Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Moss: The Minister says that there was a consultation with the Wine and Spirit Association; when was the last meeting that he or his officials had with it?

Dr. Howells: I know, for example, that the Wine and Spirit Association had plenty of opportunity to contribute to the consultation process. There was the licensing review in 1998 and the White Paper in 2000; there were numerous meetings and much correspondence with officials and Ministers. If this was such a big issue, the association should have contacted me or another Minister in the Department directly to make its views clear; but it has not done that. I am wary of the passion that is suddenly generated by that group of people about the clause.

The Bill as it is currently drafted provides that if the place where the sale of alcohol takes place is different from the place from which it is supplied, the sale is treated as having been made from the place from which the alcohol is appropriated. For example, when alcohol is bought via mail order or a telephone call centre, the sale will, for the purposes of the Bill, have taken place at the warehouse from which the alcohol was delivered, rather than from the call centre where the contract for the sale was concluded. The warehouse, not the call centre, would require a premises licence.

I raised the issue of the call centre being located outside this country because that practice is increasing, often to the detriment of valuable British jobs. To ignore that or pretend that it happens in a minority of cases is nonsense. There is an increasing tendency for businesses to go to countries that offer an excellent service, but probably pay a quarter or a fifth of UK wages. That is an important issue, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges it.

Mr. Turner: The Minister referred to call centres outside this country. I am not familiar with the geography of the Scottish borders, but how would warehouses outside this country be regulated?

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Dr. Howells: At the moment, clear laws determine how distance-selling can take place. The law on the subject emanates from the European Union, and regulates the relationship between the buyer and the seller in respect of distance sales. It is not concerned with the regulation of the sale, by retail, of alcohol. The clause will ensure that the regulatory controls bite when the alcohol is handled.

Scottish warehouses will, of course, be under the jurisdiction of the Scottish legal system. We would certainly talk to the Scottish Administration about that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that a major and extensive review of Scottish law relating to alcohol is going on. Our officials are involved in discussions with their counterparts in Scotland to ensure that the proposals in the Bill move in concert with what is proposed for Scotland; I can give him that assurance.

Of course, there will be occasions when Scottish websites or call centres offer alcohol for sale to the general public throughout the United Kingdom. The premises from which any alcohol so purchased is sent may also be in Scotland. Such sales of alcohol would fall under Scottish licensing law and would be subject to enforcement by the Scottish authorities, so the retailers are not getting away with things Scot free—if hon. Members will excuse the pun. I am not for one moment implying that that is what the hon. Gentleman meant. The Scottish authorities are considering the issue carefully.

The amendment would reverse the proper position, and would mean that the sale of alcohol was deemed to be made at the place where the contract was made—say, an office or a call centre—where no alcohol was stored. That would be different from the place from which the alcohol was supplied. The place where the contract was made would require a premises licence, and a warehouse or other premises supplying alcohol would not. I cannot support the amendment, because where the sale and supply of alcohol take place at different venues, it would remove from the scope of the licensing regime the places from which the alcohol is distributed, which are typically premises where alcohol is stored in large quantities.

Given that such premises would not be subject to the licensing regime, the amendment would also remove the requirement in the Bill for there to be a personal licence holder, designated as supervisor, who can be contacted when necessary. It would also remove the ability of the police and other responsible bodies to inspect or enter such premises when necessary. The amendment would have a big effect on other parts of the Bill.

In addition, hon. Members need to realise that a website or call centre could easily be established, as I have argued, under foreign jurisdiction, where it would not be licensable. It would not be the first time that websites had been sited abroad deliberately to avoid UK laws or tax regimes. Indeed, I am sure that we all recall the fierce debates in recent years about gambling and gaming. Companies went offshore to avoid paying tax in this country—to the detriment of many of the

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games that received a percentage of the profits or receipts of gambling to further the sports in question.

By focusing on premises from which the alcohol is delivered, we can ensure that steps are taken to promote the licensing objectives, particularly with regard to the protection of children in this country. I appreciate that some people running such warehouses may think that the situation is unfair, but I am afraid that in this modern age of internet sales by credit card, this is the only means of ensuring that proper controls are applied. Those engaged in such sales must recognise that their responsibilities cannot be evaded. Those delivering the goods are profiting from such contracts, and they too must accept their responsibilities.

When the Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000, which was the product of a private Member's Bill, was before the House, my predecessors gave undertakings to address concerns about internet sales when the main licensing laws were reformed. Clauses 144(1) and 187 fulfil that undertaking by making it an offence to sell alcohol to children anywhere, not just on licensed premises, and by ensuring that the premises from which the goods are delivered are licensed and subject to the loss of licence if they breach the law. Those were undertakings sought by the Conservative party and freely given by my party. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Moss: The Minister sets great store by the idea of call centres being located abroad. I accept that some call centres have gone abroad—India seems to be a popular location—but I am not aware that the retail wine trade has suddenly moved offshore in a big way. Perhaps the Minister has statistics to prove otherwise, but I would have thought that most of the sales that we are talking about are made through mail order and, increasingly, the internet.

The Minister says that the way in which the Bill is drafted and the wording of clause 187 mean that the licensing objectives can be met. He repeated his point about the protection of children from harm. However, if the sale contract is made by mail order, the payment for wine and spirits is made by a credit card to the retailer and the message to the warehouse or store is to take so many cases of wine and spirits and deliver them to a certain address, how are children protected from harm? How on earth does the bonded warehouse manager know who the individual on the address sheet is—it could be a child under the age of 18 or someone else—when he has not been paid for the wine? Either the alcohol is either owned by the retailer and in bond, or the retailer will carry out a transaction with the warehouse company to pay for the wine once it has been moved out.

Dr. Howells: A great many retail sectors that make sales by telephone or via the internet have in place guarantees to ensure that such transgressions do not occur. It is not rocket science for the alcohol retail trade to ensure that those safety measures exist, and that if the law is being broken, somebody can be nailed for it. At other stages of the Bill, the Conservative party called for much more stringent measures to ensure that the police could be certain that somebody would be responsible for ensuring that alcohol from a

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warehouse would not be sold in an inappropriate way, whether to children or to anyone else.

The hon. Gentleman's point is that that guarantee could never be achieved, so let us forget it. However, it is not impossible; it happens in other sectors, and we are determined that it will happen in this one. After extensive consultation and debate, we have decided that the way to achieve it is via the place where the alcohol is stored and distributed. It is up to the managers of those places to make arrangements with the call centre or the retail face of the company or enterprise. That is not difficult.

Mr. Moss: I hear what the Minister says, but surely he recognises that there must be a responsibility for the retailer—the organisation that runs the mail order service, call centre or internet sales. He did not point to a part of the Bill that nailed the responsibilities of those people at the sharp end. We want the Bill to contain adequate safeguards to deliver the licensing objectives—particularly on the sale of alcohol to children, which we do not demur from. However, a balance must be struck between the responsibilities of the retailer—the person who does the deal for the sale—and those of the people who are in charge of the warehouse where the goods happen to be stored, and who simply act on instructions to ship it out. I am unsure whether we have arrived at the right compromise on that.

Dr. Howells: We believe that accountability should be at the warehouse where the alcohol is stored and distributed from. However, if the call centre—the front end of the operation—cannot get its alcohol to its customers as a consequence of the police or another enforcement agency moving in on that operation because it has detected wrongdoing there, or laws being broken in the way in which the product is being sold, it will not stay in business for long. That is a very direct connection. The front end of the operation must be able to have confidence that the orders that it sends through to the warehouse will result in proper distribution taking place. If at that warehouse the enforcement agencies say, ''You aren't going to distribute that, because we know that the law is being broken here,'' how can that mysteriously allow the front part of the operation to get away scot free, so that the blame and the consequences fall entirely on the warehouse? That is illogical.

 
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