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House of Lords

Thursday, 11th September 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Anti-social Behaviour Bill

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Closure notice]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, line 5, leave out "superintendent" and insert "inspector"

The noble Lord said: The amendment deals with simple questions of organisation and man management in the police service. Most, if not all, police forces operate with core services, particularly in crime investigation and so on, run from police headquarters. Below that they have divisions, the number of divisions depending on the area and size of the force. Below the divisions, they run on community policing teams largely based on the towns—in some counties it will be the main towns—and so on. The question is about the appropriate level at which a decision to start on a closure notice procedure should be taken.

Divisions have superintendents as their head, and community policing teams have inspectors as their head. Of course it is difficult to make a clear distinction between one level and the next because the whole operation, if working effectively, works as a team. However, the essential local knowledge and requirements for opening procedures for a closure notice will be at the local level. The issue then is whether the provision is at the appropriate level to authorise the action.

I have a preference, from what I have learned through life in the management of men, for giving as much responsibility as possible to the lowest possible level. I inquired what my police service felt about the issue, and I do not know whether I reassure the Minister when I say that it agreed with the Bill, although it accepted my point. However, the description that I received from my police service was that the superintendent level was appropriate, because he would exercise an audit to make sure that the procedures were or had been properly carried out. It acknowledged that the initiative would almost always come at inspector level.

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If inspectors have the initiative and all that the superintendent does is offer an audit facility to make sure that the procedures have been correctly carried out—if the inspector is any good and worth his office, he will have it correct—I do not see why the responsibility should not lie there. If that happens and if anything goes wrong, the superintendent is in a position to deal with it. As the Bill proposes, if the matter has to go to the superintendent in the first instance, if anything goes wrong it has to go back to headquarters.

All that shifts the responsibility up the machine, and I do not like that; I prefer it lower down. I like to believe that officers at the level of inspector are responsible and capable of taking appropriate decisions vis-a-vis the community in which they work. They in any event will have the local knowledge on which the whole procedure is based, so that is where the responsibility should lie. The amendment chimes with what I feel about man management, so I thought the case certainly worth arguing before the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is one of those perennial debates to ask where responsibility should ultimately rest, on what the noble Lord would probably acknowledge was a strategic decision in terms of police operations. Many debates in this House have focused on the appropriate levels to take such decisions. On this matter, there is room for a quite understandable debate. I start from the same point as him: I, too, believe that responsibility should be forced down to the lowest possible level and closest to where events really happen in our communities. Therefore, I have great sympathy with him on that point.

However, we need to think about the effectiveness of the work of the superintendent. From our point of view in government, having taken very careful account of the police service's own views—I was very interested in the noble Lord's point about that—we think it necessary that the officer who authorises the use of powers should be of a sufficiently high rank to have the necessary overview of all law enforcement action conducted in the area. This was discussed at considerable length in another place, where the case for authorisation at inspector level was argued as well.

The Government have taken a careful look at the points that were made in that debate. Operational matters are always of great interest to us, and we want to make sure that we get matters right. Having listened carefully to what the police themselves have said on this matter—they must have had internal debates on it—we are still very much of the opinion that any change to the level of authorisation could in the end prevent the appropriate use of power as part of a range of measures to control drug supply and the serious nuisance that we all acknowledge it brings with it.

We acknowledge that inspectors take many operational decisions. But it is still necessary to ensure that the use of a power as strong as that proposed is appropriately authorised. We also believe that a

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superintendent will be best placed to take a view on other relevant operations and to consult with the other agencies. That is an important issue.

It is certainly my experience as a local politician—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will have a similar view—that we, within the leadership team of the local authority, with the chief executive, used to meet on a regular basis to review policing within our borough. Those discussions always took place at a strategic level with the superintendent—who had the overview of that police division. It seemed to us that important decisions such as this are rightly located at that level. The superintendent has command of the whole of a division and understands and is constantly advised about what goes on within it.

I believe that it will be possible—and the police service obviously agrees with us—that the superintendent will be able to turn round decisions quickly and effectively. I cannot see that there will be an over-bureaucratisation at the level at which the decision is being demanded.

There are good precedents for this, in terms of the level of oversight. I cite in aid of our position the powers in Section 42 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which deal with the continued detention of suspects beyond the usual 24-hour limit and up to a maximum of 36 hours without the authorisation of a court, and Sections 56 and 58, regarding the suspect's access to legal advice and the right to have someone informed if the arrest is delayed. In those instances superintendent is the appropriate level. We believe that that is the appropriate level of seriousness in those instances, and that it accords with the case here.

I understand the point that is being argued. However, on careful reflection, and having consulted with members of the police service at some length on this matter and having listened to their views, we believe that we have got the provision right. It is for that reason that we resist the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord is convinced by that argument and will feel happy and confident in withdrawing it.

11.15 a.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response—and unsurprised. As I indicated, it chimes in with the feelings of the police service in my area, whose members I consulted on the issue. That said, I am bound to say that I do not agree—but that is because I happen to believe in a slightly different style, and so on. I do not think that the point is worth pursuing hard. I shall study with care what has been said in case it raises any further issues. But for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 2:

    Page 1, line 9, leave out "and" and insert "or"

The noble Lord said: I was moved to table this amendment because I found, on reading Clause 1, that I became slightly confused as to whether we were trying to deal with anti-social behaviour in the Bill—

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which is what the Bill is all about—or whether in fact we were trying to control drugs. If we are trying to do that, the wording of the clause seems slightly odd.

Under the Bill as drafted, a premises may be closed if the relevant officer,

    "has reasonable grounds for believing . . . that at any time during the relevant period the premises have been used in connection with the unlawful use, production or supply of a Class A controlled drug, and"—

these are the key words—

    "that the use of the premises is associated with the occurrence of disorder or serious nuisance to members of the public".

If you have some quiet, discreet agents who behave themselves, apparently that is okay, and you could not take closure action against them. I am quite sure that that is not what the Government intend.

It is perfectly clear that there are plenty of other laws that can be used against drug dealing and so forth; but you would not be able to close a premises down under this clause—which I had always assumed was an additional power to enable people to close crack houses. I still think that, because of what I believe to be slightly mistaken wording, it would be better to remove the word "and" and insert "or", so that if a premises is used in connection with drugs it can be closed down; or, if it is a base for anti-social behaviour of a serious form it can be closed down. But to require them both to be a prerequisite seems to me to leave a certain amount of confusion, particularly on the drugs front. I beg to move.

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