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Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 7, line 13, leave out from
("activities") to end of line 15.
I should like to touch briefly on the general point first. Clause 12 restricts free speech. I think that it is the business of the House always carefully to scrutinise whether it is right to impose restrictions on people's ability to speak their mind, even about pretty unworthy causes. Even more importantly, one should scrutinise the restrictions that we impose on the right of people to further the ability of other people to speak their mind.
May I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the outcry in some quarters when the BBC and other organisations were prohibited from broadcasting the words of people such as Mr. Gerry Adams? I cannot, I am ashamed to say, remember his constituency, but as he does not appear in this place, perhaps I might be entitled to refer to him as Mr. Gerry Adams.
I was a very junior Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office at the time, and I had very real doubts, although they did not count for much, about the wisdom of prohibiting the broadcasting of the words of the
I am extremely unhappy about making it an offence for third parties, in effect, to organise public meetings that will be addressed by people who may be, or are, supporters of terrorism, in support of a terrorist organisation. That may not be a majority view--probably it is not. However, in general, I always lean in favour of rights and liberties.
Mr. Hogg: I have no recollection of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers; I am sure that in none of the offices that I held did I play any direct role. Governments take many actions of which their individual members do not approve. If we all resigned on the slightest occasion, no Government would ever be formed.
Mr. Simon Hughes: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the general point and shall probably do so on the particular one. Does he agree that the reason for the general proposition is that, otherwise, we should have to accept the reverse--the "no platform rule"? At student unions and elsewhere, many people are not allowed to speak--whatever the desirability of their views--because it has been decided that they are beyond the pale. If debate does not take place, one can never win the argument.
The particular point is set out in my amendments. They deal with the proposal in Lords amendment No. 5 to impose a burden on the defence. That is the effect of subsection (3A). I readily acknowledge that the provision is subject to the new clause that would be provided by Lords amendment No. 19, and that that new clause would undoubtedly improve it. However, that does not alter the fact that the combination of those two provisions would impose an evidential burden on the defence. The burden is only evidential and not substantive, but the defence would none the less have to raise the issue.
The question that the House needs to consider--although few Members are in the Chamber to do so--is whether it is right to impose any burden on the defence or whether it is right to pursue the normal canons of criminal law by leaving the burden, throughout, on the Crown. I think that in this case we should leave the burden on the Crown throughout.
If the House is against me on this matter--as I suspect that it will be--I hope that it will consider the argument that one should remove the limitation contained in the offence to private meetings. If we take the reverse burden defence route--although I do not like it--I do not see, in principle, why the provision should be limited to a private meeting. Why should it not apply to public meetings?
I am in favour of liberty and free speech, so within the framework of the Lords amendments I want to give people as much free speech as we can--even though they may be supporting an unworthy and disagreeable organisation. I want to strike out the word "private" so that the provision applies to any meeting. I suspect that the Minister will not accept that, but I look forward to hearing his reasons.
Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) for his amendments, which raise a perfectly proper set of issues. As he rightly said, few of us are in the Chamber to consider them and if a vote were called now, we might win it. However, as has happened before, people who have not heard the debate might appear from somewhere.
Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 7 have considerably improved the Bill in a small but important sense. I thank my noble Friends in another place--particularly Lord Goodhart, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Avebury--who worked assiduously in pursuing these issues for us and in helping to persuade Government to change their view.
Lords amendment No. 4 would delete lines 13 to 15 of page 7 of the Bill as it was when it started its passage through the Lords--our procedure is rather bizarre--and would prevent an offence being committed if someone addresses a meeting and knows that the meeting will be addressed by someone belonging to or professing to belong to a proscribed organisation. Such mischief is not acceptable, but we do not think that it should be an offence. The original provision would have made a criminal of someone like the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), or me, who turned up on a platform to speak against a terrorist or someone who belonged to a proscribed organisation, such as an Irish proscribed organisation.
Someone would commit an offence if he simply knew that he was about to share a platform with someone who belonged to a proscribed organisation or merely said that he belonged to such an organisation. That is clearly nonsense, because it means that the members of such organisations or those that claim to belong to them could never be engaged in debate--they would have the platform to themselves.
I understand the thinking behind the original provision. It was intended that if someone who claimed to be a member of a proscribed organisation or who was a member of such an organisation spoke at a meeting, no one else would turn up to speak on the same platform. However, that is not the way life works. One might not know in advance, or much in advance, who was going to speak and what his pedigree was. Therefore the Lords amendments have prevented the criminalisation of people who are free from any involvement in criminal or proscribed organisations. That is a good thing. It explains why the amendments in the other place were accepted, as a result of negotiations that took place both in the open and behind the scenes.
Lords amendment No. 5 led to a debate on where the burden of proof lies. The Government accept half the loaf, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham seeks to persuade them to accept the whole loaf. The half loaf is represented by the defence that someone does not have reasonable cause to believe that he will share a platform at a private meeting with a member of a proscribed organisation. The burden of proof has shifted, because someone has to lay that defence on the table and it is up to the prosecution to carry out the remaining work.
I would much prefer the burden of proof to remain fairly and squarely with the prosecution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to Lords amendment No. 19, which deals with the burden of proof. That issue exercised us much in Committee and it has been raised on this Bill and on other Bills currently before the House. However, I ask the Minister to recognise that the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is better than those that were accepted in the other place without a Division.
Finally, I ask the House to accept amendment (a), tabled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It would delete the criterion which means that the provision will apply only to private meetings; it would now apply to both private and public meetings. We shall avoid another problem if we avoid defining whether the meeting is public or private. In theory, one could define one or the other, and if I were advising the prosecution, I could work out how one would do that and what criteria would have to be fulfilled. None the less, it is better simply to require the prosecution to prove the case if there are to be any such offences.
The best outcome would be to not convict people or not provide that people should be criminalised if they speak on such a platform. However, if we cannot have that, I hope that the Minister, even at this late stage, will be prepared to accept the amendments. If he did that, we could have another debate ending in happy amity, without a Division, and, in my view, improving the Bill.