HC Deb 15 April 1948 vol 449 cc1188-98

Section twenty-four of and the Second Schedule to the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, shall have effect as if there were included in the said Second Schedule, offences under twenty-six and twenty-seven of the Larceny Act, 1916, and where such an offence is dealt with summarily and it appears to the Court upon the evidence that the defendant did not complete the offence charged, but that he was guilty only of an attempt to commit the same, the charge shall not by reason thereof be dismissed but the Court shall be at liberty to convict the defendant of an attempt to commit the same, and thereupon that person shall be liable to be punished in the same manner as if he had been found guilty of the offence charged.—[Mr. Manningham-Buller.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

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

Last night, after a Clause had been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the Government accepted the addition to the Second Schedule of the Criminal Justice Act, of the offence of fraudulent conversion, with the result that that offence will become triable summarily. The object of this Clause is to make a further addition to that Schedule, and to provide that the offence of housebreaking and the committing of a felony and the offence of housebreaking with intent to commit a felony shall be triable summarily. Under the provisions of this Bill, by Clause 27, where a court comes to the conclusion that an individual's record is such that the punishment he should receive exceeds their powers, they may, after finding him guilty, commit him to trial.

One possible and probable consequence of that Clause will be that those with long records will, when they are charged, not consent to have their case tried summarily, but elect to go to trial, with the idea lurking in their minds that they may have a better chance of acquittal before a jury. If that view is well-founded, it appears to follow that the calendars of assizes and quarter sessions will become even more congested than at present. That is an additional reason why we should seek to make triable summarily offences of the nature which those with experience of the workings of quarter sessions and assizes would say, in the vast majority of cases, could be tried summarily.

I do not wish to suggest that there are not certain cases of housebreaking which are of a very serious character in the alarm and disturbance they create to the community, but there are other cases where the housebreaking is purely of a trumpery nature; where, for instance, a young man comes before the police court charged with housebreaking and committing larceny, who, because that is the charge, is sent to quarter sessions where the case is disposed of quite speedily, and where he receives a sentence that could have been imposed by a court of summary jurisdiction.

I suggest that there is no harm in making the offence of housebreaking triable summarily. I further suggest that it would be an improvement to our criminal law to make the offence of attempted housebreaking also triable summarily. It is really nonsense that if a person merely tries to break in by cutting out a piece of wood from the door and does not steal anything, he has, under our existing law, to be sent for trial at quarter sessions or assizes on a charge of attempted housebreaking. Surely there is a strong case for adding that offence to the list of offences triable summarily. I believe that there is a big argument in favour of a greater degree of flexibility, so as to permit petty sessions to deal with housebreaking of a trumpery character, while preserving their power to commit to trial cases of a serious nature.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Gage (Belfast, South)

I beg to second the Motion.

In doing so, I wish to comment briefly on what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) has said. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as he probably knows already, all the criminal courts in this country are greatly overburdened with work at the present time, and, therefore, it is most desirable, in the interests of justice and of having people tried speedily, to dispose of the comparatively minor offences in the lower courts, where they can be dealt with quickly.

As my hon. and learned Friend has said, many of the offences of housebreaking are of a most trivial character. Many of them, however, are very serious, and I do not for one moment wish it to be thought that I am trying to detract from the seriousness of the determined effects of housebreaking, but others, particularly attempts to break into houses, committed by young boys, are quite trivial in character; the breaking of a window—a halfhearted, stupid attempt, which is foiled almost at once, or where the offender is caught almost at once. I submit that these are cases that could quite properly be dealt with by a bench of magistrates. I have always looked upon it as being somewhat of an anomaly in our criminal law that this sort of case should not be dealt with summarily. Therefore, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to accept the new Clause.

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

It is true that last night I accepted one and a half of the new Clauses moved by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), because I thought that he had demonstrated that it was desirable that those particular offences should be added to the Second Schedule of the Criminal Justice Act, 1925. When we come to housebreaking, I think that, especially in view of the present prevalence of that crime, it is not desirable that the same course should be pursued. Housebreaking is a crime which gives very considerable anxiety to a large number of people in suburban areas, particularly near London, where people almost divide themselves as among the burgled and the to-be burgled. I know, having been burgled seven times myself before I held this office, the effect that burglary and housebreaking has on the minds of the women folk of a household.

I should be very reluctant at the present time to do anything that indicated that this House regarded housebreaking as among the minor crimes. One has to trust, if one puts these offences into the Schedule, on the good sense of the petty sessional court as to whether a case goes forward to a higher court or not. While I have no doubt that there are occasions—I make a present of this to the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller)—when the prosecutor and the witnesses for the prosecution are somewhat relieved when a case does not go for trial, there are also occasions when a court, with very limited powers in dealing with these cases, sometimes leaves on the minds of the prosecutor and the witnesses the feeling that the case has not been adequately dealt with.

I am all for relieving the senior courts, where it is possible to do so without injury to the standard of respect for the law of the country, of dealing with trivial cases, but I cannot accept this new Clause, because I think that, particularly at the present time, it is very desirable that we should continue to emphasise the seriousness with which the House regards the offences of housebreaking and of attempted housebreaking. I am not at all sure that what the hon. and learned Gentleman called a half-hearted attempt is something that should be regarded as trivial. I think that it is well to keep in the minds of the criminal classes, as well as in the minds of other people, the idea that this crime, with all the terror which it inflicts on a large number of people who never actually suffer from the depredations of the housebreaker, is regarded very seriously.

Mr. Mack (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

In view of the startling revelation which the Home Secretary has made of having been burgled on seven occasions, is that not calculated to give the impression that the Home Secretary can be burgled with impunity, and that joy and jubilation will be created as a consequence in the heart of the criminal classes? If he is so vulnerable as all that, surely adequate steps should be taken to protect him?

Mr. Ede

I was very careful to say that that happened before I was Home Secretary.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I did not seek to minimise in any way the offence of housebreaking. I suggest to the Home Secretary that, with the powers which the prosecution have, and will have, of indicating whether a case should be sent for trial or not, the risk of the serious cases being minimised in the public mind would not be very great if this Amendment were accepted. I would ask him to give further consideration to this matter. It was not discussed on the Committee stage, and it may be that with further consideration, he could go some way towards meeting us.

Mr. Ede

This is a subject which I have considered for some time, quite apart from this Bill. I would remind the hon. and learned Gentleman of what I alluded to last night—the recent remarks made in a high judicial quarter that the way in which magistrates have used their discretion in dealing with these cases has sometimes been unsatisfactory. I will, of course, consider the matter. I always listen with great respect to the remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman and of the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage), but it would be quite wrong of me to indicate that I thought that I ought to do this in the present Bill.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

think that the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) in commending this new Clause to us has raised a very important matter. It is perfectly true, of course, that some cases of housebreaking are trumpery, but this Clause does not distinguish between those attempts which are called trumpery and those attempts which may be very serious. This proposed Clause gives the court of summary jurisdiction both the duty and the right of passing the sentence. It is all very well for the hon. and learned Member to say that under Clause 27 of the Bill, the matter can be committed for sentence to quarter sessions, but this Clause vests in the court of summary jurisdiction the power to pass sentence. Supposing a case of attempted housebreaking to be committed by some person with a very bad record—a man who has not only attempted to commit housebreaking from time to time, but, in fact, has succeeded and has previously undergone a series of punishments—terms of imprisonment.

What are we going to do with a case of that kind? The sentence there may have to be a very serious one indeed. It may be penal servitude for many years, anything from three to 14 years according to the gravity of the case. Is it suggested that a matter of this fundamental and serious kind should be confided to a court of summary jurisdiction? Surely the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Daventry could not intend that and yet it is a manifest consequence of the proposal that he is now making. Anyone who is concerned in the administration of criminal justice knows that the worst difficulty is not in trying these people, but of knowing what to do with them and what sort of punishment to mete out to them. That is one of the most serious problems with which a court of quarter sessions and the judges who go on assizes have to deal.

The idea that the House should take that serious obligation out of the hands of the higher criminal courts and invest it in those sitting in courts of summary jurisdiction comes, I must say, as a matter of amazement to me. Knowing the hon. and learned Gentleman as I do, I am perfectly certain that if he gave this matter second thoughts he would not wish for that consequence in view of the serious and fundamental fact that the question of sentence is here involved and it may be, as it not infrequently is, that it is one of those cases where the person charged is a person with a very bad record, which the court in imposing its sentence has got to take into consideration. For these reasons I suggest that the House should not accept this new Clause.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

I would ask the Home Secretary to consider this matter again. I entirely agree with what has been said about the anxiety caused by housebreaking and the seriousness of this offence. We all desire to do nothing to make people think lightly of that offence. I am not quite certain what will be the effect of this Clause. As I understand it, the court would have the option either of dealing summarily with a matter, of sending it for trial by the ordinary procedure or alternatively—I should like to have confirmation of this from the right hon. Gentlernan—under Clause 27 trying a case in the summary court and sending it for sentence to a higher court.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

The proposed Clause we are now discussing imposes that obligation on the court. It confides to the court of summary jurisdiction the power of the justices to deal with sentence whatever the nature of the case or the record of the accused.

Mr. Lloyd

What I was suggesting was that there were certain alternatives. There is the alternative of dealing with it summarily or sending it for trial, or there is the other course of dealing with it summarily so far as the evidence is concerned and forwarding it for sentence to a higher court. From my own experience I will tell the right hon. Gentleman something of which he is perfectly well aware—the higher courts are absolutely clut- tered up with matters at the present time. In many courts the administration of justice has almost been brought into contempt, because so much work has to be done and the sittings of courts are lengthy and held under great stress. If anything can be done to relieve the pressure on these courts it will be a good thing to do.

For the serious case there are still these two courses of sending for trial in the ordinary way or sending to the higher court for sentence. In the case of a first offence by a man with a clean record, and especially if it is a trivial offence, it could be properly met by hearing it at the summary court of jurisdiction. Take the analogy of larceny. In each case it has to be decided whether on a charge of larceny the accused is sent for trial or dealt with summarily. Some larcenies are trivial, some extremely serious and according to whether they are trivial or serious it is decided which course should be taken. No harm would be done if the same course were adopted in regard to housebreaking.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Naturally, legal men, when discussing questions of this kind, talk about the higher courts being cluttered up with work and not being able to get ahead with the job, but what concerns the poor criminal who has been sent forward for trial is how long a wait he has in the cells before his case is brought to trial. That is something that has to be taken into account, and if we can devise a method of expediting the trials of many of these people who are arrested and held in confinement, so much the better. It is desirable that many of these cases should be dealt with summarily.

The remarks made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) have no bearing on this question and are quite irrelevant. If the type of criminal to whom he referred came before a court of summary jurisdiction, that criminal would be passed on to a higher court. I thought that legal men would have known a simple proposition of that kind. I have been before a court of summary jurisdiction and was transferred to a higher court because the court of summary jurisdiction would not deal with such a hardened case as myself.

There is one thing to which I wish to draw the Home Secretary's attention. He has already referred to it, and it is very important. He mentioned that a lot of housebreaking had taken place in suburban London. It is not only in suburban London that housebreaking takes place, but all over the country. In my own area there is a lot of housebreaking in working-class houses. I have a feeling that when hon. Members opposite talk about trivial and serious cases of housebreaking, they think that if some youth breaks into a working-class home and takes £5 worth of goods it is trivial, but that if someone breaks into a bourgeois house and takes £500 worth of goods, it is serious.

Mr. Turner-Samuels


Mr. Gallacher

If it is nonsense, what is trivial and what is serious? If someone breaks into a house, why should there be a difference about it? Why should one kind of housebreaking be trivial and one serious? Is it judged on the amount of goods taken? From the point of view of the occupants of a working-class house, the breaking into that house and the loss of £5 may be much more serious than the breaking into a larger house and the loss of £500. What determines trivial and serious? The Home Secretary was quite right to make it clear that there can be no question of considering housebreaking as trivial in any circumstances.

It is a serious offence and if those who introduced this new Clause had refrained from raising this question of trivial and serious types of housebreaking, a better case could be made for the new Clause. While agreeing with the attitude the Home Secretary has adopted towards housebreaking, I would ask him to consider accepting something else, if this new Clause is not acceptable, to expedite the treatment of these chaps who are charged with housebreaking, so that in many cases—where, for instance, it is a first offence—they can be dealt with in, a court of summary jurisdiction instead of being passed to a higher court. There are too many men and women who are kept waiting for long weeks in prison before their case comes to trial, and for that reason I ask the Home Secretary seriously to consider doing something to expedite matters so that these people may be more quickly brought to trial.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I should like to say a word in support of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), who moved this new Clause; but, I rise mainly for the purpose of calling attention to the characteristically offensive observation by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). If it had been made by anybody but him, and if he were taken seriously in any quarter of the House instead of only as a joke, I should have raised a point of Order. He made the most wounding accusation possible against hon. Members on this side of the House and the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels), sitting beside him. He said that we did not in the least mind what happened to poor people and that it was only the rich people who concerned us. There the voice from Moscow speaks. There the hon. Member follows the dictates of his masters in making himself personally offensive to other people in the House of Commons.

Mr. Gallacher

Would the very angry noble Lord who is accusing me be good enough to tell the House what is trivial housebreaking and what is serious housebreaking?

Earl Winterton

That matter has been fully explained in the previous speeches. I can assure the hon. Member that I am not in the least angry. Nobody could be angry with him—only sorry for anybody who makes himself such a pitiful fool as he does. I take the greatest exception to the insolent attack which he has made upon this side of the House.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

On a point of Order. Is an hon. Member allowed, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to call another hon. Member a fool?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The expression is not in the very best of taste, but it also is not one the use of which has been decided to be unparliamentary.

General Sir George Jeffreys (Petersfield)

This matter has already been exhaustively dealt with, but I would like to put one point to the House. At the end of last week I was approached by a very experienced chairman of quarter sessions, with his clerk. They urged that some such provision as this should be introduced into the Bill, because of the overcrowding of the calendar at quarter sessions. They mentioned cases of petty housebreaking, very slight cases indeed. They were technically housebreaking, possibly of a house being entered by quite a young man, sometimes in a spirit of bravado. Although a man who had broken into the house had taken nothing at all, the case was usually committed for trial. Such cases were crowding the calendar at quarter sessions.

I was also told that the quarter sessions in the county were now taking more than a week, with two courts sitting, and for very long hours. Many of the cases might quite well have been dealt with by benches of magistrates. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must leave a certain amount to the discretion of magistrates, but under Clause 27 magistrates will be empowered, if they find a man to be an old and hardened offender, to decide that he should not be dealt with by them but should be sent to a higher court. I appeal to the Minister to consider this question afresh and to see whether it is not possible to leave more discretion to courts of summary jurisdiction to deal with cases of attempted housebreaking and of what I might call petty breaking.

Mr. Weitzman (Stoke Newington)

I hope that at least one voice will be raised in support of the Clause from this side of the House. The only objection made by the Home Secretary was that housebreaking was a very serious offence. That statement shows very great distrust of the ability of magistrates to deal with such cases. Anyone who practises in the courts knows that there are hundreds of trumpery cases, technically of housebreaking, in which, with all the solemnity of the law, the prisoner is committed for trial. Then there may be a long time of waiting before he is tried, and great injustice is suffered. The proposed new Clause should receive support. I cannot see why the Home Secretary cannot accept it.

Mr. Ede

I will give this matter consideration. I am not unimpressed by the remarks that have been made. It may be that in my sufferings as a burgled person, I am inclined to some bias in the matter. I am sure that I shall carry the House with me when I say that what are some- times called petty burglaries create a state of terror in a neighbourhood of which the law must take account. The idea that such cases can be disposed of in the same way as a drunk and disorderly case is disposed of, whether or not it has been called petty or trivial, gives quite a wrong impression in the minds of citizens in whom we have to maintain confidence in the administration of the law in these difficult times.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

With the leave of the House I would like to say one further word. We appreciate the caution which the Home Secretary is exercising to prevent the offence of housebreaking from scaring the general public. We are with him in that matter and welcome his attitude. I am sure, however, that it would facilitate the administration of justice if we made some provision of this character. These Sections of the Larceny Act not only cover housebreaking but involve committing for trial even a youth who breaks into a warehouse or a shop and steals fivepence worth of goods. As the right hon. Gentleman has very fairly said that he will look further into this matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.