HC Deb 11 February 2000 vol 344 cc509-75

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

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

It is just over two years since my constituent, John Knowles, came to my surgery to tell me the tragic and harrowing story of the circumstances surrounding the death of his 14-year-old son, David. That visit is the reason I am standing here today. David's death highlighted a huge loophole in the Licensing Act 1964, which my Bill seeks to close.

It has been said that hard cases make bad law. I hope that the House will treat my case as an exception to that rule. Most people believe, as I used to, that it is an offence to sell alcohol to someone aged under 18, subject to certain defences. I regret to say that that is not the case. I regret even more deeply the fact that it took the tragic death of David Knowles to demonstrate that selling alcohol to young people is, in many cases, not a prosecutable action.

I shall take a few moments of the House's time to relate the circumstances surrounding David's death. I believe that they point forcefully to a need to amend legislation on the sale of alcohol to young people. David was 14. He attended Priesthorpe high school in my constituency. He enjoyed maths, and his ambition was 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 one fateful evening in March 1997, David had watched friends play football at school. On their way home, they decided to call at the centre of Pudsey. David's friends, still in their football gear, asked him to fetch them some alcopops. He agreed, and went to a nearby Thresher off-licence, where he was sold the alcopops he asked for. A few minutes after returning to his friends, David decided that he wanted some alcohol of his own. He returned to the same off-licence and was sold four cans of lager.

David returned to his friends, and the group began to make its way home. In due course, they reached the embankment overlooking the Stanningly bypass in Pudsey. The bypass is a very busy dual carriageway with a 70 mph speed limit. It forms part of the Leeds inner ring road. It was then that the normally serious boy, who had drunk three and a half cans of lager, shouted, "Let's run." He ran down the embankment, over the first part of the dual carriageway, across the central reservation and on to the Leeds-bound carriageway. There, he was struck by a car travelling at high speed, and he died shortly afterwards from the huge injuries that he sustained.

The police attended the scene and took witness statements. As a result, they seized security videos at the Thresher off-licence, which showed David being sold alcohol twice within five minutes. On the basis of police reports, the Crown Prosecution Service mounted a prosecution against the two members of staff who had sold David the alcohol. Unfortunately, the CPS then ran into the loophole that my Bill seeks to close—it was discovered that a prosecution could succeed only against the licence holder or the licence holder's servant.

The word "servant" has a particularly narrow definition in law. A servant must be someone directly employed and paid by the licence holder. In David's case, the staff were employed by a national company—Thresher—and not by the individual licence holder who happened to be their manager. They were, therefore, totally immune from prosecution.

I was absolutely astonished to learn of that loophole when David's father came to my surgery to discuss it. My astonishment is largely shared by most people who hear about the loophole. I pledged to John Knowles that I would do everything I could to close that loophole, and I said that not only as a Member of Parliament but as a parent. Standing here today is one means of fulfilling that pledge. When I was drawn third in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I felt honour-bound to use my opportunity to try to fulfil my commitment to the Knowles family.

The withdrawal of the prosecution by the CPS was based on a Court of Appeal ruling of December 1996 in the case of Russell v. Director of Public Prosecutions, just three months before David's death. The court quashed a conviction on the basis that the appellant, a trainee manager, was employed by a national company—Unwins—and not by the licence holder.

That loophole has been known about for more than 30 years. In 1968, a pub landlord named Poole left his wife in charge of his bar while he went off to a football match. His wife sold alcohol to two under-age people and was subsequently prosecuted and convicted. However, the conviction was overturned because she was not held, in law, to be her husband's servant.

Two other cases, which occurred in west Yorkshire over the past two years, further demonstrate the nonsense of the loophole that my Bill is designed to close. In one case, a woman sold alcohol to a 13-year-old girl. When the woman was interviewed, she claimed that she was the licence holder at the premises and was accordingly prosecuted. In court, it transpired that she had misled the investigating officers and that, in fact, her husband was the licence holder. It may be that the officers were at fault for not identifying that ploy earlier. However, under my Bill, that would not have mattered. The woman would have been prosecuted on the basis that she worked at the off-licence.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I am by no means unsympathetic to the Bill. However, is it not true that currently, if licensees—be they the managers of chain store premises or of off-licences—were to permit any person on those premises to sell alcohol, they would be at some risk of losing their licence, even if they could not be prosecuted? I should not like the House to be under the impression that there are no sanctions at present, although the hon. Gentleman's measure would improve the situation.

Mr. Truswell

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's question and comment. The licensee would be in danger of losing his or her licence only on a second or subsequent offence. Furthermore, defences are open to licence holders—one such defence prevented the prosecution of the licence holder in the David Knowles case. That licence holder was able to show that she had exercised due diligence in giving training and awareness raising to the staff who had sold David the alcohol, so the CPS decided that it was not possible to pursue the case against her. However, the hon. Gentleman's comments are correct.

In another case—again involving a 13-year-old girl—the person concerned was employed by a national company and was, therefore, immune under the 1964 Act. However, an attempt was made to prosecute her for aiding and abetting an illegal sale. The prosecution failed—perversely—because the defence was able to persuade the magistrate that the shop assistant had given the girl only a cursory glance. Consequently, it was argued that she could not form a positive judgment about the girl's age and thus could not have aided and abetted the offence. The shop assistant defended herself by saying that she had exercised no diligence whatever in trying to determine the age of the girl.

In that respect—as in so many others—the licensing laws are out of step with the present-day reality of supermarket and off-licence chains. Indeed, the law has increasingly created a two-tier system for off-licence workers—those who work for small, independent corner off-licences and those who work for supermarket or off-licence chains. The former are subject to the law, but the latter are immune.

In pursuing this issue, and attempting to fulfil my pledge to John Knowles, I have developed considerable empathy with Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology.

Hon. Members will recall that he was condemned by the gods perpetually to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it slip from his grasp when he had almost reached the summit. It is notable that some right hon. and hon. Members are to private Members' Bills what the Olympian gods were to Sisyphus—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

indicated assent.

Mr. Truswell

However, I hope that they can be persuaded to help me to push the rock to the top of the mountain, rather than ensuring that it travels in the opposite direction.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he is pushing a smaller rock up the hill this year? His rock last year was much larger.

Mr. Truswell

Indeed, I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is a small but significant rock. [Interruption.] I am willing to give way to the right hon. Gentleman again if he wants to put his comments on the record.

Some right hon. and hon. Members believe that private Members' Bills are used to further Government business. That may or may not be true, but I hope that the House will accept that I have been pursuing this issue for longer than the Government have.

Since John Knowles contacted me, I have met Ministers and officials several times. I have submitted a Presentation Bill and a ten-minute rule Bill. The first reached Committee stage, where it received all-party support, but there was insufficient time for it to return to the Floor of the House. Furthermore, I presented a petition to Parliament, signed by more than 1,200 of my constituents—those signatures were collected in only two weeks. In the 1997–98 Session, early-day motion 1181 was signed by 120 MPs from all parties.

My Bill is simply a continuation of the quest to remove the loophole. As hon. Members will see, the Bill runs to three pages, but that is somewhat deceptive; the measure is straightforward and specific. Much of it reiterates existing legislation. The main change is to make all persons—paid or unpaid—who work on licensed premises liable before the law, rather than only the licence holders or their servants.

Clause 1 would amend section 169 of the 1964 Act. New section 169A would introduce that extension of responsibility; the defences under the present law would remain. It would mean that Mr. Russell and Mrs. Poole would not have had their convictions quashed. It would also mean that those who sold alcohol to David Knowles would have had a case to face. No one knows whether they would have been able to mount a defence that the magistrates would have accepted—that is in the realms of speculation. However, the issue is not whether they would have been convicted, but that they could not even be tried under existing law.

New section 169B would extend the offence of knowingly allowing the sale of alcohol to a person aged under 18. At present, only the licence holder is subject to that element of the law. The provision would extend to anyone working in the premises who has authority to prevent the sale.

New sections 169C and 169D retain the existing law on the purchase of alcohol in licensed premises by or for persons aged under 18. New section 169E retains the offence for a person who is under 18 and consumes alcohol in a bar. However, at present, only the licence holder or their servant—in law—can be prosecuted for selling alcohol knowingly to someone under the age of 18. The Bill would extend that offence to any person working in licensed premises who has authority to prevent that consumption.

New section 169F extends the offence of delivering alcohol to all persons working at licensed premises, rather than only the licence holder or their servant. It also extends the offence of allowing the delivery from the licence holder alone, to those with authority to prevent the delivery.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman may intend to return to new section 169D, but I am intrigued by that provision. It makes explicit reference to beer, porter or cider. As I am not an expert at reading Bills, I wonder whether the intention is to make the regime more relaxed with regard to beer, porter and cider. What is the significance of the specific mention of them? Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that?

Mr. Truswell

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his observations. That issue also exercised me. Current legislation uses those three categories of alcohol. As I have stressed, my intention is simply to close the loophole in the law as it stands. I do not want to debate other matters on which I might hold personal views about the deficiencies of existing legislation. I have asked questions on the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, but it is a matter that should be discussed in a wider consideration of the licensing laws rather than in the context of my narrow, specific attempt to close a loophole. Nevertheless, he makes a pertinent observation, and one that I have also made. New section 169H would apply the penalties for the new offences under new sections 169A to 169G, and those penalties remain the same.

Mr. Colin Burgon (Elmet)

I know my hon. Friend to be an excellent constituency MP and I congratulate him on the work that he has put in, which he has outlined. He is well attuned to local opinion and is quick to make the valid point that the Bill has emerged from concerns expressed by his constituents. Has he met with widespread approval in the Pudsey constituency for the stand that he has taken on the Bill, and might he deal with that when he sums up?

Mr. Truswell

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The measure does indeed command wholehearted support, not just from my constituents, and not just from the 1,200 constituents who signed the petition that I mentioned, but from everyone with whom I have discussed the issue. It had all-party support in the House. Over the past two years, I have received many letters from people the length and breadth of the country who have been very supportive. The licensed trade and Thresher, the off-licence involved in the David Knowles case, have also expressed their wholehearted support for the measure, which clarifies the common law, brings it up to date and, more important, removes the two-tier status of staff who work in premises where alcohol is sold.

In conclusion, I hope that hon. Members will accept that the Bill is what private Members' Bills should be all about.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman said that the Bill had all-party support, and I am sure that in the Division, when it happens, that will be very evident. Is it not a pity, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman has not sought more all-party sponsorship for his Bill? Why has he not done that?

Mr. Truswell

It was a pure oversight. I was asked whether I wanted any sponsors for my Bill. It is always tempting to carry the ball single-handedly. I had left myself limited time in which to phone round quickly to obtain the approval of the Members whose names appear on the Bill. That was not intended as a slight, and the Bill is not intended to be a party political measure. Indeed, I suspect that one of the Conservative Members whom I would have been tempted to approach could not have supported the Bill because she is now an Opposition Whip, but no slight was intended. It was a shortcoming on my part, nothing more.

I hope that hon. Members will accept that the Bill represents what private Members' Bills should be all about. It emerged from the tragic experience of my constituents, and a tragic incident in my constituency. It seeks to tackle a huge loophole in the law which the House has not chosen to address, although it has known about it for many years. The Bill has been embraced by the wider community and all parties. The House cannot bring David Knowles back to life, but we can acknowledge and act on the lessons of his tragic death. For that reason, I trust and hope that the Bill will today receive a Second Reading.

9.53 am
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I believe that many of the remarks that will be made in the debate will be in memory of the constituent of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). Obviously, when such a tragedy occurs, we all have the family in mind, and I hope that all that we say this morning will be said with the sensitivity that should be accorded to a family who have experienced a tragedy of that nature.

I welcome the Bill because it closes a significant loophole in the law, and because it gives us an opportunity to debate the circumstances in which that tragedy occurred. I should like to take a little time to discuss some aspects of that matter because although the Bill is now very specific—I believe that it has just been described as a little stone—there are other stones on the hillside that need to be placed on the record.

Mr. Truswell

I believe that the description was "a little rock". I would hate it to be recorded as something as small as a stone.

Mrs. Spelman

Absolutely; we must not diminish the significance of the hon. Gentleman's effort.

Under-age drinking worries me greatly, not least because it is rising sharply in the 1990s—a fact which should give politicians of all persuasions cause for concern. The proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds who drank at least once in the last week rose from 13 per cent. in 1988 to 20 per cent. in 1996. Significantly, there is a gender difference between young men and young women, although the trend is the same. Between 1988 and 1996, the percentage of 13-year-old girls who had drunk alcohol in the previous week increased from 11 to 22 per cent. In the same period, the comparative statistic for boys increased from 25 to 37 per cent.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I do not dispute my hon. Friend's contention for I know from anecdotal evidence that teenage drinking is rising, but I wonder about the confidence that she is placing in those statistics and whether she might tell the House how they are arrived at. Have they been arrived at from questions asked in surveys? When I think about my youth, I remember that when I was 13 I would tell my friends that I had done all sorts of things that I had not done at all.

Mrs. Spelman

On that basis, those figures may well be an underestimate. Those statistics are contained in a fact sheet produced by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which was based on Home Office data.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Do those statistics show what an influence the sale of alcopops has had on the increased consumption of alcohol, as the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) argued in an admirable speech? As I understand it, the purchase of alcopops was the occasion of the first visit to the off-licence by the young man concerned. Therefore, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would let me know whether that is the case.

Mrs. Spelman

This statistical series does not give a breakdown of different types of alcohol; it concerns the incidence of consumption of alcohol. However, Alcohol Concern has found not only that the types of alcohol most commonly consumed among under-age drinkers are beer, lager or ciders, which account for 57 per cent. of alcohol consumption among under-age drinkers, but that the number of alcopoppers is rising. I know that hon. Members who were in this place before me expressed their considerable concern at the time of the advent on to the market of alcopops, which are specifically targeted at young people and have certainly contributed to the rising incidence of alcohol consumption among those who are under age.

There is an increase not only in the number of under-age young people who consume alcohol but—a matter of equal concern—in the volume of alcohol that they consume. Between 1990 and 1996, units of alcohol consumed per week increased from six to almost 10 among boys and from 4.8 to seven among girls—a comparable trend but at a lower level. At the extreme end of the scale of 14 and 15-year-olds, 5 per cent. are already consuming volumes of alcohol in excess of the maximum recommended adult levels of alcohol consumption. Those levels are, as every hon. Member would know, 14 units a week for women, such as myself, and 21 units a week for the gentlemen of the House. Ten per cent. of 15 and 16-year-olds are consuming alcohol in excess of the maximum recommended for an adult.

That increase, not only in the number of young people drinking but in the volume that they drink, reaches its most extreme expression in hospital casualty units which, increasingly, encounter cases of young children suffering the effects of extreme alcohol intoxication.

Mr. Swayne

Will my hon. Friend assist me? She spoke of units and, although I once had at least some grasp of what they amounted to, I am afraid that I cannot recall what volume of alcohol they represent in measures that we can understand.

Mrs. Spelman

The easiest way for my hon. Friend to grasp the concept is to remember, the next time he uncorks a bottle of wine and fills a glass, that that is a unit. I hope that will help him. I have a lesser interest in other forms of alcohol, so he will have to consult the tables that outline what the beer in his tankard represents in units of alcohol.

Reports from Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool show that children as young as eight have been admitted with acute alcohol poisoning. That is an important aspect of the debate on what we can do about under-age drinking.

We must consider the motives of the youngsters and we should not shy away from the reasons that they give for drinking alcohol. The obvious ones are that they wish to be seen to be cool, grown-up and moving with the pack. They say that they are looking for a buzz or a quick high from getting drunk. Those are the same motives for taking illicit drugs.

To act on their motives, young people need two fundamental ingredients: the money to buy the alcohol and someone willing to sell it. The willingness to sell it is the subject of the Bill, but I want to dwell for a moment on the first of the two ingredients—the money to buy alcohol. I wish to register an important point that was impressed on me by my local police. More often than not, the money comes from parents, although they may be unaware that the money that was given to a child in good faith to go to the local sports centre is being used to purchase alcohol on a Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps parents are ignorant of how the pocket money or the money that they give their children for various activities is spent. However, a certain relaxed attitude is giving rise to more problems in relation to the way in which young people conduct themselves in society. Only last month, I was called out to a town centre by the owner of a Cantonese takeaway who had experienced many problems from gangs of youngsters. They had been climbing on the roof of his premises and so on. The gang was rounded up and most of its members were under 18. Most of the boys were 16 and 17-year-olds, but with them at 10 o'clock at night was a 14-year-old girl.

When that young lady was taken home—I hasten to add that drinking alcohol was among the antics that had gone on in the town centre—her parents showed no real concern about the fact that their daughter had been out with 16 and 17-year-old lads in the town centre, consuming alcohol after 10 o'clock at night. There is an underlying problem here: if parents take too relaxed an attitude to what their children are up to at that time of night, what they consume and what they use their money for, tragic incidents occur. Such incidents are the very reason for this debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I want it to be understood that I cast absolutely no aspersions on the parents of the young man who died so tragically. However, there is a double problem. Sometimes parents are almost wilfully ignorant of the use to which the money that they give their children is put and one feels a certain sympathy with those selling the alcohol. Sometimes, it is extremely difficult to tell whether a child is 14 or 16, or 16 or 18.

Mrs. Spelman

That is a fundamental aspect of the debate. I shall come on to the position in which the vendor of the alcohol is placed. However, we should not move too quickly off the subject of parental responsibility. Policemen and women find it difficult to patrol our streets safely and, as they have put it forcefully to me, they have limited financial resources. Is it right that they should spend their time returning 14-year-olds who have been consuming alcohol in the company of significantly older young men home at 10 o'clock at night? Is that the right priority for the police, or should they devote their attention to preventing car crime, burglaries and other criminal offences?

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend is making a constructive speech. Does she agree that the behaviour of young people often interacts with the type of criminal activity to which she referred? Young people may get tanked up and take a car and that can result in tragic accidents such as the fatality that happened near my home when five young people went into a canal, or other public order offences. Such problems go much wider than a night out and a hangover afterwards.

Mrs. Spelman

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has reminded me to point out that the money needed to buy alcohol is not always acquired from the parents who give their children money in good faith for other purposes. As with illicit drug consumption, drinking alcohol can lead to a habit in which criminal activity is part of the life style. Money has to be sought by other means to feed the habit. My hon. Friend's points were very well made.

My constituency has a black spot of under-age drinking. It is well known by the community, it is visible and it is in a public place. A supermarket on a housing estate is a veritable Mecca for under-age drinkers and it has proved very difficult to crack the problem. Youngsters congregate outside the off-licence in the car park, and there is evidence of drinking all around. There are beer cans under the shrubberies and bottles—both smashed and intact—all over one end of the car park.

It is unfortunate for local residents and users of the supermarket that it is situated next door to the community surgery. The consequence of under-age drinkers being in close proximity to the surgery is that it has been vandalised and there is much graffiti on the walls. The overall effect on the environment is negative. That is a public nuisance for those who live close to the off-licence. Many elderly people live in ground-floor flats that overlook the car park and, unfortunately, they are regularly forced to witness through their windows the type of anti-social behaviour that often follows drinking.

The police have faced real difficulties in resolving the problem and they relate to the key reasons for the Bill. They find it difficult to catch someone in the act of selling alcohol to an under-age drinker. There is another feature to the problem. It is established practice for someone of the correct age to purchase the alcohol and pass it on to younger drinkers. That point is not covered by the Bill, but I remind the House that, in 1997, the Government made a commitment to introduce legislation making it an offence for someone of age to purchase alcohol with the purpose of passing it on to an under-age drinker. I urge the Government to get a move on with that commitment.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

There is confusion in the Bill, particularly in respect of the proposed new section 169F on the delivery of alcohol and that on the purchase and provision of alcohol to individuals. The hon. Lady said that the practice that she has just described was not covered by the Bill, so what does she think needs to be done to close that loophole?

Mrs. Spelman

I shall come on to that point. I know, when I stand in the car park opposite that off-licence in my constituency, that the Bill will not solve all the problems. There remains the problem of people of the appropriate age being complicit in passing alcohol to an under-age group. The police have made it plain to me that that is a problem for them.

I turn now to the position in which the vendor is placed, which is at the heart of the legislation. I said at the outset that I welcome the tightening of the law on that point. There have been far too many cases of under-age drinking in which there has been a failure, either unwittingly or unwillingly, to prosecute. However, I urge hon. Members to imagine themselves in the position of the vendor. I invite them to come past the rowdy gang on the doorstep, into the off-licence where they will see what the problem is. The check-out job is often done by a woman. In my constituency, that is one of the few jobs available to women who want to work part-time and who do not have the skills for a more highly paid job.

Those women have told me that they feel intimidated and vulnerable when youngsters come into the shop to purchase alcohol. There may be closed circuit television in the off-licence, but often there is not. A woman working alone on a Saturday afternoon in a shop containing valuable goods may be confronted by a group of young men who are considerably larger and more physically able than she is. I invite the House to have a little sympathy with the person who must decide whether to sell alcohol to such a group.

There is a way in which we could greatly assist the people on whom the spotlight now rests, because it will be their decision whether to sell alcohol to the youngsters in front of them. My local authority is consulting about a form of identification for youngsters that may help vendors. What is envisaged in my constituency is not purely a stick with which to beat youngsters into obeying the law on the purchase of alcohol. It will be a carrot and stick arrangement because the card issued to 12 to 15-year-olds would have the advantage of making it easier for 15-year-olds of above-average size to gain entitlement to discounts on activities at local sports facilities.

A carrot and stick approach is preferable, and that scheme is, in any event, being introduced on a voluntary basis. It would have the added advantage of helping vendors who are placed in a difficult position, and who are sometimes intimidated, to ask for such identification and to have an objective way of assessing whether they should allow the purchase of alcohol.

I have sought to introduce to the debate some of the wider aspects of the problem of the sharp rise in under-age drinking. We must tackle that problem. We have a duty as constituency representatives and as Members of the House to do so because the activity is illegal and detrimental to young people's health, so there are sound moral and health reasons for tightening the law. If it has taken the particular tragedy mentioned by the hon. Member for Pudsey to advance the law, that sad case has not been in vain.

10.15 am
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

We are here to debate the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), rather than the, admittedly serious, problem of under-age drinking itself, but that issue is a worry to hon. Members on both sides of the House and to people in constituencies throughout the country.

We hear of very young people being admitted to accident and emergency departments suffering from alcohol poisoning. Even more worryingly, some of the parents who come to collect their children express relief, having feared that their children were taking illegal drugs. There is nothing to be relieved about—alcohol is legal, but it is a dangerous drug. I do not want to be insensitive, having heard the tragic circumstances that led my hon. Friend to introduce the Bill.

I am glad that the House is expected to discuss the wider, important question of licensing law reform. We need to acquire a grown-up culture on alcohol consumption and late-night activity. The fact that we have not yet achieved that culture has tended not only to damage our reputation abroad, but possibly to encourage young people to consume alcohol because it seems grown-up.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill because it will take time for the House to deal with the wider question of licensing reform. In the meantime, it is necessary for employees of any emporium that legally sells alcohol to understand where they may be at risk of prosecution, and for their managers to ensure that they receive proper training.

I have been approached by representatives of independent retailers—corner shops—in my constituency. They are concerned about their position and the difficulty that they may have in knowing whether young people are old enough to purchase alcohol. Those retailers are almost always at risk of prosecution because the person serving is likely to be the "servant" in law or the licensee himself.

We have all had the experience of reaching a supermarket check-out and being served by a 16 or 17-year-old. If we buy a bottle of wine, that person has to call another member of staff and hold up the bottle to show that they have sold it even though they are not themselves legally old enough to sell or consume alcohol. It is hard to understand how those young people could have had proper training and be capable of deciding whether to sell alcohol to a young person who approached their check-out.

We have a two-tier system in which independent, small retailers are subject to more restrictions than supermarkets and large off-licence chains. The Bill will help to ensure that all retailers are under the same obligation regarding the sale of alcohol. Someone who works for a large, anonymous chain should be under the same obligation as the person behind the counter in the corner shop.

The Bill should succeed today, and I hope that it will. Nothing can bring back David Knowles, but we hope that fewer such tragedies will occur in future.

10.19 am
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) spoke briefly, but movingly and effectively. She probably voiced the views of everybody here in expressing support for the Bill. It is a small measure, but it is the most important legislation before the House today, and it merits the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

We all admire not only the manner in which the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) introduced the Bill, but his refreshing candour when I asked why he did not have sponsors from both sides of the House. His answer was totally disarming. His apology was completely accepted by those on the Opposition Benches. I do not think that he would have found much difficulty in attracting sponsors from among us had he had the chance to do so. I speak in support of the Bill, because it is a small but effective measure. However, it is important that we consider some of its consequences.

I should like first to say how much we all sympathise with the Knowles family. In our constituencies, we have all encountered tragic stories of young people who have died. There can be no more terrible thing for any parent than to lose a child, but to lose a child in such circumstances must add anguish to the dreadful sense of bereavement.

One also feels extremely sorry for the driver of the vehicle. To kill a child in such circumstances is terrible. It could happen to any one of us; nobody is suggesting that the driver was in any way culpable. It is therefore important that, in expressing our sympathy for the parents of David Knowles, we also express sympathy—I do not know the name of the man or woman concerned—for the person who drove the vehicle. One also feels for those who must convey the news of death to the parents. So many lives are affected by such a tragic incident.

The hon. Member for Pudsey was generous and right to say that, had the Bill been in force, there would have been no certainty that those who sold the alcopops and lager would have been convicted. I referred obliquely to that when I intervened on the admirable speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who also dwelt on the problem of telling the age of young people. We all know from our surgeries how difficult that can be.

Not so long ago, a young student came to see me to ask questions for some survey that she was doing—we all get them. If anybody had asked me how old that young lady was, I would have said between 18 and 19 years old and that she was in her first year at university. In fact, she was preparing for her GCSE examinations and was therefore 15 years old. So, one feels for those in the difficult position of selling alcohol.

I should like to raise one point that was not referred to by the hon. Member for Pudsey, or by anybody else. We live in the age of information technology, which, for some of us, is extremely difficult. This very morning, once I leave the Chamber, I shall be going over to my room, where a young man will help me to set up my website. I am woefully ignorant of such things. I see the look of horrified repugnance on the face of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) as I announce that I am about to enter the last part of the 20th century—although, of course, it does not end until 31 December this year.

I refer to a serious point. Online shopping, as I believe it is called, is increasingly common. I am told by a colleague who has recently established a website that he decided to visit the Tesco one. I hope that I shall not be accused of giving unwarranted publicity to one chain, but, as my colleague told me, it has the most sophisticated delivery system, through which it is possible to order all manner of goods. Indeed, at the moment, it is able to guarantee delivery within—I think—a half or a quarter or an hour of the time specified.

What knowledge do those who are to deliver the goods have of those who have ordered them? Is it not possible for young people at home—perhaps while their parents are at work, away or out for the evening—to call up supplies of cigarettes, alcohol and so on? I want to know—perhaps the matter can be addressed in Committee and referred to by the Minister—about the position of those who dispatch such goods.

The hon. Member for Pudsey has rightly identified a loophole and is seeking to close it, and he has the sympathetic support of Members on both sides of the House in trying to do so. However, we must consider other loopholes.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the ghastly subject of the internet, to which I have no doubt hon. Members will return during the debate. If I were to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye, I might even attempt to say something about it as well. My hon. Friend raises a wider issue that I would define as the point of responsibility. Does not a similar argument apply to supermarket check-outs, for example? I assume from reading the Bill that responsibility might lie with the person manning a supermarket check-out. Who else is there to take responsibility for such licensed premises? The problem is even wider than that which he has addressed.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I accept that and of course understand why my right hon. Friend wants to bring the debate back from cyberspace to his supermarket check-out. His point was touched on by the hon. Member for Reading, East, when she said that, very often, those manning check-outs are themselves under the legal age for consuming or selling alcohol.

Such people are supposed to summon somebody of the appropriate age, but how many of us have seen, when canvassing in our constituencies, the extent of the pressure of the Saturday afternoon supermarket queue? Vast numbers of people become increasingly agitated as they want to pay for their purchases and get out of the shop, putting pressure on the young people at the check-out. Do all those young people summon somebody? I do not know.

There is the problem of identifying ages. In her admirable speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden talked of the need for some form of identification. A photo-identity card is the only sure way of verifying someone's age, although you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I talked at length on that issue. Nevertheless, it is relevant.

Mr. Boswell

Does my hon. Friend agree that, however admirable a photo-identity card system might be, it would break down in the case of electronic shopping, because such cards would not be available to the person making the sale?

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend has it in one. The point that I was seeking to make is that, even with a photo-identity pass, one cannot be certain. How many people checking our credit card slips look at the signature? We have all read ridiculous examples in the press of people who have signed Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx and had purchases accepted. One must recognise that those who conduct the sale are often under great pressure, doing a job that is so constantly repetitive as to be infinitely boring. They have a problem.

In the best traditions of the constituency Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Pudsey has rightly been deeply moved by a shocking and terrible tragedy, and has sought to do something about it. That is admirable. In doing so as a good constituency Member, he has the support of colleagues in all parts of the House.

If I may say so—I hope that this does not sound flattering or patronising—in my 30 years in the House, I have not heard a better presentation of a private Member's Bill than the hon. Gentleman gave us this morning. He was admirable in his lucidity and did not go in for hyperbole. He stated the case and said what he was seeking to do about it. He deserves our support but just touching on some of these issues makes one realise that there are many other problems that will remain unresolved when the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will.

In discussing the Bill, we are right to examine carefully the issue of parental responsibility. That is where it all begins. As I said in an intervention, the last thing that I want to do is to cast any aspersions on Mr. and Mrs. Knowles, who I am sure, from what the hon. Gentleman said, are not only anguished but admirable parents.

Many parents, however, are far too cavalier in the way in which they treat their offspring and lavish money upon them. There are many parents who see financial generosity as a substitute for being a proper parent. They claim to be very busy, so they give their children a lot of money and tell them to do what they like and go where they want. As a consequence, the clear moral—I use the word without apology—guidance that many of us were privileged to receive in the parental home is not available to many of today's generation of children.

Mr. Swayne

I suspect that the absence of moral guidance is less of a problem than the opportunities available to younger people now, which were not available even to my generation, such as alcopops, income to spend and time in which to spend it. Those are new pressures.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Those are indeed new pressures, and my hon. Friend is right to underline them. They make the job of being a good parent all the more difficult. My sons are 28 and 30, so they have been away from home for some time. It was easier for me to be a good parent than it is for today's parents, because of the opportunities and pressures to which my hon. Friend alluded, and the opportunity for on-line shopping to which I referred.

Mrs. Spelman

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; I shall not detain him. On the topic of parental responsibility, I am sure he is aware that there is often a correlation between drinking among under-age children and the drinking patterns of adults. In households where heavy drinking is a feature of the life style, that may well be reflected in the behaviour of youngsters. As a result of the tightening of the drink-drive laws, many parents now consume more alcohol in their own home, in front of their children, and that is a factor in conditioning the attitude of young people towards the consumption of alcohol.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is a factor, of course, but providing a sensitive and sensible education in the moderate use of alcohol is part of being a good parent.

Our sons were brought up to have a glass of wine with the evening meal—from before the age of 16, I have to say. I do not believe that they suffered as a result. I believe, rather, that they accepted it as a natural part of social eating together as a family, but something that should not be indulged in to excess. Because it was part of the natural family scene, they did not succumb to the temptation to do it away from the parental gaze.

I accept that there are some parents to whom the very notion of alcohol is repugnant. I respect those who are total abstainers, but those who are not have an added responsibility to be sensible and sensitive in the way in which they bring their children up. My hon. Friend is right to point out that, when some parents treat the matter in a cavalier manner and drink as much as they want whenever they want, their children see getting sloshed, as they vulgarly call it, as being part of the parental life style.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

My hon. Friend is developing an important series of points on the issue of responsibility. Does he agree that there is also an issue of corporate responsibility, with respect to some of the advertising campaigns, the products—we have heard about alcopops—and aspects such as what happens at supermarket tills? We should not try to transfer the entire responsibility to parents, although some of it undoubtedly lies with them. Big corporations, which should know better, are making the problem worse, rather than trying to improve matters.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I could not agree more. A child who has a loving, concerned home, with parents who are sensible and give of their time to their child, is much less likely to get into any sort of scrape than children whose parents are careless and merely lavish money on them.

Of course the corporate sector bears a large degree of responsibility. I find some of the explicit advertisements for alcohol on television deeply disturbing. Although I am not by nature a banner—if one has a conservative philosophy, it does not come naturally to ban here, there and everywhere—I believe nevertheless that the advent of alcopops has been almost wholly bad.

If the hon. Member for Pudsey had introduced a Bill to ban the sale of alcopops, he would have found me a willing co-sponsor. Alcopops were an unnecessary product. Many of those who dreamed them up were seeking to exploit certain teenage views. I am strongly opposed to them. My hon. Friend makes a cogent point.

The Bill is a small piece of legislation, as the hon. Gentleman was at pains to point out in his opening speech.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

On corporate responsibility, does my hon. Friend accept that there have been some rather helpful moves by the industry—for example, the Portman Group produced the Prove It! scheme with the identity card for young people, which most colleagues would agree was a useful initiative. Also, excellent training has been given to staff, to try to avoid some of the problems about which we have heard. The picture is not entirely of the corporate sector showing no responsibility; some constructive measures have been taken.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Of course. Frequently, in responding to an intervention that contains a salient point, we tend to generalise. We are all guilty of that from time to time. I would not want my remarks to be interpreted as an attack on the corporate sector and all who operate in it.

As with every sector, there are rotten apples in the barrel. There are those who do things for the wrong reason. Some of the people who dream up some of the advertisements are at best amoral, and sometimes much worse than that. I am extremely concerned about the effects that alcopops have had on our society. They have been a wholly bad development, and I should love them to disappear.

Mr. Swayne

I am not convinced that my hon. Friend is correct. I share his distaste for alcopops, but that is a personal distaste. I wonder what evidence there is that the advent of alcopops has expanded the market in under-age drinking, rather than simply dividing it up. I believe that lager is as pernicious as my hon. Friend suggests alcopops are.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Alcopops may not have expanded the market to an enormous degree; I am not aware of the figures. However, they expanded the opportunities in a way that is peculiarly seductive to young people and more difficult for their parents to identify. That is the indictment of alcopops, and I do not retract a sentence of my condemnation.

Mrs. Spelman

Research undertaken by the schools health education unit at Exeter university in 1998 established that alcopops were associated with heavier drinking in under-age drinkers. A survey of 8,000 young people aged 12 to 14 found that 'alcopoppers' were more likely than others to drink in pubs, discos and at parties rather than purchasing alcohol from an off-licence. I hope that that information shows the risk that those alcohol products present.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That underlines my point about the expansion of opportunity. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the survey to the House's attention. We should return to the subject. I would consider promoting a Bill on alcopops if I obtained a high position in the ballot. That has never happened to me but, if it did, I would consider such a measure.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. As the hon. Gentleman said, he is talking about a separate matter. It may be related to the Bill, but it is a separate issue. I have allowed some leeway, but we must keep to the subject of the Bill.

Sir Patrick Cormack

In a sense, alcopops are the subject of the Bill because it was their purchase that led to the terrible accident that we are discussing. As the hon. Member for Pudsey explained, the first drinks that David Knowles purchased were alcopops. However, I accept your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We must not expand too much on that subject, except to say that it is relevant and that we may revert to it on another occasion.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

One of the unfortunate aspects of alcopops is that, while they were clearly designed for the teenage, and, one suspects, the pre-teenage market, they are much stronger than lager or beer.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is another point. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said in her speech that children as young as eight were consuming those products.

The Bill's scope is narrow and its motivation is important. Its results could be wholly beneficial if it made everyone in every retail premises aware that selling alcohol was a great responsibility, which must never be taken lightly, whatever the alcoholic product. It is especially important that those charged with the sale of alcoholic beverages have regard to those to whom they sell the products. Just as the responsible pub landlord will refuse to continue serving drinks to someone who is obviously inebriated, the most scrupulous attention should be paid to the age or apparent age of the potential customer.

The Bill will ensure that the responsibility for deciding to sell rests on the person who conducts the transaction, however that person is employed. The hon. Member for Pudsey has revealed a loophole, which has existed in law for at least the 30 years to which he referred. He has introduced an effective measure to tackle it. He deserves our congratulations, and, in the case of a Division, our support. He certainly has mine.

10.44 am
Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). However, beyond that, as other hon. Members have said, we owe him a debt of gratitude for several reasons. I do not want to cast aspersions, but if hon. Members examine the list of private Member's Bills, it is apparent that the majority of subjects are chosen because they are populist, because they engender good media coverage for the promoter, or because an organisation assisted in drafting a measure. Today, we are considering a Bill that has been tabled by an hon. Member on behalf of his constituents: a family who visited his surgery in tragic circumstances. Although my hon. Friend said that he was honour-bound to promote the Bill, the House and the country are in his debt because the story of David Knowles has been repeated throughout the land, and families have lost loved ones through alcohol abuse at an early age.

I support the Bill. I agree that it probably deals with only the tip of the iceberg and that we shall have to reconsider modernising our liquor and public entertainment laws. I risk ridicule when I say that it will not be too long before we have to reconsider whether 18 is a sensible age at which to begin purchasing alcohol. Yesterday, we discussed a different matter, but we may need to modernise the law on the purchase of alcohol and consider lowering the age to 16 so that we can properly enforce the law, rather than having legislation that cannot be enforced. That view is borne out by earlier interventions about the way in which teenagers gain access to drink and their attitude to alcohol.

When I was 14, several friends and I went on a school trip to the continent. We went into a cafe bar with some new-found continental friends. They were easily able to purchase alcohol, but they did not. We were amazed, and, unfortunately, we behaved like children in a candy shop. We decided to take advantage of the new opportunity and drank too much. We can learn from countries on the continent that have less strict rules on the sale of alcohol to minors and teenagers and have less of a problem than this country.

Mr. Heald

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the age of majority should be the same for a range of issues? Does he believe that the age of consent for sexual activity should be the same as that for alcoholic purchase, voting and so on, or is he making a less general point?

Mr. Clarke

I do not want Mr. Deputy Speaker to pick me up on straying from the Bill. However, I believe that we should take a more level view on what constitutes adulthood. The hon. Gentleman's points are therefore relevant, and I agree that perhaps we should examine the age for purchasing alcohol in the light of the age of consent for sexual activity and voting. For many years, 18 has been considered the age at which teenagers become adults. However, times have changed, and that age should be kept under review.

Mr. Savidge

I do not wish to detain my hon. Friend for too long on that issue, but does he believe that if we had clear methods of identifying age, it might be easier to decide whether lowering the age to 16 was reasonable? At present, children who are not even teenagers can pretend to be 18 because of the difficulty of identifying age.

Mr. Clarke

I agree. Age is only a number and does not necessarily measure the individual's maturity. We could long debate many associated issues, but they are not connected with the Bill.

Mr. Swayne

We need the Bill because under-18s are being sold alcohol in circumstances in which they ought not to be and that needs tightening up. If that is the case, I see no logic for reducing the age at which they can buy drinks.

Mr. Clarke

The key age of 14 has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and by Conservative Members. David Knowles was 14, as was the young girl mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), and we have heard of similar cases of 14-year-olds who drink. The issue is not only what we do to close the loophole, but why teenagers drink and why 14-year-olds seem to be most vulnerable. I hope that those comments and my suggestion of lowering the age at which drink can be purchased from 18 to 16 assist the hon. Gentleman and answer his question.

We need to consider why young people—those aged between 11 and 15—involve themselves in under-age drinking. The Bill closes the loophole by ensuring that any person who sells alcohol to under-age drinkers will be brought to justice. The issue of off-licences, local stores and who serves whom is important, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) that young people selling alcohol to young people in community stores is a problem. In some cases, they are peers and school friends who are well known to their customers so the issue is not only whether they are breaking the law, but peer pressure and whether the seller would feel comfortable with refusing. We need to consider how much impact that might have on the problem, particularly in tight-knit communities.

With that in mind, a few years ago in Northampton we started to consider why and where children were drinking and why a problem had suddenly arisen around community stores, off-licences and supermarkets. The results were interesting. Everyone in society is affected by under-age drinking. It is not, as some may think, more prevalent in areas of social deprivation. One of our first findings was that some children from the more affluent parts of town were drinking under age. The comments about the availability of cash to feed a new-found habit may be relevant there, but we also found that many children drank outside shops because they felt vulnerable. In some strange sense, the activity and light from the shop acted as a defence mechanism and although they were causing problems and drinking illegally they wanted other people around in case anything went wrong. They wanted to be safe and did not want to drink in dark corners and alleyways.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred to reasonable drinking within families. Society's attitude to alcohol can be distorted and, in the minds of under-18s, drinking is cool and brings them kudos. My hon. Friend referred to his experiences on the continent. When I was 14, I visited a Belgian school, was served beer—very weak beer—with lunch and the atmosphere was relaxed. On the continent, it is normal for a 14-year-old to drink weak beer. I am not suggesting for a minute that we should introduce that here, but does he agree that society's attitude to drinking in the home has to change so that young people do not think that drinking will give them kudos?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. My understanding is that we are discussing the responsibility of the licence holder and off-licence staff. We must narrow our remarks to that issue.

Mr. Clarke

I shall bring the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) into line. This country's outdated social attitude to drink may lead to a number of under-18s trying to procure alcohol from off-licences. Attitudes are part of the argument and important to identifying why we have such a problem. We may need to change our attitude.

There are reams of statistics on the seriousness of the problem and how many young teenagers are drinking and one of the most recent and most useful reports is by John Balding of Exeter university. There is light at the end of the tunnel and good news in respect of what has happened over the past few years. There is no doubt that under-age drinking peaked in and around 1996: John Balding's figures for 1988 show that 20 per cent. of 11 to 15-year-olds were drinking, but by 1996 that had risen to 27 per cent. Fortunately, it had dropped to 21 per cent. by 1998. Were teenagers drinking because it was fashionable or because of the sudden introduction of alcopops? What led to the sudden increase in under-age drinking in 1995–96? We must think about how alcopops are marketed. I find some of the cartoon-style advertisements in magazines and on television offensive and they clearly aim a product that is not available to under-18s at a very young market. We need to return to that issue.

There are further fascinating statistics. The place from which teenagers procure alcohol changes, dependent on age. About 8 per cent. of year eight children buy from an off-licence, but the figure for year 10s is 22 per cent., which is a huge jump. People who begin a habit use an off-licence to feed it. Pubs and bars are used by 4 per cent. of year eight children, but the figure is 14 per cent. for year 10s. The figures for discos and clubs are 6 per cent. and 10 per cent., but 83 per cent. of year eights and 65 per cent. of year 10s said that they got their alcohol from "none of the above" sources. That should be a huge matter of concern for the House. It relates to the comments about delivery, which is covered partly by proposed new section 169F.

We must consider not only internet shopping, but services such as dial-a-booze that take alcohol directly to an event or a house. There could be dangers in respect of separating the sale and delivery of alcohol and knowingly supplying it, which is covered in the Bill. Most of those who operate an internet account—with Tesco, for example—would probably have to be over 18 to set one up, but that would not stop the abuse of that channel for the provision of alcohol to the home. Most teenage drinking occurs in the home.

We owe my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey a debt of gratitude for introducing the Bill and closing the loophole. If we pass it, we shall do a service not only to his constituents, who lost their young son in tragic circumstances, but to families across the country by preventing their children from being taken away from them.

10.59 am
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke), and on this occasion at least to be almost entirely in agreement with his sentiments. Maintaining that note of consensus, I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on his Bill, the case for which he most elegantly expressed and clearly argued. It will make a contribution to tackling this problem, and is very welcome.

The Bill is an exemplary instance of the relationship between us and our constituents, which we sometimes allow to be overwhelmed by cynicism. We sometimes have difficult constituents who do not have the strongest of cases, but from time to time we all have people with a real and serious problem, sometimes involving tragic circumstances, such as the case of David Knowles.

Grieving parents tell us what has happened, and we make a mental note that in one way or another we will do something about it. We may even be fortunate enough to do so, as the hon. Member for Pudsey is today. In my experience of such cases, the reaction of the parents or members of the family if there has been a bereavement is often that they want not revenge, but an active commemoration of the lost person by a change in legislation or some administrative action that prevents such an incident from ever happening again. As hon. Members have said, such tragedies may have happened elsewhere, but at least some good may come of this one. That is why I welcome the Bill.

As a courtesy, I should tell the House that I may have to leave before the conclusion of the debate, because I have another speech to make this afternoon. I readily reassure the House that I do not intend to make a protracted speech now.

The Bill is exemplary and I am happy for it to proceed into Committee for detailed debate. However, I should like to flag up two points. I am an amateur student of legislation, but I sometimes enjoy reading the small print.

My first point concerns the genesis of the argument for the Bill. We have moved from a situation in which typically the licensee was the proprietor of an off-licence and was in charge of the operation. As the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) said, it may be a corner shop or small community shop and the licensee is in charge and tells his staff, who may be members of his family, what to do. The more typical off-licence is part of a large chain and is under the general supervision of a manager who holds the licence. The other workers and employees are keyed into that situation.

That must be right in principle, but I have noticed that there is a desire to expand the traditional relationship, which used to be called—offensively in my view—master and servant, to a wider set of relationships to do with employment or economic activity. There has been a slight tendency towards such a change in relationship in other contexts under the present Government. There is a danger that that could go too far, and it certainly needs watching.

I flag up for later consideration the reference in new section 169B to a person who works in the licensed premises in a capacity, whether paid or unpaid, which gives him authority to prevent the sale. I am a little concerned about the extension of the legislation to unpaid workers or people on the premises. It may be possible to try to deny a relationship if someone had made a sale. The licensee may say that he was not paying that person. Someone may fill in for the licensee—Ministers sometimes have to leave the Chamber for a moment, although they are most assiduous attenders on the Bench, and someone may substitute for them for a short time. I am not talking about a stupid or irresponsible person. There may subsequently be an evidential argument about the nature of the relationship. That issue may need examining.

Mr. Truswell

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and it is a good one. However, the intention of the Bill is to address the circumstances of the Poole case. Often, a member of the family—the wife in the Poole case— undertakes the role of employee without being directly employed or paid. If we did not introduce that section, we would leave the legislation wide open to that anomaly.

Mr. Boswell

I am sensitive to the hon. Gentleman's point. He is probably right, but I flag the matter up for the Committee.

The counterpoint, about which I feel strongly, concerns the licensee. Nothing in the Bill should dilute the licensee's responsibilities. The fact that the responsibility for the sale of alcohol is being spread around the employees at the premises, including those who make the particular sale, although welcome, may run the danger of diluting the licensee's responsibility. Continuing attention must be paid to the training and support given especially to younger or less well-trained, less articulate and less able people in conducting sales.

That brings me to my second point of concern about the detail of the Bill, which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and the hon. Member for Northampton, South. It relates to e-commerce and internet shopping.

Mr. Heald

On my hon. Friend's point about the responsibility of the licence holder, does he agree that, at one time, the licence holder would have been terrified at the prospect of losing his licence, and ensured that staff were adequate to the job and properly trained, could not be intimidated and ensured that the law was enforced? Is he concerned that that may be diluted?

Mr. Boswell

That is so. In fairness to him, the hon. Member for Pudsey, in response to my intervention, made precisely the point that the loss of a licence may be a less rigorous sanction than that proposed in the Bill. We certainly need to explore how the Bill will work in practice.

Mr. Truswell

I am sorry to intervene again, but for the sake of clarity I should explain that nothing in the Bill would dilute the licence holder's responsibility. Its intention is to increase the number of people who are subject to the law, but the licence holder still remains culpable. Even if those to whom these responsibilities are extended are culpable in law, the licence holder may be equally culpable. It does not switch responsibility. The licence holder remains at the centre and must still be seen to be diligent in the discharge of his existing responsibilities.

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that. That was how I had read the Bill. He may consider and take advice on whether it would be wise to include a declaratory sentence or phrase providing that nothing should be construed as diminishing the licence holder's responsibility for his conduct. I leave that for him to reflect on.

My second concern was about the complexities of e-commerce. I recently had a presentation from the managing director of one of the supermarket chains on its expansion into this growing field. There are many legal difficulties on the verification of individuals. Individuals under the age of 18 should not, in principle, have their own credit cards, but they may hack into their dad's arrangements. We all know that that can be done. When delivery is made, is there a responsible person to receive it at the other end?

That brings me to some points that were eloquently made and that require some consideration in the wider context of the conduct of modern commerce. I occasionally call at a branch of the chain of off-licences that has been under consideration in the debate. I pick up supplies and there may be only one person in the shop—that is a one-to-one situation. If there were more than one of me and I really wanted some alcohol and was under 18, I am not sure that that person would be able to see me out.

Supermarkets may be under tremendous pressure and need to keep all stock moving. There may even be a health and safety problem if there is a delay. There are also the complicated issues of when delivery is made and who is responsible. As he is not at the premises, is the van man responsible? Those issues will need consideration in Committee and more widely.

I now come to the wider aspects. I am glad that some sunlight has been shed on the responsibilities of business. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the present welcome, if slightly self-conscious, tendency to examine ways in which people can enjoy alcohol responsibly without drinking to excess or encouraging others to do so. Work has been done on that by the Portman Group and Alcohol Concern.

People at the most senior levels of management are anxious to put that message across, although it is questionable whether those at the lower levels of line management and those on commission are transmitting quite so clear a message. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) performed a service by pointing out that heavy drinking tends to run in families and specific groups, and is especially prevalent among young people. We must bear in mind when considering narrow legislation such as this that the words we utter and the law that we may pass cannot alone transform the attitudes and behaviour of large numbers of people. It is necessary to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse and the effect that it has on the conduct of both young and older people, and also with the problem of drug abuse, although drugs are forbidden by law to persons of all ages. We know, and should acknowledge, that we are, if not powerless, far from omnipotent in dealing with social ills in this place.

Part of my concern about such social ills relates to heavy drinking, which may become a health problem for the individual and may affect others, as I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. I am thinking of incidents involving taking and driving away, car accidents involving third parties and so forth. I believe that the problem with young people manifests itself mainly in public order offences, and a threat to the welfare of town centres at night. Earlier in the week I received an interesting letter from a constituent, who challenged me to try going around Daventry between 11 pm and 2 am on a Friday night. I replied, "I do sometimes, and I know what you mean." Daventry, moreover, is in no sense a deeply deprived or underprivileged area.

I think that, in due course, we should analyse the situation further. We should perhaps concentrate on two categories. One consists of what might loosely be termed the younger teens or sub-teens, who are clearly not of an age to buy alcohol in any plausible way from anyone in an off-licence who is trying to act responsibly. Such young people tend to gather and cause a nuisance if there are not many coffee bars in the area.

The other group consists of those aged 16 and over, who cannot go into pubs and drink on their own but can acquire alcohol, take it out and then, perhaps, cause rather an enhanced nuisance. We all know of places where alcohol can be bought, and they create difficulties in areas such as my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Northampton, South. I am not sure how much alcopops have affected the nature of the problem, but I think that they have affected its scale because of their attractiveness to young people. Identity cards have been mentioned, and the Minister may want to think about that.

We must accept that, however commendable the Bill may be—and I consider it to be commendable—it is not enough by itself. Indeed, the hon. Member for Pudsey made no exaggerated claims for it. I support Members on both sides of the House who favour longer and wider licensing hours in due course. I have some sympathy with the wish of the hon. Member for Northampton, South to allow people to do certain things that they are currently not permitted to do under the age of 18 at a younger age, on a graduated basis. That certainly applies to alcohol but we need to think it out carefully.

It would be useful if both the Front-Bench teams and, in particular, the Minister could set some of the issues in context. I would like to know how the Home Office sees the phenomenon of the increase in under-age drinking: is it still increasing, or is the fashion tending to diminish? Even if we have statistics, they may not be the most reliable. People do not advertise their habit, and they do not necessarily tell the truth about it. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), we do not necessarily know exactly what is happening in these social cases.

We should consider the impact on public order—vandalism, and the effects on amenities in town centres. We need reliable means of identifying those who are under age, and giving those who sell to them a reasonable assurance that they are of age. Perhaps the Minister will consider this along with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

As the Minister knows, I have certain Front-Bench responsibilities for young people. The Secretary of State proposes the establishment of a youth support service and a young people's card. I am not sure that everyone wants an ID that might be seen as a control function, but, as Ministers have dangled certain inducements such as cheaper travel and other discounts before young people, it is worth considering whether they might willingly carry a card specifying that they have reached the age of 18, or one which, if available only to those under 18, could be updated to provide the new ID, because there would be a database. It is a sensitive issue, but it needs to be considered.

I hope that the Front-Bench spokesmen can give their perspectives on how we are proceeding generally in regard to responsible alcohol use. Not many of us are total abstainers, although I respect those who are. Those of us who can use and, we hope, enjoy alcohol properly and responsibly know from experience that that was not always an easy path to find during our younger years. We know that a philosophy of total prohibition up to a certain point followed by, as it were, total licence, is not satisfactory. We need a better perspective on how to encourage the responsible education of young people.

I welcome the Bill, which is well-intentioned, efficient and capable of fulfilling a need in the law. Essentially, we are restoring the intentions of the legislators of 30 years ago, which have been subverted by an unfortunate oversight. The hon. Member for Pudsey has performed a service in remedying that oversight.

11.18 am
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on presenting a timely, appropriate and much-needed Bill that will stand as a fitting tribute to his unfortunate late constituent, David Knowles.

I apologise for not being present for the first 20 minutes of the debate. Having bowled in from Ealing in half an hour with no trouble, I then spent 48 minutes trying to get around Parliament square. I say that not in order to seek any particular favours from the traffic police in the future, but merely to excuse—I hope—what may have seemed a lack of courtesy.

Mr. Savidge

That is Westminster council for you.

Mr. Pound

I rest my case.

There is a slightly odd feeling in the House this morning—not just because of the equanimity that is a tribute to the skills and the excellent presentation of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. As far as I can recall, this is one of the few Friday mornings on which Members on both sides of the House have not sat in fear anticipating the iconoclastic actions of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—the man who put the "chisel" in Chislehurst. He has kicked more Bills to death on a Friday morning than anyone other than the Government Whips. Were sponsorship ever to come to the House, he would surely be sponsored by Doctor Marten's.

Mr. Truswell

It would assist me greatly if my hon. Friend did not tempt fate.

Mr. Pound

I am anxious not to tempt fate. Extraordinarily, not only has the right hon. Gentleman indicated support, but almost uniquely he is absent from his seat. It is a bit like going to the Chamber of Horrors and finding Jack the Ripper is not there—not that I am comparing the House with Madame Tussauds.

Mr. Heald

Will the hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on his award as Opposition Back Bencher of the year?

Mr. Pound

I appreciate that the more popular choice for that award was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall—Andrews) but, on this occasion, I am sure that the accolade was deserved. However, we stray tangentially from the point.

The fact that the Bill is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House is not just a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, but a recognition of its rightness. It has been educative for many of us to read our way through and to come to terms with the arcane minutiae of the Licensing Act 1964, particularly section 169(1), and the quaint, delightful use of the word "servant" in the early 1960s. Philip Larkin said that sexual intercourse began in 1963 between the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles' first LP. It was at the trial that Mr. Justice Melford Stevenson said, "Is that the sort of book, gentlemen of the jury, you would want your wives or servants to read?" The use of the word "servants" may have been of its time in the early 1960s, but it has clearly caused problems. That is one of the reasons why this timely Bill to block the loophole has been introduced.

I accept that hon. Members have often felt the need to place the Bill and the problem of under-age drinking in the wider societal context. We have to resist that, even though it is extremely difficult to be objective about the subject. So many of us define ourselves almost in terms of drinking. It has become a rite of passage and we associate ourselves with particular drinks. Clearly, this side of the House is fresh sparkling spring water whereas, with Conservative Members, bitter springs to mind. In the upper House, I have no doubt that crusted port would be appropriate. They are not strangers to the Bishop's Finger, as I recall.

Although no members of the minor Opposition party are present, if anything so defines the modern Liberal Democrat, it is association with the loathsome, fizzy, tasteless, over-hyped, ultimately unsatisfying alcopops, crudely packaged to appeal to the immature and jejeune—liberal democracy in a Two Dogs bottle.

Mr. Boswell

I do not wish to spoil the jokes. Indeed they need to reverberate on the palate, but will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that he does not intend to identify anyone, or indeed any political party—I hasten to say before I mention the word that it is important that it be spelt properly—with the sobriquet "Old Peculier"?

Mr. Pound

I shall resist that temptation.

In many cases, the problems that we face arise from the alcopops phenomenon of the mid-1990s. They were invented by an Australian called Mr. Macgilivray, who found that he had a large stock of possibly knocked-off lemons in a lorry outside his outback boozer and wanted something to do with them. Heaven help us if he had had a load of pork. We would probably have alcoholic sausages to this day, but alcopops are the drink of choice.

My 12-year-old daughter, who speaks to me occasionally, tells me that the preferred drink—not of her group, I hasten to add, but of the group of those who are four years older than her—is peach schnapps and lemonade. The drink is known as Archers, presumably because people cannot remember a blind thing about what they said the next day, unless they get a friend to remind them, but there is no doubt that, in many ways, the arrival of alcopops on the commercial scene has resulted in direct targeting of young people. In many ways, that has increased the incidence of under-age drinking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) referred to some of the statistics. He referred to the Balding report, which someone suggested, somewhat ungraciously, was what my hairdresser says to me. The university of Exeter report shows that there was an increase in the mid-1990s and then a slight decrease.

We have had a number of reports. The Standing Conference on Crime Prevention report on young people and alcohol in 1987 makes the point wisely that alcohol problems among young people are not new. It refers to the position in Liverpool—poor old Liverpool—in 1877, when 350 children under the age of 12 were found reeling around the streets. That may not occur today, but it is a long-standing problem, which has been exacerbated by the presence of alcopops on the market.

More appropriately, in August 1996, the Health Education Authority produced its report on the 1995 health education monitoring survey's health of England report. May I beg the indulgence of the House and make a serious point? It seriously analyses the problem of teenage drinking. It makes the point that, although there are few examples of teenage alcoholics, adolescence is the time when people's drinking patterns are established for the rest of their life. In much of the statistical data that we have read, I and my hon. Friend and colleague both saw a trend: drinking patterns in the early teenage years often continue into adult life and excess can lead to all the problems of cirrhosis, of the individual illnesses, and to criminality, even in the shrubbery of the constituency of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman).

The Health Education Authority report says that most young people use alcohol sensibly during adolescence and continue those drinking patterns into adult life without harm, but there is an essential caveat: the survey was conducted before what is described as the new alcoholic colas and lemonades became widely available.

We had more detailed reports from the Government, although without doubt my favourite piece of research was by Gruber, Diclemente, Anderson and Lodico, who wrote a seminal paper on early drinking onset and its association with alcohol use and problem behaviour in late adolescence. It posits a causative link in relation to teenage drinking; it causes problems—problems can be identified through it—and, in many ways, it is an aspect of the problems of young teenagers. Brain and Parker's Manchester university report is also available. Many people will see the same trend in that.

One of the key features of alcopops is that they are extremely strong: alcohol content is 5 per cent. In many cases, young people are simply not able to realise that what is superficially an attractive drink is a lethal concoction to young people, with the tragic consequences so eloquently expressed earlier. I would say more about the research, were it not that the spirit of unanimity prevalent in the Chamber renders detail unnecessary.

The Bill will not solve the problem of under-age drinking—that is obvious. The responsibility of parents and of the wider society has been mentioned. However, the legislation will result in material improvement by correcting an anomaly and resolving the problems made so evident in Brandish v. Poole and the Russell case in December 1996. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that, in introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey is acting in the best traditions of a constituency Member of Parliament. I wholly endorse and associate myself with that comment. For a Member of Parliament, Back Bencher or Front Bencher, to introduce apparently modest legislation, the effects of which will be far from modest—the Bill will not merely tidy up an anomaly, close a loophole or serve as a tribute to Mr. Knowles, but will further the betterment of society—is a fine example of the work that we are sent here to do.

If the Bill is enacted, we shall have done good work here today. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. I regret that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is still not in his place, as I have a few other bon mots that I would have liked to share with the House.

Mr. Swayne

Oh, go on.

Mr. Pound

If I may respond to the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for New Forest, East—

Mr. Swayne


Mr. Pound

I am sorry, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—even though I understand that, when the moon is full, the hon. Gentleman knows no boundaries. Suffice it to say in response to his intervention that the presence of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst inspires many of us.

On that note, I thoroughly endorse the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. That unanimity reigns in the Chamber today is a tribute to my hon. Friend and to the seriousness of his Bill.

11.32 am
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), not only because he has entertained the House with a characteristically humorous and gracious speech and, while lightening the tone of debate, introduced some important academic research, but because he will recall that, on "Despatch Box" last night, the two of us had an amiable debate on television. I should say that, despite the hour, I did not notice any of my hon. Friends howling at the moon.

I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the archaic language of "master" and "servant" used in the 1964 Act. Without wishing to cause any rifts in the comity and amity prevalent on the Labour Benches, I should point out that, if he wants to discover whether the concept of servants is still archaic, he should have a word with his new hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward), who might be able to put him straight on that point.

I am delighted to add to the praise heaped on the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who has performed an exemplary duty as a constituency Member of Parliament and has done so in a fashion that all of us would like to think that we could emulate some day. All right hon. and hon. Members are united by the feeling that we are here to put right clear injustices, where that is possible, by bringing an issue to the attention of our colleagues and, as the hon. Gentleman has done, elegantly and eloquently introducing a Bill that will improve matters for our constituents throughout the land. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman, not only on coming high in the ballot but on the excellent piece of legislation that he has chosen to promote.

One or two hon. Members have said that the Bill is narrow in scope, but it is genuinely important, not least because it enables us to get beyond the sometimes sterile debates that we have on other issues. Such debates can be, and often are, caricatured as the Labour party believing that regulation is the answer to everything and the Conservative party believing that no regulation serves any constructive purpose whatever. Today's debate has been extremely constructive. The hon. Member for Pudsey and many of his hon. Friends recognise that although the Bill is important and will help, it will not in and of itself solve the problem, whereas Conservative Members recognise the case for extending, improving and embellishing regulation in this context.

Although Conservatives are committed to deregulation and to free enterprise, we recognise that certain activities must take place within strict and clear regulations. We acknowledge that there is a wider societal need and that, in certain matters, companies are not always, or even often, the best arbiters of their own interests. It is in the interests of companies and of society as a whole that there is clear legislation that restricts some of the activities in which they might otherwise indulge.

Mr. Pound

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about companies not being the best arbiters, but does he agree that one of the more interesting aspects of the Bill and the background to it is that the Portman Group, comprising producers and suppliers, has acted with great responsibility and is an example of the way in which responsible retailers, wholesalers and producers can anticipate legislation and sometimes respond to a problem more effectively than Parliament can?

Mr. Collins

I entirely agree. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and I was going to explore it later in my speech. However, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated my remarks.

We have heard about instances in different parts of the country of the problems that have been identified in the debate. In my constituency, in Kendal, close to my own home, difficulties have arisen in exactly the circumstances described by the hon. Member for Pudsey and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). Young people congregating either immediately outside or close to a small corner shop, supermarket or off-licence cause disturbance and concern to local residents. That undermines the fabric of society: people in the area feel intimidated, even if they are in their own home, because they look out of their window and see problems occurring outside; and the parents of the young people involved are often profoundly concerned. We must do something to tackle such problems. It may well be that the Bill is not the end of the process, but it is an important starting point.

We must also develop our thinking about vendors and the Bill's implications for them. It has been argued that many of those who sell alcohol are in a similar age group to those who buy it, or feel that they are subject to intimidation. For various reasons, they may feel that they have no choice but to sell alcohol in circumstances that are less than ideal. That is why, although the Bill represents positive and important steps forward, we must think about going further and putting some of the onus and the responsibility under law on the national chains.

When describing the circumstances in which his constituent died, the hon. Member for Pudsey explained that they related to sales from a well-known national retail chain that advertises extensively throughout the country and probably has outlets in almost every constituency. It is one of the most well-known national brands operating in that sector of the economy. It strikes me that we should seek ways to make that retail chain nationally feel responsible for activities that are not merely isolated cases. I suspect that those activities take place in and around a large number of sites—not only those of the national chain that has been singled out, but those of others as well.

I was discussing with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) the need for corporate responsibility. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ealing, North are right to mention the work of the Portman Group and the many companies in the sector that recognise that there is a problem, want to contribute positively toward solving it and have contributed significant sums of their shareholders' cash to that end. Equally, it is difficult to believe that some of the advertisements on national television and in the national media are not targeted at those who, at the very best, are on the borderline of being legally allowed to consume those products.

In some ways, retailers are not providing an environment in which people feel protected against intimidation. I make that point because, as the hon. Member for Pudsey will know, Alcohol Concern very strongly welcomes the legislation. None the less, it has said that, although it welcomes the way in which the Bill closes the loophole, it is concerned about it taking away an important incentive for employing companies to ensure their employees are clear about their legal responsibilities and the consequences for neglecting them. It goes on to say: However, by making employees liable to prosecution, it is important that employing companies do not themselves avoid prosecution where they have not made legal responsibilities clear to their employees or provided them with adequate, relevant training. I accept what the hon. Member for Pudsey said. He has sought to base what he is doing—very narrowly, but quite properly and correctly—on closing a loophole in the 1964 Act. However, I hope that we will hear from the Minister whether he is prepared to contemplate examining provisions that would have the practical effect of giving some of the national retail chains a very direct incentive to provide that form of training and employment guidance. Perhaps we should even go beyond that.

We have heard of cases in which large groups of young people go into retail outlets late at night, with perhaps only one female employee on the counter, who—although there may be CCTV—feels intimidated. Although companies already have an incentive to provide some form of protection for their staff and stock, as the consequences of allowing their properties to be robbed would be very damaging to them, it would be desirable if we could work in partnership—I do not suggest that it should be done purely by means of the stick—with some of those national retail chains in recognising that they all have an interest in a strong, healthy society. They need to operate within such a society as much as we wish to live within one.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

indicated assent.

Mr. Collins

I see the Minister nodding. I should very much welcome anything that he may be able to say on the subject in his reply. Although at least some of the issues that we have heard about in the debate are addressed directly in the legislation, I also invite the hon. Member for Pudsey to think and reflect on the point if—as I very much hope—the Bill proceeds to Committee.

Proposed new section 169H(2) would clarify the law by providing: Where the holder of a justices' licence is convicted of any of the offences"— that are listed elsewhere— and the licence is held in respect of licensed premises in relation to which the offence was committed, the court may order that he shall forfeit the licence if—

  1. (a) he has one or more offences of that or any other offence …
  2. (b) he already has one or more convictions of an offence under section 169 of this Act."
To paraphrase the provision, one might say that it is a "two strikes and you're out" principle. The provision, however, applies directly only if it is the holder of the justices' licence who is found guilty of the offence.

The hon. Member for Pudsey was right to say that it is an offence to permit something to happen if one could and should have stopped it. For example, perhaps the genuine holder of the licence is not present and cannot be held directly liable—in the sense of "I was around and could have stopped it"—but he or she may be liable in the broader sense that he or she did not provide guidelines that made it sufficiently clear that, if there was any doubt, the onus on their employee was not to sell alcohol.

Mr. Truswell

I am very grateful for those comments. To clarify the position, the law currently puts the onus on the licence holder. In David Knowles's case—I make no apologies for referring back to it—the licence holder was investigated and interviewed by investigating officers to determine whether she could demonstrate that she had given such training and raised her employees' awareness of the law. My understanding is that she had not been on the premises, but that the investigating officers still wished to reassure themselves that she had done all that she could do to achieve the aims that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. If she had not been able to demonstrate that, I am sure that a report would have gone to the CPS and that she would have found herself in the dock.

Mr. Collins

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining the circumstances and more of the background of the case. His comments were helpful and illustrative. I am sure that he and I would agree that it is important that the compulsion, or at least the incentive, on the licence holder should be as strong as possible. As we know, one of the most important ways in which such compulsion could bear on licence holders is through the fear that they might lose their licence.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, we should ensure that the Bill strengthens rather than weakens licence holders' feeling that, if anyone associated with one of their premises is convicted of one of the offences—although they will not necessarily lose their licence—it will contribute to a process in which they may well lose their licence. Such a process would help to ensure that there are very clear incentives for people to behave.

We have talked a great deal about issues of doubt. There will be uncertainties—we have discussed ways of addressing those—and any solution that we find will never be perfect and enable all licence holders and employees to know the exact age of someone who says, "I wish to purchase this alcohol." Nevertheless, we have to create circumstances in which people think, "If in doubt, do not sell it" rather than, "If in doubt, sell it." Anything that we could do in the Bill or elsewhere to achieve that end would be very desirable.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with care. Before he concludes, perhaps he would care to comment on the problem that we have been considering—that the loss of a licence is essentially the nuclear option and that a system of graduated penalties may well be preferable. He referred to someone stepping towards losing a licence. However, there could be other steps, such as fines and other sanctions that legislation currently does not allow. Such a system might provide a greater incentive for licensees to keep control of their employees and to ensure that they obey the law.

Mr. Collins

I am very interested in the Minister's comments on that point. It was a constructive and helpful intervention, which suggests some useful ways forward. I was also intrigued by his description of the loss of a licence as the nuclear option. There should be options that are more likely to be used. If the fear is that the loss of a licence is regarded by the courts as such a nuclear option that it is not often used, we should have a graduated system. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the problem with the nuclear option is that it is not often used. There should be some circumstances in which the option is used. Nevertheless, he is offering a constructive way forward.

Mr. Heald

My hon. Friend may wish to comment on another aspect of the matter, which is whether justices, before granting a licence, should not be questioning potential licensees carefully on their exact understanding of the law and on whether they will undertake their obligations sensibly. Perhaps they would also undertake some of the courses available from the British Institute of Innkeeping, and, of course, adopt the Portman Group code of practice.

Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend, characteristically, offers constructive proposals. Perhaps we should begin to consider the notion—I am not saying that we should move all the way down this road—that an application for and the granting of a licence to sell alcohol is treated as seriously as an application for and the granting of a driving licence. Such a licence may have at least as much to do with the preservation of life as a driving licence, and the introduction of written tests and more complicated procedures has made it more difficult to obtain one of those. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the guidelines set out by the Portman Group. Anything that can be done to make licence holders understand and follow those guidelines is worth doing.

Mr. Boswell

In the light of that thought and the Minister's helpful intervention, would it not be worth considering temporary withdrawal of licences, as happens when driving licences are confiscated for finite periods?

Mr. Collins

We should seek, both in Committee Bill and from the Government more generally, the widest menu of options for the courts so that they may express displeasure and condemnation of actions taken either by employees of licence holders or by licence holders themselves. People should believe that the courts will act when something happens. That principle is the genesis of the Bill—the hon. Member for Pudsey introduced it because of the clear injustice that occurred when the courts could not act.

We need to give the courts the widest possible range of measures for application to different circumstances. However, we must make it clear that we want to tackle the general problem, which has recently grown. We want to turn back the tide before the problem increases yet further and before the majority of young people experience these difficulties, which is likely to happen soon on present trends.

Often, when we discuss complex and many-sided problems—in this case we have discussed parental responsibility, corporate responsibility and the roles both of teenagers who sell and buy alcohol—we may feel that the problem is simply too difficult and that nothing can be done. We may even feel that action would make the problem worse. Today, however, we have begun to identify steps that, if they will not solve the problem, will begin to improve the position.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey on enabling us to see that we can do something about some problems. When his Bill proceeds into Committee, I hope that we can show that we are doing something.

11.53 am
Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and others who have spoken today. As one who is not a frequent participant in Friday debates, I can only assume that I have heard the usual process of discursive debate and unanimity.

Mr. Pound

Oh no it is not.

Mr. Leslie

Perhaps I should pay more attention in future.

One of today's most telling phrases came from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who said that, in his 30 years in the House, he had not heard a more admirable presentation of a private Member's Bill than that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). I, too, support the proposals made by my constituency neighbour. I am a sponsor of the Bill, although I would be happy to withdraw in favour of any Conservative Member if that would help it to proceed. As a sponsor, I am keen to see the Bill come into force because it is extremely well framed. My hon. Friend's argument is focused and sharp, and the Bill has won unanimity by the nature of its design. We must ask how to improve licensing laws.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). He has just left the Chamber, and that will allow me to mention an incident without incurring opprobrium. I recall that he once had bandages on the middle fingers of his right hand as a result of drink. I read that he had broken his fingers by hitting a drinks machine and, although it was a coffee machine, we may feel that mixing with drink has not been to his advantage. It was useful to hear his views.

In many ways, the Bill offers common-sense change. We often talk about common sense, but legislation does not always match that talk. The House can help the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to fulfil their duty to prosecute when the spirit of legislation implies a need for it. However, unforeseen loopholes can prevent prosecution, and it is our duty—especially in the private Member's legislative process—to improve matters. The public expects that of us, and we should scrutinise legislation thoroughly, but also revisit it later to close loopholes and maintain the original spirit of the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has advanced a modernising proposal that considers the changing nature of supermarket and chain store retailing of alcohol. We must try to raise public confidence in the licensing laws. Silly loopholes exist in several areas of the law, and this is one area in which good drafting and a consideration of the changing circumstances of retailing can help.

My hon. Friend has done us a service by defining his proposal tightly. He has not changed the wider general licensing laws, but has taken a one-step approach. The Bill is significant. I have not spoken to the constituents involved in the tragic case of David Knowles, but I have read reports on it and am happy to support my hon. Friend's proposal. By not altering the burden of evidence, and by not significantly changing the defences for people who may be prosecuted under the licensing laws, he has left the gist of the law intact while focusing on the loophole.

The CPS needs to be able to make prosecutions with confidence. If there is any doubt that a case will have a successful outcome, the CPS is reluctant to prosecute it. If we, as legislators, are indirectly responsible for that, by not closing loopholes, we have a duty to deal with the matter.

We need to give the CPS greater confidence in its ability to prosecute cases. The public expect that. My constituents are often bamboozled when they read of cases that seem to be open and shut, but which, in the nitty-gritty of their prosecution, are dropped for technical reasons. We need to frame legislation that is more in line with public expectations.

We must deter licensees and retailers from selling alcohol to minors. We should send a strong message that no loophole will provide an excuse for breaking the spirit of the law. We must ensure that all our licensing laws are properly enforced; a blind eye is turned on far too many occasions. There must be stronger incentives for licensees and retailers to train their staff properly.

Licensees have a responsibility to protect from alcohol abuse those young people who come into their stores, but they also have duties to wider society, which must be reinforced. Licensees must stop young people from purchasing alcohol because of the myriad consequences that can occur. We have heard that the most tragic events can take place in some circumstances.

Alcohol abuse by young people manifests itself in society in many ways, such as vandalism. It has the potential to lead to other forms of drug abuse. Licensees have a duty to themselves to ensure that the spirit of the law is fulfilled. We should support the Bill so as to ensure that there can be no excuse for them not to fulfil their duties.

Some wider issues have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) made some important points about the dangers of high-volume consumption. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) suggested that we should try to encourage young people to avoid bingeing. When young people reach a certain age, they want to experiment with drinking—they have a candy-shop mentality. We shall probably never be able to stop that, but we need to consider ways of removing the instant temptation to consume large amounts of alcohol.

Some interesting points were made about internet retailing of alcohol. I do not know whether there are regulations as to the use of credit cards, although the age limit for obtaining them is fairly high. However, as only the number of the card is needed for internet purchases, I suspect that credit cards are frequently used. A postal service would be most attractive for people wanting to buy alcohol. I hope that the Government will consider that matter.

We need to discourage teenage alcohol abuse. We have discussed alcopops and the pros and cons of banning them. However, the best way to deter consumption of alcohol is to ensure that its availability is restricted. We must enforce our legislation and tighten up loopholes so that we prevent the sale of alcohol to young people at the sharp end. That is the best way to proceed.

I wanted my comments to be brief. I wanted to support my neighbour in his constituency efforts. I believe that he is following the classic example of how a Member of Parliament should progress a matter, by bringing a tightly defined measure to the Floor of the House and building consensus across all parties.

In the 1997–98 Session, my hon. Friend's Licensing (Amendment) Bill, which was in a similar vein to the Bill before us, progressed as far as Committee, after which the machinations of procedures prevented progress. I sincerely hope that, in response to his constituency case and the deficiencies in the law, progress can be made on this very important proposal, and that we can all focus our efforts not just on licensing regulations but on other deficiencies in legislation in general—on closing specific and discrete loopholes, so that the spirit of what I believe to be a common-sense public desire may be enacted and put into operation by public authorities.

12.6 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

It is an enormous privilege to be called to speak in support of a Bill that is so worthy of support, the case for which was so lucidly made by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). I congratulate him on the way that he spoke to the Bill and on introducing it. It is also a privilege to follow so many thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions. I hope that I shall not depart from those precedents.

However, alarmingly, as we analysed the Bill it was drawn to our attention that, as we close this loophole, which we must close, all sorts of new loopholes might open up. I was especially dismayed by the prospect of the internet being used by minors as a means of ordering alcohol for delivery to their home. I am glad that the Minister is in the Chamber, and I hope that, as we consider the Bill, he is considering what may be done to address some of those problems.

The Bill creates new offences, but old defences remain for them, and they are in the Bill. For the new offences that we are creating, it remains the case that where a person … is charged by reason of his own act, it is a defence to prove that he had no reason to suspect that the person was under eighteen. That is the nub of the problem. How does anyone know that a person is under 18?

Some 15 years ago, when I was in my late 20s and a schoolmaster, I took a group of young adults—17 and 18-year-olds—to a public house to celebrate a successful inspection of the school's cadet force, of which I was commanding officer. I took those young men, in uniform, to the pub. I went up to the bar to order them all a pint of beer, and the barman said, "You are not 18"—to me, in my late 20s. I said, "Yes, I am" and he replied, "Show me that you are 18." The only thing that I could think of using to show that I was 18 was a credit card. I possessed a credit card. Surely it is impossible to have a credit card before the age of 18. He said, "Oh, my daughter's at university. She's 17. She's got one of those. Off you go—off to the White Lion. That is the place for under-age drinking"—so we left. It was very embarrassing for me, having to go elsewhere.

When I got back to the school, the headmaster had left a note on the board for me. It said that the publican had rung the school to say that several of our boys who were in uniform had attempted to buy alcohol. The headmaster wanted to know whether I had any idea who they could be. I had to write a note to him to say, "It was me. What's more, the publican was thoroughly unpleasant about it." Nevertheless, the publican was vigilantly doing his duty as so many licensees and publicans do.

Mr. Maclean

If that highly vigilant publican had been uncertain 15 years ago about my hon. Friend's age, is my hon. Friend not concerned about the enormous difficulties that would face young girls and young men at check-out points who themselves might be only 17 or 18? They serve customers, but they might not have all the necessary cognitive skills to identify the age of the person passing through the check-out with a load of alcohol.

Mr. Swayne

That is, of course, true. However, I must point out to my right hon. Friend that, 15 years ago, I used Grecian 2000. That might have led to the mistake that the publican made.

My right hon. Friend is right that young people will be put in a responsible position by the Bill. We owe it to them to assist them. That does not mean that licensees have any right to relax their vigilance and let their servants bear the brunt of the responsibilities created by the Bill. That cannot be allowed. There must remain a duty of care on the licensee to show due diligence and to instruct and train his employees or servants to carry out the responsibilities given to them.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on looking so fresh faced then that he was assumed not to be 18. Given the world that we live in 15 years later, if he were in a similar position and was told that he could not buy alcohol even though he was the ripe old age of 28, does he believe that that might be a case of discrimination and a matter for the European Court of Human Rights?

Mr. Swayne

My hon. Friend will know that I do not hold with the European Court of Human Rights and would not therefore pursue any imagined slight at that monstrous assembly. However, if I went any further on that point, I would be ruled out of order.

The Bill will place new responsibilities on people, so we owe it to them to assist them. Attention has been given to the issue of identity cards. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) commended the Prove It! scheme run by the Portman Group. I am aware of licensees in my constituency who have attempted to promote several such voluntary schemes. They have all fallen down precisely because of the fact that they were voluntary.

I suspect that we might not make progress unless there is a compulsory requirement, which could be driven by not allowing people to buy alcohol unless they could show that they were of a certain age. It could be 28, as in my case, but we must have a threshold. One should have a card to prove that one is old enough to buy alcohol. Otherwise, people will get round the provisions.

The Bill will benefit licensees and it will be welcomed by them. I know licensees in my constituency who are enthusiastic about it. There is nothing more upsetting—even humiliating—for them than to have under-age purchasers come into their shop and be sent away empty-handed as they should be, only for them to return a quarter of an hour later making gestures through the window because they had acquired the alcohol from a supermarket down the road. That is utterly unacceptable to most licensees. They have that frustrating experience again and again. They are vigilant in enforcing the existing law, but other retailers, either by policy or omission, are not. We owe it to vigilant licensees to assist them.

How can we be sure, however, that the problem will be avoided unless there is some form of identification? As I said, compulsory identification would work. The voluntary schemes, which have been well piloted, have yet to catch on sufficiently to address the problem.

Miss Kirkbride

How would a compulsory scheme work, bearing it in mind that it would present the Government with the issues surrounding identity cards? How could we introduce a scheme for young people that would not lead to identity cards for the rest of us? Does my hon. Friend have any views on that?

Mr. Swayne

The hon. Member for Pudsey was wise not to include such a provision in the Bill. I doubt whether the Bill would have progressed if he had done. My hon. Friend has identified the fact that if we introduced such a provision, we would open up a much wider issue, which I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would not want us to investigate fully in this debate. A Bill containing such a wider provision would have to be a Government measure and follow wide-ranging consultation. We have, to an extent, examined those issues in the past 10 years, and we have shied away from them.

I am not certain whether the particular problem dealt with in this Bill is sufficient for us to go all the way to a system of compulsory identification. I recognise that such a remedy would work, but I am not convinced that other policy considerations would lead us to seek that remedy.

Mr. Maclean

I have been listening carefully to all that my hon. Friend has said, including his confession that he used Grecian 2000. I hope that we will hear no more disturbing confessions from these Benches; we have heard too many in the past few days. We have had people admitting to being closet heterosexuals and now to using Grecian 2000. It is not clear to me whether my hon. Friend will support the Bill despite his concern that it might not be possible clearly to identify the age of young people. Does he think that the Bill has merit and should proceed?

Mr. Swayne

I do, because as the hon. Member for Pudsey said, he does not seek in the Bill to address the shortcomings of our licensing laws. He has had faithfully to replicate all those shortcomings to close the existing loophole. If he had attempted to deal with the problem to which I referred, the Bill would be much larger and might not have been appropriate for a private Member's Bill.

Subsections (2) and (3) of proposed new section 169A are necessary corollaries of the existing licensing laws. The same defence offered in those laws must clearly be offered for the offences created in the Bill; otherwise the hon. Gentleman would have departed from what he set out to do and the progress of his measure would have been much more difficult.

It is precisely because the hon. Gentleman has done what he has done that he is assured of my support, but as this is a Second Reading debate, I draw attention to the wider problem that we have to address because it is not solved by closing this loophole.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend has been patient and courteous in giving way. I think that he quoted Alcohol Concern. Has he seen its comment that the Bill does not go far enough? It would like test-purchasing schemes. I assume that that issue is within the scope of the long title. Has he considered pushing the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) to include such a scheme in the Bill?

Mr. Swayne

Were I the hon. Member for Pudsey, I would not countenance such an amendment precisely for the reason that other Bills on this subject have failed as a result of containing a provision for mystery shopping.

None the less, if we are creating a new offence, it is perfectly proper to consider how we should test whether it is being committed. Let us face it, the person who is sold alcohol illegally under the Bill's provisions is hardly likely to enter a complaint at a police station about the law being broken. We are of course aware of the law being broken from more general symptoms in society on Friday and Saturday nights and from drunken disorder on estates and shopping parades, although finding out who is breaking the law would be assisted by the amendment for which Alcohol Concern has asked.

Alcohol Concern has raised hon. Members' worries about empowering police officers and trading standards officers to wage a vendetta by attempting entrapment, but I would have all sorts of difficulty with such an amendment. I do not know whether, on balance, I would have opposed the Bill if it had contained such a measure. I doubt that it would have been sufficient impediment for me to have withheld my support—I could be persuaded that the measure would strengthen the Bill—but I am certain that there would be sufficient Members not of that view. Therefore, if we are to enact the Bill, it is better to do so without the provision.

Miss Kirkbride

My hon. Friend surprises me because he is suggesting that there should be provision to incite someone to break the law. Given that I have served on many Standing Committees with him, I would not have thought that he would have been tempted by that.

Mr. Swayne

My hon. Friend is right; I am not tempted by that. However, we are faced with a grave social problem and one remedy would be to instil a proper fear among licensees and their servants—that is the terminology that we have been using—so that they are more vigilant. The test-purchasing provision would achieve that. For all my concerns for liberty and entrapment, however, we must consider expediency. We are faced with an enormous problem, and these problems sometimes require such solutions. As I said, I would not have regarded the provision as a weakness, but I am certain, especially from the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks and precisely because she sits on the Opposition Benches, that it is better for the Bill that it is not included.

I said that the Bill was good for licensees. It is also good for our constituents, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. There has been much discussion of why people are seeking alcohol in greater amounts, which has prompted us to try to close a loophole.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that that could be attributed largely to the decline in what he called responsible parenting. He said that he had always encouraged his two sons to drink socially—to share a glass of wine at the dinner table—from a youthful age to encourage a responsible attitude to drinking.

I entirely understand that point of view, but my hon. Friend must recognise the social reality. These days, many families rarely sit down together for a meal. It is all very well for us to say that they ought to do so, but if they do not, we must address our public policy to the reality, rather than to some ideal that existed in the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden produced statistics to quantify the problem that the Bill seeks to tackle. I view those statistics with some scepticism. I have the Institute of Alcohol Studies fact sheet, "Alcohol and Young People", to which, I think, she was drawing attention. It seems to be compiled largely of statistics that can have been acquired only by asking the young people concerned.

My first reservation is that such surveys tend to be skewed. The people who tend to be asked are those who have evidenced a problem. The very nature of the sample therefore produces a distorted view. Secondly, as I noted in an earlier intervention, there is a tendency among young boys between the ages of about 11 and 16 to exaggerate their achievements, whether in the consumption of alcohol, sexual prowess or any other activity. People tend to boast.

Some of the alarmist surveys that draw dramatic attention to the problem have a use, in that they focus attention on the problem, but they tend to exaggerate. The problem needs no exaggeration. We all know from our constituency case load how bad it is. There are estates—even in the New Forest, for heaven's sake—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Swayne

I have the Forest, Totton and Waterside edition of The Southern Daily Echo of last Wednesday. The headline on the front page is "Shame of the Teeny Tipplers". One expects such a headline from a tabloid, but the front-page article is fair and well researched. It names and shames off-licences and public houses that openly sell alcohol to under-age drinkers.

Mr. Forth

I hope that as my hon. Friend develops his argument, he will not only make a case for a new restrictive approach in off-licences, but will deal with the problem of young people being driven away from off-licences into supermarkets or on to the internet as an alternative source of drink. We must not be too complacent about the fact that if the Bill is successful, it may simply open up to under-age people other possibilities for drinking.

Mr. Swayne

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Official Report when it is available on Monday morning, and the remarks that I made earlier to the Minister, specifically highlighting that problem. We must deal with it.

In that respect, I believe that there is an omission from the Bill. That belief is shared by Alcohol Concern, which asks for the promotion of an amendment that would make sure that the purchase and supply of alcohol on behalf of a person under 18 for public, unsupervised consumption is illegal.

It was my opinion that that was not covered by the Bill. Some doubt was raised in my mind by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) when he questioned my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden.

I am not sure whether I understand correctly proposed new section 169F(2), which states: A person to whom this subsection applies shall be guilty of an offence if he knowingly allows any person to deliver to a person under 18 intoxicating liquor sold in licensed premises for consumption off the premises. Does that cover the eventuality that we are considering? I suspect that it does not because of the first line, A person to whom this subsection applies". The subsection applies only to the licensee's servants. An 18-year-old who is sent into a shop to buy alcohol and supply it to under-age drinkers in the parade of shops on a Friday night is not covered. We are all aware and thoroughly fed up of such a scenario. We have all heard the complaints of the people who live nearby. The Bill does not address that.

However, we should not criticise the hon. Member for Pudsey because the Bill does not set out to deal with that problem. The object of the measure is to address the loophole that applies to the licensee's servants.

Miss Kirkbride

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out where the Bill falls short in stopping the sale of alcohol to young people. However, I wonder whether the Bill does not include the sort of provision to which he refers because it would cover parents who bought a bottle of wine, opened it over dinner and gave it to their children. Enforcement of such a provision could therefore be difficult. How can one distinguish between a responsible adult such as the parents I described, and an irresponsible adult who acts for young people who want to go out and get drunk?

Mr. Swayne

That is a good point. I do not know whether existing law covers it, but an obvious provision could be made to cover such an eventuality. It could exclude responsible parents and alcohol consumed in the home of those parents. However, we face a problem of youths on Friday nights who are properly denied alcohol by licensees or their servants, but seek a sympathetic friend to purchase the alcohol for them. They consume it in the parade of the shops outside the licensee's premises and cause misery for the surrounding estate because they become inflamed by alcohol.

I have written to Ministers to draw attention to the problem, and I have raised it on the Floor of the House. I have asked how we should deal with such individuals. The frequent answer is that we should consider anti-social behaviour orders. I accept that that is of some comfort. However, the root problem is that the crime can be committed in the first place. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the Bill is amendable to cover the eventuality we are discussing.

Mr. Maclean

I agree that a serious social problem exists and that the Bill should get through today. I have examined the official Home Office statistics to which my hon. Friend referred a few moments ago on the abuse of alcohol by young people. I am alarmed to discover that the peak year for convictions of people aged between 18 and 21 for drunkenness and alcohol problems was 15 years ago in 1985, when he allegedly had dark hair and was evicted from a public house in the company of young people. Sixteen thousand people were convicted in 1985; the figure fell to 6,000 in 1995. A serious problem exists, but the numbers have reduced from the time when he may have been leading the statistics.

Mr. Swayne

All that can be said of my experience is that I was unlucky as I was turned out of the pub for at least having given the appearance of being under 18. Many others were clearly lucky in that they were able to purchase alcohol, but unlucky in that they were subsequently apprehended for being drunk and disorderly.

Why are the conviction statistics declining, even though we all know from anecdotal evidence that the problem is increasing? After all, the hon. Member for Pudsey has introduced the Bill because of the nature and size of that problem. One could speculate that the police are firefighting and have to deal with other crimes, which is certainly the case on the estate I know that is plagued with the problem. The police might be called on a Friday or Saturday evening because drunken youths have lit a fire in a pathway and broken a few windows, but lower priority would be attached to that than to all sorts of other incidents taking place in Southampton or on the waterside.

I have detained the House for half an hour, which was not my intention because I greatly favour the Bill. I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Pudsey, particularly on his speech, and assure him of my support.

12.36 pm
Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on his success in reaching the stage at which, I hope, the Bill will shortly be allowed to proceed in Committee. As a young Member some 21 years ago, I finished high in the private Members' ballot and proposed a Bill to introduce a death grant, but it suffered the fate of many others, as there was insufficient time to allow it to proceed. This Bill is much more likely to become law. Although I am not a good attender on Fridays, I have always had great sympathy for private Members' Bills and wish him every success, and that is why I am here today.

As my hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members know, the loophole does not exist in Scotland and the Bill would apply only in England and Wales. However, we in Scotland are not unaware of the problem. Licensing in Scotland is governed by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976, under which an offence can be committed by a licensee or his employee or agent". That is the difference between the two sets of legislation. The constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey had a tragic accident and the Justice Department in Scotland has considered the situation to see whether "agent" would apply in such circumstances. I must report to the House that we in Scotland are satisfied that section 68 of the 1976 Act, which uses that word, would cover disastrous incidents such as that involving David Knowles.

Hon. Members have asked whether the terminology covers unpaid workers—the wife, the son or a person who drops into a licensed premises to relieve the licensee for a short time. The Scottish Executive and the Scottish criminal justice system believe that "agent" would cover a company in such a situation, even if it employs the people working in the shop and the licence holder is a named individual. It is clear that a national retailer and a wife, son or relative working unpaid in a licensed premised would be covered by the word "agent".

The word "agent" appears in various sections of the 1976 Act, and the Law Officers in Scotland are confident that it causes no confusion. Under that Act, the word "agent" is used in an application for a license, and is understood to be a solicitor acting for the applicant. I do not know whether my hon. Friend intends to keep the wording of the Bill or to use the word "agent", but Scotland has had no problem with it and the Scottish criminal justice system has had no difficulty pursuing prosecutions using that description.

In all other aspects, the liquor laws in Scotland and England are similar. This has always been a devolved matter, but it is now completely and absolutely devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will be keeping a close eye on what is going on here today and will take note of the comments that have been made.

It is necessary not only to stop the offence occurring, but to build in the safeguards that Opposition Members in particular have asked for during this short debate. For example, what happens to the individual behind the till in Tesco or any other supermarket or licensed premises if he is approached by one of his peers and is under peer pressure not to disclose the fact that he knows that that person is under 18?

The same can happen when young people try to buy cigarettes. A number of schemes have been tried in Scotland. I draw the House's attention to the scheme run by South Ayrshire council, which announced last year that it hoped to be the first local authority to tackle the problem of the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to youngsters through a proof-of-age scheme. It appreciated the difficulties that it would face, so it sought a partner for the project. It wanted to provide a free scheme that would encourage young people to participate.

The council set up a scheme in partnership with Photo-Me, the largest international operator and manufacturer of photo booths throughout the world. It offered the scheme to secondary school pupils aged 16-plus. The scheme is now run by the trading standards department. It goes into secondary schools in the area and, with a nominated teacher, offers the validate card to youngsters who want to take advantage of the scheme. So far, 3,800 young people have done so.

The scheme was financed solely by Photo-Me, but it is now funded by Photo-Me, the local health council and South Ayrshire council. The only cost to the applicant is the cost of the photograph. Obviously, Photo-Me hopes that the photographs will be taken in its booths, although there is no guarantee that they will be. That is the only sense in which the firm can claim to have a financial interest in the scheme.

The trading standards department supplies cards and posters to secondary schools. The cards are issued to pupils aged 16 and above. The nominated teacher checks each applicant's age with the school records, and fills in two boxes on the card. One box will contain the date on which the applicant becomes 16, the other the date on which he or she becomes 18. The photograph is then attached to the card, the word "validate" is stamped on it, and it is hermetically sealed. The card is then issued to the applicant, who can then carry it.

The card allows retailers to see at a glance whether the card holder is old enough to buy alcohol or cigarettes. They must look at the photograph, and at the information in both boxes. To sell cigarettes, they must ascertain that the individual is 16, and to sell alcohol, they must ascertain that he or she is 18.

South Ayrshire council has not yet conducted a survey to establish how often the scheme has been abused, whether it has entirely succeeded and whether every 16-year-old in the area has a card, but the response from both retailers and young people has been positive. The scheme has solved a number of problems for youngsters.

When I spoke to trading standards officers in South Ayrshire, they told me that there had been a knock-on benefit. South Ayrshire, like most areas, contains a number of night clubs, most of which specify a lower age limit. It varies from club to club, but it is usually 18. I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) does not visit the White Lion pub tonight; I hope that he will be on the telephone immediately, assuring those at the White Lion that under-age drinking is not allowed on its premises, and that if, any takes place, there will be a visit from the licensing authority pretty soon.

When I was in the age group that we are discussing—a very long time ago—I was regularly questioned about whether I was old enough to drink, because of my slight stature. People who have had difficulty in gaining access to night clubs in South Ayrshire have asked the trading standard officers to give them cards demonstrating that they are 18. The scheme has been helpful not just to retailers selling cigarettes and liquor, but in reducing the number of young people who, once through the front door of a night club, could easily avail themselves of cigarettes and alcohol because those behind the bar would assume that, as they had convinced the door staff that they were 18, they were entitled to purchase both. Therefore, the scheme has had a knock-on effect there as well. It has also helped those people who find it difficult to convince door staff that they are 18. They find it useful to produce the validate card and to demonstrate to door staff that they are 18.

I do not want to delay the House too long. I thought that it would be useful to speak briefly about the experiences in Scotland, which will not be affected by the Bill but which has some of the associated problems. I recommend the validate scheme. If Ministers in Scotland, or the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) are looking for a scheme that might help to obviate the dangers involved when someone has to make a decision, the validate scheme has proved to be very successful.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey for missing the first 10 minutes of his helpful introduction. I wish him every success, and much more success than I had with my private Member's Bill.

12.51 pm
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I think that the whole House would like me to thank the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) for sharing his experience in Scotland and offering a way forward on enforcement. As we have gathered from the debate, there is a problem of enforcement, which we must deal with if we are to make the law on those who are not allowed to buy alcohol more effective. It is helpful to know where schemes have had some benefit. It was nice of the hon. Gentleman, given that the Bill will not apply in Scotland because of its different licensing laws, to give some elucidation as to how we might proceed.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) that I could not be here for his speech. We have builders at home at the moment and Friday mornings are one of the few mornings when I can be at home to see what is going on. However, I congratulate him, along with, I think, every other hon. Member who has spoken, on introducing this relevant and necessary legislation to make the law work better.

Like other hon. Members, I send my condolences and good wishes to the family of David Knowles, whose case prompted the hon. Gentleman to introduce the legislation. Let us hope that, in David Knowles' memory at least, we can do something that might make it possible to stop such accidents among young people who do not realise the dangers of alcohol.

I hope that the Minister will give the Bill fair speed through Committee, that it will be able to get on to the statute book, and not fall, as similar attempts have, for reasons that are difficult to explain outside the House. Necessary legislation does not get on to the statute book because we have those rather odd procedures.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the procedures, but they are a valuable part of our democracy. Does she accept that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has introduced an important Bill, but that it is different in one important respect from the previous measure: it does not contain the test-purchasing provisions, which concerned some Conservative Members, including me? That is why I was unhappy about his Bill last year. I am much more content with his Bill this year.

Miss Kirkbride

I am glad that I gave way to my right hon. Friend because that is an important point to put on the record. I agree with the Bill, but I, too, would have had difficulties with the test-purchasing provision. I am not sure of any area in criminal law where we entice people to commit a criminal offence, however noble the aim. It is difficult to accept that we should put into legislation an enticement procedure that would allow people to commit a criminal offence, however good the reasons for doing so—for example, to establish who is behaving irresponsibly in licensed premises. That would set a dangerous precedent, especially given the dreadful murder case in which police evidence could not be used in a court of law because it had been obtained by a honey-trap procedure—the individual had been encouraged to admit to the murder within the context of a relationship. To enshrine such practices in law would create great difficulties.

However, I am glad that the hon. Member for Pudsey has had another chance to introduce a Bill—this time, one to which we can all sign up—and has thereby enabled us to make progress in an important matter. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for clarifying the position for less regular attenders of Friday debates, among whom I count myself.

It is slightly uncomfortable to stand here talking about teenage drinking. I do not want to admit to any criminal offences, but I fear there were days, some time ago, when I, too, was keen to ensure that my mother did not find out what I was doing—even though I do not think that I ever behaved terribly irresponsibly. Nevertheless, there is something slightly jarring about middle-aged people saying how disgraceful it is that young people drink.

It is a fact of life that young people drink, and that drinking is an enjoyable activity, provided that it is indulged in responsibly. However, the law states that people under the age of 18 should not be allowed to buy or use alcohol, and however old-fogeyish it sounds, I have to say that we as legislators have a duty to make the law work.

When preparing my speech, I made an effort to learn about the law covering young people and drinking, and I was rather amused by what I found. It is an offence for any of us to be found drunk on a highway or in a public house, in licensed premises, or in a public place or building when in charge of a seven-year-old. I do not know why that age and no other is specified, but that is the law as it stands.

Parents trying to get their children to sleep should be wary of a provision that the Home Office might like to publicise: no intoxicating liquor can be administered to a child under the age of five, except under medical supervision in cases of sickness. I suppose that some parents might consider sleeplessness a sickness, but I know some mothers who could be said to breach that provision when they are at their wits' end.

In some ways, the law has been made more complicated and difficult to enforce. Because the previous Government wanted more parents to be able to use pubs and the facilities that they offer, children under the age of 14 accompanied by their parents or an adult are allowed into children's areas of public bars. In addition, children over the age of 16 but under 18 are allowed to consume alcohol with a meal in a public place; and children over the age of five may be supplied with and consume alcohol in registered clubs, but may not consume or buy alcohol in licensed premises. In short, the law on young people, from babies to 18-year-olds, and the consumption of alcohol is a curious patchwork.

Mr. Maclean

Listening to my hon. Friend gave me time to read the better regulation task force's review of licensing legislation, which states: It seems illogical that it is an offence to purchase alcohol in a bar for someone under 18 but for no equivalent offence to exist for off-sales in the same situation. The Government needs to consider afresh the rationale for the present differences, particularly as a 'cafe society' develops and the old distinctions between pubs and restaurants blur. That sums up my hon. Friend's point. Will she, too, call for a more comprehensive review of licensing and drinking legislation, albeit not necessarily in the context of the Bill?

Miss Kirkbride

I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments. As usual, he has made a good point, and described better than I have done the complicated picture in current regulations. As all Back Benchers know, if we want to get a Bill on to the statute book, we have to be very clear and narrow in drafting it. If we do so, our Bill might have a fair wind in its passage. Therefore, although I am sure that the hon. Member for Pudsey will not wish to address any of those broader issues, because of the patchwork quilt in current legislation, the Home Office may well wish to examine some of them. Nevertheless, we all know the minefields involved in addressing such issues.

As the current law is not being applied as we should wish, it must be deficient. The Bill seeks to put right some of those deficiencies. The law states that young people under 18 should not drink except under their parents' supervision, and there are many reasons why young people should not drink except in those circumstances. We all know about the sad case of David Knowles, whose accident was caused by an alcohol-induced state. I fear that that is not the only case in the United Kingdom in which young people have done themselves serious injury, possibly resulting in death, because they were under the influence of alcohol.

Responsible alcohol use involves a learning curve. One has to become accustomed to the effects of alcohol. Sometimes, even for those who are a little more seasoned in alcohol use, the effects of alcohol are not always obvious. We live in terrible fear of driving a car after drinking largely because it is difficult to know what effect a given amount of alcohol will have on us, even if we have experience of drinking. We need to protect young people from their lack of experience of the effects of alcohol, especially as it affects their capacity to look after themselves. Therefore, although we may seem to be debating an old-fogey subject, we are taking it very seriously. We are seeking to prevent young people from becoming involved in accidents.

We are also only too well aware of the rapid rise in the number of teenage pregnancies. One is led to assume that, in some of those cases, alcohol may have caused young people to think less about the possible consequences of their actions. It is very serious when young people have a child in such circumstances. Additionally, although abortion is never an attractive option, moral considerations may subsequently lead some young people to decide not to have their child. We should better enforce legislation partly to prevent young people from acting as they would not act if they were not in an alcohol-induced state of mind.

Another reason to enforce the legislation is to prevent another problem that many elderly people suffer from, including my mother, who lives in Cirencester. For obvious reasons, young people tend to congregate in parks, drink alcohol, make noise and leave litter. It is difficult to criticise them for it; although it is a wretched nuisance for those who suffer from it. Many elderly people feel very uncomfortable when there is such activity close to their property. Moreover, if those elderly people go out in the evening, they see young people who are drunk congregating in the streets and other public places.

Although there are regulations—which were passed by the previous Conservative Government—to enable those young people to be moved on, their ability to buy alcohol is the root of the problem, making public places unwelcoming for local residents. If the Bill will tighten up the law on licensees selling alcohol to young people, it is another good reason to support it. The intention of the law is clear, and it is odd both that it has been circumvented and that it has taken so long to change it.

I was interested in what the Minister said about penalties. The ultimate penalty must be removal of a licence from a landlord who does not adhere to the law. However, he was right that a graded scale of penalties would be appropriate. Fines could act as a warning signal before a licence was removed.

This problem may affect people aged between 10 and 20, and possibly people older than that: I envy my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who was taken for 18 when he was 28, and other hon. Members who had similar difficulties. Enforcement is difficult and we must consider whether identity cards might help licensees to operate a system in which people may have confidence. Supermarkets could also require evidence of age when young people shop for alcohol.

Off-licences often struggle for sufficient custom. It is tempting, when there is doubt, to sell alcohol, especially if the quantity required is large. Licensees want to make a profit. They have bills to pay, wives to keep, children, and the costs of keeping a roof over their heads. They do not want to break the law, but they do not want to be taunted by children who, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, when refused a sale, simply say that they will go to the supermarket. Off-licences are frustrated when supermarkets take their trade, particularly if they are ignoring the law.

In most villages and small communities, everyone knows who owns the local licensed shop. The licensee will feel a great commitment to the community if he knows that the son of his friend, Bill, is not over 18 because he can remember his birth. Licensees who know young people exercise their duty responsibly by not selling them alcohol, but supermarkets do sell it, threatening to undermine shops on which all of us rely every day.

We must create confidence. A system used in my constituency seemed to work well. I share concern that the introduction of an identification system would open the floodgates towards an identity card, the many pros and cons of which are not relevant to the Bill. However, if young people want to buy alcohol, it is not wrong to expect them to carry some form of identification that has the sanction of the local police. The hon. Member for Dundee, West mentioned a scheme that worked well in his constituency.

Mr. Ernie Ross

It is on the other side of the country. It is in Scotland.

Miss Kirkbride

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I hope that he will forgive my imprecise knowledge of the geography of Scotland. I may not have been paying as much attention as I thought, for which I apologise.

A scheme is working—in Scotland—and we should learn from it. Another worked in my constituency, but we need a nationwide scheme. We could then reasonably expect people who wanted to buy alcohol to provide themselves with an identity card; we could all have confidence in such a system.

Third-party buying of alcohol would pose a difficulty for the operation of the measure. We are all aware that older brothers and sisters buy alcohol for their siblings and friends. The measure would not stop that. Perhaps the Minister has some views on how to deal with that loophole. Furthermore, we would not want parents potentially to commit an offence by having alcohol at home. However, it might be possible to clarify matters as regards the passing on of alcohol that is then consumed in a public place.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady's remarks. She has expressed concern about the purchase of alcohol by someone aged over 18, who then passes it to someone aged under 18 who drinks it in a public place. It is one thing for a parent, in the confines of the family home, to offer someone aged under 18 wine at a family meal, but quite another for under 18s, under 16s or even under 14s to booze on lager—bought for them by someone who should know better—in a public place and to cause disturbance to others.

Miss Kirkbride

I am grateful that the Minister has reassured the House on that distinction in the law. That supports the measure, because it is even more necessary that we should not encourage unscrupulous licensees. Some licensees conform scrupulously and properly to the intention of the law; they should not be castigated while the measure is under discussion.

Mr. Heald

Would my hon. Friend like to pay tribute to the work of Robert Spink, a former colleague in the House, who promoted the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997? That measure came into force shortly after the general election and allows the police to confiscate alcohol from young people in certain circumstances.

Miss Kirkbride

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that measure. Obviously it was passed before I became a Member of the House, although I should have paid greater attention when I was sitting in the Press Gallery as a Daily Telegraph correspondent. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of the important efforts of other Members.

Some allusion has been made to statistics. The number of under-18s convicted or cautioned for alcohol-related offences during the past few years makes interesting reading. When my parents were young, there was obviously not such a great interest in alcohol, because in 1955 only 669 convictions were of under-18s. Recently, the problem has grown. In 1995, there were 2,904 convictions for that age group. In 1955, 669 represented 1.2 per cent. of all convictions for such offences, but by 1995, 2,904 represented 7 per cent. of all convictions.

That is a high percentage of convictions for illegal acts relating to the consumption of alcohol and to drunkenness. They provide us with reasons to act. Furthermore, the statistics are old and, sadly, time marches on, so the figures may now be even higher.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, my attention was drawn to the fact that there was an extraordinary blip in the figures for 1975 and for 1985. In 1975, we had the greatest number of convictions for drunkenness and alcohol problems in all age groups since records began—104,452. I have been racking my brains to try to recall what happened that year to cause such drunkenness. I do not remember its being world cup year.

Mr. Maclean

It was the Labour Government.

Miss Kirkbride

My right hon. Friend says that it was the Labour Government. In a non party-political debate such as this, I was not going to say that, but it is quite curious.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I must defend the previous Labour Government. That was about getting convictions—enforcing the law. The hon. Lady will note that the point at which convictions dropped to their lowest was in 1995, if I remember rightly from what was said by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), the former Home Office Minister who was then responsible for these matters, who quoted the statistics earlier.

Miss Kirkbride

Gosh, I must defend my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border. I do not believe that that is true. The 1975 figure for convictions for under-age drunkenness and alcohol problems represented 4.6 per cent. of all such convictions, and by 1985 it represented 7 per cent., so the Conservative Government obviously took due and appropriate action, too.

Nevertheless the figures are worrying, as is evidence of the problems that some areas are experiencing. Sadly, the areas that experience the greatest difficulties with young people and alcohol tend to be—but are by no means exclusively—among the more socially deprived. It is worrying that some of those communities are having great difficulties.

I note that, at the Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, children as young as eight are being admitted with acute alcoholic intoxication. It is deeply shocking that any parent responsible for a child could allow him or her to get into such a state. In 1986, just 20 children were treated at the Alder Hey for alcoholic intoxication. By 1996, that figure had increased tenfold, to 200.

I do not wish to single out Liverpool as the only area that has such difficulties; I fear that the experience at Alder Hey represents a much wider picture throughout the United Kingdom. The figures are most worrying. One cannot believe that the sole cause is the fact that the local off-licence sold those children alcohol. It may be more an issue of parental responsibility. Nevertheless it is worrying, and we need to do something about it, because research shows that children who start abusing alcohol at a young age—not just working it out for themselves and then enjoying it later, as a responsible adult—are likely to have alcohol-related problems in later life. That is a tragedy for them but, as we also know, alcohol-related problems are a great problem for the rest of society.

If we could ban alcohol in the way that we ban drugs, it would be in our interests to do so because of the violence and irresponsibility that alcohol creates. In case anyone in the Press Gallery is paying attention, I am not advocating that, but the problems of alcohol abuse are very serious for us all, as well as for those involved. Although I certainly do not wish to prohibit the enjoyment of alcohol, I believe that we must ensure that the law is treated seriously, and that young people are protected, in their own best interests.

1.19 pm
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on introducing this seemingly modest but important Bill. It is about a serious subject, which should concern all of us, especially parents. I apologise for having had to leave the Chamber briefly, earlier in the day, to attend to other business. I hope that I did not miss too much. I have listened with great interest to what all other hon. Members have said.

Before I come to the body of my speech, I should like to comment on some of what has been said. I generally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) on just about everything. However, I was concerned by his suggestion that we might reduce the age at which one can legally consume alcohol. He drew a parallel between that and the equalisation of the age of consent in sexual matters, but I do not think that such a parallel exists. The issue needs further debate before that idea gains currency. In fact, many of the problems caused by alcohol need further discussion in the House, and I look forward to future debates on the subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) talked about the importance of developing appropriate and sensible attitudes to alcohol consumption, particularly in the family. He quoted practice in Belgium, but I would caution against referring to continental practice. Alcohol consumption is still considerably higher on the continent than in this country. The gap is narrowing somewhat, but continental countries have much more serious problems with alcohol than we do.

I remember my late father telling me of his first visit to Paris in the late 1940s. He saw a Government advertisement on a metro train and, roughly translated into English, the legend was, "No more than two litres of wine a day." By my calculation, that is a safe limit of 24 units a day. We have made some advance since then, but that example illustrates the problems that used to exist on the continent of Europe. They are reducing, we know, but they are still a good deal more serious than ours. I hope that those countries imitate our practice rather than us imitating theirs.

Alcohol is a legal drug that is used and enjoyed by most people in a sensible way, but it is also dangerous. It can be addictive, it causes accidents and it underlies much anti-social behaviour. It is chemically very simple. For the organic chemists present, it is C2H5OH, which is ethyl alcohol. It has certain effects on the body, especially if it is used to excess over long periods. It is chemically next door to methyl alcohol—meths—which destroys body tissues and causes blindness fairly quickly. We are dealing with chemistry that is rather worrying and dangerous for the human frame.

It was inevitable that humankind would discover alcohol. Hon. Members may have seen a wildlife programme on television in which monkeys lapped up puddles of fermenting fruit in a forest, and they were obviously very drunk. Their behaviour, not surprisingly, mirrors what happens to human beings when they imbibe too much. Some were clearly exuberantly happy, others were aggressive and, although it was not on screen, some were no doubt behaving in a sexually licentious way.

For the monkeys, however, the experience was a very rare event. They could not walk into an off-licence or a supermarket and buy unlimited quantities of mass-produced alcohol. They did not face the risk of excessive, prolonged drinking over many years and the addiction that can follow. It was a rare and interesting event for the monkeys, and it did not pose them any serious dangers. I suppose swinging through the trees after drinking a lot of alcohol might not be safe, but I hope that they had enough sense not to do that.

We humans have to build in constraints on our drinking, especially for the young. That is why I so strongly support the Bill, and I hope that the House will permit me to refer briefly to my family background to demonstrate why I feel so deeply about it. My grandmother was a member of the Salvation Army and other members of my family were Baptists—indeed, one was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. They were a pretty puritanical lot and absolutely teetotal. I might add that another branch of my family produced a great grandfather who was a musician and he enjoyed alcohol. I perhaps follow more in his tradition than that of the Salvation Army, even though I have great respect for it. However, I think that there are elements of both traditions in my character.

My grandmother was a formidable, interesting and impressive lady. She was a socialist as well as a teetotaller, but I do not want to introduce a political note into this harmonious debate. She lived in poor circumstances and taught herself algebra and French in her middle age. She was respected and feared by her children, including my father.

Mr. Maclean

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's train of thought. He said that his grandmother was a teetotaller and a socialist. With regard to the Bill, how would she view today's Labour party, which is champagne socialist?

Mr. Hopkins

I am not sure that she would be terribly proud of her grandson, given that he has certainly given up the teetotal habit but retained the socialism.

When my father was a student, he entered a pub for the first time in his life and consumed half a pint of mild ale. He was so terrified of his mother that he did not go home that night because he preferred her to suspect that he had been out all night with a young woman than to know, by smelling his breath, that he had drunk alcohol.

I make that point because we must instil in everyone, including young people, a proper respect for alcohol. The extremes of my teetotal family may be too much for most, but people should be aware of the dangers of alcohol. I grew up in a family where alcohol was treated with respect and even an element of fear. When I was young, I was very cautious about the amount of alcohol that I drank, and I have remained so. I tend to count the units that I drink, as sensible drinkers do. I enjoy wine, but I try not to drink it to excess.

Many young people and, indeed, adults are not so careful and have no awareness of the dangers of alcohol. To them, drinking is simply something that they like to do and they continue to do it while they have the money and the opportunity. I have many intelligent adult friends who cannot understand why anyone would have alcohol in the house that is not automatically consumed until it is all gone. The idea of restraining oneself and putting the bottle away for another day is strange to them. We have a long way to go to educate adults as well as young people.

I remember, some years ago, the Financial Times reported a survey of business men in the City. Conservative Members may be more familiar with such people than are Labour Members. The business men were asked how much they drank, and they gave details of the whisky that they drank. After the survey, the researcher asked, "But what about beer and wine?" They replied, "Oh, we don't count beer and wine." Only whisky was counted as a serious drink.

There is a case for much more education. We must go beyond the Bill and, at a later stage, discuss wider aspects of the alcohol problem. Internal constraints are essential, and we build them in through schools and parents, but external constraints are also necessary. I would not go to the extremes that exist in America, where restrictions on alcohol consumption in some states come close to prohibition and any alcohol consumption is frowned upon. Those constraints go too far and spoil the responsible enjoyment of alcohol.

I have an interest in these matters because I am an active member of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. It has been suggested that I might stand for chair of that group because there is a vacancy. I am not suggesting that I should win that post because, as hon. Members will know, elections are fought very fiercely on this side of the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We ought to keep the hustings out of this debate.

Mr. Hopkins

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The all-party group does valuable work and strongly supports the Bill. I have also been in touch with Alcohol Concern, as have other hon. Members.

I am the patron of a group in my county, called Bedfordshire Alcohol Services in the Community, which is concerned about these matters. I work hard to try to promote the group's ideas. It recently launched an initiative to help to promote alcohol awareness among schoolchildren, and hopefully that will reinforce the measures in the Bill, and make young people aware of the dangers of alcohol and encourage them to be sensible and responsible in their approach to alcohol as they grow older. So I am involved at local level.

I also see the terrible effects of alcohol through the work of another local group, Noah Enterprises, which used to be the Luton day centre for the homeless. It deals with people whose lives have been wrecked by alcohol and who live in the streets. They are taken in by the organisation and gradually rehabilitated until they can lead useful and productive lives. The group does extraordinarily good work, but it would be less necessary if the damage that alcohol causes were not so great and it could persuade many more people not to drink in a way that leads to such a life.

I support the Bill very strongly because I have seen at first hand the effects of alcohol and been made aware throughout my life of its dangers. At the same time, I appreciate that drinking is normal and pleasurable for most of us. I could speak at greater length, but I have probably said enough. I would add only that I am rather disappointed that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is no longer in the Chamber, because I wanted to ask him whether he still looks much younger than his years and whether he has a portrait in the attic.

Mr. Maclean

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When Madam Speaker was in the Chair this morning, she said that she had not received any request from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for a statement on the possible suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have just heard on the 1 o'clock news that such a suspension is expected within the hour. It is not too late for the Secretary of State to make a statement on the momentous changes. The legislation did not come into effect at an exact time. Indeed, suspension might not have occurred this weekend. Now that it is expected to happen, I hope that you agree that it is important to interrupt our proceedings briefly with such a statement, especially considering that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman must not get into argument. So far as the Chair is concerned, the situation is unchanged, but those on the Treasury Bench will have heard his words.

1.32 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) treated us to a speech in which he explained that he comes from a family that is both teetotal and musical. He is obviously remaining true to his genes in his work in the House, because I notice that next week he has secured an Adjournment debate entitled "Support for Jazz" and, as he told us, he is running for the office of chairman of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. It just shows that not all conditioning is social and that there is something genetic, too.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on his success in the ballot and, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), on raising such an important subject, which was prompted by the tragic death of his young constituent David Knowles. The Opposition as a whole join in expressing the deepest sympathies to the Knowles family.

As the hon. Member for Pudsey explained, David had purchased alcohol on two occasions in a short time immediately prior to meeting his death. He was described by everyone as a serious and sensible young man, and the purchase was very much out of character. The subsequent prosecution of those who sold the alcohol to him was not proceeded with because the Licensing Act 1964 is out of date in the way in which it deals with the offence of selling alcohol to those under 18 years old.

I imagine that, when the Act was passed—it was a milestone, consolidating previous legislation and an attempt to control the problems of licence holders and alcohol generally—the world was rather different. Public houses were tenanted; it was the era before the beer orders that led to so many joining chain ownership and management arrangements. Supermarkets were far less obviously a source of alcohol, and probably far fewer off-licences were owned by chains. In 1964, when the Act was passed, it was acceptable for it to state that the licence holder or the servant of the licence holder would be the people guilty of an offence if they sold alcohol to people under 18.

The background has changed since then, and it is recognised by the Government, the industry and all those involved that it is necessary for the 1964 Act to be overhauled. The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association and others prepared detailed papers for the Home Office two years ago. The parliamentary beer club has produced proposals, and the Government's own proposals are thought to be due in March.

There is a wide consensus of support for the Bill and for the view that the 1964 Act should be amended. The industry—the Portman Group, the BLRA and others—fully support the Bill. Alcohol Concern is supportive, although it wants reform to go further.

The Bill introduces a sensible reform. It is aimed at reducing under-age drinking by making sure that those who sell alcohol to people under the age of 18 can be prosecuted. In many ways, it re-enacts the old law, but I agree with the hon. Member for Pudsey that it does so in a more readily accessible form.

The way in which the Bill is set out is commendable. It widens the ambit of the offence of selling to cover sales by any person in licensed premises, and therefore meets the problem of the loophole that the hon. Gentleman outlined. It reinforces the policy of "two strikes and you're out": licensees who have a second conviction may be liable to forfeit their licences.

During the debate, important points were made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said that the hon. Member for Pudsey had made one of the best speeches introducing a private Member's Bill that he had heard. I agree, and I would add that the debate that followed was rather a good one for a Friday, as other speakers amplified the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, reinforcing the hon. Gentleman's comments, cited statistics showing the extent to which alcohol is being abused by young people. She pointed to a substantial rise in alcohol abuse. The Schools Health Education Unit survey showed that 30 per cent. of year 8 pupils had drunk alcohol in the previous week, as had 50 per cent. of those in year 10. Statistics show that lager is the favourite drink for men and wine for women.

The quantity of alcohol consumed by young people has increased. In the 14 and 15 age group, 20 per cent. of males and 10 per cent. of females had drunk more than 10 units in the previous week. Off-licences are the most popular source. I can add that a recent London survey showed that more than half of 14 to 16-year-olds said that when they had purchased alcohol, they had not been asked for their ID.

The figures thus show that there has been a substantial rise in alcohol abuse by young people, particularly since the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden reported evidence showing that if people start drinking young, the chances that they will become addicted to alcohol are greater. That is particularly worrying. That is true not only of alcohol but other addictions. However, alcohol leads not only to the health problems about which we have heard but other serious problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire discussed the way in which people purchase alcohol in the modern world, and new methods of shopping, such as online and internet shopping, which are increasingly popular. It would be helpful if the Minister gave his views on proposed new section 169F, which deals with the offence of delivering or permitting the delivery of alcohol.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) pointed out the danger of separating the sale and delivery of alcohol. Some people may sell alcohol without knowledge of the ultimate recipient. They could not therefore be said to have knowingly sold it to a young person. However, the person who delivers it knows that the recipient is a young person. Does the division between sale and delivery of alcohol constitute another loophole? Is the Minister satisfied that proposed new section 169F tackles that?

Mr. Maclean

I am conscious that, despite my best efforts, I may not be allowed to serve on the Committee that considers the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I explore the internet sales problem on Report, possibly through an amendment. I shall happily vote for the Bill, and I hope that it becomes law, but I also hope that he agrees that the problem is worth exploring on Report.

Mr. Heald

It would helpful to hear the Minister's view, which is backed by the Home Office's considerable research facilities, on the extent to which internet purchase of alcohol is a problem. Most internet arrangements involve the use of a credit card, and most credit cards are not in the hands of people under 18. However, various hon. Members commented during the debate that abuse is possible. It would therefore be useful to know whether proposed new section 169F tackles the problem adequately and whether there is a need for the amendment that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) mentioned. He has a background in the Home Office; some years ago, he held the job that the Minister now fills. He did it in a distinguished way.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire referred to alcopops. He pointed out that many young people who go into off-licences purchase alcopops. During the debate, hon. Members considered the reasons for the attraction of alcopops to young people. Alcohol Concern explained that attraction in its advice, which states: An established control on young people's drinking has been that youngsters find the taste of traditional drinks unpalatable. With alcoholic lemonade, cola, flavoured milks etc the natural element of control was removed. Alcopops present such a danger because they are attractively packaged and flavoured.

We should not be too hard on the industry. The Portman Group has done useful work through its code of conduct. It has tried to provide sensible guidelines for the promotion of alcopops. Its Prove It! scheme, which involves cards, has also been useful. Last year, 62,000 cards were issued, and 500,000 have been issued since it began.

A general point was made about identity and how to tell whether a person is of the right age. The Minister ought to comment on whether the youth card, which is being promoted by the Department for Education and Employment, is likely to prove useful. It proposes issuing such a card to all young people in their final year of compulsory education to represent their entitlement to further learning and to remind them of their continuing access to careers guidance and education. It is proposed that the card might even use smart technology so it would be interesting to hear whether he thinks that it might be used to identify young people who want to purchase alcohol.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made a wide-ranging speech, but remarked particularly that we should not forget the effects of under-age drinking on the wider public. He made the point that public order is a substantial issue when young people cluster round supermarkets or other outlets that sell alcohol and others are prepared to buy it for them. The Minister might refer to that when he publishes his final proposals in March, but is he satisfied that existing measures—including the Bill promoted by Robert Spink in 1997—are adequate or does more need to be done to tackle the problem?

In an amusing speech, the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) described political parties by drink. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was not in the Chamber then, but he described the Conservative party as bitter. That is rather shocking, considering the smooth and mild way in which we have received the Bill. We were shaken, if not stirred, after the general election, but we have become pure genius. I shall not continue in that vein and notice a certain amount of relief at that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked whether licence holders are being satisfactorily dealt with if the only real penalty is taking away their licence. We should note that the position of the licensee has been as important as the offence in controlling the dispensing of alcohol. For many years—this may still be the case—large numbers of publicans said that losing their licence was the most terrifying prospect because they would also lose their livelihood. Therefore, there is already considerable pressure on publicans to ensure that their staff are properly trained and able to cope with slightly intimidating situations in which young people want to buy alcohol.

The licence is of great importance, but the Minister intervened to refer to graduated penalties. We could have a sensible debate about them and in its submission to the Home Office, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association suggested such penalties as a good way forward. I hope that he will consider them seriously, as he seems to be doing, before he makes his own proposals.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West was unable to buy drink at the pub and was sent off to the White Lion. I hope that nowadays he finds it possible to buy a drink. He made a range of points about identity and the difficulties faced by staff. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that he made a valuable contribution.

It was interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) about the operation of the identity card scheme in South Ayrshire. It was a good initiative to use as an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove is right that we should not be too old-fashioned and patronising towards young people on the subject of alcohol, as though none of us had a youth. However, it is right that young people should be persuaded that alcohol has real dangers.

The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove that we should not be fuddy-duddy and patronising with young people were counterbalanced by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden who said that parents must take responsibility. Parents need to strike a difficult balance: they must exercise responsibility without patronising young people, and they should treat them as intelligent sentient beings. Parents have an educative job.

It is often said that young people nowadays have many more pressures on them than they did some years ago, but being a parent is not that easy either. We often argue that parents must take responsibility, and of course that is right, but they need a good deal of help and support to do that. I would be interested to hear the Government's views on how parents could be supported in trying to instil in their children sensible ideas about alcohol use.

Hon. Members have referred to the problem of older brothers or relatives going into stores to buy alcohol for young people. Does the Minister believe that a suitable way of dealing with that would be to enhance the power to confiscate alcohol from young people outside premises, or does he think that it would be possible to have an offence of purchasing alcohol for a young person if it is not intended to be taken back to the home? It is difficult to deal with the person who buys alcohol for another without attacking the parent who legitimately wants to buy a bottle of wine to have with a meal and may want to give a small glass of it to a child. With all the advice and help available to him, does he think that it is possible to frame such a law to enable the mischief to be attacked without damaging responsible parenting and attempts to teach young people to be careful when drinking wine?

Does the Minister see any parallels with the way in which alcohol abuse has been tackled on the continent? That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). Is there a method of educating young people that we should consider? In France, attitudes towards alcohol have changed dramatically. The problem there is still worse than ours, but a substantial change has occurred. Is that something that an alcohol concern education package can tackle? Does the Minister have any such proposals?

The Opposition support this measure. It closes a worrying loophole in the law, and I hope that it will send a message to those who retail alcohol that it is not acceptable for it to be sold to young people, irrespective of who in the shop sells it. We wish the Bill well.

1.54 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on the Bill. It is an ideal private Member's Bill, because it comes out of a constituency case, albeit a tragic one, and attempts to introduce a small amendment. That was interestingly brought out in the exchanges between the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), and the hon. Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). It tries to sort out this clear injustice in law that I am sure the quaint language of the licensee and servant, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) referred, did not intend to create. If a young person—or a group of young people—visits a small corner shop and a shop that is part of a large off-licence chain, and makes under-age purchases in both, it must be wrong that the staff in one shop can be prosecuted and the staff in the other cannot.

The Bill does not introduce new law, which makes me optimistic about the Sisyphean task faced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. I am hopeful that, in pushing his little rock to the top of the hill, he will be able to enlist the support of all Members—including two right hon. Members who could be described as traditionally not the most enthusiastic supporters of private Members' Bills, and who, adopting what I think is termed the "libertarian right" position, usually take the view that new laws should not be introduced. This, as I have said, is not a new law, but an amendment to an existing law.

Interestingly, the same can be said of my Health and Safety At Work (Offences) Bill, which also features on the Order Paper; but I shall not stray on to the subject of my Bill, and my own Sisyphean aspirations.

Let me return to the serious matter of the Bill that we are discussing. The tragedy of David Knowles was the ultimate tragedy, but the figures showing a rise in youth alcohol abuse cited by, in particular, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) reflect a number of other sad possibilities. People are injured; as I know from my experience as a teacher, children must sometimes have their stomachs pumped to avoid serious illness. There is also the problem of crime. I know that the Bill would apply only to England and Wales, but it is said that, in Scotland, 80 per cent. of cases of youth involvement in breaches of the peace result from alcohol abuse, and that it is responsible for 88 per cent. of cases of criminal damage.

As we know, there is a more general pattern among young people, who may under-achieve and end up unemployed. They may become involved in drugs. They may engage in street drinking, which can not only damage them but cause great distress to those around them. I see that in my constituency, and I suspect that many other hon. Members do as well.

The hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) suggested that alcopops were a relevant factor. As I said earlier, they seem to be aimed at the teens and the pre-teens. I find it particularly worrying that the alcoholic strength of alcopops is often greater than that of the beer, porter and cider referred to by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—of whom I shall speak with even more deference than my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, although of course that has nothing whatever to do with my Bill. Unlike my hon. Friend, who did not invite sponsors from Opposition Members, I did—perhaps tongue in cheek—invite the right hon. Gentleman to be a sponsor, but I think he felt that that was a bridge, or a Bill, too far.

It would have been much better if alcopops had been introduced with a low alcoholic strength. If they had been, perhaps they could have been used to introduce young people to drinking sensibly, in a family environment. That brings me to my next point. Parents must have a major role: this really is a question of parental responsibility. I have encountered cases in which, given the state of the children involved, their parents cannot possibly not have known, when they arrived home, that they had drunk far too much. I am talking about very young children. The question of the internet, which has been raised a number of times, must be relevant to parental responsibility.

Parents are the one group of people who cannot claim ignorance of the age of the children with whom they are dealing. Obviously, licensees and their staff may experience difficulties in determining age, but it is worrying that one in five children aged between 11 and 15 who obtain drink do so from off-license premises.

I shall need to abbreviate my comments and miss out one or two points. My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) asked what was the correct age for drinking. Many would ask, "If people can get married at 16, why cannot they drink at 16?" The answer is that, in marriage, people's ages are identified precisely. That brings us to the whole question of identity cards, or youth cards.

I take on board the point that was made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but café society, family pubs and such things are part of a wider question.

The Bill deals not with those wider questions, but with a small, but significant point in trying to cure a serious problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey on his Bill.

2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I join many colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on his success in the private Members' ballot and warmly commend his decision to introduce this Bill. I share his deep and heartfelt concern about the unlawful sale of alcohol to young people. I am glad to support the Bill's intentions. As he has said, we cannot bring back David Knowles, but we can try to reduce the number of such cases. I join all Members in extending our condolences to the family of David Knowles, who will obviously be concerned to ensure that the Bill is passed. We will do all we can in the House to ensure that it is.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who has considerable experience of the House, praised my hon. Friend's speech as one of the most cogent, lucid and effective to introduce a private Member's Bill. My hon. Friend did well and deserves our support. Indeed, throughout the debate, he has had that support. My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke), for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), who made an entertaining and academically thorough speech, for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who described the experience in Scotland, where the law is, it appears, much more effective, for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) have all supported the Bill.

Support has also come from the Opposition—from the hon. Members for South Staffordshire and for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) made a thoughtful speech, and we heard a well-argued, not to say revealing, speech by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), as well as a helpful contribution from the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and interventions that were helpful, in this case, from the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), which we respond to with gratitude. We are grateful for their assistance and concern.

The Government have repeatedly made clear their concerns about the potential manipulation of young people by cynical traders. Our prompt action on taking office demonstrated the strength of that concern. In May 1997, we set up a ministerial group to look carefully at those issues. The group contained ministerial representatives from a dozen Whitehall Departments and was one of the earliest examples of our ensuring that Government joined up to make an effective difference.

A statement of the group's conclusions was published in July 1997. We set out the action that we considered necessary for all concerned parties to take. In the statement, we made clear our determination to tackle alcohol misuse by young people under 18. Alcohol abuse often leads to crime, under-achievement, damaged lives, poor health and poor employment prospects. The evidence then available showed worrying levels of drinking, reaching down even to primary schools.

Hon. Members will recall that, in the immediate aftermath of that debate, media attention focused on alcopops, which had recently come on to the market.

However, they have never been the only alcoholic drinks illegally obtained by children in this country, as has become clear during this debate. Some suggest that the action taken in respect of alcopops was a knee-jerk reaction to a passing fad, but they are wrong.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North that alcopops represent a worrying trend. Their strength can be masked by fruit and other flavours that are especially appealing to children and that diminishes both awareness of alcohol content and children's traditional taste threshold. Our concern was that many of the drinks were fashion items, packaged and marketed in a way that made them attractive to teenagers and even younger children.

Our view was that several such products had been marketed irresponsibly and that some producers and retailers had lost sight of their duty to their fellow citizens. We all noted that some of the items bought by David Knowles were alcopops. We worked closely with the Portman Group and called on producers and suppliers to discharge their social responsibilities with regard to the problem of under-age drinking. A range of additional controls within the industry's code of practice is a vital outcome of that work and has had a significant impact on the merchandising and packaging of alcoholic drinks.

The additional controls included: appropriate names, packaging and promotion of alcoholic products; avoiding artificially bright colours in either the product or the packaging; ensuring that the taste and texture of products do not mislead about their true alcoholic nature; ensuring that steps are taken to remind sales staff of their responsibilities; ensuring that alcohol is made less accessible to children in shops; ensuring proper staff training and introducing suitable sanctions for breaches of the code; arranging pre-launch clearance of relevant products; ensuring swift compliance with decisions of the independent panel; and requiring compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of the code.

We have monitored progress made by the industry and have been encouraged by its positive response. The number of complaints made under the new code has continued to decline, which is a good sign. Where complaints have been made and upheld, swift compliance with the independent panel's decisions has become the norm. That all helps to ensure that under-age drinking is not encouraged by irresponsible marketing of alcopops.

I join the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in paying tribute to the Portman Group and the alcohol industry. It is inevitable that, during consideration of the Bill, harsh comments will be made about the liquor industry and examples given of its irresponsible behaviour in the past. However, we can point to examples of the industry's responding positively and responsibly to concerns; it deserves credit for what it has done right, as well as criticism for its failures.

The industry has been responsive to our concerns. Addressing the issues raised by the Bill does not put the House in conflict with the industry—it is not us against them. The progress that the Government have made in the past three years in protecting young people has been achieved by co-operating closely with the industry, encouraging it to put its own house in order, providing it with leadership and direction, and ensuring that it is brought along with efforts to make changes and protect young people.

The industry has shown a willingness to do that. A reflection of its new approach can be seen in the British Institute of Innkeeping's social responsibility initiative. That important initiative involves the industry in several courses of action: first, identifying areas of social responsibility that are relevant to the licensed sector; secondly, developing, co-ordinating and promulgating best practice approaches to social responsibility issues; thirdly, agreeing an agenda for action, especially at local level; and fourthly, publicising the work of the industry to the public and the licensing trade. All of that feeds into the agenda expressed in today's debate.

The Bill is only one element of a wider strategy. One of the main issues to which the industry has started to respond positively is the need for training, which is vital to that broad strategy. In the context of a comprehensive strategy, I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of effective training for staff working on premises that sell and serve alcohol—not only licensees, but all staff. They must know the law, and they must understand their responsibilities for doing all in their power to ensure that off-licences, pubs and clubs prevent disorder and crime. For pubs and clubs, that includes not only under-age drinking, disorder and drunkenness, but drugs penetration.

The initiatives represent crucial support for the provisions that we introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. However, such initiatives will be wasted unless the industry as a whole commits itself as a body to the reduction of crime and disorder. It will be action taken in local pubs and off-licences and in local communities that really makes changes and that counts in achieving better long-term results.

I believe that the industry is ready to make that type of commitment. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), recently hosted an important seminar that was attended by leading figures from the alcohol industry, and work was begun on development of a comprehensive national strategy for dealing better with the impact that alcohol has on crime and disorder. The work has included an examination of the case for further action to combat under-age drinking and its impact.

I, too, regularly meet representatives of the industry. They have been keen to assure me personally that they are keen to play a full part in combating the impact of alcohol misuse.

As hon. Members have said today, there has also been good progress in expanding proof-of-age card schemes, such as the Portman Group's card. Other cards have emerged, often in a broader context than that of alcohol sales. The schemes, which include the CitizenCard and the validate card, are important in helping to prevent children from unlawfully obtaining alcohol. We continue to monitor and support their development.

The hon. Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned the Department for Education and Employment's young people's card and its youth support service, and asked whether that might be a way of supplementing the work done by the Portman Group and other organisations with cards. The Department for Education and Employment and Home Office officials are exploring the possibility of using the new card in that manner, but I can give no guarantees now, as it depends on how events develop. The idea is a good one in principle, but it remains to be seen whether we shall be able to develop the technology and the administrative back-up to ensure that it is a reliable basis on which to determine the age of young people.

We also sought to toughen the law by bringing into force the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, which has been mentioned in the debate. The Act allows police to confiscate alcohol held in public by under-age people or from individuals holding it for someone not entitled to buy alcohol. However, more action is needed. The hon. Member for Daventry asked me to explain how the Government would review the provisions on liquor and public entertainment. We have almost completed the review, and should soon be able to publish a White Paper and to make further announcements.

Our review has been the most thorough review of liquor and public entertainment laws for a generation. Some hon. Members suggested today to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that his Bill should perhaps try more broadly to amend current law. Quite rightly, however, he has focused on the mischief that, for constituency reasons, he feels he needs to address. Nevertheless, I tell hon. Members who are concerned about other issues that the Government share many of the concerns expressed in the debate, and that we want eventually to provide the opportunity for the discussion of such issues that follows publication of a White Paper and, eventually, legislation.

Mr. Heald

Will the White Paper be produced before the end of March?

Mr. O'Brien

We expect it to be available before the end of March, but I do not want to give a cast-iron date at this stage. It is well in order and we have merely to sort out some of the detail. It will be published in a matter of weeks, and certainly in less than two months' time.

At the heart of the White Paper intended to modernise our licensing laws will lie the need to build on the work done so far by the strengthening of the law on under-age purchase and consumption. The Bill can be part of the platform on which we build our reforms. Our existing licensing laws are in many ways archaic and unnecessarily complex. They are riddled with red tape and bureaucracy that appear to contribute little to protecting children, preventing crime, ensuring public safety or minimising public nuisance. There can be few parents who understand well—if at all—the laws on under-age purchase and consumption of alcohol.

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove drew attention to some key points in the Licensing Act 1964. I agree that it is difficult to understand the rationality of some of the provisions in that Act. Persons under 18 cannot buy a drink anywhere on licensed premises, whether in the bar of a public house or elsewhere. The only exception is people 16 or over who can buy beer, cider or porter for consumption with a meal not served in a bar. Persons under 18 cannot drink in a bar, but those aged five or over can lawfully drink alcohol elsewhere in licensed premises, such as in a family room or a pub garden. Persons aged five or over can drink in a private club, a public place or at home. Persons under 14 are not allowed in the bar of licensed premises during permitted hours unless a children's certificate is in force. It is an offence to be drunk while in charge of a child under seven. Finally, it is an offence to give a child under five an alcoholic drink anywhere.

The law is complex, and parents and licensees need to understand it. We need a simpler, more rational approach.

Mr. Forth

We may also wish later to discuss references in previous legislation, which may still be in force, to liqueur chocolates. Given what the Minister has just said about young children, we may wish to consider how relevant those provisions continue to be. We might ask whether provisions on the availability and consumption of liqueur chocolates remain relevant.

Mr. O'Brien

I have to confess that the right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I have not delved into. In view of what he has said, I shall certainly find out what the rules are. [Interruption.] It appears that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border may be able to quote the precise clauses involved, and I shall certainly look into them.

On the one hand, we ban sales to minors in very precisely defined places. On the other, purchases by small children are permitted in registered private clubs, on trains, on boats and on planes. Such a confused variety of laws makes no sense in today's world. The law relies too heavily on the good faith of people serving alcohol in clubs, on boats and on trains. That has led to problems, such as boats offering coastal water excursions that allow 14-year-olds the opportunity to dance and to drink alcohol lawfully. We fully intend to deal with such problems, and the White Paper will outline how we propose to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley argued persuasively that we need to restore confidence in licensing law. The Government can and will seek to reform and modernise complex arrangements, and our starting point for new licensing laws will be the protection of the young and vulnerable in our society. We need a fundamental rethink of those issues; that is what the Government have been doing.

Since the early 19th century, the basic principles governing licensing law have not changed significantly. Although alcohol consumption in this country had by that time been falling for more than 50 years, in the mid-19th century the Temperance Society pressed for tighter restrictions. In some places, hours were reduced and punishments increased. Victorian reformers addressed the question whether children should be drinking; for the first time, the fundamental issue of protecting the young was placed at the heart of our licensing laws.

In 1872, it was made illegal to sell spirits on licensed premises to children aged under 16. In 1886, sales of any alcoholic drink for consumption on licensed premises were made illegal if the children were under 13. For the sake of context, it is important to remember that at that time a girl of 12 and a boy of 13 could lawfully marry—so much for Victorian values.

In 1901, the sale of alcohol to children under 14 was banned, with some exceptions. The present age limit of 18 years was introduced in 1923, as was the law permitting 16 and 17-year-olds to buy beer, porter, cider or perry with a meal. Several emergency statutes were introduced, which further restricted the hours for the sale of alcohol.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South asked about lowering the age at which alcohol could be purchased. We do not take the view that there should be a lowering of the present age of 18. There are several reasons for that. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is possible to portray much inconsistency in the statutory setting of age limits associated with certain activities.

However, there is a well-established practice of placing age limits on the purchase of certain goods, both for the protection of children and to protect others from the immature or uncontrolled use of dangerous items. For example, alcohol, fireworks, solvents and certain videos and computer games all share an age limit of 18 for purchase. Knives, unsealed razor blades, axes, national lottery tickets and cigarettes all share the lower age limit of 16 for purchase.

It is, therefore, by no means unusual for Parliament to assess the degree of risk involved for children and to impose an appropriate age limit on purchase. The issue is not consistency, but risk. In addition, we believe that we have reflected widespread public concern by putting a strong focus on the need to reduce youth crime. There is no doubt that there is a strong association between crime and alcohol consumption.

No representations have been made to the Government by the hospitality or leisure industry for a reduction in the age limit. There is no pressure for change that we can detect. In recent years, we have reacted to public concerns over alcopops. I have already referred to the battle over marketing to youngsters. We consider that any change in our position on the age limit for drinking by young people would be taken as a green light for the industry to return to targeting them in its marketing strategies. We do not want that.

Our policy will be reflected in the forthcoming White Paper—it is to maintain the age of 18 for the legal purchase and consumption of alcohol. Alcohol in the hands of young and immature people is bad news. Too early an exposure to alcohol can produce the worst possible consequences, as shown by the case of David Knowles.

The Bill points us to an example of the archaic nature of our alcohol laws in the words "licensee and their servants", and to the problems those words have caused for those seeking to prosecute irresponsible and criminal retailers in today's world. The era of master and servant has gone. The courts have ruled that the term "servant" does not include those who are not directly employed by the licensee. As has been explained, those employed by a chain of retailers are exempted from the provisions of the 1964 Act.

It is unacceptable that the words of an Act which Parliament intended to protect young people now serve the irresponsible and the criminal as an immunity from prosecution. No retailer who sells to children should be able to evade prosecution.

The impact of that loophole is tragically illustrated by the outline of the case of David Knowles. The Bill deals with the issue by making it an offence for anyone—regardless of the precise nature of their employment status—to sell alcohol to someone under 18. Correspondingly, anyone in a position of authority, whether or not they are the holder of the licence, will commit an offence if they allow someone to make such a sale. In both cases there are appropriate defences. It will be a defence for anyone making a sale to establish that they had no reason to think that the buyer was under 18, and it will be a defence for someone who allows that sale to prove that they exercised due diligence in seeking to establish the age.

Prosecution is important under licensing law not merely because an offender faces the possibility of a fine. By rendering himself or herself liable to prosecution, the licensee puts his or her licence at risk. We want to ensure that we put in place a new mechanism which has the ability to enforce these laws more effectively.

In exchanges with a number of hon. Members, I have said that we have in mind, as part of our review, a graduated range of sanctions—warnings, tough fines, reduced trading hours, temporary closures or suspension of a licence and, of course, revocation of that licence—as possible penalties if someone were to breach licensing laws by selling to children under age. We believe that that would lead to more effective enforcement and would better protect young people. That is our aim, and it is certainly the aim of the Bill.

The off-licence is an important part of our high streets. Most alcohol is bought not for consumption in pubs, clubs and bars but for consumption at home. We intend to ensure that our law in respect of off-licences and supermarkets is brought up to date and modernised.

Several other points were raised during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), with her expertise on licensing law, said that large retailers should be under the same regime as small businesses. I agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that Thresher, whose employees escaped prosecution owing to the loophole, had a sense of social responsibility, and I was pleased to hear that that large retailer supports the Bill. It is to its credit that although the circumstances that led to the Bill's introduction arose in its shops, it is prepared to support the Bill.

Several issues were raised about the use of information technology. As part of our review and the preparation of our White Paper, we shall examine the issues of sale through information technology. We shall also consider the issues of education and alcohol and seek to ensure that, in the development of that policy, all the points of substance that were raised during the debate are examined in the course of the preparation of our White Paper.

We all accept that the Bill has limitations. Recent data from research sponsored by the Portman Group suggest that children are obtaining a great deal of cheap alcohol from unlicensed individuals who are peddling smuggled alcohol, for example. That is a cynical trade, with little regard for the consequences for the young or for parents. The Government are stepping up their campaign to defeat the bootleggers.

The Bill must be seen as part of a strategy fought on many fronts. Licensing reform, the prosecution of bootleggers, better education in schools about the perils of alcohol misuse, joint action with the industry and tough penalties for those who put children at risk all have a part to play. The importance of the Bill in closing an unacceptable loophole in the law is therefore of considerable importance in the broader context.

The Government therefore give their full support to the Bill and welcome the move to close the loophole that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has so clearly identified.

2.28 pm
Mr. Truswell

I am conscious of the time, so I shall limit my comments to thanking all Members who have contributed to the excellent debate. People outside the Chamber all too often adopt a very sceptical or cynical attitude towards our proceedings. I hope that some of those who have witnessed today's discussion will feel that sometimes Parliament can get it right. I think that we have been a credit to ourselves, and I hope that the consensus that has existed today will ensure that we continue to be a credit to the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).