HL Deb 30 July 1897 vol 51 cc1576-9

asked Her Majesty's Government whether they would provide means by which owners of fine art and scientific collections might ascertain upon what articles Succession Duty would be paid at their deaths. It had been pointed out that the tendency was for the pictures in this country, owing to the influence of the death duties, to leave the country altogether. The duties were in many cases so heavy in proportion to the property that the owners had been in the habit of sending their pictures abroad. He had ascertained on the authority of Sir William Agnew that during the last three or four years pictures had gone out of this country to the value of three and-a-half millions sterling. That was a very serious matter, especially when they considered that these pictures when exhibited in this country conferred a great public benefit. The value of the pictures had nothing to do with the matter. A man who owned pictures ought, in common fairness, to know whether the pictures would or would not come under the heads laid down under the Act. Take a man who had a gallery worth a million. The Succession Duty if nothing was exempt, on that gallery would be.£80,000. This was a large sum for any man to have in suspense, and he wished to know whether, during a man's lifetime, the Government could not inform him whether or not his pictures were of national and historical value or scientific interest. The monetary value was immaterial. It might and did vary in a few years, but a picture which came under one of the categories he had mentioned would always remain so.


in the absence of the Lord Privy Seal, who represents the Treasury in the House of Lords, said he was afraid any answer he could give in his noble Friend's absence would be of small value, because it expressed his own opinion without any communication with the Treasury. The question of including pictures, works of art, and other precious articles of the kind in the Death Duties was of a very difficult and thorny character. In strict justice it did not seem to him that objects not yielding income ought to be the subject of capital taxation like the Death Duties. Front a long time back they had been subjected to the comparatively mild probate duty which used to be prevalent in this country; and the essentially burdensome character of the tax was not brought to light until the large extension of Death Duties which took place three years ago. He did not attempt—he could not do so —to give any logical defence of the anomalies attendant on this particular class of taxation. But they were in one of those positions in which they frequently found themselves from the collision of the two principles of Party government, by which front time to time there was an entire change in the holders of office, and the principle of continuity of policy which, within certain limits, was exceedingly valuable and ought not to he neglected. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had already said in the other House that he had no power to deal radically with these new Death Duties until there had been sufficient time to ascertain, by practice, what the nature of their operation was, how far it was oppressive, and, if oppressive, in what respects. It seemed to be a perfectly sound and reasonable doctrine, where two sides differed vehemently on some particular question, that if a change of Party were frequent a change of policy should not be as frequent too. He was afraid he was not able to hold out the probability of any extensive change. Whether any substantial relief would be afforded by such information as his noble Friend desired he had his doubts. His own impression was that if any one stepped out of the ordinary groove and insisted on a representative of the Treasury declaring the value of his pictures, he would find they were more valuable than he thought. The result would be to increase the burden on him rather than diminish it, and the wisest course would be to leave the matter to the action of the ordinary law. After all, he had always the alternative, if he pleased, of selling the pictures, and, though the matter had never been actually tried, he did not imagine that the Treasury, with all its strong financial prepossessions, would venture to require a man to pay at a higher rate than that which the pictures would fetch when actually submitted to auction. Therefore, although the cost of the provision might be considerable from a sentimental point of view in respect of pictures of high value, he did not hunk the financial difficulty, arising Iron leaving the determination of their value to the time when the tax was payable, was a substantial grievance. Without in the least saying he vats satisfied with the general structure of the tax, or that he thought—he was speaking of the tax on articles which did not yield income—it would permanently maintain its present form, he doubted whether the particular kind of alleviation his noble Friend pointed to would be of any value, or whether, even if the Treasury would adopt it, it would be largely valued by all those subject to its action.


said that regardless of their intrinsic value, if works of art were of national and historic value and scientific interest, he desired that to be settled in the owner's lifetime, that there might be no uncertainty as to the Succession Duty.


said he could not imagine that such an arrangement would be a very easy one to work, and he doubted whether it would be for the benefit of the taxpayer. The fiscal departments of the Government were like others possessing authority—if they were stirred out of their slumber and a decision from them was insisted on, they would give one which would not be liked.


said he did not see where the difficulty arose. What had to be done after a man's death could surely be done as easily while he was alive.