Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 498)

TUESDAY 3 JUNE 2008

MR STEPHEN OTTER

  Q480  Chairman: You have not researched that one?

  Mr Otter: No.

  Q481  Chairman: Referring to the licensing laws, do you believe they have become more liberal and more people are consuming alcohol and therefore there is greater disorder?

  Mr Otter: There are two things working together here. One is a change in the culture of drinking which I do not believe is a result of a change in the licensing laws. But I do not believe that the licensing laws have responded to the change in culture.

  Q482  Chairman: What is the change in culture?

  Mr Otter: There is a more liberal approach to drink. In the drugs market there is peer group pressure among young people that you do not enjoy yourself unless you have a joint. That type of thing is now happening with drink. An evening of enjoyment is therefore related to drink. That grows very quickly into a cultural change, that is, if you go out to enjoy yourself you have a drink. There are other elements in terms of the supply side. We talked about price, presentation and the types of stand-up venues clearly designed for high volume drinking, not sitting around to chat. There is some evidence of that. As to legislation, our view is that it does not allow partnerships to control the nature of our town centres. We heard from the supermarkets that we cannot rely on self-regulation because the competitive power is so great. People are well-meaning but at the end of the day they are competitive and so things start to happen that perhaps they might not set out to do. Regulation is important. That takes us back to the reason why we license this in the first place. There is a view that one ought to be able to stop a strip of high-volume drinking establishments in a town centre. There ought to be a way to regulate the way people drink within premises. We cannot do that at the moment. I do not think this is about the new Act; it is a general issue. Perhaps the Licensing Acts have not really had to deal with something like this, certainly not since 1800.

  Q483  Mr Winnick: The argument in favour of the new licensing laws is that instead of everyone drinking up by 11 and causing a possible disturbance the situation has changed. Is it not the case that the situation has changed for the worse and people become very intoxicated after 11 as long as the pubs are open with all the sorts of antisocial activity we see in which the police are much involved?

  Mr Otter: I agree with that. That is the experience in our towns in particular where there are large numbers of premises open beyond 11 o'clock. It is not the case that one has a diversity of closing times. Competition means that each town takes on its own nature in terms of closing, so it finds a level. For example, in Bideford it will be one time and in Tavistock it will be another. From a competitive point of view they all settle around a certain time, perhaps two o'clock for one and three o'clock for another. One still gets large numbers coming out at the same time. It is not a product of legislation but the way this market works. That has implications for our resources. Once upon a time we corralled resources around a particular time.

  Q484  Chairman: We shall come to policing costs a little later.

  Mr Otter: There is an issue related to that. In relation to communities people used to be able to put up with a certain amount of noise between 11 and 12. In part it is the noise which really affects communities particularly where drinking establishments are in residential areas.

  Q485  Mr Winnick: It can go on all night?

  Mr Otter: Yes.

  Q486  Gwyn Prosser: You started to mention some limitations of the new Act in terms of revoking licences. When the Bill was promoted one of the points the government kept making was that it would give responsible authorities, the police, powers to remove licences from irresponsible licensees. To what extent have you used those powers? If there are deficiencies what are they?

  Mr Otter: I think that one of the real powers of the legislation is that the review process works very well. We have carried out 40 reviews.

  Q487  Gwyn Prosser: These are reviews of licences?

  Mr Otter: Under the Act we have to undertake a review process before we can set new conditions, get rid of the licensee and so on. That works very well. I think that two designated premises supervisors, as they are called, have now been moved on and new ones put in. They are not the same as licensees; it has changed slightly. With the local authority we can say that they should install CCTV before they reopen or we close down the premises, but to some extent that is after the horse has bolted. I would like us to get ahead of it and have premises we can be certain suit the local environment. One of my concerns is that if you look at the responsible authorities that can have a say in relation to a new licence the health authority is not one of them. I also believe that planning does not play a strong enough role. I have done a little thinking on this and talked to colleagues about how often a planning department thinks whether this is what it wants in its town. It is more about getting ahead of the opening of new premises; otherwise, we are always chasing our tails with the reviews we carry out.

  Q488  Gwyn Prosser: You have told us about some of the deficiencies and the ways you would like to see it improved. What are you doing in your particular patch to tackle the increase in criminality?

  Mr Otter: As you know, every year we have three events, one in Newquay, one in Rock and one in Polzeath, which are attended by lots of young people. We read in a newspaper exactly the same thing: parents drop off very young people knowing they will be drinking large amounts and will be vulnerable to other crime, particular sexual activity. We have done a lot of work with local licensees. We have reduced the amount of violent crime in those areas significantly. For example, in Newquay we have used legislation over the past three summers to seize 8,000 items of liquor. One starts to wonder: is this the role that one wants local police officers to be doing? People are not committing an offence, but there is power to seize liquor. It is an important power which I welcome, but we have to think: how do we stop it happening in the first place? I know that it is not about policing but is to do with education and investing in this. There is a significant difference between the amount invested in drugs and alcohol education in our schools. I should like to see a lot more done to educate young people about the real harm. For them it has to be shocking and real.

  Q489  David Davies: There is a problem with underage drinking at seaside towns and it has been widely reported. Do you believe there should be greater emphasis on prosecuting young people who either commit offences or are found to be drinking or buying alcohol under age, which is an offence? How do you respond to the criticism that all too often the police will seize the liquor and not do anything further?

  Mr Otter: A child does not commit an offence if it is drinking or is in possession of liquor. I know that there have been recent discussions about the creation of a criminal offence in that respect and the availability of powers related to parents. I have some concerns about criminalising young people. It is probably a phase they go through and they will come out of it with a criminal record. I do not believe that is the answer. The seizure legislation works but I also believe it is important to work with parents so they understand the danger to their children.

  Q490  David Davies: For example, in North Wales those found to be drinking under age are taken home by the police and parents are given advice. What about fairly firm policing when children whose alcohol is removed start to back-chat?

  Mr Otter: We do all of that. For example, we have a major problem in Torquay. We work with the local authority. Our officers on the street carry video cameras. We take video footage of 13 and 14 year-olds drinking and often being very abusive. We then take them home and show it to their parents. We have learnt that often if you do not take the video footage home parents do not take any notice. There is a sense that our authority is less welcome back in the home, whereas if we show it there is irrefutable evidence and that works quite well. There is a whole programme where undercover young people are sent in to buy drinks. We work with local authorities to do test-purchasing. In Plymouth we find there is quite a high rate of underage sales. Obviously, we target those premises that we think are doing it and we prosecute. All of these things are right and we shall do our very best to use the legislation. I believe that the legislation is good for policing but that the volume and demands are increasing at such a rate that there must be a more fundamental change. I come back to the premise that we are dealing here with a drink that is meant to be licensed. It does not feel like that to us; it appears to be just as readily available as a glass of Coca-Cola.

  Q491  Mrs Dean: Based on the alcohol that has been confiscated have you been able to make any analysis as to what is the worst problem? Is it alcohol that has originated from supermarkets, or perhaps has been purchased by parents, or is it alcohol from convenience stores that may or may not be purchased by young people?

  Mr Otter: A lot of stores work with us. We mark products with information about the postcode of the seller and so on that can be seen under ultraviolet light. That has enabled us to identify stores that sell these drinks and go back to find out precisely what has happened. We have CCTV. In the majority of cases it comes from convenience stores in the sense they are off-licences in a street on an estate somewhere; in other cases they are supermarkets. A lot of the evidence we have gathered at the moment indicates a major trend away from young people buying it, because they know they will not get it any more, to adults who buy it for them. For example, if you go to Torquay and speak to convenience stores you find that they have a really difficult job. Believe it or not, people walking down the street—you and me—seem to be willing to walk into these stores and buy drink on behalf of young people, give it to them and then walk on.

  Q492  Mrs Cryer: There are some parts of the world where alcoholic drinks can be bought only from liquor stores, hotels and restaurants. To retail drink one must provide drink through a licensed liquor store. I did not ask the previous retailers about it. There did not seem to be much point in it; it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. What do you think about it? Would it help to have a specific liquor store in an area which is firmly regulated as opposed to being able to buy drinks in supermarkets? Can you also comment on whether or not it might be useful to have on each bottle or tin a government health warning similar to that which we see on cigarette packets?

  Mr Otter: The premises where these drinks are sold are licensed. I would not go as far as to say we need to follow Sweden where there are only state-controlled outlets, if that is what you mean. I believe the licensing should be able to control it better. As to warnings on bottles, I think that would help. We would like to see clearly designated areas in supermarkets with better trained till operators. Till operators find it hard to deal with conflicts and challenge people who try to buy liquor.

  Q493  Ms Buck: You referred to parents purchasing alcohol for children. Do you have an idea, or has anyone else engaged in trying to find out, why this happens and what is going through the minds of adults? Are there some adults who are perfectly aware of the potential consequences and do not care, or is there a larger group of adults who simply do not think through the risks? Are they buying for 16 year-olds or 13 year-olds? We need to understand more about what that group is doing and why.

  Mr Otter: The range is quite diverse. The evidence about the purchase of alcohol from convenience stores is that these are randomly picked individuals who walk past young people. They will keep asking until they get the right response and someone goes in to buy it. We also know from the Polzeath, Rock and Newquay examples that young people below 18 are sent on holiday with liquor given to them by their parents, or at the very least parents turn a blind eye to the fact that their liquor store has been raided. They will take bottles of vodka with them. That is allowed to happen. I do not know the reason. My own view is that drink is generally accepted as part of our world; it is not like drugs where parents may find cocaine and say, "What's this?" There is a view that this is a phase through which young people pass, that it is a bit of fun and they will grow out of it and move on.

  Q494  Tom Brake: What is your view about the financial contribution that the alcohol industry is making towards the policing costs associated with the consumption of its product?

  Mr Otter: ACPO takes the strong view that essentially in this case the polluter pays. We do not accept the view of industry that it pays taxes just like any other business. If you are a baker and bake bread it does not result in harm to the community. We would like to see an element of payment for policing and a contribution in the area of health. That would perhaps help to manage the competitive edge to the supply of liquor which concerns us. We have concerns about some of the proposals, for example the alcohol disorder zones, but only in relation to the bureaucracy associated with them. How would you decide which premises paid what, etc, etc? In principle it is worth investing time to think about how to do it.

  Q495  Tom Brake: If the alcohol disorder zones initiative went forward would you expect supermarkets to be part of it and to make a financial contribution?

  Mr Otter: I would. Its strength would be that everyone within the area would contribute; otherwise, it would just be bureaucratically so complicated. Because of the financial incentive it would encourage people to look at common solutions.

  Q496  Tom Brake: Do you have a view about the additional cost of a pint of beer or glass of wine that you think the industry should bear?

  Mr Otter: Not at all.

  Q497  Tom Brake: To take a particular town in your area, for how many additional community support officers and police officers do you think they should bear the cost so we can get an idea of the expenditure attached to better policing that they are in part creating?

  Mr Otter: To a certain extent I liken it to the policing of football. Once upon a time policing costs were not borne by football clubs; now they are. I regard it as being very similar to that. The police, local authority and the football club all look at the nature of the game, the history, intelligence and everything else and then make a charge accordingly; in other words, that it requires a certain level of policing. It must be judged on the basis of need rather than as a penalty.

  Q498  Chairman: Do you think that would be a solution?

  Mr Otter: It could be a solution. One has to be careful not to create a bureaucratic nightmare that is unworkable.

  Chairman: Chief Constable, thank you very much for coming to address our session.





 
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