I beg to move, Thai the Bill be now read a Second time.
I should like to thank all of those right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported the Bill. It is a modest, limited and straightforward Bill. Clause I would enable licensees, if they wished, to apply to the licensing justices for a variation order. The justices would be required to be satisfied that such orders were desirable, taking local factors into account. They could grant orders permitting opening for up to 12 hours between 10.30 am and 11.30 pm, Monday to Saturday.
I expect that some licensees would take up the opportunity and that others would not. There are provisions for appeal and revocation, on application by the police. My hon. Friend the Minister will he especially interested in clause 4(2), which enables the Secretary of State to decide when variation orders are brought in. That relieves any pressure on licensing justices from any initial rush. I assure my hon. Friend that the Association of District Councils does not think that the resource problem cannot be handled.
The House knows that this subject has been discussed on numerous occasions since the committee under the chairmanship of Lord Erroll of Hale recommended, among other things, substantial liberalisation of licensing hours. My right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General introduced a Bill in 1975, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) in 1979 and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) more recently.
A debate on the subject was started on 30 November 1984 by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), who spoke in the light of his experience as an alcohol counsellor. During that debate, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) spoke, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) who brought his experience and knowledge of the subject to bear.
On 4 February 1986, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published the Government's reaction to the 10 years of relaxed licensing requirements in Scotland on the basis of the study by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which concluded that there was no evidence that the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 had caused an increase in alcohol consumption and that there were signs that it had led to more leisurely and responsible drinking. Ministers have suggested that this is an appropriate subject for a private Member's Bill.
For the first time, the industry is united behind the Bill. The National Union of Licensed House Managers, which is Trades Union Congress-affiliated, supports the Bill, as does the National Licensed Victuallers Association and the Brewers' Society. The Bill is also supported by the British Tourist Authority, the English Tourist Board, many tourist organisations and the Association of District Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.
I turn to the arguments and make two general points. First, no one really defends the status quo, which is based on historic considerations relating to wartime considerations during the first world war. Since then there have been immense social and economic changes, especially the massive growth of supermarkets and off-licences in our high streets.
Secondly, no one doubts, least of all the supporters of the Bill, that a minority of people suffer from problems related to alcohol abuse and that it is a serious problem, which can cause damage to those people, to their families, to their employers and work mates and to innocent people travelling on Britain's roads. The arguments for the Bill fall under the headings of freedom of choice, economic effects and health considerations.
I start with health. I quote from a letter that I received from the co-author of two definitive books on the subject, the Reverend G. Thompson-Brake who is the minister of Hadleigh Methodist church in Benfleet, Essex. He states:
For over 25 years I have been a student of the emergence of drinking patterns in Great Britain and society's response to them. On the specific matter of the objects of your Bill, I do not myself believe that the kind of extension of hours which you propose will itself lead to an increase in offences of drunkenness and associated offences . . .
It has always been my view that well conducted public houses provide the best controlled conditions for the sale and consumption of liquor. I do not see how an extension of hours in this sector of the trade will in future lead to increased consumption.
That point has been put to the House in previous debates. The House knows that my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has been a stout defender of the English pub. Much has been made of the experience in Scotland. The definitive analysis of that experience is contained in the Plant and Duffy article in the British Medical Journal of 4 January 1986. It states:
Trends in alcohol related morbidity and mortality in Scotland compared with England and Wales did not show deleterious changes specifically related to 1976, but appeared to be a continuation of the situation that was evident between 1970 and 1976. Conversely, officially recorded rates for drunkenness have declined more in Scotland than they have in England and Wales. This evidence suggests that, in relation to health, the new Scottish licensing arrangements may be viewed neither as a cause of harm nor as a source of benefit. They have, in effect, been neutral.
The article also pointed to the reduction in the Scottish level of public order offences relating to alcohol and the popularity of the new arrangements. The report concluded:
The evidence suggests that neither extreme benefit nor extreme harm would result from future charges.
My hon. Friend mentioned the question of public order offences. I think that he may be interested to know, in support of the case he is making, that the chief constable of Warwickshire told me earlier this week, speaking from the point of view of his professional responsibilities and police operational considerations, that he firmly supports this Bill on the basis that the note that my hon. Friend wishes to introduce would lead to a reduced incidence of drunken driving and other sorts of drunken encounters.
I have advised senior police officers for the past 20 years and I hope to present evidence to the House that some of them are extremely alarmed at the increase in under-age drinking that is taking place in many parts of the country, including my own.
I entirely accept that the police, like many other people, are concerned about the problems of underage drinking. There is substantial evidence, however, that the police, both in Scotland and England, generally prefer more liberal and flexible licensing hours for some fairly obvious operational reasons. Since 1976, there has been an increase of about 20 per cent. in the number of criminal offences recorded in Scotland following liberalisation. Over the same period, there has been an increase of 74 per cent. in England.
At a press conference this week the British Medical Association claimed that the Scottish experience was controversial and highly questionable. That claim was given considerable publicity, but the following day the BMA issued a statement in which it admitted that the Scottish experience was relevant and that the figures relating to Scotland might be in favour of the Bill. There is no restriction on availability of information, but I cannot remember the BMA's secretary mentioning the figures at the press conference. I shall make no allegations, however, because I was not present at the press conference. It would seem, however, that the statistics should have been presented at that time.
There are many factors that bear on the consumption and excessive consumption of alcohol. I am suggesting that there is no evidence that the proposed modest change to our licensing laws in England and Wales will lead to an increase in excessive consumption.
The British Tourist Authority has estimated that the Bill would create about 50,000 extra jobs and the brewers' estimate is an extra 25,000. That estimate is based on the Mori poll that was conducted of Scottish pubs. The poll showed that at least one third of the pubs employed at least one extra member of staff following the change in Scottish licensing laws. Perhaps the estimate of 25,000 jobs is on the low side.
There is no doubt that extra jobs would be created in many enterprises. This week I was visited by representatives of the three gateway airports of Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow. They told me that if the Bill were enacted it would enable them to make provision for national and international travellers and that would create 150 new jobs. If the Bill is passed, extra jobs will be created throughout the country.
I consider the economic arguments that are based on choice and tourism to be overwhelming. There are more philosophical arguments about more freedom and there is no evidence that the Bill would aggravate health-related problems. In all probability, it would assist in alleviating them. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends who have concerned themselves with the serious problems of alcohol abuse over the years will give this modest Bill a Second Reading and join me in Committee. In Committee we may be able to reach a consensus on additional measures to provide health education on the problems that arise from alcohol abuse that we can present jointly to the Government. That seems to be a positive—
I think that my hon. Friend's last statement will do much to assuage the fears of many of us that there is a lacuna in the Bill, there being no reference to the problems of alcohol abuse. It is clear that that issue must be addressed, and I am sure that the House will take up my hon. Friend's invitation to use the opportunity that will be provided in Committee to articulate that issue.
The House and all the people of England and Wales have cause to be grateful to the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), not only for the way in which he introduced the Bill, but for its terms. No man could be more altruistic than the hon. Gentleman. He has the advantages that he is now trying to confer upon the people of England, Wales and Scotland. His constituents will not gain by his efforts, but mine will. The hon. Gentleman is like a Celtic missionary of old who has come to spread enlightenment and to do something in England that has been needed not only for years but for decades. Shakespeare said that the law is an ass. The licensing laws are a completely inconsistent and hypocritical mule.
The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) mentioned the increase in drunkenness, particularly among young people. It is farcical that any adult may go into a supermarket from 8 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night and buy bottles of gin, whisky, wine or beer and drink them in the street, at home or on a park bench, but is denied the opportunity to drink in the controlled, supervised environment of a public house. Tourists must think that we are completely mad.
Would it not have been better to include in the Bill provisions to deal with offsales of this kind, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention, and thereby gain much wider support for the measure?
That matter should be covered by a separate Bill.
The hon. Member for Eastwood is trying, in a moderate and modest way, to draw the support of all people within the licensing trade and many outside it. I am the vice-president of the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils. Both bodies warmly and strongly support the Bill.
There is a terminal date in the Bill. Newspaper propaganda was spread by those who are opposed to the Bill to try to persuade the public that public houses would be open 24 hours. That is not so under the terms of the Bill. The hon. Member for Eastwood quoted a statement by the British Medical Association which it later corrected. He also mentioned North Carolina in America. I have been to North Carolina. The position there is different. In North Carolina there is no drinking in public houses. Indeed, if one purchases alcoholic liquor, it has to be carried in a brown bag. One cannot publicly display it. Different conditions exist.
Hon. Members have flexibility in the licensing system that operates in the House. Why should we deny that flexibility to members of the public? Indeed, members of the public will not get anything like the flexibility—even with the Bill—that we enjoy. It is farcicial that public houses must close when their trade may be busiest, when tourists are about and when people need a drink, and must open and remain open during fixed hours when nobody is likely to go into a public house. Publicans must use light, heat, staff and so on at those times.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Eastwood on introducing the Bill. I hope to serve on the Committee when it examines it. I hope that the Committee, as the hon. Gentleman said, is critical in some respects. I sincerely hope that the people of England and Wales and the licensing trade in England and Wales will be given the modest, sensible freedom that the hon. Gentleman's Bill offers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on introducing the Bill. It required courage, and he has enormous support. I am grateful to him for allowing me to become a sponsor, because I have been involved in this campaign since I came to the House in 1974. One of the reasons is that I represent the brewing centre of Britain, but it is not just the brewers of Burton, but the licensees, the managers, the millions of customers, those who will get work out of the industries related to brewing and the potential employees, who think that the Bill would be a good measure. Possibly millions of people support the Bill, and some evidence of that fact has come in the opinion polls.
It is not just the need for jobs and a successful industry that moves one to support the Bill. In our much more sophisticated and modern times it is important that freedom should be given or restored to people to behave responsibly. That is a fundamental principle of the Conservative party and the Government. There is a need to rid ourselves of outdated restrictions imposed at a time of war on a society in which Governments were then expected to order social behaviour.
We have not, I think, had to wait so long for a Government to support such a Bill because of the fear of ill health resulting from flexible licensing hours. It is no longer acceptable in our modern society, which is much more self-responsible, to argue that the overwhelming majority should have their freedom curtailed because of the abuse of the few. It is more likely that they feared that flexibility would lead to more drunkenness and crime. The police, at an earlier stage, opposed such a change, for that reason, and we backed them. Those who doubted whether that would happen, because it was the closing hour that was causing drunkenness, and that problem will be reduced, if not avoided, by flexible hours, could only, in the years after 1974, look into the crystal ball and say, "We do not accept that mournful diagnosis."
Now, we no longer have to gaze into any crystal balls because we have the evidence of what results from flexibility, after 10 years of that in Scotland. I shall not waste time repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood said and what other colleagues will say. However, it is clear that there is no evidence of any deterioration in the moral fibre of the Scots over the past 10 years, and no evidence of any resulting increase in crime.
As a result, senior police officers who earlier had doubts about this have withdrawn their objections and a high proportion of police, and those who represent them, know this to be so. They have changed to support of a Bill which introduces flexibility and does away with the problem of the closing hour, in which people drink intensively and then go out and smash the place up. Those of us who practise in the criminal courts know that most criminal drunks commit their acts of violence in or immediately after those last moments of drinking-up time at a late hour.
I hope that the House will give the Bill a fair wind. It deals with the matter in a controlled and sensible way. It is not open house, and automatic, that anybody can stay open indefinitely and provide drink endlessly. It introduces a new procedure by which licensing justices can continue to control the drinking hours. There are doubtless all kinds of improvements and some have already been suggested, concerning health, and these can be made in Committee. I hope that the Committee will not last for anything as long as previous stages. On one, I listened for hours to the persuasive but misguided words of my right hon., and dedicated Friend, the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine).
Because the Bill is sensible, well-researched, job creating, contains a nationally supported principle of freedom, and is long-overdue I support it. I am a sponsor of it and commend it, but that is in no way a criticism of my right hon. and very righteous Friend the Member for Castle Point.
I am grateful to my hon and learned Friend for giving way. He will recall that my objection to that Bill was that it contained a proposal that children under the age of 14 should be allowed into licensed bars unaccompanied. I managed to persuade the vast majority of the House that that was morally wrong. The House threw that proposal out, and rightly so.
I am absolutely delighted that the central reason why my right hon. Friend opposed that Bill has been removed from this Bill and that there are now no other grounds on which it may be opposed by my right hon. Friend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on introducing the Bill, and I especially welcome the moderation of the Bill, the basic task of which is to rationalise and simplify.
I think it is fair to say that if one knows where to go it is already possible to do everything that is being sought in the Bill. One can start drinking at Smithfield Market at 6 o'clock in the morning, and if one finds a market extension one can carry on drinking through the afternoon. If one's desires to drink in a public place are frustrated, one can board a train with a bar and go to Brighton and back; one can book in as a resident in a hotel and drink in the residents' lounge. What this admirable Bill is trying to do is to simplfy the legal mess regarding licensing hours.
I am aware that there will be objections to the Bill, and indeed the right hon Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who has never been hesistant in making his views clear, has told us that he fears the effects that the Bill will have on under-age drinkers. The lengthening of the licensing hours and the flexibility contained in the Bill will, by reversing the concentration of drinking time, make the supervision of young drinkers easier. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give a fair wind to the Second Reading of the Bill. Once it is in Committee we can discuss any problems.
I accept that there are anomalies and dangers in the free licensing trade which enable people to go into supermarkets and off-licences and buy drink at all times of the day. I do not believe that the Bill is the right one for amending that. Hon. Members who are opposed to free access to alcohol in unlicensed places realise that if anyone is hell-bent on drinking, it is very hard to stop him. The price that is charged for the convenience and community spirit of a public house is already a deterrent to alcoholics and is very different from going into an off-licence and snatching drink with the specific desire to get drunk.
I have discussed with a Scottish chief constable the effects of flexibility of Scottish licensing hours. On the whole, he was in favour of them. He said that it had not vastly changed the amount drunk, but that it had staggered the hours during which drunks smash up their cars or are taken into custody—which was helpful. I do not believe that the non-existence of the Bill will do anything other than concentrate drunkenness and cause greater trouble.
The licensing laws are a mess. Those hon. Members who have been consulted by their constituency publicans and asked to give support to the Bill deserve an opportunity to put the arguments succinctly, and I ask that hon. Members expedite the Bill to Committee where we can consider the fine print. I am honoured to have been chosen as a sponsor of the Bill, and I wish it well.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) both on his good fortune in winning a place in the private Members' ballot and on his fortitude in introducing the Bill, not least because my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) is not completely in sympathy with it.
It might be helpful if I were to express the Government's view briefly and in general terms. My reason for that is not discourtesy to the proponents or opponents of the Bill, but is rather because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak and I in no way wish to impede them. Moreover, many of the detailed points that the Government would wish to express can properly be made later should the Bill go to a subsequent stage.
I hope that the Minister will address himself to what other measures need to be taken alongside the Bill, such as have been referred to by the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart)—the availability of alcohol on off-sales, pricing and other related matters. It is upon that that the attitudes of many hon. Members to the Bill depend. Many might accept some relaxation of the licensing laws if other measures are taken at the same time.
We are considering this Bill, and I shall say in general terms where we stand on it. I hope that when I have finished the hon. Gentleman will accept that I have done no injustice either to his point of view or to the point of view of any other hon. Member.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood has described with considerable clarity the changes that are contemplated by the Bill, and therefore I do not want to repeat what he said. All I would do is to emphasise two points.
First, generally speaking, the variation orders would be subject to a maximum of 12 hours. Secondly, the licensees are not under an obligation to apply for longer hours. The Bill enables them to apply for longer hours in line with customer demand, subject, of course, to satisfying the court that there is a case for a variation order and that local interests have been properly taken into account.
As hon. Members will know, the Government are on record as favouring some reform of the licensing laws. We have come to that conclusion after a careful examination of the available evidence on the likely effect of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related offences. In principle, we support a measured relaxation of the present restrictions.
Hon. Members who have spoken have largely been in support of the Bill. Not surprisingly, support for flexible licensing hours has come from the drinks trade, sectors of the licensed trade and the catering, leisure and tourist industries. All those rightly point to benefits that would accrue from reform, such as employment, a boost to tourism and, indeed, the greater freedom of choice for the consumer.
However, there is another point of view. It is the point of view of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point is a notable exponent. We, as a House, would be foolish to dismiss the sincerely held views of organisations and individuals who warn that longer hours will lead to an increase in alcohol consumption and to alcohol-related problems.
I want to make it clear that the Government would not wish to do anything that would exacerbate the incidence of alcohol abuse, the deaths and injury caused by drunken driving or the domestic violence and criminal offences committed under the influence of alcohol. All those are important considerations to which the House will wish to attach importance.
Rather than doing nothing, will the Government do something, such as looking again at the funding of detoxification centres and trying to deal with the massive increase of alcohol abuse by young people and under-age drinking? We are spending a lot of money on heroin and cocaine abuse. but nothing, effectively, on alcohol abuse.
The Government understand the importance of the point that has been made so eloquently, not only today, but on previous occasions by my hon. Friend. This is an area in which we are considering what can properly be done. We attach considerable importance to the maintenance of adequate and effective control on licensed outlets, especially because of our concern about alcohol misuse.
We have taken considerable note of the reports on alcohol misuse which the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists and General Practitioners and others have published recently. We continue to share their concern about the health and social harm that can result from excessive or inappropriate drinking, and remain committed to developing effective health education and the appropriate preventive measures.
Moreover — this is specifically a matter of Home Office concern—we have substantial reservations about the resource costs that the Bill will involve. There are about 122,000 licensed and registered club premises in England and Wales which could apply to the courts for variation orders, and a reasonable assumption is that about 75 per cent. will seek to do so in the first year. Clearly, that will occupy a substantial amount of court time. Moreover, it will inevitably impose substantial burdens upon the police. The House must take those matters into account.
In conclusion, the Government favour a liberalisation of the licensing laws in England and Wales. The approach that has been adopted in the Bill is, perhaps, not the Government's preference, because of the resource implications to which I referred. We do not wish to oppose the Bill, but if it proceeds to Committee—that is for the House to decide—we shall need to consider whether amendments might be necessary to reduce the resource cost implications.
I recognise that many will regard the Bill as a step in the right direction. It is for the House, not the Government, to decide whether the Bill should proceed further today.
Everybody agrees that, although alcohol is a source of pleasure and relaxation for many, it is a harmful product for a minority. We must judge the Bill on the extent to which it may increase the harm to the minority, as against the pleasure or added pleasure that it could give to the majority. Virtually all countries in the world face that difficult problem.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on his success in the ballot. However, I should have preferred any approach to relaxing the licensing hours to have been part and parcel of an overall approach to tackling alcohol abuse. I should have preferred more emphasis to be placed on health education and better funding for provisions in the community to help those who suffer from alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Although I am not seeking in any way to criticise the hon. Member for Eastwood—a private Member's Bill must inevitably be limited in its scope if it is to succeed—I should have preferred the Government to grasp the problem and to say, "Let us tackle this as an overall problem", instead of allowing it to go through in piecemeal measures. Another measure is going through the other place to relax the licensing provision for restaurants, which may well find favour in the House. Again, that is a piecemeal approach and I think that the House and the country would prefer to see an overall approach.
Over recent years there has been a significant increase in alcohol consumption. We have seen an increase in all types of outlets—on and off-licence outlets—that sell alcohol. At the same time, the policy of successive Governments has effectively reduced the real price of many types of alcohol to consumers. In other words, alcohol has become cheaper. There must be a relationship between that and increased alcohol consumption.
It would be wrong to say that there is not a serious problem of alcohol abuse. We know that families break up because of it, that teenage drinking can be a serious problem, that absenteeism and job losses are associated with alcoholism, that many crimes, from football hooliganism to murder, are strongly associated with alcoholism and that many road accidents have alcohol as a major contributory factor. Many organisations have produced the statistics to support what I have said. I shall not take up the time of the House in quoting them.
Sometimes we make comparisons with drinking on the continent. People say, "Would it not be nice if our pubs were like cafes in France, with a family atmosphere and none of the pressure to drink?"
All too often in pubs in this country there is the pressure to confine oneself to drinking alcohol. Although coffee and soft drinks are available, all too often the atmosphere is that one is there to drink alcohol and not other beverages. I wish that there was a more purposeful move in our pubs—there has been a move already—towards making the atmosphere less one of concentration on alcohol only and on other things that can be a part of social and relaxing evenings.
On the other hand, in countries such as France there is a more serious problem of alcoholism than in this country. Perhaps the fact that there are virtually no limits on the hours in which alcohol can be bought is a contributory factor to the greater prevalence of alcoholism in France than in this country.
I shall refer briefly to the Bill, because I do not wish to take up more than a few minutes of the time of the House. I note that it will allow an increase to up to 13 hours a day during which pubs can be open, with specific outer limits. I am not against flexibility, but I wonder whether it is right to have the flexibility that the Bill proposes. I should have preferred the flexibility to be in the context of the present limits on hours, within nine and a half hours' drinking time rather than a 13-hour day.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I should have said that 13 hours is the maximum parameter, with 12 hours drinking time within that.
Nevertheless, my point holds. I should have thought that it would have been a more acceptable and a safer step, if we are to adopt a piecemeal approach, to go for flexibility in the context of a nine-and-a-half hour maximum drinking day rather than the hours envisaged in the Bill.
I am also concerned about the impact upon those who work in pubs. Some may welcome the longer hours, but I suspect that for others the longer hours will be a burden and it will be difficult for them to get home later at night. However, I welcome the undertaking by the hon. Member for Eastwood that, if the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill today, the Committee will be the appropriate occasion to add elements of health education to the measure. I welcome that, although I wish that the Bill had started off in that way. It would have been more acceptable at the outset if it had contained those elements.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the title of the Bill scarcely permits much discussion, let alone amendment in that area? The title states that the Bill enables
different permitted hours to be specified for individual on-licensed premises and registered clubs.
The procedure of the House may not allow the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) to live up to the helpful undertaking that he tried to give.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. That is why I said that I should have preferred it if, at the outset, the Bill had sought to cover all those matters. I should have preferred that to the hopes being expressed that somehow we might manage it in Committee, because some of us have been taken in by that before. Committees are not always successful in achieving that.
I agree with the Minister that it is for the House to decide. If the measure is approved and receives a Second Reading today, I hope very much that important amendments will be made in Committee. For the moment, I leave it to my colleagues to decide how they wish to vote, if we have a vote on Second Reading today.
I do not propose to speak for long, but I want to inject a note of caution from the Conservative Benches about the Bill.
Over the past few days I have read in the papers that the Government support the Bill. In his speech, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department put a gloss on that. I believe that he said that the Government do not wish to obstruct the Bill. That places a slightly different complexion on things. He also said that the Government did not want to do anything that would exacerbate the problems of alcohol abuse. The opponents of the Bill claim that it would make the problems worse.
I have no rooted objection to liberalisation. However, if my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) is claiming that the licensing laws are out of date with regard to opening hours and that society should adjust that interface, surely there are other points at which society and alcohol interface which should be examined. If the Bill receives a Second Reading, I am worried that the opportunity to take a slightly broader look at the role of alcohol in society will be missed.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security in the Chamber because I am most concerned about the health aspects. I have examined the evidence from Scotland and, in common with many hon. Members, I listened to a research fellow from Paisley. The evidence from Scotland is somewhat conflicting. Evidence can be produced for both sides as was revealed on the "Today" programme and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood might have heard that programme if he was awake at that early hour. The unbiased listener would have come away with the impression that the case is not proven.
The Government have a pre-eminent role in this debate. They virtually fix the price of alcohol because excise duty is such a high proportion of the price. Parliament decides the age at which people shall drink and through the licensing hours we control opening hours. The Government are heavily involved on the health side as the DHSS provides detoxification centres. Through their influence on the Health Education Council, the Government influence the way in which the dangers of alcohol are promoted. Through their agreement with the brewing industry, they control how alcohol is advertised on television and elsewhere.
It is wrong to consider only one interface between alcohol and society and tackle that but not consider the other interfaces. Because of the way in which the Bill is drawn, the opportunity to take a broader look is denied to us. I regard the Bill as a dry run. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood has started a useful debate on this subject and that the Government, after we have won the election, will introduce a Bill which may incorporate provisions along the lines of my hon. Friend's Bill. I hope that a Government Bill will also do something about the problems.
A representative from the Brewers Society conceded on the BBC "Breakfast Time" programme that there were problems, and said that there was a real difficulty about under-age drinking. If the Brewers Society admits that there is such a problem, we should try to consider that alongside increasing moves dealing with increasing the opportunities for drinking.
As one would expect, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood moved the Bill in a moderate and sensible way. However, if there is a Division I will not follow him in the Lobby, not through any fundamental opposition to his proposals, but because I believe that other points must be tackled at the same time. The Bill does not allow me the opportunity to consider such problems.
I wish to join other hon. Members in expressing my warmest thanks to the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) who comes from a part of the United Kingdom where a more enlightened attitude prevails. He has had the generosity of spirit to try to extend the benefits of civilisation to the benighted English. Clearly, King Edward I has been forgiven.
I support the Bill because it is the best that we have. However, I have certain criticisms. I do not understand why Sundays should be excluded from the provisions in the Bill. If it is not sinful to drink in a public house at 2 o'clock on a Sunday, why should it be sinful at 4 o'clock? I cannot see the point of that exclusion. As for weekdays, I strongly support the view that a licensee should be able to decide the most appropriate opening hours for his pub. Why then should he have to apply to the magistrates' court for a variation order? Why can he not merely register his hours so that they can be checked and monitored by the police?
In my constituency, at the last count there were 115 pubs and many clubs. In the Rotherham area as a whole the total must be well over 300. If all those licensees, or even the majority of them, applied to Rotherham magistrates' court for variation orders, I share the concern expressed by the Minister about the burden that that would impose on the magistrates. There is no reason why such a restriction should be introduced.
My third reservation is that I do not believe that the maximum number of hours should be as high as 12. Very few licensees will wish to open their premises for as many as 12 hours a day. Probably 10 or 10½ would be more appropriate.
All those matters can be considered in Committee and there is no reason in what I have just said for not giving the Bill a Second Reading.
I deplore the hysterical campaign that has been mounted in recent weeks against the Bill. Much of the opposition has been based on deliberate lies or on evidence which, to say the least, is dubious. I especially deplore the activities of the organisation called Alcohol Concern, which is clearly more concerned with alcohol than it is with the truth. It sent a circular to hon. Members saying that the Bill provides for all-day opening. Anyone who thinks that the Bill provides for all-day opening must start his day at 10.30 am; if so, he is more fortunate than many of us. The British Medical Association has issued stern warnings about a massive increase in alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases resulting from the Bill. I do not believe it. If people can enjoy a drink in a more relaxed and leisurely way, it will reduce alcoholism, not increase it.
I must put this question to hon. Members who, from time to time, visit licensed premises. I do occasionally. Do they see alcoholics in pubs? I do not. I see people enjoying a drink, usually in company. Occasionally, I see people who may have had a little too much, but that is not the same as alcoholism. I am convinced that private, secret, solitary drinking in the home is a much greater cause of alcoholism than is social drinking in a public house. The serious problem of widespread alcohol abuse is much more associated with the ready supply of alcohol in supermarkets than it is with the ability to get a drink in a pub.
Making pub opening hours more flexible will not have the slightest effect on alcoholism. The Bill is about flexibility, not about longer hours, although that may result in some cases. I strongly support its main purpose of making opening hours more flexible. I do not advocate a free-for-all in pubs any more than I support a free-for-all in the retail trade, which is why I opposed the Government's ill-fated Shops Bill. But licensees must be treated as responsible citizens who know best how to run their businesses within reasonable statutory limits. Vie must stop treating them as an anti-social breed of people who must be rigidly controlled, licensed, watched, monitored and visited by the police to see whether they are leading the innocent public on to the path of wickedness. We must get rid of that attitude.
Apart from the organisations mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastwood, the Bill is supported by the Transport and General Workers Union, which organises bar staff and can see in the Bill the opportunity to create much more employment. Ii is also supported by the Campaign for Real Ale, of 'which I am also a member, which represents many thousands of the most discerning customers.
I hope that in his comments about the restrictions on licensees the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there should be removed from the control of alcohol the procedures that require licensees to place themselves before a magistrates' court and have police approval. That is one of the protections and one of the means by which we ensure that the licensed trade is run, by and large, by extremely responsible people.
I fully support that point and do not suggest that those restrictions should be removed. Having received his licence and thus secured the approval of the licensing bench, the licensee should be allowed to get on with his business in a responsible way.
If the Bill is turned down, the House cannot escape the charge of double standards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) reminded us that i he bar in the House to which hon. Members may take personal guests is open at all hours of the day and night for as long as the House sits. Any hon. Member who opposes this Bill must, if he wishes to be consistent, table a motion to close the Strangers' Bar at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and at 11 o'clock at night. I wonder how far he would get with that?
At first glance this Bill, which seeks a relaxation of licensing hours, seems reasonable enough. It was advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) in a speech of quiet moderation. It is certainly much less objectionable than two previous private Members' Bills on the subject, of which I earlier took the opportunity to remind the House, aimed at introducing children under 14 into licensed bars. One of them actually proposed that children under 14 should be introduced unaccompanied into licensed bars. That Bill got a Second Reading and went to Committee, but when it again reached the Floor of the House the penny had dropped and hon. Members realised the iniquity of such legislation. Rightly the House threw out that Bill and threw out the other one as well.
I have listened intently to the debate but I wish to oppose the Bill for three main reasons. First, I am worried about a measure that provides not only for longer hours but for flexibility within those hours. That is all very well for the licensee, but one must consider the opportunity for drinking that this presents to the customer. It is that with which licensing is primarily concerned and which over the years has caused Parliament to be cautious on the subject of licensing.
One consequence of the flexibility provided by the Bill is the opportunity that it gives to people to drink continuously for up to 13 hours. It is not, therefore, the modest measure that my hon. Friend introduced with his quiet charm. It would have the affect of extending drinking time from nine and half hours, with the present afternoon break, to 13 hours. That is an increase of one third.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that in a dwelling house one can drink at any time of the day? In Scotland, one can drink at any time of the day and people can have a drink when they want one. They do not say to themselves, "I am allowed to drink for 13 hours, and I will do that." People have a choice about when they want to drink. If a person comes off night shift or day shift, he can have a drink and it becomes natural and not forbidden. Anything that echoes prohibition increases the charm of doing that which is forbidden.
With his customary forensic skill, my hon. and learned Friend has made a statement of the obvious. The overwhelming majority of people in Britain who frequent public houses drink moderately. The overwhelming majority of people who consume liquor in the home drink moderately and the overwhelming majority of parents with young children see to it that they are not introduced to alcohol until they have some judgment of their own. We are not talking about that. We are talking about a growing minority who misuse alcohol.
I should like to make two statements. First, alcohol is a pleasant adjunct to civilised living. It adds to conviviality and sociability. It is a delight to us all and, drunk with moderation, it can add to the sum of human happiness. Second, alcohol is a potent drug which, as we know from experience in this country, in Scotland and all over the world, can harm health, shorten life and cause an immense toll of human misery. It has been said many time before by eminent medical men that if alcohol was invented now it would have to be on medical prescription because, used immoderately, it is damaging to health. Parliament alone, because this is the sole regulating body, can decide what should be the parameters within which this potent drug shall be consumed.
It is significant that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), a former Health Minister who spoke earlier, was critical of the Bill. I too had a spell at the Department of Health and Social Security and I am critical of the Bill for good health reasons.
If my hon. and learned Friend seeks to intervene he will lengthen the speech I have to make. I have to make this speech because so far, apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Acton a considered view of the Bill and what it will do or not do has not been expressed.
I object to the Bill because it must be viewed against the serious background of alcohol abuse, especially among adolescents, young adults and the increase in under-age drinking in public houses. It is no good for my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood to tell us that some chief constable says that the Bill is all right. All I can say is that up and down the country the field officers, superintendents of police who have to enforce the law, are worried about under-age drinking.
I am concerned not with opinion but with fact. I shall quote from the journal described as the best evening newspaper in the country, "The Evening Echo", covering south-east Essex and my constituency. It states:
Children as young as 12 are drinking in pubs, a police chief claims. Some are even boozing during their school lunch breaks, he says".
It went on:
I believe some youngsters leave their schools during their dinner break for a lunchtime drink. If they are going out to the chip shop they can easily go on to a pub without the school being aware … Basildon police commander, Chief Superintendant Alan Gilling, said youngsters were more likely after drinking to commit offences such as criminal damage, theft, burglary and stealing.
I could produce much more such evidence. If the Bill ever goes to a Standing Committee we will get the facts, not the opinions of this chief constable or that chief constable. We shall get the opinions of the police officers who have the task of enforcing the law, who, for example, have to deal with drunken youths late at night.
I was straying because of the interruptions from the Benches behind me because those interruptions indicate the uneasiness of the proponents of the Bill who now fear that its seeming moderation will not delude the House into thinking that it can be passed without harm, and possibly even with some moderate benefit.
The third reason why I object to the Bill is that I do not believe that tampering with the licensing laws regarding availability is a matter for private Members. It is one for Government. Moreover, no Government should approve any tampering with the licensing laws until they are able to present the House with a national strategy to deal with the problems of alcohol abuse and are ready to achieve a more co-ordinated approach. No fewer than 16 Government Departments have responsibilities in regard to the production and sale of alcohol or the amelioration of the problems that its use entails.
No such strategy has been developed. I must remind the House that the Erroll report, which started some of my hon. Friends down the road of seeking the liberalisation of licensing laws, was severely criticised at the time by the medical authorities for its complacent and ill-informed disregard of the dangers of liberalisation in terms of public health. I should like to quote from a leader in the British Medical Journal at the time, which said bluntly:
From the public health point of view the report's major proposals must be condemned as untimely. Their adoption in practice would be to risk a further increase in alcoholism, with its attendant dangers to harmony in the home and life on the roads.
If it was untimely to liberalise the licensing laws in 1972, it is infinitely more untimely to do so in 1987 because, since 1972, the epidemic of medical and social problems caused by the misuse of alcohol has not abated. On the contrary, it has increased in scale and severity because, over the years, legal and other controls on alcohol consumption and misuse have been gradually whittled away. I have some sympathy for hon. Members who referred to the way in which, in a fit of absent mindedness I suppose, the House has approved the proliferation of outlets for the sale of alcohol. We have allowed the proliferation of outlets—the sale of liquor in restaurants, clubs, corner shops, supermarkets and even garages. We have allowed the price of alcohol to grow ever cheaper in real terms to such an extent that the average consumer is now able to buy, from a greatly increased choice of outlets, three bottles of whisky for the same money in real terms as his or her parents would have required to buy one.
This hugely increased availability of alcohol has arisen more through a protracted fit of absent mindedness than by any conscious desire. No Government deliberately sought the doubling of alcohol consumption which has occurred in Britain since the 1950s. It has nevertheless happened, and it is the result of a series of changes which are unco-ordinated and fairly small, but their cumulative effect has propelled us into a national alcohol problem the like of which we have not seen since the turn of the century.
We are today asked to support yet another measure which would take us one more step down this dismal road. We shall not be able to claim this time that we have stepped blindly in the wrong direction, for we have been told in the clearest possible terms by expert bodies that further liberalisation of licensing laws is virtually certain to result, in the short or longer-term, in an exacerbation of what is already one of the most serious public health problems facing the country.
The House knows that I speak as a former chairman of the National Council on Alcoholism. I am currently president of the Greater London Alcohol Advisory Service—the people who have to pick up the pieces in the metropolis. I do not know of one reputable body which is concerned with public health that supports the Bill. We have been told that some publicans favour it, that the drinks trade favours it and that one chief police officer favours it, but we have not been told of the public health bodies that support it .
The British Medical Association opposes the Bill. Alcohol Concern, which is the Government's appointed agency for tackling alcohol abuse, opposes it. The Institute of Alcohol Studies opposes it, as does Action on Alcohol Abuse, a body established by the medical royal colleges. In Scotland, the Scottish Council on Alcohol and the Alcohol Studies Centre at Paisley has vigorously and persistently rebutted the claim that the so-called Scottish experiment provides support for the further liberalisation of the law in England and Wales. Both oppose the Bill. Thus the most significant and telling feature of the debate is that the expert bodies that are concerned to protect public health uniformly oppose further liberalisation while supporters of relaxation, almost without exception, have a clear vested interest in increasing alcohol sales.
I do not condemn the liquor trade for seeking to increase its sales, for that is what it is in business to do. We have long since passed the stage, however, when the interests of the trade should be allowed to have priority over the nation's health, and that is the crux of the issue.
It may be, as is said by proponents of reform, that further liberalisation will boost the tourist trade, but I have yet to find any convincing evidence in support of that claim. The figures from the British Tourist Authority show that between 1979 and 1985 the number of overseas tourists visiting Scotland increased by 8 per cent. Unfortunately for the advocates of liberalisation, during the same period the number of overseas tourists visiting England increased by 54 per cent. Between 1973 and 1985, overseas tourism increased in Scotland by 33 per cent. while it increased by 77 per cent. in Britain as a whole over the same period. I would not claim that the relatively poor figures for Scotland are due to the dislike of foreign tourists for all-day opening. Such an argument would be absurd, but it would not be more absurd than the claim made by the proponents of liberalisation that English licensing laws have an adverse effect on the tourist trade.
The Bill's supporters assert that liberalisation would create much-needed new jobs. That claim has already been made in this debate, and specific figures have been mentioned. Liberalisation would also mean that consumers would shift spending from other goods to spending on alcohol, which would lead to job losses elsewhere. In fact, the job argument gives the game away. The licensing trade and the proponents of liberalisation are apt to claim that reform will lead only to more leisurely and civilised drinking. How could it create additional jobs except by increasing overall consumption? How else will the putative extra jobs be financed?
The other argument is that our existing pub opening hours are a paternalistic affront to the British public's sensibilities.
I know that my hon. and learned Friend holds that opinion sincerely. We disagree on some issues but we agree on many others.
If the paternalistic-affront argument were valid, I, like other hon. Members, would expect to be besieged by irate constituents clamouring to be given their freedom from arbitrary interference by the licensing laws. I have received few such letters. I receive many complaints from constituents who object to the noise, fracas and violence that they have to experience as a result of a public house being close to residential property, but not about the liberalisation of licensing laws.
The "Beer Market Survey" that was carried out by Public Attitudes Surveys Research Limited in August 1985 found that 60 per cent. of the population felt that existing opening hours were right. Indeed, there were many who favoured shorter opening hours. There are those who claim that liberalisation in Scotland has proved highly popular with the public, and that will be the response in England and Wales. In fact, my advisers and I have carefully studied the many public opinion surveys that have been taken on the subject. These reveal that the elements of reform that have proved popular in Scotland are precisely those that brought Scotland into line with England and Wales.
The 1986 Goddard Survey from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys showed that only a minority of respondents positively approved of afternoon opening, which, of course, is a central issue of the Bill. Indeed, the most frequently mentioned disadvantages of afternoon opening were fears of more heavy drinking, more anti-social behaviour and adverse effects on family life. Opinions were even less favourable towards late evening extensions than towards afternoon opening. Considerably more respondents mentioned the disadvantages rather than the advantages of late evening extensions.
The Bill has not been introduced as a result of the irresistible force of public opinion — of constituents queuing up at hon. Members' weekly surgeries, demanding liberalisation of licensing hours. Nor is the real issue to do with the convenience of overseas tourists. The issue is whether we encourage more drinking and can afford to take yet another step in the dismantling of one of the few remaining controls on alcohol abuse.
The intervention that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) made at the beginning of my remarks prompts me to consider the background to the debate in a little detail. Since the 1950s, overall alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom has doubled and all the indices of alcohol-related harm have risen commensurately. The Royal College of General Practitioners, in its report published as recently as last November, calculated that alcohol misuse is directly responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths each year in the United Kingdom. Alcohol is directly implicated in 10 per cent. of all deaths of persons under 25 years of age. Studies have shown that approximately one in five admissions to general hospitals are alcohol related. That is about half the rate in France, yet the Bill would take us a little further towards the French level.
In the past decade alone, admissions to psychiatric hospitals for alcohol-related problems have doubled. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security in the Chamber. She will have these facts at her finger tips, and so will my hon. Friend the Member for Acton. As a former Health Minister myself I cannot ignore these facts. The House of Commons cannot ignore them either.
Perhaps extra employment will be provided if the Bill is passed. That seems to be a bull point made by the proponents of the Bill. It will certainly mean extra doctors, nurses, social workers, alcohol consultants and police officers, for alcohol is the common thread running through a range of medical and social problems, from premature death and avoidable illness to absenteeism at work and football hooliganism. In recent years all these problems have grown worse. The House has been concerned about them again and again but it does not add them all up. Surely we must look at the picture as a whole. Abuse is linked with an increase in overall consumption.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has given a clear warning. It tells us:
It is increasingly accepted that in general there is a clear link between the overall consumption"—
in a country and the level of alcohol related harm there … Changes in consumption affect drinkers at every level and upwards changes will shift some of those drinking at the top of the 'moderate' range into the high risk zone.
How foolish we should be to pass this modest measure on the assumption that it will not add one tittle to what is manifestly already a major problem.
Moreover, it is clear that regular and in many cases heavy drinking is becoming more entrenched with each new generation. The latest Home Office statistics on drunkenness—if I am wrong about this, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will correct me—reveal that the rate of convictions is now higher among 16 and 17-yearolds than among 30 to 60-year-olds. The recent Office of Population Censuses and Survey's survey on adolescent drinking provides yet more information, as if any were needed, that we have a massive problem of under-age drinking. The Institute of Alcohol Studies, in an examination of Home Office statistics from 1955 to 1985, has found that the under-21s now account for one in four of all drunkenness offences, compared with one in 12 30 years ago. Under-age drinkers now account for one in 14 of all drunkenness offences, compared with one in 100 30 years ago.
In February 1986, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister for Health why he did not publish the findings of the OPCS survey on adolescent drinking, which his Department had commissioned. The fieldwork for this survey was carried out in 1984. It was delivered to his Department in October 1985. Despite that, the report was not released until 17 December 1986, just before the Christmas recess. I fail to understand the reluctance to publish, and I have been given no explanation for the year's delay.
What are the findings of that survey? Among 13-yearolds, 19 per cent. of boys and 14 per cent. of girls who drink do so in public houses. Among 15-year-olds, this figure rises to 44 per cent. and 42 per cent. respectively, and among 17-year-olds the figures are 68 per cent. and 57 per cent. What can we say about a chief police officer who sees the law being flagrantly broken in this way but is satisfied that this modest little measure will make a useful contribution? I would like to know who that chief officer is. His name should be stated in the House.
There is good reason to believe that the earlier that a young person begins a habit of regular drinking, the more likely it is that he or she will drink heavily later in life. We have an enormous problem with alcohol now, but there is an even greater one in preparation unless present trends can be reversed. That is the criterion by which this Bill should be judged. Will it do anything to reduce the level of harm arising from misuse of alcohol, or will it cause more young people to drink to excess?
Understandably, the drink trade is keen to entice the younger generation into pubs, because they are providing its best customers. I fear that it will be the younger generation, including, in all probability, under-age drinkers, who will form a large part of the clientele until 11·30 pm if the Bill is passed. The claim that a solution to even a small part of our problem of alcohol abuse is to open public houses all day is so opposed to common sense and so unlikely that it cannot be taken seriously.
I agree that the question is a complex one. What has or has not occurred in Scotland is difficult to assess. The statistics are ambiguous and can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it seems clear that there is no basis for the claim that the Scottish experiment proves that licensing liberalisation would be of benefit in England and Wales.
It is frequently stated that, since 1976, drunkenness in Scotland has declined and that that has been due to extending the hours and thereby reducing the "beat the clock" drinking. It is true that convictions for drunkenness have declined in Scotland since 1976, but that decline has been so precipitous—the conviction rate in 1984 was less than half that of 1979—that it is inconceivable that it is the result of reform in the licensing laws. A fall of such magnitude is much more likely to be the result of a change in police practices. That suspicion is given considerable support when one considers that, since 1976, while officially recorded drunkenness figures have declined, the figures for breach of the peace and petty assault—both alcohol related—have increased.
According to Stephen Allsop, director of the Alcohol Studies Centre at Paisley, overall alcohol-related public order offences in Scotland have increased since licensing reform. That is incontrovertible.
The decline in drunkenness offences in Scotland did not begin until 1981 during which period there was also a decline in England and Wales. That decline started in England and Wales and the reason was that the economic recession was hitting people in their pockets. They drank less because they had less money to spend.
That may well be a factor. The number of deaths from cirrhosis of the liver—normally used as the best indirect measure of the extent of alcohol abuse in a society — appears to be much clearer. Unfortunately, for the proponents of liberalisation—again based on calculations at the Alcohol Studies Centre at Paisley—between 1975 and 1985 deaths from cirrhosis of the liver have increased in Scotland by more than two-and-a-half times the level experienced in England and Wales. That is consistent with OPCS findings that extending opening hours in Scotland may have encouraged already heavy drinkers to drink more.
It is true that a small number of other academic studies have suggested that licensing relaxation has not had a significant effect on alcohol misuse. However, I say with certainty—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon will agree with me—that informed opinion is that it is unlikely that relaxation has improved matters in Scotland and that relaxation has worsened the position. In the words of a statement published by the British Medical Association only this week, the available evidence in favour of relaxation is controversial and highly questionable, and indeed it is hardly a satisfactory basis for extending the Scottish experiment into England and Wales.
The dangers of extending hours are all too evident. There is the danger that this will increase alcohol consumption and will encourage heavy drinkers to drink still more. I have already referred to the evidence that has shown that that is precisely what has happened in Scotland. There is also the danger of increased risk on our roads.
It is almost inevitable that, if public houses in a given locality open and close at different times, some people will travel from one public house to another to maximise drinking time. How will they travel? It takes a great deal of credulity to believe that that travel will not be made by road vehicles.
It is significant that the Department of Transport, in its evidence to the Erroll Committee, opposed the possibility of flexible hours on exactly those grounds. It expressed the fear thar flexible drinking hours would coincide with afternoon traffic peaks between 4 pm and 6 pm. Those fears are as well founded today as they were then.
Department of Transport figures reveal that between 3·30 pm and 6 pm is the peak time for traffic accidents, especially those involving children—I emphasise that. At such times children would be making their way home from school. In the absence of special measures against drinking and driving, this Bill, if introduced, will bring about even greater dangers to road users than exist at present. As we know, alcohol is already the main cause of road traffic accidents. It may be that the young would welcome the Bill, but let me remind the House that the major cause of death for young males between the ages of 16 and 24 is a road accident in which alcohol has been a factor.
My postbag has contained letters from the Campaign against Drunk Driving, the aid group composed of victims' families. I remember one particularly moving letter from a family whose son was killed by a motorist who had been drinking during the afternoon, the extension having been granted by the magistrates.
Not only are there fears about afternoon extensions; there are also fears about late evening extensions. How will people get home after 11.30 pm? We already know of the particularly high rate of drink-driving accidents in the late evening. Over the Christmas period the brewers said, "Don't get a ban, get a bus". How do these gentlemen move about their business? Where does one get buses so easily these days after 11·30 pm? What happens here in the great metropolis to many bus conductors as a result of people having had too much to drink? This is madness, and it is high time somebody stood up in the House and said that Government neglect of the overall problems and the pretence that vested interests have, somehow or other, all our interests at heart and that there is nothing to worry about is wrong. The evidence to the contrary is there. How can it be ignored?
Thirdly, there is the symbolic significance of licensing law itself. The law is important not just because of its direct effect in controlling alcohol misuse, but also because its very existence is a way of informing society, especially children and young people, that alcohol is a special commodity requiring special treatment. What lesson would the young learn from the introduction of a measure such as this? Would it help us to convince them, as we need to do, that alcohol is a special commodity which should be treated with caution?
Any doctor will confirm that alcohol is the most potent pharmacological depressant freely available without prescription and its misuse can damage almost every organ and system of the body. I am talking of misuse by young immature people. The evidence is there of under—age drinking. The licensee has all my sympathy because it is difficult these days to distinguish between somebody who is under 18 and somebody who is over 18.
The Government are campaigning hard against the threat posed by illegal drugs and they are right to do so. But we must be careful not to appear hypocritical in the eyes of young people. If we tell them that their drugs are dangerous and must be banned but ours are enjoyable and can be pushed all day and that we want to extend the hours in which they can be enjoyed, our efforts to curb the abuse of both alcohol and illegal drugs will be undermined.
It may be argued that public houses are being asked to bear too high a proportion of the blame for alcohol misuse. Is it not the case that the proliferation of outlets has meant, as has been said, that if one wants to drink, one will, because it is easy to obtain liquor? If we had a proper licensing law and parallel accompanying measures, including appropriate excise duties, we would not be facing the epidemic that we are faced with today. I hope that I have given the House enough reasons to cause it to think again about the Bill and will not give it a Second Reading.
The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) has deployed some aspects of the case against proceeding with the Bill. Even those who have not campaigned in the long and dedicated way that he has for a more systematic approach to our licensing laws should look at the position in which we are left following the Minister's speech. Not all hon. Members who are present now heard what the Minister said.
I advised him earlier that it would be of great relevance to the attitude of many hon. Members if he could announce that, in conjuction with enabling the Bill to go through the House, he would ensure that the Government took steps to deal with some of the other problems that have been referred to by hon. Members of all parties, even by those hon. Members who are sponsors of the Bill. Such problems are the ease with which alcohol can be obtained from off—licences by people who are under age, and problems of enforcement, pricing, health education and alcoholism. We have not received any evidence from the Government that help will be given on any of those points. The Minister said that the Government are looking at them, but they have been looking at them for years. I cannot recall an occasion on which a Minister has come to the Dispatch Box during a debate on licensing laws and has not said that the Government are looking at those problems. However, those problems have become consistently worse.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the latest issue of "Social Trends" which shows dramatically how the real value of whisky has decreased? Surely an element in the increase of alcohol consumption, apart from the availability points upon which the hon. Gentleman has touched, is that the real value of alcohol has fallen.
It is well known that the price of alcohol has fallen. There is a great deal of evidence from many countries that price and consumption are closely related. When the price is low, consumption is higher, as can be seen from the evidence that is adduced from Scotland.
Equally important to the way in which hon. Members judge the Bill today is not just what the Minister said, but what the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) said when he introduced the Bill—[Interruption.] Does the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) wish to intervene? I see that he is speaking from a sedentary position.
I accept the sincerity of the hon. Member for Eastwood in saying that he should like to have discussions in the context of the Bill about the other problems which I have described. However, he cannot do so in Committee because the Bill is specifically to enable different committed hours to be specified for individual unlicensed premises and clubs and I am sorry to say that the Chairman would have to call him to order constantly if he sought to extend it.
Indeed, that is so. Therefore, amendments could not be tabled to the hon. Gentleman's Bill to deal with the price and taxation points that I have mentioned. However, the title of his Bill could have allowed it to be extended to some of the problems of off-sales, as well as of order and the difficulties that licensees and others face in enforcing the under-age drinking laws at present. There would have been scope for extensions if the title of the Bill had been wider—[Interruption.] Hon. Members are trying to intervene, but I shall not give way because many other hon. Members still wish to speak.
There is a lot more that I should like to say, because we should have the opportunity of considering not just licensing hours in isolation but the means by which we can deal with the health problems and the problems of violence presented by alcohol.
I need refer only to what happened on New Year's Eve. The Home Secretary is currently conducting inquiries into the events of old year's night in various parts of the country. According to an article in The Times,
Staff at the Sunderland District General hospital in Tyne and Wear are said to have been appalled at the extent of the injuries which occurred at new year, the majority of which were directly related to alcohol abuse
and, of course, to alcohol abuse in a period of licensing extension because special extensions were granted on New Year's Eve. The article continues:
Between 8 pm on New Year's Eve and 6 am the following morning, the hospital treated 118 patients for injuries resulting from violence and drunkenness. These included a stabbing, several assaults and a serious head injury.
The article reported that the statement issued by the hospital said:
'Many of the patients were abusive, although the staff were spared from being physically assaulted this year owing to a heavy police presence which had been arranged in advance."'
That police presence was arranged in advance because the hospital knew that extended licensing hours would give rise to problems that night. Such grave problems cannot be discussed in isolation. We need the opportunity to consider what other measures could make an extension of the licensing hours a reasonable step forward. The House had not been given that opportunity today.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am questioning, not the decision, but the judgment, of the Chair. Hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have made known declarations against those who take alcohol. You are an experienced Member, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you know that the debate has not been properly conducted to allow the case for and against to be presented. I submit that that is a point of challenge.