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I should make a few declarations of interest. First, I am a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, was a judge at the great British beer festival this year, and opened the festival, which was superb. Secondly, I am a long-standing member of the all-party beer group and have been vice-chairman ever since it was formed. Thirdly, I own an off-licence in Swansea[Laughter.] That is half my speech gone. And finally, I live next door to a pub in Pendleton in my constituency, which I frequent regularly.
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I am one of the few Members who has had a look at one of these application forms. My sister received it, because we have an off-licence, and she got frightened and sent it to me. I looked at it, got frightened, and sent it back to her. We then employed a solicitor. What other Members have said about the cost is trueit has cost us well over £1,000 in solicitor's fees and to get an architect in to measure the shop, as well as various other costs. That is a heavy cost for us to bear, but I can only imagine the burden on many small rural businesses that do not sell much alcohol. One small business in my constituency has already let its licence lapse because it cannot afford to renew it and does not sell enough alcohol. Other smaller businesses and village halls will be affected, and it has come as a heavy burden.
We have been accused of scaremongering and opportunism. We have certainly not been scaremongering, and Esther McVeigh was not scaremongering in Wirral, West: she was absolutely right. What we have not been doing, unlike the Government, is pandering to people. I am thinking particularly of the message that the Government sent at the time of the general election, to the effect that if people voted for them they would be able to drink all day. I know that the Government regret that now, but the fact is that they did it. They were targeting younger people with mobile telephones.
The Government say that they want a café society. We, too, want to see more small wine bars opening. We are worried about the larger, urban pubs, which will contain several hundred people on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. That is where the drink problems will arise.
The Secretary of State herself admitted that there is a problem with binge drinking in this country. The front page of today's edition of The Sun spoke of an alcoholic aged 12. One lady is so petrified of her 16-year-old daughter getting smashed on her birthday that she has taken a photograph of her daughter to 30 pubs so that she will not be served. The Secretary of State tries to pretend that the new laws will protect all those young people and their parents, but many of the laws are already in place. Moreover, many of the laws that she mentioned could have been introduced in splendid isolation, separately from the Act.
If there is currently a problem with binge drinking, is it not logical to expect that if many more pubs can stay open until 2 am, 3 am, 4 am and 5 am, the problem will become worse? That is what frightens us. We are not worried about the staggering of closing times, which will have many benefits for the police. Many businesses, however, will start closing at the same time4 am. Once one of them starts staying open until 4 am, there will be huge pressure on all the others in the vicinity to do the same.
The Government have gone so far down the road that they will have to proceed with their plans just to save face, irrespective of the effects on the United Kingdom. It was the same when cannabis was reclassified from a class B to a class C drug. After the Government had spent £1 million on telling people that, actually, cannabis was still illegal, they set up a committee to look into the mistake that they had made and the impact that the change in the law had had. I suspect that the same will happen in this case. Binge drinking will get worse.
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We saw the front page of The Observer yesterday. The head of all the licensed landlords in the country said that landlords were being offered incentives to keep people on their premises after 11 pm. They might be on the receiving end of as much as £20,000 in return for encouraging people to drink moreto drink shorts or doubles. To reach the targets that they have been set, landlords will have to persuade more people to stay longer and drink more alcohol. That will be a real problem, especially for those living nearby.
We were told that councillors would be able to object to noise, but the fact is that they will not. Councillors have been told that they cannot object to licence extensions unless they live in the vicinity, because otherwise they are not interested parties. The code of conduct, however, states that councillors living in the vicinity cannot object because that would be prejudicial. They are caught: whatever happens, they cannot object to extensions, and that prevents them from doing the job that they were elected to do.
I shall end my speech early, because I know that the Minister will want to respond to many of the points that have been made. We are not saying no to any change at all. The hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) reminded the House that we changed the law to allow drinking in the afternoons, which I would describe as a sensible licensing extension. The Government's allowing drinking until as late as 5 o'clock in the morning is a sea change in comparison. We introduced that sensible change 20 years ago, but since then binge drinking has got much worse. More people are drinking more alcohol at a younger age, and this change to the law will make matters worse. The Government have made a mistake. It is still not too late to change it, but for goodness' sake, do it now.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): If implementation of this Act were proceeding smoothly and it were being welcomed by the majority of our constituents and the electorate at large, I am pretty sure that we would not be having this debate. I strongly rebut the Secretary of State's claim that we are being opportunistic and are guilty of flip-flopinconsistency. This legislation's progress has been inadequate; it has been late and badly prepared throughout. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pointed out, in Committee we had no regulations, no guidance, no fee structure and no clear idea of implementation. There have been delays at every stage of implementation, and as many Members have said this evening, the application process has been a million light years away from the promises made by various Ministers.
When it became obvious that the Government were not addressing the binge drinking problem and ignoring representations from the police, the judiciary, local authorities and the village hall and sports club communities, we on the Opposition Benches opposed the legislation at every opportunity. The Minister in Committee raised the possibility of an amendment providing for a 20 per cent. limit on fees for sports clubs, but subsequent Ministers reneged on that. We opposed the Bill on Report and on Third Reading, and the Government's attempt to suggest otherwise is, at best, misleading, and, at worst, an outright calumny. In any event, since this Act was debated in the House in
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2002 and 2003, the problem of binge drinking has escalated to the point where large swathes of society are now in despair at the Government's intention to press ahead with this Act and with the second appointed day.
A September Populus poll for The Times showed that the public are overwhelmingly against Government plans to extend licensing hours. It found that three fifths62 per cent.opposed the changes. Only a third34 per cent.were in favour of them. Women were against the changes by 71 per cent. to 25 per cent.; men were against them by 52 per cent. to 34 per cent. Not surprisingly, the only group in favour were 18 to 24-year-olds. In direct opposition to ministerial assertions, the proposals are not popular. People see the extension of licensing hours as having a direct correlation with crime, antisocial behaviour, ill health and additional costs to the taxpayer.
There are now 1 million violent crimes a year. Violent crime rose by 7 per cent. overall last year, on top of previous year-on-year increases. But the most important point is that nearly half of victims of violent crime thought that their attacker was under the influence of alcohol. The Home Office's report of June this year, entitled "Findings from the 2003 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey: alcohol-related crime and disorder", admitted that binge drinking is a major source of crime. It states:
"Binge drinkers accounted for a disproportionate volume of crime. They accounted for only 16 per cent. of the adult sample but were responsible for 55 per cent. of all offences reported by adults in the past 12 months . . . It is young male binge drinkers who have the highest rates of offending. This would therefore suggest that any measures to reduce alcohol-related offending should consider tackling binge drinking, particularly within the young male population."
More worryingly, the Government have fiddled and hidden evidence that shows the damaging effect of more late-night drinking. Papers uncovered by the BBC's "Panorama" programme show that, as originally drafted, the Government's alcohol harm reduction strategy, launched in March 2004, included evidence from other countries of the damaging effects of longer opening hours. The Downing street strategy unit, which consulted 17 experts in preparing the strategy, concluded that extending licensing hours could have a severe negative impact. It said:
"Restrictions on availability reduce consumption and general levels of harm. Relaxing availability increases general harm whether through more outlets (Finland), denser outlets (California) or longer hours (Western Australia)".
"Already, alcohol-related diseases are costing the NHS about £1.7 billion every year. Around 17 million working days are lost annually because of alcohol abuse, costing our economy £6.4 billion. 70 per cent. of all weekend night-time admissions to hospitals Accident and Emergency Departments are linked to alcohol. More than half of all violent crime is related to drink."
"The places that will take advantage of changes in the law are not the local, neighbourhood pubs where responsible drinking already occurs and the staff know their customers. It will be the large, anonymous, urban establishments, with a young clientele, that will benefit mostbut experience the most trouble, whether it is through an increase in street violence or in damage to health."
There are few powers in the legislation to hold pubs and clubs responsible for rowdy or drunk customers once they are outside their licensed premiseseven if the nuisance was ultimately caused by serving alcohol. Most local residents cannot object to controversial proposals for late-night licensing in their town centreunless, of course, they live very close by. Yet antisocial behaviour, crime and nuisance are not limited to the immediate area around the licensed premises; they can occur miles away as drunken revellers return home. Moreover, councils and police cannot use nuisance and noise from outside a licensed premises as grounds for a closure order against a particular venue. Pubs and clubs can be penalised only if they make excessive noise from inside a pub. Hence, licensed premises cannot be held responsible for the antics of their drunken customers leaving in the early hours.
The Secretary of State claimed earlier in the debate that the curfew, as she calls it, would be a thing of the past. However, as the hon. Member for Bath said, there is nothing in the Act to secure staggered closing times. Let me quote Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Cheshire police:
"In the various applications coming through, we are seeing a general extension of an hour or two on to existing hours. And that means that some of the problems we see on a Friday and Saturday night are now going to spread into other nights of the week."
The idea that we will be able to curtail antisocial behaviour by staggering the closure of these outlets is nonsense. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, publicans have looked at what their neighbours and competitors are doing and have put in for exactly the same extension of hours so that custom does not go elsewhere.
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