New Clause. — (Amendment of S. 20 of Income Tax Act, 1952.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd June 1953.

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Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering 12:00 am, 23rd June 1953

If Edward Gibbon had ever been a member of this House—as, indeed, I believe he was—and had had to deal with our present system of taxation, he might have dealt with this particular point in language somewhat similar to that which the Financial Secretary has just employed. But what would he have put in afterwards? I listened carefully to the Financial Secretary, and I found that he went through the whole of his speech without dealing with the one point which I believe every hon. Member in the Committee wanted him to deal with, namely, what is the extent of the abuses which, in answer to a question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice), he finally admitted did exist? That is the question we should all like to have answered.

As for the whole of the Treasury Ministers keeping their eye on this matter, all I can say is that no doubt they have many eyes, for there are so many matters that they keep an eye on; but whether their eye has been as active and vigorous in this matter as the ordinary common optic of the man in the street is what rather puzzles me.

Surely, if there were no such abuse, if it did not amount to a serious matter, we should have had by now, either from the Treasury Bench or from the benches behind, what we want to hear, if they have the courage to make it—a definite and positive denial that there is widespread abuse in this matter. For a Minister of the Crown to get up and admit that abuses exist, to say that this particular method of dealing with them may be inadequate, and to fail completely to promise to find a better one, or to do anything whatever about the matter, seems to me to be an admission of incapacity on this particular point which one rarely finds in such open and obvious form.

It is quite obvious that, having regard to the rules of this Committee, the powers of the Opposition to make suggestions about expenses and the like are very limited. We cannot, under the rules of order, make suggestions to limit expenses, for by so doing we may increase taxation, and, therefore, the only Clauses we can put down on this matter are bound to be of a somewhat limited type. Frankly, I wish it were in our power to go further into the matter. I should be glad to do it, and when the Labour Government were in power we did do quite a lot. We might, perhaps, have done more, but we did quite a lot in the proper direction, that is to say, to limit and define more accurately the expenses that ought to be allowed.

I agree that we are not on that now, but are on this question: is an affidavit for this purpose of any practical value? If it is of any practical value I agree with those who have said it is not by itself enough. I entirely agree with that. If there is an abuse—and we have had an admission that there is some, at any rate—and if this remedy is of some value, is the Committee to turn it down because it does not do the whole thing, going to turn it down because under the ordinary rules of procedure we cannot suggest any more from these benches?

I have heard some remarkable things about affidavits tonight. We all know the story of the man in the City who made a point of never reading affidavits before signing them. No doubt it is not true, but, after all, an affidavit is a solemn declaration sworn to by the man who makes it. It is not on the same footing as merely signing a form or anything of that sort, and whether before or after the lunch which the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) was talking about, I should have thought that any responsible citizen would have had enough decency and enough conscience to consider what he was doing when swearing to a declaration of this sort. Not without reason is the penalty for false swearing in these matters of this kind the penalty for perjury. I think that we in this Committee ought to be slow to make a mock of this kind of matter.

What, it seems to me, we ought to consider is not merely whether or not this is a complete or the best remedy; not merely the extent of the abuse; but what several of my hon. Friends have already said; we must have some regard at any rate to the position and the opinion of the ordinary man in the street whose vote, after all, sent anyone in this Committee to his place. It is perfectly clear what he thinks about it. I think that in this instance he has done what he often does, and has been right.

What he thinks is, that there is widespread abuse of the whole system of expenses and deductions. What he thinks is that he pays Income Tax—I agree that he often exaggerates the amount which he pays—but he is right on one point, that when he pays there is no deduction of this kind open to him. He goes into the centre of large towns and sees expenditure on a scale which he thinks is incompatible with its being personal expenditure paid out of income.

11.0 p.m.

We do not mind what kind of dinner anyone has, within reason. What we do insist on, so far as this Clause, and these precautions, go, is that a person should not have it at the expense of other taxpayers. We are told that the country has only just been saved from a financial crisis. I think there is a lot of nonsense about that, but it is said frequently by hon. Gentlemen opposite. We are told that expenditure on this, that and the other must be cut, and after they have more or less cut the throat of teaching, and probably of the Minister of Education in the process, when it comes to what may well be a widespread abuse we are to recognise its existence and do nothing about it.

I say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to other right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite, that if they do not think that this Clause is adequate, it is for them to find something which does more, and does it better. If they think that the abuse is not widespread they have not merely to convince us, but the ordinary man in the street who has no right to make these deductions from the Income Tax which he pays. It is that man, and his wife, whom they have to convince that there is no such abuse as we believe to exist. They have to convince him, also, that it does not make an appreciable hole in the revenue which is as unfair to other taxpayers as it is inconsistent with proper economy in the running of the country.