HC Deb 02 July 1958 vol 590 cc1399-404

Part III of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, is hereby repealed.—[Mr. Mitchison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

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

Part III of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, deals with the qualifications for the General Commissioners, but does not deal with the method of their appointment; and this new Clause provides the Government and all right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite with an opportunity of being mildly progressive in what is really an indisputable matter. The position is that these property qualifications first appeared in Pitt's Income Tax Act of 1799, and though they have changed from time to time they still bear traces of antiquity, not to say absurdity.

The General Commissioners, however appointed, have to have these qualifications originally; they have to keep them during their period of office. I suppose that if they failed to keep them some of their decisions might become rather doubtful since they would no longer be qualified. That might inure to the advantage of the taxpayer, or it might inure to the advantage of the Revenue, but nobody, I am quite certain, wants it to happen. These qualifications take one back a bit, as the saying goes.

First, they have to hold property. They have got to hold either land, real estate, or they have got to hold personal estate, or they have got to hold a combination of the two, up to a given value, and the given value varies according to where they are sitting and acting. Even the names of the towns indicate Ale antiquity of these qualifications, since apparently the General Commissioners who are sitting in King's Lynn require a higher qualification in property than those who are sitting in, for instance, Bradford, and I do not think that Bradford would like that, if it attaches any importance whatever to the qualifications of the General Commissioners.

See what the qualifications are. Within the high-class places like Birmingham and King's Lynn they are £200 a year of real estate, or £5,000 a year, producing an annual income of £200, of personal estate, or combined real and personal estate worth £200 a year. Then there is provision as to how to arrive at the values of these two things in combination. There are also the lower-class places. Wales is distinctly lower, but Scotland, in the county divisions, has fallen lamentably behind. The qualification in the county divisions of Scotland is £150 per annum, but the £ is the £ Scots and, as far as I know, this part of the Statute Book represents the latest if not the only appearance of the £ Scots in our legislation. But when it comes to personal estates in the county divisions of Scotland, they qualify in sterling, and the combined real and personal estates qualify again in £200 sterling per annum. It is obviously necessary, therefore, for the Government of the day to be well acquainted with the £ Scots, its value, and what I might call its permutation and combination possibilities.

This matter was raised six years ago. That was quite a long time after Pitt's Income Tax Act, but before the Report of the Royal Commission. We had what might be called a really cheerful debate about it on a Clause that at that time proposed a simpler qualification of £200 a year. We had not had at that time the Report on the Royal Commission, to which I shall refer on this as on other matters in a moment. We had put the Clause to the Government and the Government said, "The Report is not out yet. We must wait for it."

There was a terrible passage in which I took the opportunity of calling the attention of the present Attorney-General to the form of the qualification in £ Scots, and I asked him how much the £ Scots was. It is, of course, his official duty to expound legislation to the House and I regret to say that he replied: I cannot possibly express an opinion on the £ Scots without notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th June, 1952; 502. c. 1062.]

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)


6.45 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

The Clause had been on the Notice Paper for some time and all that the Attorney-General, who was then Solicitor-General, was able to express at the end of the day was not the absolute certainty which is required in this matter, because if the £ Scots went wrong so would the General Commissioners. They would become disqualified, disabled and unable to act any longer. The Government did not accept the Clause. We divided on it and we left it at that.

The next step was that the Royal Commission got round to this matter. The Committee will be glad to hear that this was not one of the subjects on which there was any difference of opinion between the majority and the minority of the Commission. The Commission referred to Pitt's Income Tax of 1799 and said: The present qualification (which has continued unchanged since 1842) is set out in Part III of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952 and it added: It was represented to us that a property qualification is an anachronism; and that it stands in the way of the appointment of persons of ability who have no income but that which is derived from personal effort. It was pointed out that the great majority of taxpayers today are probably in this situation"— that was about 1955, under a Tory Government— We agree that the property qualification is anomalous and we recommend its entire abolition. I do not think that even the hon. Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens) can find very much to quote about that. It is quite definite.

The Commission went on to say: The imposition of a property qualification was, at best, a very haphazard method of trying to secure that General Commissioners should have some understanding of the different sources of income giving rise to the assessments which they would have to deal with. We think it much more important that the system of appointment should be such as to facilitate the finding of persons willing to serve who possess the right personal qualities. The Report went on to questions which really relate to the appointment and not to the qualifications of the General Commissioners.

It continued: It would be absurd to keep the Land Tax Commissioners in existence for the sole purpose of appointing General Commissioners … The Land Tax Commissioners kept themselves alive by appointing one another as General Commissioners. They were formerly appointed by what were called Names Acts. Be that as it may, we are concerned only with the qualifications.

As far as one can be serious about the matter, I imagine that nobody in the Committee wishes to keep property qualifications nowadays and thereby debar people who might be earning a substantial but fluctuating income and let in people who, by way of qualifications, had nothing but the possession of a piece of personal or real estate to support them. One always wants any Government and Chancellor to have a mind of their own in these matters, but I hope that this quite simple proposition, and not a revolutionary suggestion, so readily and unreservedly adopted by the Royal Commission will now commend itself to the Government.

Let us say nothing about the past. The Government were entitled, six and a half years ago, to shelter behind the fact that the Commission had not yet reported. It has now reported. Its Report is quite clear. It does not even want the limited property qualifications which we suggested in June, 1952. I simply invite the Committee and the Government to accept the Amendment as getting rid of something which is quite anomalous, very ancient and by now very absurd.

Mr. Stevens

I am very happy indeed to be able to support everything that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has said. It is a sufficiently rare event to fill me with a warm and pleasing glow. Incidentally, it is very interesting to hear the hon. and learned Member quoting from the Royal Commission's Report with such evident signs of approval and pleasure. He cannot have been with us yesterday afternoon to hear his right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) referring in rather different terms to the Report as a whole and to the authors of it.

I agree, however, that the time has come to make a change. We should bear in mind that in 1842, when these property and money qualifications were specified, taxation was at a very much lower rate than it is today and it was very much easier, out of a reasonable earned income, to accumulate the savings necessary to give one the qualifications required. Those days are past. In the years to come, with further Tory Chancellors, taxation no doubt will be lowered and once more the possibility of saving will emerge. Meantime I agree entirely with what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, and I hope that his words and his arguments will bear fruit in what the Financial Secretary has to say.

Mr. Simon

When the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, Langstone (Mr. Stevens) are in alliance, particularly when they are reinforced by the authority of the Royal Commission, it is difficult to withstand their arguments.

The arguments are really incontrovertible. In the first place, a property qualification of any kind these days in this type of appointment can hardly be defended. Secondly, as the hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out, the existing property qualifications are, in any event, in the highest degree anomalous. In view of what I shall say, it is perhaps unnecessary for me to assure him that a £ Scots is worth one-twelfth of £1 sterling. That is only one of many oddities in the property qualifications between the two countries.

Mr. Mitchison

I would like to tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that I ascertained this from the Chancellor of the Exchequer a day or two after the Solicitor-General, as he then was, expressed his inability to give an opinion on the matter.

Mr. Simon

I am sorry to have told thing he knew already.

Thirdly, as I indicated, this is a matter on which the Royal Commission has made a recommendation and, as I said on the previous Amendment, that is a factor to which we ought to attach great importance and considerable respect without, of course, letting it impair our judgment on any proposal.

Having said that, however, I will ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw his Motion and Clause. In the first place, it cannot be accepted as it stands. There are a number of references elsewhere in the Income Tax Acts to the property qualification, which would need revision if Part III of the First Schedule were repealed as suggested. Secondly, I think the property qualification ought to be dealt with in a wider context. We want also to deal with the method of appointment, which the hon. and learned Gentleman, on the edge of the rules of order as he put it, referred to, and also we want to deal with the payment of expenses of the General Commissioners of Taxation.

We propose to deal with this in the context of the Tribunals and Inquiries Bill, although it will be an Amendment of the Finance Act. I think that will relieve part of the pressure on the Report stage of this Bill, and it falls, I am assured, within the scope of the Tribunals and Inquiries Bill. For those reasons, assuring the hon. and learned Gentleman that we unreservedly accept the intention of this Clause, namely, that the property qualification of the General Commissioners shall disappear from our law, I hope he will not press the Motion.

Mr. Mitchison

Thanking, as I do, the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said, and rejoicing for myself that he proposes to cover a rather wider field than one could conveniently do in this Clause, and only anxious lest between us we are putting rather more work on his learned advisers who, at this time of the year are particularly busy, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.