HC Deb 02 July 1958 vol 590 cc1337-40

Paragraph 4 of the Sixth Schedule to the National Insurance (No. 2) Act, 1957 (which contained transitional provisions in connection with the withdrawal of the pensioner's tobacco relief under section four of the Finance Act, 1947) shall have, and be deemed to have had, effect as if the date specified in sub-paragraph (3) as the latest date on which tokens may be surrendered by a dealer had been the thirtieth day of September, nineteen hundred and fifty-eight (instead of in the events which happened, the thirty-first day of March).—[Mr. Simon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.34 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

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

The Clause is designed to relieve a hardship which has come to light as a result of the transitional provisions of the National Insurance (No. 2) Act passed last year relating to tobacco tokens. The transitional provisions are contained in paragraph 4 of the Sixth Schedule, and they work in this way. The last valid tokens, in the event which happened, that is, in view of the appointment of an appointed day, were those dated 20th January, 1958. Sub-paragraph (2) prescribed the last day on which valid tokens could be accepted by tobacco dealers. Because the appointed day fell before 31st January, the effect of the sub-paragraph was to determine 28th February as the last day for acceptance of the tokens. Sub-paragraph (3), which is the one the new Clause is designed to amend, prescribed the last day on which dealers could surrender tokens for reimbursement. That was, again in the event which happened, 31st March, 1958.

The period of one month for dealers to seek reimbursement in respect of tokens they had on hand was thought to give them a reasonable time to collect them together and present them to the Customs or their bankers. The period was, in fact, fixed as a result of advice from the National Union of Retail Tobacconists, and, of course, on the supposition that the retail tobacconists would be anxious to get the money as quickly as possible.

There was a number of belated claims. Although the advice was undoubtedly sound as regards the bulk of tobacconists—about 97½ per cent. of the 440,000 or so licensed tobacco dealers—there were undoubtedly many hundreds of appeals, and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the Committee wrote to me about those matters. Perhaps I may quote one extract from a letter from a tobacconist who said: I have supplied tobacco against these tokens and consider it morally wrong for the Department now to refuse to honour them. The general excuse given was illness, absence, inadvertence of employees, or one of a number of other good reasons.

The matter was first dealt with by an extra-statutory concession by which payments were made on claims lodged up to 15th April or, in the case of illness and other good reason, until 30th April, 1958. Of course, the Public Accounts Committee would have to be and in any event will be, notified through the Comptroller and Auditor General of that extra-statutory concession. An extra-statutory concession of that sort, however, ought to be put right by legislation as soon as possible.

We found that there was a continued flow of belated claims even after the last of those dates. They have continued to come in until now. We have received about 1,700 appeals and there are, in addition, about 8,000 dealers who were refused payment but who have not appealed. In equity, they should be paid if they still have valid titles.

I hope that the new Clause will commend itself to the Committee. What it does is to put a new surrender date at some time in the future, giving sufficient time to allow all claims to be lodged and for there to be adequate publicity, which we propose to undertake in order to bring the new closing date to the notice of dealers. As hon. Gentlemen will see, the new Clause replaces the date 31st March, which I mentioned earlier, by a new date of 30th September. That has been chosen to give ample time for publicity.

The proposed new Clause does not involve any real cost, in that it permits payments which have already been allowed for, and it was obviously the intention of Parliament that they should be made. The individual claims which are now belated are mostly very small and the total sum involved probably does not exceed £50,000. I am sure that it is the wish of the Committee to put right the undoubted hardship to a number of small dealers. I therefore ask the Committee to pass the Clause.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

It would be out of order undoubtedly if I commented upon the feelings of retirement pensioners when they were told that they were to have an increase in pension and then told that they would lose their tobacco tokens. That matter has been discussed on a previous occasion.

We on this side do not oppose the principle of the Government's proposal. We certainly would not wish tobacco dealers to be out of pocket when they feel that there is a legitimate claim against the public. On the other hand, I feel that the Treasury was a little innocent if it supposed, in the first place, that all these claims would be made in one month, and the fact that it has now had to extend the period by six months seems to me to be a comment on the credulity of the Treasury when it was suggested to it that it could do it in a month.

Had the Treasury had a little more common sense in the first place, I am sure that it would have saved itself a great deal of correspondence, filing, and so on, and would also have saved a good deal of anxiety on the part of a number of small retailers who supposed that they might be losing altogether an amount for which they had not put in a claim by the previous appointed day.

Having made this false judgment and got itself into such a muddle over it, the Treasury is now wise to wait until 30th September, to give the trade ample time to be informed that all the claims will be considered. There is a considerable number, as the Financial Secretary said. Almost 10,000 claims have still got to be dealt with, and for that purpose I am sure that we agree, especially with the holiday period intervening, that it is not unreasonable to ask the Committee to bring forward the date from 31st March to 30th September.

I do not know whether this was the only way in which it could have been done, because it must have been obvious some weeks ago what was happening and one might have been able to do it by Statutory Instrument.

Mr. Simon indicated dissent.

Mrs. White

In that case, we cannot raise any objection to the proposal in the new Clause. Having chided the Treasury, we shall not oppose the proposed new Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.