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22 Oct 2009 : Column 322WH—continued

I want to share something from my own experience. Before entering Parliament, I worked for Asda-I should probably say that so that people understand that I have a natural affinity with supermarkets. After work on a Friday, my colleagues and I tended to go to a local pub in Leeds that had a happy hour when it sold two drinks for the price of one-that is probably why we went there. An awful lot of people from Asda used to go along-we always had an eye for a good deal.
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The implication of banning all these happy hours is that everybody who goes along to them will come out completely hammered. However, I am not aware that any of us from Asda who used to dutifully troop along to the local pub at the end of the day came out completely hammered. We used to drink responsibly and we were just getting a good deal.

We all know that many pubs are struggling to survive and that 50 pubs a week are closing. If a happy hour was a way for that pub to attract a bit of extra custom on to its premises, I do not see what harm was being done. People were not going there to get hammered, but to get a good deal. It would be a terrible mistake to think that by banning pubs from having happy hours or similar promotions we would be waving a magic wand and that we would suddenly have no alcohol-related violence on our streets.

The same applies to buying alcohol in supermarkets. I do not see why the vast majority of my constituents-decent, law-abiding citizens who drink and behave responsibly, and many of whom are struggling to survive and pay the bills, particularly in the recession-should be forced by people in Parliament to pay extra for their bottle of wine or their pack of four cans of beer at the supermarket simply because a few hooligans cannot hold their drink and are out to cause trouble. Why should the law-abiding majority suffer again and have to pay more for their weekly shop? It seems completely ludicrous.

Mr. Vaizey: It is our policy.

Philip Davies: It may well be our policy; that does not stop it being ludicrous. This may not be the only context in which I feel that, to be honest, but we shall steer clear of the others for now, despite the encouragement of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. It is the old idea of politicians wanting to look as if they are doing something-and doing something that does not help with the problem, but further punishes decent, law-abiding citizens.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Are there no circumstances in which the hon. Gentleman thinks there are irresponsible promotions? I am thinking of those aimed particularly at women and young girls. Does he think that there are opportunities for action when specific groups are targeted?

Philip Davies: No, I do not agree about that, and I hope that the Minister will support me in trying to help him to buy alcohol at his local supermarket in Bingley a bit more cheaply. I am doing my best to represent my constituents.

The reason I do not agree is that the responsibility for people getting drunk and violent, and causing trouble, lies with the individuals who get drunk and violent and cause trouble. We go down a slippery slope if we start to pass responsibility for people who cause trouble away from those people and on to someone else-to an industry. Surely it cannot be the fault of a supermarket that people become obese, just because it sells cream cakes. It is a ludicrous premise that supermarkets are responsible for any individual's obesity. We desperately need in this country to get back to individual responsibility for one's own actions. The cheap sale of alcohol does not mean that any individual must go out and get drunk.

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Richard Younger-Ross: Following the hon. Gentleman's logic, is he saying that it is not the responsibility of drug dealers that people take drugs?

Philip Davies: No, it is not the responsibility of drug dealers that people take drugs. It is the responsibility of the people who take them. However, that is not to say that I am a supporter of drug dealers. Obviously, for people to take drugs they need a drug dealer; but I should be surprised if a Liberal, or someone who calls himself a Liberal, did not accept the idea of individual freedom and, therefore, individual responsibility. Blaming someone's actions on someone else is a senseless route to go down. They should be blamed on the person responsible, so let us target the offender.

If we have a problem with alcohol-related violence, perhaps we should spend more time making sure that the people who commit it are arrested and locked up. If the punishment were harsher and those people had, for example, to spend a harsher time in prison, they might feel less inclined to come out and get drunk and go down the same path. Surely that would be a better way to tackle alcohol-related violence than penalising a supermarket that sells a bottle of wine for 10p less than someone else thinks it should. It is a futile exercise.

I have been told of supposedly irresponsible promotions in which people can buy a ticket to something and drink as much as they like, for nothing-as part of the price. I do not know what happens at local Labour party functions, as the Minister has not yet invited me to one, although I look forward to such an invitation; nor do I know what happens at Lib Dem political events, but it is not uncommon-I do not know whether my hon. Friends have had this experience-for the price of a ticket to Conservative party events to include what people drink. The drink is free and the ticket price covers its cost. I have yet to see people leaving any of those functions legless.[Interruption.] I see from the reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford that he has; I do not know whether he means himself or someone else. I certainly have not seen people leaving legless because they have drunk as much as they could, just because they could.

Just because people can drink as much as they can does not mean they will. People tend to take responsibility for their lives and actions. It is not the promotion in itself that causes a problem. It is the individual's reaction to the promotion that does it. If some people are determined to get drunk, whether there is a promotion or not, the likelihood is that they will do so. I hope that the Minister will explain that the Government have no intention of banning any drink promotions or pursuing the ridiculous idea of forcing supermarkets to charge their customers more for alcohol. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) will give that commitment too, for what I hope will be a Conservative Government after the general election. The banning approach would be terribly misguided, and would punish decent law-abiding citizens, and it would make no difference to alcohol-related violence.

I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford about lap-dancing clubs, and I want to reiterate them. The issue is not whether the clubs are a good or bad thing; people can have their own view on that, and they may have moral objections. I tend to be a libertarian
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and if people want to work in those places and to go to them that is a matter for them-I do not want to stand in their way. The issue is one of natural justice. My hon. Friend made the powerful point that people who have invested considerable amounts of money, in good faith, in opening such establishments under the Licensing Act 2003, which the Government passed, may face the prospect of having them closed down under new licensing regulations imposed by the same Government, which they could surely never have envisaged when they made their investment.

The Government are right to want to give residents more of a say about where such places should be, and about whether locations are acceptable. However, I hope that they will provide some protection-some grandfather rights-for businesses that were opened in good faith. It would be unacceptable and unfair for those businesses to be closed down within a year. The least that the Government can do is allow a decent transitional period to protect the rights of establishments that have been opened in good faith under the current licensing arrangements. As my hon. Friend said, the Committee recommended that that should be a period of five years. I should like to think that five years would be a minimum; a much longer time would be fairer. I hope that we shall not get bogged down in an argument about whether lap-dancing clubs are a good or bad thing. That is neither here nor there-the point is simply one of natural justice.

When the Government legislated on the matter recently, I raised this subject and was told that the intention was not to close down lap-dancing clubs that had just opened, and that there were discussions with the Lap Dancing Association and other parties to work around some of the issues. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that some sensible progress is being made, so that people are not treated unfairly, and businesses are not put out of business, on a basis that they could not have predicted.

I endorse the recommendations that the Select Committee made on other issues, including live music, a topic on which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford concentrated. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to those other recommendations.

3.29 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am grateful to you, Miss Begg, and to others for allowing me to speak in the debate. I apologise once again to the Minister and others, because I have to address a meeting at Birmingham university this evening. I realise, though, that under the current regime, were I to play a musical instrument in that venue I could be arrested, so I declare an interest in advance of my arrival in Birmingham. For me, the issue is about keeping music live.

I am a great lover of music and, as some hon. and right hon. Members know, I play the harmonica. Using nothing but my musical talents and my blues harp, I have emptied pubs up and down mid-Wales, but I am happy to say that others are rather more adept at playing musical instruments than me.

My big concern is the limitation on small venues being able to give a starting opportunity for performance artists up and down the land. Outstanding performers,
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such as Kate Rusby, Roy Harper, Cara Dillon and the late John Martyn, all made their life and reputation in those small venues. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame is known to get the guitar out occasionally and play bars in my locality.

That is what performance art is all about. It is not about paperwork, it is not about red tape, it is about giving people the opportunity to express themselves in artistic form. In that sense, to be restricted by bureaucracy is the absolute antithesis of what such artists seek to do. The bureaucracy may be well intentioned, but the purpose it serves is nothing but damaging in making it more difficult for venues to operate, often on an ad hoc basis. Indeed, the likes of Andy Kershaw and the late John Peel discovered many artists ad hoc, by coming across individuals and bands with superb capability in a musical situation just because they saw a sign outside a pub saying, "Live music tonight". In my area there are bands such as Smoke like a Fish and Up All Night-with Brian perhaps one of the most talented singers of his generation-who do not intend to get famous for their performing but do enjoy entertaining local people. That, to me, is what it is all about.

The Government have not always looked too supportive of live music. To quote the words of the band Roots,

I know for a fact that the Minister enjoys performance arts and loves live music, so I am optimistic that the new regime will use common sense and heed the concerns that have been raised.

For those reasons, I ask the Minister to take on board the cross-party consensus that he has heard so far in defence of live music and in support of the small venues that are the bottom rungs of the ladder, often not to fame but to a lifetime of performance in a local community. I recently saw a band called Toy Hearts, which is one of the best blue grass bands that I have ever seen in Britain. The band is growing, but it still plays the small venues because the band members love to entertain and to perform.

Mr. Sutcliffe indicated assent.

Lembit Öpik: I see the Minister nodding, and I am encouraged that at least in sentiment he probably supports the spirit of the debate so far, but I am also going to ask him for action on support, so that places like The Grapes, a pub in Newtown where we have an informal music night, or The Red Lion in the small town of Castle Caereinion are not technically breaking the law if they happen to have a collection of musicians who come together to entertain themselves and other customers in the pub.

All the Minister has to do is to take on board the points made by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), especially in terms of the size of venue that would be allowed to operate musical and other performances without licence restrictions such as we have now. I can see no downside to the Minister taking that request on board. As the Chairman of the Committee rightly pointed out, everyone in the industry who is asked says that there is now less opportunity to
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perform, as a direct result of the regulations. Although we cannot quantify that in detail, the mood music-if I may use that phrase-is clear that a negative has come about, which the Government promised would not occur. To put that negative right, all they have to do is to take the common sense position being proposed, which will do nothing other than enhance the Government's reputation with performing artists. By doing so, the Minister will not only enable thousands of small locations to be reinvigorated by the enjoyment of live performance, but he will get rid of expensive red tape that serves no useful purpose.

My plea to the excellent Minister is to heed the arguments that he has heard here-to free the spirit of the British performing arts and to keep music live.

3.35 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to make a small contribution to the debate, which was initiated by the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. One of my unfulfilled ambitions is to be a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, but the Whips have always considered my talents would be better served being a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I respect their judgment, but at least I can contribute to this debate.

One of the few occasions on which I have been asked on to "Newsnight" to defend Government policy was in 2005, when the Licensing Act 2003 was about to be implemented. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. I was having rather the worst of the interview, it has to be said, and the clock was ticking towards 18 minutes past 11, when the programme ends. I thought that I would have one last try at making the case for the Licensing Act reforms. Obviously that was before the relaxation of licensing laws, and all pubs closed at 11 o'clock, so I looked at her and said, "Would it be the end of the world if, after the show finished, the pubs were still open and I was able to invite you out to have one drink at one of the local pubs?" She looked at me, and by the look on her face it would have been the end of the world, so my final argument failed.

However-the report is generous in this regard-the fundamental tenets of the Licensing Act will last the test of time. No political party will go into the next general election arguing that all pubs should close at a fixed time, at 10.30 or 11 o'clock, despite the comments of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who has now left the Chamber, although I understand the particular problems in his constituency. However, his wish to go back to the local magistrates process is not prevalent in the country as a whole. Ordinary local residents and citizens have found it easier to make points to local councils than they ever did to magistrates, in a fairly remote legal process that was intimidating to some people. It is absolutely right that local authorities are at the centre of the licensing process. I do not think that will change.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in an interesting speech, asked what would work to deal with the problems of alcohol-related violence. Indeed, the Prime Minister, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, said that no one had yet cracked the whole problem of the youth drinking culture. That is certainly true, but a great deal of progress has been made.

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We should recognise two things. One is-I recognise some of what the hon. Member for Shipley said-that there is a danger of grand gestures in such an area of policy. It is tempting for all political parties to come up with such grand gestures. For example, I wonder whether as my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) spends more time with her constituents and looks back on her legacy as a Minister, she will see alcohol disorder zones as one of the things of which she was most proud. That measure was rushed through the House, because it was part of a moral panic, yet I do not think that there is one alcohol disorder zone in the whole country. No local authority has said that it wants the powers of an alcohol disorder zone. Which local authority would want to label itself as an alcohol disorder zone? To do such a thing would, basically, be saying, "Come here for a fight." Probably, now that she has a little more time, my right hon. Friend might reflect that the policy was over-prescriptive and a waste of parliamentary time

We should look at what does work, which is very much identified in the Select Committee report, in recommendation 15:

That is not rocket science, but it works in cities up and down the land.

My hon. Friend the Minister and I, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, took a little time out, fairly late in the evening, to go with the Conservative chair of the licensing committee, Geoffrey Theobald, who has made a great contribution in the area, to look at a couple of venues in Brighton. In a well managed night-time economy, crime can be massively reduced.

In my market town of Selby, simply the introduction of night marshals to assist the police has reduced alcohol-related violence by 50 per cent. That is the case in many towns and cities up and down the country, including on Broad street in Birmingham, and in Nottingham, where there was a big problem. The British Beer and Pub Association in the region is working with the local police and the council, and they have begun to make a difference, so I stress the importance of local action.

Mr. Sutcliffe: On that point, the visit to Brighton was to see a beacon council, because it showed best practice. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the inconsistent approach taken by police authorities and local councils when applying the principles of the Licensing Act?

Mr. Grogan: Yes. Obviously, however, not everyone is up to the standards of the best. It is interesting to think how one might try to change that. We are starting to see a will for it among some in the pub and beer industry. Why not have the same map on the association's wall as that on the Home Office's wall, showing areas that still have problems, and trying to target resources and spread best practice in those areas? It can be done; things can be turned around.

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