HC Deb 07 August 1833 vol 20 cc414-27

Lord Althorp moved the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of supply.

Mr. Hume

would take that opportunity of bringing forward the Motion of which he had given notice. He could assure the House that, in offering himself to its notice at that moment he felt he was doing that which, no doubt, many Members would think unnecessary after the decisions to which the House had already come with respect to the House and Window-tax. But he would admit, that he was not altogether in a situation in which he could wholly judge for himself. A large and highly respectable portion of his constituents felt, that they were placed by the course which Government had adopted in a situation, to justify them n again calling upon the House to re-consider some of its proceedings in which their interests had not been sufficiently attended to. The noble Lord (Lord Althorp) had in an early period of the Session admitted the severe pressure of the House and Window-tax, and expressed himself favourable to the repeal of the whole as soon as the financial circumstances of the country would permit, but that at present it was impossible to dispense with so large an amount of taxation. After that declaration of the noble Lord, and after the decisions to which the House had come on the subject, he (Mr. Hume) should not have felt it necessary to urge the matter again on its consideration if, as he had said, a great number of his constituents had not pressed upon him a subject which he fully admitted deserved the serious consideration of the House—namely, the great inequality, and therefore the great unfairness and injustice, with which the House-tax particularly fell upon them as compared with its pressure upon other parts of the community, not only in the metropolis, but in other parts of the kingdom. The noble Lord had at one time proposed to give relief as to the House-tax to the extent of 300,000l. of its amount; but some change was for a time made in his plan by the decision to which the House had come with respect to the Malt-tax. That decision was, however, subsequently set aside, in the fear that it would induce the necessity of imposing a Property-tax. The people, however, were in that state that they thought the whole of the tax on houses ought to be taken off. The whole amount was about 1,250,000l., and of this the noble Lord consented to give up about 470,000l.; but the complaint against the tax was not so much as to its amount as to its mode of collection, and the unequal manner in which it was levied. That mode and that inequality were the constant sources of annoyance and irritation to a large majority of those who were called on to pay it; and it was on that ground that he would press it on the attention of the noble Lord. It would, he thought, be difficult to point out any tax in the whole range of taxation which was more unequal in its operation than that to which he now referred. He would state a few examples taken from returns lately placed on the table of the House, showing the comparative amount of rating on 100 of the highest rated houses of persons not engaged in trade, in London, in Middlesex, Brighton, Bath, Bristol, and in ten counties in England. From these it would appear that the pressure of this tax was most unequal, and he held that every tax which pressed unequally was unjust. From the returns to which he had referred, it appeared that the House of the Duke of Devonshire in the county of Derby, which everybody knew was a most splendid mansion, was rated at only 100l. a-year, and paid a House-duty of no more than 14l. 3s. 4d. Lord Scarsdale's house, Kedleston Hall, was rated at the same amount, and paid the same tax. The house of the Earl of Harrington was rated at only 60l. That of the Earl of Chesterfield paid little more. The Earl of New-burgh's was rated at only 60l., while his (Mr. Hume's) own house, in Bryanstonsquare, which was only a very moderately sized house, was rated at 350l.; so that, in fact, he had to pay about five times as much House-duty as the owners of those splendid residences which he had named. In other parts of the country the disproportion in the rating was equally evident. The splendid residence of Sir Thomas Baring was rated at only 150l.; that of the Earl of Carnarvon at no more than 80l. The hon. Member went through a list of houses, in order to show the great inequality of the tax. London paid about half the amount of House-duty raised in all England. In 1792, the tax amounted to 192,000l.; in 1815, the sum raised had increased to 1,088,000l.; in 1820, it was 1,156,000l.; and last year it reached 1,296,000l.; these were the amounts levied in England. In Scotland, the tax amounted in 1792 only to 6,703l.; in 1815, it had risen to 73,500l.; in 1820, it was 86,700l.; and, 1832, 94,700l. The progressive increase of the tax would be perceived from this statement. He had further to complain that the tax was not equally imposed on different parts of the kingdom. The House-tax was laid on in Ireland in 1808, and taken off in 1817, and the Window-tax was remitted in that country in 1823–4. In addition to those indulgences, we were now going to pay tithes for Ireland. Was it to be supposed that the English people would be satisfied with such a course. The value of property in London, more especially House-property, had decreased up to the present time, in a greater ratio than in other parts of the country. The observation applied with particular force to the eastern part of London—for instance, the Tower Hamlets. This tax, which had been borne cheerfully in times of prosperity, now fell heavily upon the inhabitants in their depressed condition, and threatened to depopulate that part of the town. Under such circumstances, it was equally the duty and policy of Ministers to relax the burthens of the people. The pressure of the tax in question fell with peculiar weight on the Metropolitan districts. According to a paper which he held in his hand, and which contained statements that varied little, if at all, from those made by the right hon. Secretary to the Treasury a short time ago, it appeared, that Middlesex stood first in the amount of House and Window-duty paid in 1832. In that year, there was paid in Middlesex alone, on account of the taxes specified, 1,039,878l. Surrey came next—its payment being 192,000l. With the exception of York and Lancaster, the other English counties paid comparatively trifling sums. Thus it appeared that the question of relief from the tax related more especially to the metropolitan districts. In no other place could relief be more required. The retail shops, that had hitherto paid the greater proportion of the rates, had gradually been deprived of their custom by the establishment of immense houses, which carried on business to the extent of some millions in the year. The profits of retail dealers were lessened, and the business formerly divided among a considerable number was now confined to a few. Under such circumstances, the pressure of a tax like the present was most severely felt. A question had arisen as to the party who paid the tax; some maintaining that it was paid by the landlord, others that the burthen was borne by the tenant. The question did not appear to him very material. He thought, that at the present moment, the tax fell upon the landlord: when houses were in demand, undoubtedly it fell upon the tenant. He considered the impost to operate as a Property-tax of 14½ per cent, upon houses, from which other species of property were exempt. Whether the tax fell upon landlord or tenant, or was divided between both, relief was loudly demanded by considerations of justice and policy. The number of inhabited houses in Great Britain was 2,326,000. of which 369,163 were rated to the House-tax. Farmhouses, to a very considerable number, were exempt. He objected to the exemption, and contended, that if this were a Property-tax, it ought to be general. But the tax proceeded on no intelligible principle—it was objectionable as being unequally levied and partially applied. Taking the general house rental at 11,000,000l., it would be found that London, Middlesex, and Surrey, paid House-tax upon 6,170,000l., considerably more than half of the entire rental. The alterations about to be made in the trade with India, taken in connexion with other commercial changes, must tend to impoverish the metropolis, and upon that ground, if not on any other, the inhabitants were entitled to every indulgence. The tax of which he complained was not only partial and unequal, but, in the highest degree, vexatious. No other tax was levied under such aggravating circumstances. The surveyors or assessors had an interest in raising the assessment as high as possible, and they were so situated as scarcely to be exempt from the influence of the wealthy in their respective districts. It followed as a matter of course that the wealthy were favoured. In Middlesex alone 3,637l. was paid to the surveyors for surcharges in 1830; in 1826, the sum paid on the same account was 3,498l. An aggregate sum of 27,339l. was paid on account of surcharges in 1830 as a premium to men acting in the capacity of spies. Every surveyor who could make out a surcharge of 100l. obtained 20l. for himself. He must call it an absurd tax, as long as the Duke of Devonshire's splendid palace at Chatsworth was valued at 100l., while a small shop in the Strand was rated at twice the amount. The amount of surcharges in eight years, from 1820 to 1829, was 677,000l. (there being no return for 1821 or 1822); which gave an average of 85,000l. for each year. Since the passing of the Reform Bill he had reason to believe, that the average of surcharge was double the former amount. 2,379 persons were surcharged in London and Middlesex in the year ending April, 1832. Many persons (particular professional men) paid the surcharges, however unjust, rather than attend for the purpose of resisting them. Such proceedings must give rise to great dissatisfaction; and it was unwise to continue a tax which excited such strong objections among the community at large. To insist upon the tax under such circumstances was running the risk of losing the whole of it—as in the case of tithes in Ireland. In some parishes resolutions had been proposed, pledging the inhabitants not to pay Assessed Taxes; and he called upon the noble Lord (Althorp) to reflect upon this, and decline to persist in enforcing an unpopular tax. The Revenue would not lose the whole amount of the tax, should it be remitted, the deficiency being made up in part, if not altogether, by an increase in other branches of the Revenue. Such had been the result in former cases of reduction of taxation, and, no doubt, the same thing would happen again if the House-duty were taken off. The reduction for which he asked would not occasion a diminution of more than 500,000l. in the Revenue; he put it to the noble Lord, whether it was worth his while to contend against the united feelings of the inhabitants of the Metropolis for the sake of a few hundred thousand pounds, particularly at a time when the Government had given millions to the colonies and Ireland. It might be said, that this was a late period of the Session to propose reductions; but was it too lute to practise economy? It was never too late to vote away money, as appeared by the Bill granting 20,000,000l. to the planters, which had only just left the House. The House had voted 89,760 men for the army, although the number in 1822 was only 68,802; 12,237 for the artillery (one-third of which force might be dispensed with); and 28,75,9 for the navy, the number in 1822 being 21,000. In these three items alone the noble Lord, might without difficulty, make reductions sufficient to cover the proposed remission of taxation. The circumstances connected with the state of Turkey, and Holland, and Belgium, which might have justified us in maintaining a large fleet and army, had now passed away; and the time was favourable for reduction. The people expected relief from taxation, though he acknowledged that, from the period of the accession to office of the present Ministers up to January last, upwards of 2,500,000l. had been taken off. What might have been done since January he could not exactly say, but doubted not that the amount of reduction would appear considerable. There were, however, yet a great number of items of expense, in which reductions might be made so as to admit of remissions of taxation. Government might deal with pensions and sinecures on a much more extensive scale. The expenses of Courts of Justice (987,476l. per annum), which were incurred without administering equal and effectual justice to the great mass of the community, might be considerably lessened. He might here observe, that he did not object so much to the expense of our judicial system, as to its inequality and inefficiency. He regretted that a Bill recently proposed, which would have carried justice to every man's door, had not become the law. The expense of the diplomatic service for 1832 was 330,000l., and, of that, not less than 150,000l. might be dispensed with. The miscellaneous estimates came to 1,800,000l., in which considerable reductions might be made. Assuming that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would agree to the proposed remission of the House-duty, the noble Lord would not require the money till the end of next year, as the Assessed-taxes of the year were always in arrear: under these circumstances, there would be plenty of time to provide for the deficiency by reductions in the next Session of Parliament. He asked the noble Lord to take off the tax prospectively from the 5th of October. The noble Lord had stated, that the Revenue was in an improving state, and that the improvement was likely to continue. In this he agreed with the noble Lord; being satisfied, if the people were employed and fairly remunerated, as he trusted they would be, that the Revenue must go on increasing; and he, therefore, apprehended no danger of a deficiency in the Exchequer from the adoption of his proposition. He must again remind the noble Lord of the objectionable nature of the tax, the expectations entertained that it would be remitted, and the disappointment which must result from its maintenance. He meant to propose, that a Committee of the whole House should be formed to consider the Assessed-taxes Act, with a view to a Resolution declaratory of an intention to repeal the House-duty. That would be all that would be at present required to satisfy the people. He was convinced that the noble Lord could adopt the proposition without danger to the Exchequer, without impairing the efficiency of the public service, or risking a violation of the public faith; and he was also convinced, that the noble Lord could not oppose the proposition without some danger. The hon. Member moved, accordingly, that the House resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House.

Colonel Evans

seconded the Motion; and observed, that it might be disputed whether the House-duty was a Property-tax or not, but it could not be denied that it was an unequal tax on industry. As an unjust and an unequal Property-tax, which he maintained it to be, no less than it was a war-tax, he opposed its continuance. If a Property-tax were established, it should embrace all the fixed property of the country, land as well as houses. Some contended that a Property-tax ought to extend to capital in the public funds, while others denied that proposition. But, however that might be, there could be no doubt that a Property-tax ought to be discontinued in reference to houses, or else such a tax ought to be applied to land. He pressed upon the noble Lord that, if the tax must be continued, at least it was not too late to correct the gross irregularities and inequalities that existed in its application. He had heard of an instance of two houses of business at Liverpool being rated at 350l. or 380l. a-year, while the splendid mansions of noblemen in the immediate neighbourhood were rated considerably lower. The instances of unequal and disproportionate assessment were so well known and so numerous that it would be tedious and unnecessary to dwell upon them. He would mention the case of a small house, next to Northumberland-house, which occupied a space of fourteen feet by twelve, and paid a rate that, computed on the ground it covered, amounted to 7s. a-foot, whilst Northumberland-house was only rated at 4d. a-foot. It was true, that by the Bill passed last night partially relaxing the Assessed-taxes, the rate upon the small house in question would be reduced to 3s. 6d. a-foot. Still the inequality between it and Northumberland-house would be immense. In case the Motion of his hon. friend should be negatived, he would move two Resolutions—the one to the effect that all taxes should be justly and equally applied; and the second that the House-duty in particular, and the Window-duty in a lesser degree, as at present assessed, were levied and recovered from individuals, towns, and districts, in a most grievous, unequal, unjust, and oppressive manner.

Lord Althorp

said, that he did not see how it was possible to introduce anything of novelty into a discussion of this kind, as this was the fourth time that the question had been under the consideration of the House during the present Session. The first discussion was upon a general Motion brought forward by the hon. member for Worcester; there was another discussion on it on a Motion brought forward by one of the honorable members for the city of London; there was a third discussion of it upon a Motion introduced by the hon. member for Marylebone; and now it was for the fourth time brought under discussion on the Motion of the hon. member for Middlesex. Seeing, therefore, that the question had been so repeatedly discussed during the present Session, he did not think that much novelty of argument was to be anticipated on it, or that the House could expect much novelty in what he (Lord Althorp) had to say on the subject. His hon. friend had said, that this tax had formed the subject of very general complaint. He did not deny that,—especially the surcharges connected with it; and yet a great reduction had been made in the amount of the tax from 1822 to 1825. During that time there had been the extraordinary number of 643,240 houses left out of the assessment; so that, in point of fact, the number of houses subject to the tax in 1822 was, 999,880, and in 1825 that number was reduced to 348,855; so considerable had been the reduction which had been made in the number of houses taxed. He was ready to admit that one effect of this tax was—that it pressed heavier upon the metropolis than it did upon the country districts, and for this, amongst other reasons, that being a tax merely upon the rental of the house, without reference to the land attached to it, the rental of houses in Town was much higher in proportion (and the tax of course proportionally heavier) than that of similar houses in the country. He was also ready to allow, that there were circumstances at present in the existing posture of affairs that might render the metropolitan districts less prosperous, and therefore less able to bear the burthen of this tax, than they had heretofore been. There might be a tendency in some of the new measures that were in progress—in that especially which regarded the East-India Company—to diminish for a time the prosperity of at least one portion of those districts; and they might therefore, on that account, seek for the reduction of this tax, which pressed peculiarly upon them. But it should not be forgotten, that with regard to one impost greater relief had been within the last few years afforded to the metropolis than to other parts of the country—he alluded to the reduction of the Coal-tax, a very large proportion of which was levied upon the metropolitan districts. From that tax they had been relieved. His hon friend seemed to think, that the same objection applied to a House-tax as to a Property tax, but his hon. friend was mistaken in that opinion. The objection to a Property tax—the objection on the ground of which that tax was abolished in 1816—was of quite a different description, and could not be applied at all to the House-tax. His hon. friend had complained of the severe nature of the revenue laws, with respect to the collection of this tax. He (Lord Al thorp) was afraid that whatever system of taxation should be adopted, it would be necessary to have severe revenue laws in existence, in order to enforce the payment of such taxes when due. Mere justice to those who willingly paid their proportion of the public taxes required the strict enforcement of their payment from all. Could any laws be more severe, and necessarily severe, than the excise laws? He would admit, that the system of surcharges was one that had caused great vexation, and he would only say, that, as far as he could, he wished to discourage the system of vexatious surcharges. The House, however, must be aware that it was almost impossible for a person filling the situation he did to throw such a discouragement upon the officers of the revenue as might tend to render them remiss in the discharge of their duties. He was ready to admit that, under the present system of surcharges, the pay of the surveyors was made too much to depend upon the amount of the surcharges. He hoped, that an arrangement would be made with regard to the collection of the Assessed Taxes, so that surveyors would be made to depend more upon a fixed annual income for their remuneration than upon the amount of surcharges. This tax could not be defended as a good thing in itself—it could only be defended as necessary to keep up the amount of the revenue required to meet the expenditure of the country. His hon. friend had quoted the estimate which he (Lord Althorp) had made in bringing forward the budget, of the probable amount of surplus revenue at the end of the year, as if it was to be assumed as the actual amount that would be found to exist then. The estimate of surplus revenue which he (Lord Althorp) had then made was, he believed, the lowest that had ever been made by any person filling the situation that he did as an estimate for the future year; and since it had been made the abolition of a portion of the House-tax had considerably diminished the amount of surplus which he had calculated upon. In making his financial statement, he had calculated the amount to be deducted from the revenue in consequence of the partial abolition of the House-tax, to which he had alluded, at 100,000l.; but, according to the statement of his hon. friend, which he did not believe to be exaggerated, the amount of reduction which would be effected by the Bill passed last night would approach to nearly 500,000l. The surplus revenue therefore at the end of the year would be pro tanto smaller than he had estimated it at. As far as the revenue had gone at present, he was happy to say, that it had gone on fairly and well. With the reduction of taxes that had taken place, it could not be expected to go on as well as it had last year; but it had, however, gone on fairly and well; and he was pretty confident that the surplus would, at the end of the year, come up to the amount at which he had calculated it. He did not think, however, that it could possibly be safe at the present time to calculate so precisely the amount of revenue that would then accrue, as to come to the determination that a particular tax should cease in the course of next year. His hon. friend had gone into the question of the supplies that had been recently voted by the House, and he had argued, that as considerable reductions might be made in those supplies next year, this tax could then he spared. Looking at the general state of affairs at present, he certainly had sanguine hopes that the country would be enabled to make considerable reductions in its military establishments in the course of next year. He hoped, also, that in pursuance of measures which would be brought forward, it would be in his power to make some considerable reductions in the expenses attendant upon the collection of the revenue; and he would only add, that the constant efforts of the Government would be directed to effect every reduction that possibly could be effected in every other branch of the public expenditure. But, notwithstanding that, he did not think that at the present time it would be safe to calculate precisely upon what the amount of reduction would be before they knew what reductions could really be made. He therefore trusted, that the House would not assent to the proposition which his hon. friend had brought forward at the present time. His hon. friend said, that the plan contained in the Bill which was passed last night was one that it would be extremely difficult to carry into effect. He could assure his hon. friend, that there would not be the slightest difficulty in carrying it into effect, as the difficulties specified in it were such as were well known to all collectors of taxes. He had, upon three or four occasions, stated the principles upon which he thought the taxation of the country ought to be levied. In the statement which he then made, he said, that he would prefer a direct tax of this nature to a tax that would press upon the industry of the manufactures of the country; considering that the pressure and operation of the former were by no means so injurious as that of the latter burthen to the general interests. He had then also stated that there was one ground on which the Government ought to look to a tax, in order to consider whether it should be reduced—namely, as to the question of its popularity or unpopularity. With regard to the question of popularity however, he feared that no taxes would be found to be popular, but he was ready to admit, that the unpopularity of this particular tax was excessive and extreme at the present moment. He was fairly ready to say, therefore, that though, if left to his own opinion, and acting upon the financial principles which he entertained, he would not select this tax as one of the first that he would propose to reduce; yet, looking at the views of the country on the subject, he did think that it would be the duty of Government, whenever it should be enabled to do so, to reduce this tax, and that whenever its place could be supplied, either by some different arrangement of the Assessed Taxes, or by the substitution of some other tax, the tax upon houses ought to be reduced. He believed that he had said more now than he had ever before at any time stated on this subject. On the ground, then, that he had mentioned, not on account of the nature of the tax, but considering the unpopularity of it, and that the extreme unpopularity of any tax was a reason for the Government looking to it, for the purpose of reducing it, he was prepared to go as far as he had just stated. But he was not prepared to say at the present moment that a certain reduction should hereafter take place, so as to sink the revenue below the expenditure, before he knew what the revenue would be, and before other taxes could be supplied to maintain it above the expenditure. He must therefore oppose the Motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. Alderman Wood

, as a proof of the inequality of the tax, referred to the Bank of England, which, while it charged the public 40,000l. a-year as its rental, was only rated under this tax at a rental of 5,000l. a-year. It was a tax the injurious effects of which had been felt throughout the metropolis. One of the effects of it in the City of London was, that houses were now let for two-thirds less than they were seven years ago; and in the great thoroughfares of Fleet-street and Cheapside every fourth house was at present unlet. If the Motion went to a division, he would certainly vote for it.

Sir Samuel Whalley

was glad to hear, that the time would shortly come when this tax would be abolished. He did not know what new circumstances had arisen, as regarded the revenue of the country, since the noble Lord had resisted his (Sir Samuel Whalley's) Motion this Session for the abolition of this tax, to induce the noble Lord now to promise its reduction. The Government had since that time given 20,000,000l. to the West-India proprietors, and 1,000,000l. to the people who had resisted tithes in Ireland ["No."]. He was aware, that at present it was a loan, but the Treasury had the knack of converting a loan into a grant. He was glad to find that the Government was at length obliged to yield to the unpopularity of this tax. He, for one, would wish to see it abolished immediately. He would vote for the Motion.

Mr. Hume

said, he wished to know whether he understood the noble Lord to state, that considering the extreme unpopularity of this tax, he thought it was one that the Government should look to as the first to be reduced in the next Session of Parliament, its place to be supplied either by a corresponding reduction of expenditure, or by the substitution of some other tax? [Lord Althorp was understood to answer affirmatively.] Under such circumstances, anxious as he might be to press his Motion, he felt it his duty to withdraw it.

Motion withdrawn.

Colonel Evans moved the second Resolution of which he had given notice declaratory of the injustice and inequality of the House and Window-tax.

Lord Althorp

said, he was not prepared to agree to such a Motion at present, as, if it were carried, it would be absolutely necessary to go further than it did, and abolish the tax at once.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

begged to say a word in explanation as to what had been stated by his hon. friend, the member for the City of London, with respect to the Bank of England. The Bank of England paid to this tax as much as it was liable to pay by law, for though the value of the rental of the building was calculated at 40,000l. per annum, yet there were only four or five inhabited houses which were occupied by officers of the establishment, and which were detached from the building itself. He fully concurred in thinking that the manner in which these taxes were levied was extremely partial. He could show that individuals employed in Government situations had perverted their powers in respect to these taxes, and lent themselves to an interference with the freedom of election. On the ground alone of the tax being used for such a purpose, he was of opinion it ought to be repealed.

The Resolution negatived.

The House resolved itself into a Committee of

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