§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.
THE SECRETARY FOR SCOTLAND (LORD BALFOUR)
moved that the Bill be now read a Second time. He said that the purpose of the Bill was to relieve from a pressing injustice the agricultural occupiers of Scotland by lightening the burdens of taxation which they had to bear, and to that extent mitigating the depression under which agriculture was suffering. It was upon the agricultural occupiers in Scotland that the chief injustice of the present system of local taxation fell; and it was to them that the chief benefits of the Bill would go. Many people thought that the heritable property, as a whole, bore an unjust proportion of the local burdens. But that was to be the subject of an inquiry, and before pronouncing any opinion on the question, it would be prudent to wait for the result of the inquiry. But the injustice to the agricultural occupier was perfectly obvious. It could not be denied, and it had long been the subject of urgent complaints from the agricultural occupier. It was especially obvious at the present time, when by common consent the condition of agriculture was such that it was especially indefensible to place upon it any undue burden of taxation. As to the amount which would be available for distribution, and the method by which that distribution was to be effected, the amount was not a fixed sum. It could not at the present time he accurately ascertained, because, according to the existing system of allocating the grants of the class to which this belonged, the amount allocated to Scotland and Ireland bore a certain fixed proportion to the amount which was given from the Imperial Exchequer to England. In the case of Scotland, the proportion was eleven-eightieths of the sum distributed to England. He believed that proportion to be absolutely fair to Scotland; but he rested his case on the fact that it was the accepted proportion which had been in force for many years, and he had not seen it seriously challenged. But he could not say precisely the sum which would be available for Scotland until the 464 total sum to be expended in England was known. As nearly as it could be estimated, however, the sum that would be available for Scotland, would be £214,000. Next they had to consider whether the circumstances of Scottish agriculture required the whole of this amount. He had no doubt whatever that agricultural values in Scotland had fallen very seriously. Some Members of Parliament had attempted to deny that this was so. He thought that they had better go down to the agricultural districts of Scotland, and endeavour to convince the agriculturists themselves that their theory was true. He thought that they would have some difficulty in doing so. All the figures and statistics available to him proved that the agricultural depression was very real and serious in Scotland, though it had not gone so far as it had in some parts of England. In 1879 the value of agricultural heritable property in Scotland was. £7,769,000. In 1893 it had fallen to £6,251,000—a drop of a million and a half in the 14 years; which was equivalent to 20 per cent. on the sum which he had mentioned. It was estimated that the depreciation in value in English agricultural subjects extended to some 24 or 25 per cent. The depreciation had not been felt in Scotland as it had been in some of the eastern counties of England, but there was real and serious depreciation in agricultural values over nearly the whole of Scotland. Of course it was more severe in the districts adapted to the growing of corn than in the pasture districts. In his own county 25 years ago, what was known as the fair price for wheat was 24s. 6d. per quarter, and since then it had fallen to 19s. He also knew land in the same county which had depreciated in value to the extent of 40 or 45 per cent. It was equitable in the opinion of the Government that the larger part of the money should go to the relief of the agricultural occupiers. The precise method which had been chosen to help the agricultural ratepayer was to reduce his local rates; and the problem the Government had to solve was how to effect that object without making any undue disturbance in the incidence of the system of local rating. The cardinal feature of the Scotch system of local rating was, that the sum 465 to be raised was equally distributed between the owner and the occupier. The only exception to that rule was in the case of what was known as the owner's sterotyped rate which it was necessary to explain in detail. The county rates were at present assessed upon the gross value of the subjects liable to them; but the parochial rates were subject to what were known as deductions and qualifications. Deductions were given for certain statutory reasons, with which they had nothing to do, for the purposes of the Bill; and they need only deal with the difficulties raised by the system of classification. The classification of the various subjects which were liable to rates applied to the occupiers' rates only. The system was not universal throughout Scotland. Any Parish Council could, with the consent of the Local Government Board, bring in classification if it chose; but at present there were only 170 out of 800 parishes that had adopted the system. Still it was a system that had to be reckoned with in dealing with the system of rating in Scotland. But there was this feature that was common to all kinds of classification that, almost without exception, every parish that had adopted the system had given agricultural land, so far as the occupiers' rate was concerned, the most favourable position in that classification. He did not think that at the present time it was expedient to raise any question as between the owner of one kind of property and the owner of another. They were rated upon the annual value of the subjects which they owned. There might be questions between the owners of one class of property and the owners of another, but for the purpose they had in hand, the Government relief resolved itself into giving this money to the occupiers for the reasons which had been indicated. He did not think he need delay the House by elaborating the question of whether the existing system was or was not unjust to the agricultural occupier. The man who occupied a house was rented upon the annual value of that house, but the occupier of a farm was rented not only on the annual value of the house but on the actual value of the subjects which he occupied, which was more analogous to rating him upon his stock-in-trade than upon the corre- 466 sponding system of the other occupiers with whom he was classed. The proposal in the Bill was that this grant should be applied to paying five-eighths of the agricultural occupiers' rating, and it was estimated that to do that would take an annual sum of about £187,500. The result would be that while the agricultural occupier would only pay three-eighths of his share of the rate the Government grant would make up the other five-eighths. The only difficulty in applying the system was in connection with those parishes which had adopted some form of classification. According to the original proposal in the Bill as introduced in the other House, classification would have been superseded altogether. But after consideration it was found that in some few places, mostly rural in their character, it would be desirable to make a change, and therefore the Government proposed an Amendment which would have the effect of preserving all existing classifications and yet give equal advantage to the agricultural occupiers with that which was first proposed. So much for the county and parochial rates. What was proposed with regard to the Public Health Rate was that it should cease in future to be levied according to the parochial classification, that it should be levied like the county rate upon gross values, and that so far as the agricultural occupier was concerned, the same system should prevail as regarded other rates, and that he should pay only three-eighths. The other circumstances he had mentioned included an expenditure of some £8,000 in relieving the Royal Burghs which were liable to the Land Tax. The justification for that was that while it was not possible to give equal relief to any occupiers of agricultural land whose land might be situated within the limits of the Burgh, it was probably fair that something should be done for those communities. That tax was universally admitted to be inconvenient in incidence, and very expensive to collect, and it was certainly the fact that this repeal had been long and urgently demanded. They proposed to set aside a sum of £15,000 for the improvement of congested districts in Scotland, which would be the poorest parts of Scotland, and would be chiefly found in the Highlands. At present they put forward no scheme for dealing 467 with this money, but left that for the future decision of Parliament. He believed it would severely tax the wisdom and energy of Parliament to find a satisfactory solution of the many difficulties now present in the Highlands. He ventured to say there had seldom been put forward a scheme so generally acceptable to the people of Scotland as this one. It was sometimes said that it was not the outcome of any spontaneous desire on the part of Burghs, but he took that to be an absolutely erroneous statement. He believed this subject of justice to the agricultural occupier was one upon which the public mind of Scotland had been thoroughly prepared after long discussion and full consideration of the whole subject. Others might have received objections to it of which he did not know, but he could say that since this Bill was published not half a dozen letters of objection to any of the provisions of the Bill had come to him at the Scotch Office, and if he might gauge outside opinion from those he had had an opportunity of consulting, he could truly say he believed this scheme to be generally acceptable to the people of Scotland. Apart from the special circumstances of the case, the Government thought that hitherto the occupiers of agricultural land had borne an unjust share of the burdens which must be borne for local purposes by the community, and he was entitled to say that nothing in the way of any alternative proposal had been so much as indicated in a form in which it was possible to criticise or discuss it. He believed the Bill would give great satisfaction in Scotland and prepare the way for greater reforms in the near future. ["Hear, hear!"]
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
said he did not propose to enter into any of the details of the Bill, with regard to which he agreed with what had been said by the noble Lord who had just sat down. He only wished to make one or two remarks as regarded the principle of the Bill itself and the Commission which had been alluded to. They had heard in the country (and he had no doubt they would hear again in the course of the autumn) that this Bill and also the Bill for England were Measures devised for the relief of landowners, and landowners only. At all events he hoped 468 nothing of that kind would be said or hinted at as regarded Scotland, because, as the noble Lord had said (and he wished to emphasise it), this was a Bill devised for the relief of occupiers, and occupiers of land alone. He did not think it made any difference whether the occupier of land hired it from someone else or owned it himself. Indeed, he thought the House would agree that in the case of small owners of land, the boon was even more required than in the case of persons who owned property and let it to others. The remedy proposed by this Bill was good so far as it went. It was given to the occupiers, but nobody contended—and he was sure the noble Lord did not claim for the Measure—that this was anything in the nature of a complete meeting of the agricultural difficulty. What this Bill did was to recognise the grievance which the noble Lord very properly said was absolutely undoubted, and he undertook to say that grievance was admitted, just as fully in the towns scattered about the country as in the country districts themselves which were affected. But the point on which he wished to lay stress was that they did not look to this Bill alone, or mainly to this Bill for the redress of this grievance. What they looked to was the Report of the Commission, which he was glad to see from the papers was now very nearly completed in its composition, which it was announced the noble Earl himself was to be the Chairman of. To that inquiry all those connected with land must look forward with the greatest anxiety and interest. They knew very well that the position of agricultural land, as distinct from business and other sorts of property, had hitherto occupied in the amount of taxation it had been called upon to bear, would be fully laid before the country, and that the value of that would be very great. But what they felt in the meantime was that this Bill admitted the grievance, and all they had to say was that the sooner this Commission could report the better; and then the agriculturists of Scotland would be perfectly ready to accept their relief not alone, or in any selfish way, but in common with all the other persons who owned real property in Scotland, and who had to bear the burden of local taxation. The appointment of this Commission was the most important thing the 469 Government had done during the present Session, and he could only say that the noble Lord (if it were true that the noble Lord was going to be Chairman of the Commission) had his very best wishes in the work to which he hoped he would apply himself as soon as opportunity was given.
§ Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.