HC Deb 11 February 1891 vol 350 cc422-7

Order for Second Reading read.

(5.11.) MR. WINTERBOTHAM (Gloucester, Cirencester)

It is not my intention to make a speech in support of the Bill. It will be in the recollection of the House that the Second Reading was carried by an enormous majority of 3 to 1 last year; and I believe there is a general concurrence of opinion that some such Bill ought to pass. All I now wish to say is that we are willing to accept some such Amendment as the Attorney General suggested last year as a fair compromise, and we shall be glad if the House by agreeing to the Second Reading will put the Bill into the position it occupied last Session. We will then give ample time before proposing the Committee stage. We will accept any suggestion which will make the Bill a fair and workable measure. The great need is that the law shall be defined, that it shall be made clear to the Rating Authorities what machinery shall and shall not be rated; and that the law shall be what it is, and always has been, in England and Scotland.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

(5.12.) THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir R. WEBSTER, Isle of Wight)

The principle of the Bill has been so far conceded that I think the hon. Member is justified in asking the House to agree to the Second Reading; but at the same time I hope we clearly understand the position. I do not know why the Bill has been put forward in its present form, because as it stands it is open to the very serious objections which I pointed out in reference to last year's proposal. The scheme of the present Bill is that certain specified kinds of machinery shall be made rateable, and that all other kinds shall be exempted. Very great difficulties may arise in working such a scheme. A new state of things in regard to machinery may arise; new forms of machinery may be invented; new methods of fixing, new kinds of foundation for machinery may be adopted, and other things may happen which may bring machinery within the category of what ought to be rated, yet because it is out of the category of rateable machinery in the Bill it will be exempt from rating. I think the better form would be to make all machinery rateable, and then to provide for exceptions in specified cases. However, I understand the hon. Member to say that if a Second Reading is given to the measure he is quite willing to postpone the Committee stage for a time when we shall have full opportunity for discussion, and also that he is willing to accept Amendments upon matters which raised much controversy last Session; and so far as I have any right to speak on behalf of the Government I think the suggestion of the hon. Member is a fair one. But I hope it will not be assumed that in assenting to the Second Reading we could under any circumstances assent to the form the Bill now presents, namely, providing for special rating and general exemption. The question should be approached from just the opposite point of view, the exemptions being special. I am quite sure the hon. Member will carry out the undertaking he has given; but I think it is necessary, having regard to the numerous interests involved and the view that exists—among the agricultural classes for instance—that there might be undue exemptions, it is extremely important, in view of the many and important interests concerned, that we should reserve full right to ourselves, and that the conditions upon which the Government assent to the Second Reading should be understood.

(5.16.) SIR HENRY JAMES (Bury, Lancashire)

I am sure everyone will be glad to see a solution of the difficulties arising in connection with the question arrived at. I will only now ask whether the Attorney General will himself put Amendments on the Paper, so that Members may know what will be acceptable to the Government?


I understand the idea is that Amendments should be put upon the Paper either by the Government or by those who support the Bill. Amendments I mean on the lines of those proposed last year. There will be no difficulty about the Amendments being put down either in the shape the promoters are willing to accept or otherwise.


As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, there is a second Bill, the language of which takes the direction he has indicated. Would the provisions of that Bill be acceptable as carrying out the object my hon. and learned Friend has in view?


I am sorry I have not paid attention to the other Bill and do not know if it is on the lines I laid down last year. If it is it will afford a means of arriving at a form of language which might be accepted by the House.

(5.19.) MR. GOURLEY (Sunderland)

I hope the House will not assent to the Second Reading. It is a manufacturer's Bill, constructed entirely in the manufacturing interest; it is intended to exempt large movable machinery belonging to manufacturers at the expense of the ratepayers, who will have to pay about 2d in the £1 extra. I hope that before the House accepts the Second Reading of the Bill we shall know something more of its provisions.

(5.20.) SIR R. PAGET (Somerset, Wells)

This Bill would involve a serious departure from the present law of rating, and yet its promoters say that all they want is that the law shall be defined. The measure is by no means one for merely defining the law, but one which would make serious alterations in it and involve a complete departure from a well recognised system. If the hon. Member who introduced the Bill had seen fit to read the evidence brought before the Select Committee he would there have found witness after witness declaring that if the law were altered in the direction now suggested a heavy burden of rates would be transferred from the shoulders of one class of people to those of another class. In Birmingham, for example, the kind of machinery which the Bill proposes to exempt has for years—ever since 1837—been rated as enhancing the value of property, and the suggested change would mean that £5,000 a year would be taken off the shouldèrs of the manufacturers and put on to those of the poorer inhabitants of that city. Who are they who would have to bear the burden? Not the manufacturing capitalists, but the people who live in a poor class of houses, and who are already heavily burdened. I venture to think no reason has been shown for this change. The House may be asked to consider whether this matter has ever been fairly investigated. It was investigated not many years ago. A Select Committee sat upon it and took a great deal of evidence, and what conclusion did the Committee arrive at? Did they say that the subject should be dealt with by a Bill of this sort? Nothing of the kind. What they said was that the whole subject of rating should be dealt with by the Government without the least possible delay. That was the Report, and the unanimous Report, of the Committee after they had investigated the matter for weeks and weeks. Their conclusion was not that there should be introduced a fragmentary measure like this to relieve the pockets of a certain class of the community at the expense of others. They recognised the difficulties connected with the subject—and everyone who has taken the trouble to inquire will find that there are great difficulties, and that the law really does require reform. It is hardly fair at this hour (5.25) on a Wednesday afternoon to ask this Assembly to come to a conclusion directly in the teeth of the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee. I was astonished at the speech of the Attorney General, for it appeared to me that he was perfectly prepared to assent to the Second Reading—to the Second Reading of a Bill which, by the admission of its own promoters, is not to be considered by the House, but is to be remodelled upon the scheme of another Bill. There are two of these Machinery Rating Bills—Bill No. 1 and Bill No. 2. The leading principle of this Bill, Bill No. 1, as defined in the clauses, is entirely different to the leading principle of the other measure. Its promoter would allow it to stand over until the other measure comes up, for according to his own explanation it does not carry out his intention. He proposes to alter the Bill by removing the whole of its interior, and substituting the whole of the interior of Bill No. 2. That is not the way the House is accustomed to deal with questions of principle. A Bill of this kind ought to have been introduced in such a shape as to clearly indicate its object. But the supporters of Bill No. 2 are not much enamoured of their own offspring, for they admit that it will want serious alteration. [Cries of "Divide!"] Some hon. Members appear to me to be in haste to come to a conclusion. I do not view the question from their standpoint at all. I think that when you are asked to consent to hasty legislation which is going to unsettle the whole law with regard to the rating of machinery, you should mark this, that the law as it stands is well known, and has been fought in many a Law Court. Case after case has been tried, and the law has clearly established what is rateable and what is not rateable, and I venture to say that these ideas as to definition are entirely erroneous. The highest legal authorities can tell us that they know what the law is without any further definition. I ask any legal authority whether he would advocate unsettling all the Judgments which have been given on the question of rating? If not, I would then ask why should we pass a Bill of this nature?

It being half-past Five of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER proceeded to interrupt the business,—

Whereupon, Mr. WINTERBOTHAM rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question, and the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Wednesday, 25th February.