HL Deb 29 January 1997 vol 577 cc1221-40

8.32 p.m.

Viscount Thurso rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the representations made both by the licensing trade and 43 chief officers of police in England and Wales, they will consider a complete review of existing liquor licensing regulation.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I must begin by declaring my interests. I am a former licensee in England; I am the owner of an hotel in Scotland; and I am a director of a number of companies with licensed premises. I have also served on a trade panel of the British Hospitality Association. Indeed, I am indebted to the association for much of the technical briefing which I have received for tonight's debate.

I thank in advance those noble Lords taking part in this short debate. I am pleased to see noble Lords who have a strong connection with the industry and considerable knowledge of the subject. I look forward to their contributions with keen anticipation. I am also particularly pleased to see that the noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, is to make his maiden speech tonight. I am sure that his will be a splendid first contribution to your Lordships' House and I look forward to hearing it.

Liquor licensing legislation in this country is extremely complex and dates back to the early part of last century when socio-economic conditions and social custom in respect of liquor consumption were entirely different from those which exist in the latter part of the 20th century. The Ale House Act 1828 incorporated all of the previous statutes relating to the grant of licences. Between 1828 and 1910 a number of Acts were passed such as the Beer House Act 1830, the Beer House Act 1834, the Licensing Act 1842, the Refreshment Houses Act 1860 and the Wine and Beer House Act 1869 as well as licensing Acts in 1872, 1881 and 1902.

In 1910 the Licensing (Consolidation) Act reproduced licensing law in a simplified form, while at the same time correcting many of the doubts and anomalies which had arisen over the years. In 1914, during the First World War, the Central Control Board introduced emergency statutes restricting opening hours, largely to prevent munition workers from working in munitions factories while under the influence of alcohol. These were consolidated by the Licensing Act 1921, which removed the requirement for licensed premises to be closed during certain hours by substituting the system of permitted hours. These constraints were reinforced by the Licensing (Permitted Hours) Act 1934.

In 1949 a new Licensing Act was introduced containing numerous provisions which amended the law relating to licensed premises and clubs. In particular, it provided the licensing committees in the form of those with which we are familiar today. The Act also amended the law relating to permitted hours in various establishments and prohibited the employment in bars of persons under the age of 18.

The next major alteration was brought about by the Licensing Act 1961, which addressed issues such as types of licence, drinking-up time, special hours certificates and late night drinking. These were subsequently consolidated after the introduction of other pieces of legislation into the Licensing Act 1964, the provisions of which have largely remained in force to this day. However, significant changes in respect of afternoon opening and drinking-up time were further introduced by the Licensing Act 1988 in which the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, played such an important part.

I do not contend that simply because legislation has a long history and has been much amended by many different statutes over the years it is necessarily bad. In the case of licensing legislation, however, I believe that a strong case can be made to show that the result today is legislation that is no longer relevant to modern times, is unnecessarily complicated and involves a quite undue burden both on all branches of the licensing trade and on the authorities involved in dealing with licensing applications. It is a burden in terms of time and effort and it is also costly both for those applying and for those dealing with licence applications.

The reason I am today asking the Government whether they will consider a review of licensing legislation—and, indeed, why I urge them to do so—is because any examination of licensing legislation brings one to consider major points of principle within the legislation. I hope that the result of a review will be the introduction of a new licensing Act in tune with our times and appropriate for the new millennium. However, my Question asks for a review rather than for new legislation because I believe it is important that all those with a legitimate interest need to contribute to the framing of any new legislation.

It would, for example, provide an opportunity for those concerned with the problems of under-age drinking—a concern that is wholly shared by the licensing trade—to see whether improvements can be enacted.

The first objective of the review would be to establish the principles upon which legislation should be based. I would contend that the principle should be for the consumer to have the maximum freedom of choice consistent with the safeguards necessary in respect of public nuisance order and safety. Except where necessary for public nuisance order and safety, it should not be for the law to determine whether, where and when customers should have the right to purchase or collectively consume alcoholic drinks. Consumers must be treated as adults capable of responsible choice, as in other areas of consumer expenditure and leisure activities.

It should not be for the law or a licensing authority to make a judgment on whether there is a commercial need for a retail outlet for alcoholic drinks, as is the case under the 1964 legislation. Nor should it be for the law to favour one form of commercial outlet over another by the way in which they are regulated. The purpose of the law should be to establish a level playing field in competitive terms, and the decision on which retail outlets are successful should be for consumer choice based on the products and amenities on offer.

I should like briefly to touch on one or two specific points. The first is the question of permitted hours. So far as I am aware, no other developed civilised country has a system of permitted hours.

Let us assume that the principle is accepted that adult consumers should be able to obtain a drink at whatever time they wish. What could be the case for denying them that choice? There is no evidence of increased alcohol abuse being linked to extending the hours during which premises are open. Indeed, my own personal experience as a barman working in the north of Scotland in the old days was that when you advised people that there was 10 minutes to go before closing time there was a mad rush for the bar. As a result, I believe that people drink far more than they would otherwise have done. I contend that if that pressure did not exist they might well drink less.

However, a valid concern must be that in relation to noise and disturbance by persons leaving the premises late at night. I believe that a policy document has been sent to the Home Secretary. A report in Leisure Weekly states: they, that is, the Chief Officers of Police, say that if closing times were spread out it would reduce public disorder at 11 p.m., they suggest having different criteria for closing times so quiet country pubs could stay open as late as 3 a.m. but city pubs known for drunkenness would still have to close at 11 p.m.

I would contend that it is self-evident that if the closing times of pubs were spread so that people left them not en masse as they do now but as individuals or small groups as and when they wanted to leave, the likelihood of public disorder would be greatly reduced.

The second point on which I should like to touch concerns the manner in which the licensing of premises is undertaken. At present, justices grant licences at their absolute discretion; in other words, no one has a right to a licence. Although the licence is granted to the licensee, it is specific to a particular property. I suggest that the issues concerning people and those concerning property should be separated. At present, each time a manager who holds a licence leaves an hotel or a publican moves on, there is a complicated procedure by which the licence must be transferred to the new manager or licensee. That is costly and burdensome not only on businesses which have to go through that process but also on the court system which must administer it. Therefore, I suggest that licensees should hold a personal licence. That could be gained, perhaps, having attended a two or three day course which would provide the requisite knowledge. That could be administered easily by existing trade bodies such as the HCIMA or the Hotel Training Company.

Having successfully achieved certification, the prospective licensee could be registered centrally and, rather like a driving licence, could be issued with a licence for life or until retirement. If one of the conditions of the property was that it must be managed and operated by a qualified and certificated licensee, that would obviate the need, when the licensee left, for the full rigmarole of transfer to take place.

Properties are already inspected, irrespective of whether or not a liquor licence is requested, by environmental health officers, the police and fire officers and are subject to the same building regulations and planning procedure as other similar premises. Therefore, it must surely be possible to incorporate all the requirements which police and local authorities may wish to impose through the existing planning system without the need for a separate body.

That brings me to my final point. I have personal experience in England of the diversity of application of licensing legislation by different area licensing justices. There are numerous examples of different interpretations which magistrates in England and Wales and licensing authorities in Scotland make. Indeed, I was telephoned today by the British Retail Consortium, which represents off-licences, and it made that point. It is surely wrong that by an accident of geography an applicant for a licence may be dealt with in a different way. It must be right to have a uniform application of the rules wherever they may be throughout the country. Therefore, I hope that any review would consider whether the licensing justices in England and Wales and the local authority committees in Scotland are the correct way in which to proceed.

I have mentioned one or two areas which I hope demonstrate that there are points of principle within the existing legislation which merit a full review. I believe that the Government are not unsympathetic to the representations which have been made to them by various bodies within the licensing trade although it may be that there is more sympathy at the Department of National Heritage, which has responsibility for promoting hospitality and the tourism industry, than there may be at the Home office which would have the responsibility for doing the work. But I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some grounds for hope that the Government will at least consider a review.

In its strategy document on tourism, the Labour Party mentioned licensing and I believe that in general terms it accepts the need for change. I hope that my noble friend on my Front Bench will be able to confirm that my party accepts and supports the need for such a review. I look forward to hearing the contributions of all noble Lords.

8.45 p.m.

The Earl of Denbigh

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say how proud I am to become a part of this House and to be able to continue its traditions. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for giving me the opportunity to make by maiden speech on this Question and I beg a few moments of your Lordships' time.

I know that in recent years we have seen several reforms in the licensing laws but, in essence, they have remained relatively constant since the First World War. While I can understand the need for restraint at this time, there has been a marked movement away from large numbers of people working in and around the munitions industry. Is it still relevant to enforce those laws, with only a few changes, and to take them into life in the 1990s and further into the millennium?

The Licensing Act 1988 went some way to redress that problem by removing the necessity of a break between the lunchtime session and the evening session. I must admit that I was at college in Bath at the time at which that legislation came into force. The greatest change that I noticed was the removal of the Pavlovian impulse of, on hearing the last orders bell, everyone rushing to the bar to order another drink, often only minutes after having bought a drink in the previous round. Of course, we were left with a great moral dilemma: after the drinking-up period, should we leave the best part of a drink or not? My Lords, we were students. There was no way that we were going to leave any type of drink after having parted with, at the time, a vast amount of money from our meagre funds.

That was a source of great contention among our tutors as, occasionally, we were slightly the worse for wear during afternoon lectures. When the new laws came into place, the sense of urgency was somewhat removed as we could always return to the pub after lectures. However, we did go to the library to finish our work.

When I decided to make a speech on this subject, I spoke to quite a number of licensees to try to gain their perspective on this matter. The most overwhelming response was to ask why the matter had not been reviewed before, especially for Friday and Saturday nights. Those nights are extremely popular for people to relax after the stresses and strains of the week. It is often the time at which people meet up with friends and enjoy a night out. Is it too much to ask that the licensing laws should be relaxed to extend opening hours to midnight certainly on Friday and Saturday nights and perhaps during the remainder of the week as well?

I worked as a manager for a security company for several years. On many occasions, my staff did not finish their work until ten or eleven at night, which prevented them from enjoying a quiet drink in the pub after they had finished. Had the pub been open until midnight, they would have been able to enjoy a quiet pint, relax and trundle off home. It would have meant slightly less disturbance and noise outside the premises because they had rather loud voices and, having been denied entry to the public house, they would discuss loudly where they should go. Several times, windows were raised and they were asked to move on.

The question of disruption and noise, if the premises are allowed to open until midnight, will, I feel, not be any greater than at the present time. Not everyone who is in the bar at 11 o'clock will stay until midnight, so the departure times will be staggered over a longer period of time, which will cause less noise than the mass exodus of the entire clientele at the end of the drinking-up period. Surely that would be a help rather than a hinderance. I realise that there are those who feel that this proposal will lead to excessive drunkenness, but were not those same fears expressed about the changes which allowed pubs to open all day? That mass intoxication has failed to occur. If we allow an extra hour of time, I am sure people will use it wisely.

I am aware that not every premises would look forward to the proposal. I agree that there are certain locations that should not, perhaps, be open until midnight. If licensees had to apply for permission to remain open until midnight, not all would apply, because some of them would simply not want the extra work or hours. Also it would be possible to deny the extended licence for reasons of noise or disturbance after a trial period if the situation warranted it. The premises would then revert to the 11 o'clock closing time, thus eliminating any problems arising from midnight closing.

If we allow deregulation of the licensing laws for public houses, should we not also look at nightclubs, the majority of which are licensed until 2 a.m., thus giving a three-hour difference between them and the pubs? If public houses are allowed to remain open until midnight, to a degree that will mean that nightclubs will be losing out on an hour of their business. Yet, if they are allowed to alter their hours in line with those for public houses and remain open for another hour until 3 a.m., any previous loss of earnings can be compensated for. It will also mean that there will be little disruption to present business practices of such premises.

While I realise that not all local authorities may be in favour of these possibilities, it will still be a matter for them and the licensing justices to review and approve the extended hours on a discretionary basis. Perhaps a two to three month trial licence might be issued with a review at the end of that period. The review board could be made up of representatives from local authorities, residents from the neighbouring areas and owners from the clubs and could discuss any problems arising from noise and/or disturbance from extended hours. That would seem a fair and just method and one that would be largely self-governing.

I have no business interest in the deregulation of licensing laws, but many businesses will benefit from it. The staff of such places will see a slightly higher wage packet at the end of the week thus buoying up the feel-good factor. Moreover, as regards their clientele who, for whatever reason, patronise public houses or nightclubs, can we really stop such people from using their leisure time as they wish? I thank noble Lords for their time and indulgence.

8.53 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, it falls to me, with great pleasure, to congratulate my noble friend Lord Denbigh on behalf of the whole House on his splendid maiden speech. I notice that my noble friend's title comes from the 17th century and that his family settled in the same part of England for nearly 400 years. I find that quite fascinating as someone whose background has been wholly nomadic. What is particularly encouraging is the fact that my noble friend has chosen to speak about the virtues of deregulation in his maiden speech. It is a valuable and important subject and, indeed, it is very encouraging for someone who is coming towards the end of his time to know that this great cause will be carried on in the future: my noble friend has youth on his side and long may he speak in this House on the subject!

I am extremely grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for introducing the subject. In fact, following yesterday's publicity, I was particularly encouraged to see that he was fully clothed tonight when he came to address the House. The point about the noble Viscount's speech is that he is on the right lines. He is entirely sound not only, if I may quote, in body, mind and soul". Indeed, he gave us an excellent summary of the progress of legislation on the subject. Moreover, he is quite right.

I must also declare an interest in that I am patron of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. It is a purely honorary position but one in which I take an enormous interest because the association is at the cutting edge of improvements in catering. Indeed, it has contributed enormously to creating improvements in the standard of food in restaurants and in the standard of service by ensuring that both are of the highest quality. Therefore, the association has a considerable interest in the proposed deregulation.

As I have spoken on this a number of times, it will be no surprise to the House when I say that I would be in favour of total deregulation. Having heard the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and his great history of the progress of legislation going back to the last century, one realises that there is a great deal of need for reform. I hope that we can make some progress in that respect. However, I realise that total deregulation is perhaps a Utopian wish. Coming from the background that I have, I have always believed that the only hope for progress is to advance by limited objectives.

Tonight I want to mention three areas where I hope we can make some progress. The first has already been mentioned by the noble Viscount; namely, the matter of personal licence certificates which would allow licensees to transfer freely between licensed premises without the time and cost currently involved. Licensees who had obtained a personal licence certificate could transfer between premises within the same category without the restaurant having to return to the licensing authorities. That, of course, is a terrible waste of time, but obviously it is quite simply to ensure that there are proper safeguards to make sure that nothing goes wrong.

The second area that I should like to cover is the question of supper hours certificates. To a certain extent that was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Denbigh in his fine maiden speech. Restaurateurs would like to see an extension of permitted hours for drinks served with meals to midnight on weekdays and until 11.30 p.m. on Sundays, without the need for a supper hours certificate. At present, it is exceptionally rare for any of those consents to be refused. But, of course, there is an awful lot of bureaucracy to go through. Therefore, restaurateurs, who are very busy people, are wasting a great deal of time applying for a licence extension for a supper hours certificate which they nearly always get.

I have a question which I wish to put to my noble friend the Minister. Can she say whether, in order to achieve such extended supper hours certificates, a Bill would be needed to reform the law or could it be done by regulation? I mentioned the matter to my noble friend before the debate began and I hope, therefore, that she will be able to give me some information as to how we can proceed and achieve an extension of supper hours certificates. Can my noble friend tell me the way to go forward in that respect?

The third area that I should like to cover concerns extended hours orders—known as EHOs. At present, restaurateurs face two obstacles to obtain such an order to serve drinks with meals until 1 a.m. First, they have to get the supper hours certificate to which I have already referred; but, secondly, they also have to provide some form of live entertainment. Many restaurants neither want to cover that cost, nor do they think that it is appropriate to provide live entertainment. Moreover, there are many consumers who want to go to restaurants to have a quiet meal and a drink and who do not want such live entertainment. So resolution of the problem with EHOs is necessary to provide greater consumer choice. I hope that that can be achieved.

Obviously all these measures are designed to create better conditions for consumers. Indeed, consumers are very important. The whole of the restaurant and catering industry is one of our country's major industries, not only nationally but also internationally. People now come to Britain to eat in restaurants, which is something that they would not have considered doing 30 years ago. In fact, they would have gone anywhere in the world to avoid it. But now they come here because of the high standards. Therefore, anything that we can do to simplify matters both for those who work in the trade and for consumers would be much appreciated.

9 p.m.

The Earl of Bradford

My Lords, I am delighted to be here this evening and to congratulate my noble friend Lord Denbigh on his excellent maiden speech. His late father was a very special friend. I considered myself lucky to be one of his friends. I know that he would have been immensely proud if he could have seen his son here tonight; and I am delighted that his mother is present to witness the occasion. I am sure that we can look forward to many excellent contributions in the future.

I wish to add my voice to the congratulations to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. I nearly addressed him as "my noble friend". I recollect that when the noble Viscount made his maiden speech on a Question that I introduced in your Lordships' House he very nearly called me his "noble friend" and was put right at the last moment. It is difficult when one has friends sitting opposite. It is necessary to consider the licensing laws. I am glad that the noble Viscount has introduced the Question in your Lordships' House tonight.

I should declare an interest in the subject as president of the Master Chefs of Great Britain, owner of Porters Restaurant in Covent Garden, and a committee member of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. More particularly, I chair the licensing subcommittee of the restaurateurs association. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Montgomery has spoken so eloquently on our behalf. Our brief to him was obviously excellent. I, too, shall touch on some of the same subjects.

It is no wonder that visitors from the Continent are still bemused by the British licensing laws—for instance, by the weird anomaly that it remains illegal for a restaurant to serve a drink to a customer who is not eating even if all the others at the table are. Surely there should be some simple way around the problem without the restaurant having to go to the extent of applying for a full on-licence.

However, we seem to have a strange attitude to laws and legislation in this country as we build them up into a big mountain. Then, when we realise that there is a need to reform the system, instead of demolishing the mountain and rebuilding it from scratch, we merely erect or remove a few pimples on the top of it thereby creating a gradual process of change rather than properly addressing and tackling the problem.

Admittedly, as mentioned by other noble Lords, there have been many positive changes towards a freer system. I refer to the removal of restrictions on afternoon service of alcohol in pubs and restaurants, and child licences for pubs. Nevertheless, much more still needs to be looked at.

There is a pressing need for a full review of the present licensing laws. Perhaps I may urge on the Government that it would make greater sense to start with a blank sheet of paper and try to create an ideal new system rather than merely tinker with what already exists. Unfortunately, as a sensible realist, I know that that will never happen. So let us at least look at some of the practical possibilities that could be considered by the Government.

There should be greater flexibility over licensing hours, closer to reflect the reality of the area that a particular business is in. I well remember being in Australia some 25-plus years ago. At one period drinking-up time in Australia was 6.30 in the evening. People did not buy single drinks; they bought lines of drinks in order to get in as much drink as possible before 6.30. The most dangerous time to drive on the roads in Australia was between 6.30 and 7.30 in the evening. Other noble Lords have touched on this point. It is one of the problems. If one imposes an unnatural limit one has problems as a result.

Perhaps I may refer to restaurants. As my noble friend Lord Montgomery mentioned, it would be sensible to allow an extension of permitted hours, possibly to 12 o'clock for weekdays and 11.30 on Sundays, without the necessity to apply for a supper hour certificate as it is exceptionally rare at present for that to be refused. I refer to removing the requirement to have live music in order to gain an extended hours order as most restaurants do not wish, or are unable, to provide live entertainment; it is normally costly and impractical. The restaurateurs association believes that this proposal would lead to increased choice for diners as customers wishing to enjoy a quiet drink with a meal later in the evening would no longer be obliged to visit only restaurants where music or dancing is provided.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and my noble friend Lord Montgomery, referred to a system of portability for licence holders. It would save considerably on the time of the courts and the cost to the applicant. Put simply, if an individual has qualified as a licence holder in one place, he should be accepted automatically as a suitable person if he moves to become a licence holder elsewhere as long as it is the same category of licence.

One point has not been mentioned. I refer to the situation over tables and chairs outside premises. It is exceedingly confused, with different rules applied over the country. To take one laudable example, the position is extremely simple in Brighton. If the highway authorities approve the scheme, it goes through automatically and at little cost. At the other extreme, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea takes a very different view. One has to deal with three separate bodies; and once one has successfully jumped through all the hoops the borough further levies a large annual fee based on the number of table and chairs.

It would make great sense to have one unified system operating throughout the country by developing an outdoor eating consent licence which would allow one application to be submitted for planning permission and highways consent. That could be coupled easily with a change to the restaurant (Part IV) licence to enable an automatic extension to the liquor licence when restaurants receive the appropriate planning/highways consent, allowing alcohol to be served with meals in the external area in question.

I hope that these eminently sensible suggestions for simple reform can be looked at urgently by the Government, as it seems that progress in these matters is exceedingly slow.

Our foreign earnings from tourism are huge and growing, as are the contributions to the Exchequer and towards job creation. These changes would make Britain a friendlier place to visit instead of being somewhat confusing at the moment, and would lead to further improvements in image for our now very successful restaurant industry. That improvement is rather amazing when we consider that, in the main, the transformation has taken place only in the past 20 years. By making sensible changes to our licensing laws, let us ensure that we continue that progress as well as producing the two other very positive benefits: first, of reducing the burden on court and police time; and, secondly, of bringing down the cost to applicants.

9.8 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Thurso for giving me the opportunity of doing so. I do not think that he and I disagree fundamentally. I am very glad to have him on these Benches. On the many occasions on which I have spoken on the subjects of licensing and alcohol I have been a lonely figure here. I hope that I shall not throw any cold water on what has so far been a very amiable debate—made even more amiable by the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, who gave us his experiences as well as some dry wit, which is very welcome in this House. I should like to add one historical point; namely, that the first Lady Denbigh and the first Lady Falkland, some 400 years ago, were close friends. It has nothing to do with this debate, but in the present climate is worth recognising.

Few noble Lords would disagree that in the United Kingdom alcohol, where it is misused, can have serious consequences for the health of those who misuse it and also for those, often their families, who suffer some of the consequences. My authority for speaking is as deputy chairman of the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse. It must be remembered that, apart from the ill-effects on the health of an individual of drinking too much, too often and sometimes too quickly, a great deal of harm is done; for example, in cases of domestic violence, cruelty to children, sexual assaults, drink driving and other forms of unlawful behaviour brought about by the mood-changing characteristics of alcohol. It must be remembered that alcohol is as much a drug as other illegal substances.

Recent proposals by the Home Office to amend aspects of licensing law were made somewhat piecemeal with a view to deregulation or, in some cases, specifically to help the tourism industry. Given that licensing is an important plank of any strategy to temper the harm that alcohol brings, deregulation and simplification processes should not be viewed in isolation.

I think it is agreed that there is room for improvement in the current legislation in order to create a more streamlined and comprehensible set of laws. However, while a review of licensing legislation may well provide an opportunity to improve current provisions and strengthen their ability to temper alcohol-related harm, there is a risk that, by focusing predominantly on the importance of deregulation and lightening the burden on business, an overhaul of current legislation would lead to over-relaxation of an important strand of public health policy among other matters.

Most of us would support any measure that could be shown to reduce alcohol-related harm. It is perfectly possible that a major review of current law such as that suggested by my noble friend could achieve a more responsible approach to drinking while also meeting the requirements of tourism and other business. But concerns about alcohol-related harm need to be given equal weighting with business and tourism concerns throughout any review process, by seeking, for example, the views of organisations such as alcohol service providers as well as residents' associations. I hope the Minister will reassure me on that matter.

A report based on a study last year by the all-party group showed that the majority of people in this country who are over 25 avoid city centres during weekend evenings. That point was referred to indirectly by the noble Earl in his excellent maiden speech. They fear the alcohol-related violence and the intimidation that often occurs in city centres. It affects their quality of life and the quality of life of those who live there. An overhaul of licensing regulation could provide a welcome opportunity for addressing that under-reported scandal by looking much more at the rigorous and consistent enforcement of laws, with more promotion of existing successful models of community safety initiatives; and there could be statutory requirements for magistrates considering licensing applications to be given information about arrest statistics at or near licensed premises.

Much of the current debate about Britain's archaic licensing laws, well enumerated by my noble friend, and their impact on tourism is mistakenly focused on the need to provide access to licensed premises at any time in order to create the sort of 24-hour drinking city that exists in other European countries. Heavier drinking at weekends is a well-established pattern of drinking in Britain, I am afraid. It is true to say that this pattern is not commonly experienced in other European countries, particularly the Latin ones such as Italy and France. They have much longer opening hours than we do. Most of us would welcome measures which would move us somewhat nearer to the continental pattern of cafe society, though it is unrealistic to expect that to be duplicated or even to expect the relaxation of licensing hours alone to bring about a cultural change of this kind.

Instead, changes to licensing laws need to be considered as only one element of a wider strategy to change the more destructive patterns of binge drinking, which was referred to and which is embedded in British culture, and reduce the alcohol-related harm. Encouraging places where alcohol is consumed to become less alcohol-focused and instead to place a greater emphasis on non-alcoholic beverages and food and enabling them to become more family friendly would move closer to the European situation. Ways of achieving that could include incentives to reduce the cost of soft drinks and hot drinks which in many areas is exorbitant. Guidelines could be included for magistrates on applying consistent criteria in granting children's certificates.

The management of drinking venues was referred to by my noble friend, as well as the staffs understanding of how alcohol works and how to deal with potentially difficult situations—always part of the work of a licensee. These are important factors to be considered in creating a safe and comfortable drinking environment. Measures to achieve that include requiring managers to hold a recognised and relevant qualification—again referred to by my noble friend—such as the British Institute of Innkeeping standards, and the promotion of server training schemes such as that outlined by the United Kingdom Server Training Group.

Finally, whatever licensing laws Britain has, enforcement is the key issue in ensuring that they succeed in doing the job for which they were created. Licensees have a crucial role in applying the licensing laws. Their ability to do the job is of paramount importance. Few would object to an overhaul of the licensing laws provided that the key aims were to ensure that the laws continued to have a strong content to temper alcohol-related crime.

In relation to amending the laws, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that as well as reducing the burden on business—a very desirable aim—and on tourism, the Government will continue to see the importance of controlling alcohol-related harm. Like many other areas in our life, it is a question of balance.

9.17 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, may I from these Benches add a voice of congratulation to the noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, on his maiden speech. He spoke clearly from a wealth of experience and has done a considerable amount of personal research. May I also join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for giving the House an opportunity to consider the issue of a complete review of existing liquor licence regulations in the light both of the Home Office consultation document published last May, which proposed a limited extension of permitted hours, and also in the light of a subsequent call by the Association of Chief Police Officers for a complete overhaul of the system.

As already said, our licensing laws stem from Victorian times and were introduced in the main to deal with the Victorian gin palaces. They were designed to send the mothers who were hell-bent on ruin back to their families and were based on the premises that the longer people had the opportunity to drink and the more places they could obtain drink the more they would drink. That desire to tell the people what is good for them and to seek to dictate personal private morality through legislation is one Victorian tradition which has still not altogether died out in public life to this day.

Intoxicating liquor is, of course, potentially dangerous and its sale and distribution, especially to young people, has to be controlled. There is no doubt, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, drink can and does destroy lives. Misuse of alcohol by others causes misery to those who live in close proximity to drinking establishments and also to the police and the hospital services who have to deal with its abuse.

As a young barrister, I sat on many occasions in the Thames magistrates' court in east London waiting for my case to come on. The first hour or so each morning saw a procession of men of indeterminate age—almost always men—who had bright red, bloated faces and who, it was obvious, were poisoning themselves to death. The charges were invariably "being drunk", "being drunk", "being drunk", and just occasionally "being drunk and indecent". The penalty was invariably £1 or one day. The remainder of the court list would consist of offences of violence, of theft or of criminal damage, a high proportion of them alcohol-related. It seemed to me as I sat there, and it still does, that the licensing laws as they exist have not done much to protect such people or those affected by their activity.

Time has moved on but alcohol continues to play a significant part in much of the crime—especially violent crime—which comes before our courts. Even in 1997, with the law as it is, as others have observed, the streets of our cities at and just after closing time in the areas of pubs and clubs are often unpleasant and frightening places to be. It is perhaps significant that it is not gin-sodden mothers who cause concern, but too often groups of young people who are the worse for drink—sometimes under-age young people.

Despite the tinkering which has taken place over the years, our licensing legislation has become hopelessly complex and in many ways outdated. While I welcome the Home Office consultation document, it is really looking at the tip of a large iceberg which needs to be examined in depth. Others have indicated that our licensing laws are far too complex. They form a maze through which the true path at the moment can only be found by taking the guiding hand of an expensive lawyer. How else can any restaurateur, shopkeeper, landlord or event organiser hope to negotiate the minefields created by on-licences, off-licences, special hours certificates, restaurant certificates, residential licences, special permissions, restoration orders, protection orders, extensions, and the rest, let alone grapple with the complexities of who is and who is not a fit and proper person or negotiate with the police, the fire authorities and all the other myriad of interested parties who so often play a part in expensive applications? Surely the time has come for a thorough review of all the legislation and an update and modernisation of it.

Far from causing more trouble as was feared, the introduction of all-day drinking seems to have cut down trouble. One standard closing time appears to be a flashpoint for trouble as people cram in the last permitted drinks and then spill out on to the streets together. Deregulation of the licensing laws which would stagger closing times and possibly lead to all-night cafes and bars on the European pattern would certainly avoid the danger times shortly after 11, and again later when the clubs close, which cause the police and hospital services so much difficulty.

Licensing laws must provide protection for the local community from public disorder, noise and nuisance. Local communities are entitled to be consulted and have their views taken into account. It must be right that the requirements are going to differ greatly from the inner city to the country village. Although in theory standardisation of the law is a good idea so that people do not travel from A to B to obtain another drink, the law must be flexible and allow for regional variations as the communities require and deserve.

Licensing laws must also protect those who are the most vulnerable. That in particular means the young. There is general concern in many areas in regard to the way our law works at present, not least the extent to which under-age drinking takes place with apparent ease and the way in which young people appear to be the specific targets for some of the products.

In addition to a review of the law itself, about which others have spoken, perhaps I can echo what was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, regarding the need for further education in relation to alcohol, which is largely neglected until serious problems in individuals occur. Schemes which try to deter under-age drinking, alcohol related education, and pilot schemes to provide sensible drinking advice to the young as well as new ways of enforcing the law on under-age drinking are required. I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether the Government have such ideas in mind.

The question of staff employment also arises. That should be mentioned at this stage because it is key to any extension of licensing hours. There are genuine concerns that undue pressure may be placed on employees to work long hours without either suitable remuneration or protection. There must be adequate safeguards to protect those people and, above all, to ensure that safe travel home is available when they finish work. Those are all matters that need to be considered in an overall review.

As for the rest of us, perhaps it is right to say that the time has now come for the law to allow us, on the whole, to make our own decisions about where we have a drink and when. When those whose job it is to administer the legislation and to maintain the law tell us that it is outdated and ask for a complete review and deregulation, we should surely both listen and act upon their advice.

9.26 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Denbigh has passed with flying colours the daunting experience of making a maiden speech. It was a speech of warm humour and it was interesting and informative, no doubt as a result of the research work to which the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred. We look forward to hearing much more from my noble friend in our future debates in this House.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for the excellent way in which he introduced the debate on such an important matter. I mused as the noble Viscount was speaking and as I looked around the Chamber I was not only impressed by the age range of those present but I was also rather disturbed by the thought, first, that, should the proposed reform of the House be enacted, only four noble Lords who are life Peers would be present—the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and myself—and, secondly, how much poorer this place would be without an hereditary presence.

The question being debated goes to the heart of the present liquor licensing laws. It is perfectly true that there have been calls in recent times for a substantial revision of the licensing legislation. Those calls have come from a variety of sources concerned, in one way or another, with the licensed trade. Some people take the view that nothing less than a total overhaul and major restructuring will do. A fundamental overhaul of the licensing system would be a very large task. That is not to say that it should not be tackled at the right moment. But the Government's priorities have been focused on achievable and deliverable measures for which the industry has told us there is a pressing need.

Let me set out for the House the Government's achievements on licensing deregulation measures which have been brought into effect. They include abolishing the compulsory afternoon break, allowing all-day opening on Sundays, the introduction of children's certificates, the extension of off-licence hours, the regularising of Sunday off-sales, the introduction of provisional special hours certificates, the removal of the anomaly of the lost summer time hour and getting rid of the archaic long pull offence.

A deregulation order which will allow apprentices of 16 and over to work in bars is in the second stage of its parliamentary scrutiny. The order has been amended to meet points raised by the parliamentary committees and by the industry, and we confidently expect to bring it into effect by the spring. Many firms in the industry have long felt at a disadvantage in competing with other industries for the best new talent. This initiative will give them a level playing field for recruiting able young people with a future in the industry.

A deregulation order to extend the availability of occasional permissions—for school fetes and charitable events to sell alcohol—is in the first stage of parliamentary scrutiny. The proposals are for a relatively modest increase in the existing system, which we are satisfied is a reasonable and justifiable relaxation of the current restrictions.

The Government consulted during the summer about proposals to streamline the arrangements for transferring licences between individuals. I am happy to say that we received a very constructive response. We propose to lay before Parliament next week a draft deregulation measure to give effect to these proposals.

Perhaps, in the context of deregulation, I should mention Sunday dancing. Noble Lords will be aware that the Bill of my noble friend Lord Astor to modernise the law in this area received its Second Reading on 15th January. If it becomes law, the Bill will remove the absolute ban on commercially-organised dancing on Sundays imposed by the Sunday Observance Act 1780. I very much welcome my noble friend's initiative, and I wish him well in it.

It will be apparent from what I have been saying that the Government have been extremely active in the liquor licensing field. As I mentioned earlier, I recognise that there are calls for us to do more. But I strongly suspect that in the nature of things there will always be calls of that kind.

One consideration which should be kept at the front of our minds is that, in matters of liquor licensing, the radical approach has seldom proved successful. There have been major reviews every few decades; for example the Royal Commission of 1929 to 1931 and the Erroll Committee in 1971-72. None of those led to major changes in the law. This is a clear indication of the fact that licensing is a controversial subject. It has been controversial throughout the centuries, and it remains controversial today.

The Erroll Committee took an extremely thorough look at every conceivable aspect of the system in the early 1970s. It concluded that a major overhaul was needed. Among many other things, the committee recommended that pubs and off-licences should stay open until midnight; that local authorities should have an effective veto on the granting of a licence for premises; and that the drinking age should be lowered.

The outcry against the Erroll Committee's recommendations made it clear that they were unacceptable, and we have only recently been able to introduce some of those proposals. But even now they can cause controversy.

More recently, the Government tried to amend the law on commercial dancing on Sundays. The thinking behind the deregulation measure, which was considered in 1995, was that social conduct in the closing years of the 20th century ought not, in principle, to be regulated by legislation passed in the 18th century. Nevertheless, Parliament decided that this was a bridge too far at the time.

Those two examples across a quarter of a century illustrate that there is a difficult course to steer between proposing change which is acceptable and that which is not—a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. It is important that we keep the law under review to ensure that the balance is right. We do not believe in restricting people's private lives for the sake of it. Where restrictions are necessary, we need to consider whether they could now operate in a more limited, targeted way, so as to control potential social problems without unnecessarily constraining the interests and tastes of the responsible majority.

The Government's guiding principle is that people should be allowed to spend their leisure time as they choose, provided that they do not harm the interests of others. We are very conscious of the need to strike the right balance between the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of individuals. The present licensing laws are in place to ensure that responsible adults can drink in safe and orderly conditions, without harm or inconvenience to others, or risk to the welfare of young people.

A number of points were raised during the debate and I shall refer to some of them. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to relaxing permitted hours. I believe that he would like to dispose of them completely. But the police view is rather a radical one; namely, that there should be extensive relaxation in licensing hours. They share the view of the noble Viscount because they believe that many of the problems associated with, as we know it, "chucking out time" would be resolved if premises could close at their own discretion. I am not sure that the people of this country are quite ready to accept the so-called "24 hour city approach". However, the Government will continue to take careful notice of police views on licensing matters.

My noble friend Lord Denbigh referred to extending Friday and Saturday hours. Last summer the Government consulted on proposals to extend the normal closing hour on Friday and Saturday night from 11 p.m. to midnight and on whether to extend opening times for nightclubs. Both proposals attracted a large number of conflicting views and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary announced only last week that further work is needed before proceeding.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to separate licences for persons and premises. We are aware of the calls for such a system and we are keeping split licensing under review. I do not know whether the noble Viscount knows that such a change would require primary legislation. We could not deal with it in any other way.

The noble Viscount also referred to the complicated transfer procedures with personal licences and qualifications. I have much sympathy with what he was saying. The Government are generally sympathetic to easing the process of transfers. They hope shortly to table a deregulation order which would allow multiple names on licences and the quicker granting of licences to new people. The main trade training body, the British Institute of Innkeeping, has established national licence certificates, as the noble Viscount knows, which are being adopted increasingly by the trade and taken more and more into account by the licensing justices.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery referred to supper hour certificates. The Government are considering a proposal from the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain to abolish supper hour certificates which permit the sale of alcohol in restaurants for an additional hour beyond the end of normal licensing hours. Officials have discussed the proposal with the association and will be consulting representatives of the courts and, of course, the police. Again, we think that that is likely to require primary legislation, but shall consider the point in more detail.

My noble friends Lord Montgomery and Lord Bradford referred to removing the requirement for entertainment for a restaurant to qualify for extended hours. We are looking into that as part of the public entertainment review.

As on a number of previous occasions, my noble friend Lord Bradford referred to drinking in restaurants. As he knows, restaurants are in business to sell food. They are allowed to sell drink as an ancillary activity in return for which they have less stringent licensing conditions than the pubs. If they want to sell drinks on their own, they need to be licensed in the same way as other establishments which do that. I know the point that my noble friend is making. He believes that there should be an all-embracing licence which allows people to sell food, food and drink, or drink. Perhaps I may reflect on what my noble friend has said and report back to the Minister in the department with responsibility for this.

My noble friend Lord Bradford also referred to tables and chairs outside premises. That is a sight increasingly seen in this country. Again, we recognise that local discretion and responsibility can lead to different patterns and decisions. We have noted the remarks about the relationship with planning and highways consents. We have had some discussions with the Restaurateurs Association and are expecting further details of its proposals. Again, we shall consider them carefully when we receive them.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, put a little balance into the debate. I agree that this is a very important issue which must be addressed when considering any significant change in the area of liquor licensing. The noble Viscount referred particularly to health concerns, overseas patterns and family atmospheres. I agree that national customs differ. Any changes we bring forward must be suited to the circumstances of the United Kingdom. I know that the licensed trade is keen to encourage family atmosphere and is taking many steps within the current law, such as providing more food and a more professional standard of service. I know how seriously the trade is taking that.

I noted the very important point about under-age drinking which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. I fully recognise the point made by the noble Viscount, who emphasised the way in which the licensed trade is keen to see the incidence of under-age drinking being properly addressed. Much is being done and we shall continue to be vigilant in this area.

I very readily accept the point about education which was raised by the noble Baroness. The question of alcohol abuse is being addressed through the national curriculum. We will continue to look at ways of strengthening the means by which that educational message can be conveyed to young people.

I referred earlier to the fundamental question of what society at large would find acceptable. Many issues relating to liquor licensing give rise to controversy. In some cases people's concerns about change may be unjustified or unrealistic; in other cases there will be real grounds for their objections based on actual experience.

I refer back to the question of education. Legislative action is not the only way forward. Schools, colleges, the youth service, and the point that I made about the national curriculum, all have a role to play in encouraging young people to develop a responsible attitude to alcohol consumption. Young people need to learn to make sensible choices, not just in this area but in the area of drugs and many other areas, about whether and how much to drink and how to resist persuasion and pressure. We were reminded of the kinds of persuasion and pressure that could be exerted by some of the licensing restrictions.

The Government may propose changes and business may support them but they need to command sufficiently widespread support if they are to be successful. In recent years there have been great changes in social activities. There is a significant body of opinion that supports the liberalisation of the drinking laws beyond what we have already achieved or are currently proposing. But there is also a sizeable part of the population that is very concerned that further relaxation of the law should not go too far. It is of critical importance that changes which help business are balanced with proper protection of our citizens. I do not believe that what I say is inconsistent with much that has been said in the course of this debate.

For these reasons, we believe it is important that the Government take a balanced approach, always weighing one interest alongside another. This debate has underlined the need for that balanced approach. The Government will continue to consider suggested changes in the law, whether of a general or specific kind, in the balanced way that I have described. Both I and my department will continue to keep under review all aspects of the licensing law, and that task will have been assisted by the contributions to this debate.

The issue between us is whether we stop what we are doing and go back to the clean sheet of paper referred to by some noble Lords. We believe that if we do that valuable time will be lost, because we are in the process of looking at some of the matters that licensed traders are begging us to consider and we want to get on with that work.