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I am sure that hon. Members will agree that we have explored a cornucopia of important issues, and that we have done so in a way that has united our endeavours on the Bill rather than divided them.

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It is fair to say that, just a few years ago, the subjects covered by the Bill would have been regarded as unfashionable, unfamiliar or outlandish. Terms such as “dynamic demand”, “sustainable buildings”, “community sustainable energy”, “renewable heat”and “green certificates” have come into thepublic consciousness—and, indeed, legislative consciousness—only relatively recently. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, however, they are now moving into the mainstream, and I hope that the passage of the Bill will aid the process still further. These technologies and processes can make a real difference both in keeping the lights on and in leading us to a new, sustainable low-carbon economy. They also change the way in which people see their energy use. Through such technologies and processes, people really take ownership of their energy use and generation.

In considering that climate change is a global challenge and an individual obligation, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) reminded us, perhaps hon. Members will consider the role of microgeneration in helping to deal with a challenge that I hope all of them will take up—that of reducing their own personal carbon dioxide emissions by25 per cent. over five years. That can be achieved by, among other things, the domestic installation of microgeneration.

I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that I am not too optimistic in expressing the view that it will receive unanimous support in the Chamber.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

1.55 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you may be aware, the Bill was amended in Committee. One of the major amendments was the removal of the word “assault”, so the Bill now deals with obstructing or hindering emergency workers. However, the titles of clauses 1 and 2 have not been amended to reflect that change. I appreciate that the titles are not part of the legislation, but I point out that the titles of clauses 1 and 2 still refer to “assaulting”, whereas I would argue that they should refer to obstructing or hindering, because they are otherwise misleading. I wondered whether the promoter of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, had given you any indication that he intends to change the headings.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that there was an omission on the part of the people who produced the new Bill, and an oversight in following through the change in title that is included on page 1. I gather that it is a relatively simple matter—I am not that good on procedure—to make the follow-up amendments automatically.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): In responding to the points raised, I accept what has been said, but I see no obstacle as to why we cannot continue with the new clauses and the Bill in its present form, although clearly the relevant changes will need to be made.

New Clause 1


Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Greg Knight: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:No. 13, in page 1, line 3, clause 1, leave out ‘without reasonable excuse'.

No. 7, in page 2, line 8, clause 1, after ‘there', insert

No. 8, in page 2, line 9, clause 1, leave out

No. 10, in page 2, line 41, clause 3, leave out ‘ormay be'.

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Mr. Knight: The new clause stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).

I congratulate the Father of the House on getting this far. Private Members’ Bills are indeed fragile vessels, and he has done well to get his Bill to this stage. I also congratulate the Minister on his recent promotion. I hope that he stays on the Labour Front Bench for a very long time, although I also hope that he will shortly be sitting on the Opposition side of the Chamber.

New clause 1 would introduce a statutory defence for anyone who faces a charge under the Bill. I accept that the Bill now contains the words “without reasonable excuse” with reference to someone who may have committed an offence. The new clause, however, seeks to remove any doubt about what is a reasonable excuse in facing a charge under the provisions. We have all encountered someone in uniform who behaves inan over-officious manner. When we are framing legislation, we need to ensure that prosecutions will not be brought in unreasonable circumstances. If the Bill is enacted without new clause 1, it may lead to the prosecution of people who were seeking only to defend their own property or, indeed, who were merely observing an emergency incident.

There was a recent case in which a person who was seeking to remove valuable property from his own house was restrained by the police. I do not know all the circumstances of the case, but I am concerned lest an aggressive and unreasonable fire officer dealing with an incident decides without cause to order the owner of a house to remove himself from the property, when the owner may only be seeking to retrieve what can be retrieved from an incident. If someone on their own property seeks to defend their chattels or their animals—they may face the trauma and loss of a building and of many of their belongings, which may not be insured—they should not thereafter find that they are facing court proceedings under this Bill for obstructing or hindering an emergency worker. I hope that the Father of the House will consider adding new clause 1 to the Bill or reassuring me that my concerns can be met in some other way.

I will not say anything about amendment No. 13, because I have not appended my name to it, although I do not agree with its thrust and think that the Father of the House is right to include the words in the Bill.

Clause 1(3) states:

and amendment No. 7 would add the words

to the end of that provision. The emergency services sometimes use vehicles that do not display the traditional flashing blue light, and my concern is that an innocent motorist will unwittingly hinder or obstruct such a vehicle and not be aware that he is doing so.

I was recently driving home in the middle lane of the M18, where I encountered a queue of traffic travelling at 60 mph, so I decided to exercise my right to travel at 70 mph and pulled into the offside lane. As I was overtaking the long queue of commercial vehicles
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travelling at 60 mph, I was approached from behind by a car which was travelling very fast—it was certainly travelling faster than me—and flashing its lights. I assumed that it was an emergency vehicle seeking to attend an emergency, so I pulled over. When the vehicle overtook me and accelerated to regain its speed, which was well in excess of the legal maximum, I was astonished to see that the driver was a yobbish-looking person with a shaved head and earrings—it was clearly not an emergency vehicle, and the driver was just impatient because I was in his path. That incident means that I will never again pull over for a vehicle which flashes its lights at me when I am driving in a proper manner, unless I can see a flashing blue light. If we do not add amendment No. 7, an injustice may occur in which an innocent motorist is prosecuted for unwittingly hindering the progress of an emergency vehicle.

Amendment No. 8 is essentially probing in nature, and I will welcome hearing what the Father of the House has to say about it. Under what circumstances would it be right and proper to charge someone with hindering or obstructing an emergency worker who is not actually attending an emergency or travelling to it, but preparing to do so? When does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that this provision would be used? If someone is putting on his coat to go and attend an event and some carol singers knock at his door and wave a collection tin for the local church, are they hindering him because he is preparing to go out? I hope that that is not what he has in mind.

Amendment No. 10 would delete the words, “or may be” from clause 3(2). Again, it seeks to narrow the circumstances whereby an offence might be committed. With those words in the Bill, a person could be prosecuted even when no emergency had been taking place, but the emergency worker thought that there might be. That provision seems too wide.

Mr. Alan Williams: I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his new job. I also welcome the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). They are both new to the proceedings on this Bill. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the friendly and co-operative spirit in which he expressed his point of view.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 13 offer contradictory approaches to how we deal with defences. The original Bill included a series of listed defences that was not all-encompassing, so on Second Reading we made a conscious decision to go for a term that the Home Office lawyers assured us was a common term which would enable the court to take reasonableness into account instead of having to look for defences in the Bill. If we were to take the route of new clause 1, we would reinsert all the defences that were deleted in Committee, without any opposition, in order to go for the catch-all reasonableness excuse. The advantage of that is that it provides a legitimate defence for someone who obstructed a person without realising that they were an emergency worker.

The problem with amendment No. 7 is that many ambulances do not have flashing blue lights. That also applies to coastguards and lifeboat crews deploying
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to undertake rescue work. The amendment would preclude them from the protection of the Bill.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said that amendment No. 8 is probing in nature. I am glad to reassure him that preparation to respond to an emergency covers only immediate preparations such as putting on protective gear, opening garage doors and so on. It does not mean training sessions, as I suspect that he fears. I hope that allays his worries.

On amendment No. 10, the offence would not apply where it was not an emergency. Again, we would prefer not to include such a provision because it would be an absolute defence. If it were an absolute defence, the nature or the extent of the offence that may have been committed would not be taken into account. We believe that it is better, therefore, to stay within the encompassing protection of reasonableness of excuse. I oppose the amendments.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I am grateful to the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), for that explanation. I viewed new clause 1 as a useful probing measure. Like a lot of non-lawyers, when I see something in a Bill that says “without reasonable excuse” I begin to worry about the extent of “reasonable excuse” and how that could impact on various people. It is important.

This Bill, which I believe the Government wanted and which should have been introduced in Government time, not in private Members’ time, is a re-run of the Bill that went through the Scottish Parliament by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998. The right hon. Gentleman said in Committee that, to speed up the drafting, he put a large amount of that Bill into this Bill. The problem is that the Scottish Parliament spent much longer dealing with the matter. In fact, during stage two, as I believe it is called in Scotland, 240 clauses were considered. A number of concerns and grey areas arise. That is why new clause 1 and perhaps the other amendments are important. We need to clarify where the barrier of reasonableness is.

The matter was raised with me by a farmer in my constituency who owns farms in an upland landscape of heather moor. He was concerned because, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, those moors are burned in patches in the course of the year to improve grazing or, if there are shooting interests, to assist with the rearing of grouse. That can cause disputes. Some people believe that heather burning is detrimental to wildlife management. Others think that it is essential and important, so there is a dispute.

The farmer whom I mentioned asked me what would happen if someone thought that there was a fire on the moor that was damaging the peat or vegetation and therefore the wildlife and called out the fire brigade. The firemen would arrive and the farmer or landowner would say, “I am doing a perfectly normal, reasonable activity. Why are you here?” They may say, “We insist on being here because we must put the fire out.” The farmer may say, “You must stop because this has been official to my business” and a dispute could arise. Whether that would fall within the defence that the farmer had reasonable excuse for obstructing the fire engines I do not know. That is a worrying point. It could be a matter of opinion; there may be a lack of clarity.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) mentioned the recent case where an elderly colonel was dragged from his house by the fire brigade and prevented physically from going in to rescue some of his family’s heirlooms and possessions. The colonel took the view that it was safe to go in but the fire service, with its possibly right emphasis on saving life, not property, prevented him from doing so. He may have put up a struggle and determined to go in—I believe that it was his decision whether to take the risk to rescue his possessions. Again, if he landed up in the dock on the basis of obstructing the fire service, I and I think most people would consider that to be deeply unfair. Therefore, there is a considerable number of grey areas in the Bill.

I have talked about heather burning and a private house burning but one of the things that irritates people most is rubbish burning. We often see the illegal burning of tyres and other items on certain sites. That may be an environmental offence, but if the firemen arrived to deal with that and the people responsible for the fire obstructed them, would they be in breach of the provision, even though it was on their land and no criminal offence was involved in burning those tyres, although it may have been an environmental offence, which would result in an environmental prosecution? That is another grey area that we should clarify before the Bill proceeds.

2.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): As Members will realise, I have time to give only a very brief explanation of the Government’s view of the new clause and associated amendments. I begin by thanking Members for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box, and I thank the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire(Mr. Knight) for the thoughtful, considerate and careful way in which he spoke to the new clause.

The new clause would provide a defence for obstructing an emergency worker if the emergency circumstances took place on the defendant’s property or affected only him or his property. In addition, it would provide that a defendant would have a defence if he were “only a passive observer”, and is therefore probably intended to deal with unintentional passive obstruction. Amendment No. 13 would delete the phrase “without reasonable excuse”.

The defence in new clause 1 would replace the current defence of “without reasonable excuse”. The crucial point, which I hope will reassure Members, is that “without reasonable excuse” is a clear and simple formulation that enables all the circumstances of a given case to be taken into account by the courts, including those listed in new clause 1. On the proposed “passive observer” defence, the term “without reasonable excuse” already provides a defence for obstruction that is unintentional and for a good reason.

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