HC Deb 16 June 1911 vol 26 cc1815-8

Order for Second Reading read.

Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


I am sorry that none of the law officers are here. I do not rise in any hostile spirit to this Bill: on the contrary, I warmly welcome it. It is one of a series of Bills designed by the Lord Chancellor, to whose keenness as a law reformer both, the public and the profession are deeply indebted. It is one of a series designed by him to consolidate the criminal law, and it seeks to consolidate statute law and codify the common law relating to perjury. In one respect the Bill goes beyond mere consolidation, with regard, for instance, to punishment. At present scattered over the Statute Book there are a large number of different Acts of Parliament dealing with different offences more or less analogous to perjury and having different punishment. This Bill unifies the punishment, and it is quite true that generally it does not in any case increase the maximum punishment. But there are several cases in which it does do so. Now I am in favour of uniformity of punishment for analogous offences, but I think that uniformity ought to be secured by taking the less severe punishment and not the more severe form. The whole tendency of the day runs counter to the Draconian criminal code which existed in this country not many years ago. We have at the present time before the House a Bill for the Mitigation of Punishments, and in this Bill, which professes to be a Consolidating Bill in certain cases even at this time of day, contrary to the tendency of the age, the maximum punishment is increased. I object to that, and shall hope to have an opportunity of proposing an Amendment.

My second point is that this Bill excludes from its operation both Scotland and Ireland. We can perfectly understand that Scotland must be excluded because the criminal law of Scotland varies in many respects from the criminal law of England. But I cannot see any good reason why Ireland should be excluded from this Bill. Most people know that the criminal law in Ireland is substantially identical with the criminal law of this country. Archbold, the guide, philosopher, and friend, is just as great an authority to lawyers in Ireland as in this country. I hope that the Government will agree to include Ireland. The fact that a Home Rule Bill is in prospect makes it all the more desirable that the law of England and Ireland should be approximated. This will afford an opportunity of making the English law similar to that in Ireland. This Bill is substantially the same as that considered by the Joint Committee of the two Houses last Session, and the only reason then given for the non-inclusion of Ireland was that it did not come within these terms of reference. That may have been an excellent reason then, but it is no reason why this House, in the exercise of its discretion, should not new include Ireland.

This Bill professes to be a Bill to consolidate and simplify the law with regard to perjury. But the most difficult part of our law with regard to perjury is that which concerns the framing of the indictment. Every criminal lawyer knows that to frame an indictment for perjury is a most difficult operation. I should like this Bill to deal with the question of indictment. As a matter of fact it does not touch it at all. I am informed that the Lord Chief Justice has now on the stocks a Bill to deal with criminal procedure and criminal pleading generally. I have had an opportunity of seeing a draft of that Bill. It is most revolutionary, and I regard it with great apprehension, because I think it will have the effect of bringing criminal pleading in this country into a more loose and slack condition. I shall be glad, therefore, if by amending this Bill in regard to criminal pleading we can render unnecessary the more revolutionary proposal of the Lord Chancellor. The opportunity presents itself here in regard to criminal pleading on perjury, and I hope it will be taken advantage of. May I repeat that I welcome this Bill, and hope it will become law in the present Session of Parliament.


I was a Member of the Joint Committee of Lords and Commons which considered this Bill last year, and I should like to say a word or two on the criticisms just uttered by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green. I recognise fully that his general attitude is that of welcoming the Bill. I think anyone who knows anything of the labour put into this Bill, not merely by the Joint Committee, over which the Lord Chancellor presided, but previously by the draftsmen will adopt a similar attitude. As a matter of fact, no fewer than 260 Acts of Parliament had to be gone through and considered before the substance of the numerous sections scattered over them could be boiled down in the present measure. It would be a great pity if all that work were lost, and therefore I hope this Bill will be duly passed into law. But the House will naturally wish, in connection with any Consolidation Bill, that it shall be as nearly as possible a pure Consolidation Bill, and having served twice on such a Committee, I can say most emphatically that a Committee which considers Consolidation Bills is exceedingly scrupulous—especially under the guidance of the Lord Chancellor—not to introduce amendments of the law under the guise of Consolidation. There were proposals before the Committee to increase the maximum punishment, but they were refused. In the Tichborne case there was an actual sentence of fourteen years' penal servitude, and it was proposed to increase the maximum penalty, and that was objected to by the Committee on the ground that it was not Consolidation. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green said in one or two cases there may be an increase of the maximum penalty. In the original form of the Bill, under Clause 5, there were about forty or fifty Acts of Parliament set out with the penalties attached, differing in different cases and varying, not according to any principle or any precedent, but simply according to the penalty which had been attached haphazard according to the intentions of the Act of Parliament when it was passed. That seems an exceedingly cumbrous thing to do if you are going to consolidate the law, and it seemed best to the Committee to generalise the penalty, and I do not think the increase of the maximum is very great. There will be only five cases in which there will be any substantial increase, and in those cases the only change will be to increase the period from one year to two. In thirty-two cases there is a diminution of the maximum punishment. Generally the normal penalty has been taken, and in one or two cases, in order to get that normal penalty, there has been a nominal increase of the maximum imposed by the Act, although I do not think the real penalty attached will be actually increased. The hon. Member wished an alteration in the form of the indictment, but that really belongs to a different branch of Consolidation, and I think that his attitude in regard to the form of a proposal to simplify indictments in criminal cases shows that it would have been very undesirable to have attempted that task in the present Bill. His other objection was that the Bill did not refer to Ireland. There is no reason why it should not, but, as a matter of fact, Ireland was beyond the terms of the reference. Ireland was originally put in the Bill, but was cut out. It could be put in again if that was wished by the Irish Members, but that would mean a few alterations. In general it is true that the Bill does go beyond general Consolidation, inasmuch as it does slightly increase the penalties and does involve some alteration of the law. There was one curious case which we had to deal with. There was a sheik who was accused of making some false statement, and he was allowed to affirm. He could have been sworn on his Holy Book, but there was no copy of his Holy Book in England at the time. The conviction was quashed and we dealt with that particular case. With these few exceptions and trivial alterations the Bill is Consolidation except in so far as it codifies the law. I think that is all the general explanation of the Bill I need give.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, "That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next (19th June)."—[Mr. Gulland.]