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11.47 am

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North): I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) on his good fortune in gaining a high enough place in the ballot to secure this opportunity, and on his choice of topic. I do not intend to oppose his Bill, but I have some criticisms, and a suggestion that would resolve them. However, the Bill is worthy of moving forward and it will make a difference.

Before I discuss the Bill in detail, I should like to make a few observations on the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). It is true that every town, village and city has a problem with drugs. We must be equal to those problems in proposing strategies to deal with them. He made some interesting comments about tolerance, which I shall discuss shortly. However, an otherwise thoughtful speech was somewhat spoiled by an unnecessary attack on the attitude of the Opposition. We have been consistently supportive of the Government's approach on this subject. We were among the first to go on record as supporting the Green Paper, "Tackling Drugs Together", and we have supported it in speeches in the House and elsewhere. The hon. Member

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for Colchester, North will confirm that we try to be constructive and helpful in forging a consensus across the House.

The hon. Member for Colchester, North also made a point about the Police Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the shadow Home Secretary, suggested amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords last night, not because we were chasing the Government--as the hon. Gentleman put it--but because we listened to the legitimate concerns of a range of people, including people within the judiciary. After wide consultation, I think that we have arrived at a set of amendments that will do two things. First, they will protect the genuine civil liberties of individuals and secondly, they will provide the police with a workable system to pursue what they rightly consider an important part of surveillance. So perhaps the hon. Gentleman need not have made those points.

I have made it clear on every occasion when I have had the opportunity to do so that the Opposition do not believe that there is any case whatever for decriminalisation or legalisation of soft drugs. Without going into great detail on the arguments, I simply state two reasons why it is most important that that is the case. First, the statistics prove that there is ambiguity among young people about whether it is acceptable to take drugs. If one questioned young people closely, most of them would understand the dangers of heroin, but they are often wholly unaware of the short-term and long-term dangers of so-called softer drugs such as Ecstasy and cannabis.

So any argument in favour of decriminalisation or legalisation is bound to send out completely the wrong signal to young people. It would in effect say that Parliament and the Government in some way condoned the taking of those currently illegal substances, or might consider doing so. The proposal of the Liberal Democrats is to set up a royal commission. The problem with that is that, while they do not send out that signal directly, the indirect message from the establishment of such a royal commission is that we might consider legalisation or decriminalisation in the future.

Sir Michael Neubert: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, from a different standpoint, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) also muddied the message? It must be a clear message. It should not be confused or blurred by the rather rational considerations that he brings to the problem, which do not get through to the young people who need to hear the clear message that we are trying to give this morning.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend takes a different view and expresses his views in very different terms from me. I should point out--he would be the first to make this point--that his views are distinctively his own and not those of the Opposition. However, my hon. Friend has made an important clarification this morning: he has made it clear that he is not in favour of legalisation. He considers the dangers of certain drugs--most prominently cannabis, I presume--to be no less than those which confront people who use alcohol and tobacco, but I understand that the only legalisation for which he argues is in certain cases for medical purposes. I think that that is a fair summary of his views.

Mr. Flynn: That is exactly right. The clear message that we should be giving is that the actions that we are

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taking at present are not working and are perversely leading to more drug deaths and drug abuse. It happens every year. I want to see a royal commission examine the possibility of replacing the present drugs market, which is criminal and irresponsible, with a market that can be rigidly policed and controlled and can reduce the use of drugs. The test of the Bill is whether it will reduce or increase harm. I believe that it fails on that test.

Mr. Howarth: I do not want to prolong this argument. I have covered the argument about a royal commission and the faults with that proposal. I will leave it at that. I shall make some other observations about my hon. Friend's speech a little later.

The purpose of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West clearly stated, is to make it easier for local authorities and the courts to close clubs

That is a laudable objective and certainly one that we support. There are some difficulties with it that need to be discussed because we are dealing with the matter as a piece of legislation. I hope to make a suggestion later as to how we might deal with them.

Under clause 1(3), the Bill will apply when a report is received

There are two obvious areas of concern. First, what constitutes a serious problem? It is not defined in the Bill. Therefore, there is a danger that the Bill will effectively produce subjective legislation, which could lead to inconsistent implementation and so weaken the Bill's authority. There is some evidence for that. There is already some inconsistency, which has been presented to Members of Parliament by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

The AMA says:

The legislation may be applied routinely where there is only subjective rather than factual evidence of a problem.

The AMA suggests a possible definition of "a serious problem", which is:

Perhaps that definition could be improved, because at some stage we need to provide an adequate one.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he not accept that in scores of items of legislation we accept "reasonable excuse" as a legitimate defence, which is interpreted subjectively by the magistrates court,

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the county court or whatever? Surely the Bill could provide for such a subjective interpretation based on the evidence of "a serious problem".

Mr. Howarth: I am quoting the view of the local authority association. Given that the Bill is designed to give local authorities the power to close a club, we should take notice of the AMA's views. I am not citing its opinion in order to argue against the Bill, but we need to discuss the definitions provided in it. We may have to take action to mitigate against the possible difficulties outlined by the AMA. I stress, however, that I am not using its evidence to argue against the Bill.

The hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) referred to the problems expressed by the British Entertainments and Discotheque Association. That trade association of the club industry represents more than 700 clubs across the country and it has suggested:

Although there is no reason to believe that local police would be swayed by such tactics, they would be under an obligation to investigate such allegations. There is a danger that valuable police time would be wasted because the definition provided in the Bill is too loose.

The Bill also refers to the powers a local authority may have to close a club which is situated near to a known area with drug problems. That is a rather vague notion and it could place responsibility on a licensee for public property over which he has no control. It is a policing matter because clubs could not provide the security staff in public places in lieu of the police. That problem must also be dealt with during the Bill's passage.

Last year, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said in an article:

I hope that that is the case. There are many such clubs which have taken considerable time and care to provide proper training for their staff. Some of them have proper drugs policies which they operate responsibly and properly in co-operation with the local authority and the local police. I hope that none of us intends that they should suffer under the Bill.

It is also worth noting that BEDA, which represents most clubs in this country, has stated:

That is a fair point and for those reasons BEDA has proposed the use of a written warning whereby Government drug action teams could provide written instructions to a club about what improvements could be made. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West may argue that that is unnecessary because there is scope within the Bill for a council to change the conditions of a club's licence. Given the risk that the measures contained in the Bill could be interpreted inconsistently, however, we should allow for a more productive co-operative approach.

A written warning would allow scope for productive changes to be made at a given club. If those proposals were not adequately implemented, there would be scope for strong action against the offending club.

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The Bill would allow for the immediate closure of clubs. I accept that the behaviour of the management of the club at Wandsworth, which has been cited more than once today, is justification for such a power, but it is one of the most controversial measures in the Bill and raises a number of problems that should be addressed.

The AMA has voiced concern about repercussions that may arise if a club's licence is revoked following an allegation that is subsequently proven to be unfounded. In those circumstances, a local authority may be liable to be sued by the licensee for damages and loss of income. That could involve substantial amounts of money. As protection against that, local authority associations would support clarification from the Government--not the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West--about what criteria should be used when revoking a licence.

Under the heading "Financial effects of the Bill" it states:

We need clarification about the position of local authorities in the circumstances described by the AMA; otherwise, additional costs may be involved.

The closure of a club would also have a dramatic effect on its employees, who may be entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. It is therefore important that the terms governing the closure of a club are clear and consistent. There are concerns about encouraging good practice. A letter that we produced following the publication of a document by the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated:

often called chill-out facilities--

    "--monitoring of temperature and air quality

    --provision of information and advice on drugs

    --compliance with a regulatory scheme for the selection, training and management of door staff".

The point was covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) and others--including, I believe, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby).

The AMA has expressed concern that the emergency revocation of licences could become counter-productive in reducing drug misuse by penalising existing good practice. Where good practice exists, I hope that we can bolster rather than undermine it.

Finally, I wish to raise a subject that has been mentioned by many hon. Members. The issue of door supervisors--doormen, bouncers or whichever term one wishes to apply--has been raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and, I believe, by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) and others. The hon. Member for Uxbridge spoke of statistics contained in a good briefing provided by the House of Commons Library in its research paper 97/2. It mentioned a survey done by the Merseyside police which revealed that of 476 door supervisors, 279 had previous convictions, including 28 for drug offences. That is clearly unacceptable.

During the summer I had a long discussion with the licensing officer of Liverpool city council, Mr. Wibbley. The council has introduced a registration scheme that it is

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in the process of implementing. Mr. Wibbley made the same point as many others have made to me: because it is difficult to establish a local registration scheme, it needs to be carried forward on a statutory national basis. The Select Committee on Home Affairs produced an excellent report on the subject a year or so ago, and we should continue with that approach. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), will make some welcoming comments on that subject.

I would go one step further. If we are to have a registration scheme for door supervisors, it seems logical that we need a proper regulatory regime for the private security industry. Interestingly enough, many of the more reputable companies in the private security industry support that proposal. It would be an important step towards dealing with the sort of problem highlighted in the survey conducted by Merseyside police.

I do not want to be negative--as I said at the beginning of my speech, I want the Bill to be given a fair wind and to make progress today. Nevertheless, there are clearly problems--the AMA, whose members will have to administer the scheme, say so--which must be dealt with. I hope that the Minister can provide some help with a suggestion that I wish to make. As there will be problems with the implementation of the legislation, the Home Office needs to issue a comprehensive and clear code of practice to deal with the problems raised by many hon. Members today. If the Minister can give an assurance on that issue--I hope that he can--I believe that this well- intentioned and sound legislation could become a practical proposition and could provide a useful tool for local authorities and, ultimately, the courts to deal with the problems experienced in clubs up and down the country.

There is a considerable club industry in this country. Much of it is well run by respectable companies and people with proper and legitimate interests, but a minority of clubs provide a clear route for drugs to be transferred to young people at a cost. If the Bill helps to undermine those problem clubs, it will be doing a good job. I wish the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West well and assure him that he will not face any opposition from Labour Members.

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