HC Deb 19 May 1865 vol 179 cc564-77

said, he rose to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is just and expedient that the annual Duty payable upon Certificates taken out by Attorneys, Solicitors, and Proctors in England and Ireland, and by Writers to the Signet, Solicitors, Agents, Attorneys, and Procurators in Scotland, should be abolished. A few weeks ago (the hon. and learned Gentleman said) he, in common with most other Members, was entirely ignorant of the details of this tax, but, having been waited on by various gentlemen representing that branch of the profession, he had promised to look into the matter; and, having done so, he had come to the conclusion that they had a real grievance, and that this was one of the most unjust charges levied on any part of the community. Every solicitor and attorney must necessarily pass through an expensive education. When he took out his articles he had to pay a stamp duty of £80, and when he was admitted he had to pay a further tax of£25, making a total tax of 100 guineas—a larger sum than was paid by barristers or any other profession. The attorneys did not complain of this, however, for they thought that when paid it was done with for once and for all, and it was a sum which they would not be called on to pay again. But that was not all. Before he could do a single stroke of work; before he could know whether his business would be lucrative or not, he had to go to the Stamp Office in the month of November or December and pay a tax of £9 in the metropolis, or £6 in the country, which was a license for him to carry on his business during the year. This had to be renewed annually. There was no other profession taxed upon this principle or in this way, and it was rather curious to see how such an impost came to be inflicted upon the attorneys. In 1785 Mr. Pitt, in his budget speech, in which, at the close of a long, exhausting war, be had to provide for a deficiency of £413,000, had to announce amongst other unpopular taxes, one upon maid-servants and another upon shops. These taxes were warmly opposed, and in a debate on the 10th of May, in which Mr. Fox and Mr. Sheridan took part, a Mr. Medley had the honour of being the first to suggest that a tax should be placed upon those unpopular people, the attorneys and barristers. He gave a droll account of the increase of lawyers, and said that, when be was a boy, there were but two in his part of the country, whereas they had lately had to pull the old sessions House down, because it was not large enough for them, and build a new one. Alderman Watson made a speech, in which he urged the strongest objections to the proposed tax on female servants, and suggested a tax on effeminate men and foreign servants, or, as a much preferable measure, even a double tax on solicitors. On the 23rd of May, when the debate on the Shop Tax Bill came on, to which all London seemed opposed, Alderman Watson again started up and expressed his opinion against the shop tax. The Alderman then proposed certain taxes in lieu of the tax on shops, observing that he thought the State should receive a share of the lawyer's fee he calculated that there were then 5,000 attorneys in the kingdom, and if a tax of £30 were imposed on each, there would be an income from that quarter which would amount to about £30,000 more than the proposed tax upon shops was estimated to return. In the course of the same debate Mr. Pitt, after defending his proposal, said that although a tax upon attorneys might be considered an eligible one, nevertheless, no gentleman could be sanguine enough to suppose that it would yield £150,000. The eminent statesman went on to say that he knew some persons were desirous that such a tax should be adopted, for various reasons. Some wished for such a tax in their zeal for the revenue, others advocated it as a proper impost in time of war, or to make up a deficiency arising at the conclusion of a war; others, again, recommended it as being useful for purposes of regulation. There was, however, he said, another set of gentlemen who warmly embraced the idea of such a tax upon attorneys from a feeling of resentment arising from the losses they had sustained in their connection with those professional persons. Subsequently, when it was ascertained that there was a deficiency of £20,000 to be made up, Mr. Pitt came forward on the 8th June, with the proposal to tax attorneys, observing that from the many recommendations made by Members, he did not think that it would be an impost to which objection would be taken. That statesman then proposed a tax of £5 on London attorneys, and £3 on country attorneys, estimating a return from the whole of £10,000 a year. He also proposed a tax of 2s. 6d. on each warrant of arrest issued by attorneys. The latter tax, which was no grievance to attorneys, as they charged it to their clients, was subsequently abolished, while the unjust and oppressive annual charge had not only been continued to the present day but considerably increased. That was the state of things in 1785. From that period until 1815 that tax remained unaltered. Between those dates, however, there were heavy charges placed upon the articles of clerkship, increasing from £120 to £150. In 1815 the tax upon attorneys was increased to £12 for London attorneys, and £8 to the country practitioners, and so it remained until 1853, when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer made an alteration in it. In 1850 Lord Robert Grosvenor, now Lord Ebury, brought the matter before the House in the shape of a Bill to abolish the tax, believing it to be a great grievance and an injustice. In spite of the old stock argument that the noble Lord was interfering with the budget of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which had not as yet been introduced, and that he was dictating to that right hon. Gentleman, the House, by a considerable majority, affirmed the principle of the Bill. The Government having, however, used their powers of protraction, which were available at all times to crush any attempts at legislation by private Members, the Bill of Lord Robert Grosvenor was delayed to so late a period of the Session that it was impossible to proceed further with it. In 1851 the noble Lord again introduced his measure, but owing to the circumstances arising from the peculiar state of parties in the House nothing could be done in the matter. In 1853 Lord Robert Grosvenor once more brought forward the subject on the 10th March, but was told that he had brought it forward at the wrong time. Nevertheless, the noble Lord carried his measure through its first stage by a majority of 219 to 167. On the 27th April the Bill came on for its second reading, when, after some discussion, it was postponed on the ground that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had expressed his intention of dealing with the subject. Now, it should be recollected that it was the annual payment which the attorneys considered a grievance, and not the charge upon the articles at the entrance to the profession. In the Chancellor of the Exchequer's budget he, however, proposed to reduce the latter charge and not to touch the annual certificate. The right hon. Gentleman observed that the profession was subject to three charges—namely, on the admission to practice £25, the annual certificate £12, and the articles of clerkship £120. The amount of the tax, as appeared by a recent Return, was as follows:—In England, £68,752; in Scotland, £10,756; and in Ireland,£9,460—making altogether £88,968. Now, he (Mr. Den-man) asked whether it was fair, in the present prospects of the country, that for the sake of a sum of £90,000 they should any longer continue a tax that was unjust, anomalous, and arbitrary. Its origin was unjust, because it was admitted to have been originally imposed from the feeling of resentment or petty spite on the part of persons who suffered in a pecuniary way from certain attorneys. It was anomalous and arbitrary because, by a series of legislation, Parliament had provided not only for the necessary and expensive education of this class of men, but also subjected it to certain conditions and restrictions to which no other trade or profession was exposed. No tax was felt so hard as the income tax when it pressed upon what was called brain-work. But as regarded attorneys, the tax in question was a double or triple tax on brain-work. He thought he had now made out a case to justify the House in declaring that this was not a just tax, and that it ought to be repealed. It was fallacious to argue that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer dealt with this tax he would be obliged to repeal other taxes also. The auctioneers and pawnbrokers had brought the case of their special burdens under the attention of the House, and he did not mean to say that they had not good ground for the claim which they advanced, but he did contend that their case did not at all stand on a par with the case of the attorneys, for it could not be said that an auctioneer was a professional man in the same sense that it could be said of an attorney. He had received through the post a paper stating the grounds upon which persons engaged in various trades considered they had as good a claim as attorneys to be exempted from the duties to which they were subjected, and expressing a hope that he would support their case, but none of the occupations mentioned in that paper could be called professions, with the exception of perpetual curates, and though those persons had to pay an annual ad valorem duty, they did not, like solicitors, pay a large sum in the shape of duty upon entering their profession, nor did they pay a sum whether they received any annual income or not from their profession. Another argument against the Motion was that the surplus which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to deal with this year was a very modest surplus. No doubt it was the smallest surplus, with the exception of one, which the right hon. Gentleman had had during the present Parliament, but he (Mr. Denman) did not think that was a sufficient reason for not entertaining the present Motion. Nor, by the way, could he admit that any surplus ought to be complimented for its modesty which was even partly made up of an unjust and arbitrary tax. The next argument might be that the budget for the present year was settled, and that it was too late now to attempt to interfere with the surplus. But this question had been decided by previous Parliaments. It was decided in 1850 and 1853, and against all the power of the Government and all the arguments of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who always said that it was either too soon or too late to deal with the matter. If, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer assured him, upon his official responsibility, that this tax could not be parted with this year, he would listen respectfully to what he said, and not bring forward vexatiously any Bill to interfere with his surplus this year. But in the event of his having a seat in that House next year, he wished, if he again brought forward the question, to avoid being told that he ought to have taken the opinion of the last Parliament upon it. What he now wished was, to obtain an expression of opinion by this Parliament, in accordance with the decisions of the House in 1850 and 1853, that this tax was unjust and inexpedient. He hoped that if the decision of the House was in favour of his Resolution, the right hon. Gentleman would gracefully bow to that decision and act upon it. When Lord Robert Grosvenor proposed a Bill for the abolition of the certificate duty the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli), who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the then Solicitor General (Sir Hugh Cairns), voted for it. The present Lord Chief Justice of England (Sir Alexander Cockburn) also voted for the Bill, and described the tax as unjust and oppressive. He (Mr. Denman) could not see upon what principle attorneys were subjected to this tax when no similar tax was imposed upon barristers, physicians, surgeons, architects, civil engineers, railway directors, and Members of Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) imagined that by proposing to take off the entrance duty he would induce the attorneys, from fear of their profession being thrown open, not to trouble him again with appeals for the abolition of the annual certificate duty, he had reckoned without his host. The tax which the profession felt to be unjust was not the entrance duty, but the annual certificate duty, which bore severely upon young men struggling for existence. The heads of the profession who had petitioned against the tax had not done so with the object of benefiting themselves in a pecuniary sense, as the amount to them was of no consequence; but they felt it was a duty they owed to their younger brethren to try to get abolished this unjust tax which hampered them in carrying on their business. Even if this tax were abolished, the profession would continue subject to exceptional restrictions. Their bills were liable to be taxed, so that they were prevented from having exuberant prosperity. The tax on the London attorneys was equivalent to an additional income tax of 4d. in the pound on an income of £540, and of 4d. in the pound on an income of £360 on the country attorneys. And the tax had to be paid in advance, although the attorney might not make a farthing of profit during the year. In his speech on the Budget this Session the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that this tax had been paid by attorneys for many generations; I he was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman use such an argument. It was as bad as the argument, which had also shocked his sense of justice, that the attorneys are an unpopular set of men. Looking at the highly delicate and important functions which they had to perform, and the mode in which they performed them, with rare exceptions, he thought the only principle on which hatred towards them would be justified by those who had sanctioned this objectionable tax, was that hateful principle odisse quem lœseris. The right hon. Gentleman also said that abolishing this tax would be class legislation, but he (Mr. Denman) would put a case by way of illustration. Supposing the £90,000 which this tax yielded was imposed on nine of the richest Members of the House, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed to relieve those Members from that burden, would that be class legislation? He thought that class legislation was the passing of the measure which imposed the tax. Upon these grounds he proposed the Resolution, and in doing so he confidently relied upon the good sense and justice of the House for its success.


, in seconding the Motion, said, this duty pressed with peculiar hardship upon solicitors in Ireland. The tax was not extended to Ireland until 1806, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had great difficulty in raising money, was obliged to borrow it at ruinous rates of interest, and levied taxes on silk stockings and persons wearing watches. The tax operated unfairly, as it had to be paid alike by the young solicitor whose income was extremely small, and by the old practitioner whose gains might be enormous. In 1850 the Bill for its abolition was carried by a majority of 19 in 1851, by a majority of 30; and in 1853, by a majority of 42. It might be said that the profits of the profession were very large, and ought to be taxed; but in Ireland those profits of late years had been greatly diminished, and especially by the establishment of the Landed Estates Court in that country. The surplus of £280,000 which existed was amply sufficient to allow of this tax being repealed, more especially as the delay in repealing the tea tax would increase the Chancellor of the Exchequer's profits.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the words "That the" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is just and expedient that the annual Duty payable upon Certificates taken out by Attorneys, Solicitors, and Proctors in England and Ireland, and by Writers to the Signet, Solicitors, Agents, Attorneys, and Procurators in Scotland, should be abolished," (Mr. Denman,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he did not wish to enter into the merits of the question, hut protested against the time when the Motion was brought forward. He asked whether they could fairly decide upon the merits under existing circumstances. The Motion affected the interests of all those persons who were employed in electioneering throughout the length and breadth of the land. An hon. Member below the gangway had said that all the boroughs were in the hands of attorneys. He (Mr. Hunt) did not go as far as that, but he dared say that a great many in that House were indebted for their seats to the exertions of that meritorious body of men. Would they vote that night as free and independent Members of Parliament, or under the influence of an undue pressure brought to bear upon hon. Members before the general election? He should certainly vote for going into Supply as a means of defeating the Motion.


said, that the principle of the Bill of 1850 was distinctly affirmed by the House on two or three occasions, and that the measure was only lost on the third reading at three o'clock in the morning. On other occasions the Bill had been lost by what he might term misadventure. He hoped the House would relieve attorneys from the injustice to which they had been so long subjected by this duty. They were by it more heavily taxed than any other class who required licences to carry on their trade or profession. Having been a member of the profession himself, he would add that he believed they were quite incapable of being improperly influenced by any decision at which the House might arrive on the question, and that if hon. Members owed their seats to the exertions of solicitors, it was because the latter had zealously taken up their cause, and not because they were actuated by any unworthy motives. He hoped that if the Resolution passed, and it was too late this year to act upon it, it would be understood that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should next year deal with this duty.


said, that he could see no good reason why writers to the signet and solicitors should be subjected to the tax, while advocates and barristers were exempted from it. There were about 1,600 solicitors and attorneys in Scotland; and many of them had strongly represented to him the grievance to which they were subjected. They complained less of the tax than of the degradation to which they were exposed in being compelled to take a licence for the exercise of their profession.


said, that he was not open to the suspicion of making a bid for the favour of solicitors, seeing that he would equally be in favour of removing the annual licence duty charged to horsedealers, auctioneers, and others. He objected to all licences whatever for carrying on trades. He saw no reason why a solicitor or an auctioneer should pay a tax more than a butcher or a baker.


Sir, in rising to state the reasons which induced the Government to offer a stout resistance to the proposal of my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Denman), I shall not say one single word that can be construed into disrespect towards my hon. Friend, or towards that most valuable and useful profession whose interests are in some degree involved in this debate. We know that vulgar insinuations are sometimes heard with regard to that profession, which, while it affords the noblest scope for the highest qualities, affords scope also for those that are lower. But for myself I have always held the opinion that a worthy and honourable solicitor is himself one of the most valuable members of society; nowhere is the principle of honour to be found in a purer state, and it is no less pure because it is combined with the most enlightened and disinterested prudence. I am sorry that the researches of my hon. Friend into the Parliamentary history of this question have stopped short of the point of greatest interest. I am not going to allege that there has been any compact; the solicitors are free to raise this question at any time, and in any manner, they think fit. But I so far agree with what has fallen from the hon. Member for Northamptonshire (Mr. Hunt), that I do think the external proprieties would have been more consulted if the application for the removal of this tax had been made at a period somewhat more remote from the great event likely to happen in a few months.


rose amid cries of "Order" to offer some explanatory remarks.


The hon. Member has a perfect right to explain hereafter what his meaning was, but he has no right to interrupt any speaker for that purpose.


proceeded: After a long Parlia- mentary agitation of this question the House of Commons in 1853 came to a decision, the result of which forms the last Parliamentary declaration on the subject. On that occasion the largest number of Members voted. In favour of the second reading of the Bill for abolishing this duty 102 ayes voted, but the measure was rejected by 186 noes. My hon. Friend quoted with great emphasis and unction some words of the Lord Chief Justice of England, who, at one period of his life, when imperfectly informed, denounced this duty. But the latest and most important act of the Lord Chief Justice was in a very different sense; and my hon. Friend will find that the name of Sir Alexander Cock burn appears in that majority of 84 which sanctioned the continuance of this tax. My hon. and learned Friend said it was dangerous to throw out suggestions to the Minister of Finance with regard to taxes that might be imposed. I can calm my hon. Friend's mind on that subject. Hon. Members are not very guilty in this respect, I whatever they may be with regard to suggestions to take off taxes. My hon. Friend has said that if I assure him there is no available surplus which can properly and safely be applied to the purpose which he has in view he will not force on his proposal in the shape of a Bill. Giving credit to my hon. and learned Friend for the candour and moderation which distinguished I his speech, I must say that I have objected, and always will object, as opposed to the true interests of the country, and as detracting from the character and dignity of this House, to all attempts to pledge the future by abstract Resolutions. My hon. Friend has alluded to what he calls the old stock argument about no time, either before, after, or during the Budget, being the proper time for bringing forward a financial proposal. But that is an excellent argument where applicable. The time to bring forward any proposal is when the House has all the other proposals before it; it can then either adopt the plans of the Minister if it deems them best, or substitute any other for them. But it cannot be regarded as a practical course to bring forward a single proposition pledging the House to a certain line of conduct, in order that credit may be gained with a portion of our constituents, being utterly uncertain whether it may ever be in our power to redeem that pledge. Such abstract Resolutions, barren of all results, and only laying the ground I—as we have seen by experience—for questioning and suspicion hereafter, are I not only objectionable in themselves, but in this case we really have no money that we can wisely and prudently deal with at this moment. My hon. Friend the Member for the city of Dublin (Mr. Vance) talks of the handsome present which has been made to the Exchequer by the postponement of the remission of the tea duty. I am not in possession of the actual figures since that postponement, but I can state that whereas the average daily payments of duty on tea were about £9,000 in London alone, they have lately been but as many hundreds a day. No doubt a portion of that loss will be recovered when the reduced duty comes into operation, but necessarily it will only be a small portion of what we should have received had the reduction taken immediate effect. The surplus of £200,000 may be open to question on account of its smallness, but certainly not as being too large. We have no right to suppose that because we began one year with a small surplus and ended it with a large one, such will always be the case; and there is nothing in the circumstances of the present year that should warrant us in departing from the general rules of prudence that govern our action. With regard to the general argument, I am no great admirer of these taxes; but, in considering taxes as they affect a particular class, it is a fact of the greatest importance that they have been paid for several generations. Thus, it in the end involves no hardship, for the trade or profession adapts itself to the burdens it has to sustain, and the amount of remuneration bears a proportion to those charges. I am sensible that there is something invidious in the nature of this tax, but I deny that a case has been made out to distinguish it from all other annual duties payable by professions and trades. The hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Clay) put the case on its true footing. It is quite impossible, with justice, to draw any broad line of distinction between professions and trades. How can you say that it is right to tax trades, and that it is wrong to tax professions? What is the sum really at issue?—the total amount of these annual duties payable by professions and trades? After excluding all licences on the sale of spirits—which I grant stand in a class by themselves—it is not less than £600,000 a year. Are we in a condition now to entertain the question? If my hon. and learned Friend thinks it necessary to obtain a declaration of the House on the whole question, well and good; but, if he complains of one injustice, do not let him engraft upon this system of annual duties another injustice, by drawing a distinction between those who are in the same predicament. Why should the autioneer pay an annual duty of £10, and the attorney be relieved from an annual duty of £9? Is there anything in the trade of an auctioneer that ought to be discouraged by this House? Why should the trade of a pawnbroker be taxed? We levy from him a sum of £30,000 a year. Who is he? He is the man who ministers to the first necessities in the matter of money of the lowest class of the population, and every farthing of what is drawn from the pawnbroker is taken from the pockets of the poor. Well, is that tax to remain, and shall we be doing an act of justice if we relieve a powerful profession, every member of which has access, and some very intimate access, to the Members of this House, and select them in preference to those who have a stronger and more urgent claim? Take the case of a hawker. We lay a tax of £48,000 upon hawkers. The whole of this sum comes from a trade which is pursued in minute details by men, hardly one of whom is worth £100 of capital in the world, and who drive their trade in the villages and among the peasantry of the country. Without closing my eyes to the objections against exceptional legislation of this kind, and which includes all these cases of annual taxation, I think that if the House is prepared to deal with one, it ought to deal with all. You may do it. You may modify the proposals of the Government with regard to the tea duty and the income tax, but I am afraid it is rather late. That is what ought to be done. You, too, ought to deal with all these duties which stand substantially in the same position, and not make an invidious selection of the claims of those who are the most powerful and wealthy, and, at a moment, too, when their influence is raised to its maximum by causes which it is unnecessary to mention. My hon. Friend says the question before us is whether this tax is to be permanently maintained. I have always disclaimed that issue, and I disclaim it now. There are taxes that must be permanent, but there is nothing in the question of the permanent retention of this tax that is not fairly open to the consideration of the House. But the question now is as to the abolition at the present moment and under existing circumstances. I think my hon. Friend failed in that portion of his speech as to the relative position of the annual duties paid by attorneys and the duty upon entrance. Above £100 is paid by a young man intending to become an attorney before he is admitted to practise his profession, and after he is admitted he pays an annual duty of £9 in London and £6 in the country. My hon. Friend says it is monstrous to exact £9 a year in London and £6 a year in the country, but that it is perfectly allowable to make him pay £100 before he can practise his profession. The education of an attorney is expensive, and we by our recent legislation have made it more so; and does it strengthen my hon. Friend's case to say that the grown-up attorney in practice ought not to pay an annual duty of £9 or £6, while the young man, almost a boy, before he can earn a farthing by his profession, should be compelled to make this heavy payment in advance? It is said that although he may be driving a profitable business one year, yet that his business may fall off another year. But so may an auctioneer's, or a pawnbroker's, or a hawker's. If you want to give relief, the true way is to look, first, at the case of these heavy taxes on admission, which are a tax in favour of the rich and against the poor, inasmuch as they require an advance of capital from the youth to the State, before he is allowed to carry on his business. That is a question which, if my hon. Friend ever proposes to deal with by a Bill, I shall feel it my duty to raise and argue at length. The House, meanwhile, will do well to avoid entangling itself with abstract declarations, which are worthless in the present, and embarrassing in the future. We have gone as far as we consider safe and desirable in the reductions we have to propose, and I am confident that the House will not call upon us or expect us this year to propose any further reduction.


said, that the House ought to know the circumstances under which the majority on the last division was obtained. There were two proposals for reduction of taxes before the House—the abolition of advertisement duty and of the duties now under discussion. The Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House that the Government could not afford to part with the money from both. The House gave the preference to the abolition of the advertisement duty, and he (Mr. Craufurd), having been somewhat active in promoting the repeal of the advertisement duty, and having obtained what the right hon. Gentleman called a "snap division" in its favour, voted on that occasion against the repeal of the annual duty paid by attorneys.

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

The House divided:—Ayes 143; Noes 146: Majority 3.

Words added:—Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to. Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, it is just and expedient that the annual Duty payable upon Certificates taken out by Attorneys, Solicitors, and Proctors in England and Ireland, and by Writers to the Signet, Solicitors, Agents, Attorneys, and Procurators in Scotland, should be abolished.

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