HC Deb 09 March 1981 vol 1000 cc613-5
31. Mr. Adley

asked the Attorney-General when he next intends to meet the Magistrates' Association to discuss sentencing policy for shoplifting offences.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Ian Percival)

As was indicated in the reply given to my hon. Friend on 9 June last, it is not the practice to arrange meetings with the Magistrates' Association for the discussion of sentencing policy limited to a single type of offence.

Mr. Adley

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that many magistrates believe that shoplifting cases are the hardest on which they are called upon to adjudicate, and that in many cases the circumstances are wholly different from those of most other alleged crimes, because, for example, magistrates are often, as one put it to me, called upon to play God in adjudicating on whether there was an intent to steal? In view of the concern expressed in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) and others, will my hon. and learned Friend do his best to recognise that shoplifting is different from other criminal offences and needs to be looked at separately and specially?

The Solicitor-General

I agree with my hon. Friend that many cases of shoplifting present considerable difficulty, both in reaching a finding on whether the person is guilty, and on the question of sentencing. I am dealing only with the second point today. Of course, many would say that in every criminal offence the question of deciding what sentence to give is much more difficult than any other part of the trial. For that reason it is immensely important that Ministers should not be seen to interfere with the discretion of the courts in this matter and that the courts should have the widest possible discretion in sentencing, so that they are able to deal with the multiplicity of situations and difficulties to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas

As shoplifting is now a national disease affecting people from all walks of life—indeed, it is almost a national pastime—will the Solicitor-General suggest to the Home Secretary that a new working party be set up to finalise proposals about bag parks and to consider, among other things, ways in which retailers should protect their goods on display?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that that is not a matter for me, but I am sure that Home Office Ministers and others who are concerned will note what he has said.

Mr. Grieve

Will my hon. and learned Friend never cease to bear in mind that each and every case before magistrates, like each and every other case in any other court in the country, has to be determined on its merits and that it would be wrong to bring pressure on the justices or in any other quarter to deal with cases in a way that met with the approval of some people, but which did not meet the merits of the case?

The Solicitor-General

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. It is enormously important, and this is the heart of the question, that the discretion of any court on the punishment to be meted out in such cases should be as wide as possible.

Mr. Greville Janner

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that precisely because of the great difficulty, to which he has referred, in sentencing people who are prosecuted for shoplifting and the fact that so many who are prosecuted would be better treated in hospital, if he is not prepared to intervene in the sentencing process he should intervene to prevent people from being prosecuted for shoplifting when they are obviously old and ill?

The Solicitor-General

The proposition put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman in his question and in his early-day motion is attractive, but it overlooks the practicalities. For example, in one case that attracted a lot of publicity recently, the person concerned was neither old nor young, nor, apparently, ill.

Mr. Janner

Old and ill.

The Solicitor-General

It transpired afterwards—

Mr. Janner

No. We knew before.

The Solicitor-General

If the hon. and learned Gentleman knew before he might have considered taking some action That case is merely an example of how the person concerned might not wish any such interference until he or she had first had the opportunity to establish his or her innocence.

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