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Licensing (Amendment) Bill

Volume 115: debated on Friday 1 May 1987

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11.38 am

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Before the statement I was speaking about the vicious attacks on pub owners that have occurred in my constituency and I told the Minister that I had raised this matter with the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor because I was appalled at the leniency of the sentence which was given—a suspended sentence—to a person who had inflicted horrific injuries on a constituent of mine, Mrs. Whitehouse of the Lamb Inn, Stafford. I also raised this matter with Mr. Bruce Williams of The Shropshire Inn, Stafford, who is the chairman of the local Licensed Victuallers Association. I hope that we shall receive a satisfactory response from the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor on those points.

Unfortunately, as well as that example, we now have pending a similar instance which occurred in the King's Arms, Eccleshall, where Mrs. King was attacked about 10 days ago.

I am glad, in principle, that the Bill is going through and I am particularly indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) because it seems that the matter needs to be monitored, and on the carefully worked out basis of public order, road safety and health.

Not only do we need the results to be monitored, but we want to be sure that licensing justices will use their powers not to make an order if there is likely to be a public nuisance or a threat to public order or safety. We also need to be sure that magistrates' courts will revoke or amend orders if public nuisance is caused.

I welcome the principle of the Bill which will widen freedom of choice and personal responsibility and I am satisfied that there are suitable restraints to enable the new system to work effectively.

I should be glad if my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State would consider, if not today at least on another occasion, the use of exclusion orders. When publicans are subjected to vicious attacks exclusion orders can be served on their assailants. I was appalled that an exclusion order was not served on the person who attacked Mrs. Whitehouse. We should ensure that exclusion orders are not short-term measures, but run for a year or two to make sure that people behave themselves.

I am informed that in Madeley, in the northern part of my constituency, young people under 18 are being supplied with drink at a youth club or community centre by people over the age of 18. I am looking into the circumstances which could be the basis for refusing a variation order to the publicans who are allowing people over 18 to supply drink to younger people. It is a matter of the gravest concern if young people under the statutory age are being encouraged to drink.

I am extremely glad that the Bill is going through. It includes suitable safeguards to ensure that it will not be abused.

New clause 1 is an important provision which I welcome, because it goes to the heart of many of the worries about the Bill.

I wish that we had monitored more diligently what happened in Scotland. The Minister referred to the OPCS survey, which is full of interesting information, but I am sure that he agrees that we do not have as much information as we should like about what happened in Scotland. If we had that information new clause 1 would be unnecessary.

It is regrettable that when such a momentous decision was made in Scotland insufficient effort was made to assess the implications of the change. Much of our discussion, in Committee and today, has been based on assumptions about the consequences of the Bill. We cannot say confidently what happened in Scotland and assume that much the same will happen in England. The new clause is a second best; at least the results of the change will be monitored diligently and carefully.

I listened carefully to the Minister, but the Government's attitude did not become clear. Unless we have a commitment from the Government to monitor carefully the results of the change in such a way that the House and the country will be helped to assess the consequences, new clause 1 will not mean much.

11.45 am

I had not appreciated that there was some uncertainty in the Government about monitoring this extension of what has been loosely called the permissive society. Having listened to the chairman of the Tory party talking about the evils of the permissive society and the Prime Minister speaking about Victorian values and so on, I took it for granted that they would be here to say to the Minister, "Now look you here. We are not going to be slipping any further into this permissive age. We might get the whole show being degraded even further."

I should have thought that the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Tory party would insist on monitoring to find out whether the permissive society was being enhanced. I had not fully realised until now that that sort of slippage was taking place while the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Tory party were supposed to be in charge. What will they say on the hustings about this matter?

My hon. Friend's intervention may provoke the Minister to make a more clear-cut response.

The Government have not given us an assurance that would enable us to be confident that the Government will do what clause 1 requires. I hope that the Minister will make a clearer statement of the Government's intentions.

The Minister expressed reservations about the resource implications of the procedures for issuing variation orders. That point was made in Committee, but new clause 1 raises a new issue which was not covered in Committee and I was not sure what view the Minister took on it. Exactly what is the Government's response to the new clause?

With my eye on the clock, I was trying to do a service to the House by not spending too much time on the matter. As I have been asked to be a little more specific, I have no hesitation in being so.

We start from the proposition that no one doubts the health risks attendant on the consumption of alcohol, the dangers to others and the need to collect statistics to assess the risks and how we should respond to them. The new clause seems to assume that there is a dearth of statistical data on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems, but that is simply not the case. A range of information is collected, from which it is possible to monitor trends on, for example, the incidence of road accidents in which alcohol is a contributory factor and the extent of alcohol-related health problems.

My Department maintains records of public order offences and offences in which alcohol is a primary cause. There is no suggestion that those statistical data will not continue to be available. To that extent, therefore, the new clause is unnecessary. As I emphasised in my short speech, there has been a great deal of research into what has happened in Scotland since 1976. I repeat that the OPCS survey is very rewarding and deserves careful reading. I also made available to the Standing Committee copies of a letter that I had addressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) in which I gave the statistics for total alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom as stated in the official journal of the European Communities. In litres per capita, consumption was 5·6 in 1960, 8·3 in 1970, 10·5 in 1975, 9·8 in 1979 and 8·5 in 1983. In other words, there was a big increase between 1960 and 1970 but virtually no increase between 1970 and 1983.

I am not laying the foundations for any kind of argument. I am replying to the assertion that there is not a wealth of statistics. There is indeed a wealth of statistics. The problem is that one cannot always draw any certain conclusions from them, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braille) stated in Committee.

I am following my right hon. and learned Friend's argument and I do not necessarily disagree with what he is saying, but in this context the statistics that matter are the health harm statistics. There is no doubt whatever that in the period under review harm has been increasing, especially among the young. I will give chapter and verse for that at a later stage. What matters is how much harm is being done and how many lives are being damaged or even destroyed by alcohol excess. That is what matters and it should not be avoided. We must have the statistics on that aspect.

I have given many of those statistics, but they do not always support my right hon. Friend's argument. For instance, the death rate from cirrhosis of the liver has always been higher in Scotland and the figure has been rising from 1970 until the present, but it does not help my right hon. Friend's argument because there was no escalation in the rate of increase following liberalisation of the licensing laws in 1976. There is a wealth of statistics about health harm, but they do not prove my right hon. Friend's point, although they also do not prove the case advanced by the sponsors of the Bill. The statistics exist, but they must be analysed with great care to ensure that the right lessons are drawn from them.

In my earlier remarks I referred to the research carried out by Duffy and Plant. That is a further example of the work that has been carried out in this area. I emphasised that the OPCS survey of drinking in Scotland provided useful information about the level and patterns of consumption but that it was difficult to evaluate the implications of the evidence because there was no directly comparable data available for England and Wales.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With all respect to the Minister, he should remember that he is making an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs).

The error is mine and I apologise to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). I understood that he had completed his remarks, so I called the Minister. With the leave of the House, however, I will call the hon. Member for Battersea again in due course.

I certainly intended no discourtesy to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). I thought that he had finished his speech and had challenged me to deal with this point in a further speech, which is precisely what I am doing.

The OPCS survey compared levels of consumption and patterns of drinking before and after the 1976 Act and found that although there had been some increase in consmption it was almost entirely among women. As there was no discernible increase in consumption by men, the likely conclusion was that other factors had led to the increase among women, mainly the changing social attitudes towards women drinking. It is very difficult. to conclude that it could have had anything to do with the 1976 Act.

Other statistics are quoted in my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, and I repeat that plenty of statistics are available. I promise my right hon. Friend that if a Bill similar to this one was passed by Parliament, we would try to monitor its effects and, bearing in mind the gravity of the issue of drink as a cause of accidents, disease and premature death, we would ensure that proper emphasis was placed on research in this area.

I was dealing swiftly—perhaps too swiftly—with the terms of the amendment because it did not seem to be fair to take up the time of the House on an amendment and a new clause which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) said so quickly, and to my surprise, that he would accept. The Government would not have advised him to accept the new clause because new machinery would have to be established to gather details of all the variation orders granted within a county. Given our reservations on the Bill in terms of its resource implications for the courts, it cannot have come as a surprise to hon. Members when I said that the Government have grave reservations about new clause 1, which would add to all the difficult resource implications that follow from the scheme of the Bill and the idea of separate applications for variation orders.

But apart from that, the requirements of the new clause overlook the fact that, at present, statistical data do not always relate to county areas. For example, statistics on offences of alcohol-related crime are collected within police force areas, while statistics on alcohol-related health problems are collected on a regional basis. There is little point in collecting data on a county basis unless there are comparable data for earlier years. For all those reasons, the type of data that the new clause suggests should be collected may not be the most useful.

For the reasons which I advanced a few moments ago, it would be inappropriate to include a monitoring requirement in the Bill. It reads almost like a direction that that sort of monitoring should take place and that is the end of the matter. But we would all expect the Departments concerned to ensure that monitoring and research was carried out when it seemed appropriate in the light of the new facts and circumstances, including public concern.

I do not recommend the new clause to the House, but out of concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood and with my eye on the clock, I have tried to deal with the matter briefly. I meant no discourtesy to the House, and certainly none to the hon. Member for Battersea, and I hope that my remarks have met his point.

My enthusiasm to hear what the Minister had to say made me sit down as though I had finished my speech rather than as though I was giving way to an intervention. I regret that I caused the misunderstanding, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for allowing me to say a few more words.

The Minister has not put my mind at rest. Although he was helpful in elaborating on the range of statistical information that is being collected and that would be used to meet at least some of the requirements of new clause 1, many other bits of information, not necessarily statistical, would be encompassed by the intentions of the new clause. Those the Minister has not given an undertaking to meet.

I understand the Minister's difficulty. He seems to be saying that we have much information, but it is not very conclusive. Although that information will be available, he is not certain that it will add up to the type of scrutiny of the consequences of the Bill—if it becomes law—that the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) would have desired. That adds to the anxiety that I expressed earlier—that we missed a chance in Scotland. It would have been easier to set up the type of monitoring of the consequences of the changes that is necessary in Scotland than in England and Wales, for some of the reasons mentioned by the Minister. There are several others, but I shall not take up the time of the House by discussing them. Although the new clause is a worthy effort. in view of the Minister's remarks I believe that it will not go as far as I had hoped.

12 noon

When the Minister discussed the statistics relating to alcohol as a contributory factor to road accidents, he mentioned people who are above the present threshold. As we have a legal limit, it is understandable that statistics are collected on the basis of compliance or failure to comply with that limit. However, the Minister will surely accept that, even below that legal limit, alcohol poses dangers to drivers. It is clear that any amount of alcohol that is consumed by a driver lessens his ability to drive as safely as he would otherwise have driven. I am concerned that the level of alcohol that has been set, for particular reasons, as the legal limit—I certainly support the idea of such limits — is not beyond controversy. Other countries have lower limits because they think that they are more consistent with road safety. If we gather statistics only about people who are over a certain limit, we are missing much valuable information. The Department of Transport could collect and make available information that would deal with the problem of drivers who have been drinking amounts of alcohol below the limits set by the present legislation. All the evidence is that alcohol is a major contributor to road accidents. I suspect that the more one examines the matter, the more alarming become one's conclusions, because consumption affects a wider range of road accidents than is apparent at first sight of the current statsitics.

Nevertheless, the new clause at least points in the right direction, and I therefore support it.

Hansard will carefully follow our proceedings and accurately report what is said. However, some people cannot read. If they can only hear, they may like to hear the amendment that we are discussing to see how it slots into the clause in the Bill. Clause 1(7) states:

"Licensing justices shall make a variation order unless satisfied that it is undesirable to do so having regard to the social circumstances of or to activities taking place on the premises or in the locality in which the premises are situated; and such an order shall not be made if the licensing justices consider that the proposed variation of the permitted hours is likely to cause public nuisance or to be a threat to public order or safety."
The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) has inserted an amendment that would include the words "road" between "or" and "safety" in line 20. That means that we are discussing the issue of road safety, and, in particular, variation orders. We are surely entitled to ask why we should take these matters into account.

I have received a letter from a Mr. Mark Kelly of 19 Tarbot crescent, Woodthorpe, Yorkshire. It is an interesting letter that is similar to many others that I and my hon. Friends have received. It reflects the concern of many others about the Bill and I shall read it to the House because letters that are written to Members have a special place in our proceedings. Invariably we wish to receive them because they represent the voice of the electorate. Mr. Kelly wrote:
"I was rather disturbed to hear that three MPs on the Committee looking into the licensing hours have a financial interest in the drink industry."
These are the words of an elector and as such he is important in our proceedings. The letter continues:
"Their defence that they declared an interest just does not satisfy me."

I hope that the views of an elector are not to be shut out of our proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must observe the procedures of the House. We are dealing with the monitoring of the effects of variation orders and road safety. The hon. Gentleman must restrict his remarks to those subjects.

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mr. Kelly is extremely concerned about these matters and feels that if they are to be considered fully, far more time should be given to the consideration of the Bill. That is why he is so angry about the selection of Members to consider the Bill in Committee. He writes:

"Surely it is not enough just to declare an interest. Members of Parliament with such interests"—

Order. The hon. Gentleman appears to be disregarding the clear ruling that I have given. He must restrict his remarks to the proposals that are before the House.

If I had tried to table an amendment to deal with this issue, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would you confirm that it would have been out of order? There is no way within the procedures that exist within the House for me to raise this matter. When I raised it last week on a point of order—I have the relevant copy of the Official Report and this can be checked—I was told that it was impossible for me to raise the issue. If 50 million people, irrespective of what they think about the Bill and whatever their views on its likely effects on transport, the driving of vehicles and health, feel that the selection of Members to consider the Bill in Committee is a sufficiently important matter to warrant it being raised on the Floor of the House, they will expect an hon. Member who seeks to read a letter from a constituent to be adjudged as being in order.

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to other hon. Members who wish to speak. There is a heavy load of business on the Order Paper and he must, as he knows, restrict his remarks to the matters that we are discussing. If he does not do so, he will be being unfair to the House, including hon. Members who wish to address themselves to business that appears later on the Order Paper.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

May I retain the right to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I wish that to be established because I am on my feet. I wish first to raise a point of order, but I trust that you will call me again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I manage to catch your eye.

What are we to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when three hon. Members declare their interests, do not break the rules but cause many concern? The three hon. Members have not broken the rules and I do not accuse them of doing so. They have done what the rules of the House allow them to do. They declared their interests, and having done so it was known when they were voting what their interests were. In that way they have done everything properly. But what do we do when the rules of the House of Commons are set in such a way as to protect the rights of hon. Members to have outside interests? I do not complain about that. I am riot one of those who say that they should not have them. If they want them, they should have them. But the rules are set in such a way that it is expected of hon. Members that, when they have pecuniary interests of such a nature, they would not wish to seek selection to such a Committee. The Bill is badly tarnished—

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will recollect as clearly as I do that he raised it with Mr. Speaker the other day, and Mr. Speaker gave a clear ruling at the time. There is nothing that I can add to that ruling.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order for my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) or any other hon. Member, when referring to a letter from an elector who is disturbed about the passage of a certain Bill and about some hon. Members sitting on a particular Committee and thereby, in his opinion, lining their pockets and assisting brewers who make large donations to the Tory party, to refer to that letter in the context of the amendment that deals with monitoring? It might assist the elector who wrote the letter in the hope that the matter would be raised as soon as possible. He might—but not necessarily—be satisfied to a degree if my hon. Friend could speak on the monitoring aspect in relation to his complaint about the Bill. If my hon. Friend were to deal with the matter in that fashion, he might conceivably be allowed to continue.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) suggested to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) how he might get his speech in order. Perhaps the hon. Member is grateful for that.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it or is it not a convention of the House that hon. Members do not interfere with other hon. Members' constituencies without their express support and permission, particulary when quoting letters from other hon. Members' constituents? I understand that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) quoted from a letter from someone in Yorkshire, which is clearly not the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I wonder whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will confirm that Mr. Speaker does not look kindly upon hon. Members trespassing on other hon. Members' constituencies, and particularly quoting their constituents' letters.

I confirm that that is the normal custom in the House, and Mr. Speaker has reiterated it in the House on numerous occasions.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether I can help the House on the last point. I remember a famous debate when the then Secretary of State for Industry, who is now the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), quoted from three letters, none of which was from his constituents, which raised historic laughter in the Chamber. Leaving that matter aside, I support the Bill and hope that it gets its Third Reading today.

I wonder whether I can help my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). He read a letter from somebody who purports to call himself Mr. Kelly in which he made serious allegations about the conduct of certain Government Members. Is it not a convention of the House that, when letters are read — the hon. Member started to read the whole letter—they should be placed on the Table? That might satisfy everyone and then we could get on with the business and the Bill.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) made a series of helpful suggestions. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is an experienced parliamentarian. I am sure that he will get his speech in order without any help from hon. Members.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not have to respond to the slurs made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). He has admitted that three hon. Members — my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and I—have acted perfectly properly in accordance with the rules of the House. All hon. Members know what the hon. Gentleman is about with his campaign of smears and character assassination, but perhaps it is more difficult for those outside to understand that, because he has only bankrupt policies to offer, he will continue to indulge himself in his dirty, dirty little campaign.

12.15 pm

I owe it to my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North and for Romsey and Waterside, who cannot be here today, to say a little bit about what the hon. Member for Workington has said. My integrity has been impugned twice within the past 10 days by the hon. Gentleman. Last week, the hon. Gentleman made a scurrilous and defamatory attack and accused me of taking money in
"back pockets for services rendered"—[Official Report, 22 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 679.]
Today he has effectively exacerbated what he said last week.

These attacks, if made outside the House, would render him liable to some charges which would probably end up with extremely hefty expenses payable for libel or slander. But they are made with the absolute privilege that we in this House enjoy. The damage done is none the less real and calculable.

Let me once again make my position in this regard absolutely clear. I am managing director of a small family company, Chiswick Caterers Ltd, in which I have a controlling interest. That company operates five tenanted public houses in London. I am paid a salary on which tax and national insurance are paid under the PAYE rules. It is the same position which I held before I became a Member in 1983, except that it carries half the salary that it did then. My parliamentary duties here have always taken precedence over my business interests. I am able to perform both tasks only by working very hard and for very long hours. I do that seven days a week. I doubt that my business interests take me more time that it does the hon. Member for Workington to dredge up his muck and slurs.

Order. I hate to interrupt the hon. Member, but I must remind him that he is on a point of order and that he should be brief.

Mr. Speaker and the Chairman of the Committee ruled last week that the way in which the three of us declared our interests had been totally in order. I shall not go over that, in the interests of brevity. I look to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your role as protector of the Back Benchers to protect me against the corrosive innuendo of the hon. Member for Workington who, with his hon. Friends, has brought so much disrepute to the House lately.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) has worked long and hard to get his Bill through Committee and into the House. I am not complaining on this score, but, owing to the pressure of time, for the whole of yesterday and last night—I did not get to bed—I was preparing serious amendments to lay before the House, so that we could discuss the important matter of alcohol consumption and the Bill's effects on our national life. I cannot help but feel that these matters on a private Members' day are distracting us from our proper business. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has been detained this morning in his constituency but who hopes to be with us shortly, and I have worked long and hard in preparing amendments, some of which may be accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood, some of which may not. I hope that we can now make some progress.

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that very valuable suggestion. I appeal to the House. We have spent a long time on points of order that are of very little relevance to the Bill. There are many amendments to this important Bill to be discussed. It would be unfair to the Bill's sponsor, to those hon. Members who have tabled amendments, and to other Bills on the Order Paper to continue in this way. I appeal to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) not to pursue further points of order with which I have dealt, but to continue with his speech. I am certain that he will get his speech in order. Equally, I hope that he will take the advice of the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and will be brief.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I intend to return to the thrust of the amendment, but first I should like you to confirm that I am entitled, as a Member of the House, to raise here the question of private influence and private interests affecting the passage of a private Member's Bill. You know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that a sittings motion was moved in a Committee of this House to speed up the passage of the Bill.

Order. I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question at once, very briefly. Of course he is entitled to raise such matters at the appropriate time, and when it is in order.

Order. I have confirmed that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to raise matters of that kind at the appropriate moment, as long as it is in order forhim to do so. I have given him an answer. I now ask him to resume his speech.

I shall return to the thrust of the debate, although I have to say that everything that I have alleged is correct. That is known and on the record.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 6 deal with road safety, which should be an important consideration for those making variation orders. Road safety is a very important matter, and it weighs heavily on the minds of every hon. Member. A Committee of the House has been set up to deal with it. It is, I believe, an all-party arrangement, and it makes an important contribution. We have Government statements, recommendations by Ministers and Members of Parliament speaking in various parts of the country to all kinds of gatherings about road safety. Yet, because of the way in which the Bill was expedited and driven through its Committee stage by commercial interests, it has not been possible to examine such matters in detail, as I believe that they should be examined.

In the presentation of the Bill, and during its consideration in Committee, who has really taken on board the fact that one in five of all road accident deaths—some 1,200 a year—is caused by excess consumption of alcohol? Many people die because of drink. In about 10 per cent. of accidents, it is a major cause. At night, two thirds of accidents in the United Kingdom—nearly 70 per cent. — involve a drinking driver. Most of those involved in such accidents, although not necessarily those who are knocked down, are under the age of 30.

The total resource cost of accidents and deaths in England and Wales — "resource costs" in this context means the cost to the Exchequer, and therefore to the taxpayer and the ratepayer — is some £85 million according to some figures that I have been given; according to others, it is £86 million and £87·5 million respectively. In Scotland—interestingly, as the legislation is already in place there—the figure is some £10 million.

However, the initial effect of the Road Safety Act 1967, produced under a Labour Government although—I believe that there may have been a good deal of private Member involvement in its passage—was considerable. Road casualties fell by 11 per cent. in the first year after the implementation of the 1967 Act, and deaths fell by 15 per cent. In the first seven years the drink and driving legislation saved about 5,000 lives and prevented 200,000 injuries. Those were substantial savings. Parliament has tried to restrict the effects of alcohol on road accidents and over the years has agreed that there should be further restrictions in order to save lives. That consensus has been broken by the introduction of a Bill that would lead to more deaths on our roads.

The effects of the 1967 Act quickly wore off. Before 1967, 27 per cent. of vehicle drivers in England and Wales who were killed in road accidents had blood-alcohol levels that were over the prescribed limit. In the year after the implementation of the Act, it was 17 per cent. In 1977 it was 32 per cent., so the signs are that the decrease in the number of road accidents has slackened off. In an intervention, the Minister of State commented on that precise fact. When I say "slackened off", I mean that it has slackened off in the last couple of years.

A previous Government accepted in principle the recommendations of the Blennerhassett committee that was referred to by the right hon. Member for Castle Point, who so ably moved new clause 1. It was exhilarating to hear his contribution. Clearly, he knows a great deal about the matter—much more than I—and has studied it in great depth. In his retiring years, the right hon. Gentleman has spent all night studying these matters, examining them and preparing for today's debate, on the basis that he believes that they are important. I can only express gratitude to him, and also the gratitude of many millions of people.

The previous Government accepted in principle the recommendations of the Blennerhassett committee about changing the drinking and driving laws.

I am not sure that I heard the hon. Gentleman aright. Did he say that he understood that I am retiring from Parliament? I hope, with the help of my constituents, to be here for many years to come.

I do not wish in any way to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman is retiring from Parliament. I was referring to the fact the he is in his retiring years. I am coming rapidly towards my retiring years, but I hope that I shall be here to cause a little difficulty here and there for many a year to come.

The previous Government accepted in principle the recommendations of the Blennerhassett committee for changing the drinking and driving laws in Great Britain, but it was not thought that it would be proper or possible to find parliamentary time for legislation. The committee sought ways to reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents. Its report contains a thorough and convincing analysis and was commented on in detail by the right hon. Member for Castle Point. It has been accepted as the best way forward.

None of the alternative proposals, involving the adoption of quite different procedures in other countries, offers the same chance of improvement, and the pattern that was outlined by the committee is increasingly being adopted by other countries. The French Government have recently changed their legislation along similar lines. Those recommendations have one advantage—they are ready and capable of implementation. I hope that Government Ministers respond by acknowledging that that is exactly the case.

12.30 pm

The report contains one controversial proposal—the removal of the present limitation on alcohol testing at the roadside. Instead of the police being able to test only if they have reasonable cause to suspect that the driver has alcohol in his body or has committed a moving traffic offence, they would be able to test at their direction. The other proposals do not create the same degree of difficulty. The immediate issue for the Government is whether to introduce legislation that will implement this recommendation and the committee's other proposals. Those are very important matters because the general public is most concerned about what is happening in the area of road traffic accidents arising from alcohol.

Government Ministers repeatedly come to the Dispatch Box and advocate safer driving. The Government spend a fortune annually on advertisements, both in the newspapers and on television. on safer driving campaigns during the festive seasons, particularly at Christmas. We have all watched television after Christmas and seen the figures of accidents, and invariably alcohol-related accidents, that took place over the Christmas period. Therefore, people are unable to understand why the Government have taken the position that they are in favour of passing a Bill that will further liberalise the licensing laws in this country and potentially provide for more drinking.

The Government must know that that has implications for road safety, yet they refuse to acknowledge those implications by setting up an inquiry, publishing its findings and setting out what might happen if people at certain times of the day are able to drink more alcohol. There is a gross and indecent inconsistency in the Government's position.

My view, and the view of many, is that the Government should have opposed this Bill on the basis that it was insufficiently precise as to the hours that drink should be available and that it failed to take fully into account that a greater number of people could die from accidents arising from the increased use of alcohol.

The present law on the testing of drivers for alcohol has two main purposes. It establishes a degree of alcohol absorption above which drivers are likely to be impaired. Many drivers will be impaired by a great deal less. How often have hon. Members been with people who have said that they can drive because they do not feel drunk, yet they are way over the limit? Those things vary so much from person to person. The way the Government have dealt with the Bill suggests that they, like the sponsors, have ignored that. That may have been dealt with during Committee but, as I understand it, there could not have been time during Committee because of the commercial pressures that arose.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has made constant allegations about commercial pressures influencing the Committee and the sittings motion. He has made no allegations against me. Is he aware that the sittings motion that was put to the Committee would have been passed if those voting had been only my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), myself and the Labour Members?

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the hon. Gentleman rose you allowed him to make a statement. Your are now preventing me from replying to that. He has said that Members of the Committee would have voted. That is an important statement for any Member of Parliament to make. No one can ever predict what would happen in any Committee of the House if the membership had been different. Different Members would or could have deployed different arguments. In the deploying of those arguments they may have convinced Members voting in favour of the sittings motion that they had obligations of another nature and that they should vote against it. I wish that the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) would consider what I am saying. He repeatedly falls into the same trap.

The Blennerhassett committee saw proposals on discretionary testing as central to its whole strategy. It might now be that if the new clause is not passed there could be an even greater need for the Blennerhassett committee proposals for discretionary testing to go through. I am concerned about this. One has to argue these things. There are all sorts of implications when one has discretionary testing. However, we are being driven by the motor of the Bill into having to accept what some might perceive to be an illiberal principle because, if it looks as if the increased opening hours of public houses leads to more people being on the road who have consumed alcohol, clearly the police will have to respond. They will have to set up new monitoring and testing arrangements to ensure that at least the annual figures show that they are responding to the new legislative and commercial framework that has been set up under the proposals in the Bill.

One would expect the police to accept that we would want to see, because it would be inevitable, a greater number of prosecutions arisng from the tests taking place after the introduction of the Bill. In so far as I and many others believe that there will be more drinking and driving if we did no have a greater number of prosecutions it would suggest that there was a deficiency in the way in which the police were operating. I would not like to think that that was happening.

We know that the police are being tested every day on the question of resources and that they find it difficult to operate in the current climate of increasing crime. However, we are introducing a Bill that increases the work load of police forces without increasing the resources available to them to enable them to deal with the additional crime that will arise only as a result of the passage of this legislation.

The Blennerhassett committee regarded the proposal of discretionary testing as essential to its strategy. In that committee's view it involves returning to the proposals in the original 1965 White Paper. At issue is whether the law can be an effective deterrent without discretionary testing the perception of risk is greatly reduced. That final sentence is a very important propositon. Yet we have this difficulty over discretionary testing. The promoter of the Bill has not fully taken into account the Bill's implications for discretionary testing. Perhaps he will care to put me right.

I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I am accepting new clause 1 and amendment No. 6. I underline the points already made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who is anxious to make other points on further amendments. That is my position on new clause 1.

That is a very interesting intervention. We are now talking about the variation orders and who takes the decision on them. The clause states that

"Licensing justices shall make a variation order unless satisfied that it is undesirable to do so".
So the licensing justices have a discretion, which means that they have to make a consideration. They have to take matters into account.

The hon. Gentleman may genuinely misunderstand this point. We are discussing new clause I and amendment No. 6, which is a narrower amendment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has moved new clause I, which has been debated. I, as promoter of the Bill, have said that I accept it. I also underlined my agreement with the point already made by my right hon. Friend about the importance of the work that he has done and that others have done who are interested in further discussions on the other amendments on the Order Paper, including, those in the name of my right hon. Friend.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands the point that I am making to him. Amendment No. 6 inserts the word "road" before "safety". We are amending a clause that deals with the discretion to licensing justices when they make variation orders. They have to take matters into account. While they may well have to do so, by reason of all sorts of commercial pressures in all communities — there are pressures on justices because it is Uncle Sam, Brother Jack, or whoever; we all live in the real world—they may find it difficult to evaluate objectively. Even when the amendment is accepted as part of the legislation the question will arise, what should be a road safety criterion that should be taken into account when the licensing justice makes a variation order under the discretion that is available to him?

When I asked the hon. Gentleman to respond to me, I only said that, in the real world, the thrust of the Bill, the existence of the Bill and the general proposition behind it means that more road accidents will arise from the abuse of alcohol, which in itself arises from the extension in hours set out in the Bill. That is a fact. Even people outside the House who seek the change may well accept that. They might make a calculation and say, "There will be more road accidents and fatalities but if we build more aeroplanes they might crash and one does not argue against the building of more aeroplanes". It might be argued that that is a justification but if one believes that more road accidents will be caused by alcohol abuse as a result of liberalising the drinking hours it is wrong to support the Bill. I think that that proposition is supported by many people.

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Repeatedly we are told that this is a popular measure. I have received four letters, three of which opposed the Bill. As I do my rounds in my constituency I do not hear people telling me that it is popular. People might think that there should be more flexibility, and I do not argue against that, but they are worried because the pubs will be open longer.

People are also worried about the Bill's implications for employment. A person's health is affected when he has to work late at night. A landlord might say to a barman, "You're lucky. You've got a job. I want you here until very late tonight because business is going to be good." He might say that he intends to change his licence and open later hours or, "I want you to come in earlier. I know that over the years your lifestyle has been based on having the afternoon off but that is over. You've got to be here."

Some might call that constructive dismissal. In a former incarnation you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were a master of employment law and you know all about constructive dismissal. The measure could lead to cases of constructive dismissal being heard by tribunals.

The hon. Member for Eastwood represents a marginal constituency. I am sure that he will not wish to be seen to advocate anything which will prejudice his constituents who work in public houses. I withdraw that comment because the hon. Gentleman represents a Scottish seat and the measures in this Bill already apply in his constituency. The hon. Gentleman has already been through the hoop but some of us in England are not eager to go through that hoop.

The Bill is supported by the National Association of Licensed House Managers which is affiliated to the TUC and, as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) said in Committee, it is supported by the Transport and General Workers Union.

But the Bill is opposed by the British Medical Association and the royal colleges.

That is interesting, because the Minister told us that research funded in Scotland by the Scotch Whisky Association was published in the British Medical Journal. Was it published simply to show a willingness to be balanced in the presentation of the case? The BMA perhaps opposed the Bill but published material that would be helpful to the promoters. Is that correct? I was not on the Standing Committee and I am learning as the Bill progresses. Discretionary testing might be a major feature on the agenda, if the Bill were to succeed, because the public will demand an increase in prosecutions of those who drive vehicles in a state of inebriation.

The issue is whether the law can be an effective deterrent. Without discretionary testing the perception of risk is greatly reduced. At present, if a driver can get home by driving carefully and without giving the impression of impairment, his chances of being tested are slim and known to be slim. As a result, large numbers drive with levels of alcohol in the blood which expose them to substantial risks of accident. That is an interesting statement.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point expressed concern about the safety of schoolchildren going home beween 3 and 4 pm. Last week in my constituency there was an incident involving a lollipop lady who became angry with a car driver, who she alleges was about to drive over a crossing that children were about to use. She felt that she was being intimidated, so she took hold of her lollipop and smashed his windscreen. She felt that she had to do that because it was her only defence against a driver whom she believed was acting irresponsibly.

I do not know the exact circumstances of that case, but that is her side of the story. I am sure that on many occasions in the past lollipop ladies have had to take action against people who, in their view, have been driving irresponsibly and thus endangering the lives of children.

What will happen if people driving home in mid-afternoon are full of drink and puddled out of their minds and wish to take on the lollipop lady and, indeed, may inflict death or damage on young children? Who will take responsibility for that? Will the hon. Member for Eastwood say, "I never thought that that would happen. I know that they said in Parliament that that might happen, but it was only Campbell-Savours; you know what he is like. It was just an allegation that he made"?

The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember what the Secretary of State for the Environment said today, because I predicted something three years ago and from the Dispatch Box today he said that I was right. It may well be that I am right on this occasion and that young children will lose their lives as a result of introduction of the Bill. The hon. Member for Eastwood may shake his head, but if that happens will he come to the House and make a personal statement? Does he intend to come and excuse the supporters of the Bill—people such as the big brewers and pub owners—for what has happened? I do not think that he will. It will just be another statistic, another tragedy. It will just be another family who have lost a child; it will hardly make a little bit of copy in the newspapers. I do not think that that is right. Perhaps we shall seek to delete all the clauses one after another so that we are only left with the title and then no damage will be done. I am sure that the great majority of people in this country will be very happy indeed about that.

It is unfortunate that the members of the public who support the Bill have not thought about the road safety implications. Perhaps they never dreamed that the right hon. Member for Castle Point would have to move an amendment to insert the word "road". They would have expected the promoter of the Bill to insert that word. The fact that he did not do so demonstrates the callous indifference of the sponsor, who was willing to put before Parliament a Bill that did not include that precious word. He was willing to ignore a matter of great concern to the public.

I am keeping strictly to the amendment because if I did not do so, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order. There may be other occasions when the Bill can be debated, so I feel free to deal, perhaps briefly, with a number of issues. If the Bill is not passed today, it will come back to the House next Friday. We have a lot of time to deal with these matters and I hope that the public understand that that is why we are dealing with a number of issues at length. We are determined to ensure that every slot of parliamentary time is used to discuss the Bill as fully as possible, with a single objective.

The present law appears to give the police a wide discretion, but the courts have not interpreted it in that way. The Blennerhassett committee examined alternative formulations that might allow the police greater freedom to use their resources effectively, without raising the spectre of discretionary breath tests. It concluded that there were no alternatives that were not liable to the same restrictive interpretation. The committee said that without discretionary testing there was little chance of raising the perception of risk.

The perception of risk is important. Only when people feel that they will be at risk of prosecution, disqualification, loss of employment, criticism from friends and children, arguments in families, references in local newspapers and in council chambers and even in Parliament will the perception of risk exist.

Under present arrangements the perception of risk has been set at a certain level. The Bill will change that situation, because it will introduce a new consideration for the police. More people who have been drinking will be driving. They could kill people. What will the police do about that? Either they must be given many more resources or they must have the right to carry out discretionary testing. That could spark off all sorts of arguments and the liberal lobbies would be worried. Indeed, we would all be worried. Even when I have had just one pint of beer in a pub before driving my car I feel a prick of conscience. Just one glass of beer and I feel guilty, even though I know that I am well under the limit.

The worry about discretionary breath testing centres on the belief that civil liberties will be threatened if the police do not have to fulfil certain specified conditions before stopping and testing motorists. The Blennerhassett committee said that it did not believe there were good grounds for that fear. A driver is responsible at all times for ensuring that his vehicle is in good condition and that he is fit to drive. It is on that kind of understanding that he is issued with a licence—a privilege which does not carry with it an automatic right to drive, whatever may subsequently happen. Under existing law, a driver may be stopped by police at any time without specific grounds to have his vehicle tested or his licence or insurance checked. Nothing improper is held to have been done when that happens. The same should apply in this case. Some say that there should be a means of checking before impairment manifests itself. This would show drivers, as the Blennerhassett committee recognised, that accidents or wild driving are not an adequate indication of impairment.

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This raises another issue which goes to the heart of the amendment. I should have thought that the sponsors of the Bill, and others who wish to see changes in licensing hours, would have wished to ensure that safe equipment was available—there is some already available—which any driver could fit to a motor car to act as an alcohol testing device. The driver could then test himself when he got into his car. If those who are so interested in promoting the increased consumption of alcohol had thought about this, they might have included a new section 75D placing a responsibility on all drivers and manufacturers to provide such equipment. A person who thought that he had had a few too many could then test himself and if the result was positive the ignition would cut out so that he could not drive the vehicle for an hour or two, or whatever the necessary period. Many hon. Members have more knowledge than I of the health aspects.

If we can send rockets to the moon, if we can build Tornado aircraft, microchips and all the new technology that Members have grown to love with the increase in secretarial allowances in recent years, surely it is not beyond the intelligence of man to produce a simple little piece of equipment to fit into a motor car so that if the driver taking the test is drunk and the red light goes on, the ignition will cut out. That might be some protection against the excesses which might arise from the implementation of the Bill. By refusing to identify "road" as the crucial word in the clause that the right hon. Member with his great knowledge of these matters had to introduce, the sponsor has made it clear to the world that he is simply not interested.

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great interest, but is there not a simpler approach? The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that we should think in terms of drinking less and the World Health Organisation has called upon all member states, including the United Kingdom, to reduce their consumption of alcohol by at least 25 per cent. in the 1990s. Against that background, where is the rhyme or reason in asking Parliament to provide longer drinking hours in public houses? It is nonsense—

Order. The new clause deals with monitoring. The right hon. Gentleman's comments are more appropriate to Second Reading.

I do not wish to prolong my intervention, but it is indeed about monitoring. In order to monitor, we must know the facts. I was merely saying that there is a simpler solution to the problem than the very interesting technical suggestion made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). To return to the sobriety that was one of the glories of our country between the wars, we have to drink a little less. If that is difficult for individuals the answer is for the Government to discourage the idea that there should be an increase in drinking hours.

The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that he likes a tipple on occasion. I, too like to have a bottle of wine occasionally, and it is easy for us to suggest that others might drink less. I would like people to drink less. I wish to deal in some detail with that, because I feel strongly about the consumption of alcohol and its effects on health and—the right hon. Gentleman has a great interest in this — on family life. That has been ignored in the Bill. I hope that, during the next few weeks, we shall have an opportunity to discuss the matter in great detail—

That is precisely what I said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We shall discuss it during the next few weeks, not today, although new clause 1 also relates to health. It covers alcohol-related problems with regard to public order, health and road safety. So far I have dealt only with road safety.

The Blennerhassett committee considered the enforcement of the present arrangements and discretionary testing, which goes to the heart of the matter. The new clause implies that the licensing authority will have to take into account the prospect — or lack of it — of discretionary testing. I can imagine magistrates meeting behind closed doors and agonising about what they should do when applications are made. Representatives of parents and governing bodies on schools will be saying to them, "You will not introduce new hours which will endanger our children." They will have to listen to the road safety lobby, the cyclists and representatives of county council education departments. Many people will lobby the magistrates saying, "Be careful, because if you change the rules, there will be more accidents on the roads." All sorts of lobbies will be trying to influence the licensing authorities, which will be placed in a very difficult position.

In the United States, such authorities are elected. Perhaps the supporters of the Bill have it in mind that, if licensing authorities prove to be obstructive and dare to resist granting such variations, they will introduce a Bill next year—no doubt sponsored by the brewing industry—to promote the principle of election to the bench. Then candidates will be able to run on platforms such as, "Vote for Joe Bloggs if you want longer hours", or, "Vote for Joe Bloggs if you want to retain the present hours." Let there be no doubt that the issue of licensing hours will be turned into a well-inflated—indeed, almost bursting—political football.

As everyone jumps in on the back of it, local Liberal candidates will be pointing both ways on the issue. They will say that they want extra hours in one part of the town and, in another that they do not really want them and have been misquoted: they want reduced hours. People in the commercial end of the Tory lobby in local communities will say that they want opening hours to be extended because they want their members to have increased business. Then, the little old ladies—the heart and soul of the Tory party—who, on some issues might be described as illiberal, but not on this one—might say that the issue goes against Conservative principles. The Conservatives are supposed to stand for decency, and they do not want to put up with people peeling out of pubs all day long. They want controls and restrictions. There will be arguments in Conservative associations between those who want more or fewer controls.

Candidates in other political parties will stand for greater hours and for fewer hours. Even Labour candidates might be divided on the issue. There is a division of opinion on the Opposition Benches, just as there is on the Government Benches on these matters. Inevitably, the issue will become a political football as people take into account the important words, "road safety". That is what will concern them and they will say that those words should feature prominently in the minds of the licensing justices when they make their decisions.

I do not believe that the Bill's promoters and their commercial backers have taken this matter into account. I can understand that the hon. Member for Eastwood, who, I believe, is a Scot—

—might wish to punish the English in the same way as the Scots are being punished. However, some of us, by one means or another, intend to ensure that the Bill's implications for England are fully considered.

The Blennerhassett committee made five proposals on the issue of discretionary testing, and the public reaction to those proposals was mostly favourable. The final proposal was for continuing publicity. The committee accepted the need for Government, local authorities, organisations and lobbies to keep pestering the public with information about the dangers of drinking and driving. The committee also recommended the continuation of the existing structure of penalties, but with special procedures for high-risk offenders. I do not quite understand that, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) can help me. Special procedures sound like illiberal words. They do not smack of the civil liberties to which he and I subscribe. Our position on the life issue, for example, is shared. The words have connotations that I might find a little worrying, but no doubt we shall discover more about that in the course of the debate. As I have said, the Blennerhassett committee recommended the continuation of the existing structure of penalties. If the Bill were enacted and there were more people puddled and drunk on the roads and the police found that there were more opportunities for bringing people before the courts on drink-driving offences and more successful prosecutions, surely the penalty would have to be increased. In those circumstances it could not be left as it is because it would not be acting as a deterrent. Punishment by fine is supposed to be a deterrent, and if there are more people appearing before the courts the scale of the deterrent must be examined, otherwise there will be a loss of control I must express a reservation about the recommendation in view of the circumstances that might develop if the Bill were to clear our procedures and become law.

1.15 pm

The Blennerhassett committee was not confronted by that proposition because it did not have the Bill before it, or any other Bill of this nature, when it made its recommendations. In another proposal it recommended the use of breath-testing machines to determine levels. I did not quite understand what the Committee meant and I thought that the right hon. Member for Castle Point might be able to help me. We are discussing an important Bill, and we are required to take into account the Blennerhassett committee's recommendatons. When there are implications of discretionary testing, surely we should have somebody in the Chamber who is competent to answer questions on breath-testing machines to determine the level of whatever was recommended by the committee. We have a lack of information on matters that are vital to those who are considering the Bill.

We have a Bill that in many ways is riddled with inadequacies. We have the problem of the three Conservative Members and their commercial interests—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has referred to an issue that has been cleared more than once during the debate and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw.

I do not think it necessary for the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to withdraw. He has referred in passing to hon. Members who have interests that have been declared. He is drawing attention only to that which has been said in the course of our proceedings.

I think that the hon. Member for Gillingham protesteth too much, but it is for the country to judge. As I have said, there is the problem of the three hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Castle Point, in so ably moving new clause 1, drew attention to the second problem, which is that the Bill was not even published. The right hon. Gentleman went to get a copy of the Bill and could not obtain one. There is an inadequacy in the way in which the House is being asked to deal with these matters.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of the substance of the new clause.

I shall address myself directly to discretionary testing, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Blennerhassett's fourth recommendation was retention of the legal upper limit of the present blood-alcohol levels. I do not know whether they are set at the right levels, but I believe that there would be an increased number of accidents if the Bill were to succeed and become an Act. It would then be necessary to re-examine the present levels. We might have to impose some new discipline. I am not necessarily in favour of that, but I propose that we may be driven to it by the fact that the police do not have the resources even to police—in the verbal sense—the present arrangements.

Under the proposals, we have the removal of the difficulties that have evolved in case law since 1967, so the proof of an offence does not rely unduly on the technicalities of compliance with detailed procedures. I find that case law usually defends the position of the civil libertarian. I do not express blanket opposition to that in the context of the introduction of a Bill of such an irresponsible nature that it may drive us to consider such matters. I should have hoped that one would have been inclined to secure a legislative framework within which it is not necessary to dismantle what had been built up in case law over a period of years. We may be driven to it. Such matters have not been taken into account.

In the view of some people, the first proposal would not be difficult to implement. The association in the present law between certain procedures such as those for making an arrest or taking tests and proof that an offence had been committed has greatly confused and inhibited its enforcement. In many cases, it has led to ludicrous results that have allowed those guilty of offences to go free but has provided no additional protection whatsoever for the innocent. I refer to the arguments that I have deployed. The recent removal of the right to jury trial will no doubt limit the incentive to produce spurious defences of one kind or another, but it is evident that legislation is needed to reform the law and the findings based upon it.

I am afraid that we are reforming the law—that is what we are doing today—but we are doing so in a way that acts in the public interest in a converse way to that which has been recommended by Blennerhassett. Yet hon. Members—not necessarily Conservative Members—who support the Bill do not deploy such arguments during the course of the debate.

In only one other western European country — the Republic of Ireland — is there a higher blood alcohol limit. Some countries have set lower limits. Some drivers are undoubtedly impaired below the present level, as I have suggested before. A recent OECD working party—I do not have to spell out what the words are; I am sure that the great majority of people know what OECD stands for—has noted that the average person can be shown to have some degree of impairment of blood-alcohol concentrations as low as 50 mg per 100 ml of blood, particularly if they are inexperienced as drinkers or as drivers, as most young people are.

That is an important matter. When the little old licensing justice considers a variation order and, in a back room, argues out the policy of the bench on the matter, he will have people pressing him to be more liberal and to increase the number of hours, and others pressing him not to increase them but to be more restrictive. Some people would argue that the law should be changed so that it works in the other direction and reduces the number of drinking hours. We have not even begun to consider the arguments that they might deploy. They might argue much of the case deployed by the hon. Member for Eastwood on new clause 1.

We must take account also of what can only be described as a revelation. It is the statement that many people have a degree of impairment at blood alcohol concentrations as low as 50 mg. We are basically saying that, by opening pubs longer, more people will have access to drink for greater periods during the day, which means that more people with blood alcohol concentrations of 50 mg and over will be in circulation, many of them young people. Many of those people will be incapable of driving, yet still driving. Those people will have been given a licence to drink and drive by the hon. Member for Eastwood and the commercial forces that have promoted the original legislation. Perhaps I should clarify that. I have just made a statement, but perhaps I was wrong. Is it the case that those who drew up the Bill had a connection with the licensing trade? Perhaps someone will deny that. No? It is now coming out. I presume—this is quite a development — that the Bill arose from discussions in the brewing industry and among the licensees and pub owners, and that they promoted it. I am sure that the public will understand the motivation behind the Bill and why three Conservative Members who had a direct commercial interest in the business were appointed to the Committee. It is obvious why they were there. The brewers promoted the Bill. They put their people on the Bill and then they drove through the sittings motion so that the Bill would be considered as fast as possible—

Order. Hon. Members are appointed to Committees by the Selection Committee appointed by the House and by none other. [Interruption.]

From a sedentary position from behind me, I hear the voice of a man experienced in these matters — my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) — who said that perhaps the Selection Committee was wrong. Perhaps that should be taken into account by the Chairman of the Selection Committee.

Order. I hope that hon. Members will reflect carefully on what they are alleging before they adversely raise questions about Committees appointed by the House.

I did not say that. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) misheard my muttering.

I unreservedly apologise to my hon. Friend if I misrepresented him in any way. I am sure that when he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will say what he said.

The licensing justices are in a difficult position. They must take into account the fact that evidence suggests that people with blood-alcohol concentrations of 50 mg and over may drive vehicles, have impaired judgment and may well be a danger to the general public. I put this proposition to the House: it is not in the public interest that those people should be allowed to use motor vehicles if their judgment is impaired, even though that is within the law. The licensing justices have a responsibility to take that into account in making their decisions. I should have thought that, when all the lobbies to which I referred start arguing about these matters, they should put that matter at the top of their agenda.

1.30 pm

At between 50 and 80 mg the degree of risk starts to rise. Increasing numbers of drivers will be on the road who are over the limit of 80 mg and, in the absence of discretionary testing, more will be allowed to drive under the Bill.

The present problem is the effective application of the law to drivers, a large number of whom are substantially above the existing limit. For the time being, as the Blennerhassett committee concluded, it is undoubtedly better to concentrate resources on them. What is important is that the Government preserve their existing option to have a lower limit at some stage, if in the future it can be shown that people below the present level are contributing substantially to the number of accidents. That is an interesting consideration, which we should take into account.

put it to the House that we are legislating today for precisely that position. That is why the House should be full today: there should be 600 Members of Parliament arguing the case for road safety, and discussing whether young people should be allowed to drive in a state of inebriation. That is within the law as it stands, but surely the implication is that we may need at some time in the future to reconsider the law and reduce the limit.

The Blennerhassett report says that it is generally accepted that the existing penalties are, if effectively used, stiff enough to deter those capable of being deterred. The maximum level of fines has recently been increased, and in addition, insurance companies by increasing the premiums for convicted drivers, can impose a further substantial financial penalty. Some, no doubt, escape the full rigours of the penalty, either by driving when disqualified or by not admitting their conviction to insurance companies. But in the Committee's view there is no evidence that such people present a substantial problem. For most drivers who are likely to be deterred, the possible combination of a disqualification and a fine is an adequate threat. What is required the Committee says, is not so much a higher penalty as a greater likelihood that the penalty will be imposed.

But will that penalty be imposed? In my view, there is no such likelihood, because the Bill does not provide for the increasing resources needed by the police to ensure compliance with the existing legislation. The Bill's supporters have not dealt with that problem. They have simply imposed on the public a dollop of what they perceive to be more liberal legislation, and presumed that the civil authorities will be able to act in such a way as to secure and defend the public interest. But it will not work like that, and they know it. It is not fair to legislate without understanding the financial consequences of that legislation, but the financial consequences of this Bill have not been taken into account.

For my sins, I went into the Committee Room to watch the proceedings on the Bill for a short time from the public gallery. It struck me then that these matter were not being dealt with. When the right hon. Member for Castle Point tried to bring them into consideration, no one responded. The hon. Member for Eastwood responded briefly to his suggestions by saying that all such matters were covered by the legislation in Scotland. We shall deal with Scotland and its roads in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman always hid behind Scotland. He never addressed the problems in England. He did not deal with the resources that are necessary to secure greater policing for the implementation of his Bill, in particular for the implementation of the provisions in new clause l and amendment No. 6. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman lives in Scotland.

I am very pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman lives in Glasgow. He will have noticed what I have noticed in Glasgow. It must disturb him, as it disturbs me and many people in Scotland. I refer to the alcoholism of many people who live in deprived conditions or who are unemployed. They find it very difficult to resist alcohol. Some people take a conscious decision to keep away from it. That can be very hard, particularly if one is living in very difficult circumstances.

In parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, there are appalling examples of the result of alcohol abuse. Scottish authorities, the police and many of the groups that have been set up to deal with the problem are very concerned about it. They never supported the Bill, and the hon. Member for Eastwood knows that they never supported the Bill. When they came to see hon. Members and A rote to us they said that they did not support the liberalisation arrangements in Scotland. Even today they write to us.

I have a very interesting article in my bag of tricks that was written by a Scottish journalist, following correspondence in the local newspaper. It drew attention to what is happening in Scotland, as against what the two researchers to whom I referred might think is happening in Scotland.

Does the hon. Member for Eastwood know the director and the senior lecturer of the alcohol studies centre at Paisley college of technology? Paisley is very near to Glasgow. This gentleman wrote an article in the Glasgow Herald on 10 January 1987 that was headed "Alcohol and Social Harm". That was long after the introduction of the Scottish legislation to liberalise opening hours. His conclusions, particularly those that relate to the subject of the new clause and the amendment, are totally and utterly at variance with the conclusions that have been drawn by the hon. Gentleman.

This person is a director and a senior lecturer of the alcohol studies centre at Paisley college of technology. He is an expert on these matters. He is paid by the education authorities in Scotland to study the matter in depth, to write papers and to lecture on it. Why is it that he takes a completely different view from the whisky manufacturers in Scotland? Why is it that he also takes a completely different view from the three Conservative Members of Parliament who moved the sittings motion three weeks ago in Committee? Could it be that they gain financially from the industry, while he is required, as a researcher and a social scientist, to look objectively at these matters?

The hon. Member for Eastwood the promoter of the Bill, sits there and says nothing. Surely he can answer the simple question whether he knows this man. He does not respond. Let the record show that he does not respond. I ask whether he talked to this man.

I will not be provoked further by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). He alleged that I have not met the gentleman in question. I do know the gentleman and I have certainly discussed these matters with him.

When the hon. Gentleman was discussing with Mr. S. J. Allsop, director and senior lecturer, those matters that are raised in the amendment that was tabled by the right hon. Member for Castle Point, who so ably and notably moved new clause 1 and amendment No. 7, why did he not ensure that this word was inserted in the original Bill? Why did he not move the amendment? Is he suggesting that he was unconvinced by the arguments deployed by Mr. Allsop, who, as I understand it, has repeatedly referred to road safety? Why did the hon. Gentleman ignore Mr. Allsop? After his conversations with Mr. Allsop, why did he not go to the Public Bill Office and table an amendment to his own Bill or have it modified in Committee? Why is it that those who were concerned about the Bill were left with the responsibility of tabling this highly important amendment? Could it possibly be that when the hon. Gentleman met Mr. S. J. Allsop, he simply switched off and just went through the motions? Could it be that he was simply not interested? Can the hon. Gentleman say whether he has amended the Bill in any way following the discussions that he had with the director and senior lecturer of the alcohol studies centre, Mr. Allsop? The hon. Gentleman does not respond. Therefore, I have to assume that the amendment arises from discussions that the hon. Gentleman must have had with people who are interested in the Bill and with the concerned lobby. It was the concerned lobby that produced the amendment on road safety and it was the commercial lobby that proceeded with a Bill that did not take into account the implications for road safety.

It seems to me that the commercial lobby — the brewers or whoever they are who are behind the Bill—have been very selective in the sort of Bill that they have produced. All they have done is look after their commercial interests. It might be that they would wish to take into account what I am about to say. Those who oppose the Bill, like me, do so because the Bill has been cheated through Parliament by commercial pressures exerted by three Conservative Members of Parliament. That is what repels and upsets us. That is why we are angry.

Order. If I heard the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) correctly, he alleges that the Bill has been "cheated through" Parliament with the aid of hon. Members who had a direct interest. If so, he must withdraw that remark.

The hon. Member alleged that the Bill had been "cheated through" Parliament with the assistance of hon. Members who had a direct interest in it. The hon. Member must not say that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps you would care to advise me what I am supposed to do. You say that I must not say that.

Order. I am advising the hon. Member that he must withdraw the allegation that the Bill has been "cheated through" the House. I hope that he will do that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am very respectful of our proceedings, despite the allegations that are frequently levelled against me. If you wish me to do that, I shall do that for you. I accept that. I have made my point and the record will show what I have said.

Mr. Allsop should be a key part of our considerations. I do not know whether he is in the House today but I, many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are grateful to him for the work that he has done and which I hope to deal with during the course of a debate on another amendment.

Perhaps I should resume my speech. I have been speaking almost two hours quite briefly actually. I have an abundance of material on which to draw and there are matters which, in my view have, not been deliberated upon adequately. My great sorrow is that because of the way in which the Bill was treated in Committee by the use of procedure, those matters will never be fully debated. The Bill has been rushed through and, during the debate on other amendments I shall deal with that matter in more detail.

1.45 pm

I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) with great interest. However, I thought that he was a trifle unfair to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) who, at an earlier stage, indicated that he accepted the new clause and amendment No. 6. I wish that my hon. Friend and I could have somehow got together at a much earlier stage and, if there was to be a Bill, we could have framed a Bill that respected the principle of flexibility but would not have eroded the break in hours.

Before you put the question, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say that I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood for accepting the new clause. It shows that we can make progress, albeit a little more slowly than some of us would have wished.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Clause 1

Variation Orders Etc

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.

Private Members' Bills

Companies (Audit Committees) Bill

Bill read a Second lime and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bill).

Housing (Houses In Multiple Occupation) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [13 February.]

Non-Public Limited Companies (Appointment Of Directors) Bill

Planning Permission (Demolition Of Houses) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Order. The hon. Member should allow me to put the Question.

The Question is, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That objection was not made in time. Therefore, the Second reading takes place now.

Order. The hon. Member has not moved the motion. Second Reading what day?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think I am right in assuming that you were plainly waiting for an objection, but it was not uttered.

Order. I was plainly waiting for the hon. Member to move the motion, which he failed to do. He has now missed his chance.

I think that I have dealt with the hon. Member's point of order. He quite clearly missed the boat.

On another point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course that might be assumed, but why, then, was the objection uttered after your second pronouncement?

If I recall, the objection was taken before I proposed the Question. That is within my clear recollection. Second Reading what day?

Optical Appliances (Blind And Partially Sighted Persons) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 May.

Elimination Of Poverty In Retirement Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not stand when I am on my feet. I heard, "Objection taken".

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Bill will eliminate the disgrace in retirement of the poverty in which millions of old people have to live. I heard no objection to that Bill, and therefore I assume—

Order. The Chair clearly heard an objection. Second Reading what day?

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There has been an interesting development with Government business in the past few days. I should like you to have a word with Mr. Speaker to try to find out how many times since the end of the war Governments have taken over Bills that have been introduced by private Members.

Order. We must deal with one matter at a time. The hon. Member is raising what seems to be a quite separate matter.

Order. I am not denying the hon. Member the opportunity to raise his point of order. It seems to be a different matter.

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will quickly show me how it links with the point with which we are dealing.

Yes, absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) was trying to introduce a Bill to give pensioners an extra £20 a week. The Government now say that they do not have any time. Last night the House adjourned three hours early, and the night before it adjourned an hour early. It would not be a bad idea, if they can change their minds on dumping nuclear waste in Tory constituencies, for the Government to change their mind about—

Order. I have heard more than sufficient. The hon. Member knows how we deal with private Members' Business. He knows that we decide how much time should be allocated to deal with private Members' Bills, and when. This is one of the days allocated by the House for dealing with this Bill. It may well be open to the Government to allocate time, but that is not the Question before the House today.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you can help the House. I have absolutely no doubt, because you have said so, that you heard an hon. Member say, "Object", but would it not be for the convenience of the House if the mover of the motion and every other hon. Member in the House could hear when some seedy, corrosive, secreted Member objects, so that we know who he is?

Order. The hon. Member must not persist in standing when I am on my feet.

The hon. Member must not persist in interrupting me either, or I am afraid that I shall have to send him off for an early weekend.

If I can just help you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) who, acting on behalf of the Prime Minister, objected.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have repeatedly heard over the past few weeks that the Government are committed to the elimination of poverty. A Government Whip who must remain unnamed—

We do not need to identify him. He has today objected to a Bill introduced by a Labour Back-Bencher to eliminate poverty for pensioners. There will be no debate because the proceedings of the House—

Order. The hon. Member has been in the House on previous Fridays when we have had exactly the same problem and he has listened to exactly the same replies and explanations by me from the Chair. Now that the House seems to be satisfied that there was a genuine objection, confirming what I clearly heard, I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) will give us the date on which he hopes the Bill will be given a Second Reading. Second Reading what day?

We had wished to have the Second Reading on this day, but I understand that the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), acting on behalf of the Government—

Yes, Sir. The Bill was granted its First Reading unopposed. There was no Division. There were plenty of opportunities for such a Division, when hon. Members could have had their votes recorded as being for or against a measure to eliminate poverty in retirement—

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will get to a point of order with which I may deal.

My point of order is this, Sir. If the House agreed that the Bill should have a First Reading—as it did a long time ago—why are Members of Parliament now allowed to prevent the debate from taking place without their names being recorded? I understand that the hon. Member for Watford, acting on behalf of the Prime Minister—

Order. The hon. Member knows perfectly well, because in the past he has raised exactly the same points and has heard me and other occupants of the Chair rule, that these matters are not for the Chair. What we are doing today, and what has been done, is entirely in accordance with our long-established practices and procedures. I hope that we can now proceed.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask you to assist the House by conveying to Mr. Speaker the wishes of many of us that there should be a re-examinaion of this procedure of anonymity being preserved, like the hon. Member for Watford—

Order. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that a Committee has been set up by the House to look at procedure. The hon. Member has been advised previously that, if he is not satisfied with the procedures as they exist, the Procedure Committee should be made aware of his complaint. No doubt what has been said today will be read in the Official Report by members of the Committee on Procedure. Does the hon. Member wish to give me a day for the Second Reading?

Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 15 May.

Housebuyers' Protection Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 May.

Pensioners' Right To Fuel And Communications Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure who objected to the measure to allow pensioners to live warmly in their homes throughout the winter. Will you convey to the House whether you heard the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) once again act on behalf of the Prime Minister to deny that to them?

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that what we are doing now is no different from what normally happens, when the occupant of the Chair puts to the House any Question before it and must collect the voices without necessarily requiring hon. Members either to stand or to identify themselves. That has been explained to the hon. Gentleman and to the House on previous occasions.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has just crossed my mind that the other night we had a pensions Bill before us. I think that you were in the Chair at the time. However, it was not intended to cover the needs of the 9·5 million pensioners in the country. It was a parliamentary pensions Bill to provide fuel, light and heat for those who happen to come into this place and, perhaps, manage to occupy the Chair. This is a scandal. It really is a carry-on.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is not a point of order for me, and he knows equally well that he is testing my patience.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 May.

Infant Life (Preservation) And Paternal Rights Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

With the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), Friday 8 May.

The point of order is about today's business. Will you inform the House whether you recollect hearing the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) object to the Pensioners' Right to Fuel and Communications Bill, and whether his name will therefore be recorded in Hansard as that of the hon. Member who denied pensioners a warm home throughout the winter?

Order. No doubt it will be, now that the matter has been raised. However the Chair deprecates this kind of practice, which is contrary to our usual procedures and may eventualy turn out to be counter-productive. I must warn the House about that.

Public Opinion Polls (Prohibition At Election Times) Bill

Local Government Act 1986 (Amendment) Bill Lords

Order for Second Reading read.

Is the hon. Gentleman acting with the authority of the promoter?

Bill read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Sir Brandon Rhys Williams.]

London Government And Other Councils (Annual Elections) Bill

Patents Amendment Bill Lords

I Order for Second Reading read.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like my name to be recorded as objecting to the Bill.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 May.

Billiards (Abolition Of Restrictions) Bill Lords

Motion made and Question proposed.

That Standing Committee C be discharged from considering the Billiards (Abolition of Restrictions) Bill (Lords] and that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Pike.]

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) is shouting at me in a threatening manner for having objected to his Bill. I think that it should be put on the record, so that the whole House knows what he is saying to an hon. Member who objected to his disgraceful Bill.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Anything that I have to say to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbynl can be recorded at any time. My views on him, and on what he has to say and the way in which he conducts himself, are well known.

Order. Let me deal with one point of order at a time. The Chair deprecates interventions of any kind from a sedentary position. The Chair equally deprecates the kind of exchanges that we are having this afternoon. I hope that hon. Members are aware that they do little to add to the dignity of the House.

Perhaps I can help the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I heard the remark. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) was called a pathetic little something, which I imagine was akin to the kind of language that is used by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie).

Question put and agreed to.

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

Basildon (District Council Finance)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Garel-Jones]

2.46 pm

Throughout the four years that I have represented Basildon in this House I have been pleased to see the town grow, develop and blossom into what it is today — quite the finest town in the country. I pay tribute to all those, who have worked to make it so, particularly the original new town pioneers. So successful is Basildon today that I have recently suggested that it, rather than Chelmsford, should be the county town of Essex. That in no way reflects upon the wonderful representation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has given to that constituency. Instead it reflects on the muck-up that the Liberals have made of the town, in particular of the road system. Furthermore, its population makes Basildon the natural county town.

Ever since I have been a Member of Parliament I have interested myself in local government legislation and finance. I served as a Redbridge councillor. Redbridge is an excellently run local authority. Furthermore, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply to the debate, led Wandsworth with great distinction. The financial policy and political posturing of Basildon district council therefore came as a great shock to me initially. Redbridge was always concerned with the provision of cost-effective and efficient services. Unfortunately, Basildon district council has consistently wasted ratepayers' money on propaganda and political indoctrination instead of concentrating on its specific duties as a district council.

All hon. Members are concerned about the difficulties involved in providing sufficient jobs for all those who wish to work. High rates unquestionably destroy jobs, and particularly small businesses. Indeed, high rates stunt the growth of all businesses. In 1983 my council imposed high rates, and I believed it to be my duty to seek relief for my constituents. It was for that reason that I decided to make my maiden speech on the Rates Bill 1984. I certainly do not regret that decision.

Locally, the Opposition roundly condemned me for my support of rate capping and launched a vicious and offensive campaign against me. Everything I said at that time has been subsequently vindicated by quite extraordinary events within the local Labour party. Two Labour councillors last year resigned from the party in disgust at what had been going on within their ranks and there is now a hung council in Basildon. One of these two councillors, in his resignation statement said:
"I will now vote in line with my conscience. The Labour party I knew and believed in is not the Labour party of today. Militant is on the rise, even in places such as Basildon."
Both councillors spoke of intimidation and of the party spending money in wards not in line with need but rather in line with enhancing the electoral chances of the party retaining seats in those wards. The Government were right to cap Basildon rates in 1984, just as they are right to cap them today. My constituents and I welcome the relief to ratepayers that that action has brought.

Through rate capping the Government have protected ratepayers from what would otherwise have been an enormous rate increase such as those imposed in councils such as Waltham Forest and Ealing. It is because the rates were capped that the district council rate increase is so small this year. I congratulate the Government on that. All the allegations about services being decimated as a result have been proved to be completely without foundation.

I draw the attention of the House to a number of areas of expense locally that I believe should be of concern to us all. The first area is that of so-called public relations. The council spends an enormous amount of ratepayers' money each year on propaganda. If it is as good a council as it claims to be, I cannot understand why it needs such a large PR department to tell people how good it is. How could anyone justify a small district council spending over £344,000 on PR and employing a PR department with 12 staff? All hon. Members are only too well aware of the double standards of the Liberal party. There are many examples we can draw on, but the example I wish to draw attention to is that of the Bill to outlaw political propaganda, on which the Liberal party voted in favour of the Second Reading but hypocritically voted against on the Third Reading.

All the time locally we have to put up with the nonsense of the Liberals claiming credit for things that they have had absolutely no hand in, trying to please everyone and adopting their traditional policy, replacing paving stones and having dog mess cleaned up, while they never admit to being what they are—Socialists who smile. We have heard quite clearly from the mouth of the leader of the Liberal party that, while they would never support a Conservative Government, they cannot wait to jump into bed with the Labour party.

The Under-Secretary of State will be well aware of the discussions that have taken place in Basildon over the transfer of New Towns Commission properties. Over the past few months people have been subjected to a barrage of Labour party propaganda, all at the ratepayers' expense, that culminated in the so-called referendum to determine the wishes of the people of Basildon. An expensive video was made in which an EastEnders star appeared. Some of the participants have subsequently reported that they had no idea how biased the video would be. The referendum turned out to be a farce, as the council could hardly offer any alternatives when the Government were not in possession of what those alternatives might be. In all the publicity, the impression was given that the choice lay between either a wicked, grasping, heartless private landlord or the kindly, caring, paternal council. I find it utterly contemptible that during the course of the campaign elderly people were frightened by being told that bodies other than the council would put their rents up, not carry out repairs and even evict them. Of course, what people were not told is that Basildon ratepayers had to contribute some £907,000 to the housing revenue account last year and it is planned to take some £1,285,000 from us this year just to balance the books.

People were not told that, whereas the cost for administration for each of the New Towns Commission 16,000 houses is under £100 per year, the figure for the council is £380 a year. Therefore, rents would have to rise by at least £5·40 per week. People were not told that in 1976, when there was a Labour Government, the council turned down the chance to take over the commission housing. As well as that refusal, it has had the chance, by giving six months' notice to the Government, to assist in the handover. The speed with which the so-called referendum was mounted had nothing to do with housing need but everything to do with trying to influence the outcome of the local election on 7 May.

There are further examples of expenditure that should be closely examined. For example, there is a theatre grant of £85,000, a publicity grant for £65,000, a CNT housing transfer grant of £135,000, consultancies costing £70,000, a peace festival costing £2,000, the Essex and Herts study on the effects of war costing £5,000, a women's committee costing £20,000 — that does not include the cost of a women's officer post — a public relations consultancy costing £16,000—occupied by someone who apparently advises Brent on education matters Seeds—a Labour party group of councillors—costing £11,000 and an ex-Greater London Council councillor who set up GLEI3 is paid approximately £17,500. The new theatre will cost the ratepayer approximately £1·5 million a year.

All that spending is taking place against a background of deception of the ratepayers by suggesting that somehow there will be no cost to them. Massive loans have been taken out by the council, in the guise of private companies, on deferred payment terms, the first payment for which will fall due in 1988. The council hopes that before then a Labour Government will be in power to bail it out. As we all know, and as the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) has said, there will not be a Labour Government. Even if there were to be a Labour Government, they would certainly not bail out Basildon district council.

Assuming that rate limitation keeps expenditure to £13·9 million the following deficits would result: in 1988–89 £7·6 million, 1989–90 £11·1 million and in 1990 £13·1 million. By so-called creative accountancy the council has set up companies to manage various projects. It is the height of hypocrisy for the Socialist council to use City institutions to finance grandiose schemes while thinking that we are daft enough to believe that all that can be done without any cost to the ratepayer. With such heavy expenditure already projected, it begs the question of how the council can possibly justify taking on an even larger debt of £17 million to acquire the town centre?

If there really is all that spare money lying around it is a pity that it could not be used to do something about the housing waiting lists or council properties that are in urgent need of repair. The council has spent extraordinary amounts of money on a system it called "going local", an attempt to bring the council closer to the people. The reaction I have had from people at my surgeries has been negative. Anything that requires a decision has to be put off until the central administration has been contacted. The result is delay and frustration. I can conclude only that that expensive venture has served to add another tier to an already bloated bureaucracy. Far from bringing the council closer to the people, it has moved the decision-making power even further away from them.

If the council wants to know whether the money is needed, I have many filing cabinets in my office full of genuine pleas for assistance. The money spent on the housing referendum was a shameless abuse of its position and a betrayal of its duties to the people of Basildon.

This is not the first time that that has happened. Not long ago, the council held a similar survey on education, a matter for which it has no responsibility. The concern was not genuine, rather a cynical attempt to stir up discontent. As if that was not bad enough, it is now seeking to pump out its propaganda on a new local radio station and television network over which the council hopes to have considerable influence.

If a hung council were effective, all that nonsense could be stopped, but even the nuclear free-zone signs are still up as the Liberals, in their guise of disarmers, still support them. Only this week a glossy booklet dropped through evey single door in Basildon, having been posted, printed and published at the ratepayers' expense. It is entitled "Pledge to Homeowners" and is designed to influence the outcome of the local elections. It contains utter drivel and gives the impression of being in favour of home ownership when everyone in the House knows that the local council in Basildon cannot wait to get its hands on the council and New Towns Commission properties that have been sold.

For my part, I hope that we can have more shared ownership schemes in Basilclon, small units for single people and low-cost housing, particularly to attract more teachers to the area. I also hope that people living in Felmores and Langdon Hills will be relieved of the burden of the district heating system and have individual gas-fired central heating.

Central Government policy towards Basildon district council finance has correctly protected my constituents from the worst excesses of socialism. Rate-capping as an interim measure has proved effective. We all welcome and look forward to the introduction of the community charge.

3.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on once again drawing to the attention of the House the horror story that is Basildon district council. I remember well his maiden speech on that subject and serving with him on Committees on the Rates Bill and on the Local Government Bill. It is with some dismay that I hear today that things have gone from bad to worse, although, with the local elections coming up, there is the prospect that the people of Basildon will take a hold on events and bring the council back to its senses.

If the control of the council is not changed, the prospects are serious, My hon. Friend referred to Basildon council's document entitled "Pledge to Homeowners". I am amazed that any responsible local authority can think it reasonable, during a local election campaign, to send out a glossy brochure. I have no idea how much it cost to produce, but it runs to 16 pages and is in full colour. It sets out that council's objectives. It is being distributed to every house in the council area during the election campaign. Obviously, it is designed to influence the outcome of the election. I notice that it does not have an imprint on it, but I should have thought that it was one of the most amazing documents that we have had a chance to see being distributed by a Labour council to try to influence the electorate.

I wonder what people would think if, during a general election campaign — as there must be in the next 15 months or so—the Government decided to distribute leaflets like that document to every house in the country, at enormous expense, on the basis that it was just information. People would say that it did not wash. No responsible Government would be allowed to do it. If Basildon council can do that within the law—I have my doubts whether it is lawful—the law should be changed.

The finances of Basildon district council are an horrific story. Its current spending has gone up an incredible 44 per cent. in real terms since 1979 despite having been selected for rate limitation in 1985–86, 1986–87 and 1987–88. I am pleased to say, however, that rate limitation is protecting ratepayers to some extent. Basildon's rate limit in 1987–88 was only 0·2 per cent. up on last year—well below what it would have been otherwise. Indeed, the local rate was only 5 per cent. above the level of two years ago—half the shire district average increase over the same period and well below inflation.

At 52·84p in the pound the local rate is, however, still far too high—double the average rate for shire districts. The 1987–88 budget of £16·911 million is more than £3 million above the expenditure level set by the Government and a massive 112 per cent. over its grant related expenditure assessment. The enormous financing gap has been met by raiding balances. My hon. Friend also mentioned the setting up of bogus companies to defer the cost of current spending into the future.

I have seen the figures produced by the council setting out the implications. If the council, on a neutral basis, were going to inform the residents of the issues in a local election campaign, it should say that on present policies it will spend £17 million in 1987–88 and, without any new spending plans, because of the commitment decisions already taken, in three years' time that will go up to £27 million. How can the people of Basildon afford to pay that?

For the time being rate limitation will continue, and for the future we have set our plans for comprehensive rates reform. On that score my hon. Friend may like to be aware that had the community charge been in operation last year bills per adult in Basildon would have been £240 compared with the £300 average that was actually charged in domestic rates.

Even with high spending there will be some relief when the community charge is introduced after the next general election. Businesses could also have been benefited from an average 8 per cent. reduction in rate bills as a result of the introduction of the national non-domestic rate.

My hon. Friend has raised the question of the new town housing at Basildon. I very much regret tht the council saw fit to spend the ratepayers' money on a misconceived "referendum" of the new town tenants. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State made it plain to the council before it embarked on this, that its referendum would not be treated by the Government as a worthwhile demonstration of the wishes of new town tenants on the future of their houses. I regret that this did not prevent the council from going ahead with its referendum, and with a grossly tendentious video in support of its case for a transfer of new town houses into its own ownership.

The leader of the council has written to my right hon. Friend reporting the results of the referendum held in late March. The results show that a high percentage of respondents want a vote before a decision is taken on the houses. We have been saying for over a year that we will consult on the options of the transfer to the council and a detailed, practical alternative. The exact arrangements for that consultation are something which the Department will wish to discuss with the council, and the Commission for New Towns in due course.

The results also show that a high percentage of respondents want to see transfer to the council as one of the alternatives put forward in the consultation. We have never suggested otherwise.

Finally, the results show that, on the basis of what they have "learnt so far", the great majority of respondents favour transfer to the council. Any other result would be extremely surprising, given that no alternative has so far been put forward for the tenants to consider. All that tenants have had to go on is council propaganda typified by a highly misleading video portraying housing associations as incompetent and uncaring landlords.

My hon. Friend referred to the time when I was leader of Wandsworth council. When we took over from the Socialists in 1978, the Labour council had been hostile towards the housing association movement. The same basic antipathy towards housing associations is now exhibited by the Socialists in Basildon. We often hear suggestions that the Conservative party is not as friendly as it could be to housing associations, but the truth is the reverse. We support the voluntary sector in housing, but the Labour party, which in some areas has come round to supporting housing associations, in the most hardened areas, such as Basildon, still regards the voluntary housing movement as something which should not be trusted.

We want to make arrangements, as soon as possible, for a proper consultation of the new town tenants at Basildon. The council will have a major part to play in that process. The main concern for all prospective landlords, as well as for the commission and the Government, should be to ensure that the tenants have good, objective information on which to judge which landlord would be best for them. For our part, we will respect the wishes of the tenants expressed in a properly organised consultation process.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the location of Essex county hall. I must tell him that this is a matter for the county council. He also drew attention to the Felmores district heating system. I can assure him that my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be writing to my hon. Friend on this matter shortly.

I also note my hon. Friend's concern about low-cost housing. The effects of the initiatives which my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction mentioned in reply to my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate on 4 November will in due course be felt in the London region, where it is so difficult for young people to find homes.

I am concerned that my hon. Friend's speech will not be as widely circulated to the people of Basildon as this leaflet. His speech deserves to be widely circulated to them and I hope that between now and polling day his remarks will be drawn to the attention of Basildon's electorate.

One matter is certain. Without the diligence of my hon. Friend in representing the people of Basildon, their lot would be even more sorry than it is at the moment. My hon. Friend has referred to his important role in the enactment of the rate-capping legislation, which was opposed by the Opposition parties, and he has also drawn attention to the fact that it was only the Conservatives who were in favour of banning propoganda on the rates.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven minutes past Three o'clock till Tuesday 5 May, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 2 April.