§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, this Bill is introduced in order to continue the Agricultural Rates Act, 1923, which will otherwise expire on March 31. Your Lordships are, of course, familiar with this Act, which provides that occupiers of agricultural land should be liable to not more than one-quarter of the amount, per pound of rateable value, payable in respect of buildings as regards rates for public purposes other than a rate levied specifically for the benefit of the land. I need not say that it is not the intention of the Government, nor would it be the intention of any Government, to allow that Act to lapse. It would naturally have been put into the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, I suspect, by the late Government, but, as a matter of fact, it could not so be done because of a technical matter relative to the Financial Resolution in another place. Consequently, we have to have a new Bill. The new Bill, however, has been so drafted that the particular difficulty will not occur again.
447 As regards the Bill itself the first clause merely does what I have described, but there is a second clause which has special reference to the Scilly Islands. It appears that this Act never applied to the Scilly Islands though it ought to have applied to them, because the rating authorities there are the overseers, as they were formerly in England—the overseers under the supervision of the select vestry; and as those are not a spending department they do not come under the terms of the Act which is about to expire, as they ought to have done. By Clause 2 of this Bill that particular omission has been remedied. That is the whole matter of the Bill. I beg to move.
§ Moved. That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, there can be no objection whatever, of course, to the Second Reading of this Bill in the form in which it has been moved, and I quite agree with what the noble Marquess has said. The reason, no doubt, why this could not be placed in an ordinary Continuance Bill is that under Section 15 in respect to Scotland—not England—the charge is placed on the Consolidated Fund. In England the assistance given to agricultural rates does not come from the Consolidated Fund, but out of the Local Taxation Account, and this is the distinction between the two.
There is one thing that I should like to ask the noble Marquess, or perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, might be in a position to assist us on this point. This is the continuation of a "dole" system which has been in operation for some time, but a far more important point is this. When is the whole matter of taxation, particularly as regards agricultural land and its relation to the labourers and to the tenants as well as to the landlords, to be fully considered. I recollect that when I was speaking for agriculture last Session on the other side of the House the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, made a speech in which he said he was very anxious that agriculture should be dealt with on a broad national basis. That is a statement with which we all agree, and if you are to deal with agriculture on a broad national basis one of the great questions is that of valuation and the incidence of rating. I was very anxious that so far as valuation is concerned it 448 might be taken in this House, but when the matter was looked into it was found that the question of valuation was so intimately mixed up with the question of the incidence of rates that that could not be done.
Everyone who is interested in agriculture feels that there is a very large amount of unnecessary expense in connection with agricultural rating, owing to the number of valuations. There is the Imperial valuation basis, the county variation basis, the district council valuation basis, and, in some cases, a borough council valuation basis as well, and I believe everyone is of opinion that one valuation as the basis of assessment for all charges, whether Imperial or local, is a reform which ought to be carried out at the earliest possible moment. Of course, I know what the difficulties are, but when the members of the present Government were in office before they made a suggestion, and submitted it to the various local authorities. I should like to know whether it is likely that a Valuation Bill, with only one basis for all purposes and only one valuation authority, is likely to be introduced. It really is a matter of very great moment. I may say in my own case—and, of course, it affects the tenants, too—that to have to appeal to four different bodies in order to have a rating question put right is a heavy burden, and one which ought not to be thrown on any industry or any person.
There is one other question—namely, the incidence of rates. I dislike intensely—and I may speak as an agriculturist in this case—the idea of any industry having what has sometimes been called a special "dole." I think that is entirely wrong, and I object to it very much. When the Royal Commission on Imperial and Local Taxation made their Report, I think in 1896, they called attention to the fact that, although they were providing temporarily for half the rates at that time—it is now a quarter—it was very important that the question should be put on a sound basis. I regret to say that nothing has been done from that day to this, except the change from the half to the quarter, a change beneficial in itself, but still only limited to the "dole" principle. There is a great deal to be said when you come to the question of agricultural rating. It was pointed 449 out in the Report of the Royal Commission to which I have referred, and which was presided over by a very well known member of this House, the late Lord Balfour of Burleigh, that in order to come to any true basis of rating, particularly agricultural rating, you must draw a distinction between the onerous charges and charges which are beneficial to a particular locality, and that, unless you do that you cannot place the local rating on a right footing, and you will have the constant source of expense and extravagance (as I consider it) of "doles" in aid from Imperial resources.
I should like to ask, upon these two points, whether the Government can give any indication of what their policy is likely to be. I ask now because when a Eating Bill comes up to this House in its ultimate form there are great technical difficulties in dealing with it here in anything like an exhaustive manner. If you were to have a Valuation Bill, as distinct from a Bill dealing with the incidence of rating, I believe there are more members of this House than of any other body who have experience and knowledge of that difficult topic. It has been before us all at Quarter Sessions, and I recollect, in old days, acting for some years on a board of guardians rating authority. There must be many other members of your Lordships' House who have very special experience of this question. If the Government could give some information on this point I should be much obliged.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord opposite said he spoke as an agriculturist on these rating questions. I dare say he did, but he also speaks as a great authority on rating, and an authority in that very special technical branch of the learned profession which he has always 450 adorned. I confess it was not without a certain amount of apprehension that I heard him embarking upon the very difficult and intricate subject of rating reform and valuation reform at the present moment. The present Bill has a very much humbler scope. It merely aims at continuing in the present form an Act of Parliament which, as at present advised, I am sure that none of us—certainly not the noble and learned Lord—would like to see lapse.
In these circumstances, perhaps your Lordships would not expect me to go into the intricate question of rating reform and valuation, but I should not like it to be thought that His Majesty's Government are blind to the necessity of dealing with this subject. On the contrary, I hope that within a very short time, certainly in the course of the present Session, we shall submit proposals which will be quite intricate enough to test the technical skill even of my noble and learned friend. At the present moment, however, he will not wish me to anticipate them. I can assure him that, even on this subject, we intend, if we can, to deserve, I will not say his confidence—for I am afraid we have not got that—but, at any rate, his respect.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
This is a merely formal matter. I propose, if noble Lords opposite will allow me, to take the next stage of this Bill on Thursday. The Therapeutic Substances Bill, I thought, might be put down a week hence if the noble and learned Lord will allow me.
§ House adjourned at ten minutes before five o'clock.