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Alcohol Licensing (Coronavirus) (Regulatory Easements) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 3 November 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Alcohol Licensing (Coronavirus) (Regulatory Easements) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

My Lords, this instrument, which was laid before Parliament on 22 September, contains measures to provide ongoing support to the hospitality sector, which endured an immensely difficult period during the pandemic and is now grappling with cost of living concerns. As your Lordships are aware, the Government recently announced the energy bill relief scheme, which will provide a discount on gas and electricity bills for business customers, including those in the hospitality sector. This follows a number of measures to support the hospitality industry and other businesses during the pandemic and since Covid restrictions eased.

During the pandemic, we provided a package of financial support to businesses, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and a business rates holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. We also introduced a number of regulatory easements through the Business and Planning Act 2020. Among those were temporary measures to make obtaining a pavement licence quicker and easier for those who wished to set up chairs and tables outdoors. Parliament has already agreed to extend those measures, and they will run until September next year.

A complementary measure on alcohol licensing gave a temporary off-sales permission to 38,000 licensed premises in England and Wales that did not have one. There were also measures which increased the number of temporary events notices that licence holders were allowed to give in a calendar year. Those provisions remain in place until December next year.

The instrument I propose today is relatively modest. It is an extension of provisions in the Business and Planning Act to allow sales of alcohol for consumption off the premises to licensed premises that did not have that permission for a further year, until 30 September 2023. In the intervening time there will be a consultation on long-term arrangements.

I assure the Committee that officials consulted the National Police Chiefs’ Council about the effects that the temporary off-sales permission has had. The view of the police then was that it had not caused any increase in crime and disorder.

I know that your Lordships will appreciate the impact that the pandemic and the cost of living have had on the hospitality industry, and I hope that you will support these measures to aid its recovery. I commend this instrument to the Committee. I beg to move.

I am very grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations. I understand that many people were very concerned about going to on-licensed premises—going to the pub—because of their concerns about catching coronavirus. My personal experience of socialising in central London—very limited, because I am always here doing work—is that most restaurants and pubs seem to be very busy. I am not sure whether the Minister can tell the Committee whether that is universal or a phenomenon just in central London, but that is my experience.

My understanding of the previous regulations is that they were to try to compensate pubs that had only an on-licence for that lack of trade so that people who were anxious about catching Covid could instead get their alcohol to take away—they could take it home or even, when the weather was more clement than it has been for the last few days, drink it outside. The only thing I would ask is this. Why do the Government think that that particular Covid support, which is what these regulations are about, should continue? What evidence is there that people are still nervous about socialising in an enclosed space and that it is therefore necessary for on-licensed premises to be able to sell to people to take away?

If this provision is simply for other reasons—the noble Lord mentioned increased energy prices having an impact on on-licensed premises in particular, but there is also the cost of living crisis, with people feeling that they cannot socialise as much as they did in the past because of the pressure on household budgets—why not have an alternative measure? The noble Lord talked about consultation on more permanent measures, but, bearing in mind that the police say that there has been no adverse impact on giving on-licensed premises the ability to sell alcohol to take away, why has a permanent change not been brought forward, rather than what appears to be the rather spurious extension of coronavirus-specific regulations that we have before us?

I appreciate that civil servants, particularly in the Home Office, have been very busy with other things in recent months, and it may be that the easy route was simply to extend the coronavirus regulations, but we need to move on from the impact of the pandemic and the virus and be more honest. If we think that this is a good thing in the long term, we should have a permanent change in the law. I know the Minister said a consultation is being conducted on it. That would be more honest than extending coronavirus regulations that, by this time, should have come to an end.

One of my principal questions was going to be whether this is the easy route, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, put it, and whether there is a long-term review of the law. It may be appropriate to keep the changes in some cases and not in others, so I would be grateful if the Minister will respond to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.

We support this change. We have been told that, as far as the NPCC is concerned, there has been no increase in anti-social behaviour as a result of these measures. Did the consultation go beyond the NPCC? Were local police forces consulted? Are there variations in different parts of the country?

I too have experience of occasionally going to social events in central London, and it is true that the bars and restaurants seem to be extremely busy. However, in other parts of the country or other parts of London, many restaurants and pubs are shut because of the impact of the pandemic, as well as changing habits. How much variation across the country have the Government seen? Is this blanket approach appropriate and how should it be looked at over the longer term? Does the Minister have any updated information on the impact of Covid on the hospitality sector and its recovery? One reads extensively of the hospitality sector still struggling because, in spite of our experiences in central London, the numbers are not back to where they were, and this is proving a problem.

Have any local authorities raised any concerns about extending these changes? Are there any extra costs or burdens on local authorities? Finally, were any local communities consulted? Did they have views on the extension of these licences?

The central question is that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about how this temporary change, which we approve of, fits into a wider review of provisions that were brought in during the pandemic, some of which may continue while others do not.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who contributed. I am thankful for their general support for this measure and their recognition that we should be looking to support our hospitality industry, which has suffered a tumultuous few years and continues to feel the after-effects of the pandemic; I will come on to that in a second.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, questioned the fact that this a temporary measure and asked why it is not being made permanent, since it extends the off-sales provision only until next September. Let me go into some detail regarding what has happened since the pandemic.

I note both noble Lords’ points about pubs in London, which I myself frequent. I concur with them, but we believe that businesses need certainty to help them recover economically from the pandemic. Evidence from trade organisations—again, I will come on to those in a second—and other sources has indicated the significant financial losses and wider economic pressures faced by the hospitality industry more broadly. The British Beer and Pub Association reported that, although consumer confidence is up from 2021, with circa 70% of people feeling confident in visiting pubs, bars and restaurants, support is still needed to bring that figure up further and ensure a strong, sustainable recovery.

Data on sales in the hospitality sector indicates that the sector is still smaller than it was prior to the pandemic. Sales across restaurants, bars and hotels reached £31.6 billion in the three months to the end of September 2021. That is a 73% increase on the summer of 2020 but is still down 10% on the same period in 2019. Given that the pandemic lockdown restrictions have been lifted for the best part of a year, how much of this is related to the pandemic and how much is related to other factors? Of course, there are a number of other factors at play; they cannot all be Covid-related.

I do not think that any of us could be in any doubt that the pandemic has had a profound effect on the hospitality sector. As I said, some of those effects continue to be felt. It is worth pointing out that some businesses took out loans or incurred debts during the pandemic, which must be paid off, but we are not seeing an increase in consumer confidence back to pre-pandemic levels yet.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked whether this approach leads to anti-social behaviour. The vast majority of licensed premises act responsibly, of course. Under Section 76 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the police and councils have the power to issue a closure notice. They can do this if there are grounds for believing that the use of particular premises has resulted, or is likely to result, in nuisance to members of the public, or that there has been, or is likely to be, associated disorder near the premises.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked whether local authorities have raised concerns. No local authorities have raised concerns about this matter but, equally, neither have local communities. He also asked whether the NPCC speaks for all police forces. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will confirm, it is a representative body that speaks for all 43 police forces in England and Wales.

Why have we not brought forward a permanent change? As I said in my opening remarks, we want first to consult with the licensed sector, local authorities, the public and the police. That is what we are going to do over the course of the next year.

I think I have answered most of the questions I was asked. Again, I thank noble Lords for their broad support for this measure. Obviously, we will come back to this subject with the results of the consultation but, for now, I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.