§ Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Snell.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly:
§ [LORD STANMORE in the Chair.]
§ Clauses 1 to 20 agreed to.
§ Clause 21 [Application to Scotland]:
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH moved to insert after paragraph (a):
(b) Subsection (1) of Section eleven shall not apply to Scotland.
§ The noble Lord said: There are two Amendments standing in my name. This is one of those tiresome occasions when any intelligent remarks can only be made in respect of the second one. Your Lordships, under these conditions, usually agree to take both Amendments together, and I trust that that may be your pleasure on this occasion. The Amendments deal solely with practice in Scotland. The object which I wish to secure is one which I am quite certain will have the sympathy both of the House and of the Government. It is to make prosecutions easier and speedier to institute.
§ The Amendments will affect procedure in Scotland which at present is laid down in Section 21 of the Prices of Goods Act, 1939. In order to make the matter as brief as possible, I shall only say to your Lordships that the relative section there provides that where it appears to a local price-regulation committee that there has been a contravention in their locality, they have to make a report, after making proper inquiry and giving the offender the chance to be heard, to the Central Price-Regulation Committee. If the Central Committee is of the same opinion, they report the matter to the Board of Trade. If the Board of Trade consider it a fit case in which to institute a prosecution, they pass it to the Lord Advocate. If the Lord Advocate agrees, he instructs the Procurator Fiscal in the area, and the prosecution may then take place. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that, with all these stages to be gone through, 672 it sometimes happens that the limit of six months, which is elsewhere provided in the Act, has expired before the Procurator Fiscal has put the machinery of prosecution into operation. Consequently, a prosecution, however urgent and necessary it might have been in the public interest, cannot happen at all. It does seem to those who have had experience of the working of this process that that procedure is unnecessarily cumbrous and that it would be a very good thing if we cut out some of the stages.
§ The Amendments I have put down will have the effect of cutting out both the Central Price-Regulation Committee and the Board of Trade. This is only, of course, in so far as prosecutions in Scotland are concerned. The effect would be that the local committee, who are responsible people and know what they are about, if they are satisfied that a prosecution should take place, would be able to communicate direct with the Lord Advocate, who would put the machinery of the law in motion. Otherwise, the machinery remains unchanged. I venture to hope that the Government will accept this Amendment.
Page 15, line 27, at end insert the said paragraph.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)
§ LORD SNELL
The effect of the Amendments would be, as the noble Lord has said, to cut out reference to the Central Price-Regulation Committee and to the Board of Trade in all cases of contravention in Scotland of the provisions of the Act. The noble Lord has no doubt in mind the complaints that the procedure dealing with prosecutions in Scotland is unduly cumbersome, and the intention of his Amendments is to seek to simplify it. It is true that there is one more step in the institution of prosecution in Scotland than there is in England. The local committee report a case in which they think prosecution is desirable to the Central Committee, and if they concur the Central Committee recommend the Board of Trade to take proceedings. The Board, if they think fit, then require the Lord Advocate to institute proceedings.
The proposal that the Scottish Committee should be enabled to send cases direct to the Procurator Fiscal to report to the Lord Advocate instead of submitting them through the Central Price Committee 673 to the Board of Trade, was in fact considered when the Bill was being drafted. In subsection (4) of Section 8 of the principal Act it is expressly provided that "it shall be the duty of the Central Price-Regulation Committee to secure uniformity in the manner of the discharge of their functions by local price-regulation committees." This is a general provision which Parliament considered necessary in 1939, and there is no ground whatever, on the basis of our experience, for departing from it in 1941. Whether it is a prosecution under the old Act or under the new, this provision is essential in order to secure uniformity of practice and to preserve the safeguards for the trader against unfounded prosecutions. Likewise the Board of Trade must remain the prosecuting authority, but the Board are permitted to delegate their functions to anyone authorised by the President to perform them, and they do intend to authorise the Chairman of the local committee to request the Lord Advocate to institute prosecutions, on behalf of the Board. Cases in which the Central Committee recommend a prosecution would then normally be sent straight to the locality where they originated, for proceedings to be taken.
I hope that explanation on behalf of the Government will give some comfort to the noble Lord who has moved this Amendment. It will be seen that as the law now stands it is sufficiently flexible to deal with what the noble Lord has in mind so far as the Board of Trade is concerned, but hitherto it has not been thought necessary to modify the procedure. It is true that some cases have taken a considerable time to prepare, but this has not been due to the necessity of referring them to tile Central Committee and the Board of Trade, but to the complicated investigations that are often required before sufficient evidence of contravention of the Act could be obtained. I hope that after that explanation the noble Lord will feed that his point is in part met and that he will not press his Amendment further.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I must admit that there is force in the contention of the noble Lord that uniformity must be preserved, and I think that then; is, force in his argument that therefore the Central Committee's function ought not to be cut out. I do 674 derive great comfort from the noble Lord's statement that the intention is to authorise the chairman of the local committee to request the Lord Advocate to institute prosecutions. That is an assurance which does take us a very considerable part of the distance which I had hoped the Government would go by accepting this Amendment. I think it would have been arguable that the function of the Central Committee was more important under the old Bill than under this, but I do recognise the force of the contention. I think perhaps it is a pity the Government did not discover this short cut which was in the original Bill and did not use it long ago, and if the submission of this Amendment has had any effect in stimulating their imagination I am very glad. But I do not want to appear ungracious; therefore I should like to thank the noble Lord very much for the statement he has made and beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 21 agreed to.
§ Remaining clauses agreed to.
§ Schedules agreed to.
§ Bill reported without amendment.