HC Deb 08 December 1931 vol 260 cc1825-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Captain Margesson.]


I rise to call attention to the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to-day with regard to the Land Valuation Department and the proceedings under the Finance Act, 1931. I asked a question of the right hon. Gentleman to-day, and his answer did not seem to me to deal with the point which I raised. If one looks at the Finance Act, 1931, it is obvious that it lays down clearly that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue shall, as soon as may be after every valuation date, cause to be ascertained at that date the land value of every land unit for the purposes of the Act. That is the order of this House. It is a Bill passed in due form into the law of the the land. It lays dawn that on a certain date, that is to say, 1st January, 1932, the Commissioners of Inland Revenue shall take certain steps, shall value land and so forth for the purposes of that Act.

I always understood that when an Act became the law of the land, it was the duty of every citizen to carry out the law. I have yet to learn how the right hon. Gentleman has any right to disobey the law without any statutory justification. The right hon. Gentleman comes along and says, "I do not, propose to obey the Finance Act, 1931." The Finance Act has been passed. It has ordered certain things to be done, and the right hon. Gentleman merely says, "Oh, by an administrative Order I am simply going to disregard the law entirely. I am not going to take any steps with regard to valuation. I am going to dismiss all the officers who have been appointed to deal with this valuation." Without appealing to this House and without any attempt at altering the law, the right hon. Gentleman has simply put himself into the position of a dictator. We have had a good deal of steady en croachment by the executive on the legislature, but I think that this is going rather far.

I suppose that there has never been quite such a docile House as this. We have an entirely new method of taxation now under which, instead of the House of Commons imposing taxes, we give power to the various Ministers—to the Minister of Agriculture, the President of the Board of Trade, and so on—from time to time, as they please, to tax what persons at what amount they choose. Now we have something further, and an Act of Parliament is, apparently, to be put aside by the right hon. Gentleman on his own initiative. For some reason or other he is in a great hurry. He is pressed by hon. Gentlemen all over the House. They want their pound of flesh, because no one will take the plea of economy seriously. There is nothing of economy about it at all. We know perfectly well that the Conservative party hate and loathe the Land Duties, and have been clamouring to get rid of them, and with a Conservative or Coalition Government with a majority of Conservatives returned, even if the pound were looking its best and the country's finances were flourishing, they would still have objected to this and have made their Minister toe the line.

It is worth while glancing at the reason, which is to he found in the speeches that were made by the Lord Privy Seal when he was in the House of Commons. He explained to the House that this was the first real attack on the land monopoly of the country. The land monopoly was the greatest burden on industry. I understood that we wanted to lift off the burden from industry, and I want to know what the Lord Privy Seal is doing in this crisis in deliberately keeping on the heaviest burden on industry? I do not know whether, with the House of Commons' right to decide taxes and the right hon. Gentleman's power to dispense with the law—and he is the first man to do it—the collective responsibility of the Cabinet has gone also. I suppose that this has been approved by the Lord Privy Seal. Let us see what he said on a previous occasion. He said that this was a far-reaching step which would liberate the land for the people and abolish once and for all the tyranny under which the people of this country have suffered. I know hon. Gentlemen opposite do not agree, but their colleagues in the Cabinet agreed. I have quoted the Lord Privy Seal. Let us see what the Home Secretary said. He was enthusiastic; so were the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Scotland. But let us see what the Home Secretary said: My right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) will speak on this matter, in which he has a special interest. Then came a voice, He turned it down. The right hon. Gentleman replied, He was in bad company in those days."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th April, 1931; col. 1667, Vol. 251.] Apparently, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary is in bad company now. The reason is perfectly clear. If anyone studies the questions put by hon. Members opposite it is plain that there is no question of economy whatever in this. It is simply that the Conservative party are demanding their pound of flesh. They are certainly rubbing it in with the Lord Privy Seal. He has been deprived of his Socialism, of his Free Trade and now of his Land Tax, and there is nothing left to him but his coronet.

I should like to know what is going to happen to the staff engaged to make this valuation. There must have been a staff ready, because the valuation was to start on 2nd January, 1932. There must have been gentlemen with high professional qualifications brought there, and what is going to happen to them? Are they going to be thrown out of jobs altogether, or are they, perhaps, to be turned on to other work with regard to customs and tariffs? There is a further point on which I should like the right hon. Gentleman to tell us something. What is going to be the actual course of events after 2nd January, 1932? The right hon. Gentleman is a James the Second, and is dispensing with the law, but he intends also to make the Commissioners break the law. It will be the Attorney-General's duty to see that the Commissioners carry out the law, so that we are going to have the House even more divided against itself than at the present time, because we shall have the Attorney-General, I hope, bringing to book the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suggest that this is something against which the House, even though it is a new House of Commons, should strongly protest. We thought that the power to dispense with the law had been finally abolished. If it was not good enough for us to allow a King to do that, I hope we shall not allow a Chancellor of the Exchequer to do it.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Chamberlain)

I am not surprised that the hon. Member has taken the course which I expected he would take. When he came to look into the Finance Act of 1931 he found that there was not sufficient ground for the question which he put to me this afternoon. Therefore, he has had to change his ground and to substitute for the attack which he proposed to make, a general attack upon the consistency of the Members of His Majesty's Government. He is not a great authority on consistency himself, for in one breath he has been saying that this is the most docile House he has ever known and in the next breath he told us that we have to toe the line to meet the demands made upon us. I leave him to reconcile those two points of view as to the conduct of the present House.

He will forgive me if I do not enter into a disquisition as to the merits of the case, because it is not on the merits of the Land Value Tax or of the Land Valuation that the decision of the Government, which I announced this afternoon, has been taken. It is simply and solely on the question of economy. A matter of £1,000,000 or £1,500,000 does not seem worth while troubling about, according to the hon. and gallant Member. It was exactly that attitude of mind which brought the country to the necessity of supporting a Government which took responsibility from its predecessors, who ran away.

As to the technical point on which the hon. Member has attacked me, I would say that there is no breach of the law here at all. He is quite mistaken in his view as to the provisions of the Act. The operative part of the Act is that which prescribes that the tax, according to Section 10, is to be levied for the year ending the 31st March, 1934. The tax is to be collectable on the 1st July, 1934, provided that the valuation is complete in time to allow the tax to be collected on that date, and provided that in the meantime this House does not alter the Act so that the tax shall not be collectable on the 1st July, 1934. Therefore, it does not matter whether the valuation is completed now or whether it is completed at some time in the future, so long as it is completed in time to enable the tax to be collected on 1st July, 1934. The Statute say, "as soon as may be." What is, "as soon as may he?" Obviously, this valuation cannot proceed unless there is money to pay for those who are engaged in the valuation. That money will not be forthcoming unless the House votes the money, and that money will not be voted by the House unless the Government ask the House to vote it. The Government informed the House this afternoon that it does not propose to ask the House to vote that money.

It is obvious that the money to carry out the valuation will not be forthcoming—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]


I have been asked what is going to become of the staff. The staff were engaged on a temporary basis; that was the term of their engagement. They will therefore receive the notice, which is one of the terms of their engagement, and after that they will he free to seek other employment.


The House has listened to a most extraordinary speech. During the last four or five weeks we have seen the Government riding roughshod over the ordinary privileges of Parliament, but we did not expect them to succumb so early to such a speedy and complete defiance of the constitution of this House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the operative part of the Finance Act of 1931 is the tax which comes into operation in 1934. The operative part of the Act is whatever the Act says shall be the operative part. It may be that the tax may never be imposed at all, but that would not relieve the Government of the obligation of making this valuation. It is not that the valuation is a piece of mere administration. It is an obligation laid upon the Government, not an administrative act; and in the event of an administrative act of the Government being in the view of the House unwise or inexpedient the House can move a Vote of Censure upon the Government. But this is not an act of administration. It is open to the right hon. Gentleman or to any other Member of the Government to retard or accelerate a piece of administration. That is a matter entirely in their hands, and the House has no control except by moving a Vote of Censure. But that is not the point we are raising here.

We are not raising the point that the Government in the exercise of their prerogative have retarded the administration of an Act of Parliament. What we are charging the Government with is a complete defiance of the will of Parliament. Hon. Members may regard this matter lightly, but every hon. Member, whether he is a Tory, a Liberal, a National Liberal or a Member of the Socialist party, is the custodian of the privileges of this House, and no Government ought to be tolerated because they have succumbed to forces outside this Chamber. [Interruption.] It has become notorious that the policies of this Government are not made in this Chamber at all but at deputations at the Carlton Club, or wherever hon. Members opposite may foregather. The Minister has not replied to the point. The Act says that the Commissioners "shall, as soon as may be after every valuation date" cause a valuation to be made. "As soon as may he" is an ordinary legal term meaning I am informed, "as soon as possible." That means in this case "immediately after" the Act has been passed.

I do not know whether the National Government will say that they have not at their disposal the same wisdom as the last Government. I should have thought that this Government would have found possible what the last Government found possible. This Statute does not use extraordinary language. Many Statutes contain exactly the same phrase and it is assumed, if that language has been passed by the House and has received the assent of the Crown, that the Government will proceed to carry it into effect. As we understand it, it will not be the duty of the Attorney-General to consider whether land taxes are palatable or unpalatable. At least, it was considered the duty of the Attorney-General in 1924 to ignore the politics of the Government of the day. As we understand it, it will be the duty of the Attorney-General to ascertain what is the law, and what is the will of Parliament and it will be his duty to prosecute the right hon. Gentleman, if he prevents the Commissioners from carrying out the duty laid upon them. It will be his duty to prosecute the Commissioners upon whom the Act lays the obligation to carry out the valuation, if they fail to do so. To this point the right hon. Gentleman has not addressed himself at all. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite may regard this as a subject for hilarity. I ask them to realise that if the mere fact that an Act is undesirable, the mere fact that an Act is repugnant is to be given as a reason why that Act should be violated, then they are setting a very dangerous precedent. The right hon. Gentleman must realise that he is exposing himself to a serious charge. If the valuation is not preceeded with and the Attorney-General does not take steps to carry out the will of Parliament, it will be our obligation to accuse the Government of violating the will of Parliament in order to prevent the carrying out of an Act of Parliament merely on the ground that it is politically repugnant to them.

I would also call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the House has already voted money for this purpose. The right hon. Gentleman may have been returned as a Member of a National Government. He may have behind him a majority of 400 or 500 but he is not yet, in himself, the House of Commons, and the Tory party in itself is not yet the House of Commons. [Interruption.] At least there are certain forms which we have to go through. Do not be quite so brutal. If you are going to have a dictatorship please consider Constitutional forms. Some day they may save your heads. It is enough for a large majority to be returned to the House of Commons; it is enough for Members to put questions; it is enough for them to bring pressure to bear, and along comes a Minister of the Crown surrendering to the clamour of back-benchers, not presenting a Bill at all, but merely coming and saying, "Yes, we agree that this Act was undesirable. We do not like it. It was repugnant to us and we do not propose to carry it out."

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman's last statement was rather feeble. If this is an economy proposal why was not the repeal of this Section of the first Finance Act, 1931, included in the provisions of the second Finance Act? If the right hon. Gentleman had come to the conclusion that, having gone off the Gold Standard, it was so necessary that economy should be made in this direction at the moment, why were not these provisions contained in the second Finance Act, 1931? That was the Economy Act. At that time the country was attempting to prevent the currency going off the Gold Standard. It was the whole aim of Parliament. The last election was fought to try to defend, as far as possible, the value of the pound sterling. This is not a matter in which we are purchasing goods from the foreigner. It is not a matter of the balance of trade. It is not a matter of paying anyone good pounds for stuff supplied from abroad. But it is a matter of internal economy and has nothing to do with the balance of trade.

I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that in the excuse he has brought forward to-night he has simply revealed that what he has done in a most flaccid, feeble and cowardly way, he has succumbed to the pressure that has been put upon him. I can sympathise with him, for I am not raising the matter at all because land taxes are favourable to me. I have a view about them which it would be improper and out of order for me to advance now. I am not concerned at all about the land taxes, but I am concerned about the prerogatives and privileges of this House, and it is the duty of His Majesty's Opposition, if the Government have no regard for them, to defend them as best they may. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has his docile hordes behind him. They will do whatever he asks them to do, provided that he dances according to their tune. If it is economy there is no obstacle. I am reminded that the obstacle might be in the other House.

Although this is a controversial matter, I am raising it as a point of constitutional importance. The right hon. Gentleman will say to all these people who have been engaged on land valuation, "We no longer have any use for your services. It is true that the State entered into a contract with you which you thought was good till 1934, and that the House of Commons has voted the money for the purpose, but, without consulting the House, in our wisdom we have decided that not only will we flout the House of Commons, but we will violate the contract into which we have entered with you." Then this House has to wait until the Finance Bill of 1932 to indemnity the Government for their action, although in the meantime the House is sitting.

The learned Solicitor-General is interested in an argument on the other side, but he should attend to his job, which is the matter now before the House. Having regard to the fact that hospitality has not been found for his superior, he is for the moment in charge of the legal opinions of the Government. If we cannot press this matter to a conclusion now, we shall have to do so at some other time, and the question is whether it is competent for the Government to arrest the administration of an Act of Parliament, and to set aside the obligation which the House has imposed on the Government, while the House is sitting, until such time as the House is asked to indemnify the Government some four or five months hence. Is not that a complete abrogation of the functions of the House of Commons?

I suggest, in all seriousness, without making one comment upon whether these taxes are good or bad, that although some hon. Members may have strong prejudices about them and may desire at the earliest possible moment to bring them to an end, it is not a good thing for this House to allow the Government, because of considerations of political expediency and internecine conflict, to flout the will of the House and take from it privileges which for 400 years have been the pride of this country.


The real point is that it would be quite impossible for the Government to carry on this land valuation in the present House of Commons. There is no question but that there is an enormous majority in this House against these land taxes.


Who knows that yet?


If my hon. Friend does not think there is, I can only think that he has not been watching the House of Commons.


May I suggest that it was not my case that there might not be a majority in the House for the repeal, but no Government has a right to assume support in the House of Commons; it must win it.


If the Government put that to the test, it would win it. Whatever may be the constitutional argument, in my judgment, the Government are perfectly right in suspending these duties.




The hon. Member should not get excited. I am not excited.


No, you are delighted; you are a landlord.


Yes. I never believed in these taxes, and I am glad that they will disappear. I should have wished that the Government had repealed the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel. That would have been the wisest course, but as it is I congratulate them upon having suspended these duties. They could not carry them on in this House of Commons. There have been 700 officials appointed in the last few months for this land valuation, which is perfectly useless. I will not argue the merits of the question of the falling pound, but when my hon. Friend said, "What will you do with these officials?" I thought we had been passing a Bill which was quite admirable for them—the Horticultural Products (Emergency Customs Duties) Bill. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he puts them to growing new potatoes and tomatoes.


I am profoundly shocked by the remarks we have just heard from the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of the oldest Members of this House. If he had not been interrupted in his political career, he would have been almost the Father of the House. We have seen the spectacle of this right hon. Gentleman, who was nurtured under the eyes of the great Mr. Gladstone, getting up and saying he does not care a rap for constitutional principles. But he objects to this Land Tax, and says that the whole thing ought to be torn up, and that he does not care if the Constitution is torn up with it. How are the mighty fallen, and to what depths of degradation have the great Liberal party descended! The right hon. Gentleman also said that there was a large majority against Land Taxes in the House. But is there an overwhelming majority in the Cabinet? Are there not members of the Cabinet who stand by the Land Tax and do not want to see it wiped out in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. What the Government are doing is to get out of the difficulty of a difference of opinion in the Cabinet by rendering the tax of no avail by an administrative act which my hon. Friend has shown to be absolutely unconstitutional. The House has a right to demand an answer on these points.

It was stated during the Debate on the Finance Act that it would take two years to make the valuation before the tax could be imposed. That is why the tax was postponed till 1934. By stopping the valuation the Government will make it impossible to impose the tax in two years' time. By a subterfuge, they are not repealing the Act, but rendering it impossible for the State in two years to impose a tax which was voted by this House. From the constitutional point of view that is an appalling position. It is a position that would not have been taken by all the great constitutionalists of the past or by the Leaders of the Conservative or Liberal parties. It seems to me that, when you get Liberals and Conservatives together, principles vanish altogether. As a comparatively new Member of the House of Commons, I consider that it is the duty of the House to protest against the act of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


I want to say a word as one who voted for the Act of Parliament which provided for the valuation of the land. I would remind the House that it was passed actually in this year. Some of us may be old-fashioned in believing that it was a good thing in the interest of the State that there should be a valuation of the land. There has been no great change to justify, without the authority of Parliament, this reversal of policy. I should like to know what the Prime Minister thinks about it. The land tax was the policy of the Prime Minister, and he fathered this particular Act of Parliament. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer, too, is still a member of the Cabinet. Before there is a reversal of policy like this the Prime Minister ought to come and justify it in the eyes of those who spent many laborious nights to make this Act of Parliament.

It may be necessary to economise in many directions. I agree that it might have been advisable to slow down the procedure, but that does not justify a complete reversal of policy without the authority of an Act of Parliament. If it is necessary for various reasons to conciliate the Conservatives, who make up the great majority of this Parliament, then let them come down and bravely face the fact, so that it may be recognised that there has been a complete reversal of policy. Then we shall know where we are.


I have listened to many defences from responsible Ministers, but I do not think I ever heard a weaker case than that put forward as a defence for this reversal of policy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke with the air of a man who has confidence in the large number of supporters behind him. In putting forward that defence he was not caring whether he had reason or justification for so unconstitutional an act; he cared only for the fact that the vested interests in the country were behind him. A right hon. Member opposite spoke with delight of what he termed the inevitable repeal of these Land Taxes. He said there was a majority in this House for their repeal. I question whether there is a majority in the country for it. [Laughter.] Landowning Members may laugh, but that is only an attempt to deride something which they know is absolutely true. If this proposal had been put to the country and the working classes had been told that instead of stabilising the pound you were going to stabilise the income of landowners, a different tale might have been told.

When the present Prime Minister came to Glasgow on the eve of the 1929 Election, he said, with reference to the De-rating Act, and the pleas put forward by democratic local bodies for its repeal, that he questioned the right of a Government on taking office to repeal the Acts their predecessors had passed so short a time before. He said at that time that it was anti-democratic. I want to know where the present Prime Minister stands when an Act of this kind is going to he repealed by a Government of which he is the head. It only shows to me what I have believed for a long time, that on the Front Bench there is very little principle actuating the Members who are desirous of retaining office. The present Government are simply the servants of outside forces, who are dominating this House, and using the cry of economy and national necessity to plunder the resources of the nation. I want to say that Liberals who supported in the Division Lobby the land taxes are now to be found in a Government which is repealing that which they said on a former occasion they were prepared to defend to the last ditch.

I warn the Members of the present Government that they are setting an example to the working classes of how unconstitutional constitutionalists may become when they assume office and get a vast majority behind them. It is a lesson that will be remembered by the working classes when they resume real power in the interests of the working classes. I do not think a more flagrant abuse of democratic power has ever been known. This is simply the beginning of the inevitable ending of these Land Taxes. They are preparing the way for throwing over the Prima Minister. The Home Secretary and the Members of the Cabinet who belonged to the Liberal and Labour parties in the past. They are preparing to go the whole hog in the interests of the robbing, moneyed classes of this country.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.