HC Deb 19 July 1967 vol 750 cc2414-7
Mr. Darling

I beg to move Amendment No. 321, in page 84, line 3, to leave out from 'any' to 'until' in line 6 and to insert: 'such criminal proceedings as are mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or (aa) of the next following section (being proceedings to which the books or papers are relevant)'. The Clause concerns the entry and search of premises to take possession of a body corporate's books or papers, which subsection (3) permits to be retained for three months, unless proceedings are begun during that period for an offence to which they are relevant, in which case they can be held until the conclusion of those proceedings. The offence must have been committed by the body corporate to whose affairs the books or papers are relevant or by the person in relation to that body.

The kind of offence in which it might be necessary to retain the papers might be one in relation to which disclosure of the papers is permitted by Clause 107 (1,a). As this definition is more precise than that in subsection (3), it would be an advantage. If the papers are retained for more than three months it must be because criminal proceedings have been commenced, as mentioned in (1,a) or (aa) of Clause 107 and the papers are relevant to those proceedings.

Mr. Corfield

I do not know whether we should discuss now or later the later Amendment which inserts the new (aa) to which this refers.

The Minister of State sent me a courteous note apologising because the Amendments were tabled only on Monday of this week. The Amendments refer mainly to the Exchange Control Act, matters which are the Treasury's responsibility and appeared literally two days before the second and last day of proceedings on a Bill which has been before the House since February. This is bad enough in itself, but it raises an entirely new issue, a new Act which is not even mentioned in the Short Title. I have not studied the Act in great detail, but the opening phrases of every Section in it apply to offences committed by a person. It is clear that it would be wrong to bring in any form of procedure of a criminal or investigational nature which was applied only to corporate bodies.

5.45 a.m.

The Exchange Control Act lists a large number of currency offences committed in every case by a person. In introducing the reference to it in the Bill, the Government—and, of course, the Treasury, is involved—are saying, "We should like more powers. We cannot conveniently get them in a general Measure which will amend the Exchange Control Act, and we will take these powers for companies only—not for partnerships or one-man businesses—and insert them in the Bill."

We have said many times that some of the other provisions of the Bill are not part of company law. That is even more true in this case than of other provisions which we have mentioned, such as those dealing with exports and those in Clause 18. This is even further removed from company law. It is particularly objectionable in that it takes out certain types of people by classes—corporate bodies—and takes more powers to investigate exchange control offences in respect of them, simply because there happens to be a Companies Bill before the House. This is wrong. It is only by the grace of God that they got it in the Short Title—that was an accident, and an extremely unfortunate accident—and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will very seriously consider withdrawing the Amendment.

I wish in no way to be critical of the Chair, but if I had brought forward new Amendments on an entirely new subject on Monday of last week, I am certain that they would not have been called. I see no reason why a matter of this sort, in respect of which one must stretch one's imagination to get it within the Long Title, should be put in the Bill at this late stage. It has nothing whatever to do with company law. I am certain that it is not the wish of the Board of Trade that this should happen at the last moment, but the President of the Board of Trade for our purposes this morning is the Government and I must address my remarks to him and his right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Mr. Jay

I apologise to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) and the House for the fact that these Amendments were put down rather by the grace of God at a late stage in the proceedings. That is partly due to the fact that they arose in the interrelation of this legislation with the Exchange Control Act—an inter-relation which is somewhat complex and, therefore, needed elucidation.

But I think that the hon. Member's anxieties on the point of substance are misplaced, although I accept that they are sincere. The Amendment does no more than put the law back to where it was before the Bill was introduced. The Treasury has power to investigate suspected offences under the Exchange Control Act, 1947, and where an offence has been committed they can arrange for proceedings to be instituted. It is possible, under the present law, before the Bill was introduced, that an inquiry into a suspected offence under the Protection of Depositors Act will show that there has been an offence under the Exchange Control Act, and at present, if that should be so, any information or documents obtained by the Board of Trade in the exercise of their powers under Section 18 or 19 of the Protection of Depositors Act may be published or disclosed for the purpose of criminal proceedings under the Exchange Control Act.

That is the present position. However, if the Bill were enacted without these Amendments no directions would be given and no authorisations would be conferred under Section 18 of the Protection of Depositors Act and Section 20 of that Act would, in effect, be repealed. I realise that it is complicated—that is why it took time to elucidate it—but it follows that, with Clause 107 as now drafted, the Board of Trade would lose the power it previously had, and indeed now has, to publish or disclose documents or information for the purpose of proceedings under the Exchange Control Act.

These Amendments will permit such publication or disclosure of documents or information for the purpose of proceedings under that Act to the Treasury as the competent authority. We are not doing anything new. We are merely ensuring that a power for enforcing the law, which is now in the hands of the authorities, is not taken away. It seemed reasonable to do this, because, although we are dealing with company law, if, by enacting company legislation, we weaken the enforcement of the Exchange Control Act, that is not something that any of us would wish to do.

I apologise for the lateness and complexity of this issue, but, with that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that his anxieties were perhaps exaggerated.

Mr. Michael Shaw

I confess that the matter becomes clearer after the right hon. Gentleman's explanation. None the less, far from this Bill being in any sense ready to come before us, I feel that it has been going through its early formative period when life should have already come to it. It will be a most extraordinary birth.

We feel dissatisfied that so many important Amendments have come to us late in the day, either in Committee or on Report. It does not give us a great deal of time to make our necessary inquiries and it shows that things must have been very hurried in their preparation. To that extent it reinforces the argument that has been used by my hon. Friend in saying that it leaves us with a grave suspicion that, as soon as this Bill becomes an Act and the law of the land, it will already have been shown to have many defects because so rapidly are new facets being disclosed which require alteration or attention. I hope that, coming so late, these Amendments will be found to be satisfactory, but we must disclose our very great regret at the lateness at which they have arrived before us.

Amendment agreed to.