§ Section three, Sub-section (2), of the Finance Act, 1920, shall have effect as if for the words "three pounds twelve shillings and sixpence" the words "two pounds ten shillings" were substituted.—[Mr. Macquisten.]
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
I move the Amendment in the interests of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose revenue from this source has fallen year by year. In 1920 he estimated that he would receive about £65,000,000 revenue. The duty was raised to its present high figure of £3 12s. 6d. per gallon and the revenue has decreased from year to year. This year it is estimated that the amount will be under £30,000,000. Formerly the whisky duty paid nearly 20 per cent. of the entire expenses of the country. But the industry has been killed by over taxation and the yield has now sunk to something like 4 per cent. of the country's expenses. That has brought about a very hard state of affairs, especially in the Highlands of Scotland. This is a peculiarly Scottish industry and peculiarly a Highland industry. It was one of the main sources of the prosperity in the Highlands in years gone by. When 854 the right of private distillation existed every little crofter and fisherman had a small still and sold part of his product, with the result that these men were able to remain on the land and were a happy and contented people. After the right of private distillation was taken away in 1825, I think a great hardship was inflicted on them, and also on the barley grower in Scotland. To the Scottish farmer in Aberdeenshire who sells a field of barley the Chancellor of the Exchequer says: "If that crop of yours is taken and used for the object which nature has intended it to serve, I shall impose upon it a tax of £350 per acre." That is monstrous. The result of this taxation has been to create great hardship to the farmers. My people in Argyllshire are suffering from it intensely. We used to have 18 or 20 distilleries going at full blast in Campbelltown. Now there is only one and that is working only half time. There are only about a dozen in the Island of Islay, and several more in other parts. Many of the good fellows who were once employed in this industry have been long unemployed and have had to try and get other occupations on the land or on the sea, and all because the cost of this particular commodity has been raised to an exorbitant height. The high price in this country has caused a 855 like price to be charged in other parts of the Empire. If you go to Shanghai and Hong Kong, you will find that they have raised the tariff on this article because the British are the consumers. This high duty on whisky and spirits is of no use to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from the point of view of revenue or to the advocates of temperance.
It is no use trying to treat this as a temperance question. A high duty does not promote sobriety. Those who over indulged in this article just took to something else. We had a debate in this House some time ago on the increased drinking of methylated spirit, and I notice that in Glasgow they have now adopted a method by which they take a jug of milk and then a gas pipe—with which so many people have been committing suicide lately—put the rubber end from the gas pipe into the jug of milk and so get a commodity with which they can receive all the undesirable results of indulging in drinking methylated spirits. It only shows that all these methods have no value whatever in the promotion of temperance. People are temperate now because they have something more to do. The President of the Board of Trade once said that beer has been replaced by petrol. That may be so, although I cannot congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the change; for the beer drinker to excess may slowly accelerate his own end, whereas the petrol user suddenly puts an end to other people. Nevertheless, it is the fact that the duties on whisky have nothing whatever to do with an increase in the temperate habits of the people. The cause is better education, a larger number of amusements, cinemas, greyhound racing and motors. They have taken people away into more healthy ways of life. The dullness and sadness of their lives have been lifted.
Whisky was invented in the first place as a medicine by the monks in Scotland in the early middle ages. For those who practise total abstinence there is no finer medicine for influenza or colds or rheumatism. Of course, if a man does himself proud and has various drinks per day, then of course he is taking away the virtue of whisky as a medicine. I urge that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be wise to reduce the duty on spirits. What has happened in Canada? 856 The Canadian Chancellor of the Exchequer said as recently as the 22nd March:With regard to Excise Duties, we are making an important change in order to protect our revenue. The present levy on spirits, which is seven dollars per gallon, is to be reduced to four dollars.That, I believe, is about 36s. per gallon, and it is to be reduced to about £1.Our revenues from spirits, including custom and excise duties, have fallen from 41,000,000 dollars in 1930 to 12,250,000 dollars in 1934.We have fallen from about £64,000,000 in 1920 to £29,000,000 this year.It is apparent from these figures that drastic action is necessary. Not only from our own point of view is this reduction expedient, but many of the provinces also have indicated the extreme difficulty of maintaining revenues which it is claimed are being seriously undermined through the unduly high rates of excise now obtaining and the wide discrepancy which exists between our rates of duty and those which are in effect in the United States. This lowering of the rate will bring our levies on spirits into line with those which prevail south of the border, and should be effective in eliminating illicit sales which would otherwise continue as a constant menace to our revenues. Our object is to secure increased returns by diverting into legal channels purchases which are now made illegally. Our gain will be at the expense of the existing illicit trade.I do not think that we can say that there is not a large amount of illicit trading going on in this country. I have the greatest possible respect for the law-abiding population of this country, but there comes a point when rebellion becomes almost a virtue, and it would be very sad if we had to wait for the release of Al Capone for help from the other side, where after the repeal of prohibition the illicit trading went down, to enable us to escape from these extravagant duties. I do not think that anything of that sort will be necessary, because I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a reasonable man and looks on this duty as an inheritance he has received from his rasher predecessor; and I am sure that he will at the earliest possible date make some effort to reduce the duties on these articles. I would urge him to take his courage in his hands and do so this year. He may say that he would lose £9,000,000 or £10,000,000. He would lose nothing of the kind. I will guarantee that he would make up the loss in a year or two. The 857 number of poor people who wish to purchase half a bottle of whisky for medicinal purposes is legion. On one occasion a doctor in the Highlands ordered whisky for an influenza-stricken family and the husband said that it took him two years' rent and more to cure his wife and family. His rent was £2 10s. There are many poor people to-day who have to purchase whisky not for indulging in the drinking of whisky but for purely medicinal purposes, and whisky was invented for this purpose by the Holy Fathers. I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be courageous. There would be a great psychological effect if people were able to buy two bottles of whiisky for £1, instead of having to break a pound completely in order to buy one bottle. I am sure that the effect would be that if they found they could get two bottles for £1 they would pay the £1. The majority of our people are sober and temperate, and there is no question of this becoming a drink question. I have been for nearly 20 years trying to get some consideration for this problem, and surely at a time when cuts are being restored and all sorts of expenditure being incurred—£35,000,000 for a very necessary improvement of our transport facilities—the price of this comfort for our old people should be reduced to a figure which would make it not only the particular commodity and refreshment of the wealthy classes but that those who are comparatively poor and humble will be able to get a little of this comfort which Scotland invented and which has made Scotland known throughout the whole civilized world.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Sir MURDOCH MACDONALD
I rise to support the new Clause. I do so because I think there is a reasonable case for the Chancellor to consider. The cost of the great war undoubtedly had to be met and it was a reasonable and easy method of raising money to put a tax on the luxuries of beer and whisky. Many people may think that for other reasons they should be heavily taxed, but to my mind it is doubtful whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer should endeavour to impose a tax for any other reasons except the actual finding of money; he should not heavily tax a luxury except for the purposes of finding the necessary revenue. If those who do not indulge in the luxury paid a comparable share of taxation in 858 some other taxes to the Imperial revenue, that is, those who do not indulge in the luxury of a little beer or whisky; if they paid comparable taxes in some other direction there would be no question of the taxes being justifiable if the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants the money. Sometimes a demand is made for a reduction of this duty on a ground which I do not support and which I felt my hon. and learned Friend was putting forward—namely, the suggestion that as whisky was a little more heavily drunk in Scotland than in England Scotsmen, therefore, were suffering an injustice in comparison with Englishmen, who were less heavily taxed on their beer. I do not support the new Clause on that ground. I have been looking at the figures in the White Paper issued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the years 1931–32, and if you take the two countries separately you will find that England paid about £99,000,000 in duties on alcoholic liquors and Scotland about £9,000,000. If you divide these sums by the population you will find that an Englishman paid about £2 10s. per head to the revenue and a Scotsman about £1 16s. Therefore, there is no real reason for suggesting a reduction in this duty because it happens that Scotsmen drink more of this particular liquor.
But there is a ground for a reduction in the duty, because last year the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a reduction in the Beer Duty and having done that he upset the balance as between the two countries. Indeed, the balance is now probably the other way and, therefore, I think there may be just reason for reconsidering the Whisky Duty and bringing it down to a more reasonable figure. I mean a reasonable figure comparable with beer. I do not ask for this reduction because I desire any one in Great Britain who already drinks to drink any more than he drinks now. After all, England drinks an enormous quantity of the whisky produced. England contributed in 1931–32 no less than £23,000,000 against the £6,000,000 or £7,000,000 contributed by Scotland. I appeal on behalf of those who are too poor to be able to afford reasonable refreshment. The proposal may increase the total consumption but I hope it will be counter-balanced by a continual increase, as has been happening for many years, in the sobriety of the whole popu- 859 lation. I hope that those who drink to excess will so reduce what they consume that in the final result there will be no greater quantity consumed in the country.
There is no doubt whatever that a very great change has been taking place in the outlook with regard to drink. I know that in the case of whisky very much less is drunk. For instance, in 1913 the country consumed 26,000,000 gallons. Last year the figure was 9,500,000 gallons. I am also aware that there has been an enormous decrease in drunkenness throughout the country. In Scotland that has been most marked. I hope and believe that a change of habit has come over the general population. If I thought for a moment that this reduction in duty would have the effect of increasing drunkenness once more, I would not press for consideration of the matter. On the ground, first, that those who indulge in the consumption of beer or whisky should be as equally taxed as possible, I suggest a reconsideration of the tax on whisky. I ask for the reduction, secondly, because I think it is not right for the Government to impose tax legislation for the attainment of a moral end, or that the vast millions who do not abuse either beer or whisky should be specially mulcted in revenue apart from the rest of the population.
If the Government think it right to ask for a moral deterrent in the matter of drinking to excess, then the method of approach ought to be the method adopted in other phases of wrongdoing, for instance in the case of cocaine and kindred substances. Those things are not so taxed as to make the purchase of them impossible because of the expense. What has been done has been to enact penal laws against their sale except for specified medicinal purposes. In the case of drink people can destroy themselves just as they do in the case of cocaine, but those who sell to them, or the imbibers themselves, are not sufficiently deterred by the existing law. How seldom do you read of the case of a publican losing his licence because a drunken person has been seen coming from his premises? Ten times more drastic regulation is required in this direction. Far greater punishment and obloquy should be imposed on those who drink to excess. They are a curse to themselves and a danger to the community. 860 Their actions result in eventual cost to the community. Yet they are lightly dealt with, and they cause vast numbers of their fellow-countrymen who, like myself, use liquor in extreme moderation, to pay unjustly a larger share to the revenue than we ought to pay.
I therefore hope that the Chancellor will be able to review the position, and if he is not now able to accept this reduction I hope he will at least give an indication that an attempt will be made more equally to allocate the burden of taxation on those who pay for the use of these luxuries. If there is any fear of people drinking to excess as a consequence of any reduction of the duty, he can get his colleagues in the Ministry to introduce really penal legislation against abuse.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Mr. RHYS DAVIES
I think the Committee will feel, like myself, that we are at a loss in a Debate of this kind in not having with us the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Isaac Foot) and the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor). Our proceedings would have been enlivened considerably if they had been here. I have always interested myself in the proposals of the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) regarding whisky. This is not the first time he has introduced this subject on the Finance Bill. I was exceedingly interested also to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald), because somehow it seemed so very appropriate that a great water engineer should deal with whisky, as the two things are mixed on occasions, I understand. I should say, however, that the speech of the hon. Member for Inverness contradicted in a measure the purpose of the new Clause. He does not want a reduction of the duty in order to increase the consumption of whisky, but the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire deliberately said that he wanted increased consumption and that that was why he was proposing to reduce the duty.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald) said he did not want those who were drinking whisky now to drink any more, but that he wanted a lot of other people, poor individuals, to be able 861 to get it. I do not like to see mankind divided into two classes, those who can afford to buy all the drink that they require and those who require it but cannot afford it.
§ Mr. DAVIES
The point about the poor is a very plausible argument. I would like to see the poor workman who can afford to buy two bottles of whisky at £1, however much the duty is reduced. In arguing thus the hon. and learned Member is just playing with the subject. I feel sure that the Chancellor will not accept this proposal. He has told the House of Commons on many occasions, and I think every Chancellor we have heard on this subject has said that he has nothing whatever to do with the moral issues of imposing taxation on drink; he has to deal only with the problem from the financial point of view. Indeed, if he finds that he can raise revenue easier he will impose taxation even on methylated spirits.
I do not want to deal with the subject at any length, but I do want to say that I believe the behaviour of society is gradually improving because of the reduction in the consumption of spirits. I have no hesitation, however, although I am a teetotaler, in distinguishing the evil effects of drinking spirits as against drinking wine or beer, and I rejoice that there is a very much great reduction recently in the consumption of spirits than we have had for years. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the trade had been killed because of heavy taxation. I think, on the other hand, that it has been killed because it has been found out; the evil effects of drinking spirits have become obvious long ago. Then the hon. and learned Gentleman said it would be a good thing if whisky was treated as medicine. I suppose it would be all right to put it into that category if the distillers had the right to appoint the doctors. Then we would easily see what might happen. Consumption would then depend upon the doctor, I suppose.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has spoken once or twice on this subject before. I do not approach the problem from the same angle as some other opponents of the trade. I have fundamental objections to this as I have to a lot of kindred trades, and that fundamental objection is this: So far as it lies 862 in. my power I decline to allow any person or group of persons to combine together in order to exploit for their personal profit the known weaknesses of their fellows. I think that that is a good case upon which to base my argument. The hon. and learned Gentleman did not tell us anything about the profits of the distillers. I do not know very much about them, but it does not always follow that profits decrease when trade declines. If the drink trade wants to save let it save some of the money that it spends on advertising at the present time. I would like to know how much they spend under that head. The distillers and the brewers seem at the moment to occupy nearly half the hoardings of the country with their advertisements. Incidentally, the National Government take a good share of the space too. It seems quite appropriate on occasions to find at one: end of the hoarding "Drink whisky," or "Beer is best," and then "Support the National Government." They are a wonderful trinity; they belong to each other rather closely on occasions.
The hon. and learned Member spoke of rebellion. That was a strange argument to come from him. With my Celtic imagination I could almost picture the crofters of Scotland marching down to London with a bottle of whisky each and making an onslaught on the Chancellor because of this duty. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that a rebellion on this particular issue was quite justifiable. I would like the hon. and learned Gentleman to make the same sort of comment when we are dealing with indirect taxation on the food of the poor. It is a neat commentary on the hon. and learned Gentleman and his friends that though they argue this case of the poor and whisky, we never find them arguing the same case for the poor in the matter of bread and bacon.
I rejoice to see a reduction in the consumption of these spirits. I am positive from my personal knowledge that of the three or four evils which the human race has to contend with, drinking spirits is one. It is one of the greatest of all evils. I would not have the same objection to the drink traffic if it maintained the victims of its own doings. If the cost of maintaining the victims and policing the streets were thrown upon the distillers and the brewers the case would not probably be presented as it is put 863 forward to-day. I object to the community having to maintain people who have been reduced in the social scale by the distillers and brewers of the country.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Sir IAN MACPHERSON
I rise to reinforce the arguments which have been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten). I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) as I do to almost every speech he delivers, and the gist of his remarks appeared to me to be an attempt to justify punitive taxation. The real case against this Whisky Duty is that it has not the virtues or vices of ordinary taxation. It is a vicious tax in itself, in that it is a punitive tax. I agree that whisky ought to be taxed and taxed heavily. I agree that beer ought to be taxed and taxed heavily. But what do we find in the case of whisky? On every bottle of whisky produced in this country the tax is 8s. 5½d. It is essentially an unfair tax and it is upon that ground that I object to the amount of this duty. I can see the difficulty which the Chancellor of the Exchequer experiences in this matter. This tax has been in existence for a long time and my right hon. Friend will no doubt tell us that the Chancellorship of the Exchequer has no concern with morals and that the holder of that office has to find the money somewhere. I agree, and I should be the last in the world to place any obstacles in his way if the taxation proposed was, in my judgment, fair. But, as I say, this is an unfair tax. Even the most ardent total abstainer must admit that it is unfair and is contrary to all policy underlying taxation in this country.
In my constituency there are a great many excellent farmers who for many years have cultivated barley, and I was astonished to find during a recent tour there that they now find it impossible to sell barley. They tell me that if the duty was reasonable, if, say the bottle of whisky was made to cost 10s. instead of 12s. 6d., the distillers up north would take every acre of barley produced. But what are the facts? As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll has pointed out, the farmer who grows 864 an acre of barley is taxed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to an extent of £350 upon that acre. As I say, I realise that the Chancellor has his difficulties but I think in common fairness it must be admitted that the time has now come for a reconsideration of this tax.
We do not ask that the tax should be abolished. We do not want it to be otherwise than heavy. But we do ask that it should be reasonable and we ask that on behalf of the farmers in the North and East of Scotland, many of whom have been experiencing great difficulty in making ends meet. One of their greatest difficulties they ascribe to the existence of this punitive tax, and I think that in their interests my right hon. Friend the Chancellor ought to look sympathetically upon the views which have been expressed to-day. It may be impossible for my right hon. Friend to do anything this year. But in the interests of the farming community and of the country as a whole, I think he ought to make this an occasion for pointing out that in the future there is some hope of a reduction in this tax. I sincerely hope that he will be able to give us some indication to that effect. I can assure him that the farmers in the East and North of Scotland are unanimous in their detestation of this tax which is injurious to them and is, from the point of view of taxation generally, unfair in its incidence.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Sir ROBERT SMITH
I desire to deal with this matter solely from the agricultural point of view. It is an admitted fact that farmers in the North-east of Scotland are in a very bad way at present. One understands from what appears in the newspapers that the Government are anxious that the farming industry should be put upon its feet. I suggest that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should discuss this question of the Whisky Duty with the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is also head of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland and who can inform my right hon. Friend of the serious position in which the farmers of the North-east have been placed, as a result of the lack of demand for barley. Therefore, I support the plea put forward by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ross 865 and Cromarty (Sir Ian Macpherson). We only ask for fairness. This is a penal tax and we fail to see why penal taxation should be placed on the national drink of Scotland when, a short time ago there was a reduction in the duty on beer. Here is an opportunity to do something for these farmers. Negotiations are going on with regard to the meat question in order to help the agriculturists. In order to help the farmers in the Northeast of Scotland, through a difficult time until the Government deal with the meat situation, let them reduce the taxation on whisky and thus place the farmers of the North-east and the growers of barley generally in a much better position than they are in to-day.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Sir WILLIAM DAVISON
On one point there has been unanimity, namely, that the sole question which we have to decide for ourselves, in voting on this Amendment, is whether or not the proposal will be advantageous to the revenue. We have often heard from Chancellors of the Exchequer that it is impracticable to visualise the revenue of the country for one particular year only. The Chancellor has to satisfy Parliament that the rate of duty which is being charged on a, commodity will, in the long run, bring in substantial revenue. I have not had an opportunity of looking up the figures, but if my recollection is right the revenue derived from this tax on spirits has been continuously and rapidly falling for many years past. I think, indeed, it has fallen from about £60,000,000 to about £29,000,000 in the year. If a business firm found that a particular branch of its business was diminishing, its directors would set themselves to consider whether, for instance, the decline was due to the high prices which were being charged, and, if so, whether those high prices were justified. If they came to the conclusion that high prices meant diminishing sales, it would be their obvious duty as well as their interest to reduce the prices.
When we discussed the beer duty last year the Chancellor of the Exchequer emphasised the point that the goose which had laid so many golden eggs was being gradually killed. In the case of the beer tax he argued that in the long run the revenue, so far from losing by the reduction, would be the gainer. I submit that 866 that argument applies with even greater force to the duty on spirits. We all rejoice at the great advance in temperance in this country during recent years. That advance has been due to improved education, a higher standard of life, more amusements, and a general feeling throughout the land that drunkenness is a disgusting thing. On the other hand, without going so far as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) in saying that whisky is an ancient and spiritual as well as spirituous cordial, I think many people who can afford it find a moderate amount of whisky with their meals, or with one meal a day, an advantage. It is a fairly general practice among better-off people to take a little whisky with dinner, and many feel better in health as a result.
If I thought that a proposal of this kind would mean a tremendous outbreak of drunkenness I would not support it for a moment. But I do not believe that such would be the case, and I think it is unfair that I should be able to indulge in a half glass of whisky with my dinner, when thousands of people who would be equally benefited by it, are unable to indulge in it because they are not well enough off to afford it. It is for those reasons but primarly because of the penal nature of the tax that I support the appeal for its reduction. After all, this is a tax of something like 8s. 5d. in every 12s. 6d. bottle of whisky. Can the Chancellor say that if a penal tax of that character is maintained the revenue can ultimately benefit? is it not the case that the revenue is actually falling and if so, would it not be better to consider the reduction of the tax if not this year at any rate next year?
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Colonel GRETTON
In this matter I am a disinterested spectator, and I desire to endorse the views expressed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Sir Ian Macpherson). He quoted another hon. Member to the effect that the tax was something like £350 on an acre of barley. The tax of course is on the whisky, but the effect of the tax on the whisky is that many fewer acres of barley are grown and much less barley is malted and distilled. That is where the farmer suffers. Many farmers in the districts where barley was formerly grown 867 have lost their business altogether as a result of this tax. It is playing havoc with their farming. It must be admitted that the tax is inordinately high. As a spectator in this matter, one who is indifferent and neutral, it seems to me to be really worth the Chancellor's while to consider whether he should not, in order to stabilize the revenue, make a substantial reduction in the tax. As we have heard, the revenue from it is steadily falling and apparently at the present time it has not reached the bottom point. When such a strong case has been presented on a question about which I know something, I find it difficult to remain silent, and that is my excuse for this brief intervention in support, not necessarily of the particular reduction proposed, but of the appeal that reconsideration should be given to this question.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Mr. LOVAT-FRASER
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) spoke of whisky as a medicine. It may interest the Committee to know that the Gaelic word uisge from which our word "whisky" is derived means water. Originally the term used was uisge beatha or "the water of life," but people got into the habit of dropping the latter part and the consequence is that when you ask in the Highlands for a glass of whisky you are, in strict parlance, asking for a glass of water. My hon. and learned Friend spoke of the decline in drunkenness in Scotland, and I can heartily endorse what he said. The spread of education, the greater number of interests which the people have, the development of the wireless and the hundred and one other things have made life in the remote Highland villages and among the mountains much more interesting than it formerly was. I have in the remotest Hebridean Islands heard Big Ben strike ten o'clock and that represents what has been going on in the Highlands.
But my hon. and learned Friend omitted from his list of the causes of reduced consumption of drink one which I think is most important and one which I confess influences me in regard to the question now under discussion. The main cause in reducing drunkenness in Scotland and, I suppose, in England too 868 is the fact of the rise in the price of the article. It is because I am afraid that the reduction in the price of liquor would bring back drunkenness that I regard this proposal with grave suspicion. I can remember, and I think my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll can also remember, Saturday night in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I am sure he would be very sorry to see restored again the state of things that was exemplified in those cases. I was reading on Friday last the last volume of the great survey by Charles Booth of life in London, and the compiler of the book points out the great decline in drunkenness, but he is honest, and he is careful to add that while that decline in drunkenness is a matter for satisfaction, it must not be assumed that it would continue if the price of drink were once again lowered and people were able to buy larger quantities of drink for the same amount of money. It is because of my doubt as to the results of reducing the taxation on whisky that I must appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer not to accept the Clause but to maintain, as the guardian of the sobriety of the people, the present cost of whisky.
§ 6.17 p.m.
Mr. GURNEY BRAITHWAITE
While listening to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser), I could not help wondering what the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was connected with that city, would have thought if he could have listened to that declaration. I rise, as representing an English industrial constituency, to put what I believe to be the average point of view with regard to this matter.
§ Mr. LOVAT-FRASER
May I remind my hon. Friend of what Dr. Johnson said? Dr. Johnson, himself an abstainer, said he abstained because he found it easier to abstain than to be moderate.
What is rather more to the point is what he drank, and I do not think history is in much doubt on that matter. In any case, quite apart from the merits of Dr. Johnson, the good people of Lichfield will read with great interest the speech that has just been delivered by their representative in this House. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), who really brought me to my feet, said we missed 869 the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Isaac Foot) and the Noble Lady, the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) in this discussion. If I may say so, he has made an able understudy, because it is a long time since the Committee has heard a speech so overloaded with prejudice as the one he made this afternoon, and I am bound to say with respect that I think the Opposition have been a little unwise in putting up on this Clause such a spokesman. I wonder if the working class will endorse some of the sentiments to which the hon. Member gave utterance. He asked if we could tell him of any working man who would buy a bottle of whisky for 10s. Does he really think that when a working man or anybody else has a drink of whisky, he drinks a bottle? Does he not know very well that a reduction in the duty would result in a reduction of the price of whisky as sold by the tot in the various establishments for that purpose all over the country, and that what really happens is that whisky has been put out of the reach of poor men in this country?
Those who talk of the iniquity of the drinking of whisky are really advocating prohibition and had better say so. The hon. Gentleman's speech, like that of the hon. Member for Lichfield, is really, when translated into plain English, a plea that the rich man can drink as much whisky as he likes and that the poor man is to have none, and I cannot think that the working classes will endorse that. But the hon. Member went on to say something else. He said he stood at that box to protest against any combination of people making profits out of the weakness of their fellow men. Are we to take it that the co-operative societies will cease selling whisky after that declaration? Surely, if the co-operative societies are going to make a profit, as they are always so careful to do—
I think it, is common knowledge that it is perfectly easy to purchase whisky at any rate at a great number of co-operative society establishments.
If not whisky, then certainly beer. The hon. Member then went on to say that he would welcome support on this side of the Committee for a reduction in the price of foodstuffs, and he instanced bread and bacon. Bread and bacon are both considerably cheaper than they were when he sat on the Treasury Bench, but whisky remains at the same price. He went on to say that the drink trade, those who indulge in the selling of drink, should support the victims of their own campaign. He might as well say that his party should be called upon to support the 1,750,000 people who lost their employment while his party were in office. It would be just as logical an argument, and I think that when the Opposition put up hon. Members to talk on a Clause of this kind, they should try to free their minds from prejudice. I do not represent an agricultural constituency, but I think there is very great force in the arguments of hon. Members who have spoken in this Debate on behalf of the farmers. I do not believe for a moment that the country is going to perdition if the price of a bottle of whisky is reduced by half-a-crown. We have already seen, during the Jubilee celebrations, that the people are able to take advantage of extended hours and at the same time maintain their sobriety and good conduct. The same thing would happen if the price of whisky were moderately reduced. While realising the difficulties of my right hon. Friend in this matter, I hope the Mover of the Clause has staked out a claim for consideration in the future.
§ 6.23 p.m.
This proposition to reduce the tax on whisky is one which generally comes up in a Budget discussion, but the Committee will at any rate welcome this subject, if only for the fact that it has produced one of those eloquent and amusing discourses from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten), in which he described to us the pious origin of whisky, the addition that it makes to the gaiety of nations, its value from a medicinal point of view when administered three times a day neat or in a little water, and the comfort it is to the aged poor. He and some others who have spoken in the Debate have said that taxation ought 871 not to be used to bring about moral purposes. I hope I need not repeat what I have so often said before, that at any rate in this particular matter the considerations which have weighed with me, as they have weighed with my predecessors, are not moral considerations; they are financial considerations. I will go farther and say that in my own view, supposing that I thought the whisky trade was injurious to the health of the people of this country, I would not consider that the right way to stop it would be by putting on penal taxes.
But having said so much, of course, I am unable to accept this Clause, because it would cost me too much money. While anybody may form their own opinion as to how the revenue might increase in some future years, I do not think anybody on the evidence can doubt that the immediate result would be to make a substantial hole in the revenue of the year. One has always, in estimating these things, to make certain assumptions, and if I may make these assumptions, that one-quarter of the present imported supply were diverted to homemade spirits, and moreover that the aggregate consumption were to rise by 15 per cent., a not unreasonable assumption, the revenue would lose nearly £6,000,000 in a full year. If I were to make a remission which cost me £6,000,000, I should have to find that money from some other source, and I do not know of any source from which I could find it.
When some hon. Members make a comparison between my treatment of the Whisky Tax and my treatment of the Beer Tax, I would remind them once again that the increase in the Beer Duty was one of the emergency taxes imposed in 1931, and I have always taken the view that the emergency taxation must be dealt with first before one could deal with other large alterations or modifications of taxation. The question of the revenue came in in considering the priority that I could give to the restoration in respect of the emergency burdens, and I felt that I could not wait, as I might otherwise have waited, until a later year, but I made the decrease in the duty, not last year but in 1932, because the revenue was being undermined to so great an extent. I am not prepared to say that a reduction in the 872 Whisky Duty would not eventually stop the decline in the revenue which is taking place to-day, and I have gone even further in the past. Only last year I expressed my views about the Whisky Tax when I said:I do not mind saying that, in my view, the tax on whisky is too high. I think that it is unreasonably high in modern conditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th June, 1934; col. 1641, Vol. 290.]I went on to point out that it was fixed at a time when the sources of our indirect taxation were much more limited than they are to-day, and I said that I did not suppose that, if we had been a protectionist country years ago, the whisky tax would have been put up to the point it has now reached. Therefore, my position is that I appreciate the fact that this tax is altogether out of proportion to the present system of taxation, and I appreciate that it has unfortunate repercussions upon one branch of agriculture, especially in Scotland. I think that those who have to bear this tax have a good case to ask for the consideration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer whenever the financial conditions of the country permit him to undertake a reconstruction of taxation which would cost him a considerable sum. That time has not yet arrived, and, therefore, I can only say to my hon. and right hon. Friends who have addressed me on this subject that in principle I think there is a great deal to be said in favour of the views which they have put forward, but if I cannot give a more favourable reception to this Clause to-day, that is not because I think that fundamentally the Clause is unfair or wrong, but because the financial conditions of the country are such that I cannot at present afford it.
§ Question "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.
§ Mr. DAVID MASON
On a point of Order. Will you give a Ruling why the Clause standing in my name (Annual account of Exchange Equalisation Account) is not called? Your predecessor very kindly said he would give a Ruling. Perhaps you do not care to do so, but there are many Members of all parties who desire to have a discussion on this subject, and if you could see your way to give a Ruling, it would be of interest.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN
The Clause mentioned by the hon. Member is out of order because it is incomplete. It would require an Amendment of the existing law, and, therefore, it cannot be accepted in the form in which it appears on the Paper.