HC Deb 13 March 1953 vol 512 cc1784-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I wish to deal in particular in this debate with the question of the removal of Purchase Tax from window boxes used for the Coronation display. No doubt there are some who may think that this is too small a subject to be discussed on the Motion for the Adjournment as a separate issue. Superficially that contention may appear to be justified. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy the House that, in fact, this is not the case. I further hope and believe that the Minister can be persuaded, even at this late hour, to grant a concession which involves a sum which is practically negligible to the finances of the country.

If this concession were granted, on the other hand, it would give great pleasure to many and would serve a very useful purpose. Hon Members on all sides of the House are appealing to the country to use the utmost endeavours to liven up our streets and public places for the Coronation. It is clear from the response that there is a general desire—including the authorities—that hotels, business establishments and private residences should make a special effort on the occasion of the Coronation to use and exhibit flowers in flower boxes to brighten London and other cities.

I hope that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will not take it too unkindly if I say that it is rather mean to impose a tax on business establishments and good citizens who take the trouble to satisfy this demand. I draw the attention of the Minister to the efforts that are being made by certain newspapers, in particular the "Evening Standard," to encourage people to use window boxes during the Coronation period. The "Evening Standard" stated that it was determined that London should look its best in Coronation year, and that to stimulate this object it would organise a window box contest in the weeks before the Coronation.

It asks its readers and others to get window boxes ready if they have them, and if not and they have the space, to get window boxes. It asks them to help make London gay in Coronation year. I add that this applies not only to London but to the country as a whole. The House will, no doubt, consider as I do, that this is a commendable request. Starting shortly after Easter, the "Evening Standard" proposes to develop this idea by bringing to London its gardening expert, who, with a team of assistants, will tour a different section of London each day. They plan to pick out the gayest and brightest window boxes they see.

Already letters have come from interested bodies—and they are not unimportant bodies—such as the Norbury L.C.C. Gardening Society and the Wimbledon Chamber of Commerce, who ask that their areas should be included in the scheme. The City Hall, Westminster, and the London Garden Society, who are also running competitions covering Holborn and Westminster, have displayed an interest in this matter, while the "Kensington News" is sponsoring a brighter Kensington competition.

I found in the flat that I occupied for some years in West London, which is in not too bright an area, that the planting of flowers in four window boxes made quite a noticeable difference to the appearance of the front of the house. I see the hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury smiling. It may be that the question of beautifying our buildings and streets by the fullest use of boxes, etc., in which flowers are planted has not been brought home to him as acutely as it has to others of us.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

My smile was caused by the reflection that went through my mind that any premises occupied by the hon. Member would ex hypothesi be bright.

Mr. Janner

I was talking about the outside of the premises and not the inside. The hon. Gentleman represents a constituency which is well blessed with beauty, particularly of flowers and plants. The need to use window sills and ledges of the houses in Kingston to give the fragrance and the beauty of flowers to residents there is not as great as it is in other constituencies, some consisting almost entirely of, and others containing many, drab streets.

It is very interesting this afternoon, in the backwater of our discussions, as it were, to reflect on the past a little. I should like to remind the Minister of the successful struggle which was carried on by the late Dr. Alfred Salter. I think the hon. Gentleman will probably remember something of him. For many years he was a distinguished Member of this House, and the struggle was also carried on by his noble wife. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Fenner Brockway), in his book "Bermondsey Story," writes that their aim was to develop Bermondsey into a garden. A beautification—those were the words used—was set up there. I understand that such a committee still exists and functions in Bermondsey.

We are told that the major problem which the beautification committee had to contend with was the absence of sites on which to plant flowers. So built up was that borough that the council did not possess a single open space. I think, Mr. Speaker, that you will remember when Dr. Alfred Salter was carrying on that fight, an example was set by covering the whole of the public buildings with window boxes, and decorating the town hall entrances with palms and flowering plants. The Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Horticultural Society provided the window boxes. But Dr. Salter himself gave 100 window boxes to the society for distribution.

He said: We shall not be satified until every forecourt in the borough is ablaze with flowers, and till every window ledge has its box of greenery and blooms. We are reminded that after six years of Labour rule, this slum ridden, foggy smoke-weighted borough had trees in nearly every street and alley. It had become the borough with the most trees. Flowers grew whenever they could find soil, and even the drab houses had window boxes and forecourts blossomed with colour. The Royal Horticultural Society and the Minister of Agriculture"— I wish the present Minister were here this afternoon because he might help us on this matter— paid tributes to the beauty which was to be found in Bermondsey. Visitors came from distant towns and even from other countries to see it. Other British cities established beautification committees, and the idea caught the imagination of Continental cities. After three years, information was received from over 200 towns in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria which had adopted the Bermondsey scheme. The example of Bermondsey shows that the request which I am making this afternoon is of value. Surely it is worth while taking advantage of the historic occasion of the Coronation not only to brighten up the buildings and streets for that period but also to revive and stimulate an interest in, and a desire for, beautifying homes and streets by using every available means for that purpose.

Coronation displays themselves will cost a considerable sum of money. Our constituents are being called upon to add their quota to the adornment of the land. Would it not be mean to extract a tax from those who are willing and ready to help in this respect? I cannot understand why a distinction has been made, so far as exemption from Purchase Tax is concerned, between the use of flowers for outdoor display and the kind of articles exempted from Purchase Tax by the Purchase Tax (No. 3) Order, 1952, which says: Articles of any class or description mentioned in the Schedule to this Order shall not, while this Order is in force, be included in any class of goods which are chargeable goods within the meaning of the enactments relating to purchase tax. The Schedule refers to: 1. Pictures, prints, engravings, photographs and statuettes of a kind produced in quantity for general sale, being portrait representations of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh (both or either) since the date of HER ACCESSION, but not including articles of apparel or personal adornment"— a window-box is not in that category— calendars or greeting cards other than post cards. 2. Flags and banners. 3. Crowns, plaques, shields, heraldic emblems and similar decorations, being articles of a type suitable for incorporation in outdoor displays on occasions of public rejoicing. We can all appreciate the purpose of exempting these articles, but why are window boxes not included in the Schedule. As it is, the Customs authorities must have considerable difficulty in deciding what is the meaning of the words "window box." For this purpose, when does a box become a window box? If the Minister gave this concession he would be doing himself a favour. When do articles become boxes? For example, has a tax to be paid on pieces of wood which have been prepared and which need only a few nails or screws to assemble them into an article which would come within the definition of the word "box"?

Is a box taxable if it is used on windows and is used only for the planting of seedlings on window sills? I believe that plant pots in seed boxes are not subject to Purchase Tax. These seed boxes can be made of wood. The present position, as I understand it, is that ordinary, unglazed flower pots—of whatever shape—with a hole in the bottom are not chargeable, whereas if they are put into a box to prevent them from dropping on to people in the street that box is described as a window box and is consequently liable to Purchase Tax. If the pots were tied round with string to prevent them so falling they would not be subject to Purchase Tax.

The squarish, flattish boxes for raising seedlings are not subject to Purchase Tax, whereas all wooden plant pots and tubs are chargeable at one of two rates, depending on whether they are ornamented or plain. The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes a window box as a box on window sill in which flowers are grown. A box is described as a receptacle (usually lidded, rectangular or cylindrical and for solids) of wood, cardboard, metal, etc. I assume that "etc." includes porcelain. A pot is described as a rounded vessel of earthenware, metal, or glass, for holding liquids or solids. If a window box is rounded and made of earthenware, metal or glass, it becomes a pot; and if it has holes in it, it becomes a pot with a hole and apparently is not liable to Purchase Tax. Furthermore, a tub is defined as an open wooden, usually round vessel of staves held together by hoops used for washing or holding butter, liquids, etc. The mysterious words Let every tub stand on its own bottom follow. I do not know whether that has any reference to these tubs. A tub is apparently exempt if it is stuck on a window.

I do not know whether the Minister will tell us that although a window box is subject to Purchase Tax, he is still not prepared to say that anything is a window box which is stuck on a ledge and used for flowers. I understand that an ammunition box, stuck on a ledge with soil and flowers in it, is not subject to Purchase Tax even though, in fact, it is a window box.

The Treasury are getting into all sorts of difficulties here. At this moment we are just between dark and daylight and perhaps it is an appropriate moment to stop and think twice about this. If Wordsworth were living at this hour, I am sure he would repeat To me the meanest flower that blows, can give Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears. I have raised this matter to try to get the Financial Secretary to concede a point which will bring happiness to many people. This is not a trivial matter. I once represented a constituency in the East End of London where every window box made a real difference to the people. Even in the constituency which I now represent, I am sure that there are districts where these window boxes would be of considerable value.

I ask the Financial Secretary to think about these words. Perhaps he can help us out in some way. This may be, in a sense, a small matter to him, but it may be of great importance in many districts.

4.18 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

If Wordsworth were living at this hour, to quote the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner), I am sure that he would reply to this debate more agreeably than I shall, although whether, on form, he would be able to reply to it at all in the course of the 10 or 11 minutes which remain to me I beg leave to doubt.

The hon. Member is, of course, a practised advocate, and this afternoon he has adopted the not unfamiliar method of advocates—a method peculiarly effective in tax matters—of concentrating on one article and conveniently ignoring the background. It is easy—and I confess to the House that it is a technique which I myself have used on occasions—to make a particular tax seem, in the hon. Gentleman's words, "mean," by saying that it means so little to the Exchequer and means a certain amount to a number of people.

It is a very easy technique, but it has the disadvantage of being applicable to any tax in our complex system of taxation. It is necessary, in the conduct of these affairs, to look not merely at the specific and narrow point of the particular article, be it a window box or anything else, but to look at it from the point of view of a comprehensive and comprehensible system of taxation. The hon. Member gave a further exhibition of his skill in the technique of persuasive advocacy by a very agreeable tribute, which I acknowledge, to the beauties of the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, and I would certainly not seek to argue that he was in any degree in error in that part of his speech.

I think it would help to restore the balance if I made clear what is our policy on Purchase Tax in connection with the Coronation, because, although the hon. Member's speech related rather broadly to the merits of window boxes, he did seek to attach his argument in favour of exempting them to the great ceremony which we are all looking forward to celebrating in June.

We have made clear in a series of statements how this particular part of our tax law is to be adopted and adapted in connection with the Coronation. On 31st July, in a Written reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Wills), which is reported at column 174 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day, I indicated that a number of articles, some of which the hon. Gentleman was good enough to refer to, such as photographs, portrayals of Her Majesty and of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, and certain articles used for external decoration—crowns, plaques, shields, and so on, would be given some temporary exemption. The extent of that exemption is very clearly set out in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and my brief summary is, of course, not comprehensive.

On 11th December, 1952, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Higgs) I gave information about another concession, the substance of which was that the addition of certain emblems in connection with the Coronation to other articles should not, in general, have the effect of raising the rate of tax applicable to those other articles. Under the normal operation of Purchase Tax the addition of crowns, for instance, to pencils might have the effect of increasing the rate of tax. My right hon. Friend considered that, in connection with the Coronation, it would be wrong that the normal law should operate in that respect.

The House will, I think, appreciate from that necessarily brief summary of the exemptions we have made the principle which we have sought to apply in this connection. We have given exemption of or modifications of tax to articles required specifically for the sole purpose of decorating the streets in connection with the Coronation, or in the category of commemorating the Coronation, and we have not included within their scope articles such as window boxes, which, while they can be most appropriately used to decorate the streets in connection with the Coronation, are, and, I am sure, will continue to be, also used at other times and for other purposes.

That is really the answer to the hon. Member's question as to what was the distinction between the articles specified in the Purchase Tax Order to which he referred and window boxes, whose case he was so agreeably presenting. It is that the one set of articles relates fairly directly either to the Coronation or some other great occasion of national rejoic- ing, whereas window boxes are used, and, I am glad to say—and I shall say a word about it in a moment—increasingly used, in this country at times other than great ceremonial occasions, and on occasions wholly unconnected with them. That is the distinction, and it seems to me, I must say, a valid one.

That is not to say that I do not share the hon. Member's enthusiasm for this agreeable method of brightening the streets of our cities. On the contrary, it indicates that I share his approval of them, but I do not think it would be right to suggest they are a temporary Coronation development. They are an agreeable and a normal method of decorating our streets.

I agree with the hon. Member that the "Evening Standard" has done a considerable public service in encouraging this happy and agreeable method of bringing more brightness into our lives. But this is done, and, I am sure, will continue to be done, on other occasions than the great ceremony of this coming summer. It would be unrealistic, although they contribute much to the display at Coronation time, to say that they are in anything like the same category as the articles used very much at that time and at no other.

Let me put it in this way. It may be, and is, normal for any man to put window boxes in his windows. But most of our neighbours would think us at least a trifle odd if, on ordinary occasions, we covered our houses with plaques, crowns, banners and streamers. We are perfectly free to do so—subject to what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government may say—but I think that at best our neighbours would regard our conduct as entertaining rather than exemplary.

Window boxes, on the other hand, should be and will be used at any time. I can point out that in this connection Government Departments set a very good example. If the hon. Member wishes confirmation of that he should inspect the Treasury balconies. It is therefore quite wrong to argue that these articles are such as could be put within my right hon. Friend's specific Coronation exemptions.

Let us see where his suggestion would lead the hon. Member. He said we were discriminating against the use of flowers. He wished to discriminate in favour of the use of flowers in one particular way. Window boxes are not the only way to have a public display of flowers. Hanging baskets are another method, but they were not included in his argument. There are big garden tubs which decorate a certain type of paved courtway, and these are equally subject to tax.

I come back to my initial point, that in matters of taxation it is important to regard the picture as a whole, and not to apply one's microscope to a small facet. There are all sorts of articles for which in a greater or a lesser degree precisely the same argument could be used. What about electric lamps which are used for decorative display, and will no doubt be used at the time of the Coronation? There are the Christmas tree lighting sets, which those hon. Members who have young families will no doubt find from time to time they are under some pressure to acquire.

All these articles add to the gaiety of our streets, but they cannot be considered separately, and window-boxes isolated from them. The line of distinction is clear. I suggest that window-boxes must take their place in the very considerable number of articles which come within the purview of the Purchase Tax.

I can, however, give the hon. Member this consolation. The whole of the Purchase Tax field comes under a careful and thoughtful review. From time to time we examine the vast complex of articles which those hon. Members who have studied the Purchase Tax Schedules know adorn them to see whether the tax is appropriate to the article. Having admitted, as logically he must, that window-boxes must be treated within one or other of the normal categories of Purchase Tax, the hon. Member will also admit that they should be included in the subject matter of the general consideration which is given from time to time to this section of our fiscal activities. They must take their place with the general class of articles which in these days are subject to Purchase Tax, and which are also from time to time the subject of the comprehensive, searching, profound and occasionally genial scrutiny of my right hon. Friend.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.