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Commons Chamber

Volume 23: debated on Friday 14 May 1982

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House Of Commons

Friday 14 May 1982

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Bill Presented

Duchy Of Cornwall Management

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Mr. Secretary Heseltine, Mr. Leon Brittan, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, Mr. Jack Bruce-Gardyne, Mr. Barney Hayhoe, and Mr John Wakeham, presented a Bill to widen the powers of management of the Duchy of Cornwall under the Duchy of Cornwall Management Acts 1863 to 1893; to specify a new date for the date before which the Duchy's accounts are to be presented to Parliament under the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall (Accounts) Act 1838; to make provision as to the office of auditor of the Duchy; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second Time upon Monday 17 May and to be printed. [Bill 129.]

Orders Of The Day

Firearms Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [7 May], That the Bill be now read the Third time.— [Mr. Eldon Griffiths.]

9.34 am

We resume the Third Reading debate, which was interrupted by the conclusion of our proceedings last Friday. At that time, I was saying a few words about the police service—with which I declare a connection—and its motives in supporting the Bill. The essential point is that the Bill was originally conceived to deal with two aspects of the mischief done by imitation weapons in the commission of crime. One aspect is the convertibility of replicas into real firearms and the other is the mischief done by the fact that they can look so similar to real firearms that a police officer or member of the public cannot distinguish between the two.

Therefore, in accordance with many a criminal's intentions, the replica weapon is sometimes seen a; a firearm. The bank teller or ordinary member of the public—who has no means of distinguishing between the real and the fake—finds the menace sufficient to conclude that he is being threatened. In those circumstances, he might hand over the money that the criminal sought to extract from him by menace. I have been unable to deal with that look-alike problem.

The Home Office gave the matter great consideration when it published a Green Paper several years ago. However, I freely confess, having discussed the matter in great detail, that it is not practicable in law to provide language to deal with the look-alike problem. At one stage I thought that it would be sufficient to make it unlawful to possess, import or manufacture any such objectionable device unless it was conspicuously dissimilar from the object it purported to resemble. I thought that at least intellectually that would go a long way towards meeting the problem. However, on advice, and after consideration, I came to the conclusion—with the benefit of advice from officials at the Home Office—that it would not be legally practicable to do that. Therefore, the Bill confines itself to the matter of convertibility.

I should like to give one or two assurances and explanations. When seeking the leave of the House to introduce the Bill—not on Second Reading, as I inadvertently said—I was anxious to give an assurance that it would not catch the toys, cowboy guns or water pistols that many of our children value and that we would not wish to deny them. It does not catch the genuine collector of antique firearms. A perfectly adequate defence has been provided for those who possess replica guns that might be convertible, but who did not know at the time of purchase that they could be converted. Clause 1(5) provides a perfectly satisfactory defence against any retrospection.

However, the gun trade has expressed anxiety. Its original reaction to the news that the House had given leave to introduce such a Bill was adverse. There were many aerated conversations between certain gunsmiths and myself. They believed that I was about to destroy their businesses. That has never been the intention. I am pleased to say that I have had useful discussions with gun trade representatives and with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, a body which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and I would always wish to support.

I had visualised originally that some statutory code of practice should be introduced into the Bill to govern the technical aspects of convertibility. I concluded that it was not sensible to put in statutory guidelines, but I understand that it is the intention of the Home Office to draw up non-statutory guidelines comprising measures that could be taken to render an imitation firearm incapable of being readily converted. It must be right for the trade to know exactly what measures it should take—what additions or subtractions to a device it should provide—to ensure that it is not caught by this proposed legislation.

The guidelines are to be prepared by the Home Office in consultation with the trade and other interested parties. They will be designed to assist people to comply with this legislation. They will not be binding on a court, but it is difficult to imagine that a device that incorporates the suggested features within the non-statutory code that are designed to make the device inoperable as a firearm will be the subject of a prosecution.

The commencement provisions will allow the Home Secretary to bring this measure into force at such time as he thinks right. There will therefore be an ample period during which full discussion of the guidelines can take place with the trade. They will be capable of being revised from time to time to take account of any technological changes. I believe that this will go a long way to satisfying the trade's anxieties.

I had the opportunity only yesterday to speak to one of its representatives, who told me how much he had valued the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough. I was able to assure him that the period of consultation would be ample and that the Home Office would take fully into account the technical considerations. In any event, there is the opportunity in another place to pursue the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I hope that with those assurances he will accept that the gun trade will not be put into an improper position.

Far from taking an entirely adverse view of the Bill, the legitimate trade has been extremely co-operative. Far from seeking to fight its own corner, it has recognised the need to meet the mischief that the Bill is intended to tackle and has co-operated well in seeking to do so. I congratulate it on its responsibility.

This is a small Bill that goes only a small step along the road towards more effective firearm controls. It has been made increasingly necessary by the events of this week in the House when the proposal that the capital sentence be brought back into our law was defeated by an overwhelming majority—one that must mean that for the rest of this Parliament the matter is behind us. In those circumstances, I have no doubt that the police service will be seeking more frequently to have firearms issued. Inevitably they will become more frequently used in dealing with criminals who appear to be armed.

It is a regrettable fact that firearms are now used more and more frequently in the commission of crime. Inevitably the police are brought up against criminal gunmen. In these circumstances, any step that can be taken to make it less easy for criminals to get their hands on devices, whether real or fake, that can be used to shoot others must be the right one. The Bill has been made more important by the decision of the House in respect of the capital sentence.

I cannot conclude without saying that the Bill would not have been possible without the ready support of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, who has helped to conduct our proceedings with dispatch. It would not have been possible either without the immense and diligent assistance of my hon. and learned Friend's officials, who have helped me at every stage. The Bill could not have been brought forward without their help.

9.46 am

I join all those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on having reached this advanced stage with a useful little Bill. I am sure that it will not be long before it passes from here to another place.

I was relieved to have my hon. Friend's assurances about consultation. A number of bodies associated with firearms, especially the trade, are slightly worried about the contents of the Bill and exactly how consultation will take place.

My hon. Friend said that, in consultation with the Home Office, when drafting his Bill he considered whether it would be right to have what I would call a committee of scrutiny to examine dubious firearms to ascertain whether they could be convertible and, if so, whether they should be made available for sale to the general public. I was interested in his remark that, after careful consideration with the Home Office, he came to the conclusion that a committee of scrutiny would not work.

A few years ago, when I was given leave to introduce my replica firearms Bill, there was a provision in clause 3 to set up a committee of scrutiny. I share my hon. Friend's opinion that such a committee would be difficult to work. In my Bill I laid down guidelines for the composition of the committee. It would have consisted of users of firearms, dealers, representatives of the Home Office, police representatives and certain others. They would have met from time to time, as necessary, to consider whether certain imitation firearms should be available for sale to the public. My Bill was not proceeded with and it met a fate which will not befall this Bill. Grave doubts were expressed by the Home Office and the then Home Secretary about the workability of a committee of scrutiny.

We must not enact Bills for the sake of enacting them and because they look good on paper. We must have something that works. I confess that the scrutiny committee which I proposed would have had a difficult task, although I would have liked to see the attempt made. We are now faced with my hon. Friend's Bill, which has reached an advanced stage.

Although it is a very satisfactory Bill in many respects, I believe that it will be difficult for some shopkeepers and dealers to operate it. It will make a dealer or shopkeeper liable to penalties imposed under the Firearms Act 1968. Many shopkeepers who sell imitation firearms run toyshops and are not specialist gun dealers. They cannot be expected to have a specialist knowledge and the Bill is not easy for the layman to understand. I hope that in addition to the guidelines that will be drawn up after consultation with the trade my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will consider the introduction of a layman's leaflet, so that the ordinary shopkeeper can appreciate the pitfalls.

Parliament has properly been criticised for passing incomprehensible legislation. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend's Bill is in that category, but it is difficult for the layman to understand. During the passage of the Bill I tabled a number of amendments, some of which were selected. I am glad to have my hon. Friend's assurance that guidelines will be issued after consultation with the trade and that they will be non-statutory, and that implementation of the Bill will not take place until a reasonable interval has elapsed after consultation. In view of the changing state of the replica market, I am glad that the guidelines will be reviewed and kept up to date.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. The non-specialist shopkeeper poses a problem, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the duty should lie upon the Home Office to send out broadcasts to every toy shop, because that would place an unreasonable burden on the public purse. Any shopkeeper who sells what is plainly recognisable as an imitation firearm has a reasonable duty to find out what the law is. I agree that when he makes that inquiry he should be given the simplest and clearest assistance. I am sure that he will be. I do not believe that someone who is in the business of selling imitation guns for profit should pass on to the Government the responsibility of providing him with all the details of the legislation that might affect him.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that it is not the duty of the Home Office to produce such leaflets of instruction. I point out, however, that there are many technical difficulties. The legality of an imitation may entirely depend upon the composition of the metal with which its critical parts are made. It is not an easy matter to understand. It may be clarified when the guidelines are discussed with representatives of the trade.

A number of the amendments related to consultations with the trade, but in view of the assurances that my hon. Friend has given I am sure that the trade will be more than satisfied.

In considering the Bill, the Firearms Act 1968 should also be taken into account. When my hon. and learned Friend replies to the debate, will he say something about the review of the working of that Act, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in 1980? There is a great deal of interest in how far the review has advanced. The House would like to know whether it is nearly completed and whether the conclusions will be debated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the feel of the House in introducing the Bill. Everyone was horrified by the incident in The Mall. I do not believe that the Bill will make much physical difference to any unfortunate repetition, but the trouble that we have taken will be more than worth while if it makes that possibility a little less likely.

The Bill refers to the Firearms Act 1968 and we must assume that the same level of penalties will apply, although the Bill does not specify which sections. As my hon. Friends are well aware, the 1968 Act lays down no fewer than 63 different forms of prosecution. I assume that it will relate to section 4(3), which provides for conversion as follows:
"It is an offence for a person other than a registered firearms dealer to convert into a firearm anything which, though having the appearance of being a firearm, is so constructed as to be incapable of discharging any missile through its barrel."
Prosecutions can range from the purely technical relating to the failure to renew a firearms certificate and other minor matters to serious offences. Section 4(1) relates to the shortening of the barrel of a shotgun, and section 16 to the possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life or cause serious injury to property. Section 19 makes it an offence to carry a loaded firearm in a public place, and section 20(1) deals with trespassing with a firearm in a building. Those are serious offences, the penalties for which are shown in the right-hand columns.

A scrutiny of successful prosecutions under the Firearms Act 1968 shows that the level of punishment is much lower than the maximum that Parliament laid down. I had the opportunity to use official channels in the House, which are now closed to me, to compare actual sentences with maximum sentences. It caused me considerable concern when I found that the level of sentencing was only about 7 to 8 par cent. of the maximum.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider whether Parliament can do anything to have a more vigorous interpretation of its wishes carried out by the courts. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State were to send out a reminder of the maximum penalty to magistrates clerks, to ensure that the judiciary were reminded of the wishes of Parliament, it would be of some help, because, from an analysis of statistics for 1973 to 1976, it is transparent that the wishes of Parliament have been ignored. That is an important point. Each of the 63 offences in the Firearms Act should be prosecuted with vigour. Existing law is adequate, but the courts have failed to implement the penalties that Parliament has laid down, which encourages firearms crime.

I wish my hon. Friend well with his Bill. I hope that it has a speedy passage and that it will soon be on the statute book. It will be generally welcomed throughout Britain.

10.3 am

I apologise to my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and Harborough (Mr. Farr) for not having heard all of their speeches, but I had the good fortune to hear the start of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds on Third Reading last Friday.

I expressed some reservations about the Bill in last week's debate. Perhaps the most significant were that the Bill was unnecessary because the position was adequately governed by the judicial interpretation of the existing legislation—the Firearms Act 1968. Judges had in practice construed as firearms many of the imitation weapons that are referred to in the Bill. I made the further point that the curious and bizarre effect of the Bill, if passed, would be to reduce the scope of the weaponry to which the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 apply, because the effect of clause 1(6) was to narrow the range of imitation firearms. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State objected to that suggestion. They said that I was wrong and that the point was largely without merit. I agree with them. I have considered the matter further and, on balance, the objections that they raised to my argument are correct. I was mistaken to believe that it would narrow the class of weaponry, and I withdraw the points that I made in opposition to the Bill on a previous occasion.

However, I have a further reservation. It does not go to the passage of the Bill, but I am sure that later we shall have consolidation legislation and the matter may be considered then. I have reservations about applying the entirety of firearms legislation to imitation weapons. The reason is that it is not easy, within the meaning of the Bill, to say what is an imitation weapon. There will be much judicial and factual argument before the courts as to whether an imitation firearm can be regarded as readily convertible within the context of clause 1(6). There will be much dispute in relation to individual weapons or class of weapons.

That point is of greater concern when one remembers that imitation firearms have been sold for many years. It is true that they have become increasingly sophisticated, but there are millions on the market. Much could be said for imposing a restriction at the point of sale or the point of acquisition and not on general possession of imitation firearms. That would cut the number of cases that can come before the courts. The mischief to which the Bill is directed, although not minor, is not substantial, and in time it can be met 'by imposing restrictions at the point of sale or acquisition. That would mean that the person who has acquired an imitation weapon in good faith need not contemplate prosecution.

I am sure that the police authorities will be sensible in the way that they enforce the Bill, but if it comes into law many millions of people who possess an imitation weapon that they purchased in good faith when it was not subject to legislation could, in some circumstances, be contravening the Firearms Act 1968. I question the wisdom of that both in terms of justice and expediency.

Although I do not wish to stand in the way of the Bill, perhaps my hon. and learned Friend could consider that, in a consolidation measure or a recasting of the existing legislation, he should confine the application of the Bill to the point of acquisition or point of sale, and not general possession.

I have been listening carefully to everything that my hon. Friend has said. I appreciate his remarks. If the Bill becomes an Act, will it not bite most of all on manufacture, so that the problem will be prevented at that level? In clause 1(5), is there not a sufficient defence against retrospection?

To the first question the answer is "Yes". The Bill will apply to manufacture. That may stop the future manufacture of objectionable weapons as contemplated by the Bill. To the second question the answer is "No". I do not believe that clause 1(5) deals with the question of retrospection because weapons that are now in existence and readily convertible within the meaning of the Bill will, if it becomes law, become unlawful, subject to the statutory defence. The fact that they were not unlawful when they were a aquired is not a defence. If in five years' time I possess an imitation firearm as defined by the Bill which I purchased 10 years ago and I possess it in circumstances that contravene the principal Act, I am committing an offence. I do not believe that clause 1(5) has the effect of protecting me simply because the weapon was not unlawful when I purchased it in the early 1970s.

I always hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend on matters of law. Clause 1(5) states:

"In any proceedings brought by virtue of this section for an offence under the 1968 Act involving an imitation firearm to which this Act applies, it shall be a defence for the accused to show that he did not know and had no reason to suspect that the imitation firearm was so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which section 1 of that Act applies."
I should have thought that that was a sufficient protection.

It is good of my hon. Friend to put it like that, but it is not a sufficient defence. The defence that would be sufficient would be to provide in statute that the provisions of the Bill, if enacted, should not apply to an imitation weapon acquired by the possessor before the Bill came into law. That would be an absolute defence if established.

Clause 1(5) provides a defence dependent on knowledge. It is true that the clause 1(5) defence will, in many cases, avail a person who acquired the weapon some time before the passage of the Bill into law. However, it does not automatically or necessarily do so. It is not an absolute defence. It raises the question of what lawyers call mens rea. It is a defence, but it is not an absolute defence. That is the distinction between my point and that of my hon. Friend.

10.14 am

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on bringing forward the Bill and on getting it to such an advanced stage of its passage through the House, which is by no means easy. Many hazards are met on the way. My hon. Friend has displayed all the skill and experience that we associate with him in this endeavour.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks about the help that we have been able to give him in the Home Office, especially the help that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's officials have been able to give him. What he was kind enough to say today will be received with much appreciation in that quarter.

Particularly in the light of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), it might be helpful if I went over, not, I hope, in too great detail, the way in which the provisions of the Bill are addressed to the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has described.

As my hon. Friend has explained, the Bill embraces imitation firearms which have the appearance of a firearm to which section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 applies, and which are so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which that section applies. The Bill makes it clear that such imitations are subject to the same licensing controls as actual firearms.

In practice that means that, subject to any exemption under the 1968 Act, it would be an offence under section 1 of that Act for a person to have in his possession or to purchase or acquire such an imitation firearm without holding a firearms certificate in force at the time, or otherwise than as authorised by such a certificate. The House will be aware that firearm certificates are granted only to persons who meet the requirements of the 1968 Act. Applications have to be made to the chief officer of police for the area in which the applicant resides, and have to be made in the prescribed form stating such particulars as are required by the form.

Under the firearms rules 1969, the form of application for the grant of a firearm certificate requires the applicant to give personal details as well as stating the reasons why he wants the firearm. Although we shall need to consider, in the period before the new legislation comes into effect, what changes might be required to the prescribed form to take account of applications for certificates for readily convertible imitation firearms, the information needed will be essentially the same. This is because, before granting a certificate, the chief officer is required by the Act to satisfy himself that the applicant has a good reason for having in his possession the firearm in respect of which the application is made, and can be permitted to have it in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace. Moreover, the Act provides that a firearm certificate shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer has reason to believe to be prohibited by the Act from possessing a firearm.

In this context, persons who have been sentenced to preventive detention, or to imprisonment or to corrective training for three years or more, or who have been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a young offenders institution in Scotland, are prohibited from having a firearm in their possession at any time. Similarly, a person who has been sentenced to borstal training, corrective training for less than three years or to imprisonment for three months or more but less than three years, or who has been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a detention centre or in a young offenders institution in Scotland, is prohibited from possessing a firearm at any time before the expiration of five years from the date of his release. The Bill makes it clear that these prohibitions will apply equally to readily convertible imitations.

Returning to the certification provisions, the Act also provides that a firearm certificate shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer of police has reason to believe to be of what are described as intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm.

The Act provides for a firearm certificate to be in the form prescribed and to specify the conditions subject to which it is held. Under the firearms rules 1969, to which I have already referred, all firearm certificates are subject to certain prescribed conditions. These are that the holder must, on receipt of the certificate, sign it; the firearms and ammunition to which the certificate relates must at all times when not in actual use be kept in a secure place with a view to preventing access to them by unauthorised persons; the holder must inform at once the chief officer of police by whom the certificate was granted of the theft or loss in Great Britain of any firearm to which it relates; and the holder must, without undue delay, inform the chief officer of police by whom the certificate was granted of any change in his permanent address. In addition to the prescribed conditions, the chief officer may impose any other conditions which he considers to be appropriate.

I mention these perhaps somewhat detailed restrictions to draw to the attention of the House the very tight control that will be applied to readily convertible imitation weapons to which the Bill applies when the legislation takes effect. It is absolutely right that all the restrictions contained in the Fireams Act should apply to the readily convertible replicas to which the Bill applies.

I am sure that the House will agree that these provisions enable a close control to be maintained over the possession and use of firearms. Imitation firearms which are readily convertible will clearly be subject to the same controls. I must, however, tell the House that, in practice, we would not expect many certificates to be granted in respect of readily convertible imitation firearms. This is because it will be difficult for applicants to show that they have good reasons for possessing such imitations, rather than imitations which cannot be readily converted.

It is absolutely right, as my hon. Friend came to appreciate and accept, that an overall ban on replicas or a requirement for certification of all replicas and look-alike weaponry would catch hundreds of thousands if not millions of toys used by children in practically every household in the land. As he generously acknowledged today, therefore, he came to accept that that was impracticable and I am sure that that is right.

On the question of showing good cause why one wishes to have in one's possession a replica firearm which by not very extensive conversion can be turned into a weapon capable of discharging ammunition, it is not easy to see how many cases could arise in which such an application could meet the requirements of the legislation.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for saying that. Could he add to it by saying that it would be very difficult to understand the motive of a person who wished to have an imitation that could: be converted into a weapon?

I accept my hon. Friend's point, but one comes to learn that the variety of human motives and circumstances is almost infinite. It is therefore right that there should not be an absolute ban, as there may be circumstances in which it would be acceptable to a chief constable applying the criteria of the 1968 Act to license or certificate such an application.

The point must be made, however, that we take a very serious view of the possession of weapons or replicas that can by a not very extensive process be converted into weapons in the full sense of the word, capable of discharging ammunition. It is with knowledge and understanding of the very tight conditions imposed by the Bill that I am sure that the House will give it a Third Reading today.

It will be difficult for applicants to show that they have good reasons for possessing such imitations rather than imitations which cannot be readily converted. However, there may be cases involving collectors' items, where a particular imitation firearm falls within the scope of this Bill, but where the incorporation of features to render it incapable of ready conversion would not be appropriate. In any event, however, it will be for the chief officer of police to decide, in the light of the circumstances of each application which is made in respect of a readily convertible imitation firearm, whether a certificate should be granted.

If an application is refused, or the chief officer imposes conditions, other than those which are prescribed, which are not acceptable to the certificate holder, the rig ht of appeal which exists under the 1968 Act can be exercised in a case involving a readily convertible imitation firearm, in the same way as for an actual firearm. The Act provides for such appeals to be made to the Crown court in England and Wales, or to the sheriff court in Scotland.

Perhaps I should also say a few words about business transactions involving readily convertible imitation firearms. Under the Firearms Act 1968 a person commits an offence if, by way of trade or business, he manufactures, sells, transfers, or repairs any firearm or exposes for sale or transfer, or has in his possession for sale, transfer or repair, any firearm, without being registered under the Act as a firearms dealer. The Bill makes it clear that these requirements will also apply to such transactions involving readily convertible imitation firearms.

For the purposes of he Act, the chief officer of police for every area is required to keep in the prescribed form a register of firearms dealers. In order to be registered as a dealer, an applicant has to furnish certain particulars. The chief officer may refuse to register an applicant if he is satisfied that the applicant cannot be permitted to carry on business as a firearms dealer without danger to the public safety or to the peace. The chief officer may at any time impose conditions subject to which the registration of a person as a firearms dealer is to have effect. This enables the police to ensure, in particular, that the security provisions are adequate.

Imitation firearms which are not readily convertible to fire live ammunition will still be able to be sold by retailers who are not registered firearms dealers. To help the trade and manufacturing interests to comply with the law, the Government will be preparing guidelines of measures which can be applied to render an imitation firearm incapable of being readily converted. These guidelines will be drawn up in consultation with representatives of the gun trade and other interested parties. They will be made available before the legislation is brought into force by means of the commencement order provision.

Some people have suggested that the Bill should provide for a statutory code of practice on the question of convertibility. Hon. Members may like to know that this proposal has been given the most careful consideration, but it was concluded that it would not be right to seek to impinge upon the role of the courts in this area. In any event, it is difficult to imagine that a device which incorporated suggested features designed to render it incapable of being readily converted would become the subject of a prosecution.

I hope that this explanation has given some idea of how readily convertible imitation firearms can be incorporated into the existing system of controls with little difficulty. If the effect of the Bill is to prevent even one imitation firearm capable of being so converted from falling into the wrong hands and eventually being converted to fire live ammunition and be used for criminal purposes, my hon. Friend's efforts will have been more than justified.

I listened with interest to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham that, as there may be some injustice to people who already have in their possession weaponry that falls within provisions of the Bill, in subsequent consolidation legislation the Government should apply the provisions of the Bill to the point of sale rather than general possession. Although we shall naturally consider this, together with any other points that he makes, our first impression is that that would too greatly cut down the impact and ambit of the Bill. We believe that it is important that the Bill should apply to possession. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds was right to draw attention to clause 1(5), showing that the defence there provided is very wide, and it is probable that we shall confirm our view that the Bill as drafted is correct. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) asked whether we might consider issuing what he called a layman's leaflet on the provisions of the Bill. We would like to consider that. I hope, however, that the guidelines to which I have referred will go most of the way towards providing a sensible explanation of the Bill. But we shall bear my hon. Friend's suggestion in mind.

My hon. Friend also asked about the progress of the review that my right hon. Friend has been conducting. The outcome of his review will be discussed with the British Shooting Sports Council. My hon. Friend asked whether some indication could be given that the Government are looking for a more vigorous interpretation—I think that that was his phrase—by the courts of Parliament's intention regarding prosecutions for offences under the Firearms Act 1968.

I note my hon. Friend's view, which he has expressed previously, that sentences should be more stern for proven offences under the Act. But it is not the province of the Government, the Home Secretary or anyone else under our constitution and our arrangements to tell the courts how they should interpret the discretion given them by Acts of Parliament. Parliament lays down the maximum sentence that is available where an offence is committed. It controls to a greater or lesser degree the circumstances in which the discretion of the judiciary shall be exercised. But it is important, I believe, to hold to the separation of powers under our constitution. We must rely upon expressions of public opinion to bring about any changes that the public may wish to see in relation to these matters. I note my hon. Friend's view, but it is not for the Home Secretary to instruct the courts in their attitude towards each individual offence.

It is often not possible for the media to report in full all the circumstances that are before the court in any particular case. A misleading impression is sometimes given in a necessarily brief report of a criminal trial and sentence because it has not been possible for all the factors in the evidence that were before the court and that will have influenced the sentence to be included in the report.

The House will know from the reply that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave to a question before the Easter Recess that the Government have recently completed an exhaustive review of possible ways of tackling the misuse of imitation firearms of all kinds. We found a concern that has been expressed on this subject, but we have concluded reluctantly that there are no practicable steps that can be taken to bring all "look-alike" firearms under further control. But it is clearly right that those imitation firearms that could be readily converted to fire live ammunition should be subject to the same controls as actual firearms. That is why my hon. Friend's Bill has had the full support of the Government.

During the useful debate last Friday on amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, concern was expressed about the adequacy for the purposes of this Bill of the definition of "imitation firearm" contained in the Firearms Act 1968. Doubts were also raised about the drafting of clause 1(6) of the Bill, which sets out the circumstances in which an imitation firearm should be regarded as readily convertible. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham is satisfied that the intitial response that I made to his suggestions last week and the response made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds are persuasive.

We do not at present believe that any change is necessary in the drafting of the Bill, but if, after further consideration, it is concluded that the Bill is unsatisfactory in any of these respects and can be amended, there will be an opportunity for amendments in the other place. We shall continue to give any advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and his associates in the other place that we think may be helpful.

Following my right hon. Friend's announcement of the findings of the review to which I have referred, some have expressed disappointment over the rejection of a total ban on replica firearms. While we sympathise with the intentions of those who seek such a ban, it is doubtful whether they have been made fully aware of the implications of the suggestion. It may be helpful if I could restate the problems, although I have touched on them already.

There are already millions of toys in circulation and many of them are modelled on real firearms. It would therefore be impossible to exclude these in their existing form from a total ban of the kind which has been proposed. Measures to deal with conspicuous dissimilarity could easily be got round by a determined criminal. Even if the manufacture, sale and possession of all replicas including toys were to be outlawed, it would still be possible for criminals to fashion guns out of pieces of wood which, under the conditions of stress in which they might be used, would easily pass for the real thing. I hope therefore that the House will agree with the Government's conclusions on this aspect.

Another point which has recurred following my right hon. Friend's announcement is that it is foreseeable if not probable that a police officer who is confronted by an apparently armed criminal will shoot him on that supposition even though it eventually turns out that the weapon was an imitation incapable of being fired. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds reminded the House that such incidents have already occurred, and he particularly mentioned the shooting some years ago at India House.

The Government recognise that, but they certainly do not regard it as decisive of the issue. The law already recognises the gravity of carrying an imitation firearm for criminal purposes by providing the same maximum penalties for that offence as if the firearm was real. A criminal will only carry an imitation firearm on a criminal expedition if it is his intention to give the impression that it is the real thing. If he becomes the victim of his own deception, that, too, will be a consequence that he should have foreseen. It is not one that I believe that many people would regard as unjust.

I can perhaps also take this opportunity to comment on the argument advanced by some people, and repeated in the House last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham, that, in any event, it might not be a good idea to restrict the availability of replica firearms on the ground that, if criminals were to go armed, it would be preferable for them to carry replicas rather than real firearms. I appreciate the motives of those who subscribe to that point of view. However, it is important to remember that the criminal misuse of an imitation firearm is almost as odious as the criminal misuse of a real firearm, since it is intended to engender the fear of imminent murder. This is reflected in the penalties available to the courts.

I should like, in conclusion, to renew my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds. The Bill is the result of a most fruitful partnership between the experience of my hon. Friend, who represents the interests of the Police Federation in the House with such diligence and knowledge, and of his initiative in bringing forward the measure. Perhaps with the help of the technical experience and knowledge available to us through Home Office officials, the Bill is a fruitful example of the partnership that can exist under our procedures in the House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend. I commend the Bill to the House and on behalf of the Government hope that it reaches the statute book as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

I call the attention of the House to the inadvertant omission from the Order Paper of a Private Member's Bill—the Salmon Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Bill [Lords]—which should be item No. 15. I regret the omission and have had a revised Order Paper placed in the Vote Office.

Relief From Forfeiture Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

New Clause 1

Exclusion Of Murderers From Benefit

`An applicant shall not be entitled to relief under section 1 or 2 if he has been convicted of the murder of the person to whose death the application relates.'.— [Mr. Farr.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.42 am

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 1, leave out clause 2.

The new clause relates to clause 1 which deals with the financial position of a person who has wrongfully killed another. Clause 2 deals with a woman who has become a widow by her own unlawful act. The Bill's aim is to help people in such circumstances.

The House's compassion is much admired and its care for the underprivileged is commendable. But we should examine the Bill carefully to see whether our compassion is always deserved. The Bill received a Second Reading without debate, a feat on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood). The event is all too rare. I make no complaint, but the House has not had the benefit of hearing the sponsors argue the case for changing the law. The case was ably made out in Committee, but it is incumbent on them to explain it to the House.

Although there may be hard cases, we must not let them make bad law. At one extreme the disgraceful driving of a husband may cause an accident in which his wife dies. We are likely to agree that he should not be prevented from receiving property due to be his on his wife's death. There is no risk of that happening at present. The other extreme is murder. I see no justification to allow a person to profit from that most serious of crimes. A young man may kill his father under whose will he inherits a fortune. Why should we allow him to make a fortune? A wife may murder her husband. Why should she be allowed the widow's benefits covered by clause 2?

Between the extremes are various cases of manslaughter. All are intentional killing but with redeeming features. The most worrying case is where the killer has pleaded diminished responsibility and the jury has reduced the verdict from murder to manslaughter.

I look forward to hearing the sponsors' comments. I assume that the type of case that they deem as deserving sympathy might loosely be called mercy killing. A devoted husband watching his wife dying in great pain may be unbalanced by her suffering and kill her. His plea of diminished responsibility may be accepted and he will be treated with compassion by the judge. Suppose that the house in which he is living was owned jointly with his wife and that she has left all her property to him. Has he not suffered enough without punishing him further by preventing him from taking anything under her will?

10.45 am

Difficult questions are involved. It may be right to give the courts the widest discretion, but we should not let it appear that we intend the courts to use the new powers to give benefits to murderers. The House has just debated again the penalty for murder. It must be wrong to take a step that would suggest that we wish to see the punishment lessened.

Amendment No. 4 is to leave out clause 2. The clause is designed to identify the social security issues that may have to be considered under the ex turpi principle and to specify where the responsibility for determining the application of the principle in such cases should lie. The widow who widows herself is an example. The circumstances may range from a partially successful suicide pact through mercy killing and a violent reaction to an intolerable husband to a cold calculated murder with financial gain or sexual liberty in mind.

Widows' benefits are not the only entitlements to consider. Widowers have rights in some cases. For example, ex turpi might be considered where a lone parent's rights have to be taken into account.

The aim should be to enable an ex turpi social security issue that might arise to be covered by the Bill without prejudicing a decision on a particular entitlement. In the case of a benefit based on financial need it might not be appropriate to impose forfeiture.

I recognise, too, that it might not be best to leave ex turpi and social security matters to the ordinary courts or the High Court. It helps to have a decision taken in the full understanding of the implications. That suggests a need for familiarity with social security matters, which is not the easiest of areas for non-specialist laymen or lawyers. Social security adjudications spread over various bodies and large numbers of people. How can we concentrate an ex turpi application in more limited and specialist hands? Could social security commissioners have a role, although their writ does not cover all benefits? I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will confirm that only few social security cases arise.

The House must be exceedingly grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for moving the new clause. The promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood), and I are grateful to the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) for the precaution that he has taken to ensure that the Bill is discussed adequately. It cannot be gainsaid that this type of Bill needs to be discussed on the Floor of the House.

Already, as a result of discussions in Committee, where we had the Solicitor-General's guidance and the opportunity to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), the objectives originally in the sponsors' minds have been modified. The new clause spells out the objectives and I hope that it will assuage some of the justifiable anxieties that otherwise would arise.

We can now state clearly, not only what the sponsors wish to achieve, but what they certainly do not wish to be a consequence of this attempt to bring relief to a small number of tragic individuals, most of whom are women, whose predicaments may be unnecessarily and harshly exacerbated by the firmness which precedent imposes upon the application of an important and necessary principle of our common law.

Public policy demands that no man, and, in the context of the Bill, more relevantly, no woman, may benefit from his or her wrong action. Having heard what happened in Committee, and having listened to the anxieties, I underline, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, that we and the House wish there to be no erosion of that fundamental principle.

A particular application of that wise and well-tested rule of common law, that no one should be allowed to benefit from his or her wrong, is that any person who unlawfully kills another is prevented from succeeding to any property which she or he otherwise would inherit under the victim's will or in accordance with the rules of intestate succession. As the hon. Member for Harborough said, the rule also applies to widows' pensions under the Social Security Act 1975.

The new clause rightly affirms that it would be intolerable for any woman who deliberately murders her husband to gain money from her husband's estate. The law has been tempered by humanity and insight. Not every unlawful killing is now deemed to be murder. It is upon such consequent deaths that the Bill focuses its attention.

If hon. Members who served on the Committee will bear with me, for the understanding of the House and those outside I shall illustrate the type of case that the sponsors have in mind. A testator made a will leaving his house, effects and the cash deposited in his bank to his wife, but he was killed by her. The wife had a tragic mental history and had received treatment in a mental institution. I have no doubt that the husband wanted to ensure that she would be provided for on his death. In what seems to have been an undirected quarrel she struck him with a domestic chamber pot and he died. She pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter. The judge accepted her plea of diminished responsibility. That case is in the category that the hon. Member for Harborough described.

The woman was not punished, but a detention order was imposed. The order stipulated that she should have hospital treatment under section 60 of the Mental Health Act 1959. The action taken by the court was remedial and not by way of punishment. Nevertheless, she was unable to benefit from her husband's will. The common law rule was found to be so rigid that the courts, however reluctantly, believed that, in the light of precedent, they had no option but to rule that the whole of the estate should go to another relative, despite there being no culpability in the sense of an action that attracted or deserved punishment. That is the type of case to which we are directing attention.

There have been some developments. I shall describe a second case to illustrate the development. Last year a husband died from a stab wound administered by his wife. The circumstances were such that the judge took into account the somewhat turbulent and unhappy history behind the act which precipitated the man's death.

The jury decided that the case was not one of murder, but of manslaughter. Having heard all, the court decided that the woman should be placed on probation for two years, because it was thought that she needed supportive help. The woman applied for the widow's allowance. The national insurance commissioner believed that he was not in a position to award her that allowance. Fortunately, the case proceeded to the High Court. Although the woman did not obtain the allowance, a statement was made by the Lord Chief Justice which put a different gloss upon the law.

As the Solicitor-General said in Committee, in giving that judgment the Lord Chief Justice, for the first time in our legal history, made it clear that in his view the courts do not need automatically to apply the rule that, following an unlawful killing, public policy demands that the court drives the applicant from the seat of justice.

11 am

Lawyers in the House will understand that the humane observation of the Lord Chief Justice, although powerful and persuasive, was made by way of an obiter and may not—I put it no higher—be a binding precedent. I am aware of the anxiety of the hon. Member for Harborough, but if we have any temptation, in the light of the 1981 observation, to feel that we may allow the law to develop so as to contain the hardships that concern the sponsors, that temptation should be resisted, because there is a difficulty, which was succinctly and powerfully spelt out by the Solicitor-General in Committee when he said:
"The Lord Chief Justice has shown how the law may be developed on whether there should be an absolute bar. I am worried that it should be all or nothing. If the court decide; no bar, all the benefits follow. It it says bar, all the benefits are lost. I do not see how the court itself could deal with that difficulty. The question before the court is whether the bar should operate.
I suggest that we should consider whether to give the court discretion to soften the effect of the rule by saying that it must uphold the rule and that it would be wrong to inherit in the normal way, but that there are mitigating circumstances which mean that it is not necessary, in the public interest, to apply the rule rigidly. I must inform the promoter and the hon. Member for Pontypool that I would be interested in a practical way of applying that. There is a gap there which I should like to see filled."
The sponsors noted with care the guidance given by the Solicitor-General and the way that he focused on that aspect of the matter.

I wish to make it unequivocally clear that, as a result of the benefits of the dialogue that sometimes goes on in and outside Committees, the sponsors intend to seek to close the gap to which the Solicitor-General has drawn attention. We acknowledge that in our drafting that may be done clumsily, but I wish to reassure the House by reaffirming that our objective is to confirm the residual discretion of the courts and to give them, if they wish, the opportunity, as the Solicitor-General said, to uphold the rule, but to say that there are
"mitigating circumstances which mean that it is not necessary, in the public interest, to apply the rule rigidly."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 17 March 1982; c. 7.]
The House and, I am sure, our constituents will understand that there must arise cases where it may be thought by the court that the rule should not be applied without some mitigation. For example, as was hinted at by the hon. Member for Harborough, an aged wife who survives a bungled suicide pact with her husband could find that she would never be permitted to live out her life in their house, the title deeds of which were vested in her husband at the time of his death.

The court, having all the facts before it, may not think it proper that the widow should inherit all the estate of the husband, but may consider that even though she should not inherit all the estate, it would be intolerably harsh that, as a result of her criminal act, she should be driven out of the matrimonial home and into homelessness. At present, courts lack the capacity to take such action.

As an illustration of the type of unlawful killing that the Bill's sponsors have in mind where relief may be appropriate, let us consider the case of a spinster daughter who has nursed her mother for years and misguidedly yields to her own sympathies or to the command of her mother, who may be suffering from a terminal illness, and assists in her mother's death.

The House knows that no one is more rigorously opposed to euthanasia than I, but can we confidently assert that even if the daughter may, as a result of her folly, forfeit some of her mother's estate, she must never, if only for life, inherit the home in which she may always have lived? At present the court would have no power to deprive that daughter of some the estate but to leave her the home. That is a rigidity which could surely be regarded as cruelly offensive to the public.

As the Solicitor-General stressed and as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West underlined, the all-or-nothing rule is the one which, above all, requires remedy. Not only does that rule fail to give the court an opportunity to act with the discretion that should be available to it, but it includes an element of double punishment which I find particularly repugnant. If a woman has been involved in the unlawful killing of her husband and a court lacks the power not to suspend, but to mitigate, the common law rule, the woman will lose all.

Although the husband may have been a Mr. Meany and his miserly provocations may have been among various reasons that caused the judge and jury to conclude that the conviction must be one of manslaughter and not murder, the wife could still lose all. Yet a woman who inexcusably poisoned her husband in order to marry her lover and may have manipulated her husband before the murder so as to have settled upon her much of his wealth can emerge from prison to enjoy her ill-gotten gains. In short, the rule operates sometimes to penalise the woman to whom in his lifetime her husband has given nothing, but does not affect one who has acquired a property from him before the offence was committed.

I am sure that it will not have escaped the attention of the House that the rule sometimes operates to penalise not only the offending wife but children or other dependants. If the all-or-nothing rule did not apply as it does now, those are matters that could be taken into account. It cannot be right that the result of the rule could be that an undeserving distant relative benefited by its operation, with the result that the burden of maintaining the offending wife or the dependants was cast wholly upon the taxpayer.

The sponsors acknowledge willingly, as they did in Committee, that, as drafted, the Bill is rough hewn. No less then as now, we wish to make it clear that to reflect the opinion that emerged from the Committee and as, doubtless, it will be enlarged in this debate, it is our desire to get the Bill right and to have it reflect scrupulously the view of the House.

In Committee the Solicitor-General was generous enough to make it clear that, although there were obvious difficulties in seeking to translate the view emerging from the expressed intention of the sponsors and the firm emphasis of those who contributed to the Committee proceedings, including the sage caveats of the hon. and learned Gentleman himself, nevertheless he would not abandon the sponsors to their fate and that Government assistance would be available to give a further indication of what, in the Government's view, were the defects of the Bill and how they might be cured.

The Solicitor-General has been as good as his word. He has given every possible assistance, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and I thank hit and the officials of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department of Health and Social Security. But, in the very limited time that has been available, the parliamentary draftsmen have not been able to prepare the amendments which the sponsors hoped to put before the House today. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will acknowledge that that is not the fault of the sponsors, who are anxious to meet fully his views, those of the members of the Committee who contributed to the debate and, I anticipate, other views that will be expressed today. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and I make it clear that when we invite the House to send the Bill to the other place in the form that it takes now, there is no question but that we shall cause amendments now being prepared by the parliamentary draftsmen to be put before the other House.

I stress that hereafter this House will in any event have the final word. In taking the view about the new clause, bearing in mind that we all have manslaughter and not murder cases in our sights—it is difficult for me to conceive of a case calling for relief where murder had been the offence of which the party was convicted—it is a matter upon which I should like to suspend judgment until we have had the benefit of interventions from the Solicitor-General and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West.

11.15 am

I understand that the Bill can be perfected in another place. I understand, too, from what the hon. Gentleman said that parliamentary counsel will be asked to reconsider the Bill and, if necessary, to formulate new clauses. At this juncture I do not see why we should count on the Bill, if it is objectionable now, being put right in another place. Would it not be wise, in effect, to suspend further consideration of the Bill until we have seen the new clauses, and to debate the issue when the clauses are before the House rather than count on the other place being wise?

I can understand that point of view, and I sought to explain that we hoped that the amendments would be before the House. Although it may be heresy to say it from the Opposition Benches, this is one of those occasions when I am glad that my defence of there being two Chambers remains in existence. Usually the procedure is reversed, with the undergrowth being cut in the other place and this House reaching a conclusion. I am sure that the hon. Member for Grantham will appreciate, since he does not want the Bill to be lost completely, that this House has the final say after a Bill has been amended in the Lords.

I have made it as clear as I can that in the proposed amendments we shall set out to make certain that the Bill falls within the parameters enunciated by the Solicitor-General when he expressed his concern that, as the Bill stood, it was capable of profound misunderstanding outside and undoubtedly could be misunderstood and be thought that we were in some way condoning the crime of murder.

The other substantial amendment proposes the deletion of clause 2, which relates to pensions. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough for the amendment, because it enables the issue to be canvassed. However, at this stage I should be unhappy if the amendment were accepted. There is an obvious need to continue to try to shape the Bill with the assistance of the parliamentary draftsmen following the discussions which the sponsors have had, as a result of the facilities granted by the Solicitor-General, with the Department of Employment.

I have no doubt that the all-or-nothing rule can be tempered in respect of the distribution of an estate, however small, of a deceased person to enable the point made in amendment No. 3, for example, to be taken on board. However, in my view, and I have no doubt in that of the Department, decisions could in practice be reached so that it was possible for discretion to be exercised to give widows half or quarter pensions. Inevitably there would be grievous administrative problems to overcome before that result could be achieved. But the House will understand that, by their nature, these allowances will be comparatively small. Therefore, it is unlikely that a decision could be made in respect of these small amounts which public opinion found offensive.

It has to be appreciated that, in a sense, the object of the sponsors is not to change the law but simply to reaffirm it, if the Lord Chief Justice's obiter is good law. As the Solicitor-General said, in the widow's allowances case the Lord Chief Justice stressed that it is the nature of the crime itself that will dictate whether public policy demands that the court withholds relief. According to the Lord Chief Justice, a discretion is in existence, albeit as yet only upon his obiter, and so far there appears to be no case in which such discretion has ever been used.

What the sponsors have in mind, if the Bill proves to be acceptable here, is to inspire a Lords amendment which will ensure that the withholding or granting of relief is dealt with by a sophisticated body of the kind that I apprehend was in the mind of the hon. Member for Harborough. Such a grave decision should not be decided by caprice or by executive sympathy, without a clear vision of the fundamental common law principle, which has to be firmly secured from erosion.

Soundings have indicated that the sensitive commissioners may well be ready to take direct the determination of the handful of cases which are likely to arise each year. Therefore, such matters would not have to proceed through local tribunals and the usual prolonged appellate proceedings with which hon. Members are familiar because of the cases of their constituents. Such determinations by a body such as the commissioners will, I hope, reassure the House that no decisions will be taken to give relief except where humanity requires it. In no case should it be given by way of sentimental gestures blotting out the imperative need to maintain the integrity of our ancient common law rule that no one shall benefit from his or her own wrongdoing.

I realise that to some degree we are asking the House to take matters upon trust, but the House has the ultimate veto. The intentions of the sponsors are clearly explained. The modifications in approach and view that have emerged are clear. If in any way we did not fulfil those intentions the House could rightly, and very easily, in a Private Members's Bill, change matters when it returned here.

I am sure that the House is extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough for tabling what I hope will prove to be constructive probing suggestions. I assure the House that the sponsors will listen very carefully to the contributions to the debate and take note of the consensus of the House about any amendment which hon. Members may be able to inspire in the other place.

I am very uneasy about the Bill as it stands. The doctrine of asking the House to take the matter on trust is an extremely dangerous one. It is not that we do not trust the integrity of our colleagues or the House of Lords. It is that our experience in this place teaches us that, unless we are very careful in watching stage by stage the way in which a matter develops, all too easily the wrong result can occur. That is because of the pressures on time and because sometimes the Members of the other place are otherwise engaged, perfectly properly, in pursuits which deny them the opportunity to be present when something of great importance is being discussed, So it is also in this place.

The main difficulty facing Members of Parliament is how to sort out their priorities and to apply their minds to all the important national and constituency interests that arise, not having available to them more hours of the day than the Almighty has provided. As a result, often we are not available at times when perhaps we should be. That is due to pressure of work and has nothing to do with malice or ill will, and still less with any lack of integrity of Members of Parliament.

Therefore, we have to be extremely careful about the argument put by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). Often, things are not put right in the other place. Often, we have to concern ourselves later with muddled legislation or which is a misstatement of the intention of Parliament, at great cost in time and taxpayers' money.

Will my hon. and learned Friend accept that, if the other place makes amendments, we may agree with some and disagree with others? It will be extremely difficult to put the Bill into proper shape when it comes back from the other place. It will come back on a Friday, when there will be very few hon. Members present and very little time available, and when we shall have inadequate opportunity to put the Bill into the kind of state in which it should be when it is starting on its passage.

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. If this were a large Bill, with many important points of principle, and the point to which the hon. Member for Pontypool had been addressing himself were but an insignificant part of it, common sense would dictate that it probably could be left to be put right in another place. But I consider that the issue about which we are talking is so important a part of the Bill that we must not just brush the matter off and say that it will be put right in another place. That would be to derogate from the responsibility that the public expect us to accept in this House. There would be no point in our meeting in this Chamber if everything could be done or put right in the other Chamber.

So the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypool have not diminished my concern about the Bill. However, I welcome the discussion on the matter. I regret that there was not a Second Reading debate. That is confirmation of the fact that, because of the pressure of time, hon. Members cannot always look at every detail of every Bill that is introduced. Had we been a perfect institution, there would have been a proper Second Reading debate, the matter would have been raised at an earlier stage, and the hon. Member for Pontypool would not now be saying that this House must take the matter on trust when it goes to the other place.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on tabling the new clause and the amendments and for advancing certain objections to the Bill. I congratulate also the promoter, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood), and the hon. Member for Pontypool on their reasonable reaction to the amendments. The Bill raises an important question of principle, which we should deal with here and now. The law says that a person shall not benefit from his wrongdoing, especially criminal wrongdoing. The law also says that a person may apply to vary a will in certain very needy circumstances.

The Bill proposes that there should be a special right to go to the court for variation, even where the claimant is a wrongdoer. There may be some degree of merit in the proposal. If the law is harsh, it must be adjusted so that it is more compassionate. I say nothing in criticism of the compassion of the promoter, of the sponsors, or of any hon. Members on either side of the House, but no one can or should be compassionate in regard to murderers. Perhaps we should be compassionate in regard to some degrees of manslaughter, where there is diminished responsibility or where there is mercy killing. Even then, killing must not be encouraged, and we must not be seen to be doing anything here which even suggests that there are circumstances in which we would encourage the taking of life. Certainly there must be no compassion in regard to murder.

11.30 am

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Pontypool is supporting the new clause and the amendment. However, I make it clear that I am doing so. This is no time to be dismantling any protection against murder. This is no time for the public to see the House dismantling such protection, however, slight it may be.

The hon. Gentleman might argue that nobody would be deterred or that few people would be deterred from murdering someone because of a provision that they could not benefit from it. But the public will believe that the measure gives people a benefit which they do not now have in law pursuant to the commission of a murder. Those of us who think that there should be capital punishment—of course, that view is not shared by everyone here—feel that, since there is not, other alternatives to it must be strengthened, rather than weakened. If 80 per cent. of the public are in favour of capital punishment, and if Parliament has refused to restore it, that 80 per cent. will need to be sure that any alternative to capital punishment deters murder, instead of making it—however slightly—easier and more attractive. Therefore, as a matter of principle and because of the way in which the public may view what we are doing, I have the gravest concern about the measure.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 4 go a long way to alleviate that concern. Those of us who practise day after day in the criminal courts appreciate that even the so-called compassionate killings are not always what they may seem. It is often said that we would not want the death penalty for domestic killings, but some domestic killings are as cold-blooded, as wilful and as thoroughly unacceptable as any gang-land killings.

Sometimes, a spouse can exaggerate the circumstances so that people will feel sorry for him or her. She can wander around in a perpetual daze and continually break into tears. She can let her job go to pot, and she can telephone the Salvation Army night after night, saying that she is thinking of killing herself. When the act of murder has been committed, psychiatrists may say that her behaviour is such that she must have been suffering from diminished responsibility.

I know of a case in which the husband wound the flex of a telephone twice round his wife's neck and pulled until she was strangled to death. When he was arrested for the murder he put on a great show. It was so convincing that three psychiatrists were called at his trial to say that he was suffering from diminished responsibility. At one of the visits, a prison officer overheard him say something like "I think that I am conning the medical people round to my side." When the jury heard that, it convicted him of murder.

That case demonstrates how easy it might be to set up a situation in which many psychiatrists would say that diminished responsibility was involved. The jury might accept their view, and someone who had committed a wilful murder would not only get away with the consequences, but—under this Bill—could benefit as well.

I turn to the practicality of the process by which murder cases come to be tried. In such a case as I have described it might have been easy for the prosecution to say that, if three psychiatrists had said that the man suffered from diminished responsibility, it should not waste public time and money and should accept the plea. Even under the new clause and the amendment, manslaughter would not be an objection to an application to the court under such circumstances. I do not seek that it should be. I merely point out that the law is so imperfect in its operation that we may frequently let people get away with less than their full punishment and less than the correct verdict. Therefore, we must not be seen to be helping that process.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Pontypool would want us to be moved by the argument that if the Bill were to go through in this form—I think without the new clause—it would be of some relief to the taxpayer. Of course anything that relieves the taxpayer always goes down well with Conservative Members, and probably with Opposition Members. I do not wish to make a party-political point. However, principles are more important than this sort of financial cost and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was putting that forward as a reason for supporting the Bill.

I have stated my conviction that the Bill should not go on to the statute book unless it is made clear to the public that someone who has committed such a great criminal wrong that he is guilty of murder will not benefit from it. It would not be a reasonable or sensible use of our position to leave it to the other place to work out a satisfactory format for us. Stage by stage, we must do all that we can to ensure that legislation that reaches the statute book is good. It is never right to say about an important principle or part of a Bill that someone else can put it right. Therefore, unless I receive full assurances from those concerned, I shall continue to be extremely unhappy about the matter and will take such steps as are appropriate in the circumstances.

I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House to give some idea of the Government's thinking. Our position is still that up to a point we are neutral. Within that framework I shall endeavour to give as much guidance as possible. We want to hear the views of the House and the views of the elected representatives of the people, speaking for the people who elected them. Up to a point, the Government's position has always been that they will assist in the proper implementation of those views. By that I mean that we shall provide the necessary drafting expertise to ensure that whatever decision the House reaches is put into law in a proper form.

I have always stressed that this applies up to a point. I tried in Committee to give some guidance on the Government's thinking on what "up to a point" meant, and I shall enlarge upon that now for the benefit of those who have expressed concern. I accept that they are right to be concerned about what we are doing. I have made that as clear as I can on behalf of the Government. I doubt whether anyone would feel other than concerned, because matters of great public importance are involved. I was glad that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) said what he did about the basic and important principles with which we are concerned.

The Government attach the greatest importance to the general rule that a person should not benefit from his own wrongdoing and would not willingly be a party to anything that eroded that rule. I think that it is necessary to be rather more specific than that and I hope that it will assist the House if I address myself briefly to the nature of the principle which in practice would be affected by the Bill if it became law.

For a long time the courts have claimed and exercised a right to refuse to enforce a claim when it arises from a claimant's wrongdoing. It is loosely described as a rule that a person shall not benefit from his own wrongdoing, but there is no rule of that character; there is only a general principle. However, one would expect every right-thinking person to have it in his own mind. We are talking about the application of the "rule" by the courts in the enforcement or otherwise of claims. That which we are discussing arises only when someone seeks the assistance of the courts in enforcing a right. It arises only if the right has arisen out of the claimant's wrongdoing.

It is not surprising that the courts have adopted the practice of claiming the right to say to the applicant "As your claim arises out of your own wrongdoing, we shall not allow you to use the courts to enforce these rights." The nature of the practice, though it is based on the general rule that it is contrary to public policy that an offender should be allowed to benefit from his own wrongdoing, is properly described by the Latin tag ex turpi causa non oritur actio.

As the hon. Member for Pontypool has said, we must recognise that the purpose of the Bill is to alter the present practice for the benefit of the claimant in cases where the wrongdoing is unlawful. No one should shrink from that. We must look this straight in the eye to ascertain whether there are changes that are acceptable notwithstanding the fact that that is the aim.

11.45 am

It is not surprising that none of us knows of a case where a court has exercised discretion to allow a person to use the courts to enforce a claim which has arisen out of a wrongdoing. It would be surprising if there were a substantial number of cases where that had happened. However, there is no doubt that the courts have that discretion. It has not been exercised because, not surprisingly, when a claim arises out of an unlawful killing, for example, the natural inclination is to say that only in exceptional circumstances should we depart from the rule of principle. However, it is clear from the cases leading up to the case of Connor, and other cases, that the courts have a complete discretion to say whether the bar should be operated. It will not be surprising to anyone that in cases of unlawful killing the decision has always been so far that it would be contrary to public policy to allow the offender to benefit.

My hon. and learned Friend !has told the House that the courts have a discretion not to apply the absolute bar. Will he confirm that prima facie the bar applies to cases of death caused by reckless driving?

We are not talking about a bar that applies to any one category of case. We are discussing a principle and practice which has been built up. If the claimant is claiming a right which has accrued to him from his own wrongdoing, whether killing or any other kind of wrongdoing, the court then has to consider whether it would be contrary to public policy to allow that person to use the courts to enforce the right. It is a principle that spreads across the spectrum of wrongdoing.

Is my hon. and learned Friend saying that a person who has been found wrongfully to have caused the death of the deceased may apply to the courts for an order under the appropriate section of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, and that it is purely a discretionary matter for the court concerned whether to apply any bar?

That is right. The bar arises only if a person has a cause of action. If he has no cause of action, the claim will fall for that reason and the court will not have to consider the principle that we are discussing. This principle and practice arise only at the second stage. This is an extremely important matter and I do not accept all that my hon. and learned Friend has said about it. I am seeking to develop a coherent argument to assist the House.

It is clear that the courts have a wide discretion. It is the courts' own practice that we are discussing. The Lord Chief Justice could not have made it more clear that that was his approach in the case of Connor. In every case where the claimant has been an offender who has been guilty of unlawful killing, the practice has been followed with the one consequence. To that extent it has become a rule of law. I pray in aid the case of Connor in particular.

The discretion of the court is to say to the claimant, "You are barred," or "You are not barred." It is conceivable that in certain circumstances a court could say "We think it contrary to public policy to allow this offender to recover in full a right accruing from his own wrongdoing but we do not think that public policy demands that he be deprived of all benefit." It is perhaps conceivable that such a situation might arise. If it did—as I see the law at the moment—the court would not be free to give effect to what it considered public policy required.

It is an important matter, and I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General would clarify it. There appear to be two issues. One is whether, under the 1975 Act, or more generally at common law, a court has jurisdiction to entertain a claim at all. The second, assuming that the court has such a jurisdiction, is whether public policy generally requires the rejection of that claim. I understand the Solicitor-General to say that the court has jurisdiction to entertain a claim under the 1975 Act—the applicant can get before the court—but public policy in the majority of cases obliges the court to reject the claim, albeit a claim that is properly made.

My hon. and learned Friend will forgive me if I answer the question in a slightly different terminology. Somebody who seeks to pursue a claim in the court must first show a cause of action or a statutory right. What we are talking about does not affect that. If a person does not show a cause of action or statutory right, there is no need for the court to consider the matter because the proceedings would fail. That is illustrated by the case of Connor. It concerned the alleged right of a widow to a pension. There was no doubt that the statutory requirements that have to be fulfilled as a condition of claiming a pension were satisfied. The court had to consider whether, because she was the wrongdoer, it should lend its assistance to her in enforcing that right.

I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving way. Is it the present position that the court, if it is satisfied in all the circumstances that it would be inequitable—taking into account the wrongdoing—that the applicant should forfeit all benefit, can grant that applicant such relief as it thinks appropriate? If so, what is the need for the Bill?

The court has no such discretion. What the court has to decide, unless there is a cause of action or statutory right cadit quaestio, arises only where a person has prima facie a right enforceable by the court and that is a right which has accrued in consequence of his or her wrongdoing. That raises a new consideration for the court.

The question for the court is whether it would be contrary to public policy to allow that wrongdoer to benefit from his wrongdoing. In my view, it is only open to the court to say "Yes" or "No". The court cannot say that the wrongdoer should be deprived of part of the benefit—because it would be contrary to public policy to allow him or her to have it all—even if it thought that it would be commensurate with public policy to allow the wrongdoer to have a part. My view is that, in deciding that question, the court has jurisdiction only to answer "Yes" or "No".

The Solicitor-General is being very helpful, and I must apologise for intervening again. He has said that the court has a jurisdiction to say "Yes" or "No". If a defence of wrongdoing is raised the court has jurisdiction in certain circumstances to permit all the claim. When determining whether to exercise that discretion, does the court pay any regard to the culpability of the applicant? If a person is charged with and convicted of manslaughter, does the court have the power to investigate his degree of culpability, or is the discretion of the court limited to saying, for example, in a case of causing death by reckless driving, "We do not want to apply the bar to that class of case"? Does the discretion go to the culpability of an individual or to the class of offence of which the applicant is guilty?

The answer to that question is to be found in the words of the Lord Chief Justice in the case of Connor. He said that it was not the name but the nature of the offence. The degree of culpability is very much a question for the court. I believe that the courts look at the matter with the element of culpability in mind and try to decide how the public would see it. In the case of Connor, the Lord Chief Justice examined the question of culpability and found that, on the finding of the jury, it was a deliberate killing by the sticking of the knife into the husband. The Lord Chief Justice said that, although it was difficult to draw the line in some cases, that case fell on the side of applying the bar. It is clear that the courts look at the culpability and the nature of what was done in the particular case, but always from the point of view of public policy. I know that public policy is an unruly horse, but I am happy to leave that kind of test to the courts because it gives them a wider discretion to do what they think right in the light of public policy, which varies from time to time.

In some cases it might be beneficial to plug the gap so that the court has an even wider discretion, but if there be a weakness it is that the question for the court is whether, as a matter of public policy, it should allow the claimant to use the court to enforce his claims. The answer must be "Yes" or "No". I can see a case for giving the court a wider discretion because there might be an incident in which, on the facts, the court believes that public policy requires that the claimant should not be allowed to enforce all his rights but that it would not be consonant with public policy to deprive the claimant of all his rights.

I am happy to try to assist hon. Members, but the argument is not advanced by taking hypothetical cases. If no case arises that calls for that remedy, there would be no harm in the courts having it. However, if such a case arises, we must ask ourselves whether we should widen the discretion to that extent and leave it to the judges to use their common sense, experience and judgment in the same way as we leave it to them in the application of principle and practice.

12 noon

Some benefit will accrue from our exchanges and I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. In my previous intervention I put the need for subsection (2) to clause IA. My hon. and learned Friend said that the court may in present circumstances, without this Bill, if it is satisfied that the circumstances would be inequitable, grant relief, but that the problem was that where the court was faced with the question of public policy it had only one answer to make. If one of the circumstances is a public policy matter, and the case is contrary to public policy, it cannot be permitted. There would then be some reason for this part of the Bill.

How does my hon. and learned Friend read the Lord Chief Justice's statement in the case of Connor, which is:
"In each case it is not the label which the law applies to the crime which has been committed but the nature of the crime itself which in the end will dictate whether public policy demands the court to drive the applicant from the seat of justice. Where that line is to be drawn may be a difficult matter to decide"—
that is where the line of public policy should be drawn—
"but what this court has to determine is whether in the present case what this applicant did was sufficient to disentitle her to her remedy."?
Does that not sound suspiciously as though the highest court is saying that it may not be possible to define public policy and that therefore it is in the court's discretion to decide whether, in each case, what the applicant did was sufficient to disentitle her to remedy? Although public policy may be difficult to define and is an unruly horse, that does not entitle the judge to say "I cannot exercise my discretion." If that is the position in law, what will be added to the law by clause 1A(2)?

I have not directed my mind to clause 1 because I have always made it clear that, as it is now drafted, it cannot possibly stay. That has been accepted by the promoter. I am talking about whether there is an acceptable substitute for it. That may explain the difference between us. I was relying on the words quoted by my hon. and learned Friend from the judgment of the Lord Chief Justice for the propositions that I am advancing. The words do not create any doubt about the proposition. The court must determine whether, in each case, the conduct of the applicant is such as to disentitle him to a remedy. However, what he is talking about there does not affect what he said in the previous sentence, which he described as

"driving the applicant from the seat of justice."
He is talking about the practice that has grown up of the courts saying "We shall not allow you to use the courts." That is an all-or-nothing decision. The basis of the decision, and the nearest that one can identify what the court must do, is that the judge has not only the jurisdiction but the duty to decide whether it is contrary to public policy to allow the applicant to do what he would otherwise have the perfect right to do—to use the courts to enforce his rights. That permits only a "Yes" or "No" answer.

The matter has not caused many problems. It is for the House to say whether it believes that there should be some wider discretion. I have always made it clear, speaking for myself and the Government, that it would not be right to go any further than that. The question for the House is whether it should go that far.

To be as neutral as I can, I see the argument for saying that the present position may be unduly restrictive on the court. We put a solemn duty on the court, as we do in so many other ways. We might describe what we are doing here as "Should we, while requiring the court to carry out that solemn duty for us, give it a little more discretion?" That would be the effect of alleviating the all-or-nothing rule.

Some might say that it does not go far enough. I suggest that it could be a significant advance. I doubt whether it would apply to many, if any, cases. In every case where someone comes before a court, having unlawfully killed another person, and tries to enforce the rights accruing from that crime, the court would be inclined to say "No". It would require special circumstances and the judge must be entirely satisfied that it would be consonant with public policy to give a part of the rights before he uses the powers about which I am talking, if they are then part of the Bill.

If any hon. Members have further technical questions on that part of the Bill, I shall be glad to answer them. If not, I shall put the Government's view on it. At the moment, the Government are inclined to the view that, if it was the wish of the House to go that far, the Government should assist the sponsors with the technical expertise that is necessary to put the wording into due form. If the House decided that it did not want to go that far, so be it. If the House decided that it wanted to go further, the Government will have to reconsider their views on whether assistance could be given. The promoter was good enough to acknowledge that. He said that he would not seek to go further.

What I shall say on clause 2 is based on the assumption that it is universally agreed that clause 2 cannot stand as it is. The question is whether one can do something useful as regards social security benefit. I say again that if it is decided by the House that something can usefully be done and it is something that the Government feel can properly be done in the administration of a State service, the assistance will be given to get the wording into due form.

It is right that I should set out the Government's thinking in a little more detail than hitherto. I am talking now simply about killings affecting social security entitlement. Fortunately, they are rare. The Government believe that it is entirely right that the opportunity should be taken within the scope of the Bill to ensure the most sensible approach to adjudication on those issues when they arise. That is the aspect of the clause 2 claim to which the Government have addressed their mind, securing the most sensible approach to adjudication rather than seeking to give the court the discretion that I have been talking about in connection with clause 1. It is not feasible to give a court power to say that a proportion of a benefit shall be paid. The administrative problems would be horrendous. However, that does not mean to say that it would not be possible to do something useful. It is felt that something might be done to secure a more sensible approach to adjudication.

I shall now speak word for word from the DHSS brief because this is a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister of State and that Department. Clause 2 as it stands deals with a narrow range of social security entitlements, though in general those in respect of which the ex turpi question is most likely to arise. It does not, however, cover the whole range of entitlement issues in respect of which the question might arise. It is, of course, related in its present form entirely to national insurance widows' benefits, whereas widows' rights also stem from, for example, the industrial injuries scheme. Widowers have certain, though much more limited, rights on the death of the spouse. In addition, retirement pensions can flow from a spouse's contribution record and the person's status following the death of a spouse can affect contribution liability and supplementary benefit, family income supplement and child benefit rights.

At present, the ex turpi issue will be dealt with where it falls, in the sense that the adjudicating authority that is considering entitlement or liability can consider the ex turpi issue incidentally to the question before it. The adjudicating authorities are, therefore, according to the matter in dispute, the Secretary of State, the insurance officer, the supplementary benefit officer, a tribunal or a social security commissioner. Given the rarity of the ex turpi case and the probability that each case will be unique in a number of aspects, it seems right that means should be found of concentrating decisions in the hands of a single authority at a senior level. Most appropriately, that might be the commissioners. I understand that the sponsors of the Bill share the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends and are minded to make an amendment to that effect in another place. The ex turpi issue would go straight to the commissioners.

If any hon. Members want more details, they are available. I have said enough to remind the House that in the area of social welfare benefit a number of different persons or bodies may be called upon to determine this issue when it arises. It seems to the Goverment to make sense to tidy that up and to take a more sensible approach to adjudication, which is that, whenever this question arises in connection with social security entitlement, it should be decided in the first instance by the commissioner.

My hon. and learned Friend has raised another point on which I would rather not be drawn.

I stress that, while the Government see that a useful purpose might be served, the idea at present contained in clause 2 is not acceptable because it is not feasible to divide benefits or have any orders saying that a benefit shall be paid in part only. That is the Government's thinking on the clause under consideration. We shall listen with interest to hon. Members' views and whatever decision the House may arrive at.

This has not been an exciting debate, but it has been a careful and good tempered debate, conducted in a spirit of genuinely seeking the best solution to the problem.

I am sure that the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood) for raising a matter that has not been widely discussed. I agree with the Solicitor-General that it is not applicable to many situations every year, but there are a few situations from time to time when compassion requires that we should consider the matter. It is right that the House should consider such questions, which do not frequently hit the headlines or affect large numbers of people, but which can make a real difference to the lives of a few individuals.

The House will be grateful, too, to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) for the care that he has devoted to the matter, as he always does. If the Bill eventually finds its way on to the statute book, it will be the ninth Bill of which my hon. Friend has been a sponsor and which has eventually changed the law. And it will be the ninth Bill in which he has played a leading part. His approach has been moderate and open-minded. Both my hon. Friends are possibly minded to accept the new clause, although that may depend on the subsequent debate.

The House will also be grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who, as always, goes to the root of these matters and has compelled us to direct our minds to things which the House should discuss. It is right that the House should consider those issues carefully before they go forward. And the House is grateful to the Solicitor-General for his careful indication of the Government's thinking and his offer of technical expertise if the matter proceeds.

I wholly agree with the intervention of the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr Hogg), who technically is still not an hon. and learned Member, but I believe that that is just a matter of time. It would be much better if there had been a Second Reading on the Floor of the House. That has not been possible, for reasons which we all understand. It is not the only occasion on which a Second Reading debate on the Floor of the House was not possible. There is very proper Government business before the House now for which that will not be possible. It would also have been much better if the House could have seen the Bill as it is hoped it will eventually emerge, but that, too, was not possible for reasons which we all understand.

I take the point of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). We would not wish to risk legislating when it is possible that what ultimately emerges has not been fully considered. Equally, I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman would accept that, in the absence of parliamentary time, it would be a tragedy if we failed to legislate for mischiefs which we all agree exist. In an imperfect world, we must do the best we can.

If the Bill continues we shall have the opportunity to consider it further, but if it does not there will be no prospect of redressing the mischief. I therefore hope that in due course the House will allow the Bill to continue its progress.

I wonder whether that is entirely true. If the House does not give the Bill a Third Reading today, I understand that it is put back and will come forward for Third Reading some time in July. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that failure to give it a Second Reading today is necessarily tantamount to killing the Bill.

I confess that I have not directed my mind to all the procedural niceties. The hon. Gentleman may have in mind some procedure which has escaped me. If a decision is simply not reached, clearly the matter will come back later.

I think that I can assist the hon. and learned Gentleman. I should not expect this to apply to the new clause, but I understand that if the House does not give the Bill a Third Reading today, due to lack of numbers, which is the most likely explanation, it will go back into the list, as it were, and come back to the House in July. If there were a vote against Third Reading with sufficient numbers to establish a quorum, that would of course be the end of the Bill. I apologise if I did not make myself clear.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling me what is in his mind. I had it in mind that the House would take a decision on Third Reading today. In that circumstance, if the Bill were not accorded a Third Reading, that would be the end. There are other possibilities, of course, but I venture to hope that they will not be used, as it would be a great pity if Private Members' business were killed in that way. If the Bill came back in July, of course, we all know that its prospects of reaching the statute book would be virtually nil and that would be a tragedy. I hope that it will be kept alive so that there may be further discussion. If the House is not satisfied with what emerges, it will have the opportunity to ensure that it does not reach the statute book.

12.15 pm

The rule of public policy which precludes anyone from taking advantage of his or her own wrong is well established and well founded, for reasons that we well know. No one can sensibly object to it. Certainly the sponsors of the Bill have not done so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool made clear, it is not part of their wish to permit relief by way of sentimental gesture. We are all very mindful of the reasoning behind the rule. But it is right to keep in mind the purpose of that rule and the mischief at which it is aimed. As I understand it, the purpose is to discourage wrongdoing and no doubt to ensure that, as a matter of justice, it should not be rewarded.

It is therefore necessary to see whether the present scope of the rule is confined to what is necessary for that purpose and whether the present limits are the proper limits for the purpose of enforcing it. The Solicitor-General said that he thought that the courts already had a wide discretion. I hesitate to venture even a mild disagreement with a Law Officer of the Crown, but I wonder whether that is an accurate way of putting it. I shall draw attention to what has been said judicially about this.

In Committee I quoted the words of the learned Vice-Chancellor in the case in re Giles in 1972, when he said:
"Now I do not think that I am concerned to analyse the ground on which the courts have established this rule of public policy. It is sufficient to say that the rule has been established and that the deserving of punishment and moral culpability are not necessary ingredients of the type of crime to which this rule applies, that is, culpable homicide, murder or manslaughter."
So at present the rule applies whether there has been moral culpability or not. There is no question whether the claimant is deserving of punishment. It does not appear from that that the courts have a discretion to decide whether a degree of culpability should be taken into account.

The Solicitor-General referred, as he has done on previous occasions, to the judgment of the Lord Chief Justice in the case of Connor. As I understand his interpretation, he said that it made it clear that the courts have the discretion and can decide whether to apply the rule of public policy or to overrule it on the facts of a particular case. When we discussed this in Committee I said that it would repay inquiry as to what criterion the courts are now required to apply. We should then decide whether we wish that to be the criterion for which we are legislating. The Solicitor-General agreed with us in Committee that there was no case known to us in which there had been a causal connection between the wrongdoing and the claim and in which the courts were able to say that it was appropriate not to apply the rule.

In the case of Connor, the Lord Chief Justice said:
"One turns then to see what it was that happened here. On the verdict of the jury, it is plain that the applicant's act was a deliberate, conscious and intentional act. She was holding the knife in her hand and she deliberately thrust it into her husband's chest. That is not the same as discharging two barrels of a shotgun; no two situations will ever be the same. But, speaking for myself, I can see no distinction in principle between the situation in Gray v. Barr, which was sufficient to disentitle the plaintiff to recover, and the situation here, which also to my mind disentitles the applicant to recover."
The words which embody the criteria seem to be
"a deliberate, conscious and intentional act".
Those words were taken from a dictum in Gray v Barr by the learned Master of the Rolls. It appears that the courts, in both cases, took the clear view that if the act is deliberate, conscious and intentional, one cannot look any further. If my understanding is correct, there is certainly no such discretion as was clearly in the minds of my hon. Friends when they sponsored the Bill.

Let us suppose that as a result of this deliberate and conscious act a person is subsequently acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. What, then, is the situation?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has anticipated what is in my mind and what I proposed to say. It does not appear from the words in those cases that the court's discretion is thought to extend to the kind of case where a conscious and deliberate act culminates in a conviction for manslaughter.

12.30 pm

What the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying—I agree with him—is that there is no very clear authority on this issue and that it is possible: to adopt at least two views. If that is right, and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me, does it not fortify the suggestion that before we legislate further it would be wise to put this matter before the Law Commission?

I am grateful for that suggestion. It was discussed by the Solicitor-General in Committee. I hope that I have shown, over a long period of years, that I am a great believer in using the Law Commission, which has done great service. But where there is a specific, fairly narrow and clearly defined problem on which it is possible to form a view, the House should be able to form a view without the kind of consideration that it is normal for the Law Commission to give.

If there is a doubt, I should have thought that all that follows is that it becomes even more important to resolve the doubt. I should have hoped for that reason that the House would feel able to take a view. If there is a doubt, hon. Members should decide how they want to resolve it. If hon. Members take the view that the present discretion in the courts is not wide enough to achieve the result that they want, they should legislate for that to be done.

I should not venture to complain about those dicta from what are probably the two most distinguished judicial authorities as a statement of law, but they do not necessarily embody the criterion that hon. Members, on consideration, would wish to see embodied. I believe that we can be more compassionate without abandoning the rule and without encouraging wrongdoers.

The difficulty where a rule has been developed judicially is that the courts inevitably cannot apply a surgeon's scalpel. They follow precedent. Judges do not necessarily feel free to draw fine distinctions for which their only authority is their sense of the fitness of things. They do not often leave for themselves a wide discretion in particular cases.

One problem is clearly that to which the Solicitor-General drew attention—the all-or-nothing rule. I should have thought that all hon. Members would agree that this is a rule which we should like to see mitigated. Secondly, it seems to me that we may wish to give the courts a wider discretion to consider the degree of culpability. I do not believe that we can leave either of those remedies to the judiciary. That would be unfair. It is essentially a mater for legislation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool said, this is a matter which the legislature has increasingly considered this century without wishing to encourage wrongdoing and without vindicating murder, but simply to say that, in certain cases, the innermost workings of the human mind are much more mysterious than was believed by people in the past. There can be cases, such as mercy killing, in which any of us might find ourselves under strong psychological pressures. Mercy killing, as I understand it, would still be murder. If the new clause were accepted, we might therefore eliminate mercy killing from the consideration of the courts, in this connection.

It is true that the courts may get the facts wrong, as the hon. and learned Member for Burton said. Someone may "con" a psychiatrist. Someone may even "con" the court. Not all miscarriages of justice are in the direction of undue lenience. Sometimes there are miscarriages of justice where someone is treated more harshly than he should be. No legal system can guarantee that there is never a mistake of fact by the courts. But, in my submission, the fact that guidelines are sometimes misapplied cannot be a reason for not providing guidelines. I hope that we would go a little further than the Solicitor-General has said; that we would wish not only to mitigate the all-or-nothing rule but to give the courts a wider discretion to take into account the moral culpability of the act that they are considering.

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his guidance on clause 2. I do not wish to take the discussion further, particularly as others wish to take part in the debate.

There is here a mischief which can occasionally cause great injustice and distress and complete the ruin of lives already in ruins. Of course, the House should have an opportunity to consider the final version of the Bill before it reaches the statute book. But I hope that a way will be found to permit the Bill to proceed rather than to say today that the discussion must not proceed further.

Your predecessor, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was kind enough to allow a wide-ranging debate on new clause 1. It has, in effect, been treated as a Second Reading debate. I should be enormously grateful to you if you would permit me the same indulgence. I originally intended to confine my remarks at this stage to new clause 1 and to make my larger objections and qualifications on Third Reading, but I feel that that would not be for the convenience of the House. Every other hon. Member has embarked on a wide-ranging debate.

If my predecessor has so allowed, so be it. But as a matter of principle it is never a good thing to go beyond the scope of amendments.

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill's sponsors have done the House a great service. My views have oscillated during the debate. It is an extremely difficult issue. I believe that there is sufficient merit in the Bill not to kill it today. We should let it go forward in the hope and belief that the problems will be rectified in the other place, but I make it clear that I have grave anxiety about its content and that I may take a different view when it comes back from the other place.

The general principle that the courts have long adopted is, as my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said, to prevent a person gaining from his wrongdoing. That principle is stated in all the text books. My hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) referred us to the undoubted discretion that exists. I say "undoubted" but that perhaps begs the question. There are judicial dicta to the effect that the courts have a discretion to disapply the general approach, but they are not consistent with the general statements of the law to be found in the text books.

There is a degree of uncertainty as to what the law is—whether as a matter of general law, public policy requires a person to lose all the benefit that he may have earned from his wrongdoing without there being a discretion to disapply, or whether there is a discretion to disapply. Reasonable minded people can argue either case founded on authority with considerable force. There is grave uncertainty about a matter of significance.

I intervened during the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West to suggest that that is a reason why we should place the matter before the Law Commission. I wish that that had occurred. We should then have had its guidance. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said with considerable force that if there be reason to admit of a discretion we should say so and not be bound by judicial authority, and therefore that we should put the matter before the Royal Commission. There was tremendous force in that observation. It is one of the factors that caused me to take my present view.

As I understand the general law, subject to a discretion that may exist, and that I think probably does exist, a man may not profit from his wrongdoing. Accordingly, when a person has committed murder that person has no right of inheritance either under the will or on an intestacy of the victim. That is a general proposition, but it has been extended beyond cases of murder, as the Solicitor-General said. It extends to cases of manslaughter and, as a proposition subject to discretion, to cases of death by reckless driving. It goes further. It extends to claims made under insurance policies and, as a general proposition, to claims made by dependants under the Fatal Accidents Acts. One of the manifestations of the general policy is that where a deceased person was supporting his dependants out of the proceeds of crime, the dependants cannot recover under a claim made pursuant to the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 or the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934. The general principle has a wide application and effect.

The Bill probably has a limited effect. If the House is right in supposing that there is a general discretion in the courts to disapply the public policy principle, the only effect of the Bill is to abrogate the all-or-nothing rule. The Bill does nothing more than that. If that is so, we should give the Bill a warmer welcome than I previously was minded to give it.

New clause 1 was moved ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Fan). The new clause may be imperfect in its drafting, but its purpose is clear. Its purpose is to provide that a person who has been convicted of murder has no right to make an application under the 1975 Act. I believe that new clause 1 must be accepted. I shall put it firmer than that. If it is not accepted, I shall do everything that I can to frustrate the Bill's progress.

I said that I found it difficult to conceive of a case coming before a court in which a discretion would be exercised in the case of murder. All the cases that I described involved manslaughter. I am disturbed that even the case of the spinster who gives in to the wishes of a dying mother—much as I disapprove of the concept of mercy killing—would be excluded if the clause were not accepted. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) will direct his attention to that. The sponsors of the Bill do not want its provisions to apply to murder as we normally understand it, but should we exclude in principle the possibility of dealing with such cases?

A general principle applies to all unlawful acts resulting in death. I accept that there are some cases of manslaughter or causing death by reckless driving where the all-or-nothing rule should be relaxed. Hon. Members have mentioned bungled suicide pacts and death by reckless driving. In such cases it may be inequitable to deprive a person who has caused a death.

12.45 pm

The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) knows as well as I that the offence of manslaughter encompasses many degrees of culpability, because it is no more than homicide resulting from an unlawful act. If the hon. Member lost his temper and struck his hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood), who proved to have a defective jaw and consequently suffocated to death, the mental intention of the hon. Member for Pontypool would be irrelevant and he would be convicted of manslaughter, even though the act was in effect no more than common assault.

As the offence of manslaughter contains many degrees of culpability, I do not oppose a relaxation of the existing law in such cases—either by allowing a court to have jurisdiction to admit a claim, or, if it already has that jurisdiction, allowing it to abrogate the all-or-nothing law.

In law, murder is the causing of the death of another when intending either to kill or to do serious harm to the victim. I find it offensive in principle and unacceptable that the law should be relaxed in those cases.

As my hon. and learned friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has stressed, the vast majority of the people of this country believe that the death penalty should be available. On Tuesday the House decided otherwise. I do not criticise that, although I voted for all the new clauses calling for the restoration of the death penalty. However, I do not believe that the country would willingly agree to a relaxation of any legal rule that prevents a person who is guilty of murder from recovering under the will of his victim.

The question that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) addressed to the hon. Gentleman related to mercy killing. Would the hon. Member wish to withdraw discretion from the courts in all cases of mercy killing, however tragic?

I intended to answer the question of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). I always answer questions that are put to me. If a mercy killing constitutes murder in law, and that may vary from case to case according to the facts, public policy should prevail. My answer to the hon. Member for Pontypool is that if a person were guilty of murder I would disapply any right to go to court to acquire a benefit.

Is not the answer to the valid point put by the hon. Member or Pontypool (Mr. Abse) that it is almost inconceivable that a jury would convict a person of murder in a genuine case of mercy killing? The result is likely to be a verdict of either not guilty or guilty of manslaughter. The hon. Member for Pontypool's objection would not apply in a genuine mercy killing case.

This is a very difficult question. I am the first to bow to the experience of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton, who knows a great deal more about criminal cases than I do. I have no doubt that a jury presented with a genuine case of mercy killing would do its utmost to avoid returning a verdict of murder. But it can do so in only two ways—either by acquitting or by distorting the law. By its nature, mercy killing is killing as a result of a positive determination to kill. That is not and cannot he manslaughter in law. It admits of only one verdict in law, which is that of murder. I have no doubt that some juries will balk at that fact and acquit. But if they are doing their duty as jurors, they should return a verdict of murder.

I agree that the law is as the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) has stated it to be. There must be either a conviction of murder or an acquittal. If it is well known in such a case, however, that the possibility of total forfeiture arises and there is a degree of sympathy from the jury, is not it likely to reach an unsatisfactory and, as the hon. Gentleman put it, a distorted result with the accused person being acquitted?

I assure the hon. Member for Grantham and the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) that do not resist the inclusion of the various categories to which reference has been made, including murder in the sense that we have been discussing it. But I am troubled by the suggestion, and the Solicitor-General has taken a different approach in not wanting categories.

Given that the hon. Member for Grantham wishes, as I do, to persuade public opinion that it is proper to get the Bill on to the statute hook, and that it may be misinterpreted if the concept of murder is not excluded, is he satisfied that in cases such as those to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West referred it will not lead to a distortion which otherwise would not occur? I am seeking to collect the views of right hon. and hon. Members, because my hon. Friend the member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood) and I wish to respond constructively to them.

That is a very fair question. However, the hon. Member for Pontypool is hoist by his own petard. He has stressed to the House, as has my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, that a discretion exists already but that that discretion probably would not extend to deliberate and intentional acts. I suspect that the present position is that though there may be a discretion to disapply the existing right to deprive a person of a benefit, that could never extend to cases of murder. Reading the judgments of the Lord Chief Justice and the Lords Justices in the case of Connor, it is difficult to find any material to support the argument that a person guilty of murder should have the right to apply.

At present a person guilty of mercy killing who has been found guilty of murder cannot apply for a benefit on an intestacy or under the will, though other people may be able to. If that is the present law, as I suspect it is, that fact has not distorted verdicts in the way that the hon. Member for Pontypool suggests that it may if my reservations prove right. We are dealing with the existing position. I am merely wishing to express in statutory form what I believe to be the present common law position. Therefore, the position of those convicted of mercy killing will be no different, if my view prevails, from what it will be if the hon. Gentleman's view prevails.

If the hon. Gentleman wanted to make special provision in favour of mercy killing, he would do well to produce a different Bill which provided that such an act could constitute manslaughter, because I would then entertain the provision. But I would never agree that the right to go for a benefit should be available to those convicted of murder, and would do everything I could to prevent it. I do not believe that the public would tolerate it. I do not think that this House, if it were full, would tolerate it. I do not think that the judiciary would like it. I do not think that it would be consistent with the way in which we have established the law for many years.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that in making provision for mercy killing cases he refuses to accept the new clause, I have to tell him that his Bill will founder. Perhaps he will tell me whether he intends to agree to the new clause.

I said that I was waiting to hear the result of the debate. I intimated earlier that I wanted to hear all opinions, and so does my hon. Friend the promoter. It is not the practice on the Floor of the House—even allowing for the robustness with which the hon. Gentleman made his case—to put a gun to the head of the promoter of a Bill. We are surely urbane enough to try to get the sense of the House and to make certain that we are protecting the House from a misunderstanding outside.

At this stage I am prepared—as I am sure the promoter will be—to see whether there is a formula which will ensure that there will be no applications coming to the court in cases of murder, but which will not necessarily exclude the difficulty that arises in mercy killing cases. That is my present mood, and I appreciate that, unless some such provision is made, the Bill will not be acceptable when it comes back to the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is taking my point, as I am taking his.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The House is at the moment discussing new clause 1. If, by the time it reaches Third Reading, the Bill remains in its present form and does not include new clause 1, I shall not wish to speed it on. I hope that that makes the position absolutely plain. In those circumstances, it is for the hon. Gentleman to decide what he wishes to do.

I should like now to leave the narrow question of mercy killing and new clause 1 and to express my more general reservations, which of themselves would not persuade me to stop the passage of the Bill but which must be taken into account elsewhere.

I am very distrustful of a situation in which there is a conviction for manslaughter and the person who is so convicted has the right to apply for a benefit on an intestacy or under a will. There are at least two reasons why it is objectionable.

First, there will be many cases in which people want to reopen the issues which go to the degree of their culpability. I can imagine an enormous number of cases being brought in the civil court where the primary purpose of the applicant is not to derive a benefit under the estate but to question the conviction recorded agaist him.

The second objection is that the provision would be extremely hard on beneficiaries, who would have to suffer anxiety, doubt and expense, when the prime purpose of the application by the convicted person was in some way to diminish his culpability or question the decision of a prior court.

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Moreover, my considerable scepticism about the Bill is fortified by the reflection that a court that is trying an application—for example, under the 1975 Act—by a person convicted of manslaughter must reopen the main issues raised before the trial court. The Bill directs the court to which the application is made to consider questions of conduct. Conduct can be assessed only in the context of the evidence adduced before the trial court, when the criminal charge was resolved. Therefore, I am sceptical about the whole process. I foresee convicted people trying to reopen their cases before the civil courts, beneficiaries being put to great anxiety and a review of evidence, twice over, in different places. I do not like what I see one little bit.

One way of dealing with that problem might be to say that no application should be made under the 1975 Act unless the trial judge, before whom the criminal case was determined, granted a certificate permitting such an action. I appreciate that that would mean changing the law. However, we are in a position to change the existing law in its entirety. My positive suggestion is that, as a matter of law, all trial judges dealing with issues of manslaughter, death by reckless driving and so on should consider whether the case before them is one in which an application could be made. That is not to determine the merits of the application, but merely to express a view as to whether an application could be contemplated. That issue should be determined at the same time as sentence of the court is passed. Therefore, the certificate of the trial judge should be a condition precedent to any right to commence an application under the 1975 Act, or elsewhere.

I have two other reservations. It would be an anomaly if the effect of our legislation today was to apply one rule to claims on the estate of a deceased person—either on an intestacy or under the will—and another rule to insurance claims. That would be nonsense. The present law is that the courts that determine a claim under an insurance policy, brought by a person guilty of a crime, will apply exactly the same legal principles as they would to a claim by a convicted person for a benefit under the estate of his victim. It would be nonsense if we legislated so that the law relating to the two issues was different. We should not create anomalies.

Therefore, if the matter is to be considered in the other place, we should ensure that there is uniformity between claims on an intestacy or under the will and claims on an insurance policy. I have already mentioned the Fatal Accidents Act. Again, it would be a complete anomaly if the law were different. If we legislate in the way that we have in mind—dealing only with the 1975 Act—we should also legislate to ensure that a deceased's dependants are not in a different position. It would be nonsense if claims under the Fatal Accidents Act or under the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934 dealing with the dependants of deceased villains—were treated differently from the claims of villains. There must be uniformity. However, that matter can be dealt with, by way of amendment, in the other place. But that it must be dealt with seems plain.

I express my gratitude to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to expand beyond the confines of the new clause. Had the practice not been adopted by other hon. Members I should not have done it. This issue should have been put to the Law Commission and accordingly we should not be thinking about it today. However, I accept that there are injustices. I bear in mind that the Bill is limited to abrogating the all-or-nothing rule. Accordingly I feel that we can consider it more favourably than I was originally disposed to do.

If the Bill goes further, it will require substantial alteration. It must take account of the anomalies between insurance claims, Fatal Accidents Act claims and 1975 Act claims of the sort that I have mentioned. If the Bill is to go any further, it must be altered to provide that its clauses do not apply to murder cases. If that alteration is not made now, I shall do what I can to frustrate its further passage. However, if the sponsors are prepared to amend the Bill so that new clause 1 is, in effect, accepted, although it can be altered elsewhere, and murder cases are excluded from the scope of the Bill, I shall not seek to frustrate its passage.

I support the new clause because I believe that it helps to clarify the law, and anything that does so is always to be applauded.

I have listened to some interesting arguments by various learned Members on both sides of the House, but I am worried about the Bill because it seems to open yet another door for legal opinion. Therefore, I wish to speak on behalf of the taxpayer. Too often we are inclined to enact measures that may benefit the legal profession, but unless they massively assist the general public I am not sure that we should do so at the taxpayer's expense. If the House sees fit to pass the Bill, I hope that it will not increase considerably the costs that are borne by the taxpayer.

It seems eminently sensible that any legal aid provided may be recovered from the disputed estate. However, I would deplore a dispute over an estate of £5,000 costing the taxpayer perhaps 10 times as much in legal fees. The lucid arguments that we have heard this morning will become not only lucid but expensive when they reach the High Court. That merits some consideration by the Law Officers, who ought to take into account the taxpayer's interest in these affairs.

The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) said that the purpose of the Bill was to extend discretion. It seems that the hearing of a case in the courts, with all the opportunities for appeal, should quite clearly determine whether the decision should be manslaughter or murder. If the court decides in its wisdom, and with the benefit of legal advice, that it was murder, it seems wrong that there should be any avenue open to the person so convicted to apply to benefit from the estate. I should be most interested in what the Solicitor-General has to say on that point. If it might add to legal costs, I hope that the estate would be looked at to provide recompense. I should not expect the case to continue beyond what the benefit was to be.

It had not occurred to me that lawyers would make any money out of this or that the State would lose any. I believe that we are dealing with a small number of cases. That does not alter their importance either to the State or to the individuals who may be affected. The general principle is that the costs of actions are borne out of the estate and one presupposes here that there is an estate that has funds; otherwise there would be no application.

It might work the other way, because the consequence of the full application of the principle at the moment is that sometimes relatives, who might be able to support themselves, or who could enforce their rights under the will or upon intestacy, will not be able to do so, and they may have to call upon the State. I should not think that the financial implications are sufficient to influence the House either way. I bear in mind the importance of putting no further burden on public funds. I believe that the financial implications are minor compared with the important questions of principle.

I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend's encouraging remarks, because I believe that taxpayers feel that in such matters expense is no object. It is important to reassure them that they are not likely to be called on for considerable extra funds to promote what they would term a lawyers' charter. The new clause has considerable merit in clarifying the position and if my lion. Friend wishes to press it to a Division he will receive my support.

I have discussed this issue with the promoter and I have noted the contributions that have teen made.

Order. Hon. Members need the leave of the House to speak a second time.

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

By leave of the House, may I say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) was kind enough to mention that I have steered eight Private Member's Bills through the House and that I am engaged on the ninth. I can assure him that I have not done that without sometimes not fully achieving my original objectives. One must occasionally adopt the motto reculer pour mieux sauter, which means resiling in order to go forward. The House has expressed a view that cannot be ignored, and I shall be content if the Bill ensures that many women—it is women who are particularly affected—who are in an agonising predicament and have appeared before the courts are not deprived of the homes and money which otherwise would have come to them. I shall be content that some will receive an advantage, although a few who gall into the category of mercy killers may be excluded. That is the will of the House and I accept it. It must be an individual judgment and the decision must be on one's own conscience. If the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) intends to continue with the new clause, we shall accept it on the understanding that the principle must be embodied in whatever final clause emerges as a result of amendments in another place.

1.15 pm

I intend to press on with new clause 1 and with the amendment to leave out clause 2. The general tenor of the debate has been that the Bill will be immeasurably improved by that addition and omission.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Clause 1

Amendment Of Inheritance (Provision For Family And Dependants) Act 1975

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

'to enable the applicant to recover such part but not all of the benefit to which he would otherwise be entitled'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 16, leave out from 'to' to end of line 19 and insert

`the conduct of the applicant'.

Amendment No. 2 is a clarifying amendment. Under present law the court has a discretion to decide whether the principle of public policy should be applied to the facts of each case. Reference has already been made to the case of Connor. This could be described as an all-or-nothing approach, but in the light of the discretion it would be absurd for the Bill to provide that, although the court may decide that the circumstances are such that public policy requires that no relief should be given, nevertheless it can hold that total relief shall be given.

It is not clear from the clause whether the promoters intend that to be the case. One could mitigate the all-or-nothing approach by allowing partial relief, but do the promoters wish to go further? If so, what do they intend?

I have not understood the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps he could elaborate it. It has been made clear that, in the substantive clauses which come from another place, it will be possible for the courts to give part and not all of the estate. Is the hon. Gentleman urging that in every case it must not be all but only part of the estate? That is how I interpret his question. On the general principle, he is pushing against an open door, because, as the Solicitor-General said, the objective is not to have an all-or-nothing approach but to reach a position where part may be given and not all.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It would probably be better and simpler if I were to continue with the other amendment, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are coupled for debate. The argument for one hinges upon the argument for the other.

The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to probe the intentions of the sponsors in this narrow avenue of the Bill. Amendment No. 3 is related to amendment No. 2. when I have explained the reasons for amendment No. 3, some of the answers might be more apparent to the hon. Gentleman.

Clause 1 envisages that the court shall have a general discretion to give such relief as it considers just, having regard to all the circumstances. The court is directed to consider not only the conduct of both the applicant and the deceased, but the financial needs of the applicant and any other person affected. That suggests that, however blameworthy the conduct of the applicant, relief could be given if he could show greater need than any other person affected,

It is surely wrong to depart too much from the conduct of the applicant being the determining factor. It is only in a case in which conduct, although sufficient to give rise to criminal liability, is morally excusable that any discretion to grant relief from the principle of common law should be given.

As I have said, the purpose of these two amendments, which have properly been coupled for consideration today, is to probe the intentions of the sponsors of the Bill in relation to the fairly narrow aspect that I have mentioned.

It is simple to reply on the probing amendments. I do not want the matter to be fettered when we come to redrafting the necessary clauses.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) will agree that there can be circumstances in which, although culpability and conduct are bound to be the overriding factor, it is seen that the applicant is in an affluent position. If he is, the court may decide that it is not prepared to exercise its discretion. If there was an estate and the person's conduct was weighed, one could consider whether it would be right to throw the applicant upon the resources of the State rather than using the resources of the estate in order to assist.

It is the intention of the sponsors to lay the emphasis on the conduct of the applicant, but to enable the court to have the elbow room to consider the other factors. As a result of the debates, we have all said that we are concerned that the discretion of the court is so limited that it can do only either everything or nothing. It would be unfortunate if we now tried to fetter that discretion. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that any clause that is drafted will be one in which the importance of the consideration of conduct is clearly stated. I hope that, with those assurances, it will be possible for the hon. Gentleman not to press the point further.

The many questions of principle that lie behind the amendment have been discussed because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your predecessor permitted a general, wide-ranging debate. Amendment No. 2 raises directly the all-or-nothing matter. I shall not embark upon any further comment on these general principles. The only advice that I can usefully give the House is to repeat that the clause would be unacceptable in its present form. It must be entirely redrafted. Although it has been useful that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has raised these matters, it is reasonable, I think, that these should be treated simply as probing amendments rather than introduced into the Bill at this stage.

The short debate on these two amendments has been useful. I am grateful for the explanations given by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

1.22 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Today's discussion has been sufficiently wide-ranging to cover all the matters that would have been raised in a Second Reading debate. I believe that the intentions of the Bill are well understood. It will come back for further discussion with considerable changes.

I wish to take the opportunity to thank the House for its indulgence. I should like to thank also the Solicitor-General and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for the great help that they have given me. I wish especially to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who has done most of the work and without whose help, as the discussions today have made clear, there would not have been a Bill at all. I am sure that my constituents understand that I seek to bring relief to a small group of tragic people, mostly women, whose suffering will be alleviated. I believe that the final shaping of the Bill in the House of Lords will mean that on its return it will be acceptable to both sides of the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood) on his good fortune and wisdom in selecting a Bill which has been generally welcomed by both sides of the House. I congratulate him also on his courage in tackling a subject where an obvious need exists and for seeking boldly and bravely to improve the law in this respect. Notwithstanding the amendments that have been made, I believe that a very useful Bill will emerge.

I was lucky enough to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bill. I felt then, and still feel, that it is a better Bill for new clause I relating to the responsibilities of those who have been convicted of murder.

Following those few words, I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering and wish the Bill a speedy passage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill Lords

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

1.30 pm

I have it in command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill [Lords], has consented to place her Prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

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It is nearly 25 years since a Scottish deer Bill was last debated in the Chamber. As the Bill received only a formal Second Reading, I do not think that I should be straying out of order in taking a few minutes to explain what is set out in it and the reasons behind the various provisions.

I should say at the outset that the Bill was introduced in another place by Lord Glenarthur, to whom great credit is due for taking it through the most detailed discussions there.

We have had close and helpful co-operation from the Red Deer Commission, the Scottish Landowners Federation, the British Deer Society, the Deer Veterinary Society and the Scottish National Farmers Union, and. I am glad to say, warm approval from the RSPCA this week.

The red deer is our largest wild animal and in Scotland there are upwards of a quarter of a million of the species. The smaller roe deer is very numerous, with numbers probably well into six figures, and outside the towns it is virtually ubiquitous.

There is, of course, always a conflict between sport and forestry and agriculture. In recent years this has been dramatically added to by the value of venison and the great temptation that this places in the way of poachers with cruel and unscrupulous methods. Indeed, the attack on poaching is one of the most important aspects of the Bill.

Relatively late in the life of the Bill we had also to consider a further aspect due to changes made in another place affecting deer farming. Deer farming is a relatively recent development in this country, since it has been discovered that the red deer is a highly efficient converter of rough pasture into lean meat and therefore well able to be a profitable form of meat production.

As is immediately evident from the long title, the Bill is an amending measure. The Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 has proved a very serviceable framework, and it is right that we should look at it afresh but retain it as a basis. Over 20 years, however, we have come to see ways in which it should be improved, and the way in which the whole approach to deer in Scotland has evolved and changing conditions have made some modifications necessary.

Taking the provisions chronologically, the Bill first deals with the functions of the Red Deer Commission. The 1959 Act, which created the commission, gave it the twin functions of conservation and control of red deer. Conservation and control are two sides of the one coin which we call management. The commission's outstanding achievement has been to reconcile the ancient conflict between the deer forest owner, with his interest in conservation as a sporting asset, and the farmer, whose prime concern is the conservation of his turnips and grass. It is symptomatic of the changes in land use over the past 20 years that many deer forest owners are equally involved in forestry and pure agriculture. In clause 1 it is important to remove the restrictions on the commission's power to give advice merely on conservation; it should concern itself with the whole of deer management.

The commission can call on a considerable amount of expertise. Many members of the commission own deer forests and are involved in farming and land owning. The Red Deer Commission field staff have experience of other deer in Scotland, such as sika and roe.

One purpose of the Bill is to tap the expertise and to enable the commission, if so directed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to advise the Government and the public on the management of other species of deer. I do not know what directions he may decide to give, but I imagine that he would wish to give the commission time to think and to advise him in due course on the best way forward. I cannot overstate the good work done by Mr. Innes Miller, his staff and the members of the commission in the development of deer in Scotland since the commission was instituted after the 1959 Act.

The sika is singled out for special mention in the Bill. The species is by no means the most numerous in Scotland. Like red deer, it presents special problems to the forester. Sika are so closely akin to the red deer that they interbreed. They are not as numerous as red or roe. If steps are not taken to develop the national herd of sika we may run into the problems that face red deer today. We could prevent that by taking action now. The Bill extends the range of the Red Deer Commission to looking after sika.

Clause 6 and subsequent clauses deal with a matter of wider public interest—the prevention of poaching and the cruel practices associated with it. In at least one respect the 1959 Act is out of date. The maximum penalty for taking or killing deer on land where one has no right to be present is £20. Courts may impose fines as low as £5 or £6—the cost of a parking ticket. The value of a carcase can be in excess of £100. The Bill makes penalties more realistic. It also improves the 1959 Act by outlawing a number of cruel practices with which it did not specifically deal.

We improved the Bill in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has great experience of taking deer legislation through the House and great practical knowledge. I do not underestimate his contribution.

We hear that the Secretary of State intends to introduce an affirmative order to deal with weapons and ammunition. We are all horrified at deer being shot by shotguns, particularly if five, six or seven shots are used rather than ball ammunition, which could perhaps be used in extreme circumstances. The Secretary of State has said that the order will deal with the whole issue. I hope that it will restrict the types of weapons and ammunition that may be used. I should not have taken up the Bill if such a promise, and an undertaking about restrictions on night shooting, had not been given. I hope that that restriction will have an impact on poachers, who use the cover of darkness for their nefarious deeds.

The Bill's longest clause puts a new part into the 1959 Act and deals with the control of the venison trade. Not the least important weapon against the poacher is stopping up his outlet. Hitherto, his life has been all too easy. Dealers must keep records of a sort, but they are not normally open to the police. The Bill rectifies that. We expect to introduce a revised form of record, which will assist the police in detection. The Bill also provides that a dealer convicted of an offence may be disqualified from trading.

Perhaps most importantly, the Bill creates the offence of dealing in poached venison. It might seen incredible, but that is not an offence in common law or under statute.

The Bill also deals with the rights of agricultural woodland occupiers to shoot deer in defence of crops and trees. We did not spend much time on that in Committee, because the House of Lords dealt with it at length. If that clause and that affecting weapons had not been modified substantially, many hon. Members would not support it. I am glad that the House of Lords acted decisively. The Bill could have foundered on those two issues. I am glad that we have a compromise which is generally acceptable to farming, deer farming and stalking interests, but I hope that the poacher will realise that it is not a compromise.

We made changes on deer farming because of developments in Committee. The Government claimed that the Bill was not the correct instrument in which to legislate for deer farming. We were told in Committee that the Goverment preferred to wait for United Kingdom legislation after further discussions with the Farm Animal Welfare Council. I understand the Government's position. Events moved rapidly in another place and it became essential to make a change if deer farming in Scotland was not to suffer the most severe handicap possible.

The crucial point is that the open season for shooting stags in Scotland is only three and a half months, whereas it is nine months in England and Wales. When the Bill was changed in relation to shooting out of season and on closed land, it was provided that the occupier had to prove damage, which was not necessarily the case previously. Effectively, the deer farmer in Scotland could slaughter deer, which would be marked and clearly identifiable, only during the three and a half months from July to the middle of October. That would have put him at a severe disadvantage compared with his counterparts in England and would have made the marketing of venison much more difficult.

Deer farmers had a legitimate objection and we felt it right to include the new clause. It was warmly supported on both sides of the Committee and I am sure that it will be welcomed by the House and by another place.

Those who feel that additional safeguards are required may be looking for difficulties that will not arise. We have included provisions about deer-proof fences. They must be deer-proof—a stock-proof, five-strand wire fence will not be sufficient. I do not think that farmers will erect such fences unless they intend to farm deer in the proper sense of that term.

The Government took action by statutory instrument a long time ago to prevent the use of velvet for aphrodisiacs, which would have caused great pain and cruelty to deer.

If deer farmers approach the Bill in the spirit in which it is proposed there should be no problems. Everyone will watch carefully to ensure that there is no abuse and no taking of trophies or other cruelty. If we can go forward together we can ensure that the new clause will be adequate to meet its purposes. I should not have supported it if I had thought that it would allow loopholes for cruelty or other disagreeable practices.

The Bill is important and bears the marks of a number of hands. I am grateful for the work in Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. In addition, we would not have made such substantial progress without the help of the Opposition spokesmen in the House and in another place, the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) and Lord Ross of Marnock.

I believe that the Bill is a good measure, and I am sure that Mr. Innes Miller of the Red Deer Commission will be eager to use it after Royal Assent. The Bill has received an unusual amount of constructive discussion for a private Member's Bill, and it is supported by the Government.

In my view, there is nothing remiss about the Bill starting its life in another place. At times, the procedures of the two Houses accelerate the passage of a Bill starting in that way.

The Bill is a consensus measure—indeed, a compromise measure. Given the topic that it deals with, that is almost inevitable. If no other message goes out from the House, I hope that we will say that there is to be no compromise in one direction—on cruelty and poaching. I hope that any publicity arising from the Bill will be directed to those who commit such offences. Our message is "Poachers, beware! We are determined to stop your nefarious operations."

1.50 pm

I am anxious to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). I congratulate him on piloting the Bill through the House since its arrival here from the other place.

As my hon. Friend said, I have a more than usual interest. I was fortunate enough to secure a very high place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills in 1980 and succeeded in getting my own Deer Bill on to the statute book that year.

I note what my hon. Friend said about some of my efforts in Committee to apply certain provisions in the 1980 Act to Scotland. I can assure my hon. Friend that in Committee I was very conscious that I was not a Scotsman, but I can also assure him that a number of the amendments that I sought to move in Committee, some of which were accepted and are now included in the Bill, were initiated in the first place in Scotland.

My Deer Act 1980 applies only to England and Wales, and brings the legislation up to date there, but I received countless letters from people in Scotland who could see how scandalous the position in Scotland would appear once the legislation for England and Wales had been brought up to date.

It was pointed out to me that many groups of people in Scotland, including the Scottish Landowners Association, wanted desperately to have parts of the 1980 Act applied to Scotland, especially the provisions relating to the establishment of a venison register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries has far more detailed knowledge of Scotland and its poaching problems than I have, but he acknowledges that poaching in Scotland is rife.

It was felt that the introduction of a venison register by applying part of the 1980 Act to Scotland would help to tighten the screw on Scottish poachers. We have waned a couple of years, and I am glad to say that we now have a Bill for Scotland which not only provides for an effective venison register but also modernises the law in Scotland in many other welcome respects.

My hon. Friend reminded the House that the Standing Committee accepted a new clause concerned with deer farming. That is now included in the Bill. He will not mind if I touch upon it for a moment, because the wording of the clause leaves much to be desired, but I would far rather have the whole Bill go through with the clause than lose the Bill or risk losing it. But clause 7, relating to deer farming, might be thought to be riddled with holes. In particular, I defy anyone to say what is meant by a "deer-proof barrier". The views of experts on what constitutes and what does not constitute a deer-proof barrier will vary, so that there will be a certain amount of ambiguity as a result of the inclusion of the clause. It is a pity that there is not a definition clause stating what is meant by a deer-proof barrier.

Poaching has been the main concern of all those interested in the fate of deer in Scotland, Wales and England. In particular, I welcome the aspects of the Bill which impose a far greater range of much more vigorous penalties on poachers than at present exist.

In Committee it was suggested that greater powers of search should be given to the constabulary and others in regard to poaching offences. The reason for that suggestion was that it was felt most strongly that greater powers of search should be given in the Bill to those responsible for enforcing poaching laws. I was glad that the Minister promised that consideration would be given to tightening up the law in that respect before the Bill went to another place.

Those worried about poaching in Scotland wish the power of search to apply not only to vehicles and boats but to persons and animals. For example, by examining a lurcher's mouth, it is possible to detect whether it has successfully engaged in deer poaching.

There have been many tragic examples in the media of the use of lurchers, more to the south of the border than to the north of it. Until the Deer Act 1980 was passed, there were frequent examples in England of lurchers being advertised for sale in papers such as The Journal in Newcastle, at prices between £50 and £100. Frequently the sale notice which has appeared in that newspaper has said
"Lurcher for sale (good with deer)".
That practice has been removed in England and Wales, and I am confident that the Bill will make it possible for people to resist any temptation to come south of the border to acquire lurchers for the purpose of deer poaching.

One innovation in the Bill—I was lucky enough to have it accepted in Committee—is the provision relating to the use of aircraft in dealing with deer. The Committee readily agreed that there should be a provision in the Bill to prevent the improper use of aircraft for moving deer around, whether in a tranquilised state or not. I welcome the fact that the Bill has been amended to make it impossible for that practice to continue. I have no specific evidence for Scotland, but I have somewhere a picture of an incident that took place in Wales last September. A deer was slung up in a net from a helicopter and transported by the helicopter operators. The House would not want that practice to increase, or even be permitted. It is also right that the amended Bill should include the right of a veterinary surgeon to authorise the use of helicopters if he thinks that such authorisation is necessary.

It would not be right for Parliament to accept the Bill without the amendment, which I am glad to say has been included, to tighten up on the use of aircraft.

My hon. Friend has given us firsthand information about how deer are slung under helicopters. That will now be banned, except under veterinary control. However, the Committee was even more upset by the shooting of deer from helicopters. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about that?

During my hon. Friend's intervention I have found the photograph from The Observer of 13 September showing deer being removed in nets that were slung under helicopters. I did not devote much time to that in Committee, but those of us who pressed for an alteration to the Bill to include the prohibition of the use of helicopters were partly motivated by a film shown a few months ago illustrating the practice in New Zealand. That practice is foreign to us and we would not want it to occur in Britain. The television film was shown in Britain and depicted deer carcases being removed by helicopters. It also showed the hunting, driving and shooting of deer from helicopters. Such a practice is repugnant to us. It also showed deer being transported, untranquillised, in a net. I am glad that we have taken the opportunity to ensure that that does not happen in Scotland.

Clause 7, on deer farming, stands out a mile. It is questionable whether deer farming should be included in the Bill. I shall not resist the Bill's passage or endeavour to alter it, but such a Bill is not necessarily the most appropriate home for a measure on deer farming. I say that partly because, although there are several important deer farms in Scotland, there are more deer farms in England. Therefore, as we did not deal with deer farms in England and Wales in the Deer Act 1980, it is slightly out of tune to deal with deer farms in Scotland in a purely Scottish measure, particularly when most of the deer farms are in England and Wales.

I question whether clause 7 should be in the Bill because I feel that deer farming should be tackled nationally by the responsible Ministries in Scotland, England and Wales. Deer farming is a growing practice, and it is not confined to harvesting venison. There are many side products. It is a practice that is growing throughout the world.

I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries which undoubtedly will do some good in Scotland, but I feel that the initiative should have come from the responsible Ministers for Scotland and England and Wales, who should have established a national inquiry into deer farming to ascertain whether any practices are being carried out which should be stopped and recommended following the inquiry, a code of practice, or a code of good conduct, which they could decide would be appropriate. A code of practice has to be established by the responsible Ministers on both sides of the border and an inquiry will have to be made into deer farming.

There are many aspects of deer farming that need special investigation. For example, there are the difficulties over the close season in relation to the sale of venison which has been farmed. There are difficulties in establishing what is a farm for deer and what is not. I have referred to the difficulty of defining a deer-proof fence. Another difficulty is establishing the appropriate size of enclosure that can be regarded as a deer farm.

It has been put to me that a man who complies with some suggested regulations and puts some wire netting around his back yard—for example, an enclosure of 100 sq yds—could be regarded as a bone fide deer farmer. Obviously, that would not be correct or appropriate. It would be a good thing if the responsible Ministers in Scotland and in England and Wales were to approach the British Deer Farmers Association, whose secretary is someone for whom I have great regard and who lives in Scotland, to get some ideas on how its shop could be put in order and how deer farming could be regularised and put on a proper and sensible basis, preferably voluntarily.

I welcome the support that has been given to the Bill from many quarters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said, it is a delicately balanced package. A group which is associated with farming deer might welcome the Bill as far as it goes. Specialised bodies which promote the interests of deer, such as the Veterinary Deer Society, also welcome it. I received a letter today from the RSPCA in which is said that it does not consider the Bill to be a perfect package. That is the view of many other bodies. However, they all emphasise that when the Bill reaches the statute book—the RSPCA has said that there are many flaws in the Bill and that certain proposals have not been put into effect—they will recognise that its anti-poaching provisions represent a significant improvement.

The new provisions on close season shooting are preferable to the present position. The bodies hope that the Bill, with its improvements, will not fail because of what is regarded as a general advance in animal treatment. The British Deer Society is connected with the task of promoting deer welfare on both sides of the border. The society welcomes the Bill, although it feels that there are many flaws in it. On balance it believes that it is a valuable package that will make a useful addition to the statute book.

I turn now to what some groups of people regard as flaws in the Bill. In another place and in the Standing Committee there have been interesting debates on a number of the matters that have been mentioned. In Committee we discussed the right, which remains in the Bill, of smallholders in Scotland to shoot deer at night for crop protection purposes. We agreed to differ on that point. I am told by many of my hon. Friends from north of the border that that right is still important to smallholders and crofters there. However, there is a wide body of opinion both in Scotland and the rest of Great Britain that feels that it is inappropriate to continue to shoot our largest mammal at night with a shotgun. The Deer Act 1980 and subsequent orders have prevented that in England and Wales. Scotland will be the only country in Europe where that continues to be permitted. As a simple Sassenach living south of the border, I should like to feel that Scottish legislation will be improved in that respect.

Another major point relates to the use of shotguns to kill deer. In Committee we agreed to differ on that. The Bill includes the right of the smallholder or crofter in Scotland to use a shotgun. I am not happy about it. In England we have made it necessary to use a rifled weapon, either by day or night. I understand that the Minister will table an order in relation to the type of weapons that can be used for the destruction of deer in Scotland. I hope there will be some definition of the type of shot, and that a list will be given of the minimum size of the shot permitted to be used. I hope that, at least as an initial step, the use of lightweight shot will be prohibited.

I welcome the Bill, which has been long awaited on both sides of the border. It tightens up legislation and gives us a long-desired common national picture. The rewards of poachers have, for far too long, been too high and handsome. We stopped that in England and Wales and this Bill will go a long way towards making the poaching of deer not worth the candle in Scotland. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this measure and I wish him well.

2.15 pm

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) has preserved the best traditions of the House, because, after serving on the Standing Committee and having done his homework, he has brought much knowledge to the Third Reading and taken me into realms of which I had little knowledge.

As a Sassenach, it is always difficult to intervene in Scottish matters. I have some Scottish constituents, but as we seldom indulge in hunting, shooting and fishing around Willesden, I have no direct constituency interest. The House, my constituents and the general public retain an intense interest in the welfare of animals, and the Bill demonstrates some of that interest. I am always amazed that, at times of extreme crisis such as he have endured for the past five weeks, I have received 10 times as many letters about seals as about the Falkland Islands.

My only point arises from clause 11 and the tremendous alteration to the provisions for dealing in venison in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959. The House will understand that I have no personal interest, because I no longer serve in the Government Whips' Office, but there is a tradition that the Lords Commissioners each receive a haunch of venison. I hope that the changes in the licensing of venison dealers will not affect those hon. Members who perform such arduous duties in the Government Whips' Office. Although they may not hold the high honour of Lord Commissioner, but simply Whip the areas with which they are concerned, because of the generosity of their colleagues many Whips have been able to enjoy some venison from time to time. I hope that the rights of the hard-working Lords Commissioners to receive that venison will not be affected by the clause.

2.18 pm

I cannot give any guarantees about the matter raised by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), but I should be most surprised if the House were to pass a Bill that would be to the disadvantage of hon. Members and especially Whips.

I did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee, nor am I the Minister with direct responsibility for such matters in Scotland, but I appreciate the importance of the subject. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who was a member of the Committee, is engaged elsewhere, but I know that he would have been most anxious to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), and for his care, knowledge and understanding of the subject. He would also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who, both this afternoon and in Committee, played an important part in ensuring that the Bill has been carefully scrutinised and considered. My hon. Friend has not achieved every detail that he might have wished, but I appreciate the gracious way in which he has not tried to impede the Bill's progress, but has contributed further to our appreciation of the importance of the subject and the value of the Bill.

The Bill has wide support from all sorts of representative organisations in the country. It is a consensus measure and in many respects it is a compromise measure. It is in the nature of such things that everyone will have his own ideas about how it might be improved, but that in no way contradicts the judgment accepted on all sides that at any rate it is a considerable step forward from the present Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries mentioned, among other things, a significant innovation that was made in Committee, which is the clause on deer farming. Hon. Members may be aware that the Government's attitude has been that the Bill was not the place to legislate on deer farming. Ministers made it clear that they would wish to hear the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council before embarking on that subject. In any case, legislation would need to be framed on a Great Britain basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough raised that matter. That is still the Government's position. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made that clear in Committee when he said that the Government did not consider that the last word had been said on the subject and that in due course they might need to return to it.

The Bill, in the form in which it finally emerged from another place, has substantially altered the position of deer farmers in Scotland in taking away from them, perhaps by accident, the right that they presently claim to slaughter their animals for the market at a time of their own choosing. That meant that the farmers would be bound by the long close season for stags, which was never designed to apply to farm stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries gave the House a full explanation of the Committee's thinking on that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough mentioned poaching, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries. The Bill brings penalties for that offence up to much more realistic levels. It also improves on the 1959 Act by outlawing a number of cruel practices which the Act did not envisage or deal with as specifically as we liked.

I pay tribute to the assistance that was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, although the Committee and he did not see eye to eye on all points It is fair to say that some of them might not have gone down well in Scotland, but my hon. Friend has great experience in those matters. The Committee was grateful for the attention that he gave to the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries drew attention to control of the venison trade, not the least important weapon against the poachers in stopping his outlet. Hitherto, life had been too easy for him. Dealers must keep records, which are not normally open to the police. The Bill rectifies that. We expect to see a revised form of record that will assist the police in detection.

The Bill also provides that a dealer convicted of an offence may be disqualified. Perhaps most important of all, the Bill creates an offence of dealing in poached venison. It may seem incredible that such a reset is not at present an offence either in common law or by statute. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said, "Poachers beware."

My hon. Friend is being most helpful. I know that there would have to be consultation with a large number of people in Scotland, but can he give any idea when his right hon. Friend might lay the affirmative order about firearms? I envisage that it will probably be within 12 months. It was a major concern in another place and here that the order should be examined carefully and laid as soon as was appropriate.

I know that my right hon. Friend wishes to do this as soon as possible, and certainly within the time scale suggested by my hon. Friend. If I can give a more accurate time scale, I shall be happy to write to my hon. Friend.

The adequacy of police powers under section 27 of the Act was raised. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay), promised that this would be looked at again. He also told the Committee that the police had extensive common law powers on which to rely, and it is against that background that one must consider any proposal to extend their statutory powers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough asked specifically about three types of search—of premises, persons and dogs. As to premises and persons, there are some provisions in section 27(2) and (3)ofthe Act. In addition, a constable has a general power to enter premises even without a warrant if he has reasonable grounds to suspect that a serious offence has been committed. When there is reason to believe that a person has committed a serious offence, the constable may make an arrest and may then search the person for artic les that might be connected with offence.

As for dogs, it is unlikely that there would be no suspicious circumstance at all other than a lurcher with blood on its chops. Nevertheless, if that were the case, and grounds for suspicion were strong, it seems that the police could make an arrest and, having done that, could impound the dog for examination by a veterinary surgeon.

Before leaving that subject, I should make two general points to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough. First, the police were consulted about the Bill and made a number of helpful observations, but at no stage did they urge that their powers of search and so on were deficient. Secondly, I would counsel my hon. Friend to be a little wary of proposals to extend police powers. After all, there is another side to the question, as was mentioned in Committee by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill). I refer to the implications for the rights of the individual, innocent citizen. Therefore, I should need stronger arguments than I have heard today before going any further into such a sensitive area.

Deer farming was discussed at some length in Committee and today. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough referred to the Farm Animal Welfare Council which, as he rightly said, is now acutely aware of the issues. I believe that it intends to give its attention to the questions posed by deer farming, and I have no doubt that when it reports the Government will have to consider the implications very carefully.

The provisions of the Bill on the whole will tend to curb abuse, but if experience shows that problems remain there will assuredly be further opportunity to review the matter. In view of his deep interest in this, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough will find these few brief remarks reassuring.

It remains only for me to say once again, as one who was not a member of the Committee, how much the House appreciates the sponsorship of the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and the support that we have had today from my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

Copyright Act 1956 (Amendment) Bill Lords

Considered in Committee


Clause 1

Amendment Of Section 21 Of 1956 C 74

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

2.29 pm

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

To report Progress; and ask leave to sit again.— [Mr. Shersby.]

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Friday 9 July.

Hearing Aid Council Act 1968 (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 23 July.

European Court Of Justice (Compliance With Judgments) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 18 June.

Customers' Prepayments (Protection) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

Registration Of Commercial Lobbying Interests Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

Local Authorities (Restoration Of Democratic Rights) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

Succession To The Crown Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 21 May.

Fuel Standing Charges (Exemption For Pensioners) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

Garden Supplies (Sunday Trading) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [12 February].

Unemployment (Cleveland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Brooke.]

2.33 pm

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise in the House the question of the level of unemployment in Cleveland. We on Teesside regard the present levels of unemployment as a scandal in a civilised society and as a sad waste of human resources and other resources which could benefit our area and the whole country and as a personal tragedy for many individuals and their families who are suffering as a result of being unemployed. The position is truly horrific. I do not think that I can illustrate it better than to deal initially with the position of young people who are unemployed in Cleveland.

Immediately before the end of the spring term the unemployed register for young people was higher than in any previous comparative period. There were only 10 permanent vacancies at careers offices and 4,262 young people were eligible to leave school at the end of the term. About 80 per cent., or 3,439, have returned to continue education. One hopes that they will qualify and go orb to employment. Only 823, or 20 per cent., of those eligible to leave school did so to seek employment, of whom 414 entered the youth opportunities programme or other schemes and 356 were registered as unemployed. Only 43 out of the 4,262 entered normal employment. That is the scale of the tragedy in Cleveland.

Of the young people on the register, 1,132 have been unemployed for between six and 12 months and 1,627 for over one year. The figures are unprecedented. They cry out for the attention of the House and the Government.

Overall in Cleveland 18·5 per cent., or 50,000, of the work force are unemployed. The regional figure is 16·3 per cent. and the national 12·6 per cent. The county has the second highest unemployment figures in the country. We share that position with two others. The Western Isles has the highest. Our position has deteriorated over the past five years. In 1976 we were sixteenth with only 6·7 per cent. unemployment. By 1978 we were in seventh position with 9·2 per cent. The situation is now desperate. In pockets in the county unemployment is over 20 per cent.—over one in five of the potential work force.

The situation in Cleveland reflects the national picture of over 3 million unemployed. When the rest of the economy catches a cold we get pneumonia, as has been said many times. Over the past three years national income has fallen by about 7 per cent. in real terms. Manufacturing production has dropped by 20 per cent., which is worse than the experience 50 years ago in the depression in the inter-war period.

Many other parts of the country are experiencing a similar tragedy. Without Government action to change the national situation, Teesside will not recover. We have experienced a terrible decline in the past year. Our major industries have cut back further and further. One such major industry, steel, had 3,700 local job losses announced in the MacGregor plan in 1980, originally to be spread over two years. The plan was revised and all the jobs were lost in 1981. The British Steel Corporation has since called for a further reduction of 1,900 in its Cleveland labour force.

ICI's petrochemicals division based on Teesside has merged with the plastics division because of the serious difficulties. It is sad that that once-thriving plant on Teesside has such bleak prospects. Already substantial numbers of jobs have been lost.

Press reports suggest that about 13,700 jobs in the area were lost in 1981. That includes the 3,700 jobs lost at the British Steel Corporation and the losses announced before the end of the year, which have not yet occurred. Of the total number of jobs lost in the area, 2,375 were due to closures and 11,330 to contractions in existing plants.

The desperate situation demands action by the Government and by the people in the area, in so far as they are able to make an impact. My colleagues and I have made proposals on how the national position can be improved. We want the Government to take a number of steps to increase activity in the economy, and to reflate the economy which will create an increase in the number of jobs available. We have spelt out how we believe that can be achieved.

We propose that a £70 a week grant be paid to every employer who takes on an additional worker who has been unemployed for over six months. Secondly, we propose a job guarantee for the long-term unemployed. Those taking part in such a scheme would be paid a bonus of £15 above their social benefit entitlement. The scheme would be organised by the Manpower Services Commission.

The third proposal is that employers should be offered £30 a week subsidy for each youth under the age of 18 whom they employ. A major training scheme should be linked to that. Each worker under the age of 18 should be provided with at least eight hours a week formal training of the job. The fourth proposal is for increases in domiciliary services. Home helps are value for money as well as being of service to people who need them.

Our programme is for the short term. It is designed to stimulate immediate employment. It must be associated with a longer-term programme of reflation involving, for example, a further cut in the national insurance surcharge. There must also be an increase in public capital expenditure of about £2½ billion for the nationalised industries and other parts of the public sector, particularly to boost the construction industry. One in eight of the unemployed are associated with building and construction work. That industry is particularly labour-intensive.

Spending on house building should be increased by about £1½ billion to provide for the rehabilitation and modernisation of old council estates and blocks. That is desperately needed, as the people of Thornaby, Stockton and Middlesbrough know only too well. That would be of particular value in the Cleveland area. We must also increase improvement grants and funds available to housing associations.

That amounts to a programme costing between £4 billion and £5 billion. It represents a steady increase in public expenditure over two years. It would help to reduce the level of unemployment throughout the country and in the Cleveland area. Without such reflation, accompanied by an incomes policy, we shall not succeed in bringing down the unacceptable high level of unemployment in the Cleveland area.

In addition, we need action at local level to help us to help ourselves. We should like the Government to reintroduce the system of industrial development certificates which they have suspended, indeed almost abolished. It is wrong that firms should be able to develop in areas that have nothing like the number of problems that we face, and we hope that the Government will consider reintroducing the IDC scheme soon.

We want the whole of Cleveland to be given special development area status. The Government believed that aid to the regions had to be changed and that assistance should be targeted to smaller areas. Their policies have resulted in a cut in aid to the regions. The change took place in July 1979 and only the Hartlepool area of Cleveland has special development area status, but unemployment increased in Hartlepool by 37 per cent. between July 1979 and April this year and it rose by 81 per cent. in the rest of the county during the same period.

If the Minister of State studies the unemployment levels in Cleveland he will see that they are worse than the rates in many special development areas in the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision not to accede to the request of our county council and others that the whole area be given special development area status.

I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about the plans of Nissan. Two sites in the Cleveland area were proposed for the car plant which we hope will be built in this country, and we have been waiting an inordinately long time to hear the outcome of the discussions that have been taking place with the company. Our sites at Ingleby Dyke and Eaglescliffe would be ideal. They have access to transport and docking, the necessary relationship with the rest of Europe and the required on-site facilities. We could provide the company with the facilities that it needs, and we hope that it will make a speedy announcement of a decision to place the plant on Teesside, with all the jobs and spin-offs that will result.

I hope that the Government will continue to press for more aid from Europe. I was pleased to see in a recent parliamentary answer the announcement from the Department of Industry of an extension of the European regional development fund, which is making extensive provision for support for the conversion of disused buildings, consultancy services, technical innovation and other operations and facilities in the Cleveland area. I hope that the Government will ensure that those funds are fully used and will press for more such funds for the area.

One of my main messages is that I hope that there will be a change in the Government's attitude and approach to helping the regions. We want the changes that I have mentioned and we also want a move from seeking to attract industry into the area towards industry and jobs being created in the area. Instead of money being spent outside the area in seeking footlose capital or branch factories, funds should be used to provide the seed corn from which to grow our own industries.

All the evidence that we have from the Northern regional strategy team and from other reports and research demonstrates that the Cleveland area—and, for that matter, the whole Northern region—needs more home-grown industries. We have a great history of new industries starting in our region. The chemical industry, the engineering industry, the steel industry and the railway industry all began in our part of the country. They did not come as a result of money from outside the region being used to attract their businesses. They grew from within the region. I hope that the Government will change the direction of their policy so that funds come into the Cleveland area and can be used in a variety of ways to stimulate the growth of new businesses and existing businesses in the county.

Cleveland county council has taken an initiative recently to help the development of businesses and the creation of employment in the county. That is just the sort of initiative that is needed—the assistance of firms to embark upon local purchasing, both of services and of goods, the selection of capital schemes for support, the assistance scheme for employment, the flexible assistance scheme which the county is starting, the extension of the small business grant and loan scheme, and the establishment of a co-operative development agency and an enterprise agency in the county.

All the evidence that I have from my time as a Member of Parliament representing Teesside and working and living on Teesside and in other parts of the country shows that the people best able to invest money to create jobs and successful businesses are those on the ground closely associated with those businesses and the markets which they are trying to serve. That is why a local enterprise agency, a co-operative development agency and other local agencies of that type run by local business men, trade unionists and local authority representatives and their staff in the area can make a greater impact on jobs than spending money overseas or in other parts of the country to attract people to the area.

In planning their future policies I hope that the Government will look at the work being done locally, seek ways in which their funds can be used to support those local initiatives and not try to introduce broad-brush grant schemes that apply to whole areas and are administered from Whitehall or from the regional headquarters rather than by the locality.

If the Government can move in that direction they will make a major impact on the inequality that exists between our county and others in the country and be able to help to overcome some of the sadness, low morale and tragic experiences that people in Cleveland have been suffering in recent times to a growing extent. The tide must be reversed, and I ask the Minister to give us hope that the Government will do all that they can to help us reverse it.

2.54 pm

The hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) is to be congratulated on having secured this Adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to reply to some of his points. He will have noticed, however, that he took rather a large chunk of the available time. As a result, he will have to allow me some indulgence in my not being able to deal with all the matters that he raised. If I miss any important ones, I shall, of course, drop him a note about them.

The hon. Member has made clear in his speech the deep concern he feels over the difficulties that the area is now facing. It is an area which, as he said, is mainly dependent upon chemicals, metal manufacturing and heavy engineering.

In recent years, Cleveland has benefited from a considerable number of construction jobs as a result of major investment in new chemical/petrochemical and steel plants, and the area has been successful in gaining the major share in the North-East of contracts related to the North Sea oil industry. However, major construction projects in the area have now passed their peak, and during the last three years there has been a steady rundown of the construction engineering labour force throughout the county. I greatly regret that.

In addition, there has been further rationalisation in the iron and steel industry, and more recently in chemical industry, which has resulted, alas, in substantial job losses. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are acutely aware of the problems and anxieties that confront those who lose their jobs, and whose feelings were eloquently expressed in the hon. Gentleman's speech.

We accept that unemployment is too high. Of course, we would like to see it brought down as quickly as possible, but we have to face the fact that we are in a world recession. Add to this the decade literally of low productivity, excessive public spending, high inflation and high wages, unmatched by higher productivity—which have contributed significantly to the decline in competitiveness of British industry over many years—and a clear picture emerges of the magnitude of the problem with which the Government were faced.

What we have at last begun to do is tackle the root causes. We cannot shirk that responsibility if we are to have any hope of expanding industry and creating new real jobs in the future. It is, of course, profitable businesses—not Governments—which in the end create worthwhile and durable jobs. What Governments can do is to help create the right environment in which firms are able to prosper.

Therefore, the Government's policies are aimed at developing a soundly based economy, which meats, among other things, continuing to bring inflation steadily down. The more British firms that can offer, at home and abroad, goods and services which people want to buy at prices they are prepared to pay, the more jobs we shall see both in Cleveland and, indeed, throughout the country.

There are now some encouraging signs that our policies are succeeding. Inflation has been reduced to 10·4 per cent., with a continuing fall in prospect. Total output rose in both the third and fourth quarters of last year and manufacturing productivity has gone up by less than 10 per cent. during 1981. The number of strikes in 1980 and 1981 was less than in any year since 1941, and the number of working days lost is only one-third of the average of the last 10 years.

Company profits rose by 28 per cent. between the first and fourth quarters of 1981. Improved profits are essential, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, if we are to get new investment and new jobs in the future from what he described as the local seed corn. This improved profit performance is no doubt one of the contributors to the improvement in business confidence that we have seen from survey evidence over recent months. Labour unit costs have stabilised and workers are now showing a new sense of realism about the effects of future wage demands on their jobs. All this is good news, but it will take time for the benefits to work through.

I cannot resist reminding the hon. Gentleman of a statistic which sticks in my mind—and, indeed, almost in my throat. In the five years up to 1980—that is, just up to the point when the great jump in oil prices took place—British unit costs in manufacturing industry went up by 100 per cent. In Canada they went up by half, in the United States they went up by one-third, in Germany they went up by one-fifth, and in Japan they did not go up. To be under starter's orders when the world recession came in 1979, against a background of that kind of doubling of unit labour costs, explains a great deal.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Japan, so perhaps I may say in passing that I understand that Nissan will not be considering the location of its proposed car plant until the very delicate discussions on the general issues raised have been advanced further, but the company has been fully informed about the advantages of the available sites, including Cleveland, and will almost certainly wish to have local discussions with unions and local authorities before coming to a final decision. The Government have not sought at any stage to influence the company's choice of location, which is clearly a matter for the company to decide, but it knows about the advantages of Cleveland and the North-East.

There is no doubt that the Government have a major role to play in helping areas such as Cleveland to overcome the problems of long-term unemployment and structural decline. One of our main objectives, when we came to office, was to cut down the number of areas which were eligible for regional assistance, precisely so that aid could be concentrated to a much greater degree on those areas with the worst problems, such as Cleveland.

Hartlepool, as a special development area, will continue to benefit from the full range of regional incentives at the highest levels available in Great Britain. No doubt that will be an attractive feature for Nissan. Teesside is a development area. Since the Government came to office, over £4 million has been offered under section 7 of the Industry Act 1972 to projects that are estimated to have created nearly 2,000 jobs and safeguarded a further 770. Over £175 million in regional development grants has been paid to firms in the area.

Cleveland also benefits from our inner city policy. Middlesbrough's allocation for 1982–83 is 26 per cent. above last year's, and at £4·31 million the borough now has the fourth largest programme authority allocation. I am very pleased to note that Middlesbrough gives top priority—as the hon. Gentleman would wish—to employment-creating projects within its inner area programme. Hartlepool, too, has done very well out of the urban programme this year with a provisional allocation for industrial and commercial projects of some £700,000, which is 38 per cent. more than last year.

Hartlepool also has an enterprise zone where, encouraged by the concerted promotional efforts of Hartlepool borough and the local land owners, a great deal of interest has been shown. Again, a local seed corn enterprise is in prospect. A number of serviced sites and advanced industrial units are available for sale or lease, and there has been considerable development activity in the zone since we designated it last October. The Budget provided further help for small businesses, increasing to over 90 the number of measures that we have taken to help existing small businesses. These new measures will help existing firms and, together with the small workshops being built by the Government, will encourage start ups. Again, that facility is designed to help local firms—not large, remote enterprises with branch factories—because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, such firms are of permanent advantage to the locality.

Despite the difficult circumstances, people in the area are finding jobs. I do not dispute the unemployment figures given by the hon. Gentleman. It is worrying that about 50,000 people are out of work in the county. However, in the past 12 months over 13,500 people in Cleveland were placed in jobs by the Manpower Services Commission's employment service and many more will have been found jobs by other means. It is not only the MSC's employment service that finds jobs. Expansions are taking place in the area and new jobs are being created, although nothing like as speedily as we should have liked.

Nevertheless, there are good news stories, stories such as the Stockton-based construction engineers, Davy-McKee, who have won a £1·9 billion contract to build a steelworks in India. It is likely that some £550 million of work will come to Britain's heavy industries from the contract—

The Question having been proposed after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes past Three o'clock.