I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has one simple aim: to protect the victims of harassment.—[Interruption.]
In the past year, a number of highly publicised stalking cases have come to public attention. They have highlighted the need to give the courts more effective powers to deal with stalkers. The Bill covers not only stalkers, but disruptive neighbours and those who target people because of the colour of their skin.
The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) raised the issue of stalking in the summer, with her private Member's Bill. The hon. Lady deserves to be congratulated on her initiative in raising the matter, and I do so, but there had been no opportunity to consult on her proposals, and her Bill had significant deficiencies.
The hon. Lady's Bill attempted to specify the behaviour that amounted to stalking. The conduct known as stalking can take many forms. Even though the list set out in the hon. Lady's Bill was not intended to be exhaustive, it would have served to focus the attention of the courts on the behaviour represented in it. Other types of behaviour, which might be just as distressing for the victim, might, in effect, have been excluded because of the way in which her Bill was drafted. Those points were made in response to the consultation exercise the Government carried out on our proposals. It is therefore particularly mystifying that Opposition Front Benchers have tabled amendments to this Bill that would reproduce those defects.
Furthermore, the hon. Lady's Bill created strict offences: people would have had to prove their innocence if they had carried out any of the actions described in her Bill. There were no safeguards for journalists or others whose legitimate activities were similar to the actions that amounted to stalking. Those are serious deficiencies when we are dealing with behaviour that, in many instances, is ordinary and does not merit criminalisation. It is necessary to distinguish between instances when such behaviour is acceptable and when it is not.
That was not just the Government's view. As Dr. Evonne von Heussen-Countryman, the director of the national anti-stalking and harassment campaign, said:
A bad Bill is worse than no Bill … and her proposals"—
referring to the hon. Lady's Bill—
were not precise enough. You have to be able to defend legitimate activities such as debt collecting against the stalking charge".
If the hon. Gentleman had waited, he would have discovered that I propose to explain precisely why the Bill remedies those deficiencies. His point about the length of time that the Bill has been available is absurd, given the extent and detail of the consultation on the proposals before they were enshrined in it.
I believe that the proposals in the Bill will be effective, and will provide the protection for victims of harassment that I am sure—I think I am sure—all hon. Members want to achieve.
It is not necessary to refer to racial harassment for the Bill to cover activities that constitute harassment on grounds of race as well as on other grounds.
The Bill overcomes the difficulty of defining stalking by focusing on the harmful effect that this activity has on its victims. At one level, stalkers cause their victims harassment. The Bill therefore creates civil and—in England and Wales—criminal measures to deal with situations where harassment is caused. That approach is not new—action against harassment was taken in the Public Order Act 1986—but the present Bill goes much further. It also creates a new civil tort, and provides both the civil and criminal courts with powers to make orders to protect the victims of harassment from future actions by their tormentors.
In the light of what he has just said, can the Home Secretary explain why more than 1,000 days have passed since the first proposals were tabled in the form of amendments to the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 during its Committee stage? In fact, I think that some 1,016 days have passed. Why has it taken two and a half years to present these proposals to the House?
Because, as has been apparent from previous attempts to deal with it, this is a difficult matter. We were, for example, keen to learn as much as possible from experience of how such matters were dealt with overseas, to see whether we could benefit from such knowledge. We were anxious to get the proposals right.
It is no good one Opposition Member saying that the measures have been rushed through, and another saying minutes later that the process has taken far too long. We have been very careful to get our proposals right and to consult fully on them, and we are now confident that the Bill represents an effective way forward.
As it stands, the Bill refers to harassment or stalking that causes upset and distress. A constituent of mine is being harassed by a group of people. Will the Bill, as it were, tie up the various criminal acts to which I believe that group is subjecting my constituent? Not just one person, but a group of people, is causing considerable harassment to a single woman with a family, and I should like to be reassured that the Bill will help.
As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, it is difficult for me to give a categorical answer without knowing the details of the case. I can certainly confirm, however, that the Bill will cover groups of people who perpetrate such offences, as well as individuals. I hope that that gives my right hon. Friend the reassurance that she and her constituent want.
The Home Secretary said earlier that the Bill would apply to nuisance neighbours, and then described harassment and its definition. The Bill's definition is clear: harassment is described as what a reasonable person would consider to be harassment. Many hon. Members know about nuisance neighbours, and a good many people consult them about the problem. Those people have ceased to be reasonable. I fear that the Bill is too widely drafted, and will not help in such circumstances.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is confused. Of course it is true that some people are driven by the activities of others, sometimes neighbours, to a state in which they may not have all the attitudes of a reasonable person; but that is not what the Bill refers to. The Bill lays down that the test of guilt in regard to harassment should be whether an offender is committing actions that a reasonable person in the position of the offender would expect to give rise to harassment.
The greatest difficulty that the police find in using existing legislation against stalkers is the need to prove the intention of the stalker. These provisions dispense with that requirement, so that a person who pursues a course of conduct that he ought to have known would cause harassment will commit an offence. A person ought to know that his course of conduct would amount to harassment in circumstances in which a reasonable person, in possession of the same information, would think that that course of conduct would cause the person at whom it was directed the effects of harassment, such as alarm or distress. The maximum sentence for the criminal offence of harassment will be six months' imprisonment and/or a level 5 fine.
We believe that that test gets the balance right between the need to protect victims from the destructive behaviour of stalkers and the need to prevent the courts from being used for the pursuit of frivolous claims. A victim would have to show that harassment had been caused, and that the stalker ought to have known that that would be the effect of his actions—and stalkers will no longer be able to claim as a defence that they did not intend to harass their victims.
By defining the offence in terms of the effect that the actions have on the victim, the proposals in the Bill will catch activity that causes harassment, irrespective of whether it might be termed stalking or something else. I have in mind, in particular, conduct that causes racial harassment. The Bill will catch that conduct if the conduct occurs on more than one occasion, and in circumstances in which the perpetrator ought to have known that his words or behaviour would cause harassment, alarm or distress. Similarly, those who harass their neighbours through a course of conduct would fall within the ambit of this offence, as harassment may be caused in or from a private house. The Bill therefore builds on the provisions of section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986.
The Bill also provides some specific defences. It will be a defence to show that the conduct was pursued for the prevention and detection of crime, or under an enactment or rule of law. Because of the nature of the activities pursued by stalkers, unless special provision is made, some police activities could be caught by the Bill. That, of course, is not our intention. I am also aware that the activities of journalists, salesmen, religious activists, debt collectors, private investigators and even political canvassers might fall within the scope of the Bill. We have therefore provided a defence of acting reasonably in the particular circumstances of the case in order to safeguard these legitimate activities.
We have not defined harassment itself. Harassment as a concept has been interpreted regularly by the courts since 1986. Some 100 cases were dealt with by the courts in 1995 under section 4A of the 1986 Act, 40 leading to a conviction. However, to avoid doubt, the Bill makes it clear that harassment includes causing someone alarm or distress, and that a course of conduct includes speech.
As well as the summary offence of causing harassment, the Bill creates a second, more serious, criminal offence in England and Wales—that of causing someone to fear violence. Where the level of harassment caused places someone in fear of violence being used against them, more severe penalties are required to reflect the gravity of the conduct. The maximum penalty for that offence will be five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
As I have said, the Bill creates civil and criminal measures in England and Wales. Criminal proceedings can deal only with offences that have already been committed; the criminal law cannot provide protection for someone who might reasonably expect that he or she might be subject to harassment in the future. Nor does it provide adequate protection where the evidence does not satisfy the criminal standard of proof. A conviction in criminal proceedings requires the jury or magistrates to be satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the offence. In civil proceedings, the court needs to be satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the defendant harassed the victim.
Civil proceedings also enable victims to be compensated for the distress and disturbance to their lives that harassment causes, just as they are when any other tort is committed. Civil proceedings would be taken by a victim, or a potential victim, where the need is to prevent the stalker from pursuing, or beginning a course of conduct. Action in the civil courts would be appropriate, for example, if just one act of harassment had taken place but there was fear that further acts would be committed, which would constitute a course of conduct. The civil courts could—if persuaded on the balance of probabilities that it was necessary to do so—grant an injunction, preventing the stalker from carrying out any specified activity which would amount to harassment. Breach of an order made under the tort created in the Bill would, if proved beyond reasonable doubt, be a criminal offence punishable by up to five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
When dealing with criminal offences that cause harassment, or cause someone to fear violence, we need not only to punish offenders for their actions but to reassure the victim that it will not happen again. As I have just said, the civil law provides a remedy in such circumstances.
We have, however, listened carefully to people who have argued that it cannot be right in circumstances such as these to require a victim to go through a second hearing in a civil court, following a conviction in a criminal court, to gain an order preventing future harassment. We therefore think it right that criminal courts should have the power, when sentencing a person for an offence committed under the Bill, to make an order restraining a person from pursuing further conduct against the victim—or any other person named in the order—which amounts to harassment, or will cause fear of violence.
A breach of an order made under the Bill, if proved to the criminal standard—beyond reasonable doubt—will itself be a criminal offence. The offence will carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. That will enable breaches to be dealt with quickly, with the involvement of the police. Where the risk to the victim is sufficiently serious, the offender can be held in custody. The breach of a civil order under the Bill may be dealt with as contempt of court rather than as a criminal matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about offences committed under the Bill and the fact that a person who breaches it may then be subject to another criminal offence. What if a person is convicted under another statute, but harassment takes place afterwards? Would it be possible for the judge to inform the convicted person that, if he indulged in harassment, he would automatically be subject to another criminal offence?
I am not sure that it would be open to the judge to say anything precisely along those lines. It would of course be open to the judge, as it is at the moment, to draw the attention of someone who has been convicted and who is before him of the perils that he will face if he continues with a particular course of conduct. As I have sought to explain, there will be particular new and additional remedies available to the victim in such circumstances, but I am not sure that the precise warning that the hon. Gentleman has in mind would be the sort of language that would be likely to emanate from the judicial bench.
I have set out the aims of the Bill as it applies to England and Wales. In Scotland, the aims are identical. The existing common law in Scotland already adequately covers acts that cause harassment, so no new criminal offences are proposed. A new delict—the Scottish equivalent of a tort—is, however, provided for in the Bill.
The Government have tabled an amendment that would allow the Bill's provisions to be extended to Northern Ireland by negative resolution. It is important that the people of Northern Ireland are offered the same protection from harassment as people in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I have set out the principles that lie behind the Bill and why we believe that it will offer an effective remedy against harassment. It may help the House if I briefly explain the Bill's structure.
Clause 1 describes the course of conduct that amounts to harassment in England and Wales and sets out the defences available. Clause 2 makes it a criminal offence for a person to pursue a course of conduct in breach of clause 1. Clause 3 creates a civil tort in relation to the course of conduct described in clause 1. Clause 4 creates the more serious offence of pursuing a course of conduct that puts someone in fear of violence. Clause 5 gives criminal courts the power, when sentencing a person for an offence under clause 2 or 4, to make a restraining order.
Clause 6 provides that actions for damages under clause 3 are subject to a six-year limitation period rather than the three-year period applicable to personal injury cases. Clause 7 defines certain terms used in the earlier clauses, notably that a course of conduct is conduct that occurs on at least two occasions, and includes speech.
Clauses 8 to 11 apply to Scotland. Clause 8 creates a delict. Clause 9 provides that breach of an order made under clause 8 is a criminal offence, similar to the provisions for England and Wales. Clause 10 allows for the award of damages. Clause 11 creates the concept of a restraining order in the Scottish criminal courts.
To ensure that the work of the intelligence and security services is not compromised, clause 12 provides that the Secretary of State for the Home Department may certify, retrospectively, that a course of conduct carried out by a specified person on a specified occasion related to national security, the economic well-being of the United Kingdom, or the prevention or detection of serious crimes, and was done on behalf of the Crown.
The Bill does not bind the Crown or, therefore, agents of the Crown, so the intelligence and security services—and other investigative agencies such as customs and benefit fraud investigators pursuing their responsibilities—are exempt from its provisions. The certification procedure is intended to ensure that that exemption can be proved in the situations described, quickly and effectively.
The remaining clauses deal with the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill.
Those, then, are the Government's proposals to deal with stalking. As I have said, their effects will go beyond what might be termed classic stalking to provide protection for others who are persecuted by anti-social behaviour. The proposals are part of the Government's aim to make the streets and communities of Britain safer.
I am sorry that, despite all the fine words of the Opposition on this subject, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has tabled amendments that would significantly weaken the Bill and reduce the protection that it would afford the public, but perhaps he will in due course be able to dispel that impression, which is certainly the impression that we have formed of the amendments that have been tabled. As always, we look forward to hearing from him and from his colleagues.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Like the Secretary of State for the Home Department, for whom Christmas has come about a week early, I begin with a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson), who will be winding up for the Opposition on Second Reading. Concern about stalking, the absence of any criminal remedies and the inadequacy of civil remedies has been widely held for many years. There was a debate about that in 1994 during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, but it took the unusual determination and tenacity of my hon. Friend to translate that concern into a coherent Bill against stalking, which she introduced on 6 March.
For reasons that I shall come to, Ministers decided to block my hon. Friend's Bill when it was due for its Second Reading on 10 May. Prompted, I believe, by public anger at their refusal to back that Bill, on 9 July, Ministers published a consultative paper, "Stalking—The Solutions" and finally this Bill on 5 December. When it passes through the other place and becomes law early next year, my hon. Friend can feel proud of her achievement in ensuring that, at long last, people who are subject to the pain and trauma of stalking have better protection from the law than they ever did before.
We support the Bill, although we want it to be improved in Committee, and we have agreed with the Government to secure all its stages in the House today and tomorrow. Given that agreement, I was astonished—although perhaps I should never be surprised by words from the Secretary of State or his political adviser—by an accusation today in The Times and the Daily Mail that Labour was, in the Secretary of State's words, "reneging" on a promise to back the Government's anti-stalking Bill.
The Secretary of State must know that that allegation is completely untrue. He knows, because he was involved in the discussions, that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said that the allegation was "nasty", not an adjective that I would use. Where both sides have agreed that there will be a certain amount of time taken to get through an agreed measure, it is unacceptable for one side then to complain when the other side seeks to ensure that those undertakings are carried through. Nothing that we have done in tabling amendments to the Bill in any sense undermines the spirit and letter of our agreement to ensure that the Bill secures all its stages in the House today and in the half day tomorrow.
I understand from my hon. Friends that there have even been complaints that we have tabled amendments at all. That comes rich from a Government who have tabled five amendments to the Bill.
The Secretary of State's complaint about the Bill of hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen was that it was too simplistic a solution I paraphrase to a very complicated matter. Of course we accept his injunction that it is better to have no Bill at all than a bad Bill. Given all the bad Bills that Labour Members have had to deal with week after week, I only wish that he had followed that injunction.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen introduced her Bill in March, she gave some chilling case studies of women who had been stalked. In some cases, some sort of legal sanction had finally been imposed on the stalker. In most cases, however, the stalkers had managed to evade or avoid any sanction. My hon. Friend said:
Those who describe stalking as merely a nuisance should try speaking to a victim.
She quoted with approval the view of the Police Federation that
it is frightening enough knowing that your every move is being watched, that you are being followed. But what if you are being trailed day after day, bombarded with unwanted letters, flowers and gifts, plagued with telephone calls and even go to collect your child from school to find a stranger has beaten you to it. It can ruin your life and"—
said the Police Federation—
that is what is happening now to ordinary people, mainly women."—[Official Report, 6 March 1996; Vol. 273, c. 370.]
Given that stalking can and has ruined the lives of many ordinary people for many years, the first question before the House is why existing law has proved so inadequate to counter the crime. One reason, I suggest, is that criminal law in England and Wales has developed to deal mainly with acute incidents of criminal behaviour—a murder, a robbery, a theft and so on—but it is far less developed in dealing adequately with behaviour such as stalking or serious neighbourhood disruption, which is continuous and where the whole is infinitely worse than the sum of the parts or any individual part.
Individual acts of stalking such as those mentioned by the Police Federation—the odd letter of affection or the occasional bouquet of flowers—may be no more than eccentric, and should not bring down the force of the criminal or civil law. What causes the intense distress and so marks out stalking is the persistence and continuity of the conduct.
A similar situation exists in relation to anti-social behaviour by neighbours. In a densely populated island like Britain, we must all accept that life in cities and towns will not always be peace and quiet. Most of us are willing to tolerate the occasional noisy disruption from neighbours; but when disruption becomes continuous and when those causing it ignore reasonable requests to desist and intimidate those who dare to complain, the effect, like that of stalking, shifts from being an occasional nuisance to a continuous nightmare In the past, such continuous, chronic criminal behaviour has generally been dealt with informally through community pressure, or perhaps by the informal intervention of the police, rather than through the formal involvement of the criminal law.
When the criminal justice system has tried to deal with stalking or neighbour harassment, on the whole it has failed. That its because it has tended to chop up the continuous film of persistent misbehaviour into individual, discrete snapshots. Furthermore, as the Secretary of State mentioned, it has been required to prove intent. In other words, the criminal justice system has sought to turn a chronic condition into a series of acute ones.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen sought to fill the gap in respect of stalking with the Bill that she introduced in March. Her Bill prohibited individuals from a "course of conduct" likely to cause a person to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed so as to fear for his or her safety, or that of a linked third person, such as a child. In our view, my hon. Friend's Bill got to the heart of the mischief of stalking. With just a modicum of good will from Ministers, drafting amendments could have been made to her Bill and it could have been on the statute book last summer. The necessary protection for victims of stalking could already have been law.
That was not the first time that the Government had blocked action against stalking. In 1994 and again in 1995, Ministers dead-batted calls for stalking to be tackled, using as their reason the fact that they were conducting a study of anti-stalking laws and definitions in other countries. That was the essence of the answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) on 17 July 1995 and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) on 6 February this year.
That study into other countries seems to have led Ministers to a negative conclusion. Other countries with anti-stalking measures, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, have each, I understand, used fairly specific definitions. The Bill, however, provides a much looser, more general definition of harassment, with the intention that over time the courts will gradually fill in the gaps by helping to define the test of reasonable knowledge in clause 1(2) and the defence of reasonableness in subsection (3), and to develop the tort of harassment provided in clause 3.
I understand the Government's intentions. Having myself, like the Secretary of State, been brought up in the English legal tradition, I have enormous respect for the intellectual ingenuity of the common law and for our courts' capacity to grow great oaks of jurisprudence from the smallest shoots. But a balance must be struck, especially in the criminal law, between an offence general enough to deal effectively with the mischief complained of, and an offence so vague that in practice courts will not convict.
For that reason, we favour a belt-and-braces approach in the Bill, unless we are persuaded to the contrary by the wisdom of the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). We do not seek to disturb the general definition in clause 1. However, without prejudice to the generality of that definition, which is important to our amendment, we believe that the Bill should give some detail of the circumstances in which stalking may arise. That is the purpose of our amendment, which can be considered in more detail in Committee on the Floor of the House later today.
In May this year the Secretary of State wrote to me to explain why the Government would not support the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen. The Minister of State wrote to my hon. Friend in the same terms. The objection then, which I ask my hon. Friends to note carefully, was that the scope of my hon. Friend's Bill was too wide. Today we hear that the objection to my hon. Friend's Bill was that the scope of her Bill was too narrow. I am confused, as is the Secretary of State, I think.
The Secretary of State went on the record in The Times today with the churlish and nonsensical allegation that we would seek to block progress on what amounts to my hon. Friend's Bill. He said that our proposals
would significantly reduce the public's protection from harassment.
The Secretary of State owes it to the House to tell us, when he winds up the debate, which of his objections to my hon. Friend's Bill is correct. Was it his objection in May, when he said that her Bill was too wide, or is it his objection today, when he says that it was too narrow? The two statements cannot both be correct.
I should not want to put the hon. Gentleman to the inconvenience of waiting for the explanation that he seeks, so I am happy to give it to him now. Both criticisms are valid. The hon. Lady's Bill was too narrow for the reason that I advanced in my remarks earlier this afternoon: because the Bill provided a list, there was a danger that stalking would be interpreted exclusively by reference to that list. As I also explained, the hon. Lady's Bill was too wide because it covered activities of people such as journalists and political canvassers, who were not provided with the defence of acting reasonably in all the circumstances, which the Government's proposals provide. Those criticisms are valid, and I hope that that provides the hon. Gentleman with the explanation that he sought.
Once before, I advised the Secretary of State that, when he is in a hole, he should stop digging. I repeat that advice. I have the letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen by the Minister of State, Home Office. It does not mention the concern expressed by the Home Office back in May that the Bill was too narrow. The letter merely alleges that the Bill was too wide. That could have been dealt with satisfactorily if Ministers had tabled amendments to the Bill to provide more adequate defences.
On the Secretary of State's second point—he made it today through his mouthpiece, the Daily Mail—our amendment, which incorporates the particulars contained in the Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, does not affect the generality of the Secretary of State's proposals. That fact is stated in our amendment.
I am sorry to disappoint the Secretary of State with the news that he and the Daily Mail were misinformed about the views of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Yesterday, the trust seemed to criticise Labour by stating:
Mr. Blair had got it wrong.
I have a message from the Suzy Lamplugh trust, to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, which states:
I would like to apologise for problems caused as a result of the statement in the Daily Mail today from The Suzy Lamplugh Trust … At the time of speaking to the Daily Mail yesterday, I misunderstood the intention of the amendments within the Bill".
I am not surprised that the person who wrote that misunderstood the amendments, as the amendments' details were explained to her by someone on the Daily Mail, which is not known as one of the primary organs of truth in our society.
The one certainty—perhaps the only certainty—about the press at the next general election is that the Daily Mail will not support the Labour party. Support from The Daily Telegraph is questionable, and it is certainly questionable from The Sun, The Times and the Daily Star. But I think that we can say with some certainty that the Daily Mail will support the Conservative party. Indeed, I would be profoundly shocked if that certainty in my life was not the case—[Interruption.] This is rebuttal.
The message from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust continues:
The Trust is very pleased that Labour are still working to improve the Bill",
and states that it supports the amendments tabled by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen.
All the amendments tabled by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen aim to strengthen and improve the Bill. We want civil and criminal courts to be given powers to order offenders to undertake counselling, to make them confront their offending behaviour. That provision would be piloted before being introduced on a nationwide basis. We also believe that, in certain circumstances, better protection is necessary for stalking victims who are used as witnesses, and that civil courts' duties in relation to injunctions should be made clear in the Bill.
As a common lawyer, I confess no detailed knowledge of Scots law—I profess virtually no knowledge, as it is drawn from a very different legal tradition. However, my hon. Friends representing seats north of the border have told me that reliance in Scotland on its—albeit different—breach of the peace provisions to control stalking is not satisfactory. That is why my hon. Friends desire the inclusion into Scots law of a separate, parallel statutory offence. I should make it clear that, with regret, we do not support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), because they would require proof of intent and subjective knowledge. As I have told him, we shall vote against his amendments if they are pushed to a Division.
When the Bill was published, and again today, the Secretary of State claimed that it would also help to deal with the mounting problem of criminal anti-social behaviour by neighbours. Those of us who for years have been calling—although on deaf ears—for Government action against the growing problem of neighbourhood harassment should have uttered hallelujahs at the Government's change of tack, and reminded ourselves of the need to be charitable to sinners, such as the Secretary of State, who have repented. I should also mention the extent to which the Government have for so long denied that the issue presents any problem that makes any amendment to the law worthy, and the fact that, given the scale of the problems, the remedy offered by the Bill is entirely inadequate.
In June 1995, after months of consultation with local authorities and others, on behalf of the Labour party I published a document entitled "A Quiet Life", which outlined detailed proposals to deal with problem of criminal anti-social neighbours. That document contained some alarming case histories and discussed the serious defects in current law. We proposed a new form of injunction to deal with the problem—a community safety order—which could be obtained by the police or by the local council, acting on behalf of victims. Thus, we proposed to mix the best of civil and of criminal law.
It would be a civil remedy, in the form of an injunction, which would be enforced by the criminal law if it were breached.
The Government's reaction to our proposals at that stage was revealing. It revealed their profound complacency and the "not invented here" attitude which has cost them so dear in public support. Instead of the slightest acknowledgement that there was a problem that required a solution, there was contemptuous dismissal. When the draft proposals were published, in June 1995, the Prime Minister sought to dismiss them as
merely window dressing".—[Official Report, 22 June 1995; Vol. 262, c. 472.]
In September 1996, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration described our proposals as "unnecessary", claiming that
measures already exist to deal with problems".
I do not know of a single victim of serious harassment by bad neighbours in my constituency or in any constituency who believes that current law is adequate to deal with his or her problem. Those dismissals of our proposals were a grave error by Ministers, because they simply revealed one fact: Ministers planned to do nothing to deal with the problem. They planned to do nothing to help people whose lives were being ruined by anti-social behaviour, and nothing to assist local authorities which were struggling to use the wholly inadequate remedies in current law.
As on the issues of knives, paedophiles and stalking, Ministers eventually woke up to the fact that the Opposition had identified a serious problem that required action. As is often the case, however, their remedies are too little, too late. Considered in conjunction with the provisions of the Housing Act 1996, their proposals fail in many key respects to measure up to the scale of the problem of criminal anti-social behaviour by bad neighbours.
The powers in the 1996 Act apply only to tenants and not to all tenants in an area, whereas evidence shows that, in many areas, the anti-social behaviour of residents in owner-occupied housing can be just as damaging as the behaviour of those who are council, housing association or private tenants. The defective power to intervene given to local authorities under section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972—which has been highlighted by the problems that Coventry has had in the Finnie case—remains unamended.
Even more importantly, civil remedies provided by this Bill are available only at the suit of the individual victim—which I think was the gravamen of the intervention by the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) on the speech of the Secretary of State. The Bill's provisions do not take proper account of the huge pressures that victims experience, and therefore of the need for police and councils to act together to secure community safety for the residents of a specific area. That is why our proposals do not place the duty on individual victims, who are often so intimidated that they are frightened—like many of my hon. Friends, I have witnessed the fear of constituents—that they will not make a complaint, and are even less willing to become the principal prosecution witness in a criminal prosecution.
The Bill does not contain even the weaker provision—which the parallel provision in section 60 of the Family Law Act 1996 does—for court rules enabling third parties to bring proceedings. I should tell the House that, had there been time—we accept that there is not—for the matter to be properly and fully examined in Standing Committee, we certainly would have moved detailed amendments to remedy the serious defects that we have found in that section of the Bill.
In August 1996, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said that the Government had "lost the plot" on law and order. The Government's indecision and uncertainty on stalking is just one illustration of why his damning conclusion about his Front-Bench colleagues was correct. First, they prevaricated for two years; then they blocked the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen without adequate justification; then, as was no doubt his intention when he blocked the Bill in May, the Home Secretary went to his party conference not to thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter into the public domain, but to proclaim the Bill on stalking as his invention. He said:
We need quick and effective remedies for the less serious cases, and tough sanctions for the most serious.
He went on:
I can announce that we shall have them. Women deserve that protection; they need that protection; and I will make sure they get it.
The implication was that the Government would sponsor the Bill. Unfortunately, the legislative programme announced in the Loyal Address did not bear the promise out. Instead, two days before the Queen's Speech, we were told—again by a newspaper, not by the Home Secretary—that the Bill would be left to the lottery of the private Member's Bill procedure. I then made the Home Secretary a clear and specific offer of co-operation on getting a Government Bill through the House. That offer was rejected.
On the day of the Queen's Speech—I am glad to see that the Home Secretary is smiling about this—Ministers spent all day until 3.30 pm in radio and television studios, defending the decision to turn what would have been a Government Bill into a private Member's Bill. As we all remember, during his speech on the Loyal Address, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgemoor—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sedgefield."] My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) repeated the offer that I had made only two days before—an offer that had been rejected.
We then witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of an impromptu meeting of the Cabinet's legislation Committee on the Treasury Bench.
"Decisive leadership," says one of the devils on the Treasury Bench. The Prime Minister suddenly decided to overrule his Home Secretary again and make the Bill a Government Bill. By the end of the Prime Minister's speech on the Loyal Address, the Home Secretary's demeanour gave every indication that he had been subject to persistent and wanton harassment by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and wished for legal protection from it.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition told the House on 23 October that we would co-operate to get the measure on the statute book quickly. We are doing that. The worst is that, if the Government had shown the House the same co-operation then as we are showing now, a comprehensive Bill against stalking could have been law six months ago. Who knows how many people could have been protected during that interval if the Government had done then what we are doing now?
I offer ungrudging support for the Bill, following what we have heard from the Opposition. I was under the impression that we were uniting in an effort to put on the statute book a measure that is required by the people of this country. The Government have responded to public opinion, and it would have improved the reputation of the House if all hon. Members had given the Bill the whole-hearted support that it deserves.
I have some short points to make about the Bill. It is really two measures in one. First, it is a response to a number of highly publicised and serious offences of what has come to be called stalking. Secondly, our fellow citizens have a far wider need for protection from activities that are not necessarily of that type, but are straightforward harassment, when individuals or groups pick on others because of some perceived weakness, putting them in fear. We must stress the fact that the Bill will give an opportunity to deal with many incidents of harassment, as well as its primary aim of dealing with the dreadful cases of women being stalked.
Men also require protection from harassment. On some occasions, men in the public eye, perhaps in the world of entertainment, need protection from neurotic women, who can be just as much of a nuisance to them and just as disruptive of their lives as some men can be to women.
Some decades ago, the House took away the protection provided for those faced with harassment during industrial disputes when it abandoned the old concept of a criminal offence of watching and besetting. I recall that being taken from the statute book. I felt at the time that the offence should not have been removed. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said, when people are watched, they are afraid, their lives are disrupted and they are unable to function normally in their ordinary family lives. I am pleased that the Bill will restore that concept. I trust that it will be used in the old-fashioned context. Those who do not want to take part in industrial disputes are as entitled to protection from harassment as are those who are the object of sexual admiration from unwanted sources.
We may well find that the Bill will be particularly significant for younger persons. Violence among young people seems to be increasing. Those in vulnerable minorities are subject to continual, progressive harassment. One minority group—those who are seen as ethnically different from the majority group in the area—has already been mentioned, but those whose other activities may be regarded as different are also affected. Such people may simply attend the wrong school, or join the boy scouts, or they may simply be young people who behave themselves and do not wish to join gangs and other groups. I trust that the Bill will make it possible to deal with those above the age of criminal responsibility who are not yet adults. The Bill refers to "persons". That includes teenagers, who have just as much right to go about their business as do those over the age of 18.
While I support the Bill entirely, I have one other point to raise that may create a problem when the measure is enacted; many of those who carry out harassment are mentally disturbed. I have some doubts as to whether those who carry out repeated acts of harassment will be prevented from continuing by the taking out of a court order to desist. They will end up in prison. We already know that the key reason for many people being convicted and sent to prison is mental instability. Very little provision is made for them in prison to ensure that, when they leave the institution, they have been cured of the problem that took them there.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) talk about the need for counselling. We must go beyond that. We need an educative process for those subject to an injunction and, perhaps, for those in prison. The matter will not be solved simply by issuing an order and sending the offender to gaol for a period.
The Bill deserves the House's whole-hearted support. I trust that we shall achieve unanimity in Committee and that it will quickly reach the statute book to provide protection for our constituents who suffer from harassment.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) gave his ungrudging support to the Bill, but half his speech was mild criticism. I give my ungrudging support and do not feel guilty about offering some suggestions. There is remarkable unanimity and homogeneity in a parliamentary assembly that is not noted for taking such an approach. Opposition Members do not have to sacrifice their critical faculties to avoid being accused of not favouring the Bill.
I very much welcome the Bill and the Home Secretary's introductory remarks, which explained not only that it will apply to stalked women and men but that it has a racial dimension and that it can be used to deal with obstreperous neighbours. All hon. Members know from their surgeries of people who have been stalked, if that is the right word, by next-door neighbours who apply exceptional pressure to them. I also welcome the Home Secretary's remarks about the application of the legislation to group harassment; cases need not involve only one person doing the harassing.
I am delighted that, at long last, this measure is about to reach the statute book. It does not imply hostility to say that we must be careful because experience shows that we are not always brilliant legislators. For various reasons, political and otherwise, there is an element of haste in what we are doing. I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will say that, if parts of the legislation prove to be inappropriate, there will be opportunities to revisit the matter. If we pass legislation swiftly, it is incumbent on us to remedy, where feasible, any glaring weaknesses that, in legislating speedily, we have overlooked. I suspect that Members of the other place will earn their per diem allowances by using their expertise in scrutinising the Bill to supplement our expertise.
Stalking has increased in recent years. A growing number of women, and some men, are subject to varying degrees of harassment from individuals who pursue them.
That involves not only television and film celebrities but ordinary members of the public. The excellent briefing produced by the Library describes the remedies, but it is obvious from recent well-publicised cases that both the criminal and civil law are inadequate. People rightly expect us to legislate to protect victims of what is, regrettably, a growing menace.
Last year, I attended a conference in the United States that had a session devoted to stalking. It was organised by the American Society for Industrial Security, the largest professional association of people involved in investigation and security. As one would expect, much research is being done in the United States. It is important not only that we should consider legislation in other countries but that we consider research elsewhere into the phenomenon of stalking.
Among the papers presented at the conference were useful documents on what is being done in the United States, especially in the Los Angeles police department. The LAPD has not been above criticism of late, but it seems to be a leader in this field. It set up a threat management unit 1990 to investigate in the long term the normal patterns of threat. It has offered considerable advice to officers on how to deal with stalking.
The research suggests that, unless one appreciates the different sorts of stalking, one will not necessarily use the right methods to tackle it: it goes into detail about erotomanic, love obsessional, and simple obsessional cases. It is important for the police to know how to deal with harassment, not simply from the perspective of dealing with the perpetrator but from that of dealing sensitively with people who are being harassed, or who allege that they are being harassed. Such people require much information and support to help them to deal with what can be a horrifying experience.
Several strategies have been devised for police and victims to pursue, to try to prevent stalkers from continuing to stalk. With measures such as this, there is a danger that there will be a spate of complaints, many of which will be valid and require the assistance of psychiatrists, the police and the courts. However, there will be some cases where people do not understand the legislation, refuse to understand it, or try to take advantage of it. They could place enormous pressure on the police and the courts to deal with cases that should never have got near the courts, which could become clogged up. There is potential for people to use the new legislation wrongly. That is why it is important that the police should know how to deal with different sorts and levels of complaints or incidents.
The LAPD's idea is to educate victims about stalking and its wider dimension so that they can be apprised realistically of what the police and the authorities can do. It is right to advise victims of stalking about means of modifying their behaviour and patterns of movement, if necessary, to minimise risk, such as changing telephone numbers or moving, although the latter is a sign of failure. Therapeutic strategies can be devised to help victims deal better with the phenomenon.
It is also important—some people may think that it is not the purpose of legislation, but I believe that it should be—to consider how the police should deal with alleged perpetrators. There are a variety of ways. Often in the United States, private investigators are involved. Much more must be done than confronting stalkers with a knee in the groin and the threat of further physical retribution. Los Angeles police say that they can write to or telephone alleged stalkers and apply for temporary restraining orders preventing them from making contact with victims. They can use arrest and detention or what they call mental health diversion. Finally, they can seek criminal conviction. Their approach has reduced the number of allegations of stalking to more manageable proportions, to advantage.
I suspect, and fervently hope, that the Home Secretary and the Minister will be able to tell us about research being conducted by the police and by the excellent research department in the Home Office, and about funding for academic research into the phenomenon of stalking. Unless we can comprehend the phenomenon, legislation will miss the mark and we will not achieve our objectives. It can be dramatically demonstrated that an aggressive intervention posture by the police can be effective, and I hope that the police are pursuing the matter.
I am not declaring an interest, but the Minister and I have long had an interest in the regulation of the private security industry—that has been a totally abortive venture for the past 17 years, but there is still hope—and one element that requires regulation is the profession of private investigators. The profession is used by a wide variety of individuals and organisations and, at the respectable end, is pursued by many people, mostly ex-CID, with diligence and competence.
Private investigation may not be the nicest profession but, like politics, it is necessary. At the bad end there are crooks, or men who have become crooked, deploying tactics that are clearly reprehensible and illegal. I have had discussions with the representative organisations and I have had a partial assurance from the Home Secretary. Although there are certain defences open to investigators, if they fail in the task of surveillance and are spotted, either they are poor investigators or the subject has been clever or lucky enough to spot them.
I seek assurances from the Minister, either in his speech or in response to amendments, that the legislation will not be applied to those at the legitimate end of the private investigation profession. There are, quite rightly, protections for the intelligence services and the police and for reputable investigators who might be employed by a myriad Government Departments.
In some cases there will be levels of harassment far in excess of the instructions given to investigators. Those who are the subject of scrutiny may not endorse what I say. I am sure that there will be a tiny minority of cases of over-vigilant investigators and I hope that the protection will not provide a defence for someone who is clearly guilty.
The hon. Gentleman is in slight danger of misleading himself, and I think that I can help him. The Secretary of State's certificate is available to agents of the Crown; it would not be available to cover private investigators. In addition, there is a defence for people acting in the course of a legitimate trade or profession, provided that they act reasonably; if they act, as the hon. Gentleman said, far in excess of what is necessary, they will be caught by the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the principle of clandestine surveillance is that it should not be detected by the subject? There is a requirement in the Bill that there have to have been at least two prior incidents. He and I share a concern with the private security industry, but does he accept that it would be an extremely inept investigator who became subject to the Bill or that, alternatively, there would have to have been a deliberate use of obvious surveillance as a form of harassment?
I am grateful for both those interventions. The Minister reminded me of something of which I was already aware. I am sorry if he gained the impression that I was not. I know full well that the certificate is available to employees of the Crown.
Not all the work of investigators involves wearing a dirty mac and using binoculars, videos or cameras; they pursue many open activities that do not rely on furtive or clandestine behaviour. I recently read an article dividing the investigation profession into 28 different sectors.
I know of several cases, also, in which filming has been done with the acquiescence of the person under surveillance. There was a case involving Manchester council two or three years ago, when it hired an investigator to follow a guy who had put in a claim for £100,000 compensation for an injury: the investigator went on a holiday tour with him and filmed him on a daily basis. One could say that that was not clandestine.
The Bill contains some imprecise references to reasonableness or the pursuit of crime, but perhaps a little more clarity would give greater reassurance to those who are pursuing investigations in a legitimate fashion. It is obvious that some activities of investigators are legal and that occasionally some investigators behave in a way that is absolutely illegal, but the problem is that there is a grey area in the middle that may not be accounted for in the Bill.
A great deal of investigators' work relates to non-criminal activities. A political party, for example, could employ investigators to check on the validity of prospective parliamentary candidates before endorsement. The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department is looking at me with incredulity. Perhaps we could have a chat afterwards, because I think that he has not quite got it right.
Investigators can pursue a variety of activities that are not related to criminal behaviour: the eviction of anti-social neighbours, for example. Local authorities are increasingly looking to private investigators to become professional witnesses and gather evidence to secure an eviction. To do that would require the investigator to keep the neighbours under surveillance, take their photograph and film and follow them. The ultimate aim is not a criminal prosecution but an eviction. If neighbours who were being investigated discovered the fact, they might be able to rush to the courts to seek protection.
I have mentioned the vetting of potential and existing staff. Other investigations that do not lead to criminal prosecutions can involve matrimonial matters, intellectual property, missing persons, debt recovery and many other issues. Sometimes, investigations are part of civil proceedings, but they often do not even lead to that. I therefore ask the Minister at some stage to comment with greater clarity on why he thinks that the Bill as it stands would adequately protect a professionally qualified person in going about his or her professional duties.
The Bill is overdue. I am glad that there is not much acrimony over it, apart from some ritualistic criticisms. It is clearly very important that the Bill is passed and that what we pass achieves our objectives. I only hope that, if deficiencies are discovered after Royal Assent, the Government and the Opposition—whoever they may be—will have the good grace to recognise that mistakes have been made and try to remedy them.
If any justification were needed for the argument that we should think before we leap into making legislation, the Bill supplies it. The Stalking Bill, presented by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson), which undoubtedly helped to concentrate the Government's minds on the need for a law against stalking—she should be commended for her efforts—was certainly an important step in the right direction. I was happy to encourage her in introducing that Bill, which she has acknowledged and will probably do so again—although whether she does so to embarrass me or not, I do not yet know.
The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen would not and certainly should not pretend that her Bill is better than the Protection from Harassment Bill. Although, as has already been said, the words of the director of the National Anti-Stalking and Harassment Campaign, Dr. von Heussen-Countryman, to the effect that a bad Bill is worse than no Bill, might have been a somewhat harsh criticism of the Stalking Bill, there can be no doubt that, taking the two Bills side by side, the Bill before us today is an improvement.
I do not think that it was reasonable—it may of course have just been party political posturing—for the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to complain about the Government's Bill in the terms that he did. It is even less reasonable for him to complain and then support the Bill in the Lobby, as I understand he is going to do. One example of the total unreasonableness, indeed, absurdity, of his comments was to say that the Government were confused in their criticism of the Stalking Bill in saying one moment that it was too wide and in another that it was too narrow. If one has a bird brain, one might think that there is some merit in such a comment, yet it is total nonsense.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear when he helpfully came to the Dispatch Box to stop any more nonsense being perpetrated, when he said that the Stalking Bill was too wide, it was because it would have caught people such as journalists, and when he later said that it was too narrow, he was commenting in a completely different sense. It became obvious as the Bill formulated in the Government's minds that it could be used for wider purposes than dealing just with stalkers. I cannot honestly believe that the hon. Member for Blackburn is so obtuse that he did not realise the distinction. He was just doing what he is now getting used to as we approach the general election: causing mischief.
The letter that my right hon. Friend the Minister wrote in May, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn referred, was obviously written before the Government issued their consultation paper, received their many responses, thought further about the matter and realised that the Bill could be broadened. What on earth is wrong with that? It is time that the Opposition stopped grubbing around to draw distinctions between Labour and Conservative. Either they support our policy, which would be novel, or they oppose it. They must make up their minds and stop standing on their heads and pretending that there is some great distinction between themselves and the Government if they are to help us to introduce sensible legislation.
The Bill is better than the Stalking Bill for a number of obvious reasons. It covers a wider number of offences: not only stalking, but bad neighbours and racial harassment. It is better because it is more precise about the offences, separating harassment from violence and the consequences of the two, which are widely different. It is better because it is more precise about the defences—which is very important—including legitimate surveillance, which the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) mentioned. The Bill is better and will therefore lead to less confusion in the courts.
There is no doubt that the obnoxious activity of stalking needed to be dealt with. More and more terrifying instances were coming to light and being publicised in the newspapers, and it was becoming more and more obvious that the existing law was thoroughly inadequate to deal with them. People have been followed for months and months by harassers, and instances of endless telephone calls at all times of the day and night, causing immense misery, have arisen. Misery was being caused by stalkers with whom the women involved had never had a relationship. The misery of parents worried about paedophiles stalking school playgrounds, and the courts being seemingly incapable of dealing with it, was beginning to emerge, too.
The Government did not just produce a Bill; they considered the Stalking Bill and earlier debates on stalking, they thought about the problem, produced a consultation paper, listened to the representations made to them, and improved on their first thoughts, which should be welcomed, not scorned, by the Labour party.
What needed to be done to protect women—as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) pointed out, the issue does not exclusively affect women—from stalkers? We needed the threat of criminal proceedings in order to deter would-be offenders, and if they were not deterred, we needed to protect the victims by imprisoning stalkers if they were caught and convicted. We clearly needed such a law. We needed a different approach to the different kinds of stalking; we needed to distinguish between those who are just a nuisance, which is bad enough, and those who threaten violence and cause fear. We needed to recognise that some offenders act deliberately, believing that they are causing misery and knowing the effect of it, and some are sick and demented and honestly do not intend to cause misery. If the latter type of offender nevertheless causes misery by their actions, they cannot be caught, convicted and sentenced under the existing legislation.
There was a need not just to punish offenders but to prevent them offending in the first place. There was a need therefore not just for a criminal offence but a civil wrong, which can offer an injunction. If such an injunction is breached, it can be followed up by criminal sanctions. There was a need for defences to protect journalists. Some of us would wish that all journalists were not protected under the Bill, but journalists have a job to do, and as long as they do it in the confines of decency and restraint, they should be allowed to do so. If the Bill were too widely drafted, they would fall foul of it.
What about political canvassers? We call time and again at people's doors. First they are out; the second time they do not want to talk to us; the third time we do not have the answers to their questions; if they still want to talk to us the fourth time that we call, it is probably because we have those answers. We may even return a fifth or a sixth time to get some money from them. That might be considered harassment in some circumstances.
A harassment Bill must ensure that such nonsense does not take place—that is, not the nonsense of political canvassing, but the nonsense of prosecutions for political canvassing. There are also debt collectors, and the people who have already been mentioned, who are engaged in genuine surveillance. All those needs and approaches have helped to form the Bill, and that is thoroughly to he welcomed.
An undoubted improvement is the widening of the concept of stalking to cover harassment by neighbours, and racial harassment. Problems concerning bad neighbours are mentioned more often at my weekly surgeries now. In the old days we heard complaints about the inadequacy of social welfare and benefits, but the Government have been generous and such complaints have tailed off. More and more of the complaints that I hear from my constituents are about their bad neighbours.
We write to the local authority, but the authority says that it has no powers to do anything about bad neighbours. The Government have already passed a law to define some kinds of noise as a nuisance, but that is not always adequate, because the harassment does not always take the form of noise. Now we are introducing a measure that will give local authorities that run council housing estates another series of weapons to threaten those appalling people who make their neighbours' lives impossible.
The hon. Gentleman talks about all the extra powers for local authorities, but local authorities will not get the extra money that they need to use those powers to enforce the legislation, or to employ the necessary people.
That, as the hon. Gentleman must be aware, is totally irrelevant to the point that I am making. Perhaps he can raise it on the Adjournment of the House. He certainly may not raise it further in the middle of my speech.
I especially welcome the Government's move to deal further with the scourge of racism. The 1994 report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs made 38 recommendations for dealing with that serious problem, and I remember taking action against my own Government for not going far enough in accepting those recommendations, and for not proposing to deal more strongly with racism in response to our report.
Our recommendation 29 reads as follows:
We recommend that the Public Order Act 1986 should be amended so that (a) section 6(4) should no longer require the prosecution to prove that the offender either intended to cause harassment or was aware that harassment may result, but instead should require the prosecution to prove that a reasonable person
would have expected harassment, alarm or distress to be caused by his actions, (b) section 5(4) should allow a police officer to arrest on the basis of reasonable suspicion that an offence had been or was about to be committed, and (c) in section 5(6) the penalty should be increased to include a sentence of up to 12 months imprisonment, a more substantial fine, or both. We consider that these amendments will allow the courts to take into consideration and deal more effectively with those expressions of racism accompanying criminal acts to which we refer in paragraph 86.
I hope that I do my right hon. Friend the Minister of State no injustice, but I seem to remember that at the time he said that it was not possible to go further along the lines of the Committee's recommendations. I now warmly commend him and thank him for moving considerably further along those lines in the Bill, which, by extending the concept of stalking, deals with racial harassment. As a result there will be more weapons in the armoury of the criminal justice system for dealing with something that, when we seek to live together in a decent society, is one of the most insidious and hateful forms of human behaviour.
It is not only the victims of stalkers who have reason to thank the Government for the Bill. Harassed neighbours, whose numbers must run into thousands, if my constituency is anything to go by, and the racially harassed, of whom there must also be thousands, have reason to thank them too. So do all those who seek to bring order and justice to our society—whether that means the police, the probation service, the magistrates or the judges—and therefore the British public, who yearn for a society in which there is more law and order. I commend the Government for bringing forward a Bill that fulfils those wishes.
Although the Bill is generally perceived to be about stalking, its tentacles are likely to spread far wider. In some ways it is like four Bills rolled into one—an anti-stalking Bill, a feuding neighbours Bill, a domestic violence Bill and a Bill that extends civil injunction remedies in such cases to the criminal courts.
It is therefore all the more disappointing and worrying that the timetable means that the Bill will be taken through all its stages in little more than 24 hours, on two consecutive days. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has already made his views clear on that subject. Shortly before coming into the Chamber, I discovered that the Government may even be minded to push the whole thing through in one day.
During the debate on the Queen's Speech when my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) pledged to the Prime Minister my party's co-operation in the passage of the Bill, we did not envisage such a compacted and rushed debate. In my view, an attempt has been made to take advantage of our good will and concern.
We have heard that line already this afternoon. People have said that Opposition Members are against the Bill and are not co-operating, but "co-operating" does not mean failing to scrutinise the legislation properly.
The hon. Lady says that there is a tight timetable for pushing the Bill through, but she should revise her opinion. As I understand it, two days have been allocated for debate, should that be necessary, although I hope that we shall not need the full time. I should have thought that that was ample time in which to scrutinise the legislation properly.
I hear facetious comments about sitting through the night. That is not what I meant. I believe that dealing with the Bill in such a short time will prevent all but the most rushed consultation. Drafting changes between Second Reading and Committee, and between Committee and Report, are part and parcel of the passage of most Bills through the House, and we all believe that they are the better for it. Clearly that will not happen in this case.
We would like several improvements to be made to the Bill. I have tabled amendments accordingly, and I hope that the Minister will respond sympathetically to them when the time comes. I am a little disappointed that an amendment that I tabled to allow a breach of a civil undertaking to be treated as an offence has not been selected. I believe that such a provision could save lengthy and complex legal arguments, and could take some of the acrimony out of cases, especially domestic violence cases.
I am advised that such a use of undertakings with legal force behind them could be extended to the criminal courts, too. In view of what the Minister has already said, I hope that he and his civil servants will consider the scope for the use of undertakings in both civil and criminal courts in the context of the Bill. I hope that we shall hear some response to that suggestion during our proceedings tonight.
I now move to a second area where we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are looking for some improvement. [HON. MEMBERS: "We?"] There are 26 of us somewhere in the building. As the Bill is drafted, the court cannot give any protection to victims pending the trial—which may be months away—short of remanding someone in custody, which would be expensive, or making it a bail condition, which does not carry the same full protection as the restraining order provisions in clause 5 from the time of sentencing onwards.
I hope that the Minister will consider whether it is possible to enable the court to make such an order when a trial is pending. One possible use of such an order would be to enable the court to make an order while proceedings are adjourned indefinitely, with the prospect perhaps of the defendant never having to come to court. The victim, therefore, would never have to relive the ordeal in the witness box. That would give the substantial protection of an explicit order, backed up with five years' imprisonment.
Given the wide scope of the Bill, I was surprised to read that the Government expect approximately 200 additional criminal cases a year to arise from it. Do the Government really believe that only four additional cases a week will arise in the whole of England and Wales as a result of the Bill? I can only imagine that they are considering only stalking cases and ignoring the wider effects of the Bill, which have been described fairly graphically this evening.
I have been advised by a lawyer active in this field that once the extent of the Bill is known there will be immense pressure on the police to take up the proceedings, particularly in neighbour disputes and domestic violence cases. In addition, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) highlighted how important the Bill will be in cases of racial harassment. Only this week, the local beat officer in the centre of Christchurch—who often calls in at my office—said that she knew of two people in the constituency who were suffering a certain amount of harassment and who could be helped if the Bill were on the statute book. That is just one small part of England, so I suggest that the Government have underestimated when they state that there will be only 200 additional cases.
Stalking is a very serious matter, but it has only recently attracted media attention. It is a shame that, before anything can be deemed to be important, it has to become a media sensation. Many people still have the impression that stalking is little more than a nuisance and affects only celebrities who have in some way forfeited their right to privacy. The truth is much more complex. More than 3,000 people—young and old, men and women, those who are well known and those who are not—have been the victims of stalkers across the country in recent years. The true total figure is almost certainly higher. Stalking is not yet a crime, so the police have no criminal records on the matter.
Three months ago, there was a particularly appalling stalking case in the newspapers when a 37-year-old man—technically on a charge of causing grievous bodily harm, as that is the route that the police have often tried to use—was controversially acquitted by a court in London. The court had been told that he had harassed his victim for four years. He telephoned her up to 10 times a day, registered his car in her name and lurked outside her house—once with a machete. The man offered no defence, but the judge acquitted him because in his view there was insufficient evidence to prove intent to cause psychological harm, which was what the case turned on.
To get a criminal conviction at the moment, one must prove psychological distress equivalent to grievous bodily harm. Although this was achieved in one recent case—by Tracey Sant from Portsmouth—it has proved to be very difficult. I suspect that there was success in Portsmouth because of the assiduous work of the police there, and police officers from Portsmouth were the first to lobby me on this issue. They were incredibly frustrated at their inability to deal effectively with bad cases of stalking and harassment in the area.
Speaking last September at the Liberal Democrat annual conference in Brighton, I advocated a two-track approach to tackling the menace of stalking. This comprised a civil offence, allowing the courts to use restraining orders and award compensation, and a more serious criminal offence of molestation, where the stalker's persistent conduct causes harassment, alarm or distress, or leaves the person in fear of violence. I am pleased that the Bill broadly fits that description.
The need for legislation of this kind has been highlighted by groups including the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the National Anti-Stalking and Harassment Campaign, both of which deserve credit for the fact that there is a Bill before us. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) also deserves credit for pushing the matter further, and I was disappointed that the Government stated in the summer that it would have been too complicated to amend her Stalking Bill. I believe that if the political will had been there, a Bill could have been on the statute book by now. The Police Federation has for a long time recognised the need for a Bill of this kind.
The Bill is long overdue. We support it, but that does not mean that we should not look closely at the legislation that we pass in Parliament. I cannot emphasise that enough. In my view, the Government have taken advantage of the good will of other parties and are rushing the Bill through the House. This could have been a good example of parties working together constructively, but I believe that the Government are yet again using it in a party political way before they look at the wider public interest.
The challenge for us all has been to achieve a balance between safeguarding civil liberties and producing effective legislation to deal with stalking and harassment. By rushing this Bill through, there is a real danger that we shall not achieve that balance in the best way that we could. I hope that the Government will honestly listen to the concerns raised in what has been a truncated debate.
There is no doubt that there is a gap in the law, and every hon. Member will be aware of complaints from constituents suffering from anti-social neighbours. I know of an individual in my constituency—I will call him Brian—who has made life intolerable for his next-door neighbour, a widow living alone and in a permanent state of terror. My concern is that the Bill is not exactly the answer to a maiden's prayer.
The widow has been advised that her neighbour cannot be prosecuted until he commits some kind of physical offence against her. That is of little comfort. The gentleman clearly has a mental problem and is well known to the psychiatric services in my constituency. He is unaware of the problems that he is creating, so this, may be unconscious or passive harassment. Indeed, the lady concerned is sympathetic to his plight.
As I understand it, the Bill will provide both a criminal and a civil sanction in such cases. But what will actually happen? Will it result in the man going to prison? I am not sure that that will be the solution to his difficulties at all. While I welcome the principle of a sanction against harassment, I am concerned that it will not necessarily provide all the remedies needed by people of the kind I have described. I am not sure that the Bill will automatically be a remedy for anti-social neighbours.
My second point relates to the definition of conduct that is reasonable. Will journalists really be exempt? Was it reasonable for journalists to go to parents of victims of the Dunblane incident and persistently approach them for interviews? Under the Bill, two incidents will be sufficient to spark off a prosecution, or at least police activity, and I am concerned about precisely whose definition of "reasonable" will apply. I suggest that what journalists from the Daily Mirror or the other tabloids consider to be reasonable is not what other people consider to be reasonable. I ask the Minister whether there is any way to narrow the definition.
With regard to targeting, will the Bill cover a specific victim who is anxious about approaches from or stalking by an identified person, or will it apply to entire communities? What happens in, let us say, a close? No doubt right hon. and hon. Members all know of cases in which a family with social difficulties or other problems have been moved into an otherwise peaceful neighbourhood and their behaviour—passive though it may be—causes enormous offence to other people living in the vicinity. I am not convinced that a criminal sanction will be the solution in such cases, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could clarify that point.
The Bill will be used very widely indeed. I do not often agree with the Liberal Democrats, but when the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) said that there was some doubt about whether there would be just 200 cases a year, I was inclined to agree. Many people will look to the Bill to meet their particular anxiety and provide a remedy for it. I suspect that that will go way beyond celebrities or vulnerable women being stalked, and it will certainly go way beyond the problem of anti-social neighbours. A large number of sharp lawyers will see considerable opportunities in the Bill. If the courts are to look to Hansard to discover what definitions and cases are described, it is important that the Minister should try to give clear examples of cases for which a remedy will be available under the Bill.
Having said all that, I have clear reservations and I am not convinced that a penal sanction will automatically be the solution to anti-social behaviour. Nevertheless, the widow in my constituency to whom I have referred will certainly sleep much more easily when the Bill reaches the statute book and she knows that there is at least an element of protection for her. It is to be hoped that the Bill will also have a deterrent effect—that the mere threat of an injunction, or a visit from the police threatening a legal case, will be sufficient to curtail the misconduct.
To conclude, I wish the Bill a fair wind, but I hope that the Minister will be as graphic as possible in drawing the courts' attention to the kind of cases that will be covered.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) on having forced the Government to bring the Bill before the House. Having congratulated her on that, I have to say that this Bill is not the Bill that my hon. Friend originally introduced, nor is it the Bill that many of us thought we would support.
The Bill is widely drawn and I, for one, would have preferred to have it deal with offences of racial harassment, sexual harassment and anti-social behaviour that were specific, direct and defined, rather than have them as they are. Praise is due for their being in Bill, but the terms are extremely nebulous. The powers in the Bill will depend on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, organic growth in the common law. Nothing frightens me more than that, having seen how some judges interpret current law. They might narrowly construe some of the provisions in a manner that might not have been intended by Parliament.
Furthermore, like the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), I am concerned that clever lawyers might seek to extend the scope of the Bill so that it involves matters such as trade disputes, as was hinted at by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), and the role of investigative journalists. What is reasonable to one judge in the pursuance of a specific case might not be reasonable in respect of journalism. We are not talking only about invasions of the privacy of distinguished ex-members of the royal family or pop stars but about serious journalists carrying out serious research. The defence that is allowed depends on the subjective judgment of the individual judge who is directing the jury in a specific case. That causes me great concern.
I turn now to the Bill, specifically clause 4, and to why the Bill was originally introduced. I shall refer to a case in my constituency which was known as the "Orchard Park seige". Briefly, the facts of the case are as follows. A woman in my constituency had an affair that she brought to an end. Not satisfied with that, the man involved criminally assaulted her, bound her and left her in a ditch, for which he was sent to prison. He served a short time, got parole and was released; he then started to pester the woman. She complained to the police, who, she believes, did nothing about it, even though the man was out on licence and he was alleged to have boasted in a local pub about what he intended to do to the woman. She also believes that the police knew that he had what turned out to be an imitation firearm. Some of these matters are the subject of a Police Complaints Authority inquiry, but this is what the woman feels happened.
Eventually, the woman was seized outside her home and bundled into it. Her daughter arrived some time later and was also seized. The man appeared to fire his gun. He viciously assaulted the woman, broke her sternum and raped her about a dozen times. After 14 days, the police successfully ended the seige. I have nothing but praise for the way in which the police handled a difficult situation. They believed that the man was armed and they knew that he had hostages whom he might kill.
The jury in the subsequent trial acquitted the man of rape. It is hard to imagine how the woman could have acquiesced in sexual intercourse in her physical condition at that time, having, as she did, a broken breastbone. The police in that case regarded the jury's verdict as perverse.
One of the problems in the case was the fact that some of the rapes took place when the daughter was in the room although she was told to turn her face away. She was petrified about giving evidence; nothing that the police could say would persuade her to change her mind. Throughout the period after the arrest, a policewoman lived with mother and daughter, looking after them, giving them every encouragement. Nevertheless, the daughter refused to give evidence. I believe that to be one reason why the man was acquitted of rape. He was given about 10 years for criminal assault. Had the Bill been law at that time, the police might have been able to halt that tragic series of events. I say only "might", because many aspects of that case remain to be examined.
What priority will the police give to cases of harassment? What judgment will they exercise? Where will harassment appear in their hierarchy of offences—above or below burglary, above or below actual physical assault? What is their subjective judgment of the complaint made to them? The subjectivity will create a variety of problems.
Another type of harassment arose in that case. The woman gave evidence for two days, separated by a screen from the accused, but in the public gallery were all the members of the accused's family, looking down at her with hatred in their eyes. What sort of intimidation was that? It is an interesting question. If it went on for several days, would it amount to intimidation—harassment—under the Act, even if it took place in a court of law, where people were entitled to be? The woman certainly felt that their presence, looking at her in that way, hampered her in giving evidence, and her daughter felt that their presence intimidated her and prevented her from giving evidence.
Although the Crown Prosecution Service brought several charges of rape against the man, it did not bring them all; despite the perverse verdict, the CPS decided not to bring up the other cases. That woman had a horrific experience as a result of stalking and continued to feel deep resentment that she had been so abused, yet the man who did all that to her was not convicted of the violation of her womanhood, as he should have been.
Questions arise about matters that are not within the ambit of the Bill but arise from it. What should be the role of the social services in such a case? The woman was living in a council house. When the man was released on licence, she visited the local housing authority and asked to be transferred. She gave the reasons but did not go into all the details. Her request was therefore refused.
By chance, however, the man had been allocated a flat that directly overlooked the house in which the woman lived. She was conscious of him always being there, overlooking where she lived, and she was conscious of his actions. The local housing authority felt that it could not move him, because it was unaware of his record, and it did not feel that the woman had sufficient grounds to be moved, because, rightly or wrongly, she felt that she could not give all the details of what had happened to her. There is a need, therefore, for housing associations, local authorities and the social services to take into account the effects of harassment on people in vulnerable situations, especially women.
My constituent asked me to make those points in the debate because of her concern, not only about what had happened to her but about what might happen to other women in other circumstances. I welcome the Bill in so far as it fulfils the purpose of the Stalking Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, but not in so far as it poses enormously extended threats to civil liberties as a result of what the Government have done with it.
We welcome the aspects of the Bill designed to try to overcome a serious and grievous matter affecting many women in this country—and also, strangely enough, men. As the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) said, stalking is a frequent problem. I hope that the knowledge that the Bill exists and that the powers exist under the Bill will encourage women to complain to the police. Let us hope that the police devote sufficient priority to the matter to take action on such cases, because failure to do so affects the well-being not only of the woman but of her family, her extended family and the whole community.
Legislation that is rushed through the House tends to be bad legislation. On this occasion, there was no need for a rush, but we have a Home Secretary who always seeks party advantage in preference to good government.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) introduced her Stalking Bill, the Government would have had no difficulty in ensuring that it became a good Bill and passed through the House; but no—the Government preferred to block it and claim that they were doing something different.
That is the Bill's tragedy. By the time my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen had introduced her Bill, it was obvious that stalking had become a problem and needed to be tackled. When a private Member introduces a Bill, it receives a Second Reading and goes into Committee. Then discussions take place between the promoter and the Government. Almost every clause of the original Bill is dropped, a series of new clauses appears and the Bill emerges from Committee, improved yet managing to fulfil the promoter's original intention.
If such proper scrutiny had taken place, we would now have a useful measure on the statute book. Sadly, the Home Secretary did not want the chance of a Labour Member being responsible for passing legislation on stalking; he wanted to claim the credit. He produced a discussion document. There was a lengthy charade about whether the Government would promote legislation. Finally, we got the Bill. We have 10 days in which to examine it.
I do not complain that hon. Members have only 10 days in which to examine the Bill, but I do complain that people outside this place have little time in which to do so. It is surprising how difficult it is to get hold of a Bill like this, to study it, to work out whether it will meet one's circumstances and to lobby Members of Parliament to ensure that it does the task.
Holding Report stage immediately after Committee stage does not provide enough time—not because, in Committee, Members often do a great deal to improve the Bill, but because often the amendments that they table force Ministers into a discussion with civil servants and draftspersons, to make the Bill that crucial bit better. I suspect that, if we rush this legislation through, we shall not produce a good Bill.
I am disappointed that the Home Secretary's approach is to produce a vague Bill, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen said, will be filled out as a result of case law. But we are told that there is a problem now, and we want to provide some certainty for people who are distressed and upset about being stalked. They should be relieved now, without having to take their case all the way to the Appeal Court. My hon. Friend attempted to make the original Bill clear so that anybody could understand it.
If a police officer trying to advise somebody picks up this Bill, he cannot say that certain behaviour is all right, because it will have to be tested in the courts. This is not a particularly good document for the police to use; it is certainly not a good document for a lawyer to use when advising somebody. Lawyers always say "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". We want clarity and we do not get it from this Bill.
My next complaint is that the problem will not be solved simply by changing the law; we need more resources. The Government claim that very few cases will be involved. If that is so, the legislation will not meet the needs that exist out there in the country. If there are more cases than the Government say, from where will the resources come? Either the police will not use the legislation, in which case there is no point in us passing it, or they will have to take resources from somewhere else. If the legislation is to work, we need more resources.
I wish to ask the Home Secretary about the exemption if someone is behaving reasonably. Many people are involved in harassing other people and do it perfectly legitimately. The Leader of the Opposition tries to harass the Prime Minister, and I am sure that no one would complain about that. Most Members of Parliament try to harass Ministers, and it is our job to do so. Most hon. Members will admit to harassing a fair number of civil servants and officials in their constituencies to get justice for their constituents.
The housing officers in Thameside and Stockport must sometimes feel, when I ring them up and bend their ears, that I am harassing and pressing them. I think that that is perfectly legitimate and that I could defend my behaviour. Most people would say that it is reasonable for a Member of Parliament to act in that way on behalf of his or her constituents to put right an injustice.
What about a constituent who tries to put right an injustice for himself? Does he has the same defence? This seems to be one of the problems. If someone can say that he is a debt collector and operating as such, his behaviour will be acceptable when he harasses people to pay their debts. But what happens if an individual tries to get people to settle their debts?
Recently, a constituent had some work done by a local builder whose standard of work was appalling. He went to the small claims court and was awarded money, but then the builder said that he was not Joe Bloggs the builder but John Jones the builder. Everyone knows the trick: builders move easily from one business to the next, leaving their debts behind them. My constituent followed that individual around for a week and every person that the builder talked to was handed a note by my constituent explaining his claim for money. Eventually, he got his money. I think that that was harassment, but justified harassment. I am concerned that my constituent, acting as an individual to try to get that money, could not claim that he was a professional debt collector.
What about the Child Support Agency? That government body has the right to sue people for money, but what about an individual who feels that the CSA is not doing enough and wants to provide extra evidence to it? Would that be legitimate?
What about journalists? Moreover, when is a journalist a journalist, and when is he not? If he or she has full-time paid employment, there will be little doubt, but if he or she is freelance there are difficulties. A particular problem for a journalist is that, with hindsight, all sorts of things can be seen to be unreasonable but at the time it may have seemed to the journalist that they were reasonable.
What about writers? We often read articles in newspapers saying that a certain biography was authorised and they usually say what a nice person the subject was, but how legitimately can someone trying to produce an unauthorised biography go about collecting information under this legislation, and when does it become harassment?
I could give many more examples, but the Government must deal with the question of the defence of someone pursuing a legitimate occupation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he would be on to a better point if he explained that, as the word "reasonable" is understood in different ways by different people in different circumstances, the real criticism of this part of the Bill is that it will provide endless work for lawyers, at considerable public cost?
I fully accept that point. As I said at the beginning, it is important to be clear so that people know what they are entitled to do. They should not have to wait until lawyers have made a lot of money out of this matter and until there have been 20 cases over five or six years to establish what the law is.
It was claimed that the Bill would cover harassment by groups. I am not sure how that will work, and I hope that the Minister will explain. The last two cases of racial harassment with which I dealt involved not just one individual but a group of people—five or six—living in the same street who all behaved in a racist way towards someone attempting to move into that street. I should have thought that one or two of the people involved might be involved in two or more incidents, but I suspect that encouragement of collective action was the problem.
More recently, I tried to persuade one of my constituents to give evidence in a particularly nasty case. The intimidation that he suffered as a witness was carried out not by one individual but by a group of people who all believed that they liked the accused person and wanted to make things as difficult as possible for anybody acting as a witness.
I want a clear statement from the Home Secretary that the Bill will not be used against protesters. This country has always believed in freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate. There seems to be a narrow line between protesting and demonstrating, and harassment. I hope that the Minister will make that clear.
I wish to tell the House about two incidents in my constituency where I believe that what is needed are resources rather than legislation. Not long ago, a reasonable couple came to see me at my advice bureau in Reddish and said what terrible neighbours they had. There had been a dispute about a boundary fence and their neighbour had acted utterly unreasonably and outrageously. I must admit that I believed that, from what was described to me, the neighbour had behaved outrageously. I went on to my second advice bureau, which I do in the evening, at Denton, where another reasonable couple came to see me and said that their neighbours were utterly unreasonable and had behaved outrageously. The two couples lived next door to each other and were describing each other. Had I heard only one story, I would have been convinced that someone should take action on that couple's behalf against the neighbours.
The problem with those situations is that there is a good chance that the police or lawyers will hear only one side of the story. The only advice I could give to the couples once I knew the situation was that they should move, but of course both couples thought that the other couple should move. It will be difficult to resolve the issue satisfactorily, although the four people are all reasonable except when involved in that neighbours' dispute. If we had the resources for a conciliation service, it could bring the four together and explain to them all that they are harassing their neighbours and that, if they cannot come to some accommodation, the only solution is for one pair to move.
The final example I wish to mention is that of a young lady who came to see me with a worrying case. She described how she was being followed and said that there were people spying on her. I assumed, as she talked, that she was suffering from paranoia and that she did not have a case, but I agreed to take it up with the police and social security. I wrote to both services asking them to confirm that they were not carrying out surveillance and, much to my surprise, someone from the social security fraud squad rang me up and said, "Look, I should not really tell you this, but we have made a terrible mistake in this case. We have been carrying out surveillance because we thought she was claiming benefit while she was working, but we now know the whole history of the case. The police were making inquiries because they thought that she was involved in illegal activities." In that case, because I found out the full story, I was able to tell my constituent that there had been a mistake, people had been following her for what they thought were legitimate reasons and it would all stop.
The problem with the legislation is that various people are exempt, but how will individuals be told that whoever is following them is exempt? That will be difficult, because people might have legitimate worries that they are being harassed and the only way to tell them that that is not happening would be to say that a government agency had been carrying out surveillance on them and causing them upset unnecessarily. The Government must consider how information will be passed on in those circumstances to reassure people that what they believe to be harassment is not harassment, but the Government legitimately checking up on them. In most cases, either the surveillance will result in a prosecution because the person was committing some offence or that person can be assured that it has stopped.
It is unfortunate that the measure is being rushed through the House. We should have had much more time for scrutiny. I hope that we can pursue some of the amendments and that, as has happened so often when legislation has been rushed through the House, the real scrutiny will take place in the House of Lords. I hope that the Lords will show more vigour than is likely to be shown in the Commons.
I wish to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the Home Secretary and everyone who has contributed to the debate for their gracious comments about my attempts earlier this year to try to do something about the important issue of stalking. I also wish to place on record the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn made clear, we support the Bill and are anxious to see it on the statute book as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who is not in his place, referred to men being stalked. He is right; and I have corresponded with a number of men who have been stalked. The problem is predominantly faced by women, but I notice that, in The Independent the other day, there was a letter from a woman who was being stalked by another woman. Clearly the crime is no respecter of gender.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) spoke about the extent of agreement on the Bill, and I endorse his comments. It is welcome when we are able to co-operate across the Floor of the House, and I am sure that the public would welcome it if we did it a bit more often. My hon. Friend is well known for his long interest in the private security industry. He has continued to press for regulation of that industry, as recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is chaired by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). We hope that, one day, the Government will introduce such regulation.
The hon. and learned Member for Burton gave me much encouragement in my efforts, and I am grateful. I learned much from him when I was a member of the Select Committee that he chairs so expertly, but he referred disingenuously to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn as causing mischief. I can assure him that that was not the intention of my hon. Friend. There is still some concern that the Bill will cause problems for journalists. I have a copy of a letter from the Guild of Editors, which states:
The Guild remains concerned at the ease with which the Bill's provisions could be used to curb the media rather than protect the victims of stalking.
May I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock)—who has temporarily left her place—how much I welcome her party's support for action to tackle stalking, which seemed to appear at its recent annual conference. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) mentioned the problem of neighbours. He might like to read the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn in our "Quiet Life" document, which would tackle the neighbour problems of which he spoke.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke, rightly, of the need for greater detail and stricter definition. None of us could have failed to be moved by his horrific tale about the case in his constituency. Like him, I hope that women will be encouraged to go to the police and to complain as a result of this and, I hope, future legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke about private Members' Bills and how they have sometimes managed to reach the statute book with the right spirit of cross-party co-operation. I could not agree more with what he said.
It is unusual, but welcome, that, in a Chamber so dominated by men, we should debate an issue of serious concern to women. The Police Federation estimates that 3,000 people fall victim to stalkers every year and that the overwhelming majority of them are women. As with domestic violence—also largely a crime committed by men against women—there has perhaps been a reluctance for too long to address the menace of stalking.
I am sure that those witnessing the debate today, especially the victims of stalkers, wonder why it has taken so long to get round to doing anything about a problem that causes such misery to thousands of women. Women have seen their relationships torn apart and their children taken into care because they have suffered such enormous psychological damage that they can no longer cope. Women have been made afraid to venture out alone and too frightened to pick up the telephone. Women's lives have been left in tatters by the torment they have suffered at the hands of stalkers.
Each year, the women on the Opposition Benches try to mark International Women's Day by highlighting issues of concern to women. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) secured a slot for a ten-minute
Bill in March. In a spirit that I suspect is more common among Labour Members than Conservative, she asked me to use it to introduce a Bill to combat stalking. That Bill, as we know, was blocked by the Government on 10 May. I recently asked the Home Secretary why the Government felt that any differences between us about the contents of my Bill could not have been resolved in Committee. He replied that
there was no time and there would not have been full and proper consultation."—[Official Report, 28 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 336.]
However, it has taken the Government a full nine months to come forward with their proposals.
If a week is a long time in politics, nine months must have seemed like an eternity for the victims of stalkers. As for consultation, the Home Secretary and his colleagues know that we consulted widely on my Bill before it was published. We took advice from the police, from lawyers who had been involved in stalking cases, from the Home Secretary's officials at the Home Office—at the express invitation of the Minister of State—from the Lord Chancellor, from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and from the national anti-stalking and harassment campaign. Most important, we consulted the victims of stalkers. We even consulted Conservative Members, and I have their replies in front of me. The hon. and learned Member for Burton made a number of suggestions that we were careful to include in the final draft.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) wrote to me on 2 May, commenting on the draft Bill that I had sent her. She said:
Dear Janet, Thank you for your note re: Stalking. It looks fine to me!
In his letter to me of 4 May, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) said:
Thank you for sending me a copy of your draft Bill on stalking. I think this is a very good effort and provides a very good basis for discussion with the Minister at the Home Office.
What did the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), say about the Bill, for he too was sent a draft of it on 22 April, two weeks before it was published? He declined to comment until the eve of the Second Reading—no doubt he was consulting. He said that he regretted that the scope of my Bill was "too wide". He continued:
It could mean that innocent people going about their lawful business would find themselves branded as criminals.
He also said:
I do not think there is a political difference between us.
Is he not aware that it is widely believed that a political difference prevented the Government from working with us nine months ago to provide relief for the victims of stalking?
It is also widely believed that the Home Secretary could not stomach the idea of backing a Labour Bill. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), the duty Government Whip, was moved to shout, "Object," on 10 May to block our Stalking Bill. He has now received his reward and stepped neatly into the ministerial shoes of the dissembling hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts).
If the hon. Gentleman listens, he might learn something. The hon. Member for Havant truly learned the lesson: "Never put in writing what you would not wish to see reprinted on the front page of The Sun." We cannot know how many victims could have been helped sooner. In the absence of a specific anti-stalking law, it has been difficult for victims to seek redress other than through charges such as grievous bodily harm. That has inevitably taken up hours of the courts' time while lawyers argued that the charge covered psychological harm. It worked in the case of Peri Southall, who was stalked by Clarence Morris; he was found guilty. It worked also for Tracy Sant, who had endured three years of mental torture during a campaign of harassment and intimidation by Anthony Burstow, but it took five days of tortuous legal wrangling to get a conviction.
It did not work for Margaret Bent, who was allegedly stalked by Dennis Chambers during an unrelenting four-year campaign that began simply after he saw her in the street. Dennis Chambers, who offered no defence to the charge of causing Miss Bent grievous bodily harm, walked free and Margaret Bent faced the added ordeal of being cross-examined by Chambers, who chose to defend himself. It is no wonder that Margaret's mother was moved to say:
I hope the judge and the jury some day experience what I have experienced with my daughter. He made her life a hell for four years, not only hers but everyone in her family and her friends".
Margaret Bent is one woman who might have been sleeping easier in her bed tonight if something had been done sooner to help the victims of stalking. However, the stalking menace was ideal for the kind of action that the Home Secretary likes to unveil at Conservative party conferences—and that is what he did.
If the Minister will be more patient, he will understand my reasons for repeating the Home Secretary's words. At the party conference, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said:
There is one group of offenders from whom the public needs special protection. Stalkers. They can make a woman's life a misery … Terrified prisoners of someone else's obsession. We need quick and effective remedies for the less serious cases. And tough sanctions for the most serious. And today I can announce that we shall have them. Women deserve that protection … And I will make sure they get it.
The explanatory note for editors, appended to the Home Secretary's speech, clearly stated:
The Government proposes to deal with the menace of stalking through a combination of civil and criminal remedies".
We could have been forgiven for believing that the much-trumpeted commitment would be included in the Queen's Speech—that the Government might keep their promise and bring forward their own legislation—but no, the measure was consigned to a private Member's Bill.
How strange it is that what could not be achieved by a private Member's Bill many months before would now be tackled in precisely that manner. Only when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition showed his readiness to put party politics aside, was the Prime Minister forced to concede that the Government would introduce their own legislation. I suspect that that was as much a surprise for the Home Secretary as it was for us.
At last we have the Bill before us today. In May, the Home Secretary said:
the Government had been preparing its own legislation to counter the menace of stalking for some time".
He described my Bill as, "rushed, botched and unworkable" but, in the end, he has brought forward a Bill that is remarkably similar. In May, the Home Secretary said:
as soon as we are satisfied that we have a workable definition of the crime, we will legislate".
Surprisingly, he has now introduced a Bill with practically no definition at all. Seemingly any activity that a court "reasonably" decides is harassment is just that, and if a court thinks that certain activities were causing fear of violence, they were. Ministers claimed that our definition was unworkable, but theirs is virtually non-existent.
There can be no clearer example of the Opposition leading where the Government have failed to act. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition famously said, he leads his party—in contrast to the Prime Minister, who follows his. On guns, knives, paedophiles, criminally anti-social neighbours and stalking, Labour has led the way. I am sure that the lesson is not lost on a country that looks increasingly to the Opposition for constructive law and order solutions.
With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.
We have just heard a ludicrous speech that was unworthy of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). She claimed credit a moment ago for the Leader of the Opposition, who she said had put party politics aside in his speech on the Loyal Address. That accusation could never be levelled at the hon. Lady in light of her contribution.
The truth about the matter that we are debating this evening is that stalking is a serious menace from which countless women, in particular, suffer greatly. Nothing could do more harm to those women than to cobble together an unprepared Bill, rush it on to the statute book, and pretend that it offered them relief. Earlier today, I paid tribute to the hon. Lady and congratulated her on raising the matter last year in her private Member's Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) said in his letter—which the hon. Lady quoted in her speech—the Bill provided a useful basis for discussion with Ministers.
We discussed the issue with her, but her Bill would not have provided an adequate statutory remedy to the mischief with which we all want to deal. It was deficient in a number of respects, which I identified with some precision earlier this afternoon. It does no one any justice to gather an absolute farrago of inaccuracies in an attempt to demonstrate that the Government's reaction to the hon. Lady's Bill last year was based on a desire—the hon. Lady made this specific accusation—not to support an Opposition private Member's Bill. What utter nonsense.
Let me give the hon. Lady an example from this Session. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray) introduced a private Member's Bill on knives. He and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, "We should like to introduce a Bill on knives, and this is the Bill we want." They showed us the Bill and we said, "We don't think much of your Bill, because we don't think it would work. We are keen to help you if you want to put a sensible measure to deal with knives on the statute book, and we will provide you with a Bill." That is exactly what we did.
With the Government's full support, the hon. Gentleman, who came first in the private Members' ballot—a Labour Member—introduced a Bill on knives, which was drafted and proposed by the Government. We do not have the slightest difficulty supporting a Bill proposed by a Labour Member. To suggest the contrary is completely untrue from start to finish. The hon. Lady should know that, and she should know better than to make disgraceful accusations, as she did during her appalling speech.
The hon. Lady is giggling away on the Front Bench. She had the temerity to claim that she had consulted the National Anti-stalking and Harassment Campaign. I have the specific authority of its director to say that she rejects very strongly the idea that the hon. Lady consulted that body about her stalking proposals. That was simply not the case, and that fact should be placed on the record.
I remind the hon. Lady exactly why her Bill was defective. In the first place, it would not have provided a defence for people who are engaged in legitimate activities, such as journalists and others who have been mentioned by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). In that respect, it was too wide. We had to give the matter a great deal of thought, and to consult carefully before we were able to propose a solution to that problem.
In another respect, the hon. Lady's Bill was too narrow, because it proceeded by way of a list of examples of conduct that would constitute stalking. The trouble with such a list is that, although the Bill may say—as hers did—that the list is without prejudice to the generality of the scope of the clause, such matters are subject to principles of statutory construction and interpretation.
One of those principles—if the hon. Lady is interested—is called the ejusdem generis rule, which requires such a list to be construed as though it could be extended to cover things of the same nature as those in the list. As the list in the hon. Lady's Bill concentrated entirely on activities characteristic of classic stalking, it would not have covered activities that constitute racial harassment or that come under the heading of harassment of one neighbour by another. That is the truth of the matter.
No, not until I have finished making this point.
Many people will welcome the fact that our Bill gives protection to victims of racial harassment and to the victims of the activities of noisy neighbours. They will not have counted it an advantage of the hon. Lady's Bill that it excluded such activities.
May I reaffirm what the right hon. and learned Gentleman clearly understands? I want to put on record the fact that my Bill was never intended to deal with the problems of criminally anti-social neighbours and racial harassment. As I am sure he knows, the Opposition have for some time had proposals on those matters. We are pleased that the Government have at last addressed those problems and have copied many of our proposals.
Let me explain the deficiencies of the hon. Lady's approach in words that are more pointed and eloquent than any I could devise. At the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conference in October, a victim of a stalker told my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, "If you have a list of activities which you ban, my stalker will simply sit down and work out another activity with which to torment me." That was the deficiency of the hon. Lady's Bill, and the present Bill seeks to remedy that.
I shall give way in a moment.
It was worth waiting a few months—not many months—to prepare proper and effective legislation, which I believe we have achieved with our Bill.
I refer the Home Secretary to the definition in my Bill. Indeed it had a list—it drew on the experience of other countries that have anti-stalking laws—but it was not exhaustive. We were careful to include a catch-all phrase, which was presumably why he said at the time that the Bill was drawn too widely. It referred to a person who
does any other act or acts in connection with another person so as to be reasonably likely to cause that other person to feel harassed, alarmed, distressed
and so on.
I emphasise the fact that the list was not exhaustive. Perhaps the victim who spoke to the Minister of State at the conference did not understand that.
I fear that it is the hon. Lady who does not understand. I shall explain it to her yet again. We said that her Bill was too wide—not because of the clause to which she has just referred, but because it did not provide a defence to people engaged in legitimate activities. I have already said that twice, and this is the third time. I shall say it a fourth time if necessary, but that is the truth of the matter.
The clause to which the hon. Lady referred would not have provided a solution to the problem that I identified earlier. Lists are construed according to the nature of the activities that are put in them. That is the deficiency of the list approach, which is why we said, correctly, that the hon. Lady's Bill was too narrow in that respect.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is jumping from place to place. He referred to the ejusdem generis rule in relation to racial harassment. My hon. Friend's Bill stated specifically that all other matters that reflect stalking would be included. The ejusdem generis rule would have covered that.
It would not have covered that, because the ejusdem generis rule means that the list is interpreted and constructed in accordance with the nature of the activities that are identified. It is the hon. Gentleman who is rushing about all over the place. He is trying to contend that his hon. Friend's Bill would have covered racial harassment. The hon. Lady herself has just argued that she never intended that her Bill should cover racial harassment. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.
I did not say that. I specifically said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he was jumping the ground by saying that my hon. Friend's Bill was not covered by the rule because it included racial harassment. We said specifically that it did not include racial harassment, so the rule applied.
That is precisely why the Bill was too narrow. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is getting so excited about that. It was too narrow because it did not cover those other activities from which people suffer a great deal of harm, which give rise to a great deal of mischief and for which Parliament should provide a remedy. That is why our Bill deals with those aspects of the mischief, and specifically provides remedies for those problems.
My hon. Friend needs no help at all. Indeed, given that she was making, as it were, her maiden speech from the Dispatch Box, I think that she has done very well. Certainly she does not need my help; my purpose is to help the Home Secretary.
Will the Home Secretary make it clear once and for all whether he thinks that the scope of my hon. Friend's Bill was too wide, or whether he thinks that it was too narrow? He has made both allegations in the space of two minutes. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like to hear this, but the Home Secretary said that my hon. Friend's Bill was defective in that it would not allow people going about their legitimate business to do so. What does he think was the purpose of clause 4 of that Bill? The clause stated:
No person acting under statutory or other lawful authority insofar as he acts within that authority shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.
Does that not constitute an exception and a defence? Precisely the problem that the Home Secretary said existed in my hon. Friend's Bill was covered in it.
I will explain—for, I think, the fifth time. The hon. Lady's Bill was too wide in one respect, and too narrow in another. It was too narrow because of the list, as I have just said, and it was too wide because it did not provide a defence for those who were engaged in legitimate activities but not under any statutory authority. A journalist who may be pursuing an investigation is certainly not acting under any such authority. This Bill, however, deals specifically with the matter by setting a standard: whether it is reasonable for someone to act in such a way in the circumstances. That is entirely different from the misconceived approach adopted in the hon. Lady's Bill, which would not have worked. [Interruption.] The approach to which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) keeps referring would not have achieved that objective, for reasons that I have explained very clearly.
I owe the hon. Lady an apology: I had not appreciated that this was her maiden speech from the Front Bench. I welcome her to the Front Bench, and trust that the other speeches that she will make from it in due course will be a substantial improvement on her effort tonight.
I fear that my right hon. and learned Friend is, characteristically, being too kind to the hon. Lady. Did her Bill not contain two serious deficiencies that he has not mentioned? It would have made the same penalty available for both stalking causing harassment and the other offence of stalking causing fear for safety, which would obviously not have been very sensible. Moreover, the hon. Lady's Bill was intended to reverse the burden of proof: the defence would have had to prove that the defendant did not know that his actions would have the alleged effect. That would have delayed the Bill considerably, because if anything causes controversy in this place, it is the reversal of the burden of proof.
My hon. and learned Friend is right, but it would take me a long time to list all the many imperfections in the hon. Lady's Bill. I was concentrating on the main structural weaknesses—the weaknesses of principle—and trying to explain why we needed to take some time to consider these matters carefully and to consult widely. That is the basis on which we have been able to present proposals that will not disappoint the many women who suffer as a result of the activities that the legislation is designed to remedy. Our proposals will not dash their hopes, or give rise to false hopes by enacting legislation that would be imperfect and would not work; they will lead to the enactment of effective legislation that will give those women—and not only women, as we have heard—the remedy to which they are entitled.
On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House. I believe that it will significantly help victims of the kind of activity that gives concern to hon. Members in all parties.