HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc965-71
Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 26, columns 2 and 3, to leave out lines 30 to 38, and to insert:

s. d. £ s. d.
14 0 12 0
16 6 13 6
1 6 6 1 4 6
1 7 6 17 6
1 10 0 19 0
2 1 6 1 11 6".
I think that this Amendment is bound to meet with the sympathy of most of those in the Chamber at the moment. That sympathy has already been very generously expressed from the Front Bench opposite. I am also in no doubt that it is sympathised with or supported by many hon. Members who are not present to debate it today.

Perhaps I should start by declaring an interest, as I happen to be a member of the committee of the Co-operative Wine Society. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the Committee, are among the society's 30,000 members.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

There are many who are not.

Dr. Bennett

I wish that they would give the society the support which it is their duty to give.

The wine co-operative is one which we know to be great. It has its 90th anniversary on 4th August, this year, an anniversary a good deal more felicitous than the anniversary of 40 years later.

I was not surprised when certain duties were increased in this Budget. Without applauding in any way, I am bound to admit that I felt that it was most probable that there would be an increase in the duty on spirits. The trade was very buoyant and it seemed likely that the duty would be put up. But I was surprised and pained that the duty on wine was increased. I thought that if my right hon. Friend wanted to increase income from various commodities, table wines at least and possibly fortified wines would not bring him much. Their trade seemed scarcely sufficiently buoyant to justify a further imposition.

As we know, in 1949 Sir Stafford Cripps reduced what was a swingeing tax on table wines to a more reasonable level of 13s. a gallon, approximately half what it had been. But now we have the second of two what might be called insidious increases by which the duty has been raised to 15s. 6d. per gallon. My Amendment seeks to reduce it to the previous level of 14s. a gallon.

This slight increasing of the duty on table wines seems to be becoming something of a habit in recent years. I enter a protest and seek to have the duty reduced. I am obliged to the Top People's newspaper this morning for having given attention to this plea and for the almost medical solicitude which it showed for the people of this country in their consumption of table wines.

However, there are other beverages and fluids which are equally mild and not particularly strong and which could at least be classified with table wines as deserving of taxation, if table wines are so deserving. Professor Camps, Professor of Forensic Medicine at London University, said recently at a seminar for magistrates at Keele University that today as many people were taking drugs as were taking drink. Indeed, I am surprised that the wine trade does not counterattack, as Sir Alan Herbert, a former hon. Member of this House, has started to do. We need not think only in terms of "purple hearts", but of certain milder but almost universal addictions, from the old chewing of coca leaf in South America to the indulging in possibly mild administrations of cocaine and caffeine, not so much as the product of a leaf which is regularly chewed, but as infusions of such leaves.

These caffeine and cocaine derivatives are direct cerebral stimulants, not mildly gentle depressants like wine. Having a directly exciting effect, they are far more likely to contribute to the maniacal driving of which so many people complain than are the wines which are so widely blamed.

There is also the Cola group, which is very powerful and habit-forming. Only shortly before this Committee met this afternoon I was told of one woman who was a great indulger in these Cola drinks which she used to suck through a straw, directing the stream from the drink on the same tooth all the time, until it all but disappeared. When there are these other possibly dangerous compounds it is a pity that my right hon. Friend should "take the Mickey" out of wine.

5.45 p.m.

I have been able to discover these figures for the wine trade: in the middle 1920s, the total of imported wines ran at about 18,500,000 gallons a year; in 1963, the figure was 24,300,000 gallons a year. In 40 years the consumption of imported wines rose merely by six million gallons, about one-third, while the population increased by 10 million, slightly less than a quarter. Therefore, it cannot be said that there is a booming trade in wine which would justify this extra imposition. Nor do the figures I have quoted take account of the additional affluence of which we are all so proud.

It is also a pity because there will be international results from this extra imposition. This is a nasty blow for Portugal, which I personally much regret, and it is bound to be a setback for our trade with France, which might invite retaliation, undoing as it does the good work which Sir Stafford Cripps did in this connection.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity to quote from a page of the Wine Society's wine list of 1880. Lafite was 31s. a dozen, Volnay was 37s. a dozen and Pommard, the most expensive Burgundy, was 50s. a dozen. Even allowing for the fact that the £ today buys only what 4s. would have bought then, these prices are fairly reasonable. It is a shame that such a kindly and well-disposed Treasury should seek to do this to these admirable and much appreciated wines. I hope that my Amendment will be treated with the sympathy and consideration which it so obviously deserves.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). I should like my right hon. Friend to give us some detailed information about why it was decided to increase the duty on wines. I suppose the time has long passed when the purpose of a Budget was only to raise revenue. It is now generally recognised that an extremely important reason for the Budget is to govern the economy generally. My impression from the Chancellor's Budget statement and from the comment on it was that the reason for increasing taxation was largely to keep the economy under control. If that was so, and I believe that it was, this increase in the duty on wines will not help.

The wine trade is not responsible for any overheating in the economy. It has a good record of steady prices. The prices of moderately good wines now are much the same as before the war. Other industries are responsible for this overheating by disregarding the appeals to them to keep their incomes policies within bounds. Yet they get off scot-free this time, and no doubt in due course will repeat their performance, while the wine trade takes the knock for heeding the Chancellor's appeals and keeping prices steady.

We have already heard that alcohol is included in the cost-of-living index, which will rise as a result of this increase. The great pressure groups will then swing into action, not only to compensate for the rise in the cost of living, but to get ahead if they can, as they have so often done before. Once more we are going to face the same dreary spectacle of rising prices, rising incomes, and so on.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will seriously consider this Amendment and give recognition to those industries which pay heed to exhortations to keep prices steady, as the wine trade does. If my right hon. Friend wants to raise revenue, or to control the economy, he should knock those industries which disregard his appeals and as a result lead to the overheating of the economy and the general checks which we have so often experienced in the past.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) began by declaring an interest, and I must declare a similar, though smaller, one to his. I am also a member of the Society whose committee he adorns, and I can tell the Committee that I was one of my hon. Friend's electoral supporters at the contested election at which he was elected. I hope that he will remember that.

As one would expect, my hon. Friend made a powerful plea for wine, and he will certainly not find in me any doctrinal opponent of this beverage. I share very much the views which were agreeably expressed about it by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). Indeed, this short debate might well be included in the collected works of literature which are often published under the heading "In praise of wine".

In fact, the consumption of wine in this country has risen very substantially over the years. My hon. Friend referred to the 'twenties compared with now. Then, the average consumption of wine per head was 0.35 gallons. In 1963, which is the latest year for which we have figures, it had risen to 0.6 gallons, an increase of about 70 per cent., which is the more remarkable when one reflects on the fact that the age composition of the population is now different, with a considerably larger proportion today of younger people.

I think that what misled my hon. Friend was that, as he said, he took the figures for importations and ignored the substantial increase in the production and sale of British wines. At any rate, this is a commodity, the consumption of which, taken over the years, has risen substantially, and I do not think that it will be seriously affected by this impost.

In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot), who referred to the effect on prices, I can tell him that the effect of this Clause in respect of wines on the retail prices index is negligible.

Speaking on the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill, the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, and to some extent my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham, asked why we had included wine in the increased alcohol duties provided for under the other Clauses. It is true that the additional revenue to be obtained, though significant, is nothing like as much as from beer or spirits—it is about an additional £2½ million in a full year—but I cannot help speculating about what the hon. and learned Member for Kettering would have said if we had come to the Committee with proposals to increase the duties on spirits and beer, and had left the duty on wine as it is.

The hon. and learned Gentleman, and some of his hon. Friends, would have said, with perhaps greater justification than they did on earlier Clauses, that we were hitting at the beverages of the less well off, and sparing the very champagne and port which the hon. and learned Gentleman twitted by noble Friend Lord Amory for having reduced.

Mr. Mitchison

The right hon. Gentleman is making a false point, and I am sure that he would not wish to do that. I made it clear that in my opinion this Clause has not the social attractions which the other two Clauses about beer, and to a lesser extent spirits, have. I said at the beginning, and I never said anything else, that I dislike the Clause. So I do, but I dislike the others even more.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It is fair to say that it follows from that that the hon. and learned Gentleman would have disliked the general provisions of the Bill even more than he does had we excluded the additional tax on wine while including the others, and I thank him for making that clear. I think that, on reflection, the Committee will feel that that is right.

Whatever view one takes of wine as a beverage, and of its social or medical qualities, I think that it would strike opinion generally as being somewhat unfair to tax additionally the beer and spirit drinkers and to leave the wine drinker wholly unscathed. I think that it would be thought that the considerations which led my right hon. Friend to decide in favour of an increase in the alcohol duty instead of the alternatives which he canvassed in his Budget speech of an increase in Purchase Tax or petrol tax, point equally to wine as they do to beer and spirits. I think that we should have been subjected to the charge of exempting the very champagne and port to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, while increasing the tax on the pensioner's beer.

I think, therefore, that the alcohol duties should on this occasion move to- gether. Though many of us in our personal activities should regret it, I think that wine should go with them.

Amendment negatived.

Schedule agreed to.

Schedule 4 agreed to.