HL Deb 14 March 1960 vol 221 cc1073-87

2.37 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I would mention to your Lordships that this concerns a matter which has been exercising the minds of many magistrates and others for a long time. This Bill affects only the maximum fines which are below £10 and are enforced by Acts which were passed before the end of the year 1939. It is recognised that many old Acts passed long ago should no longer be on the Statute Book, and this Bill, of course, does not really concern itself with them. Those old Acts are never enforced nowadays. One of them is the Profane Oaths Act of 1745. There it is interesting to note that the penalty is calculated according to the number of oaths, and the maximum fine for a day labourer, common soldier, sailor or a seaman, is 1s.; for other persons under the degree of a gentleman it is 2s., and for every person of or above the degree of a gentleman it is 5s. Second offences entail a double penalty, and third offences a treble penalty. This Act makes no mention of women, but perhaps it was unthinkable for a woman to offend that Act in those days.

As I have said, that Act and others like it are not really affected by the Bill before the House, as cases under them are no longer brought before magistrates' courts. But there are, of course, many old Acts still on the Statute Book which are effective at the present time. I will mention some of these to your Lordships, but there are many others. There is the 1831 Game Act, under which, for trespassing in pursuit of game, the maximum fine was £2. There is the 1835 Highway Act when, for firing a gun within 50 feet of the highway, for obstructing free passage, for playing football in the street and many other kindred offences the maximum fine was £2. Then the 1845 Railway Clauses Consolidation Act, for omitting to fasten gates by the side of the railway, carried a fine of £2. Under the 1847 Town Police Clauses Act, for throwing stones, using obscene language and other street offences the maximum fine was £2; and under the same Act, for allowing a chimney accidentally to be on fire, it was 10s.

Under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, for common assault the fine was £5. Under the 1872 Licensing Act, for being found drunk there was a 10s. fine for the first time, £1 for the second time in a year, and £2 for the third time in a year. That Act also provided a fine of £2 for being drunk and disorderly. Under the 1875 Explosives Act, for selling fireworks to a child the fine was £5, and for throwing fireworks in the street the maximum tine was also £5. Then, in 1889 the Indecent Advertisements Act imposed a £2 fine for exhibiting an indecent advertisement. Under the 1902 Licensing Act, for being drunk in charge of a child under seven the maximum penalty was £2. Then under the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act, for giving intoxicants to a child under five the penalty was £3. There are, of course, many others.

When some of these Acts were passed, the maximum fines which I have mentioned were obviously correct for the value of money in those days. But now the value of money has changed. It has been thought that in those cases where it was correct to deprive a defendant who had been found guilty of an offence committed before the war of so many packets of cigarettes, it would be correct now to deprive him of the same number of packets of cigarettes—in other words, to adjust the fines in accordance with the value of money.

It is hardly necessary for me to point out to your Lordships that the sum of £10, as mentioned in the Bill, is a maximum, and it may safely be left to the judicial discretion of the magistrates as to what fine is imposed up to that amount. After over 30 years' experience on the Bench I well know what care magistrates take to fix fines to meet the exigencies of any particular case. The seriousness of the offence, the character and antecedents of the guilty party and his means and background, also whether the offender is married, with or without children, or single, are all very much in the minds of the magistrates with every relevant fact when they assess what fine is to be paid. The greatest care is taken by them, and I feel confident that your Lordships will agree that it may well be left to the magistrates to decide in each case before them the proportion of £10 which must be paid as a penalty.

I understand that Her Majesty's Government have had this problem before them for some considerable time and I am told that a Committee has been sitting for some four or five years. I may well be told that the matter should be left until the Committee have reported, when a decision can be made on the revision of each Act individually. I would suggest to your Lordships that this Bill, which is simple and easy to understand and, I feel confident, is easily workable, should be passed into law, if not as a permanent measure then as an interim measure until individual Acts are reviewed by Her Majesty's Government and can be amended in due course. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Swaythling.)

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, for the speech he has just made. This is, of course, a matter which is of some interest to magistrates and others who are concerned with the proceedings in magistrates' courts. The point which the noble Lord has made, and rightly emphasized, is the fact that there has been a change in the value of money since the offences and the penalties were legislated for many years ago. The noble Lord has stated that he recognises that many of the penalties relate to offences which are now out of date. The noble Lord mentioned the Profane Oaths Act. Although it is quite true that the penalty prescribed by that Act was 1s. for a labourer or common soldier, sailor or seaman, nevertheless if the noble Lord's Bill is passed and comes into operation the penalty for uttering such an oath will no longer be 1s. but will become £10.

The objections that one feels about the Bill do not arise from the feeling that there are no cases which require review. Indeed, I understand that there are some 600 offences, spread over 150 Acts of Parliament, which are being investigated by the Committee. It is, of course, the duty of Parliament, when dealing with offences, and particularly when dealing with penalties, to decide upon the gravity of the offence and the punishment which should be prescribed; and within the indications which Parliament gives it is for the courts then to decide whether the penalties which Parliament has prescribed should in any way be mitigated. It is not for the courts to decide, under a general universal maximum, what the punishment should be in a particular case.

If this Bill were passed in its present form, we should find that an anomalous position would be created. From 1939 up to the present time many Acts of Parliament have been passed under which many new offences have been created and many new penalties laid down. If the noble Lord's Bill is passed we shall find that for all offences which were legislated for prior to 1939 there will be, in every case where the original penalty was below £10, a maximum penalty of £10, whereas under the Education Act, 1944 there have been prescribed, in the wisdom of Parliament, penalties in various cases of £1, 40s., and £5 Although the maximum penalty for offences which came under the Acts of 1930 and 1933 would be £10, under the Road Traffic Act, 1956, which has been passed by your Lordships and Parliament generally, there are offences which attract a maximum penalty of £1, 40s., £5 or, in some cases, £10.

I believe the position would be that if a person failed to produce his driving licence to a police constable when required under the earlier Road Traffic Act he would become liable, under this Bill, to a penalty of £10. But if a person fails to produce his driving licence to a police constable who believes, and has good reason for believing, that that licence was obtained by a false statement, the maximum penalty, under the Road Traffic Act, 1956, will be £5. So that there are many cases where the position would become anomalous if this Bill were passed; and in my respectful submission the result would be to bring the law into contempt.

There are numerous other Acts. There is the Road Transport Lighting Act, 1957, under which the maximum penalties are less than £10—the amount prescribed by this Bill. In my view, another anomalous situation would arise under that Act if this Bill were passed. Under the Goods Vehicle (Licensing and Prohibitions) Regulations, 1952, the penalty is one which falls under the Road Traffic Act, 1933, where the penalty prescribed is £5. Under this Bill the penalty for the offence, which, as I say, was designated under the Regulations of 1952, instead of being £5 would be £10—although Parliament, when it passed the regulations, had in mind that the penalty should be £5.

Then, under the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, numerous offences were created and many penalties prescribed from 20s. to £2, £5, £10 and more. Again, under the Companies Act, 1948, provision was made for penalties, where directors fail to send in returns, and to deal with matters of that kind, amounting to £1, 40s. and £5. Therefore, with regard to all these Statutes which have been passed since 1939, where Parliament has prescribed penalties which are less than £10, they would not be affected by the noble Lord's Bill and would remain as prescribed under those Acts. Therefore, if this Bill is passed, we shall have this strange situation that those cases, offences of which the noble Lord admits many are now out of date and outmoded and no longer have any application to the needs of our present society, shall, nevertheless, because those offences still remain upon the Statute Book, be subject to a penalty of £10. In my respectful submission to the House, it is quite absurd that we should have that situation at this time.

It is true that there has been a change in the value of money. But it is also true there has been a change in the mode and customs and manner of living, and in the conditions of life and the general behaviour of the people of this country and offences which were prevalent 100 years or so ago, in the most primitive conditions which might then have existed, no longer have any relevance to the conditions of our modern society. All those offences which still remain upon the Statute Book, and which in the light of the conditions of those days were punished by a fine of 10s. or 20s. and so on, are now to become punishable by fines of £10 under this Bill. Having regard to all those circumstances, I would submit to your Lordships that, although it is true that certain offences should be considered—and I believe they are being reconsidered—it is for Parliament to look at each case on its merits and each case that has to be made out for every particular offence which comes before Parliament. But it cannot be done, in my respectful view—cannot and ought not to be done—by a general Bill such as the noble Lord provides.

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I do not pretend to be a lawyer in any sense, but I must say that the interpretation of this Bill in this general sense is very different in the mind of the noble Lord who has just spoken from that in my own. I should not presume to correct him, but I think he gave the impression that these minor offences which in olden days were fined by such fines as 1s. and 2s. automatically become punishable by a fine of £10 under this new Bill. Surely the intention of my noble friend is that the fine for swearing an oath, which used to be 1s., will still remain 1s. because the discretion of magistrates will make it of that value and not worth a £10 fine. I admit, as has been pointed out, that there are anomalies in this. Even the year 1939 might be changed; but, in principle, I think the Bill raises something which the public can support and, of course, it could be altered in Committee.

In these days when there is sheer lawlessness, and an enjoying of lawlessness, I am much disturbed that for knocking down a policeman and kicking him in the ribs and probably drawing blood, and particularly causing great indignity, which is undesirable, many young men get off with what is almost a nominal fine. One might suggest a "bobby club", whereby one pays 2s. a week and once a month one can beat up a policeman and get away with it. On those general principles I should like the Bill to be seriously considered. Perhaps the noble Earl will say, if he cannot take this Bill, that something on these lines may be coming before your Lordships soon.

If I may raise one other matter, I was disturbed to see in The Times newspaper on Saturday a paragraph headed "Ministers will not support Fines Bill." That, of course, was before Ministers had heard this Bill argued on Second Reading and had any knowledge of what those who support it think might happen or how it could be adapted. It seems a little surprising that a responsible newspaper, presumably inspired in some way, actually tells us that this Government will not take this Bill, whatever is said. I do not press that point. I think it is perhaps an unfortunately inspired paragraph; but I ask the Government to consider the general principle of the Bill. The general scale of fines now is quite out of date and the general public would like to see an improvement: and if they put forward some improvement we on this side of the House should like to be helpful.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in support of the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, who introduced this Bill. There are only a few speakers on this Bill, but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. The first point I wish to make quite clearly is that the Bill creates no new offence whatever. All it does is to bring economy into line with criminality, and vice versa. Let me come to the point. The maximum fine for being drunk and disorderly in Hyde Park is £2. It does not matter how drunk you were, it does not matter how disorderly you were; the maximum fine is £2. Surely there is nothing unjust in raising that maximum to £10. It does not mean that one is fined £10 in any event; it merely means to say that if one is really a great public nuisance and suffering to a great extent from the effect of alcohol one may be fined up to £10, and that will deter one from doing it again for some time. There is a very interesting article in The Times this morning about a number of foolish offences under ancient Acts of Parliament. The way to deal with that, of course, is to repeal all those foolish and ancient Acts of Parliament in one Bill, and to let this Bill stand as it is.

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill has been most agreeably moved and supported, but I do not think, when we consider it seriously, that it can possibly do. I rise generally to support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West. It seems to me that there are two fatal defects in this Bill: first of all, the illogical contrast to which the noble Lord. Lord Granville-West, drew attention between the treatment of Acts of Parliament passed before 1939 and Acts passed subsequently. That seems in itself to be fatal. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said that we might alter the date to something else. But whatever we altered it to we should get a similar illogicality. I think it has also another fatal defect and that is what it does to the Acts passed before 1939. Those Acts were not all of the same worth. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, seemed to think there was no difficulty in putting up the maximum to £10 because the courts would take no notice of the alteration in the law unless they chose to. That is not, in fact, the way the courts behave or are encouraged to behave.


My Lords, surely it is only a permissive maximum under which the courts are allowed to impose a fine under the Bill.


My Lords, I think I can assure the noble Lord, rusty lawyer though I am, that, if an Act of Parliament says a maximum penalty that has hitherto been 1s. shall in future be £10, the court applying itself to the intentions of the Statute as laid down by Parliament would imagine that it should not impose a penalty on the old scale. It would naturally suppose that Parliament intended to bring about some alteration. For that reason it is quite impossible to suggest that this will not in fact increase penalties in many cases where we might not wish to increase them.

The noble Lord who has just sat down, Lord Meston, made a suggestion that has often attracted me a great deal. He said that, where we are not willing to increase the penalty, surely the right thing is to get rid of the foolish Act. That idea has always attracted me very much. Before I entered politics I remember suggesting publicly that it would be a very useful Bill that proposed the repeal and removal from the Statute Book of all Acts passed before a certain date, with the exceptions set out in a Schedule; and then in the Schedule there could be set out those Acts of Parliament that really were useful, and the rest could be left to the operation of the Common Law. But that is not what this Bill does. This Bill alters the penalty; creates an indefensible distinction between the Acts before 1939 and the Acts after; and also introduces serious anomalies even in the old Acts. To sum up my objections in a sentence, while the passing of this measure would make the good old Acts better, it would make the bad old Acts worse.


My Lords, may I ask a question? The noble Lord the Leader of the Liberal Party referred in his speech to The Times. He called it The Times newspaper, though I do not know why.


I thought it was a newspaper.


It is a newspaper, and it is one of the most popular of the London dailies, I am perfectly certain, but he referred to it as "inspired". I have read every copy of The Times for forty years, and I do not subscribe to that view.


The noble Viscount would not describe it as expired.

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might be allowed to say one word on this Bill. I am greatly in sympathy with the object which the noble Lord has, although I must say that I am a little doubtful about the method that he wishes to employ to secure that object. I am not quite sure that it is the right way to achieve it. Your Lordships may remember that some months ago—on November 25 last year, to be exact—we had what The Times newspaper and others called "a dog day" in the House of Lords. In the course of that debate I asked for certain increases in the penalties for people who kept dogs without licences, and so on, and the reply I got from the Government, through the mouth of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, was this [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 219, col. 968]: With regard to the possibility of raising … the penalty for keeping a dog without a licence, as suggested by my noble friend,"— that is me— this is being reviewed by the Criminal Division of the Home Office as part of a general review of penalties fixed before 1914. A great many of these have remained the same for a long time, although the value of money has completely altered, having been divided by three or four. The Home Office are reviewing all these penalties in order to see whether they should not be increased so that the real value of the fine which can be imposed now will be the same, in terms of purchasing power, as it was before 1914; and they are certainly considering the penalty for keeping a dog without a licence. My Lords, that statement was very satisfactory, and I was quite prepared to sit back and to wait for my dog improvements upon the deliberations of this Committee. But then, to my astonishment, I find that we are to have a Bill coming before us shortly for Second Reading—it was read the first time the other day—the Game Laws (Amendment) Bill, in which I am delighted but somewhat surprised to see an enormous increase in the fines and penalties for people who trespass on land—poaching, and so on. I am sure that all of us are extremely pleased to see that, but it does not seem to me to work in with the assurance that I had: that all these things were being reviewed by the Home Office, and would not be incorporated in any Bill until the Home Office had made their final review. I should like some confirmation from the noble Earl who is to reply that I may still happily sit back and wait for what I am wanting, and that this review is being carried out by the Criminal Division of the Home Office. That is all I wish to say.


Before the noble Earl replies, I hope he will give the House some account of this Criminal Division of the Home Office. I have always taken a very dim view of that Office—a dimmer view than of arty other—but I did not know that they had actually gone the length of designating one of their Divisions as "criminal". I think the House as a whole would very much like to hear precisely what the activities of this particular Division are.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite certain that your Lordships will agree with my noble friend Lord Conesford, that Lord Swaythling certainly moved his Bill in a most agreeable manner. I want to assure the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government are indeed most interested in his Bill, and in the objects which it seeks to achieve. But our views are very much the same as—in fact, almost entirely identical with—those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West, and I am most grateful for the clear, concise and precise legal terms which he used in his speech, which have been a very great help to me. I should like to make it clear to the noble Viscount opposite that I am so glad that "top people" continue to take The Times: and I count the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West— and I am sure the noble Viscount will, too—as one of those people. For my own part, I saw the article in the newspaper to-day; and, there again, I know that its line is almost entirely the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West, and my own.

With regard to the Criminal Division of the Home Office, my noble friend Lord Ailwyn has reminded us of the statement by my noble friend Lord Dundee in the course of his remarks on his Dog Licensing Bill. My Lords, it is not only the Criminal Division that is investigating this question of fines. The position is that members in my right honourable friend's Department—in all divisions thereof—are, in fact, getting together and considering these fines, fine by fine; and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, that they are most agreeable and pleasant people, and that they will take advice from many bodies and individuals and, of course, from other Government Departments while they are collecting together information to report.

My Lords, quite obviously—and I am quite certain that the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling will agree with me—the review of all fines below £10, whether prescribed before 1939 or afterwards, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West, is a most complicated and difficult matter. For that reason, my right honourable friend believes that it is best to investigate each fine individually, and to judge upon the merits of each fine before coming to a final conclusion. The noble Lord offers us a simple Bill, as he has told us—and that is quite true; but his is an arbitrary Bill which at one fell swoop will make all fines which stood below £10 in 1939 up to £10 forthwith, on its passing. As indeed my noble friend Lord Conesford made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, whatever the objects that the noble Lord would like to see in his noble friend's Bill, the fact is that that will be the effect; all fines will then be £10.

The noble Lord, Lord Swaythlingéand we all agree with him—said that habits and customs change, and certainly the habits and customs of petty criminals and of potential petty criminals change, too; but we cannot see any point in raising all the out-of-date fines (of which we have heard a great many examples in your Lordships' House to-day) merely be cause of this. Many of them are very seldom imposed, and we do not believe that the mere fact of raising all the penalties to £10 will make for a just and equitable arrangement in the light of modern circumstances. Again, from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West, a fine of five shillings may be right or it may be wrong. It is equally so with a fine of £5: and I think that even on to-day's terms there is a considerable difference between those two fines. But I do not believe that to say that all those fines should turn into £10 as from such-and-such a date will make those out-of-date fines any more correct.

In The Times newspaper to-day there was mentioned the crime of kite-flying; and I think that any Post Office engineer would tell one that a £10 fine is a very small amount for the amount of trouble and damage that the flying of kites may do to the Post Office wires. The article also mentioned that the penalty for feeding cab horses was a very small fine. Already, under modern conditions, if you feed a New Forest pony in the New Forest you are subjected to a fine (almost on the spot, I should imagine) of £5. So your Lordships can see that there are a great many anomalies. Another complicated class of fines which the noble Lord's Bill leaves untouched is that of the continuing fines—those where a certain amount of money is levied day by day until the offence is stopped. The noble Lord may appreciate this if he were to imagine that, should any of his cattle be found grazing illegally on a common, then under his Bill, should it become law, he could find himself liable by way of fine to a sum of £70 in one week. It is a very large class of penalties, and this Bill does not in any way appropriately deal with it.

There is also the question (and I think this is the most serious part as the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West said) of fines that exceed £10 by a small amount. Those fines the noble Lord leaves completely out of his Bill, yet it is particularly those fines that Her Majesty's Government wish to review. Many of them are much in need of review, even more so than some of the petty ones which we have heard mentioned. Because we raise those to £10, as the noble Lord proposes, that does not make these other more serious fines any more or less just. Her Majesty's Government wish to revise all these, especially because they are fines applicable to penalties prescribed for the most tiresome and aggravating crimes. That is the reason why I think there are substantial defects in the noble Lord's Bill.

Another large class of fines which would be untouched—again I thank the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West—are the fines embodied in Acts of Parliament which have been consolidated since 1940. The noble Lord told us about fines embodied in the Road Traffic Acts—and the Consolidation Bill is at the moment before your Lordships' House for your Lordships' consideration. All those minor offences will be untouched by the noble Lord's Bill, should your Lordships give it your assent. We do not believe that that is right.

My noble friend Lord Conesford also showed the anomalies which would accrue under this Bill. We are reviewing at present—not the Criminal Division, but my right honourable friend's Department and the other branches of the Government—all these fines according to modern circumstances, and it is a considerable task. I ask the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Ailwyn to show just a little patience, and I think they will find that the review takes into consideration all the difficulties and anomalies of which the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, told us. I think your Lordships will find that the result of this will lead to a new scale of fines which will be fair, considering the crimes for which they are imposed, yet will, at the same time, stand as deterrents in the very changed circumstances of modern society. I think that answers the noble Lord, Lord Rea, who believed that the objects were different from the effect of his noble friend's Bill. For those reasons, I cannot recommend that your Lordships approve the noble Lord's Bill.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, whilst thanking the noble Earl for the way in which he has given us Her Majesty's Government's views on the Bill, I am a little disappointed that he should not give us some indication of when these things may be put right. We have been waiting a long time for the work of this Committee to bear fruit, and I feel it would have been helpful if he could have given us some indication of when some of these things would be put right.


My Lords, with great respect I want to make it quite clear that a Committee is not sitting. These matters are being considered by the Department of my right honourable friend, and they have not been very long at it. I can give no exact date; your Lordships will appreciate the large amount of legislation in the pipeline. But it is receiving urgent attention from my right honourable friend's Department. With your Lordships' permission I should like to give an answer to my noble friend Lord Ailwyn with regard to the Game Laws (Amendment) Bill which I omitted in my original answer. That Bill is a Private Member's Bill, and, of course, its purpose is entirely different from the purpose towards which the noble Lord's Bill is aimed. The Game Laws (Amendment) Bill, is a Bill to make better provision for the prevention of poaching. That is the reason why the fines are so high. This Bill is a review of all fines under £10.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl. The noble Lord, Lord Granville-West had some criticism of the Bill, and said that it provided a universal maximum line of £10. Instead of putting a maximum of £10, I had thought of multiplying the maximum fine in any Act passed before 1914 by three, and those passed between 1914 and 1938 by two, or some such formula as that. But in order to make the Bill more workable and more simple, I adopted the method which is in the Bill to-day. It must be borne in mind that it is a maximum fine of £10. The idea that because fines of 1s., 10s. or £2 have been increased to £10, every fine will necessarily be £10 is, as your Lordships will agree, absurd. We can still rely on magistrates to impose a tine that is necessary for each case.

Similarly, it has been thought that if this Bill were passed the Acts I have mentioned would come once more into force. But in my opinion if Acts such as those have fallen out of use, and no summonses are issued at the present time, then there will be no summonses after this Bill is passed into law. Therefore, those Acts that are already out of use would not in any way be affected. With regard to the date line which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Granville-West, the more modern Acts have a maximum fine of £5. Those more modern Acts were passed when the value of money was more in keeping with the times than it is to-day, and £5 was considered to be the right maximum, and I feel that that maximum should remain in force. It applies only to the older Acts. For simplicity's sake, we have said £10 in the Bill, in order to give magistrates discretion—and, after all, magistrates have a discretion in a number of Acts of Parliament with fines up to £100. If you can give them that in certain other Acts, I think a discretion of up to £10 in these simpler Acts could be safely left to them. I still feel that, as an interim measure, until the more individual Acts are dealt with by Her Majesty's Government, it would be a good thing to pass this Bill.

On Question, resolved in the negative.