HC Deb 29 October 1919 vol 120 cc755-7

But there is another proposal which is quite distinct from the general Capital Levy, though the distinction is not always kept in mind. It is the proposal for a special levy on wealth accumulated by reason of, out of, or during the War. That stands on an entirely different footing. In principle, in the abstract, I, at any rate, would not dispute its equity. It is very attractive as an abstract proposition, but I have warned the House, and I venture to repeat the warning, that the difficulties are immense, and the question which we shall eventually have to determine is whether the difficulties of its application, the inevitable instances of injustice which might be inseparable from its working, and the general disadvantages to which it might give rise, outweigh the advantages that we might hope to secure from it. A section of the Press has been very active on this subject, particularly during the last few weeks. I am glad they have turned their minds to it, and I hope they will not consider me impertinent if I invite them to turn their minds to solving the difficulties inherent in its imposition.

But I did not wait for the agitation of the last few weeks. In the middle of last summer, while the Budget was still under discussion, I instructed the Board of Inland Revenue that as soon as they were free from the special work of the Budget they were to get to work on this subject and submit for the consideration of the Government the best scheme which they could devise for such a levy on war profits, with their suggestions as to the rate at which it might be levied and the yield which might be expected from it. This is, as I have said, a subject of extraordinary difficulty. If I may for a moment, I would recall to the House, and remind those who were e then Members, of the passage of my right hon. Friend's famous Budget in 1909–10. Take the Increment Duty. In the abstract, and until you examined it, it was as apparently just and as sympathetic and not more difficult than a levy on war profits. During the passage of the tax it was hailed with a very considerable amount of enthusiasm, but my right hon. Friend did not get much help from anybody in carrying it through the House—from me, I hasten to confess, least of all—and the concessions made by him from his sense of justice when hard cases were pointed out or wrung from him against his will because the sense of the House was clearly against the original proposals, completely altered matters. I do not want to have the same experience with a levy on war profits. I do not want to create an enormous machinery, to have a vast amount of work thrown upon individuals and the Revenue authorities, and a great deal of feeling evoked, all in order to find at the end of years of labour that we have secured a trifling sum for the Exchequer.

I have said that my object in giving these instructions to the Inland Revenue was that I might take their proposals to the Cabinet and discuss them with my colleagues there. We have considered the matter further. We invite in this matter the co-operation of the House. I think it would be invaluable that before any Bill is introduced, even before any decision is come to by the Government as to whether or not such a proposal should be adopted, the Report of the Inland Revenue should be laid before, and be examined by, a Select Committee of this House, and that we should have the benefit of their advice and of the public discussion to which their deliberations would give rise. I hope the Inland Revenue will be in a position to supply such a Paper before long, and as soon as they are in a position to do so, we will move for the appointment of a Committee of the House of Commons.