HC Deb 02 May 1969 vol 782 cc1769-821

11.9 a.m.

Sir John Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 18, leave out "after the commencement of this Act" and insert on or after 26th March 1968". It will not need very much discernment on the part of any hon. Member to understand that the effect of the Amendment is to make the operation of the Bill retrospective to what may appear to some to be an arbitrarily selected date. I am sure that the Minister of State, Board of Trade, will be the first to acknowledge that the Amendment is entirely intended to be helpful to the President of the Board of Trade, who has been on the horns of a difficult dilemma throughout, due to certain failures to act in his Department. I hope that if the Amendment is accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) the President of the Board of Trade will be relieved of some of the anxieties he has felt.

The second point concerns why the date of 26th March was selected. This refers back to the famous or notorious event which took place at Aldwick Court, Wrington, in Somerset, which received a great deal of publicity later in the Sunday Times. The curious circumstances which the Sunday Times disclosed on 21st October was that on 26th March, 1968, a sale took place at that house and an auction ring was disclosed. As a result, a picture was sold for £2,700 and a knock- out took place later at the quaintly named Paradise Motel. The picture was knocked down to a dealer, Mr. Julius Weitzner, for the sum of £7,000, and it was later sold to the National Gallery for £150,000.

May I say, in parenthesis, that I am not one of those who criticise the conduct of the National Gallery in any way. It has a duty to the public. This picture was offered to it, although it was not aware of all the circumstances, for what seemed to it and to many people a perfectly reasonable price. It rightly carried out its duty of complementing and completing the national collection by the purchase of a very, very important picture. I say that because the National Gallery has been subject to some unfair publicity.

I now return to the Sunday Times article. Although these allegations were made, it is most remarkable that no actions for defamation followed the article.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

On a point of order. I am very anxious to follow what my right hon. Friend is saying, but I cannot relate the Amendment to the Bill. The Notice Paper says: Page 2, line 18 [Clause 2], leave out after the commencement of this Act' and insert … There is no such line in Clause 2.

Mr. Speaker

It is page 2, line 18, subsection (5).

Mr. H. P. G. Channon (Southend, West)

Further to that point of order. There is a misprint on the Notice Paper. The Amendment is to Clause 1.

Mr. Speaker

That is so. It is a misprint on the Amendment Paper.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) is satisfied. I am grateful to him for his detailed study of the Bill. It is a misprint, and I apologise for it, but my hon. Friend must blame others and not me.

Mr. Farr

Further to the point of order. I think that the wrong line is referred to, also. Should it not be line 19 and not line 18?

Mr. Speaker

It is line 18 and a bit of line 19. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman's meticulous examination of the Amendment.

11.15 a.m.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

I do not share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for arithmetic, but it is interesting to know that we can all count up to 19.

No actions for defamation followed the article, but I should not wish to suggest that this was in any way proof positive that a ring was in operation. It was sufficient, however, to justify the President of the Board of Trade, under not inconsiderable pressure, setting up an inquiry into not only those events but the rather wider matter of auction rings. What an inquiry that was! It took some time. Many people were interviewed and at the end all that we had was "the report which could not be published". So much for this smack of firm Government.

I draw attention to one very curious circumstance. The report has, for other reasons, been made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner, who is the servant of Parliament, but is not available to Parliament—a curious and ironic comment on the effort of the President of the Board of Trade. The public, Press and the House have sought in vain to penetrate the wall of silence which the President of the Board of Trade has built around this affair. Fortunately, there are a few chinks in the wall. If one reads them carefully, one can draw certain inferences from the rather cagey replies of the right hon. Gentleman on 18th March to questions concerning the publication of the report.

In c. 216 the right hon. Gentleman made this comment: I should add that a study of the prices achieved at sales at the leading art auctions in London over the last two years strongly suggests that rings have not operated there …". The right hon. Gentleman was very careful to say "in London". Therefore, we can reasonably infer that he is satisfied that rings have operated outside London.

Dealing specifically with the Aldwick Court sale, he said: As to the Aldwick Court sale no detailed or useful information was given either to the Board of Trade or to the police, or to the Director of Public Prosecutions, until after the time-limit for any prosecution had expired. In the next paragraph the right hon. Gentleman said: The only information of any substance or significance concerning the Aldwick Court sale which my officers have been able to obtain has been provided by people who were in a position to make that same information available well before the time limit … had expired …". At no stage did the right hon. Gentleman deny that detailed and useful information was given in the process of preparing the report, but, unfortunately, it was received after the time limt had expired.

In c. 220, in reply to a question by one of his hon. Friends, the President of the Board of Trade said: As to leaving the public in the dark about whether criminal events took place or not, I think I made it clear in my original statement that no evidence emerges from the report which would justify any criminal proceedings. But he meant, after the date of expiry.

In reply to me, he repeated that the time had expired and said: I do not wish to comment any further on the Aldwick Court sale, for the reason that that sale is now time-expired and therefore it would not be right to comment on it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 18th March, 1969; Vol. 780, c. 216 and 220.] Throughout the replies of the President of the Board of Trade the allegations in the Sunday Times article were never disputed or refuted. If they had been, the right hon. Gentleman would have been very careful to say so and he need not have hesitated to say so. We can, therefore all rest assured that the Sunday Times article is accepted by the Board of Trade as having been factually correct.

I should like to say a few words about retrospection and the effect of retrospective legislation. One of my hon. Friends said to me—and I think that we all agree with it—that retrospective legislation is repugnant. This is an admirable sentiment, but it needs to be qualified a great deal. During the last two decades, Conservative and Labour Governments have passed retrospective legislation—some good, some bad. Some matters are usually accepted as being suitable for retrospection, such as amnesties and free pardons, and no one can hardly describe them as repugnant. Retrospective legislation of a remedial nature is hardly likely to be unexceptionable, and who on these benches would suggest that a relaxation of the Betterment Levy provisions back to the date of the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. An hon. Member may be tempted to answer that rhetorical question, but it is out of order in this debate.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

Well, Mr. Speaker, perhaps I may leave it by saying that no one is likely to object on those grounds. The only strong objection to retrospection is where the matter concerns penal legislation and where, if I may quote Professor Goodhart, one is inflicting a punishment on a man for doing an act which was legal when he did it.

The Amendment does not do that. No new crime is created by the Bill. Its only effect has been to increase the penalties. No innocent man would or could be penalised if the Amendment were made.

I realise that there is one flaw in my argument. The fact is that the legislation has been changed in that the maximum penalties have been increased. But I suggest that, if a case were brought under proposed legislation incorporating my Amendment, this would be a very strong plea in mitigation.

There can be no mistake. The present situation in relation to the Aldwick Court affair could not be more unsatisfactory. Guilty men have got away with plunder. This would be a chance to rectify the position. It would also be a chance to get the President of the Board of Trade off the horns of an unhappy dilemma from which he has suffered some severe wounds that one could almost describe as self-inflicted.

For those reasons, I commend this Amendment to my hon. Friend, the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and to the House.

Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)

The right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) has quite fairly indicated that, in general, it is not the view of the House that retrospective legislation is desirable. But, in tabling his Amendment, he has done the House some service, in that it enables us to discuss one of the essential ingredients in our assessment of the efficacy of the proposed legislation which is before us.

It is well known that the legislation dates back to the 1920s and that, under it, only one prosecution has even been mounted, and that was as so long ago as 1928. It is also known that in 1952 the time limit of six months was introduced which, in the circumstances of the famous Duccio affair, enabled that ring in the event to escape unscathed.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, the hon. Gentleman must come to this Amendment, which is to put the effect of the proposed legislation back to 26th March.

Mr. Brooks

I accept your point, Mr. Speaker.

The need for this legislation undoubtedly was indicated by the events which occurred on the date in the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment. Therefore, in view of the significance of what occurred on that date and the way in which undoubtedly it precipitated the introduction of the Bill, it is important to examine in some detail the circumstances of that sale and the subsequent events at the Paradise Motel, such as we know them.

On an occasion like this, it is extremely difficult for hon. Members to speak, knowing as they do that they are not aware of all the facts. This is particularly difficult today because, taking place simultaneously, there is an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner into certain allegations of maladministration by the Board of Trade and, therefore, my hon. Friend the Minister of State is in an exceptionally difficult position in replying to the Amendment.

The right hon. Gentleman made a very fair point when he said that the Report which the Board of Trade has refused to disclose to the House is now in the hands of the Parliamentary Commissioner, who is no doubt able to examine it at leisure and in detail, whereas apparently the House of Commons will not be able at any time to read it and assess its significance. I feel that the Parliamentary Commissioner will be placed in certain difficulties when he presents his report. If he has to make certain deductions from the Board of Trade Report, I do not see how he can possibly make those deductions meaningful without quoting perhaps at some length from it, and we in this House have no way of telling how far his quotations are selective and partial because we shall not have seen the whole Report.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must come to the Amendment, which seeks to extend backwards the provisions of this legislation in respect of offences.

Mr. Brooks

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I realise the danger of straying from the substance of the Amendment, and I may have indicated that all too clearly.

But the difficulty that we face is that the justification for the Amendment is that it is drawing attention to certain circumstances which previous legislation clearly was unable to cope with adequately. It is important to know whether, in the light of such knowledge as we possess of the incident in March, 1968, the proposed legislation will be any more adequate to cope with these types of difficulties. Without in some way illustrating the difficulties which present themselves to us, it is very hard to speak to the Amendment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I help the hon. Gentleman? The hon. Gentleman may discuss the adequacy of the Measure on Third Reading. We are discussing now whether there should be an Amendment making the provisions retrospective.

Mr. Brooks

I take your point, Mr. Speaker, and I will reserve any further comments on the general issue for Third Reading.

Perhaps I might briefly supplement the points that the right hon. Gentleman has made about the significance of the date in March, 1968, because that is quite fundamental to the Amendment.

On that date, it is now conclusively established that some very shady practices occurred. It is obvious that a painting which was known by a number of dealers to be a Duccio was sold purporting to be something quite different. It is also known that there was an attribution on the back of the painting which indicated that it was a Duccio.

I find it very hard to understand how experts competent to judge these matters who were called in to examine the works of art which were to be offered for auction, having looked at the painting and realised its importance, can possibly have failed to turn it over and look at the back of it. If they looked at the back of it, I find it hard to believe that they did not wonder why it was attributed to Duccio. This is one of the most sombre and unhappy circumstances of the whole affair.

Although the name of Mr. Julius Weitzner has been mentioned many times during the course of this long argument, it seems quite certain that others were involved in this attempt to defraud the vendor. In these very special circumstances, it does not seem unreasonable to urge the case for retrospective legislation.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the National Gallery should not be faulted for purchasing for the nation a painting which it is clear was, with the absurd market valuation we have today, worth the price paid for it. There has been no defrauding of the public purse. The painting is an asset to the nation. It is undoubtedly a work of considerable artistic significance, and there is no doubt that if it were sold tomorrow it would be sold for a greater sum than that recently paid for it.

It is, however, of some significance to recall that the Board of Trade was aware of allegations that a ring had been operating, and that those allegations were made not only by the hon. Members but by respected members of art dealers' associations. It appears that sufficiently urgent action was not taken until the six months period had expired: one can almost imagine the glee with which those involved in the ring must have awaited that terminal date. I feel that as far as the House can do anything in the matter, it should wipe the smile from those people's faces.

11.30 a.m.

Sir Frank Pearson (Clitheroe)

It is a matter of some surprise to myself that I should be speaking in support of an Amendment seeking retrospective action, because if there is one thing that I abhor, and one thing that I am certain most hon. Members abhor, it is the whole principle of retrospective legislation. The House must therefore take it that prima facie there are extremely strong grounds for tabling this Amendment, and extremely strong reasons for two or three hon. Members to find it necessary to support it.

I am fully aware that our argument for retrospective legislation in this regard is based on the special circumstances of the case referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan), with which he was throughout the whole proceedings so very closely involved. I cannot, as a mere layman, say that I was involved to the same extent as he, but I regard this case possibly from the point of view that many members of the public regard it. I know that at the time there was very widespread discontent and dissatisfaction resulting from a feeling that a real injustice had been done to individuals who, because of the then state of the law, were not able to defend their rights, and who, when they saw their possession sold for a very large sum of money, were not able to get any benefit at all from that sum.

As the hon. Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) has said, the Bill has been largely promulgated in the House and has largely reached the present stage because of the case mentioned by my right hon. Friend. There must be a prima facie case for saying that if it were necessary to promulgate a Bill to deal with the circumstances arising from that case, it is right that that Bill should be so broad as to bring that case within the net. My right hon. Friend was perfectly right when he said that one reason given by the President of the Board of Trade for not being able to pursue the matter and ensure that justice was done was that the time limit within the Act made it impossible for any further steps to be taken.

Quite apart from the narrow circumstances of that case, which, in my view, would fully justify this retrospective provision, a far wider issue is involved. It arises from the totally new circumstances in which auction sales for antiques of this nature are carried out. Only 10 or 15 years ago the sums involved in such auctions were relatively small: the big figures, where they occurred, probably did so only in the London auctions. Today, there is hardly an object over 30 years old that is not regarded as an antique—

Mr. Speaker

With respect, the hon. Member is advancing an argument for Third Reading, I think, and not for this Amendment.

Sir F. Pearson

I am sorry Mr. Speaker. I was trying to show that times have so changed that cases of the type mentioned should be brought within the law, because the general circumstances in which auctions are now held are such that it is necessary that the public should see that such cases cannot again occur.

These auctions are now taking place in almost every market town, and very large sums of money change hands. There must be hundreds of cases that we never hear about in which an individual does not get the price he should for an objet d'art. I would justify retrospection purely on the ground that it is essential that at the earliest possible moment a case should be brought in court so that the public can see that as a result of this Measure they now have the necessary protection.

My right hon. Friend said that if the Measure were made retrospective some general injustice might follow because the new penalties are substantially in excess of those current, but thought that this fact might be taken into account as a matter of mitigation. He suggested that it would then be competent for the judge to mitigate the sentence having this point in mind. That might be perfectly possible for any court to do but, considering the amount of profit involved in the case that has been referred to, I am not certain that a fine of a mere £400 or some short term of imprisonment would be considered by anyone to be excessive. I do not therefore attach any very great importance to the penalty aspect.

The further point has been made that there is no need for this retrospective provision because the matter is in the hands of the Ombudsman. I do not see how that can be a valid argument. I believe that we are far too apt today to try to deal with such matters by the administrative mechanism and to leave aside the normal processes of the law. I have no doubt that the Ombudsman will do a first-class job, and will look into all matters and give a very fair and just report, but there is absolutely nothing that can quite take the place of the regular processes of the law before a regularly established court.

Because I believe this case to be of such outstanding importance and the circumstances surrounding it to be so exceptional, I would be perfectly prepared to make an exception to a general rule which I believe has the utmost validity, and I would give full support to this Amendment. It would allow us to know with certainty whether justice was done or not done in the case in which my right hon. Friend was so closely involved.

Mr. W. Howie (Luton)

I have no great wish to delay the business of the House—there is much to be considered in the course of the day—but my experience of the Bill has kept me in a fairly constant condition of irritation. That, as the House will agree, is most unusual. I am an extremely pacific Member, even meek, but I recall that during Committee, although this is a Private Member's Bill, members of the Opposition party twice attempted to delay proceedings by moving the Adjournment of the sitting.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I too am a pacific man, but the hon. Member must come to the Amendment.

Mr. Howie

As one pacific man to another, I come to it with great rapidity. I will leave the reasons for my earlier irritation, but I am now irritated by this Amendment.

The Amendment has been chosen to deal with a specific case, a case which we all agree is a bad one, and from which conclusions follow, and which might involve conclusions about the manner in which the auction business and buying and selling of works of art and antiquities proceed. I have no time for auction rings, and I am not trying to speak for them, but the business of buying and selling of works of art sometimes seems to lead to a distortion of values. We find people concentrating sometimes more on money than the art value of an object as a piece of art.

The reasons for objecting to this Amendment are two, and both are based on natural justice. It was rightly said by the right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) that Governments of both parties have been obliged from time to time to pass retrospective legislation. I accept that there are circumstances in which retrospection is necessary, in which it must be done because the enormity of the offence or the particular conditions under which it arose demand retrospection. I cannot see that this is such a situation.

What is being asked here is that the legislation should be so altered that two things will follow. First, the penalty which might have been faced by people some months ago would be increased, and increased in such a way as to catch them. These men presumably faced a situation under the existing legal condition, no doubt taking account of the risk involved, and proceeded to business on the basis of their calculation. We are now asked to say that they got away with it and should be brought in and severely punished. I cannot accept that. I will illustrate my view by an example.

11.45 a.m.

I wonder how Opposition Members would react to the following circumstances. Suppose a couple of trade unionists published an article critical of their leader and were hauled before their branch, which fined them. The leader might say, "That is absolutely dreadful. They must be banned for life from holding office in the union". I can imagine the sort of uproar which hon. Members opposite would raise in such a case. Although hypothetical, it could happen. The idea of deciding that the punishment is not enough and twisting rules in the hope of making it fit is suggested. The right hon. Member by this Amendment would twist the rules to claw back something from an unsavoury situation.

Second, and more important, the offence, if there was an offence, is time-expired. The suggestion is that people who normally and naturally under the due process of law expect to be free would be put back in jeopardy. I cannot see that that fits in with any conception of natural justice. I am particularly surprised that this should come from hon. Members opposite. With all their faults, they pride themselves on the fervour with which they uphold natural justice. They are right to do so, and many hon. Members on this side of the House do the same.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

Would my hon. Friend agree that there are some people in society who will commit a most heinous crime on the basis that they will not be harshly punished? If they thought the punishment would be harder and even retrospective, would they not desist from committing such a crime?

Mr. Howie

That might well be true. So far as I have been able to follow that intervention I agree with it, but it is not quite what I was talking about.

Sir Frank Pearson

The hon. Member will admit that when this crime was committed the participants knew perfectly well that they were breaking the law. They knew they were committing a crime. Therefore, the strict case against retrospection must be very greatly watered down.

Mr. Howie

I agree with the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) that those concerned in this case behaved extremely badly. I am not attracted to these people in any way. This is capitalism at its worst, and I do not like it one bit. But these men acted badly within a certain context of law and got away with it. It is very annoying to all of us, but the whole legal system in the Western world is of that sort. That legal framework is laid down, and within it one behaves properly. Only in extremely special circumstances can one alter the context because someone has got away with it.

Mr. Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

The hon. Member is making a very serious argument. I agree with much that he has said, but can he think a little deeper about the reasons for the Amendment? I know that he would not wish to take up the time of the House, or his own time, in discussing something on which there is general agreement, but—I am speculating—might the Amendment not have been tabled to enable the Government in some way to raise the veil on events which took place after the Aldwick Court sale? Is it to enable the Government to raise the veil in a way in which so far they have failed to do? I am trying to help the hon. Member.

Mr. Howie

The hon. Member is helping me. I had a brief dialogue with Mr. Speaker at the start of my speech, in which he suggested that to pursue this kind of course would lure me out of order.

That intervention will explain to the House why I am so irritated by this whole business. There are, no doubt, umpteen ways in which the veil, as the hon. Member calls it, can be raised. But it is wrong to fool around with this Bill, first of all trying to adjourn the Committee, then getting a report and trying to adjourn it, and fiddling around in this way.

If the hon. Gentlemen wish to make the law retrospective let them do so. But if they wish to raise the veil, let them not put down Amendments making the law retrospective. If the thing can be done, let it be done straight or not at all. Unfortunately, I am more irritated than I was even at the beginning, though I am not by nature an irritable man.

The whole point is first that it is wrong to increase the penalties retrospectively. Second, it is wrong to remove the protection of the time expiry, even though that protection sometimes assists people whom we do not like one bit. The whole process of our law is based on giving that kind of protection to people who might be guilty. It is wrong to tamper with it.

I would put one other thought about the time expiry. It is only because of the protection offered by the existing law that certain information has come into the hands of the Board of Trade. It is a fact also, whether we like it or not, that often agents of the law obtain their information from malefactors of one sort or another. They often do so under a variety of protections and deals over many of which it is best to draw a veil—indeed, over many of which it is a mistake to raise the veil, though I am not saying that that is the case in this matter.

What is certain is that a good deal of the information which the Board of Trade possesses concerning the operation of these rings would not have been available to it had it not been for the cover of the time expiry. We know this from the various Questions and Answers given in the House.

This whole attempt, whether it is a real attempt to change the law, for which I would have some respect, or whether it is a "phoney" attempt, as the hon. Member seems to suggest to me, is wrong. I agree with the hon. Member for Clitheroe that the correct manoeuvre here is to adhere to the normal processes of law. What is being suggested is an extremely abnormal process of law, and it should be immediately and totally rejected.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

Perhaps I can soothe the troubled breast of the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) by saying that I also am against the Amendment. On the other hand, I am wholly in favour of what my hon. Friends did in Committee in trying to adjourn in order to get information from the Board of Trade about this matter, information which ought to have been given.

I declare an interest as an auctioneer—but, unfortunately, not an auctioneer of these high-priced works of art. My auctioneering is largely confined to cattle, sheep and pigs. Nevertheless, in auctioneering of any worth whatever dealers, auctioneers, vendors and purchasers are put at risk if there is any suspicion of a ring.

The previous legislation has been quite ineffective. Whatever has been said on this side of the House, I do not believe that it will be any help at all to make this sort of legislation retrospective. Auctions which are properly advertised, with the right knowledge behind them, with proper attribution, and with the right kind of expertise among people who are buying, are the best way for the vendor to get the best price for his object, whatever he is selling.

But when recently a well-known expert poured cold water on the attribution of many Rembrandts, how are we to say that in 50 years' time somebody will not say that this was not a Duccio at all? I do not know about that, but I am quite certain that many works of art which at present are hung in our galleries are probably wrongly attributed. Much of the value of works of art is attributed to fashion. It is a fashion to buy a certain artist's paintings.

When one comes to this particular sale, the Amendment seeks to deal with the people concerned. I do not know whether or not the matter has yet been proved in a court of law. [An HON. MEMBER: "It has not".] No, it cannot have been, because the Board of Trade has not given the right information. The painting was sent by the local museum, which could have had free advice from any of the major museums in London. It is a pity that it did not back its interest, which I understand it had in this work of art, by asking for somebody to come along and advise it.

I was wholly in favour of my hon. Friends pressing as hard as possible for the information to be given to the House, but, on the other hand, I am dead against the retrospection which the Amendment would bring about. It is a dangerous precedent which my hon. Friends would regret in the future.

12 noon.

Sir Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I have no hesitation in supporting the Bill, but at the moment we are concerned with a narrow Amendment, whether or not we shall make retrospective the severe penalties which, quite rightly in my view, are being introduced by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle), in an intervention, said that there was some other purpose behind the framing of this Amendment.

Mr. A. Royle

I am not one to divulge or even to know, what is in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan). I had no hand in drafting the Amendment and I do not know what were his reasons. For the assistance of hon. Members I was speculating as to the reason for the Amendment being put down.

Sir Eric Fletcher

I was not criticising the hon. Member, but since his name is attached to the Amendment—because he is allied on the Amendment with his right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate—I attached importance to his intervention.

It is quite legitimate to put down an Amendment of this kind, not merely for the immediate purpose of discussing the merits or demerits of retrospective legislation, but it is legitimate to use the machinery of the Amendment, as the hon. Member and his supporters have been doing, to try to elicit further information about the Duccio affair. I am not saying anything about that; I know very little about it beyond the fact that the circumstances surrounding that affair have caused the greatest possible indignation in the country and, as everybody knows, that episode prompted and inspired the Bill which will have salutary benefits to the community in the future.

The Amendment involves a matter of great constitutional principle, namely, the circumstances in which retrospective legislation of any kind is justified in this House. The right hon. Gentleman, and even more so, the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson), realised the difficulty. They have tried to face the difficulty, they have expressed their abhorrence in principle of any retrospective legislation, and they have attempted to persuade the House that the particular circumstances of this case justify the House in making an exception to the generally recognised objections to retrospective legislation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) has said.

Therefore, it is not inopportune, as the whole subject of retrospective legislation has exercised the minds of those in the House for many centuries, that we should once again try to clear our minds about the principles that lie behind retrospective legislation.

At the outset, one must draw a distinction between retrospective legislation in civil matters and in criminal matters. There have been several instances in which the House has recognised that in civil matters, where the personal rights of individuals are concerned, as distinct from criminal law, retrospective legislation is not only justified but necessary.

May I remind the House of two recent instances which were debated in the House? The Burmah Oil case gave rise to considerable agitation in this House and in another place. It was concerned with whether or not companies were entitled to large sums of money. This House, by a majority, perhaps against the convictions of many of us, came to the conclusion that Parliament was justified in passing what I thought at the time was the most glaring Act of retrospective civil legislation that the House has ever passed. Nevertheless, we did it. Another example was when Parliament decided to reverse the decision of the House of Lords sitting in its appellate capacity in the famous case of Rookes v. Barnard with regard to trade union law.

There have been other relatively minor matters of legislation where Parliament without demur has thought it right to legislate retrospectively to correct legal decisions in the courts which have pro- duced results contrary to what Parliament intended. There have been numerous instances, with which I will not trouble the House, where the law has been thought to be of a certain nature. Because of a judicial decision, perhaps on a technical point, the House of Lords has decided otherwise, and Parliament has thought it was justified in legislating, and had a duty to legislate, retrospectively to put the law back into the form which Parliament intended and in the form in which most people had thought it was.

All those were civil cases of retrospective legislation, and Parliament has always tried to draw a distinction between justifying retrospective legislation in civil matters, on the one hand, and, on the other, retrospective legislation which affects the criminal law, either by creating new crimes—Parliament can create new crimes but should not create them retrospectively, and ought to be circumspect before increasing retrospectively penalties for existing crimes—

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)


Sir Eric Fletcher

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a few moments. I want to pursue this line of thought as it is relevant to the matter we are discussing.

Before coming on to the criminal law, it is pertinent to observe that there is an intermediate class of legislation between the civil law matters about which I have been talking and the criminal law, namely, financial legislation. Hon. Members will recognise that there have been numerous occasions on which we have had to consider in relation to Finance Bills whether or not financial enactments should have retrospective effect. Successive Governments have realised that exceptional circumstances have justified Parliament in legislating retrospectively from time to time in matters of fiscal legislation, but only cautiously, never capriciously.

The underlying justification for retrospective legislation in Finance Acts is that in a sense all Finance Bills have some retrospective effect because, in so far as people have regulated their affairs in accordance with the financial arrangements which they thought existed, no one is entitled to assume, for example, that the rates of Estate Duty will continue to be the same. Therefore, it has been recognised that some changes in our financial arrangements have an inherent and natural retrospective effect.

But there have been other cases in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps after giving due warning, has announced that he may find it necessary in a subsequent year to introduce measures on tax avoidance with retrospective effect. Those occasions have given rise to debate and to division of opinion, but such measures have from time to time been passed by Government majorities in Governments of different political persuasions.

There are, therefore, several precedents for retrospective legislation in civil and financial matters, but, so far as I am aware, there has not for a very long time past been any credence given to the thought that Parliament should in any circumstances pass retrospective legislation of a criminal character. My memory may serve me wrong, but the last occasion on which it was attempted was in 1641, when this House, as you will remember, Mr. Speaker, since you have written a book on the subject, sought unsuccessfully to impeach Thomas Went-worth, Earl of Stafford. The impeachment failed because Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, had not committed any offence—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hesitate to intervene in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will not discuss the merits of the Wentworth case.

Sir Eric Fletcher

No, I will not discuss the merits. I was saying that as far as I know—and you no doubt, Mr. Speaker, will be the first to correct me if I am wrong—that was the last occasion in which retrospective legislation was attempted. As you will remember, the impeachment having failed, an Act of Attainder was passed so that Thomas Wentworth could be executed for having done something which was not a crime when he did it but for which Parliament thought he should be condemned to death.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Far be it from me to correct the right hon. Gentleman's history, but we are discussing whether this provision shall apply to certain cases on or after 26th March, 1968—a little later than 1641.

Sir Eric Fletcher

I am seeking to explain how very rarely and in what different circumstances this House has ever attempted to deal retrospectively with criminal acts.

Mr. Brooks


Sir Eric Fletcher

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.

There is one other possible precedent for retrospective action in the criminal field, and that relates to the Nuremburg trials. Some of us thought that it was very wrong to participate with other nations in bringing to trial the German war criminals for acts which were not criminal by international law or any law at the time when those acts were committed.

Mr. Brooks

My right hon. Friend has anticipated my intervention telepathically. Will he not agree that while many people may have felt that this was wrong, many more almost certainly felt that it was right, and in any case it was done?

Sir Eric Fletcher

In any case it was done.

I thought that I would be remiss in dealing with the arguments of the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) if I omitted that reference to a case in which it could be said that the House has been a participant in retrospective legislation of a criminal character. But, with that exception, I am not aware that the House has ever adopted the view that any circumstances, however exceptional, could justify retrospective legislation of a criminal nature. I will explain why.

The reason is this. To do so would be acting—the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the phrase—in personam; it would be passing an Act to incriminate one or more individuals. That ought not to be done in any criminal legislation because criminal legislation per se is legislation of a general character applicable to the general community, and it is wrong in principle to pass legislation aimed at a particular individual. That has always been one of the cardinal features of our criminal law. It should be general in its application.

It has been conceded by the hon. Member for Clitheroe and the right hon.

Member for Reigate that this Amendment is not intended to be of general or public application, but is designed to deal with one or two, or perhaps a few, specific individuals. That seems to me to be thoroughly objectionable in principle.

Sir Frank Pearson

While I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman's legal knowledge and I am certain that on this point he is absolutely right in principle, may I ask him to comment on the fact that these very individuals will now be under scrutiny, probably by the Ombudsman, outside the normal processes of law? Is not this a matter that ought to be given consideration?

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have an intervention upon an intervention.

Sir Eric. Fletcher

In answer to the hon. Member for Clitheroe, I would say this. I would welcome the investigation being conducted by the Ombudsman. I do not know what results it would produce. I hope that it would have the desirable effect of bringing to the light of day the circumstances concerning this Duccio transaction, but it does not seem to me to follow that whatever facts are revealed by the Ombudsman's report should then be used to punish individuals who are found guilty of something which was not punishable at the time when the offence was committed. That does not seem to me a logical argument.

12.15 p.m.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

I find the right hon. Gentleman's argument impressive and interesting. I sought to intervene with my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson), because the Parliamentary Commissioner is not investigating the circumstances of 26th March. I wanted to make that clear.

Sir Eric Fletcher

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I confess that I am not very familiar with what the Ombudsman is doing or, indeed, with the details of the Duccio affair. That, I think, is veiled in a great deal of obscurity. I know that there has been a great deal of indignation and that it is the occasion for this Bill, but I thought that I might be out of order if I said too much about the Duccio affair.

I am much more concerned with this Amendment, which deals with a vital matter of constitutional principle, and to invite the House to consider the argument of the right hon. Member for Reigate and the hon. Member for Clitheroe, whether we could conceivably have here anything which would justify, because of its exceptional character, a departure from what the House has always regarded as a fundamental principle of natural justice with regard to retrospective legislation in criminal matters.

Mr. Costain

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that I might intervene later, and I am grateful to him. I have studied the old Bill and the present Bill. The actual crime is exactly the same in both cases. The only thing that this Bill does is to alter the penalties and the time when the prosecution can take place. It does not alter the crime.

Sir Eric Fletcher

I appreciate that. If the House will bear with me, I think that, in fairness to the hon. Gentleman, one ought to face that argument.

In my submission, there can be no possible distinction between the abhorrence one has for retrospective legislation which creates a new crime, and retrospective legislation which increases the penalties for an existing crime. The arguments which make either suggestion abhorrent must be the same. If we are dealing with what was never a crime but was only a trivial offence, and it. is suggested that because of a glaring case which has come to our notice the penalties should be increased to victimise an individual and that we should legislate retrospectively in order to do so, we shall be doing something pari passu with introducing a new crime to punish someone for doing something which was quite innocent at the time it was done.

I can see no distinction in principle, therefore, between the repugnance of making new crimes retrospectively, on the one hand, and, on the other, increasing savagely the penalties for existing crimes.

I should not like anyone to take it from anything which I have said that I have sympathy for those who were guilty of what was done in connection with the Duccio offence, and I am glad to think that, if we pass the Bill, anyone who attempts to do the same sort of thing in the future will expose himself to serious and just penalties.

Mr. A. Royle

If one can get the evidence.

Sir Eric Fletcher

If one can get the evidence. But that is the same with all crimes.

On this limited issue, which raises the question whether we should act retrospectively, it is right also to add that, however indignant we are—even, perhaps, the more indignant we are—at the action of those who were involved in the Duccio affair, the more necessary it is, not the less necessary, that we should restrain our natural feeling of indignation about what they have done and not allow that feeling to prompt us to support an Amendment to introduce retrospective legislation of a criminal character which, in my view, flies counter to all the highest principles which the House has recognised for a very long time.

Once we accept any set of circumstances as justifying an exception of this kind, we start on a slippery path. I shall not outline what has happened in other countries. I merely urge upon the House that we start on a slippery path once a precedent of this kind is introduced because, perhaps, there have been some exceptional circumstances. Such a precedent could be used in the future in a way which would defeat the liberties of the subject, which depend upon an individual's being able to act in accordance with the law of the land as it stands, being subject to whatever criminal sanctions exist at the time, and not be thought to be exposed to the possibility of Parliament subsequently changing those laws retrospectively to his disadvantage.

Mr. Peter Mahon

I appreciate the splendid argument which my right hon. Friend is putting, but one or two things have passed through my mind, and I should like to hear his comment—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If one or two things have passed through the hon. Gentleman's mind, he will have an opportunity to speak. Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Mahon

Yes, Mr. Speaker; and I shall be brief.

What concerns me is that, according to our code of law, appeals are considered retrospectively. I should like my right hon. Friend's comment on that.

Sir Eric Fletcher

With respect, I think that I should strain the indulgence of the House if I were to embark on that subject.

Mr. Marcus Worstey (Chelsea)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher) called this a limited issue, though he showed that the principles involved are far from limited and are of great consequence.

I find myself very much in agreement with what he said, and very much in disagreement with the propositions put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan), in moving the Amendment. I say that, however, not because I have a general lack of sympathy with the case which my right hon. Friend put. No one has spoken with sympathy towards what happened in this case, and no one yet has spoken with sympathy about the lack of information given by the Government regarding what happened.

I hope that the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) will be taken up when the Minister intervenes and that he gives the House the sort of information for which it has asked. Nevertheless, having said that, I am unable to continue my sympathy with my right hon. Friend further than that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins), talked of dangerous precedents. The more one looks at the Amendment, the more dangerous the precedents are seen to be. In moving the Amendment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate quoted Professor Goodhart on the subject of retrospective legislation. He said, if I understood him aright, that the objection was to making something illegal which was legal at the time, justifying his Amendment on the ground that the act done, if there were a guilty act, was illegal at the time and, therefore, there was no objection to retrospective legislation in this connection.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

There is no new crime being created.

Mr. Worsley

Precisely. That is what I understood my right hon. Friend to say, and that is the point which I have in mind. The fact that a new crime as such has not been created is not in itself a reason for accepting retrospective legislation on a matter like this. I thought that the right hon. Member for Islington, East put that point well.

There would be two consequences flowing from the Amendment. The first would be to remove a time limit. Time limits operate in a wide range of the law. I cannot see why, if it were considered desirable to remove a time limit in this instance, the principle could not be used right across the whole field of the law. It would make an enoromous difference. That is my first point, that time limits are necessary in the law and to alter them retrospectively is in itself wrong.

Second, not only is there the question of removing a time limit but there is also the question of altering the penalty. Clause 1(1) would allow incidents of this kind to go to a higher court on indictment, so that not only is the penalty as such increased but the whole range of punishments available to the courts is enormously increased.

The more one thinks about the proposition, the more it becomes obvious that a precedent of this kind would be wildly dangerous. The effect could be retrospectively to turn an offence which at the moment is, perhaps, punishable by only a nominal penalty—one could visualise, perhaps, the analogy of a parking offence or something of that sort—into an offence which, to carry the thing to its logical extreme, would merit the death penalty. Such a change would offend against every principle in which we believe.

Mr. Costain

Under the 1927 Act, the punishment was a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months, a fine of £400, or both.

Mr. Worsley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That makes my point; six months' imprisonment is the maximum which a magistrates' court can impose, and that supports the proposition which I am putting.

For those essential reasons, namely, that the proposition is that the time limit should be removed and that the penalty should be considerably altered retrospectively—I agree here with the right hon. Member for Islington, East—it seems to me that we should not allow any personal distaste in this matter to induce us to change the law retrospectively.

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman also in what he said about the personal character of the proposed change. He used the Latin phrase. I regard it as wise to keep off Latin in the House, but, if I understood what he was saying, it was that we must at all costs refrain from altering the law or introducing legislation in such a way as either actually to aim, or to appear to aim, at an individual. The right hon. Gentleman gave historical analogies. I shall not do this, even though I do not think that his analogies were perhaps as strong as they could have been.

We are being asked to put in the Bill a specific date. As my right hon. Friend said in moving the Amendment, it is specifically related to a specific event. Suppose the matter were tried by a jury, and the jury knew that Parliament had altered the law to bring that event within the law. Could that jury be absolutely open-minded about the case?

The very fact that Parliament had specifically brought the case within the law could not be thought of by 12 good men and true as a neutral fact. They would think that there must be, if not an actual statement, at least an implication of a statement of guilt in this case. We are enormously careful, as a House, to avoid any interference in the courts of law. The last thing we want to do is so to frame the law as to give the slightest impression that the result of a court case is anticipated one way or the other.

Whatever our personal feelings on the matter, it is essential for this reason, too, that we should, perhaps with reluctance, but on the soundest constitutional principles, reject the Amendment.

12.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Edmund Dell)

I have some difficulty in dealing with the Amendment, because the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) told me that the object of putting down the Amendment, to which he was surprised to find his name attached, was to enable me to raise the veil—

Mr. A. Royle

On a point of Order. Mr. Speaker. I think that my intervention was misunderstood. Of course I was not surprised that my name was attached, but I did not want to give the impression that I was giving the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan).

Mr. Dell

I note the hon. Gentleman's clarification. But he said that the object of the Amendment was to enable me to raise the veil on certain events to which reference has been made in the debate. I think that the hon. Gentleman is optimistic. After all, we have considered these events in so far as you, Mr. Speaker, and Chairmen in Committees have permitted, on various occasions, and Questions have been asked in the House. I cannot go beyond what has been said in the House and in Committee.

The right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) attempted to draw certain implications from what my right hon. Friend has said in the House. Nothing my right hon. Friend has said implied any judgment one way or the other on what happened at Aldwick Court on 26th March, 1968.

The House has listened with interest to the debate, and we are grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher), my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) and the hon. Members for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) and Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) for explaining the real objections to the Amendment, which I think the House must sustain if it puts aside its feelings, and even its passions, about the event that concerns it and considers simply the merits of the case.

The House is particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend, who placed the case before it in a way that I think to be absolutely irrefutable. It would be unwise for me to attempt to follow him. His arguments were so persuasive that I think they must carry the House, but I shall briefly emphasise the main points against the Amendment.

First, it places in peril men who were, by the law of this country, outside peril.

Second, it increases the penalities retrospectively. The right hon. Member for Reigate said that the fact that penalties were increased retrospectively could be used in a plea of mitigation in the courts. Possibly it could, but that does not seem to me to be any justification in justice or in principle for increasing penalties retrospectively. I believe that the House would be prepared to proceed on its own judgment of the right and justice of that case. But I would draw attention to Article 7(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides inter alia: Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed. The third objection, which was also made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Chelsea, is that the Amendment would be directed against specific individuals and is objectionable in principle on that account. I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend's account of the events in 1641, in which I once had an interest, and I am impressed by the accuracy of his memory.

I hope that the House will listen to the pleas of my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members. The Amendment is clearly wrong in principle, and the House could not pass it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

Mr. Channon

All hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan), who moved the Amendment, are well aware of the dangers of retrospective legislation, but my right hon. Friend has done us a service by giving us the opportunity to debate the matter this morning. I am only sorry that the Government have not taken the opportunity afforded them to tell us a bit more of what occurred on the famous occasion with which we are concerned.

I was also sorry that the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher), to whose speech we listened with such interest, was able only sketchily and briefly to give us the benefit of his historical researches. It was a pleasure to hear him speak again. I have not heard him speak in the House for many years, and I hope to have the opportunity of hearing him at greater length on another occasion, when he will be able to deploy his case more fully.

I am always opposed in principle to retrospection. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out the objections to retrospective legislation, but some of the arguments advanced against the Amendment have been over-stated. I suspect that my right hon. Friend was not so anxious to increase the penalties against anyone who might have committed an offence at Aldwick Court, but was worried about the time limit. The real tragedy, if an offence was committed there, is not that the penalties were so low but that the Board of Trade was dilatory and did not bring an action within six months.

I shall not go into that in detail, because the Minister of State will at once leap to his feet and say that this is grossly unfair because the Ombudsman is considering the matter and may say that the Board of Trade behaved perfectly. We shall await the remarks of the Ombudsman on the matter.

Mr. Dell

The hon. Gentleman is not awaiting the remarks of the Ombudsman. He is making his own judgment.

Mr. Channon

I am awaiting those remarks with great interest, If they prove that the Board of Trade behaved perfectly in the matter, I am sure that we shall all be very relieved.

My right hon. Friend showed this morning what an extraordinary case this was, and he advanced powerful reasons for saying that the extraordinary time limit of six months under the old Act should have been removed. The time limit is the only point that really matters here. After all, if there was no criminal offence at Aldwick Court on 26th March, or anywhere else subsequently, no criminal prosecutions could be launched. My right hon. Friend would be only too happy with the previous penalties if there were.

I was surprised by one remark of the Minister of State. He said that at no time had the President of the Board of Trade expressed any comment on whether anything had happened at Aldwick Court. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to HANSARD of 6th November last. The President of the Board of Trade, referring to the help needed in the inquiries, said: … many people … it now emerges, have for some months past known not only about the Aldwick Court case, but about the activities of this 'ring' in particular."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1968, Vol. 772. c. 891.] If the right hon. Gentleman was not then making a statement that there was a ring, then that was a most extraordinary remark for him to make. Now I cannot accept that, on subsequent occasions, he has taken the attitude which the Minister of State has just said that he has done.

I myself would not wish to press the Amendment and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate will feel able not to do so. But it is a tragedy that we have not been able to have the full story published. There is here a serious anomaly. As the hon. Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks), who is in favour of the Amendment, has pointed out, the Parliamentary Commissioner, a servant of the House, will know what took place while the House will not. Is the Minister of State in a position to answer the numerous queries put on 18th March following a statement by the President of the Board of Trade? The right hon. Gentleman said then that he would consider a number of matters, notably whether he was prepared to show the Report to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. This aspect may be more appropriate for debate on Third Reading, however, and perhaps the Minister of State will answer then.

The real tragedy is the fact that the six months' time limit was exceeded and that more energetic action was not somehow taken to get round it. It is not a question of penalties or of making people criminals who would not otherwise have been criminals, but if only action had been taken within the six months hon. Members on both sides would have been happier, because action was certainly needed.

Let there be no doubt that we in this House are disturbed about the situation. I hope that no one outside imagines that we do not take the subject of auction rings very seriously. We look with abhorrence on the scandals of auction rings which we suspect have taken place and which meet with the strongest disapproval of the House of Commons. Let it be understood that, if the Bill does not stamp them out, further action will have to be taken.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. A. Royle

I fully support the reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) to the Minister of State's speech. Many of us concerned about this matter from the beginning have been worried by the apparent failure of Ministers to come clean with the House about it. Perhaps through my own fault, I apparently gave the impression earlier that in some way I did not know that my name was attached to the Amendment. Of course I knew. I wanted to make clear to the House that I supported the Amendment so as to enable the Minister of State to have the opportunity, which I am sad that he did not take—of lifting the veil a little more on the events of last year following the Aldwick Court sale.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not done so. Although, as he said, there have been many exchanges on the Floor of the House and in Committee on the Bill, he has not answered many of the questions put to him. Some of those put to him about the Aldwick Court sale were answered in a perfectly accurate way, but, nevertheless, in a way which some hon. Members may feel rather strange.

I will quote one reply he gave because it has an important bearing on the Amendment which would bring the Aldwick Court case within the remit of the Bill. On 3rd April, I asked the President of the Board of Trade … what request he has received to publish his Report on auction rings from the Society of London Art Dealers. The Minister of State replied: My right hon. Friend has received no request for publication from this Society. They wrote to my right hon. Friend on 24th February asking whether the Report would be published."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1969; Vol. 781, c. 643.] The Answer was technically correct and accurate. That is exactly what the letter said. But if one reads the whole letter carefully, one sees that the theme was a general request to publish the Report. That is clearly what was being asked. If the letter is read in its entirety, one sees, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that it asks the Minister to publish, but if one words a reply in the way in which the hon. Gentleman worded his on 3rd April—

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are we in order in discussing the rights or wrongs of the President of the Board of Trade publishing or not publishing the Report? If so, I have a great deal to say, but I would have thought that it was out of order in this debate.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) rose to his feet a second before I began to rise to mine on the same issue. We are discussing the Amendment and I hope that the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) will now come to it.

Mr. Royle

The Amendment would make the Bill effective as from March last year, and, that being so, it would involve the Aldwick Court sale. The Report which the Board of Trade received about the Aldwick Court sale surely has a close relevance to what I am saying on the Amendment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am most sympathetic to the hon. Member and, indeed, am listening sympathetically to the whole of this excellent debate, but, nevertheless, we cannot now debate the failure of the Government to publish this Report.

Mr. Royle

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

Those of us who put down the Amendment are bitterly disappointed that the Minister of State has not seen fit to lift the veil further and to clarify the situation about which so much concern has been expressed this morning, and previously, regarding the events of last year. I share the Minister of State's views on retrospective legislation and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) will, therefore, withdraw the Amendment.

I think that we have made clear the distress and concern we still feel about this affair. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has underlined the feelings of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides that the Government still seem in some way to be covering up the events which took place after the Aldwick Court sale.

Mr. Costain

Any private Member would be flattered to have such interest taken in his Bill on a Friday. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, with your great experience of the House, would agree.

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) for moving the Amendment and for the great help he has given me in the process of drafting the Bill. As you have said, Mr. Speaker, the debate has been extremely interesting. It has ranged between whether we want to bring justice by back-dating the right to institute proceedings, or whether we should stand by the normal principles against retrospection.

My right hon. Friend made a good case fer his Amendment and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) made a good case for withdrawing the Amendment. I have had the opportunity of studying the debates on the 1927 Bill. At that time, hon. Members were talking about not paintings, but bulls and sheep, and they were concerned with the formation of rings so that farmers would not get fair prices at auction sales.

My right hon. Friend said that we were not altering the crime as a crime. If the Amendment had proposed that we should, every hon. Member would have opposed it. I shudder to think what laws might be amended. We might find ourselves doing 12 months' imprisonment for saying what we thought of the Prime Minister, for instance. But my right hon. Friend has suggested that we should alter the time limit for a prosecution.

Unfortunately, as the Amendment is drafted, it would also alter the penalties which could be inflicted, and I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will agree to my suggestion. I am encouraged to think that no one is opposed to the Bill and I hope that it will get its Third Reading today. There will be an opportunity in another place for what has been said today to be considered, and the House may think it right for another place to alter the period while not increasing the penalties. That would avoid retrospection in respect of the penalties. I am not enough of a lawyer to know whether that would be possible, but that is my suggestion.

This issue has aroused much passion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) have done much research into this matter. Some legislation is made retrospective, especially when it is legislation introduced by the Government. For instance, there is no time limit to prosecutions in connection with taxation or Customs duties. If someone smuggles something through Customs, that is not the end of the matter, for a prosecution could be brought at any time.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) appreciates that if the ultimate price paid for the painting had been paid at the auction which has been so much discussed, the death duties paid by the family would have been much higher and the Treasury would have benefited enormously, that is, if the facts are as we understand them to be.

In all humility, I invite my right hon. Friend, in due course, to withdraw the Amendment in the hope that what he has in mind can be covered in another place.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

This has been a far more interesting debate than I could ever have expected when I moved the Amendment. I am most grateful to those hon. Members who have supported it, and to those who have spoken more in sorrow than in anger against retrospection. The right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher) made a particularly interesting contribution. When I first suggested the Amendment, I did not think that it would provoke references to the Strafford trial, the Nuremburg trial and the Declaration of Human Rights.

I was most careful in what I had to say not to refer to the aspect of this matter which is covered by the investigation being carried out by the Parliamentary Commissioner, because I realised that we would all be under a considerable handicap if that subject were introduced. However, we have been in a major difficulty in our discussion of this issue because of our lack of knowledge of the evidence known to the Board of Trade, but not to the House of Commons. There have been various appeals to the Minister of State to raise the veil, but he made a categorical statement that it was not his intention so to do. I have a shrewd suspicion that if he had raised the veil, we should have found that, like Salome, there were six more veils and that we should never have got at the facts.

The major argument has been about retrospection. It was I who first pointed out that there was a flaw in the Amendment and it was that the Amendment would increase penalties retrospectively. I therefore appreciated that it would probably not be wise or reasonable to press the Amendment to a Division. I now disclose that there were two other flaws, neither of which I mentioned. One was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley), but I will keep quiet about the other because I am about to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I have attended the whole of this debate and, while I do not wish to delay the House unduly, I wish to have an opportunity to make my contribution to what has been a memorable debate on a subject of the highest general importance and of great importance to the circumstances to which the Amendment relates.

I must follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) and declare my interest as an auctioneer. In Committee, my hon. Friend claimed to be the only practising auctioneer in the House, but that is not the case. I share with him the distinction of being an auctioneer, although, like him, any auctioneering work which I have done has not been in respect of works of art, but directed rather to the sale of freehold and leasehold property. If I am regarded as having an interest in the matter by reason of being an auctioneer, I take this opportunity to declare it.

I do not wish to traverse the ground already covered in what has been said about retrospective legislation, apart from dealing with one or two matters which have arisen and about which something more should be said.

I am on the side of those who feel that in principle this Amendment is objectionable and repugnant, and ought therefore to be rejected. I cannot agree with all the reasons that have been advanced by hon. Members on both sides who have spoken in support of my views. Retrospective legislation, in one form or another, has been debated in this House during the whole of the 20 years that I have been a Member. It is fair to say that on practically every occasion the attempt to impose such legislation has come from the government of the day. In my view governments of both parties have been guilty in some respect of this.

1.0 p.m.

On each occasion when the effort has been made to introduce such legislation, it has normally met with the strongest possible objection, on grounds of principle on the part of back-benchers on both sides of the House. When, in a case such as this, it is clear from the facts and from everything that has been said, that the particular retrospective legislation is directed against the activities of certain individuals, then such legislation becomes even more objectionable and repugnant.

It is perfectly natural, when we have such information about the facts of the case as we have now—it would appear that acts of great impropriety, if not illegality have taken place—that the House should be naturally concerned to deal with abuse and wrongdoing. I do not disagree with those who have expressed condemnation of auction rings generally, and of the activities of a certain group of individuals in particular, if what we surmise about these activities is proved, and if further information is made available to Parliament.

I had intended to make the main point of my speech the Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Minister, in his altogether too short and too unforthcoming intervention made a brief reference. Article 11(2) of the Declaration of Human Rights, to which this country is a signatory, says: No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed. There are two parts to this subsection. From what has been said by eminent lawyers I would have some doubt, speaking as a layman, whether this Amendment could be held to be in contravention of the earlier part of the subsection. It has been denied that the Amendment would create any new penal offence which did not exist at the time when the offences, if they were offences, were committed. There can be no doubt whatever, as the Minister has pointed out, in relation to the second part of the subsection, that if this Amendment was passed it would be a direct breach of that part, which says: … nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed. It has been admitted by the mover of the Amendment that its effect would be to increase the penalty retrospectively. Apart from any repugnance that may be held by hon. Members about retrospective legislation, in general or particular, I cannot believe that any hon. Member would vote for an Amendment that would obviously and clearly place this country in breach of a solemn international obligation into which we have entered when we became signatories to the Declaration of Human Rights.

I am, therefore, bound to find myself on the side of those who, while deprecating most strongly, the existence of auction rings and the operation of certain auction rings in particular, consider that it would be both inexpedient and wrong in principle for the House to pass this Amendment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) has already shown his intention to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. I am sure that he is acting in accordance with the feelings of the House and the arguments that have been nut forward.

Mr. Peter Mahon

I do not wish to delay the House, but, having listened with rapt attention to the splendid arguments adduced by hon. and right hon. Members on both sides, I agree that it would be less than just to concede the principle of retrospective punishment. I was at a loss to know why my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) was in danger of surrendering his equanimity. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber at the moment. There is no reason at any stage for him to shed his pacific demeanour.

I am pleased that the principle he began to enunciate so eloquently has been accepted, and I trust that those who specialise in this practice, which has prompted recourse to legislation, those who behave in this anti-social way, will not derive any comfort from the fact that the House is to adhere to the present legislation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not speaking to the Amendment, which is concerned with retrospection back to 18th March. The debate is much more limited than the hon. Gentleman thinks.

Mr. Mahon

The debate has been conducted for quite a few hours on the basis of retrospective legislation. I was quite sure that I was adhering closely to the Amendment. However, I have made my point.

It would be a dreadful mistake for the people who have been reprehensible enough to cause the Board of Trade a lot of headaches in recent months to think that it was haphazard in its approach to the problem. It would be a mistake for them to derive any comfort from what has been done in the House. Our indignation is no less for adhering to the status quo.

Amendment negatived.

1.11 p.m.

Mr. Costain

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

Although, under the new procedure, Private Members' Bills often go through without debate on Third Reading, six hon. Gentlemen have chosen to table a Motion to ensure that it is debated. I do not blame them for that. It is right that a Bill which has not been debated on Second Reading and which has gone through a Committee stage should have a Third Reading.

As I have said, I am grateful that the Bill has caused so much interest in the House. Some of this interest is no doubt due to the fact that this is a twin Bill. I had an earlier opportunity to introduce a Bill of a similar nature. I took all the professional advice which I could get on it. Hon. Members know how difficult it is for private Members to prepare a Bill on criminal legislation. At that time, the Board of Trade was moved by the same considerations, and it was proposing to introduce a Bill.

The Government Whips then had some control over the House and were able to arrange that my Bill should not have the easy passage which this Bill has had. The Minister of State—and I give him credit for all the help which he has rendered to me—invited me to take over what was virtually the Board of Trade's Bill. Hon. Members will have had the opportunity of comparing the relative merits of the Bills.

Reference has been made to the fact that we had an acrimonious discussion during the first Committee sitting. The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie), who, I am sorry to say, is not in his place, was frank enough to admit this morning that he got irritable. He got irritable again today. I do not know why he should. Hon. Members' arguments do not gain anything if they get irritable. However, having confessed to that, I am sure that the House would be the first to forgive the hon. Gentleman.

In Committee, we introduced a number of Amendments. The first important Amendment was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan). The purpose was to alter from three to five years the period during which a prosecution could be started. The Minister of State recommended the Committee to reject it, but the arguments from both sides were so convincing that we had a Division and it was carried by 9 votes to 2. On a proportionate basis, it is probably the largest majority which we are likely to get against the Government. Being kind, generous and considerate, the Minister accepted the Committee's decision in a democratic way, and I was delighted that he did not use the Whips or the opportunity of the Report stage to change it.

Basically, the Bill does not alter the law; it alters the process of the law which allows people to be brought to justice over a longer period. The Bill provides that prosecutions can be brought at any time on an indictable offence. The Amendment in Committee will enable lesser offences to be tried without the full majesty of the law.

The Bill is an Amendment of the 1927 Act. At that time, people were auctioning sheep at £3 10s. We are dealing with auctions which could bring in £250,000. One of the objects of the Bill is to maintain and possibly increase the very high reputation of our auctioneers. During my researches it was made obvious that auctioneers who know their subject advise their clients to put a proper and reasonable reserve on the article which is up for sale. I regret that that advice is not always accepted. As long as there is a proper and fair reserve on an article up for auction, any attempt to operate a ring fails because the ring cannot buy it at a low price. Therefore, we have the opportunity of giving a further boost to British prestige in the auction world.

An interesting new Clause was introduced in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). It is now Clause 2 in the Bill. Hon. Members who have read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee stage must be puzzled by the fact that on 19th March, in column 80, I gave an assurance that if the new Clause was accepted I would be prepared to consider Amendments on Report. Here again, I want to pay tribute to the Minister of State, who gave me and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West and I every opportunity to discuss the Clause with experts in his Department.

The Clause was stimulated by discussions which we had with auctioneers, who felt that in the event of anyone being found guilty of an offence under the Bill, one of the best penalties would be to prohibit him from attending auctions for a stipulated period. In the first instance, my hon. Friend's Amendment provided that the court "must" prevent a convicted person attending auctions. After consideration, he wisely decided that the word "may" should be substituted.

I have had a number of letters from auctioneers expressing their concern about this proposal. They felt that, if a court passed such a penalty, they would be required to police their own auctions. However, from my inquiries it is clear that there is no obligation placed upon auctioneers in this connection in the event of someone who has been prohibited from attending an auction happening to get into an auction. That would place an intolerable burden upon them.

The effect of it is rather like the effect when the Jockey Club warn people off the turf. The fact that a jockey can be warned off is a great deterrent to anyone who contemplates some misdemeanour. In saying that, of course, I am not suggesting that jockeys have any connection with the members of the rings which we are debating today.

Then there was the difficulty of deciding upon the penalties which should be inflicted on those who were found at an auction that they should not have been attending. We discussed this in some detail, and we intended to introduce a Clause to cover the point. Unfortunately, it has not been found practicable so far to put the point that we want to make into legal phraseology. From my conversations with Board of Trade officials, it is clear that there is little difference between myself, as sponsor of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, who moved the Amendment, and the Minister of State. The difficulty facing a layman is that, though it is simple to say what one means, it is difficult when lawyers come to produce appropriate legislation on it.

However, should the House give the Bill a Third Reading, I have the assurance of the noble Lord who is to introduce it in the other place that he is prepared to propose a suitable Amendment, which this House will be able to discuss as a Lords Amendment when it returns from the other place. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West will confirm what I have said.

I think that those were the main Amendments which were dealt with in Committee. Fundamentally, the Bill is designed to clean up auctions. During my researches, I have found what I consider to be the best definition of an auction, and it is one which will not be enacted properly until this proposed legislation is on the Statute Book. In 1912, in the course of his judgment in the case of Frewin v. Hayes, Lord Mac-Naughton said: The price which the public are asked to pay are the highest prices which those who bid can be tempted to offer by the skill and tact of the auctioneer under the excitement of open competition. Primarily, the Bill is designed to see that there is open competition and that, if there is not, those who prevent it are guilty of a grave offence which is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. We discussed the amount of the fine, but in the end we decided to leave it to the court's discretion. In addition to punishment by way of a fine or imprisonment, there is the third deterrent in that an offender can be kept away from auctions for a period.

Those of us who have read this morning's papers must be proud of the fact that a British auctioneer was called upon to go to Switzerland to auction jewellery which has brought in £1¼ million. The fact that a British auctioneer should be called upon is no better proof of our reputation in the profession.

I ask the House to give a Third Reading to the Bill.

1.28 p.m.

Mr. Dell

Let me, first, congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on having brought the Bill to its Third Reading. I hope that it departs from this House with our approval and passes through the other place quickly so that this improvement in the law can be effected.

The Bill is useful, but it remains true, as it was of the previous law, that its success depends on the willingness of those who have information about the operation of auction rings to give that information.

I think that I need make no comment on the contents of the Bill except to refer briefly to Clause 2, which was added to it in Committee.

The hon. Gentleman made several kind references to me in his Third Reading speech, and he spoke of my "democratic willingness" to accept the views of the Committee even when they were not my own. However, I do not wish the House to be under any misapprehension about my views on Clause 2. The hon. Gentleman has said that he and I are now approaching the Clause with the same object in view. The hon. Gentleman's approach to the Clause as it stands is that it is a good Clause, which has been approved. My approach is that it contains irretrievable nonsense, but that as far as I am able I am prepared to help the hon. Gentleman and the Bill's sponsors in another place to remove as much of that nonsense as possibly can be removed.

To that extent, I suppose that we do have the same objects in view but I cannot say that I think that this is a good Clause. On the contrary, as I said in the Committee, I think that it introduces a strange penalty, the full implications of which have not been thoroughly thought through. I would have preferred to have had the Bill without Clause 2. However, I repeat my offer to seek in any way possible to help the hon. Gentleman and the sponsors of the Bill in another place to do for the Clause what can be done.

This is a useful Bill to which the House would be well advised to give the Third Reading. I hope that it will have some effect in eliminating the operation of auction rings.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Channon

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on piloting his Bill through, as I hope, its Third Reading. I hope that he will be equally successful in another place. It is a curious fact that there was no Second Reading debate but that today such keen and welcome interest has been shown that we are having a Third Reading debate. I am glad that as a result my hon. Friend has now had an opportunity to refer to the various Clauses.

I hope that our discussions about auction rings and the difficulty of dealing with them will not obscure the fact that the reputation of our fine arts trade has seldom stood higher than it does now, has seldom achieved so much, or done so much for our balance of payments. The fact that we have concentrated on the activities of the two few rogues should not blind us to the fact that the reputation of the fine art trade in general stands extremely high.

The Bill does not deal only with fine art trade auctions, but with all auctions. I hope that it will be able to do something about the ring, but I cannot pretend to think that it will stop the ring for all time. There will, from time to time be rings at auctions. All we can do is to make the penalties more severe. As there has been only one prosecution under the 1927 Act, the great difficulty in stopping the ring seems to be catching the people who take part in it. However, once caught, they will now be subject to very much severer penalties.

I am glad that it will be possible to impose a term of imprisonment of up to two years and, more importantly, that it will be possible to impose a fine of an unlimited amount—perhaps, even as much as £150,000 should that be thought appropriate. We all know that enormous sums of money are made by people who take part in these dubious and devious practices at auctions.

I thank the Minister of State for being so helpful throughout our proceedings. We have had our disagreements on various points, but our debates have been very good tempered and rather interesting. I only regret his remarks about Clause 2. I do not agree that it is irretrievable nonsense, but, even were it so, it is most astonishing for a Minister to say that although he thinks that it is irretrievable nonsense he is, nevertheless, prepared to have it enacted. In his heart of hearts he probably does not think that the Clause is irretrievable nonsense.

One of the penalties laid down by Clause 2 is that anyone caught acting in this way at an auction will not be allowed for a period of up to three years to attend an auction or enter on any premises where goods are displayed for sale. I am advised by those in the trade that this penalty may prove to be a serious deterrent. It may not prove so, but at least the attempt is worth making. The penalty works very successfully in other directions. As my hon. Friend has said, the risk of being warned off the race course has proved to have a great deterrent effect. Let us hope that the result will be the same in this case. The provision will not do any damage, and it may do some good.

We have discussed earlier the Aldwick Court case, and it is interesting to note that the allegations then made have led to the impetus given to the passing of this Measure today. Even if the Aldwick Court case had not taken place there is a strong case for the Bill. The penalties under the Act were ludicrously out of date, while the six-month time limit during which prosecutions had to take place has proved to be disastrous.

The Bill will help in dealing with the rogues, but it must be remembered that the rogues are a tiny section. As I have said, a great majority of those in the fine art trade have a deservedly very high reputation and an international renown. I hope, though without very great confidence, that the Bill will do something towards curbing the activities of the ring in future, and I am glad that those who are caught will find the penalties much more severe.

I hope that the Bill will get its Third Reading today, and pass into law very speedily.

1.38 p.m.

Mr. Brooks

One point of substance needs to be made. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has indicated his anxiety about the implementation of the Bill, and other hon. Members have said that there may be difficulty in ensuring that the Measure will be effective and that the evidence will be available. We may, inadvertently perhaps, be minimising the Bill's significance.

Today, and in Committee, we have drawn attention to the problems the House faces in obtaining information. These problems are serious, and while congratulating the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), as he richly deserves to be congratulated, on so skilfully piloting his Bill, we should also record our congratulations to the Sunday Times on the way in which it has pursued its own investigations.

It is, perhaps, not often that this assembly congratulates the Press, and I am sure that the Press would not have it otherwise, but on this occasion, and I speak personally, I would have found it quite impossible to have viewed the Bill sensibly had it not been for the exhaustive investigations which the Sunday Times made, and the results which it published—and bravely published—for us to read.

This is an example of the relationship between a free parliamentary assembly and a free Press which should not go unrecorded. It is relevant for the future because if evidence is to be the basis on which the effectiveness of this Bill will stand or fall, it is necessary that all sources of evidence should be sought. I hope that it will be forthcoming from them.

I hope that it is not out of order to point to the fact that the authors of the reports in the Sunday Times, who know a great deal about this problem, listed four specific points on which they thought it would be possible for the law to be changed on those bases to smash the rings. All four of those points have been included in the Bill. I therefore think that we are entitled to feel that this is a major step forward in stopping what has become a disgraceful fraud. I hope very much that in future those who participated in the Duccio ring may feel that it was the most expensive purchase they ever made.

1.42 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Campbell (Oldham, West)

I do not intend to detain the House for more than about three minutes. If I did so, some hon. Members might think that I had an ulterior motive, but that, I assure them, is not the case. Having sat here throughout the day and listened to the fascinating speeches which have been made, particularly that by the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher), I want to say a few words about the Bill in addition to congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on the Bill's reaching its Third Reading.

Like many other hon. Members, I could not possibly have supported the Bill if it had contained the Amendment proposed this morning to make certain parts of it retrospective. Now that that has gone, the Bill seems to make a most desirable alteration in the law of demonstrating that crime does not pay. In these days, when vast sums of money can be made by cheating in the way in which people who run auction rings cheat, it is quite ridiculous that the worst the courts can do to them is to make them pay a fine of £400 or send them to prison.

Nowadays, so far as they can, courts avoid sending people to prison because the prisons are already over-full. Whenever a court can do justice by means of a fine, it will choose that method. When the fine has to be limited to £400 it makes nonsense, because the criminal concerned may by cheating have made a profit of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The only regret I have about the Bill is that the only penalties it provides are imprisonment or a fine. It seems unfortunate that the Bill contains no provision for compensating whoever has suffered the loss.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the hon. Member is concerned with amending the Bill, he cannot do so on Third Reading.

Mr. Channon

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was about to submit that Clause 3 covers the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell). Perhaps he might address himself to that Clause, which goes some way to help in this respect.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I would be happy to allow the hon. and learned Member to address his mind to Clause 3.

Mr. Campbell

I shall not take up more time, but, of course, the criminal courts do not like to be turned into debt collecting agencies. They think it their business to punish criminals and not so much to assist the victims of crime.

Mr. Costain

It is important for the record that it should be seen that if this takes place the deal is off and restitution can be made under that Clause.

Mr. Campbell

I am greatly comforted by the intervention of my hon. Friend and there remains nothing for me to do but to congratulate him on the Bill reaching its Third Reading.

1.45 p.m.

Sir C. Black

I share the view of those who have spoken in this debate that it is right and necessary that this Bill should have a Third Reading. Hon. Members will recall that in our anxiety to get this Bill it received a Second Reading on the nod and that the debate in Committee, in which a very limited number took part, was of an abbreviated character. Reading the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee stage, I noticed that nearly as much of the total time was occupied in discussing whether the Committee should adjourn as in discussing the various provisions of the Bill.

I join hon. Members who have expressed congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on having had the foresight and initiative not only to introduce the Bill but to carry it through its various stages. He is fairly entitled to assume that he is now in the straight and that the goal will be speedily achieved. The commercial life of this country will be grateful to him for having made it a little more difficult for the misdeeds and activities of certain people to succeed. Their activities are certainly anti-social and probably illegal.

On the other hand, I must make clear that my welcome to the Bill is to some extent lukewarm because I am not certain how far it will prove effective for the task that it is required to undertake. We have already been reminded in this debate that the 1927 Act, which was put on the Statute Book more than 40 years ago with a view to curbing the evil of auction rings and activities of that kind, has very largely proved ineffective in dealing with the evils it was designed to abate. In a period of over 40 years so far as one can ascertain there has been only one prosecution under that Act. One hopes that the high expectations which accompany the passage of this Bill will not founder in the same way as did the equally high expectations on which the 1927 Act was based.

I recognise the limitations in a Third Reading debate. I am, of course, debarred from discussing matters in the nature of omissions from the Bill which I should like to have seen included. I will do my utmost, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to avoid incurring your disapproval by confining myself strictly and narrowly to discussing what the Bill contains, the things to be said in favour of what it contains, and what may be said by way of criticism. I do not intend to wander outside the ambit of what is actually contained in the Bill.

There are three or four main criticisms which I wish to make of the Bill. I make these criticisms so as to get them on the record and in the hope that some consideration may be given to them when the Bill goes to another place. We have already been informed by the sponsor of the Bill that he has secured the services of a noble Lord who has agreed to introduce and pilot the Bill, we hope, through another place.

In that other place there will no doubt be opportunities for Amendments which their Lordships consider expedient to be incorporated in the Bill before it comes back here. No doubt their Lordships will take into account criticisms which may be made in this House, criticisms which at this late stage cannot lead to alterations in the Bill here but which may lead to alterations in the Bill in another place.

I come to my criticisms of Clause 1. I wish to deal with the limitation on the five-year period within which a prosecution can be brought following upon the commission of an offence. I am sorry that the Bill contains a limitation upon the five-year period. I would prefer to see a five-year period without any limitation.

In the last three lines on page 1 the limit is expressed in this way: and within three months after the date on which evidence sufficient in the opinion of the Attorney-General to justify the proceedings comes to his knowledge. During this debate we heard about one notorious case of what was alleged to be an inability to prosecute because the Government Department concerned was outside the six-months' period within which it was possible to bring legal proceedings.

If it be the case, as has been strongly alleged by eminent lawyers and others, that an inability to bring a prosecution in a case where eminently one should have been brought has arisen from a failure to comply with the six-months' time limit, how much more is there the fear that the same thing may happen again when there is a qualification to the five-year period within which normally a prosecution can be brought by reference to a period of three months following the Attorney-General's consideration of the matter.

Apart from the general objection to this qualification, which I should like to see omitted entirely from the Bill, there is an ambiguity in the wording. The provision uses the words three months after the date on which evidence sufficient in the opinion of the Attorney-General to justify the proceedings comes to his knowledge. How does the three-months' provision operate? If I hear of a case today in which I believe that there is a prima facie case for a prosecution under the Bill and I send a dossier with all the available information to the Attorney-General so that he may consider whether a prima facie case for prosecution exists, does the three months run from the date on which my dossier arrives on his desk? Is that the meaning of the words "comes to his knowledge", or does the three months run from the point after which the Attorney-General has found time to give his consideration to the dossier and has decided that sufficient evidence exists?

It seems to me that it would have been very much better if these words had not been included at all, and I feel that the Bill is weakened by their inclusion. If the limitation on the five-year period is to remain in the Bill, the Law Officers of the Crown should consider whether there is not an ambiguity in the way in which the Clause is expressed.

I come now to Clause 2, on which I have one or two misgivings. In line 22, on page 2, one sees the words "or his representative". This deals with the possible exclusion for a period from auction sales of an individual who has been found guilty of an offence in connection with an auction ring. I am all in favour of that.

I do not share the criticism which has been made of Clause 2, which appears to be a reasonable Clause based on sound principles. But surely by including the words "or his representative" we are accepting the principle of what I believe has been described by lawyers as guilt by association. We are saying, in effect, that, by reason of a person being the representative of a person so convicted, even if the representative himself is entirely innocent of any offence and it was not committed with his assistance, connivance or knowledge, that individual nevertheless can have imposed on him virtually the termination of his career in the auction world merely because he has acted innocently as the representative of someone who has been convicted of an offence.

Mr. Costain

The hon. Member is making an interesting point, but I would draw his attention to the fact that there are no penalties for representatives attending an auction. The object of the word "representative" is to get over the problem, which the hon. Member as an experienced auctioneer will understand, that somebody who goes to an auction has only to have a partner there to act on his behalf. That is what the provision seeks to stop.

Sir C. Black

I am not sure that is the effect. That is what I am discussing. The subsection says the court may order that the person so convicted or his representative shall not for a period … enter upon any premises where goods are displayed for sale …". This is virtually equivalent to saying that a man who is perfectly guiltless in his own conduct and knowledge may have his whole professional career terminated for a period of years on account of the doctrine of guilt by association. I am sure that this matter should be borne in mind by hon. Members when they come to decide whether they will give the Bill a Third Reading.

One other point I should like to make on Clause 2, which will not take more than a minute or two, relates to the words in line 27 in the case of a conviction on indictment, of not less than three years. I should prefer to see a longer period than that, and I hope that when the Bill is considered in another place possibly a figure of seven years could be substituted for three years.

It is a recognised principle of the law that the punishment imposed on an individual can properly have regard to the magnitude of the amount of money that he has made out of an illegal transaction. This principle was exemplified by the long sentences imposed upon the train robbers on account of the vast amount of money resulting from the crime which they had been successful in hoarding away and not disgorging. I would not feel that in a bad case in which someone might have profited to the tune of £250,000, as is suspected in the case of a recent notorious auction ring, it would be unreasonable for there to be visited upon the individual concerned seven years' debarring from auction rooms instead of three years. I hope that this may be considered.

I wish now to comment on words in lines 36 and 37 of Clause 3. Clause 3 gives to a person who has been defrauded of a proper price for goods which he has had sold by auction a civil right to have the transaction cancelled or, if it is not possible to have the transaction cancelled, to obtain monetary contribution towards his loss from the party guilty of bringing about the loss that he has suffered. The force of the Clause is tremendously weakened in that any aggrieved party seeking to obtain redress must, as a prior requirement to invoking the Clause, prove that one of the parties involved in his loss was a dealer and, if he suffers a loss as a result of a once-for-all activity by an individual or individuals who on the basis of their past record cannot be regarded as dealers, the person who has suffered the loss has no recourse to the remedies under the Clause and cannot obtain compensation.

Mr. Costain

My hon. Friend is on a good point, but the word "dealer" is used throughout the Bill for a specific purpose. When I introduced the Bill I was worried that it might involve, for example, a couple of old ladies buying Aunt Miriam's teapot, one buying the teapot and the other the stand. I did not want such people to be liable to criminal proceedings.

Sir C. Black

The advantage would be strongly on the side of leaving out the words, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend has said. Nobody will invoke this Clause in relation to the sale at an auction of a teapot in which two ladies may be involved. We are dealing here with cases on the scale of the one which sparked off the preparation and presentation of this Bill, where an individual may make £250,000 out of one transaction, to the loss of the vendor, to the disadvantage of the public at large and greatly to the disadvantage of the Inland Revenue authorities. If an individual who is not a dealer involves himself in a once-for-all transaction of that magnitude, it is unjust that the person who suffers an enormous loss as a result of the transaction should be debarred from recovering that loss against the person responsible for it simply on the ground that that person was engaged in a once-for-all transaction and is not a dealer.

My last point is on the word "auction". Although I have studied the Bill very carefully, I can find no definition of the extent and the type of transaction covered by the word "auction". An hon. Member has referred to a 1912 judgment in which a judge of the High Court gave his view of what was comprised in an auction, but I wonder whether the word includes a sale by tender. Sale by tender is becoming increasingly popular for certain types of property, and is in some cases taking the place of auctions. It is just as possible for the ring to gang up on a sale by tender, and for people who would have put in tenders to be persuaded or bribed not to do so, as for people taking part in a conventional auction to be discouraged from bidding. I would hope that the question of the exact extent of the word "auction" and the type of transactions which it includes will receive consideration before the Bill reaches the Statute Book. If a public tender is not included in the word "auction", a definition should be inserted which will include public tenders.

Having made what I hope are constructive points and having made it clear that I am a supporter of the Bill, I hope that the Bill will do what it is hoped to do, although I have doubts as to the extent to which it will be able to curb an evil which we all wish to see curbed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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