Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: I shall give an example because, as the Minister said, he is interested in noise. If, under proposed new section 179A(1)(c), a disturbance is being caused to the public by excessive noise, no warning will have been given because the Minister refuses to make it part of the law. The constable who attends—it will not be the senior police officer who made the decision—will hand a piece of paper to the landlord and say, ``Your noise level is too high. We're closing the place.'' The Minister may say that is an extreme example, but one can imagine that there might be a certain amount of argument between the publican and the police officer about the level of noise. The publican may want to speak to his lawyer and will disappear to use the telephone. Meanwhile, the premises will remain open after service of the notice.

The Bill is strict as regards the publican, because 179A(5) states:

    ``A closure order comes into force as soon as notice of the order is given by a constable to...the holder of the justices' licence''.

If the publican spends half an hour taking legal advice, is the Minister saying that he should face a fine for a first offence that does not exceed £20,000? That levers up the level of fine that will be imposed.

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to that when dealing with the amendments. I was trying to make a general point. It should not be controversial to a lawyer to suggest that if someone does not go along with a legally made order, there is a problem. No one is suggesting that those who go along with such orders should face such a penalty; the penalties apply only to those who do not obey them. Is the hon. Gentleman asking whether it is a reasonable excuse for a publican to want to consult his lawyer? I do not know whether that would be regarded as a reasonable excuse. However, it is important that we should support the authority of the police and the magistrates courts in such circumstances. The sort of commercial judgments that he is talking about will be made a few days down the line. I do not accept that a penalty that includes the possibility of imprisonment for someone deliberately contravening an order is the same as penalising a licensee by closing premises in the circumstances that we spoke about earlier. That is the only point that I am trying to make.

Mr. Hughes: I completely understand that point. If it was not clear, I was seeking to draw a parallel with similar circumstances in relation to other legislation under which orders can be served. They can be served by environmental health officers, the Health and Safety Executive and others. I want to be sure of comparability between the penalties for people who do not comply with an order, whether on health, safety or other grounds.

Mr. Clarke: That is a fair point, and I shall address it when speaking to the amendments. I wanted to highlight the difference between the penalty for not going along with an order and having one's premises closed.

Mr. Blunt: That was my concern. The Minister seemed to imply that I was suggesting that that was not the case. I understand exactly what is in the Bill. I was saying that because of the wide way in which the powers have been drawn, the serving of a closure notice is likely to be controversial. The publican may be instantly guilty of the offence, but he may need some time to be convinced of the merits of the case. Because some licensees may not be aware of the exact nature of the law in this area, a fine for a first offence of £20,000 is wholly inappropriate.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that we do not have a misunderstanding. I needed to clear the matter up because he said that it was a demonstration of his earlier point that the general powers represented a penalisation of the licensee, which is not the case.

I am grateful for the comments made by both Government and Opposition Members on Government amendment No. 113. The point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire about amendment No. 85 is broadly correct. The amendment is designed to make it clear that an offence is committed only if the closure order is in force and has not been revoked by the justices. The additional words introduced by the amendment are unnecessary, as there will be no order to breach in the first place if the order is not in force. I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman the clarity that he seeks.

As the hon. Gentleman said, amendment No. 86 covers a more serious point, as it would reduce the maximum penalty for a first offence from £20,000 to £6,000. Amendment No. 134 would reduce the maximum penalty to £5,000, so there is a relatively marginal distinction between the two. If someone reopens licensed premises in contravention of a closure order, it is for the court that has convicted him or her to decide on the appropriate sentence. That is how our legal system works. However, we believe that the court should be able to consider a fine of £20,000 in the most serious cases.

There are two reasons why we suggest that figure. First, breach of an order could place public safety at risk. Let us recall that the reason for the order in the first place is concern for public safety, as magistrates can impose an order only if they believe that public safety is at risk. The gravity of the risk is already recognised in the law. Someone who breaches a condition of a public entertainment licence, which imposes a safe capacity limit on admission, is liable to a maximum fine of £20,000. That is the sort of direct comparison that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey wanted. The same penalty of £20,000 may be applied where a fire authority's safety requirement on premises is flouted. Breach of a closure order, with its implications for public safety, is of the same category, which is why we picked a figure broadly similar to that used in other aspects of law.

The second point is that if a licensee believes that he is likely to lose his licence, because the circumstances of the closure could reflect badly on him in the subsequent review of the licence by the licensing justices under new section 179E of the Licensing Act 1964, he might think that he might as well open for business while he can and make as much money as possible. In the case of a large establishment, that could well exceed the figures of £5,000 or £6,000 suggested in the amendments. For the worst cases, the deterrent has to be substantial.

I acknowledge a point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, which was that, as with all such matters, the establishment of a top limit on sentencing guidelines and their operation are matters for the discretion of the court. As a non-lawyer, I sometimes wish that courts did not have such discretions, but that is the system that we operate. We must decide as a Committee, and the House must decide on Report, whether £20,000 is unreasonable. The comparisons that I have made are reasonable, and if someone were intent on flouting the law, a maximum of £5,000 or £6,000, as in the amendments, would be too low. I hope that the hon. Members for Reigate and for North-East Hertfordshire will reconsider and not press their amendments to a vote.

Mr. Heald: I am still not entirely happy with the Minister's reply, but I would like to give further thought to his remarks and perhaps return to the subject on Report. I shall therefore withdraw my amendment.

Mr. Blunt: Likewise, I support my hon. Friend in giving further consideration to the matter, so I, too, shall withdraw my amendment.

The Chairman: May I gently remind the Committee that it is not possible to withdraw an amendment that has not been moved? In each group of amendments, only the lead amendment is initially moved. All others are taken, if moved, in the order that they arise in the amendment paper.

Amendment agreed to.

6.15 pm

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 11, line 1, after `liable', insert `on summary conviction'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 41, in page 11, line 1, after `liable', insert `on conviction on indictment'.

No. 42, in page 11, line 36, after `liable', insert `on summary conviction'.

No. 43, in page 11, line 36, after `liable', insert `on conviction on indictment'.

No. 44, in page 11, line 42, after `liable', insert `on summary conviction'.

No. 45, in page 11, line 42, after `liable', insert `on conviction on indictment'.

Mr. Heald: I shall be brief. We would be interested to hear the Minister's response to the amendments, which are exploratory. They are designed to ensure that we are right to think that all the offences will be dealt with by the magistrates court.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I simply say that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is correct. The amendments are unnecessary, as the Licensing Act 1964 already provides that all offences under that Act are required to be tried summarily in magistrates courts. Section 194(1) of the Act makes that absolutely clear, so the amendments are unnecessary. I hope that, on consideration, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw them.

Mr. Heald: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 87, in page 11, line 9, after `practicable', insert

    `provided that the person given notice of the closure order has been given 3 hours' notice to appear before them'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 88, in page 11, line 11, at end insert—

    `( ) The person given notice of the closure order and the holder of the licence (if different) shall be entitled to be heard upon the justices' consideration in accordance with subsection (2) whether to exercise their powers under subsection (3) of this section.'.

No. 89, in page 11, leave out lines 18 and 19.

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Prepared 27 February 2001