Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I welcome the new clause, but I have one concern. How will the police deal with people demonstrating outside someone's home who are told to go away but who, in an organised campaign, start demonstrating the next day until the police return to send them away again? Is there anything in the new clause to stop them doing that day in, day out?

Mr. Clarke: I understand that the police powers can be used in all the circumstances that my hon. Friend described. A continued action of the sort described by my hon. Friend would require a continued police response. I do not believe that the new clause or the Bill would allow powers to be made to deal with that particular situation, but I shall return to that point when I have had the chance to consider it more carefully.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I give way first to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard).

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): The Minister said that the new clause would deal with protests in the vicinity of a person's residence. Is there a legal definition of ``in the vicinity of''? Are there any circumstances in which the Minister would think it legitimate for protesters to gather in the vicinity of someone's residence?

Mr. Clarke: Taking the second point first, I think that in no circumstances would it be legitimate for individuals to act in a way that could harass, alarm or distress a person in the vicinity of the home. I do not believe that it would be legitimate, and I cannot foresee circumstances where it might be legitimate.

Jackie Ballard: I have no objection to the stated purpose of the new clause, but I wish to know what it will achieve. If a constituent of mine or of the Minister was repeatedly unable to get hold of us in order to protest about our voting on a particular issue but knew where we lived, would the Minister think it legitimate for that individual to stand outside our homes with a placard to make the point clear?

11.45 pm

Mr. Clarke: Actually, I would not. I return to the phrase, ``harass, alarm or distress''. I do not think that my family is obliged to deal with points of that kind if they are made in a way that could harass, alarm or distress them. I have a constituency surgery and a constituency office through which people can make their cases in an appropriate way. It would not be legitimate for anyone who had a grievance to harass, alarm and distress my family, neighbours or anyone else involved, despite the fact that I am a Member of Parliament.

It is common sense for the police officer on the spot to have a flexible power to deal with the situation. The court will consider matters as they evolve, and we shall see how the use of the helpful word ``vicinity'' develops. It goes wider than the famous word ``curtilage'', which we discussed earlier, and which I hope eventually to eliminate from the thesaurus of legal language.

I shall make a point that I should have made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). If the offence kept being committed in the way in which he implied it might, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 could come into effect, as the harassment would be over a longer time scale.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: Before I give way to my hon. Friend, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and then the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Later, I shall put our case about the nature of the legislation proposed.

Has the Minister seriously considered all the existing legislation? Why is it not adequate? He did not talk about that. There is plenty of existing legislation. He referred to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and other laws cover breaches of the peace. The Government have the burden of justifying additional legislation, having reviewed all the existing powers of criminal law. Before the Minister finishes his introduction to the new clause, I would be grateful if he were to justify it by explaining why he considered existing law inadequate.

Mr. Clarke: We considered that matter carefully, as it was important. The legislation is necessary, as the law ought to be clearly set out in one place for all concerned—the citizen, the potential demonstrator or protester and the police. Our assessment was that the existing legislation did not provide sufficient protection for the individual at home. I do not have a list of the legislation in front of me, but I am prepared to return to the matter before we finish the debate. However, we considered all aspects carefully and felt that such a provision was the best way to deal with the issue.

Mr. Heald: Almost everyone who has spoken to us has complained that many animal rights activists get around the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which covers pursuing a course of conduct on two separate occasions, by rotating the people who cause the problem. The provision that we are debating is subject to the same weakness. One could send a different group of half a dozen people every day, and if one had enough animal rights extremists in one's team, one could make people's lives a misery without really breaching the provision. Each time, a direction has to be given and then enforced. Could a blanket provision be imposed in some way to protect scientists in their homes?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman rightly suggests the weakness of the 1997 Act, which was another reason why we felt that further legislation was necessary. We believe that the provision will give the protection to which he referred. I concede the point that anyone who seeks to bypass legislation can try to find ways to do so to fulfil their ends. We think that the police powers given by the new clause will prevent the activity about which he is concerned.

I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe).

Mr. McCabe: Like most members of the Committee, I support the sentiments behind the new clause, especially given the appalling behaviour that we have seen in Huntingdon and some other places. However, I share a concern with the hon. Member for Taunton. The new clause might have been conceived to deal with that specific situation, but where else might it be applied? On radio and television consumer programmes and in investigative journalism, this country has a history of dealing with people who may intend to act in a fraudulent or unethical way that affects members of the public. Because of other laws, the only way in which investigative journalists can deal with them is to ``harass'' and expose them. I should hate a clause such as this one, which is clearly intended to prevent the sort of offensive behaviour that has been used on people who work at Huntingdon, to be used by people who behave fraudulently, as a defence against the proper exposure of their unethical activities.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point and I have discussed it with several journalists' organisations. Journalists will not be exempt from the law. Like any citizen they will have to abide by it. The provision will not make it unlawful for journalists to gather outside a person's home when they are pursuing a story, such as in a classic doorstep. That can sometimes be difficult and problematic for the people concerned, but would obviously not be unlawful, because what I referred to earlier, with respect to harassment, alarm and distress, would not arise.

Mr. Hughes: It might arise.

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to that.

If the journalists' presence caused real alarm or distress and they were trying to persuade the victims of their attentions to do something that they did not wish to do—that is an important double requirement—the police would have the power of direction to stop the harassment. Some might see that power as unreasonable, but I do not think that it is. A journalist has a right to ask a question and seek an answer to it, but, whether someone is being taken on aggressively by an investigative journalist or is, in the regular course of politics, being asked for an opinion, any individual has the right to refuse to answer, and for that to be an end of the matter.

A journalist does not have the right to tell someone that he or she must follow a certain course of action and, in trying to pursue the case, to harass, alarm or distress the individual—I emphasise that both tests must be applied. Some might say that a journalist does have that right and I can understand how that can be argued, but I do not accept that view. Journalists, like everyone else, must follow the circumstances. On a personal note, I worked for many years for Neil Kinnock when he was the Leader of the Opposition. The most appalling media scrums often happened, including outside the front door of his home in Ealing. They were offensive and difficult to deal with. My view, and his, was that journalists would operate in accordance with the general processes of civilised conduct, to move matters forward, if one could discuss the situation and reach the right solution.

My experience of all the journalistic organisations and of investigative journalists tells me that they will operate in a civilised way, when progress is made in this matter. If they do not, journalists will have to be placed in the same predicament as any member of society when dealing with the relevant situations. I do not think that that is an unwarranted infringement, or inhibition, of journalism in a democratic society. I emphasise that there must be, firstly and importantly, harassment, alarm or distress and, secondly, an effort to persuade the victim to do something that he does not want to do, if the police are to have the power in the new clause. I do not think that any reasonable journalist should be concerned about that.

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Prepared 6 March 2001