to call the attention of the House. Not only was this tax pernicious and impolitic in itself, but, from some neglect on the part of the public officers, the mode of levying it was extremely vexatious to the public. It had recently come to his knowledge, that claims of 12, 14, and 15 years standing had been made upon the public, for duties on the probate and administration of wills. A gentleman told him yesterday of a case in which an individual, who was the fourth in succession to whom the property devolved, had been obliged to pay 80l. legacy duty, the original executor and the two succeeding executors having died without any notice to pay the duties being given, and a period of upwards of twenty years having elapsed. If the government suffered arrears to accrue in this manner from the neglect and carelessness of its own officers, the public ought not to be subjected to those harassing and vexatious claims. If individuals were prevented by the statute of limitations from recovering a debt unless claimed within a given period, the government ought not to possess the right of harassing individuals, after a lapse of seven years, for arrears which had not been claimed, through the neglect of the public officers. Another object of his present motion was, to obtain a return of the number of probates and administrations which had beep taken out in England in the last three years, and of the number of inventories, as they were termed, which had been taken out in Scotland. It ought to be known, that by law, the officer was bound to report the probate from Doctors' Commons within fourteen days from the time of administration, yet, for some reasons for which he could not account, and for which he believed there was no excuse, six weeks generally elapsed before the probate was reported. A case had been mentioned to him, yesterday, of a gentleman who had come up to London, from a considerable distance, to administer to a large property, and who wished to pay the legacy duty before he returned into the country. He was told, however, at the Stamp Office, that he could not do this, until the probate was reported from Doctors' Commons, and he was obliged to wait five or six weeks before he was allowed to pay the tax. This was a grievance which ought undoubtedly to be redressed; since it was the interest of the public that taxes should be paid as speedily as possible, and that no impediment should be thrown in the way of their payment. He was quite satisfied that the chancellor of the exchequer would see the necessity of remedying this inconvenience, and that he would also acquiesce in the expediency of limiting the period at which the public should be liable to claims for arrears of legacy duties. He concluded by moving for "a return of the amount of revenue derived from the stamp duties on legacies, probates, administrations, and testamentary inventories, in the year 1823, for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

had no objection to the motion of the hon. gentleman, and he did not think it necessary, on the present occasion, to trouble the House with any observations on the general question of the policy of legacy duties. The House would naturally see that this was a subject of very considerable importance, affecting, as it did, a revenue of not less than a million per annum. With respect, however, to the particular point to which the hon. member had adverted, namely, the grievance to which individuals were exposed in consequence of being called upon to pay arrears of legacy duty, which had not been claimed for many years, he was ready to admit that some strong cases of hardship had been brought under his notice. These cases had arisen, not from any disposition in the parties to evade the payment of the legacy duties, but from the imperfect provisions of the law at its first enactment, and the imperfect regulations under which the law had been acted upon, so that that notice had not been given which every public body, whose duty it was to collect taxes, was bound to give. In the year 1812, many alterations and improvements in the mode of collecting the legacy duties had been adopted, the result of which was, that every person now received a fair and immediate notice of the amount of duty he had to pay. It was perfectly true that the officers, acting under the new system, had called upon parties to pay arrears of legacy duty, which had not been claimed under the old regulations, and this was no doubt in some instances, a grievance, because the executors, who were in strictness of law liable to pay, might not be liable to find the legatees. The Treasury had, however taken steps, which he trusted would effectually remove all cause of complaint on this subject.

The motion was agreed to.