HC Deb 03 July 1978 vol 953 cc193-6

As amended (in tile Standing Committee), considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I want to make two points which have caused me some concern as the Bill has passed through this House. I am still not convinced that it is all that wise to deal with the offence of deception when the law governing the two most common forms of deception—cheque frauds and frauds with bank cards—is still under review by the Law Commission.

The Law Commission will have to be careful not to get into a muddle, especially since clause 2(3) makes payment by cheque an offence when it is clear that the Criminal Law Revision Committee report shows that it does not think that the criminal law should punish generally for cheque offences. It looks as if there could be some conflict there.

My second point I have made often and strongly, and I will not repeat it in the form that I have done so before. It is that the idea of reforming the law of theft should not just be a way of making the law comprehensible to judges. It should also, and predominantly be, a way of making the law simple for jurymen to consider. Clause 2 as it stands, although it is an improvement, is still, in my view, far too complex and will be very difficult to explain to a jury.

I made an attempt to simplify it in Committee, and the Minister of State was kind enough to send me a letter commenting upon that simplification and pointing out that there could be faults in it. I am grateful to him for his letter. As a result of it, I hope that he, or, if not he, the House of Lords, will consider sympathetically a simplification of the clause, which would thereby merely state that a person who by any deception dishonestly and with intent to make permanent default causes his or another legally enforceable payment to be reduced, delayed or avoided, shall be guilty of an offence. Then we should include another half subsection in relation to the definition of liability in relation to compensation. By that redefinition of the clause, we would reduce 206 words to 57.

I am still not saying that it would be perfect redrifting of clause 2, but it would be a lot better than some we have seen, and I think that it merits consideration. I should be grateful if the Minister would give an assurance that he will look at it again. I have handed him a copy of what I suggest, with one or two comments, and perhaps the House of Lords would also look at it again.

I repeat: it is all very well to simplify the other branches of the law and then seem to go out of our way to make complicated the law of deception. I think that it can be simply written so that it can be put to jurymen in a way that they can understand, and so that we can, by that means, effect an aim of our criminal law —that is, effectively to bring to justice those who offend against the rules. I hope that some of my remarks tonight and in Committee will be looked at again before the Bill becomes law.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I usually find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), but I do not do so on this occasion. It is tempting, when one aspect of what one is doing is still under review by another body, to put off what one is doing until further consideration, but I think that we want to keep on with this.

What we are doing is getting rid of section 16(2) of the present Theft Act, which has been described as a "legal nightmare". The law will be better for it having been removed from the statute book. By common consent, clause 1 of this new Bill is an improvement, although there has been some discussion from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton about clause 2.

I express the hope that the other place will find our amendments to its measure acceptable, so that this Bill can be passed into law as speedily as possible and so that we may make sure that it passes into law before other events take place, which we Conservatives hope will happen speedily.

Of course, if there is some way of simplifying clause 2 without detracting from it, or if there is any reason to believe that some parts of the clause are abstruse, despite what I have said one would hope that the other place will take the opportunity of putting it right, so long as it can be done within the time scale available for the completing of this Bill.

My hon. Friend has read his proposed new clause and was kind enough to supply me with a copy. There are some demonstrable gaps in it. I shall not take time to refer to them now, because my main purpose is to express the hope that there will be no further delays in this measure and, in particular, that the changes we have made will prove acceptable to the other place.

11.21 p.m.

The Minister of State for the Home Department (Mr. Brymnor John)

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want first to thank the Committee for the way in which it helped in the passage of the Bill. I also thank the CLRC, under both its chairmen, Lord Edmund-Davies and Lord Justice Lawton, for the work which it has put in.

I shall look at the new draft of clause 2 as proposed by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), but undertaking to look does not mean an undertaking to agree. He and I will correspond in the usual way in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that the question of conspiracies to cheat and defraud is still being considered by the Law Commission. He will know that the Criminal Law Revision Committee checked this very point with the Law Commission before it started its work on this particular matter. The Law Commission expressed itself as satisfied that we should legislate on this matter in advance of the other. That being so, I see no inhibition on our doing so. Like the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival), I believe that the law will be a great deal better than it has been in the past for both judges and the lay public. It will take some of the lottery out of trials on this most complicated of all subjects. For that reason I hope that the other place will see fit to agree with the amendments that we have now inserted.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.