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5.15 pm

The Minister will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred in Committee to the serious concerns of the National Farmers Union, of which the House should be aware. The NFU's excellent head of parliamentary affairs, Barney Holbeche, has been in touch with my hon. Friend and me to express concerns arising from the fact that the dwelling of a farmer or someone employed by him invariably forms part of the premises of the farm. That happens for obvious reasons to do with the maintenance of high animal welfare standards.

The original new clause 6 gave constables wide powers to direct anyone seeking to harass a victim to bring that treatment to a halt. That power would be available where

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a person was present outside any premises used by the victim, at his dwelling or in its vicinity. The Liberal Democrats seek to weaken that provision by restricting it to the "immediate" vicinity. That would water down the Government's proposals and increase the concerns of the NFU at a time when, in the light of the foot and mouth crisis, we should not want to give our farmers any less protection.

I share the NFU's concerns about how "vicinity" might be interpreted, even under the amended Bill. Farmers want an assurance that the direction of a constable cannot be flouted by animal rights terrorists being able simply to walk to another side of the premises and continue their intimidatory activity. In subsection (5) of the original new clause 6, which the Government introduced in Committee, it was anticipated that a constable could make exceptions to his direction, including conditions regarding the distance from the premises or the location at which people who did not leave the vicinity must remain. Does that mean that a constable would have the power to direct persons to leave the premises and to stay at a significant distance--at least a mile, say--where they would be out of range when it came to intimidatory behaviour?

The NFU has drawn a comparison between that provision and a provision in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; both my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I sat on the Standing Committee that considered it. That Act includes a power to direct a person who is within five miles of the boundary of the site of a rave not to proceed in the direction of the rave. There is, therefore, a precedent for setting a clear distance, to be found in a piece of legislation introduced by the Conservatives.

The NFU is also concerned that the Bill does not make clear for how long a direction would be valid. Clearly, the value of a direction would be limited if it would be lawful for a person to return to the scene only an hour later, once the police had left. The NFU again draws a parallel, this time with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, under which a person transgressing the law while exercising the Government's so-called right to roam could be banished from the access land in question for 72 hours. The NFU is concerned that there may be a lacuna in the Bill before us.

We would not support the Liberal Democrat proposals to water down what the Government have done by specifying the "immediate" vicinity. The Liberal Democrats are clearly wrong on that, and we shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the NFU's genuine concerns on behalf of all farmers. I conclude by repeating that we welcome new clause 13.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I, too, welcome new clause 13. I thank the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), for his complimentary remarks about the contributions made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and by me. I also thank the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for offering the same compliments. Although it might suggest that we are having a bit of a love-in, I should add that the Minister has moved considerably towards meeting the requirements put to us by the scientific community.

People accuse the Government of being inflexible, not listening or being arrogant, but the Minister's actions during our proceedings gave the lie to that: none of the

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amendments was in the original Bill. By strength of argument, not only from those in the scientific community and Government Members, but from Opposition Members, a case has been made to protect a group of people who are under threat. The Minister has listened to that case and has acted.

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): Has my hon. Friend, like me, received several letters from just some of those scientific organisations that he has described, making such points and thanking the Government for moving so swiftly?

Dr. Ladyman: I have indeed. All my contacts in the scientific community are absolutely delighted by the progress that has been made, and feel that there is now light at the end of the tunnel not just for those who experiment on animals but for scientists in general, who have come under threat in recent months.

In the light of that openness, may I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that there are opportunities even beyond Report to table further amendments in order to improve the work that has been done? I ask him to keep an open mind, to keep reviewing the changes that have been made and not entirely to close his mind to the line of action suggested by Conservative Front Benchers on conspiracy legislation. There may be some work in that area that could improve the Bill further.

I certainly very much welcome new clause 13. As I am not a lawyer, I found it almost impenetrable. It is only because I know what it is meant to achieve that I could work out what it is trying to achieve. I shudder to think how some poor judge will try to wade his way through it.

Mr. Charles Clarke: My hon. Friend has already made some nice remarks, but if he lists the poor judges whom he knows, he will benefit the whole House.

Dr. Ladyman: I withdraw the comment. I would not want ever in my political career to mislead the House. I clearly have done so if I have given the impression that there are any poor judges. Let us say that unfortunate judges will have to interpret the semantics of the provision.

I can more or less work out proposed subsection (3A)(a) to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, but I find proposed paragraph (b) fairly complex, to say the least. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the paragraph again in order to ensure that it will achieve what he wants. If my interpretation is right, the offence is committed if an individual procures somebody to carry out an act of harassment, but he will be judged according to what he knew at the time that he carried out that procurement.

I worry a little that if the person subsequently realises that an act of harassment has been procured--perhaps he has asked somebody to demonstrate at a particular address--and becomes aware that the address is very close to a scientist's home, or if he subsequently becomes aware that others have also procured people to carry out acts of harassment, he will be able to defend himself on the basis that he did not know when procuring the act that others had procured similar acts. If he does not make any attempt to stop the act of harassment that he procured, he may be able to defend himself under the paragraph.

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I might have got that around my neck, and parliamentary draftsmen and lawyers might assure my hon. Friend that people will not be able to defend themselves in that way, but, just in case, I ask him to continue to monitor the provision as the Bill proceeds.

I conclude by once again thanking my hon. Friend the Minister on behalf of scientists for the steps that he has taken so far, but ask him to continue to keep an open mind as the Bill proceeds to any other ways in which we can work together to protect scientists further.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I shall comment first on new clause 13. I am grateful for the Minister's letter honouring the undertaking that he gladly gave in Committee to review the legislation on harassment and intimidation. It is dated 12 March and it covers various Acts, including the Public Order Act 1986, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Various provisions on obstruction appear in the Highways Act 1990, the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 and the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. In addition, there is common law provision on breach of the peace, which does not need a statute. The Minister also helpfully dealt with the fact that it is open to people to take civil proceedings.

The Minister was kind enough to acknowledge that one of the things that I try to ensure is that we do not pass unnecessary laws. Every time anything happens out there in the big wide world, there is a tendency to think that there is a need for a new law to deal with it. In such circumstances, people often do not check whether a law exists or what the existing law means in practice. It is one of the jobs of the Government, questioned by the legislature, to ensure that we do not already have sufficient provision, however old it might be.

The new legislation proposed in new clause 13 in effect interprets the Protection from Harassment Act. The most reasonable argument for it is that under existing legislation someone must have pursued a course of conduct. Under the new clause, individual activities can constitute harassment, intimidation and threat. That seems to be a proper extension of the law, which was why my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and I supported in Committee the principle of the new clause that has now become clause 43.

New clause 13(2) sensibly provides that the amendment to the law is prospective, not retrospective. It is important to include that in the Bill--some legislation is not clear on the point. There should be no case for retrospective legislation, unless there is a particular and extremely important reason that commands great consensus--for example, the War Crimes Act 1991, although its retrospective nature raised questions.

I do not intend to vote against new clause 13, but I am not entirely persuaded that the existing law is insufficient. I understand the argument that new clause 13 inserts into existing legislation an explanation of who might be covered by it. That is helpful, but those of us who have been here for a little while know that Ministers often resist writing things into legislation: decisions about what is inserted in Bills are a little subjective. I do not object to the new clause because we want the law to be clear, for reasons that Members such as the hon. Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon

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(Mr. Major), as well as colleagues of mine such as my hon. Friends the Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and others have made plain. It is helpful that people understand what they are not allowed to do and that being part of a group that is doing something is sufficient to be in breach of the law, even if they try to put themselves at one or two removes from the group of people who intimidate. Liberal Democrats believe that civil protest is right and proper and that expressing a view in opposition to whatever the subject might be, including experimentation, is valid as a political and personal position. There is, however, a limit--when someone starts to intimidate and harass a person who is participating in lawful activity. On the general issue, we are happy to find ourselves in the same position as the majority of Members, if not all of them.


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