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One of the areas that we have tried to cover is when there is a criminal or tortious act. A
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tortious act is one against civil law. Usually, the remedy for a victim of a tort is to sue the alleged perpetrator in the civil courts. We are considering how to extend that so that an offence that could amount to a criminal offence can be covered by this clause in the criminal courts. We are including tortious acts that cause loss or damage because we believe that people who suffer nuisance campaigns designed to disturb or frighten them should be able to look to law enforcement to pursue their case. A court would have to be convinced that a tort had caused or, if threatened, would cause loss or damage for an offence to be committed. However, I will consider what the hon. Gentleman said and return to the matter a little later.
New clause 10 creates a new offence of committing a criminal or tortious act against a person which causes loss or damage. The offence is committed when the intention is to harm an animal research organisation and that includes those who breed animals for research. That is to ensure that it effectively tackles the evolving extremist tactic of targeting people who supply goods or services, such as courier companies, insurance companies and so on, making it increasingly difficult for an animal research organisation to function as its commercial partners are frightened off.
Turning to Opposition amendment (b) to new clause 10, I agree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) that the provision should catch cases when the criminal or tortious act is done to pressurise a supplier to or customer of an animal research organisation to end their dealings with the organisation. I assure him that the provision already has that effect. He wants to add the words "animal research organisation or" before "a third person", but third person already covers every person or body other than the person doing the criminal or tortious act and the person they are pressurising. We believe that it covers animal research organisations extensively and, therefore, that the amendment is unnecessary.
New clause 11 creates a second offence of threatening someone with an unlawful act because they are connected to an animal research organisation, whether as a supplier, customer or other associate, at up to two, and in some cases more, removes. That is aimed at giving prosecutors an effective tool for prosecuting threats made against people because of their direct or indirect connection with an animal research activity. In Committee, we heard various examples of how wide a net animal rights extremists throw to attack indirectly the organisation that is the source of its protest and concern.
Hon. Members will see that both offences can be committed as the result of the commission of a tortious act as well as a criminal act. That is an important aspect of our proposals. We all know that animal rights extremists have used a range of tactics that have caused real loss and damage to their victims. Some have been tortious rather than criminalfor example, fly-posting leaflets on lamp posts in a neighbourhood that falsely assert that a victim is a paedophile is libellous. As a result, it has been for the affected individual to seek redress for the damage caused, but we believe that the state should be able to come to the help of victims of a campaign of unlawful acts aimed at intimidating or coercing them.
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Amendments (a) to new clauses 10 and 11 are concerned with that issue, but I do not believe that introducing a test of significance to the loss or harm required to be caused by a relevant tortious act would be sensible in relation to either offence. It would make the scope of the offences entirely uncertain. With our formulation, any tortious act causing loss or damage can form the basis of an offence with the seriousness of the loss or damage forming part of the court's consideration of a penalty in the event of a conviction.
Dr. Evan Harris: I hope that the Minister understands that both amendments (a) are probing amendments. There could be concern that the provisions are widely drafted, in that nuisance and trespass are tortious acts. Is it her intention that the provision should catch people who are, for example, demonstrating by handing out leaflets outside an organisation? That could be considered a nuisance and might involve a trespass without significant loss or damage and might be seen to be part of what we would encourage as lawful protest.
Caroline Flint: To capture legitimate protests is not the purpose of our new clauses: an unlawful act has to be committed to trigger an offence under the provisions. We do not intend to make leafleting against an organisation unlawful. However, the example I gave was of leaflets alleging that someone is a paedophile being distributed around a neighbourhood as a means of intimidation and of getting that person to stop supplying a company that is involved in animal research. We do not intend those who legitimately leaflet against an organisation or the use of animals in experiments to be caught under the new offence.
Dr. Harris: Although I am conscious of the time, this is our only opportunity to debate these new clauses. I accept that the Minister's intention is to catch the serious defamation that she described, not lawful protest. My question is whether the wording provides for that distinction.
Also, the Minister did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about why the words "an act amounting to" precede "a criminal offence" in new clause 10(3)(a) and new clause 11(5)(a).
If leaflets contain material deemed threatening or offensive, the threatening limb of the intimidation offence may be engaged, but most people involved in peaceful legitimate protest make their argument against an activity without threatening or intimidating the people involved. I hope that that clarifies the provision.
Opposition amendment (b) to new clause 11 proposes to extend the offence in the new clause. The amendment
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would not extend the offence significantly, since the words it inserts would still be governed by the preamble to subsection (1), namely
The amendment would expressly catch a case where an unlawful act was accompanied by the threat of further unlawful acts unless the victim yielded. That situation is more than adequately covered by new clause 11. Furthermore, our definition of a person with a financial interest for the purpose of new clause 11 is simple and straightforward and I am not convinced that it needs to be changed as proposed in amendment (c).
New clause 12 proposes a maximum five year sentence for both the offences. We do not propose such a long maximum sentence lightly. We do so because we think that the campaigns of the extremists are very serious and designed to disturb peoples' peace of mind and coerce them. New clause 13 defines an animal research organisation for the purposes of the amendment. It includes the employers of those who hold individual or project licences for research under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 or are specified in certificates issued in respect of places that may be used for breeding and supplying animals for research, and the owners or lessors of the places where they work.
We believe that the tactics being used by animal rights extremists are so serious that tough new measures are needed to address them. There is a pattern of behaviour and an organised network of people carrying out well planned unlawful acts. That is why we are restricting the scope of the clause to persons connected to animal research organisations. Various views on that were expressed during our debate in Standing Committee. We recognise that, in future, there might be other, similar campaigns by extremists affecting organisations working in other fields. New clause 14 therefore proposes that the offences be capable of extension by means of an order subject to the affirmative procedure, if it can be shown that there has been a series of incidents that would have been offences under the new provisions had they been committed against someone connected to an animal experimenting company. We believe that that will provide adequate safeguards to ensure that the new offences are extended only where necessary and appropriate.
We are mindful that the provisions of the new clauses are historic in that they tackle certain types of protest. We realise that many people outside the House are concerned that they will affect peaceful and legitimate debate and protest. I hope that they will accept my assurances that the provisions will not do so. We are responding to a specific problem that has emerged: we are faced with a group of people who have developed cowardly tactics of attacking vulnerable third parties to put pressure on organisations carrying out research involving animals. Our new clauses are a targeted and proportionate response to their campaign. The penalties provided reflect the appalling consequences of the campaign on the commercial partners, customers and suppliers of animal research organisations, and the relatives and friends of those associated with research organisations.
I fully understand the concern and thinking that lie behind new clause 5 and I am sympathetic to them. The new clause is clearly designed to protect any company or other undertaking that is the target of harassment, violence or criminal damage that then results in it being caused financial damage. However, we have a major concern about the new clause: it is clear that it would be triggered only when financial damage had actually been suffered. The offences in our own new clauses are triggered by threats to take unlawful actionthat is a crime or a tort causing damageaimed at specified persons connected with an animal research organisation; there is therefore no requirement for the person to have suffered damage. We are trying to prevent the damage from taking hold. The measure that we propose does not rest, as new clause 5 does, upon being able to show that damage has been caused.
In addition, I am not convinced that the list of connected persons set out in new clause 5 is comprehensive enough. We are concerned that it could be exploited by those seeking to target particular companies. I therefore oppose new clause 5 and amendment No. 8, which would amend the long title of the Bill. I am sympathetic to the thinking that lies behind the proposals, which is why the Government have introduced their own measures to protect companies. I hope that hon. Members will discern the similarities between new clause 5 and Government new clause 10.
The Government new clauses will provide significant additional protection for animal research organisations so that they can continue their vital service to the health of the nation. I hope that they will have the full support of the House.
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