My Lords, like many other noble Lords who have spoken, I shall repeat much of the same ground because I want to comment on the provisions for alcohol. I support the notion of a mandatory code of practice because we need to do something about binge drinking. However, like so many who have already spoken, I have grave concerns about criminalising, in particular, those aged under 18. I fear that it might be counterproductive and could rebound quite badly. Between 2007 and 2008, there were almost 900,000 hospital admissions attributable to alcohol. About 87,000 incidents related to glasses and bottles, and about 70 per cent of accident and emergency attendances between midnight and 5 am, were attributable to alcohol. Although there has been a report of a fall in violent crime between 2001 and 2008, the proportion of alcohol-related violent crime sadly remains static.
We have heard many facts today. I will not repeat them all because there is no point. They will all be in Hansard for everyone to read. But we cannot get away from the fact that alcohol impacts on our health and behaviour in a very adverse way. It is alcohol misuse, not its appropriate use, which is the problem. In opening this Second Reading, the Minister outlined the proposed mandatory code of practice for licensed retailers, which includes pubs, clubs, supermarkets and off-licences. Particularly at a time of economic crisis, it is plausible to anticipate a lethal cocktail of increased alcohol consumption among consumers, combined with a stronger desire to purchase it cheaply. People might buy discounted alcohol in bulk wherever they can and then binge drink at home even before heading out for an evening. It is an awful sight to see youngsters going out on an empty stomach, half drunk and clutching a bottle. These over-18 year-olds can walk down the street, but if you look you will see a bottle poking out.
I feel for the landlord of a well run pub or licensed premises because he has a vested interest in ensuring that his customers are not completely intoxicated and do not impact adversely on others there. That incentive does not exist for the person on the supermarket check-out. The most vulnerable in our society—our children—are far more conspicuous in a local pub than they are in a supermarket check-out queue, where they can easily look older than they are and present fake identification. I welcome the Government's extension of the mandatory code beyond pubs and clubs, as do bodies such as the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians and other organisations.
I am concerned that well run establishments, many of which are finding it difficult to survive in the current economic climate when they are locked into already financially crippling franchise agreements, will find it potentially punitive and feel that they are further stigmatised within society, rather than being built on as a way of helping people understand how to drink socially and responsibly.
We need to ban irresponsible promotions such as "All you can drink for £10" or speed-drinking competitions. I do not know how many noble Lords have been at student events where the students spend a lot of money on their tickets, get dressed up, and then sit around the table having speed-drinking competitions, knocking back glass after glass until one of them finally falls over on the floor. They are then banned from the hotel, or wherever they have been, and they almost take a pride in the number of hotels and establishments that they have been banned from. Some of them, of course, end up in A&E and occasionally some of them die. Some of them fall under tube trains if they are in London, or fall out into the road and under vehicles if they are in other parts of the UK.
The mandatory code must tackle some of the socially embedded behaviours that encourage binge drinking. It must ensure that tap water is freely available everywhere people are drinking, that online and mail order outlets have robust age verification systems in place, and that smaller measures are available when people are buying their drinks.
The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, dealt comprehensively and superbly with the issues for children and I commend him on his speech. The real problem is that many of the children who are out there drinking come from chaotic home environments of low socio-economic status. If we drive them away from public places, we drive them into dangerous and secretive areas—perhaps along the sides of railway lines, behind high-rise blocks or in car parks—to drink in isolation where they are even more vulnerable. I worry that we are not changing the culture of youth drinking but driving young people into a criminalised fraternity, rather than rescuing them from a social environment that has promoted their drinking in the first place.
Children are sometimes under enormous peer pressure to drink and can develop a pride in having some kind of police record. We should empower the police to develop the "escort to home" policy, which they implement, humanely and brilliantly, on many occasions. They are then able to see what the child's home is like and possibly become the first point of alert that the child is in an emotionally and psychologically dangerous environment.
I welcome the Bill's attempt to tackle the culture of binge drinking, which is devastating not only to the individual but to our society at large. When we talk of cost, the price of alcohol misuse extends far beyond economic arguments to our most invaluable commodities: our health, our children and the very fabric of our society. We need to support the fabric for the future generation and not risk a situation arising where the police are faced with charging the younger brothers and sisters of those they have already charged for drinking in a public place.