HC Deb 02 March 1866 vol 181 cc1394-407

said, he rose to ask the President of the Poor Law Board, Whether he intends to bring in a Bill during the present Session for the rating of Mines and Woods for the relief of the poor? He would preface the Question by a few remarks. He supported the Union Chargeability Bill of the President of the Poor Law Board last Session, because he thought it was right in principle; but, at the same time, he expressed an opinion that there were many anomalies left untouched which required supplemental legislation. The noble Lord the Member for North Leicestershire (Lord John Manners) predicted that he would be grievously disappointed in his expectations, and he must say that he began to fear the noble Lord was right, as no sign had been given of such intention by Her Majesty's Government. One of the greatest of these anomalies was the exemption of all mines, except coal mines, from being assessed to the relief of the poor, and he might remind hon. Members that this exemption led indirectly to an escape from some other rates as well. He was so much impressed with the necessity of correcting this anomaly at a time when the enlargement of the area of rating intensified the grievance, that he gave notice of a clause to that effect, which he withdrew, in consequence of the Speaker having decided that it was beyond the scope of the Bill. He would now briefly explain to the House the exact state of the case. The House knew that the foundation of rating for the relief of the poor was the Act 43 Elizabeth, c. 2, which enacted that certain real property and coal mines should be so rated. Whether the exemption was intentional for the purpose of encouraging the working of other minerals, or whether accidental from no others being at that time worked to any extent, seemed doubtful. The latter appeared to have been the general opinion from other mines having been rated in the first instance, till it was decided in the case of the "Lead Smelting Company v. Richardson," the leading case on this subject, that coal mines alone were rateable. Perhaps legal caprice never went further than in the subsequent decisions on this Question. Cunningham's case decided the exemption of iron mines, Bilston's on that of the machinery attached to them, but if iron ore were dug from open quarries, as in the newly-discovered seams in Northamptonshire, it was rateable. Again, stone quarries were rateable, but if the stone were obtained by sinking a shaft, and brought from the bowels of the earth by means of windlasses and other machinery, Sedgley's case decided that this was no longer a quarry, but a mine, and not rateable, because not a coal mine. Among many letters he had received on this subject from various parts of the country was one from the owner of a brickfield, who thought it very hard that he should be heavily rated for his brick earth and clay while so many minerals were exempt; but the law was more unjust than he imagined, because Brettel's case decided that if his neighbour brought up his clay through a shaft, he would be exempt, though clay dug from the open land was liable. Again, a royalty paid in kind—that is, in raw ore, such as was the custom in regard to the lead mines in Derbyshire—or even reserved in kind, though paid in money, was liable to rates; but royalty in money, or even royalty in smelted ore, was exempt. These were some of the anomalies of the existing law. In the Session of 1854–5 two Bills were brought in by the hon. Member for East Cornwall (Mr. Kendall) for remedying the defect, and again another in 1856; but these Bills never went beyond a first reading, and in 1856 a Committee was appointed to investigate the whole subject, which sat all that Session and reported the following year. The case of the metals was fully examined, and had the advantage of able advocates both on the Committee itself and among the witnesses; but the Committee reported on the 5th of August, 1857, that "there were no valid grounds for these distinctions;" and, indeed, it was plain that the plea of risk, which was freely used, though no mine would be rated till it produced profits, applied equally to coal mines; that that of the exhaustion of the corpus of the estate was common also to stone and slate quarries and clay pits; and that it was monstrous that rate-ability should depend rather upon an agreement between lessor and lessee than upon any general rule. And when it was argued that mines raised the rateable value of the property in the neighbourhood in proportion to the poor introduced, the right hon. Gentleman, as Member for Wolverhampton, must be well aware of the fallacy of such a plea. A letter from a clergyman in South Wales stated— A population of 17,000 have been congregated for the purpose of working mines where forty years ago it did not number as many hundreds. Immense fortunes have been made, but the-employers of labour have never been adequately rated, while the farmers have had their rates enormously in. creased without deriving any corresponding advantage. I am heavily rated, while I derive no pecuniary benefit from the population, which is a great burden to me. He (Mr. Care) was himself acquainted with districts in which small patches of hæmatite ore existed. These were let to speculators, who ran up a line of hovels, drawing all their supplies from the nearest town, because these small seams were rarely worked unless close to a railway. The usual effects of accidents, strikes, and stagnation were felt in the increased rates of the adjoining rural districts, which this operation injured rather than benefited, and to the rates of which it did not contribute a single farthing. Now, he believed the right hon. Gentleman would say that legislation was not wanted to set this wrong right; that it was not Parliament, but the Judges who had been in fault; that the decisions were founded in error, and had all been practically reversed by the famous judgment of the House of Lords in the Mersey Docks case in June last. With great deference, however, he begged to submit that the principle of that case was entirely distinct. The words of the Act of Elizabeth were "rate occupiers of lands, houses, tithes, coal mines, underwoods." Now, the question argued and decided in the Mersey Docks case was, not whether "lands" was a term wide enough to include all real property, but what was the meaning of "occupiers;" whether trustees who derived no personal benefit, but held lands for public purposes, were liable; whether, in short, "ability to pay," in the words of the Act, was co-extensive with the modern phrase "beneficial occupation." The question he wished to raise was, not whether a mine worked for the public benefit was liable, which would be a parallel case with that of the Mersey Docks, but whether mines other than coal mines were liable. And it could hardly be said that the word "lands" included minerals under them, as it included water above them, because it would in that case equally include coal mines, and yet coal mines were specially named in the Act. These were the reasons which induced him to believe that fresh legislation was necessary. When the principle was established there seemed no reason to expect difficulty in carrying it into effect. The words of the Parochial Assessment Act were that— No rate shall be in force which shall not be made upon an estimate of the rent at which hereditaments might reasonably be expected to let at from year to year. Attwood's case decided that the correct mode of rating coal mines was to rate the occupier at such a sum as the mine would let for to a tenant. Mr. Hedley, a valuer in Sunderland, whose letter to the Poor Law Board he thought might, if printed, give some useful information on these matters, showed that certain deductions would be necessary from this, and such were now usually made. He concluded his letter by saying— I have visited the iron mines of Cleveland, the hæmatite mines of Lancashire, the lead mines of Cumberland, and the metalliferous ore mines of Cornwall, and I have no hesitation in stating that the principles now so successfully applied to coal mines could be adapted to every other description of mine. This, however, was a question of practice, and not a question for the Legislature, and therefore the Bill of the hon. Member for Cornwall properly imitated the simple brevity of the statute of Elizabeth. In conclusion, he begged to state that he included "woods," a much more difficult subject, in his Question, solely in order to enable his hon. Friend the Member for Devonshire, who had made that subject his study, to put his Question, in speaking on his own, as a matter of convenience, in order that the President of the Poor Law Board might answer both at once. The hon. Member concluded by asking the Question which stood in his name, Whether the President of the Poor Law Board intended to bring in a Bill this Session for the rating of mines and woods to the relief of the poor; and whether he had any objection to lay on the table a communication from Mr. Hedley to the Poor Law Board on rating mines?


said, that the Question of which he had given notice was so closely connected with that of his hon. Friend that he would put it now. It is, Whether the President of the Poor Law Board proposes during the present Session to bring in a Bill for the purpose of rating Woods to the relief of the Poor; and any general measure for the amendment of the Poor Law founded on the Report of the Select Committee presented during the last Session. He quite agreed with his hon. Friend (Mr. Cave) that the question of rating mines was one of no difficulty. The question of rating woods, however, was one of very considerable difficulty. The point turned upon the construction of the Act of 43 Elisabeth, in which it was set forth that saleable woods should be rated for the relief of the poor thereby excluding all other woods. The Judges had given their opinion that timber woods ought to be exempted from rating, being in their opinion expressly excluded on account of the national importance of encouraging the growth of timber. He was anxious to have some definite answer on this point for the guidance of Union Assessment Committees. It might be hard that a tenant-life having no beneficial occupation should be rated at the agricultural value of the land; but, at the same time, it was equally hard that there should be a large parish chiefly consisting of woodland, and that that woodland should not be rated to the relief of the poor. As to the second portion of his Question, the introduction of a Bill to carry out the recommendations of the Committee, he might remark that they included several important propositions. One was the education of children. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Villiers) had sat for several years on a Committee on the Poor Law, which last year laid before the House a very elaborate and well-drawn Report; and the result of that Report was a Bill which the right hon. Gentleman brought in very late in the last Session. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman had been much occupied with other matters, especially the Lancashire distress and the relief of the casual poor. Owing to the late period at which the measure was introduced, although its provisions were discussed and there seemed to be no objection to it, yet it had to be withdrawn, and a mere continuance Bill was passed for one year. He (Mr. Kekewich) might observe, with regard to this last subject, that no measure, in his opinion, would prove successful until the whole of the metropolis was made into one union—a thing which he hoped he should some day see done. If the right hon. Gentleman intended to bring in a measure for the amendment of the Poor Law, he would therefore beg of him to do so early in the Session, so that it might be well considered by the country and end all legislation on the subject. The hon. Gentleman concluded by putting his Question.


said, that before the President of the Poor Law Board replied he wished to say that the Committee of which he had been Chairman took a vast mass of evidence in relation to the rating of mines, and the interests involved were found to be so large that he had thought it quite impossible for any private Member to bring in and carry through Parliament a Bill dealing effectively with that subject. He had not changed his opinion on this matter. He hoped that mines would be rated; but having had considerable experience of Cornish mines, he could state that there never perhaps was a more unhappy time than now for the introduction of a Bill to rate them. He did not think there were five dividend-paying mines in Cornwall. Copper and tin were never so low. The result would, therefore, be that any attempt to place a new burden on mining property would be certain to be strongly resisted.


said, he was glad that the hon. Member for Cornwall (Mr. Kendall) had interposed between him and the Questions which two hon. Members had put to him. It was assumed that he had been dilatory in bringing in a measure which might be carried with the greatest ease, and that there was no difficulty whatever about the matter; but the few remarks made by the hon. Member for Cornwall indicated that that view was not quite correct. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Kendall) had supplied the best answer to any such idea. He had himself been the Chairman of a Committee on the subject, and he had let twelve years pass without taking any action upon it. He (Mr. Villiers) agreed with all that had been said by the hon. Gentlemen who had questioned him; and if they could only bring the House to their views, he should be very glad. He had not understood from the notice given him by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Cave) of his intended Question that he meant then to enter into that subject as he had done, but he did not complain of the hon. Member's having entered into it. That hon. Gentleman stated that he (Mr. Villiers) had said that he would defer to the judgment recently given by the House of Lords in the case of the Mersey Docks, and that the necessity of passing a Bill through Parliament to alter the law was less urgent than it had been. Now, he had not stated that that judgment was given upon the same matter as that now before the House. What he had stated was, that for the first time the conflicting decisions of the Courts below in an analogous matter were taken before the Supreme Court of Appeal, were there reviewed, and a judgment finally given; and that the strict analogy between those questions would lead one to suppose that the Judges would take that breadth of view in the one case that had been taken by the highest Court of Appeal in the other, and would determine the point in a more satisfactory manner than could be done in a struggle to get a measure of that kind passed through that House. The question before the House of Lords was, whether the proper construction had been put upon a clause in an Act of Elizabeth, and whether an occupation need be beneficial in order to be rated? A point which had been in dispute perhaps for sixty or seventy years, was for the first time brought before the House of Lords, which, with the assistance of the Judges, came to the unanimous decision that the Courts below had been wrong, and thus finally settled the matter. The present case was an exactly similar one, except that the exemptions there were rested on grounds of a more fanciful and technical nature than in the other case. The hon. Gentleman said that, because other mines were not mentioned in the clause of the Act, and coal mines were so mentioned, therefore the rule of expressio unius est exclusio alterious applied there. He would not, himself, call that rather a puerile technical objection, but it was one that the House of Lords would hardly maintain, when it was shown that the other mines now in question were not developed when the statute was framed. The other day those mines were all rated, and therefore it was not an exclusion from the clause that prevented their being rated. In the judgment pronounced by the House of Lords, surprise was expressed that nearly three centuries after the passing of the statute persons should be found disputing as to the meaning of that clause. The hon. Member for South Devon (Mr. Kekewich) seemed to think that the rating of mines was a very easy matter, and one that could be disposed of by legislation or by the Supreme Court of Appeal, but that the rating of woods was a very serious question. He could not quite agree with that. The exemption of woods was, in his view, more worthless than that of mines, and had not been uniformly acted upon in this country. Assessment committees had been formed only within these two years, but already, as he understood, in the county of Norfolk, arrangements had been made for rating woods, and the same thing had been done in some other counties. It had been a question whether woods were exempt at all, and the late Lord Campbell, while at the Bar, had given it as his opinion that they were not. Having been consulted on that point in 1826, by the authorities of the parish of Oswestry, Lord Campbell said— I would advise the parish of Oswestry to rate the lands, planted as above described, to the relief of the poor. I do not think that the new plantations can be considered saleable underwood, but I apprehend that a man cannot exempt lands sub- ject to poor's rates from poor's rates by converting them into woodlands. At the passing of 43 Elizabeth, c. 2, these were 'lands' and liable to be rated, and the use to which they are subsequently converted may affect the quantum of the rate, but not the rateability. I think they ought to be rated in the same proportion with the adjoining lands of equal quality which are not planted. There could be no reason why that land should not be valued according to its use or productions. That was the principle adopted in Scotland, and there was no exception in Ireland, and he did not see why land should not be valued according to the employment of the surface, be it more or less valuable. He could not suppose for one instant that if the case of such land should come before the Court of Appeal the judgment of the inferior Court would not be reversed. He was of opinion that it would not be judicious to bring a Bill into the House on the subject, for private interest would be employed to prevent its passing. The case of the Mersey Docks was of so gross a character that it was determined to introduce a Bill to sweep away the anomaly; but, as it was apparent that sufficient influence would be brought against it to prevent its passing, the parties interested determined to make an experiment, and bring the case before the House of Lords. The appeal was successful; and upon that ground he was disposed to recommend the hon. Member for Shoreham to pursue a similar course rather than make an attempt at legislation, which would undoubtedly be unsuccessful. He had been asked to produce a letter addressed to the Poor Law Board by Mr. Hedley on the subject of rating mines, and he had no objection to so doing if it should be the pleasure of the House. It was right, however, that he should call the attention of the House to the consequences the production of such a letter would lead to. It came from a gentleman in no authoritative position, and who had not been invited to send it; it was in reality a private communication. The document was doubtless interesting, and it might lead to controversy. Were he to produce it, however, another gentleman might write a letter to the Poor Law Board, and move that it, with the answer of that Board, should also be laid upon the table. Such letters might be written both by private gentlemen and Members of the House of Commons with the view of having their ideas published at the expense of the Government. The hon. Member for South Devon had asked him questions relative to the matters inquired into by the Select Committee, which prosecuted its labours for a considerable time, but certainly not during a period of five years. The hon. Member was a little in error in saying that the only fruit of that inquiry was a measure relative to the houseless poor. The hon. Member, who took a very serviceable interest in the Union Chargeability Bill of the last Session, must have known that that measure was recommended by the Report of that Committee. As soon as he was able, he introduced another measure, containing several Amendments of the law. Those Amendments, however, were not palatable to many Members of the House just before the General Election, particularly those clauses to which the hon. Member had said he did not think the House had any objection, which were to enable the Roman Catholic clergy to visit the Roman Catholic poor in the workhouses. The result was that the Bill was rejected. If the Bill had passed, it would have effected many useful Amendments; but in consequence of what his hon. Friend had said he would not despair, but introduce the Bill again with as few defects as possible.


said, that a great anomaly existed in our system of local taxation. There was no doubt that the non-rating of iron, copper, stone, and other minerals had been the source of great complaint and litigation. It would be a great satisfaction to the country if the matter could be clearly settled by law; for now the proceedings in the courts were filling many with disgust and ruining others. He thought the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board ought to have assumed the responsibility which doubtless attached to his Department, instead of throwing it upon the Law Courts of the country, and to have brought in a measure dealing with the anomalies complained of, which would probably have been carried. The fact that ironstone, lead, copper, and other minerals were exempt from assessment for the poor was not a little startling, for they were sources of wealth so easily realized. Coal, which cost so much more in bringing to the market, had all along been contributing to the rates. Recent discoveries of various mineral ores in Cumberland and other parts of the north of England, had enormously increased the value of estates there, some having risen in value as much us 20, 40, and 50 per cent. He might specially mention that, by the discovery of almost inexhaustible beds of ironstone in Cleveland, some of the estates, in fact, had become even more precious and more important than the far-famed goldfields of California, and yet they were not contributing to the relief of the poor. It did seem strange to him that the right hon. Gentleman, who had been aware of these facts for so many years, should have been so unwilling to proceed with any fresh legislation on the matter. Whilst advocating that the whole mineral wealth of the country should bear its proper share of taxation, it ought to be borne in mind that neither coal, lead, copper, nor any other mineral was re-producible; this should be considered in any measure upon the subject, and a certain percentage deducted from the annual rateable value. A further circumstance which should not be lost sight of was, that a quarter of a million of money was sometimes expended in opening out our coal mines. Many hon. Members were aware of the inconvenience caused in their respective localities by the conflicting decisions of the Poor Law Board, especially those affecting public companies. A novel mode of taxation had been started in the district to which he belonged, for there the local authorities proposed to tax machinery, which was no more liable to be assessed for poor rates than a chair or a table. All these things showed a pressing necessity for a revision of the existing system. He therefore hoped the right hon. Gentleman, assisted by the Law Officers of the Crown, would prepare a Bill to remove the anomalies which were so great a source of annoyance and litigation. He could not imagine that there would be any difficulty in carrying such a properly framed Bill through Parliament. It was difficult to conceive that any greater good could be conferred on owners of property than the right hon. Gentleman had now in his power to bestow by introducing such a Bill.


said, he wished to point out that under the present system of rating in various parts of England the best and most lucrative property was the only property which did not pay its quota to the highway rates. With regard to iron, coal, and lead mines, there were special reasons, beyond merely abstract rules, why they should be rated for the relief of the poor. Owing to the nature of the work in those mines large numbers of the men were incapacitated for labour from accidents and similar causes, and they consequently became dependent on the rates. Further, much of the metal taken from the mines in West Cumberland passed along the roads in carts to Whitehaven, cutting them up to a great extent, and yet those minerals were exempt from contributing to the highway rates. With respect to plantations, in some instances it was better to set them out than to grow anything else upon the land. It was nothing more than a change of crop, and the farmer adopted that course because he thought it would pay him best, and he was thereby exempted from all charge. Attention had been called to the subject by the alteration in the incidence of rating under the Union Assessment Act of last Session, which he had supported, although he could not now shut his eyes to the fact that it caused considerable inequalities in some places. In the neighbourhood in which he resided, for instance, there was a charge of £2,000 in favour of the towns as against the agricultural districts. The farmers as a body did not complain of the Act, believing it to be founded on a right principle; but what they did complain of was that, while their land was assessed to the full value, the rich mines did not pay one farthing. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would re-consider the answer which he had given, and that we should before long have a Bill on the subject.


said, he had on several occasions pointed out that the Union Chargeability Act, so far from conferring any benefit on the close parishes in the metropolis, tended to do them serious injury, because of the change made with regard to the irremovability of persons becoming chargeable after a residence of one year instead of three, as the law at present stood. Large numbers of people were driven out of certain localities in the metropolis on account of the alterations made for the purposes of railways and other improvements, and were necessarily obliged to go to the poorer districts, where burdens in the shape of rates came so heavily upon them that they frequently fell into distress, and themselves became chargeable on the parish. Now, the Poor Relief Committee came to the conclusion— That, although much of the inequality which has been shown to exist as between parish and parish within the same union will now be obviated by the operation of the Irremovable Poor Act of 1861, and that inequality will be further lessened by the adjustment of the parochial rates under the provisions of the Union Assessment Act of 1862, your Committee are unable to regard that result as furnishing any reason against equalizing the charge of maintaining all classes of the poor over the several parishes of the whole union. On the contrary, it appears to them to hare removed one of the greatest obstacles to the adoption of such a measure. That measure has now been passed, The Committee goes on to say— It is proper, however, that your Committee should point out that the advantages which have been conferred upon the country generally by the two Acts just referred to have not been participated in by many largely and densely-populated single parishes in the metropolis not in union, which, so far from being benefited by the Irremovable Poor Acts, are now oppressed by additional poor, who but for those Acts would have been removable; and they have to add that, whatever importance may be attached to the impression entertained by some that in the rural districts the settled poor are better cared for than the others, this argument is certainly not applicable to the metropolis, inasmuch as persons are there employed without any consideration to their becoming chargeable; and, in the case of labouring men, their place of abode is very frequently in some other parish than that in which they are employed; and, with respect to the alleged injustice to a person who has acquired property in a low-rated parish being called upon to contribute to a neighbouring one more heavily burdened, it has been urged that there is an equal injustice committed, especially in the poorer parishes of the metropolis, where persons who have taken property find from circumstances beyond their control their rates and expenses rapidly increasing; the circumstances referred to being the destruction of whole districts by street improvements, railways, and other large works, whereby the working poor are deprived of their dwellings and necessarily driven to find them in places already impoverished. Now, that put the state of the case very clearly, and he sincerely hoped the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board would not, when he brought in a general Bill, forget the position of the metropolis. On the subject of the equalization of poor rates within the limits of the metropolis, he should also like to read a Resolution at which the Committee bad arrived. It was as follows:— That much evidence was adduced showing the unequal pressure of the charge for the relief of the poor in different parts of the metropolitan district, and various plans were submitted to your Committee for the equalization of the poor rate, and your Committee recommend the general question of extending the area of rating to the further consideration of the House; but the circumstances of the metropolis are so peculiar that in any legislation to extend the area of charge or management it would be necessary to have regard to those circumstances; that any measure for the extending of the area of rating should, in the opinion of the Committee, embrace provisions for making the whole cost for the poor in each union chargeable on the common fund of the union. If a general measure were brought in it should not, he thought, be received with favour by the House if the metropolis with its 3,000,000 inhabitants were excluded from its beneficial operation.


said, that when he had first placed his notice on the paper, he did not know who Mr. Hedley was; but he imagined that his communication to the Poor Law Board was official or quasi- official. If there were the slightest objection to the production of the document in question he should not, under the circumstances, press for it.


said, that if the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. P. Villiers) experienced a difficulty in dealing with the question in that House considerably more difficulty was felt in bringing it judicially before the House of Lords. If the right hon. Gentleman concurred in opinion with those who advocated the rating of mines, it was not sufficient for him, as President of the Poor Law Board, to excuse himself on the ground of the difficulty of passing a Bill through the House.