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Order for Second Reading read.
The Bill is neither as complicated nor as controversial as the Consumer Guarantees Bill. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I recommend it to the House. I want to describe briefly the proposals in the Bill and I shall refer to the reasons for promoting it. For the first time, the Bill defines for England, Scotland and Wales the same amount of alcohol--0.5 per cent.--that must be in a drink for it to be legally sold in unlicensed premises. That is a reduction from the existing amount of 1.2 per cent. in volume of alcohol. The Bill also ensures that testing, if it is to be carried out, should be done at the time of consumption or of supply, rather than, as was previously the case, at any time during the manufacture of the drink. Many people are trying to produce low alcohol beers or non-alcoholic beers and wines. Those drinks are produced in the normal way and alcohol is extracted after production. Because such drinks once had an alcoholic content, if they were sold in a non-licensed premises, the seller could be taken to court. According to the Bill, an offence would be committed at the point of supply if the alcoholic content is above 0.5 per cent.
I am delighted to say that the right hon. Member for Morely and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) a former Home Secretary, the deputy leader of the Liberal party and my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), the Father of the House, all support the Bill. Also, because the Bill applies to Scotland, it is supported by a number of Scottish Socialist Members.
I believe that the Bill has Government support. I received a copy of a letter today from Sir Donald Maitland and the Health Education Authority, which states :
"At a meeting this afternoon of representatives of the Health Education Authority, Alcohol Concern, the Brewers Society and the Wine and Spirits Association, we agreed to urge you to do all you can to ensure that Parliamentary time is made available to ensure the passage of Sir Peter Emery's Private Member's Bill on the Sale of Low and No Alcohol in Unlicensed Premises.
I am informing Sir Peter separately of the Group's support for his measure."
That letter was sent yesterday to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for the Home Department and I have permission to refer to it today.
Sir Peter Emery : It is possible that some objections to the Bill might be made by those who would have liked to see the alcoholic level at 0.05 per cent. and not 0.5 per cent. In response to the hon. Member for Bolsover some of those drinks are sold in the Strangers' Bar--although not many perhaps.
There is general agreement among the manufacturers that they are willing to accept the level of 0.5 per cent. As
Column 1238far as I understand, no formal objections have been made to the Bill and the Government have no desire to amend it. Of course, to stop the Bill entering Committee, objections might be raised by hon. Members who have private Member's Bills that they want to see make progress. Otherwise, if my Bill takes some time in Committee, their Bills may be affected.
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : Why has the hon. Gentleman not proposed 0.05 per cent. for beers while leaving 0.5 per cent. for shandies and wines? Technology is developing at the moment and beers with a very alcohol content such 0.05 per cent. can be produced and have good flavour. Why has the hon. Gentleman not suggested the lower figure for beers while leaving 0.5 per cent. for other drinks? We could then offer the public almost non-alcoholic drinks if that is what they want.
Sir Peter Emery : That is a fair question and I am delighted to answer it. One particular manufacturer has the techniques necessary to produce beer with a 0.05 per cent. alcohol content and it has advocated the same argument as that put by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall).
The manufacturer argued that the supply of such beer is beneficial in certain instances, for example, when someone's blood-alcohol level stands at 79mg. That person is close to the 80mg level and that 1mg increase of alcohol in the bloodstream could be brought about by the purchase of a 0.5 per cent alcoholic beer.
We are not trying to legislate, however, for the person who is nearly over the limit as regards drink-driving. We are trying to ensure that shandy producers--at the moment such drinks have a 0.9 per cent. alcoholic content --reduce the alcohol content to 0.5 per cent. We want to ensure that there is general agreement in the industry in favour of a 0.5 per cent. level.
From medical evidence I gather that there is a residual amount of alcohol in the blood, but we want to ensure that the 0.5 per cent. alcoholic content beer will do next to nothing to increase the blood-alcohol content when ordinary people have had a drink.
Mr. Randall : I do not want to make demands on the hon. Gentleman's time, but when seeking to introduce such legislation, surely we should take all factors into account. A person who has been at the pub all evening and who feels that he is near the limit could purchase a beer with a 0.5 per cent. alcoholic content and discover that he is then over the legal limit. If that person could purchase a drink with an alcoholic content of 0.05 per cent., he could drink it confidently in the knowledge that it would not increase the alcohol in his blood. Surely we should take that into account.
Sir Peter Emery : One would have to know that one had reached the level of 79mg of alcohol in the blood to appreciate that a 0.5 per cent. alcoholic beer could be of harm. I do not know how many people who enjoy a jovial drink know the exact level of alcohol in their blood at a given time. I do not want to encourage people to go over the limit and to drive. Therefore, I do not want to encourage people who are near the limit to continue drinking. Nobody knows how near he is to the alcohol limit which prevents him from driving. I would rather
Column 1239encourage people not to drink and drive than to drink almost to the legal limit and then to top up their alcoholic intake with low alcohol drinks.
The general feeling is that a beer with an alcoholic content of 0.5 per cent. will affect only those closest to the limit. There is no reason, however, to encourage people to drink to that limit in the belief that they will then get away with drink-driving. My arguments are based on a desire to reach general agreement because any private Member's Bill needs such general agreement, especially if one is 16th in the queue.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : The Bill has my wholehearted support. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to obtain a fixed figure of alcohol content, irrespective of what it might be? Then at least one will know where one stands when one buys drinks. At the moment, one can intend to drink no alcohol, but if one buys the wrong product, one can end up drinking a great deal more than one thinks.
The Bill attempts to clarify the position and to make sure that those who buy drinks at non-licensed premises can be absolutely certain of the alcohol content of drinks, whether shandy or any other product. It will bring about standardisation for the first time. I am sorry that the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. I considered including the Province, but I gather that the licensing laws in Northern Ireland are so complicated that I should have had to add another three pages to my Bill. I apologise to Northern Irish Members that I have not included them.
Mr. Wilshire : I am aware of the time, but before my hon. Friend moves on from what the Bill excludes, may I ask him whether he gave any thought to excluding high alcohol beverages? The variation in such drinks is equally alarming. A drink that is called strong can be 6, 7, 8 or 9 per cent. The effects of that can be quite devastating, too.
Sir Peter Emery : I had enough trouble dealing with low alcohol drinks. To deal with high alcohol drinks is up to the individual. Consideration of the issue was based on several premises. The first was the short-term intoxicating effect of alcohol. The eventual blood-alcohol level depends on
Column 1240many factors, but the maximum acceptable level in a young person was taken to be 20mg per 100mg. It was taken to be a reasonable assumption that the majority of young people would not drink more than an average of two pints in one hour, six pints in three hours, or eight pints in four hours. On that basis, the maximum strength of an alcoholic beverage that might be made freely available was taken to be that which would allow a typical young person to consume a reasonable quantity of the drink without exceeding a blood-alcohol level of 20mg, which is a quarter of the level which would put a person over the limit to drive.
Mr. Skinner : I came here thinking that the hon. Gentleman had introduced a Bill to control levels of alcohol. The more that I listen to him, the more that he seems to talk about the breathalyser limit. He makes his Bill sound like a beat-the-breathalyser measure. What is the Bill about? Is it about controlling the level of alcohol or about encouraging people to go close to the breathalyser limit? Once people have reached that level, does the Bill say, "Have a few of these and you will be all right."? That seems a bit dodgy to me.
Sir Peter Emery : I am sorry that I have been so imprecise. The only time that I talked about the breathalyser was in answer to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West. The Bill has nothing to do with the breathalyser level. I wish to make certain that no one suggests that it does. That would be a great mistake because the Bill has nothing to do with encouraging people to reach that level.
I was saying that my Bill does nothing to increase, even to a quarter of the breathalyser level of 80mg per 100mg, the level that can be reached by drinking low alcohol beverages. The aim of the Bill is to standardise the position and to ensure that everyone clearly understands it. For the first time, the Bill makes it clear that the offence is at the point of sale or supply, rather than during production. It is as simple as that.
I believe that the vast majority of the British people and hon. Members support the Bill. I hope that this simple Bill will receive the full support of the House. It is generally believed that young people should be able to go to a grocery store and buy drinks in the knowledge that they are of an alcoholic level that will not affect them. The Bill will ensure, for the first time, that that can be brought about. Therefore, I hope that I shall have the support of all hon. Members in obtaining a Second Reading for my Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
Order for Second Reading read.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 20 April.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 February.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 2 February.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 2 February.
Column 1242in for reprinting and that I am only awaiting it? Therefore, it is not a question of the Bill having been deliberately withheld.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to draw your attention to what I consider to be a misdemeanour. I refer to an action by the Government Deputy Chief Whip when the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) was moving the Licensing (Low Alcohol Drinks) Bill. The Deputy Chief Whip told the hon. Gentleman to keep talking.
If the hon. Gentleman had sat down, as he wished to do, two or three more Bills could have been moved in the time before half-past two. Only the intervention of the Deputy Chief Whip prevented that. Let's face it, the Government Deputy Chief Whip is not supposed to play a part in private Members' Bills on this day, but he encouraged the hon. Gentleman to keep speaking. We could have had the subsidence Bill through, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), which seeks to control commercial lobbying in the House of Commons. The Government Deputy Chief Whip has caused this trouble and he should be brought to account. This is a Private Members' day.
Order for Second Reading read.
That, at the sitting on Tuesday 30th January, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 15 (Prayers against statutory instruments, &c. (negative procedure)) the Motions in the name of Mr. Neil Kinnock relating to Income Tax may be proceeded with, though opposed, for one and a half hours after the first of them has been entered upon ; and, if proceedings thereon have not been previously disposed of, Mr. Speaker shall, at the expiration of that period, put the Question already proposed from the Chair ; and no further such Motions shall then be made.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
That, at the sitting on Tuesday 1st February the Motions in the name of Sir Geoffrey Howe relating to Private Members' Motions, Motions for Leave to Bring in Bills, &c., New Writs, Public Petitions and Motions for Leave to Bring in Bills, &c. (Budget Day) may be proceeded with until Seven o'clock ; and at that hour, if proceedings thereon have not been previously disposed of, Mr. Speaker shall put successively the Question already proposed from the Chair and the Questions on such of the remaining Motions as may then be made, including the Questions on any amendments thereto which may be selected by Mr. Speaker.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : I am grateful for the opportunity of raising a matter that is of special concern to my constituents and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), who hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during this short debate.
First, I should say how pleased we both are to see my hon. Friend the Under -Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), in his place. We are aware that he is imminently expecting an addition to his family and I am certain that there are places that he would much rather be this afternoon than in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South joins me in wishing both him and his wife very well.
I shall refer specifically to the towns of Margate and Herne Bay in north- east Kent, and my hon. Friend for Thanet, South will refer to Ramsgate and Sandwich and other areas of concern in north-east Kent. North-east Kent still has the highest unemployment in the south-east. The special circumstances of that area of England led my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to set up the Thanet working group in 1987. The report by the group led to a series of measures that were instigated by the Government, and they are now beginning to take effect. Those measures include considerable investment in infrastructure, including the commitment of more than £57 million of Government money for the improvement of the Thanet way, the main road into the area, and the development of Kent international airport. We are looking forward to the development of a business park adjacent to Manston airport. All those measures are vital and are having an effect.
Unemployment in the area is falling. It is still 10.3 per cent. overall, and male unemployment is at a wholly unacceptable level of 14.6 per cent. Recovery in the area is fragile. Between October and December 1988 there was a small fall of 37 in the unemployment figures, which was against the trend for that time of the year when seasonable unemployment rises. Sadly, in the same period last year, the figure rose by 214, conforming with the seasonal trend. That is worrying. It would be tragic if the Government's hard work and commitment are to be put at risk.
Against that backdrop, I raise a matter of special concern--the effects of the uniform business rate on small shopkeepers and small hotels and guest houses in north-east Kent. Small shops in the area face an enormous threat from out-of-town trading, and I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South will refer to a specific instance. The high streets are beginning to consist more of estate agents, banks and building societies than traditional traders. No doubt, my hon. Friend will say that all high streets throughout the country face that threat.
Sadly, north-east Kent cannot yet be regarded in economic terms as part of the glorious south-east. The Government suggest an average rateable value of eight times the 1973 figure. In Ashford, which is regarded as the hot spot of the south-east because of the effects of the Channel tunnel, the figure is 8.27 times the 1973 valuation. In Thanet, the valuation has risen by 10 times, and in
Column 1244Canterbury city it has risen by 12 times. The Canterbury city area includes the seaside town of Herne Bay, which is in my constituency, and is not in any way commensurate with Canterbury itself. The Conservative local authority in Canterbury has recently invested considerable sums of money in pedestrianising a shopping precinct, and that work is just beginning to show dividends in terms of growth in business. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, that suggests that now is not the time to impose a greater burden upon small businesses that are just beginning to recover.
The effects of the uniform business rate in Thanet are potentially more alarming. I give the House two instances. The first concerns a family furnishing company in Northdown road, Cliftonville, where the rateable value has increased from £5,000 to £55,000. Five professional assessments suggest that, on a very sunny day, the figure might be more realistically set at £25,000 and that, within the current economic climate, it is more probably £20,000. The second example concerns a business at Westgate on Sea, again in my constituency, which was doing extremely well and was set to expand. Because of that, the proprietor purchased the property next door. The valuation of that empty property has risen by 300 per cent. The owner now intends to demolish the additional property and, as a result, no more new jobs will be created. That is not a hypothetical instance--the decision has been taken.
In north-east Kent rateable values represent about 50 per cent. of profits. That must be set against 40 per cent. or less in most of the rest of the country. In short, less profitable businesses in north-east Kent will subsidise more profitable businesses elsewhere. Many small hotels and guest houses in my constituency have been striving to invest in new facilities and upgrade their facilities to provide what the modern holidaymaker wants. Inevitably, many of those little companies are family businesses. They consist of husbands and wives and sons and daughters working together to run the small seaside family guest house that many people like and admire. They also enjoy an eight-week summer season, but that is not reflected in the apportionment between the domestic rates--the community charge that will be paid by four people in a family--and the business use of premises for only a few weeks of the year.
Only last week I attended a meeting of the Surrey road hoteliers in Cliftonville and formed the distinct impression that many businesses would prefer to switch to 52-week of the year bed-and-breakfast, board and lodging, social benefit claimant work rather than pursuing the traditional seaside holiday trade. If that happened it would further erode the tourist base and hasten a downward spiral of the tourist trade in the area.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider a different composite hereditament--the shopkeeper who lives in a flat over his shop. I am indebted to the district valuation office, which has been most helpful. It suggested that some thought might be given to the possibility of an imbalance between the charges for the domesic property and those for the shop or business premises below. It would appear that the apportionment in 1973 might have become out of kilter. Those family businesses, where the shopkeeper lives over the shop, provide a community service and we need to encourage them. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to answer all my questions today. I wish to make a half a dozen or so points that I hope he will consider. Were the social
Column 1245circumstances in north-east Kent taken into consideration--as the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), said they would be-- when the Bill was debated a couple of years ago? Will the increases in the area be limited to a Government average, as suggested, of 8 per cent.? Will my hon. Friend review the operation of rating systems as they affect seasonal hotels, and especially guest houses? Will he review the approach to composite hereditaments and consider, in the case of small shops occupied by the shopkeeper and his family, waiving the first community charge as a reflection of the potential imbalance between the commercial and the domestic properties? Will he consider extending the phasing-in period for small businesses, further to mitigate the potential inflationary effect?
In particular, will my hon. Friend consider retirement relief and the extension of the carry-over or transitional period so that small shopkeepers seeking to retire can sell their businesses in the knowledge that the incoming business person will benefit from the same transitional relief? I should be happy if that transitional provision were confined to cases where the existing business is continued in the same form. Will my hon. Friend consider raising the qualification threshold for small businesses from a rateable value of £10,000 to £15,000, which would embrace many more in north-east Kent?
I reiterate my support for the principle of a uniform business rate. Its intent--a fairer national cutting of the business rate cake--is entirely proper. However, I do not believe that any part of that intent is to put small firms, which contribute to the economic recovery of north-east Kent, out of business. I think that my hon. Friend will agree with that.
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for his courtesy and co- operation in giving me this opportunity to say a few words about the uniform business rate problems faced by my constituents, especially in the north-east Kent towns of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Sandwich.
My first general point, and one on which I strongly concur with my hon. Friend, is that, whether we are talking about the level of rates, rents, wages or just about any of the usual economic indicators, the Thanet, South and North constituencies should not be simplistically classifid as part of the prosperous south-east. The Isle of Thanet and its nearby towns and villages comprise an area in which times are still quite hard for many small business men, especially those at the sharp end of commercial life who have to meet a payroll and keep the bank manager happy. Many now feel that the UBR could be the last straw that breaks the camel's back.
I do not want to claim that everything that is said about UBR by some of those who have been shaken by the valuations that they have received is necessarily correct ; nor do I believe that there is an atmosphere of doom, gloom and poverty in the business community of north-east Kent--it would be an exaggeration to say that. There are a great many success stories and stories of good news in the area. There are, however, some difficulties with
Column 1246UBR, and it would be helpful to my hon. Friend the Minister if I sketched some of the economic scenery that surrounds the local UBR problem.
I should like to highlight the town of Ramsgate. In some ways, it is much more like a north-east town than a south-east town in economic terms. Ramsgate has the biggest Department of Social Security office in south-east England, with 16,000 claimants on its books. It has the highest concentration in south-east England of pensioners who are dependent only on the state pension for their income. It has an unemployment rate which, even after some welcome falls, still remains stubbornly well above 10 per cent. It has a road, rail and even pavement infrastructure which is crumbling into a state of advanced decay. We have suffered a number of worrying economic disappointments in recent weeks. These include the closure of the last of the nearby east Kent coal mines, 100 redundancies at the Astra fireworks and pyrotechnics factory and, above all, the shutting of the Marks and Spencer branch, the jewel in the crown of Ramsgate shopping centre.
All these factors have an impact on UBR. They affect the health of the local economy and the ability of small traders to pay the increases in their rates bills. Above all, they call into question the accuracy of some of the valuations that were made by the Inland Revenue valuation team in April 1988 as the basis of UBR. I want to make a critical comment about that valuation date. Under the old legislation, which was last used in April 1973, Inland Revenue valuations were for the date on which rates were paid--in other words, in April 1973, rates were paid on a valuation for April 1973. By appealing or submitting an alternative proposal, one could get a later valuation date. The new legislation has created what is called the antecedent valuation date--a concept which did not exist under the old legislation. It means that, on 1 April 1990 the business man is asked to pay his rates on valuations made on 1 April 1988. This antecedent valuation date may be convenient for some civil servants, but in some cases it is unfair to ratepayers.
Let us consider what has happened in the intervening two years. The macro- economic indicators have gone the wrong way. Interest rates are up from 8 per cent. to 13 per cent. Inflation is up from 5 per cent. to 7.7 per cent. Wage and utility costs are up as well. Similarly, the local micro-economic indicators are going the wrong way. That Marks and Spencer closure in the high street of Ramsgate was a bombshell, because all rents in the shopping area around the Ramsgate central district are decreasing. At least 15 shop properties are empty, and shopping activity in the town is likely to move to the out-of-town shopping centres. How does one explain to a property owner in the middle of Ramsgage that he should be valued for his uniform business rate on 1988 rents and valuations, when everyone knows that in the area affected by that Marks and Spencer closure those valuations will have decreased by 1990? That is a manifest unjustice. My understanding of the legislation is that, even on appeal, the 1988 valuations will stand, and that social and economic factors will not be taken into account by appeals tribunals. There is perhaps one loophole on which I would seek the guidance of my hon. Friend the Minister. Section 121 of the Local Government and Finance Act 1988 states that, when determining an appeal or alternative proposal, any physical aspect of the locality shall be taken into
Column 1247account at the date of the appeal or proposal. That section could be important to the shops and businesses around the area affected by the Marks and Spencer closure.
I appeal to my hon. Friend to take an interest in the interpretation of section 121. I have observed that the notes and guidance regulations on appeals have not been issued to the valuation officers, so could my hon. Friend please look sympathetically on the interpretation of section 121? In an area that has been blighted by physical change--it could be the closure of a steel works, but in the case of Ramsgate it is the closure of the biggest department store--I believe that rents, rates and the calculations based upon them should be downgraded by an appeals tribunal.
There are problems outside the area of Ramsgate's central shopping district, and they are highlighted by the anxieties of a small jeweller in Broadstairs high street--D. J. Pearce. His rates are up by 270 per cent. As a realistic business man, he appreciates the Government's phasing-in arrangements and knows that he will have to pay no more than an annual increase of 15 per cent. plus the rate of inflation, which means a pretty painful 23 per cent. Hopefully, it will be less if the rate of inflation eases.
In 1996, Mr. Pearce and others in a similar position will face what the Americans call a "double whammy". He will have to pay an increase in his 1990 valuation, plus the effects of the 1995 revaulation, and that could be a painful blow. Many small business men fear the double whammy--and that raises the question, should we not elongate the phasing-in period? In my view, there should be a seven year phasing-in period for the introduction of the uniform business rate, and I appeal to the Under-Secretary to consider that suggestion. Finally, I recognise that the root of the problem is that the Labour Government funked a rate revaluation in 1978, which was then overdue, and we are now facing the results of 10 years of neglect. In the long run, the uniform business rate is probably a much fairer method of charging business rates and I think that the Government's transitional arrangements are a helpful cushioning step. The Government deserve some credit for grasping the nettle of revaluation--which is politically unpopular--and implementing it with some sensitivity.
Today I am arguing for greater flexibility in introducing the uniform business rate, particularly in north-east Kent. We need a longer phasing-in period of seven, not five, years, and a more flexible appeals system to allow tribunals to take into account changing circumstances since the valuation date of 1 April 1988. Above all, we must be sympathetic and flexible towards the small business community so that UBR is not seen as the last straw that breaks the back of small business.