Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.15 pm

The successful employment of an agent to act on one's behalf relies on the manner in which people are instructed and trained. Employee management must be considered. There is a need for a defence so that a licensee can share the responsibility for what goes on within licensed premises. However, if the licensee is to be held responsible, he or she must ensure that his or her agent has the authority to conduct the business properly. Merely to specify some other person is wholly inappropriate. It is not the case that any old person can walk in off the street and serve alcohol from behind a bar or in an off-licence. We must be clearer about what person we mean. We are talking about an employee or an agent.

I do not wish to enter into debate about the other amendments. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and I have tried to include in the Bill have been addressed. I am keen to hear the Minister's response. We shall not press our amendments to a vote as they were intended to probe.

Mr. Heald: The Opposition made it clear from the outset and on Second Reading that we support the Bill, which closes a loophole. It had its genesis in the tragic circumstances of David Knowles, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) for his diligence in pursuing the matter. He has had the common sense to limit the ambit of his Bill to the loophole, rather than risking its passage, as many do, by including a wide range of controversial matters. I congratulate him and wish him well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), an active student of Friday proceedings, also congratulated the hon. Gentleman on not taking too many risks with a good Bill that is a tribute to him.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) started our proceedings with a lengthy tour de force. I felt a little sorry for him when my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) presented him with the Wiener schnitzel conundrum, but he handled it remarkably well. Indeed, it seemed to embolden him into giving us a startling vision into his reasons for amendment No. 20, which inserts the word "from" at a crucial point. Under the amendment, a person would be guilty not only of selling liquor to under-18s in licensed premises, but from them. The hon. Gentleman conjured up the vision of a child, perhaps in West Kilbride, attending a public house with a bunch of roses and saying, "Please can granny have some Stella Artois from the back door?". Apparently, the whole building would have been covered in roses so that the child could receive two cans of the relevant brew. That was a startling vision.

Mr. Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman has conflated amendments Nos. 20 and 19. The Stella Artois amendment was No. 19, but I take his remarks in the spirit in which they are meant.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that I got it wrong. That was partly because my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said it sounded like "Cider with Rosie".

12 May 2000 : Column 1167

Amendment No. 20 and the amendments proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who suggested that the word "through" should be added, raise an important issue: are a substantial number of people buying from--or through--licensed premises, rather than in them? I shall be interested in the Minister's comments as to whether the amendment is necessary, because the drafting might already encompass it. If it does not, does he approve of the amendment? Is there any evidence that such purchases of alcohol are on the rise? The amendments are not objectionable to the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and other hon. Members referred to the "meant" element in such offences--whether the concept of recklessness should be included as well as that of knowledge, or whether, in an offence where a licensee sells alcohol to those under 18, the concept of "knowingly" should be introduced.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) introduced a change in the 1980s because it is a heavy task to prove that a landlord knows that a person is 18. That change was right and it should not be reversed. If it can be shown that an under-18-year-old purchased alcohol from a licensee or a person working at the premises, it is important that the burden should be on them to show both that there was no suspicion that the buyer was under the age of 18 and that they had taken steps to satisfy themselves on that point. It is right that that is where the burden should lie in cases involving direct sales.

The test is slightly different for other offences. If somebody is employed by a landlord or a company, that relationship means that the employer allows the employee to sell alcohol on those premises. Obviously, the contract would not state that alcohol could be sold to under-18s, but the offence needs to make it clear that the employer is acting knowingly in those circumstances. That is the mischief that the law should attempt to remedy. The current law is probably right, although I should be interested in the Minister's view.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border suggested that rather more pressure should be put on the person purchasing, and that offences that affect the purchaser could be strengthened. Again, I should be interested to hear the Minister's view.

There was much discussion by my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield of e-issues--what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to as the e-thing. I think that they may have been referring to modern technology. I should be interested in the Minister's perspective on these matters. Perhaps he buys his wine from Waitrose Wine Direct, just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border does. The Opposition have drawn no conclusions as to whether amendments are definitely needed, but, if they are, we should be supportive.

A range of other issues were aired. They included whether we should define the seller by reference to an employee or agent. I think that such a proposal would create more problems than it would solve. The Bill has reached the point where it defines a person as the potential defendant, so to return to definitions of "employee" and "agency", which are complicated from a legal point of view, would probably create an unnecessary difficulty. We do not want that to happen.

12 May 2000 : Column 1168

I am doubtful about the concept of reckless indifference, which appeared in an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Garston. There must be some doubt about what amendment No. 59, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and the term "similar facility" mean. We all know what a bar is and, if we do not, it is defined in the licence that a licensee holds. However, the concept of a "similar facility" could keep lawyers busy and in gainful employment for many a year.

Amendment No. 59 would also create difficulties in terms of pub gardens. It is suggested that one could be guilty if one bought alcohol for consumption in a bar or similar facility, which could include a pub garden. In the summer, many families go to pub gardens where there is play equipment. It can be a pleasant afternoon out. If the parents want sensibly to give a taste of wine or another drink to a child, that is not a terrible act on which the law should bear down. In fact, it is responsible to teach moderate alcohol consumption to children. It would be a mistake to constrain such behaviour in the way that the amendment would do. I do not want the law on that to be changed without the fullest consultation with the industry and the other groups that have been consulted in the past. I am not willing to support the amendment today.

The only other issue that I want to mention briefly is the Scottish experience. The hon. Member for Brent, North was right to refer to that, but I am not sure that the example he gave relates to the provision to which he referred. He gave an example of a different kind. Although the Scottish experience is always useful to consider, it did not take us much further in this case.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend will know that the Bill does not apply to Scotland or to Northern Ireland. Does he suppose that that is because existing legislation in Scotland already covers this subject or because of the Scots' innate ability to accept drink more readily than the English?

Mr. Heald: I would never say anything disparaging about the Scots. Scots law is frightfully interesting and well worth examining. As an English lawyer, I probably, on balance, prefer ours, but I would certainly not criticise theirs. My hon. Friend was just teasing me.

Mr. Fabricant indicated assent.

Mr. Heald: Finally, I reiterate the Opposition's support for the Bill. We wish it well and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the amendments.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: It is appropriate that I reply at this point to the debate, but, first, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on his decision to introduce a Bill on licensing so as to close a clear lacuna in the law. It is an important Bill, and I share his deep concern about the unlawful sale of alcohol to young people. I gladly tell him that the Government will fully support the Bill. On balance, the best way of doing that is to leave the Bill unamended. I shall explain the reasons for that in due course.

12 May 2000 : Column 1169

1.30 pm

Before doing so, I shall make some general comments on the debate, which has been very good. I welcome strongly the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) who spoke for the Opposition and said that they supported the Bill. That shows how my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has brought together Members on both sides of the House to gain broad support for a focus Bill, which deals with a particular problem in an exemplary manner.

During our debate, hon. Members raised many issues, including the use of the internet to purchase alcohol, that give rise to serious considerations that the House needs to discuss at length and in detail, perhaps on another occasion. The complexities of the issues are such that the Government want to think them through. Once we have debated the White Paper on licensing, we may be better placed to examine further many issues raised in today's debate.

There were good contributions to the debate and, more importantly, some amusing ones. The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), setting out the case for his amendments--which I shall reject--was a tour de force. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) also participated in the debate, and in a tour de force of his own, set out the case for his amendments, only to proceed to demolish that case with vigour. As our debate progressed, he wisely acknowledged the weakness of some of his amendments and indicated that he would not press them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey set out his case. I agree that the Bill should be a focus Bill and that wider issues should not be included in it unnecessarily, as they would be better dealt with in a licensing Bill. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) regaled us with tales of Ye Olde King's Head in Los Angeles, which we shall remember, and which may come back to haunt him one day. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) used her legal training to give a learned exposition of her case. In due course, we shall seek to be as erudite in seeking to persuade her not to press her amendments.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has considerable experience as a Home Office Minister and raised some important issues. I agree that we must, in his words, clobber those involved in the sale and delivery of alcohol to under-age people. He believes that we should go further and examine wider issues on which, as I said, he gave us much food for thought. It may be better to consider those issues at length and with greater care during the consideration of the White Paper and, no doubt, during debate on a licensing Bill which will follow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) raised several important issues, some going beyond the scope of the Bill, to which I wish to give serious consideration. I thank him for his excellent contribution.

The amendments deal with sales effectively conducted from premises, such as sales made from a shop or supermarket by telephone or computer link, or perhaps by a credit facility. What constitutes a sale is already a complicated matter under existing licensing law and,

12 May 2000 : Column 1170

indeed, to some extent, rather obscure. That is one reason why we need to examine the broader issue of licensing law in the White Paper. A registered private members' club, for example, does not technically in law sell alcohol to its members, even though money may change hands. That is because a member owns part of the stock and cannot purchase what he already owns. The exchange of money is merely in law a means of ensuring that no single member obtains more than his fair share. However, the club does not supply alcohol to its members. Again, "supply" has a technical meaning quite different from sale.

In the context of the discussion about the House of Commons and amendment No. 53, that issue is important. Certain clubs will be excluded from some of the provisions because they will not be undertaking a sale. The House of Commons is therefore not unique in the way in which the legislation will apply. There are many clubs in most towns to which the provisions may not apply.

The law permits sales on credit by off-licences. Sales on credit are prohibited only when alcohol is sold for immediate consumption on licensed premises. Consumption is not permitted on off-licence premises. Without the opportunity to take legal advice on some of the technical implications of the wording of some hon. Members' amendments, I am reluctant to offer wholehearted Government support for them. We obviously intend to address modern types of sale in the Bill that we shall eventually introduce, following the White Paper. Indeed, it is an important aspect of modernising our law. However, we need to get it right and to avoid causing problems in practice for the courts.

Credit cards cannot lawfully be held by anyone under 18 years old, but debit cards can be obtained by minors. Therefore, the debit card is particularly relevant to some of the issues that the amendments address. We need to be certain about the technicalities of when sales are completed and where the sale takes place when such cards are used over the telephone, the internet or through various other mechanisms.

As we have said in the licensing White Paper, there is no evidence that youngsters are using purchase by mail order, telephone or internet to obtain alcohol--at the moment. We shall have to examine carefully any evidence that may arise. If problems transpire, we must be prepared to deal with them when we introduce legislation on licensing.

The most common source of alcohol for younger age groups is their parents. Illicit drinking outside the home usually involves the desire for instant gratification. Young people normally obtain alcohol directly in small purchases--one can or two--at off-licences. The amendments therefore would not benefit the current situation.

In addition, although there is little evidence of young people using the internet to obtain alcohol, there is a risk, if retailers fear prosecution for under-age sales, that accepting the amendments would inhibit the development of e-commerce. That could damage business but have no obvious benefit in tackling under-age consumption.

Ordering on the internet involves no instant gratification; delivery occurs some time later. We suspect that that is one reason why there is no evidence of such sales at the moment, but we are alive to any evidence that may present itself and prepared to deal with those issues in the longer term. Given such problems and uncertainties,

12 May 2000 : Column 1171

and subject to my reassurance that the matters will be addressed in future reform, I urge hon. Members not to press their amendments.

Next Section

IndexHome Page