HC Deb 23 October 1986 vol 102 cc1419-21
Mr. Randall

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 26, line 34, leave out 'subsections (3) and (4)' and insert `subsection (4)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 31, in page 27, line 4, leave out subsection (3).

No. 32, in page 27, line 7, leave out from 'committed' to 'but' in line 8.

Mr. Randall

Amendment No. 31 is about the deletion of subsection (3) and amendment No. 29 is a minor consequential amendment arising from that deletion.

Many of the arguments surrounding this amendment have been expressed in relation to other amendments and clauses. The purpose of the amendment is to protect innocent people who did not realise that they were breaking the law by handling salmon. We must have effective protection to overcome the abuse of poaching. I think everybody on the Committee accepted that there would have to be effective measures.

I am in a dilemma. On the one hand, we need tough and effective legislation to make sure that abuse is properly dealt with. On the other hand, this same legislation, because it is comprehensive and strong, creates the risk of convicting somebody who did not know that he was breaking the law. It could be costly in human terms if we were to convict someone who genuinely did not realise that he was breaking the law. Hon. Members have a duty to protect people against such an error. The Bill makes it too easy to convict an innocent person who genuinely did not realise that he was handling illegally obtained fish.

We need tough legislation because we are dealing with a tough problem. However, it is important to recognise that there is an ethical argument that hon. Members must address. That is why we should delete subsection (3).

12.30 am
Mr. Beith

I shall not repeat the arguments about burden of proof that we advanced earlier—the essential principle is the same. During that debate I referred—slightly ahead of myself—to subsection (3). I must ask the Minister what it means. It appears to mean that it is not possible for a person to advance in his own defence that there were no grounds for believing that the person who had sold him the salmon had committed an offence or for believing that anyone had poached any salmon in the area where he bought his salmon. That is all immaterial—he can still be convicted on the basis that he should have had reason to believe that someone, some time, might have poached salmon and that that might be the salmon that had fallen into his hands.

It appears that it is not possible for that person to argue in his defence that, as far as he knew, no one in the locality had committed any offence and that no specific offence had occurred. I cannot think of what else the subsection could mean. Can the Minister tell the House what he thinks it means?

Mr. Gummer

We covered this matter closely in Committee and have tonight returned to the same arguments. At this late hour I shall not go into them in detail because it would be wrong to repeat what we have said so often.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) rather uncharacteristically said on the one hand that he wanted something, but on the other that he was not prepared to pay the price for it.

Mr. Randall

It is a dilemma.

Mr. Gummer

It may be a dilemma, but we cannot solve it by writing into the Bill the action that must be taken and then removing the ability to take that action. That would be the purpose of the amendment—we would have the offence, because that is what is needed, but would take away the right to prosecute.

Having agonised over creating an offence in a very careful way that does not go so far as to reverse the burden of proof but makes it possible to gain convictions in very difficult areas, it would be wrong for us to negative that by making the changes proposed in the amendment.

The circumstances suggested by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) are very wide of the mark. We have tried to create an offence that would allow us to secure convictions in very difficult circumstances. By its very nature, the sort of evidence that we would like to have of a fish being pulled out of a river, a man standing there with the bailiff beside him and two independent witnesses, does not occur. We must decide how to have an effective conservation policy that means effective enforcement. If we make the changes suggested, they will negative the effectiveness of the creation of an offence.

We have been through a series of debates and this matter has gone backwards and forwards in Committee. On every occasion the Committee decided that it would be right to retain the offence without the changes of this and other kinds that have been put forward by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and his hon. Friends.

Mr. Beith

Will the Minister simply answer the question? What does subsection (3) mean and what would be wrong with the Bill if it were taken out?

Mr. Gummer

The purpose is clear. It is to ensure that the prosecution does not have to show that the buyer believed or suspected that a particular offence had been committed but that, in the circumstances, it would be reasonable for him to think that an offence had been committed. The effect in law is seriously different. In one circumstance it would be almost impossible to prove guilt in cases where there has been an offence and where everybody knows that the person who bought the salmon knew there had been an offence. That is why we have changed it. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not see the difference. I have tried to explain it in various ways. I believe that most people understand the distinction and that is why on every occasion that this was put to the vote the Committee showed that it supported the balanced view which the Government were putting forward.

Amendment negatived.

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