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

Part of Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 6th March 2001.

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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.