HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc944-7

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

Mr. Callaghan

I hope this is not to be a solo.

Mr. Maudling

It is up to the hon. Member.

Mr. Callaghan

I looked around, but I did not notice any great desire on the part of anybody else to discuss this Clause, yet I think that perhaps a word or two might be said—if I may continue what I was saying before, though putting it in a different key.

I noticed that the Prime Minister yesterday, discussing taxation, which is the purpose of this Clause, said that the Socialists will bring in higher taxation. Well, it was Aneurin Bevan who said, "Why peer into a crystal when you can read the book?" It may not be a bad idea to remind the Committee, if this is to be the burden of the Prime Minister's song, that in this Clause we are raising this taxation not for the first time, but for the second time during the course of the present Parliament. The plain truth is that the duty on spirits is higher today than it has ever been in the whole history of these duties. It is a record which I am sure the Government will be proud to publicise among their records—that they have raised the taxation on spirits to the highest level ever.

I thought that it would be worth while to look up the figures. When this Parliament began its life in 1959 the duty on spirits was £10 10s. 10d. per proof gallon. Under the Bill it is now proposed that it should be put up to £12 17s. 6d. Excise duty, or £13 Customs duty. More is being drunk despite this discouragement by the Chancellor. The combination of this considerably higher duty, an increase, as I say, from £10 10s. 10d. per proof gallon to £12 17s. 6d., means that in the lifetime of this Parliament the Government have raised the tax on spirits—whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, and the like—from £145 million to £226 million.

The Socialists may be going to raise taxation in the future—I do not think that that is true, and certainly the Prime Minister has no occasion for saying it—but at least we can say that the Government have raised taxation to record levels in this field. During the last three years the price of a bottle of whisky has gone up by about 5s. 6d. Either the nip has got smaller or the price has got higher, or there has been a combination of both. That really began from 1961 and the pay pause and although I know that the Government are acting purely in the knowledge that there is nobody left who wants to drink their health, they are now making it more expensive for us to drown our sorrows.

I suppose that this is what we must expect from the Government, but I am sure that those who attend the Derby tomorrow and lose their shirts in the process will not throw many hats in the air and cheer the Government when they take a nip of whisky or brandy afterwards, and find that it will cost them a little moue, thanks to what we are doing today.

I do not want to put it too highly, but I think it worth while for the Chancellor to think about this, that this extremely high level of duty is having an effect on making other stimulants more accessible and cheaper. We have had a lot of discussion recently about drugs. I was interested to see that Professor Capps, a professor of forensic medicine, said that as many people take drugs in this country today as drink. I do not know what he includes among the drugs. Some, I have no doubt, are very benevolent drugs. It is an astonishing thing that while a bottle of whisky costs 45s. one can buy "purple hearts" in the black market for 6d. a time.

I raise this point in a serious way. There is undoubtedly some tendency to get one's stimulant in the cheapest market that one can find, and it is a social point which the Government ought to take into account in these matters. If we are in a position where people can get the same effect from half-a-dozen "purple hearts" at one-tenth the price as from half a bottle of whisky there is a question I ere for consideration. Those members of temperance organisations—and I speak as one whose trembling hand, at the age of 5, signed the pledge in the Band of Hope—and those who have been directing their attention against alcohol might ask themselves whether we have now reached a situation in which they might transfer their activities.

This is all against a background of a record high-level of taxes on spirits, beer and tobacco. I make these observations because I think that there is here a social point which is worth considering. Although we cannot deny the Chancellor his revenue, because he says that he needs it and we cannot say that he does not and we must, therefore, give him the Clause, we had better understand that under a Conservative Government the revenue from duty on spirits and the rate charged on spirits are higher than they have ever been in the history of our civilised community.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster-General (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

I do not know whether I should thank the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) for preventing my receiving a pair of white gloves in debate on this Clause. I assume that his intervention was intended to express his gratitude to us for helping to reinforce his intention to keep his pledge made at the age of 5.

When we come to a later Clause I shall be able to correct what the hon. Member said about beer, but it is perfectly true that the duty on spirits is higher than ever before. On the other hand, it is necessary to put this into perspective. In comparison with 1951 the duty will be 22 per cent. higher, but industrial earnings are 99 per cent. higher. We must consider the burden of an admittedly heavy tax on the community against the background of the changed means of that community to bear that tax.

This is particularly relevant to the suggestion, which I do not think the hon. Member intended very seriously, that the effect of the tax was to drive people to consume "purple hearts". In truth, the tax, though great, is one which the great mass of our population can more easily bear than was the case 12 years ago, because their earnings have risen far more in proportion than the tax has increased.

I was amused to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he did not think that a Socialist Government, if we were to suffer that misfortune, would raise taxation. It is extremely interesting to note that. It casts an interesting light on pledges of increased expenditure given not in the House of Commons, but on television.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.