The Register

Orders of the Day — Public Lending Right Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 30th January 1979.

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Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham 7:08 pm, 30th January 1979

I beg to move, amendment No. 53, in page 5, leave out lines 13 to 31.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 55, in page 5, line 19, leave out '£1,000' and insert '£100'.

No. 70, in page 5, line 19, leave out '£1,000' and insert '£500'.

No. 56, in page 5, line 31, at end insert— 'Provided that no library or any employee thereof shall be guilty of any offence under this Act.'.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

This group of amendments relates to the penalty provisions in the Bill. I notice that the Minister of State is busy conferring with the Under-Secretary on a point of great principle. I hope that he is discussing with his hon. Friend the possibility of accepting at least the spirit of this group of amendments.

I hope that from all these discussions we have had about the Bill it has become clear to everyone that we are not talking about an area of public life in which we may expect a great deal of criminal activity. The whole scheme is designed to help authors and requires the co-operation of librarians. We are talking about librarians and authors. I find it hard to envisage circumstances in which the criminal law will have to be invoked to deal with recalcitrant librarians or recalcitrant authors.

I ask the Minister of State seriously to think about deleting altogether these penalty provisions. I do not know the authority, the details of the statutes, or whatever, under which the Performing Right Society operates. Perhaps other hon. Members are better informed than I am on that score. However, I suspect that that society, which seems to operate extremely successfully, operates without the benefit of any legal sanctions of the kind proposed in the Bill. I do not suppose that that society, even if it has such powers or is backed up by such statutory powers, has actually ever had to invoke penalty provisions of this kind to produce the rights for musicians.

I suggest that were these penalty provisions not to be in the Bill at all it would be no weaker for that. I hope that the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) and other hon. Members who passionately believe in the Bill will accept that this point is no argument against the Bill but is a genuine point.

Hon. Members know that these penalty provision have given great cause for concern to librarians. It seems that there is the possibility of librarians suffering some sort of penalty, or at least living under the threat of these penalty provisions. There is the possibility of being liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than £1,000. It would create a great deal of good will if the Government were prepared to take what would be the tiniest of risks and accept that the penalty provisions should be removed. I do not expect the Minister to say "Yes" tonight. I should like him to do so, but I do not think that he will. I hope that he will at least give the matter serious thought and that in another place it will be agreed to take the risk—a trivial risk—and remove the penalty provisions.

I wrote to the Minister of State and he was kind enough to reply. He set out the reasons that led him to believe that the provisions could not be removed. I suggest that his reasons are not strong. First, he wrote: The purpose of the so-called penalty clauses is…if anyone supplies false information knowingly or recklessly to the Registrar…he could no doubt be tried on indictment under criminal or common law. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman believes that there would be the power to take action against anybody who, in effect, committed fraud. The hon. Gentleman continued: This would entail a search through that legislation to establish in each case which would be the most appropriate part. I agree that it may be difficult, but it is so remote a circumstance that it would not be much of a risk to remove the penalty provisions.

The second reason that the hon. Gentleman submitted—I am grateful to him for setting out his arguments—was that the provisions give the Registrar the opportunity of instigating an exemplary prosecution if anyone deliberately supplied a large number of stupid claims, not in order to obtain material benefit but to try to gum up the system. Naturally we would hope that such a prosecution would never be necessary. Again, I suggest that the likelihood of an individual acting in that way is extremely remote. If there were some foolish person who submitted a large number of silly claims, all that the Registrar need do would be to send a standard reply denying him the right to register. Presumably the individual would go to court to challenge that denial and would be rejected. There would be no need for penalty provisions in those circumstances. Surely the penalty provisions are not needed on that basis.

Finally, the Minister wrote that the clauses would allow cases to be tried at the magistrates' court rather than on indictment at the Crown court. I do not think that the circumstances will arise, so I do not think that that is necessary. On the other hand, if we are trying to make an example of somebody, it may be better to take the case to the Crown court.

The penalty clauses are serious for librarians. The Minister wrote: As to whether these clauses will apply to librarians, my advice is that they will not apply to information on loans supplied under Clause 3(5)(a) because that information is not connected with the entry of any matter in the register. The hon. Gentleman hoped that by that simple statement he could remove most of the librarians' fears. He continued: I am advised that the clauses could apply to any coding work done under Clause 3(5)(b) because the words there 'with a view to facilitating the maintenance of the register' provide a specific link with clause 4(7). The hon. Gentleman argues that the penalty clauses do not apply to librarians, only to suggest that in certain circumstances they could.

I do not believe that the Minister made a strong case. I accept that it is often reasonable to find penalty clauses in Bills of this sort but I suggest that in this instance the penalty provisions are not necessary. I ask the hon. Gentleman again to consider carefully the arguments that he has advanced. I ask him especially to take into account the good will that he could generate among librarians if he were to remove the penalty provisions. Their removal would do a great deal of good and help public lending right. If the Bill is to go on to the statute book, the removal of the clauses would help it on its way considerably.

If there is a risk of somebody breaking the law or trying to wreck PLR, the risk is so tiny, so trivial and so remote that it is one that the hon. Gentleman should take. I hope that he will give serious consideration to a genuine plea to remove the penalty provisions.

12.30 a.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Buchanan Mr Richard Buchanan , Glasgow Springburn

I entreat my hon. Friend the Minister to make some concession here. If this Bill becomes law, and if it is to have any prospect of success, it must have the good will of librarians. To insert the penalty provisions is no way to obtain that good will. They mean so little. The possibility of their having to be used is so remote. Therefore, why not delete them?

On Second Reading, on 10 November, at columns 1380 to 1383, I am reported as having said that the Library Association was very much against these penalty clauses. My hon. Friend the Minister gave certain assurances in Committee and faithfully kept his word. There was consultation with the association. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) intimated to me in an informal conversation that the association was quite happy with the penalty clauses and had accepted the explanation. I was astonished. I had no knowledge of the association changing its point of view.

I therefore telephoned the association this morning. The deputy secretary was at a meeting and I spoke to his assistant, who told me that as far as he knew the association had not changed its view. Subsequently the deputy secretary came to see me tonight. He asked also to see my hon. Friend the Minister. I was sorry for my hon. Friend. He was confronted at 9.30 this evening with the deputy secretary of the association, who informed him that the association had not changed its view.

I do not blame anyone for the misunderstanding. I imagine that there has been a breakdown in communications. I imagine that the association may have been satisfied with the explanation which was given by my noble Friend Lord Donaldson

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

Did the hon. Gentleman suggest that I had told him that the Library Association was satisfied? I should not like that impression to be given.

Photo of Mr Richard Buchanan Mr Richard Buchanan , Glasgow Springburn

No. I intended to say that the hon. Member had been made aware that the association had dropped its objections.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the statement in the Minister's letter. The Minister was under that impression.

Photo of Mr Richard Buchanan Mr Richard Buchanan , Glasgow Springburn

I have probably been acquainted with more librarians than most hon. Members, and I know that they are still deeply dissatisfied with the penalty provisions and would wish for their removal.

This Bill demands the fullest co-operation from the librarians and their assistants at the 72 sample points. There will be a special demand on the librarians and I suppose that they may be asking for special payment. They are entitled to it if they are to take on the special responsibilities. That is the practice nowadays.

NALGO, which is the librarians' trade union, is very much behind the librarians in this instance. It should not be necessary for matters to be taken to the Crown court or the magistrates' court. If the Registrar is to be a man of substance, if he is to receive the salary that is proposed, he should be able to take decisions and spot any funny business coming from any of the 72 points—not necessairly taking the matter to court, but perhaps reporting it to the Library Association, which would take the necessary action.

The court sanction is not the way to win the support and co-operation of librarians. They have an additional task and responsibility for recording the issue of the books. It is something of a paradox that for assuming this extra responsibility the librarian is to be subjected to possible penalties at law.

It was asked in Committee why no objection was taken to the matter in the first Bill. No one expected the first or second Bills to make any progress; they came far too late in the Session. This is the Bill that is being taken seriously. I hope that my hon. Friend will do something to lessen the antagonism that is bound to develop if these clauses are left in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Widnes

I think that I may be able to assist the House. That is why I am seeking to intervene at this stage. I have listened carefully to the arguments of both the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan). Although I am not giving any undertaking that these penalty clauses will be removed, I think I must look at the matter in view of what both Members have said and the misunderstanding that has occurred with the Library Association.

I was under the impression that the Library Association had accepted these penalty clauses. They were carefully explained to it. There was a meeting between my noble Friend Lord Donaldson and the Library Association, and he understood that the clauses had been accepted. A letter was sent by officials of my Department over two months ago setting out reasons for these clauses and stressing particularly that the information on loans under clause 3(5)(a) would not be affected. We thought that this would satisfy the Library Association.

From what I heard at 9.30 p.m. tonight, and from what I have been told by both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Faversham, it is only fair that discussions should continue. I do not undertake that the provisions will be withdrawn, for the three reasons I set out in the letter to the hon. Gentleman, but I shall look at the matter again so that, if necessary, steps can be taken in another place.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

The House will be grateful for the Minister's undertaking. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and myself take the view that this matter requires further consideration.

One must have sanctions against those who might perpetrate a fraud against any piece of legislation, but compelling arguments have been deployed by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the eminent Chairman of the House of Commons Library Committee, who can surely be said to have no vested interest in but merely immense experience of this matter.

It is not seriously suggested by anyone, or by the Government for that matter, that librarians could be guilty of fraud. That is a most unlikely event. Conscientious people are never deliberately negligent. The point about frivolous attempts to register by some individual wanting to wreck the scheme or concerted action by a group would possibly be covered by the ordinary law without having to write penalties into the Bill.

The Minister has, however, given an undertaking. We are grateful to him and would certainly want to return to this matter in another place.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

I am amazed that the Minister of State has not looked at this matter before now. The three reasons advanced in a letter to the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) seem inadequate to justify the penalty provisions. As I understand the letter, the first reason is that anyone who obtained money by fraud would obviously be liable to face a fraud charge. The Minister's reason is that it would be difficult to find the apropriate section under which to charge such a person. That is absolute nonsense. Any competent lawyer would find it in five minutes, because he would have to look at only one Act. There would be no difficulty in finding the appropriate section.

The second reason given is the fear of a large number of stupid claims. I remind the Minister that there has been registration of common land for a number of years. Many so-called stupid claims have been made, but never was it suggested that it should be a criminal offence to do so.

The third reason given is that the clause allows cases to be tried at a magistrates' court rather than on indictment at a Crown court. If that is so, the penalty seems to be excessive. As the Minister knows very well, the link between the maximum penalty provided for by an Act and the actual penalty imposed is a real one. Magistrates would think that Parliament thought an offence under this Bill was much more serious than other offences for which the maximum penalty is £100, whereas to the lawyer or the layman the other offence might be regarded as much more serious. If there is to be a penalty clause, the fine should be considerably reduced.

Photo of Mr William Craig Mr William Craig , Belfast East

I rise only to welcome the Minister's statement and to emphasise the need to reconsider the provisions of the penalty clause.

The librarian community is among the most responsible in the country. I do not think that it is being caught up by any runaway trade union antagonism to responsible attitudes in our State. I am firmly behind the spirit of the Bill. I think that the librarians are as well. I only hope that the Minister will do more than simply undertake to review this matter. These penalty provisions should be withdrawn, and if I thought for one moment that the Minister was not genuine in his undertaking to review this matter I would be tempted to test the amendment in a Division. However, I respect him for what he has said, and I hope that in the end it will prove fruitful.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

I feel sure that the Minister is very genuine in his undertaking. It is his own willingness to consider all these matters in a most open-minded way that has helped the Bill progress at is has done and in a way that we have not experienced on previous occasions. I am most appreciative of his readiness to look at all these matters, and I am sure it has been most helpful to the House and to the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.