HC Deb 29 November 1867 vol 190 cc437-48

called the attention of the House to the uncertain interpretation of those provisions of the "Representation of the People Act" which relate to the payment of rates, and to ask Mr. Attorney General, Whether every occupier in Parliamentary Boroughs must be rated to the relief of the poor; or whether, in the event of the occupier not desiring to obtain the Franchise, the owner may still be rated; also, whether payment of rates by the landlord would not, in point of Law, be deemed payment by the tenant? He had been requested to bring under the notice of the House the case of the Walsall compound-householders. There, under the Market Improvement Act of 1848, a composition was made compulsory in regard to all tenements let out either weekly or monthly; but, wherever the rent amounted to £10 and upwards, the compound-householder could be placed on the electoral register. But, by the extinction of the system of compounding under the Reform Bill of last Session, those compound-householders at £10 and upwards would be disqualified. Under that Act no occupier could be admitted to the franchise unless he personally paid his rates; but a doubt seemed to exist whether the section directing the rate to be levied on the occupier and not on the owner applied to all occupiers indiscriminately, or merely to those qualified under the 3rd section of the Act. He was aware the Attorney General would say that all local Acts were superseded by the general Act; and that might be a good answer in point of form, but it was no answer as to the injustice and inconsistency of taking away existing franchises. The 56th section of the Representation of the People Act, 1867, said that all franchises conferred by that Act should be in addition and not in substitution for any existing franchises. He wished to know whether payment of rates by the landlord would not in point of law be deemed payment by the tenant. Whatever might be the answer of the Attorney General to that Question, he desired to impress on the Government, and especially on the House, the policy, before the Act of last Session came into operation, of repealing, or, at all events modifying the obnoxious clauses relating to compounding and the payment of rates. Those provisions were everywhere exciting the greatest discontent and giving rise to the warmest discussion. Not only in his own district, but in Norwich and other places, large meetings had been held to protest against them, and, in some places, threats of personal violence had been held out against any attempt to enforce them; and he felt sure that in the ensuing Session the table would be covered with petitions on the subject. He hoped that the object of a measure intended for the enfranchisement of the working classes would not be defeated by the enforcement of the odious provisions to which he had referred.


said, the subject was one of great importance. He confessed that when the clauses for abolishing the system of compounding were brought forward many hon. Gentlemen did not perceive very clearly how they would work. But though the Act of last Session had not yet come into operation, and no rate had been raised or a single voter registered under it, yet they now saw pretty plainly what its action would be. The feeling among the small occupiers in the towns where the change from compounding to non-compounding was made was one of the most serious dissatisfaction; and that subject would soon have to be re-considered. When the system of compounders was abolished by the Act of last Session, he supposed, in his ignorance, that there were two great objects sought to be attained. On his side of the House it was imagined that the holders of small tenements would thus be exempted from the payment of a fine before they could become entitled to a vote; while, upon the other side, it was thought that the personal payment of rates would secure a qualification for the franchise. Both those objects, however, failed to be realized. The holders of small tenements would still have to pay a large fine before they could exercise the franchise, and the personal payment of rates was far from being securely established. The question was one which involved so many complications that he had found it extremely difficult to understand it; but having heard a great number of complaints from householders when he ad- dressed his constituents a short time ago as to the way in which the law would operate in their case, he had examined the subject more closely, and he felt satisfied that a great injury would be inflicted on workmen and occupiers of small tenements, male and female, by what he must characterize as a very inconsiderate and clumsy Act of the Legislature. Let him suppose, for example, that £18 was required to be raised for parish purposes, and that it was to be levied on forty houses of the rateable value of £6 each, which would give an aggregate rateable value of £240. Under the compounding system, the parish authorities must have called for £36, or a sum double that which they required—because by the 13 Vict. the landlord was enabled to compound for half the sum called if he were willing to pay the charge on unoccupied as well as for occupied houses. The rate, then, would be 3s. in the pound, or 18s. for each house; and the landlord paid half the sum required to be raised, and there was no trouble about it. But now that the system of compounding was abolished—and he was sorry that it had been abolished, because he looked upon it as being a most excellent system—if the parish authorities wanted to get £18, they would not call for the nominal sum of £36, as heretofore, but for a real sum of £24 at least, and the difference would be that they would not only call for it, but that every penny of it must in some way or other be paid. But why was it, it might be asked, that the parish authorities would have to call for £24 when they only wanted £18? Because allowance must be made on the ground of empty houses, of the poverty of the occupiers of some of those small tenements, and of the increased expense of the collection. The result would be that a real rate of 2s. in the pound would be levied instead of a nominal rate of 3s., which only made a real rate of 1s. 6d. Now, those payments were demanded three times a year, and a difference of 9s. or 10s. a year was thus made in the case of the occupier of a £6 house, which was an extra charge of which he had, he thought, a good right to complain. But it must also be borne in mind that there were, instead of three rates in the year, sometimes four. Now, under the compounding system the fourth rate fell entirely upon the owner of the House, while, under the Act, compounding being abolished, it would have to be paid by the unfortunate occupier. The consequence would be that instead of a fine of 9s., he would have to submit to one of 13s. or 14s. There were many householders who did not care to pay so much for the privilege of a vote—who did not care for a vote at all, in fact—and it should be remembered that 10s. a year to those men was as much as £100 a year would be to most hon. Members of that House. It was not under those circumstances unnatural that he should say that no boon had been conferred upon him by the recent action of the Legislature. He had simply to observe, in conclusion, that he should like to see the whole question submitted to the consideration of a Select Committee, by whom its intricacies would, in his opinion, be better unravelled than by discussion in the House itself. The result of the labours of such Committee would, he hoped, be that the Reform Bill of last Session would be materially reformed in those respects to which he had called attention.


said, the noble Lord (Lord Henley) had stated that he was not very well informed upon the question, and certainly his remarks had made it clear to those who were acquainted with the subject of rating, that he had not got up his case as well as might have been expected. The noble Lord had described in touching language the position in which the occupiers of small tenements might be placed under the new law, and had pointed out that, in addition to the usual rates, there might be an additional one which would fall entirely on these unfortunate persons. The noble Lord ought to have known that the compositions were not affected or carried out by the number of rates that might be levied, but by the difference in the amount of assessment; and therefore it did not make the least difference what were the number of rates. Assuming, however, that 25 per cent was the amount struck off, the house which the noble Lord had mentioned would be rated, not at £6, but at £4 10s., and whatever might be the number of the rates there would be no difference to the ratepayer, so far as the composition went. The noble Lord had also told them that a certain class of ratepayers had an advantage under the compounding system; but at whose expense, he should like to know, was that advantage gained? Was it at the expense of the rich or at the expense of the parish, which might have some little loss and trouble in collecting the rate? It was no such thing. The advantage was gained at the expense of the poor—at the expense of the widow—at the expense of the person who had lived upon parochial rates—at the expense of all poor persons who were so poor that they were disqualified by law from paying any rates at all. That was the class of persons at whose cost the gain had been obtained. Now, what was the case which the noble Lord had put? A person had twenty cottages, or any other number, letting at £6 a year each. Every one who was connected with this subject must be aware that whenever a rate was made, the names of all persons who occupied houses of the value of £6 or other small sums were inserted in a list which was drawn up by the overseers, and was laid before the magistrates, and that the magistrates excused from any payment whatever all those occupiers who pleaded poverty, or who were themselves in the receipt of parochial relief. Under the Act of Elizabeth the poor rate was a personal charge and not a charge upon property, but under the Compounding Acts, public and private, it became a charge upon property. With reference to the convenience or the inconvenience of the new arrangement as regarded voting at elections, he could only say that the proposal which had been adopted upon that subject had not emanated from the Ministerial side of the House. The Government had at first proposed to leave it pretty much as a matter of choice whether people should obtain the right of voting or not, but that course was objected to by hon. Gentlemen opposite; and now they had the noble Lord asking them who would become a voter if he had to pay so many shillings for the privilege. He protested against it being supposed that the people who under the composition gained an advantage gained it from any but the poorest persons, for the landlord was obliged to pay for every occupied tenement, and he took care to throw the burden on, among others, poor widows and other poor persons receiving relief from the parish. He was quite aware that it was convenient to parish officers to collect money in the bulk, and magistrates were under the compounding system relieved from the trouble of deciding whether a person should or should not be struck off the rate on account of poverty, but all that convenience was obtained at the expense of the very poorest.


said, it appeared to him that his noble Friend (Lord Henley) was not open to the censure thrown on him by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. His noble Friend, in the discharge of the first obligation of a Member of Parliament, had stated very clearly a grievance which his constituents thought they were suffering from in consequence of the legislation of that House, and therefore he deserved no blame for the course he had pursued. [Mr. HENLEY: I did not intend to blame the noble Lord.] The right hon. Gentleman, however, made very light of the noble Lord's knowledge of the subject, and censured him for speaking about a matter of which he appeared to know very little, and such an observation approached very nearly to blame. Now, he (Mr. Gladstone) would turn the blame against the right hon. Gentleman a little, because his argument had gone much further than the votes he had formerly given. The arguments of the right hon. Gentleman were good against the Small Tenements Act, which either was at the present moment, or might be in force in the vast majority of parishes; and even since the time when the House summarily abolished the Small Tenements Act and all compounding Acts for Parliamentary boroughs they had been adopted for the first time in many parishes, so rooted were they in public favour. The argument of the right hon. Gentleman was not applicable to Parliamentary boroughs exclusively—the purport of his argument was that the Small Tenements Acts were bad root and branch; and therefore the right hon. Gentleman, in order to satisfy his views, ought to move that the Small Tenements Act should be repealed; but it was not surprising that a person in the position of the noble Lord, who had had some experience within the last few months of the state of feeling in some boroughs, should state to the House the result of that experience. For his own part, he would trouble the House with no argument on this subject, for during the course of last Session the House was drenched and saturated with discussion on the case of the compound-householder. No man was more responsible than himself for the time which the House spent in discussing that matter; but he had urged it on the attention of the House, because he had a very strong conviction that much trouble would arise out of the course which the House was last Session invited to take. The course ultimately pursued was a great improvement on that originally proposed, yet still it was a course likely to lead to great trouble. He would not re-state the opinions which he had before expressed on the subject, and which were now about to be put to the test of experience. This ought no longer to be considered as a political or party question, for it had become a practical question connected with the social convenience of the people, and it was better that the trial which was now being made of the legislation of last Session should be made apart from all political and polemical discussion. He therefore abstained from repeating the arguments which he formerly stated to the House; but he did not think that any complaint should be made against those who in temperate language made known grievances affecting localities with which they were acquainted.


said, he should, like to know from whom those complaints proceeded. He believed they proceeded from persons who had largely profited by the construction of the lowest class of houses. The percentage made by those persons was known to be enormous; and it could not be a matter for surprise that they should complain of that change in the law which had partially altered their relations to their tenants.


said, he wished to say a few words on this subject because he represented a city which suffered from the alteration which had been made in the law. He had presented a petition from Norwich, under the seal of the Corporation of that city, praying that some steps might be taken to remedy the grievance inflicted on them by the operation of the Act. The petition, which was signed by members of all political parties, stated that the number of assessments in Norwich had increased under the Act from 7,800 to 21,000, and that the greater portion of the new ratepayers were weekly tenants from whom it would be almost impossible to collect rates, as many of them were either paupers or on the verge of pauperism. Votes were not claimed for these persons; what was wanted was that the city should be relieved from this difficulty. It would no doubt be difficult to restore the compounding system as it was; but he believed many of the evils complained of would be mitigated if a large and liberal system of excusing were allowed to take the place of composition. If the law remained as it was the evil would be intolerable.


said, he hoped the House would not forget the question raised by the hon. Member for Chatham (Mr. Otway). It would be a shame and a scandal if, on any vacancy occurring before the end of this Parliament, one of the condemned boroughs could send another Member to that House. The effect of the present state of the law with regard to compounding was just this, that the landlord got the whole rent without deduction of rates, and left the tenant to pay the rates himself. The scheme so ingeniously concocted last year to carry the Bill had served its purpose, and the last of the securities would no doubt be gracefully yielded on the very first assault being made upon it.


said, he desired to ask the Attorney General a Question, which he would put in a more formal shape if the hon. and learned Gentleman desired time to consider his answer. It had reference to the separate rating of those to be enfranchised under the new Reform Act. One of the conditions was that the full rateable value should be entered on the rate book; but suppose the overseer did not comply with this part of the Act, how far would that affect the claim of the elector? Would he lose his vote because the overseer had neglected to place his name separately on the rate book? Under the old Reform Act if the overseer neglected to place the occupier on the rate book the latter might tender and claim to be rated, and that was sufficient to entitle him to vote. But under the new law he must claim to be rated for a special amount—the full amount—and how was he to do so without the assistance of the overseer? Suppose a block of buildings which the overseer had been accustomed to rate as a whole, and that the separate rate paid by each occupier of the building had never been calculated; and suppose it were found inconvenient to change the rating—what remedy would the occupier have in order to get himself on the rate book? He could not tender the exact amount, because that was not known. Was there any mode prescribed by the Act by which he might ascertain his precise proportion of what was paid by the whole block? The occupier in that case, it appeared to him, would be unable to comply with the requisition of the Act, and would not have a vote. He thought this a matter of some importance, and the greatest confusion would arise at the next election unless some authoritative declaration were made on the subject. If the Attorney General wished time to consider the matter he would renew his Question on another day.


I shall avail myself of the permission of the right hon. Gentleman to defer my answer to the Question he has asked till some future occasion. With reference to the Questions raised by the hon. Members for Chatham (Mr. Otway) and Walsall (Mr. C. Forster), I regret very much that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not here to answer them. With reference to the disfranchised boroughs, the words of the Act are, "from and after the end of this present Parliament they shall respectively cease to return any Member or Members to serve in Parliament." Although my attention has not been called to this subject until recently, it is now under the consideration of the Government, and we hope to be able as speedily as possible to take such steps as will meet the case in the event of any vacancy occurring in the representation of the boroughs in question. The Question put by the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. C. Forster) has virtually been answered during the course of the debate. In the first place, the hon. Member asked whether, since the passing of the last Reform Act, every occupier in Parliamentary boroughs must be rated to the relief of the poor, or whether, in the event of the occupier not desiring to obtain the franchise, the owner may still be rated; and, in the second place, he asked whether payment of rates by the landlord would not in point of law be deemed payment by the tenant? In answering these Questions, I will not enter into any disquisition on the subject of the compound-householder. The terms of the Act which apply to the first of these Questions are most clear. By the 7th section of that Act—a section which was passed advisedly—it is expressly declared that in boroughs the compounding system shall be wholly done away with, and that after a certain time the occupier and not the owner shall be rated to the relief of the poor—thus returning to the state of things which existed prior to the passing of the 59 Geo. III., which was the first Act which enabled owners in certain cases to be rated instead of the occupiers. In answer to the second Question, as to whether the payment of rates by the landlord would not in point of law be deemed payable by the tenant, I can only say that I see nothing in the terms of the Act of last Session which precludes the landlord, when duly authorized by the occupier, from paying the rates. I must, however, refer the hon. Gentleman to the 49th section, which expressly states— Any person, either directly or indirectly, corruptly paying any rate on behalf of any ratepayer, for the purpose of enabling him to be registered as a voter, thereby to influence his vote at any future election, and any candidate or other person either directly paying any rate on behalf of any voter for the purpose of inducing him to vote or refrain from voting shall be guilty of bribery, and shall be punishable accordingly. Still, in cases where the landlord is duly authorized to pay the rates by the occupier he may legally do so, just as any other person might pay them for the convenience of the tenant. I trust I have satisfactorily answered the Questions of the hon. Members.


, while admitting that the hon. and learned Attorney General had satisfactorily answered the Question which had been put to him by the hon. Member for Walsall, thought it as well that Parliament and the country should clearly understand that, notwithstanding what had been said in the course of last Session, there really was nothing in the last Reform Act which required the personal payment of rates. While the Attorney General now thought fit to admit that such was the case, the House could not forget that the special ground upon which the Reform Act of last year was recommended by the Government to the country was that it required the personal payment of rates. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in summing up the merits of the Government Bill, used the following language:— Our proposal—I must repeat it again, even at the risk of wearying the House—is that every householder who is rated to the poor, and personally pays his rates, and who has occupied his house for two years, shall possess the franchise."—[3 Hansard, clxxxvi. 660.] Again, the Secretary of State for the Home Department said— The man who puts by money for the purpose of meeting the demand for the payment of rates, the careful, the saving, the truly independent man, will be admitted to the most important privilege of the Constitution."—[3 Hansard, clxxxvi. 509.] Now, the impression produced upon hon. Members on both sides of the House was that whatever might be the possible demerits of the Bill, it had one prominent virtue which counterbalanced them all— namely, that it was founded upon the principle of the personal payment of rates—that is to say, direct payment by the tenant, as distinguished from indirect payment through the landlord, in the shape of rent; and it was upon that understanding that the House consented to abolish the compound-householder. It now, however, turned out that the supposed requirement by the Act of the personal payment of rates was only an unmeaning phrase which, having answered its purpose at the time, was now abandoned. It was as well that the matter should be placed before the country in its true light, and that all delusion upon the subject should be removed. The hon. and learned Attorney General appeared to flatter himself that we had done with the compound-householder for good; but, in his (Sir Robert Collier's) opinion, the Act of last Session, in abolishing the compound-householder system, had been productive of such great inconvenience throughout a large portion of the country that before long the compound-householder would be restored. The proposition which was made by the right hon. Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone) last Session on this subject should have been accepted, find at no distant day the House would have to agree to it.


regretted that the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down had not followed the excellent example set by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) and confined himself to the subject immediately before the House, but had taken that opportunity to put forward doubts which appeared to have entered into his mind with regard to the operation of certain portions of the recent Reform Act—doubts which he had carefully abstained from suggesting during the debates which took place upon that Act last Session. The indignation of the hon. and learned Gentleman, which appeared to have been excited by the legal opinion of the Attorney General—that when duly authorized by the tenant the landlord was entitled to pay the rates—was entirely thrown away, because the House was perfectly aware of what was intended last Session by the section referred to. The Attorney General had merely given a legal interpretation of the language of the section; and that a lawyer, like the hon. and learned Member opposite, should blow such a flourish of trumpets over the Attorney General merely because he had given a plain and legal interpretation of that section filled him with amazement—he could not add consternation.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.