HC Deb 12 May 1865 vol 179 cc233-8

, in rising to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the method adopted for expediting the collection of the Revenue in Scotland, as shown by Return No. 223 of the present Session, said, that he had been induced to do so partly by what had appeared in some of the prints, and partly from a desire to point out the dissatisfaction which was felt at the mode in which the business of collection was transacted. In 1857, an Act was passed fixing the close of the collection for the 1st January, the day on which the assessed and other taxes should be gathered into the Exchequer. Now this regulation had been found exceedingly inconvenient in its practical application, because it differed from the habits of the country in the collection of rents and the payment of the interest of money in Scotland; and it was probable that the dissatisfaction was really attributable to this circumstance. But, in addition, there was a feeling that the collectors, or rather the Comptroller, at the office in Edinburgh was desirous to make a good show by the rapid collection of the taxes in Scotland. No doubt, it was very desirable that a public officer should discharge his duty with ability and with all due expedition; but he ought not to go beyond that to the inconvenience and discomfort of those who have to pay the taxes; but he thought some little excess had been shown by the head officer at Edinburgh to show its zeal and activity. It was said that a course had even been pursued which was scarcely correct—that such was the coercion used towards the collectors throughout the country, that they had been compelled in many instances to advance money out of their own pockets for the purpose of closing the collection at an early period. He at first thought that there might have been a few exceptional cases of the kind; but the office at Edinburgh had published a tabulated statement of the form of collection, which drew his attention to the matter. It appeared from that statement—which being included in a Return for which he had moved was now before the House—that the collection in sixteen dis- tricts had been closed on or before the 31st January, five before the 4th February, and that three others still remained unclosed. That seemed to have been the last bulletin circulated by the Head Office in Edinburgh, containing the latest dates at which any of the collections were closed. But other statements had been circulated, beginning the 3rd January, and going on to the 10th, the 17th, and the 24th. The one first in order only gave a statement of the collections closed without any statement of the collection. On the 3rd February it was stated that in no less than sixteen districts the rate per cent collected on the 31st January was 100 per cent; in the second class there were five between 90 and 100 per cent; and in the third class there were two between 80 and 90 per cent. Sixteen were alleged to have been closed on or before the 31st January, with all the sums collected. Now, he was told that that statement was incorrect; and in consequence of what he had heard he had moved for a Return of the various Estimates in a tabular form in detail, containing the amount of assessment, the net amount to be collected, and the percentage collected on the 1st March; and having heard that some collectors were in the habit of advancing money for the purpose of closing their collections, in order to appear in the good books of the Head Office, he inserted a column requiring the amount, if any, which had been advanced by the collectors for the purpose of closing the collection. He thought that, in order to relieve themselves from pressing applications from headquarters, some of the collectors might have advanced the money, intending to repay themselves out of the outstanding accounts. But to his astonishment, there was scarcely a district in Scotland in which the collectors were not in the habit of advancing money towards the collection; and the result of the return was, that out of sixteen districts that had collected cent per cent on the 31st January, there was scarcely one that had collected cent per cent on the 1st March, so that the statement in the document circulated from the head-office was perfectly inaccurate; and he submitted that it is not a correct mode of dealing with the affairs of the country to misrepresent the state of the collection of the revenue, and to holdup to discredit and disapprobation those collectors who had not thought proper to advance money out of their own pockets in order to enable the Comptroller at Edinburg to make a good show in returning the state of his collection. It appeared strange that the servants of the country should be called upon to pay money in advance of the collection. He found that in Stirling, Clackmannan, and Linlithgow, the amount so advanced was £1,257; in Ross, Cromarty, Sutherland, and Caithness, the amount paid in advance was no less than £1,362. And up to this moment in scarcely any district had the collector been repaid, or able to repay himself out of the collection. Now he wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman on what principle this system had been introduced—what right there was to exact such a course of proceeding from the collectors—whether they are paid for it—whether they receive an allowance or percentage—and how they could go to the taxpayer and ask him to pay taxes after they had published a statement showing that all the taxes had been already collected, and that the full amount of the revenue was in the Exchequer? It seemed to be a most extraordinary state of things. If this had been done voluntarily there would have been no harm in it; but since he first noticed the matter, he had received communications showing that these gentlemen were driven into the adoption of this system. The Comptroller in Edinburgh applied the whip so unsparingly to the collectors that it might be the whole of them had to advance the amount out of their own pockets, thus leading to the false inference that the collection had been closed. He had heard another statement, to the effect that these advances were made by the collectors in consequence of applications having been made in the most peremptory terms. Now it was not at all likely that they would have made advances unless they had been goaded to do so. True, the Comptroller did not ask them in so many words to make the advances, but he alluded to the consequence of not closing the collection, which was utterly impossible except by advancing the arrears—the consequence meaning dismissal from office. He wrote them asking them to close, and that credit would be given afterwards for arrears, the plain meaning of this being that they were to advance the arrears. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be able to show that matters were not exactly as they had been represented; but it certainly was extraordinary that out of those sixteen districts that were stated to have closed their collections not one had really done so—that was, that all the taxes have not been gathered in until two months, or fully a month after the date put down. In almost all cases there was still an arrear due. In Aberdeen the amount advanced by the collector to close the collection was £696; in Argyle, Campbeltown, the amount was £775; in Argyle, Inverary, it was £396. On comparing the statements of the account, he found that in the case of Stirling, Clackmannan, and Linlithgow, where £1,257 were advanced, the sum still uncollected is £260; and that in Ross, Cromarty, Sutherland, and Caithness, where £1,300 were advanced, the amount still outstanding is £438, which the collector is still out of pocket. And he wanted to know this: Suppose some of the taxpayers should become insolvent, or dispute the rate, how were these collectors to recoup themselves? He submitted that this was a most unusual course to pursue, and that these collectors would not have advanced these large sums of money unless under some real or imaginary compulsion, quite sufficient in their minds to induce them to take that course. The total amount of money advanced by the various collectors, as shown by the Returns before the House, was £7,585 10s. 11d.; and the total amount still outstanding on the 1st March was £2,314 12s. 3d., which had been paid out of the pockets of these gentlemen. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would state that such a practice did not meet his sanction, and that some remedy would be adopted to put an end to it.


said, that with reference to the general system of collecting taxes in Scotland, the hon. and learned Gentleman had stated very truly that they were collected in a different way from the manner in which they were formerly collected, and he regards the change as a grievance towards Scotland, arising from the present system of payment. His (the Chancellor of the Exchequer's) means of judgment on the subject are two. The first was the direct assurance of those who were engaged in the service of the Government in the collection of these taxes; the second was the negative evidence derived from the absence of complaints; and he could say, especially with regard to the second of these means, that his belief was that the system of the collection of taxes which had been introduced into, and was now in operation in Scotland, was satisfactory. He had far lees trouble, far fewer complaints with regard to the collection of taxes in Scotland than with regard to any other portion of the United Kingdom; and he thought that was an indication as to what was the real state of the case as to these collectors. With regard to the question to which his hon. Friend particularly referred, it was one which had not been brought under his notice until within the last three or four days. The fact was, that a document called a "billet" was printed under the direction of the Inland Revenue Board for Scotland, and in that document was stated what was the progress made in each of the collecting districts in the performance of that duty. It was true, he believed, as is stated by his hon. Friend, that in certain cases money to make up the collection was temporarily advanced by the collectors themselves. Well, now, that was not an usual mode of proceeding in the collection of taxes; but in his remarks his hon. Friend had not quite clearly observed the distinction between the various parties interested in this proceeding. He was bound to say, with regard to the management of the Inland Revenue in Scotland, that nothing could be higher than the character for integrity and asssiduity of the gentleman (Mr. Fletcher) who is at the head of that important branch of the public service, and nothing could be better than the conduct of that service generally. Mr. Fletcher's was not an independent department; it must be borne in mind that Scotland had its own peculiarities, and the department in that country has certain usages of its own. Now, the important question was, whether there was any pressure put upon the collectors to induce them to make these advances, or whether they made them of their own free will out of their own resources. Now, on that question he could speak most confidently. There was no pressure whatever on the collectors, except the public spirit with which they were actuated. He was told that that was what induces them to make these advances. He hardly need say that no request, no menace, had ever been communicated to them to do this; it was purely and absolutely their own act, growing out of the free will of these gentlemen themselves, although, undoubtedly, those who were laggards in the race do not like the practice. If his hon. Friend had any evidence in his possession showing that a degree of pressure had been exercised upon these collectors to expedite the performance of their office by requiring them to advance money from their own resources, on the receipt of that evidence he promised that no effort on his part shall be spared to put a stop to such a practice; but so long as it was purely voluntary, and a point of honour among the collectors, he did not see the necessity of interference, because, unusual as the practice was, he thought he should have the opportunity of knowing more of it before he interfered; but if the hon. Gentleman could give any information that the slightest degree of pressure has been exercised towards these collectors, the matter should have his immediate attention. He was bound to say it was stated to him on the best authority that no distinction was drawn by the Department between those collectors who choose to adopt this practice and those who did not.