HC Deb 27 April 1988 vol 132 cc477-84

Lords amendment: No. 7, before clause 8, insert new clause— . After section 9(4) of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following subsections— (4A) Premises shall be disqualified for receiving a justices' licence if they are primarily used as a garage or form part of premises which are primarily so used. (4B) In subsection (4A) of this section, the reference to use as a garage is a reference to use for any one or more of the following purposes, namely, the retailing of petrol or dery or the sale or maintenance of motor vehicles."

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take amendment (a) and amendments Nos. 12 and 16.

Mr. Hogg

Subject to the House accepting amendment (a), I commend the substantive amendment to the House. I cannot commend the motion to disagree standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller).

This is a matter of somewhat greater moment than the other amendments that we have just dealt with. The effect of the substantive amendment is to disqualify premises that are primarily used as garages from holding off or on-licences. The amendment was carried in the other place, contrary to the advice of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

There are about 180 garages with licences. There is no evidence that would stand up to detailed analysis that the possession by those suppliers of a licence has led to any drunken driving. Because almost all these premises are in rural areas, they provide services for those who live in them. Perhaps a typical example would be a corner shop that supplied the ordinary facilities of a corner shop but also sold petrol. The question is what to do about the amendment, and what our attitude should he.

This is an opportunity to send a message dissociating alcohol from driving. If we were to try to reverse the amendment, it would send the wrong signal. Whatever the evidence might prove, we are probably dealing with perceptions. Therefore, I advise my hon. Friends and the House to send a message that dissociates alcohol from driving. For that reason I advise the House to accept the amendment.

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There is a problem with the present 180 licence holders. They have adjusted their businesses on the assumption that they would be enabled to possess a licence. No doubt that is an important factor in their business considerations. The House must consider whether it would be right to alter the assumptions —in effect retrospectively—upon which they have constructed their businesses. I do not believe that it would. Although I commend the amendment to the House, I do so subject to the proviso, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), which safeguards the status of the present licence holders. The exemption would run with the land and attaches to the land. I am prepared to concede that that is an anomaly and is not wholly pure as a legalistic principle, but I hope that the House will be pragmatic.

I hope that the House will consider where justice lies. Having regard to those considerations, I advise the House to accept the amendment, subject to the proviso.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am extremely pleased that the Government have finally decided to accept the new clause that disqualifies garages and petrol stations from receiving a justices' licence. It is a relatively minor reform, but it is long overdue and I know that it has the support of the majority of the public.

There is no evidence to suggest that people buy alcohol from petrol stations and directly proceed to drink and drive. The Government and the public recognise, however, that drink-driving is the single main cause of death and injury on our roads. For that reason it is absurdly inappropriate—as my hon. Friend has made clear —to allow, still less to take special steps to enable, premises to sell alcohol, the primary purpose of which is to serve the motorist. Such action would cast serious doubt on the Government's readiness to take a firm stance on drink-driving. The rejection of the new clause and the acceptance of the one proposed by some of my hon. Friends would undoubtedly be seen by the country as wholly inconsistent with, and indeed a deliberate attempt to undermine, the Government's road safety campaign. That campaign is concerned, above all, to sever the lethal association between alcohol and driving.

Alcohol and driving are a mismatch. The new clause is entirely in line with the conclusions and recommendations of the road traffic law review. That review should be debated by the House as a matter of urgency.

Although I am pleased that the Government have moved this far, albeit belatedly, I am concerned about the proposal to permit garages and petrol stations already in possession of justices' licences to retain them. Whatever the Government's reasons for supporting such a proposal, I am still concerned. Will the proposal not cause some uncertainty for the courts? What will happen when a licensed petrol station is sold to a new owner and the question arises of the transfer of the justices' licence?

What will happen when, in three years' time, licences come up for renewal? Will the licensing justices have the right to refuse an application for the transfer of the licence to a new owner or to refuse to renew a licence if they choose to do so, in line with their general licensing policy —which, of course, will be influenced by the passage of the new clause? Parliament should be told.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My right hon. Friend asks a fair question. I apologise to him and to the House if I did not make it wholly plain. The ordinary powers of the justices to refuse to renew apply in respect of these licences. The difference that the proviso makes is that the disqualification does not bite on the existing licences. But all the other provisions in licensing legislation continue to apply to those licences.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that statement. I am anxious to find out why the Government are bending over backwards to protect garages with existing licences. What is the justification? [Interruption.] My questions are being put in good faith, and the House is entitled to answers. We are told that there are only 180 such petrol stations. Many are in rural areas and are protected in any case by the terms of the new clause, as are hypermarkets. Surely there would be little or no inconvenience to the general public from the removal of the remaining licences. Nor do I believe that this would cause significant financial hardship to the proprietors. To allow the licences to stand when no more are to be granted is a manifestation of weakness and irresolution. The House is entitled to an answer to that charge.

If the Government are set upon this course, so be it. What matters above all is that the Government demonstrate in some way their conviction and determination that any association of alcohol with driving is a relic of a bygone age. We are told that the justification for the Bill is the need to reform licensing law in line with modern circumstances. One would have thought that the most pressing of modern needs was to rid the country as speedily as possible of the scourge of drinking and driving. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport is here and he can confirm what I am saying. The House needs to be reminded that every year there are 5,000 deaths on the roads of which 2,000 are alcohol-related. I beg my hon. Friend to realise that the Government must catch up with public opinion and stop being dragged along by vested interests.

Mr. Waller

The new clause which has been brought from the Lords was obviously passed with the intention of stopping drinking and driving. Superficially it seems to be helpful, but if one examines it more carefully, it is apparent that it will not have any real effect on drinking and driving but will have other undesirable effects.

The clause will not affect major supermarket retailers, even though many supermarkets are linked to petrol sales. Without the amendment, it would affect existing small stores, mainly in rural areas. Those stores are combined with petrol stations for economic reasons. Without the petrol side, I suspect that in many cases the small stores could not exist, to the detriment of local amenity and employment.

If the prohibition would be wrong for existing stores cum petrol stations, as the Government accept, it must also be wrong for those who in the future wish to establish businesses on similar lines. The new clause is illogical because it ignores the fact that those who buy alcohol in stores do not do so to drink it immediately before getting into their cars. No one would suggest that public houses should not be permitted to have car parks. However, perhaps there would be more logic in such a ban than in a prohibition on people buying alcohol at stores that have petrol stations or garages attached, to take home with them.

The precise meaning of the new clause, in its final form, is not entirely clear. It appears that it could apply to a store that shares its site with a petrol station run completely separately. There is scope for lawyers to argue about those matters in the future. I am against that, because it will provide more money for lawyers but will not do anyone else much good.

I accept my hon. Friend's assurance that the clause will be improved by the Government's amendments, because I do not believe that existing premises should be hit, as they would be if the Government's amendment to the Lords amendment is not passed. Even so, it will ossify existing situations, whether or not they make sense in the future. If, for example, there is a population shift in any area or if a bypass is built, the owner of a store-cum-garage may reach the conclusion that he cannot move because, whereas he can retain the alcohol licence on his existing premises, he will not be able to obtain one for a new site, however strong his arguments.

It is unfortunate that the Government are not reversing the decision made in another place. My hon. Friend said that to do so could be to send the wrong signals. Although that is a significant consideration, I hope that he will put first the important matter of getting the legislation right. I hope that the arguments that he and others may deploy in the other place and elsewhere will be sufficiently convincing to ensure not only that the new clause can be reversed but also that the wrong signals are not sent.

The Government could have explained why the new clause passed in the Lords will do nothing to help, and why it may do some harm. The amendment mitigates that harm but the clause is a step back, to set against the considerable number of steps forward that the Bill incorporates.

Mr. Forth

I appreciate the positive response by my hon. Friend the Minister to the amendment in my name. It demonstrates the balanced view that must necessarily be taken of this matter in trying to understand the concern that has been expressed, in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), about garages selling alcohol. However, we must equally recognise that no firm evidence has been produced of a direct connection between such sales and drink-driving offences.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that alcohol can be sold by garages adjoining main roads, but not by similar garages adjoining motorways?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I am most grateful to him. We must also recognise, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, the important role that garages play in rural communities. This consideration is of importance to many right hon. and hon. Members and is behind the thrust of the amendment. I welcome what has been said by my hon. Friend the Minister and hope that the House will accept the amendment in his name and mine, in order to recognise the problem identified in another place and the important role played by garages in rural communities, which role we can sustain by carrying the amendment.

Miss Widdecombe

Although I support the amendment to the Lords amendment, I regard it as a very poor third best. As far as I can see, it does not direct itself to the essential problem, which is not whether alcohol is sold together with petrol, but the nature and control of alcohol sales. I suggest that they are best controlled at local level, by magistrates.

I made it clear on Second Reading that I am extremely worried about drink driving and any possible encouragement to drivers to drink. That is why I think it right that garages adjoining motorways should not be able to sell alcohol. Drivers stop at such garages and would have the opportunity to consume alcohol.

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My constituency, which serves an entirely rural area, contains a major development. The owner set up initially as a garage, and then set up a store specialising exclusively in wines. I know that modern cars have many gadgets, and that modern dashboards have many amenities, but I do not recall a corkscrew being among them. I need a lot of convincing that someone who goes into that shop and buys a bottle of wine will solemnly uncork it at the next set of traffic lights and take a drink from it.

I believe that if beer is being sold in single cans, possibly on ice, there may well be a temptation to buy a single can, open it and down it. Similarly, I can just about believe that a driver might be tempted to take a nip of spirits, but not to uncork a wine bottle. That is why I say that the nature of sales is important and that the best people to judge that are local magistrates.

I am, of course, very pleased that my constituents have been protected. Within 24 hours of the Lords amendment being known I had received a petition containing about 200 names from people in the locality. The proprietor of the business receives only a 4.per cent. profit on his petrol sales, which is cut to under 2 per cent. by the use of credit cards. He makes his main income from his wine business. If he were obliged to close down, people from miles around in that rural area would not have garage amenities and would not be able to buy petrol.

While I am delighted that that garage proprietor is protected, which is why I willingly accept the amendment, I am not so delighted that any future similar enterprises —conscientious, responsible and not encouraging drinkdriving—will not be allowed to flourish. There is no proven link between the purchase of alcohol at a petrol station and drink-driving. If the House really wants to get rid of drink-driving, let us close down all the country pubs tomorrow. I am sure that that would not commend itself to many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), but that is the logic. The proposal hits at the periphery, not at the centre, of drink-driving.

The Lords amendment talks about "primary purpose". I assume that to be used in planning terms. If the garage preceded the wine business the primary purpose is the garage, but, as in many such enterprises, the associated stores and business are actually the primary source of profit. There is confusion here.

This is a poor Lords amendment. The tidying-up of it is third best, but at least it protects existing licensees, and for that reason I am glad to support it.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I am happy to endorse everything that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe). She has set out the position with great clarity, and done the House a service in so doing.

I am sorry to have to quarrel with my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), with whom I see eye to eye on many subjects—

Sir Bernard Braine

We do not quarrel.

Mr. Harris

Then I shall use the word "disagree". My right hon. Friend asked what was the justification for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth). Obviously, as has already been said, the amendment is of particular significance to rural areas. I do not know how much my right hon. Friend knows about such areas. They are very different from his constituency. When the matter was debated in another place, Lord Ferrers said that he thought there were about 150 licensed garages, not 180. That may not matter too much. He then went on to say: When the department sought details of the number of licences granted to garages in 1986"— perhaps that explains the discrepancy— it emerged that over half were to be found in the four counties of Devon, Cornwall, Norfolk and Dyfed."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 March 1988; Vol. 495, c. 892.] Those four counties are largely rural, and those licensed garages are, I suspect, in the rural areas. I can speak only for Cornwall, and, to a certain extent, Devon, but that certainly is the case there. As has been said, many of them are petrol stations with an adjoining village shop, or, increasingly, a minimarket.

The proprietor of just such a business wrote to me a couple of days ago and set out his position. The business is run by the family—the man, his wife and daughter—and employs four shop assistants. It is typical of the small businesses that are essential to the well-being of the rural areas. This one is on a main road, and is roughly about half way between two towns. There are adjoining caravan sites, as it is a tourist area, and I have stopped at the garage and used the minimarket—not to buy alcohol, although I know that many people do. The irony is that 20 yards away is a pub. As the proprietor points out, it would be nonsense if the other place had its way. Someone would drive into his forecourt, park his car, go into the minimarket for groceries, and then, because he wanted some alcohol before going back to the camp site or the cottage up the road, go into the pub to buy alcohol from the off-sales.

I make no secret of the fact that I would prefer the House to reject the Lords amendment, but I accept the points made by my hon. Friend the Minister. Therefore, with some reluctance, I agree that the practical course is to accept the amendment to the amendment, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire. We owe it to established businesses to let them continue in the way that they have continued for several years and to serve their local communities. I hope that, on reflection, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point will see the justice in that. I would like to go much further and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has said, leave it to magistrates. If we are not going to do that, in equity, we must protect the established businesses. Therefore, I support the amendment to the amendment.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

I am in the strange position of being one of the few hon. Members here to support the Minister. His hon. Friends have been overreacting in setting out some of the difficulties that they think will be created by this modest amendment. This is one of the few amendments that could be so described, although the word "modest" has been used on other occasions. However, it is a sensible move. It will not hit the supermarket or the hypermarket that sells petrol as well as groceries and drink. It will not hinder those existing stores that sell a wide range of goods in rural areas. It will help to stop the tendency of roadside cafes, which hitherto have served sandwiches and cups of tea, from selling drinks as well. Cafes or small restaurants attached to garages are becoming an increasing feature of our road network, and that is beginning to create a problem. Small chains of roadside cafes are now selling alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic drinks, but selling alcohol in premises designed for the motorist will create problems.

The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) accepted that garages adjoining motorways should not sell alcoholic drinks. I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for roads and traffic, who is here tonight, would be quick to remind us that the majority of accidents involving casualties and fatalities do not take place on motorways. By allowing or encouraging motorists going on holiday or on short trips to stop at licensed roadside cafes attached to garages we might create more problems in future.

I agree with the Minister that if we accept the Lords amendment we will be able to send out a signal about the dangers of associating driving with drinking. We should always be aware of the problems. The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) pointed out the very serious and real problems of drinking and driving. About 1,500 people a year are killed, and each month about 8,000 people are found guilty of driving while over the limit. Those are extremely frightening figures. We should not allow that figure to increase, and this modest amendment is a step in that direction. That figure does not include those people who do not get caught but who are potential causes of accidents and potential killers because they drive while over the limit.

The sooner that random breath tests are introduced the better. It is not possible to amend this legislation to include measures of that kind, but I welcome the amendment and the Government's change of heart. It will be a small contribution, but we should accept it.

Amendment made to the Lords amendment: (a), at end insert—

'(2) Where, apart from this subsection, a justices' licence (within the meaning of the principal Act) would become void on the coming into force of subsection (I) above, the premises to which the licence is attached shall be treated as premises which are not disqualified for receiving such a licence by section 9 (4A) of that Act for so long as they continue to be premises for which such a licence is in force.'.—[Mr. Forth.]

Lords amendment, as amended, agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 8 to 17 agreed to.