HC Deb 13 February 1850 vol 108 cc737-45

Order for Second Reading read.


, after presenting some petitions in favour of the establishment of boards for the control of county expenditure, proceeded to say, that he should not think it necessary to trouble the House with many observations in moving the Second Reading of the County Rates and Expenditure Bill, because the House was tolerably familiar with the subject, the Bill being similar to the measure which was before it last Session, both in its principle and in all its leading details; and he was rather taking up a measure which could not be completed last year, than introducing a new Bill. He had taken charge of the measure at the request of the hon. Member for Montrose, who brought it forward last year, and who, in fact, originated this proposal of a system of county councils to control county expenditure, analogous to the system introduced in boroughs to enable town-councils to control the municipal penditure. It was desirable, however, to remove a few misapprehensions which had arisen respecting this Bill. There had been an idea that, as an hon. Member had expressed it, it was to supersede Her Majesty's justices of the peace. It was not a Bill to supersede them, but to give the ratepayers in counties a concurrent control with Her Majesty's justices of the peace over the county expenditure; and it was entirely remote from his (Mr. Gibson's) mind, in promoting this measure, that he was in any way disparaging Her Majesty's justices of the peace, or wishing to supersede them in any of their judicial duties. Already we had the precedent of elected guardians and justices of the peace working harmoniously together, and engaged in controlling local expenditure under the head of poor-rate. The Commission appointed in 1836 to inquire into the whole subject of county rates, saw no objection to the constitution of such boards as those now proposed, consisting partly of justices, and partly of ratepayers, to control the county expenditure. The report of that Commission stated— The principle of the county rate seems open to serious objection upon the ground that the charge is imposed by persons not chosen by the ratepayers; no other tax of such magnitude is laid upon the subject except by his representatives. It is impossible not to admit that the persons who contribute to the county rate have little control over its expenditure. The administration of this fund is the exercise of an irresponsible power intrusted to a fluctuating body. The Commissioners went on to hint at the adoption of a plan very similar to that now before the House. It was proposed by this Bill to establish county financial boards to control the assessing of county rates and the expenditure of county rates; that these boards should consist of ratepayers elected by the different boards of guardians, and justices of the peace elected by the justices; that to these boards should be transferred all the financial powers now vested in the justices of the peace; but the Bill would not interfere in any way with their judicial powers, or affect the administration of justice. An objection was started the other evening by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, who intimated that it was not fitting for Gentlemen holding opinions similar to his (Mr. Gibson's) to be asking that tenant-farmers and occupiers should have a control over this expenditure, having always contended that rates fell upon rent, and that therefore the occupier had no permanent interest in their control. He (Mr. Gibson) adhered to that view; but, although at every fresh bargain between a tenant and his landlord the amount of rates was taken into consideration in agreeing upon the rent, yet, when an agreement was once entered into, the tenant had a clear and obvious interest, in preventing during the currency of the term of his tenancy, an extravagant expenditure, or the rates being larger than he calculated on when he entered into the agreement. In Lancashire the county rate in one year rose from 125,000l. to 175,000l. that sudden increase must have been borne by the occupying tenants, who however had no opportunity of deciding whether the expenditure was judicious. But if there was a doubt as to the propriety of his (Mr. Gibson's) introducing this Bill, with his opinions, there could be none as to the propriety of the hon. Member's supporting it, for the whole of his policy seemed to be founded upon the conviction that these rates were paid, at first and at last, by the tenant-occupiers; how then could he object to giving them a power over the county expenditure? A petition from Buckinghamshire set forth the case so well that the House would perhaps allow a part of it to be cited to them. It came from the Aylesbury union. That union, it was stated, contained forty parishes, mostly agricultural; and the petitioners represented that they were principally occupiers of land, and in that capacity contributed very largely to the poor-rates, over which the Legislature had allowed the ratepayers a right of administration and control; but that the petitioners also contributed largely to the county rates, and, without wishing to impugn the propriety of their application, urged that the principle of supervision which Parliament had sanctioned in the case of poor-rates, should also be extended to the county rates; that 60,000l. had lately been charged upon the rates for the county on the erection of a new county gaol, and a large further expenditure was contemplated in the erection of a lunatic asylum. [Colonel SIBTHORP: Hear, hear!] The meaning of that cheer evidently was that Acts of Parliament and the Home Office imposed on the magistrates the obligation to erect these gaols and lunatic asylums, and that they were not responsible for that expenditure. So did Acts of Parliament impose upon guardians the obligation to relieve the destitute poor; but, nevertheless, the Legislature gave the ratepayers a control over the expenditure of the poor-rate, and a voice upon the question whether the applicants for relief were fit persons to receive it. Just so, because Acts of Parliament had imposed the obligation to erect gaols and lunatic asylums, it did not follow that those who had to pay for them might not have a voice in the making of contracts, and in the consideration whether more accommodation was provided and greater expenditure incurred than was necessary. In Yorkshire a sum of 200,000l. was expended, he believed, in prison-building for the reception of 160 prisoners. He had been informed that the requisite accommodation might have been provided for 35,000l. It would be a great public evil if lunatic asylums and prisons were not properly erected and regulated; but it was quite consistent with a due regard to this consideration that the ratepayers should have this control, and we might hope that they would be as much alive to the importance of having proper lunatic asylums and prisons as the justices. An hon. Member had suggested that the margin within which these financial boards could effect any reduction was so small that it was not worth while to alter a system with which persons had become familiarised. But he (Mr. Gibson) believed that a control in the way he had mentioned, might be exercised over all the expenditure, with the exception of that which was strictly necessary for the discharge of the judicial functions of the magistrates, and for that case there was a provision in the Bill. Besides, these financial boards would be bodies of men who could watch these new Bills and measures in Parliament which would lay fresh burdens upon the land; and when any such proposal came before Parliament we should have a competent business board to attend to the matter, and such measures would not be so liable to pass without due consideration. The county rate was no small sum, and its progressive increase could not be viewed without apprehension by gentlemen connected with the land. In 1835, when it was thought necessary to appoint a Commission upon it, the amount was 690,000l. in the year; it was now something like 1,300,000l. It had increased in a much greater ratio than either crime or population. In Lancashire it was about 3d. in the pound in 1834, and now he believed it was nearly 8d.; and the assessment on which it was taken had increased between 1834 and 1848 from 4,000,000l. to 6,000,000l. In proposing the second reading of this Bill, all he asked of the House was an acquiescence in this most reasonable principle, that there should be representative control over the county rate—that taxation and representation should go together; he did not ask the House to pledge themselves to all the details of the measure, and he should propose to refer it to a Select Committee on the Bill to consider the machinery for carrying the principle into effect. When the Bill had undergone the ordeal of a Select Committee, the House, if they did not approve of it, could exercise their discretion and throw it out on the third reading; but, looking to the petitions which bad been presented to the House, and the representations which had been made by boards of guardians com- posed of gentlemen entertaining different political opinions, and agreeing only on the present question, he hoped they would not refuse to read it a second time, with the understanding that no hon. Member would be supposed to pledge himself to more than the principle on which it was founded.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."


rose to put it to the right hon. Gentleman if he thought it would be proper to press his Motion, when he reflected that owing to the hasty manner in which the Bill had been introduced, only one day had virtually elapsed between the first reading and the present stage. The Bill professed to be the same as that of last Session, but it varied essentially in its details. He was favourable to the representative control of the county rates by the ratepayers, but he wished to see that principle affirmed with deliberation and care; and he was satisfied, if the House affirmed the principle now by reading the Bill a second time, they would not sanction the details. He therefore moved that the debate be adjourned.


thought, also, that many clauses of the Bill would require great time and deliberation before the House could assent to them. He vindicated the conduct of the magistracy in the transaction of county business. For five or six centuries these gentlemen had discharged their duties with great satisfaction to the country; and, before any change took place in the present system, a case of great fraud, extravagance, and waste, should be substantiated against them. He concurred with many Gentlemen on his side of the House that taxation should go along with representation; but, without aspiring to any reputation as a lawyer, he could not but say the present Bill did not carry out that principle. Why should not the tenant-farmers, and all persons who paid rates, have direct votes in the election of members of the Financial County Board? The Bill also introduced a principle of antagonism in the composition of the board, by providing that it should consist of magistrates, and of persons not magistrates, in an equal number. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester had referred to the petitions in favour of a change; but the fact was, that the petitions were very few, considering the importance of the measure, and the petition on which the right hon. Gen- tleman relied proceeded from interested parties. It was all very true that ratepayers had an interest in economy in the county expenditure, and in the erection of gaols and asylums; but were the magistrates to have nothing to do with the country but to discharge their very onerous duties in dispensing justice? He hoped the debate would not be adjourned, but that the House would come to a decision on the principle of the Bill, which certainly was not that taxation should be represented.


suggested, that one of two questions ought to be discussed—the question of adjournment of the debate, or the actual merits of the Bill. As to the Motion for adjournment, he, personally, should not have asked for the postponement of the consideration of the Bill; but he was not prepared to express any final or decided opinion with respect to its details. If the discussion were to go on, however, he would be ready to state, as to the principle of the Bill, the course he should deem it advisable to take. Still, he was not inclined to regard the demand for postponement as unreasonable. Whatever might be the course to be adopted by the House as to the Bill, it was obviously quite impossible that a measure of the nature and importance of that before them should receive the sanction of the Legislature without full consideration and discussion; while, if it were to be thought necessary that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, that Committee ought, he imagined, to be invested with the power of taking evidence. Upon the whole, he was inclined to think that the suggestion for adjournment should be adopted.


deprecated a desultory discussion on a Bill of such importance. He wished to meet the measure in the fairest spirit; but was it not remarkable that a Bill of this magnitude, involving the monetary transactions of all the counties in England, should be forced upon the House only three days after it had been delivered to hon. Members? For his own part, he wished to obtain some information as to the probable working of the Bill in his own county, which information it was impossible he could be furnished with in time for the discussion, unless some delay were to be granted.


was sorry to see this attempt made to postpone, and, by postponing, defeat this Bill. Were a new question involved in the measure, then, no doubt, delay ought to be granted. But what was the fact? After the reform of the corporations, the revenues of boroughs were placed under the management of individuals appointed by the ratepayers of each town, and there was then a great cry that the management of county rates ought to be similarly reformed. He believed that there was no instance in the history of this country of such an amount of taxation as that paid in county rates being levied without the taxpayers having something to say as to its expenditure. He regretted extremely that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary should have taken the course he had adopted, after what had passed last year, and after the petitions in favour of some such measure which had emanated from almost every county in England. [Loud cries of "No, no!"from the Opposition.] Hon. Gentlemen said "No, no! "Well, then, lot them find and produce one petition for the maintenance of the existing order of things. He trusted that the House would not suffer this Bill to be defeated by a side-wind.


said, that it was very material that the House, in determining which course ought now to be adopted, should be influenced by those considerations which would most conduce to a full, satisfactory, and temperate consideration of this important measure. Now, he thought that if the right hon. Gentleman opposite (the Member for Manchester) would voluntarily acquiesce in the proposal made by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, that that course would much more conduce to such a temperate and full discussion, than, at that moment—nearly four o'clock—to open a debate upon the second reading. Let it be remembered that the proposal for delay came from a Gentleman distinctly declaring himself not to be hostile to the principle of the Bill, the principle of combining a representative system with the present method of managing the county rates. The Bill was only printed on Saturday last, and, although it was no doubt discussed during the last Session, yet surely it was not unimportant that there should be some time left to their constituents for the formation of public opinion as to the matter on its reintroduction. He asked for delay, not with the intention of defeating the Bill by postponement, but because he thought that the request was reasonable. Indeed, if it were not acquiesced in, he feared that a feeling would be roused likely to prevent the full and temperate discussion of the question. He did trust, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman would not press on his Motion. If he did, he could assure him that he would not thereby forward his views. Six o'clock would speedily come, and would bring with it a delay not conducive to the speedy resumption of the question. He hoped, under these circumstances, that the earliest possible day would be at once fixed for the resumption of the debate.


, taking into consideration the quarters whence those recommendations came, would be willing to acquiesce in them, but he wished the House justly to consider the position of an independent Member who stood alone in the House. Delay in his case was the loss of the measure for the Session. It might be a month before he could get another opportunity of bringing forward the measure of which he had taken charge. Was he to bear the responsibility of not proceeding with it when it came before the House in the order of business? Was he to abandon the second reading without any reasonable ground except the arguments of authority, such as the suggestions of the right hon. Baronets the Member for Tam-worth, and Northumberland North? He hoped Government would relieve him from that responsibility. He really could not stand against that sort of pressure For his own part, he would prefer to go on and take the sense of the House now on the second reading. Would the Government assist him by naming an early day? Perhaps the noble Lord at the head of the Government might throw a little light on the question.


understood that the principle of the Bill was, that taxation should be represented. He very well understood the right hon. Baronet's remark that the Bill should be carefully considered, but the present issue was with respect to the principle. He wanted to know if Government were for that principle. If not, he could understand their desire to postpone the second reading. But if they approved of the principle, he could not see why they should suggest any delay in affirming it.


hoped the Bill would be postponed. He did believe the Bill contained the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. The details actually involved the principle, and an adjournment would only save time.


could assure the right hon. Gentleman, that when he spoke of the pressure upon him, he must be in error, if he supposed the counties thought him interested in their expenditure, or that they were interested in his Bill. The right hon. Gentleman now wanted to appear as the farmers' friend, just as those who had destroyed our colonial interest affected to be the friends of the colonies; but it would not go down with the country. The highest authorities as men of business assured him they could not master the details of the Bill, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would allow the adjournment to take place.


suggested to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be as well to substitute for his measure, a Bill exempting occupying tenants from the payment of rates altogether.


said, that as it was now so late, there could be no chance of a decision before six o'clock, when they could proceed no further, and the practical consequence might be, that the right hon. Gentleman would be in no better position than if he had accepted the proposition I for an adjournment. The right hon. Gentleman had asked him whether the Government would throw some light on the question; which meant, as he understood, that Government should fix a day for the second reading. He (Lord J. Russell) regretted he could not accede to the suggestion, as he thought there was hardly a sufficient number of days for the Government business which had been announced. He must think, however, that some portion of delay, to enable the country to know the nature; of the measure, and the important consequences which would result from it, would not be injurious. The hon. and learned; Gentleman the Member for Sheffield had asked what was the disposition of the Government with regard to the principle of representation contained in the Bill. He (Lord J. Russell) could only answer that he was so strongly in favour of the introduction of that principle, that he should, when it came to the question, give his sup-port to the second reading. He would do so, however, without at all undertaking the defence of any of the details of the Bill; and, thinking it necessary that there should be a Select Committee to consider the details, it would be probably necessary also to take evidence before the Committee with respect to the present system.

Debate adjourned till Wednesday 13th March.

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