§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Goschen.)
said, he had no intention of opposing the second reading of the Bill, but he thought the principles laid down in it were so serious that it was well to make some observation upon it. No doubt there was a very considerable impatience—he would not say whether it was ignorant or intelligent—of the present system of local taxation, not to say of Imperial taxation also, but if that impatience was felt now, this Bill would multiply it a great deal more, if the view he took of its probable effects was correct. He could conceive nothing more likely to worry the ratepayers than the fact that there would be a continued 18 agitation, every three years certainly' with respect to the amount at which they were to be assessed to their local burdens. He believed there was quite as much irritation caused by the worry of these assessments as by the payment of the burden. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister would bear him out in that, as he must remember the agitation which existed when the amount of the income tax had been uncertain. That Bill proposed an entire change in the mode of assessment. It endeavoured to set up a common base for the income tax, the house tax, and local burdens. He thought the House was agreed that in so far as local burdens were concerned the great thing they wanted was equality—fairness and equality, so that all persons should be taxed alike. In regard to the Queen's taxes, on the contrary, the Government wanted the utmost farthing that could be raised. If a man paid a very extravagant rent for his house for any particular purpose of his own, it was quite right that the person who received that rent should pay every sixpence in the pound, or whatever the amount might be. If. however, the principle were once to be applied to the assessment of the local rates, it would be more difficult than at present, if it would not be impossible, to obtain equality. He asked the House to consider for a moment how it was attempted in this Bill to carry out the new system. They had got a very complex machinery set up by it, but it resolved itself into this—that the assessment which was to be virtually for local taxation and for the Queen's taxes at one and the same time was really to be made by the surveyor of taxes, with an appeal only to a Government nominee. He could not say whether the system was a right or a wrong one; but it was at least entirely novel, and a complete subversion of every principle that had attained heretofore in regard to the assessment of local rates and taxes. The machinery proposed by the Bill was this—In the first place, the overseer was to make a valuation list; that valuation list was to be sent within a given time to the surveyor of taxes, and to a body now to be called into existence, called the Assessment Committee. To this Assessment Committee persons who thought themselves not properly treated, might appeal; but the Committee was bound by the statute—what- 19 ever valuation the overseer might have made—to put the assessment at the figure which the surveyor of taxes sent to them. A ratepayer, moreover, had only seven days' notice within which to prove the negative of what the surveyor of taxes had put on the list. Was it reasonable that a man, in such a place as London, should be required to prove a negative of that kind within seven days? He could only do it by the aid of surveyors, and everybody who knew what conflicting opinions surveyors expressed as to valuations, would agree with him that this space of time was neither fair nor sufficient. That, however, was not all. If the parties were not satisfied with the decision of the Committee they might have another appeal to a new officer, to be paid partly by the ratepayers and partly by the Crown, but he would be the direct nominee of the Crown, and would be subject to no engagement, for he was not to be sworn to do justice between the Crown and the ratepayers. In this case also the appellant would have to prove the negative, instead of the Crown being required to prove the affirmative of the assessment, thus involving him in further trouble and expense. He contended that this machinery was not only complex, but unnecessary. Why, if they were determined to take this principle, should they not adopt the simple course of letting the surveyor of taxes take upon himself the whole labour and expense of making the assessment, and give a proper and fair appeal against the assessment? What was the use of imposing upon the overseers all this trouble, and giving the ratepayer an appeal first to the Assessment Committee, and then to the nominee of the Crown? He could not conceive that such a course was likely to relieve that impatience of taxation which was now so largely felt. How would this work? There was another little addition to the matter, and that was that there should be in the case of certain classes a scale fixed upon which the differences between the rateable value and the gross income should be calculated. The house tax, as they all knew, commenced at rents of about £20 a year. In the proposed classification houses under £20 a year were to be put into a separate class, and to be allowed a deduction of 25 per cent from the gross value, whilst above that amount a de- 20 duction of not more than 10 per cent was to be allowed. See what power the Government surveyor would have in the case of houses rated at £18 a year. Sic volo sic jubeo—he might put all these wretched people up to £20, thus not only subjecting them to house tax, which was a comparatively trifling matter, but, instead of having 25 per cent off, they would thereafter have only 10 per cent. The power exercised by the Government surveyor would be exercised without any correlative security by way of appeal, for an appeal to an officer nominated by the Government would not be an appeal in any sense. This point would want careful consideration in Committee, and he feared that in the matters he had mentioned the Bill was vicious in principle. The attempt to get a common base for these things would give trouble, and at the same time you would fail in getting an approximation to the truth. All these assessments were only approximations to the truth, and in the endeavour to attain to greater perfection you would worry people from year to year, and bring about at last an impatience of paying very much like what existed fifty or sixty years ago, when he remembered a caricature representing a dustman as saying he would never pay any more taxes, for the House had knocked off £16,000,000 of income tax in one year. If they took away the independent tribunal to which people had now the power of appealing, they would produce a general dislike to paying taxes such as did not exist at present. He only made these general observations now, and would be prepared to refer to the question again when the Bill came before the House on a subsequent occasion.
§ MR. W. H. SMITH
said, that as one of the metropolitan Members, he must trouble the House with a few observations in respect to the measure. He hoped the President of the Poor Law Board (Mr. Goschen) would let the House know precisely what it was doing in agreeing to the second reading of the Bill. It was a Bill full of provisions of very great importance, which were new to the metropolis, and which had excited great interest and some alarm. Under those circumstances the representative bodies of the metropolis, the several vestries, had expressed a strong desire that the second reading of the Bill should 21 not be pressed at that time. He believed, however, that the great majority of those bodies were very strongly in favour of a common basis of rating, and were anxious to arrive at some settlement of the question by which equal justice might be done to the different parishes in the metropolis, by an arrangement which would be common to all. If it was understood that nothing more than this principle of a common basis of rating, which might be arrived at in Committee, was implied by an assent to the second reading of the Bill, he apprehended that there would be very little opposition to it upon the present occasion. But there would be very considerable opposition, no doubt, raised to the mode by which that principle might be sought to be arrived at when the Bill was discussed hereafter. A strong feeling had been expressed in some quarters that the property tax return was the proper basis of taxation both for local and for Imperial purposes. He would not venture to say that this was an opinion that was generally entertained, but it was at least a point from which discussion might very well start, and from which some arrangement might be made. He would, therefore, venture to hope that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board would give them an assurance that, in agreeing to the second reading of the Bill, they did not bind themselves to anything more than the general principles upon which it was founded.
§ MR. LOCKE
said, that strong representations had been made to him that it was extremely inconvenient to the different vestries that the Bill should be read a second time that evening, as for the most part they had not had the opportunity of discussing it. He hoped his right hon. Friend the President of the Poor Law Board would, in accordance with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith), consider that, although the Bill was now read a second time, the House was not committed to the principle of it, and simply assented to the proposition that they should have an equalization of the basis of rating. He did not think that at present the Bill could be property discussed, and he hoped the Committee would be fixed at some distant day, so that on going into Committee they might have a full discussion of it.
§ MR. GOSCHEN
said, he should have given the assurance desired by the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) when he moved the second reading—that in assenting to that Motion no one would pledge himself to the details of the measure; but he thought it better to postpone that explanation to the end of the debate, because, if he stated it at the beginning, he could not now reply. He cheerfully acceded to the wish expressed, that if the House should now read the Bill a second time, it would be understood that what the House had agreed to was the general principle that equalization of assessment was most desirable, without committing themselves to any of the details of the measure. Of course, there would be considerable difference as to the best mode of arriving at the result which all desired. He believed there was a general feeling that it was most important to bring the question to a satisfactory settlement, and that whatever might be the difficulties in the way of a perfect measure, at all events the present state of things was so unsatisfactory that it was the duty of Parliament to put an end to it. He had been anxious that the measure should be discussed to-night, for the state of Public Business was such that, unless every available opportunity was taken now for such discussion, hereafter it might be difficult to find an opportunity. He regretted, therefore, that it should be necessary to defer the discussion of the details. But he hoped that the more time was given for the consideration of these details, the greater was the prospect of arriving at a speedy and satisfactory settlement respecting them. Meanwhile, the Government would cheerfully entertain all suggestions for amending the Bill, as long as the general principle was maintained—namely, that there should be uniformity of assessment. He trusted that the House would support the Government in passing the Bill this Session, and he hoped that the delay which seemed inevitable would not endanger that object, because he was sure that, considering the large amount of taxation in the metropolis, persons over-assessed would have great reason to complain if Parliament did not this Session pass a measure which he believed was almost as urgent as any which could occupy their attention.
§ MR. LIDDELL
said, he regretted that they had not had an opportunity to discuss this Bill, which involved large and extensive changes in the mode of assessment. He feared that the House was sliding into rather an inconvenient course by assenting to any definition of the principle of the Bill, for it seemed to him that the mode by which they were to obtain a common basis of value really constituted the principle of the Bill. The country had as yet had no opportunity of considering the important changes proposed to be made in the mode of assessment by this measure, and therefore he deprecated the House giving a general assent to the principles involved in the measure, by reading the Bill now a second time, with the idea of altering or rejecting all or any of its provisions in Committee.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.