HC Deb 03 March 1967 vol 742 cc845-55

Order for Second reading read.

11.6 a.m.

Mr. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

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

The Bill, I hope, is non-contentious. A glance at the back of the Bill will show that it has all-party support. It is designed to deal with a nuisance which is growing round our coasts and estuaries and in our rivers. It consists of those occasions when the owner moors his boat or yacht or dinghy and then comes back and finds that it has been removed, taken away or cast adrift in his absence and without his knowledge.

Any sailor knows what great trouble is caused when a boat is abandoned and washed away by the tide or down the river, or when it is cast off. Very often it is damaged on those occasions. As President of the River Thames Society, I get complaints that this sort of thing is happening on the Thames and in its tributaries, and, indeed, on inland waterways, when motor boats and other kinds of craft are taken for joy-riding at night—moonlight rides on the river—and are left many miles away, sometimes down and sometimes up river, not properly moored and generally abandoned.

As a keen dinghy sailor, I know what a nuisance it is to small boat sailors when they find that their boat has been cast adrift and is found miles away on the mud in the estuaries or on the coast and has to be fetched back. Fishermen, whether they use motor or rowing boats, are equally affected.

Let me give one or two examples of recent cases in which this has happened and it has been found that the taking and sailing away was not an offence. There was a case at Fareham in Hampshire concerning two men and a girl, aged 18, who took a £1,200 yacht for a joy-ride down the Channel. They admitted taking the Household Brigade Yacht Club's 18-foot sloop "Septem", from its Hamble River moorings but denied trying to deprive the owner permanently of it. They did not admit stealing the boat, but they admitted stealing the petrol which they used to sail it. They were conditionally discharged of stealing the boat because there was no intention to deprive the owner permanently thereof. They were prosecuted only for stealing the petrol. The boat was swept far out to sea. A Dutch coaster brought it, together with the three young people, back to Dover.

In another case, three boys cut adrift a 75-foot pleasure boat "Amo", on the River Severn. They had only a fairly short voyage. They set off to steer this 25-ton vessel ten miles downstream from Stourport Bridge to Worcester. They tried to start the diesel engines but could not do so. The boat was carried along out of control by the current. They then decided to drop anchor. In doing this one boy fell in. He was rescued with lifebelts thrown by riverside dwellers. The other two waited on board until they were collected by the police.

Then there was the case of the £20,000 motor cruiser "Tamora", which was missing for two days from her moorings on the River Hamble and was then found at Littlehampton. These cases occurred in 1965 and 1966, and these are the kind of things that are happening.

It is not generally known that this taking away and removing of vessels is not in itself an offence. It is an offence permanently to deprive the owner by stealing, but it is not an offence when it is merely a case of joy-riding. This proves to be a great surprise to the majority of boat owners, particularly if they have their boats taken and are then told that even if they know who the offender is it is no good prosecuting because no offence has been committed.

A similar gap in our law concerning motor vehicles was put right 37 years ago in the Road Traffic Act, 1930, Section 28, which has now been incorporated in the Road Traffic Act, 1960, Section 217. In the case of motor vehicles it was made an offence in 1930 to take away a motor vehicle without the owner's consent or without believing that the owner would have given his consent. If a person took his brother's motor cycle for a ride without actually asking permission but had reason to believe that the owner would have given his consent, it was not an offence. It was, however, an offence to take it away without the owner's consent. I suggest, therefore, that it is time to correct this deficiency in the law concerning boats, all the more so as sailing and rowing boats cannot be locked up in the same way as motor cars.

To create such an offence would be a protection for a defendant. Suppose, for example, that a boy was charged with stealing a vessel and the magistrates found that his intention was to take it away for some time, under the existing law a conviction of stealing would be recorded on the boy's record for all time although it would be better that he be convicted of the proposed offence of taking away and removing the vessel.

The Royal Yachting Association has been agitating about this matter for some time, and in its Annual Report for 1966 the President said: The Association is at the present time actively engaged in an attempt to persuade our law-makers that the law in regard to taking and sailing away of vessels without the owner's consent be brought into line with that which applies to motor vehicles. In the case of motorcars this kind of vandalism has been dealt with by statute, but the old law that such action only amounts to a borrowing still applies to yachts. As a result, it is difficult for the courts to deal with people who offend in this way and who frequently cause substantial damage to yachts and inconvenience to their owners. I hope that I am not importing prejudice into this matter when I say that the President of the Royal Yachting Association on that occasion was Prince Philip, in which capacity he was, no doubt, wearing his sailor's cap.

I was told some time ago that the Government agreed in principle that such a change in the law was necessary. They intended, however, to include it in the forthcoming Theft Bill, which was expected to come forward this month but has not yet done so. It may not do so for another year or two. That is why, when I introduced my Bill under the Ten Minute Rule procedure at the beginning of August, I put it down for Second Reading today—somewhat, I believe, to your surprise, Mr. Speaker—because I wanted to see whether by this time the Theft Bill had been introduced. As it has not been introduced, I propose that the House should proceed with my Bill.

I strongly feel that we should try to get this Bill on the Statute Book by summer to establish Parliament's views and intentions. The House has had plenty of time to think about it, because I introduced such a Bill a year ago, but that was killed by the General Election. I reintroduced it in August, and I have redrafted it to fall into line with the suggested Clause 10 of the Theft Bill, which was set out in full in the Eighth Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. I hope, therefore, that I have made the Bill agreeable to what the Government have in mind for the Theft Bill when they introduce it.

Clause 1 of my Bill provides that Subject to section 4 of this Act, a person shall be guilty of an offence if, without having the consent of the owner or other lawful authority, he takes and removes or attempts to take and remove any vessel, or, knowing that any vessel has been taken or removed without such authority, navigates it or allows himself to be carried in or on it. A man might get a boy to cast him adrift on somebody else's vessel with a view to removing it and the man might navigate it. This, as well as the actual taking away, should be an offence.

The penalties which I propose are a fine not exceeding £200 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both, on conviction on indictment, and on summary conviction a fine of up to £100 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. I know that this is slightly different from the Theft Bill, but I have reduced from three years to two years the punishment for the offence bearing in mind that the Theft Bill will, I think, deal with all sorts of conveyances, including expensive items like aeroplanes, which would come within the category of a conveyance. I therefore regarded it as a reasonable compromise in the case of boats to limit the fine to £200 and to stipulate imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years for this offence, which is not a major offence.

Clause 3 provides that If on the trial of an indictment for stealing a vessel, the jury are not satisfied that the accused stole the vessel, but it is proved that the accused committed an offence under section 1 of this Act, the jury may find him guilty of the lesser offence of taking away and removing the vessel.

The saving clause is Clause 4, which provides that A person does not commit an offence under this Act by anything done in the reasonable belief that he has lawful authority to do it. There could be many occasions when a person reasonably believed that he had lawful authority. Suppose, for example, that a boat was moored on a beach and a storm blew up, or that a vessel was moored in harbour and a fire occurred, anybody would be acting reasonably in moving the boat from one place to another or re-mooring it so that it was safer from the effects of the storm.

I have adopted the motor vehicle legislation provision that a person does not commit an offence if he believes that in the circumstances of the case the owner, if asked, would have given him his consent.

For the purposes of the Bill, the description "vessel" has the meaning assigned to it by Section 742 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. That is a comprehensive Section which includes any ship, boat or any other description of vessel used in navigation. I have adopted the suggested provision from the Theft Bill that the word "owner" in relation ton vessel which is the subject of a hiring or hire-purchase agreement means the person in possession of the vehicle under that agreement.

I believe that the Bill is necessary before the sailing season starts, and I hope that the Government may help it forward. If they wish to suggest any Amendments, although I hope that they do not, I would be willing to talk to the Government about them and see whether we could put down such Amendment in Committee as is necessary. I cannot believe that the Bill will take much time in Committee. I therefore very much hope that it will to- day get a Second Reading and that it will go quickly through all its stages.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

First, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) on introducing this very desirable and necessary Bill. I must declare a constituency interest in that Shaldon, Teignmouth, Dawlish, Dawlish Warren and Starcross in my constituency are areas which certainly would benefit from the provisions of the Bill.

There are many circumstances covered in a somewhat peculiar way by the existing law. For instance, if one fiddles a telephone box—I nearly said "If you, Mr. Speaker, fiddle a telephone box", but it occurred to me that that would be an infelicitous phrase—if someone fiddles a telephone box without extracting any money from it, I understand that the offence with which one might be charged would be that of stealing electricity. If a motor boat is taken without the intention of depriving the owner permanently of it, the offence is that of stealing petrol, but there is no offence known as stealing wind, so in the case of a sailing boat or of a rowing boat no offence under existing law is committed.

It is not only that the owner of the boat who has had it taken for a joy ride without permission is affected, but potentially other people who are legitimately at sea, in a river or on a lake, may be affected. It is a characteristic of a very large number of people who wrongly possess themselves of vessels in this manner that they are not skilled in their use. Therefore, they tend to be a hazard to other people who are properly using vessels on the sea, in estuaries, or harbours, nr on lakes. This is an additional reason why this Bill should be expedited, so that it can assist in safeguarding the public at large in relation to the property of those who own boats.

I ask my hon. Friend to clarify one point. Clause 3 says: If on the trial of an indictment for steal- a vessel. the jury are not satisfied that the accused stole the vessel, but it is proved that the accused committed an offence under section 1 of this Act, the jury may find him guilty of the offence under section 1. As I read that, the magistrates trying a case under summary procedures would not have the same option. It may be that this is deliberate on part of my hon. Friend in restricting the alternative conviction to trial on indictment, but there is no immediately apparent reason why magistrates trying the case summarily should not have open to them the same option, which seems an extraordinarily sensible one.

I cannot say what the position is under motoring law, but I suspect that there magistrates have the same powers, although I would not state that as a fact. It is certainly the case that a very large number of people are unaware of the present situation and unaware that an insurance policy which covers them against theft does not cover them against someone who unlawfully takes a boat without permission without intending to sail it. Since one of the results of this debate, alas, will be to attract a measure of attention to the fact that one can with impunity in the terms of the criminal law take someone's boat and go off for a joyride in it, I strongly suggest that this is an additional reason for passing this Bill into law with expedition. Then, having exposed the gap in the criminal law, we could plug it as soon as possible.

I conclude as I started by congratulating my hon. Friend very sincerely on introducing this most useful and necessary Measure.

11.24 a.m.

Mr. Richard Sharples (Sutton and Cheam)

I also wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) on bringing forward this small but useful and necessary Bill. I must declare an interest as a member of the Household Brigade Yacht Club and, therefore, a part-owner of the yacht which was stolen as referred to by my hon. Friend.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the necessity to declare an interest in this only if one contemplates that one might be a person who thieved one of these boats?

Mr. Speaker

Order. If an hon. Member wishes to declare an interest there is no power to stop him doing so.

Mr. Sharples

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham referred to some of the larger yachts which are stolen. What we have to remember in considering this Bill is that boat-owning in one respect or another has spread now to a very large part of the population. I understand that there are well over a quarter of a million boat-owners of one kind or another. I am told by the Royal Yachting Association that last year there were 30 or 40 major thefts of vessels and the thefts of dinghies were beyond count. Although this perhaps is not a major problem in our criminal law, it is a fairly substantial one and is probably likely to grow as people realise that at the moment they can with impunity take a vessel and not be charged with the theft thereof.

I presume that it would be the intention of the Government if and when a Bill is introduced to implement the proposals of the Criminal Law Revision Committee to cover this matter in such a Bill. One appreciates the reasons for the delay in introducing such a Bill. It is therefore very necessary that in the meantime this gap should be closed by the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, although, of course, his Bill would be repealed when the main Measure came into operation.

When the Under-Secretary replies to this debate, I wonder if he can tell us the Government's views in relation to penalties and whether they would he consistent with the existing law relating to similar offences. I repeat congratulations to my hon. Friend and I hope that this Bill will have a speedy passage through the House.

11.28 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I join with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) in congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) on bringing in a Bill on a matter which he has pursued with such perserverance. Perhaps I may start by saying something about the Government's plans as I was specifically asked about them by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. I am not, of course, replying to the debate as he suggested, but I am giving the Government's views in the middle of the debate.

As has been pointed out, this matter has also been dealt with in the draft Theft Bill prepared by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. That is a Bill which the Government have under consideration. It is annexed to the Report on Theft and Related Offences. As has been said, in Clause 10 of the draft Bill there are provisions which are very similar dealing with taking away of conveyances generally. "Conveyance" is there defined as including one constructed or adapted for the carriage of a person … by water". It is probable that legislation on the lines of Clause 10 will be part of the Measure which the Government in due course will bring forward to implement the recommendations of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. If that Bill becomes law we shall have to see how far the hon. Member's Bill fits in with the Theft Bill.

It is obviously convenient to have all statutory provisions dealing with the taking away of conveyances, whether they happen to be cars, boats or bicycles, dealt with in one Measure. Although the definition in the Theft Bill is rather more roundabout than the direct one in the hon. Member's Bill, there are reasons for this if all conveyances are to be considered together. As the hon. Gentleman very generously admitted, there is much pressure on legislative time, particularly for Home Office matters, and it has not yet been possible to introduce the Theft Bill. Therefore, that is a matter for the future. However, the fact that we may deal with the matter in the Theft Bill is no argument for not plugging the gap now.

The Criminal Law Revision Committee, like the hon. Gentleman, recognised that there was a gap, and for boat owners it is a very serious one. It is absurd that there should be an offence of taking and driving away but no offence of taking and sailing away—that is, where there is no intention of stealing, If someone goes on a joy-ride in a motor boat or if he takes away a yacht simply for the fun of it, the owner has no remedy.

What is more, as the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said, this can be a very serious matter from another point of view, because if young people with no experience take a boat to sea—those of us who have done some sailing realise that experience is highly desirable and that some of us may lack a considerable amount of experience, even after we have been to sea several times—they may risk, not only their own lives, but also the lives of others. They may also risk losing the boat, which may sometimes be of relatively little value, although sometimes it may be of very great value. However, it is of great value to the owner, because he may have put a lot of his savings into that small boat. If it is a large boat, he will have put even more into it.

The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned an incident at Fareham. I heard about this. I do some sailing there. Personally, the subject matter of the whole Bill is very close to my heart. In general I welcome the Bill. It will give greater protection to all who like messing about in boats. It will provide more effective sanctions against all those who mess about with other people's boats. It will provide new sanctions and it will give added protection.

The only point of doubt about the Bill is the question of penalties. I will deal with this matter, since I was asked to do so by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. It may well be that the House—or the Committee, if the Bill is in due course given a Second Reading—will want to give further thought to this.

The hon. Member for Twickenham has departed from the penalties in the draft Theft Bill. This Bill provides for the offence to be a hybrid offence—that is to say, an offence which is triable summarily or on indictment and, on summary conviction, there is to be a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment or a fine of £100 or both.

The draft Theft Bill tackles the matter rather differently. Clause 25 of that Bill adds the offence under Clause 10—that is, the offence of taking and driving away, or of taking and sailing away, if I may adapt its language—to the list of indictable offences triable summarily in Schedule 1 to the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952. The present maximum penalties on summary conviction for such an offence are six months imprisonment or a fine of £100, but by Clause 26 of the Criminal Justice Bill, which is now going, through Standing Committee, it is proposed that that maximum fine of £100 should be increased to £400.

Further, Clause 10 of the draft Theft Bill provides, on conviction on indictment, for a maximum term of imprisonment of three years, compared with two years in the hon. Member's Bill and for an unlimited fine as compared with a maximum of £200 proposed by the hon. Member.

It may be arguable whether the right maximum term of imprisonment for a taking away offence should be one or the other, but the Criminal Law Revision Committee expressed the view in its Report that the present penalty of one year for taking and driving away a motor vehicle should be increased from one year to three and that this should apply to conveyances generally, except for bicycles. Therefore, it should certainly apply to yachts.

There is a good case for such an increase, for the reason the Committee gave, which was that this is a very prevalent offence indeed against which some pretty stiff penalties should be provided. If that is true of taking and driving away motor vehicles, there probably was not sufficient reason to distinguish the offence of in effect taking and sailing away a boat.

I also have some doubt whether it would be right to tie the court down, on conviction on indictment, to a maximum fine as low as £200. It is unusual nowadays to restrict the amount of a fine that can be imposed by a higher court.

In reply to the question raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton as to what the effects of the Bill would be on the power of magistrates' courts to find an accused guilty of a lesser offence if stealing was charged, the position generally at the moment is that magistrates' courts do not have power to convict of the lesser offence in these kinds of cases. For example, magistrates cannot convict an accused of taking and driving away a car if the charge is that the accused was trying to steal the car. In that respect, the Bill simply follows the present practice.

However, these are Committee points and we can return to them later, if the House sees fit to give the Bill a Second Reading. In closing, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham on his Bill and on the way in which he so eloquently presented it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40(Committal of Bills).