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Clause 4—(Punishment For Prohibited Importation Or Dealing)

Volume 436: debated on Friday 18 April 1947

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I beg to move, in page 3, line 34, to leave out from "pounds," to "or," in line 36.

I think that it would be convenient to take this Amendment together with the Amendment in line 38, to leave out from "pounds," to the end of line 40.

These Amendments refer to the penalty Clause which the Government have thought right to put into this Bill. They are in line with the objections which we have had to this Bill throughout, and also with the compensation Amendment. The Government have made up their mind to have a monopoly. They are not going to be shown up by private enterprise raising its ugly head and, by its greater efficiency, proving that the Government are not carrying out this function as well as private enterprise could do it. There are a number of precedents in regard to preventing the survival of inconvenient rivals. Going back a long way there was the case of Naboth's vineyard. Then there were the Borgias. Even Al Capone did not want his racket interfered with, and with these precedents before them the Government no doubt thought it wise that there should be no rivalry in this particular racket. I must express my thankfulness that it is cotton that they have selected for this gamble, and not rubber in which I work. If it had been so, I am afraid I should have had to say:

"Shades of the prison house surround the growing boy."
Luckily from my point of view, they have selected cotton, in which they intend to keep a real closed shop so that nobody shall be able to deal, as has been done for generations, in cotton in the open market in Liverpool. The reason which they give for doing so is that it is too much of a gamble, but here we have big penalties to be imposed on anybody who tries to do what the Government themselves admit they are probably going to do. The Minister himself this morning admitted that they may deal in future on the open market. That is a gamble. I think myself that it is an effrontery to put in a heavy penalty Clause against people who do a job which they have been doing for generations to the great benefit of this country, to Liverpool and to themselves.

It is really worth while the House considering what this penalty Clause means. People, who have trained themselves in a most useful function and to whom the whole world looked up with respect, because they knew their function and they put at the disposal of the community as a whole their stored-up knowledge, technique and industry, are to be punished by a fine or imprisonment. That is the state to which this country has come. Though the Government may not know it, this is part of a different export drive. This sort of thing will drive people with knowledge and experience out of this country and they will put their knowledge and their enterprise at the disposal of markets in Antwerp and Egypt where they can earn a living without the stigma being placed upon them of a fine or imprisonment if they carry out their profession.

The hon. Gentleman is making a Second Reading speech, and is not dealing with the Amendment under discussion.

This Clause states quite openly that a penalty will be imposed for dealing in this business and that the penalty will be either a fine or imprisonment. I should like to hear from the Government whether they really think that it is in order and that it is correct for them to put this slur and impose these penalties on people who should be used more intelligently for the benefit of the country. I, therefore, ask them to reconsider whether they will not withdraw this penalising Clause and continue to treat those, who have knowledge which they themselves have not got and which would willingly be put at their disposal, in a rather more fair-minded way. If we treat as a criminal someone who might be of assistance to us, he is not likely to enter into a good partnership with us. I can foresee the time when the Commission will want all the help it can possibly get from those who have the requisite knowledge. I oppose these proposals because, firstly, it is wrong to fasten a penal Clause on someone who wishes to carry out the function for which he has trained himself all his life, and, secondly, because it accords ill with the tradition that has been established in this country to cast quite openly a slur upon an admirable, well-conducted and universally respected community.

I beg to second the Amendment.

I want to ask one question. We have had a certain amount of experience of these nationalisation Measures, particularly with regard to coal. As far as coal is concerned, no such penalising Clause was put in the Bill.

The hon. and gallant Member is not dealing with the Amendment under discussion. He cannot discuss coal on a Cotton Bill.

The question which I want to put is this. Why is it necessary in this Bill to put in these words imposing a fine or imprisonment on people who contravene this Bill? It was not necessary to do it in other Measures. Is there something particular about cotton or is there something particular about the people who deal in cotton as opposed to those who deal in coal, or transport or anything else? I should like a reason why the Government pick out the dealers in cotton not only to do on them what they are doing now but what they have done in the past.

If I might answer the last question first, there is no analogous position in the Coal Nationalisation Act. The reason why there is no such provision in that Act is that it is quite obvious that a man cannot start a colliery undertaking very easily. In this particular case it is quite easy to infringe the provisions of Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill we are discussing now, but it is extremely difficult and virtually impossible to start a colliery without being noticed. Therefore, it had been thought that a penal provision of this sort is not necessary in the Coal Act but some penal provision is necessary in this Act. That is the reason for the two penalties. The question has been asked about such penalties in other nationalisation Acts. In the Civil Aviation Act, 1946, there is, in point of fact, a very similar penalty, the difference being—and I speak subject to correction—that higher penalties are provided than in this Section.

I will now address myself to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Bury (Mr. Fletcher) in moving this Amendment. We are not discussing the propriety of the restrictions contained in Sections 2 and 3. Those Clauses have been dealt with and the House has approved of them. Therefore it has expressed its will that the restrictions imposed upon the importing and selling of cotton which are embodied in this Clause are part of the law of this country. So it is no longer a question of whether there should be or should not be restrictions. They have been accepted and obviously they must be enforced. The question of whether we are taking too drastic steps to enforce what are necessary and useful restrictions is entirely another matter. The hon. Gentleman did not address himself solely to the severity of the penalties but also to the question of the propriety of the restrictions. The restrictions being necessary, one must assume that penalties are necessary in the application of these Clauses. If the Amendment were accepted the result would be that the only sanction for the enforcement of the restrictions would be a fine and not necessarily the full amount of the fine laid down, because as everyone knows a court has discretion as to the amount of the fine it may inflict and it need not necessarily inflict the maximum amount. Consequently the Government may find a person determined to evade the provisions of the Act because his reward for such evasion would make it well worth his while, and that the fine would be no deterrent inasmuch as he would get sufficient to reimburse himself for having to pay the penalty.

May I be allowed to finish my point and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. That being so, it was felt that it was necessary to have as an alternative—even as an addition—to the fine something which was more deterrent in its effect and that is why we have thought it necessary that there should be the possibility of imprisonment in addition to the fine. I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I cannot quite follow that. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument really that the Government are afraid that the court might use its discretion in a way the Government would not like?

That is exactly the implication of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. He said that the court might not impose the maximum fine and that the Government felt that there should be the possibility of imprisonment as well. The absolutely logical conclusion from that must be that the Government are afraid that the court might use a discretion which they do not like.

I thought I had expressed myself clearly, and in fact I said nothing of the kind. I said that if there was a fine only it might still be profitable for a person who wished to evade the restrictions of Clauses 2 and 3 to carry on his business and incur the fine. I intended to say, and was in fact going on to say, that even if the maximum fine were imposed it might still be profitable to carry on a prohibited business. Perhaps I said it in inverse order, so that it is my fault if my meaning was not clear, but I intended to point out that not only might it be profitable if the maximum fine were imposed but in fact a court is not bound to impose the maximum fine and might think it proper to impose a smaller one. But even if the maximum were imposed that, in the view of the Government, would be an insufficient deterrent. There must be something to make it not worth the candle. We must have power to enforce the restrictions in such a way that there will not be breaches. That is why we think that a fine by itself would not be adequate.

If that position is accepted and we must have some sanction in the nature of imprisonment I ask the House to say that the next step is a very easy one. The term of imprisonment which has been fixed upon—three months in the case of a summary conviction or two years in the case of conviction on indictment—cannot in my view, be said to be excessive. As imprisonment penalties go it is a moderate penalty. If we have to have imprisonment then the maximum term fixed upon is in no way out of the ordinary. It is, indeed, reasonable. In the case of the Civil Aviation Act, for example, the penalty provided for under Section 23 is, in the case of a summary conviction, three months or a fine of £500, or, in the case of conviction on indictment, two years or a fine of £5,000. It is for that reason that I said that the penalty was even greater in the case of the Civil Aviation Act. In these circumstances I hope the House will accept the view which I sub- mit that the penalty must include imprisonment and, in as much as it must include imprisonment, the maximum term chosen is in no sense an excessive one.

2.15 p.m.

I agree with much of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said and accept his argument that if we are to have this kind of trading and the Government administering things with the mind of a Government, then we have to have fierce and terrible penalties. That being so, I am rather interested in the position the Government have taken up. The hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out quite clearly that it might be easy under the present system and might in tact pay a man to be fined over and over again the sum of £100. The Solicitor-General was not however as strong on that point as he might have been and he did not press his case as hard as he might. I do wish I were not always finding myself in the position on these issues of having to get up and strengthen the Government's case. One hundred pounds is the kind of figure one puts in as a limit in these circumstances. It has been going on for a long time, but the value of the pound is not what it was and the penalty of £100 does not now correspond with a similar penalty imposed in a Bill four or five years ago.

The hon. Gentleman must realise that he is out of Order. We are not discussing whether £100 should be the limit. We are discussing whether imprisonment should or should not be part of the penalty.

With very great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the hon. and learned Gentleman took £100 as the balance against imprisonment and used that as an argument. I am saying that his case was even stronger than he made out. He said that £100 was not adequate and used imprisonment, which I am now coming to, as the opposite side of his argument—he had two wings to his flight of fancy. Naturally, the Government want to include imprisonment; they want this to be fierce and harsh and the right hon. Gentleman whose name is at the back of the Bill and whose absence is so continuous today is a man who believes in punishment. He believes that trade is wicked and he believes in punishing the trader, and hitting him whenever he can. Therefore, he likes to include in these Clauses fierce threats of imprisonment. I only wish I had been on the Committee so that I could have helped him to amend these provisions. I am sure he would like to see an inquisition added as well if he could, but he has not quite the courage to do that.

The hon. Member is now speaking about an additional penalty whereas the Amendment proposes a deletion.

I am saying that so far as I am concerned whatever the Government might have said on behalf of the inclusion of these words I personally would like to see them deleted, and I will now give one or two reasons why I think that their deletion would improve the position. At the present time there is an appeal going on for labour and there is a shortage of manpower in industry. Here it is proposed to put some of our best industrialists in prison, and I say that we ought not to encourage any court to do that at the present time. There is an appeal being conducted by the very people who want these punishments. They are urging people to develop their industries and to do more to encourage and help our trade and so on. Here we are laying down penalties which might discourage them.

Having made these two or three points, I say that the Government are completely illogical. One minute they want good traders, good workers, good industrialists and good coal miners, and the next minute they say that they will punish them. I say that it is a most astounding thing that we should have got as far as we have in this Amendment. First of all, the Solicitor-General put only one side of his case—I presume he had not had time to have it all given to him—and secondly we do not have the main factor in regard to this Amendment at all clear. Thirdly, on an occasion such as this when the Government are making appeal after appeal to people outside, we do something like we are doing now. We should have the same spirit as enabled the Government to accept some of the other Amendments and which would permit them to take out some of these really physical punishments—which is what imprisonment is. It is entirely against modern ideas and is only used for real criminals, not for people who are trying to build up British industry and help to save the country at the present time.

I want to press the Solicitor-General to reconsider this matter. He put the case against the Amendment with his usual courtesy and clarity, but I am asking him to proceed on the principle accepted in the Gilbert and Sullivan piece, of letting the punishment fit the crime. What is the crime likely to be? It is likely to be some infringement by a private merchant upon the activities of a monopoly. Do the Government really think there will be anything but unintentional infringements in the case of this monopoly which is backed by huge capital and wide powers? The only thing which is likely to happen is that people who are being relieved of certain of their functions may make a mistake as to the exact line of demarkation, and may, therefore, be transgressors in some very small way. It is wholly inappropriate to include in the Bill imprisonment for offences of that nature.

It is all very well for the Solicitor-General to say that the courts will not impose imprisonment unless it is considered that the crime merits that punishment. Again and again one hears courts and tribunals saying that Parliament in its wisdom, has seen fit to make imprisonment the penalty for the offence, which leads them to their conclusions as to the nature of the penalty to be imposed. I have heard these words used on many occasions, and I am sure that the Solicitor-General has also heard them used many times. The insertion of imprisonment in a penal Clause leads courts dealing with these matters to take a very different view from that which might be taken if the penalty to be imposed was merely by way of fine. It is intolerable that these people, who have been in this business for a large proportion of their lives, should be put out of business and under the threat of imprisonment. Is it a fact that Socialist economics can work only if imprisonment is the sanction? Is it contended that a State monopoly cannot function unless there is a threat of imprisonment put over the heads of the rest of the community? Are the Government so certain their Commission cannot operate efficiently that they find it necessary to invoke this criminal sanction? I suggest that the case for the Amendment is extremely strong, and that this Bill should not be coloured by the inclusion of the right to send people to prison for these offences.

The hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), in complaining of the severity of the punishment, said that the type of offences to be dealt with would be mostly minor in character. When there is an offence which is minor in character, the court will impose a minor penalty—it may be as little as £5 or £1 If we were to accept the argument put forward, it might just as well be said that in as much as a theft may be a theft of only a very small thing or may be very minor in its degree of culpability, no Statute should ever provide the penalty of imprisonment. When there is only a minor infringement, the minor penalty will be imposed. The reason why we want imprisonment is that there may be major as well as minor infringements. There may be persons who deliberately, over and over again, and with thorough disregard of the Act and their own responsibility as citizens, scheme to get round its provisions. It is to deal with these persons that we want this penalty of imprisonment. We must be able to have an appropriate weapon to answer activities of this sort which deliberately attempt to overset the provisions of this Bill.

Amendment negatived.