Clause 26

– in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 10th February 2009.

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Increase in penalty for offence

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

In introducing clause 26, which relates to the increase in penalties for the offence of consuming alcohol in a designated public place from level 2 to level 4, it is important to look at the context to understand why the Government believe that further changes to the law are needed, both in the clause and more generally in relation to the provisions that we will be debating in this part of the Bill. There are obvious and clear links between alcohol and violent crime. In their document, “Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the National Alcohol Strategy”, the Government pointed that out quite clearly:

“Alcohol consumption is most likely to be associated with violence committed by strangers and with incidents which result in wounding.”

As part of its proposals to address these problems of violence linked to binge drinking and criminality, the Licensing Act 2003 was passed, promising to realise the concept of a cafÃ(c) culture and a reduction in the problem of alcohol-fuelled crime. However, on the basis of the Government’s own assessment, the effect has been neutral as far as the evaluation of the impact of the Licensing Act is concerned:

“The impact on overall crime levels appears to be limited, with evidence of some displacement into the small hours.”

Arguably, the Government’s proposals under the Licensing Act have made the situation worse, with the displacement of this problem of violent crime to the early hours of the morning, with hospital accident and emergency departments having to pick up the problem. I presume that that is partly why the Government feel they need to introduce clause 26 to address the problem of binge drinking. It is clear is that alcohol admissions to hospital casualty departments have jumped by a quarter since the introduction of the Licensing Act, with real costs being involved. Equally, there are increased pressures on the police in the early hours of the morning.

Young people who are consuming alcohol are consuming much more, feeding into the culture of binge drinking, alcohol-fuelled crime, and long-term health damage. In “Safe. Sensible. Social.” the Government highlighted that:

The UK has among the highest incidences of youth drunkenness. Among 35 European countries, the UK has the third highest proportion of 15-year-olds (24 per cent.) who have been drunk 10 times or more over the past year, based on self-reported data.”

We need to be mindful of the fact that death rates from alcohol-related illnesses continue to rise. Moreover, in terms of the impact on the public and on our communities, the Government themselves appear to accept that 61 per cent. of the public think that alcohol-related crime on the streets is increasing.

I certainly welcome measures that will be effective in combating the problems that have been created and that we see in our communities as a consequence of alcohol-fuelled disorder and crime. My question in relation to clause 26 is what impact the measures will have and whether they may in fact undermine or hamper existing good practice and partnership working to combat underage sales and drink-fuelled crime. Clause 26 increases the  penalty for consuming alcohol in a designated public place from £500 to £2,500. However, as was highlighted on Second Reading, no one has received the maximum fine to date, so in a sense this is window dressing rather than an effective way of combating those offences. That view is reaffirmed when one considers that in 2007, the number of people charged under section 12(4) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 was 113, of whom 98 were found guilty. The most relevant fact in relation to the clause is that the number of people who received a fine at level 2—over £200 and up to £500—was five.

Given that no one received the maximum fine even under the existing level 2, and with only five people in 2007 receiving a level 2 fine, will the Minister explain how the provision will make an impact and how it will deliver the messages that were referred to, and which the Government often rely on to support their introduction of the measures, and to try to show that they are being tough? The reality appears to be that no one is receiving the maximum fine under the existing arrangements, and that very few people are receiving a fine anywhere near the previous maximum. That raises the question of what impact the change will have.

Another question is how the proposal fits into the Government’s drive towards summary justice. According to the Home Office, more than 1,500 people received an £80 fixed penalty ticket for the offence, Presumably, notwithstanding the change that the Government propose in clause 26, many people will still receive penalty notices for disorder offences. Again, what difference will the clause make if the majority of people will simply be dealt with by way of a fixed penalty ticket?

When the Home Secretary talks about sending out messages, is she saying through this increase in the fine that she wants more people to be taken to court rather than dealt with summarily? Is that the indicator? Is that the message that she and the Ministers are trying to communicate through the change proposed in clause 26? They are sending out a message to the public on the seriousness of the offence, but how will it be sent to the police? That may not be the intention—if it is not that, too, raises a question about the purpose of the provision. If, as we have been told, the clause is about communicating the message to the public that the intention is to deal with the offence more seriously, will the Minister explain what public relations campaign will be initiated to launch that message?

The focus of the Government’s proposals is youth drinking. The measures before us appear to implement several previous statements such as the one in the youth alcohol action plan. In that context, it might be helpful to understand how many of the five people in 2007—we could use any other figures the Minister may be able to provide—who were under the age of 18 were convicted of an offence under section 12(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2001. We also need to understand better how the proposal in clause 26 has been arrived at. Can the Minister confirm whether the additional power was actively sought by the police or the magistrates courts in advance? Can he confirm what assessment was undertaken of the operation of section 12(4) in its previous form, and whether the results of that investigation provided evidence to support the Government’s proposal?

It is important that we consider what changes may be brought about as a consequence of the measure. In its briefing note on this part of the Bill, the Young Women’s Christian Association stated:

“Increasing the fine to such a level is unlikely to help any of these people who are likely to be unable to pay the fine. An offer of support to combat alcohol problems would be a more effective lever for behaviour change.”

What potential do other interventions have to stop reoffending? Does the Minister support other innovative interventions such as the programme adopted by Hertfordshire police for drink offences more generally? It provides an alternative to a penalty notice for disorder, and gives people the option of accepting a reduced fixed penalty of £40, which is then used to pay for an alcohol treatment programme—a project that the person attends on a Saturday morning. It gets them to face up to the consequences of binge drinking and to focus on the consumption of alcohol units. The punishment is the payment of the £40 plus attendance on the course.

I had the pleasure of being invited to observe how the programme worked in practice. It was interesting to see that several people actually went away questioning their behaviour. They were challenged to behave in a more appropriate way in the future.

Yes, we seek to punish, but we also want to stop further offending and to get people to consider whether their consumption of alcohol is appropriate. They need to understand units and how much alcohol they are consuming, and to recognise that, in extreme cases, alcohol consumption can link to violence and unacceptable behaviour in our communities.

Hertfordshire uses the drink awareness programme as a variation on penalty notices for disorder, and from the initial studies, it seems to be effective. Clearly, however, other programmes and projects could be used as an alternative to challenge behaviour and focus on its causes. Again, although I recognise that the Government appear to be sending out a strong message—I do not demur from being firm on such offences—there is still a question of what is effective and makes a difference in such situations.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:15 pm, 10th February 2009

My hon. Friend is probably not aware that on the Saturday before last, I was up until 4 in the morning with street pastors in the centre of Chelmsford. Does he accept that there is an element of carrot and stick to the problem? The street pastors have a tremendous role to play in helping and comforting young people who often over-indulge and get into trouble, or cause problems for the local community.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend effectively highlights the work of street pastors, which is well received and effective in a number of the communities in which they operate. I am pleased to hear that street pastors are being positive and useful in engaging young people in his constituency

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

And in Romford.

James BrokenshireAnd in my borough, too. The street pastors look at behaviours in the late-night economy, talk to people and engage positively. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that there is a need for criminal justice interventions to send a strong message when people transgress and behave inappropriately.

I understand why the Government, through section 12 of the 2001 Act, have created the offence of consuming alcohol in a designated public place. It can be an  effective tool in the box. I accept entirely that we do not necessarily want people wandering the streets with alcohol. I fasten on to the point that this is a question of ensuring that the changes that we make are effective and are used. We need to ensure that proposals are effective, and that is why I say again that the power has not been used to its fullest extent, which raises the question of what difference will be made by increasing the fine.

Equally, as I understand it—I am sure that the Minister can provide some detail about how the court sets fines—affordability must be considered. How many people would be captured by that increase in the quantum? How will sending out that message affect the anticipated number of people receiving, for example, a sentence in excess of existing limits? Understanding that better, and understanding the Government’s approach, will be of great assistance to the Committee in appreciating the rationale and purpose behind the change and why it is envisaged that it will be effective.

It is important, in that context, to consider that paragraph 24 of the British Retail Consortium’s briefing notes to the Committee states:

Clause 26 increases the maximum fine for consuming alcohol in a designated public place from level two (currently £500) to level four (currently £2,500). However, no person since 2004 has been given a fine of more than £250 meaning that the current £500 maximum fine has never been used. We do not therefore understand the logic of altering this at this time.”

I hope that the Minister will explain the logic. Is it simply about sending a message, or is there a more substantive rationale? I am not in any way opposed to tough sentencing and a firm approach, but as the power has not been used, I want to understand whether he believes that the proposal will make a noticeable difference in the fight against alcohol-fuelled disorder.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I have asked this question in Committee before: what is the point of increasing a maximum fine from £500, although it has never been used at that level, to £2,500 when, presumably, that is even less likely to be used? The Minister replied that it would send a message. Sending a message to the Daily Mail might achieve one purpose, but it will have no effect on the problem on the street that we are talking about. In reality, would a group of 14, 15 or 16-year-olds who are going to go and drink in a public place really sit down and think that they had better not do so because the maximum fine has increased to £2,500? That is simply not part of their calculation of what they are doing. Similarly, someone with an alcohol problem who is sitting in Chesterfield town centre, where the council has designated a spot in the marketplace area, will not rationally sit down and think about the maximum fine. If £500 never deterred them, neither will £2,500.

The National Association of Probation Officers has made the point that most of the drinkers who ever arrive in probation officers’ hands are people with multiple social and personal problems who struggle to pay fines a great deal lower than £2,500. The association specifically says that the fivefold increase in the fine, if it was actually used, would be unrealistic and would probably result in jailing more people by default, which is probably not the intention behind the proposal. The people on whom the fine is levied could be incapable of paying it, whatever their life circumstances. An unforeseen  consequence of the measure could therefore be more people going to jail for non-payment of a huge fine, if it were ever levied. What is the point of increasing a maximum fine that has never been used to a level at which it will never be used, given that even if it were used, it would end up sending people to jail rather getting them into help programmes that they need?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

This is not an either/or situation in which there is a question of whether or not we get people into the kind of support that they need to get out of their problem, and whether or not we enforce the fine. We need to put a comprehensive alcohol strategy in place, and the measure is an important part of it.

Let me set out the reasons why we are bringing forward the proposals. First, although I do not think that hon. Members have focused on this in the debate, the proposal sends the clear and strong message that someone will be subject to a greater fine because they have failed to comply with the police in a DPPO, which is unacceptable. This is not about whether a person has drink, but whether they comply with what a police officer says. The hon. Member for Hornchurch used the phrase “window dressing”, but it is not window dressing to introduce measures to ensure that people respect police officers who are going about their business.

On the second point that hon. Members picked up, the measure will, in our view, strengthen the deterrent. I shall come back to why we need to send out the strong message, but the third reason behind the measure is that it will bring the maximum penalty in line with other similar offences, notably failure to comply with directions to leave.

On the deterrent effect, the vast majority of breaches of DPPOs mean that a person will receive a penalty notice rather than be prosecuted. We believe that raising the fine will provide an incentive to the police and Crown Prosecution Service to pursue a prosecution in more cases than at present. We also believe that it will send out a clearer signal that alcohol-related disorder will not be tolerated. We have said for many years, and on many occasions, that it will not be tolerated, and we have acted. We are seeking to ratchet up that response to send out a stronger message, for the reason that I will come back to in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the YWCA, which talked about the fundamental issue of why people drink. We have 13 pilots for alcohol referral orders, some of which we announced before Christmas. They are designed to stop people from going straight into the criminal justice system by getting support for them in place. I do not recall—I will go back and check the media comments—strong support for that measure from Opposition Members when it was announced, and it certainly did not win us universal plaudits in the tabloid newspapers. However, I believe that it is an important step in the right direction. This is not an either/or measure; rather, it complements what we are trying to do.

We have a comprehensive alcohol education programme. Of course we need to do more, but there is support through measures in schools and things like making people aware of the health message and of how many  units it is safe to consume. We also want to send out a stronger message. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford mentioned street pastors. They do a fantastic job and make up an important piece of the jigsaw, but they are not the whole message—I know that he did not suggest that they were. We need an enforcement strategy and that is what this is about.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned the police. During one of our evidence sessions, I remember asking the ACPO lead the police’s view about a basket of measures, of which this is one. Unless my memory is failing me, I think that he said that ACPO welcomed the measures. It welcomes them because what we are introducing is based on police officers’ experiences and on police officers saying, “Yes, we do want to see these measures being used, but let’s tell you how they are working in practice”. It is not always possible to get legislation absolutely right the first time. Sometimes legislation has to be adjusted to changing circumstances.

I will tell hon. Members what those changing circumstances are. The time is right for us to take a more focused approach that reflects on not the failure, but the success of measures that we have introduced. That means that we can target individuals, whether they are individual establishments that sell drink to under-age drinkers, rowdy pubs that fuel disorder, or the small minority of young people who get involved in acts of wanton vandalism and violence because they are fuelled up with alcohol. That was certainly part of the discussion that I had with the ACPO lead on these matters, although he is not here to contradict me.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister. As we consider this part of the Bill, we can certainly debate at length some of his points about apparent effectiveness. A lot of people would, I think, question the effectiveness of some of the measures. However, he said—I agree—that the ACPO lead said that he welcomed the measures during our evidence session. Did the police ask for the powers in advance of them being drafted? If the Minister is saying that one of the reasons why the measure is being introduced is to get more cases to court, was the message from the police, “We need this increase in the fine to help us to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service to take more cases to court”?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

As one would expect, we work closely with the police on these matters. We can pass as many laws as we want, but they will have effect with regard to what we are talking about only if the police make them work. The message coming back from the police is, “We are grateful for the powers that we have. When we use them they make a difference in communities, but we want to ensure that we have the proper tools to go even further.” The hon. Gentleman asked when we consulted the police. We talk to the police all the time about such matters and ensure that we introduce legislation that has their support. We are grateful for their support for the Bill. On that basis, I hope that we can support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

Adjourned till Thursday 12 February at Nine o’clock.