HL Deb 21 June 1990 vol 520 cc1107-12

7.14 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

There have been many debates in this Chamber on the desirability of low-alcohol beverages and many attempts have been made to achieve proper definition. The problem has always been complicated by the fact that the beverages' classification has always been based on what the alcoholic strength might have been at some stage in the manufacturing process. That meant that beverages made by fermentation and other like processes were classified as intoxicating liquor even though they were subsequently diluted. The Bill clarifies the position by amending the definition of previous licensing Acts for England, Scotland and Wales. It defines alcoholic strength by volume as measured at the point of sale or supply and puts the limit at 0.5 per cent. For those who do not like decimals, that is half of 1 per cent. in vulgar fractions.

The Bill was introduced in another place by Sir Peter Emery, the Member for Honiton, and received support from all political parties. It has also received support from health education authorities, from the brewers, from wine and spirit associations and many other organisations. It needs no amendment or modification and is very simple indeed.

There is, however, one further point and I should like to make. One would have liked to see the Bill implemented as soon as possible, but it appears that there is a need to obtain Community agreement on labelling and other related matters. As a result, a rather extended deadline of the end of 1993 has been agreed. However, the Bill can be implemented earlier and I hope that the Secretary of State will introduce the necessary statutory instrument much earlier as the provisions of the Bill are much needed and will be widely welcomed. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill now be read a second time. —(Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.)

7.17 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein for introducing the Bill and for the manner in which he has described its purpose. It takes forward discussions that have continued over many years on the subject of the definition of alcoholic strength. On the last occasion when we discussed the matter, in 1988, we were not able to persuade all parties that it was in the best interests. My noble friend did not say this, but I have the impression that the Government have given their support to the Bill. My noble friend Lord Ferrers will no doubt confirm that. Therefore it ought to go through your Lordships' House without any problems. The Bill ought also to make low-alcohol drinks more widely available. I hope that the industry will take the opportunity that this Bill presents to reduce the price as the market expands. I am most grateful to my noble friend and I wish the Bill speed and success.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, from these Benches we wish the Bill well. It may be modest in its intentions but I am certain that there are thousands of people for whom it will be a last resort, saving them from becoming ill as a result of obtaining, if they want to imbibe, drink which is far too strong for their condition. I believe that the Bill presents a powerful opportunity to reduce dependence on strong drink, which, sadly, afflicts far to many people.

I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said about the opportunity that it should provide for reducing the price of low-alcohol drinks. Many people who go into a pub these days and obtain non-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks reasonably assume that they should be marginally cheaper than those with a higher alcohol content. We all understand the economics of the business, but we should consider an investigation into how drinks of that kind appear to be disproportionately dearer. We owe a debt of gratitude to Sir Peter Emery, the honourable Member for Honiton, who brought the Bill before the House of Commons, and we on these Benches wish it well.

7.20 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches accept the contents of the Bill. It is a commendable Bill and, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, it rounds off a discussion which we had during the passage of the Licensing Bill. I endorse everything that has been said and I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, on explaining the contents of the Bill to us so clearly.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. The climate of opinion regarding drinking has changed dramatically over the past three or four years, even since our interesting discussions on the Licensing Bill. The marketing of low-alcohol beers has become a large business. That makes it possible and desirable for the cost of those beers to be lower than it is at present. One hopes to see growth in the sale of those beers and in the taste for them so that —it has not yet happened —young people will see that it is possible to drink beers with a flavour that they like without necessarily getting drunk to enjoy themselves on a night out. Unfortunately, that is an area in which the British, along with other European nations, have problems with young people, but the scene is changing and I am optimistic for the future.

The brevity of my speech has nothing to do with the fact that England are to play Egypt at eight o'clock. We accept the Bill and are grateful to the noble Viscount for introducing it.

7.22 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I thought it might be helpful if I were to give noble Lords the Government's view of the Bill. However, I should first like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein on his helpful and remarkably concise exposition of the Bill. The Bill deals with detail, but is nonetheless important.

Broadly speaking, the Bill ensures that all drinks containing 0.5 per cent. alcohol by volume or less at point of sale would not be regarded as intoxicating liquor, or, in Scotland, as alcoholic liquor, for licensing purposes. The Government recognise that the impact of the present definition of "intoxicating liquor" in licensing law on the growing number of low and no-alcohol beers and wines, which are coming on to the market, has given rise to a good deal of misunderstanding and concern. We therefore very much welcome the introduction of the Bill which, if successful, will clarify and bring up to date this aspect of the licensing law.

The 1964 Licensing Act, which applies in England and Wales, prohibits the retail sale of intoxicating liquor without a licence. It also makes it an offence for a licensee to sell intoxicating liquor to someone under the age of 18. Intoxicating liquor is defined in the Act as spirits, wine, beer, cider and any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor. The definition goes on to exclude from licensing controls, any liquor which is found, on an analysis of a sample, thereof at any time to to be of an original gravity not exceeding 1016 degrees and of a strength not exceeding 1.2 per cent. alcohol by volume". The important point is the phrase "at any time".

The interpretation of the law is a matter for the courts but, in the absence of any ruling from them, we have taken the view that that definition brings within the scope of intoxicating liquor a considerable number of the low and no-alcohol drinks which are now on the market. That is because they are produced, in the main, from full strength brews from which some or nearly all of the alcohol at some time is then taken out.

Such drinks may, when they are sold, contain less than 1.2 per cent. alcohol, but at an earlier stage will have contained sufficient alcohol to have themselves classified as "intoxicating liquor". Some may even qualify to be referred to as "alcohol free" because they have an alcoholic strength by volume at point of sale of less than 0.05 per cent. It is therefore an absurdity to have an "alcohol-free" drink classified as intoxicating liquor simply because, at some stage in its manufacture, it contained alcohol which was subsequently extracted.

The inclusion in the definition of intoxicating liquor of the reference to an original gravity not exceeding 1016 degrees and the words "at any time" means that those low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks must be regarded as intoxicating liquor for licensing purposes. They may not, therefore, be sold without the benefit of a justices' licence and, even then, not to young people under 18. That is the case in England and Wales, but the position in Scotland is essentially the same.

The existing definition of intoxicating liquor was drawn up before low and no-alcohol drinks were produced and promoted on the scale on which they are now. The law was never intended to have the effect that it now has. We therefore consider that the changes which are promoted in the Bill are fully justified.

In the first place, the changes will resolve the ambiguity in the present law. It will be made clear that the test to be applied, for example, when considering whether or not a liquor licence is required before a particular drink can be sold, will be its alcoholic strength at the point of sale and not how strong it might once have been at some stage in the process of its manufacture. That is obviously sensible and, I understand, is much welcomed by the drinks industry.

It would put an end to some of the anomalies to which the present law can give rise. There are, for instance, some drinks, which contain between 0.05 per cent. and 1.2 per cent. alcohol and which have been manufactured in such a way that they never exceeded the criteria of both 1016 degrees and 1.2 per cent. and therefore are not in law intoxicating liquor. The fact that they contain alcohol as high as 1.2 per cent. at the time of sale is, at the present state of the law, irrelvant. Perversely, other drinks of the same or even weaker strengths are nevertheless regarded as intoxicating liquor because they went through the proverbial sound barrier at some point in their manufacture.

Secondly, we have received strong representations from voluntary organisations which seek to provide leisure facilities for young people as an alternative to their engaging in illicit drinking in public houses that the present law has some positively harmful effects. It prevents those organisations offering a range of low and no-alcohol drinks in the unlicensed clubs and other such places that they run. That adversely affects their ability to expand those facilities and to attract young people away from the more adult form of drinking which, in their case, is anyhow against the law.

A change in the law of the kind proposed in the Bill should encourage the greater provision of those facilities for young people and should assist those who are seeking, in a forthright way, to combat under-age drinking.

We have been most concerned, when considering this issue, to look closely at what should be the percentage of alcohol that it would be safe to permit in drinks which could be sold without a licence and which could then be consumed by quite young children. It is our view, on the basis of the medical evidence that we have been able to consider, that the threshold of 0.5 per cent. alcohol which the Bill seeks to establish is the right one. It would free from the licensing requirement a number of different low and no-alcohol beers and all dealcoholised wines.

We should like to see this change take effect as soon as possible. But, however desirable its early implementation may be, there are certain matters affecting both manufacturers and retailers which need to be resolved before it would be sensible to bring it into force. In the short term, producers of low and no-alcohol drinks may wish, or may need, to alter their manufacturing processes in the light of the changes which will be introduced by the Bill so that their drinks may be such as to be permitted to be sold without a licence.

In addition, attention will almost certainly have to be given to certain questions of food labelling law. At present, canned and bottled shandy has to contain at least 0.9 per cent. alcohol in order for it to qualify for the description of shandy. It can, though, be sold from unlicensed premises because at no time in its manufacture did it exceed the mystic figures of 1016 degrees and 1.2 per cent. of alcohol. If this Bill becomes law and the labelling provisions are not altered, shandy will no longer be able to be sold from unlicensed premises. I understand that the manufacturers wish to continue to sell shandy from unlicensed premises even though the alcoholic content will need to be reduced to 0.5 per cent.

So the labelling laws will have to be changed. But any changes would first require full consultation with interested parties and then notification to the European Commission. All of this as your Lordship say will understand, may take some time. This accounts for the somewhat unusual commencement provision in the Bill which provides that the Act shall come into force on a day appointed by the Secretary of State but that, if it has not already done so by 1st January 1994, it shall come into force on that date.

While I cannot say that we would like to see this sort of commencement provision repeated in other legislation as a normal course of events, we understand the reasons for its inclusion in the Bill. I wish my noble friend every success with his Bill. I hope that it soon reaches the statute book.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, before the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, sits down, I should like to say how deeply impressed I am by his extraordinary mastery of chemistry and the legalities of this abstruse subject. It has added to the reputation he has in this House of being the master of every subject put before him.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the leave of the House may I respond to such felicitations. I am glad that the noble Lord was impressed. So was I.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the noble Earl ought also to remember that this is a matter of the utmost "gravity".

7.33 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on the Bill, even those who spoke spontaneously towards the end of the proceedings. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas who reminded us that he has been a pioneer for the proposals over many years. His support is very gratifying. Likewise, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and I have all been involved in the subject for some years: it is gratifying to see progress.

Halfway through the speech by my noble friend Lord Ferrers I began to think that what I had originally thought was quite a simple matter had become somewhat complicated. However, the point is that Shakespeare won through, and "all's well that ends well". I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for saying that the Government give the Bill a fair passage and that he wishes it well. It is a small but important piece of legislation. I hope that it will go faster than we think, and I thank everybody for having participated.

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