12 July 2007

First They came for the crack users..pt 2: Closure orders extension

First they came for the crack users... pt 2

Brown announces intention to proceed with Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007 - Measures to extend Closure Orders Proposed

Right at the very end, just before the demise of the old Goverment, the pulication of the Criminal Justice Bill 2007 was announced. Then the people behind it, John Reid at the Home Office and Tony Blair, stood down. Leaving the bill behind.

At the time the Bill didn't get a lot of attention. The section that received the most publicity was a section relating to prostitution. No-one seemed to mention the proposal to extend the power to close premises.

Any hope that Brown would drop the Bill was dashed on the 11th July when, in a speech describing the Government's business for the coming term, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill was included in the list.

The Section of the Bill of most interest to KFx is S.17 which extends closure orders to cover non-drug related premises.

The proposal is not dissimilar to the existing powers for closing houses associated with Class A drug activity.

A first striking difference is that the power to issue a Closure Notice and apply for a Closure Order is not limited to Police; it has been extended to Local Authorities too. This is a substantial change and should be the source of some concern. Given in many situations the Local Authority will be the Landlord, and the person seeking the Closure Order, this is likely to represent a conflict of interest for the Local Authority. Likewise, it means that the same workers who are providing support may also end up in court providing evidence of nuisance or disorder.

The power can be applied to premises as follows:

(1) This section applies to premises if a police officer not below the rank of superintendent (“the authorising officer”) or the local authority
has reasonable grounds for believing—
(a) that at any time during the relevant period a person has engaged in anti-social behaviour on the premises, and
(b) that the use of the premises is associated with significant and persistent disorder or persistent serious nuisance to members of the public

This bill, if enacted, would hugely undermine existing housing rights and laws. It undercuts licenses, tenancies and centuries of property ownership. It will result in exclusion from housing, increased homelessness and affect many families, including those struggling with drugs, alcohol, mental health problems, children with special needs and so on. It allows for a situation where the behaviour of a child with behaviour problems could see the family removed from their home, even though no offence has been caused.

This is hugely loose wording. "antisocial behaviour" is loosely defined, and so will affect numerous people where behaviour could have caused alarm or distress to another person. The words "persistent" will need to be further defined. But the "relevant period" will be activity that has taken place over the preceding three months. Defining significant and persistent nuisance will be a challenge!

The net effect of this, as with the Antisocial Behaviour Act (Power to close Premises) is that if the Magistrate's Court is satisfied that antisocial behaviour and nuisance is taking place, a Closure Order can be issued, and any body resident in the property will be required to leave, made homeless or face arrest if they refuse to leave.

Despite protestations in the past that this measure was to be used as a "last resort" where other measures had failed, this is not reflected in the legislation. The Magistrate is not required to consider if other measures have been used, or that they have failed. They are only required to consider if they think issuing an order: (c) the making of the order is necessary to prevent the occurrence of such disorder or nuisance for the period specified in the order.

This does leave some room to move for a magistrate and is probably a better wording than the one in the Antisocial Behaviour Act. A sensible magistrate could find that it was not "necessary" if there were other measures available which might work.

As before, the Closure Order doesn't determine a tenancy - it merely denies access. The Tenant has the choice of surrendering their Tenancy (and risking being found intentionally homeless) or refusing to surrender it, not being eligible for alternative housing, and challenging the order through the courts.

And as before, the status of those thus evicted is not clear - in many situations the people evicted will need further housing, and may well be in priority need. So the simple locking out of one house will be a fatuous gesture when the people in question will still need to be housed, probably by the same local authority.

When the Antisocial Behaviour Act was passed, there was hardly a mutter about it because it was aimed at "crack dens" the new bogey-men of UK society. They were considered fair-game and unworthy of rights afforded to the rest of society. This extension may prove more contentious - as people start to realise that what one person considers a normal lifestyle may, by a neighbour, be considered "significant and persistent nuisance." Repeated mowing of lawn in the morning? DIY in the evening? One barbecue too many when smoke blows over the neighbours fence?

This is an illiberal, draconian piece of law, and as before with the Antisocial Behaviour Act removes important protections from individuals and places huge powers in the hands of the State. This time, the legislation must be challenged and concerted lobbying by all agencies will be required to prevent the passage of this Bill. In theory and in practice it is too important to stay silent on this Bill.

To read the full text of the bill click here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmbills/130/2007130.pdf

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