Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful for the constructive way in which the Minister has responded. In the light of what he says about amendments Nos. 53, 106 and 75, and his statement that he is looking at those again, I will not press the group of amendments that we have tabled to a Division.

I simply ask the Minister, when he is considering that group of amendments, to consult in particular with the representatives of the Police Federation. The Minister mentioned that he had been talking yesterday to ordinary police officers in Devizes, the neighbouring constituency to that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. This is, however, particularly and pre-eminently a matter for the organisation that represents the police officers at the sharp end—the PCs and sergeants who have to attend these town and city centre disturbances. If the strong urgings of representatives of the Police Federation persuade the Minister to table on Report something akin to our amendment No. 53, and the related amendments, we shall be very pleased. I am happy that the Minister is looking at this again; I accept that his undertaking is limited, and that he is not making a commitment to change his proposals. Given that we have concentrated our probing on amendment No. 53, we have had a good debate, and I welcome the Minister's response to that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the question, pursuant to Standing Orders, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before we move on, I should like to clarify the situation that arose earlier. I said that the apparent discord in the Committee was uncustomary, and of course it was not discord at all. Those hon. Members who studied with due diligence the Amendment Paper for 13 February will have noticed that amendment No. 138 in the Minister's name is identical to the amendment published in the names of other hon. Members. In those circumstances, the hon. Member who tabled the amendment first has the lead name. All other names are added to that name, so concord would appear to have broken out.

Clause 15

Designated public places

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 127, in page 8, leave out line 7.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 56, in page 8, line 8, leave out subsection (1)(b) and insert

    `(b) any area to which members of the public have or may gain access'.

No. 57, in page 8, line 14, after `been', insert `or may be'.

No. 58, in page 8, line 14, at end insert—

    `provided that a constable may lawfully exercise any of the powers in section 14 whether or not the place has been so designated if he reasonably believes the place of the offence is a public place.'.

No. 31, in page 8, line 14, at end insert—

    `(2A) An order made under subsection (2) shall have effect for such period (not being greater than 12 months) as shall be specified in the order.'.

No. 28, in page 8, line 17, at end insert—

    `( ) to specify that the order shall not apply to a particular area within a designated public place.'.

No. 29, in page 8, line 17, at end insert—

    `( ) to specify that the order shall apply at particular times, or on particular days, only.'.

No. 30, in page 8, line 17, at end insert—

    `( ) to specify that the order may be suspended for a period of not more than 48 hours by an officer or committee of the authority with the agreement of a superintendent of police.'.

No. 128, in page 8, line 17, at end insert—

    '(2A) All orders must be confirmed by that local authority at least every five years or they will be deemed to be spent.'.

No. 59, in page 8, line 19, at end insert—

    `and shall issue guidance to police and local authorities as to the exercise of police powers, and implementation by local authorities of these provisions and any relevant related by-laws operated by such local authorities.'.

Mr. Blunt: It was rather surprising that the Minister was not aware that amendment No. 138 was tabled in his name, but there we are.

Mr. Charles Clarke: It was no surprise at all, but I am very young and unaccustomed to the procedures of the House, and I was so shocked to be in the company of Opposition Members that I simply had to disassociate myself from it. I am delighted with the clarification given.

Mr. Blunt: Speaking from the Back Benches, I shall be taking particular care. As it appears that the Front Benches are both in agreement, there is almost certainly something up. That amendment will need a good deal of attention.

I move on to amendment No. 127. I confess that, when I read the clause and drafted the amendment, I misread the Bill and failed to spot that (a) and (b) must be satisfied together. It has to be a public place in the area of a local authority, and to have been identified in an order made by that authority under subsection (2). If both (a) and (b) are needed, surely a local authority could only make such orders within a public area that was the responsibility of the local authority. Assuming that that was not the case, I tabled amendment No. 127 to test whether it was otiose, and whether a local authority simply would not have the authority to order me not to drink in my front room if I am in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Mr. Heald: I do not know whether my hon. Friend had noticed that in clause 18 there is a definition of public place as

    ``any place to which the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission.''

I do not know whether that helps

4.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that it does help, and I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention. Therefore I do not expect to press amendment No. 127.

I shall move on to the more important amendment No. 128, which is in the form of a sunset clause. The local authority will be dealing with the situation where an unwelcome pattern of behaviour has built up, in that people are drinking in certain areas and that drinking is leading to offence. The authority will then see fit to designate that area as one where no drinking should take place. In principle, I do not think that we should be saying that it is unreasonable for people to have a drink in a public place. What is unreasonable is when drinking in a public place leads to an offence, and it leads to offence when a pattern of behaviour is established. My concern is that when such regulations are passed by a local authority, rather like the licensing laws passed to deal with munitions workers in the first world war—[Interruption]

The Chairman: Order. If the Chairman can hear private conversations, they are conversations that should be held outside the Room.

Mr. Blunt: We may find that, rather like the licensing laws that were first introduced to ensure that munitions workers were kicked out of the pubs at lunchtime to get back to work making shells for our troops on the front line, the designated areas become permanent—even though, after a period has elapsed, the pattern of behaviour has been broken by the fact that people are no longer allowed to drink in that area according to regulations properly enforced by the police. The nature of that place may then change, and it may no longer be a place where people should not be allowed to drink in the ordinary course of events. The designated area might be a public park that had acquired a bad reputation, was then cleaned up, and might then be a place where people might like to have picnics.

Amendment No. 128 is simply a sunset clause, which would require local authorities to reconsider every five years the list of areas that they have designated to be nominated under this legislation. Five years is probably the right interval, because the sort of people who display such behaviour will have grown out of the 16 to 21 age group, which is likely to cause these problems. The pattern of behaviour in relation to that place may have changed. All that I am seeking to achieve is to make local authorities re-examine properly, after a period of five years, whether they still need to have a place designated. If there is a continuing problem that obliges them to continue the designation, that should be done, but I do not think that once the designation is written into a local authority byelaw, it should remain for ever and a day merely because there is too much inertia to get people to examine the issue again.

Mr. Hawkins: I support the amendment tabled by Conservative Members. May I start by following the principles that lie behind amendment No. 128? Of course from the Front Bench we accept the idea of sunset provisions; indeed our amendment No. 31 moves toward the same object. We hope that the Minister will address the issue of sunset clauses, because we entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate just said, and it links with the comments made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the previous group of amendments about whether laws should be constantly added to by a process of accretion. We are unaccustomed to hearing those comments from a leading spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, because in my experience they are usually in favour of adding more and more laws rather than taking them away, but a sinner who repenteth is always welcome.

I entirely agree that there is a need to look at whether the provisions that the Government are setting up should be set in stone. Local authority byelaws can change. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate made the valid point that the areas where trouble happens may move; new nightclubs may open and new town-centre developments may come about. It is wise to set a time limit. Amendment No. 31 says:

    ``An order made under subsection (2) shall have effect for such period (not being greater than 12 months) as shall be specified in the order.''

We are proposing a tighter time limit, but I accept that my hon. Friend is right to raise the general issue of sunset clauses, because Conservative Members believe that sunset clauses are always helpful. If one establishes the principle, it is then only a matter of deciding when to set the time limit.

On one point I did not go with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate 100 per cent. of the way. I know from the advice that we receive from the chief constable of Surrey police that, sadly, some of the trouble that is caused in town centres such as Guildford—which he and I have both seen on closed circuit television video—is not caused by 16 to 21-year-olds only. Unfortunately, some of the drunken yobs are well into their 20s and should know better. One knows from practice in the courts that sometimes offences of drunken violence are committed by people well into their 20s, or even 30s. However, that knowledge does not undermine the sense of all that my hon. Friend said.

I shall briefly discuss our other amendments in the group. We are probing the Government. I hope that the Minister will accept that in this group we are again seeking to be constructive and to discover the Government's intentions. We also want to make life easier for the police officers on the front line who are taking difficult decisions.

I lay particular stress on our amendment No. 58. If a police constable is trying to exercise his powers in a very difficult situation with a crowd of drunken yobs in a town or city centre, he will not necessarily know, when a big disturbance is going on, exactly what has been designated as a public place. We want to protect the police officer faced with these difficult policing issues and decisions, perhaps in the early hours of the morning, from any allegation of false imprisonment or false arrest.

By saying that the constable

    ``may lawfully exercise any of the powers in section 14 whether or not the place has been so designated if he reasonably believes the place of the offence is a public place'',

the amendment would give the police officer proper protection. It is pretty well known that in our law we have a number of occasions when, as long as a police officer reasonably believes something to be the case, he is not exceeding his powers. I hope that, even if our drafting may not be perfect, the Minister will at least be prepared to say that this is a genuine issue, which he is prepared to treat seriously. We tabled the amendment in that spirit.

I shall briefly mention amendment No. 57, whereby we seek to insert, in clause 15, line 14, the words ``or may be''. It would provide helpful clarification and make the law more flexible. We hope that the Minister will accept that we are trying to give the officer slightly wider powers—slightly wider discretion—which we consider would be helpful. I hope that, in considering our amendments, the Minister will consult the Police Federation, which represents ordinary police officers. I am sure that they would find greater flexibility helpful.

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Prepared 15 February 2001