Orders of the Day — Excess Profits Duty.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 28th April 1920.

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Photo of Mr Jack Lawson Mr Jack Lawson , Chester-le-Street

My hon. Friend knows very well that I was alluding to the Capital Levy and the War Wealth Tax. It is a well-known fact that had the Chancellor of the Exchequer received any encouragement from certain sections of this House he would have preferred a War wealth tax to an increase of the Excess Profits Duty; but it is well known that hon. Gentlemen do not accept that as a method of taxation. When it comes to Excess Profits Duty they say that it is unfair altogether. I think that we are right in assuming that all the art that has been used this afternoon cannot cover the fact that the section behind this Amendment are prepared to shove the financial burden of the nation on to the big shoulders of the masses of the people, if they get an opportunity. They are prepared to face anything rather than face the financial situation of the present time.

This Amendment raises a larger question than the mere incidence of taxation upon a certain section. It raises the question of the ultimate incidence of the War from a financial point of view. Whether this House likes it or not, this matter has resolved itself into a discussion as to whether the people have the ability financially to pay for the War, and to meet the needs for national development, or whether the masses of the people ultimately are going to be compelled to pay in money as they have paid largely in blood and tears. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] Hon. Gentlemen say "No," but with the best intent I have been driven to that conclusion. You cannot persuade this country that we are not able to meet this tax. I have given some of the general financial results. We see them on every hand. What about the manifest luxury and extravagance that are flaunting themselves in every part of the country as a result of War profits? Of course, it may be said that that is a general assertion, but this House should be reminded that these things are taking place, and that the masses of the people know that they are taking place. I remember not long ago there was before a Court a young Gentleman, who informed a Judge and jury that he was spending £10,000 a year in collecting butterflies. I remember seeing a case not long ago in which an amiable lady had spent on china something like £30,000, and counsel informed the Judge that those who had wealth at least had the right to expensive tastes. When we consider things of that type the masses of the people are right in assuming, at any rate, that the classes which can do those things, multiplied by a thousand instances, have at least the ability to meet this increase of tax.

It seems to me that this Amendment shows a singular disregard of War-time professions. We all know the kind of thing that was promised to the masses of this country. I have heard in this House sometimes discussions about War medals for the services rendered. I want to inform the House that, according to the prevalent feeling of the country, War medals are rapidly having the same value in the minds of the soldiers as War-time professions, and for a very simple reason. Men have come back to this country, and you cannot get the necessary wealth, as the result of the stiff-backed attitude of Members of the House on that side, for the purpose of creating employment and meeting the general situation. I know that these things are not pleasant to hear, but I am telling the House the kind of thing which men in the street and in the workshop are saying at the present time. It may appear all right from the point of view of the gentlemen who pay Excess Profits Duty. Not long ago I stood in a house of one room. In that room there were a mother and four children living. I do not know how they lived there. It seems to me that half of them must have made arrangements to be out during the day while the other half were in, in order to live there I was born in that house and I know something of what the average member of the working class thinks at the present time because of bitter experience. But the thing that came back to me with all its force was this: that there are still people living in that house. There are millions of people living in such houses. There are millions of people finding it very difficult even to meet the most ordinary needs of the day.

I appeal to the best instincts of hon. Members. I have the illusion that there is a better instinct even in the men who are backing Amendments of this kind. I appeal to their better instincts. They sometimes tell us that our people, the working classes, are showing signs of extravagance because there is a little ripple upon the surface here and there. If they knew something of the sacrifice of the average working class family at present they would not pay much attention to the small negligible things that they sometimes see. I appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to stand firm on this question. We agree that there is room for consideration for the small man, and the new businesses, but we want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be very careful of the ground when he makes that concession. Generally speaking, we hope that he will keep a stiff back while within certain limits we agree. I do not know whether it is a matter of courage or because he has been driven by the irresistible facts of the situation, but we hope that he will hold firm, and he will have the strange sight of the Labour party following the Government into the Lobby against this Amendment.