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Licensing Acts (Amendment)

Volume 78: debated on Wednesday 8 May 1985

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3.55 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the licensing Acts for England and Wales to permit longer and flexible opening hours.
I shall try to keep my speech shorter than that by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on his point of order.

Today the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of the ending of the war in Europe. A great deal has changed since 8 May 1945, but some things remain much the same. After listening to the formal announcement of victory on the Home service at 3 o'clock in the afternoon 40 years ago, a man might have been moved to go out and celebrate that great event. If at the conclusion of that broadcast he had visited his local public house he would have been told, "I am sorry Sir, we are closed." The man would have been worldly wise and used to the vagaries of our licensing laws and he would not even have bothered to make the journey.

Today, 40 years on, the situation is much the same. The fundamental difference in England and Wales is that that same old soldier, moved by nostalgia, can now cross the road from his public house to the off-licence advertising "Ice cold beer sold here" and buy his cans of beer. He can then sit on the steps of his public house and provided that he does not obstruct the pedestrian highway, cause a nuisance or loiter, he can drink his beer with impunity.

The law that drives that man to that ludicrous, undignified necessity is the relic of an earlier war. It is the result of a pledge, dishonoured by this House, which instead of repealing the Defence of the Realm Act which was passed to prevent munitions workers from getting drunk in 1915, took DORA—as that Act is less than affectionately known—and distilled her, first as the Licensing Act 1921 and subsequently as the Licensing Acts of 1961 and 1964.

I seek to introduce a Bill to amend those antiquated wartime measures which are in force in England and Wales. I propose that, with the consent of the licensing justices, the licensee of a public house shall be permitted to open, by prior determination, for any 12 of the 14 hours between 10 am and midnight. I propose that the opening hours be published outside the public house for the information of the general public and, of course, of the police. I propose that a minimum number of hours a year be laid down during which a public house shall be open to the public. Such a minimum number will permit the publican, as of right, to close for such hours of the day, days of the week, weeks of the month or even months of the year when in his commercial judgment there is insufficient trade to justify his opening. Those closing times shall also be published and made available.

The Bill will be supported by many hon. Members who have taken a keen interest in the growth of our tourist industry. Perhaps rightly, that industry is regarded as the greatest industrial success story of our time. Tourism is a growing industry which is worth millions of dollars and many thousands of jobs to the British Isles. Those who seek to promote that industry—the tourist boards of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Government Departments and the trade itself—bear much of the responsibility and must therefore take much of the credit for its continuing and growing success.

This season it is expected that for financial and other reasons more foreign tourists will visit these shores than ever before and that more domestic holidaymakers will stay at home. There is, therefore, a tremendous opportunity to consolidate a market. We should not lightly throw away that opportunity.

More work must still be done. We must improve the standards of our hotels, restaurants and guest houses and introduce a voluntary registration scheme which allows a visitor quickly to recognise the standards. We must guarantee real value for money and promote facilities, attractions and our heritage. All these matters are for the industry to tackle, with Government backing.

This House can also help. Today I ask hon. Members for leave to introduce one small measure to help us to put out the welcome mat in time for this summer season, so that the hitherto perplexed foreign visitor and domestic holidaymaker can buy an alcoholic drink in the cool of an English pub in the heat of a summer afternoon in Britain, as they can almost anywhere else in the civilised world.

This House has much pressing and important business before it this afternoon, and I do not want to rehearse any of the arguments that more properly belong to a Second Reading debate. However, it would be wrong of me to promote this measure without indicating my awareness of and respect for the concern shown by those in the House who have consistently opposed the introduction of longer and more flexible licensing hours.

Before my election to this House, I studied for the preparation of a television programme on alcoholism and problem drinking, especially among the young—[Interruption.] I said that much in the House had not changed in 40 years and our licensing laws are undoubtedly part of that. I suspect that in 40 years the same Opposition Members will be heckling from the same Opposition Benches.

As part of my research I was privileged to undergo a 12-week training course with the ACCEPT organisation on what it called sensible drinking skills. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may find cause for levity in that, but the purpose of that organisation's presence in this country is to try to prevent people, especially young people and those with severe alcohol problems, from drinking too much.

I repeat that I am therefore aware of the problems and concerns expressed previously by many hon. Members. I have no wish to exacerbate those difficulties—nor, I suspect, does any hon. Member, and certainly not those who seek with me to introduce this Bill.

Much has been made, and will no doubt continue to be made, of the results of the Scottish experiment. The House awaits the report of the population survey carried out by the Scottish Office. There are those who feel that I should have waited until its publication before seeking to introduce this measure.

I wish briefly to make a prediction based upon discussions with a representative of the alcohol research unit at the university department of psychiatry at the Royal Edinburgh hospital. The report will produce a neutral set of results. It will, of course, demonstrate—as the statistics show—that the incidence of conviction for alcohol-related offences in Scotland has, since the implementation of a small part of the Clayson report, fallen. It will also show that, since 1976, consumption of alcohol has fallen in Scotland—but so, it will be argued, has it fallen elsewhere.

What is certain is that a change in the law has led to what Professor Christopher Clayson described as a more civilised style of drinking in a more relaxed and socially controlled environment. That relaxation has not yet embraced the dramatic change in drinking style—a major shift towards the consumption of alcohol in a family environment—that Professor Clayson envisaged, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

I am convinced, both from my own observations and from the research of those more experienced and more qualified than I, that the solution to the affliction of alcoholism and problem drinking will come not from the enforcement of quaint licensing regulations that are both inconsistent and abused, but through education and the acquisition of the sensible drinking skills taught through the ACCEPT programme. Those skills are more likely to be acquired in the controlled atmosphere of a public house that is open at reasonable hours than through bout drinking sessions created through truncated opening hours topped up with alcohol acquired either from an off-licence or from a supermarket at virtually any time and consumed without supervision.

I am grateful for your patience, Mr. Speaker. I seek to introduce a measure that has the rare distinction of carrying with it the potential creation of employment, popular appeal and, as I hope I have demonstrated, social desirability. A Bill under the ten-minute rule is, as we all know, fragile. But if the House this afternoon gives me leave to introduce my Bill, those who differ from its aims should recognise the value of deploying their arguments in Committee and should not prevent this measure from having a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Gale, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Richard Alexander, Mr. David Gilroy Bevan, Mr. John Butterfill, Mr. Conal Gregory, Mr. Rob Hayward, Mr. Greg Knight, Mr. Barry Porter, Mr. Albert McQuarrie, and Mr. Colin Shepherd.

LICENSING ACTS (AMENDMENT)

Mr. Roger Gale accordingly presented a Bill to amend the licensing Acts for England and Wales to permit longer and flexible opening hours; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 10 May and to be printed. [Bill 144.]