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Lord Avebury: As I understand it, crack dealers often take over the houses of vulnerable people. An elderly person may, for example, live in a flat and be intimidated, threatened and otherwise coerced into allowing the premises to be used for the sale and use of class A drugs. So that elderly person is an involuntary participant in the drugs operation, but the courts may make a closure order against the premises. I see nothing in the Bill that obliges a local authority in a case of that kind to make provision for the rehousing of the elderly person concerned.
There is a gap in the Bill or perhaps there is a provision elsewhere that would require the court to make inquiries into the circumstances of such an elderly person and to make arrangements in advance of the police implementing a closure order so that the person is not thrown out onto the streets. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance on that point before we leave this clause.
Lord Elton: The amendment is a kind of monitoring process on Clause 1(2)(a), is it not? I imagine a way round this real difficulty is proper consultation with the local authority. I wondered whether that provision should be made slightly more specific, for the reassurance of the Committee, so that the kind of ills that have been described by my noble friends and others do not occur. Social services must establish who are the potential casualties, must they not, and how such casualties can be avoided?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is an interesting debate. In a sense, it is an expansion of the debate we had earlierit is that debate but the other way around. I understand where the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is coming from. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right to express concern because we want to get the matter right.
One must balance the effects of a closure notice on any resident who is not involved in the use, production or supply of class A drugs, with all the knock-on effects on local residents by allowing the premises to remain open. The power, as drafted, particularly with the important consultation requirement, strikes a sensible balance. Going back to an earlier point, because decisions will be made at senior level after a great deal of discussion between the relevant authoritiesin this case the police and, primarily, the local authority or the registered social landlordthe power strikes that balance.
The amendment is defective in that it would place an additional, and probably unwelcome and unnecessary, burden on the police and prevent in most circumstances the effective use of the power. I think the noble Lord will accept that point because it is very hard to make a judgment about quality of life as the amendment is drafted.
So, I understand the spirit and thinking, which have been made plain during the short debate, behind the amendment. However, the balance is about right. The important point of consultation, and the fact that adequate advice and support must be given to the members of a household who are not necessarily involved in the production and supply of class A drugs, will enable the clause to work effectively.
Lord Elton: I remember a not famous but very striking occasion when a certain Secretary of State was addressed by an infuriated leader of local authorities. He pointed out that the Secretary of State had the duty to consult. He asked when he was going to consult. The Secretary of State banged the table and said: "I am consulting now. I am telling you what I am going to do". This is an example of the weakness of this kind of language in legislation.
I do not know about my noble friend, but I should be much happier for the local authority to have a duty on the face of the Bill regarding these proceedings and not merely a right to be consulted. That would be a more secure protection of the vulnerable people concerned. The issue obviously needs much more thought than it can be given now. I hope my noble friend and the noble Baroness will leave an opportunity for that thought to be thought.
Lord Avebury: I wondered whether the noble Lord in his reply was going to say something about the Homelessness Act. Local authorities have only just been required to submit strategies to the ODPM. The closing date was 30th July. Now they are being faced with an additional cause of homelessness that would not have been taken into account in formulating the strategies. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has pointed out, although local authorities have to be consulted in advance of a closure notice, they do not have to do anything about it. So, we expect local authorities to read this clause and to go back to the draftsman of the homelessness strategy and say, "We need to have a
Therefore, there is a lacuna here, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, points out. We have not completed the circle. We have said that the local authorities must be told that a closure notice is contemplated and that they have a duty under the Homelessness Act to make sure that someone who is involuntarily dragged into the class A drug operation on the premises is not rendered homeless as a result of non-action by him or herself. We do not close the loop by then placing a duty on local authorities under the Homelessness Act to make sure that this additional potential cause of homelessness has been incorporated into their strategies.
Baroness Walmsley: I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and my noble friend Lord Avebury. The wording of Clause 1(2)(a) is far too weak and we need provision on the face of the Bill to ensure that the interests of vulnerable people are taken care of.
My noble friend Lord Avebury makes a very good point: we do not want someone being made homeless by this closure notice and then being told that they have made themselves deliberately homeless by the involvement of someone in the household with crack. That would be outrageous. So I encourage the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smithand perhaps we can negotiate about thisto table a different amendment on Report which the Government might be a little more willing to consider.
Lord Hylton: Everything that has been said from both Opposition Benches on these recent amendments reinforces the earlier point that I sought to make about the housing management aspect of this matter. Obviously, drugs, drug dealers and distributors must be dealt with. They must be dealt with quickly and the residential area must be brought back into its proper use as rapidly as possible.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have many debates in this Chamber in which we reflect long and hard on the precision of wording. While listening to noble Lords' comments, I have been reading through the relevant paragraphs in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, used the word "told". He said that the local authority had been "told" that a closure notice was going to be made. The provision is not about telling; it is about informing and consulting. The drafting is precise on that point. Clause 1(2)(a) states that,
I also draw the Committee's attention to Clause 2(3) dealing with closure orders. That makes plain that, in the application considered by the magistrates' court, the magistrate must be satisfied that,
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