Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I entirely accept that there is a danger that the police might on occasion make the mistake of wishing to take into custody someone whom they think is on the verge of committing an offence, but who is in fact a law-abiding person. However, if we talk to police officers at the sharp end, who patrol our town and city centres, they will tell the hon. Lady or any Committee member that having the power to take a container from someone who may be committing an offence or involved in trouble only if it has been opened, and not having the power to take away a sealed container that could be used as a weapon, will limit their ambit of operations. I accept what she says, though, which is why I said that these were probing amendments. We want the Minister to explain why they would not assist the police. Our drafting may not be perfect, but our intention is to extend the powers of the police—we hope, not too far.

Jackie Ballard: It seems that the hon. Gentleman wants to extend the range of items that the police could consider as dangerous weapons—in which case, what is the difference between a can of beer and a can of Coke that are sealed?

3.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am not sure that there necessarily is a distinction in terms of their use as weapons, but the rest of the clause talks about intoxicating liquor. The restriction set out by the Government seemed to us unnecessary. We shall no doubt hear from the Minister in due course that he and his advisers chose that drafting for very good reasons, but we wanted to probe the matter because we know from talking to police officers that they appreciate fairly wide discretion to control what are in any view—I am sure that all members of the Committee would agree—very difficult public order offences. If one has been out, as I and other members of the Committee have, patrolling a town or a city centre with the police late at night, one sees how difficult the job of policing is for the ordinary PC in a panda car called to a disturbance.

I recently saw some closed circuit television footage of the policing problems in the centre of Guildford; the chief constable pointed out to all Surrey Members of Parliament the sort of behaviour that his officers had to face late on a Saturday night outside the nightclubs in Guildford. Local young men, whom he called the Guildford warriors, were wading into unprovoked, drink-fuelled attacks on law-abiding trainee solicitors studying at the law college who were just walking through Guildford town centre. Because of those difficult policing decisions, it seemed worth probing whether the Government have got that right or whether their wording, which may have been inspired by civil libertarian concerns, is unduly restrictive. That is perhaps the most substantive probing point in the group of amendments.

I shall deal briefly with the other amendments. Amendment No. 54 suggested that it might be sensible to have a higher fine available. The Minister will no doubt explain why the Government have chosen level 2 on the standard scale. It seemed sensible to probe the reasons for that, particularly when level 5 has been chosen elsewhere in the Bill—as we shall see in later clauses—and for the courts' not having at their disposal a higher level of fines. Amendments Nos. 106 and 75 are consequential on clause 31; it is logical for them to be in the group because they match clause 14. That would keep the different parts of the Bill in line with one another.

Amendment No. 55 proposes the deletion of subsection (5). It may have been that amendment that caused the Minister to intervene to say that he did not think that we were being constructive, but I repeat that it is a probing amendment. We want the Minister to explain the reasons for the choice of procedure for a police officer faced with difficult public order policing. There may be very good reasons for the inclusion of subsection (5) and I do not want the Minister to think that the amendments are wrecking ones. We are approaching this in a constructive spirit. We want to probe and see what the Government have in mind. We look forward to the Minister's response.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Broadly this is a sensible clause, but certain aspects need to be clarified. The amendments are helpful probing amendments, particularly amendments Nos. 25 and 26. I am not sure whether I understood the interesting intervention that the Minister of State made in relation to amendment No. 26.

It seems sensible that subsection (2) should apply to a constable in uniform; a brief explanation as to why it should not be so limited would be welcome. It makes good sense to have a constable in uniform because we are dealing with difficult policing in a public place. One would normally expect constables carrying out public order functions to be in the regular force rather than the Criminal Investigation Department, and to be in uniform, not plain clothes.

The next question, under subsection (2)(b), is the ability to require a citizen

    ``to surrender anything in his possession which is, or which the constable reasonably believes to be, intoxicating liquor''—

that is clear enough—

    ``or a container for such liquor''.

The amendment suggests the words, ``which contains such liquor''.

This is where I did not grasp what the Minister was intervening to say, but I took it to be that officers want the power to confiscate containers that might become weapons. With the thought of glassing in mind—when a person breaks a bottle or glass, and sticks it in someone's face—it is obviously sensible that the police officer should have the power to take that kind of weapon off someone. However, if that is the purpose of this part of the clause, I suggest that consideration is given to substituting a new subsection that makes that more explicit. At the moment, the subsection says,

    ``containers for such liquor (other than a sealed container).''

That does not make clear the aim of the clause. Our amendment, which states,

    ``container which contains such liquor''

is probably otiose, because the police officer is already entitled to take intoxicating liquor anyway.

Amendment No. 27 relates to subsection (3). The subsection concerns a constable's ability to

    ``dispose of anything surrendered to him . . . in such manner as he considers appropriate.''

Although the wording may not be perfect, the suggestion in amendment No. 27—that it should be in such manner as the chief officer has specified—has some sense.

People whose liquor is taken may get upset, and if they feel that it is taken in an oppressive manner, that will make policing no easier. In many sets of circumstances it will be extremely difficult for the officer to know what to do with the drink, and it may be best to pour it away quickly and to dispose of the bottle or container in a rubbish bin or bottle bank.

However, if an officer took a pack of 24 untouched bottles of lager from some youths because the officer reasonably believed that they might be drunk later, there could be problems if the drink was disposed of. In those circumstances it would be more sensible, particularly if the officer had a van available, to ascertain the name of the person, scrawl that on the drink, take it off to the police station and tell the youths that they could get it back later. The officer should then do his best to give it back. That would simply be better policing.

I would not like the idea to get around that these sensible powers should be used in a way that is likely to exacerbate, rather than calm the situation.

Mr. Gray: The absurdity of the clause as currently drafted, unless amendment No. 53 is accepted, is that in the circumstances that my right hon. and learned Friend described, where a person has a pack of 24 bottles, opens one and commits the offence of drinking in the designated place, the police constable would not be allowed to confiscate the other 23 bottles and put them into the police van. That is why it is so important that amendment No. 53 is agreed to.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I confess I had not noticed. They would, indeed, all be sealed containers, and would consequently be excluded.

Mr. Blunt: I shall first speak to amendment No. 126 before commenting briefly on the others.

The purpose of this part of the Bill is to combat alcohol-related disorder, and there should be a proper test. The police will be required to deal with the type of disorder that will lead to an offence. If the Bill is not amended in the way that I propose, there is a danger that perfectly innocent people may be unwittingly caught up by oppressive police action in particular areas. Law-abiding people, who are having a drink at a particular place and who are not causing offence to anyone, may be unaware of the new legislation and be caught because the police feel that they must to enforce the law rigorously. People who were never intended to be caught by the section of the law dealing with alcohol-related disturbance may be caught.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): From experience, I support that view. We increasingly find that people are unaware of parking regulations, because they vary from local authority to local authority, particularly in areas such as London. The penalty period and the length of time for which one may park differ from area to area. It is sensible not to assume that everybody who goes to a place has collected all the information about where the law would apply in certain respects. The hon. Gentleman's point will be increasingly important since more and more people are travelling for entertainment, days out and holidays. They cannot be expected to know where designated no-drink areas are.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) gives my argument more force than I have given it so far. No-drink areas will be designated by local authorities, which implies that local people will know the areas in which drinking should not take place. Society does not work like that. The Government must simply go back to first principles. What is involved in the Bill, and what is it designed to do? That test should be part of a police constable's decision on when to intervene. Of course, if a nuisance is created to others through drinking, that would be an offence and would meet the test.

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Prepared 15 February 2001