Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, there is no doubt that alcohol has a major impact on health, when there are 25,000 admissions a year to accident and emergency departments, and on crime, when 50,000 violent offences are the result of people drinking too much. Alcohol-related crime costs the UK an estimated £7.3 billion a year in policing and in costs to criminal justice and public services.

The drinks industry has made some voluntary strides through the Portman Group. Strides have been taken in the on-trade through voluntary action and reducing happy hours, and in the off-trade and supermarkets through the British Retail Consortium's Retail Alcohol Standards Group and through the BRC and Wine and Spirit Trade Association guidance on the responsible retailing of alcohol.

I accept that voluntary action by the best players is not always enough. There are, therefore, aspects of this Bill that are worthy of consideration. There is the concept of a levy to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of policing Friday and Saturday nights in particular in our city centres, which is worthy of exploration. However, I have significant doubts about that and wonder whether the same ends could not be achieved
29 Mar 2006 : Column 820
by voluntary means. There are many areas where there is a significant lack of clarity in Part 1 of the Bill, and that is causing great concern in the retail drinks industry. Guidance on the Bill has not yet been published, and I understand the Minister to say that, although the affirmative resolution procedure would be used for the regulations, that would not be the case for the guidance.

It is not yet clear who will be affected by the alcohol disorder zones. Will nightclubs be exempt? Will all licensees in an ADZ be held responsible in the same way? What will the money actually be spent on? What impact will the ADZs have on residents? Why should all licensed businesses be swept into the net of an ADZ? Why do we need a Home Office Bill of this kind when, under the effectively brand-new Licensing Act 2003, licensing conditions can already be imposed on irresponsible businesses? Even businesses such as convenience stores, which sell only a tiny amount of alcohol, will be swept into these ADZs. Why, when there is little evidence that they contribute to crime in an area, should businesses such as retail off-licences be liable for the charge within an ADZ on exactly the same basis as major drinking premises? Even the Home Office, in its Drinking Responsibly document, has admitted that the link is "tenuous".

Will the levy pay for additional services only and, if so, what is envisaged? Otherwise, will this not turn out to be rather a nice little earner for local authorities? Will local authorities actually ever lift the ADZ designation once it is imposed, particularly if there is money attached to it? Why should businesses ever join a voluntary scheme if there is compulsion through an ADZ? Why is the test under which a local authority can set up an ADZ so low? As I understand it, the test is "nuisance", rather than strong evidence of alcohol-related disorder, which I believe was the test previously proposed. Moreover, there appears to be no appeal against the imposition of an ADZ. In those circumstances, I end up with some considerable scepticism about ADZs, and I look for clarification from the Minister.

In other respects, however, the Bill has been criticised for not being fundamental enough. Alcohol Concern has rightly criticised the Bill for not challenging what it describes as the underlying drinking culture that fuels so much anti-social behaviour. From what the Minister said in her introduction, she may be filling a gap in that respect through some of the schemes that she mentioned will be included.

The Bill fails to provide genuine support for those who want to change the way they drink. Alcohol Concern, which I commend, is calling for arrest referral schemes for problem drinkers who come through the criminal justice system. That is the kind of programme where, when people are bailed for an alcohol-related crime, they are required to attend counselling sessions designed to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. What exactly do the Government suggest in that respect? Will they include the ability to refer for that kind of treatment under the Bill?
29 Mar 2006 : Column 821

Finally, Alcohol Concern also makes the extremely valid point that there are provisions in existing laws that are not yet being properly enforced. Its view is that enforcement of existing legislation on drunk and disorderly behaviour, for instance, has dropped sharply over the past 10 years. It questions the value of new powers in the Bill if those powers contained in previous legislation are not enforced. There is a common theme here. Do we really need these new powers if the existing ones are not being used properly? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and a convincing argument to reinforce the reasons why Part 1 of the Bill is necessary.

6.45 pm

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I appreciated very much the Minister's introduction to the Bill and explanation of it. I wish to make a general point about it and illustrate that with a particular clause.

I recognise that at future stages of the Bill there will be opportunity to address individual provisions. However, in one sense the Bill uses rather old remedies to deal with the problem. In some circles to which I belong it is a requirement, before introducing any proposal, that you have it costed; that usually means in financial terms. I would like to see a self-denying ordinance on government to require the answering of the question: how many additional persons will be incarcerated as a result of the passage of the Bill and the creation of its offences? That is a really important question because all the evidence is that the more people we incarcerate, the fewer are successfully rehabilitated, so the less likely we are to have the overall crime reduction which the Government seek.

I am seriously concerned that in just one day in this House we have created a number of new offences. If we have created a number of new offences, we have created a number of new offenders. If we have created a number of new offenders, we have created more work for our already overcrowded prisons, with the consequent effect on the Government's very serious and committed attempts to achieve crime reduction, one of the major factors in which is the reduction of reoffending.

The Minister has heard me say this several times before, and if she yawns I shall not be surprised, but it seems to me that on this Bill too we have to ask: was there no other way to deal with some of these matters? I have not done the calculation and I do not know how much further likelihood there is of creating offences as a result of the Bill's provisions on alcohol-related disorder. I realise that the orders which are proposed as civil orders do not automatically lead to imprisonment, but I still think that the question of sanctions arises, and at the other end of sanctions imprisonment can arise. I would like some reassurance on that.

Gun crime is one of the Bill's major concerns. In the week following the major gun incident in Birmingham, which was not that long ago, I believe that the number
29 Mar 2006 : Column 822
of people in prison increased by 180. That was simply the result of public concern reflected, quite properly, in the response of the judiciary to what had happened.

Clause 41 concerns the power to search further education students for weapons. That power is conferred on a member of staff—and "a member of staff" is very widely drawn—who has "reasonable grounds" for suspecting that someone is carrying a weapon. What are reasonable grounds? Are they the sight of a weapon-shaped bulge in somebody's coat pocket? That would be one kind of reasonable ground. Or might it be the continued emotional volatility of the person concerned, which has led to them uttering abusive threats? Some of our students in further education institutions react to pressure by becoming violent. Will the clause which confers the power to use reasonable force lead to explosions of anger by vulnerable people and criminalise them as a result? I do not know the answers to those questions. But I feel a real concern on reading this Bill in the context of the Government's general response to crime, which is the repeated creation of further offences, and therefore of further offenders.

I frequently use the prison population as an illustration of the nature of original sin. We all want the numbers brought down, but we constantly pass laws that have the predictable effect of increasing them. It is true that there is a reduction in crime, but at what cost and by what means can it most effectively be pursued? I have responded to the production of this Bill more by a series of questions than by opposition to its principle. I want to be sure that a prison population audit is carried out before new offences are created, so that our society does not suffer the blight of a constantly rising proportion of the population incarcerated with the effects that that has on the destruction of communities, families and their own ability to function effectively in society. That this Bill has good intentions is not in doubt; but I doubt whether I can really be comfortable with the pattern of behaviour that it represents, which is a pattern of response to disorder by creating new offences and more imprisonment.

6.52 pm

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page