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Mr. Simon Hughes: I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), but I want to make a further point. It is important that society clamps down on alcohol abuse, and abuse by those who are licensed to sell alcohol of the terms and conditions whereby they are permitted to do that. Alcohol is a major cause of crime. The Government acknowledge that; there is no disagreement between the parties about the matter.
Drugs--alcohol is a drug--often cause serious, especially violent crime. It is therefore appropriate to do all that we can to ensure that those who lawfully buy and sell alcohol act within the law. I hope that we shall continue to be vigilant to ensure that alcohol abuse does not continue to the same extent, with the terrible consequences that society currently suffers.
"(d) administering or using a controlled drug which is unlawfully in any person's possession at or immediately before the time when it is administered or used.""
Mr. Clarke: The amendment to section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 would facilitate police action against closed drug markets, such as crack houses. Under the 1971 Act, it is currently an offence for the occupier or manager of premises knowingly to allow illegal drugs to be produced or supplied on them. However, liability for the use of illegal drugs extends only to smoking cannabis or opium. That reflects the drug misuse patterns that prevailed when the Act was introduced. We believe that Lords amendment No. 15 will play an important part in updating the powers available to the police and the courts in tackling drug abuse, and it is supported by the police.
As we argued both on Report and in Committee, we felt that the change was not necessary. However, the official Opposition did not accept that view either on the Floor of the House or in private discussions that I had with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). In the light of concerns about a lack of clarity in the legislation, we decided that it would be better to accept Lords amendment No. 15 than to have a rather arcane discussion about the legalisms involved in the particular circumstances. Consequently, both in the other place and in this place, we have accepted the amendment, which we hope will have the effects that have been widely advertised.
Mr. Hawkins: I am very glad that the Minister expressed his concession as he did. The amendment is the result of a very long-running campaign by the official Opposition which has been led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and, in another place, by my noble Friend Lord Cope. My noble friends Baroness Buscombe and Baroness Hanham also have continued to press the Government on the issue.
We knew all along, as the Minister has very fairly conceded today, that the police were desperate for an amendment to the 1971 Act that enabled them particularly to clamp down on crack houses. As my noble Friend Baroness Buscombe said:
The Opposition have been surprised that it has taken the Government so long to accept our arguments on this vital issue. Nevertheless, there is even greater joy in heaven over a sinner who repenteth. Even at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of this Parliament, the Government's acceptance of our view is welcome. We think that the amendment will add a strong weapon to the police's armoury in dealing with one of our society's most important scourges--illegal drugs, and particularly crack cocaine, which is one of the most dangerous.
Mr. Simon Hughes: Liberal Democrat Members welcome Lords amendment No. 15. I have just one question for the Minister which I hope that he will be good enough to answer. It seems that the amendment would not only achieve its main purpose of making crack house activity illegal, but that it could change the law to legalise other activities that currently are illegal. Is that so? I ask the question simply because the offence was previously defined as
Mr. Clarke: Reflecting on the question, as the hon. Gentleman asked it, and quickly taking advice from colleagues, I think that I can confirm that the amendment does not have the effect that he fears it might have.
Mr. Hughes: It was a neutral question and did not express a view. I simply wanted to ensure that the Government's understanding was that the amendment will extend the remit of the 1971 Act without reducing the provision in other spheres. I appreciate that I asked the question without providing notice of it, and I would be grateful if the Minister would place on the record any advice that he might receive on it. It is important that we are clear on the issue.
Lords amendment: No. 16, in page 2, line 22, leave out "victim" and insert "resident"
Mr. Clarke: The origin of this group of amendments, which are essentially identical, was concerns expressed in Committee in the other place by the Opposition, who suggested that the person concerned should be described as a target rather than as a victim. We felt that the precedent for use of the word victim lay in its use in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Having given
We believe that the change will provide a higher level of objectivity in the terminology that is being used. Specifically, it will take account of the sensitivities of those who are subject to such harassment and may well not wish to be defined as victims because of the association of the word victims with particular circumstances. Consequently, we propose to replace the word victim with the word resident in this group of amendments.
Mr. Heald: We are content with Lords amendment No. 16. I should say that the concerns expressed in the House on Second Reading about events at Huntingdon Life Sciences have been dealt with in the Bill. Amendments to the Bill allow the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to be tightened up and enable directors to register their addresses confidentially. Other provisions deal with the practice of besetting people's homes. Amendment No. 16 deals with one of those matters.
It is good that both sides of the House have agreed on the need to tackle the issue and that it has been possible to make progress. However, the official Opposition cannot take the credit for this group of amendments, as they address a Liberal Democrat issue that was raised first, in Committee, by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and later, in the other place, by Lord Phillips. They should take the credit for the amendments, with which we are happy.
Mr. Miller: I should like simply to press my hon. Friend the Minister on the use of language in the clause. Definitions are sometimes extremely difficult. I suppose that it is pretty obvious to individuals when we are victims, although it may not always be entirely obvious to the courts. Is my hon. Friend happy that the full spirit of the original clause is encompassed by use of the word resident? Does the word encompass only permanent residents, or does it include, for example, those who are temporarily resident in a dwelling or legitimately resident in an hotel room? Are all those potential circumstances covered to his satisfaction in the Bill?