HC Deb 14 May 1914 vol 62 cc1419-28

Resolutions reported,

1. "That the Customs duty charged on tea until the first day of July, nineteen hundred and fourteen, shall be charged as from that date until the first day of July, nineteen hundred and fifteen, that is to say:—

Tea, the pound … … five pence, and it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution shall have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act, 1913."

Resolution read a second time.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Sir J. D. REES

I think anybody interested in the tea trade must have listened with rather mixed feelings to the announcement of the repetition of the duty, which is, I will not say excessive, but at a very high rate. I do not think anyone expected, under the existing circumstances of the Exchequer, that there would be any reduction in the Tea Duty, and seeing that it has been argued that some extra collection of taxation should, if possible, come from the poorer classes of taxpayers, I should not have expected my right hon. Friend to recommend or to vote for a reduction of the Tea Duty on this occasion. It is one of the few indirect taxes left which are levied on all classes of the community. At the same time I do not think that I should let this occasion pass without expressing my sense of the very onerous nature of the Tea Duty, and my hope that it may some day be possible to reduce it. It is impossible to avoid the reflection that, though tea is a necessity of the poor, there is nothing else except tobacco which is taxed to the same extent that tea is, which is raised in British Possessions, and by British labour and British capital; and it is not equitable that what has become an absolute necessity, and is in no sense a luxury, of the poor, should be exposed to a taxation of from 50 to 80 per cent. of its value in the case of the poorer teas. On the other hand, what most disorganises and disturbs, if it does not prove disastrous to trade, is the continual change of the duty which is levied. If a penny was taken off tea it would hardly reach the consumer, and would not be that benefit to the poor which one would like to see conferred by reduction of duty. If 2d. were taken off that no doubt would be an advantage to the trade and to the consumer.

As a reduction of the amount was not to be expected this year, I cannot express any regret that a penny has not been taken off. On a former occasion a reduction of a penny was made by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, and I do not think that anybody thanked him. Everybody would be thankful if 2d. were taken off, if the right hon. Gentleman could see his way to do it. He cannot do so, but, at the same time, I believe that it would be possible to make a reduction which would be to the benefit of all classes if there were less socialistic legislation, so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer were not placed in the position of a man who first of all artificially creates a deficit by his own extravagance, and then comes to the House and says that it is impossible to reduce this indirect taxation which is pressing on the poor because of the present state of our finances. He will agree with me in thinking that 1d. reduction would be no use, but he would hardly agree that the whole financial position is chiefly his own making, in that he, who should be the guardian of the public purse, is the chief initiator of the legislation which makes a reduction in the Tea Duty impossible. I only rose because it is extremely difficult for anyone who is acquainted with the subject, and particularly one who has seen the production of tea in India and Ceylon, to see this very high duty repeated year after year without making some comment upon it. At the same time, I do not think that my comment should amount to a protest, because we have to consider what has to be done to meet the financial position as we find it. I do not know that it would be in order, and it would not be acceptable to the House, and I do not intend to argue the question of general policy which lands the House in this position, and I only desire to say that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, I will not, as I have done on former occasions, move a reduction of the Tea Duty, and neither will I vote for such a reduction should it be moved by anyone else.


I do not see how the Liberal party can in any way justify the enormous taxation that they put on tea. The tea of the poor is taxed 75 per cent. Not only that, but the tea of the poor is paying proportionately a far higher tax than the tea of the rich. If a poor woman buys 3 lbs. of very cheap tea and pays 3s. for it, she pays three times as much taxation as the rich woman who pays the same amount for 1 lb. of tea, which is three times as dear. When you come to think that tea, which is a necessity of the poor, is taxed far more heavily than champagne, which is the luxury of the rich, it is still more unjustifiable. Champagne is only taxed about 15 per cent., and tea is taxed three or four times as much. If the people have got to pay this tax, as they must, because we cannot grow tea in this country, I cannot understand why the money produced by this tax cannot be raised by a tax on some of the agricultural produce which we can produce in this country. There cannot be any doubt that if you had a tariff on other agricultural produce it would encourage your own producers, and provide for your working people more wages and more work on the land, and help to get your people back on to the land which surely hon. Gentleman on the other side will agree is what we really want to do very badly here. Only about 18 per cent. of the people in this country are employed in agriculture, while about 54 per cent. are employed in factories and mines. In other countries the proportion is something like half and half, and it is only by altering your taxation from a thing like tea which you cannot produce, and putting it on to something else which you can produce, that you can really encourage and revive agriculture. The heavy taxation of tea by what is called a Free Trade Government is absolutely unjustfiable, and I beg to move a reduction of £100 in the duty on tea. I do not know whether I can or not, but if I can I beg to move a reduction of £100 in the duty on tea.


The hon. Member thinks that he is discussing the Estimates.


I confess I was a little distressed this evening when I discovered that there was no Amendment down to this Resolution, in accordance with the custom followed in each of the years that I have been in this House. I think it is desirable that I should make the matter clear. There is a reason why an Amendment has not been put down on this occasion, and it is that if we had put one down on this occasion we could not discuss it on the Finance Bill. I can promise the House that there will be an Amendment on the Tea Duty when we come to the Finance Bill. There is one point I wish to make, though not in any party spirit. We hear a great deal about the abolition of the food taxes, to which the Liberal party has been pledged, certainly since the 1906 Election. We have passed through eight years without seeing any attempt to deal with them. [An HON. MEMBER: "Sugar!"] Yes, sugar, and 2d. on cocoa. [An HON MEMBER: "And a penny on tea!"] Hon. Members below the Gangway opposite apparently forget the fact that the present Government have taken more money out of the pockets of the people of this country in food duties—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—I am open to correction, but I stick to it—that they have taken more money out of the pockets of the people in food duties than was taken in 1905, before they came into office. I am afraid hon. Members below the Gangway opposite are not in the habit of reading the "Daily Citizen." When we come to the Finance Bill and the Amendment on the Tea Duty I will not fail to remind them of what recently appeared in that journal on this particular subject. I certainly do not distrust the "Daily Citizen" in what it has to say as regards the food duties and the action of the present Government since they have been in office in not fulfilling their pledges. The point I want to make, if I may, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer is this: In principle I am quite sure that every Member of this House honestly desires to see any remission of food duties, whether on tea or any other article of food, if it is going to give any relief to the people of this country who feel the burden of these taxes, and they are mostly the working clasess. By way of illustration I take the case of sugar, the duty on which, in 1908, was reduced from 4s. 2d. to 1s. 10d. Sugar has been dearer ever since. It is not a question of supply and demand at all. Ever since 1908 we have imported into this country more sugar than we ever did before.


On a point of Order. Is it allowable to discuss sugar on the Tea Duty?


It would be better if the hon. Member would confine himself to tea.


Mr. Speaker, I will follow your ruling in this matter. I only referred to sugar by way of illustration. At the moment—perhaps I was wrong—I felt justified in doing so when we were discussing the question of the Tea Duty. When the right hon. Gentleman does come to the remission of the duty on tea, as probably within twelve months he hopes to be able to do, or on any other articles of food, I do hope that he will take all the precautions he can to make sure that if the ten millions of taxation is taken off food in this country that it does go to the people of the country generally, and particularly that the working classes, who buy tea and other articles in small quantities, will get a good share of that remission in the lightening of the burdens they now have to bear, I therefore throw out that suggestion to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because in the illustration which I gave, it is so palpable and, indeed, incontrovertible that we do find that on the remission of duties on food stuffs it does not of necessity follow that the people are going to get the whole or any reasonable part of that benefit. I only hope that the Chancellor will carefully look at the matter before remitting so large a sum as that.


I have always been an opponent of the Tea Duty, because it presses most upon the poorest of the poor. It is not only of necessity one of the very few luxuries that the poorest of the poor indulge in, but particularly of women and children. The poorest of the poor pay no direct taxation. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor considers that everybody in this country should contribute something to the expenses of the upkeep of the United Kingdom, but I am one of those who think that those who have barely a living wage ought not to contribute anything at all out of the small amount they have to keep body and soul together. Just think of what a poor family spends every week. They buy, probably, one pound of tea, on which the duty is five-pence, with the result that if you abolish the Tea Duty upon the lower priced tea, every poor family—and I do not speak of the working classes, because most of them are well off and, I am glad to say, independent, and can afford it, but I am speaking of the poorest of the poor, who have not got a living wage—and take off that duty, you would add to the wages of those people fivepence per week. If such a Motion as that were brought before the House, I should certainly support it. From my very earliest recollection of politics I have always thought that the party opposite were identified with the policy of the free breakfast table. It was not until last year, I think, that we had the Chancellor of the Exchequer, backed up by the Prime Minister, getting up and abandoning for all time the policy of a free breakfast table. When we come to the General Election, which cannot be long postponed, I think that the working classes of this country will have something to say to the Government on this question. They have many times obtained the votes of the working classes on the promise of a free breakfast table, and for years and years they have been returned in the hope that that would be consummated. I have heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer say that it was a good thing to keep up the price of tea because it would prevent poor people who stewed tea from giving that stewed tea to their children, and which was bad for them. I do not think that the

right hon. Gentleman, who professes to have so much sympathy for the working classes, could really have thought out what that meant. They must have tea; ids one of their little luxuries; and to make it dearer in order that they may be prevented from injuring their children by stewing the tea because it is dear, seems to me an argument totally opposed to the principles which the right hon. Gentleman professes on the public platform. When we come to revise our system of taxation, I agree that the wealthy classes should pay their fair share. Most right-minded people would willingly contribute a larger amount even of Income Tax if they could thereby relieve the poorest of the poor.

Question put, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

The House divided: Ayes, 242; Noes, 126.

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