HC Deb 26 May 1952 vol 501 cc1027-30
Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I beg to move, in page 59, line 32, after "in," to insert:— the Schedule (Excess Profits Levy: computation of value of assets and liabilities for purposes of capital standard) and. This is consequential upon my right hon. Friend's proposal of a net assets standard as an alternative standard. It is connected with the new Schedule on page 1545 of the Order Paper.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)

We ought not to part with this Clause until we have asked a few questions and received an answer from, I sincerely hope, the Solicitor-General. At long last he has an opportunity to give something away and to give it with grace and, on this occasion I hope, with enthusiasm. I know that I must avoid going into the details of an Amendment which has not been called, but I think I am entitled to put it to the Solicitor-General that the effect of this Clause is to extend the Excess Profits Levy to "unincorporated societies and other bodies." There is a very clear proviso to the Clause which excludes partnerships. We can keep out of our minds for the purposes of the Clause partnerships and incorporated bodies.

The Clause deals with unincorporated societies, which are entities well known to the law, and also with "other bodies." What on earth are "other bodies"? The term is not defined in the Bill at all, and the fact that it is included in the Clause goes far to vitiate the effect of the Clause by introducing an undefined term which, as far as I know, has not been noticid judicially and which must leave hon. Members in grave doubt as to its meaning. I do think that we are entitled to an explanation of the form of association or body other than a partnership which it is intended shall be included in this term.

The words are very difficult indeed to understand even if one places them in the ejusdem generic sector—and I concede at once that the words are not quite as wide as they at first sight appear; but even if one does that, if even the words are construed as if they meant other similar bodies, I think the Committee is entitled to have an explanation from the Solicitor-General or the Financial Secretary as to what they have in mind. If they have no particular bodies in mind at all then this—and I say this in the most charming way I can—is the most preposterous way to express it; but if they have specific cases in mind, surely it would be appropriate for them to specify those cases or to have a definition Clause which would indicate what they have in mind.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think there is a good deal of force in what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) has just said. Like him, I should not be in order in referring to an Amendment which was on the Order Paper but which did not have the good fortune to be selected, but the fact that it was placed on the Order Paper did, fortunately, direct attention specifically to this matter.

As the hon. Member will appreciate, what are covered generally in this Clause are bodies that carry on a trade or business. The words "other bodies" were included, perhaps, out of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice) would describe as "most abundant caution," to make quite sure that there were no bodies carrying on a trade or business which were not included in the various other specifications. It is a little difficult to find what other bodies there may be and we should like to look further at this matter. There is a great deal of force in what the hon. Gentleman has just said—that either the words should come out or that they should receive definition.

I should not like to commit my right hon. Friend at this stage as to which of those two courses he will be able to adopt at the next stage, but we are looking at this problem with a view to making quite sure that we do not omit bodies which ought to be covered and, equally, that we do not include in the Bill, as it is not our wish, any words which have no particular purpose. We are much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said.

Sir F. Soskice

I should like, very modestly, to congratulate the Financial Secretary on his answer, which, I thought, was the perfect Parliamentary way of saying he had not the remotest idea of what the answer to the question was. I very greatly envied him his facility in saying, in polished and well-thought-out terms, what, I am afraid, I should have had to say in much more brutal and brief terms.

But I am glad that his attitude of mind—if it is his attitude of mind—is exactly the same as mine. I think that both sides of the Committee are equally to blame about this form of phrase. I do not believe that anybody knows what is meant by the expression "unincorporated societies and other bodies." I think the Financial Secretary will agree with me that the phrase appears in a number of Acts passed at the instance of predecessors of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite and passed at the instance of my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the Committee.

So far as I am aware there is no definition anywhere in any enactment as to what is meant by an "unincorporated society." Does it include a trade union? Nor have I been able to find anything to indicate what is meant, in the various contexts in which these words appear, by the expression "other bodies," and it seems to me to be a form of wording which has just crept into Finance Acts and been periodically repeated without much thought being given to what exactly is meant by it.

7.45 p.m.

Speaking for myself, I am very glad to hear the Financial Secretary say he will carefully look into these words again, because at some time one has to make a start in using words which mean something instead of words that mean almost nothing. I cannot myself think what "unincorporated society" is in this connection.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

What is contemplated here are certain old-established building societies which have never been incorporated.

Sir F. Soskice

I am obliged, and I am glad to hear the Financial Secretary say what he has said; and I hope that we can attain some precision in the use of this language in future. I frankly avow that both sides of the Committee are equally to blame for the use of these words.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.