|Sir George speaks out on Licensing Reform
25 Jan 2005
Speaking in a debate in the House of commons, Sir George paid tribute to the way local police were tackling the problems in Andover Town Centre at week-ends, where a few binge-drinkers were making life difficult for local residents - and for others who were having a good time and doing no harm to anyone else.
See speech below:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). He did not go out of his way to cultivate the support of the readers and editor of the Daily Mail, which might have been unwise given his small majority.
I do not normally contribute to debates on licensing and feel a little like a stranger who has wandered into a bar where a few regulars are exchanging familiar arguments and anecdotes. Nevertheless, I want briefly to make two points. The first echoes what the hon. Member for South Dorset said about his experiences while out with the police. I spent 30 days on the police service parliamentary scheme. Several of those days and nights were spent in Southampton inspecting exactly the problem that we have been discussing. That is when I first came across the phrase, "the night-time economy." To begin with, I was suspicious of what I regarded as a new Labour phrase. However, it is true that Southampton has a night-time economy that complements its day-time economy and which will probably, with the passage of time, become more important as people have more money and leisure.
That economy relates not only to pubs and clubs, but to food outlets and minicabs and, going back a stage, to clothes, shoes and fashion accessories. There is an industry there of which we should be cognisant, and as a Conservative who is responsive to market forces, my overall instincts are not to stand in the way of such an expression of consumer power. It is important that those of us in the House of Commons, which is slightly detached from young voters, should not say anything that implies that we do not understand how young people like to use their leisure. They like to pub and club, at times of the day and night when most of us are asleep, and the vast majority do so entirely inoffensively. Indeed, when I went round the pubs and clubs in Southampton, the vast majority of people, including several off-duty policemen and women, were enjoying themselves and acting entirely responsibly.
I was struck by the all-pervasiveness of CCTV, not only at fixed points run by the local authority but as mobile cameras operated by the police. Young people should realise that, if they commit an offence in a city centre, it is almost certainly recorded on CCTV somewhere and will be used in evidence. On one occasion, I saw a young man being chased by potential assailants just outside the city centre. He headed for a spot that he knew was covered by CCTV, and the moment he got there his assailants stopped chasing him. Although CCTV may be criticised on libertarian or displacement grounds, I am all in favour of it as regards bringing law and order to the city centre. I was worried not so much by the alcohol as by the noise, which struck me as far more likely to injure people's health than alcohol. Several of the young people were not drinking alcohol at all, but soft drinks.
Of course there are problems, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) rightly said. There are some very aggressive people, and I was interested to see how well informed many of them are as to exactly how far they can go with the police without getting arrested. They know that they can abuse the police without getting arrested because they have to be cautioned first. Once they are arrested, it is clear that everything that people say about police bureaucracy and filling forms is true. When we took one inebriated young man to the custody suite, the policeman had to fill in a form before he could be taken in. One of the questions was: "What is your religion?" If one asks a man inflamed with alcohol what his religion is, one is likely to spark a theological discussion in which everybody else in the custody suite feels free to join. I am sure that one could consider more critically the number of questions on the form that people have to answer before they are allowed to go through. In one case, a man, once arrested, had to be detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. That meant that the policemen who arrested him had to spend the whole of the rest of his beat in the cell sitting next to him. He was therefore off duty.
Many policemen who should be policing the city centres do not do so because they are back at the police station, filling in forms and getting tied up with bureaucracy. There is enormous scope to streamline that. If people are charged, the defence solicitors are up to every trick in the book. Even though they know that their client is guilty, they will advise him to plead not guilty in case the witnesses or the police do not turn up. If they do, the plea is switched to guilty in the hope of a lenient sentence. Much can therefore be done in the existing framework to improve the effectiveness of policing.
My second point is based on what happens in Andover. The brewing industry appears to focus on the city centres. In my part of Hampshire, it drives up the rents of the village pubs, which are closing, and opens fresh outlets in the city and town centres. I ask it to consider what it is doing. Viable village pubs become unviable if the rents are jacked up in the rent review. We have lost the Hare and Hounds outside Andover, and other pubs are threatened.
Yesterday, I spoke to the landlord of the Southampton Arms in Andover, where we have pubwatch, which I am sure that other hon. Members have in their constituencies. There are some 26 individuals on the Andover pubwatch scheme. I found it interesting that the police implement it in Andover. The police rather than the landlord impart the good news to the individual that he is banned from every pub in Andover. That obviously removes a point of friction between the customer and the landlord.
The application forms for the new regime that starts on 7 February are not available at the local authority in Andover. The people to whom I spoke yesterday believe that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for ensuring that the forms are available. It is unlikely that any pubs in Andover will open for 24 hours but the position may be different in other constituencies.
Some people are reluctant to go to the town centre, especially at weekends. To deal with that, the police are piloting a new strategy for eight weeks. It has two key personalities. The first is PC Ken Crosby, who is based on a bicycle. That enables him to access the many alleyways and pedestrianised areas of the town. He has CCTV on his helmet and his job is to identify potential trouble makers—groups of young people who could cause difficulty. He is backed up by a 4x4, which has CCTV front and rear. It also has three directional microphones that pick up sounds 100 yd away and is backed up by a community patrol vehicle.
Another key personality is Amara, a black Labrador, who sniffs out a wide range of drugs. She can smell crack cocaine at 40 ft and she examines people who stand in line for the clubs. To keep her on her toes, there are two stooges with 10 g of cocaine somewhere in Andover. They ensure that she is alert.
The new scheme covers the off-licences as well as licensed premises. As we have heard, off-licences are often the problem. It is supported by the local authority licensing officer, the community wardens and the fire service. It focuses roughly on 2 am when there is a mass exodus and concentrates on the taxi ranks and fast food outlets.
The initial evidence from the pilot scheme is encouraging. Proactive arrests early in the evening send a clear signal to the rest of the community. There is some evidence that the licensees are acting more responsibly and that revellers are more aware of what is going on.
Although the House needs to tackle big strategic issues such as whether it is the right time to change the regime and the impact on consumption of longer or more flexible licensing hours, whatever the regime, much could and should be done now. My experience of Andover shows that genuine progress can be made through the police and local authorities working together and sending out a strong signal to minimise the irresponsible minority who threaten the pleasures of the vast law-abiding majority.