HC Deb 21 April 1943 vol 388 cc1743-56

Seventh Resolution read a Second time.

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

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

When this question of Tobacco Duties was before the Committee opinions were expressed from all parts of the Committee that the ordinary people of this country were quite prepared to pay these additional duties, but that at the same time there was a small section of the people with very limited means who would find them a very heavy burden. I rise now to make one suggestion to the Chancellor on this point. I believe that the people who are mostly concerned are old age pensioners, and it has been suggested to me that the right hon. Gentleman might find some way by which he could make a concession to old age pensioners without making it to anybody else. It has been suggested that he might enable an old age pensioner, on the production of his personal ration book, which refers to sweets—not in the alcoholic sense, but in the ordinary sense—together with his old age pension book to purchase cigarettes or tobacco at lower prices or at prices not increased by these duties. I do not expect the Chancellor to give a considered answer at the moment, but when he is thinking of the possibility of some means of relieving the burdens of those with slender incomes, perhaps he will give some consideration to this point to see whether it can possibly be carried out.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I rise to support the plea which has just been made to the Chancellor. The great majority of smokers accept this part of the Budget proposals willingly and cheerfully, but there is a small section for whom it means unreasonable hardship, and I would ask the Chancellor to consider whether he cannot meet this hardship. The only criticisms of the Budget I have heard in my constituency has been about the way the increased Tobacco Duties will affect old age pensioners. The Chancellor has told us how the tax could be evaded, but obviously if all smokers were to follow his example, he would not get the £57,000,000 increase he has anticipated from tobacco sales this year, and, therefore, it must be on the assumption that the duties will continue to be paid by the great majority of smokers that the taxation has been imposed. The only class of the community who will have to follow his advice will be the old age pensioners. It was suggested that they can avoid the increased tax by cutting down one pipe in six, but may I remind my right hon. Friend that the old age pensioners have already done considerable cutting down? As a result of the increased duties, the cheapest pipe tobacco that can be bought to-day costs 2s. 3d. per ounce. Before the war this same tobacco cost 8d. an ounce, and this progressive increase has hit the old age pensioners very hard.

The House has, I think, to look at what the old age pensioner receives by way of income, how much pipe tobacco he can afford at 2s. 3d. per ounce and how much cutting down he can be asked to make in addition to what he has already made. The Chancellor has already recognised the principle that one section of the community cannot afford to pay the increased duties, namely, the men and women in the Fighting Services, and he has found a way of relieving them from the increase of this year and last year. I put it to him that the need of the old age pensioner for similar relief is just as great. Will he tell us what the loss of revenue would amount to if he met the case of the old age pensioner in the way it has been suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence)? If it is said that the sacrifices these people are asked to make are small compared with those being made by people in other countries at the present time, I answer that our old age pensioners have already shown their willingness throughout the war to accept sacrifices, especially where they have been living in areas exposed to enemy attack. You are imposing upon them a sacrifice which, at very little cost to the Exchequer, could be avoided. Therefore, I ask the Chancellor to give this matter further consideration to see if he can find some way out.

Mr. Tinker

My view is that there was no need to put on this increased tax this time. When something is already heavily taxed it seems unwise to put on still further taxation. The Budget Statement calls for £5,756,000,000, out of which we have to find by taxation £2,900,000,000, so that a mere matter of £58,000,000 does not seem worthy of consideration. If it was a case of balancing the Budget, I would say, "Yes, something must be taxed," but when it is not a case of balancing the Budget, I say that it is unwise to put on this extra taxation. There have been pleas for some concession to be made to the old age pensioners. I know the Chancellor will reply that it is difficult to find a way out, and I can agree with him. The only way to deal with old age pensioners is to give them equal opportunities with others by increasing the basic rate of their pension, not by playing about with some concession here and there.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. Gentleman cannot take that line of argument now.

Mr. Tinker

No, Sir, perhaps not. In my enthusiasm I was, perhaps, exceeding what I ought to have said, but, nevertheless, there is no other way of meeting this difficulty, except in that way. The Chancellor, I repeat, should have left the Tobacco Duties alone this time.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I would like briefly to add my support to the pleas made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) to the Chancellor to give us a favourable answer to this question of some revision of these increased taxes for old age pensioners. Tobacco is one of their enjoyments. Many humourists think the Chancellor is an artful dodger or has a very hard heart; I think he is a remarkable exponent of the difficult art of getting away with it. I believe, however, that he has some feeling about this matter and that really underneath he has a soft heart, and I hope that to-day he will not give us a brief and cursory answer, but an answer which will represent the considered view of the Government. There are members of the Labour Party in the Government, and I imagine that if the right hon. Gentleman turns down this plea this question has been considered by those Labour Members in the Government and by the Government as a whole. May I put this point to the right hon. Gentleman? We are asked to appeal at "Wings for Victory" Weeks and War Savings Weeks to those who include the old people to invest their savings in Government securities, then the Government come along with this astronomical Budget, and it makes the position of the old people very difficult, especially if they happen to live in an area where enormous Government contracts on camps and buildings and where aerodromes are being built and where high wages are being paid to Irish and other labour. They say, "Are our savings going into this extravagance?" They see enormous expenditure by the Government on aerodromes, hospitals and the like, and they say, "There is all money being spent. Surely the Government can make some concession to us." It has been said that the Chancellor killed the Beveridge Report. I do not know whether that is true or not; but this I do feel, that many old people will never live to see or enjoy the benefits of some of the reforms that have been promised by the Government.

For once I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) when he says that the best way of dealing with this question is to wait for the increase of the basic rate of pension. We have been promised that by the Government for a long time. The old people may be tired of waiting. I do not know whether they are going to get it or not, but I hope the Chancellor will give us some hint to-day. I hope he will not say, "I have been considering this matter, and I hope to make a statement on some future occasion." I am one of those who say about this, "Give us something now for the old people." The right hon. Gentleman, I know, has to face his national Budget, but these people have their own domestic budgets, too. I believe it was John Bright who said: The nation dwells in the cottage. If the light of your constitution fails to shine in the homes of the poor and lonely as well as the mansions of the rich, believe me you have yet to learn the first duty of Government. I ask the Chancellor to consider the budgets which the old age pensioners have to balance after the full effect of his Budget has been brought home to them. I ask the Chancellor to say something that will bring comfort and hope into thousands of homes of old age pensioners in facing these difficult days of war.

Sir K. Wood

I am grateful to hon. Members for the observations they have made on the subject of my personal inclinations. I think I may claim that all hon. Members are concerned with the lot of old age pensioners. We all have enthusiasm for those people, many of whom, undoubtedly, towards the end of their days, have to face difficult circumstances and difficult times. I would not admit that the lot of the old age pensioners is the particular concern of any section of the House; it is a matter for all of us and for the Government.

I want to say a few words on this matter, which is the only matter about which any controversy has arisen in connection with the Budget. I contend that the position of old age pensioners and others in a like category has not been overlooked by the Government in connection with the Budget. I want, first, to address myself to the suggestion that was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) that by some device or other, such as holding a coupon or producing a ration book, some arrangement could be made for old age pensioners to secure tobacco and, I suppose, if one follows the contention of the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), beer, at a cheaper rate. I want now to deal simply with the merits of that proposal and to consider the feasibility of such a scheme in itself, before coming to my general argument on the matter. In doing so I will also assume that none of the people concerned desires to make any curtailment in his or her consumption, but prefers to go on smoking as before. In the first place, one could not confine such a scheme to old age pensioners alone. In introducing a scheme of that kind, to be fair, one would have to bring in a number of other people who have to live on small fixed incomes and who are in very much the same position as the old age pensioners. No doubt these people would claim equal consideration. Many of them perhaps have more responsibilities than the old age pensioners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson), who always speaks with sincerity, referred to the precedent of the Services. The reason I made, with the general approval of the House, the alteration and differentiation in regard to the Services is simply that, of course, the general remuneration in the Forces consists to a very large extent of provision in kind; and secondly, it is possible in the Forces, as we have seen during the last 12 months, for arrangements to be made through the Service canteens and by other similar means to provide an exact quota of cigarettes and tobacco at a preferential price. Through a system of that kind we are able to avoid at any rate a considerable possibility of abuse. I have not had any cases of abuse brought to my notice, and to the best of my knowledge and belief the whole of the arrangements for the allocation and distribution of supplies can be properly controlled by the administrative authorities. It would be a different matter altogether, from a practical point of view, to introduce any scheme of that kind for old age pensioners, among whom a very large proportion are non-smokers. There would be considerable possibilities of black markets if we were to give an entitlement to a fixed quantity of cigarettes or tobacco at a special preferential price to all old age pensioners of either sex and to smokers and non-smokers alike.

Another fact that has to be taken into account in this matter is that if tobacco and cigarettes were selling at two different prices in the shops, it would cause great complications and difficulties to the tobacconists, who have to buy all their supplies at duty-paid prices and who would have to render accounts of the quantities sold at the lower price. This would involve, for a very small matter indeed, the setting up of a new machinery of administrative control which could not fail to be costly and wasteful of manpower at the very time when we are bending all our efforts to cutting out the unnecessary use of labour and administrative machinery so as to allow the maximum amount of man-power for the direct war effort. To my mind, and as I think will be agreed by most people who have examined the matter, when one attempts to set up such a scheme, it presents very considerable administrative difficulties.

I come now to the merits of the whole matter. I would like the House to hear this statement and the people in the country to read it. What is, in fact, the position, and what is proposed when hon. Gentlemen get up in the House and say that the concession with regard to tobacco and cigarettes ought to be given to old age pensioners? What is the position as far as the old age pensioners are concerned? There are about 3,800,000 old age pensioners of all kinds at the present time, including widows over 60, and of those 3,800,000, some 1,400,000 are in receipt of supplementary pensions; that is to say, their circumstances are such that they have made application for and received supplementary assistance in addition to their basic pensions. Is it proposed that the remaining 2,400,000 who have not applied should be granted a special budgetary concession in preference to other sections of the community? Is it suggested that some 750,000 old age pensioners who are at present employed should be given this special concession? That is an impossible proposition to put forward. Is it suggested that all those contributory pensioners who are not drawing supplementary pensions, to the number of over 2,000,000, who are paid their pensions quite irrespective of their other resources, people from all walks of life, people in business on their own account, or people who have in other ways made provision for themselves, should receive this special concession? One has only to put those two questions to see the futility of a proposal of that kind and its unfairness to other members of the community.

What, in fact, is the true position in this matter? In the Budget Debates last week, I stated what the increases on tobacco and beer would mean in terms of reduced consumption, and I explained how, if people did not want to pay the new tax bill, they could avoid it. I want now to put the matter in another way. Assuming that consumption remains the same and the increased prices are paid, an extra 4½d. an ounce on tobacco, on, say, two ounces a week, would be 9d. a week extra, and as regards beer, if the consumer drinks a pint a day, the extra tax would be 7d. a week. Is it suggested that for those very small increases I should set up an extra piece of administrative machinery involving great difficulties and the use of man-power that ought to be used for other things? Is it suggested that, in respect of the 750,000 old age pensioners who are now at work, this is an unfair or hard imposition? Is it suggested that, as regards the 2,000,000 pensioners who have their pension irrespective of their means, people from all walks of life, bank managers and others, as I know, this is an unfair imposition?

The only case that can be made is when one reduces the category of old age pensioners by subtracting these very large figures, and thus gets down to what one may call the old age pensioners proper, if one may use such a term. In their case, I say that, as Chancellor, I have given very considerable thought and care to their position and that of others in the same category. It is not fair or right to pick out one item from the Budget without looking at the other provisions that are being made in an endeavour, as I believe, to assist far more considerably the old people concerned. During the last 12 months there have been, and during the next 12 months there will be, far greater benefit to the old age pensioners and persons in that category through the provisions of the Budget, particularly the stabilisation policy and the direct increases in supplementary pensions which I have had to provide, than there would be in any small concession on tobacco and cigarettes. If hon. Members will look fairly at the balance sheet, taking both sides, I think they will agree that we have not been unmindful of the position of the old age pensioners. Due provision has been made to meet the circumstances of people with small incomes. If one totals up on both sides of the account the considerable benefit these people will receive from the extra sum for supplementary pensions which I have had to provide and from the further provision we are making in connection with the stabilisation policy, which was never dreamt of in the last war, and if one thinks of what I am doing with regard to the Purchase Tax, then I think any fair person will say that due and proper provision has been made for the old people. If one had to assess where they stand, I would say that they benefit by this Budget. I do not think one need feel anxiety in relation to the position of old age pensioners. Due regard has been paid during the last year to the position of people in that walk of life, whom we should all desire to assist, and, so far from the Budget bringing any additional hardship or difficulties on them, the reverse is the case and they are benefiting by the provisions that have been made.

Mr. David Adams

We are very grateful to the Chancellor for the extended statement that he has made, and it will certainly relieve a good deal of perturbation in certain circles, particularly those connected with the question of old age pensioners. I have had sent to me a resolution which refers to the Chancellor's lack of consideration in the matter of the Tobacco Duty and says that there ought to be alternatively an increase in the basic rate of pension to meet these new impositions in order that the old age pensioner may play his part in the matter of bearing taxation. It is not that the pensioner is desirous of escaping all taxation—I have not found that view expressed—but that his position ought to be so reinforced and improved that he will be able to play his part properly. I am, nevertheless, opposed to this Tobacco Duty, and I still feel that he has taken a wrong step. It is an indirect tax where the burden is already excessive, and I dispute the statement that smoking, or even the drinking of beer, is a luxury. It has become a prime necessity. You permit industrial workers to have certain relaxations when almost all others are taken from them, and they then become not merely relaxations but positive necessities, such as tobacco and beer. You are making the position as far as beer and tobacco are concerned intolerable, for, whether you dispute it or not, it creates a sense of resentment, particularly as there are other directions to which the Chancellor might have turned. He has power in his hand to impose a direct tax on ground values. An increase in indirect taxation is a burden upon particular sections of the community.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

The illuminating statement that the Chancellor has just made bears out what I said last week, that before he was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was a lawyer. He was trying to convince the House—he almost convinced me—that black was white and that, instead of this being harsh on old age pensioners, they were getting a rise in their wages. The tragedy of it is that he almost convinced himself. Our difficulty, not only in this but in many other instances, is to try to get Members to place themselves in the position of those who are affected by this tax. It is the old age pensioner that we are appealing for. The right hon. Gentleman said they were only going to lose one pipeful out of six. If it was one out of 106, it would not be very much, but one out of six is a severe tax on these people. It is nonsense to talk to us as the right hon. Gentleman did. We are not appealing for bank managers and retired lawyers. We are putting forward a genuine grievance of the veterans of industry. Particularly are we appealing for those who have nothing but their pension coming in. The right hon. Gentleman says he has augmented it. That is an admission that the pension is not sufficient. If the augmentation is a charity, he is putting a tax on the charity.

I wish the right hon. Gentleman was here. I do not know why he went away. We allowed him to rise just because he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We never expected that he was going to walk away, or he would not have got away so easily. He says that a concession was made to the Forces. Why? Because they are young men. Manhood's active might can support its right. But the grandfathers of the present generation, the men who have made this Empire possible, we are treating in this way instead of being generous, as we could afford to be generous to them. No power on earth was ever in such a glorious position as the Government of this country, but they go on with their cheeseparing methods of handling our veterans of industry. I wish the legal profession would turn their mind, which has been trained to dissect and bisect words and understand their meaning, to defending the poorest of the poor, but all their ability is displayed to try to make out that the old age pensioner is not being savagely dealt with. Think of a man having worked down the pit for 50 years. It is difficult nowadays to get the young fellows to go to the job at all. These men have worked night and day all their lives, and at the end of it they are treated in this fashion, as though we were up against it and had not the means. We have the means. We could afford to give them 30s. a week. I want the Chancellor to understand that he did not carry me away because we are up against facts and Facts are chiels that winna ding And daurna be disputed.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

We have had nine or 10 days to reflect upon the Budget speech and proposals, and the more I consider some of these Resolutions, the more I am inclined to think that the garlands that were placed round the Chancellor's neck, and the many bouquets which were so gratuitously offered to him, might now be replaced by a few bricks, or at any rate brickbats. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury last week quoted something that Polonius said about keeping mouths shut. I do not know the quotation—I do not pretend to know Shakespeare—but I remember that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was born in Yorkshire. I can give the Secretary to the Treasury a revised version of Shakespeare. What the Chancellor did was to hear all and say "nowt" and take all and pay "nowt." I will not finish the quotation, but leave it to the imagination. We are discussing what is a great hardship to a section of the community. I was speaking to a number of navvies building an aerodrome on Friday, and there was not a grouse about the extra tax on tobacco from these able-bodied men earning fairly reasonable wages. They also accepted with good humour the imposition placed upon those who prefer alcoholic liquor. I cannot compete with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) in the appeal he made. I found that these able-bodied men were concerned about the burden which was placed upon those who are aged and poor. I reinforce the arguments which have been used about these burdens being placed on those least able to bear them. If we do not get what we ask for we are ready to persevere and we expect the Financial Secretary to convey to the Chancellor that we are ready to organise a stay-in strike in this Chamber in support of our appeal. If we do not get what we are asking the Chancellor will have a few bricks instead of bouquets thrown at him.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I want to identity myself with the speech of the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood). From my youth upwards I have always been a smoker and have smoked the cheapest tobacco but the best. The impost that has been put on tobacco during the past few years is indicative of the method by which those who represent the ruling-class forces of this country have sought more and more to place the heavy burden of maintaining the country on the backs of the masses of the people. In the treatment of old age pensioners it is almost unbelievable that the Chancellor and his supporters on the other side could be so devoid of the bowels of compassion. There is not a thought for the old folk. We find in the propaganda that is carried on on behalf of the Government and the successful prosecution of the war a flaunting of the austerity which they are forcing upon the old folk. Time and time again, if old age pensioners are able to get a cheap seat in a cheap cinema, they will be presented with a picture of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must confine himself to the Resolution before the House.

Mr. Gallacher

I am on tobacco. We cannot dissociate the Prime Minister from tobacco, for when his picture appears, tobacco is the first thing the old age pensioners will see. They cannot afford to smoke, but they are presented with a delightful picture of a pleased looking gentleman with a nice long cigar blowing out smoke right in their faces. Then they realise that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are responsible for making them do without tobacco. They are to do without one pipe in six. Many of them have to make one pipeful last a day, a draw now and a draw again, yet the Chancellor and those who support him say that it is no sacrifice to do without smoking on one day out of six. They are told that it is necessary in order to raise the money. It is not necessary. It is a deliberate impost on the masses of the working-class people, and it naturally spreads over to the old age pensioners. I know it is pretty hopeless making an appeal to the Chancellor and the hard-faced gentlemen who support him. They will sacrifice anybody, and particularly the old folk, in order to ensure economies that will defend their own privileges and property. The old age pensioners now have to pay 2s. 4½d. for an ounce of black twist. I know those who smoke regularly for seven days a week and who go through a matter of five ounces. No old age pensioner could afford that. The whole of the old age pension would have to go to get that. Old age pensioners are in most cases in a position where they are only able to buy one ounce a week.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs made clear what should be clear to everybody, that it is these old folk who have prepared the way for us and made it possible for anything that is good in this country to exist, because everything, every "great" man or institution, depends for his or its existence on the labour of the toiling masses. The old age pensioners represent those who have made this country and this Empire possible. Now they are to be denied the comfort of tobacco in the declining years of their lives. It is hopeless to appeal to the Chancellor, but I would appeal to those closely associated with him, especially the Financial Secretary. He is not so old yet and is still able to pass round the cigarette case or maybe a box of cigars. I understand that they are still being passed round at dinners and other suchlike functions. There is no question of the old age pensioner being able to pass round tobacco. In the years to come we may make many changes, and some of the lads who are up may be down and some who are down may be up. The Financial Secretary should look ahead; he may be one of those who will get the knock. He should be prepared to ensure that old age pensioners get a smoke now. If he does, he may be paving the way for an easier time for himself.

Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)

I feel that a further appeal should be made to the Chancellor to consider the position of the old age pensioners. It does not affect me for I am not accustomed to smoking. Since the Budget was introduced I have been able to get among my constituents and I have learned that the main body of men and women appreciate that the Chancellor has to obtain the money for the conduct of the war somewhere and somehow. The average man and woman are quite prepared to pay, but they show keen sympathy for the old man who has been accustomed to his pipe. We had hoped, in view of the appeals that have been made, that the Chancellor would have been prepared to announce some concession for old age pensioners. I feel that as a House of Commons we are somewhat lacking in imagination, if not in sympathy, in this respect; otherwise, we should bring united pressure to bear upon the Chancellor to deal with the case of our old age pensioners. Most of us are agreed that old age pensioners are not receiving sufficient to enable them to live the life we should like them to live, and having admitted that it is grossly unfair to allow a further inroad upon their already far too small incomes. I reinforce the appeal to the Chancellor to explore this question further to see whether some small concession cannot be made. These old folk have given of their best to the country. We are showing our appreciation of the men and women in the Services in this regard and can we not go further and show our appreciation of the old age pensioners by making them a concession?

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

Eighth and Ninth Resolutions agreed to.