HC Deb 19 May 1865 vol 179 cc587-91

said, he wished to ask the Secretary to the Treasury a question on the subject of the local taxation of houses occupied by officers of the army in the performance of their official duties. Early last Session he had brought the subject under the notice of his noble Friend the Under Secretary for War, who stated that it would be necessary for the autho- rities of the War Office and those of the navy to confer together on the subject, with a view to the adoption of a general system applying to both army and navy. About six weeks afterwards he made an inquiry as to this taxation, and was informed that the Admiralty were as much interested in it as the War Department, and it had been intended that the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Stansfeld) should confer with some one connected with the administration of the army; but, owing to circumstances with which the House were acquainted, the hon. Gentleman left the Admiralty. Later in the Session he moved an Address to the Crown on the same subject. The Under Secretary of the Treasury stated on that occasion that the matter was under the consideration of the Treasury in connection with the general question of the exemption of Government property from local taxation, and that in order to render official residences liable to assessment there must be a beneficial occupation. He was not, however, prepared to give a definition of what was regarded as beneficial occupation. Now, he must say that it was rather hard upon those officers that this definition had not yet been arrived at. But the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Treasury also made the extraordinary statement that it was advisable that the emoluments of officers should be fixed and certain, rather than be made up of uncertain emoluments from free quarters, free from rates. He (Colonel North) could understand the occupants of Hampton Court paying rates, but officers in the army were not in the same position. They were placed in quarters and must reside there whether the place was healthful or unhealthful, agreeable or disagreeable, in the performance of their duty. On the same occasion the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that "the point as to the liability of these officers to pay rates ought to stand over for consideration until the general question had been brought to issue." The fairer mode would have been that they should not be called upon to pay till that was done. The first remonstrance by the officers of the army had been made, as far as he could discover, about five years since, and this question remained still undecided. These rates were no trifle. At Chelsea, he believed, they amounted to 2s. 4d. in the pound. He maintained that it was desirable to keep the officers of the army as much as possible apart from the duties which should exclusively appertain to civilians. The House knew perfectly well the nature of vestry meetings. For his own part, he believed that there were no assemblies where bad blood was sooner engendered. But if officers were called on to pay rates they could not, of course, be prevented from attending them. It was of great importance that they should be kept free from such influences. He hoped that his right hon. Friend would tell them that evening what beneficial occupation was, so that they might arrive at some satisfactory conclusion with reference to this disputed question. The law of the land was, be believed, on the side of those whose cause he advocated. It had been decided that an officer was exempted in respect to reasonable occupation by himself and family, but in the case of officers commanding large garrisons, such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Chatham, it was absurd to think of limiting them to two or three rooms. It would be impossible under those circumstances to expect the honour of the country and the dignity of the service to be duly upheld. Recently he believed that seventeen or eighteen officers had appealed against the local rate. The cases came on for trial at Maidstone, and it was determined that four of them should be gone into and the decision be regarded as binding upon the remainder. The result was that the magistrates quashed the rates with costs, and the parish had appealed to the Queen's Bench. He did not think, however, that it was fair that the officers should be put to the expense of defending such cases. He was glad to say that the Horse Guards and the Admiralty took a more liberal view of the subject than the War Department. One officer out of the small pay he received paid £12 6s. in the shape of local rates, independent of the house duty and income tax. Marines and sailors had reason to be thankful for the manly way in which their interests were protected by the Admiralty; but the army were by no means under similar obligations to the War Office. They had been treated in a very shabby and improper manner. At Chatham the general officer commanding the troops had to pay rates, while the officer in command of the Marines and of the Fleet paid none. He begged leave to ask the Secretary to the Treasury, Whether any decision has been arrived at as to the exemption from Local Taxation of Houses occupied by Officers of the Army in the performance of their official duties?


said, he could answer the question of his hon. and gallant Friend. There was not now, and, as far as he knew, there had not been at any time any question awaiting decision at the Treasury as to the exemption from local taxation of houses occupied by officers of the army in the performance of their official duties. The fact was it was open to any occupier of a house, whether an officer of the army or otherwise, to maintain that the house he occupied was not liable to be rated to local taxes; but the decision upon the liability or non-liability of that house rested not with the Government, but entirely with the courts of law. He was quite aware that, as a general rule, the occupation of a residence for official purposes did not constitute a beneficial occupation; but the application of that rule to any particular case must of course be a matter for argument, and it was for the courts of law to decide, when the question was brought before them, whether the occupation was beneficial or not. The officers' houses at Chelsea Hospital were rated, but that was in consequence of the provisions of a local act. Within the last week the Court of Quarter Sessions at Maidstone had decided that some residences at Woolwich were not liable to rates. There had been conflicting decisions; but he knew no means of getting rid of the difficulty except by passing an Act declaring that houses occupied for official purposes shall not be liable to local rates. That question, however, had not been under the consideration of the Government, and, as at present advised, they had no intention of proposing such a Bill. The question had been under consideration for a year or two whether the rates of houses liable to rates, occupied by officers in the performance of official duties, should be paid by the officers or by the Government. The course of the Government was not uniform. The Admiralty appeared always to have repaid to their officers the rates which in the first instance had been paid by them. The War Department required officers to pay the rates themselves. The matter had been considered by a Committee; and the Treasury had expressed an opinion that the course pursued by the War Department was preferable. No doubt it was very desirable that the Government should pursue a uniform course, and the matter was still the subject of correspondence; but, at the present moment, the Treasury did not see fit to alter the conclusion at which they came last year—namely, that the practice of the War Department was preferable to that of the Admiralty. If the officers themselves were rated they would, no doubt, take an interest in parish matters so as to keep down the rates; and if the Government paid the rates they would have no means of doing anything of the kind, nor of seeing that the property was not rated beyond its value. Where new appointments were made officers would themselves pay the rate charged on their residences.


said, he wished to know whether the houses in Downing Street paid rates. Did the Chancellor of the Exchequer pay rates on his official residence, or, if paid, were they paid out of the Exchequer?


said, he thought the answer which had been given to his hon. and gallant Friend was anything but satisfactory. Officers on entering the army were led to believe they would get free quarters; and he thought the practice which his hon. and gallant Friend reprobated was neither more nor less than a breach of good faith, and far from creditable to the War Office. The Admiralty kept faith with their officers—why should not the War Office do the same?