§ Order of the Day read for resuming the debate on the Motion of the Earl of Onslow for Papers respecting the additional duties imposed by Parliament during recent years upon local authorities, and to the increased burdens thereby thrown upon urban and rural rates and upon the members and officials of county and other councils.25
THE CHANCELLOR OF THE DUCHY OF LANCASTER (Viscount WOLVER-HAMPTON)
My Lords, I think that everyone who has taken any interest in our local taxation must feel indebted to the noble Earl the Lord Chairman for having brought this matter before your Lordship's House and in that way before the public. The present state of the relations between Imperial and local taxation I think may be described as chaotic. From time to time emergencies have arisen in the administration of local affairs, and, no system having been laid down or pursued in regard to local rating, local expenditure methods have grown up which are illogical and extravagant.
Twelve years ago the Government of the day came to the conclusion that the time had arrived for a complete investigation of the whole question of local expenditure and its relation to Imperial contributions to be undertaken by a Royal Commission. That Commission was selected with judgment and wisdom. I do not think it would have been possible for a Commission to have been constituted, at all events in the then condition of public business, more competent to investigate thoroughly the whole question of local taxation and the best method of dealing with it. As your Lordships have been reminded, the Commission was placed under the able and competent chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh; and that Commission, having sat for five years and made an exhaustive survey of the whole field of local administration and taxation, presented in 1901 a Report—in its main points a unanimous Report—distinguished by the fairness and justice with which it dealt with a question full of difficulties and complications.
Now in 1908 the question has been again raised. The noble Viscount opposite, Lord St. Aldwyn, referred to the difficulties which necessarily surrounded the late Government in regard to finance, and said they did not feel justified in dealing with the matter in the interval which ensued between the presentation of the Report and the time when they left office. I cannot pass from that Report without remarking that, in my opinion, the Report of this Commission will remain a permanent evidence of the 26 extraordinary ability of the permanent civil servants of the Crown. The Report prepared by Sir George Murray and Sir Edward Hamilton is one of the most statesmanlike and judicial documents of the kind I have ever read; and no doubt whenever Government comes to deal with the subject they will attach great value to their recommendations as well as to those of other Members of that Commission. The Report of the Commission, I am sorry to say, has almost passed away from public attention. As is the case with too many Royal Commissions, the hard work of these gentlemen is interred in a huge volume of evidence of which the value is soon forgotten.
The Lord Chairman did good service by calling attention to the subject once more. Local rates have increased, and are increasing. It is impossible for anyone to say that there is any sign of reduction in local expenditure. Viscount St. Aldwyn has suggested that the system of old-age pensions which His Majesty's Government propose to establish will tend to relieve the poor rate. I wish I could express my concurrence in that view. No doubt some alleviation will result, but it is doubtful whether that will not be counterbalanced by the additional expenditure which I see no chance of preventing. There are certain phrases at the present time about social reform, but it is inevitable that the expenditure to be met of a local character must increase with the growth of the nation; and the point to which your Lordships' attention has been called is whether the means of raising the funds which are necessary to meet that expenditure are proper and fair to all parties—whether the proper proportion is preserved between national and local services, and whether it is just that the burden of many services which are purely national should fall to the extent that it does upon the local authority. And it must be borne in mind that many of these burdens are not the result of any action on the part of the local authority, but are the outcome of the enactments of Parliament.
There is another question, to which I attach even greater importance—the serious addition made in the local debt, the total of which at the present time is, 27 in round figures, £470,000,000. It is not very much behind the National Debt. It must not be forgotten that a large proportion of that debt is what the late Lord Goschen called a remunerative investment; and, although all councils have made mistakes—I believe that all Parliaments have made mistakes from time to time—on the whole the expenditure, vast as it has been, is to a considerable extent remunerative. My noble friend Lord Onslow seemed to think that the Local Government Board did not defend the interests of the ratepayers. I most respectfully differ from him in that opinion. The late Mr. Gladstone laid it down again and again that one of the main duties of that Department was to protect the ratepayers of the future. Parliament is too ready to authorise and facilitate future expenditure for which it has not got to find the necessary money. I suggest that Parliament should discourage as far as possible the practice which local authorities are inclined to adopt of asking for legislation when they ought to obtain the powers which they desire by provisional orders. By the latter method great expense would be saved, and the necessary control by the Local Government Board would be secured.
I do not propose to submit any suggestion as to the mode in which this question should be dealt with now. I quite agree with the noble Earl the Lord Chairman as to the desirability of the Report which Lord Goschen made in 1871, and which I took up and carried on in 1893, being brought more up-to-date. There has been a great change in local administration, there has been a fuller development of local government, and there has been a more complete testing of the working of the late Lord Ritchie's great Act of 1888; and I think we could now have the facts set out in a more condensed and readable form than was the case in the Reports prepared by Lord Goschen and myself.
I desire to make one remark with reference to the injustice of the present system of local taxation. In your Lordships' House, and by a large section of the other House, the question is often looked at too exclusively perhaps from 28 the agricultural point of view. I quite admit that there is a strong case in regard to the taxation of land, at all events in the case of the farmer, who often has to pay heavy rates on the rent, which is really part of the capital with which he carries on his business. But the same grievance exists in urban taxation. The shopkeeper, the man who is engaged in any large mercantile or manufacturing pursuit, is obliged to pay a large rent in order to carry on his business, and he is rated on that. But the merchant, who is perhaps making much greater profits than either the farmer or the tradesman, is exempt from local taxation altogether, except, perhaps, in respect of the bare rent of the office or warehouse in which he carries on his business. The grievance, which is confined to no one class, but extends through the whole of our local taxation system, is that the producer, the manufacturer, is really taxed on a large portion of his capital as if that capital were all income.
There is a very strong case, too, of extravagance on the part of local authorities where they do not find the money themselves. I am satisfied that there is a danger, if any change is made in the direction of granting more public money to local authorities, of extravagance, though that might possibly be guarded against by the strict supervision of the central authority. It is impossible to make any reform in local taxation unless we have a new and uniform system of valuation. The difference between what is called the gross rental and the assessable value as it stands at present is very considerable. I think the gross rental is about 250 millions, while the assessable is about 46 millions less. The system is indefensible because we have no system at all. I hold that there should be but one assessable value for all taxation—that the valuation, for the income-tax and every other tax which is based on property should be uniform, and as near as possible to the actual figures of the case. The Government have declared their intention of dealing with the question next year, and it is time that a Government did deal with what has been a pressing demand for many years.
29 The keystone of the whole position is a reform of the Poor Law. The present Poor Law system is utterly out of date, and until it has been dealt with and placed upon proper and wise principles we cannot rely upon any satisfactory dealing with the question of local administration and local taxation. The Prime Minister has pledged himself to that, and he has promised that one of the first questions that will be taken in hand will be the relations between local and Imperial taxation. I recognise that it is the duty of Parliament, so far as local taxation is concerned, to remove the present crying grievance, of which all parties and all classes justly complain.
§ LORD BELPER
My Lords, I do not think it is desirable that this debate should close without some expression of opinion on behalf of the county councils, who are deeply interested in the question of the great increase that, has been placed upon the rates by the large number of measures which have been entrusted to them to administer. Let me say at once that I lay much greater stress on what I may call the second part of Lord Onslow's resolution. I am not sure that the view which has been expressed by some speakers that county councils are so much overworked that they cannot properly undertake the duties, and will be likely to leave it to officials, is quite borne out by what I believe to be the facts; but I look with some alarm on any Act which suggests that county councils should administer duties which are outside the scope of their present work. I think the Act now before Parliament which suggests that it is the duty of county councils to collect a part of the taxes, even if that money should go to the county councils themselves, will be looked upon with very great dislike by the county councils. They have no officers to do the work, they are in no way conversant with it, and from what I am led to suppose is likely to be the sum set aside for the purpose of collecting these taxes, it seems to me wholly inadequate to recompense a body like the county council for the work they will have to do.
As to the large increase in the rates, let me say that there is no body of men 30 more aware of the present state of the case than the county councils themselves. I have the honour of presiding over the executive council of the County Councils Association, and there is not a meeting when resolutions are not received from county councils dealing with the financial aspect of these new measures, and asking us to put before the Government the fact that the burdens are becoming excessive and that the ratepayers are very insistent in their demand for relief. We ourselves passed a resolution as recently as last month on the lines of the settlement suggested by the Local Taxation Commission—that national services should be paid for mainly out of national funds. That, I think, well expresses what the feeling of county councils is, with regard to the numerous matters which they have at present to administer. We have already had three deputations to Ministers of this very point during the past two or three months, and though much sympathy has been expressed at the position of the county councils, no relief has, at present, been offered.
Although most of the speakers have referred to the increase in the rates during the last seven or eight years, the chief grievance we feel is at the large increase which was necessitated last year, and which is likely to again be rendered necessary this year, in consequence of fresh legislation. However interesting an historical account of what has taken place during the last few years may be, in a matter that touches the pocket of the ratepayers the history of to-day is very much more important; and although we have had no relief in the past, the ratepayers at all events hope that there may be some little relief in store for them at the present. Lord Fitzmaurice, who spoke with a great knowledge of local government, put his finger at once on the two main causes of complaint which the county councils have to bring before the Government—namely, the increased cost of the main roads, and of the administration of education. But here, again, no remedy was suggested by the noble Lord, except that those who complained should wait for another couple of years. But at least seven years ago it was reported by the Royal Commission on Local Taxation that the question was in an acute 31 stage. They stated that, owing to the large increase of traffic on the roads and their cost, the main roads should be paid for out of national funds. That was in 1901. Surely to-day the case is overwhelming in favour of additional aid being given to the county councils for the upkeep of the roads.
The same view holds good of the increased cost of education. The rate that has to be raised for education constitutes a very heavy charge on the ratepayers. It is considerably more than double the whole of the county rate for other purposes; and it falls with excessive hardship through the fact that many of those who now have to pay the heavy education rate had their schools kept up without the payment of any rate on their part. I should like to bring the history of this question a little more up to date, and to refer particularly to the expensive administration of medical inspection. The House will remember that when that Bill was passed last year I made as strong a protest as I could, on behalf of county councils, against this charge being placed on the county authorities. We felt that it was not only likely to be a serious charge, but a charge which would be much larger in counties than in boroughs owing to the fact that the schools are more scattered. I regret to have to remember that I received very little support from either side of the House, except from among some of my noble friends who sit near me.
But I did receive support which I thought at the time was especially valuable. Lord Goschen, in one of the last speeches which he made in your Lordships' House, said that, averse as he was to the suggestion that any further subvention—of which he did not approve in principle—should be given to local authorities, yet he thought this was a case where a subvention ought to be given to county councils, medical inspection being really a national charge which ought to be met to a considerable extent out of national funds. What is the result? We find now, after the regulations have been issued by the Local Government Board, that medical inspection is likely to be much more expensive than we thought at the time. 32 We had a very important deputation to Mr. McKenna, who was then President of the Board of Education, upon this matter early in the present session, and Mr. McKenna on that occasion entirely sympathised with the view put before him by the County Councils Association—that education was becoming unpopular because of the large amount that had to be raised for it on the rates. He agreed that that was a great misfortune. He went on to say that, although he could not set aside any sum this year for medical inspection, he intended making an alteration in the mode of paying the grants for education, and that would be a great benefit to the ratepayers as it would not only cover the provisions of the Education Act, but also give a substantial sum for the purpose of meeting medical inspection. I ventured to suggest that we should much prefer it if he could deal with the question at once, rather than leave it to the chance of what would be left over under the proposed Bill. His answer was that he regretted he could not there and then promise a grant to cover the immediate cost of medical inspection, but he assured the deputation that the proposals in the Bill would do far more than meet the cost of the additional requirements, and that it would be possible for them to meet their ratepayers with a substantial reduction in the rates. That was practically the only grain of comfort given us by the Government. I think Mr. Buxton said the same thing, that if this House passed the Education Bill the ratepayers would be very substantially benefited.
What is the actual case? While largely increased grants are being given, there is a provision attached to the Education Bill—the same provision which, I think, was excised from the Bill of two years ago—which proposes to do away with the three-fourths now paid by the minor Authority in the case where a school has been built either by the school board or since, and to put the whole of that on to the general rate. As your Lordships know, in a great part of the counties the schools have been wholly built by the people in the parishes themselves. Those schools have been paid for, and the obligations in respect of them concluded. 33 The proposal now is that where the school board has had to raise a loan and has not been able to meet its obligations the locality shall be relieved of three-fourths of the rate and this shall be put as a burden on the rest of the county.
What is the effect of that proposal? I have the figures for thirty-seven counties and I find, calculating the expense of the provisions of the Bill if it passes in the form in which it has been brought in and also of this transference, that the effect would be that in every one of those counties except three the rates would be very largely increased. So far from its beng a benefit to the counties and therefore an inducement to us to pass the Bill, as the matter stands it is exactly the reverse. I quite admit that the particular parishes which have these large rates will be considerably relieved, but the fact is that the general rate of the county comprising the larger area will be largely increased by the effect of these proposals. In my own county the rates will be raised more than 2½d. in the £ and that will be the effect, as far as we can see, of provisions which we are told will be of real benefit to the ratepayers.
It has been said by Lord Fitzmaurice that if there was any feeling on the part of the county councils it was rather a feeling against centralisation. He went on to say that he was fully agreed, as we all are, that local authorities should be subject to the general direction of the central authority; and he added that the check could not be too severe, and that in this way the authorities were prevented from scattering their money lavishly about. I hope that my noble friend, with his large knowledge of county council work, did not include county councils among those bodies who scatter their money lavishly. I can only say from my own experience that I cannot recall a single instance where the Local Government Board has done anything to prevent expenditure on the part of county councils; but, on the other hand, there are cases where this centralising influence has had the effect of increasing very largely the expense of county councils.
Let me cite two examples. It has been the custom in Acts of late years, 34 partly for the purpose of passing them more easily through Parliament, and partly, I think, because it is absolutely necessary in some cases, to give power to the Government Department concerned to draw up regulations under which the Act is to be administered. This is no doubt very useful, and as long as the funds are to be raised out of the Exchequer there is complete check, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not find the money unless he is satisfied that the regulations are of a proper character and do not involve unnecessary expense. But where the funds are provided by the county this is not so. Take the case of weights and measures. Only a year ago there was a new issue of regulations by the Local Government Board, made, I admit, in the interests of efficiency, but putting, an unreasonable burden on the counties. We have no voice in the matter, and the regulations are imposed without county councils having any power of making representations. In my own county an expenditure of £250 was caused by these regulations, and I am told that the expense will be much larger next year. I am certain that if these regulations had been drawn up by someone on the spot who knew the circumstances of the county, an unnecessary charge could have been saved without interfering; with efficiency. Then there is the case of the new regulations issued by the Board of Agriculture in regard to swine fever. They were so large that the clerk to the county council assured me that in order to get them posted in the way suggested he had to pay a bill of nearly £50. I am told that they will cost a small county from £150 to £200 this year, and the probability is that before many of them are read they will be again altered by the Board of Agriculture. It is not as if the central authority were going to pay the bill themselves. In these matters the bill has to be paid by the county council, and if their discretion is taken away and measures are imposed upon them which make a considerable charge upon the funds of the county, you cannot be surprised if the county councils smart under a feeling of injustice. They feel very strongly that in cases of this, sort some relief should be given to them. I can assure the House that the county 35 councils are ready to discharge all their duties and to do their work as efficiently as they can, but they feel that there should be some hope that they will not have further burdens imposed upon them.
LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
My Lords, I shall not trouble your Lordships either as to present administration or as to Bills that may hereafter come before us, but I wish to say a word or two on the general question of the rates and their burden and the way in which the matter has been treated. First of all, let me say that I think people use too often the phrase that matters of a national character should be paid by the nation and local charges should be borne by the locality. There is hardly a charge which is defrayed locally which cannot, from a certain aspect, be considered of a national character. If we are to have any formula on the question of national and local charges, it should be that the burden should follow the administration. I think we all feel that subsidies are very dangerous, and that those who have the determination of the expenditure should bear the main burden of raising it.
Much of this debate has been of a very interesting and instructive character. I should like to associate myself with one or two points made on the other side as to remedies that may be introduced. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount Lord St. Aldwyn, on the importance of making those who have the power of administering these charges conscious of their responsibility and of their burden. Considerable evil has arisen out of the wholesale compounding for rates, which does tend to conceal from persons what they are actually paying. If the ordinary working man in London who occupies a couple of rooms at 6s. or 7s. a week realised that he was paying £6 or £7 a year towards the local government of London, he would probably take greater interest in his local government. I associate myself entirely with the speech of the noble Lord the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and I wish to emphasise his statement that a proper valuation is one of the measures which lie at the root of reform in local administration. However much 36 the area may be extended there will still be danger of abuse and unfair valuation in localities. It is a ridiculous thing that you should have boards of guardians and various rural authorities making assessments. Even so large an area as a county borough may have an unfair assessment, and an unfair assessment is always a deliberate underassessment. The noble Lord opposite, Lord Balfour, quoted yesterday, as a sharp contrast, Oldham and Bournemouth. It is not the business of any legislation to try to remedy inequalities of fortune between persons and localities. A rich place like Bournemouth must have larger means, and, therefore, can indulge in larger local expenditure than a poor industrial town. Oldham, I happen to know, is a town which deliberately has an excessive under-valuation of its property. Unless you apply the income-tax assessment and take a reasonable percentage off that, you have a temptation in many places to falsify the valuation. Under the Education Act a district becomes a poor district and obtains a subvention from the State if it shows a valuation below a certain figure per capita. It is, therefore, in the interest of the taxpayer who gives subventions, as well as, in a large area like a county, in the interest of the county as against the various districts, to have an honest and fair assessment.
But I do not think the question of assessment is the only one which lies at the root of reform in this matter. I do not think you can dissociate the question of local taxation from that of local self-government, and the question of local self-government is very largely a question of suitable areas. While I agree that in legislation the two things may be taken separately, I do not think we can afford to neglect the recollection that both are important. I wish to associate myself with what Lord Balfour said as to the great importance of a good Valuation Bill, which, anyhow, must be a complicated and difficult thing. It would tread upon a good many people's toes and offend a good many interests, and it would be well if we could dissociate that piece of practical legislation from more controversial questions such as separating capital from annual value. A good Valuation Bill 37 would require ample time for debate, and there is quite enough in a Valuation Bill without complicating it by the introduction of other matters.
I wish, in passing, to touch upon the suggestion made by Lord Onslow, which has not been noticed by any speaker since, that the only remedy for the evils of local taxation was to fall back on tariff reform. If we were to adopt taxation upon agricultural products on the line suggested by Mr. Chamberlain we should raise something like £11,000,000 a year in taxation upon those articles consumed by the people, and in addition, by raising prices, we should endow the agricultural interest with about £10,000,000 more. That is to say, we should put a burden on consumers of about £21,000,000 a year. The debate has turned largely on the grievances of the rural rather than of the urban ratepayer. The noble Earl the Lord Chairman used the word "we"—not as meaning your Lordships' House as a legislative assembly, but landowners And persons interested in agricultural land. The question of rating is a far wider one than that of the agricultural community. The burden of rates levied upon the occupiers of agricultural land of the United Kingdom is not more than £4,000,000 a year. The relation that bears to the cost of production of the food and other crops of the country put upon the market is about 2 per cent. People talk as if the burden of the rates was one of the most tremendous burdens on agriculture. It really is one of the least.
In talking of the burden of rates one of the great questions is on whom the incidence falls. Apart from temporary fluctuations, the permanent rate is just as much, in agricultural communities, a landlord's charge as is the tithe. The first charges on the land are the tithe, the rates, and the landlord's rent; and any increase either of the tithe or the rates must come out of the rent. You cannot get more than an aggregate of those three together, and the question of agricultural rates is more a landlord's question than a tenant's question. Every noble Lord knows that if he has a farm which is tithe free he lets it for a higher rent than a farm which has to pay tithe. It is the same with the rates. We shall never discuss this question properly by mixing the rates up and talking generally 38 about the rate as a whole. They are as different in their economic operation as it is possible for them to be.
The noble Viscount on the front bench spoke of the rates on manufacturers and shopkeepers as being a great burden. I contend that the rate on any place used for business is part of the cost of production, and must fall on the purchaser. A shopkeeper taking a shop in Bond Street pays an enormously enhanced rent, and consequently much higher rates, because he finds that from his position he can do more trade, and purchasers pay longer prices than they would do elsewhere. As I say, we cannot discuss this question properly by talking generally about the rates as a whole. We must bear in mind what the particular rate is, what its incidence is, whether it hampers industry, and whether it presses on the life of the people. If I were asked to say what rate in my opinion was the most oppressive as keeping down the standard of civilisation and health among the people, I should say it was the urban rate upon the inhabited houses of the poor.
One word more. Lord Balfour drew a contrast between urban rates and rural rates on the ground that urban rates were expended beneficially for some direct profit to ther atepayers, but that rural rates were not. I think nearly all rates are expended for the benefit of those who pay them. The noble Lord spoke as if the agricultural ratepayer got no benefit from the main roads. Everyone derives benefit from good roads. Do you suppose that people would get their commodities brought to them so cheaply if the country grocer and tradesmen had not good roads? It is absurd to imagine that you do not derive benefit unless you personally use the roads. I feel that this question is one which deserves fuller discussion than it has had, but I wish to press that it is no use merely to grumble of the incidence on a particular class of property, for a large part of the rates we pay are passed on to quite different people; and, so far as rates are not a charge on property, to a very large extent, except so far as they fall on inhabited houses, they are a charge which every producer and manufacturer passes on to the general consumer. But that is, of course, no reason why the general system should not be revised.
LORD ZOUCHE OF HARYNGWORTH
My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a, few minutes, and I should like to confine my remarks to discussing any possible remedies that may be thought of for putting an end to this very serious state of affairs. It seems to me that one of the principal reasons why financial burdens are so often shifted from national to local shoulders, so to speak, is that the local authorities present the line of least resistance, and this line of least resistance is produced by the system of compounding.
I should like to associate myself with every word which fell from the noble Lord who has just sat down, on the subject of compounding and the evils which it brings about. Under that system the increasing burdens put on the ratepayers do not come home to the majority of the electors. It is futile to argue, that they pay them indirectly. It is quite a different thing from a system whereby the rates are demanded from each person as a separate payment. The system of compounding for rates was started originally for two main purposes. I am afraid that one was possibly for party reasons at the moment. It was also started as a convenience to avoid loss in collection, but in many cases there is absolutely no direct economy in that system.
I will take, for instance, a few figures concerning the borough of Poplar. In 1906–7 the allowance in Poplar to owners of property in respect of their collection of rates, because part of the compounding system is to make large abatements to owners for the burden they take upon themselves of collecting rates from small people, amounted to £37,000, which I am informed represents a rate of something like 1s. in the £ Take, on the other hand, an instance to the contrary, because it is not every authority which has adopted the compounding system. In the borough of Lewisham, which does not compound for its rates, there was a loss in the collection of rates directly amounting to £6,000 in the year 1905; but that compares with £14,400 which would have had to have been allowed to owners if the compounding system had been in force, so that you have a gain of 40 over £8,000 to the borough, equal to a 2d. rate. Therefore in my view the compounding of rates is the fons et origo mali to a large extent, and a great deal of the present evil would naturally right itself if it were done away with, because it would be to the interest of thousands of people not now directly interested to put an end to municipal extravagance.
There is another remedy—that of fixing a lower limit of rateable properties to come under the compounding system. There is an idea that if the limit were reduced to £12 it would go far to diminish the evil. A third remedy is the sending round to people when they pay their rent a card showing how much is rent and how much is due to rates; but I am afraid that not one man in a hundred would take the trouble to read it or to dissociate one thing from another. I feel that, if things go on as at present, we shall soon approach a system under which our taxation will gradually fall practically into the hands of designing persons, who will use their opportunities for plundering the people for their own benefit. That has ruined many other countries and, if things remain unchecked, may lead to the ruin of this country.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, although the noble Lord opposite complained a few moments ago of the somewhat confined nature of this debate, I am sure that on a subject which is not usually considered exciting your Lordships will feel that we owe 10 the noble Earl a most interesting discussion. I would not have ventured to intrude at all but that nobody who has hitherto spoken has taken the point which I myself feel, that the London County Council is perhaps the most important of all the instances of difficulty which have arisen in the discussion so far as it has proceeded.
The London County Council is the worst instance of over-work of any local body in this Kingdom. It has also been the heaviest loser by the insufficiency of the assigned revenues. Again, it is also the greatest sufferer from the innumerable Acts affecting it passed since 1888. I do not for a moment suggest that one party or the other in the State is to 41 blame in this matter, but I think the general spirit of our legislation has been faulty in the extreme in the want of check on the continual imposition of fresh duties on local authorities which they can hardly perform. In old days it was held to be the duty of the State to interfere as little as possible in the private life of the people. Now, certainly in London every child is pursued by the attentions of the London County Council from the cradle to the grave. The County Council comes upon the scene the moment the midwife is called in, in the notification of the birth. As soon as infant life begins the London County Council is responsible for seeing, if the child is not well looked after by its parents, that it is removed from their care. Prevention of cruelty involves all sorts of inspectors. Then there is everything connected with education, including meals, special schools for the deaf and dumb, and for the physically deformed, quite apart from technical education, which is making rapid headway. The London County Council has the supervision of the milk, the water, and the food supply generally, and when the child is growing up baths and wash-houses are provided for the cleanliness of the person; if verminous, there is a special treatment, and if an inebriate a special infirmary. When in search of labour there are labour bureaux; if serving in a shop, shop hours and shop seats; if serving in a factory, special and new provisions. For amusements, there are the parks, and even the provision of boats and gymnasia. Then there are tramways and other means of locomotion, and, in case æesthetic feeling may be hurt by sky-signs, they have all been placed under special inspectors of the County Council.
Year by year additions are made to the already inordinate mass of these duties, and if I call attention to them it is only because I feel that an effort should be made by both parties in the State to put a check on the tendency to slip powers through Parliament which, without making any charge on the Imperial Exchequer, do so often throw heavy charges on the local rates. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, never said a truer thing than when he stated that the rate 42 payer has no friends. Even a charge of a ten pound note on the Treasury is carefully scrutinised, but matters which are going to cost local authorities thousands and hundreds of thousands of pounds are passed through Parliament with the merest modicum of consideration. Great stress has been laid on the benefit of valuation, and if a Valuation Bill could be removed from the more controversial subject, much good might be done.
Then the noble Viscount opposite laid great stress on the Report of the Poor Law Commission. He spoke of it as almost recasting local government. But I would ask, if that is the view of His Majesty's Government, why have they been so previous in going into the matter of old-age pensions without waiting for the Report of the Poor Law Commission? If local government hangs so largely on that Report, why, in a most essential particular, have the decisions of that Commission been reviewed beforehand by the Government? I ask for some assurance from the Government of a more complete character. The noble Viscount who served at the Local Government Board told the House that while he was there he used his utmost endeavours to keep a hold on the local authorities. Lord St. Aldwyn told us yesterday how very dangerous is the position the present President of the Local Government Board has taken up. I cannot imagine anything more unconstitutional in regard to expenditure than the attempt which has been made in Government Bills of the last two years to place on local authorities great charges, in the decision of which they are to have no voice. To order a local authority, as may be done under the Town Planning Bill, to put up, at their own expense, a large number of buildings which they do not consider necessary seems to me a great innovation and one of a most dangerous and retrograde character.
I am sorry to say it in this House, but I think we in the London County Council have a very grave complaint to make against the President of the Local Government Board. Before this Bill was introduced we addressed a formal request to him urging him to receive a deputation 43 concerning the contemplated proposals, and after having waited more than two months for an answer, received a curt negative. Considering that many millions have been spent under existing Acts by the London County Council, that was, at all events, a scarcely courteous way for a Minister at the head of a great Department to treat representatives of that Council. I cannot help feeling that nothing can be done towards re-casting local expenditure unless the Local Government Board will act much more efficiently as a watchdog and a check upon local bodies. You have the Treasury in the case of the taxpayer, but in the case of the ratepayer the Local Government Board appear for the moment to have gone over to the enemy. They are not merely not acting as a check, but are acting as an incentive to local expenditure.
As far as our experience in London goes, I know of nothing which tends less to good administration than the doles given by the Exchequer to meet part of, the cost of certain services; and I cannot help feeling that any recasting of local government must go upon the lines of the Exchequer taking back certain services, as was suggested by Lord St. Aldwyn last night, and being wholly responsible for them. At present the London County Council is responsible for the disbursement of an enormous sum upon national services, and this addition to their work, carried on by nearly thirty committees, makes the amount of labour such as to give rise to serious apprehension that men I will not be found willing to give up four or five afternoons each week to discharge the duties.
I think this discussion has brought out very clearly some points of difference, but it has elicited many points of agreement also. I hope that we shall hear from the noble Earl the Leader of the House something more than allusions to methods of valuation and ad vice to wait for the Report of the Poor Law Commission. It is the duty of the Local Government Board to act as a check upon the many rash and sometimes faddy proposals which are so quickly passed through Parliament and have added enormously to local burdens, and which, if they are 44 unfortunately indefinitely continued, must lead to a recodification of the law of local government, and, I hope, the-striking out of a very considerable number of services which never ought to have been instituted and which are at present a serious embarrassment to the efficiency of local government.
§ THE EARL OF CREWE
My Lords, I think by common agreement this has been a very interesting debate, and, if it is inconclusive, it only shares that quality with some of the most valuable and important discussions that have taken place from time to time in your Lordships' House. These debates which rove-over a considerable area, are very often, I think, among the most genuinely fruitful, that take place in the House of Lords.
The noble Viscount who has just sat down spoke of the extra duties and burdens placed upon local authorities. This was also, to a great extent, the text of the very interesting speech which we had from Lord St. Aldwyn, in which he made certain definite proposals in the direction of centralisation. He proposed that the State should take over the lunatic asylums as it had taken over the prisons, and proceed, perhaps, later on, to take over the care it idiots and feebleminded people, infirmaries, and Poor Law schools. Those are suggestions into the details of which I do not propose to enter this evening; but I think the House must recognise that this question of centralisation, attractive as it may sound, has two sides to it. There is a curious, and, as I think, very often an unreasoning dread on the part of the people of this country, of Government Departments. They will accept from a county council, whose opinions they believe they can sway, that which they would not take from a Government Department; and this peculiarity of the English people, which makes government in some respects in this country infinitely more difficult than it is in some countries on the Continent, has to-be borne in mind.
Moreover, we do not always find agreement as to what it is desirable local authorities should do. We brought in a Scottish Land Bill which proposed to relieve county councils of both the management and the cost of small holdings, and 45 noble Lords from Scotland and elsewhere called heaven and earth to witness that we were insulting the county councils by not allowing them to take over this entirely new duty. On the other hand, when we instituted an English Land Bill, in which great powers were given to commissioners and the central body, we were told that we were insulting English county councils by not putting proper confidence in them, and were forcing action upon them through a hard and callous bureaucracy. Therefore we see how exceedingly difficult it is to please everybody in this matter.
The noble Viscount who has just sat down dealt particularly with the London County Council. He gave a most interesting and epigrammatic list of the vast number of duties which are now thrown upon that authority. He instanced all the duties connected with the care of children from the time of their first appearance in the world. As the noble Viscount went through the list, I could not help thinking what an enormous benefit it is that there should be this network of machinery for the advantage of the children; and I do not believe that if those duties were undertaken directly by a Government Department there would be anything but considerable dissatisfaction, among the people mainly concerned, at what they would conceive to be the prying of a central Government Department, Then the noble Viscount went on to speak of water and of the sometimes analogous substance milk, and the other matters with which the London County Council have to deal. One wonders exactly what it is with which the noble Viscount would like the body of which he is such an ornament to part. What would he like handed over to the central authority? The noble Viscount spoke somewhat severely of the fact that my right hon. friend Mr. Burns did not receive a deputation from the London County Council on the subject of housing. I am perfectly certain that my right hon. friend intended no discourtesy to that body. I assume he considered that his proposals would have the chance of being carefully considered by the London County Council as well as by Parliament before there was any question of their becoming law.
46 The noble Earl who initiated this debate dealt with the subject of local taxation in its broadest aspect. His complaint all through was that the burden was to a great extent placed upon the wrong shoulders. In reply to that we say that, as far as one half of it is concerned, that can only be dealt with by an improved system of valuation, that is to say, that so far as property which is at present subject to, rates is concerned, valuation alone will properly allocate the burden to be borne by each class of property. It is equally true, however, that no system of valuation will deal with the other half of the noble Earl's complaint—that is that certain kinds of property do not, in his view, bear their proper share of burden. Personal property does not contribute. How does the noble Earl propose to deal with that? He proposes to broaden the basis of taxation, which might, perhaps, if I desired to be uncivil, be described as a shibboleth, but which I prefer to describe as a convenient Parliamentary phrase. Different people, I believe, attach different meanings to it. The meaning which I suppose the noble Earl attaches to it is the imposition of a duty for purposes of revenue—a small duty on a large number of imported articles. That is the inter-pretation which I assume the noble Earl places upon it. Nobody denies that it would be possible to raise a certain amount of revenue in that way; but you will not by that method get at the man you want to get at for this particular purpose. The man at whom I suppose the noble Earl wants to get is the man who has a million in Consols, lives in a flat, possibly keeps a yacht and a string of racehorses, and contributes a mere trifle to the rates. You will not get at him by broadening the basis of taxation. The only way of getting at him will be either by a graduated income tax or increased death duties. I do not see how that particular gentleman, or the other gentleman who is making £30,000 or £40,000 a year on the Stock Exchange and is living in a villa, can be got at in any other way. They can only be got at by some fiscal changes of the kind that I have indicated.
I will not dwell on the other points that have been mentioned, nor on the subject of compounding. I should merely like to confirm what my noble 47 friend Lord Wolverhampton said—that we do attach the greatest importance to the Report of the Poor Law Commission in dealing with this whole subject. The noble Viscount who has just spoken rather twitted us with touching old-age pensions before receiving the Report of the Poor Law Commission, but if he will look at the Old-Age Pensions Bill he will see that there is no proposal in that measure which can in any way compromise or interfere with any proposition which the Commission may make. I desire to say this, because the point is a very obvious one to make by those who criticise the old-age pension scheme. With regard to Papers, perhaps the noble Earl will defer his request until I have had an opportunity of consulting Mr. Burns, when we will see what Papers and Returns can be produced so as to bring our information more up to date.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
My Lords, I might perhaps be allowed to remind the House that in the concluding words of my speech in initiating this debate I specially said that I considered it to be no business of mine to point out to His Majesty's Government in what way the money should be raised by the Government which would undoubtedly be required for the purpose of making a very large contribution to the burdens now borne by the local ratepayers. That is a matter which I left, entirely to His Majesty's Government. I am bound to state that I do not very much care how they find the money so long as they do find it. I need hardly say that in view of what the noble Earl opposite has just said, I do not intend to press my Motion for Papers, although I was profoundly disappointed when Lord Allendale told the House he was unable to comply with my request. I join with Viscount Wolverhampton in saying that the public servants of this country are not only extremely able but very willing, and I am certain that if His Majesty's Government thought fit to invite those who are quite capable of dealing with this subject in the way the noble Viscount did in 1893 to give their attention to it, the Blue-book might be brought up to date and would be a very valuable contribution to the subject. I mentioned in my speech in opening this debate that I was very largely indebted to a Return submitted 48 to the Central Land Association by a gentleman in Gloucester. I only want that amplified and enlarged. That is quite within the power of Government officials, and I do not think it would involve any very large expense. I was, therefore, glad to hear the noble Earl say that if I would defer my request for the present and leave the matter in the hands of His Majesty's Government they would, notwithstanding what was said by the noble Lord who represents the Local Government Board, do what they could to meet our request.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before Eight o'clock, to Monday next, a quarter before Eleven o'clock.