HC Deb 26 January 1990 vol 165 cc1237-40

Order for Second Reading read.

2.12 pm
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

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

The Bill is neither as complicated nor as controversial as the Consumer Guarantees Bill. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I recommend it to the House. I want to describe briefly the proposals in the Bill and I shall refer to the reasons for promoting it. For the first time, the Bill defines for England, Scotland and Wales the same amount of alcohol—0.5 per cent.—that must be in a drink for it to be legally sold in unlicensed premises. That is a reduction from the existing amount of 1.2 per cent. in volume of alcohol.

The Bill also ensures that testing, if it is to be carried out, should be done at the time of consumption or of supply, rather than, as was previously the case, at any time during the manufacture of the drink. Many people are trying to produce low alcohol beers or non-alcoholic beers and wines. Those drinks are produced in the normal way and alcohol is extracted after production. Because such drinks once had an alcoholic content, if they were sold in a non-licensed premises, the seller could be taken to court. According to the Bill, an offence would be committed at the point of supply if the alcoholic content is above 0.5 percent.

I am delighted to say that the right hon. Member for Morely and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) a former Home Secretary, the deputy leader of the Liberal party and my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), the Father of the House, all support the Bill. Also, because the Bill applies to Scotland, it is supported by a number of Scottish Socialist Members.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

That is a dodgy crowd.

Sir Peter Emery

Well, some of them are friends of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I do not know whether his friends are dodgy, but that is another matter.

I believe that the Bill has Government support. I received a copy of a letter today from Sir Donald Maitland and the Health Education Authority, which states: At a meeting this afternoon of representatives of the Health Education Authority, Alcohol Concern, the Brewers Society and the Wine and Spirits Association, we agreed to urge you to do all you can to ensure that Parliamentary time is made available to ensure the passage of Sir Peter Emery's Private Member's Bill on the Sale of Low and No Alcohol in Unlicensed Premises. I am informing Sir Peter separately of the Group's support for his measure. That letter was sent yesterday to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I have permission to refer to it today.

Mr. Skinner

Will such drinks be sold in the Strangers' Bar?

Sir Peter Emery

It is possible that some objections to the Bill might be made by those who would have liked to see the alcoholic level at 0.05 per cent. and not 0.5 per cent. In response to the hon. Member for Bolsover some of those drinks are sold in the Strangers' Bar—although not many perhaps.

There is general agreement among the manufacturers that they are willing to accept the level of 0.5 per cent. As far as I understand, no formal objections have been made to the Bill and the Government have no desire to amend it. Of course, to stop the Bill entering Committee, objections might be raised by hon. Members who have private Member's Bills that they want to see make progress. Otherwise, if my Bill takes some time in Committee, their Bills may be affected.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Why has the hon. Gentleman not proposed 0.05 per cent. for beers while leaving 0.5 per cent. for shandies and wines? Technology is developing at the moment and beers with a very alcohol content such 0.05 per cent. can be produced and have good flavour. Why has the hon. Gentleman not suggested the lower figure for beers while leaving 0.5 per cent. for other drinks? We could then offer the public almost non-alcoholic drinks if that is what they want.

Sir Peter Emery

That is a fair question and I am delighted to answer it. One particular manufacturer has the techniques necessary to produce beer with a 0.05 per cent. alcohol content and it has advocated the same argument as that put by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall).

The manufacturer argued that the supply of such beer is beneficial in certain instances, for example, when someone's blood-alcohol level stands at 79mg. That person is close to the 80mg level and that 1mg increase of alcohol in the bloodstream could be brought about by the purchase of a 0.5 per cent alcoholic beer.

We are not trying to legislate, however, for the person who is nearly over the limit as regards drink-driving. We are trying to ensure that shandy producers—at the moment such drinks have a 0.9 per cent. alcoholic content—reduce the alcohol content to 0.5 per cent. We want to ensure that there is general agreement in the industry in favour of a 0.5 per cent. level.

From medical evidence I gather that there is a residual amount of alcohol in the blood, but we want to ensure that the 0.5 per cent. Alcoholic content beer will do next to nothing to increase the blood-alcohol content when ordinary people have had a drink.

Mr. Randall

I do not want to make demands on the hon. Gentleman's time, but when seeking to introduce such legislation, surely we should take all factors into account. A person who has been at the pub all evening and who feels that he is near the limit could purchase a beer with a 0.5 per cent. alcoholic content and discover that he is then over the legal limit. If that person could purchase a drink with an alcoholic content of 0.05 per cent., he could drink it confidently in the knowledge that it would not increase the alcohol in his blood. Surely we should take that into account.

Sir Peter Emery

One would have to know that one had reached the level of 79mg of alcohol in the blood to appreciate that a 0.5 per cent. alcoholic beer could be of harm. I do not know how many people who enjoy a jovial drink know the exact level of alcohol in their blood at a given time. I do not want to encourage people to go over the limit and to drive. Therefore, I do not want to encourage people who are near the limit to continue drinking. Nobody knows how near he is to the alcohol limit which prevents him from driving. I would rather encourage people not to drink and drive than to drink almost to the legal limit and then to top up their alcoholic intake with low alcohol drinks.

The general feeling is that a beer with an alcoholic content of 0.5 per cent. will affect only those closest to the limit. There is no reason, however, to encourage people to drink to that limit in the belief that they will then get away with drink-driving. My arguments are based on a desire to reach general agreement because any private Member's Bill needs such general agreement, especially if one is 16th in the queue.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

The Bill has my wholehearted support. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to obtain a fixed figure of alcohol content, irrespective of what it might be? Then at least one will know where one stands when one buys drinks. At the moment, one can intend to drink no alcohol, but if one buys the wrong product, one can end up drinking a great deal more than one thinks.

Sir Peter Emery

That is true of anyone who intends to drive. What my hon. Friend says is of great importance where it affects people who may decide to drive.

The Bill attempts to clarify the position and to make sure that those who buy drinks at non-licensed premises can be absolutely certain of the alcohol content of drinks, whether shandy or any other product. It will bring about standardisation for the first time.

I am sorry that the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. I considered including the Province, but I gather that the licensing laws in Northern Ireland are so complicated that I should have had to add another three pages to my Bill. I apologise to Northern Irish Members that I have not included them.

Mr. Skinner

What about cider?

Sir Peter Emery

That is above the level and people will enjoy it if they drink it.

Mr. Wilshire

I am aware of the time, but before my hon. Friend moves on from what the Bill excludes, may I ask him whether he gave any thought to excluding high alcohol beverages? The variation in such drinks is equally alarming. A drink that is called strong can be 6, 7, 8 or 9 per cent. The effects of that can be quite devastating, too.

Sir Peter Emery

I had enough trouble dealing with low alcohol drinks. To deal with high alcohol drinks is up to the individual.

Consideration of the issue was based on several premises. The first was the short-term intoxicating effect of alcohol. The eventual blood-alcohol level depends on many factors, but the maximum acceptable level in a young person was taken to be 20mg per 100mg. It was taken to be a reasonable assumption that the majority of young people would not drink more than an average of two pints in one hour, six pints in three hours, or eight pints in four hours. On that basis, the maximum strength of an alcoholic beverage that might be made freely available was taken to be that which would allow a typical young person to consume a reasonable quantity of the drink without exceeding a blood-alcohol level of 20mg, which is a quarter of the level which would put a person over the limit to drive.

Mr. Skinner

I came here thinking that the hon. Gentleman had introduced a Bill to control levels of alcohol. The more that I listen to him, the more that he seems to talk about the breathalyser limit. He makes his Bill sound like a beat-the-breathalyser measure. What is the Bill about? Is it about controlling the level of alcohol or about encouraging people to go close to the breathalyser limit? Once people have reached that level, does the Bill say, "Have a few of these and you will be all right."? That seems a bit dodgy to me.

Sir Peter Emery

I am sorry that I have been so imprecise. The only time that I talked about the breathalyser was in answer to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West. The Bill has nothing to do with the breathalyser level. I wish to make certain that no one suggests that it does. That would be a great mistake because the Bill has nothing to do with encouraging people to reach that level.

I was saying that my Bill does nothing to increase, even to a quarter of the breathalyser level of 80mg per 100mg, the level that can be reached by drinking low alcohol beverages. The aim of the Bill is to standardise the position and to ensure that everyone clearly understands it. For the first time, the Bill makes it clear that the offence is at the point of sale or supply, rather than during production. It is as simple as that.

I believe that the vast majority of the British people and hon. Members support the Bill. I hope that this simple Bill will receive the full support of the House. It is generally believed that young people should be able to go to a grocery store and buy drinks in the knowledge that they are of an alcoholic level that will not affect them. The Bill will ensure, for the first time, that that can be brought about. Therefore, I hope that I shall have the support of all hon. Members in obtaining a Second Reading for my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to cr Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills)