I am conscious of a slight irony as I open this debate. After all, in recent times the Government have shown a distinct interest in telling us what to eat, what to do in our spare time and how to raise our children. In terms of sheer nannying, the Government have few equals. However, although there is genuine concern about this matter among experts, professionals and the general public, the Government are taking the exact opposite approach. I shall argue today that, by pressing ahead with 24-hour drinking, the Government are neglecting their responsibilities. Once again, they are displaying a perverse sense of priorities and an arrogant disregard for all contrary opinion.
Britain is now one of the worst countries in Europe for binge drinking. It begins with the young. Young people under 16 drink twice as much as they did a decade ago. A third of all British 15-year-olds say that they have been drunk at some time in their lives. That compares to just one in 10 in France and Italy. The British Medical Journal reports that more than 2,000 drunken children are admitted to hospital every year.
However, it is not just a young person's problem. Overall, Britons are drinking 12 per cent. more today than in 1997. One adult man in three now exceeds the recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption, and the figure for women is one in five. UK consumers spend more of their disposable income on alcohol than they do on personal goods and services, fuel and power, or tobacco.
Some might say that that is their choice, but the annual cost of crime and antisocial behaviour linked to alcohol misuse is estimated to be more than £7 billion. The cost of productivity lost as a result of alcohol misuse is estimated to be more than £6 billion. Every year, 17 million working days are lost because of alcohol-related absence.
The problem is about more than just money. First, there is the cost to our health. Liver disease is now an increasingly frequent cause of death. The incidence of
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liver cirrhosis is rising among 20 and 30-year-olds, and 70 per cent of all weekend night-time admissions to accident and emergency departments are linked to alcohol. That is a problem that our already overworked doctors and nurses could do without.
Secondly, there is the crime and disorder cost. Since 1998, violent crime has increased by 83 per cent. There are now over a million violent crimes each year, and the police say that alcohol is largely to blame for this increase. Every week in England and Wales, there are 23,000 incidents of alcohol-related violence and 360 drink-related sexual assaults. Around a third of all domestic violence is related to alcohol misuse.
Third, there is the cost to us all of binge drinking. The rise in binge drinking is having a disastrous effect on our towns and cities. The delicately termed night-time economy can mean a lifetime of misery for those unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of late-opening pubs and clubs. Their sleep is disturbed. Their gardens get filled with litter, and worse. They fear to go out on to their own streets at night, and they cannot escape because the value of their houses is cut by 20 per cent. or more. Ask any family in a town or city centre up and down the country what is the biggest threat to their quality of life and it will not take them long to mention drunken louts hanging around the streets.
In those same towns and cities every weekendand indeed on some week nights toorevellers pile out of pubs and bars so intoxicated that they are beyond coherent speech or reason. Young women are so inebriated that they are oblivious to how they are going to get home. Young men stagger around looking for fights. One serving policeman wrote to me last week and said:
"People, or people like you, are making the towns of England revolting and dangerous places at night . . . It is being assisted by legislation to make alcohol available at all times of day and night, which is OK for reasonable human beings, but you are of the attitude of trying to drink as much as you can for as long as you can. You became ugly urban savages by your behaviour, which resulted in serious violence".
"It is already an offence to sell alcohol to people who are drunk or to permit drunkenness or disorderly behaviour on licensed premises. We need to ask why the existing closure powers are so rarely used by the police".
Indeed we do. The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), made it clear that drunkenness and disorderly behaviour was spiralling out of control. On that basis, convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour should have grown rapidly. However, since this Government came to power, the number of people found guilty or cautioned for drunk and disorderly behaviour has fallen by 10,000about 20 per cent. In that time, the number of minors convicted or cautioned for buying alcohol has fallen by 80 per cent. Under-age drinking has been virtually decriminalised under this Government, and only five pubs have had their licence revoked in recent years.
Mr. Dobson: I agree with virtually every word that the right hon. Gentleman has said. What I cannot understand is why his predecessor as shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), never said any of this when the Bill was introduced in 2003. Some of us who were concerned about those issues might have welcomed a little support from Tory Front Benchers.
She described it presciently as a "leap in the dark", a phrase that was used later by the previous Home Secretary when he expressed his fears about it. But it is undoubtedly trueas the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) pointed outthat people on both sides of the House largely accepted the Government's arguments that relaxation of the licensing laws would improve the situation, not make it worse. Hon. Members accepted those arguments on the basis of information provided by the Government.
There have been a number of allegations in the press about Government cover-ups and misleading information, and it is an extremely serious charge to allege that the Government have misled the House. If proven, it would normally require a Minister to resign. I do not know whether the Government's extremely partial stance was deliberate, the result of incoherence between Departments, or a matter of simple incompetence. My review of the Government's pronouncements during and since the proceedings on the Licensing Act 2003 have led me to believe that they have been literally economical with the truth. I listened very carefully to the explanation from the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
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