Orders of the Day — Clause 7, — (Tobacco Dealers.)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th May 1963.

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Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Edward Redhead Mr Edward Redhead , Walthamstow West

Clause 7 proposes the abolition of the tobacco dealer's licence. In saying "Goodbye" to this licence, which has a long and chequered history, I feel that I am bidding farewell to an old friend. For at one time it was my responsibility—it was not very high-powered stuff, and it was in my junior days—to have something to do with the administration of this duty.

This never was a revenue duty and was never applied for the purpose of revenue. That could hardly be so. It is amusing to recall that originally the duty amounted to half-a-guinea a year. Someone in the Treasury, in a burst of generosity, and in response to pressure, said, "Very well, we will halve the duty." But it was not noticed that this produced the awkward figure of 5s. 3d. per annum, and only a few years ago the then Chancellor put the matter right by making the duty £1 for a period of four years.

Its original purpose was to register the retail outlets for tobacco, to identify the registered outlets of retail sales in order to protect the revenue on tobacco. That has always been a very big revenue-raiser, rising to a figure of about £870 million per annum. As such this licence has clearly outlived its purpose, and today no one would suggest that there is any serious need to maintain the dealer's licence for the purpose of providing adequate protection for the revenue on tobacco. The manufacturers' sources are well covered, and I do not think that the Treasury has any apprehension on that score. Furthermore, conditions and regulations applicable to the tobacco dealer's licence have been unnecessarily cumbersome in administration and vexatious in practice, leading to a number of anomalies. Although licences were freely issued to any applicant, they were limited to fixed premises.

In these days, with the development of mobile shops which provide a valuable service in many rural areas, it proved exceedingly vexatious for people conducting such shops to be unable to sell tobacco and cigarettes from these mobile vehicles because they were not fixed premises.

Hon. Members on this side of the Committee raised the problem on several occasions during Committee stage discussions on Finance Bills and tried to devise ways and means to overcome this ridiculous position. On some occasions, for example, it was possible to issue a tobacco dealer's licence because stakes were put in the ground and the wheels of a vehicle attached to the stakes, when the vehicle was termed as fixed premises. That sort of device seemed unnecessarily cumbersome. Only last year the Financial Secretary gave an undertaking to consider the matter again, after pressure had been applied, to see whether some means could be found to overcome this anomaly. I have come to the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman found it impossible to invent any device while maintaining the licence, and so the solution has been to abolish it outright.

Referring to this matter in his Budget statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that obviously it would increase the number of retail outlets for the sale of tobacco and cigarettes. But it was not expected that it would increase the total consumption of cigarettes, and it was not to be regarded as indicating any change of attitude on the part of the Government regarding propaganda about the risk of cancer arising from cigarette smoking. Broadly speaking, that must be true. At present the outlets are so wide that I cannot imagine any increase is likely to tap any untapped source of consumption, and I should not expect to see any great rise.

One objection I have heard raised, and upon which I should welcome some observations from the Treasury Bench, is that by withdrawing the necessity for registration the disposal of stolen cigarettes will be facilitated. From time to time we hear complaints of considerable thefts of tobacco and cigarettes, and it is suggested that if the necessity for registration is withdrawn the disposal of stolen stock will be facilitated. I cannot see that that is likely to be the case, because obviously those who commit thefts of this character now do not experience any great difficulty in disposing of their illicit stocks, and I do not think it would be found to be any easier to dispose of them if the necessity for registration is removed.

In any case, there has never been any limitation, other than the limitation of fixed premises, about the issue of a tobacco dealer's licence. If one had the requisite premises one could secure a licence. I have forgotten the actual number but it runs into hundreds of thousands. For that reason, I say "Goodbye" with no heart-burning at all. It is well to get rid of some of the archaic administration machinery in the Department and to concentrate on things that really matter. Nevertheless, I hope that the Financial Secretary will be able to inform us of any observations the Customs and Excise has from its experience on whether or not there is a possibility of, for example, the sale of stolen cigarettes being facilitated more easily.

8.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

We should consider this matter very carefully indeed before approving this Clause. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Excise Duty on tobacco dealers' licences was to be abolished it sounded reasonable enough, but I believe that there is more in this than merely the abolition of a duty which yields a small return to the Treasury. I understand the return is worth about £100,000 a year; and views may differ on whether or not that is a small sum.

Whatever the amount of duty and the cost of collecting it this whole matter should be considered in relation to a very much wider question—the desirability or otherwise of extending the outlets for the sale of tobacco, particularly cigarettes. I am not a total abstainer from smoking. I cannot regard myself as an anti-smoker, and I do not speak with any violent prejudices on the subject. In fact, I am not a very profitable customer to the retail tobacconist. I do not smoke more than half a dozen cigarettes a day, and I often go several days without smoking at all. I must admit that there are harmful effects from smoking.

Photo of Sir Kenneth Pickthorn Sir Kenneth Pickthorn , Carlton

What does the hon. Member do?

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

I listen to what other hon. Members have to say and, if I wish to intervene, I get to my feet to do so.

Photo of Sir Kenneth Pickthorn Sir Kenneth Pickthorn , Carlton

He would not always if he spent as much time in the Chamber as I do.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

I will not argue with the hon. Member on this subject. I think that I have a complete answer, although it would not be relevant to the Clause.

I was saying that one must recognise the harmful effects of smoking, especially on young people. We cannot ignore the Report of the Royal College of Physicians of London, published in March, 1962, which pointed out that there is a strong statistical association between smoking, especially cigarettes, and lung cancer. It is not necessary for me to remind hon. Members or the Chancellor of the replies given by the Minister of Health to a number of Questions on this subject. I will quote from only one. The Minister of Health said in March, last year: The Government certainly accept that the report"— that is, the Report to which I have just referred— demonstrates authoritatively and crushingly the casual connection between smoking and lung cancer and the more general hazards to health of smoking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1962; Vol. 655, c. 888.] We must consider the Clause in the light of that evidence and what may be the effect of the abolition of this duty.

As I understand it—and I think that on this point there is general agreement—the sale of tabacco and cigarettes will no longer be limited to sale from premises. It will be open to anyone to sell cigarettes anywhere, in the street if they wish. In other words, the general peddling of cigarettes will become not only possible but permissible. I want to be fair, and I am not criticising travelling salesmen or the proprietors of mobile shops. I know that they can be of great convenience to the housewife and we are accustomed, for example, to seeing the ice-cream vendor. He and other salesmen are welcome.

Is it desirable, however, that cigarettes should be sold in the same way? What, for example, will be the effect on children? Is it thought possible that children will be encouraged to buy cigarettes and, in this connection, what kind of control, if any, will be exercised? I am aware, whoever the vendor may be, that there is a law relating to the sale of cigarettes to children, but we must remember that there is some difficulty to ensure that this law is kept.

I will also quote from a letter I have received from the National Union of Retail Tobacconists. I do not intend to rely for my case solely on this one letter. Some hon. Members may say that this organisation has a special interest, but I will quote from the letter in passing. It is dated 14th May, 1963, and states: The new circumstances in the tobacco trade—the publicity which is being given by the Government and other bodies due to the Royal College of Physicians' report—we feel make it even more important that there should be control of some kind. The Act covering the sale of cigarettes to children, which previously was controlled in some measure by the fact that tobacco retailers would not in most cases sell cigarettes to juveniles and could be prosecuted if they did so, is now ridiculous"— The union maintains that it would become ridiculous as a result of the Clause. The letter continues: as there can be no control over persons who hawk or peddle cigarettes from street kiosks, barrows, or even street corners—they have no premises from which control can be enforced. Turning from that quotation from the National Union of Retail Tobacconists I quote from another source, which could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as having a special interest in this subject, certainly not from the point of view of retailing cigarettes. This is an extract from the Police Review of 12th April, 1963. Comments on the Budget are not usual on this page, but it is interesting to speculate whether Mr. Maudling knows what he has done by the odd and microscopic concession of abolishing the 5s, annual licence hitherto required for the sale of tobacco. The main beneficiaries of this reform will be the tobacco thieves, and more particularly receivers of stolen tobacco. The absence of any licence has hitherto been a useful overture in police discussions with those who are proclaiming themselves to be tobacco dealers. The article goes on to comment on the view of the National Union of Retail Tobacconists and says: But the National Union of Retail Tobacconists seems to have gone too far in saying that the thieves will now be able to sell tobacco and cigarettes, 'where they like—from street cars or from barrows, for example'. Hawking tobacco will presumably remain an offence (penalty £100) under Section 189(2) of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952; the Chancellor said nothing about this, but we hope there is no intention (there can be no need) to tamper with it. I have been studying that point. What is to be the effect on Section 189 of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952? If we look at the Schedule on page 95 of this Bill we find that among Sections which are to be repealed are Sections 187 to 189 of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952. It would appear, therefore, that the writer of the article in the Police Review was incorrect and that Section 189 will be repealed and there will be no control whatever over the sale of tobacco and cigarettes. The position will be different from that of general peddling of other articles.

We must give serious thought to this risk of making it easier to dispose of stolen tobacco and cigarettes. That is no reflection on the reputable trading salesman, but this is a serious problem. I am told that the only figures published in the tobacco trade Press are in a survey of 1961 which shows that 12½ million cigarettes were stolen in one month in forty-five raids. That gives an indication of the number of thefts which take place. The number since then has increased considerably, but 12½ million at 4s. 6d. per twenty represents £137,813 a month, or just over £1½ million a year, which is a considerable sum.

I have tried to point out that the effect of the repeal of Sections 187 to 189 of the 1952 Act would mean that even a pedlar's licence would not be necessary. Anyone could sell cigarettes anywhere. I could obtain cigarettes from a wholesaler and sell them anywhere with no necessity for any kind of licence. Therefore, there would be no control over my activities. That is the point I am making.

Even if that were not so, even if it were necessary to have, say, a pedlar's licence, there is some distinction between a tobacco dealer's licence and, say, a hawker's licence. I am informed—I am relying on information given to me which I have every reason to believe is correct—that when a retail tobac- conist obtains his supplies from a wholesaler, he produces his tobacco dealer's licence. If it is permissible for a wholesaler to sell to anybody—say, with a pedlar's licence or with no licence at all—there would be no check whatever. It would seem to me that this inevitably would increase the danger or the opportunities for disposing of—

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I know that I will have an opportunity later of answering, but I am not sure that I follow the hon. Member. What is there to prevent a pedlar or anybody else from obtaining a tobacco dealer's licence?

Photo of Mr Cyril Bence Mr Cyril Bence , Dunbartonshire East

He has no fixed premises.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

That is the point. Unless he has fixed premises—

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

Anybody with fixed premises—I have fixed premises—can get a tobacco dealer's licence. I could get one in respect of my house without difficulty.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

That is one of the points which the police make. Anybody selling from fixed premises—say, a tobacconist's shop—exercises caution in selling to children, but there is always the risk that the licence may be taken away from somebody who breaks the law.

Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington

Is not the point that the police themselves say that the requirement to have a licence makes it much easier for them to control the outlets for stolen tobacco and cigarettes?

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

Yes, I am obliged to my hon. Friend. That is the burden of the article which I have quoted from the Police Review.

I must express concern and raise this query about the effect of the repeal of the Sections of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952. This will mean that cigarettes can be sold anywhere without control and without the necessity of obtaining any kind of licence.

Photo of Captain James Duncan Captain James Duncan , South Angus

I always thought that the Liberal Party was in favour of freedom.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

I entirely agree. I start with the basic principle—

Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington

Freedom, but not licence.

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

Order. We are not debating the philosophy of the Liberal Party.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

I am greatly provoked, Mr. Blackburn, and I would very much like to deliver a lecture on the philosophy of both Liberalism and liberty, but I respect your ruling and will return to the subject.

It is only recently that the system of collection of the duty has been changed. I recognise that if this small duty is to be collected annually, the cost of collection is probably considerable in proportion to the amount raised. It was only about two years ago, however, that the change was made whereby the licence could be paid for at four-yearly intervals, which certainly simplified the procedure and, I imagine, would have reduced somewhat the costs of collection.

I am not one who would normally advocate any increase in duty, but in the special case of tobacco and cigarettes would be inclined to increase the duty if the cost of collection is so great, not because I am against increasing retail outlets generally, but because one must regard the whole subject of the sale of tobacco and cigarettes from the rather wider aspect of the health of the country. The Government have recognised that this is a problem affecting the health of the country. We should think twice before taking a step which will make it so much easier to sell cigarettes anywhere without any form of control.

8.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

I must declare a three-fold interest. First, I am a smoker, a rather more enthusiastic one than the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade). Secondly, I have a somewhat minimal interest in the retail tobacco trade. Thirdly, I have arranged facilities for the tobacco trade to explain its case to hon. Members at a meeting in the House of Commons tomorrow night. The Finance Bill has got away at such a reckless gallop that my arrangements have misfired. It had seemed to me that, since the tobacconists, who know most about the processes of the distribution of tobacco, have strong feelings about my right hon. Friend's proposal to abolish this duty, they should have a chance to explain their point of view to hon. Members. This is very largely the case which has just been made out by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West.

There are two very important factors which my right hon. Friend ought seriously to consider. First, whatever we may say about it still being very naughty to sell cigarettes to children, under these new provisions it will be inconceivably more difficult to keep that kind of trade under control, no matter what anybody else says. We will have—this may be in every other way desirable—the ice-cream cart and the milkman's float carrying cigarettes for perfectly legitimate purposes and retailing them to adults who want to smoke.

The ice-cream vendor will find himself outside school premises when the children are coming out of school. However virtuous the man in charge may be, he will be under very considerable temptation indeed not to make sure that everybody who buys them is above the age of consent, or above the age of the Chancellor's consent to smoke. It will be extraordinarily difficult to control this kind of sale. If the Committee is committed to any point of view about smoking, it is that we should place all the impediments we can think of in the way of young people starting to smoke. This is where our campaign ought to have its strongest focus.

Secondly, it is very important that the police should not be further handicapped in their efforts to stop the sale of stolen cigarettes. I have mentioned my connection with the trade, which at one time was quite considerable but which has now almost disappeared. I know very well that there is a very large trade indeed, which in most cases is done across perfectly legitimate retail counters, in cigarettes which at some point in their history have been stolen. They find their way into and out of trade channels in the oddest ways. It is very difficult to identify what they are and where they come from. If we suddenly make it possible for every barrow at every street corner, for every ice-cream vendor and every mobile trader, to be able to acquire, by whatever means he thinks appropriate, even if accidentally dishonestly, the cigarettes he needs, the job of the police force in controlling this traffic will be very considerably increased.

I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will take seriously some of the observations which have been made in this brief discussion, for what is a perfectly well-intentioned proposal, which would on the face of it have the unanimous support of everybody in the Committee, may well have some very serious consequences which were not foreseen when the proposal was put forward.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I rise to put the point of view which has been put to me by some of my constituents, most of them supporters of the Government. The retailers of tobacco in Southampton are organised in two groups, one of which is the Southampton branch of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Booksellers and Stationers; the other is the National Union of Retail Tobacconists. Some of these came to see me at my "surgery" last weekend. I must confess to a sentimental interest in the small retailer. I hope to show that this matter affects numbers of little retailers. I have always held that the man who runs a little shop and works for long hours earns his living as much as anyone else; that he renders a social service, and that it would be a pity if the supermarkets wiped him out of existence. This has some bearing on my attitude to this question.

This must be a unique debate. I know that very little money is involved, but I cannot remember an occasion when one group of citizens has asked the Government to continue taking money from it. That is the present position—the tobacconists are asking the Treasury to continue charging them for the privilege of selling tobacco. It is also unique in that following, as I do, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Sir K. Thompson)—he and I have consistently opposed each other right through this Parliament and the last one—I find myself in agreement with him.

It is true that the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party believe in free enterprise. That ought to mean that anyone should be able to sell anything wherever he wants to, and that anything that checks anyone from selling any commodity is harmful and should be removed. None of us, of course, believes that absolutely. Not a single member of the Committee would take away all the existing checks. As I see it from my own knowledge in my own town, we get the newsagent who sells tobacco, the sweet man who sells tobacco, the grocer who sells tobacco. Very rarely do we get the man who can get a living simply out of selling tobacco, pipes and the rest.

Those people are unpaid tax collectors. The bulk of their income over the counter they take on behalf of the Treasury. I sometimes think that we do not appreciate the value of the work of those who, year in and year out, without any fee from the Government, collect taxes—and, as we all know, the tax on tobacco is terrific. According to the Budget statement, there are 400,000 people already selling tobacco—representing an average of one salesman for every fifty smokers.

That being so, I would not condemn them for being very worried about this proposal. They have a vested interest in resisting the wholesale spreading of permission to sell cigarettes and tobacco—especially as, I hope, their trade declines in the years ahead. I hope that the campaigns that the Ministry of Health has begun, and will continue, will attack the smoking habit, at childhood, at any rate, and that we shall cope with the serious fact of cigarette smoking as a direct cause of lung cancer.

It is in that shrinking market that these retailers are jealous and fearsome of any increase in the numbers of those who can sell cigarettes and tobacco. They have a right to be anxious, and if they fear that this move will hurt them then the Government, unless they can produce some very wonderful reason why this licence should be eliminated, should take some note of these fears.

Again and again these people have said to me, "We are worried about the fact that if tobacco is sold by anyone quite freely, without any control, it will make it more difficult for the police to catch criminals." We live in a society when any commodity that carries a heavy duty like this is as good as money; it is almost as valuable to a burglar to steal cigarettes as to steal currency.

The tobacconists on the whole, and their professional bodies—and they are professional bodies—have a code and standard of conduct which must be of value to the police in the checking and tracing of stolen cigarettes and tobacco. Therefore, although there is very little money involved, I hope that the Government will take note of the fears that I have attempted to express on behalf of very worried men in my constituency, and that the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West has expressed on behalf of the whole national organisation of tobacco retailers. If there is some terrific advantage in the proposal—and the Chancellor has not told us of one, and so far we have not heard of one in the debate—the right hon. Gentleman might well think again before he does something which may harm people who have been good and faithful servants as collectors of taxes.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

I am always interested when I hear in debate interventions which mention liberty, because some people seem to think that if one is in favour of a control which is vital to the community that is anti-libertarian. I am anxious about the Clause. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham-stow, West (Mr. Redhead) said that a licence was not necesary to protect the Revenue. I am concerned as to whether this action by the Government will lead to more irresponsible action in the sale of tobacco and cigarettes especially to juveniles.

I have an interest as a non-smoker. I have not smoked for twenty-two years and the longer I live the more I am convinced that, in the interest of health, it is better not to smoke. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) has said, the retail tobacconists have shown some anxiety about this matter. The Midland Tobacconists' Trade and Benevolent Association expressed great concern on 26th April when it said, in a letter to me: The medical report associating lung cancer with smoking has been the cause of considerable concern to our members and we have made every effort to ensure that cigarettes and tobacco are not sold to juveniles. If a licence to sell tobacco is no longer required, the distribution of cigarettes and tobacco will be extended over a wide field other than through the licensed shops which have previously been the channel of sales. The inevitable result is that little or no supervision can be exercised in distribution and it is anticipated that the sale of cigarettes and tobacco will occur through numerous selling activities of private individuals, street stalls and other outlets which previously were out- side the provisions required for a licence to sell tobacco. It should not be made easier for cigarettes and tobacco to be sold irresponsibly by small traders, whether or not the goods are stolen; and it is, of course, worse if they are stolen.

The Government are obviously anxious about the effects of smoking. The Minister of Health has just issued certain advice to hospitals dealing with the circumstances in which smoking should be allowed to take place. This shows that there is considerable concern. I have noticed, even in Birmingham, that heavy smoking is now quite common among children. How do they get their cigarettes? There must be a considerable number of school children today who smoke. Things were rather different when I was at school. There was not so much smoking then and parents seemed to be a little more strict. I have seen school children in the streets smoking cigarettes. In my view, if the Clause will make it easier for children to buy cigarettes, the outcome will be most regrettable.

9.0 p.m.

I am not concerned about the revenue, because the point does not directly arise in this connection, but I should regret it very much if the consequence of there being no licence and no kind of control was the spread of irresponsible sales of cigarettes particularly to children. Although I claim to be a libertarian, I am convinced that we must have controls on some things. We control the distribution of drugs, for instance. There are controls on alcohol. Yet now, apparently, there is not even to be registration, because this was a form of registration, in the sale of cigarettes and tobacco.

The police have said that cigarettes are much sought after and stolen nowadays. The Government must show good reason for their view that there will not be a spread of the irresponsible sale of cigarettes and tobacco, especially to children. Even the tobacconists themselves are worried.

The propaganda there has been about smoking has worried the tobacconists and the tobacco manufacturers, and they have, to some extent, been anxious to do what they can to minimise the harmful effects of smoking. Anything which happened to diminish a sense of responsibility in the distribution and sale of pipe tobacco and cigarettes would, I feel, be dangerous and have most unfortunate consequences.

Photo of Mr John Hynd Mr John Hynd , Sheffield, Attercliffe

Like all those who have spoken so far, I feel that the Government owe the Committee an explanation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) pointed out, this is a unique situation. The people who pay the tax or contribute to the revenue in some way object to that privilege of theirs being removed. It is reasonable to assume that they have good ground for so doing. Their reasons have been stated in the Committee, and they seem very powerful.

What are the Government's reasons for wanting to abolish the licence? The police tell us, from their experience, that the lack of licensing will make it easier for illegal sales of stolen tobacco and cigarettes to take place and for sales to children to increase. Are they right or not? The police should know what they are talking about.

We have heard that the retail tobacconists are worried. No doubt, they have in mind the moral reason and the thought that cigarettes can be sold to children, but, to put it at its lowest, their concern must be that there will be a considerable diversion of the trade from the shops to the street-corner trader, the baker's boy, the milkman and the rest. Are their fears groundless or not?

Another aspect is the protection of the consumer. This may be a small point, but if we buy some bad pipe tobacco or bad cigarettes, which, perhaps, have been stored too long in the shop, we have the remedy of going back to the shop or of writing to the manufacturers about it if we get no satisfaction from the shop. It will be more difficult if people buy them from someone in the street.

What are the reasons behind this proposal? This practice has been in operation for a long time. The tobacco trade is satisfied with it. Those in the trade are happy to pay the small amount involved. The present practice provides a system of control and registration. It assists the police and avoids all the things which we are told are likely to happen if the Clause is passed.

Before I can bring myself to vote for the Clause, I shall have to be satisfied by the Minister whether the police and the tobacconists are right in their fears of what will happen. If they are right, I should like to know the reason for this proposition.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I am not rising in order to try to bring the debate to a conclusion, but hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), have asked a number of questions about this matter. This is the first time that any spokeman for the Government has had an opportunity to deploy the case for what is proposed in the Clause.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

On a point of order, Mr. Blackburn. Does not the Financial Secretary's difficulty stem in part from the growing practice of Ministers to say nothing about a Clause first but to rely on dealing later with questions which arise? Would it not be for the convenience of the Committee if the Minister moved the Clause and explained what it was about so that intelligent discussion might take place on it?

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

That is not a point of order for me.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I think that in certain circumstances there is a great deal in what the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has said, certainly with regard to a new Clause which has not been foreshadowed in the Budget or on the Second Reading of the Bill, but in other circumstances it is for the general convenience of the Committee for a Minister to listen to the debate, or at any rate part of it, in order to try to ascertain the main points of criticism so that he does not waste time by going over matters about which the Committee as a whole is agreed.

In order to get this proposal into perspective, I think that it would be useful to say something about the present position. The legal position relating to the sale of tobacco is contained in various Sections of the Customs and Excise Act, 1952, as modified by the Finance Act, 1960. The effect of the law is that anyone who wishes to sell tobacco, whether by wholesale or retail means, has to take out a tobacco dealers' licence, costing £1 for four years. These licences are issued on demand by Customs and Excise to anyone who wishes to sell tobacco from fixed premises, including automatic vending machines outside the premises.

There are about 430,000 licensed premises in all—that is, probably one for every fifty or so smokers. "Licensed premises" include public service vehicles on the roads and railways, and, as regards mobile shops, the law provides that licences may be issued in cases where there is a temporary public need—for example, on a housing estate before adequate shops are established. People who wish to sell tobacco for a short period—over a bar counter at a dance, for instance—are able to obtain an occasional tobacco licence, costing 4d. a day. So much for a factual account of the present state of the law.

I recognise full well that this matter is very important indeed and has a fair number of different aspects which hon. Members ought to consider. I can assure hon. Members that we have considered them, particularly my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have listened with care and interest to all that has been said, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Sir K. Thompson) because of his particular experience in these matters, to which he referred. I thought that, in the circumstances, he put the case with considerable moderation.

I genuinely believe that there is considerable misunderstanding about the present position and also about the intentions of the Government. I see one or two hon. Members opposite nodding assent. I can only say that hon. Friends on this side of the Committee have also approached me and explained that they think that this proposal, with its various consequences, is a pretty satisfactory solution.

The Committee will appreciate from what I have already said about the present state of the law that there are a number of salient factors. Licences amounting to 430,000 a year are issued on demand. They are issued automatically to anybody who has fixed premises. It need not be a shop; it can be an ordinary house, a fiat or anything. He applies for the licence and gets it automatically.

I understood the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) referred to the possibility of a licence being withdrawn. Naturally, this was a point that we considered before reaching a decision. I inquired of Customs and Excise whether they had any record of one of these licences being withdrawn. They certainly could not bring one to mind. There may be the odd case, but I have never heard of anyone having his licence withdrawn, nor, so far as I know, has a licence ever been refused to anybody who has any fixed premises to which he could point.

What about the cost of the licence? The cost is a mere 5s. a year, so this obviously to the tobacco dealer is of no significance whatever. Furthermore, licences are issued to members of the public, if they so wish, on demand, on payment of only 5s. a year, to put up an automatic vending machine for the sale of tobacco, I am told that Customs and Excise, as they are bound to do in accordance with the legislation as it exists at present, have issued licences to individuals who wanted to put up slot machines in their homes. I am told that quite a number of people have actually done this. Customs and Excise did not refuse licences to them. They had fixed premises, they became tobacco dealers and they put up their slot machines. Therefore, the first point to recognise is that the present licensing system provides no effective deterrent to smoking or to the sale of tobacco.

I shall try to explain to the Committee the reasons for this change. The reason for abolishing the licensing system is very simple. Originally the system was introduced to safeguard the Tobacco Duty. After the most thorough examination, Customs and Excise, which have operated this system for very many years, reached the conclusion that it no longer played any useful part in the protection of the duty, which was the principal purpose for which it was originally proposed. That being the case, it would, I suggest, be very foolish to maintain the system which, incidentally, involves a very considerable amount of administrative work, as hon. Members will appreciate when it is borne in mind that some 430,000 tobacco dealers are involved.

9.15 p.m.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. Member said that a great deal of administrative work would be saved. He cannot have it both ways. He suggested that anyone could get a licence. What administrative work is involved in passing a document over a counter?

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

If the hon. Member had waited a moment he would have seen why I mentioned the administrative work involved. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West pointed out that the annual yield was over £100,000. This figure has been mentioned once or twice in the debate. But a great deal of the £100,000 a year is absorbed by the cost of collection and administration; even though it is automatic, obviously people must administer the system, and it costs a great part of the £100,000 a year which is collected.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

I refrained from making this point when I spoke earlier, but part of the case of the tobacco retail trade is that the licence is so small as to be derisory and that it ought to be enough not only to cover the cost of administering the scheme but also to make it worth while to be a retail tobacconist.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I understand that a substantial sum was suggested by the retail tobacconists to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary who saw them. I do not know what sum was involved.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

But this is not a duty which is imposed or a licensing system imposed in order to raise revenue. The purpose of the licensing system originally and ever since has been to protect the Tobacco Duty. As I have explained, in the view of the Customs and Excise who have administered this for many years it no longer serves any useful purpose in that context.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the retail tobacconists assist in raising a very large sum of revenue and that they are unpaid tax collectors? Surely this is a reasonable amount when compared with the total amount of revenue raised from the sale of tobacco and cigarettes.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

The hon. Member is saying that because the tobacco duty is so high—I understood that in fact it was paid by the manufacturers—the people who sell cigarettes and tobacco in shops should have a special protection provided by the House which would result from a licensing system. That seems to be the conclusion to be drawn from what he said. I have referred to the cost of collection and to the gross yield of £100,000 a year only to make it plain to the Committee that the issue cannot be decided on the ground of the revenue involved. There are much wider considerations to be taken into account.

Photo of Mr William Baxter Mr William Baxter , West Stirlingshire

Will the hon. Member explain to the House how many staff will be redundant in his establishment as a result of the abolition of the licences?

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I cannot do that off-the-cuff, but there will be a considerable saving as a result of this decision.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Redhead) referred to mobile shops. Bearing in mind that these licences are issued automatically to nearly 500,000 establishments, it is a bit of an anomaly that some mobile shops, although not all, do not qualify for a licence. Between the last Budget and now several hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have complained to me—I dealt with the matter in Committee last year—that the prohibition to sell tobacco in respect of certain mobile shops is an unnecessary inconvenience for people who live in remote rural areas such as Scotland and, I have no doubt, the West Country and elsewhere.

If I can give an example which I have mentioned in the past, in my own village in Yorkshire we are visited by an excellent mobile shop, but the shopkeeper cannot sell me cigarettes. Of course I do not stop smoking merely because he is not allowed to sell me cigarettes. I have a little more inconvenience and I have to make sure that I get them from some other source.

I have to point out first that I do not think that the inconvenience because of the prohibition on certain mobile shops from selling tobacco is nearly as great as some hon. Members have tried to make out in the past, although I have never denied that it exists. Secondly, the advantage to the mobile shops is purely incidental to the decision which we have taken. If we had thought that the licensing system served any useful purpose, we would certainly have kept it.

The next question which one asks is what are the reasons which have been put forward for keeping this system. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton referred to one of the most important reasons which have been mentioned in the debate, that of health. This is an aspect which, in the light of all that the Government have said in the past year or so on the subject of smoking and health, was naturally considered by my right hon. Friend with the utmost care before he reached this decision, but he came to the conclusion that the present system in no way restricted consumption, although, as I said a moment ago, it might cause some marginal inconvenience. Certainly a licence issued on demand to anybody who has a house or a shop and costing 5s. a year could hardly be said to be a deterrent, and my right hon. Friend and I believe—I promise the Committee after the most careful consideration—that the abolition will have no significant effect on the consumption of tobacco.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walton and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West referred to children. As there is not likely to be any significantly greater sale of tobacco as a result of this proposal, I cannot see that there will be any greater opportunity for sales to children. Merely because shopkeepers no longer need to pay 5s. a year does not mean on that account that they are likely to begin to flout the law which prohibits the sale of tobacco to children. In view of what has been said, I must make it clear that the law prohibiting the sale of tobacco to children will remain in force and is not at all affected by what we are now doing.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West said that there would be no control over the sale to children, but surely he is not suggesting that we should now make illegal all slot machines wherever they may be. Of course, my right hon. Friend and I gave great thought to these matters, but we do not believe that this will make a ha'p'orth of difference to the amount of tobacco consumed by children, although we recognise that that is a matter of great importance.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow, West asked what would be the effect of the proposals on the possibility of disposing of stolen tobacco. One thing is quite certain—the need to obtain a licence costing 5s. a year is no bar to larceny or receiving. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West, said that there would no longer be any form of control, but I remind the Committee that Customs and Excise will still retain its existing powers to enter and search a tobacco trader's place of business even when the licensing system goes.

Finally, it might be said that existing tobacco dealers should be protected from competition. The hon. Member for Itchen was perfectly frank about it and said that they had a vested interest. I am not sure that this is an argument that I would accept.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West referred to the National Union of Retail Tobacconists. As I save said, so far as I understand the position the union would accept a greatly increased licence fee of £20, or £20 over four years, I do not know which. It would, at any rate, be greatly increased. I have no doubt that this would have the effect of cutting out certain small shopkeepers such as the general village shop, and I cannot believe that this would be right.

The hon. Member for Itchen again sincerely, and I thought frankly, said that he was influenced by "a sentimental interest in the small retailer". I think that as we are discussing small retailers I should read to the Committee what was said by the vice-president of the National Union of Small Shopkeepers. He said: We welcome the Chancellor's decision as a good move giving the small shopkeeper more freedom. It is therefore wrong to think that the retail trade generally is in some way opposed to this on the ground that its position, which it thinks has to some extent been protected in the past, will no longer be protected in the future.

I have dealt with this at some length because I recognise the strong feelings which are held, and also, with respect, the misunderstandings which I think exist. I hope the Committee will agree that it is sensible to get rid of a system under which licences are issued automatically at an insignificant cost to the licensee but at considerable administrative cost; indeed, a licensing system which no longer serves any useful purpose.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

Like other speakers, I confess to an interest in this in that I am heavily subsidised by smokers. I have not smoked since I left school, thanks largely, I believe, to the action of a Labour Chancellor, who, at the age when I might have continued to smoke, very timely doubled the price of cigarettes at one fell swoop.

Much the biggest question on this Clause seems to be the effect that it will have on the tiny shifts in consumer preference which will make a difference between the spread of smoking and the decline of smoking, and the consequent thousands of man years lost at the prime of life through deaths from lung cancer. Smoking is something about which people have had minor preferences in the past, and then suddenly it became recognised as a killer. It poses great social problems, and I would not seek in any way to be dogmatic about them, but I find it very difficult to understand how the Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Financial Secretary, can be so dogmatic as to say they are sure that the abolition of the licence fee will have no effect on the consumption and sale of tobacco.

What evidence have they for this? From where did the Chancellor get his evidence? Has he considered how the habit of smoking is formed, and at what age? Has he considered at what age it tends to become an addiction and how easily the habit is broken? What influences are available to the Government to dissuade people from this habit, or prevent them falling victim to it in the first place? What influences are open to the Government? What about the inelasticity of demand with price? What about the style of the campaign now used by the Government which, I think, many sociologists and advertising men feel to be quite ineffective in putting across the Government's point of view?

There is no evidence that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has considered the full social background with serious social evidence on this question. It is not merely a medical question. Across the river, in St. Thomas's Hospital, there are many patients dying from lung cancer who are attended by doctors who are much heavier smokers than average and who fully recognise the dangers of smoking. Here we have a question in respect of which we need the help of social scientists of all kinds. I am sure that the Chancellor has not even sought that help or advice.

9.30 p.m.

The Clause is not very important, but it is extraordinarily irresponsible of the Government to bring forward a Clause which will certainly not reduce the sale of tobacco before they have done anything about the sale of tobacco from vending machines, about limiting the advertising of tobacco or making any impact in the schools by explaining to youngsters all the effects of smoking. It would have been much better if the Government had taken some other legislative steps first and then came along with what is obviously tidying up legislation in respect of a point which had irritated the Chancellor or a senior Treasury official and which, from a bureaucratic point of view, was quite unacceptable.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

It has irritated a considerable number of hon. Members on both side of the Committee, who have complained about the anomaly of mobile travelling shops visiting their villages and outlying parts of the country and not being able to sell tobacco. This has caused great inconvenience to people living in outlying farmhouses. It is not simply a case of officials in the Treasury; it goes much wider than that. The hon. Member is being quite unfair to my right hon. Friend in suggesting that he has not considered the health and social aspects. My right hon. Friend has considered these with the greatest care, because he recognises all the issues which have been discussed this afternoon.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

But the hon. Member has not said what social evidence has been received. I believe that the Chancellor has received medical evidence, and I agree that many hon. Members have been pressing for the abolition of the licence. But other hon. Members have been pressing far many other reforms. All hon. Members on this side of the Committee have been pressing for them, but our arguments are not always heeded. I ask for a much more thorough investigation of the social questions involved than the Government have undertaken. Will the hon. Member tell the Committee whether he has consulted the Government social survey on this question?

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

I hesitate to keep rising, but the answer is "No", for the reasons that I gave in my speech earlier, namely, that this licence is so cheap at 5s. a year that it is issued automatically. Anybody can get it and can put a vending machine in his own home, and not merely in a shop. It was for this and the other reasons I have mentioned that we came to the conclusion that this proposal would have no serious effect on consumption.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

It is clear that no serious advice has been obtained from social investigators in respect of this matter.

It is quite out of place either for the Government or for hon. Members on this side to be dogmatic upon the question of the sale of tobacco, the taxation of tobacco, or the advertising of tobacco, but I am extremely unhappy about the fact that this time next year we shall know less about the sale of tobacco, about where it is being sold, and to whom it is being sold, even than we know today, unless the Government take very definite steps to launch a thorough investigation not only into the medical aspects, but the social aspects of this habit, which we all so well understand, but which, when we see men dying in back rooms in our constituencies and in the hospitals we visit, we feel that the Government have not go down to considering in the detail which is warranted.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Hirst Mr Geoffrey Hirst , Shipley

I shall not detain the Committee for long. I wanted to have the benefit of hearing the alleged reasons for the Clause. I had to wait some time, but I am obliged to my hon. Friend for what he eventually said, in his usual kind way. But I am not enlightened. I have sat through the debates on many Finance Bills, and I have found that, irrespective of which Government are in power, there are always one or two Clauses of abject non-sense. I believe that this Clause comes under that heading. No reason has been given for it. Whichever way they are made, the arguments cancel each other out.

We are told that there is no need for the licence, because anyone can get it, but when somebody objects we hear that all sorts of representations have been made because cigarettes are not on sale in villages or at corner shops. Yet we are told that anyone may obtain a licence in respect of his own house. This does not make sense. I cannot understand why we have to do this sort of thing and upset the greatest possible number of people in order to achieve the least amount of good, which is precisely what the provisions in the Clause will cause to happen. We are told that there are about 430,000 licensed dealers, which means that there is one for every 50 smokers, so there can be no question of a restriction on supplies.

The amount of the licence fee is very small. I do not understand the cost factor, but it should not cost a lot to collect £1 every four years. I think that the cost factor ought to be examined rather then the figure of the licence fee changed. But a substantial case could be made out in relation to costs and we have not heard it. There is a range of possible amounts for the licence between the maximum which has been mentioned or the amount of 5s. a year, or £1 every four years, as it is at present. The amount could be raised to £1 a year, which would result in a figure of nearly £500,000 and if the people in the Customs and Excise cannot collect an amount of that size without losing money, they want their heads examined.

My hon. Friend may be correct when he says that this does not amount to anything, that anyone could apply for a licence and all the rest of it. We in this country are a peculiar people and when we have to go to a certain amount of trouble and have to make application for something, generally speaking, we set out to do the job properly; and there is a certain amount of business to be derived from this. It is not a question of setting up a stall in the corner of a field in order to sell cigarettes. A certain amount of responsibility arises. The existence of the licence also helps to ensure that reasonable common sense is exercised in the distribution of tobacco. If that control is removed the number of outlets for the sale of cigarettes must be increased.

Why do we have to spend hours discussing this sort of "drivel" which finds its way into a Finance Bill? Has not this Committee anything better to do than to mess about with something which the Financial Secretary—we all know that he has to read his brief—says is of no consequence and does not matter? I wish to protest against the presence of a Clause of this sort and against the system which allows such nonsense to be inserted in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Cyril Bence Mr Cyril Bence , Dunbartonshire East

We must be fair to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why."] Certainly, we must be fair to him. There have been protests because the present system of issuing licences to purvey tobacco and snuff relates the sale to fixed premises. There is a case for the use of mobile shops on housing estates and in similar places and which could be licensed for the sale of tobacco and cigarettes. The Financial Secretary said that it will still be unlawful to purvey tobacco and its by-products to children. Under the present licensing system the necessary authorities, including the police, know from where cigarettes are being sold. Once this system of licensing or registration is abolished we will not know who the tobacco traders are.

The hon. Gentleman then said that the Customs and Excise will have the right to examine, search and inspect the premises of those carrying on an excise trade; those who will be engaged as excise traders. The trouble is that the Department will not know who and where the traders are once the licence is abolished. The traders will be able to come and go as they please, even to do moonlight flits.

I hasten to say that I agree with the abolition of the licence. Despite this, I believe in protecting the consumer. By all means abolish the licence, but register the traders—and I would extend this to traders who purvey consumer goods to the community in general—so that we know the sources of supply and who the traders are. Is it such a costly business to register all sources from which tobacco is being supplied?

After all, subsection (1) states: The excise duty on a tobacco dealer's licence … is hereby abolished … but a tobacco dealer shall nevertheless be deemed … to be carrying on an excise trade and to be an excise trader. If the licence is abolished and there is no form of registration, how will the Government know who the traders are? This is an absurdity. If they are carrying on an Excise trade they should be registered so that control over them is possible.

There are many wine merchants and publicans. They are Excise traders and we know who and where they are. Now the Government are creating a new batch of Excise traders and no one will know who they are. I am rather surprised that such a proposition should have been made. I am not satisfied that the community will be protected from the distribution of tobacco and its by-products, particularly young people.

This experience is probably not unique to me, but I have seen children of about 9 years old smoking cigarettes which they have bought for 3d. each. In the village in which I was brought up we used to smoke clay pipes at the age of 7. This is by the way, but I would not support a system of having a body of people, groups of excise trader, able to market an excisable product without having to be registered, with no control over them and no possibility of knowing who they are. This is a dangerous procedure and I hope that the Financial Secretary will reconsider the matter.

9.45 p.m.

Photo of Sir Albert Costain Sir Albert Costain , Folkestone and Hythe

It seems an extraordinary state of affairs that the Financial Secretary should find the majority of the Committee taking this attitude to a reduction in taxation suggested by the Treasury and hon. Members saying that the taxation should continue.

I support the Financial Secretary, because I believe that any tax which costs more to collect than it produces is a bad tax. Those hon. Members who have spoken against this Clause have used the argument that tobacco could be sold to children, but that happens at present. They have used the argument that tobacco would be stolen, but it is being stolen at present. I cannot recall hearing of a case in which a person has been summoned for selling tobacco without a licence. This whole matter is a storm in a teacup.

Photo of Mr Edward Milne Mr Edward Milne , Blyth

This debate has an air of unreality, because many of the things which a large number of hon. Members say will be possible after this change are already possible with the licence fee in operation. I declare an interest in this matter. I am one of the few hon. Members who has never smoked but who has sold a considerable amount of cigarettes in my lifetime in the distributive trade. I am possibly the only Member who has served on the Newsagency, Tobacco and Confectionery Wages Council. I hope that all those who have the ear of tobacconists and vested interests will prevail upon them to move their wage rates from among the most deplorably low in the country. That would be a most worth-while campaign.

The link-up between the number of retail outlets for selling cigarettes and the incidence of lung cancer, as related to this extension, is already a phenomenon of the retail trades. The number of retail outlets, ranging from people who sell in their own homes with automatic machines to the vast monopoly interests of super-stores, self-service and other supermarkets which have sprung up, have made a highly monopolistic industry.

Strangely enough, under the existing regulations practically the only people who cannot sell cigarettes are those with retail shops who have purchased licences for the shops they own and control but are unable to make sales in that way. They can get round the difficulty by having orders taken at the central premises and then handling the goods over to customers on the rounds. The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) spoke about people being able to set up a stall at the edge of a field and to sell cigarettes there. That can be done at present provided a licence is obtained. There is no alteration in the situation.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Hirst Mr Geoffrey Hirst , Shipley

That is exactly the point I was making. I said that all the arguments cancel each other out and the whole matter is made a nonsense.

Photo of Mr Edward Milne Mr Edward Milne , Blyth

The point the hon. Member made was very valid in discussion of this Clause. If we want to prevent the theft of cigarettes we shall not do that under the Finance Bill but by legislation for the prevention of crime. If we want to prevent the sale of cigarettes to children, we must impose a penalty on the trader who sells those cigarettes. Whether he has bought a licence is beside the point. If we want to educate people to stop smoking to avoid lung cancer, we do it in many other ways. One method is by supporting the Government's campaign by assisting distribution of the excellent posters issued by the Minister of Health. Possibly, we could ask retail tobacconists to assist us in this campaign by giving away a poster with each packet of cigarettes they sell. I do not know whether that idea will fall on fertile ground.

On the other band, we could decide—and if we took our courage into our hands, we would decide—that the advertising revenue drawn from the tobacco interests would be cast aside and that the advertising of cigarettes was to be stopped entirely. These are all matters by which the spread of smoking could be reduced and, possibly, even eradicated, but merely to deal with it in Clause 7 of the Finance Bill is not the way to do it. We have wasted a tremendous amount of Parliamentary time—possibly, I have contributed to it—in dealing with the Clause to eradicate evils that we have other methods of eradicating.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne), no time is wasted in Committee on the Finance Bill. This is an important matter. The debate would have been assisted had the Financial Secretary, as I suggested when I intervened earlier, got up and introduced the Clause by giving a full explanation of the reasons why the Government have included it in the Bill. Then, he would have been a little more relaxed and that would have been to the advantage of his cause.

When the hon. Gentleman got up, he was rather too passionate. Some of us recoiled from the obvious conviction of his arguments, because we thought that he was pleading too much.

Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Doncaster

All I wanted was to go out and have a cigarette.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

The hon. Gentleman's main preoccupation in the Finance Bill is to facilitate the business, and I suggest that he did not do it.

We have listened to the debate, the subject is almost exhausted and I suggest that it is now a matter of personal judgment. I am bound to advise my right hon. and hon. Friends that this is almost a matter of deep personal conviction, for which we have special provision in the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. For myself, and I think that I speak for my hon. Friends beside me, we would not be able to vote against the Clause.

The matter of the licence and the licence duty could be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) suggested, two different things. Certainly, the licence duty of 5s. a year is neither here nor there and can scarcely make any difference to whether a retailer takes out a tobacco licence. This Committee would hesitate for a long time before making the licence duty £20 or £30. Then it would become a deterrent and a factor in the retail trade of which we would have to take account in many other directions. The Committee has to consider this matter on the basis of the licence duty as it is. We can dismiss that from our consideration.

The important question is whether the tobacco retailer should be licensed. If we are to have a licence as a kind of safeguard against selling stolen goods, presumably we have to ask all jewellers to have a licence as a safeguard against the sale of stolen jewellery. The fact that any goods might be stolen and put into distribution would justify the same kind of action, if it is a safeguard, as the issue of a licence to tobacco retailers. I do not think that that argument will stand up. I think that, licence or no licence, the selling of stolen goods is far too profitable a business today. It is part of the whole complex of crime. I do not think that the issue of a licence would be any real protection.

The next question is whether the possession of a licence denotes a more responsible retailer. Does the possessor of a licence behave more responsibly as a retailer than one who might not have to obtain a licence? I doubt whether there is anything in this argument either. If the licence were withdrawn from the disreputable retailer, there might be some point in it, but apparently a retailer can break the law, be convicted of breaking the law, be convicted of receiving stolen goods, be convicted of any crime whatsoever, but still have a licence to sell tobacco. This is scarcely a guarantee that a licence denotes a more responsible retailer.

Two issues remain. One is whether the withdrawal of the licence duty and the abolition of the licence will in some way injure retail tobacconists. We are perfectly entitled to consider the effect of anything we do. Will it be prejudicial to their interests? Will it damage their trade? There is no evidence of that either, because we have been told that anyone can take out a licence on demand and, having taken it out, as long as he maintains it he will never lose it.

The second issue is that of health. We are all very worried about this. Is there anything in what is proposed in the Clause which will put tobacco more out of the reach of young people? If it would do that, I would feel that probably that was ample reason for retaining the licence. Having listened to the arguments and using my own judgment, I cannot feel convinced that to retain the licence and the licence duty can make any real difference to children's access to cigarettes and tobacco.

Before very long the nation will have to face the whole issue of health and smoking and make up its mind what it is going to do. At present, we are half-heartedly indulging in propaganda against the evils of smoking, but at the same time facilitating every means which the industry has of selling its products not only to children but to grown-ups also. The whole tobacco trade at present feels challenged by the findings of the Committee of the Royal College of Physicians and naturally is in an acute and painful dilemma. It has a sense of responsibility for the health of the community. It has vast commercial interests involved. The tobacco trade contributes no less than £900 million a year to the Exchequer, so the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have serious readjustments of his Budget to make if there were a substantial fall in the yield of Tobacco Duty.

Finally, there is the troublesome question—which may in some part have given rise to the Government's decision—of the mobile shop. We must recognise new methods of retail, and we must also recognise the convenience that the mobile shop is in many scattered areas. It would be quite inconsistent with our sense of fair play if tobacco could be sold from stalls and shops but, for some reason of technical difficulty, could not be sold from a mobile shop. All these factors lead me personally to the conclusion that, on balance, the Government have strong arguments behind this Clause.

When, in Clause 2, we were dealing with the question of administration and redundancy, we heard how hard put the Customs and Excise would be in fulfilling the requirements of the new registration of gaming establishments. It may be that any staff the Department saves by abolition of the licence duty would assist the Department to discharge its responsibilites in other directions. I can only leave the matter there, and tell my hon. Friends that they must exercise their own judgment in what they do.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.