Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Moss: I shall speak to amendment No. 489.

We allow people to purchase alcohol in supermarkets and to drive from the supermarket car

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park to its petrol garage. I see little difference between that and allowing alcohol to be sold on the premises of garage forecourts in shops that sell a full range of supermarkets goods. The question is whether the Government see a clear distinction between the car, the petrol pump and the supermarket at Tesco and Sainsbury's, and the garage forecourts that might have an associated shop.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): Good morning, Mr. Benton. I have great sympathy for the amendments. The arguments that we have heard are compelling and have ranged across a number of areas that illustrate that these outlets are important to some communities. The ability to sell alcohol is important to some of the businesses that we have been talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) drew a timely comparison with the situation in Scotland.

Clause 175 prohibits the sale of alcohol from certain excluded premises, such as those used primarily as garages. That is not a new prohibition; it was introduced some years ago at the behest of the police and road safety organisations. In the long process of the Bill's evolution, and following some useful debates on this issue in another place, we have looked again at the position. It will disappoint hon. Members to hear that we still believe that prohibition should remain for the time being. I shall try to explain why.

As the hon. Member for Torbay reminded us, previous Administrations have made considerable progress in reducing drink-driving. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, it is also difficult to understand our logic when it is possible to buy alcohol from a store that is 100 yd or less away from a filling station. However, despite such progress, there is a good deal of work to be done. Allowing the sale of alcohol from such premises would undermine our clear message and the message of the police and road safety organisations, which maintain their strong support for our view. We do not intend to go against their firm advice, which would be the effect of amendments Nos. 266 to 268.

I acknowledge, however, that that position may not seem entirely logical. It is true that one can drive to an off licence and fill up one's boot with super-strength lager—the off licence could be just 10 yd across the road from the garage. However, all of the advice from the experts in road safety points to the continuation of prohibition. Although drink-related road deaths have fallen, casualties unfortunately continue to rise. The day may come when drink-driving ceases to be a problem in this country and it might then be appropriate to lift the ban on alcohol sales at garages. The Bill provides flexibility for the Secretary of State to do that through secondary legislation. I know that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and Labour Members would acknowledge that there can be a big difference between motorway service areas, and the sale of alcohol there, and the types of establishment that we have been discussing.

9.15 am

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that at motorway service stations

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in France and Italy alcohol is sold not only in sealed containers, but with meals. Has the Minister discussed with his colleagues in Europe the perceived road safety implications of that practice?

Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. We have discussed that issue widely. I am still a little horrified when I pull into a service area in France and see people going up to the bar and drinking alcohol. The accident rates there are much higher than they are in this country.

The hon. Gentleman's question is timely because it relates to striking a balance. How far can we believe that the progress that has been made to counter the culture of drink-driving has been successful and will be permanent? That is the only objection to the amendments. I could argue about competition and so on, but that is not as important.

The Government recognise that the garage shop, where it is the only shop for some distance, can and does play a vital role in rural communities. Some 546 garages are licensed for the sale of alcohol in England and Wales and most of them will be in rural areas. That is the situation that amendments Nos. 325 and 489 have been tabled to address. However, the Bill is drafted in such a way that the prohibition will apply only to premises that are used primarily as garages or form part of the premises that are primarily so used.

Use as a garage means use for the retail sale of petrol or derv, or for the sale or maintenance of motor vehicles. Whether a premises is used primarily as a garage is tested under current law by reference to the intensity of use by customers. I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Torbay in his amendments and undertake to consider the means by which tests are conducted to ensure that small businesses are not discriminated against by an overly bureaucratic approach. He raised an important point that I had not thought about, and I am glad that he did so.

The ''intensity of use'' test may take into account turnover, but criticism has been recorded judicially against sole reliance on a test of gross turnover. Therefore, in effect, the licensing authority will be able to take into account a number of factors when arriving at licensing decisions for a premises of that nature. The Bill will not sound the death knell for the only shop in rural communities. Indeed, it may be the case that what I have said and what is in the Bill indicate a clear recognition by the Government of the key role played by many garages as the only retail outlet in an area. Given that explanation and my emphasis on continuing to give a clear message on the effects of alcohol on driving, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Sanders: I thank the Minister for his helpful comments on small businesses. The Government should consider the issue carefully. If they are convinced that there is a link between drink-driving and the sale of alcohol at garage forecourts, they need to think through the logic of closing down forecourts in rural areas and so making those who might drink and drive go further for their alcohol. There is an illogicality in that.

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Mr. Hoban: Is not the illogicality the fact that many licensed premises are situated on roadsides and they are not being closed down?

Mr. Sanders: The hon. Gentleman is right. There are illogicalities everywhere. Most off-licences in towns are on main roads and are used by those passing by. The Government have to do a lot more work on the matter.

I am concerned about rural areas where the only viable business today is the forecourt. I can think of such areas in my county of Devon. The forecourt has replaced the village shop that closed down many years ago, because it has a diversity of business and a range —selling fuel, provisions, food as well as drink—that enables it to survive. Putting difficulties in the way of those businesses would be a retrograde step for rural areas. Having listened to the Minister's response, and as I may have the opportunity to return to the subject, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 175 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 176 to 178 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5


Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 264, in

    schedule 5, page 122, line 14, at end insert—

    '( ) A licensing appeal will be heard by a panel of justices elected by the bench at their annual general meeting, whose task will be to hear all matters of appellate jurisdiction.'.

Schedule 5 paragraph 9 deals with the appeal mechanisms in the Bill for those who wish to appeal to a magistrates court against a licensing authority's decision. Amendment No. 264 would protect the expertise garnered by magistrates under current procedures and legislation. As I understand it, licensing committees on benches are made up of no more than 20 magistrates. That allows them to develop what we would suggest is an unrivalled knowledge of the licensing laws.

Under paragraph 9, current practice will be overturned and any magistrate will be allowed to hear an appeal. That could lead to a massive strain on training resources and the development of expertise on the new licensing laws. The amendment would ensure that that would not happen by providing for licensing committees of justices numbering no more than 20 that are specifically delegated the task of dealing with licensing appeals. Those justices could be thoroughly trained to deal with matters relating to the licensing laws, and of course, they will frequently sit on licensing appeals thus furthering their knowledge and understanding. Unlike the Government's suggestion, ours would make for more efficient and cost-effective appeals, as the justices would acquire a real understanding of the laws and would therefore understand the issues raised more easily.

Without such an amendment, all of the average of 200 justices on the bench will be required to undergo costly training and will deal infrequently with licensing appeals, which will make it hard for them to develop an understanding and experience of the new laws.

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The amendment would protect the successful practices associated with the present role of magistrates in licensing issues and is also in keeping with the role of magistrates justices as defined in the Bill.

Dr. Howells: Schedule 5 provides for appeals against decisions of licensing authorities. Paragraph 9 makes general provisions about appeals against decisions relating to premises licences.

The amendment would require the bench to elect a panel of justices at their annual general meeting, whose task would be to hear all premises licences appeal matters. In tabling the amendment, I believe that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) has in mind that given the transfer of licensing functions to local authorities, we should preserve a role for licensing justices with all their experience and specialist knowledge of the present system as the appeal body under the Licensing Act 1964.

I have great sympathy with that approach. It is an interesting idea. I remind the Committee, however, that those same licensing justices will not have any experience of the radical and modernised new system set out in the Bill, which brings together five other licensing regimes as well as alcohol licensing. They would require training by the Magistrates Association and the Lord Chancellor's Department, in the same way that anyone coming new to the system to serve on an appeal body would.

Furthermore, the amendment would inject some inflexibility into the system. It was largely for that reason, as well as for reasons of cost and accessibility, that so many of those stakeholders and individuals who responded to the White Paper asked for a change in the proposal that appeals against licensing decisions would be heard by the Crown court. We were persuaded by the responses. We thought that it would be quicker, cheaper and just as effective for those appeals to be heard by a magistrates court.

The Government's efforts to consult and involve all interested parties in the development of the Bill have continued throughout the past two years and we have not heard calls for that change to be reversed—not until the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment. There appears to be no case for upsetting the usual approach to the constitution of a magistrates court. If only a certain number of magistrates were able to hear appeals, that could slow down the process and make it less responsive. For broadly the same reasons of speed and cost, I cannot accept the amendment and hope that he will withdraw it.

As the hon. Gentleman asked, we have certainly received no relevant correspondence on the issue.

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