Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: On the basis that the amendment may be withdrawn at this stage, would the Minister consider whether the licensee might be given the option of having the matter come before the licensing session, which is subject to a shorter period than 14 days? I do not think that that would create human rights concerns, as it would be up to the individual whether to choose it. In those circumstances, at least, an opportunity would be provided to cut some of the huge costs. If a closure cost from £1,100 to £60,000, that could mount up to substantial sums. If the licensee and his lawyers consider that they have their tackle in order and are ready to go with the hearing, should they not be given the option to do so?

Mr. Clarke: I am certainly willing to consider whether we can offer flexibility along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I understand his argument in that he is trying to give the whip hand to the licensees whereby they can say, ``If we are ready to go, we are ready to go. Let us do it as rapidly as possible.'' I understand the merit in that. I will need to take advice on the feasibility of such action in terms of the legislation that could be considered. I am willing to consider the matter, however, to see whether anything further can be done.

Mr. Heald: On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 pm

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 Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Closure of unlicensed premises

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 18, line 3, after `liquor', insert

    `or the supply or sale or offering to supply or sell any controlled drug.'.

Under amendment No. 67, we now move from licensed premises to unlicensed premises. Conservative Members take particularly seriously the way in which such premises might be used for the supply of illegal controlled drugs. There is no doubt that that is a major problem. As we examined the Government's proposals, we were worried that they might mistakenly be thinking that the only problems in relation to drugs arose from licensed pubs and night clubs.

All too frequently, however, clubs—perhaps of the underground variety—have not obtained a drinks licence and, unfortunately, experience suggests that it is often managers of such clubs or the bouncers who are involved in the supply of illegal drugs. We do not have to go back far in our memories to remember the appalling tragedies that so many families have suffered. We think, in particular, of Leah Betts.

All members of the Committee will recall that one aspect arising from the use of the illegal drug ecstasy is that often all that is supplied to those who are dancing and who are unwise enough to take that drug is water. One of the messages that came out loud and clear from the tragic inquests into the sudden deaths of teenagers from ecstasy was that they might have been dancing for hours without drinking the water that might have been the only way in which to combat the potential adverse effects of that drug. During such inquests, it became apparent that the only thing that was supplied to the teenagers in those clubs was water. Thus, those clubs did not necessarily need a drinks licence.

We all remember that, during the previous general election campaign, the Government had their much-vaunted slogan, ``Be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'', but our main point was that the biggest cause of crime is drugs. The Government have not been tough enough on drugs. More than 1,000 criminals convicted of drugs dealing have been released earlier than they should have been under the Government's home detention curfew—their special early release scheme. That has caused great anger throughout the country. This clause gives us an opportunity to put back into the Bill the tough controls that would stop drug dealing. Given that the Government propose draconian powers to close unlicensed premises and if there were clear evidence suggesting to an officer that premises were being used for dealing in illegal drugs, the amendment would be helpful.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman talks about the general political climate. What is his view of his hon. Friends—and of some of his friends in the media—who argue for a complete freedom to take drugs, whether that is cannabis or hard drugs? They argue that the state should not interfere in these matters and that it should be up to individuals to decide what to do. Some of the papers that support his party have argued that, as have some of his hon. Friends close to his right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Hawkins: While he makes such an intervention, the Minister knows that the Opposition have consistently been in favour of toughening up the law on drugs. If he should search his own Benches for the view that he has described, he would need look no further than the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who as recently as yesterday argued on the Floor of the House that the laws on drugs should be relaxed. The Minister is making a false point and he knows it.

The amendment would represent a significant toughening up of the powers, for the reasons that I have mentioned. I pay tribute for the work that has been done in my own area and in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate by Dr. Tony Blowers and the Surrey drug action team. In a recent meeting with my hon. and right hon. Friends and me, Dr. Blowers said that the unlicensed premises were often those that were used for the supply of drugs. My own experience at the bar and conversations that I have had with police officers throughout the country have also prompted the amendment.

Even if the Government say that they cannot accept the amendment today, I hope that the Minister will take the matter seriously and allow that they will at least consider using the clause to toughen up the law against illegal drugs. Perhaps they will return to the issue on Report, even if we do not do so today.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): It is a pleasure to speak again under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale.

It may help the Committee if I say something about this group of clauses before responding to the amendment. Clauses 21 to 30 contain provisions that allow the police and local authorities to apply for court orders to close any premises where alcohol is sold to the public for consumption on or near the premises without a licence, in contravention of section 160 of the Licensing Act 1964. Under that Act, the police may arrest any persons who use unlicensed premises for the sake of alcohol and confiscate the alcohol on the premises.

The experience of the police, however, is that the profits of unlicensed drinking establishments are often so large that the shadowy owners of the premises can absorb the costs of police raids on them, the seizure of alcohol and the prosecution of staff working on the premises. In practice, the premises are often quickly reopened, having been restocked and restaffed. The police regard such places as magnets for criminals who prey on unsuspecting customers, who are often tourists.

These provisions are expected to be used mainly to deal with rogue premises in the west end of London, which open late at night and attract criminal activity. These provisions are modelled on the City of Westminster Act 1996, which allows the police and Westminster council to close down unlicensed sex establishments.

Clause 21 contains the rules and procedures for the first stage of the closure action, which is the serving of a closure notice on such rogue premises. The notice should contain details of the unlawful use of the premises, the further power that the police or authority must seek as a closure order from the magistrates court within a specified period, and the steps that may be taken by the relevant person operating the premises to end the illegal use.

The amendment would extend the right to serve a notice threatening closure to premises used for the sale or supply of any controlled drug for consumption on or away from the premises. I understand why it has been tabled and I recognise what the proposed change is designed to achieve, but clauses 21 and 30 tackle a separate and different problem from the one that the hon. Gentleman presented. He describes a genuine problem, but the procedure specified in the Bill may not be the right way forward, as I shall explain.

Unlike the sale of drugs, the sale of alcohol in this country is entirely legal if it is licensed or permitted by some of the exceptions made under licensing law. The problem with unlicensed drinking dens is that innocent tourists and other members of the public have no idea that the sale of alcohol in such clubs is illegal. The clubs are more often than not confused with legitimate outlets. Innocent people are often attracted to them by people in the street brazenly advertising the premises.

Such advertising is often blatant, as the owner or operator, who sometimes lives abroad, does not fear police action, because the staff will be arrested, not the owners of the premises. Profits are high and, if raided, the premises will simply be restocked. The Bill provides a solution by ensuring that they cannot be used once the court has made a closure order.

Premises used for the sale of drugs are unlikely to advertise their existence and as such do not attract innocent members of the public or innocent tourists. People frequenting such premises know that they are acting criminally and taking a serious risk in involving themselves with drugs.

Drug dens are often in residential accommodation. I accept the point about dancing clubs and ecstasy, but many drug dens that would come within the purview of the amendment would be residential premises, and if they were boarded up, residents would have to be re-housed.

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