Part of Orders of the Day — Civil Services Supplementary Estimates, 1924–25. – in the House of Commons on 10th March 1925.

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Photo of Captain Hon. Arthur Hope Captain Hon. Arthur Hope , Nuneaton

I beg to move, That, having regard to the recent increase in blackmailing crimes, to which attention has been drawn by several of His Majesty's Judges. and seeing that only a comparatively small proportion of blackmailers are brought to justice and punished by reason of the unwillingness of the victim to prosecute, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that legislation should be introduced as soon as possible to enable all such cases to be tried in camera. In moving this Resolution I must ask for that indulgence which is always accorded to a Member on making his first speech. I feel that the Resolution, at. any rate in its spirit and its principle, is in accordance with the wishes of all parties in the House, although all hon. Members may not agree with the actual wording of the Resolution. There is undoubtedly a very great and grave increase in the crime of blackmail in this country. It has been on the increase since the War, and I think it is very largely due to the fact that, owing to conditions which have arisen since the War, there are very many men and women who have to live by their wits, and to anybody of an unprincipled turn of mind there is no easier way of living by your wits alone than by becom- ing a professional blackmailer. There are various kinds of blackmail, but you can divide them roughly into two classes. There are those who blackmail their victims because they have a hold over them, owing to some fault or indiscretion or even some crime which the victim has committed in the past. There is the class where the victim has committed no fault or crime whatever, but owing to the fact that his name may appear in the Press or be stated in the Law Courts he is frightened to bring things forward. The system of the blackmailer is the same in both cases. He knows that in 99 cases out of 100, a victim will use any means to avoid appearing in public. They will avoid publicity to the best of their ability, and will go so far as to spend their last penny rather than allow their names to appear in the public Press or become known in the Law Courts of this country. That is what encourages the blackmailer. He knows that whether he has a good case or not, his victim will use every means to avoid the case being made public. Mr. Justice McCardie in a judgment delivered last April made the following comment: Civilisation has many cancers, but in my view one of the worst of these cancers is the offence of blackmail. It is a most cruel, callous and cowardly offence. The result of this blackmail is to inflict slow death on the victim, the object being to extract from his terror as much, or even more than he can possibly afford. In my view this offence is very much on the increase. The time has come when, even if men are convicted for the first time, the Judge should inflict severe punishment. The parks and streets must be made safe and blackmail must be stamped out, and if the victims come forward it will be stamped out.That is the point of my argument. The victims will not come forward because they fear exposure. Let us take the case of a member of the medical profession who is blackmailed. He may bring the case forward, he may be honourably acquitted of the charge made against him, and ho may leave. the Court without a stain on his character, but his name has appeared in the Press, he has had to give evidence, and he has had an immense amount of mud slung at him by his accuser. He goes back to practice. Now, if any one of us proposes to employ a doctor to attend to a wife or daughter it is our desire to employ a person whose integrity is unchallengable. Three or four years may have passed, and we may say, "We will ask Dr.—to come in. Dr.—may have been the unfortunate victim of the blackmailing case of three or four years previously, and when his name is mentioned, somebody will say, "Oh, he was mixed up in a case three years ago. I cannot remember what it was all about, but it was rather unsavoury." So that, although Dr.— was absoultely guiltless, at the same time the mud has stuck. If there is the slightest suspicion against an unfortunate doctor we know perfectly well that people will avoid him and go to a doctor whose name has never been mentioned in any such connection and has never in any way been tarnished.

This is not an isolated instance. Such instances occur every day. Professional men like doctors and clergymen are to a large extent the worst victims, and they use every possible means to avoid these cases being brought to the public eye. There is another form of blackmail, unconnected with professional men, due to the natural desire of any married man, for instance, to prevent any indiscretion of his former life reaching the ears of his wife or family. A case was tried last year in which a gardener employed in Wales had been systematically blackmailed for 18 months by a gipsy man who made an accusation against him of misconduct with his—the gipsy's—wife. The unfortunate man was absolutely guiltless and was honourably acquitted at the trial, but he was terrified that even the report of an indiscretion which had not actually taken place should come to the ears of his wife and family. He was an elderly man; he had saved a good deal of money throughout his life, but he was bled white by this gipsy, and every penny of his savings, amounting to £600 or £700, had gone to pay off the blackmailer. I think he had nothing at all left when, in sheer desperation, he put the matter into the hands of the police. The blackmailer received a, heavy sentence, and the man was told that if he had taken that course before, everything would have been all right. We know that people ought to come forward and prosecute in such cases, but as I say, people will not do so, because of the fear of publicity, and the object of my Resolution is that these cases of blackmail should be tried in camera, and when a man comes forward to confront his accuser in Court, the case should not appear in the public Press.

I should like to say that in the great majority of cases the public Press behave extremely well on this subject and do not publish names more than is absolutely necessary. At the same time there is a great deal of publicity which it is desired to avoid. In the event of a false charge of blackmail being made against a man, who is acquitted of it, then by all means the circumstances should be published in the Press after the hearing. I do not wish to go the whole hog, and to say that the Press should never publish names at all, because you would then very often find unscrupulous men accusing other people of: blackmail which they had never committed. I suggest that all these cases should be tried at first in camera, and the names not published unless in the considered opinion of the presiding Judge it was a case in which the names should appear. We do not wish to protect the blackmailer, who is at the present moment protected by the fear of publicity on the part of the unfortunate men and women of all classes who are being systematically blackmailed throughout the country to-day.

People may say that this is not a subject of sufficient importance to warrant this Resolution, but I have heard of a great many cases among all classes of people where blackmail has been kept up for years. A case was tried a year or two ago in which the unfortunate victim of the blackmail had committed an offence. Month after month for 12 years he was blackmailed by two brothers, one of whom extracted from him £2,000, and the other £1,900. At the end of 12 years this man what had lived in a state of terror all that time came to the end of his tether, was reduced to a mental and physical wreck and finally went to the police. As a result these two brothers were tried and got 12 years penal servitude each, which they thoroughly deserved. Although that man had committed an offence or an indiscretion he should have been punished for it by the law of the land and not by two blackmailers. One can multiply such cases by hundreds, and they exist, as I say, in all classes of the community. I am not pleading on behalf of one class more than another.

Hon. Members know that such cases occur in all degrees of life. I ask that some alteration should be made in the law of this country, so that, if possible, these cases should be tried in camera, or, at any rate, that some amendment should be made so that a man can safely come forward and prosecute the man or woman who is blackmailing him. I feel confident that in that case the increased blackmail which is now going on will steadily decrease, and, if the Judges give good sentences, which I am sure they will do, in these cases, within a few years it will be realised by these blackmailing men and women that blackmail is no longer the profitable industry which it is at the present moment. I would urge on the Government, if I may, that some time they should introduce legislation to remove what is a very genuine grievance at the present moment among all classes of the community in this country.