Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McNally: My Lords, I, too, look forward to the Minister's reply to what I thought was a forensic dismantling of the order by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. It is a funny old world; it is about 100 years since that great Liberal, Sir Winston Churchill, accused the Conservative Party of drawing a brewer's dray across the road of progress. Of course at that time the Conservative Benches in this House were known collectively as the "Beerage". Today, it is the Labour Party that is the brewer's friend.

I say at the outset that if the noble Viscount chooses to divide the House, we will certainly support him. Indeed, we regret that the Motion is not as robust at that put down in the Commons. We do so not in any way as killjoys; indeed like Falstaff and Justice Shallow I too have heard the chimes at midnight. We have been generally supportive since the mid-1980s of Parliament abandoning making moral judgments about how people spend their leisure time and their disposable income. But we also believe that there must be a limiting factor, because when one exercises one's leisure preference, it has to be not at another's leisure nuisance. The Licensing Act was sold to us on the rosy prospectus of bringing the continental café society to Britain—I remember the debates when the Minister talked about that.

Just today I received the notice for the meeting on Wednesday of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Local Environmental Quality, which will be meeting to discuss the night-time economy. Here is the point for discussion:

The agenda goes on to list changes in the licensing law; the cultural change of binge drinking; the lack of transport late at night and the lack of toilet facilities. One local chief executive said to me that it is extremely strange that on the one hand we provide the facilities for people to fill themselves full of beer and then we close down the toilets where they could relieve
14 Nov 2005 : Column 905
themselves instead of in people's doorways. As the all-party group agenda points out, this clearly needs further thought and study. As the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, rightly said, right at the heart of the absurdity the promise about local power is being countermanded by the fact that objectors are being made subject to cost, threats are being made, and there is the absurd limitation on councillor power. I gave a stern warning about the dangers of this Bill on Second Reading. I said:

I stand by that today. My noble friend Lord Avebury further warned that:

I am glad that he is here to say "I told you so". He could put a 10 or perhaps even a 100 in front of that "thousands" today. He stated that the assumption that allowing people to drink all night will reduce the level of alcohol abuse and of crime and disorder was "manifestly untenable". We warned before, and we are warning again. One of the biggest problems, as the noble Viscount pointed out, is that British teenagers are among the biggest drinkers in Europe. The latest government figures show that 44 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds binge drink at least once a month.

Even more alarming are the social and economic costs of that binge drinking. When the Lords considered the Licensing Act in 2003, many Peers gave graphic accounts of the escalating violence and social disorder on the streets of towns and cities across the UK due to binge drinking. Two years later, the situation has got even worse. In the last year, there has been a 15 per cent national rise in violent offences committed in connection with licensed premises. There are serious health consequences too. Around one in 13 of the UK adult population is dependent on alcohol, and in England and Wales there was an increase by 18.4 per cent in alcohol-related deaths in 2004.

One need only look at the international situation to see that the Government are taking us in the wrong direction. Longer licensing hours in Western Australia, Iceland, Ireland and Canada have increased both consumption and the violence and drunkenness that it leads to. There is also good evidence to show that reducing availability and drinking hours can help to tackle binge drinking, which has happened in Norway, Finland and Sweden. Another of the Government's main justifications for the new licensing law was to vary closing hours and curb drunken violence on the streets at weekends. However, in a British Beer and Pub Association poll, 90 per cent of its 30,000 members had only applied for an extra one or two hours' opening time, with the majority applying to close at midnight. Figures like those suggest that midnight will become the new chucking-out time. Closing times will be deferred as opposed to staggered, and we will have a situation where, as Chris Allison, lead officer on licensing at the Association of Chief Police Officers has warned:
14 Nov 2005 : Column 906

It is not just from these Benches and the Conservative Benches that doubts are now coming forth. Judges, health experts, the licensing industry and many local authorities are giving similar warnings. The Government's licensing reforms have been called "an absolute cock-up" and the major pub companies are accused of being concerned more with profits than with social responsibility. The Royal College of Physicians said that there was already an "epidemic" of binge drinking and that the Licensing Act,

What do the general public think? A BBC poll earlier this year said that 67 per cent of people thought that the Licensing Act would increase trouble, with 62 per cent saying it would make Britain a worse place to live. It is obvious that there is serious concern about these proposals.

As the noble Viscount has pointed out, the police already have considerable powers, which they do not often use. The "new" police powers do little but replicate those existing and rarely-used powers. That is why on these Benches we join the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, in saying to the Government that there is a need for a pause before we take this step. Some flexibility needs to be brought in if we are not to reach the disaster that people are predicting. Indeed, one would say that almost before the Act is implemented there is a need for review and revision. It is not a crime for Government or Parliament to say, "We may have got this wrong—let's think again". Surely there is a case for that, and we urge the Government so to do.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, referred to this Act as a farce and a mess. It is not only a farce and a mess, and a shambles, administratively, but a pernicious and imprudent measure that will result in greater crime and disorder, heavier burdens on the health service, and more young lives ruined by illness and disablement.

It runs directly counter to the Government's professed objective of reducing crime and disorder. The Interim Analytical Report said that alcohol-related harm was then running—in 2001—at £20 billion a year, of which crime and public disorder accounted for £7.3 billion. My noble friend has given other examples of the enormous costs being incurred in connection with alcohol harm. That report also showed that as consumption of alcohol per head increased, so did the directly measured harm, such as accidental deaths, suicides, and alcohol-related diseases.

As my noble friend observed, the same effects have been seen in Australia, Iceland, Ireland—and, I would say, Scotland as well. The Government have failed to produce any respectable academic evidence for the claim that the limited relaxation of drinking hours in Scotland in 1976 led to a reduction in crime and disorder there. As everybody knows, Scotland was at that time in the middle of a major recession and that was the reason for the unusual results that were obtained there momentarily. Scotland is now back on
14 Nov 2005 : Column 907
the same level of crime and disorder as we are in England and Wales. All long-term studies show that—other things being equal—the amount of harm caused by alcohol is directly related to overall consumption, and that increases in consumption will lead to more harm.

Let me relate that to the small area of central London covered by the Soho Society, which tells me that in connection with the Act the licensing committee received 698 applications, 450 for renewals of the previous licence, and 248 for variations or extended capacity, which again reinforces the point made by my noble friend that we are not talking about a very small of increase in hours but a widespread variation being requested by the operators. There were 192 objections on the grounds of cumulative impact, of which 110 were not considered in time and therefore deemed to be refused. Of the 82 applications that were considered, 78 were refused, and 70 have appealed to the magistrates.

Does the Minister agree that since all those applications come under paragraph 2 of Schedule 8 to the Act, the licensing authority ought only to consider the renewal of the existing licence and should look separately at the extension of hours which is being requested, once the bare renewal has come into effect? None of us appreciated that that was the effect of the schedule, but certainly this is the way that we read it now. But magistrates have begun to hear appeals already, where the authority has decided that both the renewal and the variation can be considered simultaneously.

If I am wrong, and those appeals are successful, other licensees will ask for extensions and, in the worst case, throughout the area of Soho, there would be on average another three hours of drinking at all the 685 outlets. If, say, 300 people in each of these establishments drinks a couple of pints an hour, they will consume an additional 1.25 million pints during the extra time, causing a significant amount of extra harm. The same arithmetic could be done for every area in our towns and cities where the concentration of late-night drinking has already led to the kind of mayhem that we have seen on programmes such as the BBC's "Drunk and Dangerous".

In one of the cases that was heard in Westminster—that of Candy Bar at 4 Carlisle Street W1—the district judge ruled that, although it appeared that the respondents in an appeal to the magistrates were exhaustively listed in paragraph 9 of Schedule 5, and did not include "interested parties" who had objected to the application, notwithstanding their right to lodge an appeal, they should have the option to be a respondent on equal terms with the local authority. Do the Government agree with that decision of the judge? The judge also directed that the application be considered de novo on appeal, undermining the principle that local authorities should be the primary determinants of licensing policy.

The same judge in the appeal of Sophisticats, a strip club on Welbeck Street, who requested to be allowed to sell alcohol up to 5am instead of 3am, made no
14 Nov 2005 : Column 908
reference to the council's licensing policy. This is likely to be the case everywhere. The magistrates will hear all the evidence again, taking two days, with solicitors and barristers on either side, and obviously licensees would be stupid not to appeal when they are already getting clear signals that the magistrates are not there to reinforce the licensing policy of local authorities, but to develop their own independent policies. Could the Lord Chancellor not apply the Civil Procedure Rules to the magistrates' courts under Section 82 of the Courts Act 2003, to prevent a total log-jam in the magistrates' courts?

The decision in the Candy Bar case may yet be appealed, and residents find themselves back in the situation of having no rights of appearance at appeals which they themselves have lodged. Is there anything the Minister can do to prevent that situation arising? Because if that situation is allowed to happen, then the magistrates hearing all these appeals will not have reference to anything that was said by the residents—they will not even listen to the residents—but will make up their minds, as the judge in this particular case said, de novo.

There is a great deal to be said on the guidance, particularly in the way it appears to suggest that local authorities have no power to set terminal hours—as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, pointed out. They can decide that the cumulative impact of licensed premises on a given area has an adverse impact on law and order and therefore that they will not grant any new licenses. Since an application for longer hours is now treated as a new application, that allows local authorities to refuse them after the existing licence has been renewed. It seems, however, that many local authorities have not fully understood the complex advice on cumulative impact and have failed to appreciate that it trumps the strong recommendation in paragraph 329 that longer hours are important to ensure that concentrations of people leaving the premises at the same time are avoided.

Finally, I return to a subject which has been argued for two years without reaching a satisfactory outcome. I suggested that three indices be used to measure the incidence of crime and disorder before and after the second appointed day. Those were: crimes of violence against the person; ambulance call-outs on or in the vicinity of licensed premises; and A&E department statistics from hospitals to which the victims of drink-related attacks and accidents are likely to be taken. The Government have finally conceded that the first crime indices will be collected, but only in five named local authority areas, and in July they were still exploring how A&E data and ambulance statistics could be satisfactorily collected.

The London Ambulance Service maintains detailed records of time and place of call-outs and I imagine that other local ambulance authorities do the same. I do not understand why the Government arbitrarily limited the assessment of the effects of the Act on crime and disorder to the particular areas chosen, leaving out the whole of the north-west, Wales, East Anglia and the south-west. If the authorities in those areas are already collecting information of the kind that is
14 Nov 2005 : Column 909
needed, surely it would help to give a more complete picture if they were incorporated in the assessment. As for A&E attendances, the bare statistics of the number of patients attending between 11 pm and 7 am would be better than nothing, on the basis that a high proportion of the casualties during those hours are very likely to be alcohol related.

When this Act first saw the light of day, people did not realise how the country had already gone so far towards a licensing free-for-all and how extensive was the damage being caused to a whole generation. Now we are able to see the effects—which have already been described by the noble Viscount and my noble friend—in our prisons, hospitals, psychiatric institutions and morgues. There is no excuse for a Government who are deliberately turning on the taps.

In her book The March of Folly, the American historian Barbara Tuchman examines leaders such as mediaeval popes, George III and President Johnson, who adopted policies that were plainly contrary to the interests of their people. When alcohol is demonstrably causing enormous harm to our society, a government who promote its use deserve to be included in that list. It is a pity that we cannot postpone the appointed day, not for six months, but for ever.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page