HC Deb 08 November 1966 vol 735 cc1159-67

3.52 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 10, to leave out subsection (2).

The effect of the Amendment would be to repeal Part VII of the 1964 Licensing Act. This is the part of the Act that perpetuates the licensing planning committees established under the Licensing Planning (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1945, to last for one year. We have been renewing that Act ever since. Under it, liquor licences in war-damaged areas were to be granted only following an inquiry by committees whose duty it was to have regard to planning considerations so that the number and distribution of licensed premises in war-damaged areas met with local requirements and particularly had regard to possible future development.

There is an irony in the fact that it has fallen to me to move the Amendment, for my interest in the matter is very limited. If the sellers of intoxicants relied on me, they would not worry very much about getting licences, because if they depended on my trade they could all close their doors, save their Selective Employment Tax, and go into industry. But I have the interest—which I should, perhaps, declare immediately, though I expect that it is familiar to most hon. Members—that I have the honour from time to time to represent the point of view of the Co-operative movement. The movement has some interest in this matter, though it affects very many more than purely Co-operative interests.

The position now is that the areas that may be deemed to be the war-damaged areas considered under the Act when it was first introduced in 1945 depend on a fiction. In all the 18 remaining areas that are designated war-damaged areas for this purpose the amount of war damage is relatively little, and the Act proceeds substantially as a weeding-out of applicants before they go to brewster sessions. To obtain either an on-licence or an off-licence in these areas applicants must first go to the planning committee, which consists substantially of the same magistrates as those who make up the later brewster sessions.

For the most part, the arguments deployed and the considerations that weigh are the same as those which are deployed before the brewster sessions, if permission is given by the licensing planning committee. Successive Home Secretaries have recognised that in very many areas the committees have outlived their usefulness and have taken advantage of the power they possess under Section 55 of the Licensing Act, 1953, which has been carried into Section 120 of the 1964 Act, to revoke orders constituting licensing planning committees in certain areas because they recognised that it was expedient that the area should no longer be treated in this special way.

Although the Home Secretary has in the past used his power to abolish the planning committee, there still remain 18 areas to which the Act applies, although even in those areas it is generally recognised—indeed, Government spokesmen have recognised the fiction in the past—that there are no areas to which the conditions are still relevant that justified the passing of the Act in the first instance.

This is the fourth time that I have proposed that these committees should now be brought to an end. There was a time when present Ministers acclaimed me when I spoke on this matter, and, more important, even supported me by arguments of greater skill and force than I could command. However, times change and so do Governments, and the very Ministers who, in former years, spoke with such eloquence on the folly of the persistence of these committees now stand to defend them with equal eloquence.

However, the Government have promised—the debate was answered last year by my hon. Friend who is now Minister of State. Welsh Office—that they will carefully consider a claim for a review. Of course, they relied on the fact that there was a Departmental Committee to consider licensing planning and said that as soon as that Committee reported they would be in a position to make up their mind as to what to do about the licensing committees. The Departmental Committee reported in July last year, just too late to enable my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) to tell me what the Government thought about it. I gave him an opportunity last December, but the Government had not then been able to make up their mind. Bearing in mind the Committee's report, I am not surprised at that, for while apparently coming to the conclusion that the present planning licensing committees have outlived their usefulness, the Committee proposes to spawn the monstrosity still further by considering it not only in war-damaged areas, but in all parts of the country.

In practice, the simplest and easiest way to deal with committees that depend for their existence on a fiction is to let them wither away. The Home Secretary can do this, if he wishes, by exercising his power under Section 120(4) of the 1964 Act, for all that is really happening is that people who now hold licences in the planning area have a monopoly and are entitled to preserve it by preventing the incursions of those who would be their potential competitors. It is extraordinary that the Departmental Committee under Mr. Ramsay Willis, as he then was, did not recognise this, as it is so apparent.

If the Home Secretary followed the advice of the present President of the Board of Trade, as he put it when he stood in my place and made a similar speech, he could protect the interests of the public by sacrificing for once the vested interests of the brewing industry.

4.0 p.m.

However, if the Government are not disposed, for esoteric reasons of which I know nothing and which I cannot imagine, to let these planning committees wither away, and if they, like all Governments, are so pressed down with legislation that they have not the time or the inclination to use Government time to introduce yet another licensing Measure to deal with these anomalies, may I mention one particular anomaly which has persisted under the 1964 Act, apparently in the face of what Parliament originally intended? This raises the question of off-licences in the designated areas.

I have read the debates on the Second Reading of the 1953 Bill, which was the beginning of this matter, and on that occasion Lord Kilmuir, as he now is, dealing with the objects of the Bill, spoke specifically of licensed premises, and the definitive Clause to which he referred—Clause 56 of that Bill, now Section 119(2) of the 1964 Act—lays down that It shall be the duty of every licensing planning committee to review the circumstances of its area and to try to secure … that the number, nature and distribution of licensed premises in the area, the accommodation provided in them and the facilities given in them for obtaining food, accord with local requirements … On the face of it, and in the light of the debates with which the Clause was introduced, it appears that Parliament intended the Act to have relation only to what are called "on-licences" under which spirits, beers and the like are consumed on the premises. It has been held since, possibly rightly, that that is too narrow an interpretation, and the courts have strictly construed the expression "licence" to include off-licences as well.

Whether or not there is an arguable case that off-licences were never intended to be included—I think that there is—there is no doubt that later licensing legislation has given a greater permissiveness in respect of off-licences than that governing on-licences. Now, therefore, in the light of the 1964 Act, there is a considerable conflict between the intention of the Government in the matter of off-licences and the strictly construed interpretation of the provisions of the 1953 Act applying to them in the 18 war-damaged areas.

To correct the anomaly, that is, to give greater freedom for the opening of off-licensed premises in these areas, and to give parity of treatment between different areas, would require the merest baby of a law. There is the possibility—I ask my right hon. Friend to consider this—that the most anomalous feature of this legislation relating to off-licences could be simply and easily cured without making too great a demand on the Government's time. If she is able to do that, to correct a little even if she will not remove the whole, then I shall feel that at long last my inadequate forensic appeal, unsuccessful for so long, has achieved a little good.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I support the case so ably put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams). Like him, I declare my interest in that I, too, am privileged from time to time to put forward a case on behalf of cooperative societies, or the Co-operative movement. Unlike him, I do not claim the same lack of interest in the goods sold from off-licensed premises or dispensed in on-licensed premises. It must have been quite an occasion last year when my hon. Friend who is now Minister of State, Welsh Office, replied to the debate, he being one of the best-known teetotallers in the House.

When the Government appoint a Departmental Committee, and that Committee reports as long ago as July, 1955, it is debasing the currency of such committees to allow so long a period to elapse before its recommendations are put into effect. I reinforce the plea made by my hon. and learned Friend that something should be done in this case.

Special consideration should be given to off-licences. It seems to me that the relevant provisions of the Act cover two distinct and separate functions. We have now reached the stage, 21 years after the end of the war and the time when these war-damaged areas were designated, when we should at least start to free this sector of the trade. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will hold out a little hope that we shall not have to have a similar debate next year.

I realise that all Departments are pressed for time when they seek to put legislation through Parliament. I realise, also, that this is a minor matter. But there are quite a number of these minor matters which it should be possible to find time for in the House in order to correct anomalies and improve parts of our legislation which are now long out of date.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Miss Alice Bacon)

I pay a tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) who, while having no interest in the liquor trade, has raised this question in four successive years. I have some sympathy with what I believe to be his aim and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt). Nevertheless, I feel sure that, when they have heard what I have to say about the wider issues of licensing planning and about the real effect of the Amendment if it were accepted, my hon. Friends will be content to pursue other methods to achieve their aim.

Licensing planning is an arrangement by which, in areas of serious war damage, the redistribution of licensed premises is co-ordinated by joint committees of the licensing justices and the local planning authority. Because the system was set up immediately after the war with reference to areas of serious war damage, the legislation providing for it is subject to annual review by means of the Expiring Laws Continuance procedure. The original postwar legislation of 1945 and 1946 is now incorporated in Part VII of the Licensing Act, 1964, which continues to be subject to annual renewal.

Originally, there were 33 licensing planning areas with licensing planning committees set up by the Home Secretary. They may be brought to an end by the Home Secretary in an area in which he is satisfied that they have served their purpose. By the early 1960s, 15 of these committees had completed their task and had been brought to an end.

Because of criticisms made of the continued existence of licensing planning and of methods of operation somewhat removed from the original objective of restoring war damage, the then Home Secretary in April, 1964, appointed a Departmental Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Ramsay Willis, Q.C., as he then was.

Its principal findings were: (1) that licensing planning should continue, although in a modified form; (2) that it should no longer relate to areas of war damage but should be applicable to any area of development; (3) that it should apply only to on-licences where the licensing justices had discretion and where the planning authority had jurisdiction. The organisations most affected by the Committee's recommendations were asked for their views. Their comments have been received during the course of the last year and were, in the main, favourable.

The next step, however—to formulate policy in the light of the Committee's recommendations and the reactions to them, and to translate that policy into an Act of Parliament—is not so easy. First of all, as my hon. and learned Friend has anticipated, it has not been possible to allot a place for legislation on this topic in the already crowded programme for this Session, and at this stage I cannot anticipate the content of the programme for the following Session.

Secondly, the matter is by no means that straightforward, as my hon. and learned Friend recognised. One member of the Ramsay Willis Committee—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin)—put in a minority report. His main objection was to the quasi-voluntary and non-executive character of the proposed machinery. And our consultations, as I say, although revealing considerable support with the Committee's recommendations, have also shown some support for the minority views. There are thus difficult questions to resolve and opposing views to reconcile.

At present, as has been said, there still exist 18 of the original 33 licensing planning areas. I can assure hon. Members on both sides that my colleagues and I do not like this annual renewal procedure for licensing planning any more than they do. But with the working of the present arrangements in practice there is, I understand, no great dissatisfaction either in areas which have licensing planning committees or in areas which have not—except the dissatisfaction caused by the retention of off-licences within the scope of licensing planning.

Pending the solving of the difficulties of policy I have outlined, it seems to us that the necessary planning of adequate facilities for public houses and fully licensed hotels can best proceed under the three methods I have described. It is certainly the view of the authorities concerned in the two statutory methods of planning that they should be allowed to continue so to operate; and I am sure that the Committee will agree that, in the light of the Ramsay Willis Report, it is sensible to enable them to continue to do so.

I now turn to what I understand may well be the main concern of the mover and supporter of the Amendment—the fact that under the present law the justices in a licensing planning area cannot issue an off-licence without a certificate of non objection from the licensing planning committee. If I am right—and if it had been legally possible to do so—I am sure that my hon. Friends might—instead of putting down an Amendment to prevent renewal of Part VII of the Act of 1964 as a whole—have limited themselves to an Amendment to exclude off-licences from the jurisdiction of the remaining 18 licensing planning committees.

4.15 p.m.

In the Bill now being considered, that is not possible. The courses open to the Committee today are to renew or not to renew. Separate legislation would be necessary to exclude off-licences from the scope of Part VII, and on this matter the Ramsay Willis Committee's recommendation may well be right in principle. The local planning authority under planning legislation is not concerned directly in the use to which shop premises are to be put. It has no power to say that there shall be one butcher, one baker, or one candlestick maker in a particular row of shops, and there is, perhaps, no reason why it should concern itself either with the question whether a grocer should sell beer as well as tea or wine as well as coffee. The number and location of outlets for off-sales of intoxicating liquor are matters of licensing law rather than of planning law.

It may be that in the light of what I have said one of my hon. Friends may feel disposed to introduce a Private Member's Bill to achieve the relatively limited end of excluding the grant of off-licences from the scope of the planning committees. If that were to happen, I can assure the Committee that we would at the time give careful consideration to the attitude which Government should adopt towards such a Measure.

Clearly, in ideal conditions it would be better not to try to deal with these matters piecemeal, but I am fully aware of the concern of which my hon. Friends have spoken and I will certainly undertake that the Government will take into account the views expressed. If my reading of the situation is correct, this Amendment would go further than my hon. Friends wished, and although, as I have indicated, Government legislation to bring about what they want is not possible in this Session, I hope that in the light of my explanation they will see fit to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. W. T. Williams

With a lively sense of favours to come, Sir Eric, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.