HL Deb 05 October 1931 vol 82 cc248-62

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, as your Lordships no doubt are aware, I desire to move the Second Reading of a Bill which is going to carry out those parts of the revised Budget proposals which concern fresh taxation. Your Lordships are familiar with the reasons and the causes which led the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take the unusual and, I think, very nearly unprecedented course of presenting a second Budget during the financial year. He had to meet a deficit of £74,000,000 for this year and of £170,000,000 for next year, without taking into account any economies that might be carried out, or any fresh taxation. We are dealing in this Bill with the present financial year, but it is hoped that the measures taken will be sufficient to balance the Budget, not only in this year, but in the coming year as well.

Coming to this present financial year, the sum required to make up the deficit, and also to provide a small surplus, is, as I have said,£74,000,000, but this has been partly met by economies of £22,000,000. Your Lordships have already dealt with that matter in the National Economy Bill, and therefore I think I need say nothing on that point. It is also partly met by savings of £13,700,000 on the provision for the Sinking Fund, which is made by Clause 21 of the Bill. I think I might be allowed to give your Lordships one or two figures on this matter, because I do not think that, on casual reading, it is very clear what is the actual provision for Sinking Fund under the Bill. Instead of the £52,050,000 provision for the Sinking Fund we are left with £32,600,000, and this reduction of £19,450,000 is made up of £5,750,000 saved through the non-payments on the Sinking Fund on the American Debt, and a further £13,700,000 further reduction of the Sinking Fund. The result of that is that this year and next year we are paying our contractual obligations according to the terms of those obligations as set out in the prospectuses of the different denominations of the Debt.

So much for the savings so called, and to the extent of £40,500,000 this sum is to be met by fresh taxation. Of that, £29,000,000 is direct taxation, set down in Clauses 6 to 9 of the Bill, and £11,500,000 indirect taxation, covered by Clauses 1 to 5. I think it might interest your Lordships to know what proportions of direct and indirect taxation, in percentages, are represented by those sums. They alter the existing percentages very little. The percentages of indirect taxation and direct taxation in the original Budget for 1931–32 were 33.4 and 66.66. Under the revised Budget the per- centages are practically the same—namely, 33.84 and 66.16. Your Lordships will doubtless observe what a tremendous portion of that taxation, both new and old, falls upon the direct taxpayers.

Clause 20 is a very important clause. In the course of our discussions during the present year many of your Lordships have criticised, and criticised very severely, and I think with great justice, the practice of raising large sums by borrowing on different securities—that is to say, on the Road Fund or the Unemployment Fund—and you have also pointed out that it was really rather idle to talk of paying off large sums of the National Debt when you were already incurring fresh debts, it is true on other securities, but debts as to which in the case of the Unemployment Fund it was very doubtful whether capital and interest could be paid back out of that Fund itself. Therefore, I think that the hulk of your Lordships are in entire sympathy with the proposal that borrowing both on the Road Fund and on the Unemployment Fund should cease, and that the money required for those services should be raised on the Parliamentary Votes in the ordinary way, and not by borrowing. That is carried out in the case of the Road Fund by Clause 20, and your Lordships will, of course, remember that in the Economy Bill similar proposals are Carried out as regards the Unemployment Fund, that Bill having already passed into law.

May I just interpose for a moment one detail on that matter, in order to anticipate questions as to how far the deficit this year is due to the cessation of borrowing for those two Funds? We are providing from Revenue this year £7,000,000 for roads instead of borrowing up to a maximum of £9,000,000. The cessation of borrowing for unemployment, after taking account. of economies, involves a Supplementary Estimate of £13,700,000. The total increased charge on Estimates which might therefore be considered as due to those two causes can be put at £20,700,000. Your Lordships will observe that we are following in the strict path of economic propriety but for doing so we are paying more heavily this year for that privilege.

I pass to the suggestion made about giving an extra allowance of 10 per cent. on the depreciation of plant and machinery, which will in a full year cost £2,250,000, and the suggestion also made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about a replacement for obsolescence. I think your Lordships will agree that, although they are small matters, they point in the right direction. The other portions of the Bill—namely, Part III and Clauses 21, 22, 23 and 24—are necessary to confer on the Treasury certain essential powers in connection with the Debt. Part III deals with operations in connection with the 5 per cent. War Loan, 1929–1947, and the right to give notice to redeem the loan in accordance with the right reserved to the Government in the prospectus of issue, coupled, of course, with suitable offers to holders to continue their existing security. The powers in the other clauses are more general and are necessary in order that the Treasury may not be committed beforehand to any particular operation. I would like to add that the powers sought in Part III in regard to the redemption and conversion of the 5 per cent. War Loan do not involve any derogation from the rights of holders as expressed in the prospectus. The only object is to facilitate a voluntary conversion to a lower rate of interest, and they are necessary because the huge bulk of the loan, over £2,000,000,000, renders the usual ordinary machinery somewhat inadequate to cope with its conversion.

I do not think it necessary for me to go through the details of the taxes, but I shall be ready to do my best to answer any questions. I will only raise one question on which I am sure your Lordships have privately speculated and that is the question whether the recent alteration in our monetary standard will have any effect upon the Budget, and, if so, what effect. I have tried to obtain the best information I could upon the subject, but I am afraid I cannot get any information that is very definite. The general view seems to be that it is not at present possible to say what the effect upon the Budget of that change may be. In the long run, perhaps, it may be favourable, but, of course, favourable results of that kind would take some time to develop, because the Income Tax in any year depends on the profits of the preceding year. But, whatever may be thought about the future, the need for balancing the Budget is just as great, and there is no reason whatever for relaxing our utmost efforts in any way.

I should like to say in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, that this extra taxation and these economies are only the first step towards the restoration of national prosperity. Now will come before us the far greater task, and the more difficult task, of building up again the national industries, and especially the productive industries, and of taking measures to make them more successful. When that happens and industry develops we shall be able more easily to bear the burden of taxation; and, indeed, the burden of taxation will automatically diminish because, by large numbers of the unemployed being absorbed into industry, it will be possible to reduce some of that excessive expenditure which is in itself so heavy a burden upon trade. I hope, then, that the capitalist system, to which we have owed so much prosperity in the past, will, after this temporary eclipse owing to the strain that has been cast upon it from every side, again revive and lead us to prosperity in the future. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Earl Peel.)


My Lords, this is not a Bill which can be subjected to any alteration in your Lordships' House, and therefore the noble Earl who has moved the Second Reading has only briefly outlined its provisions. But I feel that I cannot allow it to pass sub silentio, and that a few considerations with regard to a measure which, as the noble Earl says, is quite unprecedented, should be made during the course of its last stages through Parliament. The noble Earl remarked that this Bill was part and parcel of the scheme undertaken by the present Government, part of which is contained in the Economy Bill, which passed your Lordships' House last week. The two must be taken together. The present Government were determined, by the provisions of Bills for economy and taxation, to keep this country on the gold standard. That object has been defeated, but the alarm and chaos that was prophesied because of our going off the gold standard has not been brought about. The Government, however, continued with their provisions in exactly the same way, and the country must realise that now, in addition to this heavy burden of taxation which is going to be imposed upon them, there will be a rise in prices as an effect of going off the gold standard and a prospect of a still further rise if the tariff which is projected comes to be passed into law.

So we are passing through times of very great stringency, and the burden that is being placed on people in this country is a very heavy one. I noted in the debates in another place that again the idea of equality of sacrifice was brought forward in supporting the measures of taxation, as it was in supporting the measures of economy. As I remarked last week, there can be no such thing as equality of sacrifice, measured by monetary value. But we find in this Finance Bill exactly the same tendency as in the Economy Bill—namely, to place too heavy a burden on the people of moderate incomes. There is no possibility of measuring these burdens in pounds, shillings and pence. Undoubtedly, the amount that is being exacted by taxation in the upper ranges of the Income Tax, when put down in actual figures, seems to be very considerable. But, small as the amounts may be in the lower ranges of the taxpayers, I think that the burden is far heavier. Just as in the Economy Bill a weight has been placed on the poorest of the poor, possibly depriving them of some of the necessaries of life, so in this taxation Bill a heavy burden is being placed on the smaller Income Tax payers—not depriving them, perhaps, of the necessaries of life, but just of those possibilities which they now enjoy for making themselves more efficient citizens in the way of education and enlightenment. I think there is a very large class that is going to be very severely hit.

To give your Lordships one instance of what I mean—and I think it is only typical of what may take place in other directions—I fear that amongst the luxuries, so called, which people will think it necessary to cut off will be music, and up and down the country men and women who have spent a great deal in educating themselves to be well qualified teachers of music will be deprived of their means of livelihood, or, in some cases, deprived of a considerable part of their income. In fact, it is already taking place, and these poor unfortunate people—and they are to be found in every town and in a great many villages—will find themselves quite dis- proportionately bit, as compared with other classes of the community. Others might be quoted in the same way. Budget proposals in the ordinary course are framed with great care and consideration by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who studies the question very closely over the course of two or three months. This Budget has been rushed through under the influence of panic. The late Labour Government were bullied because they did not produce a Budget in three days that would satisfy the powers who were demanding certain conditions. This Government has produced a Budget in a few weeks—reckless and casting a heavy burden on the country.

I think that posterity, on looking back at this period, will regard it as very questionable wisdom on the part of the Government of the day to have sounded a note of alarm in such strident tones as to disturb the whole life of the country. When the time comes for the people's verdict to be delivered I do not envy those who have to try to explain to the masses of the people of this country why it is that their money is being exacted from them. In the time of war, in the time of earthquake, in the time of any visible calamity the people are quite ready to make sacrifices; no people more than the British people, and they understand the cause. How members who go to their constituents are going to explain the causes to the masses of this country during the coming General Election I do not understand. I should be very sorry to be, as a supporter of this National Government, in the position of having to go down to my late constituency, the Brightside Division of Sheffield (in Sheffield where there are 56,000 unemployed!) to explain to them why their shillings were wanted.

We do not know what Government is going to the country, whether this Government is going to the country or whether it is going to transform within the next few days and go to the country. Therefore, I hesitate to ask the noble Earl to give me any assurance with regard to On future because, while I am perfectly sure that he will hold a high position of responsibility in any future Government, he may hesitate to speak on behalf of a Government that appears not yet to be in being—a most amazing situation and one that certainly has never occurred before in this country and I sincerely hope will never occur again.

Were I to ask a question it would be this. This crisis has come to be regarded, and I think still is regarded by a good many people in this country, as something peculiarly British, as something that has happened to the British Budget, as something that has been mismanaged by some British Government. It is not a British crisis, it is a world crisis, and until it is treated from that point of view we are not likely by these measures which only affect our own people to cure the ills, or to lay the foundations of a better order. Therefore, I should have liked to ask the Government, had they been in a position to say what they were going to do in future, whether the most important measure to he taken was not the calling of an International Conference to stabilise currency and price levels. Until that is done, until the statesmen of Europe get round a table and really get to the seat of the mischief and understand how by international agreement the recurrence of this mischief can be prevented, I do not believe we are getting to the root of the trouble. If we are simply to go on with more and more taxation and more and more economies, making the people of this country feel that though they are living in the midst of plenty they are obliged to contribute more and more out of their earnings, out of their savings, and out of their small incomes, then I think we shall be making a very grave mistake.

The noble Earl ended his remarks by a eulogy of the capitalist system. It was an unfortunate moment to choose for that. We have been prophesying for some time that the capitalist system was gradually decaying. I should like to think that this was the proof of its final demise. The doctrines which the Labour Party hold are not popular in your Lordships' House and the very small band which represents that Party is almost a negligible quantity in your Lordships' House. But outside there is a vast growing, mass of opinion that is likely to become more and more articulate. It is that mass of opinion that you have to convince that the capitalist system is success. I welcome the crisis from one point of view alone—that it has taught the people of this country a very great lesson. They realise now that Governments are not solely responsible, that they are not the governors in every direction of public affairs. The people are enquiring and are anxious to learn, and if it is possible to learn anything during a General Election—I am not sure it is—they may receive some enlightenment during the course of the next month.

This Bill necessarily passes almost automatically through your Lordships' House. I have only thought it necessary to make these few remarks as it is an occasion which has not occurred before, and to sound a note of warning that these methods which are not in the strict sense of the word Parliamentary and these measures which have to be taken in an atmosphere of panic are not in themselves likely to lead to the prosperity of our country.


My Lords, there are one or two questions which the noble Lord opposite asked me and I will try as briefly as possible to reply. One was rather a difficult question because it involved the gift of prophecy in myself. It is, what was to be the position of the National Government at the next Election. That is almost more than I can positively speak to at the present moment. I might ask the noble Lord whether he has seen in the newspapers to-day a statement regarding the historic visit of the Prime Minister. Whether that will have anything to do with it I am unable to say. I should also make it quite clear that anything I have been saying to-day I have said on behalf of the present Government and not on behalf of any Government that is not yet in being, or in fact any future Government.

The noble Lord made an interesting suggestion about the possibility of an international agreement with regard to currency and the most difficult question of price levels. That suggestion, of course, has been made before. I have no doubt it may be possible at some time to have an international arrangement as regards currency, but the noble Lord knows very well, from his own experience at the Foreign Office and elsewhere, the enormous difficulty of getting a sufficient number of the important nations to make an agreement on these very difficult points. The noble Lord seemed rather to rejoice that at the present moment, as he said, we were witnessing the demise of the capitalist system. It filled him rather with a sort of gloomy joy. I was looking al the speech made by a late Leader of his in the House of Commons two or three days ago in which he spoke out with, I thought, considerable frankness as regards the whole Party. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said: I have very often told my friends on that side of the House that any attempt to abolish capitalism—I mean any catastrophic attempt—will bring far greater conditions of disaster to the people than those under which we are suffering. I have no doubt the noble Lord opposite will weigh very carefully and give great respect to that utterance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The noble Lord raised another point. He said that the Government were making very much the same efforts to balance the Budget when we had moved off the gold standard as they made, or proposed to make, when we were still on the gold standard. He seemed to think that was a matter of criticism against the present Government; in fact he almost charged them with recklessness. I should like to suggest to the noble Lord that when you have gone off the gold standard and when your currency is no longer regulated by that almost automatic system with which we are so familiar, it becomes rather more important than less important—when you have these fluctuating currencies the valuation of which depends so much on the credit of the country—that you should show clearly to all the world that you are determined to meet your obligations, to balance your Budget, and balance it out of revenue of the year and not by borrowing. That, I think, is really the defence to the action of the Government.

The noble Lord also made a passing reference to tariffs, without, I think, any very great animosity against tariffs. That was very natural. I understand there is a very large section of his Party which is in favour of tariffs. Therefore he spoke with rather a doubtful voice on the subject. May I make this observation? He seemed to think that it might not be necessary to have tariffs because we have already to some extent a tariff through the operation of the change in the currency, and because we had to pay more for imports of goods from abroad. It cannot have escaped the notice of the noble Lord that that kind of tariff is the very worst kind of tariff, because it applies equally to all sorts of articles whether they are raw materials or whether they are half manufactured or fully manufactured. It is the worst kind of tariff, because it is an indiscriminating tariff. Surely it is necessary to have something of a more discriminating kind, to have a tariff more adapted to the circumstances of our trade.

I was very glad indeed to recognise that the noble Lord spoke about the very large amount of expenditure always cast upon those who are having the higher ranges of income. I was glad of that frank acknowledgment from the noble Lord because, from a great many speeches made by many members of his Party, one would suppose that the whole of the taxation of the country was cast upon the poorest people. I am glad, therefore, through the authoritative voice of the noble Lord that we have had a denial of that statement. The noble Lord, again, seemed to be troubled by what posterity would say about the present Government, and the present situation. That was not, I confess, an anxiety which was weighing me down at the time. I was thinking more of the immediate problems than of the future and posterity, but I think I know pretty well what the verdict of posterity will be. I also know what I should be able to say if I went down to some of those constituencies to which the noble Lord has alluded. I should say very simply that you had a Government in power and that that Government, through its reckless financial action, had reduced this country to an unfortunate financial condition which had gone far to shatter the resources and finances of the country, and I should add that when that Government found itself in a difficult position, instead of meeting the problem, it proceeded to throw up the sponge and run away. That I believe will be the verdict of posterity.


My Lords, on this important occasion—at least I believe it is an important occasion—of the Second Reading of one of the most important Finance Bills which has ever been passed in this country, I hope I may be permitted to say a few words even at this late hour of a quarter to four o'clock. I know that this House is not permitted to make any changes in this Bill, and that we are muzzled in that regard; still we are allowed to give an expression of opinion upon the contents of the Bill and state our views. This Bill has to be passed, and I myself will support it. I think we have all got to support it, but there are many things in it which in the long run cannot help the country. This Bill is going to add very greatly to the burden of direct taxation, and, therefore, both directly and indirectly, it adds another burden to the already heavy one which industry has to bear. Many of us cannot contemplate that position without the greatest misgivings.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has, I understand, welcomed this Bill this afternoon because it indicates a breakdown of capitalism. I disagree entirely that capitalism is upon its trial. How can the noble Lord say that capitalism is upon its trial? What has capitalism done in this country? We have in this country more social benefits than any other country in the world enjoys. Under capitalism we are paying 2,500,000 unemployed nineteen shillings or twenty shillings a week. Under capitalism we are importing into this country £500,000,000 worth of raw materials, food and so on, without which this country cannot go on. How, therefore, can the noble Lord, or honourable members of another place belonging to his Party, get up and say capitalism is on its trial? It is nonsense. Capitalism is not on its trial. Capitalism has proved that it is the only system under which the countries of the world can succeed. In the only country where they have succeeded in dissipating capital and destroying capitalism—Russia—what conditions do we find to-day? Are they conditions which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others of his Party, including the noble Lord, Lord Snell, would like to see introduced into this country? Are those the conditions you would like to see substituted for the conditions under which we live to-day? I, and others who think like me, believe in the capitalist system, and must do all we can to resist this attack upon the only system by which this country can subsist.

Last week I listened to a debate in this House during which I think the noble Lord, Lord Snell, for whom I have always had the greatest respect, said that he and others who worked with him were the only champions of the poor. When he suggested that he and others who work with him were the only guardians of the poor, in this country or in this House, I could not help thinking what an absolutely false statement that was. Who was it who gave the "dole"? I think he was speaking on that occasion particularly about the "dole." Who was it who gave the so-called "dole" to the unemployed? Was it the Labour Government? Of course it was not. It was the Coalition Government of 1918–22, a Government consisting of Unionists and Liberals. I, personally, was a humble follower of that Government. I voted for the "dole" myself on two occasions, and for the noble Lord to stand up in his place on the opposite side of the House and assert that they are the only champions, the only guardians of the poor, is absolutely incorrect and inaccurate.


My Lords, I do not charge my memory with anything like what the noble Viscount accuses me of. If he will be good enough to refer to the OFFICIAL REPORT I am sure he will find he is doing me an injustice.


My Lords, I do not wish to do the noble Lord an injustice. I have not got the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate. It was only the impression I formed while listening to his speech. If I have done him an injustice I am quite prepared to withdraw. At the same time if I do withdraw on what the noble Lord says then those on his side are not the only champions of the poor. On this side also we can claim to be, and he believes that we are, guardians of the poor.


indicated dissent.


Oh, he does not. Well, then, my Lords, I am afraid I cannot withdraw from the position I have taken up that he does claim to be the only champion of the poor. However, that is a point which, no doubt, will be fought out on many platforms during the next few weeks. I would like to pass on to the Budget itself. The situation in this country is very serious indeed, and this question of the gold standard is one which we have to face up to and consider from every point of view. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, has just referred to the fluctuating exchanges. This Government came into power with the object of maintaining the gold standard. They were unable to do so owing to circumstances over which they had no control whatsoever. Their next function is to stabilise the pound at some figure at which it can remain. How are they going to do that? I do not believe that the Government will be able to do it unless they have the fullest confidence of the country. The only way they can obtain that confidence is by going to the country and asking to be returned with that object.

Assuming that they are returned—and I believe that they will be returned—their task will be one of very great and very grave difficulty because the stabilisation of the pound is not going to be at all easy. I think that the fact that a National Government is in power in this country and has very large support in the House of Commons—as we may hope it will have—will make a, very great difference. The stabilisation of the pound is the question which will have to come first and I say, as one who has been a very active promoter of tariffs and of inter-Empire economic unity, that until we stabilise the pound at some figure at which it can remain stabilised, it is no use putting on any tariffs. To impose tariffs while the exchanges are fluctuating by 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. per day would be absolutely of no avail. I hope that the Government will consider it from that point of view. It is true that we have received a certain amount of protection owing to the devaluation of the pound, but that is a fluctuating measure of protection. We cannot rely upon it. We do not know how long it is going to last, we do not know how many other countries are going off the gold standard, and we do not know whether America will remain on the gold standard or not. We know none of these things. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary before we finally impose tariffs in this country that so far as possible we should stabilise our pound.

But how is this going to be done? I speak with a certain amount of diffidence on this subject, but I believe that it is necessary to look at the balance sheet of the country, to regard the balance sheet of the country from the business point of view and to say, after taking all the assets and liabilities and putting them the one on one side and the other on the other side, that the pound is valued at so much and that it will be at that figure that we will stabilise the pound. I know that this is a subject which is giving rise to a great deal of thought in financial circles to-day, and I am one of those who believe that a great deal could be accomplished through international conference in this matter. I know that there are many difficulties in that regard, and that in other countries there is not such close co-operation between the banks and financial houses as there is in this country, but I do not believe and I cannot think that these difficulties are insuperable. In this very grave crisis which affects not only this country but the whole world, the financial authorities should get together and see what can be done. This Bill will carry us some way. As I have said, it will balance our Budget for this year but, unless something is done, I am quite sure that it will not balance our Budget for next year. Everyone will be worse off next year. Dividends are not being paid, and salaries and directors' fees are being reduced. Everywhere there is a reduction in those sources from which we can hope to balance the Budget. I hope, therefore, that before the next. Budget we shall have a stabilised pound, that an International Conference will get to work to deal with these important financial matters and that, when that is done, we may be able to go forward and get down to those tariff arrangements which, in the long run, are going to save this country and the Empire.

On Question, Bill read 2ªCommittee negatived.

Then (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended) Bill read 3ª, and passed.