Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I suspect that I may be on the same track as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The hon. Gentleman has automatically inserted the word ``immediate'' into his description of ``in the vicinity''. It is not in the Bill, but it would be if my hon. Friend's amendment were accepted. If it is still not in the Bill when it becomes law, it will not apply. The hon. Gentleman's accidental insertion has made the point for us.

Mr. Hughes: I concede to that correction. The hon. Gentleman's amendments specify ``in the immediate vicinity''. I paraphrased accurately the exact wording of the notes on clauses, which include that phrase. I forgot as I read that part that it is not in the Bill. He is right to correct me and we will have a perfectly proper sub-debate on that in a moment.

The purpose of amendment No. 4 and similar amendments is to ensure fair treatment of the owner of the pub or licensed premises or the manager whose name is over the door. The proposal is simply that a closure order should be issued only after reasonable warning. We propose two warnings. The nearest parallel is in football, where a referee shows a player a card and can eventually force him off the pitch. Of course, that rarely happens at my local ground, the Den, where everyone is extremely well behaved at nearly every game. That is why we are leading the second division by a large margin and romping towards inevitable victory.

The amendment raises an important principle, but I should declare an interest. The Committee might have heard me say that my dad and granddad were brewers all their working lives—my dad worked for Whitbread's and my granddad for Young's brewery—and therefore had dealings with the licensed trade and the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Association. I am concerned that a first offence or complaint should not result in overly authoritarian action. It will be easy, particularly for young or inexperienced coppers, to take the view that the remedy should be used, because it is the most immediate, effective remedy, but that would not help the pub's reputation when it is time to renew the licence. If there has been a closure order, the proposed provisions will rightly result in immediate closure and the licence holder will have to go to court to renew the licence. That is perfectly proper. However, a closure by the police is draconian. It will affect someone's business and reputation, so it is important to have proper warnings.

I hope that we will agree that we need a proper series of warnings. Under employment law, verbal and written warnings are required before action can be taken. I can imagine circumstances in which first and second warnings could be issued on the same day or even during the same period of licensed opening, particularly in dealing with noise, so the police could use the full power of closing the premises.

There will clearly be occasions when the police should have powers to close ``misbehaving premises'' for any of the reasons that have been set out: trouble may be brewing, is already happening or occurring nearby. We are sympathetic to the amendments because they would circumscribe the powers by ensuring that the trouble is in the immediate vicinity, that the order would have a direct effect on the action or that trouble would ensue. The provision is important, but we must give only the powers that we intend to give and those powers must be clearly justified.

Mrs. Brinton: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the order for closure should be given by any officer, or by a senior officer rather than a junior one?

Mr. Hughes: I share the view that the order should be given by a senior officer, as the Government broadly propose. It would be an entirely inappropriate decision for an officer on the beat who happened to hear loud music or find a couple of people rolling out of a pub.

It will help if the Minister outlines, as fairly as he can, his current understanding of the views of those with relevant interests. What do they think of the details of the legislation, as opposed to its generality? The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire may ask a similar question. We must be careful to take account of those with relevant interests. We live in an age in which the traditional pub is under considerable threat in many parts of the country and many pubs have closed in recent years. Happily, they are often more viable now in rural areas than they have been in the past, but they are less viable in urban areas, partly because they are being replaced by bars of a different type.

The pub is an important community venue. Public houses should be able to open for as long as the local authority decides. In principle, I am in favour of pubs being open all hours. That is the right way to deal with licensing and reduce alcoholism. We must be careful not to make it even more difficult for people to run pubs, especially those that are not part of multinational or national chains—individual free houses run by small publicans and real ale brewery companies, which are a valuable part of our national infrastructure. I am keen for there to be proper legislation, but we should not act in an over-draconian way on pubs and those who run them. By and large, those people provide an extremely good community service and deserve to be supported in what they do.

The Chairman: Before we embark on further debate, it might help the Committee if I suggest how we might approach it. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, we have deliberately selected something of a shopping basket of amendments that covers grounds of evidence, the extent of the area covered by closure orders and requirements to notify a licence holder before making an order. Provided that the Chair is given appropriate notice, I shall be perfectly willing to accept Divisions on all or any of those separate categories.

I also think that it might help if we go slightly further. Clause 19 is the first of several clauses that deal with closure orders. Given the breadth of the amendments in this group, it may help the Committee to have a wide-ranging debate on it. I am prepared to permit that, given the nature of the clause and subsequent clauses, on the clear understanding that debates will not become repetitive. If we have a wide-ranging debate now, I shall look fiercely on any suggestion that we might need a stand part debate later.

Mr. Heald: That is a most helpful suggestion, for which I am sure that the Committee is grateful.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made a point towards the close of his remarks about the nature of the industry with which we are dealing. The licensed industry runs many public houses and clubs, and is involved in a range of law and order issues. The industry is alarmed, as are we, by the fact that the Government do not seem to have a clear idea of the implications of closure orders. The explanatory notes, in paragraph 374 on page 68, estimate the effect on ``errant'' and ``innocent'' premises, as they are described. They state that the police have estimated that about 800 businesses are likely to fall foul of a closure order and that the commercial and legal costs of closure to the businesses will range from £1,100 to £60,000. The notes go on to say:

    ``If the number of closures is taken to be approximately 1000, the total cost to errant businesses could be between £1.1 million and £60 million. In addition, the cost to the estimated 15 innocent premises could be between £16,500 and £900,000. The total cost could therefore be between £1.16 million and £60.9 million. The costs to a business of the potential loss of licence following a court hearing are unquantifiable, involving both owners of businesses and salaried managers.''

12 noon

We can see that there is a wide range of possible costs to innocent and other businesses—£1,100 to £60,000 and £1 million to £60 million. The wide spread of the estimates causes alarm in the industry, and it feels that the power could be wide-ranging and damaging. If the power were properly targeted, it would be a worthwhile exercise and less threatening to the industry. The amendments have been tabled to ensure that closure orders are properly targeted and made only in genuine cases of fault on the part of the landlord or the staff of the premises. It should not be a blanket approach, but effective and targeted.

Another aspect of concern is the practicality of closure orders. They will involve a senior police officer making a decision as set out the proposed new sections of the Licensing Act 1964. It is true that the senior police officer will be able to act on the basis of information given to him by other officers, but he will have to make the order. The Police Federation inspectors committee has considerable concerns about how practical that will be because, in reality, the inspectors will be the senior police officers.

The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association and others in the industry support most of the official Opposition's amendments, including amendment No. 81. It is similar to an amendment that has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, and would require the senior police officer not simply to believe that disorder is likely, but to have reasonable grounds for that belief. The Minister might be able to assure us on the legal effect of the current words, but we think that there should be an element of evidence and of reasonable grounds, which is more substantial than a judgment about likelihood. We should be grateful if he would help because, given the potential for substantial losses, it is important to licensees that the process is transparent.

Proposed new section 179A refers to the likelihood and presence of disorder ``in the vicinity of'' the premises. Amendments Nos. 34A and 35 would change that to say:

    ``in a place for which the licensee is responsible which is in the vicinity of''.

The Minister might say that if a licensee is responsible for an area, it is part of the licensed premises. In that case, he might want to deal with the matter in other ways than through the amendment. Amendments Nos. 34A, 35 and 77 are intended to probe the question of fault, and the suggestion that the landlord or staff of the premises might not have done everything expected of them.

As drafted, the provision is wide and seems to apply to an unspecified vicinity. The feeling in the industry is that if a licensee is responsible for trouble that has occurred, he should be liable, but if that is not the case, there is a risk of unfair closure. The BLRA wants to ensure that a licensee could not be unfairly penalised by the extended closure of his establishment unless he could be held responsible for the anticipated or actual disorder. That would establish a clear ground rule that the closure of premises must be based on disorder directly linked with those premises, and cannot be justified by general local behaviour alone. Responsible publicans who actively discourage rowdy and unacceptable behaviour should not be penalised because they happen to be sited in an area where there is disorder unconnected with the pub.

Amendment No. 36 relates to the same issue, specifying that the disorder, or likely disorder, should be in the immediate vicinity of the premises. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has observed, that is what is said in the explanatory notes. The words ``immediate vicinity'' are used in paragraph 38, with which I know the Minister is familiar—he is looking at it as we speak. It says:

    ``To make a closure order, the senior police officer must reasonably believe that there is likely to be disorder in or in the immediate vicinity of the premises in question''.

It seems that the amendment is pushing at an open door, as the amendment contains only the words in the explanatory notes.

Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 would provide that a disorder should not only be in the immediate vicinity of premises, but related to them. The Minister's previous presentation suggested, as do the notes, that the Government's aim is that there should be a relationship between the licensed premises and the disorder. Why, then, can he not accept the point?

Amendment No. 83 concerns whether an action

    ``is necessary in the interests of public safety''.

That is the current wording. We think that

    ``will significantly assist in securing public safety''

would provide a stricter test, and ensure that closure orders are used only where they will have a positive effect. If the Minister can assure us that his wording is just as rigorous, we will accept it, but it is important that there should be a strict test, where the interests of public safety, and the securing of those interests, are concerned.

Amendments Nos. 84 and 92 would ensure, as would amendment No. 4, some procedure whereby the licensee or his staff would be requested to perform as the police wanted. If they failed to do so, proceedings would be taken to make an order. Amendment No. 84 would provide that a request would have to be made

    ``to the holder of the licence to act reasonably by reducing or ceasing the emission of noise from the premises''

before an order was made. The Minister may say that he expects that to happen, but it would be useful to provide for it in the Bill, as it would for the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

Amendment No. 92 makes a similar point, suggesting that a warning system should enable the operator to take action to address excessive noise before extreme closure action takes place. Amendments Nos. 84 and 92 are supported by the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association.

Amendment No. 39 would provide that

    ``A closure order may only be made on the grounds specified in subsection (1)(c)''—

the noise provision—

    ``if the senior police officer has given notice to the licensee that he intends to make the order, and the licensee has failed to take appropriate action to quell the disturbance''.

Again, that is an early warning provision.

Amendment No. 39 would provide that

    ``A closure order may only be made on the grounds specified in subsection (1)(c)''

if notice has been given. It is a similar amendment. In fact, it is the same one; I have reread my notes. I apologise. Winston Churchill once read his notes twice when making a speech to the House and, when challenged about it, he said that it showed how important the point was.

I shall put the amendments in an overall context. They raise three basic issues. The first is the reasonable grounds and proper warnings that a senior police officer has to believe and give in order to close premises. The second is the link between the premises and the decision made. Is it possible to define ``in the vicinity'' so that it clearly relates to premises owned by the licensee? Should the reference not be to the immediate vicinity? Should the whole relationship be closer? The third issue is whether the closure would significantly assist public safety.

The industry feels that it has strong support among its members and those involved for firm discipline in licensed premises. It is already involved in a range of partnerships with the police and the community. As the Minister will recall, last year he launched the BLRA partnerships initiative, which we think has worked rather well. Co-operation has been active, and 84 industry representatives have been allocated to local partnerships. There have been considerable benefits from working partnerships between the industry, the Government, local communities and the police.

Just outside my constituency, in Hitchin, the Unique Pub Company has worked closely with Hitchin police. Superintendent Jon Caldwell and Mr. Raynsford of Unique recently met to emphasise the way in which their close co-operation is working. Both have said that they have been impressed by their approaches to and the effects of close working.

The industry should not be pictured as being full of unreasonable people who want to serve their drinks without any let or hindrance, and who do not care about discipline. They clearly do care about it, as no one wants to run a rowdy pub. It is important that the proposed measures be well targeted.

The coverage in the trade papers shows great concern. For instance, The Licensee and Morning Advertiser on 1 February said that the first reason—namely, that there is likely to be disorder—would give wide scope to the police. It continued:

    ``If there is a football match in town and the police think that fans might descend on `the circuit', are they going to close down all the pubs in the area, or wait until trouble happens? What is the situation where fights are developing in the street? Does the nearest innocent pub warrant a closure order while they sort it out?

    As the Bill now stands, it is not just so-called `rowdy pubs' which are in the firing line. Many readers of this newspaper will know from personal experience that a fight can start in an instant, and they want it to end just as much as the police. It would be most unfortunate if an innocent landlord gained a double punishment—by having his bar trashed and then being forced to close for 24 hours as a result.''

12.15 pm

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, too, is worried. It says that the Bill's provisions may prove excessive and it protests that not enough checks and balances are in place to protect the legitimate business and commercial interests of licensees. It says:

    ``Under the proposals as drafted, the `senior' police officer does not even have to be at the premises but would have the right to shut any put where violence or disorder breaks out on the recommendation of the junior officer on the spot, and regardless of the reasons behind it, the pub's previous history or the landlord's efforts to control it.''

It also explains that the issuing of warnings is not prescribed in the Bill, a point that the amendments seek to deal with, and that no mention is made of discussing the reasons for closure orders.

Of cases being taken to court, the association states:

    ``The Bill recommends that this happen as soon as possible, but allows police to extend the closure order if this cannot happen immediately. In the meantime, the livelihood and income of many small business may be jeopardised. The ALMR believes that the appeals mechanism set out in the Bill must be strengthened and a statutory requirement be imposed on the licensing authority to meet in emergency session to review the closure order the following day. Police should not have the power to enforce extended periods of closure''.

The association then talks about the effect that improperly targeted measures would have on the relationship between the police and the licensees. It states:

    ``We are also concerned that these proposals may inadvertently lead to a breakdown in the relationship between licensees and the police. The regime may discourage licensees from calling the police if trouble breaks out in their premises for fear that it may lead to a closure order being issued or if the incident may be referred to in future licensing reviews.''

The association quite reasonably points out that

    ``there are certain pubs which do not comply with best practice and act as magnets for disorder, violence and drug dealing. Similarly, some pubs will persistently breach noise regulations.''

It supports the general intent of the provision, but it is concerned, first, that there should be adequate protections to relate the trouble to the premises in question; and, secondly, that there should be an element of fault.

The Minister told the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association that his concern in using the words ``in the vicinity'' was centred on fighting among drunken and disorderly customers that spills out onto the street outside public houses. He said that such fights would be directly connected with the public house and that they would not have happened if the pub had not been open and serving alcohol in the immediate vicinity. I understand that he made his concern known to the BLRA in a letter.

Our amendments mirror the Minister's concern—for instance, that the disorder should be related to the premises and in the immediate vicinity. I venture to suggest that it should be possible for the Committee to reach agreement on the safeguards that are needed. I hope that we shall not have a lot of talk about guidance, although I know that he is expert in such sweet words. We need something in the Bill to safeguard the industry. Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 are particularly important. In the light of his views, he should be able to reach some agreement with us.

Finally, I turn to views of the Police Federation, and particularly those of the inspectors central committee. John Francis, the secretary of that committee, has written to me about the reduction in the number of inspectors over recent years, commenting particularly on the power to close down licensed premises. His letter states:

    ``Provisions within the planned Criminal Justice and Police Bill include powers to close down licensed premises due to disorder by a `senior police officer'. This `senior police officer' is defined as `a police officer of or above the rank of inspector'. Where they are going to find this senior police officer when a disturbance is occurring, I cannot imagine. As an inspector myself from 1986, in a rough part of the East End of London, I remember many occasions where I stepped in and took action to control disorder at a very early stage. There was an expectation, as an Inspector that you would control licensed premises when on duty and not wait until it was so out of control that urgent measures were needed to `close them down'. This was the case with all my colleagues when they had the capacity to respond to such incidents.''

He is concerned about the practicality of involving an inspector in the process.

Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, also refers to the matter in letters to me. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient inspectors and that they will be sufficiently available? How does he imagine that the process will work? Is it a question of a mobile phone? Is it a question of ringing through or of asking the inspector to attend?

The provision is similar to some of the others that we will come to later in our consideration of the Bill. The police are expert in judging a situation. That expertise is based not just on what somebody says to them down a phone, but on their experience of the situation. When one talks to both junior and senior officers, they all make the point that the more experienced officer, who is used to dealing with and controlling situations, is best at judging what the proper approach is. The number of officers of experience is currently decreasing. If the Government win another general election—let us hope that they do not—they hope that they will be able to recruit sufficient youngsters to cover for those experienced officers over the succeeding years.

The Government state that in a force that will, if their plans work out, have more and more young constables, such decisions can be made with the inspector at arm's length, or further away—in another police station, in a car or on a mobile phone. I am concerned about whether that is the proper approach. I should be grateful if the Minister would amplify his view of how the process will work for the inspectors.

The Government are always introducing new powers, because they think that it is good for the headlines. In some cases, they no doubt even believe that they will work. That is all very well, but if the effect of introducing a new measure is to burden the police with further responsibilities, duties and paperwork, and if there are not sufficient officers to do the job on the ground, it is a worthless exercise. We need the Minister to supply a concrete analysis of exactly how the procedure will work in practice, to clarify the provisions.

The challenge for the Committee is to ensure that there are proper safeguards for the industry while retaining the ability to close rowdy public houses in short order, which we support. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. I have not referred to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, because I know that he will explain them, and it will be interesting to hear his views.

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