Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Blunt: In practice, the police operate under the precautionary principle. If there is an area of disorder within a police division, the police will have the authority under the Bill to issue closure notices for all pubs within the vicinity of that disorder. It is more than likely that, whether or not the disorder is related to one premises, the police officer will say, ``Shut the lot of them.'' That is what happened at Twickenham, which simply meant that all the people going to international rugby were displaced to premises outside Twickenham. The police cannot necessarily be expected to get it right, and they will operate on principles such as the precautionary principle. They will operate much more widely than the Minister intends, unless the phrase ``in the vicinity of'' is removed or a qualification introduced.

Mr. Clarke: I will make a further point in a moment about ``in the vicinity of'' in relation to amendments Nos. 34A, 35, 36, 76 and 77. I return to my fundamental point that the closure power can be exercised only if closure is in the interests of public safety. It is clear that closure has implications for the licensee, but it is not designed to penalise a licensee for, say, running his or her establishment incompetently. It is intended to deal with the existing problem of the risk to public safety, which in the police's judgment needs to be addressed.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am prompted to intervene by the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, who rightly cited the example of the Rugby Football Union headquarters and stadium at Twickenham. He may not know that our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and I, as Opposition Front Bench spokesmen, have taken up this matter with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. The Assistant Commissioner, Ian Johnston, has given a detailed response, and although I cannot discuss it in a brief intervention, there is no doubt that the police are operating on the precautionary principle. I can foresee what will happen, and the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate makes in respect of Twickenham will apply to towns such as Guildford and Reigate.

Mr. Clarke: I emphasise again that, if enacted, the Bill will empower the police to close an establishment for up to 24 hours. The matter would then go before magistrates, who would make their judgment. If it transpired that the police took inappropriately broad action for reasons that the hon. Gentleman implied, I believe that magistrates would react in the way that I have suggested.

Mr. Hughes: I very much share the viewpoint of the hon. Member for Reigate. In many places in my constituency—I am sure that the same is true of the Minister's—several pubs are located near to one another. The usual route from one pub to, say, the minicab office therefore involves passing other pubs that are very different. For example, where one pub might exercise strict door control, another might impose a fee for late-night drinking. Although in management terms it would be much easier to close all pubs in the vicinity when there is trouble, the benefit of doing so would be outweighed by the consequent risk that a pub with a faultless track record would become associated with closure. My concern is therefore a practical one.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that the hon. Gentlemen's concern is practical, but I do not accept the underlying premise, based on the example of Twickenham, to which the hon. Members for Reigate and for Surrey Heath referred. According to it, the police are likely to deal with disorder by imposing a blanket order, thereby wiping out half a dozen pubs in the vicinity. I can see that that is possible in theory, but I do not accept that it is a practical likelihood or reality, because a police officer will have to make a judgment about what is going on in each set of licensed premises. Under the clause, a police officer must assess whether

    ``there is likely to be disorder on, or in the vicinity of, the premises''.

Such judgments will therefore be made on the basis of events in and around the premises. Three members of the Committee are now advancing the fundamental premise that the police are likely to exercise a blanket use of these powers in a given locality, but I do not accept that.

Mr. Hawkins rose—

Mr. Clarke: I do not want to appear to suppress debate, but before giving way I should re-emphasise that the powers are limited to closing a pub for up to 24 hours in a given circumstance. Such a decision will then be subject to the judgment of magistrates and the procedure as set out in the clause. Were the police to use the powers in the manner implied—and I do not accept that they would—I believe that magistrates, who are familiar with licensing issues, would judge their actions accordingly and that behaviour would change if necessary. The problem as described simply does not exist.

Mr. Hawkins: Events at Twickenham are an example under existing law of what we are afraid of. The police have accepted in writing and openly that there has never been disorder after a rugby union international. However, precisely because they were operating the precautionary principle, a new officer decided that there might be a risk and that all the bars should be closed after every rugby union international. It was only after huge cross-party pressure from hon. Members who are interested in rugby, including the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and other Labour Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, myself and other Opposition Members that the Metropolitan police reluctantly agreed to a two-match pilot to reopen the bars. We are worried about what is happening under existing law.

5 pm

Mr. Clarke: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that adds nothing to his previous intervention and I have nothing further to add. As he said, what is happening now at Twickenham is happening under current law with the current powers of the police. We are discussing disorder when

    ``A senior police officer may make a closure order in relation to relevant licensed premises if he reasonably believes that''

any of the specified problems might arise. I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise.

I turn to the words ``in the vicinity''. Amendments Nos. 34A, 35, 36, 76 and 77 would allow a closure order to be made only if disorder or the threat of disorder occurred on property for which the licence holder was responsible. That is similar to the matters raised on amendments Nos. 131 and 132 and it would be difficult to justify making such an order if disorder or the threat of it was taking place in the street outside the boundary of the licensed premises. Closure orders could be justified only when the place or likely place of the disorder was under the licensee's control.

The amendments would significantly water down the effect of the provisions. I understand the reasons for that and that it is not meant in a general spirit of weakening the process, but that would be the effect. Under current law, when a fight between drunken customers spills out on to the street, the police could make a closure order if they reasonably believed that closure was necessary in the interests of public safety. Similarly, if, after the disorder was quelled, further fighting was likely to break out in the street outside at closing time, the police could close the pub and disperse the crowd. The amendments would allow the licensee to argue that he had no control over the behaviour of customers once outside the curtilage of his premises, which is the argument made by the hon. Member for Reigate. However, the fight or likely fight would result from the sale of alcohol in the pub leading to drunkenness and disorder.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: In a moment.

This is also the area in which the word ``immediate'' in the notes and the legislation was discussed. I am advised that no legal effect is implied by inserting ``immediate'' into the legislation, but we believe that it is necessary not to restrict unduly the area in which disorder can provoke a closure order. The word ``immediate'' would make it harder to act when disorder occurred outside and would lead to disputes in court.

I am also advised that because the notes were written in layman's terms--that is the benefit of the notes in contrast to the legislation--``in the vicinity of'' would generally be interpreted by the courts as meaning the immediate vicinity. I acknowledge that there could be confusion, which is undesirable, so I shall consider the use of the word ``immediate'' because I do not want any confusion in the legislation. I am not accepting that such an amendment should be made, but I accept that confusion is possible and I am prepared to consider whether clearer wording is necessary. However, the fundamental point is what is happening outside the pub. I do not accept that the sort of circumstance described by hon. Members is likely. A more likely circumstance is of people spilling out of pubs and fights taking place, and it would be unfortunate if the police had no powers to deal with that.

Mr. Heald: The Minister cannot have it both ways. He said earlier that he was not implying any criticism of the landlord or staff when the events took place outside, but he now seems to be saying that they are related to the fact that the pub is open and serving alcohol. He must decide whether he is saying, ``Landlords control the situation so it is right to make an order outside'' or, ``Landlords do not control the situation outside so they cannot be criticised. Therefore, this public order measure is unconnected to them.''

Mr. Clarke: I return to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Reigate. The legislation is not about punishing a particular licensee for the way in which they conduct their premises; there are processes in licensing legislation to move that forward. We are discussing emergency situations where the police decide on public safety grounds that action must be taken. In considering that power, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is right to say that there is an implication for the licensee. I argue—and this is the Government's position—that there can be and often is a relationship between events inside a particular pub and circumstances outside it. We should not seek to restrict police powers when those situations arise.

The hon. Gentleman argues that if, for whatever reason, the situation is clearly outside the responsibility of the licensee, as it would be if customers leave the pub, pay their bills, go outside and are about to go elsewhere when they get into a drunken fight, or even if events are further outside the licensee's control—such as if events taking place elsewhere spill over towards his or her pub—unless the licensee is specifically responsible for events by his or her conduct, the police should have no powers in that area. However, I do not accept that. We are not discussing punishing the licensee, but we are discussing dealing with possible sources of disorder, so it is right to have the emergency power in the way that has been described.

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