HC Deb 11 May 1840 vol 53 cc1367-9
Sir Robert Peel

had given notice of a question which he intended to put to the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Attorney-general, on a matter of very great importance, and which referred principally to an impost levied in this country of not less than seven millions a year. It appeared that the sum raised annually for poor-rates and county-rates might be taken at six millions, and the highway and other rates at 1,100,000l. a year; and, consequently, upon an average of three years, there had been seven millions raised yearly upon these imposts. The question he had to put was, upon what principle was that impost to be assessed? He thought that, in consequence of the conflicting decisions of the Court of Queen's Bench, and the almost known illegality of every rate that was made, Parliament ought not to separate without giving a practical answer to this question. At present, the utmost doubt arose as to the validity of any rate that might be imposed, and this would be proved by a short reference to the circular published by the Poor-law Commissioners. The Court of Queen's Bench had lately decided, that stock in trade ought to be rated, and the Poor-law. Commissioners had given notice to the country that no rate would be valid, or, at least, that any rate which did not include stock in trade was liable to be appealed against; on the other hand, it appeared that it was almost impossible properly to rate stock in trade, [cheers.] He was glad to hear by those cheers, that the hon. Gentleman and his friends were aware of the importance of this question, and if the proposition he had laid down were granted, it followed as a necessity that there could be no validity in any rate. An official publication, a kind of circular, had been put forth by the Poor-law Commissioners, containing much useful instruction on many matters which were the subject of the law, and this circular was taken as the guide by the subordinate authorities relative to the mode of administering the law. In this circular it was stated, that on the 6th of March last, the Poor-law Commissioners gave notice, that since the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench, in the case of the Queen v. Lumsdaine, there remained no longer any doubt as to the liability of stock in trade to be rated, and that every rate might be successfully appealed against, if any inhabitant having productive stock in trade were not rated for it. The circular then proceeded to say, that a rate in respect of stock in trade could only be made upon such persons as were actually inhabitants, so that a large proportion of the property in every place, which belonged to persons who were not resident, was not liable to be rated. The Commissioners further stated, that it was not all the productive stock in trade which an inhabitant possessed that was liable to be rated. Suppose, then, the parish officers included the stock in trade of the resident inhabitants, what would be the consequence? It was only the clear liquidated surplus, after payment of all the owner's debts, that was liable; and it was decided in the case of Rex v. White, that personal property must not be rated at random, and that the overseers must be able to prove its exact amount. So that the parochial officers must find out the exact liability of the parties before they could enforce a rate. Besides, Lord Mansfield, in another case, laid it down, that personal property was only the surplus after paying the owner's debts, a proper sum for the maintenance of his family, and also other necessary expenses; and if a parish officer made a rate, not properly apportioning the sum after ascertaining these particulars, that rate was liable to be appealed against just as much as if the property had not been included at all. Such was the present state of the law with respect to an annual impost amounting to seven millions, and he thought that by this simple statement, he had clearly established the absolute necessity of preventing the confusion that must arise by a distinct declaration of the law. He would therefore ask, whether it were the intention of her Majesty's Government to recommend Parliament to interfere, and pass a measure to reconcile the conflicting decisions of the Court of Queen's Bench, and to satisfy the public mind upon the point, whether stock in trade ought to be rated?

The Attorney General

said, that since the right hon. Baronet had given notice of his question, it had unfortunately hap- pened, that he had not been able to consult with his noble Friend at the head of her Majesty's Government in that House, but he felt no difficulty in stating his own opinion, and explaining the advice which he would certainly give, and which he had no doubt would be followed. He thought that a bill ought to be introduced immediately to apply a remedy. There was no doubt that ever since the statute of the 43d Eliz. the stock in trade was liable to be rated, and that such stock in trade must belong to inhabitants who were resident. But such were the difficulties attending the assessment, that throughout almost all the parishes in England the rating had fallen into disuse. The law remained, however, as he had stated; lately there was an appeal against the rate, in which he had the honour to appear as counsel, and the court decided, as he had anticipated, that a rate omitting the stock in trade was bad. Such a state of the law ought not to continue, for it forced a most inquisitorial research into the private affairs of individuals, and his recommendation would be, either that a separate bill should be introduced, or that a clause should be inserted in some bill during its progress through the House, to make that custom which had prevailed by universal consent a part of the law, and to declare that stock in trade should not be rated to the poor rates, and, consequently, not to the county rate, or any other rate.