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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 January 2005

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Alcohol Abuse and Public Order

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

9.30 am

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to initiate this debate, which is not likely to last the full time. I originally put in for a debate on the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003. That would, by and large, have been appropriate, except that the main Opposition party decided to choose it as the subject of its first debate of the afternoon, as it had every right to. Whether my debate on alcohol abuse and public order is something of an anti-climax because of the debate in the Chamber later I do not know. However, there are genuine and deep-seated problems concerning alcohol abuse and I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about it.

The controversy about extending drinking hours has helped to focus attention on alcohol abuse—the cost to the national health service, the disorderly and sometimes criminal behaviour that takes place on a regular basis and, we should not forget, the harm done to the individual by excessive drinking. There is, however, a difference, which most of us would accept, between warnings about drug taking and smoking and warnings about alcohol. The first two activities should not be taken up at all. Every effort should be made to encourage people not to take up smoking and drugs. That is not true of alcohol. I would be the last person to suggest that one should not drink. Drinking is part of the pleasure of life and long may it be so. Perhaps, Mr.   Deputy Speaker, we could have a drink to that sentiment, but, of course, in moderation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. I would be happy to oblige the hon. Gentleman, but not until the sitting is over.

David Winnick : Point taken. It is chronic or binge drinking that is a danger to health and public order. It is not by any means a minor problem, as the Government recognise. The change to what could be 24-hour licensing, or, more likely, 16 to 18-hour opening times for pubs, which is longer than at present, will increase the problems. It is difficult to imagine that there will be less excessive drinking if opening hours increase. To their credit, in March 2004, the Government brought out a paper called "Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England". I welcome the fact that the Government recognised the problems so well that, before the present controversy, they brought out that paper.

The paper gives some alarming facts and figures. Those figures include the fact that £95 million is spent on specialist alcohol treatment every year. There are more    than 30,000 hospital admissions annually for alcohol dependence syndrome. There are up to 22,000
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premature deaths as a result of excessive drinking per annum. At weekends, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, up to 70 per cent. of admissions to hospital accident and emergency departments arise from alcohol-related incidents.

The Royal College of Physicians of London and the chief medical officer report a rising trend in deaths from liver disease caused by alcohol. The incidence of alcohol-related liver disease has increased tenfold since the 1970s. The figure that the Government give as the cost to the national health service caused by alcohol misuse is £1.7 billion. That is apart from domestic violence, a third of which is estimated to be due to alcohol. These are very serious issues and very serious figures. It is understandable that, against that background, there is controversy about whether it would be right and appropriate for pubs and clubs to be open later than they are now. However, the same Government document gives a figure of up to £7.3 billion as the annual cost of alcohol-related crime. Therefore, alcohol abuse is a major contributor to ill health, premature deaths, serious accidents, road crashes, disorder, antisocial behaviour and crime itself.

We know, not just from our television screens, the difficulties that the police regularly face. They have to deal with ugly scenes in town centres and spend a great deal of time trying to deal with the disorder caused by people drinking excessively. Fortunately, at many pubs with regulars there is little disorder; people know one another and know how much they should drink and when to stop. However, at other, anonymous places in town and city centres, a significant minority of people gather and drink without any concern for their situation afterwards or the likely effect on others and on neighbourhoods.

The drink industry seems to be rather complacent. I know that it set up the Portman Group, which might almost be said to be a public relations exercise to demonstrate that the drink industry is really worried about the problems, but I do not believe that it is concerned, as it should be, about excessive drinking. As long as the profits roll in, responsibility for what occurs should be left to others: that seems to be the alcohol industry's message. If the Government are to get tougher with the polluter, that is a welcome step, and one that should perhaps have been taken some time ago.

The chief constable of Nottinghamshire is one of the many senior police officers who have made the point that the industry has maximised its profits with a disregard for the outcome. That sums up to a large extent the feelings not only of his fellow senior police officers but of politicians, many in the religious community and those who are deeply concerned about alcohol abuse. Representatives of the drink industry recently gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, which is holding an inquiry into antisocial behaviour. When confronted with the question whether it should pay along the lines suggested, the representative said, "We already pay. We pay in taxes; we pay in rates." However, I do not believe, and I hope that this is the Government's view, that that is sufficient. The industry must recognise that some of its schemes, such as happy hours and half-price drinks to start with—although not for long—to encourage people to start drinking as much as possible, are irresponsible.
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As I began by saying, I am not one of those who considers drink to be a curse. I drink, the majority drink, but we drink in moderation. The problem is not drinking itself but excessive binge drinking and the irresponsibility of those who indulge in it and those who seem to encourage it through various schemes. The problems that I mentioned are clearly recognised by the Government, so I find it very surprising that they feel it appropriate to extend drinking hours.

Let me be clear: I welcome the fact that local councils will be the licensing authority. I understand—no doubt the Minister will refer to this—that local authorities will have a number of criteria on which to base decisions about applications, but to what extent they will act tough in view of representations made by local residents and the police remains to be seen. Local authorities may have the power, which is fine, but will not large-scale owners of pubs and clubs use all forms of legal machinery to lodge appeals in the courts and so on, thus warning other local authorities not to be too tough? I do not believe that it is simply a question of local authorities acting in a responsible manner, which I hope they will.

If we are faced with the problem that I described, which is recognised, with all the resulting costs, what sense is there in making it easier to drink? I know the argument that spreading the opening hours will mean that there will not be such disorderly conduct—that people will be able to drink at leisure and will not have to drink up to ensure that they have what they want by closing time. Surely there is another argument: that those who drink excessively will go on to another pub that is open once the first is closed. Why not? If we are dealing with the sort of people about whom I am concerned, that would be a logical outcome. Instead of going home once the pub is closed, they will find one that is open—if, indeed, the 2003 Act is implemented.

I hope that the Minister, my good and honourable Friend, will deal with another issue. If a number of pubs in a given area decide to stay open and others do not, will the latter not come to the conclusion that they are losing business? As a result of the competition, they will decide, as business people, that it is wise to open their pubs for longer so that they will not be undermined by the competition from those who have already done so. Those issues need to be taken on board.

There is some controversy about Scotland, but let us leave that to one side at the moment and deal with Ireland. Ireland decided four years ago to extend opening hours, not to 24 hours, but from 11.30 pm to 2   am. The result was what some of us predict will happen here; there was much more drinking and disorderly and criminal behaviour. What was the result? The Irish Government decided that the decision taken in the year 2000 was wrong, and last year they wisely decided to revert to earlier closing times. Why should we have to go through that experience of extending hours to find, as the Irish have done, that it is a mistake? Now is surely the time to consider what happened in that country and other places, and reconsider the issue.

On Third Reading of the Gambling Bill, the Tory spokesperson criticised the Government for conceding this and that. I intervened and asked what was wrong.
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The Government listened to people like me, who were concerned about super-casinos. They responded to that. I am glad that they did and I was able to support the measure last night on Third Reading, when previously I had abstained. I ask the Government to listen carefully now.

I have not been particularly party political, but I think that this afternoon the Conservative party will be climbing, not for the first time, on the bandwagon—if that is the right expression. The Conservatives have a perfect, legitimate right as the Opposition to take up issues that are in the public mind. I spent 18 years in opposition. I understand all that. I am not going to criticise the Conservative party because it feels that it has found a popular issue and wants to exploit it—that is the role of the Opposition. However, I say to the Government that we would be acting wisely if we understood that the concerns that have been expressed go far beyond the Conservative party, which, after all, supported—except on Third Reading—the Licensing Act. Very late in the day, the Conservatives have decided that there are votes, or potential votes, in doing what they are doing today.

I say to the Minister, just as we listened—rightly—over the Gambling Bill, let us listen now. Do not let us be dogmatic. I know that she is not in a position to decide whether the implementation of the 2003 Act should be postponed. She will not mind if I say that the decision goes a little higher than that and will be made at a more senior level. I hope that the senior members of the Cabinet will consider the position as quickly as possible. If the Government are determined to go ahead with the measure, why not at least set up a pilot scheme in one or two places to see what the position is? I have explained my concerns and reservations and I hope that it will be possible for the Government to reconsider the position, postpone the implementation of the 2003 Act and then see over a period of time whether it would be wise to extend opening hours along the lines that they have in mind.

9.47 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): I am glad of the opportunity to take part in this debate, although as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) rightly said, we have been slightly overtaken by the fact that there is a show on the main stage later. Happily, that is on the same day, so we can all contribute.

I had better declare an interest. My dad and my granddad were brewers and my mother's pension is dependent on Whitbread continuing to make a profit. As children and youngsters, we were brought up to understand that alcohol in moderation was good for people—and indeed good for our family's financial survival. Happily, none of the family has ever suffered as a result or become addicted. That has not been a problem.

Like every colleague in the Chamber this morning and like everybody else, I have parts of my community where there is a concentration of heavier drinking or more frequent drinking establishments. I was told when I was elected that my constituency had the largest number of pubs of any in London. I never counted them, but there was certainly a huge number. There are fewer now.
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Many pubs have closed, although in recent years, many banks and offices have been turned into bars, as is the case all over the country. Very unlikely buildings that one would never have imagined would be turned into licensed premises have become licensed premises.

There are two bits of my patch where there is now significant late-night drinking. One is the Old Kent road, the only bit of the Monopoly board south of the river, and the other is Borough high street, going down from London Bridge station. I have to say that there is not a phenomenal problem. There is late-night drinking. At the moment, the pubs and bars generally have extensions to 1 or 2 o'clock. That is generally the throw-out time on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, rather than 11 o'clock. However, they have not become no-go areas. They are not normally places where people cannot go.

We must be careful not to exaggerate, to take those pictures that we sometimes see of the centre of Newcastle or the centre of other places and to presume that every urban centre—every place where there are lots of pubs and bars—becomes a no-go area from 10 pm until 2 am or 3 am. That is not to say that there are not areas where problems blow up—we all know that, if people drink heavily, problems are much more likely to arise.

I remember being in Hull late on a weekend night, watching the increasingly aggressive behaviour at the minicab office where people were waiting for taxis to take them home. If people are gathering around kebab shops, takeaways and minicab offices, with more people pouring out and none leaving the area, a cross word becomes a row, a row becomes a fight and sooner or later someone has attacked somebody else. Then the ambulance and the police are called and the whole situation can get out of control. We understand the position. The issue has clearly become, rightly, a major concern of our colleagues in local government, who will see responsibilities coming down to them later this year. It has also clearly become an increasing concern for the police.

Let me declare that my starting position as a Liberal is that licensed premises should be able to stay open, if they want to be, 24 hours a day. I think that a modern society should be able to have licensed premises that can stay open 24 hours. In cities such as London, the current regime is extremely frustrating and inconvenient. Some people work late, some work a 2 to 10 pm shift. Some work—as we do on a Monday evening for example—until 11 pm. Some people arrive in the city in the evening to meet friends. It is quite a bizarre society where it is not possible to go out after a meal for a quiet drink, or where there is only 10 minutes or half an hour in which to enjoy the drink. All logic suggests that we ought to have the more continental timetable. That is the correct starting point and it is the reason that we support a move in that direction. It ought to be the choice of adults as to when they drink and how much. We all have to take responsibility for that.

However, we have clearly run into a difficulty in moving in that direction, which is that the enforcement agencies—the police and the local authorities that are going to pick up the responsibility—are saying, "Hang on, we are not ready." We have a clearer message now than we did two to four years ago from people such as the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir
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John Stevens, and others. We have to pay heed to that. As the Minister will know, that is why I, my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Bath (Mr. Foster), who take responsibility for home affairs and culture matters, and other colleagues have decided that we, too, now believe that the evidence is there for slowing down the transition to 24-hour opening. When we have the debate in the main Chamber later on, we will be saying that, as will the Conservative Party, because we believe that the case has been made.

We, like the Conservatives, voted against Third Reading of the Licensing Bill when it was going through Parliament because we had reservations, so we are not making a complete U-turn. We still want to move to a 24-hour position but we think that there is now a strong case for saying, "Hang on, let us wait and get it right." There are two other logical reasons as to why we should do that. The first is that, unless we are living in cloud cuckoo land, we look as if we are about to have a general election in May. The Minister feigns ignorance of that fact but there is not a single sign that suggests otherwise.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint) : I am just lowly.

Simon Hughes : She has booked her holiday—I do not believe her.

That is one argument for saying, "Let us just wait until the other side of the election and see what the   composition of Parliament is. Let us see who the Government are, who has responsibility for the Departments of State with responsibilities for these issues." Secondly, we really cannot rush into another set of legislative changes such as that which the Government announced the other day. This is legislation on the hoof.

The Government came to power in 1997 wanting, rightly, to reform licensing legislation, as it had been on the statute book pretty well unchanged for nearly 100 years. We then had long deliberations on the issue, including the famous commitment at the last election via text messages to young voters that licensing hours would be changed. It took all of six years from the Government coming to office to see an alcohol strategy, which, of course, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly states, is a linked issue.

There have been changes to the legislation on how we deal with pubs and bars that break the law. There are powers on the statute book to close places for 24 hours and longer. Last week, as a sticking-plaster job, the Government announced a raft of further ideas, including alcohol control zones. They may be reasonable ideas, but it seems that the Government are running to catch up. Everybody would benefit from a pause to look at three related areas: the way in which the industry will be able to regulate the new regime; the evidence of where the health and medical problems are; and the evidence for what may work from the point of view of the police when managing problems.

I will make some brief points about each of those areas. But first, with regard to what is on offer, we must all be careful to correct the misunderstanding about what the new law proposes. There is an uninformed presumption that the change in the law will mean that all places currently open until 10.30 pm or 11 pm will open
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all night. It is an option; it is not compulsory. My information from the British Beer and Pub Association is that not a single licensee expects to do that. Over the new year, when there could have been 36-hour opening, no one opened for 36 hours. There will be no great and sudden move.

Secondly, there will be no free-for-all, because decisions will be made by elected local councils. Like the hon. Gentleman, I support that; it is the right move. People who are elected by and accountable to their communities will make the decision about what opens and where. Some of my colleagues rightly say that we are circumscribing the power of local authorities, that they ought to have more powers and that the guidelines prevent them from having a common policy for a whole area. That is wrong. If a local authority thinks that a particular area has a problem, it ought to be able declare that there will be no late licensing in that area.

Thirdly, most pubs and licensed premises are not on the high street, causing grief. They are in small towns and villages where people get on perfectly reasonably and no one complains about them.

Fourthly, and again this is why we should not rush into this process, the Government announcement suggests, if I understand the new proposals correctly, that suddenly, having consulted for months and months over what the licence fee should be, there will be a much higher fee. It is a bit unfair on the industry to consult on one set of charges and suddenly consult over another. The licensed trade pays £22 billion a year to the Government in taxes, which is more than twice the entire police budget for England and Wales. On the   other hand, the relative cost of drink is much cheaper than it was 20 or 30 years ago, so there is an issue over how we collect the revenue, how much we collect, how much people in the licensed industry have to pay for the privilege of having those premises and how much we need.

I have a suggestion. It is not party policy but, because drinking is a problem for a minority, which creates huge costs for the NHS, it might be helpful if there were some link between that part of the revenue and the money that goes to the NHS, which has to pick up the tab. That would be quite popular and appealing.

Lastly, the reality is that most people do not binge drink. We are briefed on what binge drinking is; there is a communal definition. Given that everybody uses the phrase, and so that people do not think that we are picking up the cliché and running with it, I ought to put on record that I am told that the accepted definition is

I will not challenge colleagues over whether they fall into that category, but well under one in 10 members of the public do. Again, we are talking not about most of the public, but about a small minority who drink to excess.

I want to flag up the fact that we have a right to be concerned and to express that concern. I have been given different estimates of the number of alcohol-related deaths in this country. Some of those that I have seen suggest that there are between 22,000 and 40,000 alcohol-related deaths every year. I am told, although I have a much clearer figure in my head, that about
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120,000 people every year die from tobacco-related diseases. We do not spend nearly as much on preventing people from becoming alcohol dependent or on treating those who are alcohol dependent as we do on picking up the tab when they end up in the A and E department on a Saturday night, having been involved in a fight, a car smash or a domestic incident.

If we are to get to grips with the fundamental problem, we need to deal with the growing problem of young people who start drinking early. The other day, I saw a horrific press cutting from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, which discussed the number of young people who are brought into hospitals in Aberdeen, suffering from alcoholism. The article said:

Grampian's director of public health said:

It is true that half of all alcohol is bought from places such as supermarkets, takeaways and carry-outs, so the problem is not the responsibility only of those who run licensed bars and other premises. It is clearly a wider issue, with many more people drinking at home. In fact, the proportion of alcohol bought outside pubs and bars has gone up, while the proportion bought in them has gone down.

The Government have clearly decided that they are going to introduce a new policy, under which those who run these premises will have to pay more towards policing costs. There is a real debate about that approach and a real policy issue behind it, and it may be the appropriate answer. In recent years, football clubs have been asked to contribute more. My local football club does so. That has become common practice. However, there needs to be a proper debate, and the local authorities need to be involved. If we are going to accede, as I think that we shall, to the hon. Member for Walsall, North's suggestion, which some of his hon. Friends have been making for a while, that we pause, put back implementation of the 2003 Act and take stock, we also need to have a rational debate across the parties about how to obtain the funding to pay for policing, so that local authorities are properly funded.

I make one last suggestion, which, again, shows that there may be a growing consensus. We may have occasion to pause, not only in the light of the relatively recent Scottish experience and of the Irish experience to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but to see whether we could pilot a scheme for 24-hour opening in certain areas. In London, for example, there would be no reason why a local authority could not say that it wanted to pilot a scheme for a year. I have no idea whether my colleagues who run Southwark, Lambeth and Islington councils would want to do that, or whether Labour-controlled councils such as Lewisham or Brent and Tory-controlled councils such as Wandsworth or Westminster would want to do so, but let us give them the choice.

I end with a request. This is one of those issues where it would be frustrating if the public debate became over-partisan. To be honest, when people are standing on the Old Kent road on a Friday and somebody is injured,
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those people will not be bothered about the party politics; they will be bothered about getting the policy right.

We shall never have a perfect society. People will always get drunk or addicted to alcohol. That is inevitable in a free society and it is the case the world over. We should not become too reactive about that, but Liberal Democrat Members believe that there is sufficient evidence to say, "Let's wait. Let's postpone implementation of the Act." I hope that the Government will heed that and understand that it would be better to proceed by consensus, rather than implement something that gave great concern to the police and increasing concern to local authorities and our health services. I hope that there is ground for an agreed approach before the general election.

10.5 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick)—who is moving closer to me, because we probably agree on many things—on obtaining the debate. He has made much of the fact that it is on the same subject as one of the Opposition day debates called by the Conservative party this afternoon. That goes to show that there is universal concern about this matter in all parts of the House. I hope that he will take part in the debate this afternoon, and make a similar contribution to the one that he has so valuably made in this Chamber.

I also welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). He is moving closer and closer to Conservative policy on many fronts, and this is just another one. We can look forward to the day when he can cross over to our party, because he agrees so entirely with our policy. In many ways the hon. Gentleman is right. It would be nice to think that there would be some consensus across the House on such a major problem, but I am sorry to say that I expect the Minister will not respond positively to his suggestions or those of my party.

Sadly, over the past few years, this country has developed a disgraceful reputation at home and abroad for drinking to excess to such an extent that life and limb are threatened. The costs to the country have escalated to such a degree that some commentators estimate that alcohol-related crime and disorder alone cost us some £7.3 billion a year in policing and processing offenders through the criminal justice system. We have seen this evidenced in so many television programmes and reports; in the horrendous holiday destinations where we see youngsters literally out of their minds, clubbing in places like Spain; and in the all-too-familiar sight on Friday and Saturday nights in some of our inner cities, and even some of our towns, of young people who drink themselves almost senseless, and all the consequential problems in our town centres and communities up and down the country, referred to by both previous speakers.

A third of people are drunk when they are arrested. A recent study revealed that 63 per cent. of men and 39 per cent. of women serving prison sentences had been hazardous or harmful drinkers in the year prior to their incarceration. A report by the Revolving Doors Agency that I think the Minister is familiar with showed that people dependent on alcohol are more likely to be
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homeless on release from prison than those who are not. Therefore, they are likely to be among those most likely to reoffend.

Our increasing alcohol consumption in hazardous quantities does not just cost our criminal justice system dear. About 17 million working days are lost each year because of alcohol abuse. It costs our business and industry in excess of £6.4 billion. Alcohol-related diseases, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North said, cost the health service some £1.7 billion and rising.

If those telephone numbers do not alarm people, perhaps some of the underlying facts will dispel the romantic notion that we can turn the UK into a café society overnight, which is the vision of continental-style drinking on pavement cafés that has been laid out. The British Medical Journal—this is a statistic to add to that repeated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about the children in Scotland—estimates that more than 2,000 drunk children are admitted to hospital annually, and a third of all teenagers aged 15 say that they have been drunk at least once, compared with a tenth in Italy and France—the so-called café societies.

Despite the rising levels of alcohol-related crime, police powers to tackle binge drinking and alcohol-related crime are not being used fully. In 1996, some 40 per cent. of violent crimes were linked to alcohol and last year around 1.2 million violent crimes—about half the total—were linked to alcohol. However, 90 per cent. fewer people under 18 are dealt with by the police for buying alcohol. Those figures are down from 276 in 1997 to just 33 in 2002. Some 50 per cent. fewer people are dealt with by the police for selling alcohol to those under 18. Those figures have declined from 296 in 1997 to just 162 in 2002. If we are looking for further evidence, we can find it in the fact that even the number of people cautioned for or found guilty of drunkenness has fallen by 20 per cent. since the Government came to power. Under-age drinking has been virtually decriminalised. The laws that exist to reduce the problem are not being used to any great effect under the Government.

In addition, 360,000 incidents of domestic violence, which is about a third of the total—the Minister is familiar with the statistics—were linked to alcohol misuse. The fear in the general population has also increased. Some 61 per cent. of the population perceive that alcohol-related violence is worsening.

Against that background, the Government chose to send a text message to young people asking whether they gave a XXXX for last orders and saying that for extra time they should vote Labour. Was the Minister proud of that? Does she think that it was the action of a responsible party?

There is no doubt that the Government have made some attempts to tackle the problem. On 15 March 2004 they published the "Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England" and set out a strategy for tackling the harms and costs of alcohol misuse. I understand that the aim of the strategy was to prevent any further increase in alcohol-related harm in England. Unfortunately, however, the whole truth did not come out at the time. Papers uncovered by the BBC's "Panorama" programme showed that a draft version of the Government's strategy included evidence from other countries of the damaging effects of longer opening
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hours. However, those concerns were removed from the final report in March 2004. Why was that decision taken?

The Downing street strategy unit consulted 17 experts when drawing up the interim report that was the basis for the strategy. That report concluded that extending licensing hours would have a severe negative impact and stated:

In the final version of the strategy, there was no reference to opening hours. A source cited by The Times as being close to the strategy stated that civil servants

Could the Minister confirm that report by The Times? It would be interesting to see whether Ministers went against the advice that was put forward by the very civil servants who were expert on the subject.

The previous two speakers acknowledged that we voted against the legislation at Third Reading because we had concerns. However, since that debate on the Licensing Bill—now Act—it has emerged that the police have considerable concerns about the likelihood of 24-hour drinking and the increases in hours. That is reflected in today's debate. Chris Allison of the Association of Chief Police Officers has said:

John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who has been quoted in this debate, said:

More recent police comment has shown a consensus among many police chiefs that the burden on the police from alcohol-related crime is already too much to bear. Andrew Trotter, deputy chief constable of the British Transport police, says that rather than dissipate the apparent problem of unified closing times, 24-hour drinking will simply mean that police resources will be diverted to alcohol-related incidents more of the time. He went on:

Mike Fuller, the chief constable in Kent, fears that noise and other disturbance will result from 24-hour licensing. He says:

The assistant chief constable in Dorset, Adrian Whiting, is also concerned about police resources. He says:

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I could go on: there are many other quotes from many other organisations and agencies that deal with law and order and health in our communities and have expressed concern. We have a problem in this country, which at a conservative estimate costs around £20 billion a year. That is more than £450 for every adult in the country. However, we do not spend a great deal on preventing the harms that come from excessive alcohol ingestion.

According to Alcohol Concern, the Government spend about £1.5 billion a year on drug-related activity but only £95 million on alcohol. That is disproportionate, because there are about 1,500 deaths a year from drugs and 30,000 a year from alcohol. That means that we spend £1 million on every drug-related death, and only £3,166 on each alcohol-related death; we spend more than 300 times as much on a drug-related death. Does the Minister think that the response from Government is proportionate, particularly in the light of the fact that she is the Minister responsible for our policy on drugs?

Now we have a Licensing Act that will liberalise the hours for drinking and a hastily cobbled together package of measures to try to minimise the harm that that may do to our communities. Even the local autonomy claimed in the package of measures put forward by the Government at the eleventh hour, which it is claimed will hand powers to our local communities, is not as accurate as one would at first believe. Even parish councils will not be able to object to licences in their own backyard.

I want to leave the Minister full time to respond. We do not agree with the Government—we believe that the proposals will cause increased drinking, damage, street violence and physical harm to even younger people. More important, there are not enough police to deal with that. The hon. Member for Walsall, North asked the Government to listen. We are certainly asking them to listen, because we think that there is a problem that is reflected in all the commentary about the Government's proposals.

We ask the Government to delay the provisions. If they do not, there will be a clear choice at the next election. It will be a choice between a Labour Government who are encouraging 24-hour drinking and a Conservative party who would delay the provisions until more work on the problem had been carried out, recruit 40,000 extra police officers to enforce the existing laws, and ensure that there were sufficient resources for them to do so. We would cut away the paperwork and political correctness that stop the police fighting crime and disorder today.

The Minister has an easy task: she just has to say yes. However, although she means well, I suspect that, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North said, she is not in a position to give us what we want. I hope that she has the ear of the Home Secretary, and that the Government will admit this afternoon that we are right and back down from their proposals, which would cause great damage throughout society.

10.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) on securing this debate. One of the problems
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with discussions regarding licensees—each speaker has contributed to that problem again today—is the impression being given that there will be a free-for-all, with people applying willy-nilly for 24-hour licences. In fact, Government research shows that 1 to 2 per cent. might be interested in having such a licence, compared with around 65 per cent. who merely want to vary their hours. Twenty-four-hour opening will not be the norm; there will simply be flexibility within the system.

The measures brought in under the Licensing Act 2003 will, for the first time, give greater local democratic accountability to local authorities, not only to oversee the applications for licences, but to review them. For the first time local authorities will hold both carrot and stick when trying to contain the excesses we have all read about in our newspapers, and may have seen in our constituencies as well.

My hon. Friend said that he was concerned about whether local authorities would be robust enough to deal with containment. That is an issue for those authorities, but one of the big differences under the new arrangements is that, unlike at present, there is local accountability. No offence to magistrates, but they are not elected, while local councillors are. If councils' decisions have an undesirable impact, such as more disorder and problems in our communities and hospitals as a result of their not being robust in the handling of licences and their review of those licences, they will get a strong message from the electorate.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the partnership arrangements in the part of the country around the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). Cleveland police and the licensees of pubs, clubs and takeaways have created a positive relationship whereby, for a small fee, the licensees receive an extra service—telephone contact with specific police who respond instantly. The partnership has been up and running for two months and, with those four additional police, crimes of violence associated with alcohol have been reduced by some 21 per cent. That is a good example—not the only one in the country—of partnership between all the local agencies involved in tackling abuse of those licences or disorder as a result of people drinking to excess. The issue is not just about licences, but about how people are held to account.

Mrs. Gillan : A local authority can refuse a licence only if a responsible authority, such as the police or environmental health officers, objects; the police already have enough to do. However, Westminster council says that it will not be able to reduce problems in its stress area, because the Government have put a "must grant" provision into the Licensing Act. Lastly, local councillors will now be unable to give evidence to hearings despite their local knowledge. Currently—prior to the legislation—councillors could object to applications in their own ward; under the legislation, they cannot.

Caroline Flint : I cannot speak specifically about the problems of Westminster council, but I know that a number of local authorities across the country have they give welcomed these changes. They feel they give them a greater say over both the issuing and reviewing of licenses. One reason why there is a greater say in terms
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of reviewing licences is that we have brought in powers to close down premises; also, if people are not abiding by their licence, we can take quick and effective action. It is a step change from what we had before; the new culture in which local authorities can have more influence than in the past is one area that I am afraid is not being talked about.

David Winnick : But what about the appeal machinery? As I mentioned in my speech, in a number of cases, very large organisations that are not satisfied with the local authority are challenging any of its decisions not to give an application the all-clear. Clearly one should take into account that the courts may well be involved, and local authorities may be somewhat reluctant to say no.

Caroline Flint : As I have said, I cannot necessarily predict what every local authority will do, but they will be held to account for their actions. The other issue to remember is that we have had a huge amount of publicity about the problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption. If someone wanted to appeal—of course people have the right to appeal; that is a just and fair process—they must justify the grounds on which they are appealing. In the same way, the local authority would have to put its case as well. But I hope we are all agreed that the change from what we have had to a system of local authority involvement is to be welcomed. Overall, individual local authorities and bodies that represent them, such as the Local Government Association, welcome that change. They have probably also welcomed the clarity as a result of Friday's announcement on issues relating to fee structures.

Simon Hughes : The Minister knows that I said in my speech that we welcome the move to local authority decisions. There was some nervousness among councillors, but that must be the right move. But I put it to her that there is widespread concern in local government. Its three concerns are that, first, local authorities cannot adequately take cumulative impact into account; secondly, they cannot apparently decide whether there will be a specific end point for licensing opening hours; and thirdly, they will be under-resourced for dealing with applications, appeals and the like. I hope that the Minister will, with her colleagues, talk again to the LGA and to the party groups, where I am sure that she will hear those concerns.

Caroline Flint : As I said, the announcement of the fee structures has given greater clarity as to what local authorities might expect. Councillor Dame Sally Powell, giving her views on behalf of the LGA, certainly welcomed that greater sense of certainty. As with anything, these issues of course can and will be looked at, but we do have a raft of measures giving greater powers in relation to refusal. Under the new Licensing Act, objections can be made at any time by any of the police, environmental health—from within the local authority, on health and safety grounds—residents or local businesses. Of course there are intermediate actions that can be taken, such as the closing down of premises for 24 hours. Let us not forget also the issue of fixed penalty notices, for example on bar staff serving to people who are drunk or under age. The raft of measures actually complements a better licensing system than we have had before.
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Regarding other countries' extension of licensing hours, we are talking about flexible licensing hours, rather than the perception that everyone will have premises open 24 hours a day. I understand from some of the evidence that an acknowledged problem in Ireland was that licensing hours were extended without some of the wrap-around arrangements for tackling disorder that we have made part of the package of the change to flexibility. That was one of the primary reasons for their pulling back.

The picture presented by the extension of licensing hours is a mixed one. In some instances it has not led to greater consumption. In 1988, when opening hours were extended in the United Kingdom, consumption did not increase per head of population. When Scottish licensing hours were reviewed in the 1970s, men's consumption went down and women's went up. That is not necessarily to do with the hours; it may be more to do with cultural changes, and changes in women's attitude to themselves and to drinking.

Complex issues need to be tackled with regard to consumption. I do not put the responsibility at the Conservative Government's door, but since the time of the Conservative Government, there has been a huge increase in the number of outlets selling alcohol. Today it is commonplace to be able to buy drink in different outlets, whereas the traditional pub with an off-licence at the side has practically disappeared, because alcohol is available in so many other places. I should have declared an interest; I am the granddaughter of publicans and have served in a few bars.

The issue to be considered is not 24-hour drinking, but the way in which people drink and their understanding of the dangers, and not just the immediate health dangers. I met a group of 16 to 25-year-olds last week and we talked about, among other things, personal safety. We need to educate young people not just about the physical or medical effect of too much alcohol, but about the fact that a person who is out of control because of alcohol is vulnerable and susceptible to attack or other dangers. That is true for women and men. Things can get out of control when they get into a fight or a stand-off in the street.

Our messages must deal with health and personal safety. My brief encompasses the national drug strategy and we increasingly encourage our drug action teams to be drug and alcohol action teams. We have a long-term Blueprint project dealing with drug education in schools. The project is running in 23 schools where research is being done on the impact. It focuses on years 7 and 8, at the beginning of secondary school.

The project deals not just with illegal drugs, but with cigarettes, alcohol and, for that matter, prescription drugs—paracetamol and the rest—to which many young people have access in the home. The point of the programme is to make young people aware of different types of drugs and their possible effect and to enable them to make informed decisions. We do not treat alcohol as separate from our other work on drug education.

Simon Hughes : I support that, and we must go further down that route. Although it is not for the Minister's Department to take the lead on this, I want to point out
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that all the cafeterias in the House are this week providing booklets about the five portions of fruit and vegetables a day for healthy eating. People need the same visible and regular information, from a young age, about acceptable levels of drinking. Bottles of drink should bear a statement of the exact unit level and the associated risk. Good advertising and good labelling would mean that the education battle was half won.

Caroline Flint : As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, the Department of Health is examining the issue of what people understand by the alcoholic content of a drink, alcohol units and people's perceptions. A glass of wine has gone from a standard measure of 125 ml to something like 175 ml. Alcohol volume can vary from one beer to another. Some of the messages have become outdated over time, and the Department of Health is actively considering the issue.

Mrs. Gillan : Then why do the Minister and her colleague Ministers not consider delaying the implementation of the 2003 Act until 2006, when the impact of some of the excellent programmes that she is outlining will have begun to come into the Department? After all, some provisions in the Drugs Bill, which is before the House, have been delayed to April 2006. What is the problem about revisiting the 2003 Act and delaying implementation? If the Minister has such faith in the Act and in these programmes, she should be willing to wait for the results before further liberalising the licensing laws.

Caroline Flint : I believe that it would do the public a huge disservice to delay the licensing arrangements that we are introducing, which will move licensing from magistrates to local authorities. As I have tried to explain, we sometimes lose sight of the much firmer ground on which local authorities will be able not only to refuse licences, but to review and contain them.

Let us not forget the other measures that we have introduced, such as a new range of fixed penalty notices, which can be issued against individual bar staff who sell to under-18s. We have also increased the level of certain fixed penalty notices from £40 to £80 and we will be raising the others to that level. Fixed penalty notices are part of a package and do not stand on their own, but they have two important benefits. First, they reduce the time that the police spend on bureaucracy, which gives the police an incentive to use them. That may partly answer the hon. Lady's question about arrest. Secondly, they have an instant impact by containing individuals who, in different ways, create an unhelpful environment in which people end up fearing drink, instead of enjoying it.

In addition, we intend to introduce fixed penalty notices for under-18s who attempt to buy alcohol and for the sale of alcohol to someone who is already drunk. Those offences can already be prosecuted through the courts, but the FPNs would provide an immediate sanction and a wake-up call to some organisations and groups. I shall keep the list under review and add others as appropriate.

The police and other enforcement agencies need to use the full range of existing powers to clamp down on irresponsible behaviour by the industry and individuals.
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Among some retailers and licensees and in some parts of industry the practice has been less good than we want; in others it has been better. There is a good example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, and another in Manchester, where people are saying, "There are some problems here. How do we collectively deal with them? What do we need the Government to give us, what do we need the local authority to do and how do we work together better? What do we expect from the industry and licensees?"

The alcohol disorder zones, one of the proposals in last Friday's announcement, are not a knee-jerk reaction. Since the launch of the "Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England" my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety has made it clear that we were continuing to discuss compulsory payments where disorder got out of hand. We must talk to the industry about those issues. On the one hand, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) seemed to want a delay, but on the other hand he seemed to be making a strong case for being tough on the industry, so I was a little confused.

We have discussed this issue with the industry. We have seen some individual elements in the industry decide to take corporate decisions of their own, and move forward; I think Yates's Wine Lodge is one example, and there are others. Only yesterday, I saw that another group had decided that they were going to introduce a smoking ban in their outlets, so there have been voluntary improvements along the way. However, we always said that we would come back to this issue of whether we needed to have a pricing scheme linked to persistent disorder. That is exactly what the consultation paper is consulting on. It is not an alternative to some of the good practice that is currently taking place, whereby licensees and others are working with the local authority on a voluntary basis to get the sort of services that they want from police and others. That is taking place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South.

David Winnick : My hon. Friend has been very generous in giving way, and I understand her responsibility as the appropriate Minister. We know that majorities are not always right. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that all the indications—opinion polling and the rest—demonstrate that the large majority in this country at this moment in time do not want drinking hours to be extended? Perhaps that should be taken into account by the Government at the most senior levels.

Caroline Flint : Probably some polls say that, and others suggest that people are in favour of flexible licensing hours. Some of the arguments for that are as appropriate today as they were when this issue was first discussed. One of the issues in Ireland is, I understand, that while it extended its hours, it was a fixed point extension, which meant that it did not solve the problem of everybody turning out at the same time. I think I am correct about that; if I am not, I am sure that somebody will tell me later.

I return to my point: is the issue one of flexible hours, or of how they are organised? Obviously, if we say that everybody will be open until 3 am, we will not solve the
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current problem, which occurs when most outlets empty at 11 pm or midnight. It does not solve the problem that the police were talking about. Yes, there are police officers who have voiced different views on this. However, Chris Fox, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, made it very clear on Friday that he welcomed the new information that the Government were providing on how the flexible licensing would be wrapped around with these other protective measures. These are valid issues.

My hon. Friend made a point in his speech about people moving from one establishment to another. Well, that already happens in the sense that it is possible to go to a pub in Doncaster until 11 pm and then go to a nightclub until 2 am. That situation exists, so the response to blaming the entire concept of 24-hour opening—as I have said, the indications are that very few outlets will want to open 24 hours a day—must be to say that we already must deal with some of these issues.

Why is it a problem? It is a problem because of lack of responsibility, sometimes by the licensees and by those who work in establishments who continue to serve individuals who should not be served. There is also a lack of co-operation between the police and the local authority on the ability to tackle these issues. Of course, underlying all this is the fact that drinking in the United Kingdom—the amount we drink, the way in which we drink—is not something new and has existed for a very long time. We have to tackle the underlying culture of drink. That, in itself, is not threatened by the new licensing arrangements. It is a bigger issue, which the Government must attend to on a number of different fronts.

Mrs. Gillan : I would like to know where the idea came from for this flexible, 24-hour licensing. The Minister has mentioned, although not by name, J.D. Wetherspoon, which has bravely made its decision to go for smoke-free zones. The chairman of Wetherspoon, however, said—I will not read the first part of the quote because it is not very complimentary to the Home Office—that certain people

If there was no demand from the industry, from where did the demand come that has resulted in this legislation, which even a leading member of the alcohol industry describes as "last-minute chaos"?

Caroline Flint : I have not read that quote. He is entitled to his opinion. The measures that we are taking are part of an ongoing discussion about how to tackle the excessive use of alcohol. We see that as an ongoing responsibility.

When we launched the "Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England" we said that we would come back on a number of points, particularly on what should be paid by those who contribute to disorder as a result of alcohol. Those issues were part of a review of licensing arrangements—in exactly the same way, I presume, as when a previous Government reviewed the opening hours in 1988—to examine how our communities are affected and how licensing is arranged.
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Fundamentally, the issue is not about a carte blanche for 24-hour opening, but about variable licensing hours. What suits one community may not suit another. Alongside that will be more rigour, so that local authorities can have more of a say, and, importantly, powers for the police to deal effectively and quickly with the excessive use of alcohol.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North also mentioned promotions. That is another aspect on which we have said that we will continue to consult. It is clear that some promotions in certain quarters are irresponsible. I met a group of young people the other week and we talked about promotions such as the one that allows a woman to drink for free if a man brings her, and speed drinking, where people drink as much as they can in an hour or two for half the price.

We feel that such promotions are irresponsible and must be dealt with. That is not to say that we are trying to limit price—there is an issue of price competition—but there is a world of difference between that and some of the irresponsible promotions of recent years. Such promotions—where people drink as quickly as they can in a short space, often very alcoholic drinks indeed—add to the problem. We support the British Beer and Pub Association and others in the development of guidance to owners and operators that we hope will do away with such irresponsible drinks promotions.

Let us not forget that our measures are not confined to the pubs, clubs and restaurants that sell drink. We are also talking about tougher measures for other outlets that sell drink, whether they be supermarkets or corner shops. They, too, should have responsibilities in relation to under-age drinking and selling drink to people who have had too much. We must consider the wider community and how drink impacts on different areas.

Simon Hughes : The Minister knows—I have said it more than once—that it would be right for us to move as a country, as Scotland has done, to more flexible licensing hours, which is the phrase that people need to understand. However, because the Government have taken from 1997 to this year to honour the commitment to do that, there is every merit in considering the whole debate in the round. Rather than—as was done last week—announcing measures to deal with abuses that cannot possibly be law and implemented before November, let alone February, when licensing authorities will start the process, we should put everything on hold. That way we can bring together the payment regime, further proposals for controlling people who abuse the system—both after consultation—and then the implementation. That must now be the logic of the Government's position.

Caroline Flint : I have to differ with the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that we get under way the measures that will come into force on local authorities and on licensing . Local authorities throughout the country have been gearing up for the changes. It would be a retrograde step to say, "Well, sorry, but we're going to put that on ice, pending other issues." Of course those other issues are important, but they should not necessarily prohibit us from moving forward on the
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licensing arrangements, bearing in mind that, aside from what was announced on Friday, we have tougher licensing arrangements—

Simon Hughes : But they will not be in force.

Caroline Flint : Hang on a second. Tougher licensing arrangements will come into force in the near future and there will be fixed penalty notices; they already exist for a number of offences. We have the support of the police forces throughout the country to work in partnership with local authorities and others to tackle the problem, and finally, we have good examples from the industry of what it is prepared to do to put its house in order.

We are looking at further measures, and by announcing those, we are warning the industry and others about the changes. There is an opportunity for them to see the writing on the wall and to do more than they are doing to tackle the problems that exist in communities. There are some positive examples of that, but some are not so positive and need to be addressed.

With regard to the balance sheet, there are a range of policies and areas in which we can tackle the problem. At the heart of that are the new licensing arrangements, which create democratic accountability for the first time in the issuing of those licences, giving the community a say that it clearly did not have before. We must continue to build up the resources available for treatment for those who have binge-drinking problems—there is a difference between that and chronic alcoholism—and we are doing that as well.

Mrs. Gillan : The Minister is giving way generously. Did I hear her correctly? Is she saying that this is not the end of the story and that the Home Office, or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, have further proposals on their desk, which they are about to spring on the unsuspecting public, local councils or industry? If so, when can we expect to see them? Or is she threatening the industry by saying, "There is definitely going to be a levy, but we are acting step by step and quietly because we are moving towards an election"?

Caroline Flint : No, the hon. Lady is twisting my words. It is quite clear that the existing powers are there to be used, and can be used in a better way throughout the country. The new licensing arrangements are coming in and the consultation document on Friday made the Government's policy clear.

I said that it is not the end of the story because Members have raised several issues about how we tackle the culture of drinking in this country. Consideration must be given to projects such as Blueprint, which I mentioned earlier, and to looking at the information we give to young people, whether that is clinical information relating to ill health or information about personal safety. We are having ongoing discussions on those matters with regard to public health and people's responsibility for their actions.

On the question of domestic violence, I would say that alcohol is often a factor, but I strongly believe that one of the reasons why more cases of domestic violence have been brought to the courts is that the Government have, for the first time, tried to remove the obstacles
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preventing those cases from coming to court. A rise in the number of arrests for domestic violence in itself is not a bad thing.

Simon Hughes : Why?

Caroline Flint : Because we are finding ways in which those matters can be brought to court.

As in all areas of public policy, we are mindful of what is happening. We have to deal with an underlying cultural issue, but the issue of flexible hours will not necessarily make that situation worse.

David Winnick : It will not make it better.

Caroline Flint : I think it will make it better in a number of cases, but it has to be supported by good local working partnerships. At the end of the day, we can pass laws here, but they are implemented on the ground. That is why we see very good practice in some parts of the country, and we should expect all parts of the country to aspire to that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I do not wish to enter into the debate, but it being the anniversary of Robert Burns' birth, I have to observe that he wrote a prayer to the Scotch Members of this House, objecting to the proposal to increase duty on whisky.

10.53 am

Sitting suspended.

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