HC Deb 14 March 1876 vol 227 cc2076-8

Sir, I have to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Law in regard to Ecclesiastical Assessments in Scotland. For a very considerable period my attention has been given to this subject. It is one attended with numerous difficulties, and I am not sanguine enough to suppose that all of these difficulties will be obviated by the Bill which I now ask leave to introduce. Assessments for building and repairing churches and manses have been imposed in Scotland ever since the Reformation. The incidence of the assessment has been varied at different times, but about the end of last century it had come to rest upon the land as, distinguished from any other kind of property. Its apportionment on the land was regulated in each parish by the valued rent—i.e., the old valuation made for the purpose of the land tax, and which is still the basis of that tax. Since 1800, however, partly in consequence of certain decisions of the Court of Session, and still more in consequence of the passing of the Valuation Act of 1854, the church and manse assessments have, in a large number of parishes, come gradually to be imposed, not on the land according to the valued rent, but on all heritable subjects, including houses, manufactories, and railways, according to the real rental as shown by the valuation roll. One of the results of this has been that the feuars—that is to say, the owners of small pieces of land generally occupied by houses—have come unexpectedly to be subject to assessment, although they were not so previously. The amount of the assessment laid on these feuars has been generally very small—so small, indeed, as to be in many cases not worth collecting; but the putting them occasionally in force has been sufficient to create and to keep up a considerable amount of dissatisfaction against these assessments. This, I need scarcely say, has not been diminished where sectarian feelings have come into play, as, of course, they are apt to do in a country in which, religious divisions exist to so great an extent as in Scotland. I desire, however, at once to say that, in the proposals which I am about to make—whilst I am far from undervaluing the conscientious scruples of Dissenters—I cannot admit that, except in the case of the churches and manses of Dissenting ministers—which I think should be exempted—there is any sufficient reason for legislation in regard to the assessments, which are a burden on land. What I propose to do is to restore, as far as possible, the basis of assessment which existed before the change introduced by the decision and the statute which I have already referred to. The Bill provides— 1st, That in those parishes and cases in which the valued rental is now the basis of ecclesiastical assessment it shall continue to he so. 2nd, That in all other parishes and cases these assessments shall he imposed on the land alone according to its yearly value, exclusive of the buildings on it, no assessment being imposed on any subject where such yearly value is under £4. 3rd, That for the purpose of ascertaining this yearly value of the land, exclusive of the buildings on it, the assessors under the Valuation Acts will be required to estimate the same, and enter it in a column to be added, for that purpose, to the existing valuation rolls. The effect of this provision, which will relieve the feuars' houses, &c, will be in some parishes to increase the burden upon the owners of agricultural land; and, in order to lighten that burden, I propose to enable the ecclesiastical assessments to be spread over a period of 20 years instead of 10 years, as is now competent. I cannot, indeed, expect that these proposals will be satisfactory to every one. I can only say that they are the result of very careful consideration on the part of the Government, and I have also had the benefit of the advice of many of my hon. Friends from Scotland who sit near me. Bill to amend the Law in regard to Ecclesiastical Assessments in Scotland, ordered to he brought in by The LORD Advocate, Mr. Secretary CROSS, and Sir HENRY SELWIN-IBBETSON. Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 106.]