§ 2.35 p.m.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
§ [The Question was as follows:
§ To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Chief Constable of Southend has recently stated that, even if he has clear evidence of the offence, he will not in future prosecute in certain cases of larceny; whether such an announcement and decision are not contrary to public policy; and what action they are taking.]
THE MINISTER OF STATE, HOME OFFICE (EARL JELLICOE)
My Lords, I understand that the Chief Constable of Southend said that it was not incumbent upon the police to prosecute in all cases of larceny brought to their attention. The police have a discretion to decide whether to prosecute in any particular case, and this discretion is exercised in the light of the circumstances. Her Majesty's Government have no authority to intervene.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I should have no quarrel with his Answer if he had given an adequate summary of what the Chief Constable said? Does my noble friend agree that, while the police have some discretion about prosecuting, they must exercise that discretion in a quasi-judicial way? Can he say whether there is any precedent for a Chief Constable stating in advance that he will not prosecute in an important class of felonies? Did his statement not amount to this, that, just as every dog can have one bite, every thief in Southend can, so far as the police are concerned, commit one felony in a shop?
My Lords, I am not absolutely certain that I have retained all those supplementary questions firmly in my mind. I do not think that the Chief Constable's statement to the Press need be read as my noble friend has interpreted it. But I must insist that it is entirely a matter for the police to decide whether to prosecute in any particular case, and that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has no responsibility in this matter whatsoever.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, while I agree that the police have an obligation to decide in any particular case, may I ask whether the noble Earl does not think That it is incumbent on somebody in the Government or in authority somewhere to take exception to such a statement, which is certainly open to misunderstanding? Many people had understood it in the sense that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, had. And I should think it is quite likely that the shoplifters of Southend will also be under this impression.
My Lords, I should like, if I may, to make it quite clear that my right honourable friend certainly does not regard shoplifting as a trivial matter. We realise that it is a growing practice, and with the increase in self-service stores it is a matter which naturally causes concern. But I would remind the noble Lord that if the police decide not to prosecute in a case of this sort, then it is of course open to the stores themselves to initiate a prosecution, if they so desire.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, should not the Government show a little more sympathy and understanding with the statement of the Chief Constable of Southend, having regard to the fact that shopping has changed because self-service stores have been established, and all the goods are displayed in the most attractive manner to women who often are hard up. Therefore, surely the onus must lie upon the owner of the shop to protect his goods, and he should not expect the courts to act as a deterrent, paid for by the public.
My Lords, I thought I was trying to steer a rather 443 narrow, but difficult, course between the Scylla of self-service and the Charybdis of Southend in this matter.
§ LORD MORRISON OF LAMBETH
My Lords, without prejudice one way or the other to the point raised by my noble friend Lady Summerskill, may I put this point to the Minister? As I understood the Question from the noble Lord opposite, the gravamen of his complaint was that the Chief Constable declared that in a certain class of offence, or petty larceny, he would not prosecute. That is a rather serious decision and statement to make because it invites trouble within the class of potential thieves concerned. The Minister of State says that the Government cannot do anything about it, that it is the business of the Chief Constable of Southend. But may I ask him whether the Home Office do not have inspectors of constabulary who can give advice? Is he aware that any chief constable will take a great deal of advice from the Home Office, which is the last place that any of them wants to offend, and that in the last resort he could say something about the grant to the local police fund? Therefore, is it not doubtful doctrine for the noble Earl to say that this is a discrimination about a particular case, about which I agree the Chief Constable has discretion? But was it not the case that the gravamen of the noble Lord's question was that this was not a particular case, but a class of cases?
My Lords, I think that before being drawn too far, possibly on to constitutional rocks, I should like to consider carefully what the noble Lord has just said and, if necessary, reply to a further Question on this point.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, surely the point of this is that it is not the Chief Constable's decision not always to prosecute that is in question. What is in question is the wisdom of publicly announcing that decision, which may lead people to suppose that they can "get away with it" whenever their offence is sufficiently trivial.
My Lords, it is precisely that second matter for which Her Majesty's Government and my right honourable friend are not responsible.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, would not the noble Earl say 444 that his object was to warn the shopkeepers; not to do as the noble Lord suggested here? Was that not the object?
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, is quite right in thinking that the serious point is that the Chief Constable has restricted his ability, in particular cases, of exercising in future his quasi-judicial function? Is my noble friend aware, or is the Home Secretary aware—and if either of them is not aware, will he perhaps consult my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor?—that the decision of the House of Lords in the recent case of Sykes v. Director of Public Prosecutions makes it clear that, if a person knows that a felony has been committed and does not disclose his knowledge to the authorities, he may himself be prosecuted for the offence of misprision of felony? Can it be right that the police on being informed should do nothing whatever, on the grounds indicated by this Chief Constable?
My Lords, I will take my noble friend's advice and consult my noble and learned friend who sits on the Woolsack about this particular case and its implications, about which I must confess I am somewhat imperfectly informed; but I should not like to leave the impression in your Lordships' minds that in Southend shoplifting can be carried on with impunity. Perhaps my noble friend would permit me to give him some information on this point. It is my understanding that since February, 1962, when this practice, to which my honourable friend objects, was introduced, 197 persons have been reported by store managements in Southend. Of these, 101 were prosecuted by the police; 52 were cautioned by the police; in 3 cases no further action was taken; and in 41 cases store managements were told that the police were taking no action and it was open to them to prosecute. It might be of interest to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, to learn that in none of these cases did the store management prosecute.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, since the noble Earl has raised this particular aspect of action by a store 445 manager, may I ask whether he has considered that if the store prosecutes it has to proceed by summons; if the police come into it the proceedings are conducted by charge and immediate action is taken. Proceeding by summons is long, expensive and extremely hard on the person to be summoned, so that it is not surprising that stores refrain from doing what they had apparently been prevented by the police from achieving.
§ LORD MERRIVALE
My Lords, I should like to put one question to my noble friend. Is it not a fact that in most cities the chief constable comes under the sole authority of the watch committee, and in this case are the Watch Committee satisfied with the remarks of the Chief Constable, in which case the Government would have no say in the matter at all?
It is my understanding that my noble friend has stated the constitutional position correctly.
§ BARONESS HORSBRUGH
My Lords, could my noble friend say, if it is to be the policy of chief constables to announce they are not going to prosecute in certain cases, whether it is possible to have a list of the cases and the types of offences concerned, and would that document be laid in the Printed Paper Office?
§ LORD CONESFORD
May I ask my noble friend whether he can throw any light on the nature of the caution given by the police at Southend? Do they say, "Stop stealing" or just, "Don't be caught"? May I also ask my noble friend whether he will, after consulting his colleagues, make a further statement on this matter? And may I ask him whether he is aware that, if he does nut do so, since the enforcement of the criminal law is one of the main functions of Government, I propose by putting a Motion on the Order Paper to bring the matter to debate?
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL AND MINISTER FOR SCIENCE (VISCOUNT HAILSHAM)
My Lords, my noble friend can put a matter on the Order Paper to debate anything he likes, but I think we have got as far with the Chief Constable of Southend as we are likely to get this afternoon.