HL Deb 29 July 1952 vol 178 cc421-32

4.48 p.m.

LORD STRABOLGI rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the legal position of a householder who, for reasons which the householder considers proper, refuses to admit an inspector or other official demanding entry and when the inspector or official does not produce a search warrant. The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have been dealing with one kind of violence and I hope that your Lordships will allow me to bring up a matter referring to another kind of violence. It arises out of the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, on the 23rd of this month. Your Lordships will remember that Lord Llewellin startled a good many of us by asking a question of the Government about the very large number of officials who, apparently, have the right of entry into private premises. There are 3,887 of them, but the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, who replied, issued a table which made that fact seem not quite so alarming when the table was examined. In the course of the cross-examination which the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, and myself conducted of the Government, I asked what is the position in the case, for example, of a woman alone in the house when, perhaps, one or two personages come to the door representing themselves to be functionaries of some kind with a right of entry. The woman's husband not being at home, she refuses to let them in. What is her legal position? The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, to whom I was referred, said he required notice of the matter, and would like the question to be put in a more specific way. I have tried to do my best, and I regret that I have not been more specific. But I think it is useful to explore the situation a little, and then perhaps the noble and learned Lord Chancellor can give the ordinary liege some useful advice.

First of all, as to these functionaries; among the 3,887 are not mentioned anyone representing the Post Office, the people who come to look at the telephone, or the Gas Board or Electricity people who come to read he householder's meter. They do not come into this voluminous list.


But they all come by consent of the householder.


They do, indeed, under contract. But the principle remains. They may come at an inconvenient time, and I want to know what the legal position of the householder is. Let me come to the list. Twenty represent the Minister of Civil Aviation and investigate air accidents. I think we can eliminate those. Obviously they go to the scenes of accidents and do not really come into this question at all. Then, 859 are war damage assessors. I imagine that their work should be nearly over by now and, in any case, they presumably come by appointment. There are 2,788, employed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose duties are the examination of property for estate duty, rating valuation, development charges and claims on the development fund. I imagine that they come to a house or premises after some correspondence, and they are expected. There are 115 who are also employed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but act for the Collector of Customs and Excise, to stop avoidance of revenue duty. Twenty represent the Minister of Health and they are for the protection of mental patients, including those detained without authority. Obviously these officers of the Board of Control are necessary and are doing useful work. Lastly, there are 85 children inspectors employed by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland to visit boarded-out children. I think your Lordships will agree that those children inspectors have not only a right hut a duty to make unexpected visits, and I do not think anyone can possibly object. If a woman boards children, it is understood that they can be visited at any time, and I think that is perfectly just and proper.

Now I come to the general principle which I venture to raise. The gas and electricity men wear a uniform and they have written authority, but the telephone men do not wear a uniform at all. The unfortunate American lady who was nearly killed in Brown's Hotel recently admitted a man who said he had come to see to the telephone. He assaulted her and nearly killed her. Recently, a relative of mine was alone in her small house—her maid was out—when a man came to the door. She went to the door, but fortunately kept on the chain—a very desirable thing to fit on the door in the curious times in which we live. She saw a young man in a dirty mackintosh, who said he had come to repair the telephone. Knowing that her telephone was in perfectly good order, she slammed the door in his face. She then went to the window and told the young man there was nothing wrong with her telephone and asked who he was. He replied, "I am very sorry. I have looked again at my instructions and I find this is the wrong house. I ought to have gone to No. 40. This is No. 30, I suppose." That kind of thing is most irregular and improper. There was a woman alone in the house. This man comes along to her door, without any evidence of who he is or what he is. Is she to be blamed for refusing admittance? He might have gone into the house, knocked her about and robbed the place. And people would have said: "What a fool you were to let such a man in!" No doubt in this case he was a perfectly respectable mechanic sent by the Post Office.

Parliament has always been very jealous of the rights of householders. Earlier in this Session, I raised the question of the apparent increase in crimes of cruelty to children, and in the course of that debate a noble Lord suggested that the inspectors of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children should be given the right of access to private houses. Peer after Peer objected to this, including the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor. When we have all these officials with a right under contract, as the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, says, or under Statute, to enter people's houses, and with crimes of violence still prevalent, I think the situation requires further investigation and ventilation.

What I suggest is this. I presume these functionaries who come to houses to de, various duties must have written authority: but to produce a written document to a woman alone in a house and who may be nervous, is not fair to her. Why cannot they carry some sort of badge which can be easily seen? It might be said, of course, that a criminal can forge or steal a badge, but that would be an offence. I am thinking of the sheriffs in America. I have never seen one, but I have seen them on the cinematograph screen and, apparently, they wear a badge on their breasts which they expose at the right time and immediately everyone knows who they are. Why should not an official wear a badge like that, which can he produced if he has to visit a house, in order to make himself known and properly identifiable?

In any case, I think we ought to know from the highest authority, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, if he is in a position to tell us, what is the legal position of a householder who, for reasons which satisfy him or her, refuses to admit such an official at an inconvenient hour. I have given instructions to my own servants that they are always to keep the door on a chain and to admit nobody until they are certain of his bona fides. I have had fitted to all the doors of my houses chains which allow the door to be opened a few inches, but no further, and I think that that should be done by everyone.

I think the general situation should be clarified, if it is at all possible to do so. I agree that I might have been more specific in my question, but I have tried to cover the whole field, and I hope that out of it some good will come.


My Lords, as I told the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who has asked this Question, I tried to get in touch with him in order that the Question might be put in what I think would have been a more helpful form. I venture to repeat the Question which the Government are asked. What is the legal position of a householder who, for reasons which the householder considers proper, refuses to admit an inspector or other official demanding entry and when the inspector or official does not produce a search warrant. I think that must refer to an inspector or other official who has a statutory right, but does not have a search warrant. Obviously, a person who has no right can be refused admittance with whatever degree of violence is necessary. We are dealing with a person who has a statutory right, but not a search warrant.

Upon that footing, I answer the question in this way. Where the power to enter a private house (I pause again to say that I understand the noble Lord to be referring to a private house, and not to a factory, or anything of that kind) exclusively used as such is conferred upon an official by Statute, the Statute also provides for penalties for obstructing the official whilst exercising those powers in the execution of his duties. From inquiries that I have made I have been unable to ascertain that any prosecutions of this nature have been undertaken in recent years. But if proceedings had to be taken against a householder it would be for the court to decide, having regard to the terms of the relevant Statute and the facts of the particular case, whether an offence had been committed.

I have answered that in the only way I can answer such a general question, in quite general terms but I have been at a good deal of pains to investigate the matter further, because I know that it is of wide interest, not only to the noble Lord who has raised the Question to-day hut to many other persons as well. If it is the wish of the House, I will read something which looks rather like an essay on the subject. It is difficult to give a compendious answer, because the terms of the Statutes vary so widely. I refer to the list given in answer to Lord Llewellin's Question on July 23 showing the numbers of persons entitled to enter private houses without specific search warrants. Many persons having the power of entry and inspection are not "snoopers" in the popular sense. For example, inspectors under Section 35 of the War Damage Act, 1943, where it is clearly to the householder's advantage to have his premises inspected, are not "snoopers." Similarly, the only case in which an inspector of the Ministry of Civil Aviation would enter private premises under the Civil Aviation Act, 1949, to investigate an air accident, would he if an aeroplane had crashed in private property. In that case, the householder would obviously want officials of the Ministry to investigate and remove the aircraft as soon as possible.

In other cases the power to enter and inspect is obviously necessary: for example, officials of the Board of Control for the protection of lunatics under the Lunacy Act, 1890, or inspectors of the Home Office or the Scottish Home Department making visits to boarded-out children under Section 54 of the Children Act, 1948. In the remaining cases—that is to say, the cases of officers of Inland Revenue or collectors of Customs and Excise—the visit of officials might be unwelcome, though as a general rule no objection whatever is made to the entry of, for example, officials of the Inland Revenue to value property for estate duty. Since the purposes for which the officials under the different Statutes may be authorised to enter are so varied, the method in which the power may be exercised also necessarily varies. Thus, in some cases an inspector is required by Statute to produce, if so required, his authority—for example, Section 35 (1) of the War Damage Act, 1943, and Section 54 (6) of the Children Act, 1948—whereas an officer of the Inland Revenue entering property for the purpose of valuation for estate duty under Section 7 (8) of the Finance Act, 1894, is not so required to produce his authority. Nevertheless, in practice, I understand that he does so if asked for it.

Where a power of entry is conferred by Statute there is also statutory provision for penalties in the case of obstructing the officer in the execution of his duties. For example, Section 204 of the Customs Act, 1876 (we are going back a long way, my Lords) gives very wide powers to officers to search houses for uncustomed or prohibited goods under writs of assistance issued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as under search warrants issued by justices; and Section 12 (5) of the Customs and Inland Revenue Act, 1881, provides that it shall be an offence to obstruct any officer of customs in the execution of his duty, the penalty for which is a fine not exceeding £100.

The position of a householder, therefore, who obstructs an officer in the execution of his duty to enter will vary according to the terms of the Statute which provides the penalty. For example, under the Children Act, 1948, he may render himself liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £5, in the case of a first offence, or £20 in the case of a second or any subsequent offence. Whether or not the offence has been committed will, of course, be a matter for the court to decide, taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case and the terms of the relevant Statute. Pausing there for one moment, I would say that if there were a lonely woman in a house who was afraid and barred the door, and for that reason the inspector was not admitted, I cannot but suppose that the court would take a very lenient view of the obstruction.

I conclude with this, because I think it is perhaps the most important point. Although most of these officials will not be unwelcome, an Englishman's home is still his castle, and Her Majesty's Government consider it desirable that powers of entry into private premises should be confined to the smallest possible number of persons. Already a reduction of some 2,000 has been made, and my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has under urgent consideration, in consultation with other Departments concerned, further reductions in the number of persons possessing these powers.

I should like to add one word of a personal nature. In the debate upon the Motion introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, I referred in my speech to the fact that he had voted in favour of the Heating Appliances (Safeguards) Bill, and said that it contained power for an inspector to inspect appliances in private houses. I was wrong about that. I should have said "private premises"—that is to say, premises in which those appliances were exposed for sale. That Act gives no right to enter a private house exclusively used as such. That is perhaps a small error, but I made it, and I apologise to the noble Viscount.

I hope that I have not wearied the House. I have gone to some pains to find out what I could about this matter in order to answer the Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. I would add only this in regard to the gas inspector and the electric light man. Her Majesty's Government can assume no responsibility for them; they are not the servants of Her Majesty's Government. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, pointed out, if they come, they come under a contractual arrangement by which the gas is installed—or I imagine that they do. If they have not that right, they have no right at all. Again, I was not prepared to deal with the gas man or the electric light man, and it may be that I am not word-perfect about that.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his most valuable statement. As this was one of the points raised in the course of the debate to which the noble and learned Lord has just referred, I should like to ask him one question. He has given a number of categories of inspectors, but he has not mentioned inspectors under the food rationing Acts. Are there any such inspectors? If there are, are they required to show their authority when entering premises; and what form of authority would they have to show?


I think I can answer that point. I was dealing (and I hope that I made it quite clear) with entry into private houses. There is no provision under any of the Acts relating to food or food rationing which now enables an inspector to enter a private house.


Can they not enter a shop, for example, to see whether there are unrationed articles kept there?


If the House wishes me to do so, I will explore on another day the vastly larger subject of premises which are not private houses. The issue has mainly been directed to entry upon houses used exclusively as dwellinghouses. If we are going into the larger area of shops, factories and other premises, then I must deal with that independently. I have been dealing solely with houses used as dwellinghouses, and in regard to that there is no right of entry for any food inspector. I speak "without the book," but I think that during the war there may have been regulations which enabled an inspector to visit houses to see whether there had been hoarding, or something of that kind.


My Lords, I was not here at the beginning of the noble and learned Lord's speech, and I apologise. Did I understand him to say that, so far as gas and electric light is concerned, there is no statutory right for inspectors to go into a private house? I understood him to say it was merely a matter of contract. I was a little surprised to hear that. I have recollections of being bombarded on the question when we introduced the Gas and Electricity Bills.


I must speak subject to correction. The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, in answering Lord Llewellin on July 23—only the other day—gave a list of inspectors who are entitled to enter private houses without specific search warrants. Certainly there was no suggestion that a gas inspector or an electric light man was amongst the number. But I will have the matter looked into.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, as this Question of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, arises out of one that I asked, may I say just two or three words? I was delighted to hear the Lord Chancellor say that Her Majesty's Government are looking into this matter and are determined that the smallest possible number of persons shall have this statutory right of access to private dwelling-houses without a search warrant. I believe that we shall all agree that people like children's officers should have a right to enter a house where a child is boarded out, because when a household takes in a boarded-out child they ought to be told and should consent to the fact that an inspector can conic in at any time to see how the child is going on. To my mind, there arises an obligation on them to the boarding-out authority to be inspected, if they undertake the care and housing of a boarded-out child.

It is the vast mass of Inland Revenue inspectors to whom I take a good deal of objection, especially those who come for rating purposes. There used to be a very easy way for officials to get the information they wanted—it has been practised for years by the Inland Revenue Commissioners. If a person has not made a satisfactory income tax return, they put his assessment at about double what they think it ought to be, and then the onus falls upon the person assessed to produce the right figures which he should have produced in the fast place. In the old days, when rating was not done by the Inland Revenue officials but was done by the local government valuers, they had not this statutory right of access to the houses. But, of course, anybody who was going to appeal would say: "Certainly, come and look at the house. We want to get all the facts agreed between us." As a matter of principle, I believe that in the vast majority of cases these officials ought not to have a statutory right to demand access to a private dwellinghouse. Of course, they should have the right of asking whether they can come, and the sensible householder will let them come in on these rating and other matters, because that is the way we have always worked the law in this country. That is the difference between us and some foreign countries—that people here comply with authority and try to co-operate with the law. The less the law relies on powers of compulsion, the more it will encourage the co-operation of the private individual up and down this country. That is why I am delighted to hear that the Government are looking into this matter.

I forget what happened in the case of the Gas and Electricity Acts. Originally, before the industries were nationalised, I believe that when you had the gas laid on your contract allowed access to the gas inspector. I believe that it was part of the contract between the citizen and the gas authority. Whether that was altered by the Gas Act I do not know, but at any rate if it was I think it was to the disadvantage. After all, the householder voluntarily asked for gas to be laid on; he wanted the apparatus kept in good order. I am one of those people who do not believe in relying on compulsory powers when the ordinary give-and-take between the citizen and the authorities running the services he desires ought to bring about all that is wanted. I doubt whether these officials have a statutory right of entry—unless the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, thought my Question referred only to Government officials. The gas and electricity people are not supposed to be Government officials, but it is an odd thing that they are not, as the State owns both those great industries. It may well be that that is the reason why they were not included, and I suggest to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack that that may be the reason. Let me conclude by saying once again that I am delighted that the Government are looking into this matter, and I am certain that we shall see something further done.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, may I detain your Lordships for a few moments on this matter, because I was somewhat disturbed by the tone of the remarks at the recent Sitting of the House when the subject first arose. I am grateful to-day, not only to the noble Lord who introduced the subject, but to the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack, because both of them have discussed this matter as it ought to be discussed—without references to "snooping" and all the other words which may be used respecting people who are engaged in somewhat difficult work. I rather resent the use of the word "snooping" in this respect. I take the view, as does the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, that it is entirely the wrong word, because these men and women—and women are engaged in this work at times—are carrying out duties which arise out of the decisions of Parliament, and they are entitled to our fullest support in carrying out those duties in the best and most efficient way.

I hope, therefore, that it may be possible to indicate, when debates on the functions of inspectors take place, and we are critical of the exact work on which they may be engaged, that we have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women who are carrying out this work, on behalf of the nation and not necessarily on their own behalf. I conclude by saying that the number of inspectors appointed by the Government and by local authorities is comparatively small. There must be many more persons calling on houses day by day and week by week who are in the employ of neither the Government nor a local authority, and this should be remembered.


But everybody welcomes the milkman.


I am not referring to the milkman or to any one kind of caller in particular, but to the mass. I hope, therefore, it may be possible to say in this House to men and women representing government or local authority, "You are entitled to, and you may rely on, our utmost respect and support."