§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Though the main purpose of the Bill is to consolidate the law, I must in frankness tell the House that it is not in the same technical sense as was the last Measure a consolidation Bill, because in consolidating the law it also effects a certain number of Amendments. Therefore, it has not received the certificate that it is a consolidation Measure which was given by the appropriate Committee to the Bill which the House has just ceased to discuss.
None the less the main intention and effect of this Measure is to bring into the scope of a single statute the whole of the law relating to the collection of the revenues both of Customs and Excise. That law is at present to be found in no fewer than 200 Acts of Parliament passed by this House from time to time during the last 150 years. I think the oldest of them mentioned in the Schedules is the Sale of Beer Act, 1795, though to reassure the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), the Vinegar Act, 1844, also features in the Schedules.
Not only does the wide dispersal of the law in such a wide variety of Measures of different date make it difficult to discover what is, precisely, the law on a great many of the issues which arise, but equally much of that law itself is archaic in form and either obsolete or obsolescent in substance. It is partly because we are taking this opportunity to get rid of some of this legislative dead wood that the Bill is not, for the purposes of the Rules of Procedure of this House, a consolidation Measure.
Another reason it has been impossible to draft it strictly as a consolidation Measure is that up to 1909 Customs and Excise were administered by separate Departments with their own separate legislative codes. I think the House will agree that it is obviously sensible now that both of these departments of revenue are dealt with by the same Department of State to try to bring the law affecting both of them into the same form. That has inevitably involved amending one branch 83 of the law to bring it into line with another.
It will give some idea to the House of the relative clarification and simplification which this Bill, if passed into law, will introduce into our law, if I mention that the Schedules provide for the complete repeal of no fewer than 47 Acts of Parliament and for the repeal, in addition, of some 540 Sections enacted in other Acts of Parliament. I would not say the result has been to produce a body of legislation which is as compact as the layman would wish. It is perfectly true that, compared with the last Measure with which the House was dealing, it is quite a small Bill; but it does include 321 Clauses and 12 Schedules.
But I submit that it does a great deal to clear up the legislative jumble which the present law amounts to; and I think it will be agreed by us all that it is an unwholesome thing for any community to have so important a part of its law in a state of confusion. It is perhaps particularly unfortunate in a commercial community such as ours that both traders and Departments of Government should have to seek to find their way through such a complicated mass of legislation.
It is our belief that in this way we shall be able to bring clarity to the whole legal framework of the complicated matters which are the spheres of Customs and Excise, and in addition to provide the legal framework for more recent matters which are now within the duties of Customs and Excise, such as the machinery of the Purchase Tax. But I should make it clear that this Bill simply provides the legislative framework. It does not attempt in any way to deal with such obviously controversial matters as rates of tax. It simply provides the instrument which Parliament, on other Measures, can use as it wishes for the imposition of taxation.
Those who have been responsible for the prolonged process of bringing this Measure into its present form have gone out of their way to seek to eliminate anything which might in the ordinary party sense be regarded as of a controversial nature. For example, at one stage of the discussions of this Bill it incorporated a proposal to bring the monetary penalties imposed under the Customs and Excise law more into line with the present value 84 of money by increasing the maximum penalties which courts could impose. There is probably on merit a certain amount to be said for such a proposal, but it was felt, and I believe rightly, that such a proposal, be it sound or unsound, was not appropriate to a Measure of this sort.
Therefore, we have rejected that proposal and have put back into this Measure the same penalties in substance as were found in the earlier legislation. The exceptions have been in favour of the taxpayer. For example, we have eliminated a provision of one of the earlier Acts by which indefinite imprisonment could be imposed.
The need for this Bill, or something of this sort, has been apparent for a great number of years. One can go back as far as 1876 and still find that attempts were being made to consolidate the law on this subject. Draft consolidation Measures were actually prepared in 1898, 1911, 1923 and in 1938, and the unfortunate fact that none of them got any further does, I suppose, throw some measure of blame upon Governments of every political colour.
The present Bill goes back, in its immediate origins, to 1948, when on the instructions of Sir Stafford Cripps, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and whose outstanding legal qualities perhaps permitted him better than any other man to appreciate the harm being done by the existing state of the law, Customs and Excise, Parliamentary counsel and others started preparations for this Measure.
Last year the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, appointed a very distinguished Committee, representative of many aspects of both political and economic life, to consider the draft of the Bill as it then stood. This Committee was presided over by the Lord Kennet. Its deputy chairman was Lord Nathan of Churt, and it included among its membership one right hon. Member and one hon. Member of this House—my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Works and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson). It also included a number of representatives of different aspects of our economic life. As hon. Members will be aware, that Committee has reported. Its Report 85 has been laid as a White Paper, Cmd. 8453, together with the notes on the Clauses of the Bill. The substance of the Committee's Report is in paragraph 18, which says:We are unanimously of opinion that the draft Bill as revised by us achieves this aim and that, if enacted, it will meet a long felt need and be of great benefit both to the trades and industries concerned and to the administration of the Customs and Excise.Perhaps I should take the opportunity of mentioning that occasion has been taken to tidy up regulation-making power in connection with Customs and Excise matters. It is provided in Clause 306 that the Regulations made in these matters shall be made by Statutory Instrument and shall be subject to annulment by a resolution of either House of Parliament. The modern Statutory Instrument procedure has been applied to this wide variety of regulation-making powers. It has the effect of bringing under Parliamentary control for the first time certain types of Regulation which previously were completely free of direct Parliamentary control.
In view of the complex nature of this Bill, if the House is good enough to give it a Second Reading, it is proposed, as appears from the Motion which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to refer it to a Joint Committee of Members of this House and of another place. That is a practice which had previously been followed on occasion in the case of Measures of this sort which, while not strictly consolidation, do a good deal of consolidating.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
Can the hon. Gentleman say what was the origin of that procedure? I have been trying to find out and I have been unable to find anyone who knows.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I do not know what the origin is. I will certainly make inquiries, as the hon. Member has been good enough to put the question. The procedure has been followed from time to time. I will endeavour to let the hon. Gentleman know. It was followed in the case of the Local Government Act, 1933, as the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware, and it has been followed in this kind of Bill before.
I hope that I shall not incur the criticisms of hon. Members on either side of 86 the House for distributing encomia too widely if I say, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and of the whole House, that we owe a great debt of gratitude not only to the public officials of the Customs and Excise and to Parliamentary counsel who took part in the earlier stages of the Bill to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South, who gave it a further push onwards; to Sir Stafford Cripps who initiated the earlier stages of this Bill, but also the Members of the Kennet Committee, most of them extremely busy men, who gave up a great deal of their time to a most detailed analysis of its provisions.
I think that I should be expressing the opinion of the House if I said that we greatly appreciate the unselfish and hard public service which all the people concerned gave in this matter and which has produced this Bill which, if enacted into our law, will produce a clarification and a simplification of a branch of the law which is of day-to-day importance to a trading community such as ours.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Sir Frank Soskice (Sheffield, Neepsend)
At the outset and at the risk of incurring, I will not say the displeasure, but at any rate the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), I should like to associate myself with what was said by the Financial Secretary by way of tribute to those responsible for this Bill. It is a Bill which implements the recommendations of the Committee set up by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1951. As has been pointed out, it supersedes in whole or in part a great many Acts of Parliament scattered up and down our Statute Book which at present contain our legalisation about Customs and Excise. As such, I think that everybody must welcome the Bill as a Bill.
That having been said, one must recognise nevertheless that the position is a somewhat unusual one in the sense that this is not a consolidation Measure. If it were a consolidation Measure it would be useful, but I agree with the Financial Secretary that it would be nothing like as useful as it is, being a consolidation Measure and something more. It consolidates this great mass of unwieldy legislation and at the same time makes a number of changes, many of which are not small unimportant changes but changes of substance, in the existing law relating to Customs and Excise.
87 I agree with the Financial Secretary that it is necessary, desirable and useful that changes should be made. Our existing law on this subject, beginning as it does with the year 1795, is in many respects archaic, outmoded and almost impossible to understand. We have before us a Bill embodying the research and the work of many persons who co-operated in producing a Measure which is not only one of consolidation but one which also changes existing law.
Ordinarily, we should have the protection of a detailed examination of a Bill which changes the law by a Standing Committee or a Committee of this House. In point of fact, Parliament passed in 1949 the Consolidation of Enactments (Procedure) Act which enables small Amendments—Amendments of minor importance—to be combined with a pure consolidation Act where that seems appropriate. In those circumstances, a formal Committee stage was equally dispensed with.
What we have to deal with now is a consolidation Measure plus a Measure making substantial changes in the law. We have before us the proposal of the Government that we should not have the ordinary Committee stage. We on this side of the House must make up our minds about the attitude we are to adopt to that proposal. Speaking for myself—and this is the advice that I give to my hon. Friends—I would say that although it is dangerous to accept, as it were, almost on trust—perhaps that is rather over-stating it—a Measure which changes the law, I recommend my hon. Friends to take the view that the balance of convenience and of public advantage to be derived from a Bill of this sort is so great that we ought to be ready to accept, in the special circumstances of the present Bill, the Government's proposal to dispense with the ordinary Standing Committee stage.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Subject to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as I understand the position it is that if the House accepts the proposal that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee, the next step is for it to return to this House for the Committee stage in the ordinary sense of the term. I understand that that is the procedure which is followed.
§ Sir F. Soskice
I was simply guiding myself by what appears on the Order Paper. If the Financial Secretary now says that both stages are to be gone through, the objections which I have just raised will fall. I understand that the hon. Gentleman now says that the Measure is to be examined by a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons, and that, thereafter, the Bill is again to be subjected to detailed examination in the ordinary course, either by a Standing Committee or by a Committee of this House. Is that what the hon. Gentleman is telling us?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Subject, of course, to your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for it is for you to state what is the procedure of this House, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said will be the procedure, as I understand the matter.
§ Sir F. Soskice
After what we have just heard, the anxieties about procedure which I have been expressing are now removed. We expected that this Bill, which makes substantial changes in the law, would go to a Joint Committee and be examined solely by them, as far as detailed examination goes. If, however, their examination is to be followed up by another detailed examination, Clause by Clause, in the ordinary way—if that is what the Government propose to do—I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will be very greatly reassured, and will be relieved of the anxieties which they had before.
Speaking for myself, it is obviously impossible in a Second Reading speech to review the many details of a Measure of the scope of the one we are now considering. I had intended, and I would desire, to mention one or two points, and I know that a number of my hon. Friends have considered this Measure very carefully and will have other points which they will desire to bring forward for consideration at this early stage in the history of this Bill, if they are fortunate enough, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to catch your eye.
The two points which I have in mind are these. I had already given notice to the Law Officers with regard to one of 89 them, and the learned Attorney-General and Solicitor-General have been good enough to consider the point I put forward. Although I gather that they are not able to assent to the view that I was advancing, nevertheless I would be grateful if they would give further consideration to the point, which I think is one of some importance.
The Bill provides that the only authority which is to be able to initiate proceedings is to be the Commissioners. I have always taken the view that, although exceptions are sometimes made in our legislative code, it is not desirable that some body should be entrusted with the sole duty of deciding whether criminal proceedings are to be taken or not, and that the Attorney-General, who, after all, has the overall responsibility for the conduct of criminal proceedings in this country, should be excluded from any responsibility so far as the initiation of criminal proceedings is concerned.
I hope the Government will give further consideration to the present form of Clause 281, because the point arises in connection with it. The Clause provides that no proceedings are to be brought except upon the order of the Commissioners, and it seems to me that this is a Clause which is misconceived in purpose and in policy.
I know that, in our legislative code, we do often entrust Ministers and particular authorities with the duty of instituting proceedings in particular cases, but it is certainly not the case that, as a matter of practice, the Attorney-General is excluded from any responsibility and any discretion in directing the initiation of proceedings in cases in which he thinks it is proper to do so.
That is wholly wrong, and I hope the Government will agree that Clause 281 should be remodelled so that the Bill, so far as criminal proceedings are concerned —I do not refer to other proceedings, and the Clause apparently covers criminal proceedings—the Attorney-General should, equally at least with the Commissioners, have the right, if he thinks it is appropriate in a particular case in the public interest, to direct in the ordinary way that criminal proceedings should be instituted.
It seems to me to be wholly wrong that if the Attorney-General, representing the public interest, thinks in a particular case 90 that proceedings are necessary in the criminal courts, nevertheless, he should not be able to take the steps which he thinks appropriate, and that it should be solely for the Commissioners to say whether or not criminal proceedings should be started. I think this is a matter of fundamental importance, so far as general policy in the administration of our criminal law is concerned, and I commend this point to the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General for further consideration by them.
The other Clause to which I should like to call attention is Clause 66. First, however, I should have said, in regard to Clause 281, that I quite accept that the existing law is stated in the form of Clause 281 as it stands at the moment. When one looks at Clause 66, however, one finds that it departs from the existing law, because Clause 66 imposes an obligation. I quote:(1) Any person entering or leaving the United Kingdom shall answer such questions as the proper officer shall put to him with respect to his baggage and any article contained therein or carried with him.As I understand it, the existing law does not require a person entering the country to answer any questions which the officer concerned may think proper. Clause 66 provides that any person who refuses to answer any such questions is liable to a penalty of £100. I should have thought that that was certainly going farther than the existing law, and that it was very questionable whether the public interest does require that this very drastic power should now be placed in the hands of the appropriate officer.
How far is it to go? Suppose one is carrying a case, a parcel or portmanteau, and that a number of personal and confidential letters are carried in it. Is one to be subjected to the obligation of answering any questions relating to purely private and personal letters which the officer may put, under a penalty of £100 if one refuses to answer the questions?
The existing law, as I understand it, applies no such obligation on anybody. In Section 85 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876, one is certainly liable to a penalty if one denies that one is carrying foreign goods when one is, in fact, doing so. If one takes it upon one's self to make an untrue statement, the making of an untrue statement is one thing, and 91 refusing to answer the questions about some entirely personal correspondence, to use the example I have already quoted, is a different thing altogether.
If I have misconceived the legal situation, I hope the Attorney-General will correct me, but, if I have correctly described it, then I commend the Clause to the further consideration of the Government in order to see whether it is necessary, in the interests of the public generally and of the proper administration of this part of our legislation, that so very stringent a power should be placed in the hands of the officers in question.
That brings me almost to the close of the observations which I wanted to make in reply to the Second Reading speech of the Minister. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends will desire to call attention to other aspects of the Bill, and I know that some of them will argue points in which they are interested. So far as I am concerned, I would recommend to my hon. Friends—and I very much hope they will agree with me—that we should certainly give this Measure a Second Reading. It is really a great achievement to have brought within one Bill the amendment of the whole range of a Customs and Excise law.
If we give a Second Reading to this Bill today, having already given a Second Reading to the Income Tax Bill, I think we shall take a great step forward in making this particularly complex branch of our law very greatly improved, and that we will have done much to tidy up our Statute Book and enable the ordinary citizen to understand how he figures in the eyes of the law.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. G. P. Stevens (Portsmouth, Langstone)
While listening to the speech of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury I recalled a phrase I read in a book—I think it was one of Sapper's "Bulldog Drummond" series—to the effect thatOne point of detail is nothing. Two points are a coincidence. Three points are a moral certainty.My hon. Friend recalled the previous occasions when draft Bills had been prepared with a view to the consolidation of the law of Customs and Excise. There was one in 1898, and within a month or 92 two the Boer War broke out. There was another in 1911, and within a little more than a year or so World War I had come about. The draft Bill went back on the shelves and was brought out again in 1938. Within a few short months World War II had broken out.
Here we have a draft Bill once again for the consolidation of the law relating to Customs and Excise. But there is this difference in principle between the three or four previous attempts made to consolidate this law and the current endeavour which is that this Bill has reached the Floor of this House. For that reason, if for no other, I hope this House will give it a Second Reading as quickly as possible.
It is true that there are points of detail in a Bill which is 230 pages long upon which we may have our disagreements, but I believe those points of detail should properly be raised on the Committee stage of the Bill and not on its Second Reading. I think it is perfectly true to say that with four exceptions, apart from the one to which the right hon. and learned Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice) referred, no new offences or penalties are provided in this Bill.
Clause 10 provides additional penalties for the obstruction of Customs officers in the exercise of their duty. Clause 71 provides for special penalties, or rather different penalties, with regard to methods used for signalling to smugglers. I cannot imagine that when the draft Bill was prepared in 1876 radio and radar aids were contemplated. Clause 174 provides penalties for offering smuggled goods for sale. I am quite sure none of us as we walk down Oxford Street would have any objection at all to subsidising the gentleman who offers us nylon stockings against his contingent liabilities in that respect. In another part of the Bill provision is made for dealing with the improper rectifying by distillers of goods upon which Duty has been paid.
Apart from these five possible exceptions I think the Bill provides for no new penalties. I have not the least doubt that the trading interests concerned will feel quite strongly that an amending Bill, which may well vary the penalties and the powers of the Customs and Excise officers, will be necessary in due course. 93 But those are matters quite beyond the scope of this present consolidation Bill which I believe will simplify the work of the Customs and Excise officers and will be appreciated by them very much indeed. It will help them, and as such I commend it to the House. For the reasons I have stated I hope this Measure will get its Second Reading tonight without undue delay.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)
I think the House would be doing an injustice to the country if it failed to deal with this matter on a rather wider basis than it has been dealt with heretofore. This, after all, is a Bill to consolidate and amend the law, and it would be quite wrong if the House devoted itself entirely to consolidation and did nothing about amending it, and if at any rate it did not consider where the law should be rather further amended.
I am sorry, in a way, that the Financial Secretary, who, as we all remember in the old days, was always a champion of any question of personal liberty, did not say one word about some of the offences consolidated in this Bill, but which, of course, date from many past epochs of Conservative Governments. This Bill provides in one body an opportunity of putting right a number of injustices which his party has perpetrated for a number of decades.
However, I do not want to deal in the main with that issue. I understand that some of my hon. Friends are to deal in more detail with the question of whether the Bill might be amended to deal with the liberty of the subject. But it is only fair to say to the House that the object of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) and the Minister of Works as they say in the Report was to produce some form of consolidation which would at any rate command general approval and not to produce a Measure which necessarily put injustices right. They left it to the House to do that and we should be wrong if we did not attempt so to do.
But there is a far more important issue in this Bill than even the issue of personal justice. How we collect our taxes depends very often on how much we get in, and, particularly, how we collect Excise taxes may well depend on what we have to buy with dollars and with 94 currency of another sort. When I come to deal with the question of the methods by which we collect the Tobacco Duty I think hon. Members will see that in this country we are adopting a method which no other country adopts and which, in my respectful submission, is one which leads us almost inevitably to have to buy American tobacco.
Everyone knows the apochryphal headline which was once said to have appeared in "The Times"—Fog in the Channel. The Continent Isolated.But when we find ourselves in a position where we are enforcing a system of taxation which is quite different from that employed by any other country I think the House might at least pause for a moment to consider whether we are right and all the rest are wrong, or whether there is a possibility that there is some mistake in our system.
In order that I may come almost immediately to the points with which I wish to deal in greater detail I will not deal with the civil liberty aspect of it—a matter which I am sure is very dear to the heart of the Financial Secretary—except to give one example of one Clause where the law has been altered. Clause 71 deals with the question of signalling. Of course, when these Acts originally started the method by which people signalled was by means of a flag or a light, and, therefore, the law restricted signalling to certain periods. Quite rightly, the Committee suggested that the law relating to this signalling to smuggling vessels should be extended throughout the whole of the 24 hours.
But when one looks at the wording of the Bill one sees that it is fantastically wide. Clause 71 says:Any person who by any means makes any signal or transmits any message from any part of the United Kingdom or from any ship or aircraft for the information of a person in any ship or aircraft or across the boundary who is or may be"—I bring these words particularly to the attention of the Solicitor-General—engaged in smuggling …But if one is running a signalling station such as, I understand, the Decca Company run for giving ships their bearings, how can one know that the signals may not be picked up and reflected from some apparatus contained in a ship which may 95 be engaged in smuggling? Nevertheless, any person who so sets up an apparatus is, according to this wording, engaged in some form of crime. I suggest to the Solicitor-General that he ought to consider whether in this case, and, indeed, in a great many other cases under this Bill, the word "knowingly" should be added so as to make certain that the person sending the signal does so with the idea of helping somebody engaged in smuggling or who may be doing so.
If I do not deal any further with this particular point it is only that I do not want to delay the House too long, and, therefore, I will also leave the other aspect of the Bill—the rather unfortunate aspect—the one or two small points which passed the eagle eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, the one or two slips in drafting. We have, for example, a provision by which if a person sells any intoxicating liquor he must obtain a licence and pay 10s. for it. But if one obtains a licence only for wine or cider one can buy the licence for 5s. Unless for the purposes of this Act wine and cider are not to be considered intoxicating liquor, obviously "any" is a misprint for the word "all"; and if we are to consolidate the law let us, at any rate, in consolidating it get it right.
I want to concentrate on three main issues raised by this Bill. First, the issue of standards, because this Bill introduces a number of new standards. It contains a definition, for example, of "proof" and it contains a reference to a number of measures of capacity. Secondly, I want to deal later with the way we assess Tobacco Duty and, thirdly, I want to deal with the very serious losses which are accruing to the Treasury at the moment— I estimate upwards of £10 million a year—through the methods employed in the technique of applying taxation under this Bill to the brewers.
If hon. Members opposite are to attempt to spend a great deal of Parliamentary time to gain £1 million or so from the wearers of surgical belts and surgical boots they might pause for a moment to see whether they could adjust the law slightly and save £10 million which now, through a flaw in the law, is being passed to the brewers.
I come first to my point relating to standards. There are three types of 96 standards dealt with in this Bill. First, there is the standard of proof; second, the standard of original gravity; and, third, the standard of measures. I think it is fair to say that all of them contravene in spirit, and in one case actually in deliberate intention, the recommendations of that excellent committee, the Committee on Weights and Measures Legislation.
I give the House one example of that. In Clauses 146 (6) and 149 (5) there are references to what is described as a "reputed quart" and a "reputed pint." Most people would suppose that what was reputed to be a pint or a quart would be nearly a pint or nearly a quart. If they desire to know what former Acts meant by those things and they search in the definitions of this Bill, they will find there is no definition of either term. That is quite natural because, of course, they are illegal; and it has been illegal to use them since 1878. They were made illegal by the Weights and Measures Act of that year. Unfortunately, persons who wished to sell rather less than full measure have been encouraged to use them by their continued repetition in old laws prior to that date, but that is no reason why we should encourage them now.
One finds no reference to them in ordinary works of reference. Whitaker and similar respectable reference books do not deal with them and one has to go to the "Brewers' Almanac" to find a definition. That says:The reputed pint and the reputed quart bottle are nominally one-twelfth and one-sixth of a gallon respectively but there is some variations in practice.This, of course, is a typical form of deception which is practised on the public, and it has already been the subject of Government examination. I refer right hon. Gentlemen opposite to the report of the Committee on Weights and Measures Legislation. Paragraph 355 of that very valuable document says:Reference has already been made to the fact that, although the terms 'reputed quart' and 'reputed pint' are illegal for use in trade, they are used in certain statutes. We consider that all reference to these terms should be removed from the Statute Book at the earliest possible opportunity.This, surely, is the earliest possible opportunity. When the then President of the Board of Trade in the Labour Gov- 97 ernment was asked by a Member of the party opposite what were the intentions in these matters, he said it was the intention of the then Government to implement this part of the Report. Has there been a change in policy? We know, of course, that there was a secret promise given to the brewing interests that if hon. Members opposite were returned they would make certain changes in the law favourable to the brewing interests.
It is only fair for right hon. Gentlemen opposite to say whether there has been any other promise—to allow the reputed quart and the reputed pint, the easiest way of making cheap money in the brewing industry, to remain. Why else has there been this change in policy. Why, when one Government have undertaken to remove from legislation the reputed quart and the reputed pint, should the present Government now go back and put it into the first Consolidation Measure they introduce? [Laughter.] This is quite a serious point.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite, as I understand it, consider themselves the party of Empire. In fact, they do not like the expression "Commonwealth"; indeed, the Prime Minister has made famous, in a classic speech, a reference to the Imperial pint. Now there are a number of Imperial measures and this Bill goes out to set up another one. This is the Imperial proof, and we are now faced with another new Clause in this Bill.
Clause 172 does what has not been done before in Excise legislation. It attempts to define what is meant by "proof." I suggest this was done by a Parliamentary draftsman who did not quite understand what the scientists had said to him. It will be seen from the definition that first, to discover what is meant by proof the content shall be measured at 51 degrees Fahrenheit. When one wants to discover whether it is one degree or more over proof one has to reduce the temperature to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a fantastic complication, obviously due to a misunderstanding of the rules governing the use of Sikes' hydrometer, the famous instrument of 1816 on which the original definition of proof is based.
Would it not have been better to look at what is being done in the Commonwealth and to consider what are the definitions which other Commonwealth 98 countries, faced with this problem, have adopted? I suggest consideration of the Australian definition which I think is far superior to the definition in this Bill. It says:Spirit of a strength equal to that of pure ethyl alcohol compounded with distilled water so that the resultant mixture, at a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, has a specific gravity of 0.91976 as compared with that of distilled water at the same temperature.That is a far simpler definition than the one contained in this Bill.
If the Financial Secretary to the Treasury wants to be a little more insular and pursue a "Little Englander" policy, I might refer him to the latest report of the Customs and Excise because they, in a footnote, provide all he needs. They say:Proof spirit is spirit which … contains 49.28 per cent. of alcohol by weight or 57.1 per cent. by volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit.But it goes even further than that. If the Financial Secretary will look at his definition he will see that Clause 172 (3) says:The expressions 'degree of proof,' degree over proof' and 'degree under proof' shall be construed by reference to a scale.Then, after having defined what is over proof and what is under proof, two of which factors are never used now, for very good reasons, because it would disclose the weakness of the spirit, the Clause fails to give any definition whatever of the degree of proof, which is the form in which proof is always measured, as I am sure is known by anyone who has ever seen whisky bottled.
Perhaps I might say a word about Sikes' hydrometer, from which all this confusion arises. What happened originally, as the Financial Secretary is probably well aware from his brief, is that in 1816 an Excise officer by the name of Mr. Bartholomew Sikes invented an instrument whose object was to define what was then thought to be proof. What was then thought to be proof was what had been thought to be proof by an officer in the Excise who had lived some 50 years earlier, a Mr. Clarke, and what Mr. Clarke had thought to be proof was what was thought to be proof in the Middle Ages. What was thought to be proof in the Middle Ages was the amount of spirit which, when mixed with gunpowder, burned with a steady flame and did not either explode, which was over-proof, or extinguish which was under-proof.
99 It is necessary that we should not have a standard of this importance for the export trade based on what long-dead and very often, I am sorry to say, forgotten Excise officers thought was the best way of trying to work out by some medieval calculation the ability of gunpowder to explode. This is particularly so because the United States, to which country whisky is one of our greatest exports, have a system of proof which is quite different from ours. They start off with the whisky always seeming stronger from the label, but it is in fact actually weaker, and we very often do not get the benefit of the strength of our Scotch whisky because it is assessed in a different form and involves different calculations in order to work it out for export.
I would suggest that from a practical point of view, when this matter comes before the Committee of the Lords and Commons, it would be very desirable that there should be some consultation with the countries of the Commonwealth to see if we can get a common standard, and, secondly, there should be some possibility of having a common standard with the United States.
The Financial Secretary will, no doubt, be very familiar with that most valuable document, the Report of the Committee on Weights and Measures Legislation. They go in some length into the question of standardising our products with those of the United States. I cannot think that there would be any harm in us coming a little closer to the United States in this matter. It can easily be done. It is only a question of a few degrees of alcohol. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), will excuse me for so putting it. The United States have a simple system of proof. That proof consists of 50 per cent. of alcohol, and I do not see why we should not agree with the Commonwealth countries to have a similarly simple definition.
Clause 171 defines original gravity. Original gravity consists of the proportion of solid matter to water in beer before it is fermented, and as the amount of solid matter is small as compared with the water, it is usual to multiply the ratio by 1,000 in order to make it appear rather larger and become a workable scale. It is absolutely essential that this Bill should contain in regard to original 100 gravity the same provisions as it contains in regard to spirit. That is to say that when a brewer brews at a certain original gravity and the duty is calculated on the original gravity, that original gravity should be declared. The proof degree of spirit is declared. The Acts so provide. Why should they not provide that the original gravity of beer should be declared? So far as I know, the only organisations which do this are the Co-op breweries. I do not think they have suffered in their trade because they have so done.
There is no reason why we should not make compulsory the declaration of the original gravity of beer. Indeed, if we do not do that in the Bill, it makes absolute nonsense of Clause 163. Clause 163 provides a very severe penalty for any dealer or retailer of beer who dilutes any beer or adds anything to beer other than finings for the purpose of clarification. But how can anyone tell whether anything has been added to the beer if the original gravity at which it was obtained cannot be disclosed?
This is a practical problem which for some time has been worrying inspectors of weights and measures in the country, and I will quote from a passage of the current report of the Inspector of Weights and Measures for Kent. He said:The position with regard to beer sampling is not very satisfactory"—understandably so—The analyses of samples of bitter beer taken in the county during the last two years show the original gravity to vary between 1,029.4 and 1,038.9. The price charged per pint for all these samples was the same.But, of course, in the one case someone is making a very large sum indeed out of that difference in gravity which it is supposed by the unfortunate drinkers is the sum which is being paid in taxation. For every degree of gravity the price per barrel of beer varies by 6s. 7½d. It is even worse than that. The Report goes on to say:Samples of mild beer varied in original gravity between 1,028.0 and 1,032.4. In some cases the charge made for the mild was 11d. a pint and in others Is a pint. This does not mean that in every case the cheaper beer was weaker in strength because one of the mild beers sold at 11d. per pint had an original gravity of 1,034.4, whereas another at 1s. per pint analysed at an original gravity of 1.029.0.101 This really is a bad gap in our system of defining standards, and this Measure should be closely examined. We should not part with this Bill until we have had some assurance from the Financial Secretary that it is proposed to do something on the lines I have suggested. I hope he will give us a little further clarification of what is meant by Clause 163. By adding what to beer does one commit an offence? Is it to be an offence to use a machine which is known to the brewers as a utiliser? It will be remembered that this machine was described in classic prose by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who described its workings in this form:One large and noted firm of brewers habitually provides for and recommends to its tenants and managers what is known as a 'utiliser.'…The waste pipe leads direct into the 'utiliser' and the liquor passes through a filter … and thence into the main supply pipe from cask in cellar to beer engine. The valve control operates automatically so that about one-eleventh of the filtered waste is pulled into every half pint passing from the cask to the beer pump in the bar. The 'utiliser' is generally connected to the engine pulling ale, this being dark in colour, and therefore less readily to be observed cloudy.That was a description of the utiliser as in use in 1930. A very interesting fact about the utiliser is that if anyone studies Lord Balfour's evidence before the Royal Commission of 1931 one sees that, tucked away, is the name of the distinguished firm of brewers who use the utiliser. A few months ago, when I raised a question on this matter, I had a letter from a publican who mentioned the utiliser in his house. I checked up the brewery to which his house belonged. The house belonged to the same brewery whose machine was so graphically described by Lord Balfour of Burleigh. So I think it would help both sides of the industry if the Financial Secretary would clarify this point. Does Clause 163 make it an offence to use a utiliser, or does it not?
I understand that the defence of the brewer is that while in any overspill and drippings there is, naturally, a certain amount of external material that comes in that is merely incidental, and nothing has been added to the beer. It is merely flat beer, stale beer, beer that has remained for some time in customers' glasses; but beer all the same. Therefore, there is no dilution, or offence against the Acts.
102 That may be the view of the Financial Secretary. If it is, it is only fair to brewers who may be investing large sums of money in the installation of these machines, to make it clear that they can do so with an easy conscience and inform them that there is no offence in so doing. If, on the other hand, it is illegal, it should be made clear and they should be given a reasonable opportunity to get rid of these machines before prosecutions are started for their use.
I will leave that side of the matter and turn for a moment to the question of Tobacco Duty. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the very grave statement which he made to us, described how important it was to restrict as far as possible the use of United States tobacco and how necessary it was to find other sources. No doubt the Financial Secretary—or the learned Solicitor-General—will be able to tell us when he comes to reply whether he has ever considered the effects of the provisions of this Act and the Customs Acts generally on our sources of tobacco.
Roughly speaking, among countries which are not entirely Socialist, there are three methods by which tobacco is taxed. There is the first one, which is employed in France, Italy and other countries, in which tobacco is a Government monopoly. Therefore, the entire profits on the sale come to the Government. There is the second method, employed in the United States—which, if I may again venture to commend it to the Financial Secretary, is, I think, far superior to the one we at present employ—in which tobacco is taxed by the affixation of stamps to each particular branded packet of cigarettes, cigars or tobacco. There is the third method, which we employ, and which is described in this Bill, of taxing tobacco at its port of entry.
The difficulty is that tobacco, when growing, contains a certain amount of moisture. If tax is paid on that moisture the manufacturer naturally complains, and, therefore, it is essential to have tobacco which is grown to an absolutely fixed moisture content. Any degree of variation in the moisture content of a sale will make the Customs authorities reject it; obviously so, because all they can do is to take a sample of tobacco, analyse it and see how much moisture 103 there is, and allow so much on that moisture to the importer. They then take one or two samples from other bales of that type of tobacco and if they find it has quite a different moisture content they cannot allow that package to go forward because there is no basis for taxation.
It is easy to grow tobacco with a uniform moisture content under semi-industrial conditions, but where you are dealing with a peasant-grown tobacco it is very difficult to do so, and one of the reasons why it was impossible to deliver to this country the amount of tobacco specified in the trade agreement with Yugoslavia was that the average moisture content varied very considerably from bale to bale. Yet it was really first-class tobacco, as I understand it.
The quarrel was not that we could not have used the tobacco, but that our system of taxation was so inflexible that though this was the best tobacco we could get, and at a very good price, we could not afford to buy it because the Customs authorities could not see any means of taxing it. That seems to me to be a highly unsatisfactory position.
When one looks at the provisions for drawback, one sees a calculation of moisture content of about 14 per cent. for tobacco; but the import calculation is 10 per cent., and the tolerance up to which manufacturers will go is only 14 per cent., and many Balkan tobaccos have a moisture content of 17 per cent. or 18 per cent.
It is also foolish, because once the tobacco is got in the moisture has to be put back and, in order to manufacture it, one has to get the moisture content up to about 32 per cent. Once that is done, of course, the moisture starts drying out again. Therefore, someone who pays for a pound of tobacco may not be buying a pound of tobacco and has no means of knowing whether or not he has bought a pound of tobacco because there are no regulations for proscribing that when tobacco is wrapped the original moisture content of the tobacco should be marked on the wrapping. If I may suggest it to the Financial Secretary, that is another of the recommendations of the Weights and Measures Legislation Commission. It is one which, I suggest, might very profitably be considered by the Committee which is dealing with this matter.
104 I come now to Clause 133. This is the Clause which provides that it shall be assumed that in the course of manufacture the brewer will waste 6 per cent. of what he manufactures. The history of it is particularly interesting. It dates from 1880. Even in the brewing business, I may say there have been some technical improvements since that date, but in 1880 there was an immense number of brewers. Then there were 16,798 brewers who were licensed for sale; today only 569 are licensed for sale. In those days, of course, it did not matter if a bit of leeway was allowed because, with tax at only a farthing or so in the pint, it did not matter if one gave brewers a little more "on the side."
I think it probable that in those days, even, the amount of wastage was only in the neighbourhood of 4½ per cent. to 5 per cent. As I understand it now—and the Financial Secretary will correct me, I am sure, if I am wrong on this important point—the average wastage in a brewery is in the neighbourhood of a half of 1 per cent. The Act, in another Clause, provides that if there is any accidental spilling of beer the brewer can claim independently for this; but this is 6 per cent. which is supposed to leak from the casks or from the pipes and spill away while it is actually being brewed.
If the brewers are right in saying that the amount of tax which they pay is 9d. per pint—and I think there is reason to suppose that they are rather exaggerating the original gravity of the beer they are selling to the public if that is correct; but that is the one they advertise, so it is fair to take it—supposing they waste 1 per cent. they have a 5 per cent. bonus. Here is a little sum which can be worked out by the Financial Secretary, when he replies. There are 288 pints in every barrel and there are 25⅓ million bulk barrels of beer sold, and if there is 9d. on every pint of that, the Financial Secretary will see that there is something in the neighbourhood of £12 million going astray.
We are to spend weeks in trying to take money from people who need medical attention and yet the Financial Secretary is sitting there smiling and saying, "What does it matter?" Is this one of the other undertakings that were given to the brewers—that this sacred figure of 6 per cent. should not be altered? Will the Financial Secretary give me this under- 105 taking—that he will order an inquiry into the brewing industry to determine what is the average amount of waste today, and that if he finds that the waste is still the same as it was in 1880, when there were nearly 17,000 brewers as against less than 600 today, he will have another inquiry into why so much is being wasted; and, if he finds that it is not so great, will agree to adjust this figure.
Is there any reason why the House should be asked to pass in an afternoon without any careful consideration, a Bill which on my figures—and the Financial Secretary will no doubt correct them if I am wrong—will give a bonus of £12 million to the brewers? The only argument I know is that this is what has gone it the past. But hon. Gentlemen opposite are always telling us that the situation is so different now from what it was in the past. Before, we had a free Health Service. Now, they say, so difficult is the situation of the country that we cannot afford it.
If we cannot afford a free Health Service, can we afford a gift of £12 million to the brewers out of the Excise Revenue? This is a question of priorities, and it will be interesting to know which priority the Solicitor-General places first—the bonus to the brewers or the health of the people of this country.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Mr. F. J. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)
I want to add my congratulations to those which have already been paid on the production of this excellent consolidating and amending Measure, and also my own small thanks to all those who have worked so hard in the preparation of the Bill.
It was a pity that the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) marred what was otherwise an entertaining and informative speech by his party political points. The same argument can be used about any discussion on financial matters by relating it to changes in the operation of the Health Service. I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman in any way strengthened his case for a review of the methods of collection of some of these Excise Duties which, on general grounds, I believe to be a strong one.
Indeed, the important thing to appreciate about this Bill is that the way things 106 are done by the paid officials of the Customs and Excise Service is a reflection of the fabric of the law. Similarly, the new fabric which this Measure will consolidate will decide the way in which things will be done in the future. It is urgently necessary therefore for us to review the present methods of collection, the present operation of the service, in order to ensure that nothing is crystallised which ought to be changed.
One of the most important of the questions which arise is that in many cases the amounts of duty collected are very much greater than the value of the goods on which the duties are levied. That leads to a number of anomalies and to difficulties which were not envisaged when the taxes and duties were originally imposed in a more modified form. The hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to the collection of the Tobacco Duty, and I think he made a very important point about the moisture content. It might well be for consideration whether the duty could not be collected at a later stage of manufacture, particularly now that manufacture is so strictly controlled by firms of repute who could be relied on to play their part in ensuring a new and better method of collection.
I understand that nowadays, in a modern cigarette factory, the dust which falls from the machine has to be collected with great care because it is so valuable —not because of its intrinsic value—but because of the amount of duty which attaches to even the dust which falls from the machine. It cannot be right that a firm should be put to that type of additional cost merely because of the artificial value which attaches to the waste products as a result of the general level of the duty being so high.
Much the same is beginning to apply, of course, to hydro-carbon oils, which are referred to in a Clause of the Bill. In the old days, when the duty was small, petrol was a relatively cheap commodity, for example, but now that the duty is so high the commodity has an artificial value and such matters as wastage through evaporation, which were of small financial account either to the distributors or the retailers, are now very serious matters indeed. They see money evaporating out of all proportion to the value of the spirit itself.
107 A number of the Clauses refer to the work of the Customs Service. The ex-Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Sheffield, Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice), referred particularly to Clause 66. I agree with him that it imposes some rights upon Customs officers which at first sight are perhaps too great. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred in particular to documents, personal papers, brief cases and to similar articles. I wonder whether he realises that such articles may be used to conceal a large amount of currency and paper money. It is surely necessary, therefore, that the Customs officers should have the right to make inquiries about purely personal papers and documents which did not matter in the old days. That is surely right and proper, provided it is accepted that the Customs Service should be responsible for the detection of the smuggling of currency.
There seems to be a certain element of duplication, however, in that there are exchange control officers at the ports whose function it is to ensure that passengers arriving and departing conform to the currency regulations, while it is also the duty of the Customs officers —a duty added to them at a time when they are exceptionally busy—to satisfy themselves that no currency is being illegally smuggled into or out of the country.
I suggest to the Financial Secretary that that element of overlapping, which is occurring in many ports and airports, should be investigated and either that the responsibility should be given to the Customs Service, and they should be allowed to retain their staff to carry out the work properly, or alternatively that they should be freed from this additional burden and it should be entirely the responsibility of the exchange control officers.
If it is to be the responsibility of the exchange control officers, let us see an end to the double questioning which occurs at many ports today—indeed, I think it occurs at all of them. The Customs officers ask how much money you have, and at a later stage of the process of getting clearance you are asked by another officer, this time a plain clothes officer, whether you have any money in excess of a certain amount. 108 The practice envisaged in Clause 66 is hallowed by time and general usage. The passenger is required to declare whether he has any dutiable articles and then, as most of us who travel into and out of the country know, there is the usual, hurried conversation with a Customs officer, certain items are mentioned, prices are attached to them and there is something in the nature of a bargaining transaction. Is that a method which should be perpetuated? Ought we always to maintain such a method?
The Americans require a written declaration by the passenger. It saves a great deal of questioning and what one might call bargaining. If goods are found in the passenger's luggage, in excess of those declared, proceedings can be taken against him. At the same time, the list is there in writing so that a lot of the work of the Customs officer is done for him. He does not have to be a clerk as well as a Customs officer, writing out in a copy book pad the details of the articles and the rates of duty. This, of course, all has to be done very often at times of stress late at night or early in the morning, or when the clearance and baggage sheds at the ports are congested with people in a hurry to get away.
As an extension of that method I hope that the urgent need for economy on the part of all Government Departments will not lead to any abandonment of the developing system whereby Customs officers travel on liners and can check passengers' baggage in advance of arrival, so that when the passengers arrive at Southampton or any other port they can walk off with all the Customs formalities concluded in advance.
There is another matter which, I think, deserves reference at present, and that is the concession which Customs officers are allowed to apply in respect of personal goods which are brought into this country. It is generally accepted, I believe, that a person may bring into this country up to half a pint of spirits for his own use—whether diluted or proof or whatever the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch would have them described as—or up to one ounce of tobacco or 50 cigarettes. It is a well known concession, but nowhere appears in writing for the very good reason that officers can withhold it. It 109 does not apply if more than the concessionary quantity of spirits or tobacco is declared at the time of importation. It does seem rather unfair that, if one brings in only half a pint of spirits one gets it duty free, but that if one brings in a pint one has to pay duty on the whole pint and loses the value of the concession.
The concession, if it is a concession, ought to apply as equally as possible to all. If it is really a concession, and if it is to be permanent, then I should like to see it written into this Bill so that all passengers know exactly how they stand. It is also apt to be regarded by some passengers as being in the nature of a personal gift of the Customs officer as to whether he shall extend the concession to the individual or not, and that imposes an additional task upon a very excellent body of men in explaining the circumstances to individual passengers. I hope that if there are other concessions, as there may well be, those concessions, too, can be codified and made generally known.
There is another aspect of the work of the Customs officers, and that is the inspection of imported gift parcels at the sorting offices of the Post Office throughout the country. I do suggest that if concessions are to be given at all—and they have been given in respect of spirits and tobacco—concessions should certainly be possible for imported gift parcels.
We have all, I am sure, had experience of our constituents writing to us complaining of the receipt of a parcel, perhaps from a relative serving overseas, on which the duty and Purchase Tax levy-able was greater than the gift itself. Surely this is a case where we should have some discretion shown and where bona fide gifts should be allowed into this country without payment of duty and Purchase Tax. I know it will be argued that if this were to be allowed it would lead to abuses. I suggest that officers at present engaged on the routine collection of duty and tax on bona fide gifts would have their time freed for following up all abuses and organised rackets, and in this way save the innocent from suffering with the racketeers.
As one would expect in such a Bill, there are a number of references to forfeiture. This is indeed, a highly cherished 110 principle of the Customs and Excise, that when goods are suspected of having been smuggled they may be forfeited. I am quite sure that no Government would lightly abandon their right to enforce forfeiture, but it does seem that that principle, while it may have been valuable in the old days before there was an ordinary civil police in this country, is not now so necessary. Impound offending goods, perhaps; but is the principle of forfeiture really necessary, particularly when it is extended to vehicles carrying goods which may themselves have been smuggled?
There was a good deal of publicity a few days ago over the unfortunate case of the taxi driver who was taking a man up from the docks who had a suitcase, and it so happened that the suitcase contained smuggled articles. Not only was the suitcase impounded, but the taxi as well, since it was a vehicle which was being used for the transport of smuggled goods. That does seem to be carrying the principle of forfeiture too far and surely the right to seize and hold forfeit goods should be limited to those cases where it is really necessary in order to obtain the duty or to punish the offender.
In yet another Clause I see that there is a good deal of reference to the definition of hydrocarbon oils. I was sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch did not direct his considerable knowledge of chemistry and weights and measures to the complicated case of hydrocarbon oils, because here the definition, which may have been sound in the 19th Century or the earlier part of the 20th Century, is no longer appropriate.
I can see the original discussion in the Departmental Committee proceeding along these lines: "Well, we must catch the petrol that is going to he used in these new fangled motor vehicles, but we must protect the poor man's lamp oil. We must not impose a tax on the burning oil of the people but only on the petrol of these luxury motorists." And so we have seen grow up a purely arbitrary definition of light hydrocarbon oils and medium hydrocarbon oils which has led and will continue to lead to a good deal of what I can only describe as taxation engineering, where the best motive 111 unit is not necessarily chosen, but rather one whose fuel will escape tax.
I do not think there would be a single paraffin powered tractor in Britain today were it not for the fact that paraffin does not attract hydrocarbon oil duty. On purely technical engineering grounds nothing can be said in favour of the paraffin tractor as opposed to the petrol tractor. Were it not for the tax on petrol all farmers would undoubtedly use petrol powered tractors. That is one example. Something similar is growing up in the field of aviation, where jet powered aircraft have to pay no tax on paraffin fuel they use, but piston operated engines using petrol will, in fact, have to pay the full duty appropriate to light hydrocarbon oil. Here, surely, is a case where the line of demarcation must be redrawn.
I want to refer to only one other matter, and that is to the vast amount of purely routine work done by Excise officers up and down the country, particularly in connection with firms of repute. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch has made a good deal of fun about the brewers, but I am sure that he will agree that, where it is a matter of complying with the Excise laws, they are honourable, precise and accurate. Indeed, they have to be, because all of them sign formidable bonds which would render them liable to severe losses if they were to try to get around the proper measuring of the taxable commodity in their breweries.
In view of all the precautions that have been taken and can be taken by the Excise, could they not delegate a good deal of the routine checking and testing to the breweries' own staffs? Such a system was very properly adopted by the A.I.D. during the war, whereby they delegated the inspection of aircraft parts to the appropriate inspectors of the firms concerned. It was a system of delegation which worked very well. The Financial Secretary, in his efforts to reduce staffs, or to prevent staffs from growing, should consider extending the A.I.D. principle to the Excise service so that firms might be allowed to do much more of their own checking, testing and preparing their own returns, subject only to an occasional check by an Excise officer, thus freeing the, for the most part, skilled and well- 112 trained staffs for other and more important duties.
When devising methods of collecting duty, particularly when the sums are so large, as they are nowadays, special regard must be had to the amount of working capital which may be locked up needlessly by Excise officers, and in any discussion which may arise out of a review of the present methods I hope it will always be borne in mind that, while it is necessary to collect the duty, it is not fair to collect the duty too soon in the manufacturing process of the dutiable article itself. If the Government are making money dear, then they must have regard to the cost of their own services to the firms who are thereby affected, and I hope that as a result of this Bill, and of such necessary Amendments to it as we shall propose, we may have a Measure which will help industry and the Revenue.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
We have all listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), and we on this side would certainly agree with him when he adds his plea to that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) for a scientific attack upon all these problems, for the sooner we have that the better it will be for our community, and the more will it redound to our credit in this House. These archaic and old-fashioned customs of appraisement no longer fit modern society. In particular, I was impressed by the plea that Tobacco Duty should be imposed at the last stage and not too early, where it obviously creates confusion.
When the hon. Member spoke of duty on gifts I was reminded of a letter I received from a pottery manufacturer a week or so ago, who complained bitterly and asked me to approach the Financial Secretary. He referred to a gift he had already received and another with which he was threatened. It appears that some time ago he entertained at his home some Canadian buyers of his pottery, one of whom accidentally made a false step just before dinner and smashed a statuette, a pottery figure, and also a tray of cocktail glasses. There was some confusion, but my friend explained that it was of no moment.
113 However, we all know that people from the New World are very generous, and before much time had passed a statuette of the same type was sent over from Canada, on which he had to pay rather more duty than he expected, or thought was necessary. After all, he himself makes these pottery statuettes very well. In his letter he asks what he is to do about the cocktail glasses which he anticipates and now fears receiving, expecting to be faced with a bill of about £20 for that gift. I had to write back and say that I did not think I could put it to the Treasury; that I had tried in the past but found them quite adamant; that I thought they were rather stupid about it, and that it would be a waste of time writing. However, I hope he will realise that we have thought of him tonight, and that it was not I in the first place but the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale who raised the whole principle involved.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
Did the gentleman from whom my hon. Friend received this information not think that probably he could well do without the cocktails in future?
§ Dr. Stross
I regret to say I have not the information as to whether or not cocktails were in the glasses. For their sakes, I sincerely hope they had had some before the glasses were broken.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch described the use of this extraordinary machine called the utiliser, and I now understand for the first time what it is, what it does, and what I have seen happening in many places in my wanderings. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), knows about it.
§ Dr. Stross
I am glad to hear it.
I thought my hon. and learned Friend made a good point in inferring that it was not reasonable to assume that everything that drips out from the tap and goes somewhere else is beer and only beer. Obviously, it is not necessarily only beer. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) once initiated a debate on cracked pottery and the dangers of its use, asking that it should be forbidden 114 by law. As a medical man, I would point out that it is not in the best public interest to drink beer from what is possibly a contaminated glass. With present-day consciousness about the clean handling of food, is it not reasonable to expect that beer should be drunk, as it were, at first-hand and not from someone else's vessel?
It may be that a sick person has just been drinking out of the glass, and beer is not a very powerful antiseptic. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, knows that, however much he condemns beer as a commodity, it is weak in specific gravity; its alcoholic content is low—not much higher than that of some forms of ginger beer, and much lower than the form of cider after drinking which my hon. Friend once explained to me he became affected. He did not know what it would do to him. It has never done it since because he has been an abstainer for ever after, and I do not blame him after such an experience. This is not only a question of aesthetics. It may be a matter of public health, and I therefore wish to add my plea that utilisers of this type should be forbidden and never allowed to be used again.
A large portion of this Bill is concerned with the taxation of our own weaknesses and, to some extent, of our vices. That is not to be complained of, for the principle is to give us some protection. It can be argued that the community is best protected from excess by means of taxation of this kind, whether it be of spirits, or whether it be tea or coffee—which are also dangerous if drunk to excess—or whether it be the excessive consumption of tobacco. The simpler we make our laws, as in this consolidated Bill, the better it will be for us all, because it will tend to bring about the most desirable end-result.
Everybody will remember the Hogarth print which shows what happened in "Gin Alley" in the days of the 18th century when one could get drunk for 1d., as the advertisement went, and dead drunk for 2d. This House then had to take cognizance of that fact and put an end to the type of drunkenness which was threatening to destroy our people. There were suicides, blindness and murder, and on investigation it was discovered that the sort of gin brewed from the rubbish that was used—and it was any kind of 115 stew or rubbish—was dangerous because it contained all sorts of alcohols other than ethyl alcohol, causing optic atrophy and blindness.
§ Dr. Stross
Perhaps my hon. Friend does not know the difference between methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol and other alcohols.
§ Dr. Stross
Just as that was all alcohol, so is every human being a human being, and all human beings have a right to continue their speeches without excessive interruption.
This contamination of the higher alcohols, even in small quantities, gives a "kick" to a liquor—that is the common term—and even a slight amount will cause optic atrophy, delirium and blindness, and drive people to acts which they otherwise would not dream of committing. The way in which this House acted then was to increase the duty on the raw materials from which the gin was brewed, making it impossible for the purveyors of these illicit stills to buy their rubbish cheaply and brew it. So, gradually, the distilling of gin fell into more reasonable hands, and, by doing so, became better in quality, and we had fewer accidents and less danger to public health.
But what follows from this? I think that we must take note that all this taxation which we are now imposing upon our people and upon ourselves should not be only for the purpose of merely bringing money into the Revenue. I am sure that the Financial Secretary would not dream of asking for these vast sums of money purely for the sake of getting money for specific purposes. He has to resort, so far as possible, to the most moral way of extorting money out of our folk, doing them the least possible harm, and, if possible, doing them some good in the process.
This brings me to some of the other Clauses, which are very interesting. I suggest to the Financial Secretary that he ought to look a little more carefully at the contents of the Bill. I know that there is a Clause on vinegar or makers, and, at the end—Clause 225 1. 7)—it states: 116For the purposes of this Act, but for no other purpose, a person who makes with acetic acid any substitute for vinegar for sale shall be deemed to be a maker of vinegar for sale.I would like to have seen, if I may suggest it with respect, something in the Clause forbidding the sale of substitutes for vinegar. It is not difficult to make good natural vinegar, and vinegar really is a natural commodity. It is either spoilt wine or spoilt beer in which the fermentation is allowed to go further so that there is acetic acid content rather than alcohol. It is a small point, but it is worth looking at.
If we are to pay so much money in taxation, let us have a little protection from it. We have in Clause 178 a section on home-grown tobacco. This is something which is bound to be of great interest to all constituents. Even in the atmosphere of Stoke-on-Trent, polluted as it is, in the backyards we grow with care very good tobacco. It is grown by people who have 15, 20 or 30 plants and who find them very interesting; unless they forget to nip off the buds at the top, in which case they become all flower and no leaves, and do not yield much tobacco. In the Clause it is stated thatno person shall grow tobacco, or cure tobacco grown in the United Kingdomand that in any event he must be licensed and pay 5s., whether he grows or cures, and if he commits a fault he is liable to a penalty of £50 and the tobacco to be forfeited.
The majority of these growers in all our constituencies grow, as I say, a few plants. Some grow them purely for decorative purposes and never make any tobacco from them. These plants grow to eight or nine feet in height and have a very magnificent flower. Personally, I do not like to think that the wording of the Clause should be "grow or cure." I think that if people grow tobacco plants and do not cure them, they should not have to be licensed. I think that if they grow them in their own little gardens, and do not grow more than 30 plants, they should not have to be licensed at all, even if they cure them. I hope that the Financial Secretary will consider that point. It is a little hard for anyone who grows one or two plants of tobacco, perhaps by accident—and they can grow by accident when the seed is blown over from a neighbours' yard—that he has to 117 have a licence and, if he has not, he is, by this Clause, liable to a fine of £50.
Then we have the question of tea. Tea is not a delirient or an intoxicant, but it is certainly a stimulant. Clause 229, under the heading "Tea, Coffee, Cocoa, etc.," has two most interesting paragraphs (a) and (b) which refer to the analysis of imported tea which may have some other substance added to it or which may be exhausted tea. I would like some information on this matter. I am asking a serious question. I presume that "exhausted tea" is really like exhausted barley, first used for brewing our beer and then exported to make lager beer in some other country. So I assume that "exhausted tea" is imported tea leaves from which someone else has had a drink in the first place.
We are accustomed in this country to tea drinking. For some 200 years it has been the national custom to believe that it is good for one to drink tea. I worked out—I think that it was in 1940—that on an average consumption of three ounces of tea a week, our total national intake of pure caffein is about 50 million lb. a year. It is quite simple to work out. There is about one-and-a-half grains of pure caffein in the average strong cup of tea. Some people think nothing of drinking 10 cups of tea a day, which would give them 15 grains of caffein. The maximum medicinal dose of caffein for a day is five grains.
So it is apparent that some people who would never think of drinking beer intoxicate themselves by taking an excessive amount of caffein through their tea. Then they pose before us as virtuous people, forgetting that they are the truest type of drug addicts because caffein is a true cerebral stimulant, whereas the amount of alcohol found in beer, lager beer and cider can never be a dilerient, is not stimulating and is really ultimately depressing. In asking for information about "exhausted tea" being allowed to come in, I would like to know what sort of tea it is and what has been done to it to exhaust it. If the Financial Secretary would give me answers to these questions I would be greatly obliged to him.
I end by saying, as I said at the beginning, that this is obviously a most valuable Bill. If it can be improved upon in its later stages we shall all be happy 118 about it, and do all that we can on this side to assist the Financial Secretary in his duties.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)
I feel that I ought to disclose that I am one of the tea drinking sinners to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) referred, before I intervene very briefly in this debate to make one very simple point in support of one of the arguments advanced by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing).
Before I do so, I think that it may interest the House to remind hon. Members of a very famous reporter of the House of Commons—a most unscrupulous reporter of the House of Commons—Dr. Johnson, who defined Excise as a hateful taxation levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but by wretches hired by those to whom the Excise is paid. Upon the occasion of this definition which he made on Excise in his dictionary, the Attorney-General of the time was consulted as to whether it was really a serious libel on Excisemen, and he decided that Dr. Johnson was guilty of libel but took the view that he should not be prosecuted, and our King of the time gave him a pension.
Clubs do a tremendous amount of business with the brewers, buying beer for hundreds of thousands of consumers, and for years they have been asking the brewers to disclose the specific gravity of the beer which they sell. For their own protection, the clubs have to set up departments to test the beers supplied to them. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch was asking for a reasonable thing when he urged that the Bill, which compels the makers of spirits to disclose the specific gravity of the spirits, should also impose a condition on the brewers so that the clubs may be certain that they buy a commodity of a standard value.
I do not know what the motives of the brewers are. I have had occasion in this House to call attention to the fact that a simple test applied to the profits of some dozen reputable brewery companies last year showed an average of between 20 and 25 per cent. interest on the shares. It seems to me that the brewers, who are doing very well out of beer, should grant 119 the clubs this elementary piece of justice and declare the specific gravity of the beer so that the clubs may know that what they buy is of a certain standard. I hope that the Government will accept the plea of my hon. and learned Friend that such provision should be made in the Bill.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) very far in the description which he has given of gin produced under modern conditions. He seemed to think that in these modern days gin had lost some of the evil influences which were well recognised in an earlier century, but if he had been as keen to give us a genuine medical opinion about modern gin as about ancient gin a great deal could have been said about the serious consequences on the lives and health of people who fall victims to it. If medical opinion gets mixed in the way that it has done this evening about so obvious an evil, many of us will begin to be doubtful about medical opinions in many other directions.
To return to the main issues which have been raised in the debate, both the Financial Secretary and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) called me in aid at one part or another of the interesting cases they were making. I agree that we need to have in this Bill or some other Bill a straightening out of many of the things which have taken place in connection with the collection of Excise Duty, especially upon intoxicating liquors, which have played a large part in the course of the debate.
The Financial Secretary called my attention to the fact that the Twelfth Schedule begins with a reference to Acts which are to be repealed. One Act is the Sale of Beer Act, 1795, two Sections of which are to be repealed. Another Act is the famous Beerhouse Act, 1830. It is historical that the time has come to rid the Statute Book of that Act, because it was the one that Wellington introduced, in the belief that it was a temperance Measure, making beerhouses free and easy for everyone in the country in the hope that the gin drinking which had been prevalent would be limited. Its conse- 120 quences were the opposite of what he had intended. The great publicist of those days, Sydney Smith, referred to the "sovereign people of Britain lying drunken in their gutter" in consequence. It is good to know that something can happen in legislation to terminate that Act, with the exception of one small part of it which is retained. Other Beerhouse Acts are included in the list of Measures to be repealed.
As the Financial Secretary said when he was talking about fines, there ought to be some reconsideration of present-day values. I understand that fines which have been imposed with reference to smuggling and breaches of the excise and customs laws have been considerably increased. There is mention of a fine of £500 as well as forfeiture of goods and of instruments used in the illegal production or distribution of articles which are regulated under the customs and excise laws. Many other heavy penalties are imposed, and it is right that that should be so.
I doubt whether I could agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), who, in referring to charges against those who smuggle goods into the country, spoke about the injustice of the act of forfeiture. I am very doubtful whether there is any injustice in that act. These days when, in view of all sorts of new devices, customs officers are encountering increasing difficulties in regard to smuggling, I do not believe that any case can be made for the lightening of the penalties for that type of offence, and I believe that a good deal of consideration would have to be given by the House before it could agree with the plea by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale for the ending of forfeiture for such offences.
If it be right, in order to suit present-day values, to raise the penalties, why do the charges for the licences themselves remain so low, as is indicated in the Schedules? For example, the licence charge for wholesale distribution of spirits is only 15 guineas and the licence for the wholesale distribution of beer is as low as 10 guineas. Those figures are out of all proportion to the astronomical profits which the liquor trade is making today out of the sale of intoxicants. After the tremendous figures of profits which have been given to us in this House at different times and after all we know 121 about the constant appreciation of brewers' shares on the stock market, there is no case for the rate of licence charges which the Bill still contemplates.
We cannot, of course, discuss the Budget at this stage, although we are not very far from Budget day, but if there is any likelihood of the imposition of charges upon necessaries of life which are being discussed openly, to retain the sort of level of charges mentioned in the Bill is altogether out of the question, and some reconsideration should be given to it before the Bill becomes law.
I was especially interested in the proposal of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch that, either in connection with this Bill or in some other way, we ought to devise some means of assuring the purchasers of commodities such as beer and spirits of exactly what it is they are buying. Hon. Members seem to have been satisfied with the idea that as long as people are told precisely what is the specific gravity of beer they will be all right. A great deal more than that is wanted.
A Royal Commission rather carefully examined this question of statements made in advertisements and on labels about the value of liquors sold in bottles. The Royal Commission said that they were in the habit of scattering around palpably scientific untruths—an excellent phrase which I should have translated into more simple language—about the food value, for example, of beer, the milk that is in milk stout, the healing qualities of medicinal wines—I am sorry that my medicinal Friend has disappeared—that poor, deluded women are persuaded into buying by palpably scientific untruths.
I at once respond to the appeal, although my hon. Friend had very different motives from mine, that there should be printed on the label exactly what people are buying. What a boon it would be if people could know that regularly in their bottles of beer, at the high price they must now pay, there is 95 per cent., 96 per cent., or 97 per cent. water. They can buy water from their own taps for practically nothing. It would be a good thing if they could be told how little is left of the carbo-hydrates and other nutritive values in barley and other things which go to make up beer in the brewing processes; if people could read on those bottles, as they can on the bottles of a reputable firm of chemists 122 such as Messrs. Boots, of what is contained in the drug bottles, they could see how little is left after the brewing process is over of the food that the brewers in their advertisements pretend is there.
I entirely agree that there should be a reconsideration of this question so that people might be told the truth regarding this matter, not as my hon. Friend the Member for the Test Division for Southampton (Dr. King) suggested—that people might get more in the clubs—but that they would be willing, through the truth they learn, to buy less; and I believe that my hon. Friend agrees with me in that aim.
In one part of the Bill I see a reference to the use of sugar in the manufacture of beer and to the fines to be imposed if sugar is taken and utilised for brewing processes without due permission and due registration. I should think there is a specially good reason today why such a provision should appear.
At this moment, with the hue and cry which goes up from the people for greater quantities of sugar and with the threat of taking further supplies from the manufacture of sweets for our children, the time has arrived when the very sternest measures should be taken against the utilisation of sugar by the brewing trade on anything like the present scale. As I said once before in this House, the sugar they take in various forms is probably equivalent to from five to seven weeks' ration of the sugar people need as a whole. In that situation there is a special need for the sternest provisions against any increasing use of sugar, or its derivatives, in the trade.
I realise that the issues upon which I have embarked are too big to be held within the scope of the provisions of the Bill, and I do not propose to trespass any more on the patience of the House, or on your patience, Sir, but I think it right to say this in these days of waste and of threat against great and important services.
One of my hon. Friends referred to the Health Service and the necessity for preserving the sale, under proper conditions, of intoxicants. He would have been on the surest grounds if he had said, as I say now, that one of the fundamental causes of ill-health in this country, one of the reasons why we have to spend in our national Budget on local taxation so much 123 on preventable disease and crime is the enormous expenditure on intoxicants that still goes on in our midst. Anything we can do, either by this Bill or any Bill, to reduce that process would do far more towards the attainment of a finer standard of public health than could be obtained by making it easier for this deleterious substance to come so much into the possession and enjoyment of the people.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)
I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) is not here, as I want to make two comments on what he said at the end of his rather ingenious and ingenuous speech. He suggested that there was a loophole in the law by means of which the brewers were able to evade the payment of £12 million per year in duty—[An HON. MEMBER: "He did not say that."] He suggested that.
§ Mr. Price
I agree. I realise that. I did not say that it was illegal. My statement was that the hon. and learned Member said that there was a loophole in the law by means of which they were able to avoid payment of £12 million a year which they ought to pay. The hon. Member has simply said what I said but has used far more words to say it.
I wish to make one or two comments. First, the hon. and learned Member's arithmetic was wrong. If his other facts are accepted the sum involved is £15 million per year. Second, if this loophole does exist, and if it could be closed, and if the brewers could be mulcted of an extra £15 million a year, where does the hon. Member think that money is to come from? It cannot possibly come out of the brewers' profits, because it is far more than the whole of the net profits of the brewing industry. It would simply result either in a reduction of the duty or, which is much more likely, another increase in the price of beer.
The position is not, therefore, as the hon. and learned Member for Horn- 124 church represented it—that we could get an extra £12 million out of the brewing industry and thus avoid the necessity of inflicting charges of approximately the same amount in respect of the National Health Service. If we adopted the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Member we should not only have to ask the working man to pay something towards the Health Service but also to pay an extra £15 million a year towards his beer, a suggestion for which the working man will not thank him.
I wish to make one other small point on this matter. If the hon. and learned Member's suggestion has anything in it, during the last six years the Socialist Government have made a present to the brewing industry of £90 million. I have a very vivid imagination, but even my imagination falters at that prospect.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price) made the best comment on his principal observations when he said, "I wish to make one other small point." I have a feeling, taking his oration, on his own evaluation, that I need not follow him greatly into the point he made, but I may return to it in a few minutes. Did the hon. Member wish to make an observation?
§ Mr. Hale
Because even a small point, if it be an attack on a Member who is not here, should not be dealt with in the absence of that Member. That is one of the reasons why I may come to it in due course.
I am grateful for one speech made on the other side of the House. We had a comfortable little debate on this Bill, on the whole one in which it has been very heavy going, full of expertise from all sides. I rise because I feel the time must come in matters of complexity when some one who has no expertise and who claims no special knowledge should bring to bear on the debate a virgin and indeed an innocent mind.
I wish to express my sincere apologies to the Financial Secretary for the fact that I had to leave in the middle of his interesting and charming opening speech as I had a meeting to attend downstairs. 125 But I was able to come back and hear my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). When I left, the Financial Secretary was saying, in spite of what I said in a previous debate, that he proposed to indulge in what he described as a few more encomia. I was hoping that he was going on to say that encomia were this afternoon at premia.
It seemed to me eminently gratifying to hear some literary quotations even if some had not been carefully prepared. Dr. Johnson—whom I admire very much —on Excise, was rather damned by Johnson on "pensions" when he accepted a pension himself. So far as his definition of Excise is concerned I suspect that his views may have been influenced by the fact that Tom Paine was the most distinguished contemporary Excise officer and that Tom Paine was a man whom Dr. Johnson did not greatly admire. This afternoon, earlier, I referred to another great Excise officer, Robbie Burns, who did not hold his office actively for a long period.
I must say that one thing which has surprised me very much has been the amount of concentration on alcohol that has taken place in this debate. I thought it would be a nautical debate; that we should have piracy on the high seas, ships being ordered into port and all the fascinating things that we could find in the 320 or so Clauses. However, we are all grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch for his contribution. I like to think that when we amass that library of tomes with attractive titles such as, "Byles on Bills," we shall now have "Bing on Gravity." It seems to me very appropriate and one which we shall all want to add to our collection.
I am sorry my hon. and learned Friend is not here, since in his speech my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing. North (Mr. J. Hudson), referred to Sydney Smith. Sydney Smith pointed out to his brother that they were both completely contrary to the laws of nature, that his brother had risen by his gravity and that he, Sydney Smith, had sunk by his levity. I hope that will not be the fate of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch.
Having endeavoured to be disarming for a few minutes, I must come to the 126 gravamen of my charge against the Bill, and there are one or two charges against it. No one now claims that this is a consolidating Measure. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), very properly decided to initiate a Measure for consolidating the laws of Customs and Excise. Then it was found that the law was in such a dreadful mess that something had to be done about it even as a temporary measure. It could not be brought to Parliament and shown in all its horror without some provisions being made. It is true—I am not trying to make a party point—that most of these matters go back to long before the Socialist Government. Some go back to 1750.
It is amazing how Parliament has been ignorant of the law of Customs and Excise. For five years we had the privilege of listening to Members opposite, including the Financial Secretary, talking about snoopers, the liberty of the subject, rights of entering private houses, and so on. He sometimes entertained us, sometimes instructed us; on some occasions I have found myself in agreement with him in these matters. But the powers given to the Commissioners of Customs and Excise in the old days are fantastically surprising. It is to the shame of every Government which has been in office in the last 50 years that nothing has been done about it up to now. It would be a shame to let this Bill go to any Committee without at least saying a few things to that Committee about what we think of these powers.
As recently as last Wednesday at Plymouth a taxi-cab had, we were told, been confiscated under the Customs and Excise law because it had carried contraband without anyone connected with the taxicab knowing anything about it. The owner of the cab had been compelled to pay a sum of £250 in redemption of that cab.
I say at once that I am merely quoting from a newspaper report which would be a summary and that there may be relevant circumstances that we do not know about. But at least I have checked up the powers. There is no doubt whatever that when the solicitor, protesting, said that they could not only confiscate the taxicab, but that they could confiscate a ship worth £30,000, or for that matter £3 million, merely because it had carried contraband without 127 the knowledge of the captain, he was right and correct under the old law and this Bill.
I refer the Financial Secretary to Clause 277 of the Bill, which enumerates these powers in the fullest possible detail. It says:Without prejudice to any other provision of this Act, where any thing has become liable to forfeiture under the customs or excise Acts—If a person brings over a contraband diamond in a huge and otherwise legal crown and conveys it in a car and runs it on board a ship, or indeed if a person brings it in the train and runs it on the Dunkirk ferry, then under this Clause one could confiscate the ship, the car or the train, the rails, the crown, the diamond and the trunk that it is in under the strict interpretation of this Clause. If the diamond was in someone's pocket, one could confiscate the trousers and possibly the wearer.
shall also be liable to forfeiture.
- (a) any ship, aircraft, vehicle, animal, container (including any article of passengers' baggage) or other thing whatsoever which has been used for the carriage, handling, deposit or concealment of the thing so liable to forfeiture, either at a time when it was so liable or for the purposes of the commission of the offence for which it later became so liable; and
- (b) any other thing mixed, packed or found with the thing so liable,…
If I were making a purely academic point, if I were saying that this very wide power has existed for years but was not able to say that it had ever been exercised, people might say, "Well, after all. What is there in it? They do not do these things." But here we have had in these last few days a very clear account of an exercise of this exceedingly arbitrary power to the detriment of one of Her Majesty's subjects without, so far as we are informed, any fault on his part except a lack of knowledge or a lack of care.
My hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church referred to something similar in the early stages of the Bill. I say sincerely to the Financial Secretary, knowing his interest in these matters, that I believe that if he was not sitting on the Treasury Bench and if he had read this Clause, he would say that it was dreadful. We will take Clause 4, which says—and I will abbreviate it:Any act or thing required or authorised by or under any enactment to be done by the 128 Commissioners or any of them … or by a secretary or assistant secretary … or by any other person authorised generally….Then I come to subsection (2):Any person, whether an officer or not, engaged by the orders or with the concurrence of the Commissioners (whether previously or subsequently expressed) in the performance of any act or duty relating to an assigned matter …I pause here for a moment because it is getting complicated. In other words, that means any person appointed by the Commissioners, whether subsequently or not. As I read it, if I happen to get to know something about smuggling and I either collect the whisky myself or find out where it is and tell the Commissioners, a Commissioner can say, "We will appoint you for the purpose of this matter as a Customs officer and date the appointment back to before you found the whisky. Anything you do is legal and anything done against you becomes illegal."
The Clause continues:…by or with an officer, shall be deemed to be the proper officer by or with whom that act or duty is to be performed….If I resented the mild interruption of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) and we came to fisticuffs on our way home, the Home Secretary could say to the hon. Member, "Look here. I appoint you a police officer for the purpose of this matter." To say the least of it, that would be most unfair to me, unless I had been more violent than is my wont.
If the Home Secretary looks at Clause 10 he will see that:Any person who—In other words, we can take the matter one step further. One can appoint an accomplice in this as a Customs officer ad hoc and date his appointment back to the commencement of it. He can act without uniform and known by us at that time not to be a Customs officer, but if I attempt to rescue a friend of mine who has been put under temporary arrest by him then I commit a serious crime, although I have no means of knowing that he ever 129 was a Customs officer, although I know that he is not a Customs officer and although his appointment may have been made the day after the offence occurred. I have read this Clause rather carefully. I know that it may be surprising to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but that is the position. Who passed it, I do not know, but I think it was about 1822 when that power was originally adumbrated, and it has not been subject to Amendment since 1923.
- (a) obstructs, hinders, molests or assaults any person duly engaged in the performance of any duty…or does anything which impedes or is calculated to impede the carrying out of any search … or rescues, damages or destroys any thing so liable to forfeiture … or prevents the detention of any person by a person duly engaged or acting as aforesaid…"
Now I come—and I am sorry to take more than a few minutes at this hour of the night—to some of the matters that have been added recently. With my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson), for whom I have a profound respect, I am exceedingly reluctant to criticise anything that happened in the Kennet Committee, and, normally, I would not think of doing so, since the clear duties with which that Committee was charged with performing were admirably performed, but some of the Amendments put before the Committee appear to me to have added unintelligibility to incomprehensibility in a very remarkable degree.
There is a Clause about coastal shipping, which includes a statement as simple as anything I have read in a statute of this kind for some considerable time:Subject to the next following section, any ship for the time being engaged in the trade of carrying goods coastwise between places in the United Kingdom shall for the purposes of this Act be a coasting ship.That is a statement so simple that one wonders why it was ever inserted at all. Then, I miss out the next subsection, which is irrelevant, and quote:The Commissioners may from time to time give directions as to what trade by water between places in the United Kingdom is or is not to be deemed to be carrying goods coastwise.I suppose one can understand that, when one goes up a river it is abundantly clear that that is not coastwise shipping, but that coastwise shipping does mean going from one place to another.
Next, Clause 58 (1) says:The Commissioners may, subject to such conditions and restrictions as they see fit to impose, permit a ship to carry goods coastwise notwithstanding that the ship is carrying goods brought therein from some place outside the United Kingdom and not yet entered on importation.130 I need not worry very much about that. A ship comes from outside, and it becomes a coastwise ship, and one can understand that, but the next sentence is a little alarming:Provided that a ship so permitted to carry goods coastwise shall not for the purposes this Act be a coasting ship.I thought that was beginning to get a little complex, but, if the Parliamentary Secretary will read the variety of permits the Commissioners may give and the exceptions they can make in the next Clause or two, he will realise that I have nowhere near exhausted them.
Finally, we come to Clause 61, which is followed by two and a half pages of regulations concerning coastwise shipping and the unloading of goods, and I am not trying to make the quite extraordinary points that are available to be made here, such as that it is a criminal offence to deal with goods except in exact accord with the terms of the licence of the Commissioners, and that no provisions are made regarding storms and tempests. You commit an offence if you do not get your ship to port; to port you must get.
Clause 61 says:The Commissioners may make regulations as to the carriage of goods coastwise—Then follow, the words—
- (a) regulating the loading and unloading and the making waterborne for loading of goods;
- (b) requiring the keeping and production by the master of a coasting ship of such record of the cargo carried in that ship as may be prescribed by the regulations."If any person contravenes.…In effect, we find that the Bill defines coastwise shipping, then says when it is not coastwise shipping, specifies when a ship is and is not a coastwise ship, when it is or is not a partly coastwise ship and partly a riverborne ship, and gives power to make regulations to mix up the whole darn thing, and I would submit that that sort of circumlocution does not help towards clarity and lucidity or in any other way.
Hon. Members opposite have made comments about the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch, and I interjected to suggest that one hon. Gentleman had not understood the argument of my hon. and learned Friend. The hon. Gentleman seemed to resent the suggestion, but went 131 on to make it quite clear that I was right in his next few sentences.
Clause 133 of this Bill gives an allowance to brewers for wastage of 6 per cent. It is perfectly simple and clear, and I see that the Financial Secretary is nodding his head, indicating that we have reached a point at which we have developed at any rate temporary agreement. The point made by my hon. and learned Friend was that methods of brewing have improved recently, even though that fact does not bring any great joy to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. H. Hudson). The plain fact is that there is no wastage. It is rather relevant to consider in this connection the amount of wastage allowed by the brewers to the tenants. I think I am correct in saying that they do not allow any at all.
§ Mr. Peter Remnant (Wokingham)
I cannot, of course, accept the comment of the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) that the brewers charge for more than they deliver, though I do agree with him that casks vary in content. The older a cask becomes, the greater the amount of its contents. The wastage occurs in the brewing before the beer is dispatched.
§ Mr. Remnant
As the hon. Gentleman knows some fermentation takes place and that means the splitting up of the sugar. One of the constituents is carbonic acid gas which, I believe, floats away.
§ Mr. Hale
I hope the hon. Gentleman will give us the fullest information. No one would wish to be committed to a theory which is inaccurate, but, even so, 6 per cent. seems a very remarkable figure. I was interested in the barrelage theory. I was always under the impression that if I bought a nine gallon barrel of beer I got nine gallons of beer.
§ Mr. Remnant
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that if he were to ask me to supply him with a nine gallon barrel I would take every precaution to see that he gets the full quantity.
§ Mr. Hale
I do not want to pursue this matter, because we are not greatly advancing the important arguments I have enunciated. I do not think tenants of brewery houses would be satisfied by being told that I was going to get a full nine gallon barrel on one occasion only. When the hon. Gentleman intervened and said there was no wastage in pouring beer into a glass I thought it was a great tribute to the accuracy, poise and good health of licensed victuallers who are able to carry out this delicate operation with so little loss.
However, I was rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman who intervened did not follow my hon. and learned Friend in what I thought was a much more important side of the very admirable argument he put regarding the question of the strength of the alcoholic content which, apparently, is never declared at all. Whether it be true or not that the tenants are charged a little more in quantity, the hon. Gentleman will surely not deny that they charge a little more in price, and that the public could buy the same beer in the free houses or clubs next door which rent their premises from the same brewery.
§ Mr. Remnant
Surely the hon. Gentleman wishes to be perfectly fair and will realise that in a sale to what is known as a tied tenant the seller of the beer has certain liabilities in the way of repairs which he has not to a free tenant or a club.
§ Mr. Hale
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman; we have not heard that point put before. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch and I will be most happy to meet the hon. Gentleman opposite to discuss this matter, because my hon. and learned Friend had a tied houses Bill which would have relieved the brewers entirely of this dreadful responsibility. We can at any rate form a temporary coalition with the hon. Gentleman opposite over this one matter, and I hope we shall make a substantial advance.
I thought my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch was a little 133 unjust at one point when he suggested that the giving of this money to the brewers was perhaps an unexpected act on the part of Her Majesty's Government and that it had become a little more inappropriate at a time when we were threatened with the revision and indeed the cancellation of the provisions for the control of public houses in the new towns. I do not think it is fair to criticise them in that way. I think one can see the position in which the Government were placed, having started up by giving £22 million to their pals in the City it was almost impossible for them to refuse the reasonable blandishments of the brewers who have been their most consistent supporters.
§ Mr. Braine
I am grateful to the hon. Member for allowing me to intervene. Speaking as one who represents a constituency in which a new town is to be established let me inform him, if he does not already know it, that the most strenuous opposition to the nationalisation of public houses in new towns came from the residents of those towns. There is no question at all, as far as I am aware, of any—
§ Mr. Hale
I am sorry. I am afraid that it was my irrelevance that tempted the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) into irrelevance, and to inaccuracy to a certain extent. If I could follow I would point out the distance of Carlisle from the place to which he refers and the difficulties of people who have to rely for their information on propaganda. I am very anxious to facilitate Government business and not to take undue time over this matter. I am sorry that the House has been forced into this situation. This is an exceedingly important Measure, which covers a very wide subject. Some of the Acts affected by this Bill have been in force for over 100 years. Surely the time has come for the House to be given ample opportunity of discussing this matter at length and to consider these things Clause by Clause.
The homework for last night was over 1,000 pages of statutory reading and we are expected to co-operate with the Government by seeing that these things are disposed of by 10 o'clock. It would have been better to have had shorter holidays at Christmas and to have adopted the 134 old method of considering these matters in detail and not risk having a position where, as we were told in the courts yesterday, a Clause we passed some years ago is so meaningless that judicial effect cannot be given to it.
That is the kind of tragedy we may have to face if the Front Bench opposite try to force through too much legislation. We are anxious to co-operate. I think we have done so today in disposing of so many Measures in so short a time. Assuming that this Bill gets a Second Reading tonight, never in the history of Parliament have the Opposition cooperated to such an extent to pass so many Bills in so little time. In two Bills alone there are 400,000 words, many of them words put in a juxtaposition which gives them an extraordinary complexity and places a heavy burden on those of us who are anxious to discharge our duties to our constituents by giving reasonable consideration to every Measure that is brought before us.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
With the leave of the House, I should like to deal with a number of matters raised in this interesting and sometimes lively debate. It is perhaps appropriate that this has been a debate of a literary character with literary quotations of wide variety both of point and indeed of relevance, because the whole subject of Customs is intertwined historically with our literature from the days when Geoffrey Chaucer was Collector of the Port of London through the days, to which hon. Members have already referred, when the late Mr. Burns was an official of the Customs. Indeed, reports of his conduct of his duties in that capacity exist at Customs and Excise Headquarters in London to this day.
Quite a number of the points raised are quite clearly points which will have to be examined during the further stages which this Bill will go through if it receives a Second Reading. I would not wish to give the impression that because I do not on this evening actually deal with a particular point, its importance has been overlooked. On the contrary, all that has been said in this debate will be carefully considered, and if the House is good enough to adopt the suggestion which the Government will make in the Motion that is on the Order Paper, all these points will have the opportunity of being 135 analysed during the two Committee stages —in accordance with the ruling which was given from the Chair earlier—during a discussion by the Joint Select Committee and then in the course of the Committee stage in this House. That will give what, in the view of the Government, and I think of the House, is a proper and necessary opportunity for the consideration of a Measure of this size and complexity.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I think there was a ruling from the Chair that that would be the procedure. I do not think we need concern ourselves further with that difficulty.
There is a general comment that I should like to make before seeking to reply to particular matters. A good many speeches have been made, in particular the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), making criticisms of particular aspects of the Customs and Excise law on their merits. Those sort of criticisms are, in my respectful submission, not wholly relevant to this Measure. What this Measure seeks to do, as I said in moving the Second Reading, is, with only such Amendments as are necessary to produce a coherent and logical whole, to re-enact the corpus of the Customs and Excise law as it exists.
That does not and need not mean that the process will stop there, but I think that most hon. Members who have considered this matter will agree with me that it is really impossible to go into a proper consideration of the powers, rights and duties of Customs and Excise unless and until the existing body of law has been got into a comprehensive and comprehensible form. That is the basis on which so far the various steps which have been taken in connection with this Bill by various hon. Members on both sides of the House have proceeded.
I need only remind the house that when the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), appointed the Kennet Committee which, as I pointed out, examined this Bill last year, the terms of 136 reference given to that Committee expressly instructed them to say in particular whether the Committee consider that any alterations of law are of such importance that they ought in their opinion to be separately enacted by Parliament. Therefore, the whole Measure has so far proceeded on the basis that it was not the function of this Bill to make large, though quite possible meritorious, Amendments in the existing law.
The purpose of this Bill was, on the basis of the existing law, to produce a comprehensible and comprehensive whole which might itself well be a foundation for particular and subsequent Amendments dealing points of merit. Therefore, if I do not deal with all the criticisms of precise provisions which have been made, and with some of which I am bound to say I have great personal sympathy, it implies no discourtesy to the hon. Member who has made them. It is still less a failure to appreciate a point of the criticisms, but it is based on my view, rightly or wrongly, that it is not the function of this Bill to put such matters right.
I noticed with great interest what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice). My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General was on the bench beside me during the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I can tell him that my hon. and learned Friend heard what he said and, on his behalf as well as my own, I undertake that both the points raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be given full consideration. He will not expect me, as a former lawyer, to intrude upon his Department's activities in too great detail at this stage. I think he would resent it if I did. But I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that my hon. and learned Friend is aware of the points he made and that they will be considered during the remaining stages of the Bill.
§ Mr. Bing
The hon. Gentleman asked leave to speak in place of the hon. and learned Solicitor-General—and I think the House generally gave him leave to speak under the impression that he would deal with the points which would normally be dealt with by the Solicitor-General, whom we were led to expect would speak. I think he should make some effort to deal with these important matters.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
With great respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, no Member speaking from this bench on the points of complexity raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman on the Second Reading of the Bill would, if he thought there was a point in them worth considering, give any other answer than that those points would be considered. Really, the hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be manufacturing a grievance with a remarkable shortage of material when, in answer to his right hon. and learned Friend, I gave the assurance I have just given.
Subject to the general qualifications of our approach to this Bill, I will deal with some of the points made in the course of this debate. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens), that what he described as his points of detail will be very appropriately considered during the later stages of the Bill.
I listened, as I always do, to the extremely interesting comments made by the hon. and learned Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing). He has apparently given profound study to the activities of the brewing industry and I am sure the House, regardless of party, gets a great deal of pleasure on his retailing to us the results of his researches into that interesting form of activity. Much of what he said related to the habitual criticisms— which with his habitual adroitness, he succeeds in making quite a number—of the industry and of the Bill.
I thought the main line of his criticism was on Clause 134 of the Bill—the famous 6 per cent. I can only say two things with regard to that. Whatever may be the merits or demerits of this particular solution, it is a re-enactment substantially of the existing position, which is in accordance with the general theme of the Bill. I can assure him, particularly in the present state of this country, that there is no desire on the part of either the Customs authorities or Her Majesty's Government that there should be a leak either in the casks of beer or in the Revenue.
But changes in the basis of assessment of a tax, which is really what he is asking for, are not measures of the kind which appropriately come within this Bill. I was sorry that he spoilt his very interesting analysis by implications of motives 138 which, if they have any validity, must be implications not only against Her Majesty's present advisers but all those of earlier days, and of all political parties, who have gone into this Bill and this subject in particular. After he had brought so much technical knowledge to bear, I am sorry that he depreciated the value of it to some extent by suggestions of motive which I do not think we can seriously contemplate.
§ Mr. Bing
Would the hon. Gentleman deal with two equally important questions? The first is that of the declaration of the original gravity of the beer, which is a matter which can be affected by a very simple alteration in the Bill; and the second is a question on which I think the whole industry would like some guidance —whether the filtering back of slops is an offence under Clause 163 or not.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is not a function of a Minister at this Box to give a ruling as to what does or does not constitute a criminal offence. That is a function of the courts of law. On the other point, the assessment of gravity, what this Bill seeks to do is to re-enact the existing practice. The Sikes hydrometer process has become obsolete in the course of time and the method laid down in the Bill is, I understand, the existing method, and once again, therefore, is in accordance with the general principles of the Bill.
I am not prepared on this occasion to concede that even if other methods were better they would be appropriate to the Bill, but I shall be happy on any occasion when the hon. and learned Gentleman likes to submit details, to consider, with a view to subsequent Measures, whether there is anything in the proposal which he makes. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, these are highly technical questions. The method used in this country is an old one. It may well not be as good as those used in some other countries, but I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to say that when we are seeking to do what we are doing in the Bill, then to alter the method used for another method does not come within the general intentions. I hope he will accept the view that when we say that we are not motivated by some obscure deal with somebody else outside.
§ Mr. Bing
The hon. Gentleman has been very kind in giving way and I do not wish to intervene too often. Apparently I did not make the point clear, however. I am asking the hon. Gentleman if he would be kind enough to deal with this point, which concerns the declaration of the original gravity of the beer. Clause 163 makes it an offence to dilute the beer, but if the original gravity is not declared it is impossible to know whether the beer has been diluted or not. It would be quite simple to insert a provision making it compulsory to declare the gravity upon which duty was paid. Were this done, it would be possible to test whether or not Clause 163 had been infringed.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am sorry to weary the House on this point, but the hon. and learned Gentleman must appreciate that a change of that nature, be it good or be it bad—and I am not concerned about that at the moment—would vitiate the whole approach to the Bill. One is dealing with a large number of people who quite genuinely hold ideas which might well constitute improvements in the existing law if enacted over the whole of the vast scope of this legislation, but if we allow ourselves to be tempted into making what might well be improvements in that direction we shall simply get into the state of confusion which it is the purpose of this Measure to avoid.
If the hon. and learned Gentleman is anxious that the whole body of this law should be put into a position in which it can subsequently be effectively reviewed, he will appreciate that he will best serve that end by seeing that this Measure reaches the Statute Book and, if I may use a colloquialism, clears the decks for subsequent examination.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll) raised a number of points which will certainly be looked into. There is one to which I should like to refer specifically, if I do not go out of order in doing so. It was a point raised by both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross)—the application of the Bill to gift parcels. The Bill will make no difference in the present regulations about the admission of gift parcels. Perhaps, as criticism has been made, I may say a word upon that issue.
140 It is impracticable to give a general concession in favour of gift parcels. It is obviously quite impossible to identify a particular parcel as being a genuine gift or not. Hon. Members will be perfectly familiar with various schemes which have been made by various adroit and agile people in foreign countries to arrange on terms of sale to send bogus gift parcels, and the difficulty is that any general concession will simply open the door to that sort of abuse by which people of substantial means would be enabled to bypass restrictions which fall upon less fortunate mortals. That is the difficulty.
But there are concessions which are insufficiently known, and which, perhaps, the House may be interested to hear. Parcels up to 22 lb. containing food, well-used clothing, medical supplies and/or soap are, under the present regulations, admitted free. So are parcels from the Forces abroad, not containing tobacco, spirits, or scent, up to 10s. in value. These are two substantial attempts to meet the very real point which both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member opposite have in mind, and which, I will tell them frankly, is a matter of whose merits we also are aware.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, into his controversy with his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), on medical issues, on which I am certainly not qualified to follow, but I will answer the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, when he asked me what was "exhausted tea." Fortunately, "exhausted tea" is defined in Clause 229 (3). The expression "exhausted tea" means…tea which has been deprived of its proper quality, strength or virtue by steeping, infusion, decoction or other means.I hope that that makes the matter as abundantly clear, to the hon. Member as it is intended to make it to the readers of the Measure. "Exhausted tea" is so defined.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North, expressed his own views on a somewhat controversial subject with his usual force and sincerity. I am bound to say that the vigour with which he put them did constitute an extraordinarily good advertisement for the views which he expressed—
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Unexhausted. I am much obliged. He will not expect me, in the context of what I have said already, to follow up his suggestion that licences for the sale of alcohol should be increased in price. That, of course, would be a measure of taxation, and, as such, quite inappropriate to this, Bill, whatever its value in other directions may be.
There are, of course, as I said, a number indubitably of other points in this long, complicated Bill, but the procedure which we do suggest for its further consideration and analysis will, in my submission, give to the House a proper opportunity to perform that duty to its constituents, to which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) referred—and which, I am bound to say, he always exercises—of analysis of its provisions. I hope, therefore, in view of the general good will expressed for the general purpose of this Bill from all quarters of the House, that the House will now be prepared to give the Bill its Second Reading.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
That it is expedient that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons.—[Mr. Boyd-Carpenter.]
§ To be communicated to the Lords and their concurrence desired thereto.