HC Deb 07 April 1989 vol 150 cc540-3

Order for Second Reading read.

2.15 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I consider that Private Members' time is a traditional time for remedying deficiencies in our legislation, and my Bill is in that mould. It seeks to rectify an anomaly in the law relating to beverages. I declare a distant interest as I am a master of wine by qualification. That involves an examination based on a thorough knowledge and evaluation of wine. I should like to place on record my thanks to the National United Temperance Council, whose energetic secretary, the Reverend Bernard Kinman, has been most helpful, to Mrs. Ann Jesper of Leisure Drinks Limited and to those right hon. and hon. Members who have indicated their support, especially the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). The Bill clearly has all-party support.

Garibaldi could have been right when he said: Bacchus has drowned more men than Neptune. Moderation in the consumption of alcohol is very much the sensible approach today. At a governmental level the production, distribution and sale of beverages crosses many Departments. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to our debate. Only this week the Home Office research and planning unit produced a study of drinking and disorder in rural areas. Today the House has the opportunity to bring legislation into line with modern practices. It is nonsensical that the law regarding low and non-alcoholic drinks is based on the manufacturing process rather than on the alcohol present in the product at the time of sale. As a result, shandy, which may be 0.9 per cent. by volume, can be bought in any corner shop selling soft drinks, but a de-alcoholised wine only 0.05 per cent. by volume cannot be sold through such an outlet and is legally confined to licensed premises.

The market for alternative drinks hardly existed in the United Kingdom before the 1980s. The phenomenal growth, together with the increase in the consumption of mineral waters, constitutes possibly the most significant change in drinking habits this century. Those changes have evolved alongside greater public awareness of health care, drinking and driving, and of the alcoholic factor in such issues as child abuse, broken homes, football hooliganism and a long list of criminal activities.

The fact that similar trends have been observed in the United States of America and in other countries gives good reason to assume that this change in the nation's drinking habits is not a passing fad. It is necessary that alternative drinks be covered by unambiguous and enforceable legislation. Existing legislation—both the Licensing Act 1964 and the labelling regulations—causes confusion not only to the public, but to the trade. Despite that simple fact, the Licensing Act, when applied to alternative drinks, makes a distinction according to the method of production, and the labelling regulations make a distinction according to the type of drink.

Imagine a girl serving behind a bar in a large hotel in one of our major cities plaintively asking, "Can I sell this low alcohol lager in the afternoon?" Such a scene highlights a growing identification problem that afternoon opening hours have not resolved.

The problem is the complicated labelling requirements for drinks that do not need a licence. Those are not the regular soft drinks—we all know where we stand with those—but the new breed of alternative drinks. Those are the non-alcoholic lagers and wines, and many other non-alcoholic drinks now coming on to the market, such as the Pernod and Campari lookalikes, and the vermouths and the ciders that contain less than the magic 1.14 per cent. of alcohol by volume above which a licence is required for their sale.

Why do the British have to complicate such things? In France, West Germany and the rest of the European Community, drinks below the respective country's licensing level are called such things as "alcohol-free wine" or "biere sans alcohol". In the United Kingdom the phrase "alcohol free" is used if the alcohol content is less than 0.05 per cent., the phrase "de-alcoholised" is used if the drink is below that level and "low alcohol" is used if the alcohol content is above 0.05 per cent. A drink must also be described as low alcohol if it is above the 0.05 per cent. content, but not produced by a de-alcoholisation process.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if one puts "alcohol free" on the label of a drink that contained a percentage of alcohol, but was below the required alcohol level, one would be misleading the public? They would believe that the drink was alcohol free and what would happen to those persons who suffer from an illness that makes them allergic to anything that contains alcohol? Would they be put at risk?

Mr. Gregory

I share some of the hon. Gentleman's reservations and I look forward to debating this further with him on Report.

The purpose of the Bill is to remove from the Licensing Act 1964 and the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 certain words that prevent some beverages with low alcohol content from being sold without a justice's licence or the Scottish equivalent. The definition of "intoxicating liquor" in section 201(1) of the Licensing Act 1964 contains an exception for, inter alia: any liquor, whether made on the premises of the brewer for sale or elsewhere, which is found on analysis of a sample thereof, at any time, to be of an original gravity not exceeding 1016º and of a strength not exceeding 1.2 per cent. Time is now against me, but in a debate in the other place on 31 March 1988, Lord Lucas of Chilworth moved an amendment to the Licensing Bill which was similar to my Bill. The one area with which he did not deal was alcohol free clubs. If my Bill is passed such clubs would be allowed to open. Currently, we are forcing such clubs—clubs in the north of England are particularly anxious about this—to obtain a licence. That defeats the object they wish to achieve. At present retail outlets do not know whether it is legal to sell certain products because the production method may not be stated on the label.

I appreciate that we may be months away from new labelling legislation, which I would welcome. My Bill seeks to push us on to modern legislation a little quicker. As T.L. Peacock said in "Melincourt": There arc two reasons for drinking; one is, when you are thirsty, to cure it; the other, when you are not thirsty, to prevent it. The Bill will extend choice and introduce sense to the legislation on beverages. I commend it to the House.

.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Time is short and therefore I shall be brief.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) has explained the purposes of the Bill and I will not repeat them save to say that he is to be congratulated on bringing the Bill before the House. My hon. Friend is correct that there is a problem with the definition. There is considerable merit in the suggestion that the definition should be directed at the alcoholic content of the drink at the moment of sale and not at the process of manufacture, which is now the case. The House may adopt such an approach. If it does so, it must then consider the threshold! at which the definition must bite.

The Bill, as presently drafted, contemplates a definitional threshold of 1.2 per cent. by volume. The. House may feel that that is too high and that some lower threshold is appropriate. That matter should be looked at on a subsequent occasion.

The Government are not opposed to the principle of the Bill; nor would we oppose its Second Reading. However, we have considerable reservations about the threshold as presently reflected in the provisions of the Bill.

2.24 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I too congratulate the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) on introducing the Bill and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss a serious matter. I am also glad that the Minister has shown his support for the Bill in principle, although the Government are concerned about some technical matters, such as the levels of alcohol.

The 1964 Act, which the Bill aims to amend, is a complicated and thick piece of legislation. The definitions in the Act consist of two parts: the classes of liquors—eferring to wines, spirits, beers and ciders—and the specific gravity. The 1964 Act was originally designed to ensure that when people bought drinks they were not watered down. The Bill provides the opportunity of moderating the consumption of drink. I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome the fact that people are being given the opportunity to choose which sort of drink to take.

The problems towards which the Bill is directed include those relating to young people when they go out together. A few weeks ago I saw a group of young students—ensible people—who wanted to go out for an evening. They all decided that they would go to a pub. I questioned them on this but they replied, "Where else can we go?" We seem to have a society where it is automatically assumed that if we want to go out, we go to a public house. When we arrive, there are compulsions and pressures to drink alcohol.

In light of the pressures that society has placed on young people it seems reasonable to ensure that they are given as wide a range of drinks as possible. I shall not expand on the way in which I should like pubs to change, because that would be wide of the Bill. We are talking about the levels of alcohol in the drinks on sale. in accordance with the Licensing Act 1964.

Another matter that concerns all hon. Members is the crime-related aspect of drink. As the House will be well aware, there are record levels of crime in this country and much of it is carried out by young people. We also know that those crimes are often drink related. Women and elderly people are often frightened about going out late at night because they fear that people who have drunk too much will be on the rampage.

Mr. Bermingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister made a valid and telling point when he raised the question of the level at which the alcohol-free symbol is used? Young children could be affected by 1.2 per cent. of alcohol.

Does my hon. Friend also agree that we must not only set the appropriate level but make it clear to the public at large that "alcohol free" may not mean "alcohol free", because some people who react to alcohol may be endangered by not understanding the real meaning of the phrase?

Mr. Randall

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We could mislead the public if drinks are not properly labelled. The Germans call drinks "alcohol frei". We must be careful because they are not always alcohol free.

I shall end now because other hon. Members want to speak. There is also a health aspect to this matter. The Opposition welcome the Bill and hope that it will have a speedy passage through the House.

2.29 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

Common sense suggests that it must be socially desirable to increase the availability of low and non-alcoholic drinks, especially for drivers and young people, at a time of growing alcohol abuse.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) was absolutely right: the cut-off level of alcoholic content in the Bill, at 1.2 per cent., is far too high. There are good reasons——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 7 July.

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