Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I accept that formal description of the Minister's attitude, but I think that he is skating over a great deal of more acrimonious debate that occurred at the Programming Sub-Committee. However, the one matter on which we agree is that it was the Opposition's initiative to which the Government agreed.

A matter that emerged from the debate, arising from the helpful intervention by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, the Minister's response and the contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, concerned the possible application of the Bill and the new clauses to the media. I strongly agree with the Minister's response to the various points that were put to him. We feel that there are undoubtedly occasions when individuals and groups in the media go too far.

The Minister might, on winding up, want to refer to comments made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), who I believe is the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, when he was trying, by means of a private Member's Bill, to improve the law in this context. As a Back Bencher I supported that Bill and I wish that it had become law. However, it ran out of time. It would have been a useful cross-party attempt, early in the previous Parliament, to control excesses.

I agree with the Minister that there are occasions, now, when those in the media think that everyone, whether Ministers, shadow Ministers, Back Benchers or anyone else, owes them a living. I am not engaging in a wholesale attack on the media but supporting the Minister's view that sometimes those who work in the media go too far. Those of them who are tempted to excessive intrusion and harassment must learn that they are not above the law.

Mr. Clarke indicated assent.

Mr. Hawkins: I see that the Minister is nodding. Although the vast majority of people in the media are responsible, and although they have a legitimate job to do in a free society, the Minister was right to raise that matter. I am glad that the hon. Member for South Thanet intervened. The question of media behaviour is a legitimate aspect of the debate, although most of the attention is rightly focused on animal rights extremists.

I hope that the Minister will at least continue to study the important issues that I have raised, as the relevant organisations want. They and we are happy with what the Government are doing, as far as it goes. In our view, it does not yet go far enough.

Dr. Ladyman: As I said in an intervention, all my life, before becoming a Member of Parliament, I have been involved in organisations that did medical research and used animals for the purpose. I am proud of that. The work of my colleagues during those years has helped millions of people. Now it falls to me, as a Member of Parliament, to protect them and do something for them in return for what they have given to so many. At present, the law is clearly letting them down.

We need to consider the activities that people engage in against scientists—by which I do not mean only scientists who use animals. People have, for one reason or another, taken it upon themselves to think that a range of scientific activities, such as research into genetic modification, is inappropriate. We must judge the new clauses against activities such as assault and the vandalism of people's homes and properties, both of which are covered in existing legislation and need not trouble us. However, we must also consider activities such as the sending of poison pen letters, telephone calls and e-mails; the issue of threats by letter, telephone and e-mail; demonstrations at the work place and at home; abuse of people going to or coming from their work; and abuse of people at leisure, in their local high street for example, because they work at these establishments. The amendments deal with such activities and we must judge whether they will be successful in that respect.

New clause 6, which refers to demonstrations at people's dwellings, is a major step forward. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that the Bill does not go far enough and that organisations such as the Research Defence Society and the ABPI agree with him. That is not what they tell me; they have certainly come up with ideas that go further than the Government's, but they are delighted that the Government are going as far as they are. Clearly, they want us to encourage the Government to go further and to reconsider some of the issues, and I shall be expanding on such matters in my speech.

Mr. Hawkins: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I agree with his approach. Does he accept that the letters that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I received from the RDS, the ABPI, the NFU and the BIA mention the need to go further than the Government? They mention harassment and conspiracy, and the need for the Government to take them on, too.

Dr. Ladyman: My disagreement with the hon. Gentleman may be a matter of tone; he implies that the Government are being supine and that what they propose is merely a gesture. The organisations seem to be delighted that the Government are going so far, but they want to go a bit further.

Mr. Hawkins: I certainly do not suggest that the organisations ever said that the Government are being supine; I hope that I made it clear, and that the Official Report will show, that the organisations and Conservative Members welcome what the Government are doing but believe that it is not enough, as it does not deal with the two further matters. The Government are not supine and nor are the organisations.

Dr. Ladyman: In a letter to members of the Committee, the Research Defence Society said that it was delighted with the Government's efforts, but it hoped that they would pay further attention to the issues mentioned and perhaps consider them at a later stage. We may be able to deal with them now, while we are considering the amendments, and I shall encourage the Government to do so.

I return to new clause 6 and say, in reply to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, that I do not believe that Members of Parliament should be exempted from the provision. Members are entitled to have their private homes protected.

A colleague was telling me in the Tea Room the other day that local demonstrators who objected to a recent bombing raid conducted a demonstration at her home and left a coffin on her front lawn. That is not a reasonable demonstration against a Member of Parliament; such a demonstration should have been at her constituency office, at the House of Commons or in the local high street. It is not appropriate to demonstrate at someone's private home. Before Opposition Members jump up and ask about hunt saboteurs, I say that if people are engaged in a legal activity they are entitled to the protection of the law, whether they are hunting or doing anything else. It will not be lawful for people to hunt in a few months' time and we will expect the law to be invoked. The law cuts both ways. We should ensure that it works like that.

I am worried about new clause 6. What will happen if people acting in concert demonstrate at someone's home, much in the way that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath? A small group of people turn up with placards one day and are sent away by the police. Two other people turn up the next day and are sent away by the police. Each time, the home owner will have to call the police, who will arrive 45 minutes later and send the demonstrators away. That will go on day after day.

Will the Minister give some thought to tightening up the legislation still further on Report, to provide some mechanism to enable the police to prosecute people who are acting in concert to carry out such demonstrations?

Mr. Hawkins: Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to look at our new clauses 14 and 15? Does he consider that our approach—perhaps not exactly as proposed; we shall wait to hear what the Minister has to say—would deal with those problems?

Dr. Ladyman: I have looked at the Opposition's proposals and, in principle, I agree with them. However, I have not had an opportunity to discuss them with people who are qualified to tell me what their impact would be. Is the Minister prepared to accept the new clauses? If he cannot do so, I hope that he will agree to examine the matter again on Report and bring back Government recommendations.

I would welcome an amendment on Report to the harassment provisions. I might table it myself, if the Government do not. Any group of people who act in concert to carry out an act that would be an offence if it were committed by one of them should be deemed separately to have committed the offence. I hope that the Minister will table such an amendment on Report, if he cannot accept the amendment today.

I welcome new clause 7, which is a major step forward. I tabled my amendment because, when I read the Malicious Communications Act 1988—I got it from the Library and read it for myself—I was horrified. It appears to provide a defence for people who communicate threats of violence by letter. At present, if a person believes that someone is doing something that justifies a threat of violence, he can write to them and threaten violence. I think that it is perfectly all right to write to someone and say, ``If you don't stop doing what you're doing, I'm going to write to my MP.'' That is a threat, but it is reasonable. Another reasonable threat is, ``If you don't stop doing animal experiments, I won't buy your products any more.'' However, it is not reasonable to write to someone and say, ``If you don't stop doing animal experiments, you will be beaten up, or your children will be assaulted.'' There are no grounds whatever for making such a threat and defending oneself by saying that it is reasonable.

The existing Act provides a defence for people who believe that their threats are reasonable. The Minister is correct in saying that that should be changed. The issue is not whether someone believes that the threat is reasonable but whether it is reasonable. That will be a good change. My amendment simply clarifies the law to make it crystal clear that there is no defence for writing to someone and threatening an action that would otherwise be illegal. If any member of the Committee is wondering whether that could ever be considered reasonable, let me give the recent example of the destruction of genetically modified crops. The courts might have deemed that that was reasonable, but they should not have done so.

Let me straight away place on the record my belief that it is right to conduct tests on genetically modified crops to find out whether they are beneficial and to establish the limits and risks involved in using them. We shall never find out whether there are risks unless we do such experiments, but people took it on themselves to destroy them, which prevented us from finding out the facts. When they went to court, their defence was that they had a right to destroy the crops, because the Government should not have allowed them to be grown. The jury, to its shame, acquitted them.

12.45 pm

 
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