Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Jackie Ballard: We support the idea of a sunset clause, as in amendment No. 128. It is good to revisit legislation every now and again to decide whether it is still needed, particularly if a local authority in the circumstance mentioned by the hon. Member for Reigate decides that an area should be a designated place. That will not necessarily be the situation in perpetuity, so the amendment is sensible.

I almost intervened on the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to ask him what evidence he has to say that Liberal Democrats want more legislation rather than less, but I decided not to waste the Committee's time, because I suspect that he does not have a sensible answer.

I do not support amendment No. 32, because I believe in minimum intervention.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. The hon. Lady is mistakenly referring to amendment No. 32, which is not in the group that we are debating.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is correct: amendment No. 32 is in the next group.

Jackie Ballard: I am sorry, Mr. Gale, I must have picked up the wrong piece of paper.

I support amendment No. 30. I am thinking of an example from my constituency. We have a park that is well used, but there is not much trouble in it, so I cannot imagine that it would need to be a designated place. There are occasions during the year when it is used for concerts, to which people take picnics, perhaps with champagne. If for some reason that park became a designated place, it would be useful for the local authority to have the power to suspend the designation for 48 hours.

Mr. Clarke: Our general assessment is that the amendments would complicate and make more difficult the local authority's role, although I am sure that that is not the intention. A whole series of qualifications are set out. Prescribing, in a way that I can describe only as Conservative in tone, the detailed procedures to be followed by local authorities in making designation orders, including the need for decisions to be taken by the full council, would constitute over-prescription. All of us who lived through the years of Conservative Governments would say that that is characteristic of the way in which they operated.

Amendment No. 127 would remove the requirement that a designated public place must be a public place within the area of a local authority. The hon. Member for Reigate said that he would not press the point. The Government want to maintain the principle that restrictions on public drinking must be made by designation order made by the local authority covering public places in the area. The principle of an order is clear, and I can tell that he understands the point that we have made in that respect.

Amendment No. 56 would remove the requirement for designation and make the powers available for all public places. That would be going too far. The nanny state, which says that all public places should be subject to such a restriction, is not the society that the Labour Government are trying to create—it is the society that the Conservatives tried to create over many years.

Mr. Hawkins: Despite the perfectly understandable party political point that the Minister is making, he may not understand that under this group of amendments we were seeking to make clearer the link between the definitions at the beginning of clause 18, and clause 15, which was pointed out when my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. I hope that the Minister will take at least that point seriously.

4.45 pm

Mr. Clarke: On that basis, I can only withdraw any suggestion that the previous Conservative Government sought in any way to restrict freedom. The country would recognise that as an absurd allegation. I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's clarification.

Amendment No. 57 would change the test for designation from being an area that has been associated with public drinking, nuisance or disorder to one that ``may be'' associated with such problems. We think that there is no need to attempt to cover areas that may in future experience such problems. Local authorities will be able to make designation orders in respect of such areas should they begin to experience problems. There is an issue about liberties and freedom in suggesting that a local authority should be able to designate potential problem areas, without any evidence or material to substantiate its view. I appreciate that this was a probing amendment. Our view is that there should be some kind of evidence. It may be helpful if I give examples of the kind of evidence that we are talking about.

The accident and emergency department of the University hospital in Cardiff, for example, conducts a detailed analysis of its patients. As elsewhere in the country, about 80 per cent. of the people coming into the department have alcohol in their blood. When I first learned that figure, I found it truly shocking. Provided that the data from the accident and emergency department indicates clearly where the injuries were sustained, it is often better than police and other data. One can establish from a simple mapping process where the problems occur. That has been extended to some other areas, including Birmingham and Cumbria. It is a powerful way of addressing some of these issues.

Such evidence that can make a substantive difference. Police data can also do that. I was looking earlier today at a map of street robbery in some parts of London that the Metropolitan police produce. It shows a clear series of localities. That is the kind of evidence that should be taken into account, rather than a more speculative approach. I recognise that the amendment was intended to probe.

Mr. Hawkins: I accept entirely the Minister's case. Strictly speaking, would evidence from an accident and emergency department fit in with subsection (2)(a) and (b)? I am not sure that a local authority would be entitled under the Bill, as drafted, to take that data into account.

Mr. Clarke: The wording is quite clear. Subsection (2) states:

    ``A local authority may for the purposes of subsection (1) by order identify any public place in their area if they are satisfied that''

a nuisance or disorder

    ``has been associated with the consumption of intoxicating liquor in that place.''

The key word is ``satisfied''. What is the basis of that satisfaction? I think that it is data and evidence. The data and evidence that might be presented by an accident and emergency department come into that category. There is no requirement for the local authority to send its own employees to look at particular areas. It can consider material from the police, the health authority or another local authority.

Mr. Heald: It would be interesting to know a little more about this. Could the Minister allow us to see some of this information? Can he make it available over the recess?

Mr. Clarke: I would be happy to do that. Without being patronising, I know that the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous Opposition spokesman on police matters. He will have seen the mapping technology that is now available for certain types of crime. Some of it is very striking and shows the power of police data. There are some complicated issues relating to data protection and data sharing, but it is interesting. The kind of data that hospitals can produce is similar in character. I am certainly happy to show him examples. I do not think that there is anything that would surprise him or affect very much the deliberations of the Committee, because he knows the kind of data that exist and that the local authority would want to take into account.

That is why we think that amendment No. 57 is not right and believe that the less arbitrary power of requiring the local authority to be satisfied about the situation is a better way to proceed.

Amendment No. 58 would provide the exception to the principle that the clause 14 power should be exercisable only in areas designated by the local authority, allowing it to be applied in any area that the constable believes to be a public place. I find that a matter of concern. There is a question about whether it is the local authority or the constable who decides. I am foremost in wanting to give more powers to the police to deal with difficult situations, but it is not right to do it in a manner that is not accountable in any way, other than through a police complaints process after the fact. We believe that a designated public authority, the local authority, rather than a police officer, should take the decision about designating these areas.

Mr. Hawkins: Amendment No. 58 would not take away the responsibility from the local authority, it would simply provide the police officer, who may have had a very difficult decision to make, with a defence to an allegation that he has exceeded his powers. I hope that the Minister will not only understand the spirit behind the amendment but be prepared to consider introducing a Government amendment on Report, because we are only talking about a situation in which a police officer may have got it wrong and tried to exercise the clause 14 powers outside the designated area. If the police officer has a reasonable belief, he is protected, and that is what we are seeking to achieve.

Mr. Clarke: I understand the point in that spirit, and in a very general sense I will consider it. Without getting into the signs or no signs discussion, it is quite important that it is widely understood where the designated areas are. In my city, Norwich, where there are byelaws about antisocial drinking, there is a controversy about the areas where the powers should exist—the city centre and other areas. Who should resolve this problem? It is an issue that the police are very much aware of, and that is important, but we believe that, ultimately, the local authority should take the decisions.

Under amendment No. 31, designation orders would automatically lapse after 12 months, and under amendment No. 128 they would have to be revisited after five years. We believe that both amendments go too far and are too bureaucratic in tone. Subsection (3) says:

    ``The power conferred by subsection (2) includes power—

    (b) to revoke or amend orders previously made.

I consider that a reasonable power for the local authority to have. It can be and should be flexible. At the risk of using guidance again, I am sure that we as a Government would want local authorities to be flexible, but to put in particular guillotine points seems to be an unnecessarily bureaucratic approach. For that reason, we oppose those two amendments.

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Prepared 15 February 2001