HC Deb 31 July 1940 vol 363 cc1265-72

Eighth Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

3.51 p.m.

Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)

I am extremely sorry that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has found it necessary to put a very considerably increased tax on the living theatre. I fully realise the importance of raising revenue, and when the Finance Bill comes under discussion I shall have a good deal of criticism to make as to the adequacy of the provision the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made. But in war time our taxation ought to be aimed at something more than the mere raising of revenue. It ought also to be aimed at curtailing certain types of consumption and deflecting spending into such directions as this House feels to be less objectionable than others. Anything which involves imports is a form of expenditure which we must, as far as possible, curtail, but there are other forms of expenditure which are entirely harmless to the national effort, and I can conceive of no form of expenditure which is less likely to cause a strain upon our war effort than going to the theatre, and particularly the living theatre. Admittedly we have to curtail expenditure, but it is just as essential that people under the strain under which they are living at the present time, and our soldiers and sailors on leave, should have some reasonable form of recreation and relaxation, and no one can suggest that the living theatre is anything but harmless.

This is a considerable burden which more than doubles the tax on the living theatre, and it will make the living theatre still more difficult to maintain. Here we are putting a tax upon a form of personal expenditure which is entirely innocuous, and on a form of art which at the present time is struggling very hard to maintain its existence. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may say that this duty will bring in a considerable sum. I do not know the figure, but the total increase in the Entertainments Duty will only be £4,000,000 in the full year, and a vast bulk of that amount will be raised on the cinema. The amount coming from the living theatre is very small as far as our expenditure is concerned, but is a very heavy amount as far as box-office receipts are concerned. I think the living theatre is something which we could have avoided taxing, and I am not prepared to accept the Chancellor of the Exchequer's argument, which he is sure to use, that we must raise revenue, because he has not taken anything like adequate steps to raise revenue where we could raise it, and that is by direct taxation. He is playing with direct taxation. He is inflicting a serious blow on the living theatre, and for the small amount of revenue which we shall obtain I am convinced that we shall do far more harm to that very important form of art than we shall be doing good by fortifying the revenue.

3.54 p.m.

Sir William Davison (Kensington, South)

I should like to associate myself with what has been said by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson). I gather that a very small amount of this tax will come from the living theatre. We are at present in the midst of, and suffering from, a mechanical war, in which the old ideas of warfare are made to a great extent impossible. We do not want to arrive at the time when we are entirely dependent for entertainment on mechanical devices. If it is at all possible without any large sacrifice of money, and I think it may be, to enable the living theatre now very hard hit to be maintained especially in these times when it is desirable that our people should not focus their attention too much on disagreeable things, we should see that when they have time off from their war duties they should be able to have genuine and proper relaxation. I would appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove, if he can, the duty from the living theatre.

3.56 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

One hesitates to criticise new taxes in the light of the fact that it is generally recognised that we are not raising enough revenue to meet our needs. It is always easy to find fault with this or that form of taxation, but on the first day of our discussions I did express the hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would reconsider his proposals for taxation on the living theatre. Apart from the fact that the theatre is a very important contribution towards keeping up the good spirits of the people, giving them reasonable recreation at a time of great nervous strain, which will increase in the winter months with the blackout and long dark nights, it is undoubtedly a fact that the theatrical industry is going through a very lean time. All around London theatres are closed, and there are, literally, thousands of actors and actresses out of work. The risk of putting on plays, even old plays, is very great. Take one example, which I am sure will appeal to hon. Members, that of the National Theatre at Stratford. With great courage it is being kept open in spite of the war, but owing to the restrictions on petrol that very large clientele which was the backbone of the theatre and which used to come by motor car, has more or less dis- appeared. Conditions in London are very similar, and some gallant people are attempting to keep the theatres going, although I recognise that there is a differentiation.

I noticed the other clay that Herr Goering boasted that in spite of the war Germany at all costs intended to keep alive the arts. No one can say that the Government are making any definite contribution to the arts in war-time; they are left to private enterprise and initiative. There is that very remarkable example of the concerts at the National Gallery—one of the finest things done by people, in very difficult circumstances. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the example of two of his great predecessors, could make a generous gesture to the hard-pressed actors and actresses and the theatre industry, which presents such possibilities for keeping up the spirits of the people in war-time, he would really be doing something to counteract the effect of the proposed tax on books.

4.0 p.m.

Major Sir George Davies (Yeovil)

I think it should be pointed out that there are two sides to this question. I take what is, I am sure, the unpopular one. In peace-time I should find myself at one with the hon. Members who have already spoken. I have often opposed the taxation of entertainment and particularly of the living theatre, but it seems to me that, in the situation in which we find ourselves to-day, our own personal desires and our own standard of living have to go by the board. Everybody is called upon to make a financial contribution and a sacrifice in the interests of the national welfare, and I do not think that this is a suitable time to advocate the relaxation of taxation upon any form of entertainment, or upon amenities of any kind. Whether it is the living theatre or any other form of entertainment, all should bear a share of the burden. An hon. Member opposite said that the Chancellor had not gone far enough in devising new taxation and, in face of that admission, I ask whether this is a time to start making exceptions. We have to take the bull by the horns. Everyone is called upon to contribute and if we start making exceptions here and there, similar demands will be made in regard to other taxation, and we shall undermine the national effort. Sorry as I am that this taxation should be found necessary, I think the people who run the shows and the people who pay at the box-office to see them, ought to pay up in extra taxation like the rest of us at this time. If we begin to whittle away these proposals and make differentiations here and there, for which, no doubt, excellent excuses can be offered, in the end we shall upset the whole scheme. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will stand firm.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland-with-Boston)

I would have no complaint to offer against the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Yeovil (Sir G. Davies) if this duty were to be levied on all forms of expenditure, but the position is that certain forms of expenditure are still untaxed. It is still possible to go to a restaurant and to spend far more than is good for one's purse or one's health and yet avoid any tax on that expenditure. It is equally possible to spend the same amount of money on betting or other forms of gambling. Those are tax-free occupations at the present time, but under the proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if you spend money on Shaw or on Shakespeare, whether you see their works performed or read them, then you have to pay tax. I feel that this is a most unfortunate time to raise the contribution required from the living theatre. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) referred to the London theatres. At this period of the year however the thoughts of many of us will turn to the pierrots and concert parties who, in peace-time, entertain us at the seaside resorts around our coast. Those people are having a very hard time. They are now compelled to make their living in all sorts of unaccustomed ways and I feel that this increase of the duty is adding just one more difficulty to those which they already have to bear. I much regret that the Chancellor desires to increase the duty on living entertainment even in war-time.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Charles Brown (Mansfield)

I wish to join in the protest of those hon. Members who have already spoken against the proposal to increase the taxation on the living theatre. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer can prove to me that there is any real advantage in this proposal, I shall be prepared to alter my view. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman when he replies, to say whether he thinks that there will be any real economic advantage to the nation in having a lot of empty seats in cinemas and theatres. Does he think that the emptying of those seats will help to strengthen the morale of the nation? If he cannot say that, I do not think there is any justification for increasing this duty.

4.6 p.m.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

I suppose there is no use appealing to the right hon. Gentleman to remit this duty in present circumstances, unless some constructive alternative is suggested to him. When we discuss taxes on literature or the theatre there is always a sort of tidal wave of emotion and there are opportunities for making cheap-jack appeals. I am not to be identified with any proposal for putting taxation on the theatre, living or dead, but let us examine what is being discussed in this case. An appeal is made to the right hon. Gentleman that he should remove this taxation from the living theatre. But if he does so, the right hon. Gentleman will be in a quandary. He will be establishing a precedent. Demands will he made that other taxes should be taken off and appeals will be made to him, in other cases, on emotional or educational grounds. The theatre in London and elsewhere has been in a bad way for many years, not because of any taxation imposed by the Treasury, but because of the enormous rents charged for the theatres. If the right hon. Gentleman proposes to listen to the appeal so ably made to him to-day on the ground of art—although I notice that art has disappeared from the London theatre for many years—if he intends to soften his heart to the pleas which have been made, and to consider removing taxation from the living theatre, I suggest that the most effective way to do so, is to assist in getting cheaper rents for the hiring of the theatres. He can achieve that object by taking the taxation off the entertainment and putting it on the site of the theatre.

4.8 p.m.

Sir J. Mellor

I always thought the Entertainments Duty was an excellent form of taxation in peace time if, indeed, any tax can be regarded as good, and I certainly think it even better in a time of war. I see no justification for discriminat- ing between the taxation of the living theatre and the taxation of other forms of entertainment. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will stick to this Duty in war time and I think there is justification for increasing it, as it is an excellent example of luxury taxation.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Lewis (Colchester)

I wish to support what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Yeovil (Sir G. Davies). This is a time when we have to harden our hearts in a matter of taxation. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. C. Brown) drew a melancholy picture of theatres with empty seats. Does the hon. Member really think that because the price of seats is raised from 6d. to 6½d. or from 1s. to 1s. 1d. that a great number of empty seats will result? I find that very hard to believe. We must keep a sense of proportion in these matters and I suggest that the amount which it is proposed to charge is not an unreasonable contribution to ask from people who attend places of entertainment at this time, towards meeting the expenses of the war.

4.10 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I have every sympathy with all that has been said by the hon. Members who have spoken in favour of a relaxation of the duty in favour of the living theatre. I appreciate the efforts that have been made, especially by the organisations to which my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) referred. I must, however, give weight to the other considerations which have been put forward this afternoon by other hon. Members as to the serious objection which exists at this time, to any relaxation or mitigation of this duty. It is perfectly true that two distinguished predecessors of mine found themselves able to do something to meet the desire expressed by so many hon. Members on behalf of the living theatre, but to-day the circumstances and the times are different. I have to look round to find where I can get contributions towards the national effort. I can assure hon. Members that, in doing so, I will make a careful note of any suggestions which have been made by them. I have noted those suggestions for use perhaps on another occasion. In the interval, however, I must persevere and as regards the raising of revenue I must maintain the proposals which I have already indicated in my Budget speech. I should point out that, in what we propose to do now, in this respect, we are maintaining the differentiation in taxation between the living theatre and other forms of entertainment. I should add that representatives of the theatrical industry have been consulted about this and that they, on their part, recognise that it is not unfair at a time like the present to ask them for a contribution towards the national effort. I do not think that these proposals can mean the infliction of any severe blow upon the living theatre, the success of which I think we all desire to see—

Sir W. Davison

Can my right hon. Friend say what is the actual amount which will be raised from the living theatre under this proposal?

Sir K. Wood

I could not give my hon. Friend the figure at the moment. It is not a considerable amount, but I have still to persevere and to bring all these contributions, whether they are considerable or inconsiderable, into the national effort. It may be said that, as the amount is small it will not make much difference, but once that argument is admitted, it may be applied to all sorts of other taxes, and I should then find myself on a slippery slope.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

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