HC Deb 01 June 1933 vol 278 cc2204-10

For the purposes of Section twelve of the Finance Act, 1932 (22 and 23 Geo. V., c. 25), the name "herb beer" shall not in itself be taken to be calculated to indicate that the substance so described is, or is a substitute for, or bears any resemblance to, ale, beer, porter, or stout, or any description of ale, beer, porter, or stout.—[Mr. O'Connor.']

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.52 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The names standing in support of the new Clause which I have the honour to move indicate, at any rate that this is a non-controversial matter as far as party politics are concerned. It relates to a humble and, I believe, innocuous beverage. Let me explain why this becomes necessary. At an extremely late hour last year—I think it was after eleven o'clock—my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton) having taken advantage, as he was perfectly entitled to do, of a somewhat thin House, moved an Amendment which had been on the Order Paper only a very short time, the effect of which was to prohibit anybody from selling any substance by description or by any name which was calculated to indicate that it was a substitute for, or bore any resemblance to, beer. At that particular moment somebody appears to have been sufficiently awake in the House to secure the exemption of ginger beer, though that was an obvious case of a name which did bear a resemblance to beer.

Nobody was sufficiently alert to know that there was, and is, a very well-established old herbal concoction in this country made, I am informed, largely of dandelions and nettles which, to those people who have an appetite for such luxuries, is known as herb beer. It is drunk in large and perhaps dangerous quantities by cyclists, touring clubs, hikers, and all those people who peregrinate through the countryside. That accounts for some of the names in support of this Clause. That is the situation. Herb beer is a very well-known drink in the Midlands. I am assured, though I have no personal experience in the matter, that it is perfectly innocuous and non-intoxicating. For upwards of 50 years a firm in my constituency, named Newball and Mason, have been manufacturing this delicious beverage. They manufacture it and place it in small cartons which are sent to the cottagers and villagers in various romantic districts in the Midlands, and there these cartons of herbs, which are accurately described in every respect, are made up by the villagers and sold to thirsty cyclists as herbal beer.

It will be observed that the Section which it is sought to amend by this proposed new Clause prohibits the description of anything by any name which is calculated to indicate that it is a substitute for or bears any resemblance to beer, and in pursuance of that Clause it was necessary for the Customs and Excise to issue a circular last year warning all and sundry that the descrip- tion "herb beer" on a packet was not a permissible description within the law. I think there is no doubt that their interpretation of the Act was perfectly accurate. An hon. Member asks me what they call "herb beer" now. Actually, the absurdity of this provision was so patent that I think the Customs and Excise have wisely and prudently acted with, perhaps, not due vigilance in the matter, and have allowed these parcels to go forth to all and sundry; but the fact remains that although the manufacturer has assured purchasers, that his advertisements conform to the law, or at any rate that there will be no prosecution, the small cottager who makes up the preparation into this delicious beverage is afraid to do so. In consequence, the manufacturers have had a very large number of complaints, their sales have decreased enormously, and employment has been limited in that industry; and yet nobody is a penny the better for the whole transaction.

I think nobody in his senses would imagine that the description "herb beer" is likely to deceive anybody, that anyone who is seeking for a foaming flagon is likely to be misled in an unguarded moment into drinking a flagon of herb beer. I had hoped that it would be possible to secure the co-operation of even the trade interests in this modest new Clause, and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Burton certainly does not see his way to oppose it. I had even hoped that I might have recruited him in the gallant band which is moving this new Clause, but I have not been quite so successful as that. I move the Clause in the interests of common sense and in the interest of a trade which is suffering, though it was never intended it should suffer, and which is not a competitor in any way either with the beer trade or with the Revenue. This Clause is entirely limited in its effect. The words chosen are identical with the words which were used for the exemption of ginger beer from the original Clause. In my submission this amending Clause cannot do harm to anybody, and I trust the Chancellor will see his way to accept it.

10.59 p.m.


I heartily support the proposed new Clause. The right hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton), probably at a late hour, secured the passage of a Clause preventing any substitute to be sold as beer which would be calculated to deceive the public. As the hon. and learned Member for Central Nottingham (Mr. O'Connor) has said, some enthusiast was probably awake at that hour and secured exemption for ginger beer. The hon. and learned Member, in the interest of his constituents, is seeking to extend that exemption to herb beer. The necessity of this proposed new Clause arises principally from ginger beer being expressly excluded from the operation of the original Clause. By ginger beer not coming within the penalties prescribed by the Clause, it might be held that those words could be construed in an ejusdem generis manner, and that herb beer would not come within the exemption, because it was not mentioned with ginger beer.

It is obvious that there are other substances in the same category as herb beer and ginger beer which would suffer, merely because the hon. Gentleman's interests have been devoted solely to herb beer. The hon. Member will note that even if the Clause were passed there are similar beverages, equally stimulating and innocuous, such as hop ale and dandelion stout, presumably made from similar materials to that which the hon. Member has mentioned, that would not obtain the exemption that ginger beer now has, and which herb beer would have? I appeal to the hon. Member to add such substances as hop ale and dandelion stout, because the arguments that he used applied to them. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer accepts this Clause I hope that he will say that he will include all those substances which come within the principal remarks of the hon. Member, and then the legislation in this instance will cover all the cases which the new Clause desires to protect.

11.2 p.m.


I oppose the proposed new Clause. Last year a Clause was put into the Finance Act to protect the revenue in respect of non-alcoholic substances being sold as beer. I do not think that the revenue will be injured very much by herb beer, nor do I think that this Clause is necessary. Herb beer is a table water; it may be a herb table water which is called a herb beer. For many years it paid the Table Water Duty, and it was only when the Table Water Duty was done away with that herb beer paid no duty at all. I think that we are wasting the time of the Committee, because the Clause is entirely unnecessary, and I hope that the Chancellor will not accept it.

11.3 p.m.


I also oppose the proposed new Clause. Before last year, there were a number of drinks masquerading in the names of beers and ales. They did not contain a single ounce of honest hops or a grain of good English, or even foreign, barley. They were meant obviously to deceive. In that category were herb beers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I repeat that they were made to deceive those who would like a glass or a bottle of good beer, but did not dare to buy it because they were teetotallers. It is the kind of fraud which was perpetrated upon the public for years. There are hundreds of kinds of herb beer. There is the so-called herb beer which is a teetotal herb beer, and there are herb beers which contain considerably more alcohol than ordinary, or even strong, ale. What we seek is to let the public know what they are buying. The name "beer" has always been associated with a liquor made from malt and hops and not from dandelions and other herbs found in the countryside. For these reasons, we want the public to know exactly what they are buying, and not to be defrauded by a label into buying something which, instead of giving them a warm feeling when it goes down into their stomachs, will, on the contrary, probably give them a pain which will keep them awake all night.

11.6 p.m.


Last year I was asked to agree to the passing of Section 12 of the Finance Act, 1932, on the ground that certain substances were, not mistaken for beer, but advertised as substitutes for beer, and had a general resemblance to beer, and it was alleged that the revenue might suffer considerably by the increasing consumption of these substances. I did not, myself, think that the damage which the revenue was suffering was quite as much as was suggested by some of the advocates of the Clause, but, at the same time, I thought they had some justification for complaint that substances were being put forward as substitutes, and, accordingly, the Clause was passed. It is true that it excluded certain substances, such as ginger beer and ginger ale, which had already a considerable reputation, and which, certainly, nobody would confuse with the genuine article, beer. With regard to herb beer, my hon. and learned Friend says that it is not a substitute for beer, and has nothing to do with beer, but is made from entirely different substances. At the same time, I noticed that there were roars of laughter when it was described as table water. I have not, myself, any acquaintance with herb beer, but I am informed that it looks like beer, and tastes more or less like beer; and it is obvious that you cannot deal with herb beer without considering other substances, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton (Mr. Entwistle), which also have names suggesting their affinity with beer, or with ale or stout. If you are going to multiply these instances, obviously you render the whole Clause ridiculous, and it would be far better to repeal the Sub-section than to put in a Clause of this kind. In the circumstances, I would suggest that my hon. and learned Friend should not press the Clause now, but that, between now and Report, he should see other Members of the House who are interested in this matter, and ascertain if they can come to some agreement as to either the Clause, or, perhaps, the repeal, of the Sub-section in question.


In view of my right hon. Friend's remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

First Schedule (Duties and drawbacks on beer,) Second Schedule (Provisions to be substituted for Scale 2 of First Schedule to the Finance (1909–10) Act, 1910), Third Schedule (Bates of customs duties on matches,) Fourth Schedule (Reduced rate of duty chargeable on certain musical instruments, clocks, etc.,) Fifth Schedule (Provisions for determining for purposes of preferences under 22 4s 23 Geo. 5. cc 8 and 53 whether goods are grown, produced or manufactured in part of the British Empire,) and Sixth Schedule (Provisions as to re-importation and re-exportation of certain goods,) agreed to.