HC Deb 17 August 1848 vol 101 cc190-5

On the Order of the Day for the Third Reading of the Stock in Trade Exemption Bill,


said, that he had to thank his right hon. Friend (Sir George Grey) for the arrangement by which he possessed the present opportunity of stating his objections to the measure now before the House. On its first introduction, indeed, he had claimed the right to oppose it; but, though his opposition was to the principle of the measure—particularly in its relation to other legislative proceedings—he had been willing to waive the expres- sion of his objections at the earlier and more usual stages, because, having no hope of obtaining in the present Session the remedy which he sought, he was chiefly desirous of some opportunity—at any stage—of asking the attention of the House to the general question involved in this Bill. Now, in the first place, though this was called a temporary Bill—a Bill for suspending for only one more year the existing law of the land—yet he must remind the House that it was not less than the ninth such temporary Bill, which they had successively passed, to suspend in continuity, from time to time, the laws affecting the property of all the subjects of the realm of England who are rateable to the relief of the poor. It is called a Bill to continue for a further term the exemption of stock in trade from liability to such rating. On the direct question of such exemption, he would say nothing at this time. It was enough for him to say now, that, whether such exemption be right or wrong, the law on the subject is by the present course practically altered without discussion, and almost without notice, by this system of suspending the law for a year, year by year, continually. The House concedes without difficulty what is asked for so short a period; and particularly when it is asked—as was the case in the first Bills of the present series—in reference to some great measure which was to settle the whole question, but which was not then ready. He held, however, in his hand a list of these successive renewals—from the 3 and 4 Vict. c. 89, to the 10 and 11 Vict. c. 77; and the great final and remedial measure was, he feared, as little likely to be prepared by the Government now as by any of their predecessors. He knew that his right hon. Friend would rise and state, as well as any Minister could state, the difficulties which attended the settlement of this question; but no attempt had yet been made to settle it; the evil continued, and he complained accordingly, that the law of the land was substantially and permanently changed by these suspen-satory and temporary Acts. Men's minds got accustomed to the exemption which is thus created, nominally, for a season only; and by and by it will be said, "whatever the law may have been before 1837, no one can affirm that stock in trade has ever been rateable by law since 1837; and a generation of proprietors has grown up, who know this at least, if no more than this, that such property has never, in their time, been subjected to such a burden." It is not necessary to consider for the present whether the exemption be or be not equitable; it is enough to say, that Parliament virtually enacts it—without notice, without discussion, and without any consideration whatever of other interests which are affected by such exemption; and all this—merely because the Bill is asked, year by year—for one year only. This principle and this result are not confined to the present measure, but are applicable to all such legislation. In Bills, however, which affect property, as the Bill now on the table does, notoriously and avowedly, the House ought always to recollect, that if a given sum be to be raised from a given parish, say the sum of 2,000l. from five occupants, each having an equal amount of occupancy, and if each occupant shall pay accordingly the sum of 400l., the exemption of any one from his liability imposes a burden of 25 per cent. or 100l. in addition, upon each of the remaining four. So that the exemption of stock in trade from the poor's-rate of England is, as the House will see, not merely a favour rightly or wrongly granted to the trading interest, but it involves the imposition of a pro tanto tax on the agricultural interest. Is it contended by any one that the law of England recognises the exemption of stock in trade from liability to the poor's-rate? If it be so, bring in a declaratory Bill to that effect, rather than this Bill for suspending the law. But no lawyer in the House—certainly not the eminent person who discharges with so much ability the functions of his high office, the present Attorney General—will commit himself to such a course; or will stand up in his place, and deny the position that the law of England does not recognise the exemption of stock in trade from liability to the relief of the poor. That point at least was decided in the case of the Queen v. Lumsdaine: though the instant passing of the first of these temporary Acts deprived the tithe-owner of the means of profiting by the law laid down in that case. His noble Friend at the head of the Government would well remember the breathless haste with which the law—so declared by the Court—was sought to be set at naught; for a Bill—practically getting rid of that law—having, though it passed this House, been thrown out by the Lords—the ordinary forms of proceeding were, if he recollected rightly, suspended here; and the earliest of the series of these suspending Acts was hurried through in the very last days of the Session. Let no one suppose, because the clerical owners of tithe rent-charge are largely injured by the present system, that, therefore, he wished the clergy to be exempted from any liability to which their fellow-subjects were exposed. No such thing. In fact, the question to which he desired to call the attention of the House, was not one of profession but of property. He wished no more than a fair equality in a certain rate upon property. So far as he understood the case, the holder of a tithe rent-charge is assessed upon a much larger proportion of his gross receipts than the owner of any other property assessed for local purposes. Now, what are the facts? The clergy are above 20,000 in number; about half of that number hold benefices—he took the figures from the able and celebrated pamphlet of the Rev. R. Jones on this subject—and of those benefices nearly one-half, that is 4,861, are under 200l. per annum. Is that an income which ought to sustain any special burthen? Again, the income of the clergy is connected with their personal labour; the poor's-rate upon their income is, therefore, pro tanto, a rate or tax upon their wages, in respect to which the exemption—even where given—is insufficient. Does the law deal so with any other class of property? No. Again, is it then wished that the tithe-owner should pay less than his neighbour in parallel circumstances? No. Nothing more is wished than that the principle upon which the tithe-owner was rated before the passing of the Commutation Act, should be maintained. It was so enacted, not vaguely—not by words of loose construction—but by two clauses introduced, specifically, and after debate, for the express purpose of protecting the tithe-owner. The first is Clause 69 in the Tithe Commutation Act 1836, which received the Royal assent on the 13th August in that year:— And be it enacted, That every rent-charge payable as aforesaid, instead of tithes, shall be subject to all Parliamentary, and county and other rates, charges and assessments, in like manner as the tithes, commuted for such rent-charge have heretofore been subject. The second is Clause 1 of the Parochial Assessment Act, which received that assent six days later. Yet by the actual operation of the existing law, the tithe-owner is rated upon the whole of his income, while the tithe-payer is rated at one-half only, for example, or one-third, that is, his rent. There are instances which he had quoted on former occasions, in which the proportion or rate on the holder of the tithe rent-charge was doubled, and more than doubled, as compared with the rate before 1836: in one case, which was stated to him, nearly trebled; St. Mewan, in Cornwall, from 85l. 10s. to 230l. He perceived that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir George Grey) intimated that this was a wrong which the passing of the temporary Suspension Act, like that now before the House, did not create, and which the rejection of the present Bill would not remedy. He admitted it in the letter; but he contended that the legislation of which this Bill was a part, was not merely practically but advisedly defective. He could not forget how measures had been introduced into this House by Members among the highest in talent, station, and character, the direct effect of which would have been to alter the law affecting property, for the benefit of their own class, and to the injury of another. The Bills—for the attempt was repeated in another Session—did not eventually pass; and, at all events, he did not mean to compare the case to which he referred, as equal in intensity to the famous law of agistment in the Irish Parliament about a hundred years ago. But, in this point, the two measures were alike; that both were the measures of a class. In the instance of which he was speaking, it was the landowners, not merely represented here, but constituting the immense majority of this House, against a body of men not one of whom can even enter this House, and who have not, as a body, one single representative here. It is clear that the continued exemption of stock in trade from a liability to the payment of a rate for the relief of the poor, does not directly affect the question as to the proportion at which tithe rent-charge ought to be rated to such relief; but, indirectly, the exemption of any one species of property necessarily affects the burthen on all the rest. He did not wish to enter into the question of rating all visible property; he did not refer, except incidentally, to the famous thousand guinea case; money, which, because it was in a drawer in a particular parish, was rated, while the owner of five thousand pounds deposited in a bank in the next parish was not rated. He contended merely that where any two persons were rated in respect to any property, they should be rated equally: and, further, that there was no reason in principle, and no authority in the law of England, why, for the relief of the poor of England, all its visible property should not be rated. He might go further; but he stopped here. And as to the alleged difficulty or impossibility of, ascertaining the value of stock in trade, he could only say, that, when by Schedule D they had ascertained the profits of trade under the Property Tax Act, there could be little further difficulty in establishing a mode by which the visible property of trade in a particular parish might be assessed to the relief of the poor in such parish. With this, however, he did not at present mean to interfere, though it bore more directly on the Bill before them, than the inequality of which he rose to complain: but he did not propose to add any species of property to those which were already rated. He did, however, propose, that those which were rated should be rated equally; and should be rated upon the same relative proportions which, when the general security of the tithe of England was exchanged for the present rent-charge, were specifically established for the protection of the weaker party. He knew that he could not hope to effect this in the course of the present Session, or by any proceedings in reference to the present Bill; but he did trust that his right hon. Friend (Sir George Grey) would be able to state that he would take into full consideration the whole question of the rating of England for the relief of the poor; and would be prepared, in the next Session, to bring in a general measure to effect that great purpose.


agreed with his hon. Friend as to the inconvenience of those annual suspensions. He hoped his hon. Friend would not overlook the fact that the present Bill did not affect tithe; and was one of those measures which just at present could not be placed upon a permanent footing. Still he was perfectly willing to admit that, at an early period of the ensuing Session, the subject ought to occupy the attention of Parliament. But it was a matter upon which he could make no distinct promise.

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