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Baroness Walmsley: With respect to the Minister, we are not arguing that a closure order may not be necessary but for appropriate and adequate provision for vulnerable people who might be adversely affected by it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I fully understand that point. The point I was trying to develop was that in seeking the closure order the officer will understand exactly what the court must look at and will be very mindful of the need to be precise and why that course of action is being taken. I understand the concern for vulnerable people—for people becoming homeless as an unintended consequence. I reflected that concern earlier. With the obligation to consult and the need to ensure that people living in the property are well advised and informed of other means of support, I think that there will be adequate protection against that happening.

If the matter comes before the court the magistrate may take the view that it is not necessary to close the premises but that action should simply be taken against the dealers, so the other people living in those premises can remain. With the detailed work and preparation that will go into these cases before the matter gets to that point, the likelihood of someone being made homeless as a consequence of this approach is extremely unlikely.

I should like to think that most local authorities and social landlords would react and perform in a highly responsible way because they are obliged to do so. Of course I am, as ever, inclined to listen to what is said in the Chamber and if we think there is more precision required in the wording, we shall give the issue further thought. But, as it is, the provision should work well with the commitment to consultation and the other protections.

Noon

Lord Elton: When the Minister gives the matter that further thought, will he try to discard the optimism with which he is reading the Bill and consider the position of an old biddy living in a house, two-thirds of which have been taken over as a crack house, who must discover that she has the right to lodge an appeal or must seek information about what she should do next? The initiative that will have precipitated that situation will be taken by the state in the form of the

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police; the state in the form of local authorities should surely have a duty to intervene on her behalf, rather than waiting to be sought out by her.

I know that I am putting the case in rather extreme terms—I can see that from the Minister's face—but he has put his case in extreme terms. I hope that between now and Report we shall find some median way.

Baroness Maddock: The Minister has not replied to the valid point made by my noble friend Lord Avebury about the Homelessness Act 2002 and how the work of local authorities under the Act will tie up with the Bill, given that they should already have their strategies in place. The Minister will know that one of my concerns for local authorities is the very different strategies that they are being asked to return. Indeed, I raised that issue when we were discussing the Local Government Act 2000.

Lord Dixon-Smith: We have had a useful discussion around the amendment. The Minister has made a good attempt—as does the Bill—to deal with the issue, but I am not sure that he has satisfied us all. There is consultation and consultation; and there is action and there is action. The real question, which has not been clearly answered, is whether, if the local authority said, "In our judgment, closure would be so damaging that it should not take place", the police would have to accede to that response to consultation, shall we say, if it is not guidance. There is potential for a hiatus.

I am grateful to all those who have taken part in this discussion; they illustrated better than I could the dilemma that everyone faces. I should correct one thing that the Minister said. He said that the amendment would place an extra burden on the police. In fact, it would be the magistrates who must make the judgment, because the Bill deals with orders before the court. So it would be the magistrates' problem and that, among other things, is what magistrates are for—to make such judgments. We are dealing with a judgment between the criminal problem of drugs, drug abuse and crack houses and the social consequences of dealing with it. Even more than for the local authority, that is a judgment that forms a proper part of the magistrates' function.

As I said, this has been a useful debate. I am sure that we will all study with care what has been said. We will need to consider the matter to decide whether we cannot produce something that is an improvement on both the Bill and the amendment.

Lord Avebury: Before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, when it comes to redrafting it, will he consider giving magistrates the power to make an order requiring the local authority to rehouse specific persons who are resident in the premises? Then, if a vulnerable old or mentally disabled person is living in the house, the matter will not just be left to the consultation prior to the making of the order; what

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happens in the court will determine the local authority's responsibility to look after the interests of that person.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, but it would be inappropriate to try to negotiate a new amendment on the Floor of the House. I am bound to say in response to him that for some people, the physical act of forced removal from one property to another is in itself a deep problem. As anyone who has had to deal with the closure of old people's homes will know, that can be immensely stressful.

So there are many issues that we must consider. As I said, I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate. I think we shall have some fairly heavy discussions, but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 8:


    Page 3, line 9, leave out "three" and insert "six"

The noble Lord said: The amendment deals with a simple little matter: for how long closure orders should last and for how long they may be allowed to continue if an extension is granted. There are two ways of looking at that. We had to do something to try to tease out from the Government why they settled on the particular period in the Bill. I have a feeling that a longer period than is suggested in the Bill may well be appropriate.

Curiously enough, properties develop a reputation. Closure must be for long enough for the reputation to be lost. Three months with a three-month extension would not necessarily achieve that. Although it may seem harsh, especially in the light of our preceding debates, if we are to opt for closure, the period should be of greater duration than the Bill provides. My cock-shy is as good as anyone else's. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: I fear that we cannot support the amendment. It strikes me that there is a certain inconsistency between the noble Lord's amendments this morning. A couple of minutes ago he was talking about caveats against closure and now he wants places to be closed for twice as long. We do not want an urban desert in which properties are closed and boarded up. That attracts vandalism not just to that property but to others around. I should have thought that three months was quite enough time for the authorities to deal with the matter. In fact, that limit would put pressure on them to do so.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has hit the nail on the head: it is inconsistent. I made a note about properties and reputations. Frankly, if we are obliging the local authority to keep properties empty for longer, the area is sure to gain a reputation. Inevitably, tinned-up properties, as they are often known, look ugly and distasteful and become objects for vandalism. The important thing is to ensure that the problem is dealt

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with, that the closure order is effective, that the property is brought back into use as soon as possible and that some aura of normality is returned to the area.

The noble Lord said that his add-ons were a cock-shy, as it were. We think that we have the balance about right. It is important that properties are made good use of. It does nothing for the locality to keep them empty longer than necessary, but we recognise the importance of taking action and of that action being visible. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment. It would not do many of our neighbourhoods much good if local authorities were obliged to keep premises empty for as long as the amendment provides. That would not help; in fact, in some circumstances it could make the situation worse.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am unsurprised by the reaction of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, but the position is not really that inconsistent. If we are genuinely arguing that the procedure must be carefully undertaken and closures made only in appropriate circumstances when they are absolutely necessary, a longer period of closure may not be inappropriate.

I hear what the Minister says. This is another of those areas where it is simply a question of opinion. I should be the first to acknowledge that the Government's opinion is at least as good as mine, although I should not say that it is superior. We are all entitled to our opinion; that is one of the great things that our debates are about. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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