§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF AGRICULTURE (Mr. HENRY CHAPLIN,) Lincolnshire, Sleaford
, who on rising was received with cheers, said,—In asking for leave to introduce a Bill to amend the law with respect to the rating of occupiers of agricultural land in England, and for other purposes connected therewith, it becomes my duty to state to the House the objects of the Bill which I hope I shall be allowed to bring in tonight. In making this Motion I may remind the House that this Measure is one of those which was referred to in the gracious Speech from the Throne as intended to mitigate the severity of agricultural depression. I do not know whether many hon. Gentlemen in this House have given their attention to the voluminous evidence already published by the Royal Commission now sitting upon agricultural depression, but to those who have done so it must be manifest that the only true cause of that depression is the abnormal, and for the most part progressive, decline in prices of agricultural produce which has occurred in recent years. I do not pretend for a moment that the Measure I am going to propose can be regarded as anything more than an attempt to diminish the depression under which agriculture is now struggling. At present we know nothing whatever of the views of the Commission as to the cause of this abnormal fall in prices, because it has been impossible for them to complete their Report, but we are in possession of the opinions of the Commission with regard to the excessive burdens of taxation which at present fall upon the land. The Commission have, however, agreed to an interim report upon that point, in which proposals are made for lessening these burdens, and they urge it as a matter of first importance that, with the 1273 view of arresting the progress of that depression, their recommendations shall be carried out, if possible, without delay. It is in that direction that Her Majesty's Government have thought it their duty to make the proposals which I shall have presently to explain to the House. The Bill proposes to amend the law as to the rating of agricultural land in England, but it is not to be understood that the Government are not perfectly alive to the claims of other property liable to be rated, and which are entitled to the equitable adjustment of taxation. The Government recognise the grievances which have been brought forward for so many years, and they contemplate an immediate Inquiry into that branch of the Question. ["Hear, hear!"] If the House will allow me, I shall take another opportunity of stating the scope and method of that Inquiry, and the terms of the reference I shall propose to that Committee. ["Hear, hear!"] In our opinion the condition of agriculture throughout the country is such that the relief from the burdens placed upon it will not brook more delay. In the last Parliament agriculture was made the subject of constant Motions; I am bound to admit that the late Government acknowledged freely, and with every profession of sympathy, the extreme urgency of the case, but nothing was done [Ministerial cheers], and no proposals, so far as I can remember, were made except for the appointment of the Commission. [Cries of "Income Tax," and "Schedule A."] With that exception also, I admit. But I am afraid that the income enjoyed by the great majority of farmers during the last few years has either been nothing or has been most moderate. I have observed to my great surprise that a certain section of the Radical Press, which, I suppose, disapproves of the recommendations of the Commission, has not scrupled to denounce those recommendations as the proposals of a Tory Commission. It may not be unfitting, therefore, that I should remind hon. Members that the Commission was appointed, and all its Members were selected, under the late Liberal Administration, and under the authority of Mr. Gladstone, who was still at the time Prime Minister, and who made the announcement of its appointment himself. The Gentleman who was appointed 1274 to preside over the Commission was one of Mr. Gladstone's colleagues in the Cabinet, and a very considerable majority of the the Members were Gentlemen who belonged to the Party which sits on the opposite side of the House. Under those circumstances it is not unreasonable, I think, to expect the recommendations of the Commission to be received by the Liberal Party and the Liberal Press with whatever respect is due to their origin. That Commission, having thought it their duty to issue a special Report making specific recommendations in order to arrest the progress of agricultural depression, Her Majesty's present advisers are certainly not prepared to take upon themselves the responsibility of any further delay in reference to this matter—["hear, hear!"]—and in that decision we have been guided mainly by two considerations. The first consideration, as I have indicated, is the extreme severity of the depression; and the second is the proportion—the unfair proportion, as we think, in which land is taxed, especially when compared with its ability to bear such taxation. Upon the first point I do not think I need dwell at any length. It is not one or two classes, but all the classes connected with the land who are suffering from the agricultural depression. I do not think that the losses and sufferings either of the farmers, who felt the depression first, or of the owners of the land, upon whom, in my opinion, it bears most heavily at present, or the terrible deterioration of the land itself, and the consequent loss to the community, are adequately realised even yet by Parliament or by the country. It has become a grave national calamity, and the results of this depression are now beginning largely to be felt among the agricultural labourers, the most numerous class connected with the land. There is a school who favour the opinion that the agricultural labourers throughout the country have profited rather than otherwise by this depression, and who maintain that the agricultural labourer never was so well paid as he is to-day; but in my humble judgment they are the shallowest of thinkers who take this view, and they wilfully shut their eyes to the real facts. In one sense, of course, I acknowledge they are right; if and where the agricultural labourer can still depend upon receiving constant and 1275 regular employment, if and where his wages have not fallen, there undoubtedly he occupies a favourable position, because his wages to-day go further than they did before. ["Hear, hear!"] But everything depends upon these two "ifs," they are the key of the whole situation, and if it can be shown—and I think I shall be able to convince the House on this point— that throughout large districts of the country the agricultural labourer is beginning rapidly to lose his employment altogether, the argument of this school is discredited altogether. We have had upon the Royal Commission special opportunities of gaining information upon this point, because several of the Gentlemen who served as Sub-commissioners upon the Labour Commission which was appointed in 1891 have been serving in a similar capacity upon the Agricultural Commission, and their Reports show that a most striking and melancholy change has commenced in the position of the labourer. Mr. Wilson Fox, in his Report on Suffolk, says:—In June, 1892, when I reported to the Royal Commission on Labour, I was able to say that the agricultural landowners had not suffered through the depression…. But I regret to say that the same prosperous account cannot be given for 1893–4, either with regard to wages or employment…. Wages in June, 1892, were 12s…. Wages in November, 1894, often 9s., and in a few cases 8s. Note this also applies to the winter of 1895–6. (See Labour Gazette for January 1895.")Again, the same gentleman speaking, of Cambridgeshire, says:—It is not unfrequently said that the labourers are not suffering through the agricultural depression, but I venture to say that this is not so as regards the eastern counties; on the contrary, from the autumn of 1893 to the present time (April 1895) they have, in my opinion, been feeling the effect of it acutely.It is still worse, I am informed, since then.Even in June 1894, when I visited the county, there was a number of men out of work or in irregular work in certain villages in the southern part, and I received constant information in the winter of 1894-5 of want of employment.Mr. Hunter Pringle, in his report on Essex, says:—Since Mr. Aubrey Spencer visited the Maldon Division (for the Royal Commission on Labour) I have reason to believe that employment has grown greatly scarcer.1276 But this state of things is not confined by any means to the southern and eastern counties. Mr. Pringle, in his report on Bedford, Hunts, and Northants, says:—I was informed by a party of labourers with whom I conversed near Holme, in the Huntingdon fens, that at Yaxley there were 60 men out of employment…. The party of labourers to whom I have just alluded expressed themselves as fearful of the future. 'We can't see how the labouring man is going to get a living in these times. If the prices don't improve the land must go out of cultivation and the labourer must starve.'In the neighbouring county, Northants, I was told privately myself, only about a fortnight ago, of the case of a considerable proprietor in that county who was compelled recently to pay off 40 labourers who had been regularly employed by him. Mr. Pringle, in the same report says:—If prices do not at once make a very great improvement the country may be prepared to see thousands of acres of good corn-growing land thrown into grass and thousands of farm labourers cast into poverty and idleness…. I speak nothing but the opinion of Beds, Hunts, and Northants when I say that, although the consequences of this long-continued depression … must tell severely on the rent-rolls and complete the ruination of scores of tenants, it is upon the employment of labour the deepest impression will parmanently be made…. Soon, very soon, the country may be prepared to see the labouring element left to fight for themselves.This is an account from a county which of all others was prominent in this matter—the county of Lincoln. Mr. Epton in his evidence says:—The landlords have got down the rents, and now the only thing the farmers can do is to get relief from wages. They have not the money to pay wages.So it is in every part of England. I will give the testimony as to Yorkshire. Mr. Pringle says:—I could not but be struck with the evidence given by some gentlemen, who, from their knowledge of trade and town labour, were fully qualified to speak on the subject, of excessive emigration from rural districts to towns. Depopulation of country districts, they say, goes on year after year, and it is certain to continue so long as no profit attends the cultivation of the soil. Labourers are crowding into the towns.Another witness tells us:—Certainly the labourers are affected now by the depression, because they are not getting employment, and they are being starved out of 1277 the small country villages, which are becoming depopulated: not that these people dislike the country, but they are obliged to leave it. They cannot live in it or get employment, and they are obliged to seek employment elsewhere.I appologise to the House—[cheers]—for dwelling so long upon this subject, but it does seem to me a matter of great importance to dispel the illusion so steadily fostered that the labourer has not suffered from agricultural depression. It is impossible to doubt that the agricultural depression through wide districts has affected thousands of labourers, many of whom have lost their employment, and are losing it daily at the present time. ["Hear, hear!"] I will say no more on that point, and I pass to the second point- namely, the excessive taxation which, in our opinion, falls upon the land. The whole of the evidence taken by the Royal Commission literally teems with complaints on that point, and some of this evidence is well worthy the attention of the House. One of the correspondents made a report to Mr. Hunter Pringle. It appears in this Report on Bedford, Hunts, and North-ante, on page 79, and is worth attention. A correspondent, who appears to express the very general view, writes as follows:—Why a man who invests in land for his own occupation should pay nearly four times as much towards Imperial and local burdens as compared with a man who derives his income from funds, milling, banking, brewing, etc., I cannot for the life of me see.He then gives as an illustration the case oftwo men living side by side in an adjoining parish, each of whom started in life with £20,000.Here is the case he quotes:—A invested his capital in funds and other securities, and has now an income of £560 a year; he lives in a house rated at £40 a year; his rates at 2s. 7d. in the pound, come to £4 7s. 10d. B invested his capital in the purchase of a farm for £15,000, and put £5,000 in as tenant's capital; the rateable value of his farm is £516 13s. and his rates at 2s. 7d. in the pound, amount to £66 14s. 8d. a year.The statement goes on:—N. B.—These are not pictures of imagination, but are taken from actual figures as shown in this year's tax and rate receipts.1278 There is another case which I will quote. In Mr. Wilson Fox's Report on Lincolnshire, page 107, a correspondent writes to him:—The public have no idea of the excessive taxation on land. I beg to state actual facts as to rates and taxes paid by Farmer A and Tradesman 15. Farmer A paying income tax on £560 a year, rateable value of farm £1,050, pays £157 12s. 1d. on poor and highway rates. Tradesman B, paying income tax on £600 a year, pays only £13 10s. in poor and highway rate on premises of rateable value of £60.Again, there is a striking case referred to in the Report of Mr. Jabez Turner on the Frome district of Somerset, page 13:—A factory, employing 2,000 hands, is rated for local purposes at £400. A farm of 200 acres in the same parish is assessed at £460, and pays more to the local rates than the factory.Well, Sir, I could quote scores of other cases on this point from every county in the kingdom. Then I am told, in answer to all this, that the average rate in towns is much heavier than it is on land. ["Hear, hear!"] That may be so. I am not concerned to dispute it. It does not seem to have so direct a bearing as some gentlemen seem to imagine. What we have to consider, I think, is this how far the two different kinds of property are taxed according to their ability to bear it. What do we find in the Returns? As regards the rating of property in the towns, no one, I think, will deny that a large amount of the expenditure in urban districts is for objects from which the ratepayer gets direct benefit —improvements in public buildings, libraries, parks, pleasure grounds baths and washhouses; but in the rural district it is equally undeniable that much of the expenditure is for objects from which the farmer derives a very small amount of benefit indeed. When we come to the question of the ability to pay, why, under the circumstances of the present day, can there be a doubt in the mind of anyone which of these classes has to bear burdens most in accordance with the ability to bear it? On that point we have recently received some information from the Royal Commission. This information startled me and almost took my breath away. There is a very remarkable case from Essex—a case of 15 farms, not 1279 selected. They are all under the same management, and the evidence was given by a well-known gentleman, Mr. Strutt. He stated that the average rate on these 15 farms was 6s. 8d. in the pound. But in some cases the rate was a good deal more. I will give one case of a farmer in the Maldon district of Essex. There are 111 acres. The assessment is £38, the rent £25, and the rates £8 18s. 5d. The rate in the pound is 7s. 1d. The second is a case from Dunmow Division. The area is 365 acres, the assessment £129, rent £60, rate in the pound 9s. 5½d. The third case is even worse. It is in Maldon. Area of farm, 265 acres; assessment, £67 18s.; rent, £15 7s. 2d.; rates, £18; rate in the pound, no less than 23s. These cases are almost incredible, but they are true. Probably these farms will soon be added to the list of derelicts already in that county. The reason of this has been explained by the Chairman of the Royal Commission, Mr. Shaw Lefevre, who visited Essex on his own account, and who made a Report of his own to the Commission which shall speak for itself, He said:—I came across many cases where the assessments are 100 per cent. or 50 per cent. more than the actual rent. The clerks of the Boards of Guardians we have met have told us that the assessment committees have been practically unable to reduce the assessments, for, if they did, in many cases, they would come to zero.That is the description of the rating of agricultural land in one part of England at the present time, upon evidence which I think cannot be impeached, and which we seek to remedy, to some extent at all events, by the Bill I am proposing to the House. May I say a word upon another point which seems to me to be of very considerable importance—namely, the ratio of the rates to the gross profit derived from land, even where the land is fairly assessed? On this point the House will find a most interesting summary which has been prepared by one of the Royal Commissioners, Mr. William Little, compiled from a number of farm accounts which at different times have been handed to different Sub-Commissioners. In all the instances quoted by Mr. Little he gives the gross profits as the sum received by the owner of the land as rent and by the occupier also as 1280 profit. I will quote two or three of the tables, and I may say that in doing this I have not taken the most extreme. The first I will refer to is taken from the farm accounts given to Dr. Fream, in the Andover district of Hampshire. It extends for 20 years in periods of seven years each. In the first period, from 1872 to 1878, the total amount of gross profits was £9,000, and the total amount of rates £500—of course, I am speaking of round numbers—and the ratio of rates to the gross profits was 5.85 per cent. In the second period, from 1879 to 1885, the total amount of gross profits was £7,000, and the total amount of rates £500, and the ratio of rates to the gross profits was 7.33 per cent. But in the third period, from 1886 to 1892, there was a striking change, both in the profits and the ratio of rates, because the total amount of gross profits had fallen to £1,336, and the total amount of rates had fallen to £380, the ratio of rates to gross profits being 28.44 per cent. What is the moral to be drawn from this extreme percentage of rates to profits? You will find it in the next sentence of Dr. Fream's statement, which is as follows:—Since 1892 this farm has been abandoned also, and was a short time since lying derelict altogether.I take another table which is compiled from the accounts of a farm in Hertfordshire, privately communicated to the Commission. It extends over 11 years divided into three periods; I will only take the first and last periods in order to save time. In the first three years, from 1870 to 1872, the gross profits averaged £828, and the local rates averaged £85, and the ratio of rates to the gross profits was 10.26 per cent.; but in the last period, from 1890 to 1894. the gross profits had fallen to £208, the local rates had risen to £86, and the ratio of rates to gross profits was 42.9 per cent.
§ MR. W. J. LOGAN (Leicester, Harborough)
I do not like to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but in giving those figures to the House I think it is not unreasonable to ask that he should also give us the rents at the same time to show how they have fallen. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I have no doubt I can ascertain it; but the information is not contained in the tables I am quoting. The, information the hon. Gentleman asks for has, I think, no bearing upon the question as regards the ratio of rates of gross profits, because in the profits are included the rents to which he refers. ["Hear, hear!"] The assessments are sometimes even enormously greater than the rents. ["Hear, hear!"] In regard to all the cases which I have cited, I desire to say that some of them may appear to be exceptionable: but I am convinced that that is only in appearance, and if anybody will take the trouble to sift and closely examine the mass of evidence which has been accumulated on this subject before the Royal Commission—which I am greatly afraid that one person out of over 100,000 in the country will never even look at—he will find that these cases are not nearly so exceptional as probably he imagines; and I say they go far indeed to establish. my contention that land is being taxed to-day in thousands of instances out of all proportion to its ability to bear the burdens so imposed. [Ministerial cheers.] That view of the question is, in my opinion, greatly strengthened and confirmed by some recent evidence which was given by Sir Alfred Milner before the Royal Commission. In regard to that evidence, I dare say the figures do not profess to be anything more than approximate, but they are the best we have, and undoubtedly point, to this—that personalty contributes even less to Imperial taxation than rateable property, and that of the two kinds of rateable property the largest proportion of Imperial taxation is contributed by land. To this T know it is replied that if the Land Tax is eliminated from this calculation it would be entirely altered, and that the Land Tax ought to be regarded, not as a tax, but in the nature of a rent-charge. But to answer that it appears to me I should propound the conundrum "When is a tax not a tax?" [Laughter.] And the answer, of course, is this, "When it is a tax upon land. [Renewed Ministerial laughter and cheers.] If we are going to adopt that principle it seems to me that we are perfectly able to arrive at any conclusion whatever. But apart altogether from Sir Alfred Milner's evidence—which I am bound to say I think 1282 is entitled to the most careful considera of the House and without relying in the slightest degree upon any of his figures for support of the contentions which I have advanced, I do think I have said enough to show that, both on the grounds of expediency and justice land is entitled to relief from taxation, and we make our proposals accordingly in the Bill, which I will now explain. [Cheers.] We proceed upon this principle. We enact in the first Clause of the Bill that after the close of the present financial year—that is to say after March 31, 1897—agricultural land is to be assessed upon a proportion only of its rateable value instead of upon the whole of its value. There are many precedents for this proposition. I may remind the House that in England, for instance, there is the general district rate in urban districts, to which land pays upon one quarter of its value. Then there is the special expenses rate in rural districts, to which land likewise pays one-half of its value; and there is the lighting and watching rate, to which in rural districts land pays on one-third of its value. In Scotland the principle is more extended. There in burghs land pays only on one quarter of its value to the police rate, and on one quarter only to the public health rate. In all these rates the proportion is fixed by statute. The same principle, again, though not compulsorily, is voluntarily employed in 168 different parishes in Scotland to the poor-rate, which includes also the education rate: and in those 168 parishes are included 21 out of 31—that is to say, two-thirds—of the largest burghs in Scotland, with a population of over 10,000. It is quite true that the principle only applies to that part of the rate which is paid by the tenant—[Opposition cheers]—but it is a tolerably good indication, I think, that the principle, in Scotland at all events, is regarded as being fair and just towards the land. In nearly all these cases the House will perceive that I have referred to land as assessed at one quarter of its rateable value only. What is to be the proportion in this Bill? One quarter has been recommended to us by various influential quarters. It has been recommended by the Central Chamber of Agriculture, representing all the affiliated chambers throughout the country, and it has been 1283 recommended by a large majority of the Royal Commission which has just made its Report. Twelve Gentlemen with some reservations have signed the majority Report approving of this principle, and three only have signed the minority Report disapproving of it. I wish it had been in my power to adopt these recommendations. In my opinion they do not exceed what both justice and expediency may very well have dictated. ["Hear, hear!"] But it has not been in my power to do so. I have been obliged to cut my coat according to my cloth. As the House is aware, exceptionally heavy claims have been made on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the present year. I have been obliged to adopt the proportion of one-half, and the first Clause of the Bill accordingly provides as follows:—After the 31st of March next after the passing of this Act the occupiers of agricultural land in England shall be liable in the case of every rate to which this Act applies to pay one-half only of the rate in the pound payable in respect of building's and other hereditaments.I may express the hope that some of my hon. Friends who are deeply interested in the agricultural industry, when they remember the troubles and complications with which we have been recently confronted in all parts of the world, when they remember the enormous demands made upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer on behalf of our national defences, will consider that Her Majesty's Government have not been niggardly or backward in meeting what they consider to be the just claims of the agricultural community. [Cheers.] The definition of agricultural land is in Clause 9 of the Bill, and it is as follows:—Agricultural land means any land used as arable, meadow, or pasture ground only or as woodland, market gardens, or labourers' allotments, and does not include land occupied, together with house, as park, garden, or pleasure ground.The result of this will be to create a very considerable deficiency in the amounts which are raised at present by the rates for the various local authorities. We estimate that deficiency in round numbers at £1,550,000, only one-half of which, however, will be required during the present financial year. How is it to 1284 be met? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already explained that we propose to meet it by a contribution from the Imperial Exchequer to the local taxation account, which is referred to in the Bill as the annual grant. Out of this annual grant there will be paid from the local taxation account in half-yearly payments to the various spending authorities who are enumerated in the Bill the share of the grants to which they will be entitled. To meet the deficiency arising in each individual case from the lower assessment of agricultural land the first of these payments is to be made during the six months preceding March 31 next, so as to provide for the half-yearly payment which will be due to the local authority on account of their first six months following March 31. The total amount to be paid to the local taxation account to meet the deficiency and the various amounts to which each spending authority will be entitled are to be certified by the Local Government Board. For this purpose the Local Government Board will require information, which has to be provided by the local authorities through the medium of returns in such form as the Local Government Board may prescribe At present, as a rule, houses and buildings and land—or, rather, I should say agricultural land with houses and buildings—are valued together; but for the purposes of this Bill a separate valuation of the two will be required. The Bill accordingly provides that a separate valuation shall be made by the local authorities, and, together with other information which is required, shall be supplied by the local authorities to the Local Government Board. This separate valuation is essential, because, while the land is to be assessed in future upon half its rateable value only, houses and buildings will still continue to be assessed on the whole of their rateable value as before. One result of this new assessment, it may be hoped, will be to give a wholesome stimulus to economy in local expenditure ["Oh, oh!" and laughter], because, if the right hon. Gentleman will restrain his laughter for a moment, he will find that, the annual amount of the grants being fixed by the Bill, houses and buildings will gain or lose according as there is an increase or decrease in the local expenditure in the future. If there 1285 is an increase, the burden of that increase will be borne by houses and buildings in larger proportion than by the land. If, on the other hand, there is a decrease, and consequently a surplus in the annual grant, that surplus will go in relief of rates generally, and houses and buildings will benefit in proportion. T fancy that on both sides of the House T shall obtain concurrence on this point—the farmers are not usually guilty parties in the matter of extravagance in the expenditure of the rates. [Opposition laughter.] If that is so, there will be, under this Bill, a double motive for economy in the quarter where, perhaps, it is most needed. I am aware it is often alleged against subventions that they induce to great extravagance. [Opposition cheers.] And, perhaps, that may be true. ["Hear, hear!"] But under this Bill there will be every reason to hope that an exactly opposite effect may be created, and economy will be considered and encouraged. The Bill consists of nine clauses only, and the machinery for carrying on these different arrangements will be found in clauses five and six. The necessary proceedings are to be carried out under regulations which are to be made by the Local Government Board. I have received a number of communications from clergy and others, begging that, if anything is done to lessen the burden on land, the rates on tithe should be lightened also. I need not say how entirely I sympathise with many of those who derive their income from that source, especially the poorer clergy, who T know have suffered greatly during the recent years of depression. I heartily wish it was possible for me to comply with their demands; but, having considered the question as carefully as I can, the difficulties seem to me to be so great as to be almost insuperable. This is a Bill to amend the law with regard to agricultural land. Part of the tithe is derived from property in towns—land which has been built upon in London and elsewhere. There are no means that I know of for separating one from the other; there is no apportionment of tithe to help me; and I have been compelled, therefore, to abandon the idea, as far as this Bill is concerned, of allowing tithe owners to participate in the relief it affords. As regards the suggested division of rates 1286 between owners and occupiers, there is a great deal to be said both for and against the proposition. In one sense it may be said it is wholly immaterial by whom rates are paid, because, as I have always held, the whole burden ultimately falls upon the land, upon the owner of the land—["Hear, hear!"]—or rather, T should say, upon the land itself; for, as the House is well aware, there are numerous instances in these days in which the owner of land gets absolutely nothing at all from it. "Ultimately," I may say, is a word of very wide interpretation, and, as a matter of fact, at the present time, we have not the slightest doubt that the relief given under this Bill will go wholly and directly to the tenant—[some, Opposition, laughter]—for this reason—in 99 cases out of every 100 a change of tenancy in these days is accompanied by a considerable fall in rent, and it would be quite impossible for an owner to appropriate the benefit of this reduction without incurring a loss in rent greatly in excess of anything he would gain by attempting to appropriate the relief given by the Bill. That view of the incidence of rates is confirmed by the hon. Member for Northamptonshire (Mr. Channing), who, in an extremely able Report, which was issued with others from the Agricultural Commission, said:—It is, in my opinion, matter of absolute demonstration from the evidence before the Commission and from the farm accounts sent in that the tenant farmer has been bearing personally, during the whole of the period of depression since 1879, and is now bearing personally, the whole of the rates and other local burdens on his farm, as well as an unfair proportion of the economic loss, comparing the present position with that of similar farms 20 years ago.I believe that statement of the hon. Gentleman, in all the circumstances of the present day, to be absolutely true, and, if so, it disposes pretty conclusively of the parrot cry, that this is only a Bill for the relief of landlords. Even if it were I go further than that. If I have been able to establish at all that land is unfairly taxed at present, in comparison with its ability to bear taxation, why is the landlord, because he is a landlord, to be debarred from just relief? Is it seriously to be contended that, because 1287 a main has the misfortune to own land and houses, he is to be treated on a different footing from the rest of the community? The argument will not hold water for a single moment. [Opposition cheers.] It is not the opinion of the tenant farmers, who may be credited with understanding what is for their own interest, and who, in their evidence before the Commission, were unanimous in favour of relief being given by measures of this kind. There remains the question whether rates should be divided between occupier and owner. It was recommended a good many years ago by the Richmond Commission, of which I was a member; and I have again fully considered what would be a wise and proper course to take now. It must be remembered that there has been a tremendous change in the position of the landlords of this country since that recommendation was made. The whole evidence taken before the Commission teems with illustrations of deserted homes, bankrupt estates, banished resources, and landlords forced to reside abroad, or wherever they can obtain a living most cheaply. This is a Bill to give relief from agricultural depression, not a Bill to add to the burdens of those who are already suffering from it. The division of rates, if we were to enact it in this Bill, would unquestionably have that effect, and I must say that to suddenly and arbitrarily add by an Act of Parliament to the liabilities of men in this position would be to impose liabilities which many of them could not by any possibility meet. If they were imposed, one result would inevitably be that they would be forced in self-defence, to put more land out of cultivation. It would, under these circumstances, be a hardship upon them and a responsibility on the Government which I have decided, and I hope rightly decided, to avoid. I think I have said all that it is necessary to say on this Bill. I have placed before the House the proposals of the Government on this question very imperfectly I fear, but as clearly as I can. I am aware, of course, that, in certain quarters these proposals may be criticised and possibly opposed. Yet, Sir, I would fain believe that even on the Opposition side of the House, and also among some Gentlemen on this side who may be held, perhaps, to specially 1288 represent the interests of property other than land, they may meet with some measure of support. The condition of agriculture is undoubtedly to-day one of the gravest and most difficult problems which Statesmen and Parliament have to deal with, and even those who dwell in cities and whose interests are centred in towns must realise how closely the interests of one are connected with the welfare and prosperity of the other. But, be that as it may, our proposals are now before the House, and it is for the House to judge and to decide upon them. They are conceived in a spirit dictated, as we think, by justice and policy alike. We trust and believe that they may and will do something to arrest the progress and lessen the load of that depression, which is crushing the very life out of the chief industry of the country, and to give some measure of encouragement to those who, hoping against hope, are still gallantly struggling against that depression. Finally, Mr. Speaker, they are offered in redemption of pledges which we have given and which we, as a Government, are determined we will do our utmost to fulfil. [Cheers.]
§ *SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.),
who was received with cheers, said that on the Opposition, quite as much as on the Ministerial, side of the House the gravity and calamity of the prevailing agricultural depression was recognised, though, no doubt, prior to the repeal of the Corn Laws in the thirties, as well as in the early periods of the present century, there was greater agricultural depression, greater distress among the labourers, a greater absence of profit, and heavier local taxation than existed at the present day. But he did not make that remark to minimise or attenuate the gravity of the evils by which we are confronted. The controversy was not as to the existence of the calamity, but as to the wisdom and justice of the remedy the right hon. Gentleman proposed. He would like to say a word or two on the Report of the Royal Commission, on which the right hon. Gentleman based his present proposals. He stated that that Commission had a somewhat political composition, that the adherents of the late Government were in a majority, and that notwithstanding the late Government appointed the Commission, they did 1289 nothing to remedy the evil they admitted by appointing that Commission. There were two replies to that complaint. The first was that until the Commissioners reported as to what were the remedies which they proposed it could hardly be expected that the Government itself should take the work of the Commission out of the Commissioners own hands. The second answer was that where the Government could help the agricultural interest without in any way infringing on the duties of the Commission they did so, and he ventured to say no Budget had been submitted to Parliament for a long series of years which gave the occupying tenant so large a benefit as the Budget of the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, and also removed a complaint which the owners of the land made as to the unfairness of the incidence of Income Tax under Schedule A to the amount, as his right hon. Friend now reminded him, of £800,000. So complete was the benefit which his right hon. Friend conferred on the agricultural interest with respect to the occupiers of land, that the high authority which the right hon. Gentleman had quoted with reference to another matter—Sir Alfred Milner, head of the Inland Revenue—told the Commissioners that practically Schedule D, so far as farmers were concerned, had become a farce; in other words, it was not worth collection. Therefore his right hon. Friend not only materially relieved Income Tax payers under Schedule A. but actually exempted them under Schedule D. He had sifted, as far as he could, the bulk of the evidence laid before the Commission, and he hoped to be able hereafter to show that there was not that great force of evidence with respect to the question of rates which one would naturally presume to be the case from the right hon. Gentleman's speech. As to the majority Report, the majority was not so large as the right hon. Gentleman had stated. It was 10 to 7. The majority in their Report said that the chief cause of this great national calamity was unanimously attributed by the witnesses to the heavy and, generally speaking, progressive fall in the prices of agricultural produce. But they suggested a vast variety of remedies. Some witnesses suggested dealing with rents— 1290 [loud cheers]—some suggested our imitating the example of Ireland by having a Land Court in this country. Other witnesses suggested the necessity for an immediate and stringent reform of the Agricultural Holdings Act. [Cheers.] Competent experts suggested the abolition of large farms and the substitution of small ones; others suggested advances from the Government for the purposes of agricultural buildings. There were grave complaints of tithe. But there was one question on which hundreds of witnesses were almost unanimous—the exceptions, at all events, were too trifling to be named —and that was Protection. ["Hear, hear!" from SIR HOWARD VINCENT, and Opposition laughter.]
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
If they were not so strongly in favour of Protection as the contradiction of the right hon. Gentleman suggested, surely he would not deny that they were strongly in favour of Bimetallism.
§ *SIR. H. FOWLER
A very large number of them were experienced farmers who took the deepest interest in the subject. Again and again he found that when the evidence turned to the currency —[laughter]—no question arose either of rates, landlords, tithes, or even Protection. If only they could get an alteration of the currency, the sun would rise and the clouds would vanish away. [Laughter.] With all these points before the Government, with that very singular Report of the Commission hurried up at the last moment, with no discussion between the Commissioners themselves as to its wording (which was usual), with no statement before the House as to where the Commissioners differed, they had put on the Table a Report dealing with the one subject of rates, and accompanied by a singular reservation from so experienced a man as Lord Cobham, who said he was not prepared to commit himself to the particular recommendation that there should be a reduction in the rate of the assessment of land. This proposal seemed to Lord Cobham open to many objections. Under these circumstances he (Sir H. Fowler) contended that while the Government were fully conscious of the gravity of the evil, there was 1291 no broad general principle dealing with the whole question. ["Hear, hear!"] Here was a single proposal to hand over £1,500,000 per annum to one section of one class of the community. [Cheers.] This, he submitted to the House, was no real remedy for the distress which the right hon. Gentleman had described.
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
observed that the right hon. Gentleman stated it was not the great remedy, but he put it to the House, at the close of his speech, that, if they did not accept these proposals, they would be practically responsible for attempting to continue the present state of agricultural depression. He did not deny the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that the incidence of local taxation was most unfair. He had himself said it over and over again, both in the House and in his Report on Local Taxation. But local taxation on real property was not taxation confined either to land or the cultivators of the land; it was levied on the whole real property of the country. It was levied on land truly, but on houses also; on the farmer carrying on his business, and also on the shopkeeper, the manufacturer the mill owner, and the mine owner carrying on their business in their respective spheres. What they had a right to ask the Government in dealing with the question of rating was why they should, in giving relief, differentiate between two classes of ratepayers? ["Hear, hear!"] The right hon. Gentleman said he was going to submit another Measure with reference to the ratepayers in towns, and he thought the least the House was entitled to ask was that they should have the whole scheme before them.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I did not say a Measure. I said we were going to propose an immediate Inquiry into that branch of the subject. [Opposition laughter.]
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
could tell the right hon. Gentleman what the immediate result of that Inquiry would be with this Report before them. The case of the rates, their amount, growth, pressure, and unfairness was far stronger in the towns than in the agricultural districts. [''Oh, oh!" and Opposition cheers.] The right hon. Gentleman gave them some interesting cases of farms which had been heavily rated. At the proper time 1292 he would give similar accounts of shops and manufactories where the pressure of the rates was unfair, and what, he submitted, was this. This was a part of their local taxation which pressed unfairly upon a class of ratepayers, and if they attempted to relieve that class they should do it altogether, and not take one section and apply all their available money for that purpose only. [Opposition cheers.] That was the first time, he thought, that such a course had been proposed in that House. Lord Beacons-field, in 1849, when he raised the whole question of Local Taxation, indignantly repudiated any suggestion that he would exclude the traders in the urban districts from their share in the benefits he proposed to confer, and, indeed, he included the assessment of railways. He (Sir Henry Fowler) contended that the burden in the agricultural districts was not heavier than in the urban districts. The right hon. Gentleman had alluded to some evidence given before the Royal Commission upon this subject, and had quoted one or two cases, if he remembered aright, which came before the Commission in letters, which, when sifted, broke down. In the Report of the Commissioners there were two or three cases given from the County of Norfolk. He would give the House one case. One of the Assistant Commissioners had given an account of a farm in Mid Norfolk of 750 acres, where, in 1884, the rent and tithe amounted to £1,206, and the rates to £98. In 1888, the rent and tithe had got to £1,090 and the rates to £80, while in 1893, the rent had gone down to £543 and the rates to £39. He wanted the right hon. Gentleman to take a concrete case of this sort. The proposals of the right hon. Gentleman, if they meant anything, meant that if the Consolidated Fund paid £19 10s. of that £39 rating, it would arrest the ruin of that farm, and staunch, to some extent, agricultural distress. There was a case in Lincolnshire where the rent had gone down in 10 years from £652 to £390, and the rates from £122 to £59. It ought to be an essential part of the right hon. Gentleman's case to show that the rates were increasing, but instead of that they were decreasing. [Cheers.] In Norfolk, 20 years ago, the rates stood at 2s. 8½d. in the pound, whilst 1293 in 1891 they had fallen to 2s. 4.10d. But in the city of Norwich the rates stood at 7s. 4d., and in Yarmouth 5s. 2d., and at Norwich he believed the rates at the present moment were something like 8s. in the pound. Then again, in Hampshire, 20 years ago, the rates were 3s. in the pound, whilst in 1891 they had fallen to 2s. 1d., and yet the rates in the town of Southampton were 5s. 6d. and in Portsmouth 5s. l½d. in the pound. These were facts which the House must bear in mind when they were asked to vote this large sum of money. [Cheers.] He admitted to the very fullest the advantage of relief to the agricultural ratepayer, but they must not shut their eyes to the far more urgent claim of the urban ratepayers, whose burdens were far heavier, and who had duties imposed upon them by the Legislature of this country which they were compelled to carry out in the interests of all classes of the community. There was one rate, the Poor Rate, to which the right hon. Gentleman did not refer, and which pressed more heavily in rural districts than any other. The right hon. Gentleman said they must look at these rates as compared with profit. He submitted that the Poor Rate had nothing to do with profits. It was not a tax, but it was really a rent charge. ["No, no!"] Every acre of land had been bought and sold in this country for 300 years subject to its being charged to the Poor Rate, and that rate had steadily gone down in this century. At the commencement it was over 3s. in the pound in the agricultural districts, but to-day he doubted if it was quite 9d. it might be 8½d. ["Hear, hear!"] He did not wish to go now into the general question. It was a big question and one which, he ventured to think, would have very full discussion before they parted with it. There were many statements of the right hon. Gentleman, both with reference to the Report and with reference to economic doctrines, that would be the subject of some criticism. He told them, for instance, that the landlord did not pay the rates, and he quoted the hon. Member for Northamptonshire as having said something in his interim Report which bore out that view. He would appeal from Cæsar to Cæsar, without any additional adjective. [Laughter.] He sat on that 1294 side of the House and heard the right hon. Gentleman answer Mr. Gladstone upon this question of where the incidence of the rates fell, and he remembered the right hon. Gentleman saying, ''If rates increased, rents decreased; if rates decreased, rents increased," and that the advantage or disadvantage of the rate went into the pocket of the landlord.
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
said, he held the I perhaps more heterodox view that so far as houses were concerned, the rates were paid by the occupier. He thought that as far as leases or old farming tenancies were concerned, the rates which were in existence when the tenancy commenced, were paid by the landlord, but he thought that new rates imposed during the tenancy were paid by the occupier, until a new tenancy commenced, but ultimately he thought that the landlord was the person who received the benefit. But he was not objecting to this scheme on that ground, nor on the ground as to where the relief will ultimately go. He was objecting to it on the ground that it did not include a large class of the community who felt the burden, and that it would not remedy the evil which the right hon. Gentleman said he desired to remedy. He should like to ask one or two questions of the right hon. Gentleman. The effect of his proposal was that the Government were going to be the largest ratepayers in the kingdom. He did not quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman's figures, but he put the agricultural rates at £3,000,000, and one half of that, he said, was to be paid by the Government. He wanted to show how that was going to work in the large agricultural parishes, and he took from the Report of the Royal Commission 20 unions, purely agricultural, in various parts of England—Wiltshire, Essex, Lancashire, Somersetshire, Hampshire, Kent, Berkshire, Gloucestershire—the rateable value of which 20 years ago was something like £2,000,000, but which had now gone down to £1,500,000. That covered something like a million and a half of acres, but the rateable value of the land alone, out of that million and a half was £1,164,000. The rate in the pound was now 2s. 1d., and the rate per acre was 1s. 9d. The total rate levied in these unions amounted to 1295 2s. 6½d. in the pound, being equal to 1s. 9d. per acre. The Government were asked to pay one-half of this amount. The rates amounted to £200,000, and the Government proposed to pay £100,000. What control were they to have? ["Hear, hear!"] Were they to have no voice? Every other ratepayer was represented in the expenditure of the rates, but the largest ratepayer was to have no control at all. Every encouragement was to be given to extravagance—[cheers]—because for every 1s. of rate 6d. would come out of the pocket of the Government. It was said that railways had no control. The payment they made to the rates was of very small amount so far as their large interests were concerned. They could make themselves felt if they liked. They were entitled to have a representative if they chose to put him on, but they did not do so because the other ratepayers were largely interested in keeping down the rates. But they were going to take that element out. When they had taken the railways out and taken what the Government put in out, they left a very small amount chargeable to the ratepayer, and destroyed every motive for economy. [Cheers.] Irrespective of that, he claimed on behalf of public money that there should always be public control. [Cheers.] Who was to be responsible to this House for the £1,500,000 which it was proposed to pay to one particular class of unions? ["Hear, hear!"] He would like to ask another question of the right hon. Gentleman. What was he going to do about Ireland and Scotland? ["Hear, hear!"] The other night, if he understood the Cnancellor of the Exchequer correctly, he intimated that this sum was to be paid on the basis of the present division of the Probate Duty, under which England got 80 per cent., Scotland 11 per cent., and Ireland 9 per cent. How was it going to work out? He found that the cultivated area in Great Britain was, excluding woods and plantations, 30,000,000 acres in round figures. The cultivated areas in Ireland, excluding woods, was 14,852,000 acres. Therefore Ireland had half the agricultural land which Great Britain had. He then came to Schedule B, and he found that whereas England and Scotland were assessed, England at £39,000,000 and 1296 Scotland at £6,000,000, Ireland was assessed at £10,000,000. Therefore, if they took the actual acreage, Ireland was entitled to 50 per cent.; and if they took the assessable value, Ireland was entitled to from 18 to 20 per cent. [Irish cheers.] It might be said that it was going to be taken from the Probate Duty; but it was taken out of the common Consolidated Fund. [Cheers.] At the present moment, when there was a Commission sitting as to the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland, in regard to which they heard rumours of great complaints that Ireland had been paying too much in direct taxation, he could not understand the basis upon which the right hon. Gentleman was only going to give Ireland 9 per cent. [Nationalist cheers.] It might be said that this was a Measure of agricultural relief, but Ireland was an agricultural country, and, whatever else she was entitled to, he thought that, in the appropriation of a large sum for the purpose of agricultural relief, Ireland had equally as strong a claim as either England or Scotland. [Nationalist cheers.] The right hon. Gentleman alluded to Sir Alfred Milner' s Report. He should be the last man, he need hardly say, to speak of Sir Alfred Milner except in terms of the highest respect. There was no greater authority, but Sir Alfred Milner's Report was a series of opinions on estimates, and he was not prepared to accept the basis on which those estimates were founded. There was, however, an equally great authority, Sir Robert Giffen, and in his observations in the Report of the Royal Commission he said:—Sir Alfred Milner did not present his figures, either as to taxation or as to the amount of property affected, as if they were absolutely trustworthy, while there were many points on which he gave no evidence, or said he could not give evidence, that are most pertinent to the discussion.And in another place he said:—In making these criticisms I desire to add that I have nothing but praise to give to the details and information furnished by Sir Alfred Milner. But questions of principle of great importance are involved, and I feel bound to dissent in the most formal and emphatic manner from the whole method and scope of these Returns and the use made of them in the present Report.1297 It was not right for the House to act upon the mere ex parte opinion of any man, however great his authority might be, which was not subjected to cross-examination, which was not sifted by experts, and on which no other evidence was given. It rather looked to him as if, at the last sitting of the Commission, before the Report was presented or agreed upon, for a purpose of which Sir Alfred Milner was ignorant, he was suddenly thrust into the controversy in order that he might give countenance to a particular opinion—to this theory that land was, so far as Imperial and local taxation were concerend, more heavily taxed than personalty.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I must correct the right hon. Gentleman at once. I asked Sir Alfred Milner to give evidence on this particular matter as long ago as last August.
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
said he withdrew most unreservedly the impression made upon his mind, but he thought that if there was an unjust burden upon the land with reference to Imperial taxation it was a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to rectify, and not for a Royal Commission on Agriculture. ["Hear, hear!"] With reference to the details of the Bill, he candidly told the right hon. Gentleman, clear as his exposition was, that it was impossible across the Table to understand what a complicated Measure of this sort would be when worked out, and he reserved anything he had to say on what he might call the evidence and broad principle on which it proceeded. But, taking it simply as it was put before them by the right hon. Gentleman, as a Measure for granting £1,500,000 to the cultivators of agricultural land in relief of their local taxation, ignoring in that appropriation the claims of all the urban ratepayers, who were more heavily taxed, he deemed it his duty, on behalf of his Friends on that side, to say that as the next stage of the Bill they would meet it with the most uncompromising opposition. [Cheers.] They would resist this grant both on the grounds of its inexpediency and of its injustice—[cheers] —and, while they were quite prepared to concur in any Measure which would fairly and justly relieve the heavily-burdened local ratepayer, they were not prepared 1298 to hand over money to which that heavily-burdened local ratepayer paid his full share, perhaps the largest share as Imperial taxpayer—they were not prepared to vote for a Measure which did that and which did not share the benefit with those who felt and bore the present burden of their local taxation. [Cheers.]
§ *MR. C. T. GILES (Cambridge, Wisbech)
asked the indulgence of the House while he for the first time addressed it on the subject of the Bill. The Government had promised an Inquiry into the incidence of rates, and, as representing an agricultural constituency, he thanked them for having done so. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton had objected to the Bill because another and a different class of property had not been included in it. But he thought that objection would not hold good, and he would suggest that it was a strong argument in favour of the Bill that the result of the Inquiry would surely be to relieve not only agricultural land, but all land, whether covered by houses or not, of a portion of the rates. He would ask hon. Members to remember that in their origin the Poor Rate and the Education Rate were never intended to be borne solely by land, and in land he included land covered with houses. By the 43rd of Elizabeth it was laid down that the sums necessary for the relief of the poor were to be secured by the taxation of every inhabitant as well as occupier of land, house, and other property, and that those sums were to be gathered out of every parish according to the ability of the parish to pay. Surely that was a strong argument why the present Bill should receive the favourable consideration of the House, and some assistance given to those who bore, but were not originally intended to bear, the whole of those rates, and it was no reason for rejecting the Measure because it was alleged that a particular class of property was not expressly included in it. The present proposal was such a moderate one that he thought it ought to receive general approbation. The gravity of the existing condition of agriculture in the country was generally admitted; indeed, it was so serious that even a larger grant than the Bill proposed might reasonably have been expected 1299 by agriculturists. He did not regard the present proposals in relief of agriculture as a matter of favour or of expediency, but as a simple act of justice. ["Hear, hear!"] With regard to what fell from the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton in respect to the decrease of rates, he admitted that the statement might be correct in some instances. It was correct, however, only in this respect that, as compared with years gone by, the rates in some places might be less, but in proportion to, and comparison with, the rateable value, they were much higher. ["Hear, hear!"] He had had professional experience of a case in which the land was assessed at 25s. per acre, and the rates at the time were 2s. 6d. But the real value of the land as subsequently ascertained by evidence, was only 10s. an acre, so that the same amount, having, nevertheless, to be raised from the farm, the rates were equal to 6s. 3d. in the pound. ["Hear, hear!"] It was absolutely necessary, therefore, when they considered the position of agriculture, that the true facts should be ascertained as to the actual value of the land, or its ability to pay rates. In many parts of Cambridgeshire the assessments were much higher than the true rateable value and the actual rent, and in one Union he had been informed that there had been no re-valuation for 11 years, because it was said that it came to the same thing whether a small rate was paid on a high assessment or a heavy rate on a low assessment, consequently rent was disregarded.
§ *MR. GILES
Yes, and that is exactly the question I put to the rate collector, who gave me the information, but he said there had not been any appeals; but the truth was the farmers were not in a position to incur the expense of contesting the assessments and appealing to Quarter Sessions, and had, therefore, to bear the injustice. The point had been raised that the benefit to be conferred by the Bill would go to the landlords. In some cases, no doubt, the landowner would benefit by it, but it should not be forgotten that there were many small owners of land who were entitled to consideration. ["Hear, hear! "] And he was glad to 1300 believe that the effect of the Bill, if carried, would be to relieve a large number of small landowners as well as occupiers of land. There was a tendency in the present age to increase the number of small landowners; he approved of that policy, and thought it was only fair that the question of the rating of land should be considered in relation to it. ["Hear, hear!"] To allotment holders, also—a deserving class of men who were entitled to consideration—the Bill would give relief, and would therefore encourage the movement. The rent which allotment holders had to pay was often very high, and under the Bill it would be reduced by half the amount of the rates, which in some urban sanitary districts might mean a reduction of 5s. an acre. He thanked the House for the kind indulgence extended to him, and he hoped the Measure would pass into law. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ *MR. D. F. GODDARD (Ipswich)
said, the subject of the relief of agriculture, especially at the present time, was of course a proper one for consideration. The question was made a very prominent feature in the elections last year, and he ventured to think that if the people who were then influenced by the cry of the relief of agriculture could have anticipated the interpretation the Government would put upon it, they would not have been led away by it as they were. ["Hear, hear!" and laughter.] This Bill was really introduced for the relief and benefit of the landlords. No real remedy for agricultural depression would be found in it. In regard to taxation, the Bill made the existing confusion worse confounded. It extended the system of grants in aid which was already carried on to a large extent; it added to that already received in aid of local rates from Imperial funds. There were very few persons, he ventured to say, who understood the relation of those grants to the Budget. The Budget, in fact, did not contain any adequate or real statement of the whole of the money raised by Imperial taxation, and it seemed to him that the existing confusion would be accentuated by the present proposed grant. ["Hear, hear!"] As to valuation and assessment, the Bill made still worse what was already a scandal. There were now numerous and 1301 various bases of taxation. There were the poor rate basis, county rate, income tax, and the special assessment for sanitary purposes; indeed, so various were the bases of calculation, that any attempt at a comparison as to the incidence of taxation became, not only difficult, but almost impossible; and this Bill had only rendered that comparison still more difficult and impossible. Taxation ought to be simplified rather than mystified. There were other objections to the Bill. It purposed to relieve, in some degree, agriculture. He did not think it would be effective in that direction. It was based very largely upon the very voluminous Reports of the Royal Agricultural Commission, and, amongst the great mass of evidence in those Reports, were many balance-sheets of farmers. He was curious to examine those balance-sheets, and his examination proved to him that, if every penny of rates and taxes was remitted, it would not have the result, in the great majority of cases, of turning an unsatisfactory balance-sheet into a satisfactory one. This Measure, therefore, could not be regarded as an effective remedy for the present distress. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that it would not remove the depression, but it would, he thought, aid the farmer. In such a matter as this, Parliament must look beyond the mere moment. He thought that, from experience, it might be confidently asserted that the economic result of such a Measure as this must, within a very short time, and in many cases immediately, be not to aid the farmer, but really to enhance the rents; that had been shown again and again to be the tendency of this kind of Bill. No doubt the Bill would benefit some farmers—the farmer who farmed his own land, or who had a long lease to run; but it seemed to him that the result would be the same as the Chancellor of the Exchequer attributed to the land tax. In his speech the other night, the right hon. Gentleman re-stated the opinion that the land tax had become, not a tax, but a rent-charge, and that to remit it would be really to add to the capital value, and even, perhaps, to the annual value, of the land. It was stated by the First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Goschen), in a Report upon the increase of local taxation which he made in 1871, that these rates were hereditary 1302 burdens, and, in a letter which the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the late Sir Julian Goldsmid, he said:—It has been correctly held as an axiom that rates on lands constitute a kind of rent-charge upon those lands for the benefit of the public. You, however, ignore these hereditary burdens altogether, and, as I understand you, would propose to make an entirely new start. Your plea includes the relief of the owners of the lands from burdens which they have borne for centuries, which have entered into the selling value of those lands, and have been taken into account in every transaction connected with them, and to divide those burdens, according to a ratio, amongst all kinds of incomes, not excepting those which are derived from personal exertions of every kind.He could not help thinking that that letter might, with a good deal of justice, have been addressed to the President of the Local Government Board in regard to his present proposals. As the representative of a large urban community, he thought there were other objections to the Bill. One was that if rates were remitted from agricultural lands, they must be paid by somebody else. There would be no lessening of the amount which had to be paid; all that was done was to shift the burden from one shoulder to another, and to transfer this burden from the rural districts to the Exchequer, really meant that it would be dropped by the owners of the land and donned by the busy people who live in the cities and towns. Such a transfer of burden had already gone on to an enormous extent, and he thought it might be well to look at a few figures which were compiled from the tables which appeared in the two Reports to which allusion had already been made. In 1817 the rates borne by land amounted to £6,730,000, and those borne by houses and other property amounted to £3,370,000, the proportion being, by land, 66.66 per cent., and by other property, 33.33 per cent. In 1868 the rates borne by land amounted to £5,500,000, while those borne by houses and other property had risen to £11,000,000. In 1891 the rates borne by land had fallen to £4,260,000, and those borne by houses and other property had risen to £23,560,000, or to 84.69 per cent. of the whole. He and his friends did not deny the existence of agricultural depression, and they did not disregard the claim of the people engaged on the land to all the sympathy 1303 and practical help they could obtain, but he submitted that the method proposed in this Bill was not the right one, that it would not prove an effective method, and that it was a manifestly unfair method to the dwellers in the towns, who were now so largely composed of the industrial classes. This seemed to him to be a Bill which might very well have been introduced a hundred years ago, and under a system of very narrow franchise and of pocket boroughs, when the dominant Party in the House was the landlord party in the country. It was a strange thing that a Bill of this kind should be introduced in the present day of popular franchise. He hoped the Measure would be resisted at every stage, and that if it could not be defeated it would, at all events, be materially altered.
§ *MR. ARTHUR JEFFREYS (Hampshire, Basingstoke)
said, that if there was one thing more than another upon which the agricultural community were united, it was in demanding a reduction of rates. The Central Chamber of Agriculture and nearly all the farmers' clubs had recently passed resolutions to the effect that land devoted to agriculture should be assessed to local rates at a quarter of its annual value. The reason why they asked for a quarter rate was that a great many rates such as the sanitary rate and others, were calculated on the quarter principle. In reference to the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, he might point out that in some counties—in Hampshire, for instance—although the assessment of the agricultural land had decreased, the assessment of the county had increased very considerably, because of the parts of the county which had been developed. There were great parts of the county which were used for building purposes. [Opposition cheers.] Yes; but all came into the county rates, and therefore the argument of the right hon. Gentleman was deceptive. In non-residential counties, such as Wiltshire and Suffolk, it would be found that the assessment for the whole county had diminished rather than increased, and, consequently, the burden in the shape of rates on the land had increased. For a long time land had been rated in a most unjust manner, and though it was not pretended that this Bill 1304 would restore prosperity to agriculture, it would be a relief to every occupier of land in the whole country. [Cheers.] The farmer, unlike the trader, paid rates not merely on his premises but upon the whole of his occupation. In better times he had borne this inequality, but now every little thing made a difference. A farmer might be assessed at £200, though the house in which he lived was only assessed at about £20; and with a rate of 2s. 6d. in the pound he would pay £25 a year. A baker in the same parish, living in a house assessed at £24, and making the same income as the farmer, would only pay £3 a year. In the case of a brewery in the same parish the disparity would be very much greater, the rates payable being but a trifle compared with the income. ["Hear, hear!"] He welcomed the Bill because it did an act of justice which had been too long delayed. It had been said that rents were too high. In most counties—and especially in the distressed counties—rents had been so reduced as hardly to be able to bear the total charges on the estate, and there was no margin left for reduction. He had received a letter from a gentleman stating the case of a particular farm now let at £60, but formerly at £150. The gross title was £30; and as the house and cottages would let at £40, the landlord lost £10 a year by keeping the land in cultivation. Borough Members did not realise what the burdens on the land were. There was tithe, land tax (at present generally over 1s. in the pound), income tax under both schedules A and B, and the death duties. The land was, in fact, more taxed than any other form of property. On the 18th of February last year Mr. Gladstone wrote a remarkable letter with regard to a certain hospital whose rents had decreased to an alarming extent, calling attention to the immense boon which the people had received in the low price of food. Yet the poor farmer who produced the food had been ground down till he could barely keep his farm going. There were many people resident in towns who would welcome any Measure which was for the good of the farmers; and he believed the Bill would be very popular. It was urged that the relief given would go eventually to the landlord. But that argument would prevent anything at all 1305 being done for the farmer; and he defied any hon. Gentleman to instance a farm throughout the country where the rent had been raised on account of a reduction of rates. This was an occupiers question entirely, and the whole benefit of the relief would go directly to the farmer. [Cheers.]
§ *SIR C. DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)
wished to ask a few questions. Would this Bill apply to all rates? Would the reduction apply to all forms of rent which could not be separated, as "houses and buildings"? For instance, would the reduction apply to sporting rents, which form a large proportion of the assessed value of the property? Again, would Crown woodlands get the reduction? That was to say, the Crown does not pay rates; but it makes a contribution equivalent to rates of its own will, but a contribution of which this House had repeatedly taken note. Would Crown rents get the benefit?
§ *SIR C. DILKE
With regard to gardens, was the House to understand that all gardens attached to freehold cottages, for example, would get the benefit of the reduction? As he understood it, they would; but this would involve great difficulty in keeping the accounts, because the land and cottage, however small both might be, would have to be separately assessed and included in the accounts. Now, leaving those questions, he did not think the real difficulties of the subject had been faced in the Debate up to the present. In the experience which he had had as chairman of an assessment committee, and also as President of the Local Government Board, he had always been struck by the extraordinary discrepancies in rating practice between different parts of the country. People hardly realised the extent to which different modes of rating existed, and yet that was a consideration which really went to the root of the whole matter. It was impossible adequately to discuss this Bill unless they remembered those differences. For example, in London and some large towns, but not in other large towns, the publicans were really assessed upon the whole extent of their business. An enormous proportion of local rates was thus raised from the publicans—a 1306 perfectly incredible proportion. There were other parts of the country where a totally different practice prevailed, and the publicans were assessed on the ordinary rating value of their houses as houses, and not as public-houses. There were the same differences in regard to farmers. In some parts of the country farmers were much more heavily assessed on their business than in other parts. He thought very great difficulty would be experienced in equitably applying the moneys which would be raised under this Bill in relief of taxation upon farmers without first attacking the whole system of rating as it prevailed throughout this country. There was one conspicuous unfairness which he feared would be done by this Bill, and that was the unfairness to Ireland.
§ *SIR C. DILKE
No, but Ireland would have to pay a very large share of taxation which this Bill would involve, while it would only get a small share of the reduction of rates on its agricultural land. [Nationalist cheers.] The right hon. Gentleman and others opposite had spoken as though the money was going to come from the moon, but of course the money to finance this Bill would have to be found in taxation, and the Irish people would have to find out of their tea and tobacco a very large proportion of this taxation. How would the unfairness of the Bill press on other industries? In the case, for example, of a rural parish where there was a great deal of agricultural land and a number of small collieries, whereas, at present the latter paid a great proportion of the rates, under this Bill they would have to pay an increasing proportion. He did not hesitate to say that in many cases the pressure of tithe was far heavier upon the farmer, far more uncertain, than any pressure of rates. He fully admitted that there was a great deal more to be said in the case of certain unions for a more equitable mode of rating the farmer than was generally admitted on his own side of the House. The farmer was treated too much as the publican was in the towns and was assessed upon his business, but that hardship ought not to be removed by the creation of equal if not greater hard-shins in other directions.
§ *CAPTAIN ERNEST PRETYMAN (Suffolk, Woodbridge)
, in a maiden speech, urged that the maintenance of the agricultural industry was not a question for that industry alone; it was not a question for the landlord, the tenant, or the labourer; it was a national question. The maintenance of an agricultural population upon the land was essential to our existence as a nation. On the one hand, if there were no agricultural land under cultivation, we should be absolutely dependent upon the foreigner for our food supply; and, on the other, without an agricultural population, it would be impossible for the general condition of the nation to be maintained. He believed there was no one Member of the House who would go back two or three generations and prove that his ancestors were bred entirely in the towns. The future physique of the race depended on the country not on the town population. Apart from that, the agricultural interest only asked for fairness in the matter of taxation. When the Acts dealing with the rating and taxation of land were passed the conditions were entirely different from the present. In 1836, when the first Act of the present century was passed, the average price of corn was 34s. 10d.; in 1862, when the next Act was passed it was 37s. 8d.; in 1864, 30s. 4d.; in 1868, 43s. 10d.; in 1891, 28s. 5d.; and last year, 19s. 10d. This represented a fall in the average price of corn in three years of no less than 30 per cent.; and that 30 per cent. represented the entire profit derivable from agricultural arable land which had disappeared. Farmers had a fair right, therefore, to claim a readjustment of the burden which was placed upon them when the value of their land stood on a totally different basis. He admitted that it was a large question, and one which affected ratepayers in towns nearly as much as ratepayers in connection with agricultural land. It would be most desirable if this question could be approached from a general point of view, and if the entire basis of local taxation could be readjusted it would be the preferable way to approach it. [Opposition cheers.] But there was one consideration of paramount importance which made that course impossible 1308 —the simple consideration of time. It would be impossible to deal with the whole question by inquiry by a Royal Commission under a period of years, thereby making any relief like that proposed absolutely too late. ["Hear, hear!"] As to the question of rating between town and country falling unevenly, he said that whereas the occupier in the town was rated on his holding, the rate might bear a comparatively small proportion to his business; while the occupier in the country was rated practically on the raw material with which his business was conducted on every acre of his land. It was true, as had been stated by the right hon. Member for the Forest of Dean, that the way in which the assessment was carried out in various parts of the country caused great inequality, but without a Royal Commission appointed to deal with the entire subject it was impossible to regulate such inequalities as existed. It was said that the whole of this benefit was going into the landlord's pocket. He could hardly believe that this was likely to be the case. Any landlord who, on account of the reduction of rates paid by the tenant, would promptly raise his rent would deserve to be sent as a specimen to the Zoological Gardens. [Laughter.] He thought that such a landlord would be difficult to find. Under our system of agriculture rent did not go entirely into the pockets of the landlord. A large portion of it was devoted to improvements and their maintenance on the land itself. In one union in Suffolk there was a farm of 284 acres bringing in £105 per annum, £55 of which had to be paid in tithe—[Opposition cheers]—by the landlord. In the same union there was a farm of 137 acres, the rent of which was £71; £26 had to be paid by the landlord in tithe. There was another farm of 150 acres held on a four years' agreement at a rent of £15 per annum, and the landlord had to pay £36 in tithe. Did hon. Members consider those rents too high? The fact was that the value of agricultural land was now reduced to such a point that even this small reduction was considered as of enormous importance, and even more so as showing the good will of the Government and their determination to do something. Hon. Members 1309 who opposed the Bill were very loud in expressing their desire to do something for agriculture, but they did not say what. [Cheers.] They had enjoyed opportunities of doing something, and absolutely nothing had been done. ["Oh, oh! "and cheers.] The trumpery reduction of the Income Tax was far exceeded by the loss to the farmers through the fall in prices and the Beer Tax. The agricultural industry felt that something was absolutely needed to keep it going. If choice had to be made between Parliament being able to do something to enable owners, occupiers, and cultivators of agricultural land to live, and in some form or another to modify our fiscal policy of free trade (from which he believed they had derived great benefit), he believed that the importance of the first was likely to be thought greater than the importance of the second. If it was proved that Parliament could not devise a system under which the agricultural population could be maintained on the land without some attack on our present fiscal system, then we were likely to be within measurable distance of a great contest on that question of which no man could see the end. [Cheers.]
§ MR. R. B. HALDANE (Haddingtonshire)
said the hon. Member might rest assured that the decision which had been come to in 1846 on the question of our fiscal policy had been made once for all. If the country had better understood what was to be the nature of the proposal for agricultural relief which was to come before Parliament under the régime of the present Government, it was probable that the majority in the English boroughs which the Government now possessed might not have been quite so large. The right hon. Gentleman, in introducing his Bill, had given a description of the distress which, he said, prevailed to a very acute degree in certain localities. He yielded to no one in his desire to see that distress assisted and dealt with if it could be done, but he could not forget that they could not, by legislation, raise prices and improve seasons. As to this Bill, he felt certain that within three years from the time of its passing the farmers would not thank the House for what it had done. Undoubtedly the relief which the Bill would give would go to the benefit of the landlord class 1310 almost exclusively. In 1871, a notable Report was drawn up by the present First Lord of the Admiralty. In that Report the whole question of the incidence of local taxation was exhaustively discussed, and the right hon. Gentleman pointed out that the burden and incidence of the rates varied according as the position of the landlord and tenant varied. He showed that where there were long leases or where the tenants were sitting, not as rack-rented, but as yearly tenants whose rents were not altered from generation to generation, the benefit of such a proposal as the present would go to the tenant, but that where there was a rack-rent, or where readjustments took place periodically, a different result might be expected. At the present time, in every district in England, there were constant overhaulings of the terms of leases. Five-sixths of the agricultural tenants sat to-day at a rack-rent, in other words they gave all they could, and the landlords got all they reasonably could under the readjustments that had taken place during the last few years. As the tenants were paying, not the old customary rents, but rents fixed upon a basis of strict calculation, the benefit of this Bill would go to-day, as was pointed out would be the case in 1871, to the landlords and not to the occupiers. If that was true, and if the proposal which was brought forward would enure to the benefit of a certain limited class, one was led to ask what was the justification for such a Measure? What was there in the position of the landlords that entitled them to ask for exceptional treatment at the hands of that House? "Were not the proprietors of collieries, and manufacturers, and all who were engaged in carrying on a business at a loss, but who would have to go on paying full rates, entitled to equal concessions at their hands? The Chancellor of the Exchequer had told them the other night, that we had reached the limit of our power to raise money by direct taxation, and that our expenditure ought not to be increased. It was strange that after a declaration of that kind they should be asked to sanction the expenditure of close upon £2,000,000, which was to be raised by increased taxation, and which would become a permanent burden, for the purpose of relieving a situation, 1311 which, for all they knew, might be temporary. What was now proposed was to raise a subvention for the relief of the difficulties of a certain section of the population. In the Report of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton there were some remarkable figures, showing that the rates on agricultural land had dropped from 2s. 7½d. in 1868, to 2s. 3d. in 1894. This system of subventions had grown until we were now paying £10,000,000 more in that way than we were paying in 1871. The system was of modern growth, and ought to be watched most jealously. He knew that the owners of land had suffered most severely, but there were two classes of landowners, and their cases ought to be considered separately. There were, in the first place, those whose estates were unencumbered. As compared with the rest of the population they were still rich men, and certainly not entitled to ask for assistance. Then there were the landlords whose estates were encumbered, and even these were not so badly off as was often suggested. One of these landlords had said to him recently:—My rents have dropped 35 per cent., but I find that the interest on my mortgages has dropped 25 per cent.The fact was that money for which landlords had to pay 4 per cent. a few years ago, could now be borrowed at 3 per cent., and the drop might be still greater. In these circumstances it was difficult to understand why this particular class in the community should be selected for exceptional treatment. It was not as if no other proposal could be made. There was the expedient of dividing the rates between owners and occupiers. Why was not that done? The right hon. Gentleman had said that that change would press hardly upon the landlords, but surely what was good enough for the people of Scotland was good enough for the people of England. Then, something might be done in the way of readjusting taxation in respect of extensive shootings and great houses, which ought only to be occupied by people of wealth. Why should they be rated on the same footing as agricultural land? There was room for the application of differential rating in these cases, so as to give some relief to people who were in a different position. If he could believe that the 1312 plan of the Government would really benefit the agricultural labourer or the farmer, he would be disposed to look at it from a different point of view; but he could not help thinking that before long it would be found that these £2,000,000 had been simply thrown into the sea, as had occurred in the case of subventions in the past. That being his opinion, he held that it was only the duty of hon. Members on his side of the House to scan and scrutinise the provisions of this Bill most minutely, and to make it clear to the country that what was being proposed was a policy of sectionalism.
SIR HENRY MEYSEY-THOMP-SON (Stafford, Handsworth)
denied that the pecuniary benefit conferred by this Bill would go into the pockets of the landlords. He felt certain that in his part of the country no landlord would try to put the money into his pocket. The postition of the supporters of this legislation was that there had been exceptional injustice perpetrated at the expense of the agricultural interest for a great many years, and that the times were now so bad that this injustice could not be permitted to continue any longer, and must be redressed. The hon. and learned Member who had just sat down said that landlords with encumbered estates were no worse off now than they were formerly, because they could borrow money at 3 per cent., but in many cases that statement was not in accordance with facts. As a trustee, he knew the difficulty of getting money at 3 per cent. No doubt landlords who were in the fortunate position of having light burdens and a large margin might be able to borrow money at 3 per cent. but those who had very heavy encumbrances had to pay what interest they were asked, even as much as 4 per cent. It had been asserted lately in the House that land having been bought and sold subject to the Land Tax, that was a reason why it should not now be remitted. In the case of his own land, the Land Tax had been redeemed by his predecessors, who considered that by paying a capital sum of money to the Exchequer, they were buying a certain relief from taxation for all time. It had been said by one or two speakers on the other side of the House that shops were improperly rated. The Party opposite had been a good deal in power of late years, but 1313 they had made no attempt to relieve them. They had also expressed so much anxiety to relieve agriculture as any one on the Government side of the House, but they said that if all the rates were taken off the land, it would not bring back prosperity to the farmers. What, then, did they propose to do. The farmers had made a demand for bimetallism and Protection, but the Party opposite declined to have either. Now they declined to have the proposal of the Government. Surely, therefore, he was entitled to ask what they were going to do. Three proposals were made from his side of the House, but hon. Gentlemen opposite said they would have nothing to do with them. Something had been said about the Land Tax being an hereditary burden. Well, there was a proposal to do away with the jewellers' licence. They might just as well say to the jeweller who came and asked Parliament to take off his licence, "Oh, no, you bought the business with the licence, and you bought it cheaper in consequence." The same might have been said when the proposal was made to take off the Window Tax. If such a contention were admitted, so far as he could see, no tax could ever be removed, because it was a hereditary burden and must remain for ever. He in common with a great many suffering agriculturists, thought the Government were making a very fair attempt to deal with this question. He hoped his constituents would think so too. At any rate, he should say boldly to them on the platform that he believed the Government were doing what was right and just. He looked upon this Bill as an attempt to remove an exceptional injustice from the shoulders of one class in the community. It was not until they could not bear it any longer that they had raised an outcry against it, and he thought that the Government in yielding to that cry were doing no more than simple justice.
§ MR. J. STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)
said, the present Measure was a new departure altogether. Hitherto there had generally been relief all round. Now it was relief for one particular class. However bad and improper such a method might be as a financial system, its evils were greatly intensified by the form it now took. The Government were now about to give a grant in aid 1314 to a particular class of persons. All the evils of extravagance, all the evils of the destruction of the desire for economy, which pertained to the system of grants in aid, pertained doubly to that system where it affected only one class. Not only were the ratepayers in towns altogether untouched, but in agricultural districts were treated differentially. Surely the cotton industry had suffered acutely for many years, and yet in districts where cotton mills existed, and where the rates had necessarily been rising, the owners of these mills were to be called upon to contribute to the relief of the agricultural ratepayers in their immediate neighbourhood, without obtaining any greater control over the distribution of the money. It was perfectly well-known that the money granted in relief of the occupiers' rates in towns did not go directly, and, in many instances, at all, into the pockets of the landlords, whereas in the case of agricultural land, it went in the end always, and in many cases immediately into the pockets of the landlords. The consequence was that under this Bill they would be giving relief in those districts in which it went into the pockets of the landlords, aad ceasing to give it in those very instances in which it did not go into the pockets of the landlords. Therefore, the Bill was rightly called a Bill for the relief of the landlords. He knew the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board himself had said that this relief would only ultimately go into the pockets of the landlords; but he wanted the House to understand that they were going to give a permanent and continual relief for all time to the agricultural interest, so that the "ultimately" of the President of the Local Government Board would be reached in any case. Almost all the agricultural land of England was largely and rapidly becoming held by yearly tenants, which gave the landlords an increasing opportunity for transferring the benefit of any attempt to relieve the rates from the tenants to themselves. Agricultural land was so overrun in this country that landlords of their own motion were making remissions of rent to their tenants, and this gave them an additional power to take advantage of any changes such as those which were now proposed 1315 to be made. The present Administration were stopping grants in aid where they would not go into the pockets of the landlords, and were continuing them where they would do so. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ On the return of Mr. SPEAKER after the usual interval,
§ MR. R. ASCROFT (Oldham)
, on behalf of his constituents, welcomed the Bill, which concerned the interests not of one class only, but the whole country. It was clear to every one that to a great extent the prosperity of trade depended upon the prosperity and success of agriculture. He looked, therefore, with satisfaction to agriculture being once more placed in its old position of prosperity. What was the programme on which the Party had been returned to power? The first thing was to see to the defence of the Empire, and this had been dealt with. In the next place, the Government was to devote attention to those questions which affected the prosperity of agriculture and trade. It had been said by the Member for Ipswich that if the people had the opportunity of considering this question at this moment he doubted whether a majority would be returned in support of it. He was certain on the point. He had returned from a great meeting of his constituents, and they unanimously passed a resolution asking him to support the Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] It was not long since the Government had given them assistance as to Import Duties, for which he begged to thank them. Then the Colonial Secretary had promised to develop the trade with the colonies, and he could not realise now that any Member representing a trade constituency would desire that this portion of the programme should not have attention. ["Hear, hear!"] During the Debate on the Indian Import Duties he had urged that while attention was being properly paid to our foreign markets we must take care to develop our industries at home. It could not be denied on the other side of the House that agriculture was in such a depressed state that unless something was done quickly to relieve it it would cease to exist altogether in this country. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton had argued that as 1316 there had been periods of depression in agriculture in past years which had been followed by periods of prosperity, we might hope to see a prosperous condition of agriculture again. But he believed the day of agricultural prosperity was gone, and would never return. There undoubtedly had been a serious depression in agriculture in the past, but it had been due to causes far different from those to which the present state of agriculture could be traced. What chance had agriculturists at present in the home markets? Where did we get our wheat? From America. Where did we get our butter? From Holland. Where did we get our cheese? From America. Where, our bacon and hams? From America. Where our corn? From the Argentine Republic, India and Russia. Where did our tinned rabbit come from? We could not get it in this country, for, thanks to the Act of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Monmouthshire, the rabbits were almost all gone. Our tinned rabbit came from Australia, and our fruit was also brought from the colonies. In fact, every part of the world had helped to crush agriculture. And who had got the benefit of it all? The people, and the people were now asked to do a little to help to put on a more satisfactory footing that great industry of agriculture which had been ruined while they benefited. In his opinion it was the duty of every State to utilise its surplus wealth for the benefit of any of its industries that might be in a languishing state. It could not be said that the Bill was for the benefit of a class. It was for the benefit of our greatest national industry, and unless that industry was rendered profitable the country would have to face the greatest calamity it ever had to deal with, namely, the total breakdown of agriculture. Hon. Gentlemen opposite did not dispute the good intentions of the Bill. They pitied the poor farmer, but they said the Bill would not help the poor farmer. ["Hear, hear!"] Well, he preferred to believe the opinion of the majority of the Royal Commission, but above all he preferred to believe his own opinion, and he felt sure that the farmer would see that he got benefit from the Bill. This one and a half million was, after all, a mere bagatelle. Its expenditure might be objected to by some votes in boroughs, 1317 but the money would be taken from the Imperial taxation, and therefore would not be felt. The right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Wolverhampton, speaking in 1895 in the town which he so ably represented, said,he felt sure that the burden of local taxation could not be increased. He was not complaining of the burden, but he thought that the incidence of local taxation was not just or fair in the rural districts.The object of the Bill was to make the incidence of local taxation more equitable. In the county in which he lived, which was almost entirely a manufacturing county, the feeling was gaining ground that unless something was done to relieve agriculture, the agricultural labourers and their families would flock into towns, where at present there was not even sufficient employment for those who sought it. Farmhouses would fall into decay, lands would become unoccupied, and the rates would go up. But if this Bill were to be passed some little encouragement would be given to agriculturists who had suffered greatly, not only in their peace of mind, but in their pockets, through no fault of their own, and something should be done to raise the great national industry of agriculture to that position of prosperity which everyone desired it should occupy.
§ *MR. HENRY BROADHURST (Leicester)
congratulated the Government on the speech which had just been made in support of their policy. His hon. Friend had boasted of the magnificent majority by which he had been returned for the borough of Oldham. He happened to know sufficient of his hon. Friend to believe that if he had stood for Oldham as a strong Radical he would have been sent to the House of Commons by precisely the same number of votes which he had secured as a Conservative, for his return was not due to any political feeling in any sense. His hon. Friend had said that the Bill proposed to offer what was after all a paltry little gift to an ancient suffering industry, and that it would have been better had the Government offered to do more. No doubt the hon. Member for Oldham would ultimately find his way to the Front Bench, and when he arrived there he might be expected to introduce a Bill to relieve, not only landlords, but the 1318 whole agricultural interest from the payment of rates. And those in the tinned rabbit trade would also be attended to. He should be curious to know whether the President of the Local Government Board would be able to give some attention to the tinned rabbit trade. He wished the Government to give some information as to the way in which these millions were to be distributed. Were they to be given in relief of one rate more than another, or were they to be divided equally among all the rates of a district? There were highway rates, poor rates, and other rates; was the money to be specially apportioned, or equally divided among all? And in what proportion was it to be allocated to the three parts of the United Kingdom, England, Scotland, and Ireland? Could the Department lay some information on the Table to elucidate these points? The hon. Member for Oldham required something to be done in the interests of the labourers; he wanted labourers kept on the farms so that they should not swell the competitors in the labour market of Oldham. How was any portion of this sum to reach the agricultural labourers? The estimate of two millions would probably rise to two and a half or three millions; but how would his share reach the labourer? Indeed, it was not at all clear how the farmer would get his share. It was all very well to say that landlords would scorn to take any part of this Vote; but what guarantee was there that they would not do it? Abatements of rent that had been systematically made for the last five years ought to be continued; but what guarantee was there that they would be? You could not put a clause in the Bill to say so; and there was no guarantee that the yearly tenant would get his share of the benefit. The right hon. Gentleman himself had probably a suspicion that the effect, if it was not the aim and object of the Bill, would be that the landlords' rent rolls would be larger than they had been of late years. Then there were others besides agriculturists who had suffered severely from fluctuations of trade, and some of them from continued depression for a number of years. The local rates in Norwich were between 8s. and 9s. in the pound. What was going to be done for 1319 ratepayers in constituencies like that? In his own constituency many workmen had been displaced by improvements in machinery, and there was no prospect of returning prosperity for them as there might be for agriculturists when they improved their methods. Was this Bill to be followed by a Bill for the relief of urban ratepayers; and, if not, why not? Were the urban districts to be denied the relief given to landlords in the Bounties? There was no reason why equal consideration should not be given to those who had been thrown out of work by improvements in machinery. The Bill was a most unjust Bill. Every labourer at 10s. a week, every woman who drank a cup of tea, every man who smoked an ounce of tobacco, would make a contribution to the money that would go into the pockets of the landlords. This was the position hon. Members would have to explain to their constituents, who would not take the rosy view of the Bill taken by the hon. Member for Oldham. The Bill would not give any relief to the farmer; certainly it would not reach down to the labourer. It would tax the whole community for the benefit of a section, and that the section most capable of taking care of themselves.
§ *MR. HENRY LOPES (Grantham)
said, that speaking as a Member who represented an urban constituency which had agricultural land attached to it, he could say without hesitation that he should give his cordial support to the Bill, because in the first place it would give welcome relief to a decaying industry, and would put new life and heart into many thousands of agriculturists throughout the country; and secondly, because it embodied a principle for which they had always contended, and which he trusted the Government meant to apply also to the towns hereafter, namely, the principle that every individual should pay towards the burden of local taxation in proportion both to his ability and capacity, and to the advantages and benefits which he derived. That was the principle of the Act of Elizabeth, which imposed a parochial income tax on all kinds of property. Personal property had become exempt from motives of expediency, if not of justice; but this exemption had caused the burden to fall the more heavily On land and houses. The time had 1320 come when the Government ought to do something with regard to the whole question. Common justice and equity demanded that the incidence of taxation as between rateable and non-rateable property should be made as equitable and just as present conditions admit of. Now he must confess that he should have been glad if the Government had found themselves in a position to deal with the question as a whole. It had always been a ratepayers' grievance in which the occupiers of houses and the owners of houses, as well as the owners and occupiers of land, had been equally interested. They had fought this battle shoulder to shoulder in the past, and any subvention which had been given had been shared in alike by both descriptions of property, and he must say that he regretted that they had parted company at a time when their case was never stronger. Whenever they had asked for relief they had always been met with the answer that rateable property derived immunity from the Death Duty since the Finance Act of 1894. That Act had levelled up all descriptions of property so far as Imperial taxation was concerned, so that answer was no longer possible, and their claim had become absolutely irresistible. He would quote some words from the right hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, during the passing of the Finance Act, for he appreciated strongly that this question demanded attention, and that any Government which dealt with it ought to go into the question as a whole. He said:—No doubt we have a condition of affairs in which landed property is exempt from Imperial taxation which it ought to bear, and personal property was exempt from local taxation which it ought to bear. I will not say the time has not come when there should be an inquiry into the real incidence of local taxation, and how that taxation (which I can assure the House is not decreasing) should be borne by the two descriptions of property. It would be a great injustice to put that on any particular property. I am talking of houses quite as much as of land.That was the opinion of a gentleman of great authority, and he regretted that the Government had not been able to deal with the question as it ought to be dealt with. However, he understood the Government recognised the obligations entailed upon them. They had promised 1321 that they would appoint a Committee to inquire into the whole question. The President of the Local Government Board said with incontestable logic that he must cut his coat according to the cloth, and that there had been so many demands on the resources of the Exchequer that it would be impossible to find the money which would be required if the matter was dealt with as he admitted that it ought to be. Under these circumstances, if priority was to be given to rateable or non-rateable property, he thought land should be considered first, because it was absolutely undeniable that the distress in agricultural land was greater than it had ever been before. The lie-port of the Commission had been quoted, and although some hon. Members had dissented from the majority Report, they did not venture to say there was not a strong and substantial claim for relief on the part of agricultural land. That distress was in marked contrast with the glowing description of the general prosperity of the country, as shown by the Budget. Never was the distress so universal, so prolonged, so unparalleled. Not only was the Government bound in honour to do what it could to relieve the distress that existed amongst our agricultural community, but it was imperative, if that relief was to be of the slightest advantage, that it must be given at once, and therefore it was not only a question of honour but of urgency. Then, again, although it was absolutely undeniable that the rate in our large towns had been increasing in greater proportion than the rate in agricultural districts, yet it was fair to remember that some of these rates might be considered in the light of investments. The money was expended for objects which were of practical use and benefit to the inhabitants in the towns, whereas those objects would, in rural districts, have to be provided for by voluntary effort. There was the further consideration that undoubtedly there had been a greater decrease in the value of landed property than there had been in the value of houses. He took an extract from the Report of the Royal Commission, in which it stated that from the year 1870 to 1894 the rateable value of land had decreased 15.5 per cent.; since 1880 the rateable value had decreased by 21.5. 1322 But, on the other hand, the rateable value of buildings had increased by 86.1, and the rateable value of railways by no less than 184.8 per cent. It was certain that the incidence of taxation had pressed more severely on the rural than on the urban districts. Hon. Members opposite stated that the average rate in rural districts had decreased. He did not care twopence whether the average rate had increased or not. That was not the question, which was whether the decrease of the rates had been equal to the decrease in value, and he was able to prove indubitably that the rate had not decreased either in proportion to the gross profits derived from the farm, nor in proportion to the ability and capacity of the farmer to pay them. If it was an economical error to put a tax upon food imported into the country, surely it was a still worse fallacy to so tax the land as to prevent it from competing on equal terms, and from producing that amount of food which is so necessary in the interest of the whole community. That was a very important consideration. Almost every hon. Member opposite who had spoken had told the House that the whole advantage of the Bill would go into the pockets of the landlords. He could not understand the logic of this. Why, if the advantage was going into the pockets of landlords, were they so keen about the principle of the division of rates between owner and occupier. Surely, if this was to go into the pockets of the landlords, they might equally argue that if you divide the rates between owner and occupier the landlord would be able to increase his rent, and therefore the tenant would get no possible advantage from it. Speaking from personal knowledge, on the property in which he was interested, 10 or 15 years ago they divided the rate between the owner and occupier, and he could say without hesitation that the advantage had gone into the pocket of the occupier, and the landlord had been obliged to reduce rents without any consideration as to the decrease of rates at all. There was another consideration why the towns should support the Bill. It was impossible to divide the interests of town and rural populations. The hon. Member who spoke last challenged the President of the Local Government Board to tell 1323 him how the Bill would affect the condition of the agricultural labourer. It would affect him by keeping the land in cultivation and prevent him from flocking into the towns. The large towns were being prejudiced by the influx of rural population, which led to excessive competition, and naturally tended to reduce the wages of artizans in towns. Take the instance of the small borough which he had the honour to represent. It was stated that this Bill would not help the small shopkeeper and small tradesmen in towns. Who was it who brought all the custom and trade into the small boroughs—the agricultural community who lived outside, and if that agricultural community was not in a prosperous condition it was impossible either for the small tradesman or shopkeeper to do any business at all. Therefore the interests of the two were so vitally connected that it was impossible to attempt to sever the one from the other.
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
I was not referring to the shopkeeper in small villages or rural parishes. I was dealing with the shopkeeper and manufacturer in purely urban districts, who were rated at £600, £700, and £800 a year on their business premises.
§ *MR. LOPES
said, that was rather a different case. But he maintained his general principle, that the prosperity of a town must, to a certain extent, depend on the prosperity of the agricultural community which was in their neighbourhood. He would only say he should give his hearty support to this Bill because he believed the Government had pledged themselves to go into the whole question, and he regarded this as really the first instalment in the settlement of the whole question of the incidence of taxation for local purposes as between rateable and non-rateable property. He had the utmost confidence in the good faith of the right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Treasury Bench, and that confidence was enhanced by his knowledge that many of them were representatives of large towns such as Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, and it would not be to their interest to neglect that of their own constituencies. He believed this Bill would do something to help to relieve a distress which all sides 1324 of the House greatly deplored; that the proposals upon which it was based were sound, politic, reasonable and just, and he was convinced the country would accept it as an earnest of the good intentions of the Government.
§ MR. JOHN DILLON (Mayo, E.)
considered that the introduction of this Bill at this stage of the Session was nothing short of an outrage on the Irish Party. They were promised at the beginning of this Session that the Irish Land Bill would be passed, and they had seen Bill after Bill of the most highly contentious and most complicated character pushed in front of the Irish Land Bill. What was the position at the present moment? They had, first of all, the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Bill; then the Education Bill, the Military Manœuvres Bill, and, as if that were not enough, they had now a totally new Bill introduced into the House at this late season of the year, and a Bill which the discussion that had taken place that night proved to be of the most highly contentious character. He put it to the Government or to any Member who had any experience of the procedure of the House, what chance was there of a Bill of the character of the Irish Land Bill passing into law if it was to be put behind such Measures as those which he had mentioned? That was the first ground on which he objected to this Bill. He wanted to ask the President of the Local Government Board whether he understood him rightly to say that no payment was to be made under this Bill before the 31st of March of next year? What was the meaning of introducing a Bill in front of Measures urgently and immediately necessary for the good of Ireland, and other important Measures—where was the common sense of introducing a highly contentious Bill of this kind at this late period of the Session if no payment was to be made under it until the 31st day of March of next year? Why could not the right hon. Gentleman introduce this Bill as the first Measure of next Session, and pass it before the 31st of March. He warned the right hon. Gentleman that the Members of the Irish Party would protest with all their power against any attempt to push this Bill forward in front of the Irish Land Bill. He had very few words to say with regard to the merits of the Bill. 1325 In the first place, he wanted to know from what source the money which would be necessary to carry on this system of subvention to the agricultural rates was to be derived? No doubt this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer had a surplus, but they had abundant warning in the Debates that had already taken place that the demands for the Navy and for other purposes were increasing, and were likely to largely increase in the course of the next few years. The surplus of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—even if the present abnormal prosperity of England lasted—would be swallowed up, and more than swallowed up, by the increasing demands for the manning of the Navy and the consequential demands arising out of the increase of ships. From what source would the money be provided to meet this fresh demand for the subvention of the agricultural rates? It could only be provided by the imposition of fresh taxation, and they knew very well that the proposal which the Government was seeking to commit the House to this year entailed fresh taxation. There could not be the slightest doubt of that, and the very eloquent and clear speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the other day, clearly showed that he contemplated that himself, because he drew a rather alarming picture of the future financial condition of the country. He had listened to one part of the Debate with great amusement and considerable surprise. There could be no doubt that it was the brewers and the parsons of England who returned this Government to Power, and they expected that the Government—with the gratitude which usually characterised Governments—would devote themselves immediately, when they came into power, to reward the two great pillars of their power. And what did they see? This Government, with all their great majority, had not taken the extra sixpence duty off beer, and they had not given any release to the parsons in the matter of tithes. The feature of the Bill with which he was particularly concerned was the application of this system of subvention of the agricultural rates to Ireland. The present Bill did not apply to Ireland; but he should be in order in saying a few words on the subject, 1326 because it was perfectly plain that, if an undue proportion was devoted to England, Ireland would be left out in the cold; and they were warned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the proportion that Ireland was to obtain of this sum for the assistance of the agricultural rates was the old proportion of the Probate Duty—that was, 9 per cent. for Ireland, as against 80 for England and 11 for Scotland. A more grotesque proportion was never heard of; and, as the right hon. Gentleman the late Secretary of State for India, in his remarkable and most eloquent speech pointed out, the principle on which this proportion was calculated for Ireland was absolutely and utterly indefensible. The sum provided ought to be distributed to the various parts of the United Kingdom in proportion to the rateable value of the agricultural land in each country. He defied any Member of the House to stand up and contradict that proportion; and, if that were so, then Ireland was entitled to at least 30 per cent. of the entire sum; and, undoubtedly, the Irish Members should use every form of the House and every opportunity that was offered to claim the just proportion which Ireland was entitled to receive. If they looked into the relative merits of the case, Ireland ought to get more than her proportion, calculated on the basis of the relative rating value of the land of the two countries. In England agricultural depression, great as it was, was to a very great extent modified by the fact that they had thickly grown over England great centres of wealth and industry, and that the manufacturing centres of England were now in a state of abnormal prosperity nobody could deny. When a city was in a state of great prosperity and superabundant wealth, the surrounding farmers were favourably affected by that consideration. But that was another reason why English agricultural distress did not need this relief nearly so much as Irish distress. English landlords were more wealthy than the Irish, they made a more generous use of their wealth, and the vast majority of the English landlords were not dependent upon their lands for a living. It was a notorious fact that a vast proportion, more than half the English landlords, were men of independent incomes, who, if they received not a penny from their 1327 lands, could live very comfortably and very generously, and, consequently, as a matter of fact, the greater number of the landlords of England did not get a single penny out of their estates. They spent all the revenue of their lands on their estates, and that condition of things prevailed over a great part of England. There was not a single landlord to-day in Ireland who, if he was not a bankrupt through charges on his estate, did not draw a large revenue from his estate, and if he did not draw it, his mortgagees or the men who had the charge drew it, and there was hardly a landlord who expended any considerable share of the revenue on his estate in Ireland. Therefore he held that in consequence of the general poverty of the country the Irish agriculturists were entitled, if there was real equity in the distribution of this grant, to a larger share than if it were calculated in proportion to the relative value of the agricultural lands in the two countries. If this Bill was to be passed into law Ireland ought to get 40 or 50 per cent. of the whole grant. He concluded by repeating what he said at the outset, that until some ground of urgency was shown for this Bill the Irish Members would regard it as nothing short of an outrage and insult to their country if any attempt was made to push the Bill through before the Irish Land Bill.
§ MR. GEORGE WHITELEY (Stockport)
intimated that although he sat on the Government side of the House he intended to oppose this Bill to the best of his ability, and he was only too glad to have an opportunity of explaining his reasons for so doing. Those reasons were two. In the first place, he thought the Bill contained principles that were not only wrong, but were almost dangerous—namely, that the Government should come to the assistance of an industry in this country upon the sole or, at any rate, the chief ground that it was depressed. ["Hear, hear!"] In the second place, he thought that this Bill was in every respect contrary to the interests of the towns, and while it might be, as the President of the Local Government Board said, justice to the country, it was a gross and cruel act of injustice to the boards and urban districts of the country. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government 1328 Board, in introducing the Bill, said it was introduced to redeem the pledges which the Government made at the last Election. He asked what hon. Member pledged himself at the last Election to invoke Governmental money, sums out of the National Exchequer, to pay half the rents of the agricultural land throughout the country? He ventured to think that no such idea as that was ever touched upon. The right hon. Member for Monmouth had spoken of the period of June and July of last year as a promising time. So it was; and his complaint was that, notwithstanding the pledges and promises then given of a system of social and domestic reform, promises of reform of the poor law, of granting old-age pensions, policies which would involve a large expenditure, the very first sum of money that came into the hands of the Chancellor of the Excheqner was being dissipated and distributed, not in improving the lot of the paupers in our workhouses, not in providing a fund for the granting of old-age pensions, not in reducing taxation, not in a well-devised scheme for the equalisation of the burdens upon rated and unrated property, but in subsidising and relieving one special and particular form of rated property and of real property—a form of real property in which many in that House were interested—to the total neglect of every other kind of rateable property, whether situated in urban or rural districts. If they spent this money on the agricultural land, where would they get the money to carry out those pledges by virtue of which they sat upon the Government Bench? There was no discrimination in the Bill between Government land and bad land. Land that was paying £2 an acre in rent was in exactly the same position as land which was paying only 10s. an acre. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget speech referred to agriculture as our largest industry and interest. He did not deny that it was large, but he ventured to say that, as an industry, it was not as large as the textile industries. If any hon. Member could prove to him that there was as much money in agriculture, or as much paid in wages, as there was in the textile industries, he might almost compel himself to vote for the Bill. The cotton, coal, 1329 and woollen industries ran the agricultural industry very hard. The agricultural industry was only one amongst many industries. It had no preferential position or status. He did not know how hon. Members could argue that it had. He was not prepared to deny that agriculture was depressed, and that the rates bore heavily upon it; but he met that assertion by the counter assertion that in many other industries there was very much greater depression at the present time, and that rates bore more heavily upon some classes of urban property than upon agricultural land. The other day the balance-sheet of a well-conducted limited liability cotton-spinning company, that would be rated in all probability at about £3,000 a year, and employed about 1,400 or 1,500 hands, showed a loss of £8,000 during last year by the operations of the concern, and not by speculation. The hon. Member for Oldham, in his patriotic speech, would grant anything to the agricultural interest. Did he know that the debit balances of the limited liability companies in his constituency were from £300,000 to £400,000? Did he know that in his own constituency there were 600,000 fewer spindles now than three years ago, and that in Lancashire there were half a million less than last year? Yet, in a spirit of generosity, he said he would devote the proceeds of the taxation of Oldham to paying agricultural rents. The cotton, coal, tin, and shipping industries were all much more depressed than agriculture, whilst he believed the silk and glass and some other trades were equally depressed. ["Hear, hear!"] They were told that, in rating undertakings, some consideration should be given to the question of profits. That was the first time such a doctrine had been brought forward in that House, and, if they were going to carry it out to its logical conclusion, how were they going to rate cottages and houses, and other hereditaments, that had no profits whatever, and of which there was only a rental and rateable value? Such a doctrine would not hold water for a moment. ["Hear, hear!"] Up to the present time all these grants in aid had been shared and distributed alike amongst all real-property owners. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer 1330 pointed out in his Budget speech, upwards of seven millions were given in grants in aid, and there was now a proposal to grant a million and a half more. But he objected to this grant being applied, whatever the amount was, specially and wholly to the one interest of agriculture. If it were granted at all it should be distributed generally in the way in which all grants in aid were, to the relief of property in both urban and rural districts. All rateable property should share alike in its benefit—["Hear, hear!"]—and if it were thus applied it would relieve property in both urban and rural districts to the extent of 3d. in the £. Was it right or reasonable that his constituency of Stockport, and the constituencies of other urban Members, should be debarred from receiving this relief of 3d. in the £ in order that the agricultural interest, which, to say the least, was not suffering from greater depression than some other forms of industry, should be relieved of half the amount of its rates? Why should taxation be maintained at the full limit in the towns and urban districts, in order that the rural districts might be relieved of half their rates? Any proposal involving such a state of things was both wrong and unfair. [Opposition cheers.] It seemed to him that the Government, for some reason or other, had become captive to the county and agricultural interest, and that they ignored the Members and interests of the borough and urban constituencies. [Opposition cheers.] Ministers were the best judges as to whether they could dispense with the support of the borough Members on this occasion, but he ventured to say that they had taken this course because they had a large majority in the House, and because, apparently, an Election was far distant. [Ministerial cries of "No, no!" and Opposition cheers.] At any rate, he thought that might in this case had taken the place of right. He did not deny that rated property at present bore an undue share of the public burdens, and he had often contended that the whole question should be carefully inquired into so that, if possible, the burden between rated and unrated property should be assimilated or equalised. It had been stated that an Amendment would be proposed 1331 on that point; if it was done by no on else, he should take care to do it him self. ["Hear, hear!"] The President of the Local Government Board adumbrated some kind of Inquiry into the incidence of the rates upon urban property; but his Inquiry would be lib locking the stable after the horse was stolen. By that time the surplus would have been appropriated; there would be no money to apply to the relief of urban property. ["Hear, hear!"] It was not without a feeling of regret that he had felt bound to oppose a Government Measure, and he had not taken up his present position without a full sense of the responsibility of his action. He was as anxious as any hon. Member could be to be absolutely fair, just and impartial in this matter; but he was persuaded that the Government had not entered on a fair and right course. He would, however, venture to suggest an expedient to the Government by which he thought the objections of many hon. Members to the Bill might to a great extent be met—by which, at least, many votes that, under present circumstances, would be most unwillingly given, might be willingly given for the Government. They heard a good deal just now about some inquiry being made into the question of the rating burdens on property in towns. Let the Government, then, make this a temporary instead of a permanent Measure. Let them give a time limit of, say, two or three years to it; and, in the meanwhile, appoint a strong Royal Commission, composed of experts, to inquire into and decide, once and for all, upon this burning question of rating, and taxation between rated and unrated property generally. By this means some equitable system might be devised through which other depressed industries might be relieved as well as agriculture, as in justice ought to be the case a far larger proportion of taxation than at present might be levied on personal property. ["Hear, hear!" and laughter.] In such circumstances he might be induced to vote for the Bill; but, otherwise, he should oppose it.
*MR. F. A. CHANGING (Northampton, E.)
said, he certainly felt that agricultural land was now paying too large an amount of the rates in proportion to the profits which were obtainable 1332 from the. land. ["Hear, hear!"] At the same time he was bound to say that, as far as he had then been able to under-stand the Bill, he could not assent to it. The hon. Member for Stockport and other hon. Members had shown that there was great divergence of opinion as to the incidence of local rating on different classes of property. It had been shown that there was strong ground for assuming that agricultural land was not the only class of property the incidence of rating upon which ought to be carefully considered before Parliament dealt with the question. ["Hear, hear!"] A hardy annual of the House was the Rating of Machinery Bill, against which he had voted again and again, on the principle that it dealt with only one interest, one class, and one phase of the rating question. The same objection, it appeared to him, applied in this case. The hon. Member for Stockport had asked for a scientific and exact Inquiry by experts into the whole incidence of local taxation on all classes of property. That was the real solution of the difficulty, and in his own Report to the Commission on Agricultural Depression he had suggested its adoption. In view of its present condition, he thought some relief ought to be given to agriculture, and he would support any proposal by 'which temporary relief of an adequate kind would be given. There were, however, certain facts which must be taken into consideration. The President of the Local Government Board had quoted a sentence from his (Mr. Channing's) Report to the effect that the tenants were really paying the whole of the rates, and had paid them during the whole period of agricultural depression. There could be no doubt about that; and there could be no doubt that the Bill would result in considerable immediate relief to the tenant-farmers. But he feared that the immediate effect of the Bill would be to prevent a continuance of abatements of rents, and wholly prevent those permanent reductions of rent which was the only thing which could carry with reduction in the assessment of he land, and therefore permanent relief of the tenant. The right hon. 1333 Gentleman had given some striking figures showing the increasing proportion rates bore to the gross profits from the land; but he did not say what proportion of those gross profits belonged to the landlords and what proportion to the tenants. He had analysed the series of farm accounts supplied to the Royal Commission, and had found that an altogether disproportionate amount of the gross profits went to the landlord. The landlords were certainly imposing an unfair share of the economic loss on the farmers—they undoubtedly were heaping on the shoulders of the farmers the whole burden of the rates. The landlords ought to take their share of the relief, and, by a permanent reduction of rents, they could secure a reduction of rates. Parliament had a right to call upon the landlords to take their share of the relief, and not ask the general taxpayer to bear the entire burden of it.
§ *SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)
, who was received with cheers, said: I doubt very much whether the House has yet appreciated the magnitude of the question which Her Majesty's Government have opened tonight. It is certainly by far the greatest financial question which has been raised in my Parliamentary experience. It was said that the revision of the death duties would require a whole Session, but a revision of the local taxation of this country could hardly be dealt with in the longest Session Parliament has ever known No one who has considered this question at all can doubt for a moment that the local taxation of this country is in an unsatisfactory condition; that has been admitted for a whole generation or more. It is a question 50 years old at least. It has never been comprehensively dealt with by Parliament, and it is necessary that it should be dealt with. I am one of those who agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in thinking that on the whole our Imperial taxation has been placed upon a saitsfactory basis—certainly its results testify to that; but the local taxation of the country has never been properly examined; its results are not satisfactory; but it is growing in every direction, except the agricultural direction, in its burden and in its magnitude. I am deeply convinced that there are 1334 great inequalities, and that there is great injustice in every part of the local taxation of this country; and it is because I have that conviction that I am astonished at the recklessness and the want of consideration—[cheers]—with which a Measure of this kind has been flung upon the floor of this House—[cheers and Ministerial laughter]—a Measure gross and palpable in its injustice—[cheers]—a Measure which pro-fesses to deal with local taxation in the interest of one class, and one class alone —[cheers]—a Measure which does not profess to have any regard to the whole question of local taxation, but which is, in point of fact, simply a dole professing to be dealt out to a particular distressed industry. [Cheers.] Doles are very bad things. We know that in old days there were charities of that description, where an impecunious wayfaring man could get a glass of beer and a bit of bread. But that is not the manner in which you ought to deal with the great question of local taxation. ["Hear, hear!"] How has this matter been dealt with? The materials for the proper consideration of this scheme were brought before the Agricultural Congress at the very last moment. I beg the right hon. Gentleman who introduced this Bill to give me credit for having read all those four volumes to which he referred. The happy condition of release from the responsibilities of office gave me a great deal of leisure in the autumn, and I am much interested in the subject. I have read the history of the present distress in agriculture, and I am not going to minimise that distress. But I have also read the history of distress at other periods, to which the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton alluded, and they are very interesting and painful studies. But when I allude to that history it is rather as a hopeful consideration, because agriculture has been in despair in former times, and happily it has recovered. I am not surprised that the present condition of things should cast a gloom over the whole of that industry; but one consolatory reflection in the most severe diseases is to know that others have suffered equally severely from those diseases and have recovered. For consolation of that character I advise any hon. Gentleman 1335 to read the Reports on agricultural distress in the twenties and the thirties. One of the principal Reports was in 1822, when it was laid down and thoroughly believed to be impossible for agriculture to exist if wheat was under 80s. a quarter. ["Hear, hear!"] The Corn Law was made in conformity with that conviction, and you will find the whole of the Reports founded on it. If you come to the Report of 1834 you will find exactly the same account as you will read in the volumes of 1895—land out of cultivation all over the country, farmers ruined, rents impossible of collection, and a condition of the labouring classes ten times as bad as any that you can represent now. At that time it was believed that ruin of the agricultural interest was spelt when wheat was at 60s. a quarter. [''Hear, hear!"] I am not at all disparaging or minimising the amount of agricultural distress at the present time, and if I believed for one moment that this Measure was one which would afford relief to agricultural distress, whatever objections I might have on other scores, I should have the highest inclination and disposition to support it. [Ironical laughter.] What I want to impress upon the House—and before we have done with it I am sure that the House will be sufficiently impressed—is the magnitude and extent of this question. [Cheers. ] If you once touch the question of local rating you are touching one of the greatest, and, I was going to say, one of the most dangerous, social questions with which you can deal in this country. [''Hear, hear!"] I do not for a single moment entertain the idea that you are going to touch it only to the extent of one-and-half million for agricultural land. You must deal with it in reference to the local rating of the whole country, and you will be driven, whatever you may think at this moment, to do so in the end. [Cheers.] That is a question of 30 millions or more; but if you deal with it in a rash and inconsiderate manner you have no conception of what liabilities you will incur in the future. ["Hear, hear!"] You may think yourself lucky if your local rating falls below the figure at which your Imperial taxation stands at the present moment. To show the inconsiderate way in which this matter 1336 has been dealt with by the Government, I was astonished to hear the right hon. Gentleman speak of the Scotch question as being a precedent for these proposals. If there was ever a precedent which was a condemnation of the principles of the Bill it is the Scotch precedent. Let me state what it is upon which this Bill—I will not say is founded—but on which the author of the Bill relies as supporting the principles of the Bill. The minority Report thus describes it:—The system has a most limited application in Scotland. Even in the parishes where it is adopted—namely, one out of five—it only applies to parish rates and not to county rates. It only applies—mark this—to that half of the parish rates paid by the occupiers of the land and not to the other half paid by the owner.[Cheers.]
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
I know you did, but I am drawing the moral of that admission. [Cheers.] Will you apply this principle of low assessment of the rate to the half which is paid by the tenant, and not to the half which is paid by the owner? [Cheers.] And if not, why not? You profess that what you want to do is to relieve the tenant-farmer. I will come presently to the question of your refusing to accept the principle of dividing the rate between the tenant-farmer and the owner. But when all these protestations are being made that this relief is intended for the tenant-farmer and not for the owner at all, I think that your refusing the division of the rate between the tenant and landlord because it would press hardly on the owner throws a little light upon your real intention. Then the Scotch precedent, so far from being in support of this Bill, is a condemnation of the Bill, because it is quite plain that it was thought the relief ought to be given to the occupier and not to the owner.
§ MR. R. A. YERBURGH (Chester)
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman yow he would deal with the case of the heoman proprietor owning and farming his own land?
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
I am referring to the Scotch precedent. I think the hon. Member comes from a county 1337 where there used to be a great many yeoman farmers, but the great misfortune of your present land system is that it has extinguished the yeoman farmer. [Opposition cheers.] He is perishing day by day, just as the independent publican is disappearing under the tied-house system. [Laughter.]
§ MR. YERBURGH
As the right hon. Gentleman has alluded to me, may I say that, in my opinion, what has led to the disappearance of the yeoman proprietor is the fall in the price of wheat?
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
Oh! long before the fall in the price of wheat. I have followed the agricultural history—[''Oh, oh!"]—long before. [Interruption.] I do not understand that interruption. [Cries of "Order!"]
§ An HON. MEMBER: Have you followed the price of wheat? [Renewed cries of "Order!"]
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
Really this is a matter which deserves to be argued, and hon. Gentlemen opposite will find before they have done with the question that it will be argued. [Cheers.] But if agricultural gentlemen think that they are going to clamour down the other interests of this country in Debate in this House they know very little of the character of the question that is raised. Now I conclude what is said about the Scotch precedent:—As the rates in rural districts in Scotland average 2s. 1d., of which 11d. is county rate and 1s. 2d, is the parish rate, of which 7d. falls upon the occupier, it is in respect of this 7d. only that land is assessed on one-fourth of its value.Now, what is the value of the Scotch precedent in support of this Bill? And there is another circumstance worthy of observation, that in the Scotch precedent it is not the general taxpayer who pays the deficiency; it is the rest of the local community in Scotland. Anything more worthless than the allegation of the Scotch precedent to support this Bill it is difficult to conceive. And my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Fowler) reminds me that shops and manufacturers are assessed only on half their value. I am rather disposed to close with you on the Scotch precedent that you have alleged in support of your Bill, and if that is what has guided you then I think we may amend your Bill in that sense. [Cheers and Ministerial laughter.] An- 1338 other point is the extreme inequality of the operation of the Bill. A landlord, we will suppose, has got land of different character in different counties. If he is a fair and intelligent man he will make for his arable land, say in the eastern counties, where the fall in the price, of wheat has led to great depression, an allowance in relation to its necessities and to another property, say in a grazing county, in proportion to the less serious character of the depression. Is that what your Bill does? On the contrary, it gives relief which is really insignificant in one case and a relief which is not wanted in the other. I call that a thoroughly inconsiderate and unstatesmanlike way of dealing with a question of this character. There is a paragraph in the Report which illustrates that. It says that:—In the case of such unions as Garstang and Glendale, where the rates in 1893–94 averaged only 1s. in the pound, the rates on land would be reduced in the same proportion as other unions, such as Dunmore, where the rates were 4s. in the pound, hut the rates in the latter were still four times as much as in the more fortunate unions where other ratepayers in the union would still have to pay the higher rate of 4s. in the pound and to bear a far greater share of any further increase in expenditure.Fancy the absurdity of taking a parish where the rates are 1s. in the pound and reducing them to 6d. and taking another parish where they are 4s. in the pound and only reducing them to 2s. and leaving all the other persons in that. parish still to pay 2s. And you call that a settlement of the great question of local taxation! [Cheers.] Anything more preposterous, more ignorant, more unstatesmanlike it seems impossible to conceive. [Cheers.] Now as regards the question of the division of rates, why do the Government refuse to make that one of their means of relieving occupiers? They say the burden of the rates falls upon the occupier and the occupier alone. That could not have been the opinion, at all events, of the First Lord of the Admiralty when he talked of the poor rate as an hereditary rate, for an hereditary rate is a rate upon the owner and not upon the occupier. But if Gentlemen opposite are of opinion that the rate falls upon the occupier and upon the occupier alone, why do they not agree to the division of the 1339 rate with the owner? That would be a method of relieving the occupier, at all events, from one-half of the burden of the rate. That is a remedy which has been justly put forward as one of the best reforms you could have with regard to the agricultural interest. It is the law in Ireland and in Scotland. Why is it not to be the law in England? The only reason the President of the Local Government Board gives is that it would be a bad thing for the owner. Well, I dare say it would be, but why is he not to share with the tenant the burden of the rate as is done in the rest of the United Kingdom? [Cheers.] Now the right hon. Gentleman laid some stress—not a great deal—upon a calculation which was brought in at the very end of the proceedings of the Commission by the evidence and the tables handed in by Sir Alfred Milner. No one is more bound or more ready to bear testimony to the great abilities of Sir Alfred Milner. But those tables were produced at the last moment, and, with the frankness and candour which characterise Sir Alfred Milner, they were prefaced by the admission that they were very speculative, that the material for arriving at a conclusion was extremely imperfect, and he produced those figures saying that in his view the conclusion to be drawn from them depended entirely on what view you took of the Land Tax. I have always considered—and I said so last year when I was responsible for the finances—that the Land Tax was a tax which ought to be overhauled, and it was extremely unequal and unjust in its operation. [''Hear, hear!"] I have never held any but the doctrine which I believe all sound economists have held, that the Land Tax, though a tax in name, is in effect a rent-charge, but that is no reason why it should be unequal in its operation, but it is not a tax. No One who has properly considered it from the economic paint of view has treated it as a tax. John Stuart Mill treats it directly as a rent-charge; so does Mr. Robinson, of the Inland Revenue. He treats it as a rent-charge; but a more practical authority is the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in his Budget speech said it was a rent-charge, and gave it as a reason for not repealing it altogether. Therefore I must leave the answer to be made to the President of 1340 the Local Government Board by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman has denied that the Land Tax was a rent-charge. It is not for me to answer him, but I think the answer is conclusive when it comes from his own Chancellor of the Exchequer. If you are to omit the Land Tax from Sir Alfred Milner's calculations, the whole conclusion would be exactly the opposite of that which would be arrived at if you include it. I do not really think it is worth while arguing as to whether redeemed Land Tax is a present burden on land. It is a contention so absurd that I do not think until this last Commission that anyone ever advanced it. You will find that no economist ever dreamt of treating redeemed Land Tax as a present burthen upon land. Much of it has been redeemed out of personal property; a great deal has been redeemed out of past income. I am extremely willing to enter upon a consideration of a reform of the Land Tax. I think it ought to be dealt with. But that is a very small question, and it is a very different matter from beginning to open the floodgates on the subject of local taxation. There is another subject to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton referred in Sir Alfred Milner's tables. That is the estimate of £1,000,000,000 as the value of personalty which earns no income. In the Budget, on a large part of this personalty, you are proposing to charge nothing at all; and therefore the £1,000,000,000, cut down by Sir Alfred Milner to £600,000,000, is largely reduced if you exempt personal property which does not pay income from taxation under the death duties. There is one other consideration which I would implore the House to bear in mind with reference to the proposals of this Bill. If there is anything which all economists and all financiers have warned us against it is the infinite danger of a national poor rate. ["Hear, hear!"] Of all social and economic dangers there is no danger equal to that. [''Hear, hear!"] Nobody can really understand this question of local rating or of the wide considerations which it involves who has not read the evidence of a man for whom I had the greatest personal reverence. I believe one of the soundest thinkers and financiers this 1341 country ever possessed was Sir George Cornewall Lewis. [''Hear, hear!"] I would ask hon. Members to read the evidence of Sir George Cornewall Lewis, given in 1850 before the Committee on Local Taxation. That was a Committee of the House of Lords, which was constituted soon after the repeal of the Corn Laws with a view of considering questions very cognate to those we are discussing to-night. The agricultural interest considered, and rightly considered, that it sustained great losses in consequence of the repeal of the Corn Laws and the disappearance of Protection; and this question of local taxation was raised as one of the most important matters bearing on the agricultural interest. Sir George Cornewall Lewis gave evidence of the weightiest description upon the bearings of local taxation and the methods of dealing with it. One of the things which he most insisted on was this, that of all things the most dangerous was to place the poor rate upon Imperial taxation. He said you would at once fall into all those dangers which would be found in the Irish relief of that period, and still more in the experiences which were then recent of the national workshops in France after the Revolution of 1848. I would beg the House to observe that this Bill goes one half way towards a national poor rate. [''Hear, hear!"] It is not the case of dealing with subsidies that have hitherto been made for special services; it is placing half the rate, including the poor rate, upon Imperial taxation. I would venture to predict that when you have gone half that way it will be a very short time before you go the whole. You will be utterly unable to resist the demand, when you have given a half of the rate upon agricultural land to be placed on Imperial taxation, to give the half to all the other interests in the country. That will give you some £15,000,000 as half of the present rate. And when you have given one half of the present rates, upon what logical ground will you stand to resist giving the other half; and when you have given the other half, what do you think will be the amount of the poor rate of this country? Why, every parish in the country will contend to have the highest rate, for they will know that it will be paid out of the Imperial Exchequer. You have given 1342 within recent years subsidies amounting to four millions, and how much have the localities benefited? In my parish we have got nothing out of these four millions. The rates have grown up to what they were before—["hear, hear!"]—and I believe that is the experience of the greater part of the country. The money has disappeared like a stream in the sands. When you have given this million and a half it will disappear, and in a year or two years no one will find himself any the better for it. To-night I can only endeavour to indicate in outline what I believe to be the seriousness, the extreme seriousness of the question that we are now discussing. This matter was dealt with by a Statesman greatly and deservedly respected on the other side of the House, the anniversary of whose death you were commemorating yesterday. No man ever gave more careful attention to this subject than did Mr. Disraeli after the repeal of the Corn Laws. I think that his speech in 1849, to which my right hon. Friend has referred, is one of the most careful studies of this subject that I have ever read. The first proposal that was made by Mr. Disraeli in 1849 was made upon the same grounds that you are putting forward to-night. He put it on the ground of the loss that the agricultural interest had sustained from the repeal of the Corn Laws, and discussed the right that that interest had to compensation in respect of local taxation. His first proposal was that half of the rate should be placed on the Imperial Exchequer; but Mr. Disraeli was too much of a Statesman to suppose that the English people would tolerate that that should be granted to one class of the community alone. [''Hear, hear!"] Consequently he did not propose to place half of the agricultural rate upon the Imperial Exchequer, but half of the local taxation of every interest in the country. He offered the boon to the owners of houses and even to the railway companies. Have you made that offer, and have you any conception what it would cost you if you did? That was the first proposal that Mr. Disraeli made, but it was rejected by such an overwhelming majority that he never thought of proposing it again; and in 1850 his proposal was to relieve certain specific charges which were not to be regarded 1343 as purely local charges, and in point of fact that proposal was the germ of the system of subsidies which was subsequently adopted. But when Mr. Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852 he made no proposal whatever with regard to the rates with a view to benefit the agricultural interest. The most remarkable thing is what he said upon this subject in the very last year of his life, 1879, in the House of Lords. That was the year of the greatest agricultural distress which at that time had ever been known, and what Lord Beaconsfield said was:—I can recall several periods of suffering. None of them have equalled the present in its intenseness… Nearly a million acres have gone out of cereal cultivation.Then he proceeded to consider the proposals which were made with regard to this question of local taxation. He said:—The noble Marquess, no doubt, is aware that during these 30 years (the years since 1849) two things have happened. In the first place there has been considerable relief afforded to the real property of the country, of which land forms a large portion; and, secondly, the proportion of rates, in so far as they fall upon land, is much reduced, so as to be levied now upon no more than one-third of the real property of the country. If these are facts—and they are founded upon official returns—I cannot bring myself to believe that some small reduction of our local taxation can bring such relief to the land as will reanimate the industry.That was his condemnation of this method of dealing with agricultural distress. Then he said:—There is nothing, to my mind, which would be a more bitter mockery than to pretend that by some small adjustment of local taxation we can supply a remedy for the distress which is produced by such vast, such numerous, and such complicated causes.He went on to point out what had already been done with reference to local taxation, and said:—Sir Massey Lopes carried a Resolution declaring that it was the duty of the Government to revise the local taxation of the country and to relieve real property, including land, as one of the most important portions of real property, from unjust burdens. He was asked to define what were the burdens which he thought were so peculiarly unjust, and it was then that he said that the care of pauper lunatics ought to fall upon the State, that the registration of births, 1344 deaths, etc., should no longer be provided for by local taxation, that the metropolitan police should be supported out of the Consolidated Fund, and that the police of the boroughs in Great Britain and Ireland should be borne upon that fund. In every one of those items during the last five years real property has been relieved, and, in every one of those burdens, has been assisted from the Consolidated Fund.That was the judgment of Lord Beacons-field in the last year of his life as to the satisfaction of the claims of the agricultural interest in reference to local taxation. ["Hear, hear!"] It will be observed that Lord Beaconsfield insisted that this remedy would be a mockery of the agricultural interest. I am not going to detain the House further with figures or quotations, but there is one thing to which I should like briefly to call attention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton called attention to one particular case in Mr. Rew's Report—a farm in Norfolk of 750 acres. In 1884 the rental of that farm was £1,206 and the rates were £98. In 1893 the rental fell to £543 and the rates to £39. I want the House to consider the amount of relief which this Bill is going to give to the occupier of a farm like that. His rates are £39. It is a farm of 750 acres, and I suppose that, being in Norfolk, which is mainly an arable and corn district, I should not be far wrong in saying that 600 of those 750 acres would be arable land, and I should estimate that 300 acres in the year would be in corn of one kind or another. If you work the matter out you will see that a variation of 6d. a quarter in corn would amount to very nearly the whole of the rates. That is a change which may take place in Mark Lane in any week. [''Hear, hear!"] Therefore the relief given by your Bill is a relief which may be given by a change of 6d. a quarter in corn in any week; and that you call relief for agricultural distress! [Cheers.] Everybody knows that within the last 12 months the price of wheat has gone up 5s. or 6s. The rise of that 5s. would amount to ten times the relief given by this Bill, and that is what Lord Beaconsfield meant when he said that an offer of an adjustment of this character would be a mockery of agricultural distress. [Cheers.] I have given the case of that large farm. I will now take a less one, which is also referred to in the Report. It is a farm 1345 of a more ordinary character, of 260 acres. If you work that out in the same way, you will find that in 1887 the rent was £302 and the rates were £30. In 1894 the rent was £168 and the rates were £7 8s. Why, Sir, a change of 6d. a quarter in corn would far more than pay the whole of the rates on that farm, and the relief given by this Bill would be £3 14s. ["Hear, hear!"] It is a mockery to say that that would be any relief at all. [Cheers.] You say that it shows good will. Well, it is a very nice thing to have good will, but you may depend upon it that is not the manner in which it is expected you are going to deal with local taxation. [''Hear, hear!"] But there is another question, and a great question—the question of tithe. I understand why the Government dare not touch the question of tithe. The question of tithe in the districts which are most heavily visited by this agricultural depression is in many cases double and in many cases three and four times as pressing as the question of taxation. Why do you not touch the tithe? We know very well why you do not meddle with that. [''Hear, hear!"] You do not mind the least in the world putting this extra taxation on the general taxpayer and giving no relief to the towns, but when it comes to touching the tithe—the sacred question of tithe—the Government no more dare deal with the question of tithe than with the question of liquor. [Cheers and laughter.] Both these questions are what is called among the savages taboo. [Laughter.] They are sacrosanct, and therefore you lay hold of local taxation, and in order to relieve your own pockets you diminish the burden by one half and leave the whole of the rest of the burden to be cast on the general taxpayer of the country. [''Hear, hear!"] This is a very large question, and the taxpayers generally and the dwellers in towns, when they see that they are to have no relief under these proposals, will have something to say upon this question. [''Hear, hear!"] I venture to say that, of all methods of dealing with agricultural distress, this plan is the most dangerous and at the same time the most inefficient. I have no objection to giving relief to local taxation provided it is distributed fairly in all direc- 1346 tions, but this sort of higgledy-piggledy, haphazard way of giving relief to agricultural distress raises a most dangerous question of national importance. [''Hear, hear!"] Anyone who has read this agricultural Report will have seen that this proposal was only brought in just at the last moment. I do not say that there was not evidence in the early part of the Report which might have not been brought in in aid of this proposal, but I do say that this subject never formed the main subject of the Inquiry of that Commission—the full consideration of that body.
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
Yes; I have read the shorthand notes of the evidence taken before the Commission.
§ *SIR W. HARCOURT
Yes; I have read every line of it. [Cheers and laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman must recollect that I have more time at my disposal than he has—[''Hear, hear!'' and laughter]—and I say most decidedly and deliberately that this question has not received that examination which it imperatively demands at the hands of the Commission and of the country. ["Hear, hear!"] If you think that you are going to rush through the House of Commons a proposal of this character, which involves such immense financial and social issues, I think you are very much mistaken. [Cheers.] The House of Commons would be ill discharging its duties towards those whom it represents if it did not give this question the most careful and deliberate consideration, which it certainly has not received at the hands of the Commission. [''Hear, hear!"] But we are told that the Government will appoint another Commission to consider what is to be done in the case of the towns. Yes, that may be so; but where is the money to come from? ["Hear, hear!"] You have a surplus to-day, and you are disposing of it for the agricultural interest alone, and you are going to leave the towns to look out for what they can get in the future. You are telling the urban population of the country to open their mouths and shut their eyes and see what the Government may do for them next year or the year after. I think that the urban population of this country have 1347 more sense than to accept such a proposal as satisfactory. [''Hear, hear!"] In my opinion, this is one of the most crude, hasty, and ill - considered Measures that I have ever seen placed before Parliament. [''Hear, hear!"] Why was this interim Report hurried on, and why was this plan proposed at the last moment? It was in order that, without consideration, without examination of the whole question in all its bearings, the Government might be able to appropriate this million and a half of money to their friends the agriculturists. ["Hear, hear!"] That is not the manner in which this great question of the relief of local taxation should be dealt with, and I hope that the House of Commons, before it passes this proposal, will give this question that full and deliberate consideration which it deserves. [Cheers.]
§ MR. CHAPLIN
said, he had intended simply to answer some inquiries which had been made and to make an earnest appeal to the House to allow the Debate to be closed that night, which he thought would be for the convenience of all concerned; but the speech of the right hon. Gentleman compelled him reluctantly to occupy a few moments in reply. He complimented the right hon. Gentleman on the extraordinary industry he had displayed in reading every line of four of the largest volumes of evidence he could remember, including, he supposed, the appendices. [Laughter.] He was rather surprised, however, that the right hon. Gentleman did not seem to have profited by this marvellous energy. He had heard him deliver the same speech at least half-a-dozen times; he had delivered the greater part of it immediately before the General Election, with rather unfortunate results. [Laughter.] The Bill had not been sprung upon the House, but had been introduced according to the ordinary methods. It was the first Measure announced in the House of Commons after the Navy Bill, and it would have been introduced at an earlier stage had it not been necessary to wait till after the Budget statement had been made. ["Hear, hear!"] The right hon. Gentleman had referred, he thought in rather a questionable manner, to the Report and Proceedings of the Royal Commission, but he had been totally misinformed. As regarded the evidence 1348 of Sir Alfred Milner, he had already explained that it was as long ago as August last that the Commission decided to take that evidence. The right hon. Gentleman had said that they called this a settlement of the whole system of local taxation; they had never called it anything of the kind; they called it a proposal to amend the law with regard to the rating of agricultural land. The suggestion that they ought to have relief to arable land, and not to grass, land was a most astounding one, for Essex, which was the most depressed county in England, was over thousands of its acres nothing but grass land. Hon. Gentlemen opposite suggested that they ought to rate all the different kinds of land in a different manner, and then complained of the confusion which was introduced by the Bill. [Ministerial laughter.] In reply to some questions which had been put he would say that the relief would not extend to sporting rents, to woodlands, or to the gardens attached to the very small cottages. The Bill applied to all rates except those for the direct benefit of the land, or where, as in the case of a special expenses rate, the land was assessed at less than one-half already. Then he was asked what was to be done for Ireland and Scotland. That had been already stated, although it did not give satisfaction, and he must therefore refer the hon. Member to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hon. Member complained of the introduction of a contentious Measure which would interfere with the passing of the Irish Land Bill. He did not agree with that assertion. It was a very short Bill, and there was no reason why it should give rise to any great delay. [Laughter and cheers.] It was urged that as there was to be no payment under the Bill before March 31, he could not understand the necessity for any urgency in the matter. There would be a large amount of work to be done before March 31 by the Local Government Board as to the settling of the shares of the grants after the Bill became law. That was a reasonable reply on the question of urgency.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I do not know but I hope so with all my heart. [Laughter.] Then the hon. Member for Stockport said that the Bill introduced a 1349 new principle. The principle of the Bill was as old as the hills, as old at least as the time of Elizabeth—to adjust taxation to the capacity of those who had to bear it. He was asked for a time limit—that he ought to bring up a new clause limiting the Bill to two or three years; but that was already provided for by the words that the Bill should remain in operation until Parliament should determine otherwise. [Laughter.] It was asked how the trader would benefit by the Bill, but that had been answered already when the extreme importance of the home market to the manufacturers of this country was pointed out. In a remarkable article, published some years ago, Sir B. Giffen described the importance of the home market to the manufacturer. The home market was described as eight times as important as all the foreign markets in the world put together. As to the question asked by the Member for Leicester, that was admirably answered in the speech, which he had heard with the greatest possible pleasure, by the Member for the Wood-bridge Division of Sussex. If the hon. Member was unable to understand that anything which tended to keep the land in cultivation would benefit the labourers nothing he could say would enlighten the hon. Gentleman. [Laughter.] The proposals of the Bill had been denounced by the Leader of the Opposition as a mockery. He repudiated that description altogether, but whatever the proposals might be, they were better than the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman, for he had never proposed anything at all. [Laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman had said that the Government ought to deal with tithe. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it was not the policy of his Party to leave on the land the whole burden of the tithe, but to take it away from the Church and devote it to something else. [Ministerial cheers] He had given a great deal of the time at his disposal to this Bill in the hope that he might be able to produce, not a remedy for the evils of agriculture, but something that would aid a class that were gallantly struggling against their difficulties. But what was the position of the Opposition? In the last Parliament there had been no bounds to their professions of sympathy with the distressed 1350 agricultural interest, and they appointed a Commission to inquire and recommend to them some means for assisting that interest. That Commission, after deliberating for a very long time, had declared its recommendations; and to these recommendations of their own Commission the light hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and his followers—instead of supporting them, as it might very well be expected they would do—had declared they would give the most uncompromising opposition in their power. [Ministerial cheers.]
§ MR. C. HARRISON (Plymouth)
rose to continue the Debate, and was received with Ministerial cries of ''Divide.'' He moved the Adjournment of the Debate.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
hoped the hon. Gentleman would not press his Motion to a Division. Hon. Members would have a full opportunity of discussing the single principle involved in the Bill on subsequent stages, and he hoped, therefore, that no delay would be offered to the progress of the present proceedings.
§ SIR W. HARCOURT
said, his hon. Friend had moved the Adjournment of the Debate because he had not been allowed to speak. They were not going to allow this Bill to be rushed through. [Opposition cheers.]
§ *MR. SPEAKER
I would venture to suggest to hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House that they should give a hearing to the hon. Member, in which case he will no doubt not press his Motion. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ MR. HARRISON
, by leave of the House, withdrew his Motion, and went on to say that the Bill proposed to relieve one class—namely, the landlords of the rural districts. If the Bill had contained any proposal by which relief would be given to urban ratepayers, then it might have received much greater consideration from the Opposition. At present it was clear that grants were to be made to one class only. Two or three Sessions back the President of the Local Government Board clearly laid it down that rates and taxes in rural districts were taken in consideration in the fixing of rents, and that Imperial grants in relief of local taxation would 1351 go into the pockets of rural landlords.' It was clear that that was so, not only in England, but also in Scotland, where one-half the rates were payable by landlords. That being so, it was clear that any Imperial grant to Scotland must go in the proportion of one-half to rural landlords. It was the same in Ireland. And in England the system of leases had practically expired and given place to yearly tenancies, under which the rent was recast each year, and local rates were considered in fixing the rent. Therefore, any relief must go, not in relief of the tenant, but in augmentation of the rent of the landlord. At present there was a tendency towards the equalisation of direct and indirect taxation. They were told the other day that the two classes stood in the ratio of 52 to 48, so that there was still a considerable difference. If, therefore, more money were taken from indirect taxation in the form of Imperial grants in aid, that would intensify the difference, and to that extent reverse the policy of the past 15 years. Then the taxation of the towns was largely in excess of that levied in the country; and it was obvious it must be so, because expenditure was called from aggregations of the people. A Return showed that the taxation of the towns was nearly double that levied on the rural populations. In the towns close upon 80 per cent. of the local expenditure was raised in rates, and 20 per cent. was received in contributions from the Imperial Exchequer. But it was different in the rural districts. In Shropshire the local taxation was 7½ per cent. on the rateable value; in the counties of Westmoreland, Berks, Oxford, Gloucester, Hereford and Wilts, it was from 7 to 10 per cent.; and in these cases from 29 to 33 per cent. of the amount expended was received in contributions from the Imperial Exchequer. The balance was made up out of the local rates, which in towns like Wigan, Nottingham, Hull, Rochdale, Preston, Wolverhampton, ran. from 20 to 29 per cent. of the rateable value of those towns. How was that contributed and divided? It was contributed by Imperial Exchequer grants to the extent of from 14 to 18 per cent., and the balance running from 81 to 84 per cent. was contributed by rate. What then was the deduction from these figures? That in the country 1352 where the rate ran only from 7 to 10 per cent. the amount of Imperial contributions in relief of the rate ran from 29 to 33. In the towns where the rate was 20 to 29 per cent. the relief from the Imperial purse was from 14 to 18 per cent. The practical result, therefore, was that the country areas which were the least rated and bore the least burden obtained under the present system nearly double the amount the towns obtained from the contributions of the Imperial Exchequer. If this be so the further addition of another million would aggravate that system and produce the result of still giving further relief than the 33 per cent. out of the Imperial Exchequer to rural districts while the towns would be deprived of the amount they now got, and would be reduced in ratio as the ratio for the country was increased. This was the system which resulted from adopting the system of Imperial grants in aid, which was a vicious system that had been condemned by the best authorities including the First Lord of the Admiralty, both in 1871 and 1888, and if in 1888 he was of opinion that grants in aid were an improper system, they were equally improper now, and ought no longer to be applied and certainly not increased.
§ MR. T. LOUGH (Islington, W.)
said, he wished to call attention to one point in the argument of the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill. The hon. Member for Stockport pointed out that the principle of the Bill was the giving of subsidies because rates had increased in proportion to the diminution of profits. The right hon. Gentleman replied that the principle of the Bill was as old as the days of Elizabeth, and was this—that property should contribute according to its ability to bear taxation. But he submitted that the question was, what was property to contribute to? By this Bill the rates on property were made to contribute to the assistance of a class which was falling into decay. No such principle was acknowledged in the time of Elizabeth; she would not have tolerated it for a single moment—[laughter]—or any sensible person since. If subsidies were to be given where profits had diminished, where were they to stop? In the great towns, as well as in the country districts, there were constant fluctuations. Were they going to give subsidies to 1353 everyone who fell into any difficulty? If they adopted that principle, where would they stop? The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill said he pleaded for a deserving class when he spoke for the landlords of this country He himself would speak for another most excellent class of which he had had experience for 25 years—the class of merchants who had dealt with China tea in this country. He happened to be a little connected with the tea trade and these China tea merchants had lost the whole of their business, and their trade had been withdrawn from them in the most ruthless and remorseless way for some years past. Were they going to tax every class in this country to subsidise these merchants? But what was the landlord after all? Looked at from the right hon. Gentleman's point of view the landlord was only a person who dealt in land. He was very sorry the landlord commodity had fallen in price, but with his experience in commercial circles he could say that that was not an uncommon complaint at all. The reason he and other hon. Members protested against this Bill was that if they began to tax those people who were engaged in a prosperous industry to keep other unfortunate people on their feet whose industry happened to decay, they would assent to a principle as bad as ever the House of Commons agreed to. The First Lord of the Treasury had appealed to them not to unduly prolong the Debate. He did not mean to do so, but the right hon. Gentleman should have some feeling for the state of mind the Bill produced on that side of the House. He found the next matter on the Orders of the Day was a question connected with advances for telegraphs, and the subsequent one the Military Manœuvres Bill. In the state they had been thrown into by the present Bill, based upon such inequitable principles, he said it was perfectly impossible for them to give any coherent consideration to these important subjects. The plea that had been made on behalf of the towns should receive more attention than it had done. He believed the boroughs gave their support to the Tory Party at the last Election, but with the exception 1354 of the hon. Member for Stockport, they had heard very little from the representatives of boroughs in that House. He hoped the protest made by the hon. Member for Stockport would be imitated by other hon. Gentlemen. The Government might make up their minds that the principles upon which the Bill was based would be examined with the greatest care, the matter being one that could not be dealt with without the very greatest consideration from the House.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chaplin, Mr. Balfour, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Walter Long, and Mr. T. W. Russell; presented accordingly, and read 1° to be read 2a upon Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 185.]
§ *SIR H. FOWLER
asked whether the Second Reading of the Bill was to be taken before or after the Second Reading of the Education Bill. He thought they were entitled to have some little idea as to the order in which these great Government Bills might be taken.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
said, he should propose to take it on Monday next. He imagined that that would be convenient to hon. Members. In that case it would come before the Education Bill.
§ MR. T. R BUCHANAN (Aberdeenshire, E.)
asked whether the First Lord of the Treasury would promise not to take the Second Reading of the Agricultural Rating Bill until they had had introduced and circulated the Bills relating to Ireland and Scotland on the same subject.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
said, the principle of rating in Ireland and Scotland and the general conditions of agriculture in those two countries were different from those in England, and it would be impossible to have one scheme dealing with all three countries in precisely the same way. They must treat the cases separately, though each country would receive the recognised share of the Imperial grant.
MR. PATRICK O'BRIEN
asked whether this Bill was to be introduced to the postponement of the Irish Land Bill, which was down for the same day.
THE FIRST LORD or THE TREASURY
said, that this was, he thought, the first Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech, and it was only deferred until that evening on account of the necessity of bringing in the Budget first. It had always been understood from the very beginning of the Session that this Bill and the Education Bill stood before the Irish Land Bill, but he saw no reason why all three Measures should not become law in the present Session. [Cheers.]