HC Deb 02 July 1947 vol 439 cc1447-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Treasury shall have power by order to alter or add to Section ten of the Finance Act, 1935, so as to secure that the value of exposed cinematograph film shall for the purpose of customs duties be determined in such manner as may be provided by the order."—[Mr. Dalton.]

10.11 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Dalton)

We are tonight dealing with what I hope and believe hon. Members in all parts of the Committee will regard as a first and preliminary stage in the discussion of what is an important matter, on which many Members on both sides of the Committee may wish to express their views. I think the occasion for such Debate will come better next week, or whenever—I do not want to prejudge the programme—the House takes the later stages of the Finance Bill, and particularly the Report stage.

Tonight all I am doing is, so to speak, putting myself in Order by asking the Committee to agree to the permissive Motion which is on the Order Paper and that will enable the ordinary procedure to follow, when the Finance Bill is considered on Report, and for this matter to be taken then as a Government pro- position. It is open, of course, to any hon. or right hon. Member to express his views at any time on any of these questions; but it will be more convenient, I think, for the Debate on the merits of this matter to be deferred until we take the Finance Bill on Report stage.

The Motion I am asking the Committee to accept tonight is very short and very simple. If it is accepted, in due course an Order would need to be made to put the matter into its proper position. At this stage we are not asking the Committee to agree to any levy on cinematograph films in addition to the levy now imposed on films as such. All we are asking the Committee to do is to agree that, if circumstances should be such as to seem to the Government to justify the imposition of a further tax, we should have power to propose to the Committee that such a tax should be imposed.

The general case for this Motion can be very simply stated. We are in conditions of considerable dollar stringency. This is true not only of this country but of almost every other country in the world. We shall have to debate this matter in suitable fashion at greater length no doubt next week. That being so, we must arm ourselves in advance with such weapons as may help us if the stringency becomes more acute, to check the flow of remittances from this country in dollars in respect of films imported from the United States, and indeed from other countries at large—though in fact much the most important item is remittances to the United States, rather than to other foreign countries or to any part of the Empire. When I was asking the House to agree to an increased tax on tobacco, I ventured to submit the simple slogan, "Food before Fags." Tonight, in general defence of this proposition, I submit the simple slogan, "Food before Films," if the choice must be made.

Mr. Oliver Stanley (Bristol, West)

"Food before Flicks."

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

"Flicks," I believe, is the colloquial expression. I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. The magnitude of the dollar drain which we are now experiencing in respect of "flicks," etc., has risen from about £7 million a year before the war to a figure which over the last year or two has varied between £17 million and £18 million a year payable in dollars. I am not tonight going into the question of the balance. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) looks dangerously inclined to make a speech, which will no doubt be of the best kind, but he will get a very much better Press if he postpones his speech until next week. I give him that hint, but I do not know whether he will take it. He will be better reported on the second occasion if he makes his speech at the right time of the day, and it will then do full justice to him.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

We cannot hear a word.

Mr. Dalton

I am sorry that the noble Lord cannot hear a word. The case is extremely simple. The Government ask the Committee to give us power, if we judge the situation to demand it, to limit the outflow of dollars from this country in respect of films imported from other parts of the world. That is the simple proposition. The manner of doing it as as follows. This is what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) would like me to make clear, and I will seek to do so in simple fashion. At present the only form of import duty on films is a duty on the film as such, regardless of what may be inscribed upon it. From our point of view, that is no use. Therefore, what we propose is that power should be taken to impose in future an Import Duty collected by the Customs on the estimated earnings of the film when it comes in. This will be, I will not say a shot in the dark, but a shot in the twilight, which the Customs can make. It will be adjustable thereafter upwards or downwards according to what are shown to be the actual earnings of the films. In the first instance, the Customs will estimate what earnings the film will bring in—whatever figure seems to them to be appropriate. The duty will be levied on that figure at whatever rate we shall hereafter determine with the consent of the House. That assessment of the earnings is to be made by the Customs, and that payment will be made at that point in the story.

Thereafter, when the film has had its run and when we know what the earnings have in fact been, the estimate will be corrected in relation to the actual earnings of the film, and either more will be collected if the original estimate turns out to be too low, or something will be refunded if the original estimate turns out to be too high. I hope I have made the essential point clear. Much thought has been given to this matter by my advisers, and we have examined various alternative modes of procedure. It has seemed to us that this is the best way of carrying out the general principle that we should take power now to levy a certain tax upon the dollar remittances and remittances in other forms of foreign exchange which may diminish in respect of earnings of this character. I hope that has made the matter sufficiently clear. The Government do not at all wish that debate on this matter should be abbreviated. We are anxious to get the view of different parts of the Committee on the matter, but I suggest that for the sake of avoiding duplication of debate and of beginning at a reasonable hour, it would be better that debate should take place when the Finance Bill proceeds to its later stages. Tonight, I merely ask the Committee to agree to this permissive Resolution.

Mr. Oliver Stanley (Bristol, West)

This obviously is a matter of great importance. It touches a great industry and it touches the employment of a great many people and the enjoyment of many millions. It touches it in a wholly novel way, because the procedure which the Chancellor has briefly outlined for us tonight in response to a request from me —and I am grateful to him for doing so— is quite unprecedented in our fiscal history. For all those reasons, therefore, we regard this as a matter which will necessitate the most serious and searching debate by hon. Members. I, for one, feel that at this time of night, to start a long and complicated Debate of that kind, is possibly not the most convenient course, and I propose to postpone the remarks which I wish to make upon this important point until a further stage of the Finance Bill, when we shall hope to have an opportunity of debating this at a more convenient time. As far as I am concerned. I would add only these two things: first, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will not take silence now necessarily as acquiescence when the next stage comes: secondly, that he will realise that if I and any of my hon. Friends, for the conveni- ence of the Committee, postpone our remarks now, that at least gives us some entitlement to an adequate time for discussion on the Report stage. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has not yet studied the Order Paper, which contains already 30 pages of Amendments to the Finance Bill

Mr. Dalton

All concessions.

Mr. Stanley

—some two-thirds of which, although I do not think the right hon. Gentleman knows it yet, are down in his name. We feel that on this occasion, as on the occasion of the new motor tax, when we deliberately postponed discussion at one stage, we are entitled to rather special consideration when it comes to the Report stage. On that understanding, I shall postpone any remarks I have to make.

Mr. O'Brien (Nottingham, West)

My right hon. Friend will help the Committee by elucidating one or two points on this Motion. I have not a lot to say about the merits of the decision, but I would ask the Chancellor whether he has considered the serious damage which the timing of this Motion, and the way it has been put forward, has done, is doing, and will do to the British film industry, and particularly to its workers? A point which has occurred to me is that in 1939, when the Treasury were faced with a similar difficulty, they sent for the principals of the American film interests represented over here, the exhibiting interests, and also organised labour, and we had discussions at the beginning of the war with regard to the dollar remittances then due to the United States. The present situation is probably a little different and more serious in its implications. Did my right hon. Friend consult those bodies and, if he did not, why could he not have delayed this action until he had done so? He could then probably have secured the co-operation of the various interests involved as that co-operation was obtained in 1939, had he gone about it in the proper way. I am afraid that his method of dealing with this will be regarded as high-handed, and I would like to know whether my right hon. Friend, having been advised about this, could not have taken steps to remove the unfortunate and damaging effect which has now been created by the procedure adopted.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I do not want at this time to keep the Committee any longer, nor do I wish to discuss the merits of this matter, but I would like the Chancellor to answer one question; that is, whether newsreels are included within the scope of this Motion. I believe I am right in saying that when the previous Act was passed, newsreels were included, and for many weeks, if not months, negotiations took place, and eventually newsreels were excluded from the scope of the final Act. I ask the Chancellor if he will definitely make a point, either now or when the matter is discussed again, of excluding newsreels from the scope of this Motion.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I do not wish in the least to disturb the harmony of the proceedings at this time of night, but I think it has been admitted by both Front Benches that we are branching out into a rather new form of procedure in this Motion. It is very difficult and complicated, and one which I think is justified because of the difficulties with which we are faced. I think that that is the only justification for dealing with the matter in this way now. I hope that this will not be taken as a precedent for using this procedure on other occasions.

Mr. Dalton indicated assent.

Mr. Williams

I am glad the Chancellor gives his consent to that. I think it valuable that a private Member should put this point as well as right hon. Members on the Front Benches, because we may be missing an opportunity to make sure that it is admitted that this is a precedent which should not be made the usual Parliamentary procedure.

Mr. Dalton

I will briefly respond to the points which have been put. Taking them in reverse order, of course this is not a precedent for any other action. We have had to bring this forward rather late in the day, and it seemed to us that it would be a mistake to miss an opportunity of embodying this power in the Finance Bill. It is a power only. In answer to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) newsreels would be technically within the power to impose the duty, but I can at once tell the hon. Member that we do not intend in fact to apply any duty under this power on newsreels.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

Does it apply to educational films?

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury asked the question, and I have checked up and have given the answer; but I cannot give snap replies in regard to educational films. My hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) is very closely associated with the film industry and he need not feel that there will not be an opportunity for this matter to be fully discussed. He and I are old friends and there was a time when I was at the Board of Trade, when we discussed matters of this kind. He will have plenty of opportunity, and he will be able to discuss with me whatever he wishes to say before this power is taken. I must emphasise to the Committee that it is only the taking of a power; it is nothing more than that, but I will consult with him. At the same time, I must make this point, and I do so in a most friendly spirit. His Majesty's Government and any succeeding Government in this country, must be very careful not to get committed to elaborate consultations before consulting this sovereign assembly. That is not the way to govern this country. But to my hon. Friend I say that I am perfectly willing to receive any representation, and to enter into discussions between the taking of this power and the exercising of it should we desire to exercise it. I repeat that this is only the taking of a power and it is that for which I seek the approval of the Committee.

Resolved, That the Treasury shall have power by order to alter or add to section ten of the Finance Act, 1935, so as to secure that the value of exposed cinematograph film shall for the purpose of customs duties be determined in such manner as may be provided by the order.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow; Committee to sit again To-morrow.