HC Deb 11 March 1942 vol 378 cc1064-8
Mr. Speaker

Question No. 87 upon the Order Paper, standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for East Leicester (Major Lyons), has not been reached, but as it deals with a subject which is of considerable interest to the House, perhaps hon. Members will allow the Minister to make a statement upon it.

[To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if he is aware that on the London Midland and Scottish Railway substantial losses and thefts are helping to sustain the black market; and whether, in view of public anger at the intensity of this evil and its effect on wartime morale, he will forthwith take the necessary steps for intensification of penalties.]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I had intended, as you have said, Mr. Speaker, in answer to Question No. 87, to make a statement on the subject of black market offences. In view of the importance of the subject and the interest which the House and the country take in it, I am grateful to you and to the House for permitting me to make the statement now.

Under the existing Defence Regulations the maximum term of imprisonment which can be imposed for contravening orders for the control of essential supplies is three months on summary conviction and two years on indictment. For deliberate and calculated efforts to evade for selfish ends orders designed to secure an equitable distribution of controlled articles, these penalties are inadequate. It has been decided, therefore, to introduce new Defence Regulations raising the maximum term to twelve months' imprisonment on summary conviction and to fourteen years' penal servitude on indictment. In the pursuit of these offenders there is close co-operation between the police and the Departments concerned with the control of food and other articles. As is shown by the number of prosecutions, active measures are being taken for the detection of offences. Continuous observation will, however, be maintained with a view to strengthening further the machinery and making such improvements as experience may suggest.

The offences to which the new Regulations will apply will vary in gravity. Many of them can properly be dealt with by the summary courts empowered as they will be to impose as much as a year's imprisonment. It would be a great mistake to undervalue the work of the magistrates who deal with the great majority of offences against the Defence Regulations as well as against the ordinary law. To their public spirit and efficiency in administering justice we must continue to look for assistance in dealing with a large proportion of offenders. But in order to ensure that there shall be no failure to commit to the higher courts the graver cases calling for greater penalties than the summary courts are authorised to impose, the new Regulations will contain a provision enabling the prosecuting authority to require such cases to be committed for trial on indictment. There will also be a provision enabling the Director of Public Prosecutions to require particular cases to be committed to Assizes rather than to quarter Sessions.

Special consideration has been given to the question of fines. Even when sentences of imprisonment or penal servitude are imposed—and for deterrent purposes it is most important that full use should be made of such sentences—the offender must not be allowed to retain his illicit gains. Whatever other punishment may be imposed upon him, he ought to forfeit any profit he may have made by contravening the law. The new Regulations will therefore require that, in the absence of special circumstances, the offender must be fined a sum equal to the benefit which in the opinion of the court he has derived from his offence. This is the least which ought to be done. The maximum fine which may be imposed will not be limited to the amount of the profit. It may be higher, as for example under the existing provisions in Defence Regulation 55 authorising a fine equal to three times the price at which the offender has offered to sell or buy the goods in question: and the courts will, I am sure, recognise that in appropriate cases the fine should be larger than the profit and that sentences of imprisonment or penal servitude should be imposed as well as fines.

The new Regulations will also contain a provision for dealing with the man behind the scenes who, though he organises and profits from illicit transactions, keeps so far in the background that it has hitherto been difficult or impracticable to bring him to justice. Although it may be known that such a man has taken a large share of the profit it has frequently been impossible to bring home to him guilty knowledge or active complicity. In future the onus will be placed on these shy profiteers of explaining their conduct to a court. There will be a provision in the Regulations that any person who receives a commission or valuable consideration in respect of an illicit transaction in controlled articles shall be guilty of an offence unless he proves that he did not know and had no reason to believe that the transaction was illicit.

As many of these illicit transactions start with thefts, the new Regulations will not be confined to contraventions of orders made under Defence Regulation 55, but will also apply to any cases of stealing or receiving controlled articles. Theft of the nation's food or other necessaries is more than theft: it is a crime against the State and must be rigorously punished.

These new provisions have been very carefully devised in consultation with the Departments concerned with the administration of orders for the control of essential commodities and with those who have had experience of the proceedings in the criminal courts. If further powers are needed, they will be taken, but the Defence Regulation now proposed will, I am confident, provide potent weapons for a vigorous offensive against persons who, regardless of the national interest and of the principle that food and other essential articles must be fairly shared, are seeking to exploit the war situation for private gain. The courts can, I feel sure, be relied upon to make effective use of the new powers and to administer them with a due sense of the gravity of the evil at which they are aimed.

Major Lyons

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to say that there is no doubt that provisions of this nature will meet with far-reaching appreciation throughout the country, in the attempt to rid the nation of this evil? Can he give the date when the proposed Regulations will become effective?

Mr. Morrison

I am not quite sure of the actual date, but it will be almost at once; a matter of days, I hope.

Mr. Burke

How will these fines work out?

Mr. Morrison

Care has been taken to give the courts ample powers in that matter. Supposing the offender to have been convicted of selling or buying goods worth £5,000 and to have made a profit of, say, £1,000, then he must be fined £1,000, and may be fined £16,000, that is to say, three times the value of the goods, plus the profit. That is the principle upon which these proposals proceed. There is the further case that if, on indictment, a man is convicted of selling goods worth, say, £100, and of making a profit of £20, the court will not be limited to a fine of £320; the court will be able to impose any fine it thinks appropriate, up to a limit.

Mr. Crowder

If any person who has been convicted has also been naturalised, will the court have power to revoke the naturalisation order?

Mr. Morrison

There is the existing law upon that point, but everything depends upon the nature of the offence and the date of the naturalisation. There is the existing law, and there is a committee to deal with such cases.

Mr. Crowder

They have power?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, but I will not say that the power is sufficiently wide neces- sarily to pick up every one of the cases of these men.

Sir H. Williams

While I realise the vital importance of getting at the men who are behind these rackets, will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that this power of compelling a man to prove his innocence will be properly safeguarded, because it is the most dangerous innovation of the rights of the citizen that has been proposed since the war started?

Mr. Morrison

Every care will be taken on that point, but some of these people cannot be got because evidence cannot be proved against them, although we know they are guilty. I hope that the House will be willing to run some small degree of risk in this matter, in order that we may be sure that the courts and prosecuting authorities have an adequate chance to get these people.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

While the announcement made by my right hon. Friend will undoubtedly be a great stimulus to the nation in exterminating these rats in the black market, may I ask whether he will concentrate the whole of the Special Branch and many of the C.I.D. from Scotland Yard upon exterminating those people who operate the black market in many of the big hotels in the West End of London?

Mr. Morrison

I must remind my hon. Friend that these rather specialised forces of the Metropolitan Police have other things to do and other people to keep observation upon; but I can assure him that I have given instructions to the Metropolitan Police, and I will request- all chief constables, to give to the authorities concerned every help in their power.

Mr. Goldie

Is there any power to order an offender to pay the cost of the prosecution?

Mr. Watkins

As this Question is based on the railway situation, may I assure my right hon. Friend that the railway trade unions will welcome his announcement and that he can count on their support in stamping out this evil on the railways?

Mr. Morrison

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that assurance.