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 Reverend James Barr Reverend James Barr , Motherwell

Our lion Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Russell) began by stating very clearly and fully the large amount of opposition that there was in his constituency. He explained later that people were very apt to take up a moral issue and run after it. I put these two things together, and I thought that it was because of the moral issues that so many of his constituents were addressing themselves to the subject, and were opposing this tax. I desire this evening to give some indication of the strength of the opposition. I instance, first of all, the National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches of England, who issued manifestoes on this subject to all their federations, councils and branches, to the number of 750. Nearly all of those have passed resolutions against this tax. Every denomination of Nonconformists, at their annual synods, assemblies and conferences, has passed, so far, a resolution against this tax. It is striking that the Churches of Christ, in every one of their congregations, have fostered a resolution or petition against this tax.

Nor is this confined to Nonconformist bodies. I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, during the Committee stage, gave us the figures at the London Diocesan Conference, where, I think, 119 declared against the tax and 58 for it. That is in itself significant. The hon. Member for Tynemouth spoke about the Church of Scotland and its decision on the matter. It is fair to say that, so far as I know, every other Church in Scotland has taken up exactly the opposite position. I should not be accounted an unbiased spectator of these events, and I have, perhaps, a certain prejudice, but it sometimes occurs to me that those Churches that stand so much for national religion do not always figure so well as some others on the subject of national righteousness. I wish to say this, that in the Church of Scotland itself, they did not resolve to petition in favour of this tax, although they refused to petition against it, and there was some very wholesome speaking on the subject by those who turned out to be the minority. I hope to have the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself when I read to him a sentence or two from the speech of Dr. David Watson, a man of large outlook and generous and broad sympathies, though by no means a member of the Labour party. Speaking of this tax, he said: They were not going to alter their views and reverse their attitude at the bidding of a Chancellor whose judgment had never been his strong point. He had thrown a glamour over many and had misled them. He had alienated many supporters of the Government. Was the Church to approve of the creation of that new vast vested interest which would block all reform? Moreover, I examined the petitions that came from Scotland on the subject, 295 in number. Although it was put forward by Dr. Norman Maclean, in supporting the tax in the Church of Scotland Assembly, that it was the beginning of a process for delivering the nation from a great evil, will it be believed that among these 295 petitions presented to the House from Scotland, there is not a single one in favour of the tax? Every one of them opposed it. That, I think, is very striking.

What are the grounds on which the Churches take exception to this tax? First of all they hold that in the issue of certificates of registration for bookmakers, and for their premises, you are building up a powerful vested interest which will in the end be a political and a social menace in the days to come, and a formidable barrier to reform. I am quoting from the petitions which I have examined. When the vested interest in the liquor trade was established in 1904 the great argument used was that these men were licensed, that the licences, although they held them only for a year, yet by custom had been continued year by year, and that therefore they had come to constitute property. Mr. Balfour, now Earl Balfour, said they had everything that related to property except security of tenure. It was argued that they were rated and taxed, and therefore their property must be conserved, and they had formed a vested interest. I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not take it amiss if I quote from Lord Randolph Churchill, in this house in 1890, using this very argument: It has been admitted on both sides of the House that the custom of renewing licences has become so prevalent and so strong that the licences so issued have become property, and I think that in the discussion of this question the arguments in favour of compensation for vested interests have predominated. Among the churches, as among us, there is this well-founded fear that by certifying the bookmaker you will find it much more difficult to remove him without compensation in the days to come. You are building up a new vested interest. Further, they argue, and we argue, that you are making a radical change in the principles of British law. Ever since 1853 the transaction of betting has, at the most, been tolerated by law. It was only by a legal fiction in 1899 that the decision was come to that allowed betting on the race course. Now, under the arrangements of the right hon. Gentleman, there it a new security given to betting on the race course. It is no longer a legal loophole but something that is fully sanctioned by the State. In the next place, you give a new security to credit betting. That also has only been in an irregular way countenanced by the law. You have this notable fact, that on 12th March, 1924, Lord Darling, in opposing a betting tax, said he was quite prepared to argue that even yet there was not legal foundation for betting by telegraph and telephone. I think we see here one of the new ramifications of this evil. I notice in my own City of Glasgow and in other towns that telephone boxes have been put up at the corners of our public streets, and, doubtless, these will be used, with the countenance of the State, to increase revenue and to further this betting evil.

There is one other respect in which I believe it is bound to influence the law. Lord Darling argued that because it had been accounted a vice therefore the law declared that betting debts would not be recoverable. I take the case of the bookmaker who engages in credit betting. He has paid the betting tax on his stake and the stake is never recovered. Will he not have an unanswerable argument for legislation to allow him to recover the bet on which he has paid the tax? The Select Committee of the House of Lords on the licensing of Bookmakers in 1902 said it would mean the legal recognition of the bookmaker and would necessitate making betting debts recoverable by law. Further they argue, as we do, that it does nothing to remove the evils of street betting but will increase them. Many of these bookmakers on the streets will fortify themselves by taking out a licence for credit betting and will use that as a token of respectability when they are brought into Court. It has been pointed out by Members on all sides, and not least those on the Government side, that the only logical conclusion of this is that you upset the whole attitude of the law towards street betting and must proceed to certify and license street betting as the logical outcome. The bon. Member for Tynemouth said the tax would have a wholesome effect. He argued that it would diminish the volume of betting and it was only by taxation that you could hope to cope with this evil. I wonder how they have coped with it in New Zealand since the Betting Tax was imposed there. It was argued, when they brought in the totalisator, that it would eliminate the bookmaker and would decrease the amount of betting. As a matter of fact it has increased fivefold in the 12 years since that was done and it has stultified the. Government in their efforts to put down betting in various forms. In New South Wales they introduced a tax on betting in 1916, The revenue the following year was £27,366, the year after it was: £40,849, and in 1924, £108,688. The Chancellor himself has confessed that it is not an instrument for the repression of betting. These were his words when speaking of Continental countries which had resorted to a Betting Tax: I have noticed that this is done without in the least degree deterring an ever-increasing number of persons from pursuing their illusions and paying for them. It is widening the distinction between the rich and the poor in this matter. It is accentuating the present differentiation. We have sanction added to the credit bookmaker, but we are still to pursue the street bookmaker with penalties. A good deal was made the other day on these benches as to the 131 persons who were caught in a gambing den and brought before the Western Police Court in Glasgow. Some were out of employment, and it was made an additional part of the offence that they were on the dole. After all, I cannot see the difference between these men meeting in what you call a gambling den and meeting at Ascot or Newmarket. I cannot find it out. You tell me they were unemployed, but ninny of the people who frequent Ascot and Newmarket were never in work, and they are on the dole all the time and not only for a few weeks. I find in all these documents and petitions which have been presented by the Church, that the view they hold is that the habit of betting will be encouraged rather than repressed, and that it is a habit which undermines character and deteriorates the moral standards of the nation. The hon. Member for Tyne-mouth made a merit of the fact that the tax was easy collected and was productive. That has no relation at all to the question of whether this is a tax which on moral grounds should be encouraged and supported. He said the fact that it was legally gotten was a sufficient ground for drawing in the revenue. It may be legally valid, but morally wrong.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Committee stage said he respected adherence to the highest moral standards, and had a proper regard for them. I am sure of that, and I accept what he said on that point. I believe that he is looking at this matter only from the point of view of revenue, but I do say that this Government has not only completely alienated by their industrial policy great masses of the working people of this country, but that they have alienated the Christian churches and those who stand for the highest and best moral opinion in the country. I would not stand always for what is called the Nonconformist conscience. I am a Nonconformist, and I stand for conscience and for the assertion of moral issues, but I sometimes wish that the churches would apply their conscience to a broader field and to the whole industrial system.

We have something broader here than the Nonconformist conscience, and I am confident that the Government will, ere long, feel the force of it. I say to the Government, that if they would pay re- gard to these great moral issues, and instead of a tax on betting they would introduce taxes which would develop the material resources of this country—there are plenty such taxes that could be imposed—they would find that in the end the country would be infinitely stronger and richer, and they would find revenue in far larger harvest. They would find what the Judges in the National Supreme Court of the United States of America found in dealing with the liquor trade, when they said that if the United States in the advance of temperance suffered loss of revenue they would be the gainer—as Great Britain would be in regard to this matter—a thousandfold in the health, wealth and happiness of their people.