Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: May I clarify the hon. Gentleman's point? He will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that he would be happy if the police had the power to confiscate two unsealed containers. He believes that if there is one sealed and one unsealed container, the police should have the power to take both. What would he say if there were two sealed containers? He made the point earlier about a six-pack or whatever it might happen to be. Is he saying that they shall have the power to remove those two sealed containers even though there are no unsealed containers anywhere about?

Mr. Gray: That would seem entirely sensible. If someone has a six-pack, that should indeed be confiscated. It is common sense that the police constable should have the power to do so—particularly because there is an internal inconsistency in the clause, which worries me quite a lot. In subsection (1), the police constable has the opportunity to confiscate if the person is drinking or

    ``intends to consume intoxicating liquor''

We must presume that, if the person is not consuming intoxicating liquor, any container that he may have—one, two, three or six—will be sealed.

Let us suppose that a fellow is standing around, saying ``I'm going to open this can of beer and drink it'', and the constable reasonably assume that the fellow intends to consume. The words ``intends to consume'' are very important. As the clause is drafted, the police constable would be unable to remove the can of beer or bottle of whisky at all. He would have to say, ``Please don't do that, Sir. I should be most grateful if you would kindly put that bottle of whisky away.'' Even if the fellow holds up the bottle and says, ``The moment you're around the corner, constable, I'm going to open this bottle,'' the constable can do nothing about it except to say, ``Please don't.'' Amendment No. 53, which would give the constable the ability to remove a sealed container, would allow the constable to say, ``Oh no you won't, Sir, because I intend to confiscate your bottle of whisky.''

The words in subsection (1) and the words

    ``other than a sealed container''

in subsection (2) (b) are internally inconsistent; we can have one or the other. Equally, if the Government were not prepared to accept amendment No. 53, it would be necessary to insert the word ``or'' between paragraphs (a) and (b), so that the police constable may require the offender to cease drinking, and/or confiscate the sealed containers. It does not seem unreasonable to imagine the situation where the policeman would confiscate everything that the offender has. I suppose that if the offender is carrying a very large quantity of drink indeed it might be unreasonable, but we are not envisaging that sort of situation.

If amendment No. 27 is accepted, the local chief officer of police will be able to stipulate what happens to said sealed or unsealed containers. It might be sensible for the constable to take a name and address and to undertake to return said sealed containers at such a time as might seem sensible. As the clause is drafted, it would have no effect whatever. The offender would cock a snook at the law and say, ``Here am I. I know that you cannot confiscate this can of beer. Even if I swear on the Bible that I will open it, you, Mr. Constable, may not remove it under the law.'' That seems absurd, particularly in light of subsection (1).

Mr. Heald: I want to ask the Minister a question about amendment No. 106, which deals with clause 31. I believe that the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 was once popularly known as the Spink Act, because Bob Spink took it through the House. One problem with it has been that although it has been possible to confiscate alcohol in certain circumstances since that Act came into force, there has been a problem with the containers. Clause 31 exists to tighten up that provision.

Amendment No. 106 goes a little further, to ensure that ``container for such liquor'' does not mean only a bottle or item of the sort that is particularly for liquor, because it is well known that youngsters put alcohol in lemonade bottles and all sorts of other things. The amendment is simply intended to probe the Minister—it is a short point, but it is important to get it right this time—to ensure that it would be possible to confiscate a lemonade bottle that contained liquor.

Mr. Hawkins: I invite the Minister to retract his perhaps rather churlish characterisation of our amendments as not raising serious issues. He has now heard a number of interventions from Labour Back Benchers who have taken up points made by my hon. Friends and he has no doubt realised that we are serious about probing the issues. I hope that this serious debate, which has addressed a series of real issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, will encourage the Minister to recognise that we are trying to improve the legislation and make it more workable for police officers who face difficult decisions on the street.

4 pm

Mr. Clarke: Many issues have been discussed, and I will go so far as to acknowledge to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that a significant number of contributions have been constructive in tone and have illuminated the debate. That is not true of all the contributions, but I acknowledge that this has in general been an interesting debate. In trying to disentangle the various points, I may stray for a second, Mr. Gale, and say a word or two about clause 14 to set the context of this complicated group of amendments, but I will not repeat them under clause stand part.

The clause makes it an arrestable offence for a person to consume intoxicating liquor without reasonable excuse in a designated public place after being required by a police officer not to do so. I emphasise the words ``after being required by a police officer not to do so.'' Subsection (4) states:

    ``A person who fails without reasonable excuse to comply with a requirement imposed on him under subsection (2) commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2''.

Not acceding to the police officer's requirement is the offence, rather than simply drinking in a designated public place, which is not a trivial distinction. The picnicking point is correct. A person's not acceding to the request of a police officer who shows up and says ``Look, you mustn't drink here'' creates the offence, not his or her drinking in a designated public place, wherever it may be.

The clause will also give the police the power to confiscate and dispose of alcohol and opened alcohol containers in those circumstances to prevent further public drinking and the potential use of those containers as weapons, to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred. Failure to surrender alcohol or containers at the officer's request without reasonable excuse will be an arrestable offence. The clause will apply only to those areas designated by the relevant local authority for the purpose. As you said, Mr. Gale, we shall deal with that under clause 15.

Evidence of the mischief that this and subsequent clauses are designed to address is provided by the fact that 109 local authorities have so far adopted a model byelaw to restrict drinking in designated public places. That information may be new to the Committee and shows that there is wide support in various parts of the country.

Mr. Hawkins: I entirely accept what the Minister says about the importance of dealing with the picnic approach. We are not in any way challenging what the Minister seeks to do, but simply trying to make the legislation more workable.

Mr. Clarke: I accept that point. As I said in an unusual concession to the hon. Gentleman, much of the debate has been constructive in tone.

Replacing byelaws with what will be an adoptive power will provide the police with a direct power, which they do not have at present, to enforce the provision by arrest if necessary. It will certify the procedures for local authorities, speed up the process and allow for a uniform and comprehensive approach in all areas. People in the position of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood will know that, wherever they travel in the country, they will have to deal with a broadly similar pattern in the different localities, even though there will be different adoptive situations in different areas. That is the background to the clause.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister accepts that, whereas of course the proposal is to give a countrywide context within which these powers can be exercised, there is another geographical limitation, which we shall discuss in relation to a later clause, which is that one then has to have the designated place provision. The controversial aspect is how people know that they are in one of those places, rather than the general proposition that there should be designated places.

Mr. Clarke: That is true. I was trying to say, in my acknowledgement of the helpful intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, that although local authorities in different areas of the country will decide for themselves how to operate such policies, it will be better if they at least do so within the coherent national framework that the Bill provides. That will be an improvement on the current position. At present, local authorities want to adopt a string of byelaws—109 local authorities have done so—that are not necessarily the same in every respect.

Amendment No. 25 restricts the power of the police to intervene in cases of public drinking in designated public places to those officers who are in uniform. We have some sympathy with the proposed amendment to restrict that power. If it would help the Committee, I should like to confirm and give an assurance that in normal circumstances we would expect that the power would be exercised by uniformed officers.

I shall answer the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on breath tests. I do not know how many breath tests he has had, or how much guidance. He has had a tremendous amount of experience in his life and his ever-intensifying efforts to identify with his constituents, of whatever criminal propensity, must be impressive to us all in deciding how we conduct ourselves as Members of Parliament. A constable does have to be in uniform to demand a breath test, as the hon. Gentleman implied, but he does not have to be in uniform to arrest if the test is positive or is refused.

The requirement to be in uniform under section 6 of the Road Traffic Act 1991 is to apply the test but not to arrest in the event that the test is positive or is refused. That is one of those interesting aspects which I know are of tremendous interest to lawyers on the Committee, but the rest of us find it difficult to understand how it arose. That, of course, is the responsibility of our predecessors, over 30 years of appalling history.

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Prepared 15 February 2001