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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I went to university in Scotland, some considerable time ago. When I first arrived, people who wanted to get a drink on a Sunday had to go to a hotel, as bona fide travellers. Since then, the word "traveller" has acquired an unwelcome connotation, but there has been little progress when it comes to licensing.
The licensing Act 2003 is a dreadful measure. I am glad that I voted against it. It introduces licensing flexibilities, but at an enormous cost. I have already spoken in the House about the experience of my constituent, Mr. John Crosthwaite-Eyre. He has been told that the licence for his Dunwood Manor golf club will rise from £16 to £1,145. That will not secure a more flexible licence that extends opening times beyond what was previously available. The new licence will only allow the club to open as it has always done.
That huge increase in cost is presumably a consequence of the shift from magistrate licensing to local authority licensing. I understand the rationale behind that, as it will lead to greater public accountability. However, we have already heard about the regulations that will remove any real accountability, as they will prevent councillors from representing the localities to which they are supposed to be accountable.
Some months ago, my wife and I had the misfortune to have to go on a mission of mercywe had to accompany a friend to casualty on a Saturday night. The local general practitioner had diagnosed an infection in our friend's joints, and had recommended that the lady concerned should be taken to hospital in Southampton. We arrived in casualty to be greeted by a scene that could have been painted by Hieronymous Bosch. I could not believe itthere was blood and vomit everywhere, and people were arguing and fighting. Some of the "clients"if one can call them thatmade it clear that what we witnessed was a typical Saturday night, and that impression was reinforced by the staff. Many people consider ending up in casualty on a Saturday night as part of what habitually happens. It is, to them, unremarkable that one might end a Saturday evening with a trip to casualty.
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) gave us a good illustration of what happens in a pub as we approach closing time. However, I do not swallow the argument that the problem that a minority of our fellow citizens have with drink arises because of the confines of our existing drinking laws and that by getting rid of them we will be able to move to the sunny uplands of a café culture. I just do not believe that. The cart is being
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put before the horse. We have to analyse the real causes of our problematic drinking culture and then we will, perhaps, be able to liberalise our drinking laws in the hope that that will lead to more sensible drinking. But it is madness to do it the other way round and assume that the benefits that are enjoyed by certain Mediterranean countries will automatically flow to us simply by liberalising our licensing laws, when we already know that we have a severe problem.
There may be additional marginal benefits for people who wish to drink at any time in a 24-hour period. However, I cannot understand the desire to drink at 7 am, unless one is suffering from a dreadful toothache or something similar. The benefits and convenience will accrue to those people who wish to drink at 7 am, but enormous inconvenience will be caused to my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made the point about the residential population of places such as Covent Garden. My constituency is typified by small townsfor example, God's own town of Lymingtonin which the High street contains not only commercial premises but people's houses. It is a residential area, but those who live there have to endure the problems that arise as drinkers approach pubs, at closing time and after closing time. I do not believe that those problems will be solved if closing times are staggered so that people are not thrown on to the street at the same time. The reality for my constituents will be that the agony will be prolonged. Frankly, that is not an experiment that I want to see take place. I would prefer the benefits to be established before it happens in Lymington.
Labour MembersI exclude the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), because he has a long and honourable record on the issueseemed to be over-sensitive when they intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). The tenor of their interventions was not that my right hon. Friend's argument was wrong. Indeed, the premise of their interventions was that they accepted entirely what he was saying. They merely complained that he had not said it sooner. They implied that it was the job of the Opposition to discover the falsehoods inherent in the Government's arguments and statistics. Well, those Labour Members were wrong in fact, because many of us have been making such points for some timeperhaps not as vocally as we should have doneand they also attempted to absolve themselves from any responsibility for holding the Government to account. It is not only the Opposition who are responsible for holding the Government to account the entire House of Commons, butindeed, it is the entire Parliament. Part of our problem with the passage of legislation is the acceptance that scrutiny is down to the Opposition. If more Labour Members had taken the lead from the right hon. Member for Holborn
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and St. Pancras, given that their influence over the Government is likely to be much greater than ours, we might have made more progress than we have.
Jim Knight: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that during this Parliament, Labour Members have done their best to hold the Government to account on a range of issues. Labour Members have shown great independence from Government, as is evident from their voting records. The problem is that when the Opposition are slow to discover their opposition, it looks as if they are jumping on a bandwagon.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was very honest in his speech when he made the profoundly shocking admission that the Liberal Democrats' policy is to reduce the age at which alcohol can be consumed legally. In my constituency, we have a problem with under-age drinking and the disorder to which it gives rise. That criminality could certainly be avoided at a stroke by reducing the age at which alcohol can be consumed, but does it really address the problem?
Mr. Andrew Turner: Is it not curious that the Liberal Democrats believe that the introduction of the measures in this Act should be delayed pending a resolution of the problems of binge drinking, but have said nothing about delaying the reduction in the age at which youngsters could buy alcohol pending resolution of the problems under-age drinking causes? Presumably, the Liberal Democrats know that they will never be in a position to deliver that reduction.
Mr. Swayne: That is the key point. We should not for one moment assume that a reduction in the age at which alcohol can be purchased will lead to a lessening of the problems that arise from young people acquiring and consuming alcohol. However, I reassure my hon. Friends that there is not the remotest prospect of such a policy being implemented. When I knock on doors and discuss the voting intentions of constituents, I am sometimes tempted to terrify them with Liberal Democrat policies
Mr. Swayne: If my constituents were to be worried about the prospect of a reduction in the age at which alcohol may be purchased, I would seek to reassure them that the likelihood of that happening lay in their own hands.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con):
In the few moments available to me, I want to read an excerpt from the Government's favourite newspaper, the Daily Mail,
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and invite the Minister to intervene on each and every occasion when something in the article by Steve Doughty on 13 January is wrong. She has an open invitation to do that.
"First drafts contained a key passage which said: 'Restrictions on availability reduce consumption and general levels of harm. Relaxing availability increases general harm whether through more outlets (Finland), denser outlets (California), or longer hours (Western Australia) . . . When the final version of the report appeared, no reference to the effects of extending drinking hours was left in.
"Instead the report carried a soothing foreword by Tony Blair which declared that the report showed 'the best way to minimise the harms is through partnership between government, local authorities, police, industry and the public themselves'."
"Some medical experts who contributed to the report were so alarmed that they contributed to an independent report ultimately published virtually simultaneously with the Downing Street dossier by the Academy of Medical Sciences."
The Government really have to explain why those of us who served on the Standing Committee and took part at such length in its proceedings were not provided with accurate information by the then Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, who is now the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. I do not know whether it was his fault, the fault of the Department of Culture, Media and Sportin which case, the Secretary of State can doubtless answeror of the Prime Minister, who once again removed information that should have been put before Parliament. It is most important that, if nothing else, we hear the answer to that in the Minister's winding-up speech.
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