HC Deb 12 February 1877 vol 232 cc203-17

, in rising to move for leave to bring in a Bill to "consolidate and amend the Laws relating to the Valuation of Property for the purposes of Rates and Taxes," said, he would refer very briefly to the fate which befell the measure of a similar character which he introduced in the first week of the Session last year. He could assure the House that the measure which was then proposed by him, and unreservedly assented to and approved by the Government, was bonâ fide intended to be proceeded with in the usual course, and, if possible, to be passed into law. At all events, it was intended to take the opinion of the House upon it in the early part of last Session; but about the time when the second reading should have come on, the debates on the Royal Titles Bill interfered very much with the Government Order of Business, and before another opportunity arrived for bringing it on, great interest was exhibited on the subject, both in the form of Petitions to the House and of deputations to himself, showing that the matter could not be brought to a final issue without a much greater expenditure of the time at the disposal of the Government than he could have hoped to secure for his Bill. Again, the Highways Bill was introduced before Easter, but the two Bills were correlative and required to be proceeded with simultaneously. On these grounds it was determined not to proceed with the measure last year, and he hoped that the time spent on its details might not have been spent in vain, and that the communications which he had received would so far have conduced to a satisfactory result that he might be enabled to present the Bill this Session in a shape more likely to escape the opposition to which it had been formerly liable, and to facilitate its passage through the House. In introducing it last year he had referred to the precedent of previous measures introduced by successive Governments upon the same principle—namely, by the Government of Lord Derby, of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Gladstone) and of the present Government. Measures had been laid before Parliament by the present First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Hunt), by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who was then President of the Poor-Law Board, (Mr. Goschen), and afterwards by the right hon. Gentleman succeeding him in that office (Mr. Stansfeld) in order to carry the same principle into effect. He also relied a good deal, in submitting the measure to the House, upon the absurdity of the present system which it was proposed to supersede. That absurdity was, in short, this, that for the purposes of taxation, they had now the same description of property valued by three different authorities upon three different principles or bases of valuation. He did not wish, however, to rely exclusively upon that ground of argument—the symmetry and simplicity of their system—they had also to consider the wishes and feelings of the people. Symmetry in their system of government was not the first thing to be considered; but he thought that when it could be combined with administrative improvement it was a very desirable thing. The history of recent legislation upon the subject of these Bills was an interesting one. When the Poor Law Amendment Bill was passed some 40 or 45 years ago attention began to be more and more directed, than had hitherto been the case, to the systematic levying and expenditure of parish rates. Accordingly, within a few years of the passing of that celebrated measure, a Bill on the subject of local valuation was introduced and passed through the House by Mr. Poulett Scrope. That was in the year 1837, and the Bill laid down the principle defining what should be the basis on which the gross estimated rental should be calculated in terms which have been copied and never have been objected to in subsequent Acts of Parliament. It was effective for its object, but within a very few years it came to pass that some of the charges which had been cast on the parochial area alone were extended to the Poor Law Union area. In 1861 some very important changes in the law were accomplished by the transfer of the charge of lunatics to the Common Fund of the Union, and it was also provided by the same statute that the several parishes should contribute to the common fund in proportion to their rateable value. The additional importance thus given to the Common Fund in 1861 led to the necessity of a further important change in the law which was effected by the Union Assessment Act of 1862. By that Act the duty of assessment or valuation was transferred from the parish to the Union authorities. That Act was amended in 1864, and he mentioned that circumstance only for the purpose of stating that on his (Mr. Sclater-Booth's) Motion, an important clause was introduced into the Act, which required that the valuation list of the several Unions should be transmitted regularly to the clerk of the peace of the county. By the Act of 1865 the whole charge for the maintenance of the poor was transferred from the parish to the Union area. That was a most important change in the law and was made with the consent of both sides of the House. Two years after the passing of the Union Chargeability Act it was found necessary by his right hon. Friend, now Secretary of State for War, to avail himself of a Common Fund, levied over the whole Metropolis to an extent and in a way which experience had shown to have been productive of the most beneficial and valuable results. In 1867, therefore, we had a Common Fund set up for 30 or 40 of the most important Unions in the Kingdom, extending over the most important Province of the country and over an area containing one-seventh at least of England as regarded population. The House, however, would easily see that at that time there was no security that the various Unions in the metropolis would be rated on similar principles, and therefore one of the first Departmental acts of his right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Goschen) was to pass through the House in 1869 a Valuation Act which provided the necessary securities that the Common Fund of the metropolis should be satisfactorily assessed and levied without any reasonable cause of complaint on the part of the various contributory Unions. Now, under the Metropolis Act it was provided that the inhabitated house duty and the property tax should be collected upon the valuation lists as settled by the various Union authorities. Therefore, under that Act we had the payers of the property tax under Schedule A and the payers of the inhabited house duty in the metropolis paying on a more accurately determined basis than the payers of those taxes in the country at large. A further illustration might be drawn from that Act. The three counties of Kent, Surrey, and Middlesex had an aggregate valuation of £29,000,000, and the contributions to the county rate were levied in these three counties according to the valuation lists which prevailed in them, except in those portions which lay within the metropolitan area. The portions of these counties which lay within the metropolitan area were four times as great as those outside, as regarded rateable value. The consequence of the present law was that, taking these counties, the ratepayers within the metropolis were paying at a higher ratio than the ratepayers outside it in the rural parts of the counties. The rateable valuation of the three counties was, as he had said, £29,000,000; that of the metropolis within these counties was £21,000,000. Another practical reason why it was important at the present time to proceed with this measure was that the expenditure under the operation of the Sanitary Acts was rapidly and daily increasing in importance. There were many local board districts constructed in times past which overlapped the borders of two or more Unions, and we had this anomaly—that the local beard was now restricted by the Public Health Act to the valuation lists, as settled by the assessment committees of the Unions, so that the rate is levied by the local beard authority upon the different bases which may happen to obtain within their area. Another reason which would commend itself to the House was that the want of this Valuation Bill stood in the way of very considerable administrative reforms which were otherwise necessary. For instance, under the Poor Law Amendment Act there was power to take a parish from one Union and to put it into another, and recently there was a case where a parish was added to an outside Union; objection, however, had been taken to the transfer, because of the transfer of burdens which it involved under the different valuations in the two Unions in question. Again, under the Act of last year additional powers 'were conferred on the Local Government Board in respect of the re-distribution of parishes and adding them to other Unions; but for the want of larger powers, improvements like these were constantly hampered. For instance, it was obvious that the highway rate ought to be charged upon districts instead of upon parishes, in order to secure its equal pressure, but that could scarcely be done until there was a more uniform valuation of the property through which those highways ran. These new valuation lists were desirable as the basis on which to assess the property and income tax, and last year !he had stated that the Government were willing to base the property tax on the valuation list; but that, if so, they ought to have some voice in preparing the list. There were other grounds why this should be, for it might surprise some hon. Members to hear that the Government were now the largest ratepayers in the Kingdom. He did not now speak only of the subventions paid by the State in aid of local rates, toward the cost of police, lunatics, and other local charges, which would alone give the Government a right to look somewhat jealously to the valuations throughout the country generally. But the Government were now assessed, or rather paid contributions in lieu of rates, to a considerable extent, the rateable value of the property on which they regularly contributed being not less than £586,000, situated in 345 parishes, and probably not fewer than 200 Unions, scattered over the whole of the country. The Government, therefore, had some right to require that the valuation of the Kingdom should be placed upon a sound footing, be governed by similar principles, and assessed by similar authorities, and with equal justice. Upon all these grounds the Government had come to the conclusion that the want of a proper Valuation Bill prevented administrative improvements which might otherwise be made under existing powers and under powers which might hereafter be conferred. The intention of the Bill was not to vary the principles of valuation at present recognized, but only to make them more effective, more uniform, and more equal. It would contain two main provisions—first, the empowering of the Government officer or surveyor of taxes who would have some voice in furnishing information and in objecting to the different valuation lists as prepared by the overseers, and, secondly, that a certain scale of deductions laid down in the Schedule should not be departed from, more or less. These two provisions would insure greater uniformity in the two columns of the rate-book — namely, gross rental and rateable value. The Government had been urged last Session by his hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Clare Read) to adopt a principle which was said to have worked well in Scotland by setting up a new system of valuation by means of County Boards. Having considered the subject, however, with great attention, he was unable to adopt this system. In his opinion the Union was a quite sufficiently large area to be administered for the purpose of valuation. It was well known that for the last 40 years the Guardians had been entrusted with very large administrative duties; they had with much justice and accuracy revalued the different Unions; had put the existing law into operation upon their sole authority, besides having a large portion of local expenditure to collect, control, and be accountable for to their constituents; and had exercised those powers with so much justice, that he saw no ground for disestablishing them from their present position with regard to valuation, or for entrusting that duty to a body representing the larger but uncertain area of a county. A county body could not have the same minute knowledge of the detailed circumstances of different localities, and would, as he thought, so far fail to give satisfaction that even a Government officer would be considered preferable as a guiding authority upon the subject. As a rule, throughout the Kingdom the county administration did not exercise the powers they now possessed for effecting a county valuation upon their own authority. A Return issued upon this subject at the instance of the hon. Member for Northumberland (Mr. Ridley) showed that in 12 counties of England and Wales the property tax valuation was relied on exclusively as the county rate basis. In 17 counties the valuation lists formed the basis, and in 17 others both those sources of information were resorted to. In five counties only was there a separate system of valuation, or any application of the powers which counties now possessed. The Bill, therefore, did really what the counties for the most part were doing for themselves, and the counties might well rely upon the valuation lists, just as the Government were prepared to look to the valuation lists for the property tax. The Guardians were now the sanitary authorities in rural districts; their functions had undergone an important change under the Public Health Act of 1875; and were scarcely to be distinguished from those of the councils which exercised similar authority in towns. Hon. Members knew that a very important change in regard to the Guardians was conferred upon them also by the Education Act of last year—that of appointing education committees, so that he could not see why they should not have the same functions as those enjoyed by town councils, but he was far from saying that improvements might not be made in the election of those bodies and the system generally, though he thought they must rely upon Union areas. Possibly the foundation might be laid for the establishment of a common County Fund, equally leviable over the whole county whether in one Union or the other. For the want of such a fund there was a difficulty in framing the Highways Bill, which he hoped shortly to introduce, and the principal feature of which would be the establishment of a common County Fund in aid of the principal highways of the county. There was also a growing difficulty in reference to the provision of accommodation for pauper lunatics. In the metropolis, provision had been made by means of the Common Fund for the proper and humane custody of 5,000 harmless chronic lunatics at a considerably less cost than was incurred in county lunatic asylums, and it would be easy hereafter under the provisions of the Bill he was explaining to spread similar charges in the same manner. Many Poor Law reformers were of opinion that a portion of the cost of maintaining habitual in-door paupers should be spread over a wider area than at present; but what he desired to do was to say generally, as the result of his experience in the Office over which he had the honour to preside, that there were other charges coming under different heads of local administration which might be dealt with in future measures, but the questions so involved were incidental to the present measure, the want of which stood in the way of a great deal of useful legis- lation, which the Government, the House, and the public might desire to see accomplished. He might mention before sitting down that since last year there had been many alterations in the draft of the Bill. In the Bill of last year it was proposed that rent should be regarded as the minimum of value, but this proposal had been omitted from the present Bill, although he did not disguise his opinion that rents rightly ascertained would, under the scheme of the Bill, be regarded more closely now than in former times as the true criterion of value. The Bill would also differ from that of last year as far as it described the status and functions of the surveyors of taxes in relation to the valuation lists. It would provide that in the different tribunals where objections to valuations contained in the lists were admissible the surveyors of taxes should take their places as ordinary objectors. In the Bill of last year it was proposed that the county magistrates should appoint committees to take part in the preparation of the valuation lists; but this was omitted from the present Bill, because the Government was satisfied from the opinion of many of the most experienced officials in the country that such a system was unnecessary; and it was proposed further that the re-valuations should be made once in five years instead of once in seven, as proposed in the Bill of last Session. A proposal in the Bill which was not contained in the measure of last year was one which would establish a means of appeal direct from the Assessment Commissioners to the High Court of Justice, where this course might be deemed necessary, in order to determine points of the highest importance as affecting the assessment of properties held by manufacturing, railway, canal, public companies, and other parties owning properties of great value. This had been done to save expense, and to secure uniformity in the principles upon which property was in future to be valued in the country generally; but in all cases ratepayers would have the same power of appeal as at present. In conclusion, he would make an appeal to the House whether, after the sifting which this measure had so anxiously and deliberately undergone throughout the whole of the country, they would exercise the power which they possessed of severely criticizing the 100 clauses which it contained. These clauses were for the most part re-enactments of existing laws. The Government did not propose to vary or depart from the principles which had been laid down by the Legislature for a great number of years. They only proposed to consolidate the present laws and to improve the administration of them, and thus to secure greater uniformity throughout the country—to bring, in short, the whole subject into one comprehensive code which should guide all local authorities in the execution of their most important duties. The Government had no wish to find fault as a general rule with the present administration of the laws, but they merely desired to improve a system of local government which had been somewhat neglected. In accepting the Bill he believed that the House would lay the foundation of a great deal of useful reform. He was sorry that he had had to trouble the House with so much detail, but he had felt it to be incumbent upon him to place the whole subject in the fullest way before them, and to express his earnest hope that the attention of the House would be directed to the new materials of the measure now placed before them, and that they would not be disposed, as he had before observed, to enter fully into the discussion of every clause and sentence, which, if done, might lead to a great and unnecessary waste of time. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


said, he was sorry to find from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman that the Government had not advanced one step in reference to this subject since last Session. The Bill of the right hon. Gentleman would have to be criticised in detail on the second reading, and he would not, at this moment, discuss the question whether or not the Government had taken a wise step in associating a Government officer with those whose duty it would be to make the re-valuation. He wished, however, to touch upon the part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech which dealt with the future—he was afraid not the immediate future—of local government. Those who took an interest in these matters might be divided into two classes; one class would go at once to Imperial funds for every relief they could advocate, and the other class was composed of those who thought that any subventions from Government or Imperial relief of any kind would be utterly useless without great and far-reaching reforms in our system of local government. The first class would, doubtless, be gratified by the Government subvention proposed to be given under the provisions of the Prisons Bill; whereas the second class would find that all they had to trust to were the large but vague promises of the right hon. Gentleman which might or might not be carried into effect some three or four Sessions to come. If the Government stood still there was one thing, however, which never stood still, and he felt bound to direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the vast and rapidly increasing debt which had been incurred by the different local authorities, and he should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would tell the House what was the total amount of the public indebtedness under that head; its rate of increase, and the estimated cost of the various claims which were being urged, and which would involve its still further increase. In his opinion, the policy of the Government was short - sighted and bad, because doling out a number of "sops" of the character proposed would have no effect in keeping down the rates. In the course of time people would not tolerate any further increase in the amount of the rates, and, consequently, works of the first necessity would have to remain unexecuted. He was, however, glad to find that the Government had adopted the Union as the unit of local self-government, though he thought that the indoor relief might have been cast upon a wider area. He regretted that the right hon. Gentleman had not touched upon the subject of the simplification of areas or on the means of connecting the different areas either by County Boards or by any other machinery, which would be the only way to secure economical management. He had no hope of any such economy being effected in the absence of such provisions, and trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would give the House an earnest for the fulfilment of his promises for the future by placing upon the Table a Bill which would give effect to the views of those who strenuously advocated local reforms.


thought that the right hon. Gentleman had placed his views very clearly before the House, while the statement of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Whitbread) should have been reserved for the second reading of the Bill. He would refrain from discussing its provisions until they were laid before the House, and simply rose to express his opinion that the right hon. Gentleman had not shown that his Bill would place the rating of the country upon a sound and satisfactory basis, which was in truth the main reason for introducing the Bill. His principal objection to the measure was that it would leave the initiation of the assessment in the hands of the overseers as before. A very large practical experience had shown him that the rates in different Unions, although adjoining, were far from being equal, and in order that they might be placed upon a fair and reasonable footing there should be some fresh general valuation made throughout the counties. He approved the suggestion which had been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Mr. Hubbard), last year, that the county and other local rates, as well as the income tax, should be made upon the ratable and not upon the gross estimated value of the property. The whole matter, however, was subject for further consideration, and he trusted it would receive that consideration and discussion before the Bill went into Committee.


said, he wished to put the right hon. Gentleman right with regard to the nature of the Motion he had placed upon the Paper last year. By that Motion he had sought to have the powers of appeal which now appertained to quarter sessions transferred to County Representative Boards, and he must deny it would have the effect of extinguishing the present assessment committees. The right hon. Gentleman had hinted that it might be expected in the future that the expenditure for lunatics, main highways, and in-door poor would be spread over the counties. That, in itself, he thought, would be a very strong argument in favour of County Representative Boards.


said, he shared in the disappointment expressed by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread) at the meagre character of the measure. The right hon. Gentleman opposite, in- stead of proposing to give additional powers to local governments and to relieve them from that interference in details which was now overweighting his own Department, had brought forward a Bill which was likely to add even more work to that Department. The question of our local administrations was one of the great questions of the day; and he regretted that there was no sign, either out.of-doors or in the declaration of the Government, of an attempt being made to frame anything like a comprehensive scheme of reform on that subject and to work it out. Unless some systematic plan were laid down, all their legislation of that kind would do little more than add to the existing confusion. He did not say that what he suggested could be effected in a Session or two; but some general plan ought to be formed in the mind of the Government and then all their Bills should be made to work it out. To accomplish that object, with the least disturbance of existing interests and the least interference with popular prejudice, he thought it would probably be necessary to resort to the expedient of a Royal Commission.


desired to guard himself against being supposed to agree with the last speaker that the best method of dealing with the large problem of local government would be by the issue of a Royal Commission on the subject. It would retard rather than advance legislation, and would in reality accomplish no solid good. He welcomed the Bill as far as it went, but it was not a sufficient instalment of reform of one of the most pressing questions of the day. He acknowledged it was a sound, useful, and business measure nevertheless, and in response to the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman, when it got into Committee it would be his duty to offer assistance, in order to secure its enactment. He had always endeavoured to look at questions connected with local government wholly irrespective of Party considerations; but he could not profess to be satisfied with that Bill, good and practical though it might be, as a sufficient instalment for the present Session of that reform of our system of local self-government which both the present and previous Governments had admitted to be necessary. He thought, on the contrary, that the time had come when some kind of plan, some outline of future, if not present, legislation should be devised which might give some encouragement and hope to those who took a deep interest in that great question. He regarded the proposal in the Bill to create a county fund with some jealousy, if there were to be no county representatives or administrative body to control its expenditure; and indeed he regarded with similar jealousy some of the other imperfect contrivances which the right hon. Gentleman had mentioned as substitutes for the time being of a greater measure of local government—the creation of some system of county administration. The sooner they addressed themselves to the creation of some system of county administration the better; and, therefore, either on the second reading of that Bill or on some other early opportunity, he should feel justified in drawing the attention of the House to the question of local government generally.


observed that an important matter to be considered was this—that as a rate must be carried out with totally different machinery by the various Boards of Guardians, they would have what would really amount to a differential duty by reason of the Bill not clearly specifying that which should be rated and that which should be left out of rating. At the present time, for instance, machinery was rated in one parish but not in another, and it was of the utmost importance to the interests of trade that the matter should be settled. Even the law failed to deal with this satisfactorily, for when litigation had occurred there were most conflicting judgments, and even if they could be reconciled, it was of great importance that when a new start was made on the subject of rating, such as he conceived this Bill to propose, that it should be clearly settled by the Legislature to relieve all doubts, and he would say all excuses, for burdening trade with the vexatious exaction that was often sought to be imposed on it by treating machinery, the capital and stock-in-trade of the manufacturer and tenant, as a matter in any way subject to rates which were intended only to apply to freehold and leasehold property.


, in reply, said, he fully endorsed the sentiment expressed by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Stansfeld), that these De- partmental subjects ought to be discussed without Party bias. He would also remind the House, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's remark that the Bill would be an insufficent instalment of reform in local taxation, that he proposed within a few days to re-introduce the Highways Bill of last year with some alterations. He should have been very glad if those two measures could have been passed last Session; but the right hon. Gentleman opposite must be aware of the difficulty which a Minister in charge of a particular Department had to contend with in securing sufficient time for the consideration by the House of the Bills he might have to bring in. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that since he had been at the Local Government Board he had succeeded in passing various measures connected with his Department through the House. Since coming into office the Government had passed several important measures akin to this subject, all of which he believed would be found to tend towards a harmonious whole. He therefore felt bound to protest against the assumption that they had practically done nothing. Apprehensions seemed to be entertained by some hon. Members with regard to an increase in the amount of local indebtedness; but the House ought to bear in mind that the great mass of local expenditure was incurred not by the Guardians, but by the town councils. On the whole, he believed the Union area would be found to be the most advantageous for the purpose in view; while with regard to the difficulty of rating machinery which had been alluded to by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Samuda), it would probably be smoothed away by the Bill, or, if it continued to exist, it would readily be settled by the easy, inexpensive, and simple form of appeal which was provided. If the Government had wanted to do nothing, they could not have done better than adopt the suggestion thrown out by the hon. Member or Liverpool (Mr. Rathbone), and refer the whole subject to a Royal Commission; but they preferred dealing with it to tie best of their ability. By the adoption of that suggestion, legislation might have been looked for in the Greek Kalends. He had certainly in the course he had taken laid himself open to the charge of not producing a com- prehensive measure; but he thought he had done enough in the way of detail to show that his attention had constantly been directed to this subject, and he had endeavoured so to shape the measures he had introduced as to make them fit in with the local administration of the future when it came to be dealt with on a largo scale. He should certainly be very reluctant to commit the Government to a comprehensive scheme so long as he had not at his disposal the means of carrying it out. He had not those means at present, but the Bills he had brought forward had contributed, he believed, in a very material degree to the improvement and simplification of local government in this country; and if he had the good fortune to be able to pass this and one or two other measures which he proposed to introduce in the course of the Session, he hoped he might with propriety take credit to himself for having furnished an important contribution to what was undoubtedly a great and important work.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to consolidate and amend the Laws relating to the Valuation of Property for the purposes of Rates and Taxes, ordered to be brought in by Mr. SCLATER-BOOTH, Mr. CHAN- CELLOR of the EXCHEQUER, and Mr. SALT.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 63.]