Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Dr. Harris: This is the first time that I have spoken in this Committee. I came specifically to speak to some of the amendments and clauses in this group—we clearly have a large group of matters to discuss.

It might be convenient if I explain the order in which I will deal with the issues and the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Amendments Nos. 341 and 342 deal with clause 116, and amendments Nos. 343 and 344 with clause 117. They are followed by new clause 32, which is important. I note that the Conservatives also have amendments in the group, to which we will respond when they have spoken to them. I know that my hon. Friend hopes to speak to amendment No. 101, which is tabled in his name.

Clauses 116 to 118 relate to problems of animal rights extremism, although they do not specifically state that. Given that we have so much ground to cover, I do not think that this Committee is the place to make long speeches about the issue, but I would like to put on record a number of points about the problem that the clauses are intended to solve.

Work using animals for medical research is necessary, valuable and carefully regulated. Often it is necessary because of Government requirements for toxicity testing; the onus is therefore on the Government and Parliament to ensure that individuals and firms can carry out in peace the testing required by Government, Parliament and statute, that they are not subject to unwarranted intimidation and that they are not victims of violent acts or harassment. Such work is valuable not only to identifying new treatments for human and animal disease, but to the livelihood of people working in the pharmaceutical and medical research industries and indirectly to the economic well-being of the country. That is why we have to ensure that the work can be carried out in this country free from harassment, the threat of violence and intimidation. It is important that Parliament and the Government ensure that the legislative framework provides for that as well as possible.

Some people object to the use of animals in medical research, even when it is carefully regulated. They have the right to hold those views—many members of my party, and of all others, share them—and they should have the right to express them peacefully. However, I have not yet met a Member of the House of Commons who supports the activities covered by the clauses: harassment, intimidation, threats of violence and
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violence. It is clearly possible without having recourse to harassment, intimidation, violence and threats of violence to have a debate, to have protests, to have strongly held views and to advance those views, to seek for them to be debated and for regulation to be reviewed and changed if necessary.

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Although I am usually sceptical about increases in the law surrounding personal freedom and the ability to protest, my party and I agree that the clauses, on balance, are a reasonable and proportionate response to the problem. We do not believe that they go so wide as to catch animal rights or any other protest activity that we do not want to catch. Nevertheless, we recognise that there is a debate to be had. We look forward to that debate and to hearing any concerns that may be expressed. We hope that the Government will be open to tabling amendments if not now, then later, if issues are raised by people who believe that the powers are too wide. Local businesses and constituents in my area and that of the hon. Member for Huntingdon, and probably in the constituencies of other hon. Members, have been put under huge pressure, which I shall discuss when I speak to new clause 32.

Clause 116 is designed to extend the provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to make it absolutely clear in law that the Act can be used to protect the victims of harassment or alleged harassment when one or more persons are involved. That is set out in the explanatory notes. I understand that some court judgments have taken a literal view of the word ''another'' in the Act—there was a case in Hull, for example, in which a company could not be protected under the Act because of the rather narrow interpretation of the relevant section. I understand what clause 116 aims to do, and I support it.

Amendment No. 341 is a probing amendment, designed to elicit from the Government an explanation of two points—three, when taken with amendment No. 342. First, is the term ''may be a victim'' too wide? Anyone ''may'' be a victim, particularly in the case of harassment that is intended to have victims but that we hope can be stopped at some point during the harassment. Amendment No. 341 probes whether the words ''reasonably considered to be'' a victim might therefore be appropriate.

Similarly, one might argue that it would be unfortunate if intelligence showed clear evidence of a plan to harass and that there had already been harassment elsewhere, but one did not want anyone to become a victim of that harassment before having a form of legislative comeback. I do not know whether that would be appropriate, and I suggested the words ''or target'' to probe the Government's view of how predictive such a measure is deemed to be. I am concerned about legislating against intended crime rather than against crime itself, but I would be grateful if the Minister explained whether, if there is clear intelligence of a plan or conspiracy to harass and a pattern of behaviour has already been set in motion that suggests that there is about to be another victim who has not yet been harassed, that person will be
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protected, particularly if the victims of the previous activity are unwilling or unable to give evidence in court, whereas a future victim or target may be able to.

It is not clear to me why subsection (2)(a) is needed when subsection (2)(b) seems to cover the persons listed in proposed new subsection (1A)(c), which seems to cover most people. Will the Minister clarify? Proposed new section 3A(2)(a) seems to suggest that the person need not even fall within proposed new subsection (1A)(c), so I question what sort of people are included in proposed new section 3A(2) who are not already included in subsection (2)(b).

Clause 117, as the Minister will no doubt explain, deals with home visits, which is a prevalent tactic among animal rights extremists. It is a great problem for medical researchers and for the companies associated with them. As I understand it, the measure is designed to ensure that people can be caught on one occasion in order to prevent a flitting campaign, going from house to house and home to home.

Amendment No. 343 simply probes the Government to see whether an individual's presence is required for the provisions on harassment to apply, or whether conduct using remote means—electronic communications and then an amplifier, for example—that causes alarm and distress but does not require the actual presence of the perpetrator is covered.

Amendment No. 344 probes the Government about why new subsection 42A(3) is required. It states that

    ''The references in subsection (1)(c) and (d) to a person's presence are references to his presence either alone or together with that of any other persons who are also present.''

I am sure that there is a good reason, but the explanatory notes merely restate that wording, so I should be grateful if the Minister explained why that is a requirement. What does it seek to capture that is not already captured?

Clause 118 deals with the police direction to somebody to stay away from a person's home issued in advance of its having been found that he has been there. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome has a view in relation to amendment No. 101 about the rights of people who face a police direction of that kind.

New clause 32 deals with the separate question of economic damage. Members of the Committee will have received the briefing that I have had from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry demonstrating how great a problem that is. It is a problem for the individuals concerned and their families—sometimes including families far removed from the economic purpose of the company and, indeed, companies several times removed from the work involving animals. It is also a problem for economic reasons. There are concerns that research and development investment will decline because this country is no longer a civilised place in which to undertake such business, even though it is valuable, necessary and carefully regulated. There is evidence that such investment decreased last year for the first time in a long time. That is worrying on economic grounds as well as on the human grounds that I have set out.

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The ABPI has set out the increasing extent to which companies are being targeted by a series of measures of harassment and intimidation. The figures are now in the public domain. In 2002, 113 companies were targeted; in 2003, 203; and in 2004, 313. The number of companies reporting more than 10 incidents increased from 10 in 2002 to 25 in 2003 and 29 in 2004. Recently, the Government have often said that they support companies involved in the work and the victims of such harassment, and I am sceptical about bringing in a series of reactive laws on the basis of one year's experience, but we can now see a pattern of increasing and increasingly severe activity, and we can see that that activity has a damaging effect on individuals, on medical research and on the economic performance of companies, thus threatening British jobs and the economic performance of the country. There is therefore enough evidence for us to say that the Government should propose new legislation.

New clause 32 would create a new offence in relation to animal research and the specific intention to cause economic loss. It is not the sort of measure that should be taken lightly, and that is why I was keen to ensure that we could debate the matter. The hon. Member for Huntingdon has tabled an analogous new clause, the terms of which I believe—I should not interpret it for him—go a little wider than those of mine. We both wanted a debate in Committee so that, if the Government were minded to do something of the kind, they could be informed of the views of members of the Committee before tabling an amendment on Report. It is of course regrettable that there is not already something showing the Government's intention for us to see now, but the debate presents us with an opportunity. Perhaps the Government are thinking of something with similar architecture, and we can thus carry out at least partial scrutiny of their proposals.

I shall not go through the new clause in detail because of the time constraints, but I hope that the Government will comment on it in reasonable detail. It is intended to create a new offence in the context of an unlawful activity that is already taking place. I draw the Committee's attention to subsection (3), which would require a person to have carried out or threatened

    ''any unlawful activity against a connected person''

to fall within the ambit of the new clause. It could be argued that a new offence is not necessary if unlawful activity has already taken place that could be prosecuted or lead to proceedings, but I do not agree. Extra sentencing provisions may be available where an offence is part of a pattern of activity, but there will be occasions when victims of harassment and intimidation are not willing to seek a prosecution and find it onerous to be forced to give evidence in public, particularly if the root problem is their being exposed, accused or intimidated.

The new clause provides that if there is a contract between connected persons as defined in subsection (6), a person can commit an offence if, by acting in accordance with subsection (3)—that is, committing a separate offence—he attempts to induce a connected
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person to breach a contract, as set out in subsection (1). The wording used is not dissimilar from that in clause 116 and in other legislation.

I believe that the new clause is a proportionate response and is sufficiently narrow not to cause excessive concern to people who, like me, take a civil libertarian view of protest. First, the measure is restricted to the context of animal research. I know that there is debate and argument—we may touch on that in connection with new clause 26—about whether other spheres of activity might in the future be subject to the same sort of harassment and intimidation. I accept that internet methods could be used in other contexts about which strong views are held, including areas of science and technology such as mobile phone masts or genetically modified crops. Nevertheless, because the intention to cause economic loss is potentially a relatively wide offence, without—except in relation to the existing unlawful act—specific individual victims, a high threshold should be set, including an existing problem, a pattern of behaviour, and a network of people who have not been tackled by existing legislation, before a law of this kind should be made.

Animal research protests meet the criteria that we want to meet. There is an established problem, which has existed for several years and is getting worse. Existing legislation has been tried but has not worked, and the activity that is being affected is carefully regulated and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Parliament has made it clear that the activity is an economic, scientific, academic and research activity that it supports, within clear regulation, which is subject to review and can be amended. That, by definition, narrows the proposed provision, because one would not expect the same problem to arise in less well regulated areas of activity.

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If problems arise in another sphere, the Government might come forward with a package to regulate it, so that the public can see that Parliament is willing to regulate it. Alongside that legislation, the Government might also introduce something similar to my new clause. However, many people would have problems with a wider provision, which is why I am concerned about the new clause that the hon. Member for Huntingdon tabled and why I thought to table a narrower one.

I understand that some people feel that the new clause is too wide and might prevent legitimate protest. I do not believe that, because subsection (2) details exemptions relating to industrial relations disputes and, for example, the work of inspectors of animal research establishments, who may well by their findings have an economic effect—rightly so, if they find breaches of the regulation. Subsection (2) also protects disclosure under the so-called whistleblower's Act. I do not believe that those provisions would catch journalists doing their job or consumer boycotts, because they require that someone is carrying out or threatening unlawful activity, which is nothing like
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journalistic campaigns, lobbying or calling for consumer boycotts. Marches and protests that are within the existing law and that do not harass also fall outside the provisions, which would apply only to those who are threatening unlawful activity.

I shall draw my remarks to a close, because other hon. Members want to speak and we have a strict timetable. I recognise the Government's support for the industry and the people in my constituency who work in animal research. There are questions to be asked about how quickly the Government have responded to the issues, but there is no doubt that Ministers in the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry are now actively engaged with the problem. The measures in the clause—and those in new clause 32, if the Government accept it or introduce something similar, albeit not significantly wider I hope—will show that the Government are committed to legislating to protect the livelihoods and interests of those conducting such important work.

I hope that the Government will bear in mind that although there might be considerable support in the House for such measures, we must have regard for the civil liberties issues. The fact that there is a problem and a desire to solve it—I believe that Opposition parties will support most of the Government's measures—makes it incumbent on us to ensure that the measures are not drawn too widely, because they will not be subject to the degree of scrutiny to which contentious measures are usually subject. In saying so, however, I welcome the proposals and commend new clause 32 in particular.

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