HL Deb 01 April 1878 vol 239 cc280-3

, in presenting a Petition for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the subject of taxes on locomotion from an Association formed for the purpose of procuring the remission of the passenger duty, said, that the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1876 distinctly recommended either the abolition or modification of the duty as soon as the financial condition of the country would permit it. In the present condition and prospects of the country, he did not say that he thought that object could be immediately realized; but, undoubtedly, there was an anomaly in the present state of the law which ought to be corrected. In 1844 an Act—the Cheap Trains Act—was passed for the purpose of giving improved means of railway accommodation to the poorer classes of travellers, by establishing trains to carry passengers at a rate not exceeding 1d. per mile, adding, among other conditions, that these trains should stop at every station; and these trains were exempted from the passenger duty. It was soon found that that condition could not be carried out without great inconvenience; but the railway companies, by way of compromise, agreed to carry travellers at the rate of 1d. per mile by some of their express trains for long distances. The Board of Trade accepted these conditions, and exempted these trains in the same way as the 1d. a-mile trains from the tax affecting the third-class passengers. The Board of Inland Revenue, however, took exception to this practice, the question was referred to the legal authorities, and a decision was given by the Court of Exchequer to the effect that the Board of Trade had exceeded their legal powers. The case afterwards came before their Lordships in their judicial capacity, when they affirmed that decision. It was found, however, that the result of carrying that decision into effect would be so serious that the Board of Inland Revenue had not enforced it. So that they had the Board of Trade and the Board of Inland Revenue acting on different views of the question. The present condition of the law was anomalous, and the Petitioners prayed that a Select Committee of their Lordships' House should be appointed to examine into the matter.


said, the noble Lord had been so kind as to show him the Petition which he had presented. He had read it carefully, and although it apparently dealt with one point only—the state of the law as to exemption under the Cheap Trains Act, 1844—it was impossible not to see that the appointment of a Select Committee of their Lordships' House to inquire into this particular point, would involve an inquiry into the whole question of taxes on locomotion, or—to describe it more accurately—the railway passenger duty. Their Lordships were aware, no doubt, that this question was one of no small difficulty, and comprised a great number of matters of detail, with respect to which a great variety of opinions prevailed among those who were affected by the tax. It did not, however, appear to him to be a question with which a Committee of their Lordships could deal usefully. The Petition itself admitted that no inquiry was necessary, for it stated that the only remedy for the evil complained of was the total exemption of certain classes of railway traffic from the tax which they now had to bear. He did not wish to lay too great stress on that point; but he must remind their Lordships that a Committee of the House of Commons sat during the Session of 1876 to inquire into the whole subject. That Committee heard a great deal of evidence—not only evidence from all those affected by the tax, but evidence of the servants of the Crown whose duty it was to administer the law as it now stood. The Committee reported; and last Session there was a long debate in the House of Commons upon the Report, when, as might be supposed, the whole question was still more fully discussed. Anyone who looked into the matter could, he thought, have little hesitation in agreeing with the Committee that the railway passenger duty could not be considered as a question which affected the convenience of the public who used the railways for travelling; but that it must be considered as a fiscal matter. As a fiscal matter, he believed it was not a subject which could be conveniently dealt with by their Lordships. Under these circumstances, he did not think it would be desirable for him to go into any of the details of this complicated question. However, he did not wish for a moment to dispute the inconveniences which were complained of, and which arose from the exemptions of payment of the tax, which were at present granted. He had already stated that this question was a very complicated one, and it could without difficulty be shown that it would not be easy to provide any substitute for the tax, as at present levied, which would not operate unfairly, or unequally upon the different companies. In the event even of its being possible at some future time to deal with this duty, great care should be taken that, in any fresh arrangement which, might be made, regard should be had to the general interests of the public; for it must be remembered that a remission of the whole or part of the duty would in no way increase the facilities of locomotion, but would simply place so many thousand pounds in the pockets of the shareholders. He was sure that, for the reasons he had stated, the noble Lord would agree with him that no useful object could be attained by the appointment of the Committee which he moved for, and for which the Petition prayed. To the Motion, and the prayer of the Petition, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, he was unable to accede.


said, that this was a question which had been very much misunderstood. The objects of the cheap trains were that the poor man who travelled short distances might be able to enter a train and to leave it at any station he chose; but, in consequence of the change that had been made, the trains often ran past several stations, and in consequence it was not always possible for a man to land at the station where he wished to alight, and the persons benefited were not the poor, but those who travelled long distances. The tax was an excellent one, and no objection had been taken to it until it was seen that it brought so large a sum into the Exchequer.

Petition ordered to lie on the Table.

House adjourned at half past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.