HC Deb 17 March 1892 vol 2 cc1049-51
MR. BEAUFOY (Lambeth, Kennington)

I beg to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he will inform the House on what principle the "market value" of sparkling wines is arrived at; whether the administration of "The Customs (Wine Duty) Act, 1888," is so uncertain that merchants are left in ignorance of the rate of duty that will be charged on certain wines, and whether the country has lost a large revenue owing to the way the Act was construed for more than three years; whether it is true that the Board of Customs has divulged information of a confidential nature obtained by them under the provisions of the Act; and whether, in face of these difficulties, the Custom House authorities are in favour of the ad valorem duty being abandoned, and whether it will be abandoned in favour of a fixed duty irrespective of price?


May I, at the same time, ask the right hon. Gentleman to say whether British wines which pay no duty do not contain a larger quantity of alcohol than many foreign wines, and whether the Revenue does not thereby suffer?


In answer to the question put to me by my hon. and gallant Friend, I can only say that I have not sufficient knowledge of British wines to form an opinion as to the amount of alcohol they contain. The definition of "market value of sparkling wine" is stated in the Wine Duty Act of 1888 to be "the price which the wine would realise if sold in bond at the port of importation." But, as such actual sales are now seldom effected, means must be taken to ascertain, as fairly as possible, what that price is. The most important element in the case, as a guide, is the wholesale selling price to the distributing trader in this country. No difficulty occurs, I am informed, with regard to at least nine-tenths of the whole importation, and, in the case of the great bulk of the imports, there is no ignorance whatever as to the rate of duty which will be charged; but when wines are very near the border line, importers may hope to get their wines through at the lower duty and may not succeed. The country has not lost a large revenue owing to the way in which the Act has been administered during the last three years. It is not true that the "Board of Customs has divulged information of a confidential nature" obtained under the Act. In one instance the source of supply of some champagne was divulged to a customer of an importer, owing to a mistake of a clerk in the pressure of business, for which regret has been already expressed in a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Wine and Spirit Association; and I venture to think that, under the circumstances, the hon. Member—who is, I understand, a member of that Association—ought scarcely to have made the reflection on the Board which is contained in his question. No opinion has been expressed by the Custom House authorities on the Sparkling Wine Duty; but I may say that it ap- pears to me that a change to a fixed duty, irrespective of price, as suggested, would either involve a loss to the Revenue, if put so low as to relieve the higher wines as compared with the present duty; or, if an average was struck between the higher and the lower duty, it might, from the information I gathered at the time, seriously affect the importation and the consumption of the cheaper wines.