Mr. T. Williams:
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether the proposed duties on miners' protective boots and hats were designed exclusively for the anticipated revenue, or for what other purpose.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what is the estimated net gain in revenue as a result of imposing Purchase Tax on miners' safety boots and helmets, taking into account the likely increase in minor accidents which will result from the imposition of the tax and the increase in compensation which will be payable.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having regard to the efforts of the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers to bring about a greater degree of safety in a hazardous occupation, if he will now reconsider his proposal to impose a tax on protective boots and helmets for miners.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While it has been long recognised that, with your permission and that of the House, a Minister may answer more than one Question with another Question, is it not tending towards an abuse of that practice if the Minister purports to answer all the Questions on the Order Paper?
I think that depends very much on the Questions. If the Minister has a large number of Questions to answer which deal with the same subject and can be answered together, I think the practice of the House has been that he should do so. The matter lies in the hands of hon. Members who put down Questions. If they all put down the same Question, it would be a waste of the time of the House for the Minister to give separate answers.
I thought it would be for the convenience of the House if I answered these Questions in this way. The answer is:
The estimated yield of the proposed 5 per cent. tax on these boots and helmets is of the order of £100,000 per annum. But the revenue to be raised was not a significant factor. My right hon. Friend proposed this change as part of a rationalisation of the Purchase Tax, which also involved reductions of the tax on miners' caps from 10 per cent. to 5 per cent. and on miners' belts from 30 per cent. to 5 per cent.
On a point of order. In view of the Financial Secretary's statement that he was answering my Question, Question No. 53, may I ask whether he will please look at it and note that it asks two specific questions, namely, as to the net increase in revenue from the increased tax and whether the gain will be offset by an increased accident rate? The Financial Secretary has not so far replied to my Questions.
Is the Financial Secretary aware that the men who do these hazardous jobs can see neither sense nor justice in a proposal which, on the one hand, reduces Purchase Tax and, on the other, imposes the tax on goods which are used solely for the protection of life and limb? Were there prior consultations with the Inspectorate of Mines and Factories? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman not now abandon this incredibly stupid proposal and thus avoid very serious repercussions in the heavy industries?
With regard to consultations, there is a Question which will be reached later on the subject and which I will attempt to answer. With regard to the other matters, it is important that the important body of citizens concerned should realise that they have benefits as well as increased taxation under this rationalisation. In any case, this is a matter which we will no doubt be able to discuss in full on the Finance Bill.
Where there is an anomaly in a tax, it involves unfairness and discrimination between one citizen and another. Protective clothing was already taxed. The committee has had an opportunity on many occasions of discussing whether all protective clothing should be exempt, and it has not been found possible to do this.
Is the Financial Secretary aware that this taxation will cause deep resentment in the coalfields, especially in view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's figure that the tax will yield £100,000, which is nothing when compared to the amount of accident to life and limb which these commodities have prevented and which happened in the old days when the men wore ordinary clothing?
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is very strong feeling that all protective clothing should be free of tax? In view of the fact that the Chancellor gave the reason why this tax was being put on, may I ask him to bear in mind that the general public think that this is a very silly and unnecessary new addition to taxation? This and one or two other things have entirely spoiled a very acceptable Budget.
Is the Financial Secretary aware that many people in the mining industry have spent much time in recent years trying to persuade and encourage men who work underground to discard their prejudices and their cloth caps and to wear safety helmets and boots? Is he further aware that the people to whom I refer are deeply concerned about the possibilities of this imposition of Purchase Tax being likely to interfere with their efforts to persuade men to wear protective equipment, particularly in view of the meagre amount likely to be saved?
I know of the efforts to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I should be very sorry if they were in any way affected; but I should remind the House that the tax on protective helmets will be under 6d.
Is not difficulty of definition or the desire for neatness of taxation a very bad argument where it is generally understood that the whole tendency and desire of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and of the House in this sort of Budget is an untaxing tendency and not a tendency towards taxation?
Whilst appreciating the difficulty that you have, Mr. Speaker, in dealing with this method of answering Parliamentary Questions, may I point out that many of us put Questions down because we are concerned on behalf of our constituents with this problem, and because we know that, in the last five years, of a quarter of a million miners all but 6,000, according to HANSARD, have been injured. Am I not entitled to put a supplementary question and not be fobbed off by this kind of omnibus answer?
Mr. H. Wilson:
Is it not a fact that this tax is being levied now and that if we have to wait for the Committee stage of the Finance Bill we have to wait some time and the tax will be continuing all the time. Furthermore, since it has become clear to the House that upon another provision of the Bill strong pressure is being put upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is it not right that we should put supplementary questions?
I do not think that any impartial observer of the proceedings this afternoon would deny that a great deal of pressure has been put upon the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I have allowed far more Questions than I normally do, but I realise that there is very great feeling. My object is to see that when the House discusses a matter it does so on a Question on which it can decide, if necessary, by a Division. That is not possible at Question Time. There are other Questions on the Paper which are, no doubt, of great importance to other hon. Members. It is my duty to the House to try to press on and give them an opportunity.
On a point of order. Would it not help if the Financial Secretary would get up and give an assurance that he will reconsider this matter? The Opposition to the Government's policy has been expressed on all sides of the House. Could we get on to the next business if the hon. and learned Member would undertake to give an assurance to reconsider the matter between now and the Finance Bill?
I was once Financial Secretary myself, and I know the perils in which a Financial Secretary can be involved if he gives an assurance on behalf of the Chancellor prior to consultation with him. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind of the feelings of a great number of hon. Members on this matter and, speaking from past experience, I think that the message of the House has been delivered. We have other things to do.
But the message could he delivered with much more force. Altogether, seventeen Questions have been put down on this topic from this side of the House, and I think, Mr. Speaker, that you have allowed only five hon. Members from this side to ask supplementary questions. We were tolerant enough to give the Minister permission to answer them all together. Are we not to have the right to ask supplementary questions?
There is no such right. It is a matter of discretion and judgment in each case, and no doubt, when it is a matter of discretion, there is always a difference of opinion. Discretion is a matter of opinion. There is no such right. The fact that all these Questions have been put on the Order Paper and that hon. Members have not asked supplementary questions about them does not destroy their force or effect. I will ask the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme to ask Question No. 23.
Further to that point of order. In view of the obvious interest in this matter being further discussed at a later date, I beg to give notice that I will raise it on the Adjournment.
The hon. Member's notice is invalid. I think it might require legislation and, if so, it could not be raised on the Adjournment. I hope that the House will allow us to proceed. I am trying to save the time of the House in the interests of other hon. Members who have Questions on the Order Paper, but, of course, my purpose can be defeated if hon. Members rise to points of order, and I hope they will not do so.
Further to that point of order. A suggestion has been made to the Financial Secretary that he might give an assurance to reconsider the matter. If he cannot go as far as that, is he prepared to say that in view of the representations made from both sides of the House he will at least consider what has been said?
I desire to put a more general point to you, Mr. Speaker, not connected at all with the merits of the question which has been discussed but on the general question affecting the rights and customs of the House of Commons in this matter.
The tradition by which the House allows a Minister to answer a number of Questions together has hitherto always been operated in such a way that the effect of his answering them together is not to deprive any of the hon. Members who have put Questions on the Order Paper of their rights arising out of their having done so, and one of the customary rights, if an hon. Member puts a Question on the Order Paper, is to ask a supplementary question. The importance of it is that it has become one of the most useful of the rights of private Members, on a particular issue and to a particular Minister, for a number of hon. Members to put down Questions in order to have a review of the matter.
If, in future, it is to be regarded as right that a Minister may answer all the Questions together and that the hon. Members who have put the Questions down are not then permitted further to question him, the rights of hon. Members who are private Members, and who are already very limited in the exercise of those rights, would be much further reduced.
If there are perhaps half-a-dozen Questions and the Minister answers them together, I always endeavour to call any hon. Member whose Question has been answered, but when it comes to twenty Questions the matter becomes rather difficult and the time of the House is occupied with repetition. As I said, no hon. Member has a right to ask a supplementary question. It is, I think, Mr. Speaker's duty, if he can, to have due regard to the rights of other hon. Members who have Questions on the Order Paper.
Further to that point of order. As you know, Mr. Speaker, it is the usual custom when the Minister wishes to answer a number of Questions together for him to ask the permission of the House and of hon. Members to answer them all together. In view of the fact that many hon. Members have not had an opportunity either of giving their consent or of asking their supplementary questions, would they be in order in tabling the same Questions for answer next week if they have the Questions transferred before the end of Business today.
Further to that point of order. Quite a number of Questions have been put on the Order Paper this afternoon by my hon. Friends. I think the general impression is that when any hon. Member has put down a Question at least he should have priority in being called before anyone else. What we regret is that hon. Members opposite have been called to ask supplementary questions.
I take a different view entirely from the hon. Member. I think that if it were desired to make a protest about this tax, the protest is strengthened by the fact that both sides of the House took similar views.