HL Deb 19 March 1997 vol 579 cc986-93

7.22 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The VISCOUNT OF OXFUIRD in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Confiscation of intoxicating liquor]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 5, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (IA) below,").

The noble Lord said: With the leave of the Committee, in moving this amendment I shall speak at the same time to Amendment No. 2 to which Amendment No. 1 is a paving amendment. At Second Reading I pointed out that, as drafted, the provisions of the Bill, which allow for people who are innocent of any criminal offence to be challenged and, in certain circumstances, their goods confiscated, could embarrass, annoy and inconvenience respectable families with teenage children, including foreign tourists, who happen to be having a picnic which included beer, cider, wine or even Pimms, for example, on a public beach or at a public beauty spot.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, replied in effect that that was certainly not the intention of the Bill and that the police would be urged to be extremely tactful in their application of the new law. They should not bother, let alone target, such family groups. The trouble is that once one gives the police or anybody else, particularly in uniform, excessively wide-ranging powers in any area, sooner or later they are bound to be misused. Such is human nature. That creates bad blood. One remembers the "sus" laws and the random use of the breathalyser. That is bad for the community at large and for the long-term and medium-term interests of the police themselves.

This pair of amendments is designed to obviate that by providing that police powers should not operate when teenagers are accompanied by their parents or guardians—not only their legal guardians, but their de facto guardians like uncles and aunts, godparents or even a brother or sister who happens to be in his or her late 20s or early 30s. I beg to move.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My noble friend Lord Monson will be surprised, I believe, that I am grateful to him for putting down these amendments. They give an opportunity to explain again the benefits of this small Bill and to try to answer and allay some of the fears and worries that he expressed at Second Reading.

One has to remember that this small Bill is designed specifically to tackle the problem of the drinking of alcohol by young people on our streets. It has been drafted to cover adults who may be in their company and whom the police believe are holding, supplying and encouraging drinking by young people. The noble Lord quite rightly raised his worry at Second Reading about the family picnic. I am advised that the Home Office guideline. which I know worries the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will refer specifically to the parliamentary concerns of these powers and also give advice as to how they should be interpreted.

With this power the police officer tackling young people will perhaps be able to nip in the bud a problem before the young people cause an offence. It is a most imaginative power because it will allow a young person to receive a severe ticking off without being arrested or becoming a criminal. I have been very struck by the evidence I have received as a result of ringing around the police, local authorities and schools and anyone who is in touch with this problem. There is not one person who has not warmly welcomed the powers that this Bill will give.

The amendment which the noble Lord puts before us, as presently drafted, is technically defective, because it does not define "guardian". That will have to be defined in this Bill. The other practical problem is how a police officer could possibly identify among young people, with perhaps a 25 year-old adult, who is a parent and who is a guardian. It has been cited to me that one could have a situation of a police officer finding a group of youngsters drinking outside a bus shelter, following complaints about their behaviour. He decides that the powers contained in this Bill are just what he needs because he will be able to take away the drink, pour it down the drain, tick the youngsters off and probably notify their parents. But one of the lads, who looks about 24 years of age, claims to be the father of one of the youngsters who looks about 13. The officer will not know for certain whether that is or is not the case. He might consider that it is highly unlikely, but he will not be able to establish with certainty on the spot that it is not the case. The two boys might be brothers and perhaps they can produce the same form of identification with the same name. It would not prove their relationship, but the officer would be deprived of the useful power. The youngsters will quickly learn that all they have to do to frustrate the powers of this Bill is to claim that the oldest person in their midst is the parent of one of the others. That is a practical example of why, on reflection, one is unable to advise the Committee to accept the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, can accept what I have said.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I rise to speak in the absence of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey who, as the Committee knows, dealt with the matter on Second Reading. My noble friend has asked me to say that he supports the Bill and its intentions, but that he takes the view that, although there is some sense in some of the amendments and he has sympathy with them, in view of the timetable he feels that the Committee should not accept them.

Much as my noble friend would like to debate the matter at greater length—indeed, on Second Reading, he made particular reference to the exclusion of low alcohol wine and lager—he feels that given the parliamentary timetable it would be pointless for such amendments to be passed because of the danger of losing the Bill. As I have said, my noble friend supports the Bill but, in general, is unable to support amendments to it because of the matters that I have just raised.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I believe that most of us accept the Bill and the desirability of having a Bill on this subject. What worries me and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey—I know that on this matter I can speak with his full agreement[...]—is that we have now had a clutch of Bills, supposedly private Member's Bills, which are in reality government Bills, being presented to your Lordships in the last few weeks before Prorogation. Somebody who is far better at statistics than I am has calculated that in the present Session there have been 28 Home Office Bills, the overwhelming majority in the names of private Members. Any department that produces 28 Bills, even when they aim to deal with real problems, really is pushing its luck.

Having said that, although I am certainly not of a mind to try to obstruct the Bill, what worries me is the reference to "Home Office guidelines", which means "Home Office circulars", I presume. As a Minister at the Home Office, I was involved in agreeing Home Office circulars on a whole series of matters, but I am far more worried about publishing circulars which attempt to interpret an Act of Parliament. If the matter ever came before a judge, it would not help a great deal to say, "The real intentions of Parliament were explained in a circular" because the judge could perfectly reasonably say that Acts of Parliament, not Home Office circulars, are what explain Parliament's intentions. I do not propose to go on about this, but merely say to my old department that I hope that no future Home Secretary will ever be inclined to produce quite so many Bills in such a short period of time.

The Earl of Courtown

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Kinnoull on his response to this group of amendments. Perhaps I may pick up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich and say that I know that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is equally concerned about guidance notes and Home Office circulars, and that that concern is shared by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. As I understand it, when the Secretary of State issues guidance to the police, he naturally expects chief police officers to take account of it. It is therefore unnecessary to have such a provision on the face of the Bill.

In the Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Bill, we shall be speaking about closing down businesses which are possibly worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Noble Lords considered that they wanted to reinforce the necessity for local authorities to take account of the detailed guidance on the circumstances in which that could happen. In the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Bill, we are talking about taking a can of lager away from a young person. The scale is slightly different, as all noble Lords are aware. I suggest to the Committee that it is therefore unnecessary to give the same emphasis to guidance on the face of the Bill. Indeed, to do so might even suggest that the police need not take account of guidance where the legislation does not specify that they should.

Turning now to Amendment No. 1, I should point out that it does not disapply the power only in respect of parents, but of guardians also. As my noble friend said, the amendment does not define what constitutes a guardian. I presume that the noble Lord means a guardian who has been appointed by a court, but that is not specified. I am concerned that that would cause serious trouble in practice and I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Monson

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who raised an important point about Home Office guidance and the possible difficulties that could arise with interpretation. That point was answered to my partial satisfaction by the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, but not to my entire satisfaction.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, spoke of the danger of losing the Bill if any amendments are accepted. That is not so because no fewer than 19 amendments have been tabled to the next Bill that we are to consider and nobody is suggesting that there is any danger of that Bill being lost.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, cited the practical problem of how the police can judge who is a parent or a guardian. True, but one might as well ask the noble Earl how a police constable can judge who is 17 (and can therefore be caught by the provisions of the Bill) and who is 18 (and therefore cannot be so caught but who might be able to take some legal action against the police if he was unjustly detained, even temporarily, as a consequence of a police constable mistaking his age). We have had a fairly good run on this group of amendments, so I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 17, at end insert ("and shall give a written receipt for the intoxicating liquor so surrendered if he does not dispose of it forthwith.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment provides that if the confiscated drink is not disposed of straightaway in front of the person from whom it was confiscated by, for example, being poured down a drain or on to the grass, the constable must give a written receipt. If the constable removes the drink for later disposal, the suspicion (doubtless mainly unjust) will inevitably take root among young people—and not necessarily only among young people—that the drinks are being removed only to be consumed later, surreptitiously or otherwise, by the police themselves. That would, of course, be a disciplinary offence, but it would be very difficult to prove in the circumstances. The obligation to give a receipt would help to allay such suspicions, which I repeat would largely be unjust, thereby fostering improved relations between the police and the public, and particularly younger members of the public, to the great benefit of the community as a whole. I beg to move.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

I support this amendment. I am concerned that this Bill, and the similar provisions in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill, refer to the "possession" of intoxicating liquor rather than to its "consumption". That suggests to me that we could see over-zealous policemen taking unopened cans and bottles from people who may only be transporting them. Perhaps I may present an easy scenario: young people may be taking the cans from their own home to the home of their grandparents. I hope that whichever noble Earl replies to this amendment will assure the Committee that the intention of the Bill is only to remove intoxicating liquor that is being consumed rather than intoxicating liquor that is still in an unopened bottle and is merely being transported between two places.

The Earl of Kinnoull

There is some confusion as to who should be guiding the Committee. Perhaps my noble friend will guide us further following my reply. I appreciate the reason for the amendment but not its merit. As to the merit, one must remember that a police officer is using his commonsense in these situations. Equally, the police officer will know that it is a very serious disciplinary offence for him to take confiscated alcohol for his own use. I believe it is unthinkable that any officer would risk his career in such a way.

Regulations made under the Police (Property) Act 1897 provide that if the chief officer is satisfied that the nature of the property is such that it is not in the public interest for it to be sold, it shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in accordance with his directions. It is such a serious matter for a police officer to go astray in this way that the last thing he will do is risk his career in that way.

As for giving a receipt for something that will be poured away anyway, he can hardly give a receipt because there is nothing to come back. I appreciate the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. He spoke well on the powers in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill earlier this afternoon. I shall leave my noble friend to explain this with his great guidance. I do not believe that it is a problem.

The Earl of Courtown

First, I should like to deal with the point relating to unopened bottles and cans raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. The Bill makes no distinction between open cans of alcohol and those which are closed. I would expect the police to act sensibly in this matter. If an officer found a group of youngsters drinking in public he might pour away the contents of the open can and tell the youngsters to take the rest away or, depending on the age of the youngsters, take the cans and the young people home to their parents. If a large amount of alcohol were involved, the police would almost certainly wish to investigate it further. It might be stolen. A supplier might be illegally selling it to young people. In such circumstances it is more likely that the cans or bottles would be taken back to the police station as potential evidence in respect of an entirely different offence. These are operational matters. As such, they are best left to the police. However, as I have made clear, property taken back to the police station could be disposed of only under the regulations made under the Police (Property) Act 1897.

The noble Earl also painted the scenario of a youngster taking cans of beer from one member of a family to another. As I understand it, this would fall outside the scope of the Bill as far as concerns guidance to the police. I apologise for using the word "guidance" again. For a good part of this, how the police will behave in such circumstances will be an operational matter and a matter of police training.

Lord Monson

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, and the Minister. As I said in my introduction, it is a disciplinary offence for a police constable to purloin a can of drink that is confiscated to drink himself on his way home, but it is a matter that is extremely difficult to prove. I suggest that it requires only one rogue officer to go astray briefly for the whole law to be brought into disrepute. One can visualise what a field day the tabloids would have in such circumstances. But I believe that we have gone as far as we can on this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 11, at end insert ("save that for the purposes of this section, products containing less than 1.2 per cent. alcohol by volume shall not be deemed to constitute "intoxicating liquor".").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 4 is designed to remove very low alcohol beers and lagers from the scope of the Bill. These low alcohol beers and lagers—ranging from 0.5 per cent. in the case of most low alcohol lagers to just over 1 per cent. in the case of the average low alcohol beer—are considered so innocuous that they can be sold quite legally to minors. As I understand it, they can also be sold at motorway service stations. However, they had not been invented when the 1964 Act, which is referred to in Clause 1(7), was framed. Therefore, no exemption was provided for those products in the original Act, which I have checked. I beg to move the amendment.

The Earl of Kinnoull

I am grateful to the noble Earl for tabling this amendment. I am, however, advised that it is not necessary because the point is already covered by Clause 1(7) under which "intoxicating liquor" has the same meaning as in the Licensing Act 1964. I suggest to the noble Lord that it is not necessary.

Lord Monson

I have checked the Licensing Act 1964. As originally drafted, the Bill does not do what the noble Earl suggests. I give way to the Minister.

The Earl of Courtown

Perhaps I may seek to assist the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I understand that as far as concerns this clause the Licensing Act 1964, as amended, provides in its definition that: 'intoxicating liquor' means spirits, wine, beer, cider and any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor, but does not include any liquor which, whether made on the premises of a brewer for sale or elsewhere, is found on analysis of a sample thereof at any time to be of an original gravity not exceeding 1016" and of a strength not exceeding 1.2 per cent.". The definition goes on to include perfumes, flavouring essences and medications. I will let the noble Lord, Lord Monson, have a copy of that definition.

Lord Monson

I am grateful to the noble Earl for clarifying the matter. It is quite clear from what he says that the original Act of 1964 has been updated by subsequent legislation which has the effect of excluding low alcohol beers and lagers. That is a very satisfactory state of affairs. Accordingly, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed; Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 18th March), Bill read a third time.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the proceedings on this Bill. I am sure we all hope that this Bill achieves what is intended.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

On Question, Bill passed.