HC Deb 09 June 1942 vol 380 cc947-52

As respects manufactured tobacco issued free to inmates of public institutions by local authorities the rate of duty per pound shall be one pound two shillings.—[Sir R. Bird.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Robert Bird (Wolverhampton, West)

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

The purpose of the new Clause is to preserve to the unfortunate inmates of Poor Law establishments an amenity to which they attach considerable importance, namely, the solace which they draw from a little tobacco. The inmates of Poor Law institutions stand on the lowest rung of the social ladder. They have no association or body to safeguard their interests and no one in this House specially charged to speak for them. They are, therefore, really the charge of the whole House, and I hope that the plea I shall make to the Chancellor will receive support in every quarter of the House. Parliament of late has devoted a considerable portion of its time to legislation and regulations directed to soften the rigour of the Poor Law, and it has sought in particular to infuse into them a spirit of humane administration. On the whole it is generally conceded that the intention of Parliament has met with a good deal of success, but ironically, by the accident of war taxation, Parliament is imposing taxes which directly menace something which softens the inevitable hardship of the Poor Law. The extra taxes on tobacco mean that the tobacco of the Poor Law inmates is directly threatened.

The practice of social welfare committees of Poor Law institutions is to make free issues of tobacco weekly. For the most part they are of the order of one ounce for each individual. One ounce is not very much, and I have heard it described by a moderate smoker as a mere pittance. The aggregate of these pittances, however, amounts to a considerable total and represents a heavy charge on the funds of social welfare committees, and ultimately, through them, on the ratepayers. No figures are available for the whole country to show the aggregate of the charges for the issue of free tobacco, but I have some figures relating to the Poor Law institutions of the county borough of Wolverhampton. The figures of one institution may serve to give some notion of what the charges are. For the New Cross Institution in Wolverhampton the social welfare committee purchase rather more than £35 worth of tobacco a week, which is at the rate of £1,750 per annum. That was the figure paid under the old rates of duty. When the new duty of £800 is added, the figure will be £2,550. That in the end is a charge for this small amenity upon the ratepayers. I am sure that the ratepayers of Wolverhampton, any more than the ratepayers of scores of other localities, do not grudge this charity, but they feel that the extra duties place an unfair strain upon it and that if this pittance is to remain untouched, it should be by means of some national charge and not a charge locally upon the rates.

In support of that view, and of their strong feeling on the subject, they urge that, already, a differentiation has been made in respect of the extra duty, in favour of those smokers who are serving in the Forces. Men and women serving in the Forces, in the flower of their age, are able to purchase tobacco with no restriction as to quantity or as to cost. On the other hand, you have this large body of unfortunate people, who have given their services to the nation, who have fallen into misfortune and who find this little amenity, which they value so highly, threatened by the imposition of a new duty, so that it may be whittled down from a pittance of one ounce until it becomes no more than a token. Furthermore, it is urged that the House of Commons has affirmed more than once the principle that war taxation shall be spread nationally and that the burden shall not fall upon localities. That is one more reason for granting an extension of the differentiation already made in the case of the Forces in respect of this increased duty.

Finally, there is another aspect of the question of this free issue of tobacco. It is also an acknowledgment to the recipients of duties undertaken by them in the institutions. The inmates of Poor Law institutions, and particularly those who are mentally affected, are not readily persuaded to undertake menial duties and to perform services at meal times and the like. In normal times the giving of such services has a considerable part in the carrying-on of the institutions. In wartime, these services take on an even greater value, and if you whittle away the recompense given for those services—and the supplement of one ounce of tobacco is bound to diminish if relief is not given—then the inducement disappears. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer still hesitates to grant this concession, I feel it can only be because he is haunted by the spectre of the black market. I assure him that the risk of abuse if the concession is made is insignificant. In the first place, the quantity of the free issue of tobacco is in direct relation to the number of recipients, and the variation in those numbers is so small, that it could be entirely disregarded. Again, that kind of tobacco which is issued to the inmates of institutions is not the kind which appeals to the general public, and lastly, those tobacco supplies are under the control of public officials. Although this is a small matter, I hope the House will feel that it merits their attention and that I shall gain support for my plea. I speak not merely for Wolverhampton and the 1,000 or 1,500 Poor Law inmates there but for the thousands scattered throughout the country who, for the most part, are advanced in years, who are broken in fortune, often broken in body and sometimes broken in mind.

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

I beg to second the Motion.

I gather, generally, from my observation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he is, to-day, in his most benevolent mood, and I can easily conceive how much he has been affected by the stirring plea of my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton (Sir R. Bird). The case which he has made is bound to excite the sympathetic consideration of my right hon. Friend. It is a small matter, in a Budget of this magnitude, to make a concession of this nature, and I trust that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will, in this instance, follow that general feeling for those in distress which has been exemplified continuously by him in his expositions of public finance in this House and will receive this plea sympathetically.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood)

My two hon. Friends have exhibited once again their generous and kindly feelings, and I reciprocate all the compliments which they have paid to me. I wish, however, that they had been a little more precise as to the meaning of the proposed new Clause, and perhaps I might then have followed more clearly the effects it might have if it were passed. There is no suggestion here, I can assure the House, of any threat to any old people who are inmates of public institutions. There is no threat, as far as I am aware, that they will no longer receive the allowance of tobacco which has hitherto been made to them as inmates of these institutions. It would, indeed, be a sad reflection upon the administration of the local authorities of the country if, because there had been some addition to the Tobacco Duty, those local authorities were to discontinue to supply old people in institutions with the allowance of tobacco to which they had been accustomed. I do not think such a proposal could be contemplated. I do not believe for one moment that any authority in the country would take up such an attitude. I cannot conceive that the Wolverhampton authority, for instance, would say to the inmates of its public institutions, "I am awfully sorry, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put a certain additional duty on tobacco, and as a consequence, there will be no more tobacco for you, my good friends." I am sure Wolverhampton would not do such a thing, nor would any other local authority.

In fact all this proposal means is a relief not to the old people but to the Wolverhampton ratepayers of whatever the amount involved may be—I should think an amount of a trifling character, for there are not likely to be more than 1,500 inmates in the local institution. It is not a question of the old people, and we need not weep any tears over them; and it is not a question of any comparison with what the Forces are getting. What we are concerned about is the question of the £800 or whatever the amount may be that falls on the Wolverhampton rates. We have had no representations from the local authorities of the country about this. If, in fact, it were found that the increase in the Tobacco Duty bore hardly upon the ratepayers of the community, I have no doubt the local authorities would come along with representations about it. When I was Minister of Health I never found any backwardness in coming forward, on the part of the local authorities, when any question arose about burdens being imposed on the ratepayers. I never found any hesitation by them to take up such matters; and, as the House knows, there are particular arrangements between the Ministry of Health and the local authority for dealing with payments in their respective spheres. If at any time this increase in the duty loomed very large in their minds, I am quite sure they would approach the Ministry of Health—not that I want to give them any encouragement to do so—but I cannot conceive that they would seriously go to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health and say, "We have a very serious matter to put before you, this addition to the tobacco duty as it affects the poor inmates of our public institutions; will you give us a special addition to the block grant on that account?" In any event I can assure my two hon. Friends, as I am most desirous to do, that the inmates of public institutions will not be affected, because any relief which we gave under a new Clause of this sort—even if it were in the proper form (and this one has not been drafted in a very skilful manner)—would not concern the inmates, but would be a measure of relief to the ratepayers. If there is to be some measure of readjustment in this respect, that is not the way in which it should be effected. Therefore I hope that my hon. Friend, reassured, as he must be, about the 1,500 inmates of the Wolverhampton institution, will be prepared to withdraw this new Clause.

Mr. A. Edwards (Middlesbrough, East)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he had not been approached by local authorities in this matter. I think that is incorrect.

Sir K. Wood

I was referring to the association of local authorities.

Mr. Edwards

I know that my local authority did make representations. Do I understand him to say that if in any institutions the inmates do have their allowance of tobacco reduced, he will then seriously consider the matter?

Sir K. Wood

No, Sir. I will trust my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health to take any appropriate action, but I cannot conceive any authority endeavouring to stop the free issue of tobacco to the inmates on account of the Budget proposals.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

That is a point to which I wish to make a reference. As I understood it, the whole argument of the mover of the proposed new Clause was that unless some concession were granted old people would be getting less tobacco. It was also said that there were some inmates who did a type of work which it was not easy for the authorities to get other people to do and who were bribed by an ounce of tobacco additional to the basic ration. It is true that something in addition to the basic ration is given to inmates who do certain kinds of work. It was suggested that, whatever may be the price of tobacco, that inducement ought to remain, because if it were withdrawn the work would not be done so readily. My special reason for rising is to make it plain to the House that I do not believe that the implications of the argument bear any relation to the facts or that public assistance authorities will reduce the ration of tobacco because of this added duty. I do not think public assistance committees would be so petty or small-minded as to say that an old man must have a reduced amount of tobacco merely because the Chancellor has put up the tax. I should like to see something done to meet certain aspects of the case, but this is not the way to do it.

Sir R. Bird

After the statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.