Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: What?

Jackie Ballard: Sex.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is helpful to the Minister, who is clearly innocent of such matters and must have had a delayed upbringing. In the days when the Minister was president of Cambridge students union and I was a mere college union president, sex was very much on the agenda of our student campaigning in terms of liberation and equality.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously suggesting that we should send agents provocateurs into the establishments to which he appears to be referring.

Mr. Hughes: I am aware that I must resist getting carried away.

This is a perfectly proper power that needs to be used. It has been beneficially applied in relation to underage tobacco sales, and I believe that it also applies to solvents, which can be highly dangerous and, indeed, fatal. I have had constituency experience of that.

To end on a serious note, the Minister and I, together with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), have been recording a programme about crime, particularly in Kent. If we are to reduce the amount of addiction to and abuse of alcohol by people who are the under the lawful age for purchasing it, it is important that pubs, supermarkets, shops and off licences do not get away with regularly selling alcohol to those people.

There must be a draconian regime or groups of youngsters will easily be able to intimidate the owners of isolated off licences or newsagents. The life of a shopkeeper often consists of doing valuable community service, but getting a tremendous amount of grief from people who are trying to get him or her to act illegally in relation to tobacco, alcohol, fireworks or solvents. The law must be tough and clear, so I am happy that there should be a mechanism for testing it and dealing severely with lawbreakers. We shall quickly eliminate most abuse if shopkeepers know that that is the regime. They break the law for personal profit, but that causes considerable harm and loss to young people who purchase their goods.

2.45 pm

Mr. Clarke: I understand the general points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) in relation to the consolidation and codification of legislation. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are sympathetic, but we must create a suitable process. Forthcoming licensing reform, which will overhaul the Licensing Act 1964, will complement the Bill. Licensing law will be recast in response to the approach that we set out in the White Paper. We shall have an opportunity to address his concerns when those proposals are placed before the House. However, I also appreciate his general points about the way in which the law is made.

Amendment No. 108 would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the police and trading standards officers concerning the use of children to make test purchases, the conduct of test-purchase operations and best practice. I assure both the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the Committee that we consider appropriate central guidance of the type that he envisages to be both necessary and worth while, but the participation of organisations directly involved in the area is also important.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey remarked that test-purchasing operations are mounted in relation not only to alcohol but to cigarettes, videos, solvents and fireworks. That technique is appropriate, but guidance should come not only from the Secretary of State but from organisations that are experienced in such operations. The Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards—LACOTS—currently issues such guidance, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Association of Chief Police Officers are involved in its preparation.

The best practice guide on test purchasing, which is currently being revised, was issued in November 1995. It will be further revised when the Bill becomes law. We accept the need for central guidance, but we do not accept either that the Secretary of State should issue it or that it should be set in statute. It is important that local authority bodies, the DETR and the police are directly involved in the process. Given that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will be prepared to reconsider amendment No. 108.

Amendment No. 135 concerns the important issue of duty. Test purchasing is necessarily part of the duty of trading standards officers because the defences that clause 33 provides will be available only when they are acting in the course of their duty. If they are not acting in the course of their duty, the various defences set out in clause 33 will not apply, which is why we have the closing words of subsections (1A) and (2) of new section 169A. Of course, we do not want police and trading standards officers to send young people to buy alcohol at all times, but only when they are performing their duty. I must emphasise that there is no intention to entrap people selling alcohol. Current practice involves young people who are under 18 with genuine identification that they reveal on demand.

It is also worth having on the agenda the provisions of the current Act. Section 169A is a reformulation of an existing offence under the Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000, which came into force on 23 January this year. The Act was the product of a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), and his reformulation was warmly welcomed by both Houses. The Act had wholehearted cross-party support and made it an offence for any person to sell alcohol to a minor on licensed premises.

Before the reformulation, a loophole in the 1964 Act allowed some workers on licensed premises to evade prosecution when they sold alcohol to children. Section 169B makes it an offence for any person with the authority to prevent the sale of alcohol to a minor to permit such a sale on licensed premises. That is why new section 169I(1) states that it is the duty of every trading standards officer to enforce the provisions.

I shall come in a second to test purchasing. I have tried to explain why the word ``duty'' is in the Bill. When I almost intervened earlier, but then declined to do so, I was wondering whether the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was in favour of various forms of cruel and unusual punishment for Members of Parliament who do silly things. I understand the point about not referring to a duty without having the capacity to deal with the implications of the duty, and we have tried to take that into account after consultation with various organisations. Does the hon. Member for Reigate wish to raise any matters before I go on to amendment No. 47?

Mr. Blunt: No. I understand the Minister's explanation of why the word ``duty'' is in the clause. He invited my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire not to press amendment No. 108 about guidelines. I shall listen carefully to what he has to say about amendment No. 47, because it concerns whether the power will be used officiously. However, if ``duty'' is used in the traditional sense, that should not happen. If we are not to have guidelines, there needs to be some limitation, which amendment No. 47 would provide.

Mr. Clarke: I understand the point about officious use. I reassure the hon. Gentleman about that. We have experience in test purchasing in relation to other products and the reason to involve the local authority, a professional body, is to ensure that such a power will not be used officiously.

Mr. Blunt: That the local authority will be involved does not particularly reassure me. Let us consider, for example, the recent prosecution of the greengrocer in the north-east. Numerous other cases have been outlined in the press of trading standards officers who have been excessive in the use of their powers, especially in areas that overlap with the criminal law. Will the Minister consider criminal versus civil law?

Mr. Clarke: Perhaps I was not clear. The hon. Gentleman's worry is that, by their nature, local authorities want to accrete power, and sometimes use it officiously, so they might not be the best bodies to have the responsibility. I explained earlier that the police and the Government were involved in the process. When dealing with such matters with local government, the Home Secretary will not want the power to be used officiously, so there will be a countervailing power.

Trading standards officers have a responsibility to enforce the law. It is a matter of judgment as to which side of the line a particular activity goes. It can be argued that the line is the criminal/civil division. I shall find some specific examples to illustrate the point. In the sale of alcohol, it is reasonable to add the power to those of trading standards officers, rather than to require the police to establish a separate, wholly parallel process. That returns us to our discussion about the benefits of building partnerships between different agencies—I know that the hon. Gentleman and I have similar views on this—and the partnership between the police and trading standards is an important part of our approach.

Amendment No. 47 concerns test purchasing, which is not a new concept in liquor licensing, as test purchases have been carried out for some time in some areas, but prosecutions have not resulted because of uncertainty about the legality of the operations. However, it has led to the revocation of some liquor licences. Doubts exist because the Licensing Act 1964 makes it an offence for an adult to send a minor into licensed premises for the purpose of obtaining alcohol for consumption off the premises. In addition, it is an offence under section 169C of the Licensing Act 1964 for a minor to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on licensed premises. No exceptions to those offences exist for test purchasing operations, so there is confusion about the legal power.

For that reason, the Bill will place test purchasing on a statutory footing in two ways. First, it will provide exemptions to the offences that I have mentioned for the police, trading standards officers and the children involved. However, police and trading standards officers will have that protection only when they are acting in the course of their duty—which returns us to our earlier debate. Secondly, new section 169I(1) confirms that it is among the duties of trading standards officers to act to enforce the provisions relating to the underage provision of alcohol. That is the normal legislative style to bring clarity to the issue. It is not the purpose of that section to place a burden on every trading standards authority to conduct wave after wave of test purchases, although I certainly hope that the protection of children will continue to be a high priority.

That is why the provision is important. For the test purchase power to be effective, it is imperative that the enforcement authorities have operational freedom to decide where and when such operations should take place—for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. In practice, enforcement authorities will not attempt to trick the retailer but will deal with genuine identification, as I said earlier. Amendment No. 47 would place an unjustified restriction on the powers needed, because the authorities, before embarking on a test purchase operation, would be obliged to obtain evidence of possible previous offences committed in the target premises, so that they could justify their action in court if any prosecutions were brought following their action. That would create an additional burden that would undermine the purpose of having an effective enforcement measure.

I acknowledge that the amendment was tabled to probe the issue. I hope that on the basis of what I have said, the hon. Member for Reigate will withdraw it.

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