HC Deb 10 May 1971 vol 817 cc12-4
13. Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what action he proposes in the light of the decision of the House of Lords in Nattrassv.Tesco Supermarkets in view of its effect on the protection afforded by the Trade Descriptions Act.

Mr. Ridley

None, Sir. In my view, the protection afforded by the Act has not been significantly affected by this decision.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Does not my hon. Friend realise that at the time of the passage of the Bill no one envisaged for a moment that it would be possible for a large concern like this to escape simply by blaming one of its managers for the defect? Will he look again at the possibility of amending legislation?

Mr. Ridley

The Act expressly provides that, where the commission by any person of an offence is due to the act or default of another person, the first person is to be acquitted if he also satisfies the court that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of such an offence by himself or any person under his control.

This was recognised in the debates in the other place, and I ask my hon. and learned Friend to look at HANSARD for 22nd January, 1968. Perhaps the moral is that prosecutions should be directed against the person who is guilty and not at anyone handy.

Dr. Gilbert

Is not one of the problems in a case like this the question where the burden of proof lies, and does not the hon. Gentleman realise that there is grave concern in the public mind about this, that people do not agree with his view, and that they feel that their safeguards have been eroded?

Mr. Ridley

It is a perfectly natural rule of justice that people should not be subject to criminal charges unless one has some reason for believing that they have committed an offence. It is not enough, therefore, just to prosecute a company without making sure who it is within the company who has been responsible for committing the offence.

Mr. J. T. Price

Does the hon. Gentleman realise where his argument takes him in logic if he abandons the principle of vicarious liability for offences such as this? If we apply his principle to the Factories Act and other social legislation, for example, and say that the target for a prosecution when an offence is committed shall be the man actually at the point of the offence, the main culprits in such a situation may escape altogether. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that there is a serious constitutional issue here which, in my opinion, he seems to be taking far too lightly?

Mr. Ridley

No, Sir. It has always been true that, if the person accused of the commission of an offence can prove that it was clue to the act or default of another and that he has taken all reasonable precautions to make sure that that other person had proper instructions, he should be acquitted. That seems to me to be a fundamental principle of law which the hon. Gentleman would do wrong to question.

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