HC Deb 10 June 1964 vol 696 cc551-76

(1) The following provisions of this section shall have effect to provide information for determining whether, and to what manner and to what extent, it is expedient to impose taxation in respect of exempt tolls.

(2) Any person who in the year ending with July 1964 was entitled to receive or did receive (whether by an agent or servant or otherwise) exempt tolls from the public or from any other person or persons shall before the end of August 1964 notify that fact to the Commissioners.

(3) Any person required to give a notification under the last foregoing subsection and any officer, agent or servant of such a person shall within such time and in such form as the Commissioners may require furnish the Commissioners with such information as to exempt tolls as the Commissioners may by notice in writing require; and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, such information may include—

  1. (a) any information which could have been required to determine an assessment of tolls to income tax or profits tax, if those tolls had not been exempt;
  2. (b) any information as to the value for the purposes of estate duty of a right to levy tolls, if those tolls had not been exempt; and
  3. (c) any information as to the grounds upon which exemption may be claimed for tolls, together with copies of private or local Acts or other documents showing those grounds.

(4) The Commissioners, if satisfied in any case that there is good reason why anything required to be done by or under the foregoing provisions of this section cannot, or may not, be done within the time limited by or under these provisions, shall extend the time by such period as appears to them to be required.

(5) Any person who fails to give the notification required by subsection (2) of this section, or to comply with any other requirement of the foregoing provisions of this section, shall be liable to a penalty of one hundred pounds, and if after conviction of a failure to furnish any particulars or information, or to produce any documents, the failure continues the person shall be liable to a further penalty of ten pounds for each day on which it so continues.

(6) In this section the words "exempt tolls' mean tolls payable by the public or by any group of the public in respect of the use of a highway, bridge or ferry, being tolls which, but for some private or local Act or some particular statutory or other exemption, would to chargeable to income tax, profits tax or (as a capital asset) to estate duty and which, by reason of such an Act or exemption are not so chargeable; and the words "tolls", "exempt" and "exemption" shall be construed accordingly.—[Mr. W. Hamilton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I want, first, to pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) for the drafting of this new Clause. He was helped considerably by the Government draftsmen in drafting Section 2 of the Finance Act, 1963, relating to gambling. This is no gamble that I am talking about tonight; this is a sure winner. I am seeking to help the Economic Secretary to protect the Revenue—an unusual occupation.

Our sole purpose in putting down the new Clause is, first, to ascertain the extent of this scandal; secondly, to get the information on which action by the Government can be based, and, thirdly, to ascertain the Government's intentions about how they propose to deal with the problem. Acceptance of the new Clause would not in any way tie the Government's hand for future action. The only result would be to ascertain much more accurate facts about the ownership of these bridges, the income derived from them, the reasons for the tax exemption, and so on.

Altogether, there are five of these bridges. As far as I could ascertain their ownership, I gave details in the House on 12th May when I sought leave to introduce a Bill. Those facts, as I thought they were, were based upon information supplied to me by the Minister of Transport in answer to a Question on 15th April this year. In that Answer, the Minister of Transport named the five bridges and their owners.

In the case of the Aldwark bridge, in Yorkshire, the Minister of Transport named Yorkshire Farmers Ltd. as the owners. I do not know where he got that information. In my innocence, I assumed that it was correct. It may be that I should have known better. In fact, the bridge was sold by Yorkshire Farmers Ltd. two years before.

In a recent debate, I mentioned the conditions of work of the toll-keeper, a Mrs. Wright. I pointed out that she was given a wage of £3 a week and a tied cottage for collecting the tolls. I have since had a letter from Mrs. Wright saying that that was not quite accurate. She got £3 a week, but the owners of the bridge deducted £2 of it for the rent of the cottage. Mrs. Wright states: I am the Mrs. Wright whom you mentioned as gatekeeper at the Aldwark Bridge toll gate. I notice you say my wage was £3 a week and cottage. This detail is wrong. I got £3 a week but I had to pay back £2 a week rent for the cottage to Yorkshire Farmers Ltd. This was for a working hour week of 105, 7 o'clock in the morning till 10 p.m., seven days in the week. That is Mrs. Wright. She also tells me that the bridge—here I must be careful and simply say what she says—was sold two years ago to Messrs. Montagu Burton. That is all I wish to say for the moment about Aldwark bridge. I will return to it later.

I now turn to the owners of the Swinford bridge, in Berkshire. I asked the Minister of Transport who the owner was and he told me that it was the Earl of Abingdon. Again, I assumed that that was accurate information. It was a repetition of the Answer to a Question given by the same Minister on 23rd February, 1962, at c. 86 in Written Answers. That was also in line with the original Act of 1767, which, after laying down the scale of the tolls, states: The monies to be received as aforesaid … and all other monies to be received by authority of this Act are hereby vested in the said Earl of Abingdon, his heirs and assigns. It goes on to say: the said bridge then built shall be and is hereby vested in the said Earl of Abingdon, his heirs and assigns for ever. On the basis of that evidence it was reasonable to assume that the Minister of Transport was really with it in this instance, but on Thursday, 21st May, a letter appeared in The Times from the Earl of Abingdon, and this is what he said: As far as I am aware I do not benefit in any way from the Swinford tolls. I should be very interested to know from where Mr. Hamilton obtained his information, because if it is correct someone owes me quite a lot of money! His letter continued: No doubt after two years' research into the subject Mr. Hamilton has all the answers. Well, I accept fully what the present Earl says. What I want to know is, where has the bridge gone?

Mr. Bence

The money.

Mr. Hamilton

Somebody from the Press told me that the present Commander Percy, who is chairman of the Selby Bridge Company, has got his finger in the Swinford bridge pie, too. I do not know whether it is true, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman opposite either knows or cares. The Earl is not quite right: I have not got all the answers, and neither has anyone else, certainly not the Minister of Transport-that is quite clear. Nor the Treasury.

For example, neither the Whitchurch Toll Bridge Company nor the Selby Bridge Company is required to be registered under the terms of the Registration of Business Names Act, 1916, since their names are those of bodies incorporated by Private Acts of Parliament 200 years ago. The Whitney Bridge Trust is, I think, being inquired into by the Treasury, according to an Answer given to me on Thursday, 30th April, 1964. They have been considering this for 200 years or so and they are now making a move. So the ownership of some of the juiciest plums of the property-owning democracy in which we live is shrouded in this feudalistic murk.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

Will the hon. Member allow me?

Mr. Hamilton

No. I will not. The hon. Gentleman can make a speech round about midnight.

The mystery of the ownership of these bridges is matched by an almost equally deep mystery as to the size of the income derived from them and the number of Shareholders receiving it. A figure of £70,000 as tax-free income from the Selby bridge was quoted by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) who denied me the privilege of introducing a Bill to deal with the question. He was the man who quoted £70,000 a year tax-free for the Selby bridge. However, I have simply repeated that figure, but in an article in the Yorkshire Post on 28th April this year, entitled "Selby's Bridge of Sighs"—it should be the Golden Gate—Commander James Percy, the chairman of the Selby Bridge Company, said that after paying wages, running costs and repairs the annual net tax-free income is well below £35,000. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] There are over 30 shareholders. He added, rather sorrowfully, that his share of the swag is not sufficient for him to live on. Perhaps a Grace-and-Favour house would just make the difference. If he had a tax-free toll bridge and a rent-free house he might be able to live like the parasite he evidently is.

I now turn back to the Swinford bridge. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation—although he is in the Government he is on my side in this—said in the debate two years ago that the income from this bridge was £6,000 gross and net slightly less. His speech then was quite remarkably entertaining and informed. He pointed out the strong monopolistic tendencies of the Tory Party even in those far off days. The Swinford bridge Act states: If any person or persons, from and after the passing of this Act, shall for gain or reward convey any person or persons, or any carriage or cattle, over the said River Thames or Isis within two miles of the said ferry or intended bridge … every such person shall, for every such offence, forfeit to the said Earl of Abingdon his heirs and assigns, the sum of 40 shillings. This was a nice little tax-free local monopoly created for some person or persons now unknown 200 years ago and nothing is being done by the Government, who are behaving like a muscle-bound constipated tortoise. I have a very interesting letter from a Mrs. Reynolds who uses the bridge. She writes: I live in the village of Eynsham, which is under one mile from the Swinford Toll Bridge and, being the owner of a small moped, I have to pay 4d. per day to cross it to go to work in Oxford. In twelve months I shall have contributed the sum of £5 2s. 8d. to the owner of the bridge (tax free) which is a staggering amount considering that my road fund licence is £1 per year. On top of which the Toll Bridge I mention affords only just enough room for a small car to pass if a bus is coming in the opposite direction and on more than one occasion when I have been a passenger on the bus I have known it have to mount the minute pavement in order to let a lorry pass. My sister and her husband live on the Berkshire side of the bridge and they work at Witney so they are relieved of £26 per year as they own a car, the amount stated being double the road tax … Now I come to Aldwark bridge, in Yorkshire, which is the only bridge for which I have been able to get any definite figures. That was due to the diligence of our Library staff and not to the Government. The Library staff got me a wonderful document issued when the bridge was being sold. I quoted some figures from it on 12th May. In this brochure it is stated that in the six years 1956 to 1961 the net income went up from £1,848 to £2,016, plus about £250 a year from the Yorkshire farmers who guaranteed that sum to the new owner for three years when the purchase was completed.

The maintenance costs of the bridge are quoted in the document, which shows that they had gone down from £169 in 1956 to £115 in 1961, so there is very little going out in maintenance and in wages for the toll-keeper I have already mentioned.

9.30 p.m.

What have the Government been doing about this all this time? They have prattled about modernising Britain; they presume to support an incomes policy which is fair to everybody; they protest their anxiety to deal with monopolies; the Prime Minister has preached that he will give the people the facts. And that is all we want in this new Clause—some facts. Here is a case where the facts are concealed, where a few anonymous people enjoy substantial incomes, untaxed and undeserved incomes, from statutory monopolies created 200 years ago, and where the continued existence of these antiquated elements in our transport system makes nonsense of the Government's pretence about modernisation.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury invited me to go and talk to him about six weeks ago and I thought, again in my innocence—"Stupid Willie"—that I was going to get somewhere. In effect, the hon. Gentleman said, "We have decided to do nothing". I do not think that that is unfair. He said in effect that the greatest problem was the compensation problem. Of course, he was simply echoing what the Minister of Transport had said in the debate on 16th March, 1962, when he asked: … how much compensation would an hon. Member expect if he had a tax-free income of £15,000 a year?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1962; Vol. 655, c. 1726.] The Chief Secretary said in answer to a supplementary question of mine on the same point: … I would ask the hon. Member to reflect whether he really thinks that we shall help to achieve an incomes policy by suggesting that it is self-evident that a Government should unilaterally break a bargain even though it was made many years ago."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th April, 1964; Vol. 692, c. 780.] On that particular point, I want to say that the first Act dealing with these bridges was the Swinford Bridge Act, 1767.

There was a General Election in 1768, one of the most corrupt General Elections in our whole history. The buying and selling of seats—nothing like it has been seen until Kinross and West Perthshire. Before Parliament was dissolved, the Oxford Corporation at that time tried to sell its two seats to the two sitting Members on condition that they paid the city's debts of nearly £6,000. The M.P.s brought the case before the House, and the Mayor of Oxford and the aldermen were committed to Newgate Gaol. They were later reprimanded at the Bar on bended knees by the Speaker. But even while they were in prison they started negotiations for the sale of their borough to the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Abingdon. It is legislation passed by that kind of Parliament which the Chief Secretary says that we must not touch.

On 5th May this year, in answer to a supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) about the location of the new Royal Mint, the Minister said: I think a promissory note 250 years old may perhaps be thought to have lapsed …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1964, Vol. 694, c. 1096.] He was referring to the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England, which promised Scotland the right to continue to mint coins. Section 16 of that Treaty says: … a Mint shall be continued in Scotland under the same Rules as the Mint of England. I wish that the Chief Secretary was present, because I want to ask him on which leg he stands. Does he think that legislation passed 250 years ago is sacrosanct but that a Treaty entered into between two countries is not? He cannot have it both ways.

The House has the right, and indeed the duty, to repeal and modernise ancient statutes, the more especially when they result, as in this case, in anachronisms and gross injustice as between one taxpayer and another.

A comparatively simple way of dealing with the matter is to repeal all these old Acts, or to insert in the Finance Bill a provision that the proceeds of the tolls shall be taxable. That would substantially reduce the claim for compensation. Local authorities could then compulsorily acquire under the 1930 Act, and they, I hope, would get rid of the toll altogether.

I want, finally, to quote from the Daily Mirror of 23rd April, 1964, It said: Two years ago, in the Commons, Transport Minister Ernest Marples admitted these ancient rights were an 'anachronism', but thought it would be difficult to unscramble them. He also confessed that the Government could not afford the compensation costs of taking over these tax-free snips. This pathetic inability to deal with tax-free toll incomes must make intriguing reading for old-age pensioners and other needy citizens. If a £3 7s. 6d. a week pensioner earns more than £5 a week his pension is reduced. The Government finds no difficulty in doing this or in assessing him for Income Tax. Yet the owners of a toll bridge believed to be making more than £1,300 a week are not required to pay tax on any of it. Ancient rights are all very well, but this is ridiculous. How on earth can any Government permit it? I ask the hon. Gentleman to get up and defend it, or, if he cannot, to tell us what he is going to do about it.

Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner (Barkston Ash)

I am indebted to an hon. Member opposite for telling me only a few minutes ago that this new Clause was being proposed tonight. I plead guilty to the offence of not having studied the Notice Paper carefully, but I am glad to have the opportunity of saying something after what was said by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton).

I suppose that no one has fought harder for the freeing of toll bridges than I have fought for the freeing of Selby toll bridge. It has been a 30 years' fight, and it was a 30 years' fight by my predecessor.

I thought that the hon. Member for Fife, West missed a considerable opportunity of presenting a case in favour of the abolition of these rights which have been conferred on the bridge owners by Acts of Parliament of many years ago. It was a pity that he merely introduced personalities—the Lord of this and the Marquess of that. That does not matter: the question posed in the Clause is one of principle. There is considerable difficulty in determining whether or not the rights conferred by Act of Parliament—in whatever Parliament—up to 250 years ago still have any validity. The hon. Member's speech was a silly speech, instead of being a genuine contribution to the solving of this difficult problem.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

Let us have the facts.

Sir L. Ropner

There may well be different views about the matter, not only among Members on each side of the Committee but among members of the same party.

It is not true to say that the present owners of these toll rights are the same owners, or the heirs of the owners, that were given the rights 100 or 200 years ago or more. I would remind the Committee that I have fought more than anybody else for the abolition of these tolls. Selby toll bridge was bought only a short time before World War II. There is no question of its owners having enjoyed these rights for hundreds of years; it is a question of men who, in their wisdom, as it turned out—or in their folly, as it might have been—bought the bridge and the rights that went with it, namely, a tax-free income. The new owners have bought a statutory monopoly which extends some miles down the river, but they have also become part of a bargain which entitles them, as a matter of right, to expect to receive a tax-free income.

It seems to me that the feeling of the majority of hon. Members opposite is that in these days it is wrong that anybody should enjoy a tax-free income, no matter whether it be of £5 or of £50,000. I take the opposite view. I think that men, women or companies who have paid an agreed sum for these rights, in the belief that Parliament will not abrogate an ancient Statute, have a right to believe that Parliament will stick to its words. In spite of my hostility to the existence of the Selby toll bridge, I believe that the owners should continue to be entitled to the income which attaches to it, and the rights to which they bought only a short time ago.

I am glad to have been able to say this tonight, because, as I have already reminded the hon. Member for Fife, West, there is a matter of considerable principle underlying his proposal. The more important principle is that we should maintain a statutory bargain entered into as many years ago as we like, but which, in the great majority of cases of which I know—certainly in the case of Selby bridge—was entered into only 10 or 20 years ago. I think that the maintenance of that principle is of more importance than the belief or opinion held by others that in these days it is wrong for anyone to enjoy a tax-free income.

9.45 p.m.

I propose, if I am permitted to do so in a discussion on this Clause, to say a word particularly about the bridge referred to by the hon. Member for Fife, West more than once. I have had no contact—except on one occasion many years ago—with the owners of Selby toll bridge. I think that I met the owner once. I have kept at a distance for obvious reasons. I have forgotten his name. In these cases of statutory rights—they are statutory rights conferred by Parliament—the proper thing to do is to buy out the right at whatever is its worth. We must get rid of these anachronisms, these toll bridges, but I see no reason at all why the monopoly should not be bought for a fair market value, taking into consideration any rights which have been offered to the owner.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I am sure that the Committee will be interested to know that the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) is in favour of abolishing this monopoly. I think that the Committee might have been disappointed to hear that he has been trying to do so—he and his predecessor—for 60 years without success. Surely that is some justification for the proposal of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) because there is no assurance that if the hon. and gallant Member went on for another 60 years he would be successful.

I cannot help feeling that the Government are now not going to be able to defend this matter much longer, when it becomes common knowledge. When I first read of the allegations made by the hon. Member for Fife, West—I knew nothing about this until I read them—I must say that I could not believe them. I thought that, to put it politely, there must be some error, or that it was a fairy story—that for 200 years someone had been entitled to an income, which might be £35,000 a year or £70,000 a year free of tax and also, I am told, free of death duty. However I found there was no denial and, as I understand it, the hon. Member is asking for further information, which seems to be a reasonable request.

I should like to go further and ask what other monopolies there may be which have been bought and sold on the open market. They must be very agreeable things to hold. We are at the moment asking for information. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash that it may be extremely unfair simply to remove this monopoly without any compensation, but I am not entirely convinced by the argument that, because this has yielded an enormous amount of money for a very long time, that is a reason for making the compensation large.

I should like to know how much this bridge company paid for the right. The hon. and gallant Member said that the right was bought just before the war. Does anyone ever see the company's accounts? Do the Government, even now, know who benefits? There have been innumerable similar monopolies which have been abolished. The history of the eighteenth century is full of records of such monopolies. It is not long since Parliament abolished the hereditary right of the descendants of Nelson to draw an annual salary. Compensation was paid in that case, and I am not saying that this right should be abolished without compensation being paid. History is littered with examples of such monopolies having been abolished. Therefore, why should not this right be abolished?

I understand that the Government are making a great deal of their extreme probity—that the Government always keep their promises, and that it would be wholly wrong to go back on a promise made by this very distinguished Parliament of so long ago—but what about post-war credits? Have the Government kept their promises about them? Of course they have not. There are many other ways in which the Government have not kept their promises.

What sort of compensation do the Government think might be payable? Perhaps a solution would be found in building another bridge. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] I do not know where; but anywhere will be cheaper; it will be cheaper to divert the river. Almost anything would be cheaper.

I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash that it is curious that this monopoly should go on and after 30, or 60 years of effort nothing is done to right it. We should be given information about how much the company paid for the bridge, what its earnings are, does anyone see the accounts, what similar steps have been taken previously to buy it out? It is incredible that after all this time we are bound to maintain this monopoly on this bridge. If the worst came to the worst, we could send engineers there to build another bridge.

I believe the hon. Member for Fife, West has made it impossible for this thing to go on. By all means pay some compensation—I would not suggest the full capitalised rate on £70,000 a year, but there should be some compensation. I do not believe any Government can defend leaving this matter in such a position that it can go on for another 30 years simply because from this monopoly granted so many years ago many people have had a great deal of enjoyment. I am not a strict egalitarian, and I have no desire to prevent people having big wins on racehorses or at bingo, but this has been a long winning spell.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) mentioned the Swinford toll bridge, which affects my constituency and also that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation. I hope that in answering this debate my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will give some answer to the requests of the Committee for a reasonable formula to deal with this problem.

Swinford toll bridge has been a headache to myself and to my predecessor for a very long time. The complaints about it are very similar to those to which the hon. Member for Fife, West referred. I hope the Financial Secretary, whatever he thinks about the new Clause and whether or not it takes the matter very much further, will tell us something about the root problem, and if he can find a reasonable way of getting rid of this anomaly. It is an anomaly which is extremely annoying to the public and to Members of Parliament who have the misfortune to have such toll bridges in their constituencies.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Fife, West amended the remarks he made about the Earl of Abingdon. He is correctly described as the Earl of Lindsay and Abingdon. The Earl did not in fact inherit the bridge in question. Who now has the bridge I should very much like to know. I should like to support the hon. Member in his request for information as to who now owns the bridge and obtains revenue from it. It is not the Earl of Abingdon, and I am very glad that the hon. Member withdrew the point he made about that.

Mr. G. Wilson

I endeavoured to intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) because I have a slight personal knowledge of one of these bridges, Witney bridge. That is because my eldest daughter inherited an 11th share in that bridge. I may say that she had no income from it.

A point which the hon. Member and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) forget is that these bridges were set up on the condition that the owners should maintain them. The figures thrown about the Committee as to the large sums of money received in tolls are not the amounts received by the owners of the bridges after deduction of expenses for maintenance. This bridge was damaged in floods some four or five years ago, and the owners have received no income from it for some years.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the hon. Member agree that if the owners of the bridge have received no income they will require no compensation?

Mr. Wilson

I do not say that we should wipe out compensation, because the owners of the bridge have been maintaining a facility that has been used by the public and which would otherwise have to be maintained by the county authority.

By the beginning of the war negotiations were almost completed for the local authority, the road authority, to take over this bridge. In that case, it would have been maintained as a free bridge many years ago, and the local authority, not the owners, would have had to pay for maintenance and repairs. I therefore think that there is a case for compensation, but I understand that in this case there was a dispute as to the amount, and there was some arbitration.

Mr. Diamond

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, as I am anxious to follow his argument completely. Is he making the case, which I am sure would be received with much sympathy from both sides of the Committee, that the present owners should receive compensation for continuing to own the bridge?

Mr. Wilson

No. My first point was that in the figures mentioned it had been assumed that all the money was going into the owners' pockets, and I said that that was not so in the case of which I knew, as the costs of maintenance were heavy, and very little had been received. I said that I knew of no excessive cost of maintenance, but the fact remained that the owners were relieving the road authority of the cost of the maintenance of the bridge. I said that as the owners had been relieving the county, they were entitled to some compensation when the matter was settled.

I think that these ancient toll bridges should be got rid of, but it is not fair for the hon. Member for Fife, West to build a picture of some sort of roguery and chicanery. The fact is that these people have performed a service in attending to the bridges, and some compensation should be paid to them.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) has performed a public service in calling attention to this matter. Quite apart from the matter of his subject, he should be congratulated on his delivery. The hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner), who has battled very bravely against the Selby toll—and I must give him full credit for doing that—during the whole period of his membership of the House, has failed in his efforts during those 30 years, but he knows, because he has used the bridge quite a lot—as I do—that it is not merely the Statute that established the bridge that is old-fashioned and an anachronism; the bridge itself is an anachronism.

I have travelled frequently over it, and I have travelled frequently under it, along the Ouse. I recommend that anyone who thinks that this is a modern bridge, capable of bearing modern traffic, should take a trip along the Ouse and look at the bridge both when it is closed and when it is open to river traffic. They will be horrified at the amount of loose boards and timber that are visible. There used to be a phrase about a "Heath Robinson contraption"—the Selby toll bridge fits in very well with that description.

If the bridge itself is an anachronism, does it not tie up with the other anachronisms that the Minister of Transport has been trying to deal with—rather slowly—by building motorways, main roads and trunk roads and, in so doing, destroying the homes, the farms and the land of people who thought they had the perpetuity. They had the freehold but people found that their houses were taken away from them, quite rightly, in the public interest. They were assessed at a fair rate of compensation and after a public inquiry compulsory purchase orders were established under which houses, land, farms, and so on could be taken away for the public good, to make public highways.

10.0 p.m.

My experience of this bridge leads me to the conclusion that this is a case where the needs of the public highway should come first, and the needs of the general public should come first in using a new bridge to take the place of the present Selby toll bridge, and the present bridge should be abolished. I am not sure whether the bridge could be condemned. I understand that it is subjected to inspection not only by the owner's own engineers but by the Ministry of Transport engineers. But surely it is in a state where it should be replaced by a more modern bridge free from tolls. I think that there would be no difficulty about that.

The difficulties appear to arise about the basis of compensation. I admit that the difficulties would be considerable at the present time but they could be eliminated by the Government's acceptance of the new Clause. I should like to explain one difficulty to the Committee. I have said that I have used this bridge occasionally, since it is very near my constituency. A number of my constituents use it and I sometimes discuss it with them.

They tell me of the problem they have, They have to pay the toll to go over the bridge and there are attendants who collect the toll, which is 9d. if one is in a car. One does not always receive a ticket for the 9d. One has a ticket if one asks for it but otherwise the 9d. is taken without a ticket. Here is the problem: should one always ask for a ticket, which would mean that the audited receipts from the toll bridge would be augmented and therefore the compensation would be augmented, or should one not ask for a ticket, in which case the official receipts of the toll bridge would be lower and the possible compensation that would be claimed would be lower too?

The Clause seeks to make the facts ascertainable. The owners of the bridge would know the correct income which they ought to receive. The Government would know exactly what that income should be. Proper records would be kept and when the time came for compensation, whether because a new bridge was to be built, and consequently the value of the old bridge would depreciate, or whether it was taken over by a compulsory purchase order, we should have the facts before us. At the inquiry which would be necessary before the compulsory purchase order was made the full facts would be available. I therefore recommend the Committee to accept the Clause which has been put forward so admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West.

Dr. King

I do not propose to detain the Committee for more than one minute. I would remind the Financial Secretary that in Committee yesterday the Government refused to allow a few pounds to be earned free of Income Tax by 100 per cent. disabled men. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that last night he refused to give a small tax-free concession to men who had lost both legs, before he defends a system which still gives a hundreds of pounds tax-free concession because a corrupt Parliament in the eighteenth century voted this privilege in days when no Income Tax was levied at all. Now the defence put forward by his hon. Friends is that that commitment by that Parliament should last for all time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider this seriously.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Alan Green)

We have had an interesting debate on what I accept at once to be a very irritating subject indeed. I am bound to tell the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), whose interest and tenacity in pursuit of the subject I recognise, that I found the presentation of the case by his hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger) infinitely more persuasive than the opening presentation.

I say that for one good reason. It is perfectly true that the hon. Member for Fife, West came to see me, as I think he will acknowledge, at my invitation, so that we could seek to find some basis on which this, I repeat irritating, problem might be satisfactorily approached. I explained to him, as I must explain to the Committee tonight, although the hon. Member for Goole has been very fair about this and so has my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner), that the obvious difficulty is compensation. This, of course, is the difficulty.

To do him justice, the hon. Member for Fife, West disclaimed any desire to compensate. He takes a very extreme view of this. I can quite understand why it is his view that there should be no compensation whatsoever. I take it that that is not the view of most hon. Members opposite. If that were the view of most hon. Members opposite, clearly they would not need this Clause. The only reason for the Clause is to seek better information upon which to determine the basis of compensation. There cannot be any other reason for it. In fact, this was the reason given by the hon. Member for Goole.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the first three lines of the proposed new Clause which gives the reasons for it?

Mr. Green

Certainly. It says: The following provisions of this section shall have effect to provide information for determining whether, and to what manner and to what extent, it is expedient to impose taxation in respect of exempt tolls. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that the idea is not to provide compensation?

Mr. Mitchison

I am not saying anything about compensation. I am telling the hon. Gentleman what this Clause is for. This is a Finance Bill.

Mr. Green

I am glad the hon. and learned Gentleman has noticed the fact. But this does not alter the fact—and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have been accepting it throughout the debate—that the underlying problem here is compensation. [Interruption.] I hope hon. Members will kindly listen. I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman can see where his intervention is leading him. If we are going to impose taxation on something that by legislation is at present tax free, and do it without compensation, then why not come clean about it and say that we do not intend to compensate? In fact, hon. Members opposite clearly mean to compensate.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that during the war there were accumulations of many millions of pounds worth of whisky which was not subject to taxation, but a law was passed by this House which made it subject to taxation and the people concerned had to find many millions of pounds in taxes?

Mr. Green

That is not really relevant to what I was saying. It is proposed here, according to the intention of the Clause as it has been explained, to impose a tax. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is what is said in the opening three lines, but the underlying problem is quite clear. I do not think that we ought to split hairs about it any more. The underlying problem is compensation, and I want to say a word about that.

The hon. Member for Fife, West states plainly that his personal opinion—I am not saying that this is necessarily the opinion of the Opposition generally—is that this business has gone on quite long enough and there ought to be no compensation. That is a perfectly straightforward attitude. I do not believe that it is, in fact, the opinion of the Committee. The problem is, how much compensation, and how to arrive at it? This is a very real problem, as I shall show.

The hon. Member for Goole, properly I think, drew attention to the fact that at least the one bridge about which he has personal knowledge looks as though it is an anachronism in fact as well as in law. I do not know the bridge myself, but I do not mind accepting that it is. This being the case, it is perfectly obvious that a bridge to replace it will at some date, which I cannot name but which I should imagine to be not in the very distant future, be likely to be built.

If one starts now to negotiate compensation with the owners of the bridge—I shall say a word or two in fairness to them in a few minutes—it is not easy to negotiate the right sum in compensation to do the justice and fairness which, I think, most of the Committee would wish to do, because one would be negotiating to buy out what may or may not be a rapidly depreciating asset or an asset depreciating, in the case of other bridges, a lot more slowly, perhaps.

If we pass the Clause, it will give power, which is not at present possessed, to acquire information covering the period July, 1963 to July, 1964. I imagine that that date was put in to avoid any appearance of retrospection, and very properly, too. In the case of a diminishing or wasting asset, which I believe all these bridges to be, it would not be possible to base fair compensation on one year's results. The Clause, therefore, would fail of its underlying purpose, and one would have to wait a considerable time before getting the trend of net income upon which compensation could be based. This is a strictly practical problem, not a doctrinaire one at all.

Moreover, I suggest to the Committee that the new Clause is in any case unnecessary. If the plan of campaign advanced by the Opposition, for example, were followed, all they would have to do, or all that any Government would have to do, would be to announce an intention to legislate to repeal the relevant Acts which govern these particular operations. An announcement of intention to legislate might—I desire to consider this further—put one in the position to conduct a negotiation with the existing owners in which fair compensation could be arrived at. But this is the only practical method I can see for disposing of what is an anachronism and an irritation to a great many people.

If we are to dispose of these anachronisms, of these survivals from distant ages, it must be done on a basis that is fair to those who bought these things in good faith, in one case mentioned, for instance, only a few years ago. We have a duty to maintain that good faith. I do not think that anybody would dispute this.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)

When the hon. Gentleman says "in good faith", does he mean on the assumption that Parliament would never repeal the Acts?

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Green

That is the only assumption that I can make. People do buy and sell on the basis of the existing law. This is something which I am sure the hon. and learned Member desires particularly to sustain because of his own profession. I have not the faintest shadow of doubt that he is with me on that.

Mr. Mitchison

Does that apply to steel shares?

Mr. Green

It is the Opposition who have proposals about buying steel shares, not me.

This is very important. We should find a basis which is fair to the present owners. I must warn the Committee that this will not be easy, since the true value of these assets is not easy to determine because of their probably very limited life and certainly because of their diminishing value. This is a practical matter.

I do not want the opposite to happen, which could easily happen, namely, that the Exchequer would pay more for these assets than they were worth and that the Revenue would make a jolly bad bargain. This is a real danger. Hon. Members opposite had some experience of this when they were in Government, according to their own leading spokesmen. The difficulty of determining what the assets of the railways, for example, were worth was complained about by the late Lord Dalton after the transaction had been achieved. He complained of buying a poor bag of assets. We must learn from experience, whichever side has it. It is difficult to establish the fair and proper compensation—fair to the Revenue as well as to the owners.

This is the simple practical problem. Personally, I desire to solve it if I can. I do not believe that this new Clause would help in doing that because, in my view, it would build up extra time while the trends of value of these bridges were established under its operation. If the new Clause were accepted and we had to establish those trends, we should take even more time to solve what is a very difficult, although small problem, than otherwise would be the case. It is on these strictly practical grounds that I advise the Committee that the new Clause is not helpful or necessary.

Mr. Mitchison

This has been the most illuminating debate that we have had. It was well and truly started by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), whose activity in this matter has, on any view of it, been in the public interest. I should have thought that one could not have made a better speech on a subject as absurd and ridiculous as this one. No one can really pretend that stuff about contracts made 200 years ago by a Private Act or statutory protection given to ensure tax-free income for two or three centuries when the taxes in question did not exist at the time can possibly be the right test for what is to be done now. I must call the Financial Secretary back to attend to the new Clause on the Notice Paper. He hardly mentioned it.

For 200 years, including the last 12 years of Tory Government, a number of people have been getting away with a tax-free income on grounds which cannot conceivably appeal to anybody with the remotest common sense or with the remotest idea of what is fair or of what the public interest is in a matter of this sort.

All we are asking the Government to do is to find out the facts. It is obvious that they do not know them. One had only to listen, first, to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West and then to the Government reply. Surely, it is about time they found out. Do they seriously defend the proposition that they are entitled to go on year after year leaving this not very large but still reasonably fertile field of taxation untouched, or that they are entitled, as one of my hon. Friends rightly pointed out, to look closely at the taxation of 100 per cent. disabled men or of the ordinary worker who gets a P.A.Y.E. deduction and, at the same time, to shut their eyes deliberately to what we are considering tonight?

Before this debate, I wondered what on earth any Tory—even a Tory—could say in defence of this extraordinary blindness of those who are supposed to be the custodians of the public revenue and who are supposed also to maintain some sort of equity between one group of taxpayers and another. I did not think that they could say anything. They have not said much, but they have uttered something. The way they have got out of it is simply to talk about something else.

I say again to the Financial Secretary and to the Committee that we are not discussing compensation. For 200 years, these people have got away with this peculiar piece of property. For 12 years, successive modern Tory Governments have left them completely free of taxes of any sort, either income or Estate Duty. Now all that we are asking is that the matter should be investigated for the purpose specified in the Clause of determing whether, and to what manner and to what extent, it is expedient to impose taxation". Do the Government and the party opposite seriously say that that inquiry should not be made? If so, for what reason? Do they think that these people are entitled to go on like this? I am not talking about taking over the bridges, but am keeping to the Clause, which is simply a question of whether these people are entitled to enjoy a tax-free income in perpetuity. Look at the 30 years' effort of the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) and the previous 30

years of his predecessor. During all that time, they were getting a tax-free income. I am not concerned on the Clause with whether these bridges should be taken over. That is not a question which could conceivably be raised in a Finance Bill Strictly speaking, I doubt whether much of the Financial Secretary's speech was in order. It had remarkably little connection with either the Clause or the Bill.

I ask the Government once more to say, if they will not accept the Clause, what is their reason for declining to get the information for which it asked.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 141. Noes 191.

Division No. 106.] AYES [10.23 p.m.
Ainsley, William Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Mulley, Frederick
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Griffiths, W. (Exchange) Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip (Derby, S.)
Awbery, Stan (Bristol, Central) Grimond, Rt. Hon. J. O'Malley, B. K.
Bacon, Miss Alice Hamilton, William (West Fife) Oram, A. E.
Barnett, Guy Harper, Joseph Oswald, Thomas
Baxter, William (Stirlingshire, W.) Hayman, F. H. Owen, Will
Beaney, Alan Herbison, Miss Margaret Pannell, Thomas (Leeds, W.)
Bellenger, Rt. Hon. F. J. Hill, J. (Midlothian) Pavitt, Laurence
Bence, Cyril Hilton, A. V. Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)
Benn, Anthony Wedgwood Holman, Percy Pentland, Norman
Bennett, J, (Glasgow, Bridgeton) Holt, Arthur Popplewell, Ernest
Blackburn, F. Hooson, H. E. Prentice, R. E.
Blyton, William Houghton, Douglas Probert, Arthur
Boston, T. Hoy, James H. Pursey, Cmdr. Harry
Bowden, Rt. Hn. H. W. (Leics. S. W.) Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey) Rankin, John
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan) Hynd, John (Attercliffe) Redhead, E. C.
Brockway, A. Fenner Janner, Sir Barnett Rees, Merlyn (Leeds, S.)
Callaghan, James Jay, Rt. Hon. Douglas Rhodes, H.
Carmichacl, Neil Jeger, George Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Collick, Percy Jones, Dan (Burnley) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Jones, Elwyn (West Ham, S.) Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.)
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Ross, William
Cronin, John Jones, T. W. (Merioneth) Silkin, John
Crossman, R. H. S. Kelley, Richard Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)
Cullen, Mrs. Alice King, Dr. Horace Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield)
Dalyell, Tam Lawson, George Small, William
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Lee, Frederick (Newton) Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Lever, L. M. (Ardwick) Sorensen, R. W.
Deer, George Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.) Spriggs, Leslie
Delargy, Hugh Loughlin, Charles Stones, William
Diamond, John Lubbock, Eric Symonds, J. B.
Dodds, Norman Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Doig, Peter McBride, N. Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.)
Duffy, A. E. P. (Colne Valley) MacColl, James Thompson, Dr. Alan (Dunfermline)
Edwards, Rt. Hon. Ness (Caerphilly) MacDermot, Niall Thornton, Ernest
Edwards, Walter (Stepney) Mclnnes, James Wade, Donald
Evans, Albert McKay, John (Wallsend) Wainwright, Edwin
Fernyhough, E. MacKenzie, J. G. Weitzman, David
Finch, Harold MacPherson, Malcolm Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Foot, Dingle (Ipswich) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Whitlock, William
Forman, J. C. Manuel, Archie Wilkins, W. A.
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Mapp, Charles Willey, Frederick
Galpern, Sir Myer Mason, Roy Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)
George, LadyMeganLloyd (Crmrthn) Millan, Bruce Winterbottom, R. E.
Ginsburg, David Milne, Edward Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Cordon Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C. Mitchison, G. R.
Gourlay, Harry Morris, Charles (Openshaw) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grey, Charles Morris, John (Aberavon) Mr. Charles A. Howell and
Dr. Broughton.
Agnew, Sir Peter Green, Alan Neave, Airey
Allason, James Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Nugent, Rt. Hon. Sir Richard
Anderson, D. C. Gurden, Harold Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian (Hendon, North)
Atkins, Humphrey Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough) Osborn, John (Hallam)
Barlow, Sir John Harris, Reader (Heston) Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth)
Barter, John Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Page, Graham (Crosby)
Batsford, Brian Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.) Partridge, E.
Berkeley, Humphry Hastings, Stephen Pearson, Frank (Clitheroe)
Biffen, John Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Percival, Ian
Biggs-Davison, John Henderson, John (Cathcart) Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth
Bingham, R. M. Hendry, Forbes Pitman, Sir James
Birch, Rt. Hon. Nigel Hiley, Joseph Pounder, Rafton
Bishop, Sir Patrick Hill, Mrs. Eveline (Wythenshawe) Prior, J. M. L.
Black, Sir Cyril Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk) Proudfoot, Wilfred
Bourne-Arton, A. Hirst, Geoffrey Pym, Francis
Box, Donald Hobson, Rt. Hon. Sir John Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. John Holland, Philip Rees-Davies, W. R. (Isle of Thanet)
Brewis, John Hollingworth, John Renton, Rt. Hon. David
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. SirWalter Hope, Rt. Hon. Lord John Rippon, Rt. Hon. Geoffrey
Brown, Alan (Tottenham) Hopkins, Alan Roots, William
Bryan, Paul Hornby, R. P. Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Bullard, Denys Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Dame P. Scott-Hopkins, James
Bullus, Wing Commander Eric Howard, John (Southampton, Test) Seymour, Leslie
Campbell, Gordon Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral John Shaw, M.
Carr, Compton (Barons Court) Hughes-Young, Michael Shepherd, William
Chataway, Christopher Hulbert, Sir Norman Skeet, T. H. H.
Chichester-Clark, R. Hutchison, Michael Clark Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Clark, Henry (Antrim, N.) Iremonger, T. L. Spearman, Sir Alexander
Clark, William (Nottingham, S.) Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Stainton, Keith
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.) Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Stevens, Geoffrey
Cole, Norman Johnson Smith, Geoffrey Steward, Harold (Stockport, S.)
Cooke, Robert Jones, Rt. Hn. Aubrey (Hall Green) Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir Malcolm
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Kaberry, Sir Donald Storey, Sir Samuel
Corfield, F. V. Kerans, Cdr. J. S. Studholrne, Sir Henry
Coulson, Michael Kerr, Sir Hamilton Summers, Sir Spencer
Courtney, Cdr. Anthony Kirk, Peter Talbot, John E.
Critchley, Julian Langford-Holt, Sir John Tapsell, Peter
Curran, Charles Leavey, J. A. Taylor, Edwin (Bolton, E.)
Dalkeith, Earl of Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Taylor, Sir William (Bradford, N.)
Dance, James Lilley, F. J. P. Teeling, Sir William
Deedes, Rt. Hon. W. F. Linstead, Sir Hugh Temple, John M.
Digby, Simon Wingfield Lloyd, Rt. Hon. Selwyn (Wirral) Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. M. Longden, Gilbert Thomas, Sir Leslie (Canterbury)
Doughty, Charles Loveys, Walter H. Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S.)
Douglas-Home, Rt. Hon. Sir Alec Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Touche, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon
du Cann, Edward MacArthur, Ian Turner, Colin
Duncan, Sir James Maclay, Rt. Hon. John Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carahalton) Maclean, SirFitzroy (Bute&N. Ayrs) Tweedsmuir, Lady
Emmett, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Macleod, Rt. Hn. Iain (Enfield, W.) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Farr, John McMaster, Stanley R. Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hon. Sir John
Finlay, Graeme Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax) Walder, David
Fisher, Nigel Maginnis, John E. Walker, Peter
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Maitland, Sir John Walker-Smith, Rt. Hon. Sir Derek
Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton) Markham, Major Sir Frank Wall, Patrick
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D. Mathew, Robert (Honiton) Ward, Dame Irene
Gammans, Lady Matthews, Gordon (Meriden) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Gardner, Edward Maude, Angus (Stratford-on-Avon) Whitelaw, William
Gibson-Watt, David Maudling, Rt. Hon. Reginald Williams, Dudley (Exeter)
Giles, Rear-Admiral Morgan Mawby, Ray Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, Central) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C. Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Glover, Sir Douglas Mills, Stratton Worsley, Marcus
Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham) Montgomery, Fergus
Goodhew, Victor More, Jasper (Ludlow) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gower, Raymond Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Mr. McLaren and Mr. Hugh Rees.