HL Deb 22 May 1840 vol 54 cc499-503
Lord Portman

had given notice of his intention to ask a question of his noble Friend at the head of the Home Department (the Marquess of Normanby) respecting the rating to the relief of the poor, but he had since thought it would be more convenient to move for a copy of the letter addressed by the Poor-law Commissioners to the churchwardens and overseers of the several parishes within this country, especially relating to the subject of rating stock in trade. This he believed to be as important a subject as any that could possibly engage their Lordships' attention, because it affected all the inhabitants, and particularly the rate-payers (who were now become a distinct people), in every parish. The Court of Queen's Bench, in the judgment given in the case of "The. Queen v. Lumsdale," had decided, that stock in trade was liable to be, and must be rated under the statute of the 43d of Elizabeth, and subsequent statutes relating to the rating of the poor. The statute of Elizabeth was soon found to be so utterly impracticable, that it ceased to be acted upon, until the question was distinctly raised, in the case he had mentioned, when the judges, he supposed, felt that they could not evade the question, and, therefore, decided that it was absolutely necessary that stock in trade should be rated. It was found also, that on looking at the statutes passed since the 43d of Elizabeth, that not only must the rate be formed upon the occupiers of visible property, but upon the inhabitants of the place according to their personal abilities. The statute of Elizabeth having been revived, the Poor-law Commissioners had given such instructions as they were able to give, to endeavour to facilitate carrying the act into effect; but no one who had seen those instructions could deny that it was almost impossible to act upon them, or that the most acute rate-maker could make a rate that should not be liable to be appealed against. There was another act, usually called Mr. Poulett Scrope's Act, which altogether lost sight of the personal liabilities of the rate-payer. That statute set up the rating of the hereditaments, making the rating of the property instead of rating the person. In the case of the Queen v. Lumsdale, the judges decided that both the 43d of Elizabeth, and Mr. P. Scrope's bill—the 6th and 7th of William 4th.—must be complied with in order to make a legal rate. This made it almost certain that any person who wished, might upset a rate on an appeal. It appeared that the only chance of having this evil remedied was that afforded by a notice given by the Attorney-general of his intention to insert a clause in the Poor-law Amendment Act Bill, to declare that stock in trade should not be rated. But there were two sorts of stock in trade—the stock in trade of the shopkeeper, and the stock in trade of the farmer. Now, the stock in trade of the farmer had never hitherto been rated. But there was a case pending in the Court of Queen's Bench, "The Queen v. Capel," in which the question of rating a farmer's stock in trade was raised in consequence of the judgment given in the case of '' The King v. Joddrell," which appeared to be founded upon some politico-economical views of one of the judges, that seemed to have misled him, it being based upon the notion of the realisation of three rents by every tenant of land. These were some of the difficulties to which parties were subject upon this question. The remedy, on the whole, that had been suggested, though sufficient on one point, appeared to him to be quite inadequate on another. In fact, it would only touch one part of the subject. It was, no doubt, a very good provision, that in future the county rates should he paid by the board of guardians, who collected all the other money, to the collector of the county. This was an exceedingly good mode of getting the rate; but still it would leave all the difficulties which at present attended the assessment of it untouched. If he might venture to do so without the appearance of presumption, he would suggest a remedy, which he thought the best that could be adopted. What he would do was this—he would at once bring in a separate and distinct measure upon the subject. He would repeal all the existing laws relating to the assessment of property to the poor. He would repeal all laws which gave exemptions from the poor's rate, and would embody in one statute a clear and explicit description of what property should be rated, and what property exempted. He would provide a plain and simple schedule, which should be filled up by the rate-maker; in that respect following, as nearly as possible, the precedent which the Irish Poor-law Act had given, and which was very carefully framed upon the opinion of the judges. Placing in the hands of the rate-maker a plain and simple enactment of that description, all the difficulties and inconveniences under which the country was now suffering would be completely avoided. He thought it would be far better to take the property rated under the Irish Act, and to do away with the charges upon the person, as prescribed in statute 43d Elizabeth. He believed that his noble Friend would find it less difficult to introduce a distinct measure, such as that which he had suggested, than to effect a satisfactory amendment of existing statutes.

The Marquess of Normanby

had no objection to the production of the paper for which his noble Friend had moved; and, in assenting to the production of it, he begged to offer to his noble Friend his best thanks for the very clear statement he had made of the views his noble Friend entertained upon this most important subject. As his noble Friend, however, had only given notice of an intention to put a short question, he was not prepared for so detailed a statement of his views and opinions upon the subject. Under these circumstances, he was sure his noble Friend would feel that it would be premature on his part, if he were now to make any declaration as to the course that Government might deem it expedient to adopt. Neither did he think it desirable that they should enter into a discussion in that place, of the grounds upon which the judges had given their judgment. His noble Friend had urged the propriety of delaying any legislation upon the subject, until the judges had pronounced judgment in a case now pending, and which might materially influence the provisions of any new law that might be proposed. He was not blind to the difficulties by which the question was surrounded, but, at the same time, he would remind his noble Friend that the Government were very much urged to adopt some immediate practical measure which should have the effect of remedying the very great inconvenience that was found to result from a judgment some short time since pronounced by one of the courts of law. He was not at present prepared to state to what extent the proposition of the Government would go, but it was thought expedient to give as speedy a remedy as possible for the inconvenience which had arisen in consequence of the sudden revival of a statute which had long lain dormant. He assured his noble Friend that the whole subject would be well considered in any enactment that the Government might propose. He had had the matter for some time under consideration, and although at that moment he did not wish to pronounce a decided opinion upon it, he must admit that he was not quite sure whether the best plan would not be to introduce a separate measure, for the purpose of remedying the evils complained of. His noble Friend might rest satisfied that none of the points to which he had adverted would escape a careful consideration.

The Duke of Richmond

was delighted that the noble Baron had brought this subject under their Lordships' consideration; and not less delighted to find that the noble Marquess, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, thought it would be desirable to bring in a separate bill upon the subject. He was quite sure that that would be the best way of dealing with the question. Their Lordships would not be doing justice if they altered only that part of the existing law which related to stock in trade. Because, he for one—although he thought the stock in trade of the shopkeeper ought not to be rated, still if a bill should come up to their Lordships, which did not prevent the stock of the farmer from being rated, he should be very apt to try to persuade their Lordships to throw it out. He wished to see perfect fair play between these parties. The land was rated already, and it was therefore most unfair to rate the stock, without which the land would be worth little or nothing. He trusted that the noble Marquess would not attempt to deal with the difficulty by the introduction of any half measure; but that he would at once introduce such a comprehensive law as should set the matter at rest, and put an end to inconveniences that every hour's delay rendered more intolerable. Considering how much there was to do in another place, he would suggest to the noble Marquess, that it would be well if he were to move for the appointment of a select committee of their Lordships, to inquire into this subject. He knew it might be said that as the question related to taxation, their Lordships could have nothing to do with it—at least, could take no initiative step,; but he apprehended that there was nothing to prevent their inquiring into the subject, so that they might be enabled to deal with it to greater advantage, when it came before them in the regular course. Having thrown out this suggestion, he would say no more than that he entirely concurred with his noble Friend as to the very great importance of having this question set at rest in the course of the present Session of Parliament.

Lord Ashburton

thought that some general measure should be introduced to remove existing difficulties, to specify distinctly the description of property to be rated, and to do justice to all parties. It was absolutely requisite that some clear, intelligible, and definite law should be passed upon the subject before the close of the present Session.

Motion agreed to.