HC Deb 20 November 1967 vol 754 cc1100-6

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

12.22 a.m.

Mr. William Price (Rugby)

I sympathise with my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate. I understand that there was some difficulty in finding an appropriate Minister, not because no one wanted the job, but because the subject is one in which a number of Departments have a responsibility, including the Home Office, the Board of Trade, the Treasury and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. For that reason, I shall not press my hon. and learned Friend too strongly tonight and shall be satisfied with a written reply to any matter which remains outstanding.

The debate is of interest and concern to 60,000 licensees, many of whom are planning a mass demonstration at the House tomorrow, and the millions of people who use our public houses, some rather more regularly than others. I should like to make absolutely clear at the beginning that I have no intention of suggesting any alteration in the Road Safety Act. I have always supported my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport on the breathalyser test, and I have no intention of changing my mind.

I am not arguing the case tonight for the breweries or their shareholders. They are well able to look after themselves. I want to bring to the attention of the House some of the difficulties facing the licensed trade as a result of various factors, one of which undoubtedly is the introduction of the breathalyser test.

I should like to quote a letter, one of many I have received in the past week. Headed "Licensee's Lament", it states: I can see myself in the near future applying to the Social Security for help. If you were employed in industry and were forced to go on short time then you could draw dole, get tax rebates and so on, but not the licensees. Oh, no! Even though you have paid your self-employed stamp, you cannot draw dole. If your profits are down you cannot get a rebate on your tax. Even though your house is empty you still have to have the bright lights and the central heating. What is going to happen when we next have to meet our bills? Our overheads are still going up. Will the Government help us? Will the breweries help us, or will we just have to give up when are savings are exhausted? My house has just been modernised, the brewery paying for structural alterations, the rest my own expense—new furniture, fitted carpets, light fittings, the lot. Make no mistake, the brewery does not pay for these in management houses.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Member has not yet indicated what Government responsibility there is in this matter, bearing in mind, of course, that on the Adjournment he cannot ask for legislation.

Mr. Price

I was just coming to that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have had long discussion over the past week with Mr. Speaker in an effort to keep me in order. I do not usually succeed in debates, but I shall do my best.

My correspondent goes on to say that having got everything completed, he could see himself paying off his debts in good time, but then came the breathalyser and his new car park is empty. He says that he is not the only one who is sick with worry and that many more licensees are far worse off than he is.

How has this situation arisen? Basically, the reason is increasing competition and generally rising costs, some of which are the direct responsibility of the Government and some of which are the result of circumstances outside the control of anyone. There has been a considerable increase in home deliveries of alcohol. There has been severe competition from clubs, and in the view of many licensees the Government have been giving preferential treatment to the clubs as against pubs. In more recent times there has been the appearance of licensed grocery stores. Indeed, if the Consumer Council gets its way according to a report submitted to the Monopolies Commission, all supermarkets will be given as of right a licence to sell alcohol.

On top of all that—and I suppose that it could be argued that competition does no one any harm—the trade has had to face substantial increases in wages, heating and lighting and the Selective Employment Tax. Yet in the light of all these curbs, an application to the Government for an increase of a penny a pint on beer, with the money going direct to the retailer and not to the brewers, was turned down.

No one on this side of the House wants to argue for an increase in the price of anything, but that application seems to me to be far more justified than many increases which have been inflicted upon the public. It is being considered by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to comment on it. I merely ask him to bring my argument to the attention of his right hon. Friend.

A penny increase would certainly help, but even that has to be put in perspective. A landlord would have to pull a great many pints to make an extra £1. The view of the trade is that such an increase would do no more than meet the additional direct costs of the past three years. The trade would still be faced with the effects of the breathalyser test, the only outcome of which, if it succeeds, will be a substantial reduction in income available to licensees, particularly those in the rural areas.

The great danger—it is happening already—is that licensees will argue against the Minister and against the breathalyser test, not on rational and road safety grounds, but from fear of financial hardship and, perhaps, bankruptcy. There is no doubt that many pubs have been severely hit. Estimates vary between 20 and 50 per cent. in the rural areas, while others depending largely on town trade have had little effect.

I therefore ask, what is the answer? My purpose was to try, within the rules of order, to explain the difficulties of the licensed trade. The rules of order prevent me from putting any radical solution, but I shall pursue that on another occasion. There is one course which has been adopted in the past and which I believe could make a significant difference, and that is, a variation in the rates of duty imposed by the Chancellor on alcohol. It has been suggested that the licensed trade collects approximately £1,000 million a year in duty for the Chancellor. I appreciate that this is hardly the right time to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give anything away at all, but it is possible that a small reduction passed directly to the public houses would have the effect of keeping many of these unpaid collectors in business.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member may not, on the Adjournment, argue about the next Budget.

Mr. Price

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I had been advised that in fact that could be done by Statutory Instrument. But I will pass from that point anyway.

If the country pub goes out of business it is my view that everyone will lose, certainly the landlord, the community, and, in all probability, the Chancellor. No one could expect a big reduction in duty, but I suggest that a small one might provide the stimulus needed in the trade.

I wonder if I may quote one further letter which arrived this morning: I am the owner of a small country pub serving a community of about 350 people, and I think it fair to claim that I am providing a social as well as an economic service for the village. Times have been difficult in the past, but never more than at the present, but the reasons are too well known to need stating. The position is simply this. My income during the past month is down by more than 40 per cent. I am certain that at the moment I am operating at a loss. Conditions may, of course, improve, but there is no doubt at all that the future of my pub is in jeopardy. The question I ask the House to consider is this: should the licensees be expected to stand the full cost of what I regard as highly desirable social legislation? In my opinion the answer should be, "No". They will have to stand much of it. The brewers should divert some of their vast profits. The customers will have to make their contribution, and it is my argument that the Government should also play their part.

The fact that a planned demonstration of fewer than one hundred people from Rugby has escalated in a week to a probable national protest tomorrow of 3,000 licensees in London is an indication of the very real concern throughout the trade. The local pub is a feature of community life we can ill afford to lose. I believe that, on the evidence available, hundreds of our pubs, particularly those in isolated rural areas, those we can least afford to lose, are likely to go.

12.33 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I am in some difficulty in replying to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price), and I am grateful to him for the sympathy which he has shown in realis- ing my difficulties. Many of the matters he has raised are matters for other Departments, and I cannot, of course, answer for them, and some of them are not matters for the Government.

Certainly I shall be glad to refer to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture the remarks my hon. Friend has made about the request for the extra penny to go to the landlord for each pint. Also, if I am within the rules of order, I shall be glad to pass on my hon. Friend's remarks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation to the adjustment of duty. On this issue, as the Home Office is itself a brewer, there may be some conflict of interest between the Treasury and the Home Office, but certainly this is a matter which I shall pass on.

There were one or two other matters my hon. Friend raised which were in the sphere of the Home Office. Let me say that I certainly appreciate the point which my hon. Friend has made, and one must sympathise with the position of the licensee and his family, but I fear that there is very little that I can say tonight which will give much comfort or much help.

My hon. Friend referred, for example, to the breathalyser. I was very glad to hear that he did not ask for any change, although that would not have been in order, because, however great the hardship to licensees, it is vital to remember that we are here concerned with an attempt to save life and to save people from serious injury. We cannot be diverted from that aim, and I am sure that the public at large would not wish us to be if they could see the accident statistics in personal terms. It may be, however, that the effect of the breath test law will be an incentive to some members of the trade to diversify their trade as it is practised at the moment.

On the general position of Home Office responsibility for the licensing laws, it is very important to bear in mind that these are intended to provide some control over the public consumption of intoxicating liquor. They aim at control for social reasons, and they seek to achieve this through the public supervision of those who sell intoxicating liquor by retail or who supply it for consumption in registered members' clubs.

The licensing laws are not aimed at restricting the opportunities for competition in providing a service to the public in this industry. They are not laws designed for an economic purpose in the sense of regulating or limiting the extent to which one section of the industry advances at the expense of another. It is not the aim of the laws to stop the customer buying where and from whom he chooses, or consuming alcohol in a particular place of his choice, provided that the licensing justices are persuaded that the social aims of the laws are justified.

My hon. Friend referred to the preferential treatment that was received by the registered clubs. I do not accept that the Government are giving preferential treatment to these clubs. Of course, I am prepared to listen to any special representations that my hon. Friend has, and I admit that these clubs have certain advantages, but I am not sure that the complaints of the licensees should be addressed to the Government. It is true that the law gives some advantages, because the whole family can enter members' clubs, whereas young persons under the age of 14 are barred from the licensed parts of public houses. It is true that there is some greater flexibility in hours. But a very important factor is the greater entertainment which many registered clubs can afford to give. Part of the explanation for the attraction of clubs lies in the fact that the brewers have often invested more money proportionately on improving the facilities and decor of clubs as places for all the family to go to than they have on modernising public houses. If that is so, the people to whom their complaints should be addressed are the brewers. It is not something in which the Government can interfere.

Mr. William Price

The argument which is most frequently used by licensees is that one of the biggest attractions in clubs, unfortunately, is the presence there of gaming machines. My hon. and learned Friend will appreciate the difference in the way that clubs are treated compared with pubs in regard to gaming machines.

Mr. Taverne

Certainly that is a point which I can consider, but it is not one which I can discuss now because it will involve changes in the law. However, there will be an opportunity to discuss the point when we come to the Gaming Bill which will be laid before the House in the near future.

My hon. Friend referred briefly to the evidence given by the Consumer Council to the Monopolies Commission. We must wait for the Commission's Report, and any comments that it wishes to make on that evidence, but I would take this opportunity to say that our licensing laws should be adapted to changing conditions and should reflect modern needs and attitudes. To some extent, they reflect the conditions of half a century or more ago.

If it proves that there is widespread feeling that some of the provisions of our licensing laws would benefit from amendment, we would be willing to give careful consideration to any proposals.

I am afraid that I have not been able to offer my hon. Friend, or those for whom he spoke, much comfort certainly so far as our responsibilities are concerned; but I think it is important to remember that the purposes of the licensing laws are social, not economic.

Of course, we are ready to listen to proposals for alleviating the position, but one cannot consider this solely from the point of view of the licensee any more than one can look at the development of commerce generally solely from the point of view of the small trader. One must look also at the interests of the customer, the consumer. The licensing laws are not designed to give a specially protected position to the traditional licensee.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.