HL Deb 10 May 1815 vol 31 cc0-238

On the motion for the second reading of the Property Tax Bill,

Earl Stanhope

said, that when the Corn Bill was before their lordships, he had done every thing in his power to prevent that course of measures and enactments which, in, his opinion, had a tendency to grind the faces of the poor. He had exerted himself for the same object when addressing himself to their lordships, with reference to certain taxes which had been proposed in the House of Commons; being at all times desirous, as much as in him lay, to, be the advocate of the poor, and to support their cause, when, according to his views, they happened at any time to be unfairly treated. On the same principles which led him to object to the measures and enactments to which he alluded, he must now oppose this tax upon income, or at least one particular part of it. Their lordships would recollect, that the method proposed by him for relieving the occupiers of land, without the necessity of having recourse to the Corn Bill, was to take off or reduce those taxes which bore directly on the farmer, and by this means enable him to sell his corn cheaper without injury to agricultural in dustry, which ought always to be encouraged. The part of the present Bill to which he particularly objected was that which related to the occupiers of land, who were obliged to pay 18 pence on the amount of the rent, and who would, in order to reimburse themselves, be under the necessity of raising the price of corn and bread. As far as this tax related to proprietors, such as he himself was, he thought it a most proper measure; as far as it related to stockholders, he did not mean to object to it; and as far as it related to places, offices, and pensions under and from the Cróown, he could slate no objection to it. In the last case, he thought it worthy of approbation. But with respect to the occupiers of land, and other classes in similar circumstances, the operation was most mischievous; for the farmer was forced to raise the price of corn and bread, and the tax then fell heavily on the poor in the increased prices of the necessaries of life. These taxes, which could be thus shifted, always fell most heavily on the consumer. If a tax were imposed on a soap-boiler, it was not paid by him, for he increased the price of soap in proportion; but it was paid by the consumer, though the soap-boiler likewise suffered, as, owing to the increased price, he could not sell so much soap. So it was with the farmer, who shifted the greatest part of the burthen on the consumer, while he himself must suffer from the decrease of ability to purchase, owing to the increased prices. In consequence, too, of the increased prices of the necessaries of life, the farmers' workmen as well as others would demand an increase of wages, and the farmer would be obliged still further to increase the price of corn to indemnify himself. So it would be with the workmen in the manufactories. The advanced price of the necessaries of life would raise the price of labour, and this again would raise the prices of the manufactured articles, both for home consumption and exportation, and thus the commerce of the country, and its industry throughout, would be most prejudicially affected. The expenses, too, of supplies of provisions for the army and navy would be considerably increased; so that, on every account, these taxes which so immediately bore upon the prices of the necessaries of life, ought to be avoided. But there was an argument in favour of this mode of taxation, which, though not openly stated, was whispered about among men of weight and authority; and it was this, that as the stockholders were taxed, every other species of property or industry must be taxed. But that argument was absurd in the view which he had of it. The ground of it was, that unless every other species of property were taxed, it would be a breach of public faith to tax the fund-holders. Now, the occupiers of land only paid 18 pence, whereas the fund-holders were taxed two shillings in the pound; so that if there was a breach of faith, it took place upon the present plan, completely as if the occupier of land were relieved. Such being the state of the case, he saw no reason why they should not be relieved; for as the tax was at present framed and collected, it was unequal and inquisitorial, and the remedy ought without delay to be applied. Till that remedy was applied, he could not give a cordial assent to the passing of the Bill.

The Earl of Liverpool

did not feel himself called upon to trouble their lordships at any great length on the subject of this Bill, but he thought it incumbent on him to say a few words in consequence of what had fallen from the noble earl. That this tax or any tax must be attended with more or less pressure upon some or all classes of the community, could not be doubted; but when the necessity clearly existed of imposing a heavy burthen on the nation in the way of taxation, the only question was, in what way it could be raised with the least possible inconvenience and pressure. Now, he conceived it was a great recommendation to a tax, that it spread as generally as possible over the community, and every species of property; and he considered this as upon the whole the most equal and the fairest method by which so large a sum could be collected. He knew there were some who thought that a tax on capital would be by far the best method. That, he confessed, was not by any means his opinion. He believed the tax on capital would be attended with all the difficulties and disadvantages which had been urged as objections against this tax, and also with a great many others to which this tax was not liable. It was impossible to invent any system of taxation which would not fall unequally on some sorts of property or industry; for there were some descriptions of property much more visible and tangible than others, so that the means of evasion did not exist, which certainly did exist more or less with respect to some descriptions of property. But upon the whole, after all the consideration he had given to the subject, and after ail the observations which he had been enabled to make respecting the operation of the tax, it was the least unequal and the least oppressive way in which so great a sum could be collected; and perhaps there was no other way in which it could be raised with so little comparative pressure upon the poorer classes of the community. In this last view of it, therefore, there was no tax which ought to excite less objection in the mind of the noble earl. Without going into the subject further, he trusted that upon due consideration of the situation in which the country stood, and the necessity of a large supply, upon all the different views which might be taken of what was the proper policy of the country under the present circumstances, this Bill would be permitted to proceed without any very serious opposition. The necessity of preparation was admitted on all hands; for that purpose a large supply was necessary, and there was no way in which that supply could be raised in a way so little objectionable as the present.

Earl Grey

said, he did not rise to oppose the second reading of this Bill, though he bad by no means the same favourable opinion of it as a plan of taxation which appeared to be entertained by the noble earl opposite: but the country had been unexpectedly placed in circumstances in which considerable preparations were certainly necessary, and perhaps as this tax was only to last for one year, it was, provided some amendments were made, the least objectionable mode of raising so large a sum which could be immediately devised. He considered the Government, however, as pledged to the people, that it should not last beyond the year, unless the circumstances should be such as absolutely and indispensably called for it, and that at all events it was not to last beyond the occasion which called for it; and if he should have the opportunity, he would certainly think it his duty to call for the redemption of that pledge. But what be chiefly wished to advert to at present, was the argument or statement of the noble earl, that this tax was fair and equal in its operation. He differed most widely from the noble earl in that respect; for from what he himself had witnessed, he could say with confidence, that in its operation at least, if not in its principle, the tax was most unequal, vexatious, and oppressive; and he believed it be so in that particular to which his noble friend near him (earl Stanhope) adverted. His noble friend was mistaken when he supposed that the farmer paid only 18 pence in the pound on his profits, for he paid 18 pence out of the whole rent, as a criterion, by which to estimate the two shillings in the pound on his profits. Now that was, in very many cases, a most unfair criterion by which to judge of the farmer's profits, and when the Bill came into the committee, he trusted that some remedy would be applied in that particular. There was another point which he wished to press upon the attention of the noble earl opposite, and that was, that every care ought to be taken by that noble earl, and those concerned in the proper execution of this Act, that the tax should be collected with, as much equality as possible. It appeared from a schedule which had been laid on the table, that out of the fourteen millions raised by this tax, only about two millions were raised from trade, and the other twelve millions chiefly from land. He knew that the tax had been collected on different principles in different places. In some places, such as the county with which he was more peculiarly connected, the tax was collected on the actual rent with the utmost severity, while in other places the assessments for rates, or county rates, or something of that description, were taken as the criterion. He did not, as he had before stated, mean at this time to press any objection to the Bill altogether, being sensible that under the present, circumstances any objections stated by him would be unavailing, and being aware also of the necessity of a prompt and immediate supply; but he trusted the noble earl would not object to its going into a committee, that some of the worst features of the tax might, if possible, be softened and amended. But with respect to the nature of the tax itself, he must repeat, that it was in his opinion most unequal and vexatious in its operation, and one which, of all other modes of taxation, appeared to be most repugnant to the nature and genius of the British constitution.

The Earl of Liverpool

stated, that he had not said that the tax was perfectly equal, and free from objection in its operation. He had only said, that of all the ways in which so large a sum could be raised, it was upon the whole the least unequal and oppressive.

Earl Stanhope

repeated his objections to the Bill, on the ground which he had before taken, and read from a paper which had been laid on the table, the proportions which each of the five sources mentioned in that paper produced. The difference between the pressure on land and trade was remarkable, and the most proper remedy in every point of view would be to relieve the occupiers of land.

The Bill was then read a second time.

The Earl of Liverpool

moved, that the commitment of the Bill be dispensed with, and that it be read a third time tomorrow.

The Duke of Norfolk

contended, that the Bill ought to be committed, in order to remedy some of those objections to which it was liable in its operation. The tax itself he thought the most fair and equal that could be imposed, provided its inquisitorial character, and the worst points in its operation, could be got rid of. It was material for that purpose, that the Bill should be allowed to go into a committee. Among other particulars, with respect to which the Bill required some amendments, there was the provision by which leases were subjected to a new valuation every seven years, and thus the tenant might be deprived in a great measure of the proper returns for his capital, laid out in the expectation of being reimbursed at a distant period. Suppose he were to let a long lease to a tenant at a given rent. Corn, which some time ago was at 16 shillings the bushel, might now not yield half the price, and yet nothing could be more unequal than to make the farmer pay at the same rate during each of these periods. He was perfectly aware of the importance to the country of being in a proper state of preparation, for this was the way to prosecute war with effect, if that should be necessary; and the best means of securing peace on just and honourable terms, if peace should happily be the result. He had no objection, therefore, to the tax, which of course was to last only as long as the occasion which called for it: but he thought it highly inexpedient to omit the committal of the Bill, when no material delay would be created by that committal.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, that it was discretionary with the House, whether to commit the Bill or not; and he should not have proposed the third reading without its going into a committee, had this been a new measure. But he had not thought it necessary in the present in- stance, when he considered that this was a measure which their lordships had already had more than once before them, and that it was now intended to be continued only for one year, unless the same necessity for it existed next year as now. The delay would, besides, be inconvenient; and if the measure were to be continued for more than one year, their lordships would have the opportunity of considering and discussing such modifications as it might appear proper to introduce into the Bill; In the mean time, it did not seem to him expedient that the Bill should be committed.

The Marquis of Buckingham

said, that the argument of the noble earl himself proved that it was expedient that the Bill should be committed; for if the measure had been more than once under their lordships' consideration, and yet still required amendment, it was the more requisite that it should not pass now without the proper alterations and modifications. He begged not to be understood as disapproving of the tax itself, and there he had the misfortune to differ from his noble friend near him (earl Grey); but thinking the tax a proper one, he still thought the Bill ought to be committed, in order to remove some objections in the details to which it might he liable.

The House then divided on the question, that the Bill be read a third time tomorrow. Contents, 23; Non-Contents, 8: Majority, 15.