Conspiracy (Amendment)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th February 1975.

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Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South 12:00 am, 25th February 1975

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that the maximum sentence which may be imposed on any person convicted of conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum sentence which could have been imposed if he had committed the crime which he was charged with conspiring to commit; and for connected purposes. I ask the House to bear with me if I stick very closely to my notes so as to avoid unnecessary delay.

The object of the Bill is to seek the authority of the House to present a measure which would reform the law of conspiracy. This is necessary and urgent, and is required to reassert the authority of Parliament.

Conspiracy is not a crime defined in any Act of Parliament. It was invented in the time of King James I by the Court of Star Chamber. Generally speaking, the law of conspiracy is in need of reform in general. It makes into a crime, very often, acts which if committed by a single individual would not be criminal. This is a matter which requires to be dealt with urgently by legislation. However, the object of the Bill, for which leave is sought to introduce, is much more limited.

The Long Title refers to the maximum sentence which may be imposed in cases of conspiracy. It seems extraordinary that an attempt to commit a crime, or even an agreement to participate in it, irrespective of whether the crime was committed or not, should be more severely punished than the crime itself, if committed.

It is an insult to the authority of Parliament that any outside body, even the judges, should be able to pass heavier sentences for attempting to commit a crime if that crime was alleged to have been part of a conspiracy, when Parliament has fixed a maximum penalty for the crime itself.

The matter has been brought to a head by the sentences passed in the so-called Shrewsbury conspiracy trial. In that trial, as in an equally important case in trade union history—that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs—the accused were sentenced for conspiracy. In the Shrewsbury case they were charged with conspring to intimidate.

Under Section 7 of the 1875 Act, intimidation is an offence for which a maximum penalty of imprisonment is laid down, … for a term not exceeding three months. Once a defendant is charged under this section, not with intimidation but with conspiring to contravene the statute, he is placed entirely at the judge's mercy and could be sentenced to life imprisonment if the judge so decided. At the Shrewsbury Crown Court, one of those charged, Dennis Warren, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for conspiring to intimidate "lump" labourers, a punishment 12 times heavier than the maximum for direct intimidation provided by the statute. The object of this modest Bill is to limit the judge's power of sentencing to that which Parliament has laid down for the commission of the offence itself.

I suggest that it is illogical and absurd that if someone intimidates a worker contrary to the law, he or she, in accordance with the law laid down by this Parliament, is subject to a maximum penalty of only three months' imprisonment, whereas he or she can be sentenced to three years' imprisonment for attempting in concert with other people to carry out the same intimidation, quite irrespective of whether anyone was intimidated.

This absurdity has come prominently to light because it has affected industrial relations, but it could equally affect the most ordinary cases of trivial offences where two or more people agreed to commit them. There was such a case, Regina v. Blamires Transport Services, in which two people stopped, could not find a parking meter, and broke the Road Traffic Act by their action. They conspired together in that they agreed that they would pay the fine if a fine arose from their act. In those circumstances—this is not a hypothetical case—it was affirmed that a penalty of life imprisonment could have been imposed by the judge.

I am more concerned to examine how the Conspiracy Act has been applied and how conspiracy generally has been applied in regard to trade unions and social and political agitation generally. I remind the House that in 1872 the gas workers organised a strike and were convicted under this head because they persuaded other workers not to work. This gave rise, as we know, to the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, which abolished the crime of criminal conspiracy in all trade disputes except where the act committed was itself criminal—that is to say, a factory was burned down or damage to property occurred.

Since that time, however, the judges, determined not to be defeated, have decided that the Act abolished only criminal conspiracy and that there remained a civil liability for conspiracy to pay damages to the employer who was injured or otherwise molested. Under this ruling, for example, in 1895 trade unions which posted up blacklists of blackleg workers who did not join a strike were made liable for conspiracy to injure. However, it is typical of the bias shown by the courts in these matters that in 1892 and 1902 the circulation of lists of strikers and troublemakers by employers' associations was held not to be a civil wrong because the employers were defending their legitimate self-interest. In the same way, in 1892 traders who undercut competitors were held not liable, and in 1942 in the famous crofters' case a similar decision was taken.

The main case against the law on conspiracy, however, is that it is not used against major conspiracy. The recent Loyalist strike in Northern Ireland was denounced by the Prime Minister himself as an attempt at intimidation, and undoubtedly important political personalities could have been indicted for conspiracy for their part in organising the intimidation and the violence which accompanied the strike in question. No such action was taken. But conspiracy remains as a weapon of the employer against the employee and of the Government whose decisions may be the source of agitation by combinations of people with different value orientations.

It is against this background that I seek the leave of the House to introduce the short Bill which I have described.