HL Deb 14 December 1978 vol 397 cc743-95

12.37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Bill to abolish the offence which is known as "sus" or, to put it in more technical language, the offence of being a suspected person loitering about in, or frequenting, a public place, with intent to commit an arrestable offence. Basically, this offence is still in the same form as was laid down in the Vagrancy Act 1824, when the number of vagrants was considerably swelled by the destitute ex-Servicemen returning from the Napoleonic wars, and it was thought appropriate in those days to label offenders as "idle and disorderly persons", "rogues and vagabonds", and "incorrigible rogues". The suspected person falls into the second of these categories. If he is unfortunate enough to have been convicted on two previous occasions, then he may be promoted to the rank of "incorrigible rogue".

First, I think that I should cite a couple of examples just to give your Lordships some indication of the flavour of this offence. The first example is a case which occurred on 22nd February this year when Hubert and Paul, two young West Indians, were travelling home together from work in the Tottenham Court Road area to Camberwell, where they lived. They turned off Camberwell Church Street into Vestry Road at about 6.30 in the evening. Then Paul turned into Oswyth Road, which lead off Vestry Road, while his friend continued along Vestry Road. Oswyth Road runs into Shenley Road, where Paul lives. But before he reached the junction with that road a police car drew up alongside him and he was arrested on a charge of sus. The two officers later said in court that they had seen the young man trying the doors of parked cars in Grace Road and Dagmar Road, which also run off Church Street a little further along. One of the officers said that it was still daylight at the time these observations were made, although of course that would be impossible at 6.30 on an October evening. The court, as one would expect, chose to believe the police evidence rather than that of the two boys, and Paul, who is 17, was convicted of the offence.

The second example occurred on 4th May when again two young West Indians Donald and Gregory, came down Brixton Hill in a bus at about 11 a.m. and got off outside Morley's. They crossed Electric Avenue and then went into the market, down Granville Arcade. They crossed Atlantic Road and into another arcade, and turned right into First Avenue, where they stopped to talk to a Mr. T, who is a friend of one of the boys and owns a patty shop in the market, and then continued down Fourth and Second Avenues into Coldharbour Lane. They entered the Labour Exchange there and collected their Giro cheques for unemployment benefit.

As they were coming out, the police arrested them, and they said that the boys, who were 21 and 22 years old had stood in a bus queue at Morley's on Brixton Road where one tried to "dip" people in the queue whilst the other one jostled. They were then alleged to have crossed the road and done the same thing outside Boots. The officer said that he followed them through the market, and they had not stopped anywhere, which was contradicted by the evidence given by Mr. T, the owner of the patty shop. The officer further said that his attention had been caught by these particular young men in Brixton High Street, because they were black and therefore, he said, more likely to be thieves. At Knightsbridge Crown Court, the evidence of the patty shop proprietor did not save Donald and Gregory from being convicted.

Those two examples are typical, in that the evidence against the accused was that of police witnesses only, and also typical in that the majority of these cases concern young West Indians. The cases I quoted were not entirely typical in that it is rare for the defence to have any witnesses at all.

In 1971, the then Home Secretary set up a working party to consider the law relating to vagrancy and other street offences, and this body produced a working paper in 1974 and then a final report in 1976. They themselves pointed out that this law of suspected persons is "peculiar"—that is the word they used—in that it attempts to control behaviour which is neither a substantive offence itself nor an attempted offence, but which the public interest nevertheless requires to be punishable. I should have thought that it was more appropriate to the KGB or the DINA than to the Home Office to punish conduct which is neither a substantive offence nor even an attempted offence.

It was said in the working party report that the criminal law requires too much evidence for an attempt charge to deal with behaviour indicating merely an intent to commit an arrestable offence. According to the working party, the police say that they need "sus" to deal with what they call preparatory acts, such as trying the doors of parked cars, suspicious behaviour round buildings where there is no evidence to show the exact nature of the intended offence, or any other acts by the accused which may not have gone far enough to justify a charge of attempt.

The police see the offence as having a substantial deterrent value, we are told, and they consider it to be a useful measure in crime prevention. Unfortunately, I have to give these views of the police at second hand because I was unable to elicit any direct comments from them. In reply to inquiries that I made to the Metropolitan Commissioner, his Deputy wrote to say that the Commissioner did not dissent from any of the recommendations made by the working party but did not think it would be proper for him to comment on a Private Member's Bill. Whether this is because of some rule of etiquette of which I am unaware, or because the Home Office have issued some instructions on the matter, I should be very interested to know, because I think it is a pity that I was not able to consult the police on a criminal matter which is the subject of intended legislation, and I hope that the Minister will say that the police are quite free to express opinion on these matters, just as he emphasised in the debate on the gracious Speech that they are to give evidence to Royal Commissions.

But if the working party did express a view which coincides exactly with that of the police, it would not be very surprising, because seven of the members; of the working party were Home Office officials, four were senior police officers, and then there was one representative each from the Department of Health and Social Security and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I think it is deplorable that, apparently without listening to any other views, the Government should have announced their acceptance of this body's recommendation that an offence on the lines of "sus" would have to be retained.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was good enough to say in a letter he wrote to me recently that, after the Law Commission has reported on the law of attempt, which I understand may be in the spring—the noble Lord may confirm that in his reply—the Government will consider most carefully the views which have been expressed on the need for a new offence. But, if the Government have already accepted the recommendations of the working party, then what is there for them to consider? If, on the other hand, the weight of opinion in favour of abolishing "sus" is examined now, as we should have the opportunity of doing in the debates on this Bill, and we then consider that abolition is the right solution, then I do not believe that there are any grounds for waiting until the Law Commission has reported.

The opinions I have studied are, I must tell your Lordships, unanimously in favour of abolition. The National Council for Civil Liberties has been against "sus" ever since it was formed, and in its first annual report of 1934 there is a reference to the alarming increase in the arrests by the police of suspected persons' who are alleged on the flimsiest evidence to be loitering with intent". The Runnymede Trust has published a valuable study which concludes that, when the Vagrancy Act is reviewed, the charge of being a suspected person should not… be replaced by another similar charge but should be repealed altogether". The National Association of Probation Officers, whose president is the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and whose vice-president is the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell—whom I am glad to see in his place—passed a resolution at their Annual General Meeting expressing the view that the continued use of this provision is unsound in principle, open to abuse in practice and thus contrary to natural justice". The Catholic Commission for Racial Justice says: This law is open to abuse on a number of counts", and it then proceeds to enumerate them. The Race Relations Group of the South-wark Diocese and the Church of England see the use of the Vagrancy Act 1824 as a particular feature in this downward spiral in police community relations. Mr. Duncan Campbell, a distinguished journalist whose name may not be entirely unfamiliar to the Home Office, writing in Time Out of 27th October, said: Magistrates will continue to convict on the apparent basis that there is something inherently suspicious about a black teenager standing on a street corner". Alderman Gurmukh Singh, a magistrate himself, and chairman of the Camden Council for Community Relations, writes to me to emphasise that community relations councils have been concerned about the operation of this section for a very long time, and representations about its use have been made to the Home Office". I myself have had letters—and I daresay the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will have received copies—from Watford Council for Community Relations, Hammersmith, Camden, and several others. I think the noble Lord will be constrained to agree that this is the virtually unanimous view of every CCR and of every community relations officer who has expressed an opinion on the subject. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants supports abolition, and then, last but by no means least in this selection of opinions, there is the Scrap Sus Campaign itself. I should like to ask, do none of there powerful organisations, representing substantial interests, carry any weight in the Home Office?

Now may I attempt to summarise the main objections to a law of this kind. The working party itself recognises, the view that an offence of being suspected of being about to commit a serious offence in a public place is open to abuse, and lays the police open to allegations of abuse when they invoke it". The overwhelming majority of these cases are decided on the evidence of two police officers reading from the same set of notes, and, as the magistrates are always going to believe the police rather than the defendants, the burden of proof is effectively shifted on to the defendant to prove his innocence. Of those who pleaded not guilty, in a sample of 170 cases looked at by Runnymede, only 15 were dismissed.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to correct one remark he made? Police evidence is never given by two officers from the same set of notes; they always have separate notes. I say that having been a magistrate in Central London for a long time.


Perhaps I used a form of shorthand which was inappropriate, my Lords; I meant to refer to notes which the two police officers have carefully prepared in advance of giving their evidence in court, so there is virtually no difference between the stories they give, and I am sure that will be familiar to the noble Baroness.

In some of the cases where "sus" is used, a charge of attempted theft would be more appropriate. As the Runnymede Trust report points out, that would be a more effective way of preventing the suspect from committing an actual criminal offence than the Vagrancy Act, because that Act requires evidence of at least two suspicious acts, and between the first and second acts the person being observed might actually commit a criminal offence, whereas if the law of attempt were used he could be arrested after the first observation. The use of attempt also has the advantage that it requires a higher standard of proof and allows the accused to opt for trial by jury in a matter which could have a serious affect on his reputation and future career, and we must remember that this offence is used primarily against young people.

If it is a question of preventing an immediate offence, the police have the power of cautioning, or of arrest under Section 2(5) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. Yet another alternative in certain cases is the charge of "going equipped to steal", where the accused has instruments which would enable him to break into cars or buildings. That charge could have been used, for instance, in the second example given in Appendix F of the Working Paper, which is supposed to demonstrate the necessity for a charge of "sus", because in that case the person who was trying the doors of parked cars had a key in his possession which he was using on the locks to help him break in. More generally in connection with those examples given in Appendix F, in the majority of cases there is not sufficient evidence to support any charge whatever—there may have been other evidence which is not provided in that appendix—and in other of the cases quoted it is possible that alternative charges might have been preferred.

As to the claim that "sus" acts as a deterrent, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever to back it up, and I am sure that if there had been, it would have been produced by the working party. If it were true, one would expect that other forms of street crime would have been less prevalent in the Metropolitan Police Divisions, where "sus" is used extensively. I know of no such results. I have tried to obtain them, but unfortunately the nearest offence to "sus", attempted theft, cannot be analysed into police divisions in the same way as the statistics which were given to me for "sus"; therefore one cannot tell in cases where "sus" is used extensively in a police division whether the number of offences of attempted theft is that much lower, which would help to establish the case. On the other hand, the Rev. Jack Pawsey of Camberwell has said to me: It is the reverse of a deterrent. Faced with a charge and conviction for something he never did, the accused joins the growing band of young people for whom it is irrelevant whether something is lawful or not. This builds up villains". It is clear that the case asserted by the working party for the use of "sus" as a deterrent is not upheld by all police forces in the country or by all police divisions within the area of Greater London. London, Liverpool and Manchester account for 17 per cent. of the population of England and Wales, but they account for 74 per cent. of the people proceeded against for "sus".

To take some figures recently given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in a recent Parliamentary Answer, for Greater London, in the second quarter of 1978 there were 81 arrests in Lambeth, 37 in Brent and Harrow, 30 in Wandsworth, 22 in Haringey and Enfield, 17 in Lewisham and Bromley, and four in Greenwich and Bexley, I doubt whether there is any other offence to show such an extraordinary variability within the area of Greater London. The figures given to me by Lord Harris also demonstrate that West Indians are far more likely to be charged with the offence of "sus" than whites or other ethnic minorities. In the four divisions I just mentioned, the percentages of West Indians to the total arrested during that quarter were, respectively, 80, 38, nine, 23 and nil.

Some people may like to believe that those figures merely reflect a greater propensity of West Indians to commit certain types of crime, but if that were so the figures might be expected to be roughly in proportion to the West Indian populations of the police divisions in question, and that clearly is not so. In that second quarter of 1978, 65 West Indians were arrested in Lambeth, which has a total new Commonwealth American ethnic origin population of 29,488; in Brent and Harrow, where there are slightly more West Indians, 31,859, there were only 14 arrests of West Indians; and in Haringey and Enfield, where there are slightly fewer West Indians, 25,211, there were only two arrests. One can see, therefore, that there is an enormous variation in the use of this charge against West Indians from one police area to another.

Others will conclude, as I do, that the report of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration on the West Indian community of 1977 had some relevant things to say on the subject which have been either glossed over or forgotten. I would remind your Lordships that the Select Committee accepted that the police share the host community's prejudices, that these influence them in the course of their duties and that there is some harassment of West Indians, especially the younger ones. It is only too likely, therefore, that at least some of the "sus" charges against young blacks have been trumped up by officers affected indirectly by racism or, to put a more favourable construction on it, that those charges would have been based on observations coloured by the stereotype image of young blacks as troublemakers which some policemen have. There is already in the West Indian community an extremely powerful feeling of hostility of which I am sure your Lordships are aware, towards the police, and this is no longer true only among the young people. It extends, I am sorry to say, increasingly to the older generation, who see their own or their friends' children being punished for offences which nobody thinks they committed. Thus, in the end the result is that the police will be seen as the enemies of the whole of the West Indian population, and the enforcement of the law in general will, by that process, be made more difficult.

This law is opposed by the vast majority of intelligent people who have examined it outside the Home Office, and particularly by those who are concerned with the preservation of our civil liberties. Alternative charges are available where there is real evidence that a crime is about to be committed. There is no evidence that "sus" acts as a deterrent, and many police forces hardly use it at all. It causes untold damage to race relations. Now is the time to abolish it. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Avebury.)


My Lords, while the noble Lord might have a lot of sympathy in this House if he were to deal with his case on the basis of a crime having to be certain in its language, is he aware that he might lose a lot of sympathy if part of his case is to allege corruption of the police or prejudice on the part of the police and, indeed, incompetence of our courts?


My Lords, I am not sure whether it is proper for me to reply after the Question has been put. However, the words which I was quoting were taken almost exactly from the report of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration which did not seem to excite any particular controversy at the time. I thought that it was generally accepted that the police were simply a microcosm of the community as a whole, and that therefore it was inevitable that there were some officers in the police force who were motivated by racist considerations. Furthermore, while immense precautions have been taken throughout the Metropolitan Police to minimise the damage that this may cause, nevertheless some of the arrests which we have been discussing may have been effected by officers who are prejudiced, or by officers who, as I said, while not immediately prejudiced them- selves, have their observations coloured by the sterotype image which has been formed in the police of young blacks as troublemakers. It would be extremely unwise of your Lordships to sweep this matter under the carpet and to pretend that nothing of that kind takes place within the Metropolitan Police.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord about one point before he sits down. I understood him to say that in his view magistrates always took the side of the police. May I ask him upon what he bases that view?


It is based, my Lords, upon the large number of cases that have been analysed by the Runnymede Trust, and which are dealt with in some detail in its report.

1.1 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid that it must be a reflection upon my intelligence that I cannot join in an automatic and wholesale rejection of this branch of the law. On the contrary, it seems to me to be a particularly difficult subject, and one where I hope I can put forward a balanced approach to your Lordships for your consideration. It is said that there is a law here which is causing injustice, and if that is so, I should be the first to support the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in bringing the matter to Parliament. It is also said that a particular sector of the community is suffering this injustice more than others, and if that is so, Parliament should be particularly vigilant to look into the matter. That must be a case which would apply generally, but not least if it is said that damage is being done to race relations as a result. There again Parliament must be very careful.

Injustice may be caused by the law itself, or it may be caused by the way in which the police and the courts either are, or are said to be, applying it; and this I think is the point of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve. Certainly as to the law itself, I should be the first to presume that an Act passed in 1824, in the circumstances which the noble Lord has described, and which has not been amended since 1871, and last in 1891 as to substance, probably needs to be looked at again. I believe that this point is unlikely to be challenged by anybody.

However, I am a little afraid that much of the complaint derives not actually from the contents of the law itself, but from the way in which it is being administered. We certainly ought to provide the police and the courts with clear-cut rules and with proper tools with which to carry out their functions. If they are having difficulties in administering this law, that is one thing, but simply to complain about the way in which they are doing it on a selective basis seems to me perhaps less than helpful.

I believe that first we should consider the conduct that this criminal offence catches. Five minutes past midnight a police constable saw a respondent looking, apparently with interest, at the back of a large shop. He saw the respondent go round to the back of the premises, followed him, and lost sight of him. Shortly afterwards he found the respondent, whom he obviously suspected of being up to no good, up some scaffolding which would have enabled him to break into the place, the back of which he had hitherto been observed looking at. The police constable thereupon arrested him. At that time the respondent was only a trespasser on the scaffolding. He had not attempted to break in. He was charged with being a suspected person. He admitted that he intended to commit a felony. In fact he was not convicted because there was not sufficient time between the two parts of the offence. That case did not involve a teenager from Brixton. It occurred somewhere quite different in 1950.

Another police constable saw the respondent near a terminus in Birmingham on a Sunday. There were a number of people about to board a bus, and the respondent pushed among them. He had his hands before him, and he was seen to tap the pockets of persons. He did not attempt to board the bus himself, though there was plenty of room upon it, and when it started he went back on to the footpath. A second and a third bus arrived at the terminus and on each occasion the respondent repeated his activities. He then moved to another street and did the same. Actually I have corrupted that account because it did not involve buses, but rather tramcars, in Birmingham in 1916. That did not involve teenagers from Brixton, whether black or white.

There is a very long story about a chap in the West End who was seen by a chauffeur all over Soho trying car doors. He went into a pub and came out again. The police were brought, and they watched him for three hours. He actually got into one car, but there was nothing in it. In street after street he looked at all the cars and he tried the rear doors of most of them and the front doors; of some. At about midnight, after three hours, he was arrested.

My Lords, those are three of the very typical kinds of activity with which the police have to deal and which come before the courts. The last one which I described occurred in 1936, and so I do not think that that involved teenagers in Brixton standing on the street corners, either.

Clearly this is a law which is used as a preventive measure. One of the things that the Home Office working party asked Parliament to do was this. They asked Parliament, because they did not think that it was right that they should do so themselves, to consider whether this application of the criminal law should continue as a preventive measure, or—they put it another way—as a measure of social control. I think that the noble Lord would do them justice in saying that they did not seek to make that decision themselves. They said that it was for Parliament to do that, and that is why I welcome this debate today. Although I am not a card-carrying member of the KGB, or indeed of DINA, I am not convinced that this branch of the criminal law has lost its utility. It is said that in some areas the Act is not used, or used hardly at all, but that it is in conurbations that it has its main impact. I do not find this wholly surprising. It sounds to me like an urban crime. Although I hope that I shall not be proved wrong tomorrow morning, in my part of Suffolk I should not have thought that the opportunities are quite as great as they are in Soho, nor is the opportunity of police supervision quite so great, either.

Among the statistics that I have found is this. In one year or other which was being compared 17 cases were brought under this legislation by the Avon and Somerset police, whose area includes that of Bristol. Those who would wish to abolish this offence altogether might ponder this: Do they think that the potential victims of all those 17 cases in the area of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary should have the protection which is granted to them by this law wholly removed? More so, do they think that the much greater number of people who are at the moment protected by this measure in the conurbations should have their protection wholly removed?—and, my Lords, wholly or at least very largely removed it would be, because the noble Lord has suggested the alternatives. I quite take the point that if somebody is to try car doors, and he has a bunch of keys, which he jingles along, trying key after key, he is going equipped with the means to commit theft. That would be a perfectly proper charge, and that would do the trick—more than do the trick. But that is not what happened in the Soho case. There, the man had no keys; he had no equipment at all.

Then there is attempted theft. That sounds all very well until you see what the courts have said about it. Here is a case three years ago in Wrexham: The defendant was employed as a clerk by a company in Wrexham. On that day she took a wallet from the drawer of the manageress. She looked into it to see if it contained any money. The justices found that both when taking it and when looking into it she had the intention of stealing money from the wallet and would have taken money from it if there had been any in it. There was in fact no money in the wallet. Held, on the facts of the case that the defendant could not be convicted of the attempted theft of money because the commission of the substantive offence was in the circumstances impossible". My Lords, apply that——


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. If the only observation of this woman was that she looked into the purse, that was a single observation and she could not have been done for "sus" anyway.


No, my Lords; and nor could a person who looked in 14 cars, in which it turned out there was nothing to steal, be done for attempted theft. This is the trouble; and this law can be applied all over the sort of activities that I have illustrated to your Lordships by reported cases which have been dealt with by the superior courts.

The noble Lord also mentioned Section 2(5) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. This occurred when Parliament abolished the difference between misdemeanours and felonies and re-asserted the power of a policeman to arrest a person whom, with reasonable cause, he suspected of being about to commit an arrestable offence. We had invented the dreadful term "arrestable offence" on that occasion. The difficulty about this is that the only remedy is to take the person before the magistrates and have him bound over. It is quite true—and I am sure my noble friend Lady Macleod knows this very well—-that if there is then a breach of the binding over there is a power to commit the person concerned to prison for quite a long time. Actually, that is the only thing that can be done other than letting him off altogether. I do not think that that is necessarily a very suitable answer. It is rather like, is it not, the rule whereby every dog has one bite free. I should have thought that the proceedings on a breach of a binding over order on a second occasion, if that was the only way in which this sort of activity could be caught, would be likely to be criticised as even more arbitrary and unpredictable than the present rules which are applied in the case of an offence under the Vagrancy Act; and certainly if that was the sole bulwark left I would be particularly unhappy that we were not substituting something even worse than that which is now criticised.

It must be, I suspect, my Lords, for reasons such as this that almost everybody who has considered this matter has concluded that what we really need to do is to redefine this offence. The Law Society say so, the Home Office Working Party say so—and they both give suggestions—and even, in fact, as a second string, do the Runnymede Trust. I must pay tribute to the report produced by the Runnymede Trust. I doubt whether I have ever seen a document which is so fair in the way in which it puts these matters, and a more helpful one I would find it hard to discover. But they, too, say that, although they would prefer to see the offence abolished altogether, if it is not they wish to see redefinition. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, does not, and that, I am afraid, is where I wholly disagree with him.

We are in trouble about this Bill because it is fundamental to it—and this must be the principle that underlies any Second Reading that it should receive—that it solely abolishes the offence and puts nothing in its place. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, were to say that he would abandon the Long Title, the Short Title and the underlying principle, and would be prepared to see the insertion at the Committee stage of a new offence to take the place of this, which we could then discuss in some detail, then I think we might be making some progress. Of course, on that occasion we could consider all the complaints which have been made about the evidence which needs to be brought—whether it should be confined solely to the police or whether there should be an independent witness; whether there should be a case for jury trial or whether it should continue to be dealt with solely by the magistrates, and so on. At the moment the principle of the Bill allows none of this, and I myself find this unacceptable.

There is one other qualification and difficulty. I have, with due humility, from time to time attempted to draft Amendments to legislation. I think there was only one occasion when I got it right, and that was for the fourth time of trying. Even with the skill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others who would take part from the Back Benches, I think it unlikely that we would on our own be able to provide a satisfactory, watertight and workable alternative to the present offence. We could possibly do it if Parliamentary counsel were to assist us and if the noble Lord, Lord Harris, could offer the assistance of the Home Office. But unless we can have assistance from that quarter—because we cannot do it as Back-Benchers or from the Opposition Front Bench—and unless the noble Lord is prepared to rethink altogether his main concept of abolition, then I would suggest to the House that this Bill ought to proceed no further today.

1.16 p.m.


My Lords, while supporting the Motion before the House, I do not altogether agree with either of the two speakers who have addressed your Lordships so far. Of course, what everybody knows is that this old Act—154 years old, tending to deal with the position after the Napoleonic War—has been highly criticised by numerous bodies for years and years, but has never yet received the consideration of Parliament. I did not know it but we have been told, and I accept it, that it is 44 years since the National Council for Civil Liberties first criticised it. I do know that it is; 10 years since that Left-Wing revolutionary body, the Law Society, condemned it in their publication. The terms of the recent resolution from the National Association of Probation Officers at their annual meeting were: This Association opposes the continued use of suspected person charges under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, believing such charges to be unsound in principle, open to abuse in practice and thus contrary to natural justice. We resolve to campaign with other interested groups to secure this reform of the law". I must say that I myself find it very difficult to equate this law with the rule of law at all. I should have thought that we should nearly all of us have agreed that a proper criminal law should provide, so far as it can, that those who commit criminal offences should be punished and, if necessary, sent to prison, while those who do not commit criminal offences should be acquitted. Here in this law—and it is the only one I know of in English law—a man of unblemished character can be sent to prison for three months, without the right to trial by jury, when he has not committed any criminal offence and cannot even be convicted of an attempt to commit a criminal offence, merely because there is evidence that he intends to do so.

This has very long been awaiting consideration. All the race relations bodies, from the literature they send me, are very alive to the grave harm which in various parts of the large conurbations this is doing to race relations as between the coloured community and the police; and it is clear from the figures recently given by the Government that, in some areas of London where the black population is 5 per cent., the percentage of those who are convicted under this old Act is nearly 50 per cent. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, will be able to tell us further about the effect it has.

I propose to support the Second Reading of this Bill, but simply because what so many of us wanted for so long is just that Parliament should have an opportunity to consider this whole legislation which I think everybody agrees ought in any case to be revised if only on the question of wording. It has been reported that Mr. Arthur Latham when recently addressing a meeting said that the previous day he had received a Written Answer from the Minister of State, Home Office, Mr. Brynmor John, in which he said that the Government had accepted in principle the recommendations of the 1976 Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences and intend to seek suitable legislative opportunities in the present Parliament.

It worries me to think that Ministers of State should spend sleepless nights seeking opportunities for Parliament to consider this branch of our law. Here is the opportunity now. This House can alter the Long Title of the Bill; the Government can put down in Committee any proposed alternative legislation they like. I am very glad indeed that, while the Government have been worrying as to how they could obtain a suitable legislative opportunity, here we are at the Second Reading of this Bill. And if your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading we shall have that opportunity. I hope we take it.

1.22 p.m.


My Lords, I have a certain reticence in speaking following a noble and learned ex-Lord Chancellor on a subject on which I cannot be professionally very knowledgeable; but, on the other hand, I did have the opportunity, the good fortune, perhaps, to have a grandfather who was a very distinguished officer of the police in the Royal Irish Constabularly. He happened to resign on the day of my birth—longer ago than I care clearly to remember—but he lived on to the age of 90 so that I had a good deal of opportunity of learning at his feet something of the difficulties of police work. In his day it was not a difficulty of dealing with colour for I do not think there was very much of a coloured population in Ireland before the first world war. But there were very real difficulties of the same sort in dealing with religious problems which, so far as I can make out, are still not entirely solved in that country.

The two things that he sought to instil in me as a young person were these. The first was that you should try to achieve the highest possible quality you can in your selection of policemen, people who would be trained to be both very skilled and, if possible, to have the highest integrity that you could achieve. But the second—and this was equally important—was that if you were successful in the first, then you must expect Parliament and the public to support the police to the greatest possible effect.

I have had since no connection with Ireland, except by reading the newspapers. But in the last 20 years I have had considerable contact with Jamaica. I happened to buy a house there for my mother who enjoyed it very much. I did that because in Jamaica, of all the places that I have visited, and I have been in many places in the world, there was in those days less feeling of colour than in any other country that I have visited. I myself am now, and always have been, extremely pleased to be with coloured people, particularly Jamaicans, because I enjoy being with them. It worries me, therefore, a great deal when there are cases as described by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his speech today in which it is said that the police have a particular reason for being unfair to coloured people. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, that terminology, particularly if the Act happens to have been written 150 years ago, is likely to be difficult. I find legal terminology often difficult even when it is written only a year or two ago.

I wonder whether the problems that faced London after the Napoleonic Wars were so very different from those which face London and many of our big conurbations today. I am not going to argue about whether the terminology is good or bad. In most legal things, I do not understand it whichever it is. I make no apology for that. But I believe that this particular Act was conceived by the Parliament of the day as something which was designed to protect the citizen from the likelihood of crimes on the street. In the last 20 years or so, is it not the fact that crimes on the street have been increasing by leaps and bounds year after year?—whether by black people or white people, to me is totally irrelevant. It is a period in which that type of crime—the muggings, the car stealings and such things—is increasing only too painfully obviously.

If we are to repeal this Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has suggested, and not put anything in its place, I think that we are opening the floodgates to those people who I believe are deliberately trying to make difficulties for the police—and, of course, there are opportunities for doing it. There are policemen who are not as high-principled as I or many of your Lordships might believe; but I think it is a very concerted effort by certain people to create problems for the police. If we repeal this, what is going to be the next action of those people? They are going to attack, perhaps, the process (which I do not fully understand) of the law of attempt. That will be the next one; and, one by one, the police powers (which I believe that they should have) to prevent crime will be whittled away. I do not believe that it is really right for your Lordships to think that any police force in the country believes that their task will be made easier by creating confrontation between blacks and whites, or between Catholics and Protestants or, indeed, between Conservatives and Liberals, or Labour and Liberals.

My Lords, this is not the duty of the police, Their duty must be, and always has been, to be fair and honourable among all people. If we take the view that the police are wrong, then let us make certain that we know upon what grounds we are taking that view and not merely report rumours and, I believe, report statistics most of which, if you study them with care, you could shoot any number of holes through. If Section 4 remains the only check that there is on what one might call open criminality on the streets, even if it is defective—and I agree that it may be so—surely it is our duty as Parliament to bring in something which is an effective check on open criminality in the streets. I myself should be extremely unhappy for it to be removed—which is what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has asked for—unless we have some other method of helping the very large number of citizens of all colours, religious and persuasions who are in danger as they walk around many of our urban areas at night.

1.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to take up the point made by the noble Lord who has just spoken. How far different from when this Act was first placed on the Statute Book is the situation in the vast cities today? I am an Inner London dweller and I am also a magistrate in Inner London. I think I can speak with some knowledge. I found it very strange that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, constantly referred to West Indians. In the school of which I am chairman of governors, we have a large number of white children and a large number of black children. Without exception, the children have been born in London. I prefer to refer to them as Londoners; indeed, in court the only reference ever made, as I recall, is where the individual lives. It is a pity to be so emotive when trying to deal with an issue of this kind.

We read that in 1824 suspicious persons might be loitering by waterways and so on. Where would they be loitering today? They would be loitering in car parks, for example. If your Lordships doubt this in one week I have had three friends who in different cities—all cities because these are offences of the conurbations—have had the boots of their cars; successfully emptied and anything loose within the car removed. Listening to one of the phone-in programmes on a London radio station the other evening—and these programmes are very revealing—a woman said that she had a small shop in London—she would not disclose the area—and each morning saw groups of youths—she did not describe their colour—assembling by a bus stop. They were there all day long and she said she had seen them stealing from people. The presenter said: "Why do you not tell the police?". She replied, "What! And get my shop window kicked in".

These youths were obviously loitering with intent to steal, as they were suspicious persons. A third area that I should like to refer to is the new shopping precincts. I have been around a number of these and there are curious rules governing them in many cases because they are private property and therefore the police cannot patrol them. But it is always the case that within all these shopping precincts there are a large number of young people, whether it is a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Being an ex-teacher I consider they are of an age which makes them obvious truants. No one can approach them and no one does so. They linger a little while but their next act is invariably to enter a shop and to steal. They are suspicious persons.

I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, slightly condemns magistrates. He seems to have a rather poor opinion of their intelligence and hearing. When he said that two policemen used the same set of notes, it was not the same as he said subsequently, that two policemen had similar notes. I should have thought that if people reported the same incident it would not be unreasonable if their notes were similar. Magistrates are given notes of conduct. They are given a lot of instruction and assistance. We do not sit there as illiterates; we try to administer the law and attempt to listen very carefully to everything that is said. We are told in relation to this particular charge of a suspected person that the evidence may consist of suspicious conduct, such as trying doors or feeling pockets. Evidence of previous convictions is admissible to prove the defendant is a suspected person even if the convictions were not known to the person who was keeping the defendant under observation. I do not think that there is any other way that one can deal with this matter.

It might have been better if certain policemen within the Palace of Westminster had been more suspicious of some of the people recently who have been flinging things about when they entered the premises. But there is no way you can tie up precisely a crime, or are we always going to wait until the crime is committed before we do something? It is relevant to remind ourselves that the original description of the police—and, so far as I know, it still remains a description—is the keeper of the Queen's Peace. In other words, in order to prevent crime. We have latterly come to accept they merely detect and catch criminals. But primarily they are there to prevent crime. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that if he does not think there are any incorrigible rogues about nowadays he cannot have read some of the descriptions of gentlemen who go around with shotguns shooting people before they even attempt to rob them. I would say the incorrigible rogue is as much with us today as ever was, though obviously there is not likely to be a suspected persons charge for him.

If we look at the cases which come before us in the courts in Central London, it is salutary to recognise that so far as I can recall in Great Marlborough Street and Bow Street we have had very few of the colour to which the noble Lord appears constantly to refer. We had a number described as coming from Scotland: perhaps we should now fear that the Scots will say that this is prejudice against them. It was certainly true that outside Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and at Piccadilly Circus Underground station there were the same individuals who loitered. Obviously they were either keen on going into the Abbey, although they never did so; they were either keen on entering the Houses of Parliament, although they never did so; or keen to travel on the Underground, though they never bought a ticket.

I seriously suggest that there could be no other way that one could deal with this type of individual, I feel very strongly about this because on Friday of last week my gentle daughter-in-law had her purse snatched at a bus stop by two youths who followed her off the bus. That was not a suspicious person; that was definite theft. They were not caught. But these same people had been hovering about at the bus stop prior to this particular action, as we now discover. This is the virtue of this particular offence. The magistrates are sensible enough to demand evidence. The first thing you ask is: what was the arrestable offence? I would say over a number of years, having heard this, naturally it will apply to big cities but it would be very unfortunate if we did not have something of this character.

I am with those of your Lordships, particularly the knowledgeable ones, like the noble Viscount, who suggest that we can devise some other type of offence. It would be a sad day if we removed yet another power from the police. Already we make their job very difficult; I should be the last one to want to add to that. Perhaps we might recall that the word "Spiv" actually came from "suspected persons and itinerant vagrants". The vagrants may not be quite so itinerant nowadays but they are with us. I should certainly not be a party to trying to make the job of the protection of the law-abiding more difficult.

1.38 p.m.


My Lords, even if there was not experience and evidence of the way in which this particular law is being abused, one could with common sense readily anticipate the potential of its abuse by the terms in which it is worded. It has three ingredients, each of which is wholly unsatisfactory. First, it has to be shown that the person concerned is a suspected person. In every other branch of the law to be a suspected person may be sufficient—but only if suspicions are reasonable—for one to be arrested. It is never sufficient for a crime to be proved against one and for one's liberty to be taken away.

Secondly, it has to be shown that one was loitering in a public place. All sorts of people loiter in public places: unemployed people loiter because they have nowhere else to go. Badly housed people loiter in public places because they do not like staying inside. Children after school loiter; teenagers loiter; window-shoppers loiter; people waiting for buses and taxes loiter. Yet, there is something dirty about the word "loiter". No doubt it was originally used to describe people considered to be the riff-raff of society in the 19th century, and all too easily it can now be used to describe those who are thought to be riff-raff by enforcers of the law.

The third ingredient is "with intent to commit an offence"—an equally monstrous ingredient, I would suggest. Normally it is not a crime to intend to commit a crime except in the rather special case of a conspiracy, when several people agree to commit a crime. The reason why it is not a crime to intend to commit a crime is that it is unsafe to act on what is merely in somebody's mind—something which has not yet been done. It is unsafe and oppressive, and almost unknown in the law. We had an example of it recently in connection with the Official Secrets Act, when one person was charged with "an act preparatory to committing an offence". The judge would not allow it to go to a jury because he said it was too oppressive to allow people to go before the courts when it is not suggested that they have committed a substantive offence.

So in the suspected person cases, one of two things will happen: either no arrestable offence will have been committed, in which case I suggest it is oppressive and unsafe to curtail somebody's liberty, or an overt act has been committed, in which case the person concerned should be charged with an offence. I reject the argument that there is a need for an offence which is less than an offence. The public are protected by the laws of burglary, theft and robbery and all the other armoury of offences in the Theft Act and other statutes; and if the price for the protection of the public must be that the police must observe a little bit longer and arrest people when an offence has been committed, then that is; the price to be paid for the liberty of the subject. We must remember that too many abuses are committed around the world in the name of preventive justice, with people being arrested by the police because it is thought, feared or believed that they are about to commit an offence even though they have not yet done so.

In all the cases that have been put forward in the working party and elsewhere as examples of the need for a suspected persons offence, the answer I would give is this. Either there is evidence in those examples of a substantive offence being committed or else there would have been if the police had been a bit more persevering and a bit more hard-working and i', instead of just observing suspicious behaviour, they had waited to see whether or not an offence was committed—because, if it was not, the person should not be arrested but, if it was, then there would be better means of proving the actual offence.

So the law depends on an assessment of what sort of person you are, the way you behave and what is in your mind. It is no answer to say that in practice various overt acts are alleged: that is not the point. The very wording of this is an invitation to officers who have an instinct that someone is up to no good to act on those instincts before any proof is forthcoming. All too often, as I shall indicate in a moment, the evidence is subsequently embroidered so as to put before the court that overt acts have been committed when they have not. All too often the instinct which leads an officer to arrest the suspect is the result not of reasonable suspicion but of prejudice or preconception.

So much for what one might expect merely by looking at the law itself. But that is not really why we are here discussing it today. The reality is that this charge is repeatedly being used as a weapon of harassment by police officers in the Metropolitan district and in other large cities, and the victims of the abuse are predominantly young black people. In a sense, this should come as no surprise when one remembers the ingredient of the attacks. This crime, as I have sought to show, is so defined as to permit police officers to give rein to their preconceptions and their prejudices, and in an era of widespread racism it is really no surprise that those in the police force who are racist turn towards a racial minority as the object of their suspicions and harass them by arresting them without cause on suspected persons charges.

Let us not live in Cloud Cuckoo-Land about the absence of racism in the police force. One does not have to be a demagogue or extreme Left-winger in order to recognise and research it. Recently there has been published a most impressive short document by the Catholic Commission for Racial Justice on the police and the black community in the Metropolitan area. They have talked to both sides, and it is worth reading what they found on talking to a police officer. In an interview with a police sergeant they record—and I quote: He admitted that some policemen are racist and that although they admit it to their friends and colleagues they do not make their views known to their superiors. He quoted a number of racist incidents he had experienced. Asked what he did in such situations, he said, Well, what can I do? You can't report it because you work with them—and who would take any notice?'. That is the end of the policeman's quote and the end of my quote from the Catholic paper. Let us then bear in mind that not only does racism exist but it is extremely difficult to check and it is being unchecked often by senior officers.

No doubt I and others who campaign for the abolition of the crime of "sus" are called upon to submit evidence of the abuse. I would submit it from three bases. The first comes from the acquittals themselves. They are of many kinds. I have noticed, reading a large number of reports and being involved in a large number of cases, that there are three varieties. There are cases where the evidence is insufficient even as led by the police officers. A typical case of that is the case of Mr. Adewunmi, reported in the Tottenham Herald on 17th February 1978. He was stopped as being a suspected person because he was seen in Oxford Street to walk closely behind two women and he had been followed because of the manner in which he was conducting himself. That is a minority, however. There at least the officer was being honest in what caused him to stop the man.

The second category are cases of proven perjury. There are cases where magistrates have been taken to the vantage point from which it is said certain things have been observed, and they have been able to see that no such things could possibly have been observed. There is the case in Tower Hamlets which is quoted in the Catholic paper I quoted earlier, of a black youth accused of picking pockets by the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Detailed evidence was given of what this man is said to have done by officers observing him from a particular vantage point. The magistrate was persuaded to go there and it was found that the vantage point did not and could not show those acts. The case of Errol Mark in Oxford Street, is a similar case in which, from a third floor window, police officers said they could see down into the street when in fact they could not. Those, again, are few in number.

The majority of acquittals are those where magistrates have been unsatisfied; I accept that quite frequently there have been cases where magistrates have been unsatisfied, even on the detailed evidence of police officers alleging specific allegations, that those officers are telling the truth. Quite apart from the acquittals, it would be my contention, as a practising lawyer and as someone just looking at the common sense of the matter, that for every person suspected for "sus" who is rightly acquitted there must be many who are wrongly convicted. The evidence is of police officers alone and of the defendant or defendants alone.

The evidence of the police officers purports to come from notebooks which they have made up in consultation, as they are permitted to do, and as they invariably do, so that the facts alleged are virtually identical. No corroboration is ever possible, one way of the other. That is why it is such a dangerous charge. If someone is accused of theft, there will be a victim; there will be stolen goods. If someone is accused of assault, there will be an injury to confirm that a crime has been committed. But in "sus" one is not to know, apart from the evidence of the prosecution witnesses, that the crime has even been committed.

There have been remarks made this afternoon about the approach of Benches to "sus" cases, and some, I readily accept, are very fair. But even so, there are bound to be many innocent people convicted. I would put the cases as of two kinds. One kind is of people who come before certain courts—and there are certain courts in London which are notorious, and rightly notorious, for the way in which magistrates or Benches believe without question and rubber-stamp the evidence of police officers. The other kind is of courts where the Bench, with the utmost goodwill, does not have the means of really determining the truth, the means of showing that a police officer, apparently of good character, apparently with no axe to grind, may have given perjured evidence, as has been proved in many cases. That is the evidence which comes from the cases themselves.

In addition to that, there is the evidence, much more diffuse, but to be taken notice of nevertheless, which comes from the community and from those who are close to it. In a submission of evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, entitled Fair Deal for All and published in October 1978, to which I shall have occasion to return, there is a quotation from an assistant headmaster, Mr. Russell Proffitt, on the experience that he has, as someone constantly involved with young people. This is what he says: Black youngsters don't use such technical terms as suspected person', loitering with intent'. To them it's victimisation, and to them it's harassment. It does exist and it does happen. It is not exaggeration because every opportunity you have to listen to youngsters, you will get repeated stories, time and time again, about being stopped, about being questioned, about being searched. There is a striking sameness about the descriptions offered by the blacks: repeatedly stopped, shouted at, searched, insulted, sometimes arrested, and sometimes convicted, when with intent' could well mean no more than looking in a shop window or waiting at a street corner with a friend. It could well be that all the youngsters have got together and made up a story that they could give whenever they are asked what their experience was. To my mind, that is impossible. It may well be that a fair percentage of what they have to say is true". Again and again, you will get those accounts given by people who work with young people. I have myself been a member of an informal gathering which took place in North London to inquire into the cases of suspected person arrests and convictions in Tottenham. It was difficult to make final judgments about any case, but from the witnesses who came forward, from the people who spoke from the floor, there is no doubt that there is widespread and repeated allegation that the powers of the police have been grossly abused in certain areas.

I come to the consequences of this, and to what we should do today. The consequences of this—and I recognise that "sus" is only an example, but an important one—are that there is spreading through the black community today, and especially among black youth, bitterness, suspicion, despair, hostility and alienation. The evidence of that is overwhelming and incontestable. The conclusion of the Runnymede Trust, whose report was praised by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is this: Arresting people on sus is, in the context of police/community relations, a counter-productive method of crime prevention. Its extensive use in parts of London and one or two other major towns has merely succeeded in convincing young blacks and their parents of the racial prejudice of the British police force and the inherent unfairness of the British legal system". The Catholic organisation, commenting on that concludes: We found nothing to contradict this conclusion and much to support it". Those are the conclusions of outside organisations which have tried to look into this problem. But I do not think—and I hope that I am not trespassing on your Lordships' time—that the debate would be complete without the view of those who look at it from the inside.

The same report to which I referred earlier was compiled by a number of highly responsible people—Mr. Foster, an ex-policeman, Mr. Udo, the manager of International Personnel, Miss Phoenix, an MBE, law centre workers, lawyers, community workers and the Reverend Manning, a priest. This is its conclusion, and I beg your Lordships to take it seriously: The black community, in its relations with the police and the law in general, does not get a fair deal. The police use their powers unfairly against black people by constant harassment, brutality, raids and mass arrests of black youths, and are insensitive to crimes committed against black persons and property… Certain laws have been passed specifically to deny black people their basic human rights; and some Judges are inclined to apply the laws unfairly against blacks. Police and courts treat members of the black community in this unfair manner because of the inherent racism in British society. The overall effect of the unfair treatment dealt to blacks is the growing degree of alienation of the black community from the white community and the worsening state of race relations generally. If a multi-racial society is sought for in Britain, then the existing British institutions—economic, education, law etc.—must be restructured to accommodate blacks. In the final analysis, police-black problems are deeply rooted in societal problems". Lest that be thought exaggerated or hysterical, let it be remembered that it is the thought of responsible people working in the black community, and not something published in newspapers so as to inflame the people. It is something that was put forward to a Royal Commission. These are people seeking to work through constitutional channels, seeking to make the establishment aware of the reality of the situation on the ground.

What, then, is to be done? I accept that my speech has ranged wider than the crime of suspected person alone, but the abolition of "sus" is one of a number of actions which is uniquely within the power of your Lordships' House. It is a legislative action, and it is one that is being fervently called for by the organisations and individuals to whom I have referred. Of course, it is only part of the solution but it is a step which we must take. If we take it, it will show that we are ready to listen and learn and respond One can ask: what is democracy, if it is not to respond to a cry for help, and increasingly a cry of anger, coming from a substantial section of the population.

If we refuse to listen to it, if we say "We must wait and see. You are perhaps not so important as a lobby as other people, and we must back the police", we are saying to that section of the people that there is little object in their seeking the redress of their grievances by constitutional means. That, I fear, will be the message that goes out if the vote of this House, or the overall decision of this House, reflects the stony-hearted reaction, which he justifies in the name of balance, of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the equally insensitive reaction which has come so far, and which I hope will not come later today from those who answer for the Government. If we do not listen, we are driving a further wedge into our community. We are stoking up the kind of conflicts that noble Lords wish to avoid. I urge your Lordships, with such authority as experience of these tensions can give me, to give a Second Reading to this Bill.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to say that I am not an insensitive reactionary merely because I dare to disagree with the noble Lord's point of view. This happens to be a democracy in which each individual is allowed to state his point of view without receiving the rather harsh comments which I think the noble Lord handed out.


My Lords, I rise again only to say that I do not recall having handed out harsh comments to the noble Baroness. I recall saying harsh things about certain Benches in this country, but I specifically excepted the noble Baroness from any particular strictures.

2 p.m.

Viscount MONCK

My Lords, I always feel a little nervous about supporting the police in their powers, because a little voice comes from the back of my mind saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I". The fact is, however, that there is only one member of my family who has been under suspicion from the police. That was my mother-in-law. She was breathalysed because they said that her car was wobbling about the road. As her daily intake consists of one glass of sherry, they were disappointed in their efforts. They eventually discovered that one tyre of her car was slightly down and that this was making the poor old dear wobble. I have to confess that she will be furious with me for having mentioned her if she listens tomorrow to the BBC; she did not know that I was going to do so.

The whole of my family, myself included, are innocent of loitering with intent, and that is why I am prepared to enter the lists. I always try to obtain the opinion of both sides when a question like this is raised. In this case, the two sides are the police top brass and those who loiter with intent. I consulted the police top brass. They are the top brass in a country shire and have nothing whatever to do with a metropolitan district, London or anywhere else. I obtained quite a lot of information from them, but after using my best endeavours I could not find anybody who confessed to loitering with intent. I tried very hard, but the suggestion made to me was that, knowing that this Bill was on the stocks, they had all gone underground in the hope that the Bill would become an Act so that they could then continue with their nefarious proceedings without fear of being arrested.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has told us that a working party was appointed in 1971 to consider this question. It reported in 1974—rather a long period. In fact, it was so long that one poor member of the working party died before the report was publised. The composition of this working party was as follows: seven from the Home Office, one from another Government Department, one from the Department of the Director of Prosecutions and four police. Your Lordships may think that it was a rather weighted gathering—that is, weighted against the police. Nevertheless, their conclusion was as follows: Our provisional view is that an offence on the lines of the existing offence of being a suspected person under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 is still necessary". I shall read the whole of their conclusions if noble Lords wish, but I dare say that they would prefer to be spared. That is the conclusion to which the working party came.

In my humble opinion, the numbers and powers of the police have, over the years, been reduced. The former must be increased and the latter must not be reduced. Perhaps it is not fully understood that this Bill will also reduce the powers of private persons. If a private person sees someone acting suspiciously in the street, he can hold the chap or "chapess" until the police arrive. Such people should be encouraged and not discouraged. There are too many people today who, as in the story of the Good Samaritan, pass by on the other side.

There are certain forms of stealing which it would be very difficult to combat without a suspected person charge. There is the case of a chap in a car park who is seen going around trying doors. Here may I introduce the case of the innocent bloke. If you go around trying the doors of certain cars in a car park, the cars not being your own, and it is only because you are boxed in that you are doing so, in the hope of finding some method of egress, the explanation is perfectly simple, perfectly innocent and I am sure would be believed.

In this connection, I should like to mention a rather amusing cartoon which appeared some years ago in the Police Gazette. The scene was a car park, with a police constable and another man. The police constable says: "I've been watching you for 10 minutes, sir, trying to find the car that fits your key". That is typical of car park thieves. They do not act if anybody is about, so their actions can be seen only from a distance. Therefore it is virtually impossible to be sure that anything is taken. If the suspected person charge is removed, the police will be absolutely hamstrung. They are also hamstrung in the case of pickpocket gangs, which I shall not go into in detail because I do not wish to delay your Lordships.

As most of your Lordships know—anyway, those who live on the right side of Hadrian's Wall and Offa's Dyke—there is an area in the south of England that is known as the New Forest. It is called "New" because it is only 900 years old. This particular place is a favourite spot for picnickers and it is notorious for car thieves. What happens is that they steal and immediately hide their booty. They come back to fetch it later. If the police are about in the park, the car thieves, of course, do nothing. So what the police do is to observe from some way off by using what the racegoer calls "bins". I call them glasses, but let us call them binoculars. By the time they have seen somebody acting suspiciously and have reached the spot it is impossible to prove theft by any particular person from any particular vehicle. Therefore, the suspicious person rule gives them the only chance possible of arresting the chap, or "chapess", whom they have seen acting suspiciously.

There was an interesting case in the New Forest concerning a certain gentleman who, so that I can absolutely avoid hurting the feelings of any of your Lordships, I shall call Adolf Hitler. Adolf was arrested as a suspicious person in 1975. When he came up for judgment, 122 other thefts were taken into consideration. In 1976—do not ask me why he was set free so soon—he was again arrested as a suspicious person, and 57 other offences were taken into consideration.

We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that a Royal Commission is sitting at the moment on the subject of police powers. Is it not rather foolish to abolish one small section of police powers when a full report is going to be made available? I have no hesitation in saying that I very much hope that we shall bury this Bill today and I would willingly send a wreath or, if donations in lieu are required, a donation to any reputable charity.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

2.10 p.m.


My Lords, I hope in the few minutes available to me to be able to change a few minds and to pursuade your Lordships to agree to give this Bill a Second Reading, because the law is bad. That is the one really firm ground on which we should change this law.

As has already been said, the section is all-encompassing. The Act was passed in 1824, at a particular period in Britain's history of which I am sure many of us are not too proud. The law is therefore 154 years old. It is about time we looked at it, even if we were to decide that we wanted to carry on; but I hope to be able to show why we should not agree to continue with it. As the noble and learned Lord the former Lord Chancellor said, it is the only offence for which a man with a previously unblemished character can find himself in prison without ever having committed an offence. That is quite serious. Moreover, as a result of many of the amendments and many of the interpretations which have been given, the powers under the Act are extensive. For example, as extensive as the wording of the 1824 Act is, there was an amendment in 1871 which further extended that; and I shall read Section 15 of the 1871 Act, which provides that: in proving the intent to commit a felony it shall not be necessary to show that the person suspected was guilty of any particular act or acts tending to show his purpose or intent", and that he may be convicted if, from the circumstances of the case, and from his known character as proved, it appears that his intent was to commit a felony.

Although there is a general rule in criminal proceedings debarring the prosecution from tendering evidence to show that the defendant is a bad character or is guilty of criminal acts other than the offence charged, Section 15 which I have just read abrogates that rule. Moreover, Lord Chief Justice Goddard in 1949 confirmed that, in these words: There is no doubt that under the words of that section, if strictly construed, the character of the defendant can be given in evidence and therefore previous convictions can be proof on the question whether he intended to commit a felony". But it did not stop there, because Lord Chief Justice Goddard went on to say: It must be obvious that the prosecution must be allowed to prove a man's previous convictions to show that he was a suspected person". Mr. Justice Humphreys in 1950 went further. He said this: The words suspected persons' in section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 and their meaning have been discussed in many cases, to most of which we think it is unnecessary to refer. No case would seem to have been reported which has raised this point, but in our opinion there is nothing in the Act or in any of the authorities to which our attention has been drawn to suggest that the previous convictions must be known to the arresting officers in order to prove that as a result of those convictions the person convicted became a suspected person". There he was giving a Judgment in the Court of Appeal.

I hope that your Lordships appreciate fully the magnitude of this legislation. It is not necessary for the police officer to know of any previous convictions or anything that shows the person to be a bad character in order to regard him as a suspected person. Moreover, it is not necessary to show that the person suspected was guilty of any particular act or acts tending to show his purpose or intent. That is the consequence of the Judgments I have been reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has told your Lordships, if a man is convicted a second time he is then deemed to be an incorrigible rogue, can be sent to the Crown Court and may be imprisoned for a year.

As a result, the judges, no doubt instigated and morally supported by the attitude of juries, enter into the most complex arguments of jurisprudence to avoid the consequences of this outdated legislation. There is a solid body of complex decisions from the High Court which generally control the actions of the magistrates. My noble friend read some of the directions which are handed on to the magistrates in this matter.

In order to convict any person of a criminal offence the law requires that two essentials must be fulfilled beyond reasonable doubt. The first is what lawyers call mens rea, which in layman's words I would translate as a "wicked intent"; and the second is what the law has called actus reus, which again I would interpret as a positive physical act. The point is that it is only under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act that a person may be arrested, charged and convicted without these things being present, except in the philosophical flights of fancy of the lawyers, because that is what is required in order to establish in this crime that there is both a mens rea and an actus reus.

In practice, therefore, justices of the peace—and they are the people who are in the main burdened with the administration of this law, and I speak as one of them—find that what they are really doing is having to convict persons who in reality the prosecution are alleging are attempting to commit a criminal offence. That is what it amounts to, and unless you really believe that this person would have committed a criminal offence you should hesitate to convict.

We are all aware that the law concerning the attempt to commit an offence is extremely complex and I am pleased that at least one noble and learned Lord who sat in a recent case before your Lordships' House is listening to this debate, because in its judicial capacity your Lordships' House has battled with this matter on several occasions in an attempt to arrive at a just and equitable decision. The last case on which I noticed that one noble and learned Lord who is now present was sitting is the case of Horton v. Smith. I am sure the noble and learned Lord knows what I am saying and he can certainly confirm the immense difficulty properly imposed on the prosecution when alleging an attempt to commit an offence. It is because Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act completely bypasses these difficulties that certain people want it retained. It is also because of that that certainly I, and, I know, many other people strongly argue that this legislation is completely outdated and should be repealed. It is legislation which is wrong in principle.

It is no use behaving as though when one argues this case one is being unfair to policemen or magistrates. The law is difficult for the police to enforce; it is difficult for magistrates to interpret. It is a bad law. What is more, a number of social surveys have been carried out in connection with persons most likely to be brought within this legislation, and it is quite clear that it is the least adequate persons, and probably those least capable of defending themselves, who are oppressed by this legislation.

The noble and learned Lord the former Lord Chancellor asked for my comments about the situation in the black community. Of course, it is inevitable that the blacks would be among the victims here. For one thing, they are the least defensible. They are the people least able to defend themselves at the moment in this society. But that is not all. It is no use pretending, as we do so often, that policemen are all saints. The police are a cross-section of society and there will be prejudiced policemen, just as there are prejudiced noble Lords. The society is as it is. If you pick a cross-section of society, some of them will be good men, some of them will be bad men; some will be prejudiced, some will have no prejudice; some will also be of criminal intent in the way in which they carry out their duties. You will have all kinds, and it is no use pretending that you can only have one kind. The law, therefore, must be such that people are not oppressed by it. The real schism of this Act is that it does harm to society, in that it puts many decent people in jeopardy; it creates terrible friction between the police and certain sections of the community, and, what is more, it is a very difficult law to interpret.

My Lords, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. Amend it if you wish; we can amend any Bill which comes before us. But let us at least look at it. This is our opportunity for looking at it. Let us look at it and see whether we can change the law. If we cannot abolish it—although I think we ought to abolish it—let us see whether we can improve it. Before coming here I talked to a lot of people in the law, and I have had a number of suggestions as to the ways in which this matter can be better dealt with. We will see what comes out on Committee. We will see what the Government have to say. My Lords, please give this Bill a Second Reading, and let us look at this old law, which in fact is a bad law.

2.23 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, before my noble friend rises, may I intervene for just 50 seconds. Unfortunately, I could not come to the early part of this debate, and therefore I have not been able to listen to the arguments on the law. But I think one should at least hope for some indication from my noble friend as to what guidance may be given to the Metropolitan Police. I say this because of a small incident that happened to me some 18 months ago when my handbag was snatched in Lower Sloane Street—a fairly reputable area as a rule. The very first question I was asked by the police, who came very rapidly to the spot, was, "Was he black?" I said that a youth had snatched my bag, and the very first thing they asked was, "Was he black?". As it happened, he was not. I think one should say that, because it came so spontaneously, and, plainly it seemed to them that the obvious first question to put to someone in that situation was, "Was he black?".

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.

The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

2.25 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE, (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I have listened with great care and attention to everything that has been said in the debate today. The issue we are discussing is obviously a matter of considerable importance, and I think that the debate we have had has been a very helpful one, both as far as the House is concerned and as far as the Government is concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Ave-bury, made it clear that in proposing this Bill his principal concern is with the maintenance of good community relations in general and the improvement of relations between the police and black youths in particular. I respect this concern and I acknowledge the sincerity with which the noble Lord holds this particular view. In my turn, I want to make it abundantly clear from the outset that, as I am sure does the whole House, the Government regard the maintenance of good community relations in this country as a matter of paramount importance, important both as an end in itself and as a necessary and significant element in the health of our community as a whole. This much I think is common ground; indeed it would be very surprising if it were not so.

Of course, as is widely recognised, the maintenance of good relations between the police and the public and between the police and the ethnic minorities is one absolutely crucial aspect of this matter. When one sees the experience outside this country, particularly in North America, where in the past the situation has been profoundly unsatisfactory, one becomes aware of the very high cost that is paid in terms of social tranquillity as a result of that very unsatisfactory situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, believes—and I certainly appreciate the clarity with which he has put forward this particular view—that the repeal of this suspected person offence would remove a cause of friction and that as a result it would serve the cause of good community relations. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Pitt put this even more strongly, and I know others also share this view. I share this general objective, but quite apart from other considerations, which I hope to set out in a moment or two, I do not believe that the Bill would in fact achieve that objective. Indeed, I think we have to face the fact that it might well have precisely the opposite effect.

Good community relations are possible only within an established framework of law fairly but firmly enforced. Any attempt to remove or weaken powers necessary to support this framework may, I fear, create anxieties and exacerbate the tension which we all wish to disperse. So this is not a debate between those who wish to secure good community relations and those who are absolutely indifferent to that objective. It is, among other things, a debate about the best means of achieving good community relations in this country and about the likely effect that this Bill would have upon them.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, did at one stage say one thing which, if he will forgive my saying so, appeared to be a marginal overstatement of his case. This was where he indicated that the vast majority of intelligent people outside the Home Office share his view on this Bill. It did seem to me a remarkably extreme statement. I am not quite sure on what evidence he bases it. I suspect that there are a very substantial number of people outside the Home Office, who would strongly contest the objectives of this Bill.

However, I must say that the slight overstatement of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pales into insignificance compared with the quite extraordinary speech made by my noble friend Lord Gifford. Let us remind ourselves of what he said. Everybody appeared to be a racialist: the police, of course, are racialist; the courts are racialist; and the judges are racialist. I wonder what effect he believes his words will have when reported outside this House. Does he really believe that they will do anything for good community relations in this country? It was, in my view, absolutely pernicious nonsense and it is clear that the effect of those words reported outside this House will do nothing to improve community relations and could, indeed, do precisely the reverse.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has made an attack on me and I think that I should reply. It may do damage if he misreports and misquotes my words. I did not say that all police, all courts, or all judges were racialist. I said that there was racialism to be found in the police force, on Benches and in the courts. Will the noble Lord not accept that that is so and indicate what his office is doing to improve that situation?—because if he is blind to it, then it is his office which is blind and discrediting and leading to the bad relations such as exist in North America, and not I, who am speaking as to what I find on the ground from my experience as a lawyer and a person involved in race relations.


My Lords, Members who are present can form their own view as to what the noble Lord has just said and relate it to what he said in his speech. I repeat: I think that he made a damaging speech and did damage to good community relations in this country. In particular, the point which I found in many senses most objectionable of all was the total blind indifference to everything that has been done not only by many people actively involved in community relations in this country, but also by a very large number of dedicated policemen, both in London and outside, to build bridges between themselves and the coloured community.

I think that it is most important to understand what this particular offence means in real terms. It is not just a question of someone acting suspiciously—that is not the offence. I remind noble Lords that the offence—which is; one of a number which appear in Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824—is that of being a suspected person or reputed thief frequenting or loitering in a street or place of public resort, et cetera, with intent to commit an arrestable offence. Of course, there are a number of decided cases relevant to the interpretation of the offence, and the effect of those is that a person can be charged as a suspected person when there are a number of incidents of suspicious behaviour which add up to something more than mere suspicion, but which fall short of an attempt. The offence requires not merely the formation of a criminal intent, but positive evidence of that intention in the form of a series of overtly suspicious acts.

The standard of proof required to secure a conviction is not below that required for the conviction of other offences and, of course, the burden of proof rests entirely upon the prosecution. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, quoted somebody as saying—indeed, I think it was a journalist working for Time Out—that if one was a black teenager, simply by standing on a street corner one put oneself in peril of being charged with this offence. I am bound to say that I do not believe that there is the slightest truth in that statement. I have just indicated the standard of proof required. I leave it to the House to judge whether what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said on this particular point—it was not really what he said but what the journalist on Time Out said—can, in fact, have any justification whatever.


My Lords, I certainly do not wish to shelter behind the particular journalist whose words I quoted, because I was endorsing those words by reading them to your Lordships. The case that was mentioned by, I think the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, was one where the magistrates went to the scene of the alleged offence and it was found that the police officers could not possibly have seen the youths standing at the bus stop where it was alleged that they had been attempting to "dip", and it proves that the journalist was correct.


My Lords, I obviously know nothing about the particular situation which has been mentioned by the noble Lord. All I can say is that if his case is that the person concerned was acquitted of this charge, then I am not clear what bis concern is. Of course it is a serious matter if unreasonable charges are brought against anybody for any offence—not just this offence but any offence. All I would say to the noble Lord as regards this is that we do now have in this country a more thorough system of dealing with complaints against the police than exists in any other country in the Western industrialised world. I am bound to say that I speak with personal knowledge of this matter—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is, I recognise, an expert on many matters, but I am pointing out to him that I have had the opportunity of discussing this with a number of people involved in both the administration of justice and the police service in most of the Western European countries and the United States. All I am saying to the noble Lord is that, on the basis of that knowledge, we have a more thorough system in this country than exists anywhere else either in Western Europe or in the United States. That is a fact.

Of course, I recognise that if people make a complaint and they do not believe that their complaint has been upheld, they may feel a sense of injustice, in the same way as if they go to court and do not win their action they also experience a sense of injustice. However, that does not mean that the system itself is unfair. If police officers behave unreasonably, and if it is alleged that they have committed a criminal offence, the case papers must be looked at by the Director of Public Prosecutions. If it is alleged that they have committed an offence against police disciplinary regulations, the papers now go to a board appointed by the Prime Minister, none of whose members are serving police officers or have at any stage been serving police officers. That seems to me to be a fairly impressive system which we have every reason to congratulate ourselves upon.

I once more turn back to this offence. As I have said, it was examined, along with others, by the working party whose report we have discussed today. It was a working party appointed by Mr. Maudling when he was Home Secretary and it reported in the lifetime of the present Government. As has been said, it consisted of a number of people—police officers, Home Office officials and officials of other Government Departments. It recommended that the Vagrancy Acts should be totally repealed and their provisions replaced, where necessary, by more modern offences.

In the case of suspected persons, the working party considered that an offence on the lines of the existing one remains necessary to deal with behaviour which falls short of any other criminal offence, or of an attempt to commit an offence, but which in the public interest ought to be punishable. On publication of the working party's report, which was in 1976, the Government announced that they accepted its recommendations in principle, and would seek suitable legislative opportunity to implement them.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has asked: Why do we need such an offence at all—this is really at the heart of the argument today—or an equivalent offence in a modernised form, as the Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences recommended? I think that the answer is pretty clear—namely, to deal with a number of situations where a person commits acts which clearly reveal his intention to commit a serious offence. It may be a group of intending thieves trying door handles—a case which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords who have spoken—who would otherwise be committing no offence whatever. Or, it may be others standing in bus queues—another example which has been cited—waiting for a chance to steal a housewife's purse. The Commissioner of Police has told the Home Office that the offence is viewed by his senior operational officers as an important measure for the prevention of crime, particularly at a time when the offences with which it is associated appear to be increasing. That is a fact which we have to take very seriously into account in a debate of this character.

I think it is right that we should look at the background to this problem. In the last few years there has been a substantial increase in the number of recorded offences of burglary, theft from the person and from motor vehicles. As the Commissioner says, if police observe these preparatory actions and have grounds for acting under the present law, it is surely in the public interests that they should intervene by arrest and so prevent the commission of the full offence. This early arrest can be for the benefit of the potential victim—if I may say so, a person not referred to in many of the speeches which have been delivered today, but who we, on all sides of this argument, have to take very seriously indeed.


My Lords, I referred to such people.


My Lords, the noble Viscount reminds me that he, in fact, referred to them. I am bound to say that it was not a point to the centre of the argument of many who have spoken in this debate. Let us examine the position of the potential victim for a moment. Do not forget that he will be the person who will be most affected if there is any delay in police intervention. It could result in unnecessary injury; it is not simply a question of, say, a purse being stolen; it is a question of the degree of violence which will be used—and often is used in street offences in London and elsewhere—to deprive someone of that purse. With great respect to all those concerned, this seems to me to be a most important aspect of this argument. I think that it is very difficult to deny that were we to have no offence of this character whatever—and there is common ground that it should be in a more modern form; there is no difficulty over that—there would be a serious risk that many people today who are prevented from suffering injury as a result of prompt action by the police, in the future would suffer quite significant injury. When discussing a matter of this sort, it is most important to consider this aspect.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made a number of criticisms about this offence. I think it is necessary for me to deal with one or two aspects of this matter now. In his speech the noble Lord suggested that it is inherently objectionable to rely on an archaic 1824 provision which seeks to control behaviour which would not otherwise be an offence or an attempted offence. Further, the people charged are found guilty on the basis of evidence given by the police without, as he said, independent corroboration. Since the police have, he suggests, stereotyped young black people as petty thieves, this tends to distort their observations of them when they are seen on the street, waiting at bus stops or at underground stations. Further, the point is made that other offences, such as attempted theft and going equipped for stealing, can be deployed just as well against pickpockets, bag-snatchers and car thieves.

Let me take the last point about alternative charges first, because it is a very important aspect. If it were to be valid, we would not, of course, need a suspected persons offence at all. On that point the noble Lord is undoubtedly absolutely right. But let me refer again to the views of the Commissioner of Police. He had told us—and I know that other senior officers of police share this view; indeed, many of them have told me that they share it—that the repeal of the existing offence under Section 4, without the substitution of a similar provision to deal with suspicious behaviour which falls short of an attempt to commit a full offence, would leave a major gap in the powers of the police to prevent crime. This could not be filled by the use of alternative charges.

People intent on committing crimes of this kind would be free blatently to select their potential victims, safe in the knowledge that the police could not intervene and arrest them—not until the actual offence had taken place. The Commissioner agrees with the working party's recommendation that such powers remain necessary, but that redrafting should take account of modern terminology and, of course, relevant case law.

I come to another difficulty about the noble Lord's Bill. As the House will be aware, we have a law of attempt in this country which is narrower than in some other jurisdictions, and recent decided cases have tended to restrict rather than widen its scope. The Law Commission, which is examining the law of attempt thoroughly, put forward for consideration in a working paper some proposals made by a working party which it had assisting it, for widening this particular offence to include a "substantial step" test, though expressing some reservations about it. An approach of this kind would extend the law of attempt to include such conduct as lying in wait for, searching out, or following the contemplated victim or object of the intended offence, or reconnoitring the place contemplated for the commission of the intended offence.

We do not of course know what view the Law Commission will take in its final report about the law of attempt. But in a situation of this sort it is obviously desirable that the Government should have the Law Commission's recommendations before taking a considered decision about the extent and formulation of a new suspected persons offence.

I must emphasise that without adequate statutory provisions making illegal pre-patory acts of the kind caught by the present suspected persons offence, the community would be put at a serious disadvantage. It would mean that the police would have to maintain observation, supposing that were possible, until the attempt was made before intervening—perhaps unsuccessfully—to protect the victim, and to catch the offenders.


My Lords, if the noble Lord is going on to deal with a different point, could he perhaps answer the question which I asked him. Is he saying that, until the Law Commission has reported on this, the Government would not be able to assist on the formulation of an offence which we could put into this Bill in Committee?


My Lords, I am, indeed, saying just that We hope to receive the Law Commission's report fairly early next year, I believe some time in the spring. I think that at that stage we shall be in a much better position to form a view as to what is the most sensible thing to do.

Another ground of criticisms is that there are variations in the use made of this offence within and between various police forces. It is said that some use the offence a great deal, some very little, and in the case of the Metropolitan Police criticism has been made that it is used on an altogether too generous scale. This was, indeed, another argument which lay at the heart of the case put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Further, it is alleged by the noble Lord and others that it is used discriminatorily against black people. Certainly in a matter of this sort and in a matter of this sensitivity, I think it is right to go into these allegations, including those concerning the arrest figures which have been made by the Runnymede Trust. However, I believe that such figures are an unsafe base on which to mount an attack on the use of the suspected persons offence.

For instance, let me deal with this problem by looking into the situation on Merseyside—I am not pushing on one side the situation in London—where the coloured population is, in fact, at a much more modest level than in some of the other urban areas about which we have been talking today. Yet, of course, it is an area where a significant number of people are proceeded against for this offence. In 1977, 489 people on Mersey-side were involved in being proceeded against for this offence. The Chief Constable of Merseyside tells me that he regards the provisions for dealing with "sus" offences contained within Section 4 as an essential operational requirement for dealing with criminals on Merseyside, particularly, he says, with those involved in street offences.

He says that on many occasions the only legislation that could reasonably be used to prevent the opportunist thief who comes to the attention of patrolling officers is the Section 4 offence. He says the police in Merseyside have had some success in frustrating the pickpocket and those who steal from cars who would otherwise thrive on the conditions which exist in most of the large conurbations. The Chief Constable also explained that the offence is used in circumstances when a charge would not be preferred under any other legislation and is, on the whole, a preventive action allowing a police officer to fulfil one of his primary functions in preventing crime rather than allowing a crime to be committed before making his arrest.

Before I sit down I should like to pose a question to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which I hope he will consider. The noble Lord has suggested today that if the suspected person offence were to be repealed the police would be able to rely on other offences or attempted offences. But does he really believe that other offences, such as attempted theft, can deal with all the behaviour that we have been discussing today and which, at the moment, is included in the suspected persons offence? If he does believe this—and I must emphasise that the Government and the police do not—then I would invite him to consider what precise purpose the repeal would serve. If, on the other hand, he believes, in common with the Government, the police and the working party that the repeal would mean that some conduct now dealt with by the law would in future go unpunished, then I would ask him to consider and explain what this conduct might be.

Is he content at what this would imply? Are we to envisage, for example, that a man may try successive car door handles, and be seen to do so, without any repercussions of any sort? Does he mean, at a time when street crime is a serious problem in many of our urban communities in this country, that the powers of the police, who strive to protect the public, should be so limited? I look forward to the noble Lord's answer to these points because they are the absolutely central questions involved in the debate today.

Certainly the Government are well aware of the objection that has been voiced in this House today and by many people outside—and many people of considerable good will—that the present law is unfair to the ethnic minorities in this country. Of course, as I emphasised at the beginning of my speech, it is a matter of serious concern to us, and indeed to anybody who wants good, civilised community relations in this country, that this should be so. Certainly for our part we are determined to do all we can to improve relations between the police and the ethnicminorities.

I think it has been helpful in some respects to clear the air by having this debate today. There is significant public concern on this matter, and it is helpful that we have had this debate today. However, I hope that I have made clear the strong arguments which justify the existence of an offence of this kind. I have indicated today the lengthy study which has already been given, and continues to be given, to its re-formulation. I have pointed out that we need to take into account the views of the Law Commission's work in related fields. Once we have that report we shall be in a position to decide the best manner in which we should proceed. I think it would be foolish to try to do it any earlier.

However, I must make it clear that the repeal of the offence, without replacing it by anything else, would not be, so far as we are concerned, an acceptable course. It would in my view damage both the enforcement of the law and indeed the maintenance of good community relations. In the light of what I have said, and in the context of the valuable debate that we have just had and the explanation I have given, and the action which the Government propose to take on this matter, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will not press ahead with his Bill today. If he does so, I must make it clear that the Government will be unable to support him.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask him whether we are to understand that the Government do genuinely intend to introduce legislation on this subject in this Parliament?


My Lords, I very much hope so. I tried to point out earlier that we are hoping to receive the report of the Law Commission around Easter of next year. But, as my noble and learned friend will no doubt be aware, there are some honourable gentlemen in another place who are trying to bring the life of the present Parliament to a rapid conclusion.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the valuable and comprehensive reply he has given to the debate we have just had, and for the information about the Government's intentions with regard to forthcoming legislation on the Vagrancy Acts. The noble Lord was good enough to ask me some questions at the end of his speech with which I am delighted to deal. I do not wish to detain your Lordships for very long, but these are important questions to which the Minister is entitled to have an answer.

I hope I did not give the impression that all the charges which are now preferred against people for "sus" could be dealt with by other means. What I was saying was that in certain of the instances which are familiar from the examples given in the working party's report, and in some of the other cases that have been quoted, that charges of attempted theft, or going equipped for theft, would have been more appropriate.

May I just take the 11 examples given in Appendix F of the working party's working paper, with which the noble Lord is no doubt familiar. I would say that in the case of No. 4 there was not sufficient evidence there to establish a charge, or to give grounds for arrest. No specific acts were described. No. 5, the man had done nothing wrong. He might have been trespassing, but that was not a criminal act. No. 7, there was not sufficient evidence to support a charge of any kind. No. 8, the same; no specific acts were described. No. 9, there was no series of acts that could have given rise to suspicion. No. 10, was not "sus" either.

The answer is that a great many of offences at present dealt with by means of this charge would disappear from the criminal courts altogether but that the remainder of them, and perhaps it would be a comparatively small minority, would be dealt with by alternative charges. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, gave three examples at the beginning of his speech. If I may say so, at least one of them could have been dealt with by alternative legislation. The noble Viscount said that the accused had looked round at the back of the shop; he then went round there and ascended some scaffolding and so he was on the walls of the building. He could have been dealt with under the enclosed premises part of Section 4, as is made clear in the discussion on the enclosed premises legislation in the working party's report.

I hope I did not give the impression that the only reason for introducing a Bill of this nature was the effect it has on community relations, important though that aspect of it is. If I may say so, I thought that the Minister was extremely harsh on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gifford; 100 per cent. of which I agreed with. If more noble Lords took the trouble to discuss these matters with community relations councils, and with organisations representing the black community, they would be forced to agree that the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, were by no means exaggerated and conveyed very clearly the feelings of the black community on this particular piece of legislation.

We did not rest our case on that, important though it is that the support of the black community should be given to the police in the enforcement of law, and difficult as it is for them to do so as long as they consider that the legislation is being used in this way against them.

I must make it absolutely clear that I am not in any way seeking to undermine the powers of the police to deal with street crime or of the courts to deal with crime in general, and I bitterly resent any allegation that, because we want to alter this law, we wish to undermine the peacekeeping powers of the police or the courts. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, came rather close to suggesting that anybody who wished to change or reduce the powers of the police was automatically in favour of law breakers. I notice that the Metropolitan Commissioner in his evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure did not even mention "sus", and therefore I cannot believe it is as important as the noble Lord suggested.

Nor did the Minister produce a convincing or statutory explanation as to why the offence is used so extensively in some areas and not in others. He quoted an interesting communication he had received from the Chief Constable of Merseyside, where, as I mentioned, the offence is used almost as extensively as it is in London. It would be interesting to know why this part of Section 4 is not used in some of the other conurbations, for example in Birmingham or Glasgow, where I do not think it is suggested street crime is any less prevalent than it is in London, Liverpool or Manchester; why, for some reason, the police forces in those areas do not find it necessary to apply this legislation.

I do not wish to detain the House, but I must comment on the timetable which the Minister outlined. I realised before I brought the Bill before your Lordships that the Law Commission would be reporting something later this Session, probably in the spring, and I appreciated from what Lord Harris had been good enough to tell me in his letter that the Government had the intention of introducing more comprehensive legislation to reform the law on vagrancy and street offences.

I considered this matter to be of such urgency as to brook no delay, and I felt that, irrespective of what the Law Commission might say in the spring, if in the meantime we were to abolish the offence of "sus" and it was found that in extending the law of attempt there was still some gaps which Parliament felt should be filled, there would be no reason why that

could not be done. It would simply mean that for a short period, a few months at the most, we should be without the offence of "sus" or anything similar to it on the Statute Book. That would then give us a practical opportunity to test on the ground whether the Minister's claims were correct.

If we found that street crime generally did not increase in the interim period, we would then know exactly where we stood when we came to deal with the Government's legislation to reform the Vagrancy Act as a whole and deal with the recommendations of the Law Commission on attempt, In my view, that is the only way to establish the truth as between the two sides in this argument.

We strongly believe that the abolition of "sus" would do nothing to increase street crime; that, on the contrary, by improving co-operation between the black community and the police it would help to reduce crime generally. The Minister takes an opposite view. Let us proceed with the Bill, get it on the Statute Book and see which of the two views is correct.

3.3 p.m.

On Question, Whether the Bill shall be now read 2a?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 32; Not-Contents, 82.

Airedale, L. Hylton, L. Ritchie-Calder, L.
Avebury, L. [Teller.] Kaldor, L. Sainsbury, L.
Darling of Hillsborough, L. Lee of Newton, L. Shinwell, L.
Evans of Claughton, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. [Teller.] Swaythling, L.
Gardiner, L. Walston, L.
Gifford, L. Longford, E. White, B.
Gladwyn, L. McGregor of Durris, L. Wigg, L.
Gosford, E. MacLeod of Fuinary, L. Wigoder, L.
Hale, L. McNair, L. Winstanley, L.
Hampton, L. Milford, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Adeane, L. Cockfield, L. Douglas of Barloch, L.
Amory, V. Cole, L. Drumalbyn, L.
Ampthill, L. Collison, L. Effingham, E.
Auckland, L. Colville of Culross, V. Elliot of Harwood, B.
Balerno, L. Cork and Orrery, E. Elton, L.
Belstead, L. Cottesloe, L. Evans of Hungershall, L.
Brentford, V. Craigavon, L. Faithfull, B.
Brooke of Cumnor, L. Crathorne, L. Fortescue, E.
Brooke of Ystradfellte, B. Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Carrington, L. Davies of Leek, L. Garner, L.
Cathcart, E. [Teller.] de Clifford, L. Glenkinglas, L.
Charteris of Amisfield, L. De Freyne, L. Greenway, L.
Clancarty, E. Denham, L. Gridley, L.
Clitheroe, L. Derwent, L. Hanworth, V.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Monk Bretton, L. Segal, L.
Hewlett, L. Monson, L. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Hunt, L. Morris, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Morris of Borth-y-Gest, L. Sligo, M.
Ilchester, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L. Somers, L.
Inglewood, L. Northchurch, B. Stamp, L.
Jacques, L. Orr-Ewing, L. Strathclyde, L.
Kinnaird, L. [Teller.] Phillips, B. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Porritt, L.
Lyell, L. Robbins, L. Strathspey, L.
Masham of Ilton, B. Rugby, L. Teviot, L.
Merrivale, L. St. John of Bletso, L. Trenchard, V.
Molson, L. St. Just, L. Ward of North Tyneside, B.
Monck, V. Sandys, L.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion for Second Reading disagreed to accordingly.

Forward to