Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the serious way in which he is responding. In saying that the sort of establishments to which I refer may not be advertised to the public, he may be slightly missing my point about the sort of unlicensed premises that try to attract customers unrelated to drugs, such as a place that is advertised as a dancing club without a drinks licence but whose bouncers are involved in the sale or supply of illegal drugs. He is not dealing with that matter.

Mr. Lock: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, the number of such clubs that would not be licensed in any circumstances for the sale of alcohol is limited. If drugs were allowed to be sold on the premises, therefore, they would clearly be being used inappropriately and the licence would be subject to revocation. It is also likely that premises of the type that he describes would have a music and dancing licence, which could equally be revoked.

The procedure relates to the service of a preliminary notice that in effect warns the owner of the premises that an application is likely to be made to the court, and subsequently an application to the court for a closure order is made. That is a rather more protracted procedure that would be appropriate for police intervention in the event of evidence of hard drugs being dealt on the premises.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and he raises a serious issue. The procedure in the Bill deals with a different process—illegally selling an otherwise legal substance. It is not necessarily the right process for dealing with the sale of a substance that is illegal in virtually all circumstances. That is why the Government amendment is limited to alcohol and why the procedure is designed for premises that sell alcohol in unlicensed circumstances.

Given those circumstances and the acceptance that this is a serious issue but not the right procedure, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the Parliamentary Secretary. He seems almost to be saying that the Government were trying to set up the Bill differently and attack unlicensed sex shops or whatever premises he had in mind. He has not accepted the argument that the Bill would be improved if that extra procedure were included. My answer to the response that having a procedure that involved warning would not be appropriate is that often managers of an unlicensed club will not themselves be involved in permitting the sale of drugs—the bouncers on the door will be doing that, as I suggested—so a warning procedure for those operating the club may be highly effective.

I am not satisfied with the Parliamentary Secretary's response, so I propose to divide the Committee on the amendment and invite my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Members to support it.

9.15 pm

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Division No. 17]

Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Gray, Mr. James
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver

Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Grogan, Mr. John
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lock, Mr. David
McCabe, Mr. Stephen
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 68, in page 18, line 11, leave out ``the constable'' and insert

    ``a police officer of the rank of at least inspector or above''.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 69, in page 18, line 11, leave out ``the constable'' and insert ``the police officer''.

No. 70, in page 18, line 16, leave out ``the constable'' and insert ``the police officer''.

No. 71, in page 18, line 23, leave out ``constable'' and insert

    ``police officer of at least the rank of inspector or above''.

No. 72, in page 18, line 36, leave out ``constable'' and insert ``police officer''.

Mr. Hawkins: The amendments are all intended to ensure that an officer of at least the rank of inspector is involved, which is a necessary safeguard. I shall refer briefly to a couple of representations that we have received about how the provisions may operate.

First, Mr. Paul Kinsey, the chief executive of one of the country's major leisure organisations, First Leisure, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and me to express his concern about how the provisions may operate. Some of Mr. Kinsey's remarks relate to licensed premises, but he points out that his company also controls some up-market leisure operations well away from town centres, which include unlicensed parts in their premises, which is the matter on which I wanted to touch. I shall then refer to concerns raised by the central committee of police inspectors, through its general secretary, Mr. Jon Francis.

My general point is that wherever the Government propose a significant increase in officers' powers there should be, if I may put it this way, senior management input within the police. That is not in any sense a criticism of police constables or sergeants, many of whom are highly experienced and no doubt would be good at exercising any powers given to them. However, what goes with the seniority of being promoted to the rank of inspector is not only the years of experience without which one cannot reach that rank but a certain amount of management training—especially in the modern police force. If the provisions in the section relating to unlicensed premises are to be used, it would help if matters were always considered by an officer of inspector rank or above.

By the way, in case I need to, Mr. Gale, I should declare that I am an officer of the all-party group dealing with the leisure industry, which was recently set up by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner). Although that group is new and a number of the hon. Members involved were already involved in the pre-existing groups that dealt with tourism and sport, the hon. Gentleman felt that it would be useful to have a parliamentary group that responded to the interests of the umbrella organisation for the industry, Business in Sport and Leisure, which is ably chaired by Mr. John Brackenbury and superbly run by Brigid Simmons.

That organisation put my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and me in touch with Mr. Kinsey from First Leisure, who says that granting the police powers to close premises on the spot will be an effective measure only if the circumstances in which that can occur are tightly constrained. In considering the Government's proposals, he says that he is concerned if a venue can be closed on the basis of the opinion of a local police officer, not just where trouble occurs, but where he anticipates trouble occurring. Mr. Kinsey goes on to say:

    ``The quality of this decision will be dependent on the experience of the individual officers.''

He says that he has examples from his company's experience in which local police forces have objected to promotional policies introduced in relation to its trading and that he is worried about the closure order powers that the Government anticipate.

Mr. Lock: It may help if I explain that a notice under clause 21 will not have the effect anticipated in that letter. It is in the nature of a warning shot. It will not of itself close the premises, but will put the owner of the premises, and whoever is managing them, on notice that, if steps are not taken, the police can apply to the court at a later date for a closure order. The notice is a trigger, not a closure order.

Mr. Hawkins: That is helpful, but I was already aware that that was the effect. Indeed, we discussed it under the previous amendment. However, that does not answer Mr. Kinsey's concern. An issue still arises based on the warning shot being fired on the judgment of a police officer and not someone of management level. That is what Mr. Kinsey is concerned about. He stresses that his company has a number of venues away from what he calls the main drinking circuits. He says that the company owns premises on out-of-town sites where public order issues can be attributed to individual premises, which are often the only such premises on leisure parks.

I shall now deal briefly with the concerns of the inspectors' central committee and Mr. Francis. He says that there are already considerable dangers of overstretch for police officers and that there are significant reductions and increases in responsibilities. In tabling the amendment, I am aware that we may be saying that this is a further matter that could add to the burden on inspectors, but Mr. Francis's more general point is that there is an overstretch of police officers at every level. These are tricky issues. He talks about serious shortages and says that his members are expected to be on call, including on days off and in holidays, and that, in the geographical areas covered by inspectors, the work load has doubled, trebled or in some cases quadrupled.

That gives a very different impression of the Government's work from the position advanced yesterday by the Home Secretary—but I know that you will rule me out of order if I go too wide of the subject under discussion, Mr. Gale. The provision raises serious issues. I wanted to probe the Government on their intentions and to see whether, if they are not prepared to accept this group of amendments today, they may be prepared to consider the matter further on Report.

Mr. Lock: First Leisure does not run illegal drinking clubs. It runs licensed premises—as far as I am aware, extremely well. I understand the issues raised in regard to clause 19. Those legitimate concerns have been debated. We are now debating illegal drinking clubs that officers have raided, making arrests, closing the premises and, no doubt, prosecuting staff. We need to deal with the underlying problem that the people in control of the premises are, as I said earlier, likely simply to restock, restaff and reopen a few weeks later. There is no reason why a senior police officer needs to be involved in serving a notice to the owner after such a raid to the effect that if the illegal drinking club reopened and recommenced its illegal activity, it would be liable to face an application to the court for a closure order.

The court issues a closure order, not the service of a notice. The notice acts as a serious warning but it cannot sensibly be compared with the arrangements in clause 19 for closing licensed premises on police order, in which it is appropriate for a senior police officer to be involved, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman explained—because of the impact on legitimate business, such a decision has to be taken by an experienced officer of appropriate seniority. Illegal drinking clubs are not the type of business operated by legitimate concerns, which take part in the industry forums and brief the all-party groups to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are talking about premises that have been raided. As I said earlier, the service of a notice does not result in immediate closure. Given what is likely to precede the service of a notice and the fact that it is directed at preventing an illegal activity from restarting, the Government do not accept the necessity for the involvement of a senior police officer.

I take the point about the importance of ensuring that police manpower is used appropriately. It is not appropriate to require junior officers to brief senior officers to go through a complex process, coming out at the other end with the service of a notice on an activity that is illegal from beginning to end. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendments.

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Prepared 27 February 2001