HC Deb 26 March 1953 vol 513 cc874-9

Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Carmichael

I shall be brief now, but I want to thank the Home Secretary for clearing up a point that was disturbing me. Nevertheless, I am still opposed to the Bill. This Measure was brought in to clean up a gang of thugs. I want to say a word about my own city, because it has been criticised in many parts of the country. My city is in a better state today than ever it was, and the conduct of the people there is much better than ever before, and it is because of the general social improvement brought about by administrative Government. In my opinion this Bill will not alter the situation in any way at all, for it will not alter the social conditions, or the methods of improving the lot of the people.

In association with the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan), I would ask the Home Secretary to consider seriously making this a temporary Measure. No one knows the law better than the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself and the Lord Advocate, and they know that for many years the present law was quite capable of meeting the problems that arose in either England or Scotland. I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider the advisability of making this a temporary Measure, to last, say, five years, if he likes, although it is a bad thing to introduce into the law of this country the principle that the onus of proof is entirely on the person arrested. I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will consider that with the utmost seriousness.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)

The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) suggested that much of the answer to this problem would be found in meting out severe punishments on criminals caught in acts of crime, and I fully support the view expressed. He also supported a suggestion that this Bill might be a temporary Measure. I would support that view, too.

I suppose the real answer is that criminals or potential criminals should themselves render the Measure one that will not require to be used on many occasions. Therefore, the answer is really in the hands of the people of the country. We must hope that this unfortunate crime wave is only temporary. The hon. Member for Bridgeton made reference to crimes in Scotland. We down here have suffered rather unfortunately, particularly in the last few years, and many of us are very disturbed about this particular crime wave. Nevertheless, I strongly support the view expressed that this might be a temporary Measure.

Just before Christmas, on the Adjournment, I raised this issue in connection with an unfortunate matter we experienced in Croydon. At that time I made a plea that this problem of the carrying of dangerous weapons might be considered by the Government. I thank the Home Secretary for bringing forward this Measure, because even if it prevents only one possible crime it will be well worth while. I feel that the unfortunate victims in many of these cases have not had enough consideration, and if this Bill will stop one possible crime from taking place it will have been well worth while. The title of the Bill, after all, is the "Prevention of Crime." I sincerely hope that it lives up to that description.

I do not share the uneasiness expressed about this Bill. I am glad it has been brought in despite the fact that some hon. Members, particularly the legal ones, on either side of the House do not seem to know what will happen when the issues are brought before the courts. I hope the courts will not be put into those difficulties, but, anyhow, the intention is there to see that the weapons that, it must be admitted, were getting about the country, shall not be used. If the Bill prevents their being used, it is a good Measure. So I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for bringing it in, and I only hope that the crime wave will not last, so that this Measure will not have to be used.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)

Several speakers have referred to the crime wave which exists—in their minds, at any rate —at the present time. I entirely agree that there is a phase of crime at present, and I think that the most admirable reasons for its existence were given by the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) today. This is, surely, a phase which is going to pass, but, in the meantime, I personally think that it is as well to take all possible measures we can take to deal with such crime as exists at the present time. That is why I am very glad indeed that this Bill has been brought in. Just to what extent it will be successful in preventing crime is quite another story, and none of us can tell. I do not think it will have very much effect either way.

I was delighted to hear the hon. and gallant Gentleman putting in a word for the countryside. Far too often legislatures in all countries think only of the townsman and his needs and his crimes and his pleasures. I must say that I do not think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman's fears were well founded in this case. Surely, a farmer going to shoot rabbits with a gun in his hand could not possibly come within the mischief of this Bill? If he did, what court on earth would find him guilty? If no court would find him guilty, what police constable would attempt to take him for it?

Captain Duncan

In Scotland, if a man carried firearms within range of the public road, the court would find him guilty.

Mr. Mallalieu

That has nothing to do with this particular Bill, which relates to the prevention of crime. As a matter of fact, if a man had an offensive weapon on him for a perfectly legitimate purpose, he would not be punished by any court and, consequently, no police constable would take him to court. On the example of an armed poacher stealing up the glens of Angus, I can see nothing unreasonable in helping a constable, who has the courage to arrest him, and if this Bill helps to arrest him, I shall be satisfied.

I do not think that there will be any real danger to any law-abiding citizen as a result of this Bill, and although I do not think that it will do all that the Minister would wish in suppressing crime, I doubt whether it will do any harm to law-abiding citizens, especially having regard to the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has accepted every possible effort on the part of hon. Members on both sides of the House to bring in as many safeguards as possible. It is on that note that I wish to end.

Although I may perhaps be running the risk of acute controversy with the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) if I suggest that it was one of my suggestions that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should make a certain improvement in the Bill, nevertheless, I did make that suggestion, and I wish to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the alteration he made in Clause 1 (3), which was one of the suggestions which I made to him during the Second Reading debate. I think that, as a result, it will now be very unlikely for anyone to be arrested and to come within the mischief of that subsection unless something really serious has happened or is about to happen. I think that is all very much to the good, and I should like to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

5.52 p.m.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I do not want to detain the House for more than a moment or two. It would be wrong to allow the Bill to go forward without my first expressing gratitude—and this is not mere Parliamentary form—to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House who have helped in the construction and bringing forward of the Bill. I tried, from the moment before Christmas when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) asked me a question, to bring this forward as an all-party matter. We have done so, and I am very grateful indeed.

The second thing I want to do is to make one last effort to allay the doubts of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael), for whose opinion I have a great respect. I ask him to consider the three categories which I will endeavour to describe. The first category is: something made for the purpose of causing injury. A man walks along—I care not whether in Sauchiehall Street, Princes Street or Piccadilly— with a revolver or a cosh or a knuckle duster in his pocket. What we are saying there, in statutory language, is that the thing itself speaks. That is a great principle of law from the beginning of time.

The second category concerns the piece of wood with a razor blade or something of that kind—there are many others with which we are familiar. If some one has actually made up that weapon of offence, again, the thing speaks, and we say, "Give your explanation. If you have a reasonable excuse, you are all right." I cannot believe that that is oppressive legislation. In the third category, concerning something which is prima facie innocent, the onus of proof remains on the prosecution.

Applying that to the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan), I very much doubt whether, with the man who is out to shoot rabbits or something of that kind, the prosecution would get over the first hurdle in this Bill. But if someone is going along the roads of Angus with a sten gun, then in heaven's name why should not he be arrested and imprisoned? That is my answer to the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South. I have no worries about that at all.

These are really the two points in the Bill. I only want to make one other point on the general position, and I hope that the House will bear with me. I ask the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bridgeton to remember the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields, in which he said that today we were dealing with a type of mind among young men which we had not seen before. The right hon. Gentleman said that one of the terrifying aspects of crime today was that it was not caused by penury or hardship. Sometimes these young men had too much money. Therefore, the ordinary rules which motivated so many social workers in the past have to be reconsidered.

I have always said to this House that legislation alone is not enough to deal with the problem, but I do not believe that this will be an impotent Measure in the attack on the use of violence: it will at least make people think. This Bill is only part of our general plan. It works on parallel lines with the penal legislation for which the right hon. Gentleman was responsible, and which we are trying to put into operation at the same time. It works on parallel lines with the increased recruitment to police forces for which the whole House has asked. Lastly, and most important of all, is the attempt for which I have asked —and in which the whole House, I think, has given its assent—to co-operate by whatever means lies to our individual hands in improving the moral standards of our time. This Bill is one contribution to a general attack on this problem.

I would, however, say to the House that the problem is still there. The hon. Member for Bridgeton quoted figures. Today I am glad to be able to tell the House that in 1952 there were 513,559 indictable offences known to the police as compared with 524,506 in 1951. Even so, the number of offences of breaking and entering, sexual offences, and offences of violence against the person show an increase. It is not a large increase but still an increase—in the last category of 6,516 to 6,997. [An HON. MEMBER: "United Kingdom figures?"] No, these are figures for England and Wales alone—the Bill, of course, applies to England and Wales. I say to the House that, as Home Secretary, I cannot ignore that position, and I ask the House to send this Bill forward as a contribution towards dealing with a grave problem.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.