Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill

3.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill makes simple and logical reforms to our liquor licensing laws. It will relax Sunday licensing hours so that pubs and clubs may open during Sunday afternoons in the way that they already can on weekday afternoons. Off-licensed shops, including large stores such as supermarkets, will be able to sell alcohol for longer hours which fit in sensibly with their Sunday opening times. That, in a nutshell, is what the Bill provides. Our present restrictions on the times at which alcohol can be sold and drunk in public houses stem from the First World War. Successive governments have considered that there are valid reasons to limit the times at which public houses may open. Nevertheless, there has been a gradual easing of the restrictions over the years as working patterns, leisure activities and social attitudes have changed.

The most recent changes in the licensing hours were made in the Licensing Act 1988. The requirement that public houses must close during weekday afternoons was abolished and the normal licensing hours were standardised at 11 in the morning until 11 at night. There were some who predicted at that time that afternoon opening would give rise to more excessive drinking and disorder. Those predictions have not been fulfilled. What has happened is that licensees have had greater freedom

2 May 1995 : Column 1330

to decide when to offer their services to their customers, and customers have had greater freedom to choose when they take advantage of those services. Some public houses have chosen to open throughout weekday afternoons. Others continue to close, as they did before the 1988 relaxations. In short, the abolition of the weekday afternoon break nearly seven years ago has given the licensed trade much greater flexibility to give their customers what they want when they want it. It has not given rise to any appreciable increase in drunkenness or disorder.

What the 1988 Act did not do was to alter significantly the times at which pubs may open on Sundays. An hour was added to the lunchtime opening session so that it ends at three rather than two in the afternoon. Otherwise, the Sunday licensing hours remained as they were. In other fields, there have been significant changes since 1988 in what people may do, and want to do, on Sundays. Sunday shopping, which was put on a rational footing last year by the Sunday Trading Act and has proved popular with a great many people, is the obvious example. More recently, in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act, Parliament relaxed the restrictions on betting and sporting activities on Sunday. It is now time to bring the Sunday licensing hours into line with people's current likes and expectations, and to remove unnecessary government interference in this area.

Clause 1 of the Bill will bring that about. At present, the Sunday licensing hours for on-licensed premises such as public houses and hotels are from midday until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and from 7 o'clock until half past 10 in the evening. Clause 1 will remove the requirement to close between 3 o'clock and 7 o'clock.

Pubs will, therefore, be able to open continuously on Sundays from midday until half past 10 in the evening. They will no longer have to close during the afternoon. We regard that as a sensible change, which I am sure will be welcomed by those who run pubs and those who frequent them. Many pubs have for some time been tailoring their services to meet the needs and wishes of families—for example by providing family rooms. In addition, we took the opportunity presented by last year's Deregulation and Contracting Out Act to introduce children's certificates. Since the beginning of this year, licensees who wish to do so have been able to apply for a children's certificate. These permit children under 14 who are accompanied by an adult to be admitted to the bar, if the licensing justices consider that it provides a suitable environment for children of that age, and meals and non-alcoholic drinks are available there. Our aim, which I believe the licensed trade warmly supports, is to enable pubs which wish to do so to become more family orientated. But if that is to happen, it does not make sense for pubs offering facilities for families with young children to have to close on Sunday afternoon—the very time that many families are able to get out and spend their leisure time together. More generally, there is no good reason why people should be denied the pleasure of popping into the pub for a drink while taking a stroll on Sunday afternoon.

Clause 1 also extends and rationalises off-licence hours. At present, off-licensed premises may sell alcohol on Sundays from noon until 3 o'clock in the afternoon and

2 May 1995 : Column 1331

from 7 until half past 10 in the evening—the same hours as pubs. The effect of Clause 1 is that, subject to the restrictions in the Sunday Trading Act 1994, off-licensed shops will be able to sell alcohol on Sundays from 10 o'clock in the morning until 10.30 in the evening. Large shops whose business consists exclusively or mainly of selling alcoholic drinks and small shops with off-licences, which are not subject to the Sunday Trading Act, will be able to sell alcohol throughout these longer hours. But like pubs, there is no obligation for off-licensed shops to stay open for the whole of the licensing hours. It is for businesses to decide the times within those hours which suit them and their customers best.

The change in the hours will, I know, be particularly welcomed by large stores which have off-licences, such as supermarkets; and I am sure that it will be equally welcome to their customers. Since August last year, large shops have been permitted under the Sunday Trading Act to open for any continuous period of six hours between 10 in the morning and 6 o'clock in the afternoon. Some have chosen from 10 o'clock in the morning until 4, others from 11 o'clock until 5, and yet others from midday until 6 p.m. But the present off-licence hours mean that whatever time those stores choose to open there is always part of their opening hours —before midday or after 3 o'clock—when they may not sell alcohol. So they have to cordon off their stocks of drink and make sure that no one takes a bottle of wine or some other alcoholic drink through the tills except between 12 and 3 o'clock.

That makes life unnecessarily complicated for the stores, and is undoubtedly a source of irritation to customers. People shopping on Sunday morning, perhaps for their Sunday lunch, can buy all the food they want. But they cannot buy a bottle of wine to accompany their meal. That really is absurd. The Bill will sweep away that petty and unnecessary restriction, and enable people to buy alcohol in supermarkets and other large off-licensed stores throughout the time that they can buy other goods in the store.

The Bill also deals, in Clause 2, with the hours during which alcohol may be sold on Sundays in clubs. A club may sell alcohol to its members or their guests in accordance with the club rules, if it is registered for that purpose with the magistrates' court. The hours during which alcohol may be sold on Sunday must be fixed in the club rules and can vary from club to club. However, as in the case of pubs, club hours may not exceed 6½ hours and may not begin before midday or end after half past 10 in the evening. But clubs may have a shorter afternoon break so that one might open, for example, from midday till 3 p.m. and from 5 p.m. until 8.30 p.m., while another might open in line with the pub hours of midday until 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to half past 10 in the evening.

Clause 2, therefore, will simplify these arrangements. In future, registered clubs will be able to sell alcohol throughout the period from midday until 10.30 in the evening, without an afternoon break. The Sunday hours for clubs will therefore be identical to those for pubs.

I referred earlier to the abolition in 1988 of the afternoon break in weekday licensing hours. There is no evidence of any appreciable increase in problems of drunkenness, nuisance and disorder as a result. However, there was some understandable apprehension at the time

2 May 1995 : Column 1332

the change was made that things might not work out as well as they have. A power was taken, therefore, for licensing justices to make a restriction order which would effectively reimpose all or part of the old afternoon break at a particular pub if afternoon opening had led to annoyance, disturbance or disorder. The power also enabled magistrates' courts to make a restriction order to reimpose the old afternoon break at registered clubs in the same circumstances.

In the event, the power to make a restriction order has been needed only very infrequently. Nevertheless, it is a valuable safeguard. We therefore intend to extend it so that it is also available to reimpose the current Sunday afternoon break at pubs or clubs where afternoon opening gives rise to problems.

That is the effect of Clause 3. It will enable the licensing justices, in response to an application by the police or someone who lives or works close to a pub, to consider making a restriction order which would prevent that pub from selling alcohol for part or the whole of the time between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. The licensing justices would, of course, have to be satisfied that this course was justified in order to reduce or avoid annoyance, disturbance or disorder. Clause 3 also extends the existing power of magistrates' courts so that they too will be able to make a restriction order prohibiting Sunday afternoon opening if serious grounds for complaint arise about registered clubs.

The licensing hours for pubs, clubs and off-licensed premises on Christmas Day and Good Friday have traditionally been the same as for Sundays; and that is the position at present. The extended Sunday hours in the Bill, and the power to make a restriction order, will also apply to Good Friday. However, they will not extend to Christmas Day. In deference to views expressed during debate in another place, the Government moved an amendment which removed Christmas Day from the ambit of the Bill. Opening hours for pubs, clubs and off-licensed premises on Christmas Day will, therefore, remain as they are now.

The remaining clauses of the Bill are of less substance. Clause 4 makes amendments to the Licensing Acts 1964 and 1988 which are consequential to the changes which Clauses 1 to 3 make to Sunday opening hours and to the arrangements for restriction orders. Clause 5 provides that, following enactment, the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill will come into force on a date appointed by the Secretary of State. This flexibility is needed to enable the Home Office to inform the licensing justices, magistrates' courts and the police upon Royal Assent about the changes that the Bill will make. We do not envisage that this will take long, and so there should be no need for any significant interval between Royal Assent and the Act coming into effect.

Those are the effects of the Bill. I am sure that they will be popular with both the licensed trade and their customers. The Bill will allow pubs and clubs to get on with their business without unnecessary interference from government. That is what deregulation is all about. It will also, I am convinced, benefit tourism, and perhaps make our licensing hours a little more intelligible to visitors from abroad. For off-licensed premises too, there will be obvious benefits. In supermarkets, in particular, the

2 May 1995 : Column 1333

visible evidence of outdated regulation—the cordoned-off drinks area before midday and after three on Sundays—will rightly become a thing of the past. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Blatch.)

3.21 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I open my remarks, as always on matters of this kind, by saying that as far as the Opposition are concerned, this is a matter for a free vote and we do not in any way impose the Whip. I take some comfort, in view of the different views expressed by Members of my party last year on the Sunday Trading Bill, that none of my noble friends has chosen to speak on this occasion. I am sure that that will not inhibit them from taking part in the Committee and later stages if they feel strongly enough on the matter and, indeed, if they disagree with me, as they are fully entitled to do.

Let me state my position clearly from the outset. I support the Bill. I support the reduction, as far as is possible, in artificial restrictions on the right of people to do what they want so long as they do not harm other people. Having said that, the Government have not fully grasped the opportunity available to them to remove some remaining anomalies in relation to licensing laws. A number of anomalies, which, we are told by Mr. Forsyth, are to be covered in the consultation paper, could well have been covered in the Bill if the Government had shown firmness of intention.

The law in relation to late night opening of licensed premises is still very unclear. There is a formal closing time and a formal drinking-up time, but there are still considerable and varyingly used powers for magistrates to give extensions. I should have thought that it would be desirable to codify the basis on which magistrates ought to be able to consider extensions of that kind in order to satisfy any demand that may exist—I am not convinced there is such a demand—for wider late night opening.

Magistrates do not appear to be subject to any guidance, let alone statutory restrictions. They are perfectly capable, when considering licences, of saying, "This licence is not needed because there is no economic need for it". Surely the basis on which magistrates express local needs should be on local planning grounds rather than on making moral or economic judgments about the desirability of licensed premises being opened in any specific place.

We still have a quite unnecessary and damaging division between what is called a "pub" and what is called a "cafe". We should be more flexible, as are most European countries, in allowing alcohol to be sold either in conjunction with meals or not in conjunction with meals. We no longer have the dried-up sandwich, but anomalies still exist in that part of our licensing laws and the Government should take the opportunity to deal with them as well.

I was interested in what the Minister said regarding the experience of the new provisions for children in licensed premises. I am sure she would agree that these provisions

2 May 1995 : Column 1334

are still finding their feet. There is no doubt that different magistrates in different parts of the country are interpreting the needs of families to enjoy themselves in licensed premises in a different and sometimes anomalous way.

I say all that in the firm knowledge that survey work by the Consumers' Association found by a majority of two to one not only that the people of this country want pubs to be open on a Sunday afternoon—after all, that is the prime purpose of the Bill—but also that, by a similar majority, people want publicans to make their own decisions about when licensed premises should be open. That is fundamentally my view. This is not an area in which the law should be engaged any further than is necessary for the protection of those who wish and need peace and quiet around where they live and where they need to be. The kind of liberal licensing provisions for the sale of alcohol in public places that exist in most parts of the Continent could perfectly well apply to this country without any of the paraphernalia which exists here.

In general, therefore, although I welcome the Bill, there are still anomalies in relation to our licensing laws and I look forward with interest to seeing what the Government propose to do about them. I almost forgot one small anomaly which is not provided for in the Bill. The Minister rightly said that it is an absurdity that parts of supermarkets are cordoned off and not allowed to sell alcohol except between 12 and 3 when the shops are open between 10 and 4 or between 11 and 5. Has she considered that cordoning-off will still apply on Good Friday mornings when supermarkets open at 8.30 or 9 o'clock and that they will have to retain whatever devices they have to stop people taking things off the shelf for one day a year? It would be more desirable to rationalise Good Friday while we are rationalising the rest of the licensing law.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page