HC Deb 20 June 1978 vol 952 cc367-73

11.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the draft Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 17th May, be approved. This order provides for certain minor but important amendments to the Licensing Act (Northern Ireland) 1971, which is the principal legislation relating to the licensing of premises for the retail sale, supply and consumption of intoxicating liquor in Northern Ireland. Most of the proposed amendments to this principal legislation are necessary because of terrorist activities directed against licensed hotels.

These hotels have usually either been damaged to such an extent that all their normal business has had to be discontinued or the hoteliers, under considerable difficulties, have been able to continue that part of their business involving the supply of meals and liquor to nonresidents only. However, because the residential part of the hotel has been so severely damaged, or in many cases totally destroyed, many hoteliers have not been able to accommodate overnight visitors.

This is a serious matter, for the lack of residential accommodation has prevented such hotels from obtaining a certificate of registration with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board as an approved and fully operational hotel. As the House will be aware, a certificate from the Tourist Board is by statute necessary before a court can renew the hotel liquor licence. Thus the hotelier who has suffered attack by terrorists has in addition the threat of also losing the right to renew his licence until he or she has rebuilt the residential accommodation, thereby conforming to the statutory requirement. It is to change this very unjust and unsatisfactory situation that I seek the approval of the House to this order to right what has been a wrong, and which, indeed, has existed for far too long.

The order will also enable courts, when relicensing bomb-damaged hotels, to con- tinue such licensing provileges as attached to the former licence.

I commend the order to the House.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

We warmly welcome the order, which, as the Minister clearly explained, is required because of the depredations of terrorists, who direct many of their activities against licensed premises as part of their campaign to disrupt the social and economic life of the Province.

Without more words, I assure the Minister of our support for the order, which can do something to help the important hotel trade and also do something to encourage visitors to Northern Ireland.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I hope that we are not operating on this order under the strict rules which apply to the Third Reading of a Bill, because I wish to draw attention to the remarkable irony whereby, in the last debate, the author of the order was taking credit for improvements—important and extensive improvements—which he had made to it, whereas in this case, though he was silent about his achievement, he ought to have been taking credit for having disembowelled his original legislation. What we have before us is but the shell or skeleton of those proposals for a draft order which so boldly issued forth many months ago. Thereby hangs not only a tale but a salutary moral.

Among the original intentions was that of providing, within the ambit of the order, albeit subject to what became increasingly restrictive conditions as consideration proceeded, for the licensing of certain community leisure centres.

Now, the reason why that proposal was put forward was a recommendation to that effect, made by a joint committee of central and local government representatives and confirmed by the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland. Yet here I have a letter, signed by the Minister's own hand and dated 12th April this year, in which he points out that: … in the event, however, when the draft order was published, six district councils wrote objecting strongly to the proposal and only two wrote in support. The important moral which we draw from this event is not to rely overmuch upon the collective expression of alleged opinion by associations—at any rate, associations of things as impersonal as local authorities.

A local authority by itself is a thing to be taken seriously. I would never dare to be disrespectful towards a district council, particularly a district council in Northern Ireland. But when one has an association of district councils, it is difficult to be quite certain what are the psychological and other relationships between the district councils in their individual capacity—and they are individuals—and the association in its collectivity.

What is more—though I do not think that this has happened to any extent in Northern Ireland—there is such a thing as an association "industry". Those who organise, run, speak for, perform as secretaries of, associations, are the members of a kind of guild or industry in its own right. Often they find it convenient, easy, even advantageous, to go along with whatever may be the fashion at the moment, with whatever they suspect may be likely to commend itself to enlightened opinion. Thereby they cease to be representative.

That is why it becomes necessary not to rely on legislation upon the advice and opinions expressed by associations, but to go to the councils themselves, to ask what the individual district councils are professing and wanting, and if necessary —dare I say it?—to try to get behind the district councils themselves to find out what those whom they, and we, represent are thinking and wishing.

I have no doubt that the last answer was truer than the first and that there is too great a sensitivity in the Province of Northern Ireland as to the evils entailed by the unwise use of and access to alcohol, especially by the young, for it to have been wise, especially at this stage, to contemplate any enlargement of the scope of licensing, especially in an area like the community and leisure centres where young people congregate and are catered for. The Government were therefore undoubtedly right to perform the ceremony of hara-kiri upon the original order and to bring before the House tonight only the exiguous remnants of what they had originally proposed.

In that form, there can, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said, be no objection to the order. In fact, by the order as it now is we are doing for Northern Ireland what is was found necessary to do in this island immediately after the Second World War, and for the same reason. The devastation by enemy bombing had produced exactly the same problems as the devastation—fortunately not so extensive—caused by terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland; and I remember that one of the earliest measures passed by the 1945 Parliament was a small Act—now, I think, long spent—to do for licensed premises in London and other places what this order will do for licensed premises in the areas of Northern Ireland which have suffered from terrorist attack.

11.28 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I do not know when I have received a letter which delighted me so much as the letter which I, too, received from the Minister in which he told me that the Government were withdrawing their proposals to give licences to community leisure centres. That would have been a retrograde step, especially in areas where young people congregate. Instead of developing those God-given powers for the blessing of their bodies, they were to have strong liquor made available to them.

The Government have acted wisely and well in this matter. I am sure that if the proposal had been as originally drafted, there would have been a very long debate and that many necessary representations would have been made.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that it is wise in Northern Ireland to get to the people themselves. We have had an illustration tonight of what an association said, or is supposed to have said, with authority, and then we have the actual councils which make up that association giving their considered view from their council chambers. It is the Government's duty to deal individually with the elected councils rather than to deal with the association.

I, too, have had representations from the association, but when I went to the individual councils I found that the body of opinion was different because only a few representatives were on the association. Recently a council dropped one of its representatives on the association on the simple ground that he voted for a different course from that already decided by the council that sent him there. These are the facts of life.

For how long can dropped licences be retained before they become invalidated? There are too many liquor shops in Northern Ireland, especially the unlicensed liquor clubs that have been the scourge of our society. This week a man was shot dead because of some association either by him or his murderers with an unlicensed club. I trust that the Minister will keep his weather eye open to this scourge and deal with it, for it is a continuing curse. The battle of temperance and sobriety needs to be refought by the whole nation.

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). I realise that the order is an attempt to bring the law of Northern Ireland into line with the law in other parts of the United Kingdom, in view of the number of licensed premises which have been blown up or have gone out of existence for other reasons.

During the past few years, whether by design or accident, when licensed public houses have been demolished or blown up by paramilitaries or extremists of one section or another, where legitimate licences exist a number of clubs spring up overnight. Much to my amazement, the police agree to the setting up of these clubs. I have made representations to the security forces, the police and the military and, although no one tells me in so many words, the implication is that they have agreed to the construction of the premises for the clubs on the ground that it is better to have them all concentrated in one district, be it Loyalist or Republican, so that they can keep an eye on them. By the same token, I have had complaints from those living in these areas who, if they want a drink have to go to one of the licensed clubs run by one of the paramilitary associations.

What I am complaining about may not be directly relevant but it should be put on record that in Northern Ireland, particularly in the city of Belfast a great deal of recognition is being given to people running clubs under spurious identities. They may be called social clubs but they are run by the UDF, the UDA or the IRA. The Minister should be made aware of this.

I have seen in the New Lodge Road clubs which should be given financial assistance and recognition by the Government and the community being refused that assistance and recognition. It appears that he who has the most muscle is best able to influence the police and security authorities when it comes to making an application for a licence. I shall be speaking personally to the Minister and writing to him but it is right to put on record the concern about this matter.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) brings to notice some difficulties in enforcing the law. I hope that he will give me some written statements on this. I assure him that every inquiry will be made. I shall write to him accordingly as soon as I have completed the investigations and inquiries.

To answer the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), there would be a two-year extension period. In the first instance we would look at the difficulties that might be posed because of rebuilding and the supply of building materials. The first period would be one of two years. I doubt whether there would be an extension for more than another year. That would give ample opportunity for replenishment, and rebuilding the damaged resources.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) gives me credit which I did not particularly want him to give me. I could have done without it, for obvious reasons.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

Accept it as a bouquet.

Mr. Dunn

It is a bouquet with barbed wire in it. I took the view, not necessarily shared by all of my colleagues, that as there was an inter-departmental review body set up on other than this limited proposal it would be justifiable to ask the review body to report and recommend. This would have the advantage that all those who wished to do so could give evidence orally or in writing. Any decision that I would be asked to make on any recommendation that I had to bring before the House would be so much better informed.

I admit that I knew a little about Northern Ireland before I had official responsibility. The hon. Member for Antrim, North comes to my city from time to time. I am aware of what he does and he, perhaps, is aware of what I did. I am not new to the scene but I am always willing to learn. I think that I learned the lesson on this rather quickly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 17th May, be approved.