HL Deb 01 December 1925 vol 62 cc1034-56

LORD CHARNWOOD rose to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether it is true that on October 17, a lame man, the driver of a lorry belonging to the Daily Herald and carrying newspapers, was compelled to stop by four young men in Fascist uniform, one of whom pointed a revolver at him; that they possessed themselves of the lorry and drove away with it, but were stopped by an accidental collision; that in the proceedings taken against them by the police a charge of larceny was withdrawn; and that no punishment was ever inflicted upon them, except that they were bound over to keep the peace, and that the man with the revolver was fined for having no licence.
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  3. 2. Whether threatening a man with a deadly weapon is not in itself a criminal offence; and, if so, why the law has not been enforced in this case; and, if not, whether the Government contemplate any amendment of the law; and the like questions in regard to intimidation by numbers.
  4. 3. If the facts are as stated, what assurance the Government can give that the liberty and security of peaceful subjects of His Majesty (without distinction of class or party) will be more vigorously protected for the future.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is somewhat late, but I have reason to believe that it will be convenient if I ask my Question now. In the first part of my Question I have set down the facts as I found them reported in a newspaper which I believe is usually reliable in its statements. Assuming those statements to be correct, I am sure your Lordships will agree that they make an unpleasant story, and that the Government will appreciate that it has been the subject of comment in a great many quarters and has aroused some natural wonder as to the real nature of the system by which order and liberty are protected in the country. If there is, as I assume, some simple and satisfactory explanation, I am perfectly sure that the Government will appreciate that it would be a good thing that this explanation should be fully and clearly given.

I do not think I need dwell upon the alleged facts. About six weeks ago it appears that a man was driving a lorry-load of newspapers to Euston station for them to be despatched by train. It is said that the man was lame but that, so far as I know, is in no way material. The newspaper in question was the Daily Herald. None of your Lordships cares in the least what the newspaper was or what opinions it advocated so long as it was lawfully conducted. On his way to the station the lorry driver was held up by four young men who are described as being in Fascist uniform. I do not know what uniform that is, nor do I know to which of the various organisations they belonged, or whether there be any organisation of any great importance whose members distinguish themselves by this uniform. However, four men, apparently, demanded of the lorry driver that he should stop and get down, and one of them covered him with a revolver. I do not know whether it was a loaded revolver or not; neither can the lorry driver have known. For persuading purposes the revolver was, of course, equally useful whether it was loaded or unloaded. Then they took possession of the lorry. Shortly afterwards they came into some trouble or other. I am told that a large number of newspapers were spilled in the road and that the actual material damage done was a matter of some considerable number of pounds in value because the newspapers, whether through being spilled in the road or through having missed the train, were valueless. That, however, is not a very material point.

Police court proceedings arose out of this affair, and, apparently, these young men were charged, in the first instance, with larceny. That charge was withdrawn, and it is stated that the Magistrate made some comment on the leniency of the course pursued in withdrawing it. Another charge, the precise nature of which I do not know, was preferred and as a result all these young men were bound over to keep the peace. Beyond that, the man who had pointed the revolver was fined £20 for not having a licence to carry a revolver. That appears to have been the whole of the trouble into which these young men were involved in consequence of this rather serious and outrageous escapade.

I want to make a few comments upon that story from the point of view of a person who prefers to keep in mind his own ignorance of the law. In the first place, I can perfectly well conceive that the charge of larceny was very properly withdrawn. It does not appear likely that these young men seized upon that lorry for the sake of any personal enjoyment by themselves and their friends. They were moved, presumably, not by covetousness but by some recondite sense of humour, or some other motive not involving any serious desire to acquire property which was not their own, and if a sensible jury was at all likely to take that view I suppose that the Public Prosecutor was doing his duty in not pressing the charge. It goes without saying that he did his duty and had good reasons for doing what he did. But from the point of view of ordinary people, surely the possibility of some offence against property is the least part of the matter. What strikes an ordinary man as serious is the unlawful use of force to coerce than man to do what these four young men wished him to do.

To begin with, this man was compelled to desist from his duty by superior numbers. One would have thought that intimidation exercised by superior numbers—and four to one is sufficiently superior—was in itself an offence that could be seriously dealt with by the law. Possibly it is not such an offence. If that is so, I venture to think it is a little unfortunate that, under a special enactment, intimidation exercised by a number of men over an individual to do or not to do a certain thing is capable of being seriously dealt with in a special case if they are engaged in a strike. There may be other cases, and one would earnestly have hoped and wished that there was some law under which the terrorism of numbers was in itself an offence which would be seriously dealt with. I appreciate that this might be a very difficult matter to deal with.

There was, however, a far more serious element in this case. One of these young men—the others, of course, abetting him in this act—appears to have held up the lorry driver and covered him with a revolver, practically compelling him to give up his lorry and desist from his duty under the fear of instant death. Is it really the case in this country that one man may coerce another by a threat of instant death—for that is what it comes to—without committing an offence liable to be dealt with in a much more serious manner than by a fine? Supposing I take the precaution of procuring a licence to carry a revolver, may I, if I feel inclined, go and hold up one of my neighbours and compel him, practically for fear that I should shoot him, to do something that I wish him to do, with the hope of getting off with a mere "bound over to keep the peace," which would have no deterrent effect at all? Those I think to be, as shortly as I can put them, the points which puzzle the ordinary mind about this singular case.

I presume that this curious result arises through some archaicisms in our laws. I have suggested in my Question that the amendment of the law may be desirable, and I do not mean by that to indicate that this ease has any sudden or immediate emergency requiring instant legislation, or anything of that sort, but I do mean that if it be the case that these young men could not have' been more severely dealt with under the existing laws, that is one of those points of criminal justice which I hope will receive the full attention of those authorities who from time to time bring before Parliament such Bills as that which we have just read a second time. In most cases of offences for outrages it is, of course, a general principle with us all now that, if possible, first offenders shall be lightly dealt with. Here it seems to me that that general principle is quite without the grounds on which it usually rests. There was, in the first place—and I do not see how one can get away from that—the use, for this fiendish purpose, of the fear of death, a fear which it would appear to most of us a man ought in no circumstances, leaving out of account cases of self-defence or the like, to be allowed wantonly, freakishly, to employ without landing himself in for very serious consequences indeed. In this instance it does, I think, make a slight difference that these young men were apparently acting with the pretext, possibly in the sincere belief, that they were upholding some political cause. Clearly here the political tinge of some kind which appears to have come into the ease adds to the desirability that people should be effectively deterred from doing things of that kind.

There are only two remarks that should like to make in conclusion. A large number of people, I understand, and, naturally, young men friends of the Daily Herald, being only human, have been tempted to make a wide use of this rather surprising story, and the kind of suggestion which is put about is this: Oh! if some young men wearing some kind of revolutionary uniform or badge had held up a lorry containing copies of the Morning Post or The Times or some newspaper tainted with capitalism or conservatism, or some other evil tendency, no doubt they would have been dropped on by the authorities very severely. That sort of suggestion has been freely made. To us it is perfectly absurd, but I do want to point out this, that with the limited knowledge of affairs which vast masses in this country possess it is not to them at all an absurd suggestion. On the contrary, it is one which, to a large number of minds, naturally and inevitably occurs. That being so, it gives a certain importance to this matter which at first sight one might possibly be disposed to regard as a rather small affair.

If persons of extreme political opinions have found that they can turn this occurrence to some propagandist account, I cannot say that that worries me very much. It is rather a wider, perhaps a vaguer, ground which makes me regard this occurrence with some apprehension, and with a desire that there should be some explanation of the exact facts. All your Lordships will sympathise with me when I say that I hate anything which can in the least tend to revive the old feeling that there is in any respect one law for the rich and another for the poor. Quite inevitably, under any condition of society, things will occur which do tend to revive that feeling in poor men's minds, but that is inevitable. Nevertheless it is socially harmful, and it is, I believe, hateful to all of us. Here, of course, I do not suppose that these young men were at all wealthy—they may have been quite the contrary—but in a good many quarters they will be regarded as persons associated in some vague way with the classes that are content with the existing institutions—the respectable and the comfortable classes, interested in upholding things as they are.

I cannot help feeling that occurrences of this kind set a great many poor young men feeling: "Oh, well, these fellows, committing these outrages, got off very lightly: respectable people take an interest in them; but I and my friends should not get off lightly if we did anything of a similar kind." I put that point, I know, rather inadequately. It is a point on which I happen to feel rather sensitive, and I am not ashamed of it. I hope I have not unduly laboured or stressed this incident. I am convinced that a full explanation of it is one for which many people in this country—many people of very different shades of opinion—would be profoundly thankful to the Government. Apologising for having detained your Lordships so long, I beg now to ask the Questions which stand in my name.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has put his Questions in very moderate terms, and I am glad to have the opportunity of answering him, especially as this matter has given rise to a good deal of misrepresentation. The facts of the case are very simple. On this night, October 17, a car was being driven from Bouverie Street towards Euston Station with some papers which were to be despatched by train. Two young men, I do not know how they were dressed as I have not had that detail given to me, got in front of the car and the driver very naturally stopped. Thereupon two other young men got on to the car. One of them is said to have pointed something at the driver, but the driver said he could not swear that it was a revolver. The driver got off, and these four young men got into the car and drove off. As luck would have it, they ran the car into some railings, with the result that it was damaged and the papers spread about. The four young men got off and ran away.

The police, of course, made inquiries. They heard that a young fellow had boasted that he was the prime mover in the affair, and thereupon he was arrested and charged with stealing the car and papers. He also declared himself to be a member of a body calling themselves the National Fascisti, whatever that expression may connote. I believe there are two bodies of Fascisti, and that this is one of the two which does not desire to be confused with the other. The police searched the offices of this body, but found nothing at all on which it was possible to proceed. The man was remanded, but before his case came on three other young men came to the police and said that he was innocent, and that they themselves, and a fourth man, had done this thing. It turned out that the first man was boasting, it was mere braggadocio on his part, and that he had nothing whatever to do with it. He was discharged. The fourth man was shortly afterwards arrested, and the four were then charged by the police with larceny.

That having been done, it became the duty of the Director of Public Prosecutions to look into the matter, and he did so, and having considered all the available evidence, he was satisfied that probably no magistrate would commit these men on a charge of stealing and certainly no jury would convict them. They said, and apparently said truly, that they objected to the contents of the paper, that they only meant to stop it and cause delay in the circulation of the paper and so hamper its further publication. Taking their own account, that was a very foolish and a very wrong thing to do. But it did seem plain that they had no intention of stealing the car or papers, or depriving the owners of the possession of these things. They only meant to drive the car a little way, I suppose, and leave it. Upon that the Director of Public Prosecutions was satisfied that there was really no evidence of larceny, and he did what was the only fair and right thing to do. He gave directions that the charge of larceny should be withdrawn. The offence was difficult to deal with and he made lip his mind to proceed under an old Statute and take out summonses for an order that these young men should give securities to be of good behaviour in the future. As regards the fourth man, Wilson, he was found to be in possession of a pistol without a permit. He was charged with that at the same time. An order was made by the Magistrate that the four men should find securities to be of good behaviour, and Wilson was fined £20 for being in unlawful possession of the pistol. The three who had given themselves up found securities without difficulty; they were apparently respectable young men, and nothing was known against them. The fourth was not able to find securities or to pay the £20, and as a consequence he was locked up and I believe is still in one of His Majesty's prisons. That is a complete history of the case.


Do I understand that there was no clear evidence that a revolver was used for the purpose of holding up this man?


That is so. The only statement about a revolver was made by the driver, and he said he could not swear that it was a revolver. That made the matter much more difficult from the, point of view of a prosecution, and that being so no charge could be made out of threatening with a revolver or intimidation. The damage which was done to the car was plainly accidental damage. Unless it was malicious and wilful you cannot proceed, but, of course, the civil remedy remains. The Director of Public Prosecutions, bearing all these things in mind, considered that no criminal charge could be upheld.

I have only a few comments to make. I am not saying for a moment that these young men are free from blame in what they did. They took a course which was not only foolish but very reprehensible, but I am satisfied that the Director of Public Prosecutions took the right view, that, the charge of larceny could not have been pressed. That being so, it would have been most wrong to proceed with the charge, for a charge which is put forward most solemnly and does not succeed does much harm to the administration of justice. There was no question of leniency. He had no idea of leniency towards these young men. What he desired to do was to take the best course he could in order to bring these young men to justice and to show them that they were breaking the law.

I wish to add that, in consequence of the action which the Director of Public Prosecutions took, some attacks have been made upon him in the public Press which seem to me wholly unjustified. The Director of Public Prosecutions is a most able and most careful public servant. All who have to do with him know perfectly well that he has no desire except that the law shall be justly and impartially administered; and to anybody who has been in contact with him, to any of the noble Lords on either of the Front Benches, I am sure it is perfectly absurd to suggest that he took his action from some other motive. Being a public servant his mouth, of course, is shut, and perhaps that is why some newspapers have taken the courageous action of making attacks upon him which, if made upon anybody else, would probably have been met and have received their just reward. He cannot defend himself against these people who take the course of making these vile and unfounded attacks upon him. I need only say to this House that nobody who knows the Piddle Prosecutor would believe that he is capable of the conduct of which he is so falsely and unfairly accused.

I only add one other observation. The noble Lord asks at the end of his Question what assurance the Government can give that the liberty and security of peaceful subjects of His Majesty, without distinction of class or party, will be more vigorously protected. To give an assurance of that kind would be to admit that there has been some remissness in the past. I have no such admission to make. I, of course, entirely agree with the noble Lord that justice must be administered without distinction of person, of party or of class. There is no one here who would advocate any other course. I believe that has been the course taken in the past, and particularly in the matter to which the noble Lord has referred, and therefore I am sure he will not ask me to give an assurance in the terms which he suggests. I hope I have given a plain answer to the noble Lord and that after what I have said he will be most anxious to dissociate himself from the unfair charges which have been made by others.


My Lords, the noble Lord who put this Question down upon the Paper has in so doing rendered a great public service. This is a very serious matter and I propose, with the permission of your Lordships, to speak very plainly about it. There is a very strong feeling in many quarters of the country with regard to this case. Immediately Parliament reassembled Questions concerning it were asked in another place, and if it had not been for the fact that the trial of the Communists was proceeding my colleagues in another place would long before now have pressed for a clay there to debate this case. In view of the Communist trial—I think your Lordships will appreciate what is meant—they decided it was better to wait. The occasion has now come, and, indeed, this particular case has already been the subject of some discussion in another place to-day.

I feel that the issue raised by the noble Lord in this Question is one of the most serious which can engage the attention of Parliament and I am bound to say with every respect but most emphatically that I find the reply of the noble Viscount on the Woolsack extremely inadequate and profoundly disappointing. Surely nothing can be more injurious to the best interests of the country than that large masses of the people should come to feel that the law is not being impartially administered as between one class and another? And the fact does remain that, because of this case and because of other recent happenings, that view has come to be taken amongst hundreds of thousands of the workers of this country. Criticism in this matter is by no means confined to Labour circles This series of Questions clown upon the Paper in the name of the noble Lord is, in itself, an evidence of that. Weighty articles dealing with this case and with other relevant happenings have appeared in the course of the last few weeks in leading Liberal newspapers and even in leading Unionist newspapers. Therefore the disquietude—and much disquietude has been evinced—is not confined by any means to Labour circles.

The main facts are very well set forth in the Questions of the noble Lord and they were developed by him in a speech of great clearness and of conspicuous moderation. I am afraid I shall not be able to speak quite in the same fashion as he did, because I feel upon these matters extremely strongly and there are some things which I feel it my duty to say quite frankly. I have already indicated that in my view the defence of the Government, not only here to-day but also the defence of the Attorney-General in another place and at the Guildhall, does not at all fully meet the position. What really is the defence of the Government? It comes to this, that the charge of larceny could not, in their opinion, have been sustained, and they seem to think that that ends the matter. Not so. There is a great deal more to be said than that. The Attorney-General, in his speeches and replies to questions dealing with this matter, has, in effect, contended that no criticism of any sort or kind lies against the Public Prosecutor and I rather gather that that also is the contention of the noble and learned Viscount upon the Woolsack. I venture very respectfully to traverse that view.

I do not wish to go into past happenings too much, but certainly as regards the Attorney-General I do feel it necessary to remind your Lordships that two years ago he gave advice to the then Government which proved to be absolutely wrong. He put the Government in the very humiliating position of having to bring in a Bill of Indemnity. Not only so, but certain things were done in con- nection with that matter, the matter of the Irish deportees, which evoked the criticism, to use no stronger word, of a Lord Justice of Appeal, It is therefore quite clear that, so far as the Attorney-General is concerned, his opinions are not unassailable, and I feel I am entitled, with respect, to traverse the view which he has expressed.

The Government, I think, must try to realise that it is not upon the larceny point that criticism in this Daily Herald case begins and ends. There is a great deal more to be said than that. Quite apart from the question of intimidation by numbers, there is this important matter of the revolver—of threatening with a deadly weapon. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack said that the driver of the van stated that he could not swear that it was a revolver. According to my information, the driver of the van was terrorised by something which was pointed at him, which he thought was a revolver, and which subsequently proved to be a revolver. In those circumstances it is very difficult for me, as a layman, to believe that some serious offence was not in that act committed, and I think that the reply of the Government on the point is quite inadequate.


The noble Lord said that it subsequently proved to be a revolver. That is not so. There is not the least evidence of that.


I am informed that one of the men was fined for having a revolver, and according to my information it was the same revolver. I submit that the Public Prosecutor did not make sufficiently close inquiries into this matter, and what we want to know is why was not a more adequate alternative charge preferred. Why, when the larceny charge was withdrawn, was such a comparatively trivial charge as breach of the peace put forward instead? Surely, my Lords, some more serious charge than that could have been preferred and the case sent forward to a jury. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack said that no question of leniency was ever entertained for a moment. Be it so, but the fact remains that the Magistrate who was trying this case, when the charge of larceny was withdrawn, said to the accused: "I think the Public Prosecutor has been extremely lenient in withdrawing the larceny charge." He later went on to say: "You have put yourselves in an extremely serious position and if the case had gone on you would have been severely punished." I submit that there is great conflict between those words and the action of the Public Prosecutor in' withdrawing the charge, and in not merely withdrawing the charge but asking simply for penalties which were, in effect, nominal.

I am sorry to say it, but I do say it, that nothing which has been said to-day has to my mind removed the very ugly impression that this case has created. Even if a more serious alternative charge could not have been preferred I think that, in all the circumstances, there might have been more willingness evinced on the part of the Government to reply to one of the Questions of the noble, Lord—to face the position and, if need be, alter the law. No indication of any willingness to do that was evinced. It has been well said that laws must not only be just but that people must think them just, and, rightly or wrongly, large masses of the workers do not believe that, in this case, the law has been fairly administered. That is a serious matter. That feeling, permit me to say, has been strengthened naturally enough—and this has been commented upon not merely on Labour platforms and at street corners, but in some of our most respectable and able journals—by the fact that this Daily Herald case has synchronised more or less with the prosecution of, and sentence upon, the Communists.

I will not discuss that to-day, and I am not expressing the slightest sympathy with Communism, but the workers know, as your Lordships know, that only a few years ago certain highly-placed personages used language with regard to the Army which was scarcely distinguishable, if at all distinguishable, from that for which the Communists have been sent to prison, and yet nothing was done to these highly-placed personages. That is not forgotten and it is contrasted with the treatment meted out to these Communists, who are poor men and not highly placed. That is how the argument is put, and in the circumstances one cannot be surprised. On top of that there is this Daily Herald ease, and I say that it is not surprising, in the circumstances, that it has come about, in the minds of a large number of people, that confidence in the good name of British justice has been rudely shaken. I repeat that this is a most serious state of things. I will not say anything more, except that, putting it in the most favourable light, it is said that this case has been badly bungled by the Public Prosecutor. I regret very much that the attitude of the Government to-day, and their attitude previously in the Communist case, has done nothing to remove the impression which has been created, that justice is not being fairly administered as between class and class. I say with profound conviction that scarcely anything can be more disastrous than that.


My Lords, at the close of his remarks the noble Lord said that the manner in which this case had been managed by the Public Prosecutor was such that belief in justice had been rudely shaken. I submit, with some confidence, that it would have been much more rudely shaken if the Director of Public Prosecutions, having formed, as he had formed, the opinion that this prosecution could not be sustained, had notwithstanding, because of some feeling as to the result on the public mind and in the Press, proceeded with that prosecution. The Public Prosecutor is a public officer who has to do the duty placed before him day by day. He has to deal with many cases of many kinds, and his first duty is to see that in ordering a prosecution he is not acting oppressively. I say that if the Public Prosecutor had proceeded with this prosecution for larceny he would have been guilty of acting oppressively, and I cannot conceive of any man holding his office—I held it for fourteen years—acting otherwise than he did.

For a good many days Lord Charnwood has had on the Paper of this House a Notice which, without using such strong language as was used by the noble Lord who has just spoken, really implies charges and innuendoes against the Public Prosecutor. And though he repudiated the, last paragraph—and I am sure it cannot really be his motive—the paragraph which asks What assurance the Government can give that the liberty and security of peaceful subjects of His Majesty (without distinction of class or party) will be more vigorously protected for the future"— I cannot think that he quite saw the consequences of that language. Could any one read that except as meaning that the Director of Public Prosecutions had not done that which should be done? I confess that when that is printed, and appears on the Paper of the House of Lords for days and days, it does require something to be said to repudiate an innuendo of that kind. My noble friend is a distinguished author. Many of us have read his works. I have, and I notice that when he is writing about a historical character he is careful to verify his references. No one who heard the reply given by the Lord Chancellor could doubt that in this case the noble Lord would not have put some of the statements which he has put on this Paper had he endeavoured to verify his references.

With regard to the revolver, it is not quite so simple as Lord Arnold says. He says: "Oh, he pointed something, and it must have been a revolver." That is not the way in which you prove criminal charges. You must prove something before you can convict a man, and, if I am rightly informed, it does not rest there. Not only was there no evidence sufficient to sustain the charge that he had a revolver in his hand, but there is no evidence, as I am informed, as to which man it was who presented the revolver. Really, the whole evidence of the revolver disappears when you come to look into it. Again I say that the Director of Public Prosecutions in a case like that would be very wrong if he preferred a charge which he knew he could not sustain. I do not think the noble Lord quite realises how serious these things are. When you are in a position of responsibility of that kind you have to take care, as far as lies in your power, not to do injustice, and not to put people on their trial when they ought not to be put on their trial. That is the first obligation and duty. And may I point out that, if there is any suggestion still anywhere—I do not think there is—that the Director of Public Prosecutions was influenced by political feelings, i f he, not believing that there was a case for prosecution, had gone on with it because he was afraid of public opinion, he would have been doing the very thing for which it is now suggested that he should be condemned. I think it is a rash thing to copy a newspaper report and put it down as a Question in the House of Lords without any inquiry as to its exactitude.

As regards the noble Lord's speech, I have very little to say. The Lord Chancellor has answered that. But I have known Sir Archibald Bodkin all my professional life, and to suggest that he should be influenced by anything except motives of duty—duty to the country, duty to those concerned with the case with which he has to deal—is absurd. I feel it very strongly, and resent any attack being made upon him. He is a public servant, his mouth is closed, and after what has been said elsewhere by the Attorney-General and has been said tonight by the Lord Chancellor—and indeed anyhow—I cannot imagine that any reasonable person who really considers the case impartially will believe that he acted otherwise than properly and absolutely rightly.


My Lords, unless I had felt compelled to do so I would not have risen to address your Lordships, as I have already addressed you to-day on another matter. But such attacks have been made upon the Director of Public Prosecutions that I think it would be cowardly of any one who knew him, who knew his reputation, who knew what had been his career, and who knew his qualities, to sit silent and let them go uncontradicted to the world. I hope I am wrong, but, as it seems to me, the noble Lord opposite, Lord Arnold, jumped at this occasion to make some political capital.

Lord Charnwood, who, among other accomplishments, is a barrister, went into this matter, and rather suggested that the law should be altered in some way. I understood the noble Lord to say—and it was pretty clear—that there was no question of larceny in this case. Larceny means the taking of the property of another feloniously with intent to deprive him of his property. What happened here? I have made myself acquainted with the statements of these people—they have been published. There is no evidence at all but the confessions of these people themselves. The only other thing is that the driver of the van containing the newspapers says that some one—he could not say which person—pointed something at him, which might have been a revolver. He said—the Lord Chancellor has mentioned it, but it does not yet seem to be accepted by the noble Lord opposite—that he could not swear it was a firearm at all, he could not swear what it was.

Lord Charnwood suggested that something might have been done in the way of a charge of threatening. Threatening to do what? I do not know what criminal charge could be brought of that character, simply because someone said: "He pointed something at me which may have been a firearm." But Lord Arnold—I was about to say I was thankful that I should never be tried by him, yet I suppose I might be tried by him as one of my Peers—would apparently proceed in a criminal trial in this way: "The prosecutor says that someone pointed something at him. He cannot say it is a firearm. The defendant is a man who has a firearm." No one proved that he had it, on that night, but he is proved to have had a firearm because he was convicted of having it without a licence. If he had had it with a licence he could not have been convicted of it at all. "And," says the noble Lord—who might try me—"that proves that the man in the dock, who has got a firearm without a licence, pointed that firearm at the man who prosecutes."


I did not say that it proved it. I said that it seemed to me that in all the circumstances there was a case here for very careful consideration. I quite think a more serious charge could have been preferred, and I certainly think there was a case for a jury. And, even taking the case which the noble and learned Lord has put, many a man has been hanged on less evidence than that.


Not by me. What charge could have been preferred? A charge of larceny was preferred. The noble Lord, Lord Arnold, said there was a case for a jury. Let us see what it was. A charge of larceny was preferred by the police before the Public Prosecutor, Sir Archibald Bodkin, knew anything of the case whatever. It was preferred by the police, who are no more lawyers than some other people are. Having preferred it, they asked the Public Prosecutor to take up the case and, of course, he did his duty. He looked into the facts. The first thing that a responsible man who is prosecuting has to consider is whether there is a case which it is fair to lay before a jury. The noble Lord opposite says that there was and that he feels that a jury would have convicted. On what evidence would they have convicted? He would have had to get a jury prepared to convict upon no evidence at all—a Russian jury.

What is the evidence of larceny? The only evidence at all is the statement of the young men, and what they said was: "We belong to the Fascisti." I think they are a parcel of idiots to do anything of the kind. They do not know the harm they are doing their country by these idiotic performances. They said that they belonged to the Fascisti. The real Fascisti, the Fascisti of Mussolini, are a very different sort of people. But having said that they belonged to the Fascisti, they went on to say that they had read the Daily Herald, that they did not like it and, therefore, thought it would be a good thing to delay its circulation on that particular day. There were a great many copies of the newspaper in this van. They got hold of the van and they said—this is their own account, there is no evidence but their own, none whatever—"We did not intend to steal it." That would have to go to the jury. It is all a question of intention. If you take property from another it does not follow that you mean to steal it. You may take it with his leave; you may take it for a lark, and you may take it under a claim of right. There has to be a felonious intention to deprive the owner of possession of the property. These young men said: "We did it because we did not like the Daily Herald and we wanted to delay its circulation on that morning. We intended to drive the van away and leave it somewhere with the newspapers." There was no other evidence.

What jury with any regard for their oath could have convicted them upon that evidence? That being all the evidence, I think I can tell the noble Lord what would have happened. The Grand Jury infallibly would have thrown out the bill if they had any regard for their oath, and these people would not have been put upon their trial at all. What else could they have been charged with? It is the sort of behaviour which is very undesirable and is illegal. The Public Prosecutor, who is a very good lawyer, a man of excellent judgment and of no political leanings at all, came to the con- clusion that under an old Statute which had been used for the prosecution of a person named Lansbury in 1913, there was authority to show that these young men might be proceeded against. So he abandoned the charge which could not have been proved—a charge which had been preferred by the police and not by him—and he proceeded upon a charge which could be proved.

Is it a sign of wickedness and iniquity to start a prosecution and then abandon it? Has it never been done before Does not the noble Lord think that the Public Prosecutor abandoned it because he was satisfied, as anybody who looks at the ease must be satisfied, that a conviction could not be obtained? He took an extreme course—the finding of the case I have mentioned shows the research which he made—and he took a course which resulted in those four young men being bound over with sureties to be of good behaviour. If they do anything contrary to the undertaking they have given they can be brought up without any further trial and can be sent to prison. It is like entering into recognisances. The young man who had a pistol without a licence—not necessarily on that night, that was never proved—somewhere in his pocket or in his room, was fined £20. I heard the noble Lord say something about there being one law for the rich and another for the poor. Well, this young man is not rich enough to pay £20 and he is in gaol now. He was also bound over to be of good behaviour, but he is in gaol. What more can the noble Lord want? If you are in gaol it does not matter much for what offence you are there.

The noble Lord, Lord Charnwood, said that there had been suggestions in this case that a political tinge had been given to it, and I was glad to hear him say that these suggestions are absurd. But they have been repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold. He said that they are not absurd at all. He is convinced with thousands of others, that there is something political about this case. Had Sir Archibald Bodkin wished to make political capital at the time the Communists were being prosecuted, and had he been a politician, a Machiavelli, is it not obvious that he would have seized upon a person upon the Government side and have prosecuted him for a small offence?—yes; he would have prosecuted him. Then had anybody said: "You have behaved in a political way," Sir Archibald Bodkin could have replied: "Not at all; I prosecuted this member of the Fascisti"—a friend of the Government, I suppose—"and I am prosecuting the Communists at the same time." What could have been said? A man who had the slightest political leanings would have done that. But that is exactly what Sir Archibald Bodkin did not do.

I am sorry to mention the matter, but it has been dragged into this discussion by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, in his attack, to which I shall have to allude. The Public Prosecutor prosecuted the Communists. The Communists were convicted by a jury of their countrymen and were sent to gaol. I wonder, and I have been wondering for some time, what noble Lords and others think about interfering in this Communist case at the present moment. Do they know that those men have ten days in which to appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal if there is anything wrong about their conviction or sentence? Do they know that hardly a person is convicted nowadays who does not appeal to that Court? Is it decent or proper to indulge, here or anywhere else, in comments and attacks upon that case, when words that are said by awkward people, or by people replying to awkward people, may prejudice the case which those men may have yet to bring before the Court of Criminal Appeal?


May I with great respect ask the noble Lord this? Is it not the ease that this matter has been commented upon by nearly every newspaper in the country, and has it not been previously ruled that after a case has been tried before a jury and a verdict given, though an appeal may be pending, the verdict may be the subject of comment, because the appeal will be heard before Judges? Has not that been the rule?


Yes, it might not be a contempt of court to discuss the Communist case, or to write a leading article about it—it would not necessarily be a contempt of court—and the reason is that the Judges are less liable to be influenced by what is in the newspapers than would be people who serve on juries. But you may do a great deal of harm without committing contempt of court. You can do a great deal of harm to people who may appeal without rendering yourself liable to be committed to prison for contempt of court. I myself have regretted to find that this ca-se has been enlarged by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Arnold) into an attack upon the Attorney-General. What has the Attorney-General to do with this case? The noble Lord, Lord Charnwood, brought forward a definite case, in which he represented that an explanation was required. That case had nothing to do with the Attorney-General. The Attorney-Genera did not know what Sir Archibald Bodkin was going to do in that case. He only knew of it after he had been talking to Sir Archibald Bodkin upon some other legal business. Sir Archibald Bodkin, after consulting the Attorney-Genera upon another matter, merely mentioned what he had done in this particular ease. Why then bring the Attorney-General into this case? He had nothing to do with it. Why bring in the Communists?

I cannot help repeating what I said almost at the beginning, that I cannot but think that this case has been treated so differently by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, from the manner in which it was treated by the noble Lord, Lord Charnwood, because it seemed to present a very good opportunity to drag into this case another case in which the people concerned were tried upon a quite different charge, at a different place, and prosecuted by a different person, the Attorney-General, and because it was supposed, I hope mistakenly supposed, to present an opportunity to those sadly in want of some better political capital of making something out of it.


My Lords, may I ask your Lordships' indulgence for one moment while I reply on a personal point that was made by my noble friend opposite, Lord Desart? My noble friend remarked that I had done some injustice to the Public Prosecutor by allowing a Question, in certain terms, to be on the Notice Paper of this House for fourteen days. I intended no injustice. I conceive with a little difficulty where my noble friend's quarrel with my words arises. For fourteen days he has had this Notice before him, and I have had the pleasure of meeting him and others of your Lordships during that time, and he might have pointed out to me that he considered that I was doing some injustice to a responsible public official. I intended none. May I explain this? It was a point of complaint on the part of my noble friend that I had set something down without attempting personally to inquire into the facts. The facts which I have put down I took from the newspapers. I set down a report which has been put about this country, and widely believed, and I put it clown in the form in which I believed it was being circulated, because I thought to put the matter in that way was necessary in the public interest. Having done so, I confess that I feel I have nothing for which to apologise.


I hope I may say that I did not really mean the comment to be so serious as my noble friend seems to regard it, but I did think that it was unfortunate that the words should have been on the Notice Paper.


My Lords, I would not venture to rise at this late hour were it not that I wish to say that those of us on these Benches do not accept the modification of the noble Lord, Lord Charnwood. Those on the other side of the House who have attempted to defend what took place, have tried to make out that the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, was making a personal attack on the character of Sir Archibald Bodkin. Perhaps I may make it quite clear that we are not concerned with personalities. What really concerns us is that none of the noble Lords on the other side of the House who have spoken have really attempted to touch on what we consider to be the real issue. What we wanted to know from the learned Lord Chancellor was, could there not have been another charge? He did not tell us that. What I venture to suggest to your Lordships will cause very much more consternation to constitutionalists all over the country is that the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack would not admit that there had been any remissness at all. Indeed, he seemed to think that there is no way in which it is possible under the existing law to deal with men who hold up people by threats of violence because they regard that as a perfectly legitimate piece of propaganda.

Nothing that has been said from the other side of the House has in our opinion in any way touched on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Charnwood, made, as to what is being said about this ease in the country, and, from the case that has been made out by the Government, rightly said—namely, that whereas Communists are being imprisoned for suggesting that the Constitution is not sufficient for the proper government of this country, and that they are willing to resort to force—those are their opinions and not the opinions of the Labour Party—that whereas they are being imprisoned for that reason, you have a body known as the National Fascisti, whose members are only bound over for actually resorting to force. Nothing has been said to-night that is going to allay the consternation about the way in which justice has miscarried on this occasion, and for that reason I feel that it is only right that we on these Benches should make it quite clear that we cannot see any reason for the suggestions in the noble Lord's Question being in any way modified.

House adjourned at ten minutes before o'clock.