HC Deb 09 December 1970 vol 808 cc600-3
Mr. Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 20, line 23, leave out subsection (4).

This may sound like a technical point, but it is not. The subsection requires the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before the police or the magistrates can commit for trial any person charged with an offence under this legislation. As the number of offences increases annually, so it will be more unlikely that the Director can investigate every one.

One also gets the case coming before magistrates which appears to be of a minor character but which, in the course of investigations, turns out to be much more serious. The magistrates can either deal with it summarily, which they would prefer not to do, or they are in the embarrassing position of requiring an adjournment so that the Director can be consulted to see whether he advises that this case should be properly committed for trial. The Director is always there if the police require his advice.

This provision crept into the Dangerous Drugs and Poisons (Amendment) Act, 1923—no such provision was required in the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act—and had practically no discussion in the House. There are five or six lines in HANSARD dealing with this, when the Home Secretary moved a provision requiring the consent of the Attorney-General or the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It seems an out-of-date and unnecessary restriction of the powers of the police and the courts. It provides no safeguard which would not exist for any accused. Without this provision, the accused would simply be sent to quarter sessions or assizes and dealt with in exactly the same way as if he had committed any other offence.

Mr. Crowder

I should like wholeheartedly to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Havers). This is an antediluvian matter which should be removed from the Bill.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I also support the Amendment. The wheels grind slowly enough as it is in criminal matters, more so in London perhaps than elsewhere. The House debated this matter not so long ago. I was looking only the other day at a case involving drugs in which the period between committal and trial was no less than 10 months. That is by no means unusual these days. If this burden is to be put on the Director of Public Prosecutions in the vast number of cases which are likely to be committed, this will be a very serious situation, and a grave injustice to people awaiting trial. For that reason I strongly support the Amendment.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The point of the Amendment is obviously something for the House to consider, if only because it seems to have been looked at, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Havers) said, somewhat cursorily in 1923. He said that it had crept in. At this distance of time I do not know whether it crept, slunk or stalked its way on to the Statute Book, but the form that it then took, the form in which it has been since 1965, requires that the proceedings should be instituted by or with the consent of the Attorney-General or by the Director of Public Prosecutions, so in the form existing before the Bill, it was both more restrictive and, if I may say so on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, more burdensome because it required his intervention in some cases as well.

The effect of the substitute version in the Bill is to make it less restrictive and burdensome. There is no longer any need for the Attorney-General's consent or for the Director of Public Prosecutions to conduct the committal proceedings. It seems to the Government that a movement in that direction, a reversal of the 1923 "creep" represents a reasonable movement.

12.45 a.m.

In view of the high penalties which the Bill provides for the major offences, it makes sense to preserve the requirement for the Director's consent to committal. It is on that basis that the truncated, emaciated version of the 1923 provision survives in the Bill. It has been criticised in modest and gentle tones by those who have spoken. No one save myself has leaped enthusiastically to its defence.

In view of the points which have been raised by those who have spoken, plainly it is a point which the Government are prepared to look at again, but I cannot give any undertaking about it. There is this residual need for some control on committal in the serious case which might not survive if this provision were to disappear altogether.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon will recognise that the tide of 1923 has turned in 1970. It may not yet have gone out the whole distance. In these circumstances, I hope that he will feel disposed to withdraw the Amendment, upon the undertaking that the matter will certainly be looked at in the light of what hon. Members have said.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Perhaps I am in some way estopped from raising the point, because this provision was in the original Bill as introduced during the term of the previous Administration, but I have been greatly impressed by what has been said by those who have objected to this provision. I was not wholly impressed by the argument which was advanced by the Solicitor-General, because there does not seem to be any public interest which needs protecting beyond that which arises from the fact that some serious penalties can be imposed under the Bill. The Solicitor-General will surely agree that the maximum penalties under the Bill compare broadly with the maximum penalties under the Theft Act, for example, and no such provision as this is to be found in that Act. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General would consider whether it is necessary for this rather cumbersome machinery to remain.

The Solicitor-General

I hope that the statement that I have made that the Government will look at this matter will meet the point. It is not now as cumbersome as it was. It is a very modest cumbrosity, if there is such a word. It is less cumbrous than the provision in the Bill which the hon. Gentleman himself, as he rightly acknowledged, brought before the House, but the matter will certainly be looked at.

Mr. Havers

In view of the assurance which has been given, I beg to ask to leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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