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Mrs. Anne Campbell: I do not intend to detain the House long. I want to express my strong support for new clause 13 and to thank the Minister for the measures that have been taken. In my constituency, the issue is considered important as I have a number of constituents who work on experiments with animals.

I reiterate the point that I made in an intervention on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I cannot support, and hope that the House will not support, the weakening of the measure by including the word "serious" to describe alarm and distress. As I said, the word "serious" should be interpreted by the victim, rather than by the perpetrator.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): May I say how much I agree with the hon. Lady? Does she agree that, whenever the word "serious" is used in the law, there is quite a battle in court over what it means? Serious bodily harm is a classic example, of which there have been numerous cases. I strongly support the hon. Lady on that point.

Mrs. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman is a barrister, which I am not, and I would not like to generalise beyond this particular point, although I am pleased to have his support and I thank him for the point that he has made. I hope that the House will not support the amendments that have been tabled by the Liberal Democrats. I strongly support new clause 13.

5.45 pm

Mr. Charles Clarke: Some interesting points have been raised in the debate. On the question of timing, I had not intended to return to private grief. However, in the light of the remarks of the hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I should place on record the fact that in the 55 or so minutes that we have been debating this new clause--described by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) as covering one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects of the Bill--there has not been a single Member of the Opposition in the Chamber, other than those who served on the Committee. [Interruption.] I apologise; one Member was here for a few minutes at the beginning. However, that fact weakens the general argument about timing. I appreciate the comments from some of my hon. Friends about the approach of the Government. We are determined to resolve this matter positively.

14 Mar 2001 : Column 1057

We had an entertaining exchange on the meaning of the word "poor". My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) referred to poor judges, using the word to mean "unfortunate". I intervened, using the word poor to mean "impoverished". He responded by taking it that I had meant "incompetent" judges; of course that is an oxymoron, or, as one of my officials advised me, a two-word paradox.

Dr. Ladyman: I would not like it to go in the Official Report that I had not understood my hon. Friend's joke. I realised that he meant "impoverished".

Mr. Clarke: Perhaps it could go on the record simply as a very poor joke and part of the general attack on lawyers for which the Government are now becoming famous.

Mr. Heald rose--

Mr. Clarke: I give way to a lawyer.

Mr. Heald: I hope not to annoy the Minister too much, but does he agree that five Labour Back Benchers-- apart from his Parliamentary Private Secretary--two Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats in the Chamber is not very different from the balance in the House?

Mr. Clarke: I was referring to the argument--made with a lot of sound and fury--that the Government have been tyrannical in not allowing time for debate.

On the question of the word "vicinity", I was grateful to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who indicated that he was listening to what we said about the use of the words "immediate vicinity". There is nothing further I want to say, except that it is open to the police officer concerned to give whatever directions he considers necessary to prevent harassment, alarm or distress in the circumstances. It is an offence to refuse to follow those directions, including those about distance from premises.

On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet on conspiracy, the new clause deliberately puts knowledge and purpose on the part of the person

an act of harassment back to the time that the act was planned. We do not want to catch those who, at the time, had a valid reason for their actions, which is why the wording is as it is. If there were a genuine coincidence between one person's aiding and abetting an act and other acts which resulted in harassment, it is right that no offence should arise if the coincidence were genuine.

Dr. Ladyman: If, having planned the act and initiated it by getting somebody to commit the act for me, I subsequently became aware that circumstances had changed and did not try to stop the act, would I have a defence or--as I would prefer--could I be prosecuted?

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Mr. Clarke: If my hon. Friend did not have a defence, he could be prosecuted. However, I will take note of that point and write to him, as I would not want to mislead him.

Conspiracy--a matter raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath--will already be an offence if two or more people agree on a course of conduct which would in itself be an offence. The drawback of the Opposition amendment in Committee was that it would have caught the conspirators only if one person carried out at least two acts of harassment. Where that was the case, there would already be an offence under either section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, under common law or in relation to the

of an offence.

The Government amendment is preferable because it relates to each bit of conduct that we are discussing which makes up a course of conduct. Someone who encourages or agrees with others to carry out acts of harassment will be responsible in law for each of those acts. That is why I give the answer I do to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, with the qualification that I will write to him.

Finally, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey raised the issue of harassment. First, let me emphasise that it is not an offence under clause 43 to cause alarm and distress in itself. The offence is in failing to comply with the direction. The direction will not be not to cause distress, but, for example, to go half a mile away, to stop shouting or to leave the area. I strongly support the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) made extremely powerfully. It is the Government's view that individuals should have the opportunity to live in their homes with their families without having to suffer any alarm or distress, serious or otherwise, from protesters. There is a galaxy of ways in our democracy for people to hold a peaceful protest which does not involve loitering around somebody's house in circumstances which can cause alarm and distress.

To deal with a point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet raised in an intervention, the qualification of alarm and distress with the word "serious" would create a higher test than currently applies in section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which covers a person causing harassment, alarm or distress by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. It would also require a higher test than under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which also requires only harassment, alarm or distress.

With the assurance that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath sought--that we will keep the matter under review and look at the situation as we move forward--I urge right hon. and hon. Members to support new clause 13. I urge the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to think again before he decides to divide the House on the introduction of the word "serious". I think that it would give encouragement to those who want to protest in that way and I urge him to think about it most carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

14 Mar 2001 : Column 1059

New Clause 1

Exclusion of prisoners convicted of assaulting police officers, other emergency service workers and NHS staff from power to release short-term prisoners on licence

'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(b) there is inserted--
"(ba) the sentence is for any of the following offences--
(i) an offence under section 89 of the Police Act 1996 (assaulting, obstructing or resisting a constable);
(ii) an offence under section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (assault with intent to resist arrest);
(iii) an offence of common assault or an offence under section 18, section 20, or section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (wounding, causing grievous bodily harm and causing actual bodily harm) which was committed against a constable in the execution of his duty, any member of staff of the emergency services in the course of his duty or any member of staff of the National Health Service in the course of his duty.".'.--[Mr. Heald.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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