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Baroness Walmsley: I oppose the amendment. The Government have plenty of tools to deal with the quiet, discreet drug dealer. But where there is a closure noticewhich could have a very serious effect on innocent people living in those premisesthe threshold needs to be higher than it would be if we had either the provision in paragraph (a) "or" that in paragraph (b). From these Benches, we believe that both are needed.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: In starting, I ought to remind the Committee why we are introducing the new powers to tackle the problems with properties where the use or supply of class A drugs occurs and to tackle the consequent serious nuisance and distress caused to neighbours and to the wider community. Those are the reasons behind them. We want to give the police a power that is quick and easy to use, but, to pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, we must ensure that the power does not have unwantedunwarranted, perhapsor even undesirable consequences.
The amendment would remove the requirement for there to be both supply, production or use of class A drugs and serious nuisance. The matter was debated at some length in another place. One of the principle concernsI understand itwas that the existence of "serious nuisance" would be difficult to prove, especially when it was considered that witnesses might be intimidated. We have already taken into account the fact that that can be an issue. I draw the noble Lord's attention to the need, referred to throughout
I say that in the knowledge that many noble Lords live not too far from the House and that the difficulties with crack houses, in particular, in some of the inner London boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea have been brought to our attention on many occasions. The view is shared throughout the Committee that it is important that local authorities and the police work closely together. That is our policy intent. We have been impressed by the work done by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in close co-operation with the Metropolitan Police to tackle issues such as the use of crack in that area.
It would not be desirable to allow closure simply on the basis of the use of class A drugs, rather than on the basis of such use and serious nuisance. Some drug users do not pose any great danger to the community and are working gradually to overcome their problems of addiction, with the help of drug agencies. By removing the requirement to prove serious nuisance associated with drug use, we would create the risk that individuals who posed no immediate problem and should rightly be considered to be vulnerable or in treatment could be evicted or denied housing by landlords fearful of the possible consequences. That would make those individuals even more vulnerable and, perhaps, even cause greater harm in the immediate community. It could also create problems for voluntary sector organisations that work with such vulnerable people.
Finally, it is important to point out that the amendment would also create a power to close premises that caused serious nuisance alone. There are other ways of dealing with nuisanceanother important point brought out in the debatenot least through many of the other tools included in the Bill. Issuing a closure notice to tackle such problems could, in some circumstances, be disproportionate. We want to use the power proportionately.
Lord Elton: The Minister said that there were other means of dealing with premises on which serious nuisance occurs. That focuses our attention on paragraph (a) of subsection (1). I share my noble friend's concerns about the matter. Can the Minister tell us, for instance, what powers of closure exist for premises on which class A drugs are produced, without the causing of any other nuisance, or on which they are supplied, without any other nuisance? If there is none, paragraph (b) weakens the weapon that the Minister wishes to put into the hands of the police.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was concerned about the undesirable consequences for others if one did not link paragraphs (a) and (b). However, as one sees elsewhere in the Bill, they can be dealt with in other ways. We need not concern ourselves about that at this stage.
The Minister should expand on what he said. There is a weakness in what I would call the psychology of the Bill at this point. The wording is perfectly clear, and I have no doubt that those who must administer it will do so well and faithfully. However, whether it will necessarily work in the way in which the Government intend, because of the way in which it is worded, is another matter.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I understand where noble Lords are coming from on the matter. I made the point that there were other ways of dealing with the problem, the most important being the fact that the police can tackle suppliers. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, offences can be brought to court without the premises necessarily being closed. The housing authority or social housing agency may want to evict tenants who breach their tenancy agreement by letting their premises be used for drug dealing. There are several ways in which the issues can be tackled.
Lord Elton: I do not think that it does. I asked what powers there were to close premises if they were used for the production or supplyparticularly the productionof class A drugs and no other nuisance was committed.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Short of closure, there are evictions under housing legislation, ASBOs and ABCs. There are restrictions on tenancy rights such as short-hold tenancies. There is also the possible use of Section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972 and the forfeiture of property. There are other means by which some of the problems can be tackled.
I understand the concerns, but it is important that we ensure that action short of closure can be taken and that other ways of affecting the use of a property or premises can be used. I have outlined some of those points in my responses.
Lord Elton: I am sorry to be tedious on the matter, but we are getting closer to the answer with a steady drift of notes. The Minister said that there was a power of forfeiture of property, but he did not say under which Act. I am not so much bothered about that because he can tell me later which Act, but I want to know whether the property includes premises. The clause appears to be aimed at putting particular premises out of action. Is that because they are noisy or because they are used for drugs? The Minister's first supplementary answer has drawn us to the conclusion that it is because they are used for drugs.
We are now trying to distinguish how this power differs from others and whether it supplies something that is presently lacking. What appears to be lacking is the power to close the premises because they are being used for the production or supply of class A drugs and for no other reason. Does that power exist elsewhere?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have tried to establish the fact that there are other means. I take the point that the noble Lord is making. A range of measures are in place and it might be useful if I clarify them in correspondence so that I can describe how we see them working. We can then share the knowledge across the House.
We believe that we have struck the right balance. While I accept that some of the issues will not entirely satisfy Members opposite, that fact is most important. We do not want unintended consequences to flow from the way in which the power of closure can be used.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I am not totally convinced by what the Minister has said. If other powers exist and if they could all be used, we would not be introducing this one unless there had been a failure or breakdown in their use. We have not had a sufficient explanation.
However, on this occasion, I shall be kind to the Government and study carefully what the Minister has said. More importantly, I shall look forward to what he is to communicate to us. That may put our minds at rest and, if it does, we may be able to leave the subject. On the basis of what I have heard, I am tempted to take the view of the Committee, but for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.