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Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): When the Home Secretary made his speech at the beginning of the debate, I think that he said that he agreed with the first quarter of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. Almost every person who has spoken in the debate would agree about the seriousness of the problems that we now face—binge drinking, alcohol-related violence, the implications for the health service and the damage to the quality of life of people living not just in our inner cities but in towns throughout the country. I represent a rural area, and the problems are as serious for my constituents as they are for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).
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The problems have always been at the centre of the debate surrounding the Licensing Act 2003. When the Bill received its Second Reading 22 months ago, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport began her speech by pointing out the cost to the nation of alcohol-related disease and the growing problem of alcohol-related violence. She then specifically defended the proposals in the Bill on the basis that:

She went on to claim:

In the same debate, we pointed out that many people disputed this view and that, in particular, there was international evidence that did not support it. Indeed, a number of police officers and local authorities had also questioned it. However, what we did not know at that time was that this view was also disputed by many in the Government as well and that the assurances that the Government were acting in accordance with the views of the police and their own advisers on alcohol reduction were not correct.

We now know that the draft alcohol harm reduction strategy circulated to the Cabinet in August 2003 stated:

However, when the interim strategy was published the following month, that sentence was removed because, in the words of the Secretary of State, it was misleading and based on a highly selective review of the available evidence. That seems to represent a strong attack on the competence of the Prime Minister's strategy unit, which drafted the document.

The unit was not alone in the Government in expressing its concern. We now know that the Home Office's crime reduction director said a year ago:

The then Home Secretary apparently said that plans to allow 24-hour drinking were a leap in the dark that risked worsening the situation of violent crime and yobbish behaviour.

Too many of our towns and cities are already becoming no-go areas at night because of the activities of drunken yobs. Prior to the passage of the Licensing Bill, I spent a Friday night in the west end with licensing officers from Westminster city council. We visited several large clubs—I believe that they are now known as vertical drinking establishments—each of which was packed with more than 1,000 people who appeared to have the sole purpose of drinking as much as possible in the time available. I also spoke to residents of Soho that evening, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster has referred to their experiences every weekend and the fact that their quality of life had been destroyed as a result. After entering the home of one resident to talk about the scale of the problem, I emerged
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to find that someone had vomited on his doorstep. He said, "Don't worry. It'll probably be the first of three or four occasions when that happens tonight." I have also spent a night with the police in Chelmsford in my constituency. Over the course of about six hours, almost every incident that we attended was related to excess drinking and the fights, vandalism and yobbish behaviour that result from that.

According to the Government's figures, alcohol misuse is costing £20 billion a year. It accounts for half of all violent crime and up to 70 per cent. of admissions to accident and emergency departments. It accounts for about 17 million lost working days and 22,000 premature deaths. Of course, the Government are right to say that those figures reflect the present situation and thus cannot be blamed on the relaxation of drinking hours, which is yet to take effect, but they cannot ignore the list of experts who unanimously predict that extended opening hours will make the problem worse.

Although the Association of Chief Police Officers' original response to the White Paper supported flexible opening hours, subject to caveats, even then it pointed out the danger that they could lead to

Since then, it has expressed greater concern by warning:

The Chief Inspector of Constabulary said:

The Police Federation said:

We now learn that the medical profession, too, is united in its opposition. The chairman of the Royal College of Physicians alcohol committee has said:

An A and E consultant at St Mary's hospital, Paddington, has said:

The Irish Medical Organisation has said:

However, let us remember that the Prime Minister's strategy unit document pointed out overseas experience, but the Secretary of State removed that by suggesting that it was a highly selective review of the evidence.

Yesterday, we debated the Gambling Bill on Report. The Government appeared for a long time to dismiss the concerns of those who warned against the dangers of gambling addiction that could result from the introduction of mega-casinos into the UK, yet in that same Bill the Government proposed to place draconian restrictions on family seaside arcades for which no evidence of harm has ever been produced. Today, in the
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Licensing Act, we face an almost identical situation: the Government are pushing ahead with the introduction of extended opening hours against a chorus of opposition from the police, doctors and experts in alcohol addiction. Yet, in the very same Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) pointed out, they are forcing local voluntary sports clubs to pay massively increased fees for a licence to run a bar at the end of a game. Last week, the chairman of the Central Council of Physical Recreation said:

It seems extraordinary that, with the same piece of legislation, the Government are going to drive out of business many sports clubs, which play a vital part in increasing the fitness of the nation and therefore improving the health of the nation, while ignoring all expert advice and going ahead with extended opening hours, which will lead to more drunkenness, more violent crime and more alcohol-induced illness and death.

In the course of the debate, we have heard extremely good speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is fully justified in claiming to have been consistent on the issue: he has indeed campaigned on it for many years and it is a pity that he was not listened to earlier. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made some sensible comments—I often find myself agreeing with him. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), he pointed out some of the difficulties that local authorities will have in taking advantage of the powers once the guidelines have tied their hands. However, like many of my colleagues, I found extraordinary the hon. Gentleman's confirmation of the Liberal Democrat policy of reducing from 18 to 16 the age at which people are able to purchase alcohol and drink in pubs. When we are facing a significant increase in under-age drinking and the problems to which it leads, to cut the age at which people are allowed to drink seems a curious solution.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made some interesting observations drawn from his experience of participating in the police parliamentary scheme, and he described methods being adopted in Southampton. It is true that a co-ordinated approach is required and many of the strategies being adopted by the police in places such as Southampton bear examination. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) rightly pointed out that the problem is not a new one: it goes back many years. He honestly admitted that the spin put on the policy by Millbank's sending out that famous text message contributed little to the arguments in favour of it.

It was my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar who made some important observations about the difficulties that local authorities will have in implementing the legislation and using their powers to control binge drinking. He supported the transfer of responsibilities to local authorities. We had some reservations about that when it was proposed, but we accepted the case for transfer, albeit only if local
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authorities were able to use those powers properly. My hon. Friend pointed out one or two serious problems that have since been discovered in the published guidelines—in particular, the fact that a local ward councillor is considered to be biased and will therefore not be eligible to vote on the proposal to approve an application for an extended opening hours licence. As my hon. Friend said, the one person who knows the circumstances best of all in that ward is undoubtedly the ward councillor. Yet he is disqualified. Equally, parish councils are not able to make representations. The ability of local authorities to control excessive drinking will be severely constrained as a result. I hope that the Government will revisit this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made the important point that when we came to consider what is now the Act, 18 months to two years ago, we did so without the Government telling us of the analysis that had been carried out within Government and of the advice that they were receiving outside Government. Given what we now know, we consider that the Government should pause. The degree of opposition from the police, the medical profession and other experts is so great that it would be foolish for the Government to press ahead without pausing and carrying out a thorough assessment.

On the Gambling Bill, the Government agreed to retreat. They agreed to introduce a pilot scheme before allowing mega-casinos to come to this country. There is an identical case here. We have the evidence before us. I hope that the Government, even at this late hour, will stop and think again.

3.46 pm

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