HL Deb 15 June 1971 vol 320 cc495-7

2.39 p.m.


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 they will introduce legislation to amend Section 24 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, to redefine the circumstances in which a company in whose shops are display false or misleading trade descriptions is excused responsibility because they are due to an error on the part of an employee.]


My Lords, this section does not excuse the employer unless he has observed the highest standard of care to avoid an offence. The Government take the view that the Act is properly framed to place criminal liability where it justly belongs and that amending legislation is therefore unnecessary.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that Answer. In view of his great interest in the Act that we are discussing, would he not agree that the decision of your Lordships' House in a particular case recently created some cause for alarm over what is virtually consumer protection legislation?


My Lords, I would not accept that. It was recognised and accepted on both sides when we debated this legislation that if a person other than the person charged was a servant of the company charged, the company could still be entitled to acquittal under this provision. The Government believe that the House has interpreted the Act as it was intended to be interpreted.


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will press his right honourable friend to look again at this question. There may be an opportunity to return to it later.


My Lords, I take note of what the noble Baroness has said; but the view taken here is, quite clearly, that where the commission by any person of an offence is due to the act or default of another person, the first person is to be acquitted provided that due dili gence is exercised by the person charged. Surely this is a proper reason for acquittal. It would be unjust to convict somebody who was in no wise responsible for the offence.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that from what I know of British law after many years in the trade union movement, I have always thought that employers were responsible for the actions of their employees?


My Lords, a vicarious liability does apply in certain cases but, in the Government's view, under the Trade Descriptions Act it would be wrong in principle to convict a person who could prove that he had done all he could to prevent the offence; it would be unjust.


My Lords, would the noble Lord say in what way the law is now different? At one time for similar offences the law was that the employer or the owner was prosecuted, and if he wanted to prove that his employee was negligent in the matter he had to bring a prosecution against the employee. Presumably that no longer applies in these cases.


Yes, my Lords, it does apply. Under Section 24 of the Trade Descriptions Act if a person charged can show that someone else was to blame, and if due notice of that fact is given to the court before the proceedings, it is open to that person to plead that he exercised all due diligence. It is only if he has exercised all due diligence that he can be acquitted of any offence.


My Lords, as this is such a very intricate and legal matter, may I put my supplementary question on the general principle in the form of a parable? The question is this: if a grocer were appointed to take charge of a supermarket on the strength of his promise that he would call a halt to rising prices at a stroke, and then he proceeded to increase prices by 8½ per cent., would he be expected to take the blame himself or try to shift it off on to the people who actually appointed him?


My Lords, that seems to be a hypothetical question and one on which it would not be appropriate to adjudicate under the Trade Descriptions Act.