§ 3.26 p.m.
§ The Viscount of Falkland asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they are satisfied that the law forbidding the sale of alcohol to young people under 18 years of age is being rigorously enforced.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, chief officers of police, the courts and licensing justices have all been reminded of their wide powers to prevent disorder, breaches of licensing law and drunkenness. It is for chief officers to determine the operational priorities of their forces.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. However, is he aware that the all-party group on alcohol misuse received worrying reports from various quarters, including voluntary agencies and the brewing industry, that the law is being widely flouted, particularly in pubs? It appears that in certain areas the police are aware that young people—not only those of borderline age but also those clearly below the age of 18—are being served alcohol and the police are using their discretion in deciding whether or not to prosecute. Has the noble Earl had any conversations with the Association of Chief Police Officers on that point?
My Lords, I am aware of the views of the all-party group. It is always difficult to ensure that in all cases where the law is broken people are prosecuted. I have not had contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers on the matter. If the noble Viscount or the group with which he is 1143 connected wish to communicate their views to the police, they can do so directly. It is not for Ministers to tell the police how to carry out their operational functions.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the police find the situation difficult? They seem to believe that most youngsters below the legal age purchase their alcohol from off-licences. All the off-licence people can do is try to guess and assume that the young person has the right to purchase what they are asking for. The same thing applies to the police when they arrest or threaten to arrest one of those youngsters. It is a great problem for the police. We should not be critical of them. They are doing their best. Will not the Government try to help them in asserting the law of the land?
My Lords, it is always difficult to tell how old a person is. In 1988 the offence of knowingly selling to a person under the age of 18 had the word "knowingly" removed. It is therefore an offence to sell to a person under the age of 18. Various pubs operate a system where youngsters must carry a proof-of-age card, and that is to be encouraged. In the end it is difficult to determine exactly how old a person is but the offence was nevertheless created.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, while recognising that it is a difficult problem, is it not obvious that the law is not being enforced, not only in pubs, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, but also in supermarkets? I hesitate to put the proposition forward but as everything else seems to have failed, will not the Government look at the possibility of increasing the penalties imposed on those people who sell alcohol to under-age youngsters?
My Lords, I did not have any information to suggest that it was the supermarkets who were in difficulties as regards breaching the law. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, that the maximum penalty for these offences is £400. That is going to rise to £1,000 from 1st October of this year. If the offence is committed by a publican, he can have his licence revoked or it will not be renewed. If he is found on a second occasion to have committed the offence, his licence can be forfeited.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that if the Home Office were to introduce a mandatory national identification card scheme starting at the age of 16 years, that would help to solve the problem?
My Lords, if we were to introduce a national identity card scheme, I believe that it would be for purposes rather wider than under-age drinking.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, does the Minister agree that many young people use pubs as meeting places? Does he believe that there are enough alternatives for young people to get off the streets and to meet? If not, can he do something about that?
My Lords, I am not quite sure what the noble Baroness wants me to do in order to 1144 encourage young people to get off the streets and to go into other places of refreshment. Certainly there are places for young people to go. We are considering issuing a consultation paper on two possible changes in the law along the lines of the measures which are already in force in Scotland. One would be a system of children's certificates to allow children under 14 years of age to accompany adults into the bars of suitable licensed premises under certain conditions—say, for a family meal. The other would be a new category of licence for continental cafe-style premises, which I am sure would find favour with the noble Baroness, into which accompanied children under 14 years of age might also be admitted in certain circumstances.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, in view of the likely decision of the European Court on Sunday trading and the status of our laws in that respect, perhaps I may ask this question. Does the Minister agree that in the case of the sale of alcohol to young people under 18 years of age, just as in the case of lawbreaking by the supermarkets, if there is a law on the statute book, then it should either be enforced or changed, but not just ignored?
My Lords, the law may be what it is; but it is impossible to enforce it in all circumstances in the same way as it is difficult to catch every person who exceeds the speed limit who happens to drive a motor car. The offence is created and it is then up to the prosecuting authorities and the police to take such action as is necessary. I sometimes believe that some noble Lords and others will not be satisfied until half the country is in the police force and the other half is in gaol.
§ Lord St.John of Bletso
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that most young people are totally ignorant about the different levels of alcohol in most beers? Can he say whether there are any remedies being undertaken for changing the situation, and to inform young people about the levels of alcohol in beer?
My Lords, I believe that I am correct in saying that the alcohol content has to be put on the article which is being sold. Normal beer has an alcohol percentage of between 3 per cent. and 5 per cent.; strong lager has an alcohol content between 7 per cent. and 8 per cent.; wine is about 11 per cent. and the alcohol content of spirits is between 25 per cent. and 40 per cent. The alcohol content of low-alcohol drinks is from 0.05 per cent. to 1.2 per cent. Your Lordships may think that that would taste very agreeable. Those who are in doubt as to what the alcohol levels are will doubtless read Hansard and inform themselves.