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Mr. Mark Field: Central London has particular problems. One of the grave concerns about the new initiatives felt by those who represent the areaincluding the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), with whom I have Covent Garden in commonis that many of them will simply give the green light to the larger-scale outlets of the alcohol and entertainment industry and that some of the small, independent, family-run businesses that lie at the heart of our communities will either be driven out of business, or forced to sell up to a larger organisation. In other words, we will be playing to the lowest common denominator.
Mr. Frank Field: There is widespread support on the Opposition Benches for the approach that those who cause some of the disorder in our towns and cities should pay more to cover policing costs. In Wirral, the police have taken eight cases before the magistrates to try to deny a licence to those who produce many drunks at the end of the day, and they have lost all of those cases. Under the new system, will my right hon. Friend support local authorities, when they are pushed by highly paid QCs on the other side, to maintain the line against licensing continuing?
I can answer that question unequivocally: yes. I cite an example not from the Wirral but from my own constituency, where precisely these events happened. A licence was granted on appeal. There were precisely the legal issues that my right hon. Friend has described. It was granted despite the opposition of both the local authority and the police. I strongly hold the view that these measures, for the first time, will give a
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greatly increased power, compared with the previous situation, to tackle precisely the abuse that my right hon. Friend describes.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman speaks about the review of licences by local authorities that will take place. The figures for the fees were produced on Friday, and they are based on rateable value. This coincides with a general revaluation, which means that there will be a perverse incentive for local licensees to make an application during the transitional period. To ameliorate that, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has announced a review. Will that review take into consideration the actual cost during the period of transition? Will it include the fee level? Will consideration be given to the structure of the licensing committees in terms of numbers?
Mr. Clarke: My right hon. Friend has made it perfectly clearshe will speak for herself when she repliesthat the monitoring process will include all aspects of these matters with a view to assessing the best way to go forward.
Jim Knight: My right hon. Friend has mentioned some of the powers and initiatives that the Government want to have and to take to tackle binge drinking. I am a strong supporter of the Licensing Act 2003, but I shall be interested to know whether anything more can be done to support those in the alcohol industry who, voluntarily, are trying to do something about happy hours and incentives for people to binge drink. Can the Government take any more serious action to work with the industry in that direction?
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is correct. One of the measures that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced on Friday was designed specifically to encourage that approach. We intend to offer support to the alcohol industry in banning irresponsible promotions. We want to see all promotions that encourage speed drinking ended. These are promotions such as, "All you can drink for £X.99", or, "All girls drink free between 11 and 12." We want to see a set of measures that will strengthen the voluntary regulation of the industry. We are supporting the British Beer and Pub Association and others in developing guidance to owners and operators that will ban irresponsible drink promotions. I hope that I have given my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking.
Kevin Brennan: Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), I support the measures set out in the Licensing Act 2003. I was concerned enough about the guidelines issued by my local authority to write asking it to strengthen them. It was able to do so in some areas. It replied, tending to say that the Government's guidelines did not allow it to go as far as I wanted so as to have local control over these issues, as promised in the Act. Is my right hon. Friend happy that the Government's guidelines are robust enough to enable us to achieve our goals?
My hon. Friend is on to a correct point in saying that it is critical to ensure that Members and others press their local authorities to take the action that is necessary to deal with the situation. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is of the view that in the process of implementing these changes, and if it emerges that there are genuine constraints in the guidelines that need to be addressed, the situation will be addressed. At present, we are categoric that the guidelines are right to deal with these matters. As I said a short while ago, I ask all applicants to ensure that all applications in this process of renewal are properly assessed and that the opportunity is taken to do that in detail.
The weakest position will arise where a local authority and a local crime reduction partnership have not properly assessed what strategically must be done to attack the problem in a particular community. It is part of the strength of our democracy that different issues arise in different areas. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will put pressure on their crime reduction partnerships and local authorities to address the issue in the proper way.
The measures to which I have referred are substantial in range. A flexible range of measures will be available after review that hit profits in areas where there is abuse that needs to be dealt with through, for example, a temporary or permanent reduction in trading hours. The maximum fine for selling to under-18s is increased from £1,000 to £5,000. The new licensing fee package has been announced and we believe that it will make things more effective. I have referred to the banning of irresponsible promotions and other issues that need to be tackled in that area.
I shall focus for a moment on alcohol disorder zones, which will create a direct link between the level of disorder in a locality and the financial contribution that is required from the industry. I believe that the zones will act as a powerful incentive for the industry to get its own house in order in any given locality. That is why I so strongly support the zones. Before an alcohol disorder zone is imposed, operators will be given a warning. They will be given a chance to work with the police and the council to agree an action plan for improvement. This approach is not draconian or arbitrary. It is designed to ensure that everybody takes the issue seriously and addresses it properly. This is the right approach and the right way to go forward.
We are establishing a 24-hour closure power against premises that repeatedly sell to under-18s. I do not believe that the family pub will be threatened by that because they do not repeatedly sell to under-18s. The power will apply to both on and off-licences, which is a strength of the proposals. The power will be triggered where evidence is gathered to suggest persistent selling to under-18s.
The right hon. Gentleman has announced a number of what appear to be sensible measures. One of the concerns that I raised earlier was that many existing measures are not being used. I take, for example, under-age drinking. There has been a halving of the prosecutions for sales to under-age drinkers and almost an elimination of cautions and
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prosecutions against under-18s who have bought drink. How will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that these measures are used?
Mr. Clarke: The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is a point that I raised with the police when I first met them to discuss these matters. There is an issue about resources, which we are tackling. There is also an issue about new powers, which we are addressing in the way that I have described. There is also an issue, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, about the use of existing powers so that there is proper enforcement.
I can say only two things at this juncture. First, the greater powers that we have given to local government, working with the police, will strengthen the ability to enforce. That will be their direct result. Secondly, my colleagues in the police have been clear in acknowledging that there is a need to act more on the enforcement side. To be frank, the fact that we have given them what they are looking for in this regard will enable us more effectively to carry through our policy.
We already have a number of measures in place to tackle the problem of alcohol-fuelled disorder. The police enforcement campaigns, the alcohol harm reduction strategy, the Christmas drinking campaigns and the introduction of the new fixed penalty notices are having an effect. Part of the industry is already raising its game and acting responsibly, and we welcome that. However, we need to do far more. The measures proposed last Friday in the consultation paper are a robust package to ensure that the industry and individuals take their full responsibility for their part in the problems of alcohol-related disorder. We must keep clear in our minds the need to have a focused strategy to tackle alcohol abuse, which is what we have put forward. We must not confuse that issue, which is very important, with the other important issue of more flexible opening hours, which I believe will be of benefit to the country as a whole.
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