Clause 154 - Confiscation of sealed containers of alcohol

Licensing Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 15th May 2003.

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Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 2:30 pm, 15th May 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 428, in

clause 154, page 83, line 42, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

Welcome back, Mr. Gale. With any luck, this may be your last attendance—although we do not plan to skate through the Bill so quickly.

Section 1 of the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 provided a sanction—the seizure of alcohol—while keeping young people from entering the criminal justice system. The police believe that that was an eminently successful enforcement and crime prevention measure. The reform in section 29 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 significantly reduced the ability of the police to prevent alcohol abuse by juveniles by restricting the seizure of alcohol to opened vessels only. It was not long before juveniles realised that sealed containers could not be seized by the police.

The proposed reform in the Bill retains the sealed container feature, but seeks to mitigate its effect by allowing an officer to seize the containers if he ''reasonably believes'' that juveniles have certain intentions. That is found in proposed new subsection (1A)(b) of section 1 of the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act. The weakness of that position is that an expression of an intention by the young person might be as follows: ''Well, I'm just taking these sealed cans home to drink.'' That would forestall any action by a constable, and it could leave a 14-year-old child walking off with a sealed six-pack of high-strength cider, for example. We believe that that reform would defeat the Bill's objectives of crime prevention and protecting children from harm.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Welcome back, Mr. Gale.

Clause 154 amends the 2001 and 1997 Acts, so that the police have the power to confiscate alcohol in sealed containers from anyone in an area that has been designated by the local authority for the purposes of curbing antisocial behaviour; they will also be able to confiscate it from under-18s in any public place.

We have included the clause at the request of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, following representations he received from the police, and it is drafted precisely as they requested. Currently, the police can confiscate alcohol only if it is in open containers. In extending that power to sealed containers, the clause provides an important measure for the control of antisocial behaviour. The clause as it is currently drafted preserves the rights of the owners

of the sealed containers by requiring the police officer involved to observe a simple test. He must reasonably believe that the person is or has been consuming alcohol, or intends to consume it, in any relevant place. For adults, that is a place designated by the local authority in which people must not consume alcohol when they are asked not to do so by a police officer, but in the case of a person under 18, it means any public place. The approach to the seizure of personal property is proportionate and reasonable.

Amendment No. 428 would remove any semblance of proportionality and would raise serious important questions about human rights. The alcohol in question will normally be the personal property of the person who is carrying it. In the case of an adult, he or she may be carrying it home from the supermarket or taking it to the local park to have a picnic, both of which are entirely legitimate activities. In the case of a person under 18, the cans of beer may have been given to him by a parent to take to a party. It is not unlawful to give alcohol to a 16-year-old, and it is not unlawful for him to consume it at a private party. If he has no intention of consuming it in the street, why should his carrying it be anyone else's business?

In all those cases, the individuals concerned are going about their lawful business. Amendment No. 428 would mean that a police constable could seize the cans of beer, or bottles of wine, and destroy them without any reasonable cause or justification—without a hint of antisocial behaviour being involved. It is difficult to imagine a more complete infringement of human rights in respect of personal possessions. Public drinking of alcohol is a problem in parts of our towns and cities, and some adults and children cause considerable public nuisance in that regard, but we cannot set about tackling these problems by allowing the police to seize personal property without justification.

The test set out in the clause is not a difficult one for the police. A police officer would have no difficulty in forming a reasonable belief, based on having seen the individual drinking, and on the knowledge that seizing just the open container would simply mean that the individual would continue his drinking from the currently sealed containers as soon as he walked away. He could also form his belief on the evidence of other witnesses, even if he personally had not seen the alcohol being consumed. If he knew the individuals concerned, having caught them drinking there before, he would have all he needed to form a reasonable belief.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what I have said, and withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am somewhat surprised that the Minister assures the Committee that the wording of this clause—which, as he rightly said, amends two earlier pieces of legislation—is the precise wording that the police asked for. Some police asked for that wording, but the police who contacted me—that was Kent county constabulary again, so perhaps the Minister needs to have further discussions with them—suggested the amendment that I tabled. Kent police feel that the Bill makes things difficult for them, and that the phrase ''reasonably believes'' could be a

get-out for many young people who are caught with sealed containers.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I know that the hon. Gentleman will find what I have to say useful and supportive. I have been informed that we have recently received correspondence from Kent Members of Parliament enclosing letters from Kent county constabulary; we are aware of their concerns and we will respond to them shortly.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that that contact has been made, and that he intends to listen to what the constabulary have to say on this and other issues. Therefore, in the interests of making progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 154 ordered to stand part of the Bill.