HC Deb 28 May 1857 vol 145 cc985-92

Sir, I rise for the purpose of moving, in pursuance of notice which I have given to that effect, "for the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the expediency of a more equitable adjustment of the Land Tax. Also for allowing a further redemption of the same. And whether by any other means the land tax might be made more beneficial to the Revenue of the Country, and to the reduction of the National Debt." Since I placed the notice on the paper, I have received three additional petitions complaining of the unequal and inequitable operation of the tax, and praying that some fair and just mode of levying it may be adopted. It is not my intention to occupy the attention of the House, at this late hour of the evening, with any lengthened observations from myself upon the importance of this question to those who are most deeply affected by it, or on the unjust and unequal manner in which the tax is levied; nor shall I enter into any lengthened details or statistical statements to support my Motion; because if the House will accede to it, and grant me the Committee, that I think will be the proper place for entering into those particulars. Indeed, if it had not have been that I myself was deeply impressed with the unjust and oppressive operation of the tax, I should not have taken upon myself the task of bringing the subject under the consideration of the House at all; but fully satisfied as I am that it is a tax of the character I have described, I feel no hesitation in doing so, as well as in expressing my astonishment how it was possible that in a free country like this such a tax has been suffered so long to exist, and to be paid. Let me ask, then, why is it, or how comes it, that this tax has been allowed to remain so long in existence as one of what I may call the permanent taxes of the country? If we look into the history of the origin of the impost, we find it stated by no less an authority than that of Sir John Sinclair, that the land tax was one of great antiquity, and that when it first came to be imposed it amounted to no less a sum than 4s. in the pound, and that that amount was levied not only off land, but that all who were engaged in business pursuits, no matter of what nature, had also to pay it out of the profits arising out of such business or mercantile calling. We also find that it is a tax which almost from the earliest date of its imposition by continued renewal every year, from year to year, until the breaking out of the Revolution in the year 1688; that with the exception of a short interval during that eventful period, it was kept on until the year 1692, the time of the reign of William and Mary; and that during that reign an Act of Parliament was passed by which it was declared to be one of the permanent taxes of the country, and as such it was continued to be levied regularly for over a century, until the year 1798 when the Prime Minister of the time, Mr. Pitt, seeing the pressure upon the Government, of which he was the head, for financial resources, and the necessity of devising some means by which to supply them, he hit upon a scheme for which he got the sanction of Parliament, and that was a power for redeeming the tax. At the time when that power was granted, this tax amounted to no less a sum than nearly two millions sterling, that is to say, to £1,925,000; the result of that measure was, that the public treasury received an accession of something like £21,000,000, or a redemption equal to one-third; but the Act under which this measure was carried into effect by Mr. Pitt, was attended by one most unfortunate mistake; and that was, that statesman still adhered to the Act of William and Mary, and persevered in maintaining this tax in accordance with the rate established by that Act; and as an inevitable consequence, the result of Mr. Pitt's measure was, that all those who did not redeem according to the provisions of his Act were compelled to pay in accordance with the old scale; and in that state the enforcement of the tax has been allowed to be carried on up to the present day. Now, just let the House mark what the consequences have been of this mode of legislation. It has been this, that in a great many instances large parishes, inhabited by a numerous and very poor population, have had to pay this most obnoxious tax to an amount most oppressive to them, while a great many very wealthy parishes have actually been exempt from the payment of a single farthing of the tax. I will substantiate this statement by mentioning a few facts from a document I hold in my hand; it is the Report of the operation of the land tax in the different parishes upon which it is levied, and by it I find, that in the parish of Evesham this tax amounts to the incredible sum of 3s. 6d. in the pound upon every individual inhabitant of that parish, or in round numbers to about £190 a year. Now, just let me ask what does the House think was the sum paid to the land tax by the rich town of Liverpool? Just £100 a year: and the result in that case is, that each individual there paid only one farthing in the pound, while in the poor parish of Evesham they paid 3s. 6d. in the pound. So also in Brighton, Manchester, and other wealthy towns, the inhabitants did not pay more than one farthing in the pound. Let us see what was paid by the parishes in this great metropolis. While in St. George's, St. Marylebone, and St. Pancras' parishes they only paid about a farthing in the pound, in St. Ann's, Soho, and in St. Paul's—comparatively poor parishes—they paid 3s. in the pound. Thus, while the tax fell lightly on the wealthy community (who ought to pay the whole of it), it fell oppressively on the poor community. The only plan whereby these inequalities of the tax can be remedied, seems to me to be equalization of it. Nothing can be more monstrous than the operation of the tax. The subject is deserving the most serious attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The evil must be met some time or another, and surely no delay ought to take place in getting rid of so anomalous a system. Sir, I shall not further occupy the time and attention of the House with the subject. In conclusion, I have only to say, that I think I have made out such a case as calls for the appointment of a Committee. I have asked for, and therefore I beg to move that that Committee be appointed in the terms of the notice I have given, and to thank the House for the kind and patient attention with which I have been heard.


seconded the Motion. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the expediency of a more equitable adjustment of the Land Tax; also of allowing a further redemption of the same; and whether by any other means the Land Tax might be made more beneficial to the Revenue of the Country, and to the reduction of the National Debt.


said, that he had hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have risen to point out to the House the extreme impracticability of this Committee; and simply because the experiment had often been tried before, both here and elsewhere, to arrange a more equitable adjustment of the tax. The attempt had puzzled every finance Minister, because the impediments in the way of an adjustment were so great. It was clear that the difficulty arose from the assessment of William and Mary having been made perpetual, and the Redemption Act having been settled on that basis. When the tax was originally imposed it was 4s. in the pound upon income arising from property of all descriptions. But that was before customs, excise, and other modes of raising the public revenue were resorted to. The only equitable readjustment that could be made, and which was occasionally made by the Commissioners of Land-tax, was a readjustment of the quota of each parish respectively. But it would be unjust to take from the charge of one parish and put it upon another. If the hon. Gentleman was prepared to recommend a reassessment of the tax altogether, let him so state it—let him propose to place a new income tax on the country of 4s. in the pound. He did not see how any Committee could deal with the question except by an entire reassessment. At the time the Act was made perpetual the quotas for the respective parishes were settled upon their then value, and consequently in counties where enclosures existed, such as Buckingham, Suffolk, and other anciently-enclosed districts, the highest rate of assessment prevailed, while in a very large extent of country where the land was unenclosed and not then cultivated the tax was of course low. But the hon. Gentleman himself had shown that in the present position of the tax no undue advantage was obtained by the landed interest, which bore the chief burdens, the advantage of a small assessment being entirely with the metropolis and other large towns, which had been so greatly increased in value by building. The difficulty was in making the tax perpetual, which was necessary under the arrangement for redemption. He confessed he did not see how the question was to be dealt with. [Mr. MACKINNON: By redemption.] He doubted whether redemption was now practicable. The principle of Mr. Pitt's Redemption Act was that stock should be taken as the equivalent; and during the Peninsular war, when Consols went below par, many gentlemen did redeem the tax on their estates, for it was then a profitable transaction; but the rate of the public funds ever since the peace of 1815 had been such as to admit of no practical redemption whatever, and consequently no one had attempted to redeem. Unless the House was prepared to repeal the Redemption Act altogether, he saw no advantage that could result from a Committee. He reminded the House, too, that in a very short period the time of hon. Members would be more than sufficiently occupied by attendance on Committees to have the number of such Committees unnecessarily augmented. Taking into account the Committees already sitting, and the different Election Committees which were shortly to be appointed, he believed it would be almost beyond the available means of the House to constitute such a number of Committees at one time. He therefore thought it would be a waste of time to appoint a Committee on a subject beset with such difficulties.


said, that every one would agree with the hon. Member who had moved the Committee as to the unjust and oppressive operation of this tax. With respect to the relative weight with which the tax fell on town and country, it was true it fell much heavier on the country parishes than it did on those in towns; but then the inhabited house-duty was to be taken into account. That of itself was a species of land-tax, and the parish of Marylebone contributed a much larger sum towards it than any of the rural parishes. Before the House entered on a consideration of the question hon. Members ought to have a clear view of the inequalities of the present tax; and of those inequalities he was surprized that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Mackinnon) did not advert to the most glaring, which was the £48,000 only paid by Scotland, compared with the £1,900,000 which England contributed. That would be of itself a sufficient ground for reviewing this tax; but the real point was, how far the Act of Mr. Pitt precluded the House from considering the question of the restoration of the tax to an efficient and productive source of revenue. He thought the condition of the landed interest was such now that it must be forced upon the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as that of a class in the kingdom which was by far the most able to bear the weight of increased taxation. All that was done by the Act of William and Mary was to provide for a fresh valuation, and what Mr. Pitt did was to make the tax perpetual; but he made it perpetual as between the Government and the taxpayer in no other way than other taxes had been made perpetual. There were contracts that arose out of that Act which he (Mr. Neate) would not disturb without an adequate compensation to those whose enjoyments under such contracts might be interfered with; but, he repeated, the object of Mr. Pitt was to make this a perpetual tax. as other taxes had been granted in perpetuity before, in order to lay the foundation for a great financial scheme he had for raising the funds—which were then at 50 only—by bringing into the market the landed proprietors as purchasers of stock. The hon. Member read extracts from a speech of Mr. Pitt to show the objects that distinguished statesman had in view in dealing with the land-tax, and he contended that there was nothing in the Act of Mr. Pitt which precluded the House from considering the question in its widest bearing.


The dissolution of Parliament, which has given us two Sessions this spring, although it may be a subject of regret to many Gentlemen whose familiar faces we may miss in the present Parliament, has nevertheless been extremely advantageous to my hon. Friend who has brought forward this Motion, inasmuch as it has enabled him to make the same Motion twice in the same season. A short time before Easter my hon. Friend brought before the House a Motion substantially identical with the one we are now considering, and he then stated, in much the same terms that he has used on the present occasion, the reasons for which he thought the House ought to give its consideration to such a proposition. It then devolved upon me to state my reasons for objecting to that Motion; and my hon. Friend admitted the validity of those reasons, and withdrew it. Now, my hon. Friend, in reviewing the material facts of the case, has come to the same conclusion on this occasion, and I hope that he will not think it necessary to press his Motion on the consideration of the House. He must surely be aware that this is a well-understood subject; that it has been repeatedly under the consideration of this House and of Committees of this House; and that the anomalies and inequalities of the present tax are fully admitted by all persons who have given their attention to the subject, but that the difficulty of remedying them arises, not from the perpetuity of the tax, a quality which it has in common with many other taxes, but from the system of redemption introduced by Mr. Pitt, under which some persons who were assessed to the tax have redeemed, while others still remain liable. Now, if we were to depart from the fixed standard and reduce the tax on the latter, while those who had redeemed had redeemed at a higher rate, we should commit an act of injustice. The only way in which we can avoid that injustice is in every case to increase the tax beyond the highest amount at which any person had redeemed. If that course were adopted, no one could have cause of complaint, and that, I presume, is the object of the Motion, which the hon. Gentleman recommends as beneficial to the revenue, and as tending to the reduction of the national debt. I suppose the hon. Gentleman means to bring forward a proposal for a considerable increase of taxation—a plan which would, in fact, amount to the imposition of an additional income tax. Not long ago, with, I believe, the general approbation of the country, we removed what was called "the war 9d.," the addition which was made to the income tax during the war. I presume what my hon. Friend wishes to do is to restore some portion of that 9d. I think, too, as the hon. Member for Lincolnshire has said, that it would be difficult at this period of the Session, when so many public Committees are sitting, and when it will shortly be necessary to appoint so many Election Committees, to find fifteen gentlemen to sit upon a Land-tax Committee; but, even if we could find a sufficient number of hon. Members to constitute a Committee, we should be delegating to them the formation of a plan for an additional income tax. I doubt whether we should delegate such important functions to a Committee, and I trust therefore, considering the period of the Session and the fact that the Motion was virtually rejected on a previous occasion during the present year, that my hon. Friend will not think it necessary to divide the House.


replied in a few words, and said he supposed he should yield to the remonstrances of the right hon. Gentleman, and withdraw the Motion; at the same time he did entertain a hope that the Government would give the question their serious attention in the ensuing Session.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.