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Volume 981: debated on Monday 24 March 1980

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asked the Attorney-General in how many prosecutions for shoplifting offences during the latest period of 12 months for which figures are available the Director of Public Prosecution has either undertaken the prosecution or been consulted.

Of prosecutions undertaken by the Director in 1979, eight have to date been concluded where an offence of theft of the shoplifting variety was charged.

It is not possible to give details of cases of shoplifting theft on which the Director was consulted in 1979: this sort of offence is not normally reported to the Director and is, therefore, not a type of theft for which detailed indices are kept in the registry. Those cases which are reported normally involve one or more of the following factors:
the alleged offence was committed by a police officer or a police officer's spouse;
the alleged offence was committed by a public figure;
the alleged offence was committed in addition to other offences which are reportable, for example murder or corruption;
the alleged offence involves an issue of identification;
a private prosecutor wishes to withdraw the summons.

I am grateful for that careful reply. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, while the right to bring a private prosecution is an important constitutional safeguard, it can operate harshly against individuals who ought not to be subject to criminal proceedings? Will he further agree that shoplifting is an example of an offence in which the motives and circumstances can vary, from the persistent professional offender to the merely absent-minded? Bearing in mind the recent example of an 83-year-old man who was driven to suicide, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman discuss with the DPP whether those who bring private prosecutions for shoplifting might be asked to consult the Director beforehand?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Wherever there is a public interest aspect, for example the advanced age of the proposed defendant, that is a matter which the Director, when deciding whether to prosecute, would bear in mind. I would welcome that going out to private prosecutors so that, where they felt that there was a public interest aspect, they could consult the Director for his advice.

Although the matter is not my right hon. and learned Friend's direct responsibility, does he agree that there is an obligation on shops and stores to limit the opportunities for shoplifting and that the provision of bag parks is a commendable and constructive action to that end?

Any shop operation that affords an amount of temptation will lead to prosecutions, and sometimes to ill-considered prosecutions when an offence is not intended. It is just as serious for my hon. Friend to leave his wallet in his room when he goes to wash his hands. That is offering temptation to the cleaner who comes to clean his office. The circumstances must be decided on each case.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will follow through the sort of exception outlined by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) by circulating private prosecutors so that that matter can be brought before them. Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that the general principle of stores prosecuting offenders is working in the public interest and can he tell us what saving results to the public purse by continuing the present system?

Bearing in mind the shoplifting figures, I believe that it would place an impossible burden on police forces if they had to prosecute such offences in addition to all their other duties. The right of private prosecution has been jealously guarded over the centuries and I should not like to alter it.