HC Deb 24 March 1933 vol 276 cc651-62

Order for Second Reading read.

12.30 p.m.


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

I trust that the House will give me a few moments on this beautiful day to explain this Bill and to give it a Second Reading so that it may go to a Committee upstairs. To-day we have been treated to a real Scottish feast. We have been preventing bandits among solicitors and stopping bandits catching trout, and I think that it will be quite proper that we should ask the Scottish Members present to give us their support to stop the motor bandit in England. I do not think that it is out of place, therefore, if I explain what induced my hon. Friends and I, whose names are on the back of the Bill, to introduce it. It must be common knowledge to every hon Member that crimes have been on the increase during the last few years, particularly crimes of violence. These crimes of violence have frequently been associated with mechanically propelled vehicles, otherwise motor cars. Smash and grab raids which have taken place so frequently in our large cities have only been made possible by motor vehicles and a rapid get-away. It is a peculiarly cowardly form of crime because it places law and order at a great disadvantage.

It will be known to the House how these crimes are perpetrated. They are very elaborately organised. The gang that intends to smash a jewellery shop window puts out its scouts and then brings along a motor-car crawling along a street. At a given moment the shop window is broken and a grab is made at the jewellery trays, and a get-away by means of the motor car is effected. The police have very little opportunity of dealing with a case of that kind, because it is always so carefully planned and organised that very often there is no policeman on duty at the spot at the time, and by the time the police arrive the motor-car is many miles away. Another crime which is on the increase in assocation with motor-cars is that of the hold-up of motor-cars on the high road. This again is a peculiarly cowardly form of crime, because it is mostly a crime of violence and takes advantage of someone who is in the cramped posi- tion of driving a motor-car, or people are held up to give succour to people whom they think are injured. As a result, an unfair advantage is taken of the victim. This Bill has been drafted in order that the police may meet this type of case. Its long Title gives a complete description of what it means. It says that it is to Provide for the more effectual prevention of banditry by and against persons using mechanically-propelled vehicles and to provide the police with additional powers; and to amend the law for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid. I should like to make it clear that the presenters of the Bill have no criticism of the police for the action that the police have taken in endeavouring to prevent these crimes or to capture the criminals after the crime has been committed. We believe that the police have done their best with the facilities at their disposal, and by passing this Bill we hope to help the police in the execution of their duty. It has only three main Clauses. To-day we have taken 50 Clauses to keep the solicitors of Scotland clean and pure, and 11 to control trout fishing, but I am asking the House for only three Clauses to assist in the prevention of the crimes of banditry. The first Clause gives the police outside the Metropolitan area the power of searching motor vehicles. We have heard to-day a good deal about the searching of bags of trout. The powers of searching vehicles of all kinds was given to the Metropolitan police under the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, and it seems illogical that that power should not be extended to the police all over the country. The value of it must be obvious, because, if the police are not entitled to stop a motor car and search for contraband or other proceeds of a robbery, they are placed at a great disadvantage in dealing with crimes for which motor vehicles have been used.

The second Clause gives powers to the police to block up roads by barricades. The type of criminal associated with motor banditry is peculiarly violent. He takes all sorts of risks and would never hesitate to run over a man if that man attempted to stop him. He does hesitate, however, to run into a substantial barricade, and the only way by which you can give any warning that a gang of bandits are escaping in a high-powered vehicle, and the only effective way by which the police can stop them from making a getaway is to put a substantial barrier across the road. I am advised that no such power exists to-day on the part of the police. At least, it is very doubtful whether they would put any barricades across a road. I believe they would find it immensely to their advantage, not only in catching raiders of this kind, but also in preventing the escape of prisoners from gaol, and in other ways. It will be no disadvantage to the motoring community as a whole, because if a barricade is put across the road a notice and warning must be put up on each side of it.

The third Clause, which is perhaps the most important one, increases the penalties for offences by persons using mechanically-propelled vehicles. This is the Clause which, I suppose, will be the most criticised. Obviously we cannot go on allowing the criminal class to take advantage of such a wonderful and beneficient new invention as the motor car; greater penalties must be imposed upon anybody who misuses this wonderful invention in order to commit a crime. When firearms were introduced into this country the Firearms Act was passed imposing a more severe penalty on anyone who perpetrated a crime of violence by the use of a firearm than on one who used a bludgeon, and I suggest that anyone who abuses the greater facilities which mechanically-propelled vehicles afford for the commission of a crime should also be more severely dealt with. After all, we only propose to give the magistrate an extra power of imposing a penalty to that which he already possesses. If it is found that a crime is committed by the direct aid and use of a mechanically-propelled vehicle then the magistrate will have it within his power to order an additional whipping to the whipping he can already impose for a crime of violence. I think most of us realise that criminals of this class, who perpetrate crimes of cowardly violence, really fear only one thing. They do not much mind being "put away for a long stretch"; experience has shown that what they really dislike and fear is physical pain, and if we consider the matter we must appreciate that such crimes as these justify such a punishment being inflicted.

Take the case of the hold-up of a woman who is driving a car along a dark road by a man who pretends that he is injured and wants help. As soon as the woman has drawn up she finds herself hit over the head with a bludgeon or held to ransom. That is a very cowardly form of crime, and the only way to protect women who drive motor cars, and to preserve to them the free right of the road, is to say that any man who does that sort of thing shall be subjected to a whipping. That is really the purpose of this Bill. I have described it very shortly, and it will take hon. Members only a few minutes to read it for themselves. It is a genuine effort on our part to assist the authorities to preserve law and order in the country. There have been too many of these crimes of violence carried out with the aid of motorcars, and it is now time that steps should be taken to assist the police to prevent them and to see that the criminal is punished if found guilty. I hope the House will be as generous to this Bill as it has been to its two predecessors, and give it a Second Reading, and if any Amendments are necessary they can easily be inserted in Committee upstairs.

12.40 p.m.

Commander MARSDEN

I beg to second the Motion.

I do this with some confidence because the object of the Bill is solely to support the police. It is brought forward in no spirit of criticism of the police whatever. We feel that the police have their hands very largely tied. There is so much they know and so little they can do in dealing with these eases. My hon. Friend has pointed out how the introduction of the motor-car has revolutionised crime by affording greater opportunities for it, and the use of the motor-car as an antidote to crime has hitherto not been very successful. I support this Bill for many reasons, but possibly the reason which will most commend itself to hon. Members is to be found in the individual knowledge which each of us has of how such a Bill can benefit motorists. In my own domestic circle life has been very largely reorganised by reason of this banditry. My wife, a most courageous woman, has frequently taken a car over to France alone and driven it about, but she does not like doing it in England after dark—does not like it at all.

Take the situation, of my own house. To walk after dark from Belgrave Square along Halkin Street into Lowndes Street, where I live, is a thing that no woman alone dare do. It would be a most foolish thing to do. Any number of crimes have been committed just in that area, and nearly always in the same way. A woman is walking alone, carrying her handbag; a car comes up very slowly; a man jumps out and snatches the bag. If there is the slightest resistance he deals the woman a most cruel, cowardly and crippling blow, and then leaps into the car, which accelerates, and he is gone. That kind of thing is happening continually all over the country. I read only yesterday of a domestic servant who is still, I believe, in danger of her life as the result of an attack by bandits—all for the sum of 10s. Unless something is done we shall be reduced by fear and terrorism to the state of affairs which exists in some cities in the United States. They have been brought to that state of terrorism through gunmen. In the early stages they would always shoot, but now they have succeeded in bringing things to such a pitch that they never need shoot, because the public will deliver up the goods, or do whatever the gunmen tell them, merely as a result of the ascendancy which the gunmen have achieved.

That is the position at which we are arriving in this country through this form of banditry. Every woman will naturally protect her belongings, although if she had time to think it over for a moment she would willingly give up her bag and its contents to these men sooner than run risks. In this connection I would specially point out the advantages of certain Clauses of the Bill in cases of robbery with menaces, because it is not the blow itself the woman fears, it is the continual sense of fear, this continual terror which makes her feel that she cannot walk out alone after dark without the possibility of something happening to her. In the case, too, of those of us who live in the country, our whole domestic life has had to be altered. People talk about the lack of domestic servants. We cannot get servants because many of them fear to live in the country. They dare not be in a house where they have to walk a mile or two along a lane to get to an omnibus or the post office. With regard to the object of the Bill, there may be other intentions, but my purpose as an individual in supporting it is to give protection to women and children throughout the country who are now living, many of them, in a state of complete terror of what may happen if they go out alone after dark.

I will not say much further, because my hon. Friend has mentioned practically everything that can be said in connection with the Bill. I agree that the Bill is probably in rather rough shape, and it is highly probable that the Under-Secretary may point out that there are certain defects in it. No doubt there are. It may be that many of these Clauses, in particular Clause 3, contain provisions that are already covered by existing legislation; possibly they are. We are not suggesting that they are not, but what we feel is that it is high time that extra legislation were introduced for the sole purpose of stopping such crime.

The Under-Secretary may say that the figures for the last period show that there is a decrease; that may be. I sincerely trust that he is not satisfied by that, if he is going to say such a thing. These brutal bandits—many of them are brutes—are sent to prison for a very short time. I am always very sorry for the police, who, with great difficulty and great danger to themselves, round up these dangerous criminals, who will then be sent to prison for a totally inadequate period. While they are in prison, what do they do? They are quite well, and they are well looked after, and they take the opportunity of laying more plans and of improving their technique, so that they can enlarge their sphere of operations when they get out. If there has been a slight diminution in these crimes, we can be perfectly certain that, if nothing is done, a larger wave of crime will be coming in the near future.

I will say no more, except to ask the House to allow the Bill to go through on Second Reading, so that later on, in the Committee stage, such defects as there are may be made good. I trust that the Bill will be accepted. There are very few hon. Members in the House at the moment, but I am sure that many would be able to give instances of the effects that the Bill would have. I am sure that in its final shape it would be of great assistance in putting down what threatens to become a terror throughout the country.

12.48 p.m.


I wish to support this Bill in order that it may go to Committee and there be carefully considered. The subject of banditry is one that played a large part in our social history during the eighteenth century. There was a time when banditry was very prevalent in and round the House of Commons. We are all aware that the signal for departure, when we finish our business in this House, is the cry, "Who goes home?" The historical explanation of that cry is that there were so many bandits in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament that it was the custom of Members to make up groups and go home together, to protect themselves from the banditti. Round about the City of London, and throughout the whole of the Metropolis, there were remarkable cases of successful banditry constantly taking place. It may interest the House if I give one or two historical details.

Horace Walpole, who lived in Arlington Street, describes his being awakened on one occasion at night by bandits operating in Piccadilly at the end of Arlington Street. On one occasion George IV, when he was Prince Regent, was going home with a group of friends when he was stopped in Hay Hill by bandits. I regret to say that George IV and his friends were not able to muster half-a-crown between them to give the bandits. Many hon. Members may be familiar with the bar that stands, or used to stand, in the passage between Lansdowne House and the adjoining house. That bar was placed there to prevent highwaymen from coming along the passage, and so that a horse could not pass along. When Sadlers Wells Theatre was founded, the theatre put out bills on the walls stating that people coming from the West End of London to Islington to attend the performances at Sadlers Wells would be protected by mounted horsemen, who would parade the road between Sadlers Wells and the West End of London.

That was the state of things in London in the eighteenth century and in the early part of the nineteenth century. Now we have a kind of revival of it. The invention of the motor-car has produced a class of men who have practically returned to the practices of the old days. What stopped the banditry of former times was mainly the substitution of railways for coaches. When the railways were established and people ceased to travel by coach, the opportunities of the bandits were very largely brought to an end. The establishment of the police force by Sir Robert Peel also had an important effect in bringing to an end the banditry of former times. I candidly confess that flogging is a distasteful thing, but it is possible that it might be a good thing to try the effect of flogging on those bandits who are now one of the curses of our social life. In the hope that the Bill may be discussed fully in Committee, I have pleasure in supporting it.

12.52 p.m.


When my hon. Friend the Member for East Dorset (Mr. Hall-Caine) invited me to join him in supporting this Bill, I accepted the invitation with great pleasure, but that did not mean that I endorse verbatim the precise proposals. What I feel very strongly is that there is a problem to be solved. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be able to tell us that in the last few months there has been some improvement. I believe that that is true. The police have been making special efforts, and there has been a definite diminution in crimes of violence associated with motor-cars. Nevertheless, it is a sad thing in this country that the courtesy of the road that I remember as a boy has gone, when the person in the passing vehicle would frequently offer you a lift if you were walking. That does not happen to-day, because people dare not do it. I remember one night going home from this House to Putney, where I live, about 2 o'clock in the morning. It was raining in torrents. Halfway home I overtook a man walking along without an umbrella. I offered him a lift. He refused. He was obviously alarmed and pursued his way in the rain. It is an appalling thing that, in our capital city, a man is afraid to accept the courtesy that anybody is willing to offer because of the outrages that have occurred.

I remember on another occasion when I was Member for Reading driving back from Reading to London. I sat in the front, driving, and in the car behind me were my wife and the chairman of my organisation, who happened to be 6 ft. 4 in. tall and broad in proportion. As we got to Wokingham two men stood out in the road and signalled. I pulled up and got out, and I said, "What is the matter?" I thought that there was something the matter. They said, "Can you give us a life into Wokingham?" I said, "I am sorry. There are two of you, and my car only holds four, and there are three of us in here already." Their enthusiasm for the lift diminished, especially as they observed from the corner of their eye the size of my chairman. I said, "It is only three quarters of a mile to Wokingham. It is a fine night. Why don't you walk?" They gave some excuse and went away. If I had been alone and I had given them a lift, one of them would have sat behind and the other alongside of me, and I probably should not be addressing the House this afternoon. That is the kind of thing that is constantly happening.

I could give the experience of a friend of mine who was driving at night and who had been a, little careless about his petrol supply, which had run out. He stood at the side of the road to signal to passing motorists to see if anyone could lend him a small quantity of petrol, enough to carry him on to the nearest garage; but it was an hour before he could persuade anyone to stop, because they thought he was one of those gentlemen with whom we are trying to deal in this Bill. Eventually someone did stop, and said, "What do you want No tricks." He said he would let my friend have some petrol, and, while he was pouring the petrol into the car, the man stood over him with a spanner in order to make quite sure. That is an appalling state of affairs to exist in our country.

Again, a little time ago a lady told me of a friend of hers—the modem young lady is, perhaps, a little too courageous—who was driving herself home from a dance. She was told that it was perhaps a little unwise to do so, and she said, "Oh, it will be all right. At any rate, I will put the starting handle on the seat beside me." On her way she was stopped by someone who appeared to be in distress; a man came to the side window and grabbed her necklace. She grabbed the starting handle and hit him in the face, and he fell back. On reaching the nearest town, she reported to the police the loss of her necklace, and the constable said he would go back with her. They drove back, and, on reaching the spot, found that her defence had been only too successful, for the bandit was dead.

If these things are happening, as they are, and great numbers of our citizens are afraid to travel at night across lonely places; if, as was stated by the hon. and gallant Member for North Battersea (Commander Marsden), many ladies are afraid to go out in a car alone at all at night; if the courtesy of the road has been completely abolished, and if the police, with their existing powers, despite their magnificent efforts, are not able to deal with the situation, then, clearly, in my opinion, the time has come for the passing of some Measure whether this or another, to give the police the necessary effective powers. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) is one of the kindest-hearted men in the world, and the fact that a man of his gentle temperament can stand up and say that it would be worth while trying a little whipping indicates the real feeling that exists. Everyone knows that the bandit is invariably a coward. The man who tries to live by violence in this way is invariably a coward, and the one thing that terrifies him is the possibility of his own hide being hurt. Therefore, I should not have the slightest hesitation in supporting a Clause which made it, not optional, but in general obligatory on those whose duty it is to administer the law, to see that people who are guilty of this kind of crime are subjected to pains and penalties of a kind that they would not like. For these reasons, and for others with which I will not weary the House, I hope that the Under-Secretary, even if he feels called upon to say that this Bill is not acceptable, will indicate that the Home Office are prepared in due course to take steps to arm our police with the necessary powers to protect law-abiding citizens from these outrages to which at the present moment they are unnecessarily exposed.

1.0 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

My first feeling, on reading this Bill, was one of protest, as I noticed that Clause 4 stipulates that the Bill shall not apply to Scotland. But, on pondering over the matter, I quickly saw that this was in effect a subtle compliment, because it showed one of two things—either that our people in Scotland had naturally a more honest outlook on life than was the case in England, or that our police were much more effective and did not need the assistance of such a Bill as this. Therefore, I withdraw my protest, and would like to deal with the effect of the Bill in regard to the country for which it is intended, namely, England. My criticisms are on points on which, no doubt, alterations can be made in Committee.

I fully support the Bill, and, indeed, think that it is overdue. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) has said, the growth of this spirit of violence, and the ease with which it can be put into effect, have undoubtedly taken away something on which we especially prided ourselves—the chivalry of the road. Every one of us has had experience of the kindness which one used to be accustomed to receive from motorists, or to extend as a motorist oneself. Its place has been taken by a suspicion, mistrust and hatred which is eating at the best of our national life. If the police require such additional help as is mentioned in this Bill, I think they should certainly have it, and, in fact, I think the House would be wise to pass any Measure within reason that will remove from our midst this menace and this danger to our women and girls.

There is a provision in Clause 2 of the Bill which strikes me as likely to defeat its own purpose. It says that the police shall be allowed to put any apparatus across a highway for the purpose of preventing the passage of any mechanically-propelled vehicle in which there is reason to suspect that persons who have committed an offence under the Larceny Act, 1916, are travelling, and it goes on to say: provided that reasonable measures are taken to warn traffic approaching within one hundred yards of such apparatus of its existence and nature. Surely, if the police feel compelled to do that—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and, 40 Members not being present

The House was adjourned at Four Minutes after One of the Clock, until Monday next, 27th March.