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Alcohol (Licensing)

Volume 522: debated on Monday 24 January 2011

The Government are taking forward proposals in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill to reform the alcohol licensing regime. These include charging a fee for late-night licences, making it easier for communities to have their say on local licensing matters, doubling the fine to £20,000 for those found persistently selling alcohol to children and overhauling the temporary event notices so that existing loopholes can no longer be exploited.

The Cheshire ArcAngel team does excellent work to combat under-age drinking and sales to under-age drinkers, including working with responsible retailers. Licensing officers inform me, however, that current procedures make enforcement action unwieldy and protracted, even when a sale to an under-age individual has clearly occurred. Will the Minister look into enforcement difficulties, such as problems identifying which salesperson to prosecute, the tactic of a swift change of a named licence holder making closure notices hard to apply and the omission of a power to require mandatory staff retraining?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and join her in commending the work of ArcAngel in Cheshire. The work that it does is similar to that of other groups throughout the country. Certainly it is important for us not only to change the legislation to ensure that the things I set out in my original answer occur, but to ensure that enforcement takes place properly. I am sure we will be happy to look at the particular issues that she raises in relation to the difficulty of enforcement.

A few weeks back, I spent a Friday night out on the streets of Sheerness with my local police licensing officer, backed up by a team of community policemen, checking out licensed premises in an effort to combat alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. I was deeply impressed by the licensing officer’s professionalism and the dedicated way he went about his business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as police forces look to reduce the number of back-office staff, one area that should not be cut is licence enforcement?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and commend him for going out with the licensing officer to see what is done in practice. Of course, licence enforcement is an important part of policing. It is not for us to tell chief constables how to allocate their resources, but they will look to ensure that they have the right mix of police officers and police staff to ensure that the licensing law is abided by and enforced.

As the Home Secretary knows, 50% of crimes are alcohol-related, according to the British crime survey. May I welcome the Government’s proposals for a minimum price for alcohol? They are of course in keeping with the recommendations that the Home Affairs Committee made last year, but will she look at the level of pricing? She is putting it at 21p per unit, whereas health campaigners say that it should be 50p per unit. Let us make this a genuine exercise, not just a box-ticking exercise.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I also commend the Home Affairs Committee for its work in this and a number of other areas. He refers to a minimum price for alcohol, but we are banning below-cost sales of alcohol, and we have set that cost at VAT plus duty. That is slightly different from a minimum per unit price for alcohol, but it is important to recognise that, in relation to cracking down on problem drinking, we have taken not only that step but a number of other measures of the sort that I set out in my earlier response.

In reviewing the Licensing Act 2003, is the Secretary of State satisfied that police forces and local authorities throughout the country are using their existing powers as much as they should? Does the late night levy proposal, aimed at reflecting the cost of policing the late-night economy, risk being an additional tax burden on local businesses while the policing that they receive in return still falls as a result of the 20% cuts in police budgets?

I refer the hon. Lady to the actions of the Labour Government in introducing alcohol disorder zones. Yes, we are reviewing the Licensing Act 2003 that they brought in, because far from introducing the café-style culture that Tony Blair said it would bring, it did the exact opposite. Sadly, we have yet again seen increases in incidents relating to alcohol, and in admissions to hospital owing to alcohol-related injuries. That is why the coalition Government are taking the steps that are necessary to deal with problem drinking and giving local areas the ability to deal with their licensing problems.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling the debilitating impact of alcohol abuse. By how many do the Government expect the recently announced measures to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths? If they are unsuccessful in that, will the Government consider banning alcohol sales below a cost that includes production and transport costs?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We expect that there will be 7,000 fewer alcohol-related incidents and 1,000 fewer hospital admissions as a result of the ban on below-cost alcohol sales.