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Alcohol-related Crime and Antisocial Behaviour

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Pope. Last year, my constituent, Mr. Garry Newlove, was brutally murdered in a crime that was fuelled by alcohol. Fortunately, his murderers have been sentenced, and the details of that crime are so well known that I need not go through them again today. His case provided the latest and most appalling example of the problems that alcohol-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour are causing to our communities.

Such developments are not new, and I do not argue that Warrington is worse or better than anywhere else in that respect. Indeed, attempts by some sections of the media to present the town in which I am proud to live as some kind of war zone have caused deep distress to many of my constituents, not least the vast majority of decent and hard-working young people, whose voices are often not heard on this issue. Nevertheless, we know that all communities face this problem. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions and have spoken on a number of measures that the Government have introduced to tackle it. I have also been out with police and community support officers in my area, to see what problems they face on the ground, and I have discussed with the chief constable the problems that some of his officers have to deal with. I am convinced that we need to do much more, because we all know what is out there and we all know the cost.

The Government’s 2004 alcohol harm reduction strategy estimated the cost of alcohol-related crime at £7.3 billion. The 2006-07 British crime survey showed that there were 1 million violent incidents in which alcohol was a factor, and that in nearly half of violent incidents, the victims believed that their assailants were under the influence of alcohol. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there are crimes and other effects that cannot be quantified. The effects are there for old people who feel tormented and frightened, for people who do not feel at peace in their own homes and for a number of our young people, who are frightened to go into certain areas at night because of the risk of getting involved in violence or in antisocial behaviour.

I do not suggest that the Government have not tried to tackle the issue, as they have done so repeatedly. Nevertheless, we still have a problem. That is because it cannot be tackled only by the Government; it is the result of profound social changes and only by working together will we be able to deal with them.

Our relationship to alcohol has changed. It is cheaper in real terms than ever before, and is more widely available. Also, we have become more tolerant—I would say far too tolerant—of the effects of binge drinking on our society. If we add to that the fact that supermarkets use alcohol as a loss leader to get people into the store, and that the drinks industry makes alcoholic drinks targeted directly at young people, we start to see how difficult the problem is. All that is fuelling our epidemic of binge drinking and under-age drinking.

I want to comment particularly on the effects of young people drinking. I want to make it clear that we are talking about a minority of young people. All the figures show that fewer young people are drinking, but our problem is that those who are, are drinking more. That minority—the 18 to 24 age group of binge drinkers—is fuelling most of our alcohol-related crime and disorder. On top of that, in my constituency and in many others we have a problem with under-age drinking. I suspect that we all know, in our own areas, the retailers who sell to children who are obviously under age, or turn a blind eye to those who are under age.

However, our problem is not just with retailers; it is also with the parents. I was horrified to hear from police in my area about incidents such as when a group of youngsters had been gathering on a field causing problems and a parent drew up in a car and unloaded cartons of lager for them. The police have also been berated by parents for bringing home young people who are clearly drunk and a risk to themselves and others. Most of us would be horrified by that, but a small minority of parents behave in that way.

To their credit, the Government have legislated to tackle the problem. We have banned minors from drinking on licensed premises, and allowed trading standards officers to use minors to make test purchases of alcohol to catch those selling to people who are under age. We have also given the police more powers to deal with premises that are in breach of licence. Recently, the Home Secretary announced that there would be further powers for police to tackle drinking in public and another crackdown on under-age drinkers, and there have been more announcements today about the review of the licensing laws.

We can see the scale of the problem from what happened last autumn, when the police cracked down on under-age drinking, and 21 forces seized 3,700 litres of alcohol, including wine, spirits, beer, alcopops—the lot. That matters because people who have been drinking are much more likely to be involved in a crime, even when all the other variables are taken out of the equation. It matters because alcohol has been a factor in a number of really hideous crimes and because it contributes to people’s feeling of insecurity, day to day. What we are dealing with can range from the minor, such as drunken yobs shouting outside houses in the early hours of the morning, which I suspect that most Members have experienced at some time or another, to really serious crimes, and yet we have not found the answer. I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else would claim that we have. If there were a magic bullet, any Government would have used it by now.

One reason that we have not found the answers is that the problem cannot be dealt with through the criminal justice system alone. It is absolutely right that we need severe penalties for people who breach the law, but we also need a change in the culture so that binge drinking and selling alcohol to children becomes just as socially unacceptable as we managed to make drink-driving. It used to be perfectly acceptable to drink a lot and then drive your mates home, but it is not socially acceptable any more because we changed people’s perceptions and we have to do that with this issue as well. That requires action right across Departments. My hon. Friend is answering for his own Department, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that action is required elsewhere as well.

We have to start in schools. When I ask the Department for Children, Schools and Families about alcohol education in school, I am told that it is delivered as part of general anti-drugs education, through personal, social and health education. I do not doubt the good intentions, but as the mother of someone who has recently left school, and having spoken to other young people, I think that our children get far more education about the effects of illegal drugs than about alcohol, and we must bring that into the equation. I am glad that the Department is reviewing that as part of its children’s plan, but we must ensure that we have proper, targeted programmes and people who are properly trained to deliver them. Preaching at young people does not work; we have to find the right strategy.

We also need more training for teachers and for education welfare officers, to identify where alcohol might be a factor in young people truanting or behaving badly. When the Minister and I were teachers, we would hardly have expected that, but the number of 11 to 15-year-olds who drink has doubled since the early 1990s, so the problem is seen more often.

It is true that if young people get involved in crime, and alcohol is a factor, we need to intervene early, before they go on to commit more serious offences. I was pleased that the Government accepted the changes that I suggested to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to allow courts to make orders not only for drug treatment but for alcohol treatment. The difficulty is that we do not yet have enough treatment centres, particularly those that deal with young people. I know that the Department of Health is looking at that, but treatment must be available.

It is unfortunate that, as well as having to deal with the young people, we also have to deal with their parents. I spoke about some of the cases that the police in my area have come across. We all have a duty to ensure that we try to teach our children to behave and drink responsibly. I urge the Government to think seriously about a hard-hitting advertising campaign targeted at parents about the effects of alcohol-related crime, and the effects on young people, both the victims and the perpetrators. We must get the message through to the minority who do not heed it at present. I welcome what the Home Secretary said about using parenting contracts to deal with the matter, but we also have to look at penalties for those who will not get on board, and who persist in not dealing with their children, despite best efforts to advise them and to get them to change their behaviour.

We also need more enforcement of the existing law. The Licensing Act 2003 gave local authorities far more power to deal with premises in breach of their licence, but those powers are not always used. We need to get the message over that they need to be used more.

I also want a strengthening of the law in certain areas, particularly in respect of the sale of alcohol to under-age youngsters. Currently, the offence of persistently selling alcohol to minors is only made out if someone is caught doing it three times in three months. That means that the police and trading standards officers are tied up with watching particular premises, but also that if the retailer does not offend for three months but then does so again, they start from scratch. The maximum fine is only £10,000, but if the police and local authorities impose a closure order for 48 hours and the person involved accepts it, the criminal offence is discharged. Considering the mayhem that is caused by under-age drinking in some areas, that is not good enough. It does not automatically trigger a review of the licence, although it is true that a resident or relevant authority can ask for one. I hope, from what I have heard this morning, that the Government are planning to change that, but I urge them to go further.

I would like a “two strikes and you’re out” policy: if someone sells alcohol to someone who is under age, they get fined the first time and lose their licence the second time. If we did that, people would start to ask for identification, and we would get a proof-of-age scheme. Many people who work in small shops, often women who are intimidated, would find that much more reassuring. Owners would put in security measures to protect their staff because they would know that, if they did not, their livelihood would be gone. It is as simple as that.

We must also tackle the drinks industry. One supermarket recently suggested dealing with prices through the Competition Commission, and there is merit in that, but there is much that supermarkets and other retailers could do now. They need to stop discounting cheap lagers and similar drinks, sometimes selling them cheaper than water. They could stop stacking them near the entrance, and they could ensure that they ask for ID if there is any doubt at all about the age of the person who goes into the shop to buy them.

We must also deal with those parts of the drinks industry that persistently market to young people and target alcoholic drinks at them. The alcopops and cheap ciders that are often sold in nice packaging, in blue and green bottles, are not targeted at adult social drinkers but directly at the young. We need to review the rules on the advertising and promotion of such drinks.

We also need to look at the duty. One can buy ciders that are 8 per cent. proof, far stronger than many beers, for about £1.99 for 3 litres. That situation really cannot be sustained for much longer. Young people, whose tolerance for alcohol is lower anyway, get hold of such drinks and get drunk very quickly.

As I said to my hon. Friend at the beginning of my contribution, I know that the Government take the matter seriously, and that they are doing what they can to tackle it, but we need more action across government. We need firmer penalties for those who breach the law, and we need to ensure that we work hard to change people’s perceptions and views so that we can tackle a menace that is blighting our communities and making not only our older people but many of our young people feel unsafe. We must remember in all of this that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, are likely to be young people. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on her speech. Without over-egging the pudding, I thought that it was excellent. It was thoughtful and provocative as well as constructive. I hope that many people, not least her constituents in Warrington, get the opportunity to read it.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that despite horrific events—she referred in particular to the murder of Garry Newlove—the vast majority of people in Warrington, including the young people, are decent and law-abiding. They look to us to do as much as we can to deal with common problems. I thought that she laid out many interesting ideas, and I hope to respond to some of her points as well as setting out the Government’s broader strategy in respect of this matter, which affects the whole of our country.

As my hon. Friend said, we need a variety of approaches to tackle the problem, from prevention to making people face up to the consequences of their behaviour. I have always thought that one of the great follies of public policy is that one is seen to be at one end or the other of a spectrum. I know from debates and, if she does not mind my saying it, from her teaching career, that my hon. Friend has always taken the view that if someone breaks the law, there must be a consequence. It must be appropriate, of course, but there must be one. We should follow that principle in public policy.

However, trying to change things through criminal justice system sanctions, important as that is, is not sufficient. We have to look at other measures, whether prevention, working with parents, as my hon. Friend suggested, or whatever. A range of policies from different parts of the spectrum is required to bring about real change.

To digress slightly, the point that my hon. Friend made about parents is one of the great issues that confronts us today. What can actually be done about the minority—not the majority—of parents who are irresponsible? This almost sounds trivial, but how can we pass a law that says that parents must take responsibility for their son or daughter and not allow them out on the street late at night, or that they must make sure that their children do not drink irresponsibly? As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is difficult to pass such a law. However, we must look at parenting contracts and measures such as that to ensure that parents who refuse to face up to their responsibility take more responsibility.

The national alcohol strategy, “Safe. Sensible. Social.”, sets out a clear programme of action to tackle alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour. Priority actions in the strategy include tougher enforcement through a series of targeted campaigns to wipe out sales to under-18s; advice and guidance to parents; robust enforcement, which is essential, of the 2003 Act to clamp down on irresponsible alcohol promotions and irresponsible retailers; and targeted enforcement and support for offenders through alcohol arrest referrals to change individuals’ drinking behaviour. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we extend the availability of that sort of sanction.

Another part of our strategy is challenging the public’s acceptance of drunken behaviour through a new multi-million-pound communications campaign. I take on board the point that my hon. Friend made: in addition to targeting problem drinkers and problem situations, we should also look at how to ensure that parents are involved in that communications campaign. I shall see what we can do about that.

The strategy is also about ensuring that the alcohol industry plays its part in reducing harms by considering the effectiveness of its codes of practice and strengthening them, if necessary. Those priority actions will help us to achieve our public commitment to see fewer alcohol-related violent incidents, fewer people experiencing drunken rowdiness in their areas, including Warrington, fewer admitted to hospital for acute alcohol-related illnesses and fewer children drinking alcohol.

We have made some progress, as my hon. Friend says, and fewer children are drinking. However, those who are drinking are drinking more. We have launched alcohol referral pilots in Ealing, Cheshire, Liverpool and Manchester, where advice will be provided to those who have been arrested for alcohol-related offences. To date, 758 individuals have received referrals. We will shortly be rolling out those pilots to 10 new areas.

We have achieved significant reductions in test purchase failures from more than 50 per cent. in 2004 to the current level of 14.7 per cent. to ensure that ever-decreasing numbers of children are able to get access to alcohol illegally. We are continuing to carry out various enforcement campaigns, including, as my hon. Friend said, recent campaigns related to confiscating alcohol from young people.

It is important that local partnerships work together to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. We recently sent out an alcohol strategy local implementation tool kit, which gives people information about the tools and laws that are currently available to them to deal with alcohol-related problems. Again, as my hon. Friend said, it is crucial to ensure that existing law is enforced, irrespective of new laws that are needed. I take her point about the need to improve the law, particularly in respect of one or two areas, but we also need to enforce the existing law more robustly than at present.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has talked to his colleagues in the Government about what figures they keep on the reasons that licences are lost. I have asked questions, but it seems that we keep few statistics on that so it is difficult to know how the relevant powers are being used. I always ask, “When did you last hear about a place that lost its licence for serving people who are persistently drunk?”, because that is an offence.

My hon. Friend is right. I will consider that, because I am concerned about it. Far more premises should be losing their licences for persistently selling to children. The fact is that even if they are found to have persistently sold alcohol to children three times in three months, I understand, from the figures on the last campaign, that the number of premises losing their licences is only in the low 20s. That is not a sufficient deterrent. That is why the Government have made some announcements on that subject, which I shall come to in a minute.

Some 500 designated public place orders have been made, allowing local authorities to give the police enhanced powers to confiscate alcohol from people drinking in public. Given that local authorities can simply designate an area for a public place order, I should have expected far more orders to be used. There are often complaints that adults, not to mention children, are drinking in public, causing huge problems in town centres, or wherever. A local authority can designate areas with a designated public place order and the police can then confiscate alcohol from adults, if they believe that it is causing a problem. I do not understand why there are not hundreds more such orders. My hon. Friend will know that Brighton, for example, has made designated public place orders, and other seaside resorts and various towns make those orders, which give the police additional powers.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set out this morning, the introduction of the 2003 Act has not led to the widespread problems that some feared. Although crimes involving violence may have reduced over the evening and night-time period, the evidence also points to increases in offences reported during 3 am to 6 am.

To deal with some of the points that my hon. Friend made, the Government remain determined to address the issues under discussion, and have announced new initiatives to protect the public, including a new yellow and red card alert system that clearly outlines the consequences of breaching a licence, changing the offence of persistently selling alcohol to a person under 18 from three strikes to two strikes in three months and utilising existing powers to identify a problem premises. We will make it easier to review premises where local intelligence suggests that there is a problem. We will support the police and local authorities to identify problem hot spots by ranking geographical areas and concentrations of premises on the basis of the risks that they present to crime and disorder, public nuisance and children. That will allow licensing authorities to exercise more caution and conditions when issuing licences, to withdraw licences wholesale in such areas, which I think that my hon. Friend would welcome, and it will permit local authorities and police to target enforcement resources more effectively at problem hot spots.

To tackle wider antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol consumption, the Home Office will introduce legislation as follows: to increase the maximum fine from £500 to £2,500 for anyone not obeying instructions to stop drinking or to give up their drink in a designated public place; to make it easier for the police to disperse antisocial drinkers, both adults and children, from any location—if necessary, we will change the law to make that happen; and to extend the use of acceptable behaviour contracts for young people caught drinking in public to require them and their parents to attend a session with an alcohol specialist to try to address the problem. I think that my hon. Friend will be pleased about that. In addition, we will extend alcohol arrest referral pilots so that under-18s may also benefit from a brief intervention from a trained worker. That will help deal with young people drinking in public who may already be involved in criminal activities. However, we recognise that more needs to be done.

Although young people are drinking less, it is worrying that those who do drink are drinking substantially more and are doing so more often. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently outlined the Government’s wish to see greater use of parenting contracts if poor parenting is identified as an issue when alcohol is confiscated from under-age drinkers. It cannot be right that nearly half of all children obtain alcohol from home. That is simply not acceptable.

We are fully aware that enforcement alone will not be enough to tackle drinking by young people. As such, the Department for Children, Schools and Families will shortly launch a youth alcohol action plan to set out the Government’s proposals further to tackle under-age drinking. That includes dealing with the cultural change, not only with children but across the board, that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Just as parents have a role to play, so do those who sell alcohol. The Government are fully committed to tackling those who sell alcohol irresponsibly. Alcohol retailers, pubs and clubs should manage their establishments safely and deal with their customers responsibly or they should be dealt with. We welcome the work that is being done throughout the country, but more needs to be done. As we know, the industry wants the irresponsible minority to be dealt with and we should deal with such people robustly. Throughout the country we are seeing what can be done, through schemes such as Citysafe in Liverpool and the Think 21 campaign in Cambridgeshire, when agencies work together to try to tackle the problem.

We will be investigating the way in which retailers offer and advertise cheap alcohol. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Department of Health is currently reviewing that. The Home Office is also reviewing the alcohol industry social responsibility standards and will report by the end of this month.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, for the way in which she has represented her constituents in Warrington and for driving forward this debate. Although we all enjoy a drink—at least, many of us do—there can be no excuse for drinking that leads to violence or to some of the behaviour that we see on our streets. The public in this country have said, “Enough is enough”; they want to see tough, robust action and we will take such action as a Government.