This clause brings together, in a manner which I hope is neat and logical, the arrangements that are made throughout the Bill for defences to various criminal offences which are created by the Bill. There was a debate on the matter in Committee, and concern was expressed about the danger of offences of strict liability being created.
It was the general opinion of the Committee, and it remains the opinion of the Government, that it was not the intention of the Bill to create offences of strict liability where penalties should be imposed without fault on the part of those who are charged with them. On the other hand, some doubts were expressed about inconsistencies at various stages in the Bill from point to point in the arrangements that were made for providing a defence of reasonable excuse or due diligence and the burden of proof which would fall upon the defendant in various cases.
By this collection of amendments an attempt has been made to ensure consistency throughout the Bill, to remove various inconsistent provisions and include everything in one new clause to make clear that there is one category of offences for which it will be necessary for a defendant to raise a defence and discharge the burden upon him of providing a reasonable excuse, and there are others where the due diligence defence can be raised by the defendant. The improvements before the House are of a sort that would have commanded the support of the Committee.
When we first received the Lords amendments, I was pleasantly surprised, having debated words such as "knowingly" and "reasonable", to note that the sections which refer to those defences have been removed from the Bill. I was reasonably surprised until I reached amendment No. 53, and I found that a new clause had been introduced. As a consolidation measure, it makes sense, but our objection is that we are leaving a considerable amount of interpretation of matters to the courts to decide when perhaps guidance could be given as to what would be a "reasonable excuse"—the words that were used in the first provision regarding the giving of information. We changed those words to "knowingly", and now there is to be an amendment to take out that word.
More guidance could have been given, and that is one of the problems in relying on litigation to determine these matters. Nevertheless, we accept this as a consolidation measure.