HL Deb 14 July 2000 vol 615 cc509-17

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I feel a welcome burden of honour and responsibility in moving today the Licensing (Young Persons) Bill in your Lordships' House. Its origins lie in the traffic death of a young man. It seeks to address a loophole in the law that could prevent other tragedies. I hope that I shall he able to discharge that responsibility.

I begin by referring to the Second Reading debate in another place on 11th February. Perhaps I may say how much cross-party support the Bill has already received. During the Second Reading debate, Sir Patrick Cormack said: 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'.—[Official Report, Commons, 1 1/2/00; col. 522.) Sir Patrick was quite right, and I hope that the Bill will receive support also from all parts of your Lordships' House. My honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Pudsey, near my home town of Bradford, Mr Paul Truswell, is to be commended for the persistence and imagination which he has brought to fighting for and winning through to this point.

I shall, if I may, retell the story of the genesis of the Bill, before I address its details. In November 1997, a constituent of Mr Truswell's, a Mr John Knowles, attended the constituency surgery and told of the harrowing and tragic death of his 14-year-old son, David. David's death highlighted a huge loophole in the Licensing Act 1964, which the Bill seeks to close.

David Knowles was a normal schoolboy, who attended the local high school in Pudsey; a boy from a close and supportive family. He enjoyed maths, and had ambitions to be a bank manager. Those who knew him described him as a serious and normal boy. In March 1997, David watched friends play football after school, and on the way home and in the centre of Pudsey, David's friends asked him to go into Thresher's, the off-licence, to buy them some alcopops, because they were still in their football kits. David did this, and Thresher's sold him the alcohol that he asked for.

A few minutes after returning to his friends, David decided that he wanted some alcohol himself, and returned to the same off-licence and bought four cans of lager. Again, he was served without question. The group continued on their way, and in due course they reached an embankment overlooking the local bypass. The bypass is a very busy dual carriageway, with a 70 miles per hour speed limit. It forms part of the Leeds ringroad. It was then that this normally serious and sensible boy, worse the wear after three and a half cans of lager, shouted "Let's run", and ran down the embankment over the first part of the dual carriageway, across the central reservation and onto the Leeds bound carriageway. There, my Lords, a car travelling at high speed struck him, and he died shortly afterwards from the huge injuries that he sustained.

The police attended the scene, and as a result of the statements that they took, they seized the security videos at the Thresher's off-licence. These 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 in the law which the Bill seeks to close. David's family were thus denied justice. It was discovered that a prosecution could succeed only against the licence holder or in the somewhat antiquated language of the 1964 Act, the licence holder's "servant".

The word "servant" has a particularly narrow definition in law. It must be someone directly employed and paid by the licence holder. In this case the staff of Thresher's were employed by a national company, and not by the licence holder, who happens to be their district manager. The staff were therefore immune' from prosecution. Mr Truswell gave a pledge to David Knowles' family to do everything he could to plug this loophole, and it is that pledge that we are redeeming today.

I have a son who will be the same age as David Knowles in two weeks' time. We all know that boys of this age are often what Mr Truswell and fellow Yorkshiremen would call daft. Even the most sensible, well-balanced and from the most caring homes, like David Knowles, do daft things from time to time. Our job, as parents and in this case, legislators, is to protect them from the consequences of their age and their irresponsibility, and to ensure that the law does its best to do the same.

The CPS in this case based the withdrawal of the prosecution on a Court of Appeal ruling in December 1996 in the case of Russell v. Director of Public Prosecutions. The court quashed a conviction on the basis that the appellant, a trainee manager, was employed by the national company, in this case Unwins, and not by the licence holder. Even more remarkable is the fact that this loophole has been known about for 30 years. There have been several failed prosecutions. The law has simply not kept up with the present-day reality of the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and off-licence chains. There now exists, as it were, a two-tier system for off-licence workers. There are those who work for small independent corner-shop off-licences, who are subject to the law, and those who work for supermarkets and chains of off-licences who seem to be immune.

Mr Truswell has campaigned hard on behalf of his constituent's family. He has submitted a presentation Bill, introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill, and there have been petitions from his locality, meetings with Ministers and officials, and an Early-Day Motion signed by 120 members of all parties in the other place. There can be no doubt that there is substantial support for the measure.

I shall now turn briefly to the specifics of the Bill. It is a Bill with a simple purpose and in many ways that is its strength. The Bill amends the law in England and Wales relating to the sale and consumption of intoxicating liquor in cases involving young people under the age of 18. The amendment is to the Licensing Act 1964. The Bill substitutes new provisions for Section 169 of the 1964 Act. The new provisions redefine who may commit the offences of selling or knowingly allowing the sale of alcohol to a person under 18 years of age, who knowingly allows the consumption of alcohol by a person under 18 in a bar and knowingly delivering or allowing the delivery to a person under 18 of alcohol sold in licensed premises for off-premise consumption. It also creates a new offence of purchasing alcohol on behalf of a person under 18 years of age.

Clause I substitutes seven new sections for Section 169 of the 1964 Act. The new Section 169A makes it an offence for any person in licensed premises to sell alcohol to someone under 18. Currently, under Section 169(1), only the licensee or his "servant" can commit this offence. That would mean that the staff serving David Knowles would have a case to answer.

New Section 169B makes it an offence for a person on licensed premises, if he works in the licensed premises, whether in a paid or unpaid capacity, which gives him authority to prevent the sale, knowingly to allow another person to sell alcohol to someone under 18 years of age. Currently, only the licensee can commit that offence.

New Section 169C retains the offence under Section 169(2) for a person under 18 to buy, or attempt to buy, alcohol in licensed premises. A new subsection also creates a new offence of buying or attempting to buy alcohol on behalf of a person under 18. No offence is committed in this case if the person proves he had no reason to suspect that the person was under 18. This offence has been referred to in debates in the House of Commons as the offence of "proxy purchase".

New Section 169D maintains the exception provided by Section 169(4) where the person under 18 is at least 16 and the sale or purchase is of certain kinds of alcohol for consumption at a meal in certain parts of licensed premises.

New Section 169E retains the offence under Section 169(2) for a person under 18 to consume alcohol in a bar in licensed premises. It also makes it an offence for a person in licensed premises, if he works in the licensed premises in a paid or unpaid capacity which gives him authority to prevent the consumption of alcohol to a person under 18 years of age.

New Section 169F makes it an offence for a person who works in licensed premises, whether paid or unpaid, knowingly to deliver alcohol to a person under 18 where alcohol is sold in licensed premises for off-premise consumption.

New Section 169G maintains the offence of knowingly sending a person under 18 to obtain alcohol or to be sold in licensed premises for off-premise consumption.

New Section 169H applies the penalties for an offence under Section 169 to the new offences. The maximum fine is level 3 on the standard scale. The power to forfeit licenses formerly contained in Section 169(8) has been adapted to apply to the offences under the new sections. Convictions for offences under Section 169, as well as convictions for offences under the new sections, will count for the purposes of triggering the power to forfeit, as in current legislation.

Clause 2 makes consequential amendments, adapting references to the existing offences, defences and penalty provisions so as to reflect the new ones.

In conclusion, I want to make only one point. There are those who have asked why make this simple improvement to what is regarded as legislation in need of broader examination, as the Government recognised in publishing their White Paper in April this year. Why not wait? My answer is that we cannot wait. It may be many years before reform reaches the statute book and it may be many years before the change is enacted. It seems to me that the prevention of the death of one young person in the intervening years makes it worthwhile. It may save many more. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Thornton.)

3.4 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I rise to offer the warmest welcome to this long-overdue and important Bill, introduced so eloquently and thoroughly by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.

I was saddened to read of the tragic early death of the 14 year-old, David Knowles, which, as the noble Baroness pointed out, acted as the spur for this legislation. I hope that I may express my sympathy to his family for their loss. It is a privilege to join other noble Lords today in seeking to make it less likely that David's story will be repeated.

Young people need to be protected from potentially destructive temptations until they are of sufficient maturity to judge for themselves and have the strength of will to resist such temptations, if they so choose. They should not be exposed to pornography on the lower shelves of newsagents' racks, as sometimes they are. They should not have easy access to tobacco; nor should they be seduced into alcoholic intoxication by alcopops. All those who prey on the vulnerability of young people deserve our deepest contempt. Those who are simply neglectful need to be made aware of their responsibilities, as the Bill proposes.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children was recently given a presentation by the National Children's Bureau on child-friendly environments. I welcome the Bill as a means of reassuring parents. Just as street calming, sleeping policemen can make the streets safer for children, so can a credible limit to the access to alcohol of minors.

I welcome the Bill because it clarifies for children and young people what they can and cannot do. All those who work with children recognise the importance of setting clear boundaries. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, in her experience as a teacher, would find that to be true, too. Teachers and youth workers know that if they are to be respected, the rules agreed and understood by them and their charges need to be applied consistently. To be inconsistent is to court contempt and to confuse the young person.

Furthermore, young people will test the boundaries set for them by adults. They will see just how far they can go. Children of 14 will buy alcohol to show their ability to tweak the nose of adults. The current lax arrangement incites under-age drinking. As I am sure your Lordships are aware, young people are often curious about alcohol and wish to experiment.

When I learned to ride a bicycle, I began with stabilising wheels or the hand of my father on my saddle. I hope that the Bill will be viewed as a means of protecting young people from initiation into alcohol in an uncontrolled and unsupported way and that it may lead us to think of means within the family at home or among elder peers whom we trust to aid our young people to learn to manage drink.

I have but one concern. Can the Minister assure the House that new Section 169C will be enforced only in rare and unusual circumstances? The section makes it an offence for a person under the age of 18 to buy or attempt to buy intoxicating liquor. I am concerned in particular that this section may be used to harass young rough sleepers. As I understand it, the principle adopted by several police forces is that it is the licensee and not the young person who is prosecuted. I hope that the Minister will support that principle and view new Section 169C as being enforced only in the rarest circumstances. I regret that I was unable to give the Minister more than a short warning of this question. If he would prefer to consider it further and write to me, that would be perfectly acceptable.

3.9 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the Bill seems to be necessary to enforce the law as it currently stands. The law should take into account modern purchasing habits and the construction of the retail trade. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long. Everyone in Parliament must share the blame for that, because any one of us here or at the other end of the corridor could have initiated this Bill.

If the Bill makes the law workable and blocks a gap, we should all endorse it and ensure that it has a speedy passage through Parliament. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on introducing the Bill and wish it well.

3.10 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to praise the decision of the honourable Member for Pudsey to introduce the Bill in another place and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Thornton on acting as its sponsor in this House. Her keen interest in the welfare and safety of children and young people is well known. No one better could have been found to move the Second Reading of the Bill. The Government share her deep concern about the unlawful sale of alcohol to young people and I am happy to express our strong support for the Bill.

The White Paper Time for Reform, published on 10th April this year, showed that we consider the protection of children to be one of the primary purposes of licensing law. So the importance of this simple Bill should not be underestimated.

As the Government are poised to embark on major reforms of the licensing arrangements, some noble Lords may have wondered why we need the Bill. There is one very good reason: during our debate we have heard vividly about the ongoing damage that alcohol is doing to many young lives. The major reforms that we proposed in April's White Paper will lead eventually to a very substantial Bill that will deal with some controversial issues and will necessarily involve a significant commitment of parliamentary time. We cannot say today when it will be possible to introduce the necessary Bill reforming licensing law, and if it eventually receives Royal Assent any new arrangements will require a period of transition before the full benefits are realised. It may therefore he some years before significant changes are evident. That is why we agree with my noble friend about the need for this Bill now.

The Bill gives us an opportunity to take prompt action and to change the existing law now. That will mean that those who are evading prosecution for selling to minors and irresponsibly buying alcohol on behalf of children can be dealt with more effectively without the delay that I mentioned. During the perhaps two to three years before we see major reform, many children and their families could suffer unnecessarily.

Few would disagree that our licensing laws are out of date and dreadfully old-fashioned. The Bill focuses on the use of the term "servant". Parliament at one time believed that "master and servant" would cover all employees responsible for selling alcohol and provide sufficient protection for the general public and children. Modern case law has stood Parliament's intention on its head. The words have now come to be used only as a means of evading prosecution. We can and should put that right.

My noble friend set out movingly the circumstances that led to the tragic death of the young boy, David Knowles. That story highlighted a problem of prosecuting offenders employed by national chains of off licences. There are other problems with the outdated wording. The term "servant" in the existing law does not include an agent acting on behalf of the licensee who is not his employee. The wife or husband of a licence holder working in the off licence in an unpaid capacity may be immune from prosecution for selling to under-age children. Similarly, a brother or another family member serving in a shop could escape prosecution.

In 1996, the conviction of the husband of a licensee for selling to a 14-year-old girl was quashed in the Divisional Court because there was no evidence of a master-servant relationship. The House will know that many high street off-licences are run by families, and it would be quite wrong if a licensee could evade prosecution by putting the responsibility in his or her spouse's hands. So this is a further loophole the Bill will address.

Since its introduction in another place, the Bill has also acquired some extra teeth. It is a sad indictment of our society that there are adults who are willing to act as the agents of youngsters to enable them to get hold of alcohol. The new offence—which has been referred to as "proxy purchase"—will therefore be another measure to help us fight the problems of under-age drinking.

The reforms proposed by the Bill are both sensible and fair. Noble Lords will see that under the Bill both the offence of selling to minors and that of buying on behalf of minors are offences that cannot be committed if the adults involved have been genuinely—I stress genuinely—duped about a child's age. The extent to which the adults had behaved reasonably in seeking to establish the child's age, and the extent to which they have been genuinely deceived, rather than just turning a blind eye, are matters on which the courts should rule.

Indeed, in resolving these issues either the defence or the prosecution might very well want to produce in court the child involved. I understand that that has become a common means of either establishing a defence or establishing the case for the prosecution where age is the key issue before the court under licensing law. It is usually the heart of the matter where a not guilty plea has been entered. Production of the child has the great merit of allowing the court to rely solidly on common sense. If, after seeing the child, the court is of the opinion that the defendant must have turned a blind eye to the child's age, it may convict.

Noble Lords may wish to know that the Magistrates' Association has confirmed to the Government that magistrates are well used to deciding matters of this kind and very much welcome the proposed legislation. We are therefore confident that the available defences in the Bill will work effectively in the interests of justice.

Indeed, the Government have a very simple message for retailers and the staff of off-licences who might have any concerns about these new offences and how the defences might operate: if you are in any doubt about the age of the person standing in your shop, do not sell alcohol to him. In the vast majority of cases, it really should be as simple as that.

I was grateful also for the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who also has a reputation in this House for care and concern for young people and children. He asked me a question and I am grateful to him for giving me some notice of it. We strongly support the discretion which the police use, and always use, in cases of this kind. I cannot give him the guarantee or the promise he seeks. But we feel that the police are likely to use their discretion in the same way once the Bill becomes law. That must remain a matter for the police. It is not for the Government to say how the police exercise their discretion in any case. I hope that that answer goes some way towards satisfying the noble Earl.

The Government have no hesitation in giving their full backing to the Bill and we commend it to the House.

3.17 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, and with the leave of the House because I am not supposed to speak after the Minister, I wish to add that this Bill has the total support of these Benches. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for her explicit and informative exposition of the Bill.

We hope that the passing of this Bill will encourage the alcopops manufacturers to show greater responsibility. The recent decision to modify the labelling of alcopops is an extremely encouraging sign. I am most grateful to your Lordships for permitting this intervention.

3.18 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, in answering this debate, it remains only for me to thank all those who have helped me in the task of preparing to bring it to your Lordships' House. I am grateful indeed for the excellent briefing from Mr Truswell, to the House authorities and the Minister for guidance to a relative greenhorn who is doing something for the first time.

I am grateful also for the support of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington. It is not the first time that we have supported each other in measures concerning children and young people. I also thank the Minister for his kind words of support and explanation. I look forward to seeing the measure on the statute book in due course. I commend the Bill to the House.

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