HC Deb 24 February 1848 vol 96 cc1254-9

* rose to bring forward his Motion for the repeal of the window duty; and in doing so he said that he was well aware of the objections and difficulties that might be thrown in the way of this or any other reduction of taxation at any time, but more especially at a crisis like the present. He had hoped, however, to have been anticipated, either by the noble Lord at the head of the Government, or the right hon. Baronet the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the notice which he had placed on the Paper, because he had expected that, as the budget which had been lately laid before the House had (in the thirty-third year of peace in Europe) contained an augmentation of the property-tax, of not less than two per cent, that increase of taxation would have been substituted for certain other taxes, which he was prepared to prove pressed most grievously and most heavily on the middle and working classes of the people of this country. *From a corrected report published by Ridgway. No doubt he would be told that this was not the time to bring forward this Motion; but that did not shake his opinion as to the expediency of doing so, because he observed that time was the invariable pretext used by all Ministers opposed in their hearts to any troublesome Motion, but who had not the courage to say so openly.

The last time he brought this subject forward, he moved for a Committee of Inquiry; but, unfortunately for him, at that time Committees of Inquiry into the finances of the country were not so popular with the then occupants of the Treasury benches as they were now. On that occasion he was defeated, and, therefore, finding that inquiry was as much objected to as usual in similar cases, he had been emboldened now to bring forward a Motion for a full and complete repeal of the window-tax. He fairly owned that he threw himself upon the indulgence of the House in performing the task which he had undertaken. And he trusted the House would remember that a humble Member like himself, had not the same means of reviewing the resources of this country as were possessed by his hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Nevertheless, on looking over the taxes of this country, he thought he could find a substitute in the place of the window-tax, and he was ready to propose it for the consideration of Gentlemen on all sides of the House. It had been boasted that out of 3,500,000 houses in Great Britain, only 500,000 paid the window-tax. He was astonished that such a boast should be made, because the reason why so many houses were exempted was, partly that many houses belonging to wealthy parties had been exempted under various pretexts by various Ministers; partly that in a very great number of houses the number of windows in each had been reduced to seven, on account of the extreme pressure of the window-tax.

He had lately received a letter from Dr. Southwood Smith, a high authority on the subject; and in that letter the writer said, he did not believe that sanitary reform could be complete until the window-tax was abolished. He had received another letter from Mr. Byers, the president of the Carpenters' Society in London, and who had built a great number of houses, which were occupied by persons in the middle classes; and he stated that in houses of that description it often happened that washhouses, and privies, and other outbuildings, were erected without the proper means of ventilation. On account of the operation of the window-tax, Mr. Byers further stated that he had been employed upon nearly every house in Compton-street, Soho, to reduce the number of windows.

The history of the house-duty and window-tax, was worth the attention of the House. It was the history of a long series of struggles between the people of Great Britain, and their rulers, in which, he was sorry to say, the health of the people, and the architecture and ventilation of houses in Great Britain, had grievously suffered. The window-tax was one of a class of taxes particularly dangerous. It was so easy for a Minister to add a little from time to time to the window duties, almost imperceptibly, until by constant additions, the tax had become altogether oppressive and intolerable in the minds of a civilised people, and until the cup was filled to the brim, no one had been aware of the bitterness of the draught.

The first Act for levying duties on inhabited houses was passed in 1695, in the time of William III. This Act, like some of modern times, was only to continue for three years. The tax was 2s., on each house, except a cottage; 4s. additional upon houses with ten windows; and 8s. additional upon houses with twenty windows. This Act was augmented in Queen. Anne's reign, and again in that of George I., windows being taken as the criterion of the value of a house. In 1747, Pelham passed an Act imposing a tax of 2s. per house. In the same Act a duty was levied of 6d. per window on houses with ten to fourteen windows; 9d. per window from fifteen to nineteen windows; 1s. per window on twenty windows and upwards. The preamble of this Act stated, "whereas the duty on houses has for some years greatly decreased, and the same appears still likely to diminish, owing to the attempts made to evade the tax;" and the next Act, in the year 1766, passed by Dowdeswell, again stated, "whereas said house and window duties have been greatly evaded." In 1785, an Act was passed to prevent smuggling in tea, and in consequence of a report of the Committee on illicit trade, Mr. Pitt proposed low ad valorem duties on tea, and to make up the deficiency in the revenue by substituting a heavier window-tax. Mr. Pitt introduced his Commutation Bill, and earned it, in defiance of the arguments of Mr. Fox, "that in spite of the absurd calculations of the Committee in respect to the saving that the taking off the duty on tea, and the laying a tax upon air and light would be to the poor, he trusted that the House would reflect that a window was a necessity, and tea a luxury, and that tea and windows had no more to do with one another than bricks with horses or hats." Belsham said, "Owners both in town and country began to disfigure their houses immediately after the passing of this Act, by blocking up their windows." In 1797, came the Triple Assessment Act. Mr. Fox, who had absented himself from Parliament, was specially sent down to oppose this Act, but in vain. The Act passed, even Mr. Pitt regretting that it was necessary to proceed to such extreme financial measures, owing to the war; and thousands of windows were blocked up next day, and "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Pitt!" was chalked upon the vacant spaces. In 1802 and 1808 two more Acts were passed, augmenting the mischief. After these, there was a lull till 1822, when the present Sir John Hobhouse, then Member for Westminster, was defeated in a Motion for the repeal of the window duties. In spite of this, Mr. Robinson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1823, finding the heavy window-tax could no longer be sustained in public opinion, had to take off half the amount of the tax. Then came the Act of Lord Althorp in 1834, taking off the house-tax; and in that Act there was a clause which specifically stated, that persons who had been duly assessed, should have the power to open as many windows as they pleased, free of duty; and many people took advantage of that Act by opening a great number of windows. But, unfortunately, in 1841, there was, as there is now, a deficiency in the revenue; and Mr. Baring, after putting 10 per cent upon the assessed taxes, had recourse to a re-assessment, in violation of Lord Althorp's Act.

The total number of Houses in Great Britain assessed to the Window-duties in the years previous and subsequent to Mr. Baring's Act for levying additional 10 per cent, were in the years ending April 1st:—

Total Number of Houses. Increase. Amount of Tax. Increase.
£. £.
1840 394,036 1,350,930
1841 450,913 56,867 1,613,308 262,378

In consequence of re-assessment, an increase of 56,877 houses; Paying additional tax of £262,378.

Number of Houses. Increase. Decrease. Amount of Tax. Increase. Decrease.
£. £.
1841 450,913 1,613,308
1842 447,420 3,493 1,613,774 466
1843 446,108 1,312 1,615,263 1,489
1844 447,383 1,275 1,624,103 8,840
In number of houses Total decrease 4,805
Deduct increase 1,275
Total decrease in houses assessed in four years 3,350;
but increase in tax £10,795

It was the custom with persons to blockade their windows, so as to reduce the number to seven, and thereby free themselves from the window-tax; and if we looked to the number of houses at present with eight or nine windows, and compared them with the number of houses of a similar description in former times, we should see what a frightful state of things had arisen from the infliction of the tax. Total number of houses assessed in 1784, 413,515; ditto in 1845, 453,738. Therefore, in round numbers, there were only about 40,000 more houses assessed in 1845 than in 1784, in spite of the enormous increase in the revenue, wealth, and population of Great Britain (from 10,000,000 in 1784, to 20,000,000 in 1848), during that period.

The number of houses assessed with eight windows in the year previous, and subsequent to Baring's Act for imposing additional 10 per cent, also with nine windows:—

Houses, 8 windows. Contributing window-tax. Houses, 9 windows. Window-tax.
£. £.
1840 55,773 35,708 49,459 51,713
1841 62,808 51,594 54,241 56,726
Increase in 1841 7,125 15,886 4,782 5,013
Add 9 windowed houses 4,782 5,013

Total increase in one year, 11,907 houses, contributing £20,899 window-tax.

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