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Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a classic opportunity for the retailers and the rest of the industry to take up the suggestion from the ministerial group on alcopops and produce a universally acceptable card?
Mrs. Gordon: Yes, certainly. I intended to mention that later. There is a proliferation of proof-of-age cards. I am sure that they all stem from worthy motives but they are all different and have different levels of security built in. For instance, the citizen card is very good--it is like a credit card and has a photograph sealed in, as opposed to one that is merely stuck on and can easily be peeled off and replaced.
At weekends, the clubs in Romford allow in only people who are over 20. People aged 16 look like those aged 18, but it is easier to distinguish people over 20. The clubs are very worried about the problem of under-age drinking and are as diligent and vigilant as they can be. However, in the first quarter of this year three juveniles were arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Romford town centre. There were also 24 other arrests of juveniles for various offences--such as public order offences--that the police considered to be alcohol-related. Eight cases involved assault, but it is worth noting that 157 adults were arrested in the same period.
I regret that the Bill does not include a proposal for a national proof-of-age card. I know that that is what the police in Romford want. I believe that a national card that is universally acceptable would give bar staff the reassurance that they need. Until it is available, there will always be a problem with under-age drinkers.
Mr. Forth: Does not the hon. Lady agree with the Minister and me that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has succeeded so well with his Bill--after all, he has persuaded many of us not to press our amendments--because he has not tried to put too much into it? Had he done otherwise, his purpose would have been jeopardised. Does not hon. Lady agree that the hon. Gentleman has been sensible and skilful in fashioning the Bill so that it does the limited job that he wants it to perform without introducing the extra baggage that might have put it at risk? Might not that be the reason why the Bill lacks the provision that the hon. Lady describes?
Mrs. Gordon: I agree that the Bill has been designed, and refined, so that it will reach the statute book. However, I suppose that I am really addressing my remarks to my hon. Friend the Minister, in the hope that
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) has tabled amendment No. 52, which would provide a protection for staff in clubs and off-licences if they could prove that they had asked for some form of identification. However, I fear that that could be a bureaucratic nightmare. Anyone who has been in the centre of Romford on a Friday or Saturday night--I go there sometimes as a matter of research--would agree that implementing the proposal would be impossible, given the huge numbers of people enjoying themselves in the bars and clubs. I do not think that staff would be able to cope with the requirement to ask for identification.
What we need is a clear, easily identifiable and universally recognised card. As a matter of routine, staff should always check young people. Such a card would be shown as a matter of course, as one would show a bus pass. Students who do not show their bus passes do not get their concessionary fares--no pass, no bus ride. Proof-of-age cards would work in the same way--no card, no drink.
Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): Amendment No. 52 would make an important improvement to the Bill and help to make it a better balanced piece of legislation. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and, indeed, by others, about not moving the Bill too far. However, we should try and get the balance right in the Bill, and it is useful for the House to debate such a balance. It has been a balanced debate all round, and, as such, a worthwhile one.
The Bill replaces the ineffective elements of section 169 of the Licensing Act 1964 and closes the loophole revealed by the Russell case in 1997, which was referred to extensively on Second Reading. Section 169 of the 1964 Act provides that where the person charged with an offence of selling intoxicating liquor to a person under 18 is the licence holder, and he is charged by reason of the act or default of some other person, it shall be a defence for him to prove that he has exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of an offence under the Act. I believe that the 1964 Act and this Bill could go a little further because of the possible mischief that could be caused by forged or false identification in cases in which licensees and their staff act with due diligence.
Under the existing law, in one case in which an employee operated a good system devised by his employer for the avoidance of the sale of alcohol to young persons, and was acting in a specific sale under the instructions of a more senior employee, the court held that in the absence of any evidence that the purchaser was clearly under age, or that the identification produced was forged, no reasonable tribunal could find that the vendor had failed to exercise due diligence. It would be helpful to specify the interpretation of the existing law and to know whether that interpretation was embodied in the Bill. That is why I tabled my amendment.
My view is reinforced by the evidence in the report of the under-18 panel meetings of the taskforce, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) referred a few moments ago. I think that that evidence is relevant to my amendment and to others in this group.
The taskforce evidence, gathered after a thorough investigation, is compelling in that it illustrates how determined young people are, particularly those at risk, to target what the report refers to as safe places. One of the most important findings to emerge from the discussion of what is a safe place to drink was that the panellists giving evidence interpreted "safe" as a place where they were less likely to be caught by police or parents, rather than the conventional definition of "safe" as being away from harm and danger. They referred to back streets, the back of buildings, parks, bus stops and public toilets. We all know of areas in our constituencies where young people drink; it results not only in the sort of serious consequences that drove my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey to promote the Bill, but leads to anti-social behaviour, which the Bill addresses.
Clearly young people under 18 have obtained intoxicating liquor from some establishments. In some cases, over-18s may purchase for younger people, but many younger people buy for themselves. That is the mischief that the Bill attempts to address by ensuring that there is a culture of awareness and checking, and a system of identification, which the amendment would provide.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: My hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) have raised important points, particularly on the method of proving age. I was concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Romford say that forgeries of the Portman card are a problem. Likewise, I was worried to hear that police officers in her area can accept only driving licences or passports as proof of age.
The issues raised by both my hon. Friends should be part of a wider debate on licensing reform this year and next as legislation is introduced. I shall seek to include their comments in the Government's broader consideration, and the issues that they have raised will be duly weighed and considered.
I thank all Members who have participated in the debate today and in Committee and on Second Reading. The quality of debate at each stage has been exemplary. It has demonstrated to many people, as well as my constituents, how well we can discuss issues on which there is not necessarily any party political dimension. I thank all the hon. Members who have assisted me, from both sides. I repeat what was said by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell)--on this Bill, we have all been right hon. and hon. Friends, not simply Members of Parliament.
I thank the Minister for his kind assistance, and Andrew Cunningham, a Home Office official, for his many words of advice. On occasion during the various debates, it has been suggested that this is a Government Bill. The implication has been that it was handed out to me. I can assure hon. Members who may nurture those suspicions that that simply is not so. Members aware of my record over the two and a half years in which I have been pursuing the matter will know that to be true. I can confirm that Government support was forthcoming only after the formal First Reading. Since then, it has been forthcoming from both sides of the House, and I am delighted that we have reached Third Reading. I am not complacent. There is still time for more debate on the Bill and I am aware that hon. Members want to make contributions and comments.