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Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I heard what the Minister said but I am not persuaded. It is not beyond the wit of humankind to come up with a better configurationto use his ghastly word. It is not his word but the augur of the time. I want, therefore, to press the amendment and test the opinion of the House.
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Page 10, line 27, at end insert ", provided that no charges shall be payable by any persons or clubs unless the local authority is satisfied on the basis of evidence that it is reasonable to impose charges on those particular persons or clubs"
The noble Viscount said: The amendment voices the continued concern of myself and my noble friend Lady Anelay about the serious flaws in this clause to which she has already spoken. The alcohol disorder zone proposed in Clause 12 in our opinion contains a fundamental flaw. There is nothing in the scheme in its current form to prevent a local authority from imposing blanket charges on licensed premises and clubs in an alcohol disorder zone, regardless of the degree to which the premises are contributing to the disorder. In our view, that is far too arbitrary and is potentially extremely unfair to those businesses that, for example, close well before the usual times when alcohol-fuelled disorder normally takes place.
The amendment that we propose imposes a requirement on the local authority that it must be satisfied that it is reasonable to impose charges on particular clubs or persons. This provides a safeguard for individual businesses that are entirely innocent of contributing to or causing alcohol-related crime. We acknowledge that establishing a causative link between individuals misbehaving due to excessive drink and specific licensed premises might be problematic, which is why we have set the test as one of reasonableness. The test is entirely straightforward and sensible. The issue is essentially one of fairness: why should a corner shop or convenience store that closes at 6 pm pay for the late night problems caused by a few irresponsible licence holders?
We on these Benches acknowledge that some licensed premises encourage irresponsible drinkingfor example, by free drink promotions and so-called happy hours, and by serving individuals who are already drunk. It is entirely reasonable that such irresponsible establishments should be penalised. But the main concern of the trade bodies representing the licensed trade is that there should be a link between
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paying any charge and being responsible for the alcohol-fuelled trouble. The amendment seeks to redress those concerns.
In another place, the Minister seemed to suggest that attempts will be made to differentiate between certain premises when it comes to assessing how much each will be expected to pay. If that is the Government's intention, why is it going to be left to regulations and why is it not written into the Bill? I beg to move.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: I speak to Amendments Nos. 68 and 69, which attempt to deal with the same problem, but perhaps from a slightly different angle. There is a difficulty that the Government should acknowledge and deal with. As the noble Viscount said a moment ago, there is a basic unfairness if licensed premises which do not contribute to the trouble have to pay a charge simply because their premises are within the designated alcohol disorder zone. My amendments suggest that there should be an exemption from charges, in particular for premises where the supply of alcohol is not permitted between 8 pm and 8 am. I accept that that timing is arbitrary, but it is intended to deal with the corner shop, the supermarket and other premises that close early and are not open late at night causing the difficulties with which the Bill is designed to deal.
Amendment No. 69 fleshes out the matter a little more where it suggests that there should be an exemption for premises where the sale of alcohol has not contributed to alcohol-related disorder in the relevant alcohol disorder zone. That is stating it baldly. How do the Government propose to deal with the issue? Do they seriously suggest that a blanket charge should apply to every licensed premises in the zone, or do they seek to differentiate, as is only fair? I support the amendments.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The Bill provides for an exemption from the compulsory charge at Clause 12(6). A premises of which the principal use is not the sale of alcohol and where the availability of alcohol is not one of the main reasons why people enter or remain there will be exempt from the alcohol disorder zone charge, but that is the only exemption in the Bill. It would be best if, after mentioning that general reference point, I approached first Amendments Nos. 64 and 69, which, as constructed, would oblige local authorities to determine whether individual pubs and clubs had directly contributed in some way to alcohol-related crime and disorder before they were included within the scope of the alcohol disorder zone charge.
I do not know whether that is what the noble Lords are attempting to achieve, but it would mean that the local authority would have to establish through some research an audit trail that clearly linked inebriated offenders in the public space back to each individual pub, club and off-licence that they may or may not have frequented. That seems to me to be a very difficult
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thing to achieve. If I were proposing that, I am sure that the accusation would be levelled at me that this was imposing an undue burden on the local authority.
I accept that any proposition for an alcohol disorder zone has to be properly thought through. Yes, of course there will be a degree of research. But to try to track back all the individual actions of those who contributed in some volume to an area becoming blighted by alcohol-related offences would be difficult to achieve. Reflecting on my time in local government, I know that there are certainly areas of our city, Brighton, which have had street alcohol bans and so on. If that had been proposed as part of the proposition, I think people would have raised a number of questions about the extent of the exercise.
The guidance will be stringent. The boundaries of alcohol disorder zones should be sufficiently tightly drawn to take account of potential displacement. I think that it would be reasonable to assume that all premises inside an alcohol disorder zone must be contributing in some way to the problem. For those reasons, I hope that noble Lords will withdraw or not move their amendments.
Amendment No. 68 would amend the second limb of the exemption test so that premises would be exempt if the principal use of the premises were not the sale of alcohol and the premises traded between the hours of, say, 8 am and 8 pm. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, accepted that this was a somewhat arbitrary selection of hours, but nevertheless argued his case.
The amendment is perhaps intended to provide a bespoke exemption for off-licences. The Bill does not provide any of these bespoke exemptions for the off-trade, and I think that that is right. Alcohol disorder zones are there to secure collective responsibility for the problem of alcohol-related crime and disorder, and, as I think I said during one of the early debates, our expectation is that the alcohol disorder zone will be a measure to be considered as a last resort.
What we would expect to have happened long before a proposition for an alcohol disorder zone is put in place is that local traders, particularly those involved in the sale and distribution of alcohol, would have been called together, would have been encouraged to act in concert, would have been in close contact with the police and the local authority, and would have taken a number of steps preliminary to getting anywhere near to the point where an alcohol disorder zone was considered.
We seek that approach because we think it right that they act in partnership, collectively; it is to encourage collective responsibilitygiven that alcohol clearly is identified as being a contributor to disorder in many locationsthat we seek this particular approach. The alcohol disorder zones are there to secure a more collective approach to the problems of alcohol-related crime and disorder.
We believe that there is a pivotal role for the off-trade to play in tackling alcohol-related crime and disorder, and in particular in providing a secure gateway through robust proof-of-age policies to
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ensure that under-age people cannot purchase alcohol. I accept fully that there is a tension in drawing a zone around a specific area and in providing a clear audit trail for the specific problems in the public space back to particular premises, but it is key that, in the last resort, the off-trade should accept collective responsibility for the problem.
Of course, it is always open to specific off-premises to meet the terms of the exemptions in Clause 12(7). For example, convenience stores, which sell alcohol as a sideline, should be able to show that the sale of alcohol is not part of their principal business or the principal use of their premises. They may also be able to meet the requirements of the patronage test if the sale of alcohol is not the main reason or one of the main reasons why people enter their premises.
So we are after achieving a practical outcome here. We do not think that exemptions phrased in the way suggested in these amendments are workable or effective. I pose this particular dilemma to those who support these amendments: in my own city, there is a street, St. James's Street, which has in it pubs, clubs, restaurants, off-licences, and one or perhaps even two convenience stores. They all have different opening times according to the nature of their business. Who is to say that the off-licence that is open, say, until 10 o'clock is more or less a contributor to some of the problems that have occurred in the past within that street? It may well be that someone buys two or three cans of beer during the day, and the off-licence closes and finishes its business. They then move on to a pub and then later a club, and their behaviour becomes serious disorder and causes the sorts of problems that we are trying to tackle here. The off-licence may say, "I'm sorry, but we were only open until 10 o'clock in the evening. We had no particular problem with that customer". But one can reasonably argue that it has contributed to that problem because, at some earlier stage in the day, it had the responsibility of whether to sell to that particular customerwho has later gone on to cause problems having, perhaps, reached a higher order of inebriation.
So it is difficult to see how one could possibly accept exemptions phrased as these are. The important principle here is to encourage those businesses to work together, wherever they may be within such an area, to secure a collective approach and some long-term, lasting solutions. I understand the reasons for the amendments but, in terms of practicality, we do not feel comfortable with them and we cannot accept them. I hope that the assurances that I have given will mean that your Lordships feel able to withdraw or not move these amendments.
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