§ 7.5 am
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
I cannot think of a more appropriate time of the year for the House to review the operation of the licensing laws as they relate to the sale of alcoholic beverages. This is the festive season although I suspect that, after last Saturday's atrocity, this will be a reflective rather than a joyful Christmas.
I feel that I must at the outset establish my credentials to speak on the subject and to declare my interest in the sale of drink. For the past 14 years I have worked for my family's company which operates, as a multiple tenant, several brewery-owned public houses. For the first four years I managed, with my wife, a large pub in south-east London. For the following six years I acted as general manager and, since 1980, 1 have been half owner and director of my family company, a position which I still combine with my duties as a Member of this House.
My family has run public houses in Pimlico for the past 80 years, and I am proud to be a third generation publican. Contrary to the efforts of one of my hon. Friends to make selling drink a disreputable business in the furtherance of his temperance commitment, the calling of publican is an honourable trade and requires a great deal of hard work and not a little skill. I am a member of the National Union of Licensed Victuallers and what I have to say owes much to its excellent submission on licensing legislation reform, "The Case for Change".
I recognise that the constraints of debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill mean that I cannot ask for reforming legislation. I hope, however, to offer a case which shows how profoundly unsatisfactory are the present laws regarding the sale of liquor. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the pressures for reform which are building up among my fellow licensees. Their restiveness is understandable bearing in mind the extreme caution of successive Governments in reforming licensing legislation. Their disaffection is the more justifiable bearing in mind the massive contribution that the licensed trade makes to the Exchequer each year. That contribution is taken for granted by successive Chancellors who assume on the part of long-suffering licensees a little more goodwill each Budget day.
I do not propose to review the whole gamut of complex legislation regulating the sale of drink. The Erroll Committee reported more than 10 years ago and covered a wide range of suggested reforms. Licensees have now despaired of comprehensive reform and have set their sights much lower. There is still considerable debate about under-age drinking and there can be few in the trade who aspire to a significant lowering of the legal age for drinking in on-licensed premises. Children being allowed into licensed premises is regulated by sections 168 to 171 of the Licensing Act 1964. Reform of those sections would be highly sensitive and contentious.
There are several arguments for and against allowing children into the areas not specially designated when accompanied by their parents. The strongest argument in favour of it is that it would open up the possibility of families being able to take advantage of the good value bar food that so many pubs now offer. Those who argue against relaxation ignore the fact that children can be taken into working men's clubs, licensed restaurants and hotels from the day that they are born, without restrictions. The 223 spectacle of children sitting outside pubs in all weathers and late in the evening, although no longer as common as it once was, will doubtless continue as long as the temperance case prevails. Parents will continue to leave children at home and alone and at considerable risk, to go to the pub. I cite the unfortunate and tragic death of Lucie Gates in the borough of Bexley, while I was concerned with the social services and health services in that borough. Her feckless mother went off to the pub leaving her on her own, and a tragic accident resulted in Lucie's death. However, this morning is not the time for arguing the case for allowing children into public houses with their parents.
It is in their ability to compete fairly with other licensed premises that publicans feel most hampered. Their grievance is based on a number of factors. They feel much disadvantaged by the laws that give working men's clubs such attraction, such as jackpot fruit machines that allow subsidised drink prices, the admission of children, the highly favourable tax and rates position of clubs as compared with pubs, the fact that a policeman needs a magistrate's warrant to enter a club and the greater flexibility of hours enjoyed by clubs.
It is worth noting that the notion that clubs are an extension of the home is now a misleading fiction. Many clubs resemble, in the works of Erroll:large well appointed public houses and the sort of activity apparent during the Committee's visits—particularly in the bars—was very much what one would expect in any public house.Interestingly, when a new club opens in an area, there is an assiduous but covert recruiting of members around the pubs.
Clubs have strayed a long way from the Working Men's Club and Institute Union manifesto of 1826 which stated:This union is formed for the purpose of helping working men to establish clubs and institutes where they can meet for conversation, business and mental improvement, with the means of recreation and refreshment, free from intoxicating drinks.In practice, clubs have become pubs, without many of the restrictions applied to pubs and operated by amateur committees, untutored in the disciplines which constrain a publican anxious to preserve his licence.
Publicans consider themselves threatened by "take-home" trade. Off-licences have a great advantage in the matter of opening hours, for off-licensees may open during weekdays from 8.30 am to the terminal hour prevailing in the area without an afternoon break, and only on Sunday do off-licences have to conform to pub hours. Supermarkets offer particularly unfair competition with their unsupervised shelves selling drink at virtually no profit as a near loss-leader and being checked out by very young check-out staff. Here, indeed, is the stuff of unfair competition which may very well act against the public interest in commercial and health terms.
Public house licensees feel threatened by the situation which has led to an immense proliferation of the number of licensed premises other than public houses. From the Licensing Act 1961, which withdrew the absolute discretion of licensing justices to refuse the grant of a residential or restaurant licence, arose an additional 13,000 licences in 10 years. That pace has barely slackened since the early 1970s.
Above all, however, it is over the question of permitted opening hours that licensees feel that the most urgent 224 action is needed. While licensees are not totally agreed about what they would like to see, they are united almost totally in the view that our antiquated structure of permitted hours is long overdue for liberalisation. Such a change would allow a flexibility of hours appropriate to the area in which a pub is situated. There have been restrictions on hours at various times since the 17th century and continuously since the Licensing Act 1872. It has to be said that the 1872 Act was liberal indeed, because on weekdays, it allowed opening of 18 or 19 hours. It was the Defence of the Realm (Amendment) Act 1915 which empowered a licquor control board to enforce quite draconian restrictions on opening hours.
The 1921 Act allowed a slight relaxation of the control board orders, but in London permitted hours were to be a maximum of nine hours per day, and elsewhere eight, with the justices allowed discretion to set the hours in London between 11 pm and 10 pm, and elsewhere between 11 am and 10 pm, with a mandatory break of at least two hours in the afternoon. On Sunday, the norm would be five hours.
The permitted hours have been relaxed only very slightly since 1921, and the 1964 Act brought in the concept of 10 minutes "drinking up time"—a source of great friction between licensees and the police and between licensees and their customers.
I have the tenancy of seven public houses in widely diverse situations, all within the GLC area. The only thing they have in common is the permitted hours, which are common to all of them except one, which falls into the more restricted metropolitan Kent area. That is nonsense, because the trading circumstances and patterns are totally different. When one considers that those licensing hours were established for the metropolis, the suburbs, the provinces and coastal resorts some 60 years ago, when lifestyles were vastly different, one has an uneasy feeling that we may be carrying British tradition too far.
As I said earlier, licensees are agreed that they want flexibility of hours. They are less sure of precisely what that means. Erroll looked very carefully at the question of hours, and spoke ofthe widespread expectation that future changes in patterns of employment and leisure would result in consumer demands at times of day that were not envisaged at the time the present system of permitted hours was first established.Erroll concluded that licensees should be able to choose from up to 14 hours, from 10 am in the morning to midnight, with no pressure from, for example, the brewers to be open for all those hours.
The NULV, in "The Case for change", concluded that the mandatory break of two hours in the afternoon should be retained but agreed with Erroll that hours should be determined by licensees, without pressure from their landlords, and chosen from the hours of 10 am to midnight, with a two-hour break in the afternoon. A further thought from the NULV was that seasonal variations might be applied to areas with seasonal and tourist appeal. For myself, I believe that an ability to choose up to a maximum permitted 10 hours from the period 10 am to midnight, but without a mandatory break in the afternoon, would be a satisfactory compromise. That would fall far short of Erroll, but would represent a great advance on the present situation.
It is, of course, quite possible to drink on licensed premises legally for much of the day now. One can start in the early houses around Smithfield market and Covent 225 garden — we could be there now — and progress at normal opening time to the normal pubs, and drink there until 3 pm. We could progress either to a registered club or to one of the shadowy "proprietary" clubs, which seem to enjoy very peculiar hours, and we could return again to the pub at 5.30 and drink through, with the benefit of special hours certificates, to 2 am. If one is prepared to drink illegally, the gap between 2 am and the reopening of the market houses is bridgeable. Unfortunately, an irresponsible minority of publicans, desperate to make a living in otherwise unviable houses, will oblige their more enthusiastic customers by serving after hours. They risk their licences and, thus, their livelihood, and they bring the law into contempt. They do so because the overheads and competitive pressures dictate their illegal action. In parts of London, this pernicious practice is growing, and the police, with many other calls on their time, seem less than enthusiastic to stamp it out. A law that is out of date and does not serve the people well and that is held in contempt by a significant proportion of the people, is a law that is in urgent need of reform.
I have no doubt that the temperance lobby will disagree with me and quote alarming statistics on alcoholism. I would counter that by citing the supermarkets as the real villains of the piece. The virtually unrestricted sale of alcohol from such outlets has created the most serious social problems. The concept of ready sale to all and sundry never made sense. The sale of drink in supermarkets where prices are low and hence attractive to the alcoholic should be confined to a shop within a shop presided over by a responsible adult. Giving publicans, who mostly treat their responsibilities very seriously, a greater freedom and flexibility to choose hours to suit their customers is unlikely to exacerbate the problem of alcoholism.
As Erroll reported on England and Wales, Clayson reported on Scotland. The difference is that while Erroll gathers dust at the Home Office, Clayson's recommendations resulted in Scottish licensees being allowed to go to the licensing board to apply for opening hours between 11 am and 11 pm. Since the introduction of that comparatively liberal regime in 1976, the statistics for alcoholism and drunkenness in Scotland have been encouraging. I understand that the Rev. Bernard Kinman of the United Kingdom alliance temperance organisation has talked sympathetically with NULV about its case for flexi-hours.
The British pub is a worthy institution with a history which can be traced back to the Roman occupation of Britain. The British pub deserves to survive and to evolve as a valuable part of our leisure industry. It is presently under severe threat as other parts of the leisure and alcohol-related industry appear to be treated more favourably. The need for change is urgent. I hope —even though I cannot ask today—that Ministers will heed the calls from the English Tourist Board and the licensed trade organisations to review the licensing laws as they relate to the sale of alcoholic beverages.
§ Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) on his diligence in raising this important subject at this hour in the morning. I also congratulate him on the way in which he presented a number of basic facts.
226 I want to deal with one aspect — tourism. It may seem strange for a Birmingham Member to be interested in tourism, but Birmingham has taken a great initiative in establishing the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau for the promotion of business tourism, encouraging conferences arid attracting to the city arid the west midlands business people who, as well as attending conferences are able to visit attractive places such as Stratford, Warwick, and Lichfield. That development could make a significant contribution to the west midlands' economy.
I welcome the idea that the economy should have the benefit of such diversification. That is important for the provision of jobs and the training of young people in worthwhile skills.
On every hand emphasis is placed on the difficulties caused by the licensing laws. The demand for reform is strongly supported by those who organise tourist events. They want the Government to attend to these important matters in the near future. I ask the Minister to acknowledge this important aspect. We have to improve the system to give us a chance to develop our tourist industry successfully.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) has focused our attention on the licensing laws, as they affect the sale of alcohol, in a most helpful and eloquent way. He has, of course, very properly declared his expertise in this area, based on many years of personal involvement and many more years of involvement by close members of his family. He has demonstrated in his speech an expertise that will be of great value in discussing these issues in. the House. I am glad that he has found an early opportunity to raise the matter. It is also a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) in his place at this early hour. I take his point about tourism and appreciate that a number of Members feel strongly on the issue, as he does.
This is a subject dear to many hearts—perhaps dearer to my heart at 7.25 in the evening than at 7.25 in the morning. I never thought, particularly as Christmas approaches, that I would be appalled at the prospect of being able to have a drink at this moment in a pub near a market in preference to speaking in the House of Commons. I think that this is about the one hour when I really would prefer to be speaking in the House of Commons to sitting in a pub.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham reviewed a large number of outstanding items in the present licensing arrangements. Although he fell short, as the rules require, of calling for change, he obviously indicated a degree of dissatisfaction with the present arrangements and it would be appropriate for me to try to cover the ground and let him know exactly what the Government's present thinking is so that he will know where he stands in what I am sure will be a continuing dialogue in the months ahead between myself and him and a number of hon. Members who think like him.
The law relating to the sale by retail of intoxicating liquor is largely contained in the Licensing Act 19(4, which is an extremely complex piece of legislation. The whole structure of the present licensing system rests on the proposition that intoxicating liquor cannot be sold or 227 supplied without some form of prior permission. I know that that is acceptable to my hon. Friend, just as it has always seemed imperative to successive Governments. It is an offence to sell liquor by retail without a justice's licence or in contravention of the conditions attached to a licence.
There are, in effect, five separate classifications of licence — the on-licence, which is the one most frequently held by public houses selling drink for consumption on or off the premises, and is the one with which my hon. Friend is most familiar from his own experience; the off-licence, with which we are all familiar; the restaurant licence, which is subject to the condition that drink can be sold only to persons taking meals in the restaurant and for consumption as an ancillary to the meal; the residential licence, enabling those staying at a hotel or guest-house to purchase alcohol; and the combined residental and restaurant licence.
In the case of on and off-licences, the licence can either allow the sale of intoxicating liquor of all descriptions or a more limited range of alcoholic drinks. The licensing justices for each petty sessional division are given under the legislation complete discretion whether to grant or refuse on an off-licence in the new applications and of applications for renewal. The discretion of the justices with regard to restaurant, residential and the combined residential and restaurant licence is very much more limited. They may not refuse an application except on certain specified grounds which, for the most part, relate to the character of the applicant, the suitability of the premises, and the way in which they have been conducted. The principal effect of these limitations on the justices' discretion is that they cannot take into account whether a demand or need exists in the locality for this particular type of premises.
Whether the licensing justices should be required by law to take into account the number of existing licensed premises in the area when considering a new application for a licence has always been a controversial issue. There is at present no statutory obligation on them to do so, but I understand that when deciding whether to grant a new on-licence, most will consider the question of need.
The Erroll committee report, which was much referred to by my hon. Friend and which was published in 1972, recommended that the justices' power to refuse licences should be restricted to specific grounds which would have excluded the criterion of need in an area. Successive Governments, however, have refrained from implementing that recommendation on the ground that to do so might lead to a proliferation of new licences and thus exacerbate the problems of alcohol misuse.
The alternative proposal—one which is advocated by organisations such as that with which my hon. Friend is associated, the National Union of Licensed Victuallers, with which I enjoy a dialogue on these important matters — is that the law should be amended to require the justices to consider need. Such an amendment could lead to a restriction on the number of new licences issued in particular areas, and I can understand its attraction to existing licensees on that basis. Many would undoubtedly find this proposition attractive, but in the Government's view it is not the function of the licensing laws to protect existing licensees from legitimate competition. On that basis, therefore, I cannot promise any early change.
228 It may be helpful if at this stage I offer some statistics on the number of licensed premises in England and Wales. On 30 June 1983, there was a total of 137,031 premises holding on and off-licences, including restaurants, guest houses and licensed clubs. In the year ending 30 June of this year, 6,391 new on and off-licences had been granted. These statistics show that, far from being a declining industry, the licensed trade continues to grow at a steady rate. However, I appreciate—and I am sure that my hon. Friend would be quick to tell me — that the statistics do not tell the whole story. It is not the case that all sections of the licensed trade are satisfied with the licensing laws as they stand or believe that they are able to make as good a living as they could otherwise, reasonably and properly, be allowed to make if the legal restrictions were a little less strict. I understand that point, and there are many who have sympathy with it.
That brings me to the central question of flexible opening hours—an issue which has concerned both of my hon. Friends who have spoken, and the question of the admission of children to pubs. It also raises the issue of private clubs. I recognise that there is some resentment among the licensed trade at the position of private clubs, because, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there are social arrangements for authorising the supply of liquor in private clubs.
The matter of flexible hours is perhaps the most controversial issue and certainly the issue behind which most sentiment is gathering for a change. I recognise that and in no sense do I resent it. It is necessary that we should have a proper debate on the matter and it is encouraging that so many people are anxious to join in that debate and are particularly keen to advance arguments from a number of standpoints, I welcome the importance that a number of hon. Members are attaching to our thriving and growing tourist industry, the subject which brought my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green to his feet.
We at the Home Office have received many representations on this subject from the licensed trade and other interested organisations. The trade has been particularly worried about the adverse effects which the wider economic recession has had on its profitability and believes that the solution lies in its members being permitted to open for longer hours or being able to vary the existing hours so that they attract more custom.
The tourist industry has supported the trade, as I have indicated, on the ground—this was well set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green — that the existing licensing hours are unattractive to tourists and compare unfavourably with those in many counties on the Continent.
Those in favour of greater flexibility cite the experience of Scotland, where an extension of permitted hours was brought about by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976. In two of the more difficult responsibilities that I carry, Scotland has been responsible for blazing a trail. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) applauds that fact.
The Scots have been able to establish, to the satisfacation of many, that they can keep a perfectly proper respect for the Sabbath while, at the same time, allowing considerable flexibillity for the opening of shops in areas where the community thinks it right and it serves the trading interests of the shopkeepers. Following in the wake of the Scots, but recognising that it is a controversial 229 matter, we have established a committee of inquiry to advise us on whether there is a case for changing the English law.
Similarly, many people look north of the border at the Scottish licensing arrangements, which allow flexibility but do not require it when it is not necessary. The essential difference between the English and the Scottish provisions lies, as I have already indicated, in the discretion given to the licensing authorities in Scotland to vary the general permitted hours of opening. No one would suggest that it should be compulsory for premises to open at a particular time. Those who advocate change feel that anyone who wishes to do so, and can make a proper case to the licensing authorities for so doing should be free to open.
The prescribed hours of opening are broadly similar in the two countries. Public houses may open on weekdays between 11 am and 10.30 or 11 pm, with a break of two or two and a half hours in the afternoon. The hours on Sunday are shorter, but still broadly the same in both countries.
In England and Wales the power of the licensing justices to grant regular extensions is tightly circumscribed. As a general rule, early morning and afternoon extensions may be granted only, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham said, in the vicinity of markets, and extensions beyond the evening terminal hours are available only where the sale of drink is ancillary to the provision of food or music and dancing.
In Scotland, since 1976, there has been a much wider discretion and the licensing boards may grant extensions for any part of the day in respect of individual premises, if they consider it desirable. They bear in mind the social circumstances of the locality and the activities taking place there. This power has been widely used to permit Scottish public houses to open during the afternoon break and late at night, particularly in the larger towns and cities.
We recognise that the present liquor licensing law for England and Wales may be in need of revision, but we take the view that any move towards liberalisation must be compatible with our strategy for helping to prevent the misuse of alcohol. I know that my hon. Friend will wish to face this problem, which is the major obstacle to a change in the law. The Home Office has to hold the ring between the competing claims of a number of different people. Representatives of the trade or the tourist industry very properly ask us for change, but those who are deeply concerned about alcohol misuse tell us that to allow flexible opening hours would be a move in the wrong direction. We have to try to reach a sensible decision. Our job would be much easier if there were consensus.
Whether or not this is relevant to the question of flexible hours, indicators of the harm caused by alcohol misuse are showing a serious deterioration, and the social and economic costs of misuse are considerable. We cannot ignore the findings of a number of influential bodies which have studied the problems in detail. I point to the 1977 report of the Expenditure Committee on preventive medicine, which said that extreme caution should be taken before any change in the licensing hours was contemplated. The Advisory Committee on Alcoholism, another reputable body, also stressed the need for extreme caution.
I do not want to suggest, because it would not be the case, that we have closed the door on the possibility of future relaxations. In 1981 the Government issued a comprehensive document on alcohol misuse entitled 230 "Drinking Sensibly" to stimulate discussion and create a background of informed public opinion in the light of which Government strategies could be formulated.
We are also observing the effects of the extension of permitted hours in Scotland, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is considering the possibility of a new survey of the workings of Scottish legislation being undertaken next year. That would be an important step forward. With the benefit of seven years' experience of flexible hours in Scotland it will be possible to see whether they have resulted in any increase in alcohol abuse. If it could be proved that whatever the problems of alcoholism they are not affected one way or the other by opening hours, that would allow flexible hours to be proposed with confidence that they would not have harmful side effects. I hope my hon. Friend considers that that is encouragement. It is not to kick the ball into the long grass. It is an important step towards proving that the Government could contemplate change without fear that we should be adding to the grave problems of alcohol misuse.
I wish to comment briefly on the question of children being allowed in pubs. My hon. Friend was right to comment on the difficulties experienced by parents who find themselves unable to take their children into a bar. There are some limited circumstances in which children under 14 may be allowed into licensed premises. Quite apart from the danger that a relaxation in the present law could contribute to the general problem of alcohol misuse, we are not persuaded at present that proposals which would have the effect of making it easier for children to be in bars would be in the general public interest.
My hon. Friend also drew attention to private clubs and the National Union of Licensed Victuallers' proposal that private clubs should be treated as licensed premises. The requirement that club premises used for the supply of liquor should be registered, rather than licensed, takes into account their different status in law from public premises. The majority of clubs are run according to strict rules anii in the absence of any evidence to support the theory that they encourage or cause alcohol-related problems, I doubt whether the Government would be justified in disturbing the present arrangements.
I wish to conclude with a comment about occasional permissions, which have also been of anxiety to the licensed trade. The trade was worried by the Licensing (Occasional Permissions) Act 1983. That Government-Supported private Member's Bill came into operation on 9 August this year. It enables an officer of an organisation which is not carried on for private gain to apply for an occasional permission authorising him to sell intoxicating liquor at a function in connection with the organisation's activities. Before that Act, alcohol could be sold lawfully to the public temporarily in normally unlicensed premises, only with the use of an occasional licence granted by justices of the peace to the holder of a justices' on-licence. The justices of the peace had to be satisfied that the sale of intoxicating liquor would be ancillary to the sale of substantial refreshment by the holder of a restaurant, or combined restaurant and residential, licence. The occasional permission is, in some circumstances, an alternative to the occasional licence. The 1983 Act contained safeguards designed to ensure that it did not exacerbate existing problems associated with excessive drinking.
231 The licensing justices to whom applications must be made have to satisfy themselves that an applicant for a permission is a fit and proper person to sell liquor, that the premises are suitable for the sale of liquor and that the sale is not likely to result in disturbance or annoyance to residents in the negihbourhood. A permission holder who fails to comply with the terms and conditions of his authorisation will be liable to criminal penalties. The Act limits the number of permissions that may be granted to any organisation or branch of an organisation to four in the course of a year, and a permission may permit the sale of intoxicating liquor for a period of 24 hours or less.
The effect of this is legitimise the activities of politicians in going to private homes and indulging in wine and cheese parties, which I should have thought was essential to the existence in one form or other of most political parties and a whole lot of charities. It seems a necessary step to permit that to be done within the framework of the law. I hope very much that the National Union of Licensed Victuallers and others recognise that in no sense was this intended to be, nor would it have had the consequence of being, any kind of body blow to the trade.
I have tried to cover as much ground as possible in the time available and, I hope that I have dealt with the various points made by both my hon. Friends. I am sorry that I cannot give them total satisfaction on this matter, but I hope that I have said enough to show that my mind is not closed. It is just that there are a number of points, and particularly a number of people and groups who sincerely hold diametrically opposite views which cannot just be pushed on one side on the evidence as we presently have it.
The debate has rightly centred on the sale of alcoholic drink as governed by the licensing legislation. Those laws do not set out to control the hours when liquor legally obtained may be consumed, whether in public or private. We should also remind ourselves that these laws do not apply in the precincts of the House, where I could even now, I imagine, repair to the bar to recover from having done three of these debates during the course of the night, and with the prospect of another one if my hon. Friends do not dilate at sufficient length until 9 o'clock this morning. We are not, therefore, subject to the prescribed permitted hours. Some outside the House would like to enjoy similar benefits. Others believe that the present provisions of the Licensing Act should be applied equally without exception. This is but a further example of the strands of controversy that run through any discussion of our liquor licensing laws and that have made Governments of different political complexions hesitate to make radical changes. My hon. Friend has performed a useful service in drawing our attention to this issue and pointing out what, in his view, needs to be done.