Clause 3 - Closure order: enforcement

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:30 pm ar 6 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:30, 6 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 131, in

clause 3, page 3, line 29, leave out 'or an authorised person'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 132, in

clause 3, page 3, line 33, leave out '(2)' and insert '(2)(a)'.

Amendment No. 25, in

clause 3, page 3, line 37, leave out 'before' and insert 'when'.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Amendments Nos. 131 and 132 are designed to probe the Minister for more information. My concern is about the idea of a

''constable or an authorised person'',

particularly when they enter a premises in respect of which an order is made. In our previous discussion, we were concerned about a local authority imposing a closure order, and it could be dangerous for someone to walk into the premises that we have discussed. I am rerunning some of a debate that I have previously had with the Minister when all Opposition Members had concerns about the powers given to community support and safety officers in dangerous situations. Are we talking about local authority workers? I would be concerned about their walking into a dangerous situation.

I should explain amendment No. 132, as it has taken me some time to get my head round it. The concern follows on from the idea of the authorised person. In particular, we are concerned about the application of subsection (2)(b) by an authorised person rather than a constable or other police officer. I will leave my comments at that. The amendments are probing, but I have deep concerns about an ''authorised person'' being put in a dangerous situation without having the training necessary to deal with it.

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

I want briefly to explain our amendment No. 25. I understand the hon. Lady's comments about her amendments and will listen with interest to the Minister's response. Our amendment is also to probe, but I hope that the Minister will give me the helpful reply that he gave to a couple of previous groups of amendments, in which he said that he would consider them carefully to see whether the Government could come up with amendments to improve the Bill before Report. The amendment is,

again, about a debate that happens in court, and the Minister and his advisers will know that whenever police officers are required to provide information before entering premises or arresting someone, it leads to endless hours of debate and cross-examination in court.

Subsection (4) is too restrictive. At the moment, it says that a constable or authorised person must

''produce evidence of his identity and authority before entering the premises.''

I can envisage much cross-examination of police officers or other authorised persons in which they are told that they did not show the people in the premises the warrant card or authority before entering. We have seen on television, if not in real life, the police using battering rams and other such equipment to break into premises used by drug dealers, for example, so it would be more realistic for them to show any warrant ''when'' they are entering the property. Provided that police officers who are in the process of entry show that they are police officers in uniform with a warrant card, such an approach would avoid the opening of another loophole.

If we are going to have this legislation, I want it to be workable. I do not want it to present opportunities for people to challenge the enforcement of the closure order. Therefore, it seemed to me that it would be very helpful to change the word ''before'' to the word ''when''. That would lead to less of a loophole, and to fewer hours of debates in courts, analysing what has happened, and whether the police or other authorised persons have acted properly. It is a small point, but it is one that I hope the Minister will take seriously. The intention on these Benches is to improve the Bill.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow 5:45, 6 Mai 2003

I rise to support both amendment No. 131 and the Conservative amendment, which makes a great deal of sense. [Interruption.] Yes, I know that I have a look of surprise on my face.

The police may suspect gun crime in a property, without necessarily having evidence. An officer knocking nicely on the door, showing his warrant card, and saying that he will issue something may not be appropriate in all circumstances. The police may feel that they need to go in wearing bullet-proof vests and beating the door down, because they would be under threat if they were to knock on the door gently. It is for exactly that reason that amendment No. 131 is so important, because it could be another authorised person who does that, instead of a police officer. The police are trained to deal with those situations and have access to firearms and equipment that they might need to deal with dangerous situations. I cannot think of any other authorised person who would have access to such equipment and training. Unless the Minister pulls something out of the hat, it will essentially be police officers. I think that amendment No. 131 and the Conservative amendment make a great deal of sense for the safety of the people involved in dealing with a potentially very dangerous situation.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Before we get carried away with the supposed stupidity of the proposals in the Bill, we

should consider whom we are talking about, and how it would work.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I was not referring to comments made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but to comments made by his new friend, the hon. Member for Ludlow.

When premises are subject to a closure writ, it is essential that they be fully secured. That would not necessarily happen during the initial raid. I refer to the enforcement of a court order that has taken place any time up to 48 hours after the initial closure took place by the police. That security will be necessary to prevent the property from being reoccupied and used for drug supply or use. It will also prevent the property from being taken over by squatters.

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

I understand entirely what the Minister is saying, and I can see that enforcement may take place after a court order. The Minister spoke about going in and securing premises against squatters or reoccupation. That reoccupation may have been happening while the case was going on in court. Therefore, the same people that I and the hon. Member for Ludlow have mentioned, who might be carrying guns, or who might be large-scale drug dealers, may be just as much a threat to the police after the order has been made as they were in the first instance.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is very true, but the hon. Gentleman should have a little consistency and a little patience. He will recall that, earlier in our debate this morning, he proposed that these powers be used without the police leading the circumstance.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

If he waits, he will see the effect of the amendment. The amendments would affect the ability of the police to ensure that the job is done effectively. It is not, in my opinion, a good use of police time for them to be carrying out the works that are required to secure the building. I do not know whether every constable has carpentry skills at his disposal. Although it should be a police-led operation—as we said this morning, those situations can be very dangerous—there will surely be a need for local authority workers to be present. They are present at other evictions in order to seal the premises, to secure them, to turn off the gas and to check all circumstances. Do we want a police constable to do that and to be given the necessary training in order to do so? Surely the constable would go in with a team of local authority workers or contractors, who will install security devices. A person engaged in that work needs to be authorised by the police. We do not want people to turn up and to secure premises without the permission and co-operation of the police.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I can see where the Minister is coming from, and in many ways I agree with him. However, the problem may not be that the amendment is wrong. Subsection (2) states:

''A constable or an authorised person may'',

which leaves it open for a council worker alone to turn up to do the work. The Minister might want to make it

clear that a police officer should be present when a possession takes place. We understand that someone needs to board up the windows and to brick up the doors, but as the Bill stands a council worker could be sent to brick up a house occupied by dangerous people.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. Hon. Members have clearly not listened to me. I said some time ago that interventions should be short, and I will insist that they are from now on.

Mr. Ainsworth rose—

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

Before the Minister responds, will he take a short intervention? He may want to examine my point with that made by the hon. Member for Ludlow. If the clause concerns a purely peaceful visit from an authorised person, there is no need for subsection (3), which states:

''A person acting under subsection (2) may use reasonable force.''

If the clause addresses a situation in which people may need to use force, surely our point about a violent entry is important.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sure that it is.

It may well be that ''may'' is not needed. In Coventry, for instance—I am sure that this is true of many major urban areas—the council has developed its own security service that seals up premises in difficult circumstances. Its modus operandi involves the police, who ensure that it is backed up and is not left out on its own. However, the security service often gets involved in sealing premises that have been used for purposes such as squatting, and it often does that on its own. It needs to be satisfied that it is safe, and it needs to liaise with the police to ensure that back-up is available, but there are circumstances in which it will want to seal premises and the police will want it to do so.

There is nothing wrong with the use of the word ''may''. We are attempting to achieve effective partnership between local authority agencies, which pick up the pieces when those powers have been used. They relocate people, rehouse them when necessary, deal with any children involved and secure premises. In many cases, the premises will belong to a local authority or a registered social landlord, and local authorities have developed their expertise in those matters over a period of time. A constable must serve the enforcement of the initial closure order, but after that there is the practical consideration of who does what in order properly to enforce the court order and to secure the premises.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Subsection (3) states:

''A person acting under subsection (2) may use reasonable force''.

Is that reasonable force against property or against people? That makes a big difference.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is reasonable force against property. I know of circumstances in which council employees have had to break windows to secure properties, sometimes acting on behalf of absent tenants whose properties have been broken into and are open to further burglary. Reasonable force has to

be used to secure the property for the tenants. That does not involve community support officers or accredited persons. We are not trying to get local authority workers to do the dangerous work needed, which is quite properly undertaken by properly trained police officers; equally, however, we do not want police officers to have to have carpentry and locksmith's skills to secure premises.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

To clarify this point, if reasonable force is intended to be used only against the building not against a person, it perhaps should be put on the face of the Bill. At present, it states that

''an authorised person . . . may use reasonable force.''

A council employee could use reasonable force against a person in the building. I should like some clarification that the building is the specific subject.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

A constable may use reasonable force against individuals in the first place to effect the notice and to assist those who are securing the premises. Liberal Democrat Members suspect a problem that does not exist. The police must do the police job. It will be necessary in many circumstances for them to use reasonable force against people who refuse to vacate the premises. People who have involved themselves in the sale and supply of class A drugs can be extremely violent. It is not a job for local authority workers, but local authority workers—properly approved people—need to come in to enforce the court order by securing the premises. If the hon. Gentleman has genuine fears that the Bill does something other than that, I will look into the matter to satisfy myself that it does not, but he is worrying unnecessarily and I hope that I can satisfy him in that respect.

In securing a property by, for example, installing security screens over windows, it is likely that some minor damage will be caused to the property. Restricting the use of reasonable force would mean that the police and the authorised persons working on their behalf could not secure the property against illegal access. Those servicing the closure order can enter the property without the permission of the occupiers. However, if they are requested to provide proof of their identity and authority before they enter the premises, it is only right and proper that they should do so.

The current wording, ''before'', ensures the same consequence as the proposed amendment's ''when''. I was trying to fathom when ''when'' would work and when ''before'' would not work. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath got carried away with his example. With the momentum gained from battering down the door, the constable might find himself inside the premises before he had managed to show his warrant card.

The provision is in line with the way in which the police operate under other legislation. ''When'' could be as problematical as ''before''. A lawyer could argue that the officer did not show his warrant card before he entered the premises, but did so after he gained entry—in other words, when he was entering. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a point that that

has identified with his lawyerly skills, I am happy to look at it, but people have looked at it and believe that ''before'' is the appropriate word that covers the circumstances that concern him.

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

As I hoped, the Minister is dealing with the point seriously. We do not suggest for a moment that ''when'' is perfect; I simply thought that it was an improvement on ''before'' for the reasons I set out. Perhaps he and his advisers can come up with another form of wording. I ask him to talk to people at the sharp end to see whether they do not agree that ''before'' may be too restrictive.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said, I can see that ''when'' could be just as problematical. However, we shall continue to look at it and if we think that he is on to something—we do not believe that he is—we shall seek to make the changes. We need to ensure that the job of securing the property is done as effectively as possible. It would be inappropriate either to exclude the authorised persons and insist that only the police enforce the closure order, or to restrict the ability to use reasonable force in carrying out that role.

Although I really do not believe that there is a problem, I offer the caveat that I shall continue to consider the issues and if the provisions effectively allow a non-police officer to do a police job, the necessary changes can be made. However, I do not think that that will be necessary. The provisions are about allowing the reasonable force that is necessary to do the job to be used by both the police and those whom the police authorise to take part in the process of sealing and securing a property.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:00, 6 Mai 2003

I am pleased that the Minister has said that he will look again at all the issues. That is particularly pertinent as far as amendment No. 25 is concerned. I am rather glad that we tabled the probing amendments and that we had the debate, because as it progressed it became clearer where my greatest concerns lie.

The issue centres on subsection (3), which states that

''A person acting under subsection (2) may use reasonable force.''

I can envisage the carpenter doing the work being jumped on, perhaps by someone under the influence of drugs who has got back into the premises. Such a situation will be difficult for everybody involved, because there will be an element of self-defence and fear when that person is not trained to deal with such circumstances. I accept the Minister's assurances that he will look at the matter again, but my concern has increased during the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South

I seek a small but important point of clarification and advice from the Minister. Subsection (5) refers to

''carrying out essential maintenance of or repairs to the premises.''

Does that imply a duty of care or an additional legal responsibility for the police?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not believe that it does. The word used is ''may'', but we do not want anyone to be under the illusion that in order for such things to be done the premises that have been secured may not be entered. We do not want the property to be destroyed by the elements or for the utilities to go wrong, so the provision gives the police permission to enter the premises at any time while the order is in effect to carry out essential maintenance or repairs. I do not believe that the provision gives any obligation or duty of care.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.