§ MR. GOSCHEN
I rise to redeem the pledges given by the Government to the effect that they were prepared to submit measures to Parliament on the subject of local rating and local government. The House is aware that these two subjects are so closely interlaced that it is scarcely possible to deal satisfactorily with the one without also dealing with the other, for this reason, that in both cases it is the ratepayer who has the locus standi, that it is impossible to touch the question of local government without dealing with the areas of rating, and equally impossible to deal with the areas of rating without disturbing the present incidence of local rates. The Government is also desirous, in dealing with this question of local government, to adopt as many as possible of the recommendations of the Sanitary Commission; but everyone who has studied this question of local government and taxation is aware that the subject is so vast that it is impossible to deal with every portion of it in one Bill or in one Session. We must endeavour to legislate as far as we can; and, above all things, I think it is our duty to make up our minds clearly as to what we want, and to put a stop to that piecemeal legislation as regards local government which has produced the chaos at present existing. One of the sources, the endless sources, of confusion in this matter of local government has been that, in the various enactments which have been from time to time passed respecting it, the need of the hour only has been considered. Whether it has been the Government or a private Member who has proposed legislation—often wise and beneficial legislation—on the subject, the Bills they have introduced have generally looked to the immediate object before the House at the time, and never has the attempt been made to fit in the new pieces of legislation with the old. The consequence is that the whole country is covered with overlapping areas and conflicting jurisdictions. It is impossible to lay hold of any one principle that has guided Parliament in this matter, and the most zealous efforts of the Royal Commission to which I have referred were made to bring out that portion of the subject in the most striking relief. And not only is there this difficulty 1116 as regards jurisdiction, areas, and purposes, but that same confusion has been reproduced, and reproduced from the most remote times, on the subject of the rates which were at the disposal of the various local authorities. There was, in the first instance, the old poor rate. Afterwards, new purposes had to be defrayed by additional taxation, and for some time every such new purpose was to be provided for by a new rate. At a later period a portion of these rates was merged in the poor rate, and the overseers collecting the poor rate were directed to pay out of the poor rate a certain amount to other purposes; but it was found that, owing to the overlapping of the areas, it was impossible to levy the whole of the new rates with the poor rate; and, consequently, we have had this anomaly, that while, for instance, the county rate is generally levied with the poor rate, there are cases in which it is levied separately. In the same way the borough rate has generally been levied with the poor rate; in other cases it was not so levied; and in the annual Reports published by the Poor Law Board there is one column to this effect—Borough, hundred, county, and police rates paid out of poor rates. The amount which was contributed to each of these rates no Report has ever stated, and no person, as far as I can discover, has ever yet analyzed it. The confusion is increased by the facts that the accounts of these various authorities are made up to different dates. With some the year ends in September; with others on the 31st of December; with many on the 25th of March. The consequence is that it is impossible ever to arrive at any coherent view of the whole of our local rates. This matter has formed the subject of two Committees which have sat on local taxation; and there has been entertained for many years past the view that it is absolutely necessary that all rates should, as far as possible, be consolidated, and the same principles applied to all rates. The truth, Sir, is, that we have a chaos as regards authorities, a chaos as regards rates, and a worse chaos than all as regards areas. And not only that, but every different form of election which it is possible to conceive is applied to the various local authorities administering these various rates in these various areas. It is a curious fact that while 1117 the principles that govern these matters might be supposed not, perhaps, to be identical, but, at all events, very similar, in the case of the election of guardians, in the case of the election of local boards, in the case of the election of highway surveyors, overseers, and other local and parochial authorities, there is a different form of election in nearly all of them. In some instances you have an election by plurality of votes, in others by single votes, in some instances you have an election by owners and occupiers, in others by occupiers only; and where you have a plurality of votes the scale varies—there being, for example, one scale for the election of guardians and another for the election of highway surveyors. Now, the Government are anxious to deal, as far as possible, with these matters, and to see whether some kind of order cannot be introduced into what I have called this chaos. But, quite separate from that subject, at least, in the minds of Members of this House, although, as I have shown intimately connected with it, is the question of the burden borne by the various classes of property. Side by side with this question of simplifying local administration, it has been the duty of the Government carefully to examine and take their decision upon the allegations made by ratepayers in the towns and in the country that certain kinds of property were unduly burdened, and that, quite irrespective of administration, it was necessary, from a financial point of view also, that great reforms should be effected. We have had to consider these two classes of subjects—first, the improvement of local administration with a view to simplicity, and next the alleged grievances of the ratepayers. On both of these topics it devolves on me to address the House to-night. The House will observe that Notice has been given of two Bills; and the reason is this—that, so far as local administration is concerned, we do not propose to deal this year with the metropolis. I think the House is aware of our intention in that respect. Our reforms in regard to local government are applied to England exclusive of the metropolis. But it will be seen that when we come to the second branch of the question—namely, the grievances of the ratepayers—it would be exceedingly difficult to take measures that would apply to a part of the kingdom only, and not to the whole. Consequently, 1118 it has been requisite to divide the subject into two portions, so as to meet that difficulty.
I believe, Sir, that in treating of this question, I may assume that the House is acquainted with the vastness of the matter of which we are treating, and I need only repeat that the amount of the rates levied in England and Wales is £16,500,000, and if to that you add the amount raised by indirect taxation, such as tolls, dues, and fees, and if you further add the subventions made by the Government, the receipts derived from the sale of property and from rents and miscellaneous sources, and likewise the receipts derived from loans, you will get a total of £30,000,000 sterling administered by local authorities. The total for England, Scotland, and Ireland is £36,000,000; but for England and Wales alone it is £30,000,000. Then, as regards the number of bodies administering these rates: in a Report circulated among hon. Members this morning there is an enumeration of the various classes of local authorities. They amount to about 20; but some of these are what may be called maritime authorities—managing harbours, ports, and bridges; and therefore if you deduct these there will remain really 16 different classes of local authorities, elected, as I have stated, generally upon different principles, proceeding in an entirely different manner, and standing in very little relation to one another. I am sure the House will feel that we must approach this subject with considerable anxiety, and it will be our duty—and I hope we shall be able to do it with success—to appeal to the House to support us in our task, irrespective of the local pressure which is certain to be brought to bear on many hon. Members when we come to deal with existing local institutions. But the desire for reform is so great that I am confident that the House will give us that support, and that the country itself will not be unwilling that some of the older forms of local government should be materially changed, provided we thereby secure simplicity and improvement. In the first place, I may say that the Government purpose accepting, in its entirety, the Resolution of a Select Committee of this House which sat two years ago, and decided in favour of the consolidation of all rates into one. That Resolution was re-affirmed by the Select 1119 Committee which sat last year. The Government propose, in the first instance, that, instead of the present system of various authorities being entitled to levy separate rates, only one rate should be levied; and that every authority now entitled to raise funds should obtain those funds by a requisition upon the parochial authorities. We propose, for example, that the Boards of Guardians, the highway boards, the county justices, the local boards, the town councils, and all the bodies who will have a claim on a particular parish, should each on a particular day in the year send in an estimate of the particular amounts which they will require in the course of that year. The parish officers will add all these together, and will accordingly be enabled to make an estimate of the total sum that will be required from the parish for the whole of the year. A demand-note will be sent to each ratepayer, specifying all the items of which the rate is composed. It will have to state that so much is collected for the relief of the poor, so much for the purposes of the highways, so much for the county expenditure; but the whole is to be thrown into one and to be collected in one sum. I will give the House the general form in which we propose that this shall be done:—On and after the 25th of April, 1872, a rate, called the consolidated rate, shall be made and assessed in every parish under which all sums hitherto levied under the form of different rates shall be raised, and all sums usually paid out of such rates shall be paid out of such consolidated rate of each parish on the requisition of the authority entitled to demand payment of such sums. This one reform, it appears to me, will be of considerable use and convenience, because not only will it effect a considerable saving in the cost of collection, but it will introduce such simplicity into the rating system, that any ratepayer will know what he never knows now—namely, the amount which he has to pay in the course of the year in the shape of rates. But besides the advantage of every ratepayer knowing what he will have to pay, the House will see that this change, small as it is, involves many corollaries, because the rates now collected separately are made upon different principles, they are made upon different valuations, and, to a certain extent, they are subject to different deductions. 1120 For instance, two years ago the Assessed Rates Act was passed, by which the owner was made rateable instead of the occupier in the case of certain small tenements under the annual value of £8 in the country, and of £20 in the metropolis. That Act only applied to the poor rate, and, consequently, you have this anomaly, that while the owners of this class of tenements are rated for the poor rate it does not follow that they are rated for other rates at all. Thus it is possible that in a town where the occupier is not rated to the poor rate, but the owner is, the occupier may be rated to the general district rate while the owner is not. Such cases are, of course, extremely intricate and complicated; but they are further complicated by the fact that in certain cases where the owner is rated, one rate may be subject to deductions amounting to 30 per cent, while the other may be subjected to deductions amounting to 40 or 50 per cent. In such divergence no principle can exist, and as the House has adopted the practice of rating the owner instead of the occupier below a certain line in the case of the poor rate, there is no reason whatever why precisely the same principle should not be extended to other rates, and therefore to the proposed consolidated rate. Therefore, by a clause in the Bill, it is proposed to enact that the principle of the Assessed Rates Act shall apply to the Consolidated Act, whereby the anomalies in the case of deductions from rates which now exist would be put an end to. As regards the question of audit, the Government propose that, having one consolidated rate, we shall also have one consolidated audit of all local funds throughout the country. At present the expenses of the guardians, and those of the local boards, are very carefully audited by the Poor Law auditors; but those of boroughs are exempted from this public audit. The accounts of highway surveyors are only audited by the justices, who do not at all examine the legality of the expenditure, but simply see whether the accounts are correct according to the vouchers. There is also this difficulty, which every person conversant with the subject is aware of—namely, that if one of two accounts is audited and the other is not, a collector who collects both rates will frequently make good defalcations in 1121 that which is audited out of that which is not audited. No doubt there may be some little reluctance on the part of certain local bodies to adopt this general system of audit; but I trust that that will be overcome in a very short time. I now come to another difficulty, which is of a far more serious character. The House is aware that the political franchise under the present law depends upon the payment of the poor rate, while it is not affected in any way by the nonpayment of other rates. The Government, therefore, have had to consider what will be the position of the ratepayer and of the voter if, when the consolidated rate is substituted for the poor rate, the former should remain unpaid. This is a subject of some difficulty, because the consolidated rate will possibly be twice as high as the poor rate, and therefore it would be unjust to require that the franchise should be dependent upon the payment of this higher rate. The House is aware that, by the Assessed Rates Act, the vote was reserved to the occupier notwithstanding the rate was paid by the owner, and therefore it does not seem that the House attached much value to that part of the Reform Act which required that the rate should be paid by the voter. The Government, therefore, propose not to raise the qualification, by enacting that the consolidated rate shall take the place of the poor rate, but to make the fact of being rated to the consolidated rate, and not the payment of it, the qualification for the franchise. The Government would not have dealt with matters of this semi-political character in a Bill like this were it not that it was absolutely necessary to encounter the difficulty if they desired to prevent the creation of a consolidated rate from practically disfranchising a large number of ratepayers. In connection with the consolidation of the rates, we propose to make another very considerable reform—namely, to appoint paid collectors all over the country. The system at present in vogue by which the rates are collected by unpaid overseers who are only indirectly responsible ought to be abolished. The system of the appointment of paid collectors would be far more efficient, and where it has been adopted, has led to considerable economy in the collection of the rates, notwithstanding the salaries paid to the collectors. We do not insist 1122 upon every small parish appointing and paying its own collector—we permit a certain number of small parishes to group themselves together, and to appoint a paid collector between them. As far as I have gone, therefore, it will be seen that the Bill proposes the consolidation of all rates into one, the enforcement of a general audit, and the appointment of paid and responsible collectors. The next question we have had to determine was over what area is this rate to be collected, and we have chosen the parish. And this brings me to the general question which forced itself upon the Government throughout the whole of their preparation of this Bill—namely, what area shall be taken as the unit in dealing with the aggregate areas into which the country is covered? As they at present exist, the areas overlap each other, parishes and unions and country districts being mixed up together, and differently portioned out for various rating purposes. It has been said that the Poor Law union might be utilized, so as to be made the principal area for local government. An examination has proved that it is almost impossible to adopt that view, and for this reason, that out of the total number of 650 unions there are, I think, 250, at least, partly situate in one county and partly in another; and, that which is still more serious, that, in the case of boroughs, a borough very rarely is coincident with a union. A borough is generally partly in a union and partly out of it. Again, unions do not coincide with highway districts; and the question, therefore, to determine is, whether a union is an area which you can so touch as by a rectification of its boundaries to bring it into a more regular form? Examination shows that a union is precisely an area the most difficult to touch on account of the poor rate. You would be introducing a new Union Chargeability Bill, and changing entirely the rates in every Union in the country, if you were to begin to deal with the boundaries of Unions. And, again, unions have been so mapped out that the workhouse might be in the central part of the union, and if you were to do anything to rectify the boundaries of the union it would be necessary for you to consider what distance the poor would have to travel in order to get to the workhouse. You would have to re-constitute the whole of the unions in 1123 the country in order to make them coincide with the boundaries of boroughs, with the boundaries of highway districts, and the boundaries of counties. On the whole, therefore, after mature consideration, it has been thought best to make the parish the general unit for local administration, the rectification of the boundaries of a parish being infinitely easier than the rectification of the boundaries of a union. Nothing would conduce more to the simplification of our local administration than the securing of this object—that no parish should be cut in two by the boundary of any other area—that there should be a given number of parishes in a union and a given number in a highway district. We propose, therefore, to deal with parishes. But we are met with this difficulty, that of all the defective arrangements for the purposes of local administration the arrangements of the parish are probably the worst. You have overseers in the first place who are really appointed by the justices though nominated by the vestry. It is, however, a striking example of the general ignorance upon these subjects, that even Parliament at one time clearly did not know this. Although there is no legislative enactment whatever which requires vestries to be called together on a particular day for the election of overseers, yet in one of our Highway Acts it was laid down that the highway surveyors should be appointed at the same vestry meeting as that at which the overseers were appointed. Besides overseers you have the vestry, you have in many agricultural parishes inspectors of lighting and watching, you have waywardens or highway surveyors, all elected in a different way and not brought together in any systematic manner. I believe my right hon. Friend the Vice President of the Council and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have found the greatest difficulty in working the Education Act and many Sanitary Acts because they do not know with whom they ought to correspond in any particular parish. It may be said that the overseers are the oldest parish officers, and that they should represent the parish; but they have no functions except those definitely assigned to them by statute. As to the vestry, its powers are almost undefined. You have no one to convoke it, and no one to preside over it; 1124 everything is done in an irregular manner. The vestry is not bound to meet at stated intervals. It has no continuous existence. It cannot hold property. Trustees must hold property for it. The House might say, is this the organization which you wish to make your unit in your new scheme? We propose to re-constitute the parish entirely. We propose that there should be in every parish what I will call a "civil head," a person who shall be responsible for the affairs of that parish. We propose that the ratepayers in every parish should annually elect from themselves a person, to be called chairman of the parochial board, and that he shall be associated with a certain number of other members of the parochial board, varying from 3 to 20, according to the population of the parish, and that to this regularly constituted body, the parochial board, should be transferred the duties now exercised by the overseers, by the highway surveyors, by the lighting and watch inspectors, and the executive duties of the vestry such as those which it possesses, although the House may not be aware of the fact as a sanitary authority. It is exceedingly difficult in a large parish to cause a vestry, which consists of all the inhabitants of the parish, really to do business. They exercise their proper functions when they determine on the adoption of Acts of Parliament which are voluntary; but so far as concerns the carrying out of Acts of Parliament, the making of contracts, the construction of sewers, and business of that kind, it is quite clear that a vestry is not a proper, competent, or efficient authority; and so strongly has that been felt, that in many cases the tendency of legislation has been to appoint what may be called a committee of the vestry. In some parishes, again, you have select vestries created for the same reason, which have superseded the old parish authorities, and perform many important functions. As between vestries and select vestries the choice has to be made between a vestry which is too large for the performance of business and a vestry which is too small really to represent the wishes of the parish. Generally speaking, it is readily admitted that the whole of this question of vestries has been in a most unsatisfactory state. The Government, therefore, propose to have a small board— 1125 whose functions I do not wish at all to magnify—and to constitute them into the executive of the parish, with a chairman of the parochial board, who is to be its organ and mouthpiece, and to represent it in every sense. He will be the authority to prepare the various estimates and to make a rate. He will make a rate without, as at present, going through the empty form of obtaining the sanction of the justices. At present you have no authority in a parish who can make a rate unless it is the overseers; but the office of overseer is generally felt to be a burden. It is liked by no one. We intend that the chairmanship of the parochial board shall be an office of honour, and we should hope that the chairman of the parochial board would be the principal person in the parish. We trust that the person who may be elected chairman will inspire the ratepayers with confidence that the financial affairs of the parish are safe in his hands, and in those of the parochial board. We propose—That there shall be elected by the vestry of every parish on the 25th day of March in every year a board, to be called the parochial board, to consist of a chairman to be named by the vestry, and of such other members as will, together with the chairman, make the whole board consist of such numbers not being less than 3 nor more than 20, as may be prescribed.There is a further clause, according to which the chairman of the parochial board is to represent the parish in all matters. The House is aware that there are many parishes where the number of inhabitants is so small that they would be unable to elect a board. There are provisions in the Bill which meet that case, and it is proposed that in such places the vestry, if not composed of more than 12 members, can itself become the board. These parochial boards will have to perform all the duties now discharged in a disjointed manner by the various parochial officers at present constituted. There is a good deal that is new in the proposal that we submit to the House; but we think that it is simple; that it will tend to facilitate the conduct of parochial business; that it will bring together into one hand those duties which are now scattered over a number of officers; and that it will insure that responsibility which it would be well worth the attention of the House to provide. These boards will be assisted 1126 by the paid collector, of whom I have already spoken. We do not consider that in any case any further expense will be incurred by the formation of these boards, for we shall provide that where there is a clerk of the vestry he shall be clerk of the parochial board. The House must distinctly understand that we leave to the vestry those functions which properly belong to the deliberative assembly of the parish—namely, the adoption or not of voluntary Acts of Parliament. It is the executive duties of the vestry that we propose to transfer to the chairmen of the parochial boards, and we consider that we shall in this way organize the parish in a manner that will be efficient for the conduct of the business that belongs to it. When the chairman of the parochial board and the board itself have been established in each parish, great advantages, other than those I have spoken of, will be found to attach to the plan. At present, when you wish to combine a number of parishes for any particular object, it is difficult to find any representatives, and the consequence is that it is necessary always to have a separate election. If there be a highway district it is necessary, in order to get a highway board together, that there should be a separate election in the parish. For your Board of Guardians you have a separate election, and there is no representative of a parish whom you can lay hold of when you wish to aggregate a number of parishes. But having by the Bill appointed a chairman of the parochial board, who represents the parish, if Parliament should think fit to aggregate a number of parishes for any particular purpose, the thing is done at once by simply saying that the matter shall be carried into effect by the chairmen of the particular parishes included in the aggregate area. For instance, if we say that a certain number of parishes shall be brought together for sanitary purposes, and that the board shall be composed of the chairmen of the respective parochial boards, the thing is done. That is not our plan for the sanitary objects to which I shall presently have to allude; but I wish to state it by way of illustration, in order to show that when we have once obtained representatives of the parishes, it is possible to bring them together for unity of action for any purpose whatever, a thing which at present 1127 is entirely impossible. Another important change is this. I wish to do away with the variety of elections, of which I have spoken, and to substitute one annual election for all parish officers whatever. Instead of having one election conducted in one mode for Boards of Guardians, another in a different mode for overseers, another for highway surveyors or way wardens, I propose that we shall have but one election every year, when all the parish officers shall be elected on one registry, by one mode of voting at the same time and with the same forms. I am sure that is a reform which the House will consider desirable. We propose that this election should be by Ballot in the same way as in the Parliamentary and municipal elections, in order that there may be one general system throughout the country with which people may be familiarized, and that they may not be continually distracted by various forms of voting. Instead, as I have said, of having separate elections for the various officers, when the election for the parochial board is held, the electors will be called upon at the same time to return Poor Law Guardians, and also their representatives at the highway boards. We consider that more interest will attach to the parochial elections if all the representatives are chosen at the same time than if there are scattered elections. One of the first purposes to which we propose to turn the organization of the parish which I have described is to create those county financial boards of which so much has been said, and which have been so long desired by the farmers. One of the great obstacles in the way has been to find the best mode in which county financial boards could be elected by the ratepayers. There was no difficulty as to the representatives of the justices; but there has been great difficulty on account of the overlapping areas in determining who shall be the representatives of the ratepayers on the county financial boards. It had been suggested that the Guardians of the unions should elect representatives; but as the unions overlap the counties there would be considerable inconvenience attending such a plan. What we propose is that the chairmen of the parochial boards in the petty sessional districts shall elect representatives from among themselves to represent the ratepayers 1128 on the county financial boards. We propose that these boards shall be composed half of representatives of the justices, and half of representatives of the ratepayers, the latter to be chosen by the chairmen of the parochial boards in the petty sessional districts. It will be seen that in this way we bring the parochial organization in direct contact with the county organization, and that a certain number of the officers whom we propose to create by this Bill will sit with the justices on the county financial boards—a circumstance which will heighten the position of those chairmen of the parochial boards. I need not discuss the separation of the judicial business of the Quarter Sessions from the administrative business which we propose to give to the county financial board, for that is a matter with which the House is well acquainted. Up to this point the House will see that we propose to reform, to the best of our judgment, the parish organization, and, at the same time, to create a new county organization in which the ratepayers are represented, while we retain, as far as possible, the local character of the organization by making the petty sessional divisions the electoral areas. I now come to a very complicated part of the subject—namely, the question of sanitary authorities. As regards sanitary matters, broad distinctions must be drawn between the towns and the country. In the urban part of the country you have the following authorities:—town councils, improvement commissioners, and local boards administering certain sanitary laws. Beyond the towns there are very small portions of sanitary laws vested in the Guardians. As regards drainage and sewerage, special districts have been made. As regards the towns the position is not very satisfactory, and for this reason—that you may have in a borough a town council existing side by side with a local board, the town council exercising municipal functions, while the more important sanitary functions are performed by the local board. Now, we propose that whenever there happen to be two boards exercising jurisdiction over a conterminous area they should be merged into one, so that there should not be a double board having jurisdiction over the same area. But, with regard to the general question of sanitary jurisdiction, 1129 we do not propose—following in this respect the recommendation of the Sanitary Commission—to take away their powers from the present sanitary authorities, such as local boards and improvement commissioners. It may be a question for future consideration whether the number of local Acts may not be worked into a more harmonious whole; but the House will, I think, see that we are proposing considerable changes, and that it would not be desirable that we should overweight ourselves this Session, for we are anxious to avoid doing anything which would not fit in with the general plan of the simplification of boundaries. The question of most urgent importance is to look to those parts of the country which are at present most insufficiently provided with any sanitary authority. These are the rural districts and the outlying parts of the towns, and they constitute the most difficult parts of the problem with which we have to deal. In the suburbs of large towns you find the most imperfect arrangements as regards sanitary purposes very often existing, while in the country districts there is, practically speaking, no authority which carries out the sanitary laws at all. The Guardians are not elected for that purpose, while as far as the vestries are concerned, they are not fitted for the discharge of executive duties. Thus we have to consider what should be the sanitary area which we should adopt in the country. It has been suggested that the highway district would be the most convenient as the sanitary district, and the Government have considered the proposal with the greatest care. There is a great deal to be said in favour of the highway district, because there is some connection between sewers and roads, and the highway district does not overlap the counties. But, on the other hand, we had to consider whether the union would not be a better area for this particular purpose. The Sanitary Commission were in favour of the latter area, and we have adopted their recommendation, and taken the union, with some modification, as the area for sanitary purposes in those cases in which no part of the union is contained within the district of a local board or of improvement commissioners. In such unions we propose that the Guardians should be the sanitary authority. I admit that Guardians were elected for a 1130 different purpose; but there is this advantage connected with them—that they have a staff; they have a medical officer and a clerk, and although, for many reasons, it might be desirable to have a sanitary board unconnected with the poor, we have come to the conclusion that the ability to utilize their officers for sanitary purposes outweighs every theoretical objection. There are several cases in which we shall not be able to take the whole union, but only a portion of the union—namely, in cases where part of the union may be within a local board district and the rest without. In these cases we propose that in the extra-urban part of the union, the sanitary authority should be composed of the Guardians of that portion of the union and the chairmen of the parochial boards of the parishes contained in it. By these means we propose to cover the whole country with sanitary boards. These proposals would remove the difficulty of the Secretary for the Home Department not knowing to what authority he should apply to carry Acts of Parliament into execution. We have endeavoured to make regulations for the sanitary authority in every part of the country; but we have been unable to carry out the whole of the sanitary code which has been recommended by the Commission. Still, there are some questions of sanitary legislation which could not be postponed, and with these we have endeavoured to deal. We propose that in addition to the powers at present exercised by various authorities certain other powers should be conferred on them. Every sanitary authority, for instance, will have the power to provide a proper place for the disinfection of clothes, and carriages for the conveyance of persons infected, or supposed to be infected, as well as hospitals to which infected persons may be removed. Recent events show how necessary it is to deal with this portion of the question at once, and I trust the House will support us in carrying our proposals with respect to it immediately into effect, for by this means we bring together, for the purpose of checking disease, the sanitary authorities and the Guardians of the poor. And now let me turn to the question of the central administration.
We have been considering whether this legislation should remain, as now, in the hands of three or four different 1131 Ministers, or whether, having consolidated locally, we should not also consolidate centrally. As matters now stand municipal rates are dealt with by the Secretary for the Home Department, while the Poor Law rates are dealt with by the Poor Law Board, and there is no Minister in this House whose duty it is to watch every Bill relating to those various charges, in the same way as it is the duty of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look after the general burden to be imposed on the taxpayers at large. We feel it, therefore, expedient to bring matters to a point at which one Minister may be responsible for local finance. The Government are desirous of bringing under one head this branch of legislation, and the Royal Commission, though approaching the matter from a different point of view, came to the same conclusion. We propose, therefore, that all matters relating to local government and to local rating which are now dealt with, partly by the Home Office, partly by the Poor Law Board, and partly by the Privy Council, should be placed under the control of one central department. The natural department to which these subjects would be referred would be the Poor Law Board. As, however, there may be a prejudice against associating the administration of the Poor Law with the administration of local affairs, it will be desirable to change the name of the department.
Although these questions are very important, and although the reforms which we contemplate are considerable and comprehensive, they may be carried out by means of a few clauses, and if the proposals I have indicated are acceptable to the House, I have no doubt that we shall be able to pass the Bill this Session. I must beg to remind the House of the urgency which exists for organization, and all those who are acquainted with our sanitary, municipal, and rating laws will be ready to admit that the first thing is to get them into order, and introduce some uniformity in that respect. I now approach the question of the ratepayer, on whose behalf four grievances are alleged in this House and elsewhere. It is said that while most real property is liable to local taxation, there are many classes of real property which are exempted. Again, it is said that the mode of valuing certain property 1132 unduly favours such classes of property, which do not, consequently, pay their fair share. Thirdly, it is said that the occupiers exclusively pay the rates, and that the ground landlords in all cases, and the owners in many, escape all local taxation whatever; and, lastly, it is said, chiefly by the hon. Member for South Devon (Sir Massey Lopes) in this House, that the occupiers and owners of rateable property bear an unfair share of local and Imperial taxation, and that the Government is bound to provide for their relief. Now, with regard to the first grievance, the exemptions made have arisen chiefly from the wording of the Act of Queen Elizabeth, under which these rates are levied. The wording of this Act gave rise to a series of judicial decisions, in consequence of which Government property, metalliferous mines, timber other than underwood, and various other classes of property not so important, have been exempted. We propose to take one intelligible and uniform system, and to render "every hereditament, corporeal or incorporeal," liable to these burdens, with the exception only of certain kinds of property, of the nature of a rentcharge, which are specially exempted by the Act, because otherwise it would happen that the same property would be charged twice over to the same rate. The effect of this will be that Government property will be rated; but the rule must be universal. We believe that the claims of Government property to exemption are very considerable, and if claims are set up on behalf of municipal buildings, charities, and the like, it must clearly be understood that it may be necessary for us to re-consider our decision on this point. This uniform rule will include metalliferous mines, timber, rights of way, canals, and game, and by adopting it we shall get rid of many of the anomalies which at present are so vexatious. With regard to the question of valuation, the Government would have been very glad if they had been able to introduce a Bill to extend to the country the principle adopted a couple of years since in the case of London; but we have been deterred from taking a step in that direction, as we have been from proceeding in reference to other points, by the consideration that such a course would considerably lengthen the discus- 1133 sions, and possibly endanger legislation on the main subject of local taxation this Session. Having thus taken in some new classes of property, we found that the existing difficulty of discovering the letting annual value in many cases was considerably increased. With regard to metalliferous mines, for instance, we have been much inclined to legislate specially; but we have found so much difference of opinion among gentlemen representing that species of property as to render it impossible for the Government to satisfy each of the interests concerned, if the special claims of the different parts of the country were regarded. Under these circumstances, the Government have found it necessary to propose one uniform system—namely, that metalliferous mines should be rated as other property, and the assessment committees must in those cases, where royalties were reserved, endeavour to deal with them as with coal mines. With regard to another kind of property, where the system of valuation is very imperfect, it is proposed to make a change. There are many buildings and large houses in the country districts which cannot be valued on a calculation of what they would be let at from year to year, and in consequence escape paying on a fair rateable value. It causes a considerable amount of not unnatural irritation among the farmers to see a large neighbouring property escape at a low rating for this reason, while their own smaller farms are, as they complain, highly rated, and the Government, therefore, propose, where it is held to be impossible to get the letting value, to take the selling value, minus a certain percentage, as is done in the case of the Scotch railways, and to take 4 per cent on the selling value as the estimated rental. I now approach the third grievance, which I call specially that of the ratepayers—namely, the question between the owner and the occupier, in consequence of the exclusive payment of rates by the latter. Considering this matter in connection with the evidence produced before the Select Committee last year, the Government have become more and more convinced that both justice and public policy require that the owner shall pay a certain portion of the taxes. At present, through the nature of the contracts made between the occupiers 1134 and the landlords, by which the former engage to pay the whole of the rates, any increased rate, which is not foreseen by either party, falls entirely on the tenants. This is a question more seriously affecting the towns than the country districts; but it is generally inexpedient that the landlords should be allowed to contract with their tenants that the local authority should impose no taxation on them. With regard to Imperial taxation, such a practice is not permitted; for if it were legal to make contracts that the whole of the income tax should be paid by the tenants, the House of Commons would be hampered in its legislation; knowing that on any increase in the income tax the payment would fall not on the landlords, who ought to pay their fair proportion, but exclusively on the occupiers. The result of the present state of things has been that many great improvements in the metropolis, Liverpool, Manchester, and other large towns have been made within the last 10 years exclusively at the cost of the occupiers without the landlords contributing a single shilling towards the expense. The Government have decided that such an anomalous state of things shall no longer exist; and a provision rendering void any engagements, by which owners contract themselves out of the payment of local taxation, is embodied in this Bill. The division of rates between owners and occupiers is not a new proposal, for a similar provision exists in Scotland and in Ireland. In England alone, the exclusive payment of rates by the occupiers has been maintained, and I will point out to the House one of the consequences which flow from such a system. The landlords, not being considered ratepayers, have no share at all in the administration of the money raised by rates, although I feel sure that the House will agree with me that it is important both for the interest of the public, and for the good administration of affairs, that they should take a direct and practical interest in all the great works paid for out of the rates. It may be said that if the tenant pays an increased rate he gets a deduction of rent on account of it; but for every small increase of rate the tenant cannot go to the landlord and tell him he must reduce the rent. In the first place, the tenant knows that he will suffer far more than 1135 the landlord if he is compelled to leave his farm; and, secondly, whichever of the two contracting parties has to take the initiative in asking for an alteration in the terms of the bargain is thereby placed at a serious disadvantage. Again, I have seen it stated repeatedly that it would be no relief to farmers or occupiers in towns that half of the onus should be thrown on the owners. I believe, on the contrary, it will be a very great boon if, unfortunately, there should be an increase of rates, that it should be so divided, and for the reason which I have just stated—namely, that the occupier will no longer be compelled, in order to relieve himself of the whole burden of the increased rates, to place himself at the disadvantage of taking the initiative step. Having dealt with three of the grievances of ratepayers I now come to the fourth—namely, the general allegation that the owners and occupiers of rateable property together pay more than their share of local and Imperial taxation, I say of Imperial as well as of local taxation, because the two classes should be treated as one when such an argument is raised. I will not repeat here the argument into which I entered on a recent occasion, showing the great difference, which should never be lost sight of, between the urban and the rural classes of occupiers. I will only remind those who urge this grievance that there is a vast amount of property liable to rates which is only in one sense real property, such as railways, and other industrial enterprises—an item which was almost nil 30 or 40 years ago. These classes of property now represent no less than £14,000,000 to £16,000,000 a year, and all contribute from their profits to rates. I admit that there is a great aggregate increase in the amount levied for rates. But how is it composed? The broad lines are clear and distinct. I allow that there has been an increase in rates generally so great as from £8,000,000, to £16,000,000; but of this increase £5,000,000 are due to improvement rates in towns and metropolitan rates of every description. These are rates with which the country has nothing whatever to do. Then there is an increase of £2,000,000 in Poor Law expenditure; but of that, £1,600,000 falls on 150 urban unions, and only £400,000 on 500 county unions. Of the remaining £1,000,000, £500,000 are due 1136 to the county police. As regards poor rates, I have shown that by far the greater portion of the increase has fallen on the towns. Again, as regards the number of paupers, the increase during the last seven years has been only 2 per cent in the counties, and 36 per cent in the towns. I cannot find, looking to any part of the statistical materials which have been collected, that there has been any great increase in the rates on land. I have no wish to raise the question between town and country; but in legislating on this subject with the view of remedying a grievance we are bound to recollect that the ratepayers do not form one homogeneous class, we are bound to see which class it is that is burdened most, and not to hurry to the relief of those who are infinitely better off now than they were 40 years ago, and are not so much in need of relief as other large classes of the community. We must consider who are the ratepayers who are most burdened and most entitled to relief. As regards burdens on land, I have formerly indicated that in this country they are not excessive. In this country land has certainly been relieved, both in respect of Imperial and local taxation, more than in any other country in Europe. There can be no doubt of that, whether we take the subject historically, geographically, or comparatively. It is a mere chimera of the hon. Member for South Devon (Sir Massey Lopes) to speak of land being so heavily burdened with rates and taxes that capital is flying from the land and seeking other investments. Has land fallen in value on account of the taxes placed on it? Have rents fallen on account of the taxes on land? Have the farmers' profits over the country generally been diminished in consequence of the increase on rates? I believe that a glance at schedule (B) of the income tax will show clearly that they have not. But if they have, it has been upon the farmers that the rates have fallen, and the owners have not paid their proportion of the burden. If the rates had been divided between the owners and occupiers, the occupier would not have had his profits reduced by the payment of the rates. It is impossible for two persons to pay the same rates. If the occupier pays the rates, then the owner does not. But if the Returns contained in the Report placed in 1137 the hands of hon. Members this morning are examined county by county, it will be seen that in most of the counties there has been a considerable decrease of the burden upon land as compared with earlier periods, although a comparison of particular years might show an increase, and this decrease is owing largely to the great alteration in the relative proportions of land to house property. If, for instance, we take the case of Suffolk, which is strictly an agricultural county, we find that the annual value under schedule (A) was £1,150,000, 50 years ago, whereas now it is £2,000,000. The amount of poor rates in that county in 1813–15 was £215,000; in 1826–27 it was £290,000; now it is only £223,000. The rate in the pound has raised from 4s. 4¾d. in the first period, to 5s. 1d. in the second, and now stands at 2s. 8¼d. While the Government are prepared to listen to counter statements, they do not see the grievances that are alleged on the part of the owners of land; but they are prepared to propose a division of the consolidated rate between occupiers and owners—a measure which, they believe, will conduce to the relief of the former. But the Government have further measures to propose. If the burdens on land have not increased, the burdens on houses have most undoubtedly increased to a very considerable extent. It is therefore necessary to consider how far relief should be given. It is conceivable that relief might be given either by a local income tax, or by transferring local charges to Imperial funds, or by inventing new taxes, or by the transfer of Imperial taxes to local funds. As regards the first method, it appears to be impossible to devise an equitable local income tax, for you cannot localize income. An attempt was made in Scotland, and it broke down when an English Lord Chancellor, who drew his £10,000 a year in London, but had a small place in Scotland, was made to pay income tax on the whole of his income in that country as well as in this. No country has been able to levy a local income tax. In the United States there has been not a local income tax but a personal property tax. What has been the result of that? A very able Report has just been published by Mr. Wells, who with two other Commissioners was appointed to inquire into its working. 1138 On the cover of that Report is this sentence—I insist that a people cannot prosper whose officers either work or tell lies. There is not an assessment Roll now made out in this State which does not now tell and work lies.In making the assessment to this personal property tax, the oath of the person to be assessed was not questioned there, and there was an instance, adduced by Mr. Wells on undoubted authority, in which a man, assessed at $20,000, swore he possessed only $15,000, and swore himself down $1,000 yearly, until, in the year 1869, he reached $1,000; in that year he died and, as the Report expressed it, "passed to a tribunal where oaths could be inquired into," and his devised property was found to be worth $150,000. Mr. Wells concludes that the system is pregnant with fraud and perjury, and that the house a man lived in is the best test of what he could pay, pointing to England as offering a model system of local taxation because it has adopted that test. With us, too, there is another important consideration. How far ought we to impair the use of the income tax as a great engine of public finance, to be resorted to in times of sudden pressure when a great amount has to be raised? Nor could the statements so often made, showing the amount of real property on the one hand, and of personal property on the other—statements from which the inference was suggested that personal income largely escapes taxation—be relied on. A great part of the personal income thus placed on one side of the account consists of the earnings of the class that has no property at all. The whole calculation is erroneous. With respect to the second alternative, that of charging certain local charges upon the Consolidated Fund, the Government entertain the gravest objections to it. I am sure that the House would take such a step as the transference of many of the branches of local to Imperial administration with great reluctance. It might be right to do so if the case were made out, but the claim is, in fact, made only because other local funds cannot be invented. The invention of new local taxes, exclusive of a local income tax, the third alternative of which I spoke, appears scarcely to have been deemed practicable in any quarter. Seeing, therefore, that none of these 1139 three alternatives were feasible, the Government have examined the fourth alternative. They have analyzed Imperial finances and Imperial taxes to see whether there were any Imperial taxes of so local a character that they might be transferred to the local authorities. After looking through the list of Imperial taxes and consulting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who met me in the most liberal spirit, I have come to the conclusion that, as the increase of rates has mainly fallen upon house property, the relief ought to be given in that direction. It is, therefore, the intention of the Government, at a certain date, not mentioned in the Bill, but to be hereafter fixed by an Order in Council, to hand over the present house tax amounting to about £1,200,000, in relief of local rates, which would then be payable, not to Her Majesty, but to the local authorities. This relief will extend to the whole of England and Scotland; but the house tax will not be surrendered until the next financial year. At the same time, I must ask hon. Members clearly to understand that this relief is to be contingent in a certain sense. It may happen that, owing to events at present unforeseen, it will be impossible for the Imperial Exchequer to part with so important a source of revenue as the house tax. With this proviso, however, the Government are prepared to grant it at the date fixed by the Order in Council, believing that they will by this step afford considerable relief to the most heavily-burdened class of ratepayers in the most equitable manner. It may be asked, why should not the house tax be entirely repealed? For this reason: if it were repealed, the benefit would go exclusively to the owners and occupiers of houses of £20 value and upwards; whereas it is desirable that the occupiers of every class of houses should be relieved. In other respects, the effect is practically equivalent to a repeal of the house tax. For instance:—if a parish now has to pay £2,000 a-year for rates and £400 for house tax, after the passing of this Bill, it would have to raise £1,600 a-year only by rates, the difference between that sum and £2,000 being covered by the house tax. The relief, therefore, will be very considerable. The aggregate rates of the occupiers will be diminished by the sum which they now pay to the 1140 Imperial Exchequer in respect of the house tax. I have now, I believe, explained to the House all the main points in the proposals of the Government, except one—namely, that in reference to the representation of owners. The Government have had to weigh the various modes by which representation of owners might be secured. The following alternatives were before them:—Plurality of voting, the cumulative vote, or the selection of a certain number of owners by a constituency also composed of owners. None of these alternatives commended themselves to the Government. Plural voting has become generally discredited, and owners have not exercised much influence under it owing to the defects in registration. Again, the plurality of voting is incompatible with the Ballot for obvious reasons. As regards the cumulative vote, the Government feel that much is to be said in its favour, Whatever may be its demerits in party conflicts, it appears to secure that variety of representation which is peculiarly to be desired in local government. But I freely admit that many objections may be urged against it, and the Government have resolved to look in another direction for the means of giving representation to the owner. It is proposed that on every board spending local funds there shall be a certain proportion of justices or of owners, and that to secure that proportion, the chairman of the parochial boards of the parishes, comprised in the area to be represented, should elect so many owners as, with the justices, should make up one-third of the representative board. We further propose that where the parochial board is a sanitary board, and contains more than six members, the qualification of one-third of the members of the board should be that they are owners of property within the parish. However, there is one exception contained in the Bill, owners have no votes at all in municipal elections. The Government do not wish to weight the Bill with a reform of the municipal franchise. They have consequently determined that, as regards so much of the consolidated rate as represents the borough rate, the occupier should not be entitled to make the deduction from the owner. The Government regret the exception; but it is either necessary to enact that owners should have votes at municipal elec- 1141 tions, or that they should not be directly liable for any portion of municipal rates. I will now briefly sum up the proposals contained in the two Bills. It is proposed to consolidate all rates; to have one universal system of deduction; to have one parochial system of elections instead of many; to have an audit covering the whole of the country; to organize the parish; to establish a civil head who would represent the parish in all parochial affairs; to limit the powers of the vestry to deliberative functions, and to transfer the Executive functions to a single parochial board; to utilize the chairman of the parochial board in order to elect the representatives of the county financial boards; to extend the provisions of the Sanitary Acts so as to provide for hospitals and other matters not sufficiently provided for at present; to give greater coercive powers to the central authority to carry out the Sanitary Acts; to combine in one department all the business relating to local government, and to provide for the simplification of areas. With regard to finance, we propose to make all hereditaments, both corporeal and incorporeal, visible and invisible, liable to rates; to improve the mode of valuation, to make owners and occupiers each liable for half the rates, and to surrender the house tax in relief of the local rates. Her Majesty's Government trust, notwithstanding the large amount of business to be transacted in the course of this Session, that they will be able to carry through Parliament the measure the provisions of which I have sketched, because it is not only important in itself, but will provide the means for still further legislation, which is at present almost at a standstill for the want of powers necessary to carry it out. I beg to move for leave to bring in the Bills of which I have given Notice.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to Rating and Local Government."—(Mr. Goschen.)
§ SIR MICHAEL HICKS-BEACH moved the Adjournment of the Debate.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
After listening to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, it seems to me that his measure would deal out anything but even-handed justice. That which the right hon. Gentleman desires seems not to be so 1142 much a re-adjustment of local burdens as a re-adjustment of local government. It is, however, the financial aspect of this scheme to which I wish to draw attention. What does his scheme come to in this respect? It proposes that all hereditaments shall be liable to taxation. So far so good; but it moreover proposes a separate property tax upon land. That is about the purport of the right hon. Gentleman's proposal. He proposes a new property tax on the land, instead of imposing a new property tax on house property in towns, which is the property that has so much increased in value. Upon this increasing property he proposes a reduction of the general taxation, by proposing that the house duty shall be abolished in relief of the rates. For the first time in the financial records of this country, the right hon. Gentleman would divide real property into the two classes for the purpose of taxation—he would disturb the contracts throughout the whole agricultural community, in order to place a direct tax upon the landowners: that is to say, a direct tax, a new property tax upon land. Whilst with regard to house property, the value of which has been increasing in a far greater ratio than the value of the land, he would place no additional tax whatever such as he puts upon land; but he would make a present to the owners of house property of the whole of the inhabited house duty. This, certainly, is not dealing out even-handed justice as between these two classes of property. The ground which the right hon. Gentleman laid for this unequal distribution of relief—relief from the burden of Imperial taxation in the case of house property, and the imposition of a property tax on land, is this—that the poor rate has increased more upon house property in towns than upon land. Now, it does so happen that, because population has been attracted towards the towns, house property in the towns has increased in value; the increase of houses constitutes the source of the increased value of town property, which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to relieve from taxation. I should have recognized some justice in this scheme, if, in proportion to the pressure of the rates, the right hon. Gentleman had given relief to both classes of property. But the right hon. Gentleman does not propose 1143 to do this. For the first time he proposes a tax levied exclusively upon land, an exceptional property tax; whilst with respect to the house property in towns, which has been so rapidly increasing in value, instead of imposing upon that a property tax, he gives direct relief to the owners out of the Imperial taxation. I will not now dwell upon all the changes of Administration which the right hon. Gentleman has submitted to the House, nor upon their effect—they will doubtless attract the attention of the country—I will content myself with pointing to this one fact, that, for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman proposes to separate real property into two classes, and to inflict a direct property tax upon land only, whilst he would give almost immediate relief from rates to house property in towns, which relief is drawn from Imperial taxation. I will not detain the House longer; but I hope the country will clearly understand what is the nature of the financial arrangement which the right hon. Gentleman proposes.
hoped the Motion for Adjournment would not be pressed, in order that the Bill might be now read a first time, and printed and placed in the hands of Members. He feared there would not be time that day (Tuesday) to take a satisfactory discussion of the measure.
§ MR. SCLATER-BOOTH
said, he thought a measure of this importance should not be read a first time without discussion.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow, at Two of the Clock.