HC Deb 20 June 1950 vol 476 cc1125-30

Subsection (3) of section one of the Finance Act, 1935, as amended by subsection (1) of section seven and subsection (3) of section eight of the Finance Act, 1946, shall be amended by inserting the words "puppet and marionette shows" after the words "a travelling show."—[Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison.]

Brought up, and read the First time

Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

The purpose of this Clause is to clarify the law in regard to the incidence of Entertainments Duty on puppet and marionette shows, and to ensure that in future this type of entertainment shall qualify for the reduced live rate tax concession which is given in the Finance Act, 1935, as amended by the Finance Act, 1946. There is no dispute that the law is in need of clarification. At the present time the rate of tax levied on these shows depends upon the decision of the local officers of the Department of Customs and Excise in whatever part of the country a display may be taking place.

The Financial Secretary, with whom I have had some correspondence on this matter, will perhaps recollect that in the final sentence of his letter to me on 31st March he agreed with my contention that there is a lack of uniformity by saying: Instruction are being issued to Excise officers with a view to ensuring consistency of treatment in cases of this kind. In passing, perhaps I might cite one or two examples of the kind of inconsistency that arises. In 1947, the Lee Puppet Theatre at Skegness paid the full rate of tax on the demands of the local Customs officer, and the same company has been requested to pay the full rate of tax during its present tour in Scotland. On the other hand, at Lowestoft in 1949 the Laurey-Lee Theatre was charged the reduced rate of tax, and in the same summer the Waldo-Lanchester Theatre at Malvern only paid the reduced rate of tax.

The Committee will be aware that the conditions under which the reduced rate of tax can be granted are laid down in Section 1 (3) of the Finance Act, 1935, as amended by the Finance Act, 1946, the relevant passage of which reads as follows: The said Duty shall be charged at the reduced rates set out in the First Schedule to this Act in a case where all the performers whose words or actions constitute the entertainment are actually present and performing and the entertainment consists solely of one or more of the following items, namely, a stage play, a ballet (whether a stage play or not), a performance of music (whether vocal or instrumental), an Eisteddfod, a lecture, a recitation, a music hall or other variety entertainment, a circus, travelling show, a menagerie or any game or sport other than the racing or trial of speed of animals, vehicles, motor vessels or aircraft. In the whole of that subsection there is no reference to puppet shows or marionette theatres.

I have looked through all the Debates in the OFFICIAL REPORT relating to the Entertainments Duty, but I can find no trace of this type of entertainment having been mentioned. That, no doubt, is one reason why there is this inequality in practice in various parts of the country in regard to the levying of the tax. I think I have said sufficient to indicate the need for clarifying the existing law.

6.0 p.m.

I now wish to advance some arguments to show why the reduced rate of tax should be levied in this field of entertainment. I group my arguments under three headings—the cultural value of this type of entertainment, craftsmanship and social service. I would remind the Committee that the puppet theatre is one of the most ancient forms of entertainment in the world and is, in fact, older than the living theatre itself. It was handed down from the ancient Greeks to the Romans and thence came later to France and Western Europe. The first puppet theatres were established in this country about the reign of Queen Elizabeth, almost a full century in advance of the better-known Punch and Judy shows which came from Italy in the time of the Stuart kings. The puppet and marionette type of entertainment has always been regarded as being of a very high kind and of the type which one finds at musical and dramatic festivals. I stress the point that it is one of those cultural recreations which is particularly encouraged by the Arts Council of Great Britain.

It may interest the Committee to know that one of the important items at the Edinburgh Festival of Music in the coming autumn will be the presentation of Professor Skupa's puppet theatre from Prague which is one of the most famous companies in the world, and, incidentally, that entertainment will be exempt from tax altogether. I also draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the fact that this very month at the Edinburgh Empire theatre the American Bernard Brothers are presenting a form of mime entertainment with no vocal dialogue, but with accompanying mechanical music off stage, and that form of entertainment is paying the reduced rate of tax. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind in the light of what I shall say in a moment.

My second point is that the equipment and presentation of puppet shows is a highly skilled matter requiring real craftsmanship. There are some 200 or so puppet theatres in the country about half of which, I am advised, are professional companies. The other half are part-time amateur companies. So highly are they regarded by the Arts Council that no less than 60 of the professional puppet theatres have been sponsored by the Arts Council in England, Wales and Scotland at one time or another during the past few years. Nearly all the puppet theatres are very small; sometimes, in the case of what is called a glove puppeteer, such as Mr. Walter Wilkinson, it is a one-man business, and in other cases it consists of two or three people as, for instance, the Lees or the Lanchesters. The entertainment is a live one because the proprietors have to construct and dress the marionettes which require to be manipulated by wires or strings or rods. There is also usually an accompanying dialogue.

The only possible objection which can be advanced to the argument that this is a live entertainment is that in some cases, although purely as a subsidiary part of the entertainment, use is made of recorded music such as one often finds in the living theatre, by means of mechanical musical devices like a gramophone off-stage. I would put it to the Committee that it is obviously impracticable for two or three people presenting a show in a puppet theatre to engage a living orchestra or choir.

My final point is in connection with the good social work which has been done by these puppet theatres in this country. As I have said, many of them undertake tours sponsored by the Arts Council— tours to the industrial and outlying communities or to small communities where it would not be practicable for living theatrical companies to go. Recently, for example, one puppet show has been giving entertainments in mining areas in Scotland, using miners' welfare institutes as theatres. I think it is a very good thing that this type of traditional, high-grade entertainment should be given in all parts of the country which cannot be served by the ordinary living theatre. We should encourage that in every possible way by giving this reduced rate of tax concession. I would only add that it is a healthy and artistic type of entertainment and one specially suited to children. I am advised that in the recent tour by one of the Scottish companies in the mining areas, in Fife, Lanarkshire and Ayreshire, no fewer than 10,000 children attended the shows.

I have put forward the case for the reduction of tax from the full rate to the live rate as cogently as I can and I trust it will meet with sympathy from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that these puppet theatres are doing useful work in the field of entertainment, as well as work of a social and educational character, and I sincerely hope that the Government will see fit to give them the concession on the lines I have indicated.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

The hon. and gallant Member for Edinburgh, West (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison) has put this matter so fairly, moderately and fully that I rise only because I feel that the Clause is one which deserves the consideration of the Committee and to support it from this side of the House. I am bound to say that I heard one observation which surprised me and it was that this matter has not been raised before. I had a fairly clear recollection in my mind that it had been raised before, but, although I have been trying to find it, it appears that I am wrong. Certainly it does not appear in the index. I rather thought that I had discussed this matter before and it may be that it arose incidentally in some discussion on Amendments to this Clause of the Finance Bill, of which we have had a very great number.

I can think of only one argument against the new Clause moved by the hon. and gallant Member and that is equally an argument in its favour. I venture to suggest that, on a clear interpretation of the Acts of 1935, these shows should never have had tax levied on them at all, because I cannot think that, in the wide definition in Section 1 of the Act of 1935, "a travelling show," or a "variety entertainment," for instance, do not somewhere include the puppet and the marionette show.

However, if that tax has been levied, then it is still obvious that there must be clarification of the matter, because the hon. and gallant Member said, and I have no doubt with authority, that tax has in fact been collected on these shows in some circumstances. The Act of 1935 exempts all sorts of things which I would not call entertainment at all, although I agree that people have different tastes. Some people like listening to lectures and they are exempt. Musical performances now include those on the solo saxophone and on that abomination the harmonica, while this very charming form of culture and art for some reason has been overlooked. I ask the Chancellor who I know always looks on these matters with very real sympathy, to see whether he cannot accept the Clause and round off this matter.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Douglas Jay)

Both the hon. and gallant Member for Edinburgh, West (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison), and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale), have spoken most eloquently and persuasively on this matter, and I would say straight away that we do not think, on the merits or in the spirit, that the puppet or marionette show should be excluded from the lower rate of duty which was enacted by the Act of 1935 for living entertainment. The difficulty has simply arisen over the terms of the Act and here it seems to have proved almost as difficult to define "living entertainment" as it was to define "chassis."

The offending words, as the hon. and gallant Member himself said, were those which he read out. It was necessary to determine whether, in the case of puppet and marionette shows, all the performers whose words or actions constitute the entertainment are actually present and performing. Secondly, there then arose whether the gramophone music accompanying these shows came within the terms of that sentence. As the hon. and gallant Member knows from the correspondence we have had, the customs officers have, in fact, attempted to give the benefit of the doubt to puppet shows wherever they could, but obviously there is a point beyond which this Committee would not wish them to stretch the language of the Act.

We think, however, for those reasons, that a case has been made out for altering the law in this respect. We prefer, if possible, not actually to accept the hon. and gallant Gentleman's new Clause, because we do not want to go too far in admitting mechanical music, in case we give less preference to actual music where the performer is present than we should wish. We shall be very glad to try to introduce an Amendment in that spirit on the Report stage. I hope, with that assurance, that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will withdraw his proposed new Clause.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison

I thank the Financial Secretary for the very conciliatory and helpful way in which he has met the case which I endeavoured to put forward. In view of his assurance I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.