HC Deb 14 May 1963 vol 677 cc1230-6

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

We now pass, as it were funereally, from one beer to another. The Government will have noticed that there is some ambiguity about the heading of the Clause, no doubt connected with the sort of ambiguity which we may expect from them in their election programme. It appears to relate to people who brew something, that something not being for sale, and is unconnected with any proposal for buying or selling the brewers themselves.

It is remarkable. In many ways it is very picturesque within the general object of the Clause, and certainly earns a very warm sentimental sympathy, perhaps the warmer because the concession appears to cost remarkably little. There appear to be some people in the country who, notwithstanding the progress of British and E.F.T.A. brewers, still brew their own beer. Out of what, and in what circumstances. I do not know.

Not only do they brew their own beer, but they brew it for other people, and this is what fascinates me. Subsection (1) refers to a person who brews only for his own domestic use or for consumption by farm labourers employed by him in the actual course of their labour or employment.. What does that curious phrase mean? Does it mean that a farm labourer is employed partly for agricultural purposes, and partly for the express purpose of drinking beer? That is what it seems to say.

While I appreciate the great wisdom of trying it out on the dog, it is not a proposition which should appeal to us in these enlightened times, and the Tory Party, now hunting vaguely for progress and enlightenment, should not encourage the idea that a man is, in fact, in the course of his employment when he is drinking beer.

The subsection then refers to beer being brewed by a person who is not also a dealer in or retailer of beer". This, too, is a little obscure, because it is very hard to see how, if he brews only for his own domestic use or for consumption by farm labourers employed by him, he could possibly be a dealer in, or retailer of, beer, but no doubt the Government are making certain that everybody keeps his head in these circumstances and that no beer goes astray. Then, having got off the licence, he gets off the Excise duty and on this, I think, must rest the meat of the matter. I think that subsection (2) is a little stingy. It says: An excise licence … may be granted authorising the person to whom it is granted to brew beer not for sale and only for his own domestic use or for consumption by any persons employed by him in the actual course of their employment;"— and again they must not stop work, but while actually working they must drink beer; a mysterious passage this!— and on every such licence there shall be charged a duty of four shillings. This is a great and generous gesture, but I feel that a Tory Government need not have charged the farmers 4s. on the Excise licence. They might have gone the whole hog, or reduced it to Is. or a nominal sum like that.

Then we have the whole Schedule and, following that, what the Chancellor of the Exchequer described as a happy result. It is most unusual to have a happy result of any sort in a Finance Bill. We usually have only degrees of inspissated gloom, and one welcomes this change. This is the first example that we have had since the Tory Government came to power that they are human. I am reluctant to oppose this interesting Clause, but I should like to know what it means, especially that mysterious phrase in the actual course of their labour or employment in one subsection, and in the actual course of their employment in the other. I hope that we shall be told the difference in this context between labour, on the one hand, and employment, on the other.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

For slightly different reasons I, too, have read this extraordinary Clause with some interest. In the rural areas there are many inns and even hotels with large agricultural holdings. I know the owner of an hotel who also owns 180 acres and employs more farm labourers than he does hotel servants. Will the owner of such a farmhouse which is attached to an hotel be barred from brewing beer for his farm labourers?

I hope that the Economic Secretary is taking note of the questions that I am asking. Subsection (1) of the Clause says that if a man is a dealer or retailer of beer he is barred from brewing beer for domestic use or for consumption by his employees if they are agricultural workers. As I said, I know the owner of an hotel who also owns 180 acres of farmland, and who enploys more farm labourers than domestic servants. I take it that this hotelier-cum-farmer will be barred from brewing beer free of duty for his farm labourers because he is also a retailer. Can he separate his function as a retailer of beer from his function as a farmer? Or must he, because of this Clause, be accepted as a retailer of beer and be excluded from the benefits provided herein? I ask this because I am confused about the present position, and this problem is likely to arise in many instances in rural areas.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

Hon. Members have often moved Amendments and been told by those who speak for Parliamentary draftsmen that the Amendment does not mean what the mover thinks it means, and I think that it would be unfair to the Committee if we did not criticise the Parliamentary draftsmen for the drafting of this Clause.

I am sure that every hon. Member has noticed the heading of the Clause, "Brewers not for sale". Being a simple, non-legal man, it seems to me that the only time when a farmer will get the benefit of this Clause is when the farm worker consumes the beer during the course of his employment. In other words, he will have to go farming with a plough in one hand and a bottle in the other. I am certain that this is not the intention of the Government, and I hope that they will say that they are prepared to reconsider the drafting of the Clause.

Mr. du Cann

I am glad of the opportunity to reply to this most amusing debate, and I hope that I shall be able to satisfy those hon. Members who have spoken. At any rate, I shall do my best.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) asked why we used this curious, and, I agree, somewhat misleading title of "Brewers not for sale". The reason is that since 1760 this is the description which has been applied to this type of activity and to those who perform it, and I am advised that there would be grave repercussions if we were to change a situation which has existed since then and use language which did not tie up with the language that had been used orginally to start the whole business off.

Mr. MacDermot

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that brewers are the same thing today as they were in 1760?

Mr. du Cann

My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary says that he did not know any then, and neither did I. Whether they are the same sort of thing, I would not know. What I am quite clear about is that the beer brewed in England today is regarded by some who are older than I as not necessarily as good as the beer that was brewed when they were young men. The question is open to doubt and to argument.

I must point out what the reason is for the change in the law. The present provisions serve no useful purpose, and the cost of collecting the revenue probably exceeds the amount collected. The decision to abolish the charge of Income Tax on owner-occupied houses, which we shall discuss on another occasion, removes the basis, in terms of the annual value of premises, by which concessions in respect of the payment of beer duty and brewers' licence duty are allowed to private brewers, and, the Committee may think, affords a convenient opportunity for abolishing the duty charge and the licensing system.

The general purpose of the Clause is to make it possible for a private person to brew beer for his own domestic consumption without incurring any liability to beer duty or to brewers' licence duty. As a result, a private person will have the same freedom to brew beer for himself as he would have, and has at the moment, to make his own wine—dandelion wine, and all the rest. The basic exemption is for the person who brews beer for his own domestic use—for consumption by himself, his wife and his friends.

The Clause maintains the present privilege—and here I answer specifically the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering—enjoyed by some farm workers, to obtain, from their farmer-employers, supplies of free beer for consumption in the actual course of their employment. I have been asked what that means. A vision has been conjured up of a farm employee milking a cow with one hand, holding the pail between his knees and holding a bottle of beer in the other. It is not quite like that.

An example is harvest ale. The worker in the fields is provided with this free of charge by the farmer. This is a very old and a very happy tradition. Certainly, it is a West Country tradition, as many hon. Members other than myself will know. Modern circumstances have probably considerably reduced the extent of the privilege—I think that that is a pity—but in so far as the practice is still carried on I believe that it should be allowed to continue, and I hope that the Committee will agree.

I now turn to another point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering and also by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence). It is necessary to exclude from the exemption dealers in, and retailers of, beer because of the obvious risk to the beer duty which could arise if these dealers, with their facilities for selling beer, were able to brew their own without payment of duty. In a sense that question was completely answered by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East who quoted a case of a farmer he knows in Dunbartonshire—

Mr. Bence

Not in Dunbartonshire.

Mr. du Cann

I am sorry; I thought that the hon. Member said that it was in his constituency. At any rate, the case concerns a farmer who is also a publican. It would be unsatisfactory, in the case of a person who is a farmer and a publican, and who has been used to providing his workpeople and friends with free beer when they have been working in his fields in the past, to allow him to provide them with beer that he had brewed himself. It is clear—I do not suggest that it would apply in the case mentioned by the hon. Member—that there could be opportunities for abuse if there were not a divorce between the one profession and the other. We think it appropriate to have that divorce.

This is also necessary to prevent the new exemption from providing a loophole by means of which employers of labour, such as factory owners, could brew beer free of beer duty without holding a licence, and were able to issue that beer free of charge to their workers. That is different from the limited question of providing a little beer for a few farmworkers at the height of the harvest season. To suggest that a factory owner should provide 1,000, or 2,000, or several thousand of his factory workers with duty-free beer is another matter. The Clause therefore introduces a special form of brewers' licence, to be known as a "limited licence", to cover such cases. It is thought that in the face of such a provision, with the obligation to pay beer duty on beer produced by them, employers will not take up brewing for their workers.

8.15 p.m.

The Committee may be interested to know that in 1961–62 private brewers took out a total of 909 licences. The majority were free licences, but others were taken up at varying rates, depending upon the valuation of their premises. These licences produce a total amount of revenue of £515 only. That illustrates my point that the game is simply not worth the candle.

I thought that I was going to be asked—and I was surprised that I was not—what view the Government took of the substantial publicity which this proposed change would have upon private brewing. Many articles in the newspapers have told us how to brew our own beer, but I thought it worth soliciting the opinion of professional brewers in this matter. I cannot guarantee that it is the official view, but I am advised that brewers are of the opinion that persons drinking home-brewed beer will appreciate more fully the products of the professional brewmasters. Indeed, I have heard it said that those doing so will be only too glad to go to the nearest emporium in order to have a glass of proper beer to take the taste away.

Be that as it may, I hope that the Committee will regard this as a useful, sensible and desirable reform.

Mr. Mitchison

I thank the hon. Member for his lucid dissertation on the subject. He tells us that the trouble started in 1760. Perhaps it is time to get it put right. It bears signs of its date. Harvest beer and the farmworker probably only come together when the agricultural tractor is away—probably on a sea voyage. It is in those circumstances that one reverts to the more primitive forms of agriculture.

But I feel that it is a little rough that if a man is engaged in lorry driving it will be extremely doubtful whether he can have the free beer, because he may not be a farm labourer within the meaning of the phrase. Again, the man who goes round with the threshing machine—which is a very dry and thirsty job—is usually a contractor, and not employed by the farmer. He will not receive any free beer, either. The Tory Party, always abreast of the times, should bring themselves a century or two further forward from 1761 and consider whether the concession made in the Clause might not be broadened to accord more with modern conditions, even when the agricultural tractor may be at sea.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.