Clause 5 - Extension and discharge of closure order

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:00 pm ar 6 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 6:00, 6 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in

clause 5, page 4, line 42, leave out 'three' and insert 'twelve'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 32, in

clause 5, page 4, line 43, leave out 'six months' and insert 'two years'.

Amendment No. 33, in

clause 5, page 5, line 9, leave out subsection (7).

Amendment No. 34, in

clause 5, page 5, line 17, leave out 'must' and insert

'should if possible, if circumstances permit'.

Amendment No. 189.

Amendment No. 35, in

clause 5, page 5, line 25, at end insert

'but failure to effect service shall not invalidate the proceedings and shall not prevent a hearing taking place'.

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

There is only one group of amendments under clause 5. Among the amendments that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, there is a Government amendment. I wonder if I can ask the Minister whether Government amendment No. 189 is a correction of a mistake. [Interruption.] I see the Minister nodding—even Homer nods occasionally. It is nice that the Government have spotted it before the Bill makes further progress. I am glad about that, and I have no problem with the amendment.

Amendment No. 31 relates to the length of time for which courts can extend the period of a closure notice. We are talking about serious nuisances—that is the term that the Government used in earlier clauses—and we believe that the courts should be able to extent the period for 12 months; three months is not long enough. In amendment No. 32, because we think that six months is not long enough, we provide that the maximum should be two years. Amendment No. 33 would leave out subsection (7), because we think that there is a need to save police time.

I am anxious to ensure that cases are not adjourned simply because the police constable involved—the word ''constable'' is used generally, but it could be an

officer of any rank—is not available because of other duties. I am sorry to keep using the phrase, but based on my years practising in the criminal courts, I know that one of the biggest wastes of court time is caused by the fact that the police officer is on sick leave, otherwise unavailable, on annual leave, or giving evidence in another case in another court. The whole shooting match then has to be adjourned, sometimes for months, until the same bench of magistrates is available. It is a huge waste of time. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and I hope that he will think it sensible that individual officers should not be summoned to answer the complaint. The Minister may not foresee those consequences arising, and I shall listen with interest to his response.

Through amendment No. 34, we would leave out the word ''must'' and put in its place the phrase

''should if possible, if circumstances permit''.

At the moment, subsection (9) states that

''a notice stating the date, time and place at which the complaint will be heard must be served on'',

followed by a list of the persons to whom the summons is directed: those listed in paragraphs (6)(c) and (d), and the constable and the local authority. I am not worried about the constable and the local authority—unless they are the complainants—but we are talking about people who may be quite difficult to find. For instance, they may be squatters, as was suggested in an earlier debate, or serious drug offenders. I am concerned that the whole procedure should not be stopped simply because the courts are unable to effect service. It would strengthen the Bill considerably if it included a catch-all discretion of the sort suggested in the amendment.

I referred to the various problems that we are having in my constituency with gypsies and travellers, and I know that they are a worry to many other hon. Members of all parties and in all parts of the country. Such people deliberately try to avoid having anything served on them relating to court. Many cases are delayed or stopped altogether because the people who are supposed effect service of documents say that they cannot not find the person involved: they say, ''They all claim to be called George Smith and we could not find Bill Jones—the person who was supposed to be served.'' Although one can always serve constables and local authorities, it would make the Bill a great deal stronger—there would be less of a loophole for use by those running crack houses—if it said that the service of the notice on the persons listed in paragraphs (9)(a) and (b) should be effected ''if possible'' and ''if circumstances permit''.

Amendment No. 35 has the effect that failure to effect service should not invalidate proceedings and should not prevent a hearing taking place. Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 are both aimed at the same mischief. I hope that the Minister will accept the spirit of the amendments and perhaps in due course the letter.

We are making a genuine attempt to improve the Bill because we are very much aware that the closure notices will be important if the legislation is to work. That is why we suggest that the closure notices should

apply for a long time. We do not want a crack house or other drug-dealing establishment to be closed down for a short period, only to reopen after three months and one day so that the whole procedure has to start again, and we are sure that the Minister does not want that either. If the premises can be closed for a substantial time—a maximum of two years—we may find that we have dealt with the nuisance in a more final way.

I hope that dealing with our amendments compendiously has been helpful. I did not want to detain the Committee long, but I stress that these are not probing amendments; they deal with matters of great substance.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Following on from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, may I ask the Minister about a matter that has baffled a few of us? Whether the closure order is for three months, six months or whatever, if the closure notice and then the closure order were served on a council tenant who had control of the property, could the tenant return to the property after the three or six months, or would he or she automatically lose that property? Similarly, if it were a housing association property, what would happen to the tenant of the housing association on whom the notice was served?

I take the point of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath; the period is open to debate—there always has to be a judgment about that—but none of us wants to see premises that have been closed down reopening after three months or six months. What is the position after three or six months of the tenant of a council or housing association who is in the property when the closure notice or closure order is served on it? Can he or she return to the property?

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

This group of amendments highlights some interesting issues. The time issue is sensitive: while we have sympathy with the point that the problem should not recur, we know that in many parts of the country there is a shortage of premises to rent, so properties that have been closed down need to be brought back into the housing market as quickly as possible. There is a balance to be struck. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why periods of three and six months have been specified and what consultation was held to arrive at them. It is not a simple matter of closing a place down for a couple of years—in some places that would cause great distress to a completely unrelated family who were denied access to a house that they needed. The matter has to be addressed.

We are concerned about amendment No. 33. There might be cases, particularly under subsection (6)(d), of

''a person who has an interest in a closed premises but on whom the closure notice was not served,''

returning and wanting the property back. Some students own houses—perhaps they are bought for them by their parents. After university, they go round the world for six months; they rent the house to somebody who decides to run a crack house. The local authority closes it down. The owner, who was untraceable while backpacking round the world,

returns to discover a boarded-up house. The effect of the Conservative amendment would be to remove the ability of the court to direct the constable who asked for the closure to explain what had happened, and then to take a decision. I am surprised that the Conservatives would want to harm property owners who might, wholly unintentionally, have been caught out in that way. The amendment is therefore somewhat surprising.

We have, however, a great deal of sympathy with amendment No. 34. Clearly, there are cases in which it will be extremely difficult to serve a notice. Clause 5(9) refers to

''the persons to whom the summons is directed''

and

''the persons mentioned in subsection 6(c) and (d)''.

Subsection (6)(c) refers to

''a person on whom the closure notice relating to the closed premises was served''.

However, the person may well be nowhere to be found. The idea that a notice must be served may cause problems—after all, we are dealing in many cases with people whose are transient.

This is an interesting mixed bag of amendments. The first couple of amendments raise interesting questions, and we want to hear the Minister justify the time periods. We have concerns about houses not being available for other families to move into. Amendment No. 33 could cause quite severe difficulties to genuine owners of properties who were not related to the problem. Amendment No. 34 appears sensible, in that it would prevent the system from being clogged up by the failure to locate someone who was, or was involved in, running a crack den or crack house, and who was perhaps in Thailand trying to pick some more up and to import it into the country. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments seriously, particularly amendment No. 34.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 6:15, 6 Mai 2003

Extending the duration of the closure order through amendments Nos. 31 and 32 is unnecessary and undesirable. The power will be used in specific circumstances against premises known by the police to be a source of drug supply or use, and to be causing aggravation to the community by serious nuisance and disorder. Such premises need to be brought back into proper use as soon as possible to encourage strong and healthy communities. Leaving premises empty for longer than is necessary sends the wrong message to and about neighbourhoods that are trying to rid themselves of those problems. Extending the closure period would have no additional value in ensuring control over supply but could have considerable negative effects such as vandalism, squatting and arson as well as a negative visual impact.

The police have increasingly to consider this issue, and they cannot prosecute in all circumstances. Sometimes, they have to use the powers that we are trying to give them through various measures to disrupt the supply to the drugs market. Where areas have serious difficulties of that type, the relevant partnership will discuss the use of the powers. It will

secure agreement as to how they will be used, and they will be used to disrupt the drugs market and move people out of consistent patterns of supply. The length of time for which the Bill provides is sufficient to ensure that, at worst, the supply is moved somewhere else, where we may need to take exactly the same measures to keep on top of the problem and to keep the market secured. To drive out the nuisance and to bring the premises back into good and proper use, we need not keep the premises closed for the lengths of time that the Opposition suggest.

Instead of the proposed extension, there is a need for close consultation with local authorities by the police. Local authorities and other landlords will need to take swift action to retrieve the property and to bring in new occupants. The duration of the closure order as the legislation is drafted ensures that the premises can be retrieved by possession proceedings through the courts where appropriate.

That brings me on to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. There will be no automatic denial of reoccupation by the individual but the period when the property is in effect sealed and they have been removed gives the local authority or registered social landlord the ability to effect possession procedures to ensure that that individual does not return if that is what it thinks is right and appropriate. In those circumstances, it can let the premises to someone else.

It is not a blanket ban. One can envisage circumstances in which it would be appropriate to allow someone to move back into the premises—perhaps a vulnerable person who has been abused, or whose property has been effectively taken over. If that person has particular reasons for wanting to live in that area, if the local authority believes that it would be appropriate and safe for them to return to those premises after the stated period, and if the local authority believes that reoccupation was not going to result in the resumption of illegal activity, that local authority ought to be free to make a balanced judgment. In cases where a local authority does not want the occupants back, it can go through the normal possession period while the premises are effectively secured.

Amendment No. 33 removes the power of the court to call relevant constables to give evidence. It is essential that, in considering the discharge of a closure order, the correct representation and information is before the court. The court must consider whether that closure order is no longer necessary to prevent disorder and serious nuisance. Advice on that can be gained only through consultation with the police. That does not necessarily involve a particular officer, who may not be on shift or may have been moved. We envisaged that the appeals would be moved against senior officers, who would delegate the responsibility to turn up at court and to give evidence. The bureaucratic problem that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath envisages is not a problem in reality.

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

I hope that the Minister will understand that the Bill as drafted says,

''the justice may issue a summons directed to such constable as he thinks appropriate''.

The problem is that, whatever the Government intended, and however much the Minister is able to flesh it out in his response, the justice of the peace has complete discretion. If the justice of the peace issues a summons to one particular constable, we will have precisely the problem that I am talking about. I hope that the Minister will talk to his advisers and think about that issue again.

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

I will, but I would not wish to deny the court the ability to take that action where there were special circumstances in which the court needed to interrogate a particular individual. I believe that the overwhelming majority of orders will be against senior officers, who will delegate the responsibility to appear in front of magistrates. However, I will look at the issue. If I am advised that the situation is other than the one that I have set out, I will let the hon. Gentleman know. I accept that the situation that he has set out would be unworkable. I am sure that he is not trying to deny the court the ability to summon an individual, in cases where that court felt that it was essential.

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

The Minister is right. I am not intending to deny the court that opportunity but I wanted to highlight the fact that there is a genuine problem. Perhaps what the Minister needs to do after he talks to his advisers is table a Government amendment—either on Report or in another place—that makes clear in the Bill the delegation that he is talking about. That is not what the Bill says, as drafted.

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

The hon. Gentleman can take that as read. I will check that what is in the Bill does what I am saying it ought to do, rather than what he fears it might do.

Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 raise a valid point about the requirement for notice of a hearing in relation to an application for extension or discharge of the order to be served on all parties, and the possible effect that that could have on proceedings if that is not observed. That merits further consideration. I propose to look at it again and to return to it on Report.

Amendment No. 189, as the hon. Gentleman rightly assumed, puts right a typographical error that would have been spotted on re-reading.

I request that the Committee agrees to Government amendment No. 189 and that, in light of the assurances that I have given, hon. Members do not press their amendments, particularly amendments Nos. 34 and 35.

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

I am delighted to hear what the Minister says about amendments Nos. 34 and 35, and that he has firmly stated that he thinks that we have a genuine point, which he will consider. I hope that that will result in some Government amendments that deal with it.

It is not our intention to prevent authorities from putting accommodation back into legitimate use. However, I say to both the hon. Member for Ludlow and the Minister that all we will do by extending the maximum time is to give the court greater powers. The courts will know the housing situation in their areas.

Legislation that states, as we suggest, that a closure order must not have effect for more than two years and that the courts may extend the period for which the order has effect by a period not exceeding 12 months does not specify that those periods must be 12 months and two years; each is a maximum.

There may be circumstances in which courts want to avoid a restart of the misuse of the property after three months and one day. The hon. Member for Gedling and others on the Government Back Benches have talked about that matter. In the cases of serious drug misuse that this part of the Bill seeks to deal with, there is a fear that, if the time limits are too short—they cannot in any circumstances be longer than three months and six months—the problem could recur in the very way that we want to avoid. If we were proposing an amendment that said it had to be 12 months or two years in every case, I could understand the argument better. Giving the courts the power to use the longer time limits if appropriate—that is all that we suggest—is a serious option.

The Minister says that he will consider the matter and the hon. Member for Ludlow was fair in saying that there is always a judgment to be made about the appropriate maximum time limit. I understand the point about bringing accommodation back into use. All that our amendment seeks to do is to give the courts a wide maximum and complete discretion within it. We have discussed the point about the constables and the Minister has agreed to have further discussions on the matter. I am grateful to him. Given that he will consider all the points that were made in this useful debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 189, in

clause 5, page 5, line 20, leave out '(2)' and insert '(3)'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.