Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: Did you gain votes or lose them?

Mr. Hughes: I have never worked it out. I guess that, if it looks as though the local Member of Parliament is stopped like everyone else and does not get any special favours, it probably earns him a few more votes.

I am very sympathetic towards amendment No. 126. We must try not to create more offences if we can avoid it. I remember the late David Penhaligon showing some people around the Lobbies downstairs. I will not attempt to imitate his Cornish accent, but he was looking at the volumes of Hansard, next to which there is a two-volume list of statutes that are still in force. The first volume is statutes from 1285 to 1951 and the second is statutes from 1951 to 2000. He made the point that, although we have apparently legislated 300 times as often in the past 50 years, we do not appear to have done any better as result. Everyone nodded approvingly and seemed to think that that was a profound Cornish truth.

I make the point seriously. It is like regulations and deregulations. We should avoid making regulations whenever we can. The same is true for offences: the fewer, the better—and the more straightforward they are, the better. It is better to change this strict liability offence, because that is what it would be, into an offence of intention or one where there is assumed to be a risk to the public because of the activity. I understand the Blackpool example cited by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). The Coventry example is the best known. Where there has been regular trouble, local authorities have used byelaws to designate areas, particularly in the centres of market towns and tourist resorts, to ensure that there is no antisocial drinking. The problem is not just visitors but the old lags, who gather together with their cans of lager and sit there all day and rather spoil the place for others.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I agree with 99 per cent. of the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He talked about strict liability offences. I do not think that the clause introduces such an offence. I hope that it does not.

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I was inaccurate in that. A person has to be consuming intoxicating liquor or intending to do so. The hon. Member for Reigate seeks to add the rider that the constable has to believe that the behaviour would lead to an offence. He would insert an additional condition before an offence is committed. Drinking, of itself, is not enough: it must be drinking with a risk that an offence will be caused.

We must realise that, no matter how well intentioned local authorities may be, people may not see the signs for perfectly good reasons. They may not even be there, or they may have been taken down. A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to reduce street furniture—posts, pillars, signs and indicator boards—which can be unhelpful to people with disabilities, blind people and the like, making pavements much less accessible. Our towns and cities will not be improved by more signs.

I want to give a practical example. One of my great periods of employment was when I was the assistant local authority sign erector for Hereford city council. Actually, I have overpromoted myself—I was the assistant deputy sign erector. We were required to be at work at 7.30 am and were not allowed to do anything until after the tea break, so we had a quiet first hour and a half. We then went out with a barrow and the sign to be erected; we were allowed to take only one sign at a time. We took our barrow and sign, normally to the furthest part of the city, on foot. With any luck, we arrived just before the lunch break, leaving the barrow and sign, and then going off for lunch.

3.45 pm

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hughes: What a lot of interest this story is provoking.

After lunch, we would erect the sign—there were two people on each job—and return to the office. At the end of the day, if we were lucky, we would have put up one sign. That was unproductive enough in itself, but the local authority was so unreconstructed that signs were put up everywhere. We had a blitz one summer, and put up signs to stop people cycling on pavements. We were sent out—I kid the Committee not—for three days to put up ``No Cycling'' signs at the top and bottom of sets of 50 steps that no one, apart from a complete lunatic, would ever have thought of cycling down, let alone up.

Mr. Clarke: Was that council under Liberal Democrat or Conservative control at the time? I cannot recall, and wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help me.

Mr. Hughes: That is so predictable. It was under Tory control. It is now under Liberal Democrat control, and those signs have gone.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. One sign is quite clear. I hate to spoil the hon. Gentleman's anecdotes, or the Committee's fun, but the debate relates to clause 15.

Mr. Hughes: Of course, I am keeping all that I say tightly to the issue: let us have no more signs if possible.

Mr. Hawkins: In pursuance of the point of history that the Minister raised, when nothing happened until the tea break, so that nothing happened at all, was that because of the restrictive practices of the trade union?

Mr. Hughes: It is not only the Minister who is predictable.

My serious point is that we should avoid signs for aesthetic reasons in lots of conservation areas. Hereford provides a good example; it has a conservation area in an attractive city centre that is not enhanced by lots of signs. Chippenham, which I know, is similar. No decent market town is enhanced by more signs prohibiting people from doing things.

If anybody wants a good example of how to ruin a good place, I recommend to the Committee, when its members are not on parliamentary business, a visit to any of the larger Channel Islands, which have signs on every blessed lamppost, path and so on. People are generally law-abiding on the islands, which have low crime. Yet there are everywhere signs saying ``Do not park'', ``Do not spit'', ``Do not smoke'', ``Do not do anything''. That is a complete ruination of what would otherwise be a perfectly pleasant place.

Mrs. Brinton: Following the hon. Gentleman's dissertation on signs, would he agree that, rather than putting up extra signs, it might be a good idea for an officer to have the power to take action against the youths creating the mayhem outside any nightclub advertising itself as ``The Granada'' or ``The Broadway'' or whatever, where the sort of behaviour to which the Bill relates takes place?

Mr. Hughes: That goes to the heart of the clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I have no problem with the idea that local authorities should be able to designate areas in which antisocial drinking can be prohibited. That is why I said on Second Reading that we are happy with this area of the Bill, provided that it is properly drafted, but there is a problem with imagining that people should know that a particular road is a permitted drinking area, and another is not. We cannot assume that it is practical or possible for people to understand that. That does not work with parking, and people are regularly caught. I was caught once myself. People may have to spend time looking for the sign without being able to find it. In the end, they are caught through no fault of their own when they had had every intention of avoiding the offence if at all possible.

Mr. Hawkins: That is a serious point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister will have to address not only the issue of signs, which as the Chairman has pointed out comes under the next clause, but amendment No. 27, which relates to the chief police officer's specification? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is why we were probing that particular issue?

Mr. Hughes rose—

The Chairman: Order. We are in some difficulty, and I appreciate the Committee's position. I have to accept that there is a specific reference to designated public places in line 26. That is what has generated the debate. I must point out to the Committee, however, that the whole thrust of clause 15 relates to designated places. I am prepared to allow that discussion to continue to its logical conclusion, as I suspect that the Minister will wish to respond. However, if I start to impose injury time on any stand part debate on clause 15, I am sure that the Committee will understand.

Mr. Hughes: I was seeking to pick up the points reasonably put by the hon. Member for Reigate on how people might know the position that they were in. I entirely understand that a linked debate will follow. I have made my case and hope that amendment No. 25, about constables in uniform, will be accepted, that the Government will respond sympathetically to the hon. Member for Reigate, and that we can make the law as clear as possible and have as few regulations and additional pieces of legislation and offences as we can.

Mr. Gray: I support amendments Nos. 53 and 27, which address an important point. The purpose of the clause is that when a police constable happens on people drinking in a designated place, he will be able to require them to do two things. We are not talking about an either-or situation, or a case of 2(a) or 2(b): the word ``or'' does not appear. The first thing that the people involved are required to do is stop drinking. The second is to surrender whatever they have been drinking from. That seems eminently sensible. Some fellow is there, drinking out of a bottle of whisky or a can of beer. The policeman can take the bottle of whisky or can of beer away and tell the person that he cannot have another drink.

The bizarre part about the phrase

    ``other than a sealed container''

is that if the fellow has two cans of beer, the policeman may not remove the second can, even though there is an absolute certainty that the offender will open it and start drinking. It seems only sensible, if we are going to enact that part of the Bill, to allow the policeman to remove from the offender both unsealed and sealed containers. What then happens to the containers may be of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, and may be a matter for further consideration. Quite frankly, however, if the police constable makes a reasonable presumption that the person is drinking wilfully—clause 1(1) makes that clear—it is plainly perfectly reasonable that the police constable should permanently confiscate the offender's drink.

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Prepared 15 February 2001