Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 3rd December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 4:15 pm, 3rd December 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for taking us through an explanation of his amendment and explaining them with reference to Amendment 15 and his point about people who have a reasonable excuse.

In relation to viewing terrorist information in Clause 3 and entering or remaining in a designated area in Clause 4, the amendments would reconfigure the offences. Rather than the person who committed the offence of engaging in prohibited conduct being acquitted because they use the defence of having a reasonable excuse, there would instead be an exception—they would not be capable of committing the offence in the first place in circumstances where they have a reasonable excuse.

In relation to the offence of publishing images under Clause 2, there is currently no reasonable excuse defence. Rather, the offence is committed only if an image of an article is published in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Amendment 3 would insert the same reasonable excuse exception that I have just described, which would operate in addition to the reasonable suspicion requirement concerning the circumstances in which the image is published.

Noble Lords have set out their arguments that there should be, at the outset, no question that a person might be guilty of an offence if they have a reasonable excuse for engaging in the activity covered by these offences. It has been argued that that approach will prevent the CPS from charging a person in these circumstances rather than the person potentially being charged and then having to invoke a reasonable excuse defence. I recognise that the approach of structurally rearranging the legislation may seemingly provide a greater degree of comfort to a person who finds themselves under suspicion in respect of one of these offences despite having a reasonable excuse, but I am not persuaded that these amendments would secure the outcome sought in relation to Clauses 3 and 4.

Amendments 4, 5, 8 and 9 are unnecessary as they would, in practice, make no material difference to the position of subjects of investigations and of defendants facing a charge under these clauses or on the matters that the prosecution will need to prove and that the court will need to resolve.

We have debated how the existing safeguards influence investigative and prosecutorial discretion, and how they prevent cases from proceeding where there is evidence that the person has a reasonable excuse. The amendments in my name which expand on these provisions in Clauses 3 and 4, and which we will shortly come to, will strengthen these safeguards further by providing indicative lists of reasonable excuses.

I shall go briefly over this ground again. Charges may be brought only if the CPS determines that the full code test is met. This is met only if there is evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction, and if so, whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. Those are very important points. If there is evidence to suggest that the person has a reasonable excuse for engaging in the otherwise prohibited conduct, there will not be a reasonable prospect of conviction because they will be able to successfully invoke the reasonable excuse defence. Furthermore, it would not be in the public interest and would be fundamentally inappropriate for prosecutors to charge a person who they believe is likely to be innocent of any criminal conduct as a result of having such a defence. The effect of this is the same as that envisaged by the noble Lord’s amendments. In either case, the CPS will not bring a prosecution if there is evidence that the person has a reasonable excuse which the CPS considers could not be disproved by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt.

Furthermore, neither the existing model nor that proposed by the noble Lord provide immunity from either investigation or prosecution purely on the basis that the person states that they have a reasonable excuse. Under either model, the police will need to investigate the person to establish what activity they have been involved in and whether they may have a reasonable excuse for it, and to gather evidence.

It will rightly remain open to the CPS to prosecute if it believes, following the investigation by the police and on the basis of the evidence gathered, that the person does not have a reasonable excuse, despite any assertion that the person might make to the contrary. Under either model it would then be for the person to advance their reasonable excuse, for the prosecution to disprove it beyond reasonable doubt, and ultimately for the jury to determine whether or not it is a reasonable excuse. Unless we were to introduce a unilateral immunity from prosecution for any person who declares themselves to be innocent, this must always be the position and the noble Lord’s amendments would not change it.

Although these amendments would not make a significant change to the practical operation of the law in this area, they would depart from the commonly taken approach in the criminal law where offences provide a reasonable excuse defence. In particular, they would overturn what is a well understood and settled position, with clear case law, in relation to Section 58 of the Terrorism Act, which Clause 3 amends. I do not think that it would be wise to do so unless there was a very persuasive case for it, which I do not think is being made here.

I turn finally to Amendment 3. Clause 2 in its current form does not make any provision in relation to reasonable excuses. But it is not an offence of strict liability and it cannot be committed by the mere fact of publishing an image. Rather, it is committed only in particular circumstances which the prosecution is required to prove beyond reasonable doubt. These are where the image is published in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.

We have previously debated the operation of this aspect of Clause 2, and I am happy to reiterate the Government’s clear position that it will provide both certainty and protection for those who have a legitimate reason to publish images of flags or other articles associated with proscribed organisations, and who are not themselves members or supporters of the organisation. This clear limitation on the scope of the offence is the best way to provide a safeguard for individuals such as journalists or historians, and the addition of a reasonable excuse provision is not necessary in addition. Indeed, it would be likely to overcomplicate and undermine the operation of the offence.

The Government do not consider that a person should in fact have a reasonable excuse for publishing such an image in circumstances which do not meet the criteria of the offence; that is to say, where a court is satisfied that the circumstances do give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. Indeed, I would query whether there is a scenario which would not be covered by the existing safeguard but which should be considered a reasonable excuse. I cannot think of one. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.