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Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman was serious and genuine in what he is saying, why are people up and down the country, such as the Oxton Liberal Club in my constituency, applying for an extension of hours? He is criticising that, so what does he have to say about it?
Mr. Foster: I do not know the details, but if the Government create legislation and, as we have already heard, give opportunities for the licensing trade to increase what it earns, I am not surprised that people pursue such opportunities. I want clear Government legislation that gives people who want to drink responsibly the opportunity to do so without the rest of us having to deal with the problems of irresponsible drinking, of which there is, sadly, far too much in this country. Sadly, the problems are growing.
I want to point out why the Government are wrong in their belief that the Licensing Act will help to solve the problem. In fairness, the House needs to hear their reasons. I would have thought that the Government would give us research evidence to show that increasing the availability of alcohol would in some way help to deal with the problem of binge drinking. The Government have not given us that evidence, but several respected bodies have done so. All Members have received an extremely useful briefing from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology"Postnote", which, under the heading "Binge Drinking and Public Health", makes it clear that in countries with an existing binge drinking problem increasing the availability of alcohol leads to an increase in the amount of drinking.
If the Secretary of State and the Minister do not want to take note of that research, far more is available. I have a pre-publication copy of the International Journal of Drug Policy, which states that
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"past experience suggests that the new licensing arrangements risk leading to a rise in heavy drinking, illicit drug use, violence, morbidity and traffic accidents. The lack of attention the UK Government has apparently devoted to the experience of other countries where on sale availability has been extended is remarkable."
The Government simply have not done their homework or given us the evidence to show how the legislation will do what they say it will doreduce the problems of binge drinking. Very few people believe the Government. Judges, health experts, the licensed industry, local authorities and the public simply do not believe that the reforms will help. Judges have described the legislation as "close to lunacy". Let me quote the submission by the Council of Her Majesty's Circuit Judges to the Government's consultation:
"Those who routinely see the consequences of drink-fuelled violence in the offences of rape, grievous bodily harm and worse on a daily basis are in no doubt that an escalation of offences of this nature will inevitably be caused by the relaxation of liquor licensing, which the Government has now authorities."
Health experts say exactly the same as judges. Professor Christopher Day, a liver specialist at Newcastle university, believes that the Government have deliberately downplayed the medical evidence. The Royal College of Physicians says that there is already an epidemic of binge drinking and that the Licensing Act 2003
As for licensed industry experts, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) quoted Mr. Dave Daley, the president of the National Association of Licensed House Managers, who described the reforms as "an absolute cock-up". The Publican says that three quarters of licensees think that extended licensing laws will not help binge drinking.
The public, too, are desperately concerned by what is going on. The British crime survey released last week shows that the number of people worried about public drunkenness and rowdy behaviour was up from 20 to 23 per cent. A BBC poll showed earlier this year that 67 per cent. of people thought that the Licensing Act 2003 would increase trouble on our streets, with 62 per cent. saying that it would make Britain a worse place in which to live.
Mr. Foster: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will answer his question in a second. Frankly, in her speech, the Secretary of Secretary gave up on all the other arguments and concentrated solely on the police powers, so they deserve a very serious response.
The Secretary of State prayed in aid local authorities. She said that they are very keen on the legislation and want all the reforms to go ahead; but, in fact, that is hardly the truth, as she knows because she is the one who received the letter, dated 30 June this year, from the chairman of the Local Government Association, whom she has prayed in aid. That letter actually said that
That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the Secretary of State's legislation. It is not surprising that, as we have heard, local authorities are concerned that they cannot fully engage residents in licensing decisions. They are concerned about the role that local councillors can and cannot play. They simply cannot believe it when the Government say that their legislation contains no presumption for longer hours. We have heard that there is no such presumption in the legislation, yet the guidance says that the Government
Local authorities cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to give a clear, legal basis for saturation polices, which experts have described as a legal nightmare. They do not understand why the Government cannot give them better help than they have received so far from the Office of Fair Trading about the ability of local authorities to set minimum drinks prices in their areas and, incidentally, to do something about soft drinks. They fail to understand how the temporary notice procedures will help, rather than hinder. We have not yet debated those procedures in the House, so perhaps we will come back to them later. Like very many other people, local authorities are desperately worried about all the red tape and bureaucracy that the legislation has introduced.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): What is the hon. Gentleman's opinion of the experience in Scotland, which has had longer and more flexible hours for some time? Will he be pressing his Liberal Democrat colleagues, who have some influence in the Scottish Parliament, to reduce opening hours to 11 pm? Surely that is the logic of his argument.
Mr. Foster: I never said I was in favour of 11 pm as a closing time. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As he asked the question, he will have assiduously studied what is happening in Scotland, and will know that that is under review. Being a firm believer in devolution, I will not tell the people of Scotland what they should do. However, I would gently recommend to them that they should not repeat the mistakes that we are making south of the border.
People in local authorities are confused about much of what is going on. For example, when the Government have a good ideafor once I agree with themsuch as the "polluter pays" principle, whereby big pubs where lots of people go will pay more because they will have a greater impact on the surrounding area, local authorities fail to understand, as do I, why nightclubs will not have to pay the escalator charges, just because their primary purpose is not the sale of alcohol.
Local authorities are particularly perturbed about the Secretary of State's belief that the Government's plans will lead to staggered hours. In response the Minister
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will no doubt quote research that the Department has done to show that that will happen. When he studies that in detail and examines particular areas in a town or city covered by the research, he might find that the theory does not hang together quite so well. No doubt he will explain to the House how a local authority is meant to make staggered hours happen.
Let us suppose that two pubs are next door to each other. One applies to the licensing committee to stay open until midnight and the committee agrees, and a few weeks later the other pub makes a similar application. The local authority can hardly say, "No, sorry, the pub next door is staying open till midnight. You can only stay open until 11.30." Would it be allowed to do so under competition law or under the guidance? The answer is no, so it is not possible for a local authority to engineer the staggered hours that the Minister and the Secretary of State claim are possible under the Bill.
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