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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Policing and Crime Bill

Policing and Crime Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Hugh Bayley, † Sir Nicholas Winterton
Austin, Mr. Ian (Dudley, North) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing)
Dorries, Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Holmes, Paul (Chesterfield) (LD)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Andrew Kennon, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 12 February 2009


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Policing and Crime Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
PC 20 Angela Chew and David Chew
PC 21 Lynsey Pitt
PC 22 Claire Redford (and others)
PC 23 Thierry Schaffauser
PC 24 Adrian Nicholas
PC 25 Susan Jones
PC 26 Michael Smith
PC 27 Ken Baker
PC 28 George McCoy
PC 29 Jan Bassett
PC 30 Karl L. Evanson
PC 31 Elliot Moss
PC 32 Tom George
PC 33 Phil Hubbard
PC 34 Sophia Mardell
PC 35 John Dockerty
PC 36 David Livermore
PC 37 Douglas Fox
PC 38 International Union of Sex Workers
PC 40 May Smith
PC 41 Paula Byrne
PC 42 Victoria Ford
PC 43 Glasyn Gibson
PC 44 Object
PC 45 Claire Howard
PC 47 Better Archway Forum
PC 48 London Borough of Newham
PC 50 Alcohol Concern
PC 51 Rossy Stansfield
PC 52 London Borough of Lambeth
PC 53 POPPY Project
PC 54 British Beer and Pub Association
PC 55 Jenny Pearl
PC 56 London Borough of Greenwich
PC 57 Joanna (Part of Leeds Christian Community Trust)
PC 58 London Borough of Hackney
PC 59 Bride Court Residents Association
PC 60 London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
PC 61 Josephine Butler Society
9 am
The Chairman: I welcome all hon. Members who have arrived so far to this sitting of the Committee. It is at the moment a lovely day; I hope that it remains just like that. Before we begin, it might be for the benefit of hon. Members if I clarify the arrangements for tabling amendments in the forthcoming brief recess. To be selectable for the sitting on Tuesday 24 February, amendments must be tabled by 4.30 pm on Thursday 19 February. Thereafter, normal deadlines will apply.
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I have been asked by the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Ken Jones, to bring to the attention of all Committee members a letter that he has sent, which deals with some of the points raised in respect of ACPO. No doubt Committee members will have seen that and will read it, but he asked me to point that out.
The Chairman: The Minister said what he needed to say before I had had time to consider whether it was a point of order or not. In fact, it was not; it was a point of information, but I am sure that the Chair and members of the Committee are grateful to him. In case I forget to say this at the end of the sitting, I shall say now that I hope that all hon. Members have a restful and enjoyable recess with their families.

Clause 27

Selling alcohol to children
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I reciprocate by offering you the best wishes of the Committee for a restful and recuperative recess next week.
Clause 27 amends section 147A of the Licensing Act 2003 relating to the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children. That section states:
“A person is guilty of an offence if...on 3 or more different occasions within a period of 3 consecutive months alcohol is unlawfully sold on the same premises to an individual aged under 18”.
That is punishable by a fine of up to £10,000 or, as an alternative remedy, an immediate closure notice can be sought under section 169A of the 2003 Act for a period of up to 48 hours.
Section 147A was inserted into the 2003 Act by the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and has been in force for only about 18 months. Indeed, the provision is so new that data on prosecutions will not be available until this autumn, so we have no real feel for how widely used the power is before the change proposed in this Bill to reduce the qualification for persistence from three to two occasions.
The position is clouded further, as the Association of Convenience Stores notes in its submission to the Committee. It states:
“There is no evidence that the current offence is not effective and”—
this is interesting—
“the Home Office Toolkit cautions against using this power, suggesting enforcement authorities should instead pursue a review of the licence.”
I should be grateful if the Minister clarified whether the toolkit states what the ACS says, because clearly that is a relevant factor in our consideration of the clause, which changes a previous provision. If it does say that, I should be grateful to know why it does and whether, in the light of the change in the Bill, the Minister is considering a change in the language in the toolkit, given that it seems to suggest that enforcement authorities take a different route, a different option, from the power envisaged under section 147A.
As I said, the provision has been in force for a relatively short time. We have no specific data on it; we seem to have no prosecution data at the moment, as it is too new. However, from the frequent discussions that he has with the police and other law enforcement agencies, can the Minister say what the experience of using this power has been on the ground to explain why this change is proposed? The change implies that the provision is not working in some way, that something has changed or that the Government believe that a different emphasis is required.
Will the Minister give some background on the thinking behind this decision? Given that we are talking about only 18 months, is the change to section 147A an admission that the Government were wrong in the first place and that they should have gone for two rather than three occasions when the power was introduced? This rapid change of heart is re-emphasised on considering that the change in approach reflected in the clause was first telegraphed in June last year in the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan”, just a year after the power was brought into effect. Will he explain why “persistent” was taken to mean three occasions when the offence was introduced and what evidence there is to necessitate the change? If not, will he confirm that a mistake was made in the Government’s thinking when the power was introduced?
I want it to be made clear that this provision will operate equally for all licensees. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that it is intended that the provision be applied to small shops and huge hypermarkets equally. All premises should be treated the same in triggering the two occasions required for persistence. The Bill makes that clear but I want to clarify whether the Home Office envisages giving further guidance or clarification on enforcement. That is an important point. The provision will put greater pressure on larger retailers in ensuring that their systems and procedures are in place, simply because of the volume and nature of their sales. The number of transactions that go through their tills will mean a large number of potential under-age sales may be attempted at their premises. It would be helpful to clarify whether the Home Office, ACPO or any other agency proposes to issue guidance on enforcement when the provision is introduced. If so, what does the Minister expect the guidance to say?
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I agree in principle with the intention of the clause. Off-trade retailers will always argue that young people, especially young girls, often look older than they are, that it is difficult to establish age and that it is unfair to penalise them for selling by mistake. That argument wears thin these days.
Many pubs and other on-premises and some off-premises voluntarily run the effective 21-and-under scheme. That involves clear labelling saying that people who look under 21 will be asked to prove that they are 18. Recently, when buying some drinks at a pub in Chesterfield, I was asked whether my son, who is 20 and in his second year at university, was old enough. How can anyone object to that? Alcohol is a dangerous drug.
That point relates to another topic that has been discussed in the Palace of Westminster this week; alcohol kills far more people than ecstasy. It causes far more violence on the streets of this country and far more crime. When out on patrol with police, they say that alcohol is undoubtedly the No. 1 drug misuse issue that they face. We are discussing off-premises, but whether in the on-trade or off-trade, people are selling a dangerous drug, although it is legal and can be sold under various licences. I therefore welcome the principle of the clause.
I am sure that every MP in the room today could give an example from their constituency of premises where the police will say that it is not just that some under-age people occasionally get to buy alcohol there, but that the person running the premises is making a lot of money out of deliberately selling it to under-age kids. We can all name a hotspot like that, and if local residents complain to the police they say, “Yes we know, it’s under observation and we are trying to collect the evidence.” However, the business of getting three consecutive proofs of selling to under-age children can be an obstacle. I know that that is why the police favour this move. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the thinking behind it?
I very much agree with the principle behind the clause, but how effective will it be? I asked in a parliamentary question about the effectiveness of using earlier legislation in this respect. I asked how many establishments had been prosecuted for selling alcohol to under-age people. The figures showed an interesting trend. In 2003 there were 616 prosecutions. They rose to 1,084 in 2005 and by 2007 had dropped back to 693. It would be interesting to get the Minister’s comments on the reason for that particular trend and what that tells us about the new legislation and clause 27. Can he say what lessons we are learning from previous practice, why there was a big increase in prosecutions and then a big drop. Is the reason behind clause 27 that we are trying to get around those problems?
Finally, Alcohol Concern has noted that there is no register of licensees, so if an individual who loses their licence, or is convicted in this way goes to another part of the country, to another local authority area, they will not automatically be picked up. Is there a clear central register or a provision for establishing one, so that it can be known all around the country when someone has previous convictions?
Clause 27 amends the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children from three strikes, to two strikes within three months. The purpose is to reduce the number of times that alcohol is illegally sold to children by increasing the likelihood of being prosecuted if caught selling. A number of questions have been posed with regard to this. First, the hon. Member for Hornchurch is right that the prosecution figures for 2008 are not yet available. However, the pattern to which the hon. Member for Chesterfield referred showed a reduced number of prosecutions between 2006-07, but an increased number of penalty notices being issued, reflecting the flexibility that police officers would have in a circumstance where they might want to use penalty notices where someone was selling to under-age children. That could also reflect the purpose of the clause, which is to say that test purchasing operations can have an effect in areas and retailers can put right the wrongs that they have been doing. That might be reflected, but nevertheless, there is still a persistent problem in some areas, and addressing that is the purpose of the clause.
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Prepared 13 February 2009