HC Deb 26 June 1956 vol 555 cc311-22

On and after the sixth day of August, nineteen hundred and fifty-six, entertainments duty shall not be chargeable in respect of an eisteddfod.—[Mrs. White.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I trust that the right hon. Gentleman, who seems to be in a fairly co-operative mood, will accept the Clause. I am sure that he will be inclined to do so, because it will positively save money. It asks for no concession. To the best of my belief, the Treasury obtains no Entertainments Duty from eisteddfodau, but the organisers of the events have to go through the process of applying for exemption. It would surely be reasonable that they should be altogether exempted so that neither they nor the civil servants concerned should have to be concerned with the process.

An eisteddfod is a cultural meeting. It is not a commercial institution. I have never known one that set out to make a profit. My hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts), who is a littérateur in the Welsh language, will know more about it than I do, but the essence of an eisteddfod is that it is a musical and literary gathering. The Welsh are unique in that their heroes are poets. The winner of the chair or crown at an eisteddfod is a poet who is able to write according to some exceedingly strict rules, some of them inherited from the bards of old.

There is a competitive element about it, but it is not in any sense commercial. The prizes are usually very small. Even at the national eisteddfod, the choir which wins the chief choral or male voice competition is usually not able to meet its expenses, and the choirs which fail, though they have an enjoyable time, are considerably out of pocket.

I see no reason at all why this process should have to be gone through every time a national or local eisteddfod is organised, and I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is not necessary for Entertainments Duty to be, even in theory, chargeable in respect of this class of cultural meetings.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) in the reasonable request that she has put forward. No eisteddfod is conducted for profit in the ordinary sense. Indeed, the object is purely cultural and educational. That can be seen by the fact that practically every school in Wales now conducts its annual eisteddfod as a kind of culminating point for the work of the year. The practice is spreading and is increasingly giving eisteddfodau the character of educational institutions.

What my hon. Friend has said about the bother of filling up forms and automatically being granted exemption from duty is true. I have no doubt that if the facts of cultural life were recognised by bringing the law into line with them, some amount of financial and administrative saving would accrue to the Civil Service.

It would also help in the sense that nowadays it is not easy to attract suitable talent to serve as honorary secretaries of eisteddfodau to make the necessary complicated and difficult arrangements. A number of people approached to act as secretaries of eisteddfodau have been hesitant and have finally declined to do so on the ground that so much has to be done in order to persuade the authorities that eisteddfodau are not profit-making concerns. This small change would bring the law into line with the facts of the position, and would be of assistance wherever eisteddfodau are organised in Wales.

Mr. H. Brooke

As an Englishman, I feel somewhat at a disadvantage in debating so essentially a Welsh question as this. I did the best I could for myself and married a Welsh woman. Therefore, I am not entirely uninstructed in Welsh matters or ill-informed about Welsh feelings.

5.30 p.m.

I was interested to see the grounds on which the new Clause could be moved, because I could not see that any money was involved either way. If it had been argued that eisteddfods—I apologise for using the English form of the plural, but I may get the pronunciation wrong if I use the Welsh form—were being killed by Entertainments Duty, I should have challenged the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) to produce a case where duty had been paid. I have had the records searched, and so far as we have been able to discover, there has never been an eisteddfod, at any rate for many years, that has had to pay any Entertainments Duty.

An eisteddfod ordinarily qualifies for exemption under Section 8 of the Finance Act, 1946, on the ground that the promoting body is not conducted or established for profit and that it has partly educational aims, objects and activities. Therefore, the new Clause would make absolutely no difference to the revenue. It would make no difference to the tax payable from the point of view of the promoters of the eisteddfod and equally would make no difference to the revenue; but I do not think that the hon. Lady is correct in suggesting that it is particularly onerous to establish a claim for exemption from duty.

Certainly the Customs and Excise authorities do not find it a considerable addition to existing duties. It is not as though the number of eisteddfods held in Wales or by Welsh people outside Wales runs into hundreds of thousands a year. It is really a very simple part of the duties of the Customs and Excise Department. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) will no doubt wish to urge me nevertheless to accept the Clause.

I considered very carefully whether to advise the Committee to do that. If I cannot go so far, I hope that hon. Members will not think that I am in any way hostile to this particular form of entertainment and enjoyment, which is one of the most genuine which can be imagined. However, there are other things which I have to bear in mind. If a statutory exemption were given to every eisteddfod, it would be soon forgotten that it had been granted on grounds of ease of administration and would quickly be quoted by other people and other peoples who have their own form of national entertainment as evidence that exemption from Entertainments Duty should be extended to them.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

Does the right hon. Member mean cricket?

Mr. Brooke

I was coming to cricket. I was thinking at the moment of Highland games. The hon. Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) will grant me this; after my experience in listening to the debate and speaking at this Box about new Clauses relating to Entertainments Duty, I do not want to add to the troubles of myself, my colleagues and successors about this subject.

Moreover, one has to take into account that the one possible practical effect on the revenue might be that people who were promoting something which was not really an eisteddfod would seek to miscall it an eisteddfod to try to convince the Customs that something which ought to be taxed, because it was not an eisteddfod, should be exempt from tax, because it was an eisteddfod. That sort of consideration certainly would not appeal to the Welsh, who have no desire that any infringement of the spirit of the law should be introduced into the conduct of eisteddfods, but it would certainly add yet another possible complication which would be undesirable to all concerned.

The hon. Member for Goole mentioned cricket. I must say that the cricket exemption is a warning to Governments not to make exemptions from Entertainments Duty. I am certain that when, on the advice of my right hon. Friend the present Lord Privy Seal, Parliament accepted the cricket exemption two or three years ago, it was not fully recognised at that time how constantly the cricket exemption would be prayed in aid by those who desired to prove that because cricket was exempted, therefore their particular sport had an equal claim to exemption.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, with no unfriendliness whatever towards Wales and the Welsh, will quickly appreciate that if we were to grant an exemption for an eisteddfod just because it was an eisteddfod and without relation to the other principles of Entertainments Duty, it would be argued that we could make a special statutory exemption for many other kinds of entertainment, regardless of the logic of the matter. I appreciate the force of the hon. Lady's point, and I do not want to give anybody extra trouble. I think that I have shown by my attitude earlier this afternoon that I have no love for perpetuating the duties of bureaucracy.

On the other hand, taking all this into account, I think that we should confuse rather than simplify the law if we were to make a special exemption for something because it was an eisteddfod. We cannot possibly be harming any eisteddfod by leaving the law as it is since, as I have said, no eisteddfod ever fails to establish a claim to exemption. In those circumstances I advise that on balance it would be better to leave the law unchanged and continue to expect every eisteddfod which is genuine to get exemption from duty under the existing provisions of the law.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

We have had a long reply from the Financial Secretary. The matter is very short. The only point involved is whether or not eisteddfodau are to be exempt from tax after application to the Treasury, or by statutory provision. That is all that is involved. There is no question of what constitutes an eisteddfod. If it is provided that eisteddfodau are exempt, only true eisteddfodau are exempt, and the suggestion that there then arises the question whether a particular gathering is an eisteddfod does not arise.

That argument can be applied to every single exemption. Is French cricket cricket, and what is not cricket? All kinds of questions can be raised by ingenious people who might want to get exemptions. There is no question about the exemption of eisteddfodau. It was part of the Financial Secretary's reply, which he had prepared in advance to a case which had not been made, but which he nevertheless repeated to the Committee, that eisteddfodau are exempt. I ask the Financial Secretary to concentrate upon the point that the only question is whether that exemption shall be in the Bill, or whether it shall be obtained by application made to the gentlemen in Whitehall.

If that is the only issue, as clearly it is, it should be provided in the Statute. It would ensure that there was much less trouble for those running the eisteddfodau and for the civil servants. When the Financial Secretary talks about there being no trouble involved in this matter he is putting forward a ridiculous argument, because the number of these gatherings runs into hundreds and thousands in a year. On each occasion there must be correspondence with Whitehall, and Whitehall has to reply. It is a fantastic reply, coming from a Government who pride themselves upon cutting out bureaucracy and limiting Government expenditure.

Will not the Financial Secretary consider the matter again? It is really absurd to tell the Committee that it is better to retain the bureaucrats to examine these applications upon every single occasion when the whole matter can be covered by a very simple, two-line proposal, as contained in my hon. Friend's proposed new Clause. I hope that the Financial Secretary will look into the matter again and accept the Clause, both for the convenience of those who conduct these eisteddfodau and the saving of trouble and expense on the part of Whitehall.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I also want to express my disappointment with the Financial Secretary's reply. I should have thought that a Conservative Financial Secretary would have welcomed an intervention on the part of Socialist Members to abolish one type of form-filling activity. The Minister has conceded that there is really no virtue in continuing this procedure, other than the very doubtful one of filling in forms and having upon the record precisely what is happening in regard to this form of entertainment.

It is conceded that every eisteddfod held in the last financial year gained this exemption, and it is not suggested for one moment that any eisteddfod to be held in the future will not qualify for exemption. The sole question, therefore, concerns our attitude to unnecessary form-filling. I should have thought that the Financial Secretary would welcome this opportunity of doing away with one quite unnecessary sort of form filling. I do not want to exaggerate the amount of work it causes, but in practice what happens is that the secretary of every village eisteddfod has to go through these formalities, knowing full well that the necessary exemption will eventually be granted. I should have thought that this very simple and straightforward proposal would have avoided much form-filling on the part of individuals, and quite a lot of unnecessary administrative work in the appropriate Government Department.

Mr. E. C. Redhead (Walthamstow, West)

As one of the rather unsympathetically styled bureaucrats who was once in the habit of dealing with this type of exemption, among others, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the application upon every individual occasion for an exemption from Entertainments Duty in respect of eisteddfodau is a quite cumbersome and fantastic procedure, which is completely unnecessary. It was my painful job at one time to stack up these applications for exemption literally by the dozen, and it is absurd to suggest that even though, by comparison with other administrative acts in connection with Entertainments Duty, the total amount of work involved is not large, it is not a futile process to require promoters of this sort of entertainment to apply for exemption upon every occasion.

The Customs and Excise circular upon this subject requires the promoters to satisfy the Commissioners that the entertainment: is provided by a society, an institution or committee which is not conducted or established for profit and that the aims, objects and activities of the society, institution or committee are partly educational. The promoters have to do this: by letter addressed to the Secretary giving the date and place of the entertainment with details of each programme for which exemption is sought, and of the society's financial arrangements with the owner of the premises and with the performers. Any society of the kind making an application for the first time almost inevitably finds itself confronted with the necessity of further correspondence, the submission of financial statements, and the examination of various points, when everyone in the Department knows that in the end there will be an inevitable right to exemption.

5.45 p.m.

The Financial Secretary has suggested that if this exemption—which will cost nothing in terms of revenue—is conceded there will be a risk of someone promoting an entertainment which will pretend to be an eisteddfod when it is nothing of the kind. I find it rather difficult to imagine what sort of entertainment the right hon. Gentleman is apprehensive of as being likely to masquerade as an eisteddfod. If there is any serious risk of that kind it can be comfortably left to the vigilance of the Customs and Excise officers, who have to investigate other attempts at evasion of Entertainments Duty, and who do so pretty effectively. From the point of view of cutting out even a little of the administrative process which has to be gone through in administering this duty, I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to think again about the proposition which is now before the Committee.

Mr. H. Wilson

Although this is a relatively narrow point, I have never seen the Financial Secretary so completely annihilated by argument as he has been in the last fifteen minutes. He has heard the arguments put forward by my hon. Friends whose constituents are responsible for running these functions; he has heard a most eloquent case put forward by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas), and now he has heard the practical argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead) who used to be responsible for these bureaucratic functions which the Financial Secretary seems so anxious to perpetuate.

After all this the Financial Secretary will surely tell us that he accepts the logic of these arguments. He may tell us that the proposed new Clause is not drafted in the proper fashion. We shall be quite prepared to accept that. But of all the arguments I have ever listened to on a Finance Bill—and that is saying something—this one, from the Financial Secretary, that unless a separate application were necessary in every case people might conduct a kind of "phoney" eisteddfod for the purpose of evading Entertainments Duty, takes every possible biscuit.

How would this function? It ought to be clear to the Committee what is the right way to approach this matter. We agree that there is no loss of revenue. In fact, there is a saving, because, as my hon. Friend has made very clear, these applications involve a considerable amount of work, which must cost money. Here is a Government, elected upon a pledge to reduce Government expenditure by cutting out unnecessary administration—I should be out of order in talking about the very serious statement made by the Chancellor this afternoon—refusing, this simple opportunity to reduce bureaucratic expenditure.

Perhaps my hon. Friend can tell me what it amounts to. It may be only a few hundred or thousand pounds a year, but time and time again the Financial Secretary, at Question Time, in his most sanctimonious manner, has said that no economy is too small to be worth making. I do not know whether my hon. Friend can tell us what the saving might be, but whatever it is it is worth pursuing. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman of the dictum of William Ewart Gladstone, who was quoted in aid by the Chancellor in the Budget debate until we discovered who was the real inspirer of his Budget. It was William Ewart Gladstone, a former Chancellor, who once said: It should be the duty of the Chancellor to pursue every possible saving, including candle ends. And here is the right hon. Gentleman telling us that he rejects this idea. He would rather have this wasteful expenditure than run the possible risk, however remote, that some Welshman, or some wolf in Welshman's clothing, might come along and run some entirely "phoney" performance—say a bull fight or a bear-baiting ceremony, or whatever it might be—and put up a notice saying that it was an eisteddfod and therefore exempt from Entertainments Duty.

As my hon. Friend said, the Customs and Excise officers are vigilant in spotting and pursuing malefactors of that kind, but in any case, has the Financial Secretary so little confidence in his advisers that he does not think it possible to devise a short and simple Clause in which the eisteddfod could be defined for this purpose? In this very Bill the Financial Secretary and the Chancellor spend three pages defining the circumstances in which a shooting brake can be exempt from Purchase Tax and the procedure which follows if anybody dares to put a window into the vehicle. From the argument which he has used this afternoon, why should not the Financial Secretary say that in future no shooting brake shall ever be exempt from Purchase Tax, but that every owner shall send in a form of application to the Customs and Excise in respect of every shooting brake? That is an exact parallel to the sort of argument which the right hon. Gentleman has just put forward.

I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to realise that, for once, he is in a completely indefensible position. We often think that he is in such a position, but even he must admit that this afternoon. I ask him to admit the total defeat of his argument and to say that he accepts the principle underlying this Clause and will consider drafting something for the Report stage. If the right hon. Gentleman says that it would take too long for his legal advisers to draft something for the Report stage—even if he says that we shall have to wait for the autumn Budget—however long it may be, I should be prepared to advise my hon. Friends to accept that as an earnest of the good intentions of the right hon. Gentleman. But at least, let him say that he accepts the principle behind this new Clause and will see that something is drafted in due course, either by Report stage or later this year, so that we may have the necessary legislation before us.

Mr. H. Brooke

I must rise again, if only to prove that I am neither sanctimonious nor annihilated, and also to point out that the right hon. Gentleman even gets his stories wrong. The reference to candle ends did not concern a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer. The remark was addressed to the appointment of a new Secretary, and the correct version is that Mr. Gladstone raised a doubt, when a member of the Stanley family had been appointed to my present position, whether a scion of the house of Derby was best qualified to save candle ends.

But we are perhaps straying from the eisteddfod. I should like the Committee to know that I have inquired about the extent of any net saving that might accrue from the acceptance of this Clause. Whatever may be said by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead)—and I realise that the hon. Gentleman speaks from first-hand experience—he will grant that I have made an up-to-date assessment of the position. I am advised that the amount of saving involved—and let me make clear that there are no forms to be filled up or anything like that, it is simply a matter of writing a letter which could easily be put in the correct form by anyone who reads the Customs notice—the net saving—

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

There is a printed notice.

Mr. Brooke

There is a printed notice which sets out perfectly clearly the conditions of the exemption.

The net saving involved, if anything of the kind suggested in the Clause had to be done, would in our estimation be more than offset by the additional work involved by Customs officers, in the phrase of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West, exercising their vigilance and, in other words, travelling round the country to see what was happening.

That is the result of my estimation of the matter. I am not therefore defending bureaucracy. I am seeking to put to the Committee that we should only be getting Parliament into further trouble and possibly further anomalies if we sought, by an alteration of the law, to do what now happens perfectly reasonably under the law as it stands.

Mr. H. Wilson

I do not think that we should detain the Committee much longer on this matter. Obviously the Financial Secretary is not on his best form. He is determined to resist this thing to the death, and we are very disappointed about it.

I should like to get the matter right about the candle ends. It is true that Mr. Gladstone did make the point about a member of the Derby family. I have that family among my constituents, and so I will not say what I think about it. In any case, it would be out of order to cast reflections on the noble Lord. Nevertheless, if the right hon. Gentleman studies the matter, he will find that Mr. Gladstone became so fond of the term "candle ends" that he used it on a subsequent occasion, I think it was in connection with the preparation of the Budget for 1862, though I would not be certain—it may have been that he used the phrase in 1863.

I commend to the right hon. Gentleman that he follow that precept where it is possible to reduce bureaucratic expenditure and at the same time provide greater convenience for the tax-paying public. We are disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman has not thought fit to accept at any rate the principle of this matter. I do not propose to advise my hon. Friends to take this matter to a division. It is a narrow point so far as revenue is concerned. I know that some of my hon. Friends will be disappointed, but I do not propose to advise them to divide the Committee. When we come to the next new Clause, which advocates a clean sweep of the Entertainments Duty, we shall have an opportunity to express our view, not only about eisteddfodau, but all other similar forms of tax.

Question put and negatived.