HC Deb 02 June 1847 vol 93 cc5-11

MR. P. SCROPE moved the Second Reading of the Poor and Highway Rates Exemption Bill. The hon. Member said, the principle of the exemption of poor persons from local taxation was generally adopted in this country, and was well understood. It was applied to all direct and personal taxation. So long as the house tax lasted it was not levied upon persons occupying houses under 5l. per year rent, and the existing window tax did not apply to houses containing under a certain number of windows. The property and income tax, in like manner, was only levied upon persons whose income exceeded a certain amount. The principle, therefore, of exemption in certain cases applied both to local and general taxation. With regard to local taxation, the principle had no novelty whatever, and all he desired was to vary and improve the mode of its application. The Act of the 43rd Elizabeth, which provided for the relief of the poor, professed to rate individuals not according to their property, hut according to their means; and as a ready standard of their means it took the value of their occupation. This standard was no doubt imperfect, though for a long time it had answered the purpose; hut in carrying out the principle it had been generally found expedient to exempt the poor from its operation. The Legislature, in consequence, affirmed the principle that rates ought not to he collected from the extreme poor, and accordingly the poorer classes of occupiers were excused the payment of rates by the Act 54 George III., c. 70. But the exemption was effected in a form that rendered it exceedingly inconvenient; for the Act provided that upon the representation of churchwardens and overseers, justices should he empowered to exempt occupiers, upon the ground of poverty, from the payment of local rates. Under this Act, as might he supposed, a great number of persons and a vast mass of property had been released from the charge. But it had been effected in a manner most inconvenient to the magistrates, the overseers, and the poor themselves. There were always a great number of persons in poor circumstances certainly, but in whose cases it was extremely doubtful whether there ought to he exemption or otherwise. In such cases there was invariably a struggle between the officers and the party; and when the appeal was made to the magistrates, there was not only much trouble, but great annoyance, expense, loss of time, and liability to abuse. He proposed, therefore, to carry out the principle of exemption in a form which would at once be safe, convenient, and practical, by enacting, as in other instances, that the liability to poor and highway rates should be in proportion to the amount of occupation. In other words, he proposed to affirm that the principle on which these rates were collected, should be the principle upon which they ought to be excused. This Bill, then, would exempt only the cottages of the poor from local taxation. Stock in trade and funded property were not liable to local rates; and he could not see by what argument of justice it could be shown that the cottage of the poor man should not have the same privilege. Existing documents, even those in the possession of the Poor Law Commissioners, afforded no information as to the aggregate amount of exemptions on account of poverty; but in moderate-sized towns the amount excused was 10l. per cent., and in Liverpool he had been informed it reached so high as one-third of the whole sum levied. In that town all houses under 13l. rent were practically excused; and out of 400,000 houses no less than 32,000 wore exempted from this liability. Now, if the limits were defined at which the exemption should commence, an end would he at once put to the inconvenience and difficulty which justices were often under in attempting to decide doubtful cases, whilst the poorer occupiers would have the advantage of certainty. He appealed to the House, then, to sanction the principle of this measure, and to put the law upon a clear and intelligible footing; and he would remark that the exemption of cottage property from local taxation would encourage the erection of improved dwellings for the occupation of the poor. When rates were to he paid in addition to rent, it was clear that the effect must be to drive the poor to a lower class of tenements, to be satisfied with lodgings of one or two rooms where more were required for adequate accommodation. Exemption from rates would have the effect of enabling them to occupy a superior class of cottages, and thus put a stop to much of the discomfort and demoralisation consequent upon the present character of their domiciles. He would propose to fix the point under which exemption should take place at a rent of 6l. for cottages, though it might be a subject for consideration whether some alteration might not be made as regarded tenements situated in large towns. He would conclude by moving that the Bill be read a second time.


entirely concurred with his hon. Friend, that it was very desirable by all moans that were practicable to improve the accommodation for the poor; but he was not at all convinced that the Bill he had now moved would accomplish that object. His hon. Friend pro-posed two objects: to increase the number of cottages available for residences for the poor; and to provide an improved class. The Bill applied to towns as well as the country; in the latter, his hon. Friend suggested that tenements under the value of 6l. should be exempted, though as regarded the former, he left the point open for the Committee. Now, what would be the effect if this Bill were to pass? A direct premium would he held out to speculators building the worst class of cottages. He thought the uncertainty which must attach to any provision of this kind, was in itself, a great exemption, Houses of the class referred to, were not to be assessed to the relief of the poor; therefore, the only evidence to determine the fact of their belonging to it, would be either the rout actually paid, or the evidence of surveyors of that kind with which they had been familiar some years ago. If you fixed a maximum, applicable to both town and country, you had a most uncertain standard of exemption; a cottage which might be had for 6l. in some country town, might cost double that sum in Manchester or Liverpool. For these reasons, he certainly thought it would not be desirable that this Bill should receive the sanction of the House. He was not prepared to say, that the law as to rating was in a satisfactory state, or that abuses did not exist under the Act of the 51st George III., for exempting persons from the payment of rates. The same objections, however, applied to this Bill, as had been brought against that of the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Waddington) in the early part of the Session, which the House had then rejected; and he hoped the same course would be taken with this Bill. He should move as an Amendment, that it be read a second time that day six months.


very much feared that this Bill would not effect the object of the hon. Member for Stroud, or accomplish in any respect the good the hon. Member had so often expressed a desire in that House to bring about. It would hold out, as the Secretary for the Home Department had remarked, a premium to the worst class of building speculators. The rents paid by the poor were now enormous, even for very bad habitations; but he thought this Bill would not improve either the habitations or the rents. Indeed, ho doubted much, whether by direct legislation they could over improve them. The evils of the present state of things wore great; and that the poor paid very much more in proportion than the rich, was also indubitable. But the hon. Gentleman seemed to believe that those habitations belonged to the poor, though the fact was, that they were not the property of the poor, belonging often to the wealthiest men in the land, who expended large sums in building houses, and then screwed up rents to the highest point. Again, under this Bill a man was to be punished if the drainage in his neighbourhood was bad, though it was not under his control. He trusted the hon. Gentleman would see the expediency of withdrawing his Bill. The subject was one of very great difficulty, and ought to be taken into consideration by the Government, as he sincerely hoped it would be in another Session of Parliament. If anything could be done to relieve the annoyances under which the poor now laboured, the House ought to apply its mind vigorously to the subject; an enormous number of persons were now summoned day after day to pay rates, which they were not liable to pay, and assessed under the most cruel regulations.


regretted, that there should appear so little chance of the hon. Member succeeding in his benevolent attempt to amend the evils under which the poor now laboured. He would impress on the Secretary for the Home Department, the importance of taking up this subject in another Session of Parliament.


thought no practical good, but the contrary, would be produced by this Bill. He referred to the effect produced by the exemption of small tenements from rates at Coventry. Persons who had absolutely no money of their own, borrowed money from the corporation, which they laid out in building houses of a very confined and inferior description. The builders had confessed they were receiving 12½ and 13 per cent for their money from the rents; yet, not content with that, an additional charge of 1½d. and 2d. a week was made, on the ground of the houses being exempted from the poor rate.


said, his chief object had been to call the attention of the House and the Government to the importance of the subject; and having effected that, he would withdraw the Bill for the present.

Bill withdrawn.

House adjourned at half-past Three.