HL Deb 24 October 1967 vol 285 cc1618-25

7.12 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. In doing so, I need hardly remind your Lordships that it has already passed through all its stages in another place. This Bill has been introduced to fill a gap in our law, concerning the taking and sailing away of vessels without the consent of the owner or other lawful authority. The Bill, in fact, covers all vessels, including fishing craft, with or without power, yachts of all descriptions, including dinghies and boats. I would remind your Lordships that a similar gap in the law concerning motor vehicles was put right, I believe some 37 years ago, in the Road Traffic Act 1930, Section 28, and it has now been incorporated in the Road Traffic Act 1960.

Your Lordships may wonder why so long a time has elapsed before action has been taken with regard to yachts and boats. The fact is that boat owning, in one respect or another, has in recent years spread to a very large part of the population, and I would say that it is now a national sport, and consequently the opportunities for theft have greatly increased. I think I am correct in saying that last year some 30 or 40 major thefts of vessels occurred, and the numbers of thefts of dinghies are very large indeed. I am personally an interested party in this Bill, as my dinghy was stolen only a few days ago. It is true that such a theft is not a major problem in our criminal law. Nevertheless, I suggest that it is a fairly substantial one, and likely to grow, I think, when people realise that at the moment they can with impunity take away a vessel and not be charged with theft.

I also suggest that it is not generally known that taking away and removing vessels is not in itself an offence. It is an offence permanently to deprive the owner by stealing, but it is not an offence when it is merely a case of "joy-riding". The Bill will, of course, rectify this position. As I have already mentioned, it has been an offence since 1930 to take away a motor vehicle without the owner's consent, and I would suggest it is time to correct this deficiency in the law concerning sailing and rowing boats, as they cannot be locked up in the same way as motor cars.

I understand that Her Majesty's Government are favourably disposed towards this Bill, and that it was, in fact, intended to include this in a forthcoming Theft Bill which I believe is now under consideration. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department indicated in another place that it might be some time before the Theft Bill could be introduced and said that the fact that the matter might be dealt with in the Theft Bill was no argument for not plugging the gap now.

Clauses 1, 2 and 3 are, I think, self-explanatory, but I would draw your Lordships' attention to the savings clause, Clause 4. This is to protect a person on occasions when he reasonably believes that he has lawful authority to take and use any vessel. For example, a fire might occur on board, and anyone would be acting reasonably, I think, in moving the boat from one place to another, or in the event of a storm, re-mooring it, perhaps in a safer position. I would point out that the interpretation of the word "vessel" in Clause 6 has the meaning assigned to it by Section 7(4)(ii) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, and that is a comprehensive section which includes any ship, boat or any other description of vessel used in navigation.

I would conclude by saying that it is characteristic of a very large number of people who take and sail away vessels and boats that they are not skilled in their use, and therefore they are a very dangerous hazard to navigation. I commend this Bill to your Lordships as I feel sure it will be of great assistance to the police and the courts and will be of great benefit to those who go down to the sea in small craft and boats. I beg to move.

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

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, in his moving of this very short, simple and valuable little Bill. I do not want to go through it again; he has done it the justice required. I intended to give your Lordships only a couple of small examples of the sort of thing that can happen owing to the fact that there is no method of prosecuting anybody for taking or driving away a boat. On the inland waterways we suffer a good deal from this sort of thing, and there is, on paper, protection for us in that the British Waterways Board on those waterways it controls has certain by-laws under which they are entitled to prosecute for this offence. It means, however, that one has first of all to find out the name of the person who has done it; one has to do that oneself. One has to notify the solicitor to the Board, who asks the Board whether they wish to prosecute. The whole thing is a very long, slow, weak and drawn-out procedure, and very few people bother to try to put this machinery in motion. The result is that most, I suppose one could call them "removers of boats" since "stealing" is not the technical term in this case, get clean away with it.

I have had two cases in the last twelve months on my particular bit of the waterways, where boats have been removed. In both cases, I am glad to say, we did manage to get the offender into court, but each time only by a side road. In one case four tough hooligans stole a boat and were arrested, probably illegally, by myself and the youngsters of my youth club, in the middle of the canal and handed over to the police. I suppose we might have been had up for something. But it turned out that in the course of stealing the boat they had also raided a second vessel and removed various property from it, and they were brought up in court and duly convicted of stealing that property, although they could not be had up for stealing the boat itself.

In the second case a drunken man seized a small boat from a child, "turfed" the child out of it on to the tow path and proceeded down the canal on the boat, and I had to go and seize it from him. Luckily a fight did not develop; it might have been very nasty. The only way we could have him up in court—and he was in fact duly convicted and fined—was because in the course of this struggle for the boat an oar was broken and he was had up for malicious damage and, as I say, duly convicted.

But this is not good enough. We must have some methods of protecting small boats, because not only is the matter of the boat being taken away a considerable nuisance itself for the owner, but once the boat is out of its owner's hands every conceivable sort of thing can happen. Hooligans can get hold of the boat and can smash it up. This frequently happens if a boat is left lying about after somebody has taken it away from its proper moorings. Furthermore, thieves can get hold of the boat and use it to raid other boats which otherwise are moored in places where normally thieves cannot get to them. They can also be used by thieves to get into warehouses on rivers and canals which are protected on the land side but have a wharf open on the water side. There must be some method of protecting the boat owners, particularly the owners of small boats, from the theft of boats of the dinghy size, the numbers of which must run into many thousands.

I know that there are major vessels which are stolen, but they present a comparatively simple problem. It is usually possible to catch the thief and, given an adequate Act, it is possible to prosecute him. But this protection of the small boat and of the waterside owner from thievish hands is important, and it is my belief that this Bill fills this gap in a most valuable way.

7.22 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add but a few words in support of this Bill which, in my view, is badly needed. At the last sitting of the court of quarter sessions in my county there was a case of four young people who took a yacht from the harbour and, narrowly escaping collision with a cross-Channel steamer immediately outside the harbour, eventually got it over to Ireland from Wales. This is not the first case of this sort that we have had in my court. There is a great need for a Bill of this kind in order to make sure that people who do this sort of thing are duly punished. My only doubt about it is whether the punishment enacted is sufficient. But I do not want to move any Amendment and thus wreck the chances of the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will pass it into law.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, other noble Lords have described the michief that this Bill is designed to cure so graphically that I should have thought the House would have welcomed it on all sides. Certainly I do and, like the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, I do not want to be responsible for so holding it up by trying to amend it that it does not become law this Session, I should, however, like to make two suggestions to the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, for him, if he would be so good, to pass on to the Home Office when in due course they are considering the draft of the Theft Bill. I think they are improvements which might be made in this Bill when it comes to be consolidated, as I have no doubt will be the case, and, if necessary, improved in the general provision that is proposed.

The first suggestion is in relation to Clause 4, which my noble friend Lord Teynham referred to as the saving clause. I should have thought that it was worth while considering making this an express defence under the Bill rather than saying that a person does not commit an offence. The difference is this. If you make it an express defence, under the Magistrates' Courts Act it is for the person who is accused to prove that he had a reasonable belief. If you leave it as it is under this Bill, I rather think that it may be for the prosecution to prove that the person accused did not have the reasonable beliefs, or either of them that are set out. Of course, it is virtually impossible for the prosecution to prove such a negative—at any rate, it is extremely difficult. I think it would be better to put the onus under Clause 4 on the defendant in the way that these savings usually are.

The second point relates to Clause 5. Your Lordships may remember that not long ago—I think the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor had some hand in this, during the unfortunate illness of Lord Stonham—the House passed the Criminal Law Act 1967, which lays down a code whereby, first of all, any person and, secondly, a police constable may arrest people without warrant. Of course it applies only to arrestable offences, and in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has said, this Bill does not make the offence referred to an arrestable offence. Perhaps it ought to. But the Criminal Law Act has a saving for all other specific rules of law and provisions in Acts which give police constables and anybody else the power to arrest without warrant.

Here is a new one, and what I think is a pity is that it does not stick even remotely to the formula which is provided in the Criminal Law Act. For instance, it says that a police constable may arrest somebody of whom he has reasonable suspicion of having committed the offence or of attempting to commit the offence. I am not quite certain whether that is in the process of committing it or not, but it does not, as the Criminal Law Act provides, allow him to arrest when the person is in the process of committing the offence. I should have thought this was a pity. There are other discrepancies between this power provided under this Bill and the general power in the Criminal Law Act.

The point is—and I should have thought it was something that ought to be taken up by the Home Office—that a police constable, let alone an ordinary member of the public, has dozens of different powers of arrest according to whatever may be the circumstances of the crime. It must be difficult enough in all conscience to remember which is an arrestable offence and what are your powers under the Criminal Law Act. But to add a discrepant power under this Bill which does not fit in with the formula which has been laid down must, I should have thought, make the policeman's job more difficult. Therefore, I hope—although not on this occasion, because I do not propose to put down any Amendment, but when this general matter comes to be reconsidered—that those two points will be taken into account by the Home Office and by the draftsman, because I believe they will in due course make an improvement.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, on introducing this important and useful Bill into this House, it having passed through the lower House some months ago. I hope that he will be lucky enough to get back his dinghy by the time we come to pass the Bill which he has introduced to-day.

I have made inquiries about the question of the new draft Theft Bill. I understand that the Second Reading of the present Bill was taken about March 3 of this year, when the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office said that it might be some time before the Theft Bill could be introduced. But I am authorised now to say that the Government hope to make early progress in implementing the Criminal Law Revision Committee's recommendations, including the proposals on the taking away of conveyances; and when the Theft Bill is enacted it will no doubt be convenient to have together in that Act all the statutory provisions creating the offence of removing conveyances and to repeal this Bill for England and Wales when the Theft Bill goes through.

It is quite true that since 1930 to take away a motor conveyance has been an offence, but it is not so in the case of vessels of the kind we are now discussing. So far as England and Wales is concerned, the Bill, of course, anticipates Clause 10 of this draft Theft Bill prepared by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and I think that the House, the Home Office and the Government will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for his two valuable suggestions in relation to the preparation in its later stages of the Bill to which I have just referred and which is now in draft. With those remarks, my Lords, I can say, on behalf of the Home Office and the Government, that we welcome the Bill, and hope that it will go through on Thursday next.

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