HC Deb 09 May 1952 vol 500 cc820-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Richard Thompson.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)

Before the war, for the majority of us our main interest in travelling and tourism was as prospective travellers ourselves abroad on the Continent of Europe, or to other places; but since the war we have come to realise that this country has much to offer the visitor from overseas. We realise how very fortunate we are in possessing a cool, green countryside, historic buildings of great antiquity, aesthetic charm and beauty, a wealth of pageantry and tradition which attracts visitors from all parts of the world.

Although we are often accused by visitors that we are an insular race, it is perhaps not for nothing that in times past we gained the reputation of being a nation of shopkeepers. Perhaps today we are with difficulty willing to be a nation of hotel keepers and restaurateurs and are doing out best to welcome as many visitors as possible from abroad.

The effort which the British Travel and Holidays Association has made, with very generous support of the Government, has proved very successful and British tourism as an industry probably earns more dollars than any one of our manufacturing industries. It is a fact, which is sometimes overlooked, that it has been estimated that the average American travelling on a British ship spends as many dollars—which accrue to the Treasury—as his fellow citizen at home would spend if he bought an exported British car.

This year we are expecting about three-quarters of a million visitors from overseas, 50 per cent. more than in the best pre-war year. It has equally been estimated that the earnings from tourism of foreign currency are in the region of £120 million. I mention that figure to show that tourism can really rank, not only as a principal earner of American dollars, but also can rank perhaps sixth or seventh in our most important export industries To appreciate fully the value of tourism to our country, we should recognise that the money spent by tourists is in the main on services and makes little strain on our imports and industrial resources. Even when visitors from overseas purchase from our shops it represents a better method than the normal means because we get a much greater margin of profit.

Furthermore, tourism has not only got a high economic value to the country but it has also a very important social aspect. Today, unfortunately, because of the balance of payments position, there is a dollar iron curtain between this country and the United States and Canada. Except for business reasons, it is very difficult for citizens of this country to visit the United States and Canada, but just because we cannot go to America it is, therefore, very important that we should do our best to attract as many Americans as possible to this country so that we can have an exchange of ideas and views and thus come to understand each other better. That is a very important aspect of the tourist industry which is sometimes overlooked.

In general, it would be readily conceded that we have a great deal to sell and that the best way to sell "the come to Britain movement" to other people is for tourists to go back to their respective country and tell their fellow citizens what a wonderful welcome they got in England, how much they enjoyed themselves, and what a splendid time they had. We bring up our own children to remember in the home that it is visitors first, but I sometimes think that as a nation we forget that maxim and put forward our own prejudices and phobias before giving due consideration to the comforts and wellbeing of foreigners and visitors to these shores from overseas.

In no field is this more so than in the application of the licensing laws. These, to my mind, are so complicated, old fashioned and illogical that they are to a great extent regarded as utterly stupid by those coming here. I have had the opportunity of reading many extracts from tourists' letters and it is significant that the major complaint with them as visitors is the application of our licensing restrictions. If I may read one or two typical letters, I have one here from New York City signed by a gentleman called John Foster, who is not any relation to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. It says: I have enjoyed every minute of my stay in wonderful London. Would it not be possible to give your visitors to the so-called West End a little more freedom as to drinking Americans drink all hours of the day and don't always indulge in tea at four p.m. Another from Switzerland says: The licensing hours have on many occasions diminished my joy of travelling in England. Here is another from New York: I met with great courtesy during a week in London and I found it most delightful. But I think you should inform visitors of the fact that bars and restaurants close by some unfathomable system. While sight seeing I was frequently disconcerted by finding that I was too early or too late to eat or drink. It is most baffling to the unaccustomed visitor. I could give a lot more examples of the traveller who cannot understand when he can or cannot have an alcoholic beverage. This is important because this year more Americans than ever are coming. It is estimated that there will be three times more Americans than in 1947 and 60 to 70 per cent. more Europeans.

Since there is this widespread criticism of our licensing laws, it is high time that the Government took some action to see that the reasonable needs of the traveller are met, and while I do not wish to go into the question of the law on the subject—it is a very tricky subject—I merely want to talk about the application of the law and the curious interpretation by licensing justices from time to time. It is 20 years since the Government reviewed the operation of our licensing laws. In 1929-31 there was a Royal Commission.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

Does not this involve legislation, and, therefore, is it in order?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

If the hon. Member suggested legislation, it would be out of order. Up to now be has been criticising the law as we have it at the moment.

Mr. Hynd

I gathered from what the hon. Gentleman said that he was suggesting an alteration of those things, and as such an alteration can only be obtained by legislation, I suggest he is out of order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I was listening very carefully and I did not hear him suggest that the law should be amended.

Mr. Rodgers

What I was trying to do was to show how our present laws affect the comfort of tourists. I do not at this point say that the law should be changed. I was merely stating the historical fact that it is 20 years since the operation of the licensing laws were reviewed and I suggest that the time has come when we might review them once more; and also the way in which they are interpreted by various licensing justices. There is a great deal of difference in the interpretation of the same law and that is relevant to my argument. I am not for a moment suggesting that the law should he changed at this time. I may be regarded as being on "thin ice," but I think I have skated over it successfully so far.

I would like to ask the Under-Secretary if there is any chance of a review of the operations of the licensing law. As the law stands today it is impossible for a foreigner staying in a hotel to give his guests a drink out of permitted hours, which is another example of the absurdity of the present law. A foreigner may accept the hospitality of friends and be embarrassed, on asking them back to the hotel and offering them a drink, to find that the only kind he can offer is lemonade or lime juice, while he himself is able to drink a whisky and soda or whatever it may be. That is an anomalous situation which I think might be investigated.

Mr. H. Hynd

The hon. Member has only to invite his guests to the House of Commons.

Mr. Rodgers

There is also the question of the London Airport, which I think is the only international airport where a bona fide traveller cannot obtain a drink except in permitted hours. I have travelled a great deal by air and I find that after many hours in a plane one is in need of a stimulant. It is only right and proper that a tourist should be allowed to drink no matter what is the hour. It is impossible to ensure that a plane will arrive at a scheduled time and, therefore, it seems to be fair that bona fide travellers should be allowed to drink through the 24 hours if they so desire.

It would be easy to isolate travellers because they are locked up in a special series of rooms. The privilege could be restricted to those who are travelling and not extended to their friends. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) is introducing a Private Bill on this subject and I can only express the hope that the Government will look favourably on it.

There is the further question of the extension of permitted hours in the afternoon. Hotels and restaurants should be permitted to serve drinks to nonresidents taking substantial meals up to at least one hour after closing time or, in areas where the closing time is before 2.30, up to that time. It is difficult to make sure when travelling by road that one will arrive at a given time. One may have a puncture or some other minor accident and if one arrives outside permitted hours one has to have a meal without any alcoholic refreshment. Since the nationalisation of transport it is even a bigger gamble when travelling by rail.

On Sundays the position is even worse. One can drink with meals in a hotel or restaurant till 12 midnight during the week but on Sundays a tourist can order a bottle of wine only up to 10 o'clock. This must make foreigners extraordinarily wondrous as to what sort of system there is about it.

Then there are the special certificates granted to London hotels, which are not applicable to the provinces. I do not see why they should not be applicable in the same way in the provinces as in London. Very few places in the provinces would want a special extension on every night of the week, but they might want one regularly on one or two nights of each week. It is ridiculous that they have to make special application for special functions every time they want to serve drinks out of ordinary hours.

Then I come to what I consider to be the worst feature of our licensing laws, and that is the question of the clubs. Under the present interpretation of the law, if a club admits people to membership without 48 hours elapsing between nomination and acceptance, it is liable to be struck off the register of clubs. But very few tourists have many days at their disposal. They cannot wait for 48 hours before they are allowed to get a drink in a club. That period ought to be shortened.

In London the position is becoming absurd. It is no wonder that the Americans who come here stay for a few days and then quickly take a ticket to Paris where similar restrictions do not apply. I should like to mention the even more absurd position of drinking facilities, if I may call them that, in Wales and Scotland. In Scotland if one can prove that one is a bona fide traveller on a Sunday one can get a drink. In Wales it is impossible. Whatever one's personal desires may be, if one is a traveller in that land one is not permitted to go into a public house or hotel and to have a drink. Teetotalism is enforced on one.

But the Welsh people themselves have enormous facilities. I understand that the number of clubs in Wales is absolutely fantastic, and that it is perpetually growing. Most Welsh people belong not to one but to several clubs. It is not difficult for a Welshman to get a drink on a Sunday, but it is most difficult for a tourist.

If we wish to attract tourists and to see that they visit not only London but Wales, the North of England and Scotland, we must have a more equitable arrangement of our licensing laws. We are spending Government money, taxpayers' money, on inviting people to come to Britain. As I said, we expect 750,000 this year. Next year, Coronation year, we hope to have very many more visitors. I urge the Minister to give consideration to the question whether the time has not now arrived when he should review the application of the licensing laws to the tourist industry.

The present position is utterly incomprehensible and unfathomable to the foreigner. I have discovered that when faced with an insoluble problem in whatever sphere of human activity it may be, human beings tend to take a ticket to elsewhere. So they do because of our licensing laws. There have been many researches to prove how many days an American stays in England compared with the time that he spends on the rest of his stay in Europe. We are not getting our fair share of this trade and it is the application of these absurd licensing laws which, to my mind, is largely responsible.

4.19 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I do not welcome the £25 limit on travel abroad, but it provides a great opportunity for our holiday resorts at the seaside, the mountains and in the Lake District, and so on, to provide holidays for our own people who are prevented from going abroad. The Government might well do everything which lies in their power by administrative action to encourage our holiday and tourist business as a whole to prosper and to render the utmost possible service.

It was well said by my hon. Friend that this is a very big dollar and foreign currency earning trade. It is true that when one arrives at London Airport, or any other international airport in this country, one cannot get an alcoholic drink except during the hours allowed by the local authority in the area in which the airport is situated. Ours are the only airports in the world where this rule applies. It is a pity to discourage people from coming here because of restrictions which go a little too far and might well be modified.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

It seems to me that the case has been slightly exaggerated. After all, it is not very complimentary to American and other visitors to say that the difference between staying in England and going to France arises from their desire to drink after 10 o'clock at night. It does not seem to me to be reasonable.

The other point, which seemed to spoil whatever merit the case had, was about people travelling in aeroplanes and arriving at London Airport and being unable to get a drink. After all, there are unlimited facilities for drinking in aeroplanes. I hope nothing will be done to discourage tourism, but I do not think that flogging the subject of licensing restrictions in this way is the best way to encourage the tourist industry.

4.21 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Rodgers) and the other hon. Members who have spoken have referred to a number of anomalies or alleged anomalies in the licensing laws. I do not think that I can very well follow them in replying to this debate, because, clearly, if I were to do so, it would imply amendment of the law. On the other hand, I think the intention of my hon. Friend was to call attention to the position and to suggest that the present would be an appropriate moment for the Government to give this matter consideration.

In that connection, he referred to a memorandum submitted by the British Tourist and Hotels Association containing a number of specific suggestions. I do not intend—indeed, I should be out of order if I tried— to go into the merits of these particular suggestions, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that the suggestions are being carefully examined and without any undue delay.

The matter is not entirely free from difficulty. I think it is right that I should tell the House that, after the proposals of the B.T.H.A. had been announced, the British Hotels and Restaurants Association wrote a letter to the Home Office on 12th December, 1951, expressing their concern in these matters, and asking permission to forward their observations to the Home Office.

These observations have not yet been formulated; there have been discussions, but they have not been formulated. I make no complaint about that, because the matter is extremely complex, but it does show that there has been no delay on the part of the Home Office. Quite clearly, we could not come to any sort of decision on these matters without obtaining the opinions of that section of the community most vitally concerned—those who run the hotels and restaurants.

There is no dispute about the importance of the tourist trade. I am not in a position either to confirm or deny the figure quoted by my hon. Friend, but, certainly, this is a large and important section of our economy, and of great value at the present time. Clearly, anything in the nature of a hindrance to this trade ought to be promptly and carefully examined by the Government, but I think we must keep a proper balance in these matters.

Obviously, the comfort and convenience of visitors from abroad is an important consideration, but it cannot be the only consideration. We are here dealing with a branch of the law which affects, in one way or another, the entire population of the country, and, although we should bear in mind the comfort and convenience of visitors, we much primarily have regard to the whole body of the population.

Perhaps I may say that the Home Office has no special knowledge, because it has no special means of obtaining knowledge, of the complaints made by foreigners in this connection. We hear about the rest of the community here, but there is no special channel by which these complaints come into the Home Office.

Mr. J. Rodgers

There is a good deal of evidence in the files of the B.T.H.A. on this subject.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am not saying there is no evidence at all. What I am saying is that the Home Office have no special means. Hon. Members do not write to us constantly pointing out that particular American or other foreign citizens complain about this or that. They write about complaints of their constituents and not of foreign visitors.

Therefore, this is a picture which it is difficult to piece together. I do not think it is necessary for me to remind the House that there are many strongly held and deeply conflicting points of view on this matter. Anything relating to the licensing laws is always controversial, and the present law is something of a compromise between these conflicting points of view. The present system has, in fact, with minor amendments, been in operation for some 30 years. My hon. Friend rather suggested that on that account it was antique and that the time had come to overhaul it.

It may be that that is so. I am not saying yes or no, but I do say that if we review the licensing system we should review it as a whole and have regard to the needs of the country as a whole, and that we should not specially have regard to the very limited needs of our visitors from overseas, important though they may be.

Sir I. Fraser

With regard to airports, it is not merely a question of the visitor from overseas. Anyone who flies out from this island to any part of the world may be held up for several hours by fog or engine trouble. He has to wait at the airport and cannot get a drink. I think it is a pity.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I opened my remarks by saying that specific suggestions are, of course, being considered. But I am trying to answer the particular point made by my hon. Friend that the persistence in this system for 30 years was the reason for making limited alterations now. I think he will appreciate that really is not so. The fact that this is an ancient system really makes it the more difficult to alter, and, therefore, it requires deeper and wider consideration.

We must not ignore the tourist point of view in considering whether any Amendment may be necessary, but changes in our licensing laws must be considered on the general merits of the case. The difficulty about making these changes is very great indeed. The proposals of the British Tourist and Holidays Association have been put forward, and, I think, are recommended by my hon. Friend, as proposals which should now be carried into effect. They are, one would have thought, designed on the whole to give additional facilities to those who wish to take alcoholic refreshment, and I do not think that would be denied in any part of the House. But, even so, they are not generally acceptable within the catering trade itself.

I want to tell the House that after these proposals were formulated no less an organisation than the Brewers' Society wrote to the Home Office officially, and I will read an extract from their letter: — the Brewers' Society representative on the Association's committee concerned with the memorandum spoke against it generally and in particular objected to the extension of permitted hours, the proposal about clubs and the proposal that licensing justices should be prepared to grant licences to hotels and restaurants more frequently than once a year.

Mr. H. Hynd

A Conservative Government must take orders from the brewers.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

In this case I think that the Brewers' Society and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), would say exactly the same thing. I only mention it to the House to show the very great difficulty and complexity which exists in these matters.

I do not think I can say more than this. We will consider these proposals, and, indeed, any proposals that are put forward, on their merits, and we will consider them carefully. My right hon. and learned Friend will maintain an open mind in considering these suggestions. But further than that it is impossible for the Government at the present time to go.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.