Public Order (Amendment)

– in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 18th June 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris , Birmingham, Yardley 3:33 pm, 18th June 1996

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the power of arrest of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. There is general agreement across the House that too many of our constituents' lives are blighted by crime and anti-social behaviour. There is, of course, great concern about serious crime, but many of my constituents express particular concern about an increase in abusive, threatening, disorderly and intimidating behaviour on the streets.

In 1986, Parliament passed section 5 of the Public Order Act, which gave police officers the power to arrest a person if he or she was engaged in offensive behaviour and continued to behave in such a manner after a warning had been issued. That Act tidied up and replaced previous laws that had given police the powers to act in similar circumstances. Indeed, it appears to be one of the few pieces of legislation that gives police the power to arrest in cases of disorderly and intimidating behaviour.

As early as 1987, Professor A. T. Smith, of Reading university, warned that Parliament might have passed a flawed law. As it is written, section 5 of the 1986 Act requires that the police officer who gives the warning must be the same police officer who made the arrest. Almost by definition, scenes of disorder involve many people and are attended by many police officers. It is quite clear that the police officer who gives a verbal warning cannot always be the same police officer who goes on to make the arrest. That clearly is not what Parliament intended.

In October 1993, police were called to a doctor's surgery in Durham, where two men were behaving in a threatening, abusive and insulting manner. They were arrested under the Public Order Act 1986, but were later acquitted of all charges because the officer who gave the warning was not the officer who subsequently made the arrest.

The case went to appeal and was rejected by Lord Justice Kennedy. However, Lord Justice Kennedy said at the time that he was unable to discern any Parliamentary purpose in the wording as it presently stands and that it would merit further Parliamentary consideration at an early date. Last year in Birmingham, a crowd of youths were involved in a disturbance close by my constituency. They were warned about their behaviour by the duty inspector. When the behaviour persisted, a man was arrested. To the frustration of the police and the public, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take the case to court because the arrest had been made under the 1986 Act and was unlikely to stand up in court.

In Hampshire, people involved in scenes of public disorder after a demonstration were taken to court, but the action collapsed because of this flawed legislation. During the recent demonstrations over the Newbury bypass, police again found themselves hampered by the confusion caused by the Act. Manchester police have experienced similar difficulties because of that confusion and have now instructed their officers not to use that section of the Public Order Act 1986 at all.

It is 10 years since Parliament passed this flawed piece of legislation. It is nine years since warnings were given, and two years since a High Court judge effectively suspended the use of that section and called on Parliament to reconsider it. All that is required is for one word to be changed in section 5(4). That one change is the substance of this ten-minute Bill.

A number of Home Secretaries have failed to take the necessary action. The result is that the police do not have the power to deal with a serious and growing problem.

Defence lawyers inevitably quote Lord Justice Kennedy's High Court judgment as a reason to dismiss future action in the courts. As it stands, the law that we passed gives a licence to those who threaten public order and it fails to protect the public.

Public order offences are not some minor adjunct to criminal offences. Day in and day out, they are a cause of harassment for my constituents, the public and the police. They are the causes of intimidation, disturbance and abuse. They are the incidents of nuisance that make people's lives a misery. They feed the fear of crime that traps people in their homes, because people are too frightened to go out on the streets.

In 1980, one in five crimes resulted in a conviction in the courts or in a caution by the police. By 1994, that figure had slumped to one in 10. Unless we amend the law, the situation will deteriorate even further.

A decade ago, Parliament passed a bad law. Our constituents, the police and the community have a right to expect us to act quickly to put it right. It is our job to close dangerous loopholes that help law-breakers.

With the co-operation of the Home Office and the House, this ten-minute Bill could become law before the recess. We have a long, hot summer ahead of us—a time when, sadly, disorderly and anti-social behaviour often increases. We would be failing our constituents and those we charge with protecting the peace if we lost this opportunity to remedy this flawed piece of legislation. I am grateful to the sponsors of the Bill, who represent both sides of the House, and I hope that it will receive the support of many other hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Estelle Morris, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. James Pawsey, Dr. Lynne Jones, Mr. Patrick Thompson, Ms Tessa Jowell, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Richard Burden, Mr. Roy Thomason, Mr. Keith Bradley and Mr. Warren Hawksley.