HC Deb 11 May 1915 vol 71 cc1507-13

I beg to move, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to restrict the supply and sale of immature spirits."

Since the increased duties on certain intoxicating liquors were proposed ten days ago prolonged discussions with the trade have taken place with a view to seeing whether the restrictions that are necessary in the national interests can be secured without additional taxation. The present Bill, together with the Defence of the Realm (No. 3) Bill, are the result of those consultations. It is not to be disputed, and it appears to be quite plain from the White Paper, that a large part of the mischief which must be stopped is due to the consumption of raw new spirits, which is at once the cheapest to buy and the most fiery in its influence and effects This Bill will, therefore, propose to prevent the sale of young and immature spirits. I believe that the House as a whole will favour the proposal. It was suggested from more quarters than one in the course of our recent discussion as being the proper way to deal with this pressing trouble, and, while some exception must be made, of course, from any general rule laid down, I do not think that the spirit trade as a whole will resent the suggestion that there should be some minimum age before which spirits should not be sold for drinking purposes. The main provision of this Bill will be to lay down that that minimum age should be three years. I will read the operative Clause: "No British or foreign spirits shall be delivered for home consumption unless they have been warehoused for at least a period of three years."

The House will observe that that applies to both British and foreign spirits, because, of course, we must not favour foreign spirits at the expense of the homemade article. But we propose to provide that where it is shown that imported spirits, before they were imported, had remained abroad for a period of time after distillation, that period shall count towards the three years which must elapse before such spirits can be made available for consumption in this country. Then, as regards the exceptions to that general principle, I will tell the House briefly what they are. The first and most important is this. We find that to make this a hard and fast rule, and at very short notice, would not be practicable, and would not be fair, because, at any rate for a time, the trade will not in all parts of the country be able to adjust itself to the new conditions for which the warehouse accommodation existing may very well not be sufficient, and there may be other reasons. So we propose to provide that, during the next twelve months, spirit may be taken out of warehouse as soon as it is two years old, though, in order to equalise the position as between such spirit and other spirit which has been kept in the warehouse for three years, there must be a small duty of a shilling a gallon added, in order that the two spirits may stand in the market at substantially the same level. The next exception about which the House is anxious to be assured is that of spirit which is used for industrial purposes. That, as the House knows, does not pay any tax at all, and there is no reason whatever why spirit which is used for industrial purposes should be kept in warehouse for a single day. Consequently it will be free to be used for industrial purposes however new and raw it may be.

In the next place there is the exception of the spirit which is delivered to licensed rectifiers, to manufacturing chemists, and to the manufacturers of perfume for use in their manufactures. There, again, there is no point in insisting that the spirit should have a minimum age, and in that case, the spirit will under the exceptions which we are introducing in the Bill, be free to be taken out of warehouse as soon as desired. There again, in order to equalise the matter, as between spirits which are quite new and spirits which have to be kept for three years before they are taken out of warehouse for consumption, we must put a small duty—1s. 6d. is the amount suggested—upon such spirits taken out before they are two years old. Again, that is merely in order to keep the balance even. Again, spirit required for scientific purposes will not be required to be kept in warehouse for three years before it is made available. There is one other exception, the case of Geneva, and the case of certain foreign liquors which are imported. These may be allowed to be available for consumption before the period of three years elapses, because, as the House knows, the liquor known as gin is not kept for any period of time before it is used for consumption. Thus, shortly stated, the House will see that while the principle of the Bill is to lay down the minimum age of three years, there are exceptions, which I have endeavoured to recount, which will meet hard cases and prevent interference with manufacture and other use of spirits. I may be allowed to say that the whole scheme of the Government obviously tends to this, that, in view of these provisions, it is not proposed to persist in the additional taxes which were submitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer some ten days ago. The present Bill, as the House will observe, is not founded on any Resolution in Committee of Ways and Means, and the tax of 1s. and 1s. 6d. which I have mentioned of course will be incorporated in the Budget. The present Bill is confined to prohibiting the taking out of warehouse of certain spirits until the spirits have reached a certain age. The House will naturally wish to know at once how we propose to get rid of the additional duties which were resolved upon in Committee of Ways and Means ten days ago. We shall propose to do it by taking on Report those additional duties so far as wines and beer are concerned, in order that they may be negatived by general consent, and therefore the situation will be restored which existed ten days ago.


What about the money already paid?


As regards the additional tax upon spirits doubling the tax on spirits, it will be absolutely necessary to keep that duty alive until the present Bill is law. Otherwise, as the House will see at once, a large quantity of raw and immature spirits would be instantly taken out of bond, and the prohibition which we are now seeking to impose would be for a long time practically ineffective. The Bill which I am asking leave to introduce is quite a short one, and I trust will not lead to much controversy or prolonged debate, and as soon as ever the Bill is secured the consumption of immature spirit will be stopped of course, and we can then get rid of the additional duty on spirits which the Committee imposed ten days ago.


I am aware that to be in order at the present stage I must offer the Bill which the right hon. Gentleman desires to introduce my opposition, but of course I have no intention of taking the opinion of the House on the Bill at the present stage, and the few observations I wish to make in opposition to it are rather more to warn the right hon. Gentleman, if I may so put it, that he must not assume that this measure is non-controversial—


On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I understood on an occasion when I was dealing with a Bill under the Ten Minutes' Rule, exactly as the hon. Member is doing now, you put the question to me whether I intended to go to a Division against the Bill, and whether I was really directly against it, and I did go to such Division, although I only wanted to make inquiries, just as the hon. and learned Member opposite does.


The hon. Gentleman did observe that he would not divide the House, but he has not concluded his speech and may alter his mind.


May I call attention to the fact that the hon. Member opposite has asked that he should not go to a Division and that he was rising in order to obtain information?


The hon. Member may probably think better of it.


The observations of the hon. Gentleman opposite may influence my decision. As the right hon. Gentleman observed in the Debate the other day, a good number of Members, some on this side of the House, expressed agreement with the principle embodied in this Bill, but the result of the Commission which was held some time ago would appear to show that this opinion of hon. Members may have been rather hasty. I want to recall to the recollection of the House that, in 1909 the Royal Commission reported upon this very question, and, if that Report has any value at all, then the whole idea that new spirits are more, or substantially more, deleterious than old spirits would appear to be an entire fallacy. The Commission, for instance, said:— It was not established before us that any material change in the toxicant quality of whisky is effected by age, but it is generally agreed that with old age a great improvement in the flavour of whisky is developed. In other words, the older the whisky the nicer it is, and it might well be argued that the older the whisky the greater the danger of excess. There is no evidence whatever that old whisky is necessarily less harmful than new. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] That opinion seems to be shared by a number of hon. Members opposite. If any whisky can be said to be more harmful when new than when it is old, it is the pot still whisky, which, according to the evidence given before the Commission, is so disgusting when new that nobody will drink it. The consequence of that is that pot still whisky is only put on the market when it is three years of age. Patent still whisky, on the other hand, is perfectly harmless when new, and therefore the legislation which the right hon. Gentleman proposes, if carried out, would have the effect of giving preference to one class of manufacture over another, which would be a very unfair thing to do. There is one other passage from the Report of the Royal Commission which I should like to report:— In our opinion the evidence is not sufficiently positive to justify us in holding that it is necessary for the protection of public health to detain any spirits for a minimum period in bond. I take it, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will have to use all his persuasive powers and his expert knowledge of whisky to let the House understand that it is necessary, or that it will have the slightest effect for the object we all have in view—the production of munitions of war. This is an emergency Act, if it is to be an Act at all, and in my opinion not only is this Bill perfectly useless for the object in view, but it is also very impracticable. It is quite true that the right hon. Gentleman has made some exceptions which recognise the difficulty of providing warehousing accommodation in the interval before the Act comes into full operation. He has given an interval of about twelve months. That the emergency measure is not to come into operation for twelve months is, at all events, not a very optimistic view of the present military situation. I hope the right hon. Gentleman's forecast in that respect may turn out to be too pessimistic. The practical difficulties were also dealt with by this Royal Commission.


The interval of twelve months which I spoke of is a concession which cuts the three years' minimum down to two years before the whisky is taken out of bond, and that would be the case at the present moment.

4.0 P.M.


I am quite aware of that, if I may say so, but it remains true to say that the Act will not come into full operation until after the lapse of twelve months. In the meantime, spirits must be be two years old before they can come out of bond. So far as my information goes, I do not think that concession will really get rid of the difficulty with regard to accommodation in the meantime. I do not know what is the attitude of hon. Gentleman from Ireland below the Gangway on this point, but I know something about the distilling interest in the North of Ireland, and I should think some three-fourths of the whisky distilled in Ireland comes from that part of the country. I am informed by a very large firm that this Bill, if carried into law, would make it absolutely impossible for that firm to carry on business for at least twelve months and that that period would require to elapse before they could provide warehouses and casks which would be necessary to carry out the provisions of the Bill. Let me call the attention of the House to another extract from the Report of the Royal Commission. All the witnesses were asked whether there would be any hardship in enacting that spirits should be kept compulsorily in bond for a fixed period, and the testimony was practically unanimous that compulsory bonding would harass the trade and was altogether unnecessary. That opinion was given by experts from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Another concession which the right hon. Gentleman foreshadowed was with regard to whisky used for the making of gin. But there are a number of other substances besides gin which would be quite as entitled to an exemption of that kind. The whole making of liqueurs depends upon it. And another important point, I think, is that although this legislation is intended to strike at the evil of excessive drinking of whisky, so far as the wording of the Bill goes the right hon. Gentleman said it applies to all spirits. But the evidence shows perfectly clearly that no case whatever has been made out as regards gin, rum, brandy, or any other spirits, and, although whisky distilling is one of the largest, it is by no means the only one. There is also the point noted in the public Press as to the production of yeast, which is a matter of very great importance. I venture to make these few observations at this stage because I think the right hon. Gentleman must be prepared for having these and kindred points pressed upon him at a later stage. I hope he will give consideration to them, and see if there is any way in which they can be met.

Sir J. D. REES

Is the House to understand that an hon. Member, having stated that he will not divide against a Bill, is entitled to criticise it? I venture to ask the question, because I remember on a former occasion the then Member for Montgomery District pursued that course, and objection being taken by the hon. and learned Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond), that hon. Member was promptly ordered to resume his seat. It is of some importance to know the Rule, and therefore I ask.


The difficulty arises owing to the actual form in which the Rule is drawn. If an hon. Member begins by saying that he does not mean to oppose, then, of course, strictly speaking according to the Rule he ought not to continue his speech, but the Rule has been very loosely drawn and rather loosely carried out. As far as I can I give every opportunity to hon. Members to speak. Still, I would recommend hon. Members, if they wish to keep strictly in order, not to begin by saying that they do not intend to oppose, but always to withhold their judgment until they see how their observations are received.


I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer—


The hon. Member can do so on the Second Reading.

Question put, and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by the Attorney-General, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Solicitor-General, and Mr. Acland. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 79.]