AS a licensing hearing hears how teenage girls are becoming victims of “serious sexual assaults” in Bolton town centre, Bolton News crime reporter AMANDA ALCOCK takes a look at the problem — and what is being done to deal with it.

GIRLS being sick in the street and wandering around with clothes hanging from their bodies are just part of a typical night for the Bolton Street Angels.

And the Street Angel volunteers who spend their weekend nights making sure the young and vulnerable in Bolton town centre are safe say the blame lies firmly with one thing — binge drinking.

As licensing bosses crack down on problems in the town centre — there have been 17 incidents of various crimes, ranging from theft to assault at or near Bar Lush in Bradshawgate since it reopened in August last year — it has been revealed there have been a “high number” of serious sexual assaults in Bradshawgate on Fridays and Saturdays between midnight and 4am. And almost all the young victims were drunk.

Often partygoers will drink cheap booze at home, before heading out into town late at night to continue drinking.

Late night opening, with some bars and clubs open until 6am, and cheap alcohol at the supermarkets are blamed for excessive drinking.

But licencees in Bolton insist they operate a strict policy to ensure people who are already drunk, and anyone underage, are not admitted to their pubs and clubs.

Adrienne Tonge, volunteer co-ordinator of Bolton Street Angels, said: “Binge drinking is absolutely an issue in Bolton town centre.

“But the blame cannot all be levelled at bar owners. People often arrive in town already inebriated.

“I picked someone up off the floor who I thought had fallen getting into a taxi, but in fact she was getting out to start her night at midnight and was already drunk.

“Door staff do everything they can, and Pub Watch in our town is one of the best for managing this problem.

“I think the licensing hours mean people drink before coming out and then continue until 4 or 5am.”

Mrs Tonge, who helped set up the group in 2008, sees the awful consequences of binge drinking almost every weekend.

She and other volunteers are on hand to help and invite people to their cafe in Bradshawgate, which acts as a safe place for the drunk and vulnerable.

Mrs Tonge said: “I see people being sick in the street, people urinating in shop doorways.

“People lose their friends and become vulnerable. Often their phones can’t be heard, and they don’t have money for a taxi to get home on their own.

“Once they are on their own they are at the mercy of anyone who shows them some kindness and that is when people take advantage.

“We find people who are missing their shoes, or have their clothes on back to front. Once we found a girl whose knickers were on the floor behind her as we tried to get her into a taxi. She did not know what day it was.”

Police are also working to stop the problems of drunkenness in Bolton town centre every weekend.

Officers run Bolton Against Night-time Disorder (BAND) every weekend and say while underage drinking is not a problem in the town centre’s bars and clubs — people getting drunk before they head into town is a very real issue.

Sgt John Boyce, of the partnership team which deals with licensing issues, said: “Most town centre bars are aware of their obligation. Many have door staff who will challenge anyone who appears to be under 25.

“We do not see underage drinking in licensed premises. The bigger problem is underage drinking in the streets and that is far more difficult to police because there are many ways to access alcohol.

“We know with many adults they preload at home and go into bars later in the evening.

“Binge drinking is a problem and young people drinking to excess is a health problem. “ And town centre bars also insist they run a strict policy to ensure the safety of their customers.

Michelle Parkinson, chairman of Pub Watch in Bolton, said: “All the licencees have security who check ID for underage people.

“When we hold Pub Watch meetings it is highlighted that everyone should check them.

“All the bars in Pub Watch operate to a very tight policy. We do not want to have underage drinkers.

“We operate a challenge 25 policy and if they do not look their age they will get asked for ID.

“We do not get a lot of underage people trying to get in, but if people without ID are turned away the other bars and clubs in Bradshawgate and Deansgate are contacted by radio to make them aware.

“All licencees monitor what the customers are drinking and if they are drinking excessively, or are already intoxicated, they are not going to get served.”

And Bolton’s public health chiefs stress the problem does not begin and end with the bars themselves — but with educating young people about the dangers of drinking to excess.

An education programme — Party Hard, Party Safe — has been launched in the borough’s schools.

It highlights safety messages in a bid to reduce the harm young people come to when they are drinking.

The programme focuses on alcohol and sexual health, and advises young people to only take branded taxis, carry enough money for transport home, not become separated from friends and to be aware of drinks being spiked.

Debra Malone, consultant in public health, added: “Overall in Bolton, the majority of people either only drink moderately or not at all. However, those who do drink excessively — across all ages — seem to be drinking an increasing number of units.

“The messages about reducing the risk of harm while drinking, regardless of age, are the same — don’t keep pace with others who are drinking, alternate drinks with water or soft drinks, know how many units you are consuming and consume food if possible.

“There are of course health implications associated with drinking in all ages, but those who start at a younger age are more likely to develop drinking habits that transfer into adulthood. People under the influence of alcohol become more vulnerable and as a result may be more likely to become a victim of crime.

“We also work closely with the police to carry out visits to off licences and licensed premises only when complaints of underage sales or drinking have been made. This can result in us issuing fixed penalty notices and even reviewing the licence of the premises.”

But according to charity Alcohol Concern, measures already being used to combat the problem of teenage binge drinking must also sit along side a minimum price for alcohol.

It has launched a campaign to make this happen to combat cheap supermarket booze.

Emily Robinson, director of fundraising and campaigns said: “Alcohol misuse is a huge problem in the UK. The Government estimates it costs us all about £21 billion every single year.

“Alcohol Concern’s harm map showed that alcohol-related health care costs in Bolton were more than £16 million, which is about £80 per adult.

“We also know that in the North East there’s been a 66 per cent increase in the number of alcohol-related liver disease hospital admissions for those under 30 in the last 10 years.

“In a recent report by Alcohol Concern, young people told us that cheap alcohol and the way it is promoted encourages excessive drinking. We’re fighting for a minimum unit price to be set at 50p, all the evidence shows it’s a policy which will cut crime and save lives.”