Sadly, I do not have the legislation in front of me, so I cannot comment. No, I will not accept the noble Lord’s offer of taking his iPad to look at the legislation. I do not think that that is reasonable in all the circumstances.
If we accept that this is a reasonable way to approach the issue—that someone does not commit an offence if they have a reasonable excuse—what, then, is the difference between that and a journalist or academic being able to access material on the internet? They would be safe in the knowledge that, provided the purpose for visiting a website containing information that might be of use to a terrorist was reasonable and legitimate, they would not commit an offence.
I argue that the only difference is that here someone is entering into or remaining on a designated website rather than a designated area. Websites that contain information that might be of use to a terrorist are, if you will, designated areas of the internet, so that entering or remaining on that website is an offence. Our Amendment 4 would ensure that it would be an offence only if a person collected, made a record of, possessed a document relating to, viewed or otherwise accessed by means of the internet information of use to a terrorist and they did not have a reasonable excuse for having or accessing that information.
Turning to Amendment 3, similar arguments apply to the innocent or inadvertent publication of an image of a uniform or a flag. The ISIS flag on a friend’s bedroom wall that goes unnoticed when a selfie is posted on Facebook, which may well arouse reasonable suspicion that those in the picture support a proscribed organisation, could very well be an innocent or stupid mistake. Should the young person responsible be able to provide a simple and compelling excuse for his actions to the police officer on the doorstep rather than in an interview under caution, would that not be a better outcome?
There is nothing to be lost in having offences that are only offences if there is no reasonable excuse for the suspect’s actions. Police officers who fail to be convinced that the excuse is reasonable at the time they decide to make the arrest or who feel that the excuse might sound reasonable but needs to be verified would still have reasonable cause to suspect that the person might have committed an offence and arrest the person if it is necessary and proportionate to do so. However, it also provides the person accused of committing the offence with a legal remedy, and the police with a good reason to act reasonably, if there is clearly a reasonable excuse that is blatantly obvious and easily verifiable at the time of the arrest, yet the person is still deprived of their liberty.
I admit that the designated area offence and the obtaining or viewing of material offences have a more compelling claim for a “reasonable excuse means no offence” modification but there are circumstances where there might be a reasonable excuse for publishing an image in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation when they are neither of those things, and this will be immediately apparent to the officer sent to investigate. In my view, it is too late in the chain of events that could ensue for the reasonable excuse to be available only as a defence once charged.
No doubt the Government will say that the police can be trusted not to arrest in circumstances where a reasonable excuse is immediately apparent. With over 30 years of police experience and having witnessed at first hand the devastating consequences of innocent people being arrested and detained on the flimsiest of evidence, I am very concerned about the potential for abuse that this legislation as currently drafted provides.
Unless the Government can provide compelling reasons as to why the reasonable excuse defence should not engage at the beginning of the investigative process rather than at the end, I suggest that they might want to consider these arguments and undertake to discuss them further with interested Peers before Third Reading. If, however, when we come to debate his amendment in the fifth group, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, decides that in the case of designated areas the arguments are compelling and the Minister’s response is inadequate, we will support him if he decides to divide the House on that issue. I beg to move.