Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 90, in page 12, line 19, after `a', insert `single'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 91, in page 12, line 21, leave out `previous' and insert `initial'.

No. 93, in page 12, line 42, after `given', insert `8 hours'.

Mr. Heald: Amendments Nos. 90 and 91 are a pair and are designed to ensure that the police would not be able to close premises for more than 48 hours without the intervention of the justices. Allowing a single extension of a further 24 hours would mean that the closure order could last for a maximum of 48 hours on the say-so of the senior police officer, and within that period the matter would have to be considered by the justices. We consider a period of 48 hours—which is longer than was originally proposed in the licensing White Paper—to be reasonable because we realise that in certain circumstances it is simply not possible for a hearing to take place in 24 hours. However, we are concerned that a period of more than 48 hours would raise the question whether the procedures respect the right of the individual to a fair trial and protection of property. In that context, we ask the Minister to accept that there should be certainty in respect of the initial period of closure. Allowing repeat extensions is simply not acceptable.

Amendment No. 93 would require that eight hours' notice be given. Licensees would thereby be given reasonable notice regarding whether their premises are to remain subject to a closure order. If no such notice is given, they will be left in limbo in respect of reopening arrangements, which would be unfair to them and their employees.

The amendments would limit the period of extension to 48 hours and provide a proper period of notice.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am very sympathetic to the proposals. It is important to have a limit on the closure that can result from the actions of the police. It is reasonable that there should be a second 24-hour period, which the amendment would permit, but not reasonable that the matter should not go before a court for determination after that. I hope that the Minister is sympathetic.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Subsections (1) and (2) of new section 179B clarify the responsibility of everyone to ensure that the relevant hearings take place as quickly as possible, and that is the climate in which we are discussing the amendments.

Amendments Nos. 90 and 91 would prevent the police from making more than one extension of the closure order when the relevant justices were unable to hear the matter. New section 179C permits the responsible senior police officer to extend a closure order for up to 24 hours in the circumstances described. However, under new section 179B(1), the senior police officer is under a duty to apply to the relevant justices

    ``as soon as reasonably practicable''.

New section 179B(2) places the same duty on the justices. It would be rare, but not impossible, that the police need to exercise their powers under new section 179C more than once.

We cannot foresee every difficulty that might arise for the courts, particularly around national holidays and when, for example, a justice who has undertaken to make himself available falls ill. If circumstances arose in which the police believed that the premises being open would constitute a danger to public safety--police judgment on danger to public safety underlies all those circumstances--it would be wrong if they could not act to deal with that danger by continuing the closure pending efforts by the courts to overcome their difficulties. I agree with the thrust of what is being said on amendments Nos. 90 and 91—that cases should be dealt with without the need for an extension and certainly not more than one—but we cannot exclude the possibility that it may be necessary.

I understand the anxiety of the licensed trade that the police might use their powers to extend closure orders repeatedly without court involvement, and I have discussed that on several occasions with people in the trade, but I simply do not accept that that will happen. The tests that the senior police officer must meet under new section 179C do not represent a simple hurdle and the duties on the police and the justices will ensure that the matter proceeds speedily to a resolution. However, it is not reasonable to exclude the possibility of exceptional circumstances such as holidays, illness and so on. I urge the Committee to resist amendments Nos. 90 and 91.

Mr. Heald: Given the potential dangers and the amount of money involved when premises are closed for one day--it is obviously twice as much if they are closed for two days--does the Minister agree that some finality is necessary? He may not agree that 48 hours is appropriate, but is he prepared to consider a mechanism to ensure that it is not open-ended, as it is at present, and that there is some pressure to achieve finality?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman accepts that it might be foolhardy simply to state in the amendment that one extension is enough, and by the same token, I cannot accept his fundamental point. If we are not careful, we might set up a process on a narrow point and use a sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. The central point is public safety, and if there were a real risk of justices being unable to make a judgment for a long time and that new section 179B(1) and (2) would be flouted, I would accept what he says, but we are discussing exceptional circumstances, and to create a specific process to deal with such circumstances would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Mr. Hughes: My understanding is that, in emergencies, magistrates are always ready, as are judges, to sit during the night and at weekends. Indeed, the police sometimes request them to sit or visit them at home to obtain a warrant and so on. I cannot envisage circumstances in which it would not be possible for a court to determine the matter within 48 hours. I therefore ask the Minister to think again.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman, in his way, is making my point for me. I agree that the matter will be addressed by the way in which magistrates courts operate in such circumstances. However, including a specific time period would not help to resolve the situation. The hon. Gentleman may disagree—in which case he must decide what to do—but I do not think that the problem will arise.

Amendment No. 93 would require the police to extend closure orders under the terms of new section 179C at least eight hours before the end of the original period of closure. That is an unnecessary constraint. The purpose of new section 179C is to provide for extensions only where the necessary conditions in subsection (2) are met and the relevant justices will be unable to hear the matter within the period of the original order. It requires the police to reassess the situation within the period of the original order. That is in the interests of the licensed trade. No automatic extension is permitted—there must be an on-going threat to public safety if closure is to continue.

The amendment would mean that if the police made a closure order at 10 pm on a Friday night and required the pub to be closed until noon the next day—a period of 14 hours, and not an unimaginable state of affairs—the senior police officer would need to know the likelihood of the court hearing the matter before 4 am: that is, eight hours before noon. If by 3.45 am—15 minutes before the eight hours had expired—he could not be confident of the matter being heard before noon on Saturday, he would need to begin his reassessment. That is neither sensible nor desirable. It is preferable that the extension powers are used only where absolutely necessary, so that the matter is turned over to the courts at the first opportunity, without the need for further police intervention.

Another effect of the amendment would be that any closure order made for less than eight hours in the first instance could not be renewed. That would put police officers under unnecessary pressure to issue closure orders for more than eight hours in the first instance. For example, it may be desirable to close a pub from half-time in a local derby game—from, say, 8.15 pm to midnight—to deal with the situation there and then, but if the eight-hour requirement applied, the police would be under pressure to enforce a 24-hour closure and move it much further forward, which would not be in the interests of the licensing industry.

I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will, on consideration, withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heald: I am not certain that I should, although I am prepared to find out whether the Minister will help us a little more.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is correct to say that nowadays courts do not work on the basis that they once did, when there had to be long delays before matters came to court. Courts are prepared to act swiftly. I am concerned that the Minister is not prepared to give any ground on the matter. Forty-eight hours is a long enough period to wait before the matter comes before a magistrate. I cannot envisage any circumstances, especially now that we have large amalgamated benches—

Mr. Clarke: What would be the hon. Gentleman's view if a licensee could not make the hearing and asked for an extension?

Mr. Heald: The licensee should make sure that he is there. The Minister will have noticed that my proposal was not over-generous to licensees—I said that they should have three hours' notice to attend. I am not saying that what is sauce for the goose should not be sauce for the gander. Forty-eight hours is a considerable period in our modern world of communications, when one can send messages around the globe in seconds. Magistrates are much more available than they used to be, and the Minister and his colleagues are in a position to ensure that they are available in such circumstances.

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