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4 Mar 2008 : Column 403WH—continued

Mr. Wright: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I reiterate that 4 per cent. of all homes built in 2006-07 were classed as affordable. That cannot be sustainable in terms of providing suitable accommodation
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for hard-working young families who want to get on the property ladder. The area must do a lot more to address the situation.

We need to address the big issue of affordability, but this is about not simply more homes, but greener homes, which is where the eco-town concept comes in. Eco-towns are a different approach to providing homes incorporating the highest standards of sustainability and green features from the start. The schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way in which we plan and deliver towns, as well as to change radically the way in which people travel, work and live. I suggest that they will be exemplar communities from which other towns and developments can draw.

In the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, he mentioned the eco-towns prospectus, which was published alongside the housing Green Paper and says more about what we expect of the new places. They must be designed to meet the highest standards of sustainability, including low and zero-carbon technologies and good public transport. I know that transport is an issue that concerns him, and I shall return to it in a moment. The towns must also lead the way in design, facilities and services, as well as community involvement, which the hon. Gentlemen have made clear is particularly important. Only schemes with the potential to meet those criteria and to work best in each location will be considered by the Government to have the potential to be eco-towns.

Sustainable transport is essential to the new towns. Proposals must clearly demonstrate how the towns will encourage reduced reliance on cars and a shift towards other, more sustainable, transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and developments designed around the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and we will expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme outlining how the transport aims can be achieved both within the eco-town and in its links to surrounding towns and villages.

In the prospectus, we highlighted many good examples from Europe, as well as exciting developments on a smaller scale here in the UK, that could help to shape the eco-towns. We have asked the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Prince’s Foundation and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to bring their considerable expertise to bear on the eco-towns. We are looking across Government at the proposals’ potential impacts on the environment and the road and rail network—I understand that there are particular concerns about the A27, which I will take on board—and assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and employment in the most sustainable way.

We will need to look carefully at the transport implications of all proposals during the public consultation period. The Department for Transport will ensure that sustainable transport is properly incorporated in all eco-towns and will be looking for employment, educational and community facilities within easy access of all homes, as well as public transport and walking and cycling facilities of the highest level within and beyond the sites. We expect all developers to focus their efforts on delivering sustainable transport and smarter choices.

I have mentioned more homes, which is important both nationally and, from the statistics that I have read, in the constituencies of both hon. Gentlemen. We also need greener homes. There has been an enormously
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positive response to the concept of eco-towns—we have received about 60 proposals. I suggest that that demonstrates an appetite for the programme and for the concept. However, as we have heard in this debate, there is uncertainty in some areas about eco-towns. The hon. Gentlemen have expressed their concerns on behalf of their constituents most eloquently. I reassure them that the process that we are undertaking is robust and transparent, and, crucially, that it will include full public involvement.

We are considering the proposals across Government and with agencies to assess, in particular, whether there are potential problems of flood risk or scarcity of natural resources, and to consider their possible effects on the natural environment: the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy, protected landscapes, and the species that inhabit them. In the case of eco-towns, we are looking for innovative proposals that will enhance our biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into new towns. I stress that only the best proposals will make it through the process. We will be publishing the shortlisted proposals for eco-towns for consultation shortly—indeed, almost imminently. That will allow us to conduct a full and comprehensive public consultation with communities, local authorities and stakeholders.

Although I do not have time to say more about the process, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Gentlemen to articulate the situation at length, as I know that it causes them concern. We are carrying out an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns involving the relevant Departments, such as my own and the Department for Transport, and their agencies, including transport and environment agencies. The purpose of the assessment is to find out whether there are any issues with proposed sites that are so significant and such show stoppers that the Government could not support those locations as eventual eco-towns. Issues might include accessibility to public transport, or landscape constraints in terms of special protection and flood risk. We are also taking soundings from our partners in the regional assemblies and regional development agencies and, to address the point made by the hon. Gentlemen, seeking the important views of the local authorities that will be affected by the sites.

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Alcohol-related Crime and Antisocial Behaviour

1 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Pope. Last year, my constituent, Mr. Garry Newlove, was brutally murdered in a crime that was fuelled by alcohol. Fortunately, his murderers have been sentenced, and the details of that crime are so well known that I need not go through them again today. His case provided the latest and most appalling example of the problems that alcohol-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour are causing to our communities.

Such developments are not new, and I do not argue that Warrington is worse or better than anywhere else in that respect. Indeed, attempts by some sections of the media to present the town in which I am proud to live as some kind of war zone have caused deep distress to many of my constituents, not least the vast majority of decent and hard-working young people, whose voices are often not heard on this issue. Nevertheless, we know that all communities face this problem. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions and have spoken on a number of measures that the Government have introduced to tackle it. I have also been out with police and community support officers in my area, to see what problems they face on the ground, and I have discussed with the chief constable the problems that some of his officers have to deal with. I am convinced that we need to do much more, because we all know what is out there and we all know the cost.

The Government’s 2004 alcohol harm reduction strategy estimated the cost of alcohol-related crime at £7.3 billion. The 2006-07 British crime survey showed that there were 1 million violent incidents in which alcohol was a factor, and that in nearly half of violent incidents, the victims believed that their assailants were under the influence of alcohol. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there are crimes and other effects that cannot be quantified. The effects are there for old people who feel tormented and frightened, for people who do not feel at peace in their own homes and for a number of our young people, who are frightened to go into certain areas at night because of the risk of getting involved in violence or in antisocial behaviour.

I do not suggest that the Government have not tried to tackle the issue, as they have done so repeatedly. Nevertheless, we still have a problem. That is because it cannot be tackled only by the Government; it is the result of profound social changes and only by working together will we be able to deal with them.

Our relationship to alcohol has changed. It is cheaper in real terms than ever before, and is more widely available. Also, we have become more tolerant—I would say far too tolerant—of the effects of binge drinking on our society. If we add to that the fact that supermarkets use alcohol as a loss leader to get people into the store, and that the drinks industry makes alcoholic drinks targeted directly at young people, we start to see how difficult the problem is. All that is fuelling our epidemic of binge drinking and under-age drinking.

I want to comment particularly on the effects of young people drinking. I want to make it clear that we are talking about a minority of young people. All the
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figures show that fewer young people are drinking, but our problem is that those who are, are drinking more. That minority—the 18 to 24 age group of binge drinkers—is fuelling most of our alcohol-related crime and disorder. On top of that, in my constituency and in many others we have a problem with under-age drinking. I suspect that we all know, in our own areas, the retailers who sell to children who are obviously under age, or turn a blind eye to those who are under age.

However, our problem is not just with retailers; it is also with the parents. I was horrified to hear from police in my area about incidents such as when a group of youngsters had been gathering on a field causing problems and a parent drew up in a car and unloaded cartons of lager for them. The police have also been berated by parents for bringing home young people who are clearly drunk and a risk to themselves and others. Most of us would be horrified by that, but a small minority of parents behave in that way.

To their credit, the Government have legislated to tackle the problem. We have banned minors from drinking on licensed premises, and allowed trading standards officers to use minors to make test purchases of alcohol to catch those selling to people who are under age. We have also given the police more powers to deal with premises that are in breach of licence. Recently, the Home Secretary announced that there would be further powers for police to tackle drinking in public and another crackdown on under-age drinkers, and there have been more announcements today about the review of the licensing laws.

We can see the scale of the problem from what happened last autumn, when the police cracked down on under-age drinking, and 21 forces seized 3,700 litres of alcohol, including wine, spirits, beer, alcopops—the lot. That matters because people who have been drinking are much more likely to be involved in a crime, even when all the other variables are taken out of the equation. It matters because alcohol has been a factor in a number of really hideous crimes and because it contributes to people’s feeling of insecurity, day to day. What we are dealing with can range from the minor, such as drunken yobs shouting outside houses in the early hours of the morning, which I suspect that most Members have experienced at some time or another, to really serious crimes, and yet we have not found the answer. I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else would claim that we have. If there were a magic bullet, any Government would have used it by now.

One reason that we have not found the answers is that the problem cannot be dealt with through the criminal justice system alone. It is absolutely right that we need severe penalties for people who breach the law, but we also need a change in the culture so that binge drinking and selling alcohol to children becomes just as socially unacceptable as we managed to make drink-driving. It used to be perfectly acceptable to drink a lot and then drive your mates home, but it is not socially acceptable any more because we changed people’s perceptions and we have to do that with this issue as well. That requires action right across Departments. My hon. Friend is answering for his own Department, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that action is required elsewhere as well.

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We have to start in schools. When I ask the Department for Children, Schools and Families about alcohol education in school, I am told that it is delivered as part of general anti-drugs education, through personal, social and health education. I do not doubt the good intentions, but as the mother of someone who has recently left school, and having spoken to other young people, I think that our children get far more education about the effects of illegal drugs than about alcohol, and we must bring that into the equation. I am glad that the Department is reviewing that as part of its children’s plan, but we must ensure that we have proper, targeted programmes and people who are properly trained to deliver them. Preaching at young people does not work; we have to find the right strategy.

We also need more training for teachers and for education welfare officers, to identify where alcohol might be a factor in young people truanting or behaving badly. When the Minister and I were teachers, we would hardly have expected that, but the number of 11 to 15-year-olds who drink has doubled since the early 1990s, so the problem is seen more often.

It is true that if young people get involved in crime, and alcohol is a factor, we need to intervene early, before they go on to commit more serious offences. I was pleased that the Government accepted the changes that I suggested to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to allow courts to make orders not only for drug treatment but for alcohol treatment. The difficulty is that we do not yet have enough treatment centres, particularly those that deal with young people. I know that the Department of Health is looking at that, but treatment must be available.

It is unfortunate that, as well as having to deal with the young people, we also have to deal with their parents. I spoke about some of the cases that the police in my area have come across. We all have a duty to ensure that we try to teach our children to behave and drink responsibly. I urge the Government to think seriously about a hard-hitting advertising campaign targeted at parents about the effects of alcohol-related crime, and the effects on young people, both the victims and the perpetrators. We must get the message through to the minority who do not heed it at present. I welcome what the Home Secretary said about using parenting contracts to deal with the matter, but we also have to look at penalties for those who will not get on board, and who persist in not dealing with their children, despite best efforts to advise them and to get them to change their behaviour.

We also need more enforcement of the existing law. The Licensing Act 2003 gave local authorities far more power to deal with premises in breach of their licence, but those powers are not always used. We need to get the message over that they need to be used more.

I also want a strengthening of the law in certain areas, particularly in respect of the sale of alcohol to under-age youngsters. Currently, the offence of persistently selling alcohol to minors is only made out if someone is caught doing it three times in three months. That means that the police and trading standards officers are tied up with watching particular premises, but also that if the retailer does not offend for three months but then does so again, they start from scratch. The maximum fine is only £10,000, but if the police and local authorities impose a closure order for 48 hours and the person involved accepts it, the criminal offence is discharged.
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Considering the mayhem that is caused by under-age drinking in some areas, that is not good enough. It does not automatically trigger a review of the licence, although it is true that a resident or relevant authority can ask for one. I hope, from what I have heard this morning, that the Government are planning to change that, but I urge them to go further.

I would like a “two strikes and you’re out” policy: if someone sells alcohol to someone who is under age, they get fined the first time and lose their licence the second time. If we did that, people would start to ask for identification, and we would get a proof-of-age scheme. Many people who work in small shops, often women who are intimidated, would find that much more reassuring. Owners would put in security measures to protect their staff because they would know that, if they did not, their livelihood would be gone. It is as simple as that.

We must also tackle the drinks industry. One supermarket recently suggested dealing with prices through the Competition Commission, and there is merit in that, but there is much that supermarkets and other retailers could do now. They need to stop discounting cheap lagers and similar drinks, sometimes selling them cheaper than water. They could stop stacking them near the entrance, and they could ensure that they ask for ID if there is any doubt at all about the age of the person who goes into the shop to buy them.

We must also deal with those parts of the drinks industry that persistently market to young people and target alcoholic drinks at them. The alcopops and cheap ciders that are often sold in nice packaging, in blue and green bottles, are not targeted at adult social drinkers but directly at the young. We need to review the rules on the advertising and promotion of such drinks.

We also need to look at the duty. One can buy ciders that are 8 per cent. proof, far stronger than many beers, for about £1.99 for 3 litres. That situation really cannot be sustained for much longer. Young people, whose tolerance for alcohol is lower anyway, get hold of such drinks and get drunk very quickly.

As I said to my hon. Friend at the beginning of my contribution, I know that the Government take the matter seriously, and that they are doing what they can to tackle it, but we need more action across government. We need firmer penalties for those who breach the law, and we need to ensure that we work hard to change people’s perceptions and views so that we can tackle a menace that is blighting our communities and making not only our older people but many of our young people feel unsafe. We must remember in all of this that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, are likely to be young people. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on her speech. Without over-egging the pudding, I thought that it was excellent. It was thoughtful and provocative as well as constructive. I hope that many people, not least her constituents in Warrington, get the opportunity to read it.

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My hon. Friend is right to point out that despite horrific events—she referred in particular to the murder of Garry Newlove—the vast majority of people in Warrington, including the young people, are decent and law-abiding. They look to us to do as much as we can to deal with common problems. I thought that she laid out many interesting ideas, and I hope to respond to some of her points as well as setting out the Government’s broader strategy in respect of this matter, which affects the whole of our country.

As my hon. Friend said, we need a variety of approaches to tackle the problem, from prevention to making people face up to the consequences of their behaviour. I have always thought that one of the great follies of public policy is that one is seen to be at one end or the other of a spectrum. I know from debates and, if she does not mind my saying it, from her teaching career, that my hon. Friend has always taken the view that if someone breaks the law, there must be a consequence. It must be appropriate, of course, but there must be one. We should follow that principle in public policy.

However, trying to change things through criminal justice system sanctions, important as that is, is not sufficient. We have to look at other measures, whether prevention, working with parents, as my hon. Friend suggested, or whatever. A range of policies from different parts of the spectrum is required to bring about real change.

To digress slightly, the point that my hon. Friend made about parents is one of the great issues that confronts us today. What can actually be done about the minority—not the majority—of parents who are irresponsible? This almost sounds trivial, but how can we pass a law that says that parents must take responsibility for their son or daughter and not allow them out on the street late at night, or that they must make sure that their children do not drink irresponsibly? As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is difficult to pass such a law. However, we must look at parenting contracts and measures such as that to ensure that parents who refuse to face up to their responsibility take more responsibility.

The national alcohol strategy, “Safe. Sensible. Social.”, sets out a clear programme of action to tackle alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour. Priority actions in the strategy include tougher enforcement through a series of targeted campaigns to wipe out sales to under-18s; advice and guidance to parents; robust enforcement, which is essential, of the 2003 Act to clamp down on irresponsible alcohol promotions and irresponsible retailers; and targeted enforcement and support for offenders through alcohol arrest referrals to change individuals’ drinking behaviour. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we extend the availability of that sort of sanction.

Another part of our strategy is challenging the public’s acceptance of drunken behaviour through a new multi-million-pound communications campaign. I take on board the point that my hon. Friend made: in addition to targeting problem drinkers and problem situations, we should also look at how to ensure that parents are involved in that communications campaign. I shall see what we can do about that.

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