HC Deb 29 April 1915 vol 71 cc926-34

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1. That, in addition to the duties of Customs now payable on spirits imported into Great Britain or Ireland, there shall, on and after the thirtieth day of April, nineteen hundred and fifteen, be charged the following duties (that is to say):—

£ s. d.
For every gallon computed at proof of spirits of any description except perfumed spirits 0 14 9
For every gallon of perfumed spirits 1 3 7
For every gallon of liqueurs, cordials, mixtures, and other preparations entered in such a manner as to indicate that the strength is not to be tested 1 0 0
and the duties of Customs on the articles hereafter mentioned, being articles in which spirit is contained, or in the manufacture of which spirit is used, shall be proportionately increased and shall be as follows:—
£ s. d.
Chloral hydrate the lb. 0 3 6
Chloroform the lb. 0 8 7
Collodion the gallon 3 9 1
Ether acetic the lb. 0 5 1
Ether butyric the gallon 2 3 2
Ether sulphuric the gallon 3 12 2
Ethyl, iodide of the gallon 1 17 7
Ethyl bromide the lb. 0 2 10
Ethyl chloride the gallon 2 3 2
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.


This is the first Resolution which I propose to move.

I have already explained that we propose to deal with this when we come to our Budget Bill, and we simply take the Resolution in the form usual in these cases, with a view to covering the possibilities. I could not accept the responsibility at this stage of leaving this out without further consideration of the actual proposals which we propose to put in when we come to deal with the Bill itself. As at present advised, I think that there must be important exceptions, but we are considering the best method of dealing with it. We see the importance of lightening the duty on what is after all an ingredient of healing and curing. I do not propose now to enter into any further discussion upon this question. I will do what has generally been done with taxes which ultimately have been challenged, and which, ultimately, have been defeated in the House. There has always been acceptance of the Resolution on the first night. Of course, the House of Commons has not time to consider the thing fully then, and if it does not pass the Resolutions then and ultimately accedes to the proposals, then it may be found that it is too late. Of course, practically all the commodity which we propose to tax would be cleared out of bond then. Therefore, the practice has already obtained of accepting the Resolution on the first night. When you come to beer, my right hon. Friend will see that this is not a very serious proposal, for the simple reason that we do not propose to touch the particular brew which is going through at the particular moment. We propose to leave the existing brew un- taxed. Therefore the Resolution, if adopted, will not come into immediate operation.


Why propose it to-night?


The same thing applies to spirits. If the Resolution is passed to-night there will be no inconvenience involved upon the spirit dealers, for the simple reason that the amount which they have cleared out of bond during the last month, is far more than they could possibly deal with in the ordinary course of business between now and the time when the House will come to a final decision. On the other hand, if this were put off until next week, then undoubtedly so much spirit would be cleared out that any Resolution which you would pass would be rendered absolutely null. If there were any serious inconvenience imposed upon the spirit trade I could easily enter into an arrangement with them. With regard to that subject we could take the matter as being sub judice, and make arrangements to enable them to clear out any additional quantity of spirit to enable them to deal with their ordinary business, and they could pay on account of the spirit as has been done before until the matter has been adjudicated upon after full discussion and Debate by the House of Commons. But I hope that the House will follow the usual rule, that where we propose any sort of extra tax the Resolution in Committee of Supply should be passed the first night, in order to enable us to prevent forestalments, which would render the tax absolutely nugatory.

I can only make that appeal to Members. I can quite see the weight of all that has been said by hon. Members for Ireland, but after all we cannot tax Scotch whisky and leave Irish whisky untaxed. You could not maintain a state of things in which the men on the Clyde should have to pay for whisky double as much as is paid by men in Belfast engaged on exactly the same kind of work. We have got to take the facts exactly as they are. I regret very much to have to take this course. The only other alternative is absolute prohibition of spirits. As between the two I should have thought that there was no doubt that those who prefer spirit would prefer even a double tax to the absolute prohibition of the sale of spirits. I trust, therefore, that the usual course will be followed, and that after the very strong protests which have been made and which will be taken into account, the Committee will be satisfied to let us have this Resolution with the full understanding that, whatever inconvenience may happen to the trade in the meantime, the Government will deal with the matter reasonably, and so that the business is not impaired until the House adjudicates finally upon this question.


Certainly neither I nor my Friends desire to put any unnecessary difficulties in the way of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and still less to refuse him in such circumstances as those in which we meet to-day any facility which a Government habitually enjoys in much easier times. As far as my Friends and I are concerned, we see no objection to the Chancellor of the Exchequer taking tonight such Resolutions as are necessary to prevent any taxing proposals being rendered nugatory, even though the House should afterwards approve of them; but I should like to emphasise the fact that this silent assent is given to-night for the necessary protection of the Revenue, because, without it being given in the usual way, taxing proposals of the kind foreshadowed by the right hon. Gentleman would be rendered absolutely null and of no effect for many months after the House had come to a decision, and it must not be taken that our consent to this Resolution in any way commits us to proposals of which we have heard for the first time this afternoon. I think that the Chancellor stated the practice of the House rather more broadly than is quite correct. It has not been the practice of the House, or of this Committee, to pass on the first night of the Budget discussion all the Resolutions relating to taxation, but only such Resolutions as are immediately needed for the protection of the Revenue. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not ask for anything but what is immediately needed for the protection of the Revenue.

I could not quite follow the explanation which he gave a moment ago, but it seems to me that applying that which is the customary rule, to take all that is necessary for present purposes, the case for taking the Resolution to-night was not made out. But I speak subject to correction. May be I have not understood him. One other word. The Government have had a grave problem to deal with. I should like to see that problem dealt with successfully. As the Chancellor has said, in order to deal with it successfully you must deal with it with something like general, though I do not say universal, assent. I cannot conceal that the scheme which the Chancellor adumbrated—I am speaking merely of his taxing proposals and am leaving the others wholly on one side—is fraught with enormous difficulties of application, and that unless very carefully safeguarded and very considerably modified it may work very partially and unjustly, as between different concerns engaged in the same trade, and I must preserve for myself and those for whom I speak the fullest right to examine the proposals of the Chancellor hereafter, in a spirit which would be much more friendly naturally to the proposals of the Government than our spirit would be in ordinary circumstances. But this is a subject of such gravity, touching the habits and the social life of the people so profoundly, that I do not think it possible for an Opposition which has entirely ceased to oppose to say that in a matter of this kind they will take no responsibility whatever and will leave the whole burden of the decision upon the Government without taking any part in the Debate. If, therefore, we are ready to give whatever assistance is needed to the Chancellor to-night for the protection of the Revenue, it must be understood that that is without prejudice to our future examination of the subject, or any alterations or changes which further examination and discussion may show to be desirable in the Resolution submitted to us.


We are now at the Budget, and we are at the Budget in these circumstances, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made no Budget statement. He is proposing a tax of an unparalleled kind. He has given us no estimate of its yield, neither on the beer nor on the whisky. The beer tax is being practically increased tenfold, the spirit tax is being doubled, and is being doubled on the increase of 1909–10, and the spirit tax is being so increased after the speech, or rather in spite of the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman himself when he was proposing his War Budget last year, when he enumerated all the subjects of taxation from which revenue could be hoped, and he declared that he was bound to tax beer—a penny on beer—but that he could not add to the extra tax on whisky of 3s. 9d. imposed three or four years ago.

8.0 P.M.

Therefore, it is not merely the procedure which he has adopted to-night, of forestalling the Budget, but he is making revolutionary changes in respect of it, and he is making the further change of giving no estimate of the yield to the Revenue, or the consequences. Nay, more, he is doing that without telling us what is the Budget sum he is expected to Budget for, and in all these three matters he has made an absolute departure from the practice of the House and from the practice of his office, In addition to that, I would like to point out that this is what I call assassin taxation; it is murderous taxation. In times of war you are entitled, as the Czar of Russia did in the case of vodka, to prohibit; but when the Czar of Russia prohibited the drinking of vodka he was the owner of the tax and the owner of the public-houses. Every public-house in Russia was a Russian Government monopoly; every penny that came from the vodka tax went into the pocket of the Czar, if he liked to put it there. In the case of this taxation the essence of it is destruction, and in the case of destruction the corollary of it is compensation. Therefore, what the right hon. Gentleman is doing is that he is destroying an industry by a system of taxation; whereas, if he prohibited he would have to compensate. He has stated in the second speech he made that he believes the distillers and brewers would prefer taxation to prohibition.

But it is not on his opinion that the matter should rest. The brewers and distillers should be consulted as to their choice of option; and certainly if I owned shares, which I do not, in any brewery or distillery, I should like to have the exercise of the option as to whether I should prefer to be taxed out of existence, or to be put out of existence by Statute, plus compensation. The choice in that respect should lie with the sufferer. Take the case of John Jameson's. What was the effect of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's taxation of spirit a few years ago? It was that John Jameson's ceased to pay dividends; that was on the 3s. 9d. taxation. How would it be under the present proposal. That man is a Unionist; he subscribes £1,000 to the Unionist party; he is a chief contributor to their fund. There is not a single one of those men who are members of or sympathisers with our party. Therefore, when we stand up in this House we are not advocating any industries in which we are concerned; we are not advocating the interests of any men with whom we are in political affiliation or sympathy, When there was laughter, somewhat ungenerous, from hon Members, I wonder what they would say were cotton prohibited and linen recommended in its stead. Would they laugh if the cotton industry of Lancashire, and the living of men and their wives and children were destroyed? The Chancellor of the Exchequer, without notice, without our knowledge that this was to be Budget night, in the dark, and under the disguise of the Defence of the Realm Act, proposes, as regards these industries with which we have no concern, and for which we seek only the barest justice, a measure to destroy them. What have war measures to do with finance? When we supported him the other day in taking over these large works, foundries and other important works in Leeds and elsewhere, there was a promise in every case of compensation. If you destroyed a man's business, or trade, you were to pay him compensation. I maintain that this is not Budget legislation; if it were we should have had a Budget statement. It is simply legislation intended to be murderous, and therefore I am here. I am sorry that it should be upon the Custom's Resolution, in these topsy-turvy times in which we are living, but I really think that a statement might have been made as well upon the third Resolution as upon the first Resolution. We are living in a year of wounds, and we are doubling the price of anæsthetics, chloroform, ether, bromide. You are taxing the hospitals as well as the public-houses.


The hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well that I never made that proposal, and never attempted to apply it to matters of that kind. If he did not notice it when I addressed the House, I address directly to him now that statement.


It is a great pity; it is not always possible to hear, and I did not hear that statement; something may have been engaging my attention at the time, but it is not my fault. I say that we ought not to be left to the indulgence of the right hon. Gentleman in that respect. It ought to be in the Resolution. These are not matters under the favour of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. These are matters for Members of the House of Commons themselves; they are matters dealing with legislation; and the Resolution with which I am dealing is a Resolution which doubles the tax on hospitals in that respect. Is it so very urgent to pass that Resolution to-night in regard to anæsthetics? Why is there this urgency to double the tax to-night upon them? Why include that in the Resolution? There should be some merciful consideration for the wounded? Why then should you not omit it from your Resolution? Why is it inserted?


was understood to say that it would be omitted.


I am glad to have obtained, some redress upon that point. So far as we are concerned, it is true that our party is a small party. It is true that a larger party have deserted their country and its interests on this occasion, and they have done it in the expectation, such as the Welsh Members got in regard to Disestablishment, that Home Rule will become before very long, and after the War, an effective measure for Ireland. I venture to predict for those Gentlemen who are conniving to-night at assassin taxation for their country that they will be left in the lurch at the next election. I venture to predict that Home Rule, nominal Home Rule, placed on the Statute Book will never be heard of again for Ireland as a whole. Already there has been a promise to omit Ulster from it, and with this taxation you put on to-night, with your breweries destroyed, your distilleries destroyed, with your workhouses filled, with the operatives gone, with the labourers who till your fields gone, I should like to know, with the three-fourths left to you, what hope you can have of a system of legislation which we are told would have made Ireland a nation when this Bill was announced a year ago.

I therefore intend for the first time since this War broke out to challenge a vote. Our numbers will be small, it is true, but small as they are they are taking a course which every Irish Nationalist has hitherto taken upon a Rill of this description. This has not been brought forward as a war measure. To make it effective as a war measure it should propose total prohibition with full compensation. That would have been necessary. You have not attempted that. You have maligned your own countrymen and you are ruining ours, and I am sorry to think that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman will give more pleasure to Potsdam than in Great Britain and Ireland, I venture to say that the wireless in Berlin are engaged in reporting and repeating the words of the right hon. Gentleman. The letter from a workman, somebody under delirium tremens who has written that letter which the right hon. Gentleman has used as a muzzle, on the House of Commons to-night, I believe, will be printed throughout the length and breadth of Germany and Austria within the next week. When I am told that I have misrepresented the words of the Prime Minister as to his whole-hearted accord with the right hon. Gentleman, I can only say that I am able to read and write, and, being able to read and write, I read the speech of the Prime Minister, and I say that speech is an absolute contradiction and an absolute answer to the right hon. Gentleman, who is airing in this business, as he has done in others, his own personal fads at the expense of his colleagues. I believe it will be found that these personal fads to-night will mark the beginning of a new feeling in Parliament, a feeling that will give joy to the enemies of this Empire and will bring dismay to its friends. For my own part, much as I dislike many things that have been done in Ireland in the last seven or eight months, with no Lord Lieutenant, with no Chief Secretary owing to bereavement, and with a stranger for Under-Secretary, I greatly fear that this Bill will lead to much more than it has on the floor of this House, and the right hon. Gentleman, the hero of the Budget of 1909, the hero of the Insurance Act, has tied another kettle to the tail of the Liberal party.

Question amended by leaving out from "£1 0s. 0d." to

"Ethyl chloride … the gallon £2 3s. 2d."—[The Attorney-General.]

Question, as amended, put and agreed to.