§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, East)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law on theft by abolishing private prosecutions for theft from shops; requiring investigation of all circumstances before the prosecution of pensioners for this offence; and for other purposes connected therewith.Those in the House, especially the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) and myself, who have been campaigning for change for many years are not concerned to protect the professional thief or shoplifter. We are as concerned as anyone else about thievery from shops. Shoplifting is theft and its price is paid by the ordinary shopper. We are concerned about the prosecution of the innocent and, in certain cases, the prosecution of those who are guilty but ill.
Professional thieves, both individuals and bands, are being watched increasingly. In Leicester a campaign is under way to warn them by visible signs. That is fair enough. What is not fair is the enormous toll of human misery that is incurred by those who are forgetful and innocent. It is time for the House to take to itself the need for an inquiry into how the prevention of the prosecution of innocents can be avoided. It is a difficult issue.
I make certain suggestions that I ask the House at least to approve in principle. First, we should adopt the system that already exists in Scotland, which is that all prosecutions should be by the police and that the sometimes awkward and anguished decision whether to prosecute should be removed from the individual shopkeeper. This is already happening in many areas. The shopkeeper still has the right to decide whether to report a suspected offence to the police. He will exercise that right within his discretion. The police, as guardians of the public and as responsible to the public, should then decide whether or not to prosecute.
Secondly, I commend to the House the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington and his team in the independent study of the cause and effect of the increase in shoplifting, namely, that where reasonably practicable there should be bag parks where people 1290 in self-service stores can put their own bags so that the possibility of forgetfulness is at least reduced. I am sure that there is no one in the House who has not at some time walked out of a restaurant, a store or a petrol station without thinking and without paying or with something with him that he has afterwards taken back, or something that he has taken back without the receipt, running the risk of being accused of shoplifting. A huge pile of letters from suffering correspondents suggests that this is rife.
Thirdly, I suggest that cashiers, those who receive the money from the public, should be required to ask "Have you paid for everything that you have taken?"
We must recognise that there are many who are technically guilty but ill. We all know that apart from professional thieves there are many for whom the offence is a form of suicide. There are those who are mentally ill, those who are suffering and those who need to be treated by a decent and compassionate community with understanding. The worst place for them in the world is the dock. The result of their going there may be truly tragic.
I recommend to the House that it accepts the proposition that if a pensioner is to be charged he or she should at least have an examination beforehand to decide whether or not a prosecution is appropriate. I respectfully disagree with the suggestion made by the study group on shoplifting that the first offence should necessarily result in a caution. I see no reason why a shoplifter should be given one chance, as a dog is given one bite. That would not be right. However, there should be the sort of screening process that Dr. Michael Tarsh called for in The Times last week and which has been written about so much. In any event, there should be an inquiry into this area of law.
One of the great troubles is that professional thieves and professional shoplifters take court proceedings in their stride. They accept them as one of the hazards of their wicked profession. Innocent people often have to wait many months if they choose trial by jury. Innocent people often have nervous breakdowns long before their cases go to trial. That is unfair, and it is wrong. The percentage of acquittals, which is well over 1291 50 per cent., bears tribute to the fact that many who are innocent are charged with the offence. Some hon. Members are laughing. They would not laugh if this happened to them.
This is an issue that should concern all hon. Members. It could happen to us or to members of our families, in a difficult world in which the goods in a self-service store are presented in a way to induce people to buy and to invite them to be forgetful.
§ Mr. Janner
I asked the House, in compassion, decency, justice and in enlightened self-interest, to give me leave to introduce this modest Bill.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Robert Adley, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. David Knox, Mr. David Mudd, Mr. Giles Radice, Mr. John Sever and Mr. Alan Woodall.