HC Deb 12 June 1958 vol 589 cc504-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Redhead

I should like to know whether the Committee can be afforded a somewhat clearer and fuller explanation of what appears on the face of it to be the rather obscure purpose lying behind the Clause. Section 6 of the Finance Act, 1908, to which the Clause has reference, provides that There shall be transferred to the local authorities in England and Wales"— but, for some obscure reason, not Scotland— the power to levy duties on certain licences and to keep the revenues derived from those licence duties. The appropriate Section, however, had a proviso which laid down that, if the rate of any such duty was subsequently altered, that duty, unless Parliament made provision to the contrary, would cease to be a duty to which the Section applied. In other words, if the rates of duty as they then were were subsequently increased the revenue would cease to accrue to the local authorities concerned and would revert to the Crown.

The Clause proposes that that proviso shall cease to apply in respect of the duty on dog licences. In the Second Reading debate on the Bill the Financial Secretary said, quite correctly, that the only licence duties which now remained in this category of transferred licences were gun, game and dog licences, and he went on to explain that the proviso to Section 6 (4) of the Act of 1908 was of a character to prevent a consolidation of the law in this sphere which is very much needed—it is old and, therefore, prolix—because two codes of law, one involving the local and the other the national taxation would be required."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 12th May, 1958; Vol. 587, c. 38] He said that the Clause made no substantial change in the law as such, and was designed merely to make way for a consolidation of the law.

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

If I said, "old and, therefore, prolix", the "therefore" was purely a slip of the tongue.

Mr. Redhead

I accept the hon. and learned Member's correction; I was quoting from HANSARD.

If the Clause is designed merely as a preface to some requisite consolidation of the law in this respect, why, seeing that gun, game and dog licences survive in this sphere, is the present Clause confined to dog licences? Why should not gun and game licences be brought into the review? It seems to me that consolidation should cover the whole field.

Secondly, I wish to ask: are we to take it that, apart from consolidation—I must confess my first reaction to this Clause was to think that this was probably its purpose—the Government have in mind to make an onslaught on dog licences and to increase the rate of duty? If any such purpose is in mind—I have heard advocacy for it which I am not myself advancing, and the present amount of the licence has remained static for many years—why should not that have been done in this Bill? I find no indication of that intention in this Bill. This leaves us confused and unsatisfied about the purpose behind this Clause.

If it be a question of paving the way for consolidation, can we be given some indication of the nature of that consolidation? May we be told why it is that the Clause provides only for dog licences when, seemingly, gun and game licences should be similarly brought within the sphere of any consolidation thought to be requisite?

The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)

The suspicions of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead), though worthy enough on the face of them, are unjustified. There is no intention of interfering with the dog licence duty. If there were, it would require legislation, so that Parliament would have to be firmly acquainted with it, and we should have the advantage of the views of the hon. Member if he felt pained about the changes proposed.

This is included as a Clause in the Bill simply because it was asked for by those concerned with the magic of consolida- tion. I could not indicate to the Committee anything of the precise nature of the consolidation intended. It is a matter examined in due course by a consolidation Committee and soundly vetted before it reaches Parliament at all.

If the hon. Member will glance at the dog licence law—I do not like the word "prolix", although my hon. and learned Friend used it—he will find that it is a bit of a legislative "jungle" and one has to probe over the Statute Book. Taking a rough shot myself, I would commend the attention of the hon. Member to a couple of Statutes, in 1867 and in 1878, and to the Protection of Animals (Cruelty to Dogs) Act of 1933. It is scattered in rather wordy provisions, and it is thought to be an advantage that the law relating to dog licences should be consolidated.

I have not examined the details relating to the law on those other licences. So far as I am aware, no one desires to consolidate the law relating to them which depends on other Statutes, but no harm, so far as I know, would be done by their inclusion in this context. But as no one desires to consolidate them, and as this Clause is only to make provision for the consolidation of Statutes relating to dog licences, it was not thought necessary to deal with the other types of local authority licences at this time. If the need arose, no doubt it could be done in a future Bill, but at present there is no need to do so—although the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) almost rose from his seat just now to say that there is. No doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to explain to the Committee why.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

The "hon. and learned Member" to whom I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was referring is not concerned with that. What he is concerned with is to know why this Clause is here. At present, not having, perhaps, conducted sufficient researches into the history of dog, gun and game licences, I am completely in the dark about why this Clause is required. That simple question seems to me to be what we are now considering.

The present position is that there are three types of licences—dog, gun and game. If I may take the language of the Government Bill as correct on a change in the rate of any duty transferred by that section to local authorities in England and Wales the transfer becomes inoperative and therefore, presumably, unless this Clause is put through, something would happen when the dog licence was changed. But nobody proposes to change the dog licence. Therefore, I fail to see the reason for putting this Clause in the Bill.

Then the right hon. and learned Gentleman tells the Committee that the reason is that somebody wants to consolidate something. He does not say what form the consolidation is to take or the reason for it. He does not even say how much is to be consolidated and simply hides—for lack of anything better to hide behind—behind the unknown dictate of a consolidation Committee. I quite understand that consolidation Committees have their purposes, but it is news to me that they are the people who draft and put forward those very important instruments of Government—Finance Bills—and that, simply for a reason so inadequately and incompletely described by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we have now to consider this Clause today.

Perhaps I may ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman this very simple question: what would be the difference in the position if we refuse to accept this Clause from the position if we accept it? Would it not simply be that when matters got to some further stage and the labours of the consolidation Committee approached fruition, it might have to add something to those labours; but that so far as the Exchequer, and the taxpaper, and the national economy and the rest of it is concerned, it is rather extraordinary that we are asked to pass, in a Measure for saving the nation—which is conducting a fight against inflation; saving the dollar exchange and, goodness knows, all the things we do in the Finance Bill—a Clause, the effect of which, if any, is at present completely obscure?

I think that we are entitled to ask the Government the simple question: what is this Clause for? What would be the difference if we refused to accept it? Would anybody be one penny better off or one penny worse off as a result of the omission of this Clause from a Bill which calls itself a Finance Bill?

To put the matter a little more generally, cannot the Government—having regard to the numerous recommendations of Royal Commissions about reforming taxation and reforming the administration and all the bright suggestions put on the Order Paper by hon. Members—think of something a little more useful than this Clause appears to be? If, in fact, we are to pass this Clause, the substantial question still remains unanswered. This will no doubt provide, if and when the dog licence is changed, that the revenue will not necessarily be taken from the local authority. What is to happen if the gun or game licences are changed? Is the revenue then to be taken from the local authorities and, if so, on what ground?

Lastly—this question seems to me to have become extremely pertinent—we remember the debate about what was popularly known as the "Leak" and the adventures of a former Economic Secretary to the Treasury on a grouse moor. Has this any connection with that? Is this peculiar treatment being confined to dog licences, and not intended for gun and game licences, because the Government have some vested interest in grouse moors and somehow manage to shoot grouse without having dogs to retrieve them?

The Solicitor-General

Not for the first time, I have been guilty of the discourtesy of failing to realise that it is not sufficient to give an answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman once. The substantial point, why this Clause has to be in the Bill for consolidation, was first given by my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary during the Second Reading debate.

I realise quite well that the hon. and learned Member is too busy to have time to read speeches of that kind. It was repeated a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead). I was guilty of the discourtesy of not repeating it myself, but if it will assist the hon. and learned Member and the Committee, I will do so. While the proviso remains in the law, any consolidation of the enactments relating to dog licences would involve a provision for a double parallel code, one for collection on a national basis and one for collection on a local authority basis.

Primarily to avoid that complication in a consolidation Bill, the Clause is included because the requisite amendment could not otherwise be made in the process of consolidation. There is no dark mystery regarding dollars, grouse moors or £ s. d., nor what might happen if the money were taken from local authorities in future. None of these dark suspicions of the hon. and learned Member really arises.

Mr. Mitchison

I am still not satisfied with the explanation given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He has not answered the question I asked. This is the Finance Bill, which is supposed to be concerned with regulating the national economy and not with consolidating statutes. Would it make any difference to anybody if the Clause were not passed? It would no doubt make the process of future legislation a little different, but that is all.

As I understand, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now admitting that this Clause, this sublime Clause, this noble Clause, embodying the financial policy of the Government, has been put in here solely and entirely for the purpose of not putting it into a subsequent consolidation Measure and thereby making it a consolidation Measure without amendments, whereas it would have been a consolidation Measure with amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.