Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 85, in page 11, line 1, after `order,' insert `then in force'.

No. 86, in page 11, line 2, after `exceeding', insert

    `£6,000 for a first offence; or, for a second or subsequent offence to a fine not exceeding'.

No. 134, in page 11, line 2, leave out `£20,000' and insert `£5,000'.'.

Mr. Clarke: This is essentially a technical amendment. Proposed new section 179A(6) provides that a person who without reasonable excuse permits relevant licensed premises to be open in contravention of a closure order made by a senior police officer shall be guilty of an offence. The Committee will know that under proposed new section 179C, the senior police officer may in certain circumstances extend the closure order for a period not exceeding 24 hours.

It is important that the extent of the offence under proposed new section 179A(6) is clear, and that a breach of the closure order includes any extension of it made under proposed new section 179C(1). The purpose of the amendment is to clarify the position for those people on whom closure orders are served, for the police required to enforce the law and for the courts when an alleged offender is brought before them. If the legislative scheme is to work sensibly when there is no reasonable excuse, contraventions of a closure order or any extensions of it should be offences. That is the meaning of the amendment.

Mr. Heald: The Government amendment seems to be a sensible clarification in relation to offences committed during the period of the order or an extension to it. I do not need to spend long on that.

Amendment No. 85 is intended to provide clarification. The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association wanted it to be made clear that the closure order would have to be in force at the time that the breach occurred. Will the Minister assure the Committee that the current wording means that the closure order is in force, and not that it would not be acceptable if another situation arose?

Amendment No. 86 raises a more substantial issue. Proposed new section 179A(6) states:

    ``A person who, without reasonable excuse, permits relevant licensed premises to be open in contravention of a closure order shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £20,000''.

The amendment would reduce that to £6,000 for a first offence. If orders are to be made without the legal requirement for warning to have been given, should the maximum fine be as high as the provision suggests?

If the Government had listened during previous debates, and the Bill contained the sort of protections that we wanted, that would be a different matter. If closure orders can be made when no warning has been given, one can imagine situations in which such a high maximum fine would not be appropriate. I do not need to remind the Committee of the costs that could be imposed on the industry as a result of orders that were made without any failing on the part of the landlord or the staff of the premises. The costs to industry overall are given as £1.1 million to £60 million, which shows that the Government do not have confidence about what the true figure would be. As for innocent closures, the costs nationwide are estimated at £16,500 to £900,000. The Government are about to issue guidance to the police on the issue and should be able carefully to set the parameters of the law. It sums up their half-baked approach that they are not able even to give a decent estimate—a ballpark figure—of the costs that could be imposed on industry. Given that innocent traders could be disadvantaged by the measures, the maximum for a first offence should be lower, to reflect the fact that the person concerned may have received no warning.

Mr. Blunt: I want to speak to amendment No. 134, which would reduce the fine of £20,000 to £5,000. Many of the aims of my amendment would be met by amendment No. 86. The scale of punishments should be related back to what the Minister told us about the purpose of the Bill, which is about disorder. Its purpose is not to punish licensees, he told us—yet the punishments in the clause are pretty savage by any standard. In relation to the fine scales 1 to 5, three months' imprisonment equates to a much lower punishment than the £20,000 in the Bill.

We have just debated the circumstances in which closure orders might be made; they are likely to be highly controversial, and the powers of the police may be extended further than they should be. Given that the Bill contains no requirement for a warning to licensees, those with large premises, especially on the first occasion on which they are subjected to such an order, may find that they are in breach simply because someone is serving a drink around the corner, on another part of their premises. Licensees would then have committed a technical breach and be liable to a fine of £20,000 or three months' imprisonment. That is much too severe.

It is different if licensees make commercial judgments and reason that they will lose £60,000 if they shut so decide that they will remain open, take the profit and pay the £20,000 fine. If they make that judgment, it would be proper for the magistrates to consider imprisonment rather than the fine; people should not be offered the opportunity to make commercial judgments under the provisions. However, the size of the fine does not need to be racked up to give licensees a commercial incentive to obey the police and to close. Instead of giving such licensees the fine, which is the option that they want, we should give them a short salutary lesson at Her Majesty's pleasure, which is the option that they do not want. That would be a proper decision for the magistrates to take. The fine should be much lower than the £20,000 maximum.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend that the fine could be £6,000 for a first offence. That would meet my concerns. If my he presses his amendment to a vote, I shall certainly not press mine.

6 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Government amendment is entirely unexceptional and, therefore, acceptable. The other amendments raise an important set of issues relating to how to deal with any failure to comply with the order. It is necessary to ensure that where an order has been breached there is a strict statement of the legal consequences. The result of such a breach should be made clear. The Bill currently proposes the options of a fine of up to £20,000 or a prison term of up to three months. This is one of those difficult situations in which one tries to provide the envelope, but one should consider what the sentencing guidelines are likely to be. For a first offence, a prison sentence would clearly be inappropriate. Any logical sentencing policy would consider a fine under such circumstances.

It could be argued that the level of the fine should be entirely up to the magistrates, leaving them to take into account issues such as the turnover of the establishment, whether it is owned privately or by an individual or whether it is part of a national chain and so on. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument for having a first offence provision at a lower level than the maximum penalty of £20,000 set out in the Bill. As the Minister said in another context, there is no theology about the matter and there is no obvious answer. One should take appropriate considerations into account, particularly when one is fining the corporate owner of a business.

I would like to link that to another type of offence for which owners of premises are fined and punished—breaches of health and safety law. Generally speaking, such breaches are of one of two sorts. They can take the form of lack of cleanliness and that sort of thing, or they can occur when somebody running some premises fails to comply with the requirements in such a way as to render those premises unsafe.

We must ensure that we get these matters in perspective. I have long supported the creation of an offence of corporate manslaughter. The Government intend to legislate on that, but sadly they have not yet done so. I have always felt that the maximum penalties for many of the breaches of health and safety legislation are too low. When somebody's life has been put at risk or indeed lost, as a result of a failure to have proper scaffolding, or proper control of building sites or vessels—in the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise, for example—the maximum penalties are often too low. It would be inappropriate to have a very high maximum level set for the sort of offence covered by the clause, but a much lower level for offences such as those I have just described.

I cannot remember exactly, but my recollection is that the maximum penalties are still extremely low for breaches of the law that risk people's lives and their physical well-being in a way that is much more direct than the offences under discussion. All I ask is that we do not jump to a conclusion, plucked off the shelf because it sounds tough, without taking into account the logical sequence of punishment—first offence and thereafter. The tariff for a first offence should be reasonable. If the Minister cannot supply the Committee with the data now, I would like someone to examine the comparative fines for such health and safety breaches, which are the sort of penalties for which publicans or owners of pubs could be liable, and tell the Committee what they are.

Mr. Clarke: I do not really accept a number of the propositions that have been advanced. First, I will deal with the concern of the hon. Member for Reigate about penalising the licensee. Proposed new section 179B(5) states:

    ``A person who, without reasonable excuse, permits relevant licensed premises to be open in contravention of an order...shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable''.

The provision does not concern a person who has had his premises closed. This is not somebody in whose case an issue has been raised or a judgment taken and whose premises have been closed. The provision concerns people who, without reasonable excuse, keep their premises open in contravention of a closure order. That is a quite different state of affairs. The suggestion that the measure in some way penalises legitimate licensees is false, and it does not contradict the argument that I sought to make earlier. There is no suggestion that it is an offence for licensees to have their premises closed; the penalty is for contravening an order.

With respect to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, similar points arise on health and safety. Such offences are the result of people not having kept their premises in appropriate order under health and safety law and whatever other legislation might apply. Again, it is not necessarily in contravention of the specific order of a police officer—or, indeed, of a magistrate—but is the result of the general conduct of managing the premises.

 
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Prepared 27 February 2001