Liquor Licences

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 am on 29 January 2007.

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Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 4:00, 29 January 2007

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I regret to inform the House that my party will not be staying for the two remaining debates this afternoon. Both issues being debated are very important, but they have been used to block a debate on collusion, which has far-reaching consequences for the wider community. As that is the case, Sinn Féin regrets that it will be withdrawing from the Chamber.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

I thank the Member for letting us know his party’s view. It will be reported in Hansard tomorrow.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for the Department for Social Development to ensure that no action will be taken with regard to furthering the proposed abolition of the “surrender principle” for liquor licences, as proposed by the Northern Ireland Liquor Licensing review; and further calls for this issue to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

In view of the overwhelming attendance here, I am tempted to say that we must be approaching closing time. However, Members have a few hours — at least on paper — to go yet. I am pleased to propose the motion, and it is regrettable that one party has chosen — for whatever reason — to absent itself. The issue is important and affects the lives and welfare of many people in the Province.

Earlier today I was talking about water, and now I am on the subject of drink — there is something poetic in that. The subject is very important. The Department for Social Development (DSD) consultation document, ‘Liquor Licensing – The Way Forward’, produced in October 2005 stated:

“There is a clear link between alcohol and problems relating to crime, public nuisance, health and children and young people. Licensing legislation can contribute to solving or aggravating those problems.”

The final sentence about “solving or aggravating those problems” should be noted. The UUP’s contention in moving the motion is that we fear that the DSD proposals — as recently outlined — will hinder the achievement of the good social objectives outlined in the quotation. I am talking specifically about the so-called “surrender principle”, which has ensured, hitherto, that gaining a new licence for certain types of drink outlets can happen only through the purchase of an old licence.

Therefore, from the end of 2005, the total number of Northern Ireland licences in certain categories was capped at just below 2,000. However, there is a range of categories, some of which are not included in that provision.

It is not clear whether Northern Ireland has differed from the very pronounced and, many would say, worrying UK-wide trend towards higher and higher levels of alcohol consumption per capita. However, the surrender principle has at least ensured that we have not been swamped by a dramatic increase in the number of outlets. It may be significant that in Scotland, which does not have this arrangement, there is four times the number of outlets per capita as in Northern Ireland.

Ending the surrender principle would mean that an asset worth a considerable sum of money would be rendered pretty much useless at a stroke. The existing drinks trade obviously has a self-interested — although legitimate, in a way — concern about that happening. However, some small traders, particularly grocers, feel that there is a problem with restraint of trade at present, relative to the number of UK multiple supermarket chains.

The wider public is concerned that the end of the surrender principle could mean more outlets, greater competition, more cut-price offers, and so on. That would mean more consumption of alcohol, and that leads me back to concerns about the social outcome of abolishing the surrender principle. There are many ironies in the Government’s current position. We are approaching the critical date of 30 April 2007, which has been rigorously set with a view to reducing the number of people smoking and its impact on com­munity health, yet the Government are pushing alcohol-related policies in a radically different and contradictory direction.

Moreover, as we well know, the Blair Government have put the punishment, control and reduction of antisocial behaviour towards the top of their policy agenda. However, what they are doing with licensing-law reform will very likely promote antisocial behaviour. One non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the sector estimates that between 60% and 70% of cases of domestic violence against women are drink-related, as are about half the instances of child abuse. Those are frightening statistics. Alcohol is responsible for between 22,000 and 40,000 deaths annually in the UK, depending on how many indirect health effects are included in that estimate. The annual financial impact is estimated at £18 billion. According to the British Crime Survey (BSC), one in six of all violent crimes in Great Britain is committed in or around licensed premises; therefore we should think very carefully about multiplying the number of such outlets.

It is striking that, a couple of years ago, many of the English chief constables and judges criticised the Blair Administration proposals for the liberalisation of licensing laws. Those changes occurred in England at the end of 2005, which means that Northern Ireland has had a year and a half in which to learn and, arguably, profit from the English experience. Given all of that, why have our Government not learnt from that experience and the associated problems?

The end of the surrender principle is only part of the Department for Social Development’s proposals for the reform of licensing.

I hope that it may be possible for a future Assembly to examine the other important elements, such as the new licensing regime, which will throw much greater responsibility onto local government. In this area, we could profitably consider the English experience, some of which has been mixed, and suggests that, in practice, local government might find it difficult to adequately and correctly regulate the numbers and types of licences. The change in opening hours, pushing them back from 1.00 am to 2.00 am, is of particular interest.

Many Members have noted the apparent lack of rigour in the DSD consultation document to reduce the scourge of under-age drinking. What is to be done about the problem of those who are under 18 years of age who abuse alcohol and face all the social and health problems that result from that?

It has been pointed out to me also that, under the current system, it is almost impossible for the owner of a licence to permanently lose it. If that is the case, it makes the enforcement of the law very difficult in practice.

I am pleased to propose the motion.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 4:15, 29 January 2007

I support the motion. Fermanagh District Council discussed this subject during the consultation period on the proposed changes to the legislation. The Minister with responsibility for the matter responded on that occasion, but more of that anon.

I wish to concentrate, however, on the surrender principle, which is the current requirement to purchase an existing liquor licence for the purpose of selling alcohol. The abolition of the surrender principle will, in effect, allow easier access to alcohol at a time when many voices have been raised against the impact that binge drinking can have on one’s health. The estimated costs attributable to excess alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland are over 730 deaths a year; the equivalent of over 12,000 expected years of life lost, and approximately 400,000 working days lost each year. The approximate cost to the economy is over £800 million. Members will agree that those are staggering figures.

A Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety report entitled ‘Strategy for reducing alcohol related harm’ estimated that, as a result of alcohol-related harm, some £34·3 million a year is incurred in costs that have a direct impact on Government spending in Northern Ireland. These include hospital costs, general practice costs and the prison costs associated with alcohol-related crime. In addition, it is estimated that £743·2 million a year is incurred in costs that have an indirect impact on Government spending, such as premature deaths, road traffic accidents and the cost to industry due to sickness absences.

A report published in November 2005, which analysed the drinking behaviour of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 in Northern Ireland, revealed some very worrying trends. It showed that, in Northern Ireland, young people start drinking as early as 11 years of age, and that many young people here are drinking to very dangerous levels. I was disturbed to discover that there is a strongly significant relationship between drinking behaviour and other risk behaviours, such as experimenting with smoking, drugs and solvents, and sexual experimentation. Given those findings, we should, as responsible representatives in this House, be concerned about any legislation that would allow easier access to alcohol. That is exactly what would happen if the surrender principle were to be abolished.

At present, Northern Ireland does not have the same level of alcohol-related harm and social disorder that we see in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is due in part to the over-provision of pubs and off-sales outlets that exist on the mainland and the current regulated system here. Northern Ireland has a population of about 1·7 million, and there are currently 1,938 public houses and off-licences. That does not take into account the number of private clubs, licensed restaurants, hotels and wine bars.

I see no need for an increase in the number of outlets that sell alcohol. In Scotland, there are four times more alcohol licences per head of population than in Northern Ireland. Is that what Members want to happen in this country? The answer must be no.

On the positive side, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has estimated that the alcohol industry provides some 32,000 jobs in Northern Ireland — about 5% of the employed workforce — at a combined estimated annual salary of £298·3 million. It also contributes £2 million to the arts, sports and charities. The debate should reflect that too.

As a representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I often consider matters from a tourism perspective, from which the individuality of Northern Ireland’s licensed trade forms part of the attraction for tourists. That is as true for Fermanagh as anywhere else, but it must be considered in the context of the debate. Government proposals would result in the influx of large pub chains, to the detriment of tourism in Fermanagh and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Social disorder is often linked to alcohol abuse. One need only glance at the court reports in the local press to see the link between excessive alcohol consumption and criminal activity. Although it would be naive to say that all society’s ills stem from an overindulgence in alcohol, a large proportion of crime is committed under the influence of alcohol and, increasingly, drugs. That happens across the criminal spectrum, from street disorder to domestic violence. No responsible person would want to expose society to deregulation as envisaged by the Government.

When the subject of deregulation came before Fermanagh District Council, the Minister, David Hanson, responded to me in writing. He confirmed that the surrender provision had been effective in its aim of influencing entry to the market, thereby restricting the overall number of pubs and off-licences in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister has taken that into consideration and will bear it in mind when he intro­duces legislation. I am happy to support the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leat as seans a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo.

I am grateful to be afforded the opportunity to speak on this important topic. It incorporates a wide range of economic, social and public-safety concerns, some of which Members have touched on.

In May 2004, the liquor licensing review team at DSD took forward its review with the help of an inter­departmental steering group. On 1 November 2005, DSD produced the consultation paper ‘Liquor Licensing — The Way Forward’, which contains Government proposals to reform licensing law in Northern Ireland. Although there was support for many of the proposals outlined in the consultation paper, the Minister for Social Development, David Hanson, announced in a ministerial statement on 20 July 2006 that:

“Concerns have been expressed by politicians and parts of the licensed trade regarding two of the proposed changes. These are the transfer of responsibility for liquor licensing from courts to district councils and the abolition of the ‘surrender’ principle.”

The second and more important of the two is the subject of today’s debate — the abolition of the surrender principle. Some of those who see the extent of the ravages of alcohol abuse also have concerns about extended opening hours — although that is not entirely within the remit of the motion.

The surrender principle, whereby the granting of a licence for a new public house or off-sales is conditional on the surrender to the court of an existing licence, has capped, to 2009, the overall number of such premises in Northern Ireland. The Minister agreed to commission an assessment of the business impact of the abolition of the surrender principle before making any decision on the way forward. The six objectives as outlined by Government are:

“promotion of public health; promotion of public safety; prevention of crime and disorder; prevention of public nuisance; protection of children from harm; and fair treatment of all stakeholders.”

I suggest that in the light of those, the Minister must go much further than assessing the mere business impact of abolishing the surrender principle.

Indeed, established evidence, if not common sense, shows that controlling people’s access to alcohol and the number of outlets that sell it is one way to reduce alcohol-related harm and social disorder. As Mrs Foster said, drink-related illness, death and crime already cost the Northern Ireland economy almost £800 million a year, and that is before we face the human cost and misery that they bring to so many families. The Minister should fully realise that harsh reality before making access to alcohol easier.

The surrender principle has economic consequences. Those of us who represent rural areas are well acquainted with many of our smaller licensed premises. Their owners use the licence as an asset, often to release finance to reinvest in their premises. Why should those people not do that? Every business works on that basis.

It has been rightly stated that alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Churches and many other organisations have expressed concerns that the abolition of the surrender principle may increase access to alcohol, thus contributing further to a host of health, antisocial behaviour and policing problems on our streets. In the light of those concerns, I propose that the matter be left to those of us who are most aware of the —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member about the financial consequences of the potential transfer of responsibility for licensing to councils and the abolition of the surrender principle, which are linked in many ways. In England, the surrender principle has not been applied, and, in the past few years, responsibility for liquor licensing has been transferred to councils. Westminster City Council is one of the major licensing bodies, since its jurisdiction covers the west end of London. It has robust licensing policies and has tried to restrict the number of licences that are issued. However, the impact of the legislation has meant that appeals from various groups and commercial bodies against the refusal of licence applications have been waiting for two or three years to be brought to court. Even though the council has won every appeal that has been lodged, the process has cost it a fortune. Although I agree with the Member about the wider financial costs, there is also a major cost to ratepayers.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his inter­vention. It is clear that the cost of defending court cases will be a major problem for ratepayers in many areas. That will cause problems to those who pay rates and to those of us who may be elected to the new councils.

I was making the point that the matter would be better left to those of us who are most aware of the alcohol-related difficulties on our streets and in our communities. A restored Northern Ireland Assembly should be left to deal with the matter.

Molaim an rún atá os comhair an Tionóil.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I support the motion, and I also support the Northern Ireland liquor licensing review group’s opposition to the abolition of the surrender principle.

A review has recently been carried out of how liquor licensing in Northern Ireland should be altered. I understand that that review has been through consultation and that changes have been made. Some people will say that those changes were necessary in order to bring Northern Ireland in line with other places. However, others will feel that the changes will not improve the lives of those people who live adjacent to public houses that have extended their opening hours.

The proposals to abolish the surrender principle were vigorously opposed by all existing establish­ments, and, as far as I am aware, by public repre­sentatives. The owners of these establishments have paid a substantial amount of money to secure their licences. They have invested in opening and managing reputable establishments. If the principle were abolished, we could end up with a public house on every street corner, and we all know what that would lead to.

Our system has proved its worth — and if it is not broken why fix it? We have an orderly way in which people can obtain a liquor licence and establishments can be run in an orderly fashion for the good of everyone.

I support the retention of the surrender principle, and I hope that a restored Northern Ireland Assembly will make a reasoned decision on the surrender licence principle. I support the motion.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:30, 29 January 2007

I support the motion. I declare an interest as a councillor, a ratepayer and as a member of a district policing partnership (DPP). The proposals will have major implications for councillors, councils, ratepayers and policing.

It is interesting to note in the responses to the consultation that almost 93% of people opposed the proposals, with about 6% in favour. The Government have decided to go ahead, while ignoring the views of local people.

Why do the proposals cause such concern? The document gives the impression that devolving decisions on licensing to local councils would create more local accountability. However, experience in England shows that that has not always been the case. Local councils have provided instances of regular abuse when they decided to remove licences. Councils often have to fight huge drinks companies with deep pockets that can force councils to court, thus incurring huge legal expenses. In fact, some councils have exceeded their annual legal expenses budget and find that they cannot afford to take any other proposal to court to defend themselves, and they start to cave in. In effect, big business can drive down quality to the detriment of communities.

Extending the licensing laws is a separate issue from removing licences completely. There is evidence that alcohol abuse is related to hospital admissions, particularly at weekends, antisocial activity, police activity and demands on ambulance services. We must be very careful about the additional work that extended drinking time would generate.

Through my membership of a DPP, I became knowledgeable about Fermanagh DPP, and Fermanagh community safety partnership, which carried out a review of the evening economy —I see that Mrs Foster has left the Chamber. They discovered that many of the difficulties occurred not on or outside premises but at fast-food outlets. Licensed premises may have closed at midnight or 1.00 am, but people were congregating around the town for hours afterwards at fast-food outlets, which had to be policed.

The solution that came from the local community safety partnership and from local people was a voluntary agreement whereby the fast-food outlets agreed to shut an hour earlier. After the pubs closed, people were given one hour to get something to eat and go home. That reduced crime and meant that the police could concentrate resources on a specific period so that they did not, unlike in England, have to maintain vigilance throughout the night because of 24-hour licensing. I am pleased that that is not on offer. However, there is licensing until 2.00 am, and that will dilute police cover because there is only the same cover and resources over weekends. That will be an outworking of the proposals.

As regards the proliferation of licences, I do not know how many constituents have complained to Members that they cannot find an off-licence in which to buy alcohol. A wide variety of off-sales is available, from supermarkets to pubs and other venues.

There are locations in virtually every community where people can buy alcohol. It is not necessarily a good thing that it is getting cheaper; that raises the likelihood of abuse. I generally favour a competitive economy, but in this area falling prices give me cause for concern.

Will we follow the example of Scotland, where pubs have proliferated and almost every corner shop sells alcohol? How then would it be managed? If corner shops begin to sell alcohol, with one person on duty on the premises and no supervision or assistance, there is a danger that pressure will be brought to bear. They may begin to sell for income or be pressurised by groups of underage people to sell to them. Additional problems would flow to local communities from such a development. We all know that there is a relationship between alcohol and drug abuse and antisocial activity.

I mentioned Glasgow. Market forces have forced prices down so that beer is almost as cheap as coca cola; there is more and more abuse, and people damage not only their communities but their health.

In a recent survey, one in ten respondents who drank alcohol was found to be highly likely to have a problem with it. Another survey predicts that alcohol sales in the UK will increase by £500 million a year. This will not be good for the workforce, the economy, public health, the ambulance service or policing. I do not see where the winners are, other than the big drinks companies. Are the Government doing this at their behest? Perhaps they are.

Clearly, many difficulties arise from this. Last year, the Government introduced an alcohol and drugs strategy. I suspect that with increased proliferation in licensing hours that strategy will be out the window. How can they achieve their objectives when the product is going to be so much more accessible? Alcohol can already be bought in various outlets, supermarkets and off-sales. We do not need any more.

I support the motion.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade and as a publican.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

A what? [Laughter.]

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I stress, publican.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

Oh, sorry. [Laughter.]

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Madam Speaker, I would also ask you to note that if the issue goes to a vote, I will not take part in it because I have a pecuniary interest. [Laughter.]

The whole issue of surrender —

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

There is no surrender.

The whole issue of surrender is not just an issue for the trade. It affects a great deal in society. Arlene Foster told us that there are 1,938 current licences. If someone wants to open a new pub or off-sales, he must first purchase an existing licence and apply to the court for a new licence by surrendering the existing licence.

The court can then decide whether to grant a new licence for the new premises. However, let us not forget that the liquor licence is being granted to a person, who must prove his or her suitability to hold such a licence.

The Department for Social Development’s (DSD) consultation document ‘Liquor Licensing — The Way Forward’ proposes removing the requirement to purchase an existing licence. It is obvious, as Members have stressed today, that controlling access to alcohol and the number of outlets that sell alcohol is one of the ways to reduce alcohol-related harm and social disorder.

Mr McGlone referred to the six licensing objectives. How do they address the issue of protecting, for example, children from harm and protecting public health? The proposals are not fit even to meet the Government’s objectives.

What will removing the requirement to surrender existing licences mean? Mr McCarthy talked about the problem of there being a public house on every corner. That is not the issue, because the people who run public houses must be suitable and will, normally, be extremely responsible. There are training courses galore for those people who are involved in the licensed trade. They are professionals.

The problem with alcohol comes from the fact that every corner shop, convenience store and amusement arcade will be able to apply for licences, thus ensuring easier access to alcohol for under-age drinkers, which in turn leads to, as my Friend Mr Beggs said, increased pressure on policing and health services.

A particular issue with the young is not that they can go into a pub or club to buy alcohol; rather it is that someone goes down to the local off-sales and buys it for them. The young people do not necessarily buy the alcohol themselves. A lot of young people start drinking in their own homes. Those issues must be addressed.

The economic impact of introducing the proposed legislation can be summarised. There is quite a list of potential impacts, and I suppose that my focusing on them is due to self-interest. The first impact would be reduced investment in existing licensed premises, as a result of the abolition of surrender and the subsequent loss of value of liquor licences. In these circumstances, if publicans were to approach their banks for a wheen of extra pounds to do up their premises, they would find that they had lost the capital value of their assets.

Another impact would be increased investment by the large national pub chains in Northern Ireland. Although this would result in increased consumer choice, it has the potential to displace our smaller local pubs. In many cases, there is one, or perhaps a couple, of pubs in a village. They are the centre of the social lives of many villages. Mr McGlone referred to the rural situation and local pubs.

In Northern Ireland, licensees invest heavily in their premises. The current going rate for a liquor licence is approximately £140,000. The licence is, therefore, a substantial investment and is used generally as security for bank loans. If surrender were abolished, the licences would become worthless. The banking community is opposed to the proposals and believes that they would undermine future investment.

As stated by a Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, another potential impact of the legislation would be fewer pubs with local character, which could have a negative impact on the tourism industry.

The legislation would result in the increased availability of alcohol at low prices in a larger number of premises, which would cause an increase in the economic costs to society. These would include costs associated with increased policing, the need to maintain public order in areas where there is a high concentration of licensed premises, and the additional costs to the Health Service of dealing with the consequences of alcohol abuse.

In England, a square mile in Nottingham city centre is home to 365 alcohol-selling outlets. Would Members like that in Belfast? Would they like that in London­derry? I cannot see the logic behind allowing such a situation to arise.

Members have referred to the administrative element of the introduction of the legislation. The main concern here is the move away from the judicial process. The district-council-administered liquor-licensing scheme proposed in the DSD consultation document would be less effective, accessible and accountable than the current system.

Courts have applied the current legislation equally and fairly, and in a transparent and consistent manner. Councils will be forced to grant new licences because they may not be able to afford to refuse them or to fund appeals in court. Mr Weir referred to that issue, and he was perfectly correct. In Brighton, a council had to pull out of the appeals system because it was up against one of the big outlets. As Mr Weir rightly said, such companies have the cash and will fight the bit out.

The experiences of England and Scotland have demonstrated that councils can be ineffective in blocking applications for licences and for additional hours. Those Members who sit on councils know how difficult it can be to refuse a licence for an amusement arcade if such a business is to be sited near a school or a bus station where kids gather. One can object and hold up the process for a while, but that is all. The situation with liquor licences will be exactly the same.

Although the number and type of liquor licences could, no doubt, be streamlined, the removal of the various categories of licence and their replacement with one type of premises licence will mean that different responsibilities and rights will no longer attach to different types of licence. That will lead to a proliferation of pubs, and the potential for off-sales to sell alcohol until 2.00 am. People seem to think that everyone in the trade wants to stay open until 2.00 am. At the moment, one can sell alcohol, if one is granted extended hours, until 1.00 am, with clearing out of patrons by 1.30 am. Publicans do not want to do that seven nights a week, and if they are doing it, they must provide either food or entertainment. In other words, they have to give their patrons a reason other than booze for going to the pub — they are going for entertainment, for a meal or whatever. That is not a requirement of the new legislation.

My time is coming to a close, so I shall look finally and specifically at health. The core argument is that easier access to alcohol will lead to increased levels of social disorder, alcohol-related harm and health problems. All are agreed. The Western Drugs and Alcohol Co-ordination Team has stated:

“Research tells us that limiting availability is one positive strategy.”

The Western Investing for Health Partnership (WIFH) has stated:

“WIFH are concerned that by abolishing the surrender principle it will open a floodgate for new licence premises and thereby increase the availability of alcohol and increase the number of premises that would require policing.”

The argument has been well made to the Government. I appeal to Members to deliver to the Government the message that we wish to deal with this matter when the Assembly is back in place. This is a local matter that we as local people wish to address.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I pay tribute to those Members who participated in the debate. I thank Dr Birnie for moving the cross-party motion. I believe that there is consensus in the House on this issue.

The debate has been brief but good. We have gone to the heart of the matter, and good points have been raised. Some Members have rightly identified concerns about the increasing problems of alcohol abuse and the harm that that can create in society. I had the misfortune just a few days ago to attend the funeral of an acquaint­ance who, sadly, had an alcohol addiction. He left behind four beautiful young girls, the eldest of whom is just 11 years old. I remember the anguish, pain and agony of that family as they watched a father and a husband laid to rest. Alcohol can do a lot of harm — of that there is no doubt.

Every day of every week, I deal, as many Members do, with antisocial behaviour caused by young people who abuse alcohol. As elected representatives, we must ensure that we take reasonable steps to protect the community and encourage a responsible approach to alcohol. That is why for once, Madam Speaker, the DUP is prepared to abandon its traditional principle of “no surrender”. I am only sorry that the hon Members — or the not so hon Members — opposite are not here to hear me say that. It might have cheered them up a bit.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

People sometimes say that there has been no progress in this country, but today the DUP is joining others in defending the pub trade. I think that that would count as progress in many people’s eyes. [Laughter.]

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I will not report Peter Weir to Dr Paisley on that one. [Laughter.]

The licensed trade in Northern Ireland takes a responsible approach to these issues. I have worked closely with the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the federation for its excellent work, responsible approach, professional attitude and common sense, which is sadly lacking in the Department. I am sure that other Members will join me in paying tribute to the federation. It has ably represented its members in this discussion, and it has succeeded in bringing about cross-party consensus.

The DUP is opposed to ending the surrender principle for the distribution of licences in Northern Ireland. The party believes that if the principle were to be dispensed with, it would harm the trade and the public. I can divine no benefit that that would bring to society. I have discussed the matter at length with the Minister with responsibility for social development, and none of the arguments put forward by the Department or the Minister has convinced me that it is prudent and sensible to remove the surrender principle.

The Evangelical Alliance, which represents many Christian Churches in Northern Ireland, responded to the proposals on liquor licence reform. It pointed up the need to protect our children and young people from the harm caused by excessive intake of alcohol. Like many other organisations, it opposes the abolition of the surrender principle.

Other social partners have also taken a responsible approach. No body of opinion in Northern Ireland supports the Department on this matter. No substantive voice in the debate stands alongside the Department and backs its view that the sensible way forward is to have what amounts to a free-for-all. The Member for West Tyrone Mr Hussey, with his personal knowledge of the trade, has rightly identified some of the problems that would ensue should the surrender requirement be removed.

Self-regulation of the trade has, undoubtedly, been valuable and responsible. In other areas of life, self-regulation has not worked. However, the clear facts are there: in Northern Ireland, self-regulation, in the form of the surrender principle, works. There is an old principle that says that if it is not broken, do not fix it, which applies to this situation.

We have heard how the removal of the surrender principle will affect existing licensees, many of whom have invested heavily in their businesses and used their licence as security for bank loans; indeed, their licence is their pension. At the stroke of a pen, the Minister could remove that and place those licensees in very vulnerable positions.

The experience in the rest of the United Kingdom draws me to the conclusion that this is not the way to go. I sometimes wish that our direct-rule Ministers would reflect on the benefits of what is in place in Northern Ireland and not try to impose policies that they have experimented with in other parts of the United Kingdom and that have, quite frankly, failed. In supermarkets in Scotland, for example, beer is cheaper than water.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

How do you know? [Laughter.]

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am reliably informed. [Laughter.]

I do not have the power to turn the water into beer, however.

The difficulty is that young people walk into supermarkets and take alcohol from the shelves, or get someone to do it for them. Alcohol is inexpensive, which results in more young people developing alcohol addictions. That creates problems for our society. We see those problems every day. Antisocial behaviour has an impact on communities. However, the greatest impacts of all are the broken lives and the young lives that are being damaged, in some cases irreparably.

The retail licensed trade in Northern Ireland takes a responsible attitude. We have heard that from the representatives of the federation that we have met. They do not want proliferation; they do not want young people to find themselves in a difficult situation. By and large, people in the trade act responsibly. However, if the market is opened up, resulting in a proliferation of off-licences, supermarkets selling alcohol and more pubs and clubs on our streets, opportunities for young people to access and abuse alcohol will significantly increase. It will lead to consequences for the licensed trade in Northern Ireland and for society as a whole.

I commend the motion to the House. At its core is the view that it should be for this body to determine the way forward in respect of liquor licences and the surrender principle. Last July, the Minister for Social Development wrote to me to say that the final decision on this matter would be taken by a devolved Assembly, should restoration be successful. The Minister has accepted the principle that it is for this Assembly to take the decision, and there is consensus in the House that we want to be able to take that decision. Therefore, through this motion, we urge the Government not to proceed with the proposed abolition of the surrender principle for liquor licences and to leave the matter to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for the Department for Social Development to ensure that no action will be taken with regard to furthering the proposed abolition of the “surrender principle” for liquor licences, as proposed by the Northern Ireland Liquor Licensing review; and further calls for this issue to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.