New Clause 6 - Police directions stopping the harassment etc of a person in his home

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 6th March 2001.

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`.—(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, a constable who is at the scene may give a direction under this section to any person if—

(a) that person is present outside or in the vicinity of any premises that are used by any individual (``the victim'') as his dwelling;

(b) that constable believes, on reasonable grounds, that that person is present there for the purpose (by his presence or otherwise) of representing to the victim or another individual (whether or not one who uses the premises as his dwelling), or of persuading the victim or such another individual—

(i) that he should not do something that he is entitled or required to do; or

(ii) that he should do something that he is not under any obligation to do;

(c) that constable also believes, on reasonable grounds, that the presence of that person (either alone or together with that of any other persons who are also present)—

(i) amounts to, or is likely to result in, the harassment of the victim; or

(ii) is likely to cause alarm or distress to the victim.

(2) A direction under this section is a direction requiring the person to whom it is given to do all such things as the constable giving it may specify as the things he considers necessary to prevent one or both of the following—

(a) the harassment of the victim; or

(b) the causing of any alarm or distress to the victim.

(3) A direction under this section may be given orally; and where a constable is entitled to give a direction under this section to each of several persons outside, or in the vicinity of, any premises, he may give that direction to those persons by notifying them of his requirements either individually or all together.

(4) The requirements that may be imposed by a direction under this section include a requirement to leave the vicinity of the premises in question (either immediately or after a specified period of time).

(5) A direction under this section may make exceptions to any requirement imposed by the direction, and may make any such exception subject to such conditions as the constable giving the direction thinks fit; and those conditions may include—

(a) conditions as to the distance from the premises in question at which, or otherwise as to the location where, persons who do not leave their vicinity must remain; and

(b) conditions as to the number or identity of the persons who are authorised by the exception to remain in the vicinity of those premises.

(6) The power of a constable to give a direction under this section shall not include—

(a) any power to give a direction at any time when there is a more senior-ranking police officer at the scene; or

(b) any power to direct a person to refrain from conduct that is lawful under section 220 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (right peacefully to picket a work place);

but it shall include power to vary or withdraw a direction previously given under this section.

(7) Any person who knowingly contravenes a direction given to him under this section shall be guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale, or to both.

(8) A constable in uniform may arrest without warrant any person he reasonably suspects is committing an offence under this section.

(9) In this section ``dwelling'' has the same meaning as in Part I of the Public Order Act 1986.'.—[Mr. Charles Clarke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following: Government new clause 7—Malicious communications—

`.—(1) In subsection (1) of section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 (offence of sending letters and other articles with intent to cause distress or anxiety)—

(a) in paragraph (a), for ``letter or other article'' there shall be substituted ``letter, electronic communication or article of any description''; and

(b) in paragraph (b), for the word ``other article'' there shall be substituted ``article or electronic communication''.

(2) In subsection (2) of that section (defence of making a threat in the belief that it was a proper way of reinforcing a demand and that there were reasonable grounds for making that demand)—

(a) in paragraph (a), for ``which he believed he had reasonable grounds for making'' there shall be substituted ``made by him on reasonable grounds''; and

(b) in paragraph (b), after ``believed'' there shall be inserted ``, and had reasonable grounds for believing,''.

(3) After that subsection there shall be inserted—

``(2A) In this section `electronic communication' includes—

(a) any oral or other communication by means of a telecommunication system (within the meaning of the Telecommunications Act 1984); and

(b) any communication (however sent) that is in electronic form.

(4) In subsection (3) of that section (definition of ``send'')—

(a) after ``delivering'' there shall be inserted ``or transmitting''; and

(b) for ``or delivered'' there shall be substituted ``, delivered or transmitted''.

(5) In subsection (5) of that section (penalty for offence), for ``a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale'' there shall be substituted ``imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both''.

(6) Subsection (5) does not affect the penalty for an offence committed before the day on which this Act is passed.'.

And the following amendment thereto: (a), at end of subsection (2) insert—

`.—``(2ZA) No defence under subsection (2) above is provided where the threat conveyed is a threat of an action which if carried out would be an offence under any other Act.''.'.

Government new clause 20—Addresses of directors and secretaries of companies.

New clause 14—Fear of Violence—

`.—Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 shall be amended in subsection(1) by leaving out the words ``on at least two occasions''.'.

New clause 15—Conspiracy—

`.—After section 4 of the Protection for Harassment Act 1997 there shall be inserted the following section—

``Conspiracy

4A. Where two or more persons agree to organise or plan the commission by any other persons or by themselves a course of conduct contrary to Section 1 and Section 4 of this Act, they shall be guilty of the offence of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question contrary to the Criminal Law Act 1977 Section 1.''.'.

New clause 19—Increase in sentences for hate crimes—

`—(1) This section applies where a court is considering the seriousness of any offence.

(2) If the offence was aggravated for the purposes of this section, the court—

(a) shall treat that fact as an aggravating factor (that is to say, a factor that increases the seriousness of the offence); and

(b) shall state in open court that the offence was so aggravated.

(3) An offence is aggravated for the purposes of this section if—

(a) at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrated towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim's actual or presumed sexual orientation, race, religion, gender or disability; or

(b) the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a group based on their sexual orientation, race, religion, gender or disability or based on their membership of, or association with, such a group.'.

Government amendments Nos. 176 and 243.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

The new clauses are important. We welcome the Opposition's decision to work within the framework of our guillotine resolutions in order to prioritise debate on the key issues. My hon. Friends have made similar arguments.

I shall deal first with Government amendments Nos. 176 and 243, which are relatively minor and relate to the commencement and extent of the measures. Amendment No. 176 provides that measures on police direction to stop harassment of a person in his home and malicious communications will come into force on Royal Assent. Measures to protect the victims of harassment will be available as soon as the Bill is passed. Amendment No. 243 extends the measures relating to companies, secretaries and directors to Great Britain.

On the more substantive provisions, I begin with new clause 6, which is an important element in the Government's package of measures to deal with the activities of animal rights so-called protesters. It will give the police powers to deal with protesters or others who attempt to harass, alarm or distress a person through their presence in the vicinity of his home. It is important to note that it is not an offence to be within the vicinity of the dwelling as such. An offence arises only if the police give a direction that is not complied with. The new clause can apply to any number of people from a single individual to a large group.

Subsection (1) makes it clear that the police officer must have reasonable grounds for believing that the person being directed is there for the purpose of persuading the victim or another individual either not to do something that he is entitled to do, or conversely to do something that he is under no obligation to do. The police officer must also believe that the presence of the person or people is likely to result in harassment or cause alarm and distress to the victim.

Subsections (2) to (5) deal with the nature of the directions, specifying that they can be given orally to individuals or a group, and that they can require the people directed to do whatever is thought necessary to prevent harassment, alarm or distress, including leaving the vicinity. Conditions can be attached to the directions, to allow a police officer to specify how far from the vicinity people must go, or that certain individuals may, by exception, remain in the area.

Subsection (6) restricts the power to make directions to the most senior police officer present at the time, and makes it clear that the power does not extend to giving directions to those who are lawfully carrying out a peaceful picket under section 220 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. If a person refuses to comply with a direction, subsection (7) makes him guilty of an offence and liable to a penalty of a level 4 fine and/or three months imprisonment on summary conviction.

The clause will allow the police to deal with people such as animal rights extremists who target individual researchers or company employees and cause great distress by gathering outside their homes. Their behaviour may fall short of the sort of threatening behaviour that is covered by the Public Order Act 1986 but, taken in the context of threats made in other places, and the knowledge that such people occasionally resort to criminal and violent acts, their mere presence can create a real sense of fear for their victims and their families.

Those powers may be of use in other situations. For instance, they would be available to deal with the mobs who have, in recent times, gathered outside the homes of supposed sex offenders—in some cases, as a result of mistaken identity—in an attempt to drive them out of their homes. However, we shall expect the police to exercise those powers with discretion; we have no reason to expect them to be used indiscriminately. They will provide a valuable addition to the police's repertoire of responses in cases when the threat to individuals is more insidious, but no less real, as it strikes at the heart of their home and family.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton 11:45 pm, 6th March 2001

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

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

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Later, I shall put our case about the nature of the legislation proposed.

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

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

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I shall come to that.

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

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

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

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I appreciate that, in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Hall Green, the Minister has moved on to a separate and important point, to which I will return when I speak to our new clauses, but I want to return his attention to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire about the concerns of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and other organisations. He will know that new clause 14 is intended to deal with the issue that my hon. Friend raised. I hope that before he finishes his remarks he will turn his mind to what he plans to say about our new clause on that point.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I shall turn my mind to that, but I shall do so, if I may, after I have finished moving our clause. I have been giving way, Mrs. Adams, because I thought that that would help the Committee's debate on new clause 6. [Interruption.] I shall give way a couple more times.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Hall Green. What would happen if Roger Cook, or the new Roger Cook replacement, my former employee Paul Kenyon—who has now received good coverage for ``Kenyon Confronts'' on Monday evening on BBC1, which I commend to the Committee—were, as he has successfully been doing, to expose issues while the person involved was, in the words of the provision, ``not under any obligation'' to say something?

For example, there might be no obligation to explain fraudulent dealing with people's investments, dealing in non-returnable defective goods or disappearing with people's property. Surely the person on the receiving end of that treatment is likely to be caused alarm or distress. The provision is not cumulative: harassment and alarm or distress do not have to be caused, just one or the other; and the alarm or distress do not have to be serious. The example given by me and the hon. Member for Hall Green would appear to be caught under the Bill; it would be quite possible for the police to prevent such activity continuing after they had given a warning, as a result of a telephone call from a rogue dealer, a rogue business person or some other person whom only effective journalism can counter.

I shall return later to the question whether Members of Parliament should be exempt—we should perhaps be less exempt than the Minister thinks, but that is a separate debate.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

There may be disagreement here. I do not think that there is an unqualified right of a journalist to do anything in our society. Some may say that there is, because the journalist is somehow a guardian of our democratic rights, and must therefore be allowed to do almost anything in pursuit of the ``truth'' that he is seeking to expose. I do not accept that; journalists must work within the law.

Much more difficult questions exist than those that we are discussing. We discussed the role of journalists when we debated the Bill that became the Terrorism Act 2000, where serious issues are involved. Only last week, when I was holding a press conference on the list of proscribed international organisations, I discussed with journalists from a number of organisations throughout the world how the Act might apply to them. Serious and difficult issues are involved.

I do not accept that Roger Cook, the friend of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey or anyone else has an unqualified right to do whatever he wants. Alarm, distress and harassment are bad things; the journalist has the right to ask but not to force an individual. That is important—it may be a point of difference between us, on which I am sure that we can elaborate in later debate—but I do not accept an unqualified right for journalists.

The legislation that we have reviewed includes the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and offences such as obstruction and breach of the peace; in fact, we have reviewed all the legislation involved. It is important to make it clear that we are proposing a police power rather than an offence. It will not require an overt threat of violence or specific intentions in courses of conduct; it will allow the police to direct people to move away, and arrest them if they do not.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Does the Minister agree that in addition to the activities of the various groups that he has discussed, one of the best things about new clause 6 is that it will restrict the disgraceful activities of hunt saboteurs?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman asserts that. I certainly think that some hunt saboteur activity is unacceptable, but I am not aware—the hon. Gentleman may correct me; I confess that I have not considered the situation in detail, so he may be better informed than I—of such people going to individuals' houses.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for example, had six members of a hunt saboteurs association on the roof of his private house for a week. That happens all the time; those people target Members of Parliament, in particular. My own private address is under surveillance from special branch as a result of threats against it.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I am grateful for that information. If individuals were targeted in the way that the hon. Gentleman implies, the new clause would have the effect that he describes.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I agree with a great deal of what the Minister says, but he should be aware that it is not simply Members of Parliament who are targeted by hunt saboteurs. He fairly conceded that he has not personally considered the matter. A number of individuals who have nothing to do with Parliament have been targeted in exactly the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

Within the county of Surrey, although outside my constituency, people who were erroneously thought to be connected to one of the Surrey hunts were targeted in a most unpleasant way. Cars were set on fire. One victim happened to be a retired doctor who had never had any connection with the hunt; one of his family had at some stage appeared on a list, and the hunt saboteurs erroneously thought that the elderly parents were in some way connected. It is as appalling as my hon. Friend says; it is by no means just Members of Parliament who are targeted, but often completely innocent members of the public who have no connection with hunting—and hunt staff too.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 12:00 pm, 6th March 2001

The Committee will be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's description of life in rural Surrey. If any confirmation is needed, I can confirm that new clause 6 is not limited in its scope to researchers, scientists or animal rights issues; it runs more widely than that.

I have a further point to add to the discussion of investigative journalists initiated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. An investigative journalist who persists in questioning someone in his or her home is not committing an offence. It is a matter of whether the journalist persists in causing alarm, harassment and distress, and if his or her purpose is to persuade someone to do something that they do not want to do—that is an important double test. There is a further protection in this context. It is at the police's discretion to tell the person to move on—it is not an absolute requirement that they do so. The police officers concerned will make their own judgment in such circumstances. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could take that into account when he speaks.

The purpose of new clause 7 is to make a number of amendments to the Malicious Communications Act 1988, to update and strengthen it to deal with the offence of sending letters and other articles with intent to cause distress or anxiety. Subsection (1) ensures that communications sent by electronic means are included in the scope of the Act. Subsection (2) replaces the defence in the case of someone being accused of making a threat, which is currently based on a test of subjective reasonableness, with one based on objective reasonableness. Subsection (3) makes it clear that communications sent by electronic means include any oral or other communication by telephone or other means of communication. Subsection (5) increases the maximum penalty from level 4 to level 5.

The new clause is the second measure to be moved this morning that is designed to give the public greater protection from harassment and intimidation. As with the other new clause, the urgency relates to the need to tackle animal rights extremists and give better protection to the scientific community as a whole. The measures proposed do not affect threats to kill. Such threats are adequately covered already, by section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Communications that do not convey a threat that would be covered by that section may, none the less, be grossly offensive, or cause a great deal of alarm, distress and fear to their recipients. I will take an extract of a letter received by one member of the scientific community as an example. The letter asks:

``Do you want a brick put through your window? Do you want a petrol bomb shoved through your letterbox?''

Such communications give rise to concern.Two measures in particular are included to tackle that sort of behaviour. One restricts the scope for a defence on the grounds of reasonableness, and the other increases the maximum penalty for the offence.

Under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, persons accused are not guilty of sending a letter that conveys a threat if they can show that the threat was used to reinforce a demand that they believed they had reasonable grounds for making. They must also show that they believed that the use of the threat was a proper means of reinforcing that demand. That defence properly ensures that the Act does not catch someone who warns a neighbour that he will take legal proceedings if their dispute cannot otherwise be resolved. However, because the test of reasonableness is in terms of what the accused himself believes to be reasonable, it is arguable that the defence would also protect the fanatic who threatens violence in support of his cause.

Subsection (2) amends the Malicious Communications Act 1988 by applying an objective test to the question whether it was reasonable to make the demand and to the question whether it was reasonable to believe that the threat was a proper means of reinforcing that demand. The other key change is in subsection (5), which increases the maximum penalty under the Act; the reasons for that are clear. Finally, we have taken the opportunity in subsection (1) to place it beyond doubt that the Malicious Communications Act 1988 extends not just to threats conveyed by a letter or other article such as a leaflet, but to communications conveyed by electronic means. Amendment (a) to new clause 7 is being moved by the Opposition, so I will deal with it in my response to the debate.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Amendment (a) was tabled by the hon. Member for South Thanet, who is a Labour Member.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

Nevertheless, it is not a Government amendment, so I will deal with it in my response. I always try to be positive in what I say, particularly when responding to my hon. Friends and even sometimes to the Opposition. I will respond to the amendment once it has been moved rather than seeking to do so before it has been moved.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

One thing that has caused particular distress in the Huntingdon situation is where goods and services turn up on the doorstep—deliveries of gravel, rubbish skips, car-towing lorries and so on. Would it count as a malicious communication if goods are ordered in another name and suddenly arrive at one's home?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I do not know. My understanding is that it would not, but I shall take advice before responding properly to that question.

New clause 20 is designed to allow certain directors to be excluded from the existing provisions of the Companies Act 1985 that require them to make their home addresses available for public inspection and to substitute service addresses. They will still be obliged to provide their home addresses, but that information will be kept on a separate, secure register. The home addresses will be available to public bodies, such as law enforcement agencies. The clause is essentially making provision for regulations. Much of the detail will be left to regulation, which will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses and will therefore, no doubt, be rapturously welcomed by the Opposition.

The clause will provide for the Companies Act 1985 to be amended by the insertion of new subsections. The first new subsection will allow a present or prospective director or company secretary to apply to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for a confidentiality order. The application may be made if the applicant considers that the availability for inspection by the public of his residential address will create a serious risk that he, or a person who lives with him, will be subjected to violence or intimidation. The regulations will explain how the process will work.

The effect of the confidentiality order will be that Companies House will display for public inspection the service address rather than the home address. Subsequent regulations will make provisions covering inspection of the confidential records and applications for access. The regulations will provide for the similar protection of home addresses found on a company's own register of directors.

The new provisions will apply to any company formed under the Companies Acts, overseas companies and companies that are registered abroad but have a United Kingdom branch. The regulations will make it an offence for anyone to provide false information when applying for an order, or to provide confidential information improperly. This is not the signalling of a rogues charter. There will be a high threshold test for the Secretary of State, who will need to be satisfied that the public availability of a director's residential address is likely to create a serious risk that the individual, or a person who lives with him or her, will be subjected to violence or intimidation.

We expect the majority of company directors to continue to provide their home addresses, while necessary privacy will be provided for those at real risk. Directors will still have to provide their home addresses, to be kept on a secure register. That register will be available to law enforcement and other public bodies. That will not provide an instant solution because existing records cannot be expunged. However, in time it should offer added protection for directors in certain circumstances and help to reduce the kind of intimidation that has regrettably occurred recently.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

This is another clause that I welcome. However, I would like some clarification. Proposed new section 723B(2)(a) mentions the condition

``that the individual . . . is or proposes to become'' a director. I take that to mean that a person who is currently a director, whose address is already registered, will be able to apply to have the information changed retrospectively, so that a service address can be shown in future. There have been enquiries from directors who wonder whether it will apply to them retrospectively, or whether it will cover only new directors.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

The difficulty is that what is on the record remains on the record. One cannot wish away existing documentation. We cannot magic it out of existence. It is possible for new directors to apply for confidentiality orders to cover future publication of their details, but it is not possible to wave a magic wand and say that what has previously been made public is no longer public.

I have an answer to the question put by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire about the delivery of unwanted goods. It is possible, I am advised, that a simple instance of ordering goods might be covered by the Malicious Communications Act 1988 if the order contains information known to be false, and if the purpose is to cause distress or anxiety. However, it is more likely that a campaign of that nature might be caught by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, rather than by this legislation.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Do the Government intend new clause 20 to cover those who are, or have been, directors when they move house? There will be a problem about people moving if the legislation bites prospectively, not retrospectively.

Have the Government considered the proposal in the context of other matters on their mind relating to people's ability to opt out of the duty to disclose a private address? The only recent discussion that I have had with Ministers was about Members of Parliament and candidates for local and national election exempting themselves from that duty. So far, I have objected to and resisted the permission of that exemption. Is the provision part of a review under which people who have public responsibility should be exempt from the possibility of the public discovering where they live? The issue goes beyond shareholders and directors.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I can confirm that the provision is not part of an overall review, but a specific response, the best that we can find, to the specific circumstance of directors of companies. It is not a precursor to general legislation. Arguments can be made about the way in which we deal with Members of Parliament and others, but the new clause and the Bill do not touch on them in any respect.

On the general point made by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, I should reassert that all those at risk, be they past or present directors, will be able to apply. Existing addresses cannot be removed, for the reasons that I gave to my hon. Friend earlier.

I will not respond to any of other new clauses yet. I hope that the Committee will agree that the three Government new clauses make a serious effort to deal with many concerns of those in the scientific community. They are no more than a contribution to the important national duty, which has been shared across the House, to create an environment in which scientists can carry out their important work. That work enhances the ability of our civilisation to develop itself, so we must protect the relevant individuals properly. I hope that the new clauses will be approved by the Committee in due course.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

On a point of order, Mrs. Adams. I may have misheard you, but I thought that when you listed the new clauses under discussion, you mentioned new clause 19. It is on a different subject. Will you confirm whether we are also discussing new clause 19, which was tabled by the Liberal Democrats?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As this is the first time today that I have made a speech, as opposed to an intervention, I join the welcome given to you as Chairman of our proceedings, Mrs. Adams, by the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

This debate is perhaps the Committee's most significant, certainly in terms of the public and media attention on the Bill, which is not surprising given the seriousness of the issues. I make no apology for saying that I propose not only to discuss new clauses 14 and 15 but to deal at length and in detail with the issues raised. The Minister rightly spent some time outlining the Government's approach, and the Conservatives strongly support what the Government are doing. Our criticism is that they are not going far enough—but it goes further than that.

The Minister has been in his statesmanlike mode this morning to give the Government's line. We know that he is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character. Today, we have seen the reasonableness of Dr. Jekyll, but had you been chairing our proceedings last week, Mrs. Adams—the Minister described them as acrimonious—you would have seen his Mr. Hyde approach. The provisions are not only necessary but vital—and I include new clauses 14 and 15—because of the climate of opinion that the Labour party helped to create when in opposition. I shall explain the evidence that I have for saying it, but I specifically exculpate from my criticisms the many Back Benchers who were first elected in 1997—that may be no coincidence—and who have served only in this Parliament. I respect them, as they have always supported the cause of scientists. I have far less respect for the many others who, in Parliament and outside, have actively spoken in favour of animal rights protests of the most extreme form.

I shall give the Committee an example of that. I asked the Library to do some research, and it has come up with many examples, but the clearest is an early-day motion in 1995 that was signed by 43 Labour Members—and by members of the Labour party only. They included the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), now the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting; the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), an ex-Minister; the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), now the Minister of State, Department of Health; the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), now a Whip; the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), now a Whip; three who have now become what we might describe as Tony crony peers; the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), another ex-Minister; and the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), now the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who was one of the Labour party's campaign directors at the last election and who is now one of the leading Members of the Scottish Parliament.

That Labour party early-day motion was headed ``Animal welfare protests'', and it said of that each of those 43 Labour party members

``believes that all citizens have a right to defy laws and regulations which have no moral basis whilst at the same time accepting the full consequence of such acts of civil disobedience''.

The motion went on to refer to animal experimenters,

``however provocative and loathsome they may be''.

It said:

``Her Majesty's Government must listen to the overwhelming expressions of public opposition and take immediate steps to halt this offensive and immoral trade''.

Although the Government seem belatedly to understand the importance of defending research science and medical research, the Labour party does not come to this legislation with clean hands. It is not enough for Ministers to sound statesmanlike—they helped to create the present climate of opinion. The Government should listen not only to us but to organisations such as the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the Research Defence Society, various organisations involved in biotechnology and the National Farmers Union, all of which were supported by the Conservative Government.

I feel strongly about the matter, and not only because research facilities in my constituency have been attacked by terrorists. My parents had careers in research science. It happens that neither of them ever worked on animal research, but one of them worked for a research facility elsewhere in the country that was attacked by the Animal Liberation Front. These animal activists are the most extreme kind of terrorist: they are the sort of people who put bombs under scientists' cars—bombs that explode sideways and injure innocent mothers walking by with young children in pushchairs.

Well-known members of other political parties have been prominent in demonstrations at which my constituents have been attacked, but not members of the Conservative party. That is not surprising, because no Conservative would ever be involved in such terrorism. I do not want to hear that hon. Members of other parties are coming to the issue afresh and with clean hands. However statesmanlike the Minister's remarks, and however strongly we support him, I must make it clear that he is not going far enough. I make no apology for stating that.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton 12:15 pm, 6th March 2001

For the record, in case I am ever misquoted by Conservative Members, I should preface my intervention by saying that there are no circumstances in a democracy in which I would support violent protests of any kind.

The hon. Gentleman praised people who have always supported research scientists. Is he saying that he thinks that it was correct for scientists to force dogs to smoke cigarettes?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

No, I am not saying that. I make no bones about saying that we should debate such matters in Parliament, but it is important in a debate such as this, which will be read and studied outside, for the whole history of the subject to be laid out. I hope that in his response the Minister will set out specifically what has been the Home Office's communication to police authorities about the recent protests. Organisations in my constituency have told me that between different police areas dealing with the same, mobile demonstrations, which have moved from one facility to another and across county boundaries, there has been a wide variance in police activity. Two or three weekends ago, when the same group of mobile animal rights extremists were moving from one place to another, in the Thames Valley area, where the police took a proper view of their responsibilities, they made 87 arrests, whereas in Hampshire, next door to my constituency, not a single arrest was made among the same group of demonstrators carrying out the same illegal activities and illegal attacks on research facilities.

I want the Minister to respond to that not because I am criticising individual police authorities but because I want the Home Office to take responsibility and to understand that it must give much clearer guidance, so that we do not have such wide divergence between the response of different police authorities.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I really cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with his remarks. It is true that I am a new Member of Parliament, but I have spent my entire professional career working for medical research establishments that use animals. Does he honestly think that I would be sitting here now as a member of the Labour party and a Labour Member of Parliament if the Labour party had the attitude to scientists that he suggests? I have campaigned on the subject the length and breadth of the country in the Labour party and have never found a single member of the Labour party who justifies the use of violence or intimidation against scientists, however they feel on the subject.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As I say, the hon. Gentleman comes to the issue as a new Member of Parliament, but he must recognise that it is on the record that in 1995, all those on the list that I read out, including several who are now Labour Ministers, supported civil disobedience. I am not a supporter of the use of early-day motions—they are a kind of parliamentary graffiti—but occasionally they are important, because we can look back at the record. This is another example of the way in which not the hon. Gentleman but his Front-Bench colleagues believe, as so often they do, that somehow Parliament started in May 1997. That is a kind of Pol Pot year zero in which all of the Labour party's history of supporting—

Photo of Mrs Irene Adams Mrs Irene Adams Labour, Paisley North

Order. I have allowed considerable leeway, but I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to go any further off the subject. He should return to the new clause.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I certainly will, Mrs. Adams, but the hon. Member for South Thanet has heard what I said. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said to him, given what he said about his work, he must have had an uphill struggle faced with such attitudes only six years ago.

We know that organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the BioIndustry Association, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the Research Defence Society all want the Government to go further. I should observe in passing that, only a couple of months ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) raised with the Government the need to protect company directors' addresses in exactly the way that the Government now propose, he was told that it was all far too complicated and it would take two years for the Government to come up with anything. Suddenly, under pressure from all those organisations, because there is a general election pending, and because we have continued to press the matter, two years has become two weeks. We welcome that, but many of us think that further protection from harassment is necessary.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said in an intervention on the Minister, it is necessary to deal with situations where groups of demonstrators are mobile, and different groups can make separate approaches that amount to harassment. The Government new clauses do not go far enough in dealing with such situations. Only if the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is amended in the way in which new clause 14 would amend it, taking out the requirement for two or more occasions, would the legislation cover those situations. If it were so amended, then different groups of animal rights extremists indulging in such conduct would still be in breach of the law, and the police would be able to take action.

I do not expect the Minister to suddenly concede that the official Opposition are right and accept our new clauses, but I would be delighted if he did. I hope that he will say that he will consider the issue further, with departmental officials, and table Government amendments or new clauses on Report. I hope that he decides to do so, not necessarily because of what I have said, but because of what the ABPI, the RDS, the NFU and others have said. We have had to draft new clauses at quite short notice to deal with the matter.

New clause 15 is designed to tighten up the law in relation to conspiracy. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) has had a consistent record on the matter, and I pay tribute to her. She was kind enough to speak to me about the matter at the conclusion of the Committee's proceedings last week. Many of her constituents have been victims of the kind of attacks that we are talking about, and she knows as well as I do that conspiracy is an important issue. That is why new clause 15 would enable the police more easily to bring a charge of conspiracy.

All of us who have practised in the criminal courts and tried to prosecute cases know that it is not that easy to establish conspiracy. New clause 15 is a valiant attempt to ensure that a charge of conspiracy sticks in the circumstances that we are trying to control through the legislation. However, the Minister may well tell us that, for various technical reasons, it will not work. He knows, because he has seen all the submissions from organisations that we have seen, that those organisations believe that the law of conspiracy needs to be tightened up so that it applies to this area of illegal protest and activity. Even if he cannot accept the new clause, I hope that he will once again do us, and the organisations that have briefed us, the courtesy of saying that he will continue to think about it and examine it, with officials, and that he may table Government new clauses, in lieu of ours, on Report.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I thought of the eloquent comments that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made earlier this morning about the dangers of authoritarianism, and of his wish for a liberal society, even in tackling crime. Is there any disagreement between the two hon. Gentlemen, in view of the rabid, right-wing authoritarianism that characterised the comments to which we have just listened?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no difference of opinion between my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and me. It may reassure him to know that we practised as lawyers for many years on the same circuit, as did the Parliamentary Secretary—although I did not conduct any cases against the latter, because he came to the circuit after my time.

There is certainly no difference between us. If the hon. Member for Hall Green detected any strength of feeling, that is because my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I raised the issue of animal rights extremism in the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. My hon. Friend referred to that Bill earlier. We had 240 hours of debate on it, and if the hon. Gentleman would like, I can show him the columns in Hansard. When we raised the issue, we received no support from any Labour Member on that Committee. However, I do not want to go on at length, quoting myself from 1994.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 12:30 pm, 6th March 2001

When the hon. Gentleman raised those points in 1993-1994, did the Government of the day present such clauses?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Yes, we were indeed trying to toughen the law, but in the past few years, animal rights extremists have found new ways to get round the legislation. It is because the law needs to be extended that we support the new clauses to make the law tougher, as the Minister knows that we do. That is also why my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire took the initiative and told the Committee that we should bring debate on the new clauses forward. Under the ridiculously short timetable that the Government were trying to impose, if the new clauses had been dealt with in the traditional way, after all the other debates, we should never have reached them. The Minister knows that, and I was glad when he said that the Government agreed to our suggestion of early debate on the new clauses. However, it must not be forgotten that it is only on my hon. Friend's suggestion that we are engaged in this debate at all.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

In answer to the remark that the hon. Gentleman made on the sly, does he acknowledge that I made a formal offer, in Programming Sub-Committee, at the first meeting of the Committee and at subsequent meetings, for the order of debate to be entirely a matter for the Opposition? We said at the outset that it was their legitimate prerogative. That is of course why we must agree.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

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

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

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

Mr. Clarke indicated assent.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

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

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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

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

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

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Ms Helen Clark Ms Helen Clark Labour, Peterborough 12:45 pm, 6th March 2001

I very much agree with the sentiments that are being expressed. Does my hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that there was previously a similar incident in the soap opera ``The Archers''? Tom Archer also got off, which people felt was a very good thing.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I entirely agree. I am not a great advocate of soap operas, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the level of feeling generated by such programmes. If we are attacking people's scientific credentials, as we did earlier—I cannot do so in great depth, Mrs. Adams, because you would stop me—I remind the Committee that the Opposition's disgraceful attacks on genetic modification led to much of the furore. The controversy that they generated cost British industry millions of pounds.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is making the unfortunate implication that, because Her Majesty's Opposition were opposed to field-scale trials of genetically modified crops, that somehow justifies the disgraceful and illegal activities of those who then destroyed them. Will he clarify the fact that the Opposition are utterly opposed to any such activities that would be made illegal under the Bill?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I am perfectly prepared to accept that Her Majesty's Opposition do not support any illegal activities. I am simply pointing out that they have shown themselves to be entirely luddite in their attitude to the scientific development of biotechnology. If the hon. Member for Surrey Heath can make such an attack on the Labour party, he can take some of it back.

However, let us return to the amendments. If a jury can acquit someone who destroyed crops, it could acquit someone who defended himself on the basis that he wrote to someone threatening to destroy crops because he believed that he had a right to do so. I want the legislation to be amended to make it absolutely clear that someone cannot send through the post threats of any illegal activity. Someone can send threats of legal retribution, but not of illegal retribution. That is the rationale behind my amendment.

New clause 20 deals with directors' addresses. I simply repeat the point that, for people who have already registered themselves as directors, the genie is clearly out of the bottle. They have put their name and address in the public domain. Nevertheless, they may be able to provide themselves with some protection by re-registering in the way allowed by the new clause, if it is allowed. When someone has got hold of a director's name and address, there is nothing that the Government can do to take it back, but someone who makes a new application to Companies House to find out a director's address would be unable to find it if such people were allowed to re-register. I should like the Minister to think about the possibility that a mechanism will be put in place to allow people to re-register.

New clause 20 will protect people who will be directors or permanent representatives of companies, but will not necessarily protect all shareholders. I would still like to hear from the Department of Trade and Industry what it intends to do to protect ordinary shareholders. Many of the activities aimed at Huntingdon Life Sciences were aimed at its shareholders. I have said publicly that it was reprehensible for the Labour party to withdraw its pension funds from that company as a result of threats. It was a gross misjudgment, which came about because our pension shareholding was identifiable—which meant that protesters could lobby us directly, putting us under intimidatory pressure. Shareholders should also be protected.

Finally, I asked for clarification on whether the Liberal Democrats' new clause 19 should be included in the group of amendments because it is not, in my view, about animal experiments. It is about crimes of hate. I completely understand and agree with the sentiment underlying the new clause, but I believe that unprovoked actions against individuals should be treated seriously, whatever their motivation. Under new clause 19, it would be considered an aggravated offence if I assaulted the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey because I disapproved of his sexual orientation—I do not know his sexual orientation or whether I would disapprove of it; I am not making any comment about him. However, if I assaulted him because he is a Liberal Democrat, that would not be an aggravated offence. [Interruption.] All right, I withdraw that example. The hon. Gentleman none the less gets my point. His new clause would create anomalies that I do not want in the law.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to what I have said and hope that he will take my comments, which were offered in the spirit of constructive criticism, in good part. He mistakenly said that the Opposition tabled my amendment.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

That was a complete slip, for which I apologise.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I wanted only to ask my hon. Friend the Government Whip to confirm that I am now officially a Government rebel. That will do wonders in my general committee.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman's desperate wish to be classed with the Opposition as a Government rebel is perhaps largely due to the apparent proximity of a general election. However, the fact that the hon. Gentleman is looking for support wherever he can find it may not be quite enough to save him.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

All I can say in response is that my research indicates that I have more than enough support. I will certainly defend the case of scientists in this place for many years to come.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman's analysis confirms the Opposition view that rebellion in the Labour party occurs far too rarely to allow democratic debate. I encourage him to rebel as often as he likes. It will be good for his own party and probably for him.

The debate is important and, unusually, I may take more than the seven minutes that we have before we break for lunch. I said on Second Reading

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On a point of order, Mrs. Adams. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for raising a point of order now; I had hoped to raise it before lunch and his comment reminds me of that. On the basis of the progress that we have made so far, we seem unlikely to get much beyond the new clauses today, which means that 24 clauses, two schedules and 42 amendments will not be debated. In light of the likely change to the timetable of the general election, have you received any communication from the Minister, Mrs. Adams, that would allow the date of the Committee's final sitting to be put back to 13 March? It is ridiculous that important amendments tabled by the Government, by Liberty—I understand that the Liberal Democrats have tabled some amendments with the help of Liberty, as the Conservatives may have done—and the Law Society should not be debated at all. That position will get worse as the Committee proceeds. The Minister should relent: with no general election on 5 April, we could have an extra day and debate the provisions properly.

Photo of Mrs Irene Adams Mrs Irene Adams Labour, Paisley North

It is not for the Chair to tell the Minister what to do and I have received no suggestion that he is about to change his mind.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will not raise a point of order, but the Liberal Democrats have always taken the view that we need more time, so we support the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on that.

The new clauses and amendments are important. On Second Reading on 29 January, I anticipated that the Government would table new clauses on these matters and said that my hon. Friends would be sympathetic because the law was inadequate in certain respects. The Liberal Democrats will support Government new clause 6. However, we shall table amendments on Report to improve it. That is sensible and we could then consider what further needs to be done. A catching-up exercise is necessary.

The group includes Government new clauses and the amendment to one of them by the hon. Member for South Thanet; Conservative new clauses; and a Liberal new clause. They are somewhat strangely grouped together. They raise several issues about the right to protest and its limits, and the circumstances in which civil disobedience should be prevented from going too far.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that civil disobedience is entirely proper and laudable, provided it does not turn into violence and aggression. He must be careful not to confuse the two. The right to protest sometimes includes civil disobedience; it is not the same as threatening, intimidating, causing aggression and attacking. I put my hands up to having taken part in civil disobedience protests over the years—to save Twyford down, for example—but always avoiding violence towards those who are going about their business in other contexts.

Freedom of information issues are also important and one of the new clauses restricts the right to know shareholders' addresses; we debated who else should fall under that category and in what circumstances.

Our new clause 19 is a probing one in the sense that it provides an opportunity to raise with the Government how best to deal with the linked matters of specific forms of insidious crime and their perpetrators, through sentencing and punishment. The Government said that that was on their agenda. Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton were responsible for home affairs at the time, but my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) raised important issues during the passage of what became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. My hon. Friend distinguished between race hate crimes and other hate crimes—some based on sexuality, as mentioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet, others on religion and gender. We want to elicit the Government's views on those matters.

We shall support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Thanet to Government new clause 7. As to the Conservative new clauses, new clause 14 is appropriate. It would change the law, dispensing with the need for a recurrence of harassment, which is unduly restrictive. We are happy to move on, but we think—

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.