HC Deb 20 October 1972 vol 843 cc647-52

Lords Amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 10, leave out from beginning to "make" and insert in addition to dealing with him in any other way may, on application or otherwise,".

11.8 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

I think it may be for the convenience of the House if we discuss with this Amendment Lords Amendment No. 2 as well, in Clause 6, page 4, line 30, at end insert: or on the application of any person appearing to the court to be interested in the property concerned.

Mr. Speaker

If that is the wish of the House.

Mr. Carlisle

These two Amendments deal with those Clauses of the Bill dealing with compensation and restitution. The object of these Lords Amendments is to make it clear that while under the Bill an application by the victim either for compensation or restitution is not required before the court can make an order for compensation or restitution the victim has locus to apply if he so wishes.

I should just like to say that the Government continue to rest on the view expressed by the Widgery Committee that it should be the court's decision to consider compensation as part of the sentencing process irrespective of any application. I hope very much that the courts will start to think compensation in future. Nevertheless, so as to make it quite clear that the victim would have the right to apply should he wish to use it we have thought it fit to propose these Amendments.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I welcome the Amendment and thank the Minister of State for the way in which he has introduced it.

The trouble with the Trade Descriptions Act in the past has always been that, although it enabled offenders in many cases to be brought to justice, it provided no recompense to the person who had suffered. This was a great failing, because the individual who had suffered generally could not afford to come to court to ask for help in connection with his suffering: the amount involved was too small; the legal costs were too great. It did not do him much good to have the satisfaction of seeing that the company or individual who had deceived him was brought to justice. He wanted compensation.

It is a great failing of our law as such that there is no small claims procedure and that, although a person who is badly off can get justice, and although often a person who is well off can get the same justice, the person earning the ordinary average living wage cannot get justice because he cannot afford to get the help of the law.

This has resulted in the Act being used indirectly to assist but not directly. Indirectly, we know that weights and measures inspectors were leaning on traders to honour their obligations, because they were hinting that, unless traders did so, they would be prosecuted. That is no way to have things done. We also know that the individual who knew where he stood would whisper to the trader concerned, "Either you pay me or I report you to the weights and measures inspector". That also is not a satisfactory way of dealing with it.

Now the victim will be able to get his rights. I welcome the Amendment, because it makes it plain that there are alternative ways of getting the rights. On the one hand, it should now be known that anyone who is cheated because of a false trade description, who is induced to buy goods or, in many cases, to acquire services because of false statements, should report the matter to the weights and measures authorities, not only because he can get a conviction in many cases because the person concerned can be stopped from doing it, but also because in that way he can get for himself cheap justice. If the offender is convicted, the victim can get compensation. He can get it in two ways, which is very important.

On the one hand, as the Minister of State has correctly said, it is vital that courts should think in terms of compensation, whether or not an application is made. It is equally vital that an eye be kept on the courts, because judges, alas, make mistakes. What is more, there are judges who are not victim-minded in their sentencing: they may forget or they may not feel that the compensation is worthwhile. A very important decision reported in The Times today makes it plain that compensation for a person who is deceived by a false statement made by a travel agent can extend to compensation for his disappointment and his unhappiness and not merely for financial loss.

I hope that the Minister of State will be prepared to indicate the basis on which he thinks that courts will be able under this Section to award compensation. It may be necessary in appropriate cases for representations to be made—I hope by the prosecution—to the trial judge on behalf of the victim; because it does not say that the application may be made by the victim; it says, "on application or otherwise". I presume that the prosecution would also see itself as representing the public and as representing the victim, and, therefore, able to present the matter to the court.

I hope that those who prosecute and who have the public responsibility—that is, the weights and measures authorities and others—will be instructed as part of their job to draw this to the attention of the court and to draw the court's attention to the fact that compensation is important and should be generous.

11.15 a.m.

This would be in accordance with the various rulings and decisions of courts in recent months. I am not asking for Lord Justice Roskill's view of the matter to be adopted by everyone. Lord Justice Roskill gave a very stern warning that, although fines under the Act were provided for and were generally imposed, the Act also provided for imprisonment. I am not asking that offenders be imprisoned. I am asking that justice be done to those who suffer as a result of false trade descriptions.

This can be done by the award of adequate compensation. Fines have been going up. Enormous fines have been imposed of late, particularly on travel firms. This may satisfy the public. It may warn the travel trade or other trades which are liable to make puffs which turn into representations.

On the other hand, what matters is not so much just to prevent the perpetuation of false trade descriptions. What matters is that the victims should be compensated. In the circumstances, I ask the Minister of State to give an assurance that the weights and measures authorities will be instructed to draw this provision to the attention of courts and will also seek to ensure that the compensation which is awarded by the courts is adequate in the circumstances.

I hope that in due course this compensation will be available, not only in the broad sense in which it is available at present to those who suffer through false trade description of goods, but also that those who provide services will find themselves, through an extension of Section 14 of the Trade Descriptions Act and a relation back to Section 1 of that Act, in a similar position. It will be now much easier for people to get compensation from those who deceive in the sale of goods than it will be to get compensation from those who deceive in the provision of services. Under Section 1 in connection with goods it is an absolute offence, but the same is not true of Section 14 in relation to services.

I hope that the two will be equated so that this very important provision of Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Bill as I hope it will be amended, will assist far more people than at present.

Meanwhile, I welcome the Amendment and repeat that I am obliged to the Minister for the way in which he has introduced it.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.

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