HC Deb 02 July 1856 vol 143 cc224-9

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.


said, that a Bill was passed some years ago to exempt from local taxation the premises occupied by societies established for the cultivation of "science, literature, and the fine arts, exclusively." The societies claiming the benefit of that measure had to be certified by Mr. Tidd Pratt, and it so happened that the courts of law had in many instances decided that the certificate of that Gentleman had been given upon insufficient grounds. Under those circumstances, the present Bill had been brought in to declare the finding of the certifying barrister final and without appeal, and also to get rid of the word "exclusively" from the existing Act, which had a restrictive operation. The measure would, therefore, indefinitely extend an exemption which, if not wholly vicious in principle, had already reached its legitimate limit. It would enable the Athenaeæum Club, or any other institution professing in any degree to promote science, literature, and the fine arts, to escape from the payment of poor rates and other local taxes. Moreover, such an immunity was hardly consistent with the recognised doctrines of political economy, as the advantage it conferred would be swept away by the landlord of the premises in the shape of increased rent. Under the proposed Bill no one could say how far the exemption might extend. Entertaining those objections to the Bill, he should move that the Chairman report progress.


said, the object of the Bill was to carry out the 6 & 7 Vict., c. 36, which was not properly understood. The word "exclusively" was contained in that Act, and many difficulties had arisen in consequence. He believed that if the law were strictly carried out no institution would be able to avail itself of the advantages of the law. He did not think it was right to act upon this rigid system. The present Bill, which he had introduced at the request of the Society of Arts, and of a vast number of Mechanics' Institutes, merely proposed to carry into effect the original intention of the Act referred to. According to the decision of a court of law the British and Foreign School Society was not an institution within the meaning of the Act, and the Royal Society, which took in newspapers and periodicals for the perusal of the members, was not entitled to derive any benefit from the Act. He did not propose to introduce any new principle or to extend an old one, but merely to restore to the Statute-book an Act which had been practically effaced by the decisions of a court of law. He believed that even those persons who were most opposed to any national system of education would not wish to see the Mechanics' Institutes obstructed in the beneficial progress thay had made in this country. Let them just cast their eyes over the country and see what spontaneous efforts had been made by those men for their own advancement and instruction. He felt assured that the House would have a deep sympathy with them; and, he was happy to say, many eminent statesmen had given their valuable personal efforts to promote the prosperity of such institutions. He believed they deserved the patronage and the consideration of the Government; for although they might not be in every respect the very best instruments that might be devised for education, they suited the tastes and prejudices of the people, and had doubtless been productive of very great benefits. Many of them were kept in existence on very slender and precarious funds, and the slightest failure in their receipts would close many of them. He was sure any support Government might give would be beneficially bestowed, and that it would be thankfully received by a very valuable class of the community.


said, he thought it was a pitiable thing that any opposition should be offered to the Bill. Churches and chapels, which were frequently places for the rich, were exempted from these rates, and yet institutions established simply for the poor were not to be allowed the same privilege. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bouverie) said that the landlords would be the only persons who would benefit by the remission of the rates, but that was not the case, for landlords would be glad to have such tenants at the ordinary rentals. Besides, the founders of Mechanics' Institutes were anxious to have premises of their own, and the exemption from rates was a great incentive to exertion in that respect.


said, that if the Bill confined itself to carrying out the first Act, he should not object to it. The Bill, however, exempted any building devoted in any sort of way to the interests of science, which was so large a provision that it could hardly be allowed without danger. There was no building which might not in some way or other be made subservient to the interests of science.


said, he cordially supported the measure, for he was of opinion that those who objected that the landlord would derive all the benefit of the exemption overlooked the fact that those societies generally aspired to purchase the land and premises which they occupied, and to make them their own freeholds.


said, the Bill would entirely exempt from rates any building though it were only occupied one day in the week for literary purposes, and during the remainder of the week for purposes of business. The landlord, notwithstanding what had been asserted by hon. Members, would in reality get the benefit of the exemption; and he did not think that that was the object of the Bill. The decisions which had been given by the Courts of Law were entirely in accordance with the Act as it stood. It was now proposed to make the certificate of the barrister final; but to that he strongly objected.


said the question had been argued as though the Bill referred solely to Mechanics' Institutes; now that was not the case, for the Bill would let in all kinds of buildings. At Greenwich it had been decided by the barrister that a building which was let on hire for lectures, and even theatrical purposes, was within the Act; but on appeal to the Court of Queen's Bench, that decision had been reversed. At Manchester, a place used for musical performances had also been certified by the barrister as coming within the Act. He was surprised to find the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield) supporting a Bill which would have the effect of taxing all the rest of a parish for the benefit of those institutions.


said, the old Bill had extended beyond Mechanics' Institutes, including places used for literary and educational purposes. The only objection to the present law was because it contained the word "exclusively." He had presented a petition from ninety-two literary institutions in Yorkshire and Lancashire; from which it appeared that some of those institutions were held to come within the Act, while others were excluded. The Bristol Athenaeæum paid as much as £100 a year in local rates. Now that he considered a very great hardship, seeing that other similar institutions were exempt. Either the law ought to be repealed or equalised in its operation.


said, he would remind the Committee that a charter had been asked for on behalf of Her Majesty's Theatre on the ground that it encouraged music and dancing—and the effect of the present Bill would be to let in kindred places of all descriptions. By passing such a measure they would run the risk of being compelled to make no exemption whatever from local taxation, and thus defeat the very object for which the Bill was brought in. He should be glad to see a measure for exempting schools from rates, but its provisions ought to be well defined. There was no uncertainty about the present law; the difficulty of applying it arose from the difference in the institutions.


said, he thought it a great mistake to suppose that the benefit given by the Bill would go into the pocket of the landlords. The exemption attached to the institution, and it was not at all likely that landlords would charge a higher rent because the institution was exempt from rates. All were agreed that it was desirable to exempt literary institutions from rates; and they were equally agreed that the object was not effected by the existing Act. Hence the necessity of new provisions. He hoped to see the Bill passed in the present Session.


said, the Bill did not introduce a new principle, but merely extended one already in operation. Mechanics' Institutes had been denied the benefit of the law because they took in newspapers; and the object of the Bill was to alter the law in that respect. The objections raised to the clause might easily be obviated in Committee.


said, he thought a very little ingenuity would suffice to remove all the objections to the Bill.


said, the Bill would extend the exemption far beyond what Parliament had contemplated in passing the original Bill. Any person who was fortunate enough to get the certificate of the officer would be able in this way to avoid the payment of his rates. However desirous they might be to encourage education, they must not throw a burden on the ratepayers by opening the door for a large number of exemptions. The sort of Amendment which was proposed to be made in Committee would only leave the law as it stood. It had been suggested that the word "mainly" or "principally" should be introduced; but the only effect of that would he to increase litigation.


said, he should support the Bill, which he thought most beneficial, and hoped that it would be proceeded with.


said, he considered that the Government were to blame for neglecting the working classes and postponing their interests to financial considerations. The Government and the House ought to do all they could to promote and extend education, and Members of the Government might do worse than even patronise the Princess's Theatre. They voted thousands of millions for political objects, but they were chary of hundreds when the advancement of the working classes was the question before the House.


said, he would suggest that they should consider the question in Committee. They were all desirous of promoting education, and they might consider in Committee what words would best carry out that object.


said, it seemed to be apprehended that if they sought to get rid of the objectionable word "exclusively," they might give the measure a wider scope than had ever been intended by its supporters. He could not, however, see any great difficulty in substituting for the objectionable adverb some word or form of words which would, while satisfying the objections urged, carry out the objects proposed by the Bill.


said, that he retained the opinion he before expressed, but he would withdraw his Motion in deference to what seemed the wish of the Committee.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2.


said, he thought the clause would lead to litigation.


said, that if the Committee allowed the clause to pass, he would endeavour to change the wording by the time of bringing up the Report, so as to carry out the object the Legislature had in view when it exempted certain institutions.


said, he thought it would be easy to suggest words which the courts of law would find no difficulty in interpreting.


moved that the Chairman report progress, and ask leave to sit again.

The Committee divided: — Ayes 25; Noes 117: Majority 92.


said, he would suggest that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hutt) should fix the Bill for to-morrow, pass it through Committee pro formâ, and then present it in its amended form.

House resumed; Committee report progress.

The House adjourned at Six o'clock.