HC Deb 01 May 1962 vol 658 cc929-32
Mr. Peart

I beg to move, in page 18, line 40, at the end to insert: save that an agent or broker shall only be taken to contravene an order if he had knowledge of the existence and effect of the order". In Committee, we sought to protect the broker or agent in question. We sought to secure a rewording of subsection (2) to see whether or not a formula could be found to protect an agent or broker from an unjustifiable burden of responsibility. We think that the present Amendment is reasonable and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a favourable reply. It is true that it has been argued, and no doubt it will be argued again today, that brokers and agents, in the ordinary way, are persons most likely to be aware of regulations governing the import of goods and that, therefore, there should be a measure of responsibility upon them and they should be liable for any contravention.

Mr. Vane

As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has just said, we discussed this question in Committee without a great deal of difference of opinion. We all wanted to ensure that we were not placing an undue burden of responsibility on anyone connected with the transaction of importing shellfish. At the end of the debate I said that I would look at the matter again, although I thought that the original form of words in the Bill was probably the right one. I have looked at the matter carefully and I cannot advise the House to do other than what I advised the Committee to do, which was to leave the words as they are in the Bill.

I hope that I shall be able to show the hon. Member that this is not unreasonable. We are not setting out to prosecute and we are not mainly interested in prosecuting people here. We are concerned with maintaining healthy shellfish stocks around our shores and the improvement of what ought to be a much more valuable asset than it is at present. The Committee wanted us to be sure that the rules were not tilted in favour of the inspector and against someone who was doing his best to carry out a perfectly proper transaction and who, unaware of certain rules, would be under a handicap when it came to court. It was suggested that we were being unduly hard on the agent.

We must accept that when somebody engaged in these transactions employs an agent he does so, first and foremost, because the agent is an expert and knows more about the rules of the game of imports and exports than he does. The hon. Member for Workington will appreciate that it would be difficult to prove in many cases that an agent or broker who imported shellfish in contravention of an Order had knowledge of the existence of the Order and it would defeat our intention if, in practice, a plea of ignorance would mean that an agent or broker would be able to get off scot-free whatever the circumstances.

9.15 p.m.

The plea that an offender did not know what he was doing is not really acceptable under our law, and I think that we are following our normal rules in leaving this Clause as it is now worded. I do not think that in practice agents are likely to suffer any hardship from this provision. First, they would not be in the job if they did not know the rules and regulations. It is their business to know them. Our courts are not harsh. We must admit that whatever words we put in Bills, a few hard cases may result. However, our courts do not take a harsh view. But the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that experienced people acting as agents are unlikely to break the law without realising that they are doing so.

To insert the proposed words would, or could, largely destroy our object, which is to improve our shellfish stocks. Therefore, when I ask the House to leave the Clause as it stands, it is not because we are interested in prosecuting people but because we are interested in improving the stocks of shellfish around our coasts.

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that in Committee we were rather suspicious of the Government because throughout the Bill the Government have been seeking extra powers to impose restrictions not only upon our fishermen, but upon people connected even with the inshore fishing industry and our shellfish industry. For that reason, we were anxious to make certain that the powers of the State or of officers acting on behalf of the State were somewhat limited. At the same time, I appreciate the case that the Minister has made, that the officers will act reasonably and that the courts will act reasonably in deciding whether or not there has been a contravention of the law. In other words, the old doctrine of the plea of ignorance will not hold water and there will be no excuse for a responsible agent or a broker acting in this way.

I accept that the purpose of the Clause dealing with the shellfish industry is to prevent the importation, in particular, of diseased stocks which would infect our own shellfish stock. I know there is force in the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, we were merely trying to put a little bias on those concerned with the industry. As always, the Tory Government seek powers to give representatives of the State greater power over the individual. That is a rather strange doctrine for the Tory Party, but, nevertheless, they have done this in this Bill.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) is making a second speech, he requires the leave of the House. If he is seeking to withdraw his Amendment he reminds me of the story of a gentleman at the Bar who took thirty minutes to explain why he was offering no evidence.

Mr. Peart

I am offering no evidence, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that I did not ask for the leave of the House to explain why I should make a second intervention. But perhaps I am making a rather lengthy intervention to explain why I do not propose to appose what the Minister has said. For the reasons which the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.