HC Deb 19 May 1953 vol 515 cc1953-63
Mr. Anthony Crosland (Gloucestershire, South)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 23, to leave out from "bicycles," to "from," in line 25.

Perhaps it would be convenient, Sir Charles, to discuss at the same time the Amendment in line 28, to leave out from "£1 5s. 0d.," to the end of the line.

The precedent has already been established that, as far as possible, people should be chosen to speak on particular Clauses because they are consumers on a very large scale of the item referred to. Therefore, we had my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Glanville) speaking on Clause 1. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) who, I am sorry to say, suffers from a nervous disability which causes him to move the wheel of his mechanical lighter almost without ceasing, spoke on the last Clause.

We searched around when we came to Clause 4 for someone who had spent almost the whole of his time in a sidecar drawn by an electrically propelled vehicle. We were unable to find someone, and so I have to act as a substitute. The object of the Clause and of the Amendment can be simply explained. The Clause refers to the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1949, which is a consolidating Measure dealing with almost all motor vehicle duties. Section 2 of that Act deals with the duty on certain vehicles not exceeding 8 cwt. in weight unladen. Section 2 (2) imposes an additional duty beyond what the motor-cycle itself bears on any bicycle which is used for drawing a trailer or sidecar.

The effect of the bicycle being used not merely by itself but to draw a sidecar or trailer is to attract a full duty which was set in the Act at £1 5s. It is now proposed in this Bill that the additional duty of £1 5s. should be reduced to 10s., but not over the whole range of vehicles which bear the £1 5s. additional duty under the 1949 Act. The reduction to 10s. applies only to electrically propelled bicycles and bicycles of which the cylinder capacity of the engine does not exceed 250 cubic centimetres.

The Amendment seeks to extend this concession, this reduction from £1 5s. to 10s., beyond that narrow sphere to all bicycles to which the original Section 2 (2) of the 1949 Act applied.

The Financial Secretary referred briefly to this Clause in the course of his Second Reading speech on the Finance Bill, a speech which has been much quoted this afternoon. He said: Clause 4 makes a small reduction in the small duty payable where sidecars are attached to lower or medium-sized motor bicycles. His only explanation for the Clause is contained in the words: That is a small contribution to road safety. I understand that it is safer to travel in a sidecar than on a pillion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1953; Vol. 515, c. 584.] So the only reason that we have been given why the concession which this Clause grants is restricted to this small category of two types of bicycle is that it has something to do with road safety.

We are moving this Amendment on these quite simple grounds. If, in fact, it is so much safer to ride in a sidecar than on a pillion, which is what the Financial Secretary alleges—and he may well be right—then surely there is an argument for applying this tax concession not merely to these very small and light-powered bicycles but to the whole range of bicycles. Most motor-cycles which draw sidecars or trailers are not the ones which are referred to in this Clause, in that they are not electrically propelled and not of a cubic capacity of 250 or under. Most of those which have a sidecar or trailer belong to the 500 c.c. or 750 c.c. classes.

It is the case that only a very small proportion of motor cycle combinations are affected by this concession—that is only the vary rare cases where a sidecar is pulled along by an electrical vehicle or a small bicycle of 250 c.c. or under. It would be interesting to know from the Financial Secretary what proportion of motor-cycle combinations are likely to be affected by the concession, but whatever it may be, it will be evident to those pedestrians who observe sidecar combinations that only a small proportion will be affected.

If that is so, it is difficult to understand the motive behind the Clause. It is not at all clear why a rider in a sidecar drawn by an electrically-propelled vehicle is safer than a rider in a sidecar drawn by a non-electrically-propelled vehicle of over 250 c.c. It is not clear why a rider in a sidecar drawn by a non-electrically-propelled bicycle of 250 c.c. or under is safer, or, for that matter less safe, than one drawn by a non-electrically-propelled bicycle of 500 c.c. or 750 c.c.

To the layman who is not an expert in road safety techniques it seems absurd, if the argument is derived from road safety, merely to pick out this very small class of sidecar combinations for this concession and not to extend it to the great majority of sidecar combinations which, at the moment, fall outside the concession. We wish to extend the concession. We wish to bring the extra duty of 25s. down to 10s. for all those classes of combinations to which the 25s. extra duty now applies.

If hon. Members have with them a copy of the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1949, an admirable consolidating Measure which reflects nothing but great credit on my right hon. Friends who were in the Administration at that time and repays a good deal of study, they will find that a large part of it is taken up with hackney coaches used as tramcars. It is rather hard to believe that, even in 1949, there were many of those on the road. Now that the present Administration has forced the population into greater privations and, by denationalisation, road transport is thrown into confusion, it may be that a great number of these splendid but rusty vehicles are being drawn out of their sheds.

The first Schedule of that Act states that the additional 25s. duty—that is, before this Finance Bill is passed—applies to four categories. The concession made in Clause 4 of the present Bill applies only to three, namely 1 (a), 1 (b) and 2 of the Act. The object of this Amendment is to apply it to 1 (c) of the First Schedule of the Act, to which at present it does not apply. The whole point of the Amendment is that this category which we wish to include, and which is at present excluded, is not just 25 per cent. of the total combinations affected. If one's observations mean anything at all it is by far the greater proportion of all motorcycle combinations on the road.

So we are seeking to turn a very small concession to a very small sub-category of motor-cycle combinations into a general concession to the great majority of combinations, on the simple grounds that if the road safety argument applies to electrically-propelled and non-electrically-propelled 250 c.c. vehicles it must surely apply to the greater number of combinations on the road.

Mr. Mitchison

I add my plea to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Crosland). I was very puzzled when I read the Budget debate and observed that this concession was made for the sake of safety. I could not understand, and I still do not understand, why, in its limited form, it is supposed to be a contribution to road safety. Since the Financial Secretary has given up pillion riding and taken to the trailer or sidecar, it is certainly much safer not only for him but for other people on the road. As everybody in this Committee knows, and as the figures more than justify, the problem of road safety is very serious indeed. We are discussing what is no doubt a very substantial sum of money, but in comparison with any improvement we can make by way of road safety it is not as large as all that.

It is proposed at present to apply this concession to what are conveniently called light and medium cycles to which a trailer or sidecar can be attached. Presumably the reason is that the passenger, whether the Financial Secretary or somebody even more superficially attractive, might otherwise ride on the pillion. Nobody would conceivably disagree with that contention. But what is the reason for limiting the concession to light and medium motor-cycles?

I suppose that it will be said that we want to encourage people to go on light and medium motor-cycles rather than on heavy motor-cycles. If that is so, then that impeccable sense of logic which the Financial Secretary so frequently displays would indicate to him at once that that cock will not fight, because that would apply equally to the cycle without a trailer or sidecar. So far as I can see, it would be quite illogical to say that the way to encourage people to have a light or medium motor-cycle is to do it by way of changing the tax on a trailer or sidecar. The reason for the reduction is surely to encourage people not to go on pillions but to use a trailer or a sidecar, and the purpose is to make it easier for them to do so.

7.30 p.m.

The particular kind of motor-cycle which is the greatest danger is the large and powerful motor-cycle which we see racing along the road. We have all seen plenty of them, many carrying someone on the back. I appreciate the need occasionally to draw a line; nobody particularly likes to draw a line to taxation matters at a fixed point so that a machine of 240 c.c. capacity pays one tax and a machine of 260 c.c. capacity pays another, but the reason is occasionally appreciated; but there is no possible reason for drawing a line of that sort in this case.

I appeal to the Financial Secretary and hon. Members opposite to have a heart in this matter. They are quite right in trying to do what they can for safety's sake, but there is an equally strong argument for doing it with larger motorcycles for safety's sake. Indeed, I should have thought there was a stronger argument. If there is any doubt in a matter of this kind, where people's lives and safety on the road are concerned, surely the Government should err on the side of giving a little too much.

I understand that even in the Treasury and among Treasury Ministers there are hearts. It would perhaps not be out of place for me to add my plea by pointing out that it is about time that the Financial Secretary made concessions. A number of arguments have been put to him. This argument has a human element behind it which, I feel, will at once appeal to him. In the interests, therefore, of road safety and, indeed, of the Financial Secretary's own journeys, whether on a pillion or in a trailer, or even as a humble pedestrian down Whitehall, I urge him to extend this concession to all types of motorcycle.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I shall detain the Committee for only a few moments. I have been exercising my mind to ascertain why it should be safer to have a sidecar attached to a small motor-cycle than to have one attached to a more powerful motor-cycle. The only reason I can find is that, with a small power of a 250 c.c. motor-cycle, it is almost impossible to get any speed out of it at all when it has a sidecar attached, so that if a man has a sidecar on so small a machine he is bound to proceed at a very modest pace.

My own experience of motor-cycles goes back to before the war so that I cannot hope to compete with the more recent experience of the Financial Secretary, but if my recollection is correct it is most undesirable, on mechanical grounds, for sidecars to be fitted to such small machines. In these times, with the cost of living mounting and the general difficulty of working-class people who have this class of motor-cycle, it is wrong that the Financial Secretary should deceive them and, by reducing the tax from 25s. to 10s., persuade them to have a sidecar fitted and, in that way, wear out the engines of their motor-cycles more rapidly.

It is most unwise to put a sidecar on so small a machine. If the Financial Secretary will not go the whole way and accept the Amendment, as he should, will he not agree on Report stage to put a reasonable maximum to this concession? I suggest a maximum of at least 500 c.c, which, I believe, in the trade is thought to be the usual strength to carry a sidecar without too much strain on the driver, the vehicle or the travelling public.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It seems conventional in the debate on this Amendment to rely to some extent on personal experience, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Crosland) said. In that context, only the strictest of military discipline ever got me on to one of these machines and only such discipline would ever get me on to one again.

Mr. Mitchison

Was the hon. Gentleman on a pillion?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In those days Army orders were that only full colonels and above could ride on a pillion, and I did not hold that rank.

The point has been made about why the reduction in the rate of duty in respect of the sidecar is restricted to sidecars attached to lighter types of motorcycle—that is, those up to 250 c.c. Let me deal in detail with the points which hon. Members opposite have made. In the first place, the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South asked whether there were many sidecars on the roads to which this reduction would apply. The answer is that there are very few. As far as we can estimate, there are no more than about 1,200. That is one of the reasons why we desire to effect this change in the law. As the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said, there is a road safety element here. I made some reference to it on Second Reading. It is a fact that in practice very few of the lighter motorcycles have sidecars.

When one looks at the relative figures for duty, it may well seem that the duty itself is at any rate a factor in that situation. It is because so few of these lighter motor-cycles are used with sidecars that it seemed to us desirable to give some encouragement, or to remove a deterrent if hon. Members prefer that phrase, to their use.

The reason why the figure of 250 c.c. is selected as the terminus ad quern is that it is the figure at which the higher rate of duty on the motor-cycle itself comes into operation. Perhaps I may outline the present position. The really light motor-cycles, up to 150 c.c, each pay 17s. 6d., although in such cases the payment for the sidecar has been 25s.— and that has some relevance to the argument. For duty purposes the sidecar has been taxed more heavily than the motorcycle itself. Between 150 and 250 c.c, the duty on the motor-cycle itself is £1 17s. 6d. It is only just more than the old rate of duty on the sidecar. At 250 c.c, when we are coming into the heavier class of machine, the rate of duty on the motor-cycle goes up to £3 15s., and it is in that zone of the heavier machine that the greater number of sidecars are used.

I agree that to some extent this is a matter on which hon. Members will form their personal opinions, but it seems to us that if there be a deterrent effect to the use of sidecars from the rate of duty, it falls most heavily in the case of the smaller, lighter and therefore, cheaper motor-cycle, where the rate of duty on the machine itself is less and where, generally speaking, the person operating it is either a poorer person or is prepared to spend less on his motor-cycling activities. In other words, it seems to us that the deterrent effect of the duty must be heavier in the case of those lighter machines where the general expenditure is less.

Mr. Mulley

In fixing this figure, did the Financial Secretary take some account of the mechanical capacity of the motor-cycle? If he discusses the matter in detail with the trade, they will tell him that the reason why there are so few sidecars attached to motor-cycles in this category is because the mechanical driving power of the small engine is not sufficient. Perhaps I may make a parallel which is not unfair.

If he were to seek to count the number of eight horse-power cars propelling caravans, he would find that they were very few. But that is not a question of the deterrent of the duty; it is simply because an eight horse-power car is not capable, with any degree of comfort or consideration for the engine, of performing that task. The main reason why these lighter motor-cycles do not have sidecars attached is the capacity of the engine; it is not a question of duty. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a contribution to safety, he should raise the maximum considerably.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I do not think that there is much difference in point of view between the hon. Member and myself. Clearly, the lower the horse power of the machine the more effort is required to haul the additional load of the sidecar. I do not think that we need waste the time of the Committee in arguing that point. It is a fact that about 1,200 people operate sidecars with these lighter machines and, therefore, it is not mechanically impossible to do so.

The argument which I was trying to suggest to the Committee is that when we are within the zone of the cheaper motorcycle, with its low rate of duty, the rate of duty on the sidecar is at present only a few shillings less than the duty on the motor-bicycle itself and this is likely to have a bigger effect than when we are dealing with the larger and more expensive motor-cycle, which has cost the person concerned a substantially greater sum and where the rate of duty which he has to pay on the motor-bicycle is proportionately larger. It is a common experience that a few shillings means much more lower down the economic scale than it does higher up.

Mr. Richard Adams (Wandsworth, Central)

Would the Financial Secretary apply that argument to the car tax which now operates?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I should be out of order if I did so on this issue. Here we are concerned with the explanation of this concession. I do not want to make heavy weather of it. It seems to us that this is the field in which the encouragement can best be given in the first place because it is, as hon. Members will recollect from the figures I used, the field in which these machines are used much less frequently with sidecars than at the higher level.

We think that this is an appropriate place at which to begin and on which to judge the effect. Therefore, for this year at any rate, this is a reasonable beginning. I can undertake that we will watch the position and watch in particular whether there is an effect in this sphere of the sort which we would like to see, and we will consider in the light of that whether perhaps next year a move in the direction which the hon. Member suggests may not be warranted.

I do not think this is more than an experimental concession. I think that the sensible thing is to put it into operation and judge by the results. One further factor is perhaps material from the point of view of fairness. The total duty on the heavy motor-cycle and sidecar together comes to £5. That is the same rate of duty as is charged on mechanically propelled tricycles, and there is something to be said for keeping the rate of duty of these two types of machine in line.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I think that the explanation of the Financial Secretary in this matter—and he has himself pleaded not guilty to being a motor cyclist—springs from that degree of perversity and muddle-headedness which strikes the Treasury whenever they go into technical matters. The same sort of consideration has been given to this matter as was given to Clause 13 of a previous Finance Bill, relating to the tax on electrical vehicles. I have always objected to the bedevilling of design, the distortion of design, and the distortion of the use of vehicles of any sort by taxation.

7.45 p.m.

The Minister of Transport is at present considering the wisdom of restoring the 30 miles per hour speed limit to heavy vehicles. The argument on which the right hon. Gentleman will rely is that with the speed limit as it is now there is a tendency to overload lighter vehicles. This is exactly the same idea. We are giving a concession which means the overloading of the lighter motor-cycle. I argue, quite apart from the merits of the Amendment, that the type of motor-cycle with which we are dealing is not meant for the job of running a sidecar. We ought not to give encouragement for light motor-cycles to have sidecars attached to them at all.

Everyone who is connected with engineering, or who has driven a motor-cycle and sidecar knows that the right thing is to have a heavy motor-cycle. It is meant for the job and one has more control over it. In this case, the Government come along with their usual muddle-headedness that characterises the Treasury when discussing technical matters. I have had difficulty in the past in arguing technical matters with the Treasury. What we really want is a uniform tax throughout the whole range and not to encourage people to get on old bikes or to buy light bikes, to the detriment of other people on the road. That is an anti-social trend in taxation.

I regret that there is not more effective liaison between the Treasury and the Ministry of Transport on this matter so that we may get advice that this is not the right way to do the job. I hope that the Treasury will think about this matter again or at least use the 12 months before the next Finance Bill comes up to consult informed engineering opinion on the matter.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.