§ Order for Third Reading read.11.34 am
§ Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The vast majority of our youngsters are good, caring, thoughtful, courageous, courteous and basically law-abiding people. The Bill will help to keep them that way. It will help to make our streets safer; perhaps it should have been called the safer streets Bill. Young people and all the community, especially the elderly, deserve safer streets. The Bill will make our communities and our environment in every village, town and city more pleasant places for everyone.
The Bill tackles the problem of young people drinking alcohol in public by giving the police the power to confiscate the alcohol—simply to take it off the youngsters and pour it down the nearest drain. For the police, that would be the end of the matter. There would be no criminalisation of the youngsters for having the alcohol in the first place. It would not, however, be the end of the matter for the youngsters, because the police would, I hope, take the opportunity given by the power in the Bill to inform the youngsters' parents.
The Bill helps to stop mischief before it starts. It stops young people from coming under the influence of alcohol because, under that influence, young people do things that they would not dream of doing if they were sober. They make misjudgments. They become involved in petty crime and vandalism. They mess up telephone boxes and bus shelters. They damage fences and push over garden walls. They distribute their litter liberally. Often the litter is empty discarded cans of extra-strength lager and extra-strength cider and the strange alcopop bottles.
Young people sometimes go on to act intimidatingly towards others, particularly other young people, who might be returning from a church meeting, a dance, a sports centre, a youth club or an Air Training Corps meeting. They have to pass youngsters who have been drinking, who sometimes are acting yobbishly. Those youngsters often disturb the peace for elderly people and intimidate them.
Under the influence of alcohol, youngsters become involved in serious crime as well. They can often end up violently attacking each other and other innocent members of the public. Those violent attacks can sometimes end in tragedy, as one such attack did in my constituency last year.
Youngsters can steal cars, take those cars and go so-called joyriding. I would not call it joyriding because, when youngsters take cars under the influence of alcohol and go racing around the streets—we even saw some of them live on television, tearing around council estates in cars that they had stolen—sometimes that also ends in tragedy. It can sometimes end in the death of the young person who stole the car and is driving, the death of passengers in the car and even the death of innocent members of the public, who need protection from such action.
Young people under the influence of alcohol fall victim to criminals. They are preyed on by criminals and by those who want to sell them drugs, the evil drug dealers.
553 The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) told me that first use of drugs mostly takes place under the influence of drink—I think the figure was 93 per cent. We have a duty to protect our youngsters from drugs and from negative street culture and the Bill will help to do that. I have a simple equation: youngsters plus alcohol on the streets equals disaster for the youngsters and for the community at large. When they abuse alcohol, young people can get a criminal record and spoil their lives at great cost not only to themselves and their families but to society generally.
Someone asked me. "Will the police have time to implement the Bill's powers?" Of course they will; that is their job, and they will have more time to take preventive measures because of the Bill. When a crime has been committed and the police have to investigate the demolition of a wall or vandalism to a car or, worse, drug trafficking, violent attacks, stealing cars and joyriding, much time is involved. They have to interview witnesses and bring people to the police station and record interviews. Before the matter is brought before the courts, they have to fill out forms and prepare documents and that takes time. If the Bill prevents crime, it will relieve the police of much negative activity and release them to take the preventative measures that the Bill offers.
§ Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)
I fully support the Bill. However, the worst problems occur on Friday and Saturday nights in town centres. Regardless of whether youngsters are drinking on the streets or have been drinking earlier in pubs, does my hon. Friend share my concern that too often the police want to avoid confrontation and are not prepared to be present in town centres? I hope that the Bill gives a firm message to the police that they must have a presence in town centres late at night to deal with these real and serious issues.
§ Dr. Spink
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We all visit our police stations and accompany officers on Friday nights. We know the modus operandi. Officers come in on overtime and dress up in their protective uniforms and sit in battle buses, waiting to be called to hot spots and at any time from 10.30 at night until 1 o'clock in the morning they go tearing out with blue lights flashing to deal with violence, intimidation and vandalism on the streets. I want to stop such crime happening by making sure that policemen are on the beat taking alcohol away from youngsters, so that hot spots do not develop.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
My hon. Friend is being a little unfair on the police. My experience of the Northumbrian police is that they do not sit drinking tea in police stations on overtime until they are called out. They are on duty and patrolling the streets. The centre of Newcastle which, to say the least, is lively on Friday and Saturday nights, is well policed in the evening.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to special constables? In Lichfield, 554 where there are certainly problems on Friday and Saturday nights, special constables and full-time police officers are on the streets. I hope that I shall be able to speak about that. Those officers are not sitting in battle wagons; they are out deterring crime. I welcome the Bill's powers.
§ Dr. Spink
My hon. Friend is right. The Bill's provisions are particularly appropriate for special constables because they will enable them to implement low-level preventative measures and that will release police constables to tackle drug traffickers, fraudsters and other serious crime.
The Bill has all-party support, which I welcome. The measure is long overdue, and I thank all those who spoke in favour of it during its various stages. No one has seriously spoken against it. I particularly thank the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) for his encouragement to present the Bill in the first instance, and for his invaluable support and advice during its progress. He truly cares about his constituents and about the community that he represents so well. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who was the prime driving force and inspiration for the Bill. I even thank the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the shadow Home Secretary. [Laughter.] Some of my hon. Friends laugh but I mean that, and shall explain why.
I was contacted by a surprised Mr. George Spink, one of the good burghers of Keighley, a town in West Yorkshire. He suggested that I might be plagiarising the shadow Home Secretary. As evidence of that scurrilous accusation, he quoted to me a Daily Mirror editorial of 15 February which stated that the shadow Home Secretary wanteda crackdown on petty crime to sweep it off the streets.In particular he will target children, who are responsible for most of these offences. And many of whom will go on to more serious crimes.Cutting the crime rate will not be easy. But starting like this is the best way to bring law and order to our streets.George said that he thought those were my words, and I think that I have used similar words.
§ Mr. Fabricant
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would be in the interest of the House to know whether Mr. George Spink is related to my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
As usual, that is not a point of order for the Chair and means nothing at all.
§ Dr. Spink
We all agree with the sentiments in that editorial because they are common sense. Even the Daily Mirror will, I trust, give my Bill a warm welcome.
The most important step in the Home Secretary's crime-cutting odyssey is tackling under-age drinking, and the Bill does that. We had a constructive Second Reading debate and effective debates in Committee, thanks notably to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and the hon. Members for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies), for Barnsley, East (Mr. Ennis) and for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). I thank hon. Members who are present for this debate, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), 555 and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who presented the Bill on First Reading on my behalf, for which I also thank him.
The most important amendment in Committee was to extend the Bill's provisions to Northern Ireland. I have always wanted that. The amendment was largely a result of the efforts of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who acted in the best interests not only of his constituents but of all the people of Northern Ireland. In a press statement he said:under-age drinking is a significant problem throughout North Down—with all the anti-social behaviour that ensues, ranging from petty crime to the intimidation of the elderly.I have had very many complaints from constituents about drunken youths hanging round their neighbourhood, and making their lives a misery … The police themselves frequently claim they are powerless to intervene and curb such behaviour … Representing a seaside resort like Bangor also drove it home just how valuable this new law would be,".
§ Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)
I am sorry to puncture the balloon of euphoria that seems to surround the Bill, which was promoted by Mr. George Spink among others. I understand the problem that the Bill is designed to tackle, but why does it apply only to young persons? Will not people of 18, 19, 20 and possibly older also be involved?
§ Dr. Spink
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is one of the strongest points that has been made during the Bill's passage. It would be draconian to ban all alcohol in all circumstances from public places. Anybody over 18 can in any event go into a pub to drink alcohol, and people tend to do that because it is more convivial for them. If they are under 18 they cannot, so they are forced on to the streets. The model byelaw to ban all alcohol from certain areas is a draconian measure and would be inappropriate for certain areas—for example, seaside resorts or picnic areas. How would we handle someone who was simply taking a bottle of wine to his or her home? It would cause grave difficulties. The key problem is that of under-age persons with alcohol in public, which is a recipe for disaster, and my Bill tackles that.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I accept my hon. Friend's argument that there might be places where it should be legal to drink alcohol, such as pavement cafés, which we have in Lichfield. Unfortunately, however, we also have in Lichfield people over the age of 18, who are drinking quite legally in pubs, pouring out on to the streets when the pubs shut at 11 o'clock on a Friday and Saturday night and continuing to drink. Why will that not be illegal under the Bill?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)
Unlike the model byelaw, which does not allow confiscation, my hon. Friend has a remedy in his Bill to deal with the matter immediately, and that is very important.
§ Dr. Spink
And it does so without criminalising the young people. There are enough ways for them to get into bother without us inventing another way today. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that.
The hon. and learned Member for North Down has been a doughty and assiduous campaigner to defend his constituents from the effects of under-age drinking. I pay tribute to him. I know that he is concerned to strengthen the family, and there are few opportunities for us in the House to reinforce parental responsibility. The Bill is an opportunity to do that.
The Bill gives the police the power to take the names and addresses of youngsters involved in under-age drinking and then to inform the parents. It would be irresponsible to keep that information from parents, who have not just a duty but a very real responsibility to bring up their children properly. Parents must be told what their children are getting up to, so that they can take whatever action is necessary. I hope that the police will use the power to take names and addresses on every possible occasion, because it works.
The "Do you know where your children are?" campaign in Weymouth, Dorset, which successfully piloted last year some of the measures in the Bill, showed that a large proportion of parents who were informed that their children were misbehaving with drink in public took the necessary action. About 90 per cent. of the children who had been caught and reported did not come to the notice of the police a second time. Parents will act responsibly given the information, and no one should withhold that information from them. In giving the police the power to take names and address, the Bill is truly innovative in British law. I do not think that that power existed previously in British law.
Parents are sometimes not helped by the drinks industry. I think in particular of alcopops and the extra-strong lagers and ciders, which are often packaged, named and marketed specifically at young people. Some rogue companies are still acting irresponsibly and promoting those products. The Portman Group is working to resolve that problem. I say to the industry as a whole: "Get your act together, because if you don't, we will introduce measures that have all-party support in the House to bring further regulations on your industry."
There is much business on the Order Paper today, so I shall resume my seat. If there are any items of specific detail that need to be answered, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has been so helpful and supportive, will deal with them, or perhaps I can deal with them if I am fortunate enough to be allowed to speak again.
§ Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)
As I said in an earlier intervention, I welcome the Bill because it gives the police a power that does not currently exist, so I am happy to support it. However, I share some of the reservations mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), in that the Bill is limited in scope. That is not a criticism in any shape or form, because there is clearly a problem of youngsters intimidating people in public places late at night and sometimes, particularly on Saturday afternoons, in shopping centres. Sometimes that will involve alcohol, sometimes not.
557 Although we must address some difficult issues, such as confrontations and violence in town centres late at night, it is often people's perception and fear that is the problem rather than the actuality. It is a sad fact of modern life that many people over the age of—I have to be careful what age I say, so I shall use a low figure—25 will not go near town centres at night, because they are not pleasant places to be. If the Bill goes some way to dealing with that, I am sure that the public will be pleased.
Most young people who drink are well behaved. Most young people do not go into town centres at night to cause trouble. Most go out to enjoy themselves. Why should they not do so? We live in a society where people have more wealth at a younger age and have the money to go out and enjoy themselves. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is only a minority who go out—whether they are 17 or 18—to get drunk and cause trouble. I hope that we will bear that in mind.
Young people, who can drive at the age of 17, are far better than older people—I have to be careful of the age again, so I shall say over 40—at not drinking and driving. Regrettably, it is often older men who have not changed their drinking habits and still drive. When young people of 17 and 18 are drinking in pubs, there is always one who will not drink because he or she is driving. We should commend them for that.
I have certain reservations about the Bill, although they do not detract from my support for it. Late at night in town centres there is a fair amount of trouble—windows get broken, fights occur as well as stabbings. I suspect, however, that most of that occurs as a result not of alcohol which has been consumed on the streets, but of that which has been drunk in pubs. Although the legal drinking age is 18, many under-age youngsters will be served in pubs. No matter how much the House may regret that, that is the reality in pubs in town centres throughout the country. Many of the problems on the streets are therefore caused by alcohol that has been drunk in pubs. I readily concede, however, that it is intimidating to see youngsters not only drunk in public places, but drinking there.
As I said in my intervention, it is one thing for the House to pass legislation magisterially, it is another to ensure that the forces of law and order enforce the existing law. Much of the activity that occurs in town centres late at night could be dealt with under existing law. I have immense respect for the police, but it is a sad fact that there is a temptation not to provide a police presence in town centres at night. We should have police wandering around late at night rather than the figurative flying squad of men and women in carrier vans or in cars, who are sent in when it is too late. That often exacerbates the trouble. To make the Bill a success, the police should act like the neighbourhood bobby in town centres at night. However, unless we have a sufficient police presence, they may sometimes be the target for abuse and assault.
It is important that the police in our major town centres address the problem. That means that police forces should deploy their men and women to ensure that more of them are on duty late at night on a Friday or Saturday. They should not worry quite so much about providing police to wander around suburban streets in the middle of the day, when fewer problems are likely to occur.
558 I want the Bill to succeed, but that means that we must ensure that the police use its powers. That is my plea. I hope that steps can be taken to reclaim some of our town centres so that people can visit them without fear and intimidation. I am happy to support the Bill.
§ 12.1 pm
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon), who made some extremely, sensible comments about young people.
I served on the Committee which considered the Bill, so I have been closely associated with all its stages. It is a bit of a pity that there has been a temptation to use it as an opportunity to condemn young people's behaviour, as well as to condemn brewers and the manufacturers of alcopops. The Bill is nothing more than a law and order measure. It will be used to control disturbances caused in particular by young men who cause problems in town centres.
I hope that we are not in the middle of a Band of Hope meeting. The Bill should not be used to attack young people or drink. Drinking has an important part to play in our culture. My hon. Friend the Minister made a lengthy contribution to the previous debate, which was also on alcohol, so I suspect that he deserves a drink now. Drink taken sensibly enriches our lives; it certainly enriches mine from time to time.
We must get away from the idea that the Bill is to do with the control of the sale of alcopops or drunkenness. Public drunkenness is a problem, but it is not a new one. I do not believe that our town centres are any worse than they were 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Young men have always got drunk from time to time, and sometimes that leads to disturbances.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East that town centres today are better than they were 50 years ago. They are certainly better than they were when I was a young man. I also agree with him that young people are extremely responsible, particularly about drinking and driving.
In Newcastle, thousands of young people gather at Bigg Market on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Newcastle is an important student centre, so many young people live there and go out on those nights to enjoy themselves. There are problems from time to time, but most students enjoy themselves without causing any trouble. I welcome the fact that they enjoy themselves.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I had the privilege to stand for the constituency of South Shields in 1987, so I am familiar with Newcastle. If the Bill had been law a few years ago, would my hon. Friend care to speculate whether Gazza would be causing fewer problems on the streets of Newcastle late at night?
§ Mr. Atkinson
I am a great defender of Mr. Gascoigne. He is a substantial character in the north-east; he has been involved in one or two lively incidents, but the north-east is a lively place. Mr. Gascoigne, certainly in his footballing capacity, has made a great contribution to the football culture of Newcastle, which is the UK capital of soccer.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I shall not go into the merits of Chelsea, but I know where my support lies.
559 In our discussions on the Bill a number of concerns were raised particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), who is unable to be here today. There was some misunderstanding of the nature of the Bill. It gives the police powers that they need and for which they have asked; we leave it to their discretion as to how to implement it. In Committee, we made too much of a meal of the Bill's small print.
We can trust our police, who police our cities very sensitively and effectively. The police will not abuse the extra power, they will simply use it to deal with those at whom the Bill is predominantly directed—troublesome 13, 14 and 15-year-olds who are given drink. They are the young hooligans who cause so many problems in our town centres. The problems are caused not so much by older people, but by the young people who get hold of drink. One can see them in bus shelters with tins of lager—not necessarily strong lager, but ordinary lager; they are not allowed into pubs so they congregate on the streets and in town centres and cause problems, particularly for elderly people.
The Bill is not about the detail of whether the police should have the right to confiscate the drink or whether they should be certain that the bottle contains alcohol—one of the questions raised in Committee. In Committee we discussed whether the police could identify an orange substance as an alcopop or simply orange juice or lemonade. It is up to the police to decide whether they have a reasonable suspicion that what is in the bottle is alcoholic and whether they have the right to confiscate it. I believe that, if police officers take the drink from young people, they should pour it down the drain and send them home.
The Bill is not about making criminals of young people, but about preventing them from getting into trouble and becoming criminals—that is where its strength lies. When my hon. Friend the Minister outlined the Bill's provisions, he accepted that. We do not want the powers in the Bill to be used by the police to arrest 14, 15 and 16-year-olds; we want the police to take drink off such young people so that they do not move from one place to another with it. If necessary, the police should take their names and addresses. The police can then call at the parents' home—as happened with the Weymouth experiment—and say, "Do you know where your child was on Friday or Saturday? Did you know that he was drinking in the street?" That is the way to tackle drunkenness among young people. They should not be arrested and hauled before the juvenile courts. It is not sensible to make young people criminals unnecessarily.
§ Mr. Tim Smith
My hon. Friend has talked about not making young people criminals, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink). But clause 1(3) states that a personwho fails without reasonable excuse to comply with a requirement imposed on him under subsection (1)is guilty of a criminal offence.
§ Mr. Atkinson
My hon. Friend is right—the Bill contains that final measure. If a person refuses to comply, he can be arrested and charged with a criminal offence. The question whether the policeman acted reasonably or 560 unreasonably would have to be decided by a magistrate. But the spirit of the Bill is not aimed at bringing young people to court unless they are particularly obstructive or deliberately dishonest when questioned by the police. The Bill's purpose is to prevent young people from being made criminals and to allow the police to move them on and remove the alcohol before problems arise.
I shall deal with another small point that we discussed in Committee. It involves the message being sent out to the corner shop and small off-licence owners who often sell drink to under-age people. In Committee, we mentioned the case of a corner shop in Barnsley that was notorious for supplying young people with alcohol. The message emerging from the House today should go to those shopowners who continue deliberately to sell alcohol to young people. We all know the problems affecting corner shops in this country and how difficult it is for them to survive, but nothing irritates the average corner shop owner more than one owner seeking to capture the illegal market in selling drink to under-age people. That upsets all honest corner shop owners and the police. The authorities should use all their powers and employ random purchasing methods to ensure that corner shop owners do not encourage young people to drink.
Having in a sense lived with the Bill through Second Reading, Committee and now Third Reading, I welcome it. At heart, it is a good Bill, and the extra powers it gives the police will be used well and responsibly. I am sure that it will be much appreciated.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
I warmly welcome the fact that the Bill has reached this important stage. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on having so ably and skilfully steered it through to Third Reading. I am astounded that such legislation has not been introduced before now. It strikes me as astonishing that at present, although young people are prevented from entering a pub and drinking, they are able to have alcohol in a public place. The Bill will crack down on a serious problem and block off an important loophole in the law.
The urgency is best illustrated in a report that appeared recently in, I believe, The Daily Telegraph:Police found children as young as nine drinking on street corners during a campaign to crack down on under-age drinking in Cleveland.Over a couple of Friday nights, the police rounded up 200 youngsters whowere made to pour gallons of alcopops, cider, lager and sherry down the drain".Some were arrested and taken home by the police, who explained to their parents exactly what had happened. That was a large-scale operation, which was set up because of the enormous number of complaints from residents who had been victims of vandalism, intimidation and lager-loutish behaviour, and who felt completely powerless to do anything about it.
Everyone I have met, whether in the House or in my constituency, has complained about young people congregating in and around parks, bus shelters, high streets, railway stations or back streets. When in such groups, those youngsters drink alcohol, and they probably indulge in solvent abuse or even drug abuse. It is a serious 561 problem, and it is important that we should prevent those young people from doing great harm to themselves as well as terrorising local communities.
It is evident that the large number of young people who commit crimes—the peak age is between 14 and 17—tend to have been drinking at the time of their offence. I have no doubt that, if we can remove the curse of alcohol from them, that will be a large step forward in bringing down levels of juvenile crime.
What I find interesting is that girls are just as likely as boys to take part in these drinking activities, which is a new phenomenon that I had not previously taken on board. The fact that children as young as nine have been found carrying alcohol is cause for concern and—there is no doubt about it—we must take action fast.
As has been said, it is important that, in tackling young people's alcohol consumption, we do not merely turn them into a criminal statistic. It is important that we take preventative action—a protective course of action—and try to remove those children from the risk of danger before they cause themselves permanent harm.
Discovering the reasons why young people go down the route of taking alcohol is an integral part of the initiative that includes trying to confiscate it. Young people take alcohol for several reasons, one of which is to show off to friends. It is bravado—showing that they are one of the chaps. In my opinion, the imagery that is conveyed by society as a whole makes us all responsible. The media and commercials glamorise drinking, and it is very important for young people to be properly educated as to how to handle drink and as to the circumstances in which it is acceptable to have alcohol and those in which it is not.
Parents deserve our sympathy because when they try to instil discipline in their homes regarding the right way to drink alcohol they find their efforts undermined by the glamorisation of binge-drinking, especially when it is carried out by leading figures such as pop musicians, football stars and cricketers. Those cult figures are role models, and if they are seen to be losing control of themselves, young people are given the message that it is acceptable.
I have sympathy for parents who ban drink from the home or say to a child, "You may have some wine, but we shall water it down," which I used to find enormously humiliating when I was a small girl. My father used to rather ostentatiously pour the water into a wine glass, but he had a reason for doing so because he was trying to communicate the message that, although it is acceptable to drink, it must be done in moderation. There is a well known phrase, "A little bit of what you fancy doesn't do you any harm." However, we are discussing what happens when it goes beyond the streets of acceptability.
Sometimes young people get bizarre ideas about the role of alcohol. I have never forgotten the story of the general practitioner who had to receive a patient in his home. The patient arrived at about 10 am when the doctor was upstairs, and his five-year-old daughter received the patient, took the patient into the consulting room and asked, "Would you like a gin?" She felt that alcohol was an acceptable part of life.
As children grow up and find that alcohol is easy to get hold of, another problem arises. In high streets, young people go into an off-licence or supermarket and fool the sales girls or the shopkeeper into selling them 562 alcohol—which, of course, is breaking the law—or send in a teenager who is over the age of 18, who can lawfully buy that alcohol and then hand it over to a younger person. That happens all too often.
The Bill has one weakness in that it deals with only the possession of alcohol in a public place. I wish that we were able to legislate more widely and insist that byelaws be enacted throughout the country to ban the consumption of alcohol in designated public places. That happens in about 33 local authorities and it should be given virtually 100 per cent. coverage as it would be a big step forward.
To return to dealing with young people, we must pass on the clear message that drinking alcohol in a public place, or at all under the age of 18, is not acceptable. Alcohol Concern supports the Bill and I welcome that fact. It is particularly concerned that more effort should go into deterring licensees from selling alcohol to those under 18. Alcohol Concern feels that more effort should be put into test purchasing, to find out which licensees are lax and sloppy about assessing whether someone to whom they are selling alcohol is over 18. Perhaps we also ought to ensure that there are more powerful penalties for licensees who break the law. Their licences ought to be suspended far more frequently and a heavy fine would certainly serve as a penalty that would deter others.
The Portman Group—an organisation set up by the leading United Kingdom drinks companies to promote sensible drinking—has, by and large, done some useful work, but I was disconcerted at its response to the Home Office consultation paper on under-aged drinking in public. The group's view surprised me as it was hostile to the Bill and claimed that it feared we were legislating in haste only to repent at leisure. The group felt that we had not paid sufficient attention to other means of educating young people not to drink in public. It is staggering that the group should take such a soft, liberal view on such an important issue. I totally discount the sort of problems that it raised.
The group felt that it was unreasonable to demand that police officers should intercept young people carrying alcohol, feeling that that would result in aggression and hostility between young people and the police. I discount that view. The police have always found when they are trying to invoke law and order that the people with whom they have to deal are not terribly pleased about being tackled, whatever the issue—whether a suspected burglar, someone committing a serious driving offence or whether in cases of vandalism, violence or under-aged drinking, which could lead to vandalism and violence. I was surprised that the Portman Group, which is so respected, should suddenly go totally soft on such an important issue.
§ Dr. Spink
The Portman Group has since had detailed negotiations and discussions with my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench and myself and is now broadly supportive of the Bill. It would state that the Bill is just one of a number of measures that should be taken to tackle the problem, and I think that we can all agree with that.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing me up to date. I was surprised that such a well-known and established organisation should take such a view, and I am glad that, as a result of consultation, it is now on board and with us on this important measure.
I hope that the Portman Group will now turn its attention to another enormously important matter, which relates directly to the Bill. A new form of alcohol is 563 coming onto the market, of which young people are likely to take advantage: young people can now make an alcopop drink in their own homes. A company has put on to the market a product called "Splooch"—a bizarre name for a rather serious problem—which can turn a soft drink into alcohol with the equivalent strength of strong beer. It is bought in kit form and costs only £4.99. What is worrying is that the kit is promoted with a cartoon logo showing two eyes looking the worse for drink. When the makers of that home-mode hooch were challenged about it, Mr. Richard Danby of Continental Wine Experts in Norwich said:It is intended for the alcopop market. It is meant to be the home-brew equivalent but we are certainly not targeting under-age drinkers. It takes ten days to brew and that is a considerable disincentive.All that I can say is that he has totally underestimated the ingenuity and determination of young people to acquire alcohol by one means or another. If they can afford to brew it from their pocket money and take it out on to the streets, it is an extremely serious matter.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson
I understand my hon. Friend's concern but we must not get too excited about these matters. I remember from my youth a number of drinks that could be mixed up quite nicely—one was called a "Moscow mule", in which one could never taste the alcohol but which certainly had a dramatic effect. Those mixtures and the ability to mix drinks have always been around. Our aim should be not to run around trying to ban bits of the drink industry, which would simply make it more attractive still to young people, but to educate young people about the dangers of alcohol abuse. That is the answer.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I agree with my hon. Friend that we must educate young people about alcohol abuse. None the less, when alcohol is so accessible, whether through brewing it in the home or purchasing it in shops and off licences, we must take it seriously. I am worried that this is yet another means for young people to obtain alcohol easily and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether the Government will consider banning drinks brewed at home and targeted at young people.
I particularly welcome the fact that the Bill confiscates alcohol not only in public places like high streets and city centres but on public transport. I raised that matter on Second Reading and want to emphasise the importance of rigorously invoking that power on buses, late-night buses and trains. It is no joke for fellow passengers and, travelling on the trains as I do, I find it extremely unpleasant to be terrorised by young thugs who are carrying drink and totally out of control. Their intimidatory behaviour is unpleasant and the filth and chaos that they create in railway carriages is deeply unpleasant. I hope that train guards and ticket collectors will be encouraged to call the police when they feel that they need help.
Finally, the Bill is important from the point of view of parental responsibility. The fact that the parents could receive a letter if a young person has been found carrying alcohol will mean that young Johnny will have to answer for what he has been doing.
564 The Bill will be a further deterrent, because more notice will be taken of what young people are doing. I find it amazing that youngsters, sometimes under the age of 12, are roaming round the streets late at night. I suspect that that is part of the wider problem of the breakdown of the traditional family. Young people tend to feel that they are not the No. 1 interest to either parent, because the parents have a multiplicity of partners.
Those children roaming the streets become prey to the growing problem of alcohol abuse. That is extremely serious. Some parents have opted out of their responsibilities, but that problem can now be dealt with. The letters, and even a visit from the police, will force them to recognise where they have let their children down.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point on initiating the Bill. It is significant, and I hope that it continues to have a smooth passage through Parliament.
§ Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)
I agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) deserves the thanks of the House for introducing this small but useful measure.
I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) said about the danger of people being criminalised through the Bill, but only irresponsible young people, who refused to co-operate with the police, would find themselves in trouble with the law. Law-abiding young people who handed over their bottle of alcohol without demur would not suffer in any way as a result of the measure, save for being deprived of the small amount of alcohol in their possession.
In common with many hon. Members, I have received complaints from people who live near a playing field, a youth club or a public alleyway. They complain that young people congregate in public and make a nuisance of themselves, drinking, shouting, dropping litter, abusing drugs and committing criminal damage. If the adults concerned remonstrate with the young people who are acting in such an anti-social way, they often receive a mouthful of bad language for their trouble. Often, the police are then called.
Under the existing law, remedies are available to the police. They can prosecute the young people for an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, but to succeed they would need to show that someone had suffered harassment, alarm or distress. That may be a difficult test to satisfy in a trivial case.
We do not want our courts to be cluttered with minor examples of Public Order Act offences that take up a great deal of time for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, witnesses and the courts; nor do we want the young people concerned to acquire a criminal record for a trivial act that may arise simply from thoughtlessness, which may be alcohol-related.
If the police take no action, however, the complainant is upset and may accuse them of failing in their duty, and may complain to the local Member of Parliament that the police are powerless or unwilling to interfere.
Under the existing law, the young people could be prosecuted for dropping litter. Litter in our streets and public places is certainly a nuisance that needs to be dealt with. There is a difficulty for the police, however. If the young people causing the litter are still present when the 565 officer arrives, they have only to pick up their beer cans and other rubbish, and there is no crime; but if the youngsters have left the scene, it is difficult to catch them and prove that they were responsible for the litter.
Clearly, the present law is inadequate to deal with that type of nuisance. Therefore, the Bill is justified. Some hon. Members have criticised it for not having sufficient scope, but it is far better to have a small Bill of limited scope that achieves limited objectives than a wide-ranging Bill that is deficient.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
The theme for today seems to be alcohol and, more importantly, law and order. As I said earlier, I believe that law and order is the most important issue for the general public. I have held public meetings to discuss that subject, and I have also enjoyed accompanying the police on their patrols on a Friday night from 9 pm until 2 am, when I witnessed the pressures they face fulfilling their duty of protecting the public. I have also visited a residential home in my constituency to discuss the problems experienced by the elderly. Intimidation and feeling threatened by young people is a very real problem for elderly people, and I am afraid that alcohol features in that equation.
The police in Fulwood adopt a very proactive attitude when approaching young people—particularly those as young as 11 or 12—who hang around on street corners consuming alcohol. It defies logic how those young people can get their hands on alcohol in the first place. The police usually confiscate it, but there is a grey area concerning those aged 15, 16 and 17. We know the difficulties that publicans have in trying to determine, in the absence of identity cards, whether young people are aged 18. They must use their judgment and, in some cases, they get it wrong.
We must ensure that the police are given the appropriate powers to confiscate alcohol from young people who are consuming it in public places. Such activity is obviously intimidatory to others and may lead to criminal acts. Some people have referred to the measure as a killjoy Bill. I was 15 when I first entered a pub in Swansea for the odd alcoholic drink, but I can safely say that I did not roam the streets with a can of lager when I was a youngster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) emphasised that we are talking about a small minority of youngsters. Alcohol abuse is not a common problem among young people, the vast majority of whom are honest and good. We could all point to the good work that young people do: many are involved with charities, as well as with the guides, scouts and various other groups, and not in wrongdoing. We must make sure that we do not tar all young people with the same brush. However, we must also ensure that the police have the tools with which to target the small minority, so that they may protect the rest of society and remove the stigma from all young people.
Unlike the position 20 or 30 years ago, young people these days seem to have greater disposable incomes, which they spend as they choose. The village in which the residential home I visited is situated has a problem with young people. That problem is worse during the summer months, when youngsters are on holiday and the better weather allows them to stay out on the streets for 566 longer periods. It is a problem for some residents, who become fearful when they see young people congregating, even when those youngsters are without alcohol.
It has already been said, but I make the point again, that the "specials" do a superb job in assisting the rest of the police in dealing, for example, with the congregation of young people, with or without alcohol. I have seen the specials on the streets during weekends and other days of the week, and it is evident that their presence and that of the police generally do a power of good.
A lack of a police presence would lead to the congregating of young people, the consumption of alcohol and the problems that ensue. That is when police officers have to be taken away from other important duties to firefight, as it were, a problem that has already started. Instead, the police should be given support initially—at the stage when the specials are involved—to ensure that they can deter young people from congregating and gaining access to alcohol. I wished to give the specials a special mention.
The use of closed circuit television is useful. Such a system has been set up in Clitheroe, and I should like it extended to other areas. Problems arise when young people gain access to alcohol and then engage in criminal activities such as vandalism. That is a specific problem that can be addressed by the introduction of CCT. I hope that we shall continue with the work that has already been started under the Government in providing further resources to introduce CCT systems throughout the country.
We must not, however, forget rural areas. It is not only cities and towns that experience the problems to which I have referred. Many rural areas, such as Longbridge, would benefit from the introduction of CCT.
The Government are noted for their deregulation initiative. I warmly welcome deregulation, and since becoming a Member of this place I have seen the deregulation of licensing hours. It was thought at one time that pubs should close in the afternoon so as to correct certain problems. Pubs are now open from relatively early in the morning through until 11 pm. I should like to see further deregulation.
I am a hardened Euro-sceptic, but the rest of Europe seems to deal properly with licensing laws. I see no reason why people should not be allowed to drink in certain pubs that perhaps have special licences until 2 am, rather than being forced to go to clubs or elsewhere to drink. Why should they not be allowed to drink a little later at night? There might be a feeling within the Home Office that extended hours will only exacerbate certain problems that stem from the consumption of alcohol.
I suggest that we should further reflect on licensing hours, and not harm those who want to go about their lawful business by ensuring that pubs are closed at an unusually early hour by comparison with the rest of Europe. At the same time, we must ensure that the police have proper tools to deal with those who drink alcohol on the streets if we choose to extend licensing hours. The sooner there is an extension, the better—that is my view.
We must ensure that the police receive proper training in dealing with young people. It is important to ensure also that good relationships are maintained. We do not want to instil in the minds of young people the idea that the police are the enemy and that they are present to stop them having a good time. That is not the case. The police 567 must receive training to ensure that they are able to deal with possible problems. Certainly they should be hard on the young villains we wish to see cleared off the streets, but at the same time there should be good relations with the vast majority whose behaviour is extremely good.
It is said time and time again—I represent a rural area—that under-age drinking takes place in rural areas because there is not as much to do in the country as there is in towns and cities, where there are more facilities. We must ensure that resources provided by the national lottery are directed in part to rural areas to provide facilities that otherwise might not be affordable. Swimming pools and other facilities might help to get young people off the streets and into sporting activities. That would be extremely useful.
Alcopops have rightly been mentioned. I am alarmed that some such drinks are blatantly targeted at young people. It would be better to work with the industry rather than to legislate. Surely the industry can see the benefits of this proposal. We should ensure that young people are not targeted by the marketing of drinks that taste like lemonade, orangeade or cherryade but have a powerful kick due to their high alcoholic content.
When I was a youngster, I could buy a can of shandy in a shop. There is enough alcohol in a can of shandy to make it go brown. People will not get drunk or suffer harmful side effects from shandy, but that is not the case with these drinks.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
The brewing industry makes an enormous amount of money out of alcopop drinks. We are fooling ourselves if we think that a little self-regulation will be the answer. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should take tougher action, which means banning those drinks?
§ Mr. Evans
I usually agree with my hon. Friend in everything she says, thinks and does, but on this occasion I disagree with her. In the vast majority of cases, self-regulation, in co-ordination with the police, the Home Office and other bodies, is the right route. The drinks industry has a responsibility to its customers, to parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) mentioned, and to society at large. It should carefully consider its marketing of these drinks.
I do not believe that such drinks should be banned, because that would merely lead to people going into pubs and saying, "Please can I have a glass of orange juice and two shots of vodka," and making their own combination. I have no problem with those drinks being available already made up, but it is totally wrong for the industry to target its marketing at young people. Some as young as 16 or 17 go to have a drink without an ID card. Their taste buds are not sufficiently developed for them to like other alcoholic drinks, so they are attracted to the softer drinks, and will ask for hooch or other alcopops.
The industry must carefully examine the names of some of these drinks. It has a responsibility, and we must give it the opportunity to show that it can regulate itself. If it refuses to do so, we must consider further legislation to ensure that such drinks are not targeted at our young people.
Parents have the ultimate responsibility for their children. I am delighted that, when the police take these drinks away from youngsters, they are not just given a 568 slap on the back of the hand and told to go away. The police get in touch with their parents, some of whom do not know what their youngsters are up to in the evenings. Even if they were given photographic evidence, some of them would deny that their little Johnny or Susie was drinking alcohol in the streets. Parents must take full responsibility for the actions of their youngsters. Perhaps they could be advised to have counselling, and be shown how they could deal with the problem of their youngster's drinking.
Some youngsters get up to far worse things than having the odd drink of alcohol. I am well aware of the drug problem, because I am secretary of the all-party drugs misuse group. We must make absolutely certain that parents are aware of their responsibilities, and that they have help to carry out their duties towards their young children.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
I welcome the Bill, and I reaffirm that it is not meant to be an attack on young people—most of whom are very responsible and a credit to the community. It should be emphasised also that the Bill is not an attack on publicans or the alcohol industry. I ought to mention that many of the directors of Bass live in Lichfield, which is just down the road from Burton, one of the largest brewing cities in the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on his Bill, and Mr. George Spink of Keighley, who played an obvious part in its drafting.
In 1994, the Home Office stated that 2,701 people under 18 had been convicted or cautioned in that year for offences related to drunkenness. Clearly, this is a great problem, which needs to be addressed. It is not just a question of drunkenness and intimidation in the street; it is more a question of perceived intimidation.
Lichfield is a small rural town—it is a city by definition, as it has an 801-year-old cathedral. There is not a great deal to do in Lichfield, although there is a pub on every street corner. There is no nightclub, bowling alley or cinema. There is certainly no youth club—not even a club run by the cathedral, which is a sad thing to report. So where do people in Lichfield get their entertainment? In pubs.
I heartily agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) that we need more flexible closing times for pubs. I raised this subject in the House about two years ago, and said that we needed staggered closing times. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) got a cheap laugh by making a sedentary comment about staggering.
It is a phenomenon in this country that people pour out on to the streets at the same time—11 o'clock. Old people, and sometimes young people, in Lichfield feel intimidated when they are out on the streets on Friday and Saturday nights in particular and see people they think are drunk and threatening. However, in my experience, although those people might be slightly drunk, they are not intimidating.
The only criticism I have of the Bill is that it addresses only young persons' drinking. Part of the problem is people who are legitimately in pubs who buy lagers as 11 o'clock approaches and then drink them in the street. I believe that staggered closing times would get around that problem.
569 I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley about the importance of closed circuit television. CCTV has been introduced in Lichfield, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department opened the operations. Not only has CCTV resulted in lower crime rates; it has deterred loutish behaviour—partly due to drinking alcohol—on the streets of Lichfield.
I have mentioned the important role played by special constables in Lichfield. Inspector Colin Bayley at Lichfield police station has told me that policing in Lichfield would fail—particularly on Friday and Saturday nights—without the worthwhile work of special constables on duty. One of the reasons I support the Bill is that it will make it easier for full-time police officers and special constables to confiscate alcohol, and pour it down the drain if it has been confiscated from young people.
Alcopops have been mentioned. I have been serving on the Committee dealing with the Finance Bill, and I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. He has outlined the dangers as vividly as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), but was slightly more practical. In this instance, he had the power to slap some prohibitive tax on alcopops. I hope that that will be a practical way of deterring people from drinking them.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I am delighted at this excellent news, but what sort of tax will be imposed on this pernicious drink, which has brought so much harm to our young people?
§ Mr. Fabricant
It is times like these when I wish I had not given way to my hon. Friend. I refer her, however, to the Finance Bill, which has now been reported from Committee. Next week or the week after, it will be further discussed, and, if my hon. Friend goes to the Vote Office, she will be able to find out the precise amount of taxation. I wish that I could give her the information off the top of my head, but sadly I cannot.
I pay tribute to a friend of mine, Dr. Alan Howard of Cambridge university, whose son, incidentally, is the Conservative candidate in Kingswood. Dr. Howard has shown that there is some nutritional benefit in drinking alcohol. He has developed an extract from red wine called Nutrivine, which will be marketed. As I have said, we should not condemn the drinking of alcohol out of hand. There is clear medical evidence that, as with most things, if it is drunk in moderation, it can be of no harm. That is particularly so with red wine, although perhaps not quite such the case with beer. Alcohol can be beneficial, although we do not want to encourage young people to go over the top in drinking red wine.
Whether or not there is danger in the streets through young people drinking alcohol, there is a perceived danger. People in Lichfield and other places throughout this land are frightened on a Friday and Saturday night, and perhaps on other nights, of going out on to the streets when they see behaviour that they consider to be drunken, loutish and threatening. Whether it is drunken, loutish or threatening is not the point—it is perceived to be such.
It is against the law anyway to drink alcohol on the streets, but the Bill makes the life of police officers easier and means that the problem can be dealt with without 570 giving the person apprehended by the police officer a criminal record. Surely, in the case of young people, that has to be applauded too. I welcome the Bill.
§ Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
I am pleased to give the Opposition's support to this private Member's Bill. When we were discussing the previous business, I had intended to make a terse speech, but I listened to some of the contributions from Conservative Members and I was tempted into making one or two comments, which lengthened my contribution. You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, because Labour is a little short-handed, I have had one or two other duties to which to attend this morning and I have not had the good fortune to listen to some of the other contributions from Conservative Members. The consequence—I am sure that the House will welcome this—is that my contribution will be as terse as I had intended my contribution to be in relation to previous business.
The Bill is important. I got a flavour of some of the claims made by Conservative Members. It is not a particularly party political issue, but great claims have been made about sorting out all the problems of young people, under-age drinking and all the rest of it. It is naive to think that any single measure will do that. People who make that claim forget their own teenage days, their colleagues and friends and all the little pranks that everyone got up to then.
If society knew how to deal with these problems, it would have dealt with them already. It is a case of continuing to monitor what is happening and of stopping the excesses, although I do not think that we can ban particular types of alcohol easily; it would be simple for people to produce alternatives that had essentially the same effect.
During my own teenage days, young people used to get hold of all sorts of things such as Eldorado sherry, which is probably quite pleasant, but is not supposed to be drunk in pints at a time, as some of my young friends used to do. There was a drink in Glasgow called Lanliq, which I think was produced by the same company, and it was pure firewater. Young people who could not afford more expensive forms of intoxication often got dragged into the Lannie queues.
Citizens, be they under or over 18, should not be intimidated by others drinking in public places. That is anti-social and, if the Bill does nothing other than prevent that, thus giving people a little more peace in their streets and in their communities, it will achieve a great deal. I hope that it achieves more and leads to a reduction in under-age drinking and excessive drinking generally. I also hope that it will lead to better behaviour by youngsters.
The Bill is consistent with our general approach to community safety orders, which are intended to give people peace in their environment. No one would claim that legislation will turn things around overnight: it is a matter of making a start and trying to improve difficult situations.
I was impressed by the effect of banning alcohol at football grounds; I am not able to make the same argument in the context of cricket grounds, because I have been a football spectator all my life. A football ground is private, but it is comparable to a public place and I can remember when people were allowed to take alcohol into 571 grounds. There was much aggravation, intimidation and harassment of decent football supporters by people who, when they were not intoxicated, were reasonable citizens. People who are intoxicated, especially when they are in large groups, can be incited into committing acts that they would not otherwise commit. That means that they are, at best, anti-social at a football ground and, at worst, committing criminal offences.
My experience at football grounds convinces me that, if access to alcohol can be stopped in some situations, it will lead to better behaviour and peace in that environment. That is an important reason for giving the Bill a Third Reading. Time will tell whether it is effective, but I hope that it has the impact intended.
§ 1.1 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)
In one way or another, we seem to have had a somewhat boozy morning. We have debated alcohol in two Bills, but the subjects that we have debated have had more to do with where alcohol can cause considerable problems and nuisance, such as in public places or in the closed environment of a prison.
The question of testing for alcohol, which we discussed earlier, applies to some extent to this Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on the Bill, which he has taken through the various stages with skill, expertise and considerable commitment. I suspect that some parents might also like a power to test for alcohol. Although it cannot be provided in the Bill, it is right to reassure parents that the police will be on their side in helping them to deal with a problem that can occur from time to time with young people. Sometimes, parents do not know whether their teenage children are consuming alcohol in a public place: the parents may know that their children are out, but they cannot be sure what the children are getting up to.
As we know, most youngsters behave in a community-spirited way and perhaps contribute more to society than previous generations. I would be the last to criticise their contribution, but it is important that the Bill gives the police power to ascertain the name and address of a young person from whom they confiscate alcohol. I am also confident that, if the matter is brought to the attention of parents, as is allowed for by the Bill, the vast majority will confront their children about it. That might lead to greater family understanding of a controlled and sensible approach to alcohol.
Alcohol can, of course, lead youngsters to get themselves into a lot of trouble and do things that they bitterly regret later. Drunkenness may lead to general bad behaviour, shouting at passers-by and oafishness, but it can also lead to criminal activity, as we heard in an earlier debate today. Research shows that many crimes are alcohol-related.
Apart from the danger that young people can take that step towards crime, it is also true that many members of the public will find the sight of youngsters the worse for drink somewhat disturbing; they can be offensive. I am sorry that my hon Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) is not here today, for he has taken a considerable interest in the Bill. On Second Reading, he 572 revealed that he is 5 ft 5 in tall. That is a very good height to be, but I hope that I am not alone in noticing that young people these days seem to come a lot bigger than that. Lads of just 13 or 14 can seem very threatening when they are fooling about and behaving badly because they have had too much to drink; so, for that matter, can young girls—this is not a problem that relates only to boys.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made clear, there is currently a loophole in the law. The Licensing Act 1964 prohibits young people under 18 from purchasing alcohol in licensed premises, and adults from buying alcohol to give to young people to drink in licensed premises, but it does not prohibit young people from consuming alcohol in any place other than licensed premises.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point referred to deregulation, and, as the Minister with responsibility in the Home Office for deregulation—particularly licensing—I can say that applying extra restrictions is something that I consider carefully. Deregulation can work only if it is based on a need to continue to protect the public from abuses that can occur. Getting that balance right is difficult for the Government to achieve. The Bill is an important component and does not necessarily attack the continued need to investigate deregulation opportunities.
Although the police take enforcement of existing legislation very seriously, if they see young people who appear the worse for drink, they are restricted in what they can do because the young people and any adults with them are not committing an offence. The police have, of course, been trying to do their best. I know that all hon. Members are well aware of the initiative started by the police in Weymouth, to which my hon. Friend referred, which was a response to the problem of under-age drinking in public areas.
The initiative involved videoing children drinking alcohol and then taking them back to their parents, who were then shown the video. It has been a great success and has encouraged parents to take responsibility for their children. I find it particularly encouraging that parents have been very ready to do that, and few of the youngsters who were videoed have come to the attention of the police again.
However, officers do not always have a video camera to hand. The police need a quick, on-the-spot solution that can be used at any time. That is what the Bill provides. Once enacted, it will be available to an officer throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We extended the Bill to Northern Ireland in Committee. A similar measure for Scotland is contained in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill. Any officer who is concerned by a group of youngsters who are drinking will be able to act immediately to stop the problem.
The Bill has been considered with great thoroughness in Committee, and I compliment all hon. Members who were on that Committee on their diligence in carrying out their task. I remind the House that the Bill gives the police the power to confiscate alcoholic drinks, or those that appear to be alcoholic, from any person under the age of 18 if they are in a public place or, indeed, a place to which they have unlawfully gained access. It also gives the power to confiscate alcohol from anyone who has reached the age of 18 if the police have grounds to believe that the person concerned will give it to a young person in their company.
573 The House will note that the Bill gives the power of confiscation to any police officer. As the House will recall, before the Bill was drawn up we consulted widely. The consultation paper originally suggested that the police officer should be in uniform. The Association of Chief Police Officers responded by saying that that could cause problems. It considered that there might be times when a plain-clothes officer would wish to make use of the power, so the Bill has been drafted in that way and the power applies to any officer.
The House will also note that the police are given a power to confiscate anything that is, or that the constable reasonably believes to be, intoxicating liquor. That is so there can be no argument about whether a drink is alcoholic. We had a long debate about that in Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West was concerned that the police might confiscate something that was not alcoholic. I appreciated his concerns. We discussed the difficulties that the police might have in distinguishing between alcopops and what might turn out to be just lemon pop—in other words, a soft drink.
I do not want to debate alcopops now—I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not allow me to do so—save to say that I share my hon. Friends' concern. I welcome the initiative taken by the Portman Group; indeed, I spoke to its director, Jean Coussins, just a few days ago. The House should continue to monitor the matter closely, because some of the industry's assurances have not been satisfactory.
There was one flaw in the Bill, which was spotted by my hon. Friend for Bristol, North-West. In the Bill as originally drafted, an officer had the right to dispose of the intoxicating liquor which was surrendered to him. My hon. Friend asked whether the officer had the right to dispose of a drink that he genuinely believed to be intoxicating, but about which he was mistaken. Now, it might be said that that was unlikely, or even that it could not be proven, because the evidence would be literally down the drain, but we did not want there to be any doubt about the police powers.
It would be unfortunate if someone with a bent for litigation were to rootle around in a waste bin, find the can from which the police officer had poured away the drink and then, assuming that there was a drop or two left in the bottom, send that off for analysis. He might strike lucky—no alcohol would be found. He could then try to bring a suit against the police for wrongful confiscation. Obviously, we do not want to run that risk, even if it is a remote one. An amendment was accepted in Committee giving the police the power to dispose of anything that was surrendered to them.
The House will also note that the police have the power to confiscate the alcohol in any public place. That is an important matter, because what is a public place? It is, of course, a place to which, at the material time, the public 574 any section of the public has access on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission. It is important to ensure the police have that power, whether the youngsters are in a park, sitting on a bench in the street, congregated around the bus station, outside a take-away, in a shopping mall or cinema, or trespassing in someone's garden or in school grounds, when they should not be there.
It is an offence under the Bill for a person either to refuse to hand over the alcohol or to refuse to given his or her name and address when requested to do so. In Committee, we debated the nature of the fine if a person refused to do so. It was important to set it at a sensible level—currently £500. The Bill also gives the police a power of arrest. That should be used in extremis, but it is essential that that power is available to them.
I hope that the Bill will lead to fewer young people coming before the courts, because youngsters will not go on to commit the kind of offences that we know they commit when drunk. They should quickly learn that they will not be permitted to drink in public. The fact that we are not adopting a criminal approach in the initial stage of the Bill's implementation is the right way to deal with the problem when it occurs.
A discretionary power is available to the police. They do not have to confiscate alcohol. There may be an occasion when a group of young people have a picnic to celebrate their A-level results and drink a spot of cider. An officer may suspect that one or two of them are under 18. The Licensing Act 1964 provides that youngsters under the age of 18 but who have reached the age of 16 may consume beer, or cider, or perry on licensed premises provided they do so with a meal. If that group of youngsters are behaving themselves and are not drunk, the officer may properly decide to use his discretion and turn a blind eye to the fact that some of them look a trifle young. Similarly, if he sees a family on the beach and one of the children has a sip of wine, he will not be expected to go and remove it. For such legislation to work, a certain amount of common sense is required. I am proud of the fact that our police forces are extremely sensible in their approach; we can rely on them to apply common sense.
I feel confident that the legislation will help to improve the quality of life of many of our constituents. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) said about all the things that are not available in Lichfield, but he missed an important one: Lichfield does not have a Labour Member of Parliament, which is an extremely good thing for his area.
I am pleased that the Bill has all-party support. The way in which the debate has been conducted has been an excellent example of all-party co-operation. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.