Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: As a supporter of the general proposition that such situations do not occur, I happened to be talking to the acting borough commander about the issue on a road that is well known for its pubs and late licences—the Old Kent road. If we examine the incidence of reported crime, arrests and police activity, we see that most cases occur on the premises during licensing hours. Contrary to the general view that kicking-out time causes all the problems, there are fewer problems after licensing hours outside the pubs.

Mr. Blunt: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's point.

On the amendment, I think that ``in the vicinity of'' is too widely defined. My house in my constituency is in the vicinity of Horley, which happens to be two or three miles away, so what do the words mean? Such a wide definition could cause all sorts of problems. Although inserting the word ``immediate'', as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire suggested, would be an improvement, it would still be a matter of definition. What would in the ``immediate vicinity of'' mean? After working that out, we would still have to establish that the disturbance was ``related to'' the premises.

We should be clear about what the licensee is responsible for: conduct and behaviour on his licensed premises. He cannot be held responsible for what happens on the street once people have left his premises. It would be much better to remove

    ``or in the vicinity of''

and I urge the Government to consider it seriously. If the disorder or noise comes from the licensed premises, the licensee is clearly responsible and, if the police make that judgment, he deserves to be subject to a closure order. That is serious, as we can see from the proposed punishment for violation of the closure order, which we will discuss later. The current drafting is too vague and could be unfair. I hope that the Minister will accept my amendments. If he does not, I hope that he will accept the offical Opposition amendments, which would at least establish in the Bill a link between the licensed premises and the disorder.

I want to address the question of notifying the landlord, or the person in charge of the premises at the time, that he will be the subject of a closure order. Amendment No. 4 would insert

    ``Following a first and second warning''.

In practice, the police could issue both warnings by just saying ``Here's your first warning'' and then ``Here's your second warning.'' The warnings could just be a form of words that the police use to get round the requirement. If there is to be a warning, and it is to be a proper warning, only one is necessary.

I disagree slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire on amendment No. 39. It would insert the words:

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

I wholly agree with the sense of that. The licensee must be given a warning. The Bill as it stands is unfair, as under it a closure order would suddenly be slapped on the licensee with no notice and no opportunity for him to put right what has gone wrong.

The only problem that I have with amendment No. 39 is the use of the words ``senior police officer''. My hon. Friend drew attention to his letter from the central committee of police inspectors, which said that, in case of widespread disturbance, one would not be able to send an inspector into every licensed premises to deliver that warning. I hope that he would therefore consider amendment, No. 133, which suggests the wording:

    ``following at least one request from a uniformed police officer to the person ostensibly having control of the premises to end the disturbance''.

12.45 pm

Amendment No. 133 would meet a situation in which the senior police officer in charge of a shift, who might be faced with considerable disorder across the whole of his division, was trying to control the division from a central position. He could say that he had received evidence that he needed to shut down any number of licensed premises to stop the source of disturbance. Having made the closure order, he could give instructions by radio or other means from his central location to a uniformed police officer on the scene. That officer could give the warning that if the problem could not be sorted out, the premises would have to be closed down.

It would be unreasonable to expect the inspector, in all situations, to go to all premises to issue the warning. It is essential that a warning should be issued, but the balance of judgment is that only one warning should be given, and that it should be given by any uniformed police officer rather than necessarily by the inspector.

Mr. Hughes: I do not want to stand firmly to the two-warning position, although I want a warning procedure. The only addition that I would make to the hon. Gentleman's proposition is that the legislation must give a reasonable period in which a reasonable licensee could act on the warning before any action as envisaged in the legislation could take place. A warning procedure is required, as is time to act on it, if we are to have rational legislation.

Mr. Blunt: I agree in a sense, but there is a question about practicality. The test is between what is realistic for the police in the circumstances and the reality for the licensee. It would tie the police's hands unnecessarily if the Bill stated that the licensee had 15 minutes to sort out the problem, yet it was plain to the police that the place needed to be closed down as soon as possible because it was completely out of control and the licensee did not have a cat in hell's chance of sorting it out, however long he was given.

Some judgment must be exercised about the powers to be delegated to the police in those circumstances. It would tie them too much to say that the warning order had to be followed by a set length of time. That judgment must be made by a police officer.

I hope that my amendments will commend themselves to the Government, as they would achieve exactly what they have set out to do. I fear that the Bill is currently much too widely drawn. The matter is already controlled, as people have to obtain a licence in the first place. To a degree, there will be tension between the police and those who run licensed premises, as there is already, so I hope that the Government will consider my amendments.

Mr. Charles Clarke: This has been a most interesting discussion, and I would like to make some general points at the outset.

As hon. Members will know, the Portman Group is a respected organisation that works closely with the licensed industry. The group commissioned a MORI survey, which it published in January of this year, in which 14 per cent. of people reported that they had been the victim of violence in pubs. That seemed to me a very large figure indeed. About 20 per cent. of frequent drinkers had been victims of violence in pubs. I was struck by those figures. It seems to me that, overall, although many such polls are simply a matter of subjective assessment, the data show that there is an issue that must be tackled. That is why the Portman Group published them.

Secondly, I want to pay public tribute to the industry itself and its various organisations, some of which have been referred to by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, which have worked closely with the Government, and across government, to develop a more positive approach to all the matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, the industry and its organisations believe that it is important that we reach a state of affairs where alcohol is not seen as a cause of crime; where people can go and have a quiet drink in the evening and that can be seen simply as a normal part of life. The organisations, the brewers and the licensees know that it is important to ensure that people who work in their industry but do not live up to its standards should not be seen as representative of it. They have been positive about many of the proposals that we have discussed.

Thirdly, it is important to emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, and reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, about the importance of partnership. Soon after I started doing this job I was most impressed by a visit that I paid to the city of York, where there is a joint operation run by the police, the local authority and the licensees. That operation is a close partnership, with a whole set of requirements about the way in which people work together. It is designed to achieve the kind of position that my hon. Friend is talking about, where licensees feel confident in the police and work with them to tackle the issues that arise as they arise, and where police respect licensees. I pay tribute to what has been done in the city of York. I will not take up the Committee's time by giving further examples, but there are many places other than York where that kind of joint work has been positively developed. Nothing in the Bill should be seen as undermining that type of critical relationship.

Fourthly, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made a point about safeguards for the industry and proper targeting—that constellation of issues. Just as we support partnerships, we share entirely the aspiration expressed by the hon. Gentleman in relation to the matter. It would be appalling if powers in the Bill were to lead to a disentangling of the relations through improper targeting, if that is the right phrase, or through blanket operations in particular chunks of cities, or by any other means.

We agree with that point, and we agree that it is right to debate the amendments that have been put forward by the industry to clarify and draw out the issues in a constructive way. In that context, it is necessary to have a high threshold for action to be taken, so that it will be seen as a rare rather than a frequent event for any of the actions set out in the Bill to be taken. I emphasise that the Government do not believe that thousands of pubs around the country are acting in an unacceptable way, on which, through the powers of the Bill, the firm hand of the law will come down. Incidents of unacceptable behaviour are isolated, but the matter must be dealt with. Isolated targeting is at the core of our approach.

My next point relates to the remarks of the hon. Member for Reigate. This is an issue for all of us. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire decries guidance, but police conduct is an issue. It is a matter of how the police are trained, under what guidance they are operating, and how they normally proceed, for example in the area of warnings, which we will discuss in detail in a moment. It is the practice of the police, who have constantly to decide on different uses of their powers, to warn. I suspect that, usually, they would warn on many occasions, because they are the first to recognise that if they use their powers in a way that is perceived as arbitrary or dictatorial, they will not succeed in making the law work.

Our guidance will deal with those matters in the most effective way. I believe—it is not an evasion—that it is our job as legislators to set the legal framework, but that its implementation is a matter for guidance. How it is to be implemented should be a professional matter for the police, and it should be the subject of consultation and debate—including debate by the House.

I want to make one final, general point. There has been talk—not here today, but on other occasions—suggesting that the powers could be thought of as draconian. That is not right. I refer to what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said at the start of his speech about costs and the implications for business. New section 179A(2) defines a closure order as

    ``an order requiring relevant licensed premises to be closed for a period not exceeding twenty-four hours beginning with the coming into force of the order''.

It might often be a great deal less time than that; it might be until midnight, until what would otherwise have been closing time, or from 10.30 pm until 2 am. It is not right to describe such a power as draconian. I am not trying to put words into the mouths of Opposition Members, but in debates on later amendments we shall be discussing the work of magistrates and so forth. It is not an arbitrary power that could put someone out of business; it is a particular power to deal with the particular circumstances of disorderly pubs. That is the context in which I want to address the amendments. I shall deal with them one by one in a moment.

 
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Prepared 27 February 2001