HC Deb 16 April 1999 vol 329 cc534-40

Order for Second Reading read.

2.2 pm

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great privilege to be able to introduce a private Member's Bill, and I am grateful for the opportunity to present this Bill because the measures that it contains are urgently needed. I regret the lack of time available to debate the issues fully, but I hope that hon. Members will want to support the Bill's objectives and will allow it to proceed to a Committee stage, where it can be debated more fully, as is right and appropriate.

The Bill will create new barriers to children gaining access to alcohol. It has the backing of the Portman Group, which represents the alcohol industry, and it makes a number of proposals, including closing a legal loophole that allows courts to distinguish between the liability of licensees and that of their employees by providing that anyone who makes a sale to a minor would be liable to prosecution. It would create a new offence of proxy purchase when someone over 18 purchases alcohol for a minor, which is already an offence in Scotland. It would give police and trading standards officers powers to undertake test purchasing where retailers are suspected of making unlawful sales.

I first became aware of the legal loophole through the death of David Knowles, a 14-year-old from Pudsey, who was sold lager and alcopops and was killed as he ran across a dual carriageway. David died in the Easter holidays in 1997. He had been football training with his friends when one of them suggested that he go to the off-licence and buy alcohol. He bought lager and alcopops, returning for more lager shortly afterwards. On the way home, he ran down an embankment and on to a dual carriageway. David crossed two lanes before being struck by a car, and was killed.

David was a bright boy—in the top six at school for maths. His ambition was to be a bank manager. He could have been anybody's son. His father, John Knowles, described David has a serious young man who acted completely out of character. He said that David might have got away with looking 15 in a bad light, but that he was obviously under age.

Even though the police seized video footage which proved that David was served twice in the same off-licence, prosecution of the staff collapsed because the licence holder did not directly employ them. That has exposed a gap in the law, which allows people who sell alcohol to young people under the age of 18 to escape prosecution when, as is increasingly common in bigger chains, they are employed by the parent company and not the licensee. Thousands of staff in off-licences and supermarkets can sell alcohol to children without fear of prosecution because of that glaring legal loophole.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

Is not the crux of that element of my hon. Friend's Bill the fact that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of staff can sell alcohol to children of any age—including perhaps even my son of six years old—with complete immunity from prosecution? Does she agree that the loophole is not simply wide but growing by the week?

Ms McCafferty

Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The more supermarkets that stock alcohol and the more that ordinary folk like my hon. Friend and I use them to purchase alcohol, the more likely we are to be served, like David, by staff who are not directly employed by the licensee. As my hon. Friend clearly pointed out, it could happen to anyone's child. David's parents were distraught when they realised that no one could be brought to justice for selling their son the alcohol that led directly to his death. My Bill will close that loophole by providing that anyone who makes a sale to a minor is liable to prosecution.

To tackle the problem of young people who have reached the age of 18 buying alcohol legitimately, and then passing it on to friends or acquaintances under the age of 18, the Bill will introduce a new offence to make it unlawful for someone to buy alcohol in shops and off-licences on behalf of a young person. That will also penalise passing adults who are prevailed on to make purchases for young people.

In Scottish law, an equivalent provision has been part of licensing legislation since 1976. The proposed provision for England and Wales is intended to target adults who, whether known to a child or a stranger, will agree, often outside or close to licensed premises, to buy alcohol to be passed on immediately to a child in the street.

A survey carried out by Professor Howard Parker at Manchester university in 1996 found that, of a representative sample of 13 to 16-year-olds in Greater Manchester, 53 per cent. obtained alcohol by asking older friends to buy it for them, and 26 per cent. by asking strangers to buy it for them. Among the 26 per cent. of children who asked strangers, there was a prevalence of girls and of 13 to 14-year-olds. The dangers inherent in such vulnerable young people approaching strangers for favours must be immediately obvious to hon. Members.

Many supermarkets and off-licence chains keep logbooks of refusals of service, with reasons for such refusals. Evidence presented to the task force on under-age alcohol misuse by the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were about 4.5 million refusals to serve alcohol to under-age customers in supermarket chains in 1992. In a recent survey of 100 off-licences by the police in Salford, rigorous compliance with the law by licensees was found to be the norm, and a willingness to serve under-18s the exception. It is the minority of licensees who bring the reputation of the majority into disrepute whom the Bill will target.

The schools health education unit found in 1997 that 19 per cent. of 14-year-olds, 10 per cent. of 13-year-olds and 6 per cent. of 12 to 13-year-olds all claimed to have purchased alcohol during the previous week. A more recent survey by the Health Education Authority found that, by the age of 11, more than three quarters of those questioned had already tried alcohol, and that that proportion increased to 95 per cent. by the age of 15. More than 20 per cent. of the youngsters surveyed said that they had been "really drunk" at least once. The Health Education Authority estimates that about 190,000 11 to 15-year-olds drink the equivalent of seven pints a week.

There have been many calls for the greater use of test purchase operations, to ensure that retailers comply with the law. Such operations obviously have a useful and legitimate role to play in tackling abuse by cynical licensees. They already uphold the laws preventing the sale to minors of a range of inappropriate substances, such as tobacco, videos, fireworks and lottery tickets. Some agencies have expressed uncertainty about the current legality of test purchase in respect of alcohol, which differs from other products because it can be an offence to buy it when under age as well as for retailers to sell it. In the case of other products, only the retailer is committing an offence.

To put matters beyond doubt, I propose to amend the law to make it explicit that test purchases may be applied to the sale of alcohol in England and Wales, and to exempt young persons involved in supervised test purchasing from prosecution. In the case of other age-restricted products, test purchasing has proved to be a convincing and effective deterrent against under-age sales. In his evidence to the task force, Peter Mawdsley, head of trading standards for the city of Liverpool, said: Test purchasing in Liverpool has significantly reduced the rate of illegal sales of tobacco, fireworks, videos and lottery tickets.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I am conscious that I may not be able to speak in this important debate. In the absence of national identity cards, what proof can a retailer get from a young person that that person is over 18?

Ms McCafferty

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I accept that it is extremely difficult to prove the age of a young person who is determined to purchase alcohol—or any other product that it is illegal for a minor to purchase—and it is correct that the Government do not have a national ID scheme. However, I suggest that the new photo-ID driving licence will ultimately be carried by every young person, and there is the Portman Group's "prove it" card, which is available to anyone. In my constituency, nearly 3,000 of those cards have been issued, and every month 5,000 to 10,000 are issued nationally. Should my Bill become law, retailers may be more cautious, and more anxious to identify the age of consumers who wish to purchase their goods.

Peter Mawdsley, giving his evidence, has said that, remarkably, no shop in Liverpool has ever re-offended. I believe that all hon. Members would like that success to apply to alcohol sales, too.

As the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) remarked, it is difficult for reputable traders to establish the age of people who want to buy alcohol, especially when they are determined to do so, but the law that makes it illegal to serve alcohol to under-18s already exists. The prohibited sale of alcoholic drinks to under-18s is not a new law, and the legalisation of test purchase will act only as an aid to enforcing the existing law; it imposes no additional legal restrictions on retailers. I believe that the introduction of test purchase will give greater impetus to one or more of the identity schemes that are coming into existence, and that retailers will be much more likely routinely to ask for proof of age.

The vast majority of those who make and sell alcoholic drinks in the United Kingdom welcome the Bill. The call for test purchasing and for an offence of proxy purchase has been supported repeatedly by the trade and industry-related organisations.

The work of the Portman Group—whose member companies are the nine leading drinks manufacturers in the UK—is generally supported throughout the industry, and the licensed trade as a whole. The group recently submitted a paper in response to the Department of Health's consultation on alcohol strategy, in which the group called for all the legislative changes offered by the Bill. The group made the point that the measures would complement the progress that the industry itself is making towards tackling alcohol misuse.

There is a great deal of evidence that illegal alcohol sales to minors leads to unsupervised drinking and alcohol abuse, reaching down to primary school level. I am extremely concerned, as are many health professionals, about the potential adverse health effects on physically immature children, who are often drinking beyond levels recommended for adults. In my view, this demonstrates a serious social problem, and there is understandable and well-justified public concern. I have had many complaints from all over my constituency about the problems caused by a minority of youngsters who are getting in to trouble due to drink.

Recently, the Health Education Authority commented that because drinking was such a central part of our social life, many parents did not realise, or underestimated, the harm it can do. While parents are understandably worried about illegal drugs, it is important to realise the range of problems that alcohol can cause to children. The main problem is that it is too easy for children to get alcohol, and urgent action is needed.

The Bill will give the police, trading standards authorities and the courts real powers to stamp out the problem and, especially, to tackle the minority of irresponsible retailers and adults who either deliberately flout the law or turn a blind eye to under-age sales. Together, the measures represent a great improvement in the range of measures to tackle under-age alcohol abuse.

I pay tribute to the liquor and retail industries for their readiness to address the social problems arising from the products that they sell, and their support for the Bill. There must be no let-up in the fight against under-age problem drinking and the misery that it causes. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.17 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Not for the first time this week, Parliament is discussing the age of majority. The difference between what happened in terms of the issue debated in the other place and what will happen in terms of the age issue in this Bill will be striking to many.

We congratulate the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty) on her success in promoting the Bill. All hon. Members know that under-age drinking is a problem which must be tackled across a range of areas. The Opposition are generally persuaded that there is merit in endeavouring to close the loopholes in existing legislation, as the Bill seeks to do.

I am struck by the fact that many of the briefing notes relating to the Bill praise the efforts of my local trading standards authority, and the police, in North Yorkshire in tackling this problem. Their approach is cited as a model for others to follow. From personal knowledge, I would agree.

In particular, the authorities in North Yorkshire believe that they have addressed successfully some of the problems relating to test purchasing. There is concern about whether it is right to exploit those under 18 and, equally, whether it is right to incite licensees to break the law. My understanding is that, in North Yorkshire, licensees are told in advance when an area is to be targeted so that they know only too well that they could fall into a trap.

I have some anxieties about the staff of licensees, some of whom may be young, and the need to ensure that any messages about the provisions are passed on to them, so that 19 or 20-year-old youngsters working behind a bar at the weekend to supplement their student grant—if they are lucky enough to have one—who sell drink to 17-year-olds do not suddenly find themselves in court. We ought to be able to iron out such anxieties during the further stages of the Bill, if it makes any progress.

I address my next remarks to the Minister. I and many of my hon. Friends have serious anxieties. If we are intent on strengthening the existing legislation, we must do more to ensure that people are able to know whether the young people to whom they sell alcohol are of the right age. That affects not only pubs but, more especially, off-licences.

I have taken the test—I am sure that other hon. Members have, too—in which one is asked to look at photographs and decide who is 18 and who is not. Interestingly, I got most of the boys right but most of the girls wrong. That shows how difficult it is for people at the cash desk of an off-licence or a small supermarket to identify who is 18. More must be done on identity.

Increasingly, in my experience, under-age drinking involves not only alcohol bought in pubs or off-licences. Vast quantities of alcohol that has been illegally imported in the cross-channel traffic are consumed. There have been several instances of that in my constituency. When the source of the alcohol is traced, it turns out to have come off the back of a van. It would be pointless to crack down on the professional trade and allow the smuggling to go unchecked.

Let me enter the caveat that, if the Bill makes further progress, the Government should do more about the problems of identification and smuggling.

2.23 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty) on her success in the ballot and warmly commend her choice of Bill, as well as the manner in which she introduced it. I share her concern about the unlawful sale of alcohol to young people and gladly support the Bill's intentions. I hope that it is supported widely and receives its Second Reading.

My hon. Friend described the Bill's provisions well. I will comment later on the points made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), but I want first to concentrate on the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border served with some distinction at the Home Office for four years. He well knows that the concerns that the Bill addresses—about the link between early alcohol abuse and crime and disorder—as well as issues concerning the

safety of young people, have been around for some time. As I understand it, he has no objection to the specific measures in the Bill.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How do you know?

Mr. Howarth

Because I spoke to him about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We cannot have conversations across the Floor of the House.

Mr. Howarth

If the right hon. Gentleman will refrain from sedentary interventions, I will refrain from responding to them.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border objects not to the Bill but to the procedures that may be involved in implementing it.

Mr. Maclean

The Minister mentioned me and, as he is trying to be fair to me, I should make it clear that I have no concern about large parts of the Bill, the bulk of which deals with the sale of alcohol to under-age people. It is the test purchasing that worries me, and I deeply regret the fact that those provisions are in the Bill, without any of the safeguards that I consider essential. If they were not in the Bill, I could happily support it.

Mr. Howarth

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has given us that clarification, because the point could easily be debated in Committee—although I accept that it may be a matter of principle.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst served as an Education Minister in the previous Government for about two years.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Howarth

I have no wish to underestimate the right hon. Gentleman's contribution. I recall one Friday when, across these Dispatch Boxes, we debated the issue of drugs, which are a matter of concern for many of us, and were of particular concern to him at that time, because he was an Education Minister. I know that, especially given his previous responsibilities, he has been, and still is, concerned about substance abuse, and I presume that that would cover alcohol and the effect that it can have on young people's lives, on families and on criminal behaviour.

I therefore appeal to both right hon. Gentlemen not to use the procedures of the House to stop the Bill making progress today. They both know that, if it does not receive a Second Reading today, it will almost certainly fail. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley movingly described the events that took place in Pudsey, and similar events could easily happen again elsewhere, possibly costing lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has tried before to deal with those problems, but unfortunately he was defeated by procedure. I therefore hope that the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst will accept that any concerns that they may have can be dealt with in Committee.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) talked about proof of age and about illegally imported alcohol. The Government are prepared to consider identity cards. The matter is under consideration, but we have not reached a final conclusion. In the meantime, there are proof-of-age cards. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley mentioned the Portman Group card; there is also the Citizencard. At the moment we rely on those, and the Bill will give fresh impetus to both those schemes, which we welcome.

Illegally imported alcohol is indeed a serious problem, and my colleagues at the Treasury are aware of it, not least because of the loss of revenue involved. We intend in due course to introduce measures to deal it. We also recognise that it is a contributory factor to the problems that the Bill attempts to address.

I hope that those matters will be taken into consideration. I also hope that the House will agree that any reservations that right hon. and hon. Members may have can be dealt with in Committee, and that the Bill deserves a Second Reading.

2.28 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I hope that the Minister is not suggesting that, however virtuous a Bill may appear to him or to many other people, it should have a right to go through the procedures of the House without proper debate and deliberation.

Mr. Howarth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman seemed to be coming perilously close to saying that. I hope that he has given some thought to why, if the Government think that the measure is so valuable, they have not thought fit to introduce it in their own time.

On Fridays reserved for private Members' Bills, it is a source of puzzlement to some of us that we often have to deal with measures that appear to have originated from Government, or to be fulfilling some of the Government's pledges or programme, which the Government seem to expect to go through the private Members' Bills procedure without proper debate or deliberation. I hope that the Minister was not suggesting that.

Mr. Howarth


Mr. Forth

I am sure that he would not. However, for the sake of clarity, we must realise that, when a debate of the importance that the Minister attributes to this one starts after 2 pm on a Friday, when we all know that our time expires at 2.30, and when only the promoter of the Bill and two Front Benchers—no Back Benchers—have had time to speak, it is asking far too much of the House of Commons to say that the measure should be nodded through without further debate, following the Minister's contention that it can all somehow be cleaned up in Committee.

As it happens, I have a large number of questions to ask about the entrapment part of this Bill—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 7 May.