HC Deb 22 April 1959 vol 604 cc476-84

No person shall be convicted of an offence under section one of this Act except upon the evidence of at least two witnesses each testifying to material particulars.—[Mr. Hale.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hale

Ibeg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

There are two points on this Clause, one of which is an administrative one. I do not know what the police think about this, but I have said that the police face very special difficulties in this matter. It is a great tribute to the Metropolitan Police Force that there has been no major scandal, as far as I can recollect, in connection with this matter for many years. We all remember a period when there were a great many such scandals. I do not think anyone would suggest that this situation does not give rise to temptations and possibilities of corruption. Therefore, without having any ground for saying it, I would suspect that on the whole the police would prefer to act in couples in dealing with this matter. It is a protection to each policeman against misrepresentation and unfounded allegation. The policeman's reputation is just as much at stake as anyone else's in this matter.

Curiously, in his system of cautioning, the Attorney-General has provided for two policemen. Admittedly, one makes his diagnosis and calls his associate into consultation, but there is a second witness to the cautioning. I think it is desirable that there should be a second person—not necessarily a policeman, if a civilian is willing to testify.

This is a genuine appeal to the sincerity of the House. In the 1930s a Bill was introduced to provide that small fines could be imposed on motorists for exceeding the speed limit in a built-up area. The House said, "Many hon. Members are motorists and this is the sort of thing for which they might be pinched." Therefore, the House provided that there should be no conviction for speeding except on the evidence of two witnesses. Ever since then, two witnesses have to occupy a police car when a motorist is pulled up for this offence. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] Yes, until a decision of the Court of Appeal got round it by deciding that a clock or a speedometer was a witness. The Attorney-General appears to indicate assent. Here, for the moment, the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I are at one, so down with these interruptions.

Is it not reasonable to suppose that the sort of security we provide for the elderly motorist who might be liable to a fine of £2 or £3 should be provided for a young girl who is facing the possibility of being convicted and labelled as a common prostitute? I suggest that this is a perfectly reasonable Clause.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

I beg to second the Motion.

It was very distressing to hear a Government spokesman refuse to accept the previous proposed new Clause. It is a good rule that those who do not pretend to have expert and detailed knowledge of a subject should sit quietly and listen to those who have, but there are some factors which are known to all of us and it is extremely worrying to think that the Government, in trying to deal with the nuisance of soliciting at street corners, should be said to be in danger of creating a pimps' charter or, in other words, an underground industry.

I hope that, having taken that line which I regret on the previous Motion, the Government can accept this Clause. I cannot see what possible objection can be taken to making not only sure but doubly sure before there is a conviction for this offence. We can think of all kinds of circumstances in which there might be a personal vendetta. There could be a vendetta in prosecuting a policeman. There might be all kinds of circumstances in which women might be wrongfully convicted or at least unnecessarily exposed to the risk of conviction. The police frequently work in couples, and I hope that the Government, in common justice, will be very careful before they say that any woman can be convicted as a common prostitute on the sole evidence of one witness.

7.45 p.m.

The Attorney-General

Perhaps I should begin by thanking the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) for giving me the opportunity of making another speech, but last time I was really seeking to thank him for giving me the opportunity of bringing out the attitude of the authorities and their willingness to help. I am afraid that I cannot say anything of the same character on this proposal. The hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) referred to the Bill as a pimps' charter. I do not think that description is in any sense justified.

Miss Lee

I said that a colleague of mine, who has been giving much more detailed time and study to this matter, said that it was capable of being a pimps' charter. I said that many of us in the House who have the responsibility to make decisions are at least afraid that the Bill might so become, and that fear strengthens our desire that the present Clause should be accepted by the Government.

The Attorney-General

I think that the Clause is totally unrelated to that point, but I may be allowed to say that a Bill which increases to a maximum of seven years the punishment for living on the earnings of prostitution can hardly be accurately described as a pimps' charter.

The proposal made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West has been the subject of serious consideration. We would not wish to cast any doubt on his sincerity in relation to this matter, or, indeed, on the sincerity of the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock. I agree that there are exceptions in our criminal law where the evidence of two witnesses is required. One example is in a case of perjury, but these exceptions are very few, and in connection with the offence which we are now discussing the courts for years have been able to act on the evidence of one witness. If we imposed on the police the necessity of calling two witnesses in each one of these cases in order to secure a conviction, it would be a tremendous and unreasonable burden on police resources. The Clause would make two witnesses necessary in every case and we know how difficult it is to get any independent witnesses to come forward.

Mr. Hale

I honestly think that at the moment the right hon. and learned Gentleman is speaking a little away from the subject. Everybody knows what happens. In some areas prostitutes are picked up by the police twelve times a year and in others six times a year. The police go along and, "Mary, we shall be coming for you tonight at 10 o'clock." Mary says, "Can't you leave it until 11 o'clock? I've got a bit of business until then." Time and again these girls go to court and say by way of defence, "It was not my turn until next Thursday".

The Attorney-General

That very case demonstrates that the attendance of two witnesses is wholly unnecessary. In the very type of case he has mentioned, obviously there will be no contest; it is merely a complaint that she has been arrested too soon.

I come back to the argument which I was advancing to the House, that this would place an unreasonable and unnecessary burden upon the police, particularly in the kind of case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. If the enforcement of this Measure is made unreasonably difficult in the terms of the number of police man-hours spent in observation and in giving evidence to secure each conviction, the Bill will fail in its purpose.

I emphasise this to the House. In the type of case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman there is no need for more than one witness. In other types of case a magistrate might well not be satisfied on the evidence of one witness alone, in which case he will dismiss the charge. There may be a real conflict of evidence and the magistrate will be, and rightly, reluctant to convict someone, particularly if the evidence is not satisfying beyond all reasonable doubt.

Therefore, it would be a retrograde step to impose on the courts an obligation to hear two witnesses in every case to establish a question of fact which may not frequently be seriously disputed. If the court is not satisfied by the evidence which the police adduce, the duty of the court is to dismiss the charge.

I am sorry to have disappointed the hon. Gentleman by the reply that it has been my duty to give, but I am afraid that I cannot meet him on this proposed Clause.

Mr. Paget

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in making his reply, has forgotten what the Bill is about. When the fine was £2 it was a simple matter—the girl always pleaded guilty and one witness was ample. I am finding great difficulty in discovering the logic of the Government here. We have had a long and careful debate on the question of caution, and for cautioning the Government explained that one policeman was not enough. It was said that a policeman had to observe the girl loitering and soliciting. He then had to fetch another policeman, the two of them had to observe the girl loitering and soliciting, and then she was given a mere caution. Now the Government say to us that when we are proceeding to something which is much more serious than a mere caution, a conviction involving a sentence of prison, one policeman is enough. In all conscience where does the logic come in?

Mr. Greenwood

I hope that the Attorney-General will reply to the arguments advanced, particularly by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). Would it not be the case that if the defendant pleaded guilty there would be no need to call witnesses in the way my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has suggested? On the other hand, if the defendant pleads not guilty I should have thought it would be a fairly elementary provision that there should be adequate evidence of this kind in the interests of the police themselves.

It may well be that in cases of this kind the women accused may in their turn accuse the police of attempting to blackmail them, and they may make allegations of corruption against members of the police force. So I should have thought that any police witness would be in a stronger position if it were necessary for two to give evidence of the conduct about which a complaint is made.

The argument of my hon. and learned Friend is unanswerable. The Government are saying that two policemen are necessary if there is to be a caution but that only one policeman is necessary if there is to be a conviction. May I add that, as I read the proposed Clause, it is not necessarily a question of having two policemen but of having two witnesses.

The Attorney-General

With the leave of the House, I will reply shortly to the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him that before there is a conviction there must in every case be adequate evidence to satisfy the magistrate trying the case. I also agree with him that where there is a plea of guilty that is an admission of the offence charged, but where there is a case of a common prostitute with a long history of convictions, who may plead not guilty but who will not seriously contest the charge, it would be unnecessary to have a statutory obligation to call two witnesses. If there were a statutory obligation this would have to be done in every contested case, and that would lead to a much greater strain on the police authorities.

If only one police officer gives evidence, the magistrate may say that it is his word against her word and that he is not satisfied.

Mr. Paget

Would that be satisfactory?

The Attorney-General

It is something which happens in many criminal charges, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows.

Mr. Paget

The Attorney-General can avoid that by accepting the Clause.

The Attorney-General

No, I will not do so, because the proposed Clause makes it compulsory to call two witnesses to secure a conviction in every case in which there is a plea of not guilty. For the reasons I have advanced, I am not prepared to accept that as a statutory obligation. This has been carefully considered, as we have considered all the proposed Clauses and Amendments.

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) sought to contrast this with the cautioning procedure. There is this difference, which is important. The cautioning procedure is intended to apply, as I have said so often, not to persons carrying on this trade as a profession and hardened to it, but to new entrants. That is where particular caution must be exercised and persuasion —not improper persuasion—and it is especially desirable there, in dealing with that one situation, that two constables should be present. since they can help each other to achieve the common object of us all.

However, as regards giving evidence in court, the position should remain as it has been for years past and as it is in all our criminal law, apart from a few exceptions, that the evidence of one witness, if it establishes the offence charged to the satisfaction of the court adjudicating, will justify a conviction.

Mr. S. Silverman

With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I doubt whether he heard the argument addressed to him in support of this Clause. If one may adopt the language of another game, the reply he has made seems to me to be rather off-side. The right hon. and learned Gentleman himself introduced, and persuaded the House to accept, a new Clause this afternoon. The new Clause provides for an appeal if a purely administrative caution were administered. The caution must be a general caution, as I understand what the Government have told the House repeatedly. Prosecutions under Clause 1 will not be brought until two cautions have been administered and that, as I understand it, applies to everyone who may commit an offence under the Clause, whether a new entrant to the profession or not.

Supposing a girl, whether a new entrant or not, takes advantage of the new Clause and goes to a magistrates' court, the new Clause provides that the court shall determine the issue between them according to the ordinary procedure as though she had been arrested, as though a complaint had been made. I do not think it is explicit in the new Clause, but one infers that since the Government have said repeatedly that there must be two policemen present before the caution is administered, both of those would have to give evidence in a case where there was an appeal against the caution. That must follow.

If the police offered only one, I would expect the complainant to succeed. Both witnesses would surely have to be called. Is it not anomalous, is it not rather odd that in order to maintain a caution on the register we need the evidence of two police officers, but that in order to send a common prostitute to prison for three months in a contested case one will do? How can that be justified?

8.0. p.m.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to justify it by saying, "But in the second case we are dealing definitely with one who is already in the class of common prostitute." But that, surely, is what makes it necessary to have the guilt abundantly and conclusively proved, if it is challengd. It is true that in the majority of cases there is no defence, and no need to call any witnesses. It is exactly in the very rare case when a woman who does not deny that she is a common prostitute nevertheless denies the particular offence that the issue has to be determined with the greatest care.

If only one witness is necessary by law the whole weight of the inference drawn by any court would be against the accused. It would begin with the court knowing that there is a long string of convictions against the woman. It would begin with its being accepted on both sides that she is a prostitute, who may very well have been guilty on this occasion. If, therefore, the court is left with only one word against the other word it will be the most natural and reasonable thing in the world for that court to say. "We are not going to believe that the policeman is lying, or that he could be mistaken. Here is a woman who is confessedly a common prostitute. If it is one word against the other word, we prefer the word of the police officer to the word of the common prostitute." In other words, if only one witness is necessary the defendant can hardly ever succeed.

It is in these cases especially that we need to have the evidence for the prosecution reinforced and redoubled if we are going to avoid injustice.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

If the evidence for the prosecution is given by one policeman only, and there is an element of doubt in the minds of the court, there might not be a conviction, but if the evidence against the accused is supported by another policeman, possibly after consultation with his fellow officer, even if there were some element of doubt against the word of two policemen the court might be more reluctant to discharge the prisoner.

Mr. Silverman

The question which my hon. Friend is not facing is, in what circumstances will a doubt arise? If there is the evidence of one policeman against the defendant, and the policeman and the defendant are equally of good character, so far as the court knows, subject to their both giving nothing away in cross-examination and with the onus of proof on the prosecution it is reasonable to think that there will be an element of doubt, it being word against word, and the court will be in duty bound, as I see it, to give the benefit of that doubt to the defendant and acquit her.

What I am trying to explain—and I am sorry that I have done it so clumsily —is that in this type of offence, which cannot be committed except by a common prostitute, where the case consists of one witness saying "Yes" and the other saying "No", if the witness saying "No" is known to be a person of bad character, and she admits it to be so, we would not expect many courts to feel any real doubt about the matter. Therefore, the case would be heavily loaded against the defendant unless the prosecution were bound to produce evidence from more than one witness. That is particularly important in this Bill—much more important than it ever was before, because of the vastly increased penalties and because, for the first time, we are imposing sentences of imprisonment. I beg the right hon. and learned Gentleman to think again.

Question put and negatived.