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Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I make my customary declaration of interest as a non-executive director of Whitbread. I support the amendment. The difficult question of unaccompanied children has always been on the agenda since consideration of the Bill began. The public would regard the Bill as creating a strange situation if it were not amended. Obviously, we are confronting differences of view. On the one hand, I welcome a liberalising Bill that could improve the convenience and amenity offered by the hospitality trade through licensed premises. But, like many Members, I am concerned about unaccompanied children.
We must ask ourselves whether we are satisfied that it would be good if a publican admitted to his pub a 13 year-old girl, for example, who could then sit by the bar sipping Coca-Cola for four or five hours. The Bill would make it perfectly legal. Would that be a good situation? I do not think so. That is why it would be advantageous to have clarity as proposed by the amendment. The amendment is clear about the age at which children can enter licensed premises unaccompanied and where they must be accompanied. It would be good for social policy and for publicans and owners of premises, who would know where they stood.
We all know that it is an offence to sell alcohol to an individual aged under 18. But that is not the question here. The question is: what would happen if unaccompanied children were given total access to a bar, whatever they were drinking? I am not in favour of such an element of freedom. It is a dangerous freedom to grant some children.
I support the amendment, but, if it is accepted, it might be useful to clarify the exact meaning of "public house". There is now a large variety of public houses, including pub-restaurants, some of which have a children's facility attached, which is now a common feature that is highly desirable. That is a secondary point. For the moment, I support the amendment as presented.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I support the amendment. I have not spoken during previous debates on the Bill but I have followed the arguments carefully. I am particularly concerned about the growth in drunkenness and drug-taking among youths. The test that I apply is whether I believe that the Government's proposals will help or hinder policy development in those areas. Regrettably, I have not so far been convinced that they will help; rather the reverse. It is important that I register my opposition. If we cannot find a way through the issue, some of us may vote in the Lobby in which we would not normally be expected to vote. I believe that I speak for some of my colleagues on these Benches on that.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I support the amendment. I spend a great deal of time with young people listening to them, and I am particularly concerned that the Government appear to be giving out extraordinarily mixed messages.
We all know how it works: alcohol may not be sold to a younger child, but it will be bought by an older young person and handed on. We all know what the statistics show about the increase in alcohol consumption among our young people. If the Government are serious about tackling the issue, they are sending out a mixed message by saying that young people can go unaccompanied into premises on which alcohol is sold within this definition.
The argument has been used that children might be safer in such premises than outside. I know places where they might well be safer inside than outside. However, that is no argument. That is an argument for providing better youth facilities that are appropriate for young people and where they will be safe to develop their skills. In the village where I live, we have marauding young people with nothing else to do buying drink from older peers and terrorising some of the older folk. I do not feel that I can blame those young people; we do not provide any facility for them.
Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I support the amendment for three reasons. The first is that it provides a measure of protection to children, a matter that has been of considerable concern to the House over the years. Secondly, the amendment would provide a degree of guidance to children about appropriate behaviour, especially to 13 year-olds under significant peer pressure. Thirdly, it provides support for the good regulation of pubs by publicans, and it would be welcomed by the trade.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, as we explained during debates on earlier groups, we recognise the importance of the issue to the House and to the wider public. We have been fastidious in our consultation with groups such as children's charities, Alcohol Concern, the police and the Association of Directors of Social Services to make sure that their concerns are taken into account.
The policy enshrined in the Bill is exactly that contained in the White Paper, which received widespread support. We made the protection of children from harm an objective of the Bill, and, from the start, that has guided our approach to the issues. For that reason, I shall make it clear before I go any further that we will take the amendments away and come back either at Third Reading or, more realistically, in another place with a further strengthening of the Bill in that respect. I hope that your Lordships will accept my good faith in that matter.
In considering the matters raised in the debate, it is important that your Lordships properly understand the position under the alcohol licensing laws. There is a lot of misunderstanding and even ignorance. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, are, I am almost sure, aware of the situation, but, in the interests of completeness in responding to the debate, I shall explain it. Under existing law, at the discretion of the individual licensee, it is open to any child aged 14 or over to enter a public house or nightclub unsupervised and to remain there so long as they do not consume alcohol. Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, children's certificates were introduced by the previous Conservative government to permit the supervised presence of children of any age in bar areas until nine o'clock to help create more family-friendly pubs.
At the discretion of the licensee, unsupervised children of any age may also enter and remain in licensed premises, so long as they do not enter the bar area. They can be present in dining areas, family rooms, pub gardens and other places away from the bar area. The Bill simplifies the position by giving children the freedom to enter licensed premises but only at the discretion of the licensee, as several noble Lords pointed out. The licensee does not have to say why he does not want children in his pub or nightclub; he must say how he will protect children from harm, if he intends to admit them. That is an important point. We are also providing for that freedom for the licensee to be restricted in respect of children under 18 where necessary for their protection from harm. That provides greater control and protection than at present, for several reasons, although I am aware that the public may not fully understand that.
Under the Bill, where necessary for the protection of children from harm, conditions may be attached to the premises licence excluding or restricting the presence of children, whatever the licensee's preference. That cannot be done under existing law by the licensing justices. The Bill also provides for responsible authorities and interested parties to be consulted before a decision is taken as to what conditions should be imposed in respect of children. That does not happen now. Finally, at any sign of trouble or concern, the Bill provides for any interested party or responsible authority to seek a review of the licence, following which entry by children could be restricted. No such provisions exist currently. I am a little surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, continues to say that the Bill allows unrestricted access at any time of day or night. The Bill provides for the restriction of access, if that is necessary for the protection of children from harm.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that what we did at the moment was fair enough in 99 per cent of cases. That is why we chose the option of having a flexible Bill supported by flexible guidance, so that we do not regulate everyone unduly for the sake of 1 per cent of cases but retain powerful controls to deal with that 1 per cent. Furthermore, we intend using the guidance to emphasise that there are particular premises from which children should be excluded. They include those with a poor reputation for under-age drinking; places where drugs use may be an issue; places where heavy gambling goes on; or places where adult entertainment is provided.
We also made it clear in responding to another group of amendments that we were happy to consider adding the local social services to the list of responsible authorities that may make representations about the presence of children. I must underline the fact that we are also strengthening the laws on the consumption of alcohol by children on licensed premises. There is a significant package of measures focused on protecting children. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, mentioned the issue of the offence of drinking by
We have an enormous amount of sympathy with the underlying objectives of this group of amendments. As I said, we will consider them carefully. We intend to discuss them with the children's charities, the police and the child protection organisations. We have arranged a meeting tomorrow with seven of the bodies concerned with such matters, and I will ensure that the concern expressed in your Lordships' House is made known to everybody at that meeting. I apologise for the fact that we have not been able to hold the meeting a little earlier and thus been able to come forward with new proposals, but it has been difficult, given the problems of busy diaries, to arrange a meeting involving seven different organisations.
We recognise that in the amendments noble Lords have attempted to restrict the proposal to pubs, nightclubs and other similar venues where the primary purpose is the consumption of alcohol. However, in its current formulation, the amendment is not quite right. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, pointed out that the third category of venues is vague and could lead to problems of definition. Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, said, problems of definition will arise over the terms "public house" and "nightclub", neither of which is currently used in licensing law. The words would cover a wide variety of premises. We want to think carefully about definitions.
We also need to think hard whether requiring children under the age of 14 to be accompanied by adults before they may enter such premises serves as an open invitation to those who might harm children by offering their services as an accompanying adult; they could be 18 years old. Again, we need to consider this and speak to all the relevant bodies with experience in the area.