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Local Authorities (Alcohol Disorder Zones) Regulations 2008

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1 April be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in 2005-06, nearly one-fifth of all violent incidents were committed in or around pubs and clubs. Police and local authorities now have a wide range of devices and powers available to them to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. The key legislation is the Licensing Act 2003, which gives licensing authorities a wide range of powers to tackle alcohol-related crime, nuisance and disorder, including violent crime and underage sales, if they can be attributed to individual premises. These powers include the modification, suspension or revocation of licences on review.

However, although a wide range of legal powers is available to the police and local authorities, it is not always possible to make a clear link between the crime and disorder happening in and around one or more licensed premises with the premises themselves. The alcohol-related crime and disorder in the public space may be the cumulative result of people drinking in a number of on-trade licensed premises or by purchasing alcohol in one or more off-licences when, for example, they are already intoxicated. In such cases, the provisions in the Licensing Act may be insufficient to ensure that these premises act in a collectively responsible manner. There will almost certainly be a need for additional enforcement activity. As such, as a measure of last resort, alcohol disorder zones have been designed to enable local authorities, in partnership with the police, to tackle high levels of alcohol-related crime and disorder within a defined zone by requiring licence holders in that zone to pay for additional police and local authority enforcement services. If licensed premises are part of the problem, we argue that it is only right that they should be part of the solution.

To be fair, I am not saying that all licensed premises are part of the problem—far from it. Many trade very responsibly: they do not sell to kids; they do not sell to drunks; they do not have silly promotions that are designed to get people so drunk that they do not know what day of the week it is; and they ensure that at closing time dispersal is managed in a calm and efficient way, and that glasses are properly tidied up so that they do not become lethal weapons.

However, we also know that this simply does not apply to all pubs, clubs, off-licences and supermarkets. Far too many sell to under-18s and to people who are already drunk. Far too many do not trade in a responsible way and, as a result of their “it’s not my problem” approach, they collectively make the spaces in some towns and cities unpleasant places to be in the evenings and at night.

We argue that, once all other options have been exhausted, alcohol disorder zones should be considered to ensure that licensed premises collectively behave in a responsible way. Critics of ADZs will say that they are unnecessarily bureaucratic, but they have been designed to ensure that licensed premises are given an opportunity to change before any charges are imposed on them.

To ask a fair question, how will they work in practice? There are three key stages to an alcohol disorder zone: proposing to designate an area as an ADZ; the action plan stage; and, finally, the designation and operation of a full ADZ. If, following the proposal stage, where a local authority consults on whether to have an ADZ in the first place, the local authority decides to move ahead, it will then publish a voluntary action plan jointly with the police setting out the specified locality, such as a high street or town centre. The action plan will set out a combination of measures that should prevent alcohol-related crime and disorder taking place in that specified public space.

The action plan will involve the local authority, police and licence holders by setting out what is to be expected from each of them. For example, the police may agree temporarily to put on additional police during the early hours and licensed premises will be expected to sign up to an approved accreditation or award scheme, such as “Best Bar None”.

Under the action plan, the affected licensed premises will be given a chance to make the necessary changes and, if they do, there may be no need for the local authority to take any further action. However, in cases where there has been insufficient implementation of the voluntary action plan on the part of licensed premises, the local authority may designate that locality as an ADZ. Designation allows local authorities to levy compulsory charges on certain licence holders for above-normal levels of enforcement activity by that authority and the police, such as frequent visits by police officers or police community support officers to licensed premises or additional activity by trading standards officers.

I want to be absolutely clear that a local authority should consider designating a locality as an ADZ only after all other measures available to that authority, and to the police, to tackle high levels of alcohol-related nuisance or disorder have been tried and have failed to solve the problem. ADZs are not intended to be used like any other tool; they are very much a measure of last resort. In any event, the ADZ must be reviewed every three months to ensure that it is still required.

It is not known at this stage exactly how many ADZs will be designated in the first year. The regulatory impact assessment estimates that 30 areas will start the ADZ process in the first year, but it could be that all or none move towards full designation. This will depend entirely on the success and take-up of the voluntary action plan.

I now want to address some of the specific issues that have been raised in relation to ADZs. The first is the charging mechanism. The first step for the local authority in calculating charges that will apply to licensed premises is to work out the total cost of administering and enforcing an ADZ. This will be the total of the costs to the local authority of imposing, collecting and recovering charges, and reviewing the ADZ, plus the costs of additional policing and local authority services. Local authorities should aim to keep the costs of administering charges and reviewing ADZs as low as possible. We expect these costs to be recovered over the first three months of ADZ charges and for the level of charges to be reduced after this time.

Having worked out the total cost of administering and enforcing the ADZ, the second stage in calculating charges is to spread the total cost of an ADZ among individual licence holders, who are not exempt, in accordance with Regulation 16. This is done by local authorities using the national ADZ charging formula that allows for local flexibility. The formula comprises two indicators: first, the premises’ rateable value as a proxy for capacity; and, secondly, the hours of opening during the ADZ service period. All licensed premises will be scored against both indicators. The formula sets out that individual premises’ total scores are calculated by either multiplying or adding together their scores under each of the two indicators. The local authority may give more or less weight to either of the two indicators. The total score that the premises receives will determine the charge that it has to pay. To make this as easy as possible for local authorities, the accompanying guidance gives a worked example to take them through it step by step.

Some have asked whether supermarkets will be exempt from the charging mechanism. The short answer is no. If the availability of alcohol is one of the main reasons why people visit a supermarket during an ADZ service period, then it is right that it is liable to pay a charge.

Although earlier versions of the regulations allowed for a 100 per cent discount, we were advised that this was ultra vires, as the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 does not allow for an exemption and a 100 per cent discount amounts to an exemption. As such, it was thought necessary to amend the regulations. However, when calculating the charge for premises that are open only for a short amount of time during the ADZ periods, it is possible that they will receive a large reduction in their charge. If premises are open for a short amount of time during the hours in which the ADZ period is operating, its score for hours of opening during the service period will be low. If a local authority multiplies the premises’ rateable value score, whatever that may be, by this low score, the total score or charge to be paid will also be much lower than that of identical premises that are open throughout the ADZ service period. In this way, premises that are open only for a short time during the ADZ service period will pay a much lower charge.

To conclude, as I have said, the alcohol disorder zones represent a solution to the current problem of it not being possible to get collective change from a number of licensed premises in any given location. They are designed as a measure of last resort. Even then, it is to be hoped that licensed premises will avoid incurring compulsory charges by choosing to comply with the voluntary action plan. Where they do not, it is right that a tougher approach should be taken, and that those responsible for contributing to crime and disorder pay for the services of those who have to deal with it. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1 April be approved. [8th and 18th Reports from the Merits Committee and 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government to withdraw the regulations and to re-lay them having taken account of the opinion of the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments that ‘the system will be unduly bureaucratic and without a clear idea of how ADZs will fit in with the other items in the local authorities’ toolkit for combating alcohol-fuelled disorder.’”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this House, in its wisdom, established a Merits Committee to look at the merits of statutory instruments. The Minister will be aware of what the Merits Committee has said in the case of these regulations. It has found them wanting, even given that they have been laid previously and withdrawn, and that this is at least the second time that they have been laid. Does the Minister not think that, when the Merits Committee, with all the legal experience of the noble and learned Lords who sit on it—not least the experience of the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who has long experience, as I know the Minister has, of local government—says that the regulations are unduly bureaucratic, and possibly therefore unworkable, that the Government should withdraw the regulations and think again? It does the Government no good to bring in regulations that bring them into disrepute in this way.

Although I am going to address the substance of the regulations now, it is the comments of the Merits Committee that bear particular scrutiny. What is the point of your Lordships’ House having a Merits Committee? It has come up with the strong comment that the ADZ system will be unduly bureaucratic and be,

“without a clear idea of how it fits with the other items in local authorities’ toolkit for combating alcohol-fuelled disorder”.

In other words, it is worse than useless. I do not know what the Merits Committee could say more strongly to make the Government rethink the regulations, which they have got wrong. I urge the Minister to exercise his ministerial discretion. I realise that civil servants have been asked to draw up the regulations and that it was in the Labour Party’s manifesto that this would be done. Having made an effort to draw them up, they still have not come up with the goods. The Minister needs to bear that in mind and have another go at them. That is what I am asking him to consider this evening.

Now I will address the substance of these regulations. We on these Benches would not dispute that there is a problem with alcohol-related disorder in town and city centres. Indeed, the British Crime Survey shows that alcohol was involved in 46 per cent of violent crime incidents. The Home Office’s own figures show increases in violent crime between 3 am and 6 am since the introduction of the Licensing Act. Hospital A&E admissions have doubled since 1997 and A&E admissions of those aged under 18 for alcohol-related conditions have increased by more than 2,000 in the past 10 years. I will not go on quoting figures; there are enough there to show that there is a significant problem. We are certainly not disputing that.

We also contend that local authorities and businesses have taken considerable steps forward. There are 62 business improvement districts around the country. That is very important. That is the community coming together. Those are businesses recognising their responsibilities to the social life of their area, and working with local authorities to improve it. I wonder how much discussion the Government had with them before drawing up these regulations. Then there are several local schemes, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, ranging from the Community Alcohol Partnership in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, to one that I am aware of in Somerset, called Operation Joined-up. I discussed alcohol-related incidents with Councillor Mochnacz, the county councillor concerned with community safety issues. The one thing that he would have liked the Government to do is bring in a power to enable local authorities to require the use of shatterproof glass if it was thought necessary. That was echoed by the police, who were also at my meeting with Councillor Mochnacz. They said that the single thing that would reduce the bad effects of alcohol would be the introduction of either safety glass or a complete alternative to glass. That was a very positive suggestion, on which the Minister could act. I should be grateful for his comments on that.

The ADZs have attracted criticism across the board, from industry, the police, the LGA, LACORS and, not least, as I mentioned, the Merits Committee itself. Why? Because if they are bureaucratic, it is unlikely that anyone will use them. As the Minister said, they are a tool of last resort, but if they are this bureaucratic, is it likely that local authorities will make such a rod for their own backs, and one that will take so much time? To give an example of where they are bureaucratic, the Minister quoted the charging mechanism. The charging mechanism assesses premises by rateable value and hours of opening during the service period. The Minister said that rateable value was a proxy for capacity. That is impossible to measure. A big pub, perhaps with bedrooms and serving suppers, would have a high rateable value as big premises, but the amount of alcohol consumed and the amount of disorder to come from that pub might be minimal, compared to a smaller, rather “shacky” type of nightclub, selling alcohol to kids already loaded up with vodka before they go in. It might be vodka purchased 20 miles away. I do not believe that this charging mechanism will be able to withstand all the appeals that will be brought as soon as the first ADZ is established.

The Minister also made a comment about supermarkets. Noble Lords will understand that a supermarket will have a defence. Somebody will go in for 12 cans of Special Brew and one bottle of vodka, but, thinking about it, they also buy a pint of milk and a newspaper. They can claim, quite rightly, that they were going to have a coffee before they went out drinking, so it was the pint of milk that drew them into the supermarket. The supermarket can carry out a few surveys like that and quickly say that it should be exempt. There are all sorts of problems with the charging mechanism, as highlighted by everybody else who has been through these regulations.

Then there is all the police time that will be taken up by this, when the community would rather that police officers were out on the beat, talking to youngsters and discouraging violent behaviour in the first place in that way, which we know a police presence can do. We do not feel that the charging system reflects the whole idea behind the zones. The Minister should also explain how there will be a proper differentiation between responsible and irresponsible premises, because if it is based on rateable value, it looks as if the regulations treat all premises in the same way.

I know from talking to owners of wine bars, for example, that some are incredibly responsible and go to enormous lengths to ensure that their staff are trained not to serve alcohol to customers whom they feel are over the limit. In town centres where there is joined-up working, they have systems whereby they warn one another about groups of people going around who should be refused that evening because they are, it is felt, over the limit.

The other option that the Government had was to ensure better enforcement of existing laws. There is an explanation of how ADZs will fit alongside other measures, but I bring the Minister back to the fact that the Merits Committee, having examined it, felt that it was not clear how they would fit with the other items in the local authorities’ toolkit. I remind the Minister that the police already have sufficient powers covering all sorts of issues concerning alcohol and violence. They can even confiscate alcohol under a designated public places order, with a variety of punishments depending on the nature of the disorder: fines, temporary closure or review of the premises licence.

As the Minister will know, responsibility comes back to the local authority as the licensing authority. This is my last point: the licensing authority—the local authority in its guise as a licensing authority—must take numerous issues into account. It does so responsibly with a lot of local input, but I believe that, under the regulations and the Licensing Act guidance, it is illegal for local authorities to promote a voluntary code or scheme against the practices that encourage binge drinking. Only the industry can commence such a scheme. I would like the Minister to say whether I am correct about that, as it seems surprising. Local authorities would like to have that power, which would tie in with their licensing authority powers.

We believe that, although the effort being made through ADZs to control violence that comes from heavy drinking and alcohol-related abuse in town centres is worthy, the regulations fail, for all the reasons that I have given. I urge the Minister to withdraw the regulations and let his department have another go at them. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government to withdraw the regulations and to re-lay them having taken account of the opinion of the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments that ‘the system will be unduly bureaucratic and without a clear idea of how ADZs will fit in with the other items in the local authorities’ toolkit for combating alcohol-fuelled disorder.’” (HL Paper 100).—(Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive explanation, but the fact that his considerable powers of persuasion and analysis have been so tested with the whole question of charging is revealing in relation to the complications that the regulations present.

None of us is under any illusion about the seriousness of the problem of alcohol-related disorder, but the history of the regulations, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned, has been a mess. The Merits Committee in its report makes some unusually trenchant criticisms. We welcome the Government’s decision to reconsider the regulations, but we still feel that they have not gone far enough. The plans for the ADZs are still amiss and bear all the signs of not having been thought through properly. They are impractical and grossly complicated. The consultation period was too short. Serious reservations have been expressed by the Local Government Association and ACPO.

Attention has been drawn by both speakers to the problems with the supermarkets. We remain deeply sceptical about the effectiveness of the provision. Those bodies are very well advised and I am extremely concerned that they may escape the full rigour of the ADZs.

I urge the Government to think again. If we are unsuccessful, we shall watch the progress of the regulations carefully. My party remains committed to more control by local councils of licensing, more visible policing on the streets and a firmer approach to those who cause disorder having drunk to excess. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for their comments. The noble Baroness gave us a full flavour of her concerns. That is fair enough; it is why we have these debates. I know that there was a similarly robust response to the moving of the regulations in another place, and rightly so.

We had a good debate on this when we passed the original legislation, which I quite enjoyed shepherding through the House. We then had a constructive engagement about ADZs, although I think that both parties opposite expressed some concerns. I am sure that I reflected at the time that we had to try to get the practicalities right.

In fairness, the Merits Committee has, as it always does, done the House a service by highlighting some issues and concerns. We should be grateful to it for its comments, although noble Lords will gather from what I am about to say in response that we do not entirely agree with its conclusions.

I ought to comment on the fact that the regulations were initially delayed and brought back after some drafting amendments. That was because there was some misdrafting and we wanted to get this absolutely right. In fairness, that raises the question whether we have the mechanism absolutely right. We think that we have, but if in the light of experience what is, after all, a new and groundbreaking policy is found to be wanting in some regards, we are flexible enough to come back to amend the regulations so that they work better. We do not anticipate that, but I say that because we have that degree of flexibility.

On whether the regulations are unduly bureaucratic, in the terms of the Merits Committee report, the worry is understandable. It comes from the tiered approach that we have created, where you have first the proposition, then the action plan and then the full ADZ. In a sense, that approach is designed to remove bureaucracy, because if you do not need the action plan because remedial measures and steps have been taken by responsible businesses in the area, you do not have to proceed any further. If a local authority has an above-normal alcohol problem and sets out the steps that it plans to take, it is surely a good thing if those steps lead to a reduction in the problem without having to go to the full-blown ADZ process.

The noble Baroness gave some examples of good practice around the country where local authorities and police forces have worked well together with partnerships to determine how to tackle local alcohol problems and what actions best work to resolve them. In many of these cases, the licensed trade takes positive steps to help to address the issues of concern. That is what we are asking local authorities to do. Police forces working with them in partnership will also be asked to do this. There should not, therefore, be any additional bureaucracy in that process.

In the first instance, I think that only a few areas—perhaps half a dozen or so—will take up the full range of ADZ powers, having gone through the initial stages. That is because, as I have said several times, ADZs are a measure of last resort. The tools and powers available to the police will have worked, or the threat of an ADZ will have pushed those problem premises into taking action in their own self-interest. We will be more than happy to be flexible over these issues and we will probably want to report back to Parliament in 12 months or so on how the regulations work and on the operation of the ADZs.

The noble Baroness referred to other elements of our toolkit. It is true to say that we have a wide-ranging kitbag at our disposal and local authorities are making good use of it. About 60 are already using different elements of the measures that are available in the Licensing Act 2003 and in other places to try to improve the management of premises and the general performance both of licensed premises and of localities.

I take the point about business improvement districts having a potential impact. There is evidence that bids in city-centre areas can be useful in tackling issues such as this. However, one has to remember that a bid is an entirely voluntary process. The difference between a bid and the ADZ approach is that, if neither the voluntary approach nor the action plan has worked, there is a measure of last resort to force the issue and to make sure that measures are taken to tackle the problem. That is the big difference. Ultimately an ADZ can make licensed premises comply, whereas bids may be something the local authority considers as part of an action plan; they cannot be a substitute for making premises act in a collectively responsible manner.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but could he just clarify whether the local authority licensing committee has the power to do something about a licence when it is looking at renewing it?

My Lords, that is absolutely right. However, as I am sure the noble Baroness understands better than most, our case is that it may not necessarily be one isolated premises that is the problem. It may be the accumulated effect of a supermarket off-sale, an off-sales premises itself, a club, a pub and perhaps even a restaurant—though I think that restaurants are the lower-order end of the problem—in a given area. I have in mind St James’s Street in Brighton, which has all of those things. It occasionally has a problem with disorder which is related to the consumption of alcohol in that part of the city. You would be hard pressed to say which pub or club is the cause of the problem. The licensing authority has the flexibility to isolate a particular premises and to deal with it in a particular way. As the noble Baroness will readily admit, these powers can work well.

I want to move to a few of the other points that the noble Baroness made. She made reference to shatter-proof glass and safety glass. It is sensible for pubs to have access to those and it may well be that a pub or club that has a particular problem makes use of them. It makes great sense. The noble Baroness’s discussions with a Councillor Mochnacz alerted her to that particular issue. One would want to encourage best practice in licensed premises.

I thought that the rateable value point was relevant but only in so far as we understand it as one part of the formula. We also have to understand that the local authority has some flexibility through the discounting scheme. That should enable the charges to be more finely tuned. We accept that the charging mechanism may at first instance be seen as complex but that reflects the way in which different areas work, the way they have different types of licensed premises and the way those premises might contribute in different ways to a larger problem.

A charging mechanism that simply took the cost of enforcing and administering an ADZ and divided that amount by the number of licensed premises could disproportionately affect some premises, particularly restaurants, but not others, such as nightclubs. If the licensed premises with an ADZ were all the same type—pubs, for example—then a local authority might consider it sensible simply to divide the costs more evenly, in which case it would be very straightforward indeed. The key point is that, without the flexibility that we have included in the regulations, local authorities would not be able to make sensible decisions about what amounts to charge particular premises.

We have a clear idea of how the ADZ benefits operate as a method of combating alcohol-fuelled disorder and we think that it is right to say that local authorities and the police have those powers to deal with alcohol-related problems. The Licensing Act 2003 is a key tool in the local authority’s arsenal. If it is used well, it can reduce many of the problems associated with problem premises. However, the Act is about targeting specific premises. It does not allow local authorities to take action against premises when the problems occur in the public space between a number of licensed premises. It is that gap that the legislation aims to fill.

There are avenues of complaint for licence holders who are concerned about the application of the charges. All local authorities have a formal system of redress for complainants and local authorities should incorporate provision for addressing licence holders’ complaints about ADZs into those complaints procedures. There are also systems of appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman and to the Public Services Ombudsman in Wales should licence holders feel sufficiently aggrieved. They also have the facility to apply for judicial review.

These measures are sensible and practical. I take the point that for some they may at first blush feel a bit unwieldy. When they are seen to work in practice, however, areas that have a problem with alcohol disorder on the streets caused by an accumulation of different sorts of licensed premises will see a longer-term benefit.

I have heard what the noble Lords have said this evening. We will keep this policy area under review. We would be foolish if we did not as we want to make these things work and work well for the communities that might be affected by them. For those reasons, I hope the House will support the regulations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. On a matter of detail, he did not tell me how he could empower councils to require premises to use shatter-proof glass and perhaps I will table a Question for Written Answer to enable him to do so.

My Lords, I do have a response. If some areas wish to use shatter-proof glass in some licensed premises, we think they could consider using the powers in the Licensing Act 2003 to put a condition on that premises. That facility is available and I think that answers the noble Baroness’s point.

My Lords, that is very helpful and I thank the Minister. On the broader point of the debate, I think this House will look very carefully, as it should, at the way the Government react to the reports of the Merits Committee on secondary legislation. The Minister will know that both opposition Benches have been very cautious about the amount of secondary legislation coming through. They are very nervous that more and more is being devised as secondary legislation by the Government. That is the very reason for the Merits Committee. When secondary legislation is not satisfactory—bearing in mind that we cannot amend it; we can only vote it through or not—it behoves the Government to take account of the comments of the very committee that we set up to look at this.

Having said that, I am mindful of the Minister’s offer to see how this is working and come back to us in 12 months. He can rest assured that we, too, will see how this works and very much look forward to it coming back in 12 months so that we can debate whether our fears have been realised and whether the LGA and ACPO between them could have devised something far more useful which the Government could pick up and use. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 7.20 pm.