HC Deb 16 June 1880 vol 253 cc152-7

Order for Second Reading read.


in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, the object of the Bill was to remove a grievance caused by the Act of 1870, by which a tax was imposed on the guns of those engaged in agriculture. Up to that period occupiers of land in Scotland and Ireland had been free to destroy hares and rabbits, and birds that preyed upon their crops without being taxed; but in thai year a proposal was made to alter the game certificates, and a gun licence was imposed on all persons who carried a gun for the killing of these animals. A person might carry a gun and use it for frightening birds or for killing vermin; hut if the person killed the birds instead of frightening them he had to pay a tax of 10s. for his gun. Farmers considered this a great grievance. The amount of the tax was not large; but they objected to it on principle. Parliament had not taxed a man's plough or his spade, and a gun was as necessary a tool to the farmer as either the plough or spade. They had no business to tax it any more than any other instrument of husbandry. He believed that if the Government were to remove the gun licence they would increase rather than diminish the Revenue, because many persons took out a gun licence not only because it enabled them to frighten and kill birds, but because under cover of it they killed game and other animals. They thus avoided taking out a game certificate, for which they would have had to pay £3, and so by only taking out a gun licence they saved £2 10.s. If they would look at the number of game licences issued this year they would find it was 54,726, from which the Revenue derived £188,980. Gun licences had been issued to the number of 136,257, which brought to the Revenue a sum of £80,701. If they turned to the Returns of the Inland Revenue, they would find that every successive year there were some remarks made upon this point on the evasion of the game certificates by persons who took out gun licences. The Report of this year, for instance, said— The increase of game licences since 1871, when the gun licence was imposed, has only been one-fortieth of the total number; but the increase of the gun licence for the same period has been one-third of the total number. And they went on to say— One reasonable inference to be drawn from these facts is that a larger number of persons who wish to shoot game take out only a gun licence, under which they carry their guns about without molestation of the Excise officers or gamekeepers, and accept the risk of being found killing game. Another year they reported— It is impossible to believe that the large number of persons who go out to shoot game take out game licences. Many of them take no more than a gun licence. It would therefore be seen that if they were to abolish the gun tax the Revenue would lose nothing, because many persons would be driven to take out a game certificate who now evaded it. Last year this question was brought before the House, and he had hoped that the Government would assent to the principles of the Bill; but it was talked out on that occasion. The chief objector to the Bill on behalf of the late Government was the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Mr. James Lowther, whose memory was blessed by every Irishman. He said, on behalf of the Government, that he could not sanction the Bill, because it would be dangerous to allow Irishmen in Ireland to carry guns, and he would not take upon himself the responsibility of allowing the occupier of land there to have them. So little had that gentleman considered or cared about the subject that he did not know that the gun licence did not prevent a single person keeping a gun in his possession. Every man could have a gun in his house without paying a tax, and he might use it for any purpose he liked other than those he mentioned. It was not until he took it out to shoot birds that he became liable to pay the tax. The Excise officer might see him carrying a gun, but could not touch him if he said his only purpose was to frighten birds. It was only when the Excise officer caught him killing the birds that he forced him to pay the tax. The object of the Bill was to force occupiers of land to protect their crops from injury without the tax; and he expected this year the Bill would receive a more favourable consideration on behalf of the Government than it had last, because they had before them a Bill to enable the tenants to protect their crops from hares and rabbits. This Bill was proposed, therefore, on the same lines as that Bill, and it ought to receive the sanction of the Government. He thought he had shown the tax ought to be removed. In his part of the country they called it a Game Law in disguise, which, in point of fact, it was.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Alexander Gordon.)


thought it was desirable that occupiers of land should be able to protect their crops without being taxed; but he was not willing that any Bill should pass which would benefit the people of one portion of the United Kingdom at the expense of the people of another portion. The people of Ireland were now, by the expiration of the Peace Preservation Act, placed in an equal condition with the people of England and Scotland with regard to the carrying of arms; and with the view of preventing that state of things being disturbed by the passing of this Bill he moved that it be read a second time that day three months. If he were assured that the Bill would not prejudice the rights of the people of Ireland as to carrying of arms he would be happy to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Sexton.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said the hon. Member's speech had been in favour of abolishing the gun tax, and he pretty much agreed with him; he believed the gun tax to be unproductive and useless, and very often evaded. But the Bill was not for abolition by any means. The Bill provided only for exemption, and it proposed such exemptions on the ground that the gun was an agricultural implement. He had never heard a gun called an agricultural implement before. If the hon. and gallant Baronet could make out that the gun was an implement of that kind, perhaps there might be some reason for asking for this exemption; but he did not look upon the gun in that light, and, besides, he did not like exemptions. If there was to be a tax, let it be levied; if it was to be abolished, then let that be done. If the present Bill had been one to abolish the tax he should have supported it; but as it proposed to do no more than create an exemption he should oppose it.


said, he quite agreed with the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson). He was afraid that in the present state of the finances of the country it would be inexpedient to pass the Bill. The amount of the licence was only 10s. Viewing the danger of all these exemptions, he thought it would be unwise to nibble at that question. If they dealt with it, let them do so in a comprehensive, and not in a piecemeal, manner.


said, considerable ambiguity prevailed at present as to the law with regard to the right of scaring birds. A case had occurred in his own county in which the decision of one Court had been reversed by another —the decision of the local Court had been overturned by the Court of Quarter Sessions. The case to which he referred was this:— A farmer was prosecuted for killing wood-pigeons. He was told that he had a right to scare these birds, but not to kill them; but his reply was, that he could not scare them without killing them. The local Court, as he had said, decided to inflict a fine; but the farmer, on appeal to the Quarter Sessions sitting at Ayr, got it decided by a majority that scaring birds included killing them. The Board of Inland Revenue was not satisfied with this decision, and announced an intention of appealing to the Court of Session; but at the last moment they abandoned the case. The farmer, however, had spent a considerable sum in the meantime, and that sum with some trouble he had recovered from the late Government. He merely wished to point out the unsatisfactory state of the law. In his opinion, the farmer was quite right in saying that it was impossible to scare the birds without killing them. They did a great deal more harm than hares and rabbits; and he thought, therefore, the law ought to be placed in regard to them on a more satisfactory footing. He could not agree with what the hon. Member for Glasgow had said in reference to the gun tax. Before that tax was proposed, the highways used to be infested with men and boys shooting at birds; but since the Act was passed a very great improvement had been effected.


referring to the observations of the hon. Member for Sligo (Mr. Sexton), said he was not aware that there was now any difference between the law in England and in Ireland as to the right of having or carrying arms.


said, in that case he should withdraw his Amendment.


also intimated that in consequence of what the noble Lord had stated he should withdraw the Bill.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.