Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Caroline Flint: When I say that the provision would become unworkable, I am voicing my belief that courts would be clogged up with appeals. There are other areas of law where the police can give direction without any right of appeal. I do not want to hamper the police, but in issuing a direction, a police officer has to go through a number of issues. I would be concerned about applying a restriction that could be undermined by unnecessary appeals to the courts. If someone chooses to breach the direction, their case will be heard in court.

Dr. Harris: I remain slightly concerned, although I support the thrust of the clause, that the basis for not allowing the effective right of appeal is that the court system is too clogged and is nothing to do with the effectiveness of the measure. I do not think that it is reasonable for someone's right of appeal to be curtailed on the ground given by the Minister, which I do not necessarily dispute, that people might take advantage of their right of appeal. It is a bizarre situation if the idea that people might take advantage of their rights puts pressure on the Government not to issue those rights in the first place. It is a dangerous precedent if it is extended.

Caroline Flint: I do not think that we are setting a precedent; rather, we are following the practice in other matters on which the police have the power to direct. If an appeal mechanism was put in place, it would lead to problems, as animal rights activists would be likely to appeal every direction not to return during a specified period. That is one argument: the other, as I have said, is that other police powers to
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direct are not subject to an appeal mechanism, so we would be setting a precedent by introducing one. Having an appeal mechanism for the order-making power in question would be anomalous.

As I said, under section 69(2) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 the police have the power to direct protesters to leave land where they reasonably believe such people are committing, have committed, or intend to commit aggravated trespass. If, having left the land, a person so directed re-enters within a period of three months—the provision is similar to the situation that we are discussing—he commits an offence. There is no appeal mechanism for that. To establish such a mechanism would be to set a precedent. I am sure that the same arguments that I am trying to explain to hon. Members were used in the debates about directions on aggravated trespass.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister because I see the value of the order and I am not arguing against it. However, I am trying to apply a little judicial oversight. Surely she accepts that there is a difference between the power to deal with aggravated trespass on private land that she cited and the power to remove people from a public place where they would otherwise be entitled to be. The more apt analogy is perhaps with the power to direct dispersal from a designated area under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which extends to a maximum of only 24 hours, not three months.

Caroline Flint: Yes, I understand, but we are also discussing the context in which a police officer might use a direction. As I explained, a police officer would apply a number of different benchmarks to determine that a direction should be issued in the first place. The impact on the residents and their concerns would be taken into account.

We are talking about a situation in which families on their own property, experience such things as sabotage in the middle of the night—I shall not list all the things that animal rights extremists get up to, as we have discussed that already. They can then face individuals or groups, perhaps with placards and drums, mounting a vigil outside their door. However, the very presence of such people there is a serious matter. An individual might throw acid on someone's car and 24 hours later a vigil might appear, with people urging that person to stop doing something that is legal. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree about that combination of harassment. There is a need to give the police effective powers.

Although the offence we propose is not exactly the same as aggravated trespass on land, we would be setting a precedent if we put in place an appeal mechanism when there is no such mechanism for similar laws.

Mr. Heath: I understand the Minister's point and I am not trying to pick an argument. The judicial supervision point is important, but other factors need to be taken into account. She has said that the means of appeal is the enforcement mechanism in breach—in other words, if an order is placed on someone and they breach it, they are taken to court and given the
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opportunity to argue the case. However, I am not sure that there is a defence that the order should not even have been made. The person brought before the court either has breached the order or has not.

I would be happier if there was at least the capacity to argue in court that the police officer was mistaken in issuing the order in the first place, either through incorrect identification of the individual in question, or because the officer was exceeding his powers. At present there is such no provision. The policeman makes the order; someone who breaches it will be found guilty, but there is to be no judicial oversight of whether the order was made properly in the first instance.

3 pm

Caroline Flint: But the same applies to aggravated trespass on land. The police officer makes the direction and there is no appeal mechanism. If someone breaches that direction, they will have their day in court, where they can say why they breached the direction. We might have to agree to differ on the issue. Directions can take many forms, but given the processes through which a police officer must go to determine whether to issue a direction, I do not want us to apply an appeal mechanism in this instance when one does not apply in others. Although the directions are not the same, there are good comparisons to be made between them.

New clauses 18 to 23 deal with concerns about confidentiality. I understand those concerns. As I hope to explain, there has been some confusion about people having to disclose their names and home addresses on various registers. We have sought the advice of our DTI colleagues on the issue and I have had to take a crash course on company law with them. There is no need for any member to give a home or business address and many use P.O. boxes or something similar. Again, one of the problems has been communication and information—knowing which companies might be under threat and therefore which people need to know that they can take such steps. Some of the companies that are directly involved in animal research are very aware of the different ways in which the law can protect them, but problems have emerged when more arm's-length companies supply the company involved in the research—the parent company, as it were. So, measures already exist. It is also common for shares to be held through nominees, and in such cases it is the nominee's details that are public. We do not feel that it is necessary to provide for the statutory protection of information that is not required.

On new clause 20, the Law Commissions have fully considered the position of secured lenders, and we are awaiting the recommendations of the Law Commission for England and Wales. I understand that it is likely to propose that the contact details of a lender's agent may be filed in place of the lender's details. New clause 18 is unnecessary because company members are not in the same position as their directors. We introduced confidentiality orders for directors because they generally have to provide their
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forename, surname and residential address for the public record, but the requirement for company members is not so specific; it merely requires their names and addresses, but they do not need to give their home address, and, as I said, a P.O. box number would do.

Keeping members' addresses off the public record raises certain issues, including some relating to corporate governance, as my DTI colleagues informed me. It is important that those who own a company engage thoughtfully in its operation and exercise the responsibilities of ownership, as well as take dividends. As part of that role, it is important that members are able act together, which means that they must be able to contact one another—for example, they may need to collect signatures to propose a resolution at an annual general meeting, and how they vote on resolutions may have far-reaching implications for many others. The independent company law review consulted widely and concluded that any solution to the problem of people abusing the public availability of companies' registers of members should not interfere with members' rights or otherwise damage the proper use of registers or the information in them.

Mr. Djanogly: Can the Minister confirm whether the review considered the implications in terms of extremist activity of access to the register? I would suggest that it did not; it was looking at other things.

Caroline Flint: I will check that, but the issue has been incorporated into the review, which is now looking into how such things might help the company law reform Bill, which the Government are hoping to introduce. It has certainly considered issues of confidentiality.

Confidentiality orders provide that directors do not have to seek an order to be protected, but can simply provide something like a P.O. box number, as can members. That would actually negate the need for confidentiality orders, because people will simply be able to say that they want a P.O. box address, which helps. That will apply to everyone, whatever the situation with regard to animal rights extremists. On a practical note, there are issues about the consideration of millions of separate applications for members' confidentiality orders, which would obviously be a very bureaucratic task. They certainly could not be handled by the handful of people who operate the current system for directors' confidentiality, but that difficulty would be negated by the fact that neither directors nor members will have to go through that process, but can simply have a P.O. box number, as I said. We believe that new clause 19 is unnecessary because members can already keep their home addresses off the public record. Companies do not need the right to make their members' addresses secret.

On new clause 20, the public record of details of companies' secured borrowing was introduced to protect creditors, particularly unsecured ones, and there has been careful consideration of any proposal that might increase their commercial risk. The Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission recently examined aspects of the law
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on secure lending, including registration requirements. In view of the potential risk of lenders being intimidated, we asked both commissions to consider what, if any, lenders' details should be on the public record. The Scottish Law Commission recommended that the text of the deed of a floating charge, which will include the lenders' details, should be registered,. The Law Commission for England and Wales has not yet reported, but both commissions advise that very few respondents to their consultations, and notably no lenders, believe that the details of the person taking securities should be protected. In the case of a charge over land, the information would still appear on the land register, as would charges over ships, aircraft and any other asset for which there is a specialist register. The DTI is considering the report, which, if there are still concerns, might provide an opportunity to raise the matter in relation to the company law reform Bill, on which the DTI will lead.

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