Clause 175 - Prohibition of alcohol sales at service areas, garages etc.

Licensing Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 20th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay 8:55 am, 20th May 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 266, in

clause 175, page 97, line 14, leave out from 'classes)' to end of line 16.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 325, in

clause 175, page 97, line 16, at end insert,

'(save where the premises would be the only premises so authorised within (in the opinion of the licensing authority) reasonable walking distance of a settlement).'.

Amendment No. 489, in

clause 175, page 97, line 16, at end insert

', except where the garage combines the functions set out in subsection (4)(c) with those of a retail outlet offering a range of supermarket goods'.

Amendment No. 267, in

clause 175, page 97, line 24, at end insert 'and'.

Amendment No. 268, in

clause 175, page 97, line 29, leave out from 'class' to end of line 35.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

I am sorry I was nearly late, Mr. Benton. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) will vouch for the fact that we were stuck in a lift that went down before coming up—rather like our opinion poll rating.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman has heard of stairs, no doubt.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

I will take the hon. Gentleman's recommendation and use the stairs before the next sitting. I swore that as I came out of the lift.

Amendment No. 266 deals with the sale of alcohol at various locations. I ask the Minister to consider the many places from which alcohol can be purchased that are reached by a motor vehicle. The connection in the clause seems to be that motor vehicles and alcohol should not go together. The clause provides for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol at motorway service areas and garage forecourts.

When someone visits an off-licence, as we all do from time to time, they tend to drive there and park outside or close to it. When they go in to purchase the alcohol, the licensee does not say, ''We can't sell you any alcohol because you've driven here.'' Similarly, when a driver goes to a pub with others and buys a soft drink for himself and alcohol for his passengers, the bartender does not say, ''I'm sorry, I can't serve alcohol to your passengers because you all arrived in a car.'' The same is true of restaurants and supermarkets.

Is there a need for a connection between alcohol and driving, if the issue at hand is the emotive one of drink-driving? Will licensing forecourts encourage drink-driving? There is no evidence to prove that. When the Licensing Act 1964 was amended in 1988 to prevent the sale of alcohol from garage forecourts, the Government opposed a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol from forecourts because there was no evidence to link sales of alcohol from those sites to drink-driving. Had there been evidence, one can assume that a ban would have been enforced, but it is not enforced. Today, there is still no evidence.

The Government have published no evidence of a link between drink-driving and the sale of alcohol from garage forecourts. In response to a parliamentary question, the Home Office acknowledged,

''No studies have been undertaken on the commission of drink-driving offences relating to alcohol purchased from different retail categories.''—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 407W.]

Moreover, since the restriction was introduced in 1988, the number of licensed forecourts has increased. When that increase is compared with the fall in alcohol-related deaths, it is difficult to substantiate the claim that licensed forecourts have had any impact on drink-driving.

The purchase of alcohol and petrol often takes place in close proximity, for example, at supermarkets across the country. Thousands of people drive to the shops to buy alcohol every day with no adverse consequences. The Forecourt Stores Association is concerned about the issue; it represents about 600 forecourts in England and Wales that hold a licence to sell alcohol. New applications continue to come before licensing committees every month. An article in the The Grocer magazine estimated that at least 1,000 UK petrol forecourts have licences to sell alcohol. The ownership and management of forecourt retailing ranges from big businesses—the Tescos of this world—down to small family-run enterprises, which will struggle to stay in business should clause 175 remain in its present form.

In recent years, the forecourt convenience sector has expanded rapidly. All hon. Members can think of a forecourt in their area that has undergone refurbishment and is significantly enhanced in size and the range of goods in the shop attached to it. For many people, forecourt shopping has become a way of life. On returning from work, people may have to pick up milk or other provisions that they have run out of during the week. The forecourt is there to rescue people: anybody who smokes will know that the forecourt comes to the rescue when they run out of cigarettes at an odd hour of the day or night; forecourts have become a focal point for every community. Such stores are vitally important, especially in rural areas. There may not be a supermarket in a rural community—such a store may be many miles away. The forecourt with a convenience store attached has become a main part of the life and service provision of such a community.

When a convenience store closes, whether or not it is a garage forecourt, local residents often have no option but to travel further afield, even for basic goods, which further reduces competition. It is,

therefore, paradoxical that a Bill that seeks to enhance competition and reduce regulation contains a clause that inhibits forecourt convenience stores from competing on a level playing field with their high street or supermarket competitors. Forecourt convenience retailers are forced to go through a lengthy and costly licensing process, which is significantly more burdensome than for other convenience retailers and involves preparing detailed evidence on turnover, profit and customer demand. Small operators in particular bear substantial costs because they usually do not have the necessary till software. Even for larger operations, the preparation of such figures is time consuming, despite their development as proper convenience stores in which consumers expect a full product range.

Many forecourt retailers are concerned about schedule 2, which deals with the provision of late-night refreshment. The schedule proposes the formalising of licensing for all late-night premises that do not serve alcohol, such as sit-down cafés, fast food outlets and takeaways. The Forecourt Stores Association is concerned that the new form of licensing will impact on garage forecourt convenience stores. The 24-hour forecourt stores are an important source of food and refreshment for motorists travelling through the night. It is imperative that those establishments are allowed to continue to operate without further restrictions being imposed.

Garage forecourts are already heavily regulated and have tight security measures. Many rural forecourts stay open throughout the night to ensure that they remain viable. If they are included in the new regulation, many may be forced to close and the provision of essential services to passing motorists and local residents will be no more.

The Government have said they are concerned about shopping deserts, especially on large estates where shops have closed down and there are no viable businesses. The social exclusion unit has looked into that to ensure that facilities are available to people in such areas. In some areas, the shops that used to serve an estate have been replaced by a forecourt retailer. The Government ought to take that into account.

I have mentioned the serious consequences for rural areas of losing forecourt conveniences and of not allowing them to have the full range of goods and to compete. The bottom line for any serious look at joined-up thinking in government is that it is important to bear in mind both the Government's stated objectives on the environment and reducing car use and the danger of people having to make two journeys when they could make one, or having to make one longer journey.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Scotland's experience is instructive? In 1997, the law there was liberalised: forecourt stores now make applications to licensing boards in the same way as other convenience stores and, so far as I am aware, there is no campaign to bring back the restriction on forecourt stores that exists in England.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a good point that supports my argument. There is no call in Scotland to bring back the restrictions that were imposed.

On the environment, rural areas, competition and anti-regulation, this clause goes against the Bill's stated objectives and it could be going against some of the Government's other objectives. That is why we have tabled these amendments.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I entirely support the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), but I tried to act in the spirit of the Government's objectives—so far as one can understand them from the drafting of this clause—when I drafted amendment No. 325. It is a much narrower amendment than that of the hon. Member for Torbay: it recognises that in some areas people would have to travel by car to obtain alcohol if it were not available on a garage forecourt. It simply states that where a garage forecourt is the only place within

''walking distance of a settlement''

that could be licensed for the sale of alcohol—or for licensable activities—the local authority may issue such a licence. I have purposely not extended that to cover motorway service areas because I do not believe that they fulfil a similar local function as garage forecourts in rural areas. I accept that my amendment would predominantly—although not entirely—cover rural areas.

As the hon. Gentleman said, no damaging connection has been demonstrated between the sale of motor spirit and the sale of alcohol. Large organisations such as supermarkets might have a garage forecourt and a supermarket on their premises, but I have no doubt that they will find a way of separating them when it comes to applying for a licence: they will say, ''It may all be Sainsbury's, but this is at one end and that is at the other, so we are entitled to a licence.'' The large organisations will overcome the restriction by designating their garage forecourt in a corner of the premises or, as they have done in Newport, the county town of the Isle of Wight, by having the garage forecourt just across the road from their premises. They will find a way around it by having additional staff.

Small garages, particularly those in rural areas, depend heavily on their passing trade as convenience stores. They do not have the turnover to enable them to have double staffing—one member of staff for the sale of petrol and diesel and others for the sale of convenience goods available in the forecourt's shop. Clause 175 therefore discriminates heavily against small traders—especially, although not exclusively, those in rural areas—who depend on the turnover from convenience goods. My amendment would enable them to sell alcohol, subject to the other provisions of the Bill and, by doing so, to maintain their trade and more importantly to serve those in the locality who can get there by foot and for whom a motor vehicle is not necessary for the journey.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I shall speak to amendment No. 489.

We allow people to purchase alcohol in supermarkets and to drive from the supermarket car

park to its petrol garage. I see little difference between that and allowing alcohol to be sold on the premises of garage forecourts in shops that sell a full range of supermarkets goods. The question is whether the Government see a clear distinction between the car, the petrol pump and the supermarket at Tesco and Sainsbury's, and the garage forecourts that might have an associated shop.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Good morning, Mr. Benton. I have great sympathy for the amendments. The arguments that we have heard are compelling and have ranged across a number of areas that illustrate that these outlets are important to some communities. The ability to sell alcohol is important to some of the businesses that we have been talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) drew a timely comparison with the situation in Scotland.

Clause 175 prohibits the sale of alcohol from certain excluded premises, such as those used primarily as garages. That is not a new prohibition; it was introduced some years ago at the behest of the police and road safety organisations. In the long process of the Bill's evolution, and following some useful debates on this issue in another place, we have looked again at the position. It will disappoint hon. Members to hear that we still believe that prohibition should remain for the time being. I shall try to explain why.

As the hon. Member for Torbay reminded us, previous Administrations have made considerable progress in reducing drink-driving. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, it is also difficult to understand our logic when it is possible to buy alcohol from a store that is 100 yd or less away from a filling station. However, despite such progress, there is a good deal of work to be done. Allowing the sale of alcohol from such premises would undermine our clear message and the message of the police and road safety organisations, which maintain their strong support for our view. We do not intend to go against their firm advice, which would be the effect of amendments Nos. 266 to 268.

I acknowledge, however, that that position may not seem entirely logical. It is true that one can drive to an off licence and fill up one's boot with super-strength lager—the off licence could be just 10 yd across the road from the garage. However, all of the advice from the experts in road safety points to the continuation of prohibition. Although drink-related road deaths have fallen, casualties unfortunately continue to rise. The day may come when drink-driving ceases to be a problem in this country and it might then be appropriate to lift the ban on alcohol sales at garages. The Bill provides flexibility for the Secretary of State to do that through secondary legislation. I know that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and Labour Members would acknowledge that there can be a big difference between motorway service areas, and the sale of alcohol there, and the types of establishment that we have been discussing.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:15 am, 20th May 2003

I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that at motorway service stations

in France and Italy alcohol is sold not only in sealed containers, but with meals. Has the Minister discussed with his colleagues in Europe the perceived road safety implications of that practice?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Yes, indeed. We have discussed that issue widely. I am still a little horrified when I pull into a service area in France and see people going up to the bar and drinking alcohol. The accident rates there are much higher than they are in this country.

The hon. Gentleman's question is timely because it relates to striking a balance. How far can we believe that the progress that has been made to counter the culture of drink-driving has been successful and will be permanent? That is the only objection to the amendments. I could argue about competition and so on, but that is not as important.

The Government recognise that the garage shop, where it is the only shop for some distance, can and does play a vital role in rural communities. Some 546 garages are licensed for the sale of alcohol in England and Wales and most of them will be in rural areas. That is the situation that amendments Nos. 325 and 489 have been tabled to address. However, the Bill is drafted in such a way that the prohibition will apply only to premises that are used primarily as garages or form part of the premises that are primarily so used.

Use as a garage means use for the retail sale of petrol or derv, or for the sale or maintenance of motor vehicles. Whether a premises is used primarily as a garage is tested under current law by reference to the intensity of use by customers. I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Torbay in his amendments and undertake to consider the means by which tests are conducted to ensure that small businesses are not discriminated against by an overly bureaucratic approach. He raised an important point that I had not thought about, and I am glad that he did so.

The ''intensity of use'' test may take into account turnover, but criticism has been recorded judicially against sole reliance on a test of gross turnover. Therefore, in effect, the licensing authority will be able to take into account a number of factors when arriving at licensing decisions for a premises of that nature. The Bill will not sound the death knell for the only shop in rural communities. Indeed, it may be the case that what I have said and what is in the Bill indicate a clear recognition by the Government of the key role played by many garages as the only retail outlet in an area. Given that explanation and my emphasis on continuing to give a clear message on the effects of alcohol on driving, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

I thank the Minister for his helpful comments on small businesses. The Government should consider the issue carefully. If they are convinced that there is a link between drink-driving and the sale of alcohol at garage forecourts, they need to think through the logic of closing down forecourts in rural areas and so making those who might drink and drive go further for their alcohol. There is an illogicality in that.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is not the illogicality the fact that many licensed premises are situated on roadsides and they are not being closed down?

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

The hon. Gentleman is right. There are illogicalities everywhere. Most off-licences in towns are on main roads and are used by those passing by. The Government have to do a lot more work on the matter.

I am concerned about rural areas where the only viable business today is the forecourt. I can think of such areas in my county of Devon. The forecourt has replaced the village shop that closed down many years ago, because it has a diversity of business and a range —selling fuel, provisions, food as well as drink—that enables it to survive. Putting difficulties in the way of those businesses would be a retrograde step for rural areas. Having listened to the Minister's response, and as I may have the opportunity to return to the subject, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 175 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 176 to 178 ordered to stand part of the Bill.