Another week, another conference speech from tourism minister Kim Howells. Last week's address to the Publican conference at least had the virtue being "on message" compared to the side-stepping performance at the previous week's Restaurant 2001 forum.

The minister reaffirmed the Government's now non-negotiable commitment to switching liquor licensing to local authorities. He raised the prospect of some small changes to the White Paper proposals, as well as industry consultation on central Government operational guidelines, but he could not promise a firm time-table for a Bill to be put before Parliament.

Howells is obviously a nice guy, but, as has become only too obvious, has little or no influence. He pleads for industry patience and assistance, while making it clear that the real power in Government rests with Gordon Brown's Treasury , a department he lives in political fear of.

The good Dr Howells is also keen to make the point that Parliament never debates successful industries, which the broad hospitality and tourism sector certainly is. In other words, don't expect too much help or recognition.

While the war on terrorism and the pledges to bolster public services take centre stage, business in general can expect little parliamentary time.

However, nothing is ever simple with Government. The pre-conference reception before Restaurant 2001 saw two officials of the Cabinet Office, both seconded from industry, doing the rounds of some of the country's biggest operators asking what this sector wanted in the way of deregulation.

Swift licensing reform with transparent operational guidelines was an obvious answer.

If these two are to be believed, the Government and Prime Minister Blair in particular is still keen to help business. This may be confusing, but it does point to the opportunity to go "route one" straight to the Cabinet Office and cut out the middle man û poor Dr Howells.