Clause 15 - Designated public places

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 27th February 2001.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 10:30 am, 27th February 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 8, line 14, at end insert—

`(2A) An order under subsection (2) may only be made by a meeting of the full local authority.'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in page 8, line 22, at end insert—

`(5A) The functions of a local authority under this section may not be discharged by an officer of the authority.'.

No. 34, in page 8, line 22, at end insert—

`(5A) Regulations under subsection (4) shall, in particular, provide than any meeting of a local authority, or of a local authority executive or committee, which relates in any way to the making of an order under subsection (2), shall be held in public.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The amendments are intended to provide clarification and certainty about the involvement of local authorities in the matter of designated public places. My party feels strongly that the matter should be dealt with only by elected councillors—rather than by delegation to council officers—and that it should be discussed only in full and public meetings of the relevant local authority. It is necessary for that to be made clear because, despite the Government's much-vaunted protestations that they believe in open government, in other legislation they have gone back on the traditional practice of ensuring that the press have proper access to local authority meetings. You will remember, Mr. Gale, as it is a matter of considerable comment, that early in her parliamentary career, Baroness Thatcher introduced a private Member's Bill that succeeded in enshrining in statute the provision that all local authority meetings should be held in public and that the press should be able to report them fully.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that many Conservative councillors throughout the country, including those who represent authorities that are controlled by the Conservative party, are working in the cabinet style of government that the Government introduced to make the system more effective, along the lines suggested by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he was in government. Is there a right hon. Member for Henley versus Lady Thatcher split emerging among the Conservatives on this question?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Local authorities in my area have been forced by legislation to adopt, reluctantly, a system that they find wholly insupportable—as the Minister raised the point, the figures have been fiddled for one of the local authorities in my constituency. On the basis of its real population, the local authority in my constituency should be in a position to benefit from a statutory exemption according to which authorities with a population of less than 85,000 are not liable to the imposition of the new cabinet system. It is only because the Government have indulged in creative accounting and ascribed to my authority an imaginary group of economic migrants and asylum seekers who do not actually exist that their theoretical assessment of the local authority's population is above the 85,000 limit. If I pursue that point any further, I am sure that I will be ruled out of order.

In fairness, the Minister should concede that these are important new provisions. The Government are suggesting significant duties for local authorities. It is essential to clarify in the Bill that proceedings will take place only if the full local authority meets in public and decisions cannot be delegated.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I wish to put on the record a correction to the impression given by the Minister. The Opposition wholeheartedly opposed the local government rules and regulations introduced last year under the Local Government Act 2000. We opposed the Bill on Second and Third Reading and in the House of Lords. We tried to amend it to get rid of the cabinet-style system. We opposed it up and down the nation.

The Minister is right in saying that certain Conservative-controlled local authorities have been forced by the Labour Government to move towards the cabinet-style system, but we would have preferred to retain the status quo.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. I know that the Minister raised the issue, that hon. Members wish to respond, and that there is a general election in the offing, but can we get back to the amendment?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point, with which I agree.

Returning to the amendment, perhaps the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise that the matters are of substantial public concern.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. Just for a second, let us suppose that I accept the general thrust of his argument. Does he concede that in some circumstances—for example, when short notice is given of some public event, perhaps a public demonstration—it might be important that a local authority is able to designate an area without delay, and that to insist on a full meeting of the local authority before the event would actually threaten public order? There might be circumstances in which a sub-committee or even delegated powers would make sense, to prevent a threat to public order.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that interesting point. The view of the Opposition is that, because of the importance of the new powers, every local authority must have an opportunity to debate fully what is a public place for the purposes of the operation of the new powers. One hopes that a local authority would take its responsibilities seriously. The proceedings should always take the form of full, public debates. A good way to ensure that that happens is to state in the Bill that a meeting of the full local authority is required.

If the provisions become law, local authorities will be able to plan ahead once they are accustomed to using the powers. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that the powers will not be workable if events are arranged at short notice. No doubt, in designating public places, local authorities will need to plan ahead and decide which areas are likely locations for such events. We hope that, over time, local authorities will get used to meeting in public, and will realise that they cannot delegate powers and that it is not in the public interest for events to be arranged at short notice. If a local authority has met in full and designated public places where events that require these powers might occur, events that subsequently take place will be subject to that decision.

I hope that the Minister will take our concerns seriously and respond to them. If he says that our amendments are not to the point, but that he will think about tabling Government amendments on the matter, perhaps on Report, we will consider that.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

I want to raise some points about the amendment because, coincidentally, Wyre borough council, which represents half my constituency, will meet this evening to discuss setting up byelaws to limit drinking in public places. The police's recommendation to the council is that although there is not a problem in general, some areas—for example, Fleetwood—have problems.

The people of Fleetwood are considering whether to set up a town council. They think that it is the responsibility of a town council to debate and discuss law and order and pass on comments to the district council, which covers a wide geographical area.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

In Royston in my constituency, we have a good town council that does a lot of work along those lines. Is not one of the great benefits of a town council that the local police chief—be that the inspector or the superintendent—can explain police plans to the town council and listen to the town council's priorities?

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

That is certainly the case. My point is that I do not want town or parish councils—both of which we have in Lancashire—excluded from active involvement in decision making. Representatives on those councils have a good understanding of their areas. I have raised that issue, as have some of my hon. Friends, with my hon. Friend the Minister.

The explanatory notes suggest that the Government are considering producing regulations about the procedure that local authorities should follow for designating public places. I urge the Minister to consider how, according to such regulations, parish and town councils might be involved. Will he accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) that there will be instances where local authorities may not meet for two or three months, perhaps over the summer? We must ensure that the regulations govern the right areas.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. When we reach clause 18, which defines local authorities, she may want to ask the Minister whether the Government have got it wrong.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood 10:45 am, 27th February 2001

I am sure that we will examine clause 18 in detail, but I am talking about clause 15 and the regulations that will govern the responsibilities of local authorities when making decisions. It is important that an opportunity exists in the setting up of those regulations for the widest possible debate. Parish and town councils must have their say, and I urge the Minister to consider that when drawing up the regulations.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I strongly support the amendments. Chapter II, and particularly clause 15, proposes that special regulations should govern some parts of the public domain. Any such restrictions on liberty should be subject to a decision taken by a democratically elected authority, meeting in public with all its members present, and able both to participate in the debate and to vote. It would be wrong for such a decision to be delegated to officers, which is why amendment No. 33 is appropriate. It would also be wrong for such a decision to be delegated to any other part of the local authority that does not meet in public.

The only plausible argument in opposition to the amendments—that the matter is one for the local authority to decide—does not wash. We are determining, at national level, that there may be restrictions on liberty in some parts of the country. It should not be for local authorities to decide how to go about making those restrictions. Such decisions should be matters of national policy, to be made by central Government, which local authorities can then opt into, and implement, if they so wish. I strongly support the amendments, and hope that the Minister will accept them either in principle or in detail.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I, too, support the amendments. They cover the points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) about the inclusion of town and parish councils. In my experience, there is much double representation: many town councillors are also borough councillors. That may be a sad reflection of the difficulty these days in finding people who want to be involved in local politics. I suspect that it is as true in her party as in mine that one falls with great enthusiasm on any talented person who takes a local interest. That person can then end up as a representative on almost as many local bodies as he or she has the capacity to deal with. In my local area, some Horley town councillors and Salfords parish councillors are also representatives on Reigate and Banstead borough council, and even on the county council.

If the amendments are accepted, there will be an opportunity for a full public discussion of the drinking bans, and any previous discussions that have taken place in a borough or district, at town or parish council level, may be taken into account publicly. Representatives of such subsidiary authorities will probably take part in the full public debate. If the debate were limited to the local authority executive—under a Cabinet-style system, or where there is a directly elected mayor—rather than being in public, and undertaken by the whole authority, there would be no way of knowing whether town and parish council discussions were being taken into account. That is one of the benefits of the proposals, and I hope that the Minister will find a way of incorporating them into the Bill.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I leave aside the party political badinage, and apologise to you, Mr. Gale, if I played any part in encouraging it. I was simply seeking to respond to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), which I thought were ignorant.

I think that the Committee is in general agreement about the substance of the debate. The Government have sympathy with views that hon. Members have expressed today, and with similar points that were made on Second Reading. Hon. Members think it important to ensure that the local authority functions exercised by the full council are not delegated to one council member or to an official in council employ. We believe, however, that that concern will be more appropriately dealt with through the regulations that the Secretary of State will be required to make, and I will clarify the process that will be involved.

First, the regulations will be made by statutory instrument, and will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Secondly, they will describe the procedures to be followed by local authorities. We accept that the Local Government Association and other bodies that have an interest in the matter should be consulted about the precise nature of those regulations. Detailed drafting has to follow these stages of the Bill.

The Government's intention is that the regulations should cover all relevant matters, including consultation with the police and others before making the designation order, to ensure that the local authority satisfies itself that the area concerned has experienced the problems associated with public drinking. They should also address the procedures to be followed within the local authority. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take full account of the views of Committee members about both the key role of elected members in these decision-taking processes and the need for decisions to be taken in the full public arena, so that they can be fully and properly debated.

Thirdly, the regulations will deal with publicity, including the need to ensure that such areas are clearly identified as being ones to which the powers will apply.

Fourthly, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood for the way in which she put her point, which was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. She was right to emphasise the role of parish and the town councils in informing the decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) has also taken up the point very energetically on behalf of her constituents. The point has been powerfully made in Committee and elsewhere in Parliament.

However, we do not believe that parish and town councils should have statutory responsibility—that should remain with elected local authorities in the conventional way. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood that the regulations will oblige local authorities to look at the position of parish and town councils, and will positively encourage such councils to participate in deciding what should be regarded as public places in their areas. That might not go as far as she hoped, as it would not replace the elected local authority with the parish or town council, but it would go some way by giving those councils a specific role in the process.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

I do not seek to replace the role of the district council. My concern was that the district or borough council, in making its decision, should consult parish and town councils in its area.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I can give an absolute assurance on that point. The regulations will meet that specific point.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister is being very helpful and constructive. He has said that he expects that the secondary legislation will deal with some of these points. Will he go one step further and say that he is prepared to consider some of the points that we have made—particularly that the matters should not be delegated to officers and that meetings should always take place in public—and table appropriate amendments on Report?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I will consider that. I can give the assurance that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but I do not want to mislead him. The regulations that will be required and set out by statutory instrument and debated in Parliament by virtue of subsection (4) will deal with a number of issues, including the need to consult; the role of parish and town councils, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood; the procedures to be followed within local authorities; and the need for proper publicity so that there is public information about what happens when the decision is taken. I am not convinced that there is a case for primary legislation to cover all the issues mentioned, but I shall bear in mind the points that have been made, and consider whether we should table amendments on Report.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we agree with the thrust of his point and shall seek to ensure that it is reflected in the regulations. I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As I have said, the Minister has been helpful and constructive and has taken account of the points that have been made, including that made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). As the Minister has acknowledged that these are serious points that need to be considered further by the Government, I hope that he will consider tabling amendments on Report. It is always preferable for a serious point to be dealt with in the Bill rather than by secondary legislation.

In the light of the Minister's assurances and constructive responses, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.