HC Deb 27 October 1975 vol 898 cc1199-207

Which amendment was No. 4: in page 1, line 5, to leave out 'or assists at'.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before the start of the debate, can we be assured that we shall have the benefit of the advice of the Attorney-General? You may recall that on Friday the House found itself in considerable difficulty on this somewhat legalistic amendment and did not have the advantage of the advice of the Attorney-General. Can we be certain that he will be with us during the course of the whole debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) is fully aware that it is not for the Chair to direct the attendance of any hon. Member or member of the Government.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I want to assure myself fairly briefly on only two points. The first concerns the words of the Under-Secretary of State in her winding-up speech on Friday when she referred to her own Second Reading speech and said: …that will not interfere with the right of a farmer to set his dog or dogs after a hare to catch and kill it for control purposes. Nor will it create a criminal offence if two people are taking a country walk with their dogs and the dogs put up and pursue a hare."—[Official Report, 24th October 1975; Vol. 898, c. 983.] The hon. Lady made that point on both Friday and Second Reading, and we have her worthy and honourable assurance that this is so. However, she and the House will be aware that the words of a Minister in Committee or in this House carry no weight whatever in law.

I must remind the hon. Lady that earlier on Friday she said that the words "or assists at" would enable the Government or an authority to catch some spectators. It was her specific wish to keep these words in the Bill, despite her intention in Committee. The fact is that the hon. Lady has changed her mind and has now retained the words. In fact, she has made the point that this is to catch some spectators.

11.45 p.m.

Can the Minister assure me that if a couple of people—it might be the hon. Lady and a friend—are out walking their dogs and the dogs push off after a hare and the friend, being a betting man, says "I will lay you £10 to £1 that my dog"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to have to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am having difficulty in hearing what he is saying.

Mr. Wells

With respect, I am addressing my remarks to the Minister's phraseology in the concluding part of her winding-up speech in this debate on Friday.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I was making an appeal for silence in the House. I was not criticising his contribution.

Mr. Wells

Fortunately, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am getting a little deaf and was unable to hear above the noise coming from the other side of the House. My sympathy goes to you.

The point is simple. Will the hon. Lady point out how her assurance has some force of law and is not just the cosy assurance of a nice young woman?

If the Bill becomes an Act, I shall not view those who break it as desperate criminals. The Minister said that the words "or assists at" were to deal with spectators. A distinguished person might be buying goods alongside a bank which was being robbed and somebody might see this happen. Would an innocent bystander at a bank robbery be assisting in it if, for example, he failed to take the number of a car involved in the robbery?

What do the words "or assists at" really mean? This woolliness of language worries me. I hope that the Minister will think again about it. In Committee she indicated that she was willing to have the words deleted. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) took the opposite view from me and perhaps persuaded the hon. Lady to change her mind. I am very concerned about this matter. I hope that she can give me the assurance for which I have asked.

Finally, I should like to go back to the hon. Lady's words, will not interfere with the right of a farmer to set his dog or dogs after a hare to catch and kill it".—[Official Report, 24th October, 1975; Vol. 898, c. 983.] Nowhere does the Bill say that. There is no safeguard.

I know that the Bill has been foisted on the Government by a lot of town-dwelling Members who do not understand the reality of the countryside. I also recognise that many of them are bringing forward the Bill with the most honourable and worthy motives in their own eyes because they do not understand what goes on.

The hon. Lady, as a Minister in the Home Office, is responsible for country people as well as for town people. I hope that she will look at the Bill through rural eyes and try to understand the problems of many of my constituents and other people to whom hares are an increasing nuisance. In my part of the countryside there are large areas of Forestry Commission land and large areas of orchard land, and hares are a great pest. They are controlled by conventional means, but in the course of controlling them it is almost inevitable that they are chased by two or more dogs. I should like the Minister's categoric assurance that those people are safeguarded in the Bill.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Those who stayed away on Friday evening and refused to allow the closure on the amendment did the House a great service. It has given us the weekend to ponder on the Minister's words and to consider whether we should include "or assists at". After 48 hours of thought I have realised that those words represent one of the most fundamental new matters in law which have been advanced by the Government in the Bill and that they require the earnest and prolonged attention of the House.

In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), in a remarkable speech, discussed the two meanings of "assist". It means either that a person helps, aids and abets or that he is just present. What he called the gallicised meaning of the word—the French meaning, albeit a genteelism—is that a person is present on the occasion. The House could rightly ask for clarification on which meaning should be attached to "assist".

I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for her kindness in telling us what she thinks "assist" means. I hope that the whole House will share my deep mistrust, apprehension and foreboding about what she said on Friday. She said: It is likely to make it easier to prosecute successfully some spectators whose presence might be sufficiently ambiguous in character to make it difficult to prosecute them as aiders and abetters. Is there to be introduced into our criminal law the principle that spectators will be prosecuted for being spectators although they cannot be prosecuted as aiders and abetters?

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

Does not my hon. Friend find, as I do, that that comes as near to a suggestion of guilt by mere association as has ever fallen from the lips of a Home Office Minister?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that it is disgraceful. It is not a small debating matter. The Minister went on to say: As I indicated in Committee, these words slightly enlarge the offence created by the Bill so as to make it possible to catch some spectators more easily…However, it can be argued in favour of the inclusion of these words, that anyone who stands around at an unlawful hare coursing and subsequently finds himself prosecuted has only himself to blame."—[Official Report, 24th October 1975: Vol. 898, c. 963.] Is she saying that a person who stands around when a bank is being robbed or murder is being committed has only himself to blame if he is prosecuted?

What is this new principle that the Government are producing? It seems incredible. Let us take some recent examples of legislation and apply the new principle that those who stand around as spectators will be as culpable as those committing the offence. Let us remember the violent picketing that took place at the Saltley coke works. Is it suggested that all those who assisted were equally guilty of the offence of violent picketing? Many thousands were present. That is the sort of concept which the Labour Party finds revolting, yet in its legislation it would provide a Tory Government with the argument that we should have included the innocent spectators at Saltley as being guilty under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.

Let us consider Clay Cross. Is it to be argued that apart from those who defined the Housing Finance Act and who are guilty of a criminal offence, equally guilty would have been anyone who assisted in the defiance of the Act? Supposing that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and some of his hon. Friends had been aiding and abetting the councillors at Clay Cross to resist the Act. Would they have been prosecuted as being equally guilty? What about the Clerk, the typists and the men who sweep out the council offices? The mind boggles at the number of people who could be surcharged.

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Clerk of the Clay Cross Urban District Council took the chair at all the protest meetings that were held in the Clay Cross area?

Mr. Ridley

Yes. Clearly, he attended at the commission of the offence in that instance. Let us consider some of the recent sit-ins, such as the scenes at a Scottish newspaper office or at the Meriden motor cycle factory—any of the sit-ins which have been so much a feature of our industrial life in the past. According to the principle erected by the hon. Lady, anyone who assists in a sit-in will be as guilty as those who trepass or commit a criminal offence in their actions towards the property of others. Is that what is intended?

The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Energy would be guilty on many counts of assisting sit-ins. Most members of the Government Front Bench have assisted at a sit-in by passing money through the House to bail out and to encourage the participants. That is much more culpable than being an innocent bystander at a hare coursing meeting.

The severity of the punishment and the width and scope of the treatment which is to be meted out to the innocent spectator at a hare coursing meeting compares ill with the much more contentious actions of Ministers in relation to the illegal acts which have been carried out by others.

Let us consider the question of the £6 a week limit. If someone puts up prices and others assist at the putting up of the prices by paying more than £6 a week, should they not also be made guilty of the offence? The concept that someone who assists at the commission of a criminal offence should be included within the scope of the offence is totally and utterly obnoxious, especially when it has been made clear that assistance means spectating and not necessarily aiding and abetting.

12 midnight.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has not unwittingly fallen into error in talking of the "£6 offence"? Having been present with the rest of us at another all-night sitting of the House when that proposition was strenuously resisted when a certain Bill, which is not at the moment before us, purported to create an offence, surely he is not, under cover of the Hare Coursing Bill, going to lend colour to an all-too-prevalent misunderstanding on the part of the public.

Mr. Ridley

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the measure of which he spoke is no longer a Bill but an Act. Furthermore, he may have misheard me because the sound of the rapt attention of the House sometimes drowns my words. I said that if somebody defies an order and puts up prices in defiance of an order controlling those prices because he has paid more than £6 a week, and it is stopped by the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, an offence may be committed by anybody who aids or assists in the putting up of prices in contravention of the order and would come into the same category as somebody who assisted in hare coursing. But that is not the case. It is only the person who puts up the prices, and not the person who assists him, who is guilty of an offence. The scope of the category of assisters is much more severe than in the counter-inflation policy which, we are told, is the cornerstone and top priority of the Government's programme.

I wish to refer to another matter—the Crossman diaries. We did not have an injunction to stop those diaries being published. Those who wish to see more open government and free speech were delighted. But suppose matters had gone the other way and there had been an injunction; anybody who had assisted in the publication presumably would have been included in the new definition of a committer of a criminal offence—such as the printers who set the type, the makers of the newspaper, and others who deal with all the many aspects of the printing of a newspaper. It would have applied to all those who assisted in the printing of the diaries, if that had been carried out in defiance of the Judge's ruling. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not think we can have a private race going on on the Opposition benches.

Mr. Ridley

Then I shall not respond, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was saying that we have this new offence of assisting in committing a criminal offence. [Interruption.] Did you say "Order", Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No, I did not. If I did, there must be a ventriloquist in the House. I would appeal to the hon. Gentleman to be as brief as he possibly can.

Mr. Ridley

I consider that I have truncated my remarks to a considerable degree already. I intend to be as brief as possible. When a new principle is hoisted upon us—namely, that assisting is in the same category as the commission of an offence—it requires some analysis and comparison. The idea of spectators being charged at a coursing meeting, which is what the Minister stressed on three separate occasions on Friday, is clearly wrong. I am not now wishing to debate the principle of the Bill. I want the hon. Lady to go back to her position in Committee, when I think she had some doubts about it.

If it is to be said that those who are spectators at an illegal offence can be prosecuted, there really is no end to the abuse which can take place. Since the hon. Lady does not feel strongly about it, she would be wise to concede this amendment and leave these words out. The mere fact that spectators are to be guilty of criminal offences must seem wrong in her eyes. I should have thought she would feel that herself straight away.

The Bill is contentious enough. There is little or no support for it in the country districts. Law does not go down well unless the majority of the people believe in it, and the majority of country people do not think this law is right, fair or necessary. If, on top of that, insult is to be added to injury, in that an innocent spectator may be picked up, charged and fined up to £200 or even £400, I believe that this House is being asked to pass really bad law.

Mr. Wells

I believe that it is the innocent spectators who are picked up more than once who will be precisely those who are fined the maximum.

Mr. Ridley

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I think that the House would, despite the contentious nature of the whole of this Bill, be wise to take this point seriously and to accept the amendment. The merit of having prolonged the debate since Friday is that it has shown that there is something really wrong in the concept that the hon. Lady is putting forward.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

With the leave of the House, I will speak for a third time on this amendment and try—I hope for the last time—to explain to hon. Members opposite the purpose behind the Bill, which is constantly raised in question.

With regard to the point made by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells), to which I referred both in the Second Reading and last Friday, if he will read the Bill carefully he will see that it deals with people who knowingly permit the coursing of a hare by two or more clogs in a competition as to their ability to course hares". When I explained the position of a farmer in a field with his dogs, or two people taking a country walk with their dogs, I was making it clear that the Bill would deal with competitive, organised hare coursing as we know it, and this is quite clearly stated in the Bill.

The second point which is continually raised is that I am introducing a new element into the criminal law and a totally new principle. Here again, I have repeated at least twice—possible more than twice—during the proceedings on the Bill that the Protection of Animals Act 1911 made it an offence to cause, procure or assist at the fighting or baiting of any animal". That is the precedent—a very old one—for the word "assist". The interpretation of that provision has never given rise to any difficulty on the part of the police or the courts.

With regard to the position of spectators, a spectator—to take an example from legislation already in existence concerning illegal prizefighting—has been held to be guilty of aiding and abetting the offence committed by those who took part in the fight if he by his presence encouraged the commission of their offence.

The passer-by, on the other hand, who, seeing a crowd gathered, joins in to see what is happening, does not by that action aid and abet the offence of the prizefighters. But, to return to hare coursing, once a person knows that coursing is taking place, it seems right that he should be guilty of an offence if he remains to aid and abet the coursing. In practice, the only spectators likely to be in this situation are those who have paid for admission or who are associated with the people promoting the meeting. All these people can fairly be described as assisting at the coursing of the hare.

For this reason, I urge the House to reject the amendment.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Mellish) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question he now put, put and agreed to.

Amendment accordingly negatived.

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