23 April 2015

S4M-12994 Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S4M-12994, in the name of Michael Matheson, on the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I think that it is appropriate for me to report, before I start my speech, that I am a member of the Banff Town and County Club, which is a licensed premises such as are referred to in the bill. I do not intend to speak on that part of the bill.

This is an interesting debate. One of the things that we perhaps ought to think about is that the problem of alcohol abuse and licensing and controlling alcohol is hardly new. Christopher Smout, the renowned historian who wrote the book “Century of the Scottish People: 1830-1950”—he is essentially a social historian—spoke of a village in East Lothian that had one public house for every 14 occupants. There were special circumstances: it was a village to which many people came seasonally to work in agriculture. The problem is not exactly a new one.

The problem also existed when the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act 1915 was passed. I have a personal interest in that act, because my father’s cousin was responsible for it. Lloyd George had wanted to ban the sale of alcohol altogether, because of the effect that alcohol had on the munitions factories and the military towns around the UK during the first world war. James Stevenson persuaded the Government that it might be more effective simply to prohibit the sale of immature spirits. That is why whisky is kept in bond for three years. The aim was not to improve the quality of the whisky—although it had that secondary effect—but to restrict its supply, because there was seen to be an issue at that time. The improvement of the brand that is Scotch whisky that flowed from the 1915 act was an incidental benefit for whisky, because it meant that there was no longer poor-quality stuff on the market and whisky could be trusted as a quality product.

We can move forward to the reforms of the 1960s. Before then, there were one or two things to do with licensing in Scotland that we have totally forgotten about. For example, there was the veto poll. Teddy Taylor, the Tory MP for Cathcart for many years, was a very strong exponent of that. I think—subject to confirmation—that Cathcart was the last area in Glasgow where there was a total veto. The population had requisitioned a poll under the appropriate legislation and voted to have no licensed premises in their area. That was the provision that applied after the war, up to the reform in the early 1960s.

A licence granted for sale of alcohol on a Sunday had to be for a hotel. The definition of “hotel” meant that, if someone was going to sell drink on a Sunday, somebody had to be resident in the hotel. Therefore, across Scotland were hotels that advertised seven-day licences that had one room where somebody lived permanently at a discounted rate so that the licence was not discontinued. I happened to know one poor unfortunate, now deceased, called John Dalrymple, who got thrown out of the home that he had lived in for 30 years when the legislation was reformed in the 1960s. We should not imagine that any generation of politicians has been able to identify all the perfect solutions to what is quite a substantial problem.

I admit that I first entered a pub and consumed drink on 21 March 1959. It was in the Register Tap in Edinburgh, following a 3-3 draw in the Calcutta cup at Murrayfield, and there was a need for consolation. Members are probably able to work out that I may not have been fully of age. Indeed, the barman asked me to sit behind the door in case a policeman popped his head round—things were a lot more lax in the old days. The provisions that are before us now are much better. Of course, my grandfather would not have approved at all, because he was a member of the society of Rechabites, who went around trying to get people to sign the pledge. He was against drinking in all its forms.

I used to have an airgun when I was a kid. It was not the kind of airgun that people can get now. It struggled to propel its .177mm lead pellet more than about 30 feet—the guns that we have now are more significant. If I wanted to carry it in a public place, I needed a licence, but that was simply a question of going to the post office, handing over 10 bob and getting one. It was really just a way of recording who had the licences, and it seemed to be utterly pointless.

I commend the policy position that Cara Hilton has taken. I have enormous sympathy for what she expressed regarding sexualisation of the female image. I absolutely agree on that. I caution her, however: she appeared to suggest that she would lodge at stage 2 amendments to do with the media and the internet. They would not, of course, fall within the powers that we have in this Parliament. I thought that it would be useful to spell out why that would be a risky thing to do. When bills are introduced, the Presiding Officer’s office has to say that they are intra vires—in other words, that they are within the powers of the Parliament. As amendments are lodged at stage 2, it is up to the lead committee convener to come to a view. At stage 3, it is up to the Presiding Officer to select—or not to select—amendments.

Of course, we can pass legislation that is ultra vires. However, when it goes for royal assent, if it is judged by the palace’s legal advisers to be ultra vires, royal assent will not be given. It is not simply a matter of the little bit of the bill that is ultra vires being struck out—although it could be at a later date if there is a dispute—because that would cause the whole bill to fall.

Although I utterly sympathise and agree with what has been said, including what was said by Rhoda Grant and others, I simply advise that because there is no policy difference among us, we must be very careful to take good advice. If that advice is that we can do what is proposed, I would be utterly content and I would be behind any such amendments, but we must be very careful on such matters.

It is appropriate that I record our gratitude to Sandra White for her work over a significant period on sexual entertainment venues. She has not been the only person articulating the argument, but she has been the one who has utterly stuck with it. It is to her eternal credit that we see in the bill her not inconsiderably small hand writ large.

I wish the bill every success as it passes through its subsequent stages in Parliament.


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