Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: What does the hon. Gentleman think that the police should do if they believe that there is a risk to public safety?

Mr. Heald: I believe that magistrates would be able to meet the 48-hour requirement. If the Minister had some evidence that they could not—because the Lord Chancellor's Department had told him so or the police had said to him, ``We couldn't manage it in 48 hours''—he would have a point. However, he is not claiming that, and nor is he claiming that, for example, the Magistrates Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers or the Police Federation have expressed concerns.

7 pm

Mr. Clarke: I am not saying any of those things. I am simply asking what the hon. Gentleman thinks should happen if, on securing the limit, a public safety problem arises for whatever reason.

Mr. Heald: My concern is to ensure that that question need not be asked.

Mr. Clarke: Oh, thank you!

Mr. Heald: The Minister laughs, but it is he who is in government and who has the power to ensure that the provisions will apply and will work. That is what being a Minister is about. It is about delivering, not spinning and spending all one's time projecting an image. However, having thought about the matter I will return to it on Report, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

7.2 pm

Sitting suspended.

8.35 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Charles Clarke: I beg to move amendment No. 114, in page 14, line 17, after `shall' insert

    `, subject to section 179G(4A) of this Act,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 115 and 118 to 121.

Mr. Clarke: It is a delight, Mr. Gale, to return to your chairmanship after such an engaging and interesting series of votes.

The amendments would give the Crown court, when seized of an appeal against a decision to revoke a licence, the discretion to order that the relevant licensed premises, closed under the terms of new section 179E(7), may reopen subject to any conditions it thinks fit; and the amendments make consequential changes to other parts of the Bill that flow from the creation of that discretion.

Amendment No. 115 would add to the existing offences by creating the offence of permitting the opening of relevant premises in contravention of the requirements of new subsection 179E(7). That is the purpose of the Bill.

The Government propose the amendments to ensure that the system of closing disorderly or excessively noisy licensed premises is fair and just at all stages, and that the courts are properly empowered to provide a just outcome. We are aware that appeals to the Crown court in licensing matters can be protected, and that the court must be able during that time to exercise discretion to open the premises if it is appropriate. It is important for the scheme of offences fully to support the proposal that once the police have initiated action by making a closure order, the premises should not reopen unless the police withdraw their order or the court authorises reopening. Any attempt to open premises in deliberate defiance of the law should be punished. They are straightforward technical amendments.

Mr. Heald: We believe that they are sensible amendments. We shall not oppose them.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 115, in page 14, line 22, at end insert—

    `(7A) A person who, without reasonable excuse, permits premises to be open in contravention of subsection (7) of this section shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both.'.—[Mr. Charles Clarke.]

Mr. Charles Clarke: I beg to move amendment No. 116, in page 14, line 34, leave out `clerk' and insert `chief executive'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 117.

Mr. Clarke: These are technical amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 117, in page 15, line 13, leave out `clerk' and insert `chief executive'.

No. 118, in page 15, line 23, leave out

    `and subject to section 179E(7) of this Act'.

No. 119, in page 15, line 27, at end insert—

    `(4A) Where—

    (a) the holder of a justices' licence gives notice of appeal against a decision under section 179E of this Act by licensing justices to revoke the licence; and

    (b) the premises are closed by virtue of section 179E(7) of this Act;

    the Crown Court may, on such conditions as it thinks fit, order that section 179E(7) of this Act shall not apply to the premises.'.—[Mr. Charles Clarke.]

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 15, line 44, after `fails', insert `without reasonable excuse'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 48, in page 15, line 48, leave out `level 1' and insert `level 3'.

Mr. Heald: The amendments deal with a straightforward issue. At present, anyone who refuses to leave licensed premises following a closure order will have committed an offence. The amendment would allow him a reasonable excuse—for example, the licensee may be tending an injured person. It would not open up huge exceptions to the offence, but it would allow for various circumstances that might arise. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views on whether there is a need for what he would call a certain flexibility.

Amendment No. 48 deals with the offence of refusing to leave licensed premises when requested to do so. Subject to a point that I made about amendment No. 46, we think that it is quite serious if an individual refuses to leave premises when there is a threat of disruption, disorder and perhaps violence. We would like to increase the penalty from level 1 to level 3 to reflect the fact that we must stamp down hard on the violent and disruptive behaviour at which the provision has always been aimed.

Mr. Clarke: First, I am sure that the Committee will welcome with open arms—I am surprised that its members did not stand and applaud—the hon. Gentleman's conversion to a flexible approach to the relevant matters. It was a fine commitment, and I appreciated such a damascene conversion.

The offence in proposed new section 179H(2) of the Licensing Act 1964 would be committed by customers in on-licensed premises who refused a request from the licensee or manager to leave the premises when a closure order, made by the police or the courts, had come into effect. Amendment No. 46 suggests that the customer or any other person should be able to escape liability for that offence if he or she has a reasonable excuse to refuse to leave the premises. We do not believe that that is necessary or appropriate. In practice, it is difficult to imagine circumstances to justify it.

In exceptional circumstances in which there is a genuine reason why a person has a reasonable excuse to remain, it is almost inconceivable that that person will face criminal proceedings, let alone be convicted. The Crown Prosecution Service will not prosecute if doing so is not in the public interest. Moreover, the amendment would cast unwelcome doubt on the existing law. If it were made, the offence in proposed new section 179H(2) of the 1964 Act would differ from the equivalent offence in section 174(2), under which it is an offence for a drunken, violent, quarrelsome or disorderly person to remain on licensed premises when requested to leave. The purpose of the provision is to reinforce the authority of the licensee, especially in relation to closure orders. There would be no justification for such a distinction, and it would throw doubt on whether people could be convicted under section 174, even if they had a reasonable excuse.

The second amendment deals with the penalty. The proposed maximum penalty for the new offence under proposed new section 179H(2) in the 1964 Act has been set as a level 1 fine, which currently stands at £200. The proposal is to increase that to level 3. We believe that the low level appropriately reflects the relatively minor nature of the offence, which would apply to customers or other people who refused to leave licensed premises subject to a closure order when asked to do so by a person in charge of the premises.

It may help the hon. Gentleman to know that a level 1 penalty also applies to the similar offence under section 174 of the 1964 Act of failing to leave licensed premises when asked to do so by the licensee or a constable. That comparison is the reason why we have gone for a level 1 offence, rather than the level 3 offence set out in amendment No. 48.

Mr. Heald: The Minister is right to say that the old law makes such provisions. However, is it right to do so? Circumstances have changed since 1964. The hon. Gentleman, like us, is concerned about violence in public houses, and it is necessary to be able to empower the landlord to deal with it. Many of the provisions that we have discussed will cause difficulty for landlords. Is it not right to give them the tools that they need to do the job? One such tool would be the knowledge that a serious offence provision backed them up in cases in which they asked someone to leave. Is that not the other side of the coin from the other provisions, which are too widely drawn and rather unfair to landlords? A provision such as that in the amendment could help them.

Mr. Clarke: There is a contradiction between the thrust of the two amendments on the issue, but I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has tabled them in a probing way to provoke this important debate. Amendment No. 46 would not help landlords to deal with difficult situations. I understand his point about tougher powers, but it would be a mistake to make a distinction between sanctions under the Bill with a level 1 penalty and those under section 174 of the 1964 Act, which also imposes a level 1 penalty for failing to leave licensed premises when asked to do so by the licensee or a constable. I understand the argument that both should be set at level 3, and the argument that both should be set at level 1, but it would be a mistake to have a differential between those offences—level 1 in one case and level 3 in the other.

There are always arguments to be had on the matter, but we decided on level 1 so as not to cause a divergence from section 174 of the Licensing Act 1964. The hon. Gentleman's point that the matter must be given serious consideration is reasonable, and I can give him a commitment that when we consider the legislation that follows the licensing White Paper, when we will review the whole process of licensing, we will be prepared specifically to review the appropriate level of fine for offences of this kind. That might help him to withdraw his amendment.

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Prepared 27 February 2001