Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. John Grogan (Selby): I agree with two of the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. He mentioned The Licensee and Morning Advertiser. I should declare that I am an occasional columnist for that newspaper. Although he did not quote from my column, I was living in hope.

There should never come a point at which a responsible licensee is afraid to call on the police because of the prospect of a closure order. That is to some extent dealt with in the notes. Paragraph 40, on page 8, refers to the fact that a police officer should

    ``in deciding whether to make a closure order...take account of any conduct of the licence holder or manager of the premises in relation to the disorder and disturbance.''

I consider it important that that message should be conveyed to the trade. Publicans have nothing to fear, and when they need to call the police they should do so. Furthermore, the police will take into account a licensee's behaviour in deciding whether to make a closure order.

Mr. Heald: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has also noticed the Government's commitment in paragraph 373 on page 68 to issuing guidance explaining that a closure order should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary. That is helpful, but does he agree that safeguards should be in the Bill?

Mr. Grogan: I believe that a high threshold should be set. There are arguments for including such a safeguard in the Bill, which none of the amendments deals with. Perhaps we should return to the matter on Report. The second point on which I wanted to agree with the hon. Gentleman is that on this and all questions relating to the closure orders, a high threshold should be maintained. That is why I disagree with amendment No. 37. The wording in the Bill, requiring closure to be

    ``necessary in the interests of public safety''

is a higher test than requiring that closure should ``significantly assist in securing'' public safety. I should be interested in the Minister's views on that. The regulatory impact assessment was mentioned, rightly; my hopes are for a lower rather than a higher figure.

Amendment No. 84 deals with noise. One thing that the Chamber has in common with pubs and licensed premises is that both are occasionally the subject of complaints about noise, excessive exuberance and disturbance. In both cases, the judgment to be made is very subjective. Sometimes the Chamber at its noisiest is at its best, in a democratic sense. Equally, it is difficult to make fine judgments about whether noise in pubs is excessive. Sometimes noise wafting from a pub, such as jazz on a summer evening, could entice people in. Heavy metal late at night when children are trying to sleep is clearly different.

I am interested in why the issue of noise has arisen with regard to closure orders. The licensing White Paper contained reference to closure orders with respect to disorderly and violent conduct, and the preservation of public safety. However, excessive noise seems now to have become a relevant issue. I do not know that there is a strong lobby among the police for such an addition to the reasons for making a closure order. I fear that there could be a danger of confusion. Should a householder call the police or environmental health officers first about a problem with a pub next door?

The statute book contains quite a body of legislation on noise. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 gives local authorities strong powers to deal with statutory nuisances, which are defined as

    ``noise emitting from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance''.

If a noise deemed to be a nuisance is occurring, or is likely to occur or recur, an abatement notice must be served by the local authority, which can even seize noise-making equipment. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 allows councils to issue antisocial behaviour orders to deal with harassment, alarm or distress, including noise pollution. If closure orders were to cut environmental health officers out of the loop difficulties could result.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has reaffirmed the Government's commitment to liquor licensing reform. Several hon. Members have referred to the importance of flexible hours in combating crime, and of changing the drinking culture in our country. However, the licensing White Paper proposed not only flexible hours but a new licensing system, which included a premises licence. That White Paper contained much debate about including restrictions on noise in the premises licence. An advantage of the premises licence is that if there was a noise problem, a range of sanctions would be available to the licensing authorities. Under the Bill, if a pub is closed because of excessive noise and the case reaches the magistrates, very little can be done beyond withdrawing the licence completely.

The issue of noise must be treated carefully. The amendment refers to warnings, but I wonder whether the police have to be involved. There could be a situation where noise is not creating disorder but is still an immediate problem, and the police might need to act on the advice of environmental health officers because they cannot deal with a situation straight away.

12.30 pm

I want to stress the importance of crime and disorder partnerships to the community and industry. As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned, many members of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association are involved in them. Two or three years ago, Selby had a bad reputation, but it is now safe for me, as a Member of Parliament, to go out on a Friday night to have a drink. Through a mixture of partnerships, a pubwatch scheme and closed circuit television, violent alcohol-related crime has been reduced. York, part of which is my constituency, has also been innovative in developing such partnerships.

Although I recognise that closure orders must deal with extreme circumstances, the way to combat alcohol-related crime in the round is to develop partnerships and reform our licensing laws so that, over time—and I appreciate that it will take time—England and Wales will develop a culture with a more civilised attitude towards alcohol.

Mr. Blunt: I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The amendments break down into three issues. I remind the Committee that we are phrasing law that will guide the police. If we thought that the police were capable of doing everything, were always right and never abused their powers, there would be no point in our taking care to make laws and we could just leave them to get on with it. They would then be responsible for enforcing the law without checks or balances. However, our purpose is to ensure that the police operate under rules that everybody understands. That is a particularly sensitive area. Police and those who run licensed premises have different interests, and that could lead to difficulties. We have set in place the licensing system to patrol that. For example, people must go to a magistrate for a licence. The police can give evidence but the magistrates determine whether someone can be given a licence.

The Bill is wrong because it produces a situation where a policeman can decide to close a premises of his own volition because he believes that disorder might occur in the vicinity.

That leads on to amendment No. 130, which is similar to amendment No. 81. If a senior police officer is to make a judgment about the possibility of disorder, he should be acting on evidence. The evidence test would not have to be sufficient to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt or even on a balance of probability, but evidence must exist.

It would be wrong for police officers to be able to say that they believed that something might happen without having to offer supporting evidence in dealing with the difficult problem of licensed premises. They will have built up a picture of a particular publican's pub in a particular area. A police inspector who is particularly officious or oppressive in his policing may wish to a target a publican for reasons wholly other than the prospect of disorder around a premises. For whatever reason, he may have a downer on the publican and use all his powers to target him. If the Bill draws police powers too widely, police inspectors will be able to act oppressively towards an individual, in circumstances beyond what I understand to be the Government's intentions, as set out in the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill.

This provision must be amended in one way or another. If the Government accept the official Opposition amendments, I will support them and not press mine, because they would improve the Bill and make the test for the police clearer. However, I prefer amendment No. 130, which simply substitutes a need for evidence for the test of the police officer having reasonable grounds for belief. Evidence would have to be produced, irrespective of how valid or weighty it is. The evidence could be only a complaint of a disturbance, but the police officer would be able to give that as his reason for imposing a closure order.

I want to deal with the matter of ``the vicinity of'' where the disorder will occur. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire rightly tabled amendments that make it clear that the disturbance should be in the ``immediate'' vicinity of the premises, rather than simply ``the vicinity of'' the premises, and that the disturbance in the vicinity of the premises must be related to the premises in question. I would support those amendments but I think that amendments Nos. 131 and 132 are slightly better and clearer because they would simply remove the phrase

    ``or in the vicinity of''.

The Minister described a situation to the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association where people leave a pub and engage in a fight in the street. If the police are faced with that, they arrest the people who are fighting on a charge of disorder. However, it is being suggested that the pub has become a production line. Nobody misbehaves inside the premises, but all go outside and have a punch-up or create disorder. It beggars belief that such a production line would continue so as to necessitate the closure of the pub.

 
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Prepared 27 February 2001