HC Deb 19 March 1993 vol 221 cc532-40

11 am

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) for interrupting her speech.

With permission, I should like to make a statement. I am today publishing a consultation document inviting comments on a number of proposals for possible further changes to the liquor licensing laws of England and Wales.

It is nearly five years since the Government's last substantial reform of this area of the law took effect. The Licensing Act 1988 allowed public houses and other bars to stay open on weekday afternoons and for an extra hour on Sunday lunchtimes. It also introduced certain other procedural reforms and tightened up the law on under-age drinking. That measure is generally regarded as a success.

In keeping with the Government's step-by-step approach to reform in this area, the time is now right to consider what further changes are desirable to ensure that licensing laws are kept up to date.

The first of the proposals in my consultation paper is the replacement of the absolute discretion that the licensing justices currently enjoy over the grant of most licences. I propose that the only grounds on which such applications might be refused in future should be specified in statute, as has been the case in Scotland for well over a decade. This change should, I believe, make the licensing process clearer for all those involved with it, and also more consistent in its application throughout the country.

The grounds on which an application for a licence might be refused are set out for comment in detail in the consultation paper. Briefly, they concern the suitability of the applicant to hold the licence, the suitability of the premises for the purpose for which they are intended and whether the use of the premises for the sale of drink is likely to cause public nuisance or a threat to public order and safety.

We will also consider the important issue of whether under any new arrangements the licensing justices should continue to have the power to refuse new licences because, in their view, there are already sufficient licensed premises in that particular locality, and therefore no need for a new one.

I appreciate that this is a question on which strong opinions are held on both sides. My consultation paper sets out for comment the arguments for and against the inclusion of any "need" criterion among the grounds for refusing a licence. The Government have not yet made up their mind either way on this issue, and will consider very carefully the responses to this section of the consultation paper.

The second proposal is the introduction in England and Wales of a system of children's certificates for the bars of licensed premises similar to that which came into operation in Scotland in January 1991. This would permit, after a successful application to the licensing justices by the licensee, the admission of accompanied young children under 14 years of age into suitable bar premises in certain defined circumstances—for example, for a family meal—and then only up until, say, 8 o'clock in the evening. These arrangements have worked well in Scotland, and it is time to consider their introduction south of the border.

Coupled with this is a third proposal for the introduction of a new category of licence which would authorise the sale of alcoholic drinks in café-style premises, without a bar counter, provided that food and non-alcoholic drinks were on sale at the same time. Accompanied young children ought, we think, to be allowed into such premises, but again perhaps only up to a set time in the evening.

The Government would welcome views on both the principle and the detail of these proposals, which are aimed at providing greater choice for the customers of licensed premises, particularly families with young children. They should also encourage competition and generally higher standards of provision for customers, assist the tourist industry and help to promote the further development of premises for civilised moderate consumption of alcohol, instead of heavy drinking.

I must emphasise that, although these proposals envisage greater access by accompanied children to licensed premises than is now permitted by law, the Government have absolutely no intention of relaxing the prohibition on the sale of alcohol to young people under 18, and their consumption of it in the bars of licensed premises.

The final proposal set out in the consultation paper is the abolition of the Welsh Sunday opening polls, following any which might be called in 1996. Only one Welsh district is now dry on Sunday, and the Government believe these polls have become increasingly anachronistic, as well as unjustifiably costly. This is, I am glad to say, essentially a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

I am asking that comments on all the matters set out for consultation in the paper, other than those simply concerned with the Welsh polls, be sent to the Home Office by 30 June this year. Comments on the future of the Welsh polls should be sent direct to the Welsh Office by the same date.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. Does he accept that, as in Scotland, there must be rigorous controls on the granting of children's certificates? Does he agree that their purpose is to allow families to enter pubs together, not to encourage children to drink? Given the enormous problem of under-age drinking in Britain and the link with crime, will he endorse and implement his Department's proposals, set out almost six years ago, to prevent under-age drinking?

How many café bars have been licensed in Scotland? Does he recognise that the success of café bars abroad is at least as much due to the habits and traditions of the countries as to their licensing laws? Potentially, the most far-reaching part of the statement is the proposal canvassed in the White Paper to remove the criterion applied by licensing justices of "public need" when deciding whether to grant a licence.

I entirely agree that there should be much greater consistency in the granting of licenses, and that the criterion of public need should not be used simply to fortify a local monopoly or to deprive local consumers of choice. However, I should like to offer the Minister a strong counsel of caution in this area.

First, does he not understand that, in abandoning an anti-competitive view of public need, he should not abandon the whole notion of public interest? There may be good reasons—to do with disturbance to local residents, the character of a town or village or the dangers of trouble and difficulties of policing—to limit the number of pubs. The interests of local people should not be cast aside simply in the commercial interests of those who want to open more public houses.

Secondly, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the problem in many parts of the country is not the number of pubs that want to open and are prevented from doing so by the licensing laws, but the number of pubs that are closing and being boarded up? Does he accept that, whatever the motivation of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report of three years ago, when the brewers had to sell off pubs, last year was the first year since 1960 that the number of licensed premises fell? There are now 2,000 fewer pubs than there were in 1989, and there is a greater concentration of ownership.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the practical consequences of his proposals should be their test? Will he comment specifically on recent reports from Australia that deregulation has led to lower standards and a spate of liquidations? If regulations on the numbers of pubs are relaxed and families use pubs more often, as many want to do, is there not a powerful case for that to be balanced by a much stronger and better defined criterion of a fit and proper person to hold a licence? Is it not high time that some form of structured training and qualifications were demanded along with the licence?

These important proposals can dramatically affect the leisure of our people and the culture of our country. Will the Home Secretary ensure that they are subject to genuine and open consultation, going far wider than the vested interests simply of the industry concerned, so that the right decisions in the public interest are taken?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about under-age drinking. Our proposals must be accompanied by continued stringency to avoid under-age drinking. We are talking about encouraging families to have access to premises in suitable circumstances, where the licensed justices agree that the environment is a suitable one for families to gather in. It could be argued that we could help to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse by introducing children to the moderate consumption of alcohol in civilised settings and more up-to-date circumstances in the company of their families.

About 1,000 café-style licences have already been granted in Scotland, and the innovation appears to be a success. Many people in this country are accustomed, when abroad, to being able to consume alcohol in a variety of circumstances, not just British pubs. Many foreign visitors to this country are perplexed at the narrow range of premises where alcohol is available. It is worth looking to see whether we should follow the Scottish precedent.

I share the caution of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) about whether need should be taken into account when granting licences. I accept that we must canvass carefully and ensure that we protect any legitimate public interest when deciding whether to open new premises. We must be certain that the licence holder is a fit and suitable person, and I will consider the suggestion that we should define the role carefully.

We must ensure that the premises are suitable in every way—that includes considering the impact on the surrounding area of the premises to be licensed. Public order and safety are also important issues. We must consider whether, having considered all those aspects, need also constitutes a criterion.

It is true that some pubs have closed in recent years, but there are still 13,500 more licensed premises than there were 10 years ago. The recent changes are the result of the changing commercial pattern and changes in living habits. The proportion of the population who were accustomed to going to traditional pubs has fallen, and more people now consume alcohol at home within the family environment, and look to different forms of leisure and entertainment. It should help the licensed trade, the tourist industry and other sectors if we update the licensing laws, make them more flexible and allow alcohol to be consumed in a greater variety of premises.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the importance of undertaking the widest possible consultation, and I agree with him strongly about that. A weakness of public consultation in this country is that, all too often, the only responses that the Government receive are from predictable, often legitimate, vested interest lobbies. It is difficult to achieve a genuine consultation process that involves the general—the man and woman in the street. We need to receive the public response to our proposals, together with the responses of vested interest groups.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Before calling other hon. Members to speak, may I ask for brisk questions and answers, as the statement is eating into today's debate?

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I congratulate my right hon and learned Friend on his statement, which will help to resolve the problems of the serious increase in drinking by the under-nines that was highlighted in a recent report—the numbers have doubled in recent years.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the important issue of public houses being able to stay open longer? Only three months into the single market, 10 per cent. of the drinks brought to this country by one means or another come from the European Community. There has been no prosecution, and there are no proper guidelines on that subject. What can be done about that? If we do nothing, there will be no pubs left.

Mr. Clarke

Customs and Excise should be enforcing the law against abuses of the single market provisions that have come into effect. I share my hon. Friend's concern about the impact that the changes are having, particularly on the south of England. My proposals should enable us to counter those effects to some extent if they enable the owners of English licensed premises to contemplate more attractive and up-to-date ways of offering alcohol for sale—undoubtedly, home-sold alcohol.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

While welcoming in principle the move to lay down criteria in statute, I share the caution already expressed and wish to make three specific points. First, will the Home Secretary look again at the complicated and confusing rules relating to types of drink? Secondly, does he propose to look again at the extension of licensing hours as a follow-on from today's statement? Thirdly, will he comment on the need to tighten up the measures relating to the provision of alcohol to drivers? Is it not time to consider incorporating into law some undertaking to enable the licensee to take away the car keys of a driver to whom he is selling alcohol?

Mr. Clarke

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means when he speaks of the confusion over types of alcohol. If he writes to me, I will give him a considered response.

I am not canvassing further changes in licensing hours in the consultation document, as the hours were changed only recently and I am not aware of any widespread demand to reconsider them. I anticipate that people will respond to many aspects of the licensing laws once the document goes out to consultation, and we will consider the responses.

There is far more respect now for the breathalyser and drink-driving laws, and there has been a welcome change in the public's attitude. We are always looking at ways to improve the enforcement of the law, and I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, although they are essentially matters for the Department of Transport.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

My right hon. and learned Friend's announcement today will be warmly welcomed. As he probably appreciates, the Isle of Wight licensing bench is one of the largest in the country. I believe that its clerk has, from time to time, advised my right hon. and learned Friend's Department on regulations.

One of my constituents, Mrs. Sketcher, has had her licence refused only this week. Her premises are unusual, but highly popular with visiting yachtsmen from the East Cowes marina. The island attracts many overseas visitors to events such as Cowes week, and they can never understand the peculiar licensing laws affecting who can enter pubs in this country.

Is there any possibility of today's announcement dealing with the serious restriction on the off-licence trade imposed by the Sunday licensing hours operating only between 12 noon and 2 pm, which is a cause of great irritation to visiting yachtsmen to the Isle of Wight who cannot restock their victuals in time to catch the start of a race?

Mr. Clarke

I think that our licensing laws have been a source of bewilderment to most overseas visitors for many years, but they are improving and are less confusing than they were. I think that the Isle of Wight will undoubtedly benefit from the changes that we are canvassing. The proposals will make clear the grounds on which licences can be refused and, in some cases, will allow discretion to be exercised.

I would not presume to comment on the premises in the marina mentioned by my hon. Friend, about which I am sure the Isle of Wight licensing justices know more than I do. We are not canvassing further changes in the licensing hours, as the House discussed that subject only five years ago. If the response to the consultation document reveals a widespread feeling of the sort anticipated by my hon. Friend, we shall consider including that subject the next time the House considers legislation on licensing laws.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is there any truth in the rumour that today's statement should have been made yesterday, but the Home Secretary could not get to the House of Commons as he was stuck at Cheltenham guzzling ale?

Does the Home Secretary realise that some people in the House and many outside believe that, the last time the law was changed, it marked a retrograde step, and that the present proposals will make matters even worse? The idea of taking young kids into cafés and other places when they are 13 and 14 years of age and educating them on drinking is nonsense. The Government will be putting it on the national curriculum next—but that is about as much as we can expect from a Government who are concerned not about the social fabric of society but about putting money in the pockets of brewers, who then transfer it to the Tory party. What can we expect from this place, when there are 16 pubs in the Houses of Parliament?

Mr. Clarke

First of all, not a drop of ale passed my lips yesterday at Cheltenham, which seemed a suitable place in which to celebrate my right hon. Friend's Budget, which was being discussed in the House. It received a warm welcome among the crowds at Cheltenham and elsewhere, and I have returned to my duties today.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said that the reforms of five years ago were widely unpopular. As so often, he is completely out of touch with public opinion, and reactionary and out of date in his views, which are not in tune with modern society. His idea that we propose introducing children to traditional pubs shows a complete misunderstanding. Justices will not give children's certificates unless they are satisfied that the setting is suitable. But the hon. Gentleman must be one of the few people who defends the idea of families sitting on a sunny day in the garden of a public house in a perfectly civilised setting enjoying their day out and then, if it rains, not being allowed to take their children into the building even though there may be a perfectly suitable part of it in which children could be introduced to liquor in civilised surroundings or spend time with their families.

Consultation always gets more than one reaction, but I think that the hon. Gentleman's reaction is that of an embittered, left-wing and rather out-of-date reactionary.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's recognition of the needs of families with two parents and children who can be introduced with no danger to public houses and other places where liquor is available. May I draw to his attention the real problems resulting from older teenagers, perhaps from broken families, who tend to drink in pubs until late at night and then go out into communities smashing shop windows, urinating in gardens and causing a hullabaloo that disturbs the peace of law-abiding citizens? Will the consultation exercise consider such problems? If not, we shall be failing our electors.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend that the problem of alcohol abuse of all kinds is closely connected with a great deal of crime, with large numbers of social problems, and with quite a bit of disorder. Traditionally, the licensed house was a pub—often a pleasant and civilised place of the sort to which many of us doubtless go. But the tradition was also one of male heavy drinking, rushing towards early closing time. Nowadays, there is the additional complication of teenagers drinking strong lagers in the kind of setting that my hon. Friend describes.

The consultation document does offer the prospect of a more civilised approach. The sort of premises encouraged by what we are canvassing are those where families will be present—that is, people of all sexes, and children—and where their children, only if accompanied, will be able to enter settings which the licence justices have been satisfied are the right sort, where families can have a meal, snack or other refreshment together. In itself, the exercise will not tackle the real problems that my hon. Friend describes, but it is certainly a step in the right direction, towards introducing more civilised drinking habits to this country.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Northern Ireland is often considered here to be a restrictive society, but in many ways we have always been ahead of England and Wales in our licensing legislation. I had the honour as a Minister to introduce a major reform of licensing more than 20 years ago in Stormont. One of the provisions was to allow drinking in public houses from 11 am right through to 11 pm.

The Minister referred to café-style licences. Will alcohol be sold in these cafés to people who are not having a meal? If so, will not that be a retrograde form of unfair competition with public houses, which make a major contribution to local government finance and which have to fulfil strict criteria to be given a licence? It seems that these cafés will be able to sell alcohol and be, in effect, public houses without a bar.

Mr. Clarke

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's first point. In the mid-1970s, I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill on licensing—it included the idea of children's certificates and café-style licences—and it was greeted by huge opposition, on the ground that we were about to take the nation's children to alcoholic ruin. Since then, Northern Ireland has had the experience of licensing reform. Scotland led the way with licensing reform, but it took the English many years to discover that reform had led to improvements in the social climate surrounding licensed premises in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. So we are catching up slightly.

Experience in Scotland of children's certificates and of café-style licences has generally been regarded as beneficial. I was wrong to refer earlier to 1,000 café-style licences. I should have referred to about 1,000 children's certificates being issued in Scotland. Rather fewer café-style licences have been granted. We shall have to look into what difficulties there may have been.

Café-style licences will involve alcohol being sold with or without meals. For such licences, it is necessary that food and non-alcoholic drinks should be available as well, making such cafes like tearooms or continental cafes, in which some people will be having food, others drink, others non-alcoholic drinks, and so on. Children can be brought in, and there will be competition, although it will not be unfair competition. This will widen consumer choice and increase the number of outlets. Such outlets will be particularly attractive in areas frequented by tourists.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on updating a very outdated system. That will be welcomed especially by families. I hope that the idea of parents leaving their children at home is now a thing of the past.

I should like to ask the Home Secretary to clarify his answer to the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Tyler). Will both wines and spirits be served in family areas, or will only wine be served, bearing in mind that children will be present?

Mr. Clarke

No, children's areas will sell the same range of alcohols as are sold in the rest of licensed premises. The children's certificate will allow accompanied younger children to go to these areas, because the licensing justice is satisfied that they are suitable parts of pubs or restaurants for children to be taken to. There is no question of a children's certificate restricting the sort of alcohol that adults can consume in these areas.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I take the Home Secretary back to the question directed to him by his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway)—about the vast amount of alcohol coming into this country through cross-border shopping? He said that that could be dealt with by making premises more attractive, but the fact is that it is the price that attracts the booze, not the circumstances in which it is drunk. We have a bootlegging industry in this country; it is of concern to the licensed trade and to everyone else, because much of the drink is being sold on. What will the right hon. and learned Gentleman do about this thriving bootlegging industry which has sprung up, especially in the south of the country?

Mr. Clarke

Customs and Excise will enforce the law against imports of liquor which break regulations and go beyond the single market arrangements which allow people to bring in drink for their own consumption. Operating a single market within which there is differing taxation on various goods will always promote scope for smuggling. That is what the Customs and Excise are for: to take action against such smuggling.

Because there is such a wide discrepancy in the duty on spirits, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor felt restricted when it came to raising duty on spirits. The country could have done with the revenue, but we have to be alert to the need to reduce the incentive for smuggling, which will certainly be tackled with all vigour by the Customs and Excise.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I also warmly welcome today's statement. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that one of the lessons of the relaxation of licensing laws in Scotland has been that fewer cases of drunkenness have been reported? Will he further agree that many visitors to this country find that London and our other great cities close down at 11 o'clock, which inconveniences them? Will he elaborate on the flexibility of hours and on the possibility of extending drinking times in pubs?

Mr. Clarke

Certainly the impact of Scottish licensing reform in the 1970s was wholly beneficial when it came to directly drink-related offences. In the light of that, we introduced the reforms in England five years ago. I am not sure how much further measurable improvement has resulted from café licences and children's licences, but I think that the general reaction in Scotland is that they were a further beneficial step which improved Scottish drinking habits—as I hope they will eventually improve English drinking habits as well.

We will consider representations about the 11 o'clock factor, if we receive any, although we are not canvassing further views on hours. There are plenty of licensed clubs available after 11 o'clock, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would like us to consider whether there may be undesirable effects arising out of the fact that only certain types of premises stay open after 11 pm, attracting large numbers of young people, whereas ordinary premises close then.

We are moving step by step. At the moment, changes in the hours are not a further step that we are contemplating.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

When pub landlords decide what facilities to provide, they do not have to consider just the state of the law and the market. They also have to consider the considerable pressure that the brewers place upon them. Will the consultations take into account the link between brewers and landlords and the considerable pressures that landlords are under?

Mr. Clarke

There will be nothing in my consultation document about that. The complex relationship between brewers and landlords is affected more by the changes to the landlord and tenant law, the effect of the untying of premises and so on. That is changing considerably the world of the licensed premises. However, it is not for me to intervene in the relationship between brewers and their tenants. I hope that the changes that we are canvassing will benefit customers by producing an ever-wider range of choice and type of premises available.

Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)

My right hon. and learned Friend's statement will be welcomed by the tourist industry. In the context of this morning's debate, we have been talking about product development. Café bars and children's certificates will be particularly relevant. Can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure me that the tourist industry will be involved in the consultation process, and that its input will be very much taken into consideration?

Mr. Clarke

I hope that the tourist industry will respond strongly. I share my hon. Friend's views. The growth of the tourist industry is extremely important to this country. As a result of the devaluation of the exchange rate, we need to see a very considerable surge in tourism, which is potentially one of the major sources of new employment that we can hope to see.

I shall be amazed if the tourist industry does not welcome my proposals. I hope that it will respond with vigour to counter any doubting voices. If we implement these proposals, I see great potential for expanding employment and for improving the attractiveness of those places that bring in foreign visitors.

Back to
Forward to