Licensing Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 4th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips) 5:00 pm, 4th March 2003

My Lords, the Government recognise that these amendments are both clear and well-intentioned. However, I fear that we cannot accept them. We are strengthening considerably the law as it relates to the sale of alcohol to minors and its consumption by them on licensed premises. The Bill will make it an offence to sell alcohol on licensed premises to anyone under 18 and an offence for those under 18 to consume it anywhere on licensed premises, with the sole exception of 16 and 17 year-olds being permitted to drink wine, beer or cider with a table meal when accompanied by someone over 18 years old.

Amendments Nos. 223 to 225 would remove the offences committed by an individual aged under 18 of buying or attempting to buy alcohol, or having or attempting to have alcohol supplied to his or her order by or on behalf of a club, and that committed by an individual aged under 18 of knowingly consuming alcohol on licensed premises.

I understand entirely the good intentions behind the amendments. It is to avoid the situation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made clear, in which large numbers of prosecutions are brought by the police against children, with the potential impact on their future lives and careers. That is a laudable aim and none of us would want children's prospects to be blighted.

However, the amendments are both unnecessary and undesirable. First, to be clear, the Bill as drafted translates the law as it currently stands faithfully. The idea that the Bill in some way creates a new offence of this nature is misconceived. If the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, feels that over this long period of time he has a confession to make, I assure him that other authorities might be interested. However, under the Bill, it was an offence in the past and it is an offence now to carry out that minor rite of passage which he quoted from his past.

The existing law, however, did not in his case result in prosecution—perhaps because he succeeded in concealing the fact that he was below 18. It does not result in a large number of prosecutions. The police tend to use cautions to deal with this kind off offence. For example, during 2000, fewer than 25 prosecutions were brought in the whole of England and Wales for the combined offences of purchasing or consuming alcohol on licensed premises by someone under 18. Of those, 22 were found guilty. During the same period there were just 80 cautions for the same offences.

As is often the case, the main use of the offence provisions to which these amendments refer—and which they seek to delete—is as a deterrent. The majority of people, including young people, do pay proper attention to the law. Although it would be impossible to arrive at precise figures, a certain amount of under-age drinking is prevented by the simple fact that it is illegal. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that no children will ever buy or attempt to buy alcohol, or consume it on licensed premises. But the law places a serious obstacle in the path of such activity, and the Bill will replicate that.

There is a further argument against the arrangements that these amendments would introduce. Under-18s would soon appreciate the fact that there was nothing whatever in the law to prevent them trying to buy alcohol. It would be open season for under-18s to try everything they could to pull the wool over the eyes of even the most responsible of licensees. These amendments would risk leading to a significant increase in under-age drinking.

The offence provisions in the Bill will act as a deterrent—as the existing legislation does—and balance the increased freedoms provided elsewhere in the Bill. As is often the case with deterrent powers, they will not result in large numbers of prosecutions brought against children—we do not expect such action to rise above the current low levels. I hope that with those assurances the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe—having moved her amendment with the best of intentions—will recognise that the Bill as it stands meets her objective and will feel able to withdraw this amendment.