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Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [HL]

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018


Clause 1: Offence of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “on a journey” and insert “moving or ready to move”

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 1 and speak to Amendment 3, which is grouped with it. Amendment 1 would replace “on a journey” with “moving or ready to move”. At Second Reading and in Committee, the definition of “on a journey” was the topic of extensive discussion and I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne, Lord Balfe and Lord Rosser, who contributed to those discussions and made such helpful suggestions.

Our intention in the Bill has always been to capture when a vehicle is in motion and also when it is stationary but about to travel, as there is still a safety risk if the person in control were to be dazzled or distracted at this stage. This includes journeys of any length and journeys that begin and end in the same place, such as training flights. It also includes taxiing in the case of aircraft, as well as temporary stops, such as at a train stations, bus stops, traffic lights or when waiting to take off. To clarify this, the Government have laid the amendment to remove the references to “journey” and refer instead to when a vehicle is “moving or ready to move”. This wording is wider than “journey” and removes the ambiguity of what actually constitutes a “journey”.

To strengthen this further we have, in Amendment 3, defined that when a mechanically propelled vehicle’s engine or motor is running, it should be treated as being ready to move. It is important that we include all safety-critical points, for example when an aircraft is at a stand, as this could have safety implications for persons on the ground in the immediate vicinity. The amendment does not change the policy intention of the Bill but does provide greater clarity, which I hope noble Lords will welcome. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Baroness and the Government have made some good changes to the Bill, but I have one or two questions, which I am sure she will be able to answer. They relate to the definition of a “vehicle”. The word “vehicle” appears in Clause 1(1)(a)—“on a journey”, as the noble Baroness said—and subsection (2). She is then introducing—on page 2, line 9, through Amendment 3—“a mechanically propelled vehicle”, which seems to substitute the wording of subsection (6), which includes an,

“aircraft, motor vehicle, pedal cycle, train, vessel, hovercraft or submarine”.

I am glad she has got rid of some of those because that could be quite difficult.

However, she goes on to say in the interpretation—I know it is not in this group but I might as well mention it now—that Clause 7 defines an aircraft, but a “vehicle” also includes an aircraft. Presumably you can get done both ways, in either Clause 1 or Clause 2 or something. Perhaps she could explain whether these definitions include trains or bicycles, I just wonder whether a little bit of tidying up might be a good idea before the Bill reaches the statute book.

My Lords, noble Lords may recall that I moved some amendments to this important Bill, which of course has my full support. One of them dealt with the phrase “on a journey”. As is evident from the amendment, and others in the noble Baroness’s name, possible weaknesses in the original wording—that is, a risk of loopholes in the intended coverage of the Bill—have all now been addressed. I support the amendment and I am very grateful for the noble Baroness’s receptive consideration of the points made in Committee.

My Lords, we, too, welcome these two amendments. Put simply, I agree with my noble friend about further tidying up. If the noble Baroness wants to come forward on Third Reading with any tidying up, we would be grateful for it—but we are very pleased that the spirit of the debate has been taken on board.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, perhaps we could wait to discuss the definition of “vehicle” until the fourth group, as Amendment 5 refers to exactly that. The amendments in this group clarify what we intend the Bill to cover and ensure that all safety-critical points are included. On that basis, I beg to move.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out paragraph (b)

My Lords, while I am not going to get carried away and divide the House on this issue, I will press it just once more. In my view, Clause 1(1) and (2) in fact describes two crimes. Clause 1(1)(a) says,

“the person shines or directs a laser beam towards a vehicle which is on a journey”,

which is great,

“and … the laser beam dazzles or distracts”.

That is a straightforward crime because I have stopped before the word “or”, so it is not a problem. Then there is a second offence, where,

“the person shines or directs a laser beam towards a vehicle which is on a journey, and … the laser beam … is likely to dazzle or distract … a person with control of the vehicle”.

In my view, it will be incredibly difficult to prove this second crime of being likely to dazzle or distract. That is why I would like paragraph (b) deleted so that it would simply be a matter of proving that a person had shone or directed a laser beam towards a vehicle that was on a journey. That is my reason for pressing the amendment again.

The noble Lord has my support in wanting to push this issue a bit further. I recall raising in Committee the issue that it would be difficult to imagine why people would be walking around carrying a laser and pointing it at either objects on the road or planes in the air unless they were intent on doing some mischief.

It is also possible that people would find it very difficult, as the noble Lord has said, to prove the intent that is in the Government’s proposed legislation. I understand where the Minister is coming from on this—the Government do not want to criminalise people simply for walking around with a laser pen in their pocket—although I go back to the point, which I believe I made at Second Reading, that we have a situation with knives where we all own them and use them on a daily basis but it is an offence to be carrying a knife in certain situations. So we have managed to sort out the law in such a way that it is possible to distinguish between people who happen to have a knife in their rucksack because they were cutting up their apple for lunch and people who are carrying a knife with the intent to use it as a weapon. I say to the Government that it is probably worth while going back and looking again at applying that approach to the carrying of laser pens and lasers in general.

My noble friend has made a very good point, as has the noble Baroness. It is a question of what evidence would be needed to secure a conviction for the intention to dazzle. It seems to me that, taking the noble Baroness’s example of having a knife in one’s pocket, evidence that a laser is switched on is not hard to find. Evidence of intent to dazzle is very difficult. I hope that she can give some examples of the type of evidence that would be likely to be accepted in order to secure a conviction. If she cannot do so after she has had time to consider the matter, it may be that my noble friend’s amendment is the right one, and the paragraph should be thereby deleted.

I used to prosecute some years ago. I take the noble Baroness’s example regarding the carrying of knives. There was of course a real scourge of young people carrying knives in the street, but it would have been extremely difficult to secure convictions of people roaming the streets in Glasgow, where I prosecuted, on the basis of what was likely to happen. That is why the safer course was followed of defining knives of a particular size, those exceeding six inches or whatever it was. Anyone who was carrying one was guilty of a crime. There should be some way in which to achieve certainty. One has to remember that north and south of the border the standard of proof in criminal cases is high—proof beyond reasonable doubt. It is that aspect that makes the issue so difficult. If one was dealing with a civil test, the balance of probability, then likelihood would be fine. That comes up from time to time in various other situations, but it is the criminal standard of proof that makes the point important.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and I have discussed this matter and I have written to him on the subject. I have also discussed this at length with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, and I will attempt to set out the reasoning behind why we are resisting the amendment.

The Government believe that removing the requirement to dazzle or distract would widen the offence more than is appropriate, thereby criminalising behaviour that would not cause harm. It is government policy and part of the better regulation agenda not to criminalise behaviour unless it is absolutely necessary, which includes focusing any offence on the behaviour it seeks to address. Criminal law ought not to be more extensive in scope than is necessary to achieve its purpose. In creating criminal law, a balance has to be drawn between protecting society and individual rights, and an act generally should not be condemned as criminal where there is no risk of a harmful effect on the public or society.

The offence in this Bill has already been widened from the original contained in the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill because it now covers when pointing a laser at a vehicle is,

“likely to dazzle or distract”.

This means that the prosecution will not necessarily need to prove that the laser dazzled or distracted if it presented a clear risk and potential to do so. Evidence of that could come either from the person whom the laser is attempting to dazzle or distract, or from eyewitnesses.

Furthermore, this will be a strict liability offence. Such an offence requires no proof of intention or knowledge of wrongdoing and therefore should be kept within appropriate bounds. There is no need to prove intent to harm, or to dazzle or distract. When the police try and prosecute more serious cases under the offence of endangering an aircraft, they are required to prove recklessness or negligence, which can make prosecutions difficult. Under the new offence, it will no longer be necessary to prove that the accused was reckless or negligent. It is therefore the Government’s opinion that the offence as it is now drafted will make it easier to prosecute without going further and criminalising behaviour that does not present a risk to the public.

I hope that that explains the reasoning for resisting the amendment and satisfies the noble Lord. However, I have heard the arguments and would be interested as to whether he would like us to consider the matter further.

I thank the noble Baroness for setting out the arguments. As a non-lawyer, I remain underwhelmed and hope that she will look at this debate and once again consider coming back at Third Reading with some change to allay the fears that have been expressed in the debate. However, it would not be appropriate to press the matter further at this time, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: Clause 1, page 2, line 9, leave out subsections (6) and (7) and insert—

“( ) A mechanically propelled vehicle which is not moving or ready to move but whose engine or motor is running is to be treated for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) as ready to move.”

Amendment 3 agreed.

Amendment 4

Moved by

4: Clause 1, page 2, line 14, leave out from “any” to end of line 15 and insert “person on the aircraft who is engaged in controlling it, or in monitoring the controlling of it.”

My Lords, as I mentioned, this, like previous amendments that I tabled in Committee, aims to plug any possible legal loopholes in the Bill. This amendment improves on my attempt in Committee. It is vital that both the pilot of an aircraft and other flight deck or crew members whose contribution to the control responsibilities of the pilot are critical to the safe operation of that aircraft are fully covered in the Bill. This form of words achieves that additional coverage. I am grateful for the discussion I had with the noble Baroness and for her Bill team’s helpful guidance on precise wording, so I look forward to her agreement to the amendment, which I beg to move.

I certainly support the principle behind the amendment, but I am aware that the Government are keen to keep the Bill as simple as possible, and I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade us that it is already covered in other ways. It is essential that co-pilots are also covered. Attempts have been made in government amendments to broaden the Bill—for example, to include towers at airports. That is welcome, but it is important that we ensure that the co-pilot—the person sitting alongside the pilot —is covered, because if the pilot is dazzled, undoubtedly anyone sitting next to them will be as well.

My Lords, we support the amendment and hope the Minister will consider it. First, I can see no harm in it and no perversity that might come out of it. It is always dangerous in high-tech industries to be too constraining in one’s language. For all we know, the illustrious title of pilot, which both the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and I enjoyed at one point in our lives, may fade away as the operation of aircraft becomes more automated. This catch-all amendment would improve the Bill just that little bit.

I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for tabling the amendment. As I said, it has always been our intention to cover all persons in control of a vehicle, and it is of course important to include all members of the flight crew who are in control of the aircraft or have a safety-critical role in monitoring its control. I hope that my acceptance of the amendment reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that a co-pilot will indeed be covered. I reiterate my thanks to the noble and gallant Lord for lending his expertise to this and other areas of the Bill. I fully agree that the amendment strengthens the legislation, and the Government support it.

Amendment 4 agreed.

Amendment 5

Moved by

5: Clause 1, page 2, line 19, leave out subsection (10)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 5, I shall speak to Amendments 7 to 12, which are grouped with it. Amendments 5 and 7 relate to which vehicles are covered by the offence. During earlier stages of the Bill, it was highlighted that, although the Bill in its current form lists most type of vehicle, including submarines, the list is not comprehensive. We have therefore taken a more complete approach through the amendments. We are removing the list of vehicles covered and have provided a broad definition to cover all vehicles. Amendment 7 defines a vehicle as,

“any vehicle which is used for travel by land, water or air”.

Therefore trains, and indeed submarines, will be covered.

Inserting this broader definition simplifies the Bill and removes any ambiguity about which vehicles are included in the offence and which are not. It sends a clear message to the public that it is unacceptable to shine a laser towards any vehicle. Furthermore, I am pleased to confirm to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, following his contribution to previous stages of the Bill, that this broad definition means that horse-drawn vehicles are now also covered by the offence.

In making this change, some types of vehicles now considered devolved in Scotland are now captured by the Bill, and I am grateful to the Scottish Government for agreeing to bring forward a Legislative Consent Motion in the Scottish Parliament to cover those aspects. This definition of a vehicle will be contained in a new interpretation clause. The clause will include other definitions that were part of the Bill as introduced, such as aircraft and vessel. I hope that clarifies things somewhat for the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. The definitions of aircraft and vessel relate to subsections (8) and (9) on who is in control of the vehicle, so they do not change the definition of a vehicle for the purposes of the offence.

Amendment 7 also introduces the definition of the term “laser beam” as,

“a beam of coherent light produced by a device of any kind’.

The amendment addresses concerns from noble Lords during earlier stages of the Bill over potential loopholes. The definition includes laser guns and pulse and burst lasers, which emit laser beams of short duration. We have drafted this in consultation with a range of experts in this field at University College London and Newcastle University, as well as the Department for Transport’s chief scientific adviser, and I am grateful to them for lending us their expertise on this matter. These experts agree that this definition uniquely identifies the concept of a laser beam and leaves no room for ambiguity. I hope noble Lords will be content with this amendment.

The other amendments in this group are technical amendments required to reflect the other amendments we have tabled. They relate to commencement and bring the Bill into line with normal practice on commencing technical provisions. The Long Title of the Bill, which we discussed earlier, has also been changed to reflect the amendments tabled. The previous Long Title comprehensively stated the content of the Bill, so the words “for connected purposes” were not included. As we are proposing that the Bill now includes an offence of shining a laser beam at a person providing air traffic services, which we will come to, that is no longer the case, so the words “for connected purposes” have been added. I beg to move.

I very much welcome this approach, and the tidying up of the original interpretations in Clause 1(10). It has sensibly removed references to submarines and pedal cycles, neither of whose operators seem particularly at great risk from a laser beam. It will cover the coachmen of horse-drawn vehicles, which provoked some examples of misinformed or imprecise reporting following the Committee stage. I wish to record that for horse-drawn vehicles, as for all other types of vehicle, the person responsible for controlling the vehicle—in this case, the coachman—is who I had in mind. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her positive consideration in arranging for these improvements to the Bill.

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. I just want to clarify something I said earlier, because if I do not, the lawyers will start nitpicking at vast expense. Presumably “vehicle” in Amendment 7 includes trains—I think it should. Does it include bicycles, and people on bicycles? The controller of the vehicle is the person at whom the laser may be directed. Then we have things called segways, scooters and single-wheel segways. If they are all vehicles, that is fine by me, but I hope people will not start nitpicking and say, “Well, it’s not this, it’s the other”. I hope the definition is comprehensive.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her amendments. They demonstrate that she has approached this Bill with very much an open mind. Because of the Bill’s technical nature, some experts in the House were able to add some very useful amendments, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, being an example. But it perhaps gives us pause for thought that the Bill, which has been pretty narrowly drafted—fortunately the noble Baroness has tabled amendments to broaden it significantly—still needed quite a lot of amendment. Although this is an issue that the Government have been considering for many months, there were still technical issues that needed to be addressed. That does not suggest that the proposals had been consulted on sufficiently. However, in relation to the Minister’s approach, I am very grateful to her for her assistance.

My Lords, we have examined this group of amendments and believe they have significantly improved the Bill. I thank the Minister for bringing them forward.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on this group. All the vehicles mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would be covered under the definition of a vehicle as,

“any vehicle which is used for travel by land, water or air”.

We have brought forward this amendment so that the definition does cover things comprehensively, not just a limited list.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, the Bill has changed during its progress through the House. It is an excellent example of the improvement that this House can bring to a Bill. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to that improvement.

Amendment 5 agreed.

Amendment 6

Moved by

6: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Offences relating to air traffic services

(1) A person commits an offence if—(a) the person shines or directs a laser beam—(i) towards an air traffic facility, or(ii) towards a person providing air traffic services, and(b) the laser beam dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract, a person providing air traffic services.(2) It is a defence to show—(a) that the person had a reasonable excuse for shining or directing the laser beam towards the facility or person, or(b) that the person—(i) did not intend to shine or direct the laser beam towards the facility or person, and(ii) exercised all due diligence and took all reasonable precautions to avoid doing so.(3) A person is taken to have shown a fact mentioned in subsection (2) if—(a) sufficient evidence is adduced to raise an issue with respect to it, and(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.(4) A person who commits an offence under this section is liable—(a) on summary conviction in England and Wales, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, to a fine or to both;(b) on summary conviction in Scotland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both;(c) on summary conviction in Northern Ireland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both;(d) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, to a fine or to both.(5) In relation to an offence committed before the coming into force of section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the reference in subsection (4)(a) to 12 months is to be read as a reference to six months.(6) In this section—“air traffic facility” means any building, structure, vehicle or other place from which air traffic services are provided;“air traffic services” has the meaning given by section 98(1) of the Transport Act 2000.”

My Lords, Amendment 6 creates a new offence of shining or directing a laser towards air traffic control which dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract, a person providing air traffic services. The inclusion of air traffic control in the Bill has seen cross-party support, including from the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Monks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who tabled amendments on this subject in Committee. We have listened to these concerns.

Air traffic control personnel have an important responsibility in controlling and monitoring the movement of aircraft. I agree that a laser attack on a person carrying out these duties presents clear safety concerns and could endanger aircraft. The Bill was originally drafted to deal with the safety risks faced when a laser distracts or dazzles the person in control of a vehicle, but including air traffic control fits with the underlying principle of the Bill and goes further to protect the travelling public.

Before tabling this amendment, we consulted a range of stakeholders including BALPA, NATS and the UK Laser Working Group. They are all supportive of this new clause. We are treating shining a laser beam at air traffic control in the same way as shining a laser beam towards vehicles, with the same defences and punishments. There is a clear case for this amendment in the interest of public safety, and I am grateful to noble Lords for highlighting this and so improving the Bill. I beg to move.

We welcome this amendment. We moved into interesting territory in Committee and, sadly, the Government may come back at some point to address the whole issue of the laser as a weapon. However, they have chosen the right point in that progression and we support the amendment.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register. The Bill is a good example of a common endeavour in this House. Because they are passionate about aviation safety, all sides of the House wish to have a successful Bill. I thank the Minister for listening to all the groups that have responded, particularly BALPA, of which I serve as vice-president. We are extremely grateful to the Minister for the efficient and open way in which she has handled this matter. I place that on record as we come to the end of this stage.

My Lords, I welcome the support for the creation of this new offence, which strengthens the Bill. I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions in favour of the proposal. Thanks to this, and the other improvements suggested by noble Lords and discussed today, the Bill leaves your Lordships’ House as a better piece of legislation than it was when it arrived.

Amendment 6 agreed.

Amendment 7

Moved by

7: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—


In this Act—“aircraft” means any vehicle used for travel by air;“laser beam” means a beam of coherent light produced by a device of any kind;“vehicle” means any vehicle which is used for travel by land, water or air;“vessel” has the meaning given by section 255(1) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.”

Amendment 7 agreed.

Clause 2: Extent, commencement and short title

Amendments 8 to 11

Moved by

8: Clause 2, page 2, line 33, at end insert—

“( ) This section and section (Interpretation) come into force on the day on which this Act is passed.”

9: Clause 2, page 2, line 34, leave out “This Act” and insert “Section 1”

10: Clause 2, page 2, line 37, leave out “This Act” and insert “Section 1”

11: Clause 2, page 2, line 42, at end insert—

“( ) Section (Offences relating to air traffic services) comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”

Amendments 8 to 11 agreed.

In the Title

Amendment 12

Moved by

12: In the Title, line 1, leave out from “creating” to end of line 2 and insert “new offences of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle or air traffic facility; and for connected purposes”

Amendment 12 agreed.