HC Deb 29 March 1955 vol 539 cc278-87

7.28 p.m.

Mr. Roy Jenkins (Birmingham, Stechford)

I beg to move in page 2, line 1, after " information " to insert " on oath."

This is a very small Amendment which, I think, will not keep the Committtee for more than a few moments. It may be that the Government will be able to clear up quickly the doubt in my mind which led to my putting the Amendment on the Order Paper.

Clause 3 (1) seems a little peculiar because, as far as I can see, information can be laid before the justices which can lead to the issuing of a warrant to arrest a person without such information having to be laid upon oath, whereas a little later the same subsection provides that there must be written information, substantiated on oath before a search warrant can be issued in order to search premises and obtain copies of the materials about which there is complaint.

It seems to me rather peculiar that the provision " on oath " should be specified in one case and not in the other. I am sure that the Government wish to avoid any frivolous proceedings of any kind arising under the Bill and it appears to me that that object might be achieved by inserting " on oath " in the first line of the Clause.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

The Amendment in its present form is not really satisfactory since it might imply that the original information must be on oath even where a summons is issued and there is no intention of applying for a search warrant. Under the law it is not necessary that information on which a summons is issued should be on oath, and there is no justification for departing from that general rule in this case.

But the hon. Member has put a point of interest. If the object is to ensure that in any case where an application has to be made for a search warrant the original information on which the summons is issued should also be on oath, I think that he has put a valid point and one which shall be looked into between now and the next stage of the Bill. I will give an undertaking to that effect if the hon. Member is prepared to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Jenkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his undertaking to look at this point again, but it seems to me peculiar that if, in accordance with the general practice of the law, information must be laid on oath before a search warrant can be issued, it should be thought unreasonable that it should be laid on oath before a person could be arrested. That is a point which occurred to me, and I hope the Under-Secretary will bear it in mind. However, in view of what he has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 23, to leave out from " work " to " and " in line 25.

As hon. Members will see, the effect of this Amendment would be to leave out the words: and any copies of any other work which the constable has reasonable cause to believe to be one to which this Act applies… It seems to me that the whole of this Clause gives powers of search to a police constable which are too wide in the circumstances.

Let me say straight away that I do not think my Amendment can in itself stand, but it is put in this way so that the Government will have an opportunity to look at the Clause again. The difficulty which arises in this. Under Clause 3 (1) information is to be laid before a justice of the peace in respect of a work which is described as a relevant work, and if he is satisfied by written information on oath that there is reasonable ground for suspecting that a person has in his possession or under his control that relevant work or any other work to which it applies, then a search warrant will be issued.

So off goes the police officer in pursuance of his duty to find the work which has been laid down in the information. But he is not allowed to have a free roam around the publisher's premises. When he arrives at the premises, it seems to me that what he will be able to do is not merely to seize the work which is the subject matter of the information, but also he will have the opportunity to roam round the publisher's premises and at the same time seize anything else which he wishes to take. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend—and I am surprised at him —says " Why not? " It is the whole essence of the system of Government in this country that we do not allow people into private premises to seize anything other than that about which there is reasonable and proper suspicion and about which information has been laid on oath.

The whole purpose of the Clause is that written information must be given and substantiated on oath that there is a reasonable belief that there exists a work of a relevant nature or any other work to which the Bill applies. I should like to give this example. It is one thing for a police constable to seize horror comics, but it is quite another thing to go to premises and seize dirty postcards or something else which a police constable may think is wrong.

What I am venturing to submit is that we are not going to be bound by what a police constable thinks is wrong material. The proper criterion is what a justice of the peace thinks to be wrong material. I suggest that this Clause is too wide. I may be wrong on this. It may be that the Government can satisfy us that the powers of search are not wider than are required, but of one thing I am quite sure—and one would have the support of the Home Secretary in this—that if the powers are too wide and will catch within their ambit not merely horror comics but also other material, then this Clause needs to be looked at again If we can convince the Home Office of that, I am certain that we shall elicit the sympathy of my right hon. and gallant Friend. So I am moving this Amendment by way of exploration more than anything else.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Are not the fears of the hon. Member unfounded, because Clause 3 (1) (i) says: …. any other work which the constable has reasonable cause to believe to be one to which this Act applies. Therefore the matters to which the hon. Gentleman refers do not come into it at all.


I have considered that point. If we look at the first paragraph we see that subsection (1) lays down that information has to be laid before a justice of the peace about a person who is suspected of committing an offence in order to issue a warrant. That is the first matter.

Mr. Blackburn

I was only stressing the last few words …to be one to which this Act applies.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Oh yes, but it seems to me that it is the police constable's test which is applied and not that of the justice of the peace. I am putting forward this Amendment with no absolute certainty. I may be wrong about this. I say that quite freely, but I say that it would be quite a serious matter to give a police constable powers which are wider than are required. I want the Home Secretary to look at it and see that we are not doing that. It is for that reason that I am putting the Amendment forward.

I will conclude with these points. If it is not the relevant work, then I am not altogether sure why we need the words: … or any other work to which this Act applies. That, of course, is contained in Clause 3 (1, a) and is again mentioned in this paragraph (i). It will be seen that it says: any copies of the relevant work … which is the subject matter of the information. We are going to give a justice of the peace the right to issue a warrant if there is a suspicion that a person has in his possession or control any copies not only of the relevant work but of any other work to which the Act applies. On that a search warrant can be issued, and it seems to me that the power is rather wide. So I invite the Government to look at the Clause to see whether the powers are not wider than are necessary.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

If this Bill becomes law, the distribution of harmful publications, if it is carried on, will be done in secrecy, and it will be difficult for the police to obtain evidence on which to base proceedings in respect of a particular work. The whole object of the powers of search and seizure given by this Clause is to enable the police, once proceedings have been initiated, to search the premises of the person concerned and to prevent the further circulation of the horror publications by seizing any other copies of a particular work, and, of course, copies of any other works to which they have reasonable cause to believe that the Bill applies.

No copies seized can be destroyed unless the person concerned is convicted in respect of each individual work. There are, therefore, ample safeguards against any abuse of the power of seizure. I may add that the

Mr. Rees-Davies

I think that the point has entirely escaped my hon. Friend. Suppose a police officer arrives at the premises and, when he is there, finds that the owner is a purveyor of pornography, which is quite different from horror comics; and that the policeman says, " I am going to seize the Decameron,' because I think he is going to try to introduce a pornographic edition of it." Would my hon. Friend deal with that point?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. Member is making his speech twice over. 1 have not yet had an opportunity to answer that point. I was proposing to mention another matter before dealing with that.

The powers provided by Clause 3 are much less drastic than those in the Obscene Publications Act, 1857, which enable premises to be searched and articles to be seized without any criminal proceedings being brought against the person concerned. My hon. Friend said that the words he proposes to leave out might refer to dirty postcards. Of course, they could refer to no such thing. The words are any other work to which this Act applies. In other words, a work within the definition in Clause 1 of the Bill. That certainly does not mean dirty postcards.

My hon. Friend went on to suggest that notwithstanding that the Bill does not apply to such works, nevertheless they may be seized. Of course, in seizing works, the police would first have to have reasonable cause to believe that they were works to which the Bill applied. They would also have to see that the Bill did apply. If they did not do so, they would not be covered by this Measure and their seizure would not be made lawful by this Bill. I do not think that my hon. Friend should press his Amendment.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I hope that the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) will withdraw this Amendment. I wish to support the views advanced by the Joint Under-Secretary. The books at which the Bill is aimed appear periodically, and different issues are generally to be found on the same stall or in the same bookshop. If we have to specify the January issue, or the February issue, or the August issue, and so on, before these works can be seized, I think that we should be putting a hindrance in the way of the police in dealing with notorious offenders, which is something we should not wish to do.

An officer might go to premises in the first instance to see, for example, the January issue of a publication.which was the one that he was after. He might notice a pile of such publications in some obscure corner of the shop—because, as the hon. Gentleman says, this will be carried on with some degree of secrecy. Before getting to the January issue he might have to examine several others which would be immune from action. I can visualise that his activities might be hampered and an unnecessary amount of extra work created for him.

I do not think that the fears expressed by the hon. Member are justified, and he might find that he is supporting the people whom, I am sure, he does not wish to support. I am convinced by what has been said by the Joint Under-Secretary that this is a reasonable arrangement to make the Bill workable.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

Suppose a constable obtained a warrant under this Bill and went to the publisher's premises or to a bookshop, or some other place, to seize certain specific material. Suppose he seized material which he has reason to believe might be subject to proceedings under the Obscene Publications Act. Can he take such material and bring proceedings under a different Act, or must he get another warrant in order so to do?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

He could not seize such material under the cover of this Bill. Whether or not he would be in a position to take action under another Act is quite irrelevant to the matter we are discussing.

Mr. Rees-Davies

In the light of the observations, both from the Joint Under-Secretary and the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 45, at the end, to add: (4) Where such matter as is referred to in subsection (1) above is seized, the police shall within a reasonable time bring proceedings under section two against the person from whom the matter was seized and unless the court otherwise order the matter shall be returned forthwith to the person from whom it was seized. This Amendment deals with the situation after seizure. It is quite a simple Amendment with, I think, quite a reasonable purpose. The object is to make sure that, having seized a work under this Bill, the police and the authorities will act quickly in bringing a prosecution. It may well be, through some dilatoriness on the part of the police, or some doubt which may have overtaken them about whether the publication is one on which proceedings should be instituted, that they may drag the matter on for weeks, perhaps months, during the whole of which time the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the publisher—it may be quite unjustly.

The only purpose of this Amendment is to say that, within a reasonable time after seizure, the police shall bring proceedings against the person from whom they have seized the material. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will consider this a perfectly reasonable safeguard.

Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

What is a reasonable time?

Mr. Robinson

It cannot in any way create a loophole in the Bill, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider it favourably.

Mr. Blackburn

May I ask my hon. Friend to deal with the last part of the Amendment?

Mr. Robinson

I should have thought that it was completely self-explanatory. If proceedings are not brought in respect of the work seized, it is perfectly reasonable that the work should be returned to the publisher.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

This Amendment is unnecessary for the following reason. So far as England and Wales are concerned, the Police Property Act, 1897, provides that where any property has come into the possession of the police in connection with any criminal charge a court of summary jurisdiction may on application either by an officer of police or by a claimant of the property make an order for the delivery of the property to the person appearing to the magistrate or court to be the owner thereof. The person whose property is seized by virtue of a warrant granted under Clause 3 of this Bill could, therefore, make an application to the court if proceedings were not brought within a reasonable time. It would be for the court to say what was a reasonable time. In those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member will not press his Amendment.

Mr. Robinson

In view of the explanation of the Joint Under-Secretary of State, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. K. Robinson

I beg to move, in page 2, line 45, at the end, to add: (4) No destruction of any matter seized shall take place until the expiration of the fourteen days allowed by section eighty-four of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, for the giving of notice of intention to appeal to quarter sessions against the said order, or in the case of a trial before a court other than a magistrate's court until the relevant period for giving notice of appeal has elapsed. This, also, is a very simple Amendment, and I do not know whether the Joint Under-Secretary will say that it, too. is unnecessary. But it is surely only right that any matter seized should not be destroyed between the time of its seizure and any appeal that may be made to quarter sessions. I do not think that the Amendment requires any further explanation from me, and I await with interest the response of the hon. Gentleman.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

When I said that the previous Amendment was unnecessary, I did not mean to say that the hon. Gentleman's action in raising the point was unnecessary, because that was a perfectly proper thing to do in Committee. However, I am afraid that this Amendment also is really unnecessary, because the police would never destroy anything if they knew that an appeal was being considered.

I believe that in the Obscene Publications Act, 1857, there is a provision similar to that intended in this Amendment, and if there was any very strong feeling about it, it would be possible to put in some provision of the kind in this Bill. It does not appear to be necessary, and I would not recommend the Committee to do it, but, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to press the Amendment, I will give an undertaking that the point will be considered.

Mr. Ede

I think that this is a point which the Government might consider in the light of what the Joint Under-Secretary of State has just said. Mistakes do happen, even with the police, and material might disappear. I speak as one who a few years ago used to see a great deal of gambling material brought into the Epsom Magistrates Court on the day after the Derby. I make no allegations against the Metropolitan Police, for whom I have the greatest respect, but I know that some of the machines brought in disappeared very shortly after the case had been heard, without the unfortunate defendant who had lost them being given any opportunity of considering whether he would add to the fortunes of lawyers by appealing.

Some of these things might be very tempting to have privately, and I suggest that this is the kind of thing concerning which it would be wise for the Govern- ment to consider putting an express provision into the Bill so that nobody could be in any doubt that a wrong would be committed if the property were not available during the days stated.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The proposal is not altogether simple, but there is a point in it, and my right hon. and gallant Friend will certainly look into the matter to see if he can find some form of words which will meet the point.

Mr. Robinson

I think that it would be most unfortunate if the Bill omitted a safeguard which was specifically put into the Obscene Publications Act, 1857, but, in view of the undertaking of the Government to look into the matter, and to look favourably upon it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.