HL Deb 14 March 1997 vol 579 cc591-9

2.9 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is another small but, I believe, important Bill. It proposes to tackle the problem of under-age young persons drinking alcohol in the streets of our towns and cities. I feel privileged to act as a sponsor of the Bill so ably piloted through another place by my honourable friend Dr. Robert Spink. I detected from the reports of those proceedings that the measure received all-party support. I trust that the same spirit will prevail today.

The Bill is designed to provide community police with a quick on-the-spot solution that can be used when young people drink alcohol in the street. Sadly, we all know of cases where alcohol has become both the cause of young people getting themselves into trouble and of doing things which they may have come bitterly to regret. Drunkenness starts so often with raucous behaviour and quickly turns into mischief, and worse—criminal activity such as vandalism, joy-riding and assault. Young people, stained with a criminal record, are at a great disadvantage as regards future prospects and careers.

In the interesting and informative Second Reading debate in another place, it became clear from examples quoted by honourable members that the problem of under-age drinking is not confined to any particular area of the country. It affects large industrial cities as well as county towns and seaside towns. I know personally of a popular and picturesque part of the Isle of Wight where groups of young people regularly gather in the evenings to drink alcohol on the pier. Residents and visitors naturally find such behaviour intimidating. The local police tell me that they would welcome the provisions of the Bill to help them sort out the problem. Only last week in the same area, of the cases involving offences by young persons, 70 per cent. were alcohol related, which is, of course, a very worrying figure.

The need for the Bill arises because there is a gap in existing powers to control young persons consuming alcohol in public places. The Licensing Act 1964 prohibits young persons under 18 from purchasing or consuming alcohol on licensed premises. Nor may an adult purchase a whisky, for instance, and hand it to a young person to consume on licensed premises. What the Act does not cover is young persons openly drinking alcohol in public places other than licensed premises. The police currently have no preventive powers to stop it. If they come across a group of young people in the park "tanking themselves up" with cans of lager or bottles of whisky, they are powerless to nip any trouble in the bud but must wait until there is a breach of the peace. Such a situation is clearly unacceptable and a damaging loophole in community policing. The Bill will close that loophole.

Clause 1 gives the police the power to confiscate alcoholic drinks, or that which appears to be alcoholic drink, from any person under the age of 18 if they are in a public place or a private place to which they have unlawfully gained access. That means the police will be able to step in early if they see youngsters misbehaving in the park, around the bus station, in a shopping mall, outside a fish and chip shop or in somebody's private garden.

The confiscation powers of police officers under the Bill include not only the obvious can of beer but also a bottle of ginger beer if there is reason to suppose that something stronger lurks in the bottle. A police officer will have power to dispose of anything which is surrendered to him—probably to the nearest drain and in front of the young person. The under-age person has no right to demand that the contents of the drink are analysed. But equally, having surrendered the drink, which may be a bottle of whisky, he has committed no offence. That is one of the great strengths of the Bill.

The powers of the police officer also include confiscating alcohol from persons over 18 years of age if he reasonably feels that some of the alcohol may have been consumed or will be consumed by young persons under 18. The powers of confiscation are drafted to avoid the situation of a mixed age group of teenagers quickly passing any alcohol they are drinking to the oldest member of the group who is over 18 years old and who may then keep it in his possession until the police have gone away.

Under Clause 1 the police have power to demand the name and address of any person from whom they have confiscated alcohol. That, I suggest, is a commonsense measure. Many parents are appalled to learn that their children have been indulging in that kind of behaviour and this provision will allow the police to draw it to their attention. Recently, there was a very successful police initiative at Weymouth where young people were videoed drinking in the streets. The results were shown to the parents: the effect was positive and encouraging and a good example of steering some of the problem back to parental control.

Clause 1(3) and (4) gives the necessary legal backing to the police officer's request for confiscation and for the name and address of the young person. If the young person fails to co-operate, he will first be warned that he is committing an offence. If there is still no co-operation he can be arrested. The offence is subject to a level 2 fine which currently, I understand, has a maximum penalty of £500. Clearly, the power of arrest is a last resort procedure as the whole object of the Bill is to avoid turning young persons into criminals.

Before the Bill was drafted, the Home Office carried out a wide measure of consultation of over 60 interested bodies. The result is a carefully thought out Bill, seen as the best way forward in tackling the problem of young people drinking in public places. To many, the attractive features of the Bill are, firstly, that it leaves the community police officer with discretionary power to use his good judgment and experience instead of having the duty to challenge on every occasion, including interrupting family picnics. Secondly, it gives young people the chance to mend their ways without committing an offence or becoming a criminal. Thirdly, it offers an opportunity for more parental control. Fourthly, it should remove some of the workload of the courts and all that that involves.

Under Clause 2, the Bill extends to England Wales and Northern Ireland, and, as is its wont, Scotland has chosen to incorporate similar provisions in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill. I commend the Bill to the House and ask that it should receive a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—[The Earl of Kinnoull].

2.16 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I listened to the noble Earl's exposition of the Bill with great interest. Although I accept, without hesitation, that it is well intentioned and may in broad terms be useful in combating a specific nuisance, I have to suggest to my noble friend—as he is outside the Chamber—that, as drafted, it goes too far.

It is one thing when a young person is found knocking back cans of strong lager or, worse still, strong cider, on his own or with his contemporaries on a bench in the centre of town or sitting upon the steps of a church or wherever. In that case, the provisions of the Bill can certainly be justified. It is quite a different matter if a 16 or 17 year-old is with his parents at a picnic spot and a passing constable happens to spot his mother or father handing him a glass of wine or beer. Is it seriously supposed that the constable should be empowered to snatch the glass or paper cup from the young person's hand and empty it on to the grass or even knock it back himself, as Clause 1(2) seems to permit, or, far worse, confiscate every bottle and can that the parents have in their possession—not very pleasant if the family are on their way back from Calais or Boulogne with a boot full of wine, beer and spirits? Yet that is what subsection (1) of Clause 1 provides. Speaking of Calais and Boulogne, what effect will this have on our tourist trade? The French, among others, think nothing of giving their offspring watered-down wine or low-strength bière familiale from a very early age. What a traumatic introduction to Britain if, pulled up in a lay-by on their way from Dover, they are accosted by a police officer for so doing soon after setting foot in this country, perhaps for the first time. Some welcome! They might well imagine that they have landed in north Africa or the Middle East by mistake.

Finally, Clause 1(1) empowers a constable to demand the name and address of individuals, not merely the young people caught drinking, as the noble Earl seemed to suggest, but also the older people accompanying them. Why, when no offence, arrestable or non-arrestable, has been, or is being, committed? What will be done with the information so collected? Will it be kept on file at a police station for months or years afterwards? I look forward to the noble Earl's reply with interest.

2.20 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in his excellent introduction the noble Earl was quite right to detect from the proceedings on the Bill in the other place that it had all-party support. I assure him of my support for the Bill. Indeed, since this is also a synthetic Bill, which is really a Home Office Bill and not a Private Member's Bill, I think I can say reasonably that I can assure him of my party's support for it. If he wants to know why, I hope that he will read, or has read, the speech of my honourable friend Geoff Ennis, the newly elected Member for Barnsley East, during the Bill's proceedings.

Mr. Ennis described the situation in a former mining village of Brierley, outside Barnsley, where he lives. That village has a pub, a club, two shops and an off-licence which is also a supermarket. In that village, particularly in the summer, a crowd of up to 50, or even 80, young people go into the supermarket to buy alcohol—beer, lager, cider or whatever—and then congregate outside the off-licence, sometimes obstructing access to people who want to go into the supermarket to buy other things and sometimes just to make a nuisance or cause noise, damage and certainly litter.

Mr. Ennis described how a nice sandstone wall next to the supermarket was knocked down by those people. He described how difficult it is for the police to deal with such a problem, because they have no power to do anything to put an immediate stop to it, unless they go to the extent, which is very difficult for community-based police, of arresting people for what is an ill-defined offence. The Earl can take that as the basis for our support of the Bill.

At the same time, I am worried about a number of aspects of the Bill. They include those referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. If we look closely at Clause 1 we see that there are many vague phrases which are brought into law. The first one of course is:

under the age of 18". There is the whole question of what evidence is required or is available for being under the age of 18. The Portman Group, which is a most important and valuable charity in this area, has a proof-of-age identity card. I understand that a quarter of a million young people use it. But a quarter of a million is a very small number as a proportion of the age group. It is still a major problem to produce evidence, when we do not have photographic identity cards or driving licences. I well remember at the age of 24 being at university in the USA. I had to carry my passport around with me, because the legal age for drinking was 21 everywhere except in New York. My noble friend Lord Eatwell has obviously had a similar experience. When you go into a bar it is not easy to prove the difference in age between a 21 year-old and a 24 year-old. That problem will still exist.

Then Clause 1 refers to "intoxicating liquor". That is not clear. What about low-alcohol lager, for example, which has a small amount of alcohol, or 0.5 per cent. wine, which I am occasionally reduced to drinking when my weight reaches outrageous proportions. What about the phrase: a person under the age of 18 who is, or has recently been, with him"? What is "with him"? How far is "with him"?

All of those matters cause great difficulty. What about a definition of a public place? Perhaps I may again recall an American experience. State parks and national parks in the State of California have an absolute prohibition on the consumption of any alcohol in a park. When I went on picnics with a very dear aunt in her late 80s and early 90s she took good care to ensure that the alcohol we took with us was concealed in thermos flasks to avoid the possibility to which the noble Earl referred of a zealous ranger coming along, arresting us and pouring away our alcohol. It is not as easy as the Bill's drafters think to find a solution to those problems.

Even so, the solution is a minor one compared with, for example, the kinds of bans on drinking in public places which have been imposed, I understand relatively successfully, by Labour authorities in Glasgow, Coventry and 31 other local authority areas. I recognise that the model by-law for those bans does not include confiscation; so would it not be better to change the model by-law, have a ban on drinking and leave it to local discretion where it is absolutely necessary rather than to have legislation of this kind?

Again, to make a more positive point, a large number of local authorities—of course largely Labour local authorities, because most local authorities are Labour—have taken a great deal of care to provide alternatives for young people, including sporting alternatives, to remove the temptation of the kind of behaviour which I have described. The Bill seems to address the symptoms rather than the causes of bad behaviour by young people. It is not that it is wrong, and we shall not oppose it, but I am not convinced that it is as unequivocally valuable as some people seem to think.

2.27 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I certainly welcome this admirable Bill and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for the thorough and complete way that he introduced it. I should further like to congratulate him on speaking so persuasively about the problems that can occur when young people drink alcohol in public.

As my noble friend has said, young people under the age of 18 are currently prohibited from purchasing alcohol in licensed premises. However, we are all aware of the increasing determination or even stubbornness of youth in the face of authority, and sadly it is a fact of life that one often sees groups of young people in many of our towns and cities quite openly consuming alcohol. Young people need to be aware of the specific risks from excessive drinking that relate to their lifestyle and of the need to minimise these risks to prevent harm to themselves and others.

One must not lose sight of the fact that for young people impressing their group of friends is an issue of the greatest significance. Regular drinking by young people poses a threat to their health and could lead to a dependence on alcohol in years to come. Equally seriously, as my noble friend has indicated, it can lead to young people becoming involved in crime: the police are able to point to the fact that a great number of offences are committed when people are under the influence of alcohol. The consequences for young people can be far reaching. For example, they may find it exciting when under the influence of alcohol to take a car for the purpose of joyriding. However, by doing so they present a grave danger not only to themselves and those in the car with them but also to other innocent, law-abiding people.

Even if drinking does not lead to criminal activity, the subsequent behaviour of young people can be perceived by others as quite intimidating. Boys, or girls for that matter, of just 13 or 14 can seem very threatening if they are behaving in a boisterous or loutish fashion because they have had too much to drink.

If nothing happens when youngsters behave in this way, it can lead to the impression that the police are not in control and that can increase the general fear of crime because the public can, not unreasonably, fear that if the police are unable to control drunken youngsters they may not be able to take action against real offenders. While the police take very seriously enforcement of the existing legislation, it nonetheless means that if the police see young people who appear the worse for drink, what they can do is restricted because the young people and any adults with them are not actually committing an offence.

The Government are particularly in favour of police officers being empowered not only to confiscate alcohol where they believe it to be for consumption by someone under the age of 18, but also to dispose of it as they consider appropriate. As we are all aware, alcohol is by no means a cheap commodity and for young people it will be a particularly salutary lesson to see what for them is an item of great expense poured away before their eyes.

As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, young people should be encouraged to consider the many other activities available to them. A great deal of worthwhile work is being carried out in youth clubs and other similar initiatives aimed at youngsters. I am sure that the fact that young people do not consider such options plays no small part in them finding themselves with time on their hands. Parents, and society in general, can play a part in encouraging children to take part in activities such as these and thus remove the opportunity for temptations such as alcohol.

The provision of a power to the police to demand the name and address of any person from whom alcohol is confiscated is a measure with which I wholeheartedly agree. I am aware that in a recent initiative in Weymouth, children drinking alcohol were captured on video and they taken back to their parents, who were shown the video. This initiative encouraged parents to take greater responsibility for the behaviour of their children and was a great success. After all, for many young people nothing is to be feared more than the potential wrath of their parents.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, raised a number of points. I wish to emphasise that this will be a discretionary power for the police. As regards picnics, it is not intended to cover that scenario. The Home Office will be writing to all chief constables about the implementation of these provisions. It will make clear that the power that is being proposed will he permissive and that the police should use it with sensible discretion and not harass those who are, for example, as the noble Lord said, having a family picnic on a beach with a bottle of wine—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that sounds a very bad precedent in law. If one wants the application of a new law to be restricted in some way, one should put that in the legislation. One should not be issuing directions to chief constables to ignore what is provided for by law.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, before the noble Earl responds, this is the second time that we have heard of such a provision. It appears in the public entertainments licences Bill, which the House will be discussing in the relatively near future, where we are advised that circulars will be issued by the Secretary of State. It is an extremely bad principle to put inadequately phrased legislation on the statute book and then to try to fill the gaps which may exist by sending circulars to those concerned.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I know that both noble Lords are greatly concerned about this aspect, which we have discussed on more than one occasion. Of course, I shall bear their comments in mind.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, mentioned the model by-laws. He was correct in saying that the problem with them is that they give no power for seizure of the item being consumed.

Many people, including noble Lords, occasionally take a drink. However, I am sure that we all find the increasing number of young people who are now drinking alcohol a cause for concern. The Bill is a common-sense solution which will enable the police to prevent these youngsters from taking what could be the first steps on the slippery slope into a life of crime from which they may find it difficult to escape. It will, protect young people from harm and, in so doing, prevent the criminal damage and disorderly conduct which impinge on others. In doing so, it will contribute to a better society for us all. I welcome this Bill and commend it to the House.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, since this is a thinly disguised Home Office Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, pointed out, can he say why the police are being given the power to demand people's names and addresses? What is to be done with those names and addresses? Will they be kept on file or what?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I believe that the names and addresses will be used in incidents such as I described where children in Weymouth were found to be drinking alcohol, were videoed and the video was shown to the parents. As regards registers and so forth, I shall write to the noble Lord.

2.35 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, in particular to my noble friend on the Front Bench who answered all the points that probably I would have been unable to answer. I am grateful in particular for the interest of the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord McIntosh. I was struck by the example of Barnsley, which presents a serious problem which the Bill will help to solve.

Although the Bill may be synthetic, it is a good Bill. If we do not have such synthetic Bills I am not sure how legislation would be brought forward. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has not suggested an alternative to a synthetic Bill. However, I shall not ask him to rise to that.

I believe that the most important aspect of the Bill is the discretionary power that it gives to community police officers. They are a great bastion of our society. They undertake work which is often unheralded. Their work with the young and everyone in the community is immensely valuable. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.