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Modification Of Permitted Hours

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

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I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 11, at end insert—

'(2) In section 60(1)(b) of the principal Act (permitted hours in licensed premises on Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday) for the word "five" there shall be substituted the word "three" and for the words "beginning at two in the afternoon" shall be substituted "between two and seven in the afternoon.".'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 11, at end insert—

'(2) In section 60(1)(b) of the principal Act (permitted hours in licensed premises on Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday) the words "with a break of five hours beginning at two in the afternoon" shall be omitted.'.

We might describe one of these amendments as frivolous and the other as eminently sensible. Both relate to the permitted hours issue on Sundays. Amendment No. 4 is rather impractical, at least in political terms, as it attempts to treat Sundays like other days of the week by abolishing the need for licensees to close during the afternoon. In the light of the Shops Bill, I do not think that the House is ready for such a change. I am sure that the time will come for such proposals, so for the moment I shall not seek to press amendment No. 4.

Perhaps it would be advisable to remind the House of the licensing law on Sundays, Christmas day and Good Friday. The permitted hours are from 12 noon to 10.30 pm, with a break of five hours beginning at 2 pm. Pubs are therefore closed between 2 pm and 7 pm, a total of five hours. My proposal would limit the closing to three hours only, leaving it to the publican to decide during which of the three hours between 2 pm and 7 pm he would close.

I realise that I am on extremely dangerous ground, as I have dared to touch on the issue of Sunday trading. This is only a modest inching forward on this issue; it is not even a step forward, but it is a modest move in the right direction towards what we might describe as "sense on Sunday". I am mindful of the ignominious fate of the Government's Shops Bill, defeated in the House by an unholy alliance of the official Opposition, the trade union movement and a number of Back Benchers, no doubt with marginal seats, who demonstrated the truism that a politician's mind is conditioned by the state of his seat.

That is a monstrous, disgraceful and utterly untrue statement. I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I shall withdraw it. If I have touched on any sensitivities, I withdraw that statement unreservedly.

Would my hon. Friend also withdraw it in respect of myself? Over the years, I have been consistent on this subject. It has not affected the vote in my constituency, which, I am happy to say, has increased at every election.

If it needed to be shown that Sunday trading is a sensitive issue, I have done so. I unreservedly apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine).

Amendment No. 2 also questions the Government's commitment to reforming the laws on Sunday trading. They should be a little more courageous than they have been in this Bill.

9.45 pm

I draw the House's attention to a commitment in the Conservative party manifesto of the last general election. The relevant paragraph appears immediately before the commitment to reforming the licensing laws. It reads:
"We will, therefore, look for an acceptable way forward to bring sense and consistency to the law on Sunday trading."
In that regard, I suggest that amendment No. 2 would be a sensible first step.

Earlier my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said that public houses in Britain are changing very fast. Many public houses now offer meals. To cope with the provision of meals, a measure of flexibility in Sunday opening hours would merit serious consideration.

What I am proposing would ensure that Sundays were still treated specially. One cannot change that by law. I do not believe, as do my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that the amendment would jeopardise the Bill. On Second Reading, they were questioned about their attitudes on changing the Sunday trading law. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) to say whether he would agree to changing the law on Sunday hours. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) asked:
"Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he would vote against an attempt to extend the Bill to Sundays?"
The Secretary of State said:
"I am not. I am simply stating facts."—[Official Report, 9 November 1987; Vol. 122, c. 41.]
When pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellet-Bowman), he was still a little ambivalent. There is much support, not only on the Conservative Benches but in the Government, for a change in the law on permitted hours on Sundays. I have heard no good arguments advanced for preserving the status quo. No doubt hon. Members who feel strongly on the subject will make their views known.

We must accept that the social scene in the United Kingdom is changing very fast. In keeping with the efforts that are being made to encourage tourism, particularly in rural areas, licensees should be given an opportunity to respond to the demands of their customers.

Essentially, we are talking about an element of choice, and choice is an important Conservative principle. At present, public houses open at midday and have to close at 2 pm. Two hours is not long to eat a lunch on Sundays. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State looks very much like a port and pheasant man. He has already admitted in another debate that he is a shooting man. I am sure that, when he has finished his lunch on Sunday, he will not be able to enjoy his glass of port before being driven home by his wife, who has been drinking Perrier water, because there will not be time to do so. That is ridiculous.

If we accept, as I believe we have, the arguments in favour of a change in the so-called permitted hours from Mondays to Saturdays, surely it is inconsistent and illogical not to reform the hours on Sundays, Good Fridays, and Christmases as well.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) is not here to move this amendment. He has taken part in previous licensing reform debates and was present during the lobby of Parliament last December. He told some 400 assembled licensees in the Great Hall that he favoured a change in the licensing law operating on Sundays. A number of Opposition Members favour a change in the law on Sundays with regard to licensing, although they do not favour a change generally with regard to retail trading.

This is not what is described a probing amendment. It is essentially a prodding amendment to persuade the Government to think again. We shall listen carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who has moved the amendment in a moderate way. Three headings need to be taken into account. First, I do not think that there is any hon. Member who does not believe that this change will eventually come about. I emphasise the fact that this is a modest move, which paves the way for future change. If the change is not made now, and the amendment is not accepted—I do not expect that it will be—surely it will come within the next decade.

Secondly, the present Sunday opening hours are not understood by foreign tourists. They find all our licensing laws puzzling, and Sunday hours are especially puzzling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said, many modern public houses serve food. Many foreign tourists eat in public houses and it becomes something of a liability if the bell is rung at 2 o'clock.

Thirdly, I submit that a limited change is sensible and would not cause any more disturbance than now occurs on Sundays. I support the movement to keep Sunday special, with only limited shop opening. I abstained in the vote after the Sunday trading debate. I am certainly not a free-for-all man in respect of Sundays. In speeding this legislation on its way, we should take account of the position on Sundays and provide for a modest increase in hours.

I oppose the amendment, which is clearly against the public interest and which, moreover, runs counter to many of the assurances given with regard to the modest scope and purposes of the Bill.

I wish to be fair to the Government. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading because, with the Wakeham committee having just been established—a development which I warmly welcomed—I did not believe that this was the appropriate time to meddle with the licensing laws and because the Bill did not at that time include any safeguards in relation to the problem of under-age drinking.

I am glad to concede that the Government have taken important steps towards the inclusion of additional safeguards. Whether I vote against the Bill on Third Reading depends on the outcome of the drink industry's attempts to obtain longer opening hours. I shall await what my hon. Friend says about that with the greatest of interest.

I am pleased that so far, during Second Reading and in Committee, the Government have honoured the assurances that they gave the House about Sunday opening. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will continue to resist pressure from the drink industry with the utmost vigour.

Would it help my right hon. Friend to know that we have no intention of departing from the assurances that we have already given?

I did not think for one moment that my hon. Friend would depart from his assurances, but it is necessary to make a stand in these matters so that there should be no misunderstanding. Some of the speeches in the debate have shown a considerable misunderstanding of the position. For that reason, I am entitled to give my reasons why the House should reject the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin).

I have already mentioned my first reason, which is that to accept the amendment would renege on repeated assurances that the Bill would exclude Sundays. The Government's consultative document stated that they would be excluded, as they were, and the Bill completed its Committee stage unaltered in that respect. No doubt there would have been more opposition to the Bill in Committee if Sundays had been included.

The second reason is that there is no evidence that the majority of the public want extended drinking hours on Sundays. Indeed, the evidence from opinion polls strongly suggests that a large majority of the population opposes such a change. In view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside has said, it is necessary for me to say something. The MORI poll in November 1987 found that only 29 per cent. of the population agreed with longer pub opening hours on Sundays, while 59 per cent. were opposed. Thus, to accept the amendment would he not merely to renege on previous assurances but to do so knowing that we were flying in the face of public opinion.

The third reason for opposing the amendment has to do with the additional harm that would be created by extending drinking hours. In the first place, there is the matter of prolonged annoyance and aggravation to local residents. For many people, Sunday afternoon is the only time in the week when they can enjoy rest and relaxation with their families at home, free from the noise and disturbance that characterise the rest of the week.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) said, Sunday is regarded by many people as a special day. The amendment, if carried, would be likely to spoil that specialness for a great many people. I do not represent and have never represented the views of Sabbatarians but a vast number of our people who do not go to church or have religious views about Sunday want to keep one day in the week when they can enjoy peace and quiet. Those living in the immediate vicinity of a pub would he especially likely to experience additional annoyance, but the problem would by no means he restricted to them.

Many of us are anxious about the likely effects of the Bill in increasing outbreaks of public disorder during the week, which is why I have tabled an amendment to improve the safeguards. But the disorders are most likely to occur at weekends, the time of the week when most alcohol is consumed. We await with some trepidation what will happen in our streets and town centres on Saturdays once the Bill is in force. The prospect of the peak drinking period being extended to include Sundays would certainly cause considerable alarm to the staff of the accident and emergency departments of hospitals and to the police, who will have to cope with the consequences.

I quote a brief extract from the Yorkshire Post on 21 September last year. It shows what I have in mind. The heading is:
"A wet Friday night out"
It states:
"A scream of obscenities was followed by a thud as a drunken youth pushed another up against a hot-dog stall, raining blows on his face … as we passed McDonalds restaurant to see (another) youth, face covered in blood, being comforted by his friends … Across the road, a line of young drunks urinated in a shop doorway in full view of a crowd of young girls … It was a wet Friday night in Leeds as the city centre pubs disgorged their customers, many of them below the legal drinking age."

My right hon. Friend has read a graphic account of trouble outside a public house on a wet Friday night. I understand that the amendments concern Sunday hours, not wet Friday nights.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.