Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): Welcome to our proceedings, Dame Marion. I hope that we are going to make progress and, at the same time, have a good debate. At the end of the morning sitting, I was trying to clarify some of the issues surrounding the use of injunctions. At the risk of a repetition in Hansard, in case I did not make the points earlier, let me make it clear that under the amendments, the main company could get an injunction to protect smaller companies.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked whether supplier companies or contractors would have to be named in an injunction. I am advised that they do not have to be; for example, the injunction granted to Oxford university protects not just staff in the university's colleges, but contractors. They are defined simply as the contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers who are or will be engaged by the university to carry out work in connection with the construction of the university's research laboratory. I hope that that clarifies the situation. As I said earlier, ''person'' could include the
Column Number: 375
body corporate when we are talking about injunctions, and person in this regard would also cover university institutions.

Clause 117 is designed to give additional protection to people who are being harassed at home because of the work that they do.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Unless I missed it in the hubbub, I tabled another amendment to clause 116, dealing with whether the term victim or target should be used. There might have been another, too.

Caroline Flint: I think that I dealt with the issue of ''reasonably considered'', with which the hon. Gentleman's amendment No. 341 was concerned, in that we believe that ''may'' should suffice in this situation. One of the issues on which I elaborated earlier is that victims include not only immediate relatives but others who socialise, or are otherwise associated, with the individuals who work for organisations involved in animal research, or their suppliers. That is why we want to make sure that we do not leave any loopholes that could be exploited by extremists.

On the hon. Gentleman's amendment No. 342, we do not think that ''target'' adds anything. A person who is, or might be, a victim for the purposes of the subsection will already be a target. Therefore, we believe that clause 116 covers people who might be victims in future. I think that that was his concern.

Dr. Harris: I think that what the hon. Lady said was that people who are victims will be targets. My question is, are all targets necessarily established as victims, or is she saying that ''victims'' is wide enough to cover people who are in the process of being victimised or are due to be?

Caroline Flint: I think that we would take the view that it covers a wider group than those who are currently victims. We are mindful of those who might be victims. That is important in the context of what I said earlier, namely that in such matters, it is not always the most immediately obvious group of people who are victims. I shall review the hon. Gentleman's comments later and see whether there is anything on which I can supply more assurance, if that will be of help to him.

Clause 117 concerns people who are being harassed at home because of the work that they do. I should stress that we fully support a person's right to protest peacefully and within the bounds of the law. However, when that protest turns to intimidation, threats of violence or worse, the police must have powers that enable them to deal effectively with the situation.

As was outlined this morning, one of the problems is that such campaigns operate on a number of different fronts. Someone's name and address might appear on a website. Although that website does not necessarily directly say ''you will go out and vandalise this person's property''—the protesters running the websites are very clever about that and have their own legal advice—we feel that the inference is there. People's property is often vandalised within a short
Column Number: 376
space of time after their name and address have appeared on websites. Their cars have acid thrown on them, leaflets are sent around the neighbourhoods—saying in some cases that people are paedophiles—and so on. When linked to those other issues, a presence outside someone's home is about terror. That makes people concerned about what might happen next based on other examples. They have to try and get on with their everyday lives, but that presence outside their home adds to their sense of fear.

The presence of groups of protesters outside the homes of employees of targeted companies is distressing, as it affects both the employees and their families, possibly including children and other vulnerable people living at that property. In one extreme case, a farmer and his family were subjected to constant protests at his farm for four years. There is a gap in the legislation. Currently, when the police are in attendance, they are generally able to contain protests in the vicinity of the person's home and often a direction to someone to stop drumming, take down an offensive banner or leave the area under section 42 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 is complied with before an arrest becomes necessary. However, the current provision does not cover the situation where a complaint is made about the presence of protesters outside a person's home but they disappear before the police arrive, or the police are unable to give a direction as they do not have the resources to enforce it at the time.

The new offence set out in clause 117 significantly strengthens the existing law and will attract a specific power of arrest, so a constable would be able to make an arrest where he has reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence has taken place and the protester is guilty of the offence. That means the police can deal with protesters after the event, which will be useful if there is evidence of protest on CCTV, for example, but the police were not present, or they were present and could not identify the protesters, or there was some difficulty in enforcing a direction at the scene.

The penalty for the new offence will be imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale, or both. However, that will rise to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale, or both, when the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 come in to force.

Amendment No. 344 removes subsection (3) of the new offence. That subsection is needed to ensure that all those in a group could be charged with the new offence when it is the presence of the group as a whole that causes the harassment, rather than an individual on their own. For example, one person on their own wearing a tee-shirt saying ''Puppy Killer'' may not cause harassment, but if there is a group of people all wearing similar tee-shirts, harassment or distress may be caused.

Amendments Nos. 223 and 225 seek to make the offences in clauses 117 and 118 triable either way. I understand the concerns expressed by Opposition
Column Number: 377
Members about the sentencing of animal rights extremists, but I do not think their amendments are appropriate or proportionate, nor would they be effective. The offence in clause 117 is comparable to harassment, which carries a maximum penalty of six months and/or a £5,000 fine. That is why the new offence has been drafted with the same maximum penalty. I have even more concerns regarding amendment No. 225, which would result in the new offence of contravening a police direction to stay from a person's home for a specified period also being triable either way and carrying a maximum sentence of three years on conviction on indictment. As drafted, the offence carries a maximum sentence of six months, which will become 51 weeks when custody plus is introduced. The penalty for the new offence is in line with that for the existing offence of ''non-compliance with a police direction'' under section 42 of the Criminal Justice & Police Act 2001. The offences do not justify the sort of penalty proposed by the Opposition. Other criminal behaviour, such as putting people in fear or if violence or damage occur, can be prosecuted under different offences that rightly carry much higher penalties. I hope that, if the evidence exists, those other offences can be used to deal with some of the people about whom we are talking. I understand the concerns about the sentencing of animal rights activists, and it is very important that the judiciary are fully aware of the aggravating nature of animal rights extremist activity and understand its impact on victims. However, increasing the penalties as the amendments propose would result in an offence framework that did not accurately reflect the relative seriousness of various offences.

Harassment reflects a threat to an individual and is rightly a summary-only offence. Affray reflects a higher level of threat and requires the use or a threat of the use of violence towards another person, and a threat cannot be made by the use of words alone. The maximum penalty for affray is three years' imprisonment. Putting people in fear of violence is one level higher again, and attracts a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. Those are the sorts of offences that can be tried either way. The penalties that we have provided for and the offences in clauses 117 and 118 are appropriate for the level of offence, as we are talking about people being directed to leave because they are present outside someone's home. They do not necessarily have to engage in an activity for those offences to be applied.

Other measures, including preventive orders such as antisocial behaviour orders, can also be taken and are effective. Heather Nicholson, who also uses the surnames Avery, Barwick and James, was convicted of common assault and aggravated trespass and received a five-year ASBO on Monday 17 January. That ASBO prevents her from going within 500 m of Phytopharm premises, Huntingdon Life Sciences research centres in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, Halifax house at the University of Oxford, and Darley Oaks farm in Staffordshire. Additionally, she cannot knowingly contact the owners or employees of Phytopharm and
Column Number: 378
Huntingdon Life Sciences or their families. The ASBO also covers any company that does business with Huntingdon Life Sciences. That sends out the clear message that we can use ASBOs to great effect, because they tell people what they should not do, and if they breach an ASBO, they will be brought before the courts again.

Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 20 January 2005