HC Deb 15 July 1864 vol 176 cc1583-93

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the Returns of the Resolutions and proceedings of the Union Assessment Committees, and to the necessity of assisting their operation, by the introduction of some moderating authority in the very large latitude they had taken in the application of the Act. His object was to afford the House an opportunity of judging how far it was necessary to assist the different unions. Much depended on the spirit in which the committees set to work, and whether they did so willingly and intelligently. As might be expected there were considerable differences observable in these respects. A meeting of delegates in Somerset, presided over by Sir W. Miles, passed a Resolution to the following effect:— The feeling of the delegates in discussing the different questions propounded at the meeting was unanimous in the determination, as far as was possible, not only to secure a uniform and correct valuation of parishes in any particular union, but so to construct and carry out the Act, that it should not be only between parish and parish in a particular union, but that the same principles should be the guide in every union throughout the county; so that when the valuation is completed, not only will the assessment thus established be the assessment for Poor Law purposes, but will be a true and correct basis upon which all other county charges may be estimated. That was a very favourable representation of the spirit of enlightened committees, but he was forced to admit that, owing possibly to the difficulties which beset their operations, the results arrived at by many unions were far from satisfactory. The first thing to be done was to arrive at a true definition of the gross estimated rental. Now, from the passing of the Act of 1836 down to 1859 there was unhappily great diversity of opinion as to the interpretation of the law in that respect. Mr. Lumley, of the Poor Law Board, in his Manual defined the gross estimated rental as rack-rent, with the addition of tenants' rates and charges. Others held that it was equivalent to the rack-rent alone; and in 1859 the Law Officers of the Crown, on being consulted by the Poor Law Board, decided in favour of that view, which was thereupon adopted by the Board. He found, however, that some of the Union Committees had ignored that decision, and in these assessments had followed Mr. Lumley's earlier interpretation; and he suggested that the Board should direct the attention of such mistaken Committees to the error they had therein committed. The next point was to ascertain the net rateable value. It appeared that the committees allowed themselves a considerable range in regard to deductions. The allowances on "naked lands," or lands without buildings, for instance, were from 1 to 3 per cent in Somerset, 2½per cent in Bedford, Berks, Devon, Shropshire, Suffolk, and the East Riding of Yorkshire. 1 per cent only was allowed in Walsingham and another union in Norfolk, and nothing at all in two unions in Lincoln. On the other hand he found a deduction of 5 per cent in Northampton, Hertford, Gloucester, and some other counties. One union in Gloucester allowed 7½ per cent, and Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, allowed as much as 10. In the case of land with buildings and houses attached to it, the counties of Somerset and Buckingham and two unions in Norfolk allowed from 5 to 10 per cent in the county of Southampton the rule was to allow 5 per cent where the rent was above £200, and 10 per cent where it was under £200 a year. In Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Lancashire, the East Riding of Yorkshire, and a great part of the North and West Ridings, the allowance was 7½per cent; in Doncaster, Hartlepool, Teesdale, and part of Licolnshire, 8⅓. In other unions in Lincolnshire it was 5 per cent, and in Shropshire generally 5 per cent, although in one union it was 15, and he could find no reason for so remarkable a discrepancy. The information was much less definite in regard to the allowances on houses. In the county of Buckingham it was from 10 to 20 per cent and from 10 to 25 per cent on cottages, which embraced a class of houses under the value of £6 or £8 a year. At Hartlepool and Teesdale the allowance was 161 per cent on both houses and cottages: in Lancashire, 15 on houses and 20 on cottages; Somerset, from 10 to 15 on houses and from 10 to 20 on cottages; Cheshire, 10 per cent; Nottinghamshire, 10 on houses and 12 on cottages; and Bakewell, in Derbyshire, 12½ on houses and 20 on cottages. The discrepancies in excess of these allowances were considerable. In the Strand union, in the county of Middlesex, the allowance on the whole of the house property was 25 per cent. And these discrepancies were not confined to the allowances in different counties, but in various unions in the same county there were also great discrepancies. For instance, in the county of Bucks, the majority of unions allowed 5 per cent on land, whereas the union of Buckingham allowed only 2£; Newport Pagnell allowed 15 per cent on land and houses, Buckingham 10; Newport allowed 10 per cent on cottages, Buckingham 15. In Lincolnshire one parish allowed 10 per cent, another 8, another 5, and another 3; Shropshire generally allowed 5, but the Ludlow union allowed 15. He thought these discrepancies were so great that they called for correction at the hands of the Poor Law Board, because wherever they existed in the same county certain unions must necessarily be placed at a disadvantage with regard to the county rate, for it was admitted that the Union Assessment was to be the basis, not only of the Poor Law Assessment, but of the county rate. Great inconvenience arose from swerving from the requirement of the Act, that the assessment should be framed from the most truthful estimates which could be arrived at in reference to the gross rental and the necessary deductions for maintenance. It was no answer to say that an entire county agreed in accepting an enormous and disproportionate deduction. It had no right to do so. One class in particular was injuriously affected by such a system—namely, the clergy. The tithe rent charge was known to a farthing, and the outgoings were so few that there was no margin for granting any concession except the proper one. The clergy, therefore, were rated on their tithe rentcharge to the fullest amount. They had no right to complain of that, but they had a right to complain if, in their own locality, other property was assessed upon an incorrect basis. Upon that ground he trusted the Government would see that some alteration was imperatively required wherever these extravagant deductions had been made. Accuracy was in this matter desirable on more grounds than one. Even the elective franchise was materially affected by the process of assessment. House property had been generally valued at two-thirds of its value, so that a house worth £10 was only valued at £7, and many occupiers hitherto excluded would be admitted to the franchise under a truthful assessment. On these grounds he thought the matter required investigation, and in the absence of correct results by any other means, he thought they ought to be obtained by the appointment of Government Inspectors. He might be told that it was easy to point out discrepancies; but, with regard to the deductions, could he point out what should be their limit independently of differences of soil and locality? He thought he could at all events name the amounts which would ordinarily apply. Those limits were 2½ per cent on naked land, 10 per cent on farms, 20 per cent on houses, and 25 per cent on cottages. These allowances would, he thought, meet all but exceptional cases. If a farmer appealed against his assessment at 10 per cent on that principle, he might demand the assessment of land and house separately, and in that case there would be no relief, unless the house assessed at 20 per cent were nearly equal in value to the land assessed at 2½, a thing which would rarely occur, but still there was the remedy. As to "accommodation land," its assessment according to the rent is objected to as ex- cessive. "We admit," say the occupiers, "that we give the rent at which we are assessed, but it is more than it is worth; we give it because the property is near our residence, or is convenient for our business, but the rent is beyond its value." But it is obvious that if the demand for abatement were conceded, they would be enabled to pay an excessive rent at the cost of the other ratepayers. A larger question was the assessment of parsonages and mansions. Parsons had complained of their assessments on the grounds that their residences could not, by law, be let without the sanction of the bishop; and squires, that their mansions, the land and shooting being let off, would not let at all. Both parties had caught at the words of the Act, that the annual value should be that at which the property would "let from year to year;" but the spirit as well as the letter of the Act was that they should be assessed at the "net annual value;" and in the case both of the parsonage and the mansion the right course would be to estimate what the house would let for if the owner were out of it and wanted it again. In fact, neither the squire himself nor the parson could be ignored in estimating the value of their occupations. There was great diversity in the practice of various unions in respect to the mode of ascertaining the gross rental of houses, and in settling the deductions. The only deduction which ought to be made out of gross rental, according to the analogy of farms and other property, was that for repairs. So with respect to the tithe rent charge, in some cases the amount of the rent charge, as commuted, was adopted; in others the last year's receipts, and in others again the cost of collection was deducted before entering the "gross estimated rental." He thought these anomalies should be removed, and the assessments be rendered uniform. Then, as to the deductions on account of the stipend of a curate, the law was most puzzling. It appeared to be an anomaly that there should be no deduction for the performance of the duty by the parson himself, but that there should be a deduction when the performance was by means of a substitute. It was, he submitted, necessary to include within the operation of the Union Assessment Committee, places and parishes which were now external to it. It was a great anomaly that parishes and unions should be exempted from the operation of two Assessment Acts which had passed that House, and it was absolutely due to the rest of the unions of the same county, that these exemptions should be removed. All parishes acting under local Acts should be brought in this respect under the general law. He next came to the nature of the matters to be assessed. Last year a considerable number of petitions were presented to that House praying for the removal of anomalies in regard to the exemption of particular classes of property, and a still greater number had been presented that year. A striking exhibition of the absurdity of the law as it now stood was this, that all mines but coal mines were exempt from rates. How had that happened? Because the lawyers maintained that, according to the true construction of the law of Elizabeth, coal mines only being specifically mentioned as rateable, all other mines must be excepted. In the time of Elizabeth coal mines probably were the only mines of importance in existence; but that was no reason why the Legislature should continue to exempt all other kinds of mines. A gentleman from Leeds had written to him that in a neighbouring township there were large stone quarries, which were not assessed either to the poor or the highway rates, although accidents in them greatly augmented the poor rates, and the stone waggons cut the roads into ribbons. The feeling on that question was so strongly in favour of a more rational and equitable adjustment that he believed no difficulty would be found in satisfying even those who might naturally demur at relinquishing the privileges they had so long enjoyed. He trusted, whatever the present impressions of the hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board on a mere casual discussion of the subject, he might be enabled to lay before the House next Session some legislative proposition for remedying the grievances to which he had referred.


said, he felt gratified to observe the attention which the hon. Gentleman had given to the working of the Act throughout the country. He had pointed out defects in the law and its administration, but it was only fair to consider what the question of local assessment had been up to that time, that it had been a system under which persons had almost been allowed to tax themselves, and under which the levying of £8,000,000 sterling had been intrusted to the most incompetent and irresponsible hands. The Act which had been substituted for a system that had been in operation for centuries had only been in existence for eighteen months, and the hon. Gentleman should not therefore be too impatient of actual or seeming irregularities, seeing that they were not the necessary consequences of the Act, and that every year they might be expected to diminish in number. The hon. Gentleman had called attention to certain irregularities that he had observed, and which he brought seriatim under the notice of the House. Some of these irregularities had come under his (Mr. C. P. Villier's) notice, and others had not. The hon. Gentleman first insisted upon the necessity of assisting the operation of the Union Assessment Committees by enforcing the legal construction of the gross estimated rental. He presumed his hon. Friend's meaning was, that the House should legislate further on the subject, but he did not know what else could be done that had not been provided for already. The hon. Gentleman referred to a legal construction having been put on the words "gross estimated rental." That definition had been given by the Law Officers of the Crown; it bad been embodied in an Act of Parliament, and had been recognized in courts of justice; and a circular had been issued by the Poor Law Board, and addressed to all the Poor Law Unions in the country, directing them to act on that definition. Therefore, everything that law and authority could do had been done to impress the unions with the fact that there was a definition of gross estimated rental on which they might rely. The hon. Gentleman said there were some unions—he did not mention them—which persisted in disregarding the Act of Parliament and the circular of the Poor Law Board. If so he did not know what other legislation would induce these Assessment Committees to do otherwise. The instances to which his hon. Friend referred were, he believed, very few and far between. Of 700 unions he did not think there would be found six that disregarded the law of the land and the directions of the Poor Law Board. The hon. Gentleman next pointed to the wide range of deductions made by these Assessment Committees in obtaining the net rateable value. Having ascertained the gross estimated rental, they were allowed a discretion in determining the value to be rated, and his hon. Friend found a want of uniformity in the different unions. It was possible that might be the case at first, but his hon. Friend had not explained the circumstances so as to enable the House to declare that the Assessment Committees were not justified in these differences. The range of deduction might be 15 per cent in one county and only 10 per cent in another, but the House was not therefore to presume that the Assessment Committees had acted capriciously. The Act, as he had stated, had hardly been in operation eighteen months, and the publicity given to the assessment would cause the irregularity to cure itself. When the House was asked to legislate on the subject, he wanted to know how the want of uniformity could be cured unless Parliament fixed a maximum that should never be exceeded of 10 per cent, or some other percentage, as deduction for repairs, &c. But his hon. Friend must know that something depended on the character of the soil, the climate, and twenty things that belonged to one county and not to another. A maximum would be very arbitrary, and at all events it would not be desirable on the scanty information before the House, and so soon after the passing of the Act, to legislate on such a matter. He could not for these reasons agree to limit the range of deductions by law. His hon. Friend next asked him to prohibit arbitrary abatements from actual yearly rentals of property proposed upon the plea of its being accommodation land, and to declare that the value to the occupant of a mansion or parsonage was not to be ignored in estimating the assessable value of such property. He would grant that these arbitrary abatements ought not to be made, but his hon. Friend must remember that there was a power of appeal against anything arbitrary or unjust which had never existed before. He believed that the Assessment Committees were composed of competent men, and able and honourable men, who had done their duty in a manner which could hardly have been expected of them. The suggestions of his hon. Friend seemed to cast doubt upon their competency and honesty, but he certainly could not agree with him in that matter. His hon. Friend had laid great stress upon the tithe rent charge, but in what he said upon that subject he thought there was a little confusion, because of all descriptions of rateable property the value of tithe rent charge was the most readily and certainly ascertainable. There were questions as to the deductions which the clergyman was entitled to make, and of these there were two which were always and fairly admitted—one for the repair of the chancel of the church, and the other for the risk of collection. His hon. Friend had dealt chiefly with the deduction for the stipend of the curate. He was quite sure that the desire of the hon. Gentleman was to befriend the clergy, but he thought that in their interests he had better leave that matter alone. Formerly the clergy were never allowed that deduction, and some years ago the question was referred to a Committee of that House, who strongly recommended that no such deduction should be sanctioned. A case was then taken to the Court of Queen's Bench, and it was decided that the stipend of the curate might be deducted in cases in which the duties were so overwhelming that they could not be performed by the incumbent alone, or in cases in which the Bishop insisted upon the employment of a curate. Since then the Courts had set their faces against any extension of this principle, and both Lord Chief Justice Cockburn and Mr. Justice Blackburn had questioned the soundness of the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench. His hon. Friend asked him when the Government would consider the propriety of introducing a Bill to amend the law, by including within the operation of the Union Assessment Committee Act "all places and parishes now external to it." He thought that his hon. Friend had not fully considered what these places were, and what were the objects of the Union Assessment Act. That Act applied strictly to unions, and the places to which he referred were not unions or parts of unions. One of the first objects of the Act was to find a correct basis upon which to levy the parochial contributions to the common fund. These places that were not unions or parts of unions had no common fund, nor did they contribute to any. He did not mean to say that in such parishes and places there was no irregularity in the assessment of property but they did not come within the scope of the Union Assessment Act. A single parish having no guardians could have no assessment committee. His hon. Friend also asked him whether he would bring in a Bill to extend the liability to rating to woods, mines, and other property which had hitherto been exempted. That was rather a difficult question to reply to. As his hon. Friend knew, several attempts had recently been made to legislate upon the subject, and he need not refer to the particular reasons which had prevented their success. He could only say that he had very carefully examined the evidence taken by a Committee of that House a few years ago, and he must confidently state that, so far as he understood the matter, there was no reason for these exemptions. The technical construction of the law was all very well in the courts, but if taxation was to be equal, and property was to bear the burdens to which it was liable fairly, it was not right that one class of property should be exempt from, while others were liable to, rating. Where property was of such a kind that it was difficult or impossible to collect the rates, that was a ground for exemption; but in this instance no such reason existed. The exemptions were not universal throughout the United Kingdom; they did not exist either in Scotland or Ireland. The ground on which the courts had held that mines other than coal mines were exempt was that they were not mentioned in the Act of Elizabeth; but they were liable to highway rates, sewers rates, church rates, and other rates which were not fixed, as was now so much the fashion, upon the basis of the poor rate. The exemptions having endured for a very long time, there were in existence a great number of interests which would be very tenacious of the exemptions which they had enjoyed so long; therefore, it was not easy to produce a change. It was, however, one of the advantages of the Act that all these matters were being looked into very closely, and judging from the memorials which had been received by the Poor Law Board, and the petitions which had been presented to that House, he could not believe that the same influence and interest which had hitherto prevented a change would prevail in the future. Whatever was practical in that matter he should be ready to recommend to the House, but it was no use introducing Bills when there was no chance of carrying them He did not, however, believe that it was impossible to levy rates, either upon mines or woods. He hoped that his hon. Friend would not be too impatient with respect to the operation of the Act. It was substituting a rule and order for the confusion which had hitherto existed. Things did not proceed very rapidly in this country, and his hon. Friend would no doubt be thought a little in advance of the rest of the world in his suggestion that more power ought to be assumed by the central board. He had no doubt that if a proper survey had been made and the assessment had been left in the hands of the Government officers, the thing would have been done more perfectly and more promptly, but his hon. Friend knew what was the system in this country, and how tenacious the people were of their local self-government and of doing everything for themselves. His only astonishment was that this Bill had worked so well, the best proof of which was the increase which had taken place in the amount of assessments. Prom a list which he held in his hands he found the increase in the valuations in the undermentioned unions to be as follows:—Birkenhead, before the Act, £204,453, by the Committee, £290,091; Altincham, before the Act, £198,465, by the Committee, £258,314; Penzance, before the Act, £115,714, by the Committee, £143,837; Romford, before the Act, £125,770, by the Committee, £150,137; Medway, before the Act, £101,338, by the Committee, £145,233; Alverstone, before the Act, £128,000, by the Committee, £193,145; Wolverhampton, before the Act, £209,100, by the Committee, £318,274; Cardiff, before the Act, £167,623, by the Committee, £277,460. It simply remained for him to assure his hon. Friend that he would give every consideration to those matters which he had brought before the House, and to repeat what he had before stated in the course of the Session, that he thought every person occupying the office he had the honour to hold ought to be in a position, from the evidence he would shortly have of the working of the Act, to introduce such Amendments as might be required to enable it to be worked efficiently.