HC Deb 13 May 1896 vol 40 cc1294-308

"(1.) After the thirty-first day of March next after the passing of this Act the occupier 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 buildings and other hereditaments.

(2.) This Act shall apply to every rate as defined by this Act, except a rate—

  1. (a)Which the occupier of agricultural land is liable, as compared with the occupier of buildings or other hereditaments, to be assessed to or to pay in the proportion of one-half or less than one-half, or
  2. (b) Which is assessed under any commission of sewers, or in respect of any drainage, wall, embankment, or other work for the benefit of the land."


proposed, in the first line, before the word ''after,'' to insert the words ''During the continuance of this Act, that is to say, the period of five years." He said he moved this Amendment in order to give effect to an undertaking which he had given to hon. Members on both sides of the House when the Bill was in the Second Reading stage.

MR. LLOYD-GEORGE moved as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment to leave out ''five'' and to insert "three."

MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

said, he had an Amendment to make this practically an annual Bill, which he was afraid would be cut out by the hon. Member's Amendment.


was understood to say that that result could not be avoided.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had moved his Amendment in deference to the pressure brought to bear upon him by hon. Members on his own side of the House who represented urban constituencies. The only possible ground for introducing this alteration was that the Government proposed to introduce at some future period a Measure dealing with the whole question of local taxation, whether it affected towns or agricultural land. They said that when they got a Report from a Committee which would investigate the matter then they would go into the whole question. But such a Committee could not possibly take more than two years to investigate the whole of the facts. He believed the Government at the present moment had in their possession the whole of the facts, and could deal with the urban districts as well as with agricultural land. The Return which had been moved for by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton two or three years ago gave the whole facts in regard to the rates in urban districts, and established a case, if there was a case at all, for relieving the urban districts. There were no controverted facts that a Committee would have to inquire into; there was no dispute with regard to the amount of the rates in the urban districts, or with regard to their pressure upon several industries in those districts, which were in consequence depressed. The facts were thoroughly well known, and he submitted that this Amendment would be a true test of the Government's sincerity in regard to their intention of dealing with local taxation in towns. The supporters of the Government who represented towns had said:— The depression from the rates is very great in our districts, and we are paying three times as much as the rural districts are. The right hon. Gentleman said:— We admit your grievance, but we cannot deal with it until we get a Report on the subject. What was the good of having a Committee to consider this question unless the Government proposed to legislate when they got a Report? If they intended to act upon such a Report, they should act upon it immediately they got it. But supposing that when they had got a Report they found that they had not got the funds, or the time in that Session, to enable them to dispose of the question, it would be easy for them to come to the House with a short Bill for extending the limit for another year or two, and at any rate the House would then have an opportunity of going into the question a second time. To fix five years as the limit was practically to put off the question during the life of the present Government. The Bill would probably become law in the month of June, and five years from that time Parliament would in all probability be dissolved, according to the usual custom. That meant that the Government would allow this matter to be dealt with by their successors. The usual experience of politics taught them that the Government would not be returned again; that was a rule laid down by the Prime Minister himself, when he had spoken of the swing of the pendulum. There would, at any rate, be a chance after five years that a different Government would have to deal with this intricate question. This was a question of considerable moment; the Government proposed to spend two millions on the relief of agricultural land, but on the same principle 13 millions would have to be spent on a similar relief to the towns. Their acceptance or non-acceptance of his Amendment would, therefore, he contended, be the true test of whether they meant to deal with the question, or whether they were simply proposing to put it off by the appointment of a Committee.

MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

supported the Amendment of the hon. Member for Carnarvon. One of the reasons why, on the Second Reading, he had proposed that there should be a reasonable limitation to the period was because, in the view of the right hon. Gentleman and most of his colleagues, the benefit ultimately would go into the landlord's pocket. The period of five years in which to accomplish the result he had described as desirable was too long. Then, what his hon. Friend had urged was extremely important—that it was the duty of the present Government, before the end of the present Parliament, to bring forward a complete scheme for the reform of local taxation. He himself urged this in the interests of London and other great towns, which suffered so much at present, and were not only not relieved, but were actually mulcted under the present scheme. If the Bill ran for five years, it would outrun any reasonable prospect of a continuance of the present Parliament for legislative purposes. The Party in power might possibly be returned again at the next General Election, but the House had considered this matter at the initiative of the present Government, who should deal with it. Hon. Members opposite could not look upon the Bill as a lasting Measure. It was a temporary Measure of immediate relief, and therefore ought not, by its existence, to complicate the final solution of the great question of local taxation and distribution of grants among various portions of the community. That being so, it must be obvious that five years was too long a period for this immediate relief to be allowed to run, and three years was a reasonable period. For himself, he should prefer that it ran for a year only, but he would make it a three years' Measure with a view to a complete settlement of the question being made in the present Parliament if possible, and three years would give either the proposed Committee or Commission ample time to inquire and report, and for new legislation to take the place of this. He also wished for the Bill to be limited to three years because a certain amount of relief was granted to local taxation, and this Bill dealt with a portion of that question of relief. Perhaps the House was not aware how enormously that subject needed the immediate consideration of the Government in connection with agriculture, because the position was that the amount of relief to local taxation in proportion to the ratable value of the places relieved actually varied in this country from 13 to 38 per cent. But the relief granted in agricultural districts was greater than was granted in town districts, and between one agricultural district and another there was as extraordinary a difference as between one town district and another; and as between these two groups, country and town, it was not too much to say that the ratio of inequality in relief from the central body was almost as great as between the utmost limits between one and the other, so irregular was the relief given. He should have, on a subsequent Amendment, to deal with this, and point out that this being a Measure of relief, they should relieve in proportion to the need, and not in that procrustean method of relief which was adopted by this Bill. Whatever plan they might adopt would be only a rough-and-ready plan of relieving the agricultural districts, and there would be borne in upon the Government by their own supporters, more effectively than could be borne in upon them by him, the claim of the towns for consideration in the enormous inequality he had alluded to. It was proposed to give relief where least needed. It would be to the interest of the Government and for the good of the country—with which the way in which local taxation was treated was largely bound up—to make an honourable attempt to settle the question of local taxation throughout the country. If they did it they would have to do it in the present Parliament, and he did not wish their hands to be bound and tied by the existence of this Measure beyond a period of three years. If it continued beyond that time they would be tempted to use it, and they would slide out of this Parliament, as they had slided out of the three or four Parliaments in which he had had the honour to sit, without having had the courage to face this serious and important question. ["Hear, hear!"]


said, there was no doubt that those who represented agricultural constituencies were at one with the Government in wishing to give the greatest amount of relief to the agricultural interest, and to give it in the best possible way. He felt that the limitation of three years would be better than five years. There was now a House of Commons which took a considerable interest in agriculture—[''hear, hear!"]—though some view matters from the point of view of the landlords, and others from that of the tenant-farmers. By fixing upon five years they would make it almost certain that the next settlement of the question would be handed over to a new House of Commons, which, whatever Party might be in Office, might not be as strongly agriculturist as the present one. It was well this House should complete the matter. He was sure the Bill did not do half what it might do with the money that was given; if it gave relief where it was most needed, more good would be done to agriculture. There was another reason why the operation should be limited to three years. If they decided upon five years, a good deal of the relief would by the end of that time have percolated into the hands of the landlords. If the Act were to be renewed every two or three years, the tenants would get the benefit and not the landlords. In the interest of the tenant-farmers, the term of three years was preferable to five years.


said, the President of the, Local Government Board had recognised the general feeling on the Opposition side of the House that this should not be a permanent arrangement, but limited to a certain number of years. The question, therefore, between the two sides was what the period should be. As he understood the matter, the Government admitted that the old system of local taxation pressed unfairly upon the owners of real property, and they were desirous that the relief they were extending by this Bill to the agricultural interest should also be extended to the manufacturing and other interests which, in the opinion of the Opposition, felt the pressure quite as heavily as agriculture. Then the Government said they must have an inquiry, and he agreed with them as to the necessity of an inquiry. It had been assumed that the inquiry should be one either by a Select Committee or a Royal Commission. He hoped it would not be by a Royal Commission, for he thought that had now become the most unsatisfactory mode of inquiry that it was possible to adopt. He put it to the Government whether this was not an inquiry that they should make themselves as a Government. He could not conceive anything more irregular or more unsatisfactory than to base a Government Measure upon an inquiry and Report of a Select Committee, a body chosen upon Party grounds and having no responsibility whatever. Besides, he understood that a Select Committee could not sit this year. The investigation, if made by a Royal Commission, would probably occupy years, but if the Government made the inquiry they would, no doubt, make it in the course of the forthcoming Recess, and they would, therefore, be ready to submit a scheme to Parliament next Session. He trusted the Government would consent to limit the operation of the Bill to three years. That would allow ample time for them either to make the arrangement permanent or to link with it another Measure which would relieve other descriptions of ratepayers. The limitation to five years would only lead to a prolongation of the thorough investigation of the question, and do no good either to the agricultural or the manufacturing ratepayers.


said, the method of the inquiry, and also the object to which it should be directed, would be subjects for the consideration of Government. The right hon. Gentleman might rest assured the matter would receive his most earnest attention; but he was not now in a position to state what course would be decided upon. The hon. Member for Hoxton gave his reasons for desiring a limitation to three years instead of five. He said that great inequalities would arise, and that most relief would be given where it was least needed, and that the least relief would be given where the depression was the most severe. Those were questions which did not exactly arise on this Amendment. Then the hon. Gentleman said it was the duty of the Government to complete this matter during their tenure of Office. The Government thought it was very likely they would remain in Office not only during the present Parliament—[laughter]—but for some time in addition, and therefore they had no fear as to the completion of the matter. [''Hear, hear!"] Now, what was the case they had presented to the House? They admitted that a grievance was felt by other persons. They had never concealed that; but what they held was that the grievance on the part of the land was greater than that on the part of other ratable properties. For that reason they had elected to deal with land first. If they allowed the experiment to be made for five years, they would have some reasonable opportunity of gaining experience of the working of the system which might be of the greatest use with regard to any decision in the future. The hon. Member for Lichfield expressed the belief that, in the interest of agriculturists themselves, it would be far better to limit the Bill to three years. If the hon. Gentleman asked the agriculturists whether they would rather have the Bill for five or three years, he would find they were unanimous in favour of five years. He was afraid he must ask the Committee to adhere to the period originally fixed.

SIR JAMES JOICEY (Durham, Chester-le-Street)

said, he was glad to find that the Government had consented to limit the scope of the Bill to five years, but he failed to see that the right hon. Gentleman, in what he had said, made the case any stronger for five years than for three years. The incidence of taxation was undoubtedly in an unsatisfactory condition, and an inquiry should take place wherever that unsatisfactory condition of things existed. He thought the right hon. Gentleman would do well to reconsider his decision, and to make the period three years, on various grounds. In the first place, it was very uncertain how long this agricultural depression would continue. It might disappear in the course of 12 months. Landlords, in making rebates to their tenants for six or 12 months, recognised that a change might take place in the position of their tenants, and he thought they ought to proceed in this matter in a similar way. In the course of three years they would see the effect of this relief, though, in his opinion, it was no relief at all, and then they would be in a better position to deal with the whole subject. The right hon. Gentleman said he objected to three years because he considered land was in a different position to any other property. He maintained that that was not a correct statement. In his own constituency they had a large number of mines, and would the right hon. Gentleman tell him that the mining industry at the present time was any more prosperous than agriculture? Was he not aware that every tax that was paid at the present time by land was paid by minerals? His own constituency was a rural district, but as a matter of fact they had all the disadvantages of an urban district, and during the last 10 years the rates had been going up by leaps and bounds, and in all probability would continue to do so. He maintained that if the Bill were limited to three years they would be able to see what these increases were likely to be, and have an opportunity of reconsidering the whole question. Another reason for limiting the Bill to three years was that the country did not realise what its provisions meant, and when it was seen that their large towns and their mining and manufacturing interests in rural districts would be compelled to pay twice as much rate in the pound as agricultural land, there would be very much stronger opposition than hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to realise. The Government were pushing forward all sorts of Measures giving increased powers to local authorities. They had the Artisans' Dwellings Bill, which empowered local authorities to borrow money on the rates to build houses, the result of which would be a large increase in ratable value; they had the Light Railways Bill, which empowered local authorities——


I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the only question before the Committee is the question as between three and five years.


said, he was endeavouring to show, as a reason why it should be limited to three instead of to five years, that the Bill was to prevent the agricultural interest paying for those sort of improvements which were advocated by the Government. The more he considered the merits and demerits of the Bill, the more he was satisfied that three years ought to be the limit of its operation. He was in favour of the consideration of the whole incidence of taxation, and he was satisfied that when this Inquiry took place it would be brought out that a large amount of property, such as railway and mining property, which was considered as personal property, had been accustomed to pay the same taxation as land, and that the claim for special treatment of land was not so great as the right hon. Gentleman made out. The Government admitted that this was simply an experiment, and that the whole question would be considered hereafter. He trusted, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman would agree to the Amendment.

* SIR GEORGE TREVELYAN (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

said, the right hon. Gentleman opposite had said—and he agreed with him—that the agricultural interest preferred five years to three. The agricultural interest, to which he belonged, as he very well knew, would prefer eternity to five years; and a Bill under the guardianship of the House of Lords meant eternity, as far as the House of Lords was eternal; but, as a citizen, he considered that five years was far too long—and that three years was a much better time. He believed that in one respect, if they prolonged the period to five years they would be doing a very ill turn indeed to the very interest they were endeavouring to defend, and for this reason. What was the experience, not in agricultural interests only, but in borough and urban districts, of the results of these subventions from the Exchequer? It was that they led to extravagance, which he would show with half-a-dozen figures. In the year 1884–5 the rates—and he left out both the School Board rate on the one hand and the subventions from the Exchequer to School Boards on the other—amounted to £23,463,000, and the subventions to £2,618,000, in all £26,081,000. Then he would take 1889–90. In that year the rates amounted to £25,047,000, and the subventions to £3,371,000, in all to £28,418,000. That was to say, in five years there had been a growth of £2,337,000, or about £467,000 a year. In the next year he took came the first year of the great subventions—the result of the Local Taxation Act. In 1893–4 the rates amounted to £28,604,000, and the subventions to £6,524,000, in all £35,128,000. So that in the five years before there were great subventions given, the growth of this local expenditure was at the rate of £467,000 a year, and in the four years after these great subventions there was an increase of £6,600,000, or at the rate of £1,650,000 a year. What were the subventions of 1890 compared with those they were asked to make now; and if the result of those of 1890 was extravagance, how enormously greater would be the extravagance which would result from the present subvention? If the Bill was limited to three years, he ventured to say that the extravagance would be encouraged by a good deal less than the difference between three and five years. It had been called an experiment. Was not £6,000,000 of public money sufficient to spend on an experiment? Was it necessary to spend £10,000,000?

* MR. GEORGE LAMBERT (Devon, South Molton)

said, he should support the Amendment, but on different grounds to those just advanced by his right hon. Friend. He must defend the local bodies from this charge of extravagance that was so constantly launched against them. Subventions had been paid in very large sums to these bodies, but it was the fact that Parliament had imposed a very great deal of extra expenditure upon them. They had County Councils and Parish Councils. He supported them and agreed with them, but they all tended to increase the expense, and therefore it was not fair to constantly accuse these local authorities of this extravagance. The President of the Local Government Board contended that the limiting of this Bill to three years would necessitiate a great deal of inquiry, and a great deal of expense in revising the rate book, and so on. But every one of the arguments used by the right hon. Gentleman would apply just as much to the five years period as to the three years. The blame which attached to the Government was that they had not brought in a Bill which they were prepared to make permanent. The question, indeed, was whether land bore more than its fair share of taxation or not. If it did, then why not make the Bill permanent; if it did not, why bring in a Bill at all? He should prefer that the Government settled this question instead of leaving it as a legacy to their successors. It was said that hon. Members on the Opposition side were not the friends of agriculture. If this was the case, then the Government with their majority should settle the question in the agricultural interest. The promised Inquiry should be instituted as soon as possible, in order to get rid of the feeling of unrest which would be engendered in the rural districts about the different ratable values. He therefore supported the Amendment, believing that three years was the best period if this measure was to be a mere experiment.

MR. T. W. NUSSEY (Pontefract),

while personally in favour of an annual Bill, maintained that three years was the period which should be adopted, because in that time the Committee of Inquiry would have ample time to report on local taxation in this country. The Government before going out of office would have no time to settle a scheme of local taxation and place it on a just and equitable basis. This was an emergency Bill, introduced to meet a grave crisis in the affairs of agriculture.


did not consider that the agricultural depression about which they heard so much was likely to be of a permanent character. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had himself admitted that it was due entirely to low prices, foreign competition, and other causes which might pass away at any moment. There could be no reason in this case for continuing the grant for a longer time than the depression existed.

MR. CHAPLIN rose in his place, and claimed to move, ''That the Question be now put."

Question put, ''That the Question be now put."

The Committee divided:—Ayes, 273; Noes,150.—(Division List, No. 142.)

Question put accordingly, ''That the word 'five' stand part of the proposed Amendment."

The Committee divided:—Ayes, 268; Noes, 148.—(Division List, No. 143).


claimed, ''That the Question on the Amendment be now put."

Question, "That the words 'During the continuance of this Act, that is to say, the period of five years' be there inserted, "put accordingly, and agreed to.

And, it being after half-past Five of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.