Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: The controversy over the extension of the powers of the MOD police has arisen in the course of the Select Committee hearings on the Armed Forces Bill. I accept that it is going through that procedure because these matters are difficult, but I thought that it was right to probe the matter now. Given that there is controversy, we should know to what extent the Government intend to empower the MOD police. I raised the issue on clause stand part in that spirit; I did not have any intention of tabling an amendment on behalf of the Opposition. However, we do need to canvass the issue. As the matter is of interest to many people, will the Minister write to us if there are any developments?

In the Select Committee at least, a consensus is emerging, with curious alliances being forged between the Conservative party and the National Union of Journalists. A group of concerned bodies and political parties is examining whether it will work effectively, particularly as the MOD police are such an unaccountable force. Whereas local police forces are overseen by a police authority with a committee that is largely accountable, the Secretary of State for Defence has authority for the MOD police.

We do not intend to divide the Committee, but I wanted to explain why I raised the matter.

3 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I was grateful to the Minister for giving some response to my question. It was intended to repair a deficiency in points that I raised earlier, and I make no bones about that. However, he has not answered a serious point that comes out of the use of the word ``issued'' in the relevant clause, as opposed to ``given''. Penalty notices have to be ``given''; they are not ``issued'' anywhere else in the Bill.

I ask the Minister—and those to whom we do not refer, but who might hear what we say—to ponder the matter. If the wording is changed, I hope that the net effect will be that any question about the identity or nomenclature of the person to whom the penalty notice had been given or issued could be reopened and heard under Chapter I if the first portion of it that came to the notice of the alleged offender were to arrive through the post in the circumstances that I described.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for the clarification offered by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. He is right that serious issues are involved, and I know that he takes them seriously.

I have nothing to add to my previous comments on the point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Gray: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I seek clarification about what appears to be an astonishing piece of cross-party co-operation. The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) pointed out to me that on page 161 of the Amendment Paper, the Minister's name appears alongside those of my right hon. and hon. Friends as a sponsor of amendment No. 138.

It would be helpful to know whether the Government wholeheartedly support the amendment, so that members of the Committee can prepare themselves properly during the coming recess.

The Chairman: I am happy to say that that is not a matter for the Chair. As attention has been drawn to the subject, I am sure that the Minister will respond to the point.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale, and to my Whip. Unfortunately, there is an error. I am not a sponsor of amendment No. 138. That will come as a tremendous disappointment to Opposition Members, but I would be grateful if that could be put on record.

The Chairman: The record will show the Minister's response, and on that unhappy note of unaccustomed discord, the Committee will now move on to Chapter II of the Bill.

Clause 14

Alcohol consumption in designated public places

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 7, line 25, after `constable', insert `in uniform'.

The Chairman: With this it will be we may discuss the following amendments: No. 126, in page 7, line 27, at end insert—

    `and reasonably believes that their behaviour may lead to an offence.'.

No. 26, in page 7, line 33, leave out `for' and insert `which contains'.

No. 53, in page 7, line 33, leave out from `liquor' to end.

No. 27, in page 7, line 35, leave out `he considers appropriate' and insert—

    `the chief officer of police for that area has specified'.

No 54, in page 7, line 38, leave out `2' and insert `5'.

No. 55, in page 7, line 40, leave out subsection (5).

No. 106, in clause 31, page 24, line 12, after `liquor', insert—

    `or any item containing such liquor'.

No. 75, in clause 31, page 24, line 12, leave out

    `(other than a sealed container)'.

Mr. Hawkins: The amendments relate to Chapter II. I take a strong personal interest in how the authorities may respond appropriately to combat public drinking, especially in inner cities. A successful pilot project was started under local authority byelaws in the city of Coventry. Like the Parliamentary Secretary some time later, I was in practice at the Bar in the west midlands from the late 1970s and did a lot of criminal defence work in the Coventry courts. There was a substantial public alcohol problem in Coventry and other midlands cities, where a large number of people caused a great deal of nuisance and committed other criminal offences.

After the appalling bombing of the city of Coventry in the second world war, the city centre was substantially redeveloped. A lot of drunks gathered in the shopping centre, but because the area was pedestrianised, police cars found it very difficult to get to them when they caused a nuisance.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): The hon. Gentleman may know that there is a similar byelaw in Blackpool. The Lancashire police say that the ban works well in making Blackpool a safer place. Does he agree that the ban is successful when the police work together with the local authority and with the business and wider communities and that is important to involve all those partners?

Mr. Hawkins: I do indeed agree. That is why I used the phrase ``the authorities''. The city of Coventry was a pioneer among local authorities in introducing modern byelaws to control street drinking—there were, of course, long-established, Victorian byelaws in some places—and its example was followed by many other local authorities, including Blackpool.

I want to make it absolutely clear that Conservative Members are not opposing in principle what the Government want to do to build on those byelaws. However, we want to discuss whether the wording in the Bill as drafted is the most appropriate way to strengthen police powers. Statute law may be able to build on what the byelaws have achieved in towns and cities such as Coventry and Blackpool.

The Minister knows that we are trying to be constructive in finding ways to improve the Bill, and I hope that he will consider the amendments in the spirit in which we tabled them.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I do not accept that the Opposition's approach has been constructive.

Mr. Hawkins: I am sorry to hear that, but I hope that I shall convince the Minister that we are trying to be constructive when I speak to the amendments.

Amendment No. 25 would make it clear in the Bill that the constable should be in uniform, which is only a small point; much more substantial is our suggestion that we need to take out the words in brackets at the end of subsection (2)(b):

    ``other than a sealed container''.

If I explain to the Minister what was in our mind in tabling the amendment, he might realise why I say that we are trying to be constructive. Those of us who have practised in the criminal courts know all too well that, when police officers try to detain or arrest for public order offences people have consumed a substantial amount of drink—precisely the type of disturbance targeted by the legislation—the protagonists quite often use sealed containers as weapons. Over the years when I did such work at the Bar, I frequently read in police officers' witness statements when cases went to court words to the effect of ``The defendant then tried to hit me over the head with one of the several cans of beer that he had.''

That is why we were initially puzzled when we saw the Bill's drafting, because the Government sought to exclude a sealed container. We can see that there is a clear distinction between something that is sealed and something that is unsealed, but we are not sure that the Minister and those who advise him have taken fully into account the frequency with which sealed containers are used as weapons. The deletion of those words from the Bill would be a helpful addition to police powers.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that amendment No. 26 would restrict the confiscation powers to alcohol containers that still had liquid in them. It would thereby preclude the confiscation of empty containers that had the potential to be used as weapons. I would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification as to whether that is his intention.

Mr. Hawkins: No. I apologise if the Minister has misunderstood me. I am talking not about amendment No. 26, but about No. 53, which would take out

    ``(other than a sealed container).''

I will use the wording of the Bill, which I hope will make our intention clear. Under subsection (2),

    ``The constable may require the person concerned . . . to surrender anything in his possession which is, or which the constable reasonably believes to be, intoxicating liquor or a container for such liquor''.

The police officer will be able to require any person to surrender something that contains intoxicating liquor or a container for such liquor. The power should extend to sealed containers, because that would strengthen the police's hand.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I am sorry if I have failed to understand the hon. Gentleman, but it sounds as if the removal of those words from the clause would mean that someone who had been to an off licence to buy four cans of beer and was carrying them home to drink could be liable to be stopped and picked up, even though he or she had no intention of drinking the beer in the street. Leaving the words in means that the police will be unable to make that mistake, because the container would have had to be opened.

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