Oral Answers to Questions — Shoplifting (Sentencing Policy)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2 April 1979.

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Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch and Lymington 12:00, 2 April 1979

asked the Attorney-General if his noble Friend will call a conference of magistrates to discuss sentencing policy on shoplifting.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

Sentencing conferences and exercises for magistrates are held periodically. Most of these are convened locally and all magistrates in the area are invited to attend. Particular attention has been given to crimes involving theft from shops and stores and there have been not less than six sentencing conferences entirely devoted to that subject since January' 1978. My noble Friend regards the present arrangements as satisfactory and sees no reason to convene a special conference of the kind suggested.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch and Lymington

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I recognise that the spread of self-service trading has caused an increase in shoplifting. However, does the Solicitor-General agree that it is incumbent upon the courts to satisfy themselves that a person who is on a shoplifting charge was there with the deliberate intention of stealing, rather than regarding the offence as a by-product of the trading methods of the stores, which is one of the main causes of the increase in shoplifting?

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

An element of dishonesty is an essential element in the offence. I think that the courts are well aware of that.

The trading methods of stores is not a matter for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, but I see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present, and he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

Will my right hon. and learned Friend discuss with the Magistrates' Association the question of the principle that if a prosecution fails costs should be awarded to the person who has been accused but has been shown to be innocent? Will he accept that there are matters of concern, such as that in the case of a constituent of mine who pleaded not guilty to a motoring offence, when he might have been fined £20 or £30, and finished up with costs of over £70 for the representation that he had, and costs were not given on that occasion? The feeling of the solicitors concerned was that the bench would not have awarded costs.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

The question of costs in criminal cases following an acquittal has given rise to problems from time to time. I shall invite the attention of my noble Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to what my hon. Friend has said.

Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Flint West

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggest to magistrates that a material consideration should be whether the store is prosecuting with or without the approval or the agreement of the police?

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that what worries very many of us is that so many prosecutions for shoplifting and so-called petty theft are private prosecutions which do not require the intervention of the police or of anyone else, that many of them, quite rightly, lead to acquittals and that it is not merely a question of costs not being awarded but of the innocent party being destroyed by the fact that the prosecution was brought at all when it never should have been brought?

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

It has normally been regarded as an important constitutional principle that the individual is entitled, as a general rule, to bring criminal proceedings.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

I think that it would be rather a dangerous principle to suggest that only the authorities—only the police or only the Director—were entitled to do so.