HC Deb 09 May 1939 vol 347 cc305-9
Mr. Mander

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make administrative preparations for making use, for war purposes, of the possessions of certain classes of persons, and for matters connected therewith. The mind of the country, I think, has been particularly concentrated on this problem of late in view of the new Measure with regard to human life that is before the House, and many people have said, "What do you mean by conscription of wealth?" I shall try to lay before the House shortly what some hon. Members on this side of the House mean by conscription of wealth. At a moment when a revolutionary change is being brought into the life of young people in this country by conscripting them in peace-time, it is not unnatural that many people throughout the length and breadth of the country are thinking of the question of equality of sacrifice as between man and money. It may be that those who are most strongly in favour of the conscription of man-power will not be so enthusiastic about any scheme for the conscription of wealth. We shall wait to see that. But I do bring forward this Bill as a serious contribution to a question that must be in many minds. I do not say that it is the best method of dealing with the matter. There are alternative methods, and there may be far better methods. I notice that the military committee of the United States Senate has just approved a Bill to enable the United States Government to conscript wealth in time of war. It may be that that is a better method of dealing with the problem.

I make no excuse for bringing forward this Motion now, because the Prime Minister has told us that we are not living in a time of peace, and measures of an exceptional nature need to be brought forward to deal with the grave situation which faces us all to-day. Owing to the procedure of this House, I as a private Member am not, of course, able to introduce any Bill which imposes a charge. Therefore, this Measure takes the form of making certain preparations for subsequent legislation. None the less I think it will make quite clear the object that I have in mind. To put it shortly, the Bill contemplates a situation in which the wealth of this country will be called up in just the same way as the man-power is being called up, and it takes as its basis the Military Training Bill that has just been introduced; and in so far as it is possible to correlate the two and adopt similar measures with regard to money and men, it endeavours to do that. First of all, the Government have fixed upon the age of 20 for calling up the young conscripts. It is necessary, therefore, to fix another age in this case. I must fix one arbitrarily, and I have, therefore, gone "40 years on" and I have taken the age of 60.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

Does the hon. Member include himself in that category?

Mr. Mander

The hon. and gallant Member is trying to make a personal point. If he will study the Bill he will see that neither he nor I will escape it, and if it will give him any satisfaction I am prepared in Committee to accept an Amendment substituting my own age. The Bill takes Surtax payers, of whom there are 95,000 in this country, and it says that those of 60 shall have their wealth called up over and above Surtax level, and that for six months, the same period as the period of training, it shall be placed at the disposal of the State for war purposes. Provision is made so that as the age of military service is extended—I do not believe for a moment that we are going to stop at the age of 20, for this is only the thin end of the wedge, and I have no doubt that the Government intend to make rapid expansion in the near future—we can alter the age from 60 under this Bill, either upwards or downwards, as the Treasury may consider most appropriate.

The Bill further lays it down that in time of war every Surtax payer who is not engaged upon active military service shall have the whole of his resources over and above the Surtax level placed at the service of the State for the purposes of the war. It may truly be said that there are many Surtax payers who have legal obligations and undertakings that they have entered into which it would be impossible for them to discharge under a strict application of a Measure of this kind. I, therefore, adopt the procedure of the Military Training Bill and authorise the Treasury to set up hardship tribunals. I do not know whether "hardship" is a very suitable word, but there would be grave difficulties, for which we must make allowance, which would confront the Surtax payer, and if the tribunal were satisfied that the Surtax payer had made out a case, then their legal obligations could be discharged out of the funds which had been taken by the State.

Mr. Radford

What about conscientious objectors?

An Hon. Member

And Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mander

If hon. Members will allow me to finish my speech they will see that I have dealt with those points. Northern Ireland is excluded. [Laughter.] I put this proposal forward in all seriousness and am not treating it as a joke. It may be that there will be certain persons, possessors of wealth, just as there are persons who will be called up for military training, who have a perfectly sincere conscientious objection to their wealth being used for war purposes. In those cases, I again follow the Military Training Bill. There will be tribunals set up and those conscientious objectors could put their case before the tribunal, and in the event of the tribunal being satisfied, then their wealth could be diverted to social services, hospitals and so on.

I have endeavoured to keep as closely to the framework of the Military Training Bill as it is practicable to do. I hope that hon. Members will be good enough to give the Bill careful study and to bear in mind the great contrasts with which we are faced at the present time—the compulsory taking of young men to be trained, sent out and used for war purposes, and, on the other hand, the feeling that there ought to be taken from those who possess surplus wealth some very substantial part of it, under compulsion. I cannot believe that at a moment when we are making this tremendous change in our customs of life in this country the House of Commons would care to have it said that they were unwilling to allow the First Reading to be given to a Measure of this kind, in order that it may be printed and studied for what it is worth.

Mr. Petherick

I think we ought not to allow a proposal to bring in a Bill of this character to pass, without one or two comments upon it. It is a great pity that even a few minutes should be wasted at this time of national crisis on a proposal such as this. Nevertheless, the hon. Member, whose purpose is best known to himself, has sought the right to bring in this Bill, and I should like to say a few words about it. Much has been said recently about the conscription of wealth. I have always thought that that expression was nothing but a slogan, and a slogan which it was very difficult to explain. It is a slogan which is laughable when carefully examined, and the hon. Member, in the way he has explained the Bill, has shown that the elements of ludicrousness are not absent from it. I should like to make a few suggestions in case the House should give the hon. Member the right to bring in such a Bill. He must carry it to its logical conclusion and apply it not only to those of 60 but to those of 60, 61 and 62.

He says that under the Military Training Bill there is to be a period of training for six months and that wealth is to be conscripted under his Bill for six months. I presume, therefore, that if he wishes to keep up exactly the same basis as the Military Training Bill this wealth will be used for the purpose of training only and that, for example, manufacturers of paint will have their wealth conscripted for six months for the period of training, in order that they will be able to learn during that period how to make more money. I very sincerely hope that the House will not give the hon. Member the right to introduce the Bill. We have a great deal of legislation before us at the present time, and there seems to be no reason why, in order to advertise an apparent or imaginary grievance, we should give any more publicity to slogans of this nature.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mander, Mr. Acland, Mr. Batey, Lieut.-Commander Fletcher, Mr. Foot, Mr. Creech Jones, Mr. Kirkwood, Mr. Gordon Macdonald, Mr. Malcolm MacMillan, Mr. W. Roberts, Mr. Ellis Smith and Mr. Tinker.