Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: May I make the same point as before? The reviews are considering other areas of the law. I hear what the Minister says, and I agree that she may be making an important point, but the people who are asked to give responses should be asked to give their views in the context of access by terrorists, about which they may not be thinking.

Caroline Flint: I will check with my DTI colleagues, but I guess that several organisations—certainly those that have lobbied me and others on what the Home Office should be doing about law enforcement and the policing of animal rights extremists—will look to other Departments to determine whether any other aspects of legislation affect their members. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my noble Friend Lord Sainsbury has worked closely with me to tackle animal rights extremism. I understand that the review considered extremism towards company directors, but I will double check if the hon. Gentleman needs any more reassurance. We have been working very closely together across Departments, and it would be rather strange if Lord Sainsbury and outside organisations had not been mindful of that matter.

It is not entirely clear what new clause 21 would achieve. It is clearly intended to provide another, perhaps easier, route to obtaining a confidentiality order where one is already in force, but, for the reasons that I gave for resisting other amendments, I am not sure if the new clause is really necessary.

New clause 22 is difficult. I have had discussions with DTI officials about it. It is intended to expunge information from the public record that is already there, but it is a fact of life that once information has been made public, it is public for ever: it can be found in libraries and various other places where people can gain access to information. However much we may regret that fact, I am not sure that statute law can change it. The forthcoming company law reform legislation will make it much easier for company directors to keep their home addresses out of the public record, and all directors will be entitled to file a
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service address for the public record. Much as we might like to remove information from existing records, I am not sure that it is possible. Legal issues are involved that might be important in other proceedings or actions taken against individuals. Again, it comes down to a balance between questions of confidentiality, with which I totally sympathise, and matters of corporate governance.

I fully understand the concerns expressed through new clauses 26 and 32. Much of what we have been discussing today has been about the protection of individuals but we are aware also of the need to protect the corporate body from the damage done by animals rights extremist to those companies that, I repeat, are engaged in legal, lawful activity, using animals in science and research in what is one of the most regulated areas in the world. I am sympathetic to the problem.

We have been working hard across Government to identify a clause that includes an offence linked to economic damage. We have had to work through a number of issues. The first is how to create such an offence that still allows people who want to protest legitimately against a company or an organisation to do so. There are plenty of examples of such protest from the past and from today and protest should continue to be allowed. Mention was made of other campaigns, such as that the one against apartheid and environmental campaigns, but the list is endless. We have had to think seriously about how to legislate without creating a disproportionate response and stopping people using their democratic right to protest in a law-abiding way.

That is one issue, but there are others. For instance, new clause 32, tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, would allow the offence to be applied only once the company had decided to stop trading. We do not necessarily want to reach that point. Hon. Members might want to think about how to create an offence that can be used before a company decides to stop trading—a supply company that decides to stop working for Huntingdon Life Sciences, or a company that decides to stop its activities entirely. We do not necessarily want take action only after the event, because that would not stop undue and illegal pressure being put on such companies.

Other issues are highlighted in both new clauses. For instance, going back to my first point, the question is whether the provision should be restricted to the groups involved in animal science and research identified in new clause 32 or whether it should be broader. The Government are still thinking about that important point. However, we are taking legal advice and hope to table amendments on Report. I understand that the nature of the offence that we are talking about is groundbreaking in legal terms, so I offer Opposition Front-Bench Members the opportunity to meet me on Report to talk through the clause.

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Dr. Harris: The Minister's offer is helpful to us and we are grateful for it. We understand what the Minister says about the provision being groundbreaking—I think that that was her term—and the need to proceed with caution. I recognise also that she will not say which way she is minded in respect of a restricted activity or a wider provision. However, it would be useful if at this point, without coming down on either side of the argument, she shared her views about the advantages and disadvantages of each of those approaches.

I tabled the new clause for public debate; I could otherwise have had a private chat about the issue. Perhaps the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) could, too. I know that the Minister has not made up her mind, but if she explained the issues, that would help to inform Report stage.

Caroline Flint: I think that I have been generous in discussing this aspect—that is why I have offered Opposition Members the opportunity to see me to discuss the issues. We will have a debate; the hon. Gentleman should not worry about it. There will be a debate on Report and, of course, in the other place. I think that I have been very open in sharing with the Committee today some of the complexities that are involved in this matter.

There are complexities, too, in the term ''connected persons'', for the reasons I explained earlier. They could be people such as a niece or an aunt, or people involved socially with those directly involved.

I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments and new clauses. We take the issue seriously—and not just in relation to the Bill. We have been working hard to ensure that the current law is used to its utmost and to improve the relevant mechanisms through, for example, the national extremism tactical co-ordinating unit. The police, the CPS and the judiciary are fully aware of the nature of the activity that we are talking about and how serious it is to the individuals and companies concerned and to the country as a whole.

Mr. Djanogly: The Minister has clarified the points on which I requested clarification, and I thank her for that.

We have spent a lot of time on the clause, and I do not intend to take up much more. The Minister's expressed sentiments are certainly in favour of dealing with the problem and I respect that. The question is whether action will be taken that stops the extremism. Proposals and laws have been introduced before, but the problem is as bad as ever—in many ways worse.

I want to look on the bright side and be positive, but during the lunch break my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I attended Solicitor-General's Question Time. The Solicitor-General was asked whether animal rights terrorism was being prosecuted and my hon. Friend pressed the question whether the special prosecutors promised nearly a year ago had been provided. The Solicitor-General's response was that the process was still under way. That
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is what happens consistently with regard to dealing with animal rights extremism. We shall simply have to see how we progress.

The Bill will, in our opinion, do much to counter extremist activity, particularly against individuals and particularly against those individuals in their homes. We support that. However, the Bill fails to attend to the task of securing the position of companies. The Government seem to fail to appreciate that by defending companies they would be defending their employees. I disagree with a lot of what the Minister said about shareholders' registers. The average shareholder will not use an alias or a nominee service. Anyone who had shares in HLS could not have used a nominee service because no nominee would have acted for HLS. I believe that a context system would be possible, but the Minister helpfully suggested a P.O. box solution.

Caroline Flint: As I understand it, shareholders can already use P.O. box addresses. One of the problems has been that they have not been aware that they can do that. That is why I have said that we do not need legislation for such people, we need to ensure that they are aware of what they may do. In future, it will be the norm for directors, instead of going through confidentiality orders, to avail themselves of a P.O. box address.

Mr. Djanogly: The Minister is quite right. That is the case in relation to members. In relation to directors and to mortgagees, changes will be required, and I understand that changes are being considered. However, I first wrote to her Department—and to the DTI, as it happens—about four years ago, yet here we are, still talking about it. Perhaps there will soon be some kind of action.

After four years of campaigning on the issue, I am truly delighted to hear the Government say that they will review the position on economic damage. That is a tremendous thing to hear. However, one swallow does not make a spring. Until the Government actually present us with a clause and a strategy to deal with economic damage, we will pursue new clause 26. I am grateful for the Minister's offer of a meeting to discuss the proposed clause and I will certainly take her up on that. If we can sort something out before Report stage, that will really be fantastic. However, I shall wait to see that happen.

On the basis of the Minister's response, I shall not press any of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and myself, other than new clause 26, on which I will request that the matter be put to a vote at the appropriate time. That will provide an indication that the Conservative party does not accept the economic intimidation of companies and will make it clear that the next Conservative Government will address the issue directly.

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