Criminal Justice and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Gray: I might have misled the Committee this morning when I suggested that special branch is taking a particular interest in me and my house. The truth is that I have the good fortune to live next door to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who has special branch looking after his house, so the officers keep an eye on mine.

Mr. Hughes: I had misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, and he might unwittingly have misled the Committee. I am grateful to him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and I have asked the Minister questions aimed at ensuring that the definitions in the Government new clauses are clear. The definition of a person who is in the vicinity of premises should be narrow. It could be that case law deals with that. However, ``in the vicinity'', as defined from its Latin root, does not necessarily mean very close. It could mean a long way away. That is a pretty wide definition, which gives the police the ability to give a direction to somebody who might be 100 yd, half a mile or several miles away.

At the moment, because of foot and mouth disease, there are protective rings around certain farms to prevent activity in the vicinity of infected farms. They sometimes stretch for several miles. I should like to flag up the fact that we are looking at a definition that may be far wider than intended, and far wider than might be appropriate in the circumstances.

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Gentleman will know, one of the concerns of the National Farmers Union is exactly that it should be possible to protect farmers who are subject to intimidation and the offer of violence in their domestic premises, which are on the farm. Does he agree that in many cases that would require some distance to be specified—certainly more than a few yards—to achieve the purpose?

Mr. Hughes: Yes.

The Bill refers to premises that are used by any individual as his dwelling. That begs some questions that we have not teased out. Some people live and work in the same place. Do the provisions mean dwellings only, or dwellings irrespective of whether they are also workplaces? Farms offer a good example: many farmers live and work in the same place. In their case, do we mean the whole area that is naturally part of their workplace, even though it might be nothing to do with their dwelling? Many farmers have fields that are not contiguous to the land surrounding the farmhouse—possibly on the other side of the road or of the valley. We need to be clear about such issues.

I am not persuaded by anything that the Minister has said, that the following phrases from the new clause represent a sufficiently strong test. The new clause states:

    ``that constable also believes, on reasonable grounds, that the presence of that person...

    (i) amounts to, or is likely to result in, the harassment of the victim; or

    (ii) is likely to cause alarm or distress''.

Those are alternatives, not cumulative factors. To illustrate my point, I shall use the example of last year's visit to this country by the President of China. While he was here he had a dwelling—it might have been a hotel, but it was still a place where he stayed. He may have been caused alarm or distress by the protests of people who were unhappy with Chinese policy on Tibet. Personally, I hope that they caused him distress, because that was the purpose of the protest: to bring his attention to something, to cause him to react and to affect him.

In addition, the purpose of the protesters was to persuade someone who would be defined as ``the victim'' under the new clause that he should not do something that he was entitled or required to do, or that he should do something that he was not under any obligation to do. It could be argued that to attempt to persuade the President of China to give up his Government's occupation of Tibet is to seek to persuade him to do something that he is under no obligation to do, under one definition of international law, but that morally he should do. We are in dangerous territory if we leave the new clause as it is.

Another example was given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). I do not want to repeat the debate that we had this morning, but it seems to me absolutely proper for a journalist, in certain circumstances, to go to someone's house, to wait outside their house for them to come out and to seek to ask them questions that may cause distress or alarm. That person may deserve to have distress or alarm caused to them. It must be a civil liberty to allow people to challenge those who are abusing other people's money or assets. That is part of a free society.

I understand that it is difficult to draw the line. I am not in favour of a society in which everyone is plagued by harassing journalists. However, the Bill includes more than a harassment test. The new clause uses the phrase

    ``likely to result in, the harassment of the victim; likely to cause alarm or distress.''

That is far too weak a test. We must return to the matter at a later stage.

Hon. Members have mentioned another issue. People working in the research science industries who have sent me letters want to ensure that their families are given sufficient protection and are not put under undue pressure. I understand and share that concern. Those people could be at risk at home, on their way between home and work, at work or in other places—such as when out shopping. We have not yet tackled the issue of whether the targeted individual and their family should be treated in the same way, or treated differently. I raise the question because we should not legislate on the hoof without having answered that question.

There are other aspects that we should consider carefully before we finalise the legislation. For example, subsection (2) of new clause 6 contains the proposal that

    ``A direction under this section is a direction requiring the person to whom it is given to do all such things as the constable giving it may specify as the things he considers necessary''.

We often debate whether such tests should be subjective or objective. I am not asserting my view of the matter, but I am asking whether there should be an objective test rather than a subjective test.

Another point raised with me is whether it is sufficient, in practical terms, for directions to be given orally, and whether people should be guilty of an offence if they do not comply with directions given orally.

I do not remember whether the Minister was on the demonstration that I attended when we were both at university, against Rudi Dutschke's deportation by Reginald Maudling. I was there—and the Minister confirms that he was there too. The police were there. Just before I went to university, a protest took place at the Garden House hotel against the Greek junta, the colonels and their undemocratic rule of Greece. There was plenty of police activity there.

Is sufficient protection provided for the civil liberties of people who are lawfully protesting in such a circumstance—and who are thus clearly seeking to make a point to people who might fear pressure—if the police tell the whole crowd of 100 or 1,000 people to move on, when there is not necessarily any legal requirement that they should know that the police have said that? It must be wrong for people to be guilty of an offence simply because when a direction was given—to which a police officer would attest on oath in court—they did not hear it or were unaware of it. People who were quite innocently protesting could be caught up in that.

Mr. Clarke: On a minor point, and without going into romantic recollections of the Garden House hotel demonstration, at which I was not present, the hon. Gentleman has given two examples involving hotels: the hotel used by the president of China and the Garden house hotel. In our view, a hotel is not a dwelling. We believe that a dwelling is defined as a structure occupied as a person's home.

Mr. Hughes: I understand that. It is a perfectly reasonable answer and if that is the current interpretation of the law, it is fine.

On a separate issue, would General Pinochet's residence, for months—or years—in Surrey, have been his dwelling? It strikes me that he had no choice about it. It was his home de facto. He was not allowed to go anywhere else, and I think that the courts would have probably defined it as his home. The issue that I am concerned about would arise if people were standing outside General Pinochet's place of house arrest. Is the Prime Minister's home at No. 10 Downing street his dwelling? Perhaps I should have said No. 11 Downing street. I am confused these days as to who in the Government lives where. That house is not only his dwelling but his workplace. I raise the question only so that we can reach the correct definitions.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): The hon. Gentleman has put a query into my mind. If one were to demonstrate outside someone's home, not requiring him or her to do something, but simply out of dislike, because he or she belonged to a different political party, that would presumably not be covered by the Bill. Perhaps the Minister should think about adding something to cover that eventuality.

Mr. Hughes: That is an overly draconian response. The hon. Gentleman should always try to tend in the other direction. I shall have to persuade him that the tendency to legislate for more powers to be given to authority should always be resisted—even, or perhaps especially, by a Labour Government.

If I wanted to protest to the Chinese Government, I might want to do so outside the Chinese ambassador's residence, which clearly is his home for as long as he is staying in London as ambassador. The same would apply to the American ambassador's residence, and would have applied to the South African ambassador's residence, if this had been happening 20 years ago. That would be a dwelling, and I would want the ambassador to do something that he was not doing, or to stop doing something that he was doing—although in my case, I would not spend my time there without a slightly stronger reason. I have better things to do. However, we need to deal with the questions that I have raised.

I think that it is proper, as in new clause 7, to extend the Bill to include other forms of communication that can be used for harassment. I do not know about other members of the Committee, but people who obtain one's mobile phone number can send text messages, which can be harassment because they fill up the text message space and it is necessary to keep deleting them. In the past two years, there have been two people who have thought that it was their life's work to leave messages on my answering machine about 25 times a day, and effectively to block all the other messages. I accept that it becomes harassment, although I have never sought protection against it. Clearly, e-mails could also be included in this category. Receiving e-mails every two seconds would be very tedious to deal with. We need to find the difference between what is tedious and what is harassment, and not to be over-sensitive about such things.

We are sympathetic to new clause 14, for the reasons that I gave earlier. The law on conspiracy is sufficient as it stands, so new clause 15 is unnecessary.

5 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 6 March 2001