Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Labour)
My Lords, I shall limit my contribution to Part 2 of the Bill, which deals with licensing. Given the way in which alcohol licensing policy impacts on lifestyle, health and safety, I suspect that many members of the public will have stronger feelings about the need for change on that issue than about police commissioners. I was reinforced in that view listening to the most moving maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. Access to and availability of alcohol under the licensing regime affect all because abuse is often linked directly to violence, anti-social behaviour, community disturbance and disorder. Those trends regrettably have been growing while other criminal statistics, as noble Lords have said, have been in decline. As the Minister said, in 2009-10 nearly half of all violent crime-almost a million incidents-was fuelled by alcohol. She could have gone on to say that more than a million hospital admissions in 2009-10 were again alcohol related. Regrettably, that figure continues to rise. I understand that there are around 78,000 additional cases in hospitals each year. An estimated 40 per cent of all accident and emergency attendances are alcohol related.
Yesterday, the Brighton Argus-the daily paper from the city where I live-published a major article in which the city's principal medical officer, Dr Tom Scanlon, claimed that the impact of alcohol was costing Brighton and Hove £100 million a year. That figure includes the cost of treating people with illnesses caused by drinking excessively and of dealing with alcohol crime. He called for a tougher stance on providing alcohol licences in the city and for the low cost of alcohol to be addressed. The Government have already been turning their attention to the latter, but I am not quite sure whether he will have been pleased with what has emanated from the Government so far.
Dr Scanlon argued that the increased availability of alcohol and the rise in the number of licences now being granted were significant factors affecting Brighton and Hove overall. That applies especially to the growing number of licences being granted for off-licensed premises, in many of which cheap drink is available. In Brighton, 73 per cent of A&E attendances on Friday and Saturday evenings are substance or drink related, yet every week ever more drink licences are being granted.
Licences are going, amazingly, to places such as fish and chip shops and video hire shops. Innumerable grocery stores are now being granted licences for drink. Licences are even going to sandwich shops- Submarine applied for a licence to sell drink with its sandwiches. I have drawn the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is the Minister responsible, to the fact that, under the transferring of local post offices, they, too, are being granted alcohol licences. I have sent a photograph of a local one where the window is piled high with alcohol, even though the post office shop is immediately next to an off-licence and within 50 yards on either side are two major supermarkets selling alcohol.
I freely knowledge that some of the responsibility for those changes has its origin in the Licensing Acts 2003 and 2005. Some of us on these Benches were unhappy with what was being passed by our Government then. It cannot be denied that the earlier legislation effected a major shift, with the presumption embedded in it that all new licence applications should be approved.
I welcome the Government's decision last autumn to review local licensing arrangements and to seek to rebalance the Licensing Acts so that there is a better balance between applicants and the needs of the local community. I welcome in general many of the changes that the Minister has outlined in Part 2, where I will be prepared to give support, but I have concerns in a number of areas and I wonder whether we may not be embarking on a further policy of nice words and of smoothing the hair but with no action to be seen.
I have two or three questions about what the Minister said in moving Second Reading. She said that there will be a lower evidential threshold; I understood her to say that it will be more difficult to get agreement that a licence should be granted. Am I correct and, if so, what will the threshold be? Will the Government define their objectives and set out how they expect people to try to attain them?
Also, to my surprise, the Minister did not mention the fact that, in the earlier reviews and exchanges, it was suggested that a public health factor could be considered by committees when deciding whether licences should be granted. The original idea was that PCTs would be imported into the process and would be exercising a judgment. In the light of what is happening on the health service front, will PCTs be used for the interim? If not, has the proposal been totally dropped? If it has not been totally dropped, who will take the position of the PCTs? To what extent will they have power to influence decisions taken locally? Will the public health factor be of sufficient weight to ensure that an application is vetoed in an area where there are already a fair number of licensed premises?
Finally, it is generally accepted that cost is an important factor in all alcohol issues. This is being addressed from a variety of standpoints and I know that a strategy is to be drawn up later in the year on the approach to alcohol. A whole range of different strands will have to be brought together, but cost is, in the opinion of many people who know something about the subject, very much at the heart of the solution.
In the Commons, an amendment was introduced only very late in the process to devolve the setting of licence fees from the centre to the local level. I would like to know why it was done so late in the exercise. Is that devolved power limited to a reimbursement of the costs incurred in considering a licence, or will true localism operate so that local authorities are given permission to set the cost of licences at whatever they consider appropriate in the best interests of the community, although that may exceed the cost of reimbursement for the bureaucratic exercise? I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could answer those questions when she winds up.