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Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill: I must allow myself to be tempted.

Mr. Redwood: Is the Minister reluctant to express a view on the Bill because he thinks that he will need a lot of the green space on the commons for the massive house-building project that he wishes to force on Berkshire? Will he take advantage of this opportunity to apologise to the people of Berkshire, and lift the spectre of more homes?

Mr. Hill: That intervention reminds us all why the right hon. Gentleman remains on the Back Benches.

The Government hope that the Bill will be allowed to proceed in the usual way to Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed.

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Alcohol and Young People (Wirral)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Hill.]

7.22 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I am delighted to have secured an Adjournment debate on this important subject. The issues surrounding high-proof alcohol and its effects on our young people are matters of serious concern. In my many discussions with the police in my constituency, the severe problems surrounding high-proof drinks are a regular topic.

I take this opportunity to thank the local police, especially Sergeant Seeborn and the community police team based at Bromborough for their work on the problem, and for providing a great deal of background information. I know that they are pleased that the matter is being brought before the House today.

The police tell me that most of the time in the community forums that they hold locally in the Wirral is taken up with discussing complaints related to young people engaged in anti-social behaviour. I do not believe that Wirral, South is any different in that respect from other constituencies, which I am sure are experiencing similar problems. The problems are often exacerbated by the fact that the youths involved have consumed alcohol.

Gangs of youths can be perceived as intimidating even when sober and behaving well. When they are drunk, the perceived threat is much more substantial, especially to elderly citizens. That problem is much evident in Wirral, South, where a high proportion of the population is over pensionable age.

The problems are made significantly worse because the drinks involved are often high-proof drinks--8, 9, 10 or even 12 per cent. by volume in some cases. In effect, young people of 13 or 14 years of age are drinking the equivalent, in each bottle or can, of three or four pints of ordinary beer. The consequences are predictable--anti-social behaviour, damage, theft, graffiti, assault, and so on.

Vandalism and damage to churches and churchyards is becoming increasing common in my constituency, and I am sure that it is a direct result of the actions of youths who have been drinking. That is especially distressing to many people.

Research reported last year showed that youngsters between 11 and 15 are drinking more than twice as much alcohol as in the early 1990s. The charity Alcohol Concern believes that as many as 2.75 million pints of beer are consumed every week by under-age young people. Last year, Liverpool's Alder Hey children's hospital revealed that doctors were treating 200 intoxicated youngsters a year--some of them as young as 9 years of age. If anyone doubted the scale of the problem, those facts show it clearly.

Wirral magistrates tell me that more cases involving young people are connected to alcohol than to drugs. As Alcohol Concern has stated:

I shall give a brief outline of how the problem came to light in the Wirral. The Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 gave police power to confiscate alcohol

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from young people in public areas, and it has proved highly successful. Merseyside police mounted Operation Cask in June 1998 in the central Wirral area, which includes my constituency. That highlighted the extent of the problem as, between 6 pm and 9 pm on a Friday evening, alcohol worth £700 was seized.

The significant result was not that such an amount was seized, shocking as that might be, but that the received wisdom of the time--that alcopops were the main contributor to under-age drinking--was discovered to be untrue. The House will recall the public outcry when those drinks were introduced to the market but, although I have strong reservations about them, they do not seem to be the major cause of the problems.

During the operation, no alcopops were seized, and, in any case, their alcohol by volume is only about 5 per cent. The alcohol seized was all either lager or cider, and all of it had a high alcohol content. The drinks were much stronger than alcopops, and much cheaper. For example, cider, which costs as little as £1 per litre in an off-licence is, on average, twice the strength of most beers, so the stark reality is that £1 allows kids to consume major amounts of alcohol. It can be no surprise that the young people involved are frequently drunk and abusive. Many are not in control of themselves: they are, indeed, out of their minds.

In most other respects, the youngsters are well behaved. They may have no income other than pocket money, and their parents often have no idea about what is going on. For example, parents might give a child £5 for the cinema, little knowing that it could be spent on alcohol. A considerable amount of alcohol can be consumed for £2 or £3, and the evidence is building that many youngsters' first experience of alcohol is with these high-volume products.

Why are the kids on the street in the first place? They will tell people that there is nothing else to do and, sadly, in some cases, that is true. In my constituency, for example, there is a lack of facilities for teenagers. Most importantly, there are too few facilities that they want to use--as opposed to what we older people think that they should want to use.

Moreover, facilities are often in inner-city and urban areas. Little thought seems to be given to suburban areas such as those in my constituency. I continue to press the lottery boards to take account of suburban issues and to put right the consequential lack of lottery funds for projects such as the West Wirral Trust for Sport. The facilities that it could offer could greatly help in attracting youngsters away from the streets and parks and into productive fun. That would be an alternative to the "bit of fun" that drinking represents in an area where the youngsters say that they have nothing to do.

Any alcoholic drink is strong to people in their early teens, but the high-proof drinks multiply that problem considerably. We often forget that alcohol is a drug, and must represent a potential cause of harm when it is taken in such strong doses.

All police operations since Operation Cask have resulted in the confiscation of high-volume lager and cider. The police tell me that they are now having difficulty in finding the stashes of drink that youngsters go to increasingly greater lengths to conceal. The police believe--and I believe them--that youngsters sneak these drinks through their back doors at home, unnoticed and

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attracting no comment. To some extent, that happens on the back of, or under cover of, alcopops. The drinks involved may be bootleg imports.

Who buys these drinks, and why are they produced? My hon. Friend the Minister will recall from his visit to Wirral, South earlier this year that a call on an off-licence, particularly a discount off-licence, can provide evidence of the hard sell that surrounds such products. He will recall that they formed a major part of the display in an off-licence that he visited, and that the sales staff confirmed that they were a good seller.

This is surely a time when the social responsibilities of the brewing industry, off-licences and perhaps supermarkets need to be examined closely, not least by the industry and the outlets themselves. These beers and ciders are packaged to be attractive to young people. The cider comes in blue or green bottles. It is consumed--as is the fashion these days--from the neck of the bottle. All these drinks have a high alcohol content. They are seen as "wicked" in both senses of the word--in the sense that they are fashionable for young people, and in the sense that they are harmful and undesirable because they have a bad effect on youngsters and because anti-social behaviour surrounds their sale and consumption.

Is there any need to sell such beers? They may provide a good profit margin, but surely the damage that they do to our young people outweighs that commercial consideration. I enjoy a drink or two of beer, but neither I--nor anyone else I have spoken to--drink beers with such a high alcohol volume. That is simply an observation, not a scientific fact, but it bears out the police's view that the consumption of high-alcohol content products is, in the main, by under-age drinkers and alcoholics. They are not enjoyed, bought or consumed by social drinkers.

Why does the industry produce such products? Why are they sold in such a high-profile way? A cynic might assume that they are targeted at young people. I understand that in some supermarkets, sales of these products can make up to 1 per cent. of total sales.

The social cost of these products is far too high. It is time for action, and if the industry is not prepared to look at this problem voluntarily, I ask the Government to ensure that it does.

Before concluding, it is important to say something about the outlets for these products. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) is seeking to tighten the laws against those who sell alcohol to under-age drinkers, and I support his proposals wholeheartedly. However, such measures would not solve the problem in its entirety. The majority of licensed premises in Wirral, South do not sell alcohol to young people. However, that does not mean that there does not need to be even more supervision of off-licences and other outlets. They may not be the direct cause of the problem, but disturbance, violence and criminal activity often occur nearby. If they are not the cause, they are certainly often the focus.

Research shows that disorder around licensed premises has increased dramatically--by about 30 per cent. from the mid-1990s. We need to ensure that youngsters under 18 are not being sold alcohol of any type. We need to monitor displays in off-licences and supermarkets. The police have to ensure that frequent visits are made to outlets and, as far as possible, measures need to be taken to discourage and stop adults from buying drink for teenagers.

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That brings me to a more sinister aspect of the problem. A large number of people over 18 are more than willing to purchase alcohol for under-age youngsters. Legitimate customers can be harangued, but are often bribed, into buying alcohol for teenagers. Sadly, in some cases, parents buy the drinks. More disturbingly, the police often find groups of teenagers--mainly girls--in the presence of males over 18. One can draw one's own conclusions as to the motives behind that, but assault and sexual assault on youngsters too drunk to know what is happening cannot be ruled out, and does occur.

Will the Government be taking action to criminalise purchasing alcohol and supplying it to under-age drinkers? The anti-social behaviour of such youngsters is a huge problem, but of equal concern is the danger that they put themselves into, and the risk of assault, or even accidents, when drunk.

The only purpose of these products seems to be to ensure that the consumer gets drunk quickly and cheaply. To me, high-volume ciders and beers with a high alcohol content often taste appalling. To my lights, they are not social drinks in any shape or form.

To impose a punitive tax on high percentage products is one suggestion for drinks with, for example, a percentage volume greater than 6 or 6.5 per cent. That would place these products further out of the price range of the pocket-money drinkers, and might be the best solution, short of their withdrawal from sale.

High-profile advertising and health campaigns against their use, educating not only young people but their parents of the dangers of such products, would also be a welcome measure. Indeed, following Operation Cask, Merseyside police wrote directly to parents about the problem, and are continuing to do so. There is a role for schools and for the youth service. I ask the Minister to comment on what could be done in these areas.

The fact remains, however, that all these measures still leave these products on the shelves, available and obtainable in one way or another. I hope that I have outlined my serious concerns about the problem, which certainly needs addressing.

I call on the industry and retail outlets to address the issue voluntarily by looking at the way in which the products are marketed and produced, and at the need for them in the first place. I call for Government action if the industry is not prepared to do this. I call for the introduction of a punitive tax on beers and ciders with a percentage volume greater than, say, 6.5 per cent. I call for increased supervision of licensed premises and the displays within them. I call for a high-profile campaign, aimed particularly at adults, to highlight the dangers of these products. Finally, I call for measures to criminalise the purchase of alcohol for consumption by under-age youths.

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