New Clause. — (Reduced duty on certain tobacco.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Finance Bill. – in the House of Commons on 9th June 1942.

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Photo of Sir Robert Bird Sir Robert Bird , Wolverhampton West

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

The purpose of the new Clause is to preserve to the unfortunate inmates of Poor Law establishments an amenity to which they attach considerable importance, namely, the solace which they draw from a little tobacco. The inmates of Poor Law institutions stand on the lowest rung of the social ladder. They have no association or body to safeguard their interests and no one in this House specially charged to speak for them. They are, therefore, really the charge of the whole House, and I hope that the plea I shall make to the Chancellor will receive support in every quarter of the House. Parliament of late has devoted a considerable portion of its time to legislation and regulations directed to soften the rigour of the Poor Law, and it has sought in particular to infuse into them a spirit of humane administration. On the whole it is generally conceded that the intention of Parliament has met with a good deal of success, but ironically, by the accident of war taxation, Parliament is imposing taxes which directly menace something which softens the inevitable hardship of the Poor Law. The extra taxes on tobacco mean that the tobacco of the Poor Law inmates is directly threatened.

The practice of social welfare committees of Poor Law institutions is to make free issues of tobacco weekly. For the most part they are of the order of one ounce for each individual. One ounce is not very much, and I have heard it described by a moderate smoker as a mere pittance. The aggregate of these pittances, however, amounts to a considerable total and represents a heavy charge on the funds of social welfare committees, and ultimately, through them, on the ratepayers. No figures are available for the whole country to show the aggregate of the charges for the issue of free tobacco, but I have some figures relating to the Poor Law institutions of the county borough of Wolverhampton. The figures of one institution may serve to give some notion of what the charges are. For the New Cross Institution in Wolverhampton the social welfare committee purchase rather more than £35 worth of tobacco a week, which is at the rate of £1,750 per annum. That was the figure paid under the old rates of duty. When the new duty of £800 is added, the figure will be £2,550. That in the end is a charge for this small amenity upon the ratepayers. I am sure that the ratepayers of Wolverhampton, any more than the ratepayers of scores of other localities, do not grudge this charity, but they feel that the extra duties place an unfair strain upon it and that if this pittance is to remain untouched, it should be by means of some national charge and not a charge locally upon the rates.

In support of that view, and of their strong feeling on the subject, they urge that, already, a differentiation has been made in respect of the extra duty, in favour of those smokers who are serving in the Forces. Men and women serving in the Forces, in the flower of their age, are able to purchase tobacco with no restriction as to quantity or as to cost. On the other hand, you have this large body of unfortunate people, who have given their services to the nation, who have fallen into misfortune and who find this little amenity, which they value so highly, threatened by the imposition of a new duty, so that it may be whittled down from a pittance of one ounce until it becomes no more than a token. Furthermore, it is urged that the House of Commons has affirmed more than once the principle that war taxation shall be spread nationally and that the burden shall not fall upon localities. That is one more reason for granting an extension of the differentiation already made in the case of the Forces in respect of this increased duty.

Finally, there is another aspect of the question of this free issue of tobacco. It is also an acknowledgment to the recipients of duties undertaken by them in the institutions. The inmates of Poor Law institutions, and particularly those who are mentally affected, are not readily persuaded to undertake menial duties and to perform services at meal times and the like. In normal times the giving of such services has a considerable part in the carrying-on of the institutions. In wartime, these services take on an even greater value, and if you whittle away the recompense given for those services—and the supplement of one ounce of tobacco is bound to diminish if relief is not given—then the inducement disappears. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer still hesitates to grant this concession, I feel it can only be because he is haunted by the spectre of the black market. I assure him that the risk of abuse if the concession is made is insignificant. In the first place, the quantity of the free issue of tobacco is in direct relation to the number of recipients, and the variation in those numbers is so small, that it could be entirely disregarded. Again, that kind of tobacco which is issued to the inmates of institutions is not the kind which appeals to the general public, and lastly, those tobacco supplies are under the control of public officials. Although this is a small matter, I hope the House will feel that it merits their attention and that I shall gain support for my plea. I speak not merely for Wolverhampton and the 1,000 or 1,500 Poor Law inmates there but for the thousands scattered throughout the country who, for the most part, are advanced in years, who are broken in fortune, often broken in body and sometimes broken in mind.