HL Deb 25 April 1904 vol 133 cc1017-20

rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the changed attitude of the Board of Inland Revenue on the subject of mariners being, under certain circumstances, exempt from payment of income-tax; and to ask why the Board of Inland Revenue are now requiring certain mariners to pay income-tax when, under the terms of a letter addressed by the Board to the Merchant Service Guild in the year 1901, they have hitherto been freed from payment. He said: My Lords, I wish to call the attention of your Lordships to a curious case of inconsistency on the part of the Board of Inland Revenue in regard to the incidence of income-tax upon mariners. I am quite prepared to say that under ordinary circumstances it is but right that those who enjoy the privileges of citizenship of this country should be compelled to contribute to its taxation, but I venture to say that mariners labour under exceptional circumstances and are denied the ordinary privileges of citizenship. They are required to pay their quota of rates and taxes, but no facilities are given to enable them to exercise their votes, and to have some voice in the framing of the laws under which they are governed.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act, mariners are liable to incur a multitude of pains and penalties. In the case of a merchant captain the total liabilities in the shape of fines which can be inflicted upon him under the Merchant Shipping Act exceed £7,000, and under the Aliens Bill the Government propose to saddle him with another £100 penalty for bringing in undesirables, when as a matter of fact he has nothing to do with the shipment of passengers. He has quite enough to do to attend to the safe navigation of his vessel. Consequently, it will not be a matter of surprise to your Lordships that such people, possessing little, if any, privileges under the Merchant Shipping Act have some reluctance in paying income-tax; and as it appears that under the law relating to income-tax they are under certain circumstances exempt from payment, they cannot be blamed for taking advantage of it.

In the year 1901 the Merchant Service Guild was informed by the Secretary of the Board of Inland Revenue that an unmarried mariner who was not an owner or rated occupier and was absent from the country for a period of six months during the year—which need not necessarily be continuous—could claim exemption from payment of the tax. This was admitted by the Board, and in some cases, I understand, they went so far as to return payments made by mariners in previous years. There has now, however, been an entire change of front on the part of the Board of Inland Revenue which requires, I consider, some explanation. Hitherto, as I have said, it was only necessary under certain circumstances for a mariner to be absent from the country for six months during the year to claim exemption. The Board now inform the Merchant Service Guild that the mariner must be away from the country during the whole of the year. This makes a great difference, and is a serious matter for many of those who earn their living—and a scanty one it usually is—at sea.

Why the Board of Inland Revenue have changed their tactics towards a very deserving class of the community I cannot imagine, and it is somewhat extraordinary that they should express radically different opinions on the same subject within the short space of two or three years. Consequently, I hope that His Majesty's Government may be able to afford some satisfactory explanation, and I trust that the original views of the Board of Inland Revenue will prove to be the correct ones. While dealing with the treatment of mariners by the Board of Inland Revenue, I would like to point out what your Lordships and the general public, I think, are not aware of, and that is that when naval officers win a prize at Greenwich College—£10 or £50—it is paid them less income-tax. I think this is rather mean on the part of a great nation. They also get certain sums called hard-lying money to compensate for their extra hardships and discomforts when serving in the smaller vessels of His Majesty's Fleet, such as torpedo boats and others. This is also paid less income-tax.


My Lords, I do not think I need go into the rights or wrongs of the question which the noble Lord has raised with reference to money prizes which has already been discussed ad nauseam; but I think I can give my noble friend a satisfactory explanation as to why a change has been made in the practice of the Inland Revenue authorities in regard to merchant seamen who spend a certain amount of time out of the country. In consequence of some uncertainty as to the exact legal status of these seamen, it has not been the practice of the Board of Inland Revenue to prosecute in cases such as the noble Lord has mentioned. The assessment has been made, but proceedings have not been taken if the tax was not properly paid. But lately, however, the Inland Revenue authorities have been legally advised that these seamen are liable, and therefore, although reserving to themselves the usual discretion in such cases, they are prepared to maintain the view of the law as it has been interpreted.


Will that apply if they are a year absent?


I understand that is so.


And will it apply to naval officers?


That I cannot say.

House adjourned at a quarter before Five o'clock, till Tomorrow half-past Ten o'clock.