HC Deb 27 November 1945 vol 416 cc1174-8

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

Sir W. Wakefield

There are two short questions which I would like to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The first is on Clause 8 (I) that the £500 incurred is to be increased to £1,000. May I ask on what basis that increase is made? Is it because money now is only about a half or one-third of what it was in 1880, or is it meant really to increase the severity of the fine? If that is the case, surely it ought to be of the order of £2,500 or £3,000 if it is desired to bring it into relationship to what it used to be? The second question I want to ask is, Why is the fine under Subsection (2) being increased from £200 to £500? That is not in the same proportion as the increase in the other fine from £500 to £1,000. If it was the increase would have been from £200 to £400. What is the basis of all _these figures? Is there any reason for them, and is there any general principle behind the increase? It would be helpful if the Committee could be informed what is behind the Treasury's mind in this matter.

Mr. G. Nicholson

As possibly the only Member of the Committee who may be called upon to pay the fine, I feel it is rather a delicate subject. I take it that the first fine is punishment for illegally having and using a still, because it leads to a very dangerous evasion of the Revenue, and is something which should be fallen upon most heavily. I do not see the purpose of the increase of the fine under Subsection (2), except, of course, that the court would not inflict the maximum fine unless the offence had been committed with deliberate intent to defraud. I am sure that the Excise will be perfectly fair if any distiller makes a mistake, but I hope that these fines will not be further increased.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The value of money has altered, as the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) said. But that is not the prime reason for this change. We are dealing here with the old Act of 1880, and the Committee may care to be reminded that Excise duty on spirits then was 1os. a proof gallon. Now it is something just under £8. There is an enormous difference between the two figures. Compared with the vast increase in the duty the penalties which were in the 1880 Act are not now really sufficient for the offence, should it be committed. As the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. G. Nicholson) said, the first penalty, which has been increased to £1,000, relates to a person who distils spirits without a licence—a serious offence against the Revenue. The second offence is not so reprehensible. It relates to a distiller who removes, without a permit, spirits from approved premises within two miles of the distillery in which he carries on the business of a dealer. Relatively this is not so great an offence as that of illicit distilling. That is why the penalty is less. Nevertheless, when we increase the one, to bring it into line with the increased duty, so the penalty for the second offence should also go up.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I have a feeling that it would have been much better, instead of adding £500 on to the fine, to take £500 off it. It has often been said, particularly on this side of the Committee, that one of the most effective means of dealing with war is to take the profit out of it. One of the most effective means of dealing with the drink problem would be to take the profit out of drink. The best way would be to allow every man his own still. Representatives of brewers and distillers talk about the freedom of the working man. They argue that there is as much deleterious content in tea or coffee as in whisky or in beer, but if one puts up the argument in favour of every man having his own tea pot, his own coffee pot and his own still, they say that that is going too far. I would also suggest to the Minister on this Clause another method of getting taxation in connection with spirits. Not only should licences be issued for distilling spirits but also for materialising spirits. That would be a better method of dealing with the question than the Witchcraft Act, and the Chancellor would get some money out of it in the process.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. C. Williams

I am not sure whether I am in full agreement with the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) about licences or not. He is Scottish and I am Cornish. I think the Scottish people differ from us in that they do not mind how many big fines they pay, whereas we in Cornwall prefer to smuggle the whole of our stuff rather than have the trouble of distilling it. When one looks at what happens in the Courts today and reads ones daily paper one finds that here it is the fine for a very small offence against the Customs which is being raised. It may be a very severe offence against the Treasury. It may be an offence which is large in monetary sense, but breaking the law in that sense, while obviously wrong, is surely not as wrong as many other matters, such as assault and many of the things one sees happening in police courts every day, for which a comparatively small fine is imposed? When we begin to pile up fines in the way that this particular Clause does, regardless of the sort of fines other people are paying for other offences, which are much worse, at any rate morally than the particular form of offence here dealt with, I think it is tending to create a certain amount of disrespect 'for the fairness of the law itself. The figures set out may be only maximum fines, but just because the Government is bringing in an inflationary policy it seems unnecessary, if we have been able to go on since 1880, suddenly to lay down these colossal fines at this time. I can only think the penalties for these offences have been increased in both these cases, not because of the badness of the people who commit them, but rather as part of the austerity which this Government is trying to enforce in various forms of hardship on every section of the community.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

The last two speakers have somewhat widened the scope of the Debate, and have shed a little additional light. I am bound to ask the Financial Secretary whether he can tell the Committee, before we part with this Clause, whether the offences under this Act of 1880 have in fact increased of late. I ask, only by way of elucidation, why under Subsection (1) is the fine doubled and under Subsection (2) multiplied 2½ times? Is it because offences under Subsection (2) are greater than those under Subsection (1); otherwise why is the proportion of increase greater than under Subsection (1)? It seems a little odd that there is this difference in the ratio of increase in the fines. Leaving out of account all the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), who pointed to the inflationary slope on which we are now sliding —it would not be in order to develop that any further—we would like to know whether there has been an increase in these offences, and whether any of them come within the sphere of operations which we know colloquially as the Black Market? I would be grateful if the Financial Secretary could say a few words in elucidation.

Sir W. Wakefield

Can we not have a reply to that point? The Committee want to know if there have been recent increases in offences. Presumably those increases in the fines required under this Bill arc because there have been increases in offences or something of that kind. I think the Committee are entitled to know whether that is one of the reasons. I asked the Financial Secretary certain questions and he did not answer them. Is there any valid reason why he should not give an answer?

Mr. Attewell (Harborough)

Why this solicitude for breakers of the law? Is it a variation of the point made by an hon. Member when we were dealing with the question of Scotland, that salmon poaching was breaking the law, but was not a sin?

Sir W. Wakefield

It is not a question of solicitude. I asked whether the fine should not be £3,000, £4,000 or perhaps £5,000. I asked what was the principle behind this and also if we could have an explanation in reply to the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) who asked whether there had been an increase in offences. That is a reasonable question.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The story goes back to 1943 when Sir Kingsley Wood, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, set up a Committee, I think it was known as the May Committee, which made certain recommendations. Later the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir John Anderson) indicated that he intended to implement these in his Finance Bill this year. The proposals were dropped from the first Finance Bill for reasons known to all of us. The present Chancellor of the Exchequer is now implementing the main conclusions come to by that Committee, some of which arc already dealt with in Clause 7. It was thought whilst the House was dealing with this matter that as these penalties were fixed, as I indicated in the brief speech I made earlier, when the basic excise duty on spirits was only l0s. per proof gallon though it has now gone up to something like £8, the opportunity might be taken to alter the penalties imposed under that Act. It is not because the number of offences committed have increased but simply that it was felt by the Government that the occasion should be taken to bring the penalties into line with the conditions now existing.

Mr. C. Williams

This simply means the pure undiluted love of the present Government for penalties and nothing else.

Mr. G. Nicholson

I have just looked up the Section in the Act of 1880, and at first sight, unless I am making a great mistake, there is no mention of £200—

Mr. Gallacher

Read it over tonight and come back tomorrow.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.