All Lord Trees contributions to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021-22

Tue 14th September 2021
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Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

(2nd reading)
Lord Trees Excerpts
Tuesday 14th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Home Office
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, to the House and I look forward to engaging with him in the weeks and years to come. I have considerable concerns about large parts of the Bill which seem to be designed to attack hard-won human rights. I am also particularly concerned that the Bill is empowering Ministers to make laws without any parliamentary approval. That seems to happen only in dictatorships; maybe that is where we are heading.

The Bill would criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities without explaining why the Government have failed to provide adequate sites for them. The Government also have in their sights trade unions, workers and peace marchers, who could all be criminalised because their protests are deemed to be noisy and disruptive. Companies can cause disruption by moving production and the Government say that is good and fine, but if workers protest about loss of jobs or homes and cuts to their wages, that is considered to be disruptive, and the full might of the state is unleashed upon them. Did someone ever say that the laws passed by Parliament are even-handed? If so, I would love to see the evidence.

This Bill also creates distrust between people and the police by requiring police commissioners to interpret the new noise triggers embedded in the Bill. People protest because Parliament and Governments are not responsive to their concerns. Whether they are civil rights, feminist, environmental, LGBT or anti-war demonstrators, people are asking to be included in the fabric of society. They ask for dignity and rights and draw attention to the destructive practices of corporations and abuses of power by the state. Rather than building an inclusive society, this Bill would criminalise people of conscience and deprive them of jobs, mortgages, credit cards, travel visas and other things that many of us take for granted.

This week, the good people of Liverpool protested about an arms fair to be held in the city in October. It is not criminal, apparently, for companies to market weapons of mass destruction near schools, homes and hospitals, but under this Bill it would be criminal for protestors to object to such a deadly trade being conducted in their neighbourhood. Obviously, the Government are concerned that corporations should not be deprived of their profits, but people can be deprived of their lives and there would be restraints on demonstrating about it.

So many of our rights are derived from protests. In 1968 the Ford sewing machinists organised strikes and protests to demand equality. They drew attention to legalised discrimination, which paved the way for the Equal Pay Act 1970. Under this Bill, they would all be criminalised. I remember demonstrating against racial discrimination. I made plenty of noise and caused disruption too, so presumably I would also have been criminalised and would not be standing here. Maybe this is the aim of the Bill.

The CND marches created social awareness of the destructive power of nuclear weapons and a climate for international treaties and bans, yet this Bill could criminalise similar protests. It would return us to the era of the Tolpuddle martyrs, when people protesting about wage cuts and workers’ rights were criminalised, prosecuted, silenced and exiled. The power of the state would be, once again, unleased against the likes of the Jarrow marches, seeking jobs and an end to persecution by the state.

As a result of protests, we have a better and more inclusive society. This Bill would reduce the possibilities for emancipatory change. In my final words about the consequences of such a Bill, I quote from President John Kennedy:

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Is that what the Government are trying to achieve?

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, I wish to speak particularly about matters of relevance to this Bill affecting animals and veterinary healthcare delivery. I declare my interest as a past president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, although I stress that I speak tonight as an individual veterinary surgeon. The two matters on which I will concentrate are pet theft and the abuse and threats facing the staff of veterinary practices and retail outlets.

There has been a marked increase of the offence of pet theft recently, apparently mainly perpetrated by organised criminal gangs stealing for profit and exploiting the national shortage of pets—a shortage that has recently been exacerbated by the demand for pets during Covid. This was discussed in the other place during the passage of this Bill and was the subject of various amendments, none of which was accepted by the Government. But Robert Buckland MP, responding for the Government, said it was their intention

“to make any necessary changes to this Bill in the Lords … once we have finalised the detail of exactly what is needed, using a range of powers, including primary legislation.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/21; col. 675.]

Pet theft is of course covered by existing theft regulations—animals are chattels—and the maximum sentence for theft can already be as much as seven years, which is a substantial sentence. However, the prosecution rates are extremely low, with only 1% of dog crime cases investigated—not reported—resulting in a charge in England and Wales. Given these facts, would it not be constructive to ensure that the offence of pet theft is given appropriate priority, prosecution rates are improved and guidance in sentencing is revised to reflect what is clearly a substantial public and political concern about this crime? The Home Secretary herself has said that

“Stealing pets is evil and depraved. It brings profound unhappiness. It cannot and will not be tolerated.”

I ask the Minister whether the Government are proposing to bring in amendments to this Bill to reduce pet theft.

The second issue I raise is the abuse and aggression being encountered by staff in public-facing roles that provide animal health and welfare care. This problem mirrors the problems faced by many in front-line public-facing roles, and there is currently protection specifically for assaults on emergency workers in the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, the scope of which includes those providing NHS healthcare. Veterinary staff are not included within that protection, nor does it include any protection against abuse and aggression.

Apart from the obvious differences, there are other differences and similarities between NHS staff delivering human healthcare and veterinary staff delivering animal healthcare. Both deal with situations that are emotional and difficult, even without the added problem of aggressive and threatening behaviour. However, animal healthcare is not free at the point of care, so veterinary staff have the additional problem of having to charge clients for the care they seek to give the clients’ animals. Lastly, the veterinary patients are not necessarily as compliant as humans might be. I contend that there are particularly aggravating circumstances that face those delivering animal healthcare.

In the last year and a half, veterinary staff have done a fantastic job maintaining healthcare services with all the constraints required to interact safely with clients. Due to Covid-19 safety procedures and staff shortages, inevitably clients have had to wait a few weeks for routine measures such as booster vaccinations when they are used to appointments in a day or two. Most clients have been understanding, but an increasing minority are unacceptably abusive and aggressive, to the point where staff who are trying to examine and treat sick animals are fearful, feel threatened and are leaving their jobs in some instances, and the police have been called and property has been damaged. It is frequently reception and nursing staff, the majority of whom are female—as indeed are the majority of our young vets—who bear the brunt of this. This is not just Covid-related; there has been an underlying and growing problem, and social media aggravates this situation in many cases.

Sadly, a vicious circle is in danger of emerging, where the loss of staff due to extremely abusive, aggressive behaviour is further exacerbating the challenge of providing the efficient and timely service characteristic of veterinary healthcare. Much greater legal protection for our front-line animal healthcare staff is needed. Will the Government consider extending the scope of the assaults on emergency workers Act to include staff delivering animal healthcare? Secondly, is the Minister satisfied that there are existing measures in place to deter abuse and threatening behaviour in the execution of such an important role as delivering animal healthcare?

Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by joining the welcome to my noble friend Lord Sandhurst. We are delighted to have him among our colleagues on these Benches.

I thank the various people who have briefed me for tonight, in particular the union UNISON, the Trades Union Congress and the Quakers—a trio of very socially responsible bodies. One of the things they have drawn to my attention is a recent Court of Appeal judgment, where it was held that:

“In a free society all must be able to hold and articulate views, especially views with which many disagree. Free speech is a hollow concept if one is only able to express ‘approved’ or majoritarian views. It is the intolerant, the instinctively authoritarian, who shout down or worse suppress views with which they disagree.”

I think that is a very useful start for where we are going.

To an extent, the Minister will have a huge amount of work clarifying matters in this legislation, because what is not clarified will of course end up in the Court of Appeal. If we do not make it clear, it will be clarified by judges, and fortunately—I hope—they will bear in mind such documents as the European Convention on Human Rights and others which have guided judicial findings to interpret this Bill.

One of the difficulties we have—which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, alluded to—is that there are some people at the moment who deliberately exploit an anarchic way of conducting protest, not because they believe in the protest but because they believe in trying to get the consequences of the anarchy to panic society into taking decisions which could well turn out to not be very wise.

Having said that, the trade union movement welcomes the protection for emergency workers and looks forward to finalising and refining this legislation, so that it deals comprehensively with a body of workers who have had enormous amounts of problems.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, has left us, but he mentioned Orgreave. If we are actually interested in looking at the consequences of protest, there is a protest that could well do with some official looking at.

The definition of nuisance is a very movable feast, and we have to look very carefully at the borderline between what I would call peaceful protest and noisy and deliberate protest. As has been said, the whole nature of protest is often noisy. I have been on demonstrations in my time, and it is a very common thing—it is a sort of crowd coalescer—that you will have a slogan and you shout it out and it has a meaning for the people there. Most people who go on a demonstration in the classical sense are there because they have a reason for being there. They do not think, “What shall I do today? I know, I will go and demonstrate.” They are there because they are either in favour of something or against something, but they feel strongly about it.

If you bring in a penalty, as has been mentioned, of 10 years for disturbing flowers on a war memorial, it will never be imposed. It is as simple as that. It would be foolish legislation because no magistrate would ever impose that sort of punishment. I suspect we will spend considerable time looking at the Bill and dealing with its detail, but I hope, at the end, we will have a better Bill, because there are good parts of it, but there are also parts that need very careful examination.