Anti-social Behaviour Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman can take that as read. I will check that what is in the Bill does what I am saying it ought to do, rather than what he fears it might do.

Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 raise a valid point about the requirement for notice of a hearing in relation to an application for extension or discharge of the order to be served on all parties, and the possible effect that that could have on proceedings if that is not observed. That merits further consideration. I propose to look at it again and to return to it on Report.

Amendment No. 189, as the hon. Gentleman rightly assumed, puts right a typographical error that would have been spotted on re-reading.

I request that the Committee agrees to Government amendment No. 189 and that, in light of the assurances that I have given, hon. Members do not press their amendments, particularly amendments Nos. 34 and 35.

Mr. Hawkins: I am delighted to hear what the Minister says about amendments Nos. 34 and 35, and that he has firmly stated that he thinks that we have a genuine point, which he will consider. I hope that that will result in some Government amendments that deal with it.

It is not our intention to prevent authorities from putting accommodation back into legitimate use. However, I say to both the hon. Member for Ludlow and the Minister that all we will do by extending the maximum time is to give the court greater powers. The courts will know the housing situation in their areas.

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Legislation that states, as we suggest, that a closure order must not have effect for more than two years and that the courts may extend the period for which the order has effect by a period not exceeding 12 months does not specify that those periods must be 12 months and two years; each is a maximum.

There may be circumstances in which courts want to avoid a restart of the misuse of the property after three months and one day. The hon. Member for Gedling and others on the Government Back Benches have talked about that matter. In the cases of serious drug misuse that this part of the Bill seeks to deal with, there is a fear that, if the time limits are too short—they cannot in any circumstances be longer than three months and six months—the problem could recur in the very way that we want to avoid. If we were proposing an amendment that said it had to be 12 months or two years in every case, I could understand the argument better. Giving the courts the power to use the longer time limits if appropriate—that is all that we suggest—is a serious option.

The Minister says that he will consider the matter and the hon. Member for Ludlow was fair in saying that there is always a judgment to be made about the appropriate maximum time limit. I understand the point about bringing accommodation back into use. All that our amendment seeks to do is to give the courts a wide maximum and complete discretion within it. We have discussed the point about the constables and the Minister has agreed to have further discussions on the matter. I am grateful to him. Given that he will consider all the points that were made in this useful debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 189, in

    clause 5, page 5, line 20, leave out '(2)' and insert '(3)'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6


Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in

    clause 6, page 5, line 35, leave out '21' and insert '42'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 37, in

    clause 6, page 5, line 36, at end insert

    'but may be brought immediately after the original order or decision'.

Mr. Hawkins: I can be brief. These are probing amendments. We thought that it was worth debating the appropriate time limit. If I may adopt what was said by both the hon. Member for Ludlow and the Minister in the previous debate, there is always a judgment to be made about what the appropriate time limit is. We felt that it may be sensible to have not merely 21 days as the limit for an appeal but 42 days—

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six weeks—because it is not unknown for people, absolutely legitimately, to take three weeks' holiday, whereas it is pretty unusual for somebody to be away for six weeks. That is the basis of my suggestion that 21 days may be a bit on the short side.

Amendment No. 37 is on a similar point. We felt that we may make the Bill more flexible by saying that an appeal could be brought immediately after the original order or decision. That gives flexibility both ways. It gives a longer maximum but states that one need not wait: one can bang in the notice of appeal straight away if necessary. It has been known for somebody to misidentify premises—honest mistakes can be made. If there were a need for an immediate appeal and everybody was ready for it to be heard quickly, there would be flexibility in that regard. The Minister will understand that we do not seek to damage the Bill. We simply aim to introduce extra flexibility. It is worth putting the reasons on the record.

Mr. Ainsworth: Extending the period allowed for appeal would overly lengthen and complicate the process of executing a closure order. It would leave the possibility of an appeal hanging over the process for an excessively long period. The ability to appeal against the use of the power is obviously necessary, but as the power is currently drafted the checks and balances are sufficient to ensure that the decision of the magistrates court is considered and is well evidenced.

An appeal to the Crown court is a last resort in cases in which those with a connection with the property feel that an inappropriate action has been taken. The 21-day period is sufficient to allow for an appeal against an order and is based on the precedent of similar existing powers such as those to close illegal drinking dens in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 1994. In my view, there is no need for amendment No. 38. Under the clause, an appeal can be brought at any time during the 21-day period. There is no need to wait for 21 days, which was the hon. Gentleman's worry on the other side of the argument.

6.30 pm

Twenty-one days is in line with other legislation and is sufficient time in which to bring an appeal. I do not see a justification for lengthening the period.

Mr. Hawkins: I hear what the Minister says and he has heard what I have said. I do not agree that it would not be helpful to have some flexibility, but I will not detain the Committee with an argument on that small point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Exemption from liability for certain damages

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 38, in

    clause 9, page 6, line 37, after 'not', insert 'personally'.

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 39, in

    clause 9, page 7, line 5, leave out paragraph (b).

Mr. Hawkins: There are a couple of points that we want to touch on. We felt that it might be helpful to add the word ''personally'' through amendment No. 38. We will return to liability in part 3, which we will debate later this week, and I alert the Minister in advance to the debates we might have about who might be liable under part 3.

It is a small point but, having done quite a lot of civil law in addition to criminal law, I know that stating in the Bill that the officers concerned cannot not be made personally liable might sometimes be helpful. A few moments ago, the Minister referred to situations in which proceedings might be brought against senior officers. The Bill uses the generic phrase ''a constable'', which could apply to anybody at any police rank, from police constable up to chief constable, but it might be helpful to add that phrase and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Amendment No. 39 would delete subsection (3)(b). We are aware that the Government have had all sorts of problems that were not anticipated before the Human Rights Act 1998 was passed. There have been many debates between my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the Home Secretary about whether in other areas of the law the Government might be wise to derogate from the European convention on human rights and then reaccede to the human rights legislation with reservations.

It is absolutely clear is that the human rights legislation that the Government have introduced has caused a substantial number of extra cases to be brought to court and a substantial extra cost to the taxpayer. Whatever one feels about looking after human rights, a lot of people in my constituency—and, I am sure, in constituencies up and down the country—are seeing the law of unintended consequences in operations, whereby, for example, claims for damages are being brought by burglars against house owners. Most people wonder whether the Government have completely taken leave of their senses in opening up such a huge extra area of litigation and cost.

I simply want to probe whether the Government are referring yet again to awards of damages under the Human Rights Act. It seemed to us that the clause was another example of the Government finding that in introducing every bit of legislation, they have to contemplate further costs of litigation and further awards of damages, which are going to cost the taxpayer money. It was worth getting that on the record because of the reference in question. At this stage, the amendment is only a probing one. I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on those two slightly different, serious points.

Mrs. Brooke: I shall be brief. To be consistent with the Liberal Democrat stance, I place on record that we are greatly concerned that any legislation should be

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compatible with human rights, and I cannot envisage us supporting arguments that go against that. Our concern is about exempting police constables from liability. What about the authorised people that we have been talking about? They are not mentioned. Will they be liable for any damages that they might cause to property when they enter it?

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