HC Deb 19 June 1863 vol 171 cc1180-9

said, that, pursuant to notice, he rose to call the attention of the House to the state of the law for rating to the relief of the poor, and to move for Returns in connection with the Union Assessment Committee Act. Previous to the year 1836, the system of assessment in various parishes was conducted on the principle of assessing the property at the lowest possible value. In fact, every one endeavoured so to assess himself as to relieve himself as much as possible from the common burdens. In that year, however, under the guidance of the right hon. Member for Stroud, a Bill was brought in for the purpose of regulating parochial assessments, the first and most important clause of which laid down two principles—that there should be a definite rule for the ascertainment of the gross estimated rental, and that a just scale of deductions should be fixed in order to arrive at the net ratable value. That Bill, however, though admirable in intention, did not provide the necessary machinery; and consequently, in 1862, another Bill was introduced containing the necessary powers. The action of the various provisions being somewhat uncertain, instructions were from time to time issued by the Poor Law Board. But there was one point on which it was still necessary that the various local authorities should have some idea in common, with a view to harmonious action, and that was as to the deductions which ought to be made on particular classes of property, so as to reach the net ratable value. Various county meetings had been held with that object; and although they had not any positive legal status, they operated beneficially in bringing together the chairmen of committees and eliciting opinions. It was remarkable how these opinions varied at different meetings. In Worcester, under the auspices of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Droitwich (Sir J. Pakington), the county magistrates and chairmen of committees adopted, as the scale of deductions to be allowed, 2½ per cent on land simply, on land with buildings 7½ per cent, on houses 15 per cent, and on cottages of less than £6 value 20 per cent. That scale every one would admit to be fair and moderate. But in the county of Norfolk they proposed to deduct on land from 1 to 5 per cent, on land with buildings 5 to 15 per cent, on houses 10 to 15 per cent, and on cottages 15 to 35 per cent. The enormous difference between these two scales must he apparent to every hon. Member. In Buckinghamshire the county of Norfolk was outstripped, for there it was proposed to allow from 5 to 20 per cent upon land and buildings—a proposition which was obviously absurd. These county meetings, having no official status, and no practical power, the different union committees in many instances exercised an independence of action, and adopted scales more justifiable according to their notions. In the Union of Buckingham, the Committee adopted the following scale:—On land, according to the extent and nature of the fences and buildings, from 1 to 10 pet cent; on houses generally, 10 to 20 per cent; on cottages under £6 value, from 10 to 25 per cent. Practically it was found that where a range of allowance was sanctioned, every one almost took the highest figure, and eventually most of the land with buildings and house obtained an allowance of 10 per cent; land with buildings, but without a house, obtained 5 per cent; and land without buildings obtained 2½ per cent. The result of the new assessment, so far as he had been able to ascertain it, proved the great necessity of this revision. The Returns for the Union of Buckingham showed that in 1856 the rental assessed was £68,665. There had been an increase of 38 per cent, or £25,782; so that in 1863 the net ratable value was £94,447, the gross estimated rental was £105,494, while the deductions, averaging 10½ per cent, amounted to £11,047, showing a net amount of £94,447. With regard to individual parishes, the disproportion between the old and new assessment were most extraordinary. Whilst the average increase in ratable value was 38 per cent, the increase under the average in one parish was 19, in another 28, in another 20, and in the borough 26; while the increase above the average was in one parish 52, in another 52, in another 64, and in another 68. These statements showed that the old assessment was fraught with exaggerated inequalities. And there was another point deserving the attention of the House, because it affected an important class of property—the tithe rent charge. A letter had been directed to the Poor Law Board by the clerk of the Buckingham Union, which stated that— The Act for enclosing the common fields of the parish of Thornborough (passed in the year 1701) directs payment to the vicar of certain corn rents in lieu of tithes, such payment to be made free and clear of all manner of parochial taxes whatsoever, and also from all other taxes now imposed, except land tax. The Committee are desirous of knowing whether the operation of the private Act of 1797 has been to exonerate altogether from local taxation the value of the tithe corn rents of Thornborough, or whether it has been to transfer to the tithe-payers the liability antecedently resting on the tithe-owner. Assuming the net annual value of the parish of Thornborough to be £1,500, of which the corn rent free of rates is £150, and the value of the other ratable property to be £1,350, ought the parish to be rated on £1,500, or on £1,350? As a parochial Act solely, it is obviously immaterial, since to produce the same amount the smaller sum would be assessed to a higher ratio; but with reference to union and county contributions the parish would be a gainer by its assessments being levied on £1,350, and it would then, in virtue of a private Act, have received a partial exemption from a liability to a common fund. To that the following answer was returned by the Secretary:— I am directed by the Poor Law Board to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 23rd ult. The Board direct me to state that it appears to them that the corn rents referred to are wholly exempt from the liability to be assessed, and therefore the amount cannot be taken into consideration, either by the entry of it as a separate item in the valuation lists, nor by an addition to the assessment of the other property in the other parishes. If that was the true state of the law, it ought to be altered, for nothing could be more unjust than that a parish making an arrangement with a vicar by which in lieu of his ratable tithes they covenant to pay him a corn rent free of rate, should escape a liability to assessment as touching the tithe surrendered to them, and he trusted the attention of the Law Officers of the Crown would be directed to the subject. Some of the parishes had made returns omitting the tithe rent-charge and others had included it. The Union Committees were in this position, that they did not know of which return they ought to approve.

Then there was another matter of considerable importance, which related to clergymen and the question of curates' stipends. There was no doubt that the clergy had been paying a much larger proportion of parochial taxation than they ought, and they were now desirous of obtaining the most ample redress which the law contemplated. In the year 1859 the Poor Law Board obtained the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown upon the subject, and in the May of that year they issued a circular with regard to the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench in the case of "The Queen v. Goodchild and others." That circular said— With reference to the subject of allowance on curates' salaries, the Court of Queen's Bench considered two subjects. One was a claim made by the incumbent in respect of the value of his own personal labour and services. The Court decided that no deduction could be allowed upon this head. The second was a claim for the salary of the curate. Upon this claim no universal rule was laid down; but the Court decided that in some cases the salary is not, while in others it is, to be allowed. It is not to be allowed where the curate is merely a substitute for the incumbent, as where he is non-resident—or, being resident, from sickness, infirmity, or any less creditable cause, does not perform his own duty personally, but employs another person instead. It is to be allowed where, from the vast size or population of the parish, one man's labour is entirely insufficient for the duties necessary to be discharged by the incumbent. Where the bishop of the diocese has required, under the statutes giving him the authority, the appointment of a stipendiary curate, and the incumbent, performing his duty, employs a curate in obedience to such requisition, an allowance is, according to the judgment of the Court, to be made in such case. So also the Court held that in cases where (the bishop not being legally empowered, or not being called upon to interfere) the incumbent from a sense of duty appoints a curate himself, devoting all his own time and attention to his cure, a reasonable allowance is to be made in respect of the curate's stipend. Nothing could be more vague or unsatisfactory than such regulations; and how was it to be expected that a country overseer should be able to decide on some of the nice points which were involved? Last year, however, upon occasion of an application for information to the Poor Law Board, the Board issued another circular to the following effect:— The Board direct me to state that it would be inconsistent with their practice to express an opinion with reference to any particular case, but they forward for your information a copy of a circular issued by them on the 9th of May 1859, explaining their general views on the subject of the assessment of tithe commutation rent-charge to the poor rate. The Board, at the same time, desire to call your attention to the recent decisions of the Court of Queen's Bench, with regard to the deductions for a curate's salary, and to payments charged on behalf of district ministers and others. It will be seen that these decisions materially modify some of the views expressed in the circular. Thus it appears that the instructions, already vague enough, were subject to further modification; and this was the present condition of the subject. He certainly thought the law ought not to be left in that state of uncertainty.

There was another matter which had been brought under the notice of the House by petition. Complaints had been made as to the state of the law with regard to the assessment to the poor rate of woodlands and mines. With regard to the former the state of the law was very peculiar. In the Act of Elizabeth, as mention was made of salable underwood, it had been concluded that all other description of wood was exempt, and so the law now remained. Now, nothing could be more absurd than such an interpretation. Salable underwood had been defined to be wood growing from a re-productive stool or stem: an ash tree of any size growing singly from its stem is exempt, but five ash poles growing from a common stem are ratable. Land devoted to the growth of chesnut hop-poles yields a ratable produce. Land occupied in the growth of larch poles escapes the rate. Upon what ground could that state of the law be justified? In regard to mines the law was just as extraordinary. The mention of coal mines in the reign of Elizabeth had led to the exemption of all other mines; so that coal mines were ratable, whilst lead, iron, copper, and tin were exempt. Again, stone quarries that were under the ground and invisible were exempt, whilst the same minerals, when gathered from the surface were assessed, as being the produce of the land, and came under the operation of the Poor Law. Another curious refinement was, that if a landowner reserved a royalty in the raw produce of a mine, the raw produce was ratable; but if it were reserved in the same mineral in a wrought or manufactured state, or if it were reserved in money value, then the produce was exempt from taxation. This question had been pressed on his attention by the Petitions that had been presented to the House; but still the subject had not escaped previous notice, and these exemptions had been uniformly condemned—first, by a Committee of that House on the Poor Laws in 1818; again, in 1843, by the Commission of Inquiry into the State and Administration of the Poor Law; and again in 1857 by another Committee of that House. With regard to the last anomalies which he had referred to, he had not mentioned them with the idea of forcing on a consideration of those subjects at present, for he should be sorry to add just now to the labour of those connected with the Poor Law Board, who were overwhelmed with work of an exceedingly anxious nature; but he would recommend his right hon Friend (Mr. Villiers) to turn his attention to the points connected with corn rents and curates' stipends. The matter was too important to be allowed to drag on year after year without on attempt being made to remedy some of these anomalies. Without wishing to pre judge the action that might be taken by different unions, and because it would In-useful to see how the law had been interpreted in different parts of the country, he wished to move for a Return of all parishes (being part of a union) in which the corn rents for tithe were exempt by Act of Parliament from parochial taxation, showing the amounts paid for such corn rents in the last year; and also for a Re turn of the Resolutions passed by the several unions fixing the deductions to be made from the "gross estimated rental." under the heads of "land," "land and buildings," "woodlands," "houses," and "cottages under £6 value." It might be said it did not matter what amount was de ducted; that ail was fair if the parties in the same union agreed among themselves, and that all unions in the same county could not be expected to act on the same inter pretation; but if the Legislature had pass ed a measure declaring that certain facts ought to be stated, they ought to be stated, and it was not satisfactory that they should be misstated because the parties agreed not to state them fairly. The hon. Member concluded by moving for the Returns.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "there be laid before this House, a Return of Parishes (forming part of some Union) in which the Corn Kent is exempt by Act of Parliament from parochial taxes, and showing the amounts of such Corn Rents as were paid last year; and Copy of the Resolutions of the several Unions in England as to the deductions from 'Gross Estimated Rental,' In order to obtain the 'Net Ratable Value,' under the various heads of 'Land,' 'Land and Buildings,' 'Woodlands,' 'Houses,' 'Cottages under £6 Rent,'"—(Mr. Hubbard,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentlemen would consider the matter well before he agreed to the last part of the Return, as, in his opinion, the hon. Member, in asking for the resolutions of the assessment committees, was asking too much. He did not think any hard rule could be laid down on the subject, as there was a wide difference even in the same parish in the value of properties classified under the same heads. A small farm of fifteen or twenty acres might have some ramshackling timber on it, and the farmhouse might be of the same description; but the deductions allowed in that case could nut be applied to a farm of 1,000 acres, with well constructed buildings. In many cases the assessment committees might not have come to any formal resolutions, and a bare return of what had been done, without any explanation, would place the assessment committees in a very unfair position. Very different deductions would haves to be made in the case of cottages of good substantial brick, and structures of wattle-dab or cob, with clay walls and thatched roof. Chinese exactness in such matters was quite unattainable, and they must he content with an approximation.


said, that if the assessment committees were to furnish the Returns at that moment, they would not only be useless, but would mislead. If the hon. Gentleman postponed his Motion, the Returns would not only be more complete, but there would be ample time for legislation next Session.


said, he thought it would be most desirable to have the Returns. He believed it was more in theory than in practice that differences existed as to the cost of repairs. He could not, however, but complain of the anomalous principles on which rating was enforced. For instance, a distinction was drawn between a brickwork where the clay was taken from the surface, and where it was procured from below ground; and open quarries were charged, while all mines, except those of coal, were exempted. He held that these cases ought to be treated alike. A large portion of Norfolk and other counties was not under the Act, which, as it was a very good one and worked well, ought to be applied to all parishes.


said, he saw no advantage in giving the last Return asked for at that time, for it would be incomplete. It would be much better to wait for half a year longer. It was much better, in his opinion, to leave the matter in the hands of the local authorities than to lay down any hard and inflexible rule of assessment. He believed that all other minerals than coals were excepted because coals alone were mentioned in the act of Elizabeth, and that timber other than salable underwood was exempted for the same reason.


said, that having taken a chief part in passing the Parochial Amendments Act through the House, and having taken great interest in its working, he had no reason to complain of the discussion of that evening, because it showed, not that the Act had not worked satisfactorily, but that its operation had exposed anomalies in the rating which had existed for centuries, and thus proved the necessity for the measure. He did not understand the hon. Member for Buckingham to call upon him to correct those anomalies, which had been acknowledged by all the courts of justice, and which were nowhere more apparent than in the cases cited by the hon. Gentleman, of mines and salable underwood. The question arose from the construction which had been put upon the Act of Elizabeth. Expressio unius, exclusio alterius est, was the principle adopted by the courts; and as collieries were specifically mentioned in the Act, that was held to imply the exclusion of all other mines. He could not collect whether the hon. Member was satisfied with the decision of the Poor Law Board as to the mode in which assessment committees and overseers were to obtain the correct ratable value of property. Overseers now knew from the circular quoted by the hon. Gentleman that to arrive at the ratable value they were to make certain deductions from the estimated rental; and, consequently, the only question which remained was, on what principles those deductions were to be made. It was possible that great differences existed throughout the country in the amounts deducted from the estimated rental for repairs, but he was afraid he could not produce the resolutions of the assessment committees. In the first place, the unions are upwards of 650 in number, and he was not at all certain that they had generally agreed to resolutions on the subject. Some had, no doubt; but very few of the resolutions had reached the Poor Law Board, and still fewer stated the principle on which they were founded. He had ascertained, moreover, that even where resolutions had been passed, the assessment committees had not in all cases adhered to them. In the greater part of the unions the assessment committees had not come to any positive decision. On the whole, though he admitted that full information ought be procured, he thought the hon. Member should delay calling for the Returns for some time, especially since it would not be easy, perhaps not quite right, to enact a law requiring assessment committees to make their deductions on a fixed principle. If the Returns were to be ordered, then assessment committees might jump to the conclusion that there was to be fresh legislation on the subject, and might at once suspend their proceedings, which would be attended, not with any advantage, but probably with some little mischief. The hon. Member had found fault with the decision of the Poor Law Board exempting corn rents received by clergymen from the rate, and had asked whether they had taken the advice of the Crown lawyer on the point. The rule of the Board was, when they had any mistrust of their own opinion, to refer to the Law Officers of the Crown; but when other people mistrusted their opinion, they did not think it necessary to ask the Law Officers whether they were wrong. It was open, however, to the hon. Member to take any opinion he liked, or, indeed, to introduce a Bill on the subject. The cases of the exemption of corn rents must be extremely rare, and he did not really know where they were to be found. He could not therefore have a Return prepared without more definite information. As to the deduction to be made on account of the stipend which an incumbent paid to his curate, the law had been rendered clear and explicit by the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench. Where a curate was appointed, not as a substitute for, but as am assistant to the incumbent, there must be a deduction; but no deduction was to be made where the duties of the parish were not too onerous for one man, or where the incumbent was not resident. Only two cases had been brought tinder his notice in which the question had arisen, and the matter was one, therefore, which he did not think could be much in doubt. In conclusion, he had simply to express a hope that the hon. Gentleman would postpone his Motion for the Returns; and he could assure him, that if before the end of the Session sufficient progress should have been made by the assessment committees, and he found that full and satisfactory Returns could be procured of the rules on which they had acted, he should himself move for those Returns.


said, he was glad to hear that the right hon. Gentleman was not yet disposed to take any action in the matter, as the time was not come for the required Return. The great desideratum in these cases was uniformity, in counties at all events, if not over a wider area. In his opinion, that uniformity would he much more likely to be attained if time were afforded for considering the various reports sent up from all parts of the country by the assessment committees.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.