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New Clause—(Repeal Of Armorial Bearings Duty)

Volume 390: debated on Thursday 3 June 1943

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(1) The duties of excise chargeable under the Revenue Act, 1869, in respect of armorial bearings shall cease to be chargeable, and no licence stall be required to be taken out under that Act in respect of the wearing or use of armorial bearings.

(2) This section shall come into operation on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and forty-four.Ȕ[ Mr. Brooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

The Armorial Bearings Duty is an obsolete tax which cannot be enforced, brings in only a tiny revenue, and ought to be abolished. The Committee will see from the proposed new Clause that it has continued untouched since 1869, so at least the Chancellor will agree that it is time we took it out of the cupboard and had a look at it. The Act of 1869 imposed a duty of two guineas a year on anybody who used armorial bearings on his carriage, and one guinea a year on anyone who uses armorial bearings or any kind of crest, device or ensign otherwise than on a carriage. Let me make it clear that this duty and my speech have nothing whatever to do with the grant of the right to armorial bearings. You have to pay the duty whether the bearings relate to your family or not; if you have a crest of any kind on a seal or signet-ring, a piece of silver plate or china, whether it is your own or not, you are liable for a guinea. I hope I do not see any hon. Members looking guilty. I must warn them that the penalty for non-payment is £20.

The Act of 1869, which I have here, imposed a variety of duties by Section 18 on male servants, carriages, horses, mules, armorial bearings, and horse dealers. Over the years we have got rid of all those obsolete duties, even that upon horse dealers. The duty on male servants went six years ago, and now we are left with only the duty on armorial bearings. In the years from 1870 to the outbreak of the last war, the duty used to bring in £70,000 or £80,000 a year, quite a tidy sum in relation to the Budgets of those days. Since then the yield has been growing smaller. For one thing, carriages are less used and therefore the two-guinea duty hardly brings in anything now, although it is chargable on armorial bearings on motor cars. The £80,000 fell to some £50,000 after the end of the last war, and the yield continued to diminish until, immediately before this war, it was only £33,000. For the last year for which figures are available, the year 1941–42, it was down to a meagre £23,000. That is the sum of money which the Committee are discussing.

It is clear that there is evasion on a wide scale; yet my own belief is that evasion is not the main cause of this diminution in the last 20 years, but sheer ignorance that such a tax is payable. Elderly people who have paid it all their lives realise the fact and are pricked by their consciences when they have not paid their guinea, but the majority of younger people have never heard that there is such a tax. There is a difficulty in the way of the Chancellor doing the obvious thing and sweeping the tax out of existence immediately in that this House decided in 1909 that tine Armorial Bearings Duty in England and Wales should in future be collected and retained by the local authorities—county councils and county boroughs—though it continues to be collected and retained by the State in Scotland. When previous Chancellors have been questioned about this matter they have been inclined to use the argument that the tax is now out of their control and that enforcement is up to the local authority. They have suggested that if there is unfairness or inequity it is the fault of the local authority. The matter may be out of the control of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is certainly not out of the control of Parliament. We have imposed the duty, and it is our task to make certain that it operates fairly between one taxpayer and another. Either it is enforced on all, or if it is proved unenforceable it should be repealed. If it is argued that the local authorities should be more active in enforcing it, because the revenue accrues to them, let us see in practice what that would mean. It would mean that the——

May I interrupt my hon. Friend to say that I shall not use any of those arguments to-day? Perhaps I shall be able to make a statement which will be satisfactory to my hon. Friend, so that we can get on with the Bill.

I am very pleased to hear what the Chancellor has just said. In 1798, just before Nelson won the victory of the Nile, Parliament first imposed an Armorial Bearings Duty. It has lasted for 145 years. I hope that this moment, when we have just again cleared the Mediterranean of the enemy, may be another landmark in its history.

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. It looks to me as though this tax has exhausted itself. It is a matter with which the local authorities are concerned, as he has said, and also the authorities in Scotland. Following the proposal which my hon. Friend has made, I will undertake to consult the local authorities and the people concerned, with a view to making a proposal in connection with this matter next year. Obviously, I cannot do it without consultation with them, but it does not seem to me that there is very much in this duty from my point of view. It may be rather an unnecessary and vexatious burden that is not worth collecting.

This is an occasion when the right hon. Gentleman need not worry about anticipating his Budget statement. Does he think he will be able to make some statement within some reasonable time before his next Budget? This is a very strange tax. It is really a tax upon illiteracy. I believe that armorial bearings were invented to certify documents of people who could not write.

These people had clerks in holy orders who could do the writing. Of course, these bearings were also a farm of snobbery. The Committee should be very grateful to the hon. Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Brooke) for bringing this matter before us and also to the Chancellor for the generous attitude he has adopted. Naturally, any statement made by the right hon. Gentleman would bind not only him but his successor, unless some very revolutionary change takes place in the composition of the Government. It would be helpful if he could let us know some reasonable time before the next Budget the result of his consultation with the local authorities. Some of us are interested in these financial matters, and it is just as well to discuss them with some care and consideration.

As one who has paid the Armorial Bearings Duty I should like to make what I hope will be regarded as a helpful suggestion. I have in my possession a gold watch which I got from my father. At the back are some scratchings and when I asked my father what they were he told me that his father, my grandfather, had the family crest taken off the watch in 1869, because he flatly declined to pay the duty. My one regret is that the old gentleman did not go the whole hog because I have also in my possession a considerable amount of family silver which, to my great discontent, has the crest on it. It is not pleasant for people to have to pay tax for something of which they thoroughly disapprove. If anybody is sufficiently a vulgarian to want an armorial bearing or a crest on his motor car, I say let him pay for it up to the hilt. Let the Chancellor take off the tax on old family silver and rings, and increase it as much as he likes on coats of arms on motor cars. It seems to me that that would get us out of the difficulty and certainly would not place an increased burden on the revenue.

I do not wish to take up much time on this matter, but I do wish to thank the Chancellor. I suggest that war time, when he is budgeting for a deficit of £2,000,000,000 or £3,000,000,000 a year, is the time when he might go with a duster through our financial machinery and sweep away a large number of these little trivial taxes which have accumulated over centuries, which bring in little or no revenue but which make our machinery complicated. I hope that between now and next year, he will see which of these taxes he can get rid of.

I am very grateful to the Chancellor. I hope he will find it possible to make an announcement before 1st January next, when the tax will otherwise become payable for 1944. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.