HC Deb 05 July 1971 vol 820 cc1081-91

Exemption shall be granted from income tax chargeable by virtue of section 156 of the Income Tax Act, 1952, in respect of any allowances awarded or other payments made, by the Royal National Life-Boat Institution to duly appointed coxwains and crew members of the lifeboats of the Institution solely in recognition of time spent at sea in the lifeboats with the express intention of saving human life at sea.—[Mr. W. H. K. Baker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker (Banff)

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

Similar new Clauses have been brought before the House before—on the 1950 and 1967 Finance Bills. I took part in the debates on the proposal in 1967. It is interesting to note that on both those occasions a Labour Government were in power. I am therefore hopeful that this will be third time lucky, because my plea is addressed to a Conservative Government who are pledged to reduce taxation and, indeed, to have a very close look at the whole of our taxation system.

The new Clause seeks to exempt from payment of tax lifeboatmen in the course of their duties while at sea attempting to save life. It is not in any way asking for exemption for all earnings of life-boatmen. It is not asking, for example, for exemption for payment made during a training run for the boat; neither is it asking for exemption from tax for full-time members of lifeboats such as those employed by the R.N.L.I. in the course of maintenance work—engineers, and the like. I repeat, it is a plea for the volunteers who man our lifeboats in trying to save life.

The House knows that the R.N.L.I. is a wholly voluntary supported charity. It obtains its funds by flag days all over the United Kingdom, by local lifeboat guild functions along the coasts, and by holding coffee mornings, jumble sales and ordinary sales at all seasons of the year.

Coming from and having the honour to represent a largely fishing constituency, I can tell the House quite definitely that the work of the lifeboats is an integral part of the local community. The support is national; the actions of the crew are local. A storm at sea is by no means uncommon, but the lifeboats around our coasts are almost as commonplace as the St. John's Ambulance men at sporting and other events throughout the country. They are in themselves two integral parts of the community and both as indispensable in their own particular ways as each other.

A storm at sea instantly brings anxiety in many homes around our shores; not least in those communities which are supported by or support the inshore fishing industry. Indeed, many of the lifeboats are crewed by inshore fishermen—in some cases, wholly so. These men are prepared to give up a day's earnings to enable them to take part in rescues at sea. They are, to say the least, extremely brave men—I think that that is a vast understatement and is scarcely worth making—who are always ready to hazard their lives in the hope of saving the lives of their fellow men at sea.

It might assist the House if I give a few figures. In 1970 the total launches of lifeboats around our coasts was 2,634. Of these, 1,216 were by conventional lifeboats. The remainder, 1,418, were by inshore rescue craft. The result of all these launchings was that 1,251 men—not an inconsiderable figure—were saved from drowning at sea. This works out at roughly one life saved for every launching of a lifeboat.

With two notable exceptions, to which I shall refer later, there has fortunately been no loss of life among lifeboat crews since 1965. Nevertheless, during that period 73 crew members have either been badly or less seriously injured since 1968.

The exceptions I mentioned were, of course, the tragic disasters of the Long-hope boat, which foundered on 17th March, 1969, with the loss of eight crew men, and that of the Fraserburgh boat on 21st January, 1970, when five of the crew died. Their sacrifice was supreme.

11.30 p.m.

The present allowance paid to lifeboat-men for saving life at sea is £1.50 for the first two hours spent at sea and thereafter 38p for each subsequent hour at sea. Over the last year, that has given an average allowance of £2 to £3 per crew member for every launching. Those figures for the allowances paid are not by any means large. They are a pittance for the bravery shown by these men. If we put those figures into terms of taxation at a rate of, say, 20p in the pound, they represent a mere £10,000 that the Revenue takes as a result of this taxation. That is by no means a large sum. In presenting the new Clause, all we are asking for is a shortfall to the Revenue of £10,000 which, in modern budgetary terms, is literally a drop in the ocean.

It is important to realise that there is no contractual agreement between the Royal National Life-Boat Institution and the crewmen. Therefore, there is no employer-employee relationship. The exception is the coxswain, who is chosen and appointed locally, as are the second coxswain and the bowman. Each receive an annual retainer of £100. We are not asking for exemption from taxation for those men, but we are asking for tax relief on that sum paid in allowances when at sea saving or attempting to save life. As there is no contractual agreement it is quite unthinkable that any kind of compulsion is put upon the crewmen to turn out. It is entirely up to them whether they turn out when the maroon goes up. In every sense they are volunteers; volunteers of the best possible calibre.

My hon. Friends and I realise that there are other categories of voluntary workers who have a like case with regard to taxation. I give but one example, that of firemen. Nobody would deny that people such as firemen face hazards in their calling, hazards which are voluntarily undertaken. But with the examples that I have given, such as the disasters met by the Longhope and Fraserburgh lifeboats, the enormous risks that these men face when going to sea are quite apparent. It is true that a great number of them come as volunteers from the inshore fishing industry and that they know the hazards to which they put themselves in attempting possibly to save their comrades.

All these facts add up to a continuing piece of niggardly legislation in that their allowances are taxed. We want to stop that because it is unjust and because we feel that the recruitment to lifeboat crews may, to a marginal extent, be affected by the fact that allowances are taxable. The Institution, its crew members, and all those who have to do with the sea are owed an enormous debt by the nation, not least by those along our coasts who come from the inshore fishing industry, from the deep sea industry, from the merchant marine, and indeed by all those who have their business at sea. I therefore greatly hope that the third time will be lucky and that my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will be able to accept the Clause.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) on bringing forward the Clause and in seeking to remedy a peculiarly petty injustice to a most worthy body of men. In view of the late hour I will not follow my hon. Friend into all the telling figures he deployed in support of his case.

I ask my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to ponder and weigh three facts. First, it is not exaggeration or hyperbole when we say that lifeboatmen risk their lives that those of others might be saved. Second, these men receive allowances of only £1.50 and, after that, only 38p an hour for this duty. Third, in the last year alone they have saved 1,251 lives. Is not my hon. Friend forced to the conclusion that we are getting a magnificent service on the cheap? To accede to this request would cost the Treasury less than £10,000, probably. Does my hon. Friend set so little store on the courage and service of these men? I hope not.

The last time that the matter was discussed in the House—in 1967–the then Treasury spokesman trotted out a whole lot of threadbare arguments such as forms of employment, danger money, the need to prove financial loss, as though these men were jurors or members of hospital management boards, and the danger that if this concession were granted the floodgates would be opened for many other claims. These were arguments as unimpressive intellectually as they were mean and lacking in generosity emotionally. They were ripped apart by hon. Members who spoke in that debate. I hope we shall hear no arguments of that type from my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary tonight.

Nobody did more in that debate to show up the foolishness of these arguments than the late Mr. Iain Macleod who replied from the Opposition Front Bench. He said, "We know that there are difficulties. All we are asking is that a way be found round the difficulties. We must do something". I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who has followed in the late Iain Macleod's footsteps so wisely and so well in so many matters at the Treasury, will follow in his footsteps in this matter and do something about this matter now.

At the General Election people voted for a change in Government for many specific reasons, but also no less for certain general reasons which were not often articulated and perhaps not even spoken. Among those general reasons for which the Conservative Government were elected—reasons often poorly articulated but deeply felt—was the sentiment that resources and rewards were too often misdirected. I do not want to go into details, but, for example, scarcely trained secretaries could earn more than nurses; the average wage of dockers was more than the average earnings of solicitors; too often it paid a man not to go to work and earn an honest living but, instead, to go on to welfare. Those facts worried our people. There was a general feeling that hard work, thrift and service were less well rewarded than they ought to have been.

I do not think that my hon. and right hon. Friends would dispute that when we were returned to power it was because, amongst other specific promises, like pensions for the over-80s, and other selective examples of welfare, we said that we would provide selectivity in a general sense. Surely this is an opportunity to put this matter right—to reward one uniquely-placed and uniquely-deserving section of the community which embodies so many of those qualities that we would hope to see flourishing in our society today.

Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) on the way in which he presented the new Clause and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr Sproat) on his support. I shall be extremely brief. Most of the relevant points have already been made, but I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not forget that this is a very serious plea. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is inundated through-our our proceedings on every Finance Bill with reasonable cases for exemption for various sections of the community, but nobody could say that those who rescue lives at sea are not worthy of serious consideration.

It saddens me to look across at the benches opposite and see there only two hon. Members who are sufficiently interested in the Clause to attend the House—and there is not one Scottish Labour Member. That is a revealing fact; it shows where their priorities lie. We are pleading for a relatively small section of the community. It is significant that because they do not represent a vast vote-catching area they do not attract the same attention among hon. Members opposite as they do among hon. Members on this side of the House.

I support wholeheartedly the plea of my hon. Friends the Members for Banff and Aberdeen, South on behalf of people who spend their spare time—because virtually it is their spare time—helping to make the seas safe. I will say no more. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute at this stage of the debate.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I hope and believe that the Clause will be acceptable. In my part of the world, too, we have great service from those who man the lifeboats.

I have one small personal reason for supporting the Clause: my first public service ever was when I became honorary secretary, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for an organisation that was raising funds for all the lifeboat services. I always feel that whenever the opportunity occurs I should add my voice in support of their cause.

11.45 p.m.

The case has been well argued, and, indeed, it is well known. I wish to add a further point. No concession by the Treasury would give greater pleasure to the people of this country. I hope that we shall not hear about all sorts of difficulties. We are so used to difficulties in life that we sometimes forget how many difficulties we have had to overcome. If we had not overcome a lot of difficulties during the war, we should not have won the war. We can overcome the difficulties if we really want to, so that argument does not stand up. Whatever the difficulties, the Treasury ought occasionally to do something acceptable to the whole country. Everyone knows and admires what the lifeboatmen do.

In Finance Bill after Finance Bill, back benchers ask for things, and the Treasury turns them down. If I had time, I could give a long list of concessions which the country generally would welcome. Time after time, we have to bring these matters before the House, but we can never succeed unless the Treasury is willing to be convinced, and sometimes it is rather difficult to know why it is convinced while on other occasions it remains unconvinced.

The new Clause embodies a fine idea, and it is absolutely right to press it on the Treasury. I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) referred to what Iain Macleod had said. I am sure that he would have liked to make this concession, and I know that the House would like to do something in the spirit of what he spoke for and supported. It is not good for Parliament that back benchers have to bring forward a good case year after year, only to have it turned down. It is difficult enough to have one's Amendment or new Clause selected, but, once we have a chance to make the case, as we have on this occasion, the Treasury should accept it.

We are trying to be a modern Government, not always following the traditions of the past. A lot of traditions are good, but a lot are jolly bad, and the tradition of always refusing the case on this Clause is very bad. Let the Treasury accept the Clause with gratitude. After all, Treasury Ministers are as grateful to the lifeboat-men as everyone else is. Let them accept the Clause in a good spirit, so that we can all go home thinking that, at last, Parliament has done what it should for our lifeboatmen.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

We all have great admiration for lifeboatmen and the work they do. I in no way wish to suggest that that work is not worthy not only of our admiration but also of proper reward by the community, but I shall ask the House to reject the Clause.

The reason has nothing to do with what it would cost the Revenue, which is a very small amount. We must realise what the Clause asks for. It asks not that the lifeboatmen should get a greater reward for the trips they make in saving life at sea but that the charity which provides that reward should have the burdens on it reduced by having to provide only a net rather than a gross sum, because what it provides will be tax-exempt. It is here that the question of fairness and differentiation between them and other similarly deserving people comes in.

The unique quality which has been claimed for lifeboatmen is not that they give service to others, for there are many members of our community who do that, and not only that giving service to others brings their own lives into danger, because there are many others who with equal gallantry do the same. There is a third qualification which it has been suggested should single out lifeboatmen from other members of the community who risk their lives to serve the community, and that is that the funds from which the allowance is paid are raised on a voluntary basis. That is why I say that the Clause is in a sense asking that those who receive this type of reward from a charity should be exempted from tax, and it is just that that makes the difficulty very great, because there are other people who are rewarded from charities for serving the community, and there are other members of the community who take those risks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) said that the allowance was a pittance. I agree. There is a great deal to be said for that pittance being increased. There is perhaps a great deal to be said for the amounts received by, for example, mine rescue teams being increased. They get a very similar amount—a call-out payment of slightly more than a lifeboatman, £2.75 for the first two hours, and 47p an hour, with a little more if breathing apparatus is used. They are taxed in the same way.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

Why cannot my hon. Friend exempt them as well as the lifeboatmen?

Mr. Macmillan

My hon. Friend has rather started to answer that question, because there then comes the question of the part-time firemen, the policemen and all those others who risk their lives.

With great respect to my hon. Friends, and even more respect to the work that the lifeboatmen do, I do not think that a case has been established that makes lifeboatmen so nearly unique as to be the only people whose pay or allowances, no matter from what source they are derived, should be made free of tax rather than be increased by those who provide the funds.

It seems to me that the essence of the complaint we have heard tonight with some justification is that the amount is too small. This is something that could be said of others who risk their lives in order to serve the community. I suggest that the remedy is to increase the amount rather than to single out the allowance for special tax treatment.

Mr. Taveme

This is a very deserving case, and it always seems extremely hard when a Treasury Minister opposes such an obviously deserving case. Normally, the rôle of the Opposition is to press all Amendments and new Clauses because it seems to be an easy way of gaining some popularity. I do not suggest that that is why the Clause is being pressed by hon. Members opposite.

I believe that what the Chief Secretary says is basically right. Every time a deserving exception is made it gives rise to other deserving exceptions, and the whole progression never stops. It is because of the occasional concession that has been made in the past that so many anomalies have been introduced into our tax system. Therefore, as a former Treasury Minister, I sympathise with the Chief Secretary. I think that what he says must be accepted by the House, however reluctantly, because there are so many other deserving cases. What ever one's admiration for the lifeboatmen is, I feel that the Chief Secretary is, on this occasion, right.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

j understand how my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary feels; it is difficult to differentiate between different types of work. Nevertheless, I believe that these people are in a somewhat special category. I cannot agree with the hon. and learned Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne) that we cannot make a distinction.

The police, for example, make a lifetime career of their work. They join the service, spend their whole time in it, and can rise in rank to chief commissioner or chief constable on a very high salary. Similarly, the man who becomes a member of the fire service makes that work his career. But the lifeboatmen are in a very narrow category. In order to save life they do something totally different from their normal avocation, and how the hon. and learned Gentleman can say that they are all in the same category I just do not understand. He says that they are comparable with other people: I say that they are not. They voluntarily give their services as a spare-time occupation at great peril to their lives.

I do not understand how in those circumstances some special exemption cannot be made. I do not think that the exemption need be extended beyond this special category. I must dissent from those who think that to accept the new Clause would be to open the door. These men are brave, they do this work voluntarily in their spare time and, by golly, we should encourage people like that.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas (Abertillery)

Reluctant though I usually am to agree with the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) I must on this occasion do so. In my view, this is a typical piece of mean Pecksniffery on the part of the Government. These people are in a special category, they are all on their own, and in the circumstances special provision should be made for them.

Question put and negatived.

Further consideration of the Bill, as amended, adjourned.—[Mr. Maurice Macmillan.]

Bill to be further considered tomorrow.