HC Deb 25 February 1975 vol 887 cc300-10

3. 57 p.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that the maximum sentence which may be imposed on any person convicted of conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum sentence which could have been imposed if he had committed the crime which he was charged with conspiring to commit; and for connected purposes. I ask the House to bear with me if I stick very closely to my notes so as to avoid unnecessary delay.

The object of the Bill is to seek the authority of the House to present a measure which would reform the law of conspiracy. This is necessary and urgent, and is required to reassert the authority of Parliament.

Conspiracy is not a crime defined in any Act of Parliament. It was invented in the time of King James I by the Court of Star Chamber. Generally speaking, the law of conspiracy is in need of reform in general. It makes into a crime, very often, acts which if committed by a single individual would not be criminal. This is a matter which requires to be dealt with urgently by legislation. However, the object of the Bill, for which leave is sought to introduce, is much more limited.

The Long Title refers to the maximum sentence which may be imposed in cases of conspiracy. It seems extraordinary that an attempt to commit a crime, or even an agreement to participate in it, irrespective of whether the crime was committed or not, should be more severely punished than the crime itself, if committed.

It is an insult to the authority of Parliament that any outside body, even the judges, should be able to pass heavier sentences for attempting to commit a crime if that crime was alleged to have been part of a conspiracy, when Parliament has fixed a maximum penalty for the crime itself.

The matter has been brought to a head by the sentences passed in the so-called Shrewsbury conspiracy trial. In that trial, as in an equally important case in trade union history—that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs—the accused were sentenced for conspiracy. In the Shrewsbury case they were charged with conspring to intimidate.

Under Section 7 of the 1875 Act, intimidation is an offence for which a maximum penalty of imprisonment is laid down, … for a term not exceeding three months. Once a defendant is charged under this section, not with intimidation but with conspiring to contravene the statute, he is placed entirely at the judge's mercy and could be sentenced to life imprisonment if the judge so decided. At the Shrewsbury Crown Court, one of those charged, Dennis Warren, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for conspiring to intimidate "lump" labourers, a punishment 12 times heavier than the maximum for direct intimidation provided by the statute. The object of this modest Bill is to limit the judge's power of sentencing to that which Parliament has laid down for the commission of the offence itself.

I suggest that it is illogical and absurd that if someone intimidates a worker contrary to the law, he or she, in accordance with the law laid down by this Parliament, is subject to a maximum penalty of only three months' imprisonment, whereas he or she can be sentenced to three years' imprisonment for attempting in concert with other people to carry out the same intimidation, quite irrespective of whether anyone was intimidated.

This absurdity has come prominently to light because it has affected industrial relations, but it could equally affect the most ordinary cases of trivial offences where two or more people agreed to commit them. There was such a case, Regina v. Blamires Transport Services, in which two people stopped, could not find a parking meter, and broke the Road Traffic Act by their action. They conspired together in that they agreed that they would pay the fine if a fine arose from their act. In those circumstances—this is not a hypothetical case—it was affirmed that a penalty of life imprisonment could have been imposed by the judge.

I am more concerned to examine how the Conspiracy Act has been applied and how conspiracy generally has been applied in regard to trade unions and social and political agitation generally. I remind the House that in 1872 the gas workers organised a strike and were convicted under this head because they persuaded other workers not to work. This gave rise, as we know, to the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, which abolished the crime of criminal conspiracy in all trade disputes except where the act committed was itself criminal—that is to say, a factory was burned down or damage to property occurred.

Since that time, however, the judges, determined not to be defeated, have decided that the Act abolished only criminal conspiracy and that there remained a civil liability for conspiracy to pay damages to the employer who was injured or otherwise molested. Under this ruling, for example, in 1895 trade unions which posted up blacklists of blackleg workers who did not join a strike were made liable for conspiracy to injure. However, it is typical of the bias shown by the courts in these matters that in 1892 and 1902 the circulation of lists of strikers and troublemakers by employers' associations was held not to be a civil wrong because the employers were defending their legitimate self-interest. In the same way, in 1892 traders who undercut competitors were held not liable, and in 1942 in the famous crofters' case a similar decision was taken.

The main case against the law on conspiracy, however, is that it is not used against major conspiracy. The recent Loyalist strike in Northern Ireland was denounced by the Prime Minister himself as an attempt at intimidation, and undoubtedly important political personalities could have been indicted for conspiracy for their part in organising the intimidation and the violence which accompanied the strike in question. No such action was taken. But conspiracy remains as a weapon of the employer against the employee and of the Government whose decisions may be the source of agitation by combinations of people with different value orientations.

It is against this background that I seek the leave of the House to introduce the short Bill which I have described.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

rose

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose the motion?

Mr. Mather

I do, Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) has attempted to blind us with legal points. He is not a lawyer, any more than I am. He was simply reading from a brief. However, I wish to put my opposing arguments in my own way.

The object of the Bill is to nullify the common law offence of conspiracy. As the hon. Gentleman said, it arises from the case of the Shrewsbury pickets and the imprisonment of Warren and Tomlinson for two and three years respectively.

What the hon. Gentleman does not realise fully is that, if the conspiracy charge had not been made and the two men had been tried on the 39 out of 42 other counts on which they were arraigned, far greater sentences could have been imposed, and probably would have been, on the grounds of intimidation and assault.

As I see it, what the hon. Gentleman is not doing is to claim the rights of pickets to go about their business peacefully. He seems to be claiming the right that they should be allowed to picket violently when the need arises, using whatever degree of force to obtain their ends. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

As the trial judge pointed out, there is the right to picket peacefully. But other freedoms and rights are also involved. There is the right for men to work if they wish to. There is the right for them to refuse to withdraw their labour if they wish to continue doing their work. There is the right to go about their work freely without fear of intimidation—

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hesitate to raise a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not the practice to have points of order either way during the introduction of a Ten-Minute Bill.

Mr. Buchan

I accept that. Nevertheless, may I raise a point of order?

Mr. Speaker

The answer is, I prefer not until afterwards.

Mr. Buchan

I am sorry to do this. It is the first time that I have done it during the 10 years that I have been a Member of this House. But this is an important point of order.

Mr. Speaker

In that case, I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to proceed.

Mr. Buchan

As I understand it, the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) was given leave to oppose the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne). However, the hon. Gentleman is speaking about another matter altogether. No longer is he linking his remarks to the Bill. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether it is in order for the House to listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly it is in order. The hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) is developing an argument against the Bill. The quality of that argument or its precise relevance are not matters for me, unless the hon. Gentleman is talking about some completely different topic which is utterly irrelevant. At the moment, I cannot rule the hon. Member for Esher out of order.

Mr. Mather

I confirm that what I was saying was absolutely on the topic of the discussion. The hon. Member for Preston, South referred specifically to the Shrewsbury pickets.

I deal with the Bill on three grounds—the ground of fact, the ground of law and the ground of motive. On the matter of fact, the offences of September 1972 are well known and hardly bear repeating. A brief repetition should be made on this occasion. This is what eye-witnesses saw: The men entered the sites in what was described as a mad swarm. They were shouting, 'Kill the bastards.' They also shouted, 'This is a revolution and not a strike'. One man was threatened to have his legs broken if he resisted. Another man was pulled off his ladder, hit his head and was in hospital for eight days with severe concussion. Others were attacked with bricks, were stoned—[Interruption.]—and hit with iron bars. Buildings were smashed, huts demolished and windows broken. Equipment was broken up and overturned and—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Mather

—a compressor was launched downhill, narrowly missing a man.

Mr. Skinner

I hesitate to rise because there have been occasions when I have strayed from the point, whatever debate I have been taking part in. I must draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that for most of the time that the hon. Member has been speaking he has been completely out of order in that he has not been speaking about the Bill. It is important that you devote your mind to that.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There has developed a welcome tradition for points of order which are sought to be raised during Question Time to be taken at the end of that period. Would it not be appropriate for those who seek to raise points of order during the debate on a Ten-Minute Bill to reserve their points of order until the conclusion of the debate?

Mr. Speaker

I certainly thought that that was the convention of the House. I do not think that I have known more than one or two occasions in my 29 years here when points of order have been raised during Ten-Minute Bills. It is an undesirable practice. As the point has been raised I will try to deal with it. I have to decide on the degree of irrelevance which I think requires me to intervene. Whether the argument is strictly relevant and whether it arises out of the same matter as the Bill, is a matter for me to decide. The hon. Member has not yet gone so far that I can or will say he is out of order.

Mr. Mather

This matter needs to be put in absolutely clear and unmistakeable terms. We have the story put over by the opposite side of the House. It is time for the true facts to be given. Never in the history of picketing have such violent scenes taken place in this country.

On the matter of law, six men were tried on three counts of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. Tomlinson and Warren were found guilty of all three, although Tomlinson faced 30 other counts and Warren 39 other counts of assault and intimidation. On appeal the first two were upheld and the third quashed on a point of law. The conspiracy element is commonly used in such cases to accentuate the degree of criminality of the crime.

Continuing on the matter of law, the hon. Gentleman may wish to pray in aid the Law Commission's Report No. 50. It will be noted that the report is critical of conspiracy for unlawful acts and civil wrongs such as fraud and indecency. But it is not critical of conspiracy when it is a question of committing a criminal offence. In any case this was issued only as a discussion paper. If the hon. Member has this in mind he is wilfully misunderstanding the report.

I come now to the question of motive. I have to draw to the attention of the House the fact that the hon. Gentleman is well known as an extreme Left winger. He has been prominent in opposing the defence cuts and he has got into trouble—not only with his Front Bench, but also with his constituents, particularly those working for BAC. [An HON. MEMBER: "He is not on trial."] The hon. Member is also one of the leading opponents of the increases in the Civil List and is also a leading member of the "Troops Out" campaign and took—[Interruption.]—part in the IRA rally in London on 27th October, when 9 were arrested and 14 were subsequently charged with conspiracy.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the House will listen to the hon. Member quietly. When it is the other way round the noise is just as great on the other side; in either case, it is to be deprecated.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a deliberate assassination. The hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) is embarking on a deliberate campaign of character assassination. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is a disgrace to the House.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not have it said in this House that it is character assassination to say of an hon. Member that he presses for defence cuts.

Mr. Mather

The hon. Member is well known for these activities, and this has to be said. [An HON. MEMBER: "What are you well known for?"] One of the hon. Member's right hon. Friends has alluded to these pickets as the "iron bar squad". These are the people the hon. Member extols. On grounds of motive alone, this Bill should go no further. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's motives are strictly correct and proper. I know that the Bill will▀×

Mr. Speaker

I must call the hon. Member to order. I do not think he is entitled to impute an improper motive.

Mr. Cryer

Exactly my point.

Mr. Mather

If I inadvertently did so, I withdraw. This is a question which should be decided by the Government. It

is a matter of law and is not something for us to decide here. I do not propose to divide the House today—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends are pressing me to do so. In the circumstances it would be right for me to do so.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at the commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 143, Noes 166.

Question accordingly negatived.