HC Deb 11 November 1954 vol 532 cc1513-6
Mr. Willey

I beg to move, in page 24, line 23, to leave out "one hundred," and insert "two hundred and fifty."

I am surprised that we have not the Solicitor-General here. I understand that he is on his way, and I hope that he has been spending his time reading the speeches which he made in Committee on the Merchandise Marks Bill, to which I called his attention when I moved a rather different Amendment at an earlier stage in our proceedings. I am in some difficulty, because I hoped that the points which I proposed to make would influence the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reply. I hope that he has not made up his mind so that nothing that I say will have any effect upon him.

I make a point which the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate. We have expressed some concern about Clause 7, in which there is the provision that a court can make an order disqualifying a caterer from using his premises as catering premises for a period not exceeding two years. We are most anxious that this business of disqualification should not become the practice of the courts. We do not think that they are properly equipped to know the facts. If this resort to the courts is to be made we hope that reliance will not be placed upon putting a man out of business for two years. They have not got the opportunity properly to examine the matter.

9.0 p.m.

If the choice is merely between a penalty of £100, which is far less than the average provision of about £200 to £250 in current statutes, there is a strong temptation to resort to the disqualification. This is a new factor since we last discussed the matter in the presence of the Solicitor-General. I should have thought that because of the new Clause there was, from the point of view of practical administration, everything to be said for increasing the penalty.

Different circumstances now obtain. We emphasise that, because Clause 7 provides for disqualification for two years, there should be a better alternative than merely a fine of £100 which is less than is provided in most statutes with which we can compare the Bill. I concede at once that there is no rhyme or reason about the penalties. It is difficult to compare penalty with penalty and to deduce any principle at all but, with the new conditions which obtain, there is everything to be said for having a penalty of more than £100.

I hope that the Solicitor-General is well fortified by having carefully studied what he said on the Committee stage of the Merchandise Marks Act and that he will agree, in the light of the new factor that there is power to disqualify, that it would be better to allow the courts the alternative of imposing a fine of more than £100.

Mr. G. Darling

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Solicitor-General

We share with the hon. Member the desire that the penalties in these Clauses should be adequate and right, but I know that he realises that this is a difficult problem because there is no very precise measure which can be applied. I entirely agree that whatever guidance we can get from legislation in other fields is really quite useless. I looked, in courtesy to him, at what he said about merchandise marks in Committee, and I was glad to discover, as he had there declared, that it is positively confusing to look at penalties in other legislation. I respectfully agree with him.

We have looked very carefully at the question. The difficulty is that obviously one's object ought to be to keep the maximum penalty broadly in line with the maximum penalty that this House had recently approved in legislation of this class. As the House well knows, despite the exceptions, the standard maximum fine in magistrates courts, broadly speaking, is now £100. One would want strong grounds before departing from that. Broadly, the list of exceptions covers that kind of case where one must give the magistrates power to take out the profit from transactions which are inherently profitable, such as tax evasion, or duty evasion, or trafficking in opium and jolly practices like that. There is also the broad class of exceptions where, for quite different reasons, imprisonment is not the threat it would be here—the kind of legislation which is going to deal with defendants like large corporations and offences under the Merchant Shipping Acts or civil aviation or something of that kind.

I ask the House to think how different is this case from some of the penalties we have to consider in that the £100 maximum has the recent approval of this House in this field. The principal Act here is not so very old in the sense in which we are speaking. It dates to only 1938. One is surprised to notice that in the principal Act, for practices so dangerous as selling food unfit for human consumption, it is thought that a fine of £50 is enough. That was in only 1938. The Act of 1950, under the last Administration, also approved a maximum of £100 fine to be applied in practices as dangerous as selling tuberculous milk, which seems a horrible enough kind of offence.

So I urge that essentially the £100 maximum is something which has the very recent approval of this House in this field. The hon. Member spoke about the penalty of disqualification of premises for two years. I know he will bear in mind that the penalty of a £100 fine and three months' imprisonment is for the first offence. Although I do not know the psychology of defendants in this field, I would have thought that it was a stalwart defendant who would not be deterred by that.

I would add other considerations and one is, according to the information available to me that none of the magistrates' courts has found its powers insufficient in this field since the House so recently approved this penalty. That is a matter the House would want to take into account. Having given this the most careful consideration we feel that the effect of this would be to put the maximum penalty quite out of line with the general standard, and out of line with the penalty that the House has already approved in this field. In those circumstances, I feel obliged not to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Willey

Before I ask leave to withdraw this Amendment, I make just this final appeal to the hon. and learned Gentleman. He has not done me the honour of studying what I said before he came. I hope he will take advantage of that and advise his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor when this Bill returns to another place that we do not share the Parliamentary Secretary's abhorrence of the catering industry. We do not share his dislike of this industry and we are anxious to avoid unnecessarily bringing it before the police court. We are anxious, also, to avoid the police courts having to resort to disqualifying a man from carrying on his business, except in a particularly flagrant case.

I accept what he said about a standard fine. We have been conducting a Dutch auction and he has brought us down to this £100. But in this case there is the exceptional factor that we do not want the court to feel obliged to resort to disqualification when, in the circumstances of the case, it might be that a fine larger than £100 would better meet the case. I know he will carefully consider all I have said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.