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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 48

Personal Property. Sections 8, 9,10, 32, 35

Personal Property. Sections 8, 9,10, 32, 35.

As the assessment of personal property is the most novel part of the system, it will be well to treat of it first. It cannot be too clearly pointed out that an assessor has no right whatever to pry into a man's household affairs, or to do anything that could be correctly described by the word inquisitorial. The owner of personal property has to value it. The assessor has not to value it. The Act does not give him power to do so, and the Regulations do not. The owner may post his return of personal property direct to the Deputy-Commissioner of his district (clause 35), and if it be accepted as fair nobody outside the office need know anything about it. From time to time statements have been circulated as to the enormity of assessors being empowered to take stock of a man's library and plate, to appraise his wife's jewellery, to go into a merchant's office and examine the contents of his safe, to read his stock book, have a quiz at his bill book, and generally to play Paul Pry whenever they wished. There has been no foundation for all this stuff. But if a man's return should appear to a Deputy Commissioner to be incorrect, he may demand a fuller return, and if still unsatisfied he may object to it. In such a case the objection would go before the Board of Reviewers, who have power to summon witnesses and call for books and papers.

A bugbear which has been raised is that if a man makes a return of his assets and liabilities he will have his financial position known, and there will be a great risk of it being divulged. This is a danger which is almost imaginary. Each officer and clerk will be sworn to secrecy, and for a breach of his oath may be sentenced to not more than twelve months' imprisonment with or without hard labour. If an officer does anything under the Act without being first sworn he renders himself liable to a fine of not less than £10 and not more than £100 (clauses 8, 9, and 10). These checks ought to be enough to stay the tongue of the veriest gossip, and experience in other things proves that there is very little likelihood of anyone wilfully divulging anything. The bank manager and the bank clerk, the solicitor and solicitor's clerk, possess all sorts of secrets as to the ways and means of all sorts of people, yet whoever hears of tales of Mr. Y.'s overdraft, Mr. Q.'s bills discounted, Mr. Z.'s dis- page 7 honor of a draft drawn by a London firm, or Mr. A.'s attempts to raise money or to get time. Merchants and traders never dream of these things becoming known. Then the telegraphists—well, what don't they know? Matters of the greatest privacy and urgency, things that would at once ruin a man if they were spoken of, are entrusted with absolute security to the knowledge of telegraph clerks and operators. Telegraphists are loyal and secret, and why should not officers of another department be so. The fact is that making these returns is a new thing, and therefore imaginary dangers are set up. In a short time property owners will have as little uneasiness when sending in their assessments as people have in England when filling up the Income Tax papers.

Another error which has gained currency is that a person must specify his debts; but it is not so. All he has to do is to state the gross amount of debts for which he he claims a deduction (clause 32). He can put this as much below the total of his indebtedness as he pleases, and this without breaking his declaration, which is to the effect that he actually owes the debts for which he claims a deduction. He need not say that the sum is the total of all his liabilities, but he is bound to declare that he gives all his property, which of course includes debts due to him. The remark that a man need not claim a deduction for all his debts unless he likes, and thus elect to pay more tax than he ought, may seem like a grim jest; yet it is not, for it is well known that in England many people return their incomes at amounts much larger than they are, and they do this with an idea of keeping up their credit in some way, although how that is effected it is not easy to see, for all returns are supposed to be secret. Possibly the trader who is going backwards may declare to a good income as the result of his business, and let it be known that he pays income tax on so many thousand pounds. A like reason may tempt some to increase their assets and decrease their liabilities, and then make no secret of paying property tax on a handsome surplus. You need not claim a deduction for all debts, but you have either to return all your property or make a false declaration. In default you are liable to heavy penalties, of which more is set out under another head.

A mode of getting rid of your assets for the purposes of the assessment, without running a risk of loss, has been frequently suggested, but it is founded on such a ridiculous misconception that it really is difficult to believe that such a proposal could be seriously made. It is this: If you have a rare collection, a valuable library, or works of art of great price, borrow money on them to the full value, and include the amount in your debts. That was the royal road to cheat the revenue without risk, but the author of this piece of finésse quite forgot that if you borrow £1000 on anything and add that sum to your debts, you at the same time increase your assets. You do something with the cash, and whether you bank it or hide it in a cracked teapot, you must not omit it in your return. The result would be:—"As you were."

The Interpretation Clause declares that "Personal property means all property of whatever nature not comprised in the definition of real property," and real property is defined to mean "lands, tenements, and hereditaments, whether corporeal or incorporeal, and includes all chattel interests in land." These two definitions make it clear that everything a man has which has a selling value is to be assessed with a view to taxation. All his possessions, all his investments, his furniture, his jewellery, clothing, household goods, as well as any property that may be more aptly ranked as marketable, such as stock-in-trade, farming stock, merchandize, &c., are to be taxed. Accumulated profits of his business or profession and all his savings are to be taxed. The Property Tax has been often styled a tax upon thrift, and it is said that the man who lives up to his income escapes. This is not the place to go into the relative merits of Land Tax, Property Tax, or Income Tax, for all that is sought to be accomplished is to, in some degree, explain the law as it stands, yet it is very easy to show that the man who lives freely or extravagantly does not escape taxation. Take this case. A man with a family of five children has a salary of £1000, out of which he in one year saves £500. The Property Tax on this, if he had other property, would at the rate of a penny in the £ be £2 1s. 8d. a year. If next year he lived up to his income the increased expenditure would almost entirely be on articles that had paid duty, and his increased contribution through the Custom House would probably be £10 to £60 for the year. It may be expected that the assessment of personal property will at first be embarassing, and many people will have to perform an operation they have page 8 rarely or ever done; that is prepare a true statement of their affairs. This may result in some being surprised at learning they are worth so much, and in others being alarmed and astonished at having to deduct their property from their debts, or at all events at ascertaining the large total of their indebtedness. This general stocktaking cannot fail to be advantageous in many ways. It is not unusual for anyone who feels that things are going the reverse of well with him to avoid finding out his actual position, but now he will have to do so, and will thus be brought face to face with his state of affairs.