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Volume 414: debated on Monday 3 November 1980

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2.44 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what discretion may be exercised by prosecuting authorities when they consider taking action on charges of shoplifting.

My Lords, in England and Wales the decision whether to prosecute in respect of an alleged criminal offence is a matter for the chief officer of police concerned, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. He may decide to take no further action if he considers that appropriate or, particularly where the suspect is elderly and admits the offence, to dispose of the case by way of a formal caution rather than prosecution.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that while the majority of shoplifters deserve the full weight of the law, there have been a disturbing number of cases of convictions for trivial offences involving ageing or disturbed people where tragic and sometimes fatal results seem to be associated with conviction? Is he aware of the public concern regarding a recent very prominent case of this nature? Does he not consider that the ends of justice might be better served by the exercise of a little more mercy in appropriate cases?

My Lords, first of all, I should remind your Lordships that the right of private prosecution and the exercise of police discretion in bringing prosecutions fall within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure which is expected to be reporting soon. It is right to say, in answer to the noble Lord, that a very substantial number of people are cautioned for this particular offence. Indeed, if one takes the years 1975 to 1978—which are the latest for which I have statistics—about a third of the persons dealt with for offences of shoplifting were cautioned by the police as an alternative to court proceedings.

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to say why on doubtful, borderline cases a medical report is not always called for?

My Lords, is not the trouble in many cases that mentally disturbed shoplifters may plead not guilty, and that if they plead not guilty it is obviously impossible to caution them, and it is very difficult to help them to get over troubles with an offence which they do not admit? Is not the real problem in this case what to do about the mentally troubled offenders who plead not guilty, and whom one is thus almost forced to put on trial merely to give them the chance to prove their innocence, which is what they want done?

My Lords, without any intention of condoning shoplifting, are the Government aware of the very strong feeling among those engaged in social work, and not only in the Churches, that this particular evil presents a unique and unprecedented temptation to those who otherwise are able to deal with, if not eradicate, their content of original sin? Is it not desirable that those who are in the first instance responsible for apprehending so-called shoplifters should be instructed—or at any rate someone should tell them more accurately than seems hitherto to have been done—what is a genuine, sympathetic and, at the same time, right procedure that they should take? Is it not the experience of many who have to deal with those who have been shoplifting and have been punished for so doing that they have a very strong grievance and, in some cases, a justifiable one?

My Lords, I do not think that the suggestion that the noble Lord is specifically making is as easy practically as would sound from the felicitous way in which the noble Lord puts it. Having said that, I would not want the noble Lord to think that my right honourable friend's department were being wholly inactive in this matter. The Home Office Standing Committee on Crime Prevention in 1973 published a report which was called Shoplifting and Thefts by Shop Staff which made various recommendations to deter shoplifting. That Standing Committee is now reviewing the 1973 report to see whether there is scope for any further initiative.

My Lords, is the Minister able to tell me whether the figures that he quoted just now about cautions included juveniles? In my very long experience as a magistrate serving in the West End, where my court dealt with West End shoplifting, cautioning was exceptional except in the case of juveniles. Is the noble Lord able to say whether those figures included juveniles, or were they for adults only?

My Lords, I think the statistics I quoted included juveniles. If I am wrong, I will write to the noble Baroness. What I know for a fact is that, as for other types of offence, the proportion cautioned is higher for juveniles.

My Lords, is it not right that a caution can be administered only where a person has unequivocally admitted guilt? Secondly, would the Government consider reminding prosecuting authorities, both public authorities and those who prosecute privately, that there is a discretion and that they ought to exercise their discretion with the greatest possible care, particularly where elderly defendants are concerned?

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's first question is, yes. The answer to his second question must be that surely we ought to wait—and I hope now it will not be very long— for the report from the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Age Concern have recently noted 16 cases of suicide among elderly people of both sexes directly concerned with shoplifting offences? Is he further aware that many such cases occur, when this kind of attention-seeking is involved, at times of bereavement?

My Lords, I was not aware of the specific statistics to which the noble Earl has referred. I am grateful to him for telling us about it and I think there is a lot in what the noble Earl has said.

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us when we can hope to expect the report of the Royal Commission? There are many issues of public importance like this one we are discussing about which the views of the Royal Commission are eagerly awaited. If anything can be done to encourage further progress in the commission it will be greatly appreciated.

My Lords, I understand that the eagerness with which the legal profession and, indeed, others concerned are awaiting the report is rivalled only by the eagerness of the chairman and members of the commission to get the report out.

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Minister observed the very heavy fines inflicted on some foreign shoplifters? Is the revenue from this sent to the Treasury? Who gets it?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor says it is not him! I think I am right in saying that it is in fact the department where I work.

My Lords, does not most of it go to pay the costs of running the magistrates' courts, and are they not largely self-financing?

Absolutely, my Lords; and of course the level of the fines imposed is a matter for the courts.