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Mr. Clarke: New clause 13 follows the debate in Committee, when, during the debate on new clauses to tackle the problems caused by animal rights extremists, I undertook to consider further whether the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 gave adequate protection against acts of collective harassment. My hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) made powerful and effective speeches in favour of that re-examination, and Opposition Members also spoke in favour of it. I undertook that, if the Act needed improvement in this respect, I would come back on Report with an amendment. This is what I now do.
It is already an offence for a group of people to arrange for one person to engage in a course of conduct that harasses another. What is less clear is whether it is an offence for a group to arrange for, say, each member to do just one act of harassment. For instance, one person might order an unwanted taxi to call for the victim, and another might arrange for an unwanted consignment of gravel to be dumped in the victim's driveway, as in the
We believe that, in practice, it is indeed possible that such a group would have to engage in some sort of course of conduct to make and check the necessary arrangements and that, in doing so, its members could well be liable to prosecution directly under the 1997 Act. However, we have concluded that it is prudent to make it explicitly clear that collective harassment of such a nature is no less an offence than a campaign of harassment by one person--a point made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet and for Peterborough.
Subsection (1) amends section 7 of the 1997 Act, which defines "conduct" and "course of conduct" in sections 1 to 5. It will insert new subsection (3A), which adds to the definition of "conduct". Paragraph (a) provides that conduct by one person shall be taken, at the time it occurs, also to be conduct by another if it is aided, abetted, counselled or procured by that other person.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I understand that the new clause has been introduced because of the problems relating to animal experimentation, but it does not refer to animal experimentation. Could it have a wider remit? Many of my constituents suffer from antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution, which sometimes involves harassment from a number of people. Could the new clause help them? They welcome, too, the measures to deal with the problems associated with kerb crawling, which they have called for for a long time.
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the new clause is not limited to animal rights and could apply in relation to other issues. I pay public tribute to her for her exceptionally energetic campaigning on dealing with prostitution and kerb crawling in her constituency and more generally.
As my hon. Friend knows, other measures which we considered in Committee will introduce new offences to address those matters, and the Government have allocated resources to fight the effects of prostitution through other programmes. I can confirm that the new clause will have general application, though I shall be surprised if it is applied directly to prostitution in the way she suggests. However, I hope that other measures will give at least some reward for her energetic campaign on behalf of her constituents.
On animal rights extremists, the Minister knows that we greatly welcome the fact that the Government have responded to what we said in Committee about the need further to amend the law and we are grateful to him for introducing the new clause, but has he addressed the issue in relation to conspiracy, which we raised in Committee? Organisations such as the Research Defence Society and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry are concerned about it.
Paragraph (b) provides that the knowledge and purpose of those who aid, abet, counsel or procure such conduct relate to the moment at which the conduct was aided, abetted, counselled or procured, not to when it took place. That will enable knowledge and purpose to be considered in relation to what was planned or should have been expected at the time of planning. Thus the new clause still allows for a defence of reasonableness.
We believe that the new clause will add a valuable measure of protection for individuals such as members of the scientific community against a concerted campaign of harassment. If the 1997 Act were not amended, the perpetrators could escape prosecution; I agree with all members of the Committee who moved amendments and spoke in the debates on those matters that that is unacceptable. That is why we have introduced the measure. We believe profoundly and strongly that we must take all the action we can to protect legal research in this country and ensure that those who engage in that research are properly protected and free from intimidation.
Mr. Clarke: In a moment. First, I shall respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). We indeed considered confirming collective harassment as an offence by amending the conspiracy provisions in the Criminal Law Act 1977. We have weighed in the balance the points put in Committee, which were made with integrity by all sides. We have concluded, however, that we shall be able to provide more comprehensive protection for scientists and others involved in such work by using the concept of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring an act of harassment. We feel that that is a more efficacious way of achieving the end desired by Committee members. In fact, I think that the alternatives were proposed as probing amendments.
Mr. Hughes: I do not dissent from the purpose of the new clause, but can the Minister tell us why, as well as rejecting the idea of governing this particular mischief by means of a conspiracy approach, the ordinary law of aiding and abetting does not cover what the Minister seeks to do? The new clause does not create a new offence; it merely adds an interpretation provision to the 1997 Act. Surely it would always have been possible for anyone to be prosecuted for aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the substantive offence, and to be liable to the same penalty as would have been incurred following prosecution under the original Act.
Mr. Clarke: We considered that point, and I think there is some merit in it. That is why I said earlier that we believe that, in practice, it is likely that such a group would have to engage in some course of conduct to make and check the necessary arrangements, and that in so doing its members could well be liable to prosecution directly under the 1997 Act. We concluded, however--I tried to respond to representations by Members on both sides, although those of my hon. Friends were particularly powerful--that it would be prudent to specify that collective harassment of that nature is no less an offence than a campaign of harassment by one person.
I suppose that the hon. Gentleman's point endorses the point that he continually makes--with which I have a great deal of sympathy--that the codification processes could clarify some of the issues over time.
We believe that amendments Nos. 60 to 64 are inspired by an attempt to produce what those who tabled them consider a better balance between people's rights to engage in peaceful process and the need to protect people in their homes, but that they fail to achieve their aim. As we said in Committee, we feel that the insertion of the word "immediate" adds nothing to the term "vicinity"; its only effect would be the creation of a greater opportunity for arguments in court. The insertion of the word "serious" would present similar opportunities for argument in court about how serious the distress or alarm would be. We think that the effect, although not the intent, of the amendments would be a loss of clarity.
Mr. Hawkins: Let me again stress the unhappiness of Conservative Members about the limited amount of time we have in which to consider no fewer than 11 groups of new clauses and amendments. We have just a fraction over three and a half hours to debate them all, which means that if we did so--although I greatly fear that we shall not be able to--we should have less than 20 minutes to discuss each group. That is wholly inadequate. There is a long history of disputes between the two sides about time; now there is a problem again. In our view, proper scrutiny by Parliament is once more being bypassed.
As I made clear in my intervention on the Minister, we greatly welcome the Government's positive response to the points that I and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made in Committee and which were supported by the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). Speaking not only for ourselves but on behalf of those in the scientific research community, we felt that there was a need to toughen up the law more than the Government were proposing to do in the Bill--specifically, in what started out, in Committee, as new clauses 6 and 7. Those new clauses were the Government's response to the very powerful speech made on Second Reading by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).
There is no doubt that the type of intimidation and harassment that has been inflicted on so many law-abiding employees of research companies such as Huntingdon Life Sciences is wholly unacceptable. The issue's importance is highlighted by the nature of the attacks, some of which have occurred in my own county and even in my own constituency, where the research facilities of two companies have been targeted by extremists and terrorists. The attacks have included the fire-bombing of people's cars when those cars were parked next to their houses, the fire-bombing of sheds, sledgehammer attacks on people's cars while they were still inside them, bomb attacks on cars, the smashing of windows in people's houses, the spraying of cleaning fluid into people's eyes, other physical assaults, and, as the Minister mentioned, the ordering of gravel deliveries and hearses to people's houses.
The attacks were committed by people who are campaigning supposedly for the welfare of animals. Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable and can never be justified. I am sure that all hon. Members support proper animal welfare standards. However, the supposed defence of animal rights can never justify attacking or threatening the life of a human being.
In Committee, Opposition Members felt that the Government's proposals did not address two specific issues--conspiracy, and rotating harassment. As I said, we are very grateful that the Government have taken on board our concerns. I also echo the Minister's comment that, on both sides of the Committee, there was an extremely serious and proper debate on these very serious matters.
We are, however, concerned that the Government have come down only on the aiding and abetting side of the equation. If the provisions are enacted and experience subsequently shows that they are not effective or sufficient, and particularly if organisations such as the Research Defence Society, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and others that have written to me--including the British Pharmacological Society and the Biotechnology Industry Association--feel that it is necessary to re-examine the offence of conspiracy, we would be grateful if the Government took account of those facts. Of course I expect, however, that it will be an incoming Conservative Government who will have to respond to that matter.
The provisions undoubtedly address a very important issue. I reiterate that we are very pleased that the Minister responded to the points that we made in Committee. He described the discussions that he had had with officials on how to balance the issues, saying that they had only narrowly decided not to seek to amend the Criminal Law Act 1977 and conspiracy law as we had suggested. I am slightly surprised that they chose to pursue the aiding and abetting approach rather than the conspiracy approach. Nevertheless, we welcome that approach, and we feel sure that the organisations whose specific representations we expressed in Committee will welcome it.
I should like to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 60 to 64, which were tabled by Liberal Democrat Members. We fear that the amendments would weaken the ability to determine the "vicinity" of a place where harassment was occurring.