HC Deb 15 April 1948 vol 449 cc1259-62
Mr. Grimston

I beg to move, in page 36, line 9, after "partner," to insert "or employee."

On the Committee Stage it was suggested that the word "employee" should be added in order to show that an employee might come under the provision of paragraph (b). The Home Secretary said at that time that he would have the position further looked at, although there was a difficulty. We shall be glad to hear what he can tell us about that.

Mr. Gage

I beg to Second the Amendment.

Mr. Ede

This, again, is a matter which we have examined with great care, and I wrote a letter to the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. ManninghamBuller) giving him the result of our inquiries into the subject matter of this Amendment. The main usefulness of the provision in the Clause as to proof of ownership by a corporation has been in cases where the vehicle belongs to a large corporation, for example, the National Transport Board, whose headquarters may be far distant from the place where the offence was committed. It may be necessary to charge the corporation with aiding and abetting an offence, or with some specific offence for which the corporation and not the driver is responsible.

If, for example, the offence is in connection with the driving of a van or lorry which comes from a local railway depôt, the police can go to the local depôt and get a statement from the responsible person there that the van or lorry is one of the Board's vehicles. They will then have to serve a summons on the secretary of the National Transport Board in London, and this will be done either by post or, more probably, by a London police officer taking the summons to the headquarters office. If a representative of the Board does not appear at the proceedings, and no comunication is sent by the Board to the court, the police are able, under Regulation 17 (A) to use the statement of the Board's employee at the local depôt as evidence that the Board own the vehicle, and the court can then deal with the summons. If the offence is committed by a firm which is not a corporation, the police may serve the summons on the firm as they can on the secretary of a corporation. They will have to serve the summons on one of the partners or, if it is a one-man business, they will have to ascertain the name of the owner. In either case the police will have to find out before they serve the summons to what person the summons should be addressed. A statement by an employee of the firm that the vehicle belongs to that firm would not dispense the police from having to ascertain who was the owner or, if there is a partnership, the name of one of the partners, as any statement by the employee as to what person was the owner of the vehicle would frequently be worthless.

It is for this reason that the statement which can be used as evidence of ownership is limited in the case of a firm to a statement by a partner of the firm. It is not the purpose of this Clause to make provision to allow any statement by the driver of a vehicle as to its ownership to be used as evidence. It is the experience of the police that statements by drivers as to the ownership of the vehicle they are driving are often most unreliable, and although in form the regulation will allow such statements to be used as evidence, where the owner is a corporation, in practice such statements are treated by the police with considerable caution, and in the Metropolitan Police district, at least, are never used as evidence.

It would for the reasons that I have given, be of little practical value to the police to extend the existing provision to statements by employees of a firm, and it would be a mistake to put in the statute a provision which would encourage the police to use as evidence statements, however inaccurate or worthless, by drivers as to the ownership of a vehicle. The provisions of the existing regulation were very carefully drafted so as to make provision by which police time could be saved, without running the risk of a person being convicted upon inadequate evidence. Therefore I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that it is not desirable that this Amendment should be made.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Grimston

By leave of the House may I say that the Home Secretary has obviously been into this very carefully and has given an explanation which, for my part, is perfectly reasonable. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move, in line 16, at the end, to insert: (3) In any proceedings for an offence consisting of the stealing of goods in the possession of the British Transport Commission or any Executive (other than the Hotels Executive) constituted under Section five of the Transport Act, 1947, or for receiving goods so stolen knowing them to have been stolen, or for an offence under Section twelve or eighteen or Subsection (z) of Section thirty-three of the Larceny Act, 1916, or Sections fifty to fifty-six of the Post Office Act, 1908, a statutory declaration made by any person—

  1. (a) that he dispatched or received or failed to receive any goods or postal packet or that any goods or postal packet when dispatched or received by him were in a particular state or condition; or
  2. (b) that a vessel, vehicle or aircraft was at any time employed by or under the Post Office for the transmission of postal packets under contract,
shall be admissible as evidence of the facts stated in the declaration. This Amendment, and the three immediate subsequent Amendments to lines 18, 23 and 34, which are merely verbal consequential Amendments, had its origin in an Amendment proposed by the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage) on the Committee stage, and an undertaking by my right hon. Friend that he would look sympathetically at this and see whether he could find an Amendment which was even better than that proposed by the hon. Gentleman. In substance I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that this covers his point, and that it goes a little wider. Its object is to meet the great difficulty found, particularly by the railways, in having to bring their servants possibly from the furthest end of the country, in order to hive purely formal evidence which, in 99 cases out of too, is not in dispute, simply about the dispatch of goods which may be under consideration on a charge of theft or something of that kind.

The only reservation which my right hon. Friend expressed when considering the hon. Gentleman's Amendment was that he felt it might be not only the railways but others which would be concerned, and the House will observe that this Amendment extends also to the cases handled by the Post Office. There is also in paragraph (b) a new provision which had not been thought of at the time of the earlier discussion. This will enable evidence to be given by statutory declaration that a vehicle, vessel or aircraft was employed by or under the Post Office for the transmission of postal packets under contracts, and will avoid the necessity of producing the actual contract in court. This will be a useful provision, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Gage

I have scanned this Amendment with a careful and critical eye, and I confess that I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. It is a better Amendment than that which I originally thought of, and I think the additions to it are certainly to the general advantage of the administration of the criminal law. It only remains for me to express my gratitude, to which I am sure is allied the gratitude of hundreds, almost thousands, of unfortunate employees of railway companies and other services who, in the past, have had to make long journeys and wearisome stays in other towns in order to give purely formal evidence.

Amendment agreed to.

Consequential Amendments made.