MP urges relaxing of drinking laws that squeeze out cafe-bars

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READING the newspaper in a cafe-bar with a relaxing glass of beaujolais and a cappuccino is the sort of continental scene that has already arrived in Britain.

But the growth of European-style cafes has been hindered by outdated drinking laws which mean that, in order to sell alcohol to customers without a meal, they need the same kind of licence as a pub.

Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, is urging the Home Office - which is reviewing the licensing laws - to introduce a new hybrid licence for cafe-bars which will allow them to serve wine and beer but not spirits. The present statutes are more than 30 years old.

After speaking to licensing magistrates in Birmingham, she is convinced that Britain should be brought into line with the rest of Europe. "Any place which operates like a cafe and serves a pint of beer or a glass of wine has to have a restaurant or pub license," she said.

"It seems a shame that you can go to the Continent and have a glass of wine in a cafe-bar when you can't always do the same here. It would be good to have cafe-bars in the centre of Birmingham. Birmingham is an international city which caters for large numbers of international and local visitors, particularly along the canal and city centre. To me it is a question of growth and provision of service."

Ministers have told her that a review of the licensing laws is being carried out, and they are sympathetic, but it could be two years before an appropriate legislative slot is found. She is considering tabling amendments to a forthcoming law and order Bill to speed up the action.

Ms Stuart, a former law lecturer who was educated in Germany, said: "At Christmas they had gluhwein at one cafe in Birmingham centre, but they had to have it fenced off and someone at the entrance checking everyone was over 18."

David Lees, the principal clerk for licensing in Birmingham, said that the licensing laws did not offer enough flexibility. A new type of licence could be granted more easily because it would meet with less resistance from police, he said.

He added: "Under the proposals, there would be a new type of licence for a cafe-bar to provide an alternative to a pub or restaurant. There are no concrete plans for these yet but these are being formulated.