HC Deb 07 November 1996 vol 284 cc1389-408

5.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

I beg to move, That the draft Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 30th October, be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motion: That the draft Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 30th October, be approved.

Mr. Moss

We are considering two orders, which together form a package of reforms. One deals with the licensing of premises such as public houses, hotels and restaurants, the other with the registration of private clubs in Northern Ireland to permit them to supply alcohol to members.

The orders consolidate, with amendments, existing Northern Ireland law in the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1990 and the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. A wide-ranging review of the laws on alcohol began in December 1992 with a review of the laws on registered clubs. A review of the licensing laws was instigated in February 1994, after it became clear that much common ground existed between clubs and licensing laws. The orders are coming before the House only now because there have been extensive consultations since then.

The orders contain many new deregulatory provisions and reflect the changing social attitudes and expectations of modern society. We have sought to strike a balance between the need to control and regulate the sale of alcohol in an effective, enforceable and equitable way and the need to have full regard to the wider public health issues. The main changes represent a balanced relaxation of the law, while preserving the safeguards necessary to promote sensible and socially responsible attitudes to drinking and prevent alcohol abuse.

I shall try to deal quickly with the more significant provisions that amend existing laws or propose new measures. I shall first explain the provisions common to both orders and then explain those unique to each.

Articles 13 and 21 of the licensing order and article 24 of the clubs order provide that liquor licences and club registrations, currently granted or renewed for a maximum of one year, may now be valid for up to five years at the discretion of the courts. That deregulatory measure will be welcomed by licenceholders and registered clubs, and will also free up valuable court time.

Article 42 of the licensing order and article 24 of the clubs order will abolish the compulsory Sunday afternoon break and allow the supply of alcohol between 12.30 pm and 10 pm on that day. That has been a contentious issue in the reforms. However, the proposal brings the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in England and 'Wales, recognising widespread demands to be able to enjoy a more leisurely lunch, to have an early high tea or, as is becoming increasingly popular, to watch a satellite football match with friends.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Minister clarify a point in the registration of clubs order that I cannot work out? Article 24(1)(b) says that the permitted hours are on Good Friday from 5 in the afternoon to 11 in the evening Article 24(2)(b) says that the hours shall provide for a break of at least 2 consecutive hours between 2 in the afternoon and 5 in the afternoon on Good Friday

Mr. Moss

That is reasonably clear. Article 24(1)(b) gives the total period during which a club can be open, provided there is a two-hour break at some stage.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Article 24(1)(b) says: from 5 in the afternoon to 11 in the evening". That is six hours. Article 24(2)(b) provides for a break between 2 in the afternoon and 5 in the afternoon when the club should not be open.

Mr. Moss

I shall come back to that point when I wind up.

Now, where was I? High tea, I think. There is no evidence that the change to the law in England and Wales has led to an increase in alcohol consumption.

Article 59 of the licensing order and article 33 of the clubs order bring the law in Northern Ireland more closely into line with England and Wales with the introduction of children's certificates, which will enable young people under 18 to be in licensed premises and registered clubs up to 9 pm, provided that they are accompanied by an adult.

The presence of children in an alcohol environment has been an emotive issue in Northern Ireland, although I would inform hon. Members that children have been allowed into the bars of sporting clubs in the Province for many years. There has been a considerable demand from people in Northern Ireland to be able to enjoy a drink in the company of their family, usually as an accompaniment to a meal, and the Government are satisfied that such a proposal will also enable children to see sensible drinking in a family context. The Government have taken the power to prescribe by regulations the requirements that all licensed premises and registered clubs must meet, should that be necessary.

I come now to proposals unique to the licensing law. Article 5 creates three new categories of premises that may be licensed—guest houses, conference centres and higher education institutions. There has been a considerable demand from the public to have a drink with a meal in guest houses, and the Government, with strong support from the Northern Ireland tourist board, believe that that limited extension will assist Northern Ireland's tourism industry.

In addition, one of the fastest-growing businesses in Northern Ireland is the conference industry, and the Government believe that that industry should be given every opportunity to compete for its share of the United Kingdom market. The Province's universities also host a number of events and conferences, and having their own licences will provide them with a greater degree of flexibility.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

In communications with, I suspect, all Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, the Minister has suggested one or two conference centres that are likely to fall within the description, but he has added "and some others", which widened the description to one that we cannot define. How will the Government define which centres are to be allowed a licence under the heading of "conference centres"?

Mr. Moss

Many of the larger hotels in Northern Ireland now operate as conference centres, but obviously their licences will be taken care of in the usual way. The universities open during their vacations for conferences, and the measure will enable them to run sensible bars during those conferences. The Waterfront hall in Belfast will also run conferences. The definition will be easy to achieve and, in issuing licences, the courts will be quite clear as to what constitutes a conference centre. Such a centre should have facilities available for large groups of people to participate in a proper programme of discussion and debate over one, two or more days.

Article 5 also provides the powers under which regulations may be made specifying the conditions under which shops and/or supermarkets in Northern Ireland may, in future, sell alcohol alongside other goods. The provision that currently prevents mixed trading will be dropped from the legislation, thus bringing the law in Northern Ireland more closely into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government are aware of concerns that placing alcohol on a supermarket shelf could give the wrong message, and could result in impulse buying and in exposing children to alcohol in the course of shopping. For that reason, regulations will be put in place to ensure that, among other things, stores set aside a designated area for the sale of alcohol.

Article 42 changes the permitted hours for free-standing off-licences, which have been at variance with the rest of the United Kingdom since 1987, and those for off-licences in, or attached to, pubs, which have differed since 1989. The Government now propose to bring all off-sales outlets in Northern Ireland broadly into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Article 44 introduces two measures that I would wish to highlight. First, licence holders who apply for additional permitted hours will no longer be required to provide food and entertainment, but instead will be required to provide one or the other or, if they so wish, both. That change is in recognition of the contention that many people may want food or entertainment, but not necessarily both.

The second change will allow licensed premises providing food or entertainment, or both, to apply to the courts for an additional two hours on a Sunday night, taking the permitted hours up to midnight, other than on Christmas day or Easter Sunday. It is becoming increasingly popular in parts of the Province for Sunday nights to become social evenings, and the proposals are a sensible recognition of that.

Article 45 deals with small public houses that cannot supply food or entertainment and, under the present law, cannot have late licences. It is therefore proposed that such pubs be allowed up to 20 late licences a year, and the Government are confident that that small but significant concession will be warmly welcomed.

Article 51 deals with the conditions as to the sale of intoxicating liquor in guest houses and restaurants. I shall target my remarks primarily on restaurants, where I am bringing forward a number of changes that I should like to bring to hon. Members' attention. The sale of alcohol in restaurants will continue to be ancillary to the purchase of a main table meal, and to assist the policing of that provision, it will be a feature of the new order that payment for food and drinks must be on the same bill. Additionally, to curb the possibility of premises masquerading as restaurants when they are really discos or something similar, I have decided to introduce a provision prohibiting the charging of an entrance fee.

While on the subject of restaurants, I should point out that I have decided to remove the provisions whereby such establishments applying for a licence to sell alcohol are subject to an annual inspection by the Northern Ireland tourist board. That inspection was extremely detailed and did not need to be satisfied by the non-licensed restaurants. I decided that the system was over-prescriptive and have taken the opportunity to deregulate and allow market forces to operate.

Articles 67 and 68 strengthen the law in relation to the presence of alcohol at unlicensed entertainments or unregistered clubs. In relation to the former, the existing law is targeted at entertainments organised for gain and has proved inadequate. The new provisions prohibit alcohol at any entertainment outside of licensed premises or registered clubs unless it is being held for other than private gain, and places the onus on the organiser to prove that it is not being held for private gain. Article 68 prohibits illegal drinking in clubs that are not registered, and is targeted at what are commonly called "shebeens". Rights of entry have also been provided to the police to investigate suspected breaches of the law.

Article 72 introduces a new provision whereby the police may seek the suspension of a licence if any change of circumstances occurring since the grant or renewal of the licence would suggest that the licence holder was no longer a fit person to hold a licence, or the licensed premises were no longer suitable for such a business.

Finally, I shall detail proposals unique to the clubs law. Articles 3 and 15 are related, and I shall deal with them together. Article 3 tightens the existing restrictions on the sale of alcohol in clubs that have ceased to be registered. That provision outlaws the presence of alcohol in such premises and introduces an automatic five-year disqualification for clubs that are convicted of that offence. That tough new measure is in direct response to clubs that have been exploiting weaknesses in the existing law by claiming that alcohol present in the premises is not being supplied by the club.

Article 4 strengthens the existing laws by providing that, during the waiting period before a court hearing of an application for registration, clubs must have in place certain rules designed to demonstrate their ability to operate within the law. That is coupled with a relaxation of the existing laws, whereby the waiting period to be served by clubs before their applications for registration can be dealt with by the courts will be reduced from two years to one. The waiting period enables clubs to demonstrate that they are bona fide and well run, and a one-year probationary period is now regarded as sufficient.

Article 26 contains an amendment that will increase from 20 to 52 in any year, the number of special occasions on which a club may supply alcohol to 1 am. The figure of 20 was fixed in 1987 and it now seems only reasonable to permit clubs to enjoy an average of one late night each week throughout the year, subject to police approval.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

While there is concern that liberalisation of the regulations could lead to increased alcoholism in Northern Ireland, residents living in close proximity to licensed premises and the premises that will have extended, late-night provision for their clientele, are concerned that they will be subjected to unnecessary disturbance arising from the late-night activities. What assurance can those people be given that, if a racket is created week on week, the Royal Ulster Constabulary will take prompt action, and the privilege that we are about to introduce will be removed?

Mr. Moss

The article enables the extension from 20 to 52, but it is an extension of permitted hours. I understand that the club would have to apply for each extension. The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn to my attention the concerns of people in the vicinity. If such an extension caused them concern or disturbance, they would be able to oppose an extension of the permitted hours in court. That is my understanding, and if I have not given the hon. Gentleman the correct answer, I shall clarify it later.

Article 40 contains significant changes to the existing law, enabling the manner in which accounts are to be kept and presented to be prescribed. Among other things, the 1987 order contained provisions to combat racketeering in the affairs of some clubs. The Government believe that it is vital that all registered clubs should manage their financial affairs in a responsible manner, and the police, along with the terrorist finance unit of the Northern Ireland Office, have warned that there is a continued need for vigilance to ensure that clubs comply with the law.

Article 42 will therefore give the RUC wider powers of entry and inspection, so that clubs can be policed more effectively. It will enable the police to enter and inspect premises, particularly those that continue to supply alcohol after losing their registration and clubs that are awaiting registration.

Article 43 will introduce a penalty points provision under which points will be attributed for certain offences relating to the keeping and presenting of accounts. It is aimed at clubs that commit serious or persistent breaches of the law in relation to their accounts. The RUC and the Northern Ireland Office requested, and strongly support, the introduction of that provision, particularly as the courts will no longer be renewing registrations on an annual basis. Bona fide, well-run clubs, which the majority are, have nothing to fear from that proposal.

That concludes my outline of the main provisions of the Orders. I hope that hon. Members will accept that the proposals comprise sensible relaxations in the law as well as maintain essential safeguards. I commend the orders to the House.

5.22 pm
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

As the Minister said, the two measures are to some extent deregulatory, although the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 contains a restatement of existing law, which is different from the comparable legislation for the rest of Great Britain. The order is much less deregulatory than the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which brings the law into line with that for the rest of Great Britain.

When similar licensing legislation was introduced in the House for the rest of the United Kingdom, the Labour party did not oppose it and we shall not oppose the orders this evening, although I understand and am well aware of the objections—the Minister circulated them to hon. Members—to the increased availability of alcohol, particularly on Sundays.

I wholeheartedly endorse the Minister's comments on sensible drinking and striking a balance between giving people the freedom to enjoy the increased availability of alcohol, especially on Sundays, at meal times and with their families, and increasing alcohol consumption and abuse.

I agree with the Northern Ireland Federation of Clubs that the original order increased the regulations applicable to clubs in certain areas and did not deal with some of the issues that the wider club movement, both here and in Northern Ireland, wanted to raise. The Minister was good enough to meet representatives of the Northern Ireland Federation of Clubs, hon. Members and myself, and the draft order was amended to take account of some of the points made. I am grateful to the Minister for the time that he took to meet us and discuss the issues at length, and for rethinking the order in relation to article 43 and penalty points. As a consequence, we shall not oppose the order.

I am conscious of the Government's fears about clubs in Northern Ireland; the Minister mentioned the enforcement details. Clubs in Northern Ireland are different from those in Great Britain. The latter are usually non-profit-making or working men's clubs. In Northern Ireland, clubs are usually of a sporting nature or have some other social function. The Government have argued that some have been vehicles for paramilitary funding and, although there is no proof, that fear remains and the Government are conscious of it, as are the Opposition.

That possibility has to be borne in mind when we discuss these proposals, particularly the requirements for improved accountancy for clubs in Northern Ireland, which we welcome. When we debate such orders in future, I hope that the accountancy systems in place and the details contained in the present orders are such that we might be able to deregulate some of the prescription surrounding bookkeeping for Northern Ireland clubs, bringing them more into line with the systems that operate throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government are still overly prescriptive in a few areas, and further deregulation measures could have been implemented.

While we welcome the reduction in the waiting period for registration from two years to one, the licensing order provides for a provisional licence. We appreciate that there is a need to be able to establish that a club and its activities are bona fide and that it is seeking to obtain a licence in the proper manner. I suggest to the Minister, however, that the Northern Ireland Office could have considered a probationary licence, rather than the probationary one-year waiting period.

We also welcome the increased duration of a certificate from one to five years, which will enable clubs to enjoy a period of stability and reduce the bureaucracy surrounding annual registration—the annual visits to the magistrates and the licensing bench and all that goes with that. We are aware that the Government felt that the extension merited the penalty points system. The Minister pointed out that the deregulatory aspect of the increased duration of the certificate meant that such a system should be put in place to enable the police to monitor clubs throughout the five-year period.

An application concerning a club can still be made to the courts at any time under article 13. So an application for the cancellation of registration can be made at any time, regardless of the five-year period. Under article 8, the period for consideration of the conduct of a club in relation to the renewal of a certificate has been extended to six years. The five-year registration period is also at the discretion of the courts. I hope that the magistrates courts in Northern Ireland will honour the intention of the order that the registration period should be five years, and that registrations are not granted for one or two years.

We welcome the changes that will allow clubs to apply for registration out of time and temporary premises to be certificated. We give a cautious welcome to the extension of Sunday hours. I endorse the Minister's comments about eating times on Sunday and about sporting activities on satellite television. It is now more than a year since similar legislation was introduced in Great Britain, and there have been no particular problems with it.

We welcome the special occasion authorisations, although I am conscious of the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), that residents living near clubs or pubs that will have a licence to operate until I am should be given due consideration; we must be aware that some complaints may arise.

I hope that the courts will make a reasonable interpretation of what is a special occasion. When the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill was debated in February 1995, reference was made to the inconsistencies between magistrates in various parts of the country; what some regarded as a special occasion others regarded as not warranting an extension.

The order allows for children accompanied by an adult to be in a club until a 9 pm threshold, provided that the club has applied for a children's certificate. The licensing order contains a similar provision, and my comments apply to both orders, which stipulate that for a children's certificate to be granted, there must be a suitable environment for children. That means that there should be facilities for family meals, especially on Sundays. I welcome that, as it would allow families to enjoy meals together on Sundays—something of which most hon. Members will be conscious.

I am not sure how many clubs in Northern Ireland would be deemed to have a suitable environment or how many would even want to admit children. My club allows children to remain until 9.30 pm, and that curfew is well policed by members, who genuinely do not want to drink in an area with children.

Magistrates should consider no-smoking areas when children's certificates are applied for. The hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley) raised that point during the debate on the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill in 1995; he objected to magistrates imposing a requirement that a club should have a no-smoking area to gain a children's certificate and maintained that they did not have that discretion. I take issue with that, and I hope that the Government, who are responsible for targets for reducing children's smoking under "The Health of the Nation", will share my view that no-smoking areas should be taken into account. For children, a suitable environment should surely be a non-smoking environment.

I fully support the idea of children being able to accompany their parents in clubs and pubs with eating facilities and a pleasant atmosphere, but I would not like children to be taken to smoky bars or taprooms with a less pleasant atmosphere. It behoves us to ensure that the environment is indeed suitable.

Some parts of the order are unnecessarily prescriptive. On article 38. can the Minister tell me why it should be illegal for clubs in Northern Ireland to advertise, when clubs in Great Britain can advertise social events and entertainment? Unfortunately, clubs in Northern Ireland do not have the system of associate membership and are restricted to the members themselves, but there is no reason why they should not be allowed to advertise events in the club to try to increase their membership or attendance.

I have already referred to the penalty points system and to the fact that the Government compromised on the issue and accepted some of what was said by the Northern Ireland Federation of Clubs and by hon. Members. I hope that improved accountancy systems will enable us eventually to get rid of the points system altogether. The system is now to apply only to accountancy and bookkeeping matters, as it was felt that that was appropriate to the Government's fears about clubs and fund raising. However, the three-year period for expunging those penalty points is still too long.

Article 47 relates to the presumptions applicable in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is surprising that Evidence that any person obtained, consumed or intended to consume intoxicating liquor in the premises of a registered club is considered to be evidence that the liquor was supplied by that club and that the person consumed that liquor.

The article also states: Where intoxicating liquor in open vessels is found in the premises of a registered club during any period when the consumption of intoxicating liquor in those premises is prohibited…consumption…shall…be deemed to have taken place during that period". That means that a police officer who walks into a club and sees an empty glass that may have contained alcoholic liquor can assume that liquor was consumed outside the permitted hours, which seems a bizarre interpretation of the law. There were complaints about the penalty points system. because it was felt that the presumptions could be abused if the police or the authorities wanted to close down a club quickly. I find the proof elements of article 47 surprising.

I want to deal with some issues that are not included in the order, but on which we pressed the Minister earlier in the year. One issue that is always raised in relation to clubs is associated membership. That system has been in use in the rest of Great Britain since 1875. It was supported in a letter from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Northcote, to the licensing bench. He said: There seems no reason for refusing the exemption to a club because it admits to honorary membership subscribing members of other clubs affiliated to the Working Men's Club and Institute Union and supplies them with liquors on the same terms as its own subscribing members The associate membership system has been in place for more than 100 years. The Working Men's Club and Institute Union, the CIU, in Great Britain had been hoping to extend those provisions to Northern Ireland. The CIU has printed a set of model rules, which it hoped would be adopted by clubs in Northern Ireland, that would allow for associate membership but strengthen the rules for clubs there and address many of the fears that the Government have raised about improved accountancy and bookkeeping.

It appears that the model rules will not now be applied, because of the restrictions in the order. In schedule 1, paragraph 8 does not replicate the reference to temporary members in the 1987 order. There is no reference to that in the explanatory document. Temporary membership would have afforded something similar to associate membership, but it has been removed without explanation. It seems that the Northern Ireland Office is dead set against associate membership in Northern Ireland's clubs, despite its long history in this country and the fact that it has not caused problems. The associate membership system means that people attending clubs other than their own must have their membership and other details checked before they can gain entry. It is well policed and controlled by the CIU.

We will not oppose the licensing order. The provisions for the rest of the United Kingdom were debated in February 1995. There have been no significant problems with them since then. I expect that the House will soon debate further licensing deregulation, which perhaps should have been in place last year but which was rejected by the deregulation Committee in another place. There are legitimate concerns, such as the extension of Sunday drinking and the increased availability of alcohol in supermarkets and shops, and I am sure that Northern Ireland Members will list them. I endorse again the Minister's view that we have to strike the right balance between the public's freedom to drink on Sundays and the encouragement of increased alcohol consumption. Proper safeguards are essential.

We welcome the extension of licensing to guest houses, conference centres and higher education establishments. Tourism is a major industry in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. There should be a uniform system throughout the United Kingdom. The measure will help the tourist industry in Northern Ireland. There are initiatives between the tourist boards of Ireland and Northern Ireland to increase tourism in Northern Ireland, and regulating the licensing system in this way will help.

On the mixed trading provisions, I hope that there will be adequate safeguards on sales from supermarkets and off-licences. It is all too easy for under-age drinkers to obtain access to alcohol from them. We are talking about kids obtaining access not to beer or lager, but to alcoholic water, alcopops, hooch and ciders of about 9 per cent. alcohol by volume, such as Blastaways, Castaways and all the rest. They are attractive to children and easy to drink. They are a problem, and I hope that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent under-age drinking of such alcohol.

We welcome the decrease in bureaucracy that results from longer licences and the idea of occasional licences, especially where the extended hours do not cause problems in residential areas. My earlier comments on magistrates' discretion apply to that.

I have touched on Sunday hours and I give that provision a cautious welcome. It is appropriate to extend Sunday hours and take away the break, but I hope that it is regarded sensibly and that the law will be used as intended to allow families to eat and drink together on Sunday afternoons or take advantage of Sunday televised sport. People have more leisure and they want the freedom to enjoy it in pubs and clubs.

We hope that the additional hours in the order are used sensibly by the licensed trade. There is always a demand for later drinking, but that must be balanced against the public's freedom to avoid rowdiness in the early hours of morning. My experience is that later closing times help to avoid pubs emptying at one time, which can lead to disorder and rowdiness. Lengthened drinking time will allow people to leave in a staggered process. [Laughter.]I mean staggered in time, not physical staggering.

I mentioned children's certificates in relation to clubs, and I would reiterate my comments on what constitutes a suitable environment. We welcome the orders and hope that they are implemented sensibly. We do not want to condone increased alcohol consumption or the increased availability of alcohol to minors, but we want the public to be able to take advantage of deregulation and have the extra freedom to drink with their children on Sunday afternoons. We shall not oppose the orders.

5.47 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I have two introductory comments. The Minister will by now have realised that, when he undertook to review licensing legislation, he took on a greater problem than he had envisaged. I am sure that he has not thanked the people in his Department and the outside interests who pushed him down that road.

Secondly, it is right that at the outset I should register a protest about the way that the legislation is being handled. We have two orders substantial in both content and size. One has nine schedules and 57 pages, the other has 113 pages and 13 schedules. They contain matters of great importance to the people of Northern Ireland. The concern of people in Northern Ireland is shown by the 700 responses that the Minister received.

However, we have only one and a half hours, and the two Front-Bench spokesmen have taken half that time. That is not adequate and should be deprecated by hon. Members who believe that there should be greater opportunity to speak on such matters, especially given the backcloth that we cannot table amendments to Northern Ireland legislation. It is put through by Order in Council on a take it or leave it basis, which is most unsatisfactory in all circumstances.

I note the cost of the orders. The Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order is priced at £11 and the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order at £7.10. Looking at the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, with the purchase price of the two orders, we could probably have bought several rounds of drink and had change left over. The high price reflects the volume of the orders.

I shall take the two orders separately at first. I can accept where the Minister is coming from in respect of the clubs order. Everybody recognises that there are unscrupulous organisations and individuals in Northern Ireland who will try to use every opportunity—whether in the drink trade or anywhere else—to gain funds for themselves or their organisations and the uses to which they might put the money would certainly be condemned by the House. I therefore entirely support the Minister's aim of ensuring that clubs are regulated in such a way as to ensure that no organisation with links to paramilitary or other such groups can benefit from the sale of intoxicating liquor and aid those groups as a consequence.

However, there has been a massive change in the club trade in the past few years. I am sure that the Minister recognises that the Northern Ireland Federation of Clubs has played a significant role in regularising the clubs business in Northern Ireland. There has been a massive shift away from the shebeens that were on almost every street corner in some parts of central Belfast. There are now few clubs of questionable legality operating, and all the clubs registered with the Federation of Clubs are recognised as bona fide. The federation has played a major role in urging the Minister to ensure that the licensing laws are such that they remove from the club trade those who would not be proper recipients of a licence.

The main requirement is the one that the Minister sought to deal with under article 43—to ensure that money is not siphoned off for illegal and other purposes. In his enthusiasm, the Minister might have gone beyond what is sensible in that respect. He will want to ensure that there is appropriate legislation to give the Royal Ulster Constabulary whatever support it requires in taking action against those involved in paramilitary attempts to siphon off money from clubs. However, in the original proposal for article 43, the Minister brought in a penalty point system that removed magistrates' discretion to such an extent that we would have had mandatory sentences for technical offences.

One solicitor described such a technical offence in terms of a minor infringement, such as an individual staying a minute after he or she was due to be out of a club. Technically, that individual would be guilty of having broken the law, and the magistrate would have had a duty to require that points be set against the club's licence. It would have been ludicrous for a club to lose its licence as a result of such a technical offence because the magistrates' discretion had been removed.

I am therefore glad to see that the Minister's confidence in magistrates has increased during the draft stage of the order, and that he has removed from schedule 6 several of the non-financial elements where the magistrate would have been required to impose mandatory penalty points. I welcome that change, and the Minister can expect the support of me and my colleagues on that order.

The Minister might find less welcome my comments on the licensing order. I have several concerns about that order, the first of which relates to its very nature. It is enabling legislation, and because so much depends on the regulations and conditions that will apply to the various articles, it is difficult for hon. Members debating the merits of the order to know what the final outcome will be.

The Minister's original intention expressed in a statement in January 1995 made me examine three specific areas. One of those has subsequently and, in my view, rightly been dropped from the order—the surrender requirement for licences. The House should thank the Minister for recognising that that would not have been helpful.

The general commercial value of a licence is such that many of those involved in the licensed trade use their ownership of a licence as security with their banks. Since about 1902, anyone who wants to open licensed premises in Northern Ireland has had to secure a licence from an existing licenceholder. That requirement was of benefit in preventing the proliferation of pubs and off-licences throughout Northern Ireland. In addition, licenceholders had an asset of value. I understand that about £100 million was invested in licences and that banks were greatly concerned at the prospect of so much being wiped off the balance sheets of publicans and off-licence owners, to devastating commercial effect.

The Minister has done the right thing in changing his mind. I raise this matter not only to thank the Minister, but to set down a marker, lest any successor to the Minister might be persuaded by the civil servants who originally proposed that we should go down that road. It would not help the licensed trade, nor would it help those who are against drink because it would lead to a greater number of licenceholders in Northern Ireland. The Minister has nevertheless made a brave fist of considerably extending the licensed trade in Northern Ireland through other measures in the order.

I turn now to the element dealing with mixed trading. Under the order, the Minister seems to he dragging us back to the days of what used to be called—long before the time of any hon. Member here—the old spirit grocers. Effectively, unless the accompanying regulations state otherwise, the order could result in alcohol being sold on every street corner. There will be nothing to prevent any shop from setting aside a section of floor space and employing someone over 18 for the purpose of selling liquor. The order makes it possible for alcohol to be available on almost every street in Northern Ireland. I am keen to hear what conditions the Minister will impose to ensure that we do not have, dotted across the countryside, people who will be able to run what is effectively an off-licence in every street in Northern Ireland.

The legislation is such that I suspect that it has been introduced primarily as a result of pressure by the supermarket trade—not only supermarket traders in Northern Ireland, but those with whom the Minister and the Conservative Government will be more closely associated, who are coming to Northern Ireland. I notice that J. Sainsbury plc says that it will apply for a licence for every set of premises that it opens in Northern Ireland. If it does so, it will significantly affect jobs in Northern Ireland as well as the availability of alcohol.

Supermarkets such as Sainsbury and Tesco are moving into Northern Ireland. They, and those who are already there—Stewart's, Wellworth's and so on—will undoubtedly out-price the local off-licences, where jobs will be lost.

The legislation introduces to young people the idea that drink is a normal factor in their lives. I suspect that no regulation that the Minister could frame would ensure that young people did not pass through areas where drink was available, either in shops or supermarkets. Day by day, they will have greater contact with drink, and it will be much more obvious to them that drink is available.

I note that the BBC's "Food and Drink" programme sent several under-age individuals to various supermarkets in Great Britain to test legislation currently in force which is similar to that which the Minister proposes to introduce in Northern Ireland. On every occasion, those young people were able to buy drink, whether it was from Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda or other major supermarkets. All were able to purchase drink although they were minors.

There is a much lower standard—and, I suspect, a lower level of awareness—among people who work on the tills of supermarkets than there would be in off-licences. The Minister must at least acknowledge that he will have to take steps to give him other means of dealing with under-age people who will be able to obtain drink as a result of the legislation that he is encouraging the House to support tonight.

I notice from a recent report that J. Sainsbury at York lost its drink licence because it had been caught selling alcohol to under-18s, and children of 14 and 15 were able to buy drinks on three separate occasions when they had been sent into the supermarket by the police. Interestingly, on one occasion when they did so, the person who sold them the drink said, "Put it in a carrier bag or I will lose my job." Obviously, that individual was prepared to sell drink to someone aged 14 or 15, with the knowledge that she was selling it to a minor.

The Minister increases the opportunities for under-age drinking—a problem that already causes great concern in Northern Ireland. I suspect that, almost weekly, people will visit my surgery and those of many hon. Members from Northern Ireland, especially the Belfast area, to complain about under-age youths causing problems in their area because they have access to drink. I also suspect that those people will be able to tell us where those youths are purchasing the drink. The Minister aggravates the social problems in Northern Ireland by this legislation.

I ask the Minister, why has it not been possible, at the time that we are discussing this legislation, for us to have sight of the regulations that will control what goes on in shops and supermarkets? The legislation has not come out of the blue to the Minister; he has been talking about it since the start of 1995. The Northern Ireland Office must have an idea of what the regulations are.

Some of us suspect that the Minister seeks, by the methods that I have outlined, to push the enabling legislation through the House tonight and then introduce regulations that might make the regime very liberal. They might allow supermarkets and shops to sell alcohol to the public without much restriction.

Part of the legislation deals with restaurants, guest houses and so on. The Minister again heaps up problems for the future with that provision. Once again he has an advantage over every other hon. Member, because, although we are aware of what would happen as a result of his legislation, he does not invite us to read the regulations and conditions that would apply, under the legislation, to restaurants.

It is possible that, under the legislation, not only will alcohol be able to be sold as an accompaniment to meals by bona tide restaurants whose main business is selling food, but it could be the major source of income for many of those people whose contact with food will be only a matter of convenience for their profits, who will almost run a bar. By introducing drinking into every restaurant, which would undoubtedly be the result, such regulations would destroy the family atmosphere that exists in so many restaurants in Northern Ireland. They would increase the temptation for people to remain after their meal to continue drinking, with a consequent effect not only on social problems related to drink but on drinking and driving and so on.

The Minister has built up many problems for the future in Northern Ireland as a result of those elements of the licensing order that he brings before us tonight. I shall briefly comment on how he could overcome those problems in the regulations relating to restaurants, shops and supermarkets.

I have approached the Minister several times regarding shops and supermarkets, suggesting that they should have a separate till that deals only with products from the licensed area, and that there should be a separate door to distinguish that area from the rest of the supermarket. The Minister wants to leave things as vague as possible. That is a mistake; we, if not the Minister, will live to regret that.

The Minister should consider granting restaurants a wine licence instead of a full licence. That would restrict drinking to some extent. It would also take drink away from public view. A bar is unnecessary if there is only a wine licence. If the Minister does not follow that road, he should consider restricting the floor area of the alcohol sales element of the restaurant in accordance with the size of the restaurant.

What is the Minister's definition of a guest house? Will having an upstairs room available for a lodger allow a person to hold a licence on the strength of running a guest house? Perhaps the Minister will tell us in detail how flexible he will be about that.

On the Sunday issue, I do not agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). I do not believe that there is any demand for an extension of drinking time on Sunday. I do not believe that the Minister has been pressed by the people of Northern Ireland to extend the Sunday provisions. The whole tenor of his legislation is to extend drinking time, to increase the number of outlets from which people can secure alcoholic beverages, to increase young people's exposure to alcohol, to impose on people in Northern Ireland the view that alcohol is a normal part of everyday life, and to increase the pressure to introduce them to drink.

The Minister should consult his colleagues in other Departments to learn the cost of the abuse of alcohol to many Government Departments in Northern Ireland and to local government there. If he were as aware of that as are many of us who live in Northern Ireland, I doubt whether he would try to extend the availability of alcohol to the extent that the legislation does.

6.9 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I shall not cover the ground that was covered by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), except to underline the concern that he expressed. There seemed to be some naivety among Members on both Front Benches when they spoke about extending the licence to stores.

I query the concern that the police might be too quick to prosecute. The evidence over the years is that they have been slow to do so. Many years ago, complaints were made to a police officer that a publican was selling alcohol to minors. The police officer claimed that there was no evidence of that, but the late Rev. Sammy Simms of the Bethany congregation gave a youngster money to go into the public house and buy alcohol, and frog-marched the constable in behind him. Although we hear it said that the law is too restrictive, it may not be restrictive enough to prevent the exploitation of men and women, boys and girls.

On a recent visit to California, I was struck by the fact that, in virtually every restaurant, and in other places, there was a sign warning of the health hazards not only of smoking, but of alcohol in certain conditions. It is important to recognise that in this debate we are dealing with one of the most serious problems of the human race, especially in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Perhaps it is because I pride myself on being an Ulster Scot that I have some sympathy with the calumny of Scotland and Glasgow in the words of the song: "There's something the matter with Glasgow, boy—she's going round and round." There is nothing wrong with the one who had imbibed, but the rest of the world is in trouble.

I shall press the Minister on the issue of designated areas and ask him to underline the fact that not only the sale but the supply of alcohol to minors is against the law. That is sometimes misunderstood. People say, "But we didn't sell it to them." However, the person who sells or gives alcohol to minors is guilty of a breach of the regulations.

In the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, article 3(2) states: every person who supplies, obtains, consumes, keeps for supply alcohol without a licence shall he liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both. It is an open breach of regulations to supply or sell without a proper licence, but that carries the same penalty as supplying alcohol to a young person, which is covered by article 34. The first offence seems more serious than the second.

I make a plea to the Minister. If the House is not prepared to do so for the nation as a whole, can we not move speedily towards the introduction of a common form of ID in Northern Ireland? A shop or club selling alcohol would no longer be able to hide behind the excuse that young people look older than they are. It is common practice in the United States for the provider to ask for an ID. If that were introduced in Northern Ireland, it would clearly identify the person and make it plain whether he or she was over 18. It would also be helpful for election purposes.

I await the Minister's response to my earlier question. We have expressed our concerns for years, but the Government keep telling us to wait until there is an Assembly. I have long contended that, until there is an Assembly, the House should legislate for Northern Ireland by Bill rather than by Order in Council, so that we can examine the legislation line by line and amend it. Drafting errors have occurred. I suspect that there is one in article 24 of the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order.

The Minister will be aware that many in my constituency have been concerned about the prospect of a floating restaurant or a floating pub on the Lagan. I have no objection in principle to it being on the Lagan, but I am not so sure that I agree with the ambiguous position of the Laganside development body, which stated earlier that it had no opinion on the matter but now clearly wants the development on the Lagan—not towards the mouth of the Lagan, but adjacent to the Queen's recreation and physical education building.

The legislation in that connection is too lax, because it does not take proper account of the objections of residents. Although no firm decision has been taken, it is strange that after a public inquiry turned down the application, there are those who are still pressing for the development against the wishes of the river users of the Lagan, the residents of the surrounding area and others.

If the Government want to discourage people from drinking and driving, it is difficult for them to require licensed premises to provide car parking spaces. Churches and other establishments in new buildings can be compelled to provide parking, but apparently no such requirement applies to restaurants or Canary wharf—on the Lagan, not in London. The calm of the area has been shattered by the provision of parking facilities. It is fascinating to note that, when the floating restaurant was originally proposed, there was a yellow line along Stanmillis embankment that would have prevented people from parking, but when the developers decided that they want the restaurant, the line was removed.

If proper regulations are not drawn up, there will be further infringements of people's liberties and rights. I sympathise with the Minister and accept the necessity for the registration of clubs. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East when he said that his party would support the Minister in that respect. I query the interpretation of some of the regulations. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said, the clubs in Northern Ireland are different from those in this country. It is not true that there are no working men's clubs in Northern Ireland—there are—but sporting clubs are now more prevalent, and shebeens have also become popular.

I ask the Minister about the success in policing those clubs that are closely involved with paramilitary activities. How many of such clubs have had funds sequestered and how many have been put out of business? That should be a touchstone for how we shall police these laws in the future. If we cannot implement the existing regulations, how will the new regulations be an improvement?

I query the views expressed by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central regarding simplified accountancy. During my lifetime, I have discovered that there are many creative accountants. It is fascinating to learn that restaurateurs can cook and that accountants can cook the books. I would like to see regulations set down that make it difficult for people to mix the books as easily as the drinks—to use a mixed metaphor.

Finally, I understand the concept of the family. I return to my comments in an earlier debate about activities on a Sunday—I prefer to call it the Lord's day. I believe that Sundays were given to us to use for the common good. Many years ago it was argued speciously that football should be played on Sunday because people went shopping on Saturday. Then there was a craze for Sunday shopping, and some football returned to Saturday as the primary league was televised on Sunday.

I return to the question of policing. How do we introduce the English social environment, with the old village pub, to an entirely different cultural situation in Northern Ireland? We will destroy the family if we bring children to such places. If we are introducing laws to allow clubs to open on a Sunday afternoon so that people may watch big sporting matches, how do we explain the fact that people in Belfast have been doing that for years?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

draw the House's attention to the fact that the debate will conclude at 6.33 pm. I am sure that hon. Members want to hear the Minister answer their queries, so I ask the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) to bear that in mind.

6.23 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I understand the difficulty that the Minister faces, but our difficulties are greater. I raised the matter of time with the Minister during my last deputation to him, but he did not tell us that he intended to combine the two orders. We could have debated each order for an hour and a half. It is absolutely scandalous to conduct the debate in this manner, and the Whips Office did not inform us of the Government's intention to move the motion to facilitate that process.

It is unbecoming of the two Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Insley) and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), that tonight they spoke for half of the allotted time and left Back Benchers little debating time. It is a very serious matter. There are 172 pages of legislation and 22 schedules upon which we are asked to comment in a couple of minutes.

I shall riot go over the ground that has been covered so ably by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). I agree with the general tone of their speeches. I ask the Minister one question: how will he deal with the planning for those premises that will be able to sell liquor? We know the difficulties faced by a public house in obtaining a licence. How will the Minister deal with the widespread clamour for liquor licences? Will there be any restrictions? What does the Minister plan to do?

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East was absolutely right when he said that we should debate the regulations tonight. We are completely in the dark in that regard. I was amazed by the Minister's explanation when he said that he would minimise the dangers: he should try to eradicate the dangers that arise from young people buying alcohol on impulse. The Minister has not been fair to the representatives of Northern Ireland in his presentation of the legislation tonight. He spent a long time consulting about the legislation, and he should have given the people of Northern Ireland and Their representatives an opportunity to debate it.

The Minister is anxious to make some sort of reply to the debate, and if I were a bad boy I would stay on my feet and talk it out. However, I shall not do that. Tonight the Minister has done the people of Northern Ireland no favours—especially in his handling of the Sabbath day issue. That has serious implications. People have differing views on the matter, but those who have spoken to me say that we need not more alcohol outlets but fewer. That should be the Minister's governing principle. There are far too many alcohol outlets and we must restrict, rather than increase, their number. By contrast, we now have an open-door approach.

I conclude by referring to the sale of alcohol in spirit grocers, which ensnared young people—particularly the working-class families of Belfast—in the chain of alcoholism. One of the first acts of the old Stormont Government was to abolish them. There was a social clean-up, and young people were freed from that awful chain. As I have told the Minister, we are returning to that situation in this legislation.

6.27 pm
Mr. Moss

I shall obviously not have sufficient time in which to make even a small inroad into the queries that have been raised tonight. I promise to write to all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate to answer their questions.

In reply to a number of general points raised during the debate—particularly by Conservative Members—I am conscious of the contentious ingredients in the legislation, particularly regarding licensing. That is why it has taken three years to bring the legislation to the House. I welcome the general support for the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order and I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), the Opposition spokesman, for his helpful involvement in the consultation process. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) brought people to see me to discuss the clubs order and, as a result of those representations, significant changes were made to the face of the order.

I emphasise the fact that consultation took place over a lengthy period. Although criticism has been levelled this evening at the lack of detail regarding the regulations, particularly those applying to mixed trading, I assure the House that when they are published—they are currently with our legal people—I shall send them not only to Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland but to all interested parties for comment before I commit them to the legal system. I give that promise.

We took the view that certain matters should be dealt with in the form of regulations so that we would be able to make changes at short notice if we saw that such provisions were not working in the way that we wanted.

I think that all those who have contributed to the debate have talked about mixed trading. We have made it clear that we want to achieve several objectives. We want to ensure that alcohol on sale will be kept and served within a clearly segregated area. We would, within the floor space of the supermarket, ensure that such an area was clearly defined. The area will be separated from the remainder of the shop, and access to it can he gained only by passing through some form of barrier.

Any non-alcoholic goods kept within the area must also be available elsewhere in the shop to ensure that customers do not have to go into the segregated area for non-alcoholic goods. The area will be under adult supervision at all times. It will be off limits to all persons under 18 years of age unless accompanied by an adult. The prescribed area will be situated in such a way that persons entering and leaving the shop will not have to pass through it. We shall be giving close attention to the provision of designated tills to ensure adherence to the tight regulations that we propose.

Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), spoke of spirit grocers. The accusation has been made that the liberalisation of the law in the licensing order will lead to a proliferation of outlets selling alcohol. It has been suggested that there will be a shop on every corner selling alcohol. I wish to make it clear that that cannot happen, for two reasons.

First, if a licence were to be obtained from the court, need must be justified. In other words, there should be inadequate provision in a locality before a licence is granted. Secondly, and most important—I am grateful for the support given by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—we have not removed the requirement of surrender. Accordingly, there is a finite number of licences to allow alcohol to be sold in Northern Ireland. That number cannot increase. Corner shops will be able to obtain licences to sell alcohol only if other licences elsewhere are surrendered. A licence is trading at about £40,000, and is used by many off-licences as security at the bank for loans. That being so, I do not believe that what we propose will lead to many shops taking up licences to sell alcohol.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [1 November].

The House proceeded to a Division:—

Rev. Ian Paisley (seated and covered)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are we to vote separately on the orders, which were put together? Are they to be voted on separately in the order in which they appear on the Order Paper?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman's question is whether we are to vote separately on each of the orders. Is that right?

Rev. Ian Paisley

Yes. The first order deals with the registration of clubs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Rev. Ian Paisley

We shall be dividing the House on the second order. Given the way that the orders were called, we can do nothing else.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Question is, motion No. 2. I think the Ayes have it.

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 30th October, be approved.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER then put the other Question required to be put at that hour.

Motion made, and Question put, That the draft Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 30th October, be approved.—[Mr. Bates.]

The House divided: Ayes 61, Noes 3.

Division No. 9] [6.36 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Hawkins, Nick
Alexander, Richard Heald, Oliver
Amess, David Hinchliffe, David
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Horam, John
Barnes, Harry Hunter, Andrew
Bates, Michael King, Tom
Body, Sir Richard Kirkhope, Timothy
Bowis, John Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Brandreth, Gyles Legg, Barry
Bright, Sir Graham Lidington, David
Browning, Mrs Angela Lilley, Peter
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) McAvoy, Thomas
Burt, Alistair MacKay, Andrew
Campbell-Savours, D N McLoughlin, Patrick
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Linc'n) Malone, Gerald
Coe, Sebastian Moss, Malcolm
Conway, Derek Newton, Tony
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F) Ottaway, Richard
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Pike, Peter L
Richards, Rod
Davies, Quentin (Stamf'd) Riddick, Graham
Dover, Den Shaw, David (Dover)
Duncan, Alan Sims, Sir Roger
Fabricant, Michael Spencer, Sir Derek
Fenner, Dame Peggy Spink, Dr Robert
Fowler, Sir Norman Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Trickett, Jon
Gill, Christopher Waller, Gary
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Wood, Timothy
Goodlad, Alastair
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Tellers for the Ayes:
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Mr. Bowen Wells and Mrs. Jacqui Lait.
Hannam, Sir John
Molyneaux, Sir James Tellers for the Noes:
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Rev. Ian Paisley and Rev. William McCrea.
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 30th October, be approved.

    1. c1408
    2. BROADCASTING 49 words
    3. c1408
    4. FAMILY LAW 33 words