§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ The EARL of GRANVILLE moved the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ The EARL of MALMESBURY
said, he believed that it had been the custom of the House for some years to pass this Bill sub silentio. Their Lordships were well aware what the nature of the Bill was, namely, to exempt stock in trade from paying its quota towards the poor-rates of the country. He would not go back to the causes which had induced their Lordships and the other House of Parliament to remain silent when the subject had been brought before them, and annually to let this Bill pass without comment or observation. But he believed that the tendency of recent legislation, by which additional burdens had been imposed upon a particular class of property in this country, had been to aggravate to an immense extent the evil and injustice of which he was about to complain as resulting from this measure. On looking at the official returns made to their Lordships and to the other House, he saw that in the year 1847 the assessment on which the poor-rate was made was 67,000,000l. In 1847 the poor-rate amounted to 5,200,000l. and some odd thousands; and in 1848, on the same assessment, the poor-rate was increased by the sum of 882,000l., being at that period in the whole 6,180,000?. Without going into the causes of such an increase in one year, their Lordships must at once see what an immense aggravation that difference made with respect to the property which was rated. All this vast amount was raised on what was called real property; and when they saw that that portion of real property which was called the 821 agricultural interest or landed property—when they saw that the rental of that description of property in England and Wales amounted at the last estimate to 40,000,000l., the proportion then which the land alone was called upon to contribute in the year 1847 was 3,200,000l. out of the whole sum of 5,200,000l., the rest being charged upon the manufactories, mills, household property, &c. It was not his intention to draw any comparison as to the disparity of taxation as hearing on the agricultural and manufacturing interests; but when they saw that 67,000,000l. were alone taxed towards this particular impost; when they also looked at the result of the property tax, it was clear that a vast mass of the property of the country was exempt from this tax which was imposed by one of the wisest Sovereigns of this country, on the purest and best principles of Christian charity and policy—namely, that the destitute poor should be supported by the property of the country. He was glad to hear it stated that Her Majesty's Government contemplated some reforms upon this point, and that one of Her Majesty's Ministers had declared that not another year should pass without the Government giving its full attention to this most important subject. If it would not be considered presumptuous in him, he would call the attention of the Government to the plan which he would propose as a remedy for the inequalities which were admitted on all hands to exist with respect to this rate. If they looked at the result of the property tax, they would find that that tax amounted as nearly as possible to the amount of the poor-rate; but it was raised on a poundage of 3 per cent. It therefore was an easy calculation for their Lordships to make, that the property on which the property tax was raised must amount to nearly 200,000,000l. According to this calculation, it would appear that 110,000,000l. or 120,000,000l. escaped paying anything whatever for the support of the poor. They had, no doubt, often heard of exemptions and immunities enjoyed by particular classes, but he certainly had never heard before of one so monstrous as this. Moreover, it was one which applied to a subject having reference to that which was a Christian duty—namely, the support of the destitute poor of the country. He had heard a great deal said on this subject. He had heard it asked why, in the course of the last two stormy years, England had escaped all the 822 horrors and troubles of revolution. He was ready to point out one principal reason. There was, in the first place, our liberal constitution, which afforded an opportunity for the removal of undisputed causes of discontent, and we had a Sovereign the most virtuous that ever sat on a throne; but he thought that the main reason was to be found in the existence of our poor-law's, which protected the poor, and formed a link between them and the rich, which did not exist in any other country. Such being the case, he hoped that Her Majesty's Government would give the country some assurance that this subject should not be lost sight of next Session. He begged them to consider whether any scheme of relief would not be hopeless if they mixed it up with county rates, prison rates, and all the other rates for local taxation. He believed that, if the Government undertook to revise this law, they should make it a law per se. They should make it at once a poor-tax, and levy it upon all kinds of property without discrimination. It would thus collect the same amount for the relief of the poor as now, even if the incomes under 150l. should not be included. If that property were included, it would make a difference of one-third in the amount levied for the relief of the poor; or, in other words, you would receive one-third more than you did now for that object. The poor in that case would only be a burden of 2 per cent, and not of 8 per cent, on the real property of the country. It had been said, that in such a case there would be no control over the local management of the rates. He thought it would not be difficult to find an effectual control over them. They had already a return of the amount of the poor-rate struck for the whole country. They had also a return of the amount raised and spent in each town and parish. They would be certain, by a rate of 5d. in the pound on all the property of the country, to raise sufficient to pay all that had been paid for the relief of the poor during an average of three or five years, as they chose to take it. They might vote a general rate of that kind on the average of the poor-rates for the last three or five years, establishing this rule—that each parish should receive out of that general rate only the average which it had spent for the last three or five years for the relief of the poor; and that if it exceeded that amount, it should make it good by a rate in aid.
The EARL of GRANVILLE
said, that 823 this was a subject of great importance, which had been discussed elsewhere, and which was very fit for discussion on a suitable occasion. He assured their Lordships that the Government would not neglect it, when the question came in a larger shape before it. He would briefly state the reason why, in his opinion, it was expedient to pass this Bill now. This Bill owed its origin to a judgment given in one of the courts of law that all stock in trade was liable to be rated to the relief of the poor. There was at the same time another judgment which exempted all wages of every description from such rating. Now, ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth stock in trade had been exempted from the poor-rate, owing to the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of assessing it. To make stock in trade liable to the poor-rate at this time of day would be something like the imposition of a new tax exclusively upon the trading interests. Now, the effect of not passing this Bill would be to leave the law in a state of great uncertainty, would give rise to constant litigation, and would enable any ratepayer to call in question the legality of any rate which might hereafter be levied. Besides, the present mode of striking the rate was not so great a hardship to the agricultural interest as it at first seemed. It would certainly lead to a diminution of the poundage of the rates throughout the whole country, and therefore throughout the agricultural parishes. But the main benefit of the system would fall on the parishes near the place in which their Lordships were sitting—for instance, in the parishes of St. James and St. George, where there were many shopkeepers with large stocks in trade, and many householders, who had no property in the parish save the mansions in which they resided. Under these circumstances, he begged their Lordships to read this Bill a second time.
§ The DUKE of RICHMOND
entirely concurred with his noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury) as to the gross injustice of the present system of levying the poor-rate. At the same time he did not think that the agricultural classes would gain very much, by the abolition of the exemption of stock in trade from liability to poor-rate. He understood that a Member of the Government in another place had promised to bring in a measure next Session on the subject of general rating; and if that were the fact, what necessity was there for passing the present measure— 824 because the Act which it professed to continue would not expire until the end of the Session of 1850? When they spoke of the poor-rate levied on the agricultural interest, they should remember that in addition to that burden the landed interest was subject to enormous liabilities for county purposes, such as the building of now prisons, lunatic asylums, &c. The agriculturists were compelled from time to time to expend large sums of money in carrying out the fancy of any visionary that chose to propound his theories to the House of Commons. The whole of the expense of county constabulary was borne by the landed interest. Now he believed that the only mode of compelling any Government to do right in this matter was by refusing to pass these suspension Bills. If their Lordships acted thus, the Government would be compelled without delay to introduce a measure which should put an end to the injustice of the present system. Unless the noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Granville) would rise and say distinctly that Her Majesty's Government intended next Session to lay before the House a satisfactory measure on this subject, he did not think that this Bill ought to be allowed to pass.
§ The EARL of MALMESBURY
said, it was not his intention to oppose the Bill. His only object was to induce the Government, without delay, to put an end to the present most unjust system of levying the poor-rate.
The EARL of GRANVILLE
said, that the Government had promised, through the medium of the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, to introduce a measure next Session on the subject of local rating.
could not help saying that the law on this subject was not in a satisfactory state. When we had been compelled for seven or eight years to introduce an annual Bill to supersede the ordinary law, it was the duty of Government, instead of refusing to discuss the question, to take the initiative in curing that which all parties concurred in calling an anomaly.
reminded Lord Stanley that this Bill had passed annually for many years during the existence of the Administration of which his Lordship had been no unimportant Member. By the almost unanimous consent of every parish in England ever since the original enactment of the 43d of Queen Elizabeth, personal 825 property had not been rated. Twelve years ago it was discovered that the poor-rates had been illegally levied for more than two centuries and a half, and the consequence was, that if this Bill had not been passed, no rate for the relief of the poor could have been levied without great litigation. The noble Earl, in the speech which he had delivered that evening, had proposed nothing more or less than a national rate. Now, if such a rate were to be sanctioned by Parliament, the chance was, that at the end of seven years it would be just seven times the amount of the existing poor-rate.
§ On Question, resolved in the Affirmative.
§ Bill read 2a