HC Deb 18 July 1979 vol 970 cc1809-12

4.43 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. The effect of the Bill will be to abolish what has come to be known as the offence of "sus", which has caused deep concern to parents, to youth workers, to local authorities, to civil liberties supporters and, not least, to Members of the House of Commons over a period of 150 years.

The offence is found in the Vagrancy Act alongside such offences as telling fortunes, lodging abroad in a tent, and exposing one's wounds in order to obtain alms. It consists not of committing a crime or even of attempting to commit a crime, but of frequenting or loitering in a place of public resort with intent to commit an arrestable offence". It is punishable by up to three months' imprisonment.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 was born in the distress and unemployment that followed the Napoleonic wars. Section 4 is not mainly about suppressing crime; it is about suppressing the symptoms of poverty. It sits in the statute book next to an Act on the transportation of prisoners. I do not oppose it on the grounds of antiquity, although its context puts it under suspicion. Within a matter of months of the Act's being passed, that famous radical, Joseph Hume, was protesting, on 10 February 1824 in this House, that it was an interference with the liberty of the subject. It therefore had its critics within months of its becoming law.

I oppose it not on the grounds of its antiquity but because of the grossly unsatisfactory nature of the offence of being a suspected person. I shall try to make up a case against it.

First, exceptionally for English law, the essence of the offence is being around in a public place and having a particular state of mind. If most people's thoughts constituted an offence, there would be very few innocent people in this country. As the Home Office working party put it, It falls short of any criminal offence or attempt to commit an offence. Lord Gardiner, the former Lord Chancellor, put it more strongly. He said: I must say that I myself find it very difficult to equate this law with the Rule of Law at all. What began as a suppression of the symptoms of distress and poverty has become an offence against civil liberties.

Secondly, not only is this a dubious offence; the defendant can never test the charge against him before a jury. He can be placed in serious jeopardy and can have a career blighted, but he will have no chance of appealing to his peers as to whether or not he is guilty.

Thirdly—I do not say this in criticism of the police—the evidence against the defendant is almost invariably given only by police officers. It is uncorroborated by a member of the public. Of course, if the House of Commons creates an offence someone is bound to be guilty of it at some time. However, so effective is this charge that there is always the risk of innocent people being convicted, and there is certainly a situation in which the guilty usually believe themselves to be innocent. I believe that it injures the reputation of the police, which is why many police forces do not choose to prosecute under this section of the Act. I believe that it injures their relations with the public, and effective policing depends upon confidence in the police and co-operation between them and the general public. I therefore believe that both public co-operation and the reputation of the police stand to gain from the repeal of this offence.

In my constituency some parents are afraid to send their children out shopping for fear of arrest. Their fears may well be exaggerated, but they are a fact of life and they must be reckoned with.

In London, a substantial proportion of those arrested are black. In one age group the figure is about three-quarters. That figure is wholly disproportionate to arrests of black people generally. I do not argue abolition on the ground that this is a "black" offence, but, given the suspect nature of the charge and the allegations that I have already made against the offence, and given that proportion of arrests, there is another strong reason for abolition of the offence.

The enmity that is felt by many young black people towards the police ought to and does cause us a great deal of concern. It caused the working party a great deal of concern, and I believe that the offence of "sus" was largely responsible for that. It is so unsafe that it makes every story of injustice a credible story because of the way in which the offence is phrased.

I know the argument against repeal. It is that "sus" is a useful crime prevention measure—and it is. So is a curfew, so is the suspension of habeas corpus, and so are many other measures. That, therefore, is not a very good argument. If the offence were not on the statute book, nobody would dream of inventing it. However, once it is known that something exists, no end of people are prepared to rationalise its continuation. The question about prevention is an important one which is not to be neglected.

I think that the answer lies, as some police forces already show by their practice, in charging with attempted theft if the evidence supports that charge, or in the use of a useful prevention provision that exists in the Criminal Justice Act 1967. There, no charge is involved, but a person who is suspected of being about to commit an offence can be arrested and bound over to keep the peace for a period of up to a year.

Sometimes a mere caution or a few wise words with the person involved, or his or her parents, would be equally effective. I regret that the policy in the Metropolitan area is one of charging forthwith with this offence without thinking about a caution or of some other method of looking into the matter.

My argument amounts to this: we can continue to have the rule of law and to support it. We can have increased confidence in the police and the legal system, and we can prevent crime while at the same time we can abolish "sus". That is what I seek leave to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Fraser, Mr. John Tilley, Mr. Stuart Holland, Mr. Alexander W. Lyon, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Stan Thorne and Mr. John Sever.