Under existing licensing law, the police annually engage in over 1.6 million administrative licensing processes. That will be streamlined to around 170,000 under the Licensing Act 2003, which will result in a saving of up to £15 million annually. The Act will also give the police further powers to tackle alcohol-related disorder, for instance through introducing temporary or permanent reductions in trading hours.
Given that the United Kingdom has some of the worst binge drinking in Europe and that the police have expressed serious concern about the advent of 24-hour drinking, what reassurance can the Minister give that the police will have enough officers available between 2 am and 6 am when the Licensing Act is implemented?
We should certainly take account of pressures on the police. According to Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents Association,
"Extended licensing hours are not a concern for us. The problem exists now with all pubs and clubs closing at two set times, spilling out thousands of people onto our streets . . . We believe that by a more gradual dispersal of the crowds over a longer period of time, these problems would be significantly reduced."
However, he also welcomed the possibility that licensed premises would have to contribute not just to policing costs but to other local costs of disorder on our streets. That is a statement from the police that they are preparing to deal with the issues, and in fact they are dealing with them now.
I have recently heard allegations and received evidence that mini-markets at garages in my constituency are selling alcohol to under-age people. Does my hon. Friend agree that withdrawing those mini-markets' licence to sell alcohol would be the most effective way of stopping them doing that?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The transfer of the licensing regime to local authorities, which are very much in touch with their communities, should give them extra powers not just to limit hours but to review licences, to suspend them, and if necessary to withdraw them.
Surely one of the best ways of saving police resources and public hassle is to prevent irresponsible people from getting licences in the first place. Can the Minister confirm that, under the new legislation, the council considering an application from an individual licensee is no longer allowed to take account of police intelligence on their conduct with regard to selling alcohol? It is not even allowed to take account of convictions in that regard if they have expired.
The hon. Gentleman should know that when councils consider applications for licences, they will be able to listen to representations from the police, from local residents and from others in the area. As I understand it, in the past, courts could look at taking away a licence only where someone was convicted for a second or subsequent time of serving to under-age youngsters. Under the new regime, they will be able to consider doing so where someone has been convicted for the first time. Therefore, the powers will be even stronger.
A lot of the focus has been on 24-hour drinking in respect of the new Act, but does my hon. Friend agree that the provision to give local people a say not only in licensing policy but in individual applications is welcome? It has been welcomed wholeheartedly in local government, most recently in the north-east by the new Liberal Democrat chair of Newcastle city council's licensing committee, Anita Lower.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The transition from the magistrates court to the local authorities is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to look at every licence over the next few months. The process from now until November, when those licences are being reviewed, is crucial to the agenda of tackling binge drinking. I say to the local authorities concerned: look at every licence carefully and take into account what local people and the police are saying. We must get a better mix in town and city centres, so that premises appeal to a range of people rather than appealing solely to young people and encouraging them to drink irresponsibly.
How can the Minister be so sanguine about the prospect of 24-hour drinking? She prayed in aid the president of the Police Superintendents Association to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous but she will have heard the comments of Sir John Stevens and the comments of police constables on the beat, who say that it is hard enough tackling one person who is drunk, without hordes and hordes of people being drunk. We heard earlier about the problems in large cities. In the city of Lichfield, we have a problem, too.
I am sure that there is a problem in Lichfield and other places. It is not confined to the inner cities. Rural market towns and very small areas face similar problems of disorder fuelled by alcohol. I am not complacent at all. I recognise police concerns about the need to deploy officers on the streets, but if the police work with local authorities, with the newly licensed door supervisors at the premises, and with the many public sector people who are on the streets, we can help to get a grip on the problem. We must ensure that the industry itself has a more responsible attitude towards drinking. I am delighted that some of the big chains, including Wetherspoon and Yates's, are outlawing irresponsible promotions. That is an extremely good sign, and I would encourage many more licensees and retailers to do the same.