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Clause 1—(Beer)

Volume 390: debated on Wednesday 2 June 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

My name is on the Paper to an Amendment to oppose this Clause. I had no hope of its being accepted, but it was put forward in the interest of the beer drinkers of this country. In 1914 the duty on beer was 7s. 9d. per standard barrel. In 1939, just prior to the war, that was raised to 8s. To-day it is 281s., or about 35 times more than in 1914. That is a very enormous increase. The Chancellor of the Exchequer expects to get £251,500,000 from beer this year. Beer drinkers complain not only of the price they have to pay but of the strength of the beer. While the duty on beer goes up, the strength of the beer goes down. To-day people say that ordinary mild ale is hardly worth drinking. The tax makes no difference to the brewers, because they are limited in the supply of the barley they are able to employ. There is also the fact that all the beer they brew is drunk. The Chancellor stated in his Budget speech that his object was not only to obtain revenue, but also to lower purchasing power, but as the demand now almost exceeds the supply, I am afraid that wish of his will not be gratified. The majority of industrial workers are quite able to pay this penny a pint extra on beer, and I suppose that very few of them are complaining, but the excessive duty bears most hardly on old age pensioners and on the poor middle class, and also on agricultural workers. These classes are also debarred from drinking whisky, because it is quite outside the possibilities of any ordinary pocket to-day.

The Chancellor was asked on the Second Reading whether he could not make some concession to old age pensioners in connection with the taxes on beer and tobacco. He was sympathetic, but unfortunately he replied in the negative. What I want to ask the Chancellor is this: Will he not consult the Ministry of Food to see whether it would not be possible to arrange a plan whereby beer and tobacco, at reduced rates of duty, could be obtained by old age pensioners in exchange for sweets points, copying the cheap milk plan which has been so easily worked by the food offices and by the producer retailers? It is exceedingly hard on poor people to have to pay 11d. and 1s. a pint for beer and 2s. an ounce for tobacco. It means a prohibition of the enjoyment by them of two of their very few comforts. In 1914 beer was 2d. a pint and tobacco was 4d. an ounce—very different from the prices which I have just quoted. I admit that beer, tobacco, sugar and tea are not necessities, but they are necessaries, which is quite a different thing.

Two hundred years ago most of the people in this country had not tasted sugar, nor drunk tea nor smoked tobacco, but beer has been drunk here for over 1,000 years as the national beverage. I cannot understand why the Chancellor of the Exchequer still allows cider to go free, considering that a very great proportion of it contains more alcohol than ordinary mild ale. I asked this question of the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he replied that the difficulties of collection were so great that circumstances did not warrant the imposition of a tax upon cider. I think to-day the position is different because cider is beink drunk in greater quantities, owing, I presume, in part, to the excessive price of beer. Beer has always been a very fine much cow for succeeding Chancellors of the Exchequer, especially since 1914. Beer is always the first commodity to suffer increased taxation and the last to get any relief. I hope, however, that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer will be more generous and fairer than his predecessors, and will, when the war is over and taxation is reduced, see that the duties on beer and tobacco are reduced in proportion to the reduction on other sources of taxation.

I hope the Chancellor. of the Exchequer will not accept the Amendment. I do feel that the tax upon beer is extremely high, but it is clear from the fact that the whole production of beer in the country is now being drunk that the purchasing power in the hands of the people has risen at least as much as the duty on beer. I hope, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will consider the importance of widening, in some degree, the scope of his taxation. There is among beer drinkers a feeling that those who are abstainers and nonsmokers should have made a larger contribution to this Budget. I hope also that the' Chancellor will bring his influence to bear upon the Ministry of Food in order to increase, if possible, the production of beer. There are industrial areas where the shortage of beer is a genuine hardship to those who are engaged in heavy industries and are working long hours. There are other parts of the country where large numbers of soldiers have been stationed and where it has not been possible to increase the production of beer sufficiently to meet the normal, legitimate requirements of the inhabitants as well as the demands of the soldiers.

I must say that I am a little disquieted at the 'constant pressure which is being brought to bear in war-time, by so-called temperance interests, on the Ministry of Food in order to reduce what is one of the few solaces of the workers of this country and a commodity which is of immense importance to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and provides him with the readiest way of absorbing that increased purchasing power which is in the hands of the people. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will, next year, bear in mind the desirability of calling for sacrifices from sections of the community who are not beer drinkers and who are not smokers, and that in the meantime he will do all he can to increase the amount of beer available to the industrial classes.

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir W. Wayland) in his proposal to have the tax taken off beer, but, like him, I have not much hope in that direction. It is true that this tax bears heavily upon the poorer sections of our community. My hon. Friend mentioned that, but he did not define who were the poorer sections of our community. He seemed to assume that they were the agricultural labourers and the industrial workers. He was wrong. It is we who are the poorer section of the community now. Like Mr. Micawber, if you keep within your income, even £5 within your income you are rich; but if you live at a rate which is £5 above your income, you are poor. What is the position in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has placed us to-day? Before the war those of us who had, say, £1,000 a year were wealthy people. We had then what represented an income of £800 a year, and if we were wise, we lived at the rate of £700 or £750 a year, and we were, comparatively speaking, rich. We had spending power. But what is the position in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has placed us to-day? Out of our £1,000 a year we have a spending power of only £600 a year, and if we try to keep up the £700 or £750 standard of life which we had before the war, we shall be overspending and will therefore be poor. The workers of the country who before the War were earning, say, £3 a week have had their incomes increased from £3 to £4 or £5 a week, with little extra expenditure. They have money to spare on luxuries. We have no money to spend on luxuries. We cannot afford to buy beer, whisky or tobacco. We have to go without to keep within our incomes. They have that surplus expenditure to spare. Therefore I suggest that we are the poor, and we are suffering from this taxation of beer.

I hope my hon. Friends will not think it necessary to spend very long in the consideration of this matter, nor, I hope, will they pursue the no doubt very interesting thoughts that have come from the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) as to who really are the poor at this time. I hope my hon. Friend opposite will not be led away on that. I would like just briefly to say that, with regard to the Budget proposals for the taxation of beer, I did not appear in the guise of a temperance reformer, nor did I attempt to impose further duties on tobacco and entertainment in any kill-joy spirit. I am myself very desirous of seeing as many people as possible enjoying themselves in all those three directions within reasonable limits, as I occasionally do myself.

But the Committee will remember that, as I explained in my Budget speech, the sum of £1,000,000 had to be obtained. That was after a very careful examination of the facts upon which I satisfied the Committee, I think, at the time. It was in those circumstances that I had to see where I could most usefully and fairly turn. The Committee may remember that on that occasion I showed that if I was not able to go to indirect taxation. I might have to turn to direct taxation, which might be very difficult, and which might bring in its turn difficulty and hardship. I had to make this choice in formulating the proposals I put before the House. I think I would briefly say, in reply, that I think the general verdict ,of the House and country was that, having regard to our financial circumstances, on the whole the fairest and wisest course had been taken.

I regret very much that whoever we may call the poor, there may have to be some curtailment of consumption or some further expenditure as a result of this provision in the Finance Bill. I venture to say it is not really a very great hardship. I elaborated the point on an occasion a little while ago when I pointed out that if in fact one wanted to avoid the payment of these particular duties, no great sacrifice was necessary to enable one to do so. In fact, this Budget might well go down to history as the "Pay if you like" Budget, because no one need pay any of these taxes unless he desires to do so. It is true, nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend will agree with me—he is looking at me very seriously at the moment—that there is not much doubt as to the choice which will be made by the great mass of the community. My hon. Friend, having made his usual protest—I see in him one of the staunch supporters of beer, I might almost call him a beer die-hard—and having again filled his role, I hope and have no doubt that between now and next year people will still be able to consume a reasonable amount of this particular beverage.

I have had a look at the position of cider. I am not very hopeful from the point of view of a Chancellor who wants considerable sums of money. For instance, cider production for 1940, the latest estimate, was from my point of view a rather small figure, some 12,500,000 gallons. I should also be confronted, if I attempted to venture into that small field, with the difficulty that there are a large number of farmers who make cider, and with the problem of seeing that the conditions of the Revenue and the collection of the tax were duly completed. This would present great difficulties. Therefore, while I welcome my hon. Friend's suggestion, which no doubt has been marked in certain quarters as a practical suggestion, I am afraid I could not entertain it. I would ask my hon. Friend and the Committee to endorse what I think is the verdict of the country, that in all the circumstances this is the right and reasonable thing to do.

This is a very heavy tax falling on everybody, but most heavily on working people, and, let us remember, on our soldiers and the other troops in this country who are paying this tax at the same rate as the civilians. Therefore I think the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) should remember the cheerful, willing way, in which this tax is paid by people whose incomes are small.

I would ask the Chancellor to consider the fact that this commodity carries such a heavy tax that it involves some obligation that it should be supplied in reasonable quality. I think there has been a lot of very deplorable beer sold at very high prices, carrying a very high rate of tax. Whether it is the brewer or the retailer or who is responsible, I do not know, but I do hear many complaints about deplorable fluid being sold as beer which is carrying the full rate of taxation. Perhaps the Chancellor will see if some means can be devised whereby the taxpayer gets beer instead of something else.

I appreciate the Chancellor's remarks, and my Amendment to omit the Clause was put on the Order Paper with no idea of forcing it on the Committee. I only look to the future and consider the growing taxation on beer, not the extra penny a pint now being imposed, but the difference between 1914 and 1913, which I hope will not continue.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.