Report (2nd Day)
Clause 69: Power to issue closure notices
61A: Clause 69, page 41, line 25, at end insert—
“( ) that the use of particular premises has resulted, or (if the notice is not issued) is likely soon to result, in a sexual offence against a child,”
My Lords, our amendment adds a new ground for the issuing of a closure notice that would allow premises to be closed in cases of sexual offences against a child. It is largely a preventive measure but would be an important extra tool in tackling this problem. No one could have failed to be distressed and horrified by the reports late last year of groups and gangs of men who abused young and vulnerable girls. They did so by a cold, calculating and sinister grooming process, sometimes involving drink and drugs, which allowed them to sexually and physically abuse these children. So cleverly warped are these groomers’ tactics that the children—and vulnerable adults—may not even realise at the time that they are being abused and exploited.
We have an opportunity in the Bill to provide more ammunition for those trying to prevent this shocking and evil crime. I hope noble Lords will allow me to put on record my gratitude to those who brought this matter to my attention: Tony Lloyd, the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester; Colin Lambert, leader of Rochdale Council; and Jeanette Stanley, Rochdale’s safety community manager. They have given me some hugely important and useful evidence. I know they have been in contact with Home Office Ministers as well. Their experience and knowledge of what works in tackling such crime and where the gaps are in legislation is invaluable. I know that the Minister shares my concerns on this issue and I hope that the Government will share my view of the suggestions that these people brought forward to try to tackle this problem.
They are seeking an immediate closure power where there is a safeguarding threat. Greater Manchester Police has evidence of properties that are unregulated and unlicensed being used in a variety of ways to prey on vulnerable adults and sexually exploit children “behind closed doors”. Yet the only powers the police have—and will have in legislation if the amendment is not passed—is to close premises on anti-social behaviour grounds. Now that the police have evidence of the shape and extent of this problem, that is no longer enough. In Rochdale, they have been able to use the current anti-social behaviour closure order power on a number of occasions to good effect because they also had sufficient evidence of recent and repetitive anti-social behaviour incidents. However, the main reason for obtaining a closure order was because of safeguarding concerns involving children and young adults. That power allows a short-term disruption to the abuse while the police can then take longer-term permanent action.
Norman Baker, as Home Office Minister in the other place, has responded to the suggestion outlined in our amendment that closure powers exist under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He is absolutely right—they do—but they apply only to prostitution and pornography, not to protecting children and vulnerable adults. The powers do not allow for the swift action that is needed. However, perhaps the most serious problem with that approach is that to use a sexual offences order, evidence of a criminal offence is needed. The grooming method of such gangs is quite sophisticated in a warped way, and many victims of child rape and sexual abuse do not complain. They may even believe that their abuser is their boyfriend and that they have sex with his friends to please him. While in the clutches of these men, the victims cannot even recognise that they are being abused.
This is a simple amendment. It obviously does not solve all the problems but it will make a difference. Tony Lloyd and Councillor Colin Lambert first wrote to Minister Jeremy Browne on 4 October last year seeking this help to tackle the problem. I put on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, as Minister, for his willingness to discuss these issues with me. I really hope that the Minister can accept this amendment but I would be happy for him to take it away to consider further, and for us to bring something back at Third Reading. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a hugely important matter. I was glad to hear her say that she would welcome the Minister taking the matter away, but I have to say that my reaction would be to wonder whether, as she says—and I am not doubting what she says—there are gaps in our legislation that mean there are problems for the authorities. If that were the case, I should have thought it necessary to make changes to the Sexual Offences Act. I question whether the changes should be made in this Bill, given that the offences she is talking about are of a very different order from the nuisance and disorder that this part of the Bill is addressing.
There is also the difficult issue of taking steps to prevent something that might be a criminal offence—we are talking about something rather different in this part of the Bill—without having gone through prosecution and so on. I have not had a discussion with the Minister —he might be about to take the ground completely from under my feet—but it seems that we are talking about something very important but rather different.
My Lords, sexual offences against children are a serious crime and one of the utmost concern to the Government. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for tabling this amendment to allow the House to debate this important issue today.
The Government are determined to do everything they can to protect the public from predatory sexual offenders. The United Kingdom has some of the toughest powers in the world to manage the risks posed by sex offenders, but we are committed to ensuring that the police and other enforcement agencies have the right powers to protect the public from sexual harm.
It may be useful to noble Lords if I outline some of the powers already available to the police to tackle the sexual exploitation of children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, in particular, the Sexual Offences Act 2003, already gives the police and the courts the power to close premises on a temporary basis where there are reasonable grounds for believing that they are being used for certain sexual offences involving a child and that closing the premises is necessary to prevent the commission of those offences.
Under that Act, service of a closure notice by the police will prevent anyone entering or remaining on the premises, unless they regularly reside in or own the premises, until a magistrates’ court decides whether to make a closure order. If the court is satisfied that the relevant conditions are met, it can make a closure order for a period of up to three months. An application can be made for the closure order to be extended but the total period for which a closure order has effect may not exceed six months. The Sexual Offences Act closure notice and order therefore operate similarly to the closure power in the Bill, although they are targeted specifically at sexual crimes against children, which are listed in Sections 47 to 50 of that Act. These crimes all relate to the abuse of children through prostitution or pornography. In addition to their duty to investigate criminal offences, the police have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and have powers to enter premises and remove children to ensure their immediate protection if they believe they are at risk of significant harm.
I recognise—the noble Baroness is correct to draw this to our attention—that there are concerns that the powers in the Sexual Offences Act do not go far enough. As the noble Baroness has indicated, Home Office Ministers have been in recent correspondence with the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd, on this issue. Tony Lloyd has pointed to cases where takeaways and other premises could be used for grooming children.
As I have said, the closure powers in the 2003 Act relate only to premises used in connection with prostitution or pornography, so there may indeed be a case for extending their reach. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has pointed out, I believe the 2003 Act rather than the closure powers in this Bill, which relate to anti-social behaviour, is the proper place to address this issue.
I suggest to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that if she would be prepared to withdraw her amendment, I will undertake to give the matter sympathetic and urgent consideration in advance of Third Reading. I cannot, at this stage, as noble Lords will understand, give any commitment to bring forward a government amendment at Third Reading. However, I will let her know the outcome of our further deliberations in good time so that she can, if necessary, retable her amendment, or something similar to it, at that stage.
We all want to ensure that all possible action is taken by the police to protect children at risk of sexual exploitation. I share the noble Baroness’s determination to get to the bottom of this issue and, as speedily as possible, to plug any confirmed gap in the powers of the police in this regard. I hope that on this basis she will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his response in this regard. It contrasts quite starkly with the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who seemed to be much against taking action in the Bill. However, his response—
My Lords, I apologise to the House if I was not clear. I was entirely sympathetic with the thrust of what the noble Baroness was seeking to do but was suggesting, precisely as the Minister has said, that the Sexual Offences Act might well be the place to do it.
It came over rather more negatively than that, but the Minister’s response was very useful and I think it showed a clear determination to take action on this. I am very happy to enter into discussions with him and we should be able to find a way to bring this back at Third Reading. It is an urgent issue: children are being abused today and will be abused tomorrow and the day after, and we have a real opportunity here to make a difference. I am grateful to the Minister for seizing the opportunity and I look forward to our further discussions.
Amendment 61A withdrawn.
62: Clause 69, page 41, line 37, leave out “habitually”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 71, 72, 73, 74 and 75. These amendments are concerned with people who are affected, and how they are affected, by closure notices and closure orders. Amendment 62 addresses those who “habitually”—that is the term in the Bill—live on the premises and their entitlement to access. The subsequent amendments deal with the clauses relating to temporary orders and their extension and discharge, and appeals, as well as the extent of the building which may be the subject of an appeal.
I am concerned about the employees who live on site. Pubs, hotels and other leisure establishments often include accommodation for junior staff and not just for the managers. When I raised this at the previous stage, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, said that closure notices could be,
“tailored to the appropriate circumstances”.—[Official Report, 2/12/13; col. 14.]—
we were talking about security and safety—but that the Government considered that the exception should be limited to residents who are habitually resident and, in the case of an appeal, to those who have an interest in the premises, meaning a financial or legal interest.
The draft guidance, which we have seen, seems to consider these issues only to the extent of the police or the local authority, allowing discretion for the retrieval of items left on the premises. My concern goes wider than that. A young person employed in the sort of situation to which I have referred may well be living a long way from home and quite suddenly lose the place where they are living, if not habitually at that point. I am not suggesting that this may be a widespread situation but, for those affected, it will be very significant and I wonder whether my noble friend on the Front Bench can give me any more assurances. I am simply not confident that the legislation allows for enough to go into the guidance to cover the points that I am making. I beg to move.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee has explained, these amendments relate to the closure powers in Chapter 3 of Part 4 of the Bill. She has also indicated that her particular concern is to protect the interests of employees—such as caretakers, for example—who may live on premises subject to a closure notice or order. Amendment 62 relates to the use of the term “habitually” in the context of Clause 69(4). That subsection provides that a closure notice cannot prohibit access by a person who habitually lives on the premises. The term “habitually” in this context means those who routinely or regularly live at those premises. It could, for example, cover students who live away from the family home for part of the year but routinely return to the family home as their main residence or those who spend the majority of the week living at the pub in which they work.
The term is commonly used in legislation setting out entitlement to social security benefits, such as the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987. It is also used in the family law context when a court decides cases under the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985, where it is often relevant to decide in which country a child habitually resides. When approaching this test in each context in which it has arisen, the courts have said that it is essentially a question of fact to be determined by reference to all the circumstances of a particular case. We expect the police and local authorities to follow the same approach in this context and assess each circumstance on a case-by-case basis. However, it is important to retain this word so that we exclude persons who may only occasionally live on the premises: for example, a friend of one of the residents who may just be spending time there over a weekend or at a sleepover.
Amendments 71, 72, 73 and 75 all seek to extend certain rights—for example, the right of appeal against a closure order—to persons who live on the premises concerned. Such rights already apply to persons on whom a closure notice has been served and on persons who have an interest in the premises. The Government are satisfied that these existing provisions are wide enough to protect the position of employees who may reside on the premises.
In Committee, I explained that the reference in the Bill to a person having an “interest” in the premises covers those who have a financial or legal interest. I would fully expect that any employee who has been furnished with accommodation as part of his or her employment would have their entitlements to such accommodation set out in either their contract of employment or an associated tenancy agreement. That being the case, I am satisfied that in any such formal relationship between an employee and the owner or occupier of any such premises subject to an application for a closure order, the employee will be a person with an interest in the premises and therefore already covered by the provisions provided in Clauses 74 to 77.
Finally, Amendment 74 seeks to clarify the circumstances in which an appeal against a decision to make or extend a closure order may be made. Of course, I understand that my noble friend has in mind the situation where an appellant may wish to challenge the extent of a closure order in terms of those parts of a building or structure which are covered by the order. Again, I can assure my noble friend that the provisions in the Bill as drafted allow for this. Clause 77(6) enables the court hearing an appeal to make whatever order it thinks appropriate. This would include varying the terms of a closure order so that it applies to a more limited part of the building or structure in question. Therefore, an employee living on-site could use the appeal to argue that a closure order should not include his or her living area. I hope that, in the light of the explanation that I have given, my noble friend is reassured and will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, in the Minister’s explanation of “habitually”, which I understood from the previous stage, the example he used of a student whose real home—if I can put it that way—was somewhere else actually confirmed exactly what I was worried about. That part therefore did not reassure me, but I am helped by his more extended explanation of the term “interest”. I know when I am beaten, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 62 withdrawn.
Clause 72: Service of notices
Amendments 63 to 70
63: Clause 72, page 43, line 39, leave out “an employee” and insert “a representative”
64: Clause 72, page 43, line 41, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
65: Clause 72, page 43, line 45, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
66: Clause 72, page 44, line 2, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
67: Clause 72, page 44, line 7, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
68: Clause 72, page 44, line 11, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
69: Clause 72, page 44, line 12, leave out “employee” and insert “representative”
70: Clause 72, page 44, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) In this section “representative”, in relation to a local authority, means—
(a) an employee of the authority, or(b) a person, or employee or a person, acting on behalf of the authority.”
Amendments 63 to 70 agreed.
Clause 74: Temporary orders
Amendment 71 not moved.
Clause 75: Extension of closure orders
Amendment 72 not moved.
Clause 76: Discharge of closure orders
Amendment 73 not moved.
Clause 77: Appeals
Amendments 74 and 75 not moved.
76: After Clause 83, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The Secretary of State may issue—
(a) guidance to chief officers of police about the exercise, by officers under their direction or control, of those officers’ functions under this Chapter;(b) guidance to local authorities about the exercise of their functions under this Chapter and those of their representatives (within the meaning of section 72).(2) The Secretary of State may revise any guidance issued under this section.
(3) The Secretary of State must arrange for any guidance issued or revised under this section to be published.”
Amendment 76 agreed.
Amendments 77 to 80 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 91: Offences connected with riot
80A: Clause 91, page 61, line 41, leave out “a person” and insert “an adult”
My Lords, Clause 91 introduces a new discretionary ground for possession for offences connected with a riot. The existing grounds for possession for anti-social behaviour are discretionary and require that the anti-social behaviour must have occurred in the locality of the property. This means that thuggish behaviour committed against neighbours or in the immediate vicinity of a tenant’s home may currently be a basis for eviction.
However, similar offences likely to have a devastating effect on whole communities such as looting, or other riot-related criminal activity, committed by tenants further from their homes would not usually be taken into account. I do not think that that is right. It is important that people who wreck other people’s communities through riot-related offences should face the same consequences that they would if they carried out such behaviour in their own neighbourhoods.
It is not just the Government who are of this view. Following the 2011 riots, the e-petition entitled “Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits” received over a quarter of a million signatures, the second greatest number of signatories for any e-petition that has been submitted to the Government to date. That is strong evidence that the public want tough action to deal with rioters.
This clause seeks to make sure that that is the case by adding a new ground for possession into the Housing Acts 1985 and 1988 in respect of secure tenants and assured tenants respectively. Under the new ground, landlords will be able to apply for possession of a tenant’s property in England where the tenant or a person living in the tenant’s property has been convicted of an offence committed at the scene of a riot which took place anywhere in the UK.
Following concerns raised in Committee and by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we gave a commitment to consider the amendments tabled at that stage by my noble friends, Lady Hamwee and Lord Greaves, which proposed that the new ground would apply only where the tenant and not a member of the household has been convicted of a “serious offence”, rather than any offence, as currently drafted.
Recognising the concerns that have been expressed, government Amendments 80A to 80F provide further reassurance that the new ground will apply only to the more serious cases of riotous behaviour. Amendments 80A, 80C, 80D and 80F provide that landlords would be able to seek possession under the provisions of Clause 91 only where the tenant or an adult member of their household has been convicted of an offence at the scene of a riot.
We have retained the application of the ground to the convictions of adult members of the household as we do not believe that adult perpetrators of serious anti-social behaviour or criminal activity should be able to escape consequences for their home simply on the basis that the tenancy is not in their name.
In addition, to address concerns relating to the possibility of minor offences triggering possession under this ground, Amendments 80B and 80D would restrict the application of the new ground to “indictable offences” instead of any offence committed at the scene of a riot as currently drafted. This means that convictions for less serious offences such as common assault and obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty will not trigger possession under this ground. However, I emphasise our commitment to ensuring that we send a strong signal: if you get involved in a riot, whether it is near your home or not, there may be consequences for your tenancy.
With regard to the concerns raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the ground amounts to a double punishment and may disproportionately affect children, it is important to note that the new ground is discretionary and that the court can grant possession only where it considers it reasonable to do so. This means that the court can take into account the circumstances of the tenant and other family members, including children, when deciding whether to grant possession. I should add that available evidence also indicates that landlords resort to eviction only as a last resort. In addition, these government amendments would provide additional safeguards in the Bill to ensure that whole families are not evicted under the new ground for the actions of a child during a riot. I would reassure the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan— I am pleased to see that she is in her place—and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who have tabled Amendment 80G to remove Clause 91 from the Bill, that we expect the impact of the provision and the number of evictions, including those of families, to be very small over time. That is especially as I hope that we will not see any future occurrences of the disgraceful looting and rioting across England that we saw in the summer of 2011.
I hope that the House will agree that these government amendments respond positively to the concerns that have been expressed about this provision and that your Lordships will support the retention of Clause 91 in its amended form. I beg to move.
My Lords, Clause 91 as originally drafted added a new ground for possession under Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985 and Part 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1988 so that, as the Minister has said, a landlord might apply for possession where someone living in the property has been convicted of an offence committed at the scene of a riot which had taken place anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, has consistently stated that this clause should be deleted from the Bill. In the first instance the committee stated that it was unnecessary and disproportionate. It was also concerned about the potentially serious implications of this clause for family members and considered that it may disproportionately affect both women and children. The committee said that it amounted to a punishment rather than a genuine means of preventing harm to others.
I wish to set out absolutely the aggravated nature of riot offences. Living in Northern Ireland, I have long experience of the fear and the horror of riots. People who commit criminal offences must be pursued under the criminal law. To allow an offence committed anywhere in the UK, even if the conviction were to be on indictment only, to be grounds for eviction where there is a tenancy, is certainly to impose a second punishment on a limited group of people who do not own their own home and who have committed no offence, since the other members of the household have committed no offence. I should like to thank the Minister for meeting with me in December to discuss this issue, and for giving me the opportunity to articulate again the difficulties with this clause.
I note the amendments that the Government have now tabled and the fact that they make in effect two changes. The clause will apply only where an adult member of the household—someone living in the house—has been convicted of an indictable offence. That is to be welcomed because it limits the effect of the clause. It relieves from the threat of eviction the families of young people who may have fallen into bad company, but who have been dealt with for their criminality under the criminal law. However, that still leaves tenants and their householders subject to a possible double punishment for a crime committed either by a tenant or someone else who lives in the rented property, and no such double punishment can be applied to a private householder. The family of such a household will be put through the stress, fear and expense of fighting an eviction application. It will go on for months, and while they may well win at the end of the day, there will still have been serious disruption and expense and, above all, distress to the family. Can the Minister tell me whether there is a time limit on the use of a conviction as a ground for eviction? If a person was convicted in 2013, could that conviction be used in 2014? If he was convicted 2011 as a result of the London riots, could it be used in 2014?
Clause 91 would create the curious circumstance in which someone convicted of a riot offence in Edinburgh, Glasgow or even Belfast could be evicted in England and Wales but a person convicted in England and Wales could not be evicted in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Government have offered no justification for this measure, nor is there any necessity for it, even in its amended form. In the Minister’s letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the explanation for the Government’s amendments is that, in light of the Lords Committee stage debate, they concluded that it would be appropriate to place further safeguards on the face of the legislation. However, the Minister repeats the Government’s position that “this provision is intended to deter the sort of deplorable ‘riot tourism’ that we witnessed in summer 2011”. The Joint Committee on Human Rights states:
“In our view it is the job of the criminal law, not the civil law, to deter riot-related offences and to administer sanctions when such offences are committed. Nor do we consider the existence of judicial discretion to be a satisfactory answer to our concern about the disproportionate impact of eviction on other members of the household who have not engaged in such behaviour. We maintain our recommendation that clause 91 be deleted from the Bill”.
The justification for the current position under the Housing Act is that those convicted of rioting in their locality pose a threat to their local community and that, in order to protect that community, the person must be removed from it. This justification cannot cover the proposed extension of the ground for eviction—there is no link between the crime and the local area. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, stated in Committee,
“the provision to order possession of a property when the offence has absolutely nothing to do with protecting neighbours, for example, from anti-social behaviour, is a step too far. It is politically motivated and is not driven by the needs of justice. Therefore, it should be no part of this Bill”.—[Official Report, 2/12/13; col. 62.]
The Government have sought to justify their proposals by stating that the threat of eviction is intended to deter those considering engaging in riot-related behaviour —but that is the purpose of the criminal law.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who is soon to take his place on the Front Bench, stated that he could not endorse the clause. He did not qualify that in any way:
“The courts have sufficient powers to deal firmly with offenders caught up in a riot … The criminal justice system—some would say ‘for once’—in general responded very well to what occurred”.
He also said:
“Those who committed offences during the riot on that occasion were dealt with speedily and firmly”.
He stated that he did not think it was “necessary or appropriate” to legislate in this manner,
“given all the other powers that exist elsewhere in the Bill”,
and concluded that,
“this clause is a step too far”. —[Official Report, 2/12/13; col. 60.]
In 2011, Wandsworth Council threatened to evict a Liberty client, Maite de la Calva, and her younger daughter, if her son was convicted of a crime committed during the riots in 2011. Her son had been arrested and charged during the disorder. He had moved out of his mother’s property earlier in the year, but she was still served with a notice by Wandsworth Council seeking possession, which stated that she was likely to have breached her tenancy agreement. The authority vowed to apply for a possession order evicting her and her daughter if her son was convicted. This was despite her contribution to the local area over the past three years: she was described as a credit to her housing estate by neighbours and spent her spare time volunteering with a youth charity and working with domestic violence victims. She had committed no crime herself and would not have faced that threat had she lived in a mortgaged house. Liberty represented her in challenging Wandsworth Council’s attempt to punish her and her daughter for her son’s conviction. Eventually the council was persuaded to back down, but not before considerable anxiety and suffering had been inflicted. If the eviction powers set out in the Bill are enacted, even as modified by the present government amendments, there will be many more cases just like this one and it is unlikely that the outcome in all of them will be as positive.
Removing a person and their family from social housing is unlikely to lead to less, rather than more, crime and anti-social behaviour. Dispossession will shift the problem elsewhere, creating new and greater problems for the individuals concerned and their families. Private housing may be unavailable and private sector rents are rising, partly as a consequence of the welfare reform measures. Temporary accommodation does not deal with the issue: it splits up families; it disrupts education and social cohesion; and the end result may well be that alternative accommodation becomes unaffordable for many families, leading to increased homelessness and destitution.
I ask the Minister to consider again the fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has consistently said that this clause is neither necessary nor proportionate; that it is not about protecting a local area; that it discriminates against those in public housing; and above all that it will create significant distress to people who have committed no crime.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 80G—to which I added my name as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—and to follow the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, who has moved the amendment so powerfully.
I apologise for not being able to be present during the Bill’s Committee stage, but I have read the debate. It was striking that no noble Lord other than the Minister, of course, spoke in support of Clause 91. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, who is also a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, called it an unhelpful precedent. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, lately of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick—who have both already been quoted—called it a step too far. To the Minister’s credit, he has taken note and come back with government amendments. In my view, however, his amendments are a step not far enough. They do not meet the concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights which have been voiced in two reports on the Bill and lie behind Amendment 80G. The noble Lords who serve on the JCHR said in Committee that Clause 91 smacks of punishment rather than serving as a means of preventing harm. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said, it would create a double punishment. The Minister talks about tough action, but tough action was taken after the riots, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, argued strongly in Committee. Moreover, in many cases the punishment will be applied to people who are totally innocent of the behaviour in question. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about the clause creating new victims.
In response to the JCHR’s concerns on this point, the Minister tried to reassure your Lordships that the power would be discretionary and the courts would have regard to what is reasonable before granting a possession order. He also argued in Committee that it is an established principle of tenancy law that a tenant is held responsible for the behaviour of members of their household. Surely tenancy law concerns behaviour that affects the accommodation and/or contravenes a condition of the tenancy and not behaviour that could have taken place hundreds of miles away. Indeed, the Minister himself has dubbed it “riot tourism”. That is not a phrase that I would use but it underlines the fact that we are talking about behaviour that has no implications for the neighbours of those concerned, and nor does it affect the landlord.
Research into existing discretionary anti-social behaviour powers reveals how, in practice, women are often held responsible for the behaviour of sons and/or male partners. Reporting on this research in an article in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, Caroline Hunter and Judy Nixon note that two out of three complaints of anti-social behaviour against women heads of households concern the behaviour of teenage children—mainly sons—or male partners or boyfriends. The article states:
“Regardless of the difficulty and in some cases, the impossibility women experienced in controlling the behaviour of their teenage sons or boyfriends, they were deemed responsible for the behaviour and were as a result evicted from their homes … while the lack of fault on the part of the women in many of these cases was striking and in some cases acknowledged by the judges, this was not a sufficient factor to prevent the women from being punished and evicted from their homes”.
So I am not reassured by what the Minister said about this being discretionary and about the reasonableness of the judicial system.
Subsequent analysis of more recent Court of Appeal cases found a similar pattern, in particular in relation to the behaviour of male partners—not underaged children but partners. Limiting the operation of Clause 91 to cases where a riot-related offence is committed by an adult member of the household, as under the government amendment, in practice makes little difference. In many cases, it will be adults, probably males, sons or partners, who are the perpetrators.
The phrase of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was striking: we are creating new victims here. Those innocent victims who will lose their homes will disproportionately be women and children. The Minister also tried to reassure us by saying that the impact will be small, there will not be that many people affected. What about every woman and child who loses their house, their home, because of this provision? Surely that is not just; that is not fair.
My Lords, I am sure that nobody wishes to condone rioting or the serious damage and intimidation that it can cause. Most of us are grateful to the Government for bringing forward their amendments. Nevertheless, they do not deal with the discrimination against, for example, owner-occupiers, because they touch only on secure and assured tenants. There is the further point that the Bill, even as amended, is very likely to punish the innocent. Unless the Government can come back with a very much better defence of the clause, I shall certainly support the noble Baroness and my noble friend if they wish to press the amendment to a Division.
My Lords, first, I should like to clarify a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and reinforce what she said about the Landlord and Tenant Act issues under secure tenancies.
The legal situation, as I understand it from my profession as a chartered surveyor, is that tenants are responsible for the actions of those living with them only to the extent of the lease terms and the demise concerned. It does not and never has extended to liability for the wider actions of members of a tenant’s household elsewhere. Even general paving clauses such as “immoral or illegal activity” have, as I understand it, been pleaded in vain. I put that clearly. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has raised a valid point here. The whole of Clause 91 looks like being a knee-jerk reaction that would go beyond what is necessary and desirable.
I would like to ask one or two questions for clarification. What about the whole question of the rehabilitation of offenders? When somebody has been indicted, put into prison, served their sentence and comes out, what are the circumstances in which a court will grant this further period of indefinite rustication, if you like, from any sort of enjoyment of a place that they can call a home and to which they can naturally relate? What are the safeguards? Is this the default position, or does it concern the second or third strike after the event? We do not know and I invite the Minister to clarify the position.
Moreover, what about the selective post-sentence treatment of rioters as a particular species of offender under the Bill—as opposed to, say, murderers or other offenders? Very large numbers of offences are anti-social, and virtually all have a victim class of some sort who would naturally look, under the terms of the overarching principle of this Bill, to some sort of rebalancing. I worry about the singling out of this class of offender. Maybe the Minister can explain how that works. This provision could result in a class of persons without rights to occupy anything that they could call a home of their own. That needs to be circumscribed and contained in some way because the circumstances of the offence will not necessarily be replicated. If there is no risk of replication, what is the court being instructed to do? The justification is rebalancing towards the interests of victims—for them to feel that justice has been done. Would Clause 91 achieve that rebalancing? I am not clear that it would.
My Lords, the term “knee-jerk reaction” was used. I think we are all clear—let me use a synonym—that it was an immediate reaction to the riots of 2011. I am never comfortable with using legislation to give a message. At the previous stage I proposed amendments that were replicated in what we have today because I recognise the political realities of the situation and the circumstances in which that message had been given.
I was horrified when I looked at Hansard to see that I was on record as saying that I was happy with the clause. Hansard now knows that I was not happy with the clause and is correcting the record from Committee stage. As I say, I recognise the strength of feeling and where we might well end up. Knowing how the two Houses work and that this clause has been considered by the Commons, I went straight to what I hoped might be a way of ameliorating the situation, which was to suggest that it be limited to serious offences. That is a very significant change and taken with the other safeguards—that is how I look at them—which the Minister has listed, I am perhaps somewhere between where Hansard said I was and where I was. I am not happy but I am not nearly as unhappy as I might have been.
I was interested to know what had happened in Wandsworth after the 2011 riots and checked with the council. I understand that that council—presumably this is not the case with every local authority—has specific tenancy conditions covering the behaviour of tenants and it considered the criminal activities as coming within those conditions. The housing professional from whom I have heard talked about the double jeopardy term being used as a criticism but said, however, that the ground relating to possession for a serious conviction has existed since 1985. In essence, if the new ground meant that a tenant living in one borough could be pursued if convicted in connection with rioting in another borough I can see the attraction but I doubt whether the courts will agree. I am grateful to the Minister for bringing forward the amendments today.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could address the case of the adult child of a tenant who is away at university but whose place of permanent residence remains the family home and who gets involved in a riot—a serious matter—in or near the university. Would it be the case that in those circumstances the parent stands to lose their tenancy?
If your Lordships will permit a latecomer—almost an interloper—to ask just one question, would my noble friend be kind enough to tell me what exactly is the definition of the members of a household? I take it that it includes anybody who has been given or lent a room at the time. Would it include anybody who is paying the tenant for a room? It would obviously not include anybody who was paying the landlord for a room. In other words, is there any necessity for there to be a familial or emotional connection, or any other close connection, with the other members of the household?
My Lords, I regret that I was not able to be present for the Committee stage of the Bill. As the House knows, there were various clashes of other important Bills at the same time, so I come new to this issue. It seems to me that what the Government are trying to do here is to give an additional power to the courts. That point has not yet been made by anyone, other than the Minister. It is of course a matter entirely for the court whether or not such an order is made. I see that Clause 91(1) refers to,
“grounds on which court may order possession … if it considers it reasonable”.
It seems to me that if a university student, who is almost certainly over 18, goes AWOL and behaves extremely badly in university precincts but has a mother and three young siblings living in the house, the mother will have absolutely no control over the young man at university. She probably does not even have any financial control these days. The court would be certain to look at the hardship of the situation and this would be a circuit judge in the county court. I am not particularly keen on this addition to the powers of the court but I would find it difficult to believe that a court would act other than justly and with mercy in situations that would require it.
Before the noble and learned Baroness sits down, does she accept that the research which I quoted suggests that the courts have perhaps not always been reasonable in their application of anti-social behaviour legislation and that lone mothers, in particular, have been evicted because of the behaviour of men in their household who they simply were unable to control?
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for accepting the amendment suggested by my noble friend Lady Hamwee which excludes offences committed by young people and excludes minor offences as well. However, I share other noble Lords’ concerns about this additional sanction. As I said in Committee, in the aftermath of the riots a couple of years ago, the courts clearly showed how seriously they took offences committed during a riot—far more seriously than if those offences had been committed at some other time. It does not appear to be necessary to have a further sanction in order to deter rioters. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said that this is a power given to the courts. I am a great believer in the courts and in the fact that they will make the right decisions. But I fail to see why we need this power. I cannot think of circumstances where a court would allow such an order to be made. Therefore, I see this power as being superfluous.
My Lords, I want to repeat a point I made briefly at Second Reading, following up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about Wandsworth Borough Council. I, too, checked with serving councillors regarding what happened subsequent to the 2011 riots. It is my information that the council did not pursue the repossession of its property. Although it had the powers, the council decided that it was not in its interest or that of the tenants to pursue the matter. Therefore, I agree with the points that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. One has to question the motivations of the Government for pursuing this legislative change when a council which sees itself as a flagship of the Conservative Party has not pursued the avenues that were open to it.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett, have already made a strong case for deleting Clause 91. The Government, of course, have put down amendments that make some changes to that clause, but do not address the basic objections, which have also been expressed for a second time by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, about the disproportionate impact of eviction on other members of the household who have not engaged in such riot-related behaviour. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was not moved by the references to judicial discretion, so clearly it did not rate very highly in its thinking as a safeguard. The Joint Committee also expressed the view that it was the job of criminal law, not civil law, to deter riot-related offences, and to administer sanctions when such offences were committed. As has been said, courts when sentencing, quite rightly, already take a much more serious view of offences committed as part of a riot, and under cover of a riot, as was shown by the sentences given to those convicted following the riots in 2011. Many people were sent straight to prison when they probably would not have been given such a sentence if the offence had not been committed in association with the riots.
Clause 91 does not just relate to offences in the locality in which the offender lives, but covers such offences anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is clearly seen as an additional punishment by the Government, and it is not related to the experience of victims in the locality in which the offender lives. The Government are seeking to make some amendments so that Clause 91 would not apply where under-18s are convicted of a riot-related offence or in respect of the most minor offences. However, that still means that, since Clause 91 relates to repossession where a person residing in the dwelling house has been convicted of a riot-related offence, the penalty of eviction affects everybody else in the house. People who are guilty of no crime, such as pensioners with a son or daughter living at home, or children whose older brother or sister, aged 18 or over, has been convicted, are the innocent victims of Clause 91.
It will certainly act as a deterrent to a member of a household reporting another member of the household to the police for rioting if they know that the effect of such action, which surely we should encourage not discourage, would be to find themselves evicted as a result, under the terms of the clause. Why do the Government take the view that riot-related offences justify repossession and eviction when they do not take that view over equally serious or more serious offences? In addition, why do they think that those who commit riot-related offences away from their own locality and who own their own home or live in a house that is owner-occupied should face no further penalty other than the sentence of the court for the crime that they have committed but that those who live in rented accommodation should not only receive and serve the sentence of the court for the riot-related crime that they have committed but face eviction from the house in which they live in their own locality, along with other members of the household, who could include the tenant, who have committed no riot-related offences—indeed, no offences at all—and will be made innocent victims of Clause 91? The Government say that the Bill is about victims, but this clause creates victims.
The amendment to delete Clause 91 is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett. It is that amendment that we will support if a vote is called.
With the leave of the House, just to pursue the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the information that I had from the chief executive of Wandsworth was that, in that borough after the 2011 riots, 12 notices of seeking possession were served, which is the first step in eviction proceedings. That resulted in an outright possession order and subsequent eviction in one case; seven others resulted in possession being granted but suspended on terms or an undertaking being given to the court. That, of course, supports what the noble and learned Baroness said about the court’s position.
This has been a good debate on an important subject, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for bringing it to us today. However, I reiterate that, as with the existing discretionary grounds for possession, the legislation has always contained important safeguards—not least the discretion of the court, at the end of the day. However, this has been recognised by the Government in our amendments, reflecting the key concerns, if not all the concerns, of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
A lot of noble Lords have spoken in this debate, including the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, my noble friend Lord Elton, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, my noble friend Lord Paddick and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. A number of points have been made, all working on a theme.
To put the debate in context, I remind the House that the Housing Act 1996 already provides for a ground of possession where a tenant, a member of their household or a visitor has been convicted of anti-social behaviour or a criminal offence in the locality—there is the difference—of their property. Many of the issues that noble Lords have pointed to are already familiar to those who have to make the decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the debates in Wandsworth, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for giving us the figures there. Such decisions have to be made by housing authorities and landlords over time in any event, and the courts themselves have to consider the impact not only on the perpetrator of the crime but on the family. This is familiar ground.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asked why it was necessary to introduce a special ground for riot-related offences but not for other offences. As I have explained, it is indictable offences concerning a riot that are covered; in general, within the locality, the specific riot-related element is absent. We think it is right that eviction should be an option only where the crime has a direct impact on those living where the offender lives. However, the particular characteristic of looting and rioting is that they can wreck whole communities, which may be distant from where the rioter or perpetrator lives. That makes these crimes a particular case.
The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Rosser, pointed out that eviction is not tenure-neutral—that it discriminates in favour of owner-occupiers at the expense of those who live in homes under a tenancy. A tenancy presents a contract between a landlord and an individual, and includes obligations on both the landlord and the tenant. One of those obligations is that the tenant must ensure that they and members of their household do not behave in an anti-social way. No such contractual understanding applies to owner-occupiers, so provisions around possession cannot apply in the same way. As I have said, conviction for an indictable offence in the locality of the property already constitutes a ground for possession.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, asked about the time limit. For future rioting there is no time limit, but this legislation is not, of course, retrospective as regards the 2011 riots; I think noble Lords will understand that. If a person were convicted of a riot-related offence in future years, it could be pursued over time. The courts will consider whether it is reasonable for it to be pursued. Indeed, reasonableness lies at the bottom of the court’s discretion in all cases.
Forgive my ignorance, but it is important to get this right, and I am left in doubt. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said that this was a power given to the court, but earlier the Minister spoke as if the discretion lay with the housing authority. Who actually makes the decision in such cases?
The court does not initiate the action; the housing authority does. The court makes the decision as to whether the action is reasonable. That is the difference. I think all noble Lords would understand that, and I hope I have not confused anybody by any of the ways in which I have described the decision-making process. The point is that there are checks and balances in such a process. Housing authorities live with them all the time.
I was specifically asked about adult children at university, not living at home and therefore being largely out of the control—or rather, beyond the influence—of their parents, because of the distance involved. The key word is “reasonableness”. It seems to me very unlikely that a landlord would seek possession in those circumstances, and I doubt very much that any court would grant possession on that basis.
I think it would be a mistake to remove Clause 91 altogether. We in this House have a duty to remember victims: the families whose homes are wrecked and whose jobs are lost. The noble Baroness said the fact that an action has taken place 100 miles away makes no difference. I disagree with her. The consequences of these actions affect people in their homes and in their work. It is important that we make people aware of their responsibility to others through the law and that potential rioters bear in mind that there may be consequences for their tenancy wherever they choose to wreak havoc. This clause does that. It should serve as a deterrent and shows that the public’s views on this issue are not being ignored by the Government. I beg to move.
Amendment 80A agreed.
Amendments 80B to 80F
80B: Clause 91, page 61, line 42, after “an” insert “indictable”
80C: Clause 91, page 61, line 44, after “Ground” insert “—
“adult” means a person aged 18 or over;
“indictable offence” does not include an offence that is triable only summarily by virtue of section 22 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (either way offences where value involved is small);”
80D: Clause 91, page 62, line 7, leave out “a person” and insert “an adult”
80E: Clause 91, page 62, line 8, after “an” insert “indictable”
80F: Clause 91, page 62, line 10, after “Ground” insert “—
“adult” means a person aged 18 or over;
“indictable offence” does not include an offence that is triable only summarily by virtue of section 22 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (either way offences where value involved is small);”
Amendments 80B to 80F agreed.
80G: Clause 91, leave out Clause 91
My Lords, I had expected to have the right to respond to the Minister on the previous amendment. I do not think that the relevant measure has been shown to be necessary, proportionate or in the interests of innocent victims. I beg to move. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 93: The community remedy document
81: Clause 93, page 64, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) consultation with the local authority for any part of the area,”
Amendment 81 agreed.
Amendment 82 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
83: Clause 93, page 65, line 3, at end insert—
“local authority” means—
(a) in relation to England, a district council, a county council for an area for which there is no district council, a London borough council, the Common Council of the City of London or the Council of the Isles of Scilly;(b) in relation to Wales, a county council or a county borough council;”
Amendment 83 agreed.
Amendment 84 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
85: After Clause 97, insert the following new Clause—
“Proxy purchasing of tobacco products on behalf of children
(1) A person commits an offence if he buys or attempts to buy a tobacco product or cigarette papers on behalf of a person under the age of 18.
(2) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
My Lords, this amendment was also moved by my noble friend Baroness Thornton in Committee, so I do not intend to repeat all the points that were so powerfully made at that time. Needless to say, we were not happy at the Government’s response, which was basically that, because the measures proposed in this amendment would not solve all the problems in relation to young people in the purchasing of tobacco products, it should not be adopted. The amendment has the support of the Association of Convenience of Stores, which represents 33,500 stores, the majority of which sell tobacco products. The ACS welcomes these proposals as a further measure to help to restrict youth access to tobacco products.
It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18, but it is not an offence for someone to buy tobacco products on behalf of a minor. There is, thus, a gap in the legislation which this amendment seeks to close to bring the position more into line with the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003, which has made it an offence to proxy purchase alcohol. Proxy purchasing is one means by which young people gain access to tobacco products. A recent survey has shown that, in 2012, 8% of pupils had asked somebody to buy cigarettes on their behalf and nine out of 10 were successful at least once. We are not saying that tobacco proxy sales are the only means by which children receive their supply of cigarettes—there is a variety of means for this—but we are saying that it is one of the predominant ways, hence this amendment.
Issues were raised in Committee by my noble friend Lady Crawley concerning the need for proper enforcement and adequate surveillance if moves were made to tackle proxy sales of tobacco. That comes down to providing adequate resources, including for local authority trading standards organisations. However, we are talking about sales that adversely affect the health of young people and we should be prepared to act, as they have in Scotland, where there is an offence of proxy selling tobacco. That has the support of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, which has said:
“Scotland introduced regulation criminalising the proxy purchasing of cigarettes, where adults purchase cigarettes on behalf of children in April 2011. The TMA and its members supports this legislation. Proxy purchasing was identified in NHS data as one of the most common sources of tobacco for young people”.
The Minister said in Committee that the Government had an open door on this issue, and my noble friend Lady Thornton invited them to think further on this matter before Report stage, which we are at today. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to give a more positive response to this amendment than he was able to do in Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, my name is added to this amendment, which I feel is very important. We know that when young people start smoking, their addiction potential and the long-term harms are very great. There is good evidence that children get cigarettes by proxy either, particularly in the case of younger children, by stealing from their own families or by purchasing single cigarettes from other children at school. However, a cohort in the older, middle-teens bracket seems to obtain cigarettes more through proxy purchasing. Quite often, with a very small incentive added to the cost of the cigarettes, they use a drug abuser or somebody else to do the purchasing for them. The retailers—the small shops—which sell cigarettes find themselves in a really difficult position. Rightly, they are not allowed in law to sell directly to the youngster, yet they are aware that there is no lever in terms of proxy purchasing, although it is they who would be prosecuted rather than the person doing the proxy purchasing.
It is important to bring the law into line with legislation on alcohol purchasing. The harms from tobacco are in a different group from those relating to alcohol, but they should not be underestimated.
My Lords, I intervene only briefly. This is the first occasion on which I have spoken on an amendment supported by the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association.
It seems to me self-evident that the arguments made by my noble friend Lord Rosser and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, just make so much sense. It is entirely sensible to bring the law into line with that governing the proxy sale of alcohol and to follow the practice which has been adopted in Scotland with regard to the proxy purchase of tobacco. Persuading young people not to smoke is something to which we in this House have devoted a lot of attention. When we return to the Children and Families Bill at the end of the month, we will have an opportunity to do something on the standard packaging of cigarettes and on smoking in cars where children are present. This is also an important measure, which will make it more difficult for youngsters to start—and thus become addicted to—this terrible, dangerous habit.
My Lords, it seems that in Scotland the provisions which are in force have not been as effective as one would have hoped. I am not sure that the laws against proxy purchasing of alcohol have been terribly effective. I would be concerned if bringing in a further measure which failed to achieve what we wanted to see was a deterrent to anything more effective. Is the Minister aware of what the police think about this? After all, enforcement is what matters when one is introducing a new offence.
My Lords, when we debated this issue on 4 December, we agreed that, because smoking is largely an addiction taken up during childhood or adolescence, reducing the availability of tobacco to young people is important if we are to succeed in reducing overall smoking uptake. This new clause seeks to create a new criminal offence of an adult purchasing, or attempting to purchase, tobacco products on behalf of a child or young person under the age of 18. This act is commonly known by the phrase, “proxy purchasing”.
While smoking prevalence among young people has declined considerably in recent years, there are still each year around 300,000 young people in England under the age of 16 who try smoking for the first time. As a starting point, we must continue to take action to encourage adults to quit smoking. If smoking is seen by young people as a normal part of everyday life, they are much more likely to become smokers themselves. The Government’s Tobacco Control Plan for England is clear that, to promote health and well-being, we will work to encourage communities to reshape social norms, so that tobacco becomes less desirable, less acceptable and less accessible. We aim to stop the perpetuation of smoking from one generation to the next.
We need to think carefully about whether creating a proxy purchase offence would have an impact on how accessible tobacco is to children and young people, and whether it would have a meaningful impact on reducing smoking rates among young people. Obtaining cigarettes from retailers is just one of many avenues by which young people access tobacco. We know that children and young people obtain their cigarettes from a wide range of sources. Some young people take tobacco from their parents, from other family members or from older friends. In such circumstances, no proxy purchase has occurred. Introducing a new proxy purchase offence would not tackle that particular way of getting tobacco.
I understand that introducing a proxy purchase offence for tobacco is supported by some retailer organisations, including the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. Let me be clear that I recognise the important role played by retailers in ensuring that tobacco products are sold in accordance with the existing age-of-sale legislation. I also want to recognise the important work that retailer organisations have played in recent years to support their members in meeting age-of-sale requirements.
I realise the difficulties that some retailers face, and I understand why some feel that it should be an offence to buy tobacco on behalf of under-18s. I also understand that the creation of a proxy purchasing offence has the support of the tobacco industry—as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the creation of effective and practicable legislation should be informed by evidence. In the area of proxy purchasing, the Government’s current view is that we want to see evidence that a proxy purchase offence would be effective both in reducing young people’s access to tobacco and in having a deterrent effect on those adults who are prepared to buy cigarettes on behalf of children and young people.
In fact, I am concerned that some of the evidence that is currently available suggests that creating a proxy purchasing offence would have only limited benefit. For example, a Scottish study published in August 2013 looked at how young Scottish smokers living in disadvantaged communities obtained their cigarettes. The study concluded that the introduction of a proxy purchasing offence in Scotland had had little discernible impact.
Nevertheless, that is not to say that evidence does not exist, and I encourage those who support this amendment to provide evidence of the likely public health benefits of creating a proxy purchasing offence to the Department of Health for further consideration. Proxy purchasing of tobacco is an area that the Department of Health is keeping under review, and any further evidence that is provided will be carefully considered. I assure noble Lords that I will draw the attention of my noble friend Lord Howe to the debate we are having on the subject this afternoon.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, those in support of a proxy purchase offence point to Scotland, where the offence was introduced in April 2011. While I understand that a light-touch approach has been taken on enforcement and that the legislation has been in place only for a few years, I note that only one fixed penalty notice has been imposed since the offence was introduced, and that there have been no convictions. Furthermore, whether the legislation has had any deterrent effect is also not clear.
The statistics for the similar offence of the proxy purchase of alcohol show that convictions are few and far between in that area, too, in no small part because of the burden of proof required. Furthermore, the alcohol offence includes a defence that the purchaser had no reason to suspect that the individual they bought the alcohol for was under 18. This amendment does not address that point.
Whether local authorities want the creation of a proxy purchasing offence is not at all clear at the moment. After all, they rather than the police would be responsible for enforcement. The Minister responsible for public health made it clear during a debate on this issue in the House of Commons in October that the Government would be happy to hear the views of local authorities on the potential for effective enforcement, or to hear of good examples of existing local measures to reduce access to tobacco by young people. I also call on those in the public health community to provide this sort of evidence for the creation of a proxy purchasing offence. I want to be clear that we are not rejecting the creation of a proxy purchasing offence outright, but we need to give the matter further consideration.
While we understand the views of retailers and the tobacco industry on proxy purchasing, the Department of Health will continue to work with local authorities and the public health community to understand their views. I want to reassure your Lordships that the Department of Health will also keep under review relevant evidence and experience from elsewhere. I again encourage those with evidence to make it available; I cannot reiterate that enough.
My Lords, if the evidence is supplied, how will the Government deal with it? If we do not agree the amendment, the Minister would have to wait until further primary legislation was brought forward. Would the Government consider implementing a clause of this kind by order rather than placing it in the Bill?
I think that I can answer that best by saying that if the evidence were provided and the Government were persuaded that creating this offence was a practical and effective way of dealing with a policy issue that I am sure all noble Lords in the Chamber agree with, they would wish to see it introduced through primary legislation. However, I am not in a position to be definitive in my answer, and I think that my noble friend will understand the reasons for that. I can assure noble Lords that we are committed to reducing the availability of tobacco to children and young people. However, our actions must be guided by evidence and effectiveness. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I would be grateful if the Minister would first clarify what he has just said. One interpretation is that the Government do not really intend to do anything further themselves but are urging anyone else who thinks that there is any evidence to put it in front of them. I am not sure whether that is what the Minister is saying. Obviously, if anyone else does have evidence on this issue, of course they should submit it to the Government—but are the Government themselves seeking to do anything to ascertain or produce evidence? The Robinson and Amos study of 2010 looked at how young people’s sourced cigarettes and attempted to circumvent underage sales. It concluded that there was a problem, and one suggestion was that regular national smoking surveys should include questions that would capture more accurately the nature and extent of proxy purchases. What I am asking the Minister is whether it is now purely up to other people to put the evidence in front of the Government, or are the Government, through the Department of Health, actually doing any work themselves to seek to ascertain evidence of their own?
The amendment that I moved would be a key tool by which the authorities would know that there was a problem in a particular location because of evidence that proxy purchasing was taking place. Again, is the noble Lord’s response that it is basically up to everyone else to provide the Government with evidence, or is he saying, “If you have any evidence, provide it to us, but we are also”—whether it be through the Department of Health or anyone else—“seeking that evidence ourselves”?
Perhaps I may respond to that point. The Government are determined to try to stamp out smoking as a habit, particularly among young people, so they are being proactive. However, what I am saying on this particular issue and this particular amendment is that the advocates of proxy purchasing as an offence—the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, drew attention to the wide number of people who are, and I said it myself in my speech—will be helped in their advocacy if they can provide the Government with the information they need to make sure that if at a future date they choose to implement such a policy through legislation, they will have the information on which to base that decision.
My Lords, I want to make a point about the evidence. It may be my fault, but I am not entirely clear what evidence the Minister is looking for. It is quite difficult, until such a measure is in force, to know whether it will be effective. Of course the Scottish experience is there as an example, and it may be that the noble Lord is relying on that, but the fact is that until the measure is actually put on to the statute book, you cannot be absolutely certain one way or the other that it will be effective. On the other hand, there is certainly evidence, which has been referred to, that people with knowledge of the way these things work are asking for the measure. Is that not evidence to justify putting the measure on to the statute book, taking the view that it may do some good and would certainly do no harm?
I have always been cautious about taking the latter point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, has made. I always appreciate the noble and learned Lord’s contributions, but just putting something on the statute book because it might work is probably not a particularly good way of going about things.
Having said that, the Government are serious about evaluating this issue. We know that it has been rather disappointing in Scotland—I think the noble and learned Lord would know that from his own experience—and I gave some illustration of that. It may not be the solution, but it is certainly a possible solution, and I urge the House to allow the Government to evaluate that in a proper fashion.
I note what the Minister has said about the situation in Scotland. I do not know whether that means he has had further information since we discussed it in Committee, but the Government said then:
“The Scottish Government, who we have talked to about this issue, say they do not currently hold any information about the numbers of convictions or, as yet, any evaluation of the effectiveness of the new offences”.—[Official Report, 4/12/13; col. 279.]
It appears from what the Minister has just said that, since 4 December, the Scottish Government have now said to the Westminster Government that the provision is not working. I do not know whether the Minister has had that information since we discussed it in Committee.
That is slightly different from what was said in Committee, when the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, on behalf of the Government, referred to the fact that, as far as the Scottish Government were concerned, there had been no evaluation of the effectiveness of the new offences. However, I will leave it at that and do not intend the pursue the issue any further.
I would like to think that the Government’s view is that they will play a part in seeking to evaluate the evidence for the measures set out in this amendment and that it is not simply up to other people to provide it to them. I hope that is what I can draw from what the Minister has said. I might have drawn the wrong interpretation, so I will not say that I will withdraw the amendment on that basis, but, in the hope that that is the correct interpretation and that the Government in fact intend to take an active role in evaluating the evidence and not simply rely on others to provide it, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 85 withdrawn.
Amendment 86 not moved.
86A: Before Clause 98, insert the following new Clause—
“Dog control notice
(1) Where an authorised officer has reasonable cause to believe that a dog is not under sufficient control and requires greater control in any place, as a preventative measure to protect the public, the dog itself, or another protected animal, he or she may serve on the owner, and if different, person for the time being in charge of the dog a written control notice which—
(a) states that he or she is of that belief;(b) specifies the respects in which he or she believes the owner, and if different, the person for the time being in charge of the dog is failing to keep the dog under sufficient control;(c) specifies the steps he or she requires the owner, and if different, the person for the time being in charge of the dog to take in order to comply with the notice;(d) specifies the date by which the terms of the notice must be complied with; and(e) specifies the date that the notice expires which will not be for a period which exceeds six months.(2) In a control notice pursuant to subsection (1)(c) an authorised officer must require a dog to be microchipped (if not already done) and the owner, and if different, the person for the time being in charge of the dog, register the dog with a microchip database, and may require the following steps, where appropriate, but not limited to—
(a) keeping the dog muzzled as directed; (b) keeping the dog on a lead when in public or under control as directed;(c) requiring the owner, and if different, the person for the time being in charge of the dog, to seek and implement expert advice about training and behaviour for the dog;(d) having the dog neutered where appropriate; and(e) keeping the dog away from particular places or persons.(3) Failure to comply with the steps required in a control notice within the time period specified, to the satisfaction of the authorised officer may lead to a complaint to a magistrates’ court under section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871.
(4) The provisions of section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871 shall have effect if the owner, and if different, the person for the time being in charge of a dog fails to comply with the steps required in a control notice within the time period specified in accordance with subsection (3) as they would apply if a dog was dangerous and not kept under proper control.
(5) An “authorised officer” is a person that has been appointed by the local authority or police for the purposes of this Act.
(6) A “protected animal” is one that is commonly domesticated in the British Islands, is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or is not living in a wild state.”
My Lords, Amendment 86A has been tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Donaghy, who is unfortunately unable to be here this evening. I spoke to a similar amendment in Committee and wish to raise the matter of dog control notices once again.
My main reason for doing so is that organisations involved in this field still feel very strongly that dog control notices, rather than what is proposed in the Bill, are the best way forward. Those organisations include the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the Communication Workers Union, as well as individual campaigners, many of whom have suffered as a result of attacks by dogs and, in some cases, have seen their loved ones killed in dog attacks. They have consistently argued that community protection notices will not work as well as dog control notices and strongly feel that we need dog control notices rather than the community protection notices which the Government propose.
The Government believe that community protection notices will be sufficient to address a range of anti-social behaviour problems including dangerous dog attacks and the need to promote responsible dog ownership. The use of a CPN, in conjunction with an acceptable behaviour contract, is meant to have a similar impact to issuing a dog control notice. The Bill states that CPNs will address issues of,
“a persistent or continuing nature”.
In practice, however, CPNs will be issued only after an attack has taken place and a written notice has been issued. A CPN requires that there be an existing complaint about a detrimental impact on a community’s quality of life, and it could involve a costly, painful and bureaucratic prosecution and investigation process for victims as well as for local councils.
Dog control notices directly target irresponsible ownership and will be pre-emptive. The preventive measures they contain address both repeat offenders and one-off attacks which affect individuals, not just communities, much earlier on. I believe that DCNs would be a better approach and the RSPCA’s statistics fully support that conclusion. In 2012 the RSPCA issued more than 12,000 informal advice notices—which in practice are similar to DCNs—in England and Wales. The compliance rate was 93%, an extremely high figure which was maintained at around that level for a number of years. The numbers show that DCNs not only work but work well.
In 2012, dog attacks cost the NHS more than £9.5 million. I said in Committee that 17 people have been killed by dogs since 2005, including nine children, but that figure has now increased and, sadly, 19 people have been killed. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people are attacked every year, with more than 6,000 injuries treated by the NHS in 2011-12. One in six of those attacks were on children under 10.
The issue of dog control cannot be dealt with under this catch-all policy. Many charities and organisations have spent much time and effort trying to educate the public about responsible dog ownership and many dog owners have responded to that. Most dog owners do their best to care not just for their dog but also about their dog’s behaviour. Owners must be held responsible for dogs that cause problems.
In Northern Ireland, the use of dog control orders in conjunction with dog licensing has been very successful. Has the Minister looked at how it works in Northern Ireland, and can we learn lessons from that experience? Can he say why he is so adamant on this point? He has listened to the campaigning organisations, but why has he failed to impress on them a belief that CPNs are better than DCNs? The individuals and organisations which have been campaigning are the experts in this area, and the individuals concerned have strong personal reasons for campaigning on it. If community protection notices rather than DCNs are included in the Bill, can the Minister say what sort of publicity and additional funding will be provided to ensure that we have the best possible outcome in reducing the number of dog attacks and safeguarding people against dog attacks in future? We are all aiming to achieve that objective in this Bill and the orders. I beg to move.
My Lords, I feel a little torn, having read the amendment, because I would heartily support it. In fact, I proposed two Private Member’s Bills which set out many of the provisions in the amendment. I would support the amendment, but we are where we are, with the Government having proposed the legislation. I have been working with organisations such as the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, Blue Cross and others for four or five years now, so I know their commitment to dog control notices. I believe that the Government have taken on board a large number of the arguments put forward. The department should be commended for the amount of work it has done to listen and to propose amendments to deal with some of the concerns raised about the Bill as drafted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has a very good point. It would be wrong not to say that I think in my heart that dog control notices would be an excellent idea. However, I believe that the Bill will now go a great deal of the way to meeting many of the assessments that we set out. It sets out to defend assisted dogs for the blind. It sets out to deal with the issue of dog attacks in private residences. It sets out clearly in the guidance how the local authority should try to deal with many of the issues.
Obviously, this is a complicated piece of legislation and we are changing 11 other pieces of legislation to fit it in. I would have preferred a separate piece of legislation on dogs. However, that was met with hostility from all sides of the House when I raised it a number of times—
Of course not; the noble Baroness is quite right, we did not clash on that occasion. I believe that the Government have listened and the position has moved forward. I know that many organisations would have preferred dog control notices. However, the work that the Government have put in to making the guidance a readable and understandable document and the flexibility of the department in ensuring that it is a workable document, should—this is, of course, the aim—reduce the number of dog attacks. It should also go some way to addressing the real problems introduced by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in causing animal welfare issues for so many dogs and so many problems for a lot of owners throughout the country.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 86B and 86C, which propose to extend and strengthen the protection to any protected animal. As Amendment 86A also refers to “any protected animal”, it is reasonable to group the three amendments, but I make the point that even if dog control notices are not accepted, there is still a case under the Bill to extend protection to animals in addition to assistance dogs; I should like briefly to make that case.
The Bill has the commendable aim of seeking to encourage responsible dog ownership and management in a preventive way to reduce attacks on and injury to humans. It extends protection to assistance dogs, which is welcome, presumably on the grounds that they are very important to their owners and perhaps also because such attacks may be indicative of a lack of control of those other dogs which might ultimately present a hazard to humans. I would argue that those same points apply to any pet, and especially dogs and cats.
The social benefit of pets to their owners is well known and acknowledged. Attacks on dogs or cats by a particular dog may well indicate a lack of control on the part of that dog owner and may presage serious attacks on humans.
There are no accurate figures for the numbers of dog-on-dog or dog-on-cat attacks. It is reasonable to presume that there are many hundreds of dog-on-dog attacks, with serious consequences for at least one of the dogs, and I am informed by Cats Protection that in 2013, 101 attacks on cats were reported. That number is undoubtedly an underestimate, but of those 101 attacks, 89% were fatal. Those attacks are extremely distressing to the owners.
Although it might be argued that various existing laws can be used to tackle this problem, it is simply not happening, for a variety of reasons inherent in the limitations of the laws. As a result, in its evidence to the EFRA Select Committee, the Association of Chief Police Officers indicated the limitations of current legislation, saying that enforcers were,
“without adequate legislation to deal swiftly, and proportionately, with attacks by dogs on other animals”.
Moreover, in its report, the EFRA Select Committee recommended that the Government should consider the potential to extend the law to any protected animal. Indeed, the RSPCA, the BVA and Cats Protection have jointly called for such wider protection. I ask the Minister to give this amendment serious consideration. Will he commit to taking this away for further thought?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gale and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for bringing these issues before us for debate. We had a fairly lengthy debate on dogs in Committee. It was quite illuminating at certain points and also helpful in outlining the extent of the problem we face. Even since that debate took place there have been several quite dreadful attacks on people, with some serious consequences, which shows the need for strong action.
In Committee I acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and reported on the scale of the attacks. I do not intend to repeat all the figures. They are on the record and, in any event, they will have increased in the past couple of months. However, they are truly shocking, and, given that 23,000 postal workers have been attacked in the past three years, I wonder how many suffered delivering our Christmas mail.
Something the Minister said in Committee gave me cause for concern. I have no doubt that he is convinced that the Government’s actions will work. I was very pleased that in Committee he committed to reviewing the effectiveness of government measures, and I trust he is willing to confirm that review in your Lordships’ House. I think the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, would also welcome a report back on how the Government’s measures are working if no amendment is agreed.
The Minister also said in Committee:
“I hope the Committee will agree that it is better for a dog owner to address the problem themselves rather than to be compelled to do so under the terms of a notice”.—[Official Report, 02/12/13; col. 106.]
It is precisely because some dog owners do not address the problem themselves that there is the need for a dog control notice. If every dog owner could be trusted to take the necessary action, no notices would be required. It is because so many owners are negligent in that regard, and dogs are able to attack people—or, as we have heard, other dogs or animals—that there needs to be further protection and further action. I believe that dog control notices are the way forward.
When a dog attacks a person or another dog, it may not be malicious on the part of the owner. I think I stressed that. It may be a lack of awareness, but the consequences are the same in either case. Dog control notices provide the ability for local authorities to take action to prevent such attacks. A wide range of organisations supported the introduction of dog control notices—the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the British Veterinary Association, the pet charity, Blue Cross, the Communication Workers Union and the Association of Chief Police Officers. I hope that the Minister will consider bringing this forward solely to try to address what I know he and the House regard as a serious problem. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, that we hope to have a better response from the Minister and that he will give some ground on the issue of dog control notices. If not, can he indicate that the review he referred to in Committee will be reported to your Lordships’ House so we can judge the effectiveness of the existing legislation?
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, brings his professional expertise to this debate—for which we are grateful—with his Amendments 86B and 86C. I was shocked at the number of attacks he referred to on other animals and cats. I was not aware that it was so great. I think it reinforces the need for preventive measures and, undoubtedly, prevention is the preferable way forward. His amendments are helpful and I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s comments on them. The suggestion that he take them away and consider them and bring them back if he thinks there is merit in them and they can improve the Bill is very helpful and wise.
My Lords, this has been a useful debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for bringing it back for us to consider, having had this debate in Committee. In a number of instances we are going over ground we have discussed before, but it is important that we try to set the Government’s position in some context. As noble Lords will know, I was a Minister in Defra—and, indeed, had quite a lot to do with some of the early talks about how to deal with dogs and the dangers that out-of-control dogs present not only to postmen and people visiting houses but to people going about their daily lives.
While it is true that some organisations, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, support dog control notices, it is similarly true that some do not—and it is by no means the case that the scales are weighted on one side of the argument. That aside—it is history really—the animal welfare organisations have all agreed to suspend their campaigns for dog control notices and to work with us to ensure that the same aims may be achieved through the community protection notice.
I very much welcome this constructive approach from the sector. It is a genuine partnership, working with the Government to ensure that measures may be as effective as possible. That really answers the noble Baroness’s point as to how the facilities offered by the community protection notice will be publicised and how it will be implemented. It will be implemented with the co-operation of the dog charities, and I expect this dialogue to continue after implementation; I know my colleagues in Defra will listen to these organisations on the question of how effective the implementation is.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, suggested a report for Parliament. I am sure that this House will readily take to a debate on this subject a few years hence, when the new regime has had a chance to have an impact. I am confident that it would be a positive debate; I would like to think so.
As I said, Defra officials are in regular contact with the national policing lead on dangerous dogs, as well as other units involved in this work, so that the new measures may be as useful and as user-friendly as possible in cases of irresponsible dog ownership. Reference has been made to the guidance that has been produced for practitioners. The Local Government Association, representing those who will be using the measures—they are likely to be the enforcers—has been consistent in its message that it does not see the need for an additional power specifically in relation to dogs.
The Government agree with the underlying aim of the amendment: to hold irresponsible dog owners to account and, more importantly, to change their behaviour. However, we have already provided the necessary powers in the Bill, so it remains the case that we cannot support the amendment. Effective use of the provisions in the Bill should see an increase in responsible dog ownership and a reduction in the number of dog bites and dog incidents.
I make it clear that the community protection notice can do all that the dog control notice proposed in the noble Baroness’s amendment can do. In fact, I will be so bold as to go further and say that it can do more, because it avoids the prescriptive nature of issue-specific notices and allows practitioners to respond to all manifestations of behaviour that negatively affect the community. Focusing on the impact of the behaviour ensures that dog owners are not unjustly penalised and that communities are protected from existing, as well as new, forms of irresponsible dog ownership.
The community protection notice provides a mechanism so that officers faced with a case of irresponsible or anti-social dog ownership may decide on the most effective way to stop and prevent future recurrences of that behaviour. It may be by requiring the dog to be on a lead in certain areas, fixing inadequate fencing, attaching a letterbox guard or requiring the owner to attend training classes. The officer, in consultation with welfare experts where necessary, may use the notice to educate owners and increase responsibility.
It may be helpful to provide an example to noble Lords of how the CPN could work in practice. Many noble Lords will have heard about terrifying and unacceptable incidents in which postal workers have been attacked or regularly have to face the unpredictable and, at times, out-of-control behaviour of dogs at certain properties. Clause 98, in amending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, corrects the current legal lacuna and will ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service can take forward prosecutions where postal workers and others are injured, or indeed fear injury, by a dog while on private property.
However, let us suppose that the threshold is not met; perhaps the dog is out of control but not dangerously so, as defined by the 1991 Act, but is nevertheless barking excessively at the postal worker or jumping up at the letterbox. I think that all noble Lords have had enough doorstep delivering experience to know exactly what we mean. Under the new powers we are introducing, the postal worker may alert the authorities and report the behaviour. I should take a moment to congratulate Royal Mail on its sophisticated reporting and logging systems for these incidents, which have proved useful in tackling such irresponsible ownership.
The local authority may investigate and, if it is satisfied that the test for the community protection notice has been met, serve a written warning that such behaviour is evidently detrimentally affecting the quality of life in the locality—in this case, that of a postal worker, although other people may be affected. An officer from the authority may wish to visit the address and discuss the issue with the owner, or may simply post the order as a warning to the owner. The warning would state that the officer considers the threshold to have been met and would detail the offending behaviour. It would make clear that the officer will serve a community protection notice should the behaviour not change or stop, and that, over time, this may result in prosecution and a criminal record.
For many owners, this level of intervention will be sufficient, and the engagement from an officer will encourage the owner to consider the opportunities for better education and training. However, if the warning is not heeded, a community protection notice could be served, which may make a number of requirements of the owner: for example, that they attend dog training classes with their dog and/or attach a letterbox guard or similar item, as I have already illustrated. The owner will be provided with the opportunity to become more responsible and the postal worker will be better protected. Should the owner attend training classes, the dog’s welfare may also be improved. All this can be achieved with a community protection notice, fully negating the need for an additional power in the form of a dog control notice.
I hope that on further reflection the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, will agree to give the existing provisions in the Bill a chance to show that they can be used effectively to address this issue. We shall, of course, keep their effectiveness under review. I am sure that the noble Baroness and others will be keeping a watchful eye on the implementation of the Bill.
Perhaps I might reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we will keep all new powers in Parts 1 and 4 of the Bill, including the CPN, under review. We are committed to post-legislative review of this Bill, as for all others, and we will ensure that the review looks specifically at the effectiveness of CPNs in dealing with dog-related issues. I am mindful of the debates that we have had on this topic. As I have said, I am sure that the House will want to consider and debate the outcome of such a review.
I turn to Amendments 86B and 86C in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, which relate to dog attacks on protected animals—in other words, animals kept largely as pets. I am conscious that a number of organisations in the charitable sector would support an amendment of this kind to provide a specific offence in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 for a dog attack of this nature. However, the Dangerous Dogs Act is a public safety measure; it is not about providing protection for animals more widely. These amendments would see police forces, and in some cases local authorities, potentially having to investigate reports of dogs chasing other dogs, cats and, for that matter, any of the many other animals kept as pets, to ascertain whether an offence has been committed under the Act and whether a prosecution should be forthcoming. I do not believe that this is the best way of tackling the problem of dog attacks on other animals.
I recognise the concern of pet owners with regard to dog attacks. I have seen for myself the horrific reports where animals have been injured or killed as a result of dog attacks. Such incidents are abhorrent and can be indicators of wider problems with the dog, such as a lack of socialisation with other animals. However, I suggest to noble Lords that the Dangerous Dogs Act is not the appropriate vehicle for taking cases forward with regard to attacks on protected animals. Rather, I would maintain that the solution lies in existing legislation that is better suited to addressing this type of incident, and in the anti-social behaviour provisions in the Bill.
While many of us regard our pets almost as members of the family, in law pet animals are defined as property. As such, where a cat or dog has been injured or, I dare say, killed as a result of a dog attack, then it would be possible to bring forward a prosecution against the dog owner under Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. This covers the intentional or reckless damage or destruction of another person’s property and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment on indictment and a maximum of six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine, or both, when tried summarily.
There are also some circumstances in which Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act applies to dog attacks on other animals. I am aware of a recent case in Manchester where an Akita attacked and injured a miniature Yorkshire terrier so severely that it had to be put down. The owner of the Akita was prosecuted under both Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act and Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act. The owner was ordered to pay compensation and court costs and complete unpaid work. Thus the existing legislation has been seen to apply in the case of a dog-on-dog attack.
One of the reasons why this sort of case can succeed is that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 applies where there is reasonable apprehension of injury to a person. It is not necessary for injury to be caused to a person for an offence to be committed. It is likely that, where a dog attacks another animal, the nature of the aggression shown by the dog means that people in the vicinity would have a reasonable fear of injury to themselves. In such a situation, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are well placed to determine whether a prosecution meets the public interest and evidence test. In all cases, where a dog attacks another animal, criminal proceedings may also be brought under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 for causing unnecessary suffering to the animal that has been attacked. This carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a £20,000 fine or both.
Moreover, should the case not meet the threshold of any of the other offences to which I have referred, but the incident poses concern—as an attack on a pet is likely to do—both members of the public and the authorities may make a civil complaint to a magistrate under Section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871, where the dog has been out of control. Based on the balance of probabilities, a court may order the destruction of the dog or impose conditions to mitigate the risk posed by it, such as keeping the dog on a lead or muzzled at certain times. There are many cases where the courts have taken action in this way.
I hope I have demonstrated that this is not an area where legislation has been deficient. With the arrival of the community protection notice in the Bill that we are seeking to enact at present, we have an opportunity to ensure that responsible dog ownership is a feature of people undertaking the responsibility of having an animal in their care.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and the Minister for his reply. When I spoke to my amendment, my noble friend Lady Donaghy was not able to be here. I am very pleased to see that she is now in her place; I know that she supported the amendment. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his contribution. I agree with him that we need a separate piece of legislation on dogs, but we will not go down that road tonight. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his contribution on protected animals, and my noble friend Lady Smith for her contribution and her support on this matter. She spoke about the need for a review, and in his reply the Minister said that we could perhaps have a debate in a few years’ time. I am not quite sure whether he meant that that would be the review or that there will be a review and we can then debate it.
If I could just explain, there will be a review of all this legislation; we are committed to post-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. I am suggesting that if the House wished to focus particularly on dog issues, I am sure that would be considered a suitable subject for debate by the usual channels.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that we will have a debate on this matter. He said that he believed that the community protection notices would be as effective as, or even more effective than, the dog control notices. We all hope that they will be as effective as the Minister hopes they will be. It is good to know that the campaigning organisations will now be working with the Minister to improve the legislation and ensure that it works. With that, I think we made our case strongly. I am sorry the Minister was not able to accept it, but we want the new Bill and the community protection notice to work effectively. As we cannot have what we wanted, I ask the Minister to work with the organisations, and work together now, to make sure that it will work. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 86A withdrawn.
Clause 98: Keeping dogs under proper control
Amendments 86B and 86C not moved.
86D: Before Clause 100, insert the following new Clause—
“Firearms licences: assessing public safety
(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 28A (certificates: supplementary) insert—
“28B Assessing public safety
(1) When assessing the threat to public safety under section 27, 28, 30A, 30B or 30C, the Chief Police Officer must ensure that a range of background checks are performed.
(2) Where these checks uncover substantiated evidence of violent conduct, domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse, the presumption is that the Chief Police Officer should refuse the licence application unless exceptional evidence can be brought forward by the applicant as to their suitability to possess a weapon.
(3) When assessing public safety within this section, the Chief Police Officer must follow any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.”
(3) After section 113(1) (power of Secretary of State to alter fees) insert—
“(1A) Before making an order under this section, the Secretary of State must consult chief police officers to ensure the level of fees collected by the police under sections 32 and 35 are appropriate after considering the costs they incur through the administration and assessment of firearms’ licences made under this Act.””
My Lords, in moving this amendment I say first that we welcome the measures that the Government have already taken in the Bill on firearms, as far as they go. That is why I have brought forward to your Lordships’ House today a slightly different amendment from that which I proposed in Committee. I understood the concerns that were raised then in relation to mental health; although it still needs further discussion, the comments made were fair.
Our amendment calls for greater effectiveness in background checks when considering applications for firearms licences. The specific reference and concern we have relates to cases of domestic violence. The amendment seeks to amend the Firearms Act 1968, so that where there is substantiated evidence of a history of,
“violent conduct, domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse,”
it would provide a presumption against being awarded a licence unless evidence could be provided that there were grounds for exemption.
I provided statistics in Committee, so I do not intend to repeat those. However, I feel that many noble Lords and the public would be quite shocked that someone, where there is substantiated evidence of a history of domestic violence or violent conduct, can gain legal possession of a firearm. The Government have issued guidance on this, which the noble Lord repeated in his response to the Committee. As welcome as this guidance is, it is not legislation, and it therefore carries an element of discretion which makes it very difficult for the police.
I gave an example in Committee of the case of Michael Atherton. He was convicted of the murders of his partner Susan McGoldrick, her sister and her niece. Michael Atherton had a long history of domestic violence, but was still allowed to own four shotguns. The licensing officer who first examined his application made comments on it. These comments are quite chilling. The licensing officer said:
“4 domestics—last one 24/4/04—was cautioned for assault. Still resides with partner & son & daughter. Would like to refuse—have we sufficient info—refuse re public safety”.
In the end, amazingly, Durham Constabulary came to the conclusion that it did not have sufficient grounds to refuse.
We all know that public authorities, such as the police, often have to take the safe decision in line with legal advice, because they cannot afford the cost of legal challenge. Many of us will be aware of cases, particularly in local authorities, where councils wish to take one decision, but are advised that if they do that it could be challenged, and they cannot afford a challenge. So sometimes decisions are taken, not because those taking the decision believe it is the right thing to do, but because they are frightened of the cost of defending it. Too often, the police find that when they refuse a licence, that decision can be overturned by the courts. Last year the deputy chief constable of Hampshire Police attempted to prevent a man keeping shotguns after a series—not just one—of allegations of serious sexual crimes, including against a 17 year-old girl. That was just one of a string of licensing refusals that Hampshire Police made that were overturned, each one costing thousands of pounds.
The IPCC investigation into Michael Atherton’s case recommended that new legislation was needed alongside guidance. In 75% of the cases where women have been killed by guns, it has been classed as a domestic incident. In 2009, 100% of female gun deaths were in domestic situations. The evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of these deaths involved legally held weapons. How many lives could be saved by this amendment?
On the fees element of the amendment, I still do not understand the Government’s position. The noble Lord tried to enlighten me in Committee and failed. Why are the Government so reluctant to introduce full cost recovery in firearms licences? They do so in so many other areas. We want to see better and more effective checks and better support for the police when they have reasonable concerns for public safety if they were to issue a licence. We recognise that more effective checks would cost money; there would be an additional cost. That is why this is so important, especially when we are seeing such large cuts in police budgets. At present, the Government are subsidising firearms licences at the cost of around £18 million a year—and you have to ask why. If the Minister cannot accept our amendment, will he answer this one question? How do the Government justify such a huge subsidy for firearms licences?
These are very important issues, and I believe that these measures could save lives. I cannot think of anything more important for a government flagship Bill on crime than measures that have the ability to save lives. I am grateful to the Minister for briefly discussing this issue with me. He is always prepared for, and open to, discussions. I hope that he can accept the amendment. If he cannot accept it today in its entirety, can he look specifically at the issues relating to domestic violence? Surely those victims deserve our support and protection, and when the checks undertaken by a chief police officer in an application for a firearms licence uncover substantiated evidence of violent conduct, domestic violence or drug or alcohol abuse, the presumption should be that the licence application will be refused, unless exceptional evidence can be brought forward by the applicant of their suitability to possess a weapon. It would be helpful if the Minister could have discussions before Third Reading on that specific aspect of the Bill, and if we could make progress before then.
The discretion that the police have now fetters them, because they are not really able to use it, as I have outlined. We have a situation whereby people with a history of violence can obtain a licence even though the police want to refuse but do not really have the powers to do so. I hope that the Minister can accept my offer of further discussions in the spirit in which it was made. I beg to move.
I do not envy my noble friend the Minister having to deal with this issue. The points that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, have brought up are very much ingrained in the minds of anybody who comes from my part of the world, in Scotland. It was the very same thing with a certain Mr Hamilton, who had been found guilty of sexually assaulting children and then went on to carry out the Dunblane massacre of primary school children. The net effect of that was the passing of the Act banning handguns, which does not address the issue of whether the police will bring charges when they see the seriousness of a situation, or understand that there is a risk in issuing a licence to someone who might appeal and cost them a lot of money. Of course, the banning of handguns has been counterproductive because nowadays, if you go around anywhere in the UK, the only people who have handguns are criminals, who know very well that, if they go into any situation, they will not be in danger of meeting someone with a handgun.
My Lords, I have an interest to declare as the holder of a firearms licence. I understand very well what the noble Baroness was saying in introducing her amendment, but we must be clear about what is already happening. The amendment refers to the necessity of performing background checks, but I believe they already are being performed. I speak with some experience of dealing with firearms officers in different parts of the country, which I hasten to admit is by no means necessarily a representative sample. None the less, these checks are being dealt with with a good deal of thoroughness. They have access to the police national computer, and the National Firearms Licensing Management System, the domestic violence unit and others are all sources of information. In addition to that, every applicant for a firearms licence must have a sponsor, who has to make a positive statement that they know of no reason, under a whole list of criteria, why that person should not hold a licence.
Furthermore, there is another element: the applicant must have permission from a landowner on whose land they are going to shoot, or be associated with a club where they are shooting and have the countersignature of the person who is the secretary of the club. So there are a considerable number of safeguards here. However, I am bound to admit that in the Atherton case, as in the Dunblane case and the Hungerford case that went before it, licences were given by the police for weapons, which, in the more historic cases, it was totally inappropriate for any private citizen to have possession of. The result of that was that these awful offences occurred.
With regard to the substantiated evidence of violence, there is already a duty on a police officer not to grant a licence to anyone who is a danger to public safety or the police, or to those of intemperate habits. As I say, there are safeguards. I double-checked with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which very kindly responded to my inquiry for this afternoon. I am not a member of BASC, but it provides the secretarial back-up for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation, at whose meetings I am an occasional visitor. With regard to public safety, the chief officer must follow guidance issued by the Secretary of State. Guidance, of course, means just what it says; each case has to be considered to a degree on its merits. I do not really see how it can be any other way. As I see it, firearms officers in the various police forces are taking their responsibilities extremely seriously.
On the question of full cost recovery, which the noble Baroness has raised before, the difficulty with any cost is that it is potentially a blank cheque of some sort. It takes no cognisance of the police efficiency with which the matter is dealt, nor of wider public safety issues that may lie outside and beyond the specific application. The costs incurred could be very high if the system is not effective. The question then arises—I do not have an answer to this—of how much society should pay for the protection that licences afford, as opposed to costs being recovered from the individual. There are many different walks of life where similar situations apply, such as whether the cost of a driving licence or the grant of a passport covers the full cost of the scrutiny. There are certain things that are done in the name of society and for its protection when it is not considered appropriate to recover the full costs. I made the point in previous dealings on a similar amendment at an earlier stage, and I think that it is probably fair to say, that the present level of the firearms licence fee looks quite low. However, that is a different matter; it is a matter for making an order as to what the fees are, which is rather separate from the question of amending the legislation and the framework for how things are dealt with.
There are issues about the fact that, notwithstanding all the guidance that is in place, licences for firearms have been granted to people who were patently unfit to receive them. I do not know any way to ensure infallibly that that can never happen in future. It may be impossible to devise a means for the number of people in the country who could be affected by these things, whether they are people with firearms licences who are resident, on a visitor’s permit or whatever. It will be extremely difficult to legislate out all possibility of that sort of thing, although one must always be vigilant—and, of course, they are terrible things that we should strive to prevent happening. However, I am not sure that the amendment would advance things materially as the noble Baroness suggests.
My Lords, although the amendment is entirely good hearted—I quite understand the reason for it, and the problem it seeks to address is a serious one—I fear that I follow the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in thinking that the difficulty with which we are faced is a belief that, somehow or other, by passing laws we can solve every problem. That is the kernel of this issue.
The vast majority of people who hold any kind of firearms licence—I declare an interest, as I am one of them—are law abiding and go to huge trouble to ensure that the firearms do not get into the wrong hands, that they are properly locked up, and so on. Already, the very considerable time spent on checking people who have never given any reason for complaint is a source of irritation—although combined with some understanding—to large numbers of people. We must recognise that we already have a very significant amount of regulation in this area.
We have to ask whether any further regulation of this kind, any further step taken in this direction, will do what is intended. I fear that I come to the conclusion that it will not. One of the difficulties is that those with bad intent seem to be much more able to acquire the means to put that intent into action than we would expect, if that is not our way of life. We rather naively sit here thinking that if we write the right legislation, somehow or other it will corral such people.
I have great sympathy with my noble friend who has to answer this debate, but I say to him that we have a long history of doing things because we feel that “something must be done”, even if what is done is not helpful but causes considerable expense and further aggravation. I ask him to be extremely careful and to make his response very balanced. We all have sympathy with the intentions of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, but I suspect that this is not the answer to the problem.
My Lords, the worrying thing about the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Smith is the idea that the police decide whether to prosecute on the basis of their chances of winning or losing some court case. That is extremely worrying. It means that the law as put into practice depends on someone’s estimate of whether the police should deal with somebody who might sue them, and who has a big enough legal budget to be able to do that. This seems to call into question the whole legal basis of the way we operate. I very much hope the Minister will explain the situation and say that decisions are not being taken according to the chances in the law court. That seems a complete negation of how we are supposed to operate our society.
My Lords, when my childhood friend murdered her husband, she did so with a kitchen knife. It has always been my impression that people who get into that sort of situation domestically use whatever weapon is to hand. I would be very interested if the Minister could provide some evidence as to whether people who hold firearms licences or shotgun licences—I hold both—are more or less likely to murder someone than people who do not hold such licences. Do we actually have a problem here, in the general sense? Looking at things in the round, are we being effective in issuing licences, as we ought to do, to people who are generally less likely to murder someone—or are they more likely to murder someone? What are the statistics for the country as a whole?
If, as I rather suspect, we find that people who are issued with such licences are generally much more law-abiding than the population as a whole, perhaps the amendment does not address a real problem. Or rather, it addresses not a problem that exists in the round, but a particular problem with how the police are assessing individual cases—when, perhaps, they have evidence that someone is not suitable, and are not taking action on that evidence.
It is difficult to see what, under subsection (2) of proposed new Section 28B of the Firearms Act, the police could do to get more evidence than they already have as to the suitability or unsuitability of someone to hold a shotgun licence. What is,
“substantiated evidence … of domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse”,
if not the records and evidence that the police already hold? Surely they are not going to go casting around for rumours, because such evidence would not be substantiated. It does not seem to me that one could mount a quasi-criminal investigation without any evidence of a crime, merely to see if one could entrap a rumour or two. I do not know what could be done under the amendment that, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, is not already being done as part of the process.
However, if there is a step in the process whereby the police have evidence but feel frightened to act on it—this seemed to be the idea emerging from the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, addressed her amendment—perhaps we should take the action suggested. But first, as I said earlier, I would be interested to know whether we are dealing with a real problem, or whether this is something of a rarity.
My Lords, we are in danger of having a slightly false debate on this subject. Let us start from the simple fact that firearms and shotguns are, very easily, potentially lethal weapons. What is more, they are lethal weapons that can operate at some distance. They are therefore dangerous items. It has been decided by Parliament, quite properly, that there should be a licensing regime—that checks should be applied to individuals who hold them.
The amendment is not about comparing the population of those who are licensed firearms holders with those who are not; it is about a very specific sub-category. This is not an amendment that will stop, or is intended to stop, armed robbers. It is not about people who start off with malign intent. It is about the nature of the checks, and how they should be used, in very restricted circumstances. It is about people who would set out to acquire a firearm not because they want to rob a bank, but probably for sporting purposes; that is, I assume, the reason why the noble Lords who hold such licences apply for them, and use firearms.
The amendment suggests that, as part of the checks, if there is a history of the individual concerned having been involved in incidents of,
“violent conduct, domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse”,
the presumption should be that that person will be denied a licence. This is not about the application of open discretion by police officers. It says that the presumption will be that that individual will not be allowed a weapon.
This is nothing to do with people who acquire weapons illegally, and nothing to do with people who are trying to acquire weapons for other purposes; it simply says that if people with that particular sort of history apply to legally hold a lethal firearm, the presumption should be that they will not be allowed to do that. I would have thought that was eminently sensible. I find it almost unthinkable that that is not the starting point that will be adopted in your Lordships’ House.
What is being proposed by this very carefully worded amendment is that, in those cases where there are prima facie reasons that people may lose control and not use the weapons for the purposes for which they have sought a firearms licence—for example, they may murder or attack their partner or be so inebriated or under the influence of drugs that they would use a firearm against another person—the presumption should be that they are not allowed a licence.
No doubt the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and others will say, “Hang on, the chiefs of police have discretion in those cases”. However, the point that my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon made was that, given that there is discretion and given the way in which it operates, that is not sufficient. By passing this amendment, we would give those chief police officers not just a discretion, as we would be saying, “The presumption is that you do not put a lethal firearm in the hands of somebody who has committed domestic violence or has a history of alcohol abuse or drug abuse”. Surely, that provision is sensible, is a safeguard and is something on which we can all agree.
My Lords, no one bows more than I do to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, as I had the pleasure of engaging in debates with her for two and a half years, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Deben that we are in danger of overkill here and I disagree with the comments of the noble Lord opposite. It is clear that we have to generate public confidence and this amendment makes a very good stab at trying to establish it, which is absolutely fundamental.
However, the process through which people have to go in applying for a firearms licence is incredibly rigorous. The checking process is rigorous, as is the storage process, but there will always be people outside that process who will abuse it, as my noble friend Lord Deben said. The problem with the amendment is that it leaves out a whole range of people who should be included in the category we are discussing. That is why I have drawn the conclusion that legislating for the sake of legislating to tighten regulation that is already tightly drawn is not the answer. Like noble Lords on the opposition Benches and those who support the amendment, I understand that public confidence has to be of the utmost. We have to let the police ultimately decide who is able to hold a firearms licence—they, and they alone, should decide that.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Marland for that speech. This has been a useful debate, in which noble Lords have cast around a bit and have perhaps extended the debate beyond the terms of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. It may help if I explain how the current regime operates, because we have to consider the amendment in the light of what is already being done to deal with these matters.
As the noble Baroness has explained, the first part of the new clause she proposes seeks to create a presumption that, if an applicant for a firearm certificate or shotgun certificate meets one of the stated criteria in her amendment, the police should not grant such a certificate. The stated criteria include violent conduct, evidence of domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse.
I share the noble Baroness’s concern about firearms being possessed or accessed by unsuitable persons. However, under the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968, the police already have the ability to take these factors into account when assessing the risk to public safety. The Firearms Act 1968 specifies that, before a licence can be issued, the police must be satisfied that the applicant can possess a firearm or a shotgun without danger to “public safety or the peace”. That is the basic test, so the law is sound in this respect and there is no need to change it.
I understand that there are concerns in particular about domestic violence and abuse. The police do take domestic violence and abuse very seriously. If they are called to a domestic violence and abuse incident and they suspect that a person is in immediate danger, they are able to seize any firearms immediately under powers in the Firearms Act 1968, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The police would also complete the domestic abuse, stalking and “honour”-based violence risk identification checklist, which asks them to consider the abuser’s occupation and interests and whether this could give them unique access to weapons. It also ensures that the police ask victims whether weapons have been used to hurt them before.
Moreover, in response to concerns, last July we published new guidance on this issue which provides greater detail on how the police should handle such cases. The guidance makes it clear that, although each case must be considered on its merits, evidence of domestic violence will generally indicate that the application should be refused.
Furthermore, revised firearms guidance, published fully in October, specifies that the police must take seriously intelligence falling short of a conviction and information when assessing a person’s suitability to possess firearms. It also states that forces must have procedures in place to monitor any activity of certificate holders or their associates which has come to the notice of the police, and that following a domestic violence incident an immediate review of the suitability of a certificate holder should take place. These recent changes—they are recent changes—underline how vital it is to ensure that those in possession of firearms do not pose a risk, and they serve to make the firearms licensing system stronger.
The proposed new clause also seeks to introduce a requirement that the police must follow any guidance issued by the Home Secretary when assessing public safety. I understand the argument being made here. However, I do not consider that this would be the right approach. The law provides the police with discretion in recognition of their responsibility for public safety in local areas, so it is right that chief officers have discretion to assess applications for firearm and shotgun certificates, taking into account the merits of each case and the published guide.
I say in response to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and, indeed, those of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who was concerned that the procedures might be deficient, that the test the police must apply in deciding whether to grant a certificate is whether the applicant can be permitted to possess a firearm without causing danger to public safety or the peace. An applicant has a statutory right of appeal to the Crown Court against the police’s decision to refuse a certificate. Therefore, the police will want to be satisfied that they have a rational, cogent and well evidenced justification for a decision to refuse a certificate to enable them to justify their decision in the event of an appeal. While the police may consider the possibility of a successful appeal in deciding whether to refuse a certificate, this factor is not part of the statutory criteria for the decision to grant or refuse a licence and therefore will not be part of the process, which will be based on the test of not endangering public safety or the peace.
This Government have sought to foster decision-making at a local level and to make it a local responsibility wherever possible. That is what localism means. I would not want to undermine this. Nevertheless, national action can still have a role and can support local decision-making. Accordingly, we are working with the national policing lead for firearms licensing to ensure that the police have a more detailed awareness and understanding of the Home Office guide.
The police are also taking steps to improve consistency and promote high standards across police firearms licensing departments. The College of Policing will be publishing authorised professional practice on firearms licensing, which will complement and cross-reference Home Office guidance. In order to assess standards, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has carried out a scoping exercise on how firearms licensing is conducted in practice and is considering whether the findings point to the need for further work to help drive up consistency across the country. Much is being done and this is very much an issue that is part and parcel of everyday activity at this moment.
The second part of the proposed new clause seeks to introduce a legal requirement for the Secretary of State to consult all chief officers before revising the licence fees, so that they achieve an appropriate level of cost recovery. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned this particular factor. I can assure noble Lords that consultation with the police is integral to the fee-setting process. We fully accept the need to consider the impact of licensing on police resources. However, until we have driven out the inefficiencies in the current approach to the licensing function, it would not be appropriate to raise the fees significantly.
The current fees and licensing structure have remained the same for well over a decade and we accept that it needs to be reviewed. We want the cost and system of licensing firearms to be proportionate and fair. Work will continue to ensure that this happens. This includes the introduction of e-commerce for policing beginning this summer. This IT initiative for police transactions will see much of the licensing process move online, thereby reducing the administrative burden and cost of the current paper-based system.
I hope I have addressed the issues and the challenge which this amendment presents. I am very happy, of course, to talk to the noble Baroness on any subject which concerns our responsibilities to this House, but I am not persuaded that further legislation is needed on this matter. However, if she feels that she needs a decision, she should press this issue at this stage.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the attention to detail he has given and for responding so fully to what has been an interesting debate. I am intrigued by some of the comments. My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey perhaps hit the nail on the head in trying to bring the debate back to the intent of my amendment.
In some ways, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Marland, that you cannot legislate out crime, but I am not pretending for one second that by passing this amendment there would never be another incident. You could make that argument for any provision in the Bill. You could argue that you should not have legislation on anti-social behaviour because that will not get rid of it or that you should not have legislation to evict people for riot offences because that will not stop all rioting. That is not an argument for not bringing forward legislation that can make a difference.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, hit the nail on the head. You have to legislate with facts—not in haste. What we are seeking is to ensure the police have the powers they need. I take the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about the importance of background checks. Yes, we understand that, and we know that background checks are made. I made this point very clearly in my comments on Michael Atherton’s application, where the licensing officer would have liked to refuse because of evidence of domestic violence—he had received a caution. The licensing officer would have liked to refuse, but for various reasons the police may come back and say, “We do not think we can”. When we read that it has cost Hampshire police thousands of pounds when licences have been challenged, we realise that there is a case here.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said that a decision must be taken on its merits, and that is exactly what the police are seeking to do. They want to take decisions on their merits, but there is a fear of legal action. The amount of discretion offered means they could be challenged. In the Michael Atherton case, three people were murdered with a legally held shotgun despite a previous caution for—and therefore substantive evidence of—domestic violence. It is worth nothing that after this case the IPCC said that there has to be legislation alongside guidance.
I do not accept the Minister’s comments. It is not a matter of having evidence but of giving the police the tools they need to act on the evidence they have. That is what the legislation at present does not do. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but I do not share his confidence that there is no legislation that could be brought forward to protect the public. The public will be absolutely horrified to know that, where there is evidence of violent behaviour or domestic violence, people can be legally allowed to have firearms. That is quite shocking and I am surprised that it is being defended by noble Lords.
I am sure that when checks were undertaken on the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Marland, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, no evidence was found of violence in their backgrounds, so they were happily given a licence. But there are many people who are not like the noble Lords and who do need to have some checks and balances.
I am very happy to include the noble Lord in the list, unless he tells me otherwise. However, the point is valid. The checks are being done now but the police are clear that there are cases where they have felt obliged to issue a licence although the evidence has told them that they should not. On the issue of subsidy—
My Lords, I am not quite clear about whether the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is not trying to tackle two problems in her amendment—the question of the police’s powers to refuse licences, and fees. Is she trying to do too many things? We might not agree on all these things.
Perhaps I am trying to do too much in one amendment. I have included the fees issue in the amendment—and I am surprised that the Minister defended the £18 million with which the public are subsidising firearms licences—because there will be an extra cost for the additional checks that the police may need to undertake in these cases.
As I said to the Minister, I was happy to come back and specifically discuss with him a way that we could ensure that people with a history of violence are unable to get a firearms licence. He has rejected that offer. In the interests of public safety, there is no alternative but to press the amendment and test the will of the House.
87: After Clause 104, insert the following new Clause—
“Assault on workers in public facing roles
(1) A person, being a member of the public, who assaults a worker—
(a) in the course of that worker’s employment, or(b) by reason of that worker’s employment, commits an offence.(2) No offence is committed—
(a) under subsection (1)(a) unless the person who assaults knows or ought to know that the worker is acting in the course of the worker’s employment;(b) under subsection (1)(b) unless the assault is motivated, in whole or in part, by malice towards the worker by reason of the worker’s employment.(3) In this section—
“worker” means a person whose employment involves dealing with members of the public, to any extent, but only if that employment involves—
(a) being physically present in the same place and at the same time as one or more members of the public; and(b) interacting with those members of the public for the purposes of the employment; or providing a service to either particular members of the public or the public generally,“employment” in this context means any paid or unpaid work whether under a contract, apprenticeship, or otherwise.
(4) Evidence from a single source is sufficient evidence to establish for the purpose of subsection (1) whether a person is a worker.
(5) A person guilty of an offence under this Act is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
My Lords, having dealt with important amendments regarding dangerous dogs and even more dangerous firearms, we now come to deal with an equally important matter: assaults on workers who deal with the public. It is in the spirit of the shared basic values and the common sense of this House that I am again tabling the amendment that I tabled in Committee, which I hope will command the support of all Peers, regardless of party.
The amendment sets out to tackle the shocking rate at which our shopkeepers, bus drivers, teachers, nurses and catering staff, to name but a few, are assaulted at work—in their workplace—every year. In 2012, there were 120,000 attacks against retail staff across the United Kingdom, with 51% of retailers reporting being victims of verbal or physical abuse in the past three months. Incidentally, one in five Asians work in shops, so a particular community faces these kinds of assaults.
These assaults are perpetrated against ordinary workers, who are often paid the minimum wage and are carrying out extraordinarily important tasks, such as looking after our old people, transporting our workforce or teaching our children. Such assaults can be particularly traumatic, as victims have no choice but to return to the workplace, unlike the general public. They return to the precise location and to the circumstances of the ordeal they faced. That results in increased anxiety and the understandable fear of such attacks and assaults recurring.
I shall give one example. Kim, a store manager, was attacked by a prolific shoplifter. After her attack, she described how she had,
“no end of sickness because of the stress. I have worked for five years and never had a day off, but now I am asking myself whether it is worth carrying on”.
Our current legal system, however, does not do enough to provide people like Kim with the protection they deserve. Too often, instead—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, raised this in the previous debate—offenders go virtually unpunished, either receiving a small fine or a suspended sentence.
In order to remedy this, my amendment creates a specific offence of assaulting someone who works with the public in the course of their employment. At present, doing so is simply one of 19 aggravating factors. Currently, the Code for Crown Prosecutors states:
“A prosecution is also more likely if the offence has been committed against a victim who was at the time a person serving the public”.
The Government insist that that helps to ensure that most of these cases are brought to court. Unfortunately, that simply is not the case.
Instead, in far too many instances, because of the laws currently governing assault in the workplace, the police and the CPS seem to be deciding in advance that it is not worth proceeding with these cases of common assault, which is how they are usually categorised, because assailants could end up with as little as a £50 fine. What is the point in pursuing a case if that is the result? Even then, when the CPS does decide to prosecute, it is very rare, in the reported cases that we have, for the aggravating factor that I described earlier of assault on a public-facing worker even to be mentioned in the proceedings.
My amendment would increase prosecutions and help to ensure that sentencing reflects the seriousness of the crime. It would do so by making the assault of a public-facing worker a separate offence, which would consequently elevate the seriousness of the crime in the sentencing guidelines above that of common assault. This in turn would make the range of penalties for offenders higher, thus encouraging a higher number of prosecutions.
I should now like to deal with the criticisms that were levelled by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in Committee, although I gather that there has been a change of Ministers—I am not sure whether this is good or bad news, whether I have a softer or harder Minister on this occasion, and only time will tell. First, it was claimed that, due to the existing range of offences relating to criminally violent behaviour, my amendment would further complicate the law and make prosecutions more complex. I must say, in making this argument, the Government totally ignore the existing complexity of the laws governing common assault, an offence which has three categories of harm and culpability and—I do not have 11 fingers—11 factors reducing seriousness. In contrast, my amendment would simplify matters, as a separate offence for assaulting public-faced workers would be easier to determine.
Secondly, in our previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, stated:
“I do not consider the proposed changes would mean more prosecutions”.
In making this claim, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor and the Government ignored—I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and others who are interested in Scots law will be particularly interested in this—the impact of similar protective measures for emergency workers in Scotland, which have led both to a decline in such incidents and to more than 1,000 prosecutions. Scotland has shown the way, not on such a wide range as the offence there deals particularly with emergency workers, and has shown that introducing this kind of provision actually works.
Thirdly, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked why such workers should be afforded special protection as opposed to members of the general public. He went on to argue in relation to the special protections rightly given to police officers by the criminal justice system:
“We do not ask of people in their normal employment that they place themselves in positions of danger in dealing with potentially violent incidents. We do ask that of the police”.—[Official Report, 4/12/2013; cols. 259-260.]
That is wrong. For a start, public-facing employees are placed in danger. That is the whole point. They are legally obliged to be there. We expect shopkeepers to challenge under-age purchasers of cigarettes and alcohol—an instruction which, when implemented, results in 30% of all violent and abusive incidents faced by retailers. We make the law saying that under-age people should not be given alcohol and tobacco. Shopkeepers have to implement it, and many of them get assaulted when they are doing so. You can imagine the 15 year-old thugs going into those shops. They may be under age as far as the law is concerned, but they can certainly be very violent towards the retailers.
A further 15% of such incidents occur when shoplifters are challenged—again, when enforcing a law that we have implemented, and a law which the police would enforce if they were there but they are not, so the shopkeeper has to do it. Transport staff are expected to place themselves in harm’s way by challenging all manner of anti-social and illegal behaviour. Noble Lords who travel on London buses, as we do, will know that this happens from time to time.
In other words, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, public-facing workers, like the police, often have to put themselves in potentially violent situations. As with the police, it is their duty to uphold laws and regulations. This responsibility not only imposes a greater financial burden on small businesses such as bars and clubs—according to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, they spend more than 11% of their turnover on security staff—but imposes an even greater physical and psychological cost on employees, who deserve greater recognition and greater protection.
If the new Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, repeats what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said on the previous occasion and the Government do not accept such a reasonable amendment—and I hope that, unusually for me, I have put it in a reasonable way—to give the workers whom I have described the peace of mind that they deserve, I sincerely hope that this House will put aside any party prejudice or party views and that, as a revising Chamber, we will consider correcting what the Government have unfortunately decided to refuse. I hope that I have persuaded the Ministers, particularly the new Minister, but, if I have not done so, I hope that this House will give public-facing workers the kind of protection they deserve.
My Lords, I spent 28 years representing people in the retail sector and I support this amendment. In the main, the people we are talking about are women and girls under the age of 18. They are the ones who face up to the criminals who enter the stores and do damage to individuals, who are frightened to death doing their job. As I said, in the main we are talking about young girls and women in the retail sector in this country. We are not talking about big, bruising men who can handle the situation but women and young women who are frightened to death in carrying out their work. I expect the Government to do as the amendment suggests and protect the people who are being damaged by villains and criminals who enter stores up and down the country.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was kind enough to mention me, and perhaps I may add a footnote to what he said about Scotland and the measure that deals with emergency workers. Of course, an assault, in both the law of Scotland and the law of England, is a crime, and in a sense you could say that it was not necessary to pass that measure at all because any court when presented with evidence of an assault would pass an appropriate sentence if the individual was convicted.
However, the value of the measure, which got a lot of publicity, was its deterrent effect. After all, the last thing that one wants is to have the assault committed. The Government in Scotland were trying to reduce the very unfortunate crescendo of assaults on emergency workers—firemen, ambulance people and so on—and to some extent the measure appears to have had that effect. Therefore, the deterrent effect is as valuable as any sentencing. As I said, in an ideal world, if something was a crime, the individual tempted to do the act described as criminal would refrain from doing it. It is because of the deterrent effect that I think there is a good deal of force behind the amendment.
My Lords, I thought that at the previous stage the noble Lord, Lord Condon, had it right when he said he feared that,
“the real mischief they and we might seek to address is not the absence of suitable offences but the absence of action”.—[Official Report, 4/12/13; col. 255.]
I asked questions of my noble friend about sentencing, the aggravating nature of that type of offence and so on, and I am afraid that I have not changed my mind about those two aspects.
I am interested in the definition of “worker” in the noble Lord’s amendment. One qualifies, as it were—that is not quite the right term but he will know what I mean—only if one is “physically present”. Reading that, I wondered how that works with his requirement for malice in subsection (2) of the proposed new clause. When I saw the word “malice”, I thought that he had in mind, for example, someone who—possibly for very personal reasons—does not like people who work in jobcentres but then discovers that his neighbour works in a jobcentre. Is that malice towards all such people for that sort of reason or are we talking about something very personal? Does it mean being in the workplace or in the sort of situation that I have suggested, hanging around until one’s neighbour comes out of the house and having a go at him for that reason?
I was also interested in subsection (4) of the proposed new clause. If I remember rightly—I have not gone back to check—I think that on the previous occasion the noble Lord talked about “evidence from a single source”. That seems to be a matter for the courts. We should not tell the courts how to assess evidence. If he is saying that there is some restriction on the way they are working at the moment, it may be a different matter—but, again, that made me wonder where the noble Lord was going with this.
On the aggravating nature of the offence, we have to be careful not to devalue the importance of that approach to sentencing. This, of course, is not the only aggravating factor for the courts, but the Sentencing Council does a very important job in identifying appropriate aggravating factors.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock very eloquently made the case in support of this amendment. It is really about supporting victims of assault by a member of the public in the course of their employment and in the course of earning their livelihood. I suppose that the question is whether one feels that the matter should be dealt with by regarding that kind of assault as one of a great many aggravating factors in an assault case, or whether it should be regarded as a separate offence. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, referred to the impact of the new offence in Scotland in relation to assaults on emergency workers.
It is worth looking at some of the figures that have emerged. Those from the HSE’s Crime Survey for England and Wales show that there were nearly 650,000 reported incidents of violence at work and that workplace violence comprises some 31% of all reported crimes of violence. The HSE found that the occupations at greatest risk were those that involved working with the public. That is hardly a surprise, but nevertheless it was confirmed by the HSE.
Reference has been made to the position of shop workers. USDAW, the union that represents them, undertakes members’ surveys, which show that in the past year 4% of retail staff were attacked at work—which is equivalent to some 120,000 assaults—and 34% were threatened with violence. In addition, 17% of those attacked did not report the offence—and we can all speculate as to why that might have been the case.
People at work—in their employment, in the course of earning their livelihood— are in a different situation from most other people. The reality is that an assault on somebody at work can be quite traumatic. It can lead to a situation where somebody is reluctant or fearful to go back to their place of work and be in exactly the same situation that they were in when they were attacked, facing a constant stream of strangers, any one of whom could become violent. One can also find cases of people assaulted by a member of the public in the course of their employment where the assault leads to them actually losing their job and their livelihood, because they are so traumatised that they are no longer able to return to the same job at the same location and to carry on with that employment. Those are among the victims who feel that sentencing probably does not reflect the effect that that kind of assault can have on their lives.
As has already been said, many people in the course of their employment are actually put in the way of danger by their work. They are the kind of people who have already been mentioned: public transport staff, fire workers, security staff, emergency service workers and shop workers. They often have to deal with people who are aggressive, drunk or attempting to break the law. Those workers are the kind of people who can be working late at night, sometimes on their own and in areas of anti-social behaviour which most people voluntarily avoid for their own safety. Workers in that situation do not have that particular option.
Some staff in the course of their employment dealing with the public have an obligation to seek to enforce the law. Those, for example, who serve alcohol are required to obtain proof of age from the purchaser. They are required to refuse to serve someone who is drunk and they are required to refuse a proxy sale of alcohol—although not of tobacco, as we were discussing earlier. Those kinds of actions are all major triggers for assaults on staff, and reference has already been made to the situation in that regard. In the USDAW survey, some 30% of assaults arose from challenging age-restricted sales, and some 15% related to people who appeared to be committing theft.
Those actions, carried out by people in the course of their employment who are required to seek to enforce the law, place workers at risk. If they are not undertaken—particularly in relation to refusing to serve people with alcohol when they are under age, or refusing a proxy sale of alcohol—staff can be liable for prosecution or for action to be taken against them for failing to carry out their duty to seek to enforce the requirements of the law where it applies.
There are, therefore, differences in the position of people who are assaulted in the course of their employment. They cannot run away; they cannot move somewhere else; they have to go back to their employment after an assault and be in the same situation in exactly the same circumstances as they were, facing members of the public and probably fearing that the same kind of thing might happen again. In some cases, it can cost them their jobs because the experience has been so traumatic that they feel they cannot carry on. Many are put in danger by the nature of their work or the kind of job they have to do; many are required to enforce the law as part of their work.
Like my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, I hope that we will get a more sympathetic response to this amendment. There is a case for having a separate offence of assault on a person in the course of their employment by a member of the public, and for not regarding it as simply one of a large number of aggravating factors for the offence of assault.
My Lords, much has been made of the change of Minister, but let me assure the noble Lord—perhaps this will disappoint him—that we represent the same Government and the same department. Whether my line is softer or harder I will leave him to determine—but it will be is consistent with that of my noble friend.
When we debated this issue in Committee, the noble Lord drew our attention to the problem of assaults on individuals who work with the public. He quoted extensively from research—research we also heard about tonight—from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers about attacks on retail staff in particular that shows that such assaults are sadly all too common. We have heard further such evidence in the debate today. We all agree that assaults on people who come into contact with the public as part of their work are totally and utterly unacceptable. They are a matter which both Parliament and the Government take very seriously and on which we are all agreed. No one should be expected to face violence in the course of their work, particularly when they are serving the public.
I think that the noble Lord referred to the Asian community in particular when he talked about the staff of small shops. There has been consistency across the board in our cities: quite often, shops are run by particular members of the community, often 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By definition, that opens them up to greater levels of assault and crime, which do take place; when we look across the country, it is of course the case. Staff of small shops are particularly vulnerable in this respect because they may need to stay open longer hours to make the profit needed to keep their business going, often as a family business with minimal staff. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Bradshaw also drew our attention to the position of public transport workers—as did the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, today.
It is paramount that the criminal justice system should treat violence against these essential members of society adequately, but the Government do not agree that a new offence is the right way to address the problems that the noble Lord highlighted. The noble Lord, Lord Condon, is not in his place today, but, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee pointed out, when we debated this issue in Committee, he said:
“Apart from the important symbolism of saying, ‘Here is a new offence’, I fear it would not add practically to improving the situation overall”.—[Official Report, 4/12/13; col. 256.]
I agree with him. As my noble friend Lord Taylor explained in Committee, there is already a range of offences that criminalise violent behaviour and these are supported by guidance that ensures that any assault against workers in public-facing roles is regarded as serious and is dealt with appropriately. This view is shared by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
All cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police are considered under the code for Crown prosecutors. Under the code, prosecutors must first be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. In every case where there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, prosecutors must then consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest. The section of the code giving guidance on this public interest test states:
“A prosecution is also more likely if the offence has been committed against a victim who was at the time a person serving the public”.
If the evidence is there and the code is satisfied, the CPS will prosecute.
Sentencing guidelines specify that where an assault is committed against someone providing a service to the public, be that in the public or the private sector, it is an aggravating factor and should result in a higher sentence within the current maximum. The Sentencing Council has also made clear in its guidance that that includes those who work in shops and in the wider retail business—a point well made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee.
I do not accept that a new offence would have additional deterrent value. The law already provides for what this amendment is intended to achieve. Fundamentally, we all know that assaulting anyone, regardless of their profession or circumstances, is wrong.
I listened very carefully, as I often do—always do.
A Freudian slip there perhaps. Maybe I was honest in my first assessment. Nevertheless, I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, when he talked about victims. In my own life serving the public in local government, quite often I came across a victim of crime—we are not talking about someone who serves the public, but any victim of crime. The noble Lord painted a scenario about that person having to return to their place of work. If someone has been assaulted in their own house, on the way to work, catching a train, at a bus stop or a station, there is equally a sense of great trepidation when the person has to return. It is important when we look at these issues that we put them into context. Ask any victim of crime, particularly serious crime, and the trepidation and fear that they feel in overcoming those challenges are intense.
Of course I acknowledge what the noble Lord is saying. When we face public life where does it stretch? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, contributed with his experience of the judiciary. Often, the judiciary are in the front line when they have to sentence people. There is an issue to be tackled there. Here, we sit in the Lords and many have served in representative office. Politicians put themselves in the front line when they face the public and indeed there have been instances where they have been assaulted in their own offices.
We argue that the degree of seriousness depends on the particular facts of the case. Why should it be worse, for example, or more traumatic for someone to be assaulted at work rather than on the bus going to work, or for that matter when locking the front door when leaving for work, or as a result of an intrusion into the home? The simple truth is that every case is unique and may have aggravating and mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account. That is where the judiciary comes in. We rely on the judiciary, guided by sentencing guidelines, to do just that.
Specific issues and questions were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others on issues vis-à-vis the police. First, assaults against people whose work brings them into contact with the public should receive the same sentence as an assault on a constable. That is already the case. With regard to the offence of an assault on a constable, we accept, as my noble friend Lord Taylor said previously, that the police do occupy an important role in society and a slightly different one by virtue of the role that they have to perform. But that does not mean that an assault on someone else, while being a distinct offence, carries a different maximum penalty. Both offences, be it on the police constable or anyone else, carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale currently set at £5,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, also raised the issue of young women. Again, I would say, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said about the Asian community, that there are particular circumstances that have to be looked at. We maintain that the current law provides protection. He mentioned the case of Kim and I listened very carefully. It is a great concern that there are harrowing experiences of victims of assault and noble Lords have shared those with the House today and in Committee. As I have already said, there are lasting consequences from these attacks. It is down to the individual and how they deal with it. It is the role of government, community and society to provide the support and protection they need. It concerns me greatly that individuals are not reporting serious crimes because they believe that nothing will be done. But we believe that having a new offence will not make a difference to that issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, pointed to the experience in Scotland. I take the point on board about the higher number of people being charged. It may well be that offences are currently being prosecuted under the legislation protecting emergency workers as an alternative to common assault. But I will certainly take their comments back, make inquiries with the Scottish Government and write to them in that regard if I may.
In closing, I assure the House that the Government are committed to improving things for victims of crime. Since 2011, the Ministry of Justice has provided—and continues to provide—more than £50 million in funding per year to diverse victims’ organisations, including a £38 million per year grant-in-aid agreement with Victim Support. My noble friend is not in her place, but I remind noble Lords of the appointment of my noble friend, Lady Newlove, as Victims’ Commissioner. As noble Lords know, she has personal experience that she brings to bear to protect and help others and ensure that we can tackle these issues with people who have tragic experience in this regard. I pay tribute to her work.
The new victims’ code recently came into force. It explains what victims should expect from the criminal justice system, who to request help from and how and where it should be provided. The code also holds those in the criminal justice system to account, makes victims their priority and gives victims a clearer means of redress if they are not given the support they deserve. We all believe that victims need to know that the criminal justice system will work as hard as possible to deliver justice for them and help them recover and move on with their lives. As I said, ask any victim of crime; that is exactly what they want to do. Indeed, often we hear that they do not want to be known as victims of crime: they want to know that they are survivors of crime because they have moved forward with their lives.
The noble Lord is a man whose contributions I am sometimes amused by and often entertained by. They often add to the spirit, detail and diversity of debate and discussion. Moreover, they add to the quality of debate we have in this House. I hope that, with the reassurances and explanations I have given, he will be minded to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister sought to argue when I said that staff working with the public and facing assault were to some extent different from others. He sought to say that that was not the case. Does that mean that it is the Government’s view that in offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public that should not even be an aggravating factor?
The noble Lord is being somewhat disingenuous with the comments I made. The parallel I was drawing was with victims of crime. Of course, there are aggravating circumstances and the Government take them into account. But I was trying to highlight to the noble Lord and to the House that if you ask any victim of crime they will tell you that in the circumstances that he was painting about somebody having to go back to their place of work that the same is true of someone who has been assaulted in the street or at the bus stop. It is our belief that people should be treated according to the law in a fair and just system. I believe that the current law does just that.
My Lords, I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for his eloquent and comprehensive reply. It was equally as good as that of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on the previous occasion—and very consistent, as the Minister said it would be. I am not questioning his sympathy or the sympathy of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in relation to this, but what I am questioning is his unwillingness to act. I suspect that it is because of the bureaucrats rather than because of Ministers. They do not want the bother of all the change that would be necessary.
Perhaps I may deal with the point raised previously by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, which the Minister mentioned. The police are treated separately when dealing with criminals. In education we use the phrase “in loco parentis”, but in this case teachers are acting “in loco custodia”; that is, in place of the police in that they are acting on behalf of the police, and so they should be treated in the same way. I would also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the question of who is the worker is absolutely clear. The only point in relation to the single source is that the single source is needed to describe a worker. I do not think that we need corrobation in terms of who is a worker in these circumstances.
I have been really encouraged by the support that I have received from the Labour Front Bench. My noble friend Lord Rosser, who has tremendous experience in the transport field, knows and understands the kind of problems that transport workers face. My noble friend Lord Davies of Coity has huge experience as General Secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and he knows exactly what people face. I welcome particularly the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who pointed out that the introduction in Scotland of a special offence in relation to workers in the emergency services has increased the prosecution rate and resulted in a decrease in such offences. Those are powerful arguments from people who have worked in the field and from a former judge in Scotland. I hope that if I have not convinced the Minister, I might have convinced other Members of this House and Members opposite.
The key and most important thing of all is that while of course the general public face dangers—that is incontrovertible—they do not have to return day in and day out to the scene of the crime. These workers do. They have to go back to where the offence took place. That is why they are a special case and it is why we as a House should give them special treatment. It is also why I am moving this amendment today.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.43 pm.
My Lords, it might be helpful if I remind noble Lords that there are a number of speakers in this debate and the time limit is three minutes. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has 10 minutes, my noble friend Lady Warsi has 12 minutes to wind up and remaining speakers have three minutes. I remind noble Lords that when the clock shows “3”, time is up.