Tackling alcohol problems: Violent Crime Reduction Bill

Five and a half hours in Committee going over the details of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.

Today is alcohol – and we are moving through Drink Banning Orders and Alcohol Disorder Zones. Drink Banning Orders will enable the police and local authorities to stop an individual coming into a certain area because of their ‘criminal or disorderly behaviour’. The trouble, as ever, with Labour legislation is that it is overweening and undefined – that it could easily be abused. For instance – the bill uses the term ‘disorder’. This is very broad and could mean that rather than the powers to ban people being concentrated on just those cases where they are really needed to tackle persistent and serious problems arising from drunkenness, instead that the powers end up being abused to ban people for all sorts of other reasons.

My task is to argue that there needs to be more definition. An example of where this could all go horribly wrong is when one Labour member said something like – you might get someone late at night shouting as they ran down the street drunk. Well – if a single instance of high spirits is all it needs to take away someone’s freedom of movement, then we are going too far. So the challenge is to try and make the Government legislation more exact, more robust and to ensure that the powers given cannot be misused in such a way.

The Government is not minded to listen to reasonable argument – at least not really in this public session. As I understand it they use all the stuff we give them and then bring it back as their own at a latter stage. Which is fine – if a little aggravating. In fact they have already ‘listened’ in that they themselves have brought forth an amendment removing their proposal to imprison an individual who breached a Drink Banning Order. Even they realised that to end up with a 5 year prison sentence for skipping down the street drunk and shouting might be seen as a little over the top.

Later we move onto Alcohol Disorder Zones. These are areas that can be designated by a local authority and the police where there is so much trouble from drinking establishments that they have become no go areas at night. The idea is that establishments within the zone to be designated have an opportunity to put forward a voluntary action plan, and if it works the zone isn’t imposed. But if it fails, it is. An imposed zone means establishments within it will be charged for extra policing or whatever.

The points of contention – given we agree with the principle of the polluter pays – are that good landlords will be treated same as bad, that there are perverse incentives for local authorities to view this as a way of raising money, that anywhere can be designated a Disorder Zone, that designating an area will stigmatise (or even worse, glorifying it for some?) and many, many other arguments about the proposals.

The Government seem not to be interested in anything other than sloganising that ‘we serve the lawful and that this legislation is targeted on the lawless’. Well yes – statement of the bleeding obvious in terms of what everyone wants as an outcome because we all have the same problems. But slogans aren’t the same as effective action. We already have so much legislation that the Government is not using properly regarding drinking and alcohol. It is already illegal to sell drink to the drunk (they never virtually prosecute). Local Authorities can revoke licenses (they rarely do). And new powers which come into force next month give police the powers to shut down premises.

But saying we want a new law gets cheap publicity points in a way that working to use existing laws properly don’t.

Liveliest moment of the day is when Labour MP Stephen Pound exits the backbenches of the Committee to find out who has gone through (or not) in the Tory leadership election that is taking place in the Committee Room next door – very noisily. He comes back and does a little mime – indicating a pregnant stomach and then slitting of throat – it is clear that Ken Clarke has got the chop!

Anyway – leave Parliament around 11pm having had one drink in one of the bars. A Labour member of the Committee was in there and called me over to say how well he thought I was handling it considering I had been thrown in the deep end – which I thought was very kind!