HC Deb 22 February 1860 vol 156 cc1544-8

Order for Committee read.

Motion made and Question proposed— That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair.


said, he wished to make a formal objection to the Speaker leaving the chair, in order to call the attention of the House to the peculiar circumstances under which this Bill came before them. He could assure the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Slaney) that he was not influenced by any feeling of indifference for the praiseworthy objects which the hon. Member sought by this Bill to promote, or by any want of respect for the benevolent sentiments by which the hon. Member was actuated. But he could not forget that on that day fortnight the Bill was read a second time immediately after a division upon a measure of rather an analogous character— the abolition of church rates—in which division both he and the hon. Member voted with the majority. The reason why he voted with the majority on that occasion made him oppose this Bill, as he did not see how, after that vote, he could with any consistency accede to it. The principle involved in the church-rate question appeared to him to be the power of majorities to tax minorities. It was upon the ground that majorities ought not to have such a power that Bills for the abolition of church rates had always been supported since the decision of the highest Court of Appeal in the Braintree case. But if the principle of taxing minorities by majorities were not allowed in the matter of church rates he did not see how it could be allowed, as the hon. Member proposed, for the purpose of making public improvements such as the creation of parks or the provision of seats. This Bill provided that where two-thirds of a parish should agree upon certain public improvements, that proportion should be able to tax the remaining one-third. It was the identical principle upon which the opposition to church rates rested, and if the frequent decisions of the House against its justice in the case of church rates were to be maintained, how could they allow it to be applied to other objects of a public nature which, however desirable, were not more praiseworthy than the maintenance of the fabrics in which Divine worship was celebrated? He did not intend to discuss the clauses of the Bill, but simply to insist that the House ought to proceed with some degree of consistency. He did not object to the principle of levying rates by majorities, provided it was carried out without exception. But he was not to be told that church rates ought to be resisted on that ground, and to have the very same evening the second reading of a Bill smuggled through the House which gave effect to that principle. He did not think the argument could fairly be maintained that this measure had nothing to do with religious purposes, and that a different principle might be applicable where a question of conscience was not involved, because, as to church rates, the ground of conscience had, practically, been abandoned. The Dissenters, when invited to accept a conscience clause, which would have exempted them from church rates, declined, and said they objected altogether to the imposition of taxes upon minorities by majorities. There was a great deal to be said in favour of that view. He believed that the voluntary principle would be sufficient for the maintenance of churches, and upon the same grounds he believed that the voluntary principle would be sufficient for the maintenance of parks and places of public amusement. There was a clause in this Bill which disclosed the weakness of the ground upon which the hon. Member for Shrewsbury stood, and it was the one which provided that, previous to any rate being imposed, not less than one-half the cost of the improvement should be subscribed by voluntary offerings. Such a mixture of the voluntary and compulsory system was most objectionable.

Amendment proposed,— To leave out from the word 'That,' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'this House will, upon this day six months, resolve itself into the said Committee,' instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he had no objection to the principle of the majority taxing the minority. On the contrary, he thought it a good one, as it enabled them to catch two classes of persons; first the unreasonable man who could not see any advantage in public improvements, and secondly the selfish man who saw improvements but wanted other people to pay for them. He objected to the Bill, however, because it proposed to give larger powers than mere taxing powers to the majority. It enabled them to say what were improvements. Under this Bill the right hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Cowper), whose name was on the back of it, might be taxed to pay for those public indicators which so much moved his indignation last Session. Another objection which he had to the Bill was that, as at present drawn, a great deal of injustice might be done by it in cases where a large proportion of the property in a parish was owned by bodies which could not be represented in the vestry. In the parish of St. George's-in-the-East two-thirds of the property was owned by the London Dock Company. They paid their proportion of the rates, but they were advised by their solicitor that they could not appear in vestry; so that, if this Bill were adopted in that parish, it would be adopted, not by two-thirds of the ratepayers of the parish, but by two-thirds of the remaining one-third. If the Bill went into Committee he should propose clauses to remedy such cases of injustice as this.


observed, that this was one of the class of Bills which required the strict attention of the House. They were founded undoubtedly on philanthropic motives; but under that character there was great danger of injustice being done to individuals. He also observed that there was a clause in the Bill by which ratepayers under £10 might be present and vote at a meeting at which a rate was authorized, and yet be exempted from contributing any portion of the rate themselves. Surely all who voted for the rate ought to be made liable to it. He intended to vote for the Amendment.


said, the machinery of this Bill, if not its principle, required strict examination, because, to increase the powers of levying local rates, which so often gave rise to ill-feelings and heartburnings amongst parishioners was an operation which ought not to be undertaken without due consideration. Not the slightest intimation was given as to the class of places to which it was meant to apply, whether to parishes with 100 inhabitants only, or to parishes with 10,000. The definition of its objects was also of the very vaguest character. The second clause, to use a familiar phrase, was rather a putting of the cart before the horse; for whereas, the whole operation of the Bill, so far as taxation was concerned, was to depend upon a given sum being collected by voluntary contributions, it was provided in the second clause that the ratepayers should be asked, with ten days' notice, without knowing what it was for, or what was to be done, to adopt the Bill once for all; and if two-thirds in value of the ratepayers present adopted it, it would become law in the parish for ever after, to be put into operation at any time. Certainly in affairs of so much consequence as those contemplated by the Bill it would be fairer that there should be a longer notice; that there should be some reference to the whole body of the ratepayers; and that something more definite should be stated as to what it was intended to do. The meaning of the fifth clause was also very doubtful. It stated that no occupier of a tenement under £10 should be called on to pay the rate; but was it meant that the property should not be taxed, and the occupier merely? It was a favourite maxim on the other side of the House that taxation and representation should go hand-in-hand, but though the Bill provided that occupiers under £10 should not pay the tax, there was not a single inkling to show that they were not to tax their neighbours. The machinery of the Bill would certainly require great consideration before it could be allowed to pass into law.


said, he wished to ask the hon. Member to explain why he had departed from the precedent of the Libraries and Museums Act, which had been found to work so well?


said, he concurred with the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire in thinking that the machinery of the Bill, as it at present stood, would be inoperative even of the House should sanction its principle. It was true that in the Baths and Washhouses Act the House had already sanctioned a similar principle to this, but if the hon. Member would look to the 41st clause of that Act he would see how cautious the Legislature had shown itself in the framing of a Bill intended to impose additional burdens on the ratepayers. By that clause it provided means by which the Act could be carried into operation by appointing commissioners, in the absence of a town council, in whom the whole management should be vested. There was no such provision in this Bill. The first clause provided that the ratepayers might hold lands, &c. — and this before the rates were levied—but it was quite impossible to vest property of this kind in the hands of the whole body of ratepayers. He understood that it was intended to exempt large towns from the operation of the Bill, but these were just the places where the Bill would be of most use, and it was not worth while to pass it for country parishes only. There was scarcely a line in the Bill which would not require amendment, and as these Amendments were not prepared he should advise the hon. Gentleman not to go into Committee to-day, but to postpone it until he had had time to frame whatever Amendments he might think necessary to introduce into it.


said, he would suggest that the Bill should be postponed for a fortnight.


said, that what had occurred was a fair illustration of the difficulties inherent in the attempt to legislate with a view to the improvement of the condition of the working classes. His object had simply been to provide places of recreation for the humble classes after their day's toil. At the same time he was very grateful for the suggestions made by hon. Members, many of which had great cogency. With the permission of the House, he would postpone the Bill for a short time, in order to consider whether he could meet the views of hon. Members, while retaining the principle of the measure.


said, that he still retained his objection to the measure, but he would, on the pledge that the provisions of the measure be considered, consent to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Wednesday, 7th March.