Orders of the Day — Motor Spirit (Regulation) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd May 1948.

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Photo of Captain Albert Blackburn Captain Albert Blackburn , Birmingham King's Norton 12:00 am, 3rd May 1948

We do not want to discuss totalitarianism or people flirting with totalitarianism. One only needs to read the articles in the "Daily Telegraph" to discover some rather interesting facts on that subject. The use of the words "police State" and "totalitarian" add no merit to attacks on a Measure of this kind.

It is perfectly clear—and the Opposition are only too anxious on every possible occasion to drive it home—that for a long time we have been in a period of great and continuing national crisis. It is now admitted on all sides that petrol means dollars and that it is absolutely necessary to restrict the expenditure of dollars. In order to do so, it is necessary to ration petrol. What would the Opposition say about the Government if they introduced a Measure which was designed to restrict the use of petrol and if there were no sanctions whatever applied to the Measure if it were broken? The Government would be laughed at as being ineffective. They would be ridiculed by hon. Members opposite. If the Government intend to lay down measures for the purpose of restricting the use of petrol, the Government must have a sanction to back up these measures. This Bill, in pursuance of the Vick report, is an attempt to lay down as firmly as possible measures to that end.

As the end is so important, I entirely support the Government, but I desire to raise the subject referred to in Clause 2. I suggest to the Attorney-General that this is a matter of great importance. It is true that there have been a number of Sections included in Acts of Parliament recently in which a man is presumed to be guilty until he proves himself innocent. There is a familiar one about company directors providing that, where a company is proved guilty, the company director is also assumed to be guilty unless he is proved innocent. We have protested against these provisions before but this today is an entirely different matter. We now have a Clause creating a new offence that any person who has in the tank of his private motor vehicle commercial petrol, shall be guilty of an offence, provided that it shall be a defence for that person to prove either (a), (b), or (c). I should like to ask if the Attorney-General will give us his opinion on one matter. Let us assume that we have a case of a man who is caught by the police with commercial petrol in his private vehicle. We will assume that he was brought before a court and that he seeks under Clause 2—if it is still in the Bill—to prove a defence under either (a), (b) or (c). Let us assume that, at the end, the magistrates or jury feel that this defence is one on which they cannot fee] certain whether it is justified or unjustified. Is the benefit of the doubt to be given to the prosecution or to the accused?

There is a vital point here, because, surely, it is completely contrary to the whole legal traditions of this country that any man should be convicted unless it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that he is, in fact, guilty of the offence with which he is charged. Surely, that is a most sacred principle of English justice, and one for which it is deservedly famous throughout the world? It goes right back to Magna Charta in 1215. I do not see why it is necessary to contravene that most sacred principle of English law in this Bill. The learned Attorney-General may argue that he would have no means of being able to say where a particular amount of commercial petrol came from, and that, because they could not trace the commercial petrol, when they stop a man with a private vehicle and discover that he has commercial petrol in his tank, the onus to prove the case ought not to be on the prosecution, because the motorist was the man who knew where he got the petrol. I can understand that argument being adduced, but it is really not valid at all.

If I am caught by the police going home with commercial petrol in my tank, the mere fact that I have got it in my tank, in itself, is surely sufficient evidence for a prima facie case that I am guilty of an offence under Clause 2? Surely, in tact, it is the practice of the police in all these cases to ask questions, and to say, "Where did you get this petrol? Where are you going? Why are you using commercial petrol?" Surely, there would be the presumption raised against such a man immediately that he was guilty if he said, "I am not going to tell you"?