HC Deb 08 December 1950 vol 482 cc776-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Delargy.]

4.0 p.m.

Captain Duncan (South Angus)

I wish to raise the question of Purchase Tax on certain articles of fishermen's clothing. I asked the Chancellor five Questions on this subject last month, none of which was reached. When I received the written replies, the answer was that the Chancellor regretted in each case that he could not make any exception. As these replies were unsatisfactory, I have taken the opportunity, as I have been fortunate in the ballot, to raise this matter again.

I have tried to arrange for a representative of the Treasury to be present, and I quite realise the reason why no representative is on the Government Front Bench from that Department. I hope, as the Treasury have arranged for the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to be here, that I shall be able during my remarks to enlist him as a friend, and that he will not merely read out the Treasury brief in reply, but act as an apostle for my case in reporting back to his colleagues in the Treasury when they return from Edinburgh.

Originally, Purchase Tax was designed to deter people from spending money. The tax was introduced in 1940, although even then there were certain exceptions, such as protective clothing for miners, quarrymen and moulders. The Treasury have now got such a vested interest in Purchase Tax, from which they are collecting £300 million a year, that they are loth to give up any amount that they receive from it. I base my case today on the principle that the Purchase Tax should not operate, either to increase the cost of living, or to tax the tools of a man's trade. I regard fishermen's clothing as part of a man's gear, the tools of his trade.

What are the facts? The facts are that hard brimmed sou'westers, used only by fishermen, are priced 6s. 4d. retail, with Purchase Tax at 2s. 1½d., making 8s. 5½d.Brown canvas jumpers are 10s. 7d. to 11s. 1d., according to size, retail, with Purchase Tax at 4s., making a total of 14s. 7d. to 15s. 6d. Then we have sea-boots. Master mariner fishing boots, with shallow cleats, are priced at 49s. 8d., retail. with Purchase Tax at 11s. 11½d., making a total of 61s. 7½d. Purchase Tax makes a very heavy increase in the price of these boots, which, owing to their special characteristics, can only be used by seamen. Sea boot hose is 8s. a pair, plus 33⅓ per cent. Purchase Tax, so that the retail price for this special heavy non-utility type of hose is 11s.

Lastly, gutting gloves. Admittedly, they are not used at sea, but if the hon. Gentleman could only see a pair he would realise that no woman would want to wear them, except when gutting herrings. The retail price of 25s. per dozen pairs has a Purchase Tax of 33⅓ per cent., so that the retail price is 33s. 1d. per dozen pairs instead of 25s. These are the five articles which I had brought to my notice which are subject to Purchase Tax. There are others, I believe, and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) may refer to one or two.

These are the ones on which I wish to base my case. What is the effect of this tax on fishermen? First, it increases the price of fish. To the extent to which Purchase Tax has to be paid on these necessary articles, so it increases the price of fish, and, therefore, increases the cost of living. I do not want to labour this point, but the House will realise that here we are in the situation, which we have been discussing the whole of today, of an increase in the cost of living. I want to refer in every possible way to methods by which the increase in the cost of living can be fought and reduced.

Here is a case where, if the Purchase Tax were removed by so much, it would reduce the cost of fish, and, therefore, the cost of living. Secondly, it is taxing the tools of a man's trade. I have already referred to miners', quarry workers' and moulders' protective head gear. The articles which I have mentioned, except for gutting gloves, are only used at sea and are, therefore, in the nature of part of the ship's outfit. No fisherman will use sea boots except at sea, and no one else wants to buy that type of sea boot. The same argument applies to the other articles.

I would specially stress that these articles cannot be utility. They all have to be specially heavy to resist the storms and stresses of life on a fishing boat. What the Government are doing seems to be contrary to their general policy, because they are attempting to omit Purchase Tax from the general tools of a man's trade, but will not omit certain clothes, except in the three instances I have mentioned. I am asking that they should reconsider the whole of this business so that they can extend the principle agreed to in 1940 over a wider field.

There is one problem which, admittedly, may be different. That is the problem of identification. On 28th November, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) asked a Question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this sort of thing. The hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crook-shank) asked a supplementary question: When the Chancellor says it is quite impracticable "— to do what I am asking— does he mean because of difficulties about identification or because of the cost? The Chancellor of the Exchequer replied: Because of the difficulties about identification."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1950; Vol. 481, c. 949.] I would say this about that: I claim that all these articles are easily identifiable. They are not suitable for use for any other purpose and they ought not to be taxed. They are essentially part of a fishing boat's gear. I am certain that arrangements could be made through trade channels to identify these articles and to see that no articles which could not be identified escaped Purchase Tax.

Finally—I want to be brief to allow other hon. Members to speak—although I am basing my case on gear for fishermen, it is quite clear that the matter does not end here. I want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to review all protective clothing for other trades as well as for fishermen and to extend the principle adopted in 1940 so that we can fight against the increased cost of living wherever it may appear and also adhere to the Government's own principle of not taxing the tools of a man's trade.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Donnelly (Pembroke)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan), has done a very great service for all the fishing constituencies represented in the House by raising this very important subject. I intervene with great diffidence in order to show that this is not a party matter and that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has support on both sides of the House. I also intervene to show that it is a national matter and that Scotsmen have not a complete monopoly of the fishing industry in the British Isles.

I represent the largest fishing port in Wales. In Wales we have found that the greatest problem facing the whole of the fishing industry since the end of the war has been that of costs. That is on the catching side, at any rate. We have found that many of the rising costs entailed in catching fish cannot be checked at all, but there are a few costs which can be checked, and where Government action would be of considerable importance and help to the industry, and this is an example.

As the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, this tax is on the tools of a man's trade, and at the moment it is a very important trade in the economic life of these islands. I believe that it is just as important to assist the fishing industry as it has been to assist the agricultural industry. The fishing industry should have the same kind of preferential treatment by the Government as the farming industry has had in the past.

We have had a number of debates in the House—including one very important one since I have been here—on the fishing industry, and the dire economic problems facing the industry have been brought out very clearly. If the Government really mean business in helping the industry, here they have an opportunity to give a proper expression of their good faith towards the fishermen of Britain. The fishing industry is one of the great basic industries of these islands. We have needed it in war and we need it in peace, and I hope that my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate will have something to say which will be widely welcomed in every fishing port in these islands.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

I am very glad to be able to support the plea of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South (Capt. Duncan), and to follow the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly). This is an all-party matter and I am sure that the plea put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend will be endorsed by the representatives of every fishing constituency in the House. The fisherman is at a peculiar disadvantage today. His range of clothing is very much greater than that of the ordinary person, and it is greater because it is absolutely essential. It may be argued that he can benefit by purchasing utility clothing. He cannot, for the utility type of clothing is far too light in quality for his needs. He wants specially heavy quality underwear, which has to bear heavy Purchase Tax.

I was discussing this matter of underwear on the quayside at Aberdeen yesterday and the day before at fishing ports along the Moray Firth. The fisherman requires four sets of heavy underwear, two with him at sea and two ashore, wearing one set and having one spare at sea because although he is wearing oilskins, he is liable to be drenched at any moment by a boarding sea or spray going down his neck. Thus he has to change whenever the need arises. The same thing applies to jerseys. He has to have several at sea and on shore. The underwear and jerseys of a fisherman are often knitted at home by his women folk. In this conection I would plead that knitting wool for making these garments should also be free of Purchase Tax.

My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned gutting gloves. A man will use from one to three pairs of these on a trawler per voyage. They get covered in slime from the fish and are liable to slip off and get lost in the course of his work. Another matter not mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend, which is one of the essential tools of fishermen on seine net vessels or trawlers, is a gutting knife. The Board of Trade has issued a regulation that a non-folding type of knife is free of Purchase Tax, but this is absolutely useless for fishermen at sea. This is because the minute he has finished with it, for his own safety, for the safety of his gear, and for the safety of the men alongside, that knife must be folded and put in his pocket. In Aberdeen a fisherman uses about one knife per trip, costing 2s. 6d. with 2s. 3d. Purchase Tax, that is 4s. 9d. a trip.

I see no difficulty with regard to identification or administration. We have, in the North, well-known ships' chandlers and in all our villages accredited suppliers of these goods. They could work with the Board of Trade and with fishery officers. I hope, therefore, that immediate attention will be given to this matter.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

First, I would like to apologise to the House for my being here to reply to the discussion. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan), informed the House that he was aware of the reason for the inability of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to be here. He is in Scotland, and he asked me to take his place this afternoon. While apologising for the absence of my hon. Friend—because it is always desirable that a Treasury Minister should be here to deal with what is clearly a Treasury matter—I hope I shall be able to convince the House that, no matter who had been here to reply, we could not have brought this matter to finality.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman made it clear that he was asking not only for this concession in respect of the five articles he mentioned in his Parliamentary Questions, but that in his view Purchase Tax should not be levied on any item of clothing necessary for the purpose of employment; nor, indeed, should Purchase Tax be laid on any item of equipment or gear necessary to enable any workman to carry on his employment. Merely to state that fact is to make clear how difficult it would be in a debate of this kind to go into the merits of certain items which happen to occur to one or other hon. Members.

I ask the House to allow me merely to undertake to report faithfully to the Financial Secretary all that has been said during this brief debate. If it is of help to the House, I can also give an assurance that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will bear in mind these points, and also the larger point which was mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member, in the next general review of the Purchase Tax. I feel sure the House will appreciate that it would have been impossible for anyone speaking at this Box this afternoon to do more than that. These are big matters, and it would be impossible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself to single out certain items and to undertake to do something about them specially.

Captain Duncan

Will the hon. Gentleman impress upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer the necessity for undertaking this review before the next Budget?

Mr. Fraser

I unhesitatingly give that assurance. As I have said, I do not think anyone could go into the merits of each of the items referred to in this discussion. I must accept the figures given by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, although one of them made me think twice. He mentioned brown jumpers, selling at about 11s., with 4s. Purchase Tax. All these items, I think, bear Purchase Tax at 33⅓ per cent., which suggests that the Purchase Tax on a garment costing 11s. should not be quite 4s. I do not, however, think that I should be entitled to go into any of the items this afternoon, and I hope the House will accept the assurance I have given.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

Is it really necessary that matters of this kind should await the general review which precedes the Budget? This is not necessarily a matter for the Finance Bill. Had it been so, it would not have been raised today because it would require legislation. These matters are frequently dealt with by Treasury order, either raising or lowering the Purchase Tax. When it is a question of lowering the tax, the Treasury order is merely subject to negative resolution in the House. Surely, therefore, an important and detailed matter of this kind could be dealt with exceptionally in that way?

Mr. Fraser

I thought that the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South, had made it clear that this matter had not been dealt with at all in the past except in the case of protective headgear for miners, quarrymen and others. That one exception, I think, was made just over 10 years ago. The hon. and gallant Member made quite clear his desire in raising this matter to call attention to the fact that Purchase Tax was levied on items of clothing and equipment which were necessary to enable a workman to carry out his normal job, and that he thought that that was wrong and ought to be looked at.

I give the assurance that that and the other points which were made will be reported faithfully to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, and that these considerations will be borne in mind when the general review of Purchase Tax is made.

4.23 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stress very strongly indeed the peculiar situation of the fisherman and the very great extra needs which he requires to be protected from weather at sea, and the infliction of considerable hardship upon him as the result of the Purchase Tax. We are all grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) for having raised this matter as he did. I hope particularly that the Joint Under-Secretary will not—I do not think that he will—when he speaks to his right hon. Friend or to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, ride off on the aspect that my hon. and gallant Friend was raising the question of the tools of a trade. We can always start doing good things in small ways, and I suggest that it would be a very good idea to start in a small way with fishermen, who are suffering a particular disadvantage.

I put to the hon. Gentleman another point which he might note when he comes to discuss this matter with the Chancellor or with the Financial Secretary—that is, the matter of identification. Time and again the Treasury ride off, on the question of identification, or the impossibility of carrying it out. I will give the hon. Gentleman an example. I once asked for a concession for shepherds' boots and Sir Stafford Cripps, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, smiled, and said that of course I appreciated the impossibility of determining what were shepherds' boots. In fact, it happened that there was a specific kind of boot known to the Board of Trade and authorised as shepherds' boots, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman got away with it by saying that it was impossible to identify them.

So I say to the hon. Gentleman that when he reports this brief debate he should stress these particular points. There is no reason, if trouble is taken, why there should not be complete indentification and complete protection in regard to the matters to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred and which are essential to our fishermen to keep them in a proper state of fitness at sea in the desperate conditions they meet. particularly at this time of year.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-six Minutes past Four 0'Clock.