Clause 27

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 12th February 2009.

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Selling alcohol to children

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

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

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I reciprocate by offering you the best wishes of the Committee for a restful and recuperative recess next week.

Clause 27 amends section 147A of the Licensing Act 2003 relating to the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children. That section states:

“A person is guilty of an offence if...on 3 or more different occasions within a period of 3 consecutive months alcohol is unlawfully sold on the same premises to an individual aged under 18”.

That is punishable by a fine of up to £10,000 or, as an alternative remedy, an immediate closure notice can be sought under section 169A of the 2003 Act for a period of up to 48 hours.

Section 147A was inserted into the 2003 Act by the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and has been in force for only about 18 months. Indeed, the provision is so new that data on prosecutions will not be available until this autumn, so we have no real feel for how widely used the power is before the change proposed in this Bill to reduce the qualification for persistence from three to two occasions.

The position is clouded further, as the Association of Convenience Stores notes in its submission to the Committee. It states:

“There is no evidence that the current offence is not effective and”— this is interesting—

“the Home Office Toolkit cautions against using this power, suggesting enforcement authorities should instead pursue a review of the licence.”

I should be grateful if the Minister clarified whether the toolkit states what the ACS says, because clearly that is a relevant factor in our consideration of the clause, which changes a previous provision. If it does say that, I should be grateful to know why it does and whether, in the light of the change in the Bill, the Minister is considering a change in the language in the toolkit, given that it seems to suggest that enforcement authorities take a different route, a different option, from the power envisaged under section 147A.

As I said, the provision has been in force for a relatively short time. We have no specific data on it; we seem to have no prosecution data at the moment, as it is too new. However, from the frequent discussions that he has with the police and other law enforcement agencies, can the Minister say what the experience of using this power has been on the ground to explain why this change is proposed? The change implies that the provision is not working in some way, that something has changed or that the Government believe that a different emphasis is required.

Will the Minister give some background on the thinking behind this decision? Given that we are talking about only 18 months, is the change to section 147A an admission that the Government were wrong in the first place and that they should have gone for two rather than three occasions when the power was introduced? This rapid change of heart is re-emphasised on considering that the change in approach reflected in the clause was first telegraphed in June last year in the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan”, just a year after the power was brought into effect. Will he explain why “persistent” was taken to mean three occasions when the offence was introduced and what evidence there is to necessitate the change? If not, will he confirm that a mistake was made in the Government’s thinking when the power was introduced?

I want it to be made clear that this provision will operate equally for all licensees. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that it is intended that the provision be applied to small shops and huge hypermarkets equally. All premises should be treated the same in triggering the two occasions required for persistence. The Bill makes that clear but I want to clarify whether the Home Office envisages giving further guidance or clarification on enforcement. That is an important point. The provision will put greater pressure on larger retailers in ensuring that their systems and procedures are in place, simply because of the volume and nature of their sales. The number of transactions that go through their tills will mean a large number of potential under-age sales may be attempted at their premises. It would be helpful to clarify whether the Home Office, ACPO or any other agency proposes to issue guidance on enforcement when the provision is introduced. If so, what does the Minister expect the guidance to say?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I agree in principle with the intention of the clause. Off-trade retailers will always argue that young people, especially young girls, often look older than they are, that it is difficult to establish age and that it is unfair to penalise them for selling by mistake. That argument wears thin these days.

Many pubs and other on-premises and some off-premises voluntarily run the effective 21-and-under scheme. That involves clear labelling saying that people who look under 21 will be asked to prove that they are 18. Recently, when buying some drinks at a pub in Chesterfield, I was asked whether my son, who is 20 and in his second year at university, was old enough. How can anyone object to that? Alcohol is a dangerous drug.

That point relates to another topic that has been discussed in the Palace of Westminster this week; alcohol kills far more people than ecstasy. It causes far more violence on the streets of this country and far more crime. When out on patrol with police, they say that alcohol is undoubtedly the No. 1 drug misuse issue that they face. We are discussing off-premises, but whether in the on-trade or off-trade, people are selling a dangerous drug, although it is legal and can be sold under various licences. I therefore welcome the principle of the clause.

I am sure that every MP in the room today could give an example from their constituency of premises where the police will say that it is not just that some under-age people occasionally get to buy alcohol there, but that the person running the premises is making a lot of money out of deliberately selling it to under-age kids. We can all name a hotspot like that, and if local residents complain to the police they say, “Yes we know, it’s under observation and we are trying to collect the evidence.” However, the business of getting three consecutive proofs of selling to under-age children can be an obstacle. I know that that is why the police favour this move. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the thinking behind it?

I very much agree with the principle behind the clause, but how effective will it be? I asked in a parliamentary question about the effectiveness of using earlier legislation in this respect. I asked how many establishments had been prosecuted for selling alcohol to under-age people. The figures showed an interesting trend. In 2003 there were 616 prosecutions. They rose to 1,084 in 2005 and by 2007 had dropped back to 693. It would be interesting to get the Minister’s comments on the reason for that particular trend and what that tells us about the new legislation and clause 27. Can he say what lessons we are learning from previous practice, why there was a big increase in prosecutions and then a big drop. Is the reason behind clause 27 that we are trying to get around those problems?

Finally, Alcohol Concern has noted that there is no register of licensees, so if an individual who loses their licence, or is convicted in this way goes to another part of the country, to another local authority area, they will not automatically be picked up. Is there a clear central register or a provision for establishing one, so that it can be known all around the country when someone has previous convictions?

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

Good morning, Sir Nicholas. One always deeply regrets, when going  into an establishment where there is a challenge 21 or challenge 25 sign, that one is too old to be challenged. I want to put on record our support for the challenge 21 initiative and those who have gone further with challenge 25. It forms an important part of the work of retailers and publicans and we want to see it extended as far as possible.

Clause 27 amends the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children from three strikes, to two strikes within three months. The purpose is to reduce the number of times that alcohol is illegally sold to children by increasing the likelihood of being prosecuted if caught selling. A number of questions have been posed with regard to this. First, the hon. Member for Hornchurch is right that the prosecution figures for 2008 are not yet available. However, the pattern to which the hon. Member for Chesterfield referred showed a reduced number of prosecutions between 2006-07, but an increased number of penalty notices being issued, reflecting the flexibility that police officers would have in a circumstance where they might want to use penalty notices where someone was selling to under-age children. That could also reflect the purpose of the clause, which is to say that test purchasing operations can have an effect in areas and retailers can put right the wrongs that they have been doing. That might be reflected, but nevertheless, there is still a persistent problem in some areas, and addressing that is the purpose of the clause.

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

How does the Minister envisage enforcement operating? He has identified the issue of penalty notices for disorder being applied in relation to under-age sales and the approach that is taken there. That is understood and I understand the arguments about ease of enforcement at times. Does he think that that would be an appropriate remedy in relation to clause 27? It addresses more serious events because of the escalation and the persistence that is involved, but does he envisage that penalty notices for disorder would be issued in respect of this offence? How does he see that operating in practice?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 9:15 am, 12th February 2009

This is about tightening the current system. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch says, there is a system of escalation, but the purpose of the clause is to escalate that system more quickly where premises are persistently selling alcohol to under-age children. That is something that the Local Government Association and the police have welcomed. It goes back to a theme that we have already touched on in this section of the Bill, which is not only about giving powers to the police and the trading standards authority but giving police officers the flexibility to decide on the most appropriate approach in different circumstances. If a shop is not heeding warnings and test purchasing operations, and not learning from them, we want to make it easier to escalate the response more quickly, which is why we are reducing the offence from three strikes in three months to two strikes in three months.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about earlier legislation and in response I would say that the situation is always moving on. This particular offence was introduced after the review of the Licensing Act that took place in  March 2008. That review said a number of things about licensing and it reaffirmed the need to crack down on under-age sales. It also said that there was still a problem in some areas and in some communities. If we are to send out the strongest possible signal that selling alcohol to children under 18 will not be tolerated, this is an appropriate way to do it.

We also carried out a tackling under-age sales of alcohol campaign that demonstrated that those were the worst areas, although I accept the point made in the oral evidence sessions. Nevertheless, I envisage the legislation being enacted in those worst areas, and it is in those problem areas that we need to send the strongest and swiftest message. The message that came out of the tackling under-age sales of alcohol campaign was that despite test purchasing and warnings, and police and trading standards activity, some premises continued to sell alcohol to under-age children. Not only is that wrong in itself but it can lead to alcohol-related disorder in a particular area.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the toolkit and the guidance in it. The toolkit does not caution against the use of prosecution, but it shows that targeted test purchasing enforcement, and a co-operative approach between the police and the trading standards and licensing authorities, can be effective in tackling under-age sales. We listened very carefully to the experiences of the trading standards authority and the police, who broadly support what we are doing.

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

I have listened carefully to the Minister and I agree that we need very firm and strong powers to control under-age sales of alcohol to ensure that the systems are upgraded and the irresponsible retailers who sell alcohol to those who are under age are dealt with very firmly.

I queried whether the toolkit seeks to adopt the review of a licence approach rather than a prosecution-type approach. That was the point that was being made. The advice was that in such circumstances a review was more appropriate than using the section 147A power. Will the Minister reflect upon that in the light of the points that he has made about sending out signals? It seems to me that that is not necessarily using the power in the way that he perhaps intended in respect of sending out that clear signal to those who persistently—this is the point—sell alcohol in that way.

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

I will certainly reflect on that. However, the guidance does not suggest that prosecution is not an appropriate early response—it could be appropriate, but it depends on the circumstances that the police and trading standards officers find. The system must be flexible: it must not make assumptions or have in place one track for every circumstance, otherwise people will say, “That is a disproportionate response in some areas, but insufficient in others.” It really depends on the circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether all sales establishments will be treated the same and whether renewed guidance will be produced. The fundamental offence will not be altered by the Bill, which simply puts in place a tightening-up mechanism. At this stage, therefore, the guidance does not need to be renewed, but I may consider his point in the future. On the first question,  under-age sales is both an on and off-sales issue. We must send out that message very clearly. On-sales people tell me that it is not their problem, but I get the same message from off-sales people too. It is their, and indeed everyone’s, problem, and it is important that the law is applied equally.

We work very carefully with large retailers, where sometimes it is easier to enforce the provisions. However, we also work closely with, and listen carefully to the concerns of small retailers, and we take into account the fact that one might be the only shop on an estate and that they might therefore feel under pressure on under-age sales. That is not an excuse, however, but an enforcement issue. In such circumstances, retailers and the police need to work closely with each other.

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

Does the Minister recognise that some retailers are under pressure as a result of the abuse, violence, threats and intimidation meted out to their staff and themselves? We need to ensure firm enforcement of the law on selling to under-age people and, equally, to protect retailers and shopkeepers putting up with unacceptable behaviour and threats when upholding the law.

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

We agree entirely. The latter point is a police matter that I have discussed with retailers and the police. Everyone recognises that it is an enforcement matter. Such intimidation might explain why retailers feel under pressure to sell to under-age people, or to those who then pass on the alcohol to them, but it does not excuse it—the law is the law. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about enforcement. We agree on that, so I hope that we can agree on clause 27 too.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 27 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.