Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Heath: We have had an interesting debate, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and the hon. Member for Huntingdon, both of whom have direct constituency interests in the matter. That is crucial, as it informs their comments. My hon. Friend is concerned not only with the university but with companies that operate in association with it, and the hon. Gentleman with Huntingdon Life Sciences, which has been targeted for a long time.

It is important that we stress that we understand the views of those who oppose animal experimentation, and who argue strongly that it should be further regulated, or even that it should cease altogether. We should also recognise that we have an extremely well regulated system in this country. That was not always the case. My hon. Friend and I are probably the only members of the Committee who held licences for vivisection during our earlier lives. It was not because we wanted them; I certainly did not, and neither, I assume, did my hon. Friend. I was very uncomfortable to have one, but it was a requirement of matriculation in my university course. As an undergraduate, when I took my physiology degree in the early 1970s, I had a licence for procedures on live animals. It was entirely unnecessary for the degree course I was taking, and I was not undertaking any research. Frankly, it is far better that licences are not handed out in such a cavalier fashion nowadays, and that animals are spared as a result. Times have changed.

The right of people to protest is something we should uphold and be clear about. However, their rights do not extend to intimidation, harassment, violence, death threats, or actions that could cause death or serious injury. Those are uncivilised and inappropriate acts, outside the norms of a civilised society.

I am pleased that the Government have brought forward their proposals. We are concerned that they are not sufficiently comprehensive to meet the demand, and I will be interested to see what the Minister has to say. I want to raise three points, beginning with an issue raised by the hon. Member for
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Huntingdon. Does the word ''person'' in the context of these clauses include a body corporate? I assume that it does, but it is important that we understand that. If so, I have an ancillary question: does a university have the legal personality of a body corporate? I am not clear about that. I hope that someone is, because universities are important to this debate.

Secondly, will the new provisions deal with the protection of communities as well as individuals? I say that not because I do not understand that communities are made up of individuals, but simply because, as the Minister knows, there have been cases where whole communities have been harassed in a way that is abhorrent and deplorable. The harassment may not be directly linked to any particular individuals, but may be conducted simply on the grounds that everyone somehow shares a corporate responsibility for something that is going on within that community. I do not entirely understand why police forces in the areas concerned are not able at the moment to take more effective action. I am sorry if that sounds like a criticism, but there are many provisions under the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and the Criminal Justice & Police Act 2001 where I would have expected rather more robust action to have been taken on the basis of the activities currently taking place. I share the view of the hon. Member for Huntingdon that we can do what we like in legislation, but until policed effectively that legislation will not have the proper effect. Is it the Minister's view that intelligence or enforcement might fall within the responsibilities of the Serious Organised Crime Agency? The borderline of that agency's responsibilities is unclear, as is whether organised harassment is something with which it might properly be concerned, as in many cases it is a national or international conspiracy.

My third point, which amplifies the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made in respect of new clause 32, is that it is surely right that special circumstances apply to companies or universities that are licensed under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. That is the crux of the matter. There is a clearly defined group of companies and individuals who are vulnerable to such intimidation.

I entirely understand the Conservatives' point about the capacity for such harassment to be extended into other areas. However, I am equally conscious of the need to strike a balance, because there can be perfectly legitimate protest against the activities of companies, whether as part of a trade union dispute or because people simply do not think that those activities are ethical.

I remember a time, again in the early 1970s, when Barclays bank was heavily investing in the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Barclays branch in Oxford had to change its blotting paper every day because every day, curiously, it was defaced with the words ''Barclays are a piggy bank''. As soon as the blotting paper was removed, a new piece was similarly defaced. Some might say that that was potentially causing economic damage to Barclays.

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We need to maintain a sense of proportion and ensure the right balance between legitimate protest against a company's activities, however manifested, and going beyond that point to use harassment, intimidation, threats of violence or whatever, in order to cause economic damage.

Finally, clause 118 deals with ''police direction to stay away from a person's home''. I wonder whether the Minister considered a similar direction to stay away from a person's place of work or whether she believes that to be covered elsewhere. Very often harassment takes place not at a person's home but at the university department or other place of work where they are engaged in a lawful activity, so I wonder why that is not covered specifically.

Before I resume my seat I must briefly mention amendment No. 101, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend and concerns the order-making power that clause 118 gives to the police. I understand the need for that power, but a degree of judicial oversight is important when dealing with the power, given under proposed new section 42(4)(b) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, of a police constable to impose a direction

    ''to leave that vicinity and not to return to it within such period as the constable may specify, not being longer than 3 months''.

That is a fairly hefty direction from the police and it would not be unreasonable for it to be open to challenge within the legal system—for confirmation by a magistrate. The hon. Member for Huntingdon said that he thought that was fine, but that it ought to be necessary to wait for 10 days. That is a slightly novel view. Given the severity of the potential order-making power, the matter ought to return a magistrates court. That could be done in two ways. The first way would be by appeal, although I accept that that might, for example, cause appeals to magistrates courts, which I would not want to encourage. Alternatively, an order could be of a minimum duration in the first instance, after which the constable would be required to go to a magistrates court for confirmation of the order over a longer period. That would have the added advantage that the person on whom the order was served would have no doubts about its scope and what was intended.

Also, there is no capacity in clause 118 as drafted for an officer to serve a written order. The possibility for confusion and argument when returning to court for a breach of an order is quite patent. It is therefore good practice that the terms of an order be confirmed, despite the fact that it might, dare I say it, increase the bureaucracy of the procedure, in order to make it court-proof later.

11.15 am

Caroline Flint: This is an important debate. I very much welcome the fact that the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Huntingdon are serving on the Committee, because the targets of the attacks about which we have heard today are in their constituencies. Having said that, I am a little concerned by the tone that the hon. Member for Huntingdon has taken today, which does not help the debate or help us all to acknowledge how serious this
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issue is or what progress has been made in other areas in the past year or so, particularly with regard to police response, which was mentioned in particular.

One of the difficulties that we face is that on the one hand we have 43 police forces working with communities, which is very positive, but on the other we have animal rights extremists who, by their very nature, can target an individual at a company in the north-west that supplies Huntingdon and be down in the south-west the next day targeting other companies there. We have had the problem of ensuring that we link those incidents, partly because some of the supply companies involved are not aware of the possible threat to them, probably because the parent company may not want to alarm them unduly. To deal with that, we have taken action in several different ways on several different fronts. First, we have established the national extremism tactical co-ordinating unit, whose role is to ensure better policing and joined-up thinking and to take forensic evidence from one part of the country to see if it matches forensics from another part of the country. Because of that activity, which is ongoing, there has been a huge increase in the number of arrests and convictions of the relatively small number of people involved in these offences. We must continue to do better, but that is a practical measure.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome makes the very valid point that police forces already have several different pieces of legislation that they can enforce in several different sets of circumstances. One of the things that we have been trying to ensure while developing this legislation is that we do not lose sight of what powers the police can already, and importantly need to, use. Police forces up and down the country need to be aware of the nature of the people with whom we are dealing as well as the nature of their offences, which are very serious and are not simply one-offs.

We should also acknowledge that the UK probably has the toughest regulation in the world on experimentation and research involving animals. That is important to remember. That is not to say that alternatives to the use of animals cannot be developed in the future, which we support. It should be acknowledged that there have been developments in the past 50 years in several different areas, which we welcome, and we set up the national centre for the 3Rs to support that activity. The reality, however, is that animals are still needed in several different areas. Polls of the British public have shown that although people have genuine concerns about the use of animals, they understand why there are no alternatives when the matter is explained to them, and the majority are in favour of the use of animals for research. It is also important to acknowledge the several organisations and groups concerned about animal welfare and the use of animals for testing and research that have nothing to do with the activities that we are discussing today.

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The Bill aims to close some of the gaps in the law, and provides the first opportunity that we have had to do that. We publicly launched a paper last July, which is the first time that a Government have put on record their support for those who work legally in this field, what we are doing and what we intend to do. Clause 116 does that in two ways. First, there was some doubt about how far employees of a company could benefit from the current provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 when they had not previously been harassed, even though a fellow employee had been. The clause is intended to clarify the position by extending the offence under section 1 of the Act to cover the harassment of two or more persons on separate occasions. An offence will be committed even if each individual is harassed on only one occasion, if the purpose of the harassment is to persuade any person—it may or may not be the person who is being harassed—not to do something that he is entitled to do or to do something that he is not under any obligation to do.

Clause 116 also amends the civil remedy in section 3 of the 1997 Act to clarify that a company can apply to the High Court or county court for an injunction to protect persons associated with a company from harassment. In answer to the question raised by a couple of hon. Members about injunctions, people who will be covered by proposed new section 3A(2)(a) are not necessarily the people whose behaviour the protest is intended to change. Such a person might be a relative of a director, for example, and not directly involved in the activities in question.

Proposed new section 3A(2)(b) would enable companies to apply for injunctions as well. In addition, the main company—Huntingdon Life Sciences, for example—could obtain an injunction to protect smaller companies, such as supply companies. That would enable Huntingdon Life Sciences to protect its laundry company, for instance.

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