HL Deb 12 May 1853 vol 127 cc200-11

pursuant to notice, presented a petition from the Board of Guardians of the Christchurch Union, for the Amendment of the Law of Settlement and of Assessment for the Poor; but that the present system of Local Management should be retained, subject to the supervision of the Poor Law Board. He should not have said a word upon the subject at the present time but for the occurrence which took place on a former night, when his noble Friend (Lord Berners) brought in a Bill in relation to it. On that occasion he (the Earl of Malmesbury) was free to say that he did not think Her Majesty's Government had treated the House or his noble Friend with the ordinary respect due to either, in throwing over that measure, as they had done, without discussion. It was not his intention to detain their Lordships many minutes; but he felt bound to recall to their attention the very great importance of the subject—a subject of such importance that any other which had been debated of late years did not probably surpass it, more especially as the object was one in which all statesmen were occupied—namely, the laudable endeavour to make the taxation of the coun- try press as equally as possible. In illustration of his proposition he would take the case of the single parish from which he presented the petition. That parish did not contain any great estates, though it was a very large parish; but it contained about 260 properties, all real estates. In that parish persons possessing land and houses of that nature, were taxed by what he would call—for he liked to call things by their right name—an income tax on their property, because they paid a poundage on the rental they obtained, or were supposed to obtain, from their property. That income tax, which was common to all parts of the country also, varied from 10 to 15 per cent in this parish; but in other parishes real property was taxed to the amount of 80 per cent for the same purpose. It was impossible—considering that real property already, and for a long period, contributed upwards of 5,000,000l. a year to the poor in England, in a manner so unequal, in some places paying 80 per cent, as he had already stated, in others only 1 per cent—it was impossible, while millionaires and the proprietors of personal estate paid nothing, and a man with a mere farm paid from 10 to 80 per cent, that public opinion should not be called to the subject on every possible occasion. The subject had, indeed, been discussed in both Houses of Parliament with great avidity, and in 1850 a Committee of their Lordships' House, moved for by Lord Portman, was appointed to investigate the question in all its bearings. Many of their Lordships attended that Committee; he (the Earl of Malmesbury) attended it also, and took part in its proceedings. He did not deny that he attended it with those feelings natural to a man interested in the revision of the law under consideration, as the possessor of real property. A great number of their Lordships, no doubt, were in the same predicament, and feeling in the same manner could well comprehend his course on that occasion. He took a considerable part in the investigations of that Committee, proposing what he believed to be the most effectual means of solving the question; and he was met by a noble Baron on the other side (Lord Overstone), also on the Committee, who constituted himself the defender of the rights of personal in contradistinction to real property. He (the Earl of Malmesbury) might say that on the occasion in question, the noble Lord opposite acted as the representative of the auriferous interest. The Committee, as their Lordships were aware, went thoroughly into the subject, and, finally, made a report to the House of a most important character; and, as three years and a half had passed since then, considering the importance of that document, he hoped he would be excused for troubling their Lordships with its conclusion. They said it was their impression that "the relief of the poor was a national object, towards which every description of property ought justly to be called upon to contribute; the Act 43 Elizabeth contemplated such contributions according to the ability of the party." On the strength of that opinion or axiom, he (the Earl of Malmesbury) proposed that an income tax should be extended over the whole of the property of the country, of every kind whatever, for the support of the poor. That proposition, however, did not find favour in the eyes of the Committee, and one of the arguments used against it by the noble Baron opposite was to the effect that the income tax then raised for the general purposes of the State would be imperilled and placed in danger by any attempt to levy a second income tax for the purposes of the poor-law. He (the Earl of Malmesbury) would not go into that question upon the present occasion, though a great deal might be said on the subject; but most certainly, if things were called by their right names—and he was a plain-speaking man, who desired to do so on all occasions—real property was actually subject to two income taxes at this moment—namely, one, which had been levied since the 43 Elizabeth, for the support of the poor; the other, which was more lately raised, for the general purposes of the State. His argument on the points had, however, no weight with the Committee; but the question now was the justice or injustice of the tax; and if real estate were to be condemned to pay this double impost, he, for one, could not see why all other descriptions of property should not be compelled to contribute also to the same object. From 1850 until very lately the question had dropped out of their Lordships' notice, but last month it was renewed by the noble. Baron near him (Lord Berners). On that occasion the noble Lord brought forward a Bill, on which he (the Earl of Malmesbury) would then offer no opinion, but which he might say, without fear of contradiction, was calculated to lead to considerable discussion. As soon, however, as his noble Friend moved the second reading of that Bill, his other noble Friend the Vice-President of the Board of Trade (Lord Stanley of Alderley) rose and suggested that, as Her Majesty's Government were preparing to make, in the other House, a statement on the general subject, it would be more convenient that the discussion should be postponed to a future day, inasmuch as it was desirable that nothing should be said until a statement of so much importance had been delivered. He (the Earl of Malmesbury) was one of those who then advised his noble Friend near him to comply with the request of his noble Friend opposite, which his noble Friend unhesitatingly did. He had no doubt whatever in his own mind, considering the immense importance of the question at issue, and the great amount of public attention that had lately been directed in this country to subjects of finance, that the Bill would be entered upon and considered as a plan possessing far greater advantages than that proposed by the Government. It was not preposterous for him and his noble Friend near him to suppose that the Government would not have shrunk from meeting the question; that they would not leave it unnoticed; that they would not have cut, but untied, the Gordian knot opposed to their skill. In this, however, they had been disappointed. A few nights since, when the noble Lord moved the Bill again, he asked when the House might expect the statement in question? In the meanwhile the Budget had been introduced into the other House and explained before the country, and it contained nothing in common with the object of the measure. His noble Friend opposite replied to that inquiry, that such important subjects had been brought before Parliament in the other House, that the noble Lord, the leader of that House, no longer intended to make the statement to which he had alluded. He (the Earl of Malmesbury) could only understand from this that Her Majesty's Government shrank from fairly meeting the subject. But what were these important subjects, and what were the statements as connected with the Bill of the noble Lord? They could only be connected with the Budget, which had already occupied the other House for several weeks; and what was the principal subject of the Budget? It was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to bring forward a new tax, or rather to extend an old tax from the succession to personal to the succession to real property. Real property, therefore, which had for so long a period exclusively borne the weight of the poor-law, was consequently told that 2,000,000l. more were to be added to its load of 5,000,000l. already paid for the support of the poor, and that personal property was still to be exempted from any obligation to the poor-law. He (the Earl of Malmesbury) and his friends complained that this taxation was most unequal, as well as most onerous; but they were met by the old argument, that it was impossible to make taxation quite equal, and that as real property did not pay legacy duty, it was just to deduct 1,300,000l. from the burden. If that, however, was placed in the scale and added to the 2,000,000l., real property would be found to have the worst of the bargain by 5,700,000l. To say nothing of the sort of trick played by his noble Friend opposite, on the part of the Government, in preventing his noble Friend near him from proceeding with his Bill, he was bound to say that Her Majesty's Government seemed to him to have lost all power of calculating weights in the scale of taxation, when they proposed to burden real property with 2,000,000l. more, over and above the 5,000,000l. which it already paid. Having made these observations with respect to the conduct of the Government towards his noble Friend on the debate the other day, he would ask the noble Earl opposite, the Prime Minister, whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to bring forward any measure to reform the poor-law, and the law for the removal of the poor, in the present Session of Parliament? And further, he would ask him, in case the real property succession duty became law, whether it was the intention of the Government to relieve real estate from any portion of the burden at present levied upon such property exclusively for the support of the poor?


I shall not think it necessary to enter into any notice of the preliminary observations of the noble Earl. In answer to the first of his questions, I have to state that the business before the other House of Parliament is such that it will not be possible to bring forward any measure on such an important subject with any reasonable hope of carrying it this Session. It is undoubtedly our opinion that without such reasonable hope, such a measure would be attended with very mischievous effects upon the country, if it were introduced and laid upon the table without such a prospect. As to the other question asked by the noble Earl, with regard to the effect produced by the succession tax, I would recommend him when next he asks a question to understand the purport of it; because the notion of the amount of the new tax upon real property is a mere fiction of his own imagination. Perhaps one quarter of the amount he has named would be more nearly the truth; but it is impossible for me to give an answer to a question which really is not founded upon facts.


regretted that the noble Lord who presided with so much ability over the Committee to which the noble Earl (the Earl of Malmesbury) had referred, was not present to defend their proceedings; and, as a member of that Committee who had been alluded to by the noble Earl, he was induced to make one or observations. He (Lord Overstone) had brought forward his own views in that Committee, and they certainly were entirely in opposition to those of the noble Earl on the subject. The question to which he had referred was undoubtedly one of much delicacy as well as difficulty, for it involved that greatest of all questions—an equal adjustment of the various burdens of taxation—and hitherto all attempts to settle it had been practically found to be impossible. It was with regard to that very difficulty that the noble Earl proposed a plan to the Committee, the object of which was to assess moveable property. If their Lordships were to follow out that subject, he was sure they would find abundant proof of the necessity of extreme caution and circumspection in every step they took regarding it; it was one of those subjects in which "fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It was easy to throw out suggestions on a question like this, and to propose plans, that, at first sight, seemed plausible, but which, the more closely they were investigated, the more mischievous they were frequently found to be. He was bound to say, and he hoped the noble Earl would excuse him for so doing, that he never had under his consideration a plan more open to these remarks than that which the noble Earl submitted to the Committee. The noble Earl was obliged to shape or alter it in various forms, and, after all the changes it received, it still remained in a form, that, if carried into operation, would have been productive of the greatest confusion. He could not but point their Lordships' attention to the statement of the noble Earl, that this was a charge altogether on real property, whereas it had been repeatedly shown, in Parliamentary returns and other documents, that a large proportion of property, not real property, contributed to the support of the poor. The whole subject was one, as he had said, of great delicacy and difficulty, and ought to be approached with caution; but, nevertheless, it was one to which the attention of their Lordships ought to be earnestly directed, with the view of bringing about such a settlement as would do justice to all the various interests of the country. Whenever the proper time for discussion on the subject should arrive, he (Lord Overstone) would be ready to meet the noble Earl on that and on the other points involved in the question, not in the character of the representative of any one interest more than another, but as a man who had the general interests of the community at heart, and who was honestly and faithfully desirous of remedying all real grievances, and providing against any proved abuse.


My Lords, I cannot but think that the noble Lord who has just sat down has misapprehended what fell from my noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury), or he would not be under the impression that my noble Friend had any intention to make a personal attack upon him, and still less that my noble Friend had any intention to speak in terms of disapproval, for he spoke quite the contrary, with regard to the proceedings of the Committee of which the noble Lord opposite was a member. With regard to the noble Lord (Lord Overstone), my noble Friend undoubtedly said, that, upon that Committee, as he himself appeared in some degree as the champion of the interests of real property, so in his opinion, but with no more bias on his mind than my noble Friend had upon his, he considered that the noble Lord opposite appeared rather as the representative and defender of those who had been, as my noble Friend thought, unduly relieved from taxation, although the noble Lord opposite considered that they had been subjected to a full and fair share of taxation. With regard to the proposition of my noble Friend, which the noble Lord opposite characterised in somewhat strong terms, I must say, without expressing my opinion that the plan was so matured as to be capable of being brought into operation, still it was one which always appeared to me, whatever might be its merits intrinsically, to be a very moderate plan, and one founded upon a principle of justice and equity towards different classes; and, although I have not looked at the Report of that Committee, of which I was not a member, since the time when it was made, I have a strong impression that the Committee, far from speaking of the suggestion of my noble Friend with disparagement, spoke of it as a plan involving much that was worthy of consideration; but they said that they could not pledge themselves at that moment as to the practicability of their bringing it into operation in the manner suggested by my noble Friend. Consequently, the noble Lord opposite was not justified in characterising in the manner he has done the suggestion of my noble Friend. With regard to the Committee itself, my noble Friend, so far from speaking of the Committee, or of the conclusions at which it had arrived, in disparaging terms, or in such a way as to require the defence which the noble Lord has volunteered, the very foundation of his remarks to your Lordships was, that he approved of the course taken by that Committee with respect to the burdens imposed upon real property. I am not about to enter into any discussion upon the subject; it is one which certainly ought to be approached with great consideration and delicacy, and it involves many complicated questions; but I must say I was surprised when I heard the noble Lord opposite state that a large proportion of the 5,000,000l. raised for the relief of the poor was not levied upon real property. I think the noble Lord must have some confusion existing in his own mind between real and landed property. If it were not levied upon landed property, I certainly concur with the noble Lord in his statement; but I think the noble Lord fell into an error, which makes all the difference in the case, in saying that a large portion of the charge did not fall upon real, but upon personal property—


I did not say personal property.


The noble Lord did not use the words "personal property," but he said there was a large proportion of the charge that did not fall upon real property. I know of no distinction except between real and personal property, and if the charge does not fall on real, it must fall on personal property.


said, he had stated that his impression was, that a large proportion of the charge was laid on property that could not be considered as real pro- perty—such as houses and places of business.


The noble Lord forgets the circumstances out of which this discussion arose. The discussion has no reference to the distinction between landed and other property, but it has reference to the distinction to be drawn between real and personal property. It arises out of a proposition which has been submitted to Parliament, whereby a new and heavy tax will be imposed on successions; and on successions not only to real or landed property, but on that description of property which has hitherto been exempt from legacy duty, and which has been already burdened with a heavy and disproportionate amount of taxation for other purposes. It was with reference to the tax about to be imposed on real property, not exclusively on land, that my noble Friend referred to the taxes borne not by land, but by real property. My noble Friend perhaps fell into some slight error in speaking of the amount of the tax upon real property reaching the sum of 2,000,000l.; because, undoubtedly, if I understand the proposition of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a considerable portion of the property on which the tax will fall will be not real property only, but personal property which has been inherited by succession, and upon which, being under settlements, heavy charges have been already laid. But I am, for my own part, very much inclined to think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has, prudently perhaps, underrated the total amount that will, in a short time, be produced from this tax; and I imagine that the Government possesses data from which to make calculations of the amount which the Chancellor of the Exchequer reckons on obtaining. But, from what I have been able to learn from private sources of information, I apprehend that the amount which will be realised in the course of two years from the tax upon successions and settlements of all descriptions of property, will largely exceed the amount stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but this is a matter of considerable importance, and when a Bill is brought before your Lordships proposing a revision of the financial arrangements of the country, although it is one which it is impossible for us to amend in this House, and there will be considerable difficulty in rejecting it, however it may affect important interests in this country, it is important to know precisely the data on which the calculations of the Government are founded, and the probable effect of the imposition of the tax not only on individuals, but on the social position of great classes in this country. It is a subject on which the imposition of a tax of 1,000,000l. or 2,000,000l. may be of serious importance, and if it is to rise to 3,000,000l. or 4,000,000l., to be derived from perpetual taxes on every succession to real property under settlements, not capable of being converted into money, I believe the effect of this measure will be, in the course of a short time—although this may not be the object of the Government—to break down immediately, and to compel the partition of, almost all the landed properties in the country; and I believe that the measure will act most oppressively and severely, not upon large landed properties, but upon properties of moderate extent, which will be completely ruined by it. This is a matter in which the effect of the measure is a question of serious importance, and in which, before such a measure is introduced, or at all events passed, it will be the duty of the House and of the Government to ascertain its probable results. As I have been led to say thus much on the subject, I should wish to ask the noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen), although I shall not press for an immediate answer to the question, which I only threw out for consideration, whether he would have any objection to appoint a Select Committee of this House, before which we may hear calculations entered into, and which Committee may report to your Lordships the probable effects of such a tax as the one that is proposed upon successions, so that we may have the benefit of the experience of those who are perfectly acquainted with the state of the landed property of the country? I think it is most important, before this measure is passed, that we should have, from practical and professional men, their opinions, founded on their own knowledge, of the effects likely to be produced by the imposition of such a tax. Perhaps the noble Earl will decline at the present moment to give an answer to my question—which is, whether, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, any objection will be raised to the Motion for the appointment of a Select Committee?


said, he thought it necessary, before considering whether the charge for the support of the poor should be levied on real or personal property, to determine, in the first instance, whether the poor should be maintained by a local or a national rate. That was the first question to be determined, and, in his opinion, the charge ought to be borne by the real property of the country. With regard to the succession tax, he was favourable to levying the tax on landed property; and if it was desirable that one or two millions of additional revenue should be raised, he knew no reason why it should not be by means of the produce of a tax on that description of property. It should, however, be remembered that Pitt found it necessary to abandon the idea, and he was not a man to shrink from carrying out his plan unless he had found insurmountable difficulties in the way. But a tax on successions would, in his opinion, act unequally. The various members of a family might, for instance, come to the succession so rapidly that even in the life of an ordinary man the property might pass through six or seven hands. He did not wish to diminish a tittle of the revenue to be derived from this tax; but he earnestly pressed it upon his noble Friends in the Government that they should well consider whether they had made a wise selection in adopting this method of raising the revenue from the laud. In his own mind he was convinced that they had made an injudicious selection; but though they had made an injudicious selection he should still exceedingly regret if they were not able to carry their general measure into effect. Whilst desirous of carrying that general measure into effect, therefore, he was also desirous that parts of it—and this one in particular—should be well considered before they adopted it as a final measure, upon which the continuance or destruction of the Government should depend.


would remind the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Malmesbury) of a reply which he had given on a former occasion to the effect that Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to bring forward any measure on the subject of local taxation in the present Session. The matter had been under consideration, and if their hands had not been so full of other grave matters, they would not have hesitated in bringing forward such measures as they might have considered expedient. There was certainly no ground for accusing Her Majesty's Government of not having brought forward a measure on the subject, when during the whole of the last year, when the late Go- vernment was in office, and the noble Earl was himself a Member of it, no proposition of the sort was brought forward; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself stated that he was not prepared or disposed to make any alteration in the mode of levying the local taxation of the country. He thought, moreover, their Lordships would find that they could not, with any advantage or chance of success, introduce a measure into this House in the first instance.


with reference to the last observation of the noble Lord who had just sat down, said the only measure which had been passed upon the subject had originated in their Lordships' House.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.