Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I appreciate that, in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Hall Green, the Minister has moved on to a separate and important point, to which I will return when I speak to our new clauses, but I want to return his attention to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire about the concerns of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and other organisations. He will know that new clause 14 is intended to deal with the issue that my hon. Friend raised. I hope that before he finishes his remarks he will turn his mind to what he plans to say about our new clause on that point.

Mr. Clarke: I shall turn my mind to that, but I shall do so, if I may, after I have finished moving our clause. I have been giving way, Mrs. Adams, because I thought that that would help the Committee's debate on new clause 6. [Interruption.] I shall give way a couple more times.

Mr. Hughes: I want to pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Hall Green. What would happen if Roger Cook, or the new Roger Cook replacement, my former employee Paul Kenyon—who has now received good coverage for ``Kenyon Confronts'' on Monday evening on BBC1, which I commend to the Committee—were, as he has successfully been doing, to expose issues while the person involved was, in the words of the provision, ``not under any obligation'' to say something?

For example, there might be no obligation to explain fraudulent dealing with people's investments, dealing in non-returnable defective goods or disappearing with people's property. Surely the person on the receiving end of that treatment is likely to be caused alarm or distress. The provision is not cumulative: harassment and alarm or distress do not have to be caused, just one or the other; and the alarm or distress do not have to be serious. The example given by me and the hon. Member for Hall Green would appear to be caught under the Bill; it would be quite possible for the police to prevent such activity continuing after they had given a warning, as a result of a telephone call from a rogue dealer, a rogue business person or some other person whom only effective journalism can counter.

I shall return later to the question whether Members of Parliament should be exempt—we should perhaps be less exempt than the Minister thinks, but that is a separate debate.

Mr. Clarke: There may be disagreement here. I do not think that there is an unqualified right of a journalist to do anything in our society. Some may say that there is, because the journalist is somehow a guardian of our democratic rights, and must therefore be allowed to do almost anything in pursuit of the ``truth'' that he is seeking to expose. I do not accept that; journalists must work within the law.

Much more difficult questions exist than those that we are discussing. We discussed the role of journalists when we debated the Bill that became the Terrorism Act 2000, where serious issues are involved. Only last week, when I was holding a press conference on the list of proscribed international organisations, I discussed with journalists from a number of organisations throughout the world how the Act might apply to them. Serious and difficult issues are involved.

I do not accept that Roger Cook, the friend of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey or anyone else has an unqualified right to do whatever he wants. Alarm, distress and harassment are bad things; the journalist has the right to ask but not to force an individual. That is important—it may be a point of difference between us, on which I am sure that we can elaborate in later debate—but I do not accept an unqualified right for journalists.

The legislation that we have reviewed includes the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and offences such as obstruction and breach of the peace; in fact, we have reviewed all the legislation involved. It is important to make it clear that we are proposing a police power rather than an offence. It will not require an overt threat of violence or specific intentions in courses of conduct; it will allow the police to direct people to move away, and arrest them if they do not.

Mr. Gray: Does the Minister agree that in addition to the activities of the various groups that he has discussed, one of the best things about new clause 6 is that it will restrict the disgraceful activities of hunt saboteurs?

Mr. Clarke: I am interested that the hon. Gentleman asserts that. I certainly think that some hunt saboteur activity is unacceptable, but I am not aware—the hon. Gentleman may correct me; I confess that I have not considered the situation in detail, so he may be better informed than I—of such people going to individuals' houses.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for example, had six members of a hunt saboteurs association on the roof of his private house for a week. That happens all the time; those people target Members of Parliament, in particular. My own private address is under surveillance from special branch as a result of threats against it.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for that information. If individuals were targeted in the way that the hon. Gentleman implies, the new clause would have the effect that he describes.

Mr. Hawkins: I agree with a great deal of what the Minister says, but he should be aware that it is not simply Members of Parliament who are targeted by hunt saboteurs. He fairly conceded that he has not personally considered the matter. A number of individuals who have nothing to do with Parliament have been targeted in exactly the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

Within the county of Surrey, although outside my constituency, people who were erroneously thought to be connected to one of the Surrey hunts were targeted in a most unpleasant way. Cars were set on fire. One victim happened to be a retired doctor who had never had any connection with the hunt; one of his family had at some stage appeared on a list, and the hunt saboteurs erroneously thought that the elderly parents were in some way connected. It is as appalling as my hon. Friend says; it is by no means just Members of Parliament who are targeted, but often completely innocent members of the public who have no connection with hunting—and hunt staff too.

Mr. Clarke: 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.

12 noon

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.

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