HC Deb 27 November 1945 vol 416 cc1170-3

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

Mr. C. Williams

I would like to raise one question on this Clause. It is a Clause which gives power to substitute regulations for certain provisions, and paragraph (b) specifies: for relaxing the requirements of section ten of that Act (which provides that a distillery shall not be within a quarter of a mile of a rectifier's premises). The Act referred to is the 1880 Spirits Act, I believe, and I would like to know whether I am right in assuming that under this Clause you can now have a distillery within a quarter of a mile of a rectifier's business. Am I right in that query? That, I believe, is the correct position. In other words, this has been going on since 1880. Now, after all those years, this is the first taste of liberty which this Government has brought about. I think this is a supreme thing, that four or five months after this Government have been in office they have at last done something, and all the wealthy people on the other side of the House who wish to build refineries and rectifiers' premises will have one less trouble than they had before, and with the great financial backing, which we have all been told about, they are now able to do these things. So the Tory Party have put enough pressure on the Government to bring about one small relaxation of a very old and very needless order.

Mr. G. Nicholson

I wish to deal with this question in an even more serious spirit than the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). I happen to be both a distiller and a rectifier, and I am in- deed gratified to know that I have received at least one instalment of that inestimable gift of liberty which it is in the power of the Government to give.

I wish first of all to do something which I fear you may think out of Order, Mr. Beaumont, but I hope you will pardon me for two or three minutes. This is the first opportunity I have ever had as a distiller of paying a tribute to the Excise officers, and I would like to say that I welcome it. Distillers and rectifiers come into very close contact with the Customs and Excise authorities. The Excise officers are bound by most rigid and meticulous rules, and they could make themselves constantly difficult if they failed to co-operate. I have never known an Excise officer who was not extraordinarily loyal to his calling and to the duties of his calling but, at the same time, exceedingly co-operative. I think it is right in this Committee that a tribute should be paid to this branch of the public service. They have had more and more thrown upon them by the new methods of taxation, but they have never fallen below their high standards, and I wish this tribute to go on record.

8.0 p.m.

As far as this Clause is concerned, the reference at the beginning of it is to the Act of 1880. Contrary to what I thought when I first spoke on this subject a few weeks ago, the Spirits Act of 1880 was not debated in this House; it was a consolidating Act of the kind I was recommending to the Solicitor-General just now. It consolidated 23 different Acts, the first of which dated from King William III.

I do not want to go into technical details, but if hon. Members will refer to Part I of the Third Schedule to this Bill they will see enumerated the Sections which it is proposed to replace by Regulations. I thought that I knew my subject, but after reading this part of the Bill I feel that I do not; so I humbly put forward the suggestion that it is time that the whole of this Act of 1880 was replaced by Regulations. I do not like regulation by Statutory Rules and Orders, but I think there is a case for it here, and if this is done by this Government, or a subsequent Government, they will save themselves considerable trouble. The whole operation of this Act is an example of the harm that can be done by relating fiscal needs to the technical processes of an industry. We have had an example of that on another subject, dealing with motor cars, and although it is true that this industry is not of such vital economic importance to this country, it has its own importance. The result of this Act and the very rigid Excise Regulations has been that, speaking generally, we are behind other countries, to some extent, in technical knowledge and adaptation with regard to distilling. I think that is a great pity, for we cannot afford to reject anything that will add to our export trade or commercial reputation.

I hope that under the new Regulations greater scope will be given to scientific progress. For instance, there have been invented certain processes on the Continent and elsewhere by which alcohol can be recovered from the by-products of other processes in very small quantities from large quantities of liquids. The effect of the Excise Regulations in this country is that these methods cannot be used in this country, although it may well be that, in the near future, the production of alcohol may become even more important than it has been in the past. I do not want to go into details, but I will leave this thought with the Committee: It does not pay to hamper scientific and industrial progress by fiscal regulations unless it is absolutely necessary. I have nothing more to say about the rest of this Clause. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to explain it shortly. I am not asking this in any way to "pull his leg," because I know this matter is very technical, but perhaps he would give some explanation that deals with the points I have raised.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

I quite realisethat the hon. Gentleman has no desire, as he said, to "pull my leg." This Clause and the two that follow it, certainly the second one, Clause 9, which is of a highly technical character, are of interest only to distillers and others interested in the spirit trade. I would like to say how much I agree with him, in the tribute he paid to the Excise officers. They have, always, done a very good job of work, and I was delighted to hear that tribute paid to them. The hon. Gentleman asked why the Act of 1880 was not going to be repealed. He suggested that the whole of the matters covered by the 1880 Act should be dealt with by Regulation in the same way as this Clause proposes to do so far as distilleries are concerned. The short answer is that the 1880 Act, as he himself said, covers a very wide range and although one day, I have no doubt Parliament will devote attention to this matter, that time is not yet. It is quite impossible for the Government at this stage to repeal the Act and do the whole thing by Regulation. The reason why this Clause is here is a very simple one: During the war the output of the distilleries, particularly of industrial spirit to which this Clause refers, has been controlled by the Ministry of Supply, and the experience of the war years has shown that it is possible for the Revenue to keepcontrol—

Mr. G. Nicholson

May I correct the right hon. Gentleman? This Clause covers not only industrial spirit, but to potable spirit as well.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Yes, it applies to potable spirit as well. It empowers the Commissioners of Customs and Excise to make Regulations in substitution of certain provisions in the Spirit Act of 1880 which relates to distilleries. Distilleries have, during the war years, not been subject to the regulations and limitations which were imposed upon them, and still are, under the 1880 Act. Under these it is not permissible to brew and distil at one and the same time. It is also part of the regulations that a spirit store has to be established some distance away from the distillery. It is now found that although these Regulations, which may have been necessary years ago, are, under modern conditions, no longer necessary. As a result the Committee is now asked to agree to this Clause, which will enable part of the Act of 1880 to be repealed, and new Regulations more modern in their application to be introduced. That will permit brewing and distilling to be carried on at the same time if that is thought desirable; and other Regulations to be introduced will bring the processing more in keeping with modern usage. It also means, as the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) said, that the Regulation requiring that a distillery shall not be within a quarter of a mile of the rectifier's premises can be relaxed in suitable cases if that is necessary.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.