Although alcohol misuse was discussed at some length in Committee, I feel that more time should have been devoted to an issue of such importance. I realise that this is a catch-all Bill containing many valuable provisions that require a full airing, not least those that we have discussed today and those on which I hope to speak later, but alcohol misuse is a huge problem.
For most people a social drink is something to be enjoyed moderately as one of life's pleasures, but sadly, for a host of reasons, it is misused by all too many. Alcohol is a substance that can indeed give pleasure, but its potential for harm and damage is phenomenal. In recent years the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse, of which I am vice-chair, has taken evidence from a variety of organisations, which has made clear to us the damage done to individuals and communities.
I fear that alcohol misuse is one of those cultural issues that may be peculiar to northern Europe. We seem to have a fascination with alcohol that goes beyond enjoyment of a pleasurable evening. It represents almost a rite of passage for our young people, although unfortunately in the case of some the rite of passage continues into their forties, fifties and sixties. It appears to be almost compulsory for people to go out in the evenings and drink not just in accordance with their own capacities or even to excess, but way beyond that to a point at which problems arise. Those problems may be social-it may be a case merely of upsetting people-or they may involve violence and acts of wanton criminal damage. There may be incredible violence against other individuals, and it all seems to be fuelled by people's inability to know where their alcohol limits lie.
That is a shame, because the overall rate of crime is falling and, according to the independent crime figures, the chance of becoming a victim of any type of crime is lessening. However, because our television screens are full of programmes showing horrendous alcohol-related acts of violence against property and persons, the perception of crime is still very high and continues to be at the top of most people's agenda. I am sure I speak for all Members when I say that that is made clear to us both in our constituency surgeries and when we are out and about talking to our constituents from day to day. Most people associate the sight of someone on a street corner drinking a can of beer during the day with a heightened fear of crime.
In the context of the Bill and in a wider context, we must recognise that alcohol misuse is a cultural issue. There has been a welcome attempt to introduce, with the best of intentions, a café culture featuring the relaxed attitude that our southern European neighbours seem to adopt. That was an admirable aspiration on the part of the Government, but it should be set against our northern European culture. We know of the history of great halls where people sat around drinking to excess, and when we travel across the water we see that some of our near neighbours have huge problems with alcohol misuse. There is no particular reason for me to pick on poor Norway, but despite its high alcohol prices, it has problems with alcohol misuse. The issue of prices was raised in Committee, but we need only travel the short distance to Norway to see that that approach will not work on its own. We must explore all manner of ways of addressing the cultural issues, which is what the Bill does.
I am sure that we have all seen posters in our communities describing the impact that alcohol misuse can have on individuals. Staffordshire police and Stoke-on-Trent city council have extremely good posters highlighting the ways in which it can affect people, not least the possibility of ending up in a police cell for the night-quite apart from what happens to the victims of alcohol-related crime.
James Brokenshire spoke of his experiences on the streets of London with members of the police and paramedics. Like, I suspect, many other Members, I too have been out with the police, and with what was the West Midlands ambulance service and is now the Staffordshire ambulance service. I have been to the constituency of my good and hon. Friend Mark Fisher.
Hanley is a popular night spot on Friday and Saturday nights and, indeed, at other times, with various pubs, clubs and entertainment venues in and around the city centre. I have observed the work done by paramedics there. In an extremely effective pilot exercise, a MASH-style tent was set up in a car park just outside the city centre. Rather than being taken to the accident and emergency department at University Hospital of North Staffordshire, people who had had too much to drink and had injured themselves-or, more worryingly, had had too much to drink and injured others-could be taken to the tent for treatment.
I was most impressed when I talked to the dedicated people who worked late shifts on Friday and Saturday nights, and saw the work that they did. I was interested to learn from them that things generally did not begin to hot up until 2 am at the earliest. It was at 3 am, they said, that problems really started to come to their attention. Until then, crews were dealing with other issues and getting themselves ready. As I saw for myself, as the night progresses, things go from fairly slow to very busy indeed.
On patrol around the city centre with the Staffordshire constabulary, I saw the problems caused by people coming out of nightclubs. The introduction of staggered times in other parts of the country has proved very effective. For a number of years, members of the police force who asked for it before the change in the legislation have been telling me how welcome it has been. That staggering-if the House will pardon the pun-is better than everyone leaving clubs at the same time.
As we travelled around, the police would point out certain clubs-I will not name names-and say, "This one is particularly well run; there are good door staff, and they make sure things are run properly," or, "This one is less well run; we know we'll be called out to it several times in the night, because there will be problems." As we went around, it became obvious that the police knew their patch intimately. They knew exactly what to expect, particularly on a Friday and Saturday night, and which premises they would have to visit. As we have an excellent police service in Staffordshire-and north Staffordshire-its officers were pro-active. They went out and talked to the door staff, and identified early on where there were going to be problems. Again, however, the police service knew that those problems were likely to escalate from about 3 am onwards-and that was, indeed, the case.
Let me now move from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central to my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, South. I have been out with the response team there. Again, I travelled around with them in their cars and we were called to incident after incident. I want to pay tribute to all the officers, in particular those from Longton police station. It is one of the busiest police stations in the entire Staffordshire area, and its officers do a marvellous job. Having been out on duty with them, I can attest that the early hours of the morning is the period when the volume of calls goes through the roof, and they find that they are out responding to a stream of incidents. Many of them, especially after 3 am, were alcohol related, as they had told me they would be.
I know we will come on to the issue of domestic violence later, but that is often fuelled by alcohol. Officers know that, come 3 am, they will be called to domestic violence incidents, and they will frequently be at the same addresses. They also know in advance that many of them will have arisen because alcohol has been consumed throughout the evening, which has resulted in things coming to a head early in the morning.
I have also been out with the Operation Sanction van as it tours around the constituency. It is an extremely good operation. It has been run over many months, going out and identifying hot spots where there is drinking-and especially under-age drinking-late into the night that is causing trouble, nuisance and a great deal of distress for constituents. That police operation was extremely good, and very well received by residents.
Turning to the experience of residents, I listened intently to the remarks of James Brokenshire on local authorities' use of the raft of powers at their disposal, such as the designation of an alcohol disorder zone. Local authorities are sometimes hesitant to use these powers, and there is a whole host of reasons for that. It is not necessarily that things are complex. I have seen evidence that Stoke-on-Trent city council was hesitant in respect of using section 13-of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001-notices; it required the police to fill in reams of completely unnecessary paperwork. Fortunately, over time-and with intervention from the then elected mayor, Mark Meredith, working closely with the police and his own departments in the city council-that process was streamlined so that when section 13 notices were required, they could be brought in extremely quickly. The cause of such hesitancy among local authorities is not necessarily that things are bureaucratic or particularly burdensome. Often, they are simply hesitant to use a power until they have used it. That is human nature, of course; until any of us has actually done something for the first time, we are hesitant about doing it.
In terms of late-night drinking, late-night opening and alcohol disorder, there are some interesting proposals on charging organisations. There is an issue in respect of organisations-clubs, bars, pubs or hotels-that are located in areas that might be hit by the proposals, however. Some of them will be extremely well run and will take their responsibilities extremely seriously, but even though they are behaving in a highly commendable fashion and the cause of the problems lies elsewhere, they might be penalised by having to meet charges for policing and pay the local authority. The cause of the problems might be that other pubs or clubs are not so well run and are not taking their responsibilities seriously or, as the hon. Gentleman said, that people have pre-loaded-they have started their night out before they even go out. Some people go to the local off-licence or supermarket and buy in very strong beer and other alcoholic drinks, and then get half-cut before they even step out of the front door. We might stop off-licences and supermarkets selling some of the full-strength beers; perhaps we should allow only pubs to sell beverages of such a high alcohol content. That might have the knock-on effect of getting folks back into the pubs, instead of drinking at home or on street corners, as is, unfortunately, often the case. We also need to look at how to ensure that supermarkets and off-licences share the costs that the pubs, clubs and hotels may well end up having to pay.
In Committee, in response to proposals of mine, Ministers kindly responded on the issue of designated public protection orders. That ties in closely with the alcohol disorder zone issue. In responses in Committee on
I would also like to hear a little about the late-night alcohol licensing limits-closure between 3 and 6 am and the 2009 Act. In situations where a local authority has not sought pubs and clubs to close between 3 and 6 am in a certain area, will the public be allowed to use petitions to require them to seek closure? Another concern that has been raised is that the general public do not feel that their voice is heard, particularly in respect of alcohol misuse and the ability to have premises closed where they feel they are operating without any due respect for the local community in which they operate. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give me the clarification I seek about designated public protection orders and alcohol misuse, and also about late-night licensing closure orders between 3 and 6 am so that the public feel they have a say on that.
Sadly, the issue of alcohol misuse and the cultural implications of our northern European nature will take a long time to address. We can do a lot through legislation, but a lot of it is also about effecting culture change and changing the idea that people do not have a good night unless they cannot remember it. We need to make sure we address these issues, and I welcome any proposals that add tools to the toolbox of local authorities and the police, to help in addressing this important issue.