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House of Commons

Monday 31 January 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Alcohol Vendors

1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What powers are available to the police to shut down irresponsible vendors of alcohol. [211493]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): The police and others already have a range of powers available to them to deal with irresponsible vendors of alcohol and the associated problems. The police can close pubs, clubs and other on-licence premises with immediate effect for up to 24 hours in the interests of public safety—that is, if there is or is likely to be disorder in or around the premises. The Licensing Act 2003 expands those powers to cover any licensed premises and allows the police to close premises where noise is causing a public nuisance. What is more, use of these powers will trigger an automatic review of the premises' licence and that review can consider all history of problems at the premises—in other words, it is not limited to the events that led to closure. Even where closure powers are not used, the Licensing Act will also allow the police to seek review of any premises' licence. The police have assured me that they will enforce all these powers rigorously.

Mr. Chapman: Is my right hon. Friend aware that antisocial behaviour caused by young people who have drunk alcohol sold by irresponsible vendors of one sort or another is a major cause of concern, whether the constituents are in Heswall, Bebington, Bromborough or Eastham? Although the powers in the Licensing Act are welcome, in the past the police found, for example, that the trade would use ruses such as changing the landlord so as to have a new, clean figure in the premises where the record of the premises was poor, to avoid revocation. Can he assure me that the powers in the new Act will be much stronger, much more effective and benefit my constituents much more than the previous provisions?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. I remember him showing me examples of such abuse when I visited his constituency in the Wirral some four or five years ago.
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The new Act will provide the powers to address those issues. Let me say clearly again today that it is vital that local authorities, working with the police, ensure that a rigorous regime is established. I believe that the fee regime that has been put in place will enable that to happen.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the only reason why any licensee will apply for a 24-hour licence is to sell more drink and they will make more profit out of it to cover the extra costs? By definition, if more drink is sold, there will be more yobbishness, more violence and more bad behaviour. Will he not restrict licensing hours to their present format?

Mr. Clarke: I do not accept the fundamental premise of the question. Licensees want flexibility as to which licensing hours they will follow. There is little evidence that any premises will go down the 24-hour route. To the extent that there is more flexibility, it will ensure that we match people's drinking desires more directly. It is very important, as I said in the Supply day debate on the matter, to distinguish in our minds between the licensing regime and the cost of policing alcohol disorder zones, which we will put in place.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend may know that Plymouth took part in the pilot scheme last summer and over Christmas, using the present powers, and will greatly welcome their being increased. Does he understand that that can entail an increase in the number of violent crimes, because the police are catching more people and taking more action against them, but the positive message from Plymouth is that that resulted in a fall in serious violent crime?

Mr. Clarke: Plymouth is an example of an authority that is rigorous in trying to carry out the proposals and I congratulate it on that. That has meant that more low-level violent crimes are recorded, which is what we have been seeking to achieve. What it has also meant in practice in the pilots is that there have been fewer serious crimes of violence, which is precisely why we want to put in place more widely the measures adopted in Plymouth.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Home Secretary may be aware that the Home Affairs Committee recently took evidence from a senior police officer suggesting that, in big cities with a large student population, it is routine for pub chains to sell themselves as offering not just cheap drinking, but fast drinking, through happy hours and other promotions. Such encouragement to young people to get drunk faster is a significant contribution to making city centres the vision of hell they too often are on Friday and Saturday nights. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we do not need new laws to stop that—just a sense of responsibility on the part of the drinks industry?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with that, which is why the measures that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced a week or so ago specifically encouraged the drinks industry to put in place voluntary codes to address the irresponsible promotions that the hon. Gentleman described. That is
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the right way to go. I have spoken to a number of the main industry bodies and I believe that he is right that there is a desire to make the codes work. We will work with all parties to try and ensure that we achieve that.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to the possibility of the drinks industry having to pay some of the costs of policing alcohol-related disorders, which I think would help in dealing with the problems that we have in Northampton. Will he say some more about those proposals, and in particular about when they might be brought forward?

Mr. Clarke: We are consulting on the proposal. As my hon. Friend says, the proposal is that, where a concentration of outlets is identified where particular binge drinking occurs, the local authority and the police together will designate the area and say to pubs and clubs, as well as off-licences, "You have to clean your act up and get it together." If that does not happen, there will be an entitlement to levy money to meet the costs of ensuring public order. We are consulting on the proposals and I believe that there is already a strong welcome for them from the industries concerned. I hope that we will be able to legislate to put them into effect in the near future.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): From what the Home Secretary said, he would accept that under-age drinking has soared out of control in the past several years. Can he tell the House what has happened to convictions and cautions for under-age drinking in the past seven years?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the figures off the cuff, but I can say that it is important to take steps against under-age drinking, which is why one of the measures that we set out in the consultation paper to which I referred would give police the power to close pubs where under-age drinking had been taking place. I agree that there is an issue to be addressed and I believe that we are taking the steps to address it.

David Davis: I can help the Home Secretary. The figures show a decline in convictions and cautions for under-age drinking from 1997 to 2003 of 86 per cent., while such drinking was going out of control. At the same time, there was a reduction in convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour and very few disorderly pubs were closed. He is right to lecture the industry on being responsible, but is not one reason for the unfettered growth in alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder this Government's neglect?

Mr. Clarke: I do not accept that at all. Courtesy of my hon. Friends, I now have the figures on fixed penalty notices issued to deal with these issues. For example, on being drunk and disorderly, more than 21,000 fixed penalty notices were issued from 1 April to 30 November 2004, while 1,975 notices were issued for being drunk in a highway and 428 for drinking in a designated public place. This is a measure that this Government put in place and that is dealing with the issue in a way that is effective, rapid and on the spot, to try to drive out binge drinking.
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Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): My right hon. Friend's Department should be congratulated on the cross-cutting way in which it is approaching this issue, because there is no one silver bullet. Does he recognise that one of the most important aspects is the design of a mixed type of facility in a particular area? I appreciate his steer in respect of what local authorities and licensing agencies can do to ensure that, even if we do not quite have more of the café culture, we at least have less of the gin lanes.

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend. The most impressive scheme that I have personally seen was in the centre of Manchester, where new outlets were licensed specifically on the basis that they would be appealing to particular sections of the market by age, culture and so on, so that there was no one place with a large number of young people and another place with a large number oldies, but a mix ensuring that the whole situation was far more disciplined. The licensing powers that local authorities have been given under the Licensing Act 2003 allow the matter to be addressed in a constructive way, and much more so than in the past.

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