HL Deb 07 January 2004 vol 657 cc169-72

2.42 p.m.

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to take action to deal with threats and intimidation arising from websites which provide personal details of active opponents of fascist and racist parties.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, we have discussed this with the police, the Information Commissioner and the Internet Watch Foundation, all of whom are aware of these websites. It is important that the provisions of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 be used when breaches occur. Anyone with concerns should make them known to the relevant authorities and to the Internet Watch Foundation. We are currently working on an e-crime strategy that will include consideration of issues such as these.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. The website concerned, Red Watch, was set up about two years ago by Combat 18, a Nazi hit group. It is registered by the National Front and the White Nationalist Party. A great deal of the material upon the website appears to be posted on it and sent to it by active and leading members of the British National Party. The material consists of more than 1,000 photographs of anti-Nazi, anti-racist activists with their addresses, telephone numbers and, where applicable, car registration numbers. I believe that the Minister confirmed that the security and police forces are looking at the matter. Will she reconfirm that? Will she also tell us whether they are devoting sufficient resources to this particular problem which quite clearly involves breaches of the law, incitement to violence against individuals and their property and incitement to racial hatred? This is a serious matter. Just because the people concerned are on the Left does not mean that they deserve less protection than if they were businessmen or other people. Will the Minister confirm that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I confirm that all proper steps will be taken if any person is found to be in breach of the law. The difficulty that we have experienced is that operators of certain websites have sought to avoid overstepping the conduct that the legislation defines as criminal. They fly very close to the wind. I reassure the House that although we intend to keep the position under review we do not believe that the absence of charges so far against any particular website has yet established that we need new offences or safeguards. However, I confirm that the matter will be kept under close scrutiny.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord's Question. The Chief Rabbi drew attention to the growing threat of racism on Radio 4 last November following the bombing of synagogues in Istanbul. It seems to me that the matter goes beyond present legislative abilities. Do the Government agree that the precious gift of freedom of speech is being abused and that action needs to be taken to protect very vulnerable people, including some young people, and to make clear to those who are just getting on the thither side of existing legislation, but not quite, that there are limits to the toleration that the rest of the community can extend to them?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly empathise with the thrust of what the right reverend Prelate said. However, the current legislation is fairly robust. The right reverend Prelate will know that the 1997 Act provides for victims of harassment to apply to the High Court for a civil restraining order. In the past such orders have successfully been obtained by victims of animal rights extremists. They include a requirement for the removal of information about individuals from websites. We shall reconsider the matter to see whether there is anything further that needs to be done although obviously I cannot guarantee what the outcome of that review will be.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, following what the right reverend Prelate said, with all of which I fully agree, are Her Majesty's Government taking positive steps to engage and bring together people of all faiths, whether they are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs or other, to recognise the danger that is emerging from the far Right, the fascists and Nazis, and to fight against that growing racism?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly reassure my noble friend that there are many initiatives which seek to bring together people of different faiths to talk about issues of this kind. I refer not just to government initiatives but also to those instigated by non-governmental agencies. Opportunities to continue that process must be seized by us all as it is a matter of real importance. I certainly guarantee that this issue will continue to concern the Government and will be addressed.

Lord Renton

My Lords, have the Government no intention of ensuring that websites should exist only for lawful purposes?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have. The whole point of what many people seek to do is to fly very close to the wind so that they keep just inside whichever barrier is set for them. As I say, we shall continue to consider what we can do to make it increasingly difficult for them to adopt those positions with the facility that applies at present.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords—

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the study carried out by the chairman of the Internet Watch Foundation, Roger Darlington, into extremism on the Internet in which he draws attention to the fact that much of this poison comes from the United States where providers are protected by the First Amendment? As the Minister may be aware, Mr Darlington draws attention to the fact that the Council of Europe brought forward a convention on cyber-crime with which the United States and Japan were associated. However, a number of countries are now pressing for a protocol to the convention covering racism and xenophobia. Is that a matter that Her Majesty's Government would support and is it a matter that Her Majesty's Government would take up with the United States given that they want co-operation on other matters?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have initiated inquiries of the United States authorities to establish whether hosting such websites constitutes a breach of US law, regulations or industry good practice. We shall continue to work with all those who are engaged in this work in a positive way to create better security. I shall certainly consider what the noble Lord said about the convention. I cannot give the noble Lord an answer from the Dispatch Box; I do not think that he expected me so to do.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the early 1990s information similar to that now being put on the website we are discussing was produced in printed form and had to be stopped through criminal proceedings? As she says that the law is robust, why cannot the law now be used to inhibit similar material being produced on a website?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, noble Lords will know that it is for the CPS and the prosecution authorities to make a decision in any individual case, whether breaches of the law have or have not occurred. I cannot second guess the judgments. That is why I said earlier that although there have not been any prosecutions to date, that does not mean that the law is not efficacious. It may simply mean that, in the given case, there was insufficient evidence. There is nothing to indicate that what was unlawful before is lawful now.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the activities of animal rights terrorist groups in particular using the web. Will she give an assurance that, as part of her department's work in the area, efforts will be redoubled to protect lawful businesses, which necessarily undertake well regulated research using animals?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly tell my noble friend that we have made huge efforts to protect lawful businesses. He will be very familiar with our work on abuse by animal rights extremists in relation to Huntingdon Life Sciences and others. Those efforts will continue. The amendments that we made in the Criminal Justice Act are helpful, and we hope that they will be used in future.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, what is the estimate of the number of people involved in this situation, both those who receive and send the threats?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we do not have figures. The noble Lord outlined the nature of the site and the number of people put on it. We are not able to quantify how many are engaged in the activity. If we have the figures, I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, would the noble Baroness care to comment on whether websites that publish personal data without consent could be in breach of the Data Protection Act and therefore prosecutable?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Data Protection Act may not precisely cover such issues. It has been very helpful that the UK ISPs have been robust in terms of together putting forward contracts that tend to exclude such data. We absolutely endorse that good practice and encourage all ISPs to continue to look at it.