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New Clause—(Reduction Of Customs Duties On Tea)

Volume 390: debated on Thursday 3 June 1943

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The duties of customs chargeable on tea under Section one of the Finance Act, 1936, as amended by Section five of the Finance Act, 1938, shall be at the following reduced rates, that is to say:

Tea not being an Empire productthe lb.7
Tea being an Empire productthe lb.5
[Mr. Brooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Nobody would be more surprised than myself if the Chancellor were to accept this new Clause. Nor do I ask that there shall be any long discussion on it. I have moved it to call attention to the fact that apparently we are simultaneously taxing tea and subsidising it. The Tea Duty, like the tax on sugar, is an ancient Revenue duty which definitely raises the price of the commodity by the amount of the tax. Now, in wartime, the attitude of the Government has changed right round, and it subsidises various commodities in order to keep down the cost of living, Parliament previously having taxed them knowing that it would put up the cost of living. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food said in the House on 13th May that tea was one of the commodities that were subsidised. I therefore put down this new Clause in the hope of eliciting a statement of policy from the Government. It seems to me wrong that we should, in this House, fix a tax on a commodity at a certain level and that then the Government, without coming to this House or necessarily telling the House about it, grant what is in fact a rebate from that tax by a war-time subsidy from the Ministry of Food. I would far prefer that that was done in an entirely open way, by the Chancellor proposing to the Committee that there should be a reduction in the tax. If he says that he is anxious to safeguard his position and his taxation strength for after the war, then I express my personal opinion that this kind of tax is an obsolete kind which we ought to try to get rid of.

I am glad my hon. Friend does not expect the Chancellor to accept this proposed new Clause, but I think he is under a misapprehension as to the position of tea at the present time. As a matter of fact, since January last tea has not been subsidised; nevertheless I will answer his point, because it might well be that some other time the position might arise. I should like to make it clear that in the case of tea there are two reasons for maintaining the tax. One is that there is a preference, and the Government are not free, to go the whole hog and remove that tax so long as the guaranteed preference is given to Empire products.

I quite agree. The second thing is that the tax is a permanent part of our financial structure, and there have only been about two or three years during the last 300 years when tea has not been taxed. It is a permanent tax, and although my hon. Friend expressed the view that it is not his idea of a good tax it is part of our age-old system of taxation, and this is not the time, therefore, to withdraw it.

I am sorry that the Mover of this proposed new Clause for the reduction of the Tea Duty moved it, and then said, "For heaven's sake do not take any notice of what I say, because I do not mean a word of what I am going to say. "That is really the essence of the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham (Mr. Brooke).

I said that I considered that the Tea Tax was in essence a bad tax, but that I did not believe the Chancellor could accept my suggestion to-day to reduce it to-morrow.

The essence of what the hon. Member said is what I have just said to the Committee. The Financial Secretary said that this tax is 300 years old, but because there has been a tax for 300 years that is not to say we cannot find the money from some other source instead of a tax on tea. I want to say just one word, because I am thinking about the old age pensioners and about the widows who after next Wednesday, unless there is a change from the Treasury as well as from the Minister of Health and the Minister of Labour, will still be at the level of 10s., the widows who have never had a penny-piece rise since the war. I saw one last week who has 10s. for herself and 5s. for a child. She has been a widow for 10 years. She has been out charing this week. I want to get this point over. It is no fairy tale that there are old age pensioners who after they have had their tea and stewed their tea—I do not know whether any of you chaps have ever had stewed tea or not——

I was going to say they not only have it stewed, but after it has been stewed they take it out of the teapot and dry it again because they have not got the finance. If the tax was reduced to what the hon. Member for Lewisham is asking for, but does not expect, that would be an increase of income, in a sense, to the old age pensioners. I am sorry that the Financial Secretary is harping on 300 years, and that because the tax has been there it has got to go on. Because things were done in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve broke the law, that is not to say that these have to be continued all the time. I am sorry that the Treasury is so hard-hearted on this matter.

I think I have made my position quite clear to everybody except the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths), and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by' leave, withdrawn.