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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Tessa Jowell: Does the right hon. Lady not approve of those powers? Does she not want to see changes to our drinking laws that increase protection for children? Is she happy that children can be sold alcohol in some 20,000 members' clubs and on booze cruises? So the police and environmental health officers will have new powers concerning the protection of children, the promotion of public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the prevention and reduction of crime and disorder.

I listened carefully to the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, but I remain unclear as to what she wants. At best, she seems to want to wreck the Act, even though that would mean a continuation of the problems.

Mrs. May rose—

Tessa Jowell: The fact is that binge drinking is a problem now. The Licensing Act forms part of the
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solution, and it is a crucial part of our strategy for combating alcohol-rated harm, but the national problem of alcohol abuse has many roots. This legislation is a necessary, but not of itself a sufficient, part of the cure. That is why, in partnership with the alcohol industry, a standards and principles document is being developed under the alcohol harm reduction strategy. It will be a voluntary code, but those parts of the industry that do not sign up to it will make themselves targets for review under the Licensing Act. So they should consider themselves on probation.

The code will promote a more responsible approach to sales promotions, happy hours and the various promotions that can cause binge drinking and the like. It will ensure that better training becomes a high priority for the industry, and it will set out examples of good practice.

David Taylor: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Tessa Jowell: I want to make some progress.

The alcohol harm reduction strategy will also focus on education. There will be new teaching materials for educating the public and educating our children in schools about problems associated with alcohol. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill will add to the measures for tackling the problems that alcohol misuse can cause. It will include drink banning orders to exclude violent and antisocial drinkers from premises that sell alcohol. It introduces alcohol disorder zones, enabling the police and local authorities to put in place action and measures to combat the problems of alcohol-related crime and disorder and to charge the premises selling alcohol for the additional enforcement costs when that becomes necessary.

Bob Russell : Who would initiate that process if the problems that the Secretary of State has mentioned occur? Would a local councillor have the right to initiate it?

Tessa Jowell: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, those powers have been greatly argued for by the police and are supported by local authorities. They are still subject to debate in the House, but I expect that the advocates of crime reduction on behalf of both the police and local authorities will ensure that their voices are heard and are represented in the legislation, although the way in which representations can be made has not yet been settled.

The Bill will also expedite fast-track reviews, where serious crime—drug dealing or the use of guns and knives—is associated with any premises. It will also create a Licensing Act offence of persistently selling alcohol to children and a new power to ban the sale of alcohol for up to 48 hours at the premises where the offence is committed. That is extremely important for addressing the current problem that much of the alcohol consumed by young people is bought not from pubs, but from off-licences.

David Taylor: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case for how the legislation will help to tackle binge and under-age drinking. Does she believe that the Liberal
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Democrat policy of lowering the licensing age to 16 is, in the current circumstances and against the backdrop of these events, utterly irresponsible?

Tessa Jowell: I hope that it is not too unkind to say that it is not unusual for the Liberal Democrats to come up with policies that are impractical and inconsistent. This is yet another example.

We take the issue of binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence very seriously indeed. We know that the Act and other measures will have an impact on every high street and just about every person in the country. That is why we shall tread with great care and review the operation of the Act carefully. However, if the right hon. Member for Maidenhead has her way, we shall be asking the police to fight 21st century yobs with 19th century laws. It simply will not work—[Interruption.]

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is clear that the Secretary of State is not willing to give way.

Tessa Jowell: The right hon. Lady should accept that she is wrong and that the very worst option is to continue as we are. That is all that the Opposition offer. On the Government side, we recognise the scale of the problem that the country faces and we recognise that the present law infantilises millions, while giving the yobbish minority free rein. We have done something about it, while the Conservative party flip-flops and operates in an entirely opportunistic way.

This country has a real problem with drink and disorder, and the Licensing Act will go a long way to tackling it head on. I urge the House to reject the Opposition motion, which is uninformed, opportunistic and denies the police the essential powers to tackle this 21st century problem. I therefore urge the House to support the amendment and reject the motion.

8.25 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): May I say that I have great respect for the Secretary of State and congratulate her again on her role in bringing the Olympics to London? I notice that she has been nominated by The House Magazine as one of its Ministers of the year, but on the basis of tonight's performance I do not believe that her chances of winning will be much good—[Interruption.] On the basis of tonight, I have to say that.

The Secretary of State has been very clear: she believes that this country has a serious problem with binge drinking. On that, we agree. She believes passionately that the new Licensing Act will help to solve that problem. On that, however, we fundamentally disagree. We believe that the Licensing Act should be placed on ice until binge drinking is brought under control. Similarly, in view of what the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, let me make it clear that, while the current binge drinking problem remains, no party would be responsible if it urged a reduction in the age at which people can buy alcohol. There, I am expressing the policy of the Liberal Democrats.
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David Taylor: I am pleased to hear that evidence of a U-turn, albeit one performed behind a smokescreen. Does the Liberal Democrat spokesman agree that concern about binge and under-age drinking has been evident for a significant period and stretches back at least to the time of the Standing Committee examination of the Licensing Bill? Will he confirm that Liberal Democrat members of the Committee tabled no amendments, at no stage voted against clauses dealing with flexible licensing hours, and, indeed, nodded through the relevant legislation, as we have come to expect from Liberal Democrats in this place?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is wrong: the Liberal Democrats voted against the legislation—full stop. That is clearly on the record. He should take into account what his Secretary of State said. She referred to a number of issues that she claimed had not been argued by either of the Opposition parties. She failed to point out, of course, that many of the issues came to light not in Committee, but in the regulations that resulted at a later stage. Many of those regulations are creating many of the current problems. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware of the huge delay. The Government have only just finished consulting—despite the fact that the Act was passed in 2003—on what to say about temporary events notices, which have not yet been debated on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman really needs to check his facts about what the Liberal Democrats and others did during the Bill's passage.

I understand entirely where the Secretary of State is coming from. She and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire have said that we have a serious problem with binge drinking, but the real problem is that it is getting significantly worse every year. The figures are clear. The British crime survey released last week shows a 12 per cent. increase in violent assaults, in which alcohol was a major contributing factor. There has been a 15 per cent. rise nationally in

which amounts to almost 1,000 a week. Last year, there were an estimated 116,000 violent incidents against national health service staff—318 a day. Incidentally, that is 20 times the number of arrests at a football match.

Health problems are deeply concerning and getting worse. There has been an 18.4 per cent. increase in alcohol-related deaths over the past year. The overall cost of alcohol to the health service and others is about £20 billion a year, with one in 13 adults dependent on alcohol and nine children being admitted to hospitals in England every day with alcohol-related problems. The Secretary of State is right; we have a very serious problem, and, sadly, it is getting worse.

The real question for the House is whether the Licensing Act will help to solve that problem or make the situation worse. Much has already been said about the Government's motives for introducing the legislation. Their motives were clear. We saw them in that infamous text message:

Today, the Minister said that he regretted that, and the Secretary of State has said that it was silly. Nevertheless, it gave the public the clear impression that the
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Government were not interested in solving the problems of binge drinking, but were much more concerned with garnering the youth vote.

The Secretary of State said the message was silly and the Minister said it was unacceptable, but the spin continues. On the departmental website, we can read the regular bulletin "Licensing Countdown". I have in front of me the October 2005 edition. What sort of spin are the Government putting on it? Is it all about getting rid of binge drinking? What does the headline say? It says:

That is hardly an indication that the Government are cracking down on binge drinking. The bulletin continues:

Apart from the Minister and the Secretary of State, I know of few people who are eagerly awaiting 24 November, with all the chaos that will then be created on our streets.

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