HL Deb 23 March 1860 vol 157 cc1110-5

in moving that an Address be presented to Her Majesty for Returns respecting Persons qualified to vote at the election of Members of Parliament, the noble Earl said, that his Motion as originally drawn had likewise proposed to include the number of qualified voters assessed to the income and property tax; but he had received a communication from the Board of Inland Revenue to the effect that it would be impossible to furnish such a Return he had therefore abandoned that portion of his Motion. He presumed there would be no objection to the Returns in the shape in which he had now framed them; for all their Lordships must perceive the importance of having the information he now sought. As it was probable their Lordships would shortly be called on to consider a Bill which had been introduced into the other House to amend the representation of the people, it became very desirable to ascertain what effect the proposed alterations would have on the electoral body, and also, if possible, to obtain some conception of the extent to which these electors would be affected by the operation of direct taxation, which appeared likely to form a permanent part of the national system of finance. It was very desirable to see what proportion of the electors paid direct taxes, and what proportion did not pay them. He thought the Returns for which he moved would be sufficiently accurate for practical purposes, and it might fairly be assumed that those voters who paid the inhabited house duty, and who occupied houses of the value of £20, were also subjected to income tax and other direct taxes; and that the great majority of electors occupying £10 to £20 houses did not contribute in like manner to the national revenue. In a speech made not very long ago the present Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that in general the houses rated at from £10 to £20 were occupied by persons whose incomes varied from £50 to £150 a year. It was, then, only reasonable to suppose that as we descended towards £10 occupiers the proportion of voters who did not pay direct taxes would be much larger. If they ex- amined the Returns of the number of persons assessed for poor rates on £6 to £10 ratings, it would be founds that the number of occupiers increased very largely as they descended in this scale. Of houses from £9 to £10 in value there were 42,000 occupiers; £8 to £9 houses had £51,000 occupiers; £7 to £8 houses were held by 78,000 persons, and £6 to £7 houses by 98,000 occupiers, or more than double the number of those holding premises of the next higher value; and it appeared that the occupiers from £10 to £20 followed the same rule of proportion. The subject was important, not merely in itself, but from the language which had been held by a leading member of the Government. In a speech lately delivered the Chancellor of the Exchequer intimated in very plain language his conviction that Parliament, as at present constituted, was disposed unduly to favour the rich classes at the expense of the poorer; and that it was therefore more disposed to indirect than direct taxation. This was a charge of a very grave nature, and one which it might not seem respectful to the Lower House for their Lordships to discuss; but he must observe that there was certainly a very remarkable coincidence between the language thus held and the opinions so often expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, who, since the introduction of the present Reform Bill, had become a warm supporter of the Government. He did not refer to the speeches which the hon. Gentleman, had lately delivered within the walls of Parliament, because he thought it must have struck any who paid attention to the subject that the speeches of the hon. Gentleman recently in the House of Commons had been singularly guarded, and that he was now supporting those to whom he had not hitherto shown himself disposed to evince any great degree of deference. But it would be found that during the recess, both by speeches and a letter, making allowance for varieties of expression, his sentiments were very much the same as those to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer so recently gave utterance. In the speeches of both there was an assumption that the indirect taxes were paid almost wholly by the poorer classes, that they were levied to favour the rich, and that the richer and middle classes contributed but little to the amount which those indirect taxes brought into the revenue. The sentiments of both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the hon. Mem- ber for Birmingham threw much light upon the Government proposal and their intention with regard to reform. He did not suppose that the Government had thrown that Bill upon the table as an isolated measure; but there were few who considered the subject who did not think that taxation and representation went somewhat together. The Reform Bill and the financial measures of the Government were certainly in harmony; for as one, if it were to pass, would to some extent overthrow the present electoral system, the other was calculated to revolutionize the fiscal policy of the nation. Perhaps he might be permitted to establish this point, and to make one or two observations on the Budget. Over and over again it had been alleged that the financial policy of the Government was identical with that of Sir Robert Peel, and that the objections urged against one might be applied with equal force to the other. But in reality the same resemblance existed between them as was borne by a caricature to the features which it was said to represent. That principle which actuated the measures of Sir Robert Peel was, to use a modern phrase, "conspicuous by its absence" in the proposals of the Government. If any one principle were laid down more strongly than another in the plans of Sir Robert Peel, it was that the expenditure of the year should be defrayed out of the current revenue. In 1842, when Sir Robert Peel entered upon his great work, he had to encounter a deficiency left him by his predecessors of more than 2,500,000, yet he reduced the taxation by £1,200,000. He did not count upon future years to bear the burden of the current year, nor postpone the obligations of that current year, but, by imposing an income tax and other taxes, he was enabled to make good that deficiency. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel carried still further the work he had begun, reducing the amount of taxation by upwards of £3,000,000; but in all his operations it was a cardinal point with him not to incur debt for the purpose of remitting taxes. He always maintained that the expenses of the year should be met by the revenue of the year. When in 1852 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Disraeli) proposed to make both ends meet, after reducing certain indirect taxes, by applying to the purposes of the year a large sum of money which could not be said to be part of the revenue of the year, his proposal was objected to by Mr. Gladstone on the ground that the expenses of the year ought to be met out of its revenue. But the same right hon. Gentleman now proposed to make up a narrow surplus of £460,000 by calling up the malt and hop credits, putting to the credit of revenue half the Spanish debt, and postponing the payment of £1,000,000 of Exchequer bonds; in fact, by appropriating pretty nearly £2,000,000 to the service of the year which had nothing to do with its revenue. When he read the financial statement he was struck with astonishment at it, and, as a supporter of the Government, he was most anxious to hear what plea they could put forward in its justification. Her Majesty's Ministers did not seem very desirous of discussion, but it was impossible altogether to evade putting forward some kind of reasons for this proposal, and, as far as he could learn, the chief argument put forward in its favour was that, as Sir Robert Peel had remitted taxes in the face of a deficiency, and Mr. Gladstone did the same, therefore the financial policy of this Government was identical with Sir Robert Peel's. But no attempt was made to account for the difference which was pointed out—that Sir Robert Peel, before he remitted taxes, always took care to cover the deficiency, which this scheme entirely omitted to do. He would not stop to inquire whether the circumstances of 1858 were parallel to the circumstances of 1860, or whether measures, which were justifiable when the country was slowly recovering from the effects of a very serious commercial crisis, could in any way be justified when it was admitted that the country was in a state of unexampled prosperity. The Budget now proposed was directly at variance with the principles which Sir Robert Peel laid down as the basis of a sound system of finance. When the Army and Navy Estimates were moved it was said that we were in a state of transition, and that there were large calls this year because great changes had to be made. That might be a good reason for asking for large sums, but it was no reason for forestalling the means of the year to come. In fact, we had been in a state of transition for the last twenty years; but if every Government had postponed some portion of their liability on that ground the floating debt would by this time have accumulated to an enormous amount. There was nothing in the state of Europe which justified the expectation that there would be any large reduction in the Army and Navy Estimates, in which alone any really large reduction could be made. At this moment all Europe was looking to a quarter where a deed was being perpetrated of which he would not trust himself to speak. The noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had said, that if Savoy should be annexed to France, France would become an object of distrust to Europe; and on the 28th of January he wrote to Lord Cowley in the same tone. When an act was said to excite suspicion among the States of Europe, it implied warlike preparations and counter preparations—in fact, a state of armed neutrality. Yet, in the face of that state of things, the Government had introduced a Budget which would only be excusable if they were able to show that there was reason to expect that next year they would be able to effect a large reduction of expenditure. He thought he had a right to ask the Government the same question as was asked by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852, when he asked, were they anxious to vote for a Budget which endangered the credit of the country? That was the language held by the right hon. Gentleman with respect to the Budget of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire; yet the only substantial difference which he (the Earl of Airlie) could see between the two Budgets was, that whereas the Member for Buckinghamshire proposed to advance £400,000 to the service of the year which was not properly part of the revenue of the year, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed to apply in the same manner upwards of £2,500,000. He knew that the Budget had received the sanction of the other House by large majorities; but the issue whether it was a good one or not had never been raised. It was inseparably connected with the French Treaty, and many who approved the Treaty voted for the Budget lest they should lose the Treaty. There was another point to which he wished to refer. No one had complained more loudly or more frequently than the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the tendency of Parliament to encourage lavish expenditure; but it appeared to him that the measures the right hon. Gentleman had recently proposed removed the only practical guarantee against that evil—namely, that the expenditure ought to be defrayed out of the revenue of the year. With the one hand the Government protracted the expenditure, while with the other they remitted various sources of revenue, and left the future to make up any deficiency which might arise. It was a question well deserving the most serious consideration whether or not the effect of the Reform Bill proposed by the Government would be to give an overwhelming preponderance in the representation to those classes whom direct taxation did not reach, and leave the minority, who seemed marked out for taxation, with no control over the fiscal arrangements of the country. It was necessary that, before they were asked to take that measure into consideration, they should have the fullest information on the points he had mentioned; and he hoped the Government would not object to the Returns he asked for. The noble Earl then moved an Address for— Return of the Number of Persons charged with the Inhabited House Duty and qualified to vote at the Election of Members to serve in Parliament within each of the Counties and Parliamentary Boroughs in England and Wales: Also, Return of the Number of Persons entitled to vote for Members of Parliament in respect of Houses of the respective Rentals of £10 and under £15 per Annum, £15 and under £20, £20 and under £25, £25 and under £50, £50 and under £100, £100 and upwards, in each and every separate Borough:" And also, Return of the Number of Householders in each Borough inhabiting Houses of the Gross Rentals respectively of £6 and under £7, £7 and under £8, £8 and under £9, £9 and under £10, £10 and under £15, distinguishing the Number in each Class (1) not rated to the Poor at all, (2) rated only through the Landlord, and (3) excused from Payment of Rates from Poverty or other Cause.


said, the Government had no objection to the Returns moved for by the noble Earl; A portion of them had, in fact, been already presented to the House of Commons.

Motion agreed to.