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10.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) for raising those important issues. As he pointed out, all hon. Members are rightly concerned about the welfare of children, and alcohol abuse by the young is a vitally important issue for every parent. He has spoken eloquently about matters that are causing a great deal of anxiety in all our constituencies.

The protection of our children is one of the key purposes of licensing law and is a primary aim of licensing reform and the modernisation for which I am now responsible as a Minister. I am pleased to have the opportunity to reply to this debate, because we have a very good story to tell of positive steps taken since 1997 to tackle directly the problems associated with under-age drinking.

The issues affect many Departments, as my hon. Friend suggested. They need joined-up government and joined-up thinking. The Home Office is actively addressing alcohol-related crime and drunkenness on the streets involving the young. The Department of Health is concerned about sensible drinking by all of us, but especially by the young. It is developing a national alcohol strategy that will embrace many of the issues that I will mention this evening. The Department for Education and Skills includes alcohol education in the national curriculum as part of general teaching about substance misuse, which is another point that my hon. Friend made. The Department of Trade and Industry regulates the advertising, marketing and packaging of alcoholic beverages, which can be made overly attractive to the young. Customs and Excise is actively seeking to prevent smuggled alcohol being sold on the cheap to kids and adults. In the terrible example that my hon. Friend gave, the alcohol may have come from such a source, because streets in some areas are awash with it. The Treasury has changed the duty rates on mixed drinks made of spirits mixed with soft fruit drinks so that they are now taxed as spirits rather than wine. This will make them more expensive and less accessible to the very young.

We in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are responsible for the licensing laws and the age at which alcohol may be purchased in England and Wales. Moreover, the Scottish Executive and the Northern Ireland Office have a similar role in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Hon. Members will recall that the Government came to power in 1997 promising to tackle the problem of alcopops. It was an issue of great concern to many parents, and a very worrying trend. Working closely with the Portman Group, we called upon producers and suppliers of alcohol to discharge their social responsibilities with regard to the problem of under-age drinking. A range of additional controls within the

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Portman Group's code of practice were introduced and had a significant impact on the merchandising and packaging of alcoholic drinks.

The number of complaints made to the Portman Group's independent panel about the marketing of alcohol to children and its packaging has now dwindled to almost nothing. That is an achievement of which the Portman Group and the Government should be proud.

In 1999, we gave our wholehearted support to the private Member's Bill presented by hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), following the tragic death of his 14-year-old constituent, David Knowles. The Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000 closed a loophole in the main licensing statutes that had allowed some staff in licensed premises to sell alcohol to children without fear of prosecution or conviction. The Act also introduced for the first time a new offence that prevents adults hanging around off-licences from buying alcohol on behalf of minors. We know that there are clear links between that and the sale of other drugs.

In April 2000, the Government included a raft of measures to tackle under-age purchase and consumption of alcohol in the White Paper entitled "Time for Reform." My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire has urged us to implement these reforms at the first opportunity. Although I know that many in the House would have liked us to move more swiftly on reform generally, we certainly cannot be criticised for any delay on the measures regarding children.

The White Paper proposals will tackle under-age drinking. They were given priority ahead of general reform and were included in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Three crucial measures have been brought into force since last year's general election.

On 1 December last year, the test purchasing of alcohol was put on a statutory footing for the first time in England and Wales, bringing it into line with the arrangements for tobacco. Trading standards officers can now send minors into licensed premises to attempt to buy alcohol. This is a valuable deterrent that has heightened the risk of detection and prosecution for those unscrupulous traders making profit out of causing harm to our children.

The Act also placed a new positive duty on licensees and their staff in England and Wales not to sell alcohol to children. The defences that can be mounted against prosecutions have been amended, and it has been made easier for enforcement agencies to secure convictions. Retailers now know that in the case of any doubt about age they simply should not make the sale.

The Act has also made it easier for local authorities to designate areas in their towns and cities where alcohol may not be consumed publicly, and it has expanded the powers of the police to confiscate alcohol carried by children in those areas.

As I made clear at the outset, licensing law can only be one element of a much wider strategy. Data from research sponsored by the Portman Group strongly suggest that children are obtaining a great deal of cheap alcohol from unlicensed individuals peddling smuggled alcohol. This is a cynical trade, with little regard for the consequences for the young and, indeed, for parents. The Government have stepped up their campaign to defeat the bootleggers, with the Treasury providing more customs officers dedicated to detecting those involved.

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Our wider strategy includes the work of the Departments for Education and Skills and of Health and the Portman Group in providing more health education resources for children and parents to learn about sensible drinking. I was shocked to hear my hon. Friend say that some schools in Scotland provide no education about alcohol, and I hope that those schools will realise that that is vital work. A great deal of research shows that most of the alcohol obtained and consumed by minors is provided by their parents, and public education to change some of our entrenched attitudes is essential.

A great deal has been and is being done in the public and private sectors relating to licensing, health and education. However, I emphasise that there are no easy or quick fixes when it comes to under-age drinking. Education, as my hon. Friend suggested, lies at the heart of much of the problem. By the time children are in their teenage years, bad habits will often have been formed. We need to reach them earlier, as we have done with some success—although it is by no means complete success—on tobacco. I acknowledge that there is a great deal more that we can do regarding the general reform of licensing. Our laws are archaic and incomprehensible to many parents.

My hon. Friend talked about binge drinking. When, over the 2001–02 new year period, I managed to get the Regulatory Reform (Special Occasions Licensing) Order 2001 through the House to extend drinking hours to 36 hours, the police informed us that it was the quietest new year's eve they could remember, with the least amount of violence. My hon. Friend is right to point out that although binge drinking may not result in fights inside pubs or even outside those pubs, it certainly results in violence in the fast-food outlets where people steam in when they are thrown out of the pub, usually at the same time and in their hundreds.

Minors cannot purchase alcohol in pubs and nightclubs, but children as young as five can lawfully consume alcohol in pub gardens and some family rooms. Consumption is prohibited only in the area of licensed premises known as "the bar". This also means that children aged over four can, in theory, drink alcohol freely in a licensed restaurant that has no bar. We must not be fooled by the counter from which drinks are supplied in a restaurant—that is often not a bar as understood in the law. These are archaic and complex areas of the law, and it is no wonder that most parents find it all utterly confusing. We intend to sort all this out through the general reform of licensing law, and a Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time permits.

Once again, I thank my hon Friend for raising these important matters for debate and for giving us the opportunity to set out our approach to them. If we do not sort these matters out, I fear for the future of many of our young people and also for the future of communities like the ones in which I and many colleagues here tonight grew up. This problem undermines the social cohesion that has made those communities such remarkable and good places in which to raise children. This is a very serious issue and I hope that I have shown my hon. Friend that the Government are taking it very seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

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