Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Gray: Is my hon. Friend not particularly concerned about the definition of designated public places in clause 15(5), which says that the local authority must, of course, publicise them, but which does not say that a notice must be put up in the designated place? If that is what the Minister intends, could he not answer my hon. Friend's point by saying that if there is a clear notice saying ``No drinking'', people would know not to drink?

Mr. Blunt: I suppose that that would answer my point. However, there are quite enough officious signs around already, without our running around to put up more and further deface the environment as well as putting local authorities to further expense. All that could be avoided if the police simply had to meet the test that the relevant behaviour was going to lead to an offence. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will be able to accept amendment No. 126.

I support amendments Nos. 25 and 26, which seem very sensible. The constable should be in uniform, particularly when dealing with what I assume would be people who were drunk and intent on causing mischief, rather than law-abiding citizens who just happened to be having a drink in the wrong place.

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point, because an organisation that has contacted me about this part of the Bill is concerned that areas that may be used, for example, as a picnic spot or somewhere to have a summer's day lunch with the family could face such a threat. Does he agree that that is a concern?

3.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: I will not argue with the hon. Lady and hope that she will support my amendment if the occasion arises.

Mrs. Humble: I would like to present a slightly different perspective. As I mentioned earlier, in Blackpool there is a byelaw against public drinking, but having notices up in the centre of Blackpool is very important, because people come there to enjoy themselves who do not live there and may not know that there are byelaws. Having notices ensuring that both visitors and residents know the rules. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about the importance of public notices so that people do not unwittingly break any law?

Mr. Blunt: That would be a matter for the local authority in Blackpool, which contains the people best placed to judge whether they want their environment defaced by signs or whether they want the corresponding benefit that people know that the byelaw exists and will obey it. In an area such Blackpool, which has a vast number of visitors coming in from all over the country, that is a proper judgment for the local authority to take, but it would be wholly inappropriate for the Government to say that every local authority in the country must put signs up to say which areas are designated. Such judgments are best taken locally, but I fully take the hon. Lady's point.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment would make it extremely difficult for a police officer confronted by a group of people drinking, one of whom may be behaving in a particularly disorderly manner, to single out just one person, using the definition that the police officer can reasonably expect that person to be acting in an offensive manner, without apprehending the rest of the non-offensive drinkers in the vicinity?

Mr. Blunt: We are inviting the police to make a judgment. If a police officer reasonably believes that that group of drinkers would cause trouble, that would result in an offence. The officer would have to have some reason for coming to that conclusion, and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) is pointing out that people will behave in ways that differentiate them from perfectly law-abiding people. He has made my argument for me by saying that if the police officer is reasonably able to make that differentiation, that is the simple test that he must apply. My amendment is designed to protect perfectly good, law-abiding people who find themselves unwittingly caught out by a local authority regulation about designated areas, not least as described by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton).

I have a slight concern about the amendments—Nos. 26 and 53—tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. I accept my hon. Friend's argument about the possibility of taking sealed containers from people in the circumstances described by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, putting them to one side and returning them later. That would seem sensible, but the Bill should state, in that case, that any sealed container taken in those circumstances would, in effect, be confiscated for a short period before being returned to the individuals concerned. Furthermore, they should be taken only if a police officer has a proper reason to do so.

I am nervous about that idea, but I accept that there is an argument for it. I am more concerned about the situation in which the police are dealing with people who have sealed containers and who are likely to use them as a weapon. In such circumstances, the police should make an arrest, rather than taking sealed containers away from people. The circumstances in which sealed containers could be taken should be absolutely clear, though I believe that it would probably be better if they were not taken. I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire about the challenge faced by police on the street, but if someone is about to lob a full beer can at them, they should make an arrest to deal with that disorder.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because these are matters of judgment and there will be different views on both sides of the Committee. Does he consider that these are difficulties of judgment for any individual police officer? Does he not think that it would be wiser to leave the maximum discretion? Does he not understand why we on the Front Bench are asking the Government why they should limit the powers? It is the Government who are saying that the power will be created, but that they want to limit it by taking away the power for a police officer to exercise his judgment to take away a sealed container.

Mr. Blunt: I understand that point. My concern is that if the amendment were to be pressed, it should have to be more detailed about the treatment of sealed containers and their return to their proper owner. In addition, some form of test should be provided for the circumstances in which sealed containers could be removed from people. The containers, after all, are people's property and are not being drunk from.

I have some concern about amendment No. 26. Does it mean that police would not be able to take empty containers, which is, I think, its purpose? If people had empty bottles, the police would want to remove them. The change of language to ``which contains such liquor'' would mean that empty bottles could not be taken. I see the intention behind the amendment, but I draw that point to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and the Minister.

Mrs. Brinton: Going back to the question of the return of the sealed containers, would the hon. Gentleman consider it, as I do, entirely inappropriate for those containers to be returned to someone from whom they had been confiscated if the person was under 18?

Mr. Blunt: Yes. I am quite sure that such people should not be in possession of containers in the street. I am not certain of it—not being a lawyer, I labour under a disadvantage—but I assume that that would be an offence in any event, and in those circumstances it would be inappropriate to return them. However, if we get into the business of seizing people's property, we will need rather greater protection for the citizen than my hon. Friend's amendment provides. I fully understand the general thrust of the amendment and look forward to the Minister's response to it. It was tabled as a probing amendment, so I quite appreciate that it has opened up a very proper debate on how the police should handle disorder and the difficulties that we must weave around in trying to make the Bill clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath suggested that the fine should be set a maximum £5,000 rather than £500—that is level 5 rather than level 2. That might be a bit steep, but I look forward to the Minister's comments on that and hope that he will be able to give the amendment careful consideration.

Mr. Hughes: I share the view of the hon. Member for Reigate about the desirability of keeping the fine at the level proposed, and not the higher figure that would result if the Conservative amendment were agreed to. I also support the Conservative amendment that would require the constable to be in uniform. That is exactly the sort of case where only someone who is visibly in authority, rather than a special branch or a plain-clothes police officer, should do the job. There are many precedents in statute for limiting powers to a constable in uniform. There could be an inelegant and unfortunate parallel. My understanding is that for drink-driving offences a constable in uniform is required, which is why the only time that I have ever been stopped—

Mr. Clarke: Did you run?

Mr. Hughes: No, because I was entirely innocent.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman might help us with the occasion on which he was guilty and did run.

Mr. Hughes: I expected that that would be the next question.

I remember seeing the police officers donning their hats so that they were properly in uniform. Just to complete the story, it was a Friday night in my constituency and what was slightly embarrassing was that the breath test was carried out on the edge of a main road just as a large number of people whom I knew were going past. Although I was entirely innocent, it prompted a few questions.

 
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Prepared 15 February 2001