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Closure Notice

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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2.52 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 1, line 8, after 'A', insert 'B or C'.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 63, in page 1, line 9, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

No. 65, in page 3, line 3, in clause 2, after 'A', insert 'B or C'.

No. 64, in page 3, line 3, at end insert 'or'.

No. 66, in page 3, line 4, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 67, in page 3, line 5, at end insert 'or'.

No. 68, in page 3, line 6, leave out paragraph (c).

No. 92, in page 6, line 37, in clause 9, after 'constable', insert 'or authorised person'.

No. 69, in page 8, line 2, in clause 11, at end insert—

'and Class B and Class C controlled drugs which are Class B and Class C drugs within the meaning of that Act'.

Government amendment No. 30.

The Conservatives have no problem with the clarification contained in Government amendment No. 30, which helpfully pursues a point that we made in Committee. My interpretation of amendment No. 92, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, is that it is also an attempt to clarify matters.

We discussed in Committee the issues relating to the extension of the powers to close premises in which drug dealing is taking place to cover class B and C drugs, as well as class A drugs—as the Bill currently provides. We feel so strongly about the matter that we are returning to it again today. We voted on it in Committee and although, of course, we were defeated by the massed ranks of Labour Back Benchers, we wish to debate this important matter again today. We had some support from Labour Back Benchers in Committee. Indeed, in response to similar amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats, some helpful comments were made by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), now Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Of course, she then had the freedom of the Back Benches. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in welcoming both Ministers to their posts, but we will look with interest at everything that the Under-Secretary said when she spoke for herself as a Back Bencher in Committee, in case she is briefed to say slightly different things now that she has been elevated to her new position. On this group of amendments, she was helpful to the case that I am seeking to put, because she pointed out that people who have taken cannabis can often behave in a very silly way. That supports my point that the extra powers would be useful in seeking to deal with antisocial behaviour.

The Liberal Democrats were, as usual, all over the place, with their two spokesmen on the Committee failing to agree with each other, and their more senior spokesman—the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke)— expressing reservations about her policy stance on such matters at their party conference. She said that she would give details of her personal position later. But the Conservatives feel that the powers of the police to close premises where antisocial behaviour has arisen because of class B drugs should be extended to class C drugs. That is because the Government have—unwisely, in our view—announced plans to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C. However, we have noted that the Government have now put back the date on which that downgrading will take place, and we have seen some media coverage of that in the past.

Our position can be succinctly stated. It would be helpful if police officers had the discretion to close premises if antisocial behaviour arose from the use of class B and class C drugs on those premises. As I pointed out in Committee, if one property in a street—and this is particularly true of tourist resorts with many small bed-and-breakfast establishments—becomes known as a place where drug dealing takes place, the bad drives out the good. The good hotelier, who is uninvolved in drugs, will get fewer and fewer customers, because it becomes known that the street contains a property that is used for drug dealing, the consumption of drugs or both. Because of such antisocial behaviour, we say that if the police had the discretion to intervene even in cases in which it cannot be proved that class A drugs are involved, it would be in the interests of the law-abiding members of the community.

The Government's response in Committee was that there is a particular problem with class A drugs—for example, crack houses—and we accept that. Many members of the Committee made that point from their knowledge of their constituencies and other inner-city areas. However, our response was that problems could arise from other drug use. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), in particular, gave us some support for that view from the Labour Back Benches. If premises are used to produce, manufacture or distribute class B or C drugs, people—especially young people—can be drawn into the drugs subculture. We accept that some of the existing powers may not always be used properly by the forces of law and order, and local people often put pressure on them to do more. The powers in the Bill that are restricted to class A drugs could, if used properly, provide some extra strings for the police's bow. From my experience over many years, both prosecuting and defending drugs cases at the Bar in the midlands, I know that the problems are not restricted to class A drugs.

I hope that the Government will continue to consider the matter thoroughly. Even if they cannot accept amendments Nos. 62 to 69, we would be delighted if the Minister will undertake to keep the matter under review and consult with local authorities and senior police officers. Many of them will tell her that it would be useful if the powers were not restricted solely to class A drugs.

3 pm

I wish to begin by putting on record the thanks of Liberal Democrat Members for the work done in Standing Committee by the former Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) and for the part that he played in our debates. We may have had some quite strong disagreements, but the then Minister's good humour and ability to listen to all points of view was very welcome.

I too shall be brief. We had a comprehensive discussion in Committee of this part of the Bill. There was a strong feeling that the aim should be to target class A drugs, to tackle very serious issues of antisocial behaviour, and to use resources effectively.

The Conservative amendments are strange in places. They would mean that ordinary households could face closure notices, and their inclusion of class C drugs could lead to the criminalisation of millions of people. That would be less than productive, given the specific aim of the Bill. We need effective action to deal with what is a very serious problem.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was right to say that amendment No. 92 returns to an issue that we have raised before. We are not sure that the matter that it addresses is absolutely clear, and I hope that the Minister will give us more reassurance on that. The House will recall that the debate in Committee began with the statement in clause 3 that a
"constable or an authorised person"
may enter premises and do anything
"reasonably necessary to secure the premises against entry by any person."
It was explained in Committee that the authorised person could be a carpenter. Our amendment No. 92 deals with clause 9, which exempts the constable from certain damages but which does not mention the authorised person. That person—the carpenter—could do damage to the property involved. We do not want to give the authorised person unlimited liability, but a balance has to be struck. Our amendment is the simplest way to ensure that the carpenter—or authorised person—would not get caught up in litigation.

We are also worried about the safety of the authorised person in the situation set out in clause 9. Is it clear that all the people present have been removed from the premises by the police? If a person under the influence of drugs goes back into the building, there is a danger that he might attack the authorised person.

I hope that amendment No. 92 makes crystal clear our concerns about clause 9.

I hope that the House will not agree to amendments Nos. 62 to 69. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) put her finger on the problem very neatly. We are talking about very dangerous addictive drugs. People who use crack are often totally out of control. The specific requirements for crack and heroin are different from what is needed in connection with other drugs. All of us in the Chamber should acknowledge that.

Rejecting the Conservative amendments would also make it clear that we are speaking about enforcement. We must focus our activity and use police time effectively. If we do not focus in the way set out in the Bill, we will spread our resources to thinly and have significantly less effect as a result.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will understand that the Conservative amendments are neither valuable nor important. We must keep focusing on crack cocaine, which is seriously destructive—for the people who take it, for their families, and for the communities in which they live. We must rid our communities of that scourge.

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) in urging the Government to accept the Conservative amendments. As he said, they would amend closure notices and orders in two principal ways, by separating drug taking from associated nuisance when notices and orders are made, and by extending the drug categories involved, so that drugs in classes B and C were also covered, as well as those in class A.

I hope that the House will excuse me if I draw on constituency cases of mine. I do not intend to speak for long. A case that is current in my constituency involves a young lady who has some mental difficulties. Her boyfriend, an extremely violent and unpleasant drug taker, moved in with her. After suffering sustained domestic violence, she fled the premises. She now lives in another town.

The young man continued to terrorise the neighbours, one of whom was a young male tenant in a neighbouring property. He had learning difficulties, but was nevertheless managing to look after his property. My constituent's former boyfriend remained heavily involved in activities with a variety of drugs.

The story is close to having a happy ending. The council and the police were able to take joint action, under existing legislation. However, the House should imagine what would have happened if the case that I have described were different in one of two possible ways. First, if the man had married the young lady before he began to beat her up—or at least had entered a long-term arrangement with her to the point that he shared tenancy of the property with her—the process of evicting him would have been much more complicated. In either case, he would have been a fully legal tenant, with all that that implies in connection with tenure. We shall discuss the question of tenure later.

The second possibility has to do with the extremely brave ladies who lived in the street. They came to see me at my surgery, and caused me to take action in the matter. They were faced with the threats of violence from the man at the centre of this case, but were willing to go public about what was happening. It is fortunate that the man involved was acting on his own. Had he been part of a gang that was terrorising the neighbourhood, the situation would have been very different when the matter went to court.

I shall explain why amendment No. 63, and the three or four associated amendments, are necessary. Although it is straightforward to show in a magistrates court that a property is being used for drug taking—all sorts of forensic evidence is usually available in such cases—it is by no means as straightforward to show that a property is a source of public nuisance. If people in the same street are too frightened to testify, how can magistrates establish that a property is the focus of a public nuisance? There is no doubt that the property to which I have referred was such a focus.

If the man whom I have described had been a legitimate tenant in the property, and not merely lived for a few months with the unfortunate woman who suffered violence at his hands, how could any court—magistrates court or Crown court—reasonably establish that the house was a centre for public nuisance? That is why it is important that the public nuisance test should be separate from the test of drug taking; if memory serves, that point was originally raised by Labour Members on Second Reading. Amendment No. 63 and its consequential provisions are essential if the Bill is to strengthen the police's armoury, as Members on both sides of the House want.

Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the scale of the problem that we are discussing? I suggest that he moves to Teesside where the number of crack houses is growing exponentially. We do not have just one such house but many hundreds of them. We are talking about the effectiveness of police operations in dealing with a problem of that scale. Will the hon. Gentleman bear that in mind as he addresses the issue? Adding class B and C drugs to the clause, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, would undermine effective police operation.

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I was just about to refer to the amendments on the extension of the powers to classes B and C. Before I do so, I hope that she will acknowledge that nothing that she said in either her speech or her intervention goes against the proposals in amendment No. 63 and their consequentials; they have nothing to do with extending the provisions to classes B and C. It is unfortunate that two sets of our amendments were grouped together as they have different purposes.

Amendment No. 63 deals with removing the requirement to show that a crack house is also a public nuisance. The hon. Lady's Labour colleagues were the first to object to that additional requirement. The amendment would insert the word "or" in place of "and" in the relevant provisions. It is obviously much easier to prove that somewhere is a crack house than that it is a public nuisance, because witnesses are not required.

The hon. Lady referred to the scale of the problem. The police are never forced to pursue any particular case. Policing priorities remain those set down by the chief constable, as they have been for many, many years. Our proposals would offer the police the opportunity—if they want to take it—to deal with houses that have become notorious. In every city in the country, including Canterbury and Whitstable in my constituency, we know of houses that are regularly used for class B and C drug taking. There are all-night parties and it is difficult for people in the neighbourhood to give their children an ordinary upbringing.

Nobody is forcing the police to pursue such cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath pointed out that one house that is on the way down can set the tone for a whole street and we can learn from the policing successes in New York in that regard. The Kent police force, whose chief constable, Sir David Phillips, is in his last week of tenure, is especially good and has achieved some of the largest crime reductions in the country. In Thanet, a neighbouring constituency to mine, the burglary rate is only 10 per cent. of what it was in the first week of Sir David's tenure. That is a remarkable record. If the Kent police were given the opportunity to use the legislation in respect of class B and C drugs as well as class A drugs, from time to time they would do so, to make an example of people and to prevent areas going to the bad before the problem got out of hand.

I promised that my speech would be brief. We have a ridiculously short time in which to discuss a great deal of material. I urge the House to support our amendments and to understand the differences between them. The first set of provisions should be uncontentious, as they were initially raised from the Labour Benches in Committee.

3.15 pm

I am delighted to be taking part in the debate on this excellent Bill. I thank all the colleagues with whom I served on the Standing Committee. One of my first jobs on taking office was to request a document setting out everything that I had said in Committee. I am pleased to note that I said nothing then that I would not be prepared to say today.

I welcome the Minister for Housing and Planning, as he will be dealing with parts of the Bill. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who, in Committee, had to put up with quite a lot from me and others, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) who was sometimes worried that every time he left the Room the Labour ranks were mutinying behind his back.

What was positive in Committee was that we had extensive time to discuss and explore a range of issues. Sometimes, we challenged the Minister and on many occasions my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East was a credit to his job, providing the reassurances that we needed. That was good.

I thank the Opposition for raising issues in Committee, as they have done today. Their concerns gave rise to considerable discussion in Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East agreed to consider their arguments on Report. As a member of the Committee and in the short time that I have been a Minister, I, too, have reflected on what was said and the issues that were raised about premises used for drug taking. We take the problems seriously and have held interdepartmental and external consultations on them with drug organisations and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

We also continue to receive representations from Back Benchers. The problems of antisocial behaviour show the importance of the links between constituencies and MPs. Few other subjects so reflect the strong role that MPs play in representing the views of their community, in differing communities throughout the country.

The power in this part of the Bill was devised to deal with a specific problem that police and housing providers asked us to address: the closure of properties where drugs such as crack and heroin are used and sold, and where intense nuisance is also found. It is to be used only when all other methods of tackling the problem have been exhausted, or would take too long, unnecessarily prolonging damage to communities as a result. Such powers are not to be used lightly. They are severe.

Amendments Nos. 62, 65 and 69 would expand that power to cover class B and C drugs. As press coverage has shown, we have given that proposal active consideration and we held external consultations, following the Committee stage. Nevertheless, after great thought, we decided that we should continue to focus the power exclusively on class A drugs—a point made particularly well by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). In the update of the national drugs strategy, we clearly stated our intention of focusing action on drugs in that way, which was widely welcomed. Class A drugs cause the greatest harm and are associated with serious nuisance, by which I mean violent nuisance. In deciding to reject the amendment, we remain true to our intention to reflect the actual harm caused by the sale and use of those drugs.

We have decided, therefore, that the creation of a new power to act against drugs other than class A controlled drugs would largely be a matter of presentation, rather than the creation of an appropriate power to control an actual problem. The Government intend to reclassify cannabis, as has already been mentioned, from a class B to a class C drug. That reflects the harm that it causes while making the drug classification system more credible to the public. However, that does not mean that we advocate cannabis use. The Government's policy is to concentrate on class A drugs and to restrict the power to close premises to those where such drugs are sold and used. However—

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I warmly congratulate her on her appointment.

Given the importance of achieving maximum impact for minimum effort within a framework of inevitably limited resources, does the hon. Lady concede—there would be no shame in her doing so—that in rejecting the amendments she is at least partly motivated by the consideration that there is a limit on the amount of money available and the amount of police time that can reasonably be expected to be committed?

That reflects the priorities, the resources and the maximum impact on communities, and the reality is that crack houses, as they are referred to, have an enormous impact on communities. In crack houses where class A drugs are used, class B and C drugs may often be used as well.

I support what my hon. Friend says. Those powers will be greatly welcomed by tenants' associations and others in my constituency who suffer from what goes on in such one-off drug dealing places. We do not, however, want extensive powers to be granted that will not then be used by the police, which is why focusing on and prioritising class A is absolutely right.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. This is about being effective and using smarter policing to tackle the damage that drugs cause in our communities.

Although the Government's policy is to concentrate. on class A drugs and to restrict the proposed powers to the way that those drugs are sold and used, we will continue to ensure that the police act against those who sell or produce cannabis. The fact that the Criminal Justice Bill, which is being considered in the House, will extend the penalties for dealing in cannabis to 14 years is very important, and the Home Secretary and I support that change. As I have said before, people who use or sell cannabis as well as crack in such houses will be acted against, using those powers.

I also congratulate the Minister on her welcome appointment. She uses the word "effective". Surely the central issue about effectiveness and, indeed, using resources is that it is much easier to prove that a place is a crack house than to prove that it is a public nuisance. Will she now address amendment No. 63?

I will deal with amendment No. 63 shortly, and I hope that my answer will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

A further reason for our decision was revealed in the external consultation. The feeling was that such expansion to class B and C drugs would have a negative impact on our colleagues who work with drug users in the treatment and homeless sector. It is not desirable to repeat the fear caused in that sector by the amendment of section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and further destabilise the sector. The risk would be that such agencies would avoid housing all drug users, which would create its own problems if those people were homeless, on the street and open to temptation and crime. That could lead to greater homelessness and harm to those individuals and society.

Amendments Nos. 63, 64 and 67 would create a new power that could be applied to any circumstance of serious nuisance. As drafted, the new power, which is severe, is designed to apply to a specific situation of acute harm, where drugs are sold from buildings and where serious nuisance arises that needs to be dealt with quickly. In seeking to amend the Bill in that way, the Opposition want to create a blanket severe power that could be used in all situations of serious nuisance. It is our view that the power is appropriate only to the particular, acute circumstances of the sale of illegal drugs from crack houses, not to other types of serious nuisance where related criminality is not as severe.

Those forms of nuisance should be controlled through other powers, not least the existing powers available to social landlords to evict tenants, which are strengthened in part 2. A whole host of other powers are therefore available to deal with that type of nuisance, which reflects the wish of hon. Members in Committee to ensure that the existing and new powers are used appropriately and to good effect.

Amendments Nos. 66 and 68 attempt to decouple serious nuisance from the drug-related behaviour involved. As a result, any home where someone was simply smoking crack or another class A drug, rather than causing nuisance, could be closed and the person made homeless. That would create a much more draconian response to the personal use of illegal drugs than is currently contained in the criminal law. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, people would only receive fines for personal possession of drugs, but those amendments could cause them to lose their homes. That is undesirable.

Although drug use is not to be condoned, the solution is not to throw people on to the streets, where their habit would almost certainly get worse and the harm they cause to society would be magnified. The power must be applicable only to those circumstances where the use, production or sale of drugs is associated with serious nuisance. Those amendments would undermine the system of penalties set up and agreed in the 1971 Act.

Amendment No. 92—tabled by those on the Liberal Front Bench, represented by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke)—reflects a concern, which was raised in Committee, as she rightly said, that authorised persons should have the same protection as the police against damages claims arising from the exercise of their powers. As she said, clarification was sought on that issue. Without the partial exemption from liability in clause 9, the police might be subject to large claims for damages arising from closure by those connected with running crack houses.

The functions of authorised persons are limited to assisting in physically securing the building and carrying out emergency repairs and maintenance under clause 3. The job of carpenter was mentioned in Committee and if carpenters or other trades people are involved in assisting the police—for example, in knocking down a door under the direct orders and supervision of a constable—they are likely to be regarded as being within the exemption. If they are permitted to enter the property alone at a later date to carry out repairs, but carry out those non-police functions negligently, we see no reason why the ordinary law of negligence should not apply to them.

Although the safety of trades people is not addressed in the Liberal Democrat amendment, I wish to say that, when boarding up premises, they will be accompanied by the police, who will offer protection and secure the property for their safety, so that they can carry out the work that they are asked to do. That cover could also be organised for any subsequent visit for further maintenance.

As has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), Government amendment No. 30 is acceptable. It deals with a technical matter and allows the definition of the owner of premises to include the freeholder and the leaseholder, where the property is subject to a lease of three years or more. Our intention to introduce such an amendment was signalled in Committee, and it is based on a culture of listening to hon. Members on both sides of the House, as well as to people outside.

This is a crucial issue for the communities that we represent—it is about smarter policing and taking precautions—so I request that the hon. Gentleman withdraw the amendment and that the House accept Government amendment No. 30.

I shall be very brief. Of course, I have listened very carefully to what the Minister has had to say, but I hope that she will continue to keep such matters under review. She has rightly paid tribute to the work of her predecessor, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who is now the Government deputy Chief Whip. I echo her congratulations to him on his promotion and her recognition of his very important work in Committee. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee benefited from his constructive approach.

On this group of amendments, however, I wish to draw the Minister's attention to what her hon. Friend said when he was the Minister. On 6 May, he drew attention to the fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has just done, that the idea of the decoupling amendments that we moved in Committee—we have proposed similar ones again today—came from the Government's Back Benchers, particularly the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). The proposal has not just come from Opposition Members; it is something on which the Minister's hon. Friends agree with us. We feel that, even though the police will not always use such powers, they will introduce an extra element of flexibility, so that where the police wanted to use them, they would have the chance to do so.

In her response, the Minister drew attention to the fact that sometimes premises are used for the consumption of more than one drug. I therefore ask her to bear in mind the point raised once again by my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that serious nuisances can exist, even if they do not involve class A drugs, of the same kind that the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East talked about:
"We know what they are"—
meaning the types of nuisances—
"comings and goings 24 hours a day, soliciting in the area, paraphernalia and noise."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 6 May 2003; c. 32.]
That is precisely why we say that all of those nuisances can arise even if class A drugs are not involved. We entirely accept what the Minister says about crack houses posing a particular problem, and no doubt these powers would mainly be used to deal with the scourge of crack houses to which the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) has also referred, and which we recognise. I hope it will be borne in mind, however, as this Bill progresses to another place, that we continue to believe that it would be wise for these powers to be decoupled, and to have the flexibility, when appropriate—perhaps only in rare cases—to cover class B and class C drugs, too. At this stage, however, I do not seek to pursue the matter. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.