HC Deb 28 January 1976 vol 904 cc497-506
Mr. Alison

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 5, leave out '£400' and insert '£1,000'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this Amendment we are to take Government Amendments Nos. 4 and 5, and Amendment No. 6, in Clause 2, page 2, line 43, leave out '£200' and insert '£500'.

Mr. Alison

The Opposition amendments seek increases in penalties on a summary conviction in a proportion which corresponds more closely to what we feel is the seriousness of the offence—first in respect of the offence of association with proscribed organisations, in Clause 1, and secondly, the offence of what one might describe as the explicit or brazen flaunting of support for a proscribed organisation, as it is defined in Clause 2.

It is difficult to know just the right scale that one should seek to lay down for penalties on a summary conviction. However, we believe that the sums set out in our amendments show that we have erred on the side of restraint and moderation. After all, we are dealing with people and activities which are, as it were, in the shallows or on the foothills of lethal terrorism and violence. In many cases there is no real or meaningful break or division in purpose or intention between the sort of activities in which people engage and with which they can be charged under Clauses 1 and 2, and the full range of horrors involved in contemporary violence and terrorism. This is a seamless garment in the case of the intention of many of these people.

One thinks of the analogy of the Brownshirts in the early days of Hitler, before he was Chancellor, and the way they used to run around with Nazi flags, breaking windows, and so on. There is nothing between that and the full horror and panoply of what they stand for.

It is for this reason that we think that, certainly on the summary conviction penalties, the increase should be in proportion to the inherent seriousness of the offence.

Given that the maximum fine on a summary conviction can rise as high as £1,000, it is very reasonable that this group of offences, particularly those under Clauses 1 and 2 for which we have sought increases in penalty, should admit of the fullest scale of fine which is practicable.

In the first debate in Standing Committee on 9th December, the Under-Secretary made it quite clear that the maximum fine on summary conviction can exceed the normal £400 in a limited number of instances. She gave an instance of which I should like to remind the House. She said, where the speed of summary proceedings is essential for effective enforcement as in the case of certain offences committed by the owners or masters of foreign vessels, particularly in connection with oil pollution."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9th December 1975; c. 24.] It seems ludicrous that it should be possible for the offence of pollution of the sea by the master of an oil tanker to admit of the highest possible range of fine on summary conviction, whereas the hon. Lady is still standing firm in not letting the penalties on summary conviction under Clauses 1 and 2 to rise higher than £400 and £200. It is quite unsatisfactory.

It is rather like the eighteenth century precedent of hanging people for sheep stealing. In this case the oil pollution offence, which attracts the highest remedy, is equivalent to sheep stealing. However, perversely, in the eighteenth century people were hanged for sheep stealing and also for murder. In this case, the equivalent of sheep stealing, polluting the sea with oil, carries the highest possible fine on summary conviction, but being involved in the instigation or propagation of, or participation in, proscribed organisations or flaunting activities concerned therewith, and so on, still attracts the minimum fine.

It is quite out of proportion. The hon. Lady is doing nothing in the Government amendments except introducing an element of uniformity with the penalties applicable under Clauses 1 and 2. I hope that the hon. Lady will exhibit the flexibility that her right hon. Friend manifested in his concluding words on new Clause 3. I hope that she will reconsider whether she should not use the precedent already set for £1,000 on summary conviction, and include the two ranges of fine in Clauses 1 and 2 that we have suggested—namely, £1,000 in Clause 1 and £500 in Clause 2.

I ask the hon. Lady to give sympathetic consideration to our amendments. I do not think that she has gone far enough in introducing the element of uniformity that appears in her pair of amendments.

7.0 p.m.

Dr. Summerskill

As I undertook in Committee, we have carefully considered the arguments that were then put forward on fines, and particularly the arguments in favour of a heavier financial penalty on summary conviction of these offences. However, we feel that the general level of fines and penalties in the Bill accurately reflects the gravity that we wish to attach to each offence, bearing in mind that it is only penalties on summary conviction which are involved and that they are maximum penalties. The normal maximum fine which can be imposed by a magistrate in England and Wales is £400. Furthermore, we believe it right that the levels of the penalties for offences under the Bill should apply uniformly throughout Great Britain. We do not believe that there is a strong argument for making an exception in this Bill.

It would always be possible, if a heavier penalty were considered appropriate, for a case to be tried on indictment. In such circumstances the maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. There is a review of maximum penalties which is periodically undertaken.

Ideally we should not alter penalties in individual Bills, as is being proposed, but increase them all at the same time in a measure such as the Criminal Justice Act 1967. In our amendment it is proposed to increase the maximum penalty in Clause 2 to six months' imprisonment or a fine of £400, or both, instead of the present levels of three months' imprisonment or a fine of £200, or both.

I accept that there is a good deal of feeling that penalties for these offences should be severe. We were content that the level was right in Clause 2, but in view of the anxieties expressed in Committee we agreed that the penalty should be the same on summary conviction as for an offence under Clause 1. As regards Amendment No. 6, the Government amendment will double the maximum penalty that now exists in Clause 2. On reflection since Committee, we have decided to provide that an offence under Clause 2 should be dealt with as seriously as an offence under Clause 1, and that the penalties on summary conviction should be comparable. In any case, we wish to keep the penalty within the normal limits of the powers of the magistrates' courts—namely, £400.

I remind the House that it is possible for a heavier penalty to be imposed if it is thought appropriate that a case should be tried on indictment. In those circumstances, the maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

Mr. Carlisle

Although I see the force of the hon. Lady's argument that we should have consistent maxima in all cases I am conscious, having heard my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), of how the fines for oil pollution cases came on to the statute book. They did so against the advice of the Home Office at the time. The matter was carried by a vote of the House against the Government. Since that time we have had the Report of the James Committee. The Committee recommended that in general maximum fines should be increased from £400 to £1,000. If that is so, and if we are bringing in new legislation that is post-James is there not an argument for putting in the new maximum that was recommended by the James Committee? That would seem to be more consistent with our inflationary days than the maximum of £400.

I realise that I may be speaking as a lone voice, but Governments have persistently said that they are anti short-term imprisonment. However, they continue to provide powers which allow magistrates to send people to prison for periods up to six months. Would it not be better to have higher fines available to magistrates and to provide the power of imprisonment only when the case is tried by the higher court? For offences under Clause 1 the prosecution can always elect to take the proceedings to the higher court if it considers that they are of a gravity which requires imprisonment.

With respect, I am not suggesting that the present Government are alone in the fault I have described. If we say that we are against the idea of short terms of imprisonment we are unwise to continue to legislate so as to provide maxima of three months' and six months' imprisonment in magistrates' courts when there is always the alternative of going to the higher court if the case is considered to be of sufficient gravity.

Mr. Powell

Two separate issues are raised by this group of amendments. The first issue is whether the penalties for membership of a proscribed organisation should be twice as much as those for displaying support for such an organisation. That is how matters have stood in the Bill hitherto. It is clear that the Government are right to have decided that the penalty for displaying support should be at least as high as the penalty for membership. We all know that the offence of membership is particularly difficult to bring home to the offender whereas the offence of displaying support is not only a public acknowledgement of membership or support but a positive and deliberate flaunting of that support. It is a flaunting which is done to create hostility and to lead, amongst other things, to public disorder.

If there were to be a proper ratio between the penalties for these two offences and if they were not to be the same, one would be inclined to say that the penalties under Clause 2 should be higher than those under Clause 1. At any rate, we have now rightly brought the penalties into line. I am sure that those who wrote the brief for the hon. Lady were unnecessarily grudging. They could have given themselves much more enthusiastic credit for what they are doing.

The second issue that this group of amendments raises is whether the penalties that we have now enacted are adequate. The hon. Lady reminded the House that this scale of penalty was most recently fixed in 1967. It is important that the Government should understand the natural irritation which is caused to the public by the realisation that penalties are still being imposed at the same levels after eight to nine years of inflation at the level we have experienced. By simply passing Clause 1 in the same form as it was passed a year ago we are reducing the penalty by one-quarter.

I am not suggesting that we should go through the statute book every year and upgrade the penalties by the percentage of inflation during the intervening 12 months. That is not a form of escalation to which I should subscribe. But we are making new legislation. The House deliberately decided not to enable the original Bill to be renewed; it did so in order that there might be the opportunity by new legislation to reconsider the matter after a year. Therefore, it is natural that those looking at the Bill should take offence at penalties which, being imposed for these offences in 1976, conform to the 1967 general scale and are lower in real terms than the House decided were appropriate a year ago. The Government have made a mistake by insisting on moving on the general front or not at all, and moving many years too late in a period of high inflation. There is a strong case, if not for the figure of £1,000 proposed in Amendment No. 1, at any rate for a figure substantially higher than that which appears in the Bill.

Mr. Lawrence

I support all the arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), and as advanced in Committee. I am happy that the Government have considered those arguments, but unhappy that they have decided to reject the strength of them.

I should like to advance one further argument for the raising of the fine. There seems no reason in law why this House shall not decide that, unusually for magistrates' courts offences, the maximum fine should be £1,000. The fact that there is a rule which is normally followed is neither here nor there, provided that there is some reason for thinking that these offences are unusual.

The Under-Secretary said that there was no justification for making these offences an exception. I beg leave to differ. When dealing with terrorist offences, the public expect an exception to be made by virtue of their seriousness. Furthermore, there is some practical advantage. There is reason to suppose that the IRA feels most offended when its pocket is attacked. There are strong reasons for taking away any financial support being received by the IRA from any source.

Subsection (7) provides the power of forfeiture, but that is subject to the amount of money which can be found at the time to have resulted from the commission of the offence set out in Clause 1. I suspect that in reality, although a sum of money may have been raised by virtue of these collections which are offences under Clause 1, when the persons concerned are arrested there will be precious little left to be seized for forfeiture. Therefore, we can hit the IRA and stop it raising vast sums of money by taking that money away when it is found and when the persons concerned are found to be guilty of the offence.

That can best be achieved by raising the maximum fine. If in a public house in some part of the country there has been a collection directly or indirectly in support of the IRA, the magistrate should be able to say to the person found guilty of the offence, "I will fine you £1,000". That will hit the IRA where it hurts. There is no point in being considerate and saying that the ordinary level of fines for offences which come before a magistrate's court is £400 and that there is no reason for making an exception. There is every reason for making an exception, and making it sting and hurt as hard as we can.

7.15 p.m.

If one adds to that the persuasive argument put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South, that there is no reasonable case for deliberately reducing the efficacy of the fine from what was imposed a year ago—£400 then is now worth 25 per cent. less—I suggest that this is a reasonable opportunity to increase it.

The Minister said that this matter can be reviewed when the penalties are next reviewed. When will the penalties next be reviewed? If they are to be reviewed in two, three, four or five years, we are wasting this opportunity of doing something of which the IRA will disapprove because it will take away the money which is raised when offences of this kind are committed and which goes to buy weapons with which to take the lives of our soldiers and the people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

I am dismayed by the principle on which the Minister has approached the amendment. It seems offensive to the concept of punishment and justice that, rather than get an appropriate penalty right, we should suit some administrative convenience whereby all maximum penalties are raised identically at the same time. The absurdity of that argument is that offences do not necessarily maintain their equivalent gravity. Whereas pollution of the sea enlarges as an offence with the advent of the large tanker, so other penalties which were once important—for example, sheep stealing—now become relatively trivial. Therefore, it is a particularly bad concept to say that punishment and the fixing of penalties should be organised to suit the convenience of raising all penalties at the same time and keeping them equal.

I conceive that there is a hidden convenience. There is a myth or fiction that penalties are automatically translatable into terms of imprisonment if fines are not paid. There is a concept that if a person is fined so much and does not pay, he serves three months' imprisonment if he is fined £400 and does not pay, he serves six months' imprisonment; and if he is fined £800 and does not pay, he serves 18 months' imprisonment, or whatever the formula may be.

I have a dreadful feeling that resistance to the amendment is based on administrative convenience, not on any real attempt to assess the gravity of the offences.

It is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which it would be appropriate for these offences to be treated summarily. When dealing with offences as grave as the deliberate flaunting of belonging to a proscribed organisation, it is right that the criteria should not he related to any other act—careless driving, or anything else. We should get the penalties right in this instance.

Since the whole Bill is framed to suit the structure of the courts of England, not the courts of Scotland, I find it additionally offensive that administrative habit is the generating argument for resisting the amendment.

Dr. Summerskill

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) on the James Report. I appreciate his argument that we should consider that Report but, on the other hand, it would not be wise to anticipate new legislation based on a Report concerning the general level of fines involving alterations of maxima in a Bill or Bills to be introduced—in other words, for there to be a piecemeal approach to the problem.

I hope that I did not mislead the House when I referred to the possibility of heavier penalties for cases tried on indictment. Clause 2 creates summary offences, but by Clause 1 it is possible for cases tried on indictment to attract unlimited fines. The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) said that in his opinion most of these offences should be tried on indictment.

Mr. Whitelaw

The Minister has moved a long way to meet us and we welcome her approach. I still hope that she will consider some of the arguments put to her by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison).

We tabled our amendments so that we would have the opportunity to discuss penalties. I repeat that the hon. Lady has gone some way to meet us by tabling Government proposals. The Government often take refuge in the argument that a general review is about to begin. It is then asked "When will that review take place and, when it does, will it produce results?" Sometimes one feels that it is time that such a review produces results.

I appreciate that the hon. Lady is not responsible for a general review and must seek to tie the penalties in this Bill into the present set-up. However, there is a strong feeling that a general review should produce results which are somewhat overdue.

Having had a useful debate and having been given some concessions, I suggest to my hon. Friend that we should not press our proposals.

Mr. Alison

I beg to ask leave to withdrew the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Dr. Summerskill

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 25, leave out 'then' and insert 'he became a member'.

The effect of this amendment is to replace the words "since then" in Clause 1(6) with the words since he became a member". The sole purpose of the amendment is to clarify doubts which some Members felt about the effect of the words "since then". There is no change of substance involved. The doubts expressed were whether the words "since then" referred to the period since a person had joined an organisation or to the period since the organisation had been proscribed. The amendment makes it absolutely clear that a person can invoke the defence in subsection (6) if he can show that he became a member when it was not proscribed and that since he became a member he has not taken part in any of the organisations activities.

Mr. Powell

I am obliged to the hon. Lady and the Home Department for having solved the conundrum that plagued me as the Bill was drafted. I have no objection to her complaining about my pernickertiness in drafting so long as she is so quick to take the points I make.

Amendment agreed to.

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