HL Deb 10 May 1988 vol 496 cc1043-8

1 Before Clause 8, insert the following new clause:

("Disqualified premises—garages.

. After section 9(4) of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following subsections—

"(4A) Premises shall be disqualified for receiving a justices' licence if they are primarily used as a garage or form part of premises which are primarily so used.

(4B) In subsection (4A) of this section, the reference to use as a garage is a reference to use for any one or more of the following purposes, namely, the retailing of petrol or derv or the sale or maintenance of motor vehicles." ").

The Commons agreed to the above amendment with the following amendment

2 At end insert(2) Where, apart from this subsection, a justices' licence (within the meaning of the principal Act) would become void on the coming into force of subsection (1) above, the premises to which the licence is attached shall he treated as premises which are not disqualified for receiving such a licence by section 9(4A) of that Act for so long as they continue to be premises for which such a licence is in force.'.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2 to Lords Amendment No. 1.

At Report stage in this House your Lordships accepted—against, I may say, government advice, as on another amendment—the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Brentford prohibiting garages from holding a justices' licence. The amendment was intended to underline the principle that drinking and driving should be kept separate. At Third Reading in your Lordships' House, minor amendments were accepted which were designed to clarify the drafting, but not to alter the intention.

When the matter was considered in another place, it was decided that the principle of your Lordships' amendment should be retained but that it should not apply to those premises which were quite lawfully in possession of a licence. It was considered that they should not be deprived of their business and that the community should not be deprived of their service.

Everyone is aware of the alarming numbers of deaths as a direct result of drinking and driving. I am bound to say, however, that there is no evidence, even of an anecdotal nature, that licensed garages contribute to the problem of drinking and driving. The new clause is not, therefore, designed to counter an immediate problem. It is a more subtle matter of attitudes and beliefs. By prohibiting garages from selling alcohol, we shall be seeking to reduce the association in motorists' minds of alcohol and driving.

But we must remember the reality of licensed garages. Most of them are in rural areas. The business is often run as a combined garage and grocery store providing a comprehensive service to customers. The off-licence is just part of that service but in contributing to the variety of goods on offer it also contributes to the viability of the business. From the letters we have received, it is clear that the grocery store aspect of many of these businesses serves a local clientele while the petrol pumps provide a service to those who are passing through. The loss of the off-licence might well go unnoticed by the motoring customers but it would be substantially missed by local residents.

It was for those reasons that, when the new clause was considered in another place, the Government supported an amendment to protect those premises which already hold a licence. That is the purpose of Commons Amendment No. 2.

The amendment does not diminish the present powers of the licensing justices in any way. Although they would not be able to refuse the renewal of a licence on the sole grounds that the premises are basically a garage primarily selling petrol, they would be required to consider any objections to the licence on any other grounds. The police, for example, would continue to have the opportunity to oppose a licence renewal. And, when the Bill becomes law, there will be an added power for the justices to revoke a licence at any time during its currency.

Commons Amendment No. 2 allows the licence to run with the premises, subject to its renewal by the licensing justices. If the existing proprietor or manager sells the business or moves his post, his successor may apply to take over the licence. It will not, however, be possible for the proprietor of a garage, which is at present licensed, to take the licence with him if he takes over an unlicensed garage business. Once a licence has lapsed for any reason, it will not be possible to resurrect it.

I believe that this represents a sensible compromise. It protects the livelihood of the proprietors of licensed garages who would otherwise have suffered a loss of earnings with little notice and no clear justification. But it upholds the principle on which the new clause, which was accepted by your Lordships, is based. I hope that in adopting this amendment we shall have underlined the message but not at the expense of the rural businessman. I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for having explained exactly what the Commons amendment to the Lords amendment is. We are very pleased that the Commons accepted our amendment. It was, I believe, the right decision. Had the Commons rejected our amendment, the message that we were trying to send would have been counteracted and come out wrongly.

I should like to make a single point on the Commons amendment. I was quite happy with the clause in the shape it left your Lordships' House. The point of our amendment, as the noble Earl has said, was that there should be a clear signal that we wished to separate and dissociate drink from driving. We believed at the time that we had taken the necessary steps to protect the small rural village shop trading in a wide range of goods and also selling petrol while disqualifying premises primarily used as garages from holding an off or an on-licence. However, as a Minister has pointed out, the 180 garages with existing licences will have a problem if they immediately lose their licence because they will have adjusted their businesses on the assumption of possessing the licence. Therefore they may suffer hardship as a consequence of the basis of that assumption being altered retrospectively.

I believe that the clause in its final form is probably the best compromise. It prevents small businesses from suffering as a result while putting up a definite marker showing that the problem of drinking and driving is taken seriously by Parliament. There is little doubt that the current figures are still frightening. They show that each year 1,500 people are killed and that each month more than 8,000 people are found guilty of driving while over the limit. Our only hope is that the figures will be reduced.

I am glad that our proposal was accepted by another place. I accept that the amendment was necessary in the name of justice and fairness to small enterprises which entered into business on the assumption that they would have a licence.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his usual courtesy in explaining the matter and for having explained it to me beforehand. I should like to point out that this issue does not relate solely to rural garages. The justices have granted a licence to a third garage in a West Wales town which indicates that it is also a town problem.

Since that time I have received letters from existing licence holders and I am content for them to be able to continue. I had assumed that they would continue until the expiry of their licence, but I am content that renewal should be permitted provided that it is in the name of the same licence holder. That appears to be fair. I believe that your Lordships have achieved the original purpose of stopping the further spread of garages selling alcohol. I am happy to accept the amendment from another place.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, it would be churlish not to appreciate the Government's acceptance of the motivation behind the amendment which I moved unsuccessfully at the Committee stage and which was so ably moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, on Report. Although I accept it, I am disappointed that we did not accept the fact that nowadays more people believe that the principle of drinking and driving applies to those who are stupid, callous or ill. More people are now aware of the many dangers involved. I look forward to the time when drinking alcohol and driving is forbidden in this country. I am happy that the spirit of the amendments has been accepted.

I believe that there are approximately 180 licence holders of whom only 50 or 60 will be affected by the clause. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that only 50 or 60 licences will continue when the Bill becomes law. When the licence is due for renewal application will be made in the normal way. I understand the previous situation to have been that unless the police object to the granting of a licence it will be renewed in the normal way. Therefore there will be 50 or 60 licence holders who will continue to be able to sell alcohol, petrol and Derv so long as they remain in business. However, those outlets will become extremely valuable sites. Presumably anyone wishing to purchase a garage with such a facility must pay a premium. That appears to me to be curious and to go against the spirit of the clause, but perhaps the Minister will comment on that situation.

I am seeking guidance for justices' clerks. When in future they decide how the provision will be applied on application for a licence, or when licences are transferred to another owner, what criteria will be brought to bear? Will an application be subject only to police complaints that the law has been infringed, or will other criteria be brought into play? I believe that unless the matter is clarified confusion will arise in the courts. However, I am thankful that the principle has been accepted by the Government.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I was absent when the clause was put into the Bill otherwise I would have voted against it, with respect to my noble friend Lord Brentford. I am glad that another place has seen fit to amend the clause and make it acceptable. I believe that RoSPA is of the same view.

Unlike my noble friend, I do not believe that there was a "cock up"—the phrase used in another place in respect of another clause— although I know that noble Lords do not use such language. I believe that this House acted correctly on that occasion and I am glad that the Government have included the new provision in the clause.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which your Lordships have accepted the amendment which another place moved to our amendment. Had my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux not left so quickly for his Easter holiday he may have been present to have voted for the amendment. However, he took the precaution of having an earlier holiday, so maybe that is his own fault.

I am glad that my noble friend used that most peculiar of parliamentary expressions to say that such a thing did not happen in respect of another amendment. I do not believe that it did, but we are not discussing that amendment today.

I believe that the position is clear even though the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, found a certain amount of difficulty. The figures which I have show that in the petty sessional divisions 186 petrol stations are licensed. The noble Viscount asked about the procedure and whether the police may object. The procedure is the same in respect of these licensed premises as in respect of any other licensed premises. The police and anyone else may object if they believe that such premises are a hindrance to the locality. Of course it is up to the licensing justices to determine whether the licence shall be continued or revoked. Therefore, I do not believe that there will be any problem there.

The noble Viscount was somewhat ingenuous in saying that having passed this amendment the number of licensed premises would be curtailed; therefore those garages would be at a premium and would shoot up in value. That is possibly a slightly extreme concept. I do not believe that it would make a great deal of difference, but I am not the one to judge what the value of garages with a licence would be. It will be a question of waiting to see what market forces do.

The amendment strikes a balance between what your Lordships wanted, which was to make the distinction that drinking and driving should not go together, and at the same time not denuding either the businesses of their rightful work for which they have a licence or the community of the benefit of the services which those licensed premises offer. I am grateful to your Lordships for accepting it.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps he can clarify one point. The noble Viscount was implying that when the premises were sold they would be of greater value because they carried with them a licence. However, I understood that the new owner would not have the licence. The owner of the premises licensed would continue to have the licence while he remained in those premises, but when he moved he would lose it, as would a new owner of the premises. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking about an area in which she is in some confusion. Her interpretation is not correct. The licence goes with the premises. If the owner wishes to continue his licence and apply for a new licence he can do so. If he wishes to sell the premises, the new properietor takes them over with a licence and can apply for the renewal of that licence; it goes with the premises. However, should the licence drop—in other words, should one proprietor sell a business with a licence and another purchase the business but decide not to continue the licence, and should he then sell those premises to somebody else, that person may not apply for the renewal of the original licence because it would then have lapsed. I hope that that clarifies the position.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, perhaps I may take up the matter I raised about the demand and the premium.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount would be good enough to say, "Before the noble Earl sits down".

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may clarify why I raised the point about the scarcity which will arise as a result of this legislation. No additional licences will be granted so the few which remain will make the properties desirable and these may well be purchased by people who have more efficient and commercially successful marketing experience. The likelihood is that more alcohol will be sold. That was the point I was making. Bearing that in mind, I am slightly concerned about the criteria which justices will have in mind when they either renew licences or consider the transfer of licences. I believe that because those premises will be rare and because unhappily there is a desire in people to drink in areas which seem to be dangerous, there will be some demand for these premises.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may make another intervention, with the leave of the House, but we are getting rather out of order. We may still be on the same speech but there have been many interruptions. The noble Viscount's premise is that because there are now so few garages which have licences attached to them they are likely to become a dwindling asset and will therefore become more valuable. If that is so, that is the fault of your Lordships' amendment. If he did not want that to happen he should not have voted for it. He voted for the amendment because he wished to curtail the use of alcohol. I cannot tell the noble Viscount whether it is likely to happen in five or 10 years' time or what the value of those properties will be. Under this amendment there will not be other garages which are allowed to apply for licences.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.6 to 8.30 p.m.]