HC Deb 27 June 1906 vol 159 cc928-30
MR. SEARS (Cheltenham)

I beg to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer what other duties than the formal business connected with estate duties are performed at probate registries; and what there is in such duties which collectors of Inland Revenue and their staff would not be competent to undertake.

I beg further to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether his attention has been drawn to the annual cost of the Government Estate Duty Office at Somerset House, which is £97,367, and to the fact that under the same roof, and subject to private patronage, there is the Principal Probate Registry, at an annual cost of £34,956, with officials not responsible to the Government; that in the latter office there is one registrar, at a salary of £1,600 a year, and two others, with salaries rising to £1,500 a year; that only routine duties are performed, which are more highly paid than in the Estate Duties Office, where the real work is done, the head of which is in receipt of £1,200 a year; will he inquire into the matter and take steps to end the Probate Registry and to effect a saving of public money.


I would ask my hon. friend to allow me to reply to the two Questions as one. The duties of the Registrars and other officers of the Principal Probate Registry are absolutely distinct from those of the officers of the Estate Duty Office and necessitate considerable technical knowledge of the law. The duties include dealing with applications for representations to the estates of deceased persons, which involve questions of validity of wills, domicile and foreign law, hearing summonses in probate actions and divorce suits, taxation of costs, passing administrators' and receivers' accounts, and dealing with references as to alimony, variation of settlements and ownership of property under the Married Women's Property Acts, and completion of Orders made by the Court. The officers in the District Probate Registries have similar duties as to application for grants of probate in the district registries.


I beg to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has any official information showing that the examination of estate affidavits, at headquarters, and the disregard of local knowledge possessed by Revenue officers, is responsible for leakage of revenue, especially in a case in which duty was paid on £132,300 in 1898, in respect of an estate which, in 1900, was floated with a capital of £450,000, when profits were sufficient to pay all preference charges and give 8 per cent, to ordinary shareholders and to provide for a reserve fund; will he say what inquiry was made at the time in this case, in which the loss to the revenue appears to have been something like £20,000; will he say whether the sum of £450,000 represents the whole value of the estate in question; if not, what was the declared value of the remainder; what inquiry was made in respect of it; how such inquiry came about, and what was the result; and will he cause inquiries to be made as to whether there have been any other cases of inaccurate Returns to which the attention of the department has been drawn.


In the case to which my hon. friend refers, extreme care was taken by those responsible to arrive at a correct valuation of the estate, and full use was made of the local knowledge available. The particular item of property alluded to in the Question consisted of the interest in an enterprise of a precarious kind, the value of which lay almost entirely in good will. To determine the market value of such a property must necessarily be speculative, and it was of course impossible to foresee that a company would be formed to take over the business. This, in fact, did not occur till more than two years after the death of the owner; had the purchase been effected sooner, the valuation would have been corrected. As there appears no ground for questioning the correctness of the values assigned to the remaining items of the estate in question, I see no reason for adopting the unusual course of disclosing particulars in regard to them.