HL Deb 17 March 1960 vol 221 cc1275-8

3.37 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill promoted by my honourable friend Mr. William Small, Member of Parliament for the Scotstoun Division of Glasgow. I should like, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, to offer my sincere congratulations to him upon his success in the ballot; on achieving this success in his first Session as a Member of Parliament; on his choice of the Bill to be promoted; on his presentation of the case, which was both modest and thorough; and on the unanimous support he received in another place—where, with the blessing of the Government, the Bill passed without amendment through all its stages on February 26. By a fortunate coincidence, copies of the Report issued by the Scottish Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders were placed at the disposal of Members of the other place, one of the recommendations of that Report being implemented in the present Bill. As I have already said, it had the blessing of the Government. Indeed, the promoter had been wise enough to consult both the Lord Advocate and the Joint Under-Secretary about the Bill. It also meets with the approval of my honourable and learned friend Mr. Douglas Johnston, who participated in the debate on this Bill in another place.

The Bill is similar in purpose to the English First Offenders Act, 1958, which in itself was promoted originally as a Private Member's Bill, and is part of what might be described as the humanising legislation characteristic of the current climate of public opinion. Clause 1 has four subsections. Subsection (1) restricts the power of courts of summary jurisdiction to impose sentences of imprisonment on first offenders who are of or over the age of 21. It applies the same test for those over 21 years as does the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, 1949. Subsection (2) extends the practice which I understand appears in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, 1949, of requiring reasons for the court's opinion that there was no other method of dealing with an accused person, even though the accused as a first offender is over the age of 21, than to impose a prison sentence. Subsection (3) defines what is a first offender.

Subsection (4) is peculiar to Scotland and has no equivalent provision in the English Act. I am told that this is because subsection (4) deals with a breach of Scottish legal principle that has to do with what, in legal terminology, is called cognate offences. But it is acceptable to the Government, I gather, partly because it is only a tiny breach, partly because that particular principle has been breached before, under. I am told, a 1941 Act with regard to young offenders under 21, but mainly because it would help rather than hinder those accused persons who are charged. Perhaps the most convincing argument I can submit, in the circumstances, is to quote from what the Solicitor General for Scotland said in the course of the debate as follows [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 618 (No. 60), col. 1605]: … we must have this machinery under subsection (4), so that if a man claims to be a first offender when, in fact, he is not, the procurator fiscal may bring him to the notice of the court and prove, if need be, that there were other previous convictions, even though they were not cognate. Those are the whole contents of this simple Bill. As I have already said, it follows the example of the English Act of 1958. Some perhaps would prefer that the Scottish Act should come first, but we are prepared to learn from the wisdom of the English, and to-day we submit to your Lordships this Bill, which I hope will receive your approval. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, the Government are glad to support this Bill which implements a recommendation of the Scottish Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders in their Report on Short Terms of Imprisonment. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill has said, this report gives impressive arguments for the view that the short sentence is too widely used in present practice. In any legislation on criminal justice at the present time we must bear in mind the regrettably high rate of crime, which is a matter of great concern to the Government, as it is to your Lordships and to the public. This Bill does not in any way reduce the powers of the courts to impose imprisonment if ultimately they consider that this course is the appropriate one. All it does is to require the courts, before they impose imprisonment on first offenders, to satisfy themselves by inquiry that no other method of disposal is more suitable. In other words, the Bill accepts the prima facie evidence in the Advisory Council's Report that in some cases imprisonment is now imposed when it is neither necessary nor helpful for the prevention of future crime.

I do not think I need say anything about subsection (4) of Clause 1, which presents a certain legal innovation, because it has been fully covered by the noble Lord in his references to it and in his quotation from what the Solicitor General for Scotland said in another place. The Government accept the necessity for this departure.

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