HC Deb 10 July 2000 vol 353 cc672-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hill.]

7.22 pm
Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I am delighted to have secured an Adjournment debate on this important subject. The issues surrounding high-proof alcohol and its effects on our young people are matters of serious concern. In my many discussions with the police in my constituency, the severe problems surrounding high-proof drinks are a regular topic.

I take this opportunity to thank the local police, especially Sergeant Seeborn and the community police team based at Bromborough for their work on the problem, and for providing a great deal of background information. I know that they are pleased that the matter is being brought before the House today.

The police tell me that most of the time in the community forums that they hold locally in the Wirral is taken up with discussing complaints related to young people engaged in anti-social behaviour. I do not believe that Wirral, South is any different in that respect from other constituencies, which I am sure are experiencing similar problems. The problems are often exacerbated by the fact that the youths involved have consumed alcohol.

Gangs of youths can be perceived as intimidating even when sober and behaving well. When they are drunk, the perceived threat is much more substantial, especially to elderly citizens. That problem is much evident in Wirral, South, where a high proportion of the population is over pensionable age.

The problems are made significantly worse because the drinks involved are often high-proof drinks—8, 9, 10 or even 12 per cent. by volume in some cases. In effect, young people of 13 or 14 years of age are drinking the equivalent, in each bottle or can, of three or four pints of ordinary beer. The consequences are predictable—anti-social behaviour, damage, theft, graffiti, assault, and so on.

Vandalism and damage to churches and churchyards is becoming increasing common in my constituency, and I am sure that it is a direct result of the actions of youths who have been drinking. That is especially distressing to many people.

Research reported last year showed that youngsters between 11 and 15 are drinking more than twice as much alcohol as in the early 1990s. The charity Alcohol Concern believes that as many as 2.75 million pints of beer are consumed every week by under-age young people. Last year, Liverpool's Alder Hey children's hospital revealed that doctors were treating 200 intoxicated youngsters a year—some of them as young as 9 years of age. If anyone doubted the scale of the problem, those facts show it clearly.

Wirral magistrates tell me that more cases involving young people are connected to alcohol than to drugs. As Alcohol Concern has stated: More young people drink alcohol than take drugs, and more get into trouble from it. I shall give a brief outline of how the problem came to light in the Wirral. The Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 gave police power to confiscate alcohol from young people in public areas, and it has proved highly successful. Merseyside police mounted Operation Cask in June 1998 in the central Wirral area, which includes my constituency. That highlighted the extent of the problem as, between 6 pm and 9 pm on a Friday evening, alcohol worth £700 was seized.

The significant result was not that such an amount was seized, shocking as that might be, but that the received wisdom of the time—that alcopops were the main contributor to under-age drinking—was discovered to be untrue. The House will recall the public outcry when those drinks were introduced to the market but, although I have strong reservations about them, they do not seem to be the major cause of the problems.

During the operation, no alcopops were seized, and, in any case, their alcohol by volume is only about 5 per cent. The alcohol seized was all either lager or cider, and all of it had a high alcohol content. The drinks were much stronger than alcopops, and much cheaper. For example, cider, which costs as little as £1 per litre in an off-licence is, on average, twice the strength of most beers, so the stark reality is that £1 allows kids to consume major amounts of alcohol. It can be no surprise that the young people involved are frequently drunk and abusive. Many are not in control of themselves: they are, indeed, out of their minds.

In most other respects, the youngsters are well behaved. They may have no income other than pocket money, and their parents often have no idea about what is going on. For example, parents might give a child £5 for the cinema, little knowing that it could be spent on alcohol. A considerable amount of alcohol can be consumed for £2 or £3, and the evidence is building that many youngsters' first experience of alcohol is with these high-volume products.

Why are the kids on the street in the first place? They will tell people that there is nothing else to do and, sadly, in some cases, that is true. In my constituency, for example, there is a lack of facilities for teenagers. Most importantly, there are too few facilities that they want to use-as opposed to what we older people think that they should want to use.

Moreover, facilities are often in inner-city and urban areas. Little thought seems to be given to suburban areas such as those in my constituency. I continue to press the lottery boards to take account of suburban issues and to put right the consequential lack of lottery funds for projects such as the West Wirral Trust for Sport. The facilities that it could offer could greatly help in attracting youngsters away from the streets and parks and into productive fun. That would be an alternative to the "bit of fun" that drinking represents in an area where the youngsters say that they have nothing to do.

Any alcoholic drink is strong to people in their early teens, but the high-proof drinks multiply that problem considerably. We often forget that alcohol is a drug, and must represent a potential cause of harm when it is taken in such strong doses.

All police operations since Operation Cask have resulted in the confiscation of high-volume lager and cider. The police tell me that they are now having difficulty in finding the stashes of drink that youngsters go to increasingly greater lengths to conceal. The police believe—and I believe them—that youngsters sneak these drinks through their back doors at home, unnoticed and attracting no comment. To some extent, that happens on the back of, or under cover of, alcopops. The drinks involved may be bootleg imports.

Who buys these drinks, and why are they produced? My hon. Friend the Minister will recall from his visit to Wirral, South earlier this year that a call on an off-licence, particularly a discount off-licence, can provide evidence of the hard sell that surrounds such products. He will recall that they formed a major part of the display in an off-licence that he visited, and that the sales staff confirmed that they were a good seller.

This is surely a time when the social responsibilities of the brewing industry, off-licences and perhaps supermarkets need to be examined closely, not least by the industry and the outlets themselves. These beers and ciders are packaged to be attractive to young people. The cider comes in blue or green bottles. It is consumed—as is the fashion these days—from the neck of the bottle. All these drinks have a high alcohol content. They are seen as "wicked" in both senses of the word—in the sense that they are fashionable for young people, and in the sense that they are harmful and undesirable because they have a bad effect on youngsters and because anti-social behaviour surrounds their sale and consumption.

Is there any need to sell such beers? They may provide a good profit margin, but surely the damage that they do to our young people outweighs that commercial consideration. I enjoy a drink or two of beer, but neither I—nor anyone else I have spoken to—drink beers with such a high alcohol volume. That is simply an observation, not a scientific fact, but it bears out the police's view that the consumption of high-alcohol content products is, in the main, by under-age drinkers and alcoholics. They are not enjoyed, bought or consumed by social drinkers.

Why does the industry produce such products? Why are they sold in such a high-profile way? A cynic might assume that they are targeted at young people. I understand that in some supermarkets, sales of these products can make up to 1 per cent. of total sales.

The social cost of these products is far too high. It is time for action, and if the industry is not prepared to look at this problem voluntarily, I ask the Government to ensure that it does.

Before concluding, it is important to say something about the outlets for these products. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) is seeking to tighten the laws against those who sell alcohol to under-age drinkers, and I support his proposals wholeheartedly. However, such measures would not solve the problem in its entirety. The majority of licensed premises in Wirral, South do not sell alcohol to young people. However, that does not mean that there does not need to be even more supervision of off-licences and other outlets. They may not be the direct cause of the problem, but disturbance, violence and criminal activity often occur nearby. If they are not the cause, they are certainly often the focus.

Research shows that disorder around licensed premises has increased dramatically—by about 30 per cent. from the mid-1990s. We need to ensure that youngsters under 18 are not being sold alcohol of any type. We need to monitor displays in off-licences and supermarkets. The police have to ensure that frequent visits are made to outlets and, as far as possible, measures need to be taken to discourage and stop adults from buying drink for teenagers.

That brings me to a more sinister aspect of the problem. A large number of people over 18 are more than willing to purchase alcohol for under-age youngsters. Legitimate customers can be harangued, but are often bribed, into buying alcohol for teenagers. Sadly, in some cases, parents buy the drinks. More disturbingly, the police often find groups of teenagers—mainly girls—in the presence of males over 18. One can draw one's own conclusions as to the motives behind that, but assault and sexual assault on youngsters too drunk to know what is happening cannot be ruled out, and does occur.

Will the Government be taking action to criminalise purchasing alcohol and supplying it to under-age drinkers? The anti-social behaviour of such youngsters is a huge problem, but of equal concern is the danger that they put themselves into, and the risk of assault, or even accidents, when drunk.

The only purpose of these products seems to be to ensure that the consumer gets drunk quickly and cheaply. To me, high-volume ciders and beers with a high alcohol content often taste appalling. To my lights, they are not social drinks in any shape or form.

To impose a punitive tax on high percentage products is one suggestion for drinks with, for example, a percentage volume greater than 6 or 6.5 per cent. That would place these products further out of the price range of the pocket-money drinkers, and might be the best solution, short of their withdrawal from sale.

High-profile advertising and health campaigns against their use, educating not only young people but their parents of the dangers of such products, would also be a welcome measure. Indeed, following Operation Cask, Merseyside police wrote directly to parents about the problem, and are continuing to do so. There is a role for schools and for the youth service. I ask the Minister to comment on what could be done in these areas.

The fact remains, however, that all these measures still leave these products on the shelves, available and obtainable in one way or another. I hope that I have outlined my serious concerns about the problem, which certainly needs addressing.

I call on the industry and retail outlets to address the issue voluntarily by looking at the way in which the products are marketed and produced, and at the need for them in the first place. I call for Government action if the industry is not prepared to do this. I call for the introduction of a punitive tax on beers and ciders with a percentage volume greater than, say, 6.5 per cent. I call for increased supervision of licensed premises and the displays within them. I call for a high-profile campaign, aimed particularly at adults, to highlight the dangers of these products. Finally, I call for measures to criminalise the purchase of alcohol for consumption by under-age youths.

7.36 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing the debate and by saying how grateful I am that he has done so. I visited my hon. Friend's constituency earlier this year, and talked at length to a number of organisations, particularly the police, about the issues that he has described so graphically this evening. The situation that was described to me demonstrated that the issue was of such importance and significance that we must address it actively. I intend to set out this evening our approach to the matter.

I regret that the issues described by my hon. Friend are not restricted to the Wirral, but also apply to other parts of the country. In too many parts of the country, there is too much drinking of strong alcohol by young people in parks, as my hon. Friend described. That leads to a range of crimes and disorders that cause problems for society as well as, more significantly, causing serious problems for the individuals as they go about a process of personal decline, which is tragic in its own way.

It may be of interest to the House if I describe the general situation in this country, so that some of the figures are on the record. Our starting point must be a recognition that nearly 90 per cent. of the United Kingdom population take alcoholic drinks and spend something like £25 billion a year on them. The vast majority enjoy alcohol sensibly—my hon. Friend indicated that he occasionally takes a glass, and I confess that I do, too. However, the industry, with its wide variety of representative organisations, is encouraging sensible drinking and positively discouraging the kind of drinking that my hon. Friend describes as taking place in some parts of his constituency and elsewhere.

The fact is that alcohol-related crime, disorder and nuisance, particularly at weekends outside some pubs and clubs, is an increasing problem in many areas. The Government are determined to give the police and local authorities the support and powers that they need to deal with those who abuse alcohol and behave in the kind of unacceptable ways that my hon. Friend has described. For example, it seems that more than 80 per cent. of criminal damage cases are committed by offenders under the influence of alcohol. That figure demonstrates that it is a real issue which impacts on the quality of life in our communities, affecting in particular those who happen to live in the vicinity of certain pubs and clubs.

I have seen figures suggesting that up to 75 or 80 per cent. of those who go to hospital accident and emergency departments have alcohol in their bloodstream. In itself, I suppose that that should not be a particularly surprising statistic; nevertheless, the scale indicates the impact of alcohol consumption on society as a whole.

Research indicates that under-age consumption of alcohol increases substantially the risks of young people becoming involved in criminal or disorderly activity, as well as leading to under-achievement at school, poor health and poor employment prospects. That is an important contributory factor to the cycle of decline that has affected too many of our young people.

The evidence suggests that young people have substantial access to alcohol. The youth life styles survey conducted between 1998 and 1999 suggested that 84 per cent. of 12 to 17-year-olds had drunk alcohol at some time in their lives—with their drinking increasing as they grew older. The survey found that 63 per cent. of those aged between 16 and 17 and 10 per cent. of those aged between 12 and 15 who had drunk during the past year said that they usually bought alcohol for themselves—most often in pubs, bars and nightclubs.

As I travel around the country—not only in the Wirral, but elsewhere—police and local authorities report to me that the problem of alcohol consumption at, say, 2 am on a Friday or Saturday night is not only serious in itself, but requires a considerable diversion of police resources to keep control of difficult and problematic situations.

The problem is real and substantial. There are important implications for the health service, for crime, for social services and for other aspects. Furthermore, although it may seem a lesser problem, too many parks are made unattractive for people to use, because certain areas are dominated by groups of young people consuming high-strength alcohol, as my hon. Friend described.

The problem addressed by my hon. Friend is important and profound for our society. Unfortunately, too many of our opinion formers in various walks of life have tended to undervalue the seriousness of the issue. Because we all have a drink from time to time, we tend to think that the problem of alcoholism is not too serious. In fact, alcohol abuse is increasing—especially among young people—and it should be reduced.

Earlier this year, in response to the problem, as the responsible Home Office Minister, I convened two seminars for the large range of individuals and organisations involved in the matter. There was wide participation—including the police, magistrates, representatives from local government and from victuallers and licensees associations, members of pressure groups such as Alcohol Concern, the Portman Group and pub watch schemes, and representatives from companies involved in beer production and in the leisure industry.

I convened the seminars—a further one will be held in September—to find out what common ground existed between all those organisations, so that we could make progress in addressing the issues. I am glad to report to the House that much common ground exists. For example, breweries are not interested only in maximising the consumption of alcohol. They accept that it is in their interest that alcohol consumption be regarded as a civilised and reasonable leisure activity in our society. It should not be seen to lead to excess, and to the problems and difficulties described by my hon. Friend.

All the organisations acknowledge the obligation to try to work more effectively to address the issues. We have begun a serious dialogue about what we should try to do. A range of initiatives are under way. In some localities, there are arrangements between club doorkeepers and the police. I visited York a few months ago, where there is a good relationship between the police and licensees—with a requirement for licensees to meet the police for discussions every year.

In some parts of the country, photographs are circulated of certain offenders who drink to excess in particular places. In some areas, licensees play an active role in carrying out their responsibilities effectively. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out and as I saw in the Wirral, the role of off-licences in selling—or not selling—alcohol to young people is a matter of concern. In my hon. Friend's constituency, I saw an off-licence near a railway station, where there were serious problems. People obtained alcohol and caused the type of disorder that my hon. Friend so eloquently described. There are too many similar examples.

The main message from the discussions that have taken place is that there is a real commitment to a series of measures based on partnership, which will powerfully and efficiently address the issues. As a result, I am glad to tell the House that, later this year, the Government will publish toolkits setting out ways in which organisations can work together, so that the dialogue between licensees, local authorities, the police and the companies can be put into effect. They will include various measures, for example, on pub design and strengthened glass, as well as more effective byelaws to prevent drinking in public places. That will enable us to move forward.

There is wide consensus that an effective proof of age card is needed to ensure that alcohol is sold only to those who are legally entitled to buy it. There are still serious issues to deal with in order to address that problem effectively. The optimistic note that I offer my hon. Friend is the real willingness on the part of the whole industry to co-ordinate effective measures. That is a serious and most important point.

Our statutory crime and disorder partnerships address these issues. It is significant that more than 60 per cent.—three in five—of local crime reduction partnerships identified tackling alcohol and crime as a priority. That work has shown that, as with drugs, the consumption of alcohol is a major accelerator of crime.

In addition, we have taken some general measures. The White Paper "Time for Reform", published earlier this year, recognised the need for a real balance between people's rights and freedoms and tough measures to punish those who abuse those rights and freedoms. For example, the White Paper proposed that, in certain circumstances, the police should be able to close down clubs where there had been particular problems. New powers are proposed for the police to shut disorderly premises and to combat under-age drinking—especially in public.

We propose new measures to back up the age of 18 as the legal age for buying and drinking alcohol on licensed premises, including off-licences. That will include a new offence of buying alcohol on behalf of an under-18-year-old. That deals with one of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. I urge him to continue to press the matter. As the measure is recommended in the White Paper, I am confident that it will be introduced, but it is important to change public perceptions on that matter. There will be a new offence of knowingly permitting the sale of alcohol to an under-18-year-old and a new duty on those selling alcohol to satisfy themselves as to the age of their customers. A proof of age card would have special relevance in that context.

As my hon. Friend said, some of these issues have been covered by the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell)—the Licensing (Young Persons) Bill. It has had cross-party support and has made good progress in the House. If it is given a fair wind in another place—I hope that it will be—it will become new law in this parliamentary Session. It will improve the effectiveness of our licensing laws by protecting youngsters in advance of the changes proposed in the White Paper. We therefore have proposals to deal with under-age drinking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South raised a difficult matter on which the police in his constituency have been particularly active. He referred to the means of banning the unacceptably and extraordinarily high-strength beers, ciders and lagers that are sold in many off-licences and which are welcomed by young people who want to get blotto for reasons that pass my understanding and, I suspect, that of my hon. Friend. This is an issue for the Department of Trade and Industry, but the Government take it seriously and we are actively considering what we can do. I cannot say anything positive tonight, but, as with what I said about sales to those aged under 18, I hope that he will continue his campaign and press it strongly.

There are technical and difficult problems about distinguishing between the obvious high-alcohol drinks, such as vodka, and the drinks that are marketed in a particular fashion. Those difficulties present problems in setting about addressing the issue effectively, but it is important that my hon. Friend continues to press his fcampaign in the powerful way that he has done today.

My congratulations to my hon. Friend are genuine. It is an important campaign whose time has come. Many people have already suggested that they want to work together and the Government are determined to make progress on these issues. I wish him well and urge him to continue the pressure that he has started with this debate. I hope that the House will agree that this has been a worthwhile debate and that it is a worthwhile subject for the Government to focus on in their actions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eight o'clock.