Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: The amendments are designed to ensure that the licensee and the person on whom the notice of closure is served have an adequate opportunity to be heard by the court. The effect of amendment No. 87 is that, where the clause says that the justices shall,

    ``as soon as reasonably practicable, consider whether to exercise their powers'',

at which point the three options are available to them, the person who has been given notice of the order should have at least three hours to appear before them, so that he can, however briefly, consider his position.

The BLRA supports the principle that reasonable notice should precede any further action leading to statutory closure, with its consequences. That matter could be dealt with either by guidance or by amendment, but the Minister should tell us what he has in mind to ensure that the licensee or person served with the notice has an opportunity to be heard and set forward his views.

The same applies to amendment No. 88. Under subsection (3), a closure order will be brought before the magistrates and they may take one of the three courses of action: revocation, ordering the premises to remain closed until a decision has been taken by the licensing justices or making any other order in relation to the premises. That amendment would give the licence holder or manager of licensed premises the right to have his opinion heard during such consideration.

Amendment No. 89 is slightly different, because it would remove the third option. In other words, the magistrates would be able either to revoke the order or to order that the premises were to remain closed, but they would not be able to

    ``make any other order as they think fit in relation to the premises''.

This is a probing amendment, because we would like to know what that provision means. We hope that the Minister can explain to us what sort of orders he has in mind under paragraph (c). So the purport of the amendments is to allow a right to be heard, and to find out what the Minister has in mind under paragraph (c).

Sir Nicholas Lyell: First, Mr. Gale, I apologise for not being able to be present this morning. I was attending the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I cannot be in two places at once.

These are important probing amendments—indeed, I think that they go a little further than that, because amendments Nos. 87 and 88 insert important rights. I hope that there is common ground between us and the Minister on the principle; we must decide whether we have fulfilled it. Are we to make a substantial jump from the current position under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, whereby if the police anticipate a riot, they can apply to the magistrates court for closure orders? As the Minister said earlier, we know that in practice they do not do so. They are now being given powers under which they can close licensed premises not at a whim, but subject to the light test that they reasonably believe that such a closure would be in the interests of public safety.

We must get the balance right, first, so that the police are not tempted to use such powers too freely or lightly and, secondly, to ensure that when they wish to use them—they may be right to do so—at least the licensee has an opportunity, promptly and preferably before the closure order comes into effect, to have the matter heard and decided by a magistrates court. Unless we have that opportunity, such a power could become very oppressive.

The position will be worse than that because, when an oppressive power is used unwisely, it gets a bad name and the police who, by and large, receive the respect and co-operation of the majority of the British public and licensees will then suddenly find that the licensees in the vicinity regard them differently. A good example was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate when he referred to the roads that presumably lead to Twickenham. If pubs in that or any other area that people habitually visit are suddenly closed for periods at the order of the police, notices will go up in the pubs saying, ``I am sorry that we were closed, but the police insisted on doing so. Such action was not reasonable.'' As a result, respect for the police will be reduced, and the common objective of law and order, which is a proportionate and sensible exercise of power and, consequently, the maintenance of policing by consent will be weakened.

Amendment No. 87 would provide that a pub owner was given at least three hours' notice of the fact that the case was to appear before the magistrates court. It is obviously desirable to achieve that in practice. Likewise, I hope that the Minister will agree that it is essential that the pub owner has the right to be heard before a court before such powers are exercised, as set out in amendment No. 88. Indeed, the European convention on human rights would require that that was so, given that the use of his property was being interfered with.

I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said in relation to leaving out subsection (3)(c), when he asked the meaning of

    ``make any other order as they think fit in relation to the premises''.

Is such a formulation common in such legislation? I confess that, to me, it is novel rigmarole, although one usually finds that there is a precedent for almost everything. Whether or not there is a precedent for such a measure, such a provision seems extraordinarily wide. I assume that it would have to be construed sui generis— if we are still allowed to use the Latin term—in a manner that is akin to the overall meaning of the clause. For example, would magistrates be entitled to make an order saying that, although the premises could remain open, the landlord should not be entitled to sell more than one pint of beer to each customer in a 24-hour period? That would no doubt reduce rowdyism, although it might cause dissatisfaction among larger beer drinkers. Could an order be made saying that the premises were to be re-designed, for example, to keep certain doors locked or to provide partitions between the saloon bar and the family bar? Could such orders be made if they could in some way be related to the question of law and order? The provision seems extremely wide, and we are right to probe it. I look forward to the Minister's answers.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Amendments Nos. 87 and 88 on one hand and 89 on the other raise qualitatively different points for discussion. Amendments Nos. 87 and 88 concern the court procedures before the relevant justices in new section 179B. Amendment No. 87 would prevent the proceedings before the relevant justices taking place unless the person served with a closure order had been given three hours' notice. Amendment No. 88 would give that person and the holder of the justices' licence, if different, the right to make representations to the justices during the hearing. Both amendments reflect anxieties in the licensed trade that there are no procedures in the Bill requiring that licensees be notified of the hearing before the relevant justices or that they should have a right to make representations to the court on the issue of closure. I think that Opposition Members will accept that the amendments are unnecessary. The relevant justices at the initial hearing will operate according to normal magistrates court procedures and human rights law. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) for referring to that.

There is no doubt that the licensee or manager served with a closure order will be notified by the court about the time and place of the hearing, will have a right to appear before the justices if he or she wants to do so and will be able to be legally represented and to make representations to the justices. We are concerned that the proceedings should take place as quickly as possible, which is why a single justice will suffice and the best and swiftest means of notifying the licensee will be left to the court to decide. That will allow the court maximum flexibility and will cut the need for any police extensions and put the matter in the justices' hands as quickly as possible.

The process and the flexibility that it entails are entirely in the best interests of the licensed trade. Although I understand the concerns raised about what may or may not be in the Bill, I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the trade will accept that the provisions that are already there for the operation of magistrates courts and the Human Rights Act 1998 provide the security that is warranted.

New section 179F(5) is a failsafe device intended to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations on procedural matters if any justifiable concerns arose about the practices adopted by the courts or if the courts considered that they needed additional and exceptional procedures to be set down. However, I do not expect such regulations to be needed. As I said, I am confident that the courts will establish fair proceedings in this context. I have addressed amendments Nos. 87 and 88 and will now address amendment No. 89.

Mr. Hawkins rose—

Sir Nicholas Lyell rose—

Mr. Clarke: I give way to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

Mr. Hawkins: If necessary, I declare an interest as an officer of the all-party parliamentary beer group, in which the hon. Member for Selby has also played a part.

I have listened carefully to all that the Minister has said. Given that the vehicle chosen by the Government in this part of the Bill is to amend the primary Act—the Licensing Act 1964—which affects the whole licensed trade, does he not accept that that is an extra reason why the licensed trade would like the safeguards to be in the Bill? If it becomes law, it will be a revised version of the major piece of licensing legislation. We are talking not just about this Bill, but about the fact that it affects the primary Act. That is why it would be helpful for the safeguards to be in the Bill, even though the Minister is trying to reassure us by saying that general magistrates court procedures will apply. The Government have changed quite a lot about the way in which magistrates courts operate, so I can understand the concern of the licensed trade.

6.30 pm

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