Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: If disorder is unrelated to a set of licensed premises, how can it be right to close it?

Mr. Clarke: I did not say that such disorder would be unrelated to the premises. There is a spectrum from events taking place in a pub to events taking place 100 miles away; the question is where one draws the line. I say that where events take place in the vicinity of the pub, even if they are not on the licensee's premises, there is often a case that events in the vicinity of a pub are related to the pub itself. I acknowledge that there could be circumstances in the vicinity of the pub that have nothing to do with the licensee's premises, in which case he or she could not be criticised.

However, we say that where events take place around a pub, to go into the rights and wrongs of what is happening, which is something that the police must do on the spot, is a process that will waste time. Considering the extent to which a pub relates to events would be contrary to the purpose of the Bill, which is to deal directly with the source of disorder.

I shall discuss amendments Nos. 82 and 83, which relate to that point. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said that these amendments were especially important to the Opposition. They are intended to provide that a closure order could be made only if disorder or the threat of disorder relates to events in the relevant licensed premises. That would mean that if disorder were caused by outside events—for example, if gangs fighting in the street continued their battle after entering the premises—the closure power could not be used.

We do not consider it appropriate that this power should be used only in cases where the cause or threat of disorder emanates from the relevant premises. First, the police must act if there is a situation with a public safety issue. Secondly, the process of proving the connection would make it more difficult for the police to act. Thirdly, we do not seek to punish the licensee; we simply seek to deal with the question of disorder. Fourthly, there is a rapid remedy available to the licensee—namely, that a magistrate must hear the situation shortly thereafter.

That series of defences deals with the hon. Gentleman's point, which he made for the legitimate reason that he is concerned that there may be some overweening power where licensees are penalised for events that are outside their control. He is seeking to ensure that that power is not included in the Bill. I understand his motivation—it is based on a perfectly respectable argument, which has been solidly presented by the industry. However, the other side of the coin is that if the measure is introduced in the way that he suggests, it would effectively exclude the relationship that often obtains between what is going on inside the licensed premises and what is going on outside, to the detriment of public order.

I have said what I wanted to say about this group of amendments. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene before I continue?

Mr. Heald: Yes, I do. The power completely exempts the police from all liability. It is a widely drawn power, which—on the Minister's estimate—can cost £60,000 for a set of premises if a mistake is made. Is it right that an order can be made when the incident is completely unrelated to the premises and does not even occur in the immediate vicinity? That is extremely unfair and unjust to the landlord of the public house. If the provision stipulated that the incident had to be related and in the immediate vicinity, we would all say that the Minister had a solid argument, but as it does not, how can he justify it?

Mr. Clarke: I have sought to deal with that directly.

Mr. Heald: Well, we do not agree.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to disagree. A balance of judgment is involved between the obligation on the police, which the Bill seeks to reinforce, to secure public safety and public order in the areas of such premises—which are in a small minority—and the suggestion, which is where the hon. Gentleman falls into error, that unless the incident has a specific relationship to the premises concerned, no action should be taken.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider the matter when he has had a chance to reflect on it.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister must appreciate that under new section 179A(1)(a), the test is not that there is, but that there is likely to be, disorder in the vicinity. The Bill gives the police the power to make a decision to close all the pubs in the vicinity where they think that there might be disorder. Is the Minister seriously saying that the police will not use those powers very widely? I do not believe that that is the Minister's intention, but that is what will happen—the police have to operate under the precautionary principle, because if they do nothing and something happens, people will ask why. The Minister has made it clear that it is not the intention of the Bill that the powers should be so widely used, so he should accept the amendment.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman seems unable to accept the point, either because we disagree or because I am inarticulate in explaining it. Shortly after using the powers in the Bill, the police will have to justify their decision before magistrates, when a judgment will be made. When that hearing takes place, arguments will be advanced in respect of whether it was reasonable for the police to believe that the events were likely to happen. Will magistrates always say that whatever the police say has to be supported? I do not think so—that is not the way in which the system operates in any respect.

As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath suggested with his example of Twickenham and the Rugby Football Union, the police already have powers that allow them to take action in such circumstances. The powers in the Bill, subject as they are to magisterial jurisdiction immediately after they have been exercised, do not present the threats about which the hon. Gentleman is worried.

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 would weaken the tests that the police have to apply before making a closure order. The hon. Members who tabled the amendments may be under the impression that it would do the opposite and strengthen the police's powers. Our assessment is that, under the present wording, the test that a senior police officer has to meet will be harder. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will consider that. I think that his intention was to raise the profile of what the police need to do to deal with a particular circumstance. Under the clause as drafted, a senior police officer must reasonably believe that closure is necessary in the interests of public safety.

5.15 pm

Hon. Members may think that including the word ``significantly'' would make it harder for a senior police officer to justify taking action. They are wrong. Unless we want to ease the test, the amendments need to be resisted, because in practice their wording would be unlikely to make a major difference to the way in which the police use the new powers in that circumstance.

Amendments Nos. 39, 84 and 133 deal with the ground of excessive noise and say that closure would not be possible unless a police officer had first asked the licensee of the premises to reduce the noise to a reasonable level. I repeat my general point about the way in which the police operate. It is right that they give warnings and ask for changes to take place. It is appropriate to give guidance.

In light of the powerful intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I shall give a little of the background of noise legislation that applies. The closure power for this purpose allows quick or immediate action to be taken to curtail a disturbance to the public, which is especially appropriate late at night. Under part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, a statutory nuisance is created if noise emitted from any premises causes a nuisance. Local authority officers have the power to enforce that provision by serving an abatement notice on the person responsible for the relevant premises. Failure to comply with an abatement notice is an offence, against which action can be taken in summary proceedings in magistrates courts. Under the Noise Act 1996, local authority officers also have the power to enter the premises to seize or remove any equipment that is causing the noise nuisance. However, where a disturbance is caused not by loud music but by noise from, for example, drunken louts, the procedures under those two Acts do not allow action to be taken to secure the immediate ending of the disturbance. That is the overall context, for which my hon. Friend asked.

If a police officer reasonably believes that a crowd is so boisterous or drunk that the noise will resume once the police leave, he should be able to close the premises to prevent the disturbance from occurring. The suggested changes would require the police to make two visits. For the reasons that I gave earlier, which relate to the process, that would be an undesirable restriction. Again, it is important to emphasise that the police are not required to close premises for 24 hours. We are talking about circumstances in which the closure might be as short as half an hour at the end of the day. If there is loud noise late at night, the police may want to close the premises at 10, rather than 11.30 pm. The penalty in such circumstances is not significant and not as overwhelming as the example that we were given earlier. Again, there is the power to test the situation later in a magistrates court in the way that I described.

Mr. Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: In a moment.

Amendment No. 92 would require the police to ask the licensee reasonably to reduce or cease the excessive noise causing the disturbance. It is poorly conceived. Hon. Members have failed to appreciate that, at the point of consideration, the premises would be closed and the main consideration would be whether there was a threat of further disturbance if the pub reopened.

I have summarised the Government's arguments on most of the amendments. I am prepared to consider carefully the use of the word ``immediate'' because there is potential for confusion, which I do not want. The other amendments, well motivated as they are, would unduly restrict the police's ability to deal with what could be a serious public order and public safety issue. On those grounds, I hope that Opposition Members will consider withdrawing their amendments.

 
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Prepared 27 February 2001