HC Deb 14 April 1948 vol 449 cc1112-9

(1) Paragraph 11 of the Second Schedule to the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, shall be amended by the insertion of the following words after "Section eighteen," "Section twenty where the amount of the money on the value of the property in respect of which the offence is committed does not exceed twenty pounds."

(2) Paragraph 15 of the Second Schedule to the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, is hereby repealed and the following paragraph shall be substituted therefor: Committing an indecent assault upon a person, whether male or female."—[Mr. Turton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Turton

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

The House will recollect that in the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, a number of offences were laid down in the Second Schedule which were indictable offences and were triable summarily with the consent of the accused. In these offences there is the whole range of stealing, obtaining by false pretences, and embezzlement, but not the fraudulent conversion cases triable summarily. Experience in some areas of the country has shown that this is undesirable in the limited number of small cases of fraudulent conversion, where one may find that the treasurer of some small club fraudulently converts a few pounds. It may well be that he is a man of previous good character, and that restitution has been made. Yet that case has to go through the whole parade of quarter sessions or assizes. If justices are competent to try cases of embezzlement or false pretences, in which a great many difficult points of law may arise, it is reasonable that they should also try certain cases of fraudulent conversion, and thereby save the public and the accused expense and worry.

That is the first part of this new Clause. The second part of it is a great deal stronger. At present justices have power to try cases of indecent assault on persons, male or female, under the age of 16; but they have not the power to try these cases if the victim is over 16. My first submission to the House is that the second class of cases is of a less serious nature than the first. I make no reflection on the police when I say that the fact that this second class has to go to quarter sessions or assizes results in a number of reported cases of this less serious character not being tried at all, owing to the fact that all the expense and concern of committal is involved. There is a number of cases, I regret to say, of offences in cinemas and similar offences of that nature—not very serious, but highly undesirable—in which the perpetrator is committing a great nuisance and demoralising people, and which are not brought to trial, in my submission, because of this Act. I think the time has come when we can trust summary courts with the trial of certain cases of indecent assault on persons over the age of 16. I hope the House will accept this new Clause. I have put, in connection with fraudulent conversion, a limit of £20, which is the limit laid down in other parts of the Second Schedule of the 1925 Act, to avoid the fraudulent conversion of any large sums being triable summarily.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I beg to second the Motion.

The difficulty one has in following my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) is that he leaves one so little to say, because he covers the ground adequately. However, it means that I shall not detain the House for any great length of time. With regard to Subsection (2) of this new Clause, I think it is quite essential in the very nature of things to remember that assaults on people under 16—and we are considering indecent assaults—are likely to be far more serious than assaults on people over that age; and it has always appeared to me to be a defect in the law that an indecent assault on a person under 16 can be dealt with at petty sessions, whereas an indecent assault on a person over 16 cannot. It certainly is the fact, as one can discover from many different sources of information, that these annoyances and unpleasantness—it is inappropriate to call them criminal actions—are committed with unhappy frequency, and unless they can be dealt with summarily it is unlikely they will be checked, and that the un-savoury incidents will continue. That is the reason for inserting Subsection (2).

With regard to Subsection (1), this is mainly to deal with an evident gap in the law. If the petty sessional courts can already deal with stealing, embezzling, and obtaining by false pretences, there is no logical reason why they should not also deal with fraudulent conversion, because, as my hon. Friend said, the crime of obtaining by false pretences may, and frequently does, raise problems as intricate and delicate in law as any accusation of fraudulent conversion. Therefore, I do feel that to leave fraudulent conversion alone out of the matters which can be dealt with by the petty sessions, so that such a case has to go to quarter sessions, is an instance of using a sledge-hammer to smash a peanut. The sledge-hammer method is useful in the bigger cases, but it is scarcely necessary to use all the paraphernalia, and to go to all the trouble, expense, inconvenience and disturbance, which the sending of a case to quarter sessions sometimes involves, in a comparatively trivial matter that does not involve more than£20. I hope, therefore, that the Home Secretary's mood is still in the same favourable condition as during consideration of the last new Clause we moved, and that he will be able to accept this one.

Mr. Maude

I have a consideration to moot on this matter. I have not had an opportunity of discussing it with my hon. Friends, but I think it will appeal to them as being of some importance. It arises from practical experience, and concerns Subsection (2). When a person is committed for trial for an indecent assault on a female—I am thinking of an actual case—it does so happen now and then that the jury thinks, and the court thinks with it, that a common assault has, in fact, been committed. If a person is committed to quarter sessions and convicted of common assault, the court has power to impose a sentence not exceeding 12 months, and very often that is the right sentence. If a person is dealt with by the justices, they have not the power to sentence him to anything like 12 months for common assault. Whereas I am in favour of the fundamental idea behind this new Clause—I think there is a great deal of nuisance of this sort going on all over the place—I hope some thought will be given to the second part of it, to see whether it is really wise. Particularly in relation to this, there is undoubtedly a temptation to get rid of a case in a summary way by dealing with it in the summary court, and that is not really the right way. It ought to go to quarter sessions. These are my views and I put them forward humbly, but I think there is something in them.

Mr. Ede

I think the case is quite sound with regard to the first of these proposals. I would point out, however, that the Second Schedule to the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, was very carefully drawn up, and if there had been the intention of a general revision of it, there might have been other proposals than those which appear on the Order Paper, which might have been included in a proposed new list to be added to the Schedule. But I think the case on the first proposal has been made out.

With regard to the second, I am not quite sure that the rectification of the anomaly which the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) proposes is not really to make an indecent assault on a person under 16 also one that must go to quarter sessions for trial. I share his view that it is a more serious offence, generally speaking, although there are, of course, exceptional cases. I very largely share the opinion expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude). I do not think it would be wise to accept Subsection (2) of this new Clause. I suggest to the House that we should read the new Clause a Second time, and when the proposition is made "That the Clause be added to the Bill," if Mr. Deputy-Speaker will accept it, I will move an Amendment to delete Subsection (2). I think that the views I have put forward are logical and if any alteration is to be made, it should be to remove indecent assault on a child under 16 from the Schedule rather than to bring indecent assault on an adult into the Schedule.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I am sure the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) is to be congratulated on the second success he has achieved this evening. I am sure we all welcome the Home Secretary's attitude towards the first part of this new Clause. In years gone by, I have experienced considerable difficulty in cases framed to be triable summarily because of this difficulty of the quarter sessions. I have risen to my feet only because of the Home Secretary's observations with regard to Subsection (2). I take the view that there is great merit in Subsection (2), and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give further thought to it. For once, I rather disagree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude). It is quite true that while the maximum for common assault triable at quarter sessions will exceed the maximum sentence passed at petty sessions, there are, of course, cases where a common assault, although not indecent in character, is more serious in nature than a technical indecent offence. I, personally, do not see any real risk of justice not being adequately administered following upon the acceptance of Subsection (2) of this Clause. I think that where there is any doubt in the minds of a Petty Sessions—

Mr. Deputy - Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Member, but I am wondering whether, for the convenience of the House, it would be possible to ensure more rapid passing of this Clause if we were to agree to its being read a Second time. Then, on the Motion, "That the Clause be added to the Bill," the Home Secretary could move to omit the last part.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I am sorry if I was out of Order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. and learned Member was not out of Order, but I thought it would be better to divide the Clause in that manner.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I was expressing these views so that the right hon. Gentleman could give further consideration to the matter. I do not wish to address the House at length, and had nearly concluded when you interrupted me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I suggest that it would give greater scope to petty sessions, and I do not believe that this would be an amendment of the law which would be followed by any degree of danger regarding the administration of justice.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move to leave out Subsection (2).

May I say, in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) that recently there have been some comments in certain high judicial quarters—

Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker; there is no Motion before the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is moving an Amendment.

Sir I. Fraser

The right hon. Gentleman cannot move an Amendment without there being a Motion before the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Home Secretary.

Mr. Ede

You, Sir, put the Question, "That the Clause be added to the Bill."

Sir I. Fraser

With respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you never put that Question.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I would point out that if I were to put that Question, and if it were carried, there could be no possible deletion of any kind.

Mr. Ede

I moved that Subsection (2) be deleted. There have been recent remarks in certain high judicial quarters about justices, on occasion, dealing with matters which—

Sir I. Fraser

I do not want to be obstreperous, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but Order is Order, and I beg for your Ruling whether it is in Order that there should be a Motion to amend something which is not before the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am sorry if I seem to show a lack of knowledge on this point, but I gather that the Home Secretary is in Order—that this Amendment has to be moved before that question that the Clause be added to the Bill is put to the House.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I will make a third effort. I hope the fact that I have again to allude to high judicial authority will not get me into trouble elsewhere. There have been remarks, which I think were justified, made quite recently about the way in which some justices deal with matters which ought to go for trial to a higher court. I cannot help thinking that if we include this second provision in the Second Schedule to the 1933 Act there may be occasions when that error will be repeated. I think I have shown myself to be quite reasonable in accepting the first part of this proposed new Clause. In view of the reasons that I have given, I think it would be desirable that this second Subsection should not be added to the Bill, but that when an appropriate opportunity occurs it is right that a provision concerning indecent assault on a child under 16 years of age should be added to the Second Schedule to the 1933 Act. It is because I believe that that is the proper way of redressing the anomaly to which the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) drew attention that I made the remarks that I made originally, and I hope he will feel that, in accepting the first part of the new Clause, I have gone a considerable way towards meeting the point he had in mind.

Mr. Turton

In view of the helpful attitude of the Home Secretary, it is very difficult for me to resist this Amendment, but I would like to ask him one question. There will be an opportunity for him in another place to reconsider the Bill. Will he, in the meantime, think over this problem? It may well be—I do not deny it—that some courts of summary jurisdiction assume to themselves jurisdiction over cases that should more properly be tried by courts of assize or courts of quarter session. That is a general criticism, and really the inclusion or exclusion of indecent assault on children over 16 years of age is not affected by that argument, in my submission. I would like to point out to the Home Secretary that by deleting this Subsection he is not dealing with the problem of the similar nuisance. That is a real problem in our big cities. The victim is not inclined to give evidence in a court of assize or in a court of quarter sessions, though the victim, if a girl, would be ready to give evidence at petty sessions.

I wish to say no more tonight, but I do hope the Home Secretary will reconsider this matter, and if, on mature reflection, he thinks there is a case for Subsection (2) he should reconsider it at a later stage. This new Clause was submitted to the Home Office as long ago as 1938 by one of the larger counties in England, and, therefore, it is not a new problem that is being posed. This problem was included in that proposition which was then made by that county.

Mr. Ede

I will certainly consider it.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, added to the Bill.