Schedule 17

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 7:35 pm ar 27 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Closure orders: premises associated with persistent disorder or nuisance

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

I beg to move amendment No. 328, in schedule 17, page 193, line 11, at end insert—

‘(d) the making of the order is not a disproportionate response to the disorder or nuisance caused;

(e) the making of the order will not cause unnecessary hardship or suffering to the families of those against whom the order is made;

(f) appropriate steps have previously been taken to address the disorder or nuisance without success.’.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 329, in schedule 17, page 193, line 30, at end insert—

‘(10) No closure order shall be made unless the magistrates’ court is satisfied that appropriate arrangements have been made by the local authority for alternative accommodation and support for those affected by it.’.

No. 354, in schedule 17, page 193, line 30, at end insert—

‘(10) If a child under 18 is resident on the premises, no action shall be taken until a multi-agency assessment of the child’s needs has taken place.’.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

My amendments relate to the power of closure orders. Amendment No. 329, which is the key amendment, refers to vulnerable people and their families who might be a nuisance and could therefore be subject to a closure order.

Closure orders combined with antisocial behaviour orders have been very successful. They provide the power to close premises for three months and, in exceptional circumstances, for six months. They have been appropriate, particularly for premises in which there have been drug problems, although sometimes premises can be closed for too long, and they blight the rest of the neighbourhood. However, the orders have solved problems and they are popular. The Minister was right to say that orders such as ASBOs and closure orders are popular when a nuisance has been caused.

However, there are problems relating to the orders. One is the issue of vulnerable people; the other is what Liberty calls “cuckooing”, which means displacement. That is an unfortunate consequence. Once premises are closed down, people who are the subject of the order may then target very vulnerable people and move into their premises. On one level, the Government or the police authorities need to deal with that problem and be alert to the danger of cuckooing, which is the unfortunate consequence of a closure order.

The orders also provide powers to close premises for activities that are not unlawful. For example, lots of people coming in and out of premises might not necessarily be a sign that antisocial behaviour is going on. It might be that lots of parties are going on. I agree that they are a nuisance, but in themselves they are not necessarily unlawful. In a sense, that is a precedent that needs to be considered.

The only other point that I want to make is that when the original consultation came out, it included very strong safeguards. I will not take up the time of the Committee and read the whole report, but it mentioned putting in robust guidelines for the consideration and operation of the closure process, such as considering whether closure is the most appropriate course of action and addressing the needs of vulnerable people in the household, including children and young people. There was quite a detailed statement in relation to the original consultation, which is not reflected in the Bill. That is the point that I am most concerned about.

Vulnerable people are potentially involved—they are not necessarily the ones causing the nuisance, but may be relatives or others who live in the house. They could all be thrown out and made homeless. My amendment says that there should be provision to look after them and, if necessary, the local authority should provide alternative accommodation for vulnerable people.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I seem to spend a lot of time in this Committee asking, “What about the children?” In this instance, I am talking about children who have not been accused of any crime or even of any potentially offending behaviour, but who merely happen to reside in the house or premises that are subject to a closure order.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead has already made a number of the points that I wanted to make. Amendment No. 354 is a probing amendment to see how the Government intend, first, to assess the needs of vulnerable people on such premises and, secondly, to cater for them if a closure order is made. As the hon. Gentleman said, this issue was recognised in the Government’s own consultation paper, “Strengthening powers to tackle anti-social behaviour”, which the Home Office published in 2006. He quoted part of a passage from it that I had intended to quote when he said:

“The needs of any vulnerable people in the household, including children and young people, will need to be considered.”

It goes on to say:

“Their safety must not be compromised and a clear plan needs to be put in place to safeguard them and promote their welfare if the closure goes ahead.”

Amen to that. It is exactly what the Government should be considering in this context, but at the moment there is no mention as far as I can see, in either the parent clause or the schedule, to that assessment being made.

In other legislation of a broadly similar type, that linkage is made. Let us consider, for instance, housing benefit sanctions under section 31 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007. There is a link between the sanction and helping the family in question to deal with the consequences, but in the Bill no link is made between the closure order and rehabilitative services. In my view, there should be  such a link. The Government appear to have at least considered it at an earlier stage, but it does not appear in the Bill.

How does the Minister propose to ensure that vulnerable people, such as children, who reside in the same premises are safeguarded in relation to actions that may be completely beyond their control—actions that are committed by another person, perhaps a parent or another relative, who is resident in the same premises? I ask that because we do not believe in collective punishment in this country. It is not appropriate that we should not have regard for the interests of innocent parties.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I welcome the amendments to clarify what happens when closure orders have unintended consequences that affect the most vulnerable people. I am referring to family members or other residents of the premises who are not in any way associated with the behaviour that is the basis for the closure order. I also wish to take the opportunity to assert our support for the principle of closure orders and to acknowledge the success of similar orders in the past.

The points made by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Leyton and Wanstead on the two amendments were very well made. It is interesting to consider closure orders in Scotland. There, unlike in England and Wales, the sheriff must have regard to these two factors when determining whether to make a closure order: first, the ability of any person who habitually resides in a premises to find alternative accommodation and, secondly, any vulnerability of any such person who has not been engaged in antisocial behaviour that has occurred in the premises.

Those two additional requirements would not water down the purposes of closure orders, but they would deal with hon. Gentlemen’s concerns. They would explicitly make clear what would happen to vulnerable people who are not engaged in antisocial behaviour. Will the Minister say why a measure that is in place and explicit in Scotland is not proposed for England and Wales? The Home Office lauds the success with which the Scottish powers have been used, so perhaps the guidance that is available there should also be available in England.

Another practical point relates to homelessness—those who are unintentionally made homeless by closure orders. It is accepted that there should be no statutory duty to house those who have brought homelessness upon themselves through antisocial behaviour, but if local authorities increasingly implement closure orders, they will have to deal with the practical matter of housing vulnerable individuals who are left without a home because of the orders. I want the Minister to clarify that question and to provide some reassurance on guidance. Will additional or amended guidance be provided to local authorities for when they make decisions on housing people who, through no fault of their own, are as much the victims as the rest of the community are of behaviour that takes place in houses that become subject to orders.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 7:45, 27 Tachwedd 2007

Welcome back, everyone.

May I begin by saying to the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate, and for Somerton and Frome, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead,  that I welcome their support for the principle of premises closure orders? I also welcome the recognition that, alongside crack house closures, they have made a real difference in many communities and have dealt with problems. Some premises in all hon. Members’ constituencies cause huge difficulties—we accept that. We are left with the question of what to do about the problem. I accept that any action must be proportionate and reasonable, but it must be effective. Sometimes, not addressing a problem can cause it to continue.

We all face the question of how many warnings to issue. When does the end point come? It is quite difficult to decide and, in fact, the question is rhetorical. I can think of examples from my constituency, as I am sure others can, in which the various measures that we might wish to take have been taken, yet the antisocial, disruptive behaviour continues. Sometimes, people are at a loss, and when they ask me why nobody is doing anything about the problem, I am forced to reply that lots of people are doing something, but we are left with the fact that it is not working. Allowing such problems to continue—I am not suggesting that hon. Members believe that it should be allowed—does not do a great deal for the children who live in such houses or those who live in the area. We are left with a huge dilemma for public policy and sometimes one wonders what can be done.

Premises closure orders are an attempt to plug a difficult gap and they had huge public support. The question is, how do we make them work proportionately and in a way that we can all feel comfortable with? The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, if I remember rightly, asked whether there will be guidance and rules and what the guidance will include. There will be robust guidance on how the orders operate and how the process is put into practice. I will ensure that we include housing considerations as part of the guidance. I make that commitment to the hon. Gentleman because he specifically asked about that. However, as part of the guidance we would also expect the police, the local authority and all of the other statutory agencies to show that consideration has been given to every other possible intervention prior to a premises closure order being applied for. In other words, the guidance will say that this process is only appropriate if it is an absolute last resort and nothing else seems to be appropriate.

In some circumstances, although this sounds contradictory, actually closing the premises will force the system to deal with the needs of children and vulnerable people. I say that as a teacher. I make the analogy that, as a deputy head teacher, I never wanted to exclude young people from school, but in one or two instances the only way to force a resolution to the problem was to take what I regarded as a draconian step. In respect of premises closure orders, in some circumstances, that point will be reached. In other words, the order can act as a catalyst.

I know what my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead is trying to do, and, as the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Enfield, Southgate said, we have to protect children and vulnerable people. I believe that through guidance we can ensure that we do that, even though the safeguards are not necessarily on the face of the Bill. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend that new section 11B(7)  of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, inserted by schedule 17, states that upon application to the court for a closure order:

“The magistrates’ court may adjourn the hearing on the application for a period of not more than 14 days to enable—

(a) the occupier of the premises,

(b) the person who has control of or responsibility for the premises, or...any other person with an interest in the premises—

I would expect that to be a parent, whether a mother or a father, of children involved—

“to show why a Part 1A closure order should not be made.”

I would expect that in those circumstances people could make representations to the magistrates court. The magistrate can adjourn and, which may include children, people can then make representations to say that the premises closure order should not go ahead because proper consideration has not been given to the vulnerable people in the household that is to be shut.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Llafur, Northampton North

Does my hon. Friend agree that if serious consideration is to be given to not giving a premises closure order because there are young children in a house that is being used in certain ways, for example in crack houses, would it not be advisable at that stage for the medical safeguarding children board to be involved, to make an assessment of whether the premises should be closed, and to make proper arrangements for the protection of the children?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

That is a good point and I will take it on board. It should certainly state within the guidance that all along the way, local safeguarding children boards and such like should be available. As I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead will be able to withdraw his amendment. There are safeguards in the Bill and there will be guidance, although I take the point that alongside what is a good power, we must ensure that we protect the vulnerable.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

I appreciate the assurances and frank answers given by the Minister, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Seventeenth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

The schedule has a very wide definition of premises associated with disorder or nuisance. I refer to new section 11K(13) of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, inserted by the schedule, which states:

“Premises includes—

(a) any land or other place (whether enclosed or not);

(b) any outbuildings which are or are used as part of premises.”

That definition of premises has a wide remit, and I would like the Minister to comment on that and on the intentions behind giving such a wide ambit in relation to premises. Is it part of the purpose of that wide ambit to include open land that might be owned privately or publicly and which may, for example, include a Travellers’ site where there has been evidence of persistent disorder or nuisance? Would that type of persistent disorder or nuisance come within the ambit of premises closure orders?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we have made the definition wide. We have done so because there may be buildings or land to which these orders may be appropriate. Therefore, with that in mind, we included that measure within the Bill to give the opportunity for the police or local authority to apply to the court for such an order.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 17 agreed to.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

On a point of order, and to avoid unnecessary repetition, I wonder whether it might be for the convenience of the Committee if, contrary to the grouping on the paper, we might deal with amendments Nos. 337 to 339 and clause stand part together. I would be happy to do that if you, Mr. O’Hara, and the Committee were agreeable.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

That seems sensible, if it is for the convenience of the Committee.