HC Deb 10 May 2001 vol 368 cc296-9

Lords amendment: No. 16, in page 2, line 22, leave out "victim" and insert "resident"

Mr. Clarke

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 17 to 22.

Mr. Clarke

The origin of this group of amendments, which are essentially identical, was concerns expressed in Committee in the other place by the Opposition, who suggested that the person concerned should be described as a target rather than as a victim. We felt that the precedent for use of the word victim lay in its use in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Having given further consideration to how to try to meet the concerns expressed by the Opposition in the other place, we feel that the word resident is a better choice than either the word victim or the word target. We do not believe that the change would have an impact on the effect of the clause.

We believe that the change will provide a higher level of objectivity in the terminology that is being used. Specifically, it will take account of the sensitivities of those who are subject to such harassment and may well not wish to be defined as victims because of the association of the word victims with particular circumstances. Consequently, we propose to replace the word victim with the word resident in this group of amendments.

Mr. Heald

We are content with Lords amendment No. 16. I should say that the concerns expressed in the House on Second Reading about events at Huntingdon Life Sciences have been dealt with in the Bill. Amendments to the Bill allow the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to be tightened up and enable directors to register their addresses confidentially. Other provisions deal with the practice of besetting people's homes. Amendment No. 16 deals with one of those matters.

It is good that both sides of the House have agreed on the need to tackle the issue and that it has been possible to make progress. However, the official Opposition cannot take the credit for this group of amendments, as they address a Liberal Democrat issue that was raised first, in Committee, by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and later, in the other place, by Lord Phillips. They should take the credit for the amendments, with which we are happy.

Mr. Miller

I should like simply to press my hon. Friend the Minister on the use of language in the clause. Definitions are sometimes extremely difficult. I suppose that it is pretty obvious to individuals when we are victims, although it may not always be entirely obvious to the courts. Is my hon. Friend happy that the full spirit of the original clause is encompassed by use of the word resident? Does the word encompass only permanent residents, or does it include, for example, those who are temporarily resident in a dwelling or legitimately resident in an hotel room? Are all those potential circumstances covered to his satisfaction in the Bill?

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman might be assisted by considering the points that my noble Friend Lord Cope made—on 1 May 2001, at column 1782 of the House of Lords Official Report—when he asked about using the word resident, victim, target or person in the clause. The official Opposition in the other place suggested using the word person. The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important point. We want to ensure that the clause in its final form is workable, so that those who are doing that very important scientific work are properly protected.

Mr. Miller

I am speaking in the debate because of the type of English that the hon. Gentleman has just used. Although I am used to dealing with scientific terms, in the Bill we are addressing much more complex definitional issues. I am merely seeking to determine whether my hon. Friend the Minister is satisfied that the intention of the clause will be the same as when it contained the word victim, and that it will operate similarly in all circumstances in which a person is a victim in a dwelling. It would be helpful to clarify the issue.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I can give the hon. Gentleman a response, although it is not yet the official Government response. It may be shorter than he anticipated.

Mr. Heald

Yesterday, I was able to ask the hon. Gentleman whether it was a coincidence that the Prime Minister had visited his constituency on Tuesday and he had a red box with him during our debate in Westminster Hall yesterday. Now he seems to be telling us that he is about to form a Government. He is obviously having a good week, but I do not think that he should let the fact that Millwall won 5-0 last Saturday go to his head.

Mr. Hughes

In reverse order: the Millwall victory that sent the Lions roaring into the first division is entirely to be commended; the red box yesterday was entirely coincidental as it was supplied by my office with some letters for me to sign, but it was good practice. I should also put it on the record that no deal has been reached between the Liberal Democrats and any other party before the general election. Lastly, the Prime Minister made a terrible error of judgment by coming to the school and making a speech over the heads of the young people. It may have lost him the votes of many of the parents at that school, but that is to be seen.

Mr. Miller

What was the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) doing?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There has been quite some latitude. Will hon. Members get back to the subject of the debate?

2.30 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman was at a primary school with the Leader of the Liberal Democrats that very afternoon.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I shall respond briefly to the hon. Gentleman and tell him that we spoke to the pupils rather than ignoring them.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made an important point about the wording and I am grateful for his attribution to my noble Friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury. There was a debate about what the right wording should be. The term "victim" was deemed inappropriate because it prejudges the outcome of the complaint and that clearly would be wrong. The term that had been used in the past was "person" and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is used in other statutes. However, I think that we can get away with using the word resident although it is not necessarily the best word. My understanding is that it does not cover only those who are permanently at an address, but anyone who is there at the time. Of course it would not cover someone who was there for a matter of moments and that may be a weakness. It may therefore be that we need to give the matter more consideration. The reason it is right to change the wording is that it is wrong to prejudge the outcome of the complaint.

The legislation received wide support across the House and, as the Minister and his colleagues were at pains to point out, it gives the police a discretionary power in respect of certain activities. We look to the police to be wise in their discretion because there is a need to get the balance right between allowing lawful protest on the one hand and preventing intimidatory and improper protest on the other. The second should be outlawed, but absolutely not the first.

Mr. Charles Clarke

To respond briefly to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I am advised that we consider that the amendments do not change the effect of the clause and the reasons advanced by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) are right. It covers any protests outside residential premises, anywhere being used as a dwelling, but it does not include hotels, for reasons that we discussed in Committee. We are satisfied with this and I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 17 to 22 agreed to.