HC Deb 09 October 1946 vol 427 cc254-6

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I beg to move, in page 20, line 34, to leave out "five", and to insert "twenty."

This was one of the things at which the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland promised he would look between the time when we discussed it in Committee and the Report stage, and I am afraid that he has cither forgotten to look or his look has not led him in the direction in which we hoped it would. What we want to do here, and I am sure he is as concerned about this as any of us, is to find some deterrent against the commission of the offences laid down in Clause 24, offences against the orderly burning of heather—what in Scotland we call muirburn—in such a way that it is unlikely to cause damage to neighbouring properties. In Committee the Undersecretary said that a proprietor of an adjoining property was protected by reason of the fact that if anything happened, if some of these offences were committed, he had a claim at common law. There are however two points on that that I want to make quite briefly. The first is that in these cases there is always great difficulty in proving negligence, particularly in cases where fires are started in an irregular manner or are allowed to go on too late, when perhaps a high wind comes up and an adjoining plantation is fired. It is very difficult to prove negligence before the courts and bring it home to any particular party.

The second point is that a monetary sum, which might be awarded by the courts in damages, can never make proper compensation for the physical damage which might be done. With values as they are today, £5 is no sort of deterrent at all—for the matter of that, neither is £20, even though it is four times as large as the amount proposed by His Majesty's Government. In any case there seems to be a discrepancy between the maximum fine of £5 and the maximum imprisonment of 30 days. I do not know whether that is a proper relation, but it seems to me that a day's imprisonment should be worth more than a few pence over 3s. If there is to be a maximum imprisonment of 30 days, the maximum fine in my view ought to be very much more than £5. It seems to me that this proposal is absurdly lenient. The £5 maximum fine will not deter even the most humble hill farmer, the poorest of them all, from ignoring the Regulations if he wishes to do so. It is for that reason that I move the Amendment standing in my name.

Lord William Scott (Roxburgh and Selkirk)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I do so not because of any desire to inflict a larger fine on any individual guilty of these offences, but because to impose a maximum fine of £5 must suggest that those responsible for promoting the Bill regard the offences as of very minor importance. In the next line they offer the alternative or secondary punishment of up to 30 days' imprisonment, and this may possibly act as a greater deterrent than the £5 maximum fine, but I feel that if we are to get the monetary fine a little closer to the possible term of imprisonment we should do much better to increase the maximum to £20 and not leave it at the trivial sum of £5, which must suggest that the offence is not regarded as a very serious one. When one realises the immense amount of damage that can be done by carelessness, sometimes wilful carelessness, by allowing a hill fire to spread, I do not think we are inflicting a very great hardship on the community if we ask for the maximum fine to be increased from £5 to £20.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. G. R. Thomson)

I have a great deal of sympathy with the point taken up by hon Members opposite, but there is a serious difficulty in the way of agreeing to this Amendment. The difficulty arises in this way. Under the Summary Jurisdiction (Scotland) Act, 1908, and the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914, a general scale is laid down prescribing periods of imprisonment in the event of non-payment of a fine. That is rather an inadequate and out-of-date scale, but there it stands. If a man is fined £5 and does not pay, he becomes liable to be imprisoned for a period between five days and 30 days. The usual practice is to impose the maximum. In the case of a man fined £20, the maximum would be 60 days, and so there is grave danger that a man who is fined £20 and does not pay may go to prison for a longer period than a man who is regarded as having committed a serious offence which is considered to be too serious for a fine.

Another point is that the more the fine is increased, the greater is the risk that a man will not be able to pay, and so it seems to me that there is a real danger of unfairness. The real solution lies in a general amendment to the periods of imprisonment imposed for non-payment of fines, but that takes us way back to 1908 when the value of money was entirely different. This is not the proper opportunity to make any such alterations, and to attempt to do it piecemeal in Statutes as they come forward will not only create complications but give rise to a genuine risk of unfairness. Perhaps, in view of that explanation, those who proposed this Amendment would be prepared to withdraw it. As I say, I think it would raise complications and give rise to unfairness.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

In view of the not very satisfactory explanation which has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.