HC Deb 18 May 1960 vol 623 cc1407-18

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

Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)

In his Budget statement, the Chancellor forecast this Clause hen he said that it was his intention to simplify the administration of the tobacco licence duty. That is the simple purpose of the Clause and we ought, therefore, not to take long to deal with it. However, it is worth taking a few minutes to consider the nature of the tobacco dealer's licence and the problem which arises from its administration. I am concerned with the licensing of mobile shops for the sale of tobacco and cigarettes.

As the law stands, mobile shops cannot be licensed for the sale of tobacco except in exceptional circumstances and then only temporarily. The origin of the tobacco licence goes back to an Excise Measure of 1825, by which the licences were tied to fixed premises. That excludes mobile shops, which have become an important and distinctive method of distribution in more modern days.

The Customs and Excise has administered the law quite narrowly. It is possible to get a licence for a goods vehicle to sell tobacco only in very special circumstances, where there is a special local need and where it is recognised that before long a permanent local shop will be available. However, that works out anomalously, especially for the Co-operative movement, and there is a particular anomaly to which I call attention.

It is not necessarily the same trader who will occupy the fixed shop when it comes to be built as the trader who has the licence for the temporary mobile shop. The effect of that is that some co-operative societies, having succeeded in getting a temporary licence for a mobile shop, often find that it is withdrawn when a shop occupied by a private trader takes its place. The Co-operative movement is especially interested in this matter of the need for licences for mobile shops and if this anomaly were rectified there would be applications for licences for as many as 2,000 mobile shops owned by the Cooperative movement and which we believe ought to have licences.

10.0 p.m.

In certain local authority areas, over the years, co-operative societies have often found difficulty in getting shop sites on housing estates owing to the prejudice of the local authority. For that reason they have had to operate mobile shops and it is a handicap to them in the development of their trade if they are not able to sell tobacco and cigarettes. The narrow interpretation put on the law by the Customs and Excise Department almost means that mobile shops operating in rural areas are prevented from selling tobacco and cigarettes to the customers in those areas.

I stress that the origin of this law goes back to 1825. In those days, the mobile shop had not been thought of. That law has been considerably outdated by the development of this new distributive method. In 1825, the law tied licences to fixed premises. Today, mobile shops are an important distributive method in their own right. I do not want anyone to suggest that this means hawking tobacco and cigarettes. A mobile shop means a specially designed vehicle with standards of equipment and hygiene which are usually well above those of many fixed small shops. These mobile shops operate on a fixed route according to a fixed timetable, stopping at recognised places at certain times, and they can be clearly and easily identified as outlets for the sale of commodities, which ought to include tobacco and cigarettes.

I stress the ease of identification of a mobile shop. Incidentally, there is a very clear description of a mobile shop for Purchase Tax purposes, so there should be no difficulty of identification. The licence tax was originally and, I maintain, is still meant to be a means of identification. It is not primarily a revenue producer and it certainly was not intended to be, as in the case of liquor licensing, a method of restricting the number of outlets for the sale of tobacco. For all those reasons I believe that a properly equipped mobile shop, operating to a definite programme, ought to receive a licence as readily as a fixed shop receives it.

As the Economic Secretary probably knows, representations have been made by the Co-operative movement on this matter. I understand that those representations have been turned down. I do not know why the Government have turned down the approaches that have been made by the Co-operative movement. It cannot be that the outlets cannot be identified, because what I have said shows that they can be.

It ought not to be on restrictive grounds, but I am rather suspicious that it may be. If the Government are using the tobacco licence for the purpose of restricting the number of outlets, that is severely discriminating against the Co-operative movement. It may not be the intention of the Government to discriminate in that way, but as the law is now being administered that is the effect. In any case, the Committee should be told what reasons the Government advance for turning down the suggestion that mobile shops should be licensed.

In my judgment, Clause 187 of the 1952 Act needs considerably more amendment than is proposed in the Clause, and I hope that the Minister will consider this question again and see whether his Department has not made a mistake in turning down the representations made by the Co-operative movement. If he comes to the conclusion that there has been a mistake, perhaps he will be able to give an assurance that he will move a suitable Amendment on Report.

Mr. Redhead

I do not wish to detain the Committee long at this hour, especially on a matter which, compared with the subjects dealt with in the previous Clause, is relatively minor. Naturally we applaud the Chancellor for taking the opportunity to tidy up and simplify what must be a somewhat tedious and cumbersome business—the annual collection of a licence duty of only 5s. 3d. This procedure is a survival of the happy days when the licence was 10s. 6d. Some Chancellor, in a generous mood, said, "Let us halve it." To substitute for that method a four-year licence costing £1 is a sensible operation, which should cut down the amount of administration required.

Nevertheless, I am not clear why the Chancellor should have thought it desirable, at the same time, to abolish what would appear to be a convenient form of combined liquor-tobacco licence in respect of aircraft and ships. While he was carrying out the desirable operation of introducing a four-yearly duty he might have addressed himself more to the anachronisms involved in the application of the licence duty, which, as my hon. Friend has said, was never intended to be a revenue-producing duty; its sole purpose was to ensure the registration of dealers for the purpose of control and safeguarding the Revenue in respect of the major duty—the duty on tobacco itself.

There is something to be said for the argument that whatever might have been the necessity for rigidity in limiting tobacco dealers' licences to fixed premises originally, in these days the restriction could reasonably and sensibly be relaxed. My hon. Friend has made a legitimate point in saying that in these days, when control is well established, there cannot be any grave risk in extending dealers' licences to mobile shops, subject to proper safeguards.

It is absurd that a person should be able to order tobacco or cigarettes from a shop which has a licence and have those goods delivered by a van without an offence being committed. It is absurd that a person can go into any one of our big railway stations and buy cigarettes and tobacco from a mobile truck, because the Customs and Excise authorities have got round their own difficulty by registering the station as fixed premises of its own. We can obtain tobacco and cigarettes in a railway train, and it is inconsistent that we cannot do so from a duly safeguarded mobile shop.

Whatever the difficulties may be, I suggest that they could readily be overcome. Registration of a mobile shop could be in such a form that it was clearly restricted to some fixed premises which had a licence. That would afford the Revenue all the reasonable safeguards that are requisite in a matter of this kind.

I hope therefore that, if the proposition has already been rejected, the Chancellor will be ready to look at this matter again, assured, as I feel he must be, that there can be no grave risk to the Revenue in this regard. On the contrary, I would regard it as in accordance with modern trends to extend this provision in the way that has been suggested.

Mr. Barber

This is a small but, I think the hon. Member for Waltham-stow. West (Mr. Redhead) will agree, a useful reform which will be advantageous both to the tobacco trade and to Customs and Excise. I am told that the retail tobacco licence dates from the reign of Charles I, so my hon. Friends can be assured that there is no question of the ambit of the Clause breaking new ground.

The question that immediately arises is why it should be necessary to license the sale of tobacco at all. The fact is that there is still a certain amount of trafficking in un-Customed and stolen tobacco, and it is also necessary to guard against adulteration. It is therefore obviously advantageous to have a register of legitimate retail outlets, and therefore the licensing system remains an essential part of the system of control.

The hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) raised the question of mobile shops, and this was also referred to by the hon. Member for Waltham-stow, West. I should like to say, and I hope they will understand this, that I did not have any notice that this aspect was to be raised, and therefore I am not in as good a position to give a full and detailed reply as I might otherwise have been. But, as the hon. Member for East Ham, South knows, this was recently considered first by Customs and Excise and then by the Treasury, and the view was taken that the request which the hon. Gentleman is now making could not be acceded to.

The hon. Gentleman knows the conclusion we reached, but the arguments against his request are certainly not overwhelming and I realise that circumstances change. I assure him that I will be ready to look at it again. But I ought to point out that it was only recently—although I have not got the dates—that a decision was taken in this matter. It would therefore be wrong and misleading— although I will look into it again—to hold out any great hope of the possibility of anything being done in this Finance Bill.

If circumstances change and it is thought desirable in the interests of the public that there should be these licences for mobile shops, I hope that as soon as the hon. Gentleman gets any new information he will let me have it. I will be only too ready to look into it again, and, if necessary, to ask him to come and discuss it with me.

Mr. Mitchison

May I add my plea to those of my hon. Friends? I have seen these mobile shops operating in my constituency, and they are particularly useful in places like new towns, where the distances between one tobacco shop and another are considerable. The Clause already provides for licensing, among other things, a tramcar, of which there are comparatively few survivors. If one can license a tramcar for this purpose, surely one can license one of these perambulating vans.

May I give the hon. Gentleman one further instance? I live in a village in Scotland where the nearest shop is some distance away, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) will be glad to know that I am regularly served by a co-op. van. It brings round our ordinary things, and I cannot see any possible objection to it being allowed to bring round tobacco, also. I see no risk of the perils mentioned by the Economic Secretary— adulteration, trafficking, and things of that sort.

I hope that something will be done about the matter. I hope, also, that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I say that we must reserve our right to come back to this matter on Report, because, small though it is, it is not unimportant. We trust that it will not be necessary, and that by then the Government will feel able to accede to the request that has been made.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Shepherd

I should like to impress upon my hon. Friend the need to reconsider the decision which was recently made. I do not think it was reached on the grounds of revenue safeguards, but I think it was influenced by a great deal of prejudice. I have been connected with mobile shops and I know that the co-operative society would be the main beneficiary if such a change were made, which generates a certain amount of prejudice. There is a good deal of prejudice against this method of distribution from established traders with fixed shops. But in the days when self-service is taking away all kinds of real service to the public, I do not think we should put an impediment in the way of methods of distribution such as this, when there is no serious ground for refusing this reasonable request.

A great number of van drivers carry tobacco illicitly and it would be much better that they should be licensed and that there should be proper control over these transactions than that the van driver should have a small pocket in the cab of his vehicle or some other hiding place where he stores the tobacco that he sells. Some firms have experienced great difficulty over this matter and have had to discharge drivers and salesmen who have been illicitly selling tobacco. So, in the interests of tidying up what is in a sense an injustice, and which leads to abuses, I ask my hon. Friend to have another look at the decision which was arrived at recently.

Mr. Rankin

I hope that the expressions of opinion by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will encourage the Economic Secretary to go a little further than his somewhat warning answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead) seemed to indicate. In his concluding sentences the hon. Gentleman appeared to modify a point of view which to us seemed heartening, that he would consider the matter so that we shall have it before us on Report. He seemed to qualify that by saying that he did not think that much could be done.

Mr. Barber

The point I was making was that this is a matter of importance which arose from requests made before I went to the Treasury, and consequently I am not completely au fait with all the details. I wished to make it clear that, while I shall certainly look at it again, my recollection is that we reached a decision only recently and it would be wrong to hold out great hopes. But I will take note of the opinions which have been expressed.

Mr. Rankin

Then I was correct. We appreciate the position of the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he will be influenced by what has been said.

There is a special case for what we are claiming. To the Co-operative movement this is not a minor matter, it is very important. In our great cities there are huge housing schemes under con- struction and, as was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), new shops are put into these areas but sometimes there is a great distance between the shops. In my view, this creates discrimination between certain members of the same cooperative society, because if one member happens to have a telephone in has house he can phone the society, order what tobacco he wants and it will be brought to him in a van. That happens to my hon. and learned Friend and to myself. If an individual has not got a telephone, no mobile shop is permitted to bring to him what a member of the same society can get without any trouble. That is a discrimination. The only way in which it can be put right so that all members of the same society shall be treated in the same way is by allowing the mobile shop to carry these goods for which at present it has no licence.

It could be fairly argued that a mobile shop is an extension of a fixed shop. It is not a different thing or something new, but merely an extension of the service granted by the fixed shop. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will convey to his right hon. Friend the sentiments which have been expressed in this short debate and that when he thinks it over again before Report the travelling shop will be granted a licence to sell tobacco.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

While I respect the caution which the Economic Secretary proposes to exercise in this problem, I was rather disturbed at the lukewarm attitude he displayed towards it when he suggested that, as it had been recently considered, he could hold out little hope that anything could be done. That attitude lacked an appreciation of the origin of this new type of service, the mobile shop, which is not confined to the Co-operative movement. Private enterprise is extending this kind of service in all parts of the country and in my part of the country there has been a tremendous extension of private enterprise in the last few years.

I think that there is some misunderstanding of the eligibility of this service. Listening to the Economic Secretary, one got the impression that it is an entirely separate business, a business in its own right. If that were so, I could understand the arguments which have been put forward. It is not a rateable service and in some respects it may not be a taxable service, but that leads to a misunderstanding of the service. It operates from a headquarters which is basically fixed, a set of premises, and organisation established by retail distributors already serving the community. This is an extension of another branch of the service which is rated and taxed for local authority and national revenue purposes. The Economic Secretary should try to see the mobile service as a business of that nature.

What is difficult to comprehend is some of the references made by the Economic Secretary to all sorts of elements which, in his short reply, he said should be considered. He mentioned hygiene, but some of us who have had experience of examining the most up-to-date type of mobile shop are convinced that it is far more hygienic than some of the fixed shops from which tobacco and cigarettes are sold. There is no valid argument about hygiene in that respect. I am talking about the mobile shops which provide a service second-to-none in different parts of the country.

When he is reviewing the matter, the Economic Secretary should have some regard to those parts of the country which are sparsely populated. I am thinking of a county in my locality which I understand contains the largest Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, which is indicative of the sparse population in the area. It is not possible for many members of the public in such an area to obtain tobacco and cigarettes except when, infrequently, they visit one of the largest villages. For week after week these people rely mainly on service from mobile vans.

It seems to me unfair that people living in a village or a small croft in some of the remote parts of the country should be prevented from purchasing the type of tobacco and cigarettes they want from mobile vans because the vans are not licensed to supply these goods. It is very unfair, because customers who live in a town have daily access to shops for these commodities. It is wrong that the law of the country should permit such an anomaly, which can be eliminated only by extending this type of service from mobile vans.

I ask the Economic Secretary and the Government also to consider the very great privilege which we enjoy in this country known as freedom of choice by the consumer. The consumers in this country are entitled to freedom of choice. I belong to a local authority which is controlled by the Labour movement, and we have been very interested in this principle. If I live in an outlying farmsteading I am not able to purchase Co-operative cigarettes and tobacco unless I travel to the nearest town. I have to purchase private enterprise cigarettes and tobacco, which, as a consumer in a free country, I am entitled to refuse. I recognise that the converse is true; I am one of the first to concede that. But surely in the twentieth century we should not be bedevilled by an Act which the Economic Secretary has traced back to the reign of Charles I. Surely legislation needs to be modernised. The right way to modernise it is to extend the tobacco licence to cover mobile trading concerns. We should ensure that all sections of the community have freedom of choice. I would then leave it to the super-salesmen to try to ensure that their commodities are selected by the consumer.

We have a special problem in Scotland which has been argued time and again —the problem of unemployment. As a result of unemployment in many parts of Scotland, many retail traders are unwilling to build shops and to commit themselves to the capital expenditure necessary. That is because of the reduction in the purchasing power of the consumer following the serious unemployment in parts of Scotland. As a consequence, the general public must have a greater reliance on the mobile van service. In such circumstances, when we are dependent on the mobile van service because of this economic problem, it seems to me that we should have the full range of commodities at our disposal when the mobile van arrives on some of the smaller housing estates or in some of the expanded village development in that part of the United Kingdom.

10.30 p.m.

I believe that these are logical reasons why the Economic Secretary should give very sympathetic consideration to my request that we should extend the dealers' licences to mobile shops. I earnestly hope that he will consider all the points which have been raised. I appeal to him to realise that this is a problem of significance in some areas. One hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the Clause was quite a minor affair compared with the previous Clause. It may appear to many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to be minor, but in some areas it is very important. I hope that the Economic Secretary will not underrate its importance when he arrives at his conclusion, which I trust will be on the lines suggested by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the Committee.

Mr. Barber

I do not wish to delay the Committee, but I think that it would be helpful if I repeat that I shall be only too happy to consider this aspect of the mobile shop again. However, I should like to point out that the Clause is concerned only with the method of licensing and does not in any way either detract from or extend the premises, or whatever one wishes to call them, which may or may not be licensed. It is for that reason that I say to the Committee that perhaps I may be permitted to look into it.

Under the present system, a tobacco dealer's licence is not valid for more than one year, and it may expire on a variety of dates. The principal purpose of the Clause is to replace the existing system of one year licences, with differing expiry dates, by licences which will expire uniformly on 31st December in the third calendar year after that in which they are issued. This will be an advantage, both to the trade and to the Revenue, and I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Mitchison

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that subsection (2) raises a question which is not the one he stated and is in some ways not so very far from that now put forward?

Mr. Barber

Yes. I appreciate that subsection (2) raises that question. I shall be very happy to say something about it.

Mr. Mitchison


Mr. Barber

Then perhaps we may leave it at this stage. The passenger aircraft and passenger vehicles referred to in subsection (2) are already entitled to sell tobacco, and will remain so entitled in the future under the new method.

Mr. Oram

I agree with what the Economic Secretary said about the purpose of subsection (1), but did he intend to say that this Clause is unsuitable for amendment to meet the purposes mentioned in the debate? Is it his opinion that it would be impossible to amend the Clause to extend licensing to mobile shops?

Mr. Barber

I would not like to hazard an opinion on that, because I have not considered the possibility of an Amendment to the Clause on those lines. It is something which the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and I might perhaps consider and take advice from the Table.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.