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Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : I imagine that the President of the Board of Trade realises that, over the years, major pieces of legislation have been reversed or substantially changed within a year or two ; examples of that are the poll tax, criminal justice provisions, education provisions and the Child Support Agency. He will not, therefore, be surprised to know that the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain is afraid that clause 21, which appears to take away from local authorities powers over markets and fairs, will actually lead to an increase in the power of local authorities to interfere in the setting up of fairs and markets. Can the right hon. Gentleman put those fears at rest and confirm that that will not happen?
Mr. Heseltine : I can help the hon. Gentleman. Nothing in the Bill will increase the powers of local authorities. The Bill takes away the powers of local authorities, in some limited cases, to prohibit markets operating within six and two thirds miles of the central area. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman.
Chapters III and IV of part I make the licensing system for operators of goods and passenger vehicles much less onerous. The main provision is a move from licences renewable every five years to licences that can last for the lifetime of a person or of a company. As with all good regulation, the Government aim to deliver services according to need and with the least possible burden on the taxpayer. That means finding ways to encourage the delivery of quality services at the best value for money.
The contracting-out provisions in part II will, subject to essential safeguards, provide us with the means to sweep
Column 154away unnecessarily restrictive distinctions between what can be done by contractors and what must be done by civil servants. It will, thus, widen the range of activities that can be tested in the marketplace. The provisions in the Bill provide an order-making power for that purpose, but one which excludes functions affecting the fundamental liberties of individuals. It ensures that accountability and legal liability remain unchanged and provides strong safeguards for confidential information.
There is one other matter, which was raised earlier and was raised previously by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). I do not dispute the fact that many of the regulations that we are reviewing have themselves arisen over the lifetime of the present Government. Two things have coincided with that process. First, as I told the House a few moments ago, there has been the completion of the single market and, secondly, there has been a growing awareness of the need to intensify our drive to competitiveness in Europe and, above all, the realisation that Britain now has a real advantage over our European partners, which we are determined to maintain.
The single market required the completion of the Cockfield agenda. Initially, some 300 agenda items were listed for agreement across the 12 members of the Community and the implementation of those items in case after case required regulatory action in the British Parliament. If we have over-regulated, over-prescribed, or if we have overdone it, it is a sign of strength to recognise that and to put it right. It would be a sign of weakness to shrug our shoulders and allow the drift to continue.
It is a sign of neither strength nor weakness to do what the Labour party has done. It is a crass misjudgment to go on repeating what the Leader of the Opposition again repeated on Sunday. We, he said, "will sign up to the Social Chapter".
That social chapter represents the greatest regulatory overload in history. It is the surest way to choke off the investment boom from overseas companies.
Howard Davies of the CBI put it starkly in the past week. He said that Labour's support for the social chapter
"ignores the rest of the world, ignores the whole purpose of the single market and ignores the unemployed".
He went on to say :
"The main aim of the single market is to make Europe more competitive, by increasing competition and expanding the size of European companies' home markets. The Social Chapter works in the opposite direction, imposing costs on European employers, for uncertain benefits".
That is the stark position that the CBI has put before the country. The social chapter means fewer jobs and longer dole queues. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition does not believe what the director general of the CBI has so clearly spelt out. It is difficult for the Labour party to square its assiduous courting of the CBI with the fact that every time it receives a piece of the CBI's advice, it is among the first to disown it. That is the real world. The Labour party still does not understand the need to make our companies efficient and to give them the climate in which they can compete. The Labour party still does not believe that it is compatible with national interests in Britain to have opted out of the social chapter, thus avoiding the dramatic costs which would have been put on us. The Labour party cannot understand that our flexible labour markets are the envy of our continental partners and
Column 155that the social chapter would undermine all that we have fought to achieve in this country. In reality, it is yesterday's dogma masquerading as tomorrow's panacea.
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : So that we can test the Secretary of State's rhetoric, will he answer this fairly simple question? He has given his enthusiastic support for the takeover of Rover by BMW. Give his analysis of the huge commercial advantages of operating in a country without the social chapter, as opposed to one with the social chapter, can he confirm that it is his view that if BMW is faced with the prospect of cuts in the future, it will make cuts in Germany where the costs of the social chapter are high, rather than in Britain where they are low?
Mr. Heseltine : The real danger to cuts in investment and jobs in this country is the fact that the Labour party has signed up to the European socialist election manifesto, which threatens our industry with a range of restraints that are incompatible with prosperity. Labour Members need to understand what danger they pose to our industries. Let them understand what the Leader of the Opposition signed up to in November when he flew to Brussels. He signed up to a "substantial cut in working time"
and the possibility of a 35-hour week ; "European works councils" and "European sectoral collective agreements" ; and "a guaranteed minimum wage". Those are the ways in which employment and investment in this country will be threatened.
Labour Members pretend that they have a solution to this problem. They say that they have a package of measures. On Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition proudly proclaimed :
"Like our partners in Europe, the Labour Party understands that economic success depends more than anything else on the knowledge and the skills of our people. We need to build a self-confident, acceptable, highly skilled and highly motivated workforce to meet the demands of a competitive, rapidly changing economy."
Let us take a look at those partners in Europe to which the Leader of the Opposition was referring. At present, there are two countries in the EC that have a guaranteed minimum wage--Spain and France. The former has a socialist Government ; the latter only recently escaped from one. What have socialism and the minimum wage done for those two countries? In France, the unemployment rate is 11.7 per cent. and the youth unemployment rate is over 20 per cent. In Spain, the picture is even worse : unemployment is at 23 per cent., and rising, and 40 per cent. of those under 25 are unable to find work. Yet the Labour party threatens to impose the social chapter on this country and the economy.
Labour Members talk about an adaptable work force to meet the demands of a competitive, rapidly changing economy as part of their business plan for Europe and Britain. How do they square that with a cut in working hours, a minimum wage and European sectoral collective agreements? It is an impossible concept to understand.
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) rose
If the right hon. Gentleman is so interested in lifting the so-called burdens of business, may we take it that he will also lift the burden on business caused by this Government's passing the buck on statutory sick pay? Will he lift the burden on business caused by the Government's failure properly to invest in nursery education? Will he lift the burden on business that was imposed in the past year by causing employers to seek from employees regular agreement to the check-off arrangement, which a great many firms have described as a burden on business? Will he lift those burdens, or just the ones that he picks?
Mr. Heseltine : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for thanking me for changing my mind. I did so because I could see the fatuous nature of the question welling up in his mind. The House will have been in no way disappointed by my judgment on that occasion.
Britain today has an economic opportunity, the fact of which has rarely been more exciting in recent memory. One should remember Britain 15 years ago. For decades, Britain had had a declining share of world trade in manufactures. Britain had been bottom of the European Community and Group of Seven growth leagues for decades. Britain was widely described as the sick man of Europe.
We have come a long way since then. Our share of world trade has stabilised. Our manufacturing productivity has grown faster than in any other major industrialised country. Our industrial relations have been transformed and our inflation record during the past year is the best for 30 years.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts that we will grow faster than Germany or Japan. The German Economics Minister was quoted recently as saying that Britain provided a model for the German economy on deregulation. He paid tribute to the "exceptional results" that we have achieved in breaking down bureaucratic obstacles to starting up new businesses and managing existing companies. That is the sort of tribute which can be measured in terms of jobs and investment. It is in stark contrast to the willing acceptance and the posturing of the Opposition with every nostrum dreamt up in Brussels.
The Bill represents an important step in reducing the burdens on industry, particularly small companies. It is about helping to increase our competitive edge and will sweep away unnecessary burdens on business. It has the potential to save British industry and taxpayers millions of pounds. It will make a substantial contribution to the more efficient working of our economy, and I strongly commend it to the House.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : The President of the Board of Trade, perhaps wisely, did not spend the greater part of his speech talking about the Bill which is before the House. Nevertheless, in those early passages which had some tangential relationship to the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman presented it as a measure which would cut red tape.
The Opposition are worried that what makes the Bill notable is not the extent to which it cuts through red tape, but the extent to which it cuts through the procedures of
Column 157Parliament. No business has a burden removed from it by the Bill to the remarkable degree to which the first four clauses lift from Ministers the burden of accountability to Parliament. Let us be clear what those four clauses propose. They propose that Ministers may be able to set aside Acts of Parliament by statutory instruments. I understand that such clauses are termed Henry VIII clauses in disrespectful commemoration of that monarch's tendency to absolutism. They have, of course, become increasingly common under this Government, as we would expect, given their tendency to absolutism. To be fair, the Henry VIII clauses which the Government have produced have so far been slipped into the back of Bills. They have been consequential clauses, temporary in their powers and always related to the Bill which contained them.
The Bill is one big Henry VIII clause. It gives power to any Secretary of State to suspend any Act of Parliament by order. If there is any doubt, the opening subsection of the Bill, which the President wisely did not quote, says that the order may be made to suspend a full Act of Parliament if
"a Minister of the Crown is of the opinion--
((a) that the effect of the provision is such as to impose a burden affecting any person in the carrying on of any trade". While the President was speaking, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) intervened to ask about the Food Safety Act. That Act was passed with support from both sides of the House. Under clauses 1 to 4 of the Bill, it would be possible for any Minister to come to the House and, by order, suspend an Act passed through the House only three years ago with all-party support.
Mr. Cook : It would certainly be possible to find Conservative Members other than the hon. Gentleman who cried "Good idea" about a full Act of Parliament being lifted by statutory instrument, who would regard the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 as a burden on business, and who would want to see it reduced, amended or repealed by order of the House. It would certainly be possible to find cowboys in the construction industry who thought that way. I have not the slightest doubt that we would find Conservative Members who regarded the possibility of a Labour Government as a burden on business and, if they could find a Secretary of State who was of the opinion, would amend the Representation of the People Act 1989 accordingly. They may be wise to do so.
The President of the Board of Trade referred to the Department of Trade and Industry document "Cutting Red Tape". The first example of deregulation given by the Department of Employment in its chapter of the document is the abolition of the wages councils. That section is as bold as brass. It presents the abolition of the wages councils as an important step in deregulation because it
"freed 2.5 million workers from the rigidities of statutory minimum wage fixing."
It took a Bill to get that abolition through the House. Let us hear it from the President. Is that the type of measure that will be brought in by order under the Bill? That is what clauses 1 to 4 give him the power to do. A measure such as that, which took away protection from 2.5 million citizens, could be bounced through the House in 90 minutes.
I am surprised and sorry to see that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is not in his place. Undoubtedly, he has an
Column 158important audience to address with his thoughts. I nurse the lively hope that we shall read about them in tomorrow's papers.
Five days before the Bill was published, the Chief Secretary lashed out at those who undermined great institutions. He particularly warned the nation about those who would do a hatchet job on Parliament, which he called the world's premier debating Chamber. No wonder that, in the same speech, he warned the nation of the spread of cynicism. Nothing does a more thorough hatchet job on the proceedings of Parliament than the Bill presented by the Government. Let us be clear what would happen and what we would lose if clauses 1 to 4 were passed unamended. Ministers would be able to repeal full Acts of Parliament by statutory instrument. There would be no Committee stage in which the measure was considered line by line. Statutory instruments cannot be amended ; they have to be accepted or rejected as they stand. There would be no Report stage in which new clauses could be considered. The House would have to accept the priorities of the Minister who presented the order.
There would be no Lords amendments in which the second Chamber gave us a chance to have second thoughts. We would not even have the now traditional debate on the guillotine motion, which is a standard part of the proceedings under the Government. Instead of that full, exhaustive process of legislation, we would have the miniaturised proceedings of a statutory instrument, which are usually taken last thing at night in 90 minutes dead, without even the troublesome need to move a guillotine motion.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered whether Ministers have considered how a Labour Government might wish to use the legislation as it stands or even in marginally amended form. Do Government supporters really want to leave legislation such as this on the statute book?
Mr. Cook : I do not know whether Ministers have considered that. I have to say that I found myself fantasising about it last night. The very fact that Ministers probably have never thought about it points up the problem we have with the Government. They have been in power so long that they cannot envisage anyone but themselves in power. Of course, there is an innovation in the Bill. That is that the proposal for a statutory instrument will first be put to a new Committee. I listened with interest to what the President had to say about the new Committee. He laid great stress on the new Committee and what it would say.
If the President of the Board of Trade is genuine and that Committee will be such an influential part of the new process, I find it strange that clause 4--under which the committee is appointed and given those procedures --does not give it the power to reject a proposal, but only creates an obligation on the Minister to "have regard" to its views. We have had a lot of experience of the extent to which the Government have regard to the opinion of anyone other than themselves--we have had 15 years' experience of it.
If anyone has forgotten the lesson of that experience, the Bill contains a good example. Clause 20 removes the rights of local authorities to object to new markets within the vicinity of an existing market. A year ago, there was some consultation about the proposal. The Association of
Column 159Metropolitan Authorities believes that 90 per cent. of those who responded were against removing that right, including the local authorities who would lose it, traders in existing markets who would have extra competition and the residents of those sites where the new markets might spring up, who would have extra hassle.
Yet, such is the selective capacity of Ministers to have regard to other views that they have chosen to have regard to those of the minority 10 per cent., who were in favour, and not those of the 90 per cent. who were against.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) : On the subject of market rights, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the city of Leicester has a right to control markets up to six and two third miles beyond its boundary. Is he aware that that includes the borough of Oadby and Wigston in my constituency, which is entirely outside the city of Leicester? The city therefore has power to control markets in another borough, although not one elector there has elected the councillors of that city--whether Labour or Liberal--or had any say in the matter at all. Is it right that that undemocratic practice should be allowed to continue?
I am aware that Leicester county council, which includes the hon. Gentleman's constituency, has expressed grave concern that some of the car boot sales springing up in that county are creating dangers to life and limb. I believe that it is important for local authorities to have the right to object.
Mr. Garnier rose--
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has put his finger on the problem. The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is perfectly entitled to his point of view, and Opposition Members are entitled to theirs. If a matter required primary legislation, that allowed us to debate it. We can debate the contents of clause 21, for example. So why does the Minister need powers to do something by order, which would prevent the hon. Member for Harborough from tabling any amendments?
The Bill contains one anomaly. Let us assume that the President of the Board of Trade really believes that his new procedures in part I are an improvement. Part II of the Bill concerns the remit of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is responsible for the Office of Public Service and Science. It deals with contracting out central and local government provisions and does away with the irksome need for Ministers to pass legislation through this House if they want to hive off another part of the public service. Instead, the power of Parliament is contracted out to Ministers, who will be able to do so by order.
Last month, the Public Accounts Committee warned us that the pace of the transfer of public functions to quasi-private agencies had led to
"a departure from the standards of public conduct".
Yet here we are, only two weeks later, debating a Bill which blithely refuses to have regard to the Public Accounts Committee and proposes powers which will pave the way for a more sweeping transfer of the functions of public service to the private sector.
Column 160The Bill has an explanatory guide, which lists 26 areas of public life which might be privatised under the provisions. Only two of those have ever been floated for market testing. The list includes the traffic commissioners, the Registrar-General, the official receiver, the rent registration services and court administration. Bizarrely, the gas measurements service is one of the functions that may go out to contract under part II of the Bill. That service is responsible for measuring the energy content of gas sales, and the accurate calibration of gas meters. Only one private company has the expertise to provide such a service throughout the nation, and that is British Gas, so that would leave the policing of the honesty of gas sales to the company responsible for selling gas.
There is a simple test by which we can tell whether the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister responsible for the civil service believe that the new procedures in part I of the Bill will provide an increased and improved service. Why will not the orders to be laid under part II be subject to the same new procedures provided for under part I? Why will they not let a parliamentary Committee, such as the Public Accounts Committee, first consider any proposals to privatise another part of public life, so that it could monitor whether the Government have any regard for their own reports? Why not insist on the same extent of consultation with the public, who are the customers of those public services? Why not ask the tenants whether they want estate agents to bid for the rent registration service? Why have two different types of order in the Bill?
There is another reason why we do not believe that the House would be wise to trust the Government with powers to do by order what they find too troublesome to do by Bill. It is as well to be frank about that other reason : we know the Minister to whom we are asked to give those powers. I do not mean the President, who is a big picture man, as he showed in his speech when he quickly moved off the Bill and on the big picture. I suspect that he will forget about the Bill as soon as he can decently slip away from the debate.
The Minister who makes the hair rise on the back of our spine and reach into our pockets for a clove of garlic is the Minister for deregulation, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). He has wisely not been allowed to speak in the debate until after the 9 pm watershed, in case he frightens young strangers. May I make a confession : I have a sneaking respect for the hon. Gentleman, based on the fact that I know where he stands. Usually so many miles to the right, he is visible only on a clear day.
How did the Minister for deregulation choose to relax on the night of his Bill's publication ? He spent it among friends, with the Libertarian Alliance-- [Interruption.] I see that the Minister has other supporters in the Chamber. Among much else, the Libertarian Alliance has called for the deregulation of all drug offences ; the abolition of a public police force ; and privatising the currency so that every citizen will be at liberty to mint his or her own money. Instead of telling its members, "Away with fairies," and that he had better things to do with his time, the Minister showed that he was a spirit after their own hearts. He assured them :
"Deregulation is really part of a much broader libertarian agenda which I fully share".
We are asked to trust that Minister with powers to extinguish Acts of Parliament by statutory instrument. We
Column 161are asked to believe that he will "have regard" to the views of a Committee if it asks him nicely to drop a proposal. The House would be wilfully negligent--so negligent that it could be sued by its constituents--were it to hand over those powers to such a Minister.
The Minister's candid expression of those trenchant views, however, helps this debate, because it shows where the real division on this matter lies between the two sides of the Chamber. It has nothing to do with red tape. We have no objection to a cremation of red tape that serves no useful purpose and binds the hands of business. As the President observed, Labour did not, after all, think up the vast majority of the regulations that the Conservative Government are now reviewing. The Government brought them in. Of the 3,500 regulations referred to the task forces, 71 per cent. have been introduced since the Government took office, and 21 per cent. since the present Prime Minister entered Downing street. Of those regulations from the Department of Trade and Industry, 84 per cent. have been introduced since the Government took office, 27 per cent. since the present Prime Minister entered Downing Street, and 13 per cent. since the President was appointed to the DTI.
In the Queen's Speech debate, I pointed out that, when the Government came to power in 1979, "Butterworth's Company Law" was just under 500 pages-- broadly comparable to a light novel by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) "Butterworth's Company Law" now runs to more than 4,000 pages--the equivalent of "War and Peace", the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible all rolled into one.
To rub home that point, in 1979, the annex to that volume had 80 forms that businesses might be required to fill in. After 15 years of Conservative Government, the annex to the 1993 volume contains 265 forms. It is not for nothing that the number of business accountants has increased by 75 per cent. under the present Government. The Government are complaining not about our regulations, but about their own. It is their regulations which they believe to be pointless, burdensome and misplaced. Yes, if the regulations are pointless, we shall happily vote for the new provisions. For example, there is much merit in the new auditing proposals, which will significantly reduce the burden on very small companies.
We shall not, however, support any deregulation that reduces the safety of employees, the health of the public or the protection of the consumers ; that is the real divide between the Opposition and the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs. We believe that Parliament has the right and duty to provide a legal framework to reduce those dangers.
In his heart, the hon. Member for Tatton believes that the state has no business interfering in such matters. That is why, whenever Ministers talk about regulation, they talk about it only as a burden, as did the President of the Board of Trade.
Column 162Regulations that cut accidents at work are not a burden on business ; they are a benefit to business, because they cut the cost of injuries to the work force and reduce the production lost through accidents.
The Health and Safety Commission estimates the cost of accidents to business as between £11,000 million and £16,000 million every year. That is the really big burden on business ; that is the burden which the Government should be trying to cut, instead of cutting regulations that reduce accidents, and the budget of the Health and Safety Commission which exists to police the regulations. It is another example of the Government being penny wise, pound foolish. Nor do we impose burdens on industry by obliging companies to meet high environmental standards. On the contrary ; we shall leave British industry handicapped in the competition for world markets if we encourage it to settle for lower environmental standards than other countries will accept. We believe that Parliament has a duty to regulate to ensure fair play between producer and consumer. I understand that the Minister believes that consumers should be free to make up their own minds on what they want. Very well : consumers have made up their minds. They want Parliament to regulate for fair play. A recent poll by the National Consumer Council shows that 90 per cent. of consumers believe that the Government have a responsibility to provide regulations to protect consumers. Even in the Government's reduced circumstances in the polls, that 90 per cent. must include somebody who still wants to vote for them. That 90 per cent. of consumers see regulations not as a burden that costs them money, but as important protection for the money in their wallets and purses--an enabling measure which helps them get value for money.
There is one consumer issue bigger today than it was before the Conservatives came to power. The operation of debt agencies has increased, because one of the real burdens imposed on the nation is the trebling of personal debt. The Government have published a list of measures that they might introduce under the new powers in clauses 1 to 4. One is to amend by order the Consumer Credit Act 1974 to reduce the obligation on credit agents to notify the Government about changes in their key personnel.
In their constituency work, many right hon. and hon. Members will have come across the sharp practice of those who prey on the needs of those who are desperately in debt. Those hon. Members who have not, have either been extremely fortunate or not very active in their constituency work. My own experience is such that I agree with the spokesman for one consumer group, who said that we should be tightening rules on debt agencies, not loosening them.
Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed the mood of the country. Many of those people who are helped with their debts are in the voluntary sector, and the voluntary sector is crying out for the cutting away of regulations, which are often more burdensome on them than on trade and industry. The hon. Gentleman has missed the whole point.
Column 163I understand why the Government missed the mood of the nation ; it was because of the people to whom they listen. There were no consumers on the task forces that they set up to advise them. The President of the Board of Trade made great play of the importance of small businesses and the importance to small businesses of cutting regulations. It is a pity that that was not remembered by whoever set up the task forces. There were no small businesses there either ; it was the big boys. GEC, Bovis and Kingfisher were in the chairs of the task forces.
Membership of the task forces reads like a list of donors to the Tory party. Between them, the companies represented on the task force made 88 separate donations to the Tory party. Four of the eight chairmen of the task forces come from companies that together donated to the Tory party only a few thousand short of £1 million in the last Parliament alone.
They are the people to whom the Government are really prepared to have regard--not some Committee of the House--
One of the recommendations from the task forces that was carried into the Bill is that brewers can continue cheating us of the full measures in our pints. They can continue serving up to 5 per cent. of froth instead of 100 per cent. of beer. It certainly removes a burden from the brewers : the burden of providing a full pint to the customer who has paid for it.
Mr. Cook : Thankfully, as the President of the Board of Trade does not yet have the power to act by order, those hon. Members will have the opportunity to argue their case when we reach that clause, and I shall listen.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to quote to me 30 of my Back Benchers, he may recall that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who was the Minister for Consumer Affairs until last year, said in the current issue of the CAMRA newspaper : "Once more a Conservative Government has caved in to the brewers". Nobody from the Campaign for Real Ale was on the task forces. I suspect that nobody on the task forces was from the drinking public. I doubt whether any of the exalted membership of the task forces has been in a public bar in the past 10 years.
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) rose --
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) rose --
Bass was represented on the food and drink task force, as was Whitbread, which has given £250,000 to the Tory party during the lifetime of the Parliament. That is why the provision is in the Bill : it has nothing to do with cutting red tape and everything to do with paying back the vested interests that bankroll the Tory party.
Mr. Sykes : Leaving aside the fact that it is impossible to get a frothy head on a pint of London beer, how can the hon. Gentleman justify the extra expense on pubs across the country, when last year there were only 16 complaints, although 200 million pints of beer were served?