HC Deb 12 May 1915 vol 71 cc1758-65

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

9.0 P.M.


The discussion which has taken place in Committee on the proposals contained in this Bill makes it unnecessary for me to go into the matter at any length, especially in view of the fact that the Government has been good enough to prepare the way for the discussion of some points, that I then brought to the attention of the Chancellor, by the Excise and Customs officials and representatives of the Pharmaceutical Society. The object of this Bill has nothing to do with revenue; its sole object is to restrict the supply of immature spirits, and it proceeds to do it by the operative Clause which prohibits the delivery, for home consumption, of spirits which have not been in bond for a period of three years. But to that Clause there are exceptions, and certain people are allowed to obtain immature spirits for certain purposes. But there is this significant condition, that those who obtain this immature spirit for this particular purpose are to pay a duty, I agree now only a modified duty, as I understood the Attorney-General to say yesterday, of 1s. 6d. a proof gallon. I take it that the Excise authorities, or rather the Government, in framing this Bill, are satisfied that immature spirit is not only permissible but is the right spirit to use in the manufacture of medicines generally. There is no advantage in inducing the manufacturer of medicine to use mature spirit. That being so, I cannot understand why you should say to the person who, you are satisfied, ought to be allowed to use immature spirit, "you shall not use it unless you pay a duty of 1s. 6d." I am told that the object of imposing this duty is to, what is called, level up the price of immature spirit to that of mature spirit. From the point of view of the Exchequer they get nothing by this Bill, for mature spirit can only be more expensive than immature spirit by reason of the fact that it has got to be kept in bond, and that there are charges due to keeping it in bond and charges due to the interest on the capital. I cannot understand, and perhaps the Attorney-General will explain, what possible reason there is for saying that immature spirit should not have an advantage in price over mature spirit for the making of medicines, when it is agreed that immature spirit should be used for that purpose.

What can be the reason of saying, "We won't let you buy immature spirits at their normal price, because if you do you will not use mature spirits"? If the Government get rid of this quite unnecessary and foolish extra tax upon medicines and upon other purposes for which this immature spirit is used, they will at the same time rid themselves of a very large number of difficulties which will arise. Supposing they do not, then it means that no one can obtain spirits for making medicines except at the increased cost of 1s. 6d. per gallon over the price they at present pay. They admit that there is no object in taxing medicines at all; that is agreed. And what is the result? The Government to-day are responsible for providing drugs and medicines for ten millions of the population through their insurance scheme. What can be the object of increasing the cost of that service? The result of this tax will be an increase of 4½d. or 5d. per lb. on tincture medicines. The result of the tax of 1s. 6d. will be, by the time it reaches the retailer consumer, an increase of 4½d. or 5d. per lb. It is an absolutely meaningless tax. From an intimation which the Attorney-General gives me it appears that I may leave that point, but no indication in regard to it has been given, and I may be forgiven, perhaps, if I thought it was necessary to raise the point.

The other consideration I want to put is this: The Government have got to decide who are the people who should be allowed to use immature spirits, and they have tried a classification in the Bill, and they say that licensed rectifiers and manufacturing chemists and manufacturing perfumers may use immature spirits. Who is to define the manufacturing chemist or the manufacturer of perfumes? Any Member of this House may be a manufacturer of perfumes to-morrow or a manufacturing chemist, and these are the people who are to be allowed to use immature spirits. I would like to see this matter put into safe hands, and it would be much better to do it by means of a licence, containing such conditions as the Customs and Excise may impose. Let them have the power to grant licences to the people who can satisfy the Commissioners that they have special need of this immature spirit for special purposes, and let the conditions of the licence tie them in that way. I am a little puzzled about this: The first Clause of the Bill says that no British or foreign spirit shall be delivered for home consumption unless they have been warehoused for a period of three years. The definition of the word "spirits" is very wide. Spirits mean, according to the Bill, as it seems to me, spirits of any description, and includes all liquors mixed with spirits and all compounds mixed with spirits. You must not deliver spirits which have not been warehoused for three years, and they then go on to say to the manufacturing chemist, "You may have immature spirit in order to make tinctures with spirits"; but if I understand aright the Bill as now drafted, you tell the manufacturing chemist that he may add immature spirits in order to make tinctures, and, when he has made those tinctures with spirits, you tell him that he may not send them home for consumption unless they have been warehoused for three years.

I do not know whether that is really meant. It cannot be meant. I have tried to look it up to see whether "delivered for home consumption" has some special meaning. Who can deny that if a publican supplies whisky over his counter that he is delivering spirits for home consumption? He is prohibited from doing that under this Bill. I am not concerned about him, or whether he is going to be responsible, or whether it is intended that the spirit that he sells shall have been warehoused for three years. But when we come to deal with the special exemptions of this Bill it is obviously absurd to say to the manufacturing chemist, "You may have immature spirits to make your spirituous medicines, and then, having made them, you shall not, under the Bill, deliver them unless you put them into warehouse for three years." This does seem to me a point which wants clearing up, and I would appeal to the Attorney-General not to rush the Committee stage. Pharmacists and doctors in the country are not going to place any difficulties in the way of the Government in trying to prevent raw spirits being sold. I am not attempting to deal with any number of technicalities which I can assure the House arise under the Bill, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not rush the Committee stage until he has consulted his advisers on these points. The Government and its advisers have been so driven by another interest, which they may consider the biggest, in dealing with this matter, that I think they have forgotten the facts bearing upon this other very important interest of the community, and I would ask the Attorney-General not to take the Committee stage until he has had an opportunity of seeing and consulting his advisers.

Sir J. D. REES

When this Bill was previously debated it was treated as if the only firms that raised any valid objection, or were really seriously affected by the Bill, were spirit dealers in the North of Ireland. I want to know whether the Government are under the impression that other firms in the trade do not take exception to this measure. England has not been considered, Ireland has been considered, and Scotland is not much affected, because, they have such large stocks of mature spirits. I understand the position of the whisky trade in England to be that they are prepared for a two years bond period, and a preparation period of two years. They are not prepared at all for a three years' age limit and one year preparation. If the Bill stands in its present form they also, before the expiry of one year, will inevitably be hard hit. The fact is that all the smaller publicans throughout the country sell spirit of an average of about nine months' maturity. I should like to ask if the English case is under consideration, and if it is understood that they object altogether to the two periods mentioned for bonding and preparation in the Bill. I asked the Chancellor to-day as to the question of compensation. The Attorney-General will not be surprised if the persons affected are anxious to have this matter in the plainest possible terms. The Chancellor told me that compensation is arranged for under some general scheme to be administered by the Committee over which the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Duke) presides. I am quite sure that is all right, but I confess I do not quite know what authority the Government have to give compensation under a Bill like this when there is no provision in the Bill for compensation. Has the Government any general sort of authority for awarding compensation under the Defence of the Realm Act to cover all Bills, even though there is no provision in the particular Bill concerned? I dare say it is so, but as it was not explained to-day I shall be grateful for some explanation, and so, I think, will those affected by the Bill and who are, I think, a little suspicious about their treatment.

Since the extra Licence Duties have disappeared, any attempt to compare beer and whisky with vodka and absinthe has been abandoned to-day. I do not know what personal acquaintance the Chancellor of the Exchequer has with vodka, but I have lived in Russia, where I could get nothing else to drink. Vodka is a fiery, most deleterious spirit, and it is not fair to compare any whisky which is sold in this country, not even the cheapest whisky to be obtained in the meanest inn, with vodka. I do think to do so unduly prejudices this question, and it is unfair to a trade which is continually subjected to rather unfair criticism, to repeat that kind of comparison. Still less is it justifiable to compare even inferior whisky with absinthe—a poison which even slightly diluted destroys the body and the brain. The comparison has been abandoned as regards beer and French wines, I am happy to say, and I hope it will now be abandoned as regards whisky and the other drinks.


May I ask what precisely "delivered for home consumption" means?


The hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Glyn-Jones) mentioned, I think, three points, one of which is that just mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I will take the point last mentioned first. It is really a question as to whether the Bill is correctly drafted. It is a very proper point to mention, but not one on which to spend much time. I think it will be found that those are the correct words to be used in order to carry out the purpose intended. The hon. Member for Stepney referred to some definitions which are in a very complicated Statute—the Spirits Act of 1880—an Act which deals in the most elaborate way with the law relating to spirits. I looked through it the other day to see if I could find out what whisky was. The word "whisky" does not occur in the Statute, and I do not think that the law has ever descended precisely to define these different drinks one apart from the other, but you will find there a definition of British spirits, which really means spirits which are liable to Excise Duty, and you will also find a definition of foreign spirits, which means spirits liable to import or Customs Duties. What is meant when you say British or foreign spirit "delivered for home consumption" is spirits which are liable either to Excise Duty or to Customs Duty. That really would not include, I think, the compound to which the hon. Gentleman was referring, but I will very gladly go more closely into the matter before the Report stage, and I am much obliged to him for mentioning it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what is the meaning of "delivered for home consumption." What is really meant is this: Under the authority of the Revenue Department you are at liberty to keep in bond without paying the duty for the time being those taxable commodities, but before they can be removed from the warehouse, yon have to pay. The removal from the warehouse is technically "delivered for home consumption." It is passing the barrier which means that they have paid the duty and are free. The hon. Gentleman mentioned two other matters, and certainly very important matters. The first he put was this: He said, "Are you not by the scheme of this Bill, proposing to put an additional tax and, therefore, in all probability, an additional price upon medicines and other compounds made by manufacturing chemists for the purpose of healing?" I say at once if that were the consequence of what we are proposing, everybody must admit that at any time it would be an unfortunate consequence, but at this time it would be a disastrous consequence. Nothing could be less calculated to promote the effective carrying on of the War than that we should do anything which made the means of healing and curing more expensive and more difficult to obtain. My hon. Friend will realise the difficulty of explaining everything in a ten minutes' speech. In addition to that difficulty, I had special difficulty that, of course, no taxation proposals are within the four corners of this Bill at all, but are necessarily in the Finance Bill.

I feel sure I may repeat in the presence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer what I have been saying in his absence. I said it was no part of our intention by this scheme by increasing the tax to increase the price of medicines which are made out of spirits. What is necessary is this: You must have, for some purpose at any rate, equalising duties of 1s. 6d., or 1s., according as your spirit is new or is one year old. Otherwise a spirit which has got to be warehoused for three years is treated unfairly and you have provided these taxes as countervailing to the expenses of keeping and warehousing. That does not apply in the least to spirits used for medicine purposes. There is no advantage in making medicines out of mature spirits. Medicines ought to be made out of fresh ingredients, and I imagine that it is just as important to use fresh ingredients if the ingredient is spirits as if it is any other drug or poison. The hon. Member said, "I know what a licensed rectifier is, because he is a rectifier who has a licence; but what is a manufacturing chemist or a manufacturer of perfume?" I think there, again, that the hon. Member will find that there are words in the Bill which really have a bearing. There is a provision which says:— Subject to the payment of such duties as Parliament may determine, and to compliance with such conditions as the Commissioners of Customs and Excise may impose. The suggestion which he made that it might be desirable to have some form of licence or authority or certificate which should be given to persons who really were manufacturing chemists is a very practical suggestion, and I shall be very glad, if I may, to confer with my hon. Friend as to how his suggestion might be carried out.

With regard to the points raised by the hon. Member opposite (Sir J. D. Rees), we have had a very extensive general Debate on the subject, and it would not be useful to go over the ground again to-night. There is bound to be consideration of a very serious kind given to the subject-matter of this Bill before it gets through any further stage. The hon. Member spoke of consideration having been given to the Irish case, and it might be to the Scottish case, and he asked whether England, a portion of which he represents, was to be entirely left out of account. I can assure him that that is not so. In the consideration which has been given to this matter we have had fully in mind that we have to consult English opinion, and keep ourselves informed as to the facts of the case in England no less than in Ireland and in Scotland.

Sir J. D. REES

Is it understood that the English traders object?


I do not know whether the hon. Member is authorised to speak as their sole representative on this matter. I am glad to assure him that there are some people who do not object at all, but who believe that some period to prevent raw and fiery spirit from being sold is a very excellent principle from the point of view of the trade itself. A further point raised by the hon. Member was as to compensation. He said, "I see nothing about compensation in the Bill. Where, then, is your authority for giving compensation?" That criticism, if it applies at all, would, as the hon. Member must see, apply to a great deal besides this Bill. It would apply to the Defence of the Realm Act itself. The answer is that the Commission to which reference has been made is to inquire and report to the Treasury as to the sum proper to be allowed. The Treasury will not pay such money away at its own will and pleasure, and the opportunity which this House will have of considering the matter will be the occasion when we have to get the authority for spending such money. It has to come under review in some form or other by the House. Having replied to the questions which have been put, I would urge the House, if it thinks fit, to let us take this stage of the Bill, it being quite clearly understood that, having obtained the Second Reading, we shall not afterwards turn round and say that the House has unanimously agreed beyond all dispute or question to the whole of these proposals, but rather that we are taking the Second Reading in order that, if we can arrive, as I hope we shall, at a happy adjustment of these difficulties, we may not waste the time of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Thursday).