Standing Committee F
Thursday 1 March 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Enforcement of certain offences relating to under-age drinking
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 135, in 33, page 25, leave out lines 5 to 8.--[Mr. Blunt.]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 47, in page 25, line 17, at end add
`(4) A constable or an inspector of weights and measures may only request that a person under eighteen buy or attempt to buy intoxicating liquor, or send such a person to buy such liquor, where that constable or inspector has reasonable grounds to believe that an offence under section 169A or 169B of the Licensing Act 1964 has been committed on the premises in question within the preceding six months.'.
No. 108, in page 25, line 17, at end insert
`( ) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance
(a) about requests made by constables and inspectors to persons under 18 in accordance with this section;
(b) about the manner in which purchases and attempted purchases are to be made under this section;
(c) with a view to encouraging good practice in connection with the operation of this section.'.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I have made the point of principle about duty which concerns me. Amendment No. 135 is a probing amendment to ask the Minister whether omitting new section 169I from the Weights and Measures Act 1985 would affect the wider details and whether it would have to be replaced with another form of words.
I am also concerned about the balance between what the police should be doing and what weights and measures authorities should be doing. The weights and measures authorities already check whether people are being swindled by being sold less than is stated, and cover a range of other issues, but the sale of alcohol to under 18-year-olds is a criminal offence and I wonder whether it is appropriate for local authorities to have a duty to enforce the law on that. Should not that duty be exclusively for the police?
I support amendments Nos. 47 and 108, particularly amendment No. 47, which deals with the concern addressed in my amendment that there should be evidence of the activity before children under the age of 18 are sent into pubs or off licences as agents provocateurs to try to trap people into selling them alcohol to enable a prosecution to be sustained. We do not want the provision to be officiously and zealously enforced so that law-abiding licensees are trapped by the authorities, whether the police or local authorities.
I support amendment No. 108, because it is important to have clear guidance on how the process will work, and I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that I have raised.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): My hon. Friend has set the scene, and I shall be interested to hear how the Minister responds to amendment No. 135.
The purpose of amendment No. 47 is to target the power to allow more test purchasing than at present. If it is thought that young people are buying alcohol under age and the pub or off licence is not asking for proof of age or attempting to verify the age, test purchasing should be possible to ensure that those licensees are dealt with firmly. There is no dispute about that, and amendment No. 47 would require that there had been at least reasonable grounds to believe that the offence of selling to someone under age or permitting that to happen had occurred before the test purchasers were sent in to do their work. I would be grateful if the Minister considered targeting and answered that point.
Amendment No. 108 deals with the Government setting out guidance on the use of underage people as test purchasers. Although we would all accept that the possibility of test purchasing should exist where there is a targeted reason for it, no one would be happy if it reached the point to which my hon. Friend referred, which was close to that of an agent provocateur. I should be grateful if the Minister could reassure us that this provision will not be a licence to dress youngsters to look much older than they are, to allow them to use forged identity documents and to show cards similar to proof of age cards. Such an approach would be worrying, particularly as some of the premises where underage purchasing is allowed are not very desirable. Do we want to send young people into undesirable premises dressed to look much older than they really are, perhaps supplied with forgeries or documents which resemble proof of age cards? Those concerns were expressed when the Licensing (Young Persons) Bill was going through the House. At that stage some assurance was given. Although test purchasing was not included in the Bill which was passed, it was included in the earlier Bill, which was not. Could the Minister flesh out exactly what he has in mind?
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I did not have the opportunity to make my first point, which concerns making legislation easier to manage, when we were debating clause 19. We are adding subsections, in this case subsection 169I, to a Bill which is already the Licensing Act 1964. In clause 19 there were many pages of subsections. I ask that we try to avoid having seven pages of the same clause all subdivided, having been added to and subtracted from. That is not manageable.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about duties. I have made this point throughout the all-too-many years since I first came here. When we impose duties we should ensure the capacity of the person on whom the duty is imposed to carry it out. There should be a mechanism to send a little electric shock through Members of Parliament every time they are about to pass legislation imposing a duty on someone without ensuring that the resources
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke) rose
Mr. Hughes: I shall give way in a second. We impose duties on local authorities almost every month of the year without asking whether they have the necessary resources, personnel or ability. The poor people on the receiving end say, ``For heaven's sake, spare us.'' The education service is the most obvious example. The head teacher of the school where I am the chair of governors keeps saying, ``Spare us from yet another obligation for which we may not have the resources.'' I would be grateful if the Minister could guarantee that all the so-called local weights and measures authorities will have the capacity to comply with the duty. Does he want to intervene to tell me that that is absolutely the case?
Mr. Clarke indicated dissent.
Mr. Hughes: As so often in life, the moment has clearly passed.
It is rather 19th centuryor certainly 20th rather than 21st centuryfor there to be a local weights and measures authority. I realise that we are amending earlier legislation, but we are in danger of having a local authority, a local education authority and a local weights and measures authority, which actually describe functions of the same body; they are the same people. I am keen to try to clarify their functions. My understanding is that they are trading standards officers. I sense the magnitude of professional support for that view. If that is the case, we should probably call those people trading standards officers. I understand that we may be under an obligation, because that is what we have always called them.
I want to pick up the other two points made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). When I was a health spokesman for my party, I supported a proposal to extend the law so that test purchases, which have been possible for a long time for cigarettes, could be carried out properly in association with the police or trading standards officers, allowing an underage youngster to go into a newsagent to discover whether the owner is flogging cigarettes to kids, thus enabling a prosecution to be brought against him. There must be a mechanism by which one can collect the evidence from somebody who will be willing to stand by it. The danger of relying on illegal drinkers is that they may be embarrassed and not go through with it.
I support the proposal that it should be possible to carry out test purchasing. Although I understand the concern that prompted the hon. Gentleman to table amendment No. 47, I do not entirely agree with him. If one only ever acted on the basis of a suspicion, one could never undertake general testing across a local authority area. It is sometimes necessary to have the power to do a sample testusing, say, 10 different kinds of pubs at different times of day in different areas of Southwarkto provide a random sample of how commonly offences take place. On balance, I support the power unamended owing to the need to be able to do that. The merit of amendment No. 108 is that it would provide the scope for guidance or back-up direction to ensure that the power is not abused. In my experience, such powers have not been abused and have been used infrequently. They are normally used where there has been a complaint or a series of complaints that kids have been buying cigarettes from a newsagent. It is even more important to be able to deal with that in respect of alcohol.
Probably every single person in the Roomincluding members of the Committee, Officers of the House, civil servants and visitorshas played the game of trying to get an illegal drink or two before reaching the age of 18. [HON. MEMBERS: ``Oh.''] Methinks my colleagues protest too much. I was not even referring to the leader of the Conservative partywho did it all the time according to his own reminiscencesbut speaking for myself.
Jackie Ballard (Taunton): Only you can do that.
Mr. Hughes: Indeed.
It was part of school life to go to places that were out of bounds and where one could buy cigarettes and drink. I shall not mention the third thing, but that was available too, if one looked in the right place. It probably had more attraction than the other two for some people.