Clause 21 - Closure of unlicensed premises

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 pm on 27th February 2001.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:00 pm, 27th February 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 18, line 3, after `liquor', insert

`or the supply or sale or offering to supply or sell any controlled drug.'.

Under amendment No. 67, we now move from licensed premises to unlicensed premises. Conservative Members take particularly seriously the way in which such premises might be used for the supply of illegal controlled drugs. There is no doubt that that is a major problem. As we examined the Government's proposals, we were worried that they might mistakenly be thinking that the only problems in relation to drugs arose from licensed pubs and night clubs.

All too frequently, however, clubs—perhaps of the underground variety—have not obtained a drinks licence and, unfortunately, experience suggests that it is often managers of such clubs or the bouncers who are involved in the supply of illegal drugs. We do not have to go back far in our memories to remember the appalling tragedies that so many families have suffered. We think, in particular, of Leah Betts.

All members of the Committee will recall that one aspect arising from the use of the illegal drug ecstasy is that often all that is supplied to those who are dancing and who are unwise enough to take that drug is water. One of the messages that came out loud and clear from the tragic inquests into the sudden deaths of teenagers from ecstasy was that they might have been dancing for hours without drinking the water that might have been the only way in which to combat the potential adverse effects of that drug. During such inquests, it became apparent that the only thing that was supplied to the teenagers in those clubs was water. Thus, those clubs did not necessarily need a drinks licence.

We all remember that, during the previous general election campaign, the Government had their much-vaunted slogan, ``Be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'', but our main point was that the biggest cause of crime is drugs. The Government have not been tough enough on drugs. More than 1,000 criminals convicted of drugs dealing have been released earlier than they should have been under the Government's home detention curfew—their special early release scheme. That has caused great anger throughout the country. This clause gives us an opportunity to put back into the Bill the tough controls that would stop drug dealing. Given that the Government propose draconian powers to close unlicensed premises and if there were clear evidence suggesting to an officer that premises were being used for dealing in illegal drugs, the amendment would be helpful.

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

The hon. Gentleman talks about the general political climate. What is his view of his hon. Friends—and of some of his friends in the media—who argue for a complete freedom to take drugs, whether that is cannabis or hard drugs? They argue that the state should not interfere in these matters and that it should be up to individuals to decide what to do. Some of the papers that support his party have argued that, as have some of his hon. Friends close to his right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition.

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

While he makes such an intervention, the Minister knows that the Opposition have consistently been in favour of toughening up the law on drugs. If he should search his own Benches for the view that he has described, he would need look no further than the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who as recently as yesterday argued on the Floor of the House that the laws on drugs should be relaxed. The Minister is making a false point and he knows it.

The amendment would represent a significant toughening up of the powers, for the reasons that I have mentioned. I pay tribute for the work that has been done in my own area and in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate by Dr. Tony Blowers and the Surrey drug action team. In a recent meeting with my hon. and right hon. Friends and me, Dr. Blowers said that the unlicensed premises were often those that were used for the supply of drugs. My own experience at the bar and conversations that I have had with police officers throughout the country have also prompted the amendment.

Even if the Government say that they cannot accept the amendment today, I hope that the Minister will take the matter seriously and allow that they will at least consider using the clause to toughen up the law against illegal drugs. Perhaps they will return to the issue on Report, even if we do not do so today.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

It is a pleasure to speak again under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale.

It may help the Committee if I say something about this group of clauses before responding to the amendment. Clauses 21 to 30 contain provisions that allow the police and local authorities to apply for court orders to close any premises where alcohol is sold to the public for consumption on or near the premises without a licence, in contravention of section 160 of the Licensing Act 1964. Under that Act, the police may arrest any persons who use unlicensed premises for the sake of alcohol and confiscate the alcohol on the premises.

The experience of the police, however, is that the profits of unlicensed drinking establishments are often so large that the shadowy owners of the premises can absorb the costs of police raids on them, the seizure of alcohol and the prosecution of staff working on the premises. In practice, the premises are often quickly reopened, having been restocked and restaffed. The police regard such places as magnets for criminals who prey on unsuspecting customers, who are often tourists.

These provisions are expected to be used mainly to deal with rogue premises in the west end of London, which open late at night and attract criminal activity. These provisions are modelled on the City of Westminster Act 1996, which allows the police and Westminster council to close down unlicensed sex establishments.

Clause 21 contains the rules and procedures for the first stage of the closure action, which is the serving of a closure notice on such rogue premises. The notice should contain details of the unlawful use of the premises, the further power that the police or authority must seek as a closure order from the magistrates court within a specified period, and the steps that may be taken by the relevant person operating the premises to end the illegal use.

The amendment would extend the right to serve a notice threatening closure to premises used for the sale or supply of any controlled drug for consumption on or away from the premises. I understand why it has been tabled and I recognise what the proposed change is designed to achieve, but clauses 21 and 30 tackle a separate and different problem from the one that the hon. Gentleman presented. He describes a genuine problem, but the procedure specified in the Bill may not be the right way forward, as I shall explain.

Unlike the sale of drugs, the sale of alcohol in this country is entirely legal if it is licensed or permitted by some of the exceptions made under licensing law. The problem with unlicensed drinking dens is that innocent tourists and other members of the public have no idea that the sale of alcohol in such clubs is illegal. The clubs are more often than not confused with legitimate outlets. Innocent people are often attracted to them by people in the street brazenly advertising the premises.

Such advertising is often blatant, as the owner or operator, who sometimes lives abroad, does not fear police action, because the staff will be arrested, not the owners of the premises. Profits are high and, if raided, the premises will simply be restocked. The Bill provides a solution by ensuring that they cannot be used once the court has made a closure order.

Premises used for the sale of drugs are unlikely to advertise their existence and as such do not attract innocent members of the public or innocent tourists. People frequenting such premises know that they are acting criminally and taking a serious risk in involving themselves with drugs.

Drug dens are often in residential accommodation. I accept the point about dancing clubs and ecstasy, but many drug dens that would come within the purview of the amendment would be residential premises, and if they were boarded up, residents would have to be re-housed.

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

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the serious way in which he is responding. In saying that the sort of establishments to which I refer may not be advertised to the public, he may be slightly missing my point about the sort of unlicensed premises that try to attract customers unrelated to drugs, such as a place that is advertised as a dancing club without a drinks licence but whose bouncers are involved in the sale or supply of illegal drugs. He is not dealing with that matter.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, the number of such clubs that would not be licensed in any circumstances for the sale of alcohol is limited. If drugs were allowed to be sold on the premises, therefore, they would clearly be being used inappropriately and the licence would be subject to revocation. It is also likely that premises of the type that he describes would have a music and dancing licence, which could equally be revoked.

The procedure relates to the service of a preliminary notice that in effect warns the owner of the premises that an application is likely to be made to the court, and subsequently an application to the court for a closure order is made. That is a rather more protracted procedure that would be appropriate for police intervention in the event of evidence of hard drugs being dealt on the premises.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and he raises a serious issue. The procedure in the Bill deals with a different process—illegally selling an otherwise legal substance. It is not necessarily the right process for dealing with the sale of a substance that is illegal in virtually all circumstances. That is why the Government amendment is limited to alcohol and why the procedure is designed for premises that sell alcohol in unlicensed circumstances.

Given those circumstances and the acceptance that this is a serious issue but not the right procedure, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would consider withdrawing his amendment.

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

I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the Parliamentary Secretary. He seems almost to be saying that the Government were trying to set up the Bill differently and attack unlicensed sex shops or whatever premises he had in mind. He has not accepted the argument that the Bill would be improved if that extra procedure were included. My answer to the response that having a procedure that involved warning would not be appropriate is that often managers of an unlicensed club will not themselves be involved in permitting the sale of drugs—the bouncers on the door will be doing that, as I suggested—so a warning procedure for those operating the club may be highly effective.

I am not satisfied with the Parliamentary Secretary's response, so I propose to divide the Committee on the amendment and invite my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Members to support it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Division number 17 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 21 - Closure of unlicensed premises

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 68, in page 18, line 11, leave out ``the constable'' and insert

``a police officer of the rank of at least inspector or above''.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this, it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 69, in page 18, line 11, leave out ``the constable'' and insert ``the police officer''.

No. 70, in page 18, line 16, leave out ``the constable'' and insert ``the police officer''.

No. 71, in page 18, line 23, leave out ``constable'' and insert

``police officer of at least the rank of inspector or above''.

No. 72, in page 18, line 36, leave out ``constable'' and insert ``police officer''.

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

The amendments are all intended to ensure that an officer of at least the rank of inspector is involved, which is a necessary safeguard. I shall refer briefly to a couple of representations that we have received about how the provisions may operate.

First, Mr. Paul Kinsey, the chief executive of one of the country's major leisure organisations, First Leisure, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and me to express his concern about how the provisions may operate. Some of Mr. Kinsey's remarks relate to licensed premises, but he points out that his company also controls some up-market leisure operations well away from town centres, which include unlicensed parts in their premises, which is the matter on which I wanted to touch. I shall then refer to concerns raised by the central committee of police inspectors, through its general secretary, Mr. Jon Francis.

My general point is that wherever the Government propose a significant increase in officers' powers there should be, if I may put it this way, senior management input within the police. That is not in any sense a criticism of police constables or sergeants, many of whom are highly experienced and no doubt would be good at exercising any powers given to them. However, what goes with the seniority of being promoted to the rank of inspector is not only the years of experience without which one cannot reach that rank but a certain amount of management training—especially in the modern police force. If the provisions in the section relating to unlicensed premises are to be used, it would help if matters were always considered by an officer of inspector rank or above.

By the way, in case I need to, Mr. Gale, I should declare that I am an officer of the all-party group dealing with the leisure industry, which was recently set up by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner). Although that group is new and a number of the hon. Members involved were already involved in the pre-existing groups that dealt with tourism and sport, the hon. Gentleman felt that it would be useful to have a parliamentary group that responded to the interests of the umbrella organisation for the industry, Business in Sport and Leisure, which is ably chaired by Mr. John Brackenbury and superbly run by Brigid Simmons.

That organisation put my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and me in touch with Mr. Kinsey from First Leisure, who says that granting the police powers to close premises on the spot will be an effective measure only if the circumstances in which that can occur are tightly constrained. In considering the Government's proposals, he says that he is concerned if a venue can be closed on the basis of the opinion of a local police officer, not just where trouble occurs, but where he anticipates trouble occurring. Mr. Kinsey goes on to say:

``The quality of this decision will be dependent on the experience of the individual officers.''

He says that he has examples from his company's experience in which local police forces have objected to promotional policies introduced in relation to its trading and that he is worried about the closure order powers that the Government anticipate.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

It may help if I explain that a notice under clause 21 will not have the effect anticipated in that letter. It is in the nature of a warning shot. It will not of itself close the premises, but will put the owner of the premises, and whoever is managing them, on notice that, if steps are not taken, the police can apply to the court at a later date for a closure order. The notice is a trigger, not a closure order.

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

That is helpful, but I was already aware that that was the effect. Indeed, we discussed it under the previous amendment. However, that does not answer Mr. Kinsey's concern. An issue still arises based on the warning shot being fired on the judgment of a police officer and not someone of management level. That is what Mr. Kinsey is concerned about. He stresses that his company has a number of venues away from what he calls the main drinking circuits. He says that the company owns premises on out-of-town sites where public order issues can be attributed to individual premises, which are often the only such premises on leisure parks.

I shall now deal briefly with the concerns of the inspectors' central committee and Mr. Francis. He says that there are already considerable dangers of overstretch for police officers and that there are significant reductions and increases in responsibilities. In tabling the amendment, I am aware that we may be saying that this is a further matter that could add to the burden on inspectors, but Mr. Francis's more general point is that there is an overstretch of police officers at every level. These are tricky issues. He talks about serious shortages and says that his members are expected to be on call, including on days off and in holidays, and that, in the geographical areas covered by inspectors, the work load has doubled, trebled or in some cases quadrupled.

That gives a very different impression of the Government's work from the position advanced yesterday by the Home Secretary—but I know that you will rule me out of order if I go too wide of the subject under discussion, Mr. Gale. The provision raises serious issues. I wanted to probe the Government on their intentions and to see whether, if they are not prepared to accept this group of amendments today, they may be prepared to consider the matter further on Report.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

First Leisure does not run illegal drinking clubs. It runs licensed premises—as far as I am aware, extremely well. I understand the issues raised in regard to clause 19. Those legitimate concerns have been debated. We are now debating illegal drinking clubs that officers have raided, making arrests, closing the premises and, no doubt, prosecuting staff. We need to deal with the underlying problem that the people in control of the premises are, as I said earlier, likely simply to restock, restaff and reopen a few weeks later. There is no reason why a senior police officer needs to be involved in serving a notice to the owner after such a raid to the effect that if the illegal drinking club reopened and recommenced its illegal activity, it would be liable to face an application to the court for a closure order.

The court issues a closure order, not the service of a notice. The notice acts as a serious warning but it cannot sensibly be compared with the arrangements in clause 19 for closing licensed premises on police order, in which it is appropriate for a senior police officer to be involved, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman explained—because of the impact on legitimate business, such a decision has to be taken by an experienced officer of appropriate seniority. Illegal drinking clubs are not the type of business operated by legitimate concerns, which take part in the industry forums and brief the all-party groups to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are talking about premises that have been raided. As I said earlier, the service of a notice does not result in immediate closure. Given what is likely to precede the service of a notice and the fact that it is directed at preventing an illegal activity from restarting, the Government do not accept the necessity for the involvement of a senior police officer.

I take the point about the importance of ensuring that police manpower is used appropriately. It is not appropriate to require junior officers to brief senior officers to go through a complex process, coming out at the other end with the service of a notice on an activity that is illegal from beginning to end. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendments.

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

We have probed helpfully. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that I was not suggesting for a moment that companies such as First Leisure were involved in anything untoward. There is a need to ventilate the issues to protect what are merely referred to generally as ``unlicensed premises''. The Parliamentary Secretary says that we are dealing only with illegal drinking clubs, but that phrase does not appear in the legislation, which is, as one would expect, general.

I refer to clause 28, to which we shall come later, to clarify my point. The Government have included a specific provision on offences being committed by bodies corporate—I shall say more about that when we come to the clause. As we are trying to protect legitimate business from a perhaps inadvertent misuse of sweeping powers, it was important to raise how the powers should be used and whether there was a need for senior management to be involved. I shall not press the matter to a vote but I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider, when the Government look further at the section of the proposed Act in the light of my comments, the use of words that would more easily clarify the abuse that the Government seek to identify, to reassure legitimate businesses that they would never be targeted.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department 9:30 pm, 27th February 2001

I direct the hon. Gentleman to the tight wording in subsection (1).

Either a premises is or is not used for the unlicensed sale of intoxicating liquor for consumption on or off the premises. If it is and there is no licence, it is an unlicensed drinking club. If it is not and the operation is perfectly legitimate, it will not fall within the provisions.

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

Without labouring the point, one of our concerns was that premises not in possession of a drinks licence might be inadvertently and mistakenly suspected by a constable as having been used for the sale of intoxicating liquor. Police officers occasionally make mistakes, as the Minister would concede. We do not live in a perfect world. Safeguards are necessary because mistakes can be made. I shall not press the point further. The Minister has heard our concerns. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.