New Clause 3 — Alcohol disorder zones

Part of Crime and Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 8th March 2010.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:45 pm, 8th March 2010

We turn now to an area of policy and law that is very different from that of DNA retention, which we have just debated. We shall now discuss provisions to control alcohol licensing and try to address the problems resulting from late-night drinking that many of our communities experience, including the costs borne by the police and local authorities in dealing with binge boozing. The first question to ask is whether there is a problem, and I think that we can all say from the complaints that we receive from our constituents that the answer is yes, and that the costs of dealing with it are increasing.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending an evening on the streets of London with paramedics from the London Ambulance Service's booze bus and officers from the Metropolitan police's clubs and vice unit, whose duty is literally to pick up the pieces resulting from a night of drink-fuelled excess on the streets of the capital. I said that it was a privilege to do this; it was not a privilege to see some of the scenes that I saw that night, but it was a privilege to see the professionalism, dedication and sympathetic approach that those professionals brought to bear when dealing with the problems associated with late-night drinking. I saw some of the physical situations that people-principally, but not exclusively, young people-got into, along with their need for medical help and the crime issues that arose from their behaviour. That was a real reminder of the continuing problems of late-night drinking that affect many of our communities, and of the pressures that are placed on our emergency services into the early hours of the morning.

In the context of our new clause, which proposes the deletion of certain provisions on alcohol disorder zones in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, it is relevant to reflect on the cost of these problems to society as a whole. The continental-style café culture that was promised when the Licensing Act 2003 was introduced was certainly not evident during my time spent in the centre of London, which lasted into the early hours. It is also far from evident in the many communities blighted by drink-related nuisance and violence, and by self-inflicted health issues, especially for those whose night on the tiles ends up being a night on a stretcher in the local accident and emergency department.

I was told during my visit that the London Ambulance Service handled about 60,000 alcohol-related emergency calls last year. I was given the leaflet that is given to every person whom the service assists, which informs them that every 999 call-out to someone who has had one drink too many costs about £200. That figure does not take into account police costs, or the other costs linked to clearing up the mess and dealing with the nuisance directly attributed to binge boozing. There is clearly a financial hangover that all of us are having to bear.

The costs of alcohol to society are becoming ever clearer. Between 2004-05 and 2008-09, the number of finished admissions of patients with an alcohol-related diagnosis increased from 644,000 to 945,000-a rise of about 47 per cent. Alcohol was a factor in almost 42,000 cases of children under 18 being admitted to English hospitals in the past three years, and figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of alcohol-related deaths has increased by 47 per cent. since 1997. Young people are drinking twice as much as they did in 1990. Last year, there were 973,000 violent attacks in which the offender was under the influence of alcohol, and 57 per cent. of all assaults involving minor injuries are linked to alcohol.

It is in that context that the Government proposed their solution to the problem: the alcohol disorder zone. That measure was so complicated and unwieldy that it took three years to implement it, and it took three goes at getting the relevant statutory instrument right in order to bring it into law, nearly six months later than the powers were said by No. 10 to have been brought into effect.

What has happened since the alcohol disorder zone regime was introduced? The shadow Home Secretary asked the Home Secretary in a parliamentary question how many alcohol disorder zones had been enforced, and the simple answer was:

"There are currently no Alcohol Disorder Zones (ADZs) in place. ADZs came into force in June 2008 and the Home Office has been clear that an ADZ should only be used as a measure of last resort, after all other tools and powers have been tried."-[ Hansard, 9 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 905W.]

They are clearly such a measure of last resort that no one has used them at all.

What went wrong? It is worth considering what was said when the measures were introduced. The House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee noted that:

"Although the policy is optional, given its complexity we wonder how many local authorities will actually take it up, and we draw the Regulations to the special attention of the House on the ground that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objectives."

The Local Government Association, representing the councils that were supposed to benefit from this additional measure in their toolkit, stated that it had

"serious misgivings about this policy", and noted that

"ADZs will prove to be a costly, complicated and unwieldy tool for local authorities, particularly the costs involved in preparing and implementing an ADZ and the additional burdens involved in attempting to recover these costs."

The Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services warned that local authorities were

"likely to be open to all sorts of challenges e.g. from challenging the level of intervention tried before considering an ADZ designation; down to challenges over exemptions and discounts. It seems highly unlikely that this piece of legislation will ever be used."

Despite those siren voices, however, the Government carried on regardless.

The reticence to bring in an ADZ is perhaps a reflection of the fear that doing so might make matters worse by increasing the perception of crime and abusive behaviour in an area. The way in which the measure works involves a formal consultation process and the designation of an area as an ADZ. In so doing, it might be felt that attention is being drawn to the fact that it is a problematic area. I can understand the reticence shown by local authorities that do not want to say, "Our area has a problem, and it is an alcohol disorder zone." That might explain the unwillingness to come forward and implement the measure. This should have been taken into account when considering whether the process would be usable.

The risk of displacement must also be taken into account. Once an area has been identified as an alcohol disorder zone, problems could simply be displaced to other areas in an unmanaged way. ADZs could also earn the badge of being a magnet for trouble, and designating an area an ADZ could make matters worse if that happened. There is also an assumption that problems can be confined to one area without properly taking account of problems such as the pre-loading of alcohol. Alcohol that led to troublesome or violent behaviour could well have been consumed in the home or at a different location outside the designated zone in which the problems occurred.

It is also a matter of the associated bureaucracy, as there has to be an assessment of the cost of baseline services in the area in question, which is unlikely to fit neat boundaries. Another problem is the unrecoverability of charges under the preliminary action plan stage that needs to be gone through before a local authority is able to designate an area as an alcohol disorder zone, which it must do before being able to charge licensed premises in that area to meet the costs assessed under the action plan and under the baseline assessment.

If we consider the issues of stigma, bureaucracy and all the costs that local authorities will have to bear in seeking to introduce an ADZ, it is not too surprising that no one has bothered to introduce one. As we pointed out at the time, the reality is that ADZs are unwieldy, unworkable and unwanted. In large measure, they are a back-of-an-envelope solution to a complex problem and simply will not deliver any change to the problem of alcohol-fuelled crime, over which the Government have presided, which occurs principally in the early hours of the morning. We will discuss later other provisions in the Bill that are designed to control licences for the sale of alcohol in the early hours of the morning.

In many ways ADZs have been overtaken by events, leaving huge scope for uncertainty and legal challenge. In my judgment, as I said at the time of their introduction, they represent poor law, which does this House and this Government no credit. The irony is that, apparently, the Government are still considering their use. We have learned that there are road shows going around to remind local authorities of their various powers to control alcohol and of the wonders that are these alcohol disorder zones. There has even been some suggestion that the Government might look to modify the regulations somewhat, by subjecting them to further fine-tuning. Frankly, I think that that is a waste of time and resources on a failed idea. The proposal to tinker with the drafting in the vain hope that it will have councillors beating a path to Marsham street, clamouring to become the first recipient of an ADZ are, in my judgment, somewhat far-fetched. It is simply not going to happen.

Instead, the Government would be better advised to look at a different approach to seeking to recover the hidden costs attributed to the late-night economy. Rather than looking at a zone or geography, they would do better to think about the operating hours themselves. If an off-licence, bar or club wishes to remain open beyond a specific hour, a cost or levy should be attached to that. Equally, in the interest of better government, deregulation and the desire to keep the statute book uncluttered, we believe that it is time for the Government to admit the policy disaster zone that ADZs have always been. That is why we would repeal the relevant sections of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, to which the new clause would give effect.

Amendment 23 covers a slightly different point. The Government are seeking to introduce measures to give local authorities a right to ban licensed premises from opening between 3 am and 6 am. The basis for that approach is in part to cover some of the problems associated with the late-night economy that I have already highlighted. For example, the police are under increasing strain in the small hours of the morning dealing with alcohol-fuelled crime, while the hard-working staff of A and E departments literally have to pick up the pieces of drink-fuelled excess.

The Government have known about those issues for around three years, but until now, they have done absolutely nothing about them. In the Home Office document, "Violent crime, disorder and criminal damage since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003", which was published in July 2007, rising levels of criminal damage were indicated, with the report stating:

"The number of offences happening between 3.00 am and 6.00 am were consistently higher in each of the four three-monthly periods after the introduction of the Act compared with the equivalent periods in the previous year."

The study noted a 22 per cent. increase in all offences committed between 3 am and 6 am. This evidence of offending was also drawn to our attention in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's evaluation of the impact of the Licensing Act 2003, which was published in March 2008. It stated:

"Violent crime occurring in the small hours of the morning has grown".

Until very recently, the Government thought that these problems had absolutely nothing to do with the Licensing Act itself. As recently as January this year, the Home Secretary was quoted as saying that 24-hour licensing was "not the problem". Yet we now have measures in the Bill to stop 24-hour licensing if a local authority considers it necessary for the promotion of the licensing objectives, comprising the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm.

Relevant to this specific amendment was the press release of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of 4 February 2010, which stated:

"Councils would need to show that the restriction was necessary to prevent crime and disorder or public nuisance or to promote public safety."

The question is, what obligation does this place on councils? Is it to happen if they consider it necessary, or does it need to be demonstrated with objective evidence? Judging from the Minister's response in Committee, certain objective tests would have to be satisfied so that a local authority would have to hit a particular hurdle to be able to introduce these measures in the first place. Given that 24-hour drinking was, apparently, not the problem in the first place and given the issue of whether drinking occurs before the 3 am deadline mentioned in clause 55, it might well be difficult for a local authority to make the necessary demonstration.

Information about the number of outlets open at this time in the morning is also important. When an assessment was made by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in March 2008, it found that about 5,100 premises had 24-hour licences. It then becomes a question of how we break that down in respect of demonstrating the problems that a local authority would need to have in order to meet the hurdles prescribed in the Bill. Of that number, about 3,320 were hotel bars, which have always been able to serve their guests alcohol for 24 hours; 920 were supermarkets and stores; and 470 were pubs, bars or nightclubs. That offers a slightly different flavour and different context to the issue, particularly when the DCMS said of those 470 pubs, bars and nightclubs that had 24-hour licences that "only a handful" operated on that basis. If it is only a handful, and if this legislation is intended to be directed at that handful, it seems that local authorities will have a devil of a job trying to meet the hurdles that appear to be put before them.

If we consider the statutory regulations that might sit behind the Bill should it come into law, we have certainly seen in the past that such regulations have tended to fetter rather than help local authorities in exercising such discretion as they may have in respect of the application of licensing laws. I certainly do not place too much hope in having regulatory guidance in place to sit alongside the Bill that would help to provide the assistance or comfort that local councils or local authorities need to utilise the very power that the Government seem to want to give them ostensibly to assist them in the management of the problems that occur in the small hours of the morning. It comes back to the fact that the problems themselves are likely to have been caused much earlier in the night. Would it not be better to ensure that local authorities have a much stronger ability to set closing times and have the very discretion promised to them when the Licensing Act 2003 was brought into effect?

Through the amendment, we are seeking to be helpful by explaining what discretion might be applied by councils in the utilisation of the Bill's powers. We want to ensure that communities have a stronger say when it comes to licensed premises that are opening in the small hours in their areas.

It is clear from what I have seen on the streets of London and elsewhere that serious problems are involved. The emergency services are being pressed at a time when there may not be enough police officers, paramedics and medical staff on duty to deal with those problems. I think it incumbent on the Government to ensure that this measure is used, otherwise we will be back where we were with alcohol disorder zones. We will end up with a measure that will not make the difference that our constituents want to see by dealing with the binge drinking, and the alcohol-fuelled violence and crime, that blight far too many communities throughout the country.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on the spirit in which the amendment was tabled, and will try to ensure that this power can be used. I must caution him that, as currently drafted, the clause will go the same way as the alcohol disorder zones: a power that was intended to benefit communities and local authorities will never actually be adopted.