Criminal Justice and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hawkins: To make a non-lawyer point, I am very glad that the Minister has helpfully accepted that there is some merit in our amendment. He has not said that he will accept it today. He has given a Pepper v. Hart indication. Will he consider, during the forthcoming recess, with his officials, whether at a later stage he might be able to bring back something akin to this as an amendment on Report?

Mr. Clarke: I am always interested in the Pepper v. Hart amendment, as in the salt and vinegar amendment or any other combination that one might possibly bring forward. I was going to finish what I had to say on amendment No. 25 before coming to the point raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

It is the case that the existing power to confiscate alcohol from young people, which is provided by the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, does not require the officer in question to be in uniform. In general, that power has worked well. It is possible that there may be circumstances in which an officer who is not in uniform may wish to intervene in respect of persons drinking in a designated public place, and we should not wish an officer to be banned from doing so or barred from doing so just because he or she is not in uniform. The effect of the amendment would be to say that if an officer is not in uniform, he or she absolutely cannot intervene in that situation. We consider that that would be an unnecessary restriction, given the way in which the legislation is working at the moment.

Police officers may make use of their powers to stop and search, even when not in uniform, provided that they show their warrant card as proof of their identity. We consider that this should be the position in respect of the new powers of the police in respect of public drinking offences.

Clause 14(5) provides an additional safeguard, to which I have referred, which is that the constable imposing a requirement not to drink or to hand over the drink, must first warn the person concerned that failing to comply is an offence. That warning is an important point, which I shall address when we debate a later amendment.

In summary on this important amendment No. 25 about uniform, the fact is that although one has to be in uniform to conduct a breath test, one does not have to be in uniform to arrest on the basis of the outcome of that test. In line with the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act, a police officer is not required to be in uniform, and the powers work well. We accept that in normal circumstances the power would be exercised by uniformed officers. We also accept, in respect of these new powers, that officers should show their warrant cards as proof of identity if they are not in uniform. We do not accept an officer who is not in uniform who shows his warrant card and goes through the process should be prohibited from exercising the powers. That is why we are not inclined to reflect further on that point, although I was courteous about it earlier for genuine reasons. We thought that it was an appropriate debate to have.

Mr. Hughes: I have heard and understood the Minister's arguments. The weakness of the argument for allowing constables not in uniform to exercise the powers is that someone in uniform is much more obviously a copper than someone who simply produces a warrant. Someone who has been drinking is much less likely to be persuaded by a warrant. Not everyone knows what a police officer's warrant looks like. They can vary in different parts of the country. Having seen police officers' warrants, in perfectly respectable circumstances, I consider them a much less persuasive piece of evidence of authority and much less likely to bring respect for the law than a constable in uniform exercising his job.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that point. I tried to accept it by acknowledging that in normal circumstances we would expect the officer to be in uniform. We also believe that it would be more consistent with what is happening in other aspects of legislation. The question that the hon. Gentleman and others who support the amendment must consider when deciding whether to press it, is whether they want to exclude the possibility of an officer not in uniform intervening in a situation that may arise. Our view is that we should not do that, although we are prepared to give all the qualifications about the normal circumstances and so on. That is why we do not accept the amendment. That is a choice that the Committee must make.

Mr. Hawkins: I accept the Minister's response. Will he at least contemplate that amendments Nos. 25 and 55 are linked? When a police officer is confronted by a bunch of drunken yobs, it is difficult to require him to inform or warn them, as subsection (5) currently does. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey says, it would be better to require him to be in uniform. That is a much better signal to a bunch of yobs, and that is why the amendments fit together.

Mr. Clarke: I agree that a uniform is a better signal. That is why I have talked about the process. I also accept the invitation to link amendment No. 55 with amendment No. 25, as they are indeed related. Amendment No. 55 would delete subsection (5), which states:

    ``A constable who imposes a requirement on a person under subsection (2) shall inform the person concerned that failing without reasonable excuse to comply with the requirement is an offence.''

We oppose the amendment because we think that that requirement to warn is important. That is why it is in the law. The requirement to warn, whether in uniform, which we expect will normally be the case, or by presentation of a warrant card, in the unusual circumstances in which a uniform is not worn, will provide a safeguard. We oppose amendment No. 25 because we do not want to deny an officer who is not in uniform the ability to intervene. We oppose amendment No. 55 because we think that the requirement to warn should be there.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: On reflection, I agree with the Minister about amendment No. 55. I hope that he will deal with the point about glassing and containers and the disposal of unopened bottles.

Mr. Clarke: I am struggling hard through the string of amendments, and I took Nos. 25 and 55 first. I hope that the Opposition will not press them to a vote.

Amendment No. 26 would restrict the confiscation powers to alcohol containers, including open containers, that still contain liquid and it would preclude the confiscation of empty containers that have the potential to be used as weapons. There may have been a misunderstanding; perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will confirm that he accepts that we do not want to preclude the confiscation of empty containers which have the potential to be used as weapons and that his remarks were focused on amendment No. 53, rather than amendment No. 26.

4.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is right; I was talking about amendment No. 53 when I made the point about the sealed container. I understand that the Minister is saying that our amendments do not perfectly achieve our aim, but I ask him to direct his mind to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire when he referred to the Spink Act, to which clause 31, and the linked amendments, relates. We want to make this part of the clause fit with our attempted improvement of that Act, as the Minister's officials and police officers will have advised him that there are gaps in its operation.

Mr. Clarke: I will come to every point raised, although that may take time, as it is important to deal properly with each amendment.

Amendment No. 126 would add a requirement that, before exercising the powers in clause 14, the officer must have a reasonable belief that the individual's behaviour may lead to an offence. The amendment would require the police officer in every individual case—I emphasise that phrase, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood about how groups are dealt with—to make a judgment about whether an individual who is drinking in a designated public area may go on to commit an offence if allowed to continue doing so before exercise of those powers.

We are anxious that the process of making an individual judgment would inevitably lead to disputes about the officer's judgment, because there will always be a question for every individual about how that judgment is made. In practice, it may also mean that officers may be seen to be treating people differently, permitting some to continue drinking because it seems unlikely that they will go on to commit an offence, requiring others to stop and confiscating alcohol from them. That will seem divisive and could, in some circumstances, of itself fuel further disorder.

Amendment No. 126 would weaken and complicate police powers to contain public disorder situations where alcohol misuse plays a part. We are concerned that the need to exercise judgment in respect of each individual may have an impact on the ability of the police to use the powers to defuse potential public disorder situations.

In the light of what was said earlier, I emphasise that just drinking in a designated area will not be an offence; there will be an offence only if the constable requires a person to stop and warns him that it is an offence not to comply. It is a police power available to be exercised, not a simple blanket offence.

I acknowledge the spirit in which the hon. Member for Reigate tabled the proposal; it is a desire to ensure that the innocent cannot be caught in such circumstances. That is why I said that the picnicking point does not apply because it is an individual who does not comply with the police who is in breach of the law, rather than one who is consuming alcohol in those circumstances.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the way in which a police officer operates in such circumstances relies on individual judgment and experience and to further complicate the situation would make it more difficult. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment to a vote.

Amendment No. 53 would remove the exemption from seizure power from sealed or unopened containers, which are a different matter. There is more likely to be a dispute about whether an individual intends to drink from a container that is sealed, or which has not been opened and which is the property of the individual concerned. We are worried that the power proposed in the amendment would go too far; power to seize sealed containers would bite on supplies purchased to drink at home. The power is designed to prevent drinking in public, hence the power to seize alcohol in open containers. It is open containers, glasses and bottles that are important to us here; I recall the point that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire raised about glassing. A balance must be struck, but I tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that I am prepared to think a bit more about the point raised by amendment No. 53. On the other points that have been raised, I do not agree with the amendments that have been tabled and I urge hon. Members not to press them, for the reasons that I have given.

On balance, amendment No. 53 is probably not right, but I thought that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire had a point with the picture that he drew about the situation, because the power is constrained by the overall power in clause 14(1). The police officer has to make his or her judgment on the basis of what is in that subsection and ``intent'' is an important concept, in the context of that clause, that helps the police officer to make the judgment. As the hon. Gentleman asked: how different is a six-pack that is all sealed from a six-pack, one can of which is open and the remaining five sealed? There is a real issue there, and I wish to reflect on that amendment to see whether we might go some way to meet that argument. However, I am not as strongly concerned about that amendment as I am about some of the others.

Amendment No. 27 would potentially restrict the options open to the officer at the time to decide on the most appropriate method of disposing of confiscated alcohol and containers. My response to that fairly straightforward point, which was not given a great deal of attention earlier in the tabling of amendments, is that we do not believe that this is a practical proposition. It is difficult to see how the chief officers could prescribe the manner of disposing of alcohol and alcohol containers seized in accordance with clause 14 without having a very bureaucratic and sometimes ineffective approach.

I was in Devizes yesterday, talking to officers in the Wiltshire force. One of the concerns raised with me was the requirement for an officer to report too much on some of the things that he or she was doing, creating the feeling that the officer was not trusted enough to make his or her own judgments in those circumstances. The amendment might take us too far down that line.

Amendment No. 54 would significantly increase the maximum fine for conviction from level 2 to level 5. I am fairly sceptical about this point. The offences that we are mainly concerned with here are offences that are, or could be, committed by people at a relatively low level, and I consider level 5 to be too high. It is obviously a matter of judgment and ultimately we all make our judgments on these questions, but I think that level 5 is too high a level of offence for this. I cannot offer a great argument of principle, but it seems to us that level 2 is more appropriate.

I have dealt with amendment No. 55.

Finally, amendments Nos. 106 and 75 would restrict the adjustments to the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act. We are more sceptical of those proposals. We understand the arguments that are being made and it may help if I confirm the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, that the basis for our opposition to these amendments is that we do not wish to create an inconsistency between this Bill and the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act in relation to the powers to confiscate alcohol and alcohol containers. We thought that consistency was an important virtue. However, as I have agreed to look again at amendment No. 53, I am prepared to look at these amendments also although not, I emphasise, from the point of view of raising expectations about the matter. I acknowledge that consistency is of itself only one argument, and not necessarily the most powerful. We have to look at the application in these circumstances.

I urge hon. Members not to press any of the amendments, with the assurance from me that with regard to the related points of amendments Nos. 53, 106 and 75 taken as a group, I am prepared to review the questions and see what can be done. I do not, however, want to mislead. We shall review not necessarily with the objective of agreeing, but because an important point has been raised, which the Government will want to consider when we read Hansard and have a chance to look more carefully at the arguments that have been advanced.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 15 February 2001