HC Deb 07 February 1850 vol 108 cc470-80

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to exempt dwelling-houses below a certain value from local taxation. He stated, that it was similar to the Bill which he had brought under the notice of the House on the same subject on a former occasion; but he had reason to hope for more success for it, or at least for a more candid and attentive consideration of its merits now than he had been then able to secure. He said this because all parties now admitted that the condition of the great mass of the people was not what it ought to be, and that the remedy for the evil ought not to be of a merely charitable nature, but that the Government ought, if possible, to devise some legislative means for improving the position of the labouring classes. There existed a great deficiency in the house-accommodation of the labouring population, not merely in the towns, but in the rural districts, and not merely in the quality of the habitations, but in their numbers. He might appeal in proof of this being the case to the reports of Committees of that House in recent years, to the reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, and of the Board of Health. He might appeal to the able letters that had appeared under the well-known signature of "S. G. O.," in the Times, describing the frightful condition of the peasantry of Dorsetshire, and he might also appeal to the reports which had appeared in the Morning Chronicle on the state of labour and the poor, in which the results of the inquiries instituted were most powerfully and practically set forward by very able and competent writers. They had in these letters accounts of the condition of the working classes in the manufacturing districts, in the metropolis, and in the rural districts of the country. Throughout all these, they had everywhere proofs of the suffering of the working classes arising from the imperfect nature of their house-accommodation, which became a source of the most frightful demoralisation, while it at the same time led to an increase of pauperism, of sickness, and of crime. He would not delay the time of the House by quoting from the reports which he had beside him; but he should content himself with reading a single extract from the evidence of Mr. Granville Pigot, assistant poor-law commissioner, before the Committee on Settlement of 1847. He stated that— The inadequacy of cottages leads to evils of the most serious kind to the poor. I do not know anything from which the poor suffer so much, in every possible way, as regards their health and as regards their morals—comfort being wholly out of the question. The great destitution there is of cottages in many parts of England, if the Committee directed their attention to that subject, would be perfectly appalling to them. The medical officers of unions could give evidence upon that point, which, I think, would surprise the Committee. I have made inquiries upon that point, and it is my firm belief that in the southern counties of England, where the population is so rapidly increasing, at the rate of something like 200,000 a year, cottages are absolutely decreasing in number; certainly they are not increasing. Mr. Denison: Where do you suppose the increasing population to find dwellings?—They find dwellings where fever and vice and crime of every sort is generated. They find dwellings by huddling together in numbers of six, seven, and eight, in rooms scarcely sufficient for one or two; that is, where dwellings are found. The evil has already, in my opinion, reached its acme. Chairman: Is that evil more or less observable through all the districts of which you are assistant commissioner?—I think it is observable in all; in some more than others, unquestionably. He by no means undervalued the efforts made by the Sanitary Commission to effect improvement; but good drainage, and ventilation, and a sufficient supply of water, were not sufficient while the inmates were so overcrowded together that they could scarcely breathe. The high duties on bricks and timber were a serious impediment to the extension of house-accommodation; and another great evil arose from the law of settlement. It was undeniable that the present law of settlement operated very generally and powerfully as an inducement to the owners and occupiers of land in small parishes to prevent the residence of poor persons within the parish. But that was too large a question to be dealt with by an individual Member. He trusted, however, that even in the course of the present Session the Government would introduce a measure to extend the area of rating and settlement from parishes at least to unions, so as to put an end to the strong motive to the clearance of parishes and the prevention of residence therein which that law at present made so general. His object, at present, was to endeavour to remove another impediment now existing to the supply of adequate dwellings to the poor, namely, the rates to which they were subjected for local objects. He proposed by his Bill to exempt from all local taxation the houses occupied by the poorer classes, under the belief that they would be relieved thereby to the same extent and in the same manner as they would be by the remission of any other tax equally oppressive. He believed that the tax upon the poor man's house pressed quite as severely upon him as the taxes upon his tea, coffee, sugar, soap, or other articles of consumption; and the removal of it would be as useful and important a boon to him as the removal of the duties upon those commodities. To a certain extent, the poor were exempted from rates even as the law stood at present. He had endeavoured to ascertain the number and proportion of houses which were at present excused under the Act of the 59th Geo. III. c. 170, which empowered justices, with consent of vestries, to excuse from rating poor persons whom they judged wholly unable from poverty to pay them. He found that it would be impossible to obtain the returns for the whole country without great trouble and delay. He had therefore contented himself with the returns of four counties, which would serve by way of example, they affording instances of the condition in this respect of the manufacturing, agricultural, and mixed districts. The counties were Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Suffolk, and Hampshire; and the proportion stood thus:—

Counties. Total Number of Houses. Number of Houses Excused from Payment of Poor-rates. Proportion of Numbers. Total value of Property rated. Value of Excused Houses. Proportion of Value Excused.
Lancashire 340,070 49,577 Two-fifteenths, or less than One-seventh. £6,463,000 £367,118 One-eighteenth.
Gloucestershire 67,874 14,855 Two-elevenths, or less than One-fifth. 1,872,097 35,694 One-twenty-ninth.
Suffolk 59,064 23,543 More than One-third. 1,407,413 49,230 One-twenty-eighth.
Hants 59,765 21,535 More than One-third. 1,406,542 71,583 One-twentieth.
Total 526,773 109,510 Average about One-fifth excused, of houses in number. 11,150,000 £523,000 ("One twenty-first value excused.

Supposing, then, the same general proportion to prevail throughout England and Wales, the total of numbers at present excused from poor-rates would be one-fifth of the population; at least of the houses. The total value of excused houses would be 1–21 of 67,320,000l., or about 3,300,000l. The total of annual local taxation being about twelve millions, the 21st part—which was excused—would be nearly 600,000l.; and if, as had been often proposed, Parliament were to place the amount of rate from which the poor occupiers were now excused, upon the owners of the cottages, this would be, in fact, a new tax of that vast amount, which, atter a little time, by the check it would place on the supply of new houses, they would be enabled to place, by increase of rents, on the occupiers; in other words, on the poor, or the very poorest class next to the very paupers. But, the present system is a very bad one, and works injuriously, owing to the necessity of inquiring into the circumstances of every individual who is to be excused. To the magistrates and vestries it was a matter of considerable intricacy and difficulty to determine the parties who should be exempted from the payment of the rates. And much of it was the effect of favouritism. The poor people who claimed from poverty to be exempted, had to go before the overseers and churchwardens and state their case. If there were any dispute, they had then to go before the bench of magistrates; and when some who were refused exemption saw others quite as well off as they themselves excused in consequence of their having a friend in the vestry or upon the bench, it was a subject of great discontent and heartburning. Then, again, what must be the effect upon those who were too independent and spirited to lay before the overseers, churchwardens, or magistrates their poverty? They were made to pay a very heavy direct tax, for which their furniture and poor effects were very often distrained upon. He could quote many distressing cases of this kind. The House ought to consider well, and ponder deeply, upon the many grounds of discontent the present condition of the law in that respect gave rise to. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire was about to introduce a measure for placing the rate upon the owners of small tenements. To such a plan he (Mr. Scrope) was very much opposed. He thought it very objectionable. He had already stated that one effect of the imposition of those rates upon the owners, would be the causing them to lay an equivalent amount upon the rents. In other words, the poor, who were now exempted, would find the rates imposed upon them in the form of an increased rent. And the amount so imposed would be upwards of 500,000l., nearly 600,000l. But there was another evil attendant upon such a plan. There was a feeling already existent amongst owners of land throughout the country against building habitations for the poor—they wished to keep down the number of cottages. The ratepayers disliked the builders of cottages, and thought them public enemies. He (Mr. Scrope) thought them public benefactors. [Expressions of dissent.] He most earnestly implored the House to give him a hearing. It was a most important question, affecting the social welfare and condition of the people. Depriving the poor of house-accommodation, was depriving them of that which was most essential to the improvement of their moral, physical, and social condition. The landed gentlemen sometimes built cottages for their tenantry, very pretty picturesque objects, but altogether insufficient for the proper accommodation of the increasing population. It was to those who built for purposes of profit that the poor must look for a sufficient supply, and they would be prevented from building if the payment of the rates were made compulsory upon them; for the necessity of adding the amount to the interest of their money expended in the building, would raise the rent so high that the poor would be unable to pay it. The population of the country was increasing at the rate of 1,000 a day, and increased house-room was required in proportion. But they had it upon the high authority of the Poor Law Commissioners that the house-room for the poor, so far from increasing proportionally, was, in many large districts, actually diminishing; and as the measure proposed by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire would have the effect of still further diminishing that supply, he implored the House not to adopt it, but rather to adopt the plan which he (Mr. Scrope) proposed, which, by removing the tax, would give an inducement to speculative builders to erect cottages for the poor. He asked the House not to blink the question. He was aware that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury, who had taken a benevolent interest in the condition of the poor, was of opinion that checks ought to be placed upon the erection of a number of houses intended for the accommodation of the poor, as he thought the effect was to increase the pauper population. He (Mr. Scrope) trusted that the House would discuss the matter fully, and then its bearings ought to be properly ascertained. He would ask, was not pauperism rather increased by the bad nature of the house-accommodation afforded to the poor, by the bad places into which they were squeezed, giving rise to immorality, dirt, and disease? Would it not be better to supply them with proper houses to live in, than to drive them into the dens of misery, filth, immorality, and unhealthiness, in which they were at present forced to live? The noble Lord the Member for Bath, who had so distinguished himself for his philanthropy, had lately stated that, it was not merely the imperfect character of the houses now built for the poor, but their deficiency in number, and the inadequate space they occupied, that was the great injury in a sanitary, moral, and economical point of view. The usual argument which the opponents of his plan used was this—that if the tax were taken off one-fourth of the houses, the other three-fourths would have to pay a higher rate in order to make up the difference. But he had already shown that about one-fifth were excused, as it was, whilst there was a degree of doubt and insecurity as to the exemption, which operately badly. In an article which had lately appeared in the Times newspaper, it was said that his plan would have the effect of pauperising nine-tenths of the population by removing the rates from the poor. But he begged them to recollect that neither Windsor Castle, nor any of the royal palaces, not even, he believed, the inmates in Hampton-court, were rated to the support of the poor. If, then, the inmates of royal palaces were exempt, why should they not exempt the very poorest of the people above the rank of mere paupers? That was all he asked. But, besides the royal palaces, there was a great deal of real and personal property likewise exempt. Neither funded property, plate, jewels, stock in trade, or farming stock, were liable to be rated. Why, then, should not the poor man's dwelling be exempted? But besides what he had mentioned, all woods producing timber, and all mines and minerals, were likewise exempted—and those were real property. If they exempted the rich man's woods and mines, why not the poor man's cottage? It was the only direct tax the poor were now called upon to pay. Would it not be better that they should at once draw a simple line, below which none should be rated? His plan would be, to exempt altogether from poor-rate and other local rates all dwelling-houses below the value of 5l. in the rural parishes and small towns; all below 8l. in towns above 10,000 and below 50,000 in population; and below 10l. in cities above that number. It would make the exemption also conditional on proper sanitary regulations being carried out on the certificate of the local officer of health. And he begged to observe that that proposal would exempt about the same proportion as, or rather less than, were already exempted actually in the town of Liverpool; for there were 32,000 houses out of 43,000 in the town exempted from rates. There had been a local Act passed in 1832 for Liverpool, the effect of which had been so greatly to pauperise the population, that the inhabitants assembled, and actually went to the expense of obtaining another Act of Parliament to repeal the former one, and enable them to exempt the number which he had just stated. There was one other argument used by those who opposed his proposition, which he should briefly notice. It was said that the payment of rates gave the poor a feeling of independence. He disbelieved and doubted the existence of the feeling. He thought it would be a much better mode of aiding their feeling of independence to give them decent places to live in, than to drive them to crowd into filthy cellars and wretched hovels by heavy taxes on their dwellings. He would ask the House also to pay some attention to the subject under its political aspect. No people could be otherwise than discontented and anxious for change, if no effort were made to ameliorate the crying physical evils of their condition—evils at the foundation of which, according to a celebrated French writer on such subjects, was the miserable state of the domestic accommodation afforded to the poor. He should conclude by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


seconded the Motion.


remarked, that as the hon. Gentleman had gone so fully into the details of the measure, and as it appeared to be in effect the same as that the House had decided against in former Sessions, he hoped the hon. Member would not attribute any want of courtesy to him if he proposed to take the division on the Bill at the present stage, which the hon. Member had selected as the opportunity for taking the discussion upon it. He believed there was no disposition, nor would it be wise, on the part of the House to lessen the amount of property on which the relief of the poor and other local burdens must fall. He also objected that the effect of the Bill would not be to relieve the occupier, but to put so much in addition in the shape of rent into the pockets of the owners of this description of property.


observed, that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud had communicated to him his intention to ask for leave to introduce his Bill, which he (Sir G. Grey) was prepared to accede to; but after the course he had taken in raising the whole question at issue when stating the principle of the proposed measure, the House could not be better informed upon it than they were at present; and although he had not proposed to oppose the introduction of the Bill, if it was pressed to a division now, he must vote against it. He quite agreed with the hon. Member in the importance of doing everything in their power to improve the dwellings of the poor. It was satisfactory to observe what had been done in the metropolis and most of the large towns in that direction. After the perusal of all the hon. Gentleman had written with so much ability on the subject, he was unable to arrive at the same conclusion, for he believed the hon. Gentleman's project offered a premium for the erection of a lower class of houses; and if the standard of rating was fixed at a high rent, a much larger amount of property would be exempted than would be at all desirable. The hon. Member, in writing of the mode in which the existing law worked, brought an argument of a convincing nature against his own Bill, for he declared that cases occurred where the owners of cottage property constituted a majority in the vestry, and carried an exemption from rates in their own favour. [Mr. P. SCROPE; That's not general; it's only a particular case.] Believing the Bill would have a most prejudicial effect on the object of the hon. Gentleman, he must oppose the proposition now, as on every former occasion, and vote against it if it was forced to a division.


gave credit to the hon. Gentleman for his humane and benevolent intentions, but believed that, instead of improving the condition of the poor, and advancing their interests, his plan would tend rather to depreciate their condition. To pass this Bill, would, in his opinion, be to offer a bonus for the worst class of houses, and to stop that progress in improving the dwellings of the poor which was now in operation.


observed, that he had not intended to raise any argument at this stage of the measure, nor was he aware that he had said more than was necessary as a justification for its introduction: if, however, it was the pleasure of the House to reject the measure at once, he must submit, though he had not anticipated such an opposition. He was aware that in a House composed mainly of landowners and ratepayers, it was impossible that the feeling should not prevail, that to relieve the smaller houses from the rates, would increase the rate on the higher classes of houses. He knew that was the general feeling in the country, and that it was impossible to struggle against that feeling until the good sense of the public led them to take up the question; and hon. Members, with that desire with which they were generally actuated to improve the condition of the working classes, should bring themselves to think on the subject, and to consider also all the incidents of local taxation. They would then see that the rate of their houses was as certainly paid by the occupiers or consumers, as they might be called, as surely as the tax on tea, coffee, or any other commodity which the poor consumed, was paid by them; and that to relieve the poor from general or local taxation would be a great alleviation of these burdens, and give a stimulus to capitalists for the erection of good, comfortable, and wholesome houses.


remarked upon the course taken by the hon. Gentleman, who first made a Motion for which he only obtained a seconder from motives of civility, and then imputed an interested bias to the whole House, because the universal feeling was against his measure. The hon. Gentleman talked of the House coming round to his view of the subject. He (Mr. V. Smith) would only reply that a case harder than that of the hon. Gentleman had not been heard of since the famous complaint made by the man who bemoaned his hard fortune in having to deal, whenever he was on a jury, with eleven obstinate and impracticable men. The fact was, there never was a time when so much attention was paid to the condition of the dwellings of the poor. The Bill proposed would work the greatest injury, and would only raise the rents; for even now there were cases where the owners of cottage property having obtained exemption from rates, at once laid the amount on the rents.


could state, from information he possessed, that there were individuals possessing property of this kind to a large extent who made a point of getting their cottages exempted from the rate, and laying the amount on the rent. Anything in the way of exemption had only led to abuse. He believed there was a general desire to improve the physical condition of the poor; and he knew of many who would gladly erect comfortable and wholesome cottages for their occupation, if they could be made to return, he would not say 5 or 4, but even 2 per cent. In this matter it was in the power of the Government to assist materially, by taking off the duty on bricks, which at present weighed very considerably against the erection of good cottages. If Government were really sincere in the desire to promote sanitary improvements, and the physical and moral welfare of the people—and he knew of nothing more conducive to immorality than the manner in which the poor were now herded together—they would not hesitate to abolish this duty. If the duty on bricks, and the remaining duty on timber were abolished, a cottage in the country districts which now cost 60l. might be erected for 40l., and no man would refuse, when he could do it at such a cost, to provide good dwellings for his labourers.


was also of opinion that this Bill would inflict great injustice. In Salford, there were more than 10,000 houses, 9,000 of which were under 10l a year; to exempt these from the rates would be most unjust to the rest of the inhabitants.


seeing the feeling of the House, would not go to a division.

Motion made, and Question put, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exempt dwelling-houses, below a certain value, from local taxation."

Motion negatived.