Clause 29

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 12th February 2009.

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Offence of persistently possessing alcohol in a public place

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

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 29, page 22, line 33, leave out ‘reasonable excuse’ and insert

‘the permission of his or her parent or guardian’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 86, in clause 29, page 22, line 34, leave out from ‘place’ to end of line 35 and insert

‘and in doing so is in breach of a current acceptable behaviour contract which has been signed by that person’.

Amendment 242, in clause 29, page 22, line 35, at end insert

‘and in doing so is in breach of a current Acceptable Behaviour Contract which has been signed by that person.’.

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

Clause 29 creates a new offence of persistently possessing alcohol in a public place without a “reasonable excuse” where the person is under the age of 18. Amendments 35 and 86, in my name and that of  my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds, are designed to test the scope, application and purpose of the new offence, and how enforceable it is likely to be.

It would be helpful to get a clear understanding of what the Government mean by the concept of “reasonable excuse”. The Minister will remember that I asked one of the police officers giving evidence to us what he understood by that concept. Obviously, it may apply in other circumstances: the most obvious might be the possession of a knife in a public place without a reasonable excuse. The concept is understood there. However, the situation dealt with by the clause is different, and some clarification of the scope and intention of those words would be helpful in understanding the Government’s approach.

Equally, we must ensure that the clause, if enacted, is enforceable, robust and clearly understood by police officers, prosecution authorities and the community as a whole. It seems to have been based on the concept of possession of an offensive weapon in a public place, so that an offence is committed unless there is a justifiable reason for having the item on one’s person. In some ways, that requirement for a defence is understandable in the context of offensive weapons. To take knives as an example, a chef travelling between work and home might have to take the tools of the trade with him, and that might be a reasonable excuse. I understand the concept; but it would be interesting to know what the Minister would consider a reasonable excuse under the clause.

I understand and appreciate the problems that many communities have with some teenagers drinking in public places and leaving bottles strewn all over the place. Parks and play areas spring to my mind, given the situations that I have had to deal with. Leading on from that, there is potential for antisocial behaviour and crime to result from excessive alcohol consumption. The question is whether the concept of reasonable excuse will in those circumstances deal with the issue as the Government think it will.

At the moment the law on the consumption of alcohol by children is that it is illegal to give an alcoholic drink to a child under five, except under medical supervision in an emergency. However, the law is not prescriptive on consumption per se for children over five. The Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 provides the police with a power to require the surrender of intoxicating liquor, and the Licensing Act 2003 places restrictions banning sales of alcohol to anyone under 18, while at the same time permitting the consumption of alcohol on licensed premises by 16 and 17-year-olds if they are consuming food and are with an adult.

The Government’s “Youth Alcohol Action Plan” notes:

“The current law allows anyone over the age of 5 to consume alcohol and in practice this is a matter for parents to decide.”

The starting point under the clause is that possession of alcohol and therefore, by extension, the consumption of alcohol in a public place, by someone under 18, will potentially trigger liability if repeated, unless a reasonable excuse can be provided. Therefore—it would be perverse if this were not the case—notwithstanding that it has not to my knowledge otherwise been an offence, the consumption of alcohol by someone under 18 cannot be considered to be a reasonable excuse per se, should it happen in a public space. If I have misunderstood the clause I am sure that the Minister will return to that point.

It seems to me that by extension consumption goes with possession, because obviously a person must possess alcohol in the first place to consume it; one follows the other. Following that logic, if a 16 or 17-year-old was in a park with their parents having some food, and that was repeated on three occasions, they would potentially be committing an offence, although if the same actions took place on licensed premises they would not constitute an offence. The point that I am trying to understand comes back again to what would be considered a reasonable excuse. Would it be a reasonable excuse to apply the argument about what happens in licensed premises, in contrast to what might happen in a public space?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

My reading of the clause is that it relates to possession; so it is like dealing with possession of an offensive weapon. As an example, I once saw the trial of a Rasta for having a stick which could be either a religious object or an offensive weapon. The offence was not using it but having it. In just the same way, a kid could be walking along with several cans of lager, and the issue would be whether he had them with fair reason—perhaps because he was going to a party—or whether he was going to drink them all in a park and cause havoc. The possession is the thing; not the consumption.

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

I agree with the hon. Lady. Whether vessels containing alcohol have been open or closed has been an issue and a distinction for the police in the past, as has whether there was a right of confiscation in such circumstances. In some ways, the clause is intended to cover that. However, it could extend to the situation on licensed premises as contrasted with the one in which those self-same actions took place in a park or a public open space. The young person would be in possession of alcohol, albeit that they happen to be consuming it at the same time. I am probably implying that such a distinction might not be correct, although I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I have misunderstood the position. However, consumption implies that people have possession of alcohol, so would that not equally be covered under the clause? Perhaps the definition of “reasonable excuse” is a defence in those circumstances. A lot turns on that language, which is why we tabled the amendment with the concept of without

“the permission of his or her parent”.

I accept that the amendment is not necessarily perfect and that it has been tabled for testing purposes more than anything else, but it would clarify the intention behind the words and the real scope of the clause. I am not sure whether the Government’s meaning of the provision is the same as the intention behind amendment 35 and whether they mean that being in possession of alcohol must be under the supervision of the parent or guardian or whether it is considered directly or indirectly, through guidance or otherwise, that the concept of “reasonable excuse” would cover that situation. It would be interesting to hear what the Minister thinks.

A balance clearly needs to be struck between the needs of a community with antisocial behaviour problems, and the roles of the state and parents. The “Youth  Alcohol Action Plan” envisages that, in many respects, parents have a fundamental role. That is absolutely right, given the relationship, but equally I recognise that, sadly, some parents are irresponsible, which is the reason behind my comments about supervision. I should like to understand the Government’s intentions more clearly in respect of the provision.

According to research on the source of alcohol consumed by 11 to 15-year-olds who drank 14 or more units in the previous week, 48 per cent. claimed to have been given alcohol directly by their parents, while 42 per cent. claimed to have taken it without their parents’ consent. Sadly, situations can occur when parents turn a blind eye. It could be a matter of the kids going out in the evening and parents not wanting them in the house and willing to turn a blind eye if they take a bottle or two, or some cans, out of the garage. Such “out of sight, out of mind” experiences have been expressed to me by the police and others when the concept of what their children should be consuming in terms of alcohol is perhaps not always considered as carefully and closely as it should be.

On my outings with the police, I have experienced situations in which a child in possession of alcohol has been found in a public place or park. The alcohol is taken away and the child is returned to the home. Even then, just two minutes later, the parent lets the child straight back out again as if nothing had happened. There is a need to look at enforcement and child protection issues, and how we can demonstrate and promote greater thought and encourage parents to behave responsibly when undertaking their role and duty in such matters.

Does the current language of the clause properly encapsulate that balance? Can the Minister also provide some examples of what would and would not be considered as a “reasonable excuse” for the purposes of the clause? How would that be applied in practice, given that many of the cases are likely to be dealt with summarily, without going anywhere near a court? Clearly, therefore, arguments that might be applied are saying that we need to test what the case law is and to follow through on the definition and how it might be interpreted by the courts. That is something that will be at the forefront right at the outset, given that in a lot of cases it would be the sort of offence to be dealt with summarily, rather than necessarily going to the courts in the first instance.

Amendment 86 addresses a slightly different issue. The proposals outlined in the clause were first trailed in the Government’s “Youth Alcohol Action Plan”, published in June 2008, which said, in the case of persistent public drinking by young people, that:

“In these cases, it is essential that any interventions should involve not only the young people themselves, but should also address the behaviour of parents who are not taking their responsibilities seriously.”

As I said in my previous comments, that balance is absolutely right. The linkage with parents is needed, and that greater sense of responsibility. The Government said that it would be bringing forward legislation on persistent drinking, stating that it would:

“Implement new legislation to make it an offence for under 18s to persistently possess alcohol in public places. Prosecution will require evidence of continued confiscation and failure to abide by an” acceptable behaviour contract.

“The penalties applied will depend on the nature of the behaviour in question, whilst taking into account the young person’s previous criminal record.”

That wording is reflected equally in the regulatory impact assessment that sits alongside the clause.

Despite that, clause 29 does not seem to follow the stated policy objection in a number of ways. It does not require breach of an acceptable behaviour contract—it is a simple “three strikes and you’re nicked” test. Secondly, the penalty applied is simply a fine of up to £250. Can the Minister explain whether there has been a change in approach? If not, is it intended that ACPO or the Home Office will issue guidance on the use of the powers, such that there will be a need for breach of an acceptable behaviour order? That is certainly more understandable in the context of the wider policy intention of giving a role to the parents and family in the welfare of their child.

Amendment 86, therefore, seeks to introduce the concept of a breach of an acceptable behaviour contract to give effect to the Government’s previously stated intention, albeit that the Minister may be saying that that was not the intention. He may wish to give the police the greater flexibility, notwithstanding what was stated in the policy document and the regulatory impact assessment, and envisage that there should not be the fourth trigger of an acceptable behaviour contract being breached.

It is important that we understand how the provision is intended to operate, given what I said about the need for greater parental responsibility and linking in that relationship between the child and their parent or guardian, where they have one. Is it simply a straightforward enforcement test based on three occasions of persistent possession, or does the Minister envisage that there would be the additional step of escalation, with an acceptable behaviour contract having been issued at some stage during that process, or after that third occasion? How would that operate in practice, given the appropriate and understandable intention stated in the policy document, which obviously is not fully reflected in the clause before us?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 9:30 am, 12th February 2009

It is a great pleasure to be here, Sir Nicholas, particularly dealing with the alcohol clause, which I am interested in. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hornchurch moving his amendment, because there are some important issues around the points he raised and around how the clause operates.

The clause is one of those that is key to the whole operation of the Bill, because it deals with one of the real mischiefs of alcohol, which is what young people do with alcohol, how they consume it and the resulting public nuisance. It was either on Second Reading or earlier in the Committee stage that I referred to the problem of young people drinking in parks. Research shows that such drinkers tend to be aged between 11 and 15. Presumably, they drink in public places because they cannot go into pubs to drink. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have all had to deal with the problem of young people drinking in public, and experienced the distress that it can cause. My own interest in binge drinking—apart from having to deal with a death following a happy hours promotion and antisocial behaviour in the town centre—stems from seeing young people drinking in a park in the Moulton Leys area of my constituency and causing distress to people living in the area. Therefore, this is a key clause.

It is important that the provisions are workable and designed to deal with the public mischief. We should not get into the realms of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are also very important, because they provide a different sequence of events to deal with some different patterns of behaviour. Oddly, the hon. Gentleman’s second proposal—I am sure that he does not mean to do this—makes the provisions less enforceable. The Liberal Democrats’ proposal make them less enforceable as well, but I suspect that that is what they intended. Oddly, therefore, both sets of provisions would have the same result.

I have discussed the issue of “reasonable excuse” with my local police officers because it is important that the provision is workable. It is right that the provision relates to “possession” and calls for “reasonable excuse”. Although the hon. Gentleman’s amendment was a probing one, we must consider the group about which we are talking. It often comprises young people under 18 who, if they are living at home, have very slight parental or guardian control. The hon. Gentleman referred to that, but we are dealing with young people on the street, and not parental issues.

The provision also deals with young people who might have a perfectly good reason for having alcohol in a public place, and they might not have parents or guardians because they have left home. For example, they could be in the armed services. They could be walking along the road with some alcohol because they are celebrating exam results, which is a perfectly reasonable excuse for a young person to be carrying a bottle of champagne or a can of lager. They could be buying alcohol to wet the head of a newborn baby, which is a perfectly reasonable excuse for a young person to be walking along a road with large amounts of alcohol. Those are perfectly reasonable excuses, and I think that everyone would accept them.

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

The hon. Lady makes some reasonable points and highlights some specific examples of what might be considered reasonable. Does she share my concern about the way in which the clause is currently drawn? Any judgment that a police officer may reach with regard to such an offence will potentially be quite subjective.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Yes, that is an important point. I mentioned wetting the head of a newborn baby. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can understand that someone might feel that it is not appropriate to be required to have the permission of the grandparents to hold a bottle of champagne or a can of beer to celebrate the birth of the baby. I know that the amendment is a probing one, but I feel that using the words “reasonable excuse” is the right way to go. The hon. Gentleman is also right that there could be a degree of subjectivity about the judgment. Perhaps I will deal with that issue further on when I deal with the way in which the whole clause is implemented. Obviously, when police have to use their judgment, we want to ensure that the judgments are consistent and are not applied differently to different groups of young people. Now that we have police community support officers, perhaps there will be more engagement between the people on the streets and the officers who make up the law and order community.

The hon. Gentleman’s proposal, outlined in amendment 86, means that for the tests that people have to jump through, instead of putting in the three or more occasions in the 12 consecutive months, we put in the ASBO part—the old acceptable behaviour contract. It seems that would mean that either the police would have to know that the kid had such a contract, and therefore would be able to be nicked for the particular offence, or having seen the kid out on the streets a good number of times, carrying alcohol and being up to no good, the police would go off to get a contract. That would spin the process out quite considerably.

Since acceptable behaviour contracts—I believe—have to be initiated by local authorities, instead of the police dealing with them and managing them, as they will be able to do under the clause, they would have to get a contract from the local authority, which could take a long time. Some local authorities are not very good at it—I have a Liberal Democrat local council, and if I had to choose between the efficiency of my local police officers in negotiating with young people on the streets, and that of the council in getting a contract, I am absolutely clear about who I would prefer to be responsible for getting the piece of legislation in place—it is as simple as that.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 9:45 am, 12th February 2009

Again, the hon. Lady makes some interesting observations regarding the operation of acceptable behaviour contracts. The only point I put back to her is that the suggestion is not mine—it is the Government’s suggestion in their policy document, the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan”—so her comments on my amendments, which are to test our understanding of what the Government said, are very relevant, and I am sure that the Minister is listening carefully.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I am glad that we are taking the current road regarding the clause. I have always supported—and still do—strong and practical law and order measures that can be implemented.

Amendment 242, which suggests that there must be both the three or more occasions in 12 consecutive months and the acceptable behaviour contract, would set too high a threshold, and would make the measure virtually unworkable. Having talked to my local police force about the measure, it seems that in the way that we have it now, the enforcement of the clause will depend greatly on the judgment of police officers and their knowledge of local people in the community.

Returning to the dynamics of the process, when a crime is committed, I always think, “Surprise, surprise” that there could really be no prior knowledge of who the criminal might be. Obviously, that is completely wrong. In my constituency several years ago, on an estate that had a high crime rate, the community studied the antisocial behaviour and crime. It found that on the estate, which had a crime rate approaching Toxteth levels, a quarter of all crimes were committed by five members—all children, I think—of one family. The terms of the clause imply the ability to track what is happening and that conforms to the pattern of police awareness about who in the community is being a nuisance—I was about to use unparliamentary language, but I am sure that you would have intervened, Sir Nicholas.

The police know which children or young people—they are not all children—are likely to wander around with alcohol causing problems. They will know the faces as they will come up repeatedly. The issue is one of good policing and the management of public space problems.

Let me refer again to the park that I mentioned, and the kids who have caused such misery there. I have seen them coming into the park from different estates and gathering together with alcohol. The provision would give the police a tool that allowed them to deal with such problems in a proportionate way, so that the young person involved did not end up with an acceptable behaviour contract for something that is a particular problem for a particular group of people. If acceptable behaviour contracts are breached, that can lead to much more serious consequences for the young people. The provision would be an important tool, which I hope that the police will use. It would provide a proportionate sanction for the kind of problems and behaviour that we see.

Once young people get older they often change their behaviour. Some will move on from that kind of offence and become a serious problem in terms of antisocial behaviour, crime or alcohol or whatever. In those cases, it is right to have other sanctions. However, in respect of that age group and the kind of problems that they cause, these are the right penalties and the right level of implementation. I hope that the provision succeeds; it is important.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before I call the hon. Member for Chesterfield, let me say that I want to be helpful to the Committee and I do not want to deter valuable contributions to the debate in any way. However, after this sitting, which must finish at 10.25 am, we have only a further five sittings of the Committee. We still have more than 60 clauses to debate; there are a number of new clauses and I am aware that there are some amendments still to be tabled. I ask all members of the Committee to bear that in mind when deciding whether to speak.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

The intention of my amendment 242 is similar to that of amendment 86, but it provides a slightly different way of arriving at the same path. The hon. Member for Northampton, North said that perhaps the two amendments were designed to make the penalty less enforceable, which was a cheap political point. Perhaps we will come back to that in a minute when dealing with some of the other comments. However, if there is a danger of unnecessarily criminalising the young—as most people accept—any measures that avoid doing so while effectively stopping public disorder are to be welcomed. It is better to find a different way rather than automatically criminalising people and I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree.

The number of young people convicted of criminal offences increased between 2002 and 2008 by 27 per cent. That could be a worrying trend. Research evidence also suggests a 31 per cent. increase in 11 to 15-year-olds drinking outside between 1990 and 2006. Nobody can doubt, as I have said repeatedly during previous sittings, that public disorder and young people drinking in parks, streets and other public places are of major concern to people. Clearly, we want to tackle that, but as many sensible commentators would observe, if we automatically criminalise young people through offences of this kind, that can create a downward trend in their behaviour.

There was some mistaken comparison between ABCs and ASBOs. They are quite different. ABCs are a much more positive way to alter young people’s behaviour than slapping on ASBOs, which have come to be seen as a badge of pride by young people in some circles. There is a difference between a purely harsh, punitive approach that criminalises young people at the drop of a hat and a sensible approach that deals with public disorder issues in a way that leads young people away from getting further involved in criminality rather than giving them a badge of pride to wear by slapping on ASBOs and criminal offences. A number of the commentators on the Bill who sent in evidence, including Alcohol Concern, raised exactly those points.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that acceptable behaviour contracts are part of the suite of measures including and leading on to ASBOs? If he looks in secure training and custodial centres and other heavy-duty places, he will find a number of young people who went down that route—they started with acceptable behaviour contracts, then received ASBOs, then went into custody. That is much more serious than giving them a fine and dealing with them there and then.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

That is true, although we should also consider the people who were given acceptable behaviour contracts and did not proceed to criminality or young offenders institutions. Otherwise, that observation is fairly meaningless, because it considers only those who end up at the worst end route of criminality rather than those who are diverted from it by more effective interventions.

The hon. Lady said that to go down the route of ABCs the police would have to know who the people involved were, but during the first week of the Committee, we heard in evidence from the police and others that of course they know who those people are. That is the whole point: they are the persistent offenders. They are the ones who, in public places known to the police, have been observed, caught and recorded three times in 12 months drinking and participating in the rowdy behaviour that goes with it. Of course the police know who they are. That is the whole point.

We are not talking about hitting somebody who drinks in public once, moves away when told off by the police and does not do it again. We are also not talking about situations such as those we discussed earlier where the police—I have been with the police when they have done this—take a young offender back to their parents and say, “Do you know what your child was doing?” Some parents will shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?” Other parents—we need to remind ourselves that they are the majority—are horrified. That is simple intervention. It is one of the welcome effects of the regrowth of beat police teams and the work of PCSOs and police officers within them. Through such simple interventions, children’s and teenagers’ behaviour is picked up. Often, when it is referred back to their parents, they hit the roof, and that alters their children’s behaviour.

We are not talking about random, one-off or early, low-level misbehaviour that is caught, referred back through police and parents and solved without criminality or court. We are talking about regular offenders. That is  the whole point, as witnesses pointed out in the first week of evidence-taking sessions in the Committee. Such people are known to the police, because they offend over and over.

I am sure that every Member in this room, just like every councillor and police officer, can rattle off a list, off the top of their head, of kids who cause problems in various areas of town, because they are known persistent offenders. They are the ones about whom we receive correspondence over and over. Of course they are known. The point is, what do we do? Do we wait until they have committed three offences and then criminalise them, or do we intervene earlier with an acceptable behaviour contract to divert them? Of course some of them will end up in young offenders institutions, but how many can we divert before that with effective interventions? I will not go into all the other questions of what we can do through youth services, youth clubs and other interventions of a more positive kind, in which local authorities have a huge part to play.

The hon. Lady said, “Oh, you know, the trouble is that the police have to work with the local authorities”, but that is one of the welcome aspects of the thrust of crime and disorder reduction partnerships. At last, we are accepting that crime is an issue not just for the police, the offender and suffering neighbours, but for the whole community. As part of that, remarkable steps forward have been taken through local authorities and police working together effectively in all sorts of ways. A cheap political point could be made about Northampton council—the Conservatives echoed it—but until less than two years ago it was a Conservative-run council and judged to be the worst in the country. It has improved remarkably in less than two years, since the Liberal Democrats took over, as I am sure that any objective observer, including the local press, who dubbed it the worst council in the country, would agree. However, we shall not go down that route. [Hon. Members: “You just did.”] Only under severe provocation.

In a slightly different way, but with the same intent as amendment 86, amendment 242 is designed to ask the Government to consider, while still going down the same route, pausing a little and saying, “Before we go for automatic criminality, are there other more effective things that we could do first?” Are the police just going to wait until someone they know of hits that barrier of three or more offences over 12 months before charging them with a criminal offence? Or are we going to intervene earlier? That is where an acceptable behaviour contract has much to offer.

On amendment 35, we have explored already the difficulty of defining “reasonable excuse”. However, there is also a difficulty with defining parental permission. Either way, we have the same issue: what is a reasonable excuse? What is reasonable parental permission? I disagreed greatly with a recent statement by the chief medical officer that parents should never allow children under 15 to drink alcohol. That is absolute nonsense. Responsible parenting and drinking, and the Government’s aim through 24-hour licensing to bring about a continental cafÃ(c) culture, will come about only with a responsible attitude to drinking. One way of encouraging that, as can be seen in Europe, is to allow parents to show children how to drink responsibly. When my family sits  down to a formal meal, my children have a glass of wine—when it is a celebration, such as new year’s eve or a birthday and so on. Touch wood, so far, they have never been found lying drunk in the gutter, because drinking is not a novelty to them. It is not a big deal; it is a normal, sensible part of life. The chief medical officer was absolutely wrong about that.

That brings us to the question of parental permission in amendment 35 and of “reasonable excuse” in clause 29. What is reasonable permission? As we have discussed already, some parents would think it quite reasonable to permit children to take alcohol and get smashed in the park, cemetery, town centre, bus stop of wherever it is that they hang out. Some parents would think, “What’s wrong with that?” That is parental permission, but it is not parental permission that we would want to accept as a reasonable excuse for carrying alcohol in a public place. However, we would accept other parental permissions and reasonable excuses—we have debated some of those details already, so I shall not repeat them.

The intention of amendment 35 is to get the Government to clarify “reasonable excuse”. Simply stating “parental permission” leaves as many hostages to fortune as “reasonable excuse”. We need some clarity on that. Then of course we are back to the question of exactly how the police enforce it, how sensitive they are and how they apply the provisions. That returns us to the question of whether, in a middle-class area, they say, “Well it’s okay. It’s just high spirits if they are drinking round the back of the pavilion or rugby club,” as opposed to, in another area, saying, “Oh no, that’s wrong because it’s in a different part of town.” The crucial factor will be the sensitivity of the police—in Derbyshire, as far as I can see, it is excellent—in applying the provisions.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 10:00 am, 12th February 2009

It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats reject the advice of the chief medical officer, but leap to the defence of the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—it is well that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is not here.

The measures are not about further criminalising young people, but they do take into consideration the frequency of the offence of public drinking and the severity of the associated antisocial behaviour through the use of a tiered approach. Again, that returns us to flexibility. We do not envisage the situation that the hon. Member for Chesterfield flagged up, in which the police simply wait before using the measures or move to use them too quickly. We envisage that one-off offenders will be dispersed from the locations and the alcohol will be confiscated. Those caught a second time may well be subject to an acceptable behaviour contract, and prosecution may be reserved for serious persistent offenders; but those are the people who are beyond the diversion that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Those people may also be beyond other measures. The hon. Member for Chesterfield flagged up the age-old idea of ASBOs being badges of honour, but the National Audit Office report shows that in reality interventions using those measures work, by and large. Two thirds of people change their behaviour after one intervention, and 93 per cent. change their behaviour after three interventions. It is for the small group of people who believe they are beyond the law that we need further measures. I thought that that was a theme picked up by  the chief constable of Northumbria when he gave evidence to the Committee. It is not that the police do not know who the people in question are; the hon. Gentleman said that the police do know that. The question is what they can do with them. Do they have the tools and powers? Are those effective and useable, and do they give the police the flexibility they need?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

The point I was making was that the police know who those people are; but do they wait 12 months, or do they start doing something much earlier?

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

They do not wait. They intervene. We are talking about occasions when there is persistence—perhaps not only in having alcohol but in disregarding police warnings and action. The strong message that we received when the chief constable of Northumbria gave evidence was that the police would welcome the measures because they believe they need an extra push to be able to deal with the few people to whom the offence would be relevant.

I want to answer the points that the hon. Member for Hornchurch raised about amendment No. 35. We have been clear throughout that parents should take responsibility for their children. That includes their children’s drinking. However, as the hon. Gentleman has said, some parents do not take that view at all. An alarming number of young people said that they had either taken the alcohol that they had from their homes, or had been given it by their parents. That is entirely unacceptable. Winding on slightly, to see what might happen if parents were involved in that way and their children had been caught with alcohol in public, they would probably say, “We gave it to them.” If they had no qualms about giving it to them in the first place, why would not they leap to their defence if the police became involved? The provision is not about saying that the idea of parental responsibility is not a proper way of looking at the question. We are saying that for some people we need to go beyond it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about reasonable excuse and made a point about possession. Unless I am mistaken—I shall certainly check—I do not think that possession is the same as consumption. Part of the problem that the police were talking about was that young people might have drink that had not been opened, and they wanted the power to take that too, as a preventive measure. That is a very important step forward.

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

This is a pretty important point about the ambit and scope of the clause. Is the Minister saying that the clause will cover only the possession of sealed bottles, or is it wider than that? Obviously, if a bottle is unsealed it could potentially link to consumption indirectly, because people are in possession of alcohol so they can consume it. That was the point I was trying to make.

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

No, it applies whether the container has been opened or not. Sealed or unsealed: it would not matter.

What would constitute a reasonable excuse? It is probably better to sketch out a couple of quick scenarios. For example, if a young person was employed, perhaps  in a part-time job, and part of that involved the delivery of alcohol, of course that would constitute a reasonable excuse. Helping a family member or other person to transport alcohol from one location to another would likely be a reasonable excuse.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of teenagers in a park with parents, but that goes back to the point made about the common-sense approach that the police would be expected to adopt. I would not see anything wrong with the scenario he sketched.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

My hon. Friend is right about the police interpretation of what people are doing with the alcohol, but is a park definitely included under the category of public place? My local police force wanted some clarification on what exactly constitutes a public place. Does it include recreation and sports grounds, school playing fields and those types of places? Will the Minister give us a list? I am sure that a list will be produced.

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

My understanding is that a park and the other things that my hon. Friend talked about will be included in public places. However, she will however be aware of the dangers of producing a list: if we produced a list, we could leave something off it, which could provide a way around the legislation. We will look at the situation, and I will get back to her. We will also look at guidance and giving greater clarity. It is not only a case of the police using common sense; if there were a prosecution, the Crown Prosecution Service would have to take a view.

On acceptable behaviour contracts, I want to refer in passing to my hon. Friend’s wise words. We do not want to get the approaches mixed up. Acceptable behaviour contracts are voluntary agreements with persons involved in antisocial behaviour. They are voluntary by nature, and if we somehow tag that on to the offence, it would not be long before the young person worked out that they should not enter into a contract.

We want to encourage the approach that the hon. Member for Chesterfield talked about, but not to muddy the waters or complicate matters by making the breach of an acceptable behaviour contract a condition. Similarly, we would not want to get it mixed up other antisocial behaviour measures. If we linked the offence to acceptable behaviour contracts, what would happen if the person was on an ASBO? That takes us into all sorts of areas to which we do not need to go. It would be beneficial to keep the many pillars of the policy absolutely separate from one another.

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

I have listened to what the Minister has said, but will he confirm that it is no longer the Government’s policy, as stated in the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan” that

“Prosecution will require evidence of continued confiscation and failure to abide by an” acceptable behaviour contract?

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

I do not think that the position has changed in that regard. We are saying that there is an alternative, complementary approach. I do not think that the two approaches contradict each other in the way that the hon. Gentleman says.

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

We clearly disagree, in which case the hon. Gentleman must let me come back to him on the issue. He obviously does not accept my words on it.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I should have asked my hon. Friend about this earlier. He gave two examples of reasonable excuses that were employment related, but what about a reasonable excuse that is socially related? What if a young person is carrying alcohol, not for the purposes of employment or helping, but for consumption, when there is a reasonable excuse, and when it might be consumed in a place where it would not fall foul of a ban on drinking in public places? Will those reasonable excuses be accepted in such situation?

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

I am not absolutely sure that I get my hon. Friend’s point. Does she want to have another go?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Suppose someone is taking alcohol to a party or having a drink with friends outside school following exam results. They would not be causing a huge mischief. That is the scenario I was talking about.

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

I think the answer is that the officer will have discretion. I meant to say in passing that I parted company with my hon. Friend when she talked about people celebrating exams. Having spent some time in education, I assure her that it is not as benign a situation as she has described. It will be at the officer’s discretion, but I am not confident that the scenario she sketched of going to a party with young people would not fall foul of the provision.

We do not want to link the acceptable behaviour contracts approach with the group of amendments. We believe that the amendments would complicate the situation. We need a clear and tiered approach and the amendments do not provide that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:15 am, 12th February 2009

I have listened carefully to the Minister and note that he will reflect on some of the points that have been made. The amendments were intended to test the Government’s intentions. I believe that he has set out a change in policy and emphasis, as encapsulated in the “Youth Alcohol Action Plan”. It is sensible and practical that there be greater flexibility. However, it seems that there has been a move away from a requirement for a breach of an acceptable behaviour contract, which gives greater discretion. I note that he will reflect on that matter and have heard his comments on reasonable excuse. This issue will need careful consideration as the Bill proceeds. On the basis of his comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 126, in clause 29, page 22, line 37, leave out ‘licensed’ and insert ‘excluded’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 127 to 129.

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

We made it clear when we published the youth alcohol action plan last year that our aim is to deter young people from drinking unsupervised in public. Unfortunately, the Bill inadvertently captures young people drinking in premises with a qualifying club premises certificate, such as a working men’s club or sports club bar. As the offence aims to deter persistent drinking in public places, it is important to be clear about what a public place is in relation to alcohol consumption. A young person in possession of alcohol in a licensed club premises should not be at risk of committing this offence.

The Licensing Act 2003 is clear that persons under 18 cannot be sold alcohol in, nor can they consume it unsupervised in such premises. By accepting these amendments to the definition of licensed premises so that it includes premises that hold a club premises certificate, young people will be prosecutable under the new persistent possession offence only if they are caught in possession of alcohol in a public place three times within a consecutive 12-month period without a reasonable excuse. This provision will reduce the incidence of alcohol consumption by children in public and thereby reduce the likelihood of antisocial behaviour, crime and disorder.

Amendment 126 agreed to.

Amendments made: 127, in clause 29, page 23, line 8, leave out from ‘subsection (2)’ to end of line 14 and insert ‘“excluded premises”—

(a) in relation to England and Wales, means—

(i) premises which may by virtue of Part 3 or 5 of the Licensing Act 2003 (premises licence or permitted temporary activity) be used for the supply of alcohol,

(ii) premises which may by virtue of Part 4 of that Act (club premises certificate) be used for the supply of alcohol to members or guests,

(b) in relation to Northern Ireland, means—

(i) licensed premises within the meaning of the 1996 Licensing Order,

(ii) premises of a club registered under the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1996,

(iii) premises for which an occasional licence (within the meaning of the 1996 Licensing Order) has been granted.’

128, in clause 29, page 23, line 19, after ‘1996’ insert ‘Licensing’.

129, in clause 29, page 23, line 20, after ‘1996’ insert ‘Licensing’.—(Mr. Alan Campbell.)

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

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I hope that we can complete consideration of the clause before 10.25.

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

I will take your comment to heart, Sir Nicholas. I just have some quick questions for the Minister. First, is it intended that there will be formal recording of the warnings to trigger whether the offence has actually been arrived at? How will that procedure operate in practice?

The equality impact assessment notes:

“The police commented that in order to be effective the new offence of persistent possession will require details of all alcohol confiscations to be recorded. Whilst this will help us to monitor the effectiveness of the policy, it may increase the amount of time the police need to spend dealing with each confiscation.”

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the operation of the clause on police time? That is obviously a relevant factor in considering the operability of the clause.

The equality impact assessment also states:

“No reliable trend data on the use of existing alcohol-related police powers exists.”

Is the Home Office likely to remedy that to ensure that there is best practice and best effect in relation to the various triggers that might be used and the various provisions that might be appropriate?

The regulatory impact assessment notes that the cost of implementing the provisions is estimated at £56.1 million, yet it states that the annual benefits are currently “unknown”. What consideration has been given to that issue?

Finally, the regulatory impact assessment states:

“Although we anticipate the number of young people drinking in public places to reduce we expect there to be a lesser effect on the overall level of consumption of alcohol by young people. In some cases it may simply be that the young people switch to drinking at home or friends houses rather than in public places.”

What does the Minister see as the overall impact and how does he assess the effects of the clause if, as the regulatory impact assessment seems to suggest, it may simply result in displacement and nothing more?

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

As I recall, the police view on recording was that that is good practice in some areas. We would certainly want to see that good practice rolled out. However, they were also keen to tell us that it is predominantly a local matter. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, the police will know the people, and they will not only be aware of who they are but will record that information. That is the usual practice.

Of course, we are very much aware of the issue of burdens on the police and the best use of their time. However, as I said, it is good practice in some areas to record the information. The police will put it into their pocket books now and, if it is not a burden on them now, I am not sure how it will be a burden on them in the future if that best practice is extended. When it comes to considering best practice for all the measures, of course we take such factors into consideration all the time. I cannot give the hon. Member for Hornchurch a definitive answer. I cannot say that there will be a review and it will be published on a particular day, but of course we will examine the effectiveness of the measures. We will seek to quantify their effect, not least because we want to ensure, in line with what the police are telling us, that they are working.

On the point about displacement and the apparent worthlessness of what we are seeking to do, I do not agree at all. There may well be some displacement, of course. People may move on to somewhere else, another public place, and then fall foul of the legislation. They may go to someone’s house. We are not claiming that there will be no displacement, but the police tell us that the powers will be useful on the street and we believe that they will have an effect. We believe that they will send the strong message that we need to continue to send to young people, as well as giving the police the effective powers that they are asking us for. I certainly do not agree with the hon. Gentleman if he says that  there will be no effect. Interventions can and do work with young people. This provision is part of a package of measures, but it is an important part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.