HC Deb 19 June 1940 vol 362 cc192-7

At this point in the proceedings Mr. SPEAKER suspended the Sitting for 20 minutes in order to test the efficiency of the air-raid precautions arrangements in the Palace of Westminster. Members, officials and occupants of the Press and other Galleries thereupon Proceeded to their respective refuges.

On resuming

4.49 P.m.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

I ask the Chancellor, in the interests of the country, to withdraw this Clause entirely. We miners' representatives desire that the output shall be maintained, and, in fact, increased. I cannot see in this Clause anything but a severe blow at the loyalty and enthusiasm of the miners of this country. I was in my division attending a church parade on Sunday; and at three of the pits there they were finding coal, although they had never before done anything of the kind on a Sunday since the pits were sunk. There were 800 or 900 men working in the pits that day. They were doing that in order to pull their weight in defeating the enemy. This is not a case of working on Sunday nights, as in South Wales, where a cherished religious principle has been given away in order to allow of coal being mined on Sunday nights. In Yorkshire, they have worked on Sunday nights during the whole time that I have been in the county, which is over 40 years.

On Sunday I presented medals to two men of the British Legion. There had been a big march to church, and the men were full of loyalty to the country. At the ceremony I impressed upon them the need for every man to throw his full weight into the job, so that we might win. If I go back next Sunday the men will say, "George, what are they doing down yonder?" That is the way we talk there. I say to the Lord Privy Seal and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, instead of increasing output in the mining industry, this will make our fellows feel that their efforts are for the profit of the coalowners, and for nothing else. I am amazed at the profits that have been made in my coalfield during the last five months. In that time, the Yorkshire coalfield has made profits of £2,250,000. That is "shown profit," as one of my colleagues says. Even for last month, the profits are shown by the ascertainments to have been £495,000. The Clause says: Provided that no order shall provide for increasing the said percentages by more than a further 4 per cent. It does not say, "more than 4 per cent.," but "more than a further 4 per cent." My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) asked the Chancellor what is the basis of the minimum profit upon which he is prepared to put this percentage; and the Chancellor said that he did not know. They have no basis. They do not start from the minimum of no profit at all. If they did that, and said, "These pits that have had no profit can have 4 per cent.," we could understand that. But they are to be allowed an additional 4 per cent. over the profits that they have made already. We have supported this Government, almost to the detriment of some of our own political beliefs. We feel that the country is in a difficulty, and that it is up to every man in the pits to pull his full weight; and the men have agreed to do so. I said to my men the other day, "You are under conscription now." They will say, "If we are under conscription, the coalowners must be as well." I have a great feeling in my own soul that this will help to reduce the output. I was talking the other day to a man who had only just come off work at the pit. He said, "I went to the pit the other day, feeling dead beat before I started, but I carried on because the Minister of Mines made an appeal to us over the wireless. I had to work, although I did not feel fit to do so." There are thousands of men doing that sort of thing, and this Clause will not encourage them to go on.

4.55 P.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir William Jowitt)

This is a lesson to Law Officers not to come in and listen to the discussion on parts of the Finance Bill which in no way concern them. Since I have offended against the rule, and am here, I had better say something about it. I think, first, that there has been a good deal of misapprehension about what this Clause does, and, secondly, that it is enormously important that we should carry everybody with us, because the unity which we have at present is vital. If we endanger that in any way, we endanger our whole existence. Before I say what I have in mind—which I hope and believe will give some satisfaction to hon. Members opposite—let me examine quite simply what this Clause does. It is a great mistake to think that this is any departure from the 100 per cent. Excess Profits Tax. Any Excess Profits Tax presupposes a standard. It is on profits over that standard that 100 per cent. is to be levied. There are obviously certain cases in which it is difficult to ascertain what the standard should be. Take, for instance, the simple case of a company beginning with a loss. It starts off with a loss; then, it may, for a few years, break even. It does not follow that the company has not a very good prospect for the future. In cases like that, what are you to do about fixing your standard? Clause 27 provides for that. It provides, broadly, that where you have no profits in the standard year, or where the profits in that year are so low that it would not be just to compute a standard by reference to those profits, you may apply to the Commissioners, and make out your case—you are not automatically granted this concession—and they may then give you a standard, the amount of which is not fixed, except that the maximum may not be more than 6 per cent., or sometimes 8 per cent.

Mr. G. Griffiths

Or 10 per cent.

The Solicitor-General

Or, in certain cases, more. Clause 27 provides that it shall not exceed six per cent., or, in the case of a company the directors whereof had a controlling interest therein, eight per cent., per annum. That is in the Bill, as drafted.

Mr. G. Griffiths

Could I put a question?

Sir W. Jowitt

Let me just finish. It was pointed out to the Chancellor that even this standard in certain cases would create very great hardship. The matter arose, in the first instance, not in relation to coal mines, but in relation to other concerns; but if we are to make a concession for which an overwhelming case has been made, an obvious industry to be assisted is the coal industry. When you are dealing with a mine you are dealing with what may be fairly called a wasting asset. It was obviously necessary to give the Commissioners power to fix a standard for a company whose standard year would show no profit at all, or a very low profit. Faced with the present emergency, we may want mineowners to open up a new section of a coal mine which involves considerable capital expenditure. As a matter of common sense, they would have to provide for writing off so much of that capital every year. If you only allowed them to have the 6 or the 8 per cent. provided in Clause 27, it would not be possible for them to write off any part of the capital expenditure which they have to make.

I am satisfied that there is no risk of injustice to hon. Gentlemen opposite, and I know that if I could make out this case to them, they would agree. If only time is given to consider this matter, they will see the justice of this case, and I would far rather carry this by consent than try to force it through the House by putting on the Whips and having a Division, and so would the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Therefore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with whom I have had the opportunity of discussing this matter, has authorised me to say this. It is inevitable that in a very few months' time he will be introducing another Finance Bill. He is quite prepared not to press this Clause in order to allow ample time for discussion, and if I may, I will place myself at the disposal of hon. Members opposite and assist in any way I can. While we do not weaken in our view that this Clause is right, fair and proper, yet we would very much rather carry it with the consent of hon. Members opposite than against their wishes. Therefore, the Chancellor authorises me to say to the House that we will not press this Clause at the present time, but hon. Members must not understand this as a weakening or faltering in our desire to have this Clause carried. Indeed, I have already said that we are, in substance, committed to it, but in order that it may be carried, as I am confident it will be, with the assent of hon. Members opposite, we will not press it now, it being understood that we reserve to ourselves the full right, after the fullest consultation with hon. Members opposite, to put it in the next Finance Bill.

5.3 P.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

I rise to thank the Solicitor-General, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer who has authorised this statement, for the concession which the Solicitor-General has just announced. I wish to say, speaking not only for myself but for all my hon. Friends who are associated with me, that it would have been a very great regret to us if any matter such as this had led to differences and a Division in this House. I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Solicitor-General will share our view that, even if the new Clause had been forced through by means of a Division, it would not in any way have mitigated the very serious result which would have ensued. Clearly we are looking to the miners of this country to do heroic work at great strain, and, as it has been pointed out by one of my hon. Friends, at risk to their own bodily health and safety, and it would be a very great misfortune if in their opinion, rightly or wrongly, a concession was being made which was unjustifiable. Had this been part of the original Bill, or had it been brought in on the Committee stage, there would have been plenty of time for everyone to consider the matter. If it had been brought in on the Report stage in ordinary times, no doubt my hon. Friends and I would have examined meticulously every line of the proposal, and we could have fought it out with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On this occasion the circumstances, as we all know, are very exceptional, and there has not been time or opportunity for this matter to be fully considered. Therefore, in view of the fact that this could not be altered at any stage in this Bill, as we propose to take the Third Reading to-day, and, as hon. Members in all parts of the House know, no Amendments can be made in the Finance Bill in another place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has shown wisdom and courtesy—and we thank him—in coming to the only solution which meets the case. If, as the Solicitor-General hopes and believes, this Clause can be demonstrated in discussions to be thoroughly sound, I am sure that no one will be more willing to be convinced than my hon. Friends if that meets the justice of the case. It will not prejudice the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any way because the Excess Profits Tax will take a considerable time, and we are promised this in a Finance Bill at an early date. Therefore I hope that the trouble which has arisen is now fully ended.

Sir K. Wood

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.