Clause 15. — (Betting Duty.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Finance Bill. – in the House of Commons on 15th July 1926.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Russell Mr Alexander Russell , Tynemouth

I daresay it has been the experience of most hon. Members, as it has been mine, in the course of the past week or two, and, indeed, since the day when the Budget was introduced, to be inundated with communications regarding this tax. In my case the vast majority of these communications have protested against the tax, and urged me to do what I could to persuade the Government against it, and to warn them of the consequences which many people believe will ensue; consequences, some think, disastrous to the financial prestige of the nation, and, as many others think, disastrous to the character and the morals of the people. I confess I have been impressed by the number of these communications, and I have been impressed also by the weight of authority behind many of the writers; many of them well known for the keen and practical interest which they have long taken in social matters, and many of them representing powerful organisations whose opinion on this subject ought to he carefully considered. From my own constituency I have received many communications of that kind from representative people whose opinion I greatly value, and I am glad that the vote which I shall give to-night will not be a silent vote, and that I have this opportunity of saying why it is that I have had no hesitation hitherto about supporting this tax, and have no hesitation whatever in supporting it in the remaining stages of this Finance Bill.

My main reasons for supporting the Clause are two. One is that it is a good tax. From a revenue point of view there is much to be said for it. We have many taxes that are not good taxes for the reason that they violate certain principles and maxims which have been laid down a long time and which test whether a tax is a good or a bad one. The principles by which this tax can be tested are these. It will be a productive tax. I have listened to the Debates, and, so far as I can remember, not a single speaker has suggested that this tax will not prove productive, though there is a difference of opinion as to how productive it will be. The hon. Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) is of opinion that £10,000,000 or even £12,000,000 may well be looked for. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is more modest, his expectations are not quite so high; but I have certainly not heard anyone in this House say that the hopes and expectations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be disappointed, It is a tax which will be equitable in its incidence. As far as I am concerned, it is a tax that I shall probably completely avoid, not that I indulge—at least not often—in street betting; bat because it is only very, very occasionally that I bet at all; and, for that matter, everyone can avoid the tax by following my example.

Another reason why I think this tax should stand is that it will be easily collected. I have heard the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) make many speeches, but not until to-night did I hear him ever suggest that there would be any practical difficulties in the collection of this tax. Certainly such evidence as I have read, and which was given before the Royal Commission, as far as I can remember, went to show that it is a tax that will be easily collected. I think it is also a tax which will be wholesome in its effect. I know it is suggested that it will increase betting, but I think the experience of taxation of this kind, and the evidence of those who are in a position to give valuable evidence on this point, is that the effect of this tax will be wholesome. So that for that reason, which is the one which has been pressed upon this House and upon this Committee by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as the one and sufficient reason for the tax from his point of view,. namely, that it is a good tax, it is on that ground that I feel I can heartily support it.

There is a second reason, and one which in my opinion is of no less importance. But before touching upon that perhaps the House will allow me one moment or two to refer to the grounds of objection that have been taken to the tax. They are grounds that are doubtless by now familiar to every hon. Member because of the propaganda and because of the Debates which have taken place on this subject in this House. Broadly, they are these: This tax is said to be a departure from a policy that has been long pursued in this country with regard to betting, and a change in the attitude of the State towards betting. It is suggested—I think it was suggested in the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Spen Valley (Sir J. Simon) when this Bill was going through Committee stage—that it was a departure from a principle which had governed the policy of this country for so long, and it would be disastrous to depart from it now. I confess I have studied that speech very carefully, and I have not been able to find what fundamental change there is in this tax. I suppose it is that hitherto the attitude of the State towards betting has rather been to frown teem it, so that among the members of the community recognising the attitude of the State, the impulse or the wish to bet was withered and wilted. The suggestion is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes now to change the frown into a smile, and that the attitude which has hitherto tended to discourage it will now tend to encourage it unduly.

The second argument against the duty is that we are proposing to handle tainted money. I have not heard that argument used, but I have received a pamphlet and other hon. Members have doubtless received it, called "Tainted Money," and on the back of it appear the words, Keep clean the country's coffers. I suppose there is nothing in this world that has not a taint of some kind, or at least the taint of corruption. If the State is to consider the sources from which its revenue is to come, it will embark upon a task that would be very difficult indeed. If money is illgotten, or criminally gotten, then it is for the law to deal with it, but when it is money that is legally gotten, then to me at any rate it seems a subject which is rightly taxable by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The last ground of objection is this, and it leads me back to the second main reason for my support of this Clause, and it is what the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer said was the moral question. I think it was quite unnecessary that the moral question should ever have been raised at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] For this reason, that I do not think there is a moral issue in the tax that is proposed. I know the Chancellor of the Exchequer has himself deplored that the issue should have been so confused by the raising of this moral question, because there is one peculiarity among the people of this country, that while it is difficult to interest them in many questions of national importance, immediately you suggest that it is a moral issue their interest is immediately aroused. There is this peculiarity about it, that while they elect to decide for themselves any other question, they somehow leave the moral question to be decided by an authority to whom they look.

9.0 P.M

I venture to suggest that much of the opposition to this tax in the country is not found so much among the people, but is what I might describe as an official opposition. If there is one thing that has been made quite clear in this Debate, it is this, that, while it is quite true that this tax has been proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer mainly for revenue purposes, there are many people throughout the country who will support it, not only because it is a good tax, but because it is likely to have a wholesome effect and to give some opportunity of controlling an evil which has attained such appalling dimensions in the country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking during the Committee stage of the Bill, referred to the decision of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The consideration of this tax by that Assembly was not from the revenue point of view, but from the point of view of its moral effect upon the people of the country. Hon. Gentlemen who have read the Report will have been struck, as I certainly was, by the evidence of two of the witnesses before the Committee. Both of those witnesses were men whose interest in the matter is not purely and simply academic, for both of them have been identified for some 20 or 25 years with the movement to cope with the betting evil in the country. I refer to Dr. Lyttelton, the late headmaster of Eton, and to Bishop Welldon. These are men who are supporting this tax, and who approve of it, not because of its value as a means of raising revenue, but because they honestly believe, as I believe and as many throughout the country believe, that it is only by taxation, which at least offers some form of control, that you are going to cope with the evil of betting, which is admittedly so great at the present moment. I want to say in passing that, while it is true that it was the financial difficulties of the country that gave rise to the consideration of this tax at first, a great good has certainly been done in this respect, that the report of that inquiry has thrown a light upon this evil, and has informed and instructed the country as to its dimensions. In that way I think it has done a great good. For these two main reasons—that the tax is a good one which will raise much-needed revenue, and that it is a tax which I think will have a wholesome effect upon the present state of things, and will bring into some measure of control, at any rate, an evil that seems so long to have gone rampant and uncontrolled—I support it heartily.