HC Deb 21 June 1961 vol 642 cc1480-3

3.40 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that local authorities shall not be liable to pay to Her Majesty's Government the costs of prosecutions instituted by Government Departments in respect of matters in which the local authority is not concerned, and further to provide that this provision shall have retrospective effect. The occasion which has led me to ask the leave of the House to introduce this Bill is the prosecution of a man called Soul, of Olney, in North Bucks. Mr. Soul had committed a whole series of frauds on the Income Tax, and he was duly prosecuted. I may say that the whole of the frauds were committed from his office in North Bucks.

To quote the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer's own words: I agree that essentially Soul's only connection with Northampton, so far as concerns the offences with which he was charged, was that the Northampton 2nd Tax District dealt with the town of Olney, Bucks, where he lived and carried on his business. So we have a gentleman, who is a stranger not only to Northampton but to Northamptonshire, committing a series of offences in another county and being prosecuted at Northampton Assizes.

I think that the prosecution took thirteen days. It was instituted by the Treasury. It was conducted by a Treasury solicitor and the Treasury briefed counsel and leading counsel. At the end of the case Mr. Soul was convicted and the question of the payment of the costs of the prosecution arose. The Commissioner, Mr. Roach, who tried the case, used these words: With regard to the costs it is clearly not right that the Borough of Northampton should pay the costs. Then he said, referring to Mr. Soul: As greed moved you to do it, it is right that you pay part of the costs of the prosecution. You will pay a total of £1,200. The costs of the prosecution were well over £5,000. The result of this was that, contrary to the intention of the judge and, I imagine, of everybody else, Northampton found itself charged with a bill running into several thousands. Until we know, both as to the appeal and as to the first trial, how much Mr. Soul will be able to pay, we do not precisely know how much that bill will be. But, certainly, there will be a minimum of £3,500 and perhaps the figure will be greater.

Northampton is not a very big borough and that figure, representing getting on for a ½d. rate, has been thrust on the Corporation. It relates to a matter of no concern to us in Northampton at all. One can well understand the idea behind the Costs in Criminal Prosecutions Act. It is, of course, that, normally speaking, prosecutions are brought by the local police and the cost falls on local funds. When a private prosecution is brought successfully, the prosecutor has been doing the job which the police ought to have done, and it is reasonable that the cost should come from the same funds. But surely it is totally different when the prosecutor is a Government Department, and even more so when, for its own convenience, the Department brings a prosecution in a town which has nothing to do with the offence at all.

In the circumstances, I have advised the Corporation of Northampton simply not to pay. I have told the Corporation, that, in my view, the Treasury will never have the face to proceed to execution on a claim so patently unjust, but if it is stupid enough to do so, the Corporation will not be the first corporation which has gone to gaol in a just cause, and in support of the rights of its burghers.

But out of kindness, and because of my feeling for the Government, I wish to provide them with a way out so that they may not be faced with this awkward situation. I am, therefore, offering them my proposed Bill. It is a Measure to provide that a local authority shall not be liable for the costs of Government Departments when they introduce prosecutions in respect of matters with which the local authority is not concerned. To make quite certain that my Long Title is wide enough I have provided for retrospective action.

That is a way in which the Government could get out of this difficulty. Of course, a Bill introduced at this time by a private Member cannot proceed very far. If the Government like to take it over, they may draft it and put it in what form they wish. I can assure the Government that they will have little difficulty in getting it quickly through the House. It is a Bill which is supported by every shade of opinion—not only by hon. Members of all parties, but by hon. Members who were formerly members of both parties, hon. Members who are on the fringe and are no longer members of parties for the time being.

It is supported by everyone. Indeed, I may say the support is so wide that it extends from Suez to "Ban the Bomb". In these circumstances, I think that the Government may rest assured that if they choose this convenient way out of the difficulty in which they find themselves they will have the co-operation of all hon. Members to put this Measure through the House conveniently and in time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paget, Sir G. Benson, Mr. Ede, Mr. M. Foot. Mr. Grimond, Mr. M. Hamilton, Sir A. V. Harvey, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, Mr. Mayhew, Mr. Mulley, Sir G. Nicholson, and Captain Orr.