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House of Lords

Tuesday, 14th July 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar--Took the Oath.

Russian Federation: Border Disputes

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they believe that the Russian Federation has done all in its power, in accordance with its request for membership of the Council of Europe, "to settle outstanding international border disputes according to the principles of international law, abiding by the existing international treaties".

Lord Whitty: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government share the Council of Europe's assessment of 22nd June that the Russian Federation has made significant progress towards meeting its membership commitments. There are a number of outstanding questions, including the borders with China and Japan, where Russia has worked hard to find a solution, and those with the Baltic states. The Government have encouraged Russia to sign border agreements with Latvia and Estonia, without linkage to other issues, as soon as possible. We shall continue to watch the situation closely.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Does he agree that seven years is a long time to negotiate a border treaty? Does he further agree that since the Baltic states regained their independence, the Russian Federation has put every obstacle in the path of recognising the borders that Lenin recognised in 1920 in the Treaty of Riga and the Treaty of Tartu respectively? Will the noble Lord ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to send Foreign Secretary Primakov a pen so that he can sign the treaties with Latvia and Estonia?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am sure that even in these days the Russian Ministry has pens. It does not, however, yet have the political will to sign those treaties. The 1920 treaties do not involve exactly the same borders as have now been technically agreed. Those borders have been agreed at the technical level, but the Russians are not signing the treaties. However, while we do not want any explicit linkage with other issues, it is also the case that in Estonia and Latvia the treatment of the Russian minorities is an important issue both in this context and in the context of application to join the European Union.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given the Foreign Secretary's ethical foreign policy stance, does the

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Minister think it appropriate for one member state to have territorial claims over another member state within the Council of Europe?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is undesirable. However, a number of such claims are still outstanding. The whole point of the Council of Europe is to ensure that such issues are settled amicably within the commitments made when one becomes a member of the Council of Europe.

Liquor Licensing Laws

2.40 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans for further reform of the liquor licensing laws.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government announced on 5th May that they were starting work on a wide-ranging review of licensing law. We shall be looking at all licensing issues, with the aim of creating a system which properly reflects the needs of modern businesses and consumers and which provides effective safeguards for local communities.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, the review of these arcane procedures--the licensing laws--will be widely welcomed by the hospitality industry. I must declare an interest as the honorary patron of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. However, as reviews by nature take a long time, will the Minister consider some partial deregulation of the permitted hours and entertainment requirements for restaurants licensed under Part IV of the Licensing Act 1964? Cannot that be achieved by a simple order or a minor amendment to the Act?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a valid point. We are willing to make improvements in the short term if a persuasive case is capable of being made. We would certainly be willing to consider the use of deregulation orders if they seem appropriate.

Lord Peston: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome the inquiry. I do not wish to be regarded as an ultra free marketeer, but is my noble friend the Minister able to explain why, with the 20th century virtually at an end, we have to have licensing laws? Why are not the normal laws of the land suitably applicable for this quite small branch of British industry?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we have to bear in mind the dangers of lack of regulation on weak and susceptible people. In your Lordships' House, apparently, liquor is available from 11 o'clock in the morning, so the Chief Whip has told me. It has bad effects. It leads to poor judgment and sometimes mulish

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stubbornness in considering perfectly reasonable proposals from the Commons on Scottish higher education.

Lord Dixon: My Lords, while reviewing the licensing laws, will my noble friend bear in mind that a recent survey conducted by CAMRA found that only 20 per cent. of pints sold in licensed premises actually contained a pint of beer? Is he aware that my honourable friend Dennis Turner introduced a Private Member's weights and measures Bill in another place which would have ensured that people buying pints in licensed premises would be given a pint and not 95 per cent. of it? That Bill was sabotaged by Tory MPs. Will my noble friend press on the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs the banning of rim measures?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that issue is not entirely within the ambit of the present survey, but it is a perfectly legitimate point. I shall certainly transmit it and hope that one day, I, too, will be part of a survey on real ale to see whether a pint pot is 100 per cent. full. I suppose that as the evening goes by one is more and more certain that it does not.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that when the Government are examining all the aspects of licensing, which he has mentioned, they will pay special attention to the huge rise in under-age drinking, in particular selling drink to young people? Will he ensure that those who knowingly do so face penalties somewhat in line with those levelled at people who pass drugs to youngsters?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a good point. The industry is well aware of such difficulties. Sections of the industry are intent on producing a proof-of-age card. The noble Viscount will know of the difficulties about prosecution of employees of large organisations who are employed by the organisation and not the licence holder. That issue is specifically within the scope of the review.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that alcohol is a drug? Although it is a drug in which most of us here participate, including myself, is it not reasonable that all drugs should be under some degree of control?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, alcohol is a drug, which is why people take it. Of course, it ought to be under a degree of control, but not all drugs are the same in their consequences or effects.

Lord Henley: My Lords, is not the solution to the problem enunciated by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, about under-age drinking that one must rely on the "laws of the land", as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, put it, and that one need not bother at all about licensing controls? At this point, I wish to

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welcome the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to the views expressed from this side of the House and suggest that he might like to join us!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, licensing controls are part of the law of the land--that is the whole point of it all. The question is whether the law of the land is efficient and suitable to modern day conditions. As regards many aspects of licensing law, we are still dealing with the Sunday Observance Act 1780, or, in Wales, the Sunday Closing Act 1881, so perhaps the law needs to be reviewed and brought up to date.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, was the Minister's initial Answer restricted to England and Wales, or is there also to be a review of Scottish licensing laws, which are entirely separate and dealt with by the Scottish Office? Alternatively, will that be left to the proposed new parliament in Scotland, which would be appropriate as it is to be built on the site of a former brewery?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that licensing in Scotland ought properly be left to the parliament in Scotland. There is a dreadful rumour, which I am not propagating, that the new assembly building in Wales may be wholly dry.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, in the course of the review, will the Minister consider the training of publicans in dealing with under-age drinking, because the legislation is vague?

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