HL Deb 30 March 1983 vol 440 cc1620-8

7.3 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I cannot begin to tell your Lordships what a relief it is for me to commend to your Lordships a Bill that has already passed through all its stages in another place. This Bill, which was introduced with all-party support by my, honourable friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, represents a modest but beneficial reform of licensing law. It is not a substantial enlargement of licensing law but a rationalisation of a small area of it. It follows in general the Erroll Committee proposals but has more safeguards. Broadly similar provisions have worked satisfactorily in Scotland since 1976.

Although some of the Bill's provisions are detailed, its policy is quite simple. It will require the licensing justices in England and Wales to grant to representatives of organisations and their branches which are not carried on for private gain occasional permissions which will authorise them to sell intoxicating liquor at functions connected with the activities of the organisations. As many of your Lordships will know, under the Licensing Act 1964 if an organisation—let us say a parent/teacher association organising a modest wine and cheese party to raise funds for a school—wishes to run a social function at which drink is sold, it must engage the services of a publican or other holder of a justices' on-licence, because such holders are the only persons who may apply to magistrates for an occasional licence. The organisation is thereby deprived of profit from the sale of drink. If the organisers of the function simply go—as many undoubtedly do—to a local supermarket and buy a few cases of wine, and then sell it on their own account, they commit an offence for which the maximum penalty is a fine of £200 or six months' imprisonment, or both.

As I have said, the Bill is based largely on proposals made in 1972 by the Erroll Committee, the departmental committee on liquor licensing of which my noble friend, Lord Erroll of Hale, was the chairman. In its report the committee said that they had some difficulty with the position of small organisations which, because they had in effect paid all or a sizeable proportion of the bar profits of their functions to the occasional licence holder, felt resentful at gaining little or no financial benefit from that particular branch of their activities. The committee also mentioned that small organisations frequently found it very difficult to interest existing licensees in their functions. From my experience, this is still very often the case. In proposing that there should be a simpler and more flexible system for organisations whose sole concern is to operate a bar for their own enjoyment and incidental profit on a few occasions during the year, the committee emphasised that their proposals would reserve the general principle that for longer and more elaborate occasions, a more professional approach was necessary.

I will now briefly describe the main features of the Bill. Clause 1 empowers the licensing justices to grant up to four permissions in a year to an officer of an eligible organisation or to a branch of such an organisation. An eligible organisation is one not carried on for private gain, and this would include many charities, local community associations, churches, and constituency organisations of political parties. In granting applications, the licensing justices must be satisfied that the officer is a fit and proper person to sell liquor and that he is resident in their licensing district; that the place where the function is to be held is suitable for the sale of drink; and that the sale of drink at the function is unlikely to result in a disturbance, in disorderly conduct, or to cause annoyance to local residents. These are important safeguards, and your Lordships will know that the justices are experienced in considering such matters when dealing with applications for the granting of liquor licences.

Clause 2 sets out the procedures to be followed in making an application for an occasional permission and for its hearing by the licensing justices. To enable the application to be properly considered, the applicant will be required to submit his application at least one month before the function to which it relates. And in order that the police can consider whether to oppose the application, the clerk to the justices will be required to send a copy of the application to the chief officer of the police. The application will generally be heard by the licensing justices at their next licensing session. It will then be open to those who wish to oppose an application to state their objections.

Clause 3, read in conjunction with the schedule, creates various offences triable only summarily and punishable by fines. These offences reflect safeguards contained in the Licensing Act 1964 for the protection of young persons and for regulating the conduct of licensed premises. Thus it will be an offence for a holder of a permission knowingly to have sold intoxicating liquor to a person under 18 years of age except for consumption with a meal, or to allow such a person to consume it in a bar. There are also provisions aimed at preventing drunkenness or violent, quarrelsome or riotous conduct taking place on the authorised premises. To enable the police to exercise a proper degree of supervision, they will have a right of entry to the authorised premises during the hours specified in the permission.

Clause 4 deals mainly with interpretation of the Act, applies certain provisions of the Licensing Act 1964, and makes consequential amendments to that Act. Clause 5 gives the Act its Short Title and extent and provides that it will come into force three months after Royal Assent. My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that the Bill does not represent any major relaxation of the licensing laws. I firmly believe that the sale of drink needs to be controlled and that permission to do so needs to be restricted to those persons who can satisfy the licensing justices as to their suitability. This my Bill does, and establishes proper safeguards for preventing alcohol misuse.

Those of your Lordships who are in contact with the licensing trade or who read the trade press will know that the National Union of Licensed Victuallers are opposed to this measure. Their opposition is based on two premises. The first is that it will deprive licensees of a proportion of business at a time when the trade is suffering from the wider economic recession. Their second objection is that the sale of drink should be restricted to those who are professionally competent and who have satisfied the licensing justices as to their suitability to manage licensed premises.

On the first point, this Bill's function is to tidy up a very small part of the law which is widely abused at present. It does not concern itself with the economic factors. With regard to the licensed victuallers' second point, an applicant for an occasional permission will also be required to satisfy the justices as to his or her suitability. As to professional competence, I think there is a difference in scale between running a public house or licensed restaurant and simply organising the sale of drink occasionally at a social function like a wine and cheese party. I am convinced that voluntary organisations will continue, as they always have done, to engage the services of the trade for their larger functions. I believe that what I have said will allay the fears of the National Union of Licensed Victuallers. I certainly hope so, as my previous experience of this organisation has always been on the happiest basis, and I have nothing but admiration for their hard work and their very real contributions to charities of all kinds.

Finally, my Lords, I should like to express my thanks to the Government for the help which has been given in the drafting of this Bill. The licensing law is complex and any changes need to be well thought out. I believe that with the safeguards contained in the Bill many worthwhile organisations will benefit from it, and that it will not contribute to any worsening of the serious problem of alcohol misuse. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Trumpington.)

7.13 p.m.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, after the vast range of different subjects your Lordships have been called on to grapple with today, it comes as something of a relief to have reached this particular subject, and that is not just because it is the final item on the Order Paper; it is much more because, after all that has gone before, your Lordships are perhaps in need of refreshment, and that is precisely what this Bill provides for. So it is a congenial topic, I think, to reach just before the Easter Recess.

I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, not only on her timing, but also on having brought this Bill before your Lordships and on the way in which she has introduced it. Our licensing laws, as any lawyer knows, are a minefield for the unwary, because they contain a mass of intricate detail. I think the noble Baroness has shown quite plainly that she has mastered that in the very clear way she has explained the Bill's provisions and steered us through the minefield.

I welcome the Bill because I believe it will perform a very useful service. I do not intend to dwell on the principles behind it because these have been dealt with by the noble Baroness. As she said, it stems in part from a proposal of the Erroll Committee, and that is a recommendation in itself, for theirs was a very thorough inquiry and report. So perhaps it is the case that the Bill has matured in a rather fine cask and is of a particularly good vintage.

No doubt we have all received the circular letter from the National Union of Licensed Victuallers, to whom the noble Baroness has referred this evening, expressing their opposition to the Bill. I can, as indeed the noble Baroness does, understand their fear that their livelihood might in their view be affected. But in the first place it is the case, I think, that it has become increasingly difficult for organisations to find licensees ready to provide them with the service of applying for licences and looking after the sale of drinks at their functions. Also, I believe their fears to be misguided, for—this is at least an equally important point—the vast bulk of the functions this Bill seeks to help simply would not merit the services of the publican anyway; these functions would be far too small to interest him.

So, under the present state of the law, without this Bill either those events would not take place at all, I suspect, or, like so many cheese and wine parties or perhaps bottle stalls at summer fetes as well, they would continue to go ahead while the law, or its enforcement officers at least, turned a benevolent blind eye upon them. In neither of those cases would the licensed victuallers stand to benefit anyway. So I believe it is better properly to provide for these functions within the law. I share the admiration expressed by the noble Baroness for the licensed victuallers' organisation.

I have only two small queries about the Bill, and they do not need to be answered today. They both arise from Clause 1(4). First, the subsection provides for up to four occasional permissions in each 12 months' period for an "organisation or branch". I am wondering whether that means that each branch can have up to four goes a year and not just that each organisation, perhaps through its branches, is restricted to four events. I assume that it must mean that every branch can have up to four goes, for otherwise there would not be any need to include reference to a branch as well as an organisation in the Bill. I would certainly hope that that is the meaning of the Bill, because it would seem rather useless, in the case of a constituency party, say, to restrict it to, let us say, just four cheese and wine parties throughout the whole constituency per year, those occasions to be spread over however many branches the constituency party might have.

My other point is this. The subsection says that not more than four permissions may be granted in 12 months. I would like to ask for a little clarification on the timing involved—and again, I do not need to have an answer today. It could be that in a particular 12 months' period an organisation or branch has been granted and has held four functions, and then it wants to prepare for the first of its functions in the next 12 months, but because of the timing of the application and of the licensing session the actual grant by the justices needs to be made in the present 12-month period.

It would seem reasonable, I would submit, that the body should be able to obtain permission for that event in the next 12-month period. I just want to be assured that there is no difficulty here and that the words in the subsection "granted … in respect of functions" will enable that to be done. I feel sure that there need be no difficulty here and also that the wording of the Bill is capable of that meaning and of that intepretation. I do not see that these two points need call for any amendment of the Bill at all; it is simply that at some point a little clarification would be helpful.

As I have indicated, I do welcome the Bill. I hope it will receive a speedy passage in your Lordships' House. I would only add that, in congratulating the honourable Member of another place, Mr. David Atkinson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, we would all agree to join in raising our glasses to the noble Baroness tonight.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I, too, want to congratulate my noble friend Lady Trumpington—I hope I may call her my noble friend—on the very lucid way she has introduced this Bill and explained it to us. I hope that it will get a very speedy Second Reading.

The reason why I am particularly interested in the Bill is that from time to time I find myself engaged in organising small horse shows and events of that nature in the country, and it is absolutely essential if such shows are to avoid making a loss that spectators are attracted to them. Moreover, the competitors like to be able to show off to people other than themselves what they are doing. One of the main attractions is to be able to advertise that there will be a bar.

In the past it has proved difficult at some of these shows to find a licensee who is ready and willing to operate such a bar. He says straight away that he is going to lose, not gain, from the operation because he will probably have to take his staff away from his public house to put on the bar at the show. Therefore, I feel that this ability to allow the organisers of such a show to run their own bar will be very useful and satisfying. I do not think that it will affect the licensees in their trade at all because as soon as a show—certainly of the kind that I have in mind—becomes large it needs professional people to run the refreshments, and they are automatically called in.

I hope that the Bill is given a Second Reading and I hope that my noble friend will be able to go in peace to Sandwich for Easter and tend her precious flowers without any worries about the future of the Bill.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, from these Benches I briefly give my support to the Bill. I support it not only because I have had experience of these matters but also because it is such an obviously necessary new move.

With regard to the licensed victuallers, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, that they need not worry. In my experience the only difficulty about having to go to a publican was to make sure that he went to the magistrates in time. There was one occasion I remember when the publican did not and we nearly had to cancel the party. That was very difficult, as it had been widely publicised. It was not due to lack of support but because he just forgot. He was perhaps not attentive to his duties. This particular publican sometimes found it difficult because it was not always convenient for him to go to the magistrates about something when he did not want to go for any other reason. He had to go about 10 or 12 miles. Altogether, the Bill will save that sort of hassle.

As to whether licensees lose business, I have never found that they want business. They have kindly done this chore merely in order to comply with the law. As regards the "professionally competent" argument, I do not know whether on the various occasions that I have been involved the publicans have been aware that I was the always the wardroom wine caterer to every ship in the Navy in which I served until I became too senior to do it and, therefore, could be said to have a little competence. However, I think there were others who could do the job equally well.

On the whole I hope the licensed victuallers will feel that they are not having bread stolen from their mouths and I hope that the Government will give all the support they can to the Bill so that it will quickly get on to the statute book without any hassles about amendments or anything like that. I wish it well.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it now falls upon me to indicate the Government's attitude to the Bill. Before doing so I should like first to thank and congratulate my noble friend Lady Trumpington for her clear and helpful explanation of the Bill's intentions. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that with her experience on the bench as a former licensing justice she is particularly well qualified to present a measure of this kind. I am also grateful on her behalf, as well as for the Government, for the support that the Bill has received from the Benches opposite and from my noble friend Lord Mottistone. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, that this is a suitable topic on which the House can break up for Easter.

The Bill as drafted is entirely acceptable to the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Boston, raised two points. One was whether each branch of an organisation will be able to obtain four permissions a year. I can tell the noble Lord that that is the case and each branch will be able to do so. His second point was whether it was a year or a calendar year. That is not quite so clear and it is something which we should like to consider. Perhaps that also will satisfy the noble Lord. We will look into it and let him know.

In arriving at the view that we hold on the acceptability of the Bill, we have tried to balance the arguments advanced by those who see it as a relaxation of the licensing law which, by making drink more easily available, could add to the problem of alcohol misuse, and those who argue that voluntary organisations of the kind which would benefit from the Bill are sufficiently responsible to be entrusted to supervise the sale of drink at the social functions which they organise.

The Government are seriously concerned by the problem of alcohol misuse. We recognise that in recent years all the indicators of misuse have shown an upwards trend and that this is costly to society, both in terms of personal misery and in the strain it places on the social services. It is for that reason that the Government have refrained from introducing legislation to liberalise the licensing law. We believe that it would be irresponsible for the Government to take any initiative in this direction in isolation from the wider issues and without regard to our general strategy for helping prevent alcohol abuse. We consider, too, that there needs to be further public discussion on this question. As an aid to this, in 1981 the Health Department published a comprehensive document on alcohol misuse which looks at the different issues and the scope for action by individuals and the Government. It is hoped that in due course the response to this document will enable sensible decisions to be taken as to whether, and if so how, the licensing law might be reformed. But in the meantime (as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has stated on a number of occasions) we have no plans for legislation in this area, and in general we believe that any progress in the reform of the licensing law is most appropriate to Private Members.

During the past few years the Home Office has received representations from many voluntary organisations complaining that they have found it increasingly difficult to persuade licensed victuallers and other holders of justices' licences to run bars at their functions under the occasional licensing procedure. They also feel strongly that this deprives them of the profit which they would otherwise receive if they were able to sell the drink on their own account. We are also aware—although there is no hard evidence to substantiate this assertion—that many organisations either ignore the licensing requirement or try to circumvent the law by including the cost of the drink in the price of the ticket. Although this is still unlawful under the Licensing Act 1964, as many of your Lordships will know, this is widely done. The Government are unaware that such contraventions of the law have given rise to any significant extent to problems of public disorder or alcohol misuse.

As my noble friend has said, a system of occasional permissions has operated in Scotland since 1976. The Scottish Office has informed us that this has operated satisfactorily and does not seem to have caused any social problems. The Home Office has consulted the police, the justices' clerks' societies and the magistrates about the proposals contained in this Bill and each of these bodies has said that it is not opposed to them. In these circumstances we believe that the Bill, if it is enacted, will not add to the problem of alcohol misuse. We consider that the Bill contains adequate safeguards to enable the licensing justices to exercise proper control over the granting of permissions and the circumstances in which drink may be sold. By giving the police the opportunity to vet applicants and to enter authorised premises during the permitted hours this control is strengthened. We should hope that the Bill, if it becomes law, would encourage those organisations which at present sell drink unlawfully to apply for permission, thus bringing them within the law and subjecting their activities to proper supervision. For these reasons the Government believe that the scheme proposed in the Bill has positive advantages and might more appropriately be described as a rationalisation or technical change in the law rather than a liberalisation measure.

As my noble friend, Lady Trumpington, has said, the National Union of Licensed Victuallers has represented that the Bill will have adverse financial effects for its members and the union has also advanced the argument that licensees are the best people to supervise the sale of drink. On their first point, the Government are aware of the effects of the wider economic recession in the drinks industry and we recognise the National Union's concern to safeguard the livelihood of its members. Although they benefit from the occasional licensing provisions of the Licensing Act 1964, it has to be said that it is not a function of the licensing law to regulate competition. In general terms, the Government do believe that licensees are perhaps the best qualified to sell drink in public houses and at large-scale functions. It is likely that they will continue to profit from this business. But I do not believe that voluntary organisations would be unable to supervise adequately sales authorised under an occasional permission. Given the safeguards in the Bill, together with the penalties to which the holder is liable if he fails to comply with them, I believe that the proposed scheme will adequately regulate the sale of drink at functions selling drink under an occasional permission.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, what a cosy way to end the day! May I thank all the noble Lords who have spoken. It is good to finish on a note of all-party agreement and with unstinting Government support. May I wish your Lordships all a very happy Easter, sunshine and a good rest.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.