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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 222, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 223, 224 and 225. The penalties for persons committing criminal offences when buying or attempting to buy alcohol under the age of 18 in each case would be a maximum of a level three fine on the standard scale, which is a recordable offence. Although the offences are contained within existing legislation, we, and the Children's Society, believe that there is a need for them to be removed in light of proposals in the Bill to relax access to licensed premises for children and the intention of the Government to create more child-friendly environments.
We are concerned about under-age drinking and the damage that it can cause to children. However, we are strongly opposed to the criminalisation of children in order to deal with the matter. The whole package of reforms contained within the Licensing Bill has important implications for children and young people. The effect of relaxation in licensing conditions would allow children and young people to access licensed premises more freely, although nowwith thanks to your Lordshipsthose under 14 would require adult supervision.
This rightly highlights the need to strengthen existing prohibitions against wrongful sale and supply of alcohol to minors by adults. However, enforcing these offences for children would criminalise a high proportion of young people whom we know to be experimenting with alcohol before the age of 18.
We, and the Children's Society, are extremely concerned that existing restrictions on children's access to premises licensed for the sale and consumption of alcohol are to be replaced with more rigorous enforcement of offences relating to under-age drinking, given that the range of offences includes offences committed by children. We believe it to be illustrative of a failure to understand fully the concept of protecting children from harm should the Government deliberately increase children's exposure to opportunities to procure and consume alcohol at the same time as urging more rigorous enforcement of offences that would see increasing numbers of children subject to arrest, conviction and fine.
The vast majority of children experimenting with alcohol under age are not involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour of any kind. Perhaps of even more concern is the prospect of these offences being added to final warnings and other convictions of children at an early age of offending, drawing them more rapidly into the category of persistent offending and consequent harsher punishment. It is inappropriate and unjustified to use criminal sanction against children in order to attempt to protect them from the irresponsibility of adults who might sell to them or supply them with alcohol.
We are concerned at the criminal offences that can be committed only by a child for behaviour that is entirely lawful for anyone else. We also note that while adult offences under the Bill are accompanied with a statutory defence, there is no such defence for a child. Thus, it becomes more likely that an adult can evade his or her responsibility for an illegal act of selling or supplying to a minor, leaving the child to take the blame for the criminality of the transaction.
I have further notes on this subject and it is important that the Government consider it with real care. There are a number of issues at stake. We believe that, far from better protecting children, the measures in the Bill are likely to increase the pressures upon and opportunities for children to buy and drink alcohol in public venuesgiven the extended hours and so forthonly for criminal law to be used should they give in to temptation. I beg to move.
Amendments Nos. 223 to 225 would remove the offences committed by an individual aged under 18 of buying or attempting to buy alcohol, or having or attempting to have alcohol supplied to his or her order by or on behalf of a club, and that committed by an individual aged under 18 of knowingly consuming alcohol on licensed premises.
I understand entirely the good intentions behind the amendments. It is to avoid the situation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made clear, in which large numbers of prosecutions are brought by the police against children, with the potential impact on their future lives and careers. That is a laudable aim and none of us would want children's prospects to be blighted.
However, the amendments are both unnecessary and undesirable. First, to be clear, the Bill as drafted translates the law as it currently stands faithfully. The idea that the Bill in some way creates a new offence of this nature is misconceived. If the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, feels that over this long period of time he has a confession to make, I assure him that other authorities might be interested. However, under the Bill, it was an offence in the past and it is an offence now to carry out that minor rite of passage which he quoted from his past.
The existing law, however, did not in his case result in prosecutionperhaps because he succeeded in concealing the fact that he was below 18. It does not result in a large number of prosecutions. The police tend to use cautions to deal with this kind off offence. For example, during 2000, fewer than 25 prosecutions were brought in the whole of England and Wales for the combined offences of purchasing or consuming alcohol on licensed premises by someone under 18. Of those, 22 were found guilty. During the same period there were just 80 cautions for the same offences.
As is often the case, the main use of the offence provisions to which these amendments referand which they seek to deleteis as a deterrent. The majority of people, including young people, do pay proper attention to the law. Although it would be impossible to arrive at precise figures, a certain amount of under-age drinking is prevented by the simple fact that it is illegal. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that no children will ever buy or attempt to buy alcohol, or consume it on licensed premises. But the law places a serious obstacle in the path of such activity, and the Bill will replicate that.
The offence provisions in the Bill will act as a deterrentas the existing legislation doesand balance the increased freedoms provided elsewhere in the Bill. As is often the case with deterrent powers, they will not result in large numbers of prosecutions brought against childrenwe do not expect such action to rise above the current low levels. I hope that with those assurances the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombehaving moved her amendment with the best of intentionswill recognise that the Bill as it stands meets her objective and will feel able to withdraw this amendment.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I am grateful for his acceptance that we have good intentions in relation to these amendments. Given the previous grouping and the Minister's remarks with regard to the forthcoming meeting with various children's societies and other groups on the issue of how we deal with children, I ask the Government to consider carefully the question of offences.
There is no question that under-age consumption of alcohol has become a growing problemmore so now that many children carry identity cards. I logged on to the Internet the other day to see how easy it is to obtain an ID card. All I was asked to do was to pay £10 and state my age. I was very tempted to state that I was rather younger than I am! I have seen these cards. For a tenner, I could have become a member of the British students' union: all of a sudden I could have become 18 years of agehow wonderful!and found myself with a card that enabled me to enter a club or pub pretending to be that age. I should not have got away with being that age, but many do. They therefore believe that they are not doing anything wrong. Of course, they are; but we are now living in a climate where a great deal of under-age drinking takes place. We should not do anything that encourages ithence our determination to ensure that there was an age limit so that children of a certain age could not be allowed into pubs and clubs on their own.
We question why the Government have an alcohol reduction strategynot the sincerity of the strategy, but its purposeif, at the same time, children under 18 are criminalised if they attempt to drink alcohol.
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