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Variation Orders Etc

Volume 115: debated on Friday 1 May 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 22, leave out '11.30 p.m.' and insert '11 p.m.'.

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 13, in page 1, line 22, after '11.30 pm' insert

'with a two hour break between the opening hour and closing hour'.

I move amendment No. 1 on behalf of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who, unfortunately, has to fulfil a number of constituency engagements that were fixed a long time ago. In Committee the hon. Member for Newham, South was an absolute stalwart. He and I have been associated on Committees before. When I was Chairman of a Select Committee I could always rely on the hon. Gentleman to do his homework and make a positive contribution to our inquiries and investigations. I hope that he will be able to come to the Chamber in sufficient time to address himself to amendment No. I, which is strictly his. I support it because it would bring the law in England and Wales into line with the terminal hour in Scotland. I see no reason why there should be a difference between the two jurisdictions.

Taken by itself the amendment does not affect the principle of flexibility enshrined in the Bill. However, I must confess that I would prefer the House to accept amendment No. 13, which would be a great safeguard while allowing a modest relaxation.

Both amendments relate to the central purpose of the Bill—the extension of drinking hours. The supporters of the Bill have tried to convince us all along that the question of the opening and closing hours of public houses is one of purely social convenience, having no other significance. I believe that, on that matter, the Bill's supporters are fundamentally mistaken. My view is shared by virtually all the expert bodies that have pronounced on the matter.

It cannot be emphasised too often that all the caring bodies — the medical profession, the British Medical Association, the royal colleges and countless other organisations — are opposed to the Bill anyway. Moreover, no evidence has been produced to show that there is any great public demand for change. That is what I find so astonishing. All this time, energy and eloquence have been spent on promoting a Bill for which there is no real public demand. If there had been, presumably the Government would have acted, but no Government have had the courage to do anything about licensing law. We are in the mess that we are in today over this Bill, as we were over previous private Members' licensing Bills, because Governments of the day failed to understand that licensing is far too important a matter to leave to private Members and to the chance of their getting a Bill through.

The majority of the public are, I believe, content with existing permitted hours. There is no mass movement to have the pubs open all day. The pressure for change comes not from the public but from the drink trade, the tourist boards and some national newspapers that have attempted to whip up public support for change, but without much success.

My main concern is with amendment No. 13. I cannot emphasise too much the importance of the historic break in continuous drinking, which has brought great benefits to our society in the present century. At present, when licensing magistrates deal with applications for extensions in the afternoon or in the early evening, they still insist upon a break of an hour or art hour and a half to prevent continuous drinking and the problems that they know it causes.

Since our deliberations in Committee, information has been passed to me that is of special interest in regard to continuous drinking. I hope that I shall not shock the House with what I am about to say. I refer to a report, I received only yesterday, by a ministerial committee of inquiry into violence. It was presented to the Minister of Justice of New Zealand in March 1987. I do not know whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has seen it yet, but it is worth reading from beginning to end and then re-reading. I am speaking of a country which, some years ago, I was invited to visit to advise on alcohol problems. I had the great pleasure and privilege of going from one end of New Zealand to the other, from Auckland in the north to Bluff in the south, where one stood on the cliffs and looked southwards 3,000 miles to the South Pole. It is a beautiful country and in many ways still a British country—

Order. That is all very interesting, but it does not have much to do with monitoring the effects of variation orders in England and Wales. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will address himself to the clause before the House.

I am not surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you have not yet seen the connection, but it is very close. The reason why I was saying something kind about New Zealand is that of all countries overseas—none is more remote from Britain than New Zealand—one will find a more British way of life there than anywhere else in the world. Therefore, in many ways New Zealanders still look to this country to set an example.

The report was presented in March this year to the New Zealand Minister of Justice. The committee, presided over by a distinguished High Court judge, examined the association between alcohol misuse and violent behaviour. It recommended
"a period of closure of public houses from 2 pm to 4 pm."
It then stated:
"Many English pubs are required to observe an afternoon closure and that must be regarded as one of the significant factors which enables English pubs to maintain a favourable image far removed from that of their New Zealand counterparts."
Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can now see the connection. How ironic and how sad it is that we should contemplate the removal of the very element in our licensing law that another country, similar in outlook, seeks to emulate—and for such good reason.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way with his customary courtesy. I have no doubt that, given the present attendance in the Chamber, the rest of the time can be spent in civilised debate.

I wish to put two points to my right hon. Friend. First, there is a clear difference of principle between the two amendments under discussion. Amendment No. 1 does not conflict with the principle of flexibility, but amendment No. 13 does. Secondly, my right hon. Friend's amendment would not secure the afternoon break technically, because it would be open to a licensee to open at 9.30 in the morning and close at 9.35, for example. I do not want to detain my right hon. Friend because I think that it is right that he should have the balance of time between now and 2.30 pm.

I always listen to my hon. Friend with the greatest of respect. Throughout our debates he has conducted himself with great courtesy and has always tried to be helpful. However, it would have been better if he had waited to see whether my proposed amendments were so far away from what he in his heart wants. There is plenty of time. It is clear that because of long speeches and interventions we are making slow progress, but I assume that we shall be at it again next Friday.

I do not interrupt other hon. Members' speeches until I begin to understand what they are driving at. In view of our discussions, I thought it important that the House should know that in New Zealand a departmental committee looking into the connection between violent crime and alcohol has recommended the introduction of a practice that this Bill seeks to injure, if not destroy. I thought it important to bring that to the attention of the House. Few Members may be here, but I guarantee that this piece of news will make good reading and will make an impact.

It is ironic that just when this Bill seeks to destroy a major safeguard for the British public, the New Zealanders should say, "The British have been so sensible over the years, we must copy them." What are we doing? We are abandoning a principal safeguard. The idea is so ludicrous that the Bill, despite any argument that I have advanced, will deservedly be laughed out of court.

2 pm

Amendment No. 13 would not require the two-hour break to occur in the afternoon. Therefore, it would not be inconsistent in any way with the priciple of flexibility. However, it is important to observe and record that in relation to the Scottish reform it was never the intention of Government or Parliament to abolish the afternoon break. Many of us may recall that in Standing Committee on the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976, an amendment to abolish the afternoon break was heavily defeated. It would seem that that was a much more sensible Parliament than this one. The Government were explicit in their wish to retain that break. The large-scale disappearance of the afternoon break in Scotland has occurred since because loopholes were discovered in the legislation which permitted licensees, contrary to the wishes and intentions of Government and Parliament, to obtain all-day opening. That is how the matter arose in Scotland.

I have been careful not to say too much about the Scottish experience. I have an enormous respect for Scotland. I refer to Scotland as a kingdom where the law and people are different, and thank God for that. It is a great country.

We are concerned here, however, with a Bill that seeks to change licensing law in England and Wales, but it is relevant to say that the intention of Government and Parliament was frustrated with regard to the Scottish legislation. When we are seeking to change the law in England and Wales, it is as well that that should be remembered.

Some hon. Members may recall that the Erroll committee opposed the afternoon break because of its rigidity. Amendment No. 13 makes the break flexible so that it can occur at any period during the day. However, some break there should and must be. I should like to go into this matter in a little detail. The Erroll report grudgingly acknowledged the value of a break. In paragraph 11.42 it stated that it
"could still see a number of ways … in which it could be useful".
It went on to give an example where it might be very useful.
"It is possible, for example, that a local authority might conclude that an individual public house was being badly run and that insufficient attention was being paid to hygiene and cleanliness. In such cases, it might be reasonable for a local authority to conclude that some sort of break should be imposed to allow a licensee time to attend to these matters."
That is reasonable, is it not? Usually when the pub is open the licensee and staff are fully-stretched. Over the years I have known a great many licensees and they and their wives have always welcomed the idea of a break. I am not worried about licensees, but I am worried about the vested interests behind them which are seeking to sell more liquor. If licensees were freer to conduct their houses as they wished, we could trust them more. In general, they are decent and responsible people.

The Erroll committee referred to law and order, and I wish that some of my hon. Friends would recognise the serious part that alcohol plays in both petty and serious crimes. The liquor trade can never be allowed to be controlled by market forces. That is why the New Zealand Ministry of Justice has made its strong recommendation.

The Erroll report said:
"It is equally possible that disorder could arise at a particular public house either as a result of excessive drinking or in connection with some other event — for example, a football match. Here, a Chief Constable might well see some advantage in suggesting that individual public houses ought to be closed in the interests of public order."
Whatever harm was being caused when the Erroll committee deliberated has increased many times over since then, and every hon. Member knows that to be true.

The Erroll committee also foresaw the road safety problem. It referred to
"the suggestion by the Department of the Environment … that road safety could be endangered by drivers who had been drinking throughout the afternoon emerging into the afternoon rush hour."
As the Erroll committee could see that danger and as the situation has worsened since then, one would imagine that every hon. Member could see the danger. But no, the issue has been fudged and no reference has been made to it by the sponsors of the Bill.

A two-hour break could certainly be useful in areas where public houses are adjacent to schools. I suggest that licensing justices should vary orders in such cases.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that under the safeguards in the Bill it would be open to the licensing justices to refuse a variation order that did away with the two-hour break?

Yes, but that is a cumbrous way of proceeding.

It is important to note that we discovered the relevance of road safety to licensing laws not just recently; it was foreseen by the Erroll committee. There was a problem then and there is an even greater problem now.

Amendment No. 13 would give the flexibility of a two-hour break without rigidity and would meet the Erroll committee's criteria. The committee said:
"In circumstances such as these, we would see some advantage if licensing justices were able to impose a compulsory break during the day, either at individual licensed premises within their area or more generally throughout the district. This power would enable justices to deal with particular abuses and should be capable of being used as a flexible instrument of control. We accordingly propose that the licensing justices should he empowered, on complaint, to impose a restriction of no more than two hours on the permitted hours of any licensed premises or group of licensed premises within their area. In order to restrict this power to the afternoon or early evening, however, it should be possible to impose such a break only up to 7,00 p.m. At the same time, we do not think this power ought to be absolute. In the interests of certainty, it would seem preferable to restrict the use of the power to circumstances where the justices are satisfied that it is necessary for the purposes of public order, safety, health or amenity."
The Erroll committee saw all this very clearly all those years ago. It is a matter of great surprise to me that private Members who have introduced Bills to amend the main licensing Act have never seen how necessary are safeguards of this kind—with the result that their Bills have always failed. As I have said before, this is far too important a matter to be left to the chance that a private Member might just strike the right balance and have the good fortune to get a measure through. Private Members' legislation will get through only if there is wide support in the House for a worthy measure and if the Government of the day give practical support, which they usually do not.

The Bill in its present form would provide the opportunity for licensees to obtain all-day opening, and we must assume that if it were enacted thousands would take advantage of that opportunity. Some supporters of the Bill, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), have suggested that in practice a relatively small proportion of licensees will seek to open for the maximum permitted hours and that many, perhaps the majority, will be content with the benefit of flexibility provided by the Bill. My hon. Friend speaks with great authority and he has wide experience of these matters. When he is talking of things that he knows about, I listen with great respect. I am sure that he is right about this—at least speaking for himself. He is a very responsible man and he is speaking for himself. I do not ask him to agree or disagree, but I fear that we are not dealing with licensees who are completely free agents. We are dealing with a trade in which all kinds of pressures can be brought to bear, as I discovered when I first became involved in this business and found that many managers greatly resented the pressures placed upon them.

One cannot be absolutely positive about this, but I believe that once applications can be made for the maximum permitted hours, those hours will eventually become the norm. My position can be stated quite simply. If the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham is correct and the majority of licensees will not wish to take full advantage of the maximum hours permitted by the Bill, there can be little objection to amendment No. 13, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) will be prepared to accept it. If the suggestion is incorrect and the majority of licensees will seek to open for the maximum permitted hours, amendment No. 13 is a necessity to mitigate some of the worst effects of the Bill.

We are at an early stage in our discussions, and later amendments will bring out facts about the under-age drinking and appalling antisocial behaviour that may be encouraged by the Bill. It is a matter of grave concern to many people that they will certainly not be discouraged. Amendment No. 13 will be necessary to militate against some of the worst effects of the Bill.

2.15 pm

The possibility that the majority of public houses will wish to open for longer hours is by far the most likely. In those circumstances, we can pay close attention to the example of Scotland, where nearly 90 per cent. of public houses in the cities are open from 11 am until 11 pm. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) mentioned Mr. Douglas Allsop, the director of the Scottish Council on Alcoholism, whom I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood has met. He is well known in the area of alcohol care and he believes that all-day opening has not brought benefits to Scotland.

If the prospect is that thousands of public houses will take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Bill for all-day opening, a major argument in favour of amendment No. 13 relates to the relationship between availability and consumption. There are plenty of statistics on this. I was not terribly impressed by what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said earlier about statistics. He quoted an OPCS survey which was based on self-reporting. Such surveys are unlikely to produce reliable figures because most people tend to underestimate their consumption.

No one would argue against the proposition that if many public houses open for a significant number of extra hours, alcohol consumption is likely to increase perhaps — substantially. I do not suppose that availability is the only factor in consumption and misuse. The effects of increased availability can be overriden by factors such as the state of the economy. That is what appears to have happened in Scotland, where licensing liberalisation was followed not long after by economic recession.

As a former Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for industry, may I tell my right hon. Friend that I do not accept his general proposition about the recession being more severe in Scotland than it was in England. That proposition is put forward by the Scottish National party in the context of other debates, but my right hon. Friend should know that I do not accept his argument.

I did not argue that the economic recession was sharper in Scotland than in England. I said that licensing liberalisation was followed, not long after, by economic recession. That is a fact. I was not making a comparison with England, although I know that such comparisons have been made. However, the economy is now recovering health and vitality, and I am delighted that it is doing so in Scotland as well as in England. We know that the north of England and Scotland have suffered during the economic recession, but that is not peculiar to the United Kingdom. It has happened all over the Western world. The decline of the old basic industries has been followed by the movement of people in search of new industrial employment. In the United States, for example, such a movement has taken place from the north-east to the south-west. These things are happening all over the industrialised world. Scotland went through a difficult time, and it is good to know that things are now changing for the better there, as they are in England and Wales.

The future holds increased prosperity, not recession. That will tend to increase alcohol consumption, which has not declined in the past because people have gone off drinking beer or spirits, but because they have not had enough money in their pockets to indulge in their favourite pastime in more prosperous times.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of the north are hard working? They have had a difficult time during the past few years, but the apparent drift to the south-east and west may well be reversed quite soon because the cost of living in the north and the renaissance of prosperity both there and in the midlands—particularly in my constituency—gives us every reason to suppose that there will be an equalisation and redistribution of wealth throughout the country. That will do much to improve the position to which my right hon. Friend has referred.

I have never quarrelled with the facts of another man's experience. My hon. Friend knows about the midlands and I am sure that what he says is right. He is underlining my argument. As all parts of the United Kingdom become more prosperous, it is likely that consumption of alcohol will increase. That happens to be a common pattern. Thank God we have not yet reached the level of harm to health caused by alcohol that has been reached in France, Germany, Finland, Scandanavia or the Soviet Union. One of the most significant things that Mr. Gorbachev has said is that productivity in the Soviet Union has suffered grievously as a result of widespread drunkenness and alcoholic illness. We are nowhere near that level yet, but we have been moving in that direction. The bed occupancy in our hospitals of those suffering from alcohol-related illness is about half that of France, but it is increasing all the time. It may be expected therefore that, as we move into more prosperous times, the harm will increase unless there is more effective control, and that is what licensing is all about.

I accept entirely my right hon. Friend's proposition that there must be a relationship between total consumption and incomes, depending upon the relative price of alcohol, but that is not the relationship that the Bill is about. The Bill does not change incomes for the price of alcohol. The Bill is about changes in licensing hours.

I note that the Bill is about availability; and the longer the hours, the greater the availability. That is fundamental. The Bill will increase the hours of drinking and encourage continuous drinking from lunch-time through the afternoon. If that becomes possible, there will be greater harm. The afternoon break has meant hitherto that drinking has stopped for a period, for during that time no more liquor can be consumed. It is a brief period but it is sufficient. It has provided a safeguard for the public and been a feature of British licensing law throughout the century, and the Bill seeks to breach that. If the Bill makes alcohol more easily available in a time of growing prosperity, there will be infinitely more harm done. That follows as surely as night follows day.

My hon. Friend—I say this sadly because I did not want him to walk into this one — talked about price. There we have it. It is strange that at a time when the cost to the individual of almost every commodity that we can think of has increased — disposable incomes have increased, too — the price of alcohol in terms of disposable income has fallen. Those who are in the drinks trade may feel that this is marvellous as a way of encouraging more consumption, but price is one of the major factors of controlling the consumption of alcohol. Successive Governments have failed to understand this. If we provide greater availability by means of extra hours and combine that with a Government policy that keeps the price of what is a potent drug below what it was 10 or 15 years ago, we are asking for trouble. It is a prescription for disaster.

We have not talked yet about teenage drinking in public houses, which is now a plague. It is becoming uncontrollable. When we have the opportunity, I shall give illustrations that have been culled from newspapers in every corner of the kingdom to show precisely what is happening.

The harm is increasing. Youngsters of 13, 14 and 15 years of age tipple in pubs. What has happened to licensees — the splendid people who are supposed to control public houses? They will lose their licences. We are allowing this to happen under our very noses. It has to stop. That is one reason why I condemn the Bill. It is the wrong time and the wrong place further to liberalise drinking hours. I beg my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood to see that we are trying to save him from being the author of—

It being half-past Two o'clock further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

To he further considered on Friday 8 May.