HL Deb 01 July 1958 vol 210 cc387-90

2.36 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not think I need detain your Lordships for more than three or four minutes in commending to you this useful little measure, which has passed all its stages in another place with unanimous assent. It amends paragraph 13 of Section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, and thereby increases from the present figure of 40s. the maximum penalty for the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour in a public place within the Metropolitan Police District. This maximum penalty has remained unchanged since 1839, and 40s. then was just about the equivalent of £10 to-day. The Bill therefore prescribes a maximum of £10 for a first offence and £20 for a second or subsequent offence. The present fine is absolutely trivial, and offences under this section are on the increase.

In 1955, the charges brought numbered 3,260; in the following year, 1956, they went up to 3,400; and in 1957, last year, to 4,300; and nearly 90 per cent. of the persons charged are, in fact, convicted. There are several different classes of offender. There are the drunk and disorderly; there are the young hooligans and "Teddy Boys" who are indulging in a little exhibitionism; there are a few prostitutes, though not many, since they are usually charged under a different paragraph; and there is a new type of "road hog" with whom some of your Lordships may have become familiar, who hurls insulting words at anybody else whom he thinks is in any way impeding his progress.

The Bill deals with only one small aspect of this much wider problem. It will, I think, surprise many of your Lordships that this petty crime is met by local and not by public general legislation, and accordingly the penalties for it vary all over the country. It is much cheaper to indulge in insulting words and behaviour in the Metropolis than in any other part of England or Wales. I cannot speak for Scotland. In England and Wales, £5 is a commonly adopted maximum. Curiously enough, in Cheltenham there has been since 1882 a maximum penalty of £10—the penalty which I am suggesting London should adopt to-morrow. And it is fascinating, I think, to speculate why Cheltenham adopted in 1882 what was then a heavy penalty. Was it that the people of Cheltenham attached exceptional importance to the observance of good manners in public? Or could it be that previous long years of military service had given some of its citizens a predisposition to the use of strong language in public places? Be that as it may, the fact remains that Cheltenham did seventy-six years ago what I suggest London should do at the present time.

The Bill deals, as I say, with a very limited question and with only one offence. However, I was glad to see it announced in another place that the Home Secretary was embarking on a review of all statutory fines to see which of them should be brought up to date. I am sure your Lordships will agree that the task of the police, which is to prevent crime and to maintain law and order, is made infinitely more difficult by inadequate penalties such as are provided for this petty offence at the present time. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Ingleby.)

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to join with my noble friend Lord Ingleby in commending this Bill to your Lordships. It is a small measure but one which will nevertheless, be useful in giving the courts in the Metropolis more effective means of dealing with disorderly behaviour. My noble friend has already told your Lordships how the figures for these offences are on the increase, and while I understand that the figure for 1957 was inflated by an unusually large number of convictions occurring shortly after November 5, the figures undoubtedly suggest that the offences in question are sufficiently prevalent to make it desirable to ensure that magistrates have adequate means of dealing with them.

My noble friend also drew your Lordships' attention to the review of small statutory fines which is going on. Many of these were fixed in the last century, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary feels it necessary to ascertain which are obsolete and which are still of sufficient importance to be brought up to date. It may well be that in due course this will result in the raising of the maximum fines for a number of other minor offences, but in the meantime Her Majesty's Government see no reason why the maximum fine for this particular group of offences, which obviously is not obsolete, should not be brought up to a realistic level.


My Lords, I suppose your Lordships would not differ from the view that the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, ought to be congratulated on producing this Bill. On the other hand, as an old-fashioned Parliamentarian I am bound to say that I should very much prefer that measures of this kind, involving an increase of fines against individual members of the community for petty offences, came from Her Majesty's Government. This should be a Government measure. I know that the ground covered in the Bill is very wide, as this series of offences mentioned in the Act of 1839 covers nowadays a multitude of offences, for included in it will be the act of soliciting, insulting behaviour and the like. If we are to deal with such matters we really should have a Government measure which has been properly thought out and, I should have considered, debated in another place. It may be that if the Bill passes through your Lordships' House and goes downstairs it may be debated, but I feel that a measure of this type, especially one dealing, as it does with the London Metropolis, should come from Her Majesty's Government, and should not be done through a Private Member's Bill.


My Lords, is no reply to be made to the observations of my noble Leader? His point seems a very good one, although I am told that this Bill has passed through another place.


My Lords, I thought that the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, was expressing his opinion, as he is perfectly entitled to do. I do not see why a Private Member of either House who has a good idea should not bring it forward in the form of a Bill of this type; and if it appears to your Lordships to be appropriate, this House will adopt and recommend it. That would not prevent Her Majesty's Government from bringing in a more comprehensive Bill if the Home Secretary responsible so wished. But I should not like to see the Socialist Party responsible for damping down the activities of Private Members in either House.


My Lords, it is usual in a House of Parliament when the Leader of the Opposition makes some remarks calling for comment, for the Leader of Her Majesty's Government to reply.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Viscount knows that I should never intentionally be guilty of discourtesty in that respect.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.