Anti-social Behaviour Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: The clause is designed to ensure that police officers and police forces are not liable for damages arising from the exercise of their powers under this part of the Bill. The clause is intended to prevent malicious attempts to seek redress for the actions of the police from criminals who might have been involved with the supply of drugs. However, if a police officer fails to act within the boundaries of the Human Rights Act or acts in bad faith, it is entirely right that that matter should be addressed by the courts; I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is not suggesting that that ought not to be so.

There is no need to amend the clause with regard to the personal liability of the constable. Constables do not have any other form of liability. Under section 88 of the Police Act 1996, chief officers are already liable for the unlawful conduct of constables under their control. Subsection (1) of clause 9 deals with the constable's potential liability and subsection (2) with the chief officer's.

On the point that has been raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, as we are exempting police officers and police forces from malicious attempts to seek redress, that should also apply to those who have been authorised to conduct themselves in this way, along with the chief constable. They would be covered by the same exemption.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand what the Minister has to say. We are obviously not going to agree about the Human Rights Act, but it was a useful debate on personal liability. I do not want to detain the Committee longer, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: I have a couple of brief points and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire may wish to speak as well. We were concerned about taxpayers' money being used, and subsection (4), which relates to compensation from central funds, concerned us, but I could not think of an easy and straightforward way of amending the clause. I simply wanted to raise the issue, which is why it is appropriate to say a few words about it in the stand part debate. There will be great concern if a person allows their premises to be misused, but the decision is taken not to implement a closure order owing to a bizarre verdict in the courts, and the person against whom the closure order has been sought then claims for damages and receives money from the

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taxpayer. My constituents would not be happy if that were to happen. I therefore thought that it was important to put those concerns on the record, and to see what the Minister has in mind.

One recognises, of course, that an action may have been completely misconceived—the wrong premises may have been chosen, for example. I touched on the fact that to err is human; someone might make a bureaucratic error and write down the wrong address. In such circumstances, in which the people who own the premises have done nothing wrong, they will want some redress if their doors have been broken in. I am, however, worried that a situation might arise in which someone who is not, as lawyers say, coming to equity with clean hands, receives damages from the taxpayer under the provisions of the Bill. I therefore think it important to place that concern on the record at this stage, because the clause as drafted might attract quite a lot of attention when the Bill reaches another place.

The Minister and I are familiar with the sort of points that are picked up by the very senior lawyers—Law Lords and the like—who have experience of dealing with such matters over many years. I thought that if we did not have a brief stand part debate on the clause, their lordships might think that we had completely ignored the difficult issues that compensation from taxpayers' money raises. I hope that the Minister will be able to address some of those issues and that he will take them seriously. We are not trying to eliminate the opportunity for redress to be made to the innocent property owner who has been wronged, but we are concerned about the inappropriate use of taxpayers' money.

Matthew Green: I am glad that we have had the stand part debate, because while the hon. Gentleman was speaking, a further concern occurred to me. Subsection (4)(b) states that the court may order the payment of compensation

    ''if the person is the owner or occupier of the premises, that he took reasonable steps to prevent the use.''

What is a reasonable step? A reasonable step taken by a social landlord or someone who owns 50 or 100 properties might be entirely different from a reasonable step taken by a person who owns one property, decides that they want to travel around the world for six months, finds a tenant and signs a tenancy agreement, goes off round the world, and comes back to find that that tenant was running a crack house. The argument could be made that because that person went off round the world, they did not take any reasonable steps to prevent that happening. The definition of reasonable steps differs depending on who the person is.

I would like reassurance from the Minister that the Government will issue clarification—I see that he is nodding, so that is welcome. We need clarification of what constitutes the reasonable steps that a landlord—including one person renting out their house as well as a professional landlord—should take. It is difficult to know what steps one could take when renting out one's house to prevent someone selling drugs from it.

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Mr. Paice: My point follows that made by the hon. Member for Ludlow and relates to subsection (4)(a) and (b). I intended to expand on the point about ''reasonable steps''. However, I also want to raise an issue related to subsection (4)(a), which states

    ''that the person had no connection with the use of the premises as mentioned in section 1(1).''

Will the Minister tell me exactly what is meant by

    ''had no connection with the use of the premises''?

Can he confirm that it does not mean simply being the owner and the lessor of the property? It could be argued that if someone let a property, that person automatically has a connection with the use of the premises, particularly if they or their agent is acting as the letting manager of that property.

If someone has a contract with a letting agent who manages the lease of the contract, does that person have a connection with the use of the premises? It would be helpful if the Minister expanded on that. We have repeatedly discussed in Committee how a Minister's explanation of legislation can be used in future. It would help those who will have to implement the legislation and may be affected by it to know a little more about what the Government mean by subsection (4)(a) and (b).

6.45 pm

If a landlord or property owner lets one or two houses by using the services of a letting agent, how can they take the reasonable steps to which the hon. Member for Ludlow refers? If that property is then used for something that makes it subject to the closure notice in clause 1(1), could their ownership and lease of it and the fact that the letting agent is in the vicinity be construed as their having any connection with the use of the premises, or does connection with the use mean that they are smoking or selling the drugs themselves? I suspect that that is what the Minister means and the Government intend, but like the Minister I am not a lawyer. I am not clear whether that is what the clause says, and it would be helpful to have an explanation, which could be used in future, of what the Minister is trying to achieve.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire points that neither he nor I is a lawyer. We want to the get the legislation right and do not want to pay compensation inappropriately. Equally, however, we do not want to introduce draconian measures that can be used in inappropriate circumstances without compensation being paid and so discourage people from getting into the business of letting their properties. We must encourage people to expand the rented sector where appropriate.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked me to clarify what the clause means. I believe, and am advised, that it means precisely what it says, namely that

    ''On an application under this section the court may order the payment of compensation out of central funds if it is satisfied . . . that the person had no connection with the use of the premises as mentioned in section 1(1)''.

Of course,

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    ''the use of the premises as mentioned in section 1(1)''

relates to clause 1(1)(a) and

    ''the unlawful use or supply of a Class A controlled drug'',

and to clause 1(1)(b) and

    ''the occurrence of disorder or serious nuisance to members of the public.''

The answer to the question whether we should, in any circumstances, compensate someone with a connection with the use that created the nuisance, is no. The answer should also be no if the person had any connection with the supply of class A drugs. Paragraph (a) is designed to prevent compensation in circumstances where the person has a connection with misuse, causing a nuisance or supplying drugs.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful for what the Minister has just said. I was not advocating that someone who had been involved in the supply or use of drugs should be eligible for compensation. My concern is the other way round: that someone should be able to apply for compensation and should not be debarred because ownership and leasing of the property could be construed as connection with use. Is the Minister confirming that ownership of the property is irrelevant to its use? In other words, is he confirming that unless the owner has been complicit in the use, simple ownership cannot be construed as any form of responsibility for the use?

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