§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
§ MR. HALSEY
, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said that the House must he aware that a very great amount of property now escaped the payment of rates, and that, at the same time, the constant changes of occupation in small tenements caused immense trouble to the overseers. He had with him a letter from a most excellent magistrate of Bedfordshire, expressing the pain with which he signed warrants to distrain perhaps the beds of poor families for rates, and urging the expediency of charging them upon the landlords in the case of small houses. The existing law was really a premium upon idleness and dissipation, for the party who was made to pay was the industrious man who saved a little money and bought furniture. It was a mistake to suppose that if the rates were charged on the owners, the rents would be raised; but the comforts of the cottages would be increased. [The hon. Member read a letter from a parish containing a large quantity of cottage property, and an extract from the tenth report of the Poor Law Commissioners, in regard to the effect of an Act passed in 1841, empowering the overseers of Kidderminster to rate the landlords of small tenements.] He asked the House to mark the success of such a measure where it had been tried. The Committee of the House of Commons, in 1837, and the Committee of the House of Lords, in 1846, reported in favour of the view he had taken. He trusted he had shown the necessity which existed for an alteration in the law, and that the measure he proposed was calculated to effect such an alteration in a mild and beneficial manner. He hoped, therefore, the House would not re- 1120 ject it, but allow the Bill to receive a second reading.
§ MR. P. SCROPE
, believing that the deficiency of house accommodation for the poorer classes was most prejudicial to the interests of society at large, and that the proposed Bill would tend to augment the evil, was prepared to offer the second reading his decided opposition. The Poor Law Commissioners, Captain Robinson, Mr. Austin, and others, had reported strongly that house accommodation had not extended in proportion to the increase of the population. They stated that the proprietors disliked cottage property, as there was a difficulty in collecting the rates, and sometimes the cottages were pulled down. He admitted the difficulty of the present system, but he would rather endure it than submit to the alterations proposed by the Bill. He anxiously asked the Government to postpone, at all events, the consideration of it till they had disposed of the settlement question. It was no light matter, for it affected that large class of the people who were unable to pay the poor-rates, and were not paupers. If they rated the owners, they might depend on it the pressure of the rate would fall on the occupier. The rents received generally on this class of property did not return more than 2 per cent, and no person would build cottages for the poor in future, if he had to pay 4s. or 5s. out of that. Captain Hoskyn and Mr. Austin had stated that any tax laid on the owners of cottages would be laid by them on the occupiers, in the form of an increase of rent. The general rule of the law of England, he observed, was, with the exception of Stourges Bourne's Act, to rate the occupiers, and not the owners. The case of Kidderminster showed, that when that rule was departed from, the owners continued to make use of the law for their own advantage. The same was found to be the case in Liverpool, and the owners increased the rents so much as to create an immense amount of pauperism, in consequence of which the town had applied to Parliament for the repeal of the local Act, passed three or four years ago, for the rating of owners. Ireland presented a still stronger case in point, because the best authorities were of opinion that the immense evictions were attributable to the pressure of the poor-law, which laid the rates on the owners.
§ MR. BAINES
said, that if he agreed in the opinion of the hon. Gentleman who had just resumed his seat, that the Bill would press heavily on the poorer classes, he should be the last man in the House to vote for it; but he honestly believed it would not have any such effect. Under the present system, the owner of property on which there was an exclusion of rates contrived to get a higher rent than he otherwise would, and was the only person who benefited by the law, while the poor man did not gain any advantage from the exemption, and the public generally lost by it. And when the hon. Gentleman alluded to speculators running up cottages for the poorer classes, and concluded the Bill would prevent their doing so, he actually adduced one of the strongest arguments in favour of the Bill, because he called attention to the case of persons who in building laid out their ground in such parcels as they knew would be exempt from the rate, and thereby gained a benefit all their own. The Bill of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire was not, as the hon. Member for Stroud might have led the House to understand, a compulsory measure, rendering all persons, owners of cottages within a certain limit of value, liable to be rated. His (Mr. Baines's) opinion was, that if any fault was to be found with the Bill, it was that it did not go far enough; but it was a step in the right direction; and, as it would effect a certain amount of good, though not all that might be effected by improved legislation, he hoped the House would give their assent to the second reading. He wished to call the attention of the hon. Member for Hertfortshire to one point. By the 59th George III., c. 12, sec. 19, known as Sturges Bourne's Act, there was a power given to the vestry to pass resolutions by a majority, with the object that, in certain cases, the owners should be rated instead of the occupiers; and the evils which that Act was intended to meet, and which existed to a tenfold degree at present, were recited in the clause as follows:—And whereas in many parishes, more especially in large and populous towns, the payment of the poor-rates is greatly evaded, &c., and it hath been found persons letting houses do receive much higher rents for the same, on the ground that the occupiers thereof cannot be effectually assessed to the poor-rates, and do thus obtain an undue advantage to themselves; be it enacted, &c., that the owners of all houses, &c., which shall 1122 be let to the occupiers thereof at any rent not exceeding 20l., nor less than 6l. by the year, &c., shall be assessed to the relief of the poor.And the clause further directed how far the inhabitants in vestry might vary the resolutions of any former vestry in this respect, and provided for the assessment of the rate on the owners by an equal pound-rate, after making a reasonable deduction from the rent, not exceeding in any case one-half, and for the levy and recovery against the owner in the same way as for the levy and recovery of poor-rates against the actual occupier under other circumstances. The hon. Member proposed to do away with the minimum of 6l., which, so far as he (Mr. Baines) could learn from those hon. Members who had been in the House when the Act was passed, was fixed upon without any reason whatever. If these evils existed on 6l. houses, it appeared to him the argument would be very much à fortiori with respect to houses below 6l. The hon. Member proposed that henceforth there should be power in a vestry to rate the owners of houses from 20l. downwards, without any minimum, instead of the occupiers. That was the whole scope of his Bill. He wished to call the hon. Gentleman's attention, however, to the provision that there should be a majority of two-thirds of the vestry. Why require a different proportion of the vestry from that which was sufficient to sanction the rating on the owners in cases of 6l. houses? It seemed to him the bare majority of the vestry ought to be sufficient, and he hoped the hon. Gentleman would consent to such an alteration when they went into Committee. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud said, that rating small tenements had failed in Liverpool. He (Mr. Baines) was not aware of that fact, but he certainly knew that a great number of local Acts for rating the owners of small tenements had lately been applied by the inhabitants of that town. As regarded Kidderminster, so far from the Act rating small tenements working badly, the union had come to Parliament and asked for a similar principle to be extended from the town to the union. He would support the second reading.
§ SIR J. PAKINGTON
said, he should support the measure, but he could not help remarking that, as long as he had been in the House they had had a Bill before them about highways, and another for rating small tenements; but he hoped the present year would dispose of both questions. Any 1123 one conversant with the country must know the present state of the law was productive of great inequality and injustice, and bore very hardly on the poor. The only objection he had to the Bill was, that it was not compulsory. They had had a great deal too much of permissive legislation. Parliament should make up their mind as to what was right, and then declare it binding upon all. It so happened that two-thirds of the vestry were not the persons he should exactly like to decide the question of rating. He would much rather see a compulsory enactment that up to 5l. or 6l. the rate should be paid by owners of property. A large amount of property escaped taxation at present, and the result was that a greater burden was thrown on the rest of the country.
§ CAPTAIN PECHELL
said, that although he had found it necessary to oppose former measures on this subject, he should not oppose the second reading of the Bill.
§ MR. ROBERT PALMER
declared that he was not at all satisfied in his mind that the present measure was right, or was better than the measures which he had opposed on previous occasions. He was much inclined to think with the hon. Member for Stroud that the effect of rating the owners would be to check what was so much wanted—the building of convenient cottages, affording comfortable accommodation for the labouring population, at low rents. The object of every Gentleman was to afford such accommodation at the lowest possible cost. If a labourer was unable from poverty to pay the rate, he could, Tinder the present law, go before the magistrates, with the consent of the overseers, and prove his inability, and they would then excuse him for the time being. It was also a very common practice for the overseers to take into consideration the state of cottage property in their district, and if they knew a certain number of persons were, from poverty and low wages, unable to support themselves, and pay rates, to come to a resolution not to charge them to the poor-rates. It was a common practice for persons who had laid by money in youth to purchase a plot of land and erect cottages on it, under an impression that the sort of tenants to whom they intended to let those cottages would never be charged with any rates; and he doubted whether, under the provisions of the Bill, they could fix any particular species of property with rates; he also had serious doubts whether the House ought to agree 1124 to a measure like the present, which was in the nature of an ex post facto law, inasmuch as it enabled one set of persons to come upon another for that which they never expected to be called upon to pay. It happened to him that he had upon his estate cottages for which he only received 50s. a year; but those cottages, if fairly valued, could not be considered as worth less than 5l. a year, and that, he doubted not, was the case with many others besides himself; he did then think it most unfair if a man were to be called on to pay rates upon a higher scale of valuation than the actual rent which he might receive for the cottage property that he possessed. He did not mean to offer any further opposition to the Bill, but in Committee he intended to propose that no landlord should be expected to pay upon any valuation above the rent which he actually received. He was quite aware of the growing feeling in favour of such a measure, and he took the liberty of suggesting to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud not to take the sense of the House on the second reading.
MR. S. ADAIR
observed, that there existed a general impression that speculative builders erected better cottages than were usually built by other parties, and at more reasonable rents. He trusted that the hon. Gentleman would persevere with the Bill—that he would make it compulsory and final. To leave the application of it discretionary, would be, as he thought, most inexpedient. He might mention to the House a case in which the collection of the arrears cost 17 per cent, and that cost fell, not upon the owners, but the occupiers. For these reasons then he thought it the most just and expedient plan that the owners should pay the rates.
§ MR. DEEDES
supported the second reading of the Bill, and hoped that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire would improve his measure by adopting some of the suggestions that had been made.
§ MR. SLANEY
stated, that speculative builders often came into a neighbourhood where their presence was not much desired; that they ran up cottages and filled them with inhabitants, who competed with and often did great injury to the independent labourer, and thus the whole population of the district became more or less deteriorated. When he looked at the authorities which had given opinions upon these subjects, he found that thay were all in favour of such a measure as that before 1125 the House, and he hoped that in Committee the hon. Gentleman would consent to such clauses as would make the Bill just and palatable.
§ MR. AGLIONBY
was of opinion that the discussion of these points had much better be postponed until the Bill went into Committee; he was bound, however, frankly to state that he could not continue his support to the Bill unless the right of voting were permanently secured to the occupier.
§ MR. BAINES
, referring to the Municipal Reform Act, said that it provided sufficiently for securing to occupiers the full right of voting, whether they were liable to the rates or not. The overseer must, under that Act, put the name of the occupier on the roll. He was sure that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire desired to secure to occupiers the indisputable right of voting.
§ MR. REYNOLDS
observed, that the right hon. Gentleman who spoke last had referred to the Municipal Reform Act for the purpose of showing that that statute Secured to the occupier the right of voting; but though the Irish Municipal Reform Act contained a clause copied from that to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, yet it did not secure to the occupier the right of voting. The occupier of a shop or of a tenement might claim to be rated, but that was not the point; occupiers ought to possess the franchise, no matter who paid the rates. His own case was this—he rented a counting-house; he served a notice desiring to be rated; at the same time, also, he offered to pay any rates that might be due; but he was told that nothing was due, which was giving him what in Ireland was called "a Quaker's receipt," being an ingenious mode of evading the stamp duties. Upon the subject of the notice which he served he had taken the opinion of counsel, and he had been told that his notice was insufficient, because it did not set forth the value of the tenement. Now, it was most absurd to require that a tenant should set a value upon the premises which he himself occupied. It might seem some-. what impertinent in him to speak upon a Bill which only affected England and Wales; but hon. Members on both sides of the House, who were only English Members, had continually interfered in the affairs of Ireland, and had spoken as if they meant to minister to all the social diseases on the other side of the water. He did not complain of such political doctor- 1126 ing. On the contrary, he felt much obliged to them for it, and was only anxious that they should not, by the adoption of this Bill, reduce the franchise. It might not affect the rural districts, but by taking the small tenements in corporate towns out of the rate-book they would be cutting off a large and very useful class from their political privileges.
§ MR. BRIGHT
said, that he had received a letter from Manchester—not, however, upon the subject of the present Bill—from parties who were deeply interested in the security and extension of the franchise; that communication stated that in many cases the landlord would not pay the rates, though his rents were regularly paid to him; and thus he might, either through neglect or malevolence, disfranchise his tenants. He did not hesitate to say that no man's franchise ought to be placed in that sort of jeopardy. If he paid his rent and did his duty as a member of society, he ought not to be disfranchised on account of the conduct of any other person. Then there was another ground of complaint fairly enough urged in the letter that he held in his hand, which was this: Landlords often compounded for the rates of houses which were under the value of 10l. That was held not to be a payment in full, and thereby the occupiers were disfranchised. As far as it was connected with rates, this Bill would give great facility to the collectors, but that was no reason why a measure should be hurried through the House which would lead to such a great extent of disfranchisement. He should wish to know from the Government whether, if the House consented to the second reading of the Bill, and if any suggestions for the obviating of this objection should be proposed in Committee, the Government would oppose those amendments?
§ SIR G. GREY
had no hesitation in saying that he thought it would be extremely wrong if this Bill should operate in any way to the disfranchisement of any parties possessing the franchise, and be believed that nothing was further from the intention of the hon. Gentleman who brought in the Bill. His right hon. Friend the President of the Poor Law Board had said he thought a clause in the Municipal Bill would prevent it; but he would look into the subject, and if he were not satisfied that that clause would have that effect, he would take care that a clause for the purpose should be introduced. He hoped the hon. Gentleman would not name the Committee for an early 1127 day, for there were many points in which it would be well for him to communicate with his right hon. Friend.
§ MR. HENLEY
did not believe the measure would relieve the poor at all, but at the same time there might be places to which it would be applicable. It would be necessary, however, that in Committee the Bill should be more strictly guarded; for instance, a longer notice should be given when parties were to appear before the vestry, so that no parties should be taken by surprise. He would vote for the second reading, but reserved to himself the right of dealing with it on the third reading according to the state in which it then should come before them.
§ MR. HALSEY
, in reply, said, he intended to put in some clause or clauses that would have the effect of guarding the franchise, but he was not disposed to make the Bill compulsory.
§ Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 182; Noes 2: Majority 180.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read 2°, and committed for Wednesday, 20th March.