HC Deb 06 March 1963 vol 673 cc464-9

It shall be a defence in any legal proceedings to recover damages and in any prosecution, in so far as the proceedings or prosecutions are or is based on an allegation of a contravention, in relation to any premises, of a provision of this Act or regulation thereunder, to prove that at the time of the alleged contravention the premises were occupied for a purpose that was accomplished before the expiration of a period beginning with the day on which they were occupied for that purpose and of such of the following lengths as is applicable to the circumstances of the case, that is to say, six months if the premises consist of a movable structure, and six weeks if not.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Whitetaw

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

This Clause, among other things, is designed to meet the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) drew attention during the Committee stage. He argued that it would be unreasonable to apply the provisions in the Bill to premises occupied for purely temporary purposes. As examples, he gave mobile offices and banks, caravans used for information services, and exhibitions and premises used for charitable appeals or election campaigns. I think it is generally agreed that it would not be sensible to apply the provisions of the Bill to such premises. But here there was a very real difficulty.

6.30 p.m.

We wished to frame a provision to exclude those sort of premises, but at the same time it was most important in doing so not to provide a loophole which might enable occupiers of such premises to slip out of the provisions of the Bill or to prolong their exclusion beyond what would be a reasonable period. Therefore, in framing this provision we have sought to combine common sense with very real safeguards to ensure that there are no loopholes. The Clause has been designed to place the burden of proof on the occupier. The Clause protects him from civil or criminal proceedings under the Bill if he can show that his premises were occupied for a period of less than six months for a movable structure and a much less period—which I think everyone will agree is right—of six weeks for any other premises.

Movable structures would, for example, include marquees and stands, portable offices found in docks, and huts used as offices on building sites and in connection with civil engineering work. Because of their particular movable character, it would probably be agreed that a longer period of occupation, six months, is reasonable as compared with the occupation of permanent buildings and structures. For the latter the period is to be confined to six weeks. This, we feel, would ensure that permanent premises used only for short periods—I give the example of such premises used for a charitable appeal or for election purposes—would be excluded.

I should draw the attention of the House to two further safeguards. If an occupier overruns a period of six weeks or six months permitted by this new Clause he would make himself liable to proceedings, not only in respect of subsequent offences, but in respect of offences committed during the initial six weeks or six months as well. All the provisions of the Bill will therefore have potential application to the premises from the first day on which they are occupied.

Secondly, persons employed in offices on building and civil engineering sites or in portable offices in docks, will generally have the use of facilities provided for manual workers under the Factories Acts legislation or those provided for workers in offices in adjacent buildings. The main object is to avoid repeated registration of premises and applications for exemption certificates which, unless we had a provision of this kind, might be necessary every time any of these huts was moved.

I hope I have been able to show the House that, while we are trying to bring in a common sense provision, we are most anxious to ensure that proper safeguards shall go with it and that there shall be no loophole for people who exceed a reasonable period in the use of this sort of premises.

Mr. MacDermot

This new Clause is remarkable for two reasons. It is the first new Clause we have considered today which has not been put on the Notice Paper as a result of a request from this side of the House. In case we should appear to be claiming all the credit for ourselves, it is only right that we should give credit to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for having brought this matter forward.

The second way in which, I suggest, the new Clause is remarkable is in its syntax. I do not know how many times hon. Members have had to read the new Clause before they could understand it, but I confess that I had to read it a number of times. I hope that when my son takes his G.C.E. in a short time he will not be confronted with a sentence like this.

Mr. Hale

If my hon. Friend can understand it, will he tell me which is the noun which controls the verb in proceedings or prosecutions are or is". Is "proceedings" regarded as singular, or is "prosecutions" regarded as singular?

Mr. MacDermot

I am afraid my hon. Friend has beaten me to it because that was the next point I was about to make. My understanding was reached only when I persuaded myself that this was a printer's error in this extraordinary sentence. I think the "s" on "prosecutions" ought not to be there. If that is right, I can make sense of it. With "prosecutions" in the plural I am afraid that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), I got lost.

Those are small points, but I think we can agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that there is a need for a Clause of this kind. It would be unreasonable to ask that the whole provisions of the Act should apply to what are purely temporary office structures. I think we can also agree with the periods which have been suggested, six months for movable structures, and six weeks for permanent buildings for these purposes.

We have been told that every effort has been made to draft the Clause in such a way as to prevent any evasion. Only one point has occurred to me on that. It is that there is not any requirement that the user which entitles the person to the defence under this Clause shall be the sole or exclusive user. If there were a building which was normally office premises but which was loaned to, or let out to, some charitable organisation for a short period, the Act would cease to apply. I do not see any reason why that should be so. There could be a dual user, the permanent user and occupier and someone else. That is all the more reason why the Act should apply, to prevent overcrowding and unsuitable conditions. I throw out the suggestion that at a later stage it might be thought desirable to tidy that up and to see that the defence is applicable only where there is an exclusive user. Subject to that, I should commend the Clause to the House.

Mr. Graham Page

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for this new Clause. There would have been great hardship caused both to occupiers and administrators under the Bill if premises occupied for temporary purposes were subject to the full force of the Bill. Apart from misprints and difficult grammar, I think the Clause is a very ingenious way of accomplishing what was wanted.

It is, therefore, perhaps extremely ungrateful for me to criticise it in any way, but I have one criticism to make because I think a practical difficulty will arise. The person prosecuted is to have a defence if he can show that the premises were used for a purpose that was accomplished —I repeat the word "was", in the past tense—before the expiration of a certain period. The period is in one case six months and, in the other, six weeks. During any such period a prosecution might take place. A prosecution might take place against the occupier of a movable dwelling one month after he has started occupation for temporary purposes.

The Clause places him in some difficulty because he has a defence only if he can show that the whole of the six months was completed for this purpose. He cannot do that when he has been occupying the dwelling for only one month. If a prosecution is brought against him after one month, unless he can get the magistrates to adjourn the case for a further five months, which they may be unwilling to do—he cannot force an adjournment—he will be in great difficulty.

I think this was an ingenious way of dealing with the matter, but I hope that in another place an Amendment will be introduced to meet this point to bring it from the past tense to the present so that such a person is not liable to prosecution until six months after he started to occupy a movable dwelling, or six weeks in any other case. If it were restricted to prosecution after that time he would have the protection of this new Clause, but if not, he would have difficulty in putting forward a defence.

Mr. Hale

Not only would this mean almost inevitably that no proceedings would be brought in the six months, but if an occupier were conscious of a contravention he would have to move at the end of the six months to avoid a prosecution and he could come back later. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) because I had not seen this point until he made it. It is no use asking magistrates to prosecute people who have the worst premises under the sun and who are contravening every Section of the Act if those people can say, "We have only just come in temporarily and we shall go out in six months time." If the provision were amended there would be the excellent effect of getting those people out and they could not avail themselves of the loophole. I think the hon. Member for Crosby has made an important and constructive criticism, which is worth consideration.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am always extremely anxious when the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot) suggests that he does not understand something in legal language because if he does not understand it there is absolutely no hope for me, and if also the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) does not understand it, then I realise that I had better retire from the contest altogether.

I understand that a small Amendment would make the Clause clearly comprehensible to the hon. Member for Derby, North, and I am therefore delighted to be able to assure him that the "s" in the second "prosecutions" is a printing error and will be put right. If that is done, I am delighted that it will be comprehensible to him, and also, I understand, by a side wind, if that is the right way of putting it, to the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

I have listened to the point put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and I think that possibly what he is referring to is an unlikely event, but, nevertheless. I think it would be right for me to say that we shall carefully study what he has said and, if it is necessary to do anything, of course it will be done.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.