§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ * MR. ALBAN GIBBS (London)
said that when he gave notice of opposition to this Bill he did not, of course, intend to oppose what he might call the subsidiary clauses of this Bill—that was, the proposal to construct an approach leading from the south to the Tower Bridge. He did not regard the plan that had found favour with the London County Council as altogether the host plan that might be made, and he did not think it reflected credit on the management of the London County Council that the plan was only now going to be begun after the Tower Bridge was on the point of completion; but his objection to the Bill was to what he might call the principle of the Bill—namely, the 37th clause, which was commonly called the Betterment Clause. That it was the main principle of the Bill was practically admitted by the London County Council last year when they refused to proceed with the Bill after this main principle had been taken out. He was most anxious not to trespass on the time of the House by making a Committee speech; therefore, he would briefly allude to the objections that might be made to this particular form of the Betterment Clause, such as the arbitrary way in which certain areas were scheduled for betterment, the preposterously long time during which this sword of Damocles, in the shape of a betterment charge, was kept hanging over the head of the unfortunate owner and occupier, to the preposterously short time that was allowed to him to object to the betterment charge made on him and to the entirely new principle of denying the privilege of a jury to assess what pay- 1218 ment was due from him instead of putting it on the ipse dixit of an arbitrator, in whose appointment he obviously had no voice whatever. He admitted that as the arbitrators were to be appointed by a Public Department they would be fairly and justly appointed; at the same time, he thought a Public Department would be rather inclined to be against an individual, and he did not think they would appoint an arbitrator who had any leaning in favour of private persons. If it were shown that some scheme could be devised by which the owner and occupier of a property, which would be improved by some scheme, should properly and justly pay their share, he would be the last man to object to it; but he contended that the present system, under which a fresh rating was made as soon as an improvement was made, so that the occupier paid as long as the property was in his possession, and then the freeholder, as long as the improvement lasted, did all that was necessary. Under the proposed system the property might be placed under a perpetual rent-charge for some improvement which appeared to benefit it, and some future improvement might leave the property high and dry, vet it, would have to go on paying the same betterment charge. Moreover, he submitted, it introduced a very great and new principle which was entirely new to our law. Of course, he knew that an instance was adduced in the time of Charles II., immediately after the great fire, when a charge something in the nature of betterment was imposed, but it was only done once; it evidently did not answer, for it was never tried again; therefore he was justified in saying it was a new principle. That being so, he held that it ought to have been brought forward as a Public Bill by a Minister of the Crown, after due inquiry by a Royal Commission or something analogous. Last Session the House of Lords proposed a Joint Committee to look into this thing, but at that time Ministers were not ready to accept any suggestions made by the House of Lords, and, therefore, they pooh-poohed it. He was much obliged to the House for listening to him on this dry subject, but he thought it right that they should make some protest against this Betterment Clause in order that it might not be supposed that they, on that 1219 side of the House, were in any way agreed to it. At the same time, this clause appearing as it did in a Bill for a very desirable object, he might say tacked to the Bill, he did not propose at this time to move the Resolution that he had placed on the Taper, therefore, he should content himself with this protest, and should take a further and more convenient opportunity on some further stage of the Bill of opposing the Betterment Clause.
§ * MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)
said, with regard to this Bill before the House he wished to emphasise the remarks that had fallen from his hon. Friend the Member for the City (Mr. Alban Gibbs), but it appeared to him it would have been more desirable and better if a great change in the system of taxation had been introduced into this House by means of a Public Bill. Regarding this most beneficial improvement of the Tower Bridge, hon. Members on that side of the House per se did not wish to oppose this most useful improvement made by the City of London, but they did oppose this novel principle of betterment in the Bill that they had now to consider. They were told the improvement was to be made by the whole County of London. Why by the whole county? In the past there wore valuable improvements made that were purely Metropolitan, and paid for by the Metropolis as a whole. There were other improvements made in various districts in London, which were purely parochial improvements, and paid by the individual parish concerned, and there were others that were partly Metropolitan and partly parochial, and paid for partly by the general rate over the whole of London, and partly by the parochial rate. Therefore, he would like to ask why the whole of the cost was to be paid by the County of London? It was calculated in another place, in regard to another Bill, that the amount to be received for the betterment principle, contained in the Bill now under discussion, would only be about £150 a year; but he would ask why the parish of Bermondsey, which would be greatly benefited by the bridge, should not pay its quota? The real reason, in his opinion, was this: that it would not then have made such a strong case for betterment had the parish of Bermondsey to pay its fair and just quota. Hon. 1220 Members opposite claimed that property did not pay when it was bettered by improvements; but he would point out to them that by the Metropolis Valuation Act of 1869, Section 46, that not every five years only, but by means of supplemental and provisional lists every year, and every mouth, a man's rating might be put up and down according as the value of his property rose or fell. By this Bill the introduction of the betterment system meant that for all time, to the end of the world, a certain charge would be put on the property; there would be no revaluation every five years, and there would be no power as under the existing law to re-value property every year or every month. There were many other schemes more advantageous to the ratepayers, and he was very much surprised that the London County Council had not carefully considered the recoupment system that worked so well with regard to Northumberland Avenue. The ratepayers of London, by that particular system, not only were gainers by that magnificent thoroughfare itself, but also received in aid of local taxation a sum of £250,000 or £300,000. He was willing to admit there were cases where landowners received benefit by improvements made by the Public Authorities, and he thought it would be desirable for a strong Committee to inquire into the matter, so that a Bill could be brought in which should provide that when a landowner was shown to have derived benefit from public improvements he should be called on to pay his just quota. But, at the same time, if that was admitted, they ought to consider this other fact—that if, on the other hand, an individual had his property injured by a public improvement the community ought to bear the loss with him. So far as this Bill was concerned, it appeared to him that the community was to take half the profit, if there was any, and that the individual, whether in Bermondsey or any where else, took the whole of the loss. In fact, to use a somewhat sporting expression, this scheme was nothing more nor less than "Heads I win, tails you lose." Now, he would not dispute the proposition that where property was specially benefited it should be specially assessed in respect of that increment. But how was that to be considered by the London County Council? It was to be in this way—that 1221 if an arbitrator appointed by themselves considered that the property had been benefited, then for all time it would be a, fixed charge on that property. There was, no doubt, a sort of appeal, but it would be, as he would show later, both of an expensive and dilatory character, and it was only in reality an appeal from the surveyor of the London County Council to that of the Local Government Board. In this particular instance the London County Council had been very wise and had not attacked any very important vested interest in London; they had not attacked the brewing interest, or large manufactures, or the large and wealthy men of influence, or the residential landowners, but they had attacked a body of individuals who were, comparatively speaking, poor men, although, no doubt, amongst those properties that would be included in the betterment clauses were Messrs. Sloes' vinegar works, which happened to be very close to the bridge. He understood this firm of vinegar manufacturers had a, 40 years' lease on their premises, but could any reasonable man allege that a vinegar manufactory would be benefited by a road being put in proximity to these works? They had to look at the actual value of the property as it was at present and not to a prospective value. Such a valuation could only be absolutely arbitrary and speculative. Last night he attended an important discussion at the Surveyors' Institute where he heard a member of the London County Council deliver a lecture on ground rents, but he defied any of the eminent surveyors he met then; to say what would be the value of property in London 40 or 50 years hence in any definite area, but that would be the duty of the surveyor in considering the question of betterment. Under the clause a surveyor would have to say what, in his opinion, the value of certain property would be 40 or 50 years hence. The system of betterment introduced a totally new system into our system of taxing the capital value of real property. That had never been the principle on which they had taxed property in this country. It was, no doubt, a principle which had been introduced into America, but it had never been the custom hitherto in the United Kingdom; and if they 1222 were going to alter the system of taxation in local municipal areas, he ventured to say they should do it by means of a Public Bill. Now what was this system of betterment? it was an objectionable expression denoting the moiety of an undefined quantity—namely, the enhanced value of property affected by the improvements of the London County Council. He ventured to think that a scheme might be devised by the Loudon County Council which would really benefit the locality in a very much more satisfactory way than the present scheme. And what did the present scheme do? It went behind the great principle that had hitherto been one of the grand principles of the Liberal Party in this House, that representation should accompany taxation. By this betterment system they were going to tax the landowners in the various local districts of London, whilst they gave them no voting power as owners either for County Council elections or for local ones. The system by which they had hitherto carried on government with regard to local taxation was that the burden of the year should fall on the annual value of the property, but this betterment charge would remain an unvarying one for all time. With regard to one principle in this scheme—namely, the proposed "limits of deviation," he should like to say a few words. Might it not be the fact that even on the London County Council they might have a surveyor or somebody who might be biased in regard to his action, and might it not be impossible that in selecting individuals as subjects for this arbitrary form of impost to disassociate entirely from his mind the question whether those individuals did or did not support the views of the majority of the Council? They knew also that fashions changed with regard to important districts in London. They know that at one time that district north of the Park, including Portland Square, Russell Square, and Bedford Square was higher rented than at the present time; they know that fashion had changed and gone further south to Grosvenor Square, and why should not fashion change equally with regard to other areas of London? Therefore, it seemed to him it would be a great injury and wrong to inflict on any landowners a tax for all 1223 time on their property by the ipse dixit of some officer of the London County Council. Some people denied that this was either a tax or a rate; he would not therefore call it either, but would describe it as an impost in the nature of a mortgage. If the payment of this charge became in arrear, the Council had power to enter and sell the property in question to satisfy their claim for so-called betterment? Up to the present time it had been the rule that only chattels, movable property, could be seized in payment of rates and taxes due by the ratepayers of the Metropolis, but by this Bill the property itself could be seized and be specially disposed of by the Loudon County Council. In his opinion, it would be very difficult to dispose of property when for six or seven years the cloud of this betterment award might be hanging over it. It should be noticed by the House that seven years might elapse, and in some instances eight, ere the arbitrator's award for betterment of a certain property was settled; and it must, too, be borne in mind that it was a charge on the supposed capital value of a given property not at the moment, but for all time. This could only be a matter of speculation, whereas the annual value of a property, as it now existed, was a matter of fact. He was ready to admit they ought to take every step to reduce the local taxation of London, which was a very heavy burden upon the people of London. At the present time he might mention there was a local debt of no less than £40,000,000 sterling on the Metropolis, but the mode by which the London County Council wished to relieve the ratepayers was not a good or beneficial one. In the last three years the Council had spent in the Parliamentary Committee-rooms upstairs no less a sum than £30,000 in fighting various schemes that came before Parliamentary Committees, and he could not help thinking they must regret that in 1886–7 and 1888 they allowed the Coal and Wine Duties to be repealed, which, whilst their abolition had not decreased the price of coals, £300,000 a year was lost in aid of London rates and for Metropolitan improvements. In fact, the betterment system was only an idea which might enter the mind of the arbitrator as to what the enhanced value would be at some future date. They knew very well 1224 that people dreaded going to law in this country. Even the great landowners knew very well the great expense of appearing before Parliamentary Committees, and would consider long before doing so in defence of their rights; but, on the other hand, the London County Council, having the whole taxpayers of London behind them, would not hesitate to bring in Bills imposing any particular system of betterment in any part of the Metropolis, and to that extent they would oppress the individual owner, more especially the least wealthy of them. The cost the London County Council had already gone to in this betterment scheme of theirs would have paid three or four times over any sum they could ever receive by this particular proposal. He did not really believe in his heart of hearts that the hon. Members composing the London County Council were so impressed with this system as they pretended; their object was to have a good fighting question on which to attack the House of Lords. It was a remarkable fact that the members of the County Council did not see that by causing a feeling of uncertainty to arise as to the future onus of taxation on any given house or property they would increase the house rent to the individual occupier; for it was an obvious fact that the landowner had, by the contracts he had entered into, contracted himself out of any obligation with regard to taxes; he had placed that obligation on the individual taking the building lease, who had placed the obligation in his turn on the occupier, so that unless these leases were done away with—and he did not think that Parliament would, in its wisdom, go to the extreme measure of abolishing all leases and contracts made with regard to the whole of the property in London—the whole cost of this betterment would in reality fall on the occupier of the houses in the particular locality. Hon. Members opposite would hesitate before advocating, either in this House or before their constituents, any tax on food used by the working classes, and yet they were apparently anxious to put on a tax that would increase the cost of house rent in London. With the exception of the precedent when a great part of London was re-built after the great fire of London, he did not think there was any analogy to the present 1225 proposal in this country. But to consider this question in all its bearings one would have to look at the obverse side of the question. Hon. Members imagined that whenever they made a new road or a new street in a given locality they were always going to benefit that locality. They might benefit the locality, but it could not be said that in all cases it benefited individual proprietors in that locality. What did they find when this subject was discussed in the Committee upstairs? Mr. Field, one of the surveyors retained as a witness by the London County Council, said that no doubt street improvements occasionally created worsement, and he granted it was impossible to assess the compensation for that worsement. That being so, why was it more easy to assess compensation for the betterment? Surely the two were co-relative. A learned counsel, who was a witness for the London County Council, Mr. Fletcher Moulton, Q.C., in his evidence before the Committee, granted that if two several parts of the same property were affected by alterations made by a Public Authority, one of which bettered and the other worsened the several parts of the property affected, the owner ought to be allowed to set off the worsement against the betterment, and pay or receive as the case might be. The late Mr. Saunders, who appeared for the Loudon County Council, bound his clients to insert words in the Bill to enable the owner of the various properties concerned to receive compensation for worsement, where it was caused by the alteration in question. What was the result? Notwithstanding, Mr. Saunders, having given this distinct pledge that words should be introduced in the Bill for the worsement principle, in the result no such words were so introduced; it passed through this House, and was sent up to the other House without those words being inserted. If, however, it was right to give to a single proprietor the right to set off the worsement of his property in one part against a betterment in another, it should be equally done in the case where no betterment occurred, and compensation should also then be given for worsement. The worsement area would, it were needless to say, be, for obvious reasons, not coterminous with the "limits of deviation" for betterment. He did not, 1226 however, wish to occupy the time of the House further than to say that he did not believe a proposal that would do less benefit to the ratepayers than this betterment principle could be conceived. He found that in America, where it had been tried, it had been found absolutely and completely wanting. In New York and elsewhere in America they had three or four systems, working even in one given city at the same time, all of which wore found to, in many instances, work oppression on the individual, on the one hand, and cause the danger of bribery on the other, by the fact that the area of "the limits of deviation" were an unknown quantity, subject to the will of the Municipal Surveyor, or a small works committee of a given Municipal Authority, and he thought they would hesitate to copy the Americans in that respect. He found that nearly all the leading American jurists said it was a doubtful system; and one who wrote to a friend of his, Mr. Baumann, who used to be a Member of this House, said the way it occasionally worked was this. The working classes, finding themselves in a majority in a certain town, had a towns' meeting, which decided that a certain betterment system should be introduced, as in America in some townships such matters were settled by a sort of plébiscite. It was not shown that the proposed public work was required, but the result was that the inhabitants of the district had to have it, and the landowners were obliged to bow to the decision, and probably 500 or 600 of these men who voted for it received wages at the rate of two dollars a day for being employed on the works, which was a rate over the market wage in the United States—the whole cost of the so-called improvement, or the major part of it, being paid by the unfortunate landowner, for so-called "betterment," though in many instances it practically injured and decreased the value of the property. Hitherto they had carried out their local government system on very different principles to that, and he would impress upon the London County Council that if they were going to attempt to alter our principle of rating they should do so on a sounder principle than the system of betterment. Their legislation at the present time left the House in a 1227 sufficiently chaotic state, and it would be a great injury to the legislative system if this principle were introduced into Private Bills from time to time. He ventured to say that our laws would he even more chaotic than at present, for this betterment system did clumsily and arbitrarily the same thing that was done now by the ordinary operations of the market.
§ MR. J. STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)
said, he had hoped the Bill might have gone forward without being delayed by speeches which, so far from making a straight attack on a principle, wandered round about it. He should not follow the example of those hon. Members. The Bill had been introduced under somewhat peculiar circumstances. There was a Bill brought forward on which there was really no contention, except on one clause, the Betterment Clause. It went before a Committee of this House, and, having been investigated and local evidence taken which had been published to this House by that Committee, the clause referred to was twice adopted in this House by overwhelming majorities—first, of two to one; and, secondly, of nearly three to one. After the clause had been rejected by the House of Lords without consideration it was adopted and sent back to the House of Lords; but under those circumstances the House of Lords refused to introduce the clause, and the Bill fell through. Now, in the present year, in this Session of Parliament, the London County Council had re-introduced the Bill, and it was re-introduced, so far as the Tower Bridge was concerned, in exactly the same words in which it was passed by this House. The Bill was not altered in one jot or tittle; it was brought forward again, and he should almost have expected that its adoption by this House would have been regarded as a matter, more or less, of form; that it would have passed through its various stages and been sent up to the House of Lords there to receive that consideration it had not received. In respect of the action of the House of Lords in this matter the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition made the following remarkable statement. He said—The Lords desire to inquire whether there is any equitable machinery by which the per- 1228 son the value of whose property is increased by an improvement can be made to contribute to the cost of the improvement. That is my view of what the words mean, and the words are certainly capable of that construction.The right hon. Gentleman expressed that as the desire of the House of Lords in asking for a Joint Committee at that time last Session. He did not see that was the meaning of the Resolution, but they were willing to accept that interpretation from the right hon. Gentleman. By passing this Bill through its various stages in this House as it had been already introduced the House of Commons had the opportunity of enabling the House of Lords to carry out that wish which the right hon. Gentleman expressed as the wish of the House of Lords—that was to say, to inquire into the matter. The right hon. Gentleman further said—I believe that the majority of gentlemen on this side of the House have only one difficulty in regard to betterment—which is, how to carry it out: and if they could see any machinery by which that end could be attained, they would be as anxious to see the principle introduced into our Private Bill legislation as anyone on the other side of the House.And the right hon. Gentleman then said—It is not fair to allege that the Lords as a body, collectively or individually, are opposed to the principle of betterment.They wished to let the Lords have the opportunity of sending it to a Committee which could make the inquiries they desired to make. He might give another quotation from Lord Morley in the other House. This was what Lord Morley said, and the quotation was taken from Hansard, as corrected by Lord Morley—He was inclined to agree that it would be extremely difficult by a Public Act to lay down principles which would apply to every variety of case that could occur, not only in London, but elsewhere. He was not at all sure it would be desirable or safe to lay down general principles which would be at once adopted without any experience being obtained on these grounds, and on the grounds that the application of the principle in this case depended entirely on local circumstances; he thought it was a subject that might legitimately and rightly be left to private legislation. They would then have the advantage of the application of the principle to individual cases, and by the growth of experience they would gradually get such an amount of knowledge as to be able to lay down, principles for individual application.Now that was the attitude which they called on the House of Lords to take in 1229 conformity with the declaration of their view as expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. This Bill was introduced again to the House, and he should have thought they might have been spared a discussion on the principle of betterment. He had no intention of entering into the discussion of its general principles and that particular phase which had been already as greatly misrepresented by the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken as by Lord Salisbury; and the hon. Gentleman had fallen into the same error that Lord Salisbury fell into when he spoke of the London County Council venturing to assume that, wherever there was an improvement, there betterment would arise. On the contrary, that was not the assumption of the Bill. Lord Salisbury said—The principle of the 41stclause of the Bill"—now the 37th—"which your Lordships declined to accept, was that proximity is the one test of improvement, and that, if yon are near a public improvement, it says that your property must have improved by that public improvement. A more senseless suggestion was never put—and that is saying a good deal—into a Bill presented to Parliament.
§ MR. J. STUART
said, that was a totally different question; the point he was dealing with was that the hon. Gentleman fell into the same error as Lord Salisbury when he assumed the only test of betterment was the proximity to the improvement. The essential point of the method of charging for betterment was this—that no one should be called on to contribute any part of the charge who was not clearly in receipt of betterment on which the charge was made. The hon. Gentleman, when he ventured to oppose the Bill in this House, and the late Prime Minister in the Upper House should make themselves aware by the simple perusal of the Bill of what were its contents. There were only two points in what had been said it was incumbent upon him to answer, for, as he had said, he did not intend to enter into a general discussion. The two main points were these, and they were points of misstatement. The first was as to recoupment, to which the hon. Gentleman who spoke last referred. The hon. Member referred to the 1230 method of recoupment in London as having been a satisfactory method to the ratepayers, and one that provided a large sum of money. If the hon. Member looked into the figures before the Committee upstairs, it was shown, and could not be disputed, that the recoupment, system as introduced and carried out in the Metropolis had been an extreme pecuniary burden to the ratepayers, and it was owing to the failure of that system that the betterment system was substituted. The other point he wished to call attention to was one on which they had often been misrepresented in the County Council, and in this House. It had been said, with respect to this Bill and with respect to their action on the betterment section of it, that, they ought to have proceeded with the Bill for the Tower Bridge approach without waiting for any Betterment Clause, because they were bound in honour to make an approach to the bridge that was made by the City of Loudon. He understood the hon. Member for the City of London (Mr. Alban Gibbs) signified by his action his approval of that statement. Now, would the House believe that, the main Petitions against the Bill as it stood were the Corporation of the City of Loudon, and would the House believe that the Petition against, the Bill laid on the Table by the Corporation of the City of London was not, only a Petition against, betterment, but, against the actual improvement itself? The Petitioners went into some detail, and said the betterment system was had and could not be applied; they put themselves in direct opposition to the great majority of this House and the Committee upstairs. Therefore, by going on without the Betterment Clause they should not be meeting what, the City of London wanted. The London County Council, who had introduced the Bill again, looked on the Betterment Clause as one of the most important clauses brought before this House in any private legislation, and in regard to it they had now got the assistance of the Corporation of Manchester, whose Bill down for this day contained the same Betterment Clause. He could not doubt that the House would willingly assent to this principle as it, did last year, and would send the Bill to the House of Lords, which would then have the oppor- 1231 tunity of giving that consideration to it in Committee which they and their most trusted advisers said it ought to have, and which it would have had last year but for the complete misunderstanding of the Bill by their Lordships when it was before them.
§ MR. KIMBER (Wandsworth)
said, the speech of the hon. Member for Hoxton (Mr. Stuart) would have been noticed for one peculiarity, and that was that it contained no reason in support of the Betterment Code which was included in this Bill; the only reason in support of the Betterment Code in the Bill which was given was that a similar clause was in another Bill last year which was passed by this House by, as he admitted, a considerable majority. The merits of the Betterment Code had never been threshed out in this House, and the hon. Member omitted to state the important fact that when the Code got to the House of Lords the House of Lords threw the Bill out. The hon. Member might attach no importance to that, but he thought the country would attach importance to it, and desire that there should be a dispassionate discussion. Lord Hobhouse had recently accused the opponents of betterment of having never given a hint or a suggestion of any kind as to what should be the method of applying the principle. The noble Lord told them that they were met by a mere negation; but he could not have paid attention to the proceedings of three Committees of that House, on two of which he sat. He maintained that there were means under the existing law of applying the principle of betterment. He was in favour of the application of the principle under the existing machinery. The London County Council were not satisfied with the methods then in use for assessing the rates, but they considered it necessary to devise some new system, and in order to conceal as much as possible what they were doing they invented the principle of annual annuities. They did it in a more insidious manner. They provided that an annuity of £3 a year should not be redeemed or redeemable in all time except by payment of £100 in cash. It was all very well for Lord Hobhouse and hon. Gentlemen to say that the plan devised was one which should receive the unanimous support of the House, because it was a plan by 1232 which those who secured the benefits from the working of the Act would be the persons directly called upon to contribute to the expenses incurred in carrying out the improvements. It was also very well to say they had never suggested any alternative plan to secure that those who got the benefit of the improvements should pay for them; but the existing arrangement under the Valuation Act of 1869 had been found to work, on the whole, very fairly; it had been in force now 25 years, and every year it was revised by means of supplemental lists. He would ask any gentleman on the opposite Bench who lived in a fashionable part of Loudon whether he was willing that his rent should be increased, say, £60 a year, and the capital value of his house raised from £200 or £300 a year, as now, to six times that figure, because the London County Council chose to think that they had a right to assess his house, not at its present value as now, but at what they considered would be its value at a future time. It was frequently the case that the value of a house suddenly disappeared, and in such a case he would like to know if the annuity was to remain a burden on the property for ever? Yet no provision had been made for any deterioration in the living value of a house during the period over which the assessment extended. Was that a reasonable, fair, or just method of levying a tax? He would like to point out to the hon. Member for Hoxton that this one clause contained 17 sub-clauses, and a number of sections, so that it constituted a regular Code in itself. Although this was in one sense a Private Bill, in so far as it affected private taxation, yet it dealt with a matter of general public interest, and involved an alteration of a great public principle; and it seemed to him, therefore, to be very inconvenient that no explanation had been given hon. Members of the grounds upon which it had been brought forward. This way of bringing in a Bill put Members who wished to oppose a measure in a difficult position, as they could only meet the questions raised in the negative, and do their utmost to show that in their opinion the proposed innovation was had and that the existing law was good. He therefore need make no apology to the House for entering into those particulars. He had already given 1233 his definition of the just principle of betterment. He would apply it by an enhanced rate while the enhanced value of the property continued, and no longer. But what was the system proposed to be adopted? First, the value of the property was scheduled in the document which the London County Council called "the award," Assessment Committees fixed the amount, and ratepayers and individuals were not allowed to go before the County Council itself to show cause against the award, but the authorities were entitled to say to any ratepayer, "Your property will be increased in value by this improvement to the extent of £200, or £6 annual value, and we put you in the list on that assessment." The list actually became the award, and if the ratepayer felt aggrieved the only course open to him was to resort to the expensive method of taking legal steps to have his appeal tried, not before the ordinary tribunals of the country, but before an arbitrator. Being compelled to go to law in such a matter as this was doubly serious, because not only was the result uncertain, in which case the appellant would be saddled with very heavy costs, but it was a case of a private individual having to fight a public body who were perfectly irresponsible for any expenses which they incurred. Therefore, the proposal of the Council involved a very serious innovation—indeed a violent innovation in the accepted law. He was well aware that the Loudon County Council had no respect for Rules and Regulations held sacred by our grandfathers; but he thought they should show some kind of respect to the present laws relating to taxation, and not bring in such great innovations without giving very good and substantial reasons for so doing. The second serious innovation which this House was asked to sanction was the conferring of a power upon the London County Council to alter the incidence of taxation between owners, lessees, and occupiers of property. This innovation was also smoothed over by a statement that the tax would be levied on the landlord of the premises and not on the tenant, and that where the house was not occupied by the owner the Act would not apply. This was altogether a false cry. The present system was to assess the house and the site with everything upon it, and he maintained that they rightly assessed that at its gross 1234 value. But there were generally three persons interested in a property—the owner, the lessee, and the occupier, and now the assessment was divided between the three parties in such proportions as they might agree upon. But this Bill proposed to do away with the existing freedom of arrangement, and to differentiate between the parties. On the previous night he received an intimation from some of the members of the County Council that they intended to oppose the Instruction he had put on the Paper, and he was, therefore, unable to move it that day. But he trusted the Leader of the House and the Government generally would support the proposal he intended to make, which was to the effect that such a matter as this should be brought in as a Public Bill, and thoroughly discussed as a public measure. He hoped, also, that the Government would take steps to have full inquiries made as to whether the facts that had been put forward were really true. He wished to have ascertained the effects of these changes on the exising law of the country. The third innovation consisted in a restricted area of taxation, and the plan submitted by the County Council showed that while outside the lines of the plan certain properties would be bettered, other properties inside the lines would not be bettered. This would be manifestly a gross injustice, to be founded on an arbitrary decision in the office of the surveyor to the London County Council, into the reasons for which no outsider could inquire. So far they had never had submitted to them any reason for constituting this restricted area. Again, the existing legal remedies were abolished by the Bill. Now aggrieved persons could go before the Assessment Committee, which was fairly constituted, without counsel, solicitors, or surveyors; and from this Committee there was now an appeal to Quarter Sessions, which was simple and inexpensive. For this generally equitable tribunal there was to be substituted a Judge selected on the application of the County Council to the Local Government Board, and persons appeared before this tribunal with the peril facing them of having, in all probability, to pay costs. They were, in fact, to lose the benefit of the existing tribunal on which they could rely. The House of Commons, by two important Public Commit- 1235 tees, in 1870 and 1889—a Committee on the subject of Local Taxation and the Committee on the Town Holdings Act of 1882—reported that if and when local taxation was so altered that the immediate and direct incidence of it fell not upon the occupier as now, and through him upon the owner, but upon the owners direct, representation must be given to the owners on the body which spent the money. But no such representation was here vouchsafed. The County Council had, moreover, abandoned the system of recoupment, the principle of which was the purchase of such laud as would be bettered by the proposed improvement in order by re-sale to recover the cost of the improvement. It was, however, admitted that recoupment had been a loss, except in two cases, one of these being the Northumberland Avenue, from which a large profit was made, and the loss had been caused by every man who was worsened having to be compensated before he was turned out. Now, the County Council thought that they would escape compensations for worsement. Was this a just principle to sanction? The Council further proposed to tax vacant land and unproductive property. The first principle of our system of taxation was that the needs of the year, as regarded local expenditure, should be met out of the income of the year—an income drawn from all properties within the area. This principle it was now proposed to depart from, and by saying they would tax everything that existed, whether it produced anything or nothing, they were reverting to the crudest forms of American taxation. He should not move the Instruction to the Committee of which he had given notice, because it would occupy the House for another day; but when the Government referred the Bill to a Committee, he was anxious to ensure that they had a Report, aye or no, whether the Betterment Clause contained the inequalities which had been suggested. He wanted that in black and white before the Bill went to the House of Lords, where he hoped it would be examined on its merits. He hoped the-Bill would not be referred to a Hybrid Committee, which was the worst possible Committee for a Bill of the kind, and that the House would support the Instruction to the Committee which he had placed on the Paper to report generally on the principle of "better- 1236 ment," and how far and to what extent it interfered with our existing laws of local taxation.
§ * SIR J. LUBBOCK (London University)
said, he was glad that his hon. Friend who had initiated the discussion had expressed his intention of not dividing the House. His hon. Friend spoke on this occasion rather as the representative of ancient traditions than as Member for the City, and rather as an individual than as a Conservative. Not as a Conservative, because the Manchester Corporation proposed a similar plan in a Bill which bore the name of the Leader of the Opposition; not as Member for the City, because more than one meeting had been held at the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, where unanimous opinions had been passed urging the great importance of making the southern approaches to the Tower Bridge. Indeed, he did not understand his hon. Friend to contest the importance of the improvement, but only to object to the single clause dealing with betterment. The hon. Member who had just sat down complained of the reference of the Bill of last year to a Hybrid Committee. That was not the choice of the supporters of the Bill; and the Hybrid Committee was only agreed to to conciliate hon. Members opposite from whom the suggestion originated. The hon. Member also complained that no speech had been made on the introduction of the Bill. The Bill was introduced without a word of comment to save the time of the House, because the same discussion had already occupied the House several times.' He believed that the differences between the hon. Member and the supporters of the Bill arose partly from the fact that some hon. Members did not quite understand what the Bill effected. In a pamphlet on the subject the hon. Member said that the area of betterment was arbitrarily drawn by lines on a map, and, while including property which was not bettered, excluded property which was very much bettered. From that statement it might be supposed that all the property within the area was to be taxed; but such was not the case. No property could be taxed unless it had been shown that it was materially improved. The hon. Member further stated in his pamphlet that the tax was imposed, not on the 1237 ascertained increased value, but on the basis of the County Council's own opinion that the property would be improved. This was an entire misapprehension. Truly, no claim would be made unless the County Council were of opinion that the property had been improved; but before the tax could be levied an arbitrator, appointed by the Local Government Board, must be satisfied that the claim was just. In this matter it was impossible to do absolute justice; the only thing to be done was to arrive at a system which would do the least injustice all round. Under the old system half the cost of improvements fell 011 the district and half on the Metropolis; and it frequently happened that property not benefited at all paid both the district and the Metropolitan rate. He could not but feel that the ratepayers of London had reason for complaint against the Government in reference to this question. The whole amount which this betterment tax was expected to raise was £5,000. The expense of promoting the Bill before the House last Session was about £5,000: the expense of the present Bill would be considerable; and the delay in opening the approaches to the Tower Bridge would inflict great inconvenience on the trade of South Loudon. If the Government had accepted the proposal of the House of Lords for a Joint Committee on the question last year all this extra expense would have been saved and the Bill would have been passed a year sooner. The unreasoning animosity of the Government against the House of Lords had inflicted this additional expense on London and entailed great loss and inconvenience on trade and commerce.
§ * MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
said, that while absolutely agreeing in the last observations which fell from the right hon. Member for London University, he should like to point out to the House that he thought his right hon. Friend was under a misapprehension when he said that all that was to be done was to satisfy the Local Government Board as to the equity of the increased assessment that was proposed to be placed on certain property. If hon. Members would refer to the Bill they would observe that the Local Government Board never interfered in any way whatever. The Local Government Board had, indeed, to appoint an Inspector, who was to be 1238 satisfied with the increase in the value of the property proposed to be taxed; but that procedure was only resorted to when some intrepid, wealthy, and public-spirited individual ventured into the arena to fight the London County Council with his own money, while the County Council fought with the money of the ratepayers. In the House or elsewhere he had never neglected an opportunity of advocating the principle of betterment—a principle which he thought would have more quickly and more efficiently become law if those in authority in the London County Council who were promoting this Bill had not for four years wasted thousands of pounds of the ratepayers in the at last successful effort to rescue £5,000. If, instead of that, they had put pressure on the Government to assent to the principle, it would have done away with controversy, it would have secured an automatic operation of the principle, which his hon. Friends and Colleagues opposite professed to advocate, though their action must in the minds of impartial persons, and certainly in the minds of the suffering ratepayers, throw doubt on the genuineness of their views.
§ MR. THORNTON (Clapham)
said, he would like to point out that in the Hybrid Committee the Betterment Clause was carried only by one vote, that of the hon. Member for West Fife, who had stated he had been able to find out all the arguments on the question from the Report of the Committee, and therefore did not think it worth while to be present at the discussions. He ventured to think the Loudon County Council had made a mistake in ignoring expert individual opinion on the question such as that of Sir Whittaker Ellis.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed.
§ MR. KIMBER
With regard to the Instruction which has been placed on the Taper by me, I do not know whether hon. Gentlemen opposite intend to oppose it.
§ MR. KIMBER
I am not going to subject the House to a second Debate on this question to-morrow; but perhaps 1239 the Government may suggest some means for the elucidation of this subject.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. SHAW LEFEVRE,) Bradford, Central
The Government cannot accept this Instruction, because it proposes that the Committee should go into all questions which were thoroughly investigated by a Committee appointed for the purpose three years ago. I was myself a Member of that Committee; we went most carefully into the question, and though we did not report at length we came to a conclusion in the matter. Under these circumstances, the Government cannot allow this Instruction to pass.