HC Deb 17 November 1964 vol 702 cc221-8

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

4.24 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington)

Before the Question of Clause 1 standing part of the Bill is decided may I, for the sake of information, deal with a matter contained in the Clause, in subsection (4), of which I have given notice to the responsible Minister of the Home Department? I do not propose to deal at any length with this matter, but, before I say anything more, perhaps it would be right that I should declare such interest as I have in it. Some hon. Members may know that I have the honour to be a member of the Co-operative Party. The matter I want particularly to raise is one which affects the Co-operative movement.

The provisions contained in subsection (4) have a history which goes back to 1945. In the Licensing Planning (Temporary Provisions) Act of that year it was laid down that liquor licences in war-damaged areas should be granted only following an inquiry by the licensing planning committees which were set up under the Act to review the circumstances of areas that had been badly damaged during the war to secure that the number and distribution of licensed premises in war-damaged areas met local requirements and in particular had regard to possible future developments.

Those provisions were incorporated in Part II of the Licensing Act, 1953, to which reference is made in this subsection, but in that Act provision was made subject to an annual renewal under the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. By Section 59 of the 1953 Act no new licences would be granted unless the justices were satisfied that the planning committee had no objection to the grant. By the same Act, however, the Secretary of State was given power, under Section 55(4), to revoke the order constituting a licensing planning committee and the licensing planning area if it appeared to him that it was no longer expedient that such an area should be treated in this special way.

The Home Secretary has used that power in a number of cases, but in a number of cases the local licensing planning areas still continue under the authority of the local licensing planning committees, notably in Birmingham, London and Plymouth, with which, in particular, the Co-operative movement is finding very considerable difficulty arising because of their continuance. The present Minister of State, Board of Trade in the 1962 debate on the Committee stage of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill moved that Part II of the 1953 Act should be deleted. He said that the licensing committees were redundant. His plea for the abolition of the areas was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

The then Parliamentary Secretary said that the areas needed more time to work out plans connected with the redevelopment of war-damaged areas, but that the Home Secretary would use firmly the powers that were given to him under Section 55 of the Act to end any areas that were regarded by him as no longer necessary. It was hoped continuously to keep these areas under review with a view to bringing them to an end within the next year or two. The present Minister of Land and Natural Resources thought that the Government, by failing to meet the plea put to him on that occasion, was considering vested interests rather than the public interest.

My right hon. Friend hoped that when the next Expiring Laws Continuance Bill came before the House something more than a progress report would be given. Indeed, in November of last year the then Home Secretary announced the setting up of a Departmental Committee charged with considering and reporting whether, amongst other things, in war-damaged areas there was a continuing need for the licensing planning machinery.

Despite that undertaking by the Minister, the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, 1963, and the Licensing Act, 1964, have given a new lease of life to the licensing planning committees. My reason for seeking information arises from the undertakings given by the Minister's predecessors, for the position now must be that most licensing planning committees have served their purpose and should cease to be. They were intended to be applied to the extensively war-damaged areas, which for the most part have now been replanned and redeveloped. In fact, licensing planning committees are now largely used merely to refuse grants of more licences within their areas. A virtual monopoly is given to existing licensees.

The procedure, as can be seen in the London area, with which I am more familiar than with other areas, makes a complete mockery of any suggestion that the only considerations weighing with the licensing planning committee are planning considerations. For instance, when the committee holds its inquiry to see whether any objections are made before the case can be taken to the brewster sessions, as well as the provision of maps, the addresses of licensed premises, and so on, it requires that notices should be sent to the local planning authority and to anybody in the area who might be interested.

What happens in practice is that, when the licensing committee, consisting of anything between 12 and 16 magistrates, meets the objectors, the objectors are represented by barristersat-law, by solicitors, by "friends" of all kinds, who, for the most part, represent people who have a financial interest in the prevention of competition. Although monopoly value payments were abolished some years ago, in practice the only effect of these special planning areas and planning committees is that monopolies still exist, although those who object to the development now have to pay nothing.

Generally, the functions of the licensing committee, as anybody who has ever appeared before one knows only too well, and the functions of the licensing bench which follows, if permission is given by the planning committee, are so blurred that the second hearing is nothing but a repetition of the first. The objectors are represented by precisely the same counsel and solicitors. The same arguments are advanced. The licensing committee deals with the matter in precisely the same way as did the planning committee.

I seek from the Minister some assurance that the licensing planning machinery which has so outlived its usefulness is at least in the process of being dismantled. We have not tabled an Amendment because we want to give the Departmental Committee of inquiry an opportunity to deal with the matter and dismantle the machinery as need arises. As the machinery is not uniformly applied and as it is necessary for applicants to present their cases not only on planning considerations but often in the face of opposition from vested interests concerned only to prevent the development of competition and preserve their own monopoly rights, it appears to us that the time must now be very close when planning committees can be brought to an end, except in areas where it can be clearly shown that there is still a considerable amount of redevelopment following wartime destruction and elsewhere be dealt with before the licensing justices alone.

These are the matters upon which we should be grateful for information from the Ministry. Before the matter goes to a vote, we should be glad to hear from him that attention is being given to these matters and that the time will not be unduly long delayed when former Ministers' promises are fulfilled by this Minister and these committees brought to an end.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I wish to add a little to what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) since I was one of those who raised the matter on 28th November, 1962. It is on the report of that debate that some of the questions are being asked today. Bristol has a problem in the matter of licensing planning areas. I will not go on at great length about that. I have no personal interest in the matter, financial or otherwise, though I have studied the problem and a number of interests have approached me about it.

It appears that the existing state of affairs mitigates against those who would like to start up in the licensed trade, particularly those who want to sell drink in connection with other things, such as food. Examples of these people are licensed grocers. The difficulty arises because of the considerable wartime bomb damage. It is all very well for the hon. and learned Gentleman to talk about the virtual monopoly of those who were in before the war. I believe that I am right in saying that the way in which it has been arranged is that for every public house or licensed premises destroyed in the war a notional barrellage is taken into account. I am not sure how it is worked out, but the number of barrels indicates to some extent the power and size of the licensed premises.

Until till the barrels held in reserve from bombed premises in the war are reallocated into new licensed premises, it is virtually impossible, at any rate very difficult, for anybody to get a licence. In the case of the City of Bristol there were an enormous number of public houses before the war. There are still plenty of them. It would seem that the existing machinery is likely to have a restrictive effect for many years to come, unless there is an alteration.

I draw the Minister's attention to what was said in November, 1962, by the then Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) said: it will be possible in the next year to revoke licensing planning in something like half-adozen further areas. This is the really important statement: We shall continue to keep the matter under review and I hope that we shall bring it to an end in the next few years.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1962; Vol. 668, c. 625–6.] That was in 1962. A "few years" have elapsed. Perhaps with the passing of a few more years we shall see the abolition of the whole system. No doubt the Minister will be able to inform the Committee.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

Sir Harry, may I, first, express the pleasure of us all at seeing you in the Chair for the first time as one of the Deputy-Speakers of the House. As a former member of the Chairmen's Panel, I take a special delight in welcoming you.

It is strange the things that happen to us in life, and that my first task in a debate in this Parliament should be to speak on licensing. It seems very rough justice indeed. I have now been at the Home Office a month and I am learning a great many things. I am trying to discipline myself, but, of course, there are subjects like this one which have always held a fascinating interest for me.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) outlined quite accurately the provisions of the Bill and mentioned the difficulties which the present machinery is causing. He expressed the anxiety, as I understood it—as did the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke)—that the machinery now operating may cause injustice and that the Departmental Committee might not be moving fast enough.

The Committee was set up only in April last. It is a very distinguished Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Ramsay Willis, Q.C., and its terms of reference are: To consider and report whether,

  1. (a) in war-damaged areas to which Part II of the Licensing Act, 1953 applies, there is a continuing need for the licensing planning machinery for which it provides;
  2. (b) in other areas of major redevelopment or more generally there is a need for this or other machinery for securing that the number, nature and distribution of licensed premises accord with local requirements; and
  3. (c) in either case, if there is such a need, the machinery should apply to on-licences only or also to off licences."
This Committee has been very active. Appointed in April, it spent the time between April and July in collecting written evidence on the subject. One meeting of the Committee was held before the summer Recess. Two meetings have been held since, and it is hoped that the Committee will be able to meet at least once a month.

There are at present, if I may now answer the question put by the hon. Member for Bristol, West—18 licensing planning areas covering London, Birmingham, Bristol, Canterbury, Coventry, East Ham, West Ham, Gosport, Grimsby, Kingston-upon-Hull, Manchester, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Southampton, South Shields, Sunderland and Swansea. In 15—that is the important figure—of the 33 areas originally constituted, licensing planning has, with the local committee's consent, been brought to an end in the years 1955–1963.

This Departmental Committee expects to report next year, and in the light of its recommendations the House will then be better placed to judge what is the need for licensing planning and what form, if any, it should take in the future. It is hoped that the House will have an opportunity of considering these issues before another Expiring Laws Continuance Bill falls to be introduced in 1965. Meanwhile, I am sure that the Committee will agree that there is no reasonable alternative, since the Departmental Committee is doing its work, but to continue the present arrangements for another 12 months.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

May I, briefly, welcome the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) in his new office. The first speech that I have heard him deliver in this House was on Thursday, 23rd November, 1950, on the subject of whether the Festival of Britain Exhibition should be open on a Sunday or not—perhaps a subject with which we were more immediately associated than the subject of licensing.

The Committee having heard his explanation, we shall, of course, agree with the Clause at it stands. I only hope that this Departmental Committee, which has started extremely well and has made good progress in its labours, will enable more progress to be made by the next time we discuss a similar Bill. Experience shows sometimes that, as with certain aspects of the criminal law, it occasionally becomes easier to add to the Schedule to the Bill rather than to replace it by permanent legis-lation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's forecast that we shall have progress reported by next year will be fulfilled.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I do not wish to appear more harsh than my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), but could the hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that the Committee will have completed its work by the time we consider a similar Bill next year? Will he also give an assurance that the Government will make it possible to discuss this Expiring Laws Continuance Bill?

Mr. George Thomas

Although I have been here only a month, I have been here long enough to know that it would be foolish to give a guarantee. I only express a hope. I express the earnest hope that the Committee will have finished its deliberations next year.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.