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"of Christendom have raised their voices in reprobation of "this crime against nature and the common weal."
There have been in the past, and are now, men with brains, capital, and skill, who are quite capable of adapting themselves and their systems to altered circumstances without attending lectures or going to school again; yet these are foremost in their complaints, and most despairing in their forecast for the future. The greater the practice and experience the greater the pessimist, and this is not an encouraging feature of the situation.
There is one bright spot, however, in the outlook, and that is, that a school of economists, although at present in a minority, tell us that the great problem is capable of solution, although the conversion of that minority into a majority may be through still greater suffering and distress. J. F. L. ROLLESTON, Fellow.
Land Tax Assessment.
(A RIDER TO MR. W. E. EVANS' PAPER, VOL. XV., p. 253.)
LAND TAX is an Imperial impost, collected by local authorities under the direction of a Central Board, who, to quote their own words, "have no power to interfere with "the action of the District' Commissioners," but are careful to explain that the revenue is "entitled to the full "quota in any case," and, in effect, that the parties concerned must raise this "quota" somehow, but the precise how does not concern them.
Made permanent to serve the exigencies of the time a century ago, on a basis which had in itself no principle of justness, the tax has been immobile, while its incidence has been mobile. The resultant effect of this combination of
qualities is seen in the present disproportion between the burden and the capacity for carrying it. In districts best able to carry the load, the proportionate weight has decreased; the converse has occurred where the district has become poor. Thus, agricultural parishes which, in a time of high prices for corn during war, were highly assessed, are heavily mulcted now that wheat is a profitless commodity, while newly-developed watering places and thriving towns have a tax which, fixed when they were waste sand heaps or unapproachable morasses, now lies upon them with the lightness of a feather.*
It is probably useless to advocate any amelioration of these conditions. Spread over the whole kingdom the tax is not oppressive. It is collected cheaply, and the worst sufferers are not numerous enough to make their voices heard in competition with other pressing claimants for relief. If, and when, any serious movement is made to throw additional burdens on land as a raw material, and not as a manufactured article, regard ought to be had to the almost intolerable nature of the burden in some districts.
As instances of the disparity above referred to two cases may be mentioned. In one land tax district, and this a provincial one, the rate is about one-tenth of a penny in the £. In an agricultural parish in Worcestershire the rate is 3s. in the £ on a rental which is maintained only by liberal yearly concessions to the tenants. The first district has the good fortune of having building land within its
Where a land tax district is wholly agricultural, and is in the hands of one owner paying the tax himself, or of more than one owner similarly circumstanced, it is not
* The tax on a house and an acre of valuable building land on the Welsh coast has recently been redeemed at a total cost, including expenses, of 15s.
material on what basis the tax is levied, so long as it is assessed in proper proportion according to the instructions to the assessors. Where the circumstances of tenancies differ, the poor rate assessment is the best basis, the rent being the safest criterion of value.
If the tenants be made to pay the tax as part of their rent, they will, usually, be found to exercise care in seeing that the tax is fairly levied, but if they can claim to be repaid by their landlords they are sometimes indifferent, and if the landlord or the agent be non-resident, improper assessments are likely to be ignored. It sometimes happens that a tenant will connive-innocently enough-at an irregular assessment, or he may be the victim of a strongerminded brother tenant, who, as assessor or collector, or both, prefers customary and ancient methods to modern just ones. It is not an unusual thing, moreover, to find that tithe rentcharges, when paid direct by the landlord, are not deducted from the rent, and escape assessment entirely, and this for parochial rates as well as for land tax.
The landlord, of course, suffers in such cases. If the tenants pay the tax they take the charge into account and press for a reduction in the rent without troubling about an appeal against the tax. Thus, in one parish no reassessment had been made for many years. To relieve the tenant, on a readjustment of the rent, the landlord took upon himself to pay the tax, and in the following year, by a strenuous movement, got the tax reduced on one farm from £15 19s. 8d. to £7 16s. 4d.
According to the assessors' "instructions" ("Transactions," vol. xv., p. 272, Appendix to Mr. EVANS' Paper), the assessment should be revised every year, but there appears to be no remedy against neglect of duty, the assessors being in theory the servants of the payers, who are, therefore, themselves responsible if their officers are guilty of dereliction of duty.
In a district where an owner had for years been charged with land tax which had been redeemed, an addition was made to all the other owners of 25 per cent., but neither the collector nor the assessors could state the ground rate at which the tax was charged. In one instance an owner was obviously overcharged. On remonstrating, the collector replied that he had not drawn attention to the matter on a new assessment because, among other things, it would have reduced the amount by 25 per cent., and, inferentially, given some trouble to again readjust all the other assessments, there being no proper £ rating.
It is, on the whole, the best course for the landlord to
the tax in bulk to the collector direct. By this means control is secured, and if the circumstances of the parish are changed by the formation of a railway, the opening of mines or quarries, the erection of new houses, or by other matters affecting the assessment, immediate steps can be taken to secure alteration. An agent constantly dealing with like questions will intervene much more effectively than a tenant farmer anxious to live peaceably with all men.
Care, however, should be taken to obtain periodical information as to the assessments. Publication by notice on a church door is an anachronism. Where any increase in an assessment is made, notice ought to be legally required to be served on the person affected. Someone should be requested by the landowner to keep him posted up in alterations.
The aim of collectors, assessors, and district commissioners appears to be to discourage appeals and frighten possible appellants. The invariable dictum is that there is no appeal from a decision of the District Commissioners. Their jurisdiction is, to the bucolic mind, shadowy, and their authority exaggerated, and when an excellent authority admits that he has been "conscience-stricken as to the per"functory manner in which land tax commissioners performed
"their duties," the poor payer may well pause before deciding to challenge them. Moreover, the tax is demanded of the tenant; a threat of immediate distress in the event of non-payment is usually effective, and this particularly where the landlord's pocket suffers in the end.
But to say that there is no appeal from the decision of the Commissioners in the case of a wrongful assessment, is as misleading as it is to declare that there is no appeal from the judgment of a landlord who issues a distress warrant. And, further, to declare that the party injured must appeal, is not true in every case. The "appeal" in the case of irregularity is by an action for unlawful distress, procedure which land tax assessors and collectors must be as careful to provide against as landlords; judges being merciless in penalising illegalities in the exercise of exceptional powers. In regard to irregular or excessive assessments, the decision of the Land Tax Commissioners, however unjust, is final; but in regard to the assessment of property legally exempt by redemption or otherwise, no appeal is necessary, notwithstanding any assertion of the local authorities to the contrary, for the assessment of such lands is illegal. Land Tax Commissioners' Clerks are careful not to distinguish between the two positions, and invite appeals in both cases.
In cases, therefore, where the proof of redemption is in the hands of the owner, he need take no notice of an assessment. The assessors' duties are rigidly defined as to the identification of properties redeemed, and such properties are for ever exempt from the charge. The collector therefore proceeds at his peril. Bourdin's "Land Tax," the text-book of land tax clerks, makes no mention of this very important distinction, but states without any modification (except such
*Properties formerly belonging to Ecclesiastical Corporations, and enfranchised, may be often proved to have been redeemed by comparing the certificate with old leases.