HC Deb 27 November 1975 vol 901 cc1178-88

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

It may seem strange that I should be initiating an Adjournment debate about violence in public houses with particular reference to individual public house managers. The House will be well acquainted with certain of my views and with the fact that I am a member of the temperance group of the House of Commons. I make no apology for that, for it is no crime.

Violence appears to be on the increase. Whatever views one might have on the merits of drinking one should always be prepared to support any organisation or person who has a just cause. I have initiated this debate because some time ago I received a deputation from the licensed house managers from my constituency. In 1971 my constituency was the subject of much discussion on the Floor of the House. Although I do not drink I can safely claim that during my 11 years as Member of Parliament for Carlisle I have always been on reasonably good terms with and had a friendly reception from the licensed house managers there as a whole.

The deputation asked me whether some positive action could be taken or initiative made to try at least to stem the violence on licensed house managers. My constituency in this respect is no different from any other. When I met that delegation I was somewhat shocked and a little dismayed that one of their number was more or less covered in bandages. He had been in hospital at least twice and beaten up at least three times. Another member of the delegation had also spent some time in hospital after violence in his pub.

Some people may argue that it is the manager's own fault, but I strongly disagree with that. They are at least carrying out a lawful occupation, and it is when they try to uphold the law that they are often attacked. On the whole public house managers are decent people. In any walk of life there is always the exception.

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 Walter Harrison.]

Mr. Lewis

I have received a number of letters on the matter, but I have had only one derogatory comment, which was made by a gentleman from Durham who telephoned my agent to say that he was rather surprised that I, with my background as a worker in the temperance movement, should be standing up for a set of public house managers, many of whom encouraged the drug traffic. I refute that allegation. They are doing their job.

What can be done? After meeting my constituents, I met at the House representatives of the National Association of Licensed House Managers, one of the newest trade unions. We had a good discussion. They were keen that Parliament should take positive action. I under- stand that they have also discussed the question with my hon. Friend the Minister. The associations is a genuine trade union with about 30,000 members, and it is still increasing in size. It is the latest trade union to affiliate to the TUC. If I may do a little plugging, I urge any licensed house manager who is not a member of a trade union to join the association, which is doing what other trade unions do, namely, seeking to protect and help its members.

I agree with the Association that what is needed is a new law, or at least an amendment to the present law, to deal with the problem of violence in public houses. I also agree with the Association that a person convicted of committing an act of violence against a licensed house manager should be barred by law from entering a public house for, say, six months or 12 months. What is wrong with that? No doubt my hon. Friend will make the usual claim, which we are used to hearing from Front Bench speakers on both sides of the House, that it could not be enforced. I disagree. I believe that such a law would at least be a deterrent. What is wrong with that? If such a law can reduce this kind of violence the Government should take the initiative and amend existing legislation.

I supported the introduction of the breathalyser. In my view it has helped to reduce accidents. I remember the arguments used against it. I would not say that it was foolproof. If I am convicted of a breathalyser offence there is nothing to stop me from driving in another part of the country where I am not known, though I would do my utmost to make sure that I was not caught again. If we amended the law in the way in which I am suggesting, it would act as a deterrent to those who have already been convicted of violence. Such people would be careful not to be caught a second time. That is my main argument for some kind of legislation to protect licensed house managers and their families. It would cut down the crime wave in licensed premises.

Yesterday we discussed the question of terrorism. We all know that violence against the person is increasing generally. If that is so, it must be increasing in licensed houses. Many of the victims of violence in licensed houses have been upholding the law, particularly at closing time. This is a matter for Parliament. We make the rules and the courts administer them. If the increase in violence on the football terraces had been dealt with a little more earnestly at first, I do not believe that it would have reached present proportions. This is the main argument of the managers of licensed houses in my constituency and elsewhere. They are anxious that the violence they are experiencing should not increase. They argue that action now will prevent things from getting out of hand later.

On average, two cases of assault are reported weekly to the headquarters of the National Association of Licensed House Managers. There must be many more which are not reported. The Association has obtained injunctions against persons in two cases. The courts have thus come out in favour of the managers. That is only in respect of a particular public house. It has had a good effect locally, but it is limited. Not long ago the National Association of Licensed House Managers and the National Association of Licensed Victuallers closed their pubs as a mark of respect for the London licensee who died following an incident at his home. They put notices on the doors of their pubs saying, This house, together with thousands throughout the country, will not open tomorrow, the day of the funeral. That was loyally obeyed throughout the country.

It is suggested that a licensed house manager who was assaulted not long ago will never work again. The person responsible for the crime was fined £10, with £5 costs. The manager was carrying out his duties. Another man received an injury to his leg involving the removal of his kneecap. He has received £650 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, the setting-up of which I supported. But this is public money, although people who are injured as a result of criminal activities are entitled to it. In another incident a licensee received a stab wound in the back. Another person suffered an injury to the left eye, necessitating nine stitches, and a broken nose. He has received £200 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. Another person was butted in the left eye and suffered injuries necessitating 13 stitches and a partial loss of sight. He has received over £2,000 from the Board. A woman licensee was assaulted by someone who used a bar stool, and she has received £400 from the Board.

What we want is a law to prevent incidents of that type from occurring. British pubs are unique in that they receive special protection from Parliament. I am not an expert on this matter, and I do not think my hon. Friend the Minister of State is an expert, but we have certain things in common. It can be argued that the existing measures are not sufficient for those who have to operate them and that Parliament should take further measures to afford them the personal protection that they need.

It can be said that a number of these incidents occur because the licensee upholds the law at closing time. The licensed house manager is caught both ways. If he allows drinking after hours, he can be prosecuted and convicted; or he can be clobbered if he insists that the law must be upheld. Often the public house manager is the victim of the violence, so he cannot win.

The steward of a club—and, again, I am not an expert on this matter—is in a different position from that of the licensed house manager because the steward is protected by his committee. The committee can say whether a person should ever enter the premises again, but a licensed house manager cannot do that because a licensed house is involved.

I believe it is high time that the Government got together the various organisations in the licensed trade and in the public services, such as the busmen and—in my own industry—the railwaymen. I am sure that such a move would have the support not only of the whole House but of the whole country.

Busmen and railwaymen, like public house managers, have been victims of assault and violence—so much so that they have refused to run the buses or the trains. In many cases licensed house managers have closed their public houses long before they should—in particular when certain football teams are playing in their vicinity.

I believe that it is time that my hon. Friend and his Department took the initative and gathered together all these organisations, trade unions and others, whose members, like the licensed house managers, are victims of thuggery. They should discuss the matter round the table, try to form a common policy for fighting this ever-growing menace, and ask Parliament to give them some kind of protective measure that would act as a deterrent.

I believe that this is a practical proposition. It will not entirely solve the problem. I should be deluding myself and the House if I suggested that it would. It is a proposal, however, that could go some way towards solving the problem, and act as a deterrent to the would-be violent persons in society—and the quicker we eradicate violence the better.

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

I share the concern which has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) about the incidence of violence towards licensees—indeed, the incidence of violence in our society generally. He is quite right to say that violent crime is on the increase. He is right to highlight this particular aspect of it. It is ironic that he and I should be discussing our mutual concern in this regard, since both of us happen to be Methodist teetotallers and not habitues of the public houses of the managers who are his concern.

I accept the sincerity of the views he expressed. I have seen delegations from the National Association of Licensed House Managers and understand the force of their concern, but we have to put the matter into some kind of perspective. The Home Office in 1972, and again this year, largely at the request of the National Association, took soundings from seven police districts, including the Metropolitan, to try to evaluate what was happening in relation to attacks upon licensees.

It is difficult to get this information from the criminal satistics, because assaults are recorded generally in one group, and we cannot decipher from our figures whether the victims were licencees or any other occupation. But the report we received from the seven chief officers of police was that, both in 1972 and now, they have seen no greater incidence in the normal pattern of criminal violence against licensees than in relation to other members of the community. What has happened is that violence has increased, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and the number of violent crimes has increased, and so the number of violent crimes against licensees has increased.

But it is part of a total pattern and not just one increasing problem out of perspective with the rest of the picture of crime. I have to bear that in mind in considering whether attacks upon licensees are so great a problem that they require special measures over and above anything that we do to deal with the upsurge in crime that has taken place over the past 20 years.

The one added protection that was urged by the National Association and that has been urged tonight by my hon. Friend is that there should be some kind of disqualification procedure relating to those who are convicted of offences of violence against licensees—something like the disqualification from driving which appertains to convictions for drunken driving. At first sight, it has a certain appeal. But I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise on reflection that it is not practicable, and if it is not practicable, however desirable it is that we should add greater protection to any section of the community that is threatened, there is not much point in introducing it.

Mr. Ron Lewis

Let us give it a try.

Mr. Lyon

My hon. Friend asks that it should be tried. In 1902, the Licensing Act allowed courts to blacklist people convicted of offences of being habitual drunkards. As my hon. Friend will know as a Joint Vice-President of the United Kingdom Alliance, the statistics indicate that it has not been very successful in stopping the incidence of habitual drunkenness. In 1972, there were two such blacklistings. In 1973, there were six. In 1974, there was none at all. The result is that we must consider that this kind of blacklisting has no effect.

If we applied a somewhat similar system to those who were convicted of assault, what would happen? Presumably, the idea is that the police would inform licensees in the district that John Smith had been convicted of an offence. If the licensees know John Smith, they would be able to bar him from their pubs. If they did not know him, it would not make any difference that they had been informed that a certain John Smith had been so convicted.

In any event, it is not necessary to have a disqualification system if that is to be the only effect. If the licensees know about the conviction of John Smith, either from their local newspaper or from their own sources of information, including the journal of the National Association, they are entitled to bar him. They can bar whom they like from their premises. They have an absolute right so to do. As I understand it, in the South-West, the Association has tried to run a voluntary scheme of this nature, alerting licensees to people who have been convicted of offences of violence. That does not seem to have been any more successful than any other scheme for reducing the incidence of violence in those areas.

It is suggested that we might get over that by attaching a photograph to a notification. But again it would not be clear even from a photograph who was and who was not a convicted person in this regard. There is all the element of mistake which can come about, as we know only too well from criminal convictions which are based upon identification where the person making the identification has previously seen a photograph. This kind of mistake is all too clear. If a person were barred from a public house because it was alleged that he had been convicted and if the allegation were false, it would open up the possibility of a defamation suit against the licensee concerned.

We must also recognise the difficulty that comes into the picture from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. That Act made it clear that if a man had been convicted of an offence for which he received a sentence of less than two and a half years' imprisonment, that conviction and sentence could, for all practical purposes, be expunged after 10 years. If only a fine, it may be expunged after five years. Therefore, anyone who had a spent conviction of that kind and who was still on the barred list could sue for defamation. My hon. Friend's proposal is not only suspect in its effect, but it may be positively dangerous in incurring a possible legal suit against a licensee.

Therefore, as with the rest of crime, including violent crime, the real protection is an increasing certainty of detection and conviction of those who might take part in such crimes. That is primarily the responsibility of the police, and we have done all we can to increase the strength of the police and the efficiency of the individual police officer.

There is one aspect of the problem peculiar to licensed premises which I should mention. Not many years ago, a judicial decision provided that a police officer was not entitled to enter licensed premises unless he had reasonable cause to suspect that an offence had been committed upon the premises. As a result, police officers stopped their former practice of calling on licensed premises as a matter of routine in the course of their duties. The managers and, indeed, other licensees have urged that we should reverse that ruling so that police officers may again enter licensed premises as part of their routine, as their presence could have a restraining effect upon the passions of customers.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend knows, it is not always possible, even if we desire it, to get time in this House for passing worthy pieces of legislation. A matter of this kind is of relatively low priority compared with the many other claims on parliamentary time. We must wait for a suitable occasion when the matter can be put right. We hope to have an opportunity, but it does not seem likely for some time.

Meanwhile, I remind licensees, as I mentioned in the letter which I wrote to them, that they are entitled to invite police officers to come into their premises. If they issue that invitation, I am sure that the police forces in their areas will be happy to oblige, within the constraints falling upon police manpower at this time. The police are over-stretched, particularly in our major urban areas. Therefore, it may not be easy for them to respond to such an invitation in every situation. However, they are aware of the difficulty and are keeping a look-out in the hope of restraining these assaults.

The managers were very concerned that particularly magistrates, but even the higher courts, were not passing sentences commensurate with the kind of violence that has been exhibited in some of these assaults. We have taken up that matter with the Lord Chancellor. We have no power, nor has he, to govern the sentences which should be awarded by any court. But in a major speech, he has drawn this concern to the attention of magistrates. I hope that some of the sentences which have been passed since that time have done something to placate the anxieties of the licensees.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me the opportunity of discussing this matter. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful about the suggestion that he has made, but—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.