HL Deb 26 June 1951 vol 172 cc361-8

5.31 p.m.


had given notice of his intention to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the currently highly increased prices for sports equipment by reason of purchase tax, they will consider some method of relief for supplies to appropriately qualified youth movement organisations, as is understood to be the case of supplies to N.A.A.F.I. for the Forces; thus permitting more of the present young generation to be participants in, instead of spectators of, sports. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the aim of this Question is one which I feel will strike a chord of sympathy in the hearts of your Lordships on both sides of the House. At least there can be no disagreement as to the desirability, from a national point of view, of encouraging recreation. But we realise the administrative difficulties. This is a matter which could more properly be raised by other members of your Lordships' House. Indeed, I wish it were possible to give more publicity to the self-sacrificing public-spiritedness of so many members of this House who associate themselves with the activities of the various youth movements. They give a great deal of time to that work. There are many noble Lords in this House who recognise how many angle there are to this subject, and I think it can be accepted that there is a wide knowledge about it. For myself, I have heard the desirability of relief so strongly urged from so many quarters that I felt impelled to raise the matter, though in the course of my inquiries—and they have been considerable—I have found some misgivings as to whether raising it might not do more harm than good.

It will be admitted that when purchase tax, which is the basis of this Question, was first introduced, it was for a fiscal purpose; something quite different from what it has now become, as has so frequently been said in your Lordships' House. Although the tax was originally intended, to deter the purchase of certain merchandise, nobody, I am sure, would argue that it is desirable now to discourage the purchase of equipment for recreation in all forms. The actual facts, when one comes to examine them, are striking. I take two simple forms of recreation—cricket and football. It is interesting to find that the purchase tax on a cricket ball is 5s., against the pre-war average price for a cricket ball of 13s. 6d. Prewar advocates of recreation find that a pretty high toll to pay. In the case of pads, which before rise war averaged about a guinea a pair, the purchase tax to-day is about 11s. Passing, in Kipling's words, from the flannels at the wicket to the muddied oafs at the goal, I turn to football. We all enjoy kicking a football. The pre-war price of an Association football was 17s. 6d. The purchase tax to-day on the same article is 17s. 6d., which again seems a pretty heavy toll. On the general question, there can be no argument that we want to encourage participation in athletics, rather than the so-called "spectator sport" of looking at them.

The fact that so many now attend what one might call professionally promoted games, instead of participating in games in a humble way, must be against the national interest. So it is felt in many quarters that something could be done. It is obvious that, however strong may be the desire on the part of those in the Government able to deal with this question to give relief administratively, it is easy to conjure up many difficulties. I will not venture to impinge on your Lordships' time in trying to describe in more vivid terms the advantages that might come from getting more of the youth of the country into participating in games. The noble Lord who is to speak for the Government may be contemplating saying that if any concessions were given it would create a precedent which would open the gate for demands on a wide field. To that, I would say simply that such a reply would be applicable to most items where relief is sought. Therefore, it is with confidence that I feel that the genial personality of the noble Lord who is to reply will not disguise the fact that he personally at least is sympathetic. I hope that his reply will give some encouragement in this matter.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, for my sins I happen to be a member of a committee of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, to which, as your Lordships are probably aware, practically every governing body of sports and games in this country is affiliated. Right from the beginning of the war, when we tried as well as we could to carry on, the question of the cost of sports equipment—and, of course, throughout the war years there was the great difficulty of getting it—was most detrimental to the work we were trying to do. I am also Chairman of the National Training Centre which we have set up at Petersham Abbey. During my visits there, which are fairly frequent, I have talked to many of the young people, aged seventeen plus, who go down for what we call "training week-ends" or "training weeks" throughout the summer months. They all complain of the rising cost, not only of sports clothing which, of course, is considerable, but also of all forms of sports equipment. As my noble friend said, even the humble cricket ball and the humble football in everyday use on our greens, in our villages and around our towns, are now costing almost double what they did.

We all agree that the encouragement of the playing of games in this country, which has been the cradle of most of the great games of the world, is something we all desire, but, believe me, the discouragement of purchase tax, on top of the rising costs of all these articles, is having an opposite effect. In the early days when purchase tax first came into being, I understood, perhaps wrongly, that it was really introduced to quell expenditure on luxuries, things it was very pleasant to have but which were not essential to the national well-being during the war. That tax seems to have grown into a mammoth; everything which is not utterly essential to breathing, eating or working is considered a luxury and therefore liable to luxury tax. I know we want money. I know the Government need to scratch around to get money from every possible corner. But by putting tax on articles such as sports goods, which are a necessity to the health and wellbeing of our young people—or, for that matter, of our older people—we take the risk of all the training we can give them to play the game, instead of merely looking on, being lost. I hope the Government will take this matter into consideration. I do not see why it should be so difficult to set a hard and fast line. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, suggested that a difficulty might be that once the net was opened all sorts of fish might swim out. I do not see why that should be so. Consultation with the governing bodies responsible for sports and games would soon reveal what was, and what was not, necessary to the playing of any particular game. Surely a schedule of some sort could be drawn up under which purchase tax could be either reduced or waived altogether on such articles as are really necessary for the playing of games. I heartily support my noble friend's plea, and I hope that the Government will give it most earnest consideration.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, I think it may be taken for granted that the appeals that have just been made by noble Lords opposite find an echo amongst noble Lords who sit on this side of the House. We all agree that the sooner the embargoes upon sport and other important matters can be done away with, the better. But the Government are faced with the difficulty of finding unmentionable sums of money in view of the new circumstances which oppress the country, and I am afraid many deserving causes will have to continue to bear part of the burden for some time to come. It may be difficult for some noble Lords to understand that other causes are more deserving of attention than sport. I do not place sport at the bottom or at the top of the list, but when times are easier there will be a great many claims for the Government to consider before they can reach a conclusion on sport, deserving as it is. The Government have the question of purchase tax repeatedly under consideration with the object of finding out in what way we can relieve this or that person.

The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, probably realises the intricate nature of the changes that would be required and the safeguards that would have to be taken if we began to vary the arrangements which are now in force. We have a tax of 33⅓ per cent. which, by the way, now falls upon sportswear. The next tax is that of 66⅔ per cent., and then we have a tax of 100 per cent. Those are the three bases of purchase tax. But if we increase the number of those variations, we shall increase enormously the difficulties of the Government and the Treasury. May I venture to correct the statement in the noble Lord's Question? There is no relief from purchase tax for sports equipment acquired by the Armed Forces through N.A.A.F.I. It is true that N.A.A.F.I. can buy such equipment tax free, but they are accountable for tax on all supplies to units in this country. For tax purposes N.A.A.F.I. are treated in the same way as wholesale traders.


I appreciate the correction, but it only emphasises more strongly the fact that a matter which I did not bring up deserves attention.


Yes, but the noble Lord will know that the Government are not able to by-pass the Forces at home. The Forces at home have to pay the tax, just as other citizens do. Only the Forces abroad escape the tax, just as, under the regulations which obtain, Americans, Germans, and South Africans can "buy British" and escape purchase tax. But the Government of the day, as well as Governments of the past, have not failed to appreciate the responsibility that falls upon them to help youth organisations, and it may interest noble Lords to know that in the year 1950–51—the financial year that has just closed—more than £100,000 was contributed by the Chancellor out of the Exchequer to organisations responsible for youthful activities. That is a fairly considerable sum. As I have said, it may be difficult to make a change in regard to purchase tax, but there is nothing to prevent noble Lords and their friends when the next Budget comes along from asking that there shall be more handsome payments to these voluntary organisations for this purpose. I am not saying that they will get what they ask for. All I am saying is that that would be something which, if granted, would give a great deal less trouble to the administration than by following the lines of the noble Lord's Question.

Let me give an indication of the organisations which are at present blessed with grants from the Minister of Education or from the local education authorities. I think the list will indicate to noble Lords the extent to which the grants are spread at the moment. It includes the Boy Scouts; the Girl Guides; the National Associations of Boys', Girls' and Mixed Clubs; the Boys' Brigade; the Church Lads' Brigade; the Association of Jewish Youth; the National Association of Training Corps for Girls; the Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A. I think a more fruitful source for obtaining help for the sport-loving boys and girls of our nation would be through those channels rather than by asking for a variation in a tax which all object to, which we all detest, but which at the moment unfortunately we have to pay because of the enormous commitments resting on the shoulders of our people.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, I did not propose to intervene in this Debate—indeed, unfortunately, owing to another engagement I was unable to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Barnby—but there was one remark which I think occurred in two parts of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, about which I should like a little elucidation. As I understand it, he said that it was impossible to reduce the purchase tax upon this sports equipment owing to the unmentionable amount of money which had to be raised by the Government. Is that intended to be, as it appears to be in fact, a direct statement by the Government that nowadays purchase tax is no longer to be regarded as it originally was, as a deterrent to spending on luxuries, but is a definite part of the ordinary, normal taxation of the country? That is a point that has been very frequently made and, so far as I know, no direct answer has yet been given. I should be very glad of one this afternoon.


My Lords, I think that if the noble Marquess were to do the Chancellor of the Exchequer the honour of reading some of the speeches which he has made in financial debates in another place, he would learn that, when pressed for reductions, the Chancellor has replied, in effect: "Well, if we do reduce this tax to meet the purpose you have in view, where are we going to find the necessary taxation to make up for the sacrifices the Government are called upon to bear?" Obviously, these taxes, when they were first imposed, were for the purpose of restricting purchases. We now realise that they have fallen in with the general financial arrangements of the country, and they must remain until we can find some other way of meeting costs or find that it is no longer necessary to levy them. In what I have just said, as the noble Marquess may know, I am speaking without my brief. I am, however, I hope, speaking within my recollection. Therefore, I hope that at some future stage I shall not be called to account for these words, and thus let the Chancellor of the Exchequer down.

5.51 p.m.


My Lords, naturally my noble friend Lord Barnby will be very disappointed with the Government reply. The noble Lord who replied seemed to take the line that the Government so often take with regard to matters of this sort. They say, in effect: "We cannot give you any help directly. But join an association, and then we will give a grant to the association; we will pop into one pocket, what we are taking out of the other." That, to my mind, is a thoroughly bad principle. This business of joining an association is absolutely anathema to me. The backbone of this sport throughout the country is the private club and the village club. They do not get grants from people in a normal way of business. Their subscriptions were always nominal: players paid half-a-crown or five shillings a year at the most, and the hat went round to the vice-presidents, and so on. But the vice-presidents and other supporters no longer have any money to pay out, so that to provide equipment which the clubs need requires a large proportionate increase in subscriptions, compared with what was charged before the war.

When His Majesty's Government next look at this matter, I suggest a way for them to think. First of all, in the matter of all these games, equipment can be divided into two parts. There is what one might call capital equipment and current expendable equipment. You can have a cricket team which needs twenty-two bats, eleven pairs of pads and eleven pairs of gloves. You can also have a team that can perform, perhaps as effectively, with three bats, three sets of pads and two pairs of gloves. But there is one thing common to both teams. They have to play with a cricket ball. When it comes to golf, you may find one player who needs fourteen clubs and a large amount of very expensive equipment, and another who plays probably rather better with seven clubs. But both must have a ball to play with. Therefore, I suggest that His Majesty's Government should do their utmost to exempt what I call the more expendable items of equipment from the tax, so that it will be easier for clubs with very small financial resources at all events to put a team into the field. It might not be a team equipped with the normal quantities of equipment, but they could play the game so long as they had a ball to play with. It is the appalling tax on the ball which troubles private and village clubs to-day. A cricket ball now costs 30s., and in my own village that is the equivalent of the subscriptions of approximately one-quarter of our members. That is what a ball for use in a few matches alone costs.


My Lords, if I may, I should like to say that we will give consideration to the points made by the noble Lord. But when he speaks of the price of a cricket ball being 30s., I hope that he does not want the House to believe that the whole of that sum goes in purchase tax.


Of course not.


The noble Lord will understand that when purchase tax is taken off, the amount of money still needed to purchase a cricket ball is infinitely greater than it used to be. So all the responsibility for the increased price cannot be put on Government actions.