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15 Nov 2002 : Column 316—continued

1.8 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): More than 80 years ago, Lloyd George proclaimed to the House of Commons that the country was facing three great enemies: the Hun, the Austrians and the drink, and the greatest of these was the drink. It was according to such sentiments that the liquor licensing laws that have lasted us almost a century were designed. It is a matter of quiet celebration that, today, the Government are to publish the alcohol and entertainment Bill, which will finally call time—last orders—on Lloyd George's liquor licensing laws. To the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who has just left the Chamber, I say that one of the many benefits of reforming the liquor licensing laws will be that it will be much easier to attract big international events such as the Olympics to our capital city.

My first fact-finding trip on being elected to Parliament in 1997 was made to Scotland with a group of English Members of Parliament. We went to Edinburgh with one mission: to compare and contrast the liquor licensing laws. It was a hard business. One Scottish licensee looked pityingly at us and remarked, XEven Cinderella was allowed to stay up until midnight." The Bill will give the House the first opportunity that it has had since the 1970s radically to reform our liquor licensing laws. In the 1970s, Scotland, following the Claydon report, diverged from the practice in England and Wales. Lord Erroll's report—sadly, he died last year—which promised flexibility and liberalisation, was rejected by the House.

I have been asked, XWhy will it be different this time? Why will the Government reform the liquor licensing laws during this decade?" Cynical observers of the House would say that during the 1970s the largest all-party group was the all-party temperance group; today it is the all-party beer group. However, that is not the main reason why the Bill will take its place on the statute book. I think that it will be enacted because of the attitude of the police. There are very few chief constables who do not support reform, and for good reasons. About 50 per cent. of all violent person-to-person crime in most of our towns and cities occurs at closing time, at 11 o'clock, and at 2 o'clock. In some instances,

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thousands of people spill out on to the streets looking for fast food, kebabs, taxis and buses all at the same time. That is when a great deal of trouble occurs.

We do not have to look to exotic places to find the evidence that reform and more flexibility can help. For example, it would stop people drinking against the clock during the last half an hour before closing time. The Isle of Man does not necessarily have the most liberal of reputations in the world, but in 2001 it reformed its liquor licensing laws, largely on the grounds that the Government are proposing. There was a 40 per cent. reduction in violent crime immediately during the hours of darkness. That is an example that we could well follow.

Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends will remember that during the run-up to the last election, our younger supporters—the sort of people who appeared in XThe Project" last week—received text messages on their mobile phones, saying, XIf you don't give a 4X for the liquor licensing laws, vote Labour on Thursday." That approach clearly failed, in the sense that young people did not rush to the polls. However, it was a mistake for another reason. It gave the impression that reform of the liquor licensing laws was solely in the interests of the young. If that were the only benefit, it would be wasted on the young. The young will always find ways to party and to have a good time, whatever the hour of the day.

There are three reasons why, for the comfortably middle aged and the old codgers—I look round the Chamber and quite a few of us fit into that category— liquor licensing reform is a good thing. The first reason—I have already referred to it—is public order. It is noticeable that there is much greater flexibility in the new arrangements to deal with problem pubs. In the past, the only way to deal with them was to close them down. That was the only action that magistrates could take. There will be much more flexibility and many more sanctions in the new Bill. Many people will appreciate that. People will find it easier to complain to councils rather than to magistrates.

The second benefit is that a much more family friendly atmosphere will be promoted by the Bill. Children will have greater access to pubs, with proper controls and restrictions. The previous Government introduced children's certificates, which for the first time allowed children into many sections of pubs. However, it was an over-bureaucratic although well-intentioned system. I think that the new Bill will try to change our culture in England and Wales. I hope that it will lead to a much more family friendly atmosphere. That would encourage a more sensible attitude to alcohol.

The third advantage to the whole community is that, I hope, many more different sorts of licensed premises will stay open after 11 o'clock, and perhaps open at other times of the day. There is a pub in my constituency that wants to open to serve breakfasts to those on the night shift, for example. At present, if a pub wishes to stay open after 11 o'clock, it is necessary to make more noise than before 11 o'clock. It is necessary to have a dance floor and entertainment. That is clearly ridiculous. The traditional village pub has much to gain from liberalisation. It will be able to stay open for an hour or perhaps a couple of hours longer, if it is a well run pub, especially at weekends.

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All councils and all local police forces need to manage the night-time economy more. It is interesting that of the crime and disorder partnerships, only about a third have a strategy towards alcohol and alcohol-related crime. Home Office guidance should insist that that they all do. The debate about magistrates will rumble on, but it is important to remember that they have a role in the new system. Appeals on liquor licensing, on points of fact as well as points of law, will be made to them. To clarify the position, councils are responsible and, after all, were responsible for much of the public entertainment licence system under the old regime.

Moving swiftly to the communications Bill, by far the most interesting thing I have done in Parliament was to serve on Lord Puttnam's Committee. I can truly say that, unlike in many Committees that the Whips put me on, I listened to virtually every word, partly because I was sitting next to Marmaduke Hussey, who is a good Conservative supporter of the BBC, by contrast with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), whose speech I enjoyed. Whenever Lord Hussey had a point to make, he would prod me with his stick to test it out on me before making it to the Committee. That kept my attention—I learned a lot from him and other members of the Committee. The Government have accepted about 120 of our recommendations.

I agree with two aspects of the Bill but, to keep life interesting, I disagree with another. I agree with the Government's stance on the BBC; it is right that the BBC is under Ofcom for tier 1—consideration of taste and decency—and that when it makes mistakes it should pay fines for the first time, as Lord Puttnam's Committee recommended. It is right that it is subject to quotas on regional production and production by independent producers under tier 2 of regulation. However, the backstop powers in tier 3, which deals with whether the BBC is fulfilling its public service remit, should ultimately be up to the governors and the Secretary of State. Otherwise, if the BBC did not fulfil that remit, the new regulator Ofcom, which is designed to provide a light-touch regulation for commercial public service broadcasters, would be trying to deal with the problem. Every commercial broadcaster around would protest to Ofcom about every schedule change and argue that the BBC was departing from its remit.

If we value the BBC—I still think that the majority of Members do—we must accept that the Government's proposed arrangements are right. The Government would do well to look again at Lord Puttnam's proposals on the importance of ensuring the regional nature of ITV. It is generally accepted that we will get one ITV again—a new merged ITV will be able to compete much better, which I welcome. However, we must maintain the regional character of ITV, which has served it well over the decades. We suggested to the Committee that instead of Ofcom requiring a Xsuitable amount" of regional production by ITV companies, such production should be Xsubstantial". The Government would do well to look at that and consider whether ITV's programme remit should include a regional element, as that is not specified at the moment.

Finally, the Government have introduced radical proposals to allow for the first time non-European Union ownership of our media companies, and permit Rupert Murdoch and anyone else with a substantial interest in our national media to own a terrestrial

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station, Channel 5. I looked hard to see where those ideas came from. In the Government's consultation on media ownership few organisations advocated such changes in ownership regimes. The only two that I could find were News International and Andersen's, which said that

Well, Andersen's has become the irrelevant anachronism in the intervening period.

There was not a great deal of support for the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Opposition spokesman, produced a pamphlet in the mid 1990s advocating such changes, but I discovered few other sources backing the changes. I believe that Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB have done a great deal for British television, but putting more power in the hands of one person so that he can run The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Times, BSkyB and Channel 5 under a single ownership—a move that previous Governments have rejected—will create unease and disquiet among Labour Back Benchers. The good news is that he does not even want it. Rupert Murdoch said last week, after the BSkyB annual general meeting, that he had no interest in acquiring a terrestrial TV station, so even if the move goes ahead, it is not at all certain that he wants Channel 5. If the idea is to get him onside for the euro referendum, it is clearly a price that he is not demanding. I urge the Government to consider the matter further.

One of the most problematic effects of allowing changes in ownership regimes and allowing American ownership of our media companies may be in the radio sector. The Clear channel in the United States has benefited from deregulation there. It now owns half of the radio stations in the US and is poised to move into Britain. It has destroyed local radio in the US. There is no more local news and no more local presentation; that is all done centrally. That is the agenda of some of the big American media companies. One does not have to be anti-American to point that out. I hope that at the very least, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State promised yesterday, she will strengthen some of the content regulations that govern local radio.

Finally, I shall say a word about higher education. Students are avid consumers of television, radio and alcohol in pubs, so they link all the remarks that I have made. Labour Members await with great interest the higher education paper. I share some of the reservations expressed today about the introduction of top-up fees. I fear that if a university such as Oxford brought in top-up fees, some poorer students would still go there because they would be able to get bursaries, if they could understand the bursary system—presumably, each university would have a different one; richer students would still go there, if they could afford the fees and were indifferent to them; but a great many people in the middle would be deterred, and the fees would affect their choices.

The introduction of top-up fees would be extremely divisive and would do little to increase participation. If there must be a greater contribution from students, there would be greater support from Labour Members

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for a deferred payment system, as there is in Scotland. I noted on 3 November that The Independent on Sunday stated that the idea originated from Lord Jenkins, which does not increase enthusiasm for the idea. The Sunday Telegraph on the same day noted that the current Chancellor, the current Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and the current Home Secretary had reservations. Many Labour Members—

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