HC Deb 06 April 1981 vol 2 cc739-41
Mr. Clinton Davis

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 11, line 20, leave out `two' and insert 'five'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 10, in page 11, line 23, leave out `£1,000' and insert '£10,000'.

No. 11. in page 11, line 26, leave out `£1,000' and insert T10,000'.

Mr. Davis

This group of amendments enables us to consider the penalties prescribed in clause 14.

In Committee I suggested that the prescribed financial penalties for conviction on both summary trial and indictment were inadequate and that the penal provision for conviction on indictment was also inadequate. The Minister agreed to examine the situation, especially the other cases involving crimes in relation to commercial matters, to see whether these were appropriate sentences.

The quality of the offence is of a different character from that which relates to many other commercial offences. It will be interesting to see the comparisons that the Minister will draw. I advise him that exceptions are made from time to time. I remember that during the passage of the Merchant Shipping Act—when dealing with pollution, which is a grave offence—it was thought appropriate substantially to increase the penalty on summary trial; far more substantially than that prescribed in amendment No. 10.

7.30 pm

To obtain authorisation as a result of false information provided recklessly is an extremely serious offence. Its consequences can do enormous damage and adversely affect a large number of people. I hope that the Minister will not say that in the review of certain white collar crimes he considers that a certain consistency should obtain. In a sense, that is far more serious than anything that I can think of in relation to this offence. However, the Minister will have the information. I am sure that his Department will have undertaken a good deal of research. I shall be interested to hear what he has to say.

Sir Graham Page

I appreciate that the length of sentence, whatever length is made statutory, will be the maximum. Seldom does the court impose a maximum sentence. The general feeling is that long sentences are neither deterrents to this sort of crime nor rehabilitative. Shorter sentences prove just as effective. By "shorter" I mean two to three years rather than sentences of more than three years' imprisonment, and, for this type of crime, no more than 18 months. Although it is wrong to fit our punishments to the accommodation of prisoners we must recognise that we no longer have the prison space for long sentences. We cannot accommodate prisoners on long sentences unless the sentences cure criminals. The general feeling is that long sentences are not doing that.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Will the right hon. Gentleman address himself equally to the substance of the other two amendments? Those amendments relate to what I believe to be the inadequacy of financial penalties in relation to a matter which is tried summarily. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman agrees that if the court of summary jurisdiction were empowered to impose a heavier penalty to deal with a serious matter, it would save much time instead of forcing the Crown to take the matter to trial on indictment.

Sir Graham Page

I agree. We should concentrate on the fine. We should give greater power in the lower courts to impose heavier fines than the figure in the amendment. I disagree only on the length of imprisonment. I agree wholly on fines.

Mr. Eyre

I hope that I shall not undermine the natural modesty of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) by admitting that I agreed to reflect on whether the maximum penalties laid down in the Bill were appropriate compared with those for other commercial offences. I have considered the revised penalties for offences under the Companies Acts, which were reviewed and revised by the Companies Act 1980.

A comparison of the offences is more naturally with those under the Companies Acts rather than with the pollution offences under the Merchant Shipping Act, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I have written to the hon. Gentleman about the matter. I emphasised that Companies Act penalties for conviction on indictment exceed two years' imprisonment only where there is a clear element of fraud. The two offences in clause 14 do not in themselves imply an attempt to defraud the public. They may presage an attempt to do so, but that is another question. I ask the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend to consider that when they judge appropriate penalties.

If fraud were committed a prosecution under the clause would doubtless be accompanied by other charges which would carry appropriate penalties—that is the penalties would be in the more severe category, as would the nature of the crime. The option of conviction on indictment in sentencing to two years' imprisonment someone guilty of offences represent a substantial penalty. I am not persuaded that the penalty should be increased. Nor is the maximum fine on summary conviction inadequate for the offences in that category. In future it will be increased to take account of inflation.

I ask the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend to consider that the penalties are adequate in relation to the nature of the offence, as I have explained, but if the commission of the offence led to the commission of a more serious offence involving fraud, the penalties then involved would be more serious.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I am much more persuaded by the Minister about the penal provisions but less convinced about the other matter. However, I shall not press the amendment to a Division. Suffice it to say that I know that the penalty is to be increased in line with inflation. Therefore, as the Government's economic policies go sadly awry and inflation rises again, I assume that there will be a substantial increase in penalty.

Amendment negatived.

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