HC Deb 10 May 1850 vol 110 cc1316-22

said, that as it was most desirable there should be no delay in making known the course he proposed to pursue with regard to the stamp duties, he would, with the permission of the House, proceed to state it then. He hoped the House would allow him first to refer to what had happened with regard to this question, and to the difficulty in which he had been placed in endeavouring to reconcile the interests of individuals and the interests of the public, and carry into effect the object he had in view in introducing the measure., He had never stated, as was alleged, that this was a measure calculated to confer such a great boon upon the country generally; what he said was, that it was pointed out in the report of the Lords' Committee that there was a great discrepancy between the rate of duty upon large and upon small transactions in land, and that small owners of land, in disposing of it or of borrowing upon it, were subject to difficulties from which their richer neighbours were relieved, and he proposed to put the former at least upon equal terms with the latter. He stated, at the same time, that he proposed to take off rather more than 450,000l. by the repeal of the duty on bricks, and rather less than 300,000l. by the alteration of the stamp duties, making together 750,000l., which was the extent of relief from taxation which he thought could be properly given this year; and he also, at the same time, stated fully the principles of the measure which he had in view. No opposition was offered to what he proposed, nor were any observations made censuring or finding fault with it; the measure was received apparently with general approval, and he confessed he was not prepared for the opposition that subsequently arose. The objections which were taken might be divided into three classes. It was objected, first, that the Bill did not embrace many subjects with which it might have dealt; his answer to which was, that one Chancellor of the Exchequer after another had been deterred from attempting a general revision of the stamp duties, and that the only chance he saw was that of dealing with them in detail, so that ultimately he might effect a general revision. Then objection was made in regard to what were supposed to be the imposition of new duties—objections founded upon some words in the Bill; as, for instance, it was supposed that he meant to impose a duty upon equitable mortgages. He never proposed any such thing; the words in question were introduced with a different object; he explained that to the parties who came up to him upon the subject, but to avoid all doubts the words were removed from the Bill. He had heard his "Second Stamp Duties Bill" spoken of; the fact simply was, that he had removed from the Bill certain words upon which doubts were entertained. When the Bill came on for discussion, the clauses of the Bill were passed with only a single Amendment; but an hon. Member of great experience, the hon. Member for Cirencester, and well acquainted with the subject, had put upon the paper several Amendments which he proposed to move. Now, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) stated at the time that he acquiesced in most of the objects the hon. Member had in view; but he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not propose to adopt the language of all his Amendments, and would therefore himself bring up clauses which would carry into effect those suggestions, which he fully admitted to be most valuable, and calculated to improve the Bill. Then came the schedules; and he confidently believed if the House had gone into the schedules, a great number of objections taken to them would have been removed, He stated at that time, as he had to state again now, that he proposed to incur nearly the whole of the loss of revenue upon conveyances, and very little upon bonds and mortgages, considering it to be more necessary to enable parties to sell than to borrow; that he proposed to proceed upon the principle adopted by the House, in the Encumbered Estates Act, and that, as far as the stamp duties were concerned, parties should have facilities for selling a portion of their property rather than for encumbering it, and perhaps adding encumbrance to encumbrance. He had proposed, accordingly, to reduce the duty which upon the lowest mortgages was now 2 per cent, to ½ per cent. But after this scale of duties was circulated, he received repeated representations that it would add so considerably to the duty upon higher transactions, that it was desirable to reduce the amount, and he stated therefore that he would reduce it from ½ to ¼ per cent. He might add here, that on the very morning of the day when he came down to the House, he received a representation from the railroad companies, the class of parties, in fact, more affected by this duty than any other, owing to the necessity of renewing their debentures, that if the duty were reduced to ¼, they would be content. He did not come down, therefore, without good reason to suppose that the parties most likely to be injuriously affected by the alteration of the duty on mortgages would be satisfied with the reduction which he had proposed. But the House took a different view of the subject. He had proposed to reduce the duty on the lower amounts to one-eighth of what it was, and to levy the same percentage upon all. It was objected that this ad valorem principle would press upon those who had to borrow large sums, though they only paid in equal proportion to those who borrowed smaller amounts, and that, therefore, the duty must be made so low upon the lower amounts as that, rising equally, it should not increase the amount payable on the larger transactions. The House was accordingly moved to put the duty, not at 2s. 6d., but 1s. It so happened that a more inconvenient sum than 1s. could hardly have been fixed upon; it not only sacrificed a considerable amount of revenue, but it was a sum the stamp for which would not agree with any existing stamp, and would render it necessary to have a completely new set of stamps, to the great inconvenience of all parties in the country, besides considerable expense in making the dies. During the delay which took place in consequence of that vote, he received representations from all parts of the country expressing great anxiety that the measure should be proceeded with, especially with the addition of the Amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Cirencester, the Bill being a measure which had long been looked for through the country, and great desire was expressed to have it passed as early as possible. He would read a short extract from one representation out of many, showing that, even as he proposed the measure, it would have been considered a great boon by a large portion of the country. A committee of attorneys in Somersetshire made this statement: it was signed by four gentlemen of the highest character and respectability:— Perhaps few statutes which have ever passed the Legislature have been more perplexing or more fruitful of litigation than the Stamp Act, 55 George III., cap. 184, now in force; and while, therefore, the proposed measure of Government is just and equitable, it is one of which all who have had any experience in the existing stamp laws have long felt the urgent need. We beg, Sir, further to state that, in the course of the many years' experience which we have had of the present Stamp Act, no part of it has appeared to us to be more unequal in its pressure, or more unjust in its principle, than that which imposes the duties now payable on bonds and mortgages. And we think (in common, we believe, with the members of our profession and the public generally) that a uniform ad valorem duty of 5s. per 100l., as proposed by Her Majesty's Government, on all bonds and mortgages, in lieu of the present unequal, and in some cases oppressive, scale, will be liberal and just, and that it will be sufficiently low to meet all the requirements and all the reason- able expectations of those on whom the payment of these duties will fall. So that, in the opinion of practical and experienced men of business, the proposal of the Government was just and equitable. But the House voted that the duty on bonds and mortgages under 50l. should be only 1s.; and a course was suggested to him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) which he was afterwards obliged to abandon, by which he had hoped to preserve to a considerable extent the one-fourth per cent scale. It was found impracticable. His object had been to endeavour to reconcile considerations of revenue and the reduction necessary in consequence of the vote of the House. After full consideration, he proposed now to adopt the following course; and it would make it necessary to withdraw the present Bill, and introduce a new one, containing the clauses of the old Bill, together with those framed in pursuance of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Cirencester. He should propose that upon conveyances and transfers of property there should be a uniform duty of one per cent ad valorem. This would not give so much relief as he had hoped to give to the smaller conveyances. Above 1,000l. the duty was now one per cent, and the only effect there would be that it would make the scale more equal. Upon mortgages and bonds he should propose a uniform duty of one-eighth per cent, or 2s. 6d.; that would be as near the vote of the House as it was possible to come, consistently with what was really practicable and convenient to the parties using stamps. The effect would be slightly to raise the duty above what the House had voted, but he thought he should be able to satisfy them that this would be the advisable course; they fixed on 1s. up to 50l.; his proposal would be 1s. 3d. He should propose one-eighth per cent carried uniformly, which would relieve considerably mortgages and bonds up to the sum of 12,000l. With regard to leases, he should propose to leave the Bill as it stood, except as to leases with fines in Ireland. With respect to settlements, he should propose that the duty should stand as in the Bill, namely, one-fourth, or 5s. per cent upon settlements of money, or money to be raised on land. Hon. Gentlemen had been under a strange misapprehension as to the intention of the Bill, as if it proposed something totally new, and never thought of before, in imposing a duty upon contingent annuities. He would admit that he had intended to make more certain the words of the existing law; but what he should now propose was, not only to give up that, but to repeal certain words which were in the existing Act. The words of the existing Act showed, clearly as he thought, that such contingent annuities were to be charged with duty; the words were, that every settlement was to be charged, "whether the money was to be raised at all events or not;" whether to be raised "absolutely, or conditionally, or contingently." As he had said, he had intended to make that more certain. He believed, upon the whole, the duties had not been practically paid; and he thought it better to omit the words, and therefore all contingent annuities would be free from duty. These settlements had been used to escape legacy duty to a considerable extent; but the duties would bear so hardly that he proposed to repeal the words. He proposed to repeal altogether the duty on a lease for a year, and to reduce the duty on transfers and mortgages to an ad valorem if below 35s., leaving the 35s. in all cases above; and he believed the effect would be, beyond that, to relieve almost all transfers where there was a further sum borrowed. He should propose to reduce the duty on memorials from 10s. to a uniform duty of 2s. 6d. With regard to the "progressive duty," or duty on "followers," a duty of 20s. or 25s. on all skins after the first—which fell very heavily upon long conveyances—he should propose to reduce it to a uniform duty of 10s. There were some minor points, but he need not then go into all the details. He should propose to allow the Commissioners of Stamps, upon a deed being brought to them, to settle what the amount of stamp should be, and that the payment of an additional 10s. should make that stamp sufficient, in all courts of law, and that the deed should be deemed duly stamped. At present the Judges were not bound by the opinion of the Commissioners of Stamps; by these means perfect safety could be obtained. He would beg before he concluded to read one other extract, because it showed the opinions of very high authorities upon the subject. It was from the Incorporated Law Society of London. They stated— The council are glad to find that there is a disposition on the part of the Government to reduce the ad valorem duty on mortgages to 2s. 6d. per cent. The council are decidedly of opinion that with these alterations and amendments, and assuming the ad valorem duty on conveyances to be fixed at 20s. per cent, and on settlement of personal property and of money, charged on land and immediately raisable, at 5s. per cent, the Bill will operate most beneficially for the interests of the public in general, and will effect a very equitable and considerable reduction in the stamp duties payable on mortgages and conveyances of small amounts, to the great advantage and relief of the classes on whom these duties have hitherto fallen in a very disproportionate ratio. This, he believed, would be the general feeling when the Bill came to be more thoroughly understood. He should propose to move that the Order of the Day for the Committee on the Stamp Duties Bill be discharged; as there was a slight raising of the duty in one or two eases, he had to take that course; and if the House would permit him to go into Committee on Monday, and vote the resolution to found a Bill, they could make any further reduction in Committee on the Bill if they thought necessary, and that course would enable the Bill to be printed and circulated next week. He believed the Bill would effect a valuable improvement, remove a great deal of doubt and difficulty upon this subject, and prove acceptable to the country. The loss to the revenue, he believed, would be 300,000l., but very great relief would be given to the smaller proprietors.

Committee on Monday next.