Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: We have probed helpfully. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that I was not suggesting for a moment that companies such as First Leisure were involved in anything untoward. There is a need to ventilate the issues to protect what are merely referred to generally as ``unlicensed premises''. The Parliamentary Secretary says that we are dealing only with illegal drinking clubs, but that phrase does not appear in the legislation, which is, as one would expect, general.

I refer to clause 28, to which we shall come later, to clarify my point. The Government have included a specific provision on offences being committed by bodies corporate—I shall say more about that when we come to the clause. As we are trying to protect legitimate business from a perhaps inadvertent misuse of sweeping powers, it was important to raise how the powers should be used and whether there was a need for senior management to be involved. I shall not press the matter to a vote but I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider, when the Government look further at the section of the proposed Act in the light of my comments, the use of words that would more easily clarify the abuse that the Government seek to identify, to reassure legitimate businesses that they would never be targeted.

9.30 pm

Mr. Lock: I direct the hon. Gentleman to the tight wording in subsection (1).

Either a premises is or is not used for the unlicensed sale of intoxicating liquor for consumption on or off the premises. If it is and there is no licence, it is an unlicensed drinking club. If it is not and the operation is perfectly legitimate, it will not fall within the provisions.

Mr. Hawkins: Without labouring the point, one of our concerns was that premises not in possession of a drinks licence might be inadvertently and mistakenly suspected by a constable as having been used for the sale of intoxicating liquor. Police officers occasionally make mistakes, as the Minister would concede. We do not live in a perfect world. Safeguards are necessary because mistakes can be made. I shall not press the point further. The Minister has heard our concerns. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Applications for closure orders

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 73, in page 19, line 9, leave out ``six months'' and insert ``one month''.

The amendment is designed to direct the Government's attention to an unusual delay period, in which we see dangers. It is a truism to say that justice delayed is justice denied. However, under this part of the Bill, a police officer could make a complaint and the matter might not be brought before a court until nearly six months later. That is far too long. During a six-month period, witnesses' observations may have clouded and it might be difficult to establish clear evidence. We were surprised that a period as long as six months was written into the Bill. A shorter period would be much better.

In view of the Minister's comments about firing warning shots and involving the courts, making some time provision is understandable. Unlike with licensed premises, when matters have to come before the court extremely quickly, we are not suggesting that the business can be done in a matter of hours. Six months, however, is far too long and I hope that the Minister will respond constructively and grant a more reasonable period, as the amendment suggests.

Mr. Lock: I understand why the amendment was moved, but I hope that when I explain the reasoning behind the Bill, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it. I refer him to clause 22(3) and the conditions that must exist before a complaint can be made to the court by the constable or the local authority—either the use of the premises for the sale of intoxicating liquor has resumed, or there is evidence that they will be so used in future.

The amendment would undermine a key element of the Bill. The key problem in the west end of London is that after premises have been raided, staff arrested and alcohol seized, the criminals behind the operation absorb the losses and prepare for reopening. The service of a closure notice under clause 21 puts those responsible for the premises on notice to clean up their act. From the moment the closure notice is served, the police or local authority can, if problems re-surface, go to court to have the premises physically closed.

If the notice had effect for only one month, the police could expect to see the premises back in business one month and a day after service. Six months is a suitable period not for a complaint based on the activities that happened six months previously, as the hon. Gentleman—whose concern I understand—suggested, but to allow the police or local authority to monitor activities and force the owners of the property to return the premises to legitimate use.

What is a suitable monitoring period during which, having served a notice, the police and local authority should have the right to go to court and prove one of the two grounds in clause 22(3)? The Government believe that six months is a suitable period during which the owners of premises will have to sharpen up their act and return them to legitimate use. One month would be too short because it would be needed to re-engage staff and restock with alcohol and within five weeks of the original raid and closure the premises would be back in business and the police would have to start the process again before being able to go to court to apply for a closure order.

I hope that my explanation is useful and enables the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand what the Parliamentary Secretary is saying and I am grateful to him for acknowledging our reason for tabling the amendment. I accept that there are particular reasons for the procedure in areas such as the west end of London, where the Parliamentary Secretary might want the procedure to operate as he described, but I suggest that there may be a halfway house. If one month is too short, perhaps three months would achieve what the police and local authorities in areas such as the west end of London and other cities might want.

This is not an issue on which I want to detain the Committee now. I have raised our concern and have heard the Parliamentary Secretary's response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 23, 24 and 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: Briefly, does the Parliamentary Secretary anticipate a significant increase in pressure on the Crown courts? The possibility has been raised on many occasions in the House and I want to know whether any research has been carried out or evidence taken on whether the sort of appeals that might flow from the procedure would increase the burden on the Crown courts. There is sometimes said to be a significant shortage of judge power in the Crown courts.

Mr. Lock: That is a legitimate point and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. We do not anticipate a large number of appeals. At this stage we can only make a guesstimate, but we anticipate that appeals will not generate a vast amount of business for the courts. Lord Justice Auld is carrying out a review and the exact range of work to be undertaken in the Crown courts and other venues is a matter on which, to use a terrible pun, the jury is out. At this stage we cannot state confidently how much capacity will be necessary in the Crown courts, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that appeals are not expected to generate a large amount of business. However, the appropriate number of court days, judges and courtrooms required by the small amount of business that will be generated by the Bill will be factored into my Department's planning.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but it begs some of the questions raised by the Government in the House yesterday when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said that the Government were rushing ahead with further plans without waiting for the response of Lord Justice Auld and his review. I shall not go down that route now, Mr. Gale, because you would call me to order. The Parliamentary Secretary has acknowledged that there is a point and I am partly reassured by his comment that a large number of appeals is not anticipated.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 27

Enforcement of closure orders

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: When we examined clause 27(1)(b), we discovered that the powers that the Government propose to give to the constable or other authorised person are extremely wide. I should like to probe the Minister on the phrase that suggests that the constable or other authorised person should be given the power to

    ``do anything reasonably necessary for the purpose of securing compliance with the order.''

Those are wide words indeed. When a power is drawn as widely as that, it is right to probe the Government on whether such powers are apposite.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

        Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Ten o'clock till Thursday 1 March at five minutes to Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. Roger (Chairman)
Bailey, Mr.
Ballard, Jackie
Blunt, Mr.
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Gray, Mr.
Grogan, Mr.
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hawkins, Mr.
Heald, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Humble, Mrs.
Ladyman, Dr.
Lock, Mr.
Lyell, Sir Nicholas
McCabe, Mr.
McDonagh, Siobhain
Sutcliffe, Mr.

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Prepared 27 February 2001