HC Deb 24 June 1998 vol 314 cc1051-3 3.30 pm
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to a person under the age of 18 by any person on licensed premises; and for connected purposes. There is—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Members are very noisy in leaving. I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor. It is rather unfair. Please leave quietly.

Mr. Truswell

There is a broad consensus that the licensing laws of this country are outdated, inadequate and in radical need of reform, but I believe that there remains general recognition that the sale of alcohol to young people under the age of 18 should be an offence. Indeed, most people believe that it is an offence, subject to certain established defences. I regret to say that that is not the case. I regret even more deeply that it took the tragic death of my 14-year-old constituent, David Knowles, to show that, in many instances, selling alcohol to young people is not a prosecutable action.

I should like to take a few minutes to relate the circumstances surrounding David's untimely death-circumstances which, I believe, forcefully demonstrate the need to amend the legislation on the sale of alcohol to young people.

David was 14 years old. He attended Priesthorpe school in my constituency. He was not an academic high flier, but he had ambitions to be a bank manager. He came from a supportive middle-class family. Those who knew him described him as "a normally serious boy."

On the fateful evening of 21 March 1997, David had been watching friends play football at school. On the way home, they decided to call off in the centre of Pudsey. His friends, who were still in football gear, asked David to fetch them some alcopops. David agreed, and went to a nearby Thresher off-licence, where he was sold the alcopops that he requested.

A few minutes after returning to his friends, David decided that he wanted some alcohol of his own. He returned to the same Thresher off-licence, and this time was sold four cans of lager. He returned to his friends and they made their way home. In due course, they reached the embankment overlooking the Stanningley bypass in Pudsey. The Stanningley bypass is an extremely busy dual carriageway, which forms part of the Leeds ring road.

At this point, David, who by that time had drunk three and a half cans of lager, suddenly shouted, "Let's run." He charged down the embankment, across the first part of the dual carriageway, over the central reservation and into the Leeds-bound carriageway. There he was struck by a car, and died shortly afterwards from the massive injuries that he sustained.

The police quickly attended the scene. They then went to the Thresher off-licence and seized security videos, which clearly showed David being sold alcohol on two occasions. On the basis of police reports, the Crown Prosecution Service mounted a prosecution against the two members of staff who had sold the alcohol to David, but it ran into the massive legal black hole which my Bill would close.

The CPS discovered that a prosecution could succeed only against a licence holder or against someone directly employed by him-in the legal term, the servant of the licence holder, who is directly employed by the person whose name appears on the licence. In David's case, the staff who sold him the alcohol were employed by Thresher, a national company, not by the person whose name appeared on the licence. They were thus totally immune from prosecution. It is not necessary to draw the attention of the House to the enormous implications of that loophole.

The definition of the crucial word "servant" was reinforced as recently as December 1996, in the case of Russell v. Director of Public Prosecutions. The Court of Appeal quashed Russell's conviction on the basis that he was employed by a national company, not by the licence holder. Surprisingly, the loophole has been known for several years. In 1968, a pub landlord named Poole left his wife in charge of the bar while he went off to a football match. She sold alcohol to two under-age drinkers, and was prosecuted and convicted, but the conviction was overturned on appeal because the court held that she was not her husband's servant.

Like most people, I was astonished to learn of the loophole. David's distraught father, John Knowles, came to my surgery to bring it to my attention, and I gave him a pledge that I would do everything in my power as a Member of Parliament, and as a parent of young children, to get the loophole closed. Introducing my Bill is one way of fulfilling that pledge. I hope that every hon. Member recognises the need to close that loophole in the law.

My previous private Member's Bill on the matter would have provided a much neater way of closing the loophole. It would simply have amended section 169(1) of the Licensing Act 1964 to include the word "agent", which is much broader than the narrow term "servant", and would have enabled the prosecution of anyone, servant or not, for selling alcohol to a child or young person on licensed premises.

Unfortunately, my Bill, although not opposed by the Government or their business managers, fell to an objection by a Conservative Member. I have yet to receive an explanation of why that happened. I am not casting aspersions on Conservative Members in general, because a number have signed my early-day motion on the issue. What has happened is not a party political matter, but crass behaviour by an individual. This Bill would replace rather than amend section 169(1) of the 1964 Act. Again, the key is the introduction of the word "agent".

The House has enormous powers, but it cannot bring David Knowles back to life. It can, however, recognise and act on the lessons to be learned from his death. It can act to close this huge, gaping chasm in that law-a law which was always intended to protect young people. In doing so, the House would send a signal that it will take all reasonable steps to protect the young.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Truswell, Mr. Harold Best, Mr. Colin Burgon, Mr. Fabian Hamilton and Mr. John Gunnell.

  2. c1053