HC Deb 06 August 1896 vol 43 cc1736-51

The sums paid to the Local Taxation (Scotland) Account under this Act in respect of any financial year shall be applied by or under the direction of the Secretary for Scotland in manner following (that is to say):—

  1. (1.) In paying to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue the sums payable during that year for land tax by Royal burghs and burghs of barony or regality in Scotland; and in paying to any burgh a sum equal to the annual amount of the land tax redeemed by such burgh; and
  2. (2.) In transferring to an authority to be hereafter determined by Act of Parliament the sum of fifteen thousand pounds for the Improvement of Congested Districts in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, such sum to be applied as may he provided in the said Act, and until so applied to remain to the credit of the Local Taxation (Scotland) Account; and
  3. (3.) In distributing the balance among county councils and parish councils in Scotland in proportion to the amounts ascertained and certified as hereinbefore provided, for the purpose of regulating such distribution.
  4. (4.) Every sum paid or payable under this Act out of the Local Taxation (Scotland) Account to any authority in respect of any rate shall for all purposes be deemed to have been raised or to be raisable from occupiers by the said rate.

MR. MCLEOD moved, in Sub-section (2), to leave out the words "Congested Districts." He said that people in the Highlands had no knowledge of the term "congested district," which had been imported from the sister isle. He thought that the inclusion of that expression might hamper the authority charged with the application of the money. If the words were left out the object of the Government would not be interfered with, and a large body of public opinion would be satisfied.

Question put, "That the words 'congested districts in' stand part of the Bill."

The House divided:—Ayes, 135; Noes, 54.—(Division List, No. 390.)

*MR. URE moved to omit Clause 5. His object, he said, was to insure to parish councils in Scotland the powers which they at present possessed of apportioning the rate amongst the various classes of ratepayers according as they thought just and equitable. This was the clause which provided that classification from the date when the Act came into operation should cease, and accordingly it was the proper point at which to raise the question whether they were going to deprive the parish councils of Scotland of this important function. It was a power which had been possessed by the predecessors in title of the present parish councils, the old parochial boards, fur a, period of upwards of half a century. It was a power which they had exercised without any complaint of harshness or injustice. He did not for a moment doubt that opinions would differ as to the propriety, expediency, and perhaps even the justice of the various classifications which had been adopted in the 158 classified parishes in Scotland. But he did not think it could be fairly alleged that the parochial boards, much less the parish councils, had been guilty of any gross injustice in their exercise of this power, or of any act which would war- rant their deprivation of this power, at all events at this stage. Indeed, it could hardly be alleged that injustice had been committed, because the powers could only be exercised with the assent and approval of the Board of Supervision, now the Local Government Board of Scotland, a body which had exercised this function in a way which elicited yesterday from the Lord Advocate the very highest encomiums. Therefore they inquired with some surprise why it was that in this Bill, with its long and complicated title, which disclosed no such design as was here sought to be put in force, they should deprive parish councils of their power of classification. The sole objection to the Amendment which had been urged by the Government in committee, was the preservation of the status quo ante. Hon. Gentlemen opposite would not be surprised to know that the preservation of the status quo ante, abstractly considered, did not exercise a singularly magnetic effect on that side of the House. They were not subscribers to the theory that it was preferable to do a stupid thing which you had done before rather than a wise thing which you had never done before, and, whilst they condemned change for the mere sake of change, they were equally strong in their objection to being stationary for the mere sake of standing still. At the same time they recognised that the Bill emanated from a Conservative Government, and had been supported throughout by Conservative majorities, with whom, very naturally, the principle of status quo ante had a much more alluring and seductive effect than it could possibly have upon members on his side of the House. Accordingly, if, upon fair examination, the Bill had disclosed the principle of a desire to maintain the status quo, they should have accepted that probably in the present condition of affairs as quite a sufficient answer to their objections. He thought the Solicitor General understood what Members on that side meant by the status quo, as they understood what he meant, and it would serve no good purpose to go on deliberately misunderstanding each other. Each side claimed to champion the status quo, the one side claiming it to mean the maintenance of the existing law, the other, the maintenance of the system of classification now existing. But even understanding the status quo as expressed by the Solicitor General, the existing classification, the Bill did not contain that principle. For description of the true aim and objects of the Bill the prosaic language of every-day English had been abandoned and metaphor resorted to. The region of biological classification had been entered upon, and even then they had failed to find a species or class adequate to describe this nondescript, kaleidoscopical Measure. But of all principles which at one time or another had been claimed as underlying the Bill, the maintenance of the status quo was the most ridiculously wide of the mark. What was the status quo? This and only this. In more than three-fourths of the parishes in Scotland all classes of land were rated alike, and in the remaining parishes this property was separated into distinct categories, diverse no doubt but alike in this, that agricultural land was rated lower than its rent as appearing on the valuation roll. What did the Bill propose to do? As originally presented, the Bill made a very serious inroad on the present state of affairs. It proposed in the first place to knock on the head all classification, and to substitute in every parish in Scotland a compulsory statutory classification uniform throughout all rating districts. He would not argue whether that was right or wrong, but no one could dispute that it was a very serious innovation on the status quo. Between the Second Reading and the Committee Stage, the Lord Advocate in deference to the views of the Opposition perhaps, but certainly not with the hearty approval of hon. Members behind him, introduced a radical change in the Measure as originally pre- sented to the House and retained all classification where he found agricultural land rated as low as the magical three-eighths. He agreed that the relief given under the Bill had nothing to do with classification; but it was just for that reason that he could not comprehend why the Lord Advocate was so rigidly hostile to the preservation of the present powers of the Parish Councils. If there were no objection to preserving existing classifications, what was the objection to adding new classifications? He contended that they had heard no justification whatever for depriving Parish Councils of the powers in question. It might be said that Parish Councils had not yet exercised the powers and that parochial boards had only exercised them to a comparatively limited extent. His answer to that was that the Parish Councils had scarcely yet had time to realise their powers, but after this discussion they would wake up to the very important powers which they at present possessed of apportioning parochial burdens, equitably as they thought, among the various classes of ratepayers. But, if they were not going to exercise the powers, what in the world were the Government afraid of?


cited, by way of illustration, the case of a parish in Inverness-shire. In that case, under the operation of the Bill as originally brought in, the position of the agricultural occupiers would not have been altered to any material extent, but the classification operated against the small householders; and unless an Amendment had been moved this result would have remained. But during the next five years, in all probability the Parish Councils might desire to vary the inter-classification. They would have no desire to interfere with the valuation of the agricultural occupiers, but possibly they might wish to make some slight alteration as between the other classifications. He was not clear whether Parish Councils in the position he had indicated would have the power during the next five years to vary the inter-classification so long as they did not interfere with the three-eighths dealt with in the Bill.


said, they would not have that power. The Government looked upon the Bill as the precursor of a general financial reform, and they proposed to suspend classifications during the five years of the continuance of the Measure. There was no thought of distrusting Parish Councils. As there was no pressing necessity for further classifications, it was reasonable to suspend the power of making them until the whole question could be dealt with in a uniform manner. Any uniform system would probadly arouse local prejudice where it clashed with local systems. Therefore it was desirable that to the different classifications existing already there should not be added others, based perhaps on no very consistent principles and due to the possibly transient views of persons who happened to be the majority for the time being.

Question put, "That the words of the clause to the word 'any,' in page 4, line 9, stand part of the Bill."

The House divided:—Ayes, 131; Noes, 52.—(Division List, No. 391.)

*THE LORD ADVOCATE moved, "That the Bill be read the Third time."


remarked that no one who had general sympathy with his colleagues in the House would put any hindrance in the way of this Bill being read a Third time to-night if the House of Commons wished it. They had now come to the end of proceedings, which had been good humoured, but thoroughly in earnest on both sides, and he hoped they would continue to be good humoured to the end. He and Members on his side of the House thought that Scotland had not been well treated in this matter. The three countries had had three Bills this year. England had had a rating Bill which, whatever they on that side of the House might think of it, was accepted and supported by an enormous majority of English Members. Ireland had had a Land Bill which was supported, he believed, by only about one-eighth of the representatives of Ireland. On the other hand Scotland was put off with this Bill which, on the Second Reading, received only about two-fifths of the support of the Scottish Members, being opposed by the remainder. The point was what the feeling of Scotland was, as given through her representatives, on the very important questions of detail in this Bill. When his hon. Friend the Member for Dundee moved that the provisions of the Bill should apply only for two years instead of five, 31 Scotch Members voted for him and 16 against. When the Member for Kincardineshire moved that future rates should be levied as they were levied now, instead of being levied the whole on occupiers of house property and three-eighths on the occupiers of land, he was supported by 31 Scotch Members to 17. The hon. Member for Sutherland-shire moved that agricultural land should pay one-half instead of three-fifths, and he was supported by 28 Scotch Members to 14; and on the extremely important Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock for excepting accommodation land, he was supported by 32 Scotch Members to 16. He thought those were rather serious figures, as showing that Scotch opinion on the most important details of this Bill had not been consulted. This Bill established classification everywhere. In Scotland there were two classes of modification of rating. One was deduction which might be said to be universally popular. It was obligatory, but it was carried out con amore by all the parochial boards. Deduction gave an advantage to houses as against the land. But classification, so far from being popular in Scotland, was adopted only by 166 parishes out of 900. There was no demand for this Bill in Scotland. It was a mere afterthought. At the end of five years they would revert to the old conditions, with all sorts of new interests and new combinations, new habits and new proceedings, all of which would have to be abandoned the moment this Bill came to an end. They objected to what they could not but consider the scant honesty of the clause, in which it was said that the rate-in-aid came out of the Estate Duty on real property. It came not from the Estate Duty, but from the entire body of the taxes. They had contended, and they would contend until the Bill was out of the House of Commons, that there was no special agricultural distress in Scotland. Since the Debate began, a Blue-book had been issued by the Commission on Agricultural Depression. That Blue-book proved that Scotch estates were in an entirely different position to English estates. On the immense Scotch estates the fall in rent had been very small indeed. The Blue-book also proved that the net income of the Scotch landlords was very much larger generally than the net income of English landlords. But there was one class of landlords in Scotland for whose benefit he and his friends especially objected to the taxpayers being called upon to pay, and that was the class who had not proceeded on the principle of reducing the gross rental. It was for such purposes that the people of the great burgh constituencies were to be taxed. They were to be taxed, and they would get nothing back but a mere pittance. It was not these constituencies only; in every county there were large numbers of men considerably exceeding in number the agriculturists—weavers, coal miners, shopkeepers—who would get nothing of this relief, which would go altogether in a partial and privileged manner. In so doing, it established an injustice against which they felt bound to protest. But there was a wider idea in their minds than this. They regretted the unfortunate system of doles from the Exchequer which had already gone to such an extent, which had already demoralised the ratepayers, and which had already excited hopes which he trusted would never be gratified. They regretted deeply that this ill-omened system had been carried further. They saw in Scotland that this system would result in extravagance, and they looked with dissatisfaction on the moral character of the Scotch ratepayer being somewhat impaired and the old method of thrift relaxed. He begged to move that the Bill be read a Third time that day three months.


denied that the Bill was one for the effectual removal of agricultural distress. So far as any real benefit to the class they professed to relieve was concerned, they might as well throw the money into the Forth or Clyde. What the farmer wanted was not his rates helped, but his rents reduced. He did not say that the House could give the farmer what he desired, but this Bill constituted no substantial measure of relief. It altered materially the existing system of rating in Scotland; it abolished the freedom of classification—that freedom to rate people according to their ability to bear the rates, which had been recognised as a just principle, and which till now had been the salient feature of the rating system of Scotland. Surely, they should have consulted Scotland first as to this sum of money, but they did not do so, because there was an ulterior purpose. He believed that the real motive of the Bill was to mangle the new Parish Councils. The Parish Councils had taken the place of the old Parochial Boards, on which those who had rights or privileges which they did not wished interfered with were represented. But the new system of Parish Councils had been established, and hon. Members opposite professed to be as strongly in favour of it as they were, and yet they now intro- duced a Bill to take away from these bodies the most important power they had of rating people according to their ability to bear the rates. He feared that they were taking away these powers in mistrust of the men who exercised them, but, as anybody who was acquainted with the Parish Councils of Scotland knew, a greater mistake could not be made. As one of the majority of Scotch Members opposed to this Bill, he begged to Second the Motion.


said that he desired to remove some misapprehension in respect of his position with regard to this Bill which appeared to exist in the mind of the hon. Member for Leith, and other hon. Members opposite, who had said that he was one of the supporters of the Government who did not support the proposal that the Bill should be immediately proceeded with.


said that his words were that the hon. Member had stated that he would have preferred a full to a half measure upon the subject.


said he had stated that under normal conditions he would have preferred to have waited for the Report of the Commission on Rating, but, as he had strongly expressed during the different stages of the Bill, he cordially supported the present Measure on account of the entirely exceptional depression of agriculture in Scotland as compared with the other leading industries. In order to arrive at an accurate conclusion as to the progress or decadence of any industry, and its position relative to other industries, we must note the facts throughout their whole areas and over a considerable period of years. Hon. Members opposite had taken only the small areas and short periods coming within the narrow scope of their own recent personal observations, but, if they took the wider view, he was sure they would come to the same conclusion as he had. He entirely concurred with the observation of the right hon. Member for Bridgeton that agricultural distress in the Lowlands of Scotland was not so severe as it was in the English counties. He believed that the greatest mistake that had been made in regard to this Bill was the adding to Clause 1 the Amendments which had been made by the Lord Advocate. Many hon. Members opposite had professed a great admiration for the system of classification. They had spoken of it as being both scientific and just; but his experience of it had been that it was the very reverse of scientific and most unjust. With all its errors and omissions, he believed this to be an admirable Bill, and one which would be a standing monument to the ability, skill, and tact of the Lord Advocate. He gave it his hearty assent.


wished to acknowledge the skill, ingenuity, and unfailing courtesy exhibited by the Lord Advocate in conducting this Measure; but when he had said that, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not misunderstand him if he added that a drearier or more unnecessary Measure had never been introduced. The only particular in which it touched on common humanity was that portion which dealt with the crofters of the Western Highlands. The idea contained in Clause 4 was, no doubt, an admirable one, as setting forth apparently the wish of the Lord Advocate and the Government to do something for those congested districts; but the means which had been adopted were of the most feeble description. It was proposed to devote the sum of £15,000 to cure the congestion, but that sum was utterly inadequate, and he could not help wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies was ever consulted on that part of the Bill during its incubation. If he was, he must have changed very much within recent years, for he recollected the time when the right hon. Gentleman took a deep interest, or what appeared to be a deep interest, in the forlorn and penurious lot of the Highland crofter. It seemed but the other day that the right hon. Gentleman undertook a pilgrimage to what he called the misty islands of the north, either to paint in his masterly way the sorrows of the inhabitants or to acquaint himself with the nature of their social problems—he didn't know which, and it was, perhaps, now of little consequence. But, at all events, the right hon. Gentleman left behind him hopes, inflated by sympathetic words and by suggested Measures of relief never destined, he feared, to be realised through the instrumentality of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman was now a Member of the Government that offered these suffering people the munificent sum of £15,000. To what purpose was that fund to be applied? The Lord Advocate did not know. His mind, he said, was open on the subject. He (Mr. Hedderwick) could admire an open mind so long as it was not a mere vacuity. The money, the Lord Advocate declared, had been well considered. Surely then he must have in his mind the purpose that exercised his consideration and enabled him to arrive at so nicely calculated a sum. The country was entitled to know something of the purpose for which this sum of money, apparently so inadequate for any real efficacious relief, was destined. The Lord Advocate only enlightened them to this extent—that he admitted its inadequacy, and said it was to be a nucleus. A nucleus for what? Would a nucleus fill an empty stomach or give an acre to a landless man? The whole idea of curing the congested districts of Scotland by a gift of £15,000 was an absurdity, and he should like to throw out a friendly challenge on the subject to the Lord Advocate. Would he leave the pleasant shores of Bute and go up to the Highlands of Scotland; would he visit the constituencies that were addressed with so much alluring eloquence by the Secretary to the Colonies, and seek the suffrages of the people upon his nucleus of £15,000? He could imagine the scene—the Lord Advocate with his loaves and fishes and the multitude waiting for the miracle. Why should the Government invite starving men to so Barmecidal a feast? It was a cruel farce, to which he would be no silently acquiescing party. If the Government were bent upon devoting the money at their disposal to the relief of agricultural distress, they had enough to make their relief in this direction real. The opportunity was a golden one. Why should they have persistently declined it? There was another ground of objection against the Bill; the people of Scotland had never been consulted upon it, and what would happen would be this: The grant would be received without gratitude; the money would be expended without satisfaction, and the people of Scotland would feel justified in supposing that the Government did not really understand the wants of those for whom they were legislating.


said he proposed to call attention to one or two points that had not been adverted to in previous discussions. The Bill had the longest description of any Measure that had passed through the House, and yet this portentous title was absolutely ineffective in its description of the Bill. The House had been directly and definitely forbidden to extend the relief of rates to subjects other than agricultural land, but that which they were not allowed to do the Government itself had done in the Bill, and this Bill which professed to give relief to agricultural land gave relief to subjects other than agricultural land, and did so in a partial and utterly unprincipled way. The Government had done on a small scale that which he and his friends proposed to do as a matter of principle in the first instance. In its language the title did not give a correct description of the Bill, and he thought it was a result of the Rules of the House, of which they had a right to complain, that that which the House could not do as matter of principle, the proposers of the Bill could do as matter of convenience. Another point he wished to advert to was the connection of the Measure with the mighty programme with which the Government approached the House at the beginning of the Session. This was one of a trilogy of Measures which the Government were going to carry away as the result of their Parliamentary Session, the English Rating Bill, this Bill, and the corresponding Measure for Ireland. [An HON. MEMBER: "And the Irish Land Bill!"] Of the Irish Land Bill he would say nothing. The three Measures for England, Scotland and Ireland were parts of a whole. In the title of the Bill would be seen what the Government chose to regard as its substance and effect; but what was the pretence with which the whole scheme was laid before the House at the beginning of the Session? Once again he read a sentence of the Queen's Speech to contrast the Bill with the pretence of the Government. The President of the Local Government Board changed sides more than once in the conduct of his Measure—he could instance it; and the Lord Advocate had changed horses at every stage of his Bill, so that now it was difficult to say upon which animal he was riding home. What did the Government undertake to introduce? Mark the difference between the programme and the performance. Her Majesty was made to say "I regret to say that the position of agriculture is disastrous "—disastrous let the hon. Member for Dumbarton note that—beyond any recent experience." It was the hon. Member for Dumbarton who stood up for agricultural distress at this stage, but would he contend that this language of exaggeration truly described the position of agriculture in Scotland? But this was not the sen- tence in the Queen's Speech to which he wished to call special attention. Measures will be laid before you of which the object will be to mitigate the distress under which the classes labour that are engaged in that industry. ["Hear, hear!"] Did hon. Members cheer that as a description of this Measure? What classes were engaged in the industry in Scotland? There were three. The landlords were a small class who were bound to get some, and in the end would get all, the benefit from the Act. There was a larger, but still small, class of tenant-farmers, who would get some benefit for a time; but the largest class of all were the agricultural labourers, and he appealed to Members who had sat through these Debates to say if the agricultural labourers of Scotland had been so much as once mentioned. The agricultural labourer had no concern in the Bill. He had just as little interest in it as the artisan of the towns. He did not get a farthing of the £200,000 a year of which as an individual he had as much right to a share as any farmer or landlord in the land. The Bill was past praying for now so far as the House of Commons was concerned. Normally there was no hope that the decision of the House would be reversed in another place. But recent events had shown that, even in the time of a Unionist Government, they could find in the House of Lords a Court of Appeal. [Opposition cheers.] He hoped that same spirit of independence with which he sympathised would induce the Lords to reform this Bill.


said the intention of the Bill was, as far as possible, to render nugatory the Finance Bill of 1894. Besides, Scotland did not get under the Bill her fair share of the money. Scotland was not getting her fair share, and the Bill proposed to divide the money in a particular way, and to give a certain sum to relieve the borough land tax, which should be charged on the Imperial Treasury, and not on any special Scotch equivalent grant. There was an important new departure in the Bill. Hitherto, when special grants had been given to the Highlands for the relief of distress, the Imperial Exchequer had been called upon to find the money inasmuch as the Imperial Parliament was responsible for the laws that produced the distress; but now, England was taking good care the Imperial Exchequer was no longer to be called upon to make up any money that might be required. This now departure would not commend itself to the majority of the Scotch people, and if it was any criterion of the kind of legislation which Scotland was to get during the continuance of the present Parliament, it was not in accordance with the election pledges of hon. Members from Scotland. He had gone through the whole of their election addresses. [Laughter.] They were simply endeavouring to render nugatory the legislation passed in the last Parliament.

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

The House divided:—Ayes, 124; Noes, 45.—(Division List, No. 392.)

The announcement of the figures was received with Ministerial cheers.