Mr. Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):
Does the Minister accept that this problem extends not only to village halls and temporary events but to small village shops? These are small shops, not areas where there is a problem of binge drinking. One in my constituency is only just being maintained by the actions of villagers. It is having to subscribe a very large sum of money in payment to consultants to help it to fill in forms. The village shop is confronting a permanent problem that will not be addressed by the measures that he is suggesting.
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James Purnell: I do not want to test the patience of the House by going on too long. I think that the hon. Gentleman's village shop would be able to apply for mandatory rate relief, which should save it a significant amount more than the cost of the annual licence. We understand the vital role of village stores and have already tried to do what we can.
We will continue to consider the representations from ACRE. It agreed today to come on to our high-level group and to help us further with implementing the Act. Of course, we will continue to work with the Central Council of Physical Recreation, with carnivals, with working men's clubs, with circuses, with small village stores and with any other organisations that I may have failed to mention.
The next stage of implementing the Act will come after 6 August, when we will work closely with local authorities on processing what we recognise is a late surge of applications. We have agreed with them that we will institute a national helpline to help them with that and that we will have a further wave of advertising after 6 August specifically to target people who have failed to apply by that stage. I want to put on the record my thanks to all the council officers, officials and councillors who will work very hard over the summer; we are very grateful to them.
We have turned the corner. Applications are up. We have clear plans to target those who miss the 6 August deadline. We are working with local authorities to help them to process applications. We will continue to listen to individual sectors' concerns and to address them where we can. Implementing this radical reform was always going to be a challenge, but it is a challenge worth going for. This Act will be better for local communities, better at cracking down on the irresponsible minority, cheaper and more flexible for business, and better for the responsible majority. We should not be subject to curfew because of the problems that people have with the irresponsible minority. I believe that when we look back on this Act in one or two years' time, people will recognise that it is a much better framework of law than the one that we had. At that stage, we may even have the Conservatives coming up with a fourth positionthat it was their idea all along.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I believe that all hon. Members would like to congratulate the Under-Secretary on a sterling performance. He has been dealt an especially bad hand and he is doing his best to play it. However, hon. Members will have been astonished by the way in which he has done it. Throughout his speech, he acknowledged a range of problems with the Licensing Act 2003.
At a time when the Act is almost due to be implemented, a Minister stood before us and promised that he would continue to consult group after groupvillage halls, carnivals, circuses, small shops or anything that anyone cared to mentionabout the various issues. He even told us that, during the summer, there would be consultation on the temporary events notices arrangements. I stress that all that relates to a measure that is already in force and is due to be effected on 24 November. I therefore congratulate the Under-Secretary on his willingness at least to listen to the
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concerns. The Government would have done well to listen to the concerns that hon. Members of all parties raised about this measure when the hon. Gentleman was not a part of it.
All hon. Members will acknowledge that we have a serious problem of binge drinking. I mention that because the Under-Secretary wanted me to deal with his anxiety about our position. In a recent parliamentary question, I asked about the increase in violent offences connected with licensed premises. In the past 12 months alone, the figure has increased by 15 per cent., so that a staggering 50,000 such offences were committed in England and Wales in the past year. Recent figures show that admissions to accident and emergency departments resulting from alcohol abuse are now a staggering 25,000. A parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) elicited the response that, in the past 12 months, there has been an increase of 18.5 per cent. in alcohol-related deaths. We are storing up a huge problem. According to the Government's figures, 44 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds binge-drink at least once a month. Again from the Government's figures, we know that binge drinking costs our society more than £20 billion a year.
What has been the Government's response to that? They were elected in 1997 and it took them six years to devise their alcohol harm reduction strategy. In that time, 240,000 people died from alcohol abuse. It took until last year for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that binge drinking was a British disease. The Government did not consider existing legislation to ascertain whether it could help to tackle the problem. Legislation exists to prosecute landlords for allowing drunken or riotous behaviour on their premises. Since 1997, when the Government came to power, there has been an average of only 11 prosecutions a year. That shows how little use is made of existing legislation.
Legislation also exists to prevent people from buying drinks for others who are clearly drunk. Yet how many prosecutions have been brought since 1997? The answer is a grand total of 12and in 2000 or 2001, none were brought.
Mr. Foster: I shall give way to all three hon. Members shortly. I simply want to make it clear that legislation exists to deal with some of the problems. The Government introduced a new measurein the Criminal Justice Act 2001to tackle the problem. It provides that it is an offence if an employee as well as the landlord serves alcohol to someone who is behaving drunkenly. The Under-Secretary will be interested to know that, since the measure was introduced, not one successful prosecution has been brought.
In the hon. Gentleman's litany of criticism, will he acknowledge that the Government
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have allowed local people to have a say in licensing in their area and to approach their democratically elected representatives about the licences? Surely he can at least acknowledge that that is a good step forward.
Mr. Foster: I am delighted that the hon. Lady believes that the Bill does that. However, people in my constituencyand, I suspect, in herswould say that that is not the case. In the majority of cases, we have the ludicrous position whereby a local councillor, who represents an area where there are public houses, cannot get involved in the deliberations about the licensing of a specific pub. Local representatives cannot get involved. As I shall show shortly, special saturation polices, which were introduced at the last minute to help local communities, are a complete mess. I am being polite.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman recited statistics relating to death and incidents involving binge drinking. He also talked about his local community. Is he still in favour of 16-year-olds buying alcohol and drinking? Does he believe that the people of Bath would think that was a good idea?
Mr. Foster: No, I hope those people would not. The hon. Gentleman is picking up a hoary old story, but, if he wishes, I shall respond. We believe that, over time, we should move the age of majority for many events to 16. We have also made it clear that, in the current climate of binge drinking, it would be irresponsible to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Mr. Foster: Instead of spending much time on that, I refer the hon. Gentleman to a good publication that he will have received in the past couple of days from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. It provides a good definition. I shall not read it out but it is in Box 1 and he can read it.
Since I have an opportunity to refer to that document, let me consider whether, in this country's climate of binge drinking, the measure that has been passed but not yet implemented will be beneficial. On the police, whom the Under-Secretary mentioned, the document states:
Leaving that and the reference to the recent conclusions of the Home Affairs Committee aside, I draw attention to the expert advice of the Science and Technology Committee. It bears reading precisely. It states:
"Central to this debate is the issue of whether or not increasing access to alcohol will lead to a rise in consumption. Experience from various countries around the world is mixed. For instance, in Perth, Western Australia, an extension of bar opening times from midnight until 1 am led to a rise in alcohol consumption, violence and drunkenness. Similar effects have been reported in Iceland, Ireland and Canada, while a reduction in licensing hours in Norway, Finland and Sweden led a decrease of alcohol consumption among heavy drinkers."
"On the other hand, availability of alcohol in many Mediterranean countries is not restricted and yet those countries are not affected by binge drinking on the scale seen in the UK. Overall, it appears that the prevailing drinking culture is a key factor in determining consumption patterns."