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Soames, Nicholas

Speed, Sir Keith

Spencer, Sir Derek

Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)

Spicer, Michael

Spring, Richard

Sproat, Iain

Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stephen, Michael

Stern, Michael

Stewart, Allan

Streeter, Gary

Sumberg, David

Sweeney, Walter

Sykes, John

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M. (Solihull)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Thurnham, Peter

Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Trend, Michael

Trimble, David

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Vaughan, Sir Gerard

Viggers, Peter

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Waller, Gary

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Willetts, David

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Simon Burns.

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Question accordingly negatived .

Lords amendment disagreed to.

After Clause 136

Lords amendment: No. 132, to insert the following new clause-- Offence of causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress -- . In Part I of the Public Order Act 1986 (offences relating to public order), after section 4, there shall be inserted the following section--

"Intentional harassment, alarm or distress.

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4A.--(1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he--

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the person who is harassed, alarmed or distressed is also inside that or another dwelling.

(3) It is a defence for the accused to prove--

(a) that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or

(b) that his conduct was reasonable.

(4) A constable may arrest without warrant anyone he reasonably suspects is committing an offence under this section.

(5) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both.".") Read a Second time.

7 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 5, after if', insert recklessly or'.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to take amendment (b) to the Lords amendment.

Mr. Hughes: The amendments are to a new clause that was introduced into the Bill in Committee in the other place. The new clause is entitled "Harassment, alarm or distress". It seeks to amend the Public Order Act 1986 to create a new offence. The original debate on the matter arose after much pressure and lobbying, and engaged a lot of interest. The new clause inserts a new section into the Public Order Act 1986, which states:

"a person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he--

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress."

There follows a definition of where that offence can be committed. The section says:

"An offence . . . may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the person who is harassed, alarmed or distressed is also inside that or another dwelling."

The mischief against which this new clause is intended to act is committed when one person is outside a dwelling and another person is also outside, or when one person is outside and another is inside. Put simply, if someone lives in a property in, say, Deptford, Bermondsey or Rotherhithe, and someone outside in the street acts in such

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a way as intentionally to alarm, harass or distress that person through the use of language, behaviour or writing, they commit the offence. That is absolutely acceptable to me. I am sure that it is acceptable to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) and I hope that it is acceptable to the House. There will be no dissent from the fact that we must act against people who behave in such a way that they interfere in the private lives of other people by harassing them or causing them alarm or distress.

Some people doubt whether the clause is tough enough. The general view held by the communities in urban constituencies is that it is not. The general view is that it is difficult to nail people for what the Prime Minister calls "the yob culture" and extreme anti-social behaviour. It is often difficult to pursue people to the courts and secure a conviction for such crimes. Although the clause is welcome and will improve matters, it will certainly not be the end of the story because it will not be tough enough.

Mr. Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I agree with what he has said thus far, but I am puzzled as to why the new clause does not specifically include a criminal act of racial harassment, racial violence or incitement to racial hatred. I cannot understand the thinking behind a clause of this importance not addressing specifically an issue of enormous concern and danger to many people, particularly in inner urban areas such as the hon. Gentleman and I represent.

Mr. Hughes: That is a matter of dispute around the House. The hon. Gentleman is right, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) has similar experiences, probably almost as regularly as we do. The hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) has introduced a Bill that has all-party support and seeks expressly to provide for an offence of racially motivated crime. We must not be mealy mouthed about the matter--racially motivated crime exists. Those of us who represent inner urban areas--actually, it applies throughout the country--know perfectly well that people are willing to express racist views and, when people are not looking, behave in a racist way, often egged on by others. The most undermining activity of which anyone can be a victim is that which singles one out for aggression, abuse or intimidation for something that one cannot change--something that concerns the victim, not how he or she behaves. The law must be tough on activity based on a discriminatory view of other people which in the mind of the perpetrator justifies that behaviour. Such behaviour happens in my constituency and I am ashamed about it. It also happens in many others, if not all others, represented in the House. It can therefore be argued that we need an offence of racially motivated crime. The answer given by the Government is that a better way to deal with it is to increase the sentence if the crime is seen to be racially motivated. This issue will not go away and no matter whether the new clause is accepted by the House today and becomes law, as I believe that it will within the next few days, the matter will come back because many people will not feel that the law goes far enough.

Having understood the debate in another place and had perfectly courteous discussions with the Minister's predecessor about the issue, I anticipated that at this stage we would not move the Government on this issue. I have therefore chosen two much simpler amendments which,

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even at this stage, I hope to persuade the Minister to accept. I realise that Ministers come to these debates with briefs prepared by civil servants and give wonderful lists of arguments why such amendments should not be accepted. The Under-Secretary of State did a good job in his previous post and I welcome him to his new post. I hope that he will be brave and, once he has heard the arguments, say that the two amendments can be accepted because they deal with two specific but important points.

First, let us accept that the clause deals with harassment, alarm and distress generally, without singling out racism. I want the Minister to accept that there are two ways--intentionally or recklessly--in which someone could cause that harassment, alarm and distress.

I have been trained as a lawyer. Something that a criminal lawyer learns almost ad nauseam is the difference between the states of mind that people have to be in if there is to be a conviction. For a conviction of intent, ultimately a jury or the magistrates have to find not just that an activity happened, but that the accused intended it to happen. Often, that is difficult to prove. It is much easier to prove that someone has behaved in a way that was careless as to the consequence or that was not thinking as to the consequence, because we can then draw an inference that any reasonable person would have known what the consequence would be.

I want the Government to change the law so that it provides that if anyone uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, disorderly behaviour, writes graffiti, racist comments or whatever, or by using signs or other acts behaves in a way that is abusive, threatening or insulting, and he is aware that that might just cause harassment, alarm or distress, he should be found guilty. For example, someone may approach a house in Peckham, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Deptford, Rochdale, Islington, Stalybridge or your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker. He may not know whether anyone is in the house, but he knows that, for example, a black family, an Asian family, a mentally disordered person such as an adult with learning difficulties, someone who is physically disabled or other people in all sorts of circumstances used to live there. Perhaps somebody who was anti-social--a difficult and cantankerous individual--used to live there. He may not say, "I want to get the person in that house", but he is careless and mindless of the consequences of his action and should be guilty of an offence. That is the only way that we can be sure that we deal with such people effectively.

If intent has to be proved in a court, I can guarantee that many cases will not be proceeded with by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, so they will not get to court and people will not learn a lesson. They will get away with their behaviour when they should be convicted. I make this serious plea from my recollection of how the law works--I remember it all too well--and my understanding of how society works, which is something that we all have as Members of this House.

The second amendment is similarly simple and, I hope, persuasive. It would remove from line 19 the two simple words "or another". I want to make it possible for someone to be guilty of causing harassment, alarm or distress if he is in one building but is having a go at somebody in another building. The House held a debate last year on the question of neighbour noise and noise nuisance. The Mail on Sunday has run a good campaign and an increasing amount of publicity is being given to

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the issue. A fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference that debated it was very well attended. Neighbour noise is the bane of people's lives. It can literally drive people mad or to suicide. Some weeks ago, I attended a press conference on the issue in the Jubilee Room. Spike Milligan and others were there on behalf of the campaign for peace and quiet. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) was there. Other colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), support the campaign, the aim of which is to clamp down on rowdy, nuisance neighbours. There are plenty of them and they behave as though there was nobody else on God's planet. They yell out of windows, sometimes throw cans and rubbish out of windows, and have hi-fi's or stereos blasting out of windows, especially in summer.

It must be made absolutely clear to people that if they own or occupy a property and they behave not necessarily with intent, but in a careless and mindless way, are not bothered whether they keep their neighbours up all night, and blast the person on the other side of the estate, in the block opposite, or on the other side of the street, they should be nicked.

I take a tough view of such behaviour: not only should such people be nicked, but their property should be confiscated. We need to modify the law to make it tougher. There could be a first and a second warning, but then such people should be taken away and put overnight in a place that will remind them that blasting the living daylights out of their community is not acceptable.

7.15 pm

If the law is toughened in the way that the Government propose, all that it will allow is somebody to be nicked if he is in the street and the victim of the nuisance is in the house. However, that is not what usually happens. I accept that an offence is caused if noisy drunkards run up and down a street shouting. That happens occasionally in Bermondsey and other places. However, it is more often the case that somebody in a property is blasting his stereo or yelling out of the window and making life a nuisance. I want that person to be prosecuted. Tough legislation would signal our intent and we would make progress.

I know that the Government are consulting on the issue--that is always their defence. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) wanted to introduce legislation on payment of interest on debt, the Government said that they opposed that because they were consulting on the issue. They have been consulting for decades; yet everybody knows that it would be a good idea. The Government have issued a consultation paper on noise and I am grateful for that. However, we now have an opportunity to move in a way that I believe will unite the House, provide legislation that will work and not preclude debates on what else we do after that. I want noisy neighbours to be aware that they are acting criminally, not just anti -socially. If such behaviour is clearly illegal, police, environmental health officers and others can act to make communities places worth living in again.

People have been driven to suicide, driven mental or driven to attacking others in their home by noisy neighbours and anti-social behaviour. I do not think that

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that applies to any particular part of the country--it is applicable to all areas. It is as applicable to Luton, where I have been many times, as to anywhere else. I see that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) is in the Chamber.

I hope that the Minister will say, "It is not our idea; we would not have gone so far, so quickly, but it is a good point." I hope that the Minister will at least concede that the argument is valid. Even if he needs a minute or two to take advice, I hope that he will then say that the Government will accept the amendment. I advise him to be brave. He will then become the most popular Minister in the Government today-- [Interruption.] I accept that on this day, of all days, that is not saying a lot. However, if he accepts both amendments he will be one step ahead and his future will be assured.

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