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15 Nov 2002 : Column 325—continued

1.41 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I welcome the inclusion of licensing law reform in the Queen's Speech. I am a former chair of public health and development in Newcastle who was responsible for administering our shambolic system, so I think that the proposals are sensible ones that will bring our licensing laws into modern settings, which we all welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) mentioned the history of our licensing laws, but I went a little further back to find that the first law, which covered the supply of alcohol and its purity, was introduced in the 13th century. Then, there was a gap for a few hundred years in which little legislation was passed. Over the summer, I read a very good biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. Clearly, the election of Charles James Fox to this place suggests that there was little control over the supply of alcohol in the City of London.

The basis of the current legislation was introduced in the 19th century. Since then, the law has been built up piecemeal, which has been the problem. There has never been a comprehensive reform of licensing laws in this country, which is why the Bill will make history when it reaches the statute book. The law that provides that people must be 18 to drink in public houses was introduced in 1923, but we still have anachronisms such as the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds can drink cider with a meal in a public house.

When I was a councillor, I welcomed the publication of the 2000 White Paper, XTime for Reform". Indeed, it has been welcomed overall by those who administer licensing and by the trade, and I think that the Bill will receive a similar welcome from the general public.

We must not underestimate the entertainment industry's importance to this country's economy, as about 90 per cent. of the population drink alcohol regularly and 175,000 public houses, clubs, bars and

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other outlets serve alcohol. Also, we should not forget that the industry employs about 1 million people. Our tourism industry, which is also based largely on entertainment, contributes about #75 billion a year to the economy.

In Newcastle, I saw the advantages of the entertainment industry in terms of regeneration. Hon. Members might care to visit Newcastle's new quayside to see the vibrancy of that area, much of which is due to the inclusion of bars, cafes and restaurants in the redevelopment. So, what is wrong with the law as it stands? A lot, I would say: it is complex and inconsistent, as more than 40 licences and permissions may be involved in serving alcohol or holding entertainment in licensed premises.

A well-known example is the two-in-the-bar rule, which is connected with public entertainment licences. If a pub wishes to put on public entertainment, it first needs a liquor licence under the Licensing Act 1964, which is dispensed by the local magistrate; it then needs a public entertainment licence under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which is provided by the local authority. However, there is a caveat in section 182 of the 1964 Act, which provides that pubs do not need a public entertainment licence for live performances by two or fewer musicians. Thus a licence is required for a string quartet, but not for two individuals with loud amplifiers. That shows the nonsense of that law.

There are other examples that show why licensing needs to be reformed. First, it is illegal for a police officer who is off duty and on his way home, but still in uniform, to buy a bottle of wine in an off-licence. Secondly, it is illegal for two friends to engage in quarrelsome behaviour in licensed premises. Thirdly and more remarkably, if a bottle of homemade wine is given as a tombola prize at a village fete, a liquor licence is required. More remarkable still is the fact that it is illegal, the House will be pleased to know, for two prostitutes to drink together in a public house, whereas one can drink there alone.

When people discuss the sale and control of alcohol, they usually concentrate on the protection of children. The present laws do not protect children at all. An adult can go out and buy an alcoholic drink in a pub, return to the beer garden and give it to a child as young as five. Furthermore, booze sold on boats is covered by no legislation, so if a group of 14-year-olds wants to go on a booze cruise down the Thames, they can do so quite legally. I am not having a go at Cambridge university, but it is apparently legal for it and an honourable company of vintners to sell wine without a licence.

The final anomaly that concerns many of my constituents is that there is no provision whatever for local people to have a say in the granting of licences. A magistrate can dispense a licence without taking local people's views into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby mentioned the issues surrounding the 11 o'clock and 2 o'clock closing times, which create more public order problems in major cities than they solve. They also restrict tourism. Our licensing laws bemuse visitors to this country. In a few weeks' time in Newcastle, the annual Scandinavian Viking invasion will take place and will lead up to

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Christmas. It is difficult to explain to Scandinavians wandering around Newcastle at 11 pm why they cannot get a drink.

I welcome the idea of having one licence for licensed premises. It makes sense because it cuts down on red tape and makes it much easier to manage the system. I also welcome the provision of the personal licence, so that someone in control of a liquor licence will now have to be licensed. That will make matters much easier.

I support the retention of a legal drinking age of 18, but the Minister must be a little wary because under present law 16 and 17-year-olds can drink with meals with their families in licensed premises. That must be taken into account when we consider the Bill in detail.

The issue of flexible opening hours has already been raised. Sadly, the Bill has been portrayed in the press as somehow meaning 24-hour drinking. That is not what will happen. When I was chair of public health in Newcastle, there were two experiments in which we had no licensing hours: we had special licences for the Euro 96 football tournament in the city and for millennium eve. The amount of public disorder on those two occasions was far less than on a normal Friday or Saturday night. In practice, pubs did not open all night; they closed when people went home. Licensed premises will not be open all night without any customers. I do not think that they will be open 24 hours a day in many places.

The transfer of responsibility for liquor licensing to local authorities is controversial. I have already received letters from licensees in my constituency and from J.D. Wetherspoons arguing that that is a retrograde step. I am sorry, but I do not agree. The present system does not work, and we need a system whereby the people that take the decisions are publicly accountable. Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), I was initially in favour of a licensing board made up of councillors, police officers and magistrates, but that would create problems of public accountability. The way forward to deal with people's concerns about local authority responsibility is to lay down clear conditions. We should get the regulations right that give the conditions on which a liquor license may be refused or granted.

I would also make it compulsory for any councillor who serves on a licensing committee to have training, as is the practice in many councils for those on planning committees. Training should be a nationally recognised criterion. I would also ensure that there was an insistence on a political balance on licensing committees.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will resist the idea that liquor licenses could be refused on sufficiency—that is the numbers in a geographical area. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is pushing for that. According to the licensed trade journal, the Morning Advertiser, he is concerned about the number of licences in an area, and believes that power should be granted to local authorities to restrict the numbers. That does not work. It was tried in Newcastle for quite a few years, and licensing magistrates in the city centre would not grant new licences. All that happens is a

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downgrading of what is on offer, and a proliferation of places that serve large volumes of alcohol and what are locally referred to as vertical drinking establishments—after some time, many of the customers are horizontal. It does not lead to the diversity that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby said these changes would introduce. I would strongly resist any such move. The way to manage numbers is to make the enforcement of the operation of those premises as tough as possible.

An omission that we should seriously consider is whether to make it compulsory for certain large establishments to have registered door supervisors. That scheme was pioneered in Newcastle, and it worked well in many other council areas.

I would ban the happy hour, which I believe leads to binge drinking. People are forced to drink large amounts of alcohol at a cheap price during a certain period. That leads to problems, and action in the Bill to ban or control that would be welcome.

This reform is long overdue. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, I think that it is centuries overdue. It will bring this country into line with liquor licensing in Europe and elsewhere. It will also bring about responsible drinking. The binge drinking culture in this country does nothing for health and generates public disorder. I welcome the proposals, and I look forward to the Bill making swift progress through the House. I hope that it will help local residents and, more importantly, help an industry that is vital to this country.

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