HC Deb 27 November 1945 vol 416 cc1159-65

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill,"

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

I have to ask Members of the Committee to take their minds away from the subject of tours in high powered motor cars to their favourite beauty spot and to consider the power required for driving electrically propelled bicycles. I want to ask the Financial Secretary whether he will give some explanation of this Clause. I have consulted the Finance Act, 1920, and cannot locate paragraph (a) in the fifth line, and, therefore, I find it very difficult to place the special paragraph (aa) which is also referred to here. Can he, or the Minister of War Transport give some explanation of the meaning of the Clause. May I call attention to the way in which we are becoming accustomed to legislation by reference in Finance Bills? What we want to find out when we read the Finance Bill for the year is the state of the law in regard to finance in that year. We have in this Bill—it is true there is a tradition, which, I think, ought to be broken down—this constant legislation by reference. To take Clause 5 as an illustration, it says: Section eight of the Finance Act, 1942, which provides for a rebate, limited to expire on the expiration of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939. The explanatory parenthesis contains references to various Finance Acts which are unspecified, and one finds, if one refers to the Finance Act as long ago as 1920, that it says: as modified or as altered by subsequent enactments. It is extremely difficult in reading through current Finance Acts to discover the meaning of Sections. I would draw the attention of the Committee to the general point I made about legislation by reference in Finance Bills, and I would ask the Financial Secretary or the learned Solicitor-General to explain it.

The Minister of War Transport (Mr. Barnes)

The point raised in the Clause is really very simple. Owing to the shortage of motor spirit during the war, a certain number of bicycles were converted to electrical propulsion. The range is very limited. There is no evidence that they will increase to any extent. The duty that has been charged has been on the lowest rate, 17s. 6d., and Clause 4 regularises a practice which has been in operation since this type of vehicle came on to the market.

Colonel Oliver Stanley

I do not want to delay the Committee and I have no objection to the proposal, but no answer has been given to the drafting point raised by my Noble Friend, and some notice should be taken of it. This seems to be quite incomprehensible. I look through the first paragraph of the Second Schedule to this Bill and cannot find any reference to paragraph (a) at all. It would seem that the whole of this Clause is wrongly drafted and it should be looked at again. Perhaps the learned Solicitor-General would enlighten us on it.

The Solicitor-General (Major Sir Frank Soskice)

In the Act of 1920, in the Appendix are the words, "(1) Cycles," and after that there is a paragraph headed "(a) Bicycles."

Colonel Stanley

What is the hon. and learned Gentleman reading from? I was reading from the volume of Public Acts.

The Solicitor-General

One of us must have been given an unauthoritative text. The text I have taken is "(a) Bicycles"; you get "bicycles" against a little "a" in brackets; and Clause 4 of the Finance Bill we are presently considering requires to be put against that paragraph (a), a further paragraph (aa). There seems to he some discrepancy as to tax, and perhaps I should refer to it.

Mr. C. Williams

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is no clearer on this matter than the rest of the Committee. May I ask the Minister of Transport why the necessity for taxing only a few bicycles when the amount is very small? Can he inform the Committee of the approximate number of bicycles and the amount? If there are only about half-a-dozen bicycles, it is not worth having a Clause. I cannot judge whether we should give the right hon. Gentleman this Clause until he says whether there is sufficient justification for putting a whole Clause into the Finance Bill in order to impose a tax of 17s. 6d. on a lot of very poor people, who so far have possibly been taxed by custom, or, in other words, illegally taxed, and who ought not to have been taxed at all.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Barnes

I cannot agree for one moment that any of these people have been illegally taxed. The bicycle was subject in the first place to the tax of 17s. 6d. It was converted to electrical propulsion, and there has been no increase in the tax. Under the previous Finance Acts there was no provision for the same tax to be levied on this bicycle. Therefore, the practice I have referred to in regard to that type of vehicle was followed. This proposal merely legalises what has been in operation during the war. I have not the exact number, but it is not very large, no larger, probably, than the number of motor cars which have had gas bags put on top of them.

Mr. C. Williams

I hope that between now and the next stage of the Bill the Minister can give us the number. I do not think the House should be asked to pass a whole Clause without knowing the approximate number of people affected, and whether it is worth while putting on the tax.

Mr. Barnes

Certainly, I shall be pleased to furnish the hon. Member with that information.

Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks

The Minister's reply confirmed what was said by my hon. Friend that since the conversion of these vehicles from petrol driven machines to electrically driven machines they have been subject to the payment of an illegal tax. Surely that is a matter which requires explanation.

Mr. Barnes

I cannot admit for a moment that they have been subject to an illegal tax. The vehicle was subject to taxation, and has been taxed on the lowest figure possible. It was quite permissible and legal to impose that tax. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes. It was merely the sum that was in dispute, and the sum was fixed at the lowest figure.

Mr. C. Williams

On what basis were these vehicles taxed before, as bicycles or as motor cars?

Mr. Barnes

As motor bicycles of this particular type.

Mr. C. Williams

Motor bicycles, without any motors.

The Solicitor-General

I think I have cleared up the mystery of the Appendix. Perhaps hon. Members would be so good as to look at Clause 6o (6). They will see: Any reference in this Act to any other enactment shall, unless the context otherwise requires, be construed as a reference to that enactment as amended by or under any other enactment, including this Act. That, summarised, means that when you see in the Bill a reference to another Act of Parliament, and that other Act of Parliament has been subsequently amended, you must read it as a reference to that other Act as subsequently amended. You do not have to look through the Statute Book to see what it is, but it is convenient to say that when the reference to it is made in the Bill then the reference is made to it in its finally amended form.

Applying that to the case in question, I was reading the Appendix to the Finance Act of 1920, as amended by a series of other Acts, the Finance Acts of 1926, 1927, 1928, 1930and 1939. Therefore, when one looks at that Appendix one finds it in its present form after all these Amendments. In its present form, with all these Amendments in it, it has a subparagraph (a), to which I referred. Then, in Clause 4 of the Bill, one is directed to insert a paragraph (aa) after sub-paragraph (a), and you then have it in its final form. I hope that that explanation has made the matter at any rate reasonably clear. To summarise it: when you see in the Bill a reference to another Act, you see the other Act in its finally amended form. The finally amended form of this Appendix is as I have read it, when it has sub-paragraph (a).

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

Is there any way by which His Majesty's lieges can see how they are being taxed without reading through about 16 Acts of Parliament? Surely it is the responsibility of His Majesty's Government to make their legislation as clear as possible. I am intensely interested in these matters; is the Solicitor-General solemnly telling the Committee that nobody who has not read through about 16 Finance Acts can possibly comprehend the Government's legislation?

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

The hon. Member and I have been Members of his Committee for a long time, he possibly much longer than I. This kind of legislation has been in existence in this form also for a long time. Is the hon. Member telling the Committee that he has only just thought of this point?

Mr. Nicholson

It has caused me countless sleepless nights.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

I am a new Member of this House, and as such I would like to say that I stand apart from the point of controversy which has just been raised, and that, in common I suppose with most other new Members, one of the things I most looked forward to on entering this House was an opportunity of playing my part in improving the quality of legislation. I hope that is not an impertinent thing for me to say. The average citizen has felt for a long time that successive Governments—I say this although I supported them outside the House—have played into the hands of lawyers, accountants and experts of one kind or another whose business it has been to clarify those matters in our legislation, which were not clear even to the legislators themselves. If this is a suitable opportunity to draw attention to this matter, I am only too happy to have done so.

The Solicitor-General

Perhaps I might say a word or two in reply to the last two speeches. As a matter of drafting—If we are discussing drafting—one is really faced with this alternative: Either you must have Acts of inordinate length, tremendously long Acts running into hundreds of pages, when you are dealing with highly complicated matters of taxation, or you must adopt the alternative of legislating by reference to other Acts. If any hon. Member doubts what I say, I only wish he would spend some time working in the office of Parliamentary Counsel and seeing the difficulties which they have to encounter. It is not with any desire to be obscure that this method is adopted, but because it is almost impossible to do anything with enormously long Acts. Some are so long as to be completely unwieldy, and any person who has to construe them will be in a dilemma. He will either have to search through hundreds of pages, or he will have to do what is more convenient and refer back to previous Sections. People who are expert in these matters, like accountants and solicitors, know how to find out, and how to use the ordinary index references and get back to the original Acts. There are ordinary systems of indexing which enable you to go through quite quickly, and to a person who is used to it it does not present any great difficulty.

Mr. Nicholson

Perhaps I might suggest one other method to the Solicitor-General. This difficulty has cropped up in the course of legislation for a very long time, and Parliamentary draftsmen have found a very simple remedy, which is consolidation. If we are to go back 25 years as we do in this reference to the Finance Act of 1920, is it not high time that there was some form of consolidation?

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.