HC Deb 13 July 1909 vol 7 cc1934-46

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Motion agreed to.

Mr. R. WINFREY moved, "That it be an Instruction to the Committee to substitute for the General Drainage Tax provided for in Clause 23, and the additional tax in Clause 24 of the Bill, a scheme of taxation graduated according to the value of the land to be taxed such as the Committee may think fair."

This Bill is being promoted by certain gentlemen who have recently acquired considerable acreage of land within this drainage district or within the borders of the district, and these gentlemen have successfully obtained seats upon the board which consists of 14 members. The new board decided, by the casting vote of the chairman, to promote this Bill. Seven voted for the promotion of the Bill and seven against. The Bill is very hotly opposed by the other half of the board, who represent some 50 or 60 of the smaller owners and occupiers, chiefly of the poorer land within this drainage area. Being my Constituents, they appeal to me, and it has been my duty to go very carefully indeed into all the circumstances and facts of the case.

The powers under which this area is now drained have been in operation since 1881, and if the system is not a perfect one the majority, counting heads and not acres, infinitely prefer the present system to the new proposals as they stand in this Bill. The main proposal to which my Instruction is directed is the proposed method of taxation. At present the drainage rate is raised in this area by assessment according to Poor Law valuation. The land is assessed for Poor Law purposes, and the drainage rate is levied in exactly the same way, so that the better land pays a higher rate than the poorer. This Bill proposes to alter that entirely, and to create an acreage tax, which is to be equal per acre over the whole of the area.

The Bill takes power to raise a maximum ordinary drainage rate of 7s. per acre, and it further takes power, under certain conditions, to raise an extra tax also of Vs. per acre, making 14s. in all. Now this land in this area varies very widely in quality. Some of it, not a large proportion of it, lets at something like 20s. to 30s. per acre, and a great deal of it lets at 5s. per acre. It will be seen that the owners of this poorer land feel that, in the first instance at any rate, if they are to have an acreage tax, there must be some graduation. It is asserted by the promoters of this Bill, who, I say, have recently made purchases in this district, that the land is of equal value if properly drained. To disprove that contention, I may say there is another area of drainage competing with this area, and there they have an equal acreage tax, and yet there is no evidence that the land is of equal value. On the contrary, just recently 400 acres of that land has been let at a very small rent, and not sufficient to pay the tax. It is asserted, of course, that there has been a considerable fall in prices in this land. That is true, but what is true of this land is also true of the land in the neighbouring district. There has been practically an equal fall in the value of land. Under the present scheme of rating the house and building, etc., are not rated for drainage purposes. So far as these improvements are concerned there is no tax at present upon them. It is asserted, and I think rightly, by the objectors to this Bill that the land divides itself into three classes. I have here a report of the meeting held at which no less than 48 of the small owners and occupiers were present, and from that meeting they petitioned me to move this Instruction, and it was unanimously resolved that three classes of land should be created within the area—(a) best land, some 900 to a thousand acres, with the tax not exceeding 10s., (b) 900 or a thousand, a tax not exceeding 7s., and (c), poor land, 2,700 acres, considerably more than half, a tax not exceeding 3s. My Instruction, it will be seen, authorises the Committee to deal with this problem in this way, or in some such way, but it does not limit the Committee to the scale of graduation although I make that suggestion. There is nothing in my Instruction that limits the form of graduation.

If, as the promoters assert, the land will be gradually improved, then it is quite competent for the Committee to provide that at the end of a given term of years-say five years—the drainage board shall have power to reassess land according to the improved value, that is to say, some of the B land may be moved up into the A category and some of the C land moved up into the B category. But to give this drainage board power now to increase the acreage tax until it might amount to 14s. would make it impossible for the small owners and occupiers, who have no spare capital and whose borrowing powers of course are very limited. What would happen if this Instruction were not carried, and the Bill passed in its present form? According to Clause 29 the promoters take power to sell them out if at the end of 12 months the drainage tax is not paid. If at the end of 12 months the 14s. tax is not paid—and I submit it is impossible for men rated as low as 5s. an acre to pay that tax—the land can be sold away from them. I have had some negotiations with the promoters of the Bill, and they have given way to a certain extent upon that clause; and now if the drainage Commissioners do not get their tax, they are to have power to let the land and take the rent towards the paying of the drainage. At the end of three years' time, if the land is still unredeemed, it can be sold. With regard to representation, as the Bill stands, every owner of over 50 acres is to have a seat upon the board, and every owner of 150 acres is to have one representative on the board for every 100 acres he possesses over and above 50 acres. I have worked that out, and it means that the four owners who are the chief promoters of this Bill would obtain 23 seats upon the board.


The hon. Member is not in order in discussing that principle at this stage.


I was only going to say that the reason why I did not oppose the second reading was that I had arranged this matter, and the promoters gave way. I am now pointing out how far they have given way. These four owners get 23 seats, 16 other owners will get 16 seats, and, as the Bill stands, 80 small owners are left out entirely. They are going to be taxed, but they will not get any representation. I have got a concession, which induced me not to move my Motion for the rejection of the second reading, under which these small owners get nine seats on the board. They are not, however, content with that representation, and they prefer it should remain as at present, a board of 14 members, each man having one vote for every £50 assessment. That shows the spirit in which this Bill was conceived, and I think it justified me in making this attempt to do something to safeguard the interests of the small owners and occupiers. The expense of promoting this Bill, which I understand is considerable, falls upon the whole of the drainage district. Those who want the Bill and those who do not want it have to pay alike for the promotion of this measure, while the small owners who do not like it have in addition to find the necessary costs to get themselves heard before a Committee. Under these circumstances I feel bound to ask the House to safeguard their existence up to this point. There are many hon. Members in this House who know me well enough to recognise that I have always tried to encourage and promote the interests of the small owners and occupiers of land, and I ask them on this occasion to give me their support in carrying this Instruction.


I rise to second this Motion, and I desire to emphasise what has been stated by the Mover. The question of representation has been settled, and the purchase clause has also been settled. The issue at stake is entirely centred on the question of graduation, and the House will recognise that that is no new principle. Other drainage Bills have that principle embodied in them, and, as has already been mentioned by the previous speaker, the land in this particular area varies in quality. You find some of it let for over 30s. an acre, some probably for 15s. an acre, and some as low as 5s. an acre The whole of this area lies in what you may call a basin. The outside land is the most valuable, and it is a better quality, because the water from it drains to a lower level, and it does not seem fair that the same average rate should be put on the low part of the land as is put upon the best quality of land. The Committee ought to have the power asked for, and the Instruction ought to go from this House urging them to put in this scheme of graduation so that the smaller men should not be squeezed out. Evidently the land that is only worth 5s. an acre cannot bear in the first case 7s., and probably later on a 14s. tax. It is only reasonable that these men at least should be heard, and I think we are indebted to the hon. Gentleman opposite for calling the attention of the House to this matter. I am as anxious that the land should be drained as those who are promoting this Bill. The people living in the area are also anxious, but it is only fair that the smaller men who-will be hit very hard should have the protection that is embodied in this Instruction. I beg to second this Motion.

The CHAIRMAN of WAYS and MEANS (Mr. Emmott)

I must apologise for intervening at this particular moment, but as a matter of fact I have been otherwise occupied, as the House knows, and a certain amount of time for leisure must be allowed even to the Chairman of Ways and Means. I take the liberty of rising now in order to say the very few words I have to say about this matter. The hon. Member who has just seconded this Instruction said he wanted the Committee to have power to deal with this matter. I must point out to the House that the Committee already has that power. The reason I oppose his Instruction is that it ties the hands of the Committee too much. A suggestion has been made that there should be put in the Instruction an Amendment to the effect "That it be an Instruction to the Committee, that they have power to consider, and, if they think fit, to substitute for the General Drainage Tax," etc. As far as I am concerned, if such an Amendment were put in I should not materially object to the Instruction, but personally I do not think that any instruction is needed. The Committee has power to deal with the whole question, and further, it is eminently a point which the Committee can decide infinitely better than the House as a whole. The Committee can readily ascertain the value of the first class, the second class and the third class land about which we have heard, and they can decide for themselves on the evidence presented to them whether any substantial injustice will be done to the poor land owing to an equal rate being levied as opposed to a rate divided according to rateable value; and having heard all the evidence they can, they will be able to come to a decision which I am perfectly certain would be much wiser than the House is able to arrive at to-night upon the ex parte statement of the mover of this Instruction. I say this without any reflection upon the hon. Member (Mr. Winfrey), who is acting on behalf of a body in his own Constituency. We all know the great interest he has always taken in matters connected with small holdings, and the House always listens with the utmost respect to anything which he has to urge on behalf of any body of small holders. Having heard what he has to say, and having myself, as it happens, had the advantage of two previous interviews with the hon. Member who moved this Instruction and with the promoters of the Bill, I have come to the conclusion that this is a matter which cannot be decided except after the perusal of maps and the hearing of evidence. It is because I am satisfied this is a Committee point which is likely to be more satisfactorily decided by a Committee which has heard evidence that I ask the House not to accept this Instruction—at any rate, in its present form.


I was going to oppose the Instruction, but after the speech of the Chairman of Ways and Means I hardly think it is necessary for me to take up the time of the House. The Bill does not propose or seek to do anything unusual. Through accidental circumstances they find themselves obliged to come to Parliament to ask for certain powers, and that which they are asking for is simply to be able, as far as I understand it, to apply what is more or less the universal method in dealing with these matters. I am perfectly certain it is essentially a matter of business detail for the Committee to discuss rather than for the House to go into. It is not more than six weeks ago that my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Burns), with very good reason, refused to accept an Instruction I was asking to put forward on the Derwent Valley Water Bill. My Instruction dealt with a point of principle, and there may be some ground for moving an Instruction when a point of principle is involved, but here it is a matter of business dealing solely, and is surely a subject to be discussed by a Committee. It is not like a Bill which has not been considered by anybody. It comes here having the full sanction and approval of a House of Lords Committee, which has passed it and presents it here in its present state. I therefore hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that, so far as his Department is concerned, they prefer that the Bill should go to a Committee unclogged, so that they can decide what they think most suitable.

Mr. CLOUGH moved, after the word "Committee" ["that it be an Instruction to the Committee"] to insert the words "to consider and, if deemed advisable, to." That reduces the Instruction from its present mandatory form, and will ensure that in the Committee upstairs my hon. Friend's Instruction will receive every consideration. This Amendment will be acceptable to the Chairman of Ways and Means, and I beg leave to propose it.


seconded the Amendment.


I do not think this Instruction is necessary. There is no doubt whatever from the preamble of the Bill that the House of Commons Committee will be in a position to insert any taxing arrangement they think fit. I think they should be left to use their own discretion in the matter after they have heard the evidence of those interested; the hon. Member who moved the Instruction (Mr. Winfrey) stated that the Bill had been promoted by those who had recently bought land in the district. It is, of course, being promoted by the Drainage Board. He stated that that board were apparently of two minds on the subject. The matter was before those concerned at the election last September; it was the one question on which the election was decided, and I think, therefore, the House can safely rely on the opinion of those directly interested as thus expressed. The real question at issue is whether this land varies in quality or not? The hon. Member said it varies, and he gave figures to show the difference between the best and the worst land. I cannot check those figures in any way, but it is just possible some land is more valuable than the rest, because some of it is now being used by turf diggers, who have skinned the land and have taken away the whole of the surface, the land now being under water. Obviously, that land cannot have the same value as land used for agricultural purposes. It has had a large amount of its capital value already realised. These turf diggers have had their cake, and I think it is only reasonable in the future, when they are to have a further opportunity of either cutting turf or of cultivating their land that they should in some measure contribute to the cost.

The hon. Member stated that in the neighbouring fen of Feltwell No. 2. 400 acres were recently let at a price no higher than in the fen under discussion. I am informed 400 acres were not recently let, but only 60 acres, and that the price realised was 10s. an acre, whereas the average in the fen we are considering at the present time is only 5s. There are no precedents, I am informed, for a system of taxation of this kind in the fen. The hon. Member who seconded the Instruction stated that there were precedents, but I think he will find they apply to those districts where floods are being prevented by embankments and other means, and not to those where drainage is being carried out to make agriculture possible. There is no doubt there are precedents for certain forms of graduation—I should prefer to call them differentiation. Under that system the lowland which gets the greatest benefit pays higher than the skirtland and the highland. That is perfectly reasonable, and there might be something to be said for it, but it is clearly a Committee point. There is certainly no precedent for the proposal the hon. Member has put forward. This land steadily decreased in value from 1755 to 1881. Owing to a mistake the board got a Provisional Order, under which they were not able, as they believed they would, to levy an equal acreage tax, and since then the land has steadily gone down. It has been quite impossible for poor farmers to improve their land, because they knew if they did they would have to pay on a heavier assessment for the purpose of drainage. For these reasons I think, in the interests of husbandry, an equal acreage tax is by far the best system. There is another point. The hon. Member's proposal will lead to a great deal of litigation and cost. There is to be a valuation not according to the benefits received, but simply of the value of the land. It is not to be considered whether it derives any benefit from the drainage, and if it should be more valuable because it is on higher ground, although it derives but little or no benefit from the drainage, it is to be taxed higher. This is a matter which must be discussed in the Committee. It is impossible for us here to get at the real root of the matter I do hope the Committee will be left with an unfettered judgment in dealing with it.


I heartily associate myself with the speech delivered by the Chairman of Ways and Means. If this were an ordinary dispute which the House of Commons could settle on the lines on which I trust it may be settled, the Debate might have ended very properly with the speech of the Chairman of Ways and Means. But this is a matter which will have to be settled, not altogether by the House of Commons, not by the Committee upstairs, but subsequently, after this Bill has passed, by the various interests concerned in this drainage Board. We have had evidence showing that these are sharp divisions, not only on the point of principle, but in regard to the question whether the tax shall be levied by graduation, differentiation, or in any other way. I would suggest that the Instruction be accepted with the Amendment which has been moved. That will not fetter the hands of the Committee, which will have power to take evidence, and will have before it all the maps and details I believe, when they do come to consider it, they will decide that the Instruction is unnecessary. The object of this Bill is to reclaim four thousand acres of fen lands in variable occupations, large and small. Everyone is agreed that the object of the Bill is excellent, in the interests of agriculture and in the interests of the district, for the employment of more labour, and for the betterment of the whole locality. To carry the Bill into effect £8,000 will have to be borrowed, and it stands to reason that cultivators, large or small, who derive directly or indirectly any advantage by this expenditure should pay their proportionate contribution towards the cost of reclaiming the land and improving their holdings, be they large or small. But the various interests concerned are sharply divided. We are told that on a board of 14 Members seven were for one proposal and seven were for another, the Chairman having to give a casting vote. That indicates a sharp division. It indicates inharmonious relationship, it indicates an unnatural feeling which will have to be got rid of if these 4,000 acres are to be satisfactorily reclaimed from fen, water, and wilderness for the benefit of all concerned. I believe the promoters of the Bill are prepared to accept the Instruction, plus the Amendment, and, that being so, it seems to me this is one of those reasonable compromises which will tend to adjust the differences between the various interests and will make for peace among all concerned. It will also tend to economy; it will enable the Bill to be passed through its various stages with greater rapidity. I hope the suggestion I have thrown out will meet with the unanimous approval of this House.


May I ask whether the Instruction, as amended, would be in order. Is it not an Instruction to the Committee to do something which is already provided for in the preamble of the Bill, namely, to consider "the more effectual draining of certain lands"? The mandatory instruction having been opposed by the ex-Chairman of Ways and Means, may I ask whether this Amendment now suggested does not simply restore to the Committee the powers it already possesses?


The rule with regard to Instructions on matter of private Bills differs somewhat from the rule with regard to Instructions on public Bills. There is a good deal more latitude in the former case than in the latter. The effect of passing the Instruction with the Amendment would be to leave the Committee in exactly the same position as now. They have power at the present moment to deal with this matter, and the only difference which can be urged would be that the attention of the Committee would be specifically directed to this point, whereas if there were no such Instruction it is possible that the Committee would not particularly have their attention directed to it. I cannot say it is out of order.


May I point out that certain matters contained in the petition against this Bill are contained also in this Amended Resolution before the House. I wish to ask whether it is usual for the House to pass an Instruction which really embodies the prayer of a petition already laid before the House. Is it not rather prejudicing the position of the promoters of the Bill to pass an Instruction which is really in the terms of the petition presented by the opponents?


Supposing the petitioners do not appear on the petition, then this Question would not be raised, whereas if this Instruction is carried it will specifically call the attention of the Committee to the matter.


May I venture to respectfully protest against the attitude taken up by the President of the Local Government Board on this Amendment, constituting, as it may do, a precedent for future private Bills. Are not Instructions from this House to be regarded seriously? It is true there is a much wider latitude in regard to private Bills than in the case of public Bills, and such a course, I have no doubt, as is now proposed, would be out of order on a public Bill. But is it not turning our Instructions into a farce to simply direct a Committee that they shall consider, if they think fit, that which they already have full power to consider? We ought to guard most jealously the powers of these tribunals which sit upstairs to deal with private business of this kind, and, so long as these Committees do-exist, we should think twice before we offer them what amounts almost to an insult by giving them an instruction of this kind—not a mandatory Instruction, but one simply asking them to pay attention to a matter which has already been threshed out before a Committee of the House of Lords, and which is likely to be threshed out again by counsel before themselves. Is it not rather intended to in some way indirectly influence their opinion? The House is not strong enough, and is frightened to take the line of giving a mandatory Instruction, and we are, therefore, placed in the position of saying to the Committee, "Please to do your duty. This matter has already been brought before the attention of the House of Lords, and you are to do your duty now, and pay attention to it when it comes before you." It appears to me, under those circumstances, that the Amendment, in its present form, is really unnecessary, and turns the Instruction into a ridiculous farce. This is purely a Committee point, and nobody can doubt that there is a very keen conflict of evidence as to the value of the land to be taxed. One hon. Member says that all the lands are of the same value, while another said that they were of different value, and if the Committee come to the conclusion that the latter contention is wrong, and that all this land is of equal value, then they will probably pass the Bill in its present form, which indicates that an equal sum shall be paid, and that is by no means an unusual form of raising rates where drainage schemes are concerned. This being so, I say it is altogether a matter for the Committee upstairs, and if we agree to this Instruction in an amended form the effect will be to form a precedent which is open to abuse.


As those who are responsible for the Instruction have evidently satisfied themselves in their own minds that it is desirable to accept the modification of it, although I, for my own part, differ from them, I will defer to their better judgment and give them my support. I always feel that the House of Commons has a right to pass a definite Instruction of this character, because there may be cases occasionally, as in this instance, where the interests of a number of small holders are likely to be jeopardised. If the House of Commons sends a definite Instruction to the Committee it is better, hut certainly the mere fact of this consideration having been given by the House to the Question will have the effect of drawing the attention of the Committee to it, and it may be that the interests of the people concerned will receive full consideration as the result of the discussion which has taken place this evening. That these men have, in some cases, cause for apprehension I think has been made perfectly clear. As has been stated, the present board is thoroughly divided on this question, several members of it having voted for the promotion of the Bill and several against it, and the matter being determined by the casting vote of the chairman. I believe if we cared to analyse the votes in favour of the Bill we should find that the small holders have even greater cause for apprehension than is represented to this House, because I believe five of the seven who voted for it are closely related, or, indeed, are largely members of one family, and they are all representative of the large holders of the locality, and therefore we can quite understand the frame of mind which has induced some small holders to take action in order to protect their interests. I hope when the Bill emerges from the Committee that it will there have been proved that the contention of the small holders that the assessment ought to be placed upon value as at present and not upon acreage is the correct one, because if the Bill is passed in accordance with the present proposal it will have the effect of driving a great many small holders out of occupation, and means that the land will lapse into an unsatisfactory condition. That the small holders have great cause for apprehension was explained by the hon. Member who moved the Instruction, because the Bill gives powers to enable the Commissioners, if a small holder is twelve months in arrear with the rate, or tax, to sell him up entirely. We understand that the promoters of the Bill have agreed to modify this to the effect that the land shall be let by the Commissioners for three years, and then give the holder the opportunity of paying, but for my own part that does not remove my objection to that provision of the Bill, and I hope this Debate will have the effect of drawing the attention of the Committee to these objectionable points, and it may be that some more satisfactory solution will be found. I heartily associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the President of the Local Government Board in regard to the Bill. We all desire to see the land improved in value, but that it will not prejudice the rights of the small holders. I should have been prepared to support the original Instruction, but as the promoters accept the modification I am quite ready to agree to their wishes and throw in my lot with them.

Amendment put, and agreed to.

Instruction, as amended, agreed to

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