We now move on to under-age sales of alcohol, about which all hon. Members will clearly be concerned. They will want to ensure that we are doing the best we can to protect children and young people from buying alcohol under the age when it is legal to do so.
Just to set the matter in context, I remind the Committee that if children consume high levels of alcohol they jeopardise their health, and are more likely to indulge in risky behaviour such as unprotected sex. Children’s drinking is also placing increasing strains on the police and health services.
We looked carefully at clause 118. The amendments deal with two issues in the clause. The intention of amendment 602 is to introduce, in addition to the punishment of the person, organisation or business selling the alcohol, with a fine and period of closure, a training order to educate the person who sold the alcohol and ensure that their behaviour is corrected and not repeated. There is widespread support for the introduction of a training order, as it is seen as a positive way of dealing with the problem, rather than just the fine and closure of premises. Will the Minister consider the proposal very carefully? It is disappointing that it is not already in the Bill, as we think this a much more proportionate way of addressing instances of under-age selling in which there is no intent to do so. This is a positive alternative to final closure and gives additional discretion to the authorities.
Under the amendment, a training order would require a business to close for a period of 24 hours to train staff in their legal obligation not to sell alcohol to those aged under 18 and in the importance of checking proof of age. There will be a cost to the business in lost revenue, but we expect that the staff would still be paid on that training day, which would not necessarily happen in the event of a closure order. Training orders would provide a remedy to address the issue at the heart of this clause, and they would provide a long-term solution. At the same time, the business concerned would suffer the penalty of a temporary closure resulting in a loss of sales for the period of the order.
The other amendment in this group deals with the proposal in the clause to extend the closure time from 48 hours to 336 hours. While this seems, on the face of it, a positive measure to punish any business that engages in under-age sales, it is clear that the current system with 48-hour closure works well and has a severe impact on licensed premises and their staff. Because of the economic climate, it is unlikely, as I understand it, that a 48-hour closure will be a voluntary agreement with the business. It is therefore unlikely that a business would be willing to accept a closure notice for up to two weeks, because of the economic impact. We would therefore force more cases to go to court, with the increased bureaucracy of which we are all well aware, as well as increased costs and other problems associated with taking matters to court.
The need to extend the current norm of a 48-hour closure to two weeks and the benefits of doing so are questionable, and we need seriously to consider the impact on businesses, particularly small businesses, which have been the hardest hit in recent years. A two-week closure would not only affect the income of the business, but would also have a direct impact, as I mentioned earlier, on the employees—we expect that most of them would not be paid for that two-week period. Such extended closure could be justified only when the under-age sale was made with intent, otherwise, training orders, as proposed by the first amendment would be much more effective and a fairer solution. Will the Minister look very carefully at his proposal in the clause and at the amendment, which is meant as a helpful proposal to find another way of addressing this problem that we all want to make sure is kept to a minimum?
I should like to make a few points on the amendments and on where the Government seek to go. This is clearly a very important area where we want to see action. Many of my constituents are deeply concerned when they see antisocial behaviour by some young people, particularly if those young people are drinking on the street. It is also important to bear in mind the fact that alcohol is not always procured directly by the young people; often that is done by adults who go into shops on their behalf and hand it over to them. Further action should be taken in that area, as well as fining the shops that sell directly to young people. On-street under-age drinking causes real fear and alarm in communities, and is far more of an issue for my constituents than under-age drinking in licensed premises.
On the training order, having spoken to a number of local retailers, I know that they sometimes find it difficult to discern the age of young people. That is not to say that they actively seek to break the law, but it can be difficult, particularly for lone members of staff operating in premises, to call the police, stand up and take action when they are confronted with gangs of young people demanding alcohol. I recently visited a Co-op store in my constituency with representatives from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers as part of their Freedom from Fear campaign. The union wants further action to train and support staff as well as back-up from the police, which allows staff to stand up to young people who often come in in large gangs, which can be intimidating. A training order would be welcome, and USDAW has pushed for greater training of staff and a further roll-out of the different age schemes that operate, so that it becomes the norm for staff to challenge anyone who appears to be under 25. That makes it easier for the staff concerned.
That Co-op store has developed a good working relationship with neighbourhood policing teams, who frequently visit different stores in the area, so that young people see a police presence and are clear that the police will take action. In light of the cuts facing local police forces, however, local retailers are worried about whether that presence can be maintained in future. When I visited the local Co-op store in my constituency, the staff wanted to make clear to the neighbourhood policing team that they enjoyed a really good, positive relationship with them, but that they wanted to see it continue.
Trading standards officers play an important role in this area through test purchases with young people and making sure that retailers are aware of their responsibilities. The training order would be welcome. A lot of retailers try their best in what are often very difficult circumstances. Clearly no one would condone a breach of the law, but given the current climate and potential cuts to trading standards officers and the police, it is important that local retailers feel supported.
On maximum fines, I would be interested to know what fines are imposed and how often the maximums are reached. I would support any action that cracked down on retailers selling alcohol to under-age young people, but I reiterate the point that the problem is not simply alcohol sales to young people. It is about how we enforce measures against adults buying alcohol and deliberately passing it on to young people. How do we continue to tackle that important issue and make sure that local people can leave their homes of an evening, feeling safe and not as if they will be confronted by gangs of young people? There are particular flash points, such as the summer holidays or when the weather is getting warmer. Further action in this area is welcome, but it is important to make sure that sole members of staff and small retailers get the right kind of advice and support and feel that they will get the police response necessary to stop this persistent problem in our communities.
It is important to set out the context of the measures that we are discussing. This is about persistently selling alcohol to children, which the whole Committee would regard as a serious issue. A retailer is deemed to have engaged in persistent selling if they have been found to have sold alcohol to children twice in three months. I will come on to training later, because that is a separate issue.
It is slightly difficult to see, in the context of persistently selling alcohol to children how effective additional training would be. The amendment would reduce the closure period to 24 hours from the 48 hours and, as such, does not send a clear message that it is wrong to sell alcohol to children. I recognise the worries that a premises holder could be prosecuted for under-age sales as a result of inexperienced staff members misjudging the age of a minor. However, there is already a requirement as part of the mandatory code for retailers to implement an age verification policy for their premises. Retailers are encouraged to train their staff on age verification policy to ensure that they adhere to the law. Age verification policy clearly assists retailers in proving due diligence in regard to the sale of alcohol to children by making it more difficult for children to obtain it.
In addition, there are schemes that offer training and examinations for staff on under-age sales and proof of age. One such scheme is the national award scheme, Best Bar None. I visited Maidstone recently and the community alcohol project in operation in the town—a model that is being developed in other parts of the country—seeks to partner some of the bigger retailers with smaller retailers. Part of the corporate approach of a big supermarket can then be shared with smaller retailers in terms of the processes and procedures, thereby ensuring that standards are raised in a direct and practical way. Those interesting measures promote a sense of corporate social responsibility among retailers and those engaged within the industry.
If someone sells alcohol to under-age buyers in a bar or an off-licence, the licensing authority would usually follow that up and see what is going on, why it has taken place, and raise the standards and expectations of the premises that is getting it wrong. After one incident, a local authority usually intervenes, not to catch the premises out a second time, but to provide practical help and guidance to prevent such an incident from taking place again. If an outlet breaches the law for a second time within three months, that is a serious problem. I would be concerned if it continued to supply alcohol to under-age buyers even after training, and if the hon. Lady’s amendments were adopted, a training order were imposed. I am not persuaded that additional training at that point in time would address the problem.
Consideration would also need to be given to repeat offending to ensure that police and trading standard officers could cope with additional burdens and be able to take tougher action in such cases. I question whether the maximum closure period of 24 hours is sufficient for the training order to be implemented.
I am interested in what the Minister has to say about training orders. The amendment is drafted in such a way that it would give another option to the enforcement authorities, whereby they could use a training order or take the matter to court to agree a long closure period. Does he agree that the provision could be a further discretion available to the local person dealing with the matter to take the best effective action for that particular case?
There is an option for practical training, given the way in which the mandatory code and conditions on age verification are already dealt with in inspection and support procedures. If the persistent selling of alcohol to children happens twice in three months, we need to send out a tough message on its unacceptability. A 24-hour closure plus a training order would not get that across, which is why we want to extend the available time for a closure order. If there was a repeat incident, greater discretion should be given to the police to respond in such circumstances. We must send out a clear message to retailers that such a serious offence will not be tolerated.
I have a lot of sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South regarding about some outlets being intimidated by groups of people seeking to test them or being abusive to their staff for trying to uphold the law. As she knows, assaults on shop staff are the subject of the Freedom from Fear campaign that USDAW runs annually just before Christmas. I accept that that is indirectly related to the amendment, but there is some read-across.
The clear message from the Government is that we support and stand up for retailers on the front line upholding the law. They certainly have our support and through the retail crime steering group we are holding discussions with USDAW and with industry on how we can move forward. The issue of retailers who, as a consequence of upholding the law, are assaulted when they leave the shop at the end of the evening is something about which I feel strongly. That, sadly, is a reality for some of our small shopkeepers, and it can lead to their deciding that they have had enough and giving up their business; that community facility is then lost. I hear the hon. Lady’s point loud and clear.
I am pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about the campaign. Another brief point that I would like to make is that local retailers said that staff who work in the shops often live locally, and it is not just while they are working in the shops that they can face abuse and intimidation. If they say, “No, we won’t you sell alcohol” to someone who is under age, they can be challenged later near their home by the same group of youths, and it can be difficult for the staff concerned.
That is why I wanted to send out the clear message that the Government stand up for retailers who are doing their bit and upholding the law. We want to ensure that we are seen to support them in doing so.
I know of a case in which someone was seriously assaulted for challenging someone and making sure that the Licensing Act and the law on under-age sales were upheld, so I take a personal interest in the matter. It is absolutely wrong and utterly unacceptable for someone who is simply doing their job and upholding the law to be victimised, penalised and assaulted. We are looking at how we can work on that important issue with industry and with USDAW, recognising the positive and beneficial campaign that it organises, which I have been pleased to support over a number of years.
There is a role for training, and that role should come in earlier the process, ensuring that good community arrangements are in place. However, we need to send a clear signal that persistent sales of alcohol to under-age people will not be tolerated. We are seeking to act earlier through good community schemes such as Best Bar None and business improvement districts, but if someone contravenes the law in that way, there should be significant consequences.
I am not persuaded that dismissing the amendment on training staff is the best way forward. There is a general view within the trade and among communities that giving shop staff as much help as possible to ensure that they keep within the law, and taking steps to train people and give them the information and ability to be confident about challenging a young person is a sensible way forward, even though there has to be a penalty if they break the law by selling alcohol to an under-age person. Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the Committee on amendment 602 regarding training orders. It would be a sensible option that should be available to enforcement authorities when dealing with the problem. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 603.
First, on the increase in the fine that can be levied, from £10,000 to £20,000, I note that the average fine, according to information supplied by the Home Office, is around £1,713. As I understand it, a fine of £10,000 has never been imposed. Can the Minister explain to the Committee the necessity to increase the fine to £20,000? On what basis did he decide that?
Also, a great deal of reference has been made to the positive steps taken by communities and the industry on proof of age for people wishing to buy alcohol. In the implementation of many such schemes—Challenge 21, Challenge 25 and the proof of age standards scheme—there has been a focus on training staff in the big multiples and supermarkets, which is to be very much welcomed. Young people are now much more aware of the need to have some form of identification on their person when they go out. It is routinely accepted that they will generally be asked for ID—much more so than five years ago, say. That is to be welcomed. The industry takes the matter seriously, and its view is that rogue traders and other people selling alcohol to young people and children need to be dealt with; enforcement needs to happen.
A broader issue that is not in the Bill relates back to the licensing objectives and whether the Government are minded to include a fifth objective around public health. We as a country need to have a debate about alcohol. We also need to think of imaginative ways of getting the message across, to our young people especially, about the harm alcohol can bring. I am conscious that, in the previous Parliament, the Conservative party scuppered the opportunity to ensure that personal, social and health education was made compulsory in all our schools. Health and alcohol abuse would have been part of the discussion with young people. What more can the Government do to get the message across about such an important issue?
On the last point, the whole development of Public Health England will be an important part of ensuring that very positive, preventive approaches to health are much more at the forefront of the way in which local communities operate. I can give the hon. Lady a non-governmental example as well. There is more that the drinks industry can do, and is seeking to do—for example, the community alcohol projects. I remember going to see the St Neots project shortly after its launch several years ago. It not only brought together the relevant agencies and retailers in a positive way but involved schools. Lessons were provided and the community came together to deliver that. The parents were engaged in it, too, and really positive things came out of it. That sort of model can draw together a number of the different strands that the hon. Lady has talked about.
The community alcohol project is being developed further and is being rolled out to other parts of the country, which is something that I support. It seeks to address a number of the things that the hon. Lady highlighted, but in a big society non-bureaucratic way, and that is to be applauded.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the fines, it is important to shift the maximum up to shift the overall scale of fines up. The hon. Lady is right—the current average is around £1,700. Doubling it will send telegraphed messages about the seriousness with which we regard persistent under-age sales of alcohol, and shift up the scale of fines that will be levied across the board.
Is it not also the case that when the maximum fine goes up to £20,000, the guideline sentence for magistrates courts is increased, so one would expect the average sentence to perhaps double?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. The Government will be working with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sentencing Guidelines Council to encourage local magistrates to impose larger fines as a consequence of this change. We are taking tough action against those who persistently sell alcohol to children. Persistence is the relevant issue. Clause 118 makes it clear to irresponsible businesses that such practice is unacceptable. We are sending out very clear messages in the Bill. It is unacceptable persistently to sell alcohol to those who are under age. I hope the Committee will accept that the clause should stand part of the Bill.
Why does the Minister think that the fines are at the lower end of the maximum that can be imposed at the moment? They are on average roughly £1,700. Why is that, and what can be done to encourage the enforcement authorities to ensure that the fines are at the higher end?
There are two ways: increasing the maximum, which is what we are doing, and working with the CPS and the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The fines are levied by the courts. The local authority or the police bring an action to the court, and then the court determines what should happen at that point.
To assist the Minister—this is just conjecture, of course—one would expect the courts to have regard to the nature and size of the business in question when imposing a fine and the injurious effect that that might have on a business. A larger business may receive a larger fine in such circumstances. For smaller businesses, a £1,700 fine might be quite a painful remedy. That may have some bearing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. We utterly condemn those who persistently sell alcohol to under-age persons. That is why we are telegraphing that strong message in the clause.