HL Deb 17 December 2002 vol 642 cc600-9

6.58 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into a Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, before we go further, can the Minister give an explanation in regard to the national guidance notes, the framework for guidance? A rather intriguing situation has arisen. When Hansard sought to ensure that I had been properly quoted in the previous debate, it produced a copy of the framework for guidance that it is working to, which is in the Printed Paper Office, dated 15th November 2002. I have been working from a framework for guidance which I got from the web because it was not otherwise available dated the same date, 15th November 2002. These two sets of guidance notes are different both in format and content. I have taken a long look at them during the adjournment and I think I am correct in suggesting that the copy to which I have been referring is the correct draft guidance. If that is the case, we have the wrong draft guidance in the Printed Paper Office. As this goes to the heart of what we are all debating, can we please have an explanation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it would have been very helpful if the noble Baroness had given me notice of her question. That is the normal practice. I cannot give her an answer because I have not seen the document that she has obtained from the web. I can only say that I will investigate the matter and let her know.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, we are all suffering from a lack of notice. I have hardly had time to seek out the Minister while I have been trying to understand, working with Hansard, why I have one document and Hansard has another. In the circumstances, because the support systems were not available, I had neither the time, the opportunity nor the wherewithal to notify the Minister.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, in those circumstances, how can we discuss a Bill when we do not know what we are talking about? I totally concede that this is not the first occasion on which that has happened in your Lordships' House, but perhaps it would be advisable to wait for five minutes while the noble Baroness's advisers get their acts together?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to adjourn for that purpose. However, I do not consider it to be necessary, and I should like to discover whether the Liberal Democrat Benches feel that it is necessary. Quite frankly, we do not need the framework on the guidance in front of us while we debate the next group of amendments. We have already spent a great deal of time on the Bill and are far behind the point that we had hoped to reach. We should now make progress. While we debate the next group of amendments, I will ask my officials to consider the copy that the noble Baroness has obtained from the web.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I am content with that. Notwithstanding our best efforts, we have clearly taken longer than most of us had hoped, and it is laudable that so many noble Lords have taken part in this important debate. From Her Majesty's Opposition Benches, I am certainly content to accept that we should not adjourn, but may we please have an explanation at the earliest convenience?

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I echo the noble Baroness's words. We absolutely agree and would not want to adjourn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee on Clause 4.

[Amendments' Nos. 69 to 72 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 73: Page 3, line 12, after "children" insert "and other vulnerable persons

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to make a short but important point. Clause 4(2)(d) states that one of the licensing objectives will be the protection of children from harm".

Within that objective, my amendment would include "other vulnerable persons" and seeks to probe the issue of whether other classes of vulnerable persons may require similar special protection in the context of licensing and licensed premises, one example of which could be elderly persons. I am sure that other Members of the Committee are able to suggest other particularly vulnerable groups that would merit similar protection.

I have no doubt that during the extensive preparation of the Bill by both the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Government have considered whether, in addition to children, other groups might merit special mention in the licensing objectives. They have evidently decided that none do. My amendment gives the Minister an opportunity to place on record the Government's thinking on that point. I beg to move.

Lord Redesdale

I support the amendment and have only one question to ask on this group of amendments concerning children; namely, whether the Government will still make provision for landlords, at their own discretion, to allow children, accompanied or unaccompanied, to be present on licensed premises.

Baroness Blackstone

The four licensing objectives in Clause 4 were developed after extensive, detailed consultation with all stakeholders and a lengthy review of the existing law, conducted between 1998 and 1999. The result was a clear focus on the prevention of disorder and disturbance; the assurance of public safety in places where people gather together for leisure purposes; and the protection of children from physical, moral and psychological harm. Amendment No. 73 seeks to add to the objective relating to the protection of children, "other vulnerable persons".

Perhaps we may leave the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, until we debate the group of amendments that focuses on children.

It is very difficult to define the term "other vulnerable persons". I am not quite sure how the noble Baroness would define it. For example, does it include people suffering from mental illness or from alcoholism? Children can be recognised and identified by licensees and other staff in licensed premises. Many now carry proof-of-age cards. But can we realistically expect a licensee or a member of his staff to recognise a sober alcoholic who may be tempted to fall off the wagon? It is a very fine aspiration, but it is not a duty that could be imposed on a licence-holder. Therefore, it would be difficult—

The Earl of Onslow

I thank the Minister for giving way, but she is not answering the question. There is a duty on the licensing authority to consider what conditions it should take into account when it issues a licence. It is not a question whether the publican in the Pig and Whistle in Scunthorpe knows the difference between a drunken paraplegic and a sober professor. It is the duty of the licensing authority. Will the Minister please stick to the point?

Baroness Blackstone

I am doing my best to answer what I understand to be the noble Baroness's amendment, which is to add "other vulnerable persons" to the group. The licensing authority will not be able to decide whether or not it makes sense to grant a licence on the basis that there may be a slight possibility that other vulnerable persons may turn up in any particular licensed premises. I understand that this amendment seeks to protect vulnerable people by the way in which the licensing law actually operates and its effect on the licensee. I assume that that is the point of this amendment. If I am wrong about that, I apologise.

I end by saying that, in framing the objectives, the Committee must focus on the need to translate them into meaningful steps that can be taken by the licensee. They should not be rather vague aspirations, but matters that can become the terms and conditions to be attached by the licensing authority to any licence that is granted to the licensee. I hope that that makes the position a little clearer.

The Bill already provides that a drunken person cannot be sold more alcohol. However, it is both difficult and impractical to have an objective that seeks to go beyond that provision, no matter how well-meaning the intention; and I entirely accept that it is a good intention. The purpose of the objective of protecting children from harm is very clearly focused on a well-defined group—children under 18 years of age—but that cannot be said of the concept of "vulnerable persons".

Having explained the problems that the Government see, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Buscombe

I thank the Minister for her response. I entirely agree with her: this is an important objective. We are pleased that the protection of children from harm is one of the key objectives for the licensing authority to bear in mind.

As the Minister has said, the amendment points up the difficult responsibility that will rest with licensing authorities when coming to terms with their objectives and deciding what is best, on balance, for the various licensed premises within their locality. Our aim was to gain clarity as to whether the Government thought it important to focus on children, on those who have difficulties with alcohol or, as I suggested, on elderly persons.

It is helpful to have the Minister's response on record so that licensing authorities can appreciate the parameters within which they are working. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Buscombe moved amendment No. 74: Page 3, line 12, leave out "from harm

The noble Baroness said: This, again, is a probing amendment. It relates to Clause 4(2)(d) but deals with a different point. We are seeking to understand the meaning of, the protection of children from harm— this being one of the four licensing objectives to which licensing authorities must constantly refer when carrying out their functions. We want to understand exactly what kinds of harm the Government have in mind.

We see from paragraph 38 of the Explanatory Notes that the Government do not intend this provision to apply in the context of physical safety. In a piece of drafting which is typically obtuse, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport states: The fourth licensing objective relates to harm to children beyond matters relating to physical safety". It does not, however, go on to state the kinds of harm that the Government have in mind. Do they have in mind the harm that may be caused by alcohol; or by passive smoking, so that licensed premises may be required to install smoke extractors or provide nonsmoking areas? Do they mean the protection of children from individuals who might seek to cause them harm? The Minister may say that the Government envisage all these factors falling within the definition of "harm".

How do the Government envisage individual local authorities interpreting such a broad provision? Is there not at least some scope for widely differing interpretations of the law because of the extremely broad nature of the drafting, so that something that is deemed harmful to children by one licensing authority will not be deemed harmful by another.

I am not for one minute saying that we should not take the protection of children into account. I am inviting the Minister to set out more fully the Government's position on the kinds of harm that they believe are relevant in this context.

I should also appreciate an explanation from the Minister as to why, as stated in the Explanatory Notes, the Government do not believe that children's physical safety should come within the concept of "harm", and why, if that is so, it is not made plain on the face of the Bill. The only reference to it occurs in the Explanatory Notes.

I refer to a letter dated 13th November 2002 from the Secretary of State. It begins, "Dear colleagues", and states: I expect the Bill to deliver inter alia reductions in under-age purchase and consumption of alcohol and the long-term damage that does to children in terms of educational attainment, poor health, job prospects and the propensity to commit crime". We are pleased that the Bill is supposed to deliver this; but the question is: how? These are all aspects of "harm".

We believe that the present law concerning the consumption of alcohol by children is deeply confusing to parents. But how does liberalising the law with regard to children protect them from harm? I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may refer to a briefing note sent by ACPO to a number of noble Lords prior to Second Reading which makes specific reference to children. ACPO expressed concern that exposing children at what is a crucial stage in their development to an environment in which drink is consumed might be likely to lead them towards a drinking culture—as ACPO expresses it—which the Government's forthcoming alcohol strategy may wish to target. So there is an inconsistency in government policy here. On the one hand, we are moving slowly towards a strategy for reducing the harm that alcohol does; on the other, we propose to make it easier for children to enter such establishments and to be drawn into a drinking culture.

ACPO goes on to set out its serious concern about the position of unaccompanied young people in licensed premises, as they will be in what is essentially an adult environment and will be exposed to moral harm and danger. That is one answer to the question put by the noble Baroness. It is not simply a question of the consumption of alcohol but of the uninhibited conduct into which young people may be led as a result of consuming too much alcohol.

ACPO states that it is aware that some European countries have a relaxed attitude to children on licensed premises, but it goes on to point out that in Europe there is a completely different approach to drinking. It says that although it may be beneficial for us to move towards a similar environment in this country, habits are deeply ingrained here and it is unlikely that we shall see a sudden transformation as a result of the Government's licensing policy into the kind of drinking culture that prevails in, for example, France or Italy.

While on the subject of harm, perhaps I may refer to a study that was undertaken in Liverpool between one of the foremost clubs there and the accident and emergency department in the renowned local hospital, where patients were brought from a particular nightclub. It was found that, among 777 patients included in the study, assault accounted for most presentations—57 per cent; lacerations were the most common injuries; and alcohol was the most common intoxicant associated with attendance at the A&E department. So when we talk about "harm", we are talking about a whole range of possibilities that may affect young people as a result of encouraging them to take part in the late-night drinking culture that the Bill introduces.

We can already see the effects of such a culture in London. As I recounted on the first day in Committee, I spent a night going round central London with the police, first from the West End Central police station and, secondly, from the Charing Cross station and observing the behaviour of young people on the streets in the neighbourhoods of Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Soho, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square. It would be extremely difficult for anyone, whether a licensee or the police, to know the age of certain young people, particularly girls dressed over their age. I should not like to be in the position of a licensee attempting to distinguish between someone who is just under 18 and someone who is just over 18. The literature shows that it is common for under-age drinking to occur in establishments such as these clubs, where the lighting is very poor and the activities are so frenetic that it would be impossible as a practical matter for the person serving the drinks—

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I support what he says. Most of the young people concerned have false identification, which can be bought on the Internet. So even if asked for identification, they have something to show. I agree with the noble Lord about young people being overdressed, and with all his other points. The poor licensee has the worst problem, as he is offered false identification.

Lord Avebury

The noble Lord makes a good point. The Portman Group has introduced a scheme to issue proof-of-age cards to young people. Does the Minister know whether those cards are used? Has she discussed it with club operators? Has she talked to them about the difficulties, and their problems, in preventing underage drinking? Does she know about the false identity cards that some people carry, or have those matters been left to chance? We are exposing young people to considerable harm of various kinds. I welcome the fact that the noble Baroness has tabled this amendment to enable us to highlight the problem.

The Earl of Onslow

I have considerable sympathy with the Government on this issue, because it is a difficult one. There is a culture north of Calais or thereabouts to go out and get absolutely rat-arsed, to give a frequently used expression. One need only watch television programmes featuring 18 year-olds in Ibiza to see that their sole aim is to get into the state that I referred to—it is sufficient to use the expression once; twice would be insensitive.

How do we adapt? I do not know. Garibaldi had British volunteers who all behaved terribly badly, so he sent them home. He could not stand them getting into the state that I referred to. The soldiers in the 1914 war, when they went on leave if they were lucky enough to survive, drank wine in a tankard in the belief that it was a pint of beer. There is a culture in Nordic countries of getting completely sloshed.

Harm must be defined. Licensing authorities must take that into account. I accept that I am being beastly to the noble Baroness by taking the issue beyond the context of the clause. But those aspects must he borne in mind. Frankly, I do not know how to. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, brought them up in a better informed, and perhaps less flowery, way than I did.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am grateful to everyone who participated in this short debate for raising an issue that concerns us all. The Government's licensing objective in Clause 4(2)(d), which focuses on children, has been carefully drafted. It is intended to assure the protection of children from physical, moral and psychological harm. The physical safety of children is covered by Clause 4(2)(b), which relates to public safety in relation to licensed premises.

This amendment focuses on the particular needs of children. I share the views of all noble Lords who participated and emphasise that we need to be concerned not only with children's physical safety but their moral and psychological health. Alcohol consumption is an important issue. This is a liberalising measure to create a healthier environment for children on licensed premises. The Bill tightens significantly the law on alcohol consumption by minors. We have offered greater access, with a strict prohibition on consumption anywhere on licensed premises, which is not the case at present. An exception applies where 16 to 18 year-olds, accompanied by adults, consume alcohol at a meal. Alcohol consumption by children is strictly controlled by the Bill.

The Earl of Onslow

I am a seeker of information. The word "meal" summons up a picture of parents and kiddies dining at a restaurant table. Down the line, could the definition of a meal broaden to include stuffing a sandwich into one's face while sitting on a bar stool?

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am well aware that the definition of a meal may be in the eyes of the partaker. Let me be clear: we are talking about the judgments taken by a licensing authority about the basis on which children are consuming food in a pub. Clearly, the licensing authorities would not be satisfied that a packet of crisps is a meal. They will have guidance; they will be concerned about children's health and will be expected to set a framework in which a meal means sitting down with adults in civilised circumstances for a knife-and-fork meal.

That is the premise on which we seek to tackle the issue that, rightly, has been identified. We all have anxieties about our stand-up-and-drink culture. I am glad that the culture has not been apostrophised in this debate as being British. It is wider. The phrase "Nordic" may not be all-encompassing, but we know that the culture obtains differently in northern Europe than in the south. We are all aware of this feature.

How should we improve young people's approach to alcohol? Surely by seeking to mirror, in many ways, the successful, different culture of countries which we admire where children accompanied by adults drink alcohol at meals on licensed premises that are part of a considerably more civilised framework than ours at present. We emphasise that we seek to ensure that all aspects of children's health—physical, moral and psychological—should be taken into account. That is why the Bill is drafted as it is. Its wording should be retained. If we leave open the wording as the amendment suggests, we leave open the potential for damaging uncertainty in the interpretation of the Bill. But all noble Lords have emphasised how important it is that it be clearly established, clearly understood and part of the framework within which licences are granted.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about identifying young people's age. That problem is always with us. In the United States, age identification must be shown and is often challenged by barmen. We often hear stories of how rigorous the system is. Although it is rigorous, it does not protect against the problem of document forgery, which was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. We recognise that the forgery of documents to adopt a false identity is a difficult problem for police in the most stringent circumstances, such as access to a country, let alone seeking to buy a drink in a bar. However, the Government welcome the identity card launched by the Portman Group, which is a signal of an earnest intention to try to prevent direct access to alcohol by young people who know that they are breaking the law at the time of purchase. We commend that move.

The noble Baroness said that her amendment was a probing device. I can reassure her that one of the four objectives in the licensing arrangements under the Bill is the protection of children from harm. We are expressing that aim both precisely and in the widest possible terms, not just in terms of physical safety. We bear in mind not only all the representations that have been made to us by a whole range of organisations concerned with the welfare of children but also those made in tonight's debate. On that basis, and with those assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Avebury

If they really want to prevent harm to young people, why have not the Government included in the Bill provision for the compulsory production of proof-of-age cards based on biodata in exactly the same way as has been done in the case of asylum seekers? The latter all possess identity cards, which give them access to benefits under the supplementary benefits system. We are all concerned about the harm that may be caused to children through being able to enter establishments and purchase alcohol when they are under 18. Therefore, as the technology exists to prevent that happening, why is there no such provision in the Bill?

The Earl of Onslow

Perhaps I may assist the Minister. It seems to me to be very simple. We are saying that children should not be allowed to drink alcohol under the age of 18. Therefore, they must have an identity card to show that they are under that age. The whole object of the child is to persuade the barman that he is over the age of 18. If he is over 18, he can say, "I don't have an identity card. Therefore, I do not need to be banned from drinking because I am over 18". It is a different situation from that of an immigrant; it is a totally different concept and does not help the Minister at all.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am not seeking to arbitrate between two conflicting views on the Opposition Benches. Perhaps I may make the obvious point. The Licensing Bill is scarcely a Bill through which we would introduce the whole issue and concept of identity cards, upon which there are many divisions in our society as regards their merits. Indeed, I should think that there are probably many divisions on the Liberal Democrat Benches regarding the desirability of identity cards.

I was not seeking to try to introduce a national system of identity cards for children under the age of 18; I was seeking to commend the voluntary moves by the Portman Group to address aspects of the problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, rightly pointed out, there are always difficulties with this kind of exercise. I hope that the noble Lord recognises that if we were to go down the road of dealing with the real issues surrounding the concept of identity cards, we would do so through a separate piece of legislation introduced by the Home Office—a department for which I do not have responsibility. That is my response to the noble Lord.

Baroness Buscombe

I thank the Minister for his response. I believe that I have bad news for everyone in this Chamber; indeed, news about which my noble friend Lord Hodgson is already well aware and to which he referred earlier. Probably all children and young people aged between 14 and 15 know exactly what they need to do to obtain a fake identity card. In fact, almost all the premises that they enter quite sensibly and quite rightly ask for some form of identification. It is not something that is peculiar to the United States; it is commonplace and common practice in this country. Publicans are doing all that they cart to work within the law. On a nightly basis, they have great difficulty in discriminating between young people on the question of age. I have a daughter aged 15 who could easily pass as a mature 21 year-old. She tells me that she and others ought to have identity cards. It is a status symbol, as much as anything else, to have an ID card that one can buy through the Internet.

There is a problem to be addressed. It is one of the reasons for raising the issue. Consumption of alcohol by the young is not, I fear, covered in the Bill. I have every sympathy, as I believe is the case with all noble Lords, with what the Government are seeking to achieve in this legislation. We want liberalisation of our licensing laws. In fact, I should probably declare an interest here in that my father was a wine merchant for 43 years. His belief was, and still rightly remains, that young people should be encouraged to drink, albeit in small quantities, from a fairly young age, as we were, I believe that that is right. I understand that that is what the Government are seeking to achieve. However, that was experienced in our own home where it was measured and carefully considered.

We are talking about children and young people being allowed to enter pubs and licensed premises—perhaps I should say "hang out"—unaccompanied. Yes, I understand that the idea is to help change the culture of going out to get drunk. But our concern is that this approach may not achieve that aim. Behind this probing amendment is the concern that we are giving local authorities an enormous responsibility under these provisions. They will, of course, ably accept and take on such responsibility; but when things go wrong, as I am sure they might, this will rebound on local authorities. Therefore, it is only right that they should have as much information from the Government and as much understanding of the parameters as possible.

Local authorities should also be aware of what it is that they are supposed to achieve to ensure that licensed premises within their localities are doing the right thing by local residents, by the industry and by children. That is the reason for tabling this probing amendment. I do not wish to take the matter further. We are concerned for the future, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I beg to move that the House be resumed. In moving this Motion, perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 37 minutes past eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.