HL Deb 14 July 1998 vol 592 cc102-5

2.40 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans for further reform of the liquor licensing laws.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government announced on 5th May that they were starting work on a wide-ranging review of licensing law. We shall be looking at all licensing issues, with the aim of creating a system which properly reflects the needs of modern businesses and consumers and which provides effective safeguards for local communities.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, the review of these arcane procedures—the licensing laws—will be widely welcomed by the hospitality industry. I must declare an interest as the honorary patron of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. However, as reviews by nature take a long time, will the Minister consider some partial deregulation of the permitted hours and entertainment requirements for restaurants licensed under Part IV of the Licensing Act 1964? Cannot that be achieved by a simple order or a minor amendment to the Act?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a valid point. We are willing to make improvements in the short term if a persuasive case is capable of being made. We would certainly he willing to consider the use of deregulation orders if they seem appropriate.

Lord Peston

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome the inquiry. I do not wish to be regarded as an ultra free marketeer, but is my noble friend the Minister able to explain why, with the 20th century virtually at an end, we have to have licensing laws? Why are not the normal laws of the land suitably applicable for this quite small branch of British industry?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we have to bear in mind the dangers of lack of regulation on weak and susceptible people. In your Lordships' House, apparently, liquor is available from 11 o'clock in the morning, so the Chief Whip has told me. It has bad effects. It leads to poor judgment and sometimes mulish stubbornness in considering perfectly reasonable proposals from the Commons on Scottish higher education.

Lord Dixon

My Lords, while reviewing the licensing laws, will my noble friend bear in mind that a recent survey conducted by CAMRA found that only 20 per cent. of pints sold in licensed premises actually contained a pint of beer? Is he aware that my honourable friend Dennis Turner introduced a Private Member's weights and measures Bill in another place which would have ensured that people buying pints in licensed premises would be given a pint and not 95 per cent. of it? That Bill was sabotaged by Tory MPs. Will my noble friend press on the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs the banning of rim measures?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that issue is not entirely within the ambit of the present survey, but it is a perfectly legitimate point. I shall certainly transmit it and hope that one day, I, too, will be part of a survey on real ale to see whether a pint pot is 100 per cent. full. I suppose that as the evening goes by one is more and more certain that it does not.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that when the Government are examining all the aspects of licensing, which he has mentioned, they will pay special attention to the huge rise in under-age drinking, in particular selling drink to young people? Will he ensure that those who knowingly do so face penalties somewhat in line with those levelled at people who pass drugs to youngsters?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a good point. The industry is well aware of such difficulties. Sections of the industry are intent on producing a proof-of-age card. The noble Viscount will know of the difficulties about prosecution of employees of large organisations who are employed by the organisation and not the licence holder. That issue is specifically within the scope of the review.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that alcohol is a drug? Although it is a drug in which most of us here participate, including myself, is it not reasonable that all drugs should be under some degree of control?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, alcohol is a drug, which is why people take it. Of course, it ought to be under a degree of control, but not all drugs are the same in their consequences or effects.

Lord Henley

My Lords, is not the solution to the problem enunciated by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, about under-age drinking that one must rely on the "laws of the land", as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, put it, and that one need not bother at all about licensing controls? At this point, I wish to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to the views expressed from this side of the House and suggest that he might like to join us!

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, licensing controls are part of the law of the land—that is the whole point of it all. The question is whether the law of the land is efficient and suitable to modern day conditions. As regards many aspects of licensing law, we are still dealing with the Sunday Observance Act 1780, or, in Wales, the Sunday Closing Act 1881, so perhaps the law needs to be reviewed and brought up to date.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, was the Minister's initial Answer restricted to England and Wales, or is there also to be a review of Scottish licensing laws, which are entirely separate and dealt with by the Scottish Office? Alternatively, will that be left to the proposed new parliament in Scotland, which would be appropriate as it is to be built on the site of a former brewery?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that licensing in Scotland ought properly be left to the parliament in Scotland. There is a dreadful rumour, which I am not propagating, that the new assembly building in Wales may be wholly dry.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, in the course of the review, will the Minister consider the training of publicans in dealing with under-age drinking, because the legislation is vague?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that issue will be considered. Before anyone is granted a licence he or she has to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant law. However, I agree that one needs to be astute, particularly these days when without a proof-of-age card it is difficult to know whether a proposed customer is over 18 years.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, will the Minister proceed in this area with some caution? Will he recall that at least one administration, according to the Prime Minister of the day, he contended was borne out on a torrent of gin and ale and that therefore one must be careful with licensing laws?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one does need to be careful. However, the Sunday Observance Act 1780 has been around and about for 220 years and therefore I do not believe that we are hastening too quickly.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many years ago I owned and ran a pub and that I never gave a short pint?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did not know of the noble Baroness's licensing past. I can say that in Great Tew, which is the family estate of the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, there is a most excellent public house called the Falkland Arms, which I have patronised.