HC Deb 21 December 1962 vol 669 cc1710-20

4.3 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I am most grateful to those hon. Members who have been so quick in making their speeches. At the beginning of his speech the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) said that, when people wished to distrust, no assurances of disinterest in this world have any value. That is true. I can equally assure him that some hon. Members need say nothing, and they will still be trusted. He is among that number. We should not for one moment suspect him of having a personal interest.

I would further say this about the case that the hon. Member made: I have travelled in Greece. I have revelled in its beauties, and I have also seen its appalling poverty. If I were a member of the Greek Government, and I had to choose between the poverty around me and the interests of pre-war foreign bondholders, I would choose my own poor.

I now turn to the problem which I wish to raise today. I assume that the other Joint Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) will be here. He has had long and personal notice that he would be under personal attack. I presume that he will be with us. The Joint Under-Secretary of State indicates that he does not know. If the hon. Member is not to be here, I can only say that this will be yet another expression of his indifference to the interests of his constituents and his duties to the House which he seems to have displayed throughout the incident that I am about to recount.

It began as follows. A Mrs. Cross wrote to him on 27th December, nearly a year ago: I would be most grateful if you would assist me in the following matter. On 26th June, 1961, my home was burgled by Anthony Eric Christopher Patrick Cross"— I may say, incidentally, that the names are a pure coincidence. There is no relationship of any kind other than the name between the Mrs. Cross who was burgled and the Mr. Cross who was the burglar. The sum of £86 was taken, of which £33 15s. 6½d. was recovered. I have been given to understand that a sum of the money taken was paid into Oxford Court in payment of fines for previous offences. I have been in touch with the Oxford Magistrates' Clerk who, on 7th September, 1961, informed me that the matter had been placed with the Home Office. Having made repeated inquiries at the Town Hall without any result I would be glad if you would look into the matter for me. As I am a widow I am not in a position to bear the loss of more than I should. The Clerk at the Oxford Town Hall, having received this money, passed it, as was his duty, to the Home Office. The hon. Member for Oxford then passed Mrs. Cross's letter to the Home Office and he received the following reply from the Under-Secretary: You sent me on 3rd January the enclosed letter from Mrs. Lilian Cross.… As Mrs. Cross says, the Clerk to the Oxford City Justices wrote to the Home Office about this. A sum of £10 is involved. I am afraid, however, that we are not able to assist him very greatly. We have advised the Clerk that the question must turn on whether Mrs. Cross was by law entitled to recover the money which had been stolen and that on this he must form his own view. I am sorry not to be able to be more helpful. I sympathise with Mrs. Cross, but the question is essentially one of law, and the Home Secretary has no authority to authorise the return of the money. It will be seen, therefore, that at that point the Home Office is saying that it is for the Town Clerk at Oxford to say whether this was Mrs. Cross's money.

In the circumstances, I think that most ordinary people who find themselves receivers of stolen goods display some anxiety to discover the position and to return these ill-gotten gains, if, indeed, that should prove to be the case. The Home Office might have asked the Town Clerk or the thief, who, after all, was in its hands, but the Home Office did no such thing. That answer was acceptable to the hon. Member for Oxford. He sent it: on to Mrs. Cross with the comment: I very much regret that it is not possible to be more helpful. Mrs. Cross was not so easily satisfied. She did what one would have thought the Home Office might have done and what one would have thought her Member of Parliament would have done. She got in touch with the Town Clerk and at her request he wrote on 25th January last to the hon. Member for Oxford in these terms: At the time Cross"— that is, the burglar— owed me £10 in respect of unpaid fines and after the burglary he paid them out of the proceeds of the burglary. Mrs. Cross, naturally, feels that this money should be returned to her and to try to help her I wrote to the Home Office on the matter as long ago as last September. I eventually received a reply in the following terms: 'We think that the answer to your question turns entirely on whether the person from whom the money was stolen is by law entitled to recover. This would be for you to decide in your capacity as justices' clerk. It does not seem to us, however, that there is any way by which the money could properly be returned, unless perhaps the actual notes or coins could be identified'. Pausing there, it seems clear that the Home Office got precisely the answer they asked for. The Clerk did decide to tell them that this was Mrs. Cross's money, and that if they wanted to know whether these were the actual notes the simplest plan in the world was to ask the burglar who was in their gaol. They did not. however, do so.

I continue the Clerk's letter: Quite frankly, I find this reply even less helpful than the one which you received from Mr. Fletcher-Cooke dated the 15th instant and of which I have a copy. In the first place, I am not Mrs. Cross's adviser. Secondly, I have to bank all money which I receive daily, and, therefore, it is obviously impossible for the money which Cross paid over to be traced, and, thirdly, I am required every quarter to pay over all money received during the quarter to the Home Office and the £10 is, therefore, in their hands. Of course, the question is not whether the actual notes went to the Home Office. The question is whether the actual notes which were converted went to the town clerk. We have his evidence, and, if the Home Office had wanted it, we also have the thief's evidence, that the actual notes taken from Mrs. Cross's box were the actual notes which went to the town clerk. They never even attempted to seek to find this.

The letter continued: I know that Mr. Fletcher-Cooke says in his letter to you that the Home Secretary has no authority to authorise the return of the money, but I am wondering whether you would approach him to see if he would reconsider this decision. It seems to Mrs. Cross that it is manifestly unjust that a man can burgle her house, with the proceeds pay fines for which he might otherwise have gone to prison and then the Government Department to which these ill-gotten gains are paid refuses to hand them over to her. I must say that I agree with her. So do I.

The letter continues: I do not know any other instance like this where the Home Secretary has returned money obtained under these circumstances, but I do know that one justices' clerk who was overpaid a considerable sum of maintenance money sent it to the Home Office in accordance with statutory procedure and was able to recover it from the Home Office when the claimant came forward.… That letter was sent to the hon. Member for Oxford with the following covering letter: I have received your letter of January 18th, 1962, together with the enclosure from the Home Office regarding the theft of money from my home in June of last year. The onus, it seems, is put on the shoulders of the Clerk to the Oxford Justices. To me, this is a classic example of passing the buck'. I agree. What sort of justice is this which permits a Government Department to consider that in addition to my home being burgled it is right and proper that a gift of i10 of my money should be made to a hoodlum to pay fines for previous offences? I have been in touch with Mr. E. White, Clerk to the Oxford Justices, who assures me that he considers that I am fully entitled to the return of this money which has been admitted to have been stolen. As the Member for Oxford City I must ask you to pursue this matter as I consider that as the matter stands there is one law for the State and another for me, a monstrous state of affairs. The answer which she got from her hon. Member was this: I write to acknowledge your letter of January 27th. I have also heard from the Clerk to the Justices, and with the help of his letter I have reopened the matter with the Home Office. I will let you know as soon as I have any further news. In the meantime, may I suggest that you would be well advised not to write offensive letters to those that are trying to help you, and, in particular, I hope you will not communicate with the Home Office in the same terms as the last letter to myself. I do not know what would so cow the burgesses of Oxford that they would take this from their Member. I am extremely sorry that after he had been given notice the hon. Gentleman is not present this afternoon, because then I would have told him that he needs a larger personality than he has in order to get away with that sort of offensive arrogance.

The letter was forwarded to the Home Office and it took from June to May for the Home Office even to answer it. When an answer was given we get the following—I will omit the first paragraph: We have given it a good deal of thought, since one naturally sympathises with Mrs. Cross "— I should think so— but I am afraid my conclusion is that I can only repeat that the Home Office has no power to direct that the money should be returned to her. While the Home Secretary has no authority to determine a question of law, it appears to us that Mrs. Cross has no legal claim to the money. Then they talk about an ex gratia payment. This again, is accepted by the hon. Member for Oxford, who writes: I much regret not being able to send you a more encouraging reply. At that point the matter came to me. A Socialist town councillor wrote to me about it. I read the correspondence, and, in all innocence, I wrote to the hon. Member for Oxford pointing out my view, as a lawyer, that this was a plain case of conversion; that from the evidence of the thief it was perfectly simple to identify the actual notes as having been passed. I suggested, therefore, that the matter might be taken up again. I say that I wrote in all innocence because I am afraid that at that time I was unaware of the promotion of the hon. Member for Oxford. But I got an answer from him on Home Office notepaper, the effect of which—I will read it if necessary—was, "I am now a Minister and I agree with my predecessor's decision".

So far as I can see, this is a very clear case. I have done what the Home Office might have done. I have seen, from the evidence of the criminal, the evidence of the burglar, that it would have been quite easy to find out what happened, because it is in his statement to the police. It is in the possession of the Home Office and it would have been quite easy to elaborate what he says With the money I took I paid the fines". That is sufficient identification. Does the Home Office seriously want this lady to sue the Town Clerk for conversion, to which he will have no answer and to get judgment against him and to get the evidence of the thief? To pursue this will cost this widow more than the amount of the money she desires to get back and which we know is hers. The Home Office has the money and if the Home Office is saying that it has not the power to return to this lady what is her own. I assure the officials of the Home Office that I will help them.

I will introduce a Private Member's Bill which will give them the power, so that they will have an opportunity to do so; and a fuller House will have the opportunity to hear again all about this conduct on the part of the Home Office and the conduct of the hon. Member for Oxford, who is now a Minister at the Home Office.

4.20 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has seen fit, in the most offensive terms, to read to my colleague the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) a lecture on how to behave to his constituents. I do not propose to cross swords with him on that matter. It was as ill-placed as his lecture on law was inaccurate.

The hon. and learned Gentleman was good enough to mention this matter earlier in the Session to my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Oxford, who, as he says, had himself, on behalf of Mrs. Cross, previously brought it to notice, at a time when he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation, not, of course, on the Floor of the House, which he could not have done, but by correspondence. The fact that he was satisfied by the answer and the hon. and learned Gentleman was not does not mean to say that the hon. and learned Member was right and my colleague was wrong.

I have to explain to the hon. and learned Member the role of the Home Office in relation to fines, because this is much more restricted than I think he imagines. First, we do not impose them and, more important, we do not keep them. On the elementary rules relating to tracing, one could not get a case like this on its feet, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well, unless it could be shown that we had somehow got this money, which I think I can show we have not.

All the Home Office does is to receive bulk remittances from justices' clerks and redistribute the money so received as directed in. Section 27 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949. That is to say we pay nearly half to the local authorities generally towards the cost of the courts; we pay nearly half, representing most road traffic fines, to the Ministry of Transport in aid of the vote for roads, and since the fines in this respect were, I think, for motoring offences, it is safe to assume that we have in fact parted with the bulk funds for this period already some time ago to the Minister of Transport, but what he will have done with the money by now I simply do not know.

The Home Office is the Ministry that the hon. and learned Gentleman has chosen to attack, and he might at least have found out what happened to the fines before he chose to attack it. The Home Office is therefore in the position not of a creditor but rather of a temporary banker. I emphasise this to make clear that there is no question of the Home Office knowing from its records at the time that the fine had been paid by Anthony Cross or how much was paid. I am not denying, and I do not wish to imply that I am contesting, the truth of the facts put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I am merely saying that all the Home Office records show, or can show, is that for the quarter ended 30th June, 1961, £4,912 2s. 4d. was paid by the justices' clerk at Oxford in respect of road traffic fines and £2,935 16s. 7d. in respect of fines applicable towards the cost of the courts. It may be deduced that any sums paid by Anthony Cross were included in these totals, and I suggest that it was probably in the first one, as this was a driving offence.

As I understand the account given to us, Anthony Cross was fined £10 by the Oxford Magistrates' Court and subsequently paid the fine. Sometime previously, according to our information it was earlier on the same day, Mrs. Cross's house had been broken into and a sum of money amounting to about £86 stolen. Anthony Cross was later apprehended, tried and convicted for this house breaking. It is asserted, first, that some of the money he stole was used to pay the lines and from what the hon. and learned Gentleman says I accept that, and secondly, which I do not accept, that if that is so the Home Office is under an obligation to pay the money received by Mrs. Cross. I had assumed that it was not claimed that Mrs. Cross had a right in law to be given this money back because if she has I cannot think why she does not exercise her right in law.

Mr. Paget


Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I cannot think why not. If she has not the ability to go to law, she has the advantages of the legal aid service, as the hon. and learned Member knows perfectly well.

Mr. Paget

In the county court?

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

In the county court. The hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be out of date about that. We have extended legal aid to the county courts.

Of course, the defendant in this matter would not be the Home Office—or, at least, the lady would be very ill-advised to sue the Home Office. It would be the justice's clerk if she had any case and it would be for the justice's clerk, who is not our servant, to decide whether to defend it. Since he has not returned the money, I presume that he must be of opinion that Mrs. Cross does not have a valid claim at law, and I agree with that view. Nor can it be asserted that Mrs. Cross has a claim in law against the Home Office.

The hon. and learned Member drew an analogy with stolen goods, but the Home Office—or, if the hon. and learned Gentleman prefers it, the State—does not have, and never has had, the actual notes or coin that were used to pay the fine. No doubt they were banked in Oxford long ago. They may be anywhere by now. They cannot be traced by us. In any event, the essential feature of money is that it is negotiable and that it cannot be recovered from a person receiving it in good faith, as the justice's clerk undoubtedly did.

If it is conceded that Mrs. Cross has no legal right—I gather that it is not conceded—to be recompensed this sum, the case must be that she has so strong a moral right that an ex gratia payment should be made to her. I say "so strong a moral right" because I imagine that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not expect the Home Office simply to act in relief of the distress or loss which every victim of a theft suffers.

I have said before—if I have not, then I say it now—that the circumstances of this case obviously excite sympathy. A widow who can ill afford the loss sees part of the proceeds of the theft paid to public authorities which, she may well think, can bear the loss. But if it is to be the practice, or even the law, that a third party must make compensation in a case of this kind, I do not see where this liability is to end. It may be that the hon. and learned Member would apply the doctrine only to a public authority. But are the revenue authorities to refund taxes paid by a thief? If the thief used some of his own money and some of the stolen money to pay the debt to the Revenue Commissioners, I do not know who is to determine which was which.

I do not know whether it would make any difference that the thief had enough money of his own to pay but chose to use the bank notes which he had stolen to discharge the debt. Is everybody through whose hands the money passes to be liable to the original loser? If so, what are to be their liabilities to each other? It is the very difficulty of these questions that makes the nature of currency what it is and makes it a fundamental law that currency is so negotiable that unless the coin can be traced it is irrecoverable.

If it is accepted as a principle—and however much we try to isolate the facts of this case, a principle of wide application is involved—that compensation is to be paid in a case of this nature, the greatest uncertainty must surely arise in even the smallest monetary transaction.

When Cross was arrested, he made a statement in which he indicated what he had done with the £86 he had stolen from Mrs. Cross. He said that he paid £16 in fines. This is curious, because the fines imposed amounted to only £10 and the police have no record of costs being given. Therefore, perhaps this is a mistake. With the rest of the money, he took a taxi to London at a cost of £10. Is it the hon. and learned Member's plea that the taxi driver should be obliged to return that £10? He spent £6 on shoes and a shirt. Should the vendor of the shoes and shirt be obliged to surrender that £6 to the widow? He paid £3 to a landlady. Is she to surrender that £3 to the widow? He spent £1 5s. on a railway fare. Perhaps the railway is obliged to bear that loss because it is in a public position. Perhaps that is the distinction which the hon. and learned Gentleman would make.

Cross moved his girl friend to other lodgings and spent a good deal at a London club. Is it expected that the widow should he reimbursed from the purchases of drinks and other things which he made? When arrested, he bad £28 15s. 9½d., which was later paid over to Mrs. Cross, and quite rightly.

However, in respect of the money he has spent and money that has gone through so many hands, as this £10 has, and which the Home Office does not have and never has had in the form of notes or specie, the claim is really fantastic. If it were allowed, it would open up the most enormous consequences far beyond the issue of this £10. If the widow feels that she has a legal claim, it must be against the clerk, who is not our servant.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

In the minute that remains, may I say that that was a most deplorable performance by the Joint Under-Secretary of State. He has tried to cover himself by a whole mass of irrelevant and pedantic technicalities. The facts are that this £10 belonging to this poor woman passed into the hands of the town clerk and then into the hands of the Home Office and elementary justice—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock till Tuesday, 22nd January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 18th December.