HC Deb 24 March 1960 vol 620 cc798-810

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

9.55 p.m.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I am not raising this evening the wider issue against State management as I have on the Order Paper a Motion, which is signed by myself and a large number of my hon. Friends and Members of the Opposition, and which protests against the gross injustice which permits the State management areas to be treated differently from other districts in Scotland many years after the reason for bringing in State control has passed. I hope that further time will be given on another occasion in the House to discuss all these wider issues which would, of course, require legislation.

[That this House resents the continuance of the State drink monopoly in Annan, Dingwall and Invergordon, which was created under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916 to deal with a state of affairs which came to an end many years ago; and requests the Secretary of State for Scotland to amend the Licensing (Scotland) Act, 1959, so that those burghs will be governed by the same licensing laws which prevail in the other 195 burghs in Scotland.]

I welcome the opportunity to raise this individual case of the refusal to grant a licence to Mrs. Thomson, of the Sal-ford Hotel, Invergordon, after it had been agreed by the local licensing court, and, I understand, by the Secretary of State's own advisory committee, that a licence should be granted to Mrs. Thomson, she being considered to be a fit and suitable person to hold such a licence.

I am not against the control of liquor or anything of that nature, but I certainly am against the complete monopoly by the State which exists in the Invergordon area of my constitency, and I am surprised that the Secretary of of State for Scotland should oppose the working of free enterprise in this instance. I am not talking for the brewers or any sectional interest tonight; I am talking on behalf of a small person of enterprise who has every right to acquire this licence for the development of her hotel.

I have had a letter from Mrs. Thomson's solicitor, enclosing one from the Scottish Home Department, dated 22nd February, 1960, refusing the licence which was applied for on 10th September, 1959—almost four months earlier. This seems to me, as the solicitor points out, a most intolerable delay. The letter from the Scottish Home Department ends: After full consideration of the circumstances of the application, the Secretary of State regrets that he does not consider it a suitable case for the grant of his authority.

I cannot myself think of any more suitable case for the granting of this licence to this lady under the circumstances. This surely makes nonsense of the local licensing courts. These courts are the democratic method which people have of getting these licences. In all other areas outwith State management districts in similar circumstances a licence would have been granted.

Why has the Secretary of State used his right of veto against this licence? In a letter which the Scottish Licensed Trade Association sent to the Secretary of State the point is made that it would have been fairer if the Scottish Office had let Mrs. Thomson know, immediately the application was received— instead of waiting for four months—that there was little likelihood of her getting a licence. A licence has never been granted in this area.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

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

Mr. MacLeod

This would have saved Mrs. Thomson a great deal of the expense to which she went. I was pleased, as the Secretary of State would have been, to see what she had done to this small hotel to make it attractive to tourists coming into the area. She has done a great deal to bring it up to a very high standard.

It may be argued that she took a chance and had no right to go on spending a large sum of money before the licence was granted, but it was a fair chance, which any enterprising business person would have been prepared to take. After all, there had been full agreement from the local licensing court; there was only one other licensed hotel in Invergordon, which has a population of 3,450 and serves a wide agricultural area in the vicinity, and that other hotel—the State licensed hotel— was at the other end of the town. In my opinion, Mrs. Thomson had every reason to hope that a licence would be granted.

In Invergordon it is rumoured that the State Management Board—the Secretary of State's own board—had agreed that the licence should be granted. I would ask my right hon. Friend to say whether or not that is true. If it is, it is a most extraordinary situation. It means that the Board which advises the Secretary of State agreed that this lady should get a licence. I sympathise with her and am very pleased to be able to voice this complaint tonight.

Invergordon has for long been recognised as a development area. The town was made a State management district owing to the great influx of naval personnel during the First World War—forty-four years ago—for reasons which have long since disappeared. Since then the use of Invergordon by the Navy has steadily diminished, until it is now no longer a naval base. It is used simply for oiling ships at various periods when exercises are taking place in the area.

I have consistently made the point, in regard to the whole area, that since it has not had the industrial development we expected, the tourist industry is of vital importance—of much greater importance than it would otherwise be; but on the one hand the Secretary of State is encouraging the tourist industry through Government action—he has set up the Fraser Committee, and praised the Tourist Board, and has made speeches encouraging the development of the tourist industry—and on the other he is helping to throttle and retard the development of the industry by refusing a licence in this case.

I have here a letter from the Easter Ross Holiday Association, which is the type of body the Secretary of State for Scotland has been encouraging to help the tourist industry. The letter says: At our Executive Committee meeting, held in Invergordon last night, the question of the refusal by the Scottish Secretary to grant a licence to Mrs. Sarah Thomson of The Salson Hotel, Invergordon, was raised. Our members felt most strongly against this dictatorial action and I have been instructed to write to the Scottish Secretary, to you and to Mr. Hugh Fraser condemning this decision as a monstrous injustice. I feel sure you appreciate the efforts or the Scottish Tourist Board and affiliated bodies, such as our Association towards the promotion of tourism in the Highlands and that it must appear odd to you, as it does to us, that the Scottish Secretary, of all people, should hinder a natural development such as this. That is a fair accusation against the Secretary of State for Scotland.

It is agreed by people of all political persuasions in the district that the grossest injustice is being done in this case. I stress that that feeling is held by people of all political opinions.

During the season the State Management Board will not undertake wedding functions or similar parties and those who wish to hold such functions have to go a considerable distance outside the burgh. Again, every Thursday, which is a half day in Invergordon, the State-controlled hotel will not sell liquor. I have no complaint against the staff of the State Management Board. To be fair, these hotels have improved in the last few years, but during the summer seasons they cater—I am not arguing whether that is right or wrong—almost entirely for buses, and in the off-season they cater mainly for commercial travellers. They have a right to do that, but there are other interests in the area which ought to be considered as well, and it is for those other interests that Mrs. Thomson would cater and thereby develop the amenities which we need to help the tourist industry.

There were many points in the letter sent by the Scottish Trade Association to the Secretary of State for Scotland. My right hon. Friend has read the letter. I need not, therefore, press the points made in it. The letter says that it seems intolerable that the Scottish Home Department will give no explanation why the Secretary of State has refused the licence in this case when the local licensing court has decided that it is necessary. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give an adequate explanation for that tonight.

I ask my right hon. Friend to review this case again. I emphasise again that there is strong local feeling, from people of all political persuasions in the area, about the refusal to grant this licence. I ask that the whole question of State management should be put into the remit of the Guest Committee which is looking into licensing laws. The Committee should be asked to report to the Secretary of State on the whole question of State management. If, in this instance, my right hon. Friend cannot immediately do away with the State management districts, I hope that he will at least allow competition in this area. This is part of the philosophy of the Government of which he is a member and I hope that tonight he will give some indication of Government policy in this respect.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) has built up a powerful case regarding the requirements of competition in areas where the monopoly is held by State-managed concerns. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that a measure of concern has been expressed in Ayrshire about events which took place in the district licensing court at Kilmarnock last week when a co-operative society in the area asked for a licence and was turned down.

I am not suggesting that the nature of the applicant was a determining factor in that decision, but I wish to express to the Secretary of State the concern felt in one of the burghs about remarks made by a member of the court. I am not concerned about the result or that the application was by a co-operative society, but I wish to know what protection may be afforded to the public in respect of a statement that if the licence was granted, it would mean bread and beer instead of bread and butter. Is there any protection at all—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. I should like to ask the hon. Member whether he is satisfied that the Minister has control over these courts?

Mr. Ross

They are set up under Scottish legislation.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That may well be, but it does not establish that the Secretary of State is responsible for how they act in a particular case.

Mr. Ross

That may be true, and that is what I want to find out, whether there is any way to remedy the position in respect of remarks passed. It may be that there is no remedy, but I have taken this opportunity to deplore the fact that such a thing was said. I hope that the gentleman who made the remark will apologise to the town for what was, as he may consider on reflection, a slight which perhaps he did not intend.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

I wish to reinforce the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) and ask on what principle the Secretary of State for Scotland refuses his consent to applications for licences. Having been a member of a licensing court, I know with what great care applications are considered by the justices. I know also that the police look into the character of an applicant and examine his premises. They often insist that food shall be supplied as well as liquid refreshment.

There are State public houses not only at Invergordon but also at Annan. The take-over was made about forty-four years ago and it was clearly understood that at the end of hostilities consent should be returned to the local licensing authority. In Annan, a royal burgh with about 5,000 inhabitants, there is only one wine shop and only three public houses have off-licences. Last year a local grocer applied for a licence to sell spirits. The application was approved by the local licensing court and was confirmed on appeal. Yet again my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to consent to this licence.

It must be very galling to a local grocer when he sees grocers from neighbouring towns such as Dumfries and Lockerbie making deliveries in his town while the grocer himself in the town cannot supply such goods. Long ago, in 1623, this House declared that monopolies made the price of commodities at home expensive and lowered the quality. I do not want to accuse my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of watering the beer, or anything of that sort, but I think it time that he was true to his Tory principles, not only in the denationalisation of steel, but in connection with State public houses, and that he realised that a licensing court with local knowledge very often knows better than the gentleman in Whitehall.

10.17 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John Maclay)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) foi giving me the chance to explain in full just what has happened in relation to this particular case of Mrs. Thomson and to say some words about the general principles lying behind it. I take it that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) realised that it would be very improbable that I should be able to deal with the matter he raised.

Before dealing with the circumstances of Mrs. Thomson's application, I should like, first, to make it clear that the decision was taken in the light of existing State management policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty would have been out of order had he tried to bring into this debate the question of amending legislation, although he has referred to his Motion on that subject.

Perhaps it would be in order, however, for me, since not all modifications would necessarily involve legislation, to say a few words about the future of State management. As I have already informed hon. Members, I have a reasonably open mind on the future of State management as a whole. I am very conscious of the relationship between State management and the development of the tourist industry. At present, I can do no more than repeat that this is a matter on which I have a reasonably open mind and that I shall consider the probable implications of what my hon. Friends have said.

I should like now to deal with the procedure to be adopted by private individuals who propose to sell exciseable liquor in State management districts. They require two authorities, a certificate from a licensing court, and written authority from me. There is nothing in the Statute which governs the question whether an applicant should first apply to the licensing court or to me. If application is made to me, I consider it on its merits; so must the licensing court if application is made to it. It is entirely up to the individual applicant to decide what application he shall make and to whom and at what time.

If an application is made to me, then, as is only proper, I take steps to ensure before I decide upon it, that I am fully advised on all the considerations which might affect my decision. In relation to the Cromarty district, I have two advisory bodies. The first of these is the Cromarty Firth Local Advisory Committee, a body made up largely of representatives of the various local authorities—county councils, town councils and district councils—in the district and of the licensing courts. This body has the statutory function of assisting me in the exercise of my responsibilities in the Cromarty Firth State management district.

The second body is the State Management Districts Council. This body covers England and Wales and Scotland. It consists of persons of experience in the liquor trade and in local government; it includes persons with knowledge of the running of the organisation in the districts and officials of the Scottish Home Department and the Home Office. Before I consider any application, therefore, it is considered by these two bodies and they advise me on it.

In the case of Mrs. Thomson's application, my hon. Friend has suggested that because of the time taken to consider applications she was advised, on my behalf, to apply to the licensing court for a certificate and that, because of this advice and because of the time taken to reach my decision, Mrs. Thomson was encouraged to assume that this decision would be favourable and to spend money on the adaptation of her premises.

During September and October my Department corresponded with Mr. Burns, a local solicitor who is the secretary of my local advisory committee in the Cromarty district, about the arrangements for a meeting of the committee to consider Mrs. Thomson's application. The official advice given to Mr. Burns was that it was open to the applicant to apply to the licensing court but that the decision to do so was entirely one for her.

As to the time which has elapsed, consideration of Mrs. Thomson's application to me was deferred once she had applied to the licensing court. Hon. Members will, I think, agree that this was the proper course in view of the possibility that an action of mine might have been held to prejudice a matter which was, as it were, sub judice before the licensing court. But after the grant of a certificate by the licensing court had been confirmed by the court of appeal, there was no unreasonable delay.

The licensing appeal court confirmed the grant of a certificate on 18th November, the local advisory committee considered the application to me on 10th December and the State Management Districts Council considered it on 21st January. As my hon. Friend knows, my decision was communicated to Mrs. Thomson on 22nd February. It is difficult to move faster than that with the careful consideration that must be given to all these matters.

Turning to the application itself, there is existing legislation in this matter which is consolidated in Part V of the Licensing (Scotland) Act, 1959, dealing with State management. A policy has been followed consistently by successive Secretaries of State since the commencement of the scheme during the First World War. The purpose of the schemes —I quote from the Licensing Act, 1921, in which they first took their place in an Act of Parliament—is State management of the liquor trade". The principle underlying State management is, of course, disinterested management—the idea that the supply of liquor to the public should be in the hands of people who would not be tempted for financial reasons to encourage the consumption of alcohol. It would not be completely relevant, or, possibly, even in order, for me to comment on that principle this evening, except, perhaps, to say that it was to safeguard it that the Secretary of State was given statutory power to grant or withhold authority to private individuals for the sale of liquor in the districts in which Parliament has applied the State management scheme.

It might be asked why, if Parliament wished to safeguard disinterested management, it gave me any power to permit private individuals to supply excisable liquor. There are, however, cases where such exceptions are justified. For obvious reasons, the power is primarily used in the case of clubs. My hon. Friend has referred to the development of the tourist industry, and this aspect of the question is also stressed in a letter which I have just received from the Town Council of Invergordon. This is a matter of growing importance to the Scottish economy and, as I have frequently told the House, it is my policy, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, to do what I can to assist in the development of the tourist industry.

In relation to State management policy, I have, as it is only proper for me to do, kept the policy under review in the light of developments on the tourist side. I do not want to go too far into this in the short time at my disposal. It is the case that the licensing law and the development of tourist facilities can be to some extent at odds with each other and that a balance must be struck between them. This is, however, a general question relating to licensing legislation, of which State management is only a particular example. I do not feel that I should develop it too much at this hour of the evening, in the short time that remains to me.

My hon. Friend touched upon the question of introducing competition into State management districts. I can see no way of introducing competition as such into the districts which would not involve the jettisoning of the principle of disinterested management which I have tried to described.

These, then, are the general considerations I had to apply in considering the case. In this case, I had the consideration before me that the licensing court had granted a certificate. In view of my hon. Friend's remarks and what he implied, I should make it clear that in relation to private applicants in State management districts the responsibilities of myself and of the licensing courts are equal and derive equally from Statute. The fact that I refused my authority where the licensing court granted a certificate does not mean that I have flouted the decision of the licensing court. The considerations before us were not identical. The court does not have to take into account the principle of disinterested management, though I must do so.

I have noted my hon. Friend's remarks about the local advisory committee. It is very unusual for the advice given by these advisory committees ever to become public, but as my hon. Friend has referred in public to the fact that the local advisory committee is rumoured to have advised the grant of a restricted type of facility in this case I should tell him that that rumour is correct, but I should state also that the second body to which I referred gave precisely the opposite advice. I repeat that it is very unusual for this to be make public, but it would be wrong for me, as the statement has been made already on the Floor, to have ignored it.

What I was, in fact, advised was that there is a State management hotel comparatively close to Mrs. Thomson's hotel, and that the type of facility which Mrs. Thomson would have been able to provide was in no way substantially different from those being provided in the State-managed hotel. To have granted authority to Mrs. Thomson would have been incompatible with the principle of the Act, that in the State management district, apart from exceptional circumstances, the Secretary of State should be the sole supplier of liquor, and I could see no exceptional circumstances in this case.

Mr. John MacLeod

Has the principle ever been departed from?

Mr. Maclay

Yes. If I have time, I will tell my hon. Friend when it has been departed from, but I want now to cover one more point he made.

I am aware that this decision has caused Mrs. Thomson considerable disappointment—I have some sympathy with her—and that she can legitimately feel that she has been prevented from improving the amenities of her hotel. But I am afraid—I must repeat it—that, standing the policy of State management, I had no alternative.

My hon. Friend suggested also that I might refer the question of State management to the Guest Committee on the Scottish Licensing Laws. I cannot accept that suggestion, for this reason. The Committee has been set up to advise and inform the Government on specific licensing matters on which there is considerably more unanimity that the present law is wrong than on how it should be amended. It would hardly be appropriate to ask the Committee to inform me on the State management organisation, since the information is already in my hands. While, as I have already made clear, the future of State management is a matter on which I have an open mind, I do not think that it would be useful to refer it to the particular Committee to which my hon. Friend has referred.

My hon. Friend asked in his interjection a minute ago whether any exceptions had been made. As I said before, because of the needs of the tourist industry, I have felt justified in recent years in examining applications for my authority received from private individuals to see whether there were any circumstances in which I could properly grant my authority. I instance one case in the Gretna district, where I received an application from a private hotel. This hotel was in a tourist centre and catered largely for tourists. It was able to supply a type of facility which State management was not supplying in the neighbourhood and which it would have been impracticable for State management to supply. Accordingly, in that case I felt able to grant my authority, but I regret that I simply could not find that the same conditions were present in the case which my hon. Friend has raised this evening.

Mr. John MacLeod

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to make one last point? Mrs. Thomson caters almost entirely for the tourist industry at present, and she has to keep her hotel open all the year round. If she had a licence, it would enable her to cater fully for tourists in the summer.

Mr. Maclay

I regret that I have not time to do more than say this. If my hon. Friend will read carefully what I have said, he will see the difference between the conditions which I had to consider in the case he has raised and the conditions which I had to consider in the case to which I have just referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.