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Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Perhaps many more of us should have been listening rather earlier to his remarks. I hope he will consider me a repenting sinner. As the Liberal Democrats support the motion in the name of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the House should be aware that we are being consistent with the concerns that we expressed during the passage of the Licensing Act 2003, and with our decision to vote against both the Second and Third Readings of that Act.

During the passage of the Act, we had some concerns about the Government's motivation for introducing the proposals. Reference has been made to that famous text message,

We wondered whether the motivation was to garner the youth vote, rather than to address the real problem of binge drinking that afflicts the nation. There are now real concerns on the part of the public and many hon. Members about various provisions of the Licensing Act. There is clearly not a great deal of public support for the provisions. A recent BBC poll for the "Breakfast" programme showed that 67 per cent. of people thought the legislation would increase the trouble on our streets and 62 per cent. thought the Act likely to make Britain a worse place in which to live.

If the right controls and the right support mechanisms are put in place, flexibility in our licensing laws could help address the problems of binge drinking. Our concerns are that we do not have the right support measures and controls in place. For example, as I shall
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amplify, we do not believe that the powers of local authorities are adequate. We do not believe that support mechanisms—for example, the availability of public transport—are in place, and we continue to be worried about the fee structure so recently announced. However, we acknowledge that if we could develop the continental café culture, it could have some benefits.

We welcomed from the beginning the increased powers that the Act gives to police and others to close down institutions—pubs, clubs and others—which experience significant problems, but as others have pointed out, we do not seem to be using even existing legislation to combat such problems. Examples have been given of provisions that are not being fully utilised, and a couple of other examples serve to illustrate the point. Only 12 landlords on average each year since 1997 have been prosecuted for allowing drunken or riotous behaviour on their premises. In the same period only 11 people in total have been prosecuted for buying drinks for friends who were incapable as a result of binge drinking. We welcome some of the increased powers, but we hope that the existing powers will be more effectively used.

Kevin Brennan : Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party's position? He said that he would vote for the motion, which states that

So are the Liberal Democrats against extended opening hours?

Mr. Foster: I hope I have made it clear that we believe that with the right control mechanisms and support mechanisms in place, extended opening hours may help. Our argument is that at present the support and control mechanisms that we believe are necessary are not in place. Without them extended opening hours will lead to increased harm.

Jim Knight: Will the hon. Gentleman sketch out what he thinks should be done? For example, he said that the existing powers were not being used sufficiently. When I speak to the police in my area about that, they say they do not have the resources to enforce those powers. They will welcome the new fees that have been announced and the new approach in the Act, which allows the cost of enforcement and inspection to be included in the fees, rather than just the administration costs for the licence.

Mr. Foster: Of course I intend to sketch out what we believe should happen. There would not be much point in making a speech if all I did was to criticise. I shall make some positive suggestions. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that his police, and no doubt police all over the country, are deeply concerned that if they do not have increased resources, they will not be able to carry out the policing that is necessary. The increased fees that have been proposed will provide additional resources only to the local authorities to enable them to do the monitoring. We have still to see where the additional resources for the police are to come from. The Secretary of State may wish to say more about that when she winds up.
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The debate has been unfairly characterised as being about 24-hour drinking. We recognise that the vast majority of pubs are unlikely to want to move towards that. The powers that pubs were given during the new year period to open for as much as 36 hours were not taken up by a single pub, as far as I am aware. The Home Secretary was right to point out that the debate is not just about pubs and clubs. With more than 50 per cent. of alcohol being purchased from supermarkets and other off-licence establishments, we need to address that as well, as is acknowledged in some of the measures being introduced.

In my constituency, Bath, a recent newspaper article sums up the nature of the problem that we face. On 18 December last year The Bath Chronicle reported:

Other Members have referred to the numerous statistics about the binge drinking problem in this country. The Secretary of State rightly points out that these are problems that exist now, before the introduction of the new legislation. Reference has been made to the health costs, the impact on crime, and the problems that face many employers because of days of work being missed. That represents a great deal of human misery and a significant cost to the country, estimated by the Government to be in the region of £20 billion a year. We need to focus more on the problem in relation to young people. As we have already heard, British teenagers are drinking far more than any of their European counterparts.

Charles Hendry : I know that it is Liberal Democrat policy to allow people to vote at the age of 16, because the Liberal Democrats believe that that is the age at which people become adults. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore also believe that that is the age at which people should be able to buy alcohol, and if not, why the inconsistency?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that we have a belief that the age of 16 should be consistently used for all issues, including the one that he is talking about. Our saying that 16-year-olds should be able to buy alcohol does not mean, however, that we are advocating that they should become involved in binge drinking. It is worrying that the figures demonstrate that about 33,000 children are admitted to hospital every year because of alcohol-related illnesses. In another debate on the same issue in Westminster Hall earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to the situation in the Grampian health authority, where two young people under 15 are admitted every single week with acute alcohol poisoning.

There are real issues, and the question is whether the 2003 Act as it currently stands and is intended to be implemented will work. When the legislation was introduced, many of us believed more passionately than
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now that there was a chance that it would work. As has been said, much of the information provided by the Government told only half the story.

Kevin Brennan: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is Lib Dem policy to legalise drinking at the age of 16? Does he think that that will contribute to a reduction in binge drinking?

Mr. Foster: The answer is yes. I do not think that I could explain the position more clearly. I have already set it out to the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). I am clear about that policy, but I have no reason to accept any suggestion from the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) that it would lead to an increase in binge drinking if we get the correct measures in place. Our concern is that the legislation does not provide us with the complete panoply of measures that we believe are necessary.

We were sold a false prospectus by the Government during the passage of the legislation in terms, for instance, of whether the police supported it. We now know that very many police are deeply concerned. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir John Stevens, made that clear when he recently said:

We now know that even some of the information that was to be included in the alcohol harm reduction strategy and that would have been helpful subsequent consideration of the issues was removed. According to the Daily Mail, that includes this initial warning:

The consensus has certainly moved away from support for the measure. We have also heard that there were deep concerns even in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister has already referred to binge drinking as the British disease, and as we have heard, the former Home Secretary described the proposals as a leap in the dark.

If we were given a dodgy dossier, however, the real issue is whether we are being given a sensible set of proposals that will really work. We are being told that local authorities will have significant powers to deal with the issues, but the more we study the Bill, the more we see its deep flaws. For example, at the very last minute, the Government accepted Liberal Democrat proposals that there should be some measures in place to address the issue of cumulative impact. The idea of special saturation policies was referred to. It does not appear in the Bill, but it is included in the guidance. Nevertheless, that opportunity is a rather thin one. For example, the very same guidance says:

It does not give particularly special powers.

When local authorities such as mine, Bath and North East Somerset, considered whether to introduce a special saturation policy, they realised that there were two problems. First, in the area immediately outside the saturation policy areas a green light would be given to all sorts of developments that might be unwelcome
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to local residents. Secondly, and more importantly, the authorities recognised that there was a real possibility of legal challenge. Indeed, Andrew McNeill, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, recently said:

Local authorities are not very keen to pursue matters with the power of the big breweries that might challenge them and the legal costs that are likely to follow.

There are also concerns about the guidance relating to temporary event licences, as it will make it very difficult for local people to do anything about raves in their area. As the Secretary of State will know, only the police are allowed to object, and they have only 48 hours in which to do so. A rave organiser can simply put a letter through a rural police station letterbox on a Friday, and there will be no time whatever for action to be taken.

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